My wife Clara shrieked (it sounded like omigod, but was probably indecipherable; spouses who know their other well can interpret jumbled speak intuitively) and swung the SUV onto the shoulder of the road. I jerked into the door with the sudden movement and started to ask her what the hell she thought she was doing when she yelled again.
". . . a boy! There's a boy. In the Trash!"
Before I could ask what she was talking about, she jumped from the car and ran around the front to a pile of garbage at the foot of a long, gravel driveway. A rotted metal storage cabinet and a wooden desk with fractured legs stood among numerous black trash bags heaped into a bumpy hill.
My wife, always the type to jump at opportunity, to in fact seize it by the throat and drag it home—as she did me many years ago—sprang onto the hill of black bags like a child on a mound of raked leaves. My fingers found the button for the window and it started to lower; an October breeze whistled in.
My incredulous question prepared to drop from my lips again when one of the trash bags my wife stepped on exploded in a rain of Styrofoam cubes—the pieces jumped at her like flies, clinging to her clothes and long, curly, brown hair—and as the bag depressed from my wife's foot, a thin, pale leg shown from the garbage with the vulgar reality of a crime scene.
There was a boy. In the trash.
I opened the door and jumped out.
Clara swatted at the floating Styrofoam pieces, bent toward the leg (a boy!), grabbed another black trash bag filled with angular objects that stretched the plastic as though a creature were trapped inside trying to break free, and rolled it off the pile. She gasped in a half scream and stepped back.
Had someone killed this kid and dumped him here? The horror of seeing a dead child in such a condition paralyzed me—it was different to see a child dead in a hospital bed with multicolored striped sheets huddled around his slight frame—but the utter indifference in dropping a child in the garbage filled me with revulsion. My wife covered her mouth.
This would be harder for her. Fathers, good fathers, were capable of inexhaustible love for their children, but only a mother possessed that love from conception. There had been endless hours of psychiatry, thousands of pages about grieving and moving on, tears that persisted no matter how red your eyes got or how many tissues you had already soiled. I had survived; I was unsure about my wife.
She looked at me, eyes wide.
Others may have questioned this look, wondering how what they saw could correlate with their expectations, but I knew my wife's looks: excitement burst from her face.
"Tell me it's a million dollars that just looks like a child," I said.
She slowly lowered her hand from her open mouth. "It's Peter!" she nearly hollered. She turned back to what lay at her feet.
Fear, horror, and nausea swirled together in my gut and tied my intestines in a knot. Clara had coped—the word was laughable when a parent lost a child—better than a few of the psychologists had expected she would, but they told me to watch out for delusions, hallucinations even.
I stepped onto the trash pile.
"Honey, Pete's been," I started to say but couldn't finish with, dead for three years now so he can't possibly be in a trash heap at the foot of someone's driveway and you certainly can't start having a mental breakdown now that the counseling is over.
She stood still, face open in thrilled surprise. I stepped next to her, my hand going to the small of her back as instinctively as an infant turning at the sound of his mother's voice, and told her that it was okay, whatever she was feeling, that we would work it out together, that we'd get by as we always had. We'd rely on our spousal sense, as one of the psychiatrists had called it: our innate ability to know what the other needed.
"Just look," she said.
I didn't want to. I didn't want to see what it was she had mistaken for our dead child who now lay beneath mounds of dirt in a box marked by a headstone with his first grade school picture carved into it.
Holding my breath, I looked at what my wife had spotted in a trash heap while driving down a back road to go to the movie theatre at the galleria.
I almost screamed.
Peter's dark blue eyes stared back at me, open and full of life as though he were about to ask if I wanted to throw him a few fastballs again, see if he couldn't knock one back to me. A few streaks of dirt marked his glowing skin and I wanted to ask him what he had been doing, playing in the garden again most likely.
I started to bend toward him, to pick my son up and ask who had dared him to lay in a trash heap when the unnatural stiffness of his arms, the right stuck out straight and the other pinned to his body, and his legs rigidly joined at the calves as though his skin had melted, stopped me. I pulled back.
