Outside was too big. Eric felt like an ant crawling on the surface of a volleyball, as if the big white cotton dome of the sky was surrounded by giant faces peering down at him and sniggering. He wished it was raining; heʼd have an umbrella then, at least. Tilly was waiting at the bus stop already. Her hair needed cutting. “Hi,” she said, eyeing him warily. He hadnʼt been at school for a week.
Eric hefted his backpack further onto his shoulders, felt the weight of his uncompleted homework for all the days heʼd missed. He looked up at the blind sky, squinting and pining for a roof.
“Hi,” he said at last. He couldnʼt think of what else to say. Most of it seemed pointless, and if he started saying anything that wasnʼt, the words would claw out of him like a sharp-nailed firehose of goblins.
“Hi,” Tilly said again. This seemed to exhaust their mutual conversational reserves, and they sat quietly staring at one another for a time. There was a rumble in the distance, either the bus arriving to retrieve them or a garbage truck. Or thunder.
“You were out,” said Tilly.
“They said your mom died.”
Eric closed his eyes as the world went white all over, not just in the sky.
Eric nodded, and Tilly was quiet. She tugged at her hair, sucked on the ends. Her whole head looked like a sick porcupine, spiky hair standing out against white sky and pale skin. Down at the end of the street, the bus turned the corner and growled toward them.
“The bus is here,” Tilly said.
“Okay.” Eric didnʼt open his eyes.
They got on the bus. It smelled like sneakers and pee. They went to school.
• • • •
School was too loud. It was all Eric could do to keep from covering his head with his arms and screaming back at everyone. They just wouldnʼt stop talking. And looking. Eric could feel their eyes on him like marbles rolling on sand, even when his own eyes were closed. Eventually, he was sent to the principal’s office for sleeping in class. He had not been sleeping, but he couldn’t really argue that he’d been paying any attention. He’d been mildly surprised that he was in geography because the last thing he remembered, he’d been in algebra with Mrs. Hendrickson. Mr. Roeland’s rough hands and deep voice startled him, and he’d found his hand balled into a fist before he got control of it again. For a moment, he hadn’t been sure he would; it had been like shouting commands down a leash at a golden retriever, bounding forward and dragging him along for the ride.
Tilly watched him leave with dark eyes. He’d forgotten they had fourth period together. Her damp, spiky hair had little balls of paper in it from Jimmy and Rich sitting behind her. Eric wanted to tell her, but he didn’t want to embarrass her in front of the class, and anyway, Mr. Roeland had dragged him into the hallway before he could say anything. Mr. Roeland had been on suspension two years ago because he’d grabbed some kids, broke up a fight and separated them, but it didn’t look like he’d learned his lesson at all.
Eric rubbed at his sore shoulder as he padded through the hall. He found it easier out here; he was in a little linear maze of quiet while the noise went on behind closed doors, quarantined.
Then the bell rang, and Eric actually did cry out this time, clapping his hands over his ears and falling to his knees. Sneakers kicked at him and bookbags slapped against the side of his head, and he crawled erratically to the wall and used it to pull himself up. A river of students flowed past: floodwater, full of mud and fallen trees and broken bits of buildings. Too dangerous to swim, too deep to wade. Eric slipped backwards and sideways and was surprised to find that he was able to do so; there was a little nook that fed into a stairwell. The stairs to the upper grades’ floors, disused until the end of the day. Eric’s grade wasn’t supposed to use them.
So he didn’t.
But he did find that the stairs had a space underneath them that was half-concealed with a pile of metal rods and a stack of cardboard boxes. He pressed himself into the triangular hollow, feeling the reverse treads of the stairs pushing into his spine at regular intervals. It felt right and good and safe and correct. He rested his head on his knees and closed his eyes, listening to the spiders climb and waiting for the world to stop.
