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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Why Visit America

Stories

Matthew Baker

Henry Holt and Co.

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Fighting Words



A sudden reversal. In seventh grade this “Nate Vanderveen” chose to lavish our niece with flowering weeds, with vending-machine jewelry, with convenience-store chocolates, with love notes written on the back of homework he hadn’t done, but now in ninth grade this “Nate” chooses to lavish her with curses (“Go fuck a dog you freak”), ridicule (“My tits are bigger than that bitch’s”), and slander (“Emma sucked me off once too”). He is what in the eighteenth century would have been called a lout, a brute, a ruffian, what in the twenty-first century is now called a thug. Stewart thinks the boy is antisocial, meaning psychopathic, once saw the boy perched on the roof of his family’s cottage, preparing to hurl a stray cat onto his driveway two stories below. We live in a village on the shore of the Great Lakes. I am a lexicographer; my brother is a professor of dead languages. His expertise is the words from these languages for which English has no equivalent. Stewart uses these words when he can, although it is rare that he finds the occasion. This “Nate” is such an occasion. Stewart refers to the boy as kimlee, which best translated means “foe-who-has-chosen-you”; this makes Stewart the boy’s kimloo, or “foe-you-have-chosen.” We live in a state once enriched by its industries of handcrafted furniture and gasoline automobiles, a state now impoverished as plastic and polyester replace wood and leather, as the pumpjacks of other states drain what’s left of the dwindling petroleum in our nation’s reservoirs. It is a state in which it is rare for a forty-something man to refer to a fourteen-year-old boy as his foe, regardless of the language used to do so. In the eighteenth century we might have challenged the boy to a duel by pistols, but it is the twenty-first century, and in Michigan, as in most states in our nation, dueling is illegal—dueling and all other “consensual altercations.”

But the boy spits in Emma’s face in the cafeteria, bullies her friends into deserting her, scribbles elaborate drawings of an elderly and childless Emma living alone (“like your gay uncles used to”) with labels attached to the symbols of loneliness he’s chosen to include there (“cats” “hate mail from your neighbors” “cat food that you have to eat too cause you’re so poor” “more cats” “dildo you hump thinking about wrinkly grandfather dicks” “more cats”) and slips these drawings through the slot in the door of her locker and then walks away whistling as if he were a kindly old mail carrier instead of a cruel gap-toothed boy who reeks of mildew and reeks of sweat and has just found another way to traumatize the same girl he’s left sobbing in various classrooms and hallways several times this week alone.

The school principal is of no use, cannot do or refuses to do anything other than occasionally suspend this “Nate” from a handful of school days, which for a boy of that sort is more holiday than exile, giving him schoolless days on which he must do nothing aside from wander the beach throwing rocks at boats he doesn’t own and plotting how he might next make Emma hate herself a little bit more. The boy has powers of transformation: in a matter of weeks he has transformed her, from a girl who loved reading books with dragons on the covers, a girl unashamed of her braces, a girl unashamed of her brother, into a girl who refuses to enter the public library, a girl who will not sit next to her brother on the bus, a girl who will not smile out of fear of showing her teeth. Stewart and I, too, are transformed. We were timid men, not prone to brooding, not prone to fantasies of batting at a fourteen-year-old’s knees with a shovel, of snapping teeth from a fourteen-year-old’s gums with pliers. We were men who drank twig tea, who planted petunias in our windows, who grew rhubarb in our gardens, who left apple cores on our porch railings for the squirrels to eat if they pleased. We were men who, when our sister fled to the capital of our nation to be with her new lover and asked if we would move into her cottage to care for her children, each said simply yes, despite that we knew she would not be returning soon, despite that we knew she might not be returning ever. We did not say yes because we meant yes; we said yes because we were too timid to say the no we meant. But now this boy has transformed us into something other than timid. We have decided we will hurt him. We will hurt the boy in a way that he will feel and keep feeling and never stop feeling, mutilate his psyche in a way that will make him fear us and what we are capable of even after we are dead. We want to hurt him in this way because we are afraid that this is the way in which he has already hurt Emma—he has transformed her, and we are unsure how to restore her, unsure if we are even capable of changing her back.

* * *

I have worked for over two decades as a lexicographer. Unlike most lexicographers, my task is not to write definitions for existent words, nor to revise definitions that have already been written by others. Instead, my task is to write what are known in my industry as “mirage words.”

Publishers of dictionaries are fearful of plagiarism; it is undesirable for somebody to copy the definitions from our dictionaries and then to begin printing dictionaries of their own. But with dictionaries theft is difficult to monitor. When lexicographers write a definition for an existent word, we are not creating—we are articulating some abstract idea that already exists in the collective consciousness of English speakers. When lexicographers write a definition for unwanted, we are all defining the same unwanted—similar to a crowd of artists painting portraits of the same face, artists who are paid to re-create that face as realistically as possible. Overlap is inevitable, theft difficult to prove.

