by Laramie Dean
On a random, rainy Saturday afternoon when he was nine years old, Nathan was suddenly and inexplicably invited, along with his grimacing older brother, to accompany their mother on an antiquing expedition into downtown Garden City, to the last three secret streets, where most of the city’s antique, junk, and pawn shops abided. Nathan’s mother held a private passion for antiquing which she shared with very few people, the least of whom were her own husband and sons. On Saturdays in mid-autumn like this one, with the sky leaden and brooding and heavy with rain, it was her habit to slip away by herself without a word, leaving the boys with their father to doze before the television. But on this particular day, unaccountably, she decided on a whim to take the boys with her to her very favorite of all the junk shops Garden City allowed: a five story antique mall, a building of century-old red brick shaded by sycamores and willow trees at the termination of a dead-end street. The building was as old as Garden City and had once performed as a hotel for the wealthier elements of the city. The floors were (mostly) firm, but the entire building was likely to tilt shockingly when a strong gust of wind rushed over its frame. It smelled old, Nathan thought as he crossed the threshold for the first time, wide-eyed, his hand in Mama’s hand, but it wasn’t bad old. It was, he decided, the smell of promise, of possibility and adventure. He saw rows of glass cases and cabinets, little wooden tables crammed full of knick-knacks, what his mother called “tchotchkes,” and his father called “crap.” A silver polar bear the size of a kitten posed humorously beside a menacing wax pumpkin carved to display its jostling Halloween grin; a box of comic books blared color and the excited, sweating faces of men with bulging muscles; a delicately carved wooden mask hung beside a framed portrait of Shirley Temple, her faded child’s face bisected by a crack that shivered across the glass.
Nathan was in love, enchanted; Nathan, amidst the hundreds of vessels of history, touched by who knew how many hands, was home.
The old woman behind the counter wore her white hair in a loose chignon from which snowy pieces flew outward like errant pieces of straw. Her face was lined but kind, and though she watched Nathan’s mother and Nathan and his brother with careful scrutiny as they stepped through the door, jangling the stained copper bell overhead, she didn’t seem predatory or suspicious, and she smiled and nodded and said, “Good afternoon,” and Nathan’s mother nodded back, not really listening: she was already moving like a determined ship through the rows before them. There had been a talk in the car, but only a brief one, half-hearted, about her expectations once they were in the antique mall. “You don’t even have to stick together,” she told them, “just don’t break anything, Jesus god, please.” Terry looked bored; he wanted to play video games with the boy in the house next to theirs today. But Nathan was as itchy to just get there, he found, as his mother; and now here they were, and they were free. Nathan saw that Terry had already wandered over to paw desultorily through the box of old comic books; Nathan’s mother was squinting at a shelf of tiny Hummel figurines.
Before him, the first of three staircases reached up into the next floor of the antique mall.
Nathan mounted it.
The boards squealed somewhat alarmingly beneath his sneakers, and he reached out with quick fingers to grasp the railing.
Behind him, the woman at the counter made a small noise.
Nathan looked at her, but she was only smiling a little. Perhaps, he thought, her smile was meant to be encouraging.
He climbed. The stairs continued to creak, but they held him, and he relaxed a bit, inch by inch. Unaware that he would never grow to be taller than five foot six, Nathan at nine felt small, ridiculous and ineffectual, and the staircase seemed to reach ever up, into infinity. Finally he reached the top and stood, slightly out of breath, on the next floor, and it was, impossibly, even fuller than the floor beneath it.
Nathan grinned. He wouldn’t allow himself to run – that was what babies did, babies couldn’t control themselves – but he walked quickly, his hands clenching and unclenching into fists with his excitement. He stopped first at a bookcase that held empty glass perfume bottles. They were beautiful, he thought, and picked up one to hold in his hand, glancing around as he did to make sure he was unobserved. There was a big woman tucked like a sausage into a straining purple coat, but she was at the very end of the sprawling room, carefully picking through a large wooden box. He looked away from her and back at the perfume bottle, which was not smooth, but made of glass that held hundreds of faces, the way a diamond must, and peering closely at it, he saw himself, reflected over and over: hundreds of tiny Nathans with dark, wondering eyes and an invisible line of a mouth. He smiled, and the hundreds of Nathan smiled back. The bottle was sealed with a delicate teardrop shaped stopper, which he lifted, but carefully, oh so carefully, then closed his eyes and held the open bottle to his nose. He inhaled. At first there was nothing, and he felt a pang of disappointment, but he tried again, and this time he managed to catch something, the last vestiges of the bottle’s essence: the barest whiff of ancient ladies’ perfume, heady even now, sweet but with an undertone of bitterness.
