Russ wakes to the voices of the neighborhood boys.
“What if he’s contagious?”
“I bet he ain’t. Ain’t like the flu or whatever.”
“Can’t catch what he has.”
“See? Ain’t him. It’s his mom. She’s out there.”
“I don’t know.”
Russ cracks open his eyes. Moonlight pours through the window. He is in bed, wedged under a sheet and blanket. Three silhouettes hover in the darkness of his room: Lenny, Garrett, and Manuel.
“Manny, wasn’t it you telling us four players is best—”
“I said even numbers.”
“You think you can find someone else right now?”
“I mean, we could play something else…”
“Why? Afraid you’ll lose?”
“Just rather play threes than get his sick ass involved, is all.”
“He ain’t sick, I just said.”
“He won’t even be any good, I bet.”
“That’s the point. More winning for us.”
“Be quiet, both of you.” Len, seeing that Russ is no longer asleep, turns to the boy.
“Morning, friend.” Russ can tell it’s Garrett from the way his gold tooth flashes when he talks.
“Isn’t it…” Russ’s mouth and throat are dry. He drags his tongue over his teeth, sucks. “Isn’t it nighttime?” he asks.
Lenny steps into the light. “Mm,” he mumbles, hesitating.
“Where’s my mom?” Russ asks.
Garrett snickers in the darkness. Manuel groans.
Lenny says, “Your mom’s… not quite right at the moment.”
“Like she ever was,” Garrett mutters.
“Shut up, Goldie.” Lenny turns back to Russ, setting his hands on the bed. He leans forward. “She’s not well,” he says. “But no one—the grown-ups, I mean—is really in good shape.”
Russ pushes himself up. His arms tremble like the gelatin desserts his mom would get him when they lived in the city. “Did my mom send you?” This is his first time speaking to Lenny, he realizes. His mother said Lenny’s bad news. Manuel and Garrett, Russ has met them. Not under the politest pretexts. Well, not with Garrett, at any rate.
“No,” Lenny says, looking back at his two friends. Garrett looks like he’s about to laugh.
Russ swings his legs over the edge of the bed, dangles them. He puts his feet down. He stands up, shaking.
“You sure you can do that?” asks Lenny.
Russ steps probingly forward. The others watch him. He takes a steadying breath then another step. Manuel and Garrett part to let him through as he plods across the room toward the doorway. They eye him uneasily.
“I’m not contagious.” Russ is thirsty. Otherwise he feels surprisingly able—good, even. “I got the diabetes,” he croaks, wording it like his uncle does, in a way that does not imply full understanding of the word.
He hears Lenny behind him: “See?”
“Whatever,” Garrett says. “Any food around here?”
Their voices recede as Russ advances down the hallway. The floorboards are cold under his bare feet. Mom would never let him walk around the house without at least socks on. The doctors said the legs are the first to go. But he doesn’t have the energy to dig through drawers for socks.
None of the lights are on. Long silver columns of moonlight pierce the windows. There’s a faint draft. Russ shivers. Mom would never leave a door open—he could catch a chill.
“Mom?” he tries calling. He clears his throat. Louder, he calls, “Mom?”
When he enters the kitchen, she is at the table. The curtains are drawn, so Russ only sees her shape and a glass of milk caught in the moonlight. Beside it are strips of bread. She had been dunking the bread like lady fingers into the milk. Something is behind her, obfuscating her silhouette.
Russ flips a switch, but the light doesn’t come on.
Lenny, behind him: “Electricity went out.”
Russ says his mother’s name again. If she responds, he doesn’t hear. He treads through the gloom to the sink, but there’s nothing. He pulls back a curtain. At first, he thinks it’s a streetlight—and then, for a quick moment, a charging automobile—but no. It’s the moon. Very large. Larger than he’s ever seen it.
His mother’s head is slumped back, her eyes fixed on the ceiling. From her mouth juts the long stalk of a sunflower, bending slightly in the breeze. The shape that had confused her silhouette. Roots and vines creep out from tears in her dress, through the chairback’s gaps, and descend to the floor.
“Mama,” Russ whispers.
Save for the idling flower, she is motionless.
“It happened to all of them. Adults, I mean.”
The voice warbles. Lenny again. Maybe. Things are beginning, for Russ, to go dark.
“None of them answer,” the voice goes on, “or move. Or do anything.”
“That’s why I just let the snails go to town on them,” another voice chimes in.
