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First pages

Chapter I

What are your parents like?

Such a difficult question to answer. Family relationships are complicated. It’s almost impossible to get another person to understand.

And how long does it take before you can trust others? Trust them enough to reveal the whole truth?

BREAD CRUMBS

An Odd Adventure with Your Other Father

 

 

“Celia, when you were a young girl and woke from a nightmare, calling for father, it never bothered me that you meant Jack. He was more generous with his emotions. He could comfort you with a hug and a few hushed words; a quick joke and he’d have you smiling, the nightmare forgotten.

“I’m sad that we lost him when you were only four years old. You never really got a chance to know him.

“Which is why I want to tell you stories about your other father. To bring him back to you, in some small way.

“You asked me to start at the beginning, tell about how we met and fell in love at college. I’m actually going to rush through that part, if you don’t mind.

“The better beginning is to tell when I first learned about Jack’s special gift… and how it first became useful during our travels together:”

 

#

 

May of 1985, our graduation ceremony was hours behind us, and we rode Jack’s punch-red VW Beetle across the wide span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Jack was driving, stubborn since it was his car, but he should have surrendered the wheel to me. He hated bridges in general, but the Bay Bridge was its own kind of beast: three lanes wide on the westbound span and 4.3 miles from end to end.

Jack was tall, and he had to lean close so his head didn’t hit the roof of the small car. His hands gripped the wheel like he was ready to pull it off the dashboard. He was like somebody’s nervous grandmother, sitting on two phonebooks—which was funny, since he zipped that Bug like a racecar through the small-town streets of Kent County, Maryland. The problem was the water that stretched around us for miles on either side, a calm light blue with sun glimmers on tiny peaks. Jack never learned how to swim.

Two miles in, and I worried maybe he was going to pass out. I touched the top of his knee with a supportive squeeze, and his leg jolted against the accelerator in nervous response.

Okay. Maybe touching him wasn’t such a good idea.

And all the while I’m thinking What’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like Jack’s tiny car could crash like a battering ram over the side, sending us on a deadly plummet toward the Bay.

June air rushed through the car’s open windows, like a blast from a hand dryer. Our lane had a metal lattice section down the middle, making the tires hum whenever Jack drifted off-center.

“It’s pretty solid construction. Concrete and steel cable.”

“Thanks,” Jack said through clenched teeth. Guess I forgot that logic couldn’t usually compete with somebody’s phobia.

Then one of those steel suspension cables snapped. A dozen or so car lengths ahead, the bridge cracked down the middle as if a giant zipper-tab dragged open the section of metal lattice in our lane.

Gusts of air through the car window, tires on asphalt, the toy-car putter of the VW engine, and my scream.

More cables snapped. Ahead, cars in our lane dipped into the opening—a widening split span of asphalt and steel and concrete, the flicker of water shining beneath, sun flecks now sharp as broken glass. The sides of the bridge buckled, and cars in the outside lanes began to tumble and slide toward the widening crevice.

What do you say to someone when you’re both about to die? I shouted Jack’s name, said “love,” then spread one arm across his chest while the other hand gripped the shoulder strap of my seatbelt.

I might have said “brake” also, in the vain hope that slowing the car would give us a chance.

Jack kept driving at his steady pace. The car’s hood flew up, blocking the view through the windshield. I closed my eyes, fighting the sick-stomach sensation of falling, falling.

Falling.

“Jesus, Shawn. I’m having enough trouble on this damn bridge without you spazzing out.”

Jack’s hands granny-gripped the steering wheel. The hood was fine. The road ahead was smooth. I turned in my seat: through the rear windshield, the intact bridge stretched back as far as I could see, cars calm in their lanes.

I must have fallen asleep, had a nightmare…

“Pretty solid construction. All concrete and steel.” Jack’s imitation of my voice wasn’t very good, but the sarcasm was pretty effective.

I was trembling. My heartbeat raced, and my breaths started to wheeze.

And since my asthma never seemed serious enough to merit an inhaler, there was nothing to do but wait it out.

Jack attempted humor, to distract me from my tight, desperate gasps. “What was in the punch at the graduation picnic? Glad I didn’t drink any.” The comment actually made things worse. I was drugged, having a bad trip. That meant more awful images were on their way.

