It broke into their home and set up residence in their minds.
When the… thing first insinuated itself into the Lund family household, they were bemused. Vaguely human-shaped, its constantly-changing cravings seemed disturbing, at first, but time and pressure have a way of normalizing the extreme. Wasn’t it always part of their lives?
As the family make more and greater sacrifices in service to the beast, the thrall that binds them begins to break down. Choices must be made. Prices must be paid. And the Lunds must pit their wits against a creature determined to never let them go.
It’s psychological warfare. Sanity is optional.
Bedfellow is a tense dark fantasy novel of psychological horror from author Jeremy C. Shipp—available November 13th from Tor.com Publishing.
Hendrick prides himself on always responding well to an emergency, but he freezes in place when a man in a Space Jam nightshirt crawls through their living room window. The intruder carries a tattered grocery bag, which leaks a bright green ooze onto the hardwood floor. These floors are only two years old, Hendrick wants to tell the man, but of course he doesn’t.
Instead, he says, “Go upstairs.”
The man in the nightshirt tilts his head to the side, as if wondering why he should go upstairs at a time like this. But obviously Hendrick is speaking to his wife, who’s sitting on the leather couch behind him. He can feel her fear emanating against his back, the same way he can sense her displeasure at a crowded office party.
“Imani, go,” he says.
To be quite honest, Hendrick has often fantasized about a moment like this. On a date with his wife, Hendrick will imagine a man with a semiautomatic charging into the movie theater. In his mind, Hendrick will crawl through the aisle and lunge forward and burrow his thumbs into the terrorist’s eyes.
In the here and now, Hendrick doesn’t lunge forward. But he does take a step and point a threatening finger at the man’s grimy face.
“Get the fuck out of my house,” Hendrick says, proud of the line. He’s feeling bolder by the second, because this Space Jam guy is obviously some poor, unarmed bastard who probably thinks he’s in Narnia right now. Hendrick grew up in San Diego, and there he learned that homeless people are almost always harmless. He recalls a friend of his throwing an empty Dr. Pepper can at an old man in a bright, pink robe, and the old man only whispered and turned away.
“Listen, buddy,” Hendrick says, sounding a little too much like his father for his taste. “I don’t want to call the police if I don’t have to.” In truth, he’s already thinking about tonight’s news report, where he’s standing, slightly dazed in front of his house, the red and blue lights flashing on his face. Rosalita Little will come at him with her oversized microphone and say, “What inspired you to confront the intruder yourself, Mr. Lund?”
The nightshirt man responds to Hendrick’s threat by smiling a little.
“Do you have Howard the Duck on Blu-ray?” the man says, swinging his grocery bag gently from side to side. He speaks in a melodious, high-pitched voice that Hendrick finds offensive. “I heard there’s a naked duck woman with boobs in that movie. Have you seen it?”
“I’m calling the police,” Hendrick says, his Android already in his hand. “This is your last chance to get the fuck out of here.”
“A DVD would be fine too, if you don’t have a Blu-ray.” The strange man sprays a line of green goo all over the floor with his damn swinging.
While Hendrick dials 911, the nightshirt man opens his grocery bag and stares inside with almost pupil-less eyes. What kind of drug does that to a person’s eyes?
“Nine-one-one,” the dispatcher says. “What’s your emergency?”
Hendrick opens his mouth but his words catch in his throat like a craggy chunk of ice he accidentally swallowed. For one ridiculous moment, he considers asking the dispatcher why a duck would even have boobs when they’re not mammals. This is a common enough occurrence for Hendrick, whose thoughts often veer left during somber situations like funerals or project meetings or arguments with his wife. He’ll often burst into laughter and embarrass himself. He makes sure not to laugh now.
“911,” the dispatcher says again.
“I think my bag is leaking,” the homeless man says.
In an attempt at an even tone, Hendrick explains the situation and gives his address. He gives his address a second time, just in case.
Hendrick doesn’t go upstairs and lock himself in a room with his family, as the dispatcher suggests. He strolls over to the fireplace and picks up the glass Coke bottle that someone (probably Kennedy) left on the mantelpiece. The girl never does pick up after herself.
The Space Jam guy studies Hendrick with his tiny eyes. “I’ve heard that Mexican Coke is better than the regular kind. Is that true?”
Hendrick stands at the bottom of the stairs, with his arms crossed over his chest. He waits. He can feel a rivulet of sweat trickling down his back, and part of him wishes for an end to all this. The other part isn’t quite done yet.
As a small child, Kennedy would navigate the world as an intrepid explorer, climbing cabinets and squeezing between fence posts and disappearing into clothing racks at the mall. Now, at thirteen years old, she still feels that whirling, staticky energy inside her. She sits on the bathroom tile, wriggling each of her toes, wanting to race downstairs to her dad.