Thus it is my task is to write mirage words: fictional words with fictional definitions. Othery is a word I recently wrote, a noun I defined as “suffering experienced through empathy for another’s suffering, more painful than that original suffering.” Including mirage words such as othery in our dictionaries does not undermine their credibility. Dictionaries are not read; dictionaries are used only to look up certain words, for meaning or spelling. Dictionary users will not look up othery, because othery does not exist. But if othery appears in another dictionary, then we will know that the publishers of that dictionary have stolen from our work—othery could have only come from our dictionary.

It was only after moving in with Emma and Christopher that I was able to write othery. Never before had I experienced that suffering. Back when I lived alone, I did not experience this pain. I suspect that even when our sister did live here she did not feel othery for the children—otherwise I doubt she ever could have left.

My understanding of the world is shaped by these words I have written. If not for othery, I never would have agreed to Stewart’s plan to hurt the boy. It is not Emma’s pain I am trying to end so much as my own. Like Stewart, I carry a private language, words that in our village I alone am capable of speaking or thinking. But while he carries words written by the dead, mine are words of my own making.

* * *

We begin by tailing this “Nate” after school, during the hours when Emma is rehearsing for the fall play over in the high school auditorium and Christopher is practicing for marching band in the field behind the high school. Marching band is for high schoolers only, but Christopher displays such a rare talent with the clarinet that the director of the marching band has promoted him to “honorary high schooler.” For us this is ideal—if Christopher were not in marching band, we would be stuck at home after school, supervising Christopher like responsible tians, unable to study the movements of this “Nate Vanderveen.”

Tians is a word that, if my work were read, would be useful to many in our village—tians is the plural form of tian, a noun I wrote for our student dictionary that I defined as “a relative responsible for a child’s upbringing.” Many children in our village are raised not by mothers or fathers but by aunts, cousins, nanas, stepbrothers. Words such as these are offensive in that what the words truly mean—aunt, cousin, nana, stepbrother—is “not-mother,” “not-father,” and therefore “not-parent.” For one parenting a child, this implied “not-parent” can be hurtful.

Stewart parks the pickup at the high school alongside the station wagons and minivans and sedans of other tians. Many of these station wagons and minivans and sedans were built by our tian, the grandfather who raised us, who retired from the automobile factories to the lake only months before the bankruptcies came, before the factories were shuttered and abandoned, before the factories were overrun with squatters, before the factories were converted into laboratories for manufacturing the psychoactive chemicals that in our nation are illegal to make or sell and doubtless are now our state’s primary source of income. Our tian fed us, bought us books when he sometimes didn’t even have the money for his own cigarettes, but otherwise ignored us; he had discovered that we were boys who had no aptitude for working with oil sockets, spanner wrenches, alignment pins, boys who loved words instead. It was only once our sister was older that he discovered a child who loved tools.

“Books aren’t going to feed you,” our tian would say, wielding some drill or torch, shouldering through the door to work on his motorcycle in the driveway with our sister. “Come on out. You boys might as well learn now.” But we would stay on the floor, where we lay among our piles of books, not daring to look up from the words on the pages until the spring on the screen door had snapped the screen door shut and we were sure our tian was gone and could not force us to come out into the sun to run him tools back and forth from his toolbox.

But now the boys who’d had an aptitude for working with automobiles are working in apple orchards, liquor stores, grocery stores, gas stations pumping what’s left of our nation’s petroleum into the automobiles their fathers built—men skilled in an extinct trade. Still, it is this useless aptitude that separates them from us: they are masculine in a way we have never been. This is what scares us about our desire to hurt this “Nate Vanderveen,” to knock his head against brick walls, to press his face into smoldering embers, to fling him from the tip of the pier and let him drown among the rocks. It is a masculine desire; we are unaccustomed to such masculinity. We distrust it, decide to study it before acting. We will follow “Nate” and make note of his patterns, so that when we are ready to ambush and attack him we will know where and when he will be alone. Whatever we do, we do not want to be caught.

The boy comes slouching out of the high school, wearing no backpack, carrying no homework, having likely left it behind in his locker, indifferent to completing it. He makes a vile gesture at somebody in the window of a bus, hops onto the stone fence that separates the school from the road, and then walks along the fence, as if walking across a tightrope, toward downtown. I make note on a pad of paper: “Friday September 26 departs school at 2:37 p.m. walks into town via fence.” I mark an x on our map of the village and record the day and the time the boy was sighted at that location. The buses caravan out of the parking lot, and the boy pauses on the fence to extend that same vile gesture at each of the buses, then moves along again once the buses have passed.

