A sound like thunder comes from a dumpster behind the apartment building next door, and when we go to investigate—my wife Helen, our neighbor Manny, and I—we find that the lid is open. The edge of the dumpster comes up to our chests, and when we peek inside, we find that a mutant has climbed in, and can’t climb out. I assume that he was looking for garbage to eat, but this morning was garbage pickup, and the only thing left is a vacuum cleaner bag he has already torn apart. The mutant’s pale skin and the bottom of the dumpster are covered in grey crud. It is a pitiful scene.
The mutant is as tall as my waist, with arms that almost drag on the ground, closed out by fingers that are long and thin like pencils. That’s how mutants always look. Because the mutant has no neck, he has to lean backward in order to see us. I turn to Helen and Manny.
“It reminds me of you,” Helen says.
I think she means it as gentle teasing: I am notorious for a certain open-mouthed stare when I am feigning interest in something another person is saying. But I feel as if it could mean more than Helen intended. In the mutant’s gaze, I feel a kinship that I have never noticed with any mutant before.
This could be because I am drunk and feeling defeated: I was recently fired by Boron Chemical—our city’s main employer—over the mutant fiasco. Before that, I was in charge of PR, explaining accidents and spills, and I was good at it. I handled the showers of dead birds, and even weathered the fiasco of the Eyeless Three. We paid off the families, told them to keep the kids off TV, and opened a scholarship for the disabled, even though it wasn’t our responsibility. Legally, there was nothing that could stick. I’ve explained that to Helen, but she works with school-kids, and sees things differently.
Mutants, though, I couldn’t manage. They linger in parking lots and worm into basements: they’re everywhere, outliving the news cycles. I thought I’d examined the mutants in every way from extermination to job creation, but I never took my time to look at one closely. That seemed too much to handle, and it’s that way for a lot of people.
Without saying anything, Manny swigs from the beer he is holding and then chucks his bottle at the mutant, which is only standing there, swaying. The bottle bounces off its head, and for a moment the mutant stops, totally still, its bone-colored skin shining in the street lamps. Then it rolls its black, ping-pong ball-sized eyes up and back, as if it is trying to examine its brain for damage.
I turn and grab Manny by his shirt, and we wait like that for a second, before Helen reaches out and puts her hand on my arm, then slowly pushes Manny and I apart.
The mutant is sitting now, looking back and forth in confusion, with the unbroken bottle rolling on the metal next to it.
Manny glares at the mutant in pure hatred. “One of those busted my car,” he says “My mechanic found it mashed around the engine. He said it happens a lot. They burrow up in there, for warmth.”
Mutant complaints are always petty. People are mad they can’t let their cats out, but nobody has heard of a person being hurt by one. As pests go, they aren’t worse than coyotes.
Because the mutants are harmless, my first idea was sending a humane trap to every household in the city. These were repurposed raccoon traps, which look like wire dog cages, but with a spring-loaded door. Each is big enough for a raccoon to lie in without feeling too comfortable. We worked out a deal with animal control, so that after you caught a mutant, you could call the same number you might have called for the strays no one sees anymore.
The traps work. We never had complaints about people getting hurt, or about mutants escaping after being caught. But almost nobody used them. People even threw them away: a month after sending them out, you could drive down alleys and see them, cage after cage, waiting for junkers to pick up. I kept ours, though; whether out of loyalty to the idea, or just because I hate losing things, I’m not sure. Right now, I go to our garage to get it. The lights behind our garage have turned on automatically. A moth bats against my forehead while I jostle the lock on the door: we’ve had a problem with it sticking ever since we bought the house.
I imagine the problem with the traps was that if you caught a mutant, you had to see it. That’s something most people don’t like, and it’s easy to avoid if you’re careful. Even though you’ll find the occasional mutant scurrying in twilight, the mutants are nocturnal, and they keep to themselves. If you want to, you can almost pretend they aren’t there.
But trapping a mutant meant you would have to confront it in the glare of morning, contemplate its flesh, and hear the moan they sometimes make, which sounds like someone waking from a painful dream. Better to let the mutants pass in the night, and try to forget about them.
