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One Evan sat on his bed with his back against the pillow. The light was so low that the room was bathed in shadows. They fell from the clutter, making dark shapes on the worn hardwood floor. But Evan was so used to the darkness that he saw the shapes making the shadows, even the paint peeling off the once-white walls. He saw shelves lined with books and toys and model airplane kits. Action figures sat here and there, discarded. On a rolling cart at the edge of the bed was a television. It was small and old and attached to an antenna that sat somewhere far away, on the roof of this weathered, tipping house. His mother had boarded over the room’s single window and covered the boards with a framed painting. It showed a broad meadow with tall grass, a blue sky, and sunshine his mother said was "so bright it might jump off the canvas and light up the room." Evan tried not to look at it. He would rather just have the plain brown boards. Evan knew what was outside. It was not a brilliant meadow with tall grass. It was an unkempt front lawn, covered in dandelions. The grass was patchy, and cracked dirt showed through. Beyond the front yard was a potholed street and beyond that, the train tracks. One large oak tree broke the boredom. Its large green leaves would have just returned for the beginning of spring. He remembered the last time he had seen it, more than a year ago. It had been winter then. The leaves had been gone, but his rope ladder had still hung from the tree trunk. He used to climb that ladder to the first fork, then climb the branches up. From there he could see more houses, more of the road, more of the train tracks. That winter he had watched the ladder through the window, straining to catch the last glimmer of sunshine, even though it hurt his eyes. "Don’t look, honey," his mother had said, placing the first board over the glass. But he had. Evan flexed his fingers, used them to push himself up further, to a full sitting position. Moving them was like pulling a rubber band. They wanted to curl back on themselves, roll into a ball, and stay there. He flexed them more, pressed his nails against the membrane. It hurt, but he ignored the pain, flexing his fingers even harder. Then, slowly, he let them curl back, feeling the membrane relax onto itself. It felt strangely good, like poking a healing bruise. He sucked in his breath. It came roughly, and he rubbed his nose with his fingers, upsetting the sticky membranes that had started to cover the nostrils. Rubbing them would help him breathe for a while, until they got in the way again. Without planning to, he rubbed his feet together under the blankets. The webs of the right foot grated the toes of the left. Then he rubbed the other way. It felt oddly calming and was his habit when thinking unpleasant thoughts. He stared at the television. Inside it were a thousand worlds. Real streets, real buildings, trees, oceans, and sunshine. All that background, used to tell a story, showed Evan what was out there. Where he could be standing if he could stand at all. The TV was blank. He could watch it with the brightness turned down to almost nothing, but right now he didn’t want to turn it on. A familiar soft knock invaded the silence. Evan said nothing but stared down at his hands. He heard the creaking as the knob turned and the door slowly opened, revealing the small, partially gray head of his mother, peering in from the darkness. The hallway was black. No light could come in from outside the room. His mother had learned to navigate the staircase and the hallway in the dark. She was carrying a wooden tray made with feet on it, for serving breakfast in bed. But breakfast was gone and this was dinner, steaming up from the plates and filling the room with its inviting smell. Evan’s stomach gurgled, and he was lifted a little from his sadness. "Hi, Mom," he said. "What did you bring me?" He could see her smile, but he was sure that she could not see his. The room was too dark. "Beef stew," she said, "with lots of potatoes. And biscuits!" His mother knew how much he loved her biscuits. She walked into the room, her feet tracing the path they always took, which Evan kept free of clutter just for her. She leaned over the bed and set the tray over his legs. Then she sat down herself and closed her hand over his calf, which was underneath the blankets. "I’m sorry it’s late, honey. I had to work overtime again." Her voice sounded tired. "That’s okay," Evan said. "It’s worth the wait." He bit into one of the biscuits and felt the sweet jam meld with the fluffy bread. His mother smiled wanly. "It’s Roy again," she went on. "I’m lucky he shows up at all." Roy was the person who was supposed to relieve her so she could come home and be with Evan. But he was always late. "They should fire him," said Evan with his mouth full. "I can always use the extra hours," she said, smiling