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That Story Isn’t the Story

Everything Anton owns goes in one black trash bag. His ratty yellow sketchpad, which he bought to draw the other familiars when he moved here, and only ever used three pages of. The few shirts and khakis that he paid for with his own money, before Mr. Bird took control of his finances. A broken pocket watch he’d found dangling from the side of the Queensboro Bridge, on the first day he really considered ending himself, and had instead rescued the watch with the intent of one day learning how to fix it.

Anton never did fix that watch. But it is leaving with him.

He heads for the stairs that will lead him out of the townhouse. It’ll be the first time he’s gone outside in so long it feels like he’s never been outside. Time outside the gothic damask flock wallpaper and blacked out windows still doesn’t seem real.

“Where are you going?”

The voice comes from the rear room, the one next to Mr. Bird’s, where the twins sleep. Liquor and jasmine incense waft forth as one of the teenagers emerges. Both Pavla and Yoana look and sound so similar, with their gossamer hair and legs as thin as their arms.

This one is Pavla, recognizable because she always wears red arm warmers, because her elbows are where Mr. Bird bites her.

He bites Anton in more intimate places.

“Aren’t you supposed to be getting his Manets out of storage?” As Pavla asks, she touches the inside of her arm through the arm warmer, as though to protect it from a thought. “He’s going to flip his shit if you don’t have them hanging when he gets back.”

Anton lies, “I’m on my way.”

She rubs her eyes and looks at his garbage bag. “What have you got there?”

“Nothing important.”

The sleepiness drops off her tone and for a moment her voice is thin and hard, like Mr. Bird’s. “What are you doing?”

A car horn blares from the street outside the townhouse. He needs to hurry up. Grigorii is outside and probably as scared as Anton is. He has to be out of here before Mr. Bird returns.

So Anton hugs his garbage bag and goes for the stairs. The thick oak front door of the townhouse is ajar, letting orange sunlight spill over the coat rack and end tables of their parlor. It leaks up the stairs, and Anton pauses on the last step above it.

Instinctively he checks the windows, with their blackout curtains nailed in place. The rest of the townhouse is dim. Mr. Bird has banished the sun from this place, cloaking it in a peaceful, suffocating dark where Anton and Pavla don’t have to think.

The sun is intruding because of Anton’s doing.

Pavla says, “Don’t do it. You’ll burn.”

Anton tells himself, “It’s not true.”

It’s not true, not that a fact helps a feeling. Anton urges himself. Mr. Bird goes outside. Walter, the senior familiar, often goes with him. They survive.

A bulky white man steps into the light, and Anton’s chest seizes.

Anton says, “Mr. Bird? No, you’re early.”

It isn’t him. It’s Grigorii, tall and chunky in odd directions. He moves like he doesn’t care; Grigorii has an ugly charisma. His face is splattered with risen moles, acne scars, and asymmetrical dimples. He is comfortable with his face and his faded One Piece hoodie and running shoes that he wears to every occasion.

“I’m double parked, dude. Let’s hit the road.”

Anton says, “I’m sorry. You should go home. It was a mistake to call you.”

Pavla sneaks closer to the stairs, still shy of where the sunlight falls. She demands, “Who the hell is he?”

Grigorii eyes her. From his tone, he has no idea who he’s talking to. “I’m a friend of Anton’s since high school, and I’m a reason you should step away from him.”

Anton says, “Seriously. You need to get out of here. Before he…before the owner gets home.”

“To quote the Bible, ‘No fucking way,’” Grigorii says, and lumbers inside. He makes the terrible mistake of entering this place. Mr. Bird has probably seen everything. He’s probably furious.

“Seriously, man,” Grigorii says, “I am not going anywhere without you. If I get a ticket, that’s on you.”

“He’ll be home any minute.”

“And if he comes for you, he comes for me. Let’s go.”

“You don’t understand.”

Grigorii stretches out one of those lumpy arms with palm extended, to touch Anton. It’s an offer of touch. Such an unusual thing, for touch to be an offer in this house. Anton forgot it could be an offer.

Anton grabs his hand and they run, leaving Pavla swearing upstairs. She doesn’t follow them into the light.

Their escape is a dented currant Kia Rio with a broken front bumper and a trash bag covering one broken side window. Anton goes for that door and tosses his own trash bag of belongings inside.

Grigorii asks, “You still like the Electric Six?”

They are not the first words he thought he’d hear upon escaping. The question is so alien it feels like being struck in the face by a hammer, or like an invasive bite. Briefly, Anton wonders if he’s bleeding already. That will happen.

A black town car trails up the street toward them. Sleek and black, with that short club of a man Walter at the wheel. Mr. Bird’s senior familiar. Anton knows who sits in the tinted windows and the shadows of the rear seats.

From inside the Kia, Grigorii pops the passenger door open. “Come on, man.”

Is blood spotting in Anton’s jeans? He gropes at his thighs, unsure if the moisture is sweat on his palms or if he’s bleeding. The car is getting closer. Mr. Bird definitely sees him.

Anton sinks into the car. He clutches his seatbelt until they are doing forty in a twenty mile zone. He’s too worried to turn around, and too afraid not to fixate on the rearview mirror.

The black car stops in the middle of the street. A rear door opens, and a dark thing peers out. There is no seeing any detail of that figure—no detail except for his mouth. It is open and sharp. Distance doesn’t change how clearly Anton sees the teeth.

They drive to one of the thousand little towns that keeps the city fed. Grigorii’s place is tucked behind a salt barn, near a depot where the district parks its vehicles and keeps supplies for winter storms. Grigorii’s place itself looks like the mutant child of a double-wide and a single-story kit house, made from faded white aluminum with a slanted roof like the building is tipping its hat to them. The colorful light of a TV flickers through the murky windows, which look like they haven’t seen a sponge in their entire lives.

