Fluttering in the Remains by Rhoads Brazos
Manny had never felt more ashamed. Acres of junk spread over rolling hills, sprouting from the ground like a mechanized jungle. It was as sick and cluttered as the mind that had birthed it — a mirror of the self-same lunacy. There was something naked about it all, indecent. It told too much.
“You see what I mean.” From the driver’s seat, Mr. Noss gestured at the junkyard, smashed across the horizon.
“Yeah,” Manny said. “I see.”
“Even from this distance, shocking.”
Manny couldn’t bear to reply. He turned to his son, Theo, in the back seat. Theo’s attention was locked on the outside bustle.
Years had passed since Manny had visited his father, Manuel Senior. The junkyard was to blame. It was beyond reason. It was why Manny and his mother had left. Manny had been Theo’s age at the time, just comfortably beyond training wheels, and he’d resented losing his father. But not anymore.
“You used to live in that?” Noss tugged at his pin-striped suit and turned the car up an unfinished road. The surrounding hills crawled with construction equipment: dozers, trucks, front-end loaders.
“Mr. Noss, it was never like this.”
“Call me Bradd. Two D’s.”
Manny wasn’t sure why he needed to know that detail. Was he supposed to stutter at the end?
“Okay, Bradd. See that spot down by the hills?”
“To the left of the pond. That’s where it started. It was a junk pile. I remember going there with Dad, tossing out mattresses, tires, worn-out furniture. One day, he just . . .” Manny rubbed at his eyes.
“I can’t believe it got to this point.”
“Neither can I.” Mr. Noss did a slow turn along an unpaved round-about. He rolled down his window and the breeze blew in a grinding, squealing heavy-equipment chorus. “You see what an eyesore it is?”
“It looks like a trailer park exploded.”
“It’s like a five-state gypsy jamboree.”
Noss chuckled. “So, we’re in agreement.”
“Of course. I wouldn’t want to live with this view.”
“Nor would I.”
Noss took Manny and Theo on a rigorous tour of the new neighborhood. He puffed and boasted over landscape specifics, details meant for the discriminating eye, which his residents would undoubtedly have. An alabaster fountain here. A row of stately oaks there. With each lush detail, Noss became increasingly animated. He saluted workers from his open window.
“What the hell is that?” Manny pointed.
“That’s Leon,” Noss said. “He’s foreman up here. Project Manager.”
Leon’s hardhat pinched tight over his head. Manny half expected him to roar and hurl a boulder at the car.
“Motivation is critical,” Noss said. “Leon’s great at keeping the men on schedule. Almost as skilled as myself.”
They turned around in a wide cul-de-sac.
“Hey, I got in a fight over there once.” Manny motioned to an old railway bridge. A crane was stripping it into kindling.
Theo pressed his fingers to the window. “You got into fights?”
“I sure did.”
Noss twirled a toothpick between his teeth.
“Some kid was trying to drown a rat,” Manny said. “No, a snake. A snake in a cage, of all things.”
“There’s an enormous nest of copperheads in that copse of scrub oak,” Noss said.
“They like the underbrush,” Manny said. “You’re using geese?” A windbreak fence stretched around a tree-topped hillock. Within it strutted a half-dozen blotchy Scanias.
“Absolutely. Keeps the limp-wristed greenies off my back. Geese gotta eat. Who’m I to stop them?”
Noss made a quick exit from the construction zone, and after a brief drive down the highway, rolled up to Manny’s inheritance. It was as dismal as ever, a little brown house balancing on stubby pillars of brick — an architectural box turtle. Window screens were tattered or missing altogether. A tin flue on the roof exhaled a coil of smoke. Pinching around the home, leaning against it, rising up behind it — the junkyard.
Theo jumped out. “Thanks for the ride!”
Noss didn’t reply. He tapped at his cell phone and gave his toothpick one last flourish before dropping it into the ashtray. It was full of them. “When will cleanup be done?”