Don’t think of anything bad, I told myself.

Bright colors. Flowers. Kittens and rainbows.

Don’t think of a rock smashing through the windshield. Don’t think of a bolt of lightning flashing towards us. Don’t think about a nest of spiders in the seat well, an egg sack bursting open as newborns pour out, the tickle of a thousand tiny legs that crawl beneath the cuff of my pants.

Yeah, none of that happened. No more hallucinations.

My wheezing stopped the same time we approached the toll plaza. After Jack gave his buck twenty-five to the attendant, I made him pull the car over and turn off the engine.

We got out of the car and stretched our legs. I traced my foot in the dirt beside the road, happy to find solid ground beneath me. I leaned against Jack’s VW—that tiny car so frail my weight could almost tip it over, the same car I imagined dropping through the middle of the cracked bridge and into suffocating water.

“What happened back there?”

“I couldn’t explain while you were still driving.” Then I told him about my strange and vivid hallucination—a kind of waking dream, since I knew I hadn’t fallen asleep. I described the images in detail. “Once it was over, I didn’t want to say anything. You already have that phobia, and I didn’t want to make it worse.”

“Wouldn’t have made it any worse,” Jack said. “That’s what I already imagine. That’s the kind of thing that always goes through my head when I drive over a bridge.”

He turned to the front of the car, lay a palm against the curved hood. “Did the hood flip up and block the windshield? The way this ol’ car rattles on the road, sometimes I’m afraid that’s gonna happen.”

“Yeah. At the last part of that mirage or whatever. Yeah.”

(Okay, Celia, here’s where you get a quick summary of the year Jack and I met. We went to Chesapeake University, a small liberal arts college on the eastern shore of Maryland. Only about eight hundred students total, so you pretty much knew everybody. Even though we had different majors—Jack in Journalism, me in English with a minor in Film Studies—we still ended up in a few of the same classes. Senior year, first trimester, we took Dr. Reid’s seminar, “Classics of the Silent Era.” Jack took it as a Pass/Fail elective, but I swear he knew some of the films better than Reid—Lon Chaney films, especially, and Lang’s Metropolis. We talked about movies outside of class and became good friends. More than friends.

I wasn’t expecting that last part. I mean, I knew I was gay, but I was scared of it. The world wasn’t as accepting then as it is today—and it’s still not perfect, of course. College can be a rough time, like high school—you’re still finding yourself, choosing your major, imagining a job, wondering what kind of life you’ll fall into after graduation. By senior year, you have a solid small group of friends, and they know you really well. They have expectations about the way you’ll behave, and I’d slipped into the role of the “regular” guy. Stable and smart, hard-working when I needed to be—which was usually the night before a paper or project was due. Like I’d done my whole life, I let everybody assume I was straight. Guess you could say Jack was as straight as I was. He was the journalism guy, editor of the school newspaper, and he wrote half of each edition as well. Easy-going. The kind of guy you’d have a drink with and let your guard down. A great strategy for getting good quotes from an interview subject.

I’m not sure which of us made the first move. It’s like we gave each other permission and things just happened from there.

Well, young people fall in love all the time, don’t they? I wouldn’t say that part of our story is terribly unique.

We had different groups of friends, for the most part. That senior year, we withdrew into our own world. Except, we didn’t tell anybody about our relationship—so we couldn’t be together all the time. It was a year of secrecy. I’d sit next to my friends Bill and Denise in the dining hall, nod at Jack as he walked past with an empty tray, and suddenly I’d need to ditch them to “study at the library,” or to “meet Professor Keyes about my Senior Project.”

Jack and I lived on different floors of the same dormitory. Most nights, I’d sneak into the stairwell and down two flights to be with him in his room. Spent every minute with him that I could during the school days, and on weekends we drove over the Bay Bridge, Jack at the wheel pretending not to be nervous, then headed towards Washington, DC, and the city’s wealth of shops and eateries and museums and movie theaters. We also visited some Dupont Circle bars where, for a brief interlude, we didn’t feel any need to hide who we were. Never ran into anybody from school in those bars. Not sure how I’d have reacted if we did.