Grigorii says, “Welcome to my estate. You’ll have the east wing to yourself.”

Anton hugs his trash bag and follows Grigorii. The house is even smaller on the inside, more a living room/kitchen combo with a few doors that must lead to cramped spaces. It’s a house of unpainted white walls with the occasional brown or greasy scuff. A Hispanic kid sits on a couch cushion on the floor, playing retro videogames on the TV. There are four couch cushions and no couch to be seen.

The kid twists around on his pillow to face them. He has lopsided ears, the right almost two thirds bigger than the left, and his black hair is raked to the left. He gestures at Anton with the game controller.

“Hey, is this the new guy?”

Grigorii says, “Yup. In the flesh.”

The kid rolls backward, getting his shoulders to the floor, then springs up to his feet with his arms outstretched as through awaiting applause. The controller is still in his left hand. “Hey. I’m Luis.”

Suddenly Anton feels too tall. Luis is the same height as him, and Anton still wishes to be smaller. He doesn’t deserve to take up as much as space as that poise and swagger.

He says, “I’m Anton. Pleased to meet you.”

“So formal,” Luis says. “You got any stuff? I can help bring it in.”

“I packed light.”

“That’s cool. I didn’t have anything when my uncle kicked me out, either. So you lived with some fucked up people?”

Anton remembers feeling the sun on his skin and thinking he’d die on contact. He remembers it so intensely that he might still be standing in the stairs of Mr. Bird’s townhouse.

Escaping was an illusion.

This is all a lie he’s telling himself.

He says, “Sort of.”

“What were they like? Did they make you do fucked up shit?”

Yes, this definitely isn’t happening.

Anton is somewhere in the townhouse. He’s in the archives, finding the right paintings for Mr. Bird. It was stupid of him to think he could get away. He feels the slickness on his thighs—the sign that Mr. Bird is here and mad at him.

Grigorii steps in. “That’s not the story we’re telling today.”

Grigorii is so close that his hot breath falls on Anton’s shoulder, cutting through his shirt. It grounds him in the moment. The crappy little house tucked behind a salt barn is tangible, and so is the meaning of the people inside it. His friend extends an arm like he wants to touch Anton to reassure him, and he does not take the touch. It is another offer of touch. That intent is more reassuring than touch could be.

Anton tries to focus on the intent, despite dreading that shadows and teeth are nearby and that his pants are full of blood.

Grigorii says, “Anton’s an old friend. His family was there for me when I needed something. My house is going to be here for him, just like it is for you. We don’t have much room, so we give each other space of ideas. Right?”

Luis nods ruefully and sets the game controller aside. He says, “My bad. Sorry. You sure there isn’t anything I can carry for you?”

The bleeding feels real. Anton asks, “Actually, do you have a bathroom?”

Anton means to check himself in the bathroom mirror.

There is no bathroom mirror.  There are three small white shelves holding supplements and amber pill bottles like the inside of a bathroom mirror. The mirror itself has been removed, leaving empty hinges behind.

Subconsciously he listens for Grigorii and Luis’s footfalls to trail away from the bathroom door, like they might hear his guilt. It’s a genuine fear that sticks to his ribs. Pavla and Walter would’ve mocked him for it.

He sits on the toilet and spreads his thighs to check himself. There are many holes in his skin, most like the shapes of melted Tic-Tacs. The holes form the circular shapes of three bite marks—two on his right thigh, and the newer one on the left.

They are not healing. The two oldest bites are maybe eleven months old and have never sported a scab. He’d hoped they might close up after he fled. They are not closing.

At least they are bloodless tonight. That is all the relief Anton gets.

Mr. Bird’s bites only bleed when Mr. Bird is near and upset with his familiar.

This means Mr. Bird isn’t nearby. Not nearby yet.

Anton runs a fingertip over the holes in his skin, worrying them. He dreads that they will start bleeding at any moment. He stares so intently that he doesn’t know he’s panicking until someone knocks on the bathroom door.

“You okay in there, man?”

He spends hours apologizing for the noise he makes next.

He is not up to chatter. The couple times Luis asks him about superhero movies leave him in tears. The raw thought required is too much. Should he pretend to have seen a movie they consider essential? Will liking Captain America more than Batman upset one of his hosts? When he actually does care about something, is he effusive enough to hold up his part of the talk?

Grigorii drops the yellow sketch pad in Anton’s lap along with a few colored pencils. “Literally had these leftover for ten years. Can you believe it? They waited for you.”

Gripping them feels familiar and nostalgic. Anton had these pencils in high school. A third of them are merely nubs of pencils. Grigorii kept his nubs.

They sit on the stray sofa cushions, all arranged around the TV. The guys play Terraria, a videogame that seems to be about digging a tunnel to Hell so that you can build a house. It’s in the retro style of graphics that were old before Anton was born.

Luis offers him the controller. “You want to play?”

“No thank you.”

Grigorii says, “Anton’s a gamer. He used to be a beast at Smash Bros.”

Luis says, “This game is more chill than Smash.”

It’s a multiplayer game, but they don’t own any other devices to play it on. Rather they take turns with their one controller. Grigorii likes to build ladders up to the clouds to face harpies for treasure underground. Luis is more into mining for metals and building traps. Digging one single block in front of a door means no monster can get in. Instead they fall in and are stuck in the shallow hole.

The door of their actual house has no pit in front of it. Anton watches through the window, looking in the creeping shadows of dusk. Any of them could be Mr. Bird.