Inside the garage, I dig through a mess of junk—flower pots, National Geographics, buckets of half-dried paint—before I find the mutant trap and haul it outside, where I crabwalk it over to the dumpster before dropping it, triumphantly. Somehow, after only months in storage, the wire has collected a layer of sticky dust and grease. I wipe my hands on my pants.
Helen looks at me as if I am crazy. Manny shakes his head.
“I bet animal control just shoots them anyway,” Manny says.
He has a point, so I decide not to call animal control.
Helen and I keep the mutant in the garage. Helen has always preferred parking on the street, because the garage door is narrow, and she worries about knocking off a side mirror. Most of what I have in the garage is only junk I have saved for nameless, future projects on the house. But now, there’s no point: property values have crashed because nobody wants to live here. All over town, people are defaulting on loans and running in the middle of the night. There are abandoned homes on every block, and mutants hide in them.
I clear enough room not just for the mutant but also for myself, to sit with him. I bring out a folding chair, and a box fan, and a portable radio that runs off a hand-crank instead of batteries. I bring out a cooler, so I can keep beer out there and not keep running to the house for more.
Not long after taking Bud in, I convince Helen to watch me feed him. I buy a chicken for dinner: it comes pre-cooked, in a plastic bag, where it’s been steaming for hours under a heat lamp. I barely need to carve it—the ligaments come apart like jelly—and after Helen and I are done eating, I put the extra meat in the fridge, but save the carcass for Bud. Helen and I take it out to the garage inside the bag it came in, and when we open the garage door, Bud turns towards us and moans, then waves his fingers through his cage like insect feelers. He sounds happy, I think, but Helen looks as if she is imagining her doom.
The bars of the cage are spaced too close together for me to jam the whole chicken carcass in, so I have to tear it up and give it to Bud in pieces. You’d expect him to be a noisy eater, but he isn’t: every morsel that passes his lips disappears without a sound. When he is finished he sits down and gets very still, with his mouth open so you can see rows of teeth like broken glass. I encourage Helen to hold her hands up, so she can feel how warm Bud gets while he’s digesting. His face could mean anything: gratefulness, beatitude, food coma.
A few minutes later, he belches a cloud of ash, and his body cools down again. Helen begins talking about one of her favorite students, named Oscar.
“Oscar brought an article for science-news,” she says, “about how we don’t even know what the mutants are mutated from. Are they fungus? Are they rats? Oscar thinks they are bits of us that were lost underground and then changed.
“One kid asked if he meant like a zombie. No, Oscar said. Like a dollar you have lost without realizing, that you find in the laundry afterward. He was serious. They asked him what he meant, and he couldn’t explain, so they booed him, and he cried.”
We watch the ashes from Bud’s dinner begin to disperse and join the dust in the light of the ceiling’s only naked bulb. I feel defensive.
“They had no right to boo,” I say.
Helen rubs at her eyes. She seems exhausted. “They’re sixth-graders,” she says. “They’re tired, just like everybody.”
“Last night,” Helen says, and points at Bud, “I dreamed that I woke up, and that thing was standing at the foot of the bed, as big as you. It had broken out of its cage, and it had come into the house for us.”
I try being conciliatory. “He can’t break out,” I say. I nudge the bars of the cage with my shoe. Really, I have no idea, but the cage feels secure. “And he isn’t mean.”
Helen and I don’t talk much. I find relationship books in the bathroom and on her bedside table: tips on how to cope with toxic men. I find a newspaper on the kitchen table, open to a page-five story on a lawsuit over the Eyeless Three: they were babies then; now they’re almost in pre-school. There shouldn’t be a suit—I checked with our lawyers.
Besides: whatever happened, I had nothing to do with it, I only handled PR. I’m not even mentioned in the article, so I don’t know what Helen is getting at. I pull my weight around the house, do all the laundry and handle the dinners. I buy a lot of cooked chickens and throw together salads. Afternoons, I just drink in the garage with Bud, talking to him and figuring him out. I’ve never had to clean his cage: I don’t think he even shits. He’s like a furnace, and everything he eats burns right up.
