Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town
By Cory Doctorow

Presented by

Public Domain Books



For the family I was born into and the family I chose. I got lucky both times.


Alan sanded the house on Wales Avenue. It took six months, and the whole time it was the smell of the sawdust, ancient and sweet, and the reek of chemical stripper and the damp smell of rusting steel wool.

Alan took possession of the house on January 1, and paid for it in full by means of an e-gold transfer. He had to do a fair bit of hand-holding with the realtor to get her set up and running on e-gold, but he loved to do that sort of thing, loved to sit at the elbow of a novitiate and guide her through the clicks and taps and forms. He loved to break off for impromptu lectures on the underlying principles of the transaction, and so he treated the poor realtor lady to a dozen addresses on the nature of international currency markets, the value of precious metal as a kind of financial lingua franca to which any currency could be converted, the poetry of vault shelves in a hundred banks around the world piled with the heaviest of metals, glinting dully in the fluorescent tube lighting, tended by gnomish bankers who spoke a hundred languages but communicated with one another by means of this universal tongue of weights and measures and purity.

The clerks who’d tended Alan’s many stores – the used clothing store in the Beaches, the used book-store in the Annex, the collectible tin-toy store in Yorkville, the antique shop on Queen Street – had both benefited from and had their patience tried by Alan’s discursive nature. Alan had pretended never to notice the surreptitious rolling of eyes and twirling fingers aimed templewise among his employees when he got himself warmed up to a good oration, but in truth very little ever escaped his attention. His customers loved his little talks, loved the way he could wax rhapsodic about the tortured prose in a Victorian potboiler, the nearly erotic curve of a beat-up old table leg, the voluminous cuffs of an embroidered silk smoking jacket. The clerks who listened to Alan’s lectures went on to open their own stores all about town, and by and large, they did very well.

He’d put the word out when he bought the house on Wales Avenue to all his prot?g?s: Wooden bookcases! His cell-phone rang every day, bringing news of another wooden bookcase found at this flea market, that thrift store, this rummage sale or estate auction.

He had a man he used part-time, Tony, who ran a small man-with-van service, and when the phone rang, he’d send Tony over to his prot?g?’s shop with his big panel van to pick up the case and deliver it to the cellar of the house on Wales Avenue, which was ramified by cold storages, root cellars, disused coal chutes and storm cellars. By the time Alan had finished with his sanding, every nook and cranny of the cellar was packed with wooden bookcases of every size and description and repair.

Alan worked through the long Toronto winter at his sanding. The house had been gutted by the previous owners, who’d had big plans for the building but had been tempted away by a job in Boston. They’d had to sell fast, and no amount of realtor magic – flowers on the dining-room table, soup simmering on the stove – could charm away the essential dagginess of the gutted house, the exposed timbers with sagging wires and conduit, the runnels gouged in the floor by careless draggers of furniture. Alan got it for a song, and was delighted by his fortune.

He was drunk on the wood, of course, and would have paid much more had the realtor noticed this, but Alan had spent his whole life drunk on trivial things from others’ lives that no one else noticed and he’d developed the alcoholic’s knack of disguising his intoxication. Alan went to work as soon as the realtor staggered off, reeling with a New Year’s Day hangover. He pulled his pickup truck onto the frozen lawn, unlocked the Kryptonite bike lock he used to secure the camper bed, and dragged out his big belt sander and his many boxes of sandpaper of all grains and sizes, his heat strippers and his jugs of caustic chemical peeler. He still had his jumbled, messy place across town in a nondescript two-bedroom on the Danforth, would keep on paying the rent there until his big sanding project was done and the house on Wales Avenue was fit for habitation.

Alan’s sanding project: First, finish gutting the house. Get rid of the substandard wiring, the ancient, lead-leaching plumbing, the cracked tile and water-warped crumbling plaster. He filled a half-dozen dumpsters, working with Tony and Tony’s homie Nat, who was happy to help out in exchange for cash on the barrelhead, provided that he wasn’t required to report for work on two consecutive days, since he’d need one day to recover from the heroic drinking he’d do immediately after Alan laid the cash across his palm.

Once the house was gutted to brick and timber and delirious wood, the plumbers and the electricians came in and laid down their straight shining ducts and pipes and conduit.

Alan tarped the floors and brought in the heavy sandblaster and stripped the age and soot and gunge off of the brickwork throughout, until it glowed red as a golem’s ass.

Alan’s father, the mountain, had many golems that called him home. They lived round the other side of his father and left Alan and his brothers alone, because even a golem has the sense not to piss off a mountain, especially one it lives in.

Then Alan tackled the timbers, reaching over his head with palm-sanders and sandpaper of ever finer grains until the timbers were as smooth as Adirondack chairs, his chest and arms and shoulders athrob with the agony of two weeks’ work. Then it was the floorwork, but not the floors themselves, which he was saving for last on the grounds that they were low-hanging fruit.

This materialized a new lecture in his mind, one about the proper role of low-hanging fruit, a favorite topic of MBAs who’d patronize his stores and his person, giving him unsolicited advice on the care and feeding of his shops based on the kind of useless book-learning and jargon-slinging that Fortune 100 companies apparently paid big bucks for. When an MBA said “low-hanging fruit,” he meant “easy pickings,” something that could and should be snatched with minimal effort. But real low-hanging fruit ripens last, and should be therefore picked as late as possible. Further, picking the low-hanging fruit first meant that you’d have to carry your bushel basket higher and higher as the day wore on, which was plainly stupid. Low-hanging fruit was meant to be picked last. It was one of the ways that he understood people, and one of the kinds of people that he’d come to understand. That was the game, after all – understanding people.

So the floors would come last, after the molding, after the stairs, after the railings and the paneling. The railings, in particular, were horrible bastards to get clean, covered in ten or thirty coats of enamel of varying colors and toxicity. Alan spent days working with a wire brush and pointed twists of steel wool and oozing stinging paint stripper, until the grain was as spotless and unmarked as the day it came off the lathe.

Then he did the floors, using the big rotary sander first. It had been years since he’d last swung a sander around – it had been when he opened the tin-toy shop in Yorkville and he’d rented one while he was prepping the place. The technique came back to him quickly enough, and he fell into a steady rhythm that soon had all the floors cool and dry and soft with naked, exposed woody heartmeat. He swept the place out and locked up and returned home.

The next day, he stopped at the Portuguese contractor-supply on Ossington that he liked. They opened at five a.m., and the men behind the counter were always happy to sketch out alternative solutions to his amateur construction problems, they never mocked him for his incompetence, and always threw in a ten percent “contractor’s discount” for him that made him swell up with irrational pride that confused him. Why should the son of a mountain need affirmation from runty Portugees with pencil stubs behind their ears and scarred fingers? He picked up a pair of foam-rubber knee pads and a ten-kilo box of lint-free shop rags and another carton of disposable paper masks.

He drove to the house on Wales Avenue, parked on the lawn, which was now starting to thaw and show deep muddy ruts from his tires. He spent the next twelve hours crawling around on his knees, lugging a tool bucket filled with sandpaper and steel wool and putty and wood-crayons and shop rags. He ran his fingertips over every inch of floor and molding and paneling, feeling the talc softness of the sifted sawdust, feeling for rough spots and gouges, smoothing them out with his tools. He tried puttying over the gouges in the flooring that he’d seen the day he took possession, but the putty seemed like a lie to him, less honest than the gouged-out boards were, and so he scooped the putty out and sanded the grooves until they were as smooth as the wood around them.

