“The Shapes in the Carpet”: A Short Story for Bad Survivalist by Stephen Piccarella

Bad Survivalist: Stephen Piccarella

The Shapes in the Carpet

Both of my parents are dead. I live with Zeke, my older half-brother, and we take care of each other. We grew up together in the house we live in now, a one room unit like a truck with no wheels, out in the middle of the woods. The house is flat on every side and sits like a box on top of the ground, a little walkup staircase in front of the door. We have some furniture and a collection of books we read to learn the secrets the rest of the world doesn’t know.

Bad information clouds your brain, fills it up with stupid fog until your nerves short out and rot like old pipes. Our parents taught us how to clear out our heads by huffing fumes and vapors. Sometimes cleaning products work, but sometimes you need even stronger stuff, gas to start fires and fuel cars. Every morning our dad would pour a little bit onto a rag and we’d breathe in deep, Zeke first once and then me, and then our thoughts would slow way down and we’d start our lessons for the day. Dad would sit on the couch facing us, and Zeke and I would sit on the floor and watch him inhale the vapors. He’d press the cloth against his nose and breathe in all the way. When Dad gave us lessons, my mom cleaned the house and restocked our supplies. We keep all our supplies in a bunker out back behind the house.

Dad could make a lesson out of anything. We talked about the books we read, and anything we could see from inside the house. The floor of the house is covered with a carpet decorated with a detailed pattern, circles inside bigger circles, like halos shooting out of lights when your vision goes fuzzy. The shape of the world is like the shapes in the carpet. Everything on the surface of the world is based on the shape of the world itself. That’s why something like a ball or a globe always sits on top of the ground. A shape like a globe goes on forever. What if the world were bent around backward to touch itself? It would always be moving, like a ball rolls around on the floor.

We never leave the house. I ran away once, before I knew better, but haven’t tried again since. I used to trick myself into thinking everything I believed was the opposite of what was true, and sometimes it would really scare me. I ran away to try to find out for sure. At first it was fun to see so many things I’d only heard about at home, but once the sun started to set and I’d made it almost a mile I started to panic. The light turned red behind the trees and I thought everything was on fire. Then a car came up behind me and started slowing down, and I stopped where I was.

Two people got out and started asking me questions. I didn’t say much, because I was scared, but they must have been really crazy. Whatever I said made them get really serious, and then they told me they were going to take me away. I felt even more afraid, and then I started screaming, to make sure they wouldn’t try to touch me. I wasn’t sure what else to do, so I made myself piss my pants. I think one of them tried to pick me up, but then I heard my dad’s voice from up the road. I turned and he was running, wearing a white mask, and then I wasn’t afraid anymore. The people must have thought he was trying to hurt me, but as soon as he got there he started yelling. He said he’d kill them if either of them touched me again, and then we walked away.

When we got home, Dad showed me a map. He showed me a place on the map he’d circled and said that was our house. Then he marked a bunch of other places and made a bigger circle connecting all of the marks. He told me the places he’d marked were power stations that radiated nuclear particles and breathing the particles for long enough could reroute the pathways in your nervous system. Inside our house we were less at risk, as long as we made sure to treat ourselves with clean vapors. We could never be outside without a mask, or the damage could be permanent. He soaked a cloth and wrung it out and made me breathe until I fell asleep. He did it for my safety.

Zeke doesn’t like to talk to me about his mom. Zeke’s mom used to live in the city, before either I or Zeke was born. She would get in fights with her parents and come to stay here with Dad, and then one day she decided not to go back. Zeke was born here and lived a few years with just his mom and our dad, and then his mom got sick. That’s the part Zeke doesn’t like to talk about. Women have wet and mushy bodies, like food you leave in the garbage. Any kind of poison that moves through the air can get inside a woman’s body easy, and then it warps her mind with psycho thoughts and weird hallucinations that won’t go away.

One day Zeke’s mom started freaking out. She told our dad he was holding her hostage and forcing her to play sick games. Zeke said Dad tried to calm her down, but that only made her madder. She took out the bottles from under the sink and tried to pour the liquids down the drain. She swung the bottles hard at Dad’s head every time he tried to go near her. Then she grabbed Zeke and tried to carry him running out of the house. The next part of the story is the part I don’t know. Every time I ask what happened, Zeke gets mad and tries to shove or punch me. Dad just gets real quiet and pretends he can’t hear what I’m saying anymore.

My mom was nice to me, nicer than anyone else I’ve ever met. Sometimes I would take a deep breath of something and almost fall over spinning. My mom would rub my back and sing to me, songs without words made up of long notes that buzzed around in my head. Sometimes at night she would tell me stories, and I would hold onto her stomach. She would trace shapes in the air with her fingers or point at the stars out the window, and then she would make up names of people who lived a million years before we were born. She told me all of us used to be aliens, travelling from planet to planet until we found Earth.

