Duckie Smithers sat on the back steps on a hazy August morning. A stray cat pressed against Duckie's legs. Duckie rubbed his gray back. The cat stretched out his front legs and whumped over onto the grass.

"That animal's not staying here." Inga Smithers high-heeled her way down the steps to her car. She started the engine and lowered the window.

"Your father's taking it to the pound tomorrow." She backed out of the driveway.

Duckie opened the kitchen door and let the cat follow him inside. He opened a can of tuna and put it on the floor. The cat purred while he ate.

"I'm going to call you George," Duckie said.

The cat looked up.

"That's a good name." Duckie's father Bob, in L.L. Bean overalls, leaned against the door jamb, opening and closing his shiny new pruning shears.

"It's not a good cat name, though," Duckie said.

"It's good enough for him."

Bob Smithers had been unemployed since April, the very first of MicroComTekNet's five thousand workers to be laid off. The MicroComTekNetters knew something was up, after weeks of high muckety closed door meetings coupled with plunging stock values. On that last day Bob lilted from his manager's office and tangoed his few personal items into a cardboard box. On his way home, he stopped at a nursery and bought twelve grape vines. As he drove home, Bob saw himself corking cases of Smithers Pinot Noir in his cool cellar, exploding like a rock star into the burgeoning local wine market. He had the glossy books. He had the oaken casks. He had already erected the redwood trellis from a kit. He saw himself presiding over weekend wine-tastings in the fieldstone Provence-style building he'd build out back. He'd clap thirsty patrons on the back, shake their hands, sell cases and cases of red-black bottles.

George finished his tuna and lay fatly on the floor licking a paw. Duckie rinsed the empty can and tossed it into the recycle bin.

Bob tousled Duckie's hair and went outside.

Duckie climbed the stairs to his room. He grabbed a handful of books and brought them to the third floor. He'd been moving his belongings gradually to the half-finished attic room. Almost all of his books were up there, and his CD player, and some of his clothes. He had found an old cot and wheeled it over. He hadn't slept up there yet, but he thought he might soon. Although the room was wiggly hot at midday, he liked the loftiness. The room's one window faced the Darling's house next door, and sometimes at night he could see Zowie Darling in her room, working on some colorful craft project, hunched over, absorbed.

Duckie longed to be absorbed.

In the spring he had made a set of plasticine people: rotund folk, round-headed, with toothpicked holes for eyes. He had given them red skin and tiny blue coils of hair. He kept them in his room, on his dresser. He made a new round person every night before bedtime. Soon there were dozens: standing, sitting, facing one another, casually chatting. Sometimes he'd wake up in the middle of the night and look over at them, and there they'd be, ever happy.

One day he came home from school and they were gone. He found them mashed together into a red and blue swirl in the garage trash can. He ran to his mother. Inga had pronounced them filthy, dust-coated. They left marks on the finish, she sighed. Duckie ran to Bob, but Bob had shrugged, mock-punched him, and gone outside to prune his grape vines.

George followed Duckie to the attic and leaped onto the cot. He watched Duckie arrange his books alphabetically in a dusty bookcase. He kneaded one of Duckie's tee-shirts, then lay on it.

Duckie paused his alphabetizing and looked over at George. "You're not going to the pound," he said.

George rotated an ear east to west, like a satellite dish.

Duckie stood up. "We'll run away."

"Run," George said.

Duckie looked at George.

George closed his eyes.

Duckie knelt on the floor. He shimmied up close to George's face.

"You can talk," he whispered.

George opened one eye.

"I must be mental," Duckie said.

He brought most of his books upstairs. He put them in order, with their bindings lined up exactly straight.

"Donald, that cat is not staying one more day in this house," Inga said at dinner.

"But Mom, George and I have bonded."

"Eat your green beans," she said. "Bob, can we have a teensy united front here?"

"Let the kid have a pet, for Chrissakes," Bob said.

Duckie chewed a green bean and watched his mother.

"Great," she sighed. "What kind of world is this that I have to hear about bonding from a ten-year-old boy?"

"He said he'll take care of George."

