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The God Dam

The God Dam

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The God Dam

Length:
803 pages
13 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Feb 24, 2016
ISBN:
9781483590585
Format:
Book

Description

“You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, make them twice the prisoner of hell as they were before.”
– Jesus of Nazareth

THE GOD DAM is the story of one such convert: seventeen-year-old Tyler Rose, whose horrific childhood – and later indoctrination into Christian Fundamentalism – drives him to the brink of Niagara Falls, and a ‘leap of faith’ that he hopes will finally please his ‘Father in Heaven’.

When he opens his eyes, he is astonished to learn that he is not yet dead, but rather suspended in Limbo, where he is further surprised to meet his unborn twin, Angelina, who informs him that he still has time to change his mind – not about what he has done, but what he believes: About fathers, God, and most importantly, himself.

With Angelina’s inside knowledge and guidance, Tyler finally begins to recover from his abusive past, and comes to understand how religion – and its most fanatical believers – exploited and built on that abuse. But this knowledge, enlightening as it may be, is not enough to liberate him from his prison of beliefs. Before he can be truly free, and perhaps return to the realm of the living, he will need to confront – and somehow destroy – the most terrifying creation known to humankind, waiting for him in the darkness beyond The God Dam.
Publisher:
Released:
Feb 24, 2016
ISBN:
9781483590585
Format:
Book

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The God Dam - JT Price

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Prologue

Before the Beginning

Long before there was flesh and bone

or any words written or chiseled in stone

Long before ink, papyrus, or pen

or any reason to be born again

There was a Spirit, without face or form

somewhat like you, before you were born

And what do you know, after all this time

of waiting for raptures, or ladders to climb

the only beginning we need understand

is that God had no image from which to make man

Yet some will still wonder how this is related

to you and I being, if not created

From where did I come, and where will I go

if there is no Father or heavenly home?

Oh, don’t be afraid – you are so close to knowing

where you came from, and where you are going

For now, just imagine your Breath in the Wind

Are they not both outside and within?

Each One retains what makes it so

without ending the other, or making it whole

It’s like knowing complete security

while at the same time, being totally free

Never, no never, do you have to choose

between having one and the other you lose

Now let us move on to the difference of sexes

– not between brothers or sisters or ex’s

and not male and female somehow created

separately, as some have debated

But rather both genders and each of their roles

as twins, if you will, sharing one soul

One takes the body, while the other resides

within and without – like the Wind just described

And then, on a journey with a driver and seer

One whispers the way while the other one steers

But as it can happen when the light dims

misunderstandings can turn into sins

that cause some to seek what never was lost

and turns the sweet Wind into foul exhaust

Which brings us, at last, to Angelina and Tyler

who agreed beforehand that he’d be the driver

when they entered this time in nineteen-sixty

together, secure, and both of them free

– until Tyler encountered the source of all terror

made a wrong turn, then built on the error

Lost and trapped all at the same time

and not even aware he was driving blind

toward a sky-high wall rising up from the sand:

The wind-block known as the great God Dam

Part One: In the Beginning

1.

Curious Tyler Goes to School

If the eyes are the windows to the soul,

through which we see the ethereal Wind,

then the ears are the doors to the soul,

through which we hear, in the Wind,

an ethereal voice

within and without,

both distant and near,

both foreign and familiar:

It is a whisper in a world of shouts

and pretty lies,

carrots on sticks,

and other bribes,

competing for our trust

He awoke in a dirty little steelmill town in western New York State, where a suffocating overcast migrated down from the northwest each fall, and didn’t recede until the following spring. It was one seamless blanket, this overcast, dull and without definition, and it stretched from one end of the sky to the other like a murky grey firmament dividing heaven from earth. It was not so thick as to block all light, but it did turn the sun into a dim white ball, aloof and indifferent, and too weak to give birth to shadows.

Nevertheless, when he first opened his eyes, they were clear and blue as that rumored sky beyond the grey – where some souls have claimed to fly and see God naked and unashamed. And with eyes such as these, there was no need for such a thing as faith to see the real and true: for all that he saw was all that he knew, and what he knew was all that he saw.

But as time passed and the world around him began to take shape like a dream made of clay, the color of his eyes began to change from sky blue to an earthen brown – until, at last, terra was firmly reflected on the windows to his soul, and he no longer saw what he knew. He saw only the reflection. And knew it not.

It was the last day of summer, 1964. Tyler Rose was four years into the world by then – not quite a year behind his sister, Tia – and the two were sitting quietly beside each other on the front seat of their grandfather’s Buick as it idled in the parking lot overlooking Lake Ontario. Their grandfather, Cosmo Petrali, had been promising this outing all summer – promising to take Tia and Tyler up to Lake Ontario to teach them how to swim – but now that they were finally here, he was making them wait a bit longer.

Squeezed between his sister and the rather rotund Cosmo, and seated well below the dashboard, Tyler could not see what his grandfather was studying beyond the windshield. He could only hear the wind whistling out there, and occasionally felt the heavy Buick shudder on its springs.

Finally, Cosmo’s round, bald head turned slowly back and forth. No swim today, he said. Maybe nexa time.

Tia sighed, then mimicked her grampa with a quiet, disgusted mumble, Next time.

Being nearly a year older than Tyler, she had that much more experience with parents – grand and otherwise – and had come to understand that whenever they said things like, maybe later, we’ll see, and next time, what they really meant was no or never. ‘Promising lies’, she called them, even way back then.

And whenever she heard one of these promising lies, she thought of her absent father, Ron Rose, and the last time she had seen him. She had been sitting on a bed, she remembered, next to an open suitcase that he was packing, and when she asked where he was going, he wouldn’t answer.

She quickly reached into the suitcase and snatched out a pair of his black dress socks. Where are you going? she asked again.

