Billy’s fingers crept like spider’s legs over the coarse, pitted surface of the door, tracing the cracks and crevices of many chipped layers of paint, inching toward the big brass knob. The clatter of dishes in the kitchen sink echoed down the hall.
“Grandpa,” he whispered, pressing his ear to the door. “Can you hear me?”
At first, silence. Then he heard the creak of bed springs, the thud of feet on the hardwood floor.
“I can hear you,” his grandfather said, voice muffled by the heavy door “You be careful you don’t get in trouble.”
“I won’t get in trouble,” Billy said, even as one finger brushed the edge of the knob. “How are you feeling today?”
“Not so hot.” He heard his grandfather fumbling around on his nightstand, then the click of a lamp, and a hint of light shone around the edges of the door. “Head’s all fuzzy. Throat feels like it’s full of sand.”
“I’m sorry you’re still sick, Grandpa,” Billy said.
“It’s not your fault.”
“Can I get you anything?”
“No, you sure can’t,” Grandpa said before dissolving into a fit of coughing. “Billy, did you know I fought in the war?”
“Yes,” Billy replied.
“Helluva way for a veteran to wind up, isn’t it?” Grandpa sighed. “But what can you do? Wish I could see your face, kiddo.”
Billy had hold of the doorknob now. It felt ice cold against his palm. “Maybe you can.”
A shadow fell over him then, and he became aware of the unpleasant, musty smell of his mother’s perfume. He let go of the doorknob and lurched backward, but she descended upon him like a mountain of wrath.
“I was only talking,” Billy protested, as she snagged his wrist.
She was an imposing woman, pale, obese, hair pulled into a tight bun on the back of the head. Her eyes, perpetually bloodshot, rested in the shadow of a high forehead beneath unkempt eyebrows.
“You lie,” she said in a voice as tight as a coiled spring. “I saw you.” Her grip on his wrist tightened. “How many times have I told you, you cannot go into Grandfather’s room? How many?”
“I don’t know,” Billy squeaked.
“No, you don’t know, because you’ve lost count,” she said, grinding his wrist bones together. “So let it me say it again. You cannot go into Grandfather’s room. He is very sick. Do you want to get sick, too?”
“No, ma’am,” Billy said.
“Then stay away from the door.” She had bright red patches on her cheeks and forehead. Her free hand came up, and he expected a slap. Instead, she merely cuffed him on the shoulder. “Go and watch your TV show, and don’t let me catch you trying to open that door again.”
She released her grip on his wrist, and he slunk past her. When he was a few feet away, thinking he was safe, he stood up, but she delivered a last surprise kick to his tailbone. Billy yelped, grabbed his backside, and stumbled into the living room.
“That’ll help you remember,” she said.
In the living room, the television was on, gray light dancing on the walls, but the volume had been turned down. Billy squatted in front of the screen, sulking. His mother stepped up behind him, and he braced himself for another kick. Instead, she patted him on top of the head and mussed his hair.
“I’m not trying to be mean,” she said. “I’m only trying to keep you safe. Your grandfather is very, very sick, and you could catch what he has if you go around him.”
“I know, Mom,” Billy said. “You already told me that a whole bunch of times.”
“Alright, then.” She patted his head one more time, ungently. “You stay out of that room. Next time, there will be real consequences. Do you understand me?”
She sighed, turned, and strode back into the kitchen, her fat, slippered feet thumping on the floor. Billy waited until he heard the clank of dishes in the sink, then reached forward and turned up the volume on the television.
It was all so unfair. He couldn’t even look at his own grandfather, and the poor old man was cooped up in his room day and night like some kind of criminal. Billy could barely stand thinking about it, and TV didn’t make him feel any better. An old black-and-white sitcom was on. A father in his armchair, newspaper in hand, dispensing sage advice to his two rascally children. Billy had seen the show before, this very episode, in fact, many times, so he knew what the next scene would be before the camera cut away. Suddenly, there was Grandpa, sitting in a gray room in a gray rocking chair. He had a white beard, a black pipe between his teeth, and a gray porkpie hat on his head, and the children stood beside him, a boy and a girl. Yes, stood beside him in the very same room, looking right at him as he told them a story. That was the way it worked in normal families. Normal families didn't imprison sick relatives in their bedrooms.
