“Focus on the emotions.” The therapist sounded tired.
Lonnie stared at the ceiling light, waiting. He imagined it being the sun, and in a moment he felt its heat. The ceiling broke away, and the light-turned-sun took its place in the sky. He was now looking out the patio door of his house, where his new neighbor was busy assembling a pile of wood. His wife had just finished feeding their son.
“What do you see?” said the shrink, his voice muffled.
“Another armload.” Lonnie pressed his face as close as he dared to the patio door; the neighbor was barely in view.
“Stakes?” Daline said as she cleaned the chunks of scrambled egg off the high chair.
“Yeah, now a whole pile of them. They look sharp. What’s he doing?” Lonnie leaned closer, brushing his face against the glass door. He recoiled, throwing a glance at Daline to see if she noticed, then wiped the oil-smudge clean. “It’s like his whole moving van was filled with lumber.”
“Is he wearing that coat again?” she asked.
“Yeah, but this time with the hood down. He looks kinda weird; I haven’t seen his face this well yet.”
“A-la!” their young boy held up his hands to be taken out of his seat.
“Hold on, Bud, I gotta clean you up.” Daline wet a rag and went to the toddler. “Grubby hands!”
“I bet he’s making a cage, or a fence. Maybe he’s an animal guy.”
“He’s gonna see you creeping, Lon. Get away from there.”
Lonnie stepped back slightly, then turned to face her. “So much for ‘the nice neighborhood.’”
“You can’t judge him,” Daline said, cleaning off their son’s red spoon–his favorite toy. She then wiped his face and threw the rag in the sink.
“I’m not.” Lonnie plopped into the sofa and whipped out his iPhone. “Just have a feeling.”
She pulled Bud from the chair, gave him the spoon and let him run to his toy basket by the TV.
“What are you doing? We need to get the plants for the garden and I want to have everything ready before Bud’s nap time.”
“I’m looking up local predators.”
She frowned in thought. “Wait…Lonnie, really? He’s not a predator.”
“Can’t be too careful.”
“Paranoid is more like it.” She grabbed the keys and went down the foyer.
He peered over the couch. “You’re going?”
“Yeah since you’re not.”
“I don’t want to be alone!” Lon said in a playful voice.
“See you in a bit. Love you, Lon.”
“Love you too,” Lonnie said as he sunk back into the pillow.
“Ma!” Bud cried when he heard the door shut.
“Shh, it’s OK, Bud.” Lonnie sat up and snuck to the window again.
The neighbor was constructing a small rectangular frame. It laid on his patio, and he stood over it, motionless.
What is h–
The man wheeled around and spotted Lonnie.
He recoiled and stepped back from the window.
Soft footprints pattered outside, and the dark-clothed man appeared in their patio-door window. Thick eyebrows crowded out his eyes, his plump lips were too obvious to miss, and the state of his hair, the hue of which matched his black hoodie, made it clear he either lost his comb or never owned one at all.
He smiled and motioned the door opening, as a question.
Lonnie suppressed his breathing and shrunk his bulging eyes. He forced a smile, then nodded.
The man slid the door open and poked his head in. “Hey, neighbor.” His voice rattled, presumably from years of cigarettes. “I’m building a little something.” He lazily pointed behind him with his thumb. “I need some clamps, though, to help the wood glue to bond. Do you have any I could borrow?”
“Uh, sure.” He looked towards the door to the garage. “I have two. Hold on.” He went to the door.
“That’ll be plenty.” The man looked at Bud. “You’ve got a cute kid.”
“Yeah.” Really, Lonnie? ‘Yeah’? He glanced at Bud as he slid into the garage. Make it quick.
He rummaged, but couldn’t find the clamps. He thrashed through the tools on the workbench. He opened the cabinet and shuffled through the piles of junk. Where are they? Then he remembered that his coworker borrowed them a month prior.
He went back into the house, relieved to see Bud at his toys and the man still at the door.
“Sorry, I just remembered I lent them out recently.”
“Aw, that’s fine.” He looked at Bud with exaggerated eyes and spoke in a high-pitched voice. “I guess you’ll just have to wait for your crib!”
He turned back to Lonnie with a smile. “Thanks anyway, neighbor.” He closed the door and departed.
Lonnie went to the sliding door and quietly locked it as he watched his neighbor go into his house.
He went back to the couch where Bud was playing with a toy car on the cushions. “OK…” He sat down. “Mommy can come home now.”
“A crib?” Daline said with an incredulous scowl as she set her purse down inside the door.
“Yes…out of stakes.”
“We already have a crib.” She went back outside.
“Exactly,” Lonnie hovered over her shoulder, speaking in a hushed tone, “as any normal human would assume when they see us with a toddler, but you think he’s normal?”
