Static sputtered and cracked across the fishbowl screen. A pixelated talk show flickered over and over again behind thick grey waves. A Spiderman comic was twisted in the covers of my bed. I went to bed with it every night but didn’t read it.
My mother blasted the radio so loud the walls shook. The weatherman said, Watch out, folks! Extremely dangerous heat conditions are expected for the rest of week. Keep young children and pets inside.
The setting sun scorched my eyes, but I kept watching him through my window. His name was Billy and he lived across the street. He was always in the same position, in the same clothes, leaning against the frame of his window.
The crunch of gravel and the squeals of cracked voices seeped into my room. My brother and his friends were coming home. I closed my blinds and the setting sun cast lines across my walls.
I used to play outside with them until something dark started growing in my chest. It slithered through my arteries, scratched at the chambers, got bigger.
We used to bike to the bog down the hill and catch bugs in preserve jars and build forts in the naked trees with rotted planks and rusty nails. We used to roll in the field behind the trailer park, staining our jeans in the grass, breathing in mowed grass and a stranger’s barbeque. Then I looked away for a second—a glance at a falling leaf, at a creeping shadow against the wall, at the twin creases running across my palm—and when I looked back, they were gone.
Something hit the outside of my wall, rattled my room.
My brother was bouncing a football, a gift for our birthday yesterday, against the house.
I went outside and I told him, I want to play.
My brother passed me the ball without looking at me. We threw the football to each other over and over again on the front lawn. This was how I should be, how I could be.
From across the street, Billy stared out of his bedroom window, his palms, burning white, placed against the glass. My mothball-scented clothes, too-tight and translucent, dug into my arms, my legs. The sun blurred my vision, made me so dizzy I could vomit, and I threw the ball past my brother, across the street, and through Billy’s window, drenching Billy in glass. He stared at me as the shards sliced his flesh open, little zippers unfurling across his skin.
My brother disappeared back into the house and shut the door with a bang that dissolved into a thick gummy stillness. There were no birds chirping, no echoes of children’s laughter bouncing through the cul-de-sac, no lazy hums of a lawnmower in the distance.
Billy crossed over the frame of the window. Glass hung from his flesh and blood dripped down his face, his arms. I headed toward Billy’s house, asphalt burning my feet through my sneakers.
Billy’s house, stifled between rows of identical houses, crumbled and sunk on itself like the ruins of an ancient civilization. Ash and filth spread across the once-white walls like a shadow, and withered ivy hung from the splintering columns guarding the porch. Dead trees and bushes protruded from the shrivelled lawn.
I followed Billy into the house. The last slivers of sunlight dripped into the darkness from the boarded-up windows. Moths and flies circled over disintegrating furniture covered by white sheets. Ripped stuffed animals moist with fungi and maggots, rusted clocks, urine-stained newspapers, scraps of metal and plastic were piled up to the sagging ceiling.
I want to play hide-and-seek, Billy said. I’m it.
Billy covered his eyes and started counting.
…four, five, six…
I tried to hide, but the floorboards moaned when I moved.
…seven, eight, nine…
I crept behind a white curtain a few steps away. The outline of my body protruded through the thin fabric, and my feet jutted out from under it.
Ready or not, Billy said, here I come.
Billy stalked through the house, snarling and thumping his bare feet on the hardwood. He ripped off white sheets and slammed doors. Billy eventually stopped in front of me, panting, moistening the curtain with his breath.
But then Billy left and kept looking.
Heavy panic flooded my mouth, filled up my lungs. I tried to pinch my arm but my flesh spilled through my nails like water and soaked into the floorboards. I almost emerged from my hiding spot, screaming, I’m here, I’m right here, before the curtain flew off of me.
Got you, Billy said.
My mother was sprawled on the plastic-wrapped couch. Tears rolled down her cheeks and onto the plastic. She called me over and held me.
She said, You’re good, you’re good, you’re good.
Her breath smelt old.
She rocked me, buried her head in my shirt, she said, You’re good, you’re good, you’re good.
Fear flickered behind her eyes. How could I have come from her? Who was this creature staring back at her?