• • • •
Eric was woken by the pounding of shoes on the stairs overhead, the arrhythmic thuds passing through concrete and metal to vibrate his back and what felt like his entire body. He waited for the rush to fade to a trickle before he crawled out. The older kids got out thirty minutes earlier than the middle-grade kids. Eric had plenty of time to get his backpack from Mr. Roeland’s classroom, ignoring the teacher’s suspicious glare, before it was time to get back on the bus and go home. Eric assumed it was the same bus, but it occurred to him that he’d never confirmed this, and they all smelled and looked exactly the same. If someone went through the parking lot at night and changed all the numbers around, would anyone know? Would the bus drivers sense the difference? Perhaps there were subtle gradations to the odors of feet and farts and ancient lunches, fine shadings of flavor and ratio that only a bus driver could detect, the way cockroaches could taste their world with their antennae. Eric rested his head against the green vinyl of the seat in front of him and wished he could scuttle into the floorboards and wait for dark every night.
Tilly came and sat next to him. She didn’t say anything.
“You’ve got paper bits in your hair,” he told her.
“You’ve got a spider in yours,” she said.
Eric brushed at his hair absently. Tilly did not.
“You’re all dusty,” Tilly said.
They rode the bus until Eric got off at his house. Tilly stood in the aisle to let him out and watched him as he walked away.
Inside, Eric’s dad was making dinner. Eric’s dad had always made dinner because he worked as a line cook, so it wasn’t like when Yoni’s parents had gotten divorced and Yoni got frozen waffles and canned peas for dinner every night for two weeks. Dad had always been thin and light, with his pale hair like a dandelion gone to seed, liable to blow away at the next gust of wind. Mom, dark and solid, had been the anchor, and now Eric watched his dad drift aimlessly around the kitchen, eddying like a stray onion in a pot of soup, and wondered how much longer he’d stay tethered to the ground at all.
“I’m home,” Eric said.
“Okay. Dinner is at six,” said his father.
Eric went to go to his room, but something called to him, and he stopped. There was a little half-door under the stairs. It was supposed to be for storage, but no one had ever really used it. Eric unlatched the door and peered inside. It was dark and mildewy, and it slanted toward the ground with the slope of the stairs until it formed a perfect point, like a wedge of cheese or a slice of cake. Eric’s back itched where it had pressed against the stairs all day. He dropped his backpack and crawled inside the little room, scooting backwards until his back was hunched and his chin touched his knees. He couldn’t quite touch the far point, but he felt better being wedged in and immobile. He laid his cheek on his pant leg and watched the light around the edge of the little door fade from white to gray as the sun set somewhere beyond the wintry cloud cover.
• • • •
“You look different,” Tilly said, without preamble, the next morning at the bus stop. “Like, bad.”
Eric blinked at her. It was too big and too bright again. Why couldn’t outside be more like his little room under the stairs? He already thought of it with a possessiveness that surprised him, a flare of desire where he’d grown used to nothing but the prickles and numbness of a dead limb.
Tilly shook her head. “You’re shorter. Also, you didn’t change your clothes.”
Eric looked down. He was still covered in dust from yesterday. “No one will notice,” he said.
Tilly nodded agreement. “But it’s not good.”
Eric shrugged, a motion made difficult by his newfound hunch. He couldn’t quite stand up straight today. But he didn’t really want to try, now that he thought about it.
Tilly had brushed her hair, but she apparently hadn’t used a mirror. She’d missed a spot, and a stray spike curled upward from the side of her head, tipped with a paper ball like a droplet of venom on a serpent’s fang.
“Try to stay in class today,” Tilly advised him.
“Okay,” said Eric.
But he was lying.
• • • •
That night, when Eric got home, his father was floating approximately six inches off the floor, bobbing like a milkweed puff. When the door closed, the wind sent him drifting over toward the sink.
“Hello,” said his father.
Eric waved, but didn’t speak. He didn’t have time for conversation, and his throat was dry from all the dust under the stairs at school. He pushed his father gently aside, accidentally setting him spinning, and filled a glass of water from the tap.
“Everything okay at school?” Eric’s father put one spindly arm out and nudged himself away from the cabinets, managing to briefly face Eric before helplessly continuing his turn and bumping against the fridge.
Eric nodded, but his father couldn’t see. “Yes,” he said. He couldn’t see his dad very well because he wasn’t able to stand up or even crane his neck very far, so he wasn’t sure how his lie was received. His back felt ridged, in a pattern matching the angle of the steps he’d spent all day pressed against. “I’m going under the stairs.”
“Yes,” said his dad. “That seems like a good idea.” He stroked the freezer door like it was a cat, his hands translucent. “Dinner is at six,” he added, although Eric hadn’t shown up for dinner for days. He flexed his toes, but couldn’t quite touch the ground.