“It’ll take a while,” Manny said. “But tomorrow’s the start, and — Wednesday? — it should be underway.”
Manny climbed out of the car.
“Mr. Herrera?” Noss called from the open window.
“I’ve been waiting much too long. Make sure it’s fixed.”
“Trust me, I want it gone as much as you do.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
With Noss’s town car easing away, Manny followed Theo into the house.
The inside was surprisingly spartan. There was a tiny kitchen with painted cupboards and a peeling daisy border that Manny’s mother had put up years ago. A natty carpet ran up to the kitchen linoleum, demarking the family room, somewhat of a misnomer now.
The house smelled stale, like a wet dog with a distinct undercurrent of cinnamon and smoke. Manny wedged a box fan in the front window. The house would be leveled along with everything else, but he did have to stay here a while. It was unpleasant thinking of that smell seeping into his clothes, greasing his skin.
He sat at a card table by the front window and slowly turned Dad’s old coffee mug against the plastic. The mug was still half full. Manny couldn’t bring himself to empty it. He pushed it aside and thumbed through a stack of recent receipts.
Theo came to the table. He was worryingly thin. It used to concern Manny, but not anymore. Manny struggled with the logic of that.
“You said we’d look around,” Theo said.
“I wanna see the tank.”
“I do too.”
“Well, can we?”
“We will. Be patient.”
Somewhere out there was the husk of an M4 Sherman. The receipt Manny had found gave details. Theo was convinced he could fire it. That should be an amusing diversion.
Manny flipped through the receipts. Eight thousand for a broken down carousel. Another three and a half for the cockpit of a Stratofreighter. Old tractors and swather parts for another five. Thirty thousand for a riverboat? All of that was back there?
There wasn’t a single sale. Nothing ever left. Dad had had a pension and maybe some other retirement, but it would have been meager. Nothing would allow him to do what he’d done, unless . . .
Dad had always had an anti-federal bent. Silver notes, the illegitimacy of the income tax, glorious uses for hemp — it made an incredibly strong rope. What if Manny called in salvagers and they found a grow house, or a field of poppies, or a meth lab? Would Dad have dared such a thing?
Last year, Dad had spent over a hundred thousand. Even in death he was going to tarnish the family name.
Manny dropped the receipts back in a pile and swung the front door open. “Well?”
“Now?” Theo’s grin stretched wide.
“Let’s do it.”
Theo bolted out.
“Stick to the road!” Manny called out as he struggled with his shoes, but Theo’s lithe form bounded away. He was over to the right, out of the scrap, so maybe he’d heard.
A wide gravel track went down the side of the junkyard, providing trucks deep access with their loads. Manny stuffed his hands in his pockets and followed his son.
The edges of the junkyard rose up like fortress walls, stonework bricked and buttressed with scrapped cars. Occasional gaps served as entryways into the piles. Manny stopped and stared at a complete restaurant scene. Tables, chairs, and mannequin customers in place. Another gap offered Stonehenge built out of old Wurlitzer jukeboxes. The next, a Viking longboat. The oars were poised to strike a sea of crushed glass.
Only a dinner-shout away from the house and Manny had already seen enough. “God, Dad, why?”
He continued for the next twenty minutes by focusing only on his feet. Theo waited at the end of the road in nine-year-old fashion, hopping from foot to foot.
“Do you see it?” Manny asked.
“Stay close to me. I don’t want you getting hurt.”
Manny took a deep breath and followed Theo in.
A forest of dinette sets. A deflated bounce house hanging like laundry. A row of funhouses. A fiberglass Mayor McCheese. A forty-foot pyramid built out of refrigerators. Bowling balls pressed into the ground in colorful spirals. A canvas tri-plane with wings stitched from blue jeans. A trampoline city. Lawn ornaments playing chess. A tug at his collar.
Manny spun around. He rubbed slowly at his neck and surveyed the chaos around him: playground sets, an outdoor laundromat, a garden of chandeliers. Theo was over at the playground, a dozen slides lined side by side. He was going down each one in turn.
