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The Listening Game by Rich Larson

The Listening Game by Rich Larson

Fiction, Vol. 5.4, Dec. 2011

One of these days you’re going to hear something you shouldn’t, you little goose.

Danny’s mother had told him this when she found him kneeling outside the door in his plaid pajama pants and Spider-Man shirt. But that was the whole point of the listening game: adults telling secrets. Usually Danny’s mother would be upset that he was out of bed so late, spying on her getting tangled in the black phone cord, but this time she just ran her hands through his hair.

“Do you remember Uncle Vince and Auntie Caroline?” she asked. “They have a little girl. Well, not little. About your age. Imogen?” Danny remembered the house, out in the country and across the border. It was a long ways away, so he was surprised when she asked him to get his boots and jacket on. The digital clock on the stove was blinking 11:37 when they shuffled out onto the driveway. His mother started up the battered white Nissan and unlocked the doors.

“You can sit in the front, Dan,” she said absently. “You’ll have to keep me awake. We’ll tell each other stories.” Danny wasn’t going to argue with sitting up front, but he didn’t worry about his mother falling asleep. Her hands were pressed white on the wheel as they trundled out in reverse.

“You know,” she said, “There’s a story about a Greek king who had donkey ears.”

“Tell me,” Danny said, staring out the window at the fractured city lights.

“Well, he had donkey ears.” Danny could tell it wasn’t going to be one of her best stories. She was out of practice with stories. “And one day, his hair was so long that he needed a barber to cut it for him. Snip-snap. Just like when I cut your hair.”

There was an intermission while she looked for the right range road. She swore, apologized, and made a U-turn. The tires crunched and squealed onto gravel. Danny kept looking out the window, now seeing nothing but flashing dark. Their headlights were alone on the road.

“Oh,” said his mother. “The story. This king, once his hair was cut away, the barber saw his donkey ears. So the king put his crown back on and ordered the barber be put to death.”

“How?” Danny asked. He relished this kind of detail.

“Hanged from a rope,” she told him. “Hrrk. Like that. But the barber begged for his life. He had a family to look after, see. So the king had mercy on him and let him go.”

“Oh.” Danny hid his disappointment.

“The secret was driving the barber crazy,” his mother continued. “So he went and dug a hole in the ground, and he whispered into it. The king has donkey ears! And then a tree grew out of the spot where he buried his secret.” Danny’s mother made a slight adjustment to the steering wheel. “Whenever wind blew the branches, you could hear the secret being whispered. Pretty soon, the entire kingdom knew.”

“What’s the moral?” Danny asked. He liked giving her this challenge. This time it upset her, and she bit her lip.

“Secrets can’t just stay buried,” she said, and it was in her almost-crying voice.

*

The long dirt driveway to the house was dreamily familiar, even in the dark. He remembered a big black dog, but his mother told him the Walmsleys had gotten rid of her. They wound up through the trees and finally arrived outside the house. It was an acreage, his mother told him, so there was plenty of space to play. Wasn’t that nice?

“Oh, God, you didn’t have your seat-belt,” she muttered, slipping the key out.

“Oops,” Danny said, like he’d forgotten. By the time they were on the concrete porch, the screen door and regular door had both been flung open. The lady Danny recognized as Imogen’s mom was wearing a nightgown and swaying from side to side. His own mother collided with her and she began crying, a rusty sound like she’d been at it for a long time.

“There’s Imogen,” Danny’s mother whispered down, jostling his arm. “Go play.” Danny looked past the entwined adults and saw a small blonde girl perched on some stairs. The crying became louder. Imogen was watching it all, blank-faced, and she gave Danny a frown when she noticed him.

“Hi,” Danny said, when his mother had taken hers into the living room.

“Hi,” Imogen returned. She was looking at him over the top of her knobby knees. It looked like she was only wearing a big blue shirt and socks.

“Your mom is friends with mine,” Danny said.

“The policemen came and took my dad to jail,” Imogen said.

“Oh.” Danny was surprised. “With the sirens on?”

“I don’t know,” she sniffed. “I don’t remember.”

