BOURBON PENN

Swim Wants to Know If It's as Bad as Swim Thinks

What I remember from that day is the road. It went on for forever and went nowhere. The trees on the sides of the road were towers reaching up into the sky, keeping us boxed in, keeping us from choosing another direction. The trees had orange leaves when we started and green ones when it was over. The dotted lines in the middle of the road were white the whole time. I followed those, carefully, like our lives depended on them. I believed they did.

We made the TV news. We made a bunch of papers. I keep one of the clippings folded in my back pocket. The last line is underlined.

"The officer said the police don't know why the mother headed south."

• • •

I need a smoke break bad. My fingertips itch thinking about it. It's an early afternoon Monday shift and I'm working the twelve-items-or-less register, which sucks because it means I don't get a bagger to help me out. Not that today's baggers are worth a whole heck of a lot. I don't want Darlene working my line.

We've never met or anything, but Julie's youth soccer coach, I know who he is. Brian Jenkins, a townie like me, five years older but looks five years younger, a tall and skinny school-teacher type even if he only clerks for the town Department of Public Works, wearing those hipster glasses he doesn't need and khakis, never jeans. Always easy with the small talk with everyone in town but me. Brian isn't paying attention to what he's doing, lost in his own head like everyone else, and he gets in my line with his Gatorade, cereal, Nutter Butters, toothpaste, and basketful of other shit he can't live without. Has a bag of oranges, too. He'll cut them into wedges like those soccer coaches are supposed to. I'm not supposed to go to her games, so I don't. From across the street I'll walk by the fields sometimes and try to pick out Julie, but it's hard when I don't even know what color jersey her team wears. When Brian sees it's me dragging that bag of oranges over the scanner, me wondering which orange Julie will eat, sees it's me asking if he has a Big Y rewards card, and I ask it smiling and snapping my gum, daring him to say something, anything, he can barely look me in the eye. Run out of things to say in my line, right Coach?

I get recognized all the time, and my being seen without being seen is something I'm used to, but not used to, you know? I never signed up to be their bogeywoman. Yeah, I made a mistake, but that doesn't mean they're better than me, that I'm supposed to be judged by them all the time. It isn't fair. Back when I could afford to see court-appointed Dr. Kelleher, he'd tell me I'd need to break out of the negative thoughts cycles I get stuck in. He was a quack who spent most of our sessions trying to look down my shirt, but I think he was right about breaking out of patterns. So when I start thinking like this I hum an old John Lennon tune to myself, the same one my mother used to walk around the house to, singing along. She'd drop me in front of the TV to do what she called her "exercises". She'd put on her walkman headphones that just about covered up her whole head, the music would be so loud she couldn't hear me crying or yelling for her, that's what she told me anyway, Sorry honey, Momma can't hear you right now, and she'd walk laps around the first floor of the house, she'd walk forever, bobbing her head and singing the same part of that Lennon tune over and over. So I find myself singing it now too. The song helps to ease me out of it, whatever it is, sometimes. Sometimes it doesn't.

I'm humming the song right now. The notes hurt my teeth and goddammit, I want my cigarette break. It'd take the edge off my fading buzz. I scratch my arms, both at once, so maybe it looks like I'm hugging myself to keep warm. It is cold in here, but I'm not cold.

Monday normally isn't too busy, but there's a nor'easter blowing so the stay-at-home moms in their SUVs and all the blue hairs are in, buzzing around the milk, juice, bread, cereal, cigarettes. Only three other lines are open, and they're all backed up, so Tony the manager is running around, the sky is falling, and he runs his fingers through his nasty greasy comb-over, sending people to my line. Storm's not supposed to be bad, but everyone's talking to each other, gesturing wildly, checking their smart phones. I don't listen to them because I don't care what they have to say. I just keep humming my Lennon tune to myself and I keep scratching my arms, making red lines.

Darlene's fluttering around registers now, asking the other cashiers questions, eyes and mouth going wide, and she puts a hand to her chest like a bad actor. She's checking her own smart phone. Yeah, everyone but me has a smart phone. I can't fit one into my lifestyle anymore, financially speaking.