Watching the show made Billy burn with the indignity of it all. And all the while, his mother hummed a little song to herself as she finished washing the dishes, like a woman who hadn’t a care in the world. He decided it was better not to think about it, so he changed the channel, from the gray grandfather to a gray cartoon rabbit prancing in a forest, and found a more comfortable position on the floor. The clank of dishes in the kitchen had become the whisking sound of the broom. As for the cartoon, Billy had seen this one as well. It seemed like there was nothing new on TV these days, only things he had already seen.
“Mom,” he called. “Can I have a soda pop?”
Her broom stilled. “No, if you want a drink, you can have a glass of water.”
“I don’t want a glass of water,” Billy said. “I don’t like water. It tastes bad.”
“Oh, it does not.”
He heard her feet stomping across the kitchen, the cupboard door banging against the wall, the sound of water from the faucet, and wished he'd kept his mouth shut. Why couldn’t he for once have the thing he wanted? Indignity on top of indignity. Mother came into the living room, a tall glass of tap water in her hand.
“Take it,” she said.
“I don’t like tap water,” he said. “It tastes dirty.”
“There is nothing wrong with it,” she said. “You don’t need to be guzzling soda pop all the time. The sugar is only going to make you crazy. Take it.”
She grabbed his hand and pressed the glass against his palm, and he, reluctant but not wanting to get smacked, curled his fingers around it. He held it, waiting for her to leave the room, but she lingered, her arms crossed beneath her vast bosom. Billy sighed and took a sip of the water. It tasted sour, like someone had melted an onion in it, if such a thing were possible. The one sip seemed to satisfy his mother, however, and she returned to the kitchen and to her sweeping. As soon as she was out of sight, Billy set the glass of water on the floor and turned his attention back to the cartoon.
“You drink that water,” his mother said, as if somehow she had seen him set it down. “I expect to find an empty glass when I come back in there.”
Billy sighed and picked up the glass, holding it in front of his face, hating that his desire for a soda pop had turned into another ordeal. Cloudy water in a spotless glass. No, he couldn’t bring himself to drink it, but Mother would get upset if he didn’t. He had to dispose of it.
He left the volume up on the TV, hoping the sounds of the wise-cracking gray bunny would mask his own, and rose. He had his shoes on, but he slipped them off one at a time and headed for the hallway. The bathroom door was at the end, past grandfather’s room, past his own room, and he made his way toward it in a crouch, casting furtive glances over his shoulder, like a mouse evading the ever-hungry house cat. As he went, he cradled the glass against his chest, so she wouldn’t see it if she happened to step into the living room to check on him. But the water sloshed and spilled, some onto his shirt, some onto his socks, and a few fat drops fell right in the middle of the hallway. He wiped up the drops with his heel and kept going. As he neared grandfather’s bedroom door, he gave it a wide berth.
He nearly dropped the glass of water, and his socks slipped, but he caught himself before he fell. Grandfather sounded close, as if he were just on the other side of the door. Still, Billy almost kept walking, the pain in his wrist and tailbone an all-too-present reminder of what would happen if he got caught, but he couldn’t do it. He listened for a moment, heard the broom still sweeping the kitchen floor, then set the glass of water down and crept to the door.
“Grandpa,” he whispered. “Are you okay?”
“No,” his grandfather said, sounding hoarse. “Billy, what is that you’ve got there beside you?”
Billy glanced down at the glass. How could grandfather know about that? Could he see it somehow? Maybe he'd heard it, the soft clunk when Billy set it on the floor. “Just a glass of water. Gross water from the sink. Grandpa, are you getting worse? What’s happening?”
“Billy.” The door creaked, as if the old man leaned his weight against it. “You shouldn’t drink water from the faucet. Never ever.”