One evening, at the kitchen table with Helen, I decide we shouldn’t have to eat in silence. I poke at my chicken with my fingers. The meat is hot and oily, and I think of her student who liked mutants.
“How’s Oscar?” I say.
“He’s moving,” Helen says. “He cried in class when he was telling me. His father lost his job at Boron, so they’re going to El Paso, where they have family.”
Helen picks up her wine as if she is going to sip it, then slugs the whole thing, like a shot of booze.
“With a healthy kid,” Helen says, “you’d expect him to be sad about moving because he’d miss his friends. A year ago, Oscar seemed healthy. But today, when I asked him how he was handling the move, he told me that what bothered him was being away from the mutants. His parents call this a hidden blessing—they’re glad Oscar can be somewhere healthy—but he feels the opposite. He’s going to miss the mutants.”
Helen leans forward. “I had another nightmare, Jacob. I was alone in the bedroom, but I heard someone talking in a low voice. It scared me. I wondered if I should lock the door and call the police, but I thought, maybe you had left the TV on. I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself, bothering the police over that.
“So I went downstairs, and in the hallway I saw a door that I had never noticed before. Because I was dreaming, I didn’t question it: I went inside. There was a stone tunnel, and it went down and down. There was light coming from below that helped me see, and the voice I heard kept getting louder as I walked. At the bottom of the stairs was a mutant bigger than any I’ve heard of. The size of a U-Haul, Jacob. And it was glowing so bright it hurt my eyes to look at it.
“It kept repeating your name,” she says. “Jacob, Jacob—like a kid who is learning to speak, and one word is all he knows.”
Somehow, I feel excited by this.
“Jacob,” Helen says. “Manny and his friend are working on something they think can help the situation around here. They want us to get involved. They want your advice as a marketing person.”
Helen can see that I’m not interested.
“You might not like it,” she says, “but you live in this world too. You talk to Bud all day, but it’s not the same as talking to a person. He can’t give you feedback or advice. Tell me you’ll go.”
The next afternoon, I walk to Manny’s. His grass is overgrown with weeds. The soil in the flowerbeds—out of reach of his lawn’s automatic sprinklers—is cracked and dry, and the flowers there are sunbaked and dead. Manny is an IT guy; he works from home, and usually spends a lot of time gardening. Whatever he’s been working on must have him preoccupied.
Manny answers the door with a hammer in one hand and his elbow bent, like he’s about to take a swing. I step back, surprised.
“You’re exactly who we want to see,” he says. He looks like he hasn’t shaved in a couple days.
He beckons me inside with the hammer. We head down into the basement, where I have only been once before, when Manny wanted to show me his new Bow Flex machine. The Bow Flex is now pushed into a corner. The air is musty, and the floor is covered in gray carpet that is so worn down in places, you can see the nylon mesh beneath it.
Manny’s friend is standing on a blue plastic tarp that has been spread over the middle of the floor. He looks taller than six feet, and he’s heavy, with a chin that recedes in layers like a continental shelf. He’s tightening a bolt at the top of what looks like a huge birdcage, big enough for an average eight-year-old, and for a moment I have the impression of an ogre in its lair. Scattered around the birdcage, like bones, are tools, springs and rods, and three curved pieces of metal, like giant ice-cream scoops. It’s magnificent, but there are a few things that break the image with their dullness: a plastic bag full of nuts and screws, and a booklet full of paper instructions, like the kind that comes with cheap furniture.
“That’s Axe,” Manny says, coming down the stairs behind me.
Axe is the person, not the device. He walks across the tarp, being careful not to step on anything, and shakes my hand. He seems familiar to me, but it’s possible I’ve seen him around the neighborhood.
“You did ads for Boron,” Axe says. His voice is on the high side of normal, and quivering. “My nephew was one of the kids.”
And now I can place him: a news interview I watched again and again, until the words and faces seemed like they belonged to aliens. I touch my forehead and notice I’m sweating. Why would Manny bring me here for this?