“The kimlee prowls,” Stewart says, twisting the key in the ignition, “unaware his kimloo prowls the same streets.” He shifts into drive. The pickup sputters away from the curb. We ride.

* * *

The bulk of the words I write—nostalgian, unvoy, gensong, hoggle—are works of fancy, unrelated to my experiences. As other lexicographers at my publisher sometimes ask to read my work, I generally avoid writing words that are personal. The most notable exception to this was impsexual, which I wrote only after many years of trying to define my own sexuality. None of the existent words for orientation represented my own: in high school, I felt no heterosexual lust for the breasts and hips of the girls, felt no homosexual lust for the arms and butts of the boys, felt therefore no bisexual or pansexual or poly. Asexual was perhaps nearest to what I was, but still imprecise, for although I felt no lust for girls or boys or any gender at all, I did feel lust. The lust that I felt, however, and that I feel, was for some nameless, indescribable thing, something that I have never seen and that I am now convinced may not exist. It was not zoophilia—I felt no lust for dogs, sheep, grazing horses—nor was it paraphilia—I felt no lust for teddy bears, shoes, trees. My lust was for something human—some sort of human that perhaps had once existed, or might one day evolve, but in the twenty-first century was a nonentity.

I did not notice that anything was amiss until Stewart, four years my younger, began to develop crushes on different classmates at school, keeping record of these crushes in an old yearbook. I discovered the yearbook one night while he was taking a bath. Staring at the cartoony hearts and exclamation points that he had drawn around different faces, I realized that whatever feelings he was having were feelings that should have come to me years ago, if the feelings were ever going to come. The yearbook had been hidden with a stash of lingerie catalogs, which somehow was even more unsettling, discovering that like me, he must have masturbated sometimes, but that unlike me, when he did he could actually picture what he wanted. I had never before felt so intensely ashamed. Hearing the water draining from the tub, I quick hid the yearbook and the catalogs back under the bunk bed we shared, and then sat alone in the moonlight on the carpet in silence and despair.

I published impsexual in our medical dictionary, a noun I defined as “one who sexually desires a nonentity (or nonentities).” I meant imp- to suggest impossible, to connote an unworkable desire. Only after publishing the word did I realize that imp- more likely suggested imp, and therefore connoted a desire for fictional creatures.

When Stewart was in high school he was outspoken about the disgust he felt toward our principal, who was rumored to be asexual. So I did not tell him about my own orientation, for fear my orientation would evoke even more disgust than that. When I did tell him—only after we had both moved away from our village and back again, only after Stewart had been married and divorced twice, only after I had published and been paid for impsexual—Stewart told me that a dead language he had once studied, a language that had evolved and died in a peninsular nation on the other side of the planet, had possessed such a word.

Kawa-mashka. It meant sexual desire for something that doesn’t exist. See, you aren’t that original,” Stewart said.

It was then that I realized that although I lived alone and had always lived alone and had never loved another human, I had never been alone entirely. Others had felt this lust that I felt, this unworkable desire, and had lived and died with it centuries ago, or had not yet been born.

* * *

Except for afternoons when Stewart has faculty meetings, we trail the boy every weekday until 6:17 p.m., when we drive back to the cottage to await the arrival of the extracurricular bus bringing home Emma from rehearsal and Christopher from practice. Our method is one of patience. Stewart parks the pickup near wherever “Nate” chooses to prowl; I take notes on the various activities that “Nate” undertakes. As a rule we do not leave the pickup. When the boy disappears into a store or the arcade, we do not follow. In the pickup we are simply two brothers in an automobile—we are doing nothing wrong. Stewart grades papers with a fountain pen. I revise definitions for an upcoming deadline. We stay in the pickup and we wait. The boy knows our faces, knows whose tians we are. We do not want to alert him to our plot.

The exception to this comes several weeks after our study of “Nate Vanderveen” has begun. The pickup is parked downtown, a single street lined by quaint shops with shiplap siding. “Nate” is rooting through a trash bin behind the bookstore, a new but not entirely unexpected behavior. Stewart wears khakis with suspenders over a rumpled dress shirt from teaching; he naps slumped back with his hands resting on his stomach. I wear a vest from the office; I’ve just noted “Monday October 13 roots through bookstore trash bin 4:27 p.m.” on the pad of paper, consulting my pocket watch before logging the official time.

When I see what’s happening I try to wake Stewart because I don’t know what to do.

“Stewart,” I whisper. “Stewart, Stewart, Stewart.” Stewart blinks awake, scratches his stubble, falls asleep again. I elbow him. “Stewart, one of us needs to get out of the truck.”