Billy felt a little shiver of fear. He glanced toward the living room and saw a shadow moving in the open archway into the kitchen. The sound of the broom had stilled. Billy gasped, stumbled away from grandfather’s bedroom door and raced down the hallway. Without looking back, he flung himself into the bathroom and kicked the door shut, slamming it so hard that the mirror above the bathroom sink rattled in its frame.
“Billy!” his mother shouted, her voice echoing down the hallway. “Don’t you slam doors in this house! What are you doing?” He heard her feet pounding across the living room.
“Just using the bathroom, Mom,” he called. “Sorry, I had to go real bad.”
Feet thundered down the hall. “That is no excuse.” She stopped, made an annoyed grunt. “Oh, for crying out loud, you left your glass of water sitting right here on the floor. What is the matter with you?”
Billy swallowed hard, tasting something bitter in the back of his throat. “Yeah, I guess I did.” He stepped up to the bathroom door and leaned his shoulder against it. It was a purely symbolic gesture. He had no hope of stopping her if she wanted to force her way in. “I didn’t want to bring it in the bathroom with me. Sorry.”
She was quiet for a moment. Maybe crouching down, getting ready to make a bull charge toward the bathroom and smash down the door? He could see that. But no, she merely said, “I’m going back to the kitchen. When you get out, you drink this water. And no more slamming doors. Got it?” and retreated back down the hall.
“Got it, Mom,” he called after her.
He pressed his ear to the door and waited until he heard the whisking of the broom. Then he opened the bathroom door, peeked around the edge to make sure the hallway was clear, and stepped out. She had moved the glass, sliding it away from grandfather’s bedroom door and closer to the bathroom. Billy eased into the hallway, moving as quietly as possible, always listening for the sound of the broom. He stooped down and grabbed the water glass in passing, then started back to the living room, intent on immersing himself back into the world of the cartoon bunny, thereby avoiding trouble the rest of the day.
But that voice. Grandfather said his name again as he passed the bedroom door. Billy almost kept going. It would have been the smart thing to do, but his mother had never accused him of being smart. Billy stopped in his tracks and set the glass of water down beside him.
He listened for the broom, heard it, and leaned in close to the door.
“Grandpa, I’m here.”
“Billy, I can’t take it anymore,” he replied, his voice quaking with either fear or sickness, or both. “I can’t stand being in this room. I’m going out of my mind.”
“I know,” Billy said. “What can I do?”
But his grandfather merely groaned. Billy heard the creak of bed springs, the rustling of blankets, as if the old man were tossing and turning. Something fell from the nightstand and shattered on the floor.
“It’s not right,” Grandpa moaned. “I shouldn’t be treated this way. I fought in the war. It’s not right.”
“Grandpa, I would open the door and let you out, but Mom will smack me if I do.”
The pace of sweeping in the kitchen became more frantic. She had to be sweeping a spotless floor by now, but still she kept on with the broom, as if she meant to brush away the linoleum itself and work her way into the foundation.
“I know she hits you,” Grandpa said. He got quiet for a moment, and the rustling of blankets stilled. Billy didn’t know what to say, so he reached for his glass, intending to leave, but then the old man spoke again. “If I was with you, I wouldn’t let her hit you like that. You tell her I said leave you alone.”
“O-okay.” He had no intention of saying any such thing. That was a recipe for getting killed.
But then he had an idea, brilliant and foolish. It would prove to be his downfall, sadly, but the moment he thought of it, it seemed perfect, the most perfect idea he’d ever had in his whole short life. Grandpa couldn’t come outside the bedroom to protect him, not as sick as he sounded, but what if Billy went in there with him? Up until then, his plan had always been to open the door just enough to see his grandfather and no more, but what if he actually went into the room? What if he even crossed to the far side? Mother might not go in after him. In fact, Billy had never seen her enter grandfather’s room, not once. Surely she wouldn’t hit him in front of the old man, not inside the room while he was lying in bed.
Could he catch whatever sickness his grandfather had? Perhaps. Was it worth the risk? He decided it was.
“Grandpa, I’m coming in there.”
“Well, now, I’m not sure you want to do that, kiddo,” Grandpa said.