Tony sends Darlene down to me. Great. Not being mean or nothing, but she slows everything down. I end up having to bag almost everything for her anyway because she can't see out of one eye and her hands shake and she doesn't really have a gentle setting. Bagging isn't where she should be, and none of the shoppers, even the ones who pretend to be friendly to her, want her pawing their groceries, especially when her nose is running, which is all the time. Basically they don't want to deal with her at all. It's so obvious when you have Darlene and then no one goes in your line even when the other lines are backed up into the aisles, and it sucks because I have to talk to her, and she'll just ask me questions the whole time about boyfriends and having kids. I don't quite have it in me to tell her to leave me alone, to tell her to shut the fuck up with her kids questions. I guess she's the only one in town who doesn't know who I am.

The woman in the baggy grey sweatshirt and yoga pants stops her whispering with the woman behind her in my line now that I'm in earshot. I feel a stupid flash of guilt for no reason. I haven't even done anything to anyone here yet, you know, and I hate them and I hate myself for feeling that way, like yeah of course it's because of me and not a stupid little snow storm that everyone is freaking out in the Big Y. The woman says nothing to me, then takes over the bagging of her own stuff. She just about elbows Darlene out of the way, who for once doesn't seem all that crazy about bagging groceries.

I can't resist saying something now. "In a hurry? Leaving town?" I say the leaving town part almost breathlessly. Like it's the dirty secret everyone knows.

"Oh. Yes. No. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," she says to Darlene but keeps on bagging her own groceries. Her hands shake. I know how that feels. I run the woman's credit card and have a go at memorizing the sixteen numbers without being obvious about it. You know, just for fun.

Darlene doesn't mind getting elbowed out of the way any. She's just staring at her phone, gasping and grunting like it hurts to look at. Humming my song isn't working. Seeing Julie's coach messed me up good.

Tony's still directing traffic into the lines, which is totally useless. We're all backed up and the customers are grumbling, looking around for more open lines. It's as good a time as any for me to yell back to Tony that I have to take a break.

He opens his mouth to argue, to say no, you can't now, but the look I give him shuts him down. He knows he can't say no to me. He shuffles through the crowd to behind my register, and takes my line. "Be quick," he says.

"Maybe." I grab my coat. It's thinner than an excuse.

Then he says something under his breath, something about not knowing what's going on here, not that I'm listening anymore.

Darlene with all her fidgeting, customers rushing around the aisles, cramming into the lines, just about sprinting out of the store, hits me all at once, and for a second it's like all the times I've blacked out then woken up with that feeling of oh shit, I wasn't me again, and the me who wasn't me did something, something wrong, but I don't know what. Like that one time in my newspaper clipping when, just like the cops, I didn't know why the wasn't-me was going south with my daughter either.

I say to Darlene, "Can I see what you're watching, darling?" and I try to grab her phone. No go. Darlene has a death grip on the thing, and she taps my hand three times. Same OCD tap routine she goes through with the customers. Sometimes she'll tap the box of Cheerios before stuffing it into a bag, paper or plastic, or she'll tap the credit card if I leave it out next to the swipe pad instead of putting it back in the customer's hand.

She says, "It's a news video. Something terrible is happening. Something weird came out of the ocean," then she whispers, "Looks like giant monsters!"

"Well, I gotta see that, don't you think? Show me. Don't worry, I won't grab again. You hold the phone for me and I'll just watch."

I try and get close to Darlene but she's always flailing around like a wind chime in a storm. The video plays on the phone but she obsessively moves the little screen away from me and when I try to hold her still she clucks and starts in with tapping me again so I can't see much. What little I see looks like footage from one of the cable networks. A news ticker crawls along the bottom of the screen. Can't make out the words. I think I see what looks like giant waves crashing into shoreline homes, and then a dark shape, smudge, shadow, something above it all, and maybe it has arms that reach and grab, and Darlene squeals out, "Oh my god, there it is!" and starts pacing a tight circle around nothing.