“Why’d they make him go?” Danny asked.

“They thought he made children disappear,” Imogen said. “Ha!”

“That’s stupid.”

“Yeah, it’s stupid. And the children came back, so what’s the fuss?” She gave another laugh, soft and contemptuous. It sounded like something she had copied from her mom.

“Yeah,” Danny said vaguely, distracted by the rising tide of noise from the living-room. He hated adult crying. Imogen didn’t seem to notice.

“You know what really happened? Fairies.” She rubbed the heels of her hands into her eyes. “They live in the trees around here. Sometimes they snatch kids.” Danny remembered the drive through the dark woods. Out here, in the country, who knew? Fairies might live on an acreage.

“You brave?” Imogen demanded.

“Yeah, I’m brave.” Braver than a girl, but he didn’t say that part.

“Alright,” Imogen said. “I have a flashlight. We can go look for some in the forest.” Danny suggested they play the listening game first, more as a delaying tactic than anything. Imogen listened while he explained it, but shook her head firmly. She wanted fairies.

*

He was used to a soft orange night-time, diffused by regularly-spaced street lamps. There were no street lamps in the woods. Nothing watered down the darkness. The trees, the bushes, the knotted roots: everything was acrylic blue and black.

“Does it have a lot of battery?” Danny asked. Imogen toggled the switch back and forth, strobing the icy clouds of their breath.

“Lots,” she said, still not smiling. She had to hold the chunky yellow flashlight with both hands. Danny had an entire interrogation bubbling in his head. Did living on an acreage mean she did this a lot, going into the woods at night? Did it mean she knew her way around them? Were there animals? He was braver than a girl, even a funny one like Imogen, so he didn’t ask.

The woods swallowed them up, snip-snap, like a fairytale wolf. It hadn’t snowed yet, but the ground had a broken-glass shimmer of frost where Imogen shone the light. The noisy stamp of their feet and the chilly air was exciting. It was doing something behind Danny’s ribcage.

“If you shine a light on a fairy, it has to freeze where it is,” Imogen told him. It sounded like a hasty addition to the mythology, but she said it with confidence and Danny nodded. She darted quicker through the trees. Danny stumbled quicker after her. The thing behind his ribs was tugging him like a magnet. He found he was scared in the very best way. They chased the erratic stabs of Imogen’s flashlight and the fairies danced ahead of them, just out of sight.

*

After the tea-pot was empty and tears had dried, Imogen’s mom followed them out to the car. She stood there in her nightgown with a thick parka thrown over, rubbing one calf against the other, while the ignition made its rubbery scraping protests. Danny fidgeted on the passenger side of the Nissan, fingers already hooked under the door handle. He didn’t want his mother to forget he was being allowed to ride in front.

The engine started and his mom leaned across to unlock the door. It was still cold inside, with the vent blowing hoary dust. Danny closed the door behind him and huddled on top of his hands. Imogen had been sent up to bed already. He peered through the windshield at blurry lit windows, half-hoping she might appear there to wave.

“I’m going to let it warm up for a few minutes,” Danny’s mother told him, rummaging in the gum-stuck compartment between the seats. She pulled out something other than dirty coins and went around to give Imogen’s mom a last hug. The bottle went between them, Danny saw. He felt bad for Imogen’s mom standing there with her red swollen eyes and flimsy nightgown.

When they arrived back, Danny was asleep. His mother started hauling him out of the car, still in a hyper-maternal state, but he was getting too heavy for that and it woke him up. So he walked with her up the driveway, bleary-eyed, and waited crankily while she fished out the house key. He rubbed his face against her back, to bother her, but her hand snuck around and clutched at him in the way she did when he was growing up too fast. She didn’t even make him brush his teeth.

But the night wasn’t entirely over. Danny was partly dreaming when his mother appeared in his room, wearing only her towel. Her hair was wet. She was sighing and looking at him, and her eyes were red, too. Danny woke up more as she came and sat on the end of the bed, making it move to her warm weight.

“Danny,” she whispered. “Uncle Vincent. Imogen’s daddy. Do you remember when we visited them more? Did he ever play a game with you?” She was stammering, like an actor on the soaps she called garbage but watched between laundry loads.