Stewart blinks awake again, says, “We aren’t—” but then looks through the windshield and sees it too: our nephew tiptoeing along the bookstore toward the trash bin beyond, muttering something to himself, wielding his fully assembled clarinet like a sword. “Nate” is still headfirst in the trash bin, his legs wiggling as if he’s falling and looking for somewhere to land. Stewart says, “Is that?” I say “It is,” and then he tumbles out of the pickup and runs after our nephew, hissing, “Christopher! Dammit, Christopher!” Christopher is crouched at the gutter at the rear of the bookstore, peeking at “Nate” in the trash bin, but when he hears his name he turns, his eyes growing wide, then growing even wider, looking as if he’s either about to cry or take a swing at Stewart with the clarinet.

Stewart gestures for him to come to the pickup. Christopher glances at me in the pickup, then at “Nate” in the trash bin. Christopher shakes his head. He’s not going to come. Stewart creeps slightly closer. Christopher hesitates. Stewart creeps closer yet, then snatches the clarinet, throws him over a shoulder, and comes lurching back to the pickup.

Stewart shoves him between us in the cab, shuts the door, hits the lock.

“Aren’t you supposed to be at band?” Stewart says.

Christopher scowls at the dashboard. “Nate Vanderveen spit on Emma again today at lunch,” Christopher says. “So I took the day off from band to fight him.”

We stare at our nephew like he’s a word with a new definition. This is a boy who likes to play with the dolls his sister keeps boxed in the basement, a boy we once found sitting on a stump in the woods singing a song he had written about “handsome elves” and the “sparkly fairy potions they keep on their shelves.” He is even skinnier than we were at his age, and on his nose has three freckles, which, as far as we can tell, outnumber his friends.

“With a clarinet?” I say.

“He’s two years older than you, you idiot,” Stewart says. “He’s the sort of kid who plays with knives, not his sister’s ballet slippers.”

“Stewart,” I say, feeling othery for Christopher. Stewart is in the habit of saying things he regrets, which is why he also is in the habit of getting divorced.

Stewart says, “He would’ve sent you to the hospital. What did you think you were doing, trying to jump a goon like that?”

In the eighteenth century a child of Christopher’s meager size likely would have already succumbed to some minor illness—measles, whooping cough, influenza—but it is the twenty-first century and we have paid for the necessary vaccines to protect Christopher’s delicate body. In the eighteenth century Christopher also would have been blind, and thus even if he had survived his various illnesses probably would have had his fingers or his arm wrenched off by the gears of some machine in whatever factory he was working, and afterward would have lived as a beggar before starving in the snow and the filth of some gutter, but it is the twenty-first century and we have bought him eyeglasses so he can see. If Stewart is angry with him it’s because we’ve just caught him out seeking an untimely death when we’ve been working so diligently to prevent one.

“I don’t care what he would have done. He gave Emma the nickname ‘Smelly’ and now nobody will talk to her or sit by her or call her her real name,” Christopher says.

Stewart starts the pickup just as “Nate” squirms backward from the trash bin, holding a mouse by the tail. The boy lifts the mouse, squinting as the rodent sways back and forth, paws scrabbling at the air. We pull away from the curb, sputtering toward the lake. The trees in our state have already gone from green to gold and then gold to red, the leaves starving, growing season over. Wind blows through the branches, knocking leaves adrift.

“And what do you mean, aren’t I supposed to be at band?” Christopher says. “What were you two doing there? Aren’t you supposed to be working?”

“It doesn’t matter why we were there,” Stewart says.

Christopher scowls at the dashboard. I stare at the paint-chipped cottages along the shore. The weathered docks. The bobbing sailboats. The beachgrass swaying in the dunes. Christopher mutters, “And I don’t play with her ballet slippers,” even though he knows that we know that he does.

* * *

One of Stewart’s dead languages has a series of words for human demeanor. The word that Stewart says describes my own personal mien is weyrey. Best translated weyrey means “demeanor-of-invisibility”; Stewart says the reason I was ignored instead of bullied when we were younger is that I have an aura of insignificance. I often think of us as a “we,” but Stewart prefers to focus on the ways in which we are a “you and me.”

“You’re the opposite of the person who, when he walks into a room, everybody drops whatever they’re doing just to watch him, wishing that they could know him,” Stewart said. “When you walk into a room, even people who aren’t doing anything don’t bother to watch you. They’re more interested in doing nothing.”

This is one of the things he has regretted saying. He later told me he did, although he still thought weyrey was my mien.

“It’s not because you’re quiet. Talkative people can be weyrey too. People who think they’re social,” Stewart said.

Stewart says his own mien is nipfay, which best translated means “irritant-demeanor.” When we were younger he was as quiet as me, wore the same secondhand sweaters and castoff jeans, but while I was ignored, he was bullied by everybody in our village with a fondness for bullying, and even by some without.

