When Jack Left
At first, we kept it underneath the porch. Jack wanted me to hide it in my room, but my mom would have found it and scrapped it. She had already stripped the wiring in the garage, and pretty soon, any metal in the house was going to the scrap yard and then straight into her bloodstream.
Light filtered through the gaps in the decking, and we sat there, among the cigarette butts and spider webs and stared at it. Jack called it “You know, the thing,” because he had a way with words. I just called it “it.”
* * *
We found it in a house two doors down from my own. The family had vacated the place the night before. The truck came at dusk, and I watched through my bedroom window as the family packed their goods into the back, and I listened to my mom’s anxious steps as she paced our living room, eager to get a hold of their water heater before one of the other scrappers did. As soon as they left, she practically danced down the steps and over to their house. I watched her jump the fence with the agility of a much healthier woman.
Jack must have been watching too, because he called right as she disappeared into their yard.
“Heya, Michelle.” He thought it was funny to call me that. It was better if I didn’t take the bait.
“Wanna prowl, man?”
I looked out the window again. My mom was still back there, but she would be occupied for a bit. I picked at a scab on my ear.
“Yeah. Let’s do it. Bring a light this time.”
“Yeah, well bring your balls this time, Michelle.” He laughed, and I hung up.
* * *
I got to Jack’s house before he came out and waited on the curb. Through the front window, I could see his parents in the living room, drinking and watching a rerun of Judge Judy. He came around the side of his house and shined the flashlight in my eyes.
“What’re you blinking for, Mikey? Is this little thing too bright for you?”
I smiled. “Let’s go, huh?”
The light bulbs were gone, but those were gone everywhere. This family had even carted off the bedroom doors and showerheads. This neighborhood had larger homes than the last few my mom and I had stopped in—several homes even had empty pools out back—but people seemed to leave less behind here than elsewhere.
He lived right across the street from the now-empty house. We walked over to it and skirted around the left. My mom was still behind the house, grunting and pulling at pipes. Something snapped loose, and she swore. Jack said, “Let’s hope they left something good.”
We checked the windows on the side of the house and were able to crawl in through the third one. Jack snapped on his flashlight, and it lit up what had been a bedroom. It was empty. We walked down the hallway and found two more rooms like the first.
The family had stripped the home before they left. The light bulbs were gone, but those were gone everywhere. This family had even carted off the bedroom doors and showerheads. This neighborhood had larger homes than the last few my mom and I had stopped in—several homes even had empty pools out back—but people seemed to leave less behind here than elsewhere.
We stopped in the third bedroom and looked around at the empty walls. Jack kicked at a small, crumpled ball of packing paper by the window. “We’re probably moving out, too.”
“Seriously? How soon?” I felt sick at the thought.
“I don’t know. Few weeks maybe. My aunt has a couple of rooms for us in Phoenix.”
“Yeah. My dad thinks he can get work there.”
“Huh.” I didn’t say more, but I hoped he was wrong. Jack’s family was the last one on the street, and once they left and my mom stripped their place, we’d be moving again. It wasn’t really our place anyway. We found it, like we found the place before it, sitting empty after the economy fell apart. We’d camp out for a few weeks, or a few months, and my mom would pick over the other vacated homes like a carrion beetle. I hadn’t been in school for over a year, and most of the time I was the only kid on whatever street we ended up. So Jack mattered.
“The city should be better than this hole though,” Jack said.
I nodded. “Let’s keep looking.”
We checked the kitchen. Jack found a knife blade with no handle, and I found a half-empty bottle of bleach. I poured it down the drain while he pocketed the blade. The living room was empty, and we walked through it to check the master bedroom.
When we looked in the master bath, we saw it. It was a metal cylinder, about three feet tall and a foot in diameter. It sat between the toilet and the tub, its smooth, silvery surface gleaming in the glow of the flashlight.
“That’s not normal,” Jack said.
I took the flashlight from him and stepped into the bathroom. I could feel warmth rising from the surface of the cylinder.
“How’re you supposed to use the john with that thing sitting right in front of it?” Jack asked.
“Shut up for a second,” I snapped. “Is it making a noise?”
We both listened, but all we could hear was my mom cursing at the plumbing out back.
Jack stepped past me and tried to pick it up, but he could only raise it an inch or two before he had to drop it.
“Man, I can’t lift that thing.”
I stared at it for a minute. “We’ve got to get it out of here before my mom gets inside.”
“Well, I can’t carry it.”
“We’ll roll it, dummy.”