“I do want to,” Billy replied. “I’m gonna open the door now, but you gotta keep Mom from hitting me.”
“I’ll do what I can.”
Billy steeled himself, trying to work up the courage, as the broom continued its endless, mad rhythm. He turned the knob and pushed the door, wincing at the loud creak of the little-used hinges. A cold and almost violent swoosh of air surged into the hallway, and a dim and hazy light spilled through the opening. Billy took a deep breath and stepped into the bedroom.
It took time for his eyes to adjust to the strange light. The air seemed heavy with dust and had a rotten smell, like old, damp wood.
The window was the first thing he noticed, a single pane of murky, yellow glass framed by ragged curtains so dirty their original color could not be discerned. From there, his gaze dropped to the hardwood floor, a floor so coated with dust it seemed to have sprouted some new form of translucent plant life. The dust was untouched, no footprints, no tracks, no evidence that it had ever been disturbed. As for furniture, Billy saw none. No bed, no nightstand, no lamp. The room was completely empty. In the far corner, a closet door stood ajar, the tiny space beyond filled only with gloom and shadows, nothing else. Nobody was in the room, and nobody, from the look of it, had ever been in the room.
Billy’s heart raced, and his breath came shallow and fast. How could this be? How could the room be empty?
“Grandfather?” His voice, barely a squeak, sounded vast in the empty shell of a bedroom.
Stepping farther into the room, he looked behind the door, peered into the shadowy closet, tapped on the walls, but all of his efforts only succeeded in kicking up a vile cloud of dust that sent him into a fit of coughing. He coughed until his lungs burned, doubled over, his hands pressed to his thighs.
When the coughing passed, he rose, opened his eyes, and found himself face-to-face with his mother. He gasped and stumbled away from her, kicking up more dust, but she made no move toward him. She had a slight frown on her fleshy face, but her eyebrows were raised, and her hands were clasped primly in front of her.
“Well?” she said in a flat, emotionless voice. “You finally did it. Despite all of my warnings and all of my threats, you went into Grandfather’s room. I hope you’re pleased with yourself.”
When Billy tried to speak, his voice broke, and he found himself close to tears. He paused to collect himself. “He sounded like he was in trouble, Mom. I only wanted to help him. I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry?” Same deadness of voice, but she chewed on the words for a moment then nodded and said, “Not half as sorry as you will be.”
“No, no, wait.” He held up his hands, expecting her to rush at him, but she didn’t move from the doorway. “Mom, where is he? Where is Grandpa?”
“He’s nowhere,” she replied, and did he detect a hint of laughter in her voice? “I tried to shield you from the truth, but you wanted in here so bad, now you get to hear it. You don’t have a grandfather. You never did. He doesn’t exist.”
“Lie,” Billy shouted, then choked on the word and clapped a hand over his mouth.
Still his mother didn't come for him. She shook her head and sighed. “There was never a sick grandfather in here. Never. The only sick person in this house is you, Billy.” She tapped her forehead with one sausage-thick finger. “Sick right here.”
“No, that’s not true,” Billy said, tears clouding his vision. “I talked to him. I heard his voice. He’s real. Where is he?”
“You heard nothing,” she said. “You were talking to yourself. I coddled you, I tried to protect you, but now you’ve gone and messed it all up, haven’t you?”
“You’re lying,” Billy said, and this time he didn’t cover his mouth. Tears streamed down his face, and the whole room felt like it was spinning around him. “I know I heard him. Where is he? Where?”
“We’re going to have to fix this, Billy,” his mother said. The little spots of red had returned to her cheeks and forehead. “And the fixing won’t be pleasant, but you brought it on yourself by not listening to me.”
And now she did come for him. He tried to duck out of the way, but her arm lunged forward, quick as a striking snake, and her hand clamped down on his shoulder. He squirmed and almost slipped out of her grasp, but her other hand shot up and snagged his wrist.
“Don’t fight me, or this will be worse,” she said through clenched teeth.