“Sorry,” I say, even though I shouldn’t. Never suggest culpability.
“Your ads were good,” he says. “Manny explained everything.” He and Manny converge on the birdcage, and Manny waves me over. He grunts when he bends down to pick an instruction booklet and hand it to me.
The booklet is surprisingly professional. Flipping through it, I can see that it really is like the instructions you get with cheap furniture. Step A, Step B, that kind of thing. On some pages, there’s a cartoon of a happy person doing something you should do (build it on carpet) juxtaposed with a frowning person doing something you shouldn’t (hit a certain part with a hammer).
“It looks great,” I say, “but these are too complicated.”
It’s true. They call for more tools than any furniture I’ve ever bought: you even need your own vise-grip.
Axe is squatting by the base of the trap, tightening a bolt. At the sound of my voice, he stops.
“I told you, Manny,” he says. “I never wanted him here.”
But Manny wanted me here very badly, I can tell. He looks grim. “We’re working on the design,” Manny says. “This is a prototype. It’s custom made.” He gestures towards Axe with the hammer. “Axe is my car mechanic. This is his baby.”
I flip to the last page in the booklet, which has a cartoon of the completed device. When the machine is done, the cage sits in the middle of the three metal scoops, which are connected to a spring plate, like a bear trap. Each of the scoops has three spikes attached to it, facing inward. It reminds me of a huge and deadly flower, petals open to face the day.
Underneath that is a picture of the thing baited, with what looks like a ham hock. Standing outside the trap is a smiling mutant. And beneath that is a picture of the trap sprung: the flower petals have closed and the mutant is hidden inside them, except for a trickle of cartoon blood, down the edge, into a gutter placed in the bottom.
“You see,” Manny says. “People can do just fine without you.”
He takes the instructions away from me and slaps them for emphasis. “This is humane, like a mouse trap. Anything that steps inside is an instant kill. We’ve got a spike for the brain and a spike for the organs. We’ve even got redundant spikes. And it’s better than the old trap, because no matter what, you don’t have to see anything. You call the city, they empty it out, and you can hose it down. It’s reusable.”
Even though I’m not saying anything, he gets angrier.
“You know, I grew up around here, and this town was good before you showed up. How do you sleep? Boron moves in, and people are excited about the jobs. They don’t want to care about pollution, so you help cover that up. Then the mutants come, and you try to cover that up too, but the things are everywhere. And only now you’re conflicted, you hypocrite.”
Maybe he imagined that he wanted my advice, but I know this was the real reason Manny invited me: a wind-up for a fight. He and Helen haven’t been the same since the Three.
Axe clears his throat. “You should calm down, Manny,” he says.
Manny stays focused on me, then looks at the floor. He drops the instruction-book. “There’s something wrong with you,” he says.
When I get home, I go directly to the garage. I sit in my chair across from Bud’s cage, with the electric fan blowing the sweat off my face. Bud smells like condensed milk. He smells like a dog’s forehead. If I look at him one way, he seems smart, but if I look at him another way, he’s dumb as a cow. From yet another angle, each is contained in the other. It’s like being in a room with mirrors on both sides, and reflections going on indefinitely. You could fall through it forever, and never think you were losing yourself.
Can Bud be petted like a dog? I’ve never been brave enough to try. Cautiously, I reach my fingers between the bars of his cage, and brush the top of his skull. Even though his skin looks translucent, almost gelatinous, it is firm and warm to the touch. He sticks out his tongue, which is huge and dark, like a beef liver, and licks the tip of my fingers. The tongue is soft and dry as a baby blanket.
I push my fingers deeper into the cage, and Bud slowly closes his mouth around two of them—my pinky and my ring finger. I think of his serrated teeth, and how they might feel as they rip through bone, but instead I only feel a small prick, like you might get from touching a doorknob in winter. When I take my hand away, my fingers are gone, as neatly vanished as any food I have given Bud. There is no pain, no blood, no opening or even a scar: my hand looks as if those fingers had never been.
