Friday, December 31, 2010

Further tests on the Carrolin whales.

31 December, 2010 / Further Tests On The Carrolin Whales / By Jaret Ferratusco.

An ever thickening blanket of rain held our front windows hostage from the night. Almost nothing could be seen beyond the sill, as if a large gray wall of runny wet cement was growing up from the surrounding hedges, and though all the curtains were closed in case the same wasn't so from the outside looking in, it was still painfully obvious that our privacy could not be secured anywhere in the main part of the house. I shut all the lights off behind me to get the glare out, but I could still see nothing out there. Not even as far as the driveway. And with the steady pounding of the rain, I couldn't hear when cars passed by on the street although at times I could make out the watery red of the taillights. Under these circumstances, if a car pulled up to the house we'd never know.

We wouldn't know if someone was on the way up to the house until it was too late and they were in.

So that was that. The main part of the house was just no good tonight.

We moved our meeting to the most private room available on the first floor, the front hall closet. It was never really used unless we had guests over, so even if someone came through the house we'd have time to hear them walking around before anyone found us. Adequate room for our party of four was effected by pulling out the vacuum, some brooms and suitcases and a box of old leather coats. The evidence of this clearing we deposited into the basement stairwell, another safe spot. The basement was not used at night unless to take care of excess loads of laundry, and it being days off from laundry day, we could even stand to let a lot of it sit overnight if we had to.

Underneath the carpet in the closet was a fire safe we installed at the beginning of the summer. Emy alone knew the combination to this lock so she was in charge of keeping all of our more sensitive documents there. When we needed to confer over a certain set of notes, two of us would squeeze out of the way and Dannis would lift the carpet and look in the other direction as Emy spun the dial of the combination lock and let us in and out of the world of private notes. Her secret was our pride, because some of us were bad liars and we didn't want to have to know about things we didn't need to, in case we were to be questioned on the spot at any point. She had the combination written down in the woods and she told us if we ever really needed it when she wasn't around, we would definitely know where to look. All of us kind of did, but we didn't go out there ever, unless we had to.

Now, all together in the closet, we quieted down and listened to Emy talk about the bruises.

Distinct bruises on our two parallel whales was the first topic to be raised during the early stages of the conference, scrutinized under a thin yellow beam emanating from the small flashlight Emy brought with her everywhere. She moved the flashlight over the chart and did most of the talking. As she shifted between the flashlight and her notes, I offered to hold the heaviest item, the chart itself, but she said it wouldn't be necessary. The other two watched intently, listening closely. I found it hard to concentrate. Unless I could be made useful I always found it hard to concentrate, so I asked her again if I could hold the chart. She looked at me impatiently and sighed, “Just listen, okay?”

“Okay, Emy.”

The sketch tracing the histories of the whales from birth to now was scribbled across a dry erase board that I got off the kitchen wall in our neighbor's house. Without the dry erase board we'd have had to use colored chalk for the graphs and write on the white closet wall, and that always leaves stains, so inadvertently I was able to contain myself a little knowing I'd helped Emy with the presentation in this minimal way.

I fidgeted around a lot, but stuffed my hands into my pockets to try to stop. No matter what I did I always thought of myself as the least important out of the four.

I was more used to breaking and entering than anyone else and was actually good at it, so that, at least, was a strong point I could claim. One of my more noted performances had been the snatching of father's heart pills from the dashboard of his car while he was at work and I was supposed to be in school over nine miles away. I'd been able to sneak out of class that day and hire a cab using money lifted from the math teacher's purse. And with an authentic pass to the nurse's office, I used my time wisely getting to and from father's factory job parking lot and back into class with a forged release note from the nurse written up by Dannis, the committee script writer. That night father had to go to the hospital (mother stayed with him) and they were gone for the whole night and next day, giving us plenty of time to move the whales in and make sure the tanks were working before we covered them up with tarps.

I just wish she'd let me hold the damned chart. She's barely able to do it all, she just wants to be controlling.

To be fair, this was her job anyway, the presentations.

Emy would normally have me assist her in most of the presentations, but only really because I pestered her about it so much. And it would sometimes cause Dennis to smirk or make callous accusations. Such things would conceive to undermine the overall idea of our meetings, but I learned to just look past it. Besides, tonight Emy was skittish, and her long red hair repeatedly fell in front of her face as she talked, causing her to stop and push a lock of it here or there, disrupting the presentation. I was for the most part forgotten. After so much of her barely even looking my way I pulled out a hairband. It was green, her favorite color. She said thank you and I held the flashlight for her while she strung up her hair and we continued. I didn't feel so out of place when I was able to help Emy and this break in her presentation might have been a little distracting to the other two, but it made me feel a whole lot less nervous.

Nevertheless Dennis in the back smirked and I shot him a look.

Emy and Dannis sssshhhhhed us both, though it wasn't me who'd said anything.

Resuming her presentation, Emy went over the bruises previously noted on the whales. There were two of them. Freshly captured baby Carrolin whales we stole from the town harbor cages before they could be tagged. We put one of them in the built-in swimming pool, carefully re-filtered with a saline-saltwater oxygenation with ammonia previously tested out on a few manta rays we got from the Marina Library saltwater tanks. The other baby whale we kept in the above-ground pool in Dennis' backyard next door using the same filtration system. Both whales were raised precisely parallel in this way, from feeding and petting to the readings we gave to each, switching off from Emy to Dannis usually, but sometimes to Dennis too, all except for me since I couldn't keep from stumbling over the sentences all the time when reading aloud. In the daytime when we were supposed to be in school, the whales were given similar cycles of swimming to adhere to in tandem, from clockwise to counter-clockwise and then occasionally straight back and forth; we took turns skipping summer school classes to make sure the cycles never lapsed. At dusk small electric shocks were administered. Not heavy enough to electrify the pools or incapacitate the whales but enough to confuse them into temporary stillness. Their levels of stunned perplexity were recorded on line graphs and their progress back into the given swim cycle was noted on the clipboards. We raised or lowered the shock frequencies according to how similar their reactions were.

Over the course of the month different variables were added into the filtering tanks, from chlorine solutions to small amounts of talcum powder or old soot from the fireplace. Their meals were always fish-based, from crab meat to white fish, interspersed with tiny doses of pepper, soil, bleach and expired hamburger meat we left out on the pool decks every few days in clear plastic containers. In the latter experiments, all attempts to introduce food poisoning into the whales' systems failed, after which we concluded that their immune systems were so far advanced as to make our own digestive systems appear amateur on a line graph. After two inconclusive weeks of the spoiled meat we discontinued that portion of the testing and moved on to adding small amounts of confetti paper into their meals. Both whales suffered tremendously and their swim cycles slowed parallel, so the confetti was abruptly pulled and we started tainting the water supply with daily teaspoons of paint thinner.

ABB WHALE in the built-in pool was given a head start in her cycles because the pool was more elongated, so as to match up in a way with BEBB WHALE's larger circular tank. Overall the circumference of the pools differed by two feet only. So with the head start, our charts were fairly accurate.

Towards the end of the summer, troublesome rainstorms not only limited the amount of work we could do outside, but the thunderclaps had begun to scare the whales as well.

They were both running into the sides of the pool. Abb Whale suffered the most, as her walls were made from concrete, while Bebb Whale's pool was lined with sheet metal plating under a thin rubber covering.

The more physical the thunderstorms became, the more panicked the whales grew.

As the flashlight followed the charts of bruise exposure, Emy's voice started to waver. She told us if the whales got any worse they may damage their fins or give themselves concussions and drown.

Her eyes welled with tears, “The bruising is becoming more intrusive,” She said, sniffling. “It's just not getting any better. And it may come to a point where they can no longer be tested.” She trained the beam of her small flashlight down toward Abb Whale's statistics on the line graph, whose harm line went jagged in spiking zig-zags over Bebb Whale's less stressful one. “Whether it's the storms or the head-butting against the pool walls, the end effect and our current reality is that they may both be dying,” she said, pulling the flashlight from the dry erase chart and pointing it up at her face so we could see her talk.

Her haunted black eyes bulged from their wet sockets, twinkling like stars in the sky.

I pushed some more coats up against the inside of the door, both to further insulate the sound of the conference as well as to allow more breathing room for the committee.

Dannis reached over for the chart. “Let me see that for a second.”

Emy handed her the chart.

Dannis frowned deeply. “This is serious. We may have to let the whales go.”

Dennis smirked again, this time more obnoxiously. “We can't let the whales go.”

“But if they get any worse,” Emy stressed, pounding her fist against the closet wall, “there's just no way of saying whether or not they'll start panicking. If they splash under the tarps while other people can see it we'll be found out. Not only are they getting more physical day by day, but we're running out of sedatives anyway. We can't give them any more than they're used to, and clearly they've built up a tolerance. Are you sure you can't get any more?”

This question was directed at Dannis, whose mother was constantly on tranquilizers. Half the sedatives were pulled from the overloaded medicine cabinet.

But according to Dannis, it was getting harder and harder to do this because father was starting to complain about the refills. Mother was always too doped up to confirm her doses, and at one point Dannis had been asked by both if she had been taking the pills without asking. It was hard for Dannis to keep coming up with new ways of denying the fact, and so the pills were being hid around the house in different places. From our surveillance, we'd discovered a few of the more obvious hiding places, but once a hiding place was pilfered it was then left naked and Dannis was more and more becoming a suspect.

“We have to do something different,” she pleaded. “What if mother just plain stops bringing them home? We'll be stuck. We need to figure something else out.”

In her defense Dennis suggested raising the voltage of the electric shocks.

“No good,” Emy said. “They could drown. We already came to that conclusion a long time ago. If even one of the whales drowns we're stuck with a failed study. Worse, the whales are bigger now and they will be harder to get rid of if they die now.”

Me this time, “Yeah, but it'll be hard to do anyway. We can't keep them forever. Sooner or later we're going to have to do something with them. And anyway, we can't keep them unnoticed forever either. Sooner or later someone's going to want to go swimming.”

“Not now that summer's ending and father's still sick from the missing medication.”

“But what if the pools need to be drained for autumn? They'll be discovered.”

“What if they drain the pools without knowing the whales are in there? They'll suffocate.”

“Impossible. You can't drain a pool without lifting the tarp. They'll know.”