"Shall I translate that for you, Bob? Donald will feed him for a week, maybe two, if I nag him like a harridan every day. Then who gets stuck feeding him? Emptying the litter box? Lancing his abcesses?"

"I had a cat when I was Duckie's age."

"And this means what, exactly?"

"I don't ever remember Yammie having an abcess."

"Yammie?" Duckie said. A green bean fell out of his mouth onto his plate.

"Yammie could catch fish," Bob said. "She'd stand at the edge of the river and swipe. It was something."

"Don't talk with your mouth full," Inga said to Duckie, then turned to Bob. "You grew up on a farm. Next you'll be saying a goat would make a nice pet."

"A cat is not a goat."

"Did Yammie eat the fish?" Duckie said.

"Donald, go do your homework," Inga said.

"She sure did. Bones and all." Bob made faux crunching noises.

Duckie smiled, hoping for more.

"Donald!" Inga slapped plates into a stack.

"Mom, it's summer. I don't have homework."

"Don't argue with me, mister."

Duckie went up to his room. George was asleep at the foot of the bed. Duckie packed some clothes into a small suitcase for tomorrow's trip to the attic. He put on his pajamas, got into bed and opened a book about snakes. The book said snakes have a single lung, and are oviparous. Duckie didn't know what oviparous meant, and his dictionary was up in his new attic room. He worried about what oviparous could mean. He thought it could mean slithery. Maybe it meant poisonous. He remembered touching a snake at a school fair. Perhaps that snake had been oviparous! Just then he realized that the snake book might explain. He looked in the back and found a glossary of terms. Oviparous meant "egg-laying." He was relieved. He wondered what snake eggs would taste like. He thought they might be salty. Now he felt thirsty.

He picked up George and crept downstairs. It was past eleven o'clock, and Bob and Inga were talking in the living room while a litany of local crimes pranced across the television news.

"Our water bill was one hundred and fifty dollars this month," Inga said.

"So?" Bob said.

"You won't harvest one hundred and fifty dollars' worth of grapes, and that was just one month's bill."

"My grapes are not using all one hundred and fifty dollars' worth of water. We bathe. We water the lawn. Duckie runs under the sprinklers when it's hot."

In the dark kitchen, Duckie poured milk into a bowl for George and watched him drink. He crouched down and saw how George curled his tongue like a spoon to scoop the milk. Duckie poured some milk into a bowl and tried to lap it up, curling his tongue like George's. Milk dribbled down the front of his pajamas.

"I want you to take that animal to the pound tomorrow," Inga said.

"I have a busy day tomorrow."

"Pruning your fruits. Spritzing them with vitamin-enriched fairy dust."

"Why don't you take him to the pound? Why do I have to be the bad guy?"

"Excuse me? I'm the only one bringing home a paycheck at the moment, remember?"

"I believe you've disregarded my handsome MicroComTekNet severance package."

"Which runs out in four weeks. Perhaps that's slipped your unemployed mind."

"If the pinot noirs perform like I think they will, you'll be able to quit your job."

"And do what, exactly? Put on a kerchief and stomp grapes? In your I-Love-Lucy wet dreams, buster."

"Anyway, I don't want George to go to the pound. Duckie wants to keep him."

"You don't care if he claws the upholstery to shredded wheat?"

"George has been declawed."

"He'll pee everywhere."

"He hasn't so far."

"Cats are devious. As soon as we decide to keep him, he'll pee all over the place to mark his territory. He'll spray all over your grape vines and kill them."

"That's a point," Bob said.

George dabbed a paw at the back door. Duckie shushed him, then opened the door.

"Run!" Duckie whispered.

George crouched low and slithered into the bushes. Duckie looked out over the rooftops of Mercy Street to the vast wooded land beyond, blackly impenetrable even in the daytime.

Duckie had never been able to venture beyond the outermost perimeter of those woods. Images of decomposing human bodies and red-clawed carnivores had overcome him whenever he smelled the scent of rotted leaf mold and pine needle among the thatch of twisted trunks. Duckie hoped George would not venture into the woods. Duckie wondered where George had come from, but decided not to think about it, for fear an answer might come.

