By Stephanie Burgis
1 January 2007
"My dad can't come to parent-teacher conferences on Monday," Tyler says. He keeps his voice calm and steady as he meets his English teacher's eyes. "He has to work."
Tyler is a pro at this. He can tell exactly when doubt flickers in Mrs. Jankovic's eyes and when his open, friendly expression settles it for her. There are too many eighth-graders in her class for her to chase up worries about every one of them. Too many kids in this middle school, period.
That's why Tyler's dad chose it for him.
When Tyler gets home, he hears his dad moving around in the basement—probably getting it ready for next week. Tyler scoops out some ice cream for himself and settles down at the kitchen table to do his homework early. His friend Paul is coming over later, and Tyler's dad has promised to rent them a DVD. They're hoping for Tomb Raider, but he's told them not to hold their breath.
Footsteps sound on the basement stairs, behind the closed door. They pause for so long that Tyler turns around to check that the industrial-strength bolt hasn't accidentally locked itself into place. He's craning around to look, vanilla ice cream still sliding down his throat, when the door bangs open.
The first thing he notices is the smell, acrid and unmistakable.
"Sorry," his dad mumbles. He averts his eyes from Tyler's shocked face, stumbles into the kitchen. He's already losing coordination, his movements shambling.
Tyler finds his voice, but it comes out as a squeak. "It's not supposed to come for a week!"
"I guess it's starting early this month." His dad shrugs, paws at the freezer, sighs heavily. "Can you get the ice cream out for me?"
Tyler shoves his chair back, hurries to the fridge. All his senses prickle as he passes close to his father. There's no visible sign yet—not unless you know how to read his dad's expression—but all his other senses can tell that the Change has begun. Enemy, they whisper. Goosebumps crisscross his skin. Run away.
Dad, he tells himself, and slips between his dad's big body and the fridge. He feels his dad's uneven breathing ruffle his hair as he opens the freezer. He doesn't let himself look back or edge away. He pulls out the box of ice cream and scoops out three dollops into a blue bowl. Only then does he allow himself to turn around.
Yellow streaks have already appeared in his father's eyes. The smell of heavy musk is growing.
How long does he have left?
The phone rings. Tyler shoves the bowl at his dad and darts for it.
"Hey, Ty." It's Paul, his voice bright and cheerful. "What movie are we gonna watch? Did we score Tomb Raider?"
"Sorry," Tyler says. His voice wants to quaver, but he won't let it. You can never let anyone suspect, his mother told him. That was the first rule she taught him, and the last, before she left him here alone with It. "Tonight isn't so good after all. Maybe we can do it some other time?"
Tyler has a game he plays with himself, sometimes. Times like tonight, when the heavy bolt is locked into place, but he can still hear It lurching through the basement, searching for a way out. He looks through the DVD collection on the bookcase, hums to himself to drown out the noise, and plays the Game.
The Game is this: What if Tyler's mom called on the phone right now, and he could only give her three reasons to come back? Which three would they be?
Sometimes he decides on: I clean my own bedroom now, I got all As and Bs last quarter, and I'm learning how to cook.
Sometimes, when it's been long enough since the last time It came, when his dad's just bought Tyler a new video game, or they've spent a whole evening watching dumb movies and laughing together over them, he thinks he might tell her:
Things are easier now. It's safe for you to come home. I think he's getting better.
Better. What a joke. Something crashes downstairs. Tyler hums louder, scanning the same shelf of DVDs over and over again, trying to find one that sounds interesting right now.
It's never arrived this early in the month before.
Tonight, if Tyler's mom called, he would lie to her. He would say:
You'd better come back, or else we'll forget you. I think Dad might have already. I almost never think about you.
He would threaten her: If you don't come back, I'm gonna take your picture off the wall in my room and throw it away.
And as his third reason, he would tell the biggest lie of all: Maybe we'll decide that we don't even want you back.
But the phone sits silent and still all night long, and Tyler falls asleep on the couch with his knees scrunched up against his chest and his hands still pressed against his ears.
"Tyler," Mrs. Jankovic says the next morning. "No homework?"
"Sorry." Tyler shrugs and slouches past her, sluggish with lack of sleep. He drops down into the seat next to Paul. "Hey."
"Hey." Paul frowns at him. "What happened last night?"