He reached out his hand and snapped his fingers, a wordless demand to hand over the socks.

She clutched them to her chest. Can I go with you?

We’ll see, he said.

She handed him the socks.

He tossed them back into the suitcase, then closed it and carried it to the door.

Can I go with you? she asked again.

Next time, he said, then disappeared.

It was the last time she saw him, and the last time she heard his voice. She did not know how long ago it was, or even where the memory had taken place – but neither did she care. She didn’t believe in ‘Next Time’ anymore.

Tyler, meanwhile, had no memories of his father, or even any ideas or imaginings about him. In fact, if he hadn’t been told that he had a father, he would not have known he existed at all.

As for what he knew of ‘Next Time’? It was a wonderful place, real as tomorrow, where promises greeted believers with a smile and a wink and a ‘See? I told you so!’ There was no need to worry, no reason to wonder when, exactly, Next Time would come. There was only the waiting.

Even so, he was curious as to why Cosmo had changed his mind about today, and scrambled to his feet so as to see out through the windshield.

The sky was blue and clear – except for a distant band of grey stretched across the horizon like a thin, dirty blanket. The lake, meanwhile, was a mess, whipped into a dark green meringue, and topped with angry, white-tipped waves. The old concrete swimming pier – the last remnant of a resort hotel that once stood on the bluff – was being battered against its west side, while out near the end of the pier, a dozen seagulls sat undisturbed, wings tucked close to their sides, and facing the wind without a worry in the world.

Shoulda broughta aquilone, Cosmo said.

Tyler quickly turned his head at the sound of a brand new word. What’s an aquilone, Grampa?

With one foot in The Old World and one foot in The New, it was not uncommon for Cosmo to use words from both worlds in the same sentence – especially when he did not know the English equivalent of an Italian word. It made it difficult to understand him at times; and on some occasions, such as this one, it could lead to complete misunderstandings. An ‘aquilone’, for instance, is a ‘kite’ in English. But all Cosmo knew was the literal translation – ‘toy bird’.

He showed Tyler his hand, then shimmied it upwards toward the roof of the car. Toy bird, he said. Aquilone – toy bird.

It’s a bird? Tyler asked, quite surprised.

"A toy bird," Cosmo reiterated.

It still made no sense. Cosmo’s fat and stubby-fingered hand looked like no bird Tyler had ever seen before. He shrugged and turned his attention back down to the pier – where the seagulls were no longer sitting, but hovering, wings outstretched, suspended like kites attached to an invisible string. They were looking down, watching as a large wave crashed against the side of the pier. Water sprayed high into the air, but fell just short of the hovering birds – and once the froth of the wave passed over the other side of the pier, they simply lowered themselves back down to their flat, pink feet again.

What Tyler noticed most of all was how these particular birds – unlike every other bird he had ever seen in the sky – did not need to flap their wings in order to fly. Obviously, they were toy birds. Excited, he pointed a finger, then quickly turned his head back to Cosmo. Like that, Grampa? Are those aquilone?

Cosmo looked back down toward the end of the pier – where the seagulls were again suspended in the air – and then all he could do was laugh. He just could not make his four-year-old grandson understand what a kite was. So he said, Yes, thinking that would be the end of it, those are aquilone.

But for Tyler it was just the beginning. How can they fly without flapping their wings?

It is vento that lifts them, bambino, Cosmo explained. It is the wind.

That’s when Tyler first heard it, the voice of his unborn twin, Angelina, quiet but distinct as a breath in a breeze: There is another Wind, outside and within; inside, another sky, where you, too, can fly.

With a blink and astonished smile, he turned again toward the windshield and the aquilone beyond it. Can we go down there and try it, Grampa?

Trya what?

Fly with the aquilone!

Cosmo laughed again. Nexa time, bambino, he said, putting the car in reverse, nexa time.

And so Tyler returned home that day not only believing in the promise of Next Time, but knowing, when it came, that he, too, would rise with the wind and fly.

But first there would be a second beginning, wherein the simple but tragic blink of an eye, the Fall would come – and that dreadful, dirty blanket of grey would unroll across the sky, as if to put all the souls of the earth to sleep.

And oh, how hard it is, in the dreams of sleep, to believe what is seen; and how easy it is to see what is believed!

In the beginning, Tia and Tyler lived with their mother, Josephine, in a one-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a square, four story, red brick building that had originally been the town’s first firehouse. Constructed during the first Great War, it rose from the corner of Ash and Slate streets like the lookout tower of a medieval fortress, and was – with the exception of the smokestack at the steelmill – the tallest brick structure in town.

Back when the top floor served as living quarters for the firemen, there had been viewing platforms centered in each wall that extended two feet beyond the exterior bricks, providing a watchman with an unobstructed view of each quadrant of town. But when the new firehouse went up across town, the upper floor of the old firehouse was made into an apartment, and each viewing platform was converted into a bay window – including, oddly enough, the one in the bathroom. Due to the height of the building, however, privacy was not a concern.

It was Tia who named the place ‘The Red Brick House’ – not just for the obvious reasons, but as a confidence-building reference to the house that the wolf could not blow down in the story of The Three Little Pigs. She was terrified of the thunderstorms that frequented their grey little town, but if the howling of a hungry wolf could not topple a brick house, then neither should the thunder, rain, and howling wind of a storm – or so she hoped.

Tyler, who rather enjoyed a good window-rattling, wall-shaking thunderstorm, had other confidence-building reasons for liking The Red Brick House: its towering height, and those bay windows. Encased in his own glass eagle’s nest and perched thirty feet above the ground, he enjoyed nothing more than observing and learning from the busy things that passed beneath him – a woman sitting on a curb, shoes off, rubbing her bare feet, a cat crossing the street, a dog peeing on a telephone pole, an old man chasing his hat down the sidewalk, and the mailman who opened the box down on the corner and put most of the letters into his bag, while a chosen few went inside his jacket. He always looked around, that mailman, but never up and behind him. If he had, he would have seen the smiling face of Tyler Rose looking down at him, eager to wave a friendly hello.