Duckie took his bowl of milk and went upstairs. He looked out the window, to be sure George was still under cover. He set his alarm clock for six a.m. If George came back to sleep on the back steps, he'd sneak down and hide with him.

Next morning, George wasn't asleep on the back steps. Inga left for work and Duckie ate his Alpha-Bits silently, watching Bob affix color-coded Post-It Notes on the pages of a gardening book.

"What are the pink ones for?" Duckie said.

"The pink ones pertain to growing conditions."

"What are growing conditions?"

"Soil pH, composition, climate zone, etcetera." Bob shuffled through pages.

"What are the blue ones for?"

"There aren't any blue ones."

Duckie pointed.

"Those are teal."

"What's teal?"

"Teal is what those are," Bob said. "Do you have plans for the day?"

"Did you know that snakes are oviparous?"

"What's that mean?"


"I see. Your plans for the day?"

"I'm going to just hang out," Duckie said. He was half-listening for cat sounds coming from outside. George was not a meower, but Duckie thought he might hear him scratching to come inside.

"Son, you've been 'just hanging out' all summer. Why don't you go play with some of the kids?"

"Like who?"

"How should I know?"

"I need examples."

"What about what's-her-name next door?"


"Yes. What about her?"



"She's a girl."

"Oh." Bob stuck a teal Post-It Note on a page. "I forgot."

Duckie slurped the last of his Alpha-Bit milk.

George showed up at lunchtime. Duckie had been carrying critical belongings to the attic. He'd taken up the rest of his books, his baseball bat, his dead frog in a glass jar, and some socks. He looked out the window of his old room and saw George lying down in the shady grass near the arbor.

Duckie opened the window and leaned out. "George!"

George looked up. So did Bob, who had been rubbing his grape leaves with extra-virgin olive oil all morning.

"Did you call me?" Bob said.

"No," Duckie said.

"Who were you calling?"

"Zowie," Duckie said.

"I thought Zowie was a girl."

"I forgot."

Bob resumed rubbing leaves. George stretch-walked to the back steps. Duckie clattered downstairs to let him in. They were all out of tuna, so he got out some bologna, tore it into small chunks and fed him one piece at a time. George sat on his hind legs and held Duckie's fingers with his front paws while he ate the bologna. While Duckie got out another slice George remained sitting up, like a squirrel. Duckie thought that George was pretty talented.

When they were done with lunch, they went upstairs to the attic. They lay together on the cot. A flotilla of dust motes waltzed in a wedge of sunlight. Duckie liked how it smelled dirty up there. George, curled up at Duckie's side, snored faintly. Duckie closed his eyes and began to drift off. George kneaded Duckie's blue-jeaned hip.

"Good," George said.

"Mmmm," Duckie said sleepily.

A week passed. School loomed, a red ring at the tail end of August. Duckie tried to look the other way whenever he passed the calendar on the back of the kitchen door.

"Are you going to take that animal to the pound today?" Inga was saying to Bob.

It was Saturday. They sat at the kitchen table, eating ham sandwiches, potato chips and the first of Bob's grapes. Duckie had now moved everything he needed to the attic room. He'd slept there for the last three nights. He pretended to be sleeping in his regular room on the second floor. He'd mess up the bed every night, then make it the next morning. He saw no reason to mention that he had moved.

"I'm not taking George to the pound today," Bob said. "I'll take him on Monday."

Duckie looked at George, who lay panting on the floor swishing his tail. Yesterday Duckie bought a bag of real cat food at the store while Bob shopped for groceries. Duckie paid for it himself with his allowance money. He had enough left over to buy a jingly cat ball. George had been batting it around the table legs all morning.

"You said that last week."

Bob bit into his sandwich.

"Donald, if we find cat poop anywhere in the house, your father will shoot him," Inga chewed.

"Dad!" Duckie said.

"I'm not going to shoot George," Bob said.

"Tell your father I will, then," Inga said.

"Mom says she will!"

"Tell your mother we don't own a gun." Bob crunched a potato chip.

"Dad says

"That's what you think." Inga held a big bottle over Duckie's cup. "More Coke?"

Duckie shook his head.

"We have a gun?" Bob had a mouth full of potato chips.