Next came the beeswax, sweet and shiny. It almost broke his heart to apply it, because the soft, newly exposed wood was so deliciously tender and sensuous. But he knew that wood left to its own would eventually chip and splinter and yellow. So he rubbed wax until his elbows ached, massaged the wax into the wood, buffed it with shop rags so that the house shone.

Twenty coats of urethane took forty days – a day to coat and a day to dry. More buffing and the house took on a high shine, a slippery slickness. He nearly broke his neck on the slippery staircase treads, and the Portuguese helped him out with a bag of clear grit made from ground walnut shells. He used a foam brush to put one more coat of urethane on each tread of the stairs, then sprinkled granulated walnut shells on while it was still sticky. He committed a rare error in judgment and did the stairs from the bottom up and trapped himself on the third floor, with its attic ceilings and dormer windows, and felt like a goddamned idiot as he curled up to sleep on the cold, hard, slippery, smooth floor while he waited for his stairs to dry. The urethane must be getting to his head.

The bookcases came out of the cellar one by one. Alan wrestled them onto the front porch with Tony’s help and sanded them clean, then turned them over to Tony for urethane and dooring.

The doors were UV-filtering glass, hinged at the top and surrounded by felt on their inside lips so that they closed softly. Each one had a small brass prop-rod on the left side that could brace it open. Tony had been responsible for measuring each bookcase after he retrieved it from Alan’s prot?g?s’ shops and for sending the measurements off to a glazier in Mississauga.

The glazier was technically retired, but he’d built every display case that had ever sat inside any of Alan’s shops and was happy to make use of the small workshop that his daughter and son-in-law had installed in his garage when they retired him to the burbs.

The bookcases went into the house, along each wall, according to a system of numbers marked on their backs. Alan had used Tony’s measurements and some CAD software to come up with a permutation of stacking and shouldering cases that had them completely covering every wall – except for the wall by the mantelpiece in the front parlor, the wall over the countertop in the kitchen, and the wall beside the staircases – to the ceiling.

He and Tony didn’t speak much. Tony was thinking about whatever people who drive moving vans think about, and Alan was thinking about the story he was building the house to write in.

May smelled great in Kensington Market. The fossilized dog shit had melted and washed away in the April rains, and the smells were all springy ones, loam and blossoms and spilled tetrapak fruit punch left behind by the pan-ethnic street-hockey league that formed up spontaneously in front of his house. When the winds blew from the east, he smelled the fish stalls on Spadina, salty and redolent of Chinese barbecue spices. When it blew from the north, he smelled baking bread in the kosher bakeries and sometimes a rare whiff of roasting garlic from the pizzas in the steaming ovens at Massimo’s all the way up on College. The western winds smelled of hospital incinerator, acrid and smoky.

His father, the mountain, had attuned Art to smells, since they were the leading indicators of his moods, sulfurous belches from deep in the caverns when he was displeased, the cold non-smell of spring water when he was thoughtful, the new-mown hay smell from his slopes when he was happy. Understanding smells was something that you did, when the mountain was your father.

Once the bookcases were seated and screwed into the walls, out came the books, thousands of them, tens of thousands of them.

Little kids’ books with loose signatures, ancient first-edition hardcovers, outsized novelty art books, mass-market paperbacks, reference books as thick as cinderblocks. They were mostly used when he’d gotten them, and that was what he loved most about them: They smelled like other people and their pages contained hints of their lives: marginalia and pawn tickets, bus transfers gone yellow with age and smears of long-ago meals. When he read them, he was in three places: his living room, the authors’ heads, and the world of their previous owners.

They came off his shelves at home, from the ten-by-ten storage down on the lakeshore, they came from friends and enemies who’d borrowed his books years before and who’d “forgotten” to return them, but Alan never forgot, he kept every book in a great and deep relational database that had begun as a humble flatfile but which had been imported into successive generations of industrial-grade database software.

This, in turn, was but a pocket in the Ur-database, The Inventory in which Alan had input the value, the cost, the salient features, the unique identifiers, and the photographic record of every single thing he owned, from the socks in his sock drawer to the pots in his cupboard. Maintaining The Inventory was serious business, no less important now than it had been when he had begun it in the course of securing insurance for the bookshop.

Alan was an insurance man’s worst nightmare, a customer from hell who’d messenger over five bankers’ boxes of detailed, cross-referenced Inventory at the slightest provocation.

The books filled the shelves, row on row, behind the dust-proof, light-proof glass doors. The books began in the foyer and wrapped around the living room, covered the wall behind the dining room in the kitchen, filled the den and the master bedroom and the master bath, climbed the short walls to the dormer ceilings on the third floor. They were organized by idiosyncratic subject categories, and alphabetical by author within those categories.

Alan’s father was a mountain, and his mother was a washing machine – he kept a roof over their heads and she kept their clothes clean. His brothers were: a dead man, a trio of nesting dolls, a fortune teller, and an island. He only had two or three family portraits, but he treasured them, even if outsiders who saw them often mistook them for landscapes. There was one where his family stood on his father’s slopes, Mom out in the open for a rare exception, a long tail of extension cords snaking away from her to the cave and the diesel generator’s three-prong outlet. He hung it over the mantel, using two hooks and a level to make sure that it came out perfectly even.

Tony helped Alan install the shallow collectibles cases along the house’s two-story stairwell, holding the level while Alan worked the cordless powerdriver. Alan’s glazier had built the cases to Alan’s specs, and they stretched from the treads to the ceiling. Alan filled them with Made-in-Occupied-Japan tin toys, felt tourist pennants from central Florida gator farms, a stone from Marie Laveau’s tomb in the St. Louis I Cemetery in New Orleans, tarnished brass Zippos, small framed comic-book bodybuilding ads, carved Polynesian coconut monkeys, melamine transistor radios, Bakelite snow globes, all the tchotchkes he’d accumulated over a lifetime of picking and hunting and digging.

They were gloriously scuffed and non-mint: he’d always sold off the sterile mint-in-package goods as quickly as he could, squirreling away the items that were marked with “Property of Freddy Terazzo” in shaky ballpoint, the ones with tooth marks and frayed boxes taped shut with brands of stickytape not offered for sale in fifty years.

The last thing to go in was the cellar. They knocked out any wall that wasn’t load-bearing, smeared concrete on every surface, and worked in a loose mosaic of beach glass and beach china, smooth and white with spidery blue illustrations pale as a dream. Three coats of urethane made the surfaces gleam.

Then it was just a matter of stringing out the cables for the clip-on halogens whose beams he took care to scatter off the ceilings to keep the glare to a minimum. He moved in his horsehair sofa and armchairs, his big old bed, his pots and pans and sideboard with its novelty decanters, and his entertainment totem.

A man from Bell Canada came out and terminated the data line in his basement, in a room that he’d outfitted with an uninterruptible power supply, a false floor, dry fire extinguishers and a pipe-break sensor. He installed and configured the router, set up his modest rack and home servers, fished three four-pair wires through to the living room, the den, and the attic, where he attached them to unobtrusive wireless access points and thence to weatherproofed omnidirectional antennae made from copper tubing and PVC that he’d affixed to the building’s exterior on short masts, aimed out over Kensington Market, blanketing a whole block with free Internet access.