“Then we're fucked.”

“We're not fucked if we find a way to complete the study before the whales die.”

“Or before we run out of sedatives.”

“I already said we have to look for another option right now. I might not be able to get any more tranquilizers.”

Shit,” Emy said.

We were all silent for a little bit. The hall closet started to feel smaller and smaller by the second.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “It's just bruises. Maybe their muscles are weak and their defenses lowered. Can't we just put more protein in their diets? We can double the fish, or . . . wait, we can feed them from Dannis' basement freezer.”

Dannis' whole family were hunters. They had seasonal kill in the basement freezer year round. Some of it from years long passed. Why not?

Emy smiled a little. “Maybe. But we still have to advance the study. It's going too slow. We have to parallel the whales better. Faster. We need to figure out where the bodies are going, what they're doing inside. None of us know how to do a post-mortem so we need to figure it out while they're still alive.”

“We could take Abb Whale out of the deep pool and put it in with Bebb Whale. The above-ground pool has a higher elevation, naturally, so perhaps they just need to breath better.”

“That's stupid. Bebb Whale is dying too.”

“Yeah, that doesn't cut it at all. They're sea creatures. Anything above sea level's probably dangerous. If we're really talking about joining the whales to make breathing easier, we should be thinking about adding Bebb Whale to the tank here.”

“What if they fight?”

“They're not the type. Carrolin whales never fight each other, even in times of starvation or disease. They travel together in packs and are known to carry and protect their dead and bury them in sand banks. They've even developed a sort of ceremony that's not entirely unlike a human funeral procession. Which is all the more reason why we should be thinking about joining them. They might give each other strength and protect one another, or one will help the other somehow, in ways we probably can't even tell. It'll cease the panic attacks if anything can.”

“But then we'd have to alter the purpose of the parallel. If they're both in the same tank we can't compare living conditions or situational growth pattern because there won't be any difference in the conditions.”

“What if we blind one of them?”

“We're trying to get them healthier, not increase stress levels. If one of them is sick and the other is forced to abandon the cycles and play protector there's no project anymore, just a patient and nurse routine.”

Emy's face lit up. “Wait! A relief cut. We could put relief cuts underneath their fins.”

Dennis slapped her on the shoulder, “That's great! Who's the best at cutting?”

Dannis raised her hand. “I help father field-strip deer and dogs every spring. I could probably do the relief cuts in my sleep.”

Emy shrieked with giddiness. “That's the thing! That's just what we need to do!” Then she lunged forward and hugged Dannis. The flashlight fell to the floor and rolled in between our feet, visiting a haunted yellowish scene of our legs moving on the bottom wall of the closet that looked like trees in a forest swaying.

With the matter mostly settled, I took the opportunity to slip out of the closet to make a round of the house. Our tea candles were still lit in every room. Thunder rumbled outside and a few times lighting struck somewhere in the neighborhood. Definitely not good for the whales. I peeled the corner of the picture window curtain but still couldn't make out much further than the line of hedges directly in front of the window. There could be a helicopter landing in the driveway and I would neither hear nor see it doing so.

In the bathroom I washed my face and watched a shadowy reflection of myself flickering in the mirror.

Maybe it was because I was always nervous, but I was never the one who came up with any answers right when we needed them. Sure, the protein supplement could work, but that would take too long. If I ever had any truly useful answers they encompassed the long-run, never the now. Essentially we all had our strengths and weaknesses, and for recognizing these things we were able to function pretty good as a committee. If I could have just a little more out of it, though, I wanted to be more than a set of fast hands sometimes. I was the good thief; it's interesting to a degree but a lonely skill overall because I can't bring it out into the open. It's not a skill that helps in the study, just one that enables it. In the lab setting I basically just make sandwiches and be the look-out.

Or hold the chart.

Emy, Dennis and Dannis would excel in life, I have always felt that. Confidence bleeds from them in determined, white bolts of energy. They could go anywhere, and they undoubtedly would. But me, I could only go somewhere in life too if I followed along after them. I'd never make it on my own without at least one of them. Thankfully we were very close not just as a committee but as friends. The way it looked now I just might always be Emy's go-to—fetching supplies, figuring out how to get past a padlocked yard fence. Sneaking in and out of locked department stores. Getting the best gifts for her on her birthday.

And she'd always be there to protect me when I felt like I wasn't worth anything. Things were about as good as could be expected. But I still wanted to be something a little more than just the thief and the sandwich maker and the chart holder.

Despite my own shortcomings I very much liked the committee. We made fun of each other a lot, but we were really friendly about it.

I walked slowly back down the hall in the flickering candle light and then softly tapped out the secret knock at the very bottom of the closet door. It opened slightly and I slid in. We had about an hour to do something that had to stick; to come to some kind of proper conclusion on how best to go about the future of the study and the fate of the Carrolin whales, and get to work on it tonight. When seven o'clock rolled in we'd have to be on our guard. And probably separated again. Dennis and Dannis at home. Me here. Emy hiding out under my bed, whispering lines to me in case I was questioned about anything on the spot.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The carve road.

9 October, 2010 / The Carve Road / By Jaret Ferratusco.

Absolutely sure of his direction, Alyster nevertheless wound his way through the woods in almost no real direction at all. His curiosity made for habits toward veering off the path in misshapen s-hooks, myriads of disingenuous zig-zags and short cuts which were hardly short cuts. Numerous times it was sufficient to throw him entirely off course. But he liked being lost a little. It gave him a reason to explore.

He had a sort of make-shift compass system in waiting for sounds from the near distance. This system had so far saved him from ever getting truly, hopelessly lost, though it was a careless system bound to show its flaws in time. The tallest ridge of this part of the woods was always visible, it seemed, where peaks of leafless winter trees towered in bristly triangular spiderwebs and crisscrossed branches and where Alyster looked to in his peripheral vision as he sailed through on his way. If completely lost and the ridge was playing hide and seek, he need only to stop just a moment and take a breath in relative silence to check on his whereabouts by training his ears or eyes, maybe spotting the occasional whitish gray blur of a truck or van as it passed along Carve Road. That would be the top of the ridge, he knew, and then, though sometimes a bit off the mark, he would once again know his way.

This wasn't the most brilliant thing in anyone's ability to do and Alyster knew so, but it was a long, sometimes agonizing way home if he ever just used the same exact path. The monotony of a single path was like the monotony of a highway road and could put anyone to sleep. Two hours is a long time to bother with paths if done the same way over and over again, and every once in while when he did get a little lost, it was actually exciting to be able to find his way again all by himself with no help from anyone. It was a small sliver of independence that nobody would care about but him. And that secret little sense of victory that nobody could take away made him feel good.

And so this afternoon he went along his usual almost careless way, except this time he was cutting it pretty close, because the sun was starting to set already. It was a far cry from the summer, when the sun would usually be up until God knows when.

Before long it would certainly become way too dark to see the top of the ridge with the sun setting on the other side of the world, so obviously it would also be too dark to make out distant cars or even their headlights unless he actually made his way up there and walked the road itself. But it was extraordinarily dangerous to walk Carve Road at night; lots of people had been killed that way. Drunk or just unlucky, stumbling about in pure darkness, picked off by delivery vans or logging trucks. Mostly it was kids who took bad routes to and from home to Doggalin Lake or Maytown, which no matter what you did, took you across Carve Road somewhere or other. It was common knowledge that kids never wore reflectors, and every year new tactics were made to ensure that kids started paying attention, but it never changed anything. In addition to the drunks or the generally lost or those whose cars had broken down, two or three kids died every year from hit-and-runs on Carve Road. It was basically a utility road, not ordinarily used by regular people from town but more often by those trying to make it from point A to point B after in as fast a manner as possible. Farmers, loggers, delivery trucks.

So Alyster almost never stepped foot on it unless he had to get across the road on his way from one side of the woods to the other. And he wouldn't be taking it now either, although it might be faster without having to fight his way through the trees and trenches. Much better to be stuck during nightfall in the woods, if one had to be stuck. Whereas the road was like a waiting predator that gains strength during the night, there was nothing really out here in the woods to pose much of a threat except for the occasional insect crawling into your mouth and dying there.

One might see a deer once a season. Or a few birds. But mostly not even that. These were just barren, uninhabited woods.

After another quick look at the setting sun he stepped up his speed, huffing and puffing and even starting to sweat despite the cold. He'd come this way, generally speaking, lots of times. Even with his head down he sort of knew the right direction. The hill started to get steeper and there were more fallen trees than usual, and Alyster stopped walking so fast and concentrated on climbing over stacks of dead ones.

At the other side of the fallen trees he came to a tiny, leave-strewn pocket in the clearing at the base of the hill, where stood a noticeably awkward and very tall man staring directly at him.

The shock of it made Alyster jump, like someone had popped out from behind a tree and yelled, “Boo!”

But no one had yelled anything.

The tall man was completely silent, completely still. If Alyster had not stopped to take a look around the clearing he may have just walked right on past the guy.

But he was awfully strange looking and now Alyster could not take his eyes away at all. The man was not merely large, but twice more than tall. Even from a distance he seemed to be as tall as a small tree. Alyster judged him to be at least fifteen feet from the top of his somewhat bowed head to the bottom of his strangely tilted legs. The boy stood and stared, nobody moving. The tall man was not just titled, but hanging almost, in an uncomfortable position, somewhat hunched over as though the belt of his pants were hooked to a line and tied around some tree behind him, keeping him only just barely upright. His arms dangled limply in front of him. It looked like a man in position leaning over the edge of a skyscraper while a friend held on to the back of his pants, only there seemed to be no one holding him up.

And, disconcertingly, he also looked dead but for the fact he was staring at Alyster so absolutely.

The boy carefully moved slightly closer, then closer still, inching his way through the crackle and crunch of dead leaves. The closing proximity of the boy did nothing to affect the tall man, who just stared and stood, with his head held crooked and his arms, still as any number of the surrounding forest trees. He continued inching closer, half a foot forward, half a foot forward.

All of sudden Alyster stopped cringing, and he felt the chill in his spine start to warm up a little and leave his body in soaked fragments of sweat and embarrassment, because it became obvious the thing was just a simple scarecrow.

The tall man was just a farmer's dummy.