Grigorii says, “How am I supposed to fight the Eye of Cthulhu with all the NPCs living on the top floor?”

It’s another of those sentences that feels like it belongs in another plane of existence from Anton. He scrutinizes the fort they’re building in the game. Luis has disco balls and fire places in every room. The place has no symmetry, and too few ways to get between the chambers. It’s boxy, with patches of wood and gray stone for walls and ceiling. It’s a mess of pixelated good intentions.

Anton has the nub of gray and brown pencils. He sketches a sleek revision to the fort, with a ladder up the center of all the floors, like an elevator. It can lead down into all of Luis’s tunnels. Everywhere, there will be a torch. Then they’ll be safe.

He nudges Grigorii with the sketch pad and gets a nod of approval. The three of them start redesigning the fort.

“And a door there,” Anton gestures to the wall of the top floor. “To throw bombs down when monsters come.”

Luis drops the controller to put both his hands to his scalp. “You mad genius.”

The quickened pulse. The rapid flight of his eyes between pad and people and game. It’s been so long since excitement wasn’t coupled with fear. When they slay a giant flying eyeball with fangs, all three of them grab each other and shake wildly. It’s terrifying and Anton doesn’t want it to stop.

Grigorii has four jobs altogether. From 7 AM to noon he’s the cook at a gastro diner called Breakfast For Breakfast. Anton thought they’d be eating gourmet pancakes every day, but Grigorii can’t stand breakfast food.

“Not after making it this much. I’d rather eat my hand than a waffle.”

For the rest of his week, Grigorii mows the grass around the town hall and the cemetery, and separates papers from plastics at the town dump, and almost ironically he drives a ride share.

Luis has two jobs—he works at the dump as well, and bags groceries part-time.

These are the things that just barely keep food on their table. Not that they have a table. They eat off old plastic egg crates. He starts to draw again, trying to get the holes in the egg crates right, so eventually he can draw the holes in himself.

During this whole time, no question is asked. Grigorii lets him coast without a nudge. Anton could hide in the house and draw and play Terraria for weeks.

But doing their dishes and laundry and scrubbing the windows is simply not enough. It’ll be Luis who asks when Anton is going to pitch in, and when the answers are vague, the resentment will grow. The advice helplines he calls tell him not to rush himself. They do not understand what it is to bleed when you disappoint someone.

“Calm down,” Grigorii says. “You’re making that buzzing sound again.”

“I need to work. If one of you gets hurt, we’ve got nothing.”

“Well, lucky you. This town’s getting gentrified to fuck.”

“How does that help?”

“Where there are rich people, there is work they don’t want to do.”

Manual labor is a gift. Lugging jugs of weed killer and spreading soil is not so different than building pixelated homes in Terraria. They are both distractions. Much as he doesn’t think about his own existence when he plays the game, he ceases to exist when he hauls and aches and works. It’s a peaceful oblivion that pays bills.

There are so many showy second homes, and Grigorii knows some of the owners. The nearest properties are an eight mile walk, which Anton can abide. After a week, he’s pulling fourteen hour days without a complaint.

The homeowner is a white lady, Mrs. Walsh. She sips limeade and tequila with a generous smile, the generosity of which is that she is smiling for him at all. He knows the dynamic. He knows to show gratitude.

“Kids today don’t have a work ethic,” she says, shooing Anton to the road. “You’re different.”

Without thinking about it, Anton knows he doesn’t have a work ethic. The helplines have taught him better. He has a habituated trauma that requires him to do something or face consequences he’s too afraid to think about. If anything, it’s a relief that Mrs. Walsh’s kids aren’t like him.

He is thinking again. He needs to stop that.

He says, “Thanks, Mrs. Walsh. It’s a beautiful property. I’ll have the slope finished soon, and then we can start on that garden.”

The eight mile walk home will be easier in a week, when Grigorii frees up and joins him. They’ll drive together. That’ll mean more sleep, too.

Fifty yards into those eight miles, he recognizes a town car parked along the wrong side of the road. Its black hood has a grainy polish so that it lacks any luster, in moonlight or daylight. Its windows are tinted so deeply that pedestrians couldn’t see what was done to passengers inside.

His pants are wet. The cloying warmth seeps out of his bites, soaking through the fabric. It brings with it the anticipation that a blow is coming. He cringes in expectation.

The other familiars are here. They’ve been waiting for him. The twins, Pavla and Yoana, are on either side of the senior familiar, Walter. They wear sharp satin suits over starched linen shirts. They wear the kind of uncomfortable, thick rings that left indentations on Anton’s fingers to this day.

Pavla says, “Get in the car and come back with us and I’ll try to smooth it over with…”

Walter raises a hand with one finger and Pavla stops talking. Her eyes go from his finger, to the car, to her shoes. A little stream of blood trickles down her left cuff and across the heel of her hand. That means her bites are bleeding, too.

She and her sister have to leave Mr. Bird, too. Anton should argue with her and convince her that leaving is possible.

Not that she’d dare listen to him now.

Walter is a gangly man, barely out of his teens, younger than Anton, and broader. His limbs are thin enough that it’s easy to miss how wide his shoulders are, and how long his reach is. His teeth have started to sharpen, although his are nothing close to Mr. Bird’s.

He has been Mr. Bird’s familiar the longest. Mr. Bird is frequently unhappy with him. He’d wanted Anton to take over, allegedly since Anton was more decisive. The idea of becoming Mr. Bird’s right hand is what finally made Anton run. It’s something he’s worked hard not to think about.

Walter says, “You took something of his.”