“Monopoly,” Danny whispered back.

“Was it ever just you and him, Danny? Or maybe you and him and Imogen?” It had to be an important question, the way she was asking. Danny tried to guess which way to answer.

“No, never,” Danny said. The breath went out of her happy, so he solidified it. “Never ever.”

“Oh, thank God,” she murmured. “Oh, thank God. Oh, poor, poor Imogen.” Danny was going to explain to her about the forest and how lucky Imogen really was, but then his mother bolted up out of the bed and fled all at once, clutching her towel. He only called once or twice, then went back to sleep. He could hear her moving downstairs. The familiar sounds of cupboards and clinking glass were a jagged lullaby for him.

*

Danny’s mother had said they would visit the acreage again soon, very soon. She’d promised it to Imogen’s mom while they hugged their final hug outside the car. But they didn’t visit that Christmas or summer, or the next one. Danny pestered her about it for a while, remembering the woods, but eventually he gave it up, realizing it made her feel bad. When she felt bad, she didn’t like to cook and her coffee had a stronger liquor smell.

So it was the summer Danny was twelve that the reunion finally happened, the tail-end of a series of tearful phone conversations. His mother told him, with her nails twisting small curls in his hair, that he was going to spend a few weeks with Imogen and her mom. Imogen was by this time a dim memory. An impish face in a beam of light. Clattering branches that had looked scary at the time. Danny didn’t want to spend baseball weeks on an acreage, but his mother went through a dramatic cycle of pleading and threatening and bribing until they both knew it was an inevitable thing, and the argument was just a sideshow. His mother was not going to be staying with them.

“You be good,” she said, aiming a kiss at his forehead as he scrambled out of the car. They had kicked up a fogbank of dust on the dirt range road. The Nissan was filthy.

“I will,” Danny told her. He knew that the visit was not for him. He still played the listening game enough to know she was checking into a hospital.

“You’re such a sweet boy,” she said. “Brush your teeth every night, okay?” And then she gave him a watery smile and was gone, before Imogen’s mom could come out and make her feel guilty. Danny picked up his backpack and went to the door.

*

The house was the same, but Imogen’s mom had changed. In fact, she was more like his own mother now. She settled him into his room and made him a glass of lemonade from powder in fits and starts. She was smiling, but in a stapled-on kind of way. Danny accumulated more evidence over the next few days. Things like the web of smashed capillaries across her nose that she covered with too much makeup, and the chrome travel mug she carried like a talisman.

“Imogen is out playing,” she told him, sliding the plastic cup over. The mix was the kind that didn’t have sugar in it. The first swallow bit his tongue.

“Playing what?” Danny asked reflexively. Playing was no longer a catch-all word. His mother had managed to make the switch, but maybe Imogen’s had not.

“Oh, you know.” She gave him a vague laugh. “Playing.” Danny asked for sugar, and she ladled a single teaspoon in for him, lips pursed. It wasn’t enough. His teeth shivered against the citrus, artificial sour, but he sipped until it was gone. He was pretending to have enjoyed it when Imogen made her first appearance.

She was taller than him now, which made him bristle right off the bat. She had floaty blonde hair that looked like it would stick to your hand and lanky suntanned legs in cut-off jeans. Her mouth was half-open to say something to her mom, but now she closed it to a suspicious line. Then it was time for the don’t-you-remember game, with Imogen’s mom directing, and both of them nodded and gave non-committal smiles. Imogen asked for lemonade, dumped half the sugar bowl in before anyone could intervene, and vanished up the stairs. Her mom scowled, then played it off as funny while scrubbing the counter, and that was that.

Danny didn’t look for her too hard over the next few days. She was always out of the house, apparating only at specific times for food. Danny looked for interior diversions first. The television was on constantly here, talk shows running all day. Imogen’s mom never seemed to watch it, but she gave him a pained look whenever he tried changing channels. With that ruled out, he went searching for his ball and glove.