If not for the blue T-shirt with a racecar on it and the red shorts—an ensemble Peter had heavily favored in the summer, so much so that Clara had to sneak into his room at night to wash them—I never would have bent even partly. This was not Peter; it was a mannequin someone had decided was taking up too much space in an attic or garage or basement.
Still, the face and the eyes made me reappraise. Could it be him? Is this how he had looked on the corner's table when rigor mortis fully seized his muscles? I knew this was not Peter, but—
Clara looked so happy, as though she had discovered how to evade Death, that infamous scythe-carrying fiend who took and took and never returned—that she had found a way to get back what Death had no right to take.
"Honey, that's not—"
Her mouth closed a bit and the excitement dropped from her eyes. "I know that," she said sternly. Then she turned back at the mannequin and smiled. "But look at him."
"It," I said.
She bent down and reached for the boy figure that so damn closely resembled our son. Something told me to stop her, to say, "No," and pull her back if necessary; something inside me didn't think she should touch the Peter-Copy.
When her fingers caressed the mannequin's face, trailing from the brow to the chin as she had done so many times when we had watched Peter sleep as an infant, my stomach tightened and goose bumps spread across my arms like a cold wind had swept over me.
She whispered something.
"What?" I asked.
She kept stroking the mannequin's face.
"Clara, we have to get—"
She slipped one hand beneath the Peter-Copy's neck and the other underneath its waist. She lifted it out of the trash, Styrofoam bits rolling off the blue shirt that was so similar to the one Peter had adored.
"We're not taking him—it," I said.
"He's ours," Clara said. "Look at his clothes."
Though I didn't want to admit it then, wouldn't admit it until later, it was possible the clothes were Peter's because, well, he had been buried wearing that outfit beneath a suit we had bought in the Sears children's department for him to wear to his cousin's wedding, and it was always possible someone had removed the clothes before interment. That doesn't sound plausible, I know, but I knew it was possible. Even then, before the Peter-Copy started talking.
I made her put the mannequin in the back of the SUV. She made me drive so she could stare at it from the passenger seat. I knew she wanted to sit in the back with it, to keep stroking its face, but she knew what I would say, how I would mention all the counseling. Even so, my eyes flitted to the rear view mirror numerous times on the drive back home, seeing a movie no longer holding any interest for Clara.
I'm not sure why I kept looking, just shocked I guess. Then again, I kept expecting the Peter-Copy to move, twitch, or maybe even to sit up suddenly and say, "Hey, Dad! Why do you look so pale?"
When we got home, I sat in the bathroom for twenty minutes, half hoping the nausea would pass and half hoping my stomach would purge the bagel and coffee I ingested that morning. Neither happened.
I stopped in the hallway outside the bathroom. Clara's laughter, higher pitched than usual and somewhat choppy, filled the house and did to me what fingernails on a chalkboard do to many.
I followed the laughter down the hall, past our bedroom and the spare, and stopped outside Peter's room. The door stood slightly open; through the space I saw Clara's back bent forward over our son's bed. The laughter peaked again and I opened the door slowly, fighting the urge to bang it off the wall and demand she stop laughing, demand she stop this nonsense, demand we return the Peter-Copy to the trash heap at the bottom of that driveway.
The mannequin lay on the bed, head propped up with two pillows, its rigid back forming a triangle to the bed, fully made in racecar sheets with matching comforter. On her knees, Clara was bent over the bed, laughing at the mannequin's face. Her laughter cut when I opened the door. Though I had made almost no noise, she knew I was there—that damn spousal sense thing.
She put a finger to her lips. "Shhhh."
"Honey?" I asked tentatively.
She did not turn.
I never should have let her take the mannequin from the trash. "This is not healthy," I said. "It's just a mannequin. If you need me to call Dr. Carter—"
Her head snapped viciously toward me. Her lips pulled back from her teeth, nose and eyebrows rising, eyes icing—and I stepped back. I had never seen this look before, except in low grade horror movies. Her rictus squeezed my stomach further and I thought the vomit might actually come, but a moment later her lips settled and her eyes calmed. Had I imagined that?