At this moment, under normal circumstances, Russ might faint, and he comes close to doing so. Arrested at an invisible threshold, he is unable to faint. So he sits, on his knees, on the tile in the kitchen.
As punishment, Russ’ uncle would make him sit on his knees until his shins were red and he couldn’t feel his feet. He wonders where his uncle is, if he is like his mother now.
Russ goes to the couch in the living room. The three other boys are there in repose. They munch on food pilfered from the pantry. Behind the windows, it is still night.
Russ rubs his eyes. He feels he should have cried by now. Maybe it’s a small blessing. Crying would only ensure he keeps catching hell from the older boys. His shirt sticks clammily to the rolls of his belly.
Garrett, in Russ’ uncle’s old recliner, smirks. Tosses an olive into his mouth. “Sleeping beauty has awokened,” he announces.
“‘Awakened’,” Lenny corrects.
Garrett throws an olive at him.
Lenny ignores it. Sitting on the floor, his back against the coffee table, the older boy addresses Russ.
“Probably best you know what’s what,” Lenny says.
Russ notices the sheen on Lenny’s forehead, his blanched face, a painful expression Russ doesn’t know how to read. Mom never did say what kind of trouble Lenny got into in the past.
“He’s just a kid,” says Manuel from the other recliner, the one Mom sat in.
“What’s that make you, then, Manny?” Garrett hoots. “A serial citizen?”
“Senior,” says Manuel.
“None of that Spanish shit, I already been told you,” Garrett says.
“I said ‘senior.’” Manuel gives Garrett an irritated look. “Not señor.”
“Russ,” says Lenny, “how old are you?”
“Ten,” Russ says.
Manuel spreads his arms, palms up, demonstratively.
“He’s got to know.” Lenny glowers at his friends.
If Mom would have let him go out and explore once in a while, Russ would have a better sense of the boys and their motives. But he doesn’t know them, not really.
Wax-faced Lenny continues: “Long story short, Russ, is none of the adults are…”
“They’re dead,” says Garrett.
“Ain’t dead, what the hell,” says Manuel.
“Well, not till the snails show up, anyhow.”
“They’re not dead.” Lenny holds Russ’s gaze. “But they’re not exactly alive, either, far as I can tell. They all have plants and stuff coming out of their mouths and out their…” He looks over at Garrett, who’s trying to hide his sniggering. “Coming out of their—”
Garrett erupts in laughter.
“Shut up, Goldie,” Lenny says.
“Since when?” Russ hates how small his voice sounds.
Manuel stares off, thinking. Garrett shrugs, pops another olive into his mouth.
Lenny says, “We don’t really know. Like I said, time’s been…weird.”
“A week, maybe?” Manuel speculates. “Week and a half?”
“Could be two.” Garrett has crowned each of his fingers with an olive. He shoves his hand into his mouth, pulls his oliveless fingers back out. He washes them down with the juice from the can. “Salty,” he ululates.
Russ wonders why he doesn’t have an appetite. It could be seeing Mom the way she was. But after being asleep so long, he should be at least a little hungry. He should have his medicine, too. The country doctor won’t be paying a visit anytime soon. Russ will need more. Mom has a small reserve, he doesn’t know where she keeps it.
Yet, aside from Mom, he’s still feeling fine.
Lenny drags his head to one side. “Good news is, they’re not getting any worse. The grownups. They might get better—who knows?”
“Might not,” Garrett says. “Them snails don’t quit.”
Russ asks, “Has anyone come? Like to help.”
Lenny shakes his head.
It begins to sink in. Russ’s eyes water.
“Aww.” Garrett thrusts the leg-rest of the recliner down. “I’m gonna get outta here. He’s gonna throw a fit just like his loon mom.”
“She’s not crazy.” Russ’s voice rises, cracking. “And never was!” Her brother is the crazy one, he wants to yell, not her. He’s the one who uses the ruler, the belt. But Russ is afraid, to speak ill of his uncle, of what his uncle might do if he learns Russ talked bad about him.
“Okay. Chill out, kid.”
“Kid.” Lenny’s face has gained some tenderness. “Wanna play cards with us?”
Russ is not allowed to leave the house. Not wanting to be alone, not ready to go into the kitchen again, not knowing what else to do, he looks from Lenny to the other boys then back.
“It’s a lot to take in at once,” Lenny continues. “All this stuff. Maybe just distract yourself for a bit?”
Russ bites his lip. Then he nods.
