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Comic-Con Decoherence

By Nathan Hillstrom From Issue No. 3

A pin!

The boy, Chester, dodges between legs. The Comic-Con crowd lurches and the pin disappears beneath a robot’s foot, then reappears, and then disappears again. His child-leash goes taut. Breath squeezes from his burning lungs. He is big enough now that he can pull his mother, and does: he leans towards the pin, slides one foot forward, strains his body to follow, repeats with the other foot. He is yanked backwards as a Viking stomps on his leash. “Chester,” his mother calls.

One more leap and he’s next to it. The pin. It’s a rocketship. It’s so beautiful. Taking off in a cloud of enameled flames and with a needle on its back—the sharp kind. He sees another heel coming but can’t wait. He snatches it.

Chester is bowled over. He clutches the pin, wraps his body around it. A woman in powder-purple tights stumbles over him and stifles a yelp; one of her fairy wings detaches and hangs loose. He rights himself and kneels, hand tight around the pin. When he looks up, it’s into multi-faceted eyes.

The pin slides out of Chester’s hand.

“Shhh,” the bug-headed man says. He lifts an index finger in front of his proboscis.

The man’s baby-blue polo hangs over cargo pants; his neck has a bumpy rash where the rubber of the insect head indents his skin. The cacophony of the crowd slicks the inside of Chester’s skull. Eye facets bulge and gleam like mother-of-pearl.

Chester sprints. The man follows with long strides. The crowd parts for him. The boy darts hard left, pulling his leash along my leg.

My leg?

The man is nearly on top of him. Chester zags again and the man pivots. I try to squeeze after them, but a wall of bodies locks me out. “Hey!” I yell, “Help!” The zombie next to me gurgles and cries out. An elf princess shrieks. Now everyone is screaming. Phones are lifted, held aloft, glowing white arm-stalks. The crowd presses tighter, away from the boy, dragging me along. It’s hard to breathe. The boy loops back and his leash wraps around my leg. The bug-headed man oozes after him.

“Affleck,” someone shouts. More glowing stalks erupt from the group. “It’s Affleck!” Everyone tries to occupy the same space. I can’t see the boy’s mother. The crowd is unbearable. People are crushing themselves for a photo of other people’s upraised phones and a sliver of Affleck. Why?

“For the love of God, turn around,” I cry. “The boy!” Everyone is applauding. Small feet kick in the air at the edge of the mob, but no one looks in that direction. The man with the insect head carries Chester away. A torn fragment of leash hangs limp from the back of his harness.

I feel a tug and the leash around my leg tightens to a knot. It tugs again and I trip forward, but an arm steadies me. It’s the mother. She reaches up and tousles my hair; I am at least six inches taller than her. There is a musky perfume underneath the astringency of her sunblock.

“There you are,” she says. “Please don’t wander.”

“He—” I point in the direction the man went. “I—”

An animal horror flickers beneath her eyes and ripples the surface of her pupils. But it passes.

She pats her clutch. “Stay close and you can have a taffy.”

I must be ten years older than her, although her face is weary and sun-worn. She has long, dirty-blonde hair, and her straight bangs are almost girlish. She could be considered fetching, but I do not want a taffy.

The shouts of “Affleck” and the glowing arm-stalks drift across the floor.

“We need to…” I try to speak over the din of the convention. “We can’t wait.”

She hands me a piece of taffy so yellow it seems to be its own source of light. I don’t want it, but can’t stop myself. The wax paper unwraps easily

and I find myself putting the taffy in my own mouth. It sticks to my teeth as I chew, but it’s delicious, like sweet brine. She lifts

and I try to return the taffy, pressing it against painted lips, but her frown tightens and the yellow nub drops to the carpet. She lifts

the wrapper from my hand, rolls it into a tube and taps it into her clutch.

“You’ve had enough, Chester?”

“I’m not—” I don’t know how to explain.

“Lot of stimulation for one afternoon. We can go.”

The two of us weave through the crowd, towards the exit. I shove ahead and she unspools my leash. We make it outside and wait in the baking sun until a bus arrives. Only once we board and sit down, me by the window and her next to me, does she untie the leash. “Always getting yourself so tangled,” she says. I look out the window and watch cars on the road. Their windshields glitter like facets of a compound eye.

I think she watches cars too, but she might just be watching me watching them.