"Hey, I don't think that's the real news, hon. It's fake. Pretend, yeah? I bet it's a trailer for a new movie. Isn't there a monster movie coming out soon, right? Next summer. There's always a big monster movie coming out in the summer."

"No. No no no. It's the news. It's happening. Everyone's talking about it. Aren't you talking about it too?"

Tony shouts over to me, "What are you doing?"

That's enough to chase me out. I wave bye-bye with my cigarette pack, the one with a little hit of yaba tucked inside. I say, "Don't wait up," loud enough for myself and I walk through the sliding doors and outside. I'm supposed to have four more hours on my shift. It'll be dark then. Who needs it. I'm still humming.

The snow is falling already, slushing up the parking lot. I dry swallow the yaba that I wrapped in a small strip of toilet paper, I imagine it crashing into my stomach like an asteroid, then I light up a cig. Breathe fire. I close my eyes because I want to, and when I open them I'm afraid I'll see Julie's coach waiting for me in the snowy lot. I'm afraid he'll tell me to stay away from the soccer fields. I'm afraid he and the whole town know that I'm not supposed get within two hundred yards of Julie's house when I do it all the time. I'm not afraid of Darlene's monsters. Not yet, anyway. I'm afraid of standing in front of the Big Y forever, but I'm afraid of leaving too. I'm afraid it'll be a snowy mess already at the bus stop. I'm afraid I didn't wear the right shoes. I'm afraid I don't know if Julie takes the bus home from school. I'm afraid of home. Mine and hers. They're different now. But her home used to be my home. Julie calls my mother Gran. Gran won't shop at the Big Y anymore.

I'm still humming the song, through the tip of the cigarette now.

Christ, you know it ain't easy.

You sing it, girl.

• • •

After the Big Y, I don't go home. I take the bus to Tony's place instead. Dumbass gave me a key. I put on a pair of his boots that are way too big. I drink a beer out of his fridge and pretend to eat some of his food. I check his bedroom dresser drawers for cash. Find the fist-sized handgun he's waved in my face more than once and a wadded up thirty-six dollars, which isn't enough.

I'm not staying long. I have to go to the house again tonight. I have no choice. Living without choice is easier.

First I jump on Tony's computer and go online to the User Forum. It's a message board. It's anonymous and free. Both are good, because, you know, it's up to me to keep me safe, to keep me not dead. My handle is notreallyhere and yesterday I posted a question.

notreallyhere
eating meth

swim wants to know if swallowing yaba messes up your stomach bad. swim or people swim know eats it occasionally, sometimes on an empty stomach, which probably isn't good, or swim knows it isn't good but wants to know if its really as bad as swim thinks. using toilet paper help? hurt?

I call myself 'swim,' which stands for someone who isn't me. I use swim even though it's against the forum rules to use it. Everyone else uses it too, so swim is kind of a joke. The first response is confusing.

DocBrownstone
Re: eating meth

SWIM has done this before and the toilet paper too. Little amounts dont do much and make you constipated. Huge amounts make you super sick… SWIM puked for hours and SWIM buddy had stomach pumped. So easy to OD this way too. Super harsh, esp. the stomach. You eat it, it eats you. So play it safe with meth. Dont eat it, dont stick it in your asshole. You wont like either result.

I don't know if DocBrownstone means little amounts of meth or little amounts of toilet paper make me constipated. I don't care about constipation. If it becomes a problem I can cut it with a laxative. I never eat food anyway. I only care about the stomach pain that bends me in half like a passed note. There are three other responses.

brainpan
re: eating meth

Better for you health-wise to take orally cause it keeps blood serum levels low and keeps neurotoxicity low too. SWIy wants it, oh yes. Pepper some of one's weight in their OJ or coffee in the AM and it's all GO GO GO all day. Did Swibf say its smoother?

enhancion69
re: eating meth

Swim heard eating meth almost gets same IV high. Swim eats and high is longer and stronger, even with smaller amount.

snytheedical
re: eating meth

hey all you little swimmies out of the water. did you see? looks like its not safe anymore.