When I remember my mom, it’s almost like she existed only for me. I can remember being with her, but I can’t remember all of us being together. I only remember her face and body up close, like a hand or a foot when you hold it out in front of you. My only memory of her and Dad is of the last night I ever saw her. She and Dad were screaming and fighting. They didn’t look the way they usually looked. They looked like dogs jumping out from trees, trying to chase each other down. Dad said my mom was weak and her head was busted inside like an old phone. Then he pulled her outside by the collar of her shirt, and the rest gets blurry from there. I just remember shadows moving around in the dark and sounds like metal scraping against a rock.

The next day Dad said my mom had gone back to the sky. Evolution turned aliens into people, but every past version of each of us stays alive. You go inside the ground a person, and then the other aliens come in a ship and take you back home. They do it at night when there’s no light at all, so no one in the government finds out about it. That’s why the government still hasn’t figured out how to catch any aliens. Most people don’t know about it because of the news. It’s so much easier to let someone go when you know they’re going back where they came from.

Dad ran away from his home to our house in the woods because his teachers tried to control his thoughts at school. His school was run by religious people who told him God made the world in a day and held it in place in the sky. They made him copy down stories about God by hand, and when he made mistakes they made him get on his knees and bang his head against the floor. Religion is a trick, and religious people want to wipe out your thoughts and fill your head with weird tales to scare and torture you. They start when you’re young at school, before you start asking questions, before you can see with your own eyes none of it’s true.

We always believed what Dad said. Whenever he talked about God or school he used to get so angry we could tell he wasn’t lying. He told us all the stories he’d been taught, one about a snake with legs, one about a tower made of words, one about a fire making a speech in the middle of a cave. When we were young, he’d make them sound as crazy as he could, so crazy we would all laugh. By the time we got older, he stopped telling the same stories as much. Sometimes we’d ask him to tell us, and he would start, and halfway through he would get distracted, like he’d remembered something important he forgot a long time ago, and then he would stop.

A lot of things seemed to change when I got a little older. Dad would ask Zeke to make up lessons and spend whole days in the bunker checking supplies. He’d be in good moods and then he’d get quiet and yell if we went anywhere near him. Then one day he left the house and didn’t come back for a week. Zeke and I got so scared we almost ran up the road to try to find him, but we knew we couldn’t be out in the air with only masks until we did. He came home finally, looking skinny and scared, and wouldn’t answer any questions until the next day.

We woke up and Dad was standing by the sink, pouring all the bottles of vapors and fumes down the drain. The smell was so intense I felt dizzy whenever I stood up. Zeke got mad and shouted at Dad, asking him what he was doing, but Dad didn’t answer until he got rid of it all. Then he told us we were going to start following new rules. We were going to buy fresh food from the store and cook it on the stove. We were going to hike up the road once a week and learn new lessons about clouds and plants and trees. Zeke was freaked out, but Dad was calm. He told us it was all for the best.

After we finished talking, Dad left for the store, and I wasn’t sure if he was going to come back again. Zeke was quiet the whole time. He was really worried. He kept turning his head to look out the windows and then scratching the surface of the table with his fingernails. Little piles of wood dust gathered. Dad used to tell us that trees were the fingers of the Earth. They grew straight up and we cut them into slabs to make our tables and chairs. Everything that sits on top of the Earth is flat just like the Earth. That’s why it’s okay to cut down trees, as long as we use them for tables and chairs and flat roofs. That way the surface of the Earth just raises higher.

We finally heard Dad coming home. Zeke said we couldn’t eat any of the food he made us. I tried to ask him why, but he just shook his head. Dad came in the door with a weird nervous smile, trying to act like everything was normal, and then he started to cook, loose potatoes and cut up meat that could have been touched by anybody, sprayed with anything. Grocery store fridges run on cooling waves powered by toxic gas. By the time Dad was done cooking, the whole house smelled. I ate a little bit, but Zeke kept staring at me, so I started taking only tiny bites of food and spitting them into my napkin.

Dad didn’t seem to notice. He was acting like everything was fine, but he wasn’t the same. He had a very serious look on his face, and his eyes kept going wide and then tearing up until he squeezed them tightly shut. After we told him we’d had enough to eat, he picked up our plates and brought them to the sink, but he was moving slowly, like his hands hurt, or like he might fall over if he wasn’t careful. I tried to remember what my mom had been like when she and Dad had started having problems, but I couldn’t remember anything like this. I just remembered Dad yelling about how sick she’d gotten.

