Note: This piece was originally published on the blogs for Stuff You Should Know. It was a finalist in their 2012 Halloween Podcast Fiction Contest. This story made it to the final 16 (and a few rounds beyond, but the initial cut was the most important, for me). I’m grateful to Josh and Chuck for running the contest, without which this piece might never have been finished. I’ve changed one word back to the original text, as the contest did not allow foul language. I hope you enjoy it.
“There are people in the field,” she said from the kitchen sink, where she’d been scrubbing her hands, trying not to catch or spread the bronchitis currently filling her son’s air passages with globs of sputum. Her husband dropped his breakfast plate beneath the suds and moved around her with a low inscrutable noise, so she said, “Did ya hear me?”
“Whassat? What about Nate?” he asked, his slurred inquiry betraying his lack of interest while his smile underlined his courteous attempt to hide it. He threw his jacket around his shoulders and grabbed his keys.
“I didn’t say anything about Nate. Nate’s in his room. I said there are people in the field.”
“People? They’ll go away.”
“They’re just standing there. They look dressed for a funeral. Can you talk to them? They’re creeping me out.”
He came and looked over her shoulder. Their house, a modest sentinel in a two-acre sea of bumpy, wild grass, was hemmed in on the west by Route 9, on the east by Dead Stream Lake, and on the remaining sides by thick forest. She counted five people standing and talking, their hands crossed over their chests or stuffed in their pockets. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought she saw at least another half dozen lurking behind the wall of fir, spruce, and cedar trees that marked the edge of the government-protected wilderness.
“I don’t see anything,” James said, giving her a peck on the cheek.
She couldn’t believe he didn’t see them. “They’re right there! Are you even looking?”
“Probably Jehovah’s Witnesses. Don’t worry about it,” James said. “I gotta go. Call the cops if they give you any trouble.” He chuckled at the suggestion.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses?” she repeated. Sure, they’d been visited from time to time when they’d lived closer to town, but never had they been proselytized to so far out on Route 9. “There’s too many of them,” she added. “Jehovah’s Witnesses always attack in pairs.”
“Don’t know what to tell ya, babe. Good luck with Nate,” he said and left.
He was probably right, she thought after a moment. She finished the dishes, set James’s plate in the rack to dry, and went to try to get some reading done.
* * *
Halfway through a convoluted sentence, she caught herself not paying attention. She’d started thinking about the moment a few days ago when she’d seen the man in the pink shirt in the parking lot of the A & P: leash in his hand; leash on his dog; froth in the dog’s mouth; both of them staring at her. The dog growled; the man waved and sneered.
She blinked and closed the book. She closed the awful memory, too, and wondered: Are the people still out there?
She dropped the book on her bed and went to find out.
* * *
And so they were.
They were also still there an hour and a half later when she went to make lunch, only now they stood in a line, all in the same pose with their arms crossed, staring toward the house. When she looked out, they waved in unison.
A small yelp escaped her, and she retreated a step back from the window.
“What’s wrong?” Nate asked, seated at the table, lazy spoon working a bowl of chicken noodle soup.
She composed herself for her eight-year-old son’s sake. It was a thing parents did automatically, it seemed to her, and she wondered why. What was the point of pretending that nothing was wrong? Regardless, she couldn’t stop herself from saying, “Nothing. Everything’s okay. I’ll be right back.”
In her mind, she’d already connected the man with the dog to the people in the field. She’d wonder about that later—how she must’ve known something, even then.
She didn’t bother putting on a jacket, even though the autumn weather had grown chilly. Striding down the hill toward the trees, she called out, “Hey! You there! You can’t be here. What do you think you’re doing?”
Their heads moved as the people leaned toward each other, their faces turning, their mouths moving, lips betraying weird smiles, eyes always on her. She confronted the tallest one first—a man in the center with a halo of white hair, horrent around his head.
“This is private property,” she said. It made her feel like a jerk, like a prissy mom in a bad movie—some xenophobic mother hen soccer mom suburbanite. She couldn’t help it; she wanted them gone. By the time she spoke again, however, her tone, tempered by her momentary guilt at having exposed her schoolmarm disciplinarian side, came out softer, gentler—a polite, neighborly request: “Please, leave. I don’t know why you’re here, but you have to go.”