The four boys walk across the porch and down the rotting stairs. Their footsteps clop hollowly on the dirt. Otherwise it is silent: no crickets, no owls. On the road that parallels the orchards, Garrett peers uneasily between the rows of cherry trees. A sound like a soft mewl breaks the silence but just as quickly is gone. No one says anything, though Russ notices Garrett quicken his step.
Garrett has a gold tooth because he persuaded his dad after he busted his face playing full-on tackle football in the orchards. His dad is rich and owns most of the orchards. Despite his privileged upbringing, Garrett speaks in a drawl and spends most of his time getting dirty with the sons of the workers his dad employs. Manuel is one of the sons who tolerates him more than most.
They turn down a road leading away from the orchards. There are only a few houses here, separated by a mile or two of farmland. Only when Lenny catches up does Russ realize the older boy had been trailing behind.
“Sorry,” Lenny huffs. “Forgot something.”
They trudge into a clearing at the top of the hill. The moon is full and feels closer here, the grass neat and short as though it had stopped growing. When they sit down, their pants dampen with dew. At this vantage point they can see back down the way they came and the orchards beyond. On the other side of the hill, the short, steep ridge is columned with oaks. A stream trickles, out of view, like a windchime.
A rustling in the grass. A snail slithering uphill toward them. Humongous, the size of a small dog, its shell all brown and green whorls. In the snail’s wake a thick band of mucus glistens in the moonlight. Russ—the only one who’s seen it—watches until the creature arrives at his feet. Its antennae probe Russ’s leg, trying to smell him.
He is about to reach down and pet the snail when Garrett comes up from behind and kicks it. The creature erupts, slime and shards fly into the air, some splattering on Russ.
Garrett is laughing. Manuel kind of smirking. Lenny looks the other way.
Russ stares at the remains of the snail, a mess of viscera. His eyes well up but he quickly turns away.
Manuel says, “Kings Corner?”
His friends nod.
Manuel turns to Russ. “Know how to play?”
Russ shakes his head. Garrett makes a psshh sound.
“It’s easy,” Lenny says, voice cheerier. The sweat on his brow has dried, his attitude seems less grave. He shimmies closer to Russ. “The point is we try to get rid of all our cards as quickly as possible,” he explains. “You and me can be a team for the first game. Manny, just deal me and Russ seven cards.”
“Man, this is gonna take forever,” Garrett moans.
It doesn’t. Russ learns quickly.
By the next game, he’s playing his own hand. Though he doesn’t win, he is enthralled.
For a time, the only things that exist are the older boys and the cards. Garrett remains antagonistic, but within the parameters of the game, his behavior feels appropriate. Their laughing fills the air and fizzles out in the trees.
Later—how much later, he doesn’t know—Russ walks by himself down the road toward his house. He has to check on his mom. Trying to work up the nerve, he checks on the goats first.
Russ walks around the side of the house, opens the gatefold. The pen is walled off at the house but stretches out a couple acres. Russ is worried. The ground is more brown than green now and no awkward, furry bodies are running to greet him. When he comes around the back of the house the goats are there, loafing like nothing’s happened.
He walks up to one of them—he thinks it’s Marcella, but it’s hard to tell in the light—and runs his hand down her craggy spine. She makes a noise and brushes her head against his hip. He claps her on the back, but he hurts his hand on her sharp contours.
There is his uncle, in the distance, on his back in a mess of alfalfa.
Russ, stepping over droppings, covers the ground to him.
The only thing he’s left to wonder by the time he gets there is what kind of flower it used to be. Whatever it was, it’s all gone now. Goats ate it up, all the way down to the stalk, a nub like a bloody kickstand against his uncle’s tongue.
Looks like the old farmer ended up drowning in his own blood; his lips and mouth are cracked with dark red, his eyes fogged like a mirror.
Russ’s initial shock subsides and is replaced by dismay at his lack of emotion. He wonders what that must say about him, that he doesn’t feel grief.
Maybe he’ll grieve later, when reality hits him anew.
The goats keep their distance from the body. It has begun to smell. The alfalfa surrounding his uncle is untouched. Russ unbolts the barn door. Finds bales of alfalfa, a few sacks of bermuda pellets and blends. He brings some out and the goats sidle up, bleating. He smiles.
Russ watches them eat from the kitchen window. They seem fine and make hardly any noise. He regards the moon. The summer solstice will have passed by now. Mom was counting down the days.
He turns to her. He gets down on his knees and rests his head against her thigh. It’s still warm, but her flesh has grown firm. Cellulose. She taught him that word. She was going to teach him to work the farm.