In retrospect, I think our secret should have been pretty obvious. But when we told a few of our closest friends during the week before graduation, they all acted surprised. Bill and Denise took the news really well, and I was sorry I hadn’t told them sooner.

Here’s the thing. I don’t know how we fell into that secrecy. I guess, as closeted gays, we were accustomed to hiding; then, as our relationship continued and deepened, it seemed liked we’d passed the “good time” to tell people—whenever that was. Secrecy was a bad idea. It treated our relationship like it was some kind of criminal plot, something to be ashamed of. It put a layer of dishonesty between us and our other friends.

But it had some benefits. Sure, it was a nuisance having to sneak around all the time, but it was fun, too. Intense. I was more shy and introverted than Jack, and I think he would have broken the story sooner if he hadn’t liked all the drama. Our time together was stolen. Senior year was pretty exciting.

About seven months, but by graduation it was as if we’d known each other seven years. We had private jokes about teachers and fellow students, long conversations about movies and books. Big philosophical questions: nature vs. nurture; benign God vs. a cruel, random universe; Coke vs. Pepsi.

There’s some couples where one person can practically finish the other’s sentences. That would get boring, don’t you think? But your other father and I had something like that. You could say that in addition to academics, my senior year I majored in Jack. I knew the way his mind worked.

Which is a bit of a roundabout way to explain why, as he asked me about the hood of the Beetle flipping up, and as his eyes fluttered away from my face, I got suspicious.

He looked guilty.

When we crossed the Bay Bridge, I’d seen what scared him.

“You did this to me, didn’t you?”)

 

#

 

My accusation must have sounded angrier than I intended. Jack stammered and protested, which made him look even more guilty.

“No,” he said. “I don’t think so. I mean, of course not.”

His eyes fluttered away from my face, then back. He repeated the pattern—like each time he glanced away, he expected the anger to be gone when he looked again.

“Tell me,” I said.

“There’s nothing to tell. Except…”

My anger relaxed a bit. He continued: “You got on my nerves a bit, okay, saying how the bridge was safe, like I didn’t have a right to be nervous driving across, you know, miles and miles of water. I thought: He wouldn’t act so superior if he saw things the way I see them.”

That was it? A wish? Enough to explain Jack’s guilty demeanor, but the actual phenomenon was still unclear.

Among our other philosophical debates, Jack and I had an ongoing conversation about whether or not ghosts actually existed. On this matter we actually came to a kind of consensus: in our working hypothesis, ghosts depended on the unconscious power of a frightened observer. So, no “real” ghosts, but allowing the possibility for things like telekinesis or mind-reading—in unusual, heightened circumstances. It was a trade-off. The world wasn’t supernatural, but the human mind could be.

“When you described the bridge opening up like that,” Jack said, “it wasn’t just similar to what I saw in my head. It was exactly what I saw. A zipper, like you said. The Bay waters shining beneath a crumbling gap in the road. It’s like I sent you those exact images.”

Visual. I realized that my hallucination was entirely visual, with no accompanying sound other than my shouts and the wind and the car across the road. I didn’t hear the whip of snapped cables, the twist of metal or rumble of shattered concrete.

I’d experienced a sensation of falling, but that could have been psychosomatic.

“I’m so sorry, Shawn. I really hadn’t tried to scare you or anything. It was just a thought I had.”

I accepted his apology. At the same time, I sought a more rational explanation. He’d previously mentioned his phobia to me, and maybe some of those visual details had come out in his explanations. I’d half-forgotten the earlier descriptions, but as we rode across the bridge, the memories flashed up with fresh brilliance, like a movie projected onto a screen.

“Wait a sec.” Jack closed his eyes to concentrate, opened them again. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

At the end of his wrist, his hand was scaled like a fish, thick green webbing between his fingers.

Six fingers and a thumb.

 

#

 

My expression told Jack what he wanted to know. His smile spread into a wide grin. I asked if he could see it, too.

“Hell no. I’m not crazy. How many fingers, Shawn? You have to tell me how many, or it’s not a valid experiment.” He wiggled the fingers, red claws at the tips. The webbing rippled.