Anton shifts on the side of the road. The crumbling asphalt tilts under his footing. “I didn’t. I swear.”

Walter points at Anton’s chest. “You. Your time is his time. You made the same deal we all did.”

Anton pushes the soles of his feet against the asphalt, letting it break. “You can’t make me come back.”

“You are going to make yourself come back,” Walter says, with the edge that Mr. Bird usually speaks in. “It’s for your own good. None of us could live without him.”

“I’m alive. I’m fine.”

“You’re shaking. You were shaking the day he and I found you, too.”

Is he shaking?

He clutches his right arm. Yes, he is.

Was he shaking before Walter said he was?

He’s not sure.

Walter says, “He’s not doing this to hurt you. You were nothing before. We were all nothing. Are we not good enough for you? Where’s your loyalty?”

That word. ‘Loyalty.’ It makes him think of Grigorii’s ugly face, and the one time he and Anton went on a date and how bad it went, and how they were still friends the next week, and how years later Grigorii came and double parked to save him.

Walter asks, “What made you think you could survive without him?”

“That story is not the story I’m telling today.”

The blood flowing on his thighs slows, as though it’s clotting. It’s still forming dark circles in his pants that are visible in the waning daylight.

He refuses to relent. He thinks of his new home, and the sketch pad and game night waiting for him. The linoleum floor of Grigorii’s place is more welcoming than Mr. Bird’s memory foam bed. If his brain is going to lock up, it is going to lock on those feelings.

Walter says, “If you don’t come with us, there will be consequences. We know where you’re nesting now.”

The mental image of that linoleum floor now floods Anton with cold dread. What could be happening in their home right now? Is that house on fire? Is Mr. Bird waiting in the town car, or is he across town ravaging Grigorii and Luis? Is there any life left eight miles away?

No. His bites are bleeding. That means Mr. Bird must be here, not there.

A speck of red wells in the white linen of Walter’s shirt. It peeks out behind beneath his suit jacket.

Anton often wondered where Mr. Bird bit Walter. Now he knows.

This means Mr. Bird is furious at them all. He must still want to replace Walter.

Pavla and Yoana move to the rear door of the car. They open it and stand, waiting for Anton to submit. To come to the place no one should call home.

Anton says, “I have work in the morning.”

Pavla and Yoana watch him leave, walking to a different home.

There is no sleeping tonight. Anton lies on the floor and pretends to rest while he watches the window. There are noises in the night, deeper animal sounds than any raccoons. There’s a warbling buzz, like a flock of nocturnal crows are clearing their throats.

He doesn’t dare go outside. Not in all that dark. They could be anywhere out there.

First thing at sun-up he inspects the front door in case any carnage or omens have been left there. There’s nothing there except garbage and the pair of beat-up lawn mowers they need to tear open and fix.

This doesn’t make sense.

Anton pulls weeds the next day. His neck feels made of fraying rope from all the times he checks behind himself. As best as he can tell, the car and the familiars don’t show up.

Monday morning is the same, if harder to get through because of the brain fog. Anton needs to sleep or he’ll never survive this life. He cuts the shit out of his hands working, and that is a sign that he needs to focus on what really matters.

Everything will be fine.

It’s not until Tuesday that they come for Luis.

Anton moves slowly. He creeps through the front door, physically feeling like whatever happened to Luis will ooze out and suffocate him. It is a tangible panic he has to fight to walk through.

Luis sits against the wall, using one of the sofa cushions as a back rest, watching Captain America: Winter Soldier for the hundredth time. He turns his attention from Steve Rogers to Anton. The motion makes the wadded bandage on the side of his neck crinkle.

Anton asks, “What happened?”

“Random accident,” Luis says, muting the TV. The heroes keep fighting wordlessly. “I was working near the highway. Clearing brush and crap. I paused to catch my breath and somebody bumped into me. Car almost wiped my shit.”

“Somebody hit you?”

Anton can see it happening. Scrawny Luis rubbing his eyes, and a shadow lunging out of the trees to toss him in front of traffic. Walter had warned that there were going to be consequences.

“The driver said he saw a white girl. Neither of us was exactly looking at her, you know? She ran off. Wouldn’t be the first meth head running around out here.” He shrugs, then winces and touches the bandage. “I’m just getting my mind off it. Want to play Terraria?”

It was a woman, then. Pavla and Yoana could have done it. Mr. Bird has his familiars do everything for him. They are his hands.

So he’s showing Anton. Showing him how a familiar is supposed to behave.

Anton asks, “She pushed you into traffic?”

Luis says, “Nah, man. If somebody wanted to yeet my ass into traffic, I would’ve known. This was, like, I would’ve thought I tripped if the driver didn’t tell me she was there. And I dodged the car with my super reflexes. Chill.”

Too much doesn’t make sense. Anton leans against the frame of the front door, mulling the attack. Why did Mr. Bird order Luis to almost die? He is the sort to burn down this house with all of them inside it. The only reason Anton isn’t dead already is that Mr. Bird wants him back.

Luis scratches at the adhesive of the bandage on his neck.

Before he knows it, Anton is approaching him. The bandage is a sanitary white rectangle. There’s no seeing what is underneath. Judging its size, Anton feels his own mouth, for the size of his teeth.

Anton asks, “Did you get cut in the fall?”

“Yeah, cut myself up. I don’t know what I fell on. My luck.”

“A scrape?”

“Nah, it got me deep.” Luis mimes stabbing himself in the throat with a sword, with a comical expression. “Must’ve been a rock.”

That expression and that mental image tell Anton that he has to go back to Mr. Bird. He has to go trade himself to protect Luis and Grigorii from what may have already happened.