What it was doing here out in the middle of nowhere was anyone's guess. How profound it seemed. Here, in the winter woods. Not a creature to stir. No crops to guard from silent woods. Just this unfashionable, mean looking atrocity of a scarecrow, the arms too long, body too narrow.

Alyster came closer to the scarecrow, and with each step the thing towered even more. Whoever had done this it must have taken a ladder to hoist the thing up.

Disadvantageous physical attributes were not its only peculiar value, either. The thing was not dressed as any regular scarecrow might be; in place of tattered, straw-stuffed old clothes, battered by changes in weather from year to year and looking every bit the part as a scarecrow should, this one was dressed in a normal pair of moderately clean but worn slacks, under a tucked-in long-sleeve dress shirt. Pulled over the feet were not old corroded boots from the back shed of a farmhouse, but modestly scuffed black loafers that Alyster guessed could be pawned in town very easily if they weren't three times as large as any man's foot. Overall, aside from the sheer height of the thing, the scarecrow looked like you could prop it up it in the pew at church and it would fit right in.

Perhaps that's why someone had abandoned it in the woods. This scarecrow looked rather dull and sad, not threatening.

The only very spooky part was that the skin on the scarecrow's face looked oily and pained, with very real scratches born into it. It looked like real skin, in turn making the entire head look real. A small lock of hair hung over its eyes, which Alyster attributed to the thing having sunken over to this awkward leaning position. If standing, he assumed, the lock of hair would settle back into place.

When Alyster walked right up to it to get a better look at the shoes, the scarecrow moved slightly.

Panic shot through Alyster. It really was like someone had just gripped him from behind and yelled, “Boo!”

The boy let out a shrill cry of alarm and jumped back two or three steps. The scarecrow's long dangling arms almost brushed against him and when he noticed that he cried out again, hopping another two or three steps backward. His leg caught on a fallen branch and Alyster screeched at it like something had reached out and tried to kill him. Jesus, he needed to get a grip. He smoothed his jacket out with his mittened hands and tried to laugh, but there was nothing to laugh about.

Especially considering what came next. The scarecrow lifted its head and the lock of hair moved aside. The tall creature looked directly at him. This time Alyster was sure it was looking at him. Too sure, for even though it stared, hard, the thing's eyes had been poked out of its head, yet followed his tiniest move.

Tiny black bubbles of dried blood collected in the two empty pits of its eyes, frozen over crude smears of more blood, also mostly dried.

Alyster started to feel quite sick. And more and more afraid. It didn't seem right to have something like this thing out here in the woods, regardless of why it would be here. He didn't care why, just wanted it to disappear. He wished he could take back the day and not gone to the arcade in Maytown. Or he could have hitchhiked at least; even talkative old farmers—or worse, sinister old salesmen with out-of-state rental plates—were easier to handle than this thing.

“I'm sorry, I didn't expect anyone to be dropping by,” the scarecrow said cordially, opening its arms slightly to motion toward the outer part of the small clearing. It smiled sadly, as if the boy had called at the thing's home unannounced on the morning of a lonely holiday. Alyster jumped back another five steps and almost turned his back right then and ran. His skin bristled with a sharp panic, scaling his entire spine alight with electricity. It reached his brain and pumped it once, hard. It felt like he was a new boy in a strange new world, but not a world he wanted to be in.

It was one where scarecrows talked when you did not want them to. When they just weren't supposed to be, because scarecrows are not alive.

This was so much (terribly) further away from the warmth of his heated home and all the food and the relative comfort of all his shitty cousins.

“I'm sorry. I was only trying to be friendly. But honestly, I was not expecting company, to most extents. But it's nice to have company now. Please don't run away so soon.”

The scarecrow continued to smile awkwardly, sadly. It stared on, blinded, supremely pathetic. Alyster felt suddenly sad for it.

Nevertheless, with fright coursing through his veins in a current of poisoned ice water, some horrified part of him wanted to shake this terrifying shiver off and catch this right . . . suppose it were just a trick? Sure, this was some trick alright, but damnit, he didn't want to be made into such a coward all over again for the fourteen hundredth time. He was so tired of that crap, that ceaseless crap from his dumb brother and even dumber cousins. He simply had to withstand this haunting apparition for just a bit more to make sure it was not a joke somehow. Or else he'd—predictably—end up running home whaling like a baby, and the whole family would be there in the living room by the fire, across from the television and VCR, laughing ceremoniously, with his older brother or some fucking cousin or other, having long beat him back home because they had a car, holding a video camera and a remote control pointed at the TV, and everyone would be watching the tape of Alyster shrieking and turning tail like a frightened cat. They'd be roaring extra hard when they caught sight of the real deal . . . Alyster wet and sweating, cheeks blotchy red, scared out of his mind like a big damned baby.

So he stood his ground in front of the awkward bent-over scarecrow, slowly letting his feet become grounded again and the hair on his head settle back down into a messy mop of fucked-up curls like it usually was.

“I'm so hungry, sir,” the scarecrow said, disarmingly. “Can you help me?”

And although the voice was calm and warm and friendly, and even somehow reasonable, it scared the boy badly that the sound of its words resounded in the woods, bubbling in the air, taking the chill away from winter and whipping it back quick like dozens of rocks pitched from a slingshot, nailing Alyster from every direction. He felt completely trapped in place. If he tried to push his way through the woods it would be like a pantomime placing his flat hands on an invisible mid-air wall.

A very thin fear of crying passed over him and froze the wet skin on his belly and back. Alyster cringed, his eyes squinting and widening at the same horrible time, holding his stomach with his hands and curling one leg up. He resembled a slug with salt all over it, shrinking. If anything in the world had ever made him feel stupid and feeble, this topped it grandly; he looked up at the gray-dark sky, fully expecting there to be sprinkles and peanuts and chocolate candy falling from the clouds, covering him up like he was some kind of spotlighted sundae, perfect for the whole world to dig into with several thousand sharpened spoons.

He wanted to cry but knew he should not. If this was a trick, it was a very horrible one, but he would not be panic-struck and condemned by it. He just couldn't be. He had no choice but to at least try to stand his ground. Putting his arms out in front of him in case he should have to defend himself against . . . something, he circled the scarecrow slowly, looking for the rope that must be holding him up. Or for thin fishing reel puppet-strings which could be descended from the branches of the trees. He looked around for his cousin with a video camera, or anyone, anybody at all hiding in the woods, snickering, laughing.

But there was nothing. Just this massive scarecrow leaning over with its arms dangling lifelessly.

Alyster walked back around to the front of the scarecrow and stood fully ten feet away. “Are you for real,” he asked, his voice small and weak.

The thing smiled weakly, but with a growing warmth, and tried to angle its head so the hair, which had fallen again, would come back away from his eyes. It held its head as straight as could be then it shrugged, as if to apologize for its condition. Alyster could certainly sympathize with that.

“Do I look fake? Yes, I am just as real as you are,” it said. “What's your name?”


It smiled wider and spoke in its shockingly reasonable tone. “Ah, Alyster. That is certainly a suitable name for you. It's smart and handsome. A strong name. It carries when you say it out loud. I do believe it's one of my favorites, though I may be biased. Are you going to help me, Alyster?” It talked like a friend, but the boy was weary of this. Friends are not ten foot tall talking puppets in the woods.

He cringed inwardly, holding his hands up almost over his face, unable to mask his revulsion. “Help you what? Are you trapped?”

“Oh, no,” it said. “I'm not trapped at all, just weak. But I am hungry, as well as being weak. Or perhaps I should say weak due to the hunger. I haven't had food in a long time. A very long time. A man could die out here and nobody would know.”

And its face was so friendly—despite the rendered eye sockets—and there was now no doubt about the skin on its face, that it was not a scarecrow at all but a real man. An altogether different kind of man than any Alyster had ever laid eyes on, but nevertheless a real person.

He tried to avoid eye contact because of the lack of eyes, but it was hard. Especially as the tall man looked directly at him as they spoke, even moving his head slightly to the right as Alyster shifted on his feet slightly to his left. The broken visual connection followed the boy's every move as easily as any man could've with the eyes not torn from his head like that.

“What happened to your eyes?” the boy the asked the stranger.

“Well, this was done as a punishment. It is rather gruesome, isn't it? As terrible as it may be I'm afraid I can't do anything about it.”

Punishment. Alyster almost didn't want to ask, but let it linger a while to be sure. After a short amount of seconds ten thousand other things came into mind that he wanted to ask, and this “punishment” was set to the side for the sake of being polite.

“But can you see me anyway?”

“With no eyes, Alyster? That's absurd. No, I can't see you. But, I've been this way for a very long time, and I've grown accustomed. So I've learned to adapt, as anyone should.” It raised it's long arms, motioning around in the air somewhat, in a gangly, puppet sort of way. “To sounds mostly. You can move every which way you'd like, Alyster, and I can tell just what it is you're doing, to every detail. In fact, I think I should say that you can stop cringing if you like. You can stand up very tall and strong and stop being so afraid. You can talk to me just as easily as I am to you. You see, I could hear you coming from some ways off. It's just that I'm very tired and I cannot move so well. From being so hungry. I was hoping you would be coming just this way, so you could help me. And now here you are. This is providence.”

“What's providence?”

The tall man shrugged, waving his elongated arms a bit, but not too much before they sort of slid quietly back into complacency, dangling in front of its bent-over body again. “Well, it's something like a picture puzzle. You cannot complete the picture whole without every piece of the puzzle, correct? And there's just always that very, very stubborn and hard-won important piece of the puzzle to find before much else can be done. The one puzzle piece that, without a model of the finished product to draw upon for reference, like a box top, would make everything tie together, allowing for the rest of the puzzle to simplify itself and drop right into place. My predicament is just like such a puzzle, the one without a box top reference. I can't see very well how to fix my predicament in whole, but I do know that you can help me to better resolve the puzzle. And so you are not just one of the many pieces to fit it, but much more importantly, one of the most essential pieces to the puzzle. And likewise extraordinary, that different from me putting this puzzle together, you did. You found the missing piece, which is you, and you came to me with it, without my asking. That is providence.”

Alyster didn't get it. “I don't have any food,” he said, trying to appease the situation and settle whatever the situation was.