Such reasonability would surely elicit a reasonable response, she thought, and the way the dozen or so people grinned at her, she felt certain that all would be fine.
Just a misunderstanding, as they say. Maybe they’d lost something—a cat, perhaps, up in the trees—or perhaps they were stranded after a bus crash, waiting for a ride home.
Certainly. There were plenty of possible explanations—explanations a person like her lacked the imagination to predict. Besides, weren’t most people better than they seemed? She’d always believed so.
The white-haired man’s smile broadened, and he stared at her as someone might stare at a child who insists on something foolish yet amusing.
“I’m afraid you’re mistaken,” he said, leading her to expect a debate about the ownership of the field. Before she could argue the point she assumed to be in question, he added, “We’re certainly not here.”
She hadn’t expected such a response, and she quickly spat, “Of course you’re here.”
“Really? Look at us—does it look like we’re here?”
“Um, it does. Because you are. I’m staring at you, and you are standing right in front of me, on my property. Where else do you think you are standing?”
“Eventually you’ll realize you’re mistaken. I suppose we’ll bear with you in the meantime.”
“Look, buster, I know where my own damned property line is, okay, so if you think you’ve got some—”
“Property line?” he said, and he giggled. “Is that what you call it? Maybe it’s time you took a vacation. To the Bahamas. Clear your ignorant mind.”
He addressed the others with a smile. “Anyone else getting sick of this cunt’s problems with reality?”
“What did you call me? Problems with reality? Well! Isn’t this just rich,” she said, angry at the game they were playing. She pointed at a woman to the man’s right. “I suppose you think you’re not here, either?”
“She isn’t,” the white-haired man said.
“I’m not talking to you! Let her answer.”
The woman said, “Let’s not say things we’ll regret later.”
The others moved in closer, forming a tightening semi-circle around Laura.
“Stay back, all of you!” she said.
“We are back,” the man said. “Back and forward. Back to basics. Back in time. Humpback whale.”
“I’m calling the police,” Laura said. “You hear me? I’m calling the police!”
She ran back up the hill. Were they actually laughing behind her? She didn’t turn around to find out.
* * *
One day a few years earlier, she’d caught her husband James in a lie. Even when confronted by the evidence, he’d refused to admit she’d caught him. He’d weaseled and hemmed and hawed long past the point where Laura herself would have caved and admitted everything. When she thought back on the moment, she often wondered if it had been a strategy, or if, at some point in his whole process, he’d managed to actually convince himself of something that wasn’t true.
Either way, it disturbed her. She was a high school math teacher because she took comfort in right answers. Algebraic variables were pockets of uncertainty only until the equations had been solved for x, or y, or z. But there were still rules. There were still right answers.
A few examples of Laura’s discomfort with even the smallest of life’s uncertainties:
- The day before she confronted the people in her yard, she’d gone to review a book online and found no one else had ever reviewed it. Uncomfortable with such solitude, she’d closed her Internet browser and called her mother about Nate’s cold. They’d spoken at length about how best to treat a child’s case of bronchitis, and she’d hung up an hour later, relieved and calmer than she’d been when she’d picked up the phone.
- In her undergraduate expository writing class, she’d won an award. She didn’t understand why; she hated writing and the nebulous nature of words. She took great pains to define her terms and felt that it made her papers frustrating to write and probably just as frustrating to read. Her professor, on the other hand, called her papers precise and praised her clarity of thought.
- For her eleventh birthday, someone had given her a choose-your-own-adventure book. She’d read it straight through, cover-to-cover, and been angry with the writer for being so noncommittal. A writer should make solid choices, even when crafting completely fabricated tales.
Waiting for the police to arrive, Laura straightened her shirt and fixed her collar in the mirror beside the front door. Earlier, her phone service had worked, and the police had picked up after only the second ring. They’d agreed to come over right away. There was none of that standard horror-movie crap (phone mysteriously dead, cackling operator on the other end of the line, etc., etc). The world was as it was; X still equaled X.
There was a right answer, and she was going to prove it to the creeps in the field. The police would take the trespassers away, and then they’d see.
