Sunday, November 7, 2010

Free Planet iPad Shorts - November 7, 2010: SCARY STORY! An Excerpt from As I Die Lying By Scott Nicholson

Free Planet iPad Shorts - November 7, 2010

   An Excerpt from   
As I Die Lying

By  Scott Nicholson

By Stephen Windwalker
Publisher of Planet iPad & Editor of Kindle Nation Daily ©Kindle Nation Daily 2010

A great horror writer ought to have a fine sense of humor, and I suspect it's the combination of the two that has made Scott Nicholson every bit as much of a Planet iPad fave as Stephen King.

And how much do we love Scott, here?

Well, a week ago we helped him launch his edgy new novel Disintegration. At the time of our post, Disintegration was doing very well at #2,083 overall in the Kindle Store. Right now, 6 days later, it sits at #38. Not that there haven't been other things going on, but I'm just saying. #38.

Scott's a good man, and he is back this evening to show his appreciation to Planet iPad citizens by offering six free chapters -- a free excerpt of over 15,000 words from his new book As I Die Lying -- as a Scary Saturday read just for you and me.

That would be enough, but it's not all.

For a limited time, he has priced the entire book at just 99 cents for those who follow this link to the Kindle Store!

But we won't stay rich if we throw 99 cents away too easily, and that's why Scott is offering you the opportunity to scroll down to begin reading the free excerpt.

Here's the set-up:

In the style of Chuck Palahniuk, Jeff Lindsay's "Darkly Dreaming Dexter" series, and Bret Easton Ellis, but probably written by a demon, comes a psychological thriller from the bestselling author of Disintegration, The Red Church, and Speed Dating with the Dead. DRM-free and professionally formatted, As I Die Lying is 99 cents for a limited time.

Richard Coldiron's unauthorized autobiography follows his journey through a troubled childhood, where he meets his invisible friend, his other invisible friend...and then some who aren't so friendly.

There's Mister Milktoast, the protective punster; Little Hitler, who leers from the shadows; Loverboy, the lusty bastard; and Bookworm, who is thoughtful, introspective, and determined to solve the riddle of Richard's disintegration, and of course only makes things worse. As Richard works on his autobiography, his minor characters struggle with their various redemptive arcs.

But he's about to get a new tenant: the Insider, a malevolent soul-hopping spirit that may or may not be born from Richard's nightmares and demands a co-writing credit and a little bit of foot-kissing dark worship.

Now Richard doesn't know which voice to trust. The book's been rejected 117 times. The people he loves keep turning up dead. And here comes the woman of his dreams.

Scroll down to begin reading the free excerpt

Click on the title or cover image below below to download the complete book to your iPad, Kindle or Kindle app for just 99 cents!

 As I Die Lying
(A Richard Coldiron Book)

by Scott Nicholson
Visit Amazon's Scott Nicholson Page
Find all the books, read about the author, and more.
5.0 out of 5 stars  (2 customer reviews)
Kindle Price: $0.99
Text-to-Speech: Enabled 

  An Excerpt from 
As I Die Lying

By  Scott Nicholson
Copyright © 2010 by Scott Nicholson and reprinted here with his permission.

Begin at the beginning.
In an autobiography, that means you have to relive your life. And that's the last thing I want to do. Once was more than enough. And five times was far too many.
Unless it's six, in which case all that follows was written by that other guy, the one trying to hitchhike my story and make me sound worse than I really am. If he wasn't such a lousy writer, this would have been published long ago and we wouldn't have gotten to the end. Some of us might have lived happily ever after.
Rest assured, anytime I look cruel, inept, or sociopathic in this story, it's because he's changed things around. He wants a fall guy so he can get away with murder. My murder. Maybe your murder, too.
So I look for evidence. Everything else is just metaphysical tourism.
Photographs and locks of hair, pressed flowers and postcards, teddy bears and blue ribbons. Memories, souvenirs, keepsakes, and your girlfriend's big toe. Old love letters and other horrors, agonies, scars. Why do we hoard such things?
I've come to believe it's because we need proof.
History, even revisionist history, is written by the winners. So if you want to tell the whole story, the true story, get it out there yourself and make everyone believe. With luck and a shrewd marketing push, it's a bestseller. If you're pathetic, you're filed in Self-Help. If this book is published under the last name "Zwiecker" and ends up on the bottom shelf in the fantasy section, then you'll know he's won.
Publish or perish, they say. We plan to do both, though we're not sure in which order.
So when I begin at the beginning, I'll skip the part where Mother bled between her legs and Daddy was sitting on the couch with a bottle of Jack as I squirted into Ottaqua, Iowa, like a bloody watermelon seed.
Ray Bradbury claims to remember being born. He's a great writer, but that's total bullshit. Nobody remembers, but people treat it like it's a big deal. You carry your birth date around all your life and it nails you to Social Security cards, party invitations, and all those forms you fill out in school. Then, on your tombstone, where you only get a little bit of space to sum up your life, some wax-faced creep chisels in a set of meaningless numbers instead of poetry or a secret love or the name of your favorite candy.
In the end, all you get is a few words.
This is all the proof I can offer:
I was on my hands and knees when memory cursed me, awareness laughed in my face, and ego slipped into my head like an ice cream ghost. Light streamed through the window, golden and warm. Light was good. Light was safe, even though it tasted like dust.
The brown thing was in the shadows. It was soft and smelled like Mother, all cigarettes and Ivory soap and things beyond my vocabulary like "senescence." My arms and legs wriggled toward the brown thing, my belly skinning across the floor. I reached the shadow. My fingers closed on the fur and I was pulling it closer when the boot came down on my hand.
My hand was on fire and my eyes were sparks and my chest was a Play-Doh volcano. The boot stretched out and up into the dark, taller than a tree. It was a man built of midnight and stitches and thunder. He bent down and picked up the brown thing. His boots shook the floor as he stomped into the light but all I could see was the scuffed leather, worn laces, and cracked tongue of the boot near my face.
Then the boots danced. They licked me and painted me with bright strips of color. The thunder waltzed me away from my room to a land that light never reached.
But I wasn't alone.
"Hello," the boy said. Like the midnight man, the boy clung to the shadows. He might have been there the whole time and I hadn't seen him.
"Who are you?"
"A friend."
"I don't like friends." I put my hand in my mouth and tried to suck the sore away.
"Chin up, pup. He's gone now."
The boy sounded brave, plus I had nowhere else to run. "Did you send him away?"
"No, I dragged you in here where it's safe."
"Where are we?"
"I call it the Bone House."
"It's dark."
"Here's your teddy bear." He held it out to me.
I grabbed it and brushed its soft fabric against my cheek until my tears were cold.
"Do you trust me?" my friend said.
I nodded, not sure if he could see me.
"Okay," he said. "You have to leave the Bone House now, but I'll be here to help whenever you need me."
"Cross my heart and hope to die."
