Bourbon Penn 15

Song for the Unravelling of the World

by Brian Evenson

Drago thought what he was hearing was his daughter singing through the thin wall. He lay in the narrow bed listening to the sound of her voice, trying to make out the song’s words, but he could barely make out the melody, such as it was: off key, meandering. He could make little sense of it. Soon, he was not so much listening as letting the sound lull him to sleep.

But when he awoke the next morning and went to wake her, his daughter was gone. There was no sign she had slept in the room: The bed was neatly made. The blanket she had kept with her ever since her arrival was folded in the center of the bed in a neat square. The bed had been pulled out from the wall, and the objects in the room — clothing, toys, souvenirs, oddments — had been meticulously arranged to form a circle around it. It was nearly a perfect circle: how had a five-year-old child managed that?

“Dani?” he called out, but there was no answer.

• • •

The door into her bedroom had been locked from the outside, just as he had left it the night before. He thought she must be hiding somewhere in the room, and so pretended they were playing hide and seek.

Where’s Dani? he said in too deep of a voice. Here I come to get Dani!

He waited for her giggling to give her away, but there was no giggling. She wasn’t under the bed and she wasn’t in the closet. Apart from those two places, there was no place in the room for her to hide.

He couldn’t find her in the rest of the house either. Not in the kitchen, not in the laundry room, not in the living room. The bathrooms, too, were empty. He looked in the basement, though he knew there was no way she would go down there willingly on her own. The front and back doors were still bolted shut and the windows all nailed shut as usual. Which meant she had to be in the house.

Only, she wasn’t in the house.

• • •

He went through the house again, meticulously this time, looking even in places that were too small for her. He opened the refrigerator, but she wasn’t inside. Had she wedged herself behind the refrigerator somehow? No. Had she somehow worked her way into the ventilation system? The vents’ cover plates were all screwed firmly in place. Was she crammed into a drawer? But even on the third pass — when, heart beating hard in his throat, he was looking less for her than for bits and pieces of her, some remnant of her, something to prove she had existed (peering in jars, looking in the dank space behind the water heater, shining a flashlight down the garbage disposal) — she still wasn’t there.

• • •

He sat down on the couch, stared at the dead screen of the television. He wasn’t sure what to do. She wasn’t there, but there was no way she could not be there. He kept expecting her to pop out at any moment, kept expecting himself to think of one more place he hadn’t thought to look — a neglected closet, some sort of semi-secret room, and to find her there, curled in a tight ball, waiting for him.

Dully, he reached out and switched the television on. The channel was staticky. He reached to adjust the coat hanger antenna on top of the console and then stopped. Maybe she was there, in the static, he thought absurdly. That was somewhere he hadn’t checked. Maybe if he stared long enough, he would glimpse her.

• • •

His eyes hurt. He was not sure how much time had passed. An hour, maybe two. It took an effort for him to reach out again and switch the set off. Even after it was off, he stared for a long time at the small dot of light in the center of the curved gray-green screen, and then at the dead screen itself.

He had looked all through the house: she wasn’t there. He could look again. Or accept that somehow, unlikely as it seemed, she had managed to make her way out.

As soon as this thought crossed his mind, he couldn’t understand what had been wrong with him. He shouldn’t still be sitting here. He should already have been out looking for her hours ago.

• • •

Next to his home was a single-story house of gray brick, rusted white metal awnings over the windows. The door he knocked on was peeling and left flakes of faded yellow paint on his knuckles. He rubbed the back of his hand against his shirt, waited.

He had to knock twice more before he heard footsteps and a clanking noise. A moment passed, then somebody opened the door. A bone-thin woman, probably mid-sixties, an oxygen cannula running into her nostrils. She kept the chain on the door, just peered out through the gap.

“I’m looking for my daughter,” Drago said.

The woman just shook her head. He heard the chirp of oxygen being propulsed through the cannula. “Mister,” she said, “you come to the wrong house. I don’t got anybody’s daughter here.”

He blocked the door with his foot before she could close it. “Let me explain,” he said.

The woman tried a few times to close the door through his foot, then gave up. Lips tight, she waited.

He explained that his daughter had gone missing. He described her: blond hair, five years old, a curved scar on her left temple—

“How’d she get the scar?” the woman asked.

He shook his head impatiently. “That doesn’t matter,” he said. “Have you seen her?”

“Who are you again?” the woman asked.

He told her his name. Or, rather, not his actual name: the one he’d been living under. “Tom Smith. I live next door. You must have seen us move in a few months back.”

