Ken’s eyesight was going, and if it was blindness he would have accepted it the same way he accepted how his old legs now screamed when he walked. But it wasn’t blindness. His eyesight was going...in the opposite direction. It was getting better.
When he looked at his hand he saw pores before anything, the brown skin it made up after that, then finally the hand.
He saw now, at seventy-six, with a clarity that often made him squint or have to physically avert his eyes from everything around him. It was disorienting and hard to manage at first. Some days were worse than others. On his seventieth birthday he’d been watching a football game when he saw a color on screen he’d never seen before. By the time he was seventy-three any television in the same room felt like a psychic attack. He could see details so fine it was impossible not to feel overwhelmed. Until recently, that had been all it was—an annoyance, a burden. A reason to get out of the house when Rebecca wanted to watch Dancing with the Stars.
Then, last year he had started seeing other things: whispy ethereal humanoids, carrying on through real world traffic, a small secret world of meter-high men and women, interacting with each other and mocking humanity. He’d seen the first on his birthday, while celebrating making it to 75 with Rebecca at a brick oven pizzeria in Allston. For some reason the place had paid a musician with a screechy guitar and a grating voice to serenade tables outside under a dirty awning. It was unbearable. “Ungodly” was the word his wife had used.
Ken could see how the vibrations of the guitar strings rippled the air around them, how the speakers pounded a sheet of dust a millimeter high with every bad chord, how the pizza his daughter was eating had an eyelash baked into the cheese, how the waiter they had was missing a pinky fingernail on his left hand for some reason, then…he saw the first of them.
The creature was running circles around the performer, literal circles. Before he saw it exactly he saw glimpses of it, wavers in the air that reminded him of the air above a grill or sun-baked sidewalk. Then he made out a pair of eyes above square cheekbones, slotted mischieviously, then the head attached to that, then the whispy body—spindly arms, thin but muscled legs, strips of cloth covering it around the middle and ground.
Then it was plainly swinging around on the performer’s beard, rappelling back and forth on his chest, slapping the man in the face every time he played a chord.
Once he knew what to look for, Ken couldn’t help but see all of this, wasn’t spared one microscopic detail.
At the time, he’d laughed. Everyone else on the patio alternated between eating pizza and plugging their ears, but Ken couldn’t stop laughing.
After that, watching the little floaty fairy things, these whisps, as he’d come to think of them, became his favorite hobby. They were everywhere. He saw them stealing groceries at Star Market. Mocking Rebecca at the Lions Club thrift sale on Saturdays. Running with the dogs at Paul Revere park. He listened to them yell at each other, but mostly just watched as they ran around bouncing balls off of humans’ faces and laughing. One of them screamed into a kid’s face, while in the real world the kid minded his own business. It was fascinating.
For some reason there were always more of the whisps around large groups of people. Large groups of people moving around a lot? Even better. That’s why Ken liked to go to South Station and sit with a newspaper. Lately, even more. The whisps were becoming less...whispy. More corporeal. Was this still his eyes, watering uphill? More extracurricular vision? Or maybe something was going to happen?
South Station had the most whisps he’d ever seen in one place, and he sat there watching them several Saturdays in a row until he noticed one that interested him more than the others. The courier whisp. That whisp he saw as more real and in more detail than any of the others, and it seemed to be the only one among them with any specific job.
Its job seemed to be to deliver a package every day at 3:33 pm.
The package was always wrapped in brown paper and secured with clear packing tape, or what at first looked like that. Its actual shape was indeterminable; it could be any one of five (or fifty?) shapes at any moment. It slipped and slid in his vision, not holding still long enough for him to see what it was. He knew that, in a way, it was as stationary as it could be. It was like trying to see his reflection in boiling water.
When the courier got to the wall he dropped the package into it, right through the brick.
The first time Ken saw it happen he was floored and full of questions, mainly, what the fuck?, and also what was in the package? Where was it going? What use did immaterial people have for the post?