I can't get past brainpan. He's always all over these message boards and he pisses me off because he's making me nervous and that makes my stomach hurt worse. I mean, there's no way he knows what he's talking about but he's trying to fake it, always faking it. Like he can walk around measuring blood serum and neurotoxicity like ingredients in a batch of cupcakes. I get a twinge of hunger somewhere underneath all the pain. Maybe I should eat something. Maybe thinking about eating cupcakes is all I have to do to make everything better. Then that hunger pang from Christmases past turns into a machete ripping through my guts, and I'm standing up screaming, "Fuck You!" at the computer screen, at brainpan. I stumble back and knock Tony's stupid computer chair over, so I stomp it with his boots, deader than it already is, and I push his keyboard, mouse, and all the stupid little shit he keeps on his desk to the floor and rampage all over the stuff. I've never been thinner but I crush everything under my mighty mighty weight, and I'm still grinding it all under my heels when everything goes dark.

• • •

I tell Julie that a transformer blew out and that's why there's no electricity anywhere in town, and that's why I came to get her too.

I tell Julie there's nothing to be afraid of.

I ask Julie if she remembers the Ewings and their tiny red house. It was even smaller than Gran's house, but kept nicer. It used to be in the spot where we are now. Their house postage stamped this big, hilly, wooded lot across the way from Gran's. Mr. Ewing died six years ago, maybe seven, and Mrs. Ewing was just shipped to a nursing home. Alzheimer's. Her kids sold the house and plots of land to a local contractor. He knocked the little red house down, ripped out just about all the trees, leveled off and terraced the lot, and is building this huge 2500 square foot colonial on the top of the hill. For months, I've been checking out the place, watching the progress. Makes me so sad for the Ewings. The contractor keeps the house key in the plastic molding that protects an outdoor outlet near the garage. I show Julie the bright blue key sleeve.

I tell Julie that when I was her age I used to run away from Gran's house all the time, but I'd only go as far as across our street, past the corner, onto Pinewood Road, and to the Ewings house. The Ewings had five kids but they were all grown and living on their own. I hardly ever saw them. After hiding from Gran and climbing trees in the Ewings' yard for a bit, Mrs. Ewing would let me in and I'd chase her cat Pins around. Such a small house, one floor, not enough bedrooms, and the kids' beds still double-stacked up against the walls like planks. Pillows fluffed and sheets tightly made. It was like being in a giant dollhouse.

I tell Julie that Pins the cat loved when I chased her from bed to bed, up the walls and down. That black and white cat had a snaggletooth that stuck out beneath its upper lip. Pins let me touch the tooth, and it was sharp, but not like a pin, you know? I tell her that sometimes I pressed too hard on the tooth and we'd both cry out and then I'd say sorry and shush us both and say everything was fine.

I tell Julie I don't think Mr. Ewing trusted me much and blamed me for the missing loose change jar he kept on his bureau and wanted to send me home whenever he could but Mrs. Ewing was so nice and would just say, "Bill," all sing-song. That way she said Bill made my ears and cheeks go red because she was really saying something about me, or me and Gran. I didn't understand what it was back then. Then Mrs. Ewing would make me PB and J sandwiches. She must've bought the apple jelly just for me since her kids were long gone.

I tell Julie we'll get some food later. Mrs. Ewing used to always say that I should smile more because I was so pretty, and she'd use that same sing-song style though, which again, I knew but didn't really know that it meant something extra. I'm smart enough to not tell Julie that she should smile now. She's eight and too hip for that now, yeah?

I'm not sure if I'm making a whole lot of sense to Julie. I'm just so happy to be here with her. Here is the half-finished house. Walls and windows are in. Floors are still just plywood and there's sawdust and plaster everywhere. We're in a giant room he's building above a two-car garage. Twelve-foot high ceilings with enough angles to get lost in. Our shuffling feet and rustling blankets echo. It's like we're the last two people left in the world.

It's snowing hard outside. It's too dark and cold in here to do much besides huddle under the blankets, talk, watch, and listen. My arms itch and shake but not because of the cold. Julie is big enough to fit into me like I'm an old rocking chair. I hold her instead of scratching my arms. I hum the family song until I think she's asleep. But I can't sleep. Not anymore.

