Post Road Magazine #16

Monster

Rebekah Frumkin

Most of the time the panther slept. Its breaths were resonant and shallow in the apartment. Perhaps it was sick; Danny couldn’t tell. His mother and father never heard it. When he looked up from his breakfast and cocked his head one way, they told him to go back to eating. He awakened his father in the middle of the night to tell him about it. “There is an animal in our house,” he said. His father rolled over onto his side and said, “Danny, honey, I don’t know if there’s a new bully at school, but you need to tell him to stop picking on you.” It was almost dawn. Danny was alarmed by his father’s apathy. He couldn’t believe such a tall, smart man would be willing to risk his family’s lives just to get some sleep. “Who will be here to pour milk on my breakfast tomorrow?” Danny asked. “There is nothing in our house but us,” his father said.

When Danny came home from school, he gave himself the job of trying to find the panther. He started in the kitchen, the north star of his compass, and waited for the breathing. It was a raspy breathing, like a grandfather’s. Sometimes it spoke. These days were particularly frightening, and Danny always thanked the afternoon sun for being out. When the panther spoke, it said, “Kill me for the fun of it.”

Or it said, “I’m very tired.”

Or it said, “I’m under your chair right now.”

It said all these things in the raspy grandfather’s voice. It sounded like it smoked the Havana cigars Danny’s father used to favor. Danny listened to it and wondered what it wanted. He knew from the start that he wouldn’t be heard if he spoke back. He sat at the kitchen table like a pilot in his cockpit. If the breathing got louder, his neck started to tingle and he knew the panther was right behind him. He could feel the wetness of the animal’s nostrils, the heavy abandon of its paws. He thought he’d go deaf from listening so much.

*          *

One day at school Mrs. Welles was smiling broadly as her class took their seats. She told them something that didn’t matter to them, something about talking to the principal and the other second-grade teacher for a long time.

“We will do a pen pal project,” she said, the first thing they listened to.

Marcus, whom everybody hated, raised his hand. “Do we have to write to them first?”

“Let me explain,” Mrs. Welles said. “Our pen pals live in Tangier, which is a city in Morocco. They go to the Darul Arqam School. We have been chosen to write to them because we are a magnet school, and all of you are excellent writers. They have sent us the first batch of letters. We will write letters back and forth for the next nine months. In May we’ll get to meet our pen pals. They will fly to America and then spend three weeks here as part of an exchange program. We have been given the job of introducing them to our country before they come.”

Emma, the girl who sat next to Danny, jabbed him in the ribs. “They can’t speak English,” she whispered.

At the end of the day Mrs. Welles gave them the first batch of letters. Danny opened his. The letter was written in blue pen, in cursive, and had a picture of a dove drawn at the top.

Dear Pen Pal,

I am named Djamel Abd al-Hakiim. My last name means “servant of the wise.” We are learning to speak the American langage.

Danny turned the letter over. There was nothing else. The bell rang and he stayed in his seat. Emma sat down next to him and looked at him, her eyes wide. She kissed him on the cheek.

“Stop it,” he said.

“Mine’s named Aisha,” she whispered, ignoring him. “She has a pet monkey.”

“No, she doesn’t.”

Emma produced a letter. Aisha had written six paragraphs. At the bottom she’d pasted a picture of a scrawny, hairy thing.

“It’s her pet,” Emma said.

At home Danny put the letter from Djamel up on the refrigerator. Then he opened the door and got out a carton of milk. There was a sudden loudness, the noise of glasses rattling. The kitchen became a threatening mauve. Danny held his breath and looked into the living room. His father was reading the paper; he had set a tray out in front of him with a variety of glass bottles, some orange and some red.

“What’re you drinking?” his father asked.

A sudden warmth flooded Danny’s body, leaving his fingers tingling. “I’m having cookies,” he said. He realized he hadn’t really answered the question. “I just poured milk.”

“I’m having a mixture of things,” his father said. “Your mother won’t be home for a while.”

Danny almost corrected him, but he knew better. His father was not to be corrected. If Danny’s mother wouldn’t be home for a while, then Danny’s mother would be staying out until midnight. As if by fault of a weak foundation, a smile cracked across his father’s face.