Manny turned back and saw it.
If he had not been gawking at the sights, it would have been obvious — a yawning pit three paces before him. Manny slipped to his knees, his mouth dry but his brow damp. It was deep; he couldn’t even see the bottom. He’d almost pitched himself in. And here he’d been worried about Theo.
The walls of the pit were studded with television screens, every type, every size, alcoved down into the darkness. Black-and-whites, wooden cabinets, curved screens with dials. Catacombed technology.
A spark down below, and another. Manny grimaced as swirls of light looped and pinwheeled. He wanted to blame this on Dad, bundle it into his madness, but this spectacle wasn’t Dad’s doing. Manny had seen it before.
It had been New Year’s Eve, the air cold enough to sting and pinch. The family was still together. He and Dad were throwing out a busted beanbag chair and an old lawn mower. After they tossed everything on the rubbish pile, Dad kicked back with one of his homemade cigarettes. He used Manny’s sparkler to light it, chuckling as he did so, and sent Manny running off. But something had chased Manny. Something tiny, with a curling body and wings like a wasp. It tumbled through the air, playing with him, copying his sparkler’s spirals with its own and Dad had seen it and then he’d knelt down right here, and he’d —
Manny blinked. The lights were gone. He tried not to let the sun blanch his vision. He held tight to the darkness and willed it to flicker back to life, but it refused. Kneeling, waiting, his mind keening, slogging its way forward. What had happened that day?
Mom thought that Dad had smoked too much, that he’d emptied one too many bottles of Absinthe. He’d snapped. That cold day was his last functioning day with the family. As he knelt by this pit, it was his final moment of sanity. Manny, the sole witness, hadn’t recognized it for what it was.
A delicate pressure at his shoulder. Manny breathed softly and watched the darkness. It couldn’t be Theo; his chatter was still back at those slides. Whatever it was, its gaze was palpable. It traced its way over Manny’s skin with a tickling heat. From the corner of his eye, Manny watched it too.
Cartoon blue, with luminescent eyes. For a confused instant he thought it must be an escaped macaw, someone’s lost pet. With leisurely ease, he turned his head. The creature burst forward in a riot of color and spilled down into the darkness before flaring day-glow orange. It was a flake, a mote, gone.
• • •
Manny sat at the card table and listened to Theo play in the next room. The two of them had been back a while. The shadow of the house just touched the narrow highway. Manny watched sporadic traffic rattle by and wondered if he knew any of the drivers. He may have, in that long ago life, and they would have known him. But this was a strange place; it made people forget.
He spoke on his cell phone to Mr. Kincaid, the ferrous materials assessor.
“That’s right,” Manny said. “A delay.”
“Mr. Herrera, I have a busy schedule.”
“Yes, I’m sorry. I — I just need another week.”
“Fine, we can try . . . three-thirty, next Tuesday. I’m booked that morning and may be late.”
“Yes. Thank you. That will work fine.”
“I’ll call first, be ready.”
Manny hung up. With the assessor bumped back, the rest of the week would need to be rescheduled too. Everyone would need to be called.
He walked to his old room, finding it exactly as he’d left it decades ago. Same posters of horses from issues of World magazine, same books, same bed sheets. Manny ran a finger over a shelf, dodging around a pity trophy from tee-ball — no dust at all. Though the rest of the house agreed with a divorcee living next to a scrapheap, this room had been kept pristine.
Theo sat on the bed. He’d found Manny’s old marble collection and was spreading it out. Manny rubbed his eyes. Something was so wrong with this.
“Where’s your mom?” Manny asked.
“I dunno. Have you seen her?”
“No. Not for a while . . . a long while.”
“These are fun. Do you have more?”
“Look in that closet, but be real careful.”