*

He was ripping pitches against a bowing chain-link fence, thunking them low and fast so the whole thing rippled, when Imogen made her second appearance. She had a book bag slung over her shoulder and it bounced as she marched on him. Her eyes were narrowed.

“Stop that,” she said. “That’s our fence.”

“What?” Danny used the time to get a last pitch in. This one really rattled.

“I said that’s our fence, and you should stop throwing your ball at it,” Imogen said. Danny retrieved the ball, rubbing his thumb in familiar patterns over the stitching. He wondered if she had a baseball bat in a shed somewhere, maybe her dad’s.

“Sure,” Danny said. “What’s in the bag? Books?” Imogen brushed hair away from her forehead and looked at him. After a second, she puffed air out of her cheeks.

“Aren’t you going to ask about my dad?” she asked. She seemed cheated that he hadn’t.

“Oh.” Danny tucked the ball into his glove. “Is he, uh…?”

“Still in prison?” Imogen suggested. She’d said it, not him.

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, he is.” Imogen shifted the bag to her other shoulder. “Don’t listen to anything my mom tells you. She’s really going downhill.” It was said in a cucumber-cool voice. It is a natural tendency of mothers to go downhill, she seemed to be saying. Yours probably is, too.

“Alright,” Danny grinned. Something about her hand on her hip reminded him of a woman on television. He liked it. Inexplicably.

“Make no mistake, Danny boy,” Imogen said. The liking dropped away. “My dad is innocent. They framed him. Those kids weren’t kidnapped by anything human.” The confidence in sanity that Danny applied to everyone, except his mother when she was in a real state, dropped away.

“You still explore in the woods?” Unspoken: looking for fairies. Danny jerked his head in their general direction. What he had thought of as a vast forest wasn’t much more than a copse now. It might still be spooky at night, but it definitely wasn’t big enough to get lost in.

“It wasn’t fairies,” Imogen sighed, making him feel like an idiot.

“Oh.”

“Of course, they were probably mistaken for fairies in olden days,” Imogen continued, rummaging in her bag. “I’m talking about abduction. See? Extraterrestrials.” She shoved an armful of books at him, daring him to drop them. He juggled them into a manageable stack. The one on top, a flimsy paperback, showed a night sky on the cheap holographic cover. When he turned his head slightly, an alien face appeared with two big luminous eyes. Aliens. Danny had seen a television program about ancient astronauts once. He’d liked it.

“Well, how else would the pyramids have gotten made?” he asked, with what he hoped was a suave shrug of the shoulders. Imogen fixed him with an evaluating glare, decided he wasn’t being flippant, and took most of the books back.

“Read up,” she said. “Abductions happen in rural areas like this all the time.” Danny thought about the talk show hosts droning inside the house. The counter where Imogen’s mom opened another can of Bolognese and asked, subtly, about his mother not returning many calls.

He decided to read up.

*

That was how the last gasp of summer was spent. They stayed up late together, reading to each other out of the books that she found in bins for ten cents or picked up from the library. It was strange being in a girl’s room like that, with just the two of them, but her mom never mentioned it. Danny learned a lot about government conspiracies and the crash site in Roswell.

During the day, they went out into the canola fields. The first few times Danny brought his ball and glove with him, thinking he might be able to convince her to throw popflies for him. That eventually turned into a pretense, then a duty, then stopped altogether. Imogen was after evidence. If they could just find enough evidence, she said, then the police department would have to own up to its scapegoating tactics and her dad would get released in a matter of weeks.

That was why they went into the fields. Sometimes they had to climb a fence, and sometimes they had to run away from the distant moan of a combine with a zombie-like farmer riding on top of it, but for the most part their search was uninterrupted. She told him about crop circles, and how aliens made smaller ones first, to show each other where to suck humans up into their ships, and then bigger ones to serve as landing pads.

One day they found a dead cow, wandered far out from its pasture to keel over, but it wasn’t mutilated in the way Imogen’s latest book described. It was just fat and bloated and smelled so bad that neither of them wanted to go close. Danny searched for a long stick, to lift up its ears and check for lobotomy holes, but the stalks he found were too flimsy. Eventually they left it rotting where it was, with swarms of tiny flies buzzing around it like news helicopters, reporting on devastation in the bovine community. Imogen called that one inconclusive, once she had pulled her T-shirt down from her nose and wiped her watering eyes.