“Danny, sit down here. Come sit down next to me.”

Danny did.

“How was your day at school?”

“It was all right.”

They sat in silence. Danny’s father reached down and planted his hand on Danny’s head. He began to pet Danny with heavy strokes. This lasted until Danny’s hair became a disorganized nest, and his father looked down at him and grinned.

“You’ll come back tomorrow and tell me how school went?”

Danny nodded. He stood up and went back into the kitchen. His father had begun humming a melody that would have been operatic had he opened his mouth to sing. Outside, a truck coming from the East Loop buckled loudly beneath its cargo. Danny became aware of the dull throb of radio voices in the living room, a noise that had been going on since he got home. He positioned three cookies on a plate and looked out the window at the sky. The sun was painfully bright, probably afraid to give up summer. He wanted to tell his father about this, or at least see if he had noticed it, and he leaned into the living room to announce his discovery apropos the sun. His father was not sitting in the chair. The panther had taken his place. It wore his father’s robe and socks and held his father’s glass of colors.

“You’re here.” It was all Danny could think to say.

The panther smiled, showing two rows of fragile, conical teeth. “I’m usually here.” This was the first time it had responded to anything Danny said.

“You took my father’s spot.”

“I did.”

“Did you eat him?”

It laughed at this. Danny couldn’t recall having said anything funny.

“Did you eat him?”

“Of course not. How inelegant would that be? I’ve merely thrown him out the window.”

Danny felt something catch in his throat. The panther set the glass of colors down and gestured to the window. Danny walked forward and pulled up the blinds. There was something on the pavement that looked like the remains of a baby bird. It had the wings and beak of a pigeon and the eyes and thin-lipped mouth of Danny’s father.

Danny looked at the panther. “Is he dead?”

“Yes,” it said.

He looked back out the window. A small pool of blood had formed around the bird. The blood was the deepest sort of crimson Danny had ever seen.

“I’ll tell the police about you,” he said.

The panther laughed again. It crossed its legs, and the floor shifted with the terrifying weight of a real man.

*          *

Danny knew he had to tell his mother, but she wasn’t home anymore to be told. She was usually teaching at the university. When she was home, she wanted to go straight to the kitchen to work on Danny’s tux. She had decided a month ago that Danny needed a fancy outfit and had gone out and bought him a “crisp white shirt and a roll of the finest black silk,” the latter of which she intended to make into a jacket. She had not given any thought to the pants. There was no reason for Danny to want or need formalwear, but he liked standing on the table while his mother pulled at the hem of his jacket, which sat on him Tarzan-like without a row of buttons.

While Danny’s mother worked, Danny’s father stood in the doorway or sat in a chair with his hands on his knees. The wife and son were two free agents independent of his influence. He could comment on the jacket, on how nice the fabric was, he could ask if anyone wanted dinner, but he never got a response. Ignored thusly, he left the room and started making noise elsewhere in the apartment. He was always back in the kitchen doorway ten or fifteen minutes later. He was a failure. The place had a magnetic pull on him.

Danny’s mother told Danny to smile and said he looked like a Nobel laureate. She wrapped her hands around his waist to take a measurement of his hips. From above she looked older than she was. Danny could see pieces of silver in her hair. She was beautiful, but in a hidden way. She wore a strong prescription for farsightedness. She was always having to adjust her eyes to see Danny. When he was far away, she put her glasses on her head to see him. When he was close, she had to wear the glasses and squint at him through them. Her eyes were huge, and white halos of light ringed her eyebrows when she looked up at him from below. The glasses ruined her face. Danny would gladly guide her by the hand if she ever chose to give them up.

It was because his mother had such difficulty seeing that he didn’t want to tell her about the panther. But it was necessary, it was important; if he didn’t tell her, she’d die. While she worked on his tux jacket, while his father leaned in the doorway, Danny decided he couldn’t postpone it any longer.

“There’s no such thing as a creature living in our house,” his mother said. “I’d know, honey.”

“I’d be the first to know,” his father said.

Danny looked over at his father. He was forlorn, bearlike.

“But it’s hard to recognize because it acts like a person,” Danny said.

