“This New Dark”: Short Fiction by Chase Dearinger

 

The very last thing: the roof rose up seamlessly from the house, sat perfectly still a hundred feet above the lights and chaos in the street. The ground quaked and calmed, and a murder of countless crows poured out from the house, their oily, rainbow flap like a deck of cards splashed across a room. They flew up, together, then moved apart from each other, flying to the singular place in the blue-black sky they believed was safe.

 

I.

The detective looked exactly like Max imagined a detective would: rolled-up sleeves, loosened tie, barrel chest, military cut. When he’d arrived at Max’s door with a uniformed officer in tow and flashed an inscrutable badge, Max’s muscles went rigid with panic.

He knew all about the lumberjack in the Walmart parking lot.

Max lowered his heavy body to the couch and Diane sat next to him, her legs crossed and a firm but supportive hand atop Max’s. Tall and thin, she was still in her painter’s overalls—a fresh coat of red splashed across the front—with her hair up in a faded bandanna. The detective sat across from them in the recliner. Between them all, on the coffee table, sat a ceramic figurine—an eagle in the middle of a dive towards some unseen prey. When everyone was settled, the uniformed officer stood behind the detective, pulled a small notepad from his breast pocket, and clicked a pen. The detective smiled and reassured them it was a friendly visit, due diligence. It was about an incident that took place the night before.

A cold tremor rattled up Max’s spine. Had the man recognized him? Of course. Everyone knew Max’s face. He was the manager of the Git-n-Gallup and sold half the town their coffee every morning. “Okay,” he said. “Happy to help.” He smiled nervously.

“Can you tell us where you were last night between the hours of midnight and three a.m.?”

Max calculated. “Asleep,” he said. “Asleep, at home.” A measure of relief washed over him. The detective nodded. The uniformed officer made a note in his pad and then closed it, put the pen away.

“Mrs. Adamson,” the detective said, “can you confirm that your husband was in bed between midnight and three a.m.?”

She sat up straight-backed and removed her hand from atop Max’s, and Max understood that something a long time coming was about to finally come. But it still felt like a betrayal. She knew what he was going through at work. And there was the death of his father maybe a month ago, the new house at the same time. Those were just excuses to her. She didn’t like that he was drinking so much more, how irascible he’d become. Her father was an abusive drunk, and he guessed that was how she saw him. Max had become angry, which was new. It started when Max Jr. asked him if he wanted to play fifty-two card pickup and splattered the cards across the room. They went everywhere—behind the TV, under the couch, in Max’s lap. That time he’d just yelled, red-face shouted Max Jr. to his room. It got worse when Max Jr. wedged the basement door with a chair while Max was below. He shouted and pounded and kicked the door again and again over until it crashed forward. He ran past Diane in the hall, shouting, but Max Jr. was gone. Diane stood in the middle of the hall, looking down at her feet. He came up behind her to see what she was seeing: two of the chair’s legs were broken, splintered.

He apologized later in bed.

“If you do anything like that ever again,” she said, cutting the threat short.

“I promise,” he told her. “I’m so sorry—I’m really sorry.” He buried his face into the nape of her neck, but she was rigid.

But then last night he actually hit him.

The detective cleared his throat. “Mrs. Adamson?”

She was staring at red paint on the back of her hand. “No,” she said, and looked up. “To be honest, I can’t. He slept on the couch last night, and I was up in the bedroom. I went to bed well before midnight.”

The detective leaned forward in the recliner and drilled holes through Max with his eyes. The uniformed officer clicked his pen back to life.

 

Later, when Max was the only one left in the house, the lights and electronics flickered on and off all day and all night.

But before that was the warrant and search. The detective returned with a busload of uniformed officers. They handed Max something thick in a waxy, official-looking envelope. They tore the house apart. They took Max Jr.’s computer, pilfered through his closet full of books and toys, which sailed over the officer’s shoulder as he searched. They were in the basement for hours and hours. Diane’s clothes were piled in the middle of the room as they pulled out every drawer. A man came and swabbed the inside of Max’s mouth without explaining why. Every single thing that could be moved was moved, and was, in turn, left where it was moved to. For a reason Max didn’t understand, an officer returned from his basement with a rusted handsaw. He showed it to the detective, who smiled.

“That was my father’s,” Max said. The basement was full of his father’s stuff, he told them. His father just died.