I feel purged. In fact, I feel better than I have in months. I watch as Bud exhales a tiny cloud of ash, and I imagine that he is smiling.
When Helen comes home, I am waiting for her in the kitchen. She goes right to the fridge, cracks open one of my beers, then takes a long swallow. This is a new habit for her. When she sees my hand, beer comes out her nose. She drops the can, and beer foams out over the tiles.
“Christ,” she says.
I stare at my hand, too: at the wound that isn’t a wound. It’s my left hand, and the important fingers are still there, so it hasn’t caused many problems yet. I haven’t even put a bandage on it. Why bother?
Helen sits down at the kitchen table, but keeps her eyes on me.
“Oscar is missing,” she says. “His parents came this morning, to talk to me. A police officer came too. We opened Oscar’s desk and in a pile of his drawings, we found this.”
Helen reaches into her bag and pulls out a Xerox—the original was taken by the police, she says—of a mutant sitting with his legs crossed on the floor of a cave. I know it’s a cave, because Helen told me about her dream, but also because Oscar has tried to render the stone floor and walls with heavy scratches of pencil, so much pencil that the graphite has smudged and I can see a grey fingerprint in one of the corners. The cave is meant to be shadowy, but around the mutant Oscar has left a bright halo, and drawn lines of glowing light.
“I didn’t tell the police that I dreamed this,” she says. “I lied, Jacob, because I don’t understand why Oscar would draw my nightmare.” She shakes her head. “I never mentioned it to him. Why would I? I wanted him to be happy again.”
She looks me in the face, and for a moment both of us are silent.
“You’re smiling,” she says. “You look like something amazing has happened.”
I take a step back and put my hands up to my face. Am I smiling? I am, and I don’t know why. I feel as though a lost part of myself, hiding in the shadows for years, has returned to me.
That evening, Helen goes upstairs early, leaving me the ground floor. I walk onto my front porch so I can examine my neighborhood in the crepuscular light. Nobody else is outside, and I notice, for the first time, how paper trash has begun collecting in the gutters and on lawns. Down the block to my left are a pair of abandoned houses, with windows covered in plywood.
A hot, dry wind blows down the street, and I smell the mutant trap on Manny’s lawn before I see it: a stink like copper pennies from a warm pocket, and meat that has just begun to turn. It sits on the weedy grass with its petals spread wide and waiting. And there’s more: jammed in between the sidewalk and the dirt and the tangled grass, Manny has a series of tiny spears propped into the ground and facing outward, like pike-men defending against charging horses. But these spears are only about knee-high, and the metal looks flimsy and cheap. They are more like lawn-ornaments than weaponry.
The big trap, though, is well considered. Its gleaming metal exudes strength, even in the convolution of wire, springs and spikes at its core. In the instruction manual, the trap was baited with a cartoon ham-hock: as a symbol for meat, this was passably sanitary. In real life, however, the plate is baited with about two pounds of ground beef, which rests in a puddle of pink liquid, like a giant brain.
It is true that, throughout my life, I have minimized conflict, and benefited from doing so. If I worked for a company that damaged a community, I reasoned that, economically, things would balance out. If someone at an office party made a sexist joke, I would politely leave the room. And this attitude might explain why, even now, I stand transfixed for so long—imagining the trap’s possibilities, but unable to act—until I see a toddler-sized mutant has made its way across Manny’s lawn and is sniffing at one of the trap’s deadly petals.
“Don’t go in there,” I say. Then I yell it, loud, but I’m not sure if the mutant can understand me.
The mutant looks at me and moans, then turns back to the trap, groping like a blind person. I try to run and save it, but there is no chance. I’m not even at the edge of Manny’s lawn when I hear a noise like a steel door being slammed, and I feel a spatter of liquid on my face, like the beginnings of a warm rain. The liquid is mutant blood, which, it turns out, is the dark red of cooked beets. The trap is closed, and the metal scoops have fit perfectly together, so that I can’t see the mutant inside, and even though I know about all those redundant spikes I think still, maybe, there is a chance. I snatch one of the tiny spears off Manny’s lawn and start trying to pry the trap back open.
