He’s ten. Soon everybody will be here, he’ll see their headlights on the wall. He only gets to stay up until twelve the night before his birthday. His family makes it special, like his own New Year’s. You’re only eleven for twenty-four hours, Dad says. After that you’re eleven and one day, eleven and two days. You’re never just eleven again.
But tonight is different. He waits. His uncle’s SUV doesn’t bounce into the driveway, roiling with cousins. He hears instead the wide wheeling cry of a police car.
An unseen man murmurs with Dad in the living room while Mom sits with him in the kitchen, cemented to her chair. He feels like she’s there to stop him from leaving the table, not to be his company. She asks him twice if he likes the cake. He eats a bite.
By midnight, when he turns eleven, the cake goes in the fridge and he goes in his bed, sore at Mom and Dad for not telling him they’re sorry. In the dark he squats beside the wall vent and listens to them in their room. It’s his only advantage over them. Once he heard them moving in the sheets, and now he only listens when they fight.
Mom says: …from us. Not from Rick’s kids. And not at school. God forbid.
Dad says: They won’t know at school.
Adam, he has the same last name. Welby is not a common name.
I don’t want him to hear it just yet. I mean it’s my dad. It’s up to me.
This is not just up to you.
He loves his grandpa. I just don’t want to…
Silence flows into the vent. Grandpa—big caveman arms and a hole in his nose where he had cancer. He bought him a Spiderman watch for the As on his report card.
Mom says: Thank God we only had one.
Dad says: One what? One kid? What does that mean?
Only one we have to explain it to.
That’s not what you meant, Heather.
I meant, Mom says, doesn’t that kind of thing skip a generation? Isn’t it in the blood? I don’t know what I mean. I’m tired.
If I’m glad about anything, it’s that your mom isn’t around for this, Mom says. You don’t think she knew?
Dad sighs and flips back the covers.
Adam, I’m sorry.
I don’t want to talk anymore.
We won’t talk…
Dad goes down the hall and lands on the couch. He worries Mom will cry but she doesn’t.
Now he’s twelve. The school year is almost over when he finally learns something. He’s running out on the track in gym class, sweating rivers under a hard sun. His legs haven’t yet gained the length that will make him a cross country prospect in high school, but he stays in the pack by sheer desire, by ignorance of pain.
Around the black asphalt the boys curve like pinballs, the bleachers glaring at their right. The leader’s foot goes into a rut. He twists and falls. His scream sounds exaggerated. He manages to slow while the others, slaves to momentum, leap the injured kid and stop. The gym teacher, a sub, rushes forward to help. Hard white feathers of bone break the skin on the boy’s calf, like something trying to eat its way out of him. His suffering face is already oiled with tears.
The sub yells for somebody to get the school nurse. Half the class flies, determined to be first. Not him. A sudden hardness as hard as his classmate’s secret bones materializes in his shorts, a heat down there like a blush. He sits in the bleachers with his hands in his pockets to balloon out the waistband, hiding himself. Nobody sees him until the sub comes back, the kid handed to an ambulance. The sub asks if he’s sick. He doesn’t say yes. Just looks at his feet until he’s soft again. Then he looks up and sees the figure of his grandpa across the field in the sun-shimmer, the man he hasn’t seen in a year, or asked about.
Now he’s thirteen. He’s in the last three picked for kickball—even though, he thinks, he’s okay at it. The first team’s captain points at him and says, I don’t want him on mine. He’ll stab me when I’m not looking.
The rest of the class laughs. He grins as if he understands, as if he belongs in the joke. The teacher shouts them quiet and calls off the game; they’ll sit in the gym for thirty minutes instead. Nobody talks. Somehow it’s his fault.
In class, during free read, he goes up to the teacher and asks: Do you know what my grandpa did?
This teacher is young, in her twenties. You shouldn’t bring that up at school, she whispers, as if he’s taunting her.
I want to know, he says, hurt. Can you tell me?
Her sternness fails: Oh.
So they’re walking down the beige and daisy-yellow hallway, the teacher’s face gone to chalk, her hand needlessly fastened on his forearm. The teacher confers with the school counselor and leaves. The counselor wears a streak of pink in her silver hair.
Have you asked Mom or Dad about Grandpa? she says. They would talk to you. They love you.
He has an answer, primed like a rocket. I don’t want to keep asking. It’s my right to know.
She swallows, uneasy in a way that few adults, he thinks, would show around him.
You’re a pretty mature young man, I’d say. You know what that means?