Manny went back to the living room and turned on the television. He flipped through reality shows, news broadcasts, sports highlights, and stopped on a show where an apartment dweller huddled in putrid heaps of trash. She wouldn’t throw anything out; she clung to it like a child. The host pleaded with her, ratcheting up tension while the camera zoomed in for tears. The afflicted had a Happy Meal room. She’d never eaten the food. The contents of each house-shaped box had calcified into briquettes.
The television droned on.
“You can’t take them!”
“They have to go. They need to go. Don’t you see?”
The afflicted wept. Another zoom.
Manny poured Dad’s cup of coffee down the kitchen sink.
He lay on his father’s bed and stared upward. Dad had pressed thousands of thumbtacks into the ceiling in a multicolored stippling. Theo had seen it earlier and craned his head back like a Pez dispenser to absorb it all. Thankfully, he hadn’t asked questions.
But now Manny understood; he’d found the guide in Dad’s nightstand. Each thumbtack was numbered and indexed in the notebook. As an experiment he’d searched for the riverboat and the tank and found them with ease. The numbered receipts matched too. Once he studied this a bit more, he should be able to find anything. With this primitive, but exacting system, Dad had charted the strange shores of his own illness.
On the ceiling, Manny followed today’s path down the trail. There was the playground, the plane, and a single brass tack. The pit. The tacks around the pit were numbered with single digits. After all, it was the start of the disease.
• • •
The next morning, Manny awoke to a pounding at the door. He staggered from the bedroom and slipped on a shirt that he was chagrined to recognize as his father’s.
“Eh. Mr. Herrera?”
“Yeah?” Manny pinched at his eyes.
“If you can sign here.”
The squat man at the door was as grizzled as a mule driver. He passed Manny a form.
Manny looked it up and down. “I don’t — ”
“At the bottom.”
In the driveway, a truck with a long flatbed trailer idled with sporadic knocks and shivers. Atop the trailer were rows of kids’ rides, the kinds found in front of supermarkets. Dinosaurs, race cars, spaceships, even a Santa’s sled pulled by two reindeer.
Manny rubbed at his lips. “I see. Sorry, it’s a bit early.” He signed, M. Herrera.
“Where you want ‘em?”
“Well, to tell the truth . . .”
“If you’re wantin’ I can back in a ways. Save you some work.”
Manny couldn’t send this guy away — breach of contract, or some such thing. Then he’d have a new set of problems. It would be best to act casual and salvage this delivery with everything else.
“I guess far back, before you get to that hill.”
“Yeah, I see it. So?”
“Payment upon delivery.”
“What — ” Manny gave the trailer another look. “What did we agree to?”
“You kidding? A thousand. And no haggling, you said.”
“Yeah?” The driver smirked and scratched at a scraggly eyebrow. “Check’s fine.” He pointed at Manny’s shirt.
Manny slapped at his chest. In his shirt pocket, Dad’s shirt pocket, was a plastic checkbook. He’d been looking for that thing all weekend. He pulled it out and flipped through the carbon duplicates, each one for an unconscionable amount.
The driver passed back the ballpoint pen, and Manny signed off. A quick handshake and the truck was maneuvering into position. Manny went back inside.
• • •
Theo was still sleeping. The truck’s clamor had him stirring under the covers. They rustled in a peculiar way, from head to foot and side to side, like the mattress was covered with mice. Manny thought about yanking the covers free like a magician with a tablecloth.
The rustling stopped and Theo sat up, blinking. Manny sat at the bottom of the bed and stared out the front window. There was something about this place that wormed into your head, clouded the obvious.
“Who are you?” Manny asked.
“Really,” Manny said. “Will you tell me?”
Manny nodded slowly. “Your mother left a long time ago. Do you remember?”
“No, you wouldn’t, would you? You weren’t there for it. That’s why she left.”
Manny stood up.
“Daddy. Wait — ”
Manny walked away.
He didn’t understand it. He’d driven up here alone, and somehow, at sometime — he didn’t know when — he’d just accepted that Theo was with him. But that was impossible. Theo wasn’t with anyone.