Jack slugged me in the shoulder, “Now who’s a dummy, dummy?”
I sighed. “Fine,” I said, “Let’s tip it over. Grab that side.”
I stepped between the cylinder and the tub, Jack stepped between the cylinder and the toilet, and we started to tip the top of it towards the bathroom door. Just as the weight of it shifted, the cylinder began to hum. Surprised, we both let go as it crashed to the floor. The humming got louder, and the cylinder’s surface glowed red hot. I could smell the linoleum burning underneath it.
“Get out of the bathroom,” I hissed, and we both pushed into the hallway, against the opposite wall. We waited and watched. I was sure there would be a fire, but the humming died, and the surface of the cylinder began to return to its original color.
I heard my mom dropping pipes on the ground outside and swearing in relief. She would be inside the house soon. “Let’s see if we can roll it now,” I said.
It was still hot enough we had to wrap our shirts around our hands, but we were able to roll it out of the bathroom, down the hallway, out the front door, and halfway across the front yard before we heard my mom break one of the back windows. We rolled it across my long-gone neighbor’s yard and into mine, and I paused for a second. “Let’s roll it under the back porch.”
“Dude, under your bed.”
“Not a chance. This thing heats up again, my sheets will catch fire.”
Jack laughed. “I’ve seen your room, Mikey, and you don’t have any sheets to burn.”
“Screw you, man. The porch’ll work fine.”
We rolled it behind my house and under the porch and then crawled back out into a cloudless desert night. I shivered and pulled my shirt back on. Until we stepped away from the cylinder, I didn’t realize how cold the evening had become.
Jack scratched his belly. “You’re sure your mom won’t find it under there?”
“Look,” I said, “Come over tomorrow, and we’ll figure out what to do. Maybe we can sell it.”
Jack nodded. “Okay. I’ll see you, man.” He turned and walked back. I watched him go, and over his shoulder, I could see the glow of the television pouring out of his living room windows.
* * *
So, we sat there, under the porch, staring at it. It must have started cooking again overnight, because the soil around it was black for half a foot, and it had sunk a few inches into the dirt.
“Let’s try to stand it up,” I said.
We dug our fingers under it and started to lift, but almost immediately, the humming began, and the metal became too hot to touch. We dropped it and moved back. After a few minutes, it calmed down again.
“What do we do with it? If we can’t move it without burning our hands off, we can’t really sell it,” Jack said.
“I don’t know.” And I didn’t. So we sat there, staring at it. After about fifteen minutes, it started humming and heating up again, and we watched as it sank another half inch into the soil.
“We better put something under it,” I said.
We crawled out from under the porch and looked in the garage. My mom had sold off anything worth selling, and all we could find were a few broken roof tiles tucked into the front corner of the garage.
“Let’s try these,” Jack said.
We were ducking to crawl back under the porch when my mom stepped outside to have her morning smoke. It was half-past twelve.
“What are you two doing?” she growled.
We froze and then backed out slowly and looked up at her.
She stared at us over the flame as she lit her cigarette, and we looked at each other. Jack shook his head.
“Nothing, Mom,” I said. “Just hanging out.”
“That tile’s mine.”
I looked at my hands, as if I were just realizing that I held two broken pieces of tile.
“Can we use it for a bit?”
“For what?” Her eyes narrowed.
She came down the porch stairs and peered into the shadows under the porch, and my stomach sank.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Nothing.” I said.
“Right,” she said. “Nothing. Get it out here, so I can take a look at it.”
“I can’t lift it.”
“Well then I’ll get it,” she said, and before I could stop her, she dropped to her hands and knees and crawled under the porch.
A few seconds later, we heard the humming, and she cursed loudly. A foul smell trickled out from the shadows.
“Mom?” I called.
I could hear her breathing heavily, then the humming jumped in pitch, and she cursed again.
“Mom?” I called again.
Suddenly she came scrambling out from under the porch, her hair singed and what looked like a long, white boil lifting on one of her forearms.
“Get that damned thing out of there before it burns the whole house down! I swear, you’re as dumb as your dad was,” she shouted and then stomped up the steps and slammed the kitchen door behind her.
* * *
We used some of the pipes my mom had stripped from the neighbors, and it still took us about two hours to get it out from under the porch. At one point, Jack tripped and burned his elbow before he could jump away from the cylinder. It hummed and burned the entire time, and when we were done, we both had cherry red sunburns on our noses and cheeks. We worked it into the middle of the yard, where it wasn’t likely to damage anything other than the dry soil and a few clumps of dead weeds.