And he kept his promise, except that "hoping to die" part. The boy learned how to hide me when we heard the boots in the hallway. Into the closet, buried under broken toys and dirty blankets and a Big Bird poster. Under the bed, cuddling dust bunnies with my nose as the boots walked across the floor, inches from my face. Behind the desk, chewing my lip, afraid to breathe until the midnight man gave up and shambled off to find Mother instead.
When I heard the boots in the kitchen, the King Kong roar and shattering of glass, Mother's high squeaking Godzilla cries, I knew I had escaped again. The boots stomped until they grew tired, until the thunder spent its fury. Then my friend and I would share a smile. We had lived to hide another day.
My friend taught me a simple game.
Dodge the boots.
Run and hide.
Become invisible when you could, hold your breath when you couldn't.
But nobody wins the game every time. And the odds favored the midnight man. He seemed to grow taller and stronger and darker the better we got at hiding. When he found me, plucked me out of my corners and nooks, held me up with a thick trembling arm, then I knew it was time to let my friend have this body. My friend would take the punishment while I went away to the Bone House. I hate to say it, but I think he even liked it a little.
I'd watch from the window as the boots did their dance, crushed a minuet across my friend's legs, waltzed over his kidneys, and jitterbugged up his spine. I knew it was me being beaten, my bruised flesh that I would eventually revisit, but at least I didn't have to suffer. My friend did that for me. That's how much my friend loved me.
We would talk, after. He would give me back my body, with its red welts and pink scrapes, and go into his hidden room in the Bone House. Since it hurt to move, I would huddle in my squeaky bed with my teddy bear. I tasted salt and sometimes blood. My friend would whisper soothing words inside my head.
"You're okay now, Richard. Midnight is over."
I trembled. For both of us.
"Did you hear the front door slam?" he said.
I nodded, hugging the raw meat of my legs to my chest as the plains wind banged against the windows. Any storm was welcome as long as it hid the sound of boots.
"He's gone. You can breathe again."
"That's why I'm here."
My friend didn't have a name back then. There was only us. He didn't need a name until later, when things got more complicated and the Bone House became crowded. But I can tell you the teddy bear was named Wee Willie Winky because one of his eyes was stitched too tightly. And my name was Richard. I forgot to tell you that, but you can see it on the cover of the book, unless that other guy changed it.
"Did he hurt you bad?" Secretly, I was glad it was him instead of me.
"Not so bad, this time. Not like the time when the two teeth got loose and I bit my tongue. That time, even your mother got scared."
"Yeah, remember how she pushed the midnight man away and picked you up?" I said. "With your arm bent out at that funny angle, like you had an extra elbow? That was the only time she ever tried to stop him."
"They were nice to me at the hospital. They gave me a lollipop, and that pretty nurse said she'd never seen such a brave young man."
I wished I'd been around for that lollipop. Maybe he'd tricked me so he could have the lollipop instead of me. "What does 'brave' mean?"
"It's when bad things happen and you don't cry." He'd probably learned that from a book in school, or maybe church, or that one time we went to a Boy Scout meeting.
"Are you brave?"
"I don't know. But when they asked me how it happened, I said it just the way Mother told me. She made me keep saying it over and over in the car. 'I fell down the steps, and put out my arm to stop.'"
"Why did she want you to make up a story like that?" I didn't care why, but this was my friend and I liked the way he talked. Plus he was sharing a very important lesson in how to lie, and what boy could resist such a thing?
"It wasn't a story. You know how she says if you believe something hard enough, you can make it true? Well, she wanted that story to be true. She believed it more."
I pulled the blankets tight under my chin. The fabric was scratchy, like Father's cheeks. "Do you remember what really happened?"
"I didn't hide good enough, that's all."
"Sometimes, just before he goes to sleep, or when he's on the couch watching TV, he makes me take the boots off his feet. They're not so scary when they're off."
"Tongues hanging out. Tired dogs. But they sure are stinky. Wee willie stinky."
I looked up at the ceiling, at the shadows of trees dancing in front of the streetlights. The room smelled of purple Kool-Aid and old socks and rats behind the walls, and sometimes I prayed to Jesus for clean laundry. If my friend wasn't around, I'd sometimes throw in a prayer for candy or a Matchbox car. But the ceiling was in the way, so I couldn't see the sky or heaven. "Maybe one night we could hide the boots after he's asleep."
"Then he'd really be mad," the voice said. Sometimes my friend spoke out loud instead of just thinking it, and that was a little scary until I got used to it. I'm glad it didn't happen when other people were around. Not often, anyway.
"Maybe it's the boots that make him mad."
"Maybe," he said. "It's stupid to be brave."
"Does Mother hate the boots?" I asked questions I was afraid to answer. He never minded when I tricked him into telling the truth once in a while.
"I don't know. She keeps telling the midnight man 'I love you.'"
"Maybe there are different kinds of love. She likes to hold me and sing to me. She says she loves me and kisses me on the forehead and tucks me under the blankets even when she knows the midnight man is coming. Even when she knows he's got his boots on."
"Maybe he would hurt her more if she didn't love him, so she's afraid to stop."
I swallowed hard. Darkness crawled in from the corners, its edges sharp. I put my head under the pillow. Love was easy when it was just some invisible person in your head, but when you had to pretend to love in the real world, who wouldn't be a little crazy and afraid? "Love means you have to be brave?"
"Sometimes your mother cries when she says she loves you. That means she's either lying or she's not brave."
My friend was clever but I usually came up with a comeback, because in your own autobiography you don't want anybody to think you're playing second fiddle or fifth harmonica or ninth penny whistle. "But how can she love me and the midnight man at the same time?"
"Maybe she only loves the midnight man when his boots are off. Maybe they're sole mates. Get it, s-o-l-e?"
"Funny, ha ha. Love shouldn't go on and off like that. I love you all the time. And I don't want to die like Jesus had to before He could get people to love Him," I said to the person in my head. Throwing in the Jesus bit was a little melodramatic, seeing as how we'd only been to church three times, and only one of them didn't involve food. You can sure get the best coconut cakes at church.
"I love you, Richard," he said. "I'll never leave you. I won't let you get hurt."
I tucked Wee under my bruised arm. Wads of cotton spilled from the rips in its neck and leg. The midnight man had done that, but Wee didn't have an invisible friend to hide him, and I wasn't sharing mine. "It's not so bad hiding. Inside, where it's dark. I wish we could stay there all the time."
"We can't both go into the Bone House."
"Why not?"
"Who would watch Wee? Wee can never be alone."
My friend loved double meanings and playing with words. It helped pass the time when he was stuck in the Bone House. And maybe he wanted to be a writer when he grew up, just like everybody else. But first he'd have to live long enough to grow up.