“That’s a weird name for a man with your accent,” she said.

“I was adopted,” he lied. “Tom Smith,” he insisted.

All the time, chirp, chirp, chirp.

The woman shook her head. “I’ve seen through the windows a man moving around over there, next door. Could be you. But I ain’t never seen no little girl.”

“I’m always with her,” Drago said. “If you saw me, you saw her, too.”

“Don’t you have a job?” she asked.

“That’s not important,” he said.

“I mean, what do you do with her when you’re at work?”

“I …” said Drago. “Please, have you seen her or not?” He was almost shouting it.

“I ain’t never seen no little girl like the one as described,” she said. “Not through the windows of that house over next door nor anywhere else near.”

“Okay,” said Drago. He took a deep breath. “If you do see her, will you let me know?”

“Mister,” the woman said, “you get a five-year-old missing in a neighborhood even half so bad as this one you don’t go door-to-door letting on. What you got to do is call the police.”

Thanking her, he quickly left.

• • •

In principle, Drago agreed with her. What any normal person would do in a situation like this was call the police. But he couldn’t call the police. It just wasn’t possible.

• • •

The neighbors on the other side weren’t home. The house directly across the street was deserted, the windows boarded over, the façade of the house tagged with red spray paint. The front door was firmly shut and locked. He circled around the house, blowing on his hands to keep them warm, pulling at the boards to make sure they were all firmly in place. Even though they were, it didn’t mean anything: anyone with a door key could come and go, so he went around behind the house and kicked the back door in.

The house was dark inside, almost no light coming through the boarded-up windows. Using his phone as a flashlight, he walked through. It was deserted inside, no sign of squatters or other habitation. He kept expecting to find his daughter’s dead body as he moved from room to room, but he didn’t find anything at all.

He went back out, closing the back door as best he could, then crossed the street and got into his car.

He drove slowly down the block, looking right and left, then did a U-turn and drove it again. From there, he drove a rectangle around the block, then a larger rectangle around that, careful to drive down each and every street. He kept moving in wider and wider arcs, turning around his house, looking for his daughter, looking for Dani.

• • •

Late afternoon found him at a rundown bar a half-mile away, showing a photograph of his daughter to a trio of hapless old men. It was the only photograph he had, and it was a year out of date, but it still looked like her more or less. The men just kept shaking their heads, refusing to hold the photo, hardly even speaking.

He tried another bar, then another.

“Maybe you should come back later, when more people are here,” said the bartender in the third one.

“Sure,” Drago said. “But no harm in trying now, is there?”

The bartender nodded and stared at the picture again. “Who used to be in the other half of it?” he asked.

“Just me,” lied Drago. “I tore that half off. I wanted people to focus on my daughter.”

The bartender looked at him, looked back at the photo, looked at him again. “Doesn’t look like your hand,” he said. “Looks more like a woman’s hand.”

“I’m just trying to find my daughter,” Drago said. When the bartender looked him in the eyes he met the man’s gaze, held it until, at last, with a sigh, the fellow handed the photo back to him.

• • •

After that, he stopped going into bars. He just drove around for a while, hoping an idea would come to him, some sense of what might have happened, where she might have gone. But nothing came.

He drove through the downtown, didn’t see her. He went into the McDonald’s closest to their home, showed the photo around, a little more of it torn off now so no part of any adult she had been with was visible. She hadn’t been in there, either.

He drove past the bus station, then on impulse parked and went in. There were a few transients sleeping in the chairs, trying to escape the cold. She hadn’t had a coat, he realized — her coat had formed part of the circle around her bed. If she was outside, she’d be very cold by now.

Besides the transients, a few other people nervously waited for a bus out of town, or waited on someone coming in. He checked the men’s bathroom and had a woman coming out of the women’s go back in and check that. He walked up and down the station, showing her photo to the clerk behind glass. No luck.

• • •

He was finished, just about to leave and continue his aimless driving, when he saw the payphone on the wall. He checked for change in his pockets and when he found he had enough started toward it. At the last moment, he swerved away, went and sat on a chair.

It’s a mistake to call, he told himself.

Yes, of course, but what else is there to do? I can’t find her in the house, I can’t find her in town, I can’t go to the police. What am I supposed to do? Just wait until she shows up again?

But it’s impossible that she is gone. I have the only key to the doors, and I still have it. No sign of forced entry. She should still be there.

You think if you go back, she’ll have suddenly appeared again?

He shrugged. No, he didn’t think that. The problem was, he didn’t know what to think.