But ever since his trip to the lake and seeing the aquilone, Tyler’s eyes and interest turned more toward the sky. There was not as much activity up there, but what could be seen beyond the glass was much more exciting, if not miraculous. There were birds, of course, as well as the occasional airplane – which also flew without flapping its wings – and now that the Fall had come, there were the leaves of autumn, scattered about and lying still, then suddenly gathered by the invisible wind and swept up into the sky.

Then came the day a white balloon floated up from somewhere below and stopped right outside his window. For a moment it just dangled there on the other side of the glass, as if waiting for direction, as if it didn’t know where to go now that it was free of the hand that had gripped its tethering string.

Fly away! Tyler said to it. Go up into the sky!

At that, the balloon finally began to rise. Higher and higher, free and alone, it did not stop until it came up against that thick, grey overcast that had come with the Fall, and began to bounce along beneath it as if probing for a soft spot to penetrate.

Then it popped.

As Tyler watched its deflated remains fall back to earth, something beyond it suddenly caught his attention: The smokestack at the steelmill. It was not the first time he had seen it, of course, (he always thought it looked like a finger of a red giant poking up through the world), but only now did he realize the startling implications. Observing how the thick plume of soot and smoke churned not only up into the sky, but all the way up and into the grey overcast that hung over the town, it was clear that clouds came from smokestacks!

When Tia stepped into the room, he quickly stood up on the window seat and excitedly shouted, Hey Tia! Guess what I know?

Tia ignored him. She was the oldest, after all, had been in the world longer than he, knew more things about it than he did, and even went to kindergarten – so how could he know anything that she didn’t already know? Please!

Tyler watched her stroll across the room and plop down on the couch, pretending he didn’t exist, and acting like his voice was just a ‘thigmint’, as she often said, of her imagination.

I know where clouds come from, he said – then quickly added, and I’m not telling you. It was a risky but necessary tactic. He knew it would bring Tia to the window, but he also knew that instead of letting him show her where clouds came from, she might just throw him to the floor and pound the information out of him.

Annoyed but sufficiently curious, Tia slid off of the couch and walked to the window. Alright, you little baby, she said. Where do clouds come from?

Tyler turned and pointed. See the smokestack over there?

Yeah, so?

Well look at the smoke coming out of it – it goes all the way up to the big cloud. It’s the same color and everything.

Tia leaned closer to the glass and, after a moment, her eyes widened, her mouth dropped open, and Tyler knew she understood.

Then she suddenly turned away from the window and excitedly yelled toward the kitchen. Mom! Come here! Hurry!

Josephine, sitting at the kitchen table and blankly staring into her cup of tea, winced as if Tia’s voice was a barbed fish hook caught in her lip, jerking her to where she did not want to go.

Mom! Tia called again.

Josephine slapped a hand to the table, then howled a long, loud, WHAAAT!

Come here! We gotta show you something!

Josephine closed her eyes and shook her head. It never ends, she thought. If it isn’t one, it’s the other.

Finally, she pushed herself away from the table, then stood and wearily walked across the kitchen and stepped inside the living room. What is it, Tia.

Tyler found out where clouds come from.

Josephine sighed. Where clouds come from? What the hell are you talking about?

Come here – come look out the window.

"Just tell me."

But you can’t see from there!

"Goddam it! Josephine shouted. Goddam pains in the ass!" She charged across the living room, abruptly stopped just short of the children, then put her hands on her hips and alternated an angry glare back and forth between Tia and Tyler as if she couldn’t decide which one to throw out the window first.

Look, Mom, Tyler said, pointing at the glass. See that smokestack over there?

What about it, Tyler, she said, not bothering to look at what he was pointing to.

There’s smoke coming out of the top – it goes up into the big cloud. Clouds come from smokestacks.

Finally Josephine looked, sighed, then offered her own conclusion on the matter. Idiots. I have two idiots for kids. She took Tyler’s head in her hands, turned it, then pressed his nose to the glass. Don’t you see all those buildings around the smokestack?

There were several buildings, a complex of grey and lifeless boxes with sheetmetal roofs and windows blackened from decades of soot.

That’s the steelmill, Josephine said. And they don’t make clouds at the steelmill.

Tyler had his doubts, so naturally he asked, "What do they make at the steelmill?"

Josephine removed her hands from his head. Money, she said, turning and walking away. And lots of it.

Tyler turned his attention back to the smokestack – where nothing had changed. He still believed what he saw, no matter what his mother said. Clouds came from smokestacks. And that one big cloud up there across the whole sky? It came from that smokestack right there – at the steelmill.

Josephine went back into the kitchen and sat down at the table. Her tea had gone cold even before the interruption, but when she put her hands around the cup, it still felt warm to her touch.

She turned a worried gaze to the small electric clock built into the back of the stove. It was just past three – which meant that the second shift at Mondo Steel had just begun, and there were now less than eight hours left before Bruce ‘Red’ Cole would be coming over to the apartment for the first time. Maybe. She had no way of knowing for sure. One thing she did know, whether he came or not, was that he was going to be pissed.

Also known as Mondo’s own legendary Man of Steel, Bruce Cole was famous for two things: his flaming orange hair, and his fiery temper. Josephine had met him at ‘Cosmo’s Cantina’, her father’s rank and ruinous tavern, where she sometimes tended bar to supplement her income as a secretary, and to keep her and the kids from starving. Like most everyone else in town, she’d heard the cautionary tales about Bruce ‘Red’ Cole, but unlike everyone else in town, she didn’t turn and head in the opposite direction when she saw him coming. Fire, after all, was dangerous only to those who did not know how to control it. More importantly, he had a damn good job and, at the age of twenty-six, was driving a brand new Cadillac.

