21.1 Stick Figures

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The storeroom had an actual door on it, not one of those rubber membrane floppers that hang down inside the frame. Billy pointed that out to Nip and said it was a good thing, in case. He didn't finish the thought, just let it drop into that deep two-word gulf. In case.

"Do you really think we should leave them?" Nip swept his beam up the shelves of boxes to the high, dark ceiling. "What if something happens while we're at the fuel truck?"

"Taking them would slow us down." Billy had propped the door open with the shopping cart and was using the glow from the refrigerators to load buckshot-sized batteries into an enormous flashlight. Colossus, it was called. Eight million candlepower. "Besides, it's not like they're going anywhere."

Ash and I were sitting in the center of the storeroom, me up in my chair, Ash down on the floor. The crown of broccoli rested between her crossed legs.

Light exploded between Billy's hands. He turned his head and blinked. "Damn that's bright."

"At least they won't be in the dark."

"Yeah, sure." Billy set Colossus upright near us, but not too near. That thing was a small sun. It'd blind you if you stared at it. He walked back across the room and picked up the coiled garden hose with a grunt. "Fifty feet. No chance in hell I'm sucking gas through fifty fucking feet." As the door closed behind them, he felt around inside his pockets."Shit. Where's my knife?"

Sometime later, I became aware of a soft munching sound. It crept up on me behind the muffled hum of the refrigerators, and I looked down to find Ash eating the heads off her crown of broccoli. She pulled them off by the stem and pushed them into her mouth one by one, her jaws working mechanically, her eyes staring off into the shadows Colossus hadn't killed. She ate that way until there was nothing left but the stalk. Then she ate that too, grinding it down between her back teeth, pausing only to swallow. When she finished, she licked the greenish red paste from her gums and said, "My brother got a girlfriend when I was eleven. He hadn't had a girlfriend before that, except for his radio. Other teenagers waited for their parents to go to sleep so they could sneak out their windows, but not him. Not Jacob. He'd sneak ten feet down the hall, crawl up the ladder to the loft, and spend all night with his baby. That's what he called the radio. His baby. Until he met Brittany. Or Bethany. I can't remember."

This story sounded familiar.

"Brittany or Bethany was a dime. By that I mean she made everybody else look like nickels. My parents melted over her. You had to mop my dad off the floor every time she came to dinner. It was gross. So was she. I didn't like her from the beginning, and I liked her less after she found the lump between his legs. It was her who found it. He never said straight out, but I knew. Guys don't find stuff like that. Girls do. And the lump was old, the lump had graduated from high school and gone off up his blood stream to college."

I wondered if the broccoli had anything to do with this, or if Ash just liked broccoli.

"The treatment starts and Brittany or Bethany smiles a pretty smile and excuses herself through the back door, her job well done. Then his hair says goodbye, too, and for a while things are kind of normal again. He gets back together with his baby, he twists my arm when Mom and Dad aren't looking, and what does it matter if his stomach is sending back everything he swallows? What does it matter if he has a hard time getting up the ladder sometimes? He's Jacob. He's Jacob."

A moth writhed on the ceiling, pinned by the flashlight's beam.

"One night I wake up to a song I like. It's soft, and it's coming down through the ceiling of my bedroom. I go out into the hall, and I pull down the ladder as quiet as I can, thinking . . . I don't know. Thinking I'd find my brother looking out the window and we'd sit up together and he'd explain how the multi-band works on his radio again. But he's not by the window. He's asleep under a thin yellow blanket, and he's making these sounds in his sleep, these terrible sounds, like there's so much pain in him it's leaking out. I want to help him. I want to shake him awake, but I'm scared about what'll happen to all that pain if I do. I'm scared he'll put the lid down on it and be Jacob, be my brother, and inside him the pain'll keep getting bigger and bigger until . . ."

She blew a gust of air from her lips.

"He dies three months later. His body is so small it doesn't need an adult coffin, but my parents get him one anyway. They don't say anything at the funeral. They've been so busy not saying anything they've forgotten how. When we get home, there's fuzzy silence in the house, like static. I climb to the radio. I've been thinking about the radio all day and nothing else. It's this big photograph in my brain, and I can't look around it, don't want to anyway. I turn it on. I go through the channels. All of them. The next day after school I do the same, and the next, and the next. It's stupid, I know it's stupid, and still I keep on doing it every day, for longer and longer and longer, until eventually one day I'm doing it as the sun goes down outside the window. But it's not my brother I hear on the radio that night."

Tears rolled down Ash's cheeks.

"It's someone else's voice. Someone else's pain."

____ ____

Author's Note:

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Coming up on Friday, gasoline, lost children, and the end of Act Two . . .

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