• • •

The wind kicks up and this skeleton house groans and rattles. There's a rumbling under the howling wind, and it vibrates through my chilled toes. I'm leaning with my back against the wall, arms and legs wrapped in bows around Julie. I tell Julie those aren't explosions or anything like that, and that sometimes you can get thunder in a nor'easter. I'm talking out of my ass, and it's so something a mom would say, right?

We get up off the floor. Julie is quicker than me. My bones are fossilized to their rusty joints and I need a smoke real bad again. Maybe I need more. There's no maybe about it.

Julie stands at a window, nose just about against the glass. Because we're higher up than the rest of the neighborhood, we can see Gran's house down the hill and across the way. It looks so small, like it's made of dented cardboard and tape, and it disappears as Julie fogs up the window, putting a ghost on everything outside where it's all dark and white.

The rumbling is louder, and lower-sounding than thunder. By lower I mean closer to the ground, you know? It doesn't stop, fade, or become an echo, a memory. It turns our plywood floors into a drumhead. A power saw with its sharp angry teeth shakes and rattles on the contractor's makeshift worktable in the middle of the room. Then something bounces hard off the window behind us, and Julie screams and dives down into the blankets. I tell her to calm down, to stay there, that I'll be right back.

I glide through the darkened house. Been in here enough times that I've already memorized the layout. Practice, baby, practice. Julie's soccer coach approves of practice, yeah? Straight out of the great room for ten steps, past the dinning room, take that second left off the kitchen, no marble countertops yet but dumbass left some copper piping out, which I should probably take and sell, then a quick right, eleven stairs down into the basement, left then through a door into the two-car garage, left again and step out the side door, into the swirling wind that pickpockets my breath.

Four, maybe five inches of snow on the ground, enough to cover the toes of Tony's boots. My feet are lost in the boots and can't keep themselves warm. Losers. My shaking hands fish for my cigarette pack. I only have one left, and one left. The world sighs, breathes, and it's so loud, like a whale breaching in my head. Trees crack and fall all over the neighborhood, London Bridge falling down around our new house on the hill. Sirens somewhere in the distance, in town, probably. More rumbling, more stuff crashing down, cratering into the ground, shaking everything. And that world-sighing stuff, it isn't just in my head, you know. That slow inhale and percussive exhale sound gets louder, and has company. Like more than one whale breaching. Beanstalk-high above Gran's house, almost lost in the dark, are thick plumes of white air, exploding along with the rhythmic deep breathing. Three, no four, separate clouds from walking smokestacks. Holy Christ, Darlene's video. They're here and they're walking and breathing somewhere above everything. A front section of Gran's roof is gone. Most of the roof is covered in white, but there's a section that's just a dark nothing space. Then those walking smokestacks move in and more of Gran's roof rips up and away, shingles flutter around Gran's yard like dying blackbirds, the ones that are always falling out of the sky dead somewhere down south, always south, and I think I know how that feels. The monsters are giant shadows with giant boulders attached to giant arms or giant legs, I don't know which, and they pile drive into the house smashing the chimney and walls, glass shattering, wood exploding, and always those white plumes of breath above it all, breathing slow, but loud, and constant, like they'll never stop.

Julie opens the window above me and starts screaming for Gran. I stick my head inside the garage, into more darkness, and I scream and yell at her, making sure I'm loud enough so I can't hear that goddamn breathing and the end of Gran's house, so I scream and I yell for her to shut up, to stop being a baby, why are you so stupid, they'll hear you.

Swim wants to know if it's as bad as swim thinks.

• • •

The ground shakes worse than ever because they're all around us.

My stomach is dead and it hurts to talk, but I tell Julie to stop looking out the window. I tell her that they'll see her. I say it in my quiet, I'm-sorry voice.

I tell Julie that I'd been walking by Gran's house for a while now and I'd heard Gran yelling at her, calling her stupid and so bad, just like she used to yell at me, and it's why I'd always run away to the Ewings, remember the Ewings?, and they're not here anymore, you know, so that's why I went and got her out of the house tonight, got her away from Gran.