• • •

In the end, having no other options, he called. The phone rang three times, and when she did not pick up, he hung up before the answering machine could pick up. The payphone spit out his quarters. He slotted them back in and dialed again.

This time she answered even before the first ring had finished sounding. “Hello?” she said, breathless, her voice high.

He didn’t say anything. For a long moment he just listened.

“Hello?” she said again, and now he felt the suspicion beginning to cloud her voice.

“It’s me,” he offered. “Drago.”

For a long moment there was just silence. He thought she might have hung up. “You’ve got some fucking nerve,” she said.

“Look,” he said.

“Give her back!” she said. “Bring her back home right now.”

“You don’t have her?” he asked.

“What?” she said, startled.

“Dani,” he said. “You didn’t take her?”

She started to say something, then stopped. She started again, then released a high, keening wail. “What kind of sick game are you playing with me now? What have you done with my daughter?”

“I haven’t done anything with her,” he said. She didn’t say anything. He stayed listening for a long time. “Margaret?” he finally said. “I’m not toying with you. I can’t find her. I can’t find Dani. Do you have any idea where she could be?”

“You bastard,” she hissed. “I’ve recorded this and had the call traced. If anything’s happened to—”

Quickly, he hung up. So, she didn’t have Dani. At least there was that. As for the call, let her trace it. It wouldn’t tell her much: just the city where he lived. And how was she to know he had even called from a city he actually lived in? No, he was still safe.

But what about Dani? Was Dani safe?

• • •

It had not been his fault, he told himself. Sometimes things just happen and you can’t do anything about them. Just as with the scar on Dani’s temple — that had not been, when you considered it logically, his fault. It had just been bad luck. He could see that, even if his ex-wife never would. If she had been able to listen to his point of view, really listen, take a clearer vision of things, then they would never have split up. If they’d never split up, she would never have gotten the judge to agree to him only having monitored visitation. He would not have had to make the choice he had made, one day, during one of those visitations. The state-appointed monitor was texting on her phone while he tried to have a meaningful connection with his daughter in the eating room of a children’s museum — not even a café, since no food was for sale, but just a room where you could eat your own food if you had happened to remember to bring food, which he fucking hadn’t. How was he to know there was no café? Dani was hungry and crying and the state-appointed monitor was apologizing, but saying she couldn’t allow them go somewhere else to get food, because the agreement meant that Dani had to stay there. Of course Drago could go get food, and probably should, the monitor said, but Dani would have to remain with her. And she made sure he knew it would come out of his visitation time. If his wife had listened to his point of view, he would never have — after taking Dani to what she called the potty, instead of returning to the court-appointed monitor — walked right past her holding Dani in his arms as she, the monitor, continued to text. Even then, his only plan had been to take Dani across the street for a bite to eat. Easier to get forgiveness than ask permission and all that. But before he knew it, he had Dani in the backseat — he didn’t have a car-seat, true enough, his bad, but he made a cushion for her with his jacket and that was enough — and was driving, stopping only long enough to take all the money out of his account at the bank before leaving town with his daughter forever. But if you kept in mind all the steps, thought very carefully about what had led to what, it was hard not to conclude, as Drago had concluded, that it was not his fault the way everything had all happened, but the fault of his ex-wife.

• • •

He hadn’t thought about all that in a while. The last six months had been about not thinking about that. They had been about establishing a meaningful relationship with his daughter. At first, Dani had been resistant, had kept asking for her mother, but once he told her that her mother was dead and that all she had left in the world was him, she had started to get over it. They had lived in the car for a few days, a week maybe, then he’d found a house in the rougher part of a city to rent for cheap, somewhere they could live until their money ran out. First thing he’d done was put in deadbolts and kept both keys around his neck — not to keep Dani a prisoner so much as just to keep her safe. Then he’d nailed the windows shut, driving the nails in at an angle so that they couldn’t be picked out easily. It had only taken her one punitive trip down to the basement to understand and accept that she wasn’t allowed to leave the house — he was proud she was such a quick learner: she was more like him than her mother in that way.

After a year, he figured, everything would be okay. After a year, Dani would love and trust him and he could take a job and enroll her in school. Maybe they would even reach a point where he could start calling himself Drago again, not Tom fucking Smith. And maybe by that time his wife would have accepted how much she had had a role in everything that had gone wrong and they could have a serious talk and both of them could work out a new custody arrangement that would give them both equal parenting time with their little girl.

They could have gotten there if Dani hadn’t vanished. With Dani gone, though, he couldn’t see a way back to that other life.