“Has he texted you back yet?” Kennedy says.
“Not yet,” her mom says, standing right next to the bathroom door. “I’m sure he’s fine. The police will be here soon.”
Her mother called the police hours (or was it minutes?) ago. Kennedy knows that some guy came into their house, but what disturbs her most is how quiet and still her house has become. She expected yelling, screaming, struggling. Instead, she can’t hear anything from downstairs. Her mom and brother are hardly moving. Even the wind outside seems to have died down since they locked themselves in here. The girl realizes her thoughts are running rampant in her head, and she’s being ridiculous, but the silence of her home still disquiets her.
Sitting beside her, Tomas hands her an ant in a top hat drawn on his yellow notepad. Drawing Battle often begins with an insect or a mouse. Kennedy takes the ballpoint pen and starts sketching an anthropomorphic shoe that could smash the ant. Next, Tomas will draw a ball of flame or any object or creature that could destroy the shoe, and the game will go on from there. Kennedy doesn’t consider herself much of an artist, and her turns tend to last a minute or less. Tomas, on the other hand, will strain himself to create a moon with craters for eyes and mountain ranges for lips. He’ll spawn a giant robotic jerboa crushing New York City. He’ll always end the game by drawing God, who, depending on the day, will turn out to be a Gandalf-looking wizard or a hippo vomiting a swirling galaxy.
After Kennedy finishes her cross-eyed shoe, she stands and cracks her knuckles.
“Can you not?” her mother says, still tapping at her phone.
Kennedy is bewildered by the fact that her mother could worry about knuckle-cracking at a time like this, but her mother often surprises her in this way.
“Has he texted yet?” the teenager says.
“No,” her mother says, with a small quiver in her voice. “I’ll let you know when he does.”
At the sound of the small quiver, the static inside Kennedy whirls faster. She imagines her father lying on the hardwood floor downstairs, being silently strangled by a man in a black ski mask. Kennedy sidesteps her brother and slowly reaches out to touch the brass handle of the bathroom door.
Before her mother notices what’s happening, Kennedy scrambles outside and surges down the hallway. Eventually, she slows and turns her head.
From here, Kennedy can see her father sitting motionless at the bottom of the stairs. The man who broke in isn’t wearing a ski mask after all. He’s sitting cross-legged on the floor, wearing a Bugs Bunny shirt.
The man glances up at Kennedy and gives a little wave.
Her dad stands and turns around.
“Go to your mom,” he says, and he sounds calm. He looks a bit sweaty but Kennedy can’t see any cuts or bruises.
When someone grabs her arm, Kennedy half-expects another man in a matching Bugs Bunny shirt to be standing beside her. But it’s only her mother.
Her mother mouths a couple words that Kennedy doesn’t catch and pulls her back down the hall. Twisting away, the teenager slips into Tomas’s bedroom. She heads straight for the closet, where she finds her brother’s stubby aluminum bat.
This time, when her mother leads her back to the bathroom, she follows.
“What were you thinking?” her mother whispers, still holding her arm with a hand like a metal claw.
Kennedy wriggles herself free. “Dad’s OK, I think. The guy who broke in was just sitting there.”
Her mother continues to stand beside her, obviously on guard in case her daughter tries to make a run for it again. Kennedy glances at her brother and notices that he’s staring at the bat in her hand.
“Just in case,” she says.
Her brother shifts his gaze to his notepad. He dangles his pen over the paper without drawing anything.
“Did the man have a gun?” her mother says, quietly.
“I didn’t see one,” the teenager says.
The three of them sit in silence for a while, and the cypress stands motionless outside the high bathroom window.
Kennedy thinks about the unwashed man on the floor, and about her father’s tirades whenever he spots someone giving money to a homeless person. He’ll only get worse after tonight. He’ll say, “Great, give that guy some drug money so he can tweak out and break into our house like the last guy.” Kennedy almost wishes the man on the floor were a well-groomed thief with a mustache, like in an old British film.
“Give me the bat, honey,” her mother says.
Kennedy studies her mother for a moment, and then hands over the squat little weapon. Her mother rests the bat across her lap. She taps at her violet, furry phone.
Tomas hands over his notepad, and Kennedy wonders who could defeat this shoe-eating ninja goat? A tyrannosaurus samurai? The teenager scribbles on the next blank piece of paper. When she stretches out her legs and wiggles her toes, the wind picks up again. The cypress sways in the tiny window above. She thought the movement would make her feel less uneasy, would make the whirling static lull a little in her limbs, but she was wrong.
