The suburb beyond the st.., p.7
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       The Suburb Beyond the Stars, p.7
 

           M. T. Anderson
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  “What is it with you and the truth? It’s not going to get you anywhere.”

  “How can you say that?”

  “They’re not going to listen to you. People can only hear what they want to hear.”

  “Someone’s got to tell them how much danger they’re in.”

  “How much danger are they in?”

  Brian scowled. “I don’t know.”

  “See?”

  “Here’s what I think,” said Brian. “The Game is being played as a way of settling who owns this territory, right?”

  “Right.”

  “Gregory, I think that the Thusser have given up on the Game. They’re ignoring the Rules. They’re just taking the territory. This is some kind of first wave of settlement.”

  “So these are Thusser in the houses?”

  “No,” said Brian, uneasily. “No, they’re people in the houses, but —”

  “So your theory doesn’t really make sense.”

  “Right now,” said Brian. “But I’m sure that I’ll figure something out.”

  Brian’s “I” bugged Gregory. “Oh, you will? Okay,” he said, somewhat harshly, “I hope you have something figured out by the time we walk into the sales office and meet the undead guy in charge of this whole outfit. Because I have to admit that I’m starting to wonder why we’re going to see him without any way to protect ourselves.”

  “Someone has to do something,” said Brian, “and we know what’s going on. We’ve played the Game.”

  “And you’re the one who gets to design the whole next round.”

  “There isn’t going to be a next round,” Brian said, exasperated. “The Thusser are cheating. They’re breaking the Rules. They’re invading without an official victory. We have to stop them.”

  “Yeah — yeah — but you’re always running off to stop someone from doing something without any plan or any way of protecting yourself. You always just assume I’m going to come save you.”

  “What do you mean by that?”

  “Last night, you would have been grabbed or killed or something by that monster if I hadn’t run after you with a rake.”

  “So I was, like, I was supposed to sit there and watch one of those kids get taken away by the Thusser?” Brian asked hotly, remembering Gregory hanging back in the house, saying there was nothing they could do.

  “You have to be realistic,” said Gregory.

  “I am being realistic,” said Brian. “I’m just not being selfish.”

  “That’s right,” said Gregory. “You’re the hero.”

  They didn’t speak for a while. They were both too angry. They walked through the haunted suburbs.

  Brian knew he should apologize. He should apologize and then Gregory would apologize and then everything would be right, just like normal. Brian thinking things out, Gregory making jokes. But Brian didn’t want to give in. So they didn’t speak as they walked along past blank windows and green lawns. They walked past houses where the garage doors had been left open. They walked past houses with toys in the yard.

  Eyes watched them. In a house where the couch had been dragged to block the front door and a dining room chair had been shoved under the knob of the back door, a terrified bank teller huddled behind the media hutch, surrounded by bottles of water and pots full of basmati rice. He was hiding. He fearfully kept tabs on the street, eyes blinking. He had not moved from his crouch in several days. He did not know where his wife was. He did not want anyone to come downstairs. He was afraid of what he might see: his wife or something else entirely that had already found her and devoured her. He was afraid of what might be looking for him. He was not sure he was thinking rationally. So he stayed put. When he needed to poo, he used a Pringles tin.

  He watched a stocky boy with glasses and a blond kid walk past in the bright sunlight, and he knew that there was something wrong with them. He could feel that they were marked.

  He ducked. He dimly recalled that his daughter might be hidden behind the love seat. He slid some rice toward her hiding place. Nothing moved. He hoped she still was there, and that she hadn’t disappeared while he was asleep.

  Outside, beneath blue skies, Brian and Gregory did not notice anyone watching. They walked through the dazed subdivision. They turned a corner. A hose fed a wading pool that had already overflowed. Farther down the street, a chimney lay on a perfect lawn. A grandfather sat in a garage, door open, moaning. He sat on bags of fertilizer.

  They began to peer about more carefully. Something was wrong.