Max went to lie down, but his mattress was turned over and leaned against the wall.

 

Sure, he’d followed the man out into the parking lot. But for no other reason than the fact that the man had checked out before Max. Otherwise, he probably wouldn’t have given the man a second thought.

Max was browsing the tabloids and waiting on a young couple buying cigarettes and ground beef when the man appeared from behind a battery kiosk. He was tall and wide-shouldered. He had a thick, red beard and wore a thick, red-and-black flannel shirt with Wranglers. He matched the Brawny man on the paper towels he was buying. A lumberjack. His cart was filled with things that inexplicably saddened Max: bottles of Mountain Dew, a colorful bag of assorted single-serve chips, white bread, frozen pizzas. Before Max could finish his inventory, though, the lumberjack angled his cart in front of Max’s and cut in line. He turned to Max and smiled, said, “Twenty lanes and they’ve only got two open. Typical, am I right?” He winked.

Something dropped open in Max like the trapdoor of a gallows, and something heavy as a human body dropped through, snapped taught in his stomach.

 

II.

A small voice came from the stairwell and the detective and uniformed officer turned. Max Jr. squatted on the bottom step, his round face protruding between two of the white rails, which he clutched in his fists. “Mommy?” When Diane turned to him, Max Jr. dislodged his head from the rails and ran to her, jumped in her lap. For a moment Max had forgotten about the eye, but it shown like a spotlight when his son turned and took in the room. His left eye was bruised, slightly swollen, hovering somewhere between green and purple.

“That your boy?” the detective asked. Max nodded, speechless in the situation. Before Max Jr. could even settle in, Diane picked him up and turned his right side towards the others. “Say goodnight,” she told him. “You’re going back to bed, pronto.” As she was carrying him up the stairs, Max Jr. asked, “What are the good guys doing in our house?” They disappeared at the top of the stairs and left the three men alone in a moment of baked silence.

The detective’s voice was suddenly gravelly, the kindness all sucked out. “Okay, Adamson. Looks like you can’t account for where you were last night. And don’t expect your wife to lie for you now. Too late for that.”

“Now why would she need to do that?”

The detective pulled several pictures from his breast pocket and spread them out in his hand like a player arranges their cards. It was the lumberjack, leaned back with an elbow planted in sand, a cigarette between his lips. He looked younger, happy to have someone taking his picture. Max cupped his elbows in his hands and did everything he could to stop himself from shaking. “I only left him there,” he said, “because I was afraid.”

Diane returned, stood behind Max, wringing her hands. She looked down at the picture and frowned. “So what’s this all about?”

 

It wasn’t three days after Max’s father’s funeral that the old man basically moved into his house. That’s how Max liked to joke, anyhow, to one of his clerks or regulars—the extent of his social circle—and even to Diane, though she didn’t think it was funny. The bright orange of a moving van appeared in the driveway and a crew of men carried what was left of the old man’s earthly possessions down to the basement. He didn’t want the stuff at first, but then saw one of them carrying the wicker rocking chair his mother used to sit in while she watched TV. He was suddenly desperate for every last artifact. He began to believe that if he examined, if he traced the surface of everything—the furniture, the boxes of books with broken spines, the clothes, the tools—he could learn something. A sort of message in a bottle. The message: What the old man thought of him. What he really thought of him. He only wished he could have had the house, too, but he’d sold it to pay off the old man’s debts.

At first he went down there every night. He could drink beers without Diane counting them or Max Jr. watching him. Most of the room was in deep shadows beneath the weak, yellow light of a bare bulb at the top of the stairs and another in the back of the room. He liked the musty smell of moisture and his childhood. The movers left blue quilted blankets over some of the furniture. The whole basement was full of them. It reminded Max of a choppy ocean full of driftwood or the remains of a sunken ship.

He liked to take inventory, see what the old man had, and compare it to what he had. There was the barbecue smoker, its wheels jammed, its chimney rusted out and jagged. The old man was always barbecuing, always turning over meat. He tried to teach Max, but Max failed again and again, burning burgers, letting the smoke get too hot on a rack of ribs. Eventually the old man started waving him away when he got near the grill. Now Max owned a stainless steel Nexgrill Deluxe 6-Burner. He’d gotten it on consignment, but it still warmed him to know how much better his was. And there was the wooden toolbox, slick with years of sweat and oil. Max had a Homac Pro-Series eleven-drawer. In royal blue. They’d put that one on the credit card, much to Diane’s chagrin.