She paced back through her house to the kitchen window and stared again at the strangers. She failed to notice the way her son’s eyes changed color as he sat at the kitchen table.
Blue to gold, gold to blue, blue to gold, gold to blue.
She failed to even reflect on his presence at the table. Soup slurped, bowl cleared away—Nate had little reason to be there.
She heard tires in the driveway.
X equaled X. The police had arrived.
She went to get the door.
* * *
Standing above them on the field, her arms crossed and her expression one of smug victory, watching the officer talk to each person in turn, noting the cop’s inquisitive and threatening stance, she felt triumphant. The cop wrote things down in a notebook. The people shook their heads. Gesticulated. Pointed up at her.
They’re trying to explain, she thought. Fools.
The cop spent the most amount of time with the white-haired man, talking to him first and then coming back to him after interviewing the others. The man looked angry during his second chat. His face turned red. She thought she heard him say, “No! Absolutely not!”
The cop shrugged off such protestations, made a final note in his notebook, and headed back up the hill.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said once he came within range.
“Crazy, right?” she said. “I told you.”
“I mean, I looked all along the perimeter, ma’am—in the trees, everywhere. There’s no one there. Are you sure you saw someone?”
The world swayed to starboard. She felt like she was going to faint or throw up, she couldn’t tell which. She’d seen him talking to them!
“Ma’am? Ma’am, are you okay?” The policeman reached out for her.
“But I … I saw … you … and … ”
Her mind a Tilt-a-Whirl, bobbing for apples, swooping like a plummeting kite when the wind drops, searching for an explanation, about to crash. Her knees buckled. And—hey, look at that—she really had thrown up: right on the policeman’s trousers and all over his shoes.
No, I didn’t, she thought defiantly, knowing it wasn’t true, knowing—yes, the puke was real, the puke was really hers, she’d done it, guilty as charged—knowing what was real but defying it anyway, because, well—everyone else was doing it, right? It would have made her laugh, but by the time she reached the end of the thought, she’d passed out.
* * *
By the time James arrived home—leaving work early and unsurprisingly taking the cop’s side—the people in the field had moved closer. They stood directly outside the windows, grinning in at Laura, as her husband asked her questions about her mental health.
She pretended they weren’t there. She pretended to be as ridiculously blind as everyone else.
“You sure you don’t want to see someone?” James asked. “I mean, you did have that incident at the grocery store.”
Yes. She knew. She wasn’t the one who couldn’t keep track.
They think I’m crazy. But I’m not. I’m really not. I’m thinking clearly. Look. Clear thoughts! X = X. 2 + 2 = 4. Minus B plus or minus the square root of B-squared minus four A C all over two A. My name is Laura Greenlaw. Today is Friday. I took the day off from work because my son is sick. If everyone loves my baby but my baby loves no one but me, the logical implication is that I am my own baby. THAT’S not insanity, THAT’S logic, and I know the difference because I AM NOT CRAZY!
Her husband was staring at her, knife and fork hovering over his plate. “Laura?”
“What? Look, I saw them … they must have run off when they saw the cop. I don’t know. I guess I just had a simple panic attack, all right?”
“A simple panic attack? A panic attack doesn’t sound simple to me.”
She rolled her eyes. The interrogation continued. She gave few responses. It continued longer. She gave fewer responses.
Eventually, he relented. He accepted what she said, even though her eyes kept darting to the windows, where the white-haired man looked in and drummed his fingers on the glass.
Every time he drummed on the window, her son coughed.
“Sorry,” Nate said, and sipped at a spoonful of tomato soup.
“Don’t forget to drink your water, buddy,” James said.
All Laura could do was stare at the man in the window. Another stranger came to stand beside him, first the one then the other drumming their fingers as her son choked on soup.
How long could anyone put up with such a thing? She abruptly stood up from her chair and glared at the glass.
“Honey,” James said. “What is it? You see someone out there, don’t you?”