“Of course you do. Look at you, you're a healthy boy. You're not starving. There's no dilapidated bones coming through the skin. You are the product of a well-fed environment. It's in your bones and that heavy stride of yours, like a great animal charging through the woods.”

“I thought you said you couldn't see me.”

“I can't, Alyster. But as I've also said, I've adapted. I may be weak but I can sense you are not. Who is moving about so effortlessly, and who is not? You are moving because you have strength and agility. I can tell that you're very young, rather healthy. You are well fed and you have nothing to lack. You have gray pants on, and a green sweater. You lost your ball cap up the ridge so your hair's all messed up from the wind. You are agile, healthy and in every way able to help me, which will take less strength and motive than finding your missing cap.”

Almost without realizing he was doing it, Alyster reached atop his head and it was true, he'd lost his hat. He looked around, frightened and mystified. Where had he lost his hat? Running? Up the ridge, like the scarecrow said? No, it wasn't a scarecrow. Just a very tall man, thin and too tall and progressively more hypnotizing.

He had to try to shake off some of the confusion and wonder and try to stick to a normal conversation, or he'd be stuck in the woods all night unable to see his way out.

“You look like a scarecrow.”

A gentle, unhardened laugh fell from the man gently, breezily. Alyster could not see his mouth move much but his voice was loud enough, even from so high up above him. He spoke so gingerly, seemingly careful of the fragility of his assaulted face. Judging from the scars, Alyster supposed he had a right to be cautious. What if his whole face fell off? From this position, looking up, if the mashed up face did become unharnessed and slid from the tall man's skull, it would float down and land right on Alyster's face, like a Halloween mask.

The boy shivered. His leg curled up again when he did that. Slugs with salt.

Alyster decided if something so awful happened he'd run no matter how dark it was and not stop, even if he had to charge across Carve Road in front of a drunk farmer's truck. If the tall man was in pain he'd have to stay that way. If his face slid off, Alyster would run.

“Jesus, Alyster, I'm just a hungry man. I'm not a scarecrow, not some creature, not some ghost. You stare up at me as though I might contain the most terrible secrets. But look at me. I hardly contain anything. I could use some food. This is not an altogether odd request. Can you imagine how you'd feel, two days from now, if you hadn't eaten? You'd be cowering on the leaves below me, begging. I dare say you'd be whimpering. Unable to move but to hold out your shaking hand and hope I would fill it with some bread. You may be strong and what have you—and well fed—but you're just a boy. You could not possibly stand it as long as I have without breaking down and crying. It's been a long time since I have eaten anything, a very long time. Look at me, I'm as thin as kite strings. Meanwhile, you've eaten twice today. Couldn't you sympathize? You have everything, you're the man of the hour. Can't you spare?”

But what could Alyster spare? There would be no way to find food for this man before sundown.

And even if he were able to get out of the house in the middle of the night with a package of food and a flashlight to make his way, would he be able to find the man again? Alyster looked around. It was hard enough to try to figure out where he was now—and he still couldn't but hadn't thought about that for a little bit—let alone attempting doing so under the cloak of night. Unfortunately, there was just not any way to help the tall man. It would have to wait until tomorrow morning at the very earliest.

But the tall man was so pressing, and so sad, and he hadn't lost his temper at all. Alyster could not recall a time when someone had spoken to him with as much respect. He could not recall a single moment where someone had spoken to him like a person. Ghostly as the tall man seemed, he was a lot nicer than anyone he'd ever met.

The tall man's face darkened, but softly. Like a sad darkness, one that comes with years of dissatisfaction. Like grandmother's face had when they left her overnight that first time at the new home Alyster's parents had put her in when she started to become unbearable in the house. The tall man sighed; it was clear that time was wasting. But the boy had no answers. He just couldn't do anything to help.

They both sighed. The sound carried in the quietness of the clearing like the end of a symphony. The sounds hummed and bumped against each other and danced and played and lingered, and then died out. It was so silent again.

That thin fear of losing bodily control wormed its way through Alyster's body again. How incredibly awful it felt to be here right now. Now, just as sure as he was that this was no trick harvested by his mean brother or his meaner cousins, he was also as sure that he'd be better off if it were, if it had been a hoax. Alyster was suddenly very sure of this; he would even have preferred it filmed and screened for the whole family at Christmas if only this could be fake, not real.

Here he was as useless as anywhere else. And how could he be sure that out here, with nobody to see it happen, that the man would not take what he needed regardless of it being offered or not. He might steal Alyster's coat and beat him up for all he was able to do about it. Wouldn't anyone be very friendly like that, at first? As the tall man let out a very soft moan that drifted uncomfortably in the frosty air, Alyster considered this might not end very well.

And that led on to fears of something worse happening, and the terror began inching back in again, harsher than the cold.

He let the world spin a little around him, feeling dizzy in his galoshes. He was about to lose both meals the awkward man justly predicted he'd eaten. And it was later in the day, sure, so that wasn't very hard to guess, was it? Breakfast and lunch. Everyone has eaten twice a day by now. But how had he known about the ballcap, that's something think about. And the color of his sweater. Maybe it was time to run, and run fast. Alyster just didn't know what to say. It all suddenly shifted back to maybe it was a trick being played on him after all. It all sounded like a mean trick. The ballcap? Nobody can hear a hat falling off somebody's head from a mile away. But if they did hear the hat fall, how would they know it had been a baseball cap of all things? If you dropped a dunce cap into the leaves, from a mile away it would sound just the same as a baseball cap. Or a mitten. Something was up, it had to be.

The silence stood there in between the two and grew spiderwebs.

Not even the clouds in the sky were roaming now. It was a very typical winter evening. The boy looked around, trying to spot the familiar ridge of trees along Carve Road that would tell him he knew where the hell he was and how to get away if he needed to, but the compass was too hard to find this time. And maybe it was this sudden labyrinthine fright, but the area just didn't look so familiar anymore after all. It didn't just look like a different part of the woods but a different part of the continent. He trained his eyes around him, trying to spot the flash blur of a van or a truck, or the sound of one, which would signify he was still at least somewhat near Carve Road, the only way to tell how deep he was in the woods. He took another step backward, but wavered, feeling something in him trying to stand up for once and not be so afraid of everything. If the man needed help, and he knew how this could be done, hadn't Alyster the obligation to hear him out instead of just leaving him here, stranded in the woods with no food? Thinking he may want to take a few steps in the other direction, back toward the tall man, Alyster straightened up and tried to dash that feeling. Inside he was still frightened, overly confused and starting to fear he may be lost for good all alone in the woods on the verge of nightfall. He looked around again, wishing he could hear something rushing down the fucking Carve Road. But nothing came. Not even the sound of birds.

Or wind rustling the branches.

It was all just complete and utter silence.

“What's your name,” he asked the man cautiously, looking over his shoulder as if splitting the silence might set off a trip-wire bomb somewhere.

But all that happened was that the bent man sighed, and smiled again. It was a large smile, noticeably comforted, very normal and endearing. It looked like what somebody's father ought to look like when smiling as a simple boy loses his fishing reel in the lake early on a Saturday morning in the fog. It was the kind of smile that existed in life to make mistakes okay. And so Alyster felt like he had made a minor mistake in being so frightened. The tall man just kept doing that, smiling warmly, so friendly, standing up to impossible heights in his leaning way, with his arms still dangling limply in front of him. Alyster ruminated on the attack on the tall man's face; his scarred features must surely have been the cause of great pain; the eyes were tight with dried blood; when he turned his face a little to the side, Alyster could hear the dried blood snapping open just a little and in a few places, new drops of fresh blood seeped out from the blackened pits of the sockets. And the tall man winced ever slightly.

It was so pathetic, actually. If the man had been the size of a skyscraper he would be no less pathetic. Look at the pitiful way he stood, like a dummy propped up against a wall. Like he was no more than some kicked over mannequin in the back of a shop warehouse who remained standing only because the feet were on base pegs.

A horrible thought penetrated his thinking: what if the man's feet were rooted beneath the shoe and that's why he didn't move? Perhaps it was not merely weakness, but more punishment? If his eyes had been taken out as punishment, maybe whoever had done it had also driven steel beams through his feet and buried the base weight under the ground so he couldn't walk away?

The tall man stopped smiling endlessly and broke the nasty, fear-inducing silence.

“My name is Alyster,” the tall man said. “Just like yours.”

At first the boy laughed, surprised. But he was only being fooled. He waved it off. “No it's not.”

“I knew you would say that. But it is, my name too, is Alyster. And I've had it longer that you, so for all intentions and purposements, if it should belong to anyone more so than others it would be to be, for I have been around a good deal longer than you have. An actual very good deal.”

“What does that even mean? What's your real name?”

“It's Alyster.”

The boy blushed, momentarily covering up unease. “No it's not.”

“Okay then, it's not.” For a seeping moment the smile faded into a sadness, but was replaced with a crossed version of both looks; a melancholy politeness. “Is this really how we're going to handle this, just standing around all day, arguing? Is my name the same as yours or is it not? Am I lying? I say my name is Alyster too. So? So what if I say you're not a boy?'

Alyster shrugged. “What do you mean? Of course I'm a boy.”

“Sure you are. Your name's Alyster. And so is mine. So what are we arguing about, Alyster?”

The man's long dangling arms were starting to jitter.

The boy shrugged again. This whole situation was impossible to understand. It seemed okay one moment and eerie the next. Fun one moment and dangerous the next. How was he supposed to know what they were arguing about? Alyster could barely understand a thing at this point, including why he didn't leave and go get help. If the man needed food, standing here while the sun made its way further toward the back of the sky was doing nothing but making it worse for the both of them.

He suddenly felt as if his own feet were the ones pegged to the ground. Why hadn't he just turned and run? No matter how big Alyster was, the tall man would be bigger, and given the intricacies of a crowded forest, that was to the elder Alyster's disadvantage, any way you looked at it. In an open desert you could say the tall man had it ruled, but here, amidst densely packed hills, with trees whose branches grew into one another? Alyster (the boy) had the advantage of a mouse, a creature who could fit into any crevice and just escape, no questions asked. So why didn't he just run?

“I don't get it, mister.”

“Oh dear, didn't I just say you can call me Alyster?”

“But I—“

The tall man held up a long spindly finger.