“You walk into a room and nobody notices you,” Stewart said. “I walk into a room, and even if I don’t say a word, or even look at anyone, everyone gets this feeling that they’d hate me if they knew me. They’re irritated by my very existence.”

As his older brother, I should have been the one to defend him from the boys who emptied his backpack out the windows of our bus—his sci-fi novels bouncing off the railing on the bridge and tumbling into the creek—the boys who broke into his locker and peed into his gym shoes, the boys who bloodied his nose with fists. I was even more afraid than he was, though. When boys would shove him at the bus stop, I would pretend not to notice, standing with a book near enough to my face to smell the pages. So instead he went to our tian, begging him for help.

“So hit them back,” our tian said, biting a steel nail between his teeth as he spoke, pressing a measuring tape against the windowsill with his thumbs. Our sister stood nearby holding a hammer. “I’m not going to fight your fights.”

The next week a boy Stewart’s age was throwing pinecones at Stewart when our sister, two years his younger and six years mine, tripped the boy and kneed the boy in the mouth. The boy rode to school with a cut tongue and a mouthful of blood and didn’t speak a word to Stewart for months. Stewart likewise went months without speaking to our sister, furious that she had fought a boy he had been too afraid to. In the state in which we live, a boy can grow into a man only if he is unafraid to hurt another boy with his hands. A boy who is afraid to hurt other boys cannot grow into a man; he becomes something else, something neither boy nor man, something we have no word for.

That is why Stewart feels so guilty about what this “Nate” has done to Emma; Stewart believes that if our sister were here, she never would have allowed this to happen.

In the same way that a trauma can leave somebody with a physical impairment—a limp, a sightless eye, a stump arm—a trauma can also leave somebody with an emotional impairment. I believe that Stewart has several. One of my first publications was hurden, a noun I defined as “a permanent emotional impairment.” When our tian was forty-something, an engine tipped off a conveyor belt and fractured the bones in his foot; even after our tian retired, his gait was still marked by a limp. Stewart’s limp is not a physical one—not a limp of the feet—but still he is marked by it. Before, he’d had one wife or another to fight for him as our sister had—to menace the plumbers and mechanics and supermarket cashiers who attempted to cheat him, to browbeat the colleagues who snubbed or belittled him. But now Stewart is Stewart alone. He wants to believe he is capable of defending Emma in a way he has never been capable of defending himself. But a hurden cannot be undone—by definition, a hurden is a thing of permanence.

I was uneasy publishing a word based on Stewart’s suffering. But it is vital my words seem authentic. Plagiarists will skip a word that is an obvious fiction. My words must seem to serve some purpose in the English language that no other word is capable of serving. Those are the words plagiarists will copy. When the mirage seems solid.

* * *

The boy has no patterns whatsoever, lives by a policy of whim. Stewart scissors apart my notes and rearranges the entries, first by day of week, then by time of day. Regardless of how the notes are arranged, the boy’s doings appear utterly arbitrary.

By day of week:

“Thursday October 16 eats butterscotch candy at 4:37 p.m. on bench outside of gas station.”

“Thursday October 23 takes magazine from neighbor’s mailbox at 5:02 p.m., tears single page from magazine, deposits torn page in mailbox, departs with magazine.”

“Thursday October 30 steals onto sailboat at 2:53 p.m. at wharf, beckons for friend (same as previous week, boy from arcade) to join him upon boat, friend refuses (seems afraid), boy climbs out of boat and shoves friend off of dock, friend flounders, swims toward shallows, boy helps friend from water, depart together into town.”

“Thursday November 6 at 6:08 p.m. sets street on fire with aid of gasoline.”

By time of day:

“Tuesday October 21 attempts to take bicycle parked outside of bookstore at 5:51 p.m., caught by other high schoolers (older), flees into alley with bloody lip.”

“Friday October 24 behind high school at 5:50 p.m. hits small dog with stick.”

“Wednesday October 29 at 5:53 p.m. assists tian with automobile repairs in driveway, yelled at by tian for kicking tires of automobile.”

“Friday November 7 5:51 p.m. instructs friend (same as last week, boy from wharf) to stand outside antique shop with back to windows, boy disappears into alley toward rear of antique shop, reappears on roof of antique shop (friend unaware, still facing street) and pees onto friend from roof; friend curses boy, ducks into doorway of antique shop to avoid spray, boy laughs, zips pants, disappears from roof, reappears in alley; friend is accosted by owner of antique shop for standing in doorway; boy and friend curse the owner, spit on windows of antique shop, depart together toward arcade.”