He found the sixteen-by-twenty wedding picture that the old man took down from over the TV when his mother died. Max was eight. They stood together, her hands on top of his. Her dress was a bloom of white flowers that covered every part of her but her neck and head. His father wore a light gray suit with a pink bowtie and cumber bum. They both had close-lipped smiles on their faces. It was one comparison Max had come up short on. His and Diane’s wedding had been a shotgun situation, one the old man greatly disapproved up. It was a mistake, he’d told Max. He was a fool to do it just because there was a baby.

And in a chest of drawers he found the grease-covered overalls the old man wore every day to the garage he owned. Max’s own job had just been another disappointment. Dropping out of school to marry Diane meant he needed a job, so he’d signed on as a clerk at the Git-n-Gallup. He was a fool to do it, the old man told him. He was throwing his life away. He should be learning a trade, going to college, something. Max ended up winning that comparison in the end, though. Within eight years he was manager. The station owner gave him benefits and a healthy salary. And the keys to the store. He made more money than his father. He had a job that required wearing khakis and a button-down shirt and now lived in a house in a new development that was bigger than the old man’s.

Now, though, he had no one to compare himself to.

 

Even later, when the search was over and Diane and Max Jr. were both gone, Max locked the basement door from the inside and closed it. The water had risen too high, and he could no longer move around down there without the cold gushing over the tops of his galoshes. Without Diane and Max Jr. around to watch him, he could drink wherever he wanted anyway. No one was counting. He brought cases and cases of beer home from the Git-n-Gallup, and left the cans over the surfaces all over the house—bathroom counters, Max Jr.’s bedside table, the stairs—some of them empty, some of them full, some of them in between.

Regulars quit coming to the store. The station owner fired him. When he went out, people stopped making eye contact with him. So he began to stay at home.

The lights got worse. The other appliances stopped bothering him when he unplugged them all over the house. Except the TV, which went off and on all day. The breaker box showed that everything was fine. An electrician came and stared at the beers all over the house and told him nothing was wrong with the lights. He repeated this with three electricians.

The phone began to ring off the hook. Pranks, threats, breathing sounds. Reporters asking for statements. Offering money for interviews. Sometimes he just shouted I didn’t do it! Sometimes he said nothing, just listened to the breathing of the person on the other end line. “Hello? Mr. Adamson?”

Eventually the water in the basement rose up high enough to soak the carpet all around the house, even upstairs, which he didn’t understand. He wore his galoshes all of the time, stuffed towels under the basement door. He slept on the couch, Max Jr.’s bed, and sometimes the bathtub. He stopped showering. He ate everything in the house and then ordered pizzas. The delivery boys always had wide eyes when they came. They looked him up and down and shivered.

 

Before he left work on the day of the incident, he fired two clerks at the request of the station owner. A huge, glassy truck stop had opened up across the street, and the store had taken a hit. He’d been putting off the firings for weeks. He could feel his own job slowly sliding away like sludge down a floor drain.

The first was a lazy clerk named Jeb that he hadn’t liked from the beginning. He was always saying “Country boys this” and “Country boys that.” Max took him to the store room and they sat on top of stacks of cases of beer. “It’s terrible,” Max told him, “but we have to cut you loose.” The boy had raised his large hands and his eyes grew watery. He was engaged, he told Max. They had a little girl coming. The second one he liked the least: Tina. She was slow and had a snaggletooth, constantly miscounted her drawer at the end of her shifts. He’d only hired her out of desperation. He took her back to the store room. “Now this is a friendly conversation,” he said. She left crying. He felt sick to his stomach the rest of the day.

He drove all over town after work to delay going home, and was pleased when he returned to a quiet, empty-feeling house. All he could hear was the lub-dub of the paint roller against the wall. Diane had agreed to the bigger house on the condition that she could paint every room whatever color she wanted. She’d chosen “barn red” for the long hallway that led to the basement door. He watched her until she turned.

“Hey,” she said. “You’re home.”