*

Danny’s mother came to pick him up with a new manicure. Her nails were long and arterial red and scraped him when they hugged. She looked happy, though, and stayed for an extended tea with Imogen’s mom, thanking her over and over. I wasn’t that much trouble, Danny wanted to say.

“That means we can go take another look,” Imogen said, when he found her on the stairs. She was still reading the cattle mutilation book.

“Yeah,” Danny said, forcing some enthusiasm into his voice. “Sure, let’s go.” He was relieved when they arrived on the spot and the old cow carcass was gone. The farmer had come with gloves and a pick-up truck and hauled it away. Now there was just a stain and a bad smell.

“Or else,” Danny said, as they turned to go, “The aliens came and sucked it up. To finish the job inside the ship. Make steaks.” He was grinning, but it died when Imogen’s cheeks flushed. She looked at him like they were just meeting again.

“You don’t even believe the books, do you?” she asked coolly. The question caught him off-guard. He used the usual defense mechanism and shrugged.

“I don’t know.” He rubbed sweat off the back of his neck. “All of it?”

Imogen didn’t dignify him with a response, and he ended up following her back to the house at a safe distance. The whole thing was stupid, happening on their last day together. He couldn’t help but think it was because his mother had showed up. It was getting dark when they arrived back, Imogen strutting up to the porch with her shoulders all bunched and Danny coming a measured number of steps behind her.

Their mothers were inside, laughing too loudly. Imogen had stopped right there in the doorway with her hands balled up at her sides. Danny listened for the tell-tale ting of glass and the sounds of sloppy pouring. He heard both and tried out a bracing smile. Imogen’s face was all screwed up, as if it was his fault. Danny wanted to tell her not to go inside, but she ignored his unsaid suggestion and went on in. Danny sat down to wait.

He could imagine how it went. She had probably gone into the living-room and found them sprawled on their chairs, giggling like hyenas. Her books, shunted aside to make room for a bottle and glasses on the coffee table. She might have asked what was so funny, but of course that would only make her mom laugh harder. Maybe she shrieked at her then, or glared—Imogen had a good glare—and then her mom stumbled up and tried to hug her, shush-shushing from a dizzy-smelling mouth.

Whatever happened, Imogen came back out dry-eyed. And she had his ball and glove in her hands, too.

“Let’s go to the fence,” she said. “Please. Sorry for being angry.”

“It’s alright,” Danny said.

“Can I use this?” Imogen asked. She was already putting her hand inside, shaking a little, so Danny nodded his head. They walked to the fence, away from the yellow lights and laughter. It was dark in earnest now and there was a sticky kind of evening heat. She started pitching against the fence. Her throwing arm wasn’t so great, and a few times Danny was scared she might lose it over the top, but after a while it started to whack straight and true into the fence’s chain-link belly. She didn’t say anything, just kept throwing and retrieving the ball in the dark.

Thwack.

Rattle.

Scurry through the grass and repeat, repeat, repeat.

“Thanks,” she finally said, handing the glove back solemnly. She moved her hair away from her forehead.

“Yeah,” Danny said. “You throw alright for a girl.”

“Can I show you something?” Imogen asked, discomfortingly serious.

“What is it?”

“Evidence,” she said. They walked back through the weeds and up to the door. The living-room was quiet now, but Imogen led him to the kitchen instead. She opened up the cupboard under the sink with a magician’s flourish. Sandwiched between the garbage and the drain-cleaner, there was a whole legion of glinting glass bottles. Danny found it anticlimactic. It looked like home, except theirs were in the garage.

“One day there was a man from town in here, helping us fix the sinks,” Imogen said. “She was so embarrassed. She said they were from a party.” Her voice was fierce but thin, like a yappy dog on the verge of exhaustion. Danny didn’t like the new voice.

“That’s just how things are,” he tried to tell her.