Do you watch the news?
Well, your grandpa was on the news a while back.
(He remembers the TV war between his parents—Mom on, Dad off, for a month after Grandpa was gone).
He hurt people.
Yes—a loaded pause—he hurt, um, several of them. I’m sorry.
Why are you sorry? he says. I’m related to him.
None of this is because of you, she tells him quickly.
She calls Mom. Mom and Dad are mad at the damn old lady, but not too mad; they seem almost relieved. Dad puts him on the couch and gives him the rest of the story like a cold bath: Grandpa’s in jail. No, he won’t get out. You weren’t supposed to know. Jesus, I can’t get over this lady telling a kid—but he is. Yes. Eight. That the cops know of. I don’t know why. I guess because he wanted to. He wasn’t the old fella we thought he was.
We can stop there. Mom looks like she’s been poisoned. That’s enough for him to know why people talk.
Then come hugs and tears. It feels like the three of them are in jail with Grandpa. There’ll be a trial, Dad says. You’ll hear things. But then it’s over. Like getting your tonsils out.
Now he’s fourteen. There is no trial. His grandpa pleads; the families speak at the courthouse. He works a paper route because the TV news is never played at home. In the photos his grandpa has a pale elephant’s face above a lumpy orange jumpsuit. He’s not Grandpa, he’s George Thurston Welby, 63. Stopping in the cold-nose wind, he peers at the killer’s features for signs of himself. The same dark blond eyebrows bridge his forehead. They both have a mouth built for laughing, seldom used. He remembers Mom’s words in the vent and wonders what other things are downstream in his blood. At school they study heredity, copy Aa and Bb. He reads farther in the library, books teachers don’t touch, they’re too hard for kids. He sees how everything about you is stamped in your molecules. He quits the paper route.
Now he’s fifteen. Mom and Dad put him on the couch for another cold bath: They’re not going to be married anymore. He doesn’t understand. If they love him, how could they not love each other, because he is them, together, joined in one blood…
But it’s true, his birthdays since eleven have never caught magic again, the same mood of freedom and anticipation. Maybe because that day marked a new birth for all of them, the beginning of a family they weren’t before.
Nobody asks what he’s reading anymore. He searches the Internet for George Welby, lingering on his Wikipedia page. The Empty House Killer worked for a moving company. He bound his victims—both women and men—and left them to stew in their fear in homes he knew were vacant. They would lie mummified in duct tape on sofas or beds until his next shift ended and he came for them in the night, tires swishing into the driveway, headlights filling the room, the key in the door. A housewarming gift for the new owner.
Eventually the killer wised to the name they gave him. He quit using houses. The cops were poring over the shift logs at We Move It, the names of realtors, bank employees, anybody who knows where you live. He began to dispose at the old iron bridge over the river, though his moniker stuck in the headlines. DNA—hair caught on a shred of tape—nailed him for the river bodies.
In that fact he reads this: The thing that makes you can unmake you.
On weekends he’s with Dad. Dad works the twelve-hour shift at the ICU, leaving him money for takeout. At night he brings home secondhand memories of gore to impress him. You wouldn’t believe this fountain of blood that came out, Dad says. He pretends squeamishness, disinterest. He fills his head with homework but can’t stop hearing the man that wants to struggle out of him. The man whose emergence curses him with growing pains that make him cry at night. The man beating the boy out of him.
The city demolishes the old bridge. He bikes to see the detonation, standing on the dive cliff that overlooks the river, a garden of beer cans around his feet. The precision of the explosives is beautiful. He sees the ripple and inward fall of the bridge before he hears the crash there on the promontory, where the past and all its destruction is still audible. He might want to be an engineer.
Now he’s sixteen.
Why religion all of a sudden? Mom asks. You want to go to church?
No, he says, quickly enough to hurt; she would have gone with him, if he’d wanted. He says, I just like to study.
You’re at the age, she says, when you might realize certain things. You want to tell me what you’re thinking?
What do you mean?
I mean, you haven’t asked any girls on a date. Are you feeling like you tilt the other way?
I’m not gay.
If you are, I wouldn’t care. It’d be the least interesting thing about you. I just don’t want you at a Bible camp trying to straighten yourself out.
I just want to go and make some friends.
She winks. They won’t let girls bunk in your cabin, you know.
All right, go ahead. It’s only a week. But you have to save for it yourself. I can barely afford to flush the pot, even with Dad’s help.