He imagined now the woman that would wear this: she should live in a big house, Nathan decided, not at all like the tiny, cramped house he shared with his brother and their parents; her bedroom was the size of this entire floor of the antique mall, and she owned a giant bed with a white canopy (Nathan had watched enough movies about the Old South on American Movie Classics during especially useless Saturdays to recognize a canopy when he saw one), and she owned a thousand bottles of perfume, but this, this was her very favorite. She would dab it on each wrist and behind each ear and then recline on that giant bed and close her eyes, the white satin nightgown she wore spreading out around her in a fan, the feathers of a delicate bird, and she would close her eyes and wait for her lover, and she would hold the perfume bottle loosely in one hand until the sound of his footstep met her ear, climbing the stairs outside her bedroom or tapping gently on the glass of the French doors outside her boudoir …
Nathan tittered a little bit, nervously, and opened his eyes. This happened sometimes, if he wasn’t careful. The woman’s lover in his imagination would become a monster if he let it; a demon lover outside her window, an incubus, a creature with fiery eyes and inky black wings, or a pale-faced ghost from the grave, hungry, and with reaching hands. He shivered deliciously and looked around; the big woman in purple had moved away, and Nathan was alone. The temperature on this floor was warm, much as he imagined the air felt in the imaginary boudoir of the woman he had just invented, the original owner of the perfume bottle he held, even now.
Without thinking, he slid the bottle into the right hand pocket of his jeans. It was small, but not that small, and made a noticeable bulge; I am not doing this, he assured himself, this is never something I would do; and so he pulled the bottle out of his jeans and replaced it in the inside pocket of his winter coat, only recently released from storage as the days shortened and the air cooled and the leaves on all the trees around Garden City began to blaze. I’m not taking this because I don’t need it, Nathan told himself; this bottle belongs on its shelf, and so of course I’m not taking it; that’s something someone else would do.
He whistled a snatch of a song he didn’t recognize, tunelessly. He wandered away from the shelf of perfume bottles, and he only looked over his shoulder once more, but he was still alone. Next he found a box of stuffed animals that looked peculiarly hand-sewed, not like the kind you found in department stores or Target or at the real mall. Some of the animals were riddled with holes that leaked their guts out into the bottom of the box, yellow fluff or, from one unfortunate little creature that might have once been a dachshund, disturbing red. He shuffled around with his fingers inside the box until they brushed against the husk of what had been a spider once upon a time, but was now desiccated and empty but still horrible somehow, and so Nathan recoiled with a sound that was half grunt, half gag, and he scrambled to his feet and turned around.
There was a boy standing behind him.
Nathan froze, his heart slamming in his chest. The boy was as tall as he was, just as tall, and his eyes were as blue as Nathan’s, but they were solemn and bruised looking, and his hair was darker than Nathan’s own and swept across his forehead in an odd series of spikes, like clawed fingers.
“Hello,” Nathan said, and crammed his hands in his pockets. His heart trip-hammered in his chest until he could hear the sound reverberating deeply inside his ears.
The boy nodded without speaking. His eyes drifted down to the box of animals. “You play with those?” he said at last.
Blood flooded Nathan’s cheeks, and he tried to laugh, but the sound emerged as a cough, a mouse’s squeak. “No,” he said. “They’re not mine. They’re for sale.”
“Oh,” the boy said. “I thought you might, is all.” He knelt down, bumping Nathan out of the way. Nathan took a mincing half step to avoid stumbling, and frowned. Rude, he thought.