bigger, like she wanted to change the subject. She got up and went to a shelf along the wall. She pushed her face in closely, trying to get a good look at what was on it. "How’s that model airplane coming?" she asked. She had bought him a new one, one that was supposed to be for littler kids, easier to do with his degrading fingers. His mother didn’t know they were so bad now, he couldn’t even do the kiddie kit. "Oh, I didn’t get to it today," he said. He shoveled the food in, hoping she wouldn’t see him struggling to grip the spoon. "There were some good movies on TV." The sad smile on her face made him unsure whether she believed the lie. He knew that there was just enough light in the room for her to see his face after her eyes had adjusted. She sighed but didn’t ask about it any further. She sat down on the bed again and started telling him about her day. The crazy customers, the stupid boss. She always injected as much humor as she could, but it still sounded sad. Evan knew that the crazy customers were mean and the stupid boss was nasty. He knew his mother only worked there for the health insurance, so a doctor could come to Evan’s room once a month, look at him, shake his head, and go away again. They had long since passed any hope of a doctor figuring this out, but the doctor kept coming. "Dr. Allen is the best. If anyone can figure this out, he can." His mother had said this after he had returned from the hospital, after the specialists and the scientists had given up. Evan liked the old man. He gave Evan candy and told funny stories, just like he had when Evan was very little. But Evan knew that Dr. Allen couldn’t help. It was just his mother’s way of hanging on to hope. His mother stayed with Evan for a while. They talked about the movies Evan had watched on TV that week and the books he had read. With his single tiny lamp, covered so it barely glowed, Evan could still make out all the words. Now that reading was one of the few things he could do, he was starting to like it. Finally, she left the room with his dinner tray. "Good night, honey," she said, forcing a smile as she opened the door into the blackness. "Good night, Mom," Evan replied. As she closed the door behind her, he felt as if the darkness from the hallway sucked out what light he had left inside, even though he could still see as sharply as a cat. He felt so sorry every time she left. Sorry she had to go through having a son like this. Sorry she had to work at that awful store. Sorry she had to live alone and never get married and never have a normal child all because of him. Evan was about to turn out the remainder of his meager light and go to sleep, the better to stop these thoughts from overwhelming him. But he heard another familiar knock. It came from inside his private bathroom, part of what once was a master bedroom. This knock was not soft. It was quiet, but it was hard. It was a knock that would not take no. Again, Evan said nothing, and slowly the doorknob turned. He heard the shuffling of its nubs against the old wood floor. It sounded like hissing, and Evan squinted and turned his head to the wall as it came closer, not wanting to look. The hissing stopped, and that was even worse. The stink filled the room completely. "What do you want now?" Evan asked, still looking away. "You don’t want to look at me," the thing said. Its voice was low and quiet, rough like it had a throat infection. "You are still scared of me." The thing chuckled. "I’m not scared," said Evan. "I don’t understand why you have to come here is all. Why can’t you leave me alone?" He bit down on his lip and kept looking at the wall. "To see you are well, proem, to see you are well," said the thing, with just a hint of malice. "You should want me to be well!" Evan whispered. He didn’t want his mother to hear, but he wanted to scream at the thing, chase it out for once instead of letting it stand there. "Oh, I do, proem. I want you to be very well," it hissed. "Then leave me alone! I’m getting worse anyway. Just go away and wait!" Evan hissed back, turning to face the thing at last. It was familiar, but it still always filled him with disgust. It stood a foot higher than the bed. Its soft pink body was shaped like a finger, covered with folds of the same yellowish membrane that was slowly choking Evan himself. Its eyes were soft, glowing white balls sunk into the pink flesh. They had no pupils and never moved. Its mouth was a tiny wrinkled hole, deep in the thing’s face. Only when it opened in laughter could Evan see the two sharp fangs. It had no nose. Its shapeless, fingerless arms were attached to its body by folded fanlike lengths of membrane. They were touching each other in grotesque imitation of clasped hands. "Getting worse, proem! I am so sorry to hear you speak this way of us." Its tiny mouth widened in a toothless smile. "I’ll never be one of you," said Evan, glaring at the thing, willing