By Benjamin Davis
There are any number of things Frank could have done in the bath; washed, shaved, shampooed, splashed around, blown bubbles, or simply napped. Instead, he died. He was nothing, then something, something like himself, himself again. His shape, his eyes, his feet taking him through a field toward a house. Something like a house. More of a tower. Stories stacked out of sight, no doors, only windows. Hundreds of mismatched windows crooked this way or that, crammed onto the side of this house that was not a house. Stories varied in color and texture. None quite fit those above or below. Some too wide, others too tall. It resembled a knobby old tree with stairs nailed to the outside that circled up and up and up.
Frank had been about to ask some important questions like, “Where am I?” “What’s going on here?” and, “Is there anything behind me?” But was caught by a lullaby that floated from a beige window at the foot of the stairs. In it, a young couple and their baby sat on an old sofa. The man snored over to one side. He was thick-shouldered with shaggy black hair. He wore a loose white shirt, overalls, and thick-soled brown boots. The woman was slight in an unornamented white nightgown. Her brown curls hung like curtains over her downturned face. The baby was swaddled and could have been any baby. The woman’s humming fell away. She lifted her head, closed her eyes, and wept so quietly that neither the man nor the baby stirred. Frank recognized his mother from the one photo he’d had, so long ago.
A snap like a short circuit came from behind him. He turned, then backed up against the window. Ahead, fog that rose out of sight sat at the end of a path of slatted wood. To his right, more fog. To the left, a path led along the house until it met a set of stairs. Between his feet, a black arrow pointed him onward. He felt his chest, ran his hands down his sides, over his legs. He wore the same pants he’d had on when he’d laid in the bathtub. The bathtub. The pills. He’d laid in the bath, then—he felt in his right pocket, pulled out the photo. He traced his fingers over Alice and David’s smiling faces. He put it away, considered the arrow, then headed for the stairs.
The next window was white, paint-chipped with green shutters. Inside, a baby cried from a half-shrouded crib. His grandmother sat beside it. Franked moved from window to window, pieces falling into place. He knew the baby was him. He learned to crawl. He tasted his first solid food. As his grandmother led him along on his first steps, Frank’s mother stared out the window at him, eyes lost in the fog. Old resentments crept into him as he turned away.
Frank climbed three stories without looking into a single window. On the fourth, he stopped. There was only one window. It was a poor fit for the craggy wall. Inside was one room, a door opposite had another window that looked out onto the sea. He saw himself as a boy running up from the dunes toward the house. A coldness ran through him. He shouted through the window at the boy to stop, he hit the window with all of his strength. Rather than the expected wham or shatter of glass, Frank fell right through into the room.
He pulled himself to his feet as the door opened. He was four years old, a sand dollar held in each hand. “No, no. Turn around! Go back!” he told the boy. But the boy couldn’t see him, couldn’t hear him. The boy only saw the bed, where his mother lay unmoving. He saw the look on his own face and the feelings rushed back into him—the joy he’d felt. How his mother had loved sand dollars. The excitement of knowing how they might make her happy. Make her stop crying.
His mother lay in the bed they shared in the small cabin. The boy that was Frank came closer, and called for her. Frank wanted to go to the boy, cover his eyes, take him in his arms, and run as far from this place as he could. But he didn’t. He couldn’t watch. He turned his back on them, walked to the door looking out over the beach. Cool air splashed his face. He told himself this was only a memory. He ignored the sounds of his younger self trying to rouse his mother. Telling her over and over, “Wake up!” To see what he’d brought her. Frank knew she’d never wake up. Two days later, they’d find them there. Months later, his father would leave. He wished he’d spent more time at the windows below, had taken the chance to learn more about his mother. Could he get back? No, this was history, he told himself. He knew these answers.