The retired have already abandoned their cottages for the season, driven from freshwater peninsula to saltwater peninsula, to the southernmost state on the continent, if they have the money to afford a condo for the winter. The retired too poor to migrate have holed up in their cottages with firewood and space heaters and electric blankets, waiting for the snowdrifts to settle in, the dark months of rime and ice. Our map becomes overrun with x’s, marking where and when the boy has been, which by now is almost everywhere. Christopher skips marching band again, following us while we follow “Nate.” The pickup is parked at the general store, where “Nate” is inside either shopping or shoplifting, when Christopher appears at my window, bundled up in a coat and mittens and one of his sister’s pink scarves. Christopher knocks on the glass. Stewart blinks awake, mumbles, “Huh?” I lean on the crank until the window snaps through the frost and then roll the window down.

“Why aren’t you at band?” Stewart says.

“Because I’m following you,” Christopher says. “Are you following Nate Vanderveen?”

“No,” Stewart says.

“Are you going to beat him up or something?” Christopher says. “You know you can’t beat up a kid.”

“He’s not a kid,” Stewart says. “He’s fourteen and clinically psychopathic.”

“Fourteen is a kid,” Christopher says.

“We’re not going to hurt him,” I say. “Just scare him.”

“You better not tell Emma,” Christopher says. “Maybe you think that by beating him up you’ll be telling her you love her, but she’s not going to get that.”

“We caught you trying to do the same thing, you idiot,” Stewart says.

“All I’m saying is, if you do it, don’t tell her, because she’s going to hate you for it,” Christopher says. “Mom knew how to tell her she loved her, which is just to say it. Also, if you’re going to beat him up, I want to help.”

Stewart looks at me and then says, “Vivixixi,” a word from one of his dead languages that best translated means “ill-advised plot.”

“I know you’re saying in your freak language that you don’t want me to come, but too bad,” Christopher says. He climbs into the pickup, scrambling over me to sit between us. “Today he took Emma’s necklace with Mom’s ring on it and flushed it down the toilet. Just tell me when you’re actually going to get out of the truck, because I’m going to come and I’m going to kill him.” He buckles his seatbelt. “But I’ve been hiding behind that streetlight watching you for probably an hour, and my face is numb and my hands are numb and my feet are numb and I don’t want to walk all the way home on frozen feet, so for now can you just drive me home?”

“No,” Stewart says. “We’re waiting for the kimlee to come out of the store.”

“You two are the worst parents,” Christopher mutters. He yanks his sister’s scarf over his mouth and nose and then huddles into himself, wrapping his arms around his chest, tucking his mittens under his arms.

* * *

Christopher skips marching band daily, comes with us while we follow “Nate,” drinks from a mug of steaming cocoa while we drink from mugs of steaming tea. Before, our afternoons had been soundless, the noise outside the pickup—the howling of the wind, the honking of the geese, the creaking of worn brakes on buses, the clanging of chimes on porch awnings, the katzenjammer of “Nate” tossing his tian’s tools from the roof of his family’s cottage onto the driveway below—muffled from inside the cab. Now our afternoons are full of endless chattering, this from a nephew who formerly behaved toward us as if we had abducted him from his mother rather than adopted him in her absence, a nephew who had not deemed us worthy of even the most mundane updates about his life. For once he talks to us like tians instead of “not-parents”; he references what our sister would have done less every day, seeks our opinions instead.

We sit across from this “Nate’s” cottage, slumped low in the cab so the pickup will appear empty if the boy happens to glance in this direction. The boy has crawled under his tian’s automobile, doing something to the underbody with a pair of pruning shears. Stewart and I like when the boy vandalizes his tian’s belongings—it is thrilling to anticipate the moment his tian will see what the boy has been doing, exciting to discover how his tian will react. Sometimes his tian finds the tricks funny. Other times not.

“When can we actually fight him?” Christopher says.

“When we’re sure he’s alone and nobody will see us,” Stewart says.

“He’s alone right now,” Christopher says.

“His tian’s home. That’s his automobile the boy is under,” I say.

“Are you afraid of his dad?” Christopher says.

“No,” Stewart says.

“His dad is enormous,” Christopher says. “If we beat up Nate, won’t his dad come after us?”

“We’ve already seen him come after this ‘Nate’ with a belt, a wheel wrench, a wooden paddle, and what looked like the leg of a chair,” I say. “It’s not like we want to do anything to the boy that his tian hasn’t done already.”

“Just because he does it to Nate doesn’t mean he’ll like us doing it,” Christopher says.

Later this “Nate” bicycles to the wharf wearing a wool beanie. He rides down the pier, making a vile gesture at each of the yellow signs that prohibit bicycling on the pier, and disappears behind the lighthouse. Stewart and I hope his friend will come—sometimes the boy and his friend meet at the lighthouse. We like when the boy and his friend are together—it is intriguing to see what new cruelties he will perform upon his friend, moving to see him and his friend reunited again after the cruelties have ended. We park between trucks with rusted motorboats on hitched trailers.