The boy was pawing eagerly through the box, shuffling the animals around. Nathan considered mentioning the giant dead spider inside, but thought better of it and, smugly, kept his mouth closed. He watched the boy instead. He wore dark clothes, a ratty looking old sweater, and his hair, though dry, seemed thickly wet somehow, as if he hadn’t washed it in a long time. The boy looked all over unwashed, and suddenly Nathan could smell him too: a wet smell, sickly sweet, like fruit beginning to go bad in a forgotten basement room, like feet that have endured hours of dampness and are suddenly and shockingly removed from wool socks and exposed to a warm room. The boy, still shuffling through the box, turned in time to catch the wrinkle of Nathan’s nose and the frown creasing his forehead. He beamed up at Nathan and said, “They’re very nice, some of them.”
“I’m sure,” Nathan said stiffly.
The boy laughed and turned back to the box. “This place has so many things. Have you been on all the floors?”
“No,” Nathan said. His bladder contracted unexpectedly, and he bit his lip. The urge to pee was strong, not all-consuming (not yet), but strong. Then it passed as suddenly as it had come.
“They’re neat,” the boy said. “I come here a lot.”
“Huh.” He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t especially like this boy, but that wasn’t so unusual. Nathan found that it was often difficult to communicate with strangers, adults or children or anyone. He couldn’t always find the words he wanted, or they wouldn’t come together, and so it was often safer to stick to monosyllables, “Yup,” or “sure,” or “Uh-huh,” and he would pray that his face wasn’t burning in a noticeable way or that his clothes didn’t look stupid or that no one would notice the sweat that sprang out heatedly onto his brow.
The boy didn’t notice, or pretended not to. He was laughing again, giggling softly to himself, and holding up the stuffed dachshund with its guts trailing out of the hole in its stomach. They were wet now too, probably, Nathan thought with another shudder, from the boy’s hands, which he could now see were white and fishy looking, the way Nathan’s own became if he lingered too long in the bathtub. The boy was trying his best to stuff the guts back into the hole. But there was too much of them, those red cottony looking guts, and so he would pull them back out and then stuff them back in, out and then in, and those trilling little giggles came in a constant stream from his mouth.
Nathan had to pee again.
“Don’t be so nervous all the time,” the boy said suddenly, and looked up into Nathan’s face. “It’s just a toy.”
“You’re ruining it.”
“I am not.” The boy’s face wrinkled with his indignation. “Besides, they’re just old things anyway,” and, shockingly, he put his teeth onto the place where the dog’s throat would be if it were a real dog, and, with a sudden jerking moment, tore the little animal’s head off. Nathan took a step backward, but made no sound. The boy was laughing, and Nathan could see those red guts (fabric, he thought, it’s just cotton or something, not real, not like real guts) in shreds protruding from the sizable cracks between the boy’s crooked teeth.
“Why’d you do that?” Nathan said after a moment. The urge to pee was painful now. He dug his fingernails into the soft meat of his palms, and it helped, but only a little. “Why’d you have to go and do that?”
“Because it’s not real,” the boy said. “It isn’t a real doggy, dummy. I wanted to show you that.”
“Your teeth,” Nathan said weakly, and the boy sprayed more of that diseased laughter.
“Oh,” he said, and began to pick at his teeth with his fingernails which were surprisingly clean and well-shaped. He bared his teeth for Nathan and said, “Is that better?”
“No one can see us up here,” the boy said. “We’re all by ourselves. So don’t worry. We won’t get caught or nothin. Not up here.”
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
“Why not?” The boy cocked his head in a strangely animalistic fashion, like a dog, when they were curious or they didn’t understand. “Why not? Why not? Why not why not why not not not not?”
Really, Nathan thought suddenly, why not? Why shouldn’t he do things like that? Why shouldn’t anyone? And he looked at his own hands and saw dark arterial threads and bits of crimson fluff that clung insistently to his fingers and their nails. “Because,” he said, and wiped his hands on his jeans, “it was old.”
“Maybe,” the boy said, shrugging, and stood up. He held something cupped in his hand, but Nathan couldn’t see what it was. “So’s all this stuff. Old doesn’t make it good, does it?”
More tinkling laughter. “You don’t sound so sure. You wanna play? We can play. That old bitch downstairs ain’t coming up here. She won’t stop us.”