  The feeling was different than the day before. It was not peaceful. It felt unquiet, disrupted.

  They passed a house that had no doors to get in or out. Without speaking, they both surveyed its surfaces, going around a corner, noting blank wall after blank wall. The windows had shades drawn.

  One lawn was wildly overgrown. Ragweed poked through the struts of a plastic fun slide.

  They passed the soccer field. There was a game going on, which meant it might be Saturday. But the kids were crawling up the field, dragging themselves as if the field were vertical, and the ball sat alone, unkicked. The adults on the sidelines sobbed.

  Brian and Gregory watched. Gregory played soccer, so he would have recognized if any of the crawling had been regulation. The kids dug their fingers into the earth and pulled themselves along. They panted.

  “Let’s go,” said Brian, darkly.

  “What’s going on?” whispered Gregory.

  “I don’t know,” said Brian.

  He stared at the weeping parents.

  The Game had been frightening enough. But this — whatever was happening now was beyond the Rules. And if, all of a sudden, all the Rules were off, then anything could happen. Nothing protected Prudence, wherever she was. Nothing protected Brian and Gregory. And evil could very easily win.

  Brian kept his thoughts to himself. He figured Gregory wouldn’t want to hear them. Gregory, for his part, knew that there was something that Brian wasn’t saying. So the two boys walked on through the landscape in silence.

  They passed identical streets. New mailboxes were knocked down. Drapes were pulled tight to block out the day. There was an air of emptiness, even when people passed them in cars.

  At last, they came to the construction. Earthmovers were rumbling and jolting over the mounds. It seemed like, since the previous day, there were already new units, laid out on the grass like a picnic.

  As they were crossing the wasteland of Caterpillar tracks and PVC piping, Brian saw something out of the corner of his eye. Glittering parked cars, he thought.

  He pointed without speaking. Neither of the two really wanted to break his silence. They walked across the churned-up lots.

  As they walked, Brian looked at stumps and ground roots under his feet. He wondered where they were on the map of the old Game. He couldn’t recognize the landmarks anymore. Everything was erased. He couldn’t recall exactly how the paths had led.

  He became more anxious as they approached what looked at first like a parking lot.

  It was not a parking lot.

  Gregory swore when he saw, and they both started running.

  TWELVE

  Cars — many of them — were scattered all over the razed field. There was no order to them — no rows, no tidy schemes. Several of the cars were running, blue fumes drifting up around them. The sun shone down on them.

  It was not the cars that startled Gregory and Brian, but the people. Many of them were lying in the mud around the cars, as if they’d suffered seizures or been mowed down by guns.

  “See — this,” said Gregory, running beside Brian, “is an instance where I believe in running away.”

  Brian reached a silver Volvo sports wagon next to which a man lay prone. Brian stooped beside him.

  The man was breathing. His eyes were partially open. He did not seem wounded.

  “Hello?” said Brian. “Sir? Sir?”

  The man didn’t respond. Gregory squatted down on the other side of him
. “What’s wrong with him?” the boy asked.

  Brian didn’t respond, but reached out gingerly and shook the man’s shoulder. It was caked with mud. “Sir?” he said again.

  The man stirred like a child in sleep, reluctant to leave a dream of wonders. “I’m at work right now,” he said, slurring. “Can I call you later?”

  “You’re in a field of mud,” Gregory insisted. “You’re lying beside a car.”

  The man turned onto his side, facing away from Gregory. He rubbed his face with his hand and stopped moving. He clearly didn’t want to be disturbed.

  “You should get up,” said Brian. “You’re lying with part of you in a puddle.”

  The man pulled his knees up against his chest, dragging his calves and cuffs through the oily water. He closed his eyes and whispered a demand that something be collated pronto.

