Sometimes, the man would still get the desire to travel, but he could not bring himself to start out. What was the point of going on a trip that led nowhere?
—Yiddish folk tale
PART ONE: BROOKLYN, FALL 2002
The first time it happened was in the spring. She’d woken up at the staircase, gripping the railing and staring down. She didn’t wake anyone, but Paul stirred when she climbed back into bed. She was cold and sweaty; her hands still felt the phantom curve of wood against her palms, pressing into her skin with an urgency she didn’t understand. “Mm?” he’d breathed, turning towards her.
Then she made a mistake.
She could have said nothing; why did she even decide that his noise was a question? He could have just been half-awake and happy to feel her there. But she was half-awake too, in a way she’d never felt before, one foot still deeply implanted in her dream life, the rest of her more aware of the tangible world around her than she’d ever been this late at night. But for whatever reason, it seemed imperative to interact with the living thing next to her, so, question or not, she’d answered, almost immediately.
“I think I just sleep-walked.” The silence beside her came alive; there was no doubt that Paul was wide awake. “I woke up at the railing.”
Remembering that moment now, it seemed so obvious to her what that thing was that she’d felt: it had been fear, beginning to work its way between them. Their room was silent enough that any movement echoed in the bed language of sheets and springs, but even though she heard nothing, she knew he’d moved away. The pressure of his arm, that tingly warmth that only happens when two skins just barely share a surface, was gone, just gone; he didn’t even leave a phantom, like the banister.
It happened four times since then, that she knew about. Once she was in the bathroom, once halfway down the stairs; once she woke up staring at herself in the mirror above the dresser in their room, which was so terrifying she’d stopped breathing as soon as she woke up; and, most recently, she’d awoken in the middle of the living room, Paul holding her arm from what seemed like a great distance and looking at her like he was about to cry.
But there could have been other times, too. How would she know? She’d had to accept that she didn’t truly know herself the way she thought she did; some part of her went for walks in the middle of the night, responded to some voice other than her own. She couldn’t presume things about this other person, the sleeping version of her. Maybe she went for a stroll every single night, and the four times she knew about were only moments when she’d behaved badly. Maybe her normal routine bordered on harmlessness, a dream walk around the room before returning to the bed silently, without so much as rumpling the sheets.
Paul didn’t know. For all his hyped-up concern, he never kept a vigil. He slept soundly through the night, which Annie thought was his way of rubbing it in.
As long as Thomas couldn’t hear or see his parents, he couldn’t be sure they were there. He stood in the hallway outside the living room, where they may or may not have been sitting, waiting for him.
When he wasn’t looking, his parents— all adults, maybe— turned into monsters, or just disappeared. It was completely possible. There are things you learn between the ages of eight (like him) and forty (like them). One of them could be how to disappear; another could be how to change into something else. There could be some button in his body that wouldn’t grow in until he was twenty-seven— you press it, and you’re a monster, when your kid’s out of the room.
All his life, his parents could have been disappearing, or monstering, every time he blinked. As they served him dinner or tucked him in at night, they could be thinking about eating him. They could be thinking about where they were going to eat when they disappeared.
Thomas knew that disappearing was a possibility, but he didn’t entirely understand it yet. He thought it might be something like dreaming, except that when your brain takes you somewhere else, you’re really there, and once you’re there you can actually do stuff. He’d be able to steer the plane, for example, if he wanted to. He could stop it from crashing.
Thomas thought he’d rather disappear than turn into a monster. What was the point of changing if you had to stay here?
When it came to his parents, though, the disappearing idea was the scariest one— if they were monsters, even very hungry monsters, there was a possibility he might be able to reach them. If he caught them in the act, he’d just look them in the eyes and say, “Hey, it’s me. Can’t you see that? It’s just me.” They couldn’t argue with something as simple and true as that. They’d have to change back.