“Are you having these dreams again?” His mother smiled a little. “When I was little, I used to dream that I lived in a house of water. Everything in the house was liquid, and all of my toys were this really bright aquamarine. I couldn’t touch anything without my hand going right through, but everyone else could.”

“Could what?” his father asked.

“Could touch things,” she said without looking at him. “I was completely powerless. I felt like a ghost.”

Danny could feel the cold pressure of a pin against his side. There was a sharpness, and he winced. He placed two fingers under the jacket and then put them in his mouth. His mother had accidentally drawn his blood.

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

He shook his head. He could feel tears forming in his eyes. His father turned around and went into the living room. The dusk made a specter of his huge frame.

“Danny, you have to put pressure on it,” his mother said. She pressed her hand deep into his side. Danny thought he could feel his bones shifting.

“Don’t prick me again,” he said. She nodded.

*          *

Dear Djamel,

I go to a school called the Lab School Lower School. It is is in Chicago wich is a city in Illinois. I am in the second grade. I like to play chess with my dad and meet new frends. My teacher says you are from Morocco, and that you are very smart. Plese tell me about what you have to eat there.

Yours,

Daniel J. Fein II

*          *

On a very rainy morning Mrs. Welles announced to the class that she was pregnant. She said jokingly that many of the preschool students had been asking her why she was looking fatter lately.

“I didn’t think you could tell yet, but I guess you all could. I’m carrying a baby.”

She smiled a haphazard smile that made Danny nervous.

“Can we feel it kicking yet?” a girl asked.

Mrs. Welles frowned. “It’s just a shrimp now. We don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl.”

“It looks like a shrimp?” Emma asked.

“Sort of, Emma. Do you all know that you start from a single cell that divides over and over again into many cells? A zygote?”

Marcus wanted to know how big a single cell was. A skinny girl in the front row reached across her desk to touch Mrs. Welles’s stomach. The girl  reeled back in delight.

“It’s hard!” she said. “Hard like a rock!”

 Danny walked home by himself in the rain. When he opened the door, the panther was standing on its haunches in the kitchen, reading Djamel’s letter. Danny held his breath.

“Were you busy at school?” it asked.

“I only answer questions like that when my dad asks them,” Danny said.

The panther nodded and opened the freezer, staring at something pink.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” it said. It still hadn’t turned around. “The refrigerator is pregnant too.”

Danny set his backpack down. The panther turned, making obvious the gruesome curvature of its spine. It was a hunchback today with a C-shaped neck.

“Pregnant with what?”

The panther said nothing. Danny stood on a chair and looked into the freezer. An infant was frozen in a block of ice, its spine bony like a crustacean’s. It was breathing somehow, and it blinked every so often. A blue cord connected it at the belly to the ice machine.

“This refrigerator is pregnant,” the panther said again. Danny didn’t know why, but this made him cry. Tears froze on his cheeks and stung his skin. The panther reached a paw into the freezer to touch the frozen child.

Breathless, Danny stood at his mother’s bedside.

“You can’t keep ignoring it!” he said. “The panther put a baby in the fridge.”

“What?” his mother asked. She kept her eyes closed when she spoke to him. “It’s nighttime, Danny.”

“There’s a baby in the fridge. I saw it just now.”

“You were dreaming,” Danny’s mother said.

“The panther was reading my pen pal letter.”

Danny’s mother opened her eyes. She put her glasses on and stood up. She walked without bending her knee joints, half her body still asleep. She was pushing Danny into his room. He lay down in bed and she sat next to him.

“Will you go look in the kitchen?” he asked.

“Yes. As soon as you fall asleep, I’ll check to see if it put a baby in the fridge.”

Danny closed his eyes. He didn’t want her to go, and he fidgeted every time the mattress threatened to leaven with her departure. He knew that she’d leave eventually, though, no matter how much he fidgeted. He knew he’d have to think of Mrs. Welles, and he’d have to imagine her stomach soft and sagging without a child in it. He would get in trouble for stealing her baby.