“Would you rather stab him in the stomach, or stomp on his throat so hard that it literally crushes his windpipe?” Christopher says.

“I am not answering that,” I say. “Stewart, do not answer that.”

“I can’t decide which is better,” Christopher says. “Why can’t we fight him? He’s alone now.”

Stewart gestures at the yachts and the speedboats moored along the docks.

“We can’t jump him here. Somebody might see us,” Stewart says.

“Fine,” Christopher says. “Would you rather punch him in the face until his eyes are swollen shut, or drag him across some broken glass?”

The boy rides back down the pier, pumping along the boardwalk back toward downtown. Stewart waits until the boy has disappeared before starting the pickup. We find the bicycle dumped on the pavement outside the gas station, “Nate” prowling the aisles inside. Stewart and I hope the boy is getting candy—it is confusing to feel as we do, as if we would like to give him both candy and bruises. But we have never seen anybody as happy as this boy when he is chewing a candy.

Instead he emerges empty-handed, gathers a handful of rocks from the alley behind the arcade, flattens against the wall. He peeks, flings a rock at a passing automobile, and then ducks back into the alley. A rock pings off the bumper of the next automobile as the brake lights flash red. The elderly driver throws his elbow over his seat, twisting around, frowning, looking for the source of the noise. The boy peeks, flings another rock. The rock cracks against the rear window. The driver curses, yanks the gearshift, and speeds away. The boy peeks again, huffing into his cupped hands, warming his fingers with his breath.

“I can’t understand why anybody would want to hurt people like the kimlee does,” Stewart says.

“You want to hurt him,” Christopher says.

“I mean hurt somebody like Emma, who hasn’t done anything to him,” Stewart says.

“You hurt Emma,” Christopher says.

“He does not,” I say, feeling othery for Stewart, knowing he, like me, hates nothing more than seeing Emma unhappy.

“He does too. So do you. How about when you said that our mom must have loved her boyfriend more than us if she left?” Christopher says.

“I never said that,” I say.

“We heard you,” Christopher says.

I have no memory of having said it, which makes this an instance of diffiction, a noun I defined as “a memory inconsistent with the shared reality of others’ memories; something nonfictional to an individual but fictional to the individual’s society.” Diffiction is my most successful work, in that since its publication it has appeared in new dictionaries by three separate publishers, each appearance prompting a lawsuit, the lawsuits far beyond profitable.

“If he said it, it was only because he believed it,” Stewart says.

“That doesn’t mean she didn’t cry about it later,” Christopher says.

“Okay, so one time he said something that hurt her feelings,” Stewart says.

“You also told her not to get her hair cut any shorter than last time because if it was any shorter she’d look like a boy,” Christopher says to me, then says to Stewart, “and you ate the chocolate she bought with her own money, and also you told her that if she was an animal she’d be a mole.”

“She laughed when I said that,” Stewart says.

“She wasn’t laughing about it later in her room,” Christopher says.

* * *

Our weakness is the same it has always been—the books we read as children, the books we read still. We study “Nate” too long: see him following his tian around the yard, imitating his tian’s lumbering stride; see him ducking the balled-up homework flung at him from buses; see him mocking a younger boy holding a grown-up’s hand downtown; see him shoved against his garage by his tian after having punched his friend in the face, struggling as his tian growls at his friend to hit the boy back, shouting as his tian gestures at his friend that the boy will not be released until his friend has struck him in the face in retribution; see him peeing against the trash bin behind the bookstore after the owners of the bookstore and the antique shop and the gas station and the arcade have all refused to let him use the bathrooms inside; see him sitting alone on the rocks along the pier on days his friend doesn’t come, hood up, shoulders hunched, feeding the gulls from his hand. Stewart and I suffer othery for this “Nate,” still hate him, and try not to love him, but love him anyway, unable to kill our aptitude for othery, the skill we learned as children—a skill our tian never learned, nor our sister, nor even this “Nate” himself.

Stewart pretends nothing is wrong, insisting that when the opportunity arises he will fight him, with or without me. I say we should forget the boy, should devote our afternoons to other pursuits, but Stewart says our afternoons are for Emma, shaming me into coming.

Stewart pretends nothing is wrong, I pretend nothing is wrong, and Christopher is utterly unaware that we have been changed—unaware until the afternoon that “Nate” bothers to look at the pickup and wonder who’s inside.

* * *

The pickup is parked across from the boy’s cottage, windows tinted with frost. Stewart is napping under a blanket; I’m sipping tea from a mug; Christopher sits between us, rubbing his mittens together to warm his hands, talking about what he plans on doing to this “Nate” once we finally have him cornered.