With a sense of dread, Imani scrolls backward in time through the digital albums on her phone. Her crow’s feet vanish, and her children shrink smaller and smaller until they disappear altogether. Her husband’s gray hairs become imbued with the color of the sequoia trees she would jokingly hug during their camping trips. “I’m a tree hugger,” she would say, every time. As she rewinds their lives together, Hendrick also appears increasingly happy. More often, he grins with his whole face and he gives his stupid double thumbs-up to the camera. Imani slows down at a picture of the two of them standing in front of a dark green pond, a duckling balanced on Hendrick’s palm. She told him not to pick up the duck, but he did anyway.
But none of this is the point of Imani’s search. When the man in the nightshirt first appeared, standing behind the open bay window, he winked at her, knowingly. And she recognized him.
Imani scrolls through the albums with a trembling thumb, but she can’t find the man anywhere. She’s afraid that he knew her during her wilder days, back when she didn’t take many pictures. Did she wrong him somehow? For so many years, Imani has pretended to be a nice, normal mother and a nice, normal wife. Of course a man would crawl out of the past to punish her for this charade.
Imani attempts to jostle these thoughts out of her with a shake of her head. She’s being silly. The man downstairs is no one, and she didn’t even get a good look at his face, anyway. How could she recognize him at all?
She continues to search through her photos until Hendrick finally texts back with, Everything’s fine.
For a second, she strokes at the furry phone with googly eyes, as if in thanks for the good news.
“Your dad says everything’s okay,” Imani says, standing from the closed toilet. “I’m going to check and see what’s happening. You two stay here and lock the door behind me.”
“Can’t I come with you?” her daughter says, already standing.
“I cannot toilet you do that,” the mother says, because she wants her home to feel normal and stupid again.
The girl presses her hands against the sides of her face. “That was horrible.”
Imani shrugs. “Stay here.”
She leaves, almost tripping as she steps over her son’s legs, and she takes the baseball bat with her. Thankfully, she hears the soft click of the lock behind her.
On her more stressful days, Imani will sometimes drive over a bump in the road with her Flux, and she’ll have to look back to make sure she didn’t hit a raccoon or a cat or a human being who happened to be lying flat on the street in the dark. And if she doesn’t look back, she’ll picture a half-dead possum dangling under her car, his flesh scraping against the road, until she can get home and check. Tonight, while she makes her way through the hall, she pictures a man leaping out from one of the bedrooms. And after she swings wildly with the bat, she realizes too late that she’s smashed Hendrick in the face, his nose gnarled, his teeth tumbling down a waterfall of blood. She attempts to quiet her imagination with a few deep breaths.
From the stairs, she can hear guttural whispers coming from the living room, but when she makes her way down, she realizes what she’s hearing is the crackling of a fireplace on the TV. Her husband loves the sound of fire, and he’ll often play one of these damn videos while reading or playing one of his silly phone games.
“Hendrick?” she says, pausing at the bottom of the stairs.
“Everything’s fine,” he says, echoing his text.
She finds her husband with his bare feet on their oversized ottoman, as if a man didn’t invade their home only minutes ago. He’s caressing an old-fashioned ornamented with a maraschino cherry and an orange wheel. He only adds the fruit during special occasions. Imani despises old-fashioneds with a passion, so she assumes the second cocktail on the serving tray isn’t meant for her.
“What happened?” Imani says.
Her husband taps at the side of his glass with an index finger and gives a sheepish-looking smile. “It was all a stupid misunderstanding.” He turns down the sound of the fire slightly with the remote. “Marvin tried ringing the doorbell, but it’s not working, apparently. So, then he tried knocking, but we couldn’t hear him over the TV. That’s why he came over to tap on the window.”
Imani does like to up the volume of the TV to nearly earth-shattering levels. She remembers the man at the window tapping on the glass, and she remembers screaming. She remembers saying, “What the fuck is that? What the fuck is that?”
Hendrick shakes his head and sighs. “You screamed and I went into full papa bear mode. I still can’t believe I called the police. Fuck. They came to the door, and I had to explain everything. Marvin’s still shaken up.”
At this point, Imani glances around the room for this so-called Marvin, half-expecting him to be crouching in a corner, watching all of this unfold. The name Marvin sounds very familiar somehow, and the wife is even more convinced that he’s some weirdo from her past.
“He was trying to come inside,” Imani says, the artificial fire still sputtering at her back.
Hendrick shakes his head and then takes another sip of his drink. A bit of the liquid spills onto his T-shirt. “He tapped on the window and you screamed because we were watching that fucking serial killer show. You know how you get.”
Imani remembers Marvin standing at the window, tapping at the glass. She thought he winked at her, but it could have been a blink. He could have been tapping and blinking and nothing more.
When Marvin strolls out of the downstairs bathroom, Imani feels a sudden urge to bash his head in with the bat or run outside, or one and then the other. The feeling almost instantly collapses, however. His clean-cut look comes as a relief to her, with his excessively-gelled side-part and his collared button-up patterned with blurry white stars. She doesn’t know exactly what she was expecting to see when he stepped out of the bathroom, but this is not it.