“I’m done.” Jack stood back and looked at his elbow. “That thing is more trouble than it’s worth. We’ll kill ourselves trying to get it to a scrapper.”
“Let’s at least get some of these tiles under it.”
“No way, man. I’m done. My arm’s killing me.”
“What am I supposed to do with it? Just let it bury itself out here?”
“I don’t know. I just know I don’t want to mess with it anymore.”
“Fine.” I didn’t look up at him, and he left without saying anything else.
After sitting still for a few minutes, it cooled back down, and I started working some tiles under it from each side. I would wedge one under and then wait a couple of minutes until it was cool enough to negotiate another into place. After another hour of wrangling with it, I had it sitting on a small bed of cracked clay tiles. By then, I was done with it, too. My hands and shoulders were sore, and all I wanted was a cold Coke and some afternoon television.
* * *
I dreamed about the thing that night. In my dream, I was standing in the backyard, alone and naked, shivering in the cool desert breeze, surrounded by stars that wouldn’t stay in place. Every few seconds it seemed, another star dropped out of the sky, hit the horizon, and threw up a cloud of dust. The cylinder sat in front of me, and as soon as I noticed it, it began glowing white hot, and the sound pouring out of it was so loud I had to cover my ears. The clouds of dust were rolling in towards the cylinder, and just as the noise reached its peak, the ground swallowed the cylinder whole. One moment, it was there, baking the soil around it and screaming, and the next, it dropped into the ground and disappeared. The noise was gone. The heat was gone. The dust disappeared. All that remained was a dark scar on the dirt.
* * *
I had the same dream a couple more times, and on the mornings after, I would check on the cylinder. Sometimes, the tiles would crumble and give way overnight, and I’d come out to find it had sunk a few inches further into the ground.
When I woke up the next morning, I went out to check on it. It was still there, lying in the middle of the yard and shining in the morning sun. The tiles had cracked in more places, and a few of them had scorch marks, but they had held. Jack walked up behind me as I looked at it.
“Your mom doesn’t want it?”
“If she does, she didn’t say anything more about it last night.”
We stood there for another moment, but it didn’t do anything. “Dude,” Jack said, “This is stupid. Let’s play some Halo or something.”
And for the next few weeks, nothing happened. I had the same dream a couple more times, and on the mornings after, I would check on the cylinder. Sometimes, the tiles would crumble and give way overnight, and I’d come out to find it had sunk a few inches further into the ground. I’d dig it out and work a new tile or two underneath, but for the most part, I lost interest.
* * *
It was a month, but Jack’s family did move away. My mom was high when they packed up their truck, and I went over to help them load a few things. Jack gave me some of his comics, and I gave him the basketball we had found in one of the houses.
“Man, it’ll be good to get out of here, Mike,” he said. “You think you can come up sometime and visit?”
“Sure,” I lied. “Right after my mom’s done stripping the whole neighborhood, maybe.”
He grinned, but the grin didn’t hold. “You still have it? You know, the thing?”
I nodded. “It’s still in the yard. It’s sinking a bit, but I haven’t been able to do anything with it.”
He looked down and after a moment, he said, “You’re going to think this is stupid.”
“I’ve been dreaming about it. Like, a lot.”
“Yeah, seriously. It’s crazy too. At first, I don’t realize it’s there, you know, in the dream. I’m just dreaming. Like I’m in school or something, and suddenly the teacher’s gone, and the thing is just sitting on her desk. Or my dad’s holding it like it’s a baby. I had one dream where it was huge and rolling towards me, and I couldn’t move out of the way, and it was burning everything it touched. It was freaking terrifying, man.” He paused and grinned again, but he wouldn’t look at me. “It’s stupid, right?”
I shook my head, “Sounds like you got sunstroke or something, man.” I laughed.
Jack laughed too and punched me in the arm. “Sure. Thanks for that.”
His family finished packing their stuff, and Jack gave me a quick, awkward hug before he got in the truck with his folks. “Hey, Mikey, get rid of that thing. I think it’s bad.”
“Sure,” I nodded. “I’ll see you soon, huh?”
“Yeah,” he said. And then they were gone.
* * *
The next day, my mom was up and over at Jack’s house before breakfast. I turned on our television and watched a man teach a pair of newscasters how to grill the “perfect summer meal” while I ate two packs of microwave oatmeal.