Thump thump.
Our eyes opened, our shared heart boomed like the storm rolling down the hallway, but only one of us got to flee for the hidden room inside my skull.
Me first. Always me.
"Up the stairs, away, away, away," whispered my friend. "Sounds like someone's putting his foot down."
And off I'd go.


Later I learned that the midnight man was only my father. The boots visited less often as I got older, and the friend inside my head didn't come out much. Rather, I didn't go inside the Bone House to see him.
I found other playmates at school, ones you could see and who talked with real voices. I learned the world was much bigger than the nightmares trapped between the walls of my bedroom. Life smelled of chalk and Hope Hill's perfume and burning leaves and strawberry milkshake. My childish fears seemed silly out under the sunshine, where boys and girls played kick ball and pain was farther away than Jesus or the clouds in the blue sky or other insubstantial, amorphous objects.
Father preserved his boot leather but discovered other ways to torture. He attacked with words, and maybe that's where I get my literary talent. Not that I want to give that bastard any credit at all for this book, since the byline is up for debate. But he could really pour it on.
He invented a dozen fresh insults, doused acid on my psyche, and dubbed me "Dumbbell." This seemed to give him more pleasure than the physical abuse. Mother had begun her descent from youth into old age without slowing down for the middle years. She was weary from lifting her forearms to fend off the blows, beaten down by the sight of her own emaciated and battered flesh, worn from clinging to the spidery threads of black hope. Father, however, seemed to grow younger, as if he'd tapped a perverted fountain of youth, Narcissus at a whiskey vat.
Father worked at the John Deere plant, spot welding harrow joints and tractor wheels. He helped make the machines for the slaves of the soil, those who turned the dark drift and loess of the Iowa tableland. He was chained to the dirt without even the pleasure of holding it in his hand, kicking at it with his scuffed boots, or checking the sky for portents. He had wanted to be a crop duster, but never had the time and money to get his pilot's license.
Perhaps the air could have stolen his anger. Perhaps his frustration was in being earthbound, because he was particularly venomous after returning from weekend air shows in Cedar Falls or Des Moines. On the Christmas I was nine, he gave me a model kit for a Northrop P-61 Black Widow fighter, and we spent the snowy afternoon carefully putting it together. He let me glue the fuselage myself and guided my hands as I joined the propeller and engine parts.
His mouth watered as he concentrated on the more tedious attachments, and he sucked in his drool with a whistling sound before it could dribble down his chin. He had not even been drinking that day, or at least his breath didn't smell like vinegar and shoe polish yet. He made engine noises with his mouth, as if he were imagining a scale model of himself at the controls. We applied the decals just as Mother pulled the steaming golden turkey from the oven.
Never had so much laughter filled that usually sullen apartment. My stocking was bloated with peppermints, walnuts, and lemon drops, and I shared the bounty with my parents. We huddled around the skeleton of the turkey, its alabaster bones a silent centerpiece to the gathering. We even sang "White Christmas" together, at least the few lines we knew. Father sang in a bassy parody of Bing Crosby, Mother bleated half-heartedly, and I croaked in an atonal barrage of sound that was more percussion than harmony.
The model plane crash-landed under the heel of Father's boot two days later, after his first day back at the plant. It was my fault, I admit. I just didn't hide it good enough. Christmas was over, and none of us were making any resolutions for the new year. Father renewed his verbal assaults, calling me "Little bastard" and "Fuckwit," stringing together seventeen dirty words in fits of misplaced poetic genius, but his pet name for me was "Shit For Brains."
One day I brought home my report card, and he looked down the neat rows of A's until he found my C in citizenship.
"Hey, Shit For Brains, what's this C for?" he bellowed, spittle and bourbon mist spraying out of his mouth. The cruel muscles of his forearms bulged under the rolled-up sleeves of his flannel shirt, the toes of his boots flexing. "Your teacher says here, 'Richard doesn't get along well with the other students. He fails to participate in class activities.' Now what kind of horseshit is that?"
I mumbled something, afraid to meet his fiery eyes. I didn't know he could read that well. I'd never heard him use the word "participate." He was clearly far more dangerous than I'd ever considered. I sensed my friend fluttering uneasily in the Bone House like a bat at an Alaskan sundown.
"It figures I'd turn out a problem child. A fucking bad seed. Your asshole Granddad can rest in peace now that the Coldiron curse has been safely passed on to the next generation."
My only memory of Granddad had been seeing him laid out in that coffin the year before. I had taken my place in line and walked past him, the way Mother told me. She held my hand. I didn't know what I was supposed to do, but my friend in the Bone House said I should pretend to be sad.
I recognized Granddad's face from some of the blurry photographs that had fallen out of one of Father's airplane books. He had mean eyes, like he was mad at the camera, but his skin was smooth. He was wearing a blue uniform with medals pinned on his chest. But in the coffin he was all wrinkled and his skin was as dull as wax fruit and, of course, his eyes were closed. The cloth on the inside of the coffin was purple, the color of a king's robe. He smelled like chemicals and bad bacon.
Mother said, "Doesn't he look so good? Like he's sleeping and he could just sit up and talk."
I didn't want that to happen. I stared at the little wires of white hair that stuck out of his ear. Some people in the back of the room were crying, and I looked at Father's face. It was red, maybe because his necktie was choking him. That was the only time I ever saw him wear a tie, at least until he was in a coffin himself.
Father looked a little like the man in the coffin. They both had the same sharp nose and round chin, just like me. But unlike Granddad, Father was smiling a little bit, a tiny smile that barely turned up at the corners of his mouth, the kind you get when you're doing something fun that you know is wrong. The man in the coffin, his mouth had fallen in a little, as if he had swallowed his teeth. He didn't look like a man who carried secret curses, at least not anymore. Unless they were in one of his pockets that I couldn't see. You know how people get when they're hiding something good.
I wondered what kind of curse Granddad had passed down. I had heard about the Mummy's Curse from peeking into the living room at late-night movies. I pictured Granddad coming back wrapped in rotted rags, reaching out with hands like mittens to get Father, to squeeze that little smile off his face. Was it hope or fear that rattled in my chest at the thought, and why did laughter echo from the Bone House?
Maybe that's why Father was so angry, because he couldn't escape the curse, and it would someday track him down. But then, Father didn't need an excuse to be angry. A barking dog could set him off, or a flat tire in the rain, or that time the blow torch didn't get hot enough. But I don't like to remember any of that, so let's get back to the report card.