He’d had a hard time accepting it at first. He could focus in on the texture of the wall, could differentiate individual particles of the brick and cement between them and could see there was no opening there, no trapdoor.
On his way home that night he took no notice of whisps, only massaged his memory of the courier and the deposit into a wall that didn’t alter in any physical way.
He came back the next Saturday, not expecting to see the courier, hadn’t even been thinking about him, but then when he checked his watch and it was close to the same time as last week, he started getting antsy.
It was 3:31.
At 3:33 the courier showed up— and dropped a multidimensional payload through the solid wall and went on its way.
Now that he had a target time, Ken went out for smaller observation trips other days than Saturday. He didn’t say anything to Rebecca, told her he was going to the library. He’d actually tried the library a few times in his early days watching the whisps, but they didn’t seem to hang around books or the people who were likely to be reading them.
Every day he went, the little man was back, wearing clothes that were different but just as loud as any other day, dropping a package into the wall at 3:33. After that Ken would just sit, watching, wondering what kind of thing would come to collect the package in the wall. He had a suspicion that if he just stayed long enough one night that he’d glimpse it.
He waited every night for a week, before he got up to walk the four blocks back to his house and his wife. On the sixth day, when he’d stayed until half past nine, he decided he was being foolish. Nothing out of the ordinary appeared, and to top it all Rebecca had left his dinner cold on the kitchen table before going to bed.
Ken slept on the couch that night, old bones aching from the odd positions his dreams folded his body into. In the morning he felt even more foolish, because during the night he’d dreamed of the other side of te wall, and seen a dark man walk up to a mailbox and remove a package. He’d spent all this time looking for any sort of being that would retrieve what the little man left, only to realize that the retrieval point was likely in a place he couldn’t see.
He ate his breakfast and apologized to Rebecca, who was still not so happy, and promised her that he’d be back at four from now on, just like before. He walked to the station and kept his watch, cracked skin at the corners of his mouth folding up into a little grin when the slight man inexplicably arrived at the same time he always did. His unnoticeable friend. It seemed to Ken that to the little man he was unnoticeable as well. An invisible, impotent eye placed benignly behind a newspaper on a bench no one else ever used. It was his role and somehow, Ken was content with that.
After so many days of watching the same thing occur at the same time, he had started to notice littler things. He noticed the way the air crackled with energy as the sound of feet on pavement softened ever so slightly. He noticed the way commuters held themselves a little tighter as the time came. Above all, he noticed a tingling in the tips of his fingers, how they shook as he held the newspaper.
At 3:33 the courier whisp would come, drop off the package, and leave.
Except none of those things happened today.
At first Ken thought he was mistaken, that he was expecting the signs of the courier’s arrival early, but the minute hand on his watch rested in the gap between the thirty-second and thirty-third notch. The second hand was rounding the giant six at the bottom. Something’s wrong, he thought.
Ken’s stomach dipped. He could feel his heartbeat. Sluggish, like an old horse. He knew the courier wouldn’t be on time, wouldn’t even be a minute late. He had an image of a long arm reaching out of the wall where the slot must be and sweeping from side to side, looking for the daily delivery. It had claws, and its skin was boiled and marked with pox. Little black hairs breaking out through a membrane of congealed pus and dandruff.
He looked around. No courier whisp. He stood up sharply and forced his old bones to move. He had to look at the wall. Today, today there would be a slot. A hole. Something.
Of course there wasn’t.
Ken tapped a few bricks with the back of his middle knuckle. He rested the cane against the wall. He put his head to the wall, his ear, and listened. He chewed his lip, eyes closed. There’s a hole in this wall. Right here. I just can’t see it. I just can’t see it yet. He opened his eyes. He found the cane and put it into his left hand. He turned.
The courier whisp stood there. In its hands, a package vibrated.
“You’re late,” Ken said.
