David Leo Rice
Casey showered and put on her black Sunday dress and her black buckle shoes and strolled out of the big house she lived in alone. She didn't bother to lock the door because all the children had houses and plenty of food and no need for money or stolen things from other children.
She walked up her street eating a bag of fruit snacks, falling in with the others when the next street over dead-ended on the Children's Church lawn, in the shadow of the Sick Sequoia. She kept her head down as she filed in through the narrow door, taking her seat on a pew that had long cracks down the center, as most of them did, having last been repaired . . . she had no idea when. It was impossible to imagine who had built the Church, same as it was with her house and all the houses on her street. They were just there, like the rocks on the ground, like the clouds in the sky. Like me and everyone else, she thought. All of us just happen to be here.
When everyone was seated, Sullivan, the children's de facto leader because he'd had a growth spurt and smelled like sweat and no one would challenge him, walked up to the altar and pressed PLAY on the tape recorder that slept all week under a dirty white cloth. Then he sat down on a chair beside it with his hands in his lap and his eyes squeezed shut, modeling the listening pose that all the children were expected to assume.
The children live in the Neighborhoods; the grown-ups live in the Meadows, the tape began. The children, having assumed the listening pose, recited along with it. Casey moved her mouth in case anyone was watching, but didn't speak. The children are sacred and the grown-ups are evil, it continued, as did they. The children live in peace and harmony in the Neighborhoods, while the grown-ups live in sin and degradation in the Meadows. They grope blindly through an endless fog, belching, farting, and waggling their dirty pee-pees behind rotting bushes, or sticking their long filthy fingers up their gaping hoo-haws and laughing like donkeys, knee-deep in swamp water and slimy rotting leaves.
The children grew antsy in their seats as the tape reached its final and most crucial point. The children cannot hurt one another, for they are all equally sacred. They cannot die because they were not born. They simply are, God's Creations one and all, safe here in the Neighborhoods, on the holy side of the line that separates them from the Meadows, the line that must never be crossed.
Here the tape sputtered to an end and began to rewind.
With a great whooping, the children rose to their feet and streamed out of the Children's Church toward the Park, following Sullivan, their pace a little slower than his. Casey lagged behind, still strolling while the others skipped. She watched them hurry toward the rusty Tin Locomotive in the center of the Park with a sort of glee she could sometimes mimic but never feel. As she often did after Church, she found herself lost in thoughts of the Meadows, unable to shake the image of those rotting grown-ups wandering in the fog.
Sullivan and a few other boys were now clambering up the side of the Tin Locomotive. Sometimes, when a heavy wind had blown all night or a few days had passed without much foot traffic, large piles of locusts would appear under the trees, and the braver children would climb the Tin Locomotive's steam spout—the highest point in the Park—and hurl themselves into the pile, squishing the locusts like chocolate-covered caramels.
It sometimes delighted Casey to watch, when she was in one of her lighter moods, but she never joined in and many days, like today, watching the others sickened her with a sense of all-pervasive and inescapable idiocy. So she sat on a bench, one foot on the other knee, and stared at the houses of the Neighborhoods, most of them identical, one of them hers, and couldn't shake the thought that there must be more to life than this.
She shivered and, because two boys were coming her way and she knew they were about to tease her for sitting alone, and maybe also call her a creepy old witch and ask where her cat was, she got up and hurried away.
As she slowed to a walking pace a few blocks from the Park, she kept imagining herself getting lost and winding up in the Meadows. She pictured the sweaty and shivering grown-ups she'd meet there, coughing, oozing secrets, and she got so turned around she ended up in ULTRA MAX, which was abandoned at this time of the afternoon. To avoid feeling like she'd come here for no reason, she took a jar of peanuts and a box of sweet cereal off the Dry Goods Shelf and brought them to the Self-Service Kiosk. When the icon that read ARE YOU SURE YOU NEED THESE? appeared onscreen, she clicked YES, though it wasn't quite true. She blushed and swallowed and felt the lie land like a wad of gum in her stomach as she walked across the parking lot, unsure what she'd do if a child-cop came running after her.