He had an idea that the story he was going to write would require some perambulatory cogitation, and he wanted to be able to take his laptop anywhere in the market and sit down and write and hop online and check out little factoids with a search engine so he wouldn’t get hung up on stupid details.

The house on Wales Avenue was done. He’d repainted the exterior a lovely robin’s-egg blue, fixed the front step, and planted a low-maintenance combination of outsized rocks from the Canadian Shield and wild grasses on the front lawn. On July first, Alan celebrated Canada Day by crawling out of the attic window onto the roof and watching the fireworks and listening to the collective sighs of the people densely packed around him in the Market, then he went back into the house and walked from room to room, looking for something out of place, some spot still rough and unsanded, and found none. The books and the collections lined the walls, the fans whirred softly in the ceilings, the filters beneath the open windows hummed as they sucked the pollen and particulate out of the rooms – Alan’s retail experience had convinced him long ago of the selling power of fresh air and street sounds, so he refused to keep the windows closed, despite the fantastic volume of city dust that blew in.

The house was perfect. The ergonomic marvel of a chair that UPS had dropped off the previous day was tucked under the wooden sideboard he’d set up as a desk in the second-floor den. His brand-new computer sat centered on the desk, a top-of-the-line laptop with a wireless card and a screen big enough to qualify as a home theater in some circles.

Tomorrow, he’d start the story.


Alan rang the next-door house’s doorbell at eight a.m. He had a bag of coffees from the Greek diner. Five coffees, one for each bicycle locked to the wooden railing on the sagging porch plus one for him.

He waited five minutes, then rang the bell again, holding it down, listening for the sound of footsteps over the muffled jangling of the buzzer. It took two minutes more, he estimated, but he didn’t mind. It was a beautiful summer day, soft and moist and green, and he could already smell the fish market over the mellow brown vapors of the strong coffee.

A young woman in long johns and a baggy tartan T-shirt opened the door. She was excitingly plump, round and a little jiggly, the kind of woman Alan had always gone for. Of course, she was all of twenty-two, and so was certainly not an appropriate romantic interest for him, but she was fun to look at as she ungummed her eyes and worked the sleep out of her voice.

“Yes?” she said through the locked screen door. Her voice brooked no nonsense, which Alan also liked. He’d hire her in a second, if he were still running a shop. He liked to hire sharp kids like her, get to know them, try to winkle out their motives and emotions through observation.

“Good morning!” Alan said. “I’m Alan, and I just moved in next door. I’ve brought coffee!” He hefted his sack in her direction.

“Good morning, Alan,” she said. “Thanks and all, but –”

“Oh, no need to thank me! Just being neighborly. I brought five – one for each of you and one for me.”

“Well, that’s awfully nice of you –”

“Nothing at all. Nice morning, huh? I saw a robin just there, on that tree in the park, not an hour ago. Fantastic.”

“Great.” She unlatched the screen door and opened it, reaching for the sack.

Alan stepped into the foyer and handed it to her. “There’s cream and sugar in there,” he said. “Lots – don’t know how you folks take it, so I just figured better sure than miserable, better to err on the side of caution. Wow, look at this, your place has a completely different layout from mine. I think they were built at the same time, I mean, they look a lot alike. I don’t really know much about architecture, but they really do seem the same, don’t they, from the outside? But look at this! In my place, I’ve got a long corridor before you get to the living room, but your place is all open. I wonder if it was built that way, or if someone did that later. Do you know?”

“No,” she said, hefting the sack.

“Well, I’ll just have a seat while you get your roommates up, all right? Then we can all have a nice cup of coffee and a chat and get to know each other.”

She dithered for a moment, then stepped back toward the kitchen and the stairwell. Alan nodded and took a little tour of the living room. There was a very nice media totem, endless shelves of DVDs and videos, including a good selection of Chinese kung-fu VCDs and black and white comedies. There was a stack of guitar magazines on the battered coffee table, and a cozy sofa with an afghan folded neatly on one arm. Good kids, he could tell that just by looking at their possessions.

Not very security-conscious, though. She should have either kicked him out or dragged him around the house while she got her roomies out of bed. He thought about slipping some VCDs into his pocket and returning them later, just to make the point, but decided it would be getting off on the wrong foot.

She returned a moment later, wearing a fuzzy yellow robe whose belt and seams were gray with grime and wear. “They’re coming down,” she said.

“Terrific!” Alan said, and planted himself on the sofa. “How about that coffee, hey?”

She shook her head, smiled a little, and retrieved a coffee for him. “Cream? Sugar?”

“Nope,” Alan said. “The Greek makes it just the way I like it. Black and strong and aromatic. Try some before you add anything – it’s really fantastic. One of the best things about the neighborhood, if you ask me.”

Another young woman, rail-thin with a shaved head, baggy jeans, and a tight t-shirt that he could count her ribs through, shuffled into the living room. Alan got to his feet and extended his hand. “Hi there! I’m Adam, your new neighbor! I brought coffees!”

She shook his hand, her long fingernails sharp on his palm. “Natalie,” she said.

The other young woman passed a coffee to her. “He brought coffees,” she said. “Try it before you add anything to it.” She turned to Alan. “I thought you said your name was Alan?”

“Alan, Adam, Andy. Doesn’t matter, I answer to any of them. My mom had a hard time keeping our names straight.”

“Funny,” Natalie said, sipping at her coffee. “Two sugars, three creams,” she said, holding her hand out. The other woman silently passed them to her.

“I haven’t gotten your name yet,” Alan said.

“Right,” the other one said. “You sure haven’t.”

A young man, all of seventeen, with straggly sideburns and a shock of pink hair sticking straight up in the air, shuffled into the room, wearing cutoffs and an unbuttoned guayabera.

“Adam,” Natalie said, “this is Link, my kid brother. Link, this is Arthur – he brought coffees.”

“Hey, thanks, Arthur,” Link said. He accepted his coffee and stood by his sister, sipping reverently.

“So that leaves one more,” Alan said. “And then we can get started.”

Link snorted. “Not likely. Krishna doesn’t get out of bed before noon.”

“Krishna?” Alan said.

“My boyfriend,” the nameless woman said. “He was up late.”

“More coffee for the rest of us, I suppose,” Alan said. “Let’s all sit and get to know one another, then, shall we?”

They sat. Alan slurped down the rest of his coffee, then gestured at the sack. The nameless woman passed it to him and he got the last one, and set to drinking.

“I’m Andreas, your new next-door neighbor. I’ve just finished renovating, and I moved in last night. I’m really looking forward to spending time in the neighborhood – I work from home, so I’ll be around a bunch. Feel free to drop by if you need to borrow a cup of sugar or anything.”

“That’s so nice of you,” Natalie said. “I’m sure we’ll get along fine!”

“Thanks, Natalie. Are you a student?”

“Yup,” she said. She fished in the voluminous pockets of her jeans, tugging them lower on her knobby hips, and came up with a pack of cigarettes. She offered one to her brother – who took it – and one to Alan, who declined, then lit up. “Studying fashion design at OCAD. I’m in my last year, so it’s all practicum from now on.”