Because of my missing fingers, it takes a second to get a good grip on the spear. Then I put all my strength into it, using it like a crowbar, until it snaps in two, and one of the broken pieces slices my hand across the palm. I’ve barely scratched the trap. You could take some car-wax to it and it would be fine. And here I am, standing there bleeding into the grass, covered in mutant blood, feeling hopeless.
I don’t see Manny until he puts his hand on my shoulder, and in my surprise and anger I lash out with the busted spear, tearing a hole in his shirt. He grabs me by the collar and tries to punch me, and when I pull away the two of us swing around, awkwardly, as if we are dancing. He cuffs me in the ear, and I feel a nauseating pain.
“Hypocrite,” Manny says. He is short of breath. “Maniac.”
I lose my balance and fall to the ground just a foot from one of the upright spears: a close call.
“Helen told me she’s thinking of leaving you,” he says, and spits. “But she doesn’t want to.”
He picks up the pieces of the broken spear, which I have dropped, then bends over and shakes them in my face. “These cost thirty bucks each!” he says.
I think that sounds like a rip-off and that he needs a better manufacturer, but it’s not a good time to speak. I crawl away from him, then pick myself up slowly and start walking over to my house.
“If you touch my property again,” Manny says, “I’m calling the cops.”
I stop at the kitchen to grab a beer and smear blood all over the refrigerator handle. Mutant blood and my own blood. I’m too tired to care about the difference. I fumble with the lid of a can, chug it, then open another and head to the garage.
The sun is almost down, and the inside of the garage is dark. Bud is glowing, which has never happened before. He isn’t bright—you couldn’t read by him—but he casts a lime-green nimbus just wide enough for me to find my folding chair without turning on the light-switch.
I also notice, for the first time, that Bud has grown. I don’t know if this has been happening gradually, and I am only now realizing it, or if it happened overnight. But when I herded Bud into the raccoon trap, he had plenty of space. He could almost stand. Now, he is doubled up like a fetus. His shoulders are pressed against the wiring so tightly that his skin bubbles around the metal. His breathing is labored: I can hear him wheeze.
I open his cage, and he stares at me, like a dog with a stranger. I reach out my injured hand for him to sniff, and he licks my wound, shy at first, then more eager. The wound has started to throb, and his tongue feels cool and soothing against it. Then his mouth hangs open, and I feel that familiar zap, all the way up my wrist. When I take my arm away, there’s just a clean stump where my hand used to be. I feel a stillness: it’s good.
Bud emerges slowly, unfolds himself and stretches. I am shocked to realize that he is almost as tall as me, and that his glow seems brighter now, bright enough that I can see the outlines of junk piled in the far corners of the garage; bright enough that I could check a map, if I had one.
We go into the house and he stops in the kitchen, takes a breath, and sighs, like someone coming home after a long day. I sigh too. I think about what Manny said, and I think maybe he’s right: I imagined that I could partition myself from other people, but I can’t. I kept pictures of the kids away from the news so most people never saw them, but I did: the clean skin where the eyes should have been. You couldn’t tell if they were awake or dreaming, but otherwise, they smiled and farted like any kid would do.
I follow Bud into the hallway and see that there, next to the stairwell leading to the second floor, is the door from Helen’s nightmare. But I am not asleep: I know it. My leg itches, and I mistakenly try to scratch it with my missing hand. My stump feels tender and electric against my denim jeans. If I roll my tongue through my mouth, I can still taste the beers I chugged. I take a step forward, and Bud opens the door, and there is a stone tunnel. As we descend, I put my remaining hand against the wall to feel the cool wet stone, and as we go even deeper, Bud grows brighter. He turns to me, and I hold out my damaged arm so he can take it between his teeth, and he grows. We go deeper and he takes my other arm, my feet, my legs, and he grows, until I must crawl behind him. I can feel the cold stone on my belly, and in Bud’s aura I can see more clearly than ever before: a sun rising over a horizon that has no skylines or fences, traps or springs. His light is verdant, like grass and succulents, ferns and flowers, outstretched and alive.