Micah’s lunch was chocolate rice cereal drowned in root beer. The kids on TV always ate their cereal with milk, but Micah suspected that was their parents’ doing. No red-blooded boy would pick milk over root beer.
The cereal danced and sputtered. Micah dropped his face closer to the bowl so he could feel the bursts of soda, wet across his nose and cheeks, tiny carbonated kisses.
A man with horse teeth and a loud tie was bellowing on the TV. “Come down for the Fourth of July blowout sale! No money down! All trade-ins accepted! Best prices in town!” Micah’s free hand crept over to the remote and changed the channel. Weather. Click. More commercials. Click. Old cartoons. Fine. He slouched over the table and shoveled cereal mush into his mouth, drained the bowl, and pushed it away from him.
The hands on the kitchen clock had moved to the right. Micah frowned at the clockface, counting the notches, double checking with his fingers, and decided that it was well past noon. Sunlight was thick and bright on the kitchen counters, and the mockingbirds outside were audible even above the television. He hoisted himself onto the old milk can next to the oven and peered out the window. The driveway was empty.
The woman was still gone.
Teatime was at noon, always. Noon had passed. There would be no teatime today. Micah mulled over that sweet fact and grinned. A day with no teatime was better than Christmas.
He jumped down from the milk can and glanced over at the television, where five black-and-white cartoon dogs cavorted across the screen. It wouldn’t get any better. TV was always best at night, when the really juicy stuff came on.
His favorite video games were in the Sailboat Room, but he’d spent all morning in there, and his thumbs were sore.
There was an excellent couch in the Forest Room, one with soft velvet fabric and plush cushions. He yawned and thought about sinking into that couch, chocolate rice cereal burbling in his stomach, and taking a short nap.
The cartoon dogs had all piled onto a bicycle, one stacked on top of the other, and were barreling down a poorly drawn road, the angry dog catcher in hot pursuit. Micah picked at some crust underneath his nostril and nodded at the dogs. Naps and video games were for the rain and snow. It was a fine day for a bike ride.
Gravel crunched as Micah pedaled down the driveway. His training wheels always got stuck until he made it past the barn, where the tiny stones gave way to flat packed dirt. He sucked in a lungful of air and heaved against the pedals, ignoring the burn in his thighs. A gust of hot prairie wind kicked dust into his eyes. He wiped his face and pumped his legs, and after another minute, all four wheels of his Huffy met solid ground. The driveway stretched infinitely in front of him. He squeezed the hand brake and looked over his shoulder.
The house was terrible from a distance. A blight of mismatched windows, faded planks and sloping shingles, it rose out of the parched fields like a shipwreck. Massive cottonwoods lined the west side, with branches so tall a boy could break his neck just dreaming about them, but still the house’s third story inched above them, and the attic above that, with a cupola perched atop the roof, crowned by a corn-shaped weather vane.
The woman barely spoke to Micah anymore, but when she did, it was usually about the house and how there was none like it in the county. None larger, none more majestic. Her father had poached three of the best farmhouses around, moved them to his property and cobbled them together, tripling rooms and gables and doors until he had a real castle.
It was a haunted castle, he knew that much; he’d seen a ghost face in the attic window his first day there. The face was flat and pale, and disappeared when Micah stared up at it. It was just a face, and he never saw it again, but nobody lived in the house but him and the woman, so he knew what it had to be.
He turned back around and squinted into the endless farmland until he made out the shape of the nearest oil pump. The oil pump was the farthest he’d ever gone, before getting too tired, too thirsty, too bored to continue. He took a deep breath, tightened his grip on the handlebar, and pushed off.
Five minutes later, the chain seized up and his bike pitched forward. Micah tumbled onto the dirt road and lay there, knees bleeding, whimpering. The smooth blue sky gazed back at him. He felt like he was being cheated, denied the comfort that the TV kids always got when they bled and cried and wrecked their bikes, so he sobbed louder.
Nothing happened. Micah picked himself up from the ground, kicked the bike until his toes throbbed, and stomped back up the driveway. The Huffy was old anyway, and too small for his growing legs. He decided that his new bike would be electric green, with white tires. And no more training wheels.
Darkness slithered along the edges of the fields, and the woman was coming back. Micah spied her headlights from his leafy perch in the crabapple tree and swung around to the other side of the trunk. It was the longest she’d ever been gone, and he wanted a secret look at what she’d brought him. The longer her trips, the better the presents. He plucked a handful of leaves and smashed them between his palms until they were streaked green.