Danny was falling asleep. This was hard to postpone. Sleep was a demanding audience that insisted he stage dreams every night. His mother left the mattress slowly. He could feel himself rise. He grabbed the back of her shirt. She had to know by now that he was awake. She didn’t. She stood up and went from the room without looking back. He saw a crescent of light blink on in the kitchen, and he watched her shadow. She was getting something from the cabinet. The light blinked off, and she hadn’t checked the freezer. Danny pulled the covers up around his neck. She was too scared. She knew the truth.

*          *

Danny counted four weeks before Djamel sent him anything back. When he did send something, it wasn’t a letter. The only thing in the envelope was a picture of two children with skin the color of bark, a boy and a girl. The boy looked to be about Danny’s age, with large eyes and a tall column of black hair. The girl was small, maybe four or five. Both of them were bare chested and wet as if from a recent bath. The girl pointed to a hole in her mouth where she’d lost a tooth. Blood covered her lower lip. The boy looked at her as though she were a stranger, but he held her by the shoulders. There was a nervous excitement in the girl’s face. Her cheeks were blotched from crying.

Danny put the picture in his backpack. He spent recess inside while the other children ran beneath the sky, which was a swollen dome of gray. He wrote three drafts of a letter and finally decided on one he liked:

Djamel,

There is a monster that lives in my house. It is a panther. My parent’s don’t think it is real. It has gigantic paws and oringe eyes. I’m very frihtened of it, since it wants to kill everything. I dream about it a lot.

Yours,

Daniel J. Fein II

When he was done, he watched Mrs. Welles through the window. She had begun to wear long dresses with pleats just below the bust. Her stomach was a small hill, upon which she rested both hands. Danny wondered if she had to stuff the bulge with cotton to keep it so large. He wondered how the baby had gotten in there in the first place, and imagined Mrs. Welles and a faceless man who was Mrs. Welles’s husband standing naked in a room with a lot of sunshine, holding a wet infant between them. They rocked it to sleep and they rocked it awake and they never left the spot where they stood.

*          *

Danny’s mother stopped being home enough to work on the tuxedo jacket, and Danny began to worry. He worried while watching cartoons, and his father mixed drinks of colors and said nothing. They never spoke. They let the TV speak. Every sound effect, joke, and indignant whistle contributed to their afternoon lingua franca. Sometimes Danny’s father would attempt eloquence by trying to speak with his eyes and mouth. He would look at Danny as if to say, We are damned, and there is nothing we can do about it. When Danny’s mother finally came home at eight or nine or ten, the silence was broken. A new and frightening foreign tongue was introduced. She spoke loudly about overeager students keeping her until all hours, talking about semiotics. She smelled like earth and dry flesh. When she was done taking off her coat and boots, she went down the hall to the master bedroom and called Danny’s father, who rose from the couch majestically. They spoke together for a while, and the speaking became sharp; eventually they were yelling. This happened for several nights. Danny thought of Mrs. Welles’s infant on these nights. He thought of what the noise in his house might sound like from inside the womb. He could only imagine the thrum, thrum, thrum of a woman’s heartbeat. He held his chest and felt the pulse beneath his hands, drumlike, explosive.

“When will the baby be born?” he asked Mrs. Welles during class.

She had never heard him ask about the baby before. His question came as a surprise. “In four months. In the summertime, when you don’t have school anymore.”

Danny watched her touch the mound. She invited him to feel the child move. He didn’t want to.

“I only want to see it when it’s out of you,” he said. “When it’s alive.”

“What do you mean, Danny?”

Some giggles could be heard from the back. One boy was practicing his whistling.

“I want to make sure it isn’t dead inside of you. You know, from all the noise.”

Nothing happened for a long time, and then Danny felt himself being pulled by the collar somewhere. Mrs. Welles was taking him to the principal. This sudden rift in their intimacy stunned him, and he felt betrayed.

“You are never to speak like that to me again,” she said. Her face was dark. Her words sounded like barking. “Do you hear me, Mr. Fein?”

 “I was just thinking about all the noise.”

She stood up and left him at the office door. He thought he could see her crying.

When he came home from school that day, the baby was back in the freezer. It had grown since he’d last seen it. It had human features now: a smooth spine, toes, and fingers.

*          *

Djamel’s second letter was shorter than his first:

Dear Daniel,

There was a lot of rain this week so that we never had playtime. During prayer today, I wished for your health.