• • •
It didn’t take too long to gather his things and stuff them back in the suitcase. He tossed his father’s shirt on the floor and, for good measure, kicked it under the bed. Theo’s little suitcase was on the dresser; the kid’s rooting had wound his pajamas and t-shirts into a tangled ball. Manny left it. He slipped on his own shirt, grabbed his keys, his battered suitcase, and went outside.
A quick march behind the shed. The delivery truck was unstrapped at the far end of the track. The driver backed a forklift down its ramp.
It had to be the stress. Dad gone so suddenly, his truck knocked off the road by some drunk. Seeing the place again, swimming in its sickness, and now the stress of tying up loose ends like some sort of human loom — it had overwhelmed him.
Manny hopped in his rental car.
“Daddy,” Theo said from the seat next to him.
Manny didn’t answer. He reached forward with his keys but Theo covered the ignition with both hands. For a moment, Manny let the key hover. He jabbed it forward.
“Theo, I’m — ” Manny set his jaw firm and looked away.
“Please don’t leave me.”
Manny sat for a while, watching the driver down the road lower palettes to the ground. He put his hand over Theo’s. It was warm beneath his.
“Am I imagining you?”
He held Theo’s hand in his and felt it curl into a weak fist. He reached forward and smoothed Theo’s hair down, but it spiked back up.
“You need to comb that.”
Theo felt the top of his head.
“How?” Manny asked. “How can this — ”
“I can show you,” Theo said.
“But you were so sick. You — Theo, you — ”
Manny fell forward and hugged his boy. Theo hugged back.
“It’s not so bad.” Theo opened the door and stepped out. “If you want to see.”
By the time they walked the mile to the truck, the driver had a dozen rides on the ground.
“You gonna try these out, kiddo?” he asked.
Theo nodded quickly.
The old guy laughed. “That one’s busted up. Wouldn’t sit on it. The others’re comfy.” He turned to Manny. “Hell of a place you got here.”
Manny smiled and followed Theo down the road. They turned into the stacks and wove through the piles, stopping at the pit. As soon as they’d started, Manny knew this was where they’d stop. Theo sat on the edge and motioned for Manny. He cautiously sat next to him.
“He could see you too,” Manny said.
“That driver? Sure, I wanted him to.”
Theo bent forward over the edge of the pit. Manny instinctively threw an arm in front of him, which drew a giggle. Theo pursed his lips and whistled, high and lilting, somewhere between a flute and laughter, but with a curious metallic crackle.
The bottom of the pit flared. Sparks swirled upwards in a prismatic typhoon, spurring the screens to life. Televised images rippled downward in a long cascade.
“A waterfall?” Manny asked.
“They put out a lot of current,” Theo said. “Don’t fall in.”
“No.” Manny stared, wide-eyed. The hairs on his arms stood on end. His tongue felt numb and his teeth ached.
“When you and Grandpa found this, they were scared.”
Theo laughed. “Yep.”
A bolt spit out of the pit, cracking like a bottle rocket next to Manny’s head. He clambered back but Theo grabbed his shirt.
“Don’t go. They’re excited is all. They don’t get many guests.”
Manny sat, but leaned back warily.
“They were afraid Grandpa would tell everyone, but he didn’t. He hid them. He built this for them so they could play. They like coming topside, but still need to hide.”
“But — ” Manny watched the vortex rise and fall, pulsing like a heart. “Why would he do that?”
“At first, just to help them. He felt they were harmless, just misunderstood, like he was. Does that make sense? Later, it was a trade.”
“You and Grandma had just left, and they knew Grandpa was alone. They offered him a princess, like in the stories. That’s what most guys ask for.”
Manny nodded. Perfectly reasonable.
Theo continued, “It takes a lot of work to make a person. They can and they would. But Grandpa said no.”
“Yep. That’s not what he wanted.”
Manny understood. “He wanted to be a father again.”
“And so, here I am.” Theo sat with his rumpled shirt, scabby knees, and legs kicking out over the pit.
“You’re not me.”