I flipped through a few of the comics while the same two newscasters joked about how stressful it had been to take kids to Six Flags the month before. The man, with his broad, white grin, told the woman that his son had refused to eat the park’s corn dogs. The woman joked that she wouldn’t eat a corn dog either, knowing what went into the things. “Lips and hips,” the man said, “Lips and hips!” They both laughed.
Three hours and all of the comic books later, my mom returned. She was sweating and wound up. She wouldn’t sit. Instead, she stood, bouncing from foot to foot for the few minutes it took to eat some reheated freezer pizza and drink a Coke.
“A lot of wire over there,” she said between bites. “Lot of wire.” She stopped and stared at me, then scratched at her neck.
“Kid left a note for you.”
“I don’t know. There’s a note with ‘Mikey’ on the front. Just a card. No money or nothing.”
“Did you bring it with you?”
She shook her head and tossed the crust of the pizza in the sink. “That kid retarded or something? All he wrote was ‘Burn it.’” She tipped her head back and drained the Coke. “Burn what?”
“Probably just a joke or something,” I said. “I’ll go get the note.”
She shouted “You could give a hand over there, huh?” at my back as I left.
* * *
I pulled the card out—it had a picture of an armadillo wearing a necktie, and a caption that read, “An armadillo without his armor is just an ugly rat.” Inside, Jack had written, “bury it.”
Jack’s room was in the back, and the note had been taped to the wall before my mom found it. She had ripped it open, checked it, and left it in the corner. I pulled the card out—it had a picture of an armadillo wearing a necktie, and a caption that read, “An armadillo without his armor is just an ugly rat.” Inside, Jack had written, “bury it.”
While I stared at the note, my mom wandered into the room and said, “Gonna help?”
“He said to bury it,” I said, and held up the card.
“Whatever,” she said. “Gonna help?”
“Figures.” She turned and muttered to herself as she left, “Don’t know why I feed the brat.” After a few seconds, I heard her tearing at the drywall again.
* * *
For the first time in over a week, I checked on it again. The soil around it couldn’t have been any blacker if I had poured oil on it, and the cylinder had sunk about six inches since I last dug it out.
I grabbed one of the last pieces of tile and began to scrape at the dirt around it, working to uncover it again. The sun was directly overhead, and it glared off of the silver surface. After another twenty minutes, I had the cylinder exposed again, and I sat back to rest and think.
Jack wanted me to bury it, and I couldn’t think of a good reason not to, but when I thought about piling the soil on top of it and walking away, letting it worm its way towards the center of the earth, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I had to find a way to lift it out of the small cavity it had already burned into the ground and set it somewhere it would stay put. I had to get it up onto the driveway.
I went back across to Jack’s house and found my mom in the living room, pulling at the exposed wire. Her eyes followed me as I grabbed four of the pipes laying in the middle of the room.
“What’re you doing?” she asked.
She sighed and looked away.
I lugged the pipes back across the street. After laying two on the dirt between the cylinder and the driveway, I wedged the other two against the edge of the hole in order to lever the cylinder up and onto the first pair. Immediately, it began buzzing and glowing an angry red, but I was able to work it onto the other pipes. Once it was on the temporary track, it rolled without resistance, and its momentum carried it off of the ends of the pipes and across the last few feet of soil, where it rolled to a stop against the edge of the drive. The humming noise rose to a siren-pitch, and the temperature shot up. Heat was pouring out of the cylinder and baking my face.
I backed away and waited until it cooled off some, and then I worked at it with the pipes again. After another few minutes of struggling with it, I managed to roll it up and onto the concrete, and it looked as though it was calming down again. I dropped the pipes and sat down next to it. The heat was dissipating, but it was still too hot to touch with my bare hands.
“Huh,” my mom said. She had come up behind me while I was sitting there. “Thought you got rid of that thing.”
“It’s been in our yard for a month, Mom. Right over there,” I pointed at the scorched cavity.
“Where’d you find this?”
“In the house two doors over.” I pointed.
“What is it?” she asked.
I looked up at her, and back at the cylinder, but didn’t answer.
She crouched down next to me, and reached towards it.
“It’s still hot,” I said.
She tapped it with her fingertips a couple of times, and then laid her palm flat against the surface. “It’s warm,” she said.
We sat there for another minute like that, and then she turned and looked at me, her hand still on the cylinder. “We should pack up.”
“Already? Don’t you need more time with Jack’s house?”
“Got most of the wire and pipes out. They didn’t leave any appliances or nothing.”
“When are we leaving?”