Daline opened the back of the Forester. “Bud fall asleep?”
“Probably.” He pursed the side of his lip as he watched her pull the plants towards her. “We’re still planting today?”
“Of course.” She handed him two hostas, then grabbed two hydrangeas. “Besides, even if he is a creep, wouldn’t we get a better idea of what he’s up to from the backyard?”
“Well, I’ll have my knife on me if he tries anything.”
A snicker slipped out as she clutched the plants and followed him inside.
“What?” He turned with a glare.
“Nothing.” She crimped her lips. “You’re so valiant.”
“Psh!” he said. “Go ahead and smile when Creepo delivers Bud’s cage.”
They shut the door behind them and went through the house to the patio.
“He’s not there.” Daline said as she brought her elbow to slide the door open, but it didn’t move. “Ack! Really, Lon? You locked it?”
“Really, Babe?” he mimicked her tone. “You want him to mosey in here?”
She set the plants down and unlocked the door. “It’s called trust; maybe you should try it.” She slid the door and picked up the plants.
“That’s the problem,” he whispered, glancing to the neighbor’s premises as they went onto the patio, “I have.”
“All right,” she set down the plants with a smirk, “I’ll get the last two from the car. You can get the wheelbarrow and tools.”
An hour passed without any further sign of the neighbor. The cage was still a pile of material laying on his patio.
The couple planted in silence with frequent glances at the crude pile.
“I’ll get the hose,” Lonnie said as he finished spreading bark mulch on the last plant.
Daline stacked the empty pots and pulled her gloves off. “I think I hear Bud.”
“He’s up already?”
“He shouldn’t be.” She made her way inside.
“Must’ve deuced.” He turned the spigot on and started unwinding the hose from the reel. He went to the first hosta and adjusted the nozzle before covering it with a hearty shower.
A scream came from inside the house, followed by a loud bout of Bud’s crying. He threw the hose down, sprinted to the patio and slid the door open.
“Babe!” He said, walking past the couch to Bud’s room.
She didn’t respond.
Bud’s door was cracked open. He stopped, imagining the worst. He exhaled to calm his quaking chest.
Bud was still crying. He opened the door.
Daline was on the floor, putting Bud’s pants on. “You were right, he had a blowout,” she said.
Lonnie let out a long sigh. “Why didn’t you answer? I thought he got you.”
“I couldn’t hear over his crying, Lon.” She put Bud back in the crib and gave him a blanket to soothe him.
After the fussing subsided a bit, they snuck out and tiptoed through the living room.
“Why’d you scream?” Lonnie asked, hands gripping the back of the kitchen chairs.
“I didn’t.” She washed her hands. “I was mimicking Bud’s crying.”
He turned to the patio door, head shaking. He stared out at their new plants for a moment, pulled along by a train of thought about the neighbor. Oh, the watering. He slipped out the door then stopped when he saw the hose neatly wound up on the reel.
His heart fell. His eyes bulged. With tense limbs, he slowly turned around.
To his surprise, the neighbor was still gone. But the relief of his absence was short-lived, for he noticed something about Bud’s crib: it was finished. He somehow missed it before, but barbed wire coursed around the joints, keeping it together.
Daline appeared in the doorway. “I’m going to put the roast in the slow-cooker for supper.”
He kept staring at the crib, giving a slight nod towards it.
She followed his gaze, then gasped.
The construction was chaos materialized–a labyrinth of sharp points, rough edges and genuine carelessness. The design was haphazard, which added another layer of dread, since to anyone else the object would’ve been seen as just another pile of garbage. The wire apparently held the mess together.
He didn’t use glue… “He never needed clamps,” he said, barely audible.
“What?” she said just as quiet.
“He’s been done this whole time.”
“Lon…” she whispered with gritted teeth.
“Get Bud. We’re leaving.”
She pulled away from the door and pattered to Bud’s room.
He remained outside, motionless expect for his eyes. He watched the neighbor’s windows, waiting for movement.
“Lon!” Her tone made it clear she wasn’t playing this time.
He ran inside.
She kept calling his name as she ran from Bud’s room. Her face spoke for her.
“He’s gone?” He asked, trembling at his own words. He brushed past her and looked in his room. The window was wide open; its screen was broken and laying on the carpet. Bud was gone.
The sound of a truck engine turning over vibrated through the walls.
Lon went back into the living room, following the sound. Then, with mouth gaped, stared at Daline. The neighbor’s truck.
“Do something!” she yelled.
He darted to the front door, not knowing what he was going to do. Everything went fuzzy, as if he was a spectator in his own body as it bustled onto the front lawn. He heard Bud crying, then scanned for him. The cage was already in the truck bed–with Bud inside. The neighbor was in the cab.