Anton kneels over Luis, looking for any blood spotting through the bandage. None is visible.

He asks, “Could you show it to me?”

Luis says, “What?”

Anton is crouching over Luis now, trying not to look manic, trying not to look like someone whose heart is about to rupture out of their chest. “I need to…you know, can I make sure…”

“Grigorii already looked at it. I’m good.”

“Did it feel like something bit you?”

Luis looks aside without turning his body. “I’m trying to watch a movie here. You mind?”

Anton isn’t thinking. The thoughts are too heavy to lift. Action is easier, and he has to do something. It’s for Luis’s safety.

Luis reaches for the remote, and Anton reaches for the bandage.

“Man, quit it.”

“I’ll go back to him. He can’t take you. I promise, I promise, I promise.”

“Dude! Fuck off of me!”

One of Anton’s hands nests in Luis’s t-shirt, and the other goes for the bandage. He yanks at both, and Luis shoves him in the chest. Anton rocks backward, then surges forward again. All he can see is the loose bandage and the infected pink flesh of the cut underneath. He can’t see the size or shape of the injury.

He needs to see it closer. He needs to be sure that he didn’t get this boy cursed.

Thick arms circle Anton’s belly and he is in the air, a flying feeling that reminds him of when Mr. Bird used to hit him. His throat buzzes, and he promises that he’ll go back if they don’t take Luis.

No one is hitting him. Grigorii is here, dragging him away from the house. Anton tries to explain, and he can’t. Not through the hysterical shrieking that overtakes his mouth.

The two of them go for a drive. Anton is terrified that Grigorii is taking them to the city and will dump him at that dark townhouse. It would be right. He’s a problem that needs to go back where he came from.

And he needs to go back. His pain can plug the hole his escape made. He should’ve taken the ride with Walter; then nobody would have attacked Luis.

They don’t visit the city. They roll a few miles into the pines, to the view of a trail that is half hiking path and half knotty tree roots that serve as natural stairs. The entrance is decorated with used Solo cups and cigarette butts. Grigorii stays in the car, taking a long drink from his old water bottle that he refills from the tap every morning. Its label is long gone.

There are so many shadows under the pines. Any of them could be Mr. Bird.

Grigorii says, “You need therapy. I know you do, and I wish I could afford it for you. It’s a shithole country.”

“You don’t owe me anything. I’ll be fine.”

“Man, you’re clearly scared. I can see the fear when you’re happy. Does my place make you feel unsafe?”

Anton whips his head back and forth. “No. No, no.”

“Did I do something to make you scared?” Grigorii sets the water bottle aside. “Because I don’t think Luis did anything. He’s a sweet boy. I’m not entitled to know all your shit. But I need to know what’s setting you off like that. That can’t happen again.”

“I wouldn’t hurt him.”

“You were hurting him. I need to know what caused that.”

Anton owes him so much. Even if Grigorii doesn’t believe him, he deserves to hear what he wants to hear. How can he shape it so that he’ll understand?

“There’s a man. I mean, he’s not a man. He’s sort of…”

Anton trails off immediately. There is no way to describe the shadows with a mouth that controlled his life for three years.

Grigorii asks, “If he’s not a man, what is he?”

“Let’s say he’s a man.”

“Okay. This is the guy that ran the little cult you lived in?”

“He preys on certain kinds of people. Immigrants. People without families. I think his oldest member was a drug addict.”

“Well I’m glad you’re out of there.”

“I think I should go back.”

Grigorii rests a broad palm against the backrest of Anton’s seat. His fingers sink into the cushion. “Buddy. That is not happening.”

“I don’t know.”

“When you called me, you said you were going to die if you stayed.”

He had phrased it like that. It had felt too much to confess that he’d kill himself if he stayed.

Now Anton wonders if killing himself is the answer. It would give Mr. Bird no satisfaction. No returned slave. And it will give them no reason to keep harassing Luis and Grigorii.

“Anton,” Grigorii says. “Speak to me, man.”

The car is real. His friend is real. The conversation is real.

Anton speaks. “The three others tracked me down. They caught me on my way home a few nights ago.”

“Holy shit. They came out here? You should’ve said. I’ve got a baseball bat they can meet.”

“They said I had to come back or there would be consequences.”

“They said you had to do what they said or they’d attack Luis?”

“Not exactly.”

Grigorii worms his tall body around the driver seat so he can face Anton dead-on. There’s no escaping his warm, overworked eyes.

The man says, “Look. I’m not attacking you. I put you up in my place. I got you out of that cult. I’m listening to you now. So come with me, okay?”

Anton breathes. “Okay.”

“What did these people say? Exactly?”

The exact phrasing is murky. A series of panics has mashed it up like a bad remix in his head. He knows a few things about it, though.

“It was short. They didn’t have to say much.”

“Was it specific?”

Anton thinks. No, it wasn’t.

Anton speaks. “No. It wasn’t.”

“Did they say they’d push somebody into traffic?”

“No.”

“Did they say they’d attack one of us at work?”

“They didn’t have to say that. People make vague threats all the time.”

Grigorii falls into his seat. “Yeah they do. Do you remember my mom?”

Mrs. Caravaggio is an ancient story. Anton has to search into the dusty archives of his mind for a vague image of that woman with the constant smell of menthols and the beautiful black hair. The last time Anton saw her was middle school. When Anton’s family had sheltered Grigorii, they didn’t see her all that year, or ever again. She disappeared into the chasm that was her life.

Anton says, “Yeah, I remember her.”

“She was the master of vague threats.”

“She was?”