A quick flash of a wider smile, pained but receptive, brushed over the tall man's face and then he lowered his head. A small lock of dark oily hair fell over the cruelly disfigured eyes. For a moment he did nothing, and neither did the boy. They both stood there, facing each other but looking slightly downward. Even looking downward as he was, the man was so tall his face was aimed at the boy's direction anyway. Though with his hair in his face and his shoulders hunched and his arms dangling limply in front of him, it looked like a dead body hung from a tree, about to fall over onto Alyster if not for being held up like he was. Except there were no ropes. No strings. No nothing.

This severely disorganized silence started to hum in Alyster's head. He stood mesmerized, forgetting how to think, trying to look up into the downturned face of the tall, weak, disfigured man and figure out . . . anything.

Then the man raised his head again, and that warm smile once again widened. And he winced while doing so. His face was in great pain and that was apparent. “Please, you can call me Alyster, I said. There's no need to be so formal out here. It's the woods. We can even say FUCK if we want to, Alyster.”

The boy steeled himself.

“Are you going to help me?”

There was no more reason to stay here and be scared. If the man was weak and needed food, Alyster could go and get some. There was no sense in even fucking around talking about it; there was plenty at home. Plenty. Every year his house was packed in like a cattle car during Christmas, with enough food being baked and roasted and fried and ultimately left over in heaps after the holidays to feed a prison camp.

So, the only reasonable thing to do was say so. He'd be the hero, after all. Saving the stranded, dying, hungry, fucked-up carnival show that this guy was.

“I can go home and get some food. It's Christmas vacation. My mom's been making pies all week because our family's all over at the house. The rest of the family, I mean. My dad's brothers and my mom's sisters.” He found that he was spitting out this information almost like he was lying. But it was all more than true, just that those damned missing eyes in the tall man's face kept staring down at him, boring sightless red hot rays through him, scorching his brain with fire, burning away every last foot to stand on comfortably. His felt his head wanted to explode; if it did that his parents could follow the bright orange glare in the night sky surrounding its gloomy, hesitant mushroom cloud and they could find him and take him away from this awful day. “I mean, my cousins and stuff. My aunt and her boyfriend too, and his kids. I mean, there's lots of food everywhere. Everyone's cooking something and it's just sitting around, in the fridge and in the cooler in the garage. I could go back home and get something and nobody would even notice it was gone.”

The tall man cocked his head reprovingly, considering the boy for endless minutes. For the first time, Alyster felt ashamed. He didn't even know why.

Nobody would notice it's gone, I see. So, you're saying you will go home and steal food for me? Do you think I'm some kind of criminal? Have I broken something, some law? Am I fugitive? Really, Alyster, must this be a secret? You can find a pay telephone and go dial your parents right now and give them my name if you're so worried. But will that get me fed any quicker, all this pussy-footing about like cats stealing bites in pie from an open window on the street? Really, I'm starting to feel like you are lying to me.” The tall man squinted his absence of eyes. The feeling of shame in the boy deepened. “I see how it is now. I'm not going to get you in any trouble, am I? Do you fear punishment? Well I can tell you now, little sir, that punishment is not known to you. I daresay that being grounded is not punishment. You are free to turn your back on me and march forth to your aunt and her boyfriends. And his kids' children. Have a very wonderful life. Pay no attention to turning your back on someone who is dying. Leave an unfortunate man for dead in the cold, or else you might get yourself punished.”

All of this was delivered angrily, but with a certain hint of sadness and dejection in it. It scared Alyster for sure, but he could, after all, sympathize. The tall man had been right about everything. It hurts to be in need and to be offered refusal, it has to. If he were the one stranded in the forest and needed help, no matter how frightening the tall man looked, or appeared to look, would he not be absolutely infuriated if the tall man walked off without helping him?

Reading the changes of heart exploding in the young boy's face, the immense thin man apologized again, his voice whispery. “It's not an easy situation today, I fully comprehend.”

But what could he do for the tall man?

And, broken down completely, confused and bitter toward his older brother for some reason he was too angry to think about, Alyster smiled, though he still kept on his guard. Only just not as much as before. He was broken down. He wanted to help this guy. Outside of the inconsistencies within reason, this confusing, bent-over, fifteen-foot-tall man seemed more normal than his family did to him. He found himself trying to like the tall man over his family, and found that it was easy. In the case of his brother, it was almost a given. Even his own parents. Easy. Cousins, aunts, uncles; easy. He shifted on his feet, his eyes wandering around the clearing without seeing anything. He only really could focus on the scarecrow. That's the only thing that seemed to be making any sense. Furthermore, he felt maybe he'd been wrong all his life. Maybe heading home had been the mistake all along, and the tall man had been sent here to stop him from doing so. Wouldn't he have called that providence? The tall man was exciting. Past the fright, past all that—wasn't it just Alyster being a chicken shit?—the tall man was more interesting than everyone in his house at home, all put together.

“Well, Alyster? Am I going to get you into trouble if you just help me out? Just a little? Is helping a person in need going to get you grounded for Christmas? No plastic toys to play with?”

He thought about it, but only from one side. The one that was pulling.

“I guess not.” And he had an even better idea than food. Those bastards at home would kill to see this. Not only could he help the tall man get better, but he would be the envy of the house. He'd even be the envy at school. All those shitheads that grinded him down day to day, they'd fucking be in awe of this. He'd be the most talked about person in town, and then he would move on and leave that town to wonder. He'd disappear for good, maybe follow the tall man wherever he belonged, and leave town and this would be the start of something new and amazing.

That was it. But he needed help.

“You want me to see if my cousins can help get you down?” he asked upward into the darkening twilight sky. And he was about to go on into an explanation of getting his cousins down with the truck with some ropes, and pulling the tall man off the base pegs under the ground and getting him to a hospital where he'd be fed and rehabilitated, and Alyster would be on the news programs. He'd be an honest to God hero, and when the tall man was healthy, he'd take Alyster back to his land. They'd leave this place in dust. It would rot. And his envious older brother would go on to become, at best, if life was kind, a mechanic.

My tail light's out, Alyster thought to himself, smirking. Or a ditch digger. You want the piping to run perpendicular to the main housing unit?

He was about to lay his plans out when the tall man raised his spindly finger again, silencing him.

“Down?” the tall man asked, blinking his broken sockets. Small beads of dark red poked out from the edges of the freshly disturbed scabs. He leaned in closer to the boy, if that was possible given the already stressful slant of his body. Thin little lines of blood fell down around the tall man's nose, seeping from the cracked scabs in its empty sockets. “But I said I'm not trapped. I'm not stranded or trapped. I'm not hung on a cross. I can walk right out of here on my own two feet if I get some food in me. It's just that simple. It's that very simple. I don't need your cousins, I need you to help me, Alyster.”


“I just need food. I am weak and can only barely move my body. What you refer to as hanging, or being trapped, is me weakened and unable to walk like a normal person. Because I am starving. I've only a little energy left and it must be used wisely.” The last few words trailed off a little. “Forget it, Alyster. I don't need pies. Or cookies. Or a hamburger. I need something else today.”

“What do you need?”

“I need to eat something substantial. What I need is something more substantial than pies. Do you have a minute?”

Alyster shrugged, alert but dulled. Being cut off in the middle of fantasizing had brought him back to the facts. He was alone in the woods. He didn't know where he was. The tall man was probably not human. The sun was setting.

His flesh started to crawl, from up the back, to the base of his neck. He felt picked up by a static charge, not for the first time but certainly with a stronger current than before. The whole forest felt electric. In the presence of this tall man almost nothing looked right, and in turn almost everything felt wrong.

All of this pointed downward. Alyster felt like he were being screwed into place just as he assumed the tall man was. Maybe even the other end of the beams driven through his feet were bent back and came though Alyster's feet now too? They'd be stuck like this together forever, bent forward. He felt the ghostly pain of what it might feel like getting his eyes torn out, and the boy grasped his face and cried out.

The tall man shifted just a bit.

Alyster started, “I need to get ho—”

But the tall man reached forward and sunk long, thin fingers into Alyster's shoulder with an encompassing grasp of one enlarged hand. The pressure hurt. Hot needles shot through his chest and raced down his arm, shooting into his fingers and burning up the tips like candle wicks. Without looking in Alyster's direction, the tall man said, “Listen closely, I need you to pay attention to me. I can only just barely move now and this has gone far enough, but I will do as is needed. This goes largely well beyond you and some pies. In fact, you can forget about sweets, or freshly baked breads, or superhero toys waiting for you underneath the Christmas tree. That does not concern me in the least, and so, considering, it no longer concerns you either. Do you understand?”

He didn't want to admit it to himself, but he thought maybe he did actually understand, and so the boy squirmed. The tall man's grip was like a locked door; he flailed then, arms windmilling wildly. The tall man sighed and shook the panicked boy slightly.

“Alyster. Alyster, stop this please.”

The boy flailed even more.

The tall man lifted the boy off his feet. His long arms brought Alyster so high that when he looked down to the dirt and leaves it seemed like a good thousand feet to the ground. He held each of the boy's arms at length and stretched his body wide, holding him up even higher. He pulled the boy's arms so far apart the jacket seams tore in several places and Alyster screamed.

“Alyster, stop this right now and I will put you down. It's that easy. You are hysterical. How can you expect to get through an ordeal in hysterics? Historically, it's just not likely. Factually, it's rather impossible. Either you settle down or something very unpleasant can be expected.”

Alyster thrashed on as if deaf to this. So the tall man stretched harder. Alyster's left shoulder broke. It snapped audibly and in the seconds to follow, the shoulder of his blue winter jacket soaked through darkly.

The mood turned as the tides do. Now the tall man was the world, and Alyster just a speck of dust.

“Can you be convinced now to settle down, or would you like to carry on and maybe hurt yourself more than is needed?”

But the boy felt like he was exploding inside. The broken shoulder had already gone dead. The pain had been like lightning, but once struck, it went away, leaving just a hollow dead feeling. Fear overwhelmed every emotional and physical sense. He kicked out, wishing he could punch and grab and though losing feeling in his body he was not losing enough feeling in his mind, and not being able to move his arms saddened him almost to submissiveness. Nothing landed, no kick would connect. He was helpless. He should have ran. He should never have stopped when he thought this thing was a scarecrow. If somebody puts out a fifteen-foot-tall scarecrow in the middle of the woods it's not for any reason that was Alyster's business and he should never have stopped.