Drained as he is, he should be able to fall asleep easily, but he can’t. The closest he gets is a kind of drifting, his head filling with a soft, hypnotic buzz. He lists in this space until footsteps sound in the hallway.
Lenny stands in the doorway, looking at him.
Russ pushes himself off his mother’s leg, wraps his arms around his knees.
“Do you have any sugar?” Lenny asks.
Russ points to a cabinet.
The first time he saw Lenny, he was stepping out of a car in front of his parents’ house, a mile down the road. It was during one of the last walks that Russ went on with his mother before she got too weak.
Lenny rifles through a cabinet. He pulls out white sugar, brown sugar, bakers sugar. Under the moonlight, he considers each.
“Thanks,” he says. “You doing alright?”
Stiffly, Russ nods.
“Garrett is a tool.” The older boy kneels to Russ’s level. “Manuel’s harmless. I’m sorry, they were being asses.”
“It’s okay,” Russ says. Kids being asses is nothing new to him.
Lenny puts a hand on Russ’s shoulder. Russ flinches, at which Lenny frowns. “Tell you what, why don’t you come over where I’m staying?” he offers. “We’ll play a game, just you and me. I’ll teach you the rules. Next time we all play, you’ll have Garrett’s number.” He smiles.
Russ looks at the older boy. He doesn’t know what having Garrett’s number means, but he returns the smile.
“Find me at the old Greek folks’ place.”
The Petroses live nearby, closer than Lenny lives.
Russ hates the snare drum of his knuckles on the door.
When the older boy lets him in, he looks simultaneously flushed and drained. He tries to smile but it comes out twisted.
“Cards,” Russ reminds him.
Lenny makes an oh face like he knew all along.
The house is more akin to a cabin. Its two bedrooms are add-ons to the front room, which serves as the main living space: kitchen, hearth, and strange baking apparatus that Russ doesn’t recognize.
There are cookbooks and textbooks piled on the floor. Stray sheets of paper here and there. One near Russ is an ingredient list or recipe:
Opium, filtered, becomes morphine base, ammonia, sugar, milk powder.
Lenny collapses luxuriantly into a padded leather chair. He addresses Russ though his eyes are cast toward the ceiling.
Unblinking, Lenny continues, “You always start with something. Mine was cards.” He sweeps his misty gaze across the room. “We’re immortal now. You know that?”
The thought has occurred to Russ. “I was sick and now I’m not sick anymore,” he says. One bedroom door is shut. The other hangs ajar. Through it, Russ sees a booted foot.
“Lenny,” he says.
But the wax-faced boy’s eyes roll back, lids fluttering closed. In a moment, he is snoring.
Russ’s heart pounds. The clock on the wall is stuck. He goes onto the front stoop and shuts the door behind him. Outside, everything is limned the color of frost.
With no clear measure of time it’s easy to lose track. Russ blinks awake. Later, he slips into near-sleep. He never fully gets there. At some point, it grows colder. The cold is unforgiving. Before the night arrived, before Russ fell asleep and woke up inside of it, it was summertime. Now it is something else.
In any case, there’s not much firewood around.
Manuel suggests cutting down a few cherry trees.
“No fuckin way,” Garrett says. “Not goin into the orchards.”
When Russ suggests walking to the nearest gas station, Garrett looks like he is going to punch him. Later on, Manuel explains that they have reasons for not venturing far. He doesn’t clarify the reasons.
It’s so quiet. Like the night is holding its breath, trying to stifle a laugh.
Russ, being the smallest, is never short on nooks to curl up and retire in. The other boys have a harder time insulating themselves. For them, more practical means of keeping warm are in order. The past week—if it can be thought of as such—they’ve seen less and less of Lenny, so there’s no saying how he’s been dealing.
Russ has avoided going back to his own house. What little comfort he ever felt there is gone. While his mother may technically be there, he feels alone when he drops by. He’s much more comfortable tucking himself into the corners, under the sinks, inside the closets of empty vacation homes. Periodically he remembers the warm cellulose of his mother’s flesh, and shudders.
He wonders about the others’ families. Manuel’s doesn’t live in the area. Garrett has an older sister. Russ keeps expecting to see her. She never shows. Garrett doesn’t mention her.
“What do we do?” Manuel asks. “I can’t stand this cold no more.”
Garrett makes a motion like pumping a shotgun.
Manuel shakes his head, tries to hide his laugh.