The whisp’s eyes widened. Its lips pulled back into a snarl of fear. Its skin started to to pale, and the loud colors of its clothes began to fade. What had been a tropical mixture of greens and blues and yellows became some smeared brand of brown. It was reduced to the vision of a haggard demon, two or so feet in height. It shook its head, blinking and swallowing fast, then it spoke.
“My lord. It’s…not proper.”
Ken winced. The voice was in his head.
Then, without warning, the demon’s eyes rolled up into its head and it fell back, dropping in a heap to the floor. The package swam out of its hands and went skittering through spacetime.
Ken stood staring at the pile of flesh and clothing for a long moment, mouth open, hands hovering in front of him in a position that might at another time be used to communicate the idea of calm, of caution.
The little whisp was dead. The color of its flesh dripped off the way it had dripped from it’s clothing, the way its flesh was dripping from its bones even now. Like pine sap from a severed limb. The bulges and hollows that formed the horrible sea of migrating flesh made Ken want to close his eyes. He was seeing so much.
He kept them open. He passed his gaze over the dead heap on the train station floor and focused on the package.
It lay on the cool concrete, all sides facing up. Ken squinted at it, trying to trace its outline. He couldn’t. All at once, the package was every possible shape. A line, a flat square, a box, a cylinder, a sphere. All at once, all of its sides were inside out, edges facing this way and that, vertices vibrating and undulating into and out of existence.
The mangled mess of clothes and flesh and what passed for bone in whisp world was oozing directly into the concrete, the whole mass squeezing itself through microscopic pores in the rocky surface. Whatever magic the thing held when it delivered its daily package continued working after its death, because Ken heard no unfamiliar sounds in the station. He saw no one break step, no one shooting any curious glances at him or his dead thing. No one else could see. No one else would see.
Was he responsible for whatever had just happened here? He felt no real regret, not then, just a sense of unreality that coated his acceptance. He had killed the bright-colored postman. ‘My lord,’ it had said. To him? An apology?
The wet spot on the ground had almost completely disappeared, taking with it the sickly sweet smell of curdling milk and rotting apples. The package, however, remained where it was, as powerfully visible as it had been minutes before.
He felt his legs go hot, then numb. His fingers twitched. A cold, wet finger of anxiety made its way up his spine.
It’s not yours.
Ken walked through his front door. Rebecca sat waiting in the living room, arms crossed, reading glasses pushed up on her head. They looked at each other for a moment, and Ken smiled.
“Well don’t you look the picture? There’s my wife.” He took a step toward her.
“What is it, darling?” He grinned, pouring all the charm he had into the one expression.
“Kenneth. It’s after six. Another twenty minutes and night would have knocked you over the head.”
Ken nodded. “I’m sorry. I fell asleep. One of the security guards had to come by and poke me. I was confused, too. Dreamed I’d already walked home, that you made your meatloaf. My oh my, it was good.”
Rebecca’s expression softened until she looked more amused than angry. “Well. I suppose that’s all right. But if you’ve started falling asleep, maybe it’s time you should give it a rest for a while. You can dream about my meatloaf at home, you know.”
He nodded. “I’ll give it a thought. I’m going to visit my study for a bit. What is that I smell, anyway? It’s not meatloaf.”
She turned back to the kitchen and he started down the hall. “Lemon chicken.”
“Another favorite,” he said, pulling the door shut behind him. He hadn’t liked lying, but he couldn’t tell her the truth. Not about the whisp and the package, and not about her chicken.
Now alone, he pulled the package from under his shirt. It had been hard to carry, heavy and unwieldy, like a bag of running water. He’d had to stop and catch his breath every minute or so, and appreciate the whisp’s strength. The four blocks had taken him more than an hour. More than a few pedestrians had stopped to see if he was all right, and he was sure this was justified; he must have looked like a man who had outlived his body.
He put the package under his study desk and stood there, looking at it. He would have to put it aside, until later.