"Tell your father I am a working woman."

Bob and Duckie looked at Inga. She took a sip of Coke.

"What the hell does that mean?" Bob swallowed.

"I walk to my car in the deserted parking lot late at night. Are you there to protect me? No. Is there a security guard? Yes. Does he accompany me only sometimes? Yes. Does he have a face that makes my flesh crawl? So I bought a little pistol."

"I want to see it." Bob said.

"Me too," Duckie said.

Inga turned to Duckie. "The fact of my owning a gun does not leave this house, young man."

Duckie nodded.

"Tell your father it's being cleaned." She collected plates without looking at anyone.

"We see." Bob winked at Duckie.

Inga handed Bob a dish towel. Bob got up to wipe.

Duckie tossed the jingly ball. It skipped into the living room. George sat up and watched the ball slow to a stop. He looked back at Duckie. Duckie looked at Inga's big purse, open on the chair next to him. On the top lay a gold tube of lipstick. Duckie put the lipstick in his pocket. He picked up the jingly ball in the living room and shook it, then put it in his other pocket. George ran up and looked at the ball bulging in Duckie's pocket.

Duckie skipped upstairs to the attic, the ball jingling in his pocket as he went. George followed. Duckie pried up a plywood square in a corner of the attic floor and pulled out a faded army knapsack. He had found it in a box one day while he was looking for attic stuff to put in his new room. "Smithers" was printed on the strap in faded black. He unwound the leather thong that held it closed and reached inside. He heard a sound downstairs and stopped. He listened until it was quiet again.

He pulled out a pink hairbrush with Inga's blonde hair wound through the bristles. He touched the bristles. He pinged them a little. He pulled out a silk necktie with red stripes, still knotted. He rubbed the cool silk against his chin, and sniffed the faint scent of his father's cologne. He pulled out a screwdriver and a silver framed photograph. He put them all on the floor, lined up in a row. He picked up each item and held it, turned it over, felt the material each one was made of. He took the tube of lipstick out of his pocket and put it at the end of the row. He lay on his stomach and looked at it up close. Tiny copies of his face reflected back from the faceted surface. He looked at the photograph. His mother's hair was long then, braided, twined with flowers. His father held her around the waist. They smiled. The picture was old now, faded, with almost no red left in it.

George butted up against him and his pocket jingled. Duckie threw the ball into his attic room. George arced into the air and ran after it. Duckie put everything back into the knapsack and wound the thong around the clasp. He stuffed it back into its crevice and put the board in place. He tiptoed to his new room and sat on the cot. George sat by the door with the jingly ball between his front feet. Downstairs, Duckie could hear his mother faintly talking about her lipstick. Had Bob seen it anywhere. Where could she possibly have put it.

Duckie looked out the window. The neighbors were outside. Gordon was barbecuing. Judy carried bowls to a picnic table. Duckie watched them talking. Judy kissed Gordon while he cooked, and held onto one of his belt loops. Then Zowie came outside carrying a watermelon. Duckie crouched down so his eyes were level with the windowsill. His heart beat fast. Zowie fiddled with a bag of paper plates. He watched them put ketchup on their burgers. He watched them eat ears of corn. He watched Zowie spit watermelon seeds at Gordon. There was an empty place at the picnic table, next to Zowie. He wondered what it would be like to have a sister, or parents who held each other's belt loops. A sister might be a big pain.

He went back to the cot. George was sleeping there, curled like a nautilus shell. Duckie scooped his hand in to the center of the coil to touch George's furry belly. George lifted his head.

"Run," he said.

Duckie stood. George put his head back down and closed his eyes.

"None of this is very real," Duckie said.

In the night, a commotion woke Duckie. Bob was speaking loudly. At first Duckie thought they were arguing again. Then after a while, he realized he hadn't heard his mother speaking loudly. That was unusual. Duckie went down to the second floor. Bob stood in his pajamas in the hallway, his hair sticking up, shouting into the phone.

"She's gasping," he said. He rubbed his hands over his chest in circles.

"Who is?" Duckie said.