When things don’t go his way, Garrett will mention his shotgun and his willingness to use it. Russ doesn’t know whether to believe him.
Russ’s uncle had been a goat breeder. Sometimes he would milk the goats and was known to eat them on occasion. Fried goat testicles are a delicacy, his uncle—well into his cups one night—informed him.
No more of that. Russ doesn’t want to hurt the goats. Sitting on the kitchen counter, he looks wistfully out the window at the spiny little figures still sifting through the bale he left for them however long ago.
More figures enter the frame. Not spiny ones this time. Boy-figures.
Russ leaves the screen door clacking and breaks into a run. He yelps.
Garrett is aiming his shotgun at Old Sammy, one of the wethers, the barrel pushed up right between Old Sammy’s slitted eyes.
“I’m starving,” Garret whines.
“No, you’re not,” mutters Manuel. “You don’t need to eat. You’re just a fat fuck.”
Garrett glares at him and adjusts his grip on the gun. Manuel closes his mouth.
Russ, out of breath, reaches them and keels over. He tries to say something in protest.
The gun whirls toward him.
“Come on, cocksucker,” Garrett says. “He’s old as the hills, just look at him. Cranky, too. Let him go.”
“You let him go.”
“Not much meat on him anyway, Goldie,” mumbles Manuel.
“Who gives a fuck.” Garrett lifts the barrel. He closes an eye and sights down, which is ridiculous because he’s at point-blank range. “My pops used to take me hunting but we never brought this along. I want to try it out.”
“Stop. Please.” Lenny emerges from nowhere, taking long strides toward them. He looks more gaunt than usual, but Russ doesn’t care. He’s just glad the older boy is there.
Garrett regards Lenny. “What do you want?”
“That’s what I was gonna ask you.”
“I’m hungry,” Garrett retorts.
“No, you’re not. We don’t need to eat. You know that.”
“How do you know we don’t need to eat?”
Lenny stares at him.
Garrett scowls. “Fucking phony,” he spits. “Look at your eyes.”
“Man, if you’re gonna do this shit, can you do it later?” Manuel rubs his arms. “It’s cold as hell.”
A ragged scream rips through the air. Everyone whirls toward the orchards. Garrett blanches.
“Is that—” stutters Manuel. “I thought it—”
“Shut up. Stand perfectly fucking still.” Sweat beads on Garrett’s lip. He licks it away.
The scream repeats. Everyone flinches. It’s like a baby’s scream but drier, as though pushed through a throat of stale bread.
For a few minutes, everyone waits. The wind ropes through them. Though they shiver, no one moves until Garrett lowers the gun, swallowing.
“We have to take care of that.” Lenny’s tone is grave.
Garrett turns on him. “We? What do you mean, we?”
Lenny looks like he genuinely does not understand.
“Okay, you wanna play big brother?” Garrett gestures towards Russ. “Here’s your chance, junkie.” He jabs the shotgun in the direction of the orchards. “You go take care of that, and I’ll think about not shooting this old-ass goat. Be a role model.”
“Okay,” says Lenny gamely. “Just let me grab something from my place real quick.”
Garrett sneers. “You won’t be back.”
“Meet me at the orchards.” The wax-faced boy leans in close to Russ. He whispers into his ear: “Don’t worry, just let me handle this. I know how to—yeah, don’t worry about it. I’ll be back. I’ll find you.” The older boy starts off. Garrett, Manuel, and Russ watch him go.
Old Sammy takes a big bite of feed, unaware of how close he just came to not being able to.
It’s cold. It’s been getting colder, it feels. Russ hasn’t seen Lenny in a while. Probably the older boy is getting prepared, has a plan.
He’ll be at the orchards. Lenny had told him, “I’ll find you.”
At the orchards, Russ waits. Snails enter and exit homes down the road, slipping through open windows and doors. They might be cold or hungry. Probably both.
Manuel shifts from foot to foot, fidgeting.
Garrett points his gun at the big moon and fires. The shot echoes. Russ’s ears ring.
“He’ll have heard that,” Manuel says.
In response, a high, piercing wail comes from the orchards. It sounds so close. Russ freezes. Manuel and Garrett freeze, too. The wail does not repeat.
They wait several more minutes but Lenny doesn’t show.
“No friend for you, I guess.” Garrett leers at him, bearing his gold tooth. “Go,” he commands. He wags the shotgun at the trees.
Russ steps off the road onto hard-packed dirt. The first row of cherry trees is less than ten feet away.
Russ turns around, addressing Manuel, “What’s it like in there?”