Imogen started to sniffle. “That party never happened,” she said, unnecessarily. “Never. Ever.” She pulled up her shirt to wipe her eyes and it lifted off her stomach. Danny felt his ears grow warm. He put an arm awkwardly around her shoulders and they sat on the kitchen floor for a while.

The next morning, before Danny’s mother dragged herself to the packed car like a survivor of some nuclear winter, Imogen kissed him badly, only half on the mouth. Her blonde hair tickled in his ear, even during the drive home with his head leaned against the window.

*

Danny didn’t see her again for a long time. After the summer weeks on the acreage, his mother put a moratorium on visiting. She told him that the Walmsleys were not the best people to be around. Imogen was a poor dear, and it was a shame about her father, but there was only so much you could do to help people before they just had to help themselves. She acted very sincere when she said this, because of the wine she’d been into, and Danny grinned and nodded.

Then life went on. Danny had a blistering bone-and-muscle acceleration that left rubber on the pavement. He played baseball well, then basketball better. He put his hand under Natalie Larrivee’s shirt after her birthday party. His mother went through her usual cycle of getting better and then worse. Alcoholics Anonymous buttons filled up desk drawers. Posters on the fridge were put up, torn down, and put up again with an apologetic smoothing out of wrinkles suffered.

*

“Dan, want to go for a drive?” She jingled the keys together by his ear. Danny tipped his head back and looked up at her. She dropped them into his lap and he whooped. “I’m going to be watching the speedometer this time, bud,” she warned.

Danny slithered off the couch, keys clutched like a fistful of diamonds. His mother had a sheaf of tracts in her arms, the kind she picked up from support groups, but Danny didn’t care where they were going so long as he drove. She banged out the door to the car. Danny wrangled his feet into decaying Skechers and followed, coat half pulled-on.

“Where are we driving?” he asked, hand going possessively to the stick shift.

“I thought you could use a little highway driving,” his mother said. “And you’ve never been on the range roads, right?” They lurched out of the driveway. Danny’s mother had her hand clenched against the window, but he didn’t think he had come out too quickly. She gave him directions and they drove north, out of the city. The route started to look familiar.

*

He didn’t recognize Imogen at first. She wasn’t blonde anymore. Her hair was black and limp and draped like a curtain into her face. Danny didn’t like the new color, the way it made all the angles of her face seem sharp enough to cut. She was smaller than him again, and she was wearing painfully bright green-and-orange leggings. Otherwise black clothing. Slip-on shoes. Too much eyeliner.

“Hey,” he greeted.

“Hey, Danny.” She crossed her arms and they just sort of looked at each other for a while. Danny realized that she had grown up badly. He’d been hoping, stupidly, that she would be a blonde supermodel by now. Not one of those girls who huddled around the lockers at lunch like a murder of anti-establishment crows.

“Why don’t you two go into town?” Danny’s mother said. Her face was still set and grim. A crusader’s face.

“Is he allowed with a learner’s license?” Imogen asked wryly.

“He’s a good driver,” Danny’s mother said, now more to Auntie Caroline. So the two of them went to the car while Imogen’s mom found herself cornered with pamphlets and apologies. Imogen seemed to approve of the ride; she thunked into the seat and made herself right at home with the radio dial. The bent antenna scraped out.

“So, uh, how is she? Your mom.” Danny only asked it once he was sure they were heading the right way into town. Imogen fiddled with the radio.

“You know. It’s stupid and I hate it.”

Danny nodded distractedly. He had eased up over the limit a little, just to show off. It was a new thing, driving alone with a girl who was still sort of pretty. He felt mature.

“Where do you want to go?”

“Coffee place,” Imogen said, chewing her nail. “I’ll point it out.” The town appeared in pieces. A few big industrial yards on the very edge, then signs for hotels and cheap restaurants. There wasn’t much to the place. It was a passing-through town.

“This is nice,” Imogen remarked. “Usually I have to get Marcus to drive me into town.”

“Who’s that?” Danny asked. He felt her turn and look at him.

“My boyfriend. He’s a senior. Kind of an ignoramus, but I like him.”