“I was, for thirty years. I was everything Grandpa — well, Dad — remembered. Now I’m Theo. I’m everything you remember, and you remember a lot.”
They sat for a long while. Finally, Manny rose.
“Do you want to see what they’re like?” Theo asked.
“I don’t think I can right now. I’m sorry. I need to think.”
Theo stood and walked with him, out of the stacks, down the road.
“I’m really hungry,” Theo said.
“Do you want to get something to eat?”
“It’s a little early, but I do know a place. If it’s still there.”
• • •
He and Theo shared the same side of a booth at Vinny Vicci’s. It was pretty much as Manny remembered it, though they played Sinatra now instead of New Wave. Somehow it seemed less appropriate.
“The Encantado?” Manny asked.
Theo mumbled through a mouthful of deep-dish. He chewed with gusto before taking another bite of equal ambition.
“That’s what you called them. The creatures in the pit.”
Theo swallowed. “Pit?”
“The hole in the ground.”
Theo’s coherence had faded on the drive over. At first he’d seemed older than his age, rattling on about colonies and the migration from the pond to the underground, the limitless unbinding, being safe from diving ospreys, shape-shifting and concordance, broadcast thoughts and muddled memories. But his mind wandered as they reached town, until he knew no more than a nine-year-old should.
“The pit. You said the Encantados used to live in the water. They enthralled people to join them.”
Theo shook his head slowly and flicked away a mushroom. He took another bite.
So that’s how it was. With distance, Manny felt more alert and Theo really thought he was Theo. Manny would let him; the world was a better place with him back in it.
“Never mind,” Manny said. “Do you still like baseball?”
Theo nodded quickly.
“I thought so. We should see if the Coyotes are back in town.”
“Local team. We’ll get a schedule.”
They finished their lunch, paid the bill, and left. Outside, a familiar car was parked alongside their rental.
“Mr. Herrera,” Noss said, stepping out from the driver’s side. “What a pleasant surprise.”
This didn’t seem like the kind of establishment Noss would frequent, but the town didn’t have much to offer.
“Good day,” Manny struggled with the name. “Bradd.”
“Is it? I hear you’re delaying the cleanup.”
“Just for a — ” Manny scowled. “Who told you that?”
“I have contacts. It was mentioned in conversation. Is it true?”
“Well, yes. Some things have come up.”
“Have they now? And you’re hauling in more filth.”
“It’s not filth.” Only now did Manny notice the foreman cramped into the passenger’s seat of the car.
“You think I don’t know the difference between hesitation and indifference?”
“That’s not it.”
“It’s a big job, maybe you need money?”
“No. Yes, it is that, but no.”
“I can call in a team and move it for you. You never thought of that, did you?”
“I’m happy to offer. No charge for the service and I’ll pay you let’s say, twenty thousand for the honor of doing so. Pure profit for you and you still have the land.”
“Twenty-five? Is that enough to have this behind you? Because it is for me.”
Manny looked at Theo, sitting in the back of the rental. Theo pressed his teeth into the passenger headrest and then peered at the damage. There went the deposit. Manny chuckled.
“You’re a lot like your father. Do you know that?”
“I am.” Manny sighed. “I’m just like him.”
“He didn’t get it either. Your garbage dump is interfering with my business. Do you have any idea what that housing division is worth?”
“Ten times that. That entire hillside suffers your blight. Nobody wants to look at it. Nobody wants near it. We were in agreement.”
“And now we’re not.”
It wasn’t even Theo sitting there. It was an illusion. It wasn’t healthy. Manny had a job, a modest career. Wasn’t that worth keeping?
“No. I’ve changed my mind.”
“Changed your mind.” Noss focused on a spot over Manny’s shoulder and stood unblinking.
“Yes,” Manny said. “I think we can build a screen. A windbreak. Pine, you know.”
“Yes, planted close together, and . . . irrigation! Your men can run it. We’ll have them — ”
Noss jabbed a rigid finger into Manny’s chest. “I want it gone. Do you hear?”