Micah held his breath and peeked around the trunk as the old car groaned to a stop and the woman stepped out. Her hair was as tall and red and curly as ever, but her suit was different. It was sewn from blue fabric, with white feathers tacked along the hem and a long column of thick, golden buttons. Micah blinked at the suit. He remembered the buttons from when he was younger, practically a baby, and how he tried to pry them off her. They’d looked like real treasure to him, pirate’s gold.
The woman leaned against the car door and rubbed her calves. Her cobwebbed face sagged against her collar, but a smile pricked at the corners of her lips. Micah squirmed on the branch, hoping she wouldn’t show her teeth. He hated her soft, orange teeth.
After a moment, however, she straightened up and walked toward the rear passenger door. Micah’s eyes strained against tinted windows, searching for boxes, toys, anything new. His tongue felt thick and dry. He willed the woman’s arthritic frame to move faster.
At last, she opened the door. Her mottled arms reached inside and reemerged with a small child. A boy. Towheaded and bloodless, with eyes so milky blue they cut through the shadows, the boy squirmed free and stumbled backward, away from the woman. His thin hands twined around the collar of his sailor suit.
Micah’s stomach lurched. The boy was alive, moving, and that really was something, but that hair, those eyes, the suit with its crisp white sleeves and plump round cap – it was all too much. Micah ran a hand through his own pale yellow hair and fingered his scalp where bobby pins once secured that same sailor cap. The cap was retired when he outgrew the rest of the suit. There had been a spill too, an overturned cup of tea that drenched the right lapel. Micah dug his fingers into the bark and leaned over the branch. Yes, there was the lapel, and there was the stain, beige and splotchy.
The woman grasped the boy’s arm and bent over, whispering into his ear. The boy jerked back, but his eyes glowed and the sharp pink point of his tongue darted over his lips. There was a crusty red spot near his chin, a scab, and Micah recalled how he first arrived at this house with scabs on his face. Scabs on his face and hands and stomach. He couldn’t remember how exactly the scabs started, but he did remember being awfully itchy.
The sailor boy dragged his tiny feet as the woman pulled him forward, away from the car, into the house. Micah scratched his neck and sagged against the tree trunk. He’d forgotten all about his presents.
Dinner was served. Micah tiptoed into the sweet warmth of the kitchen and slunk behind the open pantry door. His stomach gave two quick, angry growls.
“Down,” the woman said. “Down.” She pushed the boy’s head forward until it was parallel with the tabletop and plucked the cap from his hair. He was sniffling, and there were pink rings underneath his eyes.
“Tonight, we’ll have the special blessing,” she murmured, her fingernails stroking that fine yellow hair. “Would you like that?”
The boy’s shoulders jerked and heaved. The woman clasped her hands, and her eyes rolled back until they were two white slits carved into her sallow face. Micah felt an odd buzz in his ears, like a bumblebee wrapped in cotton, and realized that the television was turned off.
“Do not let your heart be troubled. You believe in God, so believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms. If that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” She turned to the boy and let her knuckles graze his sunken cheek. “Bless this food to our use, and us to thy service. Fill our hearts with grateful praise. Amen.”
The boy muttered something, shot the woman a wild look, and snatched a fish stick off his plate. He ate it with both hands, crumbs tumbling onto his lap, and licked the grease off his fingers. Micah sneered. The boy might look like he did, dress like he used to, but fish sticks were pure baby food.
Micah stepped out from behind the door and took long, loping strides to the freezer. The woman gave him that same cold clay stare and pursed her lips. The boy’s mouth dropped open, exposing a wad of masticated fish.
“Fish sticks taste like puke. I’m having Rocky Road for dinner,” Micah announced, and flung open the freezer door.
The boy dropped the stub end of his second fish stick and hitched in a breath as Micah opened up the gallon carton of ice cream. His eyes darted between the ice cream and the woman, who waved her hand.
“You can have whatever you want in this house.”
The boy jumped down and scrabbled over to Micah, who held the ice cream aloft and kicked at the tiny, searching sailor arms.
“I’m not sharing! Get your own Rocky Road.” He glared at the woman as he said this, willing her to shout, snatch the carton from his hands, slap him across the face, but when she stood up from the table, it was to take the dishes to the sink. The strange blue fabric of her dress rustled as she scrubbed their forks, and the back of her head was fixed forward. She didn’t budge when Micah delivered a vicious stomp to the boy’s toes, or when the boy gave a feral howl and latched onto Micah’s wrist with his baby incisors, or when both of them collided with the milk can and sent it rolling across the linoleum. She just scrubbed, her eyes locked on the soupy darkness outside.
It seemed like months since she’d said a word to him. Even during teatime, the most she did anymore was gaze out the window and nibble on her cucumber sandwich. And now, disappearing all day and coming back with this boy. Was he supposed to be Micah’s present? It was a terrible trick to play, Micah knew that, and he’d heard just the word for it on the police shows.