“Ignoramus, huh.” Danny tried out a laugh.

“This one right here,” Imogen said, pointing. It was probably the newest building in town. Lots of clean glass and familiar red-and-yellow lettering. Danny waited for too many cars to go by, then dropped his indicator and pulled into the parking lot. He brushed the curb but Imogen didn’t seem to notice. He turned the engine off. She moved her hair with two fingers and it smacked against something in his memory.

“We had some good times that summer, hey?” Danny didn’t know why he was saying this, but he went on. “I mean, in the fields and stuff. And reading all those books. We must have gone through, like, a whole library of them. And, uh, you remember the morning I left?”

“Yeah,” Imogen said, looking unamused. “I kissed you.”

“Yeah.”

“I wanted to try it out.” She shrugged. “Sorry.”

Danny tapped his hands on the steering wheel. It had been a dumbass thing to bring up. “You visit your dad lately?” He realized after he said it that it was a javelin launched out of his subconscious.

Imogen put her feet up on the dash, sour-mouthed. “I never visit him,” she said. “No point. They’d all be monitored and who knows what they would make him say. Oh, shit, there they are.” Imogen ducked down and jerked her head towards her window. Danny looked out and saw a squad car pulling in, slow and lazy. Then the two men emerged and made a bee-line for the coffee shop door.

“Who’s that?” he demanded, confused.

“The police chief and his replacement,” Imogen said coolly. “Well, personally I think he’s from the CIA or something. He wears suits.”

“I don’t get it.” Danny shook his head, starting to feel pissed. “I don’t get any of this.”

“Can you do me a favor?” Imogen asked. “They’d recognize me.”

“What?”

“Are you brave?” Imogen’s lips shuttered into a smile. Mischievous, running through woods with a flashlight. Danny’s mouth opened. It closed.

*

Air conditioning was humming when he walked inside, even though it was overcast-cool and rain had been coming down yesterday in big freezing sheets. Danny shuffled some change out of his pocket and bought an orange juice. The two policemen were over by the window. An employee had sprayed it with cleaner and then been distracted, so the blue stuff was slowly streaking downward behind their table.

Aside from a crumpled brown napkin, the table right behind the two men was empty. He slid onto the seat and put his earphones in. The listening game wasn’t one he played so much anymore, but he still had a few tricks. Danny bobbed his head to the music that wasn’t playing and kept his eyes on the small glowing screen. And he listened.

“The Walmsley girl isn’t in here today, thank God, eh?” That was the police chief, with a bristly moustache straining his coffee.

“Yeah. Yeah, I was going to ask. What’s the story with that?” His future replacement had an accent. He was from the government, Imogen said. He was here to keep things quiet.

“She’s not all there. And her mom is a real fucking mess now.”

“No dad?”

“Oh, she’s got a dad. That’s the thing. That’s the story.”

“Oh.”

There was a pause. Danny swished orange juice in circles around his mouth.

“Yeah, it’s a nasty one. Some real fucked up stuff. We kept it all hush-hush for the sake of all involved. You know, the kids. Their families. His family.”

“Mr. Walmsley?”

Danny didn’t even remember what Imogen’s dad had looked like. He was usually just represented in his imagination by a stock photo of a man in an orange prison jumpsuit.

“Yeah, Vince Walmsley. It’s true, you know. You never see it coming. It’s never the guy you would expect. Vince wasn’t a real talker, but he was easygoing. Kind of guy you could crack a two-four with, just shoot the shit. Came over from England, actually. Jolly old England.”

“Oh, right. Explains the girl.”

“Yeah, yeah, Imogen. Weird name. Vince was trying to set up some kind of business around here. Selling solar panels ―he’d grab your ear about it, most talkative he ever got was about those damn panels. Self-sufficiency and all this. He seemed normal, though. Really normal.”

“Beware the nice ones, chief.”

There was a long sluck of coffee before conversation resumed. “That’s the fucking truth. It was six years ago. Two little kids go missing, one girl, one boy. Just from the park, middle of town here. Huge search. Huge.”

“He had something to do with it.”