Manny frowned. Noss prodded at him again and Manny caught his wrist. The car door opened. Manny let go and pushed himself back a half-step as Leon approached.
“You really are a fool,” Noss said, sneering. “That junk pile is a mile and a half deep at its center. You can’t hide that behind a tree.”
Leon was close enough for a handshake.
“I’m long done playing games with your drunk of a father — rest his soul — and now I’m done playing games with you. You’re new to this and there are things you don’t understand.”
“And what is that?” Manny tried to sound nonchalant.
“Your father knew enough to pay off the city council. I’m curious how exactly, but he did it, nonetheless. Don’t assume that they’re loyal to you. Graft is fleeting. I’ll just have your place de-zoned. Or how about this? I’ll bring in some eco-protestors. That’s a wetland at the far end of your property. Did you know that? Or, you know what else?”
“I have a written contract from your father, more or less. It does look like one. And you and I have a verbal contract. What if a crew was up at that dump right now? Trucks too, clearing it while a fleet of my equipment tore it down?” Noss looked at his watch. “Even as we speak.”
Manny dashed for the car.
The blow connected with such speed that he never even saw its approach. One moment Leon had his pylon of an arm cocked back, and the next Manny was watching the sky twirl. He hadn’t seen such a thing since grade school. Another tremendous shock slammed him to the ground. He lay spitting and choking against cigarette butts and concrete.
A young boy crying. A voice shouting. There’s witnesses, you idiot. And then he was floating. He landed in a heap, his face dripping onto faux-leather, his doubtful deposit officially bidding adieu. Little hands pulled at him. Hot tears stung over open wounds. He tried to lift his head, peel away from the seat, but fell forward and heaved. The world was a liquid and he was churning into it.
• • •
A juddering trip.
Whispers filled with unheard advice. He was yanked upward and spilled in a heap on the ground.
“He was going to run.”
“It took effort to set this up.”
“It can’t possibly work now. Let me think.”
Manny kept his eyes closed tight and held his head. Something was horribly wrong with his face; it was so misshapen. A punch could do such a thing?
He rolled to his side and tried to lift himself. A voice spit and snarled at his ear.
“Negotiations are done. Get in that car. Leave. Never come back. No police. No nothing. I know people all over. Get my drift?”
Manny slipped against the ground and struggled back up.
“You need more motivation?”
A heel ground against his throat.
“Okay, that’s fine. Leon, show him.”
“What should I do?”
Manny’s vision snapped into clarity. He was back at the property with a fleet of construction equipment parked along the roadway. The crew of each vehicle watched with bored detachment. Ten feet away stood Leon, one immense hand wrapped around Theo’s neck. Theo’s fingers squeezed and released the air. His face, a pale blue, streamed tears. He latched tight onto Leon’s forearm. Theo gave Manny one last look, strangely apologetic.
“N — No,” Manny sputtered.
Noss pressed down hard with his foot.
Theo’s wilted face uncoiled. His features slid in random directions. Manny had put this off, but now it was time for introductions.
Theo’s body burst into a shower of blue that boiled up and over Leon. There was neither shouting nor cries for help; one second Leon was standing there, arm outstretched, and in the next, he was gone.
The shoe came off Manny’s throat and Noss stumbled back. The crew on the track shouted and dashed about — into the junkyard, down the road, anywhere but here.
From the junkyard rose the sound of the surf, not pleasantly distant or lapping over toes, but roaring, the sound of death on the reefs. The Encantado. They rose as a thunderhead of seething bruises accented with shocks of rainbow. The ground danced with the glimmer of a million prisms. They descended.
Truncated shouts, near and distant. The squeal of metal against metal. And something over and under it all, a crackling and hissing like a field of static.
Manny watched them disassemble a bulldozer. He inhaled sharply. The Encantado spilled over the vehicle’s body, washing over and through it like a shimmering liquid. They skinned its pelt, gutted it to the bones, and chewed the remains into glitter. Manny exhaled.