“Whatever happened, she said she planned it. One time she said if I didn’t scrub the basement floor, she’d have to punish me. Two days later our power got cut because she spent all our money doing whatever else, not that I knew. She said that was my punishment for not scrubbing hard enough. It worked, too. I begged her to bring the power back.”

Anton squeezes his hands together into one messy fist, and looks between his fingers, in the miniscule gaps, as though he’ll find himself inside.

“The threats meant that when there wasn’t food, it was my fault. When Dad didn’t come for his weekend, it was my fault. It made me paranoid.”

How many times has he begged Mr. Bird for forgiveness for things he didn’t do? For things he didn’t do wrong?

The answer is not in the miniscule gaps between his fingers.

He asks his friend, “What happened to your mom? Do you ever see her?”

“That story is not the story I’m telling today, man.”

Anton breathes. “Right. I’m sorry.”

“I’m telling you what I did for me. What you’ve got to do for you. She doesn’t matter to the story of how I survived.”

“I just don’t see how you survived. If she controlled everything in your life, what did you do?”

Grigorii holds out his palm, with all its calluses and grime. It’s another offer of touch. “You know that part. I came and lived with your family.”

“They don’t want me anymore.”

“Yeah, but I do.”

The drizzle makes working on the Flemings’ new shed futile. It’s an unusually chilly precipitation, and so Anton quits early. His body is beat anyway, sluggish like it has the brain fog instead of his head for once. At least he can use some of the plastic tarp as a poncho for the long walk home. If he’s lucky, Grigorii will leave the cemetery early and drive along this road on the way.

Around the first bend, still in sight of the Flemings’ property, Walter waits under a black crocodile skin umbrella.

The car is parked on the shoulder of the road. The rear left window is open a sliver. A gloom festers inside. Anton strains to see the mouth, to see the white of the teeth that long for his flesh. Already his jeans are damp with warmer things than the rain.

Walter’s acid voice splashes him. “You’re coming with us. Now.”

At first Anton licks his lips and averts his eyes to the ground. The old habits of weakness.

It’s a smaller ‘us’ than before. Walter stands alone on the road, and perhaps with Mr. Bird in the car. Anton has to wonder where the twins are. Is Luis safe? Is this a distraction to keep him away until they’ve attacked?

Anton says, “I have to get home.”

“This isn’t an offer. This is what’s going to happen.”

Anton tells his feet to get moving. A puddle grows underneath him.

Walter says, “You’re going to help us find wherever Pavla and Yoana ran off to. Your leaving made them think they could leave, and you’re going to show them you made mistakes. That none of us can live without Mr. Bird.”

It’s too much in too few words. The twins can’t have left Mr. Bird, and they can’t be utterly missing. Mr. Bird knows everything about them. He has to know where they are. He made them try to kill Luis.

Unless being forced to attack Luis was too much. Unless that is why they ran.

Anton mumbles, “I’m going home and taking a hot shower.”

He imagines the warm beads hitting and streaking over his face. It will be the opposite of this rain. He thinks on it, refusing to let his mind cave to the panic or stillness. If he focuses, he can feel the warm water on his legs.

Walter says, “You’re going to make them come back or there are going to be consequences.”

The young man shifts as he threatens Anton, revealing how badly he’s bleeding. Four ugly circles of gore leak through his undershirts, streaking down the fabric like little red ties.

Despite the coverage of the plastic tarp, Anton’s trousers are soaked. It’s especially wet along his inner thighs. Warmth trickles from the old bites, streaking down to tickle the backs of his knees.

So Mr. Bird is furious with them both.

“Get in the car,” Walter says, “or there will be consequences.”

“More consequences?” Anton asks. He can’t get Grigorii’s mother out of his head, that vague memory of a woman who used vagueness to seem omnipotent. He looks for her face in the partially rolled down window of the car. All that lurks there are shadows. He says, “I don’t believe in your consequences. I believe in a shower.”

Walter says, “If you don’t come with us right now, we are taking Grigorii Caravaggio.”

Anton digs his heels into the road. “What?”

“You won’t know when Mr. Bird will come for him.”

“You can’t.”

“You won’t know if it’s when you’re together and you’ll have to watch, or when you’re apart and there will be no one to hear him weeping. Mr. Bird will sink his teeth into Grigorii’s flesh and make him a familiar in your place.”

Anton’s arms drop, and the plastic lowers to his hips. The cold drizzle blots at his hair and face. This is too much.

He says, “You won’t. Grigorii’s not weak like us. He won’t break.”

Walter sneers with crooked teeth. “It won’t be hard to take away the things he relies on. He’ll be weaker than you in no time. And it will be your fault.”

Can Anton run away?

No.

He’s unsure if he can walk. He’s unsure of everything because anxiety cuts through everything, feelings chewing ideas and dragging them into the mire. He so badly wants his mind to shut off, to kill those awful visions of where Mr. Bird will bite Grigorii. He wants to finish building the Flemings’ shed, and build a dozen more, and play Terraria and watch a movie on constant loop so that he doesn’t have to think anything.

Walter says, “You’re not better than me.”

Blood is streaming from the bites on Anton’s thighs, coating his calves and pooling in his socks. He doesn’t know if he can bleed out and die standing here.

As badly as he wants the apathy of not thinking, apathy is not an option.

Walter says, “You’re not more deserving than me.”

That scorn sounds pathetic. Anton hears it, and sees Walter condescending at him, and can only imagine himself and Walter spewing the same scorn at Pavla and Yoana. They’re supposed to be the hands of a monster. They’re supposed to do a shadow’s work.

Anton says, “I never said I was better than you.”