Djamel Abd al-Hakiim

Djamel had drawn a picture of the boy he thought Danny was. The boy had blond hair and a large pair of glasses. His smile was an orange gash halfway across his face. A catlike black mass lurked behind him. Danny looked at the picture for a long time. Then he took a piece of paper from inside his desk and wrote “Dear Djamel” at the top. He erased it. He wrote the rest of the letter without thinking.

I bet there is a monster that follows you too.

Yours,

Daniel J. Fein II

 

Emma was looking at him. She smiled. It was easy to tell from her smile how she’d looked as a toddler.

“You’re pale,” she said.

“I know.”

“You sad, Danny?”

Danny didn’t say anything.

“You’ll be all right,” she said. He could smell something like lilacs on her breath. “It’ll be all right.”

*          *

Ren knocked on Danny’s door one afternoon when neither of Danny’s parents were home. He had the loose joints and lazy, haggard face of a teenager. He had white hair, which he wore long under a ski cap, and a white goatee. He smiled when Danny answered, and Danny saw that he was missing both his front teeth.

“Does Professor Fein live here?” he asked. His eyes were glassy. “She gave me this address.”

Danny watched him.

“Hey, little big man?”

“Professor Fein isn’t home for another hour.”

The teenager stood for a while, processing what he’d heard. When he was done, he offered his hand to shake.

“I’m Ren Wrolstad,” he said.

Danny shook. He didn’t introduce himself.

“Can I come in, Lieutenant?”

“Yes.”

Ren stood in the kitchen and then looked in the living room. He wasn’t satisfied with appreciating a room when he was actually in it; he always had to eavesdrop on the creaks and rattles of another room from afar. He did this in the living room, then the hallway, then in Danny’s room. When he got to the master bedroom, however, he stopped pining for different rooms. He went to Professor Fein’s vanity and began playing with her jewelry boxes. He tried several different perfumes on his neck until he sniffed with satisfaction—That’s the one—and set the bottle down.

“Eau de lilac,” Ren said. “So your mother smells good, right?”

Danny nodded. All he could see of Ren were his eyes, which glimmered a little when they caught the light from the window. Trucks drove by, casting obtuse, moving shadows on the opposite wall. One of these became the panther’s uneven silhouette. It was sitting in a corner at the back of the room. It batted a paw against the wall and moved its mouth without speaking. It had metal teeth tonight, the top row golden and the bottom row bronze.

Danny almost screamed, but not because he was scared. He was angry now. The creature had appeared with a stranger in the house, the perfect time to make Danny look crazy. “There’s a monster behind you,” he whispered.

“Oh yeah? What kind?”

“A panther. A panther that lives in my house.” It was an embarrassed confession.

Ren sat down carefully. He was so close that Danny could feel their foreheads touching.

“Don’t turn around,” Danny said.

“Is it real?”

“Yes.”

“You want me to fight it?”

“Yes.”

The air became thick, unbreathable, and time slowed as Ren turned around to fight the panther. This would be the end. Danny knew it would be the end because he was good at judging the beginning and end of things. He felt the finality, he felt Ren’s strength, he felt the fibers of his own muscles stretch and ache with nervousness. There was a crashing noise, and a geometric beam of light was cast across the room. Danny’s father was in the doorway, arms folded. He was home early from work. He looked at Danny and then Ren.

“Are you him?” Danny’s father asked Ren.

Ren said, “Jesus.”

Danny’s father grabbed Ren’s collar and pulled him from the floor so fast his neck almost snapped. Then he took him to the kitchen. When Danny came out of the bedroom, Ren’s face was a mosaic of purple and red, and his breaths were short and tortured.

*          *

Dear Daniel,

You are afrayed, afrayed. I know it because you write to me like that. Remember: Only the bravest and wisest amonge us gets rewarded.

Djamel Abd al-Hakiim

*          *

Danny’s mother started to be home every day, right when Danny got home. Danny stopped making snacks for himself and let his mother toast the bread, wash the apples, put the dishes in the dishwasher. He stood on the kitchen table and ate a peanut butter sandwich while his mother made adjustments to his tuxedo jacket. She pinned a felt rose to his lapel. Danny watched birds out the kitchen window. He counted four, ten, twelve pigeons, all of them flying straight up. He wondered how free they’d be, whether they’d meet the edge of the sky and burst into heaven, or singe their feathers and fall while trying to pass through the clouds.