• • •

He was exhausted when he finally went home. It was quite late, almost midnight. He searched the house once again, but she still wasn’t there. When he looked out the window of his room, he could see the emaciated woman from next door at her own window, watching him. He closed the blinds.

What had that woman said? She had seen someone who might be him, but had never seen his daughter? Strange. It was almost as if she didn’t believe he’d ever had his daughter there with him.

He opened a can of soup, warmed it, drank it down. It made him feel warm, comfortable, which in turn made him feel guilty. He sat on the couch for a little bit, but eventually climbed the stairs and went to bed.

• • •

He was lying there, half awake, just drifting off, when he heard it again. The off-key stifled singing coming through the wall. Once he heard it, he realized he’d been hearing it for some time.

He left the bed and crept to the wall, pressing his ear against it. Yes, there was something, a singing, and it sounded like his daughter’s voice, like Dani’s voice. There were words, he thought, but he couldn’t make them out. He wasn’t, come to think of it, absolutely sure they were words, but there were pauses and shifts that felt like a language of sorts.

He pulled his head away from the wall. Slowly, he moved toward the door. He opened it as quietly as possible, wincing as it creaked. Maybe she would be there, he told himself, maybe she would be waiting for him. Maybe everything would go back to normal: back to just her and him.

But by the time he threw open the door to her room the sound had stopped. He turned on the light. The room looked exactly as he had left it: the bed pulled a little way away from the wall, the circle of objects around it. His daughter was nowhere to be seen.

• • •

What does it mean to be me? he wondered, later that night. He was not in his own bed but his daughter’s. After not finding her, he hadn’t been able to bring himself to leave the room. He had carefully broken the circle, moving aside his daughter’s coat, her teddy bear, and then stepped inside and closed the circle again. The bed was too small for him, and his feet hung off the end. He lay there, trying to feel some sign of his daughter’s presence, but all he could feel was his own ungainly self.

What does it mean to be me? He had lived, it seemed to him, several lives, and when he strung them together they didn’t seem to make any kind of chain. Whatever continuity was supposed to be there seemed to have dissolved, and he didn’t know how to get it back. Even in just the last two years, there had been a life where he and his wife and been together and had been happy, followed by a life when he had been alone and miserable, followed by a life with just him and his daughter, followed by this life now, the one that was just beginning. What did it all add up to? Nothing. Just four separate existences. He wasn’t the same person in any of them. Or rather, in the first three he was three different people. For this life, the newest one, it was still too early to say what, if anything, he was.

• • •

At some point, he was not sure when, he fell asleep. He dreamt that he awoke in the same room, with everything exactly the same as it really was. He was in his daughter’s bed, still groggy, and he could see there, on the other side of the makeshift circle, his daughter, standing still, attentive, watching him. He got out of bed and moved toward her, but found he could not cross the border of the circle. As if I’m a demon, he thought. He prowled along inside the circle, edging around the bed, looking for a way out. But there was no way out.

For a long time, his daughter watched him. He tried to speak to her but no sound came out. As for her, she did not speak at all. She just watched him, as if expecting something, and when she didn’t get whatever it was she wanted, she turned and walked out of the room.

He could no longer see her, but he could still hear her. He heard her descend the stairs. He followed her footsteps down, one after another, until, from one footstep to the next, the sound stopped.

• • •

And then he heard the crash of the door breaking in, shouting, a great flash, smoke. Men were yelling and screaming at him to put his hands up and not move and waving guns in his face and he was being forced to his knees and out of the circle, which, somehow, suddenly he could cross.

Many things happened after that, all of them too quickly for his taste. Two detectives took him to a small room and questioned him, asked him where his daughter was, what he had done with her. All he could say was he didn’t know. He didn’t know. Yes, he had taken her, abducted her if they wanted to insist on that term, but she had disappeared, he didn’t know where she was. Had he killed her? Of course not, he loved his daughter, loved her dearly: he could never have killed her. How could they think such a thing?

“You abducted your daughter just a few months after striking her hard enough to fracture her skull and leave her with a scar. How could we think anything else?”

The light was too bright. He couldn’t see who had said this exactly — one of the detectives no doubt, but the voice didn’t sound like their voices. He tried to explain that even though, yes, he’d lost her, she had suddenly reappeared again, just moments before they’d arrived. That he had woken up and seen her, and then she had left the room. And then they’d rushed in. How was it possible they hadn’t seen her?