“Hey there,” he says, and he takes a seat next to Hendrick. He puts his feet up on the ottoman, right next to her husband’s. “You have a beautiful home. The layout kind of reminds me of the house from Troll. Have you seen it?”
“No,” Imani says.
“It’s no Troll 2 but it’s pretty good.” Marvin takes a sip of his cocktail, and judging by his expression, he enjoys old-fashioneds as much as Imani does. “You know what’s weird? In Troll, the main character is little boy named Harry Potter who ends up doing magic. No one ever believes me when I say that, but it’s true.”
By now, Imani’s feeling like a complete idiot, because she’s finally remembered where she knows this guy. He’s the man who gave Tomas the Heimlich earlier that day. When Tomas started choking, Marvin seemed to appear out of nowhere, softly lit in the dim steakhouse. He wore the same dark dress pants and starfield shirt. Imani was so focused on Tomas that she hardly looked at the man who saved him. She thanked him, again and again, but she kept her eyes on her son.
Marvin is here, of course, because Hendrick must have invited him over a drink. Hendrick will often invite work friends over without telling Imani, which annoys the hell out of her when she’s not in the mood to entertain.
“Thank you for what you did,” Imani says. “You really saved the day.”
“I guess I’m a regular Mighty Mouse,” Marvin says, pushing the cocktail away from himself a little with a single finger.
A commercial for constipation medicine interrupts the YouTube video of the fireplace. Imani doesn’t turn around to look, but she can only assuming that a talking piece of shit is the one shouting, “I’m melting. What a world. What a world.”
Imani feels compelled to pour herself a drink of her own, but she doesn’t.
“Oh,” she says. “I should get the children. They’re still in the bathroom.” Immediately, she feels like a monster for leaving them there for so long.
On her way up the stairs, the crackling of the fireplace once again sounds like a murmuring of sharp, urgent consonants. “Ks ksh tss,” the voices say. In the hall, she realizes that she’s still gripping the small aluminum bat. Right as she’s about to toss the toy onto her son’s bedroom floor, she changes her mind. Instead, she places the weapon under her bed, on her side, next to her little porcelain box of worthless treasures. Imani laughs at herself for being such a panicky fool, but she’s still frightened. She’s not frightened of Marvin, of course. She’s afraid of the man in her imagination who still might be out there, squatting in the dark, waiting to push open the living room window so that he can crawl inside.
Luckily for Tomas, he managed to grab a handful of pens before his mother dragged him into the bathroom and said, in a terrified voice, that everything would be fine. Now, while waiting for his sister to finish her drawing, he organizes his pens into a rainbow of sorts. Auburn, tangerine, chartreuse, citron, emerald, ube, lilac, imperial purple.
Tomas understands that there are men in the world who wear masks and rob houses, but what Tomas doesn’t understand is why one of these men would break into a home like theirs. Why steal from children when you can go after guys like Prince John or Voldemort? The boy can only assume that the thief broke into their house by mistake, never suspecting that he was interrupting a family’s Fun Friday.
“Okay, done,” his sister says, and hands him the notepad.
Tomas studies the drawing for a few moments. “What is this guy?”
“His head looks like a duck head.”
“Well, he’s a tyrannosaurus. See, he’s got short little arms. He can’t swing the sword very well, but he manages to squish your goat.”
Tomas nods approvingly. While the dinosaur makes quick work of the ninja duck and the surrounding farm animals, the boy ponders his next move. He could of course send out an F-16 Fighting Falcon, but to be honest, he’s tired of drawing machines. These days, he’s more interested in natural-looking killing machines, like crab dragons or moss men who vomit poisonous mushrooms.
Back on the farm, the T. rex awkwardly sheaths his katana and then bursts through a white picket fence into the open countryside. The boy decides to send forth a half-barn half-vampire hybrid to deal with the creature, but there’s a knock at the door before he can even grab a pen.
“It’s me,” his mom says, her voice muffled through the door. “Everyone’s safe. Everything’s fine.”
Kennedy’s already out the door by the time Tomas finishes collecting his makeshift rainbow.
“The man from the restaurant is here,” his mom says. “You should come down and thank him.”
Of course, when his mom says that he should do something, what she means is that he will. She stands by the door, watching him with eyes of burnt umber.
Downstairs, Tomas slips on a wet spot on the floor, but he manages to keep himself upright.
“Be careful, sweetie,” his mom says.
“Ah, here’s the man of the hour,” his father says, raising his glass. Tomas isn’t sure what he means by this, but the boy smiles a little nonetheless.
His mom says, “Tomas wanted to thank you for what you did.”