“Six,” I said.

“And what movie?”

As if to make the solution more obvious, two of the transformed fingers disappeared. The green scales faded to the shaded gray of a black-and-white film.

My father’s favorite monster movie. “Creature from the Black Lagoon, okay? Now put that thing away. Turn it off or whatever.”

“One more test.” He extended his arm, requesting a handshake. The hand was gray and shiny and wet. It reached out of the movie’s lagoon, anxious to grab a swimmer’s ankle.

“I’m not touching that.”

“Come on. You gotta.” He held out his hand, impatient.

Maybe I could prod it with one finger. I reached forward, hesitant.

And the Creature’s hand shot forward. Awful scaled fingers closed around my wrist.

Even as my eyes continued to trick me, as water squeezed from those webbed fingers and dripped along my forearm, I recognized Jack’s touch.

Claws scraped across the inside of my wrist. I felt the soft caress of Jack’s fingertips.

 

#

 

He did a few more tricks, testing the muscles of his new-found gift. He made an old man’s face appear in a roadside boulder. Do you see it, Shawn? Tell me what you see! He studied the car, then popped an illusory flat tire into the Beetle’s front passenger wheel.

That’s when I made my First Rule: Don’t mess with the car. I was still shaky from that Bay Bridge experience. “I need to feel safe while we’re driving, Jack, so no more jokes with the tires. And especially no tricks while the car’s moving. I need to believe in what I see through the windshield.”

Jack nodded in agreement, but he was still giddy about his new abilities, so I wasn’t sure he listened to me. His wavy hair stretched into bangs, a fresh beard overtaking his chin then spreading over his entire face. Describe what you see now, Shawn. As he spoke, his lips snarled beneath a wolf’s snout; fangs rose from his jutted lower jaw.

I rolled my eyes. “Give it a rest, would you?” Secretly, I had to admit it was a better werewolf transformation than I’d seen on film.

That graduation afternoon marked our first definite experience with the supernatural. The occult term for Jack’s ability is a glamour, which basically refers to a deceptive image projected into another person’s mind.

“Let’s go,” Jack said. “I can’t wait to try this out on a bigger audience.”

I refused to get into the car until he repeated my First Rule, and made a serious promise not to break it.

 

#

 

After a short drive, we parked in the shadow of giant yellow arches. A bench offered limited seating next to the restaurant’s side entrance, mainly because a clown statue occupied half the available space.

Jack did a number on that clown. He stared at it first, memorizing the contours of the fiberglass. Then I guess he imagined what it would be like if a real clown sat there all day, instead of a statue. Bright yellow and red overalls faded into filthy rags. His varnished swirl of hair became an unwashed clump of straw dappled with bird droppings. Sweat poured down the face, smearing greasepaint into a gray, tragic mask.

In an especially perverse touch, Jack added a priapus effect to the clown’s seated lap.

(You’ll have to look that word up later, Celia. Maybe next year when you’re in high school.)

A family with two toddlers approached from the parking lot, and I was glad Jack had sense enough to turn off that last effect, at least. Even so, the clown was too disturbing. Instead of the supposedly loveable mascot, Jack’s version looked like an escaped mental patient. He wasn’t a statue. He remained motionless to trick unwary children, waiting until they moved within reach. An evil gleam in his eye suggested he fantasized about an epidemic of childhood obesity. He’d snatch kids away from their parents, lock them in a dank cellar and bloat them up with sugar water and greasy, unhealthy food.

That family should have rushed past the bench. The terrified kids should have burst into tears. Instead, the dad opened the glass door and they all walked calmly into the fast food restaurant.

“Humph,” Jack said. “Guess they were too hungry to notice.”

 

#

 

“That creepy clown was a bit much,” I told him. “Try something a little more subtle.”

“Yeah, sure.”

He turned the area behind the counter into a slaughterhouse. Where fast-food employees usually flipped meat pucks on a grill or scooped potato sticks into waxpaper sleeves, one employee positioned a metal spike over a live cow’s forehead, while his aproned coworker lifted a sledgehammer. A skinned carcass, hook wedged deep through its flayed haunch, hung upside down over a metal bucket frothed full with gore. Nearby, a teenager in a paper hat lifted chunks of bloody flesh and gristle and bone into the funnel-mouth of a grinding contraption.

