By Nicole Van Den Eng
(link to part one)
I actually shocked my dad with something I did. Me, who can’t get her head out of school, as he put it. Well, I did. And it was easy as flying a toy.
The helicopter titled this way and that but I was crammed in so tight it would have been hard fall out. At the edge of our backyard was a trail that curved along the river. It was where all the more sane neighbors went for their morning run and I knew Ambry used it to leave the area unseen.
Electrical wires! I smashed my thumbs against the remote switches and popped up over them. I skimmed the treetops. Then I was out over the water. I aimed upriver, away from the city, because I didn’t want to be shot out of the air.
The shimmery blue stretched farther than my parents would ever bother to look and I stretched with it. It felt like freedom. Swallowing my nerves, I tested out my controls. I went as high as I could, far enough to be above both banks of the river. That’s enough, I thought, and came back down. What if I fell? What if I crashed into the water and drowned? I supposed my options were to crash or keep flying; I was okay with this. It felt good to be afraid of falling.
The river was deserted. It was still too cold to be enjoyed. I flew until the houses thinned out and there were more trees than there were signs of people. For what felt like an hour I let the wind whip my clothes and the cold wind play in my ears.
There was a small island ahead, lonely in a swatch of water. Its fellow lands separated from it like it was outcast. Even the trees stretched out from it, eager for water or sky or the other land, anything but this island. I swooped down low; there was a sizeable bald spot in the center where I set down.
I clicked the power switch on the remote and the blades died down. The sound of the water moved in. I wrenched myself out of the cockpit and stretched. Everything was still; there was no yelling, no jeering, or pandering.
A rustling came from behind me. I turned and saw a dog—a little thing, half starved. His ribs stuck out, his legs were scrawny, and he had a dirty snout. A collar hung loose on his neck. I knelt down. He nosed my hand and whined. I had nothing for him.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I bent down and looked at his tag: Tricky. “I’m sorry, Tricky, I have no food. I’d give it to you if I did.” He went back to sniffing the ground; I figured he’d been doing that for a long time. I followed him around. The island was little; it took only a few minutes to cross to the other side. Under the cover of the trees was a blue nylon tent. There was a mini grill out front, overturned.
“Hello?’ I peeked in the tent. A sleeping bag and a duffle bag, that’s all there was inside. A rowboat had been hauled onshore, away from the pull of the waves. I walked all along the shore and through the middle a few times. There was no one. I wondered if the dog’s owner had fallen in the water and never come back. I dug through the abandoned pack and found a can of beans. There was an opener in the bag as well so I opened the can and dumped it out for the dog to eat. He picked the morsels out of the dirt and looked at me for more. I didn’t have more.
I sat down on a boulder and looked out over the water.
Lonesome is the scavenger who scavenges purely and cursed is the lonely who scavenges for clarity.
Mr. Grummel let us each write one line in the play that would distinguish our character. Because, as Grummell would say, our characters show only as much depth as we recognize in ourselves.
It felt like my line could apply to Tricky right then, as much as it could to me.
I watched the waves for a long while. The dog laid his chin on his paws and sat next to me. I kept thinking the waves were going to stop any minute, to run out of energy and take a rest, but they never did. They waved and waved and waved and after a while I started seeing dead women who looked entirely like me hiding under them. I shivered and got up. Tricky got up with me. I considered him. He wouldn’t fit in my helicopter.
I picked the dog up in my arms, slowly so as not to scare him, and put him in the row boat. I pushed it over the pebbles, into the big river, and shoved him into the current—South—toward the city. Someone would find him, I hoped. He had a better chance than staying here on the island where he would almost certainly starve. He looked forward as he floated off, not back at me.
I got back in my helicopter and started it up. The battery was half gone. I felt a little foolish. Of course it wouldn’t last forever. Of course it wasn’t a fee-free ride. I could push this thing doubly far North and wind up alone on the street, or I could go back home. Ambry had tried running away many times and always wound up coming back, either out of desperation or in handcuffs.
I sighed deeply and took off. I felt like a giant clown in a smart car with my knees protruding out the sides. I zoomed easily through the air, dipping to clip the tops of trees and making big loops that flung me sideways.