But he did fight, thrashing wildly, until she grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked. He squealed in pain and slumped down in resignation. His insides felt all crumbled and broken, and, as she led him out of the room, he wept loudly.
“I didn’t want this for you,” she said. “I never wanted it to come to this. Like I said, I tried to shield you from it.”
His feet slipped out from under him, but she never slowed, now dragging him like dead weight down the hallway and into the living room. The cartoon bunny kept right on cracking wise and prancing, as Billy slid past the television and into the kitchen.
In the kitchen, the broom was propped against the table, and everything gleamed. The linoleum floor had a crystalline sheen, and light glistened like white fire on the countertops. Mother led Billy over to the sink. When she stopped, he was able to get his feet under him. He stood up, wiping the tears from his cheeks.
“I know I have a grandfather,” he said. “I talked to him. I heard his voice.”
Mother grunted, gave him an appraising look, then pinned him against the edge of the sink with her forearm. “Your grandfather never existed,” she said, her voice a low growl. “Say it.”
“He did. He does.”
“Okay, fine,” she replied. “That’s how it’s going to be. I will fix this the hard way, Billy. I should never have let it go on so long.”
He kicked her in the shin, but she didn’t react. With her free hand, she reached over to the drawer beside the sink and drew it open. Silverware rattled.
“Your grandfather never existed. Say it.”
“No.” He grabbed her forearm in both of his hands and pushed with all his might, but it was like trying to bend an iron bar.
“He never existed. Say it.” Her fingers fumbled around in the neat rows of spoons, forks, and knives.
“He does exist!” Billy screamed at the top of his lungs.
Her hand came out of the drawer, clutching the black plastic handle of a serrated steak knife. Billy’s heart leaped in his chest. She turned the blade so that it caught the sunlight and shined in his eyes.
“I will fix this, Billy,” she said again. “So help me, I will fix it.” She raised the knife high over her head, the muscles in her forearm tightening, but her face remained emotionless, eyes like cold bits of marble. “You have one more chance to say it. Your grandfather does not exist, and he never did. Now, you say it. You say it right now!”
Billy thrashed and kicked, but she had him, her forearm like a vice against his ribs.
“Say it! He never--”
“You don’t exist,” Billy shrieked. “You don’t exist! You never existed!”
The blade of the knife flashed, and he tensed for the strike. But the light shuddered and, with a sudden loud pop, the blade burst into a million glittering fragments that sizzled like embers in a fire. He closed his eyes and turned away, expecting the fragments to land on his face and burn him. Instead, a tightness descended over his skull, as if Mother had wrapped her hands around his head and squeezed, and a cold mildew-tainted air settled over him.
Billy opened his eyes, and she was gone. Mother was gone. Utterly gone, as if she had sunk into the earth, and the ground had closed up behind her. More than that, a darkness had seeped into the room, darkness and dankness. Gone the shining linoleum floor, replaced with a bare wood floor. Gone the gleaming countertops and cupboards, replaced with moldy, broken frames. Gone the silver sink, in its place a rusted bowl full of filthy, yellow water. Two cracked glasses floated in the water like debris from a shipwreck. The walls in the kitchen had turned a dingy brown, the wallpaper peeled away to nothing. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling and from exposed rafters. The table was gone, the broom gone, curtains over the window reduced to a few shreds of cloth dangling from a bent rod.
Billy examined the floor, heavy with dust, and noted one set of tracks only, heavy boots moving about the room. No sign of Mother’s slippered feet. No sign of anyone else. Only the boots. He was alarmed to find that the boots were his own. Heavy black boots with thick rubber soles.
“What--?” He started to ask a question but realized he had no one to ask.
He stumbled across the kitchen and found that his legs were weak and wobbly. He tried to brace himself on one of the rotting countertops, but it crumbled under his weight, taking a bit of the wall down with it. He kicked through the pile of splinters and damp sheetrock and made his way into the living room. It, too, had become a dark and dirty wreck. Cobwebs as thick as blankets filled the corners, and the television set was gone. As in the kitchen, dust coated the floor, disturbed only by the tracks of his boots.
