John sat on the floor, wishing desperately he hadn’t stubbed his last cigarette out. If he was outside, he could smoke, but he wasn’t outside, and the idea of getting up and walking all the way to the front door just to go outside and smoke seemed ridiculously tedious. If he was going to go that far, he might as well just go home. Which didn’t seem like such a bad idea, really.
He climbed to his feet, steadying himself against the wall. His hand was completely encircled by one large yellowed water stain, a blemish that started in the top right-hand corner of the room and widened and narrowed, almost artistically, all the way down to the floor. He stared at the stain for way too long, thinking about how much fun it would be to trace the shape of the stain with a black magic marker, fill in the shape with doodles and squiggles, turn it into a real piece of artwork, before forcing himself to take the two small staggering steps that would take him out of the room and into the hallway leading to the living room, the hallway full of family photos framed in cheap flowery metal frames, all the pictures of Keith and Sarah’s family, including the ones of the two children they lost. The little girl, aged five, and the little boy, aged nine, both dead.
This hallway never seemed right to him. There was too much before photographed and cataloged in this walk, and it bothered him. This hallway belonged to a nice house, of a happy family, and of him as a welcome guest, wearing clean clothes and bearing gifts like nice bottles of wine and take-out food and even flowers, like some smarmy character from a feel-good television show. The walk through the short hallway always felt to him like drowning, and it was only with the greatest exertion that he pulled himself along the wall and into the living room.
Keith was sitting on the couch with a little boy. The room was full of hung-over people ruffling the little boy’s short hair again and again, with the boy smiling patiently through it all, as if happy to be in the center of attention.
“That’s my boy!” said Keith, again and again, his arm around the boy’s shoulders. He also ruffled the little boy’s haircut. Sarah, in the kitchen, making Irish coffees for everyone, smiled every time Keith said, “That’s my boy,” patting her stomach as though to reassure the baby inside that he or she would also receive similar accolades once born.
“This kid, he’s so smart,” said Keith. “He’s just great. Tell everybody something smart, little boy.”
“Did you know that there might be planet-sized moons inside of Saturn’s rings that could be terra-formed for human habitation?” piped the little boy, smiling around the room. “It’s true, I read it in National Geographic. We don’t even know how many moons Saturn has, because we can’t look inside the rings properly. It has hundredsof moons.”
I know the names of at least a dozen of Saturn’s moons, John thought suddenly. Why can’t I remember the names of Saturn’s moons? He opened his mouth, determined to list at least one of the moons, but nothing came out. It seemed really important to him to remember just one of the moons.
“Wow.” Keith looked at the little boy with renewed adoration. “That is so cool. This one, he’s like a rocket scientist, he is.”
Like I was, thought John. That wasn’t right. He wasn’t a rocket scientist, but he was something, something different than this. He had that feeling like he had when he was in the hallway, like he was drowning. He opened his mouth to speak, only to find a beer bottle heading toward it, propelled by his hand. “That boy, this, it’s not right,” he muttered just barely under his breath, swallowing half the bottle in one draught. He looked up to see the little boy staring across the room at him with a look like drowning on his face. Bobby. The boy’s name was Bobby.
“Fuck you,” said Sarah, coming in from the kitchen, glaring at John as she walked by. “Little boy, I need you in the kitchen for a second. A minute, maybe. I don’t know.” She wrinkled her forehead as if concentrating on something really important. “Right now.”
“Aw, I never get to spend any time with my boy,” protested Keith, but let Bobby get up anyway. The little boy held onto his sweet smile all the way out of the room, held onto it in such a way that John could tell he was trying not to cry.
“Aw, shit,” John said, and got up himself. “I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said to Keith.
“Well, you’d better go and apologize, asshole,” said Keith. “You can’t talk to kids that way. Especially my fucking kids.”
“All right, all right. I’m going.” John quickly walked through the hallway to the kitchen. Sarah was standing at the stove, holding a knife in her hand, a blank expression on her face. Bobby was standing next to her, two pieces of bread laid out on the counter in front of him, as well as an open jar of peanut butter and an open jar of jelly.
“I think I can handle this part, Sarah,” said Bobby, reaching up and taking the knife from her.
“No!” Sarah shouted, suddenly coming to life. She pulled the knife back from the little boy. “See this knife, little boy?” she said, pointing. “It’s too sharp for peanut butter and jelly. You can’t use this kind of knife for making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You need a knife that’s less sharp, so you don’t cut yourself.” She put the sharp filet knife down on the counter in front of Bobby and stared off into the corner for several quiet seconds. Bobby looked up at her expectantly, then sighed. He picked up the filet knife.
“No!” shouted Sarah, grabbing the knife. The blade slipped across her palm, cutting a thin red line through the pale yellow skin. She dropped the knife on the floor and sucked at the blood welling out of the wound.
“It’s okay,” said John to the boy. He reached down and carefully picked up the knife. He grabbed a paper towel and wadded it around the blade, then put the knife and the towel in the trash can, pushing it deep beneath a mound of coffee grinds and filters so that no one would accidentally cut themselves if they reached into the bag themselves. He opened first one drawer, then another, until he finally found a butter knife.
“You won’t be able to hurt yourself on this one,” he said, handing it to Bobby. Sarah looked at him with gratitude in her eyes. Bobby began scooping globs of peanut butter and jelly on the pieces of bread.