Toys cluttered the beige, carpeted stairs. Action figures, loose Lego pieces, a scratched-up cap gun missing its cylinder. Max had stopped asking Max Jr. to keep the stairs clean. He’d tried and failed multiple times, always failed to follow through on his discipline. Each time he reasserted himself, only to have Max Jr. stonewall him, his will grew weaker. If Max Jr. had been one of his clerks, Max would have relished in sitting him down on a couple of cases of beer in the store room. But instead he did nothing, believing that if he didn’t bother calling Max Jr. out, Max Jr. couldn’t gauge just how far his father’s spinelessness went.

A loud Attack! came from somewhere on the second floor, and Max Jr. swung around the banister and stopped at the top of the stairs, his round cheeks red and shining, his Iron Man shirt stretched around his gut (he was in the second grade and already weighted almost a hundred pounds). Halloween had been more than a week before, but Max Jr. still refused to take off his costume. He wore it under his clothes when he went to school. He held a bright orange Nerf gun half the size of his body. He shouldered it.

“Come on,” Max said, “not tonight.”

Max Jr. grinned. He cocked the gun and unloaded a series of orange darts, each one a pneumatic thump. One whizzed just past Max’s face. The rest landed between his chest and knees.

“Ambush! Ambush! Ambush! Ambush!”

“Now, come on now. Now.” He made a concerted effort not to get angry—that new, electric anger shot through him—but he managed to keep it inside.

Max Jr. let another one loose, and Max moved to the side to get out of its way. When he did, the soul of his right shoe—slick from years of being on his feet behind a cash register—slipped on the carpet and went down two steps. His knee landed on a single Lego piece. He sucked cold air sharply through his teeth and groaned, turned and sat on the stairs. Max Jr. smiled down at him. A ring of cold scanned up and down Max’s body.

Diane stomped up the stairs behind Max and said, “Oh, stop it, MJ. Right this moment. Stop it.” Her voice was firm but round and loving. Max Jr. dropped the plastic gun to the ground, where it slipped off the top stair and fell, end-over-end, down the stairs, landing against Max’s leg.

“Max?”

Max said nothing.

“Max? Max.”

He closed his eyes and lowered his head, defeated. “Yes?”

She gave him a crooked smile. “What on earth are you doing on the stairs?”

He forced a smile. “Just, you know, taking a little break.” The lights in the brass sconces in the stairwell went dark. They flickered twice and came on again, and Max could hear something vibrating in the air, something like electricity.

Diane kissed him and told him there was a pizza on the way.

 

After dinner, Diane went back to painting, and Max went to the living room with the last beer and turned on the TV. Like clockwork, the sound of feet padding on the carpet followed behind him. He regretted not going to the basement. Max Jr. stood between him and the TV. He still had on the costume, only now he was wearing the plastic mask and was pantless. He stuck his thumb in the small opening at the mask’s mouth and sucked it cartoonishly, smacking and sucking. He pulled it out and collected his spit. He said, “Look, Daddy, I’m Iron Baby.”

“That’s good stuff,” Max said. “Real funny. Now go put some pants on. Pajamas, something.”

Instead Max Jr. crawled up on the couch and sat next to Max. He held an imaginary can in front of him and cracked its imaginary tab, made a hissing sound. He tipped it back and glugged. He crawled up on the couch and stood by Max, his exposed penis just inches away from Max’s face. He felt a surge. Max Jr. held the imaginary beer over his father’s head and poured it out. Even though it wasn’t real, Max felt the chill of it run down the back of his shirt, and his body contracted.

Max Jr. laughed and his penis brushed up against Max’s face.

A switch flipped and Max stood up, pointed at Max Jr., and shouted. “Go put some goddamned pants on.” Max Jr. turned in a scramble to leave, but Max caught him by the arm. He spun him around and shouted again: “What did I do wrong to make you so stupid?” He caught himself, tried to center himself, but one last dark synapse fired and he drew his hand back and hit Max Jr. so hard on the face his mask flew across the room and Max Jr. fell backwards onto the carpet. He immediately began to cry. Not cry—that’s not how Max would put it—howl. His face was a contorted, shining mess, and he pressed a hand against his left eye.

Max thought, Oh god, and covered his mouth. “Oh god,” he said. There was going to be a black eye. He’d hit his child hard enough to give him a black eye. He’d hit his child.

Diane came running from the hallway, a dripping-red paintbrush still in her hand. “What’s going on here?”