Getting his attention had not been difficult – but then, how difficult is it to get the attention of any man in a bar? It didn’t matter that her breasts were too small, her nose too big, or that her ass was so huge and bulbous that it wasn’t just an eyesore, but a road hazard; and it certainly didn’t matter that she was smart, funny, and had the world’s largest, most beautiful brown eyes. The only thing that mattered to any man in any bar was that the woman be semi-conscious. At least that had been the case with her ex-husband, who would screw roadkill as long as it was still twitching.

The trick was keeping a man’s attention – and that required finding the one little hidden need that a man might have besides sex. She never found her ex-husband’s secret little need, only his secrets. But with Bruce ‘Red’ Cole she had spotted the need right away: Any twenty-six-year-old man, working in a steelmill, and making enough money to buy any car he wants but chooses a Cadillac – a distinguished gentleman’s car of choice – is a twenty-six-year-old man who sees himself as more important than the brutish laborer he is, and wants the rest of the world to see him that way as well.

She could do that, couldn’t she? Act as if she were deaf, dumb and blind to what was known about him? Pretend to worship him in exchange for a provider and protector? Easy as going to church.

It took just three dates to earn a promotion from the back seat of his Cadillac to the front seat – and things had been going so well since then, she’d even begun to fantasize about driving that Cadillac herself, perhaps on the way to the beauty parlor, or maybe just for a drive in the country, radio playing, windows down, a fresh breeze blowing her cares away. The only problem with this fantasy was that every time she’d look into the rearview mirror, she’d see two small children sitting in the back seat, and then the Cadillac would turn into a pumpkin.

It’s not that she hadn’t yet told Red about the children; she had been up front about that. Well, maybe not literally up front, but within minutes of their first ferocious testing of the Cadillac’s rear shocks. She wanted to get the issue out in the open and out of the way before she wasted any more time, money for babysitters, and perfume on a man who might rather join the priesthood than to get involved with a woman with two small kids.

But his reaction to the news was ambiguous: a snort and a shrug. Did that mean it didn’t matter to him? Or did it mean he wasn’t planning on anything long-term, so why should it matter?

To be sure, she told him that her kids wouldn’t be a problem.

To that, he had a ready, telling reply: "Just don’t ever let them be a problem."

And now, for the first time, they were.

It was Friday – and on Friday nights, Red expected her to be waiting outside the gates of the steelmill when he got off at eleven – after which they would make the rounds until the bars closed, drive out to Cold Springs Cemetery and spend the waning hours of darkness in the backseat of the Cadillac, then he’d drop her off out in front of The Red Brick House just as the streetlights were dimming down. Now here it was, late Friday afternoon, and she had no babysitter – and it wasn’t because there were none available, it was because she couldn’t afford one. In fact, she had spent her last dime on the payphone down on the corner to call the mill and ask them to put a note on his timecard. If he wanted to see her tonight, the note said, he would have to come over to the apartment.

Probably won’t bother, she thought. Probably just say to hell with it, who needs it, adios lady – I’ve got better things to do on a Friday night. Good luck finding someone who doesn’t mind waiting in line behind your two goddam kids.

Well then, to hell with you, too! she thought. What do you want me to do, drown them?

She shot to her feet, snatched her empty tea cup from the table, then stomped over to the counter and slammed it down into the sink. Turning the faucet on and absently watching the cup fill with water, she considered just putting Tia and Tyler to bed and sneaking out to meet Red anyway. Tyler wouldn’t be a problem if he woke up – he’d just get up and sit in the bedroom window until she got home. But what about Tia? She’s such a little panic button. If she woke up, she’d probably go running downstairs and out the door, screaming down the street until someone called the police. Wouldn’t that be nice? Front page news for this town! ‘Woman leaves children – aged four and five – alone in apartment so she can go out bar-hopping with Bruce ‘Red’ Cole, a.k.a. Mondo’s Man of Steel. Authorities reported that Josephine Petrali Rose – daughter of Cosmo and the late Mary Petrali – was found at Cold Springs Cemetery, fornicating in the back seat of a 1964 Cadillac Coup de Ville’.

She couldn’t help laughing at that, even as she felt like screaming.

Then she noticed that her cup was not holding water. She raised it up to her face, turned it in her hands, and saw that it was cracked.

Oh, who cares, she thought, tossing it into the garbage. Last minute birthday present from The Great Ron Rose. Bought at a cheap souvenir shop in Niagara Falls, it was the only thing that remained of their brief marriage – besides those two walking, talking souvenirs in the living room, that is.

She jerked the towel from the rack above the sink and began to dry her hands with such vigor that it seemed like she was trying to sand away a stain. Expensive souvenirs, she thought. And they’re about to cost a whole lot more. Goddam it!

She whirled around and stormed back into the living room to yell at them – for anything, for nothing, for just being there – then suddenly felt restrained, as if caught in a tug of war between endearment and resentment.

She looked at Tia, sitting on the floor, quietly playing with her Barbie doll. It was the only toy she had, and yet she was perfectly content with nothing more – never asks for new clothes, a tricycle, or something to eat besides the macaroni and cheese or beans and wieners I have to feed them seven days a week. Never complains about anything, that kid. Always makes do with what she’s got.

But with her jet-black hair, green eyes, and olive skin, she looked so much like her father that it was hard to forget what he had done.

Then she turned to Tyler, sitting in the window, gazing out into the world with such intense curiosity and determination to learn new things, she sometimes wondered if he was normal. Could lock him in the closet all day, then let him out and he’d be all excited – ‘Mom, I learned how to see in the dark!’ Or, ‘Mom, when I put my ear on the door, I can hear everything!’