After he finished cleaning up, Dad told us to read until it was time for bed. Zeke sat next to me and told me we had to stay awake after Dad fell asleep. I didn’t want to worry about what was happening with Dad, but I trusted Zeke. I picked one of my favorite books, a book about pyramids and the Indians who built them to fly into space when the world ends. Pyramids slant toward points, like stars, where nothing is flat and everyone can walk up walls. After we die and turn into aliens we live on pyramids in space, and then we can walk in any direction, around and around like bugs on giant dice.

Finally Dad started snoring. Zeke stood up slowly and tiptoed into the kitchen. He grabbed around in the cabinet until he pulled out a bottle of vapors, dipped a rag inside and wrung it out. He carried the rag across the room, holding it away from his face so he wouldn’t get dizzy. It dripped a line of stuff across the floor. I stood in the corner of the room and watched, still not sure if Zeke would actually do it. I wanted to believe he wouldn’t, but I didn’t feel as afraid as I thought I should have. I must have known there was only one right choice.

Zeke stretched the rag over Dad’s nose and mouth. He made tight fists and held down the ends of the rag so Dad couldn’t move. Dad woke up quickly. At first he struggled. Zeke was holding the rag tight. I could hear him grunting, trying not to lose his grip. Dad was making weird sounds in a high voice, like a dog lost in the woods in the middle of the night. The vapors were working on him. Every breath he took, he got weaker. Zeke never even had to ask me to hold his feet. It was all over almost as soon as it started.

Neither of us said anything for a long time. We just stood there, staring at Dad. I didn’t want to be thinking about what had just happened at all, but I couldn’t stop myself. I tried to imagine what Dad would look like when he turned back into an alien, his skin getting thick and wet, his eyes turning black, his forehead and fingertips glowing. Eventually Zeke said he was tired and he needed to go to bed. I was tired, too. I felt like I was already dreaming. We pulled our sleeping bags around our bodies and turned away from each other. Everything got fuzzy, and then when I looked again the sun was out.

The world is a very scary place. You can’t trust anything you read or hear. People want to hurt you more often than they want to help you. Sometimes even when they think they’re helping they’re really feeding you lies, teaching you to think the wrong thoughts and live the wrong way. You have to be careful not to misunderstand what’s happening. When you really believe someone cares about you and knows what’s right and what’s wrong, you try to hold onto that person for as long as you can, but you always have to let them go eventually.

It took us a long time to carry Dad’s body behind the house. We didn’t realize he’d be so heavy. Even when we tried to push him across the floor, his arms kept flopping around, like piglets sucking milk from their mother’s udders. We had to move quickly in case anyone saw us. Eventually we both grabbed one of his feet and pulled, and that seemed to help, but it took a few more minutes. We let go of his body and waited until we caught our breath. He looked like he could have been taking a nap.

We started grabbing handfuls of leaves and covering up his body. We probably should have buried him, but neither of us said anything about it. I didn’t want to be out there all day and night, staring at him, digging and digging and getting tired and worrying someone might see. We covered him up with leaves and dirt, until there was just a mound in the ground, a mound in the shape of a plane. I imagined his body hovering in a beam of light. Everyone around for miles would know for sure they’d seen a UFO.

After we finished, Zeke walked away and into the woods a little, and then he stopped and looked down. He knelt and grabbed at something on the ground. He closed his fingers around it and pulled it up, and then the leaves and the dirt shifted and a big black space opened up, and he stepped inside. I didn’t know if I was supposed to follow, but I did. I couldn’t see anything at first, and then a bright light came on out of nowhere. I stepped down a rusty metal ladder, careful to use both hands until I was standing on solid ground.

The walls of the bunker were lined with shelves built out of rotting wood. Here and there I could see big cans of beans, olives, peaches. Between all the food stored up in the bunker and what we had left in the house, we would be all right for a while, but eventually we’d have to go out on our own for more. I hadn’t even thought about food. I hadn’t thought at all about what things would be like without Dad. Now we needed to figure all of that out, how to live alone together and be each other’s parents, and our own. There was no going back. We would have to be careful now. We would both have to be prepared to do what we had to if the other got sick.

A long time ago, a scientist set up a telescope at the edge of a river and watched a boat sail far enough away that it would have disappeared below the horizon if the Earth was really round. No matter how far away it sailed, he could still see the boat. Some other scientist later made up some lie about light curving in air above the water. People can make themselves believe almost anything if it makes them feel important, like their lives mean something, but they’re just afraid to face the truth. The truth is, light would never curve to meet your eyes. You’re just not worth it.

Stephen Piccarella is a writer based in Philadelphia. He has written essays for n+1, The New Inquiry, and The Believer, and fiction for Mask Magazine. He is currently editing a crowdsourced novel about COVID-19 called Hell Earth Catalog, which will be published this coming fall. He is on Twitter as @spiccarella and Instagram as @boymellower.

Image: cnet.com

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