"I just mean," I stumbled to form a sentence, "that if you need help, someone to talk to, that if those feelings are coming back . . ." I trailed off unwilling to finish, then you need to go to the doctor immediately and get some Valium or Vicodin or Haldol or a straight jacket.
I love my wife, have loved her completely for many, many years—when we lost Peter, though, things changed. I don't think we stopped loving each other as much, but the love morphed somehow. I resent her for not watching Peter closely enough as I am sure she hates me for buying him the bicycle that served as his boarding pass on Death's cloak. It's hard to blame the one you love, but it's easier than blaming yourself.
We tried to recover, tried therapy, tried books, as I've mentioned, and when she wakes in the night screaming, I hold her close. But part of me wants to let her go, believes it would be easier—and safer—to let her be. While I hate that part of me, I can't argue when it reminds me of how she stood over me one night, cleaver gripped in both hands, and said that good parents would be there for their son, that they would make the sacrifice for their child.
In the middle of the night, I hadn't been very quick and she had swiped me well enough to require twenty stitches. I told the doctor I had been fixing my car and the jack slipped and, well, I was lucky to be alive, right? I don't think he had fully believed me, his eyes continually going to Clara, blood crusted cuticles marking her suspect.
"I have someone to talk to," Clara said from her knees.
I smiled. "Yes, but I'm not a—"
"Peter," she said.
She turned to the mannequin. Its blue eyes shined like crystals, like our son's had. I left her in the bedroom with the Peter-Copy and returned to the bathroom. I thought about those eyes, about how our real son's eyes were probably long gone, decomposed, replaced with squirming maggots.
I vomited for quite some time.
In the darkness of early morning, my wife's cries came to me. I reached for her next to me, to pull her close and whisper that everything would be okay, and then slip back into sleep, but she was not there. Her side of the bed sat cold.
I sat up. The tears vibrated through the wall. From Peter's room.
I opened the door to the hallway where the crying rolled off the walls, infecting the air like pollen that attacked your heart instead of your sinuses. Standing there for a while, swaying slightly as though on a boat, I debated what to do.
It does not make me proud that I tried to convince myself that I could not help my wife, that only a professional could assist and since that was the case, I should leave her to her tears and go back to bed. That might not be the loving husband reaction, but it was an honest one. And what stopped me from doing just that was the twitching muscle where the cleaver sliced and left a scar.
I opened the door.
The mannequin lay on the bed same as earlier; moonlight shone through the blinds, casting parallel lines on it. Clara sat cross legged facing the bed, head bowed, tears streaming off her cheeks onto her linked hands like rain drops.
I walked to her, knelt beside her, and placed my hand on her back. I expected her to turn sharply toward me as she had earlier, lips pulled back, eyes freezing.
She continued crying.
I started the old mantra: "Everything is going to be okay. Everything is going—"
"Peter's dead," she said softly.
My hand stopped. It had taken her three years of counseling just to say that. Perhaps her regression had only been temporary—the loving heart fights fiercely not to abandon hope.
"I know, honey," I said. "But he's okay."
"No," she said. She looked at the Peter-Copy. "He's not."
She turned to me, eyes red. "No," she repeated. "He needs us. He needs his parents."
The healed muscle tissue twitched hard; I tensed my jaw to cover the sudden stab of discomfort.
"He's fine," I said again, more firmly. I rubbed her back.
She stared at me for a while and I felt tears gathering in my eyes. The tragedy flooded back as it so often did in the dark hours, reminding me that it never lay very deep. The monstrous screech of tires, the smell of burned rubber, the thick black tire marks that led to a helmet sitting in a pool of blood. The coffin selection, the wake, the burial. The emptiness.
Clara dropped her head; more tears speckled her hands. "He wants us to join him," she said. "He told me."
I kept rubbing her back but could not speak.
Eventually, we slept on the floor of our son's room, my arms wrapped around her.
I left for work the next morning as always. Clara stayed in Peter's room with the mannequin. When I shut the front door to our house, I swore I heard her laugh.