“My mother –”
The boy rolled his eyes. “She’s miles away, dumbo.” The boy took a step closer, and Nathan realized with a rush of sensation and that overwhelming urge to urinate that he was in a corner, literally backed into a corner, and there was nowhere to go. Oh my god, Nathan thought, sweet horror filling his mouth, is he going to touch me? The boy seemed taller than he was now, bigger, and his eyes were dark and amused. “It’s just us.”
“So we can tear the heads off more dogs?” Nathan tried to laugh, but it was a whispery sound and scratchy, weak. “No thanks.”
The boy glared at him and opened his fist, and there he held the desiccated husk of the spider. He shoved it under Nathan’s nose and Nathan, disgusted, cried out and turned away.
“Yeah,” the boy said with a cursory glance at the horror in his palm, “it’s pretty awful, huh.”
“I hate them,” Nathan whispered.
“I do too. That’s why I’m glad it’s dead.”
“Get rid of it.”
“But it’s kinda neat, don’t you think?” He ran the tip of one finger over the thing’s bristling back. “Like an artifact.”
“Relax. It can’t hurt you. It’s dead.”
“I don’t care.”
The boy’s face showed a trace of sympathy finally, and he lowered his fist. “You really hate it that much?”
Nathan, afraid that this was some further trick, nodded slowly.
“Yeah, I guess,” the boy said, and with a quick flick of his wrist, flung the spider’s corpse far away from them both.
Nathan relaxed a bit. But still: the boy was awfully close to him. Awfully, awfully close.
“I don’t know lots of people,” the boy said suddenly, and made a face. “I don’t know anyone.”
“You should be good.”
“You should go where kids are.”
“My Mom brought us. That’s all.”
The boy was closer now, and his smell washed over Nathan, sickly sweet. “I’m not good.”
“Sure you are.”
“I’m not,” the boy said, grinning, and there was a shred of purple-red stuffing still caught between his front teeth, “and neither are you.”
“You don’t know me.”
“I know enough. I watched you.” He laughed. “I watched you take that bottle.” And his hands flew out and were on Nathan, and Nathan cried out, a strangled rabbit sound, and the boy’s hands were in his pockets, both, squirming around inside them like snakes, and then, triumphant, he pulled the little perfume bottle out and held it aloft. It caught the overhead lights and sparkled magnificently. “See? You’re not so good.”
Nathan wanted to cry; his breath came in pants, and he couldn’t move, because the boy was still before him, close enough to be touching now, his chest against Nathan’s, and Nathan was against the corner with tears pricking his eyes. “I was going to put it back.”
A grin; a flash of those teeth. “Sure,” the boy sneered, “oh, I bet you were.”
“You don’t know.”
“Cry. Baby. Cry, then.”
Nathan’s hand curled into a fist and he pushed it roughly against his right eye, and then the left. He snuffled; he couldn’t help himself. “I’m not.”
“You are. That’s what you are. I see it now; crybaby. Goddamn crybaby.”
The boy threw his head back and howled wild laughter, then, with the same swift movement he used to invade Nathan’s pockets, he hurled the perfume bottle to the wooden floor. It shattered, a bomb of glass, it exploded, and Nathan, cringing, cried out, and shards of glass, some of it rendered useless powder, went everywhere.
Nathan closed his eyes and waited, his heart trying, in imitation, perhaps, of the now defunct perfume bottle, to shatter his chest; he waited for the inevitable slamming of footsteps on the staircase, for the woman at the cash register, for his mother, for the police, for men with angry eyes and reaching hands to come and find them both and grab them, sinking their fingers into soft flesh, hands making fists and lifting them, rearing them back, and then cutting the air with them –
Nathan moaned and opened his eyes.
The boy was gone.
The shards of the bottle were still everywhere, but the boy, probably grinning, probably laughing still, had run off, leaving Nathan alone to deal with the inevitable angry eyes and writhing, furious mouths.
The urge to urinate was a cramp now, and he clutched at his genitals, still moaning.
But no one came.
He snuffled once, trying to drag all that foul snot back into his nasal passage where it belonged. The boy was gone, and there were no angry footsteps on the stairs, and somehow, blessedly, no one had seen what happened. No one had seen anything. All he had to do now was to move, was to get away, to leave the scene of the crime and everything would be okay.