He didn’t write to Djamel for months. Djamel didn’t write back. Mrs. Welles made the class sit in a circle and discuss what they had learned about Morocco: The flag is red with a green star. The motto is “God, Country, King.” They eat mint, olives, and couscous for dinner. When you are a Muslim, you must follow the Five five Pillars pillars of Islam. You have to go to a mosque. The parents in the poor towns kill baby lambs right in front of the children. If they have to learn English, we should learn Arabic. Casablanca is a big city.

Mrs. Welles nodded. “Someone share something else they’ve learned. Someone who hasn’t spoken.”

Danny looked up at Mrs. Welles. He could barely see her face over her stomach.

“Mr. Fein?”

“My pen pal has nothing to tell me.”

The whole class looked at him. Emma broke her posture to crawl to him, but Mrs. Welles wouldn’t let her go.

“Why is that?”

Danny was silent.

Mrs. Welles scrutinized him and then leaned back in her chair. She rubbed her stomach. There was an oppressive silence that the class seemed unable to bear. She called on another student who hadn’t spoken.

That night Danny felt something warm and heavy on his shoulder.

“Are you asleep yet?” it asked.

“What?”

There was a claw at his back, then one at his side.

“Don’t prick me,” he said.

“Wake up!” The panther’s scream was furious. “Wake up!”

Danny turned over. The creature was lying in his bed, stretched long from post to post. He tried to get out, but it grabbed his shoulders.

“Don’t leave or I’ll get lonely.”

“You’re going to kill me,” Danny said. “You’ve gotten sick of me.”

The panther said nothing. It didn’t even smile.

“I thought you were gone last time. What did you do?”

A cacophony of grinding metal ensued as it opened its mouth, which was mechanized tonight. Danny could see a steel tongue and jaws.

“What am I going to do?” it asked. Sparks flew in its mouth.

“No. What did you do?”

It pointed a claw at Danny’s eye. He would be losing his sight. The panther was going to blind him. The claw stabbed his left eye, then his right. He blinked. He could see only the explosion of his vision, a webbed haze of red, then white, finally black. His head felt swollen. He kicked his feet against the covers. He could hear the creature breathing; he felt its tongue against his cheek, licking what tears or blood he could still muster from his damaged eyes. He tried to punch the creature, but his hands passed through it as through water.

Then there was someone’s hand on his forehead, the heavy meter of adult breathing.

“Danny, honey,” his father said. “Danny, you were yelling.”

Danny pressed his fists against his eyes. His father would not like to see this. “I’m blind,” he said.

“You’re what?”

“I’m blind. The panther blinded me. It came when I was sleeping and stuck its claws in my eyes.”

Danny started to cry the sort of climactic cry that invokes colors and shapes and skinny lines of neon. Danny’s father pulled his son’s hands from his face and pried his eyes open. He turned on a light. He waited for the pupils to get smaller. They did.

 “You’re not blind,” he said. “Don’t cry.” He kissed Danny on the forehead and laid his head in the space between his son’s chin and bent elbow. He waited until the wails became hiccups. Expressionless, Danny watched his father’s face move as he spoke.

“Danny?” he said. His mouth was out of sync with his words. “You can see. You can see me.”

*          *

Mrs. Welles’s stomach had become so large and hard that it threatened to rip her skin apart. She never stood up from her chair to help the class with fractions or diagramming sentences. One afternoon she left for a doctor’s appointment. She didn’t come back for two weeks. The substitute was a short, thin man named Mr. Song. He wrote his name on the chalkboard and then told the class that Mrs. Welles was having problems with her baby. Someone asked him what kind of problems, and he said big ones. Bad ones. He’d have to accompany the class to the airport to meet the children from the Darul Arqam School.

Danny saw it when he opened the freezer to take out a Popsicle. The oppressive cold, the metal railings of the fridge like the edges of an examination table, the child’s stomach girded with its umbilical cord. No breathing, no crying. A faceless, senseless blob of infant. A smear of jaundice covering its eyes. The block of ice latticed with white cracks.