“You conned me!” he shrieked, smacking the boy on the cheek with the ice cream carton. “I’ve been conned!”
The woman turned around. “Conned you?”
“I wanted a bike, not him! I wanted a new bike, and he’s a crappy present.” He let the carton fall to the floor and the boy attacked it, snarling and tearing at the cardboard until his hands were sticky with marshmallow and his lips slick with chocolate.
The woman’s nostrils flared. “You’ll get your present tomorrow. After tea time.”
“Is he coming too?” Micah spat.
The woman picked up the milk can and carried it back to its usual spot. Purple splotches rose up her slack chicken neck as her fingers traced a fresh dent, near the lid. Her mouth was a hard, rouged streak across her face. Micah stomped his foot.
“I hope he has to come because I hate tea time.”
Her irises were swollen brown discs. She looked at the milk can, at the scarfing boy, at the softly ticking clock on the wall, and turned back to the sink to finish the dishes.
Micah swiped at the boy’s backside with his sneaker and sprinted from the kitchen, sobbing, coughing on hot snot. There wasn’t much he remembered about his life before this house, but he did remember the feeling of never getting what he wanted and being punished anyway.
He ran faster, up the stairs, and didn’t stop until he got to the America Room on the third floor.
Truthfully, he wanted to go all the way up to the attic, with its dusty treasures and secret hiding places, but that’s where he’d seen the ghost face in the window. He didn’t think he could bear it after dark.
Curled up underneath the bed, Micah dreamed that he was climbing up the milk can again, but this time it was the size of an oil pump, and its top was missing. He fell inside and landed on a buttery corn cob. The water was warm, and even though he was already asleep, he felt sleepy.
The jiggling door handle awoke him the next morning, well past dawn.
“Hello,” the boy’s voice called. “Hello.”
Micah crawled over to the door, flipped the latch and turned the handle. The boy was alone and in a fresh outfit, this one light yellow with lace cuffs and collar. He looked closer to the cradle than ever.
“What,” Micah said.
The boy breathed softly.
“Did she tell you to come get me?”
The boy shook his head.
“Just looking,” the boy said. “She said I could see all the rooms if I want.”
The boy sidled past Micah and looked around the America Room. He seemed unimpressed with the flag quilt and patriotic lampshade, but the stuffed bald eagle mounted on the wall grabbed his attention. He walked underneath it and jumped, fingers stretching upward, but only caught air.
“When did that bird die?” he asked. Micah shrugged, and noted that there were two Twinkies stuffed in the waistband of the boy’s yellow shorts.
“Give me a Twinkie.”
The boy spun around. “No. They’re mine.”
“She’ll give you another one,” Micah said. “Give me those and go get some more.”
“No. I want these.”
“How old are you anyway?” Micah asked.
The boy’s lower lip plumped out. “I’m already four.”
“Well, I’m already six, and that means I’m in charge. Give me a Twinkie or I’ll break your stupid nose.”
The boy removed a Twinkie from his waistband, looked straight into Micah’s eyes, and tightened his fist. Cream spurted out and filled the plastic package. Micah howled and started forward, but the bell sounded. He froze.
“Teatime,” he said.
The boy wasn’t fazed by this statement, or by the tinkling bell that echoed up from the second story landing. He mashed and twisted and pulled at the Twinkie until the plastic tore and a glob of pulverized cake fell onto the red carpet. Micah grabbed the boy’s shoulder and hauled him out the door.
“Let go! Let go!” the boy screamed and flopped around. The second Twinkie escaped from his shorts and flew over the bannister. The soft, delicate timbre of the bell was relentless.
“It’s teatime,” Micah said. “That bell means it’s teatime, and the bell won’t stop until we get there. You better learn this if you don’t want to go back wherever you came from.”
The boy ceased his struggle. Whispery gibberish leaked from his mouth, directed at the ceiling, where his eyes scanned back and forth. The scabs on his chin had been recently picked, with a fresh layer of amber crust that stretched to his lower lip. Micah squinted at the child’s blue, watery, stupid eyes and felt a little sorry for him. He had to wear that ugly yellow outfit, after all, while Micah could wear ratty jeans and sneakers, because none of the woman’s play clothes fit anymore. And the boy probably never had to go to teatime at his old house with his old family. Micah never had.
But still, those were two perfectly good Twinkies, gone forever, and Micah was the bigger boy, the older boy, the better boy. He tightened his grip on the the boy’s shoulder and trudged down the staircase, his footsteps marking time with the ting-ting-ting of the woman’s bell.