“Fashion! How interesting,” Alan said. “I used to run a little vintage clothes shop in the Beaches, called Tropic?l.”

“Oh, I loved that shop,” she said. “You had the best stuff! I used to sneak out there on the streetcar after school.” Yup. He didn’t remember her, exactly, but her type, sure. Solo girls with hardcover sketch books and vintage clothes home-tailored to a nice fit.

“Well, I’d be happy to introduce you to some of the people I know – there’s a vintage shop that a friend of mine runs in Parkdale. He’s always looking for designers to help with rehab and repros.”

“That would be so cool!”

“Now, Link, what do you study?”

Link pulled at his smoke, ashed in the fireplace grate. “Not much. I didn’t get into Ryerson for electrical engineering, so I’m spending a year as a bike courier, taking night classes, and reapplying for next year.”

“Well, that’ll keep you out of trouble at least,” Alan said. He turned to the nameless woman.

“So, what do you do, Apu?” she said to him, before he could say anything.

“Oh, I’m retired, Mimi,” he said.

“Mimi?” she said.

“Why not? It’s as good a name as any.”

“Her name is –” Link started to say, but she cut him off.

“Mimi is as good a name as any. I’m unemployed. Krishna’s a bartender.”

“Are you looking for work?”

She smirked. “Sure. Whatcha got?”

“What can you do?”

“I’ve got three-quarters of a degree in environmental studies, one year of kinesiology, and a half-written one-act play. Oh, and student debt until the year 3000.”

“A play!” he said, slapping his thighs. “You should finish it. I’m a writer, too, you know.”

“I thought you had a clothing shop.”

“I did. And a bookshop, and a collectibles shop, and an antique shop. Not all at the same time, you understand. But now I’m writing. Going to write a story, then I imagine I’ll open another shop. But I’m more interested in you, Mimi, and your play. Why half-finished?”

She shrugged and combed her hair back with her fingers. Her hair was brown and thick and curly, down to her shoulders. Alan adored curly hair. He’d had a clerk at the comics shop with curly hair just like hers, an earnest and bright young thing who drew her own comics in the back room on her breaks, using the receiving table as a drawing board. She’d never made much of a go of it as an artist, but she did end up publishing a popular annual anthology of underground comics that had captured the interest of the New Yorker the year before. “I just ran out of inspiration,” Mimi said, tugging at her hair.

“Well, there you are. Time to get inspired again. Stop by any time and we’ll talk about it, all right?”

“If I get back to it, you’ll be the first to know.”

“Tremendous!” he said. “I just know it’ll be fantastic. Now, who plays the guitar?”

“Krishna,” Link said. “I noodle a bit, but he’s really good.”

“He sure is,” Alan said. “He was in fine form last night, about three a.m.!” He chuckled pointedly.

There was an awkward silence. Alan slurped down his second coffee. “Whoops!” he said. “I believe I need to impose on you for the use of your facilities?”

“What?” Natalie and Link said simultaneously.

“He wants the toilet,” Mimi said. “Up the stairs, second door on the right. Jiggle the handle after you flush.”

The bathroom was crowded with too many towels and too many toothbrushes. The sink was powdered with blusher and marked with lipstick and mascara residue. It made Alan feel at home. He liked young people. Liked their energy, their resentment, and their enthusiasm. Didn’t like their guitar-playing at three a.m.; but he’d sort that out soon enough.

He washed his hands and carefully rinsed the long curly hairs from the bar before replacing it in its dish, then returned to the living room.

“Abel,” Mimi said, “sorry if the guitar kept you up last night.”

“No sweat,” Alan said. “It must be hard to find time to practice when you work nights.”

“Exactly,” Natalie said. “Exactly right! Krishna always practices when he comes back from work. He blows off some steam so he can get to bed. We just all learned to sleep through it.”

“Well,” Alan said, “to be honest, I’m hoping I won’t have to learn to do that. But I think that maybe I have a solution we can both live with.”

“What’s that?” Mimi said, jutting her chin forward.

“It’s easy, really. I can put up a resilient channel and a baffle along that wall there, soundproofing. I’ll paint it over white and you won’t even notice the difference. Shouldn’t take me more than a week. Happy to do it. Thick walls make good neighbors.”

“We don’t really have any money to pay for renovations,” Mimi said.

Alan waved his hand. “Who said anything about money? I just want to solve the problem. I’d do it on my side of the wall, but I’ve just finished renovating.”

Mimi shook her head. “I don’t think the landlord would go for it.”

“You worry too much,” he said. “Give me your landlord’s number and I’ll sort it out with him, all right?”

“All right!” Link said. “That’s terrific, Albert, really!”

“All right, Mimi? Natalie?”

Natalie nodded enthusiastically, her shaved head whipping up and down on her thin neck precariously. Mimi glared at Natalie and Link. “I’ll ask Krishna,” she said.

“All right, then!” Alan said. “Let me measure up the wall and I’ll start shopping for supplies.” He produced a matte black, egg-shaped digital tape measure and started shining pinpoints of laser light on the wall, clicking the egg’s buttons when he had the corners tight. The Portuguese clerks at his favorite store had dissolved into hysterics when he’d proudly shown them the $300 gadget, but they were consistently impressed by the exacting CAD drawings of his projects that he generated with its output. Natalie and Link stared in fascination as he did his thing with more showmanship than was technically necessary, though Mimi made a point of rolling her eyes.

“Don’t go spending any money yet, cowboy,” she said. “I’ve still got to talk to Krishna, and you’ve still got to talk with the landlord.”

He fished in the breast pocket of his jean jacket and found a stub of pencil and a little steno pad, scribbled his cell phone number, and tore off the sheet. He passed the sheet, pad, and pencil to Mimi, who wrote out the landlord’s number and passed it back to him.

“Okay!” Alan said. “There you go. It’s been a real pleasure meeting you folks. I know we’re going to get along great. I’ll call your landlord right away and you call me once Krishna’s up, and I’ll see you tomorrow at ten a.m. to start construction, God willin’ and the crick don’t rise.”

Link stood and extended his hand. “Nice to meet you, Albert,” he said. “Really. Thanks for the muds, too.” Natalie gave him a bony hug, and Mimi gave him a limp handshake, and then he was out in the sunshine, head full of designs and logistics and plans.


The sun set at nine p.m. in a long summertime blaze. Alan sat down on the twig-chair on his front porch, pulled up the matching twig table, and set down a wine glass and the bottle of Niagara Chardonnay he’d brought up from the cellar. He poured out a glass and held it up to the light, admiring the new blister he’d gotten on his pinky finger while hauling two-by-fours and gyprock from his truck to his neighbors’ front room. Kids rode by on bikes and punks rode by on skateboards. Couples wandered through the park across the street, their murmurous conversations clear on the whispering breeze that rattled the leaves.

He hadn’t gotten any writing done, but that was all right. He had plenty of time, and once the soundwall was in, he’d be able to get a good night’s sleep and really focus down on the story.

A Chinese girl and a white boy walked down the sidewalk, talking intensely. They were all of six, and the boy had a Russian accent. The Market’s diversity always excited Alan. The boy looked a little like Alan’s brother Doug (Dan, David, Dearborne) had looked when he was that age.