He finds an afternoon job at PetWorld. In the checkout aisle a toddler girl chokes on a bell that broke off a dog collar. He does the Heimlich with high-school efficiency, and calls 911 himself, too. To be safe, he says. He earns a twenty-dollar tip and a big heartfelt hug from the mom. It’s the only woman he’ll touch before college. He shivers at contact with anybody, worried what he’ll do. Dad says he should be a nurse.
The Bible camp is called Happy Haven. It isn’t the hostage experience he pictures. He’s lucky neither of his parents asked why he couldn’t go to a church camp on their side of the state; why it had to be this one.
He’s not very tall, yet most of the campers, even the boys his age, stand below his height. Plenty of glasses, braces sparkling on teeth. They seem like they picked this camp for their own safety, prey evading natural selection. Daytime is swimming with minnows around his knees, spinning on a tire swing, kicking in the mud. He almost enjoys it except for the magnetic lurch in his stomach whenever he thinks of four miles up the road.
When he leaves the dinner pavilion that night he’s alone, free from attention. He grabs his phone from his bunk, thumbs in the memorized address, and heads down the trail outside the camp. With a filled stomach, he isn’t tempted by the buffet steam that floats among the pines. They’ve been promised popcorn and s’mores over a fire tonight, but he suspects he won’t be missed – his counselor has never called roll, and withdraws often to smoke furtively behind the kitchen.
The entrance to the state penitentiary sits four miles up the rural highway. The sign says 65, but the few cars flash by him like bullets. As night lowers, he has the time to wonder what he’ll ask. He should have brought a letter to leave instead, but what would he do when the old man wrote him back? Camp next to the mailbox to intercept it?
A uniformed man stops him at the guard box window. Can I help you?
He explains that he would like to meet an inmate in the visiting room. He gives Welby’s inmate number – the kid whose homework is always done.
Under the fluorescent tubes, the guard’s glasses capture his face like an insect’s eyes.
Visit hours are up, buddy. You got to be eighteen anyway, without a parent. Where’d you even come from? I don’t see no cars out in the lot.
We’re on vacation, he says, pointing opposite from the camp’s direction. I walked.
You can walk on back, the guard says. Less you want a ride from Sandy.
I’m good, thank you. Sorry to bother.
His heart speeds with sudden dread as the guard picks up a walkie-talkie.
Let me call up Sandy. She can take you.
You don’t need to do that.
Kid, you don’t know who you meet on the highway in the dark. Your mom know you’re out here?
He sees himself behind the chicken wire in the official vehicle, aging into that elephant face he studied in the newspaper.
Impulsively he swipes the radio from the guard’s big hand. The guard freezes. He swings the walkie-talkie at the man’s head and misses. It flies out in the road, spewing static. He runs. The box’s door opens, but he hears no boots chasing him, only the guard’s astonishment swelling in the dark.
Kid! the guard shouts.
He sprints until his ribs pain him, then dives for the ragweed and crouches. It’s tick heaven. Dad warned him about Lyme disease, but he’ll risk it over juvie. His mouth coppers with fear as another sensation makes lightning in his neurons; the thrill of transgression, of a boundary ruptured. His love of it terrifies him. He envies the unexamined faith of the other campers, envies anyone who isn’t alone in the shadow of the thing they have to be.
A van guns past his hideout. An instant of headlights, then silence. It doesn’t return.
His cabin mates have been shooting marbles with the lights off; they barely know who’s there, who’s missing. Chigger bites sizzle on his knees as he climbs into his bunk. Their counselor’s lighter snaps outside the screen door, his face underlit like a jack-o-lantern.
He could try to go back when he’s eighteen. The guard will forget his face by then. But he won’t try again; he feels spared lying there in the sheets, undisturbed. An hour with the old man could have catalyzed what’s inside him. Tempted it to come out. You’re never just eleven again, Dad said on his birthday. He knows that now.
His parents are both relieved when he gives his pocket Bible to the library book drive.
Now he’s eighteen. College time. Mom and Dad celebrate his scholarship to the state U at an alleyway Italian restaurant.
You picked a major? Mom asks.
Still undecided, he says.
Really? That’s not like you. To not be sure.
They call it “exploring.”
I did some exploring in college, Dad says, but I was never undecided.
When’d you have time between all the clinicals? Mom says.
I wasn’t a big study guy, Dad says. He got that from you.
He thinks: You gave me more than you realize.
He dorms alone on campus, a single the only option left in his hall—the other freshmen found roommates on Instagram before they got here. He’s afraid to be his own roommate. But it might be better. He thinks he might be talking in his sleep.