“No!” Lonnie remembered the knife in his pocket. I’ll slash the tires!
The neighbor spotted Lonnie and threw the shifter into reverse.
Lonnie changed his plan. The truck accelerated in reverse, but he anticipated this and went to intercept it farther down the driveway.
It was moving fast, but he leapt onto the edge of the truck bed, resting on his stomach. His muscles strained from the grip. Before the truck reached the street, he scrambled fully into the bed.
Upon seeing his Dad, Bud’s little hands reached through the stakes and barbed wire.
Lonnie plunged his hands into the cage to hold Bud from getting cut trying to reach through.
“Hold on, Bud.”
The truck shifted into drive, sending Lonnie against the barbarous cage from the abrupt change in direction. He was pricked from the barbs, drawing blood, but his adrenaline was louder than the pain.
Bud wailed; he seemed to know there was trouble. “It’s OK.” Lonnie adjusted himself to get a better hold on his son. “Dad’s got you.”
The neighbor looked out the back window at Lonnie and smiled. His eyes were calm, revealing his true nature. This was his “normal.”
Lonnie beckoned and shouted to every car that passed, but the neighbor would simply swerve or press the brakes to destabilize him. He kept to the side roads, which turned into gravel; the cars became less numerous. The ride was only twenty minutes, but Lonnie’s scrambled thoughts and the hum of the tires on the gravel made it stretch.
The truck crept into a rough pathway. Trees crowded the drive, fondling the truck with their branches as it weaseled through the leafy tunnel. The jostling from the bumps forced Lonnie to attend to Bud, but he was more concerned with where they were and what the neighbor’s intentions were–and what he was going to do about it.
The leaf tunnel was soon replaced by a large opening–a gravel pit. The remains from the midnight carousing of local delinquents, beer cans and charred logs, riddled a section off to the right. On the left was the same ilk: articles of clothing, shoes and dirty blankets with a university’s logo.
The truck wound through mountains of class v, then stopped by the pile at the farthest end of the pit. Front-end loaders had once dug into it, creating an alcove. Now weeds riddled it.
The neighbor opened the door, concealing something on the opposite side of his body. He looked at Lonnie, face blank, as he shut the door.
Lonnie released Bud, examining the cage for a protrusion he could break off for a weapon.
“What are you doin’?” Lonnie asked in an attempt to stall whatever the neighbor had planned.
The neighbor stopped, than rested his folded his arms on the side of the truck bed. He looked at Bud now, smiling. “You’re going to love it here, kiddo.” He gave him a kiddy wave of the fingers.
“Don’t talk to him.”
He turned to Lonnie, eyes squinting. “You’ve seen too much.” He brought his concealed arm from behind his back, but the side of the truck still hid it from view.
Lonnie grabbed the nearest protruding spike from the cage and bent it.
“No, no!” The neighbor said with mocking fear as he walked to the tailgate.
The stake snapped free from the cage; the piece was only a foot long but it had a decent point.
The tailgate dropped; Lonnie wheeled around. The neighbor had a bottle and was dousing its contents onto a dirty rag.
He lumbered at him, preparing to kick.
The neighbor sidestepped as Lonnie’s foot sailed for his head. Although Lonnie teetered on the tailgate, the neighbor made no attempt to topple him; he simply recapped the bottle and set it on the tailgate.
Lonnie kicked again. This time the neighbor grabbed the foot and pulled. Lonnie hit the tailgate hard on the way down, then rolled off onto the gravel. His shoulders and hips screamed in pain.
The neighbor was on him immediately with a knee on his chest, pinning him to the ground. He brought the rag to Lonnie’s face.
Lonnie threw his arms around in defense, but the neighbor dodged the fray and cupped the rag over his mouth. The fumes coursed through his head, as if the chemicals instantly pierced through flesh and vessel. His skull tingled; his eyes bulged. He fought harder, but the more he moved, the more he breathed in the chemicals.
His ears clouded, like he was underwater. His eyes became hazy. He stared at the neighbor’s sadistically calm face until all was nearly lost to black.
“We’ll take good care of your boy…”
“No!” His voice sounded distant. “I’ll do anything.”
The neighbor removed the rag. “What did you say?” A peculiar lift in his eyes proved he heard just fine.
“Anything. Just don’t…take him. Take me instead.”
He canted his head slightly. “I can take you both if I want to.”
“Please. I’ll do anything.”
“If only you could.”
The words stung.
Lonnie stared at the sky, knowing no answer would be found. Bud’s crying and the neighbor and his taunts faded. Seconds were replaced with days, weeks. The suns and moons of the months flashed overhead in a flurry.