The tall man's limbs were long. They held the boy far in the clear as he kicked and kicked, at open, chilly, darkening air.

“If you settle down I will put you back on your feet. It's very simple. You're hurt, Alyster, but are you dead? Think which is worse. Fight more and see where this gets you. I am hungry and weak and need your help and you're trying to fight me. Should I not defend myself?”

No answer from the boy, who had just begun openly sobbing. “Well I wouldn't have to if you were not attempting your vain assaults on me, don't you think? By the way, they are indeed useless defenses. You're solving no puzzle of your own, I'm afraid. And in doing so, lessening in value my interest in preserving your ultimate help, which harms you more than me. You need to stop this right now.”

Alyster screamed out.

“I promise. Your shrieks are killing me, Alyster.”

Then the hands holding him squeezed tremendously and the boy felt both shoulders equally numbed, and to his horror, his ears were now acquainted to the sound of shattering bone. When the next shoulder went it didn't surprise him. His mind tried to learn from this and grasp a lesson. Fight harder, fight harder, fight harder, his mind said. But the body was scared and not listening. It was pained and stretched literally beyond comparable limits.

The tall man let go of one arm and Alyster swung down hard. His legs swooped and he tried to make his kicks land but he was just a pendulum, doing nothing but swinging. His chest was scorched through with fire. It boiled up into his neck. Pain, pain, pain. The tall man shook him with a single hand and Alyster bobbed out in the air, fabric ripping and flesh tearing and bones breaking. He shook Alyster like a toy doll.

“You are not a very smart boy,” he said tensely but not yelling. With each syllable he shook the boy. YOUshakeAREshakeNOTshakeAshakeVERYshake shakeSMARTshakeBOYshake shake shake shake.

“And the fact of it should hurt more than this,” and he shook the boy harder. His body bobbed up and down, flesh and muscle singing out into the night, mixed with moans. His brain bumped inside his skull Succumbing by default, Alyster ceased his frantic fish-flopping in the air. He hurt all over. His head throbbed.

“I said to settle down long ago and you did not listen. Why is it that it took to this moment for you to do so? Are you satisfied with your actions? Alyster? Do you want me to put you back down?” He shook the boy a little more. It provoked a pathetic jolt of rage and Alyster swung out with his free fist. The shoulder would no longer comply, so the swing went low of his own hips, and of course, hit upon nothing. The limp fist went wide of everything short of weakly tapping his own thigh. Without moving much, the tall man lowered the boy crudely. Alyster's legs began to scissor sharply, still blindly fighting. He hit the ground so hard that his kicking feet brought up a cloud of leaves and dirt and he toppled, landing on one knee while the other leg bent underneath him and cracked under his own disproportionate weight. Alyster cried out. In some vain attempt at controlling his broken body, he attempted to run. It got him a mere two feet toward the direction of safety but no further than that. The tall man bent ever further and picked him up again, but this time held both legs still at the ankles, with just one hand, raising him back up off the ground.

“I need to eat something right now, Alyster. There is no other choice. I'm just not going to stand here until the dawn of a new decade for you to quit weeping and run off to fetch some pie. I need a bite from your hand.”

Alyster screamed and flailed out, but the tall man squeezed harder and something else in his body that was not already broken decided to pop, killing off the feeling in his legs. Finally he gave up and the tears became a downpour.

The tall man let go of Alyster's legs while grasping instead one of his arms. He pulled one hand closer to his mouth, whispering something small and breathy, something that sounded to Alyster like, “Oh.” With one hand holding an arm now, and the boy ceasing to shake so adamantly anymore, the man picked the boy's mitten off and tossed it far off into the distance. Alyster watched with a drugged haze as his ragged black mitten sailed off as if carried by a strong wind. He thought to himself, Why didn't I run? That question had crossed him so many times it felt like a skipping record. How stupid is instinct if it doesn't work?

Then the man flicked at Alyster's hand with his strong, spindly fingers. The flicks hurt and drew blood, shaving off slivers of skin.

Up close, the tall man's mouth was easily understood as disfigured too, ripped at the corners, as if someone had reached into his mouth with both hands and torn out the jaws. And that is just what appeared to be the case when the man opened his mouth, only it was just one side of both jaws that were missing. That empty side of the mouth was just as gummed up and semi-scabbed over as the eye sockets were. One half of the mouth remained, and it was on this side, with the teeth, that he inserted Alyster's tiny bleeding hand and bit down.

Swallowing the majority of Alyster's hand with only half a mouth, he bit off what he could, leaving just the little finger and the ball of the fist, which wiggled with eccentricity even without the thumb.

Spots of black and gray sprinkled Alyster's vision and his head hummed with numbness, feeling excruciating pain but unable to process it much more than the cold, which too felt excruciating. His voice caught somewhere in his throat and stayed there, making him choke. It became a short fit, but it only lasted the span of a few more angry shakes. Quickly the boy's body was nothing but the gentle squirms of a hacked up snake. Complacently, relieved with the incapacitation of the boy, the tall man opened his mouth again and took off the rest of Alyster's hand below the wrist. But an unpleasantness swelled in his stomach. This feeling was revolt. He'd taken in too many bones, too much of what was not edible. Soon he might start to convulse himself. With alarm, he started to feel as if there was not enough time to get more of the arm out of the tight layers of sleeve so he turned the body over a bit looking for something more available and less dangerous. Unexpectedly, Alyster started to shiver again, in dull convulsions. To stop it the tall man beat at the kid's head to render him gone again. And then the tall man grabbed at a handful of Alyster's shirt and coat and ripped a wide hole in the fabric, exposing chalk white skin, and he lifted the boy higher so that his midsection was for the better part bared, and at once, took a large bite from the boy's side. Thick sheets of muscle and strands of tissue and blood and fat fell out in a downpour, which the tall man tried to drink in as much as possible before it was too late and he became too tired or sick to go any further.

It felt like ages. Like decades had passed. Black spots in existence became kinder. He punched again at the stilled boy's head, cracking the skull and pushing one of the eyes out onto the cheek.

It stopped immediately any further throes the boy would be capable of. Though this was a relief and a surprise to the tall man, it was not something he'd intentioned. Alyster blinked once, then closed his good eye completely, shivered gently again, softly, and was still.

The tall man took hold of one of Alyster's legs and then got a grip on his neck with the other hand, and took a few more bites from the swell of his belly and the soft ring of fat around the plump little body. With only half a mouth of weak, damaged teeth to work with the effort was more exhausting and painful than he had counted on, but he had to keep doing it before he grew too tired to move.

Each little move hurt even more. It sent bolts of anger through his body and so he squeezed Alyster's body until more bones popped and shattered.

Accordingly, as feared, his bites grew more aggravated but less powerful, and it became panic, which was of no help. It was like biting through steel to pull any more out of the boy, and the chewing slowed considerably, and he had to actually spit some of it out of his mouth to swallow just a portion. He let one half of the body fall and tried to grab at the soft matter slipping from the wounds but it fell through his fingers, slippery and too fast for his reflexes. And just like that the man was exhausted. He held very still, holding the wet, torn body, unable to let himself drop it but also convinced he may have to within the next few moments, for the simple lack of strength.

His eyes grew very heavy, and his arms and his head. Soon he would be unconscious again for a long time, a very long time. It would all go nowhere. He would eventually wake again, just as tired, just as weak. And that was, he supposed, the object of punishment.

Anger seized him and with what energy was left in him, the tall man raised the boy's body high and shook it violently. His face became spotted with drops of the falling blood and he spat at the broken and ripped up limbs and in the dead boy's silent, caved-in face. Much too angry to expend his energy instead on eating more, which would theoretically contribute to a return in his health, he shook the boy and thought of weeping.

But as always, anger and rage were stronger than will, and he shook the body in the air and then, holding it by the leg, dashed the boy's head against the ground repeatedly. It swept away most of the surrounding leaves and thumped across the frozen floor of the woods hollowly, spinning wildly off the shoulders of a shattered neck. In one final surge of wakefulness, the tall man pulled his arm back and pitched forward, shooting the boy far off into the distance, much farther than the mitten had gone. A thick rustle in the trees and leaves sounded from far off, and then promptly died away into silence. The tall man sunk forward, his arms dangling very limply in front of him. And slowly, his head too fell forward, as he was much too weak to hold it up any further. A small lock of hair slipped out of place and fell in front of his mangled eyes. The setting sun was now being deeply playful with the ridge of trees up ahead, where Carve Road lay, twenty or so minutes walk into the distance.

In a few more minutes' time the shadows would disappear and there would be only darkness and cold and silence.

No more strength was left, all of the stored energy expended. As little as he'd taken from the boy it would have to sustain him in sleep alone, but whether it would could be anyone's guess, and the tall man closed his eyes, fading out again for a long time.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Lori carol.

Lori Carol / a story / 10 October, 2010 - 5:35am

I stared with an emptiness at the work before me. The lifelines in the palms of my hands were both scratched away, and I stared also at this, bewildered but not turned away. The sewer grate's dull round edges took most of the afternoon to grasp any useful hold of. I felt rage not without the bounds of humility. My fingers and hands looked chewed up, by factory machines. They were greasy, smeared with grit from the street, scratched and bleeding from a number of damaged nails and several patches of raw skin. The remaining lines in the palms were filled with dirt.

After too much thought way high up in the clouds and after too much positive attitude cracked apart by the plaintive reality of life being stronger than fate, eventually I worked my way through the lanes of a department store not far from here and came away with a chisel, some hooks and a chain.

I'd washed my hands and put on some band-aids and now I had tools and I would get under the street before twilight descended.

It would take some time yet, but considerably much less of it on account of the hooks and the chain.