On the day he would meet Djamel, Danny’s mother sent him to school in the tuxedo jacket. Mr. Song gave each student a piece of construction paper on which to write the name of his or her pen pal. Danny wrote “Djamel” in black marker. They took their papers with them to the bus, everyone laughing and throwing things at one another. Emma came up behind Danny and held his hand.

“Aren’t you excited?”

“Yeah.”

She giggled. She made him sit in a seat with her and grabbed his chin so he wouldn’t look out the window. She had stretch pants and ribboned hair and a runny nose. She licked her upper lip. She had lost a tooth, most likely in the middle of the night, when she wouldn’t feel pain.

“Aisha says she’s going to bring me a flower necklace. She wrote me a letter about how I’m her sister.”

The bus lurched, and they drove.

“She wants to meet you, too. I told her about you.”

Danny nodded.

“She thinks you’re like a brother.”

Emma laid her head on his shoulder, and he looked out the window. He could feel her breathing, and for a moment he believed he could synchronize their breaths.

They waited at the end of the airport for international flights, in front of a door labeled rabat. There was a vulcanized hiss, and a henlike matron appeared from inside the terminal, dressed in a pantsuit and scarf. A line of children followed her. It looked as if she had taken pains to Americanize them: they wore shorts and Velcro sandals, with shirts that advertised movie stars and beverages. They all looked tired and confused. Danny’s class began to scream the names of their pen pals, holding the signs over their heads. Emma found Aisha and hugged her, whispered into her ear over her shoulder. The boys matched up with other boys, high-fived, offered each other metal cars and bottle caps. The girls stood across from each other at arm’s length and compared bracelets and told each other secrets. Mr. Song shook hands with the matron and apologized that Mrs. Welles had to miss the occasion. Danny searched among the faces, all of them older looking than his, all of them thin lipped, and tried to see Djamel. He kept his sign behind his back.

The matron was dragging a stunned boy by the hand. His movements were mechanical, puppetlike, and he appeared to be dancing next to her as she moved with him. She stood him in front of Danny and announced that he was Djamel Abd al-Hakiim. Danny looked at him. He had a sunken face and very thick skin. He wore dark glasses. He was a withered version of the boy in the picture. The matron told them they’d get along fine. She said Djamel was very tired because he had been fasting for three days. She didn’t say why.

“I’ll leave you two boys alone.” She smiled and left.

Djamel took off his glasses and looked directly into the sun.

“It’s setting,” Danny said. “It’s almost nighttime here.”

Djamel blinked and looked at Danny. “A monster chases you, Daniel?”

Danny said nothing.

“A monster is chasing you. I thought about it on the plane. A monster is chasing you, and it is trying to kill you.”

Danny sighed. “Yes.”

Djamel put his hand on Danny’s shoulder. He hung his head and arched his back.

“You are afraid,” he said.

Danny nodded.

“Your heart beats fast? When you are dreaming?”

“Yes.”

Somewhere far off, the other children had begun to sing a song in Arabic. Their voices were a symphony of colors: reds, purples, oranges, greens.

“Do you dream of heaven?”

“Once, maybe.”

“You will look into my eyes?”

The boy raised his head and stared at Danny. His eyes were clouded, his pupils drowned. He looked to be asleep.

“You see it?”

Danny searched. He didn’t know what he was looking for. He could feel Djamel’s hand trembling as it gripped his shoulder. “See it?”

And Danny saw it at last, swathed in steam and smoke and dust. He imagined windows, staircases, the sounds of parents’ voices. He could hear himself crying as a newborn. He imagined sky—cold, gray expanses of it—clouds weighty but soft. Then Djamel coughed and fell, and Danny caught him. He barely weighed anything at all.

“You’ve seen it?”

Danny nodded. Noises began to come back: the sounds of feet moving, whispers and screams, engines throttling. In the distance a plane took off from the runway, its nose pointed triumphantly toward the sky.

Rebekah Frumkin is a resident of Chicago, Illinois. Her stories have appeared in Grimm Magazine, the Common Review, and Scrivener Creative Review, among other places.

 Copyright © 2016 | Post Road Magazine | All Rights Reserved