But with eyes as big and brown as hers, blond hair and fair skin, he looked so unlike Ron Rose it was hard to forget what she had done.

It was then that Tyler turned away from the window – and, for no other reason than seeing his mother looking at him, smiled at her.

Josephine did not smile back. In fact, the longer she looked at that smile of his, the stronger the resentment became, and endearment finally let go of the rope. She wanted to ask him what that smile was all about, but why waste her breath? He wouldn’t know. He wouldn’t know the difference between innocence and ignorance – and that smile of his was ignorant. He doesn’t have a goddam clue! she thought. Neither one of them do! They have no idea that all my time and every cent I make goes to taking care of them! Just them! Nothing left for me! Twenty-four years old and I’ve got nothing to look forward to for the next ten, twelve years, than trying to keep my head above water with two cinderblocks chained to my ankles! If it were only Tia, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, so hard to start over. But with two cinderblocks? And one of them being the biggest goddam mistake of my life?

She turned and hurried out of the room, through the kitchen, then down the hallway and into the bathroom, where she quickly sat down on the edge of the tub and reached for the faucets.

Then she stopped. What about…? But what if…? Who would…? One question after the next came to her, but for each one answered, two more were born. She needed time to think. She needed time to think it all the way through, until every last possible question was silenced, and life could go on.

Two hours later, darkness descended and complete, she was lying in bed and staring blankly at the ceiling, reposed in a calm resolve – as if it were a business decision, nothing personal.

She sat up, then stood and stoically headed back to the bathroom, pausing only to flick on the overhead light before proceeding over to the deep, white, cast-iron bathtub. Sitting down on the curled edge of the tub, she reached for the faucets and twisted them all the way open. The sound of the water filling the tub reminded her of the steady rushing roar of Niagara Falls, and she felt the release of a sigh of relief. After waiting for what seemed like four long years for the tub to fill, she rolled up a sleeve and put her arm down into the water. It came up halfway between her elbow and her shoulder. It was time to turn the faucets off.

She swung around and looked to the opposite end of the tub, which was buttressed against the window seat of the bay window like a diving platform to an indoor swimming pool. She remembered when the landlord first showed her the apartment, and she’d asked what idiot would put a window right up against the back of a bathtub. He had explained the building’s history, then told her he would provide curtains – which he never did. But then, curtains were not really necessary. No one could see inside the bathroom unless they were thirty feet tall and standing on their tiptoes.

And yet, she still felt as if someone were watching her.

She turned on the edge of the tub and started to reach into the water to see if the plug was tight and secure, and was startled by her own reflection in the water, staring back at her – and like a thief confronted by a hidden witness, she momentarily forgot what she was doing. Not that there was any judgment in that reflection, or scorn, or even understanding. It was more like a nostalgic photograph, where it is not so much the subject that is captured, but a time, a place, a moment, and a memory. She watched as her hand now reached into the water and scooped a little pool into her palm. She brought it to her face, then closed her eyes and smiled, remembering a quiet, holy place, and the day she’d had Tyler baptized.

In the distance, faint but clear, the steamwhistle sounded from the mill – and like a steel lasso, it snatched her away from the memory and jerked her back to the here and now. She opened her eyes, spread open her fingers, and watched the water and that memory return to the deep, still water.

And yet, she still felt as if she were forgetting something.

She turned again and looked to the window seat, cluttered with shampoo bottles, a hair-rinsing cup, a few plastic hair curlers that the kids used as toy boats – then she noticed that the window was open a crack, as it usually was, to vent the steam of a hot bath. But the bathwater now was lukewarm at best, and there was no steam to vent. The glass of the window was clear. There was no reason to leave it open, and one good reason to close it: things unseen does not mean things unheard.

But as she cranked the window closed, something came in on the last wisp of a breeze, something she neither saw nor heard, and would present her with one last chance to change her mind.

She stood and wiped her hands on her slacks, then went to the door and flicked off the light, eliminating the witness reflecting in the bathwater. Then she called out through the open door. Tia! Tyler! Time for your bath!

The water’s cold, Mom! Tia cried as Josephine lowered her down into the tub.

Oh, stop, Josephine said. You’re not going to be in here that long. Then she lifted Tyler and set him down into the water.

Thanks, Mom!

She walked to the door, turned and studied the room once more, then noticed she was standing in the shaft of light flooding in from the hallway, and that her shadow was stretched from the door to the window. She pointed to the window seat, then watched the black finger of her shadow tap the hair-rinsing cup. Make sure you wash your hair, Tyler, she said. Then she stepped backwards into the hallway, but her shadow did not retreat.

The light, Mom! Tia yelled. Turn on the light!

Without thinking, she reached in and flicked on the light, then pulled the door closed.

Tyler immediately went exploring under the water. He’d long been curious about Tia’s missing pee-pee – all she had was an up and down line – and taking baths was the only time he could ever get a closer look. But he had to be fast, because Tia didn’t care too much for his undersea adventures, and always kicked her feet and tried to slug him under the water – all the while screaming for Josephine to come and make him stop. But this time there was no kicking, no scooting away, and no underwater fists to dodge. There was only Tia’s water-muted screams for Josephine. He popped his head out of the water, burped and giggled, then saw that Tia wasn’t screaming because of him, or because she was angry, but because of something else, and because she was scared.

She timidly pointed up toward the ceiling. Bumble bee!

At first the bumble bee was content to just buzz and bounce across the ceiling, but being spotted by Tia seemed to have gotten its attention, and it swooped down and zoomed straight for the tub.

Tyler simply laughed and dived back under the water, but when he popped back up and wiped his eyes, he saw the bumble bee circling Tia’s screaming head. He tried to swat it away from her, missed it with his hand, but caught it with a nice little spatter of water that seized its wings mid-flight. It spurted an ‘uh-oh’ buzz, then dropped, straight down, into the tub.