A black eye meant—everyone would see it. He cursed himself for caring about that but then immediately worried again. Seeing Max Jr. cry made him cry.

“Daddy punched me!” He screamed and bawled.

Max stepped forward and Max Jr. shrank from him. “That wasn’t a punch,” Max said.

It was a punch. He’d punched his son in the face like some kind of animal.

Diane dropped the paintbrush on the carpet and went to Max Jr., knelt down, and held his head to her chest. Some of Max’s anger passed through him, and he felt light, uneasy. He swayed, wondered if he was just drunk. He wasn’t, he decided. He was flushed, but he wasn’t drunk.

And his son was clutching his eye.

Diane whispered something to Max Jr. that Max couldn’t hear, wasn’t supposed to hear. She said nothing when she looked at Max. None of the wrath he expected came. She simply watched him blankly. He understood that he had completely transfigured before her eyes. He was her father, and she was under his roof again. Max’s father was in the basement, a ghost, and Diane’s was here, live and in the flesh, blackening her child’s eye. He looked at their faces for judgment, but only found wavering eyes. He recognized the look: fear. But there was something else in Max Jr.’s face, too, hidden in plain sight: a smile. Diane carried him off up the stairs, and Max said nothing.

He took a hot shower and went to the bedroom, but the door was locked, and a pillow and blanket had been stacked in the hall. He knocked and asked if he could explain himself, but there was no response. Downstairs he made up the couch, turned out the light, and settled in.

He couldn’t sleep, though, and decided to go to Walmart to buy a case of beer.

 

III.

The next day his clerks wouldn’t speak to him, which he assumed was punishment for Jeb and Tina. Otherwise the shift went by like usual: popping open paper bags and cracking wise with customers, counting cash with a licked thumb, driving to the bank for the deposit, stacking cigarettes into the hulking case that hung above the counter, loading receipt paper at the pumps when his clerks disappeared on smoke breaks. He didn’t catch a break of his own until almost the end of his shift. He stood exhausted behind the counter, and watched a white sun descend through a slate-gray sky. A short man at pump number five shouted through the open window of his Firebird at a woman in the passenger seat. Watching the man’s face tremble with anger, Max understood something: He was like that man. Max was the bad guy. He was someone who hit his son and bullied strangers at Walmart and showed no mercy when he turned his workers’ lives upside down. The screaming man slammed the gas nozzle down and sped away in the Firebird.

Regulars came around. Tom—a farmer and weekend loiterer—showed up just at the end of Max’s shift, stood at the edge of the counter sipping coffee from one syrofoam cup and spitting tobacco juice into another. He was tall and gray and had a conspicuous under bite. He was going on and on about the gray weather, how this winter was going to be a long, hard one. Normally Max would have been engaged. Normally he was glad to see Tom, would say things like “Look at this sad sack” or “Watch out everyone, Tom’s coming in hot,” but today he said nothing, barely listened at all. Tom explained how Daylight Savings Time (they’d recently reverted to standard time) was a complete disruption to the ebb and flow of his dairy farm. “You try milking a pissed-off Holstein an hour earlier all of a sudden. Try pulling those teats.” It was a common misconception, he said, that farmers were the ones that wanted Daylight Savings.

The door opened and another regular, Ricky, short and wide, the owner of a local print shop and sometime-loiterer came in with a burst of cold air. He said, “Why I’ve never seen such a miserable bunch in my life. He helped himself to a cup of coffee and filled it halfway with cream. He got a conspiratorial look on his face. He said, in a half-whisper, “Did y’all here about the murder?”

Max’s attention sharpened. “Murder?”

“I don’t know much,” Ricky said. He’d only heard it from his brother, who was a friend of a cop. “But here’s the crazy stuff I do know: they found the body out in Babcock Park. Only it wasn’t just in one place. They found an arm somewhere, another arm somewhere else, a leg somewhere, then another leg, and his torso. But they don’t have a head, so they can’t figure out who it is.”

They sat in silence a moment, their eyes bright with fascination, possibility, and fear. The idea that the lumberjack might come after him and retaliate in such a way rushed at Max, but he pushed the thought down. In the silence that followed, he noticed how dark it was getting, how early. He said, absentmindedly, “It always takes me a long time to get used to it getting dark earlier.”

“That’s what I’m trying to say,” Tom said. “It’s the goddamn Daylight Savings Time.” The three of them watched out the window, thinking of murder and the changing seasons.