When she got home, she sat at her kitchen table and ate cereal from the box and tried to keep her eyes open, because every time she closed them she saw herself pushing Sullivan off the Tin Locomotive and smashing his face on the concrete, pulping his skull like a pumpkin. Then we'll all find out, she thought, one hand gathering cereal, whether it really is possible for children to die.
She got in the shower. Under the water, she couldn't help imagining herself waist deep in the Meadows, kicking her feet in the blue-gray marsh grass. The water turned cold and oily and she turned it off, wiping away the soap and shampoo with a towel, her skin red and covered in goosebumps.
Then she got in bed and closed her eyes and pictured the Park as it was now, the children departing, walking hand-in-hand back to the Neighborhoods, sticking together until they had to separate for the night. They'd part ways saying, "Sweet dreams, everyone," as they did every night, as soon as Sullivan gave the signal to disperse. She wondered what they could possibly dream of if not the Meadows. They probably just dream of the Neighborhoods, she thought, their nights no different from their days. Idiots.
Pulling the sheets over her head, she tried to force her way asleep, but could already tell it wouldn't work. There were times when you could force it and times when you couldn't. So she got back on her feet and dressed and grabbed a handful of peanuts and walked back up her street in the pitch black, making her way to the Park by instinct. She sat on the same bench she'd been sitting on earlier in the day, and listened to the locusts swarm overhead, imagining what the grown-ups were doing now, cast out and cold in the endless Meadows.
In the morning, as the first children made their way back to the Park, Casey was still there. The long, cold hours had left her slightly crazed, her skin wet with dew. She'd been listening to the locusts swarm, intent on seeing them die, but she must've drifted off because now here they were, dead as usual, and she couldn't say how or when it'd happened.
"Bonzai!" shouted Sullivan, leaping from the top of the Tin Locomotive into the fresh pile of locust bodies. Then he got up, wiped himself off, and started a play-fight with a boy named Jack, the biggest kid after him.
"Go, go, hit him!" children shouted from both sides. It didn't seem to matter who got hit as long as someone did.
Casey watched them feint at each other, their fists swinging through air and stopping an inch from bone and skin, like a force field had repelled them. One child may not kill another . . . She mulled the line over while Jack and Sullivan went on play-fighting and the crowd cheered for real blood.
They sound hungry, she thought. Starving. She was on her feet now, amped up, heart pounding, eyes trembling, and now she was climbing the Tin Locomotive, which she'd never done before, and now she was on top, shouting, "Sullivan! Hey Sullivan!"
He turned from his play-fight after the third time she shouted his name, as did the crowd. Even Jack, panting and spitting, looked up at her. She wavered there, unsure of her purpose, though deep down she knew.
"Sullivan!" she heard herself shout again. "Why don't you get up here and fight me like a man?"
He stared, looking from her to Jack and back again, as if seeking an approval he hoped wouldn't come. But Jack didn't respond, so eventually Sullivan backed away, head hung low.
As he neared the Tin Locomotive and began to climb, he puffed back up, his old swagger returning to his legs and arms and, once he made it to the top, to his face as well. He flexed and posed for those below. They cheered. Then he turned to Casey and said, "So. You wanna fight me? The old witch wants some of this?" He grabbed his crotch and cackled.
As he reared back on his hind leg, Casey watched herself ram into him with everything she had. His feet left the Tin Locomotive's surface and he went flying through the air, eyes bugged open and fixed on her until his head smacked against the concrete and its top came off.
Casey leapt down, landing with her knees on his chest. She peeled off the flap of scalp and started stuffing his skull full of locusts. She jammed in as many as she could, filling what seemed like his whole brainless body, using up all the locusts within reach. Then she rose to her full size and, wiping her hands on her pants, said, "So I guess children can kill children after all," and hurried away.
She broke into a run as soon as she'd crossed from the Park back into the Neighborhoods, and didn't slow down until she was inside her house, gathering fruit snacks and granola bars and filling two plastic bottles with water, putting it all in her backpack along with a change of clothes.
She washed her face with hot water and her favorite washcloth and soap one last time, and used the toilet. Then she ran out the door, blood pooling in her throat and her lungs burning.
This time she turned left, toward the Strip, away from the Park and the Tin Locomotive and the other children, who were still pursuing her in a stunned, locust-thick mass, crying "Kill her! Kill her! Kill the witch!"