Bumble bee in the bathtub! he announced, like the skipper of a naval destroyer that had just shot down a Kamikaze.

It tried to crawl along on top of the water for a bit, lost its footing, then finally went legs up. But even with it drowned, who wants to take a bath with a dead bumble bee floating around on the water? Certainly not Tia. It gave her the creeps.

Get the cup and scoop him up, Tyler, she excitedly whispered, as if the bumble bee were only sleeping and might wake up. Scoop him up and pour him out the window.

Tyler stood and leaned over the back edge of the tub, but when he stretched out onto the window seat to reach for the cup, his body just slid right back down into the tub and under the water. A moment later, he shot right back up, laughing and burping.

Not funny, Tyler! Tia cried.

But it is! he replied. You should try it – it’s like the slide at the park, ’cept you go in the water instead of the dirt.

Move back down there, Tia ordered.

Sloshing his way again to the back of the tub, Tia then scooted up behind him, reached under the water, and grabbed hold of his ankles. Now try it, she said.

He leaned forward again and stretched across the window seat, and this time was able to grab hold of the cup. Pull me back, he said.

She didn’t really need to pull. He’d spread a lot of water across the seat, and it only took a little tug to pull him back into the tub.

As for the bumble bee, it took some doing and numerous failed attempts, but eventually Tyler managed to get it into the cup without accidentally spilling it right back into the tub. Got him! he said, quickly placing a hand over the cup.

Now open the window and pour him out, Tia said.

He stood and made his way to the back of the tub, then Tia again scooted up behind him and held his ankles. Stretching out as far as he could, he managed to get his free hand on the window crank and, with some effort, was able to turn it until the window was all the way open. And that was the easy part. The crank extended four inches in from the window frame – which meant that the edge of the open window was four inches beyond his reach. In order to pour out the bumble bee, he was going to need a boost.

Lift me up, Tia, he said.

At first, she couldn’t. Then she let go of his ankles and positioned her hands under his heels. That was better. The more she lifted, the lighter he felt.

Then she couldn’t feel him at all.

She looked up.

Slowly hydroplaning across the window seat, arm outstretched, Tyler poured the bumble bee out the window, then kept right on going.

Tia launched out of the water and lunged after him.

Josephine could hear that Tyler’s giggles and Tia’s screams had finally stopped, which meant the two of them had finally worn themselves out. She went over to the dresser and pulled out a pair of Tia’s pajamas so she could go in, dry her off, and put her to bed – then she’d go back in for Tyler.

Out in the hallway, it was odd to still not hear any sounds coming from the bathroom. She walked over to the door and put her ear against it, but heard no little voices, no little splashes, no little nothing. It should not be that quiet in there, she thought.

She opened the door a crack, peeked inside, and – incredibly, there was Tia, bent over the back of the tub, both hands desperately gripped around one of Tyler’s ankles. The only other part of him that could be seen was his legs and his shiny wet butt. The rest of him was bent over the edge of the window, outside and hanging upside down.

Ten pounds, Josephine thought. Tia weighed ten pounds more than Tyler. Had it been the other way around, they’d both be gone.

As it was, Tia was straining so hard just to hold onto Tyler’s ankle, there was nothing left to pull him in, or even to scream for help. All she had was those ten extra pounds. It made all the difference in their lives.

Tyler, meanwhile, halfway out the window and dangling thirty feet above the ground, was not only holding his breath, thinking it would make him lighter, he was still holding onto the rinsing cup.

Josephine started to pull the door closed, then stopped. It was an entirely different scenario, so it came with a previously unasked question. Would a tragic, thirty foot fall from an open window be any more suspicious than a tragic, ‘accidental’ drowning? No, she decided. If anything, it would be less.

Then Tia turned her head and saw her peeking through the barely opened door – and suddenly, there was another witness. Not one who could say what she had done, but one who could say what she hadn’t done.

Then she heard a faint tapping sound from somewhere behind her, and it took a moment to realize that someone was pounding on the downstairs door. Then, inside the bathroom, coming through the open window, she could hear distant shouts and pleadings, and a Hang on, little boy! At last a siren began to wail, far away, but getting closer.

She raced into the bathroom. Don’t let go, Tia, she calmly warned as she rushed to the opposite end of the tub and jerked out the drain plug. Then she hurried to the towel rack and snatched the towel from the rod. Quickly twirling it into a rope, then gripping both ends to make a harness, she went to the edge of the tub and called out the window. Tyler – I want you to listen to me very carefully. Do not move, do not squirm. Just stay still. Okay?

Okay, Mom.

Jesus, Josephine thought, he’s not even scared. "Now, I’m going to lower this towel down – don’t grab for it when you see it. Just lift up your chin – slowly. I’m going to loop the towel around your neck and pull you back in. Got it?"

Got it, Mom.

She turned to Tia. Doing okay?

Tia nodded a wide-eyed, uncertain nod.

Josephine then slid herself onto the window seat, hooked a foot under the curled edge of the tub, and leaned out the window. There were perhaps a dozen onlookers, illuminated by the streetlight and the headlights of the passing traffic. They were all looking up at her, quietly praying and waiting as she lowered the towel-harness. She got it around his neck on the first try. Pull, Tia, she said. Then together they pulled Tyler back up onto the window seat and all the way back into the tub.

Applause and cheers and one Thank God! rose from the crowd below.

Tyler sprang to his feet. Thanks, Mom!

Josephine shook her head and sighed. You can let go of the cup now, Tyler.

At ten o’clock, Josephine brought pillows and a blanket out onto the couch, and tucked the kids in.

How come we gotta sleep on the couch, Mom? Tyler asked.

A friend of mine might be coming over to spend the night.

I didn’t know you had a friend! Tyler gleefully exclaimed.