On the beach, the air crackled and split. A gloved white hand came through, then a leg. Another crack and a man stood there in a full spaceman’s suit, dark-domed helmet covering his face. He stumbled, caught himself on one knee, stood, and then began a slow and steady walk toward the cabin. Frank stepped back inside, slamming the door behind him. He looked through the window. Behind the Spaceman, the ocean had become full of bodies, arms and legs, coughing up screaming faces as they were tugged under wave after wave. Frank turned from it. Across, the window that had once shown the grassy dunes behind the cabin now faced a fog-shrouded platform. Frank ignored sobs from the corner and headed for the window. He placed his hand on it and was standing back on the walkway outside, looking in. He fled up the next flight of stairs without looking back.
Frank took the stairs two at a time now. Something about the spaceman terrified him but he couldn’t put his finger on why. A memory as shrouded in fog as the world around him. He tried to remember. He’d been in the bath. He’d taken the pills. He’d laid down. He was here. Had they not worked? Was he hallucinating? Was any of this real? The windows he passed became more varied. Classrooms, diners, bedrooms. He couldn’t tell how many floors he’d climbed by the time he slowed to look inside at himself, seventeen, ragged hair cut from around his ears by his Grandmother’s impatient hand. He was holding lilies. He stood in the familiar foyer of Alice’s family home for the first time. She came from the kitchen. She was fifteen in a slim blue dress. The moment was a cork in the fountain of their life that would pour out over the next fifty years. They’d marry soon. David would be born the year after that. Frank turned from the window. He held his hand inches from the glass. He saw the lines in his old hand, the folds of age and dark spots like a tapestry of all that would eventually come. He stepped back.
“I don’t want this!” he yelled into the fog. “Whoever is doing this. Please, I don’t want this!” He walked to the edge of the path facing the drop then back to the flight of stairs. Fog hugged the edge of the platform. He bent to put one hand through, up to his elbow, till he was sure the stairs were no longer there. He weighed the choices in his head. Throw himself into the fog, or climb. His mind returned to the spaceman, the way he’d seen Frank, and come for him. He wondered if he was still there, on the other side of that door. The door, Frank remembered. He’d slammed the door. Frank stood, rubbed the cool dew from the fog over his face, smiled, and started to run.
He tried to ignore the scenes he passed as he climbed, scenes of him and Alice holding hands in the car, of sneaking into the school bathrooms, or later, their wedding in the small town tavern, the day they moved into their apartment on Cedar. When David was born. His first steps. Frank missed it all as he hurtled up one flight to the next, till he saw David, curly-haired, blue-eyed, screaming with laughter as a young Alice and Frank chased him from the kitchen, through the living room and single bedroom of their small apartment. He was nearly as old as Frank remembered him. Taller than boys his age, always laughing. Frank walked down the path, expecting to see more of David, but instead, most windows looked in on himself. He saw himself alone in a dark kitchen, at the tavern in town, crawling into bed late at night to not wake Alice. The window right before the next flight up looked through their apartment on David’s fourth birthday. The three of them sat around their old kitchen table. A cake with four candles stuck at odd angles, burning. David blew them out. Alice clapped.
Then Frank stood in front of a plastic-covered hole looking in on the fairground tent. They’d set up a circular bar in the middle made of pin-striped plywood that encircled the massive tent pole up the middle. Sun shone in through mock windows along the sides. He scanned the few customers until he saw himself at the other end of the circular bar. This time, Frank gently pressed his hand to the plastic and was ready for it. He didn’t fall, but felt air shift around him and was in the tent. The dirt floor crunched under his feet. The smell of hay mixed with stale beer. He walked to where his younger self sat swaying on a stool.
“Get up!” Frank yelled at him. Nothing. No response. Hesitantly, Frank reached for an empty glass on the bar. He gripped it. It was cold and firm. He smashed it onto the bar. His younger self didn’t turn, didn’t flinch, just called out for refill. The bartender came over. They were startlingly tall, face painted ghost-white with straight black hair and pits for eyes. They poured another beer for the young man. Frank felt a shuttering urgency, he didn’t know how much time he had. He grabbed one of the stools, hefted it over his head, and smashed it onto the bar. Nobody reacted. The patrons continued to jostle and chat, his younger self smiled and took half his beer down in one swig. Furious, Frank took up another stool.
“What do you think you are doing?”