“I hear their burgers taste really fresh,” Jack said.

Too much. People will start screaming. He’ll cause a riot.

The cashier said, “Can I take your order?”

The family ahead of us in line asked for two burger meals and two kid meals. Dad handed money to the teenage boy behind the register, who rang up the purchase then gathered their food into a large blood-soaked sack and two cardboard cartons for the toddlers. Mom handed the kiddie meals to her son and daughter, instructing them not to spill anything even as flecks of raw meat dripped out of the cartons onto the floor.

They walked to the exit. All the other customers placed their orders without protest.

Jack was so disappointed, he couldn’t even order his food.

(You’re right, Celia. Worst superpower ever. This wasn’t close-up magic with card tricks or foam balls under plastic cups. He’d constructed an elaborate stage illusion, like those with wooden cabinets, ropes and swords and mirrors and smoke bombs. A full-sized blood-spraying cow instead of a tired dove from a felt hat.

All that effort, and nobody in the restaurant could see it. Nobody but me.)

 

#

 

We sat in a plastic-coated booth and picked at our food. I ate my fries first, since they were never as good once they got cold.

I’d never seen Jack sulk like this. He looked like somebody who’d won the lottery, made shopping lists and planned elaborate vacations, chose a new house and car, wrote a resignation letter to his a-hole boss complete with satisfying curse words…then found out he misread one of the numbers.

“You can’t expect to win the lottery twice,” I said. Jack understood exactly what I meant—another example of how well we followed the track of each others’ minds.

“You saw it, right? The cow and the grinding machine and all that?”

“It was pretty impressive, Jack. Kinda explains why I’m not that eager to unwrap my sandwich.”

“I mean, I’ve never really been to a slaughterhouse, so I just made some of that stuff up.”

“Looked real to me,” I said.

He took a bite of his double cheeseburger. He chewed vigorously, unaffected by the images he’d conjured earlier. “Maybe we could tour with a mind-reading show. You know, a Mr. and Mrs. Mindreader act, where I draw something and put it in a sealed envelope, and you can guess the picture because I’ll show it to you.”

“Mr. and Mrs.?”

“You know what I mean. I’m not that crazy about the plan, actually. Everybody would think you’re the brains of the act, even though I’d be the one making the trick work.”

“You never want to play second fiddle.”

“Nope.” He took another bite, slow this time, lost in thought. “Mister and Missus,” he said after a swallow of Coke. “That explains it.”

I didn’t follow.

“Well, we can’t be that. Not Mister and Mister, either. Not by law. So we get this instead.”

Here was Jack’s reasoning: his strange gift of communication, and the reason only I could see his images, was a tribute to our close relationship. It resulted from all the secrecy of our senior year in college, when we’d essentially created our own world together. We were connected in ways that other couples never dreamed of. We weren’t allowed to get married, not in 1985, but our relationship had something unique and meaningful. A kind of psychic consolation prize.

The idea was beautiful.

Then I realized something. “I’m happy about this private bond we share, sure. You know, scary clowns and falling through a bridge, creepy old faces staring from a rock. But can you make anything look nicer for me?” I unfolded the wrapping around my burger. “I wouldn’t mind if this food was a little more appetizing—especially after your slaughterhouse show from earlier.”

I lifted the bun. A stain of ketchup and mustard soaked the underside. Pieces of onion, fine-chopped into crescents, were scattered like fingernail clippings over a dry brown circle of meat.

Jack concentrated on the hamburger patty. I waited for crisp grill lines, béarnaise sauce over a juicy, thick-cut tenderloin. My mouth watered.

A few clipped fingernails blinked aside as a cow’s eye opened in the center of the burger. I recognized the eye from Luis Buñuel's classic film, Un Chien Andalou. A razor stretched across the eye, slitting it open. Blood and eye-yolk oozed over the meat and onto the wax wrapper.

(That image inspired my Second Rule: Don’t mess with food, ever.)