I wanted to reach out and touch her too, but I couldn’t.
She left me and went to refill her glass.
I went to my room and traced my finger across the dome of the TV. A rerun of the news played behind the static. The picture cut out and the screen went black. I didn’t recognize myself in the screen with my head enlarged, mangled antennas jutting out from it like horns, the words on my t-shirt shrunken and inverted. I squinted into the reflection and reached toward the glass. Static exploded onto the screen and I jumped back.
I fell asleep in front of the television and woke up in Billy’s house.
I want to play tag, he said.
Black scabs covered his body and crusted over the glass wedged into his skin. Blood matted his hair into thick clots.
He said, I’m it.
I ran around the towers of trash and ducked under cobwebs and falling debris as the floorboards collapsed behind me. I ran into Billy’s room, across from my own, as Billy followed behind. I jumped onto Billy’s bed—stuffing oozing from tears and rips like pus—and then jumped onto a splintered chair, onto a vanity desk with a broken mirror, onto the bed again, over and over in circles until Billy sunk his nails into my shoulder.
When I got home my mother and brother were eating dinner. I could have joined them if it weren’t for the darkness that was now clamouring inside my chest.
I reached over to grab the food, but stringy clots of blood and dirt dripped off of me and onto the white tablecloth. I tried to pick up the cutlery—the fork, the knife, the spoon—I tried to put the water to my lips but everything fell from my hands.
My mother grabbed my brother’s face, moved her hands over his eyelids, his nose, his lips, his chin, his hair, and said, You look the same.
She placed my brother in front of me. He wore a starched white shirt, its collar choking his throat. I could feel his breath, hot and odourless, against my face but I couldn’t touch him. I wanted to dig my thumbs into his eyes and pull off his face, look at the network of vessels and packaged pink sinews, see if it was so different from my own.
How do you look the same? she said. Her breath smelt like mouthwash.
I ran out of the house and she cried, William, William, William.
I grabbed my bike and my brother’s bike from the garage and went back to Billy’s. Billy climbed out of his window when he saw me. Scabs covered his body like scales and blood and skin and hair were crusted under his nails.
I want to go to the bog, I told Billy.
We rode our bicycles past rows of identical houses. The air thickened with the scent before a thunderstorm even though the sweltering sun burned afterimages into our eyes. The smell reminded me of rainy nights spent curled up in bed as I counted down the seconds between the cracks of thunder and lightning. One, two, three….
As we biked farther and farther away from the suburbs, the smell dissipated into the stench of roadkill knocked into the sewer, rotting under the lines of sun that seeped through the grate.
We headed down the hill, past the trailer park, and onto a trail overgrown with dry weeds and vegetation. Branches scratched and snagged our clothes and heat bugs crawled under our shirts, under our skin.
We passed through a dense forest of naked pines, and when we emerged, the bog spread before us, a stretch of dark water enveloped by clumps of decaying vegetation and chartreuse moss. The skeletons of dead pines and dry shrubs jutted out from the carpets of growth, their desiccated roots gnarled and twisted around the sturdy clumps. We walked our bikes along the boardwalk, shielding our eyes from the setting sun.
The bog was the lowest I had ever seen it. The last time the bog was so low, a rumor spread that some kids from school found a man’s mummified body submerged in it, all brown and boney, hair mangled into a copper clot. The airlessness, the acidity of the bog preserved him so perfectly that you could see his strong nose, his thin lips. The bog man was like a bronze sculpture in a museum. All he needed was a glass case.
Touch it, Billy said, gesturing at the bog. His hands were so mangled with thick white scars that they looked like stumps.
The dark thing walloped against my chest like an animal thrashing against the bars of a cage. I knelt at the edge of the boardwalk and splashed my hand in the water, tinging it red. My reflection flickered back at me. Something pushed me—I can’t say what—and I fell in. The thick, miry water flooded into my mouth, my lungs, and roots and vegetation wrapped around my limbs. I was suspended in the bog like an ant trapped in resin. It clogged my ears and all I could hear was the thump of my heart in my ears, sputtering like static. I’m here, I’m right here. One, two, three…, one, two, three…, over and over again until everything was still.