Doug was the one he’d help murder. All the brothers had helped with the murder, even Charlie (Clem, Carlos, Cory), the island, who’d opened a great fissure down his main fault line and closed it up over Doug’s corpse, ensuring that their parents would be none the wiser. Doug was a stubborn son-of-a-bitch, though, and his corpse had tunneled up over the next six years, built a raft from the bamboo and vines that grew in proliferation on Carlos’s west coast. He sailed the raft through treacherous seas for a year and a day, beached it on their father’s gentle slope, and presented himself to their mother. By that time, the corpse had decayed and frayed and worn away, so that he was little more than a torso and stumps, his tongue withered and stiff, but he pled his case to their mother, and she was so upset that her load overbalanced and they had to restart her. Their father was so angry that he quaked and caved in Billy (Bob, Brad, Benny)’s room, crushing all his tools and all his trophies.

But a lot of time had gone by and the brothers weren’t kids anymore. Alan was nineteen, ready to move to Toronto and start scouting for real estate. Only Doug still looked like a little boy, albeit a stumpy and desiccated one. He hollered and stamped until his fingerbones rattled on the floor and his tongue flew across the room and cracked on the wall. When his anger was spent, he crawled atop their mother and let her rock him into a long, long slumber.

Alan had left his father and his family the next morning, carrying a rucksack heavy with gold from under the mountain and walked down to the town, taking the same trail he’d walked every school day since he was five. He waved to the people that drove past him on the highway as he waited at the bus stop. He was the first son to leave home under his own power, and he’d been full of butterflies, but he had a half-dozen good books that he’d checked out of the Kapuskasing branch library to keep him occupied on the 14-hour journey, and before he knew it, the bus was pulling off the Gardiner Expressway by the SkyDome and into the midnight streets of Toronto, where the buildings stretched to the sky, where the blinking lights of the Yonge Street sleaze-strip receded into the distance like a landing strip for a horny UFO.

His liquid cash was tight, so he spent that night in the Rex Hotel, in the worst room in the house, right over the cymbal tree that the jazz-drummer below hammered on until nearly two a.m.. The bed was small and hard and smelled of bleach and must, the washbasin gurgled mysteriously and spat out moist sewage odors, and he’d read all his books, so he sat in the window and watched the drunks and the hipsters stagger down Queen Street and inhaled the smoky air and before he knew it, he’d nodded off in the chair with his heavy coat around him like a blanket.

The Chinese girl abruptly thumped her fist into the Russian boy’s ear. He clutched his head and howled, tears streaming down his face, while the Chinese girl ran off. Alan shook his head, got up off his chair, went inside for a cold washcloth and an ice pack, and came back out.

The Russian boy’s face was screwed up and blotchy and streaked with tears, and it made him look even more like Doug, who’d always been a crybaby. Alan couldn’t understand him, but he took a guess and knelt at his side and wiped the boy’s face, then put the ice pack in his little hand and pressed it to the side of his little head.

“Come on,” he said, taking the boy’s other hand. “Where do your parents live? I’ll take you home.”


Alan met Krishna the next morning at ten a.m., as Alan was running a table saw on the neighbors’ front lawn, sawing studs up to fit the second wall. Krishna came out of the house in a dirty dressing gown, his short hair matted with gel from the night before. He was tall and fit and muscular, his brown calves flashing through the vent of his housecoat. He was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and clutching a can of Coke.

Alan shut down the saw and shifted his goggles up to his forehead. “Good morning,” he said. “I’d stay on the porch if I were you, or maybe put on some shoes. There’re lots of nails and splinters around.”

Krishna, about to step off the porch, stepped back. “You must be Alvin,” he said.

“Yup,” Alan said, going up the stairs, sticking out his hand. “And you must be Krishna. You’re pretty good with a guitar, you know that?”

Krishna shook briefly, then snatched his hand back and rubbed at his stubble. “I know. You’re pretty fucking loud with a table saw.”

Alan looked sheepish. “Sorry about that. I wanted to get the heavy work done before it got too hot. Hope I’m not disturbing you too much – today’s the only sawing day. I’ll be hammering for the next day or two, then it’s all wet work – the loudest tool I’ll be using is sandpaper. Won’t take more than four days, tops, anyway, and we’ll be in good shape.”

Krishna gave him a long, considering look. “What are you, anyway?”

“I’m a writer – for now. Used to have a few shops.”

Krishna blew a plume of smoke off into the distance. “That’s not what I mean. What are you, Adam? Alan? Andrew? I’ve met people like you before. There’s something not right about you.”

Alan didn’t know what to say to that. This was bound to come up someday.

“Where are you from?”

“Up north. Near Kapuskasing,” he said. “A little town.”

“I don’t believe you,” Krishna said. “Are you an alien? A fairy? What?”

Alan shook his head. “Just about what I seem, I’m afraid. Just a guy.”

“Just about, huh?” he said.

“Just about.”

“There’s a lot of wiggle room in just about, Arthur. It’s a free country, but just the same, I don’t think I like you very much. Far as I’m concerned, you could get lost and never come back.”

“Sorry you feel that way, Krishna. I hope I’ll grow on you as time goes by.”

“I hope that you won’t have the chance to,” Krishna said, flicking the dog end of his cigarette toward the sidewalk.


Alan didn’t like or understand Krishna, but that was okay. He understood the others just fine, more or less. Natalie had taken to helping him out after her classes, mudding and taping the drywall, then sanding it down, priming, and painting it. Her brother Link came home from work sweaty and grimy with road dust, but he always grabbed a beer for Natalie and Alan after his shower, and they’d sit on the porch and kibbitz.

Mimi was less hospitable. She sulked in her room while Alan worked on the soundwall, coming downstairs only to fetch her breakfast and coldly ignoring him then, despite his cheerful greetings. Alan had to force himself not to stare after her as she walked into the kitchen, carrying yesterday’s dishes down from her room; then out again, with a sandwich on a fresh plate. Her curly hair bounced as she stomped back and forth, her soft, round buttocks flexing under her long-johns.

On the night that Alan and Natalie put the first coat of paint on the wall, Mimi came down in a little baby-doll dress, thigh-high striped tights, and chunky shoes, her face painted with swaths of glitter.

“You look wonderful, baby,” Natalie told her as she emerged onto the porch. “Going out?”

“Going to the club,” she said. “DJ None Of Your Fucking Business is spinning and Krishna’s going to get me in for free.”

“Dance music,” Link said disgustedly. Then, to Alan, “You know this stuff? It’s not playing music, it’s playing records. Snore.”

“Sounds interesting,” Alan said. “Do you have any of it I could listen to? A CD or some MP3s?”

“Oh, that’s not how you listen to this stuff,” Natalie said. “You have to go to a club and dance.”

“Really?” Alan said. “Do I have to take ecstasy, or is that optional?”

“It’s mandatory,” Mimi said, the first words she’d spoken to him all week. “Great fistfuls of E, and then you have to consume two pounds of candy necklaces at an after-hours orgy.”

“Not really,” Natalie said, sotto voce. “But you do have to dance. You should go with, uh, Mimi, to the club. DJ None Of Your Fucking Business is amazing.”

“I don’t think Mimi wants company,” Alan said.

“What makes you say that?” Mimi said, making a dare of it with hipshot body language. “Get changed and we’ll go together. You’ll have to pay to get in, though.”