 

#

 

Jack respected my rules, but that also meant if he got bored in a restaurant, he’d sometimes use his gift on the decor or on ineffective wait staff.

That’s how trouble started at a truck stop eatery in southern Virginia. It was the first summer of our Great Journey after college, when we hadn’t yet discovered a practical use for Jack’s gift.

This time, it might have saved his life:

 

#

 

Jack would insist that truck stops had great food. Truckers know what’s good to eat, he’d say. Good local cuisine, and those places are usually nice and clean. Find a place off the highway with a full parking lot and you were bound to get huge portions of meat and potatoes, covered in gravy—and gravy never hurt anything.

He didn’t add that the food was inexpensive—that point was always a given. Jack wanted to conserve money, so our Great Journey by VW Beetle would last as long as possible.

(Now’s as good a time as any to explain what funded our trip. When Jack graduated from Chesapeake, he won the school’s Lydia Overstreet Prize in Humanities. Overstreet was a wealthy alum who granted the college an extravagant gift in her will: the sum from interest and investments was awarded each year to a student with the best Senior Project, as voted on by a committee of faculty members.

Jack didn’t think he had a chance. Editing the school newspaper had never counted as a Senior Project—previous committees gave the prize to a final thesis or art portfolio, rather than work with an ongoing publication. Plus, a few of Jack’s editorials criticized the school: their inconsistent tenure policy, mismanagement of food services, budget improprieties. He hadn’t made a lot of fans within the administration or faculty.

Still, he printed out some of his best articles and opinion pieces, bound them together into a book, and submitted it to the Overstreet committee.

A million to one shot, practically. Turns out, Jack’s cumulative work really impressed the committee. He’d given the newspaper his own voice that year—more than previous student editors had done.

Oh, you want to know the exact amount, Celia? Well, Overstreet’s initial gift was half a million. In 1985, interest rates were pretty high, and the college invested the money well—which made the prize bigger than that rich gal ever could have imagined. When Jack walked across that graduation stage and shook President Kessler’s hand, he got a check for thirty-five thousand dollars.

That money bought a lot of gas and motel stays and cheap eats. Thirteen months’ worth, as it turned out.

You see what I meant earlier, when I said Jack couldn’t expect to win the lottery twice?)

 

#

 

Now, let’s get back to that truck stop in southern Virginia. For singles, there was a counter with the kitchen area behind; families and other large groups occupied a row of booths beneath a stretch of tall windows overlooking the parking lot; between the window booths and the counter was another stretch of booths intended for parties of two.

That left Jack and me pretty much in the middle of the restaurant. The booth dividers were so tall, we couldn’t see if other customers were seated in our row. The dividers were covered with the thin wood paneling people used for their basement workrooms.

The place was clean, but you couldn’t say the same for all the customers. One guy at the counter offered an unappetizing flash of butt crack. A woman dragged three unkempt children past us on the way to the restroom. At the window booth across from us, a man sat alone in front of three plates of food. He was too heavyset to fit at the counter or in one of the smaller booths in the center. He wore an ill-fitting white T-shirt and jeans, and smelled of gasoline and tobacco.

“Check out that pig,” Jack said. And it was a pig sitting there, a country fair prize-winner stretched into a T-shirt and bending his snout over a trough of food.

Now, when a friend tells you to look at somebody else in public, you sneak the glance, try not to be too obvious. Trouble was, when Jack did a glamour like this, I couldn’t see the real person—as I looked at Jack’s projected image, I might be staring directly into the other guy’s face without realizing it. I hadn’t yet learned to revise my surreptitious glances, so probably wasn’t as subtle as I’d hoped. Consider, also, that Jack would study his subject for a while to develop his caricature. No surprise, then, if we came across as a couple of rude college kids from out of town.

Because we were rude kids, a few weeks after graduation but still clinging to college habits—where we ate in dining halls, talked and laughed as loud as we wanted, made gentle fun of people at other tables. We hadn’t yet perfected our “public” manners, didn’t fully understand how to behave in an unfamiliar place where people weren’t already predisposed to make excuses for our behavior.

The woman with her three children returned from the restroom. They looked like they’d bathed in the toilets. Stink lines, like in cartoon strips, wavered from their soiled clothing. Horse flies hovered over their heads.