The stranger crouches in the corner, studying their bookshelf of Blu-rays. Tomas doesn’t understand why the man is wearing his dad’s pelican shirt, but a moment later, he realizes that the tiny pelicans on the shirt are actually white blobs.
“Thank you,” Tomas says.
“No prob.” The stranger turns around, holding a copy of Return to Oz. “Hey, have you seen this one?”
“Only a little,” the boy says. The truth is that while he can easily face his own creations, Tomas can’t handle every creature he comes across. He cried when he saw the Wheelers, and his mom said he didn’t have to watch the rest of the movie.
“How is it compared to Wizard of Oz?” the stranger says.
“It’s scarier,” the boy says.
“Hmm.” The man returns the Blu-ray to the shelf and continues his search.
Tomas stands silent, staring at the back of the man’s shirt, unsure as to whether he’s expected to say more. He glances at his mom, but she’s busy whispering in his dad’s ear. His dad looks half-asleep on the couch, with his glass tucked between his legs.
While staring at the stranger, Tomas notices a smudge in his vision. He attempts to wipe at his glasses with his T-shirt, but this doesn’t help. Maybe he needs to run his glasses under the faucet.
“I made you yours,” Kennedy says, appearing beside him with a hot fudge sundae in each hand.
The boy studies his bowl, to make sure the ice cream to whipped cream ratio is correct. Yes, his whipped cream reigns supreme.
“Thanks,” he says.
His sister disappears up the stairs, as if washed away by some invisible river. Sometimes, Tomas wishes he could be more like his sister and leave any room with such ease.
“Is there any more of that?” the stranger says, motioning at the sundae with a DVD copy of Big Trouble in Little China. The case slips out of his hand and he says, “Agh.”
Tomas stares into his bowl, as if searching for the answer. “I don’t know,” he says. “You could look in the freezer.”
“That’s not mint chocolate chip, is it?”
While the man retrieves the dropped DVD, Tomas sidesteps in the direction of the stairs. His mother doesn’t tell him to stop. His father’s eyes are closed, his fingers interlaced over his belly. The man doesn’t ask any more questions about the ice cream, so Tomas manages to escape upstairs without any problems. A muffled version of David Bowie’s gnome song leaks out of his sister’s closed door. For a moment, Tomas considers joining his sister. She would let him sit on her bed and eat his ice cream. She would show him YouTube videos of a dancing baby or a dog and an elephant who are best friends.
In the end, Tomas decides on the peace and quiet of his own tidy sanctuary. On Fun Friday, not only can he eat a whipped cream sundae in his Mechagodzilla pajamas, but he can stay up until 10 PM. Unfortunately, a cloud of fatigue is already diffusing throughout his arms and legs. It’s only a matter of minutes before the fog will spread up into his eyes.
With little time to spare, Tomas wriggles half of his body under his bed so that he can reach his drawing journal. Mrs. Z gave him the journal last year, on the last day of school. She told him the rules of the journal. She also said that if he ever filled up the journal, he could come back to her classroom, and she would give him another. He remembers the tiny cerulean smiley faces painted on her fingernails that day.
Tomas’s first instinct is to capture a quiet moment in the bathroom, his mom staring at a black blot of spider on the wall, his sister gnawing at the top button of her flannel shirt. At the time, Tomas didn’t feel particularly frightened of the robber in the house. He trusted that his father could throw the man out the front door, if necessary. He didn’t understand why his mom and sister seemed so nervous.
The boy’s pen lowers slightly but hovers a millimeter above the paper. He finds himself suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of obligation to the man in the restaurant. The man did save his life, didn’t he? Doesn’t he deserve at least one page of Tomas’s memories?
The boy gazes into the bright, white paper, and he sends his consciousness back through time, into Thomas’s Bar & Grill. He has no particular fondness for the Fun Guy Burger and Crazy Fries he always orders; he likes that his mother never fails to say, “Let’s go to your restaurant, Tomas.” He likes the fake, flickering candles on the table, and he likes the artificial oak tree in the center of the restaurant, decorated with fairy lights and a hodgepodge of dangling ornaments. Tomas can remember when Kennedy would walk with him around the tree before the food arrived, and they would find their favorite ornaments: the banjo-playing flamingo and the glittery pinecone and the ugly pineapple man. Now Kennedy won’t walk around the tree anymore.
Tomas remembers the moments before the chunk of hamburger clung inside his throat, too afraid to drop down into his stomach. He doesn’t blame the hamburger, really. He wouldn’t want to be digested in a pool of acid either. Before Tomas started choking, his sister carefully balanced another butter packet on her tower of condiments. His dad accidentally said “fucking Brendan” instead of “freaking Brendan,” and his mom’s eyes widened into little UFOs. “Hendrick Lund,” she said.
When Tomas began choking, he sat very still with his palms flat on the paper tablecloth. He studied his father’s rosy, smirking face.