A trial of sorts, a conviction. He muddled through from one day to the next. His ex-wife came to see him in jail and sat on one side of a Plexiglas wall, and they spoke to one another through telephone receivers.

“Where is she?” was the first thing his ex-wife said.

“I don’t know,” he said. “You have to believe me.”

“Please,” his ex-wife said, “please. For my sake. Even if you killed her, Drago, tell me. I need to know.”

But he just shook his head helplessly. Soon she was telling him she was glad he was in jail, that he was a horrible person. His arrest, she taunted, had been his own doing. Didn’t he know they no longer needed time to trace a phone call? That as soon as he’d called from the payphone they’d known where he was? And was he an idiot, not knowing that the bus station lot had cameras? They had his license plate right away, even knew what direction he’d left in. Even then, it would have taken a few days for them to comb the streets before they found the car, but then an elderly woman had called and reported that her neighbor was acting strange, claiming he had lost his daughter when there’d never been a daughter so far as she could tell in the first place. Two officers went to investigate and there was the car. Fifteen minutes later, the SWAT team was there. How could he have been so careless?

“Because I was looking for my daughter,” he said evenly. “That was all I cared about.”

“Just tell me,” she said, her voice rising. “Tell me what you did with her!” And soon she was screaming and clawing at the Plexiglas, and they were dragging her away.

• • •

And then, suddenly, he woke up. He was fully awake this time, and knew that he was. There was no daughter in the room: there was nobody in the house but him. But which him was it?

He got out of bed and approached the edge of the circle. At his feet a pair of small socks, a postcard, a salvaged doll that was missing an arm. Still half in his dream, he expected it to be difficult to cross the barrier, but it was like crossing over nothing. If he was a demon, he must be a very powerful one. Before he knew it, he was on the other side, but other than that, nothing had changed. He was still alone, no daughter.

• • •

He went back to his own room. It was morning, early still. He put on the T-shirt and jeans he’d been wearing the day before, then sat on the edge of his bed and laced up his shoes. He wasn’t sure what to do with himself, where to look next.

Downstairs, he started water boiling for coffee. While he stood at the stove, he caught movement out the window.

Two police officers were at the neighbor’s house. She was out on the porch in her bathrobe despite the cold, her oxygen tank beside her, glaring in the morning sun. Breath was coming out of her in clouds. He imagined the chirping of her cannula.

She pointed at his house. The policemen turned to look, too.

He backed away from the window, but still watched them best he could. Slowly they made their way over. He moved from window to window, following their progress. They were walking casually, as if what they were doing was no big deal. They passed his car and were almost to the front door when one grabbed the arm of the other and pulled him back. They both stared at the car, the license plate, talking. One spoke into his radio, quietly. After a moment, the low crackle of a reply. Then they both were moving, more determined now, back to their police car. They got in and waited.

The water was boiling. He turned off the stove, poured the water into the cup, spooned some instant coffee into it, stirred. The jangle of the spoon against the cup was like faraway music. If he stirred just right, he could imagine he was catching just the hint of his daughter singing softly, at some distance away.

He would stir the coffee a little, take a sip, maybe two. Soon, he knew, things would come to a head. Another three minutes, maybe four. He would still have time to decide if, when they broke down the door, he would do as they instructed and raise his hands in the air and get down on the ground or if he would ignore his dream and do exactly the opposite, reach as if for a weapon and let them kill him. Did he even want to live in a world like this, one that was always threatening to come unravelled around him?

Either way, he knew he would never see his daughter again. He would never know what had become of her or what, if anything, he’d had to do with it. He took a sip of coffee. If you looked at it right, he tried to tell himself, then even if he had killed his daughter, it was hard to see that it was his fault. After all, how could it be his fault if he couldn’t even remember? Was he, now, even the same person? Probably even a lie detector would declare him innocent.

He took another sip of coffee and moved closer to the front door. He was ready. He thrust his hand deep into his pocket. Sing them in, Dani, he thought. Darling daughter, let them come.

Brian Evenson is the author of a dozen books of fiction, most recently the story collection A Collapse of Horses (Coffee House Press 2016) and the novella The Warren ( 2016). He has also recently published Windeye (Coffee House Press 2012) and Immobility (Tor 2012), both of which were finalists for a Shirley Jackson Award. His novel Last Days won the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel of 2009. His novel The Open Curtain (Coffee House Press) was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an International Horror Guild Award. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship. His work has been translated into French, Italian, Greek, Spanish, Japanese, Persian, and Slovenian. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the Critical Studies Program at CalArts.