He barely tasted the chicken, barely said anything to his wife. That was all right this time, because she was preoccupied with the television news. One of those singing shows came on before long, and they sat together to watch. Rebecca had been a singer in her younger days, with a beautiful voice. Her voice was one of the reasons he’d married her.
As a young man he’d often lay in bed at night and imagine he could hear her singing to him, calling him to her. Almost the same way he felt now, on the sofa. Only the voice belonged to the package, and this siren’s song felt dangerous. Suppose he opened the package and it killed him? The whisp at the station had expired with ridiculous ease. The consequences of his meeting with it could run both ways.
The dance show finished up, turning out so the voting public kicked off Rebecca’s favorite dancer.
“America wouldn’t know a dancer if she did a naked pirhouette in their living room.”
Ken nodded, then pulled an old issue of Reader’s Digest from the pile of magazines on the lampstand. He flipped it open and pretended to read, nodding slightly and chewing on his lower lip, trying to look thoughtful.
“I know you don’t care, Kenneth, but these are real people. These are their real dreams getting crushed, and not for any good reason. Popularity. It’s all a popularity contest.”
“I know that. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just...it’s a television show.”
“Not for them! And not for me. I used to be a dancer, too, you know. A song and dance girl. If these kinds of shows had been around when I was young, well. I might not have ended up where I did.”
“Something wrong with where you ended up?”
“Some days I think so. I’m married to a man who’s married to a train station. Tell me if that doesn’t sound unfair.”
He might have otherwise tried to placate her, to rise and comfort her, because this wasn’t about the dancing show. It was about him. But the package was drilling little holes in the back of his head and he couldn’t be bothered. She would get over it. He was impatient for her to go to bed. So he didn’t say anything.
Rebecca left the room in a huff, and he pretended to read for a good five minutes more, even bothering to turn the pages every so often. In his head, the package was being opened over and over again, and inside...he couldn’t imagine what was inside. Something bright. Something terrible. Something from the under layer.
Ken could hear her getting ready for bed in the other room. She was making a point of everything, doing it all so he could hear. Pulling open and shutting drawers, running water, walking so that her heels hit the bathroom tile like rubber mallets. Aggravation, that old call and response temptation. This time he wouldn’t bite. Wouldn’t stand up suddenly and yell out, “Quiet that noise, Rebecca!”
He had more important things to worry about.
He would use a knife, he’d already decided. He’d cut on the outside of it, careful not to stab into the thing in case whatever was inside could be damaged by stabbing. A serrated knife, then. He’d cut a seam, then grab hold of each side and peel it back, ripping the covering and letting the thing fall out. But he’d do it on the ground, so that it wouldn’t be damaged by the fall. Whatever was inside might roll out. Slide out. Pour out. He’d lay some newspaper, just in case. Then what? Once it was out, what would he do? He’d have some trash bags handy in case it was dangerous, and then he’d have to get rid of it somehow.
The bedroom door slammed shut. She was getting into bed. Knowing Rebecca, she’d lay there for an hour or more, steeling herself against sleep. If he snuck in and tried to roll up next to her, she’d make him sleep on the couch. He was better off out here, with the Reader’s Digest and the television.
To be safe, he should wait until he was sure she’d fallen asleep, and then get to the package. Yes, that would be safe. He put down the Digest and peeled himself from the couch.
Ken went to the kitchen and started inspecting knives. This one would do. This one, too. He took four knives and a hand towel to wrap them in. He went beneath the sink and pulled out two heavy black trash bags, wincing each time they crinkled. She wouldn’t come out to see what he was doing, she was too proud for that, but he knew she was listening just the same.
He grabbed his newspaper off the counter and tucked it under his arm. Then he went to his study and closed the door as quiet as he could.
He flipped the light switch.