"Stuff came up." Tyler shrugs again. The movement feels heavy and slow. "My dad wasn't feeling so good." The words taste sour in his mouth.
When he looks up, he sees Mrs. Jankovic watching him.
By the time Tyler's finished with the school day, he's in a filthy mood. He stomps back into the house and throws down his backpack. In the basement, a sudden silence falls. A moment later, shuffling footsteps approach the bottom of the stairs, trying to be silent. They mount the stairs softly.
"You idiot!" Tyler yells. "I can hear you, you know! The door's locked anyway. You can't get through!"
There's a sudden rush up the staircase. A heavy body lands against the door with a thud. The thick wood holds, secured by the bolt. Tyler stares at the door, his head throbbing. A hoarse grunt of frustration sounds. Long fingernails scratch at the other side of the door.
"I was supposed to go out with Paul this afternoon," Tyler shouts at the door. "Remember? You promised you'd drive us to the mall. How stupid do you think I look now, huh? He's not even talking to me anymore! He thinks I'm blowing him off! He's going with Steve instead. They didn't even ask if I wanted to come. Which I couldn't anyway, because I have to stay here and look after stupid, stinking you!"
He swings at the door with all his strength. His foot slips on the hardwood floor, pushing him off-balance.
His fist hits the edge of the bolt. It shifts.
There's a frozen moment. Then Tyler throws himself against the door, just as the heavy body on the other side hurls itself at the wood. The bolt shifts another centimeter.
"No!" Tyler shoves the bolt with all his strength and hears it click back into locked position. He collapses, sliding down the door onto the floor. Tips his head back against the wood, breathing hard.
He hears Its heavy breathing on the other side of the door. Tyler closes his eyes.
"Please, Dad," he whispers. "Please come back soon."
Tyler was eight years old when his mother left. He came home from school one day and saw a taxi sitting outside their house. The driver sat inside, reading a newspaper. Tyler found his mother in her bedroom, folding clothes. Two suitcases lay open across her bed. Her face was pale and cold; a purple bruise mottled her jaw.
Tyler stopped in the doorway. He wanted to come closer, but something in the air held him back. "Where are you going?" he asked.
"The bolt's still locked," she said. Her voice sounded funny, flat and dry. She talked too quickly; he could barely understand her. "Your dad's coming out of it, though. You can unlock the door in just a couple hours. He'll be fine to put you to bed tonight."
"What happened to your face?" Tyler was shivering now, his arms wrapped around his chest.
She snapped the first suitcase shut. "I've put thirty cans of soup under the sink. That'll last you almost a year. You know how to heat up soup."
"I don't remember."
"Yes, you do. I've seen you do it." She snapped the second suitcase shut. "I've signed all your school forms and put them on top of the fridge."
"Where are you going?"
She took a deep breath and walked over to him. When she put her hands on his shoulders, he felt them trembling in spasms, like waves shimmering through her body. He wrapped his hands around her long, cool fingers, anchoring them against him. Her polished nails pressed into his skin through his thin T-shirt.
She said, "Listen to me. Your dad can't help what happens to him, but if anyone finds out, they'll take him away. Do you understand? They'll want to run experiments on him in some lab. They'll torture him."
"No," Tyler whispered. Tears stung his eyes. "No."
"You don't want that to happen, do you? Good boy."
She leaned forward and kissed him quickly on the top of his head. Her perfume, Winter Rose, surrounded him. When she straightened, he saw tears slipping down her cheeks. She didn't bother to wipe them away.
"Take care of yourself," she whispered.
Tyler ran after the taxi for two whole blocks. But after the third block, he lost sight of it.
And he never had the chance to ask her the question that mattered most.
On the third morning, Tyler makes two portions of scrambled eggs. It prefers meat, but he doesn't have any. It wasn't supposed to come until Monday, so they haven't laid in supplies, and his dad didn't have the chance to withdraw any cash for grocery shopping.
Tyler sets his portion on the kitchen table and pauses outside the basement door, taking deep breaths to calm himself.
It's usually only here for two or three days. It might even be gone by now.
But It's never come this early before, either. How can he predict anything anymore?
He presses his ear against the door. Silence. He doesn't even hear any breathing. It must be asleep, curled up in some dank corner in the dark.
Maybe It's shifted back. Maybe . . .
He unbolts the door. Waits. Silence. He turns the knob, edges the door open just a fraction of an inch.