When home was within view the engine sputtered once. That set my heart thumping. The battery was dying. I pushed harder. I could see our yard but I was losing height. I hit some branches harder than I wanted to. The yard passed beneath me faster than I’d anticipated and I nearly smashed into the side of the house before putting it down right beneath the upper patio. No one was in the four season room directly below that patio.
Ambry’s bright red sweatshirt came trotting up. “What the hell are you doing?” he laughed.
Caught off guard, I didn’t have an immediate answer. “Well—,” I stuttered, “Your bugs!” I remembered. But my deeper feelings were more prominent than the bugs. “I didn’t want to come back,” I admitted. “Sometimes I wish I could disappear like you.”
“First of all, what’s stopping you? Second, I didn’t disappear; I went down to the garage for digging supplies. I heard the whizzing sound, come out, and there goes Cleo over the river in a helicopter.
“Anyway, something happened. You gotta come see this,” the width of his smile made me nervous. We approached the garage and he started climbing the tree that touched the roof.
“I’d rather just go in the door, Ambry,” I looked up at him with my hands on my hips.
“No, trust me, you wouldn’t. Hurry up.”
“I’d actually prefer to do my homework right now.” I brushed my hair out of my eyes and reluctantly reached for the lowest branch.
By the time I got in, Ambry was already over by the stairs. There was laughing coming from down below. “Cleo!” he yelled down while eyeing me mischievously.
I watched with interest but I was not prepared for what came up the steps: me. I reeled in horror. It was me! I noticed her eyes first. They were little mouths, pointed at the corners and lined with tiny teeth.
“No, no” Ambry grabbed my arm, “It’s fine.”
“It’s fine,” the clone repeated.
I let out a yelp.
“Shh, stop, they’ll hear you. Cleo, they love her. They like her better than you.”
My hands curled up on their own and tucked themselves under my chin, “What is it?”
“It’s the copy we made earlier. It’s the dead you. Only, with mites inside.”
“Augh my gawd!” I was repulsed.
“But Cleo,” Ambry pleaded, “they—they—love her. They think she’s hilarious.”
“Because I’m pretty damn funny,” said the other Cleo. “It’s easy to be funny to stupid people.”
I was suddenly a little curious under my appalled fury. She sounded exactly like me. She looked mostly like me. I noticed, as I studied her, that her skin was pale gray and grainy. But her eyes, they were little sharp-toothed mouths. It was hard to look at them, especially as she was smiling so freely at me.
“Eh! Cleo!” Dad yelled up the stairs, “You gotta roast Denise, too!”
Denise was screeching her disapproval from the kitchen.
“You think that Tarzan knows how to roast a roast well enough to cram it up her own roast?!” Cleo yelled back. There was howling coming from downstairs. She shrugged at me, “Random, insulting, and disgusting make a joker.” She happily trotted back downstairs.
“What the fuck,” I whispered to Ambry.
“I don’t know either, Cleo,” he smirked.
I heard the copier whirring.
“You’re not making more, are you?”
“Hell yeah I’m making more.”
I walked in and saw three whole buckets of gray dust. “You don’t think this could bite you in the ass somehow?”
“What could make our situation worse?” He paused and continued, “You realize that now you don’t have to go down there? You can sit in your room all day, or better, leave, and they won’t notice.”
“They’re not going to let us take one of the cars,” I continued to argue.
Ambry, who always seemed to be comfortable with spontaneity, picked up one of the buckets and perked his eyebrows at me. He walked to the edge of the patio and dumped it off. I jogged to see what he was doing.
Directly below was the dead helicopter, now swarming with mites. He dumped a second bucket off, too close to me, in my opinion. The blades started swinging.
“Well?” He smiled a real smile. “Oh, one more thing.” He ran back inside, energized. I followed. He climbed into the printer and hit the start button. He was scanned and a dead Ambry was printed into being. “You know, there’s a start button on the inside of the printer. Why would they put that there if it wasn’t made to be pushed from the inside?”
I didn’t have an answer.
He got up and dumped the final bucket over the dead Ambry and it squirmed to life. His eyes, rather than being mouths of oversized mites, were static, full of tiny shifting gray dots. He got up and clapped original-Ambry on the shoulder.
“Go be the life of the party. See if you can out-funny Cleo down there.”
Clone-Ambry took the challenge and went leaping down the stairs, whooping about having a boiled egg throw.
