I didn’t want anything to do with it. I swear, it was all him. He chased it down, he cornered it, and he took the first swing. We were in the clearing, panting. He stared at me, his eyes all big and black-like. When he spoke, his words vibrated through my sneakers, up my leg-bones and roared in my chest. He handed me the shovel and I couldn’t breathe, so when I finally took a breath it sounded more like a yowl from split fur and cracked bone. I swallowed up all of the air around me, letting the stench of moist bark and minced leaf pile up inside me. I kept staring until I felt like I deserved to turn away. I asked him if I could leave, my parents were expecting me for dinner, and he said yes. He didn’t have to tell me that if I told, I would be dead meat, chopped into paws, a torso, and a head, and thrown behind the forest line.
I ran home and threw up in the bushes, hidden from my windows. I wiped my face real nice and went inside.
Mom and Dad didn’t suspect a thing but just thinking of that final arc of the shovelhead left my guts unstable. Macaroni and cheese stayed down but only because I pushed it and didn’t dare let it come up. I told myself, Kyle, you don’t betray yourself. You betray yourself, you lose your own trust and no one can forgive you for anything if you can’t trust yourself. So I swore, over and over again, praying underneath the dinner table with my hands clasped together, palms and finger spaces sweating like soda cans in July.
I did my homework as best I could, but my mind kept spinning, tossing my thoughts overboard. I had to write an essay about Poe, anything about Poe, so I thrust a word into the computer. “Cat,” I said aloud. I took a sharp, cleansing breath, blinked, and slowly let it out. Everything felt better. The keyboard clicks were soothing, like the underwater hum of the pool filter in my ears. I kept it up and the essay was done. But as soon as I clicked to save my computer froze and I cussed, first out loud and then in my mind where Mom and Dad couldn’t hear the devil things I was yelling.
I turned everything off and called it a day. G’nights and I-love-yous were spread among the house, and I did my best to smile when Mom told me to have sweet dreams. When I finally fell on my bed, I folded a portion of blanket underneath my feet and pulled the rest up tight. Dream-fog condensed on the inside of my eyeballs, and I felt a trouble-dream coming. I steeled my arms, clenched my fists round invisible reins, clamped down on air with menthol’d teeth and waited for the nightmares to guide me through the dark.
Nothing. I tossed and turned, blankets tangling like tripwires, the heat unbearable, sweating all over like those damn cans set out in July heat, but it was October, it was fall, it was autumn and it was supposed to be cold. My eyes were closed, but in the distance, I could just make out a faint outline of a tower. Its pointed peak punctured the sky—a balloon exploding in slow motion. I moved closer, my steps oddly giant, the insides of my toes caked with soil. My shins blasted through fence posts and front doors. The tower was made of dark glass and covered in windows. Its color swirled, from a gloss-black to a milk-gray, then a sudden and brilliant white. I blinked and a single tiny black circle punctuated every window.
Eyes. I screamed and instantly shrunk, my head accelerating dangerously toward the ground. I saw my hands and legs all ten feet away from me, connected to my flattened torso by wide ribbons of flesh. The tower loomed above me like Babel, all of it staring at me. The eyes knew what I did. They made me feel what it felt in its last moments. My right arm burned and I screamed until it went numb. The tower rolled its eyes up until the windows were all white.
There was a pause and I caught my breath. Silhouettes appeared from the bottoms of the windows. Black figures passed black squares of myopia down to each other, from the very top of the tower to the huge windows at the bottom. The squares piled and distorted, a blindness inching up the tower until there was nothing left to see.
Waking up was like being gently shoved out of a doorway made of vapor. I opened my eyes. The air was still, the smoke of darkness hanging above me. I had only one thought in my head, looping over and over again.
They’re making the rounds.
I didn’t know what the hell it meant. I exhaled the last of the nightmare from my body and turned over. I thought I was asleep until someone knocked on our door and the smoke blew apart instantly. I shook off the fevered drowsiness and sat upright. It was three in the goddamn morning. There was another knock, then the clearest set of diminishing footsteps I’ve ever heard in my entire life. A car engine turned on, growling, and then everything receded.
I listened. The house was still, so I crept downstairs. Moonlight illuminated the bottom of the stairs, streaming through the side windows next to the main door. I got to the bottom and I opened the door. No one. Even the wind was absent from the streets. I looked down. A brown cubic package. I picked it up and brought it inside.
I closed the door with my foot. In the scant light I saw some familiar geometries on the box. ‘Kyle.’ Just my first name, scrawled in one of the corners. I took my cube and went upstairs, eyes fixed on that handwriting. Blots of black splattered near the ‘e.’
I closed my door, turned on the light, and set the box on my bed. Uncontrollable shivers ran up and down my back, but it wasn’t cold. I walked around the package. I couldn’t touch it. I’d bring my hands close to the surface and I would feel it burn my fingertips and set my nerves ablaze with a mini-seizure.
It was stupid of me to bring it inside. I couldn’t turn back now. I had to deal with this stupid fucking box on my stupid fucking bed. Sweat-beads rolled down my sides, icy against my hot, crawling skin. I grabbed a pair of scissors from my drawer and held them high over my head.
Stabbing, I ripped it open quickly and found a layer of packing peanuts settled on top like pink foam. I poked at the peanuts with the scissor tips. It smelled like something chemical, and my stomach turned, slowly at first, then completely like a washing machine.
Then the devil himself possessed my hands and I took the box, turned it upside-down, and shook. It fell onto my covers. I knew what it was. My first instinct was to stare, slit-eyed and stoic-like, to show whoever was watching that I wasn’t afraid. To show them that I could stand the guilt and live with what I had done. I could do it and more. I could keep my mouth shut. I could bury it in the backyard. Hell, I could it put on my keychain and make it lucky.
But I saw how clean the fur was and the scissors fell from my hand. I began to laugh and cry and I couldn’t stop. I fell to my knees, my cheeks billowed out like Dizzy Gillespie’s. My hands first clamped over my mouth, then they crawled, wet and slimy with that absurd October heat, to my throat, and then I really squeezed. The laughs came out clipped.
My phone rattled on my nightstand. It was Tony. I stopped laughing. The tears kept flowing and stinging my cheeks. They’ve made the rounds. I wanted to pick up and ask him, “If I got the paw, what was inside your box? Was it a pair of wide, green eyes staring back at you? A flap of pink tongue hanging from between clenched teeth? And did the fur look as though it had been cleaned and brushed?”
But I didn’t pick up and ask him those questions because I started to wonder: if the devil gives you a present, how do you say thanks?