Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 46
Stories
The Gaunt of Dennis Mallory
by Scott M. Roberts
Liveboy
by Nathaniel Lee
The Machine in My Mind
by James Maxey
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
Imitation of self
by Chris Bellamy
Vintage Fiction
The Angelus Guns
by Max Gladstone

Liveboy
    by Nathaniel Lee

Liveboy
Artwork by Andres Mossa

My husband was grinning when it came home. It always grins, though, so that doesn't mean much.

I think it might have been in a good mood. Or angry. Maybe it was angry but liked being angry. I gave it dinner and it went to the living room to hold the day's newspaper up in front of its face, like an incompetent spy. I know it doesn't read them; I once sneaked it yesterday's paper, and it sat there all the same, just as long and just as quiet, grinning away behind the gray newsprint, where I couldn't see.

Today, though, I could tell something was different. There was an electric energy to my husband, almost like it was alive. It didn't say anything, though.

That doesn't mean much, either.

Once it was safely ensconced, I slipped to the pantry and shut the door with me and the phone inside, and I called Lori. Lori lives next door, but her husband doesn't like visitors, so we call each other. Of course, my husband doesn't like the phone -- I once saw it try to bite it when it thought I wasn't looking, just opened up those wide, even teeth and chomp right into the plastic; I still can feel the dents with my fingers when I cradle the handset. But I can hide in the pantry or the garage, and really my husband is pretty tolerant of my little idiosyncrasies. It's never tried to bite me, not once. It might have thought about it, but it never said if it did. Maybe that doesn't mean much.

Anyway, I called Lori, and Lori knew right away what I'd called about. I think she'd been waiting by the phone.

"It's a live boy," she told me. "There's a live boy in town."

Well. Imagine that.

Lori and I caught a glimpse of the live boy when we went shopping the next day. It was double coupon day at the Fresh Market, and the place was full of women out shopping for their husbands. Josephine had brought her husband with her -- the nerve of that woman! -- but other than the little pool of silence around them, the store was absolutely abuzz with the news. I confess I'd dabbed on just a little extra perfume myself that morning, just in case. They say live boys can smell perfume.

"I heard he came down the river from the city," Vicki told us at the service desk. "Just showed up on the bus, bold as you please."

"No," said Greta, adjusting her Sunday-best bonnet -- goodness knows what she thought she'd get out of it; Greta is sixty if she's a day and they say she keeps a spare husband in a box up in her attic. She savored the expectant looks for a moment, then went on: "He was born in Summersdale, eighteen years ago to the day. They hushed it up from the papers, but I've got an ear in the county regional there. He's been raised abroad."

There was an appreciative silence as we digested that tidbit. A little foreign flavor for the exotic new dish. Ooh, the ad copy for the dimestore novel practically writes itself, doesn't it?

"I think --" Lori started to say, but Berzel hissed her silent.

"There he is!"

We looked and saw, and oh, those golden curls, those cheekbones; that little croissant of a mouth. The live boy was everything we'd ever heard and more. His eyes were wide and liquid-dark, like red wine or molten chocolate, and he seemed like he was always on the verge of laughing. He wasn't afraid at all, but strolled in through the doors as natural as could be, gave us a jaunty wave, and headed back toward the canned goods.

"Well!"

I don't know which of us said it. It might as well have been all of us. No one could think of anything more to add.

Then Josephine came around the corner, and her husband's bright little marble-eyes turned toward us, its white, flat teeth parted ever so slightly so you could just see a slit of darkness between them and a hint of its black and shriveled tongue inside, and the silence washed over us like it was sprayed from a hose.

Josephine, dressed in her severe black skirts and blouse like always, didn't smile, exactly, but you could see the glee in the set of her jaw and the way her gaze raked right past us. Her husband stared at us all the way out of the store, turning its head right round to do it, eyes gleaming. But they do stare, and it doesn't mean anything when they do.

The little group broke up after Jo had gone. Greta muttered something in German, but I didn't catch it. No one else said anything. I tugged Lori's arm by the elbow and we went outside to the parking lot. We hadn't done our shopping, but neither of us seemed to mind.

"I think he was waving at you," I began gaily, trying to get back some of the giddiness. A live boy, after all!

Lori wasn't having any. She was downright glum. She watched Jo and her husband leave in their long black station wagon -- we called it the Hearse, when we were sure no one's husband was around to hear -- and her mouth seemed like it wouldn't ever smile again. I stifled an urge to stroke her hair; she looked so very sad. "What difference does it make?" she said.