We climbed back down our tree and Ambry took one look at the helicopter and humphed. We wouldn’t both fit in there.
“Can you make it a bigger size?” He asked them.
The mites obeyed. They unhinged all the pieces, took the helicopter apart, and spread it out, filling in the gaps with themselves. I put my hand out to touch it; it was firm, with the texture of spongy sandpaper. It was big enough to seat at least three people. We got in and lifted off the ground. It was different this time. The ride was smooth and there were harnesses to buckle in. The engine, if there was one, made no noise at all.
As we barreled out over the river, I felt even better than I did the first time—less like I was running and more like I was going. A gritty eyeball opened up in the center of the dashboard and blinked at us.
“You want to see where I go a lot? It’s the only place I’ve found where people leave me alone.”
“Sure,” I said loudly over the rush of the wind.
There were no steering mechanisms for Ambry to control, instead he looked at the eye and said, “Will you take us to the warehouse where we met?”
The waves on the water below looked shaded like a pencil drawing. And ahead, I saw the boat, rocking down the river. I could see Tricky, standing tall with his front legs up on the bench. There was a white hat on his head; somewhere, he’d gotten a Captain’s sea hat.
I laughed. He barked up at me as we passed.
Ambry looked over and smiled. He smiled because I was laughing. It felt good. I didn’t stifle it. I laughed full-lunged and high and free with buoyant wind rushing into my throat.
“You know the play we’re doing right now?” I said after a moment, “It’s a comedy called The Beast Laughs Last and I play a single mom who gets fired from her minimum wage bakery job. She breaks in at night, and in a rage, eats every pastry in the building. Puts her boss out of business.
Mr. Grummell said if there was ever a more vengeful cupcake monster, it was me.”
Snickering, Ambry added, “That’s because you’re most honest when you’re acting. And because he’s never actually seen you eat a cupcake, Miss I Hate Frosting.”
Ambry took us into a known bad part of town. There were broken windows and spray paint on every abandoned building. “Are you sure this is safe?” I asked as we touched down in a cracked and weedy parking lot.
“I have never seen anyone else here,” he said. “I think this area got so bad that even the gangs and homeless stopped showing up. Now no one comes around at all.”
He led the way into an abandoned warehouse. There was nothing inside but trash and broken glass from the shattered skylights. Up a set of stairs there was a loft with the remnants of an office. Ambry had set up a lawn chair amidst some empty Gatorade bottles and magazines.
“I come here to be alone. So one day I’m sitting in this chair reading this,” he held up a chewed, tattered magazine with half of an obnoxious, freckled face on the front, “And I notice a tiny speck circling a hole in the paper. I sat here for hours and watched it move around. I had nothing better to do and it was actually really relaxing. The thing ate an entire page in front of me. By the time it was done with that page it was a little bigger, like maybe a grain of rice. I fell asleep with the magazine in my lap and when I woke up the magazine was full of bugs and they were all over my shirt. I freaked out because I thought they were biting me but they actually seem harmless to people. There was the big one who got his very own magazine and he grew big enough for me to carry around. That was the first one I cloned and after I had the two I brought as many little ones as I could pick up and kept multiplying and multiplying.”
“Where did they come from?”
“Fuck if I know.” He scrunched his face in thought, staring at his pile of magazines. “You know, we can leave now. We can go anywhere with these little guys. As long as we keep them fed they’ll stick with us.”
“What do they eat?”
He held up his magazine.
“Do you know what this is?”
I shrugged, annoyed.
“It’s MAD Magazine.” He waited for a response from me but I gave none. “When I brought them home, they migrated to my Adam Sandler DVDs, my Far Side comic strips, they ate my entire copy of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” He looked at me like it was obvious.
“So… you mean they eat funny?”
“Yeah. They eat funny.”
“We’re going to run out of things to feed them; then they’re going to eat you ‘cause you think you’re so damn funny all the time,” I said deadpan. I waited. He waited. “Seriously?” I relented.
“Seriously. Watch,” he pulled out his newly minted driver’s license. He set it down on the stack of magazines and shook his clothes out over it. “Can you make me 21 year old Anders Klome?”
I bent close. A few mites moved onto the card, but it was enough to blur the lines of the text.
“No way,” I said.
“I’ve been at this for weeks.”