“In the morning.” She stood up and brushed her hands on her pants. “I’ll be back. I’m going to ride this stuff into town and see if Wade’ll give me a fair price on it.” She pulled her old bike and a home-made plywood trailer out of the garage, dropped my four pipes into the trailer, and took off towards Jack’s house to grab the scrap she had waiting just inside their front door.
* * *
That night, I had the dream again. The stars fell, the dust clouds rolled in, the cylinder screamed and burned, and then the earth devoured it, and everything stopped. But in this dream, as I stood there, staring at the burned soil, I could feel the ground vibrating underneath my feet. The vibrating grew worse, and then the earth erupted, and I was on fire. I threw my hands in front of my face and watched them disintegrate, peeled away by a blazing wind, the bones underneath my flesh smoking and blowing away into the night behind me. I heard screaming, and at first, I thought I was screaming, but I saw the cylinder again in front of me, hovering and burning, and the sound pouring out of it was splitting my head, and then I sat up in bed, sweating and shaking and nauseated.
I found her in the living room where she had passed out on the couch, a surgical band still around her arm, a needle on the floor.
I ran inside to find my mom, but her bed was empty. I found her in the living room where she had passed out on the couch, a surgical band still around her arm, a needle on the floor.
“Mom!” I shouted. She didn’t move. I slapped her, hard, and she woke up with a start.
“What are you doing?” she yelled, reaching to grab me.
I stepped back, “We have to get out of the house, now!”
She shook her head and turned her body sideways on the couch, “You’re an idiot. Lemme sleep, huh?”
“Mom, there’s a fire!”
“Put it out. Go away.”
I ran to the back door again, but I could see flames through the window in the door and smoke coming through the cracks around it.
I ran into my bedroom, shoved a few books in my bag, threw on some pants and sandals, and raced back into the living room. My mom was asleep again. I grabbed her by the hands and began to pull her off of the couch. “Get up! The house is on fire! We have to go!”
She shook her head in confusion. “I’m up. I’m up. Leave me alone.”
I put her arm over my shoulder and walked her out through the front door. The street in front of the house was as bright as midday, and we could hear the flames working their way into the frame of the house behind us. Over the crackle of the flames, we could hear the singing of the cylinder. The smell of smoke was worse outside, and that got my mom’s attention. Her eyes snapped open, and she looked at me for a moment in terror.
“My stuff!” she shouted, and ran back inside.
I froze for a second, and then ran away from the house, down the street and away from the cylinder. I reached Jack’s front walkway and paused to look back. I saw my mom running towards me, bag in hand, and the house burning like a candle in front of a spotlight. My mom reached me, and we both ran. The cylinder reached an impossible screech, and as I ran, the sound worked into my skull, making my ear drums bounce and itch until I heard something burst. My mom fell over, and I tripped over her, and then everything was silent. I rolled over and sat up, wondering if my ear drums had blown out, but the night was silent again. The light had disappeared, the sound had stopped, and the house had collapsed on itself, flames still reaching into the sky.
* * *
In the end, three houses burned. My mom and I broke into another home that night, and she slept in the corner of the living room while I sat outside, watching the volunteer fire department respond. Over the next few days, as we moved from block to block, looking for homes that hadn’t been stripped yet, different safety officers and public officials visited. My mom had—among other things—saved a small radio, and the news reports said that officials were still trying to “determine the source of the blast.” Some speculated that it was a meteorite. One local talk radio host spent an hour blaming migrant workers.
After another couple of days, the news moved on to other stories, and we found a place to settle down in a development about a half-mile from the last. We came across a street with two freshly abandoned homes, we broke into the smaller of the two late that night, and my mom began stripping the larger the next morning. As soon as she was out of sight, I went back.
* * *
The driveway had been replaced by a crater about twenty feet across and six feet deep. Some safety officer had strung caution tape around the crater and the charred waste of the three homes. I stepped over the tape and walked up to the edge of the crater. I don’t know why I was expecting to see the cylinder there, but I was still surprised by its absence.
I slid down into the crater, and the dirt at the bottom crunched under my feet as I walked into the center. From my vantage point in the crater, I could see only the mid-morning sky, which had turned to a blue so clear it was disorienting.
I paused at the center of the crater and looked up. A plane cut through the middle of the sky, heading south and leaving a small white line in its wake. I looked down again at the dirt, and I saw a small hole, about four inches in diameter, that hadn’t been visible from the edge of the crater.
I dropped to my knees and peered in. It could have been a foot deep or a mile deep. It didn’t matter because in either case, I could see nothing. But leaning over it that morning, I could hear something screaming down there in the dark.