"I don't know that I follow you, Lori dear."

"Live boy, dead husband; what difference does it make?"

"Darling," I started, and stopped. "Why . . . why, just look at him. Wouldn't it be so much nicer to have met a live boy once upon a time, when we were both still young coquettes?"

Lori didn't say anything and wouldn't look up at me. Not even a hint of a smile.

"I mean, I won't say a word against my husband, Lord knows," I went on. I was nattering, I knew, and treading on dangerous ground. "But surely . . . well, surely it would be different, wouldn't it?"

We'd almost reached the far end of the parking lot by then, clean past both of our station wagons. The grass along the edge of the asphalt was brown and patchy. There was broken glass and a discolored patch of rusty brown amid the weeds.

"Look," Lori said, pointing.

The live boy was coming outside, trailing a comet-tail of women who were trying desperately to look like they'd coincidentally ended up at the front of the store just at that moment, all glancing sidelong at him. Two or three hundred years ago and they'd all have been snapping open their fans and whispering furiously behind them.

The live boy didn't seem to notice, or didn't care. He carried his one little paper bag of groceries out and tucked it into the basket of a bicycle -- an honest-to-goodness pedal-powered adorable little red bike! -- that was chained to a no-parking sign just beside the entrance. He jingled his bell as he rode away, and I found myself raising my hand to wave enthusiastically back to him.

"I'd never seen one before," said Lori, and her voice was so flat I nearly stumbled over myself, so quick it brought me down. "I thought that once I did . . . I don't know." She sighed. "Why did we get married, Bonnie?"

I reached out and took her hand in mine. "What else could we have done?" I said, patting the back of it comfortingly.

Without warning, Lori lifted my hand and kissed my fingers, like a knight bidding adieu to his lady-love.

"Good-bye, Bonnie," she said. She took off for her car, then, her long legs swinging.

I never could keep up with her when she was in a rush. Even when we were girls together, chugging through the woods with stick-swords in hand or plotting a scheme in one of our bedrooms, it was always Lori in the lead and roly-poly Bonnie bringing up the caboose.

I didn't say anything, but only stood there, rubbing my knuckles like I'd been slapped with Sister Veruca's ruler. I don't think it would have made a difference if I'd called out to her, but I suppose there are some things we'll never know.

It didn't mean much, I told myself.

I didn't see Lori for a few days after that, and definitely didn't see the live boy. My husband gets fidgety if I leave the house too often. I caught up on my chores -- chores breed like rats, it seems, if you give them half a chance.

At night, after my husband had done what he was going to do, I lay curled up on my side under the blanket, facing the nightstand, and tried not to picture it lying next to me atop the covers, stiff as a board, its bright eyes open and staring up at the ceiling, grinning away, its teeth pale and luminous in the dark.

The next time I got out for a stretch and a stroll, I noticed Lori's husband was standing at their big picture window in the living room. I always thought my husband was the better-looking one, honestly; Lori's husband wasn't nearly as thin and straight as mine, and it still had little wisps of black hair clinging to the top of its head that made it look like a very small octopus trying to keep hold of an ostrich egg. Lori's husband was staring right at me, its smile just as wide as ever, but somehow looking more like a grimace.

I forced the corners of my own lips up as far as I could and managed a little wave. It didn't respond, of course. They generally don't. I hurried up my pace.

It wasn't until I reached the corner that I realized Lori's station wagon wasn't parked in their driveway. Surely she hadn't gone out shopping without calling me and letting me know?

I'd meant just to get down to the little park and its dusty playground equipment and back, but something spurred me on further that day. I paused at the park entrance, then climbed over the padlocked gate and headed into the woods.

There was a little creek in there where Lori and I'd played as girls, and a huge old log making a bridge across it. We'd caught frogs there, sometimes, and tossed stones and flower petals and all manner of things into the water, hoping for wishes. I hadn't thought of the place in years, and I decided I'd pay it a little visit, for nostalgia's sake. I skirted the edge of the park, where it brushes against Route 39, and I almost didn't recognize Lori's station wagon, pulled off to the side of the road like she was changing a tire, except she was nowhere to be found. Not there, anyway.

The swings were almost rusted in place when I passed. I nudged one, and it squealed so horribly I just let it lie. The slide was covered in leaves and dirt. There was a bird nest at the top.

Past the playground and into the woods, where the faint trails still showed as lighter patches of growth. And footprints in the soft loam. Two sets.