himself not to be weak, not to look away again. "I might look like you, but I won’t go with you. I won’t live like you in the sewers. I’m going to stay with my mother. She’ll take care of me." Evan flexed his fingers, feeling how they still separated, still pushed against and stretched the membrane. "The sewers are only temporary, proem, only temporary," it said, rubbing its stumps together. "We’ll live like kings soon, in the other dark places." The thing seemed unconcerned that Evan refused to ever go with it. Each time Evan made this statement, the thing would ignore him and talk of how much better the future would be. And it seemed like the more it talked, the more it stank. "There are places you would never go as a boy, proem, places you have never dreamed about. We’ll go there together, you and I and our brothers." Evan had heard it all before. A paradise underground, made for things like the worm in front of him. A place where Evan would forget he had ever been human, forget he had a mother, maybe even forget his own name. This thing did not remember its own, Evan was sure of it. "I’m still a boy," said Evan, glaring straight at it. "I’ll always be a boy, even if I have a worm’s body. You’re just a man with a disease, even if you don’t know it." The thing widened its mouth, rubbed its nub arms harder. "Boys play outside, proem," it rasped. "Boys go to school. Boys spend their time with other boys. They prepare to be men. But you do not prepare. You wait." "I may not go outside or go to school," said Evan a little louder, "but I will be a man someday. I’ll be strange and disgusting and I’ll never see anyone but my mother, but I’ll still be a man!" The membranes surrounding the thing’s body rippled a little as it leaned forward over Evan’s bed. Its stink got even worse as it moved closer. "Proem, proem," it rasped. "You are healthy, you are healthy!" Before Evan could stop it, the creature had pushed the blankets back with its nub arm, revealing Evan’s membraned fingers. The thing pointed its sunken white eyes toward Evan’s face. Evan twitched his nose under the thing’s gaze, and the membranes flapped lightly. They not only covered Evan’s nose, but they also hung down from his eyebrows and seeped onto his cheeks. Evan knew what "proem" meant. He had asked the thing the first time he had seen it. It meant larva. That was what Evan was to them. It seemed so long ago that the thing had first come, explained to Evan what none of the doctors could, what was really wrong with him. Evan had been scared but strangely relieved to have an answer at last. When Evan had asked how he’d caught it, the creature had laughed. A loud, gravelly, hearty laugh filled with malice. "How did he catch it, he wants to know!" it had chortled. "He thinks he has a disease! Something he catches, something he cures. Oh no, proem, you are not sick." "I’m not sick? How can I not be sick?" Evan had screamed at it. The membranes had already been growing fast. "You do not remember," said the thing. And then it had told him. It had laughed as it told, showing its sharp fangs, pursing its shriveled lips in satisfaction. "You must have a cure! Give it to me!" Evan had begged. "Oh no, proem," the thing had said. "You came to us. You have us in you, and we can no more stop this than your mother could stop you from growing in her womb." Evan had asked Dr. Allen, was it possible to catch something like this? Could he not be dying at all but be turning into something else, like a caterpillar turns into a butterfly? Only the other way around, Evan had thought. "Oh no," said Dr. Allen. There were no diseases that did that. It wasn’t possible. You couldn’t turn into a completely different creature. Evan had been grateful that the old man hadn’t laughed at him but had pursed his thin lips seriously before he answered. As he remembered the past, the impossible future stared up at him, smiling with its shriveled hole. "Get away from me!" said Evan loudly, pushing the thing backward with one hand. It stumbled for a second but then regained its composure and its nasty smirk. "For now, proem, for now," it said. "I will check up on you again." Still smirking, it shuffled back into the bathroom. Using both nubs, it pulled the door closed behind it. Its stink did not leave with it, and Evan knew it would fill the room for hours. He slept fitfully that night, like he always did after a visit from his future kin.
What People are Saying About This
"Those with strong stomachs for the gross and creepy may be the audience for this Kafkaesque book."School Library Journal "Impressively unappetizing and absolutely unique."Booklist "Dark and unsettling, Thompson's adventure presents a break from the same-old-same-old by creating something utterly new and weird . . . this is a tale to jolt readers out of their complacency, where characters change in unfamiliar ways with no guarantee of a happy ending."Publishers Weekly