I feel the bed of the pickup bob.

Christopher spins, I spin, and together we peer through the cracks in the frost and see the boy creeping along the bed toward the rear window of the cab, breathing mouthfuls of fog.

“Stewart,” I whisper, nudging him, “start the truck!”

“Let’s get him, let’s get him!” Christopher says, diving for the handle of the door.

I hit the lock and shove him back. “Sit still,” I hiss at Christopher, then shake Stewart, whispering, “Stewart!”

The boy squats at the rear window, wiping at the frost with his hands until his palms have melted patches back to glass. Stewart blinks awake just as the boy peeks into the cab.

You faggots?” the boy shouts, squinting at us.

Christopher scrambles for the other door, shouting, “Let me out!” I snatch him by the ankles and yank him back again as “Nate” climbs onto the cab—we hear him fumbling around above us—and then leaps back down onto the bed, slamming down hard with his boots, making the pickup shudder. The boy hops around, shouting something too muffled for us to make out.

“How’d he find us?” Stewart shouts.

“What do you mean, how’d he find us?” Christopher shouts, kicking at me, lunging for the door again. “We’re parked outside of his house! Let me out of here already!”

Stewart glances at Christopher, then looks at me, and can’t pretend anymore. He grabs Christopher by the collar, so roughly that it chokes him, and shoves him back between us. Christopher hunches in the seat, holding his throat, coughing, as Stewart fumbles in his pockets for his keys.

The boy appears at the window next to me wielding a branch the size of a bat. He cocks back and takes a swing at the door, and the branch hits the door with a jarring thud. “Fuck all of you!” the boy shouts, spittle flecking his parka. “You dogfucking faggots! Fuck you and fucking Emma and everyone in your fucking family! I’ll kill all of you fuckers!” The branch splinters against the door and the boy stoops at the fender, digging around in the snow for another. Stewart starts the pickup.

“Run him over!” Christopher shouts.

But “Nate” is back, swinging at the window. “Get the fuck away from my house!” he shouts as the branch cracks against the glass. “Gutterfucks! Pixielovers! Buttsnobs!”

The door to his cottage slams open and his tian stomps out into the snow in gym shorts and shoeless just as Stewart shifts the pickup and floors the gas. The tires spin in the snow, the window shatters, the pickup lurches into the road. Christopher and I turn, watching through the rear window as the boy’s tian jerks the branch away from him, the boy shouting words at us we’re too far away to hear, words we wouldn’t understand even if we weren’t. The boy has a private language of his own; he has the words he needs to hate us. His tian quiets him with the branch, and then the pickup dips with the road into a thicket of trees and Christopher and I can’t see anything anymore and turn back around.

“Take me back,” Christopher says. Stewart says we won’t. Christopher calls us cowards. He doesn’t speak another word to us until we’re home.

A fox with snowy fur scampers away from the garage as we pull into the driveway. Stewart tosses his jacket onto the stool by the door, I hang my jacket from the knobs on the wall, but Christopher keeps his coat zipped, with clumps of snow melting on his shoulders.

“Even if you were afraid to get out of the car, you could have at least let me out,” Christopher says, crying now, voice cracking. “I quit band for the chance to get back at him. I quit band, I lie to Emma about why I’m not on the bus anymore, we sit in your stupid truck every stupid day waiting for the perfect stupid opportunity, and then when it finally comes you let him say whatever he wants and then just drive away after he’s finished.”

“Shouldn’t you be happy, you idiot?” Stewart says. “We didn’t fight him, we aren’t going to fight him, and now she won’t have to hate us like you said she would.”

“Just because she wouldn’t have understood what it meant doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have meant it,” Christopher says.

Christopher slips out the door, shuffling off into the snow. We watch him hike into the woods. It is irrelevant what this “Nate” has done, irrelevant what more this “Nate” might do. We cannot think of him as a foe, a kimlee, anymore, can think of him only as somebody with his own hurdens. Not merely a “Nate,” but an actual boy who would actually feel whatever we did to him. We are men who in the eighteenth century would have been called incapable, pitiful, spineless, men who in the twenty-first century are called those things still. We could not defend our niece from the evils of the world. We could not defend even those evils from other evils.

Stewart won’t talk to me, instead carries a flattened box from the garage to the driveway, tapes the cardboard over the broken window, then brushes the snow from the cab. I stand at the kitchen window, waiting for the extracurricular bus to bring Emma home from the latest performance of her play. While I wait, I take an empty vase from the cabinet and pour in some water. Every night somebody has been going to watch her; every night some boy has been bringing her flowers.


Copyright © 2020 by Matthew Baker