“Tomas?” his mom said. “Something’s wrong with him. Tomas, say something.”
By the time his father stood up, Tomas already felt his body rising up and up off his chair. An arm wrapped around his stomach and squeezed, like the tentacle of an angry octopus. As he hovered in the air, the restaurant swirled around him and the fairy lights on the oak tree blurred into shooting stars. The hamburger piece flew out of him, landing next to his sister’s unused knife.
His mother held him then, and when he looked at her, the edges of her face quivered. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you.” Tomas faced the stranger, and the line of man’s mouth became jagged like the seismograph he saw on his last field trip. The stars on the man’s shirt twinkled as if they were real.
Back in his room again, Tomas feels his heart slamming against his chest, again and again. A hot tear burns his right eye. I should… he thinks, but the thought crumbles into nothingness.
Before he can formulate a plan of action, the boy finds himself in the hallway, heading for his parents’ room. He can still see his mother’s face in the restaurant, her skin rippling, her eyes twisted like silly putty. Inside, he screams, Go away! Go away!
Before the boy can reach his parents’ bedroom, he notices that the guest room door is wide open, and he hears someone on the TV say, “No one laughs at a master of Quack Fu.” Tomas doesn’t understand why anyone would be watching TV in there. His grandparents only visit during Christmas.
Tomas strolls forward and glances as casually as possible into the guest room. Through smudged glasses and a weepy right eye, Tomas sees a man standing alone by the TV. This isn’t his grandfather. Without leaning over, the man stretches a pale arm to pick a bottle off the floor. The man turns and stares at Tomas with pupils that are little more than amaranth-colored pinpricks. When the man opens his mouth, Tomas screams.
“Oh, hey, kid,” the man says. “Scream scream to you, too.”
After wiping the tears from his eyes, Tomas sees the man from the restaurant standing by the TV, holding a plastic grocery bag. He pulls a Gatorade out of the bag and adds the drink to a line of bottles on the windowsill. Now his hazel eyes appear perfectly boring.
“I’m going to see my mom,” the boy says, because he’s not sure what else he can say.
“Cool,” the man says, pulling another Gatorade from his tattered bag. A miniscule waterfall of bright green liquid spills onto the floor from the bottom of the bottle. Tomas feels a mild urge to tell the man that the hardwood is only two years old, like his dad always says, but he keeps his mouth shut.
“Ah, here’s the culprit,” the man continues. He lifts the bottle to his lips and drinks from the lesion in the plastic, as if he’s sucking poison from a rattlesnake bite. His Adam’s apple dances up and down.
While the man is busy, Tomas takes this opportunity to sidestep in the direction of his parents’ room. For some reason, unknown even to Tomas himself, he’s always held a deep-seated belief that holding your breath can spawn an invisible bubble around your body. You aren’t invulnerable within the bubble, of course. But you are luckier. You can sometimes walk through the hallways at school without so much as a flick to your shoulder. With all this in mind, Tomas holds his breath now.
“Hey,” the man says, rupturing the bubble with a small, jagged word. “Has anyone ever told you that you look like that kid from Flight of the Navigator? Not so much your hair, but the shape of your face. Your nose, I guess. Did you know that kid ended up robbing a bank? Not in the movie, I mean. Real life. Would it be weird if I called you David, like the character?”
“That’s not my name,” Tomas says.
“Okay, well.” The man tosses the empty Gatorade bottle onto the floor. “You seem a little on edge, what with that screaming fit of yours earlier. I mean, I get it. There’s a new guy staying in your house and you don’t know him from Adam, whoever the fuck Adam is. Agh, sorry for cursing.” He taps an index finger against his forehead. “So, uh, your mom told me you like to draw. I knew a woman once who painted cats as clowns. It really helped her relax. Maybe you could draw for a while and try to chill out a little bit.”
Finally, Tomas manages to break free from the restaurant man’s gaze and stumble away from his line of sight. More than anything, he wants to tell his parents about his mother’s gnarled eyes in the restaurant. He wants to tell them about the man’s body. But his father will only tell him to calm down. He’ll say, “This house is a no-drama zone.” He’ll say, “Come back when you’re ready to tell the truth.”
Instead of knocking, Tomas runs his hands over the squares of molding on his parents’ ivory door. Their murky voices sound a world away. Tomas heads back the way he came, and this time he keeps his eyes focused forward. When he passes the guest room, he imagines the man’s long, snaking arms reaching for his neck. Tomas holds his breath.
His wife doesn’t so much pace the room as ping-pong from wall to wall, straightening a perfectly straight lampshade, reorganizing the army of LED candles on her bedside table.
“The man’s house is being fumigated,” Hendrick says, lying flat on their velvet quilt. He knows he should take off his oxfords, but that would likely cause him to fall asleep instantly. “Instead of watching him drive off drunk to get a motel room in the middle of the night, I thought this would be the polite thing.”