"Get out of my sight, you sorry sack of shit," he said, ripping up the report card and throwing the four pieces into the air. I went to my room and hid in the closet until Mother called me to dinner. I tiptoed into the living room. Father was asleep on the couch, his boots propped up on a ragged pillow. I eased around the boots and gathered the pieces of the report card, taped them back together, and forged Father's signature, pressing extra hard with the tip of the pen.
School wasn't bad. It was peaceful there. No one ever hit me at school or called me Shit For Brains. The other kids were mostly just a murmur in the background to me, white noise to be ignored. The worst thing was sitting behind Hope Hill, whose honey-blond hair smelled like the sun and made me ache inside.
I buried my nose in a book, even when I was supposed to be learning things like why the Earth circled around the sun without flying off into space. I didn't need to know why. If they said it did, that was good enough for me, and it's not like I could do anything about it anyway. I'd already learned that there were facts and the truth, and then there was the real stuff of this world, the Bone House, the lies, the secret curses, stuff that mattered.
When Mother started letting me go outside by myself, I found new games. I explored the neighborhood and prowled in the junk cars that were scattered behind the garage next door. I pretended I was Huck Finn, hiding away on Jackson Island. I made a nest in an old dog pen, hidden from the world by vines and weeds. There was a hole in the wire where the dogs used to get out, and I used it as a tunnel. The doghouse was tall enough for me to sit up. Enough room for a boy and his dreams, plus all the turds were dry.
I liked to read there, books checked out from the school library, borrowed from Mother's shelves, or sometimes a comic bought at the corner store for a quarter. A few boards were missing in the doghouse roof, and the late afternoon sun streamed through the gap, flooding my hideaway with light and bringing the words on the pages to life. I read of fellow castaways like Robinson Crusoe and the Swiss Family Robinson, I went around and under the world in the books of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, I went to other worlds that had been given mantle by the mind of H.G. Wells and J.R.R. Tolkien. Don't tell anybody, but I also liked Nancy Drew.
I could stay there until nightfall, unless Mother called to see where I was. Then I would slither out of the tunnel of foliage and walk out of the nearby cedar trees to make her think I had been playing in the woods like a normal boy. I thought it was important to have a secret place that wasn't the Bone House. My belly tingled when I was hiding alone, knowing no one could find me. I felt sneaky and safe, and once in a while my invisible friend joined me even though he didn't need to listen for boots.
When the sun started sinking below the flat horizon, it was time to go home for dinner. I waited for the shadows to grow long, then flitted from one to the next, pretending to be a spy. Most of the time, Father would already be asleep when I crept through the door, with his hand dangling down to the dirty rug, his mouth open and snoring, his lidless bottle sitting on the coffee table beside him. Mother and I would eat silently at the little Formica kitchen table, usually pigs in a poke, Vienna sausages rolled in canned biscuits, pinto beans, macaroni, a dinner that cost less than a dollar. Above us hung a collector's plate of Jesus, gilded with foil and perched on a brass wire. She didn't make me pray, just let me eat in peace and silence. Then I could slip off to bed before she woke up Father.
I didn't hate Father for wearing the boots. I was supposed to love him, the same way I was supposed to love Jesus. Just because. But even if I had to love him, that didn't mean that I couldn't do it while hiding in the dark. Locked doors were useless. His boots liked to smash doors almost as much as they liked skindancing, though he never found the door to the Bone House.
And sometimes, in the sunlight, he was nice. On Saturday mornings, he would already be awake and sitting on the couch watching cartoons when I shuffled into the living room in my Speed Racer pajamas. I'd rub my sleepy eyes and crawl up next to him, dragging my dreams. He smelled like coffee and aftershave, and he'd put his arm around me. His stubble scratched my cheek as he hugged me and my teddy bear, and no anger burned in the red corners of his eyes. He never called me "Shit For Brains" on Saturday mornings, just the occasional affectionate "Dumbbell."
On one of those mornings, while we were snuggling on the couch, I asked him about Granddad. His muscles stiffened a little under a shirt that smelled of rust and sweat.
"Why do you want to know?" His words were quiet, cautious, like thunder on the horizon that wasn't sure of its direction.
"I never got to see him, except when he died. The other kids at school talk about going to their grandparents' house all the time."
"Well, he lived a long way away."
We had taken a plane to the funeral. I had looked out the windows at the clouds and, far below, saw the little squares that I thought made up the world, patches that were sewn together like on the quilt Mother brought out of my closet every winter. I wondered if that was how Jesus saw everything. If it was, I wondered how He could see little boys kneeling beside their beds in the dark. And I was pretty sure Jesus couldn't see what went on in the Bone House.
"The preacher called him a hero," I said.
"He was in the war. Bomber pilot."
I thought of war movies I had seen, of planes flying in the air with balls of fire puffing up all around, of planes falling to the earth with black trails of smoke streaming out behind them.
"He must have been brave," I said.
"He wasn't afraid of dying. But he was scared of everything else."
"Did you love him?"
"You have to love your father, no matter what."
So I was doing the right thing after all, even if it hurt. "But you were happy when he died."
"Because I got to fly in a plane."
"Oh." Then, "Father, what's the Coldiron Curse?"
His lips tightened and grew white. His sewage-green eyes narrowed to bright slits. On the television screen, a mouse was hitting a cat on the head with a fat hammer.
Father said between clenched teeth, "It's what's fucking with you from the inside."
With no warning, he swung out a fist, knocking over the coffee table and a floor lamp that didn't have a shade. The bare bulb shattered on the wooden floor. Mother murmured from the bedroom, shaken from sleep.
He stomped the table, snapping off one of its legs. "Fucking with you."
I was scared. I tried to find the Bone House, but the rage was so sudden, I was confused and lost.
He flung the lamp against the wall, nearly knocking Mother's Jesus plate from its wire perch.
"From the inside," he roared.
Mother yelled from the bedroom, but I guess she kept the door locked. I don't blame her.
Father didn't answer. He looked at me, through me, as if I were invisible, and went into the kitchen. The refrigerator door opened then ice cubes rattled in a glass, followed by the gurgling of liquid. I looked at the television. The cartoon cat had a stick of dynamite in its mouth, the burning fuse growing shorter.
It was time to change my clothes and go to the Bone House.
Nest, I mean. Nest.