“Mom?” Did his voice sound wrong to him? It did. Deep, coarse, a man’s voice.
He grabbed his forehead and staggered toward the hallway. Again, darkness and dust, the shattered remnants of the attic door hanging from its hinges. Insulation spilled down from holes in the ceiling like the guts of a long-dead animal.
“Mom?” He said it louder this time, and the word echoed in the great rotting house, but he got no reply.
Then a glint of light, very faint, caught his eye. Something sitting in the middle of the hallway, a small object. It took a moment to comprehend what he was seeing. A drinking glass, small and dirty and chipped, filled with cloudy water. He reached for it, but bending over made his head hurt all the more, so he left the glass and kept going, heading for his bedroom. It was all he could think to do, retreat to his bedroom and collapse onto the bed and shut his eyes until everything made sense again.
“Bill?” A familiar voice, but it startled him. He stumbled backward, kicking over the glass and spilling water all over the concrete floor. And he could smell it. He could smell the water. Sour and rank as rotting vegetables.
He saw movement out of the corner of his eye and turned in the direction of Grandfather’s room. The door was open. Actually, the door didn’t exist, nor the doorframe, only a ragged hole of crumbling timbers in the middle of a bare wall.
“Bill, is that you?” Movement on the far side of the room. He entered, stepping lightly over the pile of broken pieces that might once have been the door. Faint light seeped through a dirty window pane, but it was enough to see the shape on the floor, a body sprawled on its back.
“Who’s there?” he asked.
As he drew near, he saw that it was an old man, white beard and dark eyes, dressed in military fatigues, heavy boots on his feet. He was trying in vain to sit up, so Billy squatted down, despite the agony in his skull, and helped him. Did he know this face? He thought he did, but only when he said it did the reality of it sink it.
The old man looked up at him and smiled. A line of cloudy drool ran out of the corner of his mouth and into his beard. “It’s the water,” he said. “They put something in the water.”
“The water, yes.” Billy glanced back at the empty glass, the dark puddle of foul water beside it. “I only had a sip.”
“No, not even a sip,” the old man said, reaching up and touching his face. “It messes with your mind. Don’t even touch it. Nothing from the tap, not even a drop. They poisoned it all. It’s in everything. Oh, I’ve been seeing things, terrible things, and hearing voices.”
Billy sat down next to the old man, leaning against him, waiting for the pain to abate. He wasn’t quite sure what the old man what talking about, but something told him he should. Something beneath the level of memory told him he knew quite well.
“We won the war, didn’t we?” Grandfather said. “Didn’t we win the war?”
“I…” War? Yes, Billy thought maybe he knew what that word meant. “I don’t know. Did we?”
“Yes,” the old man said, wiping the drool away with his sleeve. “But they got us back, oh yes they did. One last dirty trick.”
“Mom said…” Billy caught himself. No, there was no Mom here. His real mother was long gone. “My mind…I can’t…”
“You can’t remember anything,” the old man said. “Yes, it messes with your memories. It’s a nasty chemical. Don’t worry. It’ll all come back to you eventually.”
“Okay,” Billy said, uncertainly. Did he want it all to come back? He wasn’t sure. “Where are we?”
The old man glanced around and snorted. “You brought me here when I come down sick. Just an old abandoned house, I guess. You don’t remember where we are, where we’re going?”
Billy thought for a moment, but his only real memory was of the huge fleshy woman with the knife in her hand. “No, I can’t recall.”
“You’ve been stomping around this house for hours, ranting and raving. I told you not to drink the water. I told you.” Grandpa slid an arm around his shoulders and gave him an affectionate pat. “You’ll be okay. Give it time. It’ll all come back.”
“So…where are we going?”
“Why, we’re going home, of course.”
Billy took a deep breath, felt the pain in his skull abate, if only a little, and leaned his head back against the soft wood beneath the window. He felt like a ghost floating between two worlds, neither of them fully real, and only one thing certain, that his grandfather existed. Yes, he thought he would be okay in time. He returned the affectionate pat and closed his eyes to sleep.