Bob slapped the air in Duckie's direction. Duckie went into his parents' bedroom. Inga sat up in bed, her eyes round, her face red. She held onto her throat with both hands. Blood oozed from her nose. She gasped. Duckie stood by the bed, watching her. He heard a siren outside, faint, then louder.

Bob rushed in. "The ambulance is coming," he said. He pushed Duckie away from the bed and sat down. They both watched Inga gasping.

"Go let them in," Bob said.

Duckie went downstairs just as the ambulance pulled up out front. He opened the door. Two men ran in. Duckie pointed upstairs. They clattered up the stairs. He went into the kitchen and poured a glass of milk. He looked around, wondering where George was. He heard noises upstairs. Bob was still speaking very loudly.

"Here, George," Duckie said.

George did not come. Duckie drank some milk.

"Here, kitty," Duckie said.

One of the ambulence men ran outside and brought back a stretcher. He took it upstairs. They brought it down again, with Inga in it. She lay still, covered with a sheet up to her chin, her eyes closed. Bob came down after. At the front door he started to fumble into a raincoat and spotted Duckie in the kitchen.

"Stay home, Donald," he said.

"What's wrong with Mom?" Duckie said.

"Nothing. She's fine." Bob fumbled with the buttons. The ambulance took off, its siren screeching. Bob went outside. Duckie stood at the open door. A few neighbors were outside in bathrobes, watching Bob get into his car and drive off. Duckie stood in the doorway for a moment, then went back inside.

"Here, George," Duckie said.

He went upstairs to his parents' room. The sheets were all messed up. A pillow was on the floor. Duckie picked up the pillow and put it in its place on the bed. He smoothed the sheets.

He went upstairs to the attic. George sat on the bed. His tail swished back and forth. Duckie patted him.

"Where were you?" Duckie said.

"Run," George said, and purred.

Duckie picked him up, held him for a long time, then went back to bed.

The next morning, Duckie and George ate breakfast alone in the kitchen. Bob and Inga were still gone. George crunched on his dry food. Duckie ate two cold strawberry Pop-Tarts. Duckie went outside and looked at the grape vines. Clusters of black grapes hung down from the vines. They looked fake. Duckie stood on a bucket and touched one. His finger left a round mark on the dewy surface. Duckie licked his finger. It tasted watery, not grapey. He pulled the grape off the vine and put it in his mouth. It tasted sour. He spit it out. It fell onto the brick path under the arbor. Duckie looked down at the half-chewed grape. He got off the bucket and picked up the grape. He took it all the way to the corner of the yard and threw it on the compost pile. He rubbed his purple fingers on his blue jeans.

He went back and looked at the mark on the bricks. George sat right next to the mark, watching a bug crawl. George patted at the bug. Duckie unreeled the hose and turned on the water spigot. He hosed off the bricks. He could still see the stain. He found a brush in the tool shed and scrubbed the bricks. He could still see the stain. He put the brush away and turned off the water. He wondered how much water he had used. He thought it might have been fifty cents' worth of water. He went to his room and got two quarters. He put them on Bob's dresser, in his porcelain change dish. He went back outside. The bricks had dried, and the stain was less obvious. Duckie pulled off a grape leaf and placed it over the stain, then went back inside. He checked the answering machine, in case Bob had called. He hadn't.

Duckie turned on the television. Dr. Phil was counseling women who liked to be fat and their husbands who wanted them to be skinny. Then on General Hospital, Ned counseled Emily to fight hard and beat the cancer at its own game. Bob came home and sat on the sofa in his raincoat. It was hot, but he left it buttoned all the way up.

"It was touch and go, son."

Duckie muted the television sound.

"Mom's still in the I.C.U.," Bob said.

"What's the Eye See You?"

"Intensive Care Unit."

Duckie nodded. That's where they had the big glass windows for all the Eyes to See You with. He'd seen E.R. once, and all the patients were throwing up green stuff. Duckie didn't find it entertaining.

"Mom's going to be fine," Bob said.

"Is she throwing up green stuff?" Duckie said.

Bob put his head in his hands.

Duckie turned the sound back on. A happy woman was mopping her gleaming kitchen floor to a catchy tune.

"I hope she's not," Duckie said, "because that would not be entertaining."