Spring turned into summer and brought black-eyed Susans and black-eyed Mother.
A family moved into the apartment next door, the Bakkens from Pittsburgh. Even though they turned out to be minor characters, I remember them more vividly than I do my parents. Mister Bakken had a thick neck and fat slouching jowls that looked like they were trying to slide off his face. A bulbous clown nose, freckled like his cheeks, dangled like a fruit above his lips. Bumblebee eyes peered out from under the avalanche of his eyebrows. His hair and dustbroom mustache were bronze red.
His wife was thin and sharp-faced. She had the air of a weasel, furtive and bloodthirsty. Her skin was pasty and nearly translucent, as if mayonnaise had been swabbed over a skeleton, then shrink-wrapped and given life. She bit at her nails constantly, and when they were down to the quick, she gnawed at the red ends of her fingers. She wore knee-length cotton dresses, and her legs stuck out below them like birch branches, white and slender, as if they would fray instead of snap if you tried to break them.
They had a daughter named Sally. She was just a little older than me, which she found out the first day we met and seemed happy about. She had her father's freckled, red-headed features and her mother's nervous mannerisms. Her hair was in pigtails tied by rubber bands, and they bounced when she ran. A mouthful of braces turned her smile into a Frankenstein-monster flash of pink gums and silver wires.
She was never without her doll, a round-headed baby girl with yellow yarn for hair and perfect circles of blush painted on plastic cheeks. Its hard lips curled up in a permanent pout. Sally called it "Angel Baby."
Father got Mr. Bakken a job at the John Deere plant, and they rode to work together in Father's ragged pickup truck. Sometimes they didn't come home until after dark, and from my bed I would hear Mother yelling at Father and feel the floor shake as the furniture rattled in the living room. Then I would hear the stinging slap of flesh on flesh, followed by a cry, or more breaking glass. I would shrink even deeper into the dark under the blankets, trying to crawl far away from the world where things broke. Far enough that I could meet my invisible friend in the Bone House if necessary.
One night Mother yelled "Did you go to that damned bar again?"
"I work to put food on this table, I'll do as I damn well please, bitch."
He also called her Puke-face and Fuckwit, every name he could think of except Shit For Brains. He saved that one. He must have had a special place in his heart for me.
Once Mother said something about "You and your whores." This was followed by a cold, long silence during which even the wind seemed afraid to breathe. Then Father's words parted the stillness like the jagged edge of a glacier in a dark sea or a frozen knife in a rotten cantaloupe or an ice cream headache during a prayer.
"You're the best whore I know."
Then the walls bent and the clock shattered and the blood flowed and the night fell in upon itself as the boots danced.
The day after that, Mother slept until noon and her face was puffy when she woke up. I was glad she didn't make me give her a good-morning hug because I didn't want to touch her watery skin. She must not have had an invisible friend to warn her about the boots. I sneaked away to my nest while she was taking a shower to steam away her soreness. Father didn't come home at all that evening.
Sometimes Mother and Mrs. Bakken sat at our kitchen table, talking about what they called the "menfolk." They would cradle cups of coffee and tap cigarettes, sitting there in house robes with dusty slippers on their feet. Mrs. Bakken looked even more like a skeleton when her hair was pinned back away from her face by curlers, making her taut forehead shine like a China plate. Sometimes she, like Mother, had a dark circle around one eye, but she seemed almost happy then. She smiled as if showing off a hard-won trophy.
They would lower their voices and say things like "Before he started drinking so much" and "He used to be so handsome when he was young" and "Before the devil got him." Right there under the Jesus plate. Or "They're no good at all except for that thing between their legs," followed by girlish giggles.
I wondered if people loved each other because they were afraid to not love, if being alone was worse than being hurt all the time. Or maybe it was just the things between people's legs that made them love. I'd seen Mother naked in the bathroom, accidentally of course, but I always had to look twice to make sure it had been an accident the first time.
Even though the Bakkens seemed to cause a lot of problems between my parents, and the other way around, they spent lots of time together. Once in a while, they would all go out together on Friday night, leaving me alone with the television set for a babysitter. I didn't know what Sally did. I was afraid to knock on the Bakkens's door, afraid it would swing open and she would stand there in her little dress and pigtails, cradling Angel Baby in her freckled arms. I was afraid she might invite me in.
When our parents visited each other, Sally and I had to play together, and I suppose we became friends out of mutual desperation. While the grownups talked and drank in the living room, or grilled hot dogs on the scraggly patch of dirt out back, Sally and I pretended to be pirates or space explorers or cowboys. She was usually the leader and grew angry when I tried to change her made-up rules. We played dolls one time, in her crisp, neat room.
She had a crowd of dolls, and they all had names that I never bothered to memorize. She arranged them as if they were adults at a party and made up different voices for them so they could carry on conversations. I chose a large stuffed animal, a big green rabbit that had an upside-down straw basket on its head. I pretended it was an evil rabbit come to get bad grown-ups, hopping in and knocking over Sally's carefully seated dolls.
"Take that, Shit For Brains," I said, as Sally squealed and the dolls fell in a jumble of plastic arms and legs.
"No, grownups play nice." She propped the dolls up again. "And no bad words, either, or I'll tell."
Whether she was going to tell my parents or the other dolls, I didn't ask. I sat there with the golden light of sunset peering through her blue curtains, our parents' voices rising over the rock music in the living room, one of them occasionally breaking into rough laughter. I wondered if this was how other kids lived, playing on a clean floor with dolls that didn't bleed. I wondered if other kids had to hide in their closets, dreading the sound of footsteps in the hall, talking to themselves. I was suddenly lonely and afraid, even with an invisible friend right there waiting in the Bone House, even with a dozen dolls around.
"You want to know a secret?" I asked Sally.
"Like a secret spy code?"
"Better than that. A secret place I know about."
"If you know, it's not a secret." She hugged Angel Baby to her chest.
"But I'm the only one who knows where it is."
"Why are you telling me?"
"Because I was thinking we could be friends."
"But we're already friends. We play all the time." She fussed with Angel Baby's dress because the fabric was wrinkled.
"But I mean friends who talk to each other. Who tell each other stuff."
"We already talk."
"But not about secret stuff."
"You mean boy-and-girl stuff, like grownups do?"
I gulped, thinking about the Bone House. "Yeah, and other things, things you can't tell grownups about."
"Things you can only talk about in secret places?" Her voice had fallen to a whisper. I nodded.
"Then you have to be my boyfriend."
Boyfriend? Didn't that mean I had to love her? But that wasn't as bad as being alone. What was it my little friend had said? About being brave enough to love?
"Okay." My voice was as squeaky as chalk on a blackboard or throat with toast crumbs or a rubber ducky when you stomp it on purpose.
"Then you can't be mean to me anymore. Or to my dolls. Cross your heart and hope to die."
Hope to die? My invisible friend had said that the first time I met him. Love was even scarier than I thought. I swallowed the knot that lodged in my throat like a doll's head or other large, dry objects that you should never swallow but sometimes do. "Cross my heart and hope to die," I echoed.
"And you have to love me forever."
Did that mean all next year, even at school? School was only two weeks away. I pictured myself holding her bony hand in lunch line or carrying her books down to the bus stop. I pictured myself passing love letters in math class, avoiding the watchful eyes of Mrs. Elkerson. Those things weren't as bad as being alone.
"Okay, then."
"You have to say it." She leaned forward, her eyes serious.
"Say what?"
"Say 'I love you.' Just like that, only do it like they do in movies, kind of deep down and slow and out of breath."
In movies, there was always music, violin players just off the set, and blossoms of spring erupting all around. Here there was only the party noise in the next room and a floor full of baby dolls. But I had the out-of-breath part down easy.
My tongue was thick. My head buzzed, and I thought it might be my little friend telling me to not say it. Then the buzzing went away.
"I...I love you."
There. That wasn't so bad. That didn't hurt.
"I love you, too, Richard. Now we get to hold hands."
She put her warm, moist palm to mine and we sat on the floor in silence. Her room smelled of cake.
"Is this all there is to love?" I asked after a minute.
"No, now we can tell each other secrets. Oh, and one more have to love Angel Baby. Because I love Angel Baby and you love me."
That made sense. But how many more would I have to love? Did the small hutch of my heart have enough room for more? What about those other dolls? Did I have to let all of them move into the Bone House?
"What kind of secrets are you going to tell me?" I asked. "I have the secret place to show you, but you haven't promised anything yet."
She looked hurt. "I promised to let you love me, didn't I? I promised to be your girlfriend."
She pouted like Angel Baby, only Sally's lips weren't as red. I looked out the window. The sun had gone all the way down and a couple of dots of dirty starlight pricked the black sky. Shadows grew fat in the corners of the room. I scooted closer to Sally.
She said, "I can tell you lots of things."
Her voice fell. "Things that you do when you're in love."
Curiosity and fear struggled in my chest, and fear lost for once. "What kinds of things, besides telling secrets? I watch television. I already know about...kissing."
She laughed, her mouth a flash of metal. Her eyes shone in the dim light, as glittering and piercing as a doll's.
"You're not that dumb, are you?"
Love's first hurt. My ears burned. My throat was a dry desert. My voice was lost somewhere in its sands. This love stuff was probably best kept in your own head or buried in the Sahara or the Mojave or some lesser-known but still-inhospitable geographic region.
Sally said, "Kissing is just the beginning. When you show me the secret place, then I'll tell you more."
More? Love wasn't scary enough already? Love had to have its own secrets, its own special set of fears?
I whispered hoarsely, "There's more?"
"I'll tell you about bedsprings and the things between people's legs."
Like our mothers talked about? Did Sally know those kinds of secrets? Were girls born knowing them, and boys had to love a girl to unlock the mystery? Would love always be this confusing? Or was getting started the hardest part?
She leaned over in the darkness and I felt her warm bubble-gum breath on my cheek. Her lips touched there, briefly, and then pulled away, her saliva already cooling on my skin in the night air. My cheek was still tingling when my parents called to take me home.
I lay under the blankets in my bed, restless, listening to the night. Crickets chirped and an occasional car passed on the highway. Somewhere in the street, music played on a tinny radio. From down the hall, inside my parents' bedroom, came faint, rusty squeaking sounds. Questions circled around in my head like spun stars, burning brightly before dying and turning black, then falling one by one into the void of sleep.