Link and Natalie exchanged a raised eyebrow, but Alan was already headed for his place, fumbling for his keys. He bounded up the stairs, swiped a washcloth over his face, threw on a pair of old cargo pants and a faded Steel Pole Bathtub T-shirt he’d bought from a head-shop one day because he liked the words’ incongruity, though he’d never heard the band, added a faded jean jacket and a pair of high-tech sneakers, grabbed his phone, and bounded back down the stairs. He was convinced that Mimi would be long gone by the time he got back out front, but she was still there, the stripes in her stockings glowing in the slanting light.

“Retro chic,” she said, and laughed nastily. Natalie gave him a thumbs up and a smile that Alan uncharitably took for a simper, and felt guilty about it immediately afterward. He returned the thumbs up and then took off after Mimi, who’d already started down Augusta, headed for Queen Street.

“What’s the cover charge?” he said, once he’d caught up.

“Twenty bucks,” she said. “It’s an all-ages show, so they won’t be selling a lot of booze, so there’s a high cover.”

“How’s the play coming?”

“Fuck off about the play, okay?” she said, and spat on the sidewalk.

“All right, then,” he said. “I’m going to start writing my story tomorrow,” he said.

“Your story, huh?”


“What’s that for?”

“What do you mean?” he asked playfully.

“Why are you writing a story?”

“Well, I have to! I’ve completely redone the house, built that soundwall – it’d be a shame not to write the story now.”

“You’re writing a story about your house?”

“No, in my house. I haven’t decided what the story’s about yet. That’ll be job one tomorrow.”

“You did all that work to have a place to write? Man, I thought I was into procrastination.”

He chuckled self-deprecatingly. “I guess you could look at it that way. I just wanted to have a nice, creative environment to work in. The story’s important to me, is all.”

“What are you going to do with it once you’re done? There aren’t a whole lot of places that publish short stories these days, you know.”

“Oh, I know it! I’d write a novel if I had the patience. But this isn’t for publication – yet. It’s going into a drawer to be published after I die.”


“Like Emily Dickinson. Wrote thousands of poems, stuck ’em in a drawer, dropped dead. Someone else published ’em and she made it into the canon. I’m going to do the same.”

“That’s nuts – are you dying?”

“Nope. But I don’t want to put this off until I am. Could get hit by a bus, you know.”

“You’re a goddamned psycho. Krishna was right.”

“What does Krishna have against me?”

“I think we both know what that’s about,” she said.

“No, really, what did I ever do to him?”

Now they were on Queen Street, walking east in the early evening crowd, surrounded by summertime hipsters and wafting, appetizing smells from the bistros and Jamaican roti shops. She stopped abruptly and grabbed his shoulders and gave him a hard shake.

“You’re full of shit, Ad-man. I know it and you know it.”

“I really don’t know what you’re talking about, honestly!”

“Fine, let’s do this.” She clamped her hand on his forearm and dragged him down a side street and turned down an alley. She stepped into a doorway and started unbuttoning her Alice-blue babydoll dress. Alan looked away, embarrassed, glad of the dark hiding his blush.

Once the dress was unbuttoned to her waist, she reached around behind her and unhooked her white underwire bra, which sagged forward under the weight of her heavy breasts. She turned around, treating him to a glimpse of the full curve of her breast under her arm, and shrugged the dress down around her waist.

She had two stubby, leathery wings growing out of the middle of her back, just above the shoulder blades. They sat flush against her back, and as Alan watched, they unfolded and flexed, flapped a few times, and settled back into their position, nested among the soft roll of flesh that descended from her neck.

Involuntarily, he peered forward, examining the wings, which were covered in fine downy brown hairs, and their bases, roped with muscle and surrounded by a mess of ugly scars.

“You...sewed...these on?” Alan said, aghast.

She turned around, her eyes bright with tears. Her breasts swung free of her unhooked bra. “No, you fucking idiot. I sawed them off. Four times a year. They just grow back. If I don’t cut them, they grow down to my ankles.”


Mimi was curiously and incomprehensibly affectionate after she had buttoned up her dress and resumed walking toward the strip of clubs along Richmond Street. She put her hand on his forearm and murmured funny commentary about the outlandishly attired club kids in their plastic cowboy hats, Sailor Moon outfits, and plastic tuxedoes. She plucked a cigarette from his lips, dragged on it, and put it back into his mouth, still damp with her saliva, an act that sent a shiver down Alan’s neck and made the hair on the backs of his hands stand up.

She seemed to think that the wings were self-explanatory and needed no further discussion, and Alan was content to let them stay in his mind’s eye, bat-shaped, powerful, restless, surrounded by their gridwork of angry scars.

Once they got to the club, Shasta Disaster, a renovated brick bank with robotic halogen spots that swept the sidewalk out front with a throbbing penis logomark, she let go of his arm and her body stiffened. She said something in the doorman’s ear, and he let her pass. When Alan tried to follow her, the bouncer stopped him with a meaty hand on his chest.

“Can I help you sir,” he said flatly. He was basically a block of fat and muscle with a head on top, arms as thick as Alan’s thighs barely contained in a silver button-down short-sleeve shirt that bound at his armpits.

“Do I pay the cover to you?” Alan asked, reaching for his wallet.

“No, you don’t get to pay a cover. You’re not coming in.”

“But I’m with her,” Alan said, gesturing in the direction Mimi had gone. “I’m Krishna’s and her neighbor.”

“She didn’t mention it,” the bouncer said. He was smirking now.

“Look,” Alan said. “I haven’t been to a club in twenty years. Do you guys still take bribes?”

The bouncer rolled his eyes. “Some might. I don’t. Why don’t you head home, sir.”

“That’s it, huh?” Alan said. “Nothing I can say or do?”

“Don’t be a smart guy,” the bouncer said.

“Good night, then,” Alan said, and turned on his heel. He walked back up to Queen Street, which was ablaze with TV lights from the open studio out front of the CHUM-City building. Hordes of teenagers in tiny, outrageous outfits milled back and forth from the coffee shops to the studio window, where some band he’d never heard of was performing, generally ambling southward to the clubs. Alan bought himself a coffee with a sixteen-syllable latinate trade name ("Moch-a-latt-a-meraican-a-spress-a-chino,” he liked to call them) at the Second Cup and hailed a taxi.

He felt only the shortest moment of anger at Mimi, but it quickly cooled and then warmed again, replaced by bemusement. Decrypting the mystical deeds of young people had been his hobby and avocation since he hired his first cranky-but-bright sixteen-year-old. Mimi had played him, he knew that, deliberately set him up to be humiliated. But she’d also wanted a moment alone with him, an opportunity to confront him with her wings – wings that were taking on an air of the erotic now in his imagination, much to his chagrin. He imagined that they were soft and pliable as lips but with spongy cartilage beneath that gave way like livid nipple flesh. The hair must be silky, soft, and slippery as a pubic thatch oiled with sweat and juices. Dear oh dear, he was really getting himself worked into a lather, imagining the wings drooping to the ground, unfolding powerfully in his living room, encircling him, enveloping him as his lips enveloped the tendons on her neck, as her vagina enveloped him... Whew!