In truth, Hendrick’s more than a little buzzed himself, and he can’t quite recall the precise moment he invited Marvin to stay the night. Nevertheless, the offer was made, and he’s not about to backstep now.
“He could have called an Uber,” Imani says, searching through her sock-and-underwear drawer.
“You’re right, but the guy saved our son’s life. I thought we could do him a favor.” Hendrick sits up and turns himself so that his feet hover over the edge of the bed. “Honestly, though, this isn’t about the guy. This is about you freaking out again. You project your mom onto every new person you meet, so you never want to give them a chance. At least admit to yourself that that’s true.”
“Thanks, babe,” Imani says, to a section of empty wall. “I love it when you throw my childhood in my face like that. Real classy.”
“I’m not throwing anything.” He lies on his back a little too fast, and the ceiling swirls above him. “The point . . . the point is that you’re not the best judge of character. You think everyone’s a secret cannibal. You don’t even want the kids to go to sleepovers.”
The sound of shattering glass pervades Hendrick’s consciousness.
“Fuck,” Imani says. “That was an accident. I’m not throwing things. I broke my little porcelain peanut guy.”
He sits up and watches her pick up pieces of the smiling peanut using two fingers.
“I’m all for judging Marvin fairly,” she says. “But we don’t know him. I get inviting him over for a drink, but you should talk with me first before you ask a stranger to stay the night.”
“But he’s not exactly a stranger, is he? We talked with him for who knows how long at the restaurant. He told us his whole damn life story. You said you liked the guy.”
Imani stays frozen for a moment and then rubs her face with both hands. She leaves a trail of blood from her forehead to her chin.
“You’re bleeding,” Hendrick says.
His wife studies her hands. “Fuck.”
When she returns from the bathroom with a poop-emoji Band-Aid on her finger, she says, “Marvin does seem like a good person, and yeah, we had a nice long conversation about his hippie parents and his Chihuahuas. Even so, we don’t really know him.” She sighs. “But I suppose it’s too late to kick him out now. I’m going to check on the kids.”
Hendrick lies back with his oxfords on, because he still wants to visit the basement tonight. He enjoys creeping through the darkness while the rest of his world sleeps, and pulling the false bricks from the basement wall. Despite all his best efforts, Hendrick falls asleep on the gunmetal velvet. In the dream that follows, the basement fills with murky water and a pale serpent wraps around his face, painlessly. He asks Imani to take a picture but she won’t turn around. She says he can take his own damn picture. She says he’s as good as dead.
Traditionally, Kennedy spends her Fun Fridays watching videos where a family of squirrel monkeys rides on a capybara, or a Canadian woman bakes a tiny chocolate cake for her hamster’s birthday, or anything in that vein. However, her plans change when she’s drenched in a wave of realization that she hates her room. She absolutely despises this place, and the truth of the matter is that she’s felt this way for a very long time.
For about half an hour, Kennedy sits at her hand-painted rainbow desk, drawing plans for a room-wide redesign. In one plan, her collection of stuffed penguins dangles from the ceiling on strings. Twinkle lights coil up the legs of her scrapbooking table. And posters of Hogwarts and Wonder Woman and David Bowie form a madcap collage on the opposite wall. As soon as she finishes a plan, she crumples the paper and tosses it into the open mouth of her Totoro wastepaper basket. Each permutation is worse than the last.
The problem, she decides, is that she’s living not so much in a bedroom but a mausoleum of abandoned hobbies and forgotten dreams. Maybe she’s being a little overdramatic, but the truth is that she doesn’t give a crap about her scrapbooking table or her saxophone or even most of her posters. She doesn’t want to throw any of this stuff away, because the thought makes her want to cry.
Ultimately, she puts away her astronaut cat notebook and opens her laptop. The first perfect video that she comes across is of a Sphynx who won’t stop meowing until her human places a glittery, violet cowboy hat on her head. She swiftly opens up the same video on her phone and heads for Tomas’s room. In truth, she’s going not only to show him the Sphynx (as well as the enormous possum who bites an old man’s arm) but to check on him. While she’s not particularly frightened of Marvin, she still feels a faint swirling energy in her limbs that makes her want to run laps around the house or punch a wall. On a conscious level, she knows her family isn’t in any danger. Nevertheless, she can’t stop thinking about the imaginary man in the black ski mask. In the back of her mind, he’s in her brother’s room right now, pointing a butcher knife at his eye.
Thankfully, she finds her brother alone, playing on his computer, wearing his massive orange headphones. He looks even smaller than usual in those headphones, sitting on their dad’s hand-me-down office chair.
“Tomas,” she says. “Tomas!”