It wasn’t the bitter black tea or the dry, crumbly sugar cookies that made the little boy cry. Nor was it the ancient turntable in the corner that piped out swing music, marred by the needle’s rasp on the vinyl. He kept his composure when he was told to sit still in the cramped wooden chair, and not speak unless directly addressed, and chew with his mouth closed. His forehead wrinkled at the two hundred dead glass eyes that lined the Dolly Room, girl dolls and boy dolls, old and broken, new and mint, smiles and frowns, but he didn’t break down.
The bonnet was the tipping point. He squirmed when the woman crammed the white cotton bonnet on his head, twisting and jerking it down until it was snug. Then she cinched the strings underneath his chin, and it was all over. The boy hiccuped twice, shook his head, and wailed. Fat tears tumbled down his cheeks and splattered on the plate of ginger biscuits. His legs flogged the underside of the table and he tore at the expertly-tied bonnet strings with shaky fingers. Micah drew his arms across his filthy t-shirt and smirked. He remembered his first teatime; he’d sobbed and whined when the woman added a dash of milk to his teacup. He knew what came next.
The woman’s hand sailed across the table and cracked against the boy’s left cheekbone. The boy gasped as he fell from the chair and hit the carpet with a gentle thud. Micah bent over and peered under the table; the boy’s shoulders shook, and his face was a deep red where she’d hit him, but his blue eyes were clear again. Good, Micah thought. The boy would learn.
“Hush, Dolly,” the woman said as she scooped up the quivering yellow form and replaced it in the chair. She placed a cup and saucer in his hands and eased them up to his lips. The boy sipped, eyes glued to the door, breath coming in haggard gulps. The woman smiled and, stroking his hair, murmured something low and comforting into his bruised ear. Micah sipped his own awful tea and thought how glad he was, how happy, that he wasn’t a baby anymore.
The boy jumped up from the table and darted out of the room. Micah gnawed on his tongue and watched him go. The first teatime was deceptively short. Micah’s had been just him and the woman, and fifteen minutes later he was outside, kicking a brand new soccer ball and rolling around in the grass while the woman hustled in and out of the kitchen, preparing their dinner. Potatoes, corn and meat boiled in that big milk can, with a big fire underneath it. She’d warned Micah to stay away from the flames and the burning can, but he couldn’t resist throwing a stick at it. The stick burned up with everything else.
He lowered his cup and saucer to the table, thinking how the woman had let him eat until he was sick, and then she let him eat again. It was the first night in his life he didn’t go to bed hungry. The corn was his favorite; he liked it smeared with margarine and covered with salt. But the meat was tender and peppery, and he loved that too.
The woman stood and moved behind Micah.
“Don’t you want your present, Dolly?”
The needle slid into the soft flesh of his neck, and the liquid was inside him. Micah yelped once and sagged against the hard back of his chair. His arms and legs were heavy, like they’d been dipped in warm cement.
She led him down the stairs. He knew he was moving because the wallpaper was blurred and uneven, and he could feel the carpet push up against his feet, but that was all he knew. Moving. Down. Her fingers under his armpits, her orange teeth flashing over his shoulder. Moving.
The kitchen table was awash in yellow and green. He was sitting at it, but didn’t remember sitting. The yellow was corn. The woman’s wrinkled arms moved like a spider’s, stripping the green husks away and dumping the juicy cobs in a pile. Micah tipped forward until his head connected with a pile of potatoes. The woman’s hands were there, propping him back up, rolling the potatoes together, pinching his cheek. He opened his mouth and a spool of saliva came out.
Her teeth were so, so orange when she laughed. Micah wanted to cry, but the muscles wouldn’t work.
Potatoes, corn. Salt, pepper. Knives. Milk can, corner. Firewood. Micah’s head lolled. His eyes moved where they could.
Potatoes, corn, and. Potatoes, corn, and.
“Mmmm,” he tried, “mmmm!” His tongue was broken.
The woman laughed again, nodding, ruffling his yellow hair.
She turned his chair so he could watch the television. That same Fourth of July car commercial. Micah breathed, breathed, breathed, and then his throat felt too full for air. The salesman’s eyes were popping, and Micah’s were sinking. To his left, the soft snick snick snick of the knife cleaving potatoes. To his right, the bright summer sun and the new boy, playing with Micah’s toys.
Behind him, the milk can.
Ahead: the television. Micah stared at the screen until his brain felt as fuzzy as his body. The air smelled like corn, and then like nothing.
Rachel grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado and moved to New Orleans in 2004 to attend college and escape the snow.
She is gainfully employed at a law firm, where she crunches numbers and makes spreadsheets. In her spare time, she is either trying to write or playing bagpipes with a band called Kilts of Many Colours.
She also likes spaghetti.