The next afternoon, still dizzy from promises of love, I showed Sally the nest. I led the way through the weeds and branches, and then held the vegetation aside so she could see the secret, sacred place.
"Any bugs in there?" She gave me a silver grimace.
"No, it smells a little like wet dog hair, but you get used to it after a while."
She crawled through the tunnel, brushing a prairie rose vine away from her face and sending a pink snow of petals to the ground. She dragged Angel Baby by one arm, and the doll's yellow hair tangled in thorns, causing Sally to whimper until I tore it free. Once inside, she sat up and blinked as her eyes adjusted to the dimness.
"Look at my stockings. My mother's going to kill me." She brushed at the dirt and grass stains on the knees of her white hose.
"Tell her you fell, then she'll feel sorry for you instead of yelling at you."
Sally looked around at the wooden walls that were brown with rot, then squinted up at the hole in the roof. "What do you do when it rains?"
"Usually get wet."
Her eyes grew dark, as if threatening clouds had passed over them. "You promised not to be mean, remember?"
I touched my heart, the one I had crossed with a promise the day before, afraid it would stop beating. "I wasn't trying to be smart-alecky. Sometimes I'd rather sit here and get soaked than to be out there." I motioned to the world outside.
She thought I must have meant the junkyard. "Why don't you play in the cars instead?"
"Because cars have windows. People can see into them. Plus I think mice live in them. I've played in them before, pretended they were jets and spaceships and even cars I was driving. But I don't anymore, because of what happened."
"What happened?" Sally sat Indian-style with Angel Baby in her lap. I thought for a moment, then decided to trust her. I could tell the story because she loved me. I'd never told anyone else. Love makes you do dumb things.
I wanted to leave this part out, because it's sort of embarrassing. But that one-you know, the one trying to steal my byline-believes this type of veracity just shows how foolish and untrustworthy I am. He's been revising this book, thinking it will get better over time, but he doesn't even notice if the structure is flawed.
Here's what I think: he's jealous. He may be this ancient, soul-hopping, omniscient entity, but he can't write worth a damn. He doesn't have the patience for it. When you have the whole world at your fingertips and unlimited evil to unleash, who cares about a stupid page?
For example, he doesn't even realize drawing attention to the author is a bad idea. Look, here is a flashback told through dialogue. That's a no-no in big-time New York-published autobiographies, even unauthorized ones. He's the reason this book has been rejected so many times. Not me.
So let us get by with it just this one time and I swear we'll never do it again. Otherwise we'd be here arguing about it until hell freezes over. Which, by the way, comes up near the end of the book, assuming he lets me get there in one piece.
"It happened before you moved here," I told Sally. "This was back in March when it was just getting warm enough to play outside. The ground thawed out and the world was one big mud puddle. Mother told me not to get dirty, so I went through those trees into the junkyard, careful so I didn't get scraped on torn-up metal. I scratched my leg there once, and it stayed red for about a month and all this yellowy juice kept coming out of the cut."
Sally put the back of her hand to her mouth, revealing the pale flash of her open palm.
"I was in that old black Ford, the one that's all rounded at the corners and missing all its wheels. It smells old, like a basement full of clothes that nobody wears anymore. My father said he had wanted a car like it when he was teen-ager, but never had the money because he had so many goddamned mouths to feed. Anyway, I was just playing with the steering wheel and pulling down all those gearshifts, going in for a landing on Mars, when this big old man runs over, wiping his hands on an oily rag. He must have worked there at the garage.
"I slid down to the floorboard, trying to hide, but I couldn't fit under the seats. He opened the door and it creaked, just like those doors do in the movies when the monsters are coming to get somebody. He smelled like gasoline and his eyes were as dark as the stains on his clothes. I put my hands over my head, afraid he was going to kick me."
"Why did you think that?" Sally said, half horrified and half disbelieving.
"Because he had boots on."
Confusion crossed her face. "Did he kick you?"
"No, he squatted down and just said, 'What are you doing here, boy?', except he wasn't real mad. I told him I was flying the car like a spaceship. He said he used to do that when he was a boy, except he pretended they were boats. I couldn't picture him as a boy because he had gray stubble on his chin and creases around his eyes, like he'd started out old and had never gotten a chance to play.
"Then he said the car was an antique, plus there were a lot of ways to get hurt playing around all this glass and metal and then their insurance would go all to hell. He said we'd both get in trouble if I hurt myself. I was afraid to look at him, and the gasoline made my eyes sting.
"He asked if my mother knew I was playing out back here. I told him my mother never knew where I was, unless I was tucked into bed. Then he got a strange look on his face, like he'd just thought of a secret of his own. His voice got kind of quiet, and he said he wouldn't tell anybody if I wouldn't. Then he asked if he could play spaceship with me."
Sally hugged Angel Baby to her bosom, that flat chest inside her cotton top where mysterious little bumps had started to swell over the long hot weeks of summer.
"Is this a secret?" she whispered.
"No, the garage man knows it, so it's not a secret. I was scared to tell him I didn't want to play with him, that what I really wanted to do was run into the woods, where there were shadows. So I told him okay. He stood up and looked around, still wiping his hands, and licked the corners of his mouth, sort of like a dog does when you feed it peanut butter. Then he bent down and said, in a real low scary voice, 'Move over and I'll drive. You can be the captain.' So I did, and as soon as he got in, the whole car smelled like gasoline."
I was surprised at myself for telling so much. I guess I had kept my stories inside so long that they had built up and spilled over, like the bathtub did when I filled it full so I could pretend to be a deep-sea diver. Besides, you were supposed to share secrets with the person you had to love. Sally nodded, her pigtails bobbing, wanting me to go on with the story.
"His eyes kept looking around the junkyard, especially at the row of trees that stood between us and the apartment buildings. Then he said, 'Where we going, Captain?' I'd never played with a grownup before, so I wasn't sure if he knew how to pretend for real. Plus I didn't feel right giving orders to a grownup. So I just said, 'Mars,' and he acted like he was driving while he scooted over toward me. I checked the round dials behind the steering wheel to make sure we were in the right orbit. He dropped the rag in his lap and reached over and rubbed my hair. 'Aye-aye, Captain,' he said, and he laughed, but it was kind of wheezy, like he couldn't breathe or something.
"Then his hand fell down to my shoulder and he was rubbing it. He took his other hand off the steering wheel and put it on the rag. He said the Martians might see us so we better slide down in the seat until we landed. Then he kind of leaned over on top of me. I told him we might wreck if he didn't watch where we were going, that we might run into an asteroid or something, or the Martians might send out fighter rockets. But he was breathing real funny and he pressed his lap against me. I felt the ball of the rag, and under that, something kind of hard, like he had a wrench in his pocket.
"Then he said something that didn't seem to have anything to do with the Mars mission. He said, 'We keep having girls. I've always wanted a son,' and for a second, I thought he meant the sun in the sky, but that was nowhere near Mars. And he kept on breathing through his nose and I was afraid he was going to die, and he moved his hand from my shoulder to my leg. His other hand was on the rag, he was rubbing the wrench in his pocket against me, and he started moaning and I thought he was pretending to crash land. And I said, 'Back off the thrusters and we'll pull through. It's our only hope.'"
Sally was looking at me like I was a hero, her blue eyes wide. Maybe she thought I was a brave captain, still able to give commands even while we were crashing. I liked the way she was looking at me.
"And he kept moaning and rubbing against me and suddenly his body got all stiff and he squeezed my leg real hard. I thought he was pretending to be scared about crashing and doing it so well that I was afraid he was having a heart attack. His face was all clenched up and his eyes were shut. Maybe he was so good at pretending that he could really see our rocket plowing into the red surface of Mars. Except he wasn't making the crashing sounds in his mouth the way you're supposed to.
"I told him, 'We survived the landing, we better get out our rayguns in case the Martians saw us,' and I was going to tell him that we better leave the ship in case it caught on fire. Because suddenly I wanted out of the car in real life because of the way he was looking at me. He was looking at me like I was the Martian. His eyes were tiny wet lines and his eyebrows were crunched down and he grabbed my arm and squeezed it, harder than he'd squeezed my leg."
"Did he hurt you?" Sally asked, and at that moment I felt I could tell her a hundred stories, secret or not, lies or the truth. Because she was listening.
"I didn't feel it too much because I was so scared. But he put his face close to mine and the gasoline fumes made me dizzy. For the first time, I noticed his teeth were sharp and yellow. Then he said, 'If you tell anybody, I'll come and get you and make you sorry.' He must have been afraid that he'd get in trouble for letting me play in the junkyard. Then he told me never to come back. He slid out of the car on the driver's side and looked around one more time. Then he held the door open so I could get out.
"He grabbed my arm again and pulled me into the sunshine, then said, right in my ear, so that his breath sprayed on my skin, 'I mean it. I'll come get you, and I won't be playing make-believe.' I was looking at his greasy black boots, but he grabbed my chin and tilted my head up. I looked into his eyes and I could have sworn there were things moving around in them, mean things. And there was something I'd almost forgot about until yesterday, when you were telling me about the things between people's legs."
"But that was one of the secrets I was going to tell," Sally whined. The sun had gotten higher in the sky and came through the roof, making her red hair shine like copper fire.
"You can still tell me. I remember that I looked at his pockets and they were empty. I don't know what he did with the wrench. I was afraid he might hit me with it. But he just stood there holding me and grinding his teeth.
"Then he let go and I ran into the woods and looked back at him. He was staring at me, wiping his hands on the rag. The spaceship was just an old black car again, rusty around the edges, and he was just an oily old man in dirty clothes. Then somebody called him from around the front of the garage. He shook his fist at me and I slipped into the trees. That's the last time I played over there."
"Does the man still work there?" Sally asked, maybe wanting to see what he looked like.
"I haven't seen him at the garage lately. But the people who work there don't seem to stay very long. I guess they get tired of the gasoline smell or something. But I'm still scared to play in the cars. That's why I come in through the back of the fence to get here, so they won't see me from the garage."
"This is a secret place, all right. It looks just like a big bunch of weeds from the outside. So, were you scared about that man?"
"I don't know. Sometimes I dream that he's coming to get me, that he's in my bedroom. He's got on his greasy clothes and he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wrench and he tightens it around my arm and I can't get away and he's turning the wrench and my arm turns around and around and he keeps rubbing my hair and he smells like gasoline and he's got on a spaceman helmet and then he leans over on me and I can't breathe and I wake up and I'm kicking my legs against the blankets and it's morning. Then I go to the window and look at the Ford to make sure it hasn't blasted off in the night."
"That sounds like a scary dream."
"Dreams aren't scary. They're just dreams. That's not as bad as him really coming after me."
"Grownups are strange. I don't know if I want to be in love like grownups after all."
"But you said we were in love. And you have to tell me the secrets. You promised."
"You mean you still want to be in love? It's already been almost a whole day."
I was confused. "I thought you said love was forever."
"I didn't cross my heart and hope to die."
She saw the pain in my eyes. It didn't seem to bother her. Her blue eyes were as cold as the garage man's had been. Now that I think about it, she probably smiled. Or maybe I'm remembering wrong, or lying again, or one of my headmates has taken over the keyboard.
"But it's okay,we can still play," she said, seeing the fallen look on my face. Did I still have to love her because I'd crossed my heart, even if she didn't love me?
"I'll tell you some secrets, then," she said. "Here's the best thing about love: You can still pretend like we're in love, the way grownups pretend."