Josephine laughed.

What’s her name?

Nevermind, Tyler – just go to sleep. I’ll see you in the morning. She reached for the lamp, but before she could turn it off, Tia had a question of her own – a question that had been bothering her since their bath.

Will the monster come back, Mom?

It was just a bumble bee, Tia.

No. Before that. It was black. I saw it. It was on the floor, coming out of your feet. It went away when you turned on the light.

It took a moment, but finally Josephine realized she was talking about her shadow. She remembered seeing it herself, and watching it use her finger to tap the rinsing cup. But it was back inside her now, where she could control it, instead of the other way around.

I’m scared if you turn off the light, it’ll come back.

It won’t.

How do you know?

Because I’m your mother, that’s why.

She turned out the light, then sat there on the edge of the couch until Tia, Tyler, and even her shadow went to sleep for the night.

At seven in the morning, the bedroom door opened and Josephine came down the hallway, her short nightshirt unbuttoned, and a slight smile on her face. She went to the stove, greased the frying pan, then set it on the back coil burner and turned it on. Standing there in her bare feet, the cold of the floor soon got her attention, and she hurried back to the bedroom for her slippers.

Twenty minutes later, Tyler woke up out on the couch. Something smelled funny – not bad, really, but not exactly good, either. He decided that Tia must have farted under the blanket.

He sat up and reached for the only toy he owned – a plastic pistol lying on the coffee table in front of the couch. With no moveable parts – like a hammer or trigger or even plastic bullets – it may have been worthless in lesser hands, but when Tyler turned and shot the lamp, it stayed off. Then he aimed at Tia’s Barbie doll lying on the coffee table, let go a shot, and Barbie said not a word. Then he turned and pointed the pistol at his sister.

Tia, who had been faking sleep, quickly sat up and slapped the pistol out of his hand.

Hey! Tyler yelled. He retaliated by jerking the blanket off of her, then quickly hopped off the couch before she had a chance to smack him.

As he walked over to retrieve his plastic weapon, Tia quickly slid off the couch. Tricked you again! she laughed as she ran out of the room. And what she meant by that was, while Tyler was diverted she would get to use the toilet first.

Tyler squatted down, picked up his pistol, and when he stood back up and turned around, Tia burst back into the room. FIRE! she screamed.

Tyler promptly shot her.

But she didn’t clutch her chest, and didn’t fall down. THERE’S A FIRE ON THE STOVE! she cried, turning and looking back into the kitchen.

Although Tyler had heard the word ‘fire’ before, he had yet to actually see it. All he was told – when Tia brought the word home from kindergarten – was that fire was something children were never to play with, that it was bad, and that it could hurt you. He was glad he had his plastic pistol.

But when he walked over and met Tia in the archway between the two rooms and peered into the kitchen, he saw nothing bad or scary. There was just a harmless orange triangle, dancing and snapping and crackling from the frying pan at the back of the stove.

That’s fire? he asked, amused.

Tia frantically nodded her head. Make it stop! she cried.

Tyler shrugged, aimed his pistol at the fire, and let go a shot – which should have stopped it. Instead it hissed, grew orange crawly fingers, and began to climb the wall behind the stove. Black smoke rose and curled and twisted upwards, then began to form a thick, black cloud across the ceiling.

Tia, seeing that her brother and his plastic pistol were useless, raced across the kitchen and down the hallway to the bedroom – only to find the door closed and locked. She could hear strange sounds beyond the door – a persistent, rhythmic squeaking, accompanied by snorting grunts and a few loud moans – but she could not imagine what was making the noise, nor did she understand that it had something to do with the door being locked.

She pounded on the door. FIRE! THERE’S A FIRE IN THE KITCHEN!

The squeaking and moaning abruptly stopped, footsteps could be heard racing across the floor, then the door whipped open and Josephine appeared, naked, flustered, and panicked. Get out of way! she yelled, then hurried past Tia and ran down the hallway.

Tia did not chase after her. Staring into the bedroom, she was gripped by another frightful sight, of a huge, naked man, standing in front of the bed, and pulling up a pair of white boxer shorts. What so frightened her, however, was not the sight of the man himself, how big he was, or even her brief view of his nakedness. It was his hair – his bright and glistening, greased back, flaming orange hair. She had never seen anyone with orange hair before, and it scared her as much as the fire. She quickly pulled the door closed, then hurried down the hallway and back into the kitchen.

Josephine quickly but carefully lifted the frying pan off of the burner, but when she turned toward the sink, a wave of liquefied, flaming grease sloshed over the edge of the pan and onto the floor. Now there were three fires to deal with: the one crawling up the wall behind the stove, the one still flickering in the frying pan, and one spitting up from the floor.

Goddam it! she yelled. She dropped the pan into the sink and turned the water on – which not only extinguished the lingering flame, but cracked the pan. She grabbed the dishtowel and ran it under the water, then turned and tossed it onto the fire on the floor. There was a quick hiss, and when she lifted the towel the fire was gone, vanished like a magic trick. At last there remained the few licks of flame stuck to the wall behind the stove, and she easily snuffed them out with a couple of snaps of the towel.

Throughout the whole ordeal, Tyler had not moved from the spot where he had first seen the fire – and it wasn’t because he was afraid. He was listening. Every detail of every action, every sight, every sound, and every moment through which they passed, seemed to be speaking of something else, something more important than the simple things he had just seen and learned. Looking up at the smoke suspended from the ceiling, he understood, now, that clouds really came from fire; and from there he was able to reason that it must be fire that they made at the steelmill. He also understood that fire was not a good thing to have in your house. And yes, he certainly saw what water could do to fire. But within all this, and beyond the ‘right now’, there was something else embedded, something important, but he couldn’t quite grasp it – almost as if it belonged in Next Time.