I called Dr. Carter's office on my cell phone and made an appointment for that night. If I had to drag her out of that room and tie her into the car to get her there, I'd do it.
Then I called work and said I felt sick but that I'd try to be in for an afternoon catch up. I really did intend to go to work, too. But that changed when I spoke to Mrs. Delver and she showed me what she kept in her basement.
I drove past the park where Clara and I had taken Peter to ride his bicycle. So long as we watched him, he was fine. Even when he was in the road, he always knew to pull to the side when a car approached. Still, we watched.
His blood had stained the pavement so badly that it took three weeks for the giant blotches to fade.
I drove over the spot where Peter had been taken from this world, from my love. I drove over it and wondered if Peter really did want me and his mother to join him wherever he now existed. Even if Clara had started to slip back into her delusions, there was still something to be said for the mystical connection between mother and child—the umbilical cord can stretch around the world and perhaps even into other worlds.
I entered my house, closed the front door, turned, and froze. Peter stood at the top of the stairs, right arm out straight as though he were telling me to come no farther. He smiled and a warm heat pulsed inside me.
Clara appeared from the hallway and scooped Peter up in one elegant move. He giggled as she swung him around, her own laughter floating in the air above me like magical notes that I might be able to grab if only I could stretch my arm high enough.
Her brown curls blurred Peter's face as they spun and he laughed louder. I smiled. The laughter I heard came from my son and my wife. This was my family.
I started up the stairs, forcing myself to move slowly, not wanting to disturb the beautiful image of mother and son twirling in a world only they completely understood but one they willingly shared with me.
Then Peter's legs banged against the wall with a hard thownk.
Clara stumbled. Her twirls became lopsided as Peter's legs hit the wall again and then she lost her balanced and collapsed.
She hit the floor hard. Peter's body bounced.
She pulled him close immediately as though afraid someone might snatch him away from her. Peter did not cry.
I rushed up the steps and stopped, kneeling at Clara's side.
"Peter, Peter," she cried. "Oh, Peter, Peter."
I stretched out a hand toward her, to push her hair off her face, but could not touch her. I could not touch my sobbing wife.
"That's not Peter," I said.
She stopped crying immediately. Her head jerked to the side and she stared at me from behind a veil of brown hair. "He's our son," she said. "And if you can't see that then maybe you forgot."
I stared into her eyes for a while before my gaze turned to the Peter-Copy.
And my son, my Peter, stared back.
Suddenly, I wanted two things: assuredness and peace.
The path those goals led me down is not one I could turn back from, not when my dear son looked at me and said, "I'm lonely, daddy. I need you."
The garbage pile was gone; we had been lucky enough to find the Peter-Copy before the big, green truck could crush it and carry it to a landfill. I felt as though I had been dipped in an ice bath. Though the air only held a hint of coming winter, I turned the car's heat on full blast.
I followed the gravel driveway a quarter mile to a big, white house with large pillars outside. Though in need of a paint job, the house still impressed me—and worried me: a house this big could have untold amounts of garbage.
A woman with a cocoon of white hair opened the door after I knocked. She held a cane on which she leaned most of her weight. Her left side looked smaller, frailer, than her right—as though it were atrophying beneath her white shawl. She looked at me from behind thick bifocals. I expected her to say something but she didn't; she just waited.
"I'm John French," I said. "My wife and I took a mannequin from the trash heap you had out front yesterday and I want to talk to you about it."
She was already turning around and moving back inside in an awkward penguin shuffle. She did not close the door, but continued moving into her house, which was dark and damp.
"Come on if you're coming," she said in a deep voice laced with years of heavy smoking. "I got something you wanna see."
I followed her down a narrow hallway into a kitchen that had been decorated in the 1970's and never redone: dirt and mold speckled the dark brown tile and orange trim, and the only light streamed in from a side room where a dark shaded lamp stood next to a sunken recliner.
She opened a door to the basement and descended. She moved slowly but without pause. The light from the main floor dimmed out into total darkness by the last step. She continued walking however. I followed the sound of her shuffling slippers and the solid stab of her cane on the concrete floor.