“When I was a kid,” Ricky said. “My dad always called it new dark.”

Thin, tattered clouds moved quickly above them. A plastic bag blew across the parking lot and stuck to the side of a trashcan out at the pumps, lifted off again and disappeared with the twilight into the night.

 

In order to delay going home, Max drove miles out of his way to Babcock Park. Something about the news of the murder comforted him. The size of it put what he’d done into proportion. Bad guys cut off people’s arms and legs. He would never do that. He decided he’d take the rumor home to Diane. Maybe it would give her the same sense of proportionality. The road to the park—a jungle gym, soccer field, two baseball diamonds, and a splash of woods—was blocked with a single orange-striped sawhorse. He thought he could see the searching cones of flashlights and yellow police tape stretched out between two trees far down the road at the edge of the woods.

He was still hanging his coat in the hall closet when the detective arrived.

 

Now that the truth was out of him, Max went slack with relief. “Detective, please, it was an accident.” Detective Rawlins looked shocked. Sweat beaded up on Max’s upper lip, and he wiped it away. He knew the man, he told them. Not his name, but he had encountered him at the Walmart. They knew that, of course. They’d seen the security footage. “Okay,” he said. “It was an accident.” He repeated this several times as the uniformed officer wrote furiously in his notebook. “I was just trying to help with the grocery carts, you know?” His knee bobbed and sweat appeared on his lip again. “Don’t you ever just feel like doing a good turn?”

“Mr. Adamson—”

“Max.”

“Mr. Adamson, this isn’t about the shopping carts.”

Max closed his lips around his words and tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry. Everyone exchanged concerned glances. The uniformed officer shifted his weight and the leather of his holster groaned against his belt.

Diane narrowed her eyebrows. “What about the shopping carts?”

Detective Rawlins chose another photograph from his hand and laid it on top of the smiling face of the lumberjack. Diane let out a choking sound and recoiled, turned away. Max simply stared. It was the lumberjack again, only now just his head, on a stake, the woods stretching out behind him. His skin was pallid and his eyes half rolled back—blood came from them like tears. The stake—nothing more than a sharpened tree trunk—was soaked in blood. His nose was blackened, broken, twisted to the side, and Max remembered the car door slamming into his face. He felt nothing. All he could think to say was, “Where’s his body?”

“Well, Mr. Adamson—” the detective cleared his throat, went back to his gravelly, commanding tone. “We were hoping that you could tell us that.”

When Max looked back down at the picture, he was struck with horror: the lumberjack grinned.

The lights in the hallway blinked out.

 

Despite the fact that it was just a Walmart parking lot—the same he’d seen a thousand times, the same anyone has seen in a thousand cities—something about the scene struck Max as beautiful as he made his way out of the warm gush of the breezeway back out into the parking lot. The moon waxed gibbous, huge behind the clouds in a mackerel sky. Oily rainbows sheened the acre of blacktop. For a moment, he wished it was a place he could stay forever.

But the feeling didn’t last long. Arriving at his car, the calm was replaced by a now-familiar electric rage when he banged his knee into an abandoned shopping cart he didn’t see behind his car. He sucked cold air sharply though his teeth. Someone had left their empty cart in the parking lot, and not twenty feet away from a cart carousel. The pure selfishness of it put Max’s muscles on edge. The cardboard handle of the case of beer cut into his palm.

Before he could even move the cart, the sound of another cart rattled him, and he turned to find the lumberjack rolling his cart up to a truck parked next to the carousel. Max opened his car door and put his beer in the passenger seat. The lumberjack put his bags into a chrome utility box in the back of his truck. When he was finished, he turned with the cart and pushed it out onto the wet blacktop at the edge of an arc light’s glow. The nonchalant way that he pushed the cart—full of sheer arrogance, thoughtless entitlement—and the slow, steady way the black wheel of the cart settled like a dying pendulum drove Max into a white hot fury. The edges of the world darkened. Right next to the carousel. Max could only muster a grunt, but it was loud enough to draw the lumberjack’s attention. He gave Max a smile and a big wave.