Sally and I sat cross-legged on the warped plywood floor of the doghouse. The sun was falling into late afternoon, shining through the gap in the roof like electric light.
"What's this about grown-ups pretending to love?" I asked.
"If they loved each other the way people on TV do, they wouldn't hit each other or yell at each other."
"I thought they loved each other because they had to, because they were married."
"But we loved each other because we wanted to."
I noticed she said "loved." Past tense. My heart fluttered like a house bird let out of a cage, discovering its wings only to slam into window glass and fall dead. Or maybe peck at its own reflection. When you're that young, you can't come up with clever metaphors, which is why you save your autobiography until you're older and need money. Or someone has a gun to your head.
"But love also has to do with the squeaky bedsprings," she said. "You've heard them, haven't you? How they squeak over and over and over and sometimes you can hear your parents yelling like they're hurting each other, but they don't sound mad?"
I nodded. Just another of night's mysterious noises, along with faraway trains and the wind rustling through the cornfields and mice gnawing behind the walls and monsters breathing under the bed and a little person inside your skull. So the squeaking had something to do with love?
She continued, spreading out secrets like grape jelly on white bread. "You ever notice how your parents are happy the morning after the bedsprings squeak? Mine at least get through breakfast before they get mad at each other again. Because sometimes my mom burns the eggs or Daddy has a headache from drinking too much. Or Mom says she needs grocery money and then asks if he wants to have fun tonight."
I nodded again. I was remembering the bedsprings and how they used to squeak a lot back when I was younger, almost every night it seemed. But now the bedsprings only worked every week or so, mostly on Friday nights.
"And that's got something to do with what's between people's legs?" I asked.
She sighed and looked at me like I was a third grader. "Haven't you seen your parents naked?"
My mind flashed back to when I was very young, when Mother would take me into the bathtub with her. She would rub soap in my hair and laugh and splash water on my back. When she stood up to towel off, I saw a patch of black hair between her legs, frothed with white soap bubbles. I only knew it was a dark, secret place, one that had parts that didn't show. A place you knew was wrong to think about.
And walking down the hall and passing by the bathroom, seeing Father out of the corner of my eye standing over the toilet. And my eyes, despite my trying to look away, automatically going down to his hand that held the big red thing. I had something that hung down, too, but Father's must have hurt, it looked so monstrous and swollen and angry.
"I've seen naked people," I said. She wasn't the only one who could pretend to know everything.
"Well, men have what they call a 'babymaker.' Like what you've got, except you've got a little boy thing. It's called a pee-pee now, but it'll grow up to be a babymaker, too."
My head was spinning, and my invisible friend was rattling the closet doors in the Bone House, looking for a place to hide. How did Sally know all these things? And did I really want a big red babymaker? If I didn't, was there any way to stop it from happening?
Sally went on, smug with the knowledge of grown-up secrets. "And women have muff pies. That's where the man puts his babymaker and then seeds crawl out of his babymaker into the pie and then little babies grow. And they have a hard time squeezing the babymaker into the pie, because it's so big, at least my daddy's is. And that's what makes the bedsprings squeak, because they have to fight to get those baby seeds planted."
My mouth hung open, airing out the base of my brain where this new information was settling. Babymakers and bedsprings, and all this somehow tied in with love. This stuff just got scarier and scarier. "But that means they would have a baby every time the bedsprings squeak."
"No, because of the blood. Haven't you ever seen the blood between your mother's legs?"
I hadn't, but I had seen little paper wads in the toilet, with streaks of blood running from them and down the inside of the toilet. Sometimes after the squeaking, now that I thought about it.
Sally said, "Because the blood washes away the baby."
I was struck with the image of a hundred bloody, tiny babies floating around in the toilet bowl. Then I was wondering if the babymaker was so big that it hurt the muff pie and that's what made women bleed. But I didn't dare ask Sally about it. She already thought I was stupid. Better to learn all I could while she was still willing to share her secrets.
At least now I understood the reason she didn't want to love me. She probably thought I was going to grow a babymaker and hurt her. She probably thought I was going to make her bleed.
And, even worse, I saw why Mother was afraid of Father. As if his boots weren't bad enough, he had other weapons he could use on her.
"So you have to be in love to try to make babies?" I asked.
She laughed at me, peeling my skin as if I were an apple, then cutting to the core. "Of course not. Babies are mistakes. Who wants to carry a baby around in their belly?"
I marveled at Sally, sitting there rich with exotic wisdom, her thin legs crossed in a pretzel of white hose, clutching Angel Baby, her coppery pigtails bobbing with delight as she ridiculed me. She was beautiful.
"But you have to be married to have babies, don't you? Or to make the bedsprings squeak?" I asked.
More laughter. "You silly boy. Remember that day your father called in sick to work, and your mother went downtown to do the shopping? She asked my mom if she wanted to come along, but my mom said she had housework to do. I didn't see you around anywhere."
Of course not. I wasn't going to stay in the apartment all day with Father, though he was too sick to put his boots on. I came to the nest with a couple of comic books. When it came down to Batman or a possible beating, even a dumbbell like me made the smart choice.
"Well, your mother was gone all morning, and your father came over to our place. He gave me a whole dollar to go buy some candy. Then I knew something was up. Has he ever given you a dollar?"
"Are you kidding?"
"So I snuck around the back of the apartment, outside my mom's bedroom, and I heard the bedsprings squeaking. And my daddy was at work down at the plant, so I know it wasn't him."
I shuddered at the thought of Father squeezing his big babymaker inside Sally's scrawny mother. It must have hurt her a lot.
"How come your mother let him hurt her? She didn't have to let him, since they weren't married," I said. Or maybe she hadn't let him. Father had ways of getting what he wanted.
Sally sliced me again with the knife edge of her laughter. "It doesn't hurt, stupid. It feels good. That's what love's about. It doesn't have anything to do with being married. It's about sharing secrets and holding hands and kissing and then playing babymaking."
My hand went to the spot on my cheek Sally had kissed the night before. I tingled with the memory. A leaf fell from somewhere above, from one of the big straight hickory trees that bordered the junkyard. It feathered through the hole in the roof, landing on the back of Sally's neck. She reached up, thinking it was a bug, and batted it away.
While she was leaning back, I glanced between her crossed legs at the shadow under her dress.
"How come you kissed me last night?" I asked.
"Because I loved you."
"Like boyfriend and girlfriend."
"Yes. Real love, like grown-ups."
"But now you don't love me?"
"Not anymore. I just wanted to see if I could get you to love me. I did it all the time back in Pittsburgh. I had a different boyfriend every week."
How could somebody love so many people so fast?
"Did you kiss them all?" I asked, not sure if I wanted to know the answer. I wanted my kiss to be special.
"Of course. That's why all the boys wanted to love me."
"Did anything else?" I tried to picture her naked, in bed with a boy, making the bedsprings squeak. I could only picture her with a big patch of soapy black hair between her legs.
Her voice dropped to a sneaky whisper. "I Frenched them."
"Frenched?" I was picturing Napoleon, whom I had read about, trying to put his babymaker into Sally, his big pointy hat falling down over his face.
"It's a kind of kiss. Come here and I'll show you."
I slid over beside her, my heart beating faster than squeaking bedsprings. I closed my eyes. I felt her warm breath inches from my face.
"Wait," I said, opening my eyes. Her eyes were closed and her dark eyelashes twitched like dying butterflies. Her lips were curled up like Angel Baby's and were shining with saliva.
"What is it?" she asked impatiently.
"If you don't love me anymore, why do you want to French me?"
"Because it's fun. It feels like something I'm not supposed to do. And it makes me tingle. And that's what grown-up love is all about."
"What if I don't want to be Frenched?" Now I was afraid of kissing her. I had already braced myself for the horrifying thought of loving Sally, like boyfriend and girlfriend, and I had run through a hundred dead-end hallways of the Bone House to get to the one thing I knew. That it felt good to be loved, even if it was scary. And now she was taking it back.
"You crossed your heart, remember?" Her voice was high and squeaky as bedsprings, she was so angry. "So you have to love me or hope to die."
"But you just said kissing didn't have anything to do with love."
"You're getting kissing mixed up with babymaking. And if you don't kiss me, I'm going to tell your parents about this place."
She nodded at the doghouse walls, her pigtails bobbing. The sun had sunk lower in the sky, the orange sunset lighting up the honeysuckle blossoms. The flowers glowed like Christmas lights on the vines that crawled down from the roof. Their sweet smell hung thick in the air. The world was candy.
I wondered if she was cruel enough to tell on me, and I decided she was. I thought of my father, bringing his boots down on the flimsy rotten walls until the outside world poured in like rain. I thought of my mother, her face lined with worry because her son was hiding out with a girl and probably doing bad things that made Jesus sad. But mostly, I wanted to feel that tingle again.
"Okay," I said, and then her lips were on mine, her tongue sliding into my mouth like a fat earthworm. I put my tongue up to stop hers, and it tangled briefly in the steel wires of her braces, and I imagined us locked together as the sun went down and then our parents finding us like that. I frantically worked my tongue free and she pressed her palms against my chest, pushing me onto my back.
She straddled me, on her knees with one leg on each side of me like a ten-gallon cowboy riding bronco on a half-pint pony in a clown's rodeo. I quit struggling, letting my tongue lie still as she explored my teeth. Her dress rode up to her waist, and she was rubbing her white-stockinged thighs against me in a familiar rhythm.
The rhythm of bedsprings.
I was helpless against the attack. My stomach clenched like one of Father's fists, but inside the tightness erupted a small hot fire. My mouth tickled where her slick tongue probed like a snail poking out of its shell. She was moaning like the garage man had when he had leaned on me. Love, or kissing, or babymaking, or whatever this was, was like ejecting from a rocket ship.
I felt a tingling down in my pee-pee and I was afraid it was about to grow into a big red babymaker.
I tried to push Sally away, because she was putting her muff pie down near my pee-pee that was trying to be a babymaker. My chest was tight and vomit tickled the back of my throat. I didn't want to have a babymaker and I didn't want it to make Sally bleed. I didn't want to have to love her anymore.
But she wasn't letting me up. Her eyes were closed and she rocked back and forth, just like those old people did on the porch down the street, except they sat in chairs and she was sitting on my belly. And her tongue flickered as if trying to find butterscotch candy down my throat.
And the more I thought about my pee-pee and trying to make it not turn into a babymaker, the more it tingled. Sally was rubbing over and over and over and I felt something was about to happen, something as mysterious as the early stars that I could see through the hole in the roof. Something as dangerous as the boots. Something as weird as the junkyard incident. Something I'd remember the rest of my life.
"Richard!" my mother called, from somewhere just a few yards outside the nest.