The boy jumps in his seat and spins around. With a glance at her phone, he pauses his flying goat game and rolls his chair to the side of the bed, without ever standing up. Kennedy sits cross-legged on the Steven Universe blanket. She shows him the possum video first, since it’s the less-important of the two.
While her brother watches, Kennedy gazes past him at the spiral of yellow sticky notes that blazon the wall with miniature coats of arms. There’s a jerboa in chainmail with a blue-and-white background. There’s an upside-down house with a bigfoot gripping the chimney for dear life. Kennedy once asked if these little escutcheons mean anything, and he said no. Ordinarily, she experiences nothing but a mild sense of pride when looking at her brother’s artwork. Tonight, she suffers a few pangs of jealousy. He knows what he likes, and he has the capacity to stay interested in an activity for more than a few weeks at a time. Worst of all, he makes it look so easy.
Thankfully, the envy dissipates as soon as she focuses on her phone once again.
“Is that possum his pet?” Tomas says. “Can you have possums as a pet?”
“I dunno,” Kennedy says. “I have another good one.”
Partway through the cat video, their mom interrupts for the millionth time tonight. She’s wearing her dancing-taco nightgown.
“Everything fine and dandy in here?” their mother says.
“Great,” Kennedy says, tossing her flip-flop a few feet using two of her toes. “I smoked a pack of cigarettes, and all of Tomas’s teeth fell out.”
“All his teeth, huh?” their mom says. She leans back against the doorframe, her arms crossed over her chest. “That sounds flossome.”
“It hurts me when you lie like that. I’ve got fillings too, you know?”
After Kennedy tosses her second flip-flop across the room, she looks up, and her mom’s already disappeared. As Kennedy shows her brother the rest of the cat video, he casually pinches a few of his teeth. The video ends, and he rubs his right eye, smiling.
“That cat should ride on a little horse,” he says, yawning in the middle of the sentence. “She could use her yarn for like a . . . a cowboy rope. A lasso.”
“That would be cool,” Kennedy says. She takes a circuitous route to the door, collecting her flip-flops and wearing them on her hands. For a moment, she considers walking on all fours like a horse but ultimately decides against it.
As soon as she passes through the doorway, she hears, “Did you find any other videos?”
Kennedy freezes and then walks backward into the room, as if someone’s pressed Rewind on reality. She even tosses her shoes on the floor, where they were, to enhance the effect. Tomas isn’t paying any attention to her, though. He’s spinning around slowly in his office chair with his eyes half-closed.
“Do you want to go to bed?” the girl says. “You’re already asleep. You’re sleep-spinning.”
Kennedy hops onto the bed and take out her phone. She taps the screen on and off and on again. “No one’s gonna break into the house, you know? It was just a misunderstanding, like Dad said. Marvin tapped on the window and Mom freaked out. That was it.”
After a few seconds, Tomas slows to a stop, facing a shelf of ceramic skulls and dragons. “Mom’s face looked weird in the restaurant,” he says. “Her eyes looked mushed.”
Kennedy feels her heart climbing up into her throat. “What do you mean?”
“Her skin kept moving,” he whispers. “The man looked weird too.”
“What are you talking about?”
“In the restaurant, when the hamburger got stuck. Everything was wavy and mushed.”
Kennedy taps her phone gently against her knee. “Well, I mean, when you choked, your brain probably freaked out or something. Mom’s eyes were never mushed. I was there too. Everything was normal, except for the burger chunk that flew out of your mouth a hundred miles an hour.”
He’s facing her now, his eyes more awake than a minute ago. “Can I stay in your room tonight?”
“All right,” Kennedy says. “But no egg farts, OK? The last time you egg farted, I almost died.”
The boy grabs his Stay Puft Marshmallow Man head pillow and follows her into her room. For a while, they listen to Bowie’s “Magic Dance” on repeat, and tragically, Tomas does end up releasing one of his more severe egg farts. Kennedy pretends to die in her bed. Her last words are “Avenge . . . me.”
Tomas falls asleep first, curled up on a cloud of ultra-plush blankets on her floor. His sister makes sure that his chest is still moving before turning away.
Sitting on her bed, she takes one last grim look at her room and decides that what she needs is the holodeck from her dad’s Star Trek show. She needs a room that’s decorated with illuminated manuscripts and K-pop album covers one day and Wonder Woman memorabilia the next. She needs a room that can keep up. Kennedy closes her eyes and tries not to think about her mother with mushed eyes and moving skin. She commands her brain not to dream of it. Soon, she’s outside and Tomas is up high in an oak tree, a pale branch impaled through his chest. She tells him not to keep climbing, because that will only make the hole inside him bigger, but he won’t listen. He won’t stop climbing until he reaches the top.
Excerpted from Bedfellow, copyright © 2018 by Jeremy Shipp.