The taxi drove right past his place and that gave Alan a much-needed distraction, directing the cabbie through the maze of Kensington Market’s one-way streets back around to his front door. He tipped the cabbie a couple of bucks over his customary ten percent and bummed a cigarette off him, realizing that Mimi had asked him for a butt but never returned the pack.

He puffed and shook his head and stared up the street at the distant lights of College Street, then turned back to his porch.

“Hello, Albert,” two voices said in unison, speaking from the shadows on his porch.

“Jesus,” he said, and hit the remote on his keyring that switched on the porch light. It was his brother Edward, the eldest of the nesting dolls, the bark of their trinity, coarse and tough and hollow. He was even fatter than he’d been as a little boy, fat enough that his arms and legs appeared vestigial and unjointed. He struggled, panting, to his tiny feet – feet like undersized exclamation points beneath the tapered Oh of his body. His face, though doughy, had not gone to undefined softness. Rather, every feature had acquired its own rolls of fat, rolls that warred with one another to define his appearance – nose and cheekbones and brow and lips all grotesque and inflated and blubbery.

“Eugene,” Alan said. “It’s been a very long time.”

Edward cocked his head. “It has, indeed, big brother. I’ve got bad news.”


Edward leaned to the left, the top half of his body tipping over completely, splitting at his narrow leather belt, so that his trunk, neck, and head hung upside down beside his short, cylindrical legs and tiny feet.

Inside of him was Frederick, the perennial middle child. Frederick planted his palms on the dry, smooth edges of his older brother’s waist and levered himself up, stepping out of Ed’s legs with the unconscious ease of a lifetime’s practice. “It’s good to see you, Andy,” he said. He was pale and wore his habitual owlish expression of surprise at seeing the world without looking through his older brother’s eyes.

“It’s nice to see you, too, Frederick,” Alan said. He’d always gotten along with Frederick, always liked his ability to play peacemaker and to lend a listening ear.

Frederick helped Edward upright, methodically circumnavigating his huge belly, retucking his grimy white shirt. Then he hitched up his sweatshirt over the hairy pale expanse of his own belly and tipped to one side.

Alan had been expecting to see Gregory, the core, but instead, there was nothing inside Frederick. The Gregory-shaped void was empty. Frederick righted himself and hitched up his belt.

“We think he’s dead,” Edward said, his rubbery features distorted into a Greek tragedy mask. “We think that Doug killed him.” He pinwheeled his round arms and then clapped his hands to his face, sobbing. Frederick put a hand on his arm. He, too, was crying.


Once upon a time, Alan’s mother gave birth to three sons in three months. Birthing sons was hardly extraordinary – before these three came along, she’d already had four others. But the interval, well, that was unusual.

As the eldest, Alan was the first to recognize the early signs of her pregnancy. The laundry loads of diapers and play clothes he fed into her belly unbalanced more often, and her spin cycle became almost lackadaisical, so the garments had to hang on the line for days before they stiffened and dried completely. Alan liked to sit with his back against his mother’s hard enamel side while she rocked and gurgled and churned. It comforted him.

The details of her conception were always mysterious to Alan. He’d been walking down into town to attend day school for five years, and he’d learned all about the birds and the bees, and he thought that maybe his father – the mountain – impregnated his mother by means of some strange pollen carried on the gusts of winds from his deep and gloomy caves. There was a gnome, too, who made sure that the long hose that led from Alan’s mother’s back to the spring pool in his father’s belly remained clear and unfouled, and sometimes Alan wondered if the gnome dove for his father’s seed and fed it up his mother’s intake. Alan’s life was full of mysteries, and he’d long since learned to keep his mouth shut about his home life when he was at school.

He attended all three births, along with the smaller kids – Bill and Donald (Charlie, the island, was still small enough to float in the middle of their father’s heart-pool) – waiting on tenterhooks for his mother’s painful off-balance spin cycle to spend itself before reverently opening the round glass door and removing the infant within.

Edward was fat, even for a baby. He looked like an elongated soccer ball with a smaller ball on top. He cried healthily, though, and gave hearty suck to their mother’s exhaust valve once Alan had cleaned the soap suds and fabric softener residue from his little body. His father gusted proud, warm, blustery winds over them and their little domestic scene.

Alan noticed that little Edward, for all his girth, was very light, and wondered if the baby was full of helium or some other airy substance. Certainly he hardly appeared to be full of baby, since everything he ate and drank passed through him in a matter of seconds, hardly digested at all. Alan had to go into town twice to buy new twelve-pound boxes of clean white shop rags to clean up the slime trail the baby left behind him. Drew, at three, seemed to take a perverse delight in the scummy water, spreading it around the cave as much as possible. The grove in front of the cave mouth was booby trapped with clothesline upon clothesline, all hung with diapers and rags drying out in the early spring sunlight.

Thirty days later, Alan came home from school to find the younger kids surrounding his mother as she rocked from side to side, actually popping free of the grooves her small metal feet had worn in the cave floor over the years.

Two babies in thirty days! Such a thing was unheard of in their father’s cave. Edward, normally a sweet-tempered baby, howled long screams that resonated through Alan’s milk teeth and made his testicles shrivel up into hard stones. Alan knew his mother liked to be left alone when she was in labor, but he couldn’t just stand there and watch her shake and shiver.

He went to her and pressed his palms to her top, tried to soothe and restrain her. Bill, the second eldest and still only four years old, followed suit. Edward’s screams grew even louder, loud and hoarse and utterly terrified, echoing off their father’s walls and back to them. Soon Alan was sobbing, too, biting his lip to keep the sounds inside, and so were the other children. Dillon wrinkled his brow and screamed a high-pitched wail that could have cut glass.

Alan’s mother rocked harder, and her exhaust hose dislodged itself. A high-pressure jet of cold, soapy water spurted from her back parts, painting the cave wall with suds. Edward crawled into the puddle it formed and scooped small handsful of the liquid into his mouth between howls.

And then, it stopped. His mother stopped rocking, stopped shaking. The stream trailed off into a trickle. Alan stopped crying, and soon the smaller kids followed suit, even Edward. The echoes continued for a moment, and then they, too, stopped. The silence was as startling – and nearly as unbearable – as the cacophony had been.

With a trembling hand, Alan opened his mother’s door and extracted little Frederick. The baby was small and cyanotic blue. Alan tipped the baby over and shook him gently, and the baby vomited up a fantastic quantity of wash water, a prodigious stream that soaked the front of Alan’s school trousers and his worn brown loafers. Finally it ended, and the baby let out a healthy yowl. Alan shifted the infant to one arm and gingerly reconnected the exhaust hose and set the baby down alongside of its end. The baby wouldn’t suck, though.

Across the cave, from his soggy seat in the puddle of waste water, Edward watched the new baby with curious eyes. He crawled across the floor and nuzzled his brother with his high forehead. Frederick squirmed and fussed, and Edward shoved him to one side and sucked. His little diaper dripped as the liquid passed directly through him.

Alan patiently picked dripping Edward up and put him over one shoulder, and gave Frederick the tube to suck. Frederick gummed at the hose’s end, then fussed some more, whimpering. Edward squirmed in his arms, nearly plummeting to the hard stone floor.