Sirens. Manny turned to see Noss pitched in front of an approaching cruiser. It slammed into him. Noss stuck to the grill, defying physics, then slipped under the vehicle and crunched around the axle. A cloud of blue, shot away from the carnage as the cruiser screeched to a moist stop. The cloud encircled Manny and stilled.
He’d never seen anything like them. Their bodies were sinuous, with serpent scales that faded from neon cobalt to a summer sky. They coiled, curling back and forward. Each body was crowned with a rat-like head with charcoal fur, needles for teeth, and opal eyes. The creatures had double pairs of dragonfly wings, like cellophane and stained glass. Most folded their wings over their back, but some flapped them at a hummingbird-rate, hissing into a blur.
One hovered next to him, inches away from his face. It settled and appraised him with a tilt of its head.
“I remember you,” Manny said. He did. Those orange whiskers. That one fang that jutted askew. This creature had lain wounded in a cage, thirty years ago.
It grinned. From its side it unfolded two mantis arms, each edged with silver, like insectile stilettos. Manny reached forward, but pulled back at the last second. He’d always wondered where that scar on his finger had come from.
“Those are sharp?”
The little chimera winked.
An ambulance arrived with more cruisers. Police charged his way.
“Where’s Theo?” Manny asked.
The creature watched him quietly.
“Don’t take him from me. Please.”
A chittering whisper rose from the nest, the horde, the swarm. The creatures hissed and snapped. They tinged their front claws together in delicate melodies. With a whoosh they poured over him.
• • •
It had been a taxing week. Noss’s unfortunate demise threw everything into turmoil. The paperwork and relentless interviews continued until the police were satisfied that Manny was the victim. The blatant in-town assault, the forged documents found in Noss’s town car, the abduction — all of it indicated a bold land-grab by Noss. It was perplexing that the construction crew was missing; they’d been seen en route to the property. The police scoured the junkyard, but found nothing.
The police hadn’t seen the cloud; it wasn’t meant for their eyes. Still, Manny worried about an investigator finding the pit. He checked on it himself and found it capped with the carousel. He updated the thumbtack map.
Finally things quieted down.
Manny crunched over the loose shale of the service road. It was a frigid night, especially for autumn, but this had to be done. He could write a few more checks from Dad’s account, but it would be empty soon. He was curious how the Encantado would pay. According to Dad’s records, it was always different: silver ingots, spun gold a la Rumpelstiltskin, snowflakes of platinum. They liked to be creative. Manny would take their creation to the city and cash in.
Theo kicked construction-yellow debris out into the grass. There were a few scraps left behind, but had been carted below the earth. Manny tried not to think of the crews that had manned the machines.
“About your friends,” Manny said.
“How many are down there?”
Theo scratched at his head.
A bolt of green zipped by Manny’s foot. It wrapped back around him twice and then exploded into a shower of sparks that drifted away like fireflies.
“They’re not planning anything — ” Manny struggled for a word. “Aggressive?”
“Maybe,” Theo said. “But they like you. And they know we’re family.”
This was true. They were a tiny circle of two.
“I’m glad you’re back,” Manny said.
The pit was before them. The carousel had been returned to its old spot.
“Grandpa could do this?” Manny asked.
“Yep, just don’t fall.”
Manny slung the rope over his shoulder and checked his flashlight.
Fluttering in the Remains
The Imperfect Patsy
A Suitable Poison
[ Back to August ]
Rhoads Brazos - Rhoads lacks his wife’s classiness, his son’s genius, and his house cat’s fearsome nature. His life is a simple one, Rockwellian with a touch of morbid fancy. He transcribes his dreams into prose and shares them with the unsuspecting. Somehow, his work has seeped into this space and other unknowing venues, including: Apex Magazine, Demon Rum and Other Evil Spirits Anthology, Gaia: Shadow & Breath Anthology, and Spark, A Creative Anthology V.