I reminded Jack he edged dangerously close to breaking Rule Two. “Remember, we still have to eat here.”

“Okay. I’ll give it a rest.”

Good, because I didn’t want to see what he’d do to butt-crack guy at the counter.

The waitress brought our drinks then asked what we wanted to eat. Our orders were straightforward—one special, and one number 8 plate with baked potato instead of fries—but it took her a long time to write it all down.

Before the food arrived, Jack riffed a bit about southern stereotypes, maybe wondered aloud about how smart the waitress was, and he didn’t mean anything by it—just passing the time, really, and we were both sweet to her when she brought the food, even though Jack got crinkle fries instead of the baked potato he asked for.

But later when I glanced aside, the large guy in the window booth was scowling at us. The pig glamour was gone, of course, but some fresh drops of ketchup stained the front of his T-shirt.

He kept looking at us. Maybe we’d been too loud. Comments about the waitress and her accent could seem like insults to everyone in the diner.

They’re probably all related, Jack might have joked earlier. Maybe pig-guy is her cousin.

This guy was huge, and we weren’t fighters. He could take us both on, and do a good bit of damage.

Judging from his expression, too, the guy was mean.

He burped. “You boys getting dessert?”

A wave of relief washed over me. But the friendly question didn’t make sense. I was only a few bites into my meatloaf, so why ask us now about dessert?

“Take your time, Biggs. We’re in no rush.”

The raspy drawl came from the booth behind Jack. That’s who the big guy was talking to, not us, and I’d simply misjudged the direction of his stare.

So, no problem—right? Then I realized how the booth behind Jack had seemed empty, yet the voice from that section was so easy to hear—as our voices would have been for anyone seated behind. They had eaten in silence, listening to us the whole time.

What had Jack and I talked about? My thoughts raced back through insensitive jokes about the diner and its customers, but also private recollections from our senior year—the relationship we’d hidden, and how glad we now were to escape that burden of secrecy.

I found myself wishing we’d been less free with our comments.

“They could hear us,” I whispered, pointing to the booth partition behind him.

Jack responded at a normal volume. “So what? Stop being paranoid.”

He got kind of mad at me for the rest of the meal. I tried to steer our conversation to the food. Then I threw out some correctives to our earlier remarks: things like, You know, Virginia is a beautiful state, and a lot of famous Americans were born here. Kind of obvious stuff, straight from a tourism brochure.

“They filmed Deliverance here too,” Jack said. But for the most part he let me blather on, since he knew it would make me feel better. I ate fast, so we could finish up and leave. Neither of us ordered dessert.

In the window booth, the big guy finished a banana split with about a dozen scoops of ice cream.

I needed to use the restroom. Jack said he’d pay and meet me out front.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

NORMAN PRENTISS won a Bram Stoker Award for his debut novella, INVISIBLE FENCES. Other publications include FOUR LEGS IN THE MORNING, THE FLESHLESS MAN, THE HALLOWEEN CHILDREN (with Brian James Freeman) and THE NARRATOR (with Michael McBride), with story appearances in DARK SCREAMS VOLUME TWO, FOUR HALLOWEENS, DARK FUSIONS, BLOOD LITE 3, BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR, THE YEAR'S BEST DARK FANTASY AND HORROR, and four editions of the SHIVERS anthology series. Visit him online at www.normanprentiss.com

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
Horror and fantasy authors have different ways of making their monsters seem real. My approach was to introduce supernatural elements into some of the social strangeness I’ve experienced over the years—so in an odd way, real life was my inspiration. I want my fiction to be as weird as real life!
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
It’s hard to pin this book down to one genre—I call it a queer supernatural road-trip, with a YA-style frame narrative. The supernatural elements are key, because they let me take characters into surprising and unsettling situations. They learn the world isn't as clear-cut as they hoped!
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
The adventures with Dad Jack and Dad Shawn came easily, and were fun to write. The challenging part was their daughter's coming-of-age story in the present, weaving it in so her story gives extra meaning to her dads' adventures. I'm really happy with how these parts interact in the finished book!

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