“But what’ll we do about money?”
“You think mom and dad pay for all those hallucinogens with their credit cards?”
He chuckled, “There’s a safe in the basement with a helluva lotta cash in it.”
“How do you know this?”
“Cameras,” he said with a duh tone.
I squinted at him. “You’re not smarter than me,” I snipped.
“Nah, just angrier. Like the cupcake monster. You in?”
I chewed my lip. “You’re saying we should drop out of high school, run away, and lie about our identities?”
“Cleo. Five months for you is no big deal. Two years for me is. It’s like a prison sentence. I’m going with or without you.”
“Ambry, we’ll get caught and probably wind up in jail.”
“We’re better than that, Cleo. We’re going to get jobs bagging at grocery stores until we’re old enough to get our GEDs. We’re not running away to be criminals, we’re running away from criminals.”
I crossed my arms, “I don’t know, Ambry.”
Ambry put his hands up on my shoulders. “Sis,” he looked in my eyes, “This is our way out. Our only way out.”
We rode low in the helicopter, silently. We needed our things and figured the more the sun waned the more hammered everyone should be. We were going to pack our bags, get the cash, and fly our way to Accident, Maryland because it had a funny name, in the dark and hopefully off the radar since the chopper was made mostly out of bugs.
We landed in the far back, with the water in sight that was currently growing darker as the sky did. Ambry ran up around the house and to the side lot where he started yanking on the doors of Denise’s Taurus.
“What are you doing?” I hissed.
“Who locks their doors in this neighborhood?”
“Anyone within walking distance of our family. Why are you trying to get in there?”
“There’s something I need. C’mon.” He snaked over to the side window. I peeked my eyes up over the rim. There was a roar of laughter and shouting coming from within. Inside, people cheered as two others wrestled. It was the clones of Ambry and I, fighting each other. Ambry made a kick to my stomach as I socked him in the mouth.
“Of course they would find that funny,” I muttered.
“Heretics,” Ambry supplied.
We ducked low and ran to the tree in the back. Up we went and in through the window, yet again. Ambry tore a duffle from beneath his bed and I ran as quietly as I could to my own room. I packed my backpack with my journal, a photo of grandma, toothbrush, shampoo, but I paused with my hand resting on my laptop. I knew they could trace my phone, but a laptop? Probably, they could probably could trace it, but there was something I wanted to do before I ditched it. I shoved it in the bag.
Clothes and shoes went in a tote. Then I stood still, hefting both bags, and wondered if there was anything important I was forgetting and actively trying not to wonder if I was making a huge mistake.
Ambry waved when he was ready and we silently tossed our stuff to the ground below. One of Ambry’s bags made a sharp cracking noise as it hit.
“What’s in that?”
“Every funny movie I own.”
We climbed back down the tree and went in the backway through the four season room which opened almost right to the basement steps. We snuck past a small cluster of guests wrapped in conversation, even as the crashing was still going on in the informal sitting room.
The safe, as Ambry revealed, was tucked inside an exercise machine that was never used. The black metal looked like it was supposed to be part of the weights. Ambry slid open a panel and exposed a number pad.
“Do you know the code?” I asked.
“What—“ I started when he held out his hand. From beneath his sweatshirt slid a wave of gray particles that sank into the joints of the safe. There was clicking and a solid clank and Ambry pulled the door open.
“Damn,” I said in surprise. And again, when I saw what was inside I said with more emphasis: “Damn.” There were wrapped stacks of twenties, fifties, hundreds. “Are—are we sure of what we’re getting into here?”
Ambry ignored me. He started scooping handfuls and stuffing it in his backpack.
“I thought I saw you come down here,” Kicker was making his way down the stairs.
“Kicker!” I said as I nearly fell over in surprise.
“What are you doing?” He came over, his drink swaying in his hand as he walked.
“You would not believe what we found!” I gasped at him. Ambry looked at me. I stuffed a few more handfuls into his bag and pushed him out of the way. “Look, Kicker, look at all this money!”
Kicker’s eyes narrowed and he got this look on his face like he found a new purpose to live for.
“Do you have a bag?” I glanced around and grabbed a plastic store bag. I dumped the Christmas ornaments out of it and handed it to him, “Here. Load up.” Kicker fell on his knees like a man come for confession.