She stopped and ruffled with something and then I heard the sound of a match scratching across cardboard and a flame flared up in front of her. The light cast her face in dark shadows that accentuated her sagging flesh. She lit a cigarette in her mouth and shook out the match, dropping it.
"I'm Mrs. Delver," she said. "Mr. Delver passed on some time ago." She sucked on the cigarette. "He bought this house with money he made making sculpture. People loved his work. He made all kinds of things, mostly outdoor, lawn decorating stuff."
I nodded though she couldn't see me do it.
"He had a stroke and when he recovered he kept sculpting, but not like before. He changed his focus and no longer sold anything. Didn't try to sell anything."
I felt like someone was watching us from the corners, listening to the old woman's story, calculating when to pounce. "Why not?" I asked.
"He wrote up a list. He numbered each work and put a date next to it. Said to have the specific work put outside by the road on the specific day—said its owner would find it. You're not the first one to come looking for answers, Mr. French."
"Wait," I said. "Are you saying . . ."
"There's a light bulb above you. Find the cord and pull it."
I found the string cord and turned the light on.
Adults and children of different sizes, builds, colors, and wearing all kinds of clothes, stared at me from their positions lining the walls. Aside from the solid rigidity of their limbs (some arms outstretched, some legs spread), they could have been real people pretending to be statues. Their unblinking eyes made me continually look them over, spinning around to see the ones on the other side of the basement, afraid one of them—or all of them—would suddenly rush me.
"Weird hobby, I know," she said. "But when he came out of that stroke, there was no stopping him. He kept creating until he died. Worked all day and night. He told me they talked to him, the mannequins."
"Talked?" My throat was closing.
"Said that each one wanted to find their owner, said they were lonely. That's why I have the list, made me swear I'd keep putting them out until I finally pass. I don't have answers, not exactly. But if there's enough arrows pointing in the same direction, I tend to accept it, you know?"
"And the clothes?"
"Don't know," she said. "He sometimes disappeared for a day or two, returning with bags of shirts and pants. Said the mannequins told him where to look."
Blue shirt. Red shorts.
"How did your husband die?" I asked.
She choked out a laugh. "The man in the black cloak got him, as he gets us all."
She sucked hard on her cigarette and I fled the house.
I sped home, pushing the car as fast as I dared around the curves of the mountainous landscape where we lived. I looked in my rearview again and again, expecting to see an army of mannequins chasing me, or maybe just a sea of shining eyes.
"Clara!" I ran up the stairs, down the hall, and banged Peter's bedroom door open.
May wife lie on the bed, the Peter-Copy set on top of her. Her right hand rested on the mannequin's shirt; the other had fallen off and hung over the bed's edge. A large puddle of blood soaked the carpet beneath that dangling hand and the blue racecar shirt had gone black in a huge splotch that overflowed onto the comforter.
Clara's face had lost all color. The mannequin looked more alive than she.
I took several steps toward her and stopped when I saw the gaping wound in her left wrist; she had damn near torn her hand off.
The cleaver—the same cleaver—had fallen into the Peter-Copy's lap.
I stood still and waited to faint or wake up.
When neither happened, I walked to my wife's side, stepping over the puddle. I touched her face, some warmth still lingering. My fingers trailed down her cheek.
I looked at the mannequin, at those eyes. I couldn't turn away.
Had Mr. Delver found a way to beat Death, maybe not cheat him completely, but a route around him, through his blind spot? Returning from his stroke, had Mr. Delver found his head full of voices begging to be reunited with their loved ones? Had Peter been one of those voices?
I fell into my son's gorgeous blue eyes and I swear I heard him say, "I miss you, daddy."
Tears falling from my eyes steadily and with ease as though I could cry forever, I said, "I miss you too, son."
The pain pulsated throughout me. I reached for the knife and wondered if Death stood near, scythe poised to take another life.
I love you, Peter.
I'll see you soon.
J.T. Warren is the author of the upcoming novel Hudson House. Sample chapters of Hudson House can be read by viewing his profile. It will be available via ebook and hardcover on Amazon. Click on the homepage link on his profile to follow him on Facebook.