The wind shifts rainfall, and a pair of drops slant under the umbrella, spattering against Walter’s chin. He says, “You people think you can walk away and live a better life, and you’ve got dirt under your fingernails to show for it. Right now you’re standing in line, in the cold, hoping for another day of backbreaking labor. You think it makes you better than me?”

His teeth are more crooked than Anton remembers. And they’re duller.

Anton asks, “Is that what Mr. Bird beats into you?  Is that what he says when he leaves new teeth marks on your heart?”

Walter is bleeding so badly under his suit jacket that it looks like he’s wearing a red shirt with white bleached spots. That is the cherished place where Mr. Bird wanted Anton to be standing. He could have the honor of chief among sufferers.

Anton says, “I had to leave. I didn’t want to do what you do.”

“Get in the car.”

“I thought he’d kept it secret from you. But you know it, don’t you? Did he tell you that he wanted me to take your place, or did you figure it out on your own?”

Walter throws the crocodile umbrella into the road. It rolls in a minor wind. “I’ve run his household since I was fourteen years old. You think you could do what I do?”

Anton pulls his cheap plastic sheeting over his head again, making a cloak that crinkles. His hair is slick enough with rainwater; he refuses to get any wetter. “I don’t want to scream at people, and drive that shadow everywhere, and pretend I don’t care when he does what he does. How does it feel to stalk and scare gay boys into coming back to work so they can replace you, Walter? Does it make you think anything is going to hurt you less?”

The rumble of the car’s engine is joined by a buzzing. An awful panoply of chirping sounds swirl from inside the tinted windows, inhuman and ravenous. They flow from every dark part of a drizzling world.

Smothered in that noise, the two familiars bleed together. Anton refuses to look around for wherever Mr. Bird’s shadow may be, or where his mouth is cursing them. He focuses on the young man in front of him.

“I’m not better than you, Walter. Me, and Pavla and Yoana, we’re not one ounce better. And we all walked away. That means you’re capable of leaving, too.”

“What made you think you could leave?”

“That’s not the story I’m telling today.”

The drizzle soaks Anton’s pants so thoroughly that moisture drips off his shoes. It’s a mixture of water and worse, leaving reddish brown tints in the puddles behind his feet. It marks where he’s been after he leaves.

Of course he apologizes. But apologies are not enough.

For most of two weeks, Anton never lets himself be alone in the house with Luis. If Luis is home, then Anton waits outside for Grigorii. He never forces the boy to be alone with him. He will not become that kind of specter.

With some favors, he gets work with Grigorii. Every second he has eyes on him is a relief. It means that if something will happen, it isn’t happening now. The present tense is a sort of refuge.

Together they flush out and clean gutters. He learns how to prune different kinds of bushes, and how to cover his mistakes in ways that look artistic enough for affluent people to praise.

Near the end of the two-week period, when he’s saved up enough money, he stands in the doorway of the house. He faces Luis, like he needs to be invited inside. A different invitation happens.

Anton says, “You want to hit the bar with me and Grigorii on Friday? All you can drink on me.”

“I could do that.”

“There will be plenty of people there. Thought it might be fun.”

He doesn’t say what will be fun about it. He shifts, letting more daylight into the doorway.

Luis pretends to keep watching Winter Soldier, but he’s clearly following Anton out of the corner of his eye.

That’s fine. Anton goes outside to sit in the sun, on the rough-hewn tree stump that scrapes his legs. He has a sketch pad and an active mind. He fills these hours by summoning old hours, drawing himself walking out of that dark townhouse, and Grigorii’s clunker driving them away from New York City, and himself digging other people’s gardens. There are parts of the story he wants to draw, wants to draw as badly as a kid wants to breathe when he’s made a dare to stay underwater, but every time he tries to draw his thighs he gets the scars wrong. It’s been so long since he’s had the nerve to actually look at his bare thighs.

But he has his sketch pad, and the nubs of pencils, and time.

He also has an aluminum bat resting next to the tree stump. Just in case.

Friday is St. Patrick’s Day, which is Luis’s favorite holiday. He glibly explains that the Irish got potatoes from South America to every patron in the bar—and explains it more than once to some patient women. Anton and Grigorii linger nearby to make sure he doesn’t get in over his head, and so hear half a dozen increasingly dramatic versions of the story of how he got the scar on his neck.

Anton tries to give Grigorii space. The man wants to chat basketball and gripe about work with other locals. What matters is that he can see Grigorii being safe, and that Grigorii sits in a well-lit part of the bar. No shadows will encroach.

With that amount of security, Anton goes and does foolish things. Foolish things like flirting.

In the shoulder-to-shoulder cramp of this St. Patrick’s Day, there is Julian. Julian is a big man with glasses and a fine navy pinstripe suit, like a Puerto Rican Clark Kent. His soft voice carries in the booming crowd. He’s adorable from the moment he accepts his drink by waving both hands excitedly, as though accepting a newborn into his arms.

Thanks to all his exposure to Luis, Anton is able to converse casually about Marvel movies. That takes them to art, and Anton makes himself talk about his pencil sketches. He tries to show Julian the nicer pieces, the ones that don’t require him to tell a hard story.

As he thumbs from sketch to sketch, Julian leans in exquisitely close such that Anton finds himself hoping. Upon seeing Anton’s sketch of his Terraria base, Julian goes all high-pitched. They argue about whether Terraria or Minecraft is better until the bar closes.

The truth is that he’s still too hurt inside to be sure if anyone can be attracted to him.

That’s why it helps to have friends.

Luis slaps him on the shoulder. “Getting after it, son. When are you two getting married?”

It’s so bewildering and so exciting that he doesn’t think about how long the shadows were in the parking lot. Not until the next morning.