Sally froze, locked above me like a TV wrestler waiting for the referee to count to three. I was lying on my back looking up at her, afraid to breathe. My pee-pee didn't feel like it wanted to be a babymaker anymore. It felt like it wanted to crawl into a cold dark refrigerator and wait for halftime of a football game.
Mother called my name again.
I strained my ears, listening for her footsteps and the swish of weeds as she discovered the nest and looked inside. The blanket of night had almost completely covered the sky, giving me a small hope of not being found.
"Richard, I know you're out here. It's way past dinnertime, honey."
Sally leaned her mouth to my ear and one of her pigtails tickled my nose. "I thought this place was a secret," she hissed.
"Sssh," I said, but I knew it wouldn't be our voices that gave us away. It would be the pounding heart, spilling out and carrying like the beat of voodoo drums across a black jungle. Or maybe the scarring screech of a jet plane crash landing. The fifty-megaton explosion between my legs. Something like that.
Mother shouted my name again, this time farther away.
Sally relaxed over me as if her bones had failed, her body sagging onto mine like a water balloon. Our pulses raced each other, working faster than bedsprings in the dead of night. I had found yet another way that love could be scary.
Sally rolled off me and smoothed her dress. She picked up Angel Baby and all I could see of their faces was the outline, twin shadows against a darker background. The feeble moon was trying to rise, but it must have been as tired and drained as we were.
"I tore the knee of my stocking," she said, her voice as cold and faraway as the dull stars or dead fish on a beach or a mole in a winter cornfield.
"Sally..." I searched the night for words. I still love you? Want to know a secret? Will you climb on me again?
"Tell your mother you tripped over a tree root and fell," I finished.
Her soft sobs filled the doghouse. Had I hurt her? I don't think I had used my babymaker on her.
"Are you bleeding?" My tongue was as dry and thick as an old board.
She snorted, blowing bubbles of laughter out of her nose. "Richard, you're such an idiot."
She was stomping with words. They hurt worse than boots. And I wish, sitting here typing, I could walk through the years and stomp back. After all, I'm the one who gets to tell how it really happened. But even now, this seems the best way to remember it. Yes, this will do.
"I'm going home now," she said, and I could sense her pout even if I couldn't see it clearly. Her voice dropped and her words slithered out like snakes. "This is a secret."
I could still try to be brave. "I won't tell anything."
"Cross your heart and hope to die," she said, and she was telling me, not asking.
But I wasn't falling for that trick again. No more hoping to die, no matter what. She waited in the silent night that poured as smothering and heavy as maple syrup. Or blood from a savior's palms. Or maybe just plain old smothering silence, the kind you hear in your head if you stop and really listen and everyone in the Bone House is asleep and not snoring.
"I never even loved you at all," she said. "I was lying. I just wanted to make you kiss me. Like I did all those other boys."
And I still had to love her, at least until I could figure out a way to uncross my heart. If love was going to be such a hot-and-cold ball of confusion, a strange mix of pain and pleasure, a tangle of limbs and tongues, then I didn't want to love anyone again for a long time.
But suddenly I was beyond the reach of her sharp weapons of hate, weapons that stabbed places even the boots hadn't touched. I was shrinking into the dark place in my head, hiding from this new kind of pain. She could not longer touch me, I was safe in a dark hall of the Bone House, looking through the eyes of my secret little friend, the secret that no external love would ever make me reveal.
"Wait," you must be thinking, "how come you're telling me this now?"
I'll let you in on the secret, if not her, because I can tell you're starting to trust me despite my warning. We're in this together, so you might as well have all the facts. Besides, I think I'm starting to love you.
Sally crawled out of the doghouse toward the weed-choked hole in the fence, her knees making crackling sounds on the crusty ground. My little friend sat alone in the dark, alone but not alone, because I was there with him. We were bound together more tightly than any lover's knot or hangman's noose or those silly contortions newlyweds do over the wedding cake when they're trying to toast their future divorce.
"I've been away too long," my friend said. "I should have come sooner. I let you get hurt."
My body scooted across the rough plywood floor and followed Sally out of the hole. My nose took in the crisp aroma of crushed flowers and torn grass, the perfume of honeysuckle, and the smell of early dew. My ears heard a sleepy meadowlark spinning a lullaby. My hands stung from the sharp prick of fallen thorns as my body crawled. It was my flesh, but not me.
My head was poking out of the hole in the fence when my eyes saw a white slipper in the moonlight. And from the slipper, a long familiar leg rose up into the night sky.
Mother's shoe.
Mother's leg.
My body stood, with the help of her hand lifting it by my shirt collar. My eyes looked around, adjusting to the brighter light of this outside world. Sally was hugging Mrs. Bakken over by the hickory trees, pressing her face into her mother's chest, and now the sound of Sally's wild crying reached my ears, drowning out the meadowlark's song.
"What's going on here, young man?" Mother asked my body, her voice a wedge of ice driven into my ears.
"Here?" my voice said, the strange muscles in my throat vibrating. Where was "here"? I thought I was in the Bone House.
"He made me, Mommy," Sally shrieked. "He made me do bad things."
Bad things? What bad things? Oh.
Sally squealed, her wet whimpers carrying across the apartment's backyard and into the night. My eyes saw lights blinking on across the back wall of the apartment building, my ears heard windows sliding open, my nose smelled cigarette smoke as heads stuck out to see if what was going on outside was better than their television shows.
"He made me go in there, then he made me kiss him. I tried to get away, but he kept grabbing me," Sally said. "And he wouldn't let me go."
She wailed like an air-raid siren, and was as well-rehearsed. Mother looked into my eyes as if she knew who I was and shook my shoulders. "Richard, what do you have to say for yourself?"
Richard? Yes, that was me. Yet not me. My head nodded, flopping up and down like a wet mop's. Just the way my friend made it.
Mrs. Bakken stroked the top of Sally's head as if she were petting a rabbit. "There, there, honey, it will be okay. Did he hurt you?" Mrs. Bakken said, looking over at Mother and my borrowed flesh.
"N-no, Mommy." Sally sniffled extra loudly in case someone in the apartment windows hadn't heard the first time. "But he tried to. He tried to lift up my dress and was talking crazy things like putting his pee-pee in me and making me bleed. And I was so scared."
She mixed the last word with a half-moan that yawned out through the trees and across the junkyard. My body was standing on legs that felt like wobbly stacks of tin cans.
"I'm so sorry," Mother said to Sally. "I swear, I don't know where he gets his meanness from."
Then, to me, "Lord, wait till your father hears about this." Then, to Sally, "You sure you're okay, honey?"
Sally nodded, bouncing her pigtails for emphasis, and wiped her eyes on her mother's shirt. "I've got a hole in my stocking, Mommy."
"It's not your fault," Mrs. Bakken said, and she looked all the way through my little friend into the dark place where I was hiding. Now I knew where Sally had learned to cut with invisible knives. It ran in the family.
And she'd learned the lesson we all get to eventually: it's not whether you're right or wrong, good or bad, true or false-it's whether you have someone to blame.
I looked back down the long dark hall at Mrs. Bakken's face, cheeks paler than moonlight, her skin stretched as tight as panty hose over the steep bone of her head. Her eyes were as black as crow's wings, eyes that shot secrets out of the sky. And she saw that I saw.
"While the cat's away, the mice will splay," my little friend said to Mrs. Bakken, using my voice.
"What are you talking about?" Mrs. Bakken's voice was a pitch-perfect imitation of her screeching daughter's. "Anne, he's gone crazy, that boy has."
"Tell us about Father and the bedsprings," I heard my voice say.
"What's this foolishness, Richard? I've never heard the like in all my days," Mother said.
"Did Father's babymaker hurt you?" my imaginary friend said, using my mouth. The words were nails, hammered into the coffin of the night.
"That's the kind of crazy things he was saying to me, Mommy," Sally said, finding fresh tears and straining to squeeze them into rivers. "All this stuff about babymakers and how I had to love him or he would hurt me. But he said if he loved me, then he'd have to hurt me with his babymaker, whatever that is."
Mother's hand struck my cheek, sparking a red burst of fire and pain. But the pain was brief, flickering and dying in an instant. My friend and I knew how to douse the flames of pain. This Bone House would never burn.
"Did it hurt you? Or did you like Father's babymaker?" we said.
Mrs. Bakken's eyes searched the trees, sneaking into the night sky, seeking escape. Mother let go of my shirt collar, her face blank beneath her curly mass of brown hair.
"You must have liked it, the way the two of you made the bedsprings squeak over and over and over, Mrs. Bakken," we said. "Just like people who love each other. Just like married people."
"What's he talking about, Rita?" Mother asked Mrs. Bakken.
Mrs. Bakken's shiny China face cracked as she joined Sally in tears.
"Richard, what are you talking about?" Mother asked my body when she realized Mrs. Bakken was not going to answer.
"You'll have to ask Sally. She's the one who got the dollar's worth of candy," we said. "She's the one who knows all about love."
Sally and her mother huddled together, crying in the night, as two dozen prying eyes watched from the windows and a dozen tongues started wagging.
I went to bed that night without supper, my body tucking itself in, my mouth offering no prayers to Jesus. I was safely under the blankets when my little friend let me have my flesh back, then I was swimming toward the dark waters of sleep. Just as I dozed off, as bright colors flashed and tried to form dreams, I heard Mother and Father in the living room.
They were speaking to each other without yelling. I couldn't hear the words, but I could tell by the tone of their voices that they were saying important, weighty things. Grown-up things.
Then I was asleep and I was in the land where no garage men laughed and no boots danced and no babymakers turned into monsters.
I awoke early the next day and dressed quietly. The walls were still standing, and no sound came from my parents' bedroom. The night had not been broken by blows or bedsprings.
I went outside, onto the porch that we shared with the Bakkens, and down the cracked wooden steps that slanted to the driveway. There, on the porch, was Angel Baby. Sally's one true love.
I picked it up by the yellow yarn of its hair and looked into its glass eyes. Its eyes that never cried. Its eyes that had seen everything. I didn't like the secrets in them.
I carried the doll into the kitchen and laid it on the chipped kitchen table, its arms and legs twisted under its cloth belly. I eased open the kitchen drawer and pulled out a rusty butcher knife.
I plunged the blunt knife into Angel Baby's belly and the tip of the blade thunked into the table. The fabric ripped and white chunks of foam rubber spilled out onto the floor. I sawed the knife back and forth, throwing a frenzied snow into the air. I chopped at the brittle plastic limbs, those selfish arms that demanded hugs and those chubby legs that bled air. I hammered the blade down on those pouting lips and I hacked off the cute button nose and I popped the glass eyes from their round sockets and I claimed a scalp of yellow yarn.
I carried the pieces outside and left them at the Bakkens's door.
To this day, I'm still not sure whether I was mad at Sally because she loved me or because she's the one who got a dollar's worth of candy.


*     *     *

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 As I Die Lying
(A Richard Coldiron Book)

by Scott Nicholson
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