Later that day, Inga was moved to a private room. At five o'clock Duckie went with Bob to the hospital. Duckie brought some flowers he'd picked in the vacant lot. Bob brought some of his grapes. The floor nurse wouldn't let Duckie bring the flowers into the room. Duckie had to throw them in the trash by the front entrance. They found Inga eating ice from a plastic cup. A bag of fluid dripped into her wrist and she wore a tiny-flowered cotton dress with ties on the back that Duckie had never seen before.

"Hi Mom," Duckie said.

"Hello Donald," she crunched.

"I almost brought you flowers," Duckie said.


"The nurse made me throw them out."

"Thank goodness," Inga said.

Duckie watched the fluid drip into his mother.

"Have you heard?" Inga said to Bob.


"Anaphylactic shock. Severe allergic reaction."

"Jesus," Bob said.

"Donald, Mommy was bleeding from every orifice." Inga said.


"Mommy has an allergy," Inga said.

"What's an allergy?" Duckie said.

"You know what an allergy is," Bob said.

"When you sneeze at flowers." Duckie went to the I.V. stand and pushed it. It rolled a little.

"Do they know what you're allergic to?" Bob said.

"They're doing tests. Donald, don't touch that."

Duckie put his hand in his pocket.

"Think of something new in the house," Inga said.

"Jesus," Bob said.

"That cat has got to go," Inga said.

"No!" Duckie said.

"Donald, Mommy's allergic to the cat," Inga said.

"No!" Duckie said. "It's the flowers. You were glad I didn't bring flowers."

"We don't know what it is," Bob said.

"We'll know tomorrow," Inga said.

When Bob and Duckie got home, Duckie went outside to look for George. He found him under the arbor, chasing fireflies in the dusk. Duckie tried to pat him, but George was interested only in the hunt. George chased and caught a firefly. It glowed greenly inside his mouth as he chewed. Blink. Chew. Blink. Chew.

In the night Duckie woke to the ringing telephone. He heard his father speaking. He got out of bed and went downstairs. George followed him. They found Bob on the second floor landing, leaning against the wall, looking down. The phone lay on the floor by his bare feet.

"Who was that?" Duckie said.

Bob didn't say anything.

"Was that Mom?" Duckie said, "Do we have to take George to the pound?"

Bob looked up, his eyes pink like Canada Mints.

"Your mother is gone," he said.

"I know. She's at the hospital."

Bob sunk down to the floor.

Duckie sat down. "Here, George," he said. George sat in Duckie's lap.

Bob slammed his fist into the wall and dented the sheetrock.

"Your mother died," he said.

Bob stood up. He looked down at Duckie.

"Stay inside the house," he said. "I'm going to the hospital. I'll be back soon." Bob went into his bedroom, and came back out wearing regular clothes. Duckie followed him to the front door and watched him drive off.

Duckie went back to the attic. He looked outside. A fingernail moon hovered over the roof of Zowie's house. He pried up the board and pulled out the knapsack. He brought it to his room, opened it and emptied the contents onto the cot. George pawed at the lipstick tube and knocked it to the floor. It rolled under the bed. He leaped down and chased it into a corner. Duckie grabbed it away from him and stuffed everything back into the knapsack. He took it downstairs. He opened his mother's dresser drawers. He found a bottle of perfume, an address book, and a small, pearl-handled pistol. He held the pistol first in one hand, then the other. It felt surprisingly heavy for such a small thing. He put the perfume, the book, and the gun into his knapsack. He went outside and sat on the back steps. George sat next to him, curled into a tight ball, pressed up against his thigh.

An hour passed. The moon rose higher in the sky. Bob came home. He pulled his car into the garage and went directly to the arbor, carrying a can of gasoline. He began to sprinkle gasoline on the vines. Duckie watched him. George woke up and stretched.

Bob splashed gasoline on the arbor supports, and on the brick pathway underneath.

"What are you doing?" Duckie called.

Bob upturned the gas can, and the last few drips came out. He threw the gas can against the garage. It bounced and clattered to the driveway.

"What are you doing, Dad?" Duckie said.