Julian lives in Brooklyn. He knows eight thousand better places to eat than the diner and two fast food places near Grigorii’s.

“The big guy can come too,” Julian says. “I’ve got a coworker that is starving for a man.”

Julian takes them to a burrito joint that is basically a closet, but where the food tastes like God. They go for tapas in this place with a view of the river.

Their third date is at a Turkish restaurant that is spacious and so dark that a Goth would complain. The dark doesn’t bother Anton. Not at first.

They watch as a waiter wipes down what will be their table when the app on Julian’s phone buzzes. The waiter has an equally chic and shaggy haircut that looks familiar from behind. Then the waiter turns around.

It’s Walter.

Anton is falling into the intense dark of the restaurant. He clutches at anything, one hand snagging Grigorii’s sleeve, the other catching Julian’s. They get him by the elbows and raise him. He’s sure his pants are full of blood.

Walter hasn’t seen him yet. He is busy setting out cloth napkins and silverware.

He’s different. It’s like looking at an earlier draft of a person. His eyes are more sunken and carry greater distance. Simultaneously, his whole body is thinner, such that his button down shirt and vest are baggy on him. Every exposed inch of his flesh is coated in a thick, unhealthy perspiration. Like he’s sweating something out of his system.

Julian asks, “Are you okay?”

Anton stands free of their support. He brushes the thighs of his pants, which are surprisingly dry. He takes a couple steps into the restaurant, until Walter glances at him—and then another two seconds, until Walter sees him seeing him.

Walter’s head snaps at him in a wicked double take. He looks ashamed, and frustrated, jaw setting like words are trying to force their way out.

“I need some air,” Anton says, bumping into Julian’s side. “Can we go somewhere else? You said there’s a good Vietnamese place?”

Grigorii smiles mirthfully, even though he moves to stand between Anton and the waiters. “I always wanted to try Vietnamese.”

They roll home after 2:00 AM. Getting up for work tomorrow morning is going to suck.

Luis is passed out on the cushions with Terraria running. His character gets eaten by zombies, dies, respawns, and is eaten again, over and over. From Luis’s snoring, he doesn’t mind.

The one thing Anton needs before bed is a piss. Through blurry eyes he unzips and pushes his pants lower than he meant to. It’s probably the inebriation that makes him look at his bare legs for so long.

He pushes an index finger at the bites on his thighs. His fingertip doesn’t fit inside them anymore. It’s been so long that he took their ugliness for granted and hasn’t checked them. They have shrunken and closed, and turned a pale pink of old scar tissue. They don’t look like they’ve bled in an eon.

Is this a cosmic prank?

His phone buzzes and he hits his head on the wall. A needle-stick puncture of anxiety hits him. This is Mr. Bird. This is the revenge.

His thighs still aren’t bleeding.

It’s Julian’s number.

“I had a great time tonight,” turns into, “We should see more of each other,” which turns into, “I know this sounds sudden…”

Anton rubs wetness from his eyes and asks, “What’s sudden?”

“It started in college. Every spring, my best friends get together in a cramped cottage in the Carolinas. A nice part of the Carolinas. The food is grotesquely expensive, but I can cover you, and besides, Latisha brought her boyfriend last year, so why can’t I bring mine? Will you think about it?”

Thinking used to be dreadful. It used to be.

“It’ll only be a weekend,” Anton explains. “I’ll come home.”

Grigorii is so chunkily proportioned, with such expansive arms, that he gives unbelievable hugs. He holds Anton to his chest and says, “You go wherever you want, buddy.”

It will be a road trip. Hour after hour of Gipsy Kings and Alejandra Guzman; pricey satellite radio and Julian only wants two bands. They’ll make a short detour in Delaware to pick up Latisha and her guy.

Anton takes half a deep breath and asks, “Can we make a second detour?”

He shows Julian the route. Julian’s eyes bug out. He says, “Further into the city? At midday? We’ll literally die.”

But Julian is willing to risk death for a kiss.

The detour takes them through a pristine borough that Anton has not missed.

Anton says, “Take this left.”

Five blocks after that left is the townhouse.

On the upper floor, the blackout curtains sag from two windows. One has come loose entirely from its fixtures, exposing a triangle of the interior to the scourge of sunlight. Sunlight does kill some things.

The front door is shut firmly. Its blue paint is chipped and flecking away, like the lines of roads on a state map. In fact the whole townhouse’s exterior paint job has faded from walnut brown to a sandy color with the same veiny cracks. The building has never looked so dry.

The shadows of the townhouse are shorter than any other. All the townhouses on this street are a uniform height.

Anton studies the shadows, sketching them in pencil in his thoughts.

It begins with a meager sound, like a heartbeat under the building. The blackout curtains crumble, and the glass panes tip inward. The front door yawns and melts from its hinges, lapping the parlor like a tongue. Julian is looking the wrong way, and so he misses the entire townhouse collapsing into a plume of unruly dust.

Julian startles in the driver’s seat. “What the hell was that?”

Anton fishes out a fresh sketch pad, settles it on his thighs, and opens to a clean page. He takes a pencil and says, “Let me tell you a story.”

 

(Editors’ Note: John Wiswell is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

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John Wiswell

John (@Wiswell) is an ace/aro writer who lives where New York keeps all its trees. He won the 2021 Nebula for Best Short Story, and is a finalist for the Hugo, World Fantasy Award, and British Fantasy Award. This is his second story in Uncanny, after “The Bottomless Martyr” in 2020. His work has also appeared in Nature Futures, Fireside Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He wants every survivor to know that they were worth it.

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