I more or less knew what I'd see before I got there. I can't think why it still filled me up with cold anger, like a tumbler of ice water. Lori's sandy brown head, bobbing a good twelve inches higher than the shining bronze of the live boy's curls, both of them sitting on a log. The old log. Our old log.

I think it's to my credit that I didn't scream. And if I slung a little handful of mud on Lori's windshield on my way back out, well, those as park on a public street take their chances, don't they?

For the next two days, I stewed. I gave my husband its breakfast, had its dinner and paper ready for evenings, and endured its business in our bed, but my heart wasn't in things. I think it might have noticed, but it didn't say anything, and its grin was as wide as ever.

Of course, it wasn't any of my business, that I could see, but that's never stopped me before. Though really. If Lori wanted to throw away what she had for some frippery, some flash-in-the-pan of a roving wastrel, well . . . well. Well. It was her decision. Her marriage. What her poor husband would do is anyone's guess. They don't deal well outside of matrimony.

That Friday, I went to the sewing circle. Normally Lori and I drove together, but I couldn't bring myself to call her. She wasn't there when I arrived. I don't know if she came later. The first person I saw was Josephine, holding court like Greta usually did. Everyone was huddled around her as though she was a roaring fireplace and it was colder than an empty grave outside. They all looked up when I came in, and I could see from the angle of Josephine's lips they'd been talking about Lori. Lori and the live boy.

"Bonnie!" said Vicki, brittle and false as a glass apple. "How are you?"

No one asked where Lori was. Not for the entire twenty minutes I was there, which was all I could stand, with Josephine smirking at me and Greta avoiding meeting my eyes. Trading stories about live boys, stories that had been old back in secondary school. What live boys looked like. Where live boys came from. What happened if you kissed a live boy. What live boys did to the girls they lured away with their wiles. And every glance at me, every joke made with hooded eyes and crooked lips. I babbled something about laundry and fled. I ran straight home and picked up the phone, not even caring that my husband was staring right at me, teeth bared.

"Lori?" I said. "Lori, you've got to stop. That live boy --"

"George."

"What?"

"His name is George. He's very nice." Lori sounded vague and distant, as though there was something wrong with the phone line. "But he's not any different. Not really."

"Lori . . ."

"He's told me a lot about how things are where he's from, and no, he's not from Summersdale, you can tell Greta that from me."

"Lori?" I didn't like the way her voice sounded, all tinny and watery.

"I'm not having an affair, whatever those old baggages think. You can let them go on thinking it, if you like. I don't mind. But really, I just couldn't have. It's banal."

"Lori!"

"Good-bye, Bonnie," she said, and hung up. My knuckles tingled.

I turned and nearly screamed. My husband had come up behind me while I spoke and was grinning past the top of my head to the wall-mount where the phone usually rested. It probably just wanted to chew on the phone again, now that I'd reminded it about the stupid thing. But I folded it in a hug, anyway, squeezed the sticks of its body against me and tried hard to pretend. I don't think it looked down at me the whole time. Just stared at the phone on the wall.

Doesn't mean much.

I'm ashamed to admit that my first thought when I heard Lori had disappeared was that she really had run off with the live boy, George or whoever, for all she'd said she hadn't, couldn't, never would. I'd say I should have thought better of her, but I like to think now that it might have been wishful thinking. If Lori had run off, at least then I'd know Lori was still out there, somewhere.

They eventually fished Lori's body out of the river, pallid and boneless as a dead frog. She'd thrown herself in. They said she'd been drinking. Her husband went dormant, of course, the way they do. But I swear I've seen it standing at the picture window now and again, a shadowy form behind the curtains. It doesn't grin anymore. Its mouth is so small.

I don't know what happened to the live boy. Once, when I was at the Fresh Market, Vicki told me between sidelong glances that Josephine supposedly ran off with him, or he ran off with her, or they made off with each other, a suitcase full of black skirts all the same and a jolly red bicycle filling the back of the Hearse. I hope they're happy, wherever they are. He seemed like a nice boy, and Josephine might as well get what she wants, if she's willing to take it. I've never been that brave.

As for me, I've taken to sitting with my husband while it pretends to read the paper. I pretend to watch the television, to show willing. At night, after it does what it needs to do, we both lie stiff and straight on top of the covers, eyes open, staring at the ceiling. I stretch my mouth open wide and bare my little rounded teeth. Sometimes I think I've almost got the hang of it, the grinning. The trick is to know it doesn't mean much.

Our eyes are bright in the dark, and our teeth are very white.


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