Sometimes I Almost Feel Like a Real Human Being
Courtney became best friends with Mary Beth in order to learn her secrets, but she didn’t discover the most important one. It was Sam who found that out. He crawled from his basement tunnel and began bouncing excitedly. Dirt showered everywhere like water off a wet dog.
“I know it, I know it,” he said.
“Know what?” I asked.
“What she did, Frank. What Mary Beth did.”
Even when he stands upright, Sam’s head barely brushes my knee. It is as round as a pumpkin and disproportionately large for his body. His eyes are the shape and color of egg yolks and his mouth is crammed with broad flat teeth. Sam has many talents. He can mimic any sound he hears. His sense of smell is extraordinary. Perhaps this is because his nose is so immense that the tip actually touches his chin.
“What did Mary Beth do?”
Except for the corner where Sam had dug the entrance to his tunnel, most of the basement is finished. The walls are paneled with fake wood veneer and the floor is covered with plastic tiles that imitate real brick. Against one wall are a washer and dryer and a cabinet of laundry supplies. Against the other is the old couch on which I was sprawled. I was bored. I’m always bored. Sometimes it seems like I’ve been bored for centuries. My whole entire life.
Sam didn’t answer directly. He isn’t very smart and he has trouble holding onto a line of thought.
“I was hungry, Frank. Really, really hungry. And this big old rat, he was too fast. I didn’t catch him until he was inside Mary Beth’s house.”
Sam’s tunnels lead everywhere across the neighborhood. There’s not a home he doesn’t have access to for at least a half mile in every direction.
“Well?” I asked.
“He was nice and juicy.”
“Not the rat, Sam. Mary Beth.”
“Oh, her. Well, I knew what was up right away. The stink was that strong, Frank. Even you could smell it.”
“Smell what, Sam?”
“Mary Beth. She’s pregnant.”
Courtney said, “I can’t believe she didn’t tell me. I mean, what are best friends for?”
We were sitting at the kitchen table having a breakfast of cereal and toast and orange juice. We had to be at school in half an hour. Courtney was wearing jeans and a tight knit shirt without a collar. She was chewing gum and eating at the same time. I couldn’t figure out how she managed not to swallow the gum. In many ways Courtney is as talented as Sam.
“Maybe Mary Beth doesn’t know herself,” I said.
“Get real, Frank. Of course she knows. She has to. Sam says she’s in her sixth month.”
“Almost too late for an abortion,” I said.
“Mary Beth wouldn’t have one anyway. They’re Catholic.”
“Who’s the father?”
“Brad Vogel. Has to be. They’ve been going steady since eighth grade. Mary Beth says they haven’t gone all the way.”
“Maybe she’s lying.”
“No, I don’t think so. There must be some other explanation.”
“It’s been two thousand years since the last immaculate conception.”
“Don’t remind me, Frank.”
Dad joined us in the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee from the pot warming on the counter top. Dad’s in software development. He used to be in armaments but he got out of that business. He was dressed for work in his usual gray pinstripe suit and black wingtip shoes with the built up right heel that prevents people from noticing his limp. If they do, he says he had polio when he was a kid. This is not the truth. Dad’s always been lame.
“What are you two looking so serious about?” he asked.
“My friend, Mary Beth, is pregnant,” Courtney answered.
“So what do you have in mind?”
“We don’t know yet,” Courtney answered.
“I’m thinking about it,” I said.
Brad Vogel was seventeen but seemed younger. He was into computer gaming and since there is little I can’t do with electronics it was easy to impress him with my expertise. We went to his house after school and settled down with a couple bags of chips before his computer and took turns playing death matches on-line.
“I don’t think they’ve had sex,” I told Courtney. “They were doing some heavy petting and accidentally got a little too close. I don’t believe he even knows she’s pregnant.”
“How do you suppose he’ll react to the news?”
“There’s only one way to find out.”
Going down to the basement, I explained to Sam what we wanted. His grin was so wide that it almost split his head in half. Using a burner phone spoofed to identify itself as belonging to Mary Beth, I dialed the number for Sam since he has stubby claws instead of real fingers.
“Brad?” Sam said in an adolescent female voice. “Yes, it’s Mary Beth, of course, it’s me. How can you ask if something’s the matter? Yes, I’m crying. We have to talk. Now. I’m pregnant, Brad. Yes, I’m sure. Don’t be stupid. Who do you think? Half an hour. I’ll leave the porch door open.”
I clicked off the phone and Sam said: “That was fun, Frank. Real fun. I did good, didn’t I?”