Manuel stares, mouth open. He shakes his head, lips shut.
Russ faces the orchards again. He gazes through the skeins of hoary branches. All dead.
Russ walks. He is aware of the boys, their eyes on him, monitoring from yards behind. He pays special attention to his movement across the orchard floor, trying not to upset the quilt of desiccated leaves. When he steps too heavily, the noise is so sharp, the leaves seem to shatter. When he steps lightly, they crackle and pop; more pleasant, but still too loud.
Because he has kept his gaze on the ground, he notices a lump centered in the cross between four trees. Blueish green, Russ is reminded of lint and mold. The lump is the size of a loaf of bread.
Colors sharpen into a geometry as he nears. It’s not only cherry blossoms, but all sorts of fronds and leaves. Kinds Russ doesn’t know. Maybe Mom would know. The foliage overlaps, swelling outward to create the shape. It’s rooted in the ground. It looks like a baby.
Russ plugs his ears and gets to his knees. He waits for the scream again, but it doesn’t come. Parts of the baby are fraying, shedding into wisps carried away on the wind.
Russ leans in closer. The baby is breathing laboriously. It reminds him of his time in the hospital when he first got sick and of the kids in the other ward on their respirators. A plume of fermented exhaust releases from its lips. Its dying breath.
A scream—ragged and belonging to a boy, erupts behind Russ.
He flits back through the trees. Twigs scrape his face. His mouth fills with the smell-taste of rotten things.
At last he breaks through the final row of trees.
Manuel is helping to steady Garrett, whose leg tremors in the air. Blood from his shoe spatters the asphalt.
“What the fuck, kid?” Garrett—eyes pinched so hard in tears that Russ can’t see their whites—shrieks at him.
“—like a…horn or something,” Manuel is saying, “just came out of the soil the second Goldie stepped off the road.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Garrett shrieks. He wobbles, trying to lasso his injured foot inward. Leaning over, he releases Manuel’s shoulder and falls away. He hits the dirt hard, grunts, groans. He climbs onto his elbows, but before he can get up, a stone-gray horn bursts from the earth, skewering him through the chest.
Garrett swallows air then slides along the length of the horn to the cherry blossom floor. Blood pools from the hole in his back. The horn withdraws with a squelch.
Russ looks at the ground beneath his own feet. Hard dirt. He’s not on the road yet, still technically in the orchards. Cherry pits, brittle leaves, dead blossoms surround him. It is quiet and still. He waits for the horn to take him.
The wind picks up. There’s a scuffling noise. It multiplies, echoes, then escalates. Silhouettes appear down the road, alongside the fences and trees. Boney, antlered silhouettes. The goats have found a way out.
Russ lifts his head, expecting to lock eyes with Manuel, but the older boy’s back is turned and he is walking the other way, slinking into the distance. A disarray of goats sway around him, headed the same way.
The temperature has plummeted again. The goats pine and complain.
The wind strengthens, throwing grit into Russ’ eyes. He bows his head against the wind, covers his face. He ambles blindly away from the orchards.
Russ comes to the Petroses’ house. He struggles to shut the door against the gale. Inside, Lenny is sitting in the same chair as before. He doesn’t say anything.
“Lenny,” Russ says.
But Lenny is dead.
A familiar box sits near Lenny’s body. Inside are Russ’s syringes that his mother had hoarded from the country doctor. The ones for when he was sick, from when he needed them every day. For whenever that was.
Lenny had come for more than just sugar.
In one of the bedrooms, Russ finds Mr. Petros. He’s crumpled on the floor, with a poppy plant growing out of his mouth. A dish of bulbs weeping milky fluid sits on the old man’s chest.
Russ sticks around for a little while at his uncle’s farm. He’s not so worried about being alone anymore. Not as bothered as he once was to be in the company of Mom and her sunflower.
He never needs sleep, though that doesn’t stop him from getting tired. Every moment he spends there is an embattled one. The snails have zeroed in on the house. They lurk at the windows, crowd the doors. He tries for what feels like hours or days to keep them at bay. Eventually, Russ opens a window. Opens another. Then the rest of them.
They pour in. He stands to the side. He pats the back of one of the snails. There’s no use in letting his mom’s flower wilt and dry out. Yet he still can’t bring himself to look once they start crawling up her leg.
The kitchen fills with wet sounds and hard shells. Russ winds around them, through the muck, to the back door. He leaves it hanging open.
From the porch, the orchards stretch in every direction.