Eric trudged to the door under the stairs, resenting every minute spent out in the light and air. He was pleased to find that his buttocks slid smoothly into place, fitting right into the far end where the stairs met the floor as though made for the spot.
• • • •
Eric spent his days under stairs. It was just the best place for him. Once he was crammed into his chosen spot, the painful throbbing of noise and light from the outside faded into irrelevance, and he could sit in the dark and enjoy the peace.
One afternoon, Eric ignored the final bell. He had decided to remain under the stairs. Or rather, he had not wished to decide anything and had let events flow naturally from there.
He watched a spider spin a web, strand by careful strand, and then watched it immediately become fuzzed with dust and debris until he tore it down in disgust so the spider could start clean. Later, he ate the spider, when its pounding feet and hissing spiracles galled him once too often. He watched the tiny, sourceless breaths of air shift the patterns of dirt tracked in by thoughtless shoes and brushed to this forgotten corner. He felt the stairs shift and flex with the building throughout the day, and listened to the distant rumble of students changing classes or traffic on the streets outside. Everything outside was more or less the same, underneath. It was only in the smallness and tightness of under-the-stairs that you had time to really think about things, and could appreciate the tiny variances that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Eric’s lunchbox started to rot. He swallowed down the blackened bread and fuzzy apple to fend off discovery, felt them squish into mush against the roof of his mouth. It did not satisfy. His teeth were spaced further apart than they had been, and he explored the gaps for a time with his tongue. The tips were sharper, too, and they rasped like sandpaper. He was so dry, so thirsty down here. When the older kids came pelting down the stairs, Eric found he could identify them by the vibrations of their treads, could track individuals amid the herd. His attention was drawn to the slow footsteps and labored breathing of one that lagged behind the others. Weakness. The thought intrigued him. He reached out experimentally and found his fingers had acquired an extra joint, hooked and ridged for grasping. His arms were longer than he remembered. He could almost reach beyond the shadowed understairs cave, up to the steps overhead where soft ankles poured in their hundreds every day.
He imagined the grip and the twist, the feel of hot meat and bone in his hands, full of juice and copper-sweet. The image soothed him, and he tried again to reach. Just barely short. But soon, he suspected. Very soon.
Night fell. Eric did not sleep for fear of dreams.
• • • •
The appearance of a real pair of battered white sneakers jolted Eric from inchoate daydreams of the same. He recognized Tilly, but his reactions were confused. He half-lunged, tongue lolling out. He wasn’t ready, not yet, and he stumbled over himself and crashed sideways to the floor with a grunt. He watched his hands flex and clench way out at the ends of his arms. Periodically, he sent an experimental thought at them to see if they’d respond.
“So here you are,” Tilly said severely. “I think you need to come home with me.”
Eric shook his head mutely, but Tilly latched onto his wrist with an unexpected and terrifyingly strong grip. His mouth watered at the warmth of her hand, and his efforts to not grip and tear it away sent his other arm pinwheeling around, toward and away like a macabre game of ping-pong. Tilly held on grimly and did not glance over.
“We missed the bus,” Eric wheezed. He felt like he was suffocating now that he wasn’t being crushed into a corner. His chest was expanding too far. There was too much air. He staggered, his balance uneven. He felt a tightness in his wrists, an instinctive retraction.
“We’re walking,” said Tilly. She had not released his wrist, even though they were in public now, and could be said to be holding hands, if any of their classmates saw them. Eric felt the ancient fears of social damage stir like snakes behind glass. He and Tilly pushed out of the doors and into a wall of sunlight, and Eric staggered with the impact. It wasn’t cloudy. He wondered when the rain had fallen.
• • • •
Tilly lived about a mile and a half away. They had to walk through most of Eric’s neighborhood to get there.
“Did you know my dad died?” Tilly asked as they neared her house. She was still holding his arm, her fingers cool to the touch, like the tiles underneath the stairs.
“No,” Eric rasped.