The package had moved from where he’d left it, wriggling out from under the desk into the open. It vibrated wildly, pulsating and changing shape faster than he could make out. He should wait, it would be safe to wait, but now that he was here with the knives and the trash bags and the package, he couldn’t imagine waiting. So what if she heard him—what would she do? Nothing. She might ask him in the morning what all the noise was, but she wouldn’t get out of bed. He wasn’t going to wait. Ken sat on the floor Indian style, spreading the newspaper in front of him. The knives he placed to the side, and felt for all the world as if he were about to carve a pumpkin.
He reached for the package, catching it by a corner and dragging it onto the newspaper. It moved even more now, if that were possible, as if it could tell what Ken intended. He wouldn’t be able to cut it like this—his eyes would betray him, he’d do the wrong thing. A moment passed and he decided he’d have to do it with his eyes closed, by touch. He picked up the smallest of the knives he’d brought with him and practiced against the fabric of his sweatshirt. The end of the blade was here, his hand was here, and this is how hard he’d have to press.
It was time. He closed his eyes and took the package in his hands, feeling it squirm. With his left hand he held it down, and with his right he brought the knife. The blade found resistance, and the package bucked against it. He held firm, and the serrated edges seemed to dig in by themselves. There, was that deep enough? He’d try it. He pulled the blade toward him, holding firm against the container, hoping it was slicing the thing open. Then he’d gone the whole length of it. He put aside the knife and opened his eyes.
The slice was deep enough, it seemed, to cut through the outer layer of the package. The cardboard layer, if there could be any kind of analogy. Beneath it, there was something else, a kind of padding. It was thick and gel-like, and somewhat see-through. He went for a different knife, but then whatever was inside started to push against the seam. Rising up from inside, he could see two tiny fists punch at the opening, struggling against the padding to get free. The fists were human, more than human — they belonged to infant hands.
There was a child in the package, and it was trapped.
Ken sat with his mouth open, unsure of what to do. His mind was blank, and the only thing left of him was eyes. The knife lay impotent in his hand, and something inside of him was trying to get out, echoing what it saw. Let it out, let it out, let it out. Ken didn’t move. The fists pumped, softly at first, and then harder and harder. The padding wouldn’t hold, was in fact already beginning to rip apart. Don’t let it out, don’t let it out.
Then one of the fists tore through, gasping into the study with a distinctly wet POP. The hole got bigger, little arms pulling the seam apart just as Ken had imagined he would do from the outside.
A face appeared, small and scrunched with eyes shut tight, mouth sucking at the air. It pulled itself free of the package, sliding onto the newspaper and lay there panting. The package itself still writhed, but now Ken could see that it was inside out, and inside out again, getting smaller all the time until it was gone. Like it had never existed.
The baby didn’t have any belly button, and it was covered in what looked like glowing petroleum jelly. Demonic afterbirth. Otherwise it looked perfectly normal to Ken. A newborn, human baby.
A white baby.
Ken took the towel he’d carried the knives in and covered it, feeling its warmth as he did so. It was a real child, and willingly or not, he had just become its keeper. Ken’s mind spun. He didn’t know what he had expected, but it hadn’t been this. He thought back to his bench at the train station, to the little brightly-colored whisp and the package he kept on delivering, day after day. Had they all been children? Had he sat there, thinking himself an observer and allowed such a thing to happen? Ken didn’t want to consider it, but here, now—how could he think otherwise?
He pulled the infant to him, and cradled it in his arms. It reached for him, nuzzling its face into his armpit. He carried it to the bathroom and turned on the faucet, feeling for just the right temperature. The kitchen towel was soaked through with the sticky glowing gel, so he got rid of it. He pulled a fresh towel from the linen closet and dabbed a corner of it into the water.
He started cleaning the white baby.