Julie hasn't said anything to me since we got here, but then from under the pile of blankets and the pile of bones that are my arms and legs, she asks me if I still have the gun.

I say to her, "Mom became Gran to me the day they let her take you away from me."

And then I tell Julie about that first time, a little more than seven years ago, I went and got her when she was only eight months old. I was downtown by myself, and Joey, that prick, him and his bleeding gums and cigarette burns, he was so long gone it was like he was never even there, and I remember not being able to see Julie at all, right away, and worse, not being able to remember what she looked like or what her chubby little hands and feet felt like, how that must've been the worst pain in the world, right?, I mean what else could've mattered to me?, so when the pain wouldn't go away I went over to Mom's house, Gran's house, and I can't remember if I really remember because what I remember now is how they explained it all when I was in the court room, how the lawyers talked about me and what I did before me and Julie went south where everything was green. I remember them saying how I walked into my old house, calm as a summer's day (was how the lawyer said it; someone objected), me and a big knife, scooped up Julie out of the crib, though I don't know how it was I held her and a big knife at the same time, right? That doesn't make sense to me. I'd be more careful than that. So yeah, Mom wasn't my mom anymore but her Gran, which means she became someone else, and her stupid twelve-pack boyfriend, whoever he was, the one with the junky red truck and a rusted plow blade hanging off the grill too low, the one with the easy greasy hands, the one who'd walk in on you if you were in the bathroom, he wasn't there, I was there, so was a knife, apparently, and this new Gran, she looked so angry, tough as a leather jacket, fists clenched, hair cut too short and tight like a helmet, but no wait, she looked like she wanted to give up, so old, thin, dry-boned, but she was screaming at me fine, like she was fine, just fine, like normal, or no, that's not right because then she was crying about how she couldn't take it, any of it, anymore, saying that she had cancer in her liver now, and go ahead she said, go ahead and do it she said, do it, and I ask Julie if she remembers Gran saying that and, and dammit I'm mixing up what happened when Julie was a baby with what happened tonight. How do you keep everything that happened in order anyway? Doesn't seem like order matters much because it doesn't change what happened.

I tell Julie that swim didn't think this was going to happen.

We listen to sirens coming closer and we listen to breathing and stomping and everything outside. So loud, it's like we're in their bellies already.

I tell Julie there's nothing to be afraid of. I tell her that when it's morning everything will be all done. I tell her that all the houses around us and in the rest of the world will be gone, stomped and mashed flat, but we'll be okay. I tell her that we'll ride on the back of one the monsters. Its back plates and scales will be softer than they look. We'll feel the earth rumbling beneath us and we'll be above everything. I tell her it'll know where to go, where to take us, and it'll take us where it's safe, safe for swims. I tell her that I know she doesn't remember the first time, but we'll ride it south again. The monster will follow the dotted white lines and instead of trees lining the roads there'll be all the rest of the monsters destroying everything else, watching us, leading the way south, not sure why south, swim south, but maybe it's as simple and stupid as that's where everything is green, because south isn't here, because south is as good or bad as any other place.

Outside there's flashing lights, sirens, pounding on the doors, walls, and roof. Dust and chunks of plastic rain down on our heads and we fall and roll into the middle of the room. Julie's yelling and crying and I brush away hair from her ear with one hand so I can whisper inside her head. Tony's gun is in my other hand.

I tell Julie, Shh, baby. Don't you worry about nothing. Your Mom's here.


Paul Tremblay is the author of the novels The Little Sleep, No Sleep Till Wonderland, and Swallowing a Donkey's Eye, and the short story collections Compositions for the Young and Old and In the Mean Time. He has published two novellas, and his essays and short fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Five Chapters.com, and Best American Fantasy 3. He is the co-editor of four anthologies including Creatures: Thirty Years of Monster Stories (with John Langan). Paul is the president of the board of directors for the Shirley Jackson Awards. He lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts, has a master's degree in Mathematics, and has no uvula. You can find him online at www.paultremblay.net.