And then I'd have the hole chiseled open in the street and I would descend into the part of my life that would consume and eventually defeat me. But I always knew that would have to happen, so I didn't view this as destructive behavior. There was a path set out in life for everyone—from the narrow chasm of the slick widening womb to the dry dust of the narrow ditch and coffin—but just because not everyone sees theirs in a lifetime does not mean it's some difficult or ghostly experience, or some inopportune challenge to discover the right thing to do. Sometimes, when there is nothing to occupy your time, and nobody there to distract you, the path becomes, in fact, almost antagonistic in how clear it is. So, earlier, when I'd spent an hour or whatever it was, scratching at the sewer lid, I wanted to beat my fists against the worn tar street and yell into its vast elongated, gray-black face, and spit and tear at its body until it allowed me to enter. Like, reasoning with it or something. It was only when I'd come to grips with the true physical properties of the matter that I had got up off my knees to secure tools, something which I should have thought of long before coming here.

However, just because I had this idea of how things were going to be, it didn't mean that I had some angelic bright white bulb over my head with the whole thing mapped out and solved.

If I'd had the whole thing solved I wouldn't be so eager right now, sweating, pacing, lost. If anything had been so easy, my shirt would still be tucked in, my hair moderately in place instead of disheveled. I might even have had a flashlight.

But here in the darkness and damp patches of exposed brick and cement and steel bindings, I could see nothing but awkward tunnels leading to indefinite darkness. Two tunnels to one side, stretching off from one another in kind of a similar direction. And then behind me, one larger tunnel, leading . . . behind me.

Three choices. I weighed the matter as if my two simple hands could realistically seize the most of the balance while my mind filled in for the test of the rest of this burden.

Complete silence enveloped the hole. Up above me, the street and a bright eye of sunlight. I wished I had a way of getting that sewer grate back into place up over me without canceling what little light I had left. Even if one of these tunnels went straight into one direction for over a mile I could still look behind me and see the distant little blot of lit cement that would mean the way back to the street, but if I put that sewer grate back into place it would be pure darkness with no direction at all but the feeling of the cement tube wall.

Though if the tunnels turned off after only ten minutes of walking it wouldn't matter anyway.

Already it didn't.

So I left the hole open and ducked into one of the smaller tunnels going off slightly to the left of the other, opposite the larger one behind me. At this point the light then began to recede very rapidly.

I'd counted on my eyes adjusting to the darkness, and that the bulb of sunlight descending from the open manhole in the street behind me would keep with me for at least a little while. But it didn't.

It only took a couple minutes and a few turns and however many steps and I was in darkness as complete as the grave.

Underground. Underneath the street. Chasing a dream.


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Dead Relatives - 14 Portraits By Jaret Ferratusco


Dead Relatives
14 Portraits by Jaret Ferratusco

The ten former bridesmaids of Pauline Amanda Kelly for her Chicago wedding in 2005 (a ceremony documented by the same photographer) are here reunited for the first time as a whole, in remembrance of her brother Jamie Pastorio, at his 2009 funeral in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Photographed before and after the memorial service at Mill-Home Funeral Chapel, by Jaret Ferratusco.

Opening Reception Wednesday, Sept. 8 | 6pm-10pm.
Showing September 2010

Eastbank Commerce Center
1001 SE Water Ave.
Portland, OR 97214

(Located on the corner of SE Taylor St and SE Water Ave / entrance through back parking lot)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Broken birds.

All morning it had been like this, a lot of silence, a lot of waiting, no decent sleep. The world was so quiet at this time of the morning, something I could not fully comprehend. With my head buzzing constantly, and the violence of each sigh ringing in my ears like church bells, I could not grasp just how quiet it was around here, feeling confused and out of place.

I stared at my wristwatch, contemplating calling it off, but then realizing it just wasn't my choice to make.

“I'm uncomfortable,” she said, staring vacantly out into the darkness of the early morning street through a partially frosted glass window. She ran her small, weightless little finger through unruly wet paths on the glass made from dew and drew pictures of stick figures and then wiped them away and started again on another part of the glass. In her pale blue coat, buttoned all the way up to the neck, she looked pretty. Her wide eyes shimmered like the moon in their sleepless sockets over crescent smudges of gray. I think she's probably the prettiest girl I know.

Benignly, I felt proud of her for being so pretty, then shook it out of my head forcefully, confused and angry about a lot of things, and I became more than a little sad considering the circumstances; bundled up in her coat, hiding; the nature of being pretty effectively the furthest thing from her mind, whereas it was not so far from the minds of others.

On the other side of the frosted window the glass was partially mirrored, and outside on the walkway two police officers stood taking good looks at their reflections, but not good enough to notice the faint outlines of the two of us looking back out at them, at the freshly steaming cups of coffee balanced on the hood of their cruiser while they straightened their belts in the mirrored window of the waiting room we sat on the other side of. They moved with frightening alacrity, tidying up in the reflection, not seeing us inside the clinic lobby two feet away, watching them look so oddly at themselves, smiling like they had it so good and were making it safer and as good looking as they thought they were. Some kind of weak, pitiful rage welled inside me, thinking these two people on the other side of the window were supposed to be the ones we should be looking to for guidance, or help or whatever. But it takes a lot to see anything in their scarecrow gait but facade and showmanship. They looked the part; scary on the outside to some, friendly to others, just pictures of ideas of safety. They would probably look the part all day, but not willing or able to do anything with it. Just like me, not able to do anything with what I know. Just like me, hardly able to help her, just standing here making sure we're on time.

Staring at the officers outside, all I could feel was helpless.

For the life of me I could not remove my mind from the two cups of coffee behind the cops, lids steaming from their tiny slits at the lip of the mouthpiece. Perhaps it sprouted an actual, casual, semi-clearheaded idea: it made me want to get her some coffee too. Or some candy.

But then, the receptionist who booked us had stressed no stimulants, because they contribute to overdoing emotions, or something like that. Funny that of all the things I was worth, it struck me as profound that I could spring for a cup of coffee and somehow that would make things just a tiny bit better.

Good idea maybe, but barred. Stupid idea, maybe, because of the weak needless positivity behind it, but possible. A saint I could be, an angel, with a dollar to spare. Afterward, then. I'd get her some breakfast afterward. If she felt like eating.

What else could I do?

And I was uncomfortable too. An abortion clinic is where people come to get themselves out of uncomfortable situations, so in time, we would probably both be comfortable again, but only after the appointment was over.

It felt like we'd been waiting here for half the week already, but the clock read only shortly past six, so in reality we'd been shuffling around in the lobby less than fifteen minutes. Time slowed down, impossibly so. We would have to wait, and wait, with minutes expanding inside of themselves for endless other minutes, waiting and waiting for things to get better. Outside, the morning grew steadily brighter. But inside the lobby it still felt like a thousand long years unfolding. And the two cops out there still haunted me, all blank expressions and the beckoning cups of coffee. Like scarecrows, they gave me the shivers. Looking the part.

And what if I could see myself in a mirror too, what would I look like right now? A frightened boy? A guilty one? I wished we were alone. And definitely not here.

Trying to chase away the dark clouds over the clinic lobby, I asked her, “Do you want to hear a joke?”

Still gazing out the window -- the sidewalk was filling up now with various passersby on the way to work -- she took a prolonged breath and then said, “No I don't.”

With my hands in my pockets I walked in limited circles around the small boxed-in confines of the lobby, visually noting the volumes packed into the bookshelf, but not really paying attention to any of the titles. I think I saw something about disease, or one about skeletal deformations in pre-mature babies. The only thing I could concentrate on was her at the window, but I felt after so long like I was staring, and making it unintentionally worse, so I gazed around the room a little more, not paying attention to details, which drove me crazy. The lady at the reception desk looked like somebody had recently punched her in the face; tight, almost purposefully scrunched up features, blotchy red cheeks and forehead. Oily complexion, an effect from too much make-up. A very manicured scowl, practiced. She had been glaring at me here and there, glancing back and forth from me to the hunched up pretty girl by the window.

If there'd been less to focus on in this office to keep my mind at ease, I would be very surprised.

It would have made me smirk under another occasion, but that I was so nervous it only really made me angry and scared, and so I tried to just forget about it. This wasn't the time to be angry, not now. Perhaps later, when I could vent in relative privacy. But hopefully not even then, not if I knew what was better for me. It was time to let the worst of things dissolve and try to focus on something else entirely.

We could do it together if we tried.

Or maybe not, I don't know. As it was I couldn't speak on her behalf this time. This situation was too different.

Then the doctor came out to greet us. He generally looked to be a younger man. Older than the two of us, and also older than the receptionist, but probably ten years younger than my parents. He was dressed fairly well, and looked pretty put together, but clearly he was hung over.

As it had for too long now, looking at the hungover doctor, it seemed everyone in the world, all the people put here to do something, were not doing it, just scowling, tidying up, playing parts.

I rolled my eyes, wondering if this could get any worse before it would get better. The doctor rubbed his eyes laboriously. For the length of time it took him to focus on anything but rubbing his eyes, it occurred to me he was not merely hung over, but still actually drunk. I could see it in the swimming eyes and the flushed cheeks. He also didn't stand straight up, either, leaning first against the door for support as he took in his surroundings and the two people in the lobby, and then the reception desk as he looked at our forms. When he spoke up, the receptionist glared up at him from her desk. The way she scowled at him was almost the same way she did to me, but somehow even harsher. For whatever reason, it made me feel a little bit relieved thinking that it wasn't just me she had some kind of a problem with.

So, drunk doctor, angry receptionist, cops outside staring blankly at the morning street. I felt surrounded, cornered.

I looked over toward the window, and tears started to well in my eyes a little, but I grinned. This was just the worst. And who could we tell? Surrounded by people who should rightfully be able to help us, who could we really tell? Nobody.

“Are we ready,” the doctor piped up suddenly without even introducing himself, his voice raspy and undisciplined. I fully expected his voice to crack, or for him to hiccup and then maybe fall straight backward. But he cleared his throat with moderate subtlety, then looked at me distrustfully. “You the guy?”

I smirked, uncertain, unimpressed, worried, nervous, trying to hide just how nervous I was, and wanting to knee him fast and hard, I looked over toward the window and to avoid eye contact until I could figure out the best thing to say. Unsure if I wanted to be here anymore, the false grin dried up instantaneously. What a hideous mess.

“So what is it, boss?” the doctor chirped. “You the guy or not?”

Very snidely I reacted with, “Do you mean am I the boyfriend, the father of the baby, is that what you're trying to say?”

“Hey, can the attitude, will you? If you're the reason she's here, then we could all do without your sarcasm.”