He fell asleep in the corner reclining chair of his studio, the baby in his arms. It felt heavy, heavier than what he imagined. He closed his eyes and imagined he could see through his eyelids, could see through the dark, and the little thing in his arms glowed a bright white. He must have been dreaming by then, but through his eyelids he saw it open its own. He saw it look at him with eyes that were black, a deeper black than anything else. If he’d been with all his senses, he would have sworn the vision was real, but it was as if only a minute had passed before the sun came busting in through his window and he was waking up.
The baby was no longer in his arms. The door to the study was open. Ken leapt to his feet, fighting spots in his eyes. He lurched into the hallway, trying to make sense of the light.
What time was it? Noon? Later?
He almost started running to the kitchen, but ratcheted back his emotion. He wasn’t the type to panic. At the same time, all he could think of was the baby. Where had it gone? What if it had gotten into something, choked on something, hurt itself? The kitchen was empty. The clock said 11:43. He stood there for a minute, in the middle of the room, turning slowly to his left, letting his eyes fall on whatever they would. It’s not here, it’s not here. Something was keeping him from taking the next step, from finding a plan of action, locking his brain up in a endless loop that coincided with the things he saw over and over again as he kept turning.
Rebecca wasn’t up. That was it. She was always up before him, always in the kitchen rattling things around before ten. Sometimes even before nine, if she was feeling chipper enough. She’d always been a morning person. Ken had spent time on that side of the clock too, but only when he was being paid for it. The questions mounted. Where was the baby? Where was Rebecca? They intertwined in his belly, making a fist of unease behind his ribs. He went to the bedroom door with the same feeling he had the night before, when he’d cut open the package. The feeling of absolute possibility, and this time he was thoroughly terrified.
He opened the door.
She was sleeping flat on her back, and for a moment he feared she was dead. Then he saw her chest move up and down slowly, barely disturbing the blanket laying over her. The blanket or the baby. It was tucked in next to her like a stuffed animal might be, clutching her body. Its head had erupted with a shock of bright brown curls, and it seemed more the size of a toddler than a newborn. It had grown almost a year older in the span of one night. Ken moved closer. Rebecca slept peacefully, a serene look painted on her face. She had always been a wonder to behold as she slept—even now, at her age. Ken squinted. Did she look…older? He bit his lip.
She didn’t respond. He put a hand on her shoulder and rocked her.
“Rebecca, it’s time to wake up.” No response. He shook her harder. “Rebecca!”
Not even the toddler attached to her stirred. Then he got it. The way it clutched her, like a leech. It was taking something—sucking something from her. From his wife to this motherless child, the transfer of something necessary. The demon infant from the whisp world was feeding. What would happen to Rebecca?
“Stop that, you greedy bastard!”
He snatched it up, or tried to, because it was no longer any easy thing. It was so heavy now, so dense. Ken yanked harder.
“You’re killing her…Stop!”
Understanding in its slumber that its host was being taken from it, the child began clutching at Ken instead. He let it. Looking in its face, he found nothing evil there—nothing that would give him any reason to believe the kid was anything but a kid. It yawned, showing a row of baby teeth that were perfectly human. No fangs, or especially sharp incisors. Just baby teeth. He checked Rebecca for bite marks but found none. He shook her again, calling her name, but she didn’t respond anymore than she did the first three times he’d done it. What if she didn’t wake up?
It was his fault for falling asleep, for not watching the baby, keeping it with him. He stared into its face again, remembering his dream. He’d seen it open its eyes, dark black eyes, through his own eyelids. If it opened its eyes now, what would he see? What color, if it woke? Standing in the room beside his wife with the child from the package clutched to him, he finally understood what he was looking at.
The child’s eyes weren’t just closed, weren’t just shut like the shades over a window. No, the kid didn’t even have eyelids in the traditional sense. What it had was one sheet of skin that covered the top half of its face. There were bulges where the eyeballs were, but no way for any flap of skin to open and reveal them. The only holes in its face were its nostrils and its mouth.
This realization led to another, one that pumped the fist in his gut against his spine: the baby wasn’t sleeping after all.