She ran past ULTRA MAX and further up the Strip, in the direction of the highway onramp, where, it was said, in earlier eras, travelers had come and gone. She ran under the underpass and across the cracked lot of the abandoned motel with its MO--L sign, VA---CY written underneath, and through the bushes, across a wasteland of culverts and tall grass and the skeletons of ancient dogs, then through a moat of puddles and finally through the mist and into the Meadows, to which she had surely earned admittance by killing Sullivan.
The shrieking of the children behind her ceased as soon as she crossed over, and now she could hear nothing but a shhhhhhh sound, like the whispering of spirits.
She pressed her hands into her thighs and leaned forward to breathe, trying to slow the pounding in her neck. The air was clammy and it smelled like flowers left too long in a vase. She gagged as a shadow passed through her line of sight and she looked up, into the withered face of a man in loose jeans and a Champion sweatshirt. He pinched a long droopy cigarette between yellow fingers, and Casey was sure his teeth, if he had any, were yellow too. He smoked slowly, coughing between drags, watching her.
When his cigarette was done, he ground it under his heel and said, "Mornin'," and retreated into the fog. So that's who lives here, she thought, scanning the fog for others like him. But there was nothing to see aside from a slight movement in the distance, perhaps that of the same man disappearing.
Cold and discomfited and thus eager to keep moving, she wandered through heavy cloud cover, past corner stores and bars and movie theaters that all looked like half-developed photographs, faded to bluish gray in the background, far-off-seeming even though they were probably close enough to touch.
A few more grown-ups lurked as she passed, smoking or clutching coffee cups, some of them leafing through newspapers whose pages fell to the ground and sopped through as soon as they turned them.
Nothing else happened until she got hungry. She'd quickly finished her fruit snacks and granola bars and realized she'd have to find something more. She had the feeling that ULTRA MAX, even if she could find it, would no longer be free, and she had no access to money. She had to pee as well, so, after vainly searching for something to crouch behind, she dipped into the fog and took her pants down and squatted, feeling steam rise between her legs, a momentary reprieve from the cold.
As she stood back up and adjusted her pants, she began to hurry, hunger merging with cold now, and fear, not of anything specific, perhaps, but fear nonetheless, a rushing in her guts, a sense that standing still was no longer a good idea, if it ever had been.
In time, she made her way back to what appeared to be the cluster of buildings she'd passed earlier, and went in through the ringing door of a diner, where she found an empty table. The fog penetrated in here as well, the grayness, the somber cold, and she remembered that she had no money, no plan for when the bill came, which she was now sure it would, but she ordered nonetheless, a burger and fries and a chocolate shake.
The bun was soggy and the meat crumbly and partly frozen, as were the fries, and the milk in the shake tasted off, but Casey gulped it down. As she did, she tried to keep her eyes on her fingers clutching the bun. But she couldn't help looking up, across the diner, through the fog and into the eyes of . . . Sullivan?
She looked down, at the mess of runny ketchup on her plate, but she felt his eyes on her, burning. She had to look up again. Back into Sullivan's eyes, sitting at a table with a crumpled newspaper covered in napkins. It wasn't exactly him, she thought—he looked old, and worn out, and unwell—but it was him, too. Somehow. It was too much like him not to be.
She tried again to focus on her fingers clutching the slowly shrinking bun, but when she next looked up, Sullivan was looking down at her. He cleared his throat and nodded at the seat across the table, either asking if he could sit there or telling her he was about to, as he now was. He put his elbows on the table, a few inches from her plate, and looked without shyness into her eyes.
"I know you," he said.
Yeah, I killed you when we were kids, Casey thought, but said nothing. The story felt old, like something she'd thought or heard about too many times to still ring true. An old Church legend that only idiots believed.
He reached into her plate and took a fry, watching her watch him eat it.
She pushed the plate in his direction, done with it, and wondered what to say. Shrugging, she finally said, "I don't have any cash. Can you spot me?" Her voice sounded strange, twisted somehow, raspy. She swallowed, determined not to speak again unless she absolutely had to.
Sullivan mashed a handful of fries into his mouth with one hand and leaned forward to peel a limp twenty from his pocket with the other. "Good seeing you, I guess," he said.