“Everything to do with it.” The police chief took a deep breath, and when he started talking again there was a note of pride in his voice. The intonation was kind of rehearsed-sounding. “Now hold on, because this gets fucked up. They show up again, same park, three days later, and they’re just a mess. I mean, heart-breaking. They couldn’t cry, couldn’t even talk. Pediatrician tried to examine the girl, she nearly passed out screaming.”

“Shit. So…”

“Yeah. I still don’t know everything he did to those kids, but, suffice to say. Worst shit that’s ever happened up here. Very worst. Someone tipped us off about a car, and we found out it was his. Vince Walmsley. And it’s worse than that. What we found in the back.”

“What?”

“He kept telling us not to look in the boot. He was begging, but now, when I think about it, I think he had a kind of shine in his eye. He wanted us to see it.”

“What the fuck was it?”

“A rubber wetsuit. Military issue. Vince used to be a frogman, see. Special forces? I don’t know. Some British outfit. And it was full of nails.”

“Nails.”

“Yeah, nails. Pounded through from the inside, so they were all sticking out like needles. Had a mask in there, too. Halloween shit. Scary. And there was a noose.”

“Holy shit.”

“Yeah, I know. A noose. Maybe he was planning to hang himself. I don’t know.”

“That’s…holy shit.”

“You don’t expect it, place like this. But every place has a couple dirty secrets. Vince Walmsley, our very own monster. No wonder his daughter is crazy. Bet she was the practice run.”

“Shit. Shit, I feel sick. Actually sick.”

There was silence. Danny’s hands had throttled the orange juice. His knuckles were pink and white. He felt sick, actually sick.

*

Imogen was waiting eagerly, feet up on the seat like a kid. Danny fumbled for a long time for the key before he remembered it was inside.

“Well?” she demanded. “You could tell something’s up, right? The way they talk?”

“I didn’t hear much,” Danny said mechanically, climbing inside.

“Yeah, bullshit,” Imogen laughed. “Come on. What were they saying?”

“Do you talk to your boyfriend about this stuff?” Danny asked. The question made her freeze. Danny wondered if he had put emphasis on the word boyfriend.

Then Imogen shook her head. Her mouth twisted into an unhappy smile. “No.” She gesticulated vaguely. “He wouldn’t, I don’t know, he just wouldn’t understand.”

Danny put his hands on the steering wheel. You have a big decision to make here, he imagined Uncle Vincent saying. Peering out from the bars like a zoo animal. He had the police chief’s moustache. A very big decision, little Danny. Huge, in fact.

“And you still think it has something to do with aliens.”

“It might, it might not,” Imogen said, suspicious now. “They might be covering something else up. You know the stem-cell thing? How they harvest them from kids?” She glared at him. “Now what did you hear?”

“They were talking real quiet,” Danny said. He stared straight ahead. “They, uh, they mentioned something about a file, though. A green file.”

“Green file?” Imogen’s forehead wrinkled. “Like the color? Or it might be a last name.”

“I don’t know,” Danny said.

“Well, it’s something,” Imogen said. “It’s a start.” She had a fierce kind of triumph on her face. Vindicated was the vocabulary word that came to Danny’s head. He turned the key in the ignition, now remembering that the cops were just meters away and he was not supposed to be driving without an over-eighteen.

The drive was uneventful. Imogen was quiet but Danny could almost hear her brain sizzling. They came back at the perfect time, right as Danny’s mother was storming out of the house and Auntie Caroline was calling her a bitch. Imogen hopped out and said goodbye. Danny’s mother slunk in like a wet dog and asked him to drive fast. Told him some people don’t understand the spirit of repentance and forgiveness.

Danny took an aimless walk the next day, into the park behind his house. Trees were evenly-spaced. The playground was in bright lego colors. He imagined the kind of horrible guts it would take to wait here with a noose in the trunk of your car, waiting for two kids to be alone. Danny sat down on the lip of an orange slide.

He toed a hole in the ground, just a shallow one, digging out the earth in dank wet clods.

Swimming Lessons by Mimi Herman

Antonio by R. C. Li

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