Frank froze. The bartender stared right at him, black eyes boring into him. Frank didn’t let go of the stool. “He needs to go,” he said, “David. This is when they took David. Please, help me. I don’t know who you are, but there isn’t time.”
The bartender, looking less and less human by the second, scowled. “I don’t know what you two think you’re doing, but it won’t work. She is coming, you know.” Frank looked at his younger self, then back to the bartender. The sound in the room had dimmed. It no longer smelled of hay or stale beer.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
The bartender frowned, said, “Clearly.” Then ducked behind the bar.
Frank turned to see a section of tent tear open, through it, he saw a white hall of doors, half-filled with entangled naked bodies. They squirmed and screamed, spilling into the tent. But that was not what made Frank turn and run. Atop the bodies, the spaceman was crawled closer. The reflection of limbs flailing played across the helmet like flames. Frank fled back through onto the walkway outside. Frank did not stay to see what happened next. There was one more tent flap ahead, another chance. But when he arrived, he was looking out instead of in. Alice was yelling at two police officers. They were trying to calm her down but she wouldn’t listen. She kept trying to pull away but one had her by the arm. She grew more and more hysterical. Frank saw himself, his younger self, approach. He yelled at the officer who had Alice by the arm. Not listening to her cries, he hit the officer.
Frank didn’t watch what came next, didn’t watch how they’d detained him. How they’d assured them they’d find David. To calm down. It would all be fine. For months, they’d believed it, maybe years. Alice had believed it far longer. Frank couldn’t watch anymore. Frank stepped back. A flicker in the corner of his eye made him turn. The Spaceman stood on the walkway now, air whirling around him.
“What do you want!” Frank cried. But the spaceman only stepped closer holding out his hand. “No,” Frank said. He turned away from the spaceman and ran up the stairs. He went up and up and up. He did not look through any more windows but heard them. He heard Alice crying. Heard them fighting. Like tide spray, the flecks of his life chased him and he buried them with the fog that rose. Memories clawed at him as he passed, no matter how he tried to block them out. How Alice had never given up. How she’d begged him to join groups. How she’d left for weeks at a time to follow one lead or another. How Frank had sunk more and more into himself. He ran up and up until there were no more stairs. Until he reached the final platform and could see that above was nothing but fog. The wall was all too familiar. The brick siding of the apartment building. The window leading to the fire escape looked into their kitchen. It was six months ago, the last time he’d seen Alice. He looked away.
Soon, there’d be a knock on the door. The officer who’d come to tell them about David’s remains was gruff, short, but kind. Alice had demanded to see the body right away, but the officer had explained it was tied to an ongoing investigation. Some woman in the mountains who’d been kidnapping children for years. Frank hadn’t listened much. He thought that would be the end of it, after a lifetime of searching, Alice would have her peace. But there was no peace. The officer handed them the card for a grief counselor, apologized, and left. Alice called every connection she’d made over a lifetime of searching. She found out where David’s remains were being held. When Frank refused to go, begged her to stay, she’d left. Two months later the same officer came to report she’d been in an accident. He said it was the rain. She’d died on impact.
At the end of the walkway was a final scene. Beyond was only fog. Through the bathroom window, he watched himself take the handful of pills he’d prepared, then settle into the bath. He watched his own foolish life fade. He wondered if that’s how it had been for his mother. If she’d been there one moment and not the next. If she’d had her own, smaller path to take. But then Frank heard the bathroom door open. He watched two men walk up to his body and heft it out of the bath. From outside the door, Frank heard a voice snap, “Be careful!” Frank watched, wide-eyed, as one man took his body under the arms, the other by the feet, and began carrying it toward the window. He started to reach in but felt something on his shoulder. A thick, white-gloved hand. Frank turned face-to-face with the spaceman. “What’s going on?” was all he had time to say before they both vanished.
To find out what happens next, tune into Talk Vomit’s winter edition.
Benjamin Davis has stories & poems in 25+ literary journals like BOOTH, Hobart, Maudlin House. His first book of poems, The King of FU (2018), was such a smashing success it shocked the indie press who printed it into an early grave. He is now working on his first six novels.