He turned and watched his mother walk over to the window. Cranking it open, she then began to wave a hand as if to say, This way, all clouds outside, let’s move it.

Then came a sudden, dull thud and vibration in the floor, followed by another, then another, slow and steady, approaching like the booming footstomps of an angry giant. It was the way Bruce ‘Red’ Cole always walked, slowly and purposely pounding a heel to the floor with each precise step – not just to get people’s attention, but because he liked the sound and feel of it.

He emerged from the smoky darkness of the hallway, took shape and form, then just stood there, hands fisted and resting on his hips, and looked about the kitchen with a narrow, suspicious glare. He looked to the stove and saw the coil burner still glowing. He saw the charred streak of black on the wall behind the stove. He looked down and saw the scorched spot on the floor. Finally, he looked up at the thinning smoke as it moved across the ceiling toward the open window. He had it all figured out.

Josephine stepped back from the window, then turned and put her own hands on her hips. I told you we didn’t have enough time, she said to Bruce ‘Red’ Cole. Almost burned the goddam house down. She was referring to what she had told him when she had returned to the bedroom for her slippers, when he had grabbed her and pulled her down on top of him. But Red Cole was not a man who handled protests very well – in fact, nothing stoked his anger faster than someone telling him no, except maybe someone telling him, I told you so.

He took a booming step toward the sink – which Tyler thought was a good idea. Like Tia, he had never seen anyone with orange hair before, so it was obvious that his head was on fire. Better just stick your head in the sink and run the water, mister, whoever you are.

But he only stared down into the sink, studying the cold, cracked frying pan as if it were a clue to a greater conspiracy. Then he turned and looked over at Tia. Mouth dropped open, eyes wide and holding her breath, she was looking up at him with a stupid look on her face – as if she’d been caught in the act. Yep – she was in on it alright.

Then he looked down at Tyler.

Tyler smiled up at him. Hi.

Definitely guilty, Red thought. He’s probably the little shit who cranked the burner on.

I think you should take us all out for breakfast, Josephine said. She was only half serious, but it was still the wrong thing to say, as it not only confirmed Red’s suspicion that all of this had been staged, it told him why it had been staged.

Can we have pizza? Tyler asked.

Red turned and pulled open the silverware drawer, rummaged around inside it until he found what he was looking for, then turned back around with a black-handled, stainless-steel steak knife gripped in his hand.

Tyler immediately recognized the knife as part of a set that his mother never allowed him or Tia to use. They’re too sharp and heavy, she had said. If you dropped one it would go right through your foot and nail it to the floor.

Red lightly tossed it in his hand, with the point aimed in Josephine’s direction. Then he spoke his first words, slowly grinding each one out between clenched teeth. Get, your fucking ass, back in that bedroom.

Tia let out a scream.

Josephine took a step backwards. You’re scaring the kids,

Red started walking toward her. "I told you to get, your fucking ass, back in that goddam bedroom – NOW!"

Tia let out another scream, then darted across the room and tried to hide behind Tyler. He’s gonna hurt Mom! she cried.

Tyler, who still had his plastic pistol in his hand, dropped it to the floor. If it didn’t help with the fire, it sure wouldn’t help with an angry, fire-headed giant. He then raised a tight little backwards fist into the air. Stop it you! he yelled, Or you’re gonna be in trouble!

Red would have laughed had he heard him. But he could hear nothing now. Nor was he aware, anymore, of anyone else in the room but himself and the target in his sights. He kept moving forward, slowly and unstoppable as an uncoupled boxcar creeping down a slight decline until, finally, Josephine’s back was against the wall.

I’m sorry, she quietly said, hoping it sounded submissive and soothing enough to calm him. Please stop it. Okay, hon?

What did I tell you about your goddam kids? he said. Huh?

She looked to the floor and nodded as if ashamed of herself. I know, I know. I’m sorry, she said. Then she saw the knife begin to rise – and the only thing that kept her from screaming was that she also saw that he was growing an erection. Match point.

He brought the knife up slowly, over her left breast, then lowered it just as slowly until the cold, sharp tip of the blade lightly touched the nipple. She sighed and pretended to shiver. Then carefully, she raised her hand up and slipped it inside his boxer shorts. Let’s go back in the bedroom, she whispered.

With Red eclipsing Tia and Tyler’s view of their mother, neither one of them heard the whisper, saw what preceded it, nor understood that Josephine was now the one in control. All Tyler saw was his mother turn and begin to walk backwards, feeling her way along the wall, with the knife still at her breast and Red looming over her.

Leave my mom alone! he yelled, as they turned down into the hallway. Then he raced across the room and down into the hallway after them. Leave my mom alone! he yelled again, then began to bang his small fists to the back of Red’s muscular legs. Just as they were about to go into the bedroom, Red gave a quick, but powerful flick of his leg that sent Tyler into the wall, then onto the floor – and before he could scramble back to his feet, the door slammed closed. Then he heard the lock turn. He sprang to his feet and threw himself into the door. Come out of there, you! he yelled.

There was no answer beyond the door, no sound of approaching footsteps, just silence, then a strange rhythmic squeaking.

He then became aware of another sound, a louder sound, out in the kitchen. It was Tia. She was screaming. Over and over. He hurried back into the kitchen and took her by the hand, then led her into the living room and into the closet.

An hour passed.

Then another.

Then somewhere into the third hour, Tia and Tyler both became aware of another monster in the house – a large, dark, suffocating monster, crammed into the closet with them. Its name was Silence. And all it had to say was, Your mother is gone.

Only Tia believed him. Even after the silence went away and she could hear Josephine out in the kitchen – talking and laughing, then asking him to come over again tonight – she knew her mother was gone. Even after she heard the man leave, and could hear Josephine running a bath, she knew her mother was gone. But mostly, it was an hour after that, when the light went on

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