Then I spoofed the phone to display Brad’s number, dialed Mary Beth, and gave the phone back to Sam. His voice was indistinguishable from the teenage boy’s.
“Hi, Mary Beth, it’s me. Well, I’m OK, but there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask. No, no, nothing like that, it’s what you haven’t told me…. Please, don’t start. I can’t bear to hear you crying. Yes, that’s better. We’ll talk. No, no one else knows. It’s just I noticed you were gaining weight. All right. I’ll be over. Leave the porch door open.”
This time Sam was so excited that he got down on all fours and started chasing rats. As small as Sam is, he was still much larger than the rodents, and soon his groin was messy with blood and fur.
The squealing got on my nerves and I went upstairs. Courtney remained behind until her favorite television program came on.
Sam wired Brad’s and Mary Beth’s rooms so we could overhear their conversations. Brad wanted to tell their parents about the pregnancy but Mary Beth didn’t. She was a big girl and she was sure that if she wore loose clothing no one would guess her condition. Brad was less certain. Neither had much idea what to do with the baby after Mary Beth gave birth.
Dad was sitting on the couch in his boxer shorts like he does every evening after work. He was finishing his third glass of the vodka he keeps in the freezer until it becomes as thick as syrup.
Brad was visiting Mary Beth. We were streaming the microphones in their rooms to our smart TV and their voices came clearly through the stereo speakers. Brad was saying:
“Of course, I love you, Mary Beth. How could you think I don’t?”
“But you want to ruin my life.”
“I’m only saying it might be better if we got help.”
“My mother will kill me. She’ll really kill me. You don’t know her.”
“Let’s think about it.” Brad didn’t sound convinced.
Dad scratched absently at the thigh of his thin leg and took a swallow of vodka. “The boy’s scared,” he observed.
“They’re both scared.”
“He needs to be able to justify keeping the pregnancy secret,” Dad went on. “Otherwise he’ll tell his parents.”
“I think you’re right,” I agreed.
So the next afternoon I met Brad after school and we went to his house and slipped a game into the console.
“You ever notice –” I began.
“Notice what, Frank?”
“Well, all the heroes, all the real heroes in the good games, I mean, there’s always something mysterious about how they’re born. Either some god was screwing around with their mother. Or else they’re foundlings. You know, left on a doorstep by their parents, who can’t keep them for one reason or another. Maybe there’s a rule about it. Like, you can’t be a true hero with an ordinary mother and father.”
Brad’s eyes became distant. They held so much innocence that I wanted to steal them from their sockets and cradle them in my palm.
“You really think so, Frank?” he asked. “There’s a rule?”
“I’d bet on it.”
Mary Beth called Brad when she felt the first contractions. The motel they’d picked out lay a couple miles down the state road beyond the town limits. Sam had wired the entire place since we couldn’t know what room they’d be given. We switched channels until we tuned in on them. It was not an easy labor but they were left alone since it was the kind of establishment where unusual noises are attributed to energetic sexual activity.
“Push,” Brad said. “One more time.”
The groan Mary Beth made mingled pain and effort and deep satisfaction. After this we heard the wail of a newborn. Mary Beth said, “Let me hold him.”
“Just for a little while, OK?”
“He’s so small, isn’t he, Brad? Oh, I wish we could keep him.”
“Come on, Mary Beth. You know we can’t. We’ve gone over this a thousand times. Look, I’ll get the bassinet ready.”
I stood up and said, “I’d better leave now.”
“Can I come, too?” Courtney asked.
I shrugged and pulled on a jacket. Twilight had faded to night and a chill November wind snapped sheets of rain against the pavement. A walk of ten minutes brought us to St. Luke’s Church. We waited around the corner against the overgrown hedge that framed the rectory. The shrubbery screened us from observation while allowing a good view of the front steps. Just past nine an old Civic pulled up before the church. Brad got out of the car. He didn’t notice us. He leaned inside in order to take out the cradle with his son in it.
For a moment he stared into the cradle. It was easy to guess what he was thinking. For Brad, giving up the child had mystical significance. He was ensuring the boy an extraordinary future. Like in computer games.
Brad placed the bassinet in front of the entrance under the overhang and out of the rain. Then he hurried down the steps and gunned the car away from there. I immediately went to the church and took the bassinet and brought it to Courtney in the shadow of the hedge. Together we peered at the baby.
His eyes were so blue as to seem black. He looked at us fearlessly. There was such wonder and delight in his regard that for the briefest instant I almost felt like a real human being.
“Isn’t he the cutest thing,” Courtney said. She blew a huge bubble.