We walk up cracked concrete steps to a row house; a ladybug crawls over lime-green siding. A seed bag rests in a flowerbox of unplanted dirt.

Chester’s mother knocks on the door. She rummages in her clutch and pulls out a green-plastic capped key. She wiggles it into the lock, but lets go as the door swings open.

A heavy-browed man in a faded Metallica tank top stands at the entryway, a Pabst trucker hat matting down his curly brown hair. His arms are crossed, elbows held wide. His upper torso is tanned and muscled but losing its definition. He’s probably my age.

“Who is this?” he asks.

The mother blows out a half laugh.

“Dale, don’t make fun of Chester. He’s had a long day.”

Dale’s face tightens. “What—“

That animal darkness flickers beneath her eyes. Dale goes silent.

She swallows. “I’ll whip us up something to eat.”

Dale evaporates back into the house and the mother retrieves her key, then heads inside. I follow. Our living room carpet has the color and damp foot-feel of mushrooms. The eyes of a small girl reflect out of the dim hallway; she’s in shadow, but I recognize Dale in her brow-heft and her brown, curly hair.

Dale sits down in his recliner and unmutes the television. An announcer is energetically narrating a dog race.

“Mac and cheese good?” the mother calls from the hallway.

Dale yanks the lever on the side of his recliner, and a leg rest convulses into position. I smell cigarette ash. He clasps his hands behind his head and leans back.

“Mac and cheese it is,” she shouts.

I slump onto the couch and sink into yellow-checkered cushions. The couch faces the recliner where Dale sits, jaw set, looking ahead. The announcer gets so excited about one of the dogs winning that his voice cracks, but Dale doesn’t react. I can hear the mother humming in the kitchen each time the announcer takes a breath. I twist and sit at an angle, so as not to face Dale, but also to watch the television.

“Those dogs can really go,” I say.

We watch two more races and I begin to wonder about the ivory-haired announcer. Does he understand that until he asks which animal is the winner, they are all just racing dogs? Does he ask himself why he is pretending? Is the question so terrible he can’t hear it when he does ask? The mother calls us to dinner and we head into the kitchen.

The table is covered in a green plastic laminate that matches the outdoor siding. The little girl is already in her seat, and I pull out the other child-sized chair, diagonal from her. My knees lift above my stomach when I sit.

“Who are you?” the little girl asks.

I smell Cheddar and Fontina, and imagine pasta slippery in my mouth. The girl stands and walks to the counter. She stretches and pulls down a box of Cheerios, holds it under one arm, then grabs a box of Mini-Wheats, balancing both of them back to the table. She places the boxes between us so I can no longer see her.

Dale pulls out the chair next to mine and its legs squeak against the linoleum. They squeak again as he slides up to the table. The mother stands behind me and kneads my shoulders.

“You boys ready for some mac?”

She serves me and Dale heaps of gooey, yellow-orange macaroni. I can’t see how much she gives the little girl. It’s delicious, but we eat in silence.

My eyes grow heavy, so I stand and explore the hallway after the others leave me at the table. The carpet squishes underfoot. I pass a bathroom on the right, and a closed door with a Smurfette poster on the left. There are two more doors at the end of the hallway. I open mine.

Inside, two mismatched socks lie on a shaggy blue carpet, next to a Pabst trucker hat. A Formula One car that has half-transformed into a robot cowers on a child’s bed. Next to the bed, a stack of grey-plastic cases balances on top of a diminutive desk.

The bed is impossibly small for an adult, and I’m exhausted. It has been a long day. I pull the sheets off, bunch them under my arm, carry them back to the couch and spread them out: they’ll be better than nothing. I go back for the pillow.

The mother is standing at the end of the hallway, in front of the last two doors. Dale stands behind her, his meaty arms crossed.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

I gesture at my room. “The bed. It’s too small.”

“Oh.” She glances into her own bedroom. “Well. You can sleep with us tonight.”

I start towards her doorway, but Dale forces himself in front of me. His breath smells of Fontina and beer. He shoves me back with his palm.

“Too old for your bed is too old for our bed,” he says.

The mother lays a hand on his side, under his arm. “Dale, please.”

Dale looks at her. “No. This is bullshit!” He grabs a handful of my shirt and shoves me back against the wall. I don’t think he knows who I am, but I’m afraid what will happen if I ask. His knuckles press into my chest.