He tried putting it down in the other room, to see if it would sit still. This meant leaning over far enough to get the child to hang from him, and then to tear it from his chest. The exertion he put towards this thing, this seemingly simple thing, was incredible. He didn’t feel like he used to play football at all, didn’t feel like anything but a weak old man. When the toddler finally came free, and he set it on the floor near the big chair, it sat and looked at him. Stared right through the skin on its face and regarded him with an expression that Ken equated with a kind of deep emotional pain.
It fostered in him a feeling of pity, and it was only out of pure scientific curiosity that he kept himself from reaching for the child again. What would happen if he left it? What would it do? It wasted little time in picking itself up into a sort of wobbling tripod of tiny limbs, and then it was walking. Not on all fours, but on two legs, in a herky-jerky mechanical simulation of human locomotion. Then it started to run.
Toward the bedroom.
Ken had an urge to intercept it, to cut it off before it got there, but the door was closed. Surely that would stop it—it didn’t last night—and if it didn’t, he wanted to see how it got through.
It ran full smack into the door, but instead of hitting and bouncing off, got half-stuck in it like the door wasn’t anything but an upright pile of caramel, and then started moving its arms in a pinwheel motion, like it was trying to swim through. Then there was a foot melting through, and then all Ken saw was the door again.
He yanked it open and managed to get to the child just before it got to the edge of the bed. He didn’t need to see how it would climb up—however it happened it was less important than keeping the thing off Rebecca. He grabbed it around the middle, and the child spun like a cat to face him and clutch him. He would be its keeper, its nourishment, until he could figure what to do with it. Hopefully by then he wouldn’t be comatose or dead.
Ken had precious little time to lose. He could already feel the parasite’s effect on him. But what to do with it? He’d have to take it back to the wall. Maybe one of the things would be there, one of the little whisps, the little demon men. They would take it from him. If not, he didn’t know. At least it would take him instead of Rebecca.
The child weighed more already, and seemed to be growing moment by moment, but too slow to catch by looking. He wouldn’t make it if he tried walking, would most likely topple somewhere along the way as he tried to keep his balance with the toddler and his cane. Driving, then.
He hadn’t driven the car in almost four years—Rebecca was in charge of groceries, and took him to all of his appointments. Ken had a scare one night, when he’d mistaken a green light for a yellow, and slowed down too fast, so much that a truck behind him jammed its brakes and swerved into oncoming traffic. There’d been a crash, a lot of yelling, and thank the Lord everyone was all right, but it had been Ken’s fault and he knew it.
His eyesight was no longer what it had been. His reactions weren’t fast enough. At the time, it had been a big sacrifice to give up driving, but he knew something was wrong. He hadn’t trusted himself behind the wheel since, and that’s why he’d forked over the keys. He didn’t want his driving to be the reason Rebecca died someday.
Now he needed to drive again. What if he couldn’t?
The child fed off his anxiety, redoubling its growth as Ken looked for the keys. He tried to calm himself down. They were there, on the rack. His wife was steady with her patterns, and this time he was grateful.
Behind the wheel he drowsed, nauseous, but at least he could see. He put the sedan in gear and pulled out of the driveway, trying not to kick the pedals too hard. He successfully avoided a cyclist, who flipped him off anyway, and then dropped his foot to the floor. He was at the train station in less than four minutes, and already the toddler had grown to the size of a six-year-old. Its skin was changing color as well, from the porcelain white it had been when he’d pulled it from the package to a lightly melanated brown. Ken didn’t have the energy to think about it. He staggered out of the door and into the train station, where several people didn’t bother glancing at him. He was jogging, or trying to, afraid that if he kept to walking he would simply collapse. He got to the bench where he liked to sit and fought the urge to take a break.
If he rested now he would die.