As he stood up, he scratched the line where his hair gave way to his bald spot, and Casey could've sworn she saw a locust crawl out of a slit in his scalp. She blinked. By the time she looked back, Sullivan was pulling his knit winter cap over his ears.
She got up as soon as he was gone, placing the twenty under her water glass without waiting for change and pulling her shirt tight around her sides as she prepared to face the fog. The bell on the door dinged as she pushed through it.
As she looked back at the diner, she shivered with déjà vu, a sense of familiarity attaching itself to the place in a way she wanted to dismiss but couldn't. The feeling that she'd spent years and years here, eating at this diner because it was the only one in town, was both too vivid to ignore and too vague to comprehend. She tried to walk away and soon found herself running.
After she'd run herself into exhaustion, another period of slow wandering commenced, with only the dim, flickering bulbs of streetlights to orient her. The ground underfoot was soupy and uneven, and there was no difference between street and sidewalk. Occasionally the neon of a Shell sign came visible, always distant, always dim. No matter how hard Casey tried to walk in a straight line, she couldn't shake the sense that she was walking in circles. The Neighborhoods—if they were now her destination, if she was already homesick enough to return in defeat—seemed equally likely to lie in any direction. The Meadows felt all-pervasive, effortlessly occupying the entirety of what was now the world.
She knew she'd get hungry again before long, and would thus need to find her way back to the diner, and she'd have to find someone else to lend her money, if she didn't see Sullivan again, which she hoped she wouldn't.
Then the Tin Locomotive emerged from the fog, inches from where she stood. Though she didn't quite believe it was real, its cold metal stopped her outstretched hands. She leaned against it until she had to look up, into the fog, deafened by the sound of locusts pouring from the sky.
She staggered away, shielding her face, until a bench cracked the backs of her knees and she had to sit down. She looked over and saw an old woman beside her, balling up a loaf of bread and throwing the balls on the ground. "I know they're not pigeons," the old woman said, with a chuckle, "but I like to feed them anyway."
Casey stared at the whitish pellets accreting among the brownish locust bodies, and remembered Sullivan as a boy with his head cracked open and stuffed with wings, and again as a man with a single locust peeking through his bald spot, and she wondered what world, real or imagined, these images belonged to. Whichever it is, she thought, it's the one I belong to now as well.
She looked over at the old woman, feeling herself to be equally old now, and said, "Mind if I throw some with you?"
The woman smiled and tore off a hock of bread and handed it to Casey. "Not at all. Not much else to do before Church, is there?"
Balling the bread between her fingers, Casey shook her head. "No. No, I suppose there isn't."
They both sat like that until the dimness got dark and their bread was gone. Then they wandered toward Church together, two old women who'd spent their lives in the town where they were born, dreaming sometimes of other futures and other pasts, but not too often. Only on cold nights when, alone in their big houses with their TVs on in the dark, they found they couldn't sleep.
Nights like tonight will be, Casey thought, as she and the woman joined the crowd of grown-ups on the Church lawn, waiting in the shadow of the Sick Sequoia for Sullivan to open the door.
When it was time, they processed in together and took their places among the cracked pews and waited while Sullivan pulled the dirty white cloth from the tape recorder and pressed PLAY, taking his seat beside it.
The grown-ups live in the Neighborhoods, the children live in the Meadows, the tape began, with all the grown-ups reciting along. The grown-ups are thoughtful, mature, responsible; the children are stupid, greedy, violent. We have managed to overcome the shameful instincts of childhood in order to arrive on the enlightened plane of the Neighborhoods, where we live as adults in peace and harmony, but we must remain ever on our guard against the incursion of evil, sex-crazed children from the Meadows, where God has banished them to wander in the cold and the damp and the dark, as reminders of what we all once were, and might one day again become, if we ever . . .
Casey recited along, afraid of being seen with her mouth closed, but her mind was elsewhere, reeling with the hauntedness of the Church, and of the streets, and of the Park, and of the cold kitchen where she'd cook tonight's dinner if she found any food in the cupboard, and the empty crowdedness of all these familiar locations, the only ones she'd ever known, with their unease of spirits superimposed, the way they all made her feel weightless, like she was in both places at once and thus, sickeningly, in neither.