“But,” I said, “if it's someone else that's the reason she's here, can I keep the sarcasm?”

The doctor didn't blink, simply turned to the front window, ignoring me. “Is this gentleman the prospective father?”

“No,” my sister replied, nervously, unable to meet his gaze. “He's my brother.”

The doctor glanced at me, then back at her. We both looked down as he scrutinized us. I couldn't help but think we looked guilty. “Well shoot. I was looking forward to telling him that he would have to wait out here so as not to create any more problems in your life for today. But if he's a relative, I suppose I would have to let him come along if that's what you want.”

“You're still drunk, aren't you?” I broke in, accusingly.

The doctor stood perfectly upright for the first time since his appearance, shaking the proof of his hangover or whatever right out of his face. The receptionist had also looked up by now. This time she was not scowling. Apparently the present scene had instilled in her a little hard-earned mirth, for she was actually smiling, scanning each of our faces for the telltale signs of an ensuing uncomfortably comedic performance. She looked just precisely as though it would be amusing to her if the doctor and I started fist fighting right there in the lobby. Dazed, disappointed, I almost forgot what I'd asked when the doctor suddenly advanced on me coolly.

“Why, not at all,” he whispered with an odd quietness, now coming toward me, speaking low and deliberately out of earshot of the receptionist. “But I think you might want to just zip it, yeah? I could stuff my whole leg down your fuckin' throat if I felt like it, and something tells me you couldn't do shit about it. Am I right? Look at you, you're just a kid. You want to tell me right now if your parents know you're here? Huh?" He jerked his thumb over at my sister. "And how old is she really? I bet it's not what the form says at all. I bet the form you filled out doesn't have much factual information on it. Right? You two are still kids.”

Bordering on being sick, I tried standing up straight but failed, paralyzed in a folded up, somewhat cringed position for a second, like he was about to hit me. I realized with a very real physical shock that I was actually afraid of the doctor, and I put my head down. Weakened, I turned to my sister and walked to her, to help her stand. Effortlessly she swept my hands from her shoulders. “Just stop it, Terry,” she whispered viciously.

Under my breath, scared of being overheard because of how weak and helpless to assist her I knew I was, I also whispered, “But . . . he's an asshole. Do you really even want to be here?”

She pushed me away a little harder, growing angry herself but trying not to cause a scene. She leaned in close so nobody else could hear us talking. “No, Terry. I don't want to be here. What the fuck do you think? But you know I can't have this baby. This . . . thing, Terry.” Her hands and shoulders appeared to be shaking, so I held onto her arm. But she wasn't finished. “Give me a break, please, okay? Let's just do this and then we can forget about it and we'll go live with grandpa like we said we would.”


She was right, after all. The doctor shouldn't matter (should he?). Maybe I had started off on the wrong foot first (did I?). For the moment, for my sister, I felt I ought to apologize to him, just to show I was trying to make it better, to smooth it all over, whether I was really the one who should be apologizing or not. But when I turned back and saw the shitty look on his face and then looked at the shitty receptionist with her sneer, I just couldn't do it. I knew I was beaten. This whole thing had long ago gone astray, and it had already been out of hand before we came here today, so better to just try to get through it. Better to just shut up and let this guy do whatever it is that they do here.

“Can we please do this, doctor?” Her voice pleading. I felt bad enough for her to shut my mouth for good. Not counting how terrible I felt myself. That would have been sufficient already.

The doctor stood still, hands in his pockets, his back to the receptionist, taking his time. No emotion passed across his face, he just stood there. Sometimes his eyes would narrow. Then relax again, placid. Eventually, a thousand years later, he heaved a reluctant sigh, removing his hands cautiously from the pockets, like he were about ready to pull rabbits out, or disappeared cards from past tricks. “Sure, let's go. You think it's okay with your baby brother though?”

Committed to holding my peace, I wrapped my hand reassuringly around my sister's hand. Though, I felt that if he tried to make any more crippling remarks I would have to hold onto her tighter to avoid raising my hands at him. Not that I was very capable of real violence. The doctor was a lot bigger than me, and a lot older. “It's fine,” she said.

An eerie silence drifted between the four of us; me and my sister, the receptionist, the doctor, who stared at my sister with an unwholesomeness I could feel spoiling my insides. “Good then. Let's get this puppet show on the stage.”

I had no clue what the hell the doctor meant by that but it scared and depressed me.

My sister walked in first, escorted by the doctor, who stumbled only slightly and pulled the door half closed behind him, almost smacking me in the face with it, smirking as he did so. My sister turned around to say something but he put his finger up to shush her and the sheer frightfulness of that shut the both of us up.

Fine. I made a mental note to come back later and follow him home. We'd see who's the smart one when I take a cinderblock to his car and put bricks through his house windows in the middle of the night.

A few minutes into his uncomfortably intense study of watching her undress and belatedly handing her a tiny little green gown to wear, I became physically sick for something like the sixteenth time and forgot about ever seeing this guy again if we could just get out of here quietly and without further pain. She positioned herself as he told her to on a table and pulled her legs apart and he sat there sitting on some fancy adjustable stool watching the place where her thighs met like there was a television program on in there. His eyes blinked, he narrowed them into determined slits, then relaxed them again, placid, staring -- horribly, I thought -- with some kind of vague approval. Then he nodded and scratched his chin. I went over and put my hand on her shoulder but couldn't say anything. Nothing I could say would benefit her anyway.

Not that I hadn't already, but each minute, each second in the presence of this man, I felt ever worthless. But I refused to get carried away, and I reminded myself that I was not here to be of any worth to anything or anyone, I was here to protect my sister, whom I loved more than myself or the tidal flood of rage now building in me in the presence of this incredulous doctor.

What were my duties? In dreams I might have lifted him up over my head and thrown him through the tinted picture window in the lobby. But here, in real life, I only cringed, scared for myself every bit as much as I was scared for her.

The procedure was nauseating.

I tried my best not to make noises, but I think I failed to be the reassuring presence I had come here with the intentions of being. The doctor had unraveled me long before the real test was up before us, and when it came I didn't actually stand a chance. My face must have been all swirling and pale with sweat, blotched red and green like a wet Christmas stocking.

It only took twenty minutes.

When it was over, the doctor put his gloved, reddened hand on her knee and told her the same thing for the third time. She needed to rest, have a light dinner later on but nothing too heavy. Don't drink, don't smoke, don't do this and that for 24 hours and all the same. Watch yourself, be responsible, life isn't a toy, these things. After pulling the gloves off slowly, then wiping my sister's knee with a warm towelette, he looked over at me, scratching his mouth with a recently ungloved hand. “You okay, partner? Looks like you've just seen a ghost.”

“Just a little uncomfortable,” I said, trying to keep my stomach from upheaval but responding with a surprisingly non-combative honesty.

“Well, just take care of your sister, okay? You have a car?” The look in his eyes was passive, and blank. I saw my reflection in his eyes, but nothing beyond that. His tone had softened a little at seeing just how uneasy and defeated I was. Also, I think that somewhere in the agonizing twenty minutes with the surgical mask on he'd somehow sobered up a little. I could not tell which version of him might be worse. Before we started or right now, looking at me with mirrors in his face, reflecting my tension and horror.

“Borrowed," I said, coming back to reality. I could have sworn I was being hypnotized. My whole head felt violated, swarming with foul insects. "But, yeah, I have a car. It's . . . outside. We're gonna go get a . . . hotel, for a while.”

The doctor stood. From where I sat in a small chair by the inclined procedure table, he kind of towered over me. I looked up at him as though he were some mystical giant, in one of the fairy tales where I'm a side-character going to be smashed flat as a lesson to someone who comes along later in the same story to learn a valuable moral truth.

“Are you sure you're not the father,” he asked, scrutinizing me but no longer combative. I didn't want to speak to him anymore, I just wanted to get her out of here and forget these people and everyone else in our past.

But I said, “I'm sure. I'm her brother. I'm here to help her.”

“Then why the hotel? Why don't you two go home?”

“We can't go home." Then, reclaiming some small stature of self, "It's none of your business.”

And just like that, after having (slightly) stood up for myself, I was completely brushed off. Now resigning quite easily, the doctor dropped it then and there, escorting us out to the lobby with his hand around my sisters hip, and he put us in the care of the receptionist to sign whatever we needed to sign. He told me once again to take care of her, and I said I would. Then I paid the receptionist with some money I stole from our father's safe in the basement.

Before we'd left this morning I'd taken care to empty the house of anything I felt would be valuable to us. All stuff that belonged to our dad, essentially. His money, his car, and his gun.

Looking at my sister, into her wet, swollen eyes, feeling intensely sad, wishing I could go back in time and stop this from ever happening, I held her by the hand and we walked out onto the sidewalk and left the clinic.

It would be different one day. Someday it wouldn't be like this. But outside the clinic, I still could feel no real relief. I knew it was over for now, this part was over. Although it screamed through my head louder than jet engines, that things were still horrible and they might have to be for a long time still, I tried to convince myself to believe it would not always be like this. We'll grow up, she'll get married and I will too, and we will have kids and we won't think of this anymore, and nobody will ever know. Her husband won't, my wife won't. We'll have different lives, removed from this day. When we're older.

I felt I wanted to shoot our father in his head for doing this to her. Empty the whole gun into his head.

But first things first, I reasoned. If I went to jail -- and how could I hope to get away with actually killing somebody? -- she'd be alone. Our grandfather wasn't a safe place to run to. I had no idea yet where we were actually headed, but we couldn't get to grandpa's in a stolen car. I'd only told her that to keep her from worrying about it today.

So, a hotel. And some rest. I'd sign us in together as (young) newlyweds. If we can get an abortion we can rent a room. Nobody would care. Nobody has yet and nobody probably will. We'd have some time later to think about what we should do. I gripped the gun in my pocket almost as hard as I squeezed my sister's hand when I led her from the clinic. I just didn't have any idea of what the future would hold after this. I didn't know how to react just yet.

Sitting my sister into the passenger seat, I kissed her on the forehead. Her skin was hot, nearly boiling.

“I think I need to lay down, Terry.”

“Okay,” I assured her, patting her arm. I got into the car and we started off for the highway. I figured we'd drive for a while and then get a motel somewhere outside of town.