“Dale!” The mother tugs at his arm.

He lets go of me. “Just bullshit.” He punches the wall next to my head. “Horseshit.”

The carpet squishes as he heads back into his room. He slams the door. The mother opens it and follows. I retrieve my pillow and head back to the couch.

People get up to use the bathroom at frequent intervals during the night. The flush is a loud snot-sucking sound that rouses me from sleep. Once when I wake Dale is standing over me. I press my eyes closed again.

“Too old for your bed is too old for our bed,” he says.

I lean into him and brush the curls back from the side of his head, skewing his hat. A crescent of yellow crust decorates the inside of his ear.

“Are you sure?” I whisper to him. “About our bed?”

He cringes and steps back. “Who are you?”

I shake my head. “Who are you?”

He understands that I am telling, not asking. I step forward and he backs into the wall.

“Chester!” The mother tugs at my arm. Her pupils are an inky tempest. I take her hand and we enter her bedroom. The sheets are neatly tucked and we crawl under them, me in the center and her beside me. Dale lies on my other side, back cold against mine. After a few minutes, he leaves.

Later that night, when I get up to use the bathroom, I see him curled on the couch, and he sees me seeing him.

I stir in the morning, a sliver of sunlight in my face. The mother’s warm hand rubs my upper arm. Sheets have knotted around my legs; I try to disentangle myself.

“Ready for Comic-Con?” she asks.

“Again?” I slide the sheets off like a pair of pants.

“You wanted a two-day pass.” She laughs. “You were quite particular about that, Chester.”

“Maybe we stay in today.”

“You never want to go until you go, do you?” She chuckles. “Time to get dressed!”

I head back to my room and open the dresser. Many of the shorts are too bright for my taste, but I comb through and find some in khaki that aren’t too bad. I sit and yank them on: a little snug, but I manage to wedge the snap closed.

Chester’s desk looks more comfortable today, so I try it out. A little small, but not bad. The bumpy grain of those plastic cases tickles my fingertips. Inside each is a foam inset lined with pins: a ninja robot pin, an owl pin, a penny-farthing bicycle pin, an upward arrow pin, a zeppelin pin, a zombie boot camp pin, a laurel wreath pin, an evil eye pin, a handlebar mustache pin, an Eiffel tower pin, a red fire truck pin, an electric eel pin, a

shark doubled back over itself pin, an ugly duckling pin, a peacock pin, an Easter bunny pin, a red Santa hat pin, a palms pressed in prayer pin, an Omega symbol pin, a stalking tiger pin, an insect mouthparts pin, a taijitu pin, an inner-ear pin, an orange mushroom pin, a nest with eggs pin.

I pick up the taijitu pin. Dried blood flakes from the tip of its needle. I clean the end and poke it onto my shirt.

The little girl appears at the door. “I know who you are,” she says.

I believe her.

I hear the mother coming down the hall and the girl vanishes. The mother walks in with my leash. “Can’t find your harness, but we’ll just tie it on again.”

I hold out my leg. She wraps the frayed end of the leash around my ankle and ties it into a square knot.

At the convention, we push our way through the sweaty masses and I scan the carpet. I find a pre-stamped San Diego postcard and a stress ball covered in superheroes. Then I see it: one of those old Art Deco locomotive engines, smoke billowing from its stack. It’s so beautiful. I kneel and notice the sharp tack on its reverse.

A pin!

compound-eye pin, an ox-and-cart pin, a lit match pin, a lightsaber pin, an atom pin, a peacock pin, a smiley face pin, an enamel rocket with red flames pin.

I pick up the rocket pin. Dried blood flakes from the tip of its needle.

The little girl appears at the door. “I know who you are,” she says.

“Am I Chester?”

She shakes her head.

I hear the mother coming down the hall and the girl vanishes. The mother walks in with my leash. “Can’t find your harness, but we’ll just tie it on again.”



“No.” I pin the rocket to my trucker hat and slide both onto my head.

At the convention, we slither through the sweaty masses and I watch for celebrity mobbings. Without my leash, I quickly lose the mother in the crowd and head for the costume shop.

“How much for the butterfly costume?” I ask.

“Let me see.” He checks a price list. “Eighty.”

I lean in. “And for just the head?”

About Nathan Hillstrom More From Issue No. 3