“Billy,” Alan said to the solemn little boy, who nodded. “Can you take care of Edward for a little while? I need to clean up.” Billy nodded again and held out his pudgy arms. Alan grabbed some clean shop rags and briskly wiped Frederick down, then laid another across Billy’s shoulder and set Edward down. The baby promptly set to snoring. Danny started screaming again, with no provocation, and Alan took two swift steps to bridge the distance between them and smacked the child hard enough to stun him silent.

Alan grabbed a mop and bucket and sloshed the puddles into the drainage groove where his mother’s waste water usually ran, out the cave mouth and into a stand of choking mountain-grass that fed greedily and thrived riotous in the phosphates from the detergent.

Frederick did not eat for thirty days, and during that time he grew so thin that he appeared to shrivel like a raisin, going hard and folded in upon himself. Alan spent hours patiently spooning sudsy water into his little pink mouth, but the baby wouldn’t swallow, just spat it out and whimpered and fussed. Edward liked to twine around Alan’s feet like a cat as he joggled and spooned and fretted over Frederick. It was all Alan could do not to go completely mad, but he held it together, though his grades slipped.

His mother vibrated nervously, and his father’s winds grew so unruly that two of the golems came around to the cave to make their slow, peevish complaints. Alan shoved a baby into each of their arms and seriously lost his shit upon them, screaming himself hoarse at them while hanging more diapers, more rags, more clothes on the line, tossing his unfinished homework in their faces.

But on the thirtieth day, his mother went into labor again – a labor so frenzied that it dislodged a stalactite and sent it crashing and chundering to the cave floor in a fractious shivering of flinders. Alan took a chip in the neck and it opened up a small cut that nevertheless bled copiously and ruined, ruined his favorite T-shirt, with Snoopy sitting atop his doghouse in an aviator’s helmet, firing an imaginary machine gun at the cursed Red Baron.

That was nearly the final straw for Alan, but he held fast and waited for the labor to pass and finally unlatched the door and extracted little George, a peanut of a child, a lima-bean infant, curled and fetal and eerily quiet. He set the little half-baby down by the exhaust hose, where he’d put shriveled Frederick in a hopeless hope that the baby would suck, would ingest, finally.

And ingest Frederick did. His dry and desiccated jaw swung open like a snake’s, unhinged and spread wide, and he swallowed little George, ate him up in three convulsive swallows, the new baby making Frederick’s belly swell like a balloon. Alan swallowed panic, seized Frederick by the heels, and shook him upside down. “Spit him out,” Alan cried, “Spat him free!”

But Frederick kept his lips stubbornly together, and Alan tired of the terrible business and set the boy with the newest brother within down on a pile of hay he’d brought in to soak up some of Edward’s continuous excretions. Alan put his hands over his face and sobbed, because he’d failed his responsibilities as eldest of their family and there was no one he could tell his woes to.

The sound of baby giggles stopped his crying. Edward had belly-crawled to Frederick’s side and he was eating him, jaw unhinged and gorge working. He was up to Frederick’s little bottom, dehydrated to a leathery baby-jerky, and then he was past, swallowing the arms and the chin and the head, the giggling, smiling head, the laughing head that had done nothing but whine and fuss since Alan had cleared it of its volume of detergenty water, fresh from their mother’s belly.

And then Frederick was gone. Horrified, Alan rushed over and picked up Edward – now as heavy as a cannonball – and pried his mouth open, staring down his gullet, staring down into another mouth, Frederick’s mouth, which gaped open, revealing a third mouth, George’s. The smallest mouth twisted and opened, then shut. Edward squirmed furiously and Alan nearly fumbled him. He set the baby down in the straw and watched him crawl across to their mother, where he sucked hungrily. Automatically, Alan gathered up an armload of rags and made ready to wipe up the stream that Edward would soon be ejecting.

But no stream came. The baby fed and fed, and let out a deep burp in three-part harmony, spat up a little, and drank some more. Somehow, Frederick and George were in there feeding, too. Alan waited patiently for Edward to finish feeding, then put him over his shoulder and joggled him until he burped up, then bedded him down in his little rough-hewn crib – the crib that the golems had carved for Alan when he was born – cleaned the cave, and cried again, leaned up against their mother.


Frederick huddled in on himself, half behind Edward on the porch, habitually phobic of open spaces. Alan took his hand and then embraced him. He smelled of Edward’s clammy guts and of sweat.

“Are you two hungry?” Alan asked.

Edward grimaced. “Of course we’re hungry, but without George there’s nothing we can do about it, is there?”

Alan shook his head. “How long has he been gone?”

“Three weeks,” Edward whispered. “I’m so hungry, Alan.”

“How did it happen?”

Frederick wobbled on his feet, then leaned heavily on Edward. “I need to sit down,” he said.

Alan fumbled for his keys and let them into the house, where they settled into the corners of his old overstuffed horsehide sofa. He dialed up the wall sconces to a dim, homey lighting, solicitous of Frederick’s sensitive eyes. He took an Apollo 8 Jim Beam decanter full of stunning Irish whiskey off the sideboard and poured himself a finger of it, not offering any to his brothers.

“Now, how did it happen?”

“He wanted to speak to Dad,” Frederick said. “He climbed out of me and wandered down through the tunnels into the spring pool. The goblin told us that he took off his clothes and waded in and started whispering.” Like most of the boys, George had believed that their father was most aware in his very middle, where he could direct the echoes of the water’s rippling, shape them into words and phrases in the hollow of the great cavern.

“So the goblin saw it happen?”

“No,” Frederick said, and Edward began to cry again. “No. George asked him for some privacy, and so he went a little way up the tunnel. He waited and waited, but George didn’t come back. He called out, but George didn’t answer. When he went to look for him, he was gone. His clothes were gone. All that he could find was this.” He scrabbled to fit his chubby hand into his jacket’s pocket, then fished out a little black pebble. Alan took it and saw that it wasn’t a pebble, it was a rotted-out and dried-up fingertip, pierced with unbent paperclip wire.

“It’s Dave’s, isn’t it?” Edward said.

“I think so,” Alan said. Dave used to spend hours wiring his dropped-off parts back onto his body, gluing his teeth back into his head. “Jesus.”

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” Frederick said. “We’re going to starve to death.”

Edward held his pudgy hands one on top of the other in his lap and began to rock back and forth. “We’ll be okay,” he lied.

“Did anyone see Dave?” Alan asked.

“No,” Frederick said. “We asked the golems, we asked Dad, we asked the goblin, but no one saw him. No one’s seen him for years.”

Alan thought for a moment about how to ask his next question. “Did you look in the pool? On the bottom?”

He’s not there!” Edward said. “We looked there. We looked all around Dad. We looked in town. Alan, they’re both gone.”

Alan felt a sear of acid jet up esophagus. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I don’t know where to look. Frederick, can’t you, I don’t know, stuff yourself with something? So you can eat?”

“We tried,” Edward said. “We tried rags and sawdust and clay and bread and they didn’t work. I thought that maybe we could get a child and put him inside, maybe, but God, Albert, I don’t want to do that, it’s the kind of thing Dan would do.”

Alan stared at the softly glowing wood floors, reflecting highlights from the soft lighting. He rubbed his stocking toes over the waxy finish and felt its shine. “Don’t do that, okay?” he said. “I’ll think of something. Let me sleep on it. Do you want to sleep here? I can make up the sofa.”

“Thanks, big brother,” Edward said. “Thanks.”


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