Then he remembered; he remembered that it had been five years since his son was kidnapped by Death. He remembered that he was just asleep in therapy, trying the obsolete technique of psychoanalysis with a Shrink named Hafwit because the previous dozen sessions of “effective” techniques went nowhere.
The vision before him, with the neighbor, the truck and pit, was just a fictional three-dimensional flannel-graph that he decorated. It was just somewhere for the emotions to play themselves out–the emotions from the day Death took Bud.
“You can wake up, Lonnie.” said the therapist, still muffled.
He felt the dream fade.
“Father?” The voice was deep, almost an echo of Lonnie’s own.
The dream came back with vividness. He looked up, still in the gravel pit. The neighbor’s pickup was rusted. Only one wheel was still attached; its tire was cracked and brittle from years of sunlight and lack of use. Atop the truck bed was the same wooden stakes that formed Bud’s cage, but now reconfigured into the shape of a throne. It was perfectly symmetrical, and its wood was refinished, now glistening in the light.
Sitting on the throne was a man a little older than Lonnie. He was dressed in a black and maroon royal robe; a silver stag was embroidered on his chest. It was undoubtedly his son.
“Father.” That word, with that face, answered all Lonnie’s questions.
“More than ever, all thanks to King.”
Lon looked at his royal robes.
“Oh this? I’m no king like him. I just represent him by wearing all this garb, and by sitting on this lesser throne.”
He held his arms out, motioning at their surroundings. “The King is the greatest good, truly. The weak are made strong, the powerful are made powerless,” he paused and placed his hands on the throne, “the low are made high.”
“Bud…” he quivered.
His sons eyes were green as emeralds. “I understand all you can think of is what could have been, but we’re not meant to live in unrealities. My life was complete; short, but complete. All I knew was you and Mom. It was only love.”
“This isn’t real.”
“Not real?” He closed his eyes and canted his head slightly up, chuckling. “I suppose you’re an old man, after all. You’ve grown too comfortable with your eyes.”
Lonnie didn’t say anything for a while, futilely trying to process everything. He just stared at the bizarre image of his grown son. “But you’re…gone, son.”
“Death took me, yes, but Life is more than dust that breathes.”
Lonnie canted his head, frowning.
“It must be hard for all of you,” Bud said, leaning forward, “faced with the emptiness, the hole I left.”
Lon looked away.
“We haven’t been the same,” he said, shaking his head.
“Of course,” he said, “death changes people, makes love harder.”
Lonnie stared at his son again.
“I’m sure she carries pain she thinks she deserves,” Bud said, “constantly tempted to lament what was taken while forgetting what’s been promised.”
“I miss her,” Lonnie said, “her.”
“Me too.” After waiting for a moment, Bud pulled something from the inside of his robe and held it out to Lon. “King said you might like this.”
Lon went to take it, brushing his fingers against Bud’s. A surge of something like electricity ran down his arm, making him pause.
“Take it, quick.” Bud said.
Lon grabbed it; it was Bud’s favorite red spoon. The one he chewed on and played drums with. The one he held when he took his last breath in the dark hospital room.
“You must go, Dad, this place isn’t friendly to visitors from your side. But you’ll see me again; if there’s any promise I’m capable of making, it’s that. And remember, Mom needs you to be strong.”
He reached out to grasp his son, tears making it hard to see. He needed one more touch, but then everything vanished. He opened his eyes, but closed them again when the popcorn ceiling came into focus. His mind was at his heart’s throat in a moment, reminding him of the logic of it all. A dream, a dream, my imagination. Stop that flutter of hope.
“Lonnie,” the therapist said, “do you still feel responsible for your son’s death?”
“How can I?” He sat up on the couch and looked at him. “He’s alive.”
The shrink’s face fell.
Lonnie glanced at his hand, then smirked. “I talked to him.”
“Lon, you just tried dream therapy. What you saw–”
“That wasn’t a dream–not an ordinary one, at least.”
He gave a puzzled look. “Was it helpful?”
“Yes.” He kept looking at his hand.
“Do you feel,” the therapist paused to find the words, “whole?”
“No.” Lon looked up at Hafwit.
“Why do you think that is?”
“What do you expect? My son’s gone and my wife went cold.”
“Lon, healing is neither fast nor easy.”
“Psychoanalysis is not a reliable method, but it seemed to knock something loose. Please, if you will, describe your dream in detail.”
“I told you already, it wasn’t a dream.” Lonnie raised his hand and extended it to him with the palm open, revealing the red spoon.
“You brought it in with you,” the shrink said, half as a question.
Lonnie stood up, shaking his head with a smile. Tears crept in. “Thanks, Dr. Hafwit, but I think we’re done here.”
The therapist gave a weak nod, staring blankly at Lon as he left the office.