Max wanted to say something but came up blank, so instead he veered and grabbed the cart behind his car and went to the lumberjack’s cart, pushed one inside the other. The lumberjack stood watching, frozen. He began to shake his head. And suddenly they were everywhere: loose carts, turned towards Max—a great herd of them. Something flickered down in his bones. He pushed his two carts into another, and another, and another, until he could no longer easily maneuver the steely stack. He pushed them all back towards the carousel, and, before he’d reached it, pushed the line of carts with as much force as he could towards the opening.

This is all Max really remembers: the stupid look of the lumberjack’s gaping mouth, the sheer mass of the carts pulling him forward with its momentum until he released them, stumbling forward, the way the carts missed the opening of the carousel and hit the lumberjack’s truck door so hard that the wall of the door crumpled, and, finally, the way that the door slammed shut on the lumberjack’s half-exposed body, knocking him to the ground.

The lumberjack moaned and turned towards Max, who ran to him. His face was against the asphalt, a small pool of blood blooming from his mouth. “I’m sorry,” Max told him. “Now, I’m sorry. Now.” The lumberjack groaned and turned on his side, and Max fell backwards, scrambled to get up. He realized how big the man was, how hard the carts had hit him, what he could do to Max if he was angry, and he did the only thing that seemed reasonable at the time: he ran. He ran to his car, started the ignition, and circled around. His headlights washed over the gray-white skeleton of an errant shopping car just as he left the parking lot. His tires sang out as he turned onto the service road towards home.

 

He was home before midnight. He drank beers in the dark, paced between the two front windows, watching the dim patch of light cast by the streetlight at the corner. He was sure the bright lights of the lumberjack’s pickup would pull up in his driveway, the engine growling. Would he drag his family out of bed? He imagined them all on their knees in the driveway, blinded by the truck’s headlights, his beefy silhouette moving back and forth before them, axe in hand. He envisioned Diane and Max Jr. with their faces on the driveway, blood pooling out around their mouths, and he realized that him punching his son in the face was the last real contact he would have with his family.

After a couple hours of this he was drunk enough to go to bed, so he tucked himself securely in on the couch. He stayed in the twilight between awake and asleep until time slipped away. Strange sensations came to him but never formed into an actual dream. He bolted upright, though, when a sound penetrated his haze and the shape of the lumberjack’s face came back into focus. But there was only quiet. Until he began to lie back down, when a clink sounded from somewhere in the house, and he felt a flicker down in his bones. The sound came again, only now a faint yellow light appeared in the hallway that led to the basement.

There was someone in Max’s house.

He stepped towards the hallway and the light disappeared again. He flattened himself against the wall by the hallway and tilted his head just enough to see down it. Another clink, and the yellow outline of a rectangle appeared at the end of the hallway, and Max understood that the metallic clinking was the chain hanging from the light bulb at the top of the basement stairs.

There was someone in Max’s basement.

He stepped into the hallway. Each time the light flicked on or off, the clicking returned to his bones. A high-pitched hum grew louder in his head. He stepped in front of the door, and his bare feet came down on wet carpet. Cold water gushed up between his toes and sent a shock through his whole body. The light flickered faster, the chain rattled on and on. He stared at the door. His chills turned to hot burning fear and his eyes dilated. As he wrapped his hand around the knob, the jangle of the chain filled his head, a deafening roar, and all he could think of was the sound of those shopping carts racing toward the lumberjack, the howl of his son as he held his eye.

He opened the door. Inside, the black dark was so thick he could smell it. Something wet and rotten wafted up to him. He reached out and up into the thick, moist dark, which felt like a humid night, and when he felt the cold of metal with the tips of his fingers, he pulled the chain and the light came on: the wooden steps, shadowed and yellow under the swaying lightbulb, the blank cement wall, the beginnings of the dusty floor at the bottom. But also: halfway down, a small wooden crate containing some of his father’s tools: a set of wrenches, large screwdrivers, small boxes of nails, and a handsaw.

Max turned out the light and closed the door, pressed his forehead against its cool surface, listened, waited for his heartrate to slow. He thought he heard the bustle of a bird, but wasn’t sure. When his heart was back to normal, he wiped the sweat off his top lip and got back on the couch.

 

He had an inscrutable dream. He moved across the top of a dark ocean, the sky empty, everything black and slick like oil, and felt something moving, waving and writhing beneath him, smooth and unsure, endless.

 

IV.