"Dad?" he calls into the darkness, softly. "Are you—?"
It was waiting at the top of the stairs, holding its breath.
Scrambled eggs go flying. The plate shatters against the ground. It bears Tyler down onto the tiled kitchen floor, its yellow eyes dilated. Drool trickles onto Tyler's face as he struggles, sobbing and gagging. The rancid smell of musk envelops him.
"Dad!" he screams. "Dad, Dad, Dad—!"
It grabs his right arm. The short sleeve of Tyler's T-shirt slides to his shoulder. It sinks its sharp, crooked teeth into the soft flesh of his inner arm. Tyler cries out in pain.
Brown flecks appear in the yellow eyes.
Tyler tries to hold himself rigid through the Change, but he's sobbing convulsively now, and he can't stop. The crooked teeth embedded in his skin recede. Blood trickles down Tyler's arm. Color floods back into his father's face.
His father throws himself backward, hitting the kitchen table. Lands, shaking and breathing hard. Puts one hand to his mouth and stares at the blood that comes off his lips, onto his fingers. He looks up, his face whitening.
"Tyler," he whispers. "Oh my God. I'm so sorry. Tyler—"
He starts forward, holding out his bloody hand.
"Don't touch me!" Tyler scrambles to his feet and runs upstairs. Blood dribbles down his arm, stains his T-shirt. He locks the door behind him and throws himself onto his bed.
Through the floorboards, he hears his father crying racking, choking sobs.
Tyler lies on the bed and stares at the ceiling.
Grown-ups aren't supposed to cry.
He doesn't look at his dad on his way out to school. His dad tries to say something, but Tyler drowns out the words by humming.
He sits alone in English class. Paul and Steve are hanging out together at the back of the classroom, snorting with laughter as they play with the gross toys they found at the back of Spencer Gifts in the mall.
Tyler's arm throbs underneath his clean, long-sleeved shirt.
At the end of class, Mrs. Jankovic holds Tyler back. She waits while the other kids file out of the room. When they're finally alone, she looks at him steadily across her desk.
"Tyler," she says. "Do you need help?"
Tyler blinks. She's looking at him calmly, her hands folded on the desk.
"I can help you," she says, "but I need to know what's wrong. It's okay for you to ask for help."
Tyler opens his mouth. He tries to speak, but he can't. He puts his left hand on the cuff of his right sleeve. All he has to do is pull it up, to show her.
"Tyler?" she says.
Tyler, his father said, his voice anguished, that morning. Blood still on his lips. I'm so sorry. Tyler—
Tyler looks into Mrs. Jankovic's hazel eyes. He can barely breathe. He sees again the blood on his father's mouth.
The blood. He thinks about the blood.
Tears burn behind his eyes as knowledge shifts inside him.
Maybe he does know, after all, why his mother didn't take him with her when she left.
He steps back, letting go of his sleeve. "No, thank you," his voice says, with eery politeness. "Not now."
"Are you sure? We could—"
Tyler's head shakes itself stiffly, and his legs turn him around and walk him out of the room, down the long hallway, and out of the school building.
His father is still sitting at the kitchen table, clutching a cup of coffee with both hands. He doesn't seem surprised to see Tyler back home at ten o'clock in the morning on a school day. He raises his haggard face to look at Tyler, but he doesn't speak.
"It's getting worse," Tyler tells him.
"Yes," his dad says. Just: Yes.
Tyler takes a deep, painful breath. "Is it going to happen to me?"
His father passes a hand over his eyes, wiping away a vision, or a nightmare. "I don't . . . Dear God, Tyler. I don't know."
"But Mom thought it would."
"Thought it might," his father says, his voice strained. "Only that it might."
"Whatever." Tyler's chest tightens around the knowledge.
The phone call he's been waiting for is never going to come.
He starts to turn away, but his father's voice stops him.
"Tyler," he says. "I'm so sorry. It won't happen again that way, I promise. We'll figure out some safeguard. We'll make sure you're protected. We'll—"
"I know," Tyler says. "It's all right, Dad."
The words feel funny in his mouth. False and jagged. Hurtful. Necessary.
He's never lied to his father before.
Experiments, his mother's voice reminds him. Labs . . .
Antidotes, Tyler tells her. Cures.
The phone book is upstairs, underneath his bed.