His dad leaves move-in to drive to the pharmacy and buy a pack of condoms to stash under the mattress.
He protests: They have inspections.
It’s a public school, Dad says. Nobody’ll care. Even with a straight-A kid, I don’t trust hormones.
He’s a virgin but it doesn’t bother him. When he dreams it isn’t even about sex.
No opening appears for him in the crowd that fall—no clubs or honors society invites, no hangouts in the library’s couch field. He’s alone in lecture courses that pack four hundred kids into an auditorium. Their bodies, their beings all electric with becoming. Every mind an empty house, and what will you put in it?
Public speaking pairs him, for a team speech, with a willowy girl who stutters. They rehearse in an AV equipment room off the library. Dingy, paint-scabbed, like where you wake up in a Saw movie. Project Girl has his mother’s short nose and spacious forehead. He thinks she doesn’t notice his glances.
We have to look at the audience sometimes, she teases. It’s not a duet.
They get an A. They won’t team again for a project this semester, so he asks her out. She tells him no. She’s way too busy, an excuse to save him the blow. He can’t stop the blood from pushing up into his face. They laugh together.
He follows the autumn leaves back to his dorm. He dreams of the human body unzipped, everything vital bared to his gaze. He fears his hands. In the morning he texts his mom.
I want to transfer home
She responds: You’re getting the grades hon whats the matter?
Nobody knows me. I could die in this room and they wouldn’t know until they smell it
Don’t say THAT is there somebody you can talk to down there?
I don’t mean it that serious
Ok. Well, trust me. You will find your people. Let’s call later when I get off I love you
He doesn’t answer when she calls. Please call me tonight, she says. Ill pick up right away
The Psych club holds a Halloween movie night. He goes, to be around people. He wants to suffocate himself with people, to be surrounded, until they don’t seem like mannequins to him anymore. Things he could dress and undress. A criminology professor lectures on social pathology and they show a rerun of Criminal Minds. He sits through the hour like a dentist appointment.
Project Girl sits lower in the auditorium. She’s a Psych major. Tonight she doesn’t feel his eyes. Between her presence and the lecture, he senses a new tectonic alignment in his being. The cocoon has split.
Outside the student union he trails her between the sleepy lights along the path—his pace listless, as outwardly uncertain as he is sure in his mind. He angles through a gritty construction area to cut the distance between them, and comes out with a brick in his hand. The path veers down to the upperclassmen dorms, bordered by a sprawl of woods. His grandfather steps out from the trees to join him in his dirty white mover’s uniform. The old man grins his grin. He walks onward without need of further permission. The brick sweats, the sweat turns cold in his palm as if he holds a bag of ice.
Project Girl brightens and darkens with each bulb she crosses under. Then she slows to rustle in her purse for her key card. He ducks behind the low pine branches, the trees courteously hiding him. The path is empty, east and west, but for them. Adrenaline washes through his system. He comes even with her and raises the brick, willing himself to part the branches, ready for somebody to see him as he is. She looks up from her search—not at him, but at a lit window in the dorm—and he sees her profile shining under the light and thinks, I am going to get rid of Karissa Stein. His arm stays poised with the brick lifted in a perverse salute. He sees himself holding it as if he were about to bash in his own face. Karissa locates her card and goes down to the door, which wheezes shut behind her.
His hand numbs around the brick, his circulation stinging. He moves to lower it. The brick leaves his grip and strikes him in the eye. Bright flecks of dust in his sight. He swears, then laughs, because no one is there. With a hand patched over his eye socket, he walks away from the old man in white and climbs toward the freshmen dorms. The night is his luck; nobody on the path notices the blood on his brow, or the incoming shiner. He keys into his hall and then his room, flinging water into his face over the sink. A Band-Aid stops the red: Dad’s other preventative gift to him. But nothing will hide the black eye, the mark of the night self that he is not. That he knows he cannot be. Maybe the bruise will make him interesting, he thinks, though he’s too shocked right now to hope for that, too ambushed by the ordinary fact of his conscience. He goes to his bed and falls on the covers beside his laptop. He wraps his arms around his body, conjuring himself away until he isn’t Nicholas George Welby anymore but somebody bound and waiting in an empty house, their name stolen. Somebody hearing tires, watching the approach of headlights that say: He’s coming, he’s getting closer. He’s here.
© Anthony Otten
[This piece was selected by Jacky Taylor. Read Anthony’s interview]