“Sure is,” I replied.
I reached into the cradle and strangled him. Then I cut off his left ear and tucked it in my pocket.
I replaced the bassinet with the dead body before the church door and Courtney and I returned home.
“I want to report a crime,” Sam said in a woman’s voice. “Yes, well, I think there was a crime, but I’m not one hundred percent sure. I could be wrong. What? What does my name have to do with anything? I’m simply a good citizen, is that so hard to believe? Anyway, my point is, I was visiting a friend at the Seven Oaks Lodge, out on the state road, and I couldn’t help but hear all sorts of funny noises coming from a couple doors down. Number seventeen, I think it was. What? Oh, I don’t know, like crying and maybe like someone was being slapped around a little. I didn’t make too much of it, that’s how the Seven Oaks is. Only I started wondering if maybe I heard a child in there. Now that surely isn’t any place for a child. There’s all sorts of goings on.”
“Very good,” I told Sam. “Now this time you’re a man.” I dialed the police again. In a masculine voice he said:
“There’s been a murder. No, I didn’t see it myself. Let me tell you what happened. I was walking by St. Luke’s Church over on Montgomery, and I saw an old Honda pull up. A kid got out. He was carrying a box or something and he left it on the church steps. I didn’t think nothing of it, but there was something odd about the kid, you know how it is, and after he left, I opened the box. Only it wasn’t a box. It was a cradle. There was a dead baby in it, the son of a bitch dropped off a dead baby like a God damned bundle of used clothes. Sure, I got the license plate. Let me tell you what it was.”
Brad and Mary Beth were arrested for murder. The news made the national papers because the district attorney decided to press for the death penalty even though they were juveniles, but the charges were bargained down to manslaughter. I visited Brad while he was out on bail before sentencing.
“Mary Beth is sure I did it,” he told me. We were sitting on the edge of his bed in his room in front of the computer but the machine was off. “She hates me. She won’t talk to me.”
“Well, you did plead guilty.”
“Only because no one believed my story. They told me if I said I was innocent, and was convicted anyway, I might get the chair or a lethal injection or something. So I had to say I did it. What other choice was there?”
“I don’t know, Brad.”
“That baby was alive when I left him at the church. I swear it. Why would I kill my son? Why would anyone kill a baby? And steal his little ear?”
“Maybe someone had it in for you,” I said. “Maybe it was all a set up, Brad. They were keeping you and Mary Beth under observation. Watching you all the time, just waiting for the right opportunity to frame you both. Probably you were followed from the motel. They killed the baby as soon as you left him at the church. And after that they let the police know where you were.”
Brad looked at me like I was crazy.
“Why would anyone go to all that trouble?” he asked.
“Maybe they wanted to see you suffer for something you didn’t do.”
Brad shook his head slowly. “You’ve been playing too many computer games, Frank. The real world doesn’t work like that. I’ve learned the truth. Probably what happened is some sick bastard, some psychopath, was passing by. That’s all. It was chance. Bad luck. Nothing else.”
“If that’s what you believe, Brad,” I said, “who am I to argue?”
Mom’s a terrible cook and never gets any better. I doubt she’d get any better even if she tried for another thousand years. The frozen green beans were still cold in the middle and the turkey was dry on the outside while at the same time being underdone. Sam crawled onto the table and stuck his head into the cavity and munched happily at the raw meat. Dad carved around him. Courtney blew a bubble and said:
“Mary Beth got two years since they said she was only an accessory. Brad was sentenced to four.”
“I spoke with him last week,” I said. “I told him what happened. He thought I was making it up.”
“Never underestimate the human capacity for rationalization,” Dad observed.
“Even now Brad doubts evil exists,” I continued. “He thinks life is all just circumstance.”
“An Existentialist, is he?” Dad asked.
“He considers himself a cynic.”
Mom was chewing deliberately at the turkey. She dislikes her own cooking as much as we do. “How will you change his mind?” she asked.
“Well, first I’m going to wait four years. Until just before he’s served his sentence.”
“And then, Frank? And then?” Sam popped his head from the turkey and wiped grease from his eyes.
“I’ll send him the videos we made of him and Mary Beth.”
“And the ear, too, Frank,” Sam said. “Don’t forget the ear. That’ll really do it.”
I took the tiny scrap of flesh from my pocket and rubbed it between my thumb and forefinger. For a fleeting instant I was reminded of that fragile second when I had felt alive. It didn’t last. I was bored again.
“The ear, too,” I said.
Originally published in Candlelight magazine