  Brian and Gregory stood. They wandered around the graveyard of commuters. People were slumped at the wheels of their cars. Men lay in the dirt, their shirts half untucked from writhing in sleep, their ties twisted beneath them, grimy with mud. Women rested against the wheels of their coupes, mouths open, breathing loudly. The two boys walked quietly between them, their shoes squelching in ruts.

  A summer breeze blew over the desolation. The hair of insensate middle managers stirred and fluttered.

  “What is this?” Gregory whispered. Then he yelled, “HELLO?”

  His voice seemed small in a very large plain.

  “They think they’re at the office,” said Brian. “All of them, I bet. At the office or the grocery store or something.”

  “What … why?”

  “They’re hypnotized somehow. Because they can’t leave the neighborhood. If they left, they’d realize what was going on. They’d be able to tell that time was passing differently.”

  “So they just come here?” said Gregory. “They leave for work, they just drive over here, and then they fall asleep until it’s time to go home?”

  “Otherwise, the Thusser wouldn’t be able to keep them in the development. People would leave and they’d realize that time was weird and that they were confused. They wouldn’t come back.”

  Gregory shook his head. He was aghast. He didn’t like to think that things could go this wrong.

  One family in the lot was clearly on vacation. There were kayaks on the roof, bikes on the racks, and parents in the front seats, asleep on the dashboard. In the backseat, kids were canted against the windows, their cheeks smeared on the glass. They were ready for swimming.

  Brian and Gregory pounded on the windows. They pummeled the doors. There was no motion within the car. Frantically, the two of them charged around the muddy lot and shook people lying on the ground. No movement. The heads rolled unevenly. The arms slumped. The bodies were heavy as sacks of sand.

  Gregory rarely had the chance to slap a few faces, especially in public, but now he could slap away, leaning down and yelling long and loud, one screaming note right in the ear of a man in dress jeans, hollering at him with a look of desperation, a desperation that seemed born of an astonished irritation that anyone could get mesmerized this way, that anyone could be so dumb. He just couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t wake up.

  Brian watched him, sadly.

  When Gregory had exhausted himself, he stood up. His knees were capped with mud. He and Brian stood in the field, surrounded by duped dreamers. In the distance, the sound of cicadas started up in the trees.

  Solemnly, Brian and Gregory walked away from the parking lot. Then, without discussing it, they both began to run. An eagle was in the air over their heads, looking for the woodland. They reached the construction. Workmen with uneven mouths watched them pass.

  Brian and Gregory headed for the sales office, where Milton Deatley, deceased, was open for business.

  THIRTEEN

  In the waiting room of the business office, on a cheap wood pedestal, stood the noble elk himself, a look of deep compassion in his glass eyes, the summer sunlight catching and spinning on his polypropylene antlers.

  The office itself was converted from one of Rumbling Elk Haven’s six unique house designs. The waiting room would normally have been a living room, and there was not much to distinguish it from a living room (it had couches, chairs, a coffee table with real estate magazines carefully overlapping in diagonals), except for the plastic elk and, near the fireplace, a laminated map on an easel.

  Brian went over to the map immediately and began to study it. Gregory stood awkwardly by the elk. Smooth jazz was playing in the air.

  No one was at the reception desk. “The Crooked Steeple!” Brian exclaimed. “I forgot about it. It’s just up the hill from Prudence’s house.”

  “What about it?” asked Gregory.

  “It’s still there. It’s on the map. I mean, it’s surrounded by houses, but it’s a landmark that could help us figure out what’s —”

  “I was getting some coffee,” said a woman, coming through a door. “And throwing away the rest of my breakfast burrito.” She walked to the desk and sat on it, crossing her legs. Her hair was sprayed into a mane. “Are your parents around?”

  Brian said no; Gregory, thinking more quickly, said, “They’re outside. They’ll be here in a minute.”

  The receptionist looked carefully from one boy to the other. “So your parents are outside.”

  “They’re walking around.”

  “That’s great. We encourage walking.”

  “It strengthens the hams.”

  “The hams,” the woman repeated. “Do you kids want some comic books to look at while you wait?”