At the wall he saw something he’d never seen before. An inner part of him had been hoping for it, that he’d be able to see the slot, or the door to the other side. It was small and square, probably only three and a half feet tall. At the top was a rectangular slot, and below that was a round hole. He lurched to the wall and plunged his hand into the hole. There was a bar inside, and he grappled with it, pulling. The door began to open, but it was held in place by an immense amount of friction. Sweat poured from Ken like a wrung-out rag, and the child clung to him ever-tighter. Finally it came open. Ken crouched, wondering if he’d ever be able to stand again.
“That guy’s got a kid!”
He looked back, weary. A white man in a white button-down shirt and tie was pointing at him.
“That old guy’s stealing someone’s kid!”
Security guards charged him, keys jangling at their waists. “We’ve got an abduction!” one of them shouted into his walkie, one Ken recognized. Another one pulled something from his belt. A gun.
Ken raised his hands. “I’m not doing that, help me, you don’t know, I’m not…you know me! I know you! Eddie—isn’t it—”
The guard named Eddie had pulled and raised his own gun. He skated forward, training the thing on Ken’s face. “That kid’s not yours! Let him go! You old creep. Coming here every day and watching people, behind a newspaper, I knew you were a creep. Let that kid go.”
Ken was backing up, feeling behind him for the wall, hoping to God that he’d feel it, that his fingertips would brush the cool brick and he’d be home free, but it didn’t happen.
One of two other things happened instead: either Ken was shot and killed by the guard named Eddie, or he was flung into the darkened door the child had reach past him and opened.
He fell at length.
There was no light, and Ken knew that he shouldn’t be able to see anything, but he could. He was the opposite of blind. He twisted around, rotating his shoulders first and then his hips, so he was no longer falling backwards.
The expansive dark gave way to walls that sloped in slightly from all sides. The walls rushing past made up some kind of chute, one with ten, then six, then four sides—until finally it felt to him like he was falling down a package chute.
Ken’s brain sent signals to his arms, and he flailed them wildly, grabbing at any hold they might find. But then the chute was opening outward again, and there was nothing to touch.
He was still falling, but it felt…slower now?
Something WHUMPED into his back, into the middle of his chest where his backbone was. He could feel his rib cage collapse as it pulled him up by the hair.
“You’re not my pops,” the thing whispered.
Ken tugged at it, tried to wriggle, but the demon thing only gripped tighter. All strength went out of him.
Ken passed out.
Next he was being stabbed. In the back, just beneath his shoulder blade. He felt his breath go out of his chest, and came awake all at once, to his son, now in his early twenties.
“You didn’t want me,” the thing said. “I will always live in the shadows with no name.”
“I’m sorry,” Ken said. It was the last thing he would say.
On they fell.
Rebecca awoke sweaty and disoriented. It was dark somehow—had she slept so little? Her bones ached. She sat up, and even that was a struggle. Ken’s spot was cold and empty. She was confused, and a slight tremor made its way into her normally steady heartbeat.
She got up and started toward the bathroom. Used to traveling the short distance in the dark, she held her arm out only as a force of habit. When it found that space occupied also by what felt like warm skin, she started.
“Oh!” She felt out for it again, and felt the strong biceps of her husband.
“You scared me, babe. Oh dear, you’re shivering. Come to bed, would you? It’s all right about earlier. I’m not mad, I just want you to hold me.”
She led him to bed and got in. She kissed him. He didn’t say anything, and as much as she wanted to believe everything was all right, she worried. She touched a switch on the bedside lamp and turned over. Her husband had his eyes closed already. His breathing was deep.
“You didn’t have to sleep out on the chair. It was just a little disagreement. I shouldn’t have been so hard on you—I know how much you love sitting at that station. Just don’t forget about me.”
She got up to use the toilet. On her way out of the bedroom, she took a fleeting look at Ken, bathed in the yellow light of the bedside lamp. He looks like he did forty years ago. So young. Later, getting back between the covers beside him, she remembered he hadn’t opened his eyes to kiss her.