Diane supported him at first, believed him when he said he was innocent. But Max could see her hesitate in quiet moments. The night they began sleeping in bed together again, she woke him up at two a.m. and asked him to go back downstairs to the couch. She began locking the bathroom door. Around corners he’d catch her whispering into the receiver of their phone, her finger twisted in the cord. But she stayed with him, even after her brother came and took Max Jr. It was a temporary thing, she told him. To keep him away from all of the stress. Max Jr. looked over his uncle’s shoulder as he carried him out the door into the bright, cold afternoon. Max thought he saw him smile.

Just before she left, she asked Max to help her find a sound in the basement. “It was like a scratching or something,” she told him. “Underneath the floor in the pantry.” They both descended the stairs into the basement and listened, watching the ceiling and corners.

“That’s it,” Diane said, excitedly. Max could hear the scratching, too. They weaved between the furniture and boxes until they also heard a flap. There was a crow. It was flying where the walls met the ceiling, banging and flapping at it again and again. Finally it dropped down onto a chest of drawers and hopped around, its black feathers rainbow-colored in the yellow light. It crowed once and then again, and then let out a series of them. The sound of the loud bird in such a small space was deafening.

“How did a fucking crow get in the basement?” Diane said. Diane never used the word fuck.

“Maybe it was in dad’s stuff?” When he turned to her, she was crying. For some reason, he said, “I know.” He said, “It seems like something’s wrong.” And like that, with those words out in the air between them for a fraction of a second, he felt doomed.

The crow was forgotten.

 

Even later, the numbing buzz of electricity buried the house. The basement began to fill with water, from where Max didn’t know. He was worried about electricity and water coming together. He thought about that a lot. He began to wear galoshes and pace between the front windows, watching the news vans. They knocked on the door. He answered in his boots and his sweatpants and a short Asian woman with a microphone took a step backwards when he stepped forward. Before she could speak he told her he didn’t want to tell anyone anything. He told her he didn’t know what they wanted him to tell, anyway. He told her it was some kind of misunderstanding. All just a misunderstanding. The reporter stepped back again. He told her he didn’t want anyone on his property anymore.

There were more vans. At night their lights filled up the front rooms through the blinds.

He took the phone off of the ringer.

The lights blinked. They even blinked in the police station, in the sweatbox with Detective Rawlins, who slapped the metal table again and again. “At least just tell us where the boy is!” Max tried to explain the situation to him again. It was a misunderstanding. He told him about the water in the basement and the wet carpet everywhere and the electricity.

He called Diane’s brother, who told him not to call again.

He spent hours every day sitting on Max Jr.’s bed, comforted by the bubble-hum and the blue-green light of the fish tank on the nightstand. Three fish floated belly-up dead atop the half-full tank, the sides dark with moss and filth.

He wandered through the house, shook each beer can, and drank them down if there was anything left. He hid Max Jr.’s playing cards, one-by-one, around the house. He was genuinely surprised when he found them again.

His beard grew out. He searched through the piles of clothes until he found his red and black checkered flannel shirt. He showered and put on the shirt and a pair of jeans. He sat on the couch and picked up a beer can from the coffee table. Empty. He tried another. Empty. The third beer had something left at the bottom, and he tipped it back. The television flicked on and he saw his own house. The short Asian woman stood in front of it, microphone still in hand. She spoke in an urgent tone. Day forty-two and still no sign of eight-year-old Sam, son of local youth minister Byron Bryant, who was found decapitated in a park outside of town. Max Adamson remains the only person of interest in the case. At this point, though, a motive is unclear.

Red and blue lights appeared in the front windows and the half-moon window above the front door, filled the house. The doorbell rang. He went to the door, but when he turned the handle, realized that he stood before the basement. He opened the door.

The basement was full to the top of the stairs with watery darkness. He got down on his hands and knees to peer into it, looking for his reflection, but found nothing. There was no liquid at all, actually, not even a surface, only an opening to cold dark space, where lights began to blink, one by one, until a band of light appeared and he recognized it: the spiraling arms of our galaxy, blues and pinks draining slowly towards some bright mystery at the center.

And then, much too late, he understood what everyone around him had understood for a long time. He was lost.

And he crawled into the void.

 

 

Chase Dearinger’s stories have appeared in Bayou, The Southampton Review, Fiddleblack, Short Story America, and other magazines. He’s currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Pittsburg State University.

Image: effectivewildlifesolutions.com

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