I grabbed Ambry’s sweatshirt and shoved him toward the stairs. We bolted up the steps and both knocked into Frank as we came out the door, who fell backward into my dad.
“What the hell you two doin’?” Frank tried to right his bottle as he leaned back on my dad’s feet.
“Frank, Frank don’t move,” Dad bent close and rifled his fingers clumsily in Frank’s hair.
“Stahp, stahp,” Frank waved my dad’s hands away. I saw it then, a cigarette was sticking up out of Frank’s hair, cherry-down. Dad must have dropped it. A tendril of smoke was coming out of it.
I leaned forward and tried to blow it out of his hair, but instead I roused a little flame. “Oh!” I exclaimed.
“Frank you’re hair’s on fire!” Dad cried.
Frank reached up, burned his hand, and realized through his blur what the problem was. He grabbed a fistful of hair and yanked it off.
“Ah!” Ambry yelled.
Frank pounded the hair into the ground. He got up and started stomping on it. The back of his head was bald. It was a toupee. The toupee had caught fire. I laughed. Ambry caught on and laughed. I clutched my stomach. My dad started laughing then and drew the attention of other people, laughing at Frank’s hairless head as Frank wildly stomped out the toupee fire.
I composed myself and went for the door. Ambry stopped me and pointed the other way. I gave him a what-are-you-doing look but he ignored me, again. I followed him and the bag of money through the house, trying to be stealthy. He went to the mudroom off the kitchen and fished through Denise’s purse. He pulled out the car keys as voices came blundering through the swinging door.
My mom was trailing close behind Denise going on about Glenda’s Veganism and how Denise never makes enough vegan food. They both stopped short when they saw us.
I smiled, “Hi. Is there any taco dip?”
“Is taco dip vegan?” Mom huffed. Then she squinted, “What’s wrong with your eyes?”
I could see the gears turning in both their heads, likely thinking they’d just seen us in the sitting room. “Kicker’s in the basement stealing all your money,” I blurted.
Mom’s horror will remain fondly in my memory. Her hands flew in the air and she scampered toward the basement beckoning for my dad. Denise was still studying us.
“I know you put butter in all your vegan dishes,” I threatened. Ambry and I backed out through the mudroom without taking our eyes off Denise. She glared right back.
Once we were outside, Ambry dashed for the side lot. He unlocked the front door of the Taurus and fished around inside, then climbed to the back and fished around some more.
“Klotz!” Denise came roaring over the lawn, a spatula in her hand. I rushed to the other side of the car, putting it between me and her. She slapped the back window spattering sauce all over it.
“Get out of my car you little creep or I’m gonna call the cops on you!” Denise pulled out her phone while violently smacking the spatula on the hood of the car.
Right then I heard a dog barking. It grew louder. Denise heard it too and halted. Tricky ran around the side of the house in his Captain’s hat, barking his head off.
Denise howled and dropped the phone and the spatula and ran for the house. Tricky barked and barked until she slammed the front door.
Ambry got out of the back and went for the trunk.
I bent down and gave Tricky a scratch behind his ears, “Good boy, Tricky, good boy. It’s nice to see you.”
“Got ‘em,” Ambry announced. He held up several Playboy magazines.
“Are you kidding me?”
“You have no idea how hard it is for a sixteen year old to come by these. Even in our house. Denise ‘confiscated’ them. I think she wanted them for herself.”
The three of us ran for the chopper, scooping our duffle bags on the way. We hopped in the bug-copter, Tricky in the middle, and took off.
“You know you could have bought new Playboys with your 21-year-old license,” I chided.
“No, not these. These are 1980 editions with original Harvey Kurtzman cartoons. Hilarious stuff. You ought to see.”
“Nyeh,” I made a face.
“Aw, Cleo, just for the articles. Cleo? Cleo, you know I only have them for the articles.”
“Riiiigggghhht,” I clicked open my laptop.
“I don’t even fucking like girls,” he defended.
Dear Mr. Grummell,
I’d like you to know that your homework assignment was bollocks. That said, I have an answer to your question. It won’t be a 3,000 word essay either, because wordiness is the only thing that makes philosophy Philosophy and grading is the only thing that makes professors puffy.
Laughter is not defined by a cause at all. It’s an expression of optimism.
Never to be heard from again,