  Brian blurted, “Is Mr. Deatley here?”

  The woman walked behind her desk and sat down in her chair. “Why do you want to see Mr. Deatley?”

  “He’s a friend of my parents,” said Gregory. “He took a parachuting class with my dad.”

  The woman looked skeptical. “I didn’t know Milt parachuted.”

  “Oh, you can drop him from all kinds of heights,” Gregory attested.

  The woman asked, “Do you want anything from the kitchen while you wait? We have Danish.”

  “I’ll take a Danish,” said Gregory.

  “We’re not really hungry,” Brian answered.

  “We’d like to see Mr. Deatley,” Gregory insisted.

  “He’s not here right now,” the woman said, “in the actual office.”

  Gregory asked, “Is he okay?”

  “Sure, he’s fine.”

  “Looking good? My dad was worried about him. He said the last time he saw him, he looked kind of like a corpse.”

  “He’s great.”

  “You know, the walking dead.”

  Brian muttered, “Gregory.”

  “He’s out and about,” the woman said. “He’s checking out some units over on Heather Lane.”

  Gregory asked, “Is there a problem?”

  “With what?”

  “On Heather Lane?”

  The receptionist smiled irritably. “There’s no problem. We do our best to resolve any issues swiftly and to the satisfaction of all our owners.”

  “We’ll head over there,” said Brian.

  The receptionist seemed suspicious. “Won’t your parents miss you?”

  Gregory said, “They’ll find us.”

  “You better leave a note.”

  “No, that’s fine.”

  The boys slipped out before she could ask any more questions.

  “Did you have to make jokes?” Brian asked.

  “She didn’t notice.”

  “Yes she did. She could tell you were lying.”

  “No she couldn’t. She was thinking about those Danish.”

  Brian shook his head angrily. He said, “Let’s go. It’s over this way. I memorized the map.” He began running along the road.

  “Oh, did you?” said Gregory. “And what are we going to do when we meet Milton Deatley? Don’t we want to have a story?”

  “We have to find out about Prudence.


  “We can’t just ask him. We should have broken into his office and looked around. While she was throwing away her breakfast burrito.”

  Brian realized Gregory was right. “I don’t know what we’re going to do when we meet him,” he admitted. “We’ll have to play it by ear.”

  “You haven’t seen many zombie movies, have you?” said Gregory. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t talk about meeting the undead and playing it by ear. Or any phrase involving body parts.” They turned left down a half-paved gravel road. “Like pulling his leg,” Gregory continued. They turned right onto tarmac. “Or whether him meeting with us is any ‘skin off his back.’”

  “Thanks,” said Brian. He didn’t want to joke around.

  “You’re just grumpy because you’re the brains of the outfit. You’re basically a menu item for zombies.”

  Past driveways and Palladian windows they jogged, past empty lawns and chilly concrete birdbaths. They saw no one on the streets.

  Brian slowed his run. He was breathing heavily. They were in the heart of the suburb.

  They stepped onto Heather Lane.

  The road was curiously silent.

  The houses looked uninhabited, somehow, though new. Brian couldn’t put his finger on why. He and Gregory walked cautiously down the sidewalk. A few cars were abandoned on the street. They had not been parked but were at angles. The door of one was open. The light was no longer on. The car battery had run down.

  Something had happened here.

  Brian’s palms were sweating. He looked to Gregory, who was also silenced by the menace in the air.

  They were about halfway along the street when Brian pointed at a house.

  At first, Gregory saw only the basketball hoop in the driveway, the miniature soccer net rimmed with Styrofoam. Then he looked past the hydrangeas. He saw something move in the backyard.

  Four white horses cropped the grass. They were yoked to a black car with chrome trim.

  FOURTEEN

  Brian and Gregory approached the house. The front door was open. Brian looked in first and hurled himself back out.

  “What?” asked Gregory.

  “There’s someone in there.”

 
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