He managed to force one foot off the ground, and he took a step away from the corner where the boy had backed him, and that wasn’t so hard, and so he took another, and then another. He walked down the aisle toward the place where the big woman in the purple coat had stood only a few moments (was it only so short a time?) ago. But she was gone, and he was alone. He uttered a wild, broken laugh. He had gotten away with it. Or, rather, the boy had gotten away with it, and Nathan, nothing more than a witless accomplice, had gotten away with it by proxy. They would come up here later and find the shredded and shattered evidence, the destroyed dog and the broken perfume bottle, and they’d make their sounds of fury and dismay, and they’d have to come with brooms and dustpans to clean it all up, but they’d never know who was really responsible because no one saw it, Nathan thought with more than a touch of glee. His fear melted away and left in its stead a rush of adrenaline, and he liked it, it felt good. I would love to run up and down these aisles, he thought, moving back toward the staircase that led inevitably down to the real world where his mother and brother and the cashier-lady waited, I would love to run up and down and stick out my arm and brush it along all these shelves, knocking over bottles and tchotchkes and dolls and plates, all these stupid antiques, I’d like to knock them all onto the ground and smash them and stomp them until they’re nothing but useless broken bits. Useless and broken and nothing.
He came around the corner and thought, It’s the boy, he’s come back; but it wasn’t the boy, and it wasn’t his mother or his brother or the cashier lady or the lady in the purple coat. It was another woman, but he’d never seen her before. Her back was to him, her shoulders slumped, her head bent, and he thought that she was looking through the books on the shelf before her. Her movements were quick and jerky, and her head cocked, first to the right, then to the left, and he heard the sounds she was making: little frenzied noises, tiny squeals, like a pig, amusing almost, and he smiled, unable to help it.
She froze, and he wondered if she had heard him approaching somehow, or if she heard his smile, the muscles in his cheeks creaking perhaps, or maybe his teeth grinding together. Then she lifted her head from the awkward position where she held it, dog-like, and turned to face him.
All the air went out of his lungs; his eyes bulged; his hands clenched and loosened and then clenched again; he felt his bladder let go, finally, as it released a stream of burning urine to run down his leg.
“Oough?” the woman before him said through the hole in her face that should’ve been her mouth; her face was grated, brown and orange and black and red all over in places, and in some places there was a flash of white, and Nathan knew sickly that he was seeing bone, that the white places were where her skull showed through. Her face was grated and in strings, and she had no eyes or holes where her eyes should be, only more shredded strips of dried skin, and these strips also hung over the hole where her mouth should’ve been, and what was, instead, a gaping opening lined with jagged white shards that couldn’t possibly be teeth but that gnashed and ground together even when she made no sound. Then, “Ouugh,” the woman said again, not a question this time, and held out her hands, groping, reaching. Dimly, Nathan wondered if she could see him or only sense him somehow. And then, as had happened with the boy only a few minutes ago, her smell washed over him, and it was the same as the boy’s and different at the same time: high and sweet, but fishy, and dark somehow, the smell of ruination, of decay, of old shit, thick and clotted, flooding his nostrils and filling his mouth. Her hands were close to him; they fluttered beside him like white birds.
What is she? he wondered, Christ Jesus god Christ, what is she? But it didn’t matter then, because one of her hands touched his face. The flesh of her fingers was white and withered, like a mummy’s, he thought, and from each digit he could see how a tiny tip of bone emerged. Three of these brushed against his skin, and he recoiled, screaming, really, truly screaming, his shrieks deafening and echoing around the high ceiling of the room; this isn’t happening, he thought, over and over, isn’t happening, can’t be happening, can’t can’t can’t.
Screaming, he broke away from the horror-woman-thing still groping blindly for him, making her piggy squeals of excitement or anger, the miasma stink of her hanging over him like foul perfume, and he ran for the stairs, struck the wall, glanced over his shoulder, and she was coming for him, still coming, those bone-shards in her face gnashing wildly, eagerly, and he reached for the railing and missed and thought, his arms pinwheeling helplessly, I’m going to fall all the way down, I’m going to fall, and I’m going to die; and the woman’s porcine squeals, emerging from that awful ruined face, continued to echo in his ears.