The man with the dog looked at me. He looked at me and told me that the cereal I wanted to buy was going to be on sale but that I shouldn’t buy it because it was full of bugs. He told me I would know because the box would be cut. Along the top, he said. I should look for it. And I ran. I ran from him, and I went and I got my cereal and it WAS on sale and the box WAS cut … but there were no bugs after all and I was relieved and scared all at once. I bought it anyway, just to spite him. I could still hear the dog barking while I was in the store, but when I got back out he was gone, the man in the pink shirt was gone, and now there are people outside the house. I am not crazy. SOMETHING WEIRD IS HAPPENING IN THIS TOWN! It was Nate’s cereal. Two days after he started eating it, he got sick, and I had to tell someone. I had to tell James. I’m not crazy. There is something outside and it’s trying to kill my son. It put the bugs in his lungs and now he can’t breathe. It’s a DEMON and it wants my son. Or maybe it already has him and it’s coming for me. It’s trying to make me—
“Excuse me,” she said, her tone flat and unconvincing. “I have to go to the bathroom. Excuse me. I have to go to the bathroom.”
She ignored her husband, turned, and walked out the front door.
* * *
She ran. Down the porch, cutting across the driveway to the woodshed, she reached a stack of wood and ducked behind it, out of sight. The front door opened. James called out for her. She stayed quiet. The front door closed.
The yellow handle of a maul beside the entrance to the shed caught her eye. She went to it. She picked it up. She hefted it. It was a pleasing weight.
Now they won’t show themselves, she thought. Now I won’t be able to find them. Poof! Vanished, as soon as she finds a weapon. You’ll see. It always works that way.
She exited the shed. The white-haired man stood before her, in front of the others, picking lint from his cuff.
“You,” she said.
“You,” he replied.
“You made my son sick!”
“You know you don’t really have a son.”
“Stop lying! I know I have a son! I know you’re here. I know what I can see, and I know I have a son!”
“You know a lot concerning this phrase ‘I know,’ don’t you?” he said. The others chuckled behind him. One of them even blew a raspberry for no discernable reason. There were more of them now. It had become a gathering; at least fifty strange people stood in her driveway, and more were walking up the road.
“Get away from my house,” she said. “All of you.”
“Get away from my house,” he replied. “Just the one of you.”
“I’m going to kill you, I swear it!”
“THAT PRAISE YOU, I HEAL FROM COMING YOU’LL!”
She raised the maul. “So you’re not here, huh? Yeah? Well, then maybe we’ll just find out what happens if I swing this axe. What would you think about that?”
He bent his head. Said, “Magnificent. I accept your offer.”
It was enough to make her do it. She swung. And swung. And swung.
He fell. And bled. And laughed—like a man being tickled. If she could have done anything, she would have stopped his ridiculous laughing. In lieu of that, she bashed his brains in.
“Mommy!” her son screamed from the front door. Light spilled out around both him and her husband. (Funny—she hadn’t heard it open again.) “What are you doing? Mommy, stop it!”
“I don’t—,” she started, and then she stopped. She didn’t … what?
Or maybe I do … ?
She watched her husband put a hand over their son’s eyes and pull him back inside.
Laura let the maul fall to the ground beside the laughing man, who was still laughing even as the blood oozed from his ruined skull. The others had disappeared and left him. It was just the two of them now, and, somehow, the man looked different. Fatter, maybe? With all the blood, she couldn’t be certain, but … was his hair even white? Who was he?
Who was the corpse on her lawn?
She put a hand over her mouth.
What if he’s not … what if … ? Oh no … it’s all slipping, my mind is slippery, my mind is slippy, she thought.
What had she done? What had she done really? And why had Nate’s eyes been gold?
She didn’t know, and, as time passed and her son continued to shriek somewhere beyond the still open but now empty doorway, she knew less and less. The walls of the world expanded, dissolved, and left her wondering: was she anywhere near the place she thought she was?
And if not there, then where, exactly, was she? What couldn’t she see?
Everything was variable. X didn’t equal X; X was X. It represented everything that wasn’t anything—everything unnamable and indescribable, that was X.
The abyss bloomed inside her, a shadow of a flower that had never been planted, never had a seed, yet grew infinite and unstoppable.
She reached up, pressed the tips of her fingers into her eyes, and started to claw them out. All she wanted
(claw, claw, claw)
—all she wanted was to see.