The rising sun peeled the surface from the man’s sleep like a freshly-taken scalp. Beside him, the boy slumbered on, cradling a plush Porg. Its dark eyes bulged with terror. Like a partridge caught in a snare, preparing to be swallowed by the gaping maw of man’s petty appetites and the even vaster indifference of God. The man unlocked his iPhone and began scrolling.
It was time to go. They made the trek across their territory barefoot, from the spongy mesa of the couch to the bleached tile expanse of the kitchen. The bleach touched everything now.
Do you want a Pop-Tart? said the man.
Here you go.
There’s no frosting. I want frosting.
Sometimes the heart must stay hungry.
The boy sunk his teeth into the pastry’s pallid shell. It burst against his lower lip, leaving a congealed streak of red. Strawberry. The boy wiped his mouth on the man’s shirt. The man sighed. They were out of laundry soap.
The man stared into his machine’s unblinking eye. It reflected a dull simulacrum of his face, unshaven and unwashed. He sat in his filth and absorbed the machine’s warmth upon his thighs. The woman had left long ago.
He was the shape of a man, an ashen ghost. The machine saw him and felt nothing.
I want to play Animal Crossing, said the boy.
We all make the crossing soon enough.
How will I know?
Dad, said the boy.
What day is it?
The man fed another page of his day planner into the implacable teeth of the shredder. Time tore with the rustle of sagebrush.
I need to know if it’s Wednesday. Miz Caroline said the class should check in with her on Instagram on Wednesdays.
The man continued his work. His hands were raw from washing. Never lotion, he thought. Nature reneges on any promises of softness.
Makes no difference what man thinks of Wednesday, said the man. It has always been. Wednesday waited for man as he marinated in the abyss of his mother. Wednesday shall bury us. This is the way it has been, and there is no other way. It will be.
You talk so weird now, grumbled the boy.
As the shadow of the stranger approached the door, the man crouched. The Swiffer clutched in his chapped fist.
That’s close enough.
I’ve got your—
The stranger halted. As if scenting the air. He dropped the box to the ground with a soft thud. The earth cracked it open, spilling its entrails, blind discs of meat and gore uncontained by a pale, molten skin. The man thrust the Swiffer into its core, dragging it inside.
He turned to see the boy. Frozen and staring.
What did you do to our pizza?
What has man done to himself?
The boy grimaced.
Tastes the same, said the man.
See the boy. See him stare through glass to meet the eyes of the she-pug, pacing insouciantly about the tree below, seeking a place to do her business. In this moment, she has no master. She squats, lifting her squashed round face to the sun, unbowed before the emptiness of eternity. Her fallow belly has never known puppies, and she is unafraid.
You breathe the free air, thinks the boy.
The she-pug wheezed.
The lumbering warmth of the man appeared at the boy’s shoulder.
Can I have a dog?
Withdrawn inside a faded hoodie, the boy slept soundly in the dull embrace of the sofa. His abandoned pizza crusts sat uneaten on the coffee table. Curving skyward like the ribs of a slain man. The man ate one. He padded to the bedroom in his bathrobe. He stared into the blackness, mouth stretched into a rictus to cease its quivering. Are you there? he whispered to the palpable dark. Do I see your face, and do you have a face that I may batter with my fists before you swallow me whole, me and the boy?
He felt the boy’s hand in his.
Are you okay?
The man breathed in and out before answering.
Yes. I think I want to play Animal Crossing.
It ain’t time yet.
The man looked into the soul of the boy and saw another man looking back at him.
Yes. You’re right. I’m sorry.
That’s okay, Dad.