“It was a long time ago. I was pretty little. But I learned something then.” She turned and ducked through a side yard into a grassy alley between the rows of houses. Dark shapes blurred on the other sides of fences, whuffling and whining and clinking their chains. The ground was patchy dirt and winter-dry grass. There was a trickle of water down the middle of the pathway, not even enough to qualify as a creek. It smelled like metal and chemical fertilizer. “Here.” Tilly pulled on a boarded-up piece of fencing, and it swung out like a doggie-door.
“Is this your home?” Eric whispered. He didn’t need to duck to fit through the opening.
Tilly followed him, letting the makeshift door swing shut behind her. The building ahead of them was dark, despite the white-and-pastel paint. The windows were all closed and heavily curtained. A small shed clung to the rear corner like a wasp’s nest. “I live here,” she said, not necessarily agreeing. “Over here.” She led him to the listing shed.
There was a pile of dirt. No grass grew on it or even near it. Tilly picked up a rusty half-shovel from the line of broken tools that leaned against the shed and scraped at the dirt.
“What are we doing?” Eric was almost curious, though that feeling was drowned by the increasingly strong urge to find a dark space to wedge himself into.
“This,” said Tilly. She moved aside to show him what she’d uncovered.
Eric peered down at it. “Dead cat?” he asked, although even as he said it, he knew it wasn’t correct. It had too many limbs, for one thing, and long needle-like fingers. It was withered and black as a scorpion, and it smelled like vomit.
“Everyone’s is different, I think,” she said. “Mine was in my head, up under my hair. That’s why I got it cut short originally. But it’ll grow if you don’t stop it. Not hair. It. It’ll grow to fit whatever space you give it.”
“But what is it?”
Tilly shook her head. “That’s not the right question. Anyway, I don’t know. They probably don’t have a name. You’ve been trying to keep yours small by staying in small places, but I think all you did is teach it how to be crooked.”
Eric shook his head and started to back away, but Tilly was suddenly in front of him, blocking his path, dirt-crusted shovel held out before her.
“I killed mine while it was small. You have to get them before they get too big. Yours, I think, lives somewhere right about . . . here.” Tilly swung the shovel at Eric’s back, and Eric, hunched and twisted, couldn’t evade in time. The impact knocked him to the ground, and he started coughing. Then he found he couldn’t stop, and the coughing turned to heaves, then retching, and finally, he spewed some bile and a length of green-speckled rope that twitched and writhed on the ground in front of him.
“What?” Eric asked. He pulled himself to his hands and knees and looked up, noticing that he could look up again.
Tilly knelt beside him, spearing the shovel into the cold earth. “There’s more in there. You’ve been hiding while it grew. I can’t get it all, not from out here. I’ll help as much as I can, but you’ll have to get it yourself.”
She held out a hand and helped Eric to his feet.
“What if I don’t?”
Tilly shook her head. “It grows to fill where it lives.”
“Like a goldfish?”
“That’s a myth.”
“Oh.” Eric blinked. He wasn’t having nearly as hard a time focusing on Tilly’s face as he had been. She looked like she’d been crying. “Are you okay?”
“Nothing that can get better,” she said.
Eric thought about his father, who was probably trapped on the kitchen ceiling by now, too far to reach the stove or the pantry.
“I need to get home,” he said. His throat felt less dry already, and he ran a freshly-moistened tongue over his retreating teeth. He wondered how high his father would go. He’d have to tie a rope around the old man, keep him down until he could learn to walk on the ground again. The thing in his father probably lived in his stomach, always so acid and uneasy to begin with. Eric glanced at the kelp-like thing he’d coughed up and the cat-bat-hedgehog Tilly’d had in her hair. An upset stomach seemed like the sort of place they’d like. Hopefully, Eric wouldn’t be too late.
“Thank you,” he told Tilly.
“Just be careful,” she said. “Don’t hide away like that again. Everyone needs help sometimes.”
Eric nodded. Tilly opened the gate for him, and he slipped back into the lonely alley. He was a few steps away before he thought of a question.
“Hey, Tilly,” he said, tottering back and peering through the fence, “what about your mom?”
Tilly was already closing the door into the house. She spun on her heel and slammed it, but not before Eric saw the wobbling wall of gray-pink flesh inside the room, with barely room for a little girl to slip past on her way in or out.
It grows to fill where it lives.
Eric turned under the star-stained sky and ran for home, the streetlights flickering on one by one in his wake.