“I have to teach him,” said Sarah, grabbing John’s arm. Her voice sounded like she was forcing herself to speak very clearly and evenly, as though that was some sort of extreme effort. “I remember why my own—my other—children died. I didn’t feed them, John. I forgot to feed them, and dress them, and put them to bed, and they got sick and died. What’s wrong with me?” she hissed through her clenched teeth. “How could I forget to feed my kids? They were eating crap out of the trash can, and I just—I just—I drank. I smoked, I drank, and I think I even went out for a burger. And all that time, they were sick, and then they were dead. I can’t…”
“…let it happen to Bobby,” nodded John. He ruffled the little boy’s crew cut, and seemed to remember doing the same thing to some other little boy, some boy who was his. “We won’t let it happen to Bobby. See how good he is at making his own sandwich? He barely even needs you here, right, big guy?”
“It’s a pretty good sandwich, Sarah,” nodded Bobby. “I can make you one, too, if you’d like.”
“No.” Sarah shook her head. “I want to you wash off the knife when you’re done, then put it somewhere where you can find it again, okay? Put the peanut butter and jelly in your backpack, with the bread, so that any time you feel hungry, you can just make yourself a sandwich. This is important, Bobby,” she said, kneeling down so that she could look her son straight in the eye. “Don’t let the backpack out of your sight. When you run out of bread, get more out of the kitchen and put it in your bag. Or crackers. Or you can just eat right out of the jar. Any time you get hungry, promise me you’ll just eat, okay? You won’t wait for me to make you something?”
“Okay,” said Bobby. He looked like he was about to cry again.
“And, and, you’ll start calling me ‘Mom’ again, right?” said Sarah. “What kind of kid calls his mother ‘Sarah?’” She stared hard at Bobby again, and a confused look clouded her face. After a couple of seconds, she reached over and set the open peanut butter jar on the stovetop. She turned the burner on and began humming.
“Whoa.” John reached over and turned the burner off. He grabbed the jar of peanut butter and twisted the lid back on. “Put this stuff in your backpack. Now,” he ordered Bobby.
“When are we going home, Dad?” asked Bobby quietly. Sarah stopped humming for half a second, and Bobby backed away to stand behind John. “I want to go home.”
“Just a minute, Bobby,” John murmured out of habit, then stopped. “What do you mean, ‘Dad?’”
“I just want to go home.” The little boy choked back a sob and wiped his eyes furiously with the back of his hand. John felt the beginning of a scream build in his chest. How long had he been here?
“You have to show me the way out of here,” he said, finally. He grabbed the little boy’s hand and pushed him towards the door. “You have to get me out of here, before I forget you again.”
“And then everything’ll be okay?” whispered Bobby. He pulled John after him, out of the kitchen and into the living room, through the room full of people and past the sofa where Keith lay sprawled out, smoking a cigarette and laughing at the television.
“What the fuck?” said Keith, watching John and Bobby. “Where’re you taking my kid?”
“We’ll be right back!” called Bobby, squeezing John’s hand tightly. “We’re going to the store to buy more cigarettes!”
“That’s a great idea,” said Keith, nodding and smiling. “That’s a fucking awesome idea.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick wad of bills. “Buy me this many cigarettes, okay?” he added, passing it over to John.
“Sure thing!” John tried to pull his hand free from the little boy, but Bobby held on tightly. “Hey, little dude,” he started, smiling, trying to pull free.
“I can’t buy cigarettes by myself,” said Bobby loudly, looking over at Keith. “I’m too young.” He pulled again, and John nodded, following him out the door.
The light outside was so bright that John just stood there, blinking, for several seconds. How long had he been inside? It felt like weeks, or even longer, since he couldn’t remember for the life of him when he’d actually arrived here, or where he’d even come here from. The party that had been going on inside seemed to have followed him outside, though, which was somewhat comforting. A yellow schoolbus squealed by he and Bobby, nearly tipping onto its side as it turned the corner. “We’re number one!” shouted the bus driver, half his body hanging out the window as he drove by, both arms waving wildly. “Number one!”
“All right!” John shouted back, holding up his index finger and hooting back. “Number one! All right!”
“Do you think Mom’s all right?” asked Bobby quietly. The little boy sat on the stoop of Keith and Sarah’s house, his arms wrapped around the blue backpack on his lap. “I tried counting the days we were here, but the sun didn’t come up for a real long time, and now it won’t go down.”
“Yeah. It’s real bright out,” said John, sitting down on the stoop next to the boy. “You still brushing your teeth?”
“I don’t think it’s the sun at all,” the boy continued, his voice so quiet it was practically a whisper. “It’s too bright, and it’s on all the time. And it’s so noisy out! Do you hear it? It’s like a car revving its engines, but it just keeps going on.”
“Oh, that’s just traffic. It’s a busy street,” said John, ruffling the boy’s crew cut. “See? There’s a car right now.” A Volkswagen bug careened down the street, fire shooting out of its tailpipe, the driver slumped over the steering wheel. “Now that’s a noisy car,” he added, nodding sagely at the boy. “Was that what you heard?”
“No.” Bobby opened his backpack and pulled out the peanut butter. He twisted the lid off and stuck his finger in the jar, pulling out a big glob. John watched the little boy eating the peanut butter straight from the jar, until it was all gone. He felt like he was supposed to say something, but didn’t know what it was. All around them, in the street, in the sidewalks, people were lying down on the ground, as if they were asleep, except their eyes were open, staring at the sky. Some of them looked as though they had been run over by a car, with big, comical drag lines bisecting their bodies, while others were in perfect condition.
Overhead, something huge and noisy was making another pass of the neighborhood. John looked up at the huge gray object, the gigantic flat metal disc that was blocking out the sun. It was really huge! Bobby was looking up too, his mouth wide open, screaming too quietly to be heard over the noise of the disc. John giggled and put his hands over his ears, trying to block out the wave of noise that seemed to be rushing at him from all directions.