Bob stood to one side of the arbor. He struck a match. He held the match to a trail of gasoline. With a dull boom and a flash of white light the arbor exploded into flame.

The town hall clock struck midnight.

Duckie walked over to Bob. "Why did you do that?"

"It was the grapes," Bob said.

"What was?"

"My grapes!" Bob stood back as a burning vine fell, spitting sparks.

"What about them?"

"They killed your mother. My fucking grapes."

"I don't get it," Duckie said.

"We had some that afternoon, don't you see?" Bob pulled Duckie by the collar and pointed to the rising flames. "Then I brought her more, in the hospital, and she ate them again. Don't you see?" The grapes vines crackled, turned black and the tendrils curled in upon themselves like worms.

"But I thought it was George."

"George," Bob said.

George rubbed against Duckie's shin. Pale moths floated around them, drawn by the light of the fire.

"Come here, George," Bob said.

Duckie backed up.

"Here, George," Bob said.

George leaped after a low-flying moth.

A faint siren sounded.

"What do you want with George?" Duckie said.

"Don't worry," Bob said, crouching. George chewed a moth, its wings sticking out of the left side of his mouth.

"Run!" Duckie said.

George ran into the bushes.

"We must get rid of him," Bob said.

"But you said it was the grapes."

"It's what she wanted."

"But he's mine," Duckie said.

Bob crept toward the bushes. An arbor support snapped and fell. Sparks flew over their heads. The sirens got louder.

"I should have done what she wanted," Bob said.

Duckie upended the knapsack and dumped its contents on the grass.

"Look what I have," he said.

Bob turned from the bushes and looked down at the wedding photo, the lipstick, the hairbrush, the necktie, the screwdriver, the perfume, the address book, and Inga's pistol lying scattered in the grass, lit by growing flames.

"What's all this?" he said.

"I took it."

Bob knelt and picked up the pistol. "You had no right," he said.

"I was gonna give it back," Duckie said.

A fire truck pulled into the driveway. Men in yellow overalls jumped out and began to unwind a hose.

"These don't belong to you," Bob said.

George came out from under the bushes and ran along the side of the house.

"Stop!" Duckie said.

Duckie ran after George. George ran from bush to bush, out toward the street. Duckie saw Zowie watching him from an upstairs window. He waved at her and she waved back. He looked back. Bob stood by the arbor, shouting, waving the tiny pistol at the firemen.

George loped along the sidewalk, and Duckie ran to catch up. Where the Mercy Street cul-de-sac met the main road, George stopped to lick a paw. Duckie knelt to gather him up against his chest as the first stream of water rose into the sky.

He began to run, holding George. They ran in the dark, pounding down concrete sidewalks, past shuttered windows and clipped lawns, past the remnants of outlying small farms to the dark and deep woods beyond.

As they descended the ravine and headed into the trees, the smell of damp moss rose around them. They ran and ran, weaving among the trees, until they could no longer see, and they dropped to the ground and lay panting.

George rolled over and over, burrowing into the spongy peat. Duckie rolled too, laughing out loud as his knees and hands and clothes turned as black as the night encircling all around them.


Ellen Champagne's work has appeared in many fine e-zines, including Exquisite Corpse, Sweet Fancy Moses, In Posse, the-phone-book, and Lit Pot. She has recently completed her first novel. It only needs 7,453 more revisions before it is done, so to those of you who keep sending her cool links and stupid jokes, stop it. OK, send one more joke, but it had better be really stupid.

"Absorbed" is part of a collaborative effort of several writers to create a set of interrelated stories whose characters all live on a suburban cul-de-sac named Mercy Street. All of the stories have two things in common: disappearing objects and a flash of light at midnight.

I am fascinated by the disconnected, the people who wander quietly through life largely unnoticed by those around them. My stories are almost always about people who relate most strongly to their own inner drama, the external ("real") world being dissatisfactory in some fundamental way. In "Absorbed," Duckie can connect to his parents only indirectly by secretly gathering samples of their possessions. When he says, "None of this is very real," I imagine this as a statement of comfort, rather than concern. Reality isn't always our friend, which is, I suppose, why some of us write fiction, and why so many of us read it.


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