But if they disappeared, there was nothing he could do. He wouldn’t know where to look. If he wanted to, he could open the front door and wander out into Brooklyn, right now. Nothing was stopping him. He could do it any night. Any of them could. The fact that it was dangerous out there wasn’t enough to bolt the door from the inside. It was like what had happened last year, when the airplanes crashed into the buildings— everyone kept saying they couldn’t believe it, they couldn’t believe it, but that wasn’t enough to stop it from happening. If his parents disappeared, for good, it would be so scary that Thomas couldn’t imagine it, but it could happen, all right. For all he knew, it could happen that night.
Annie wasn’t sure how she’d come to be married to a man who felt so proprietary about a chair. Yet there he was, outlined in faded violet, looking so pleased with himself it was like no one had ever sat in a comfortable seat before. No one but Paul could sit there. She wouldn’t know how. The thought of picking up his newspaper when he left it and taking his place was embarrassing; she’d be a comedian doing an amateur impression. Her place was on the opposite couch, observing the domestic calm over which he reigned, while Thomas played with his trucks at his father’s feet. This was what it was all about now.
In the evenings, she wished for a leaky faucet or a distant screaming baby to provide some sound. The quiet made her uneasy. When she was in her twenties, living not so far from here, in bordering Brooklyn neighborhoods rougher around the edges, she and her roommates would compete to be heard over the sound of trucks backfiring on the BQE, or the B61 bus, which was never around when she needed it but somehow always managed to roar up and down their block at one o’clock in the morning. Having a steady salary afforded the luxury of a shadier street, a full brownstone to themselves, and a disquieting insulation from the very same noises, only a few blocks away.
Paul and Thomas could remain silent for hours, so any major shift in the living room’s molecules fell to her. She used to appreciate that about Paul when they first met: there was something so smart about a thin, plain-faced guy listening to everyone else speak, waiting for the appropriate moment to say something worthwhile. Recently, she’d grown to resent all of it, a piece at a time: his thinness had translated to smugness, somehow, like there was less of on him on purpose, so that he could be less affected by the things around him. His quiet was also problematic, now that it was rubbing off on their son. Before she was a mother, Annie had found quiet children creepy, and had imagined her own child would be a nonstop geyser of noise and life and snot and chaos.
There was never a leaky faucet, and she felt like a bored child. Her restlessness called up such pangs of being trapped in temple that her clothes seemed to shrink and stiffen around her. And just as she’d done when she was little and awoke in the middle of the night after a bad dream, she remained still, imagining what her small voice would sound like in the darkness as it broke the evening air.
“Paul,” she said finally. The sound of her voice wasn’t welcome, like something small and hard to see had been dropped from the ceiling.
As if to deliberately prolong the feeling that she’d spoken out of turn, that anything she said would have been out of turn, Paul didn’t answer.
Now that the seal had been broken, speaking came easier. “Paul.”
The front page of the paper obscured his face. From behind a photograph of some foreign political emissary came a barely audible syllable. “Hmm?”
The arrogance of it— Hmm. His smug little utterances fit in so well with the stifling quiet.
“I found another cockroach today,” she said. “In the kitchen.”
At this Thomas’s head lifted and turned towards her, waiting. She smiled at him, grateful to see his face; Paul remained, for all intents and purposes, a talking newspaper.
“Mmm,” Paul said, still hidden. “That’s not good.”
For an awful moment silence settled back in and she felt like a dog retrieving a stick for someone who didn’t want to play. But to her relief, he not only continued— “Well, we tried the traps”— but punctuated himself by putting the newspaper down— “I guess it’s time to call an exterminator.”
She felt almost giddy to have arrived at this point: her husband and son, looking her full in the face, waiting for her to speak. She felt that she should say something important, make a decision, but all that came to mind was a question, a way to hold onto his approval a little longer. “Do you think we should be worried?”
She knew it was the wrong thing to say when one side of Paul’s mouth curled up and his eyes shifted upwards. It was the pseudo-pensive look he got when he was about to say something he thought was brilliant. “I’ve never liked that question,” he said, “‘Do you think we should be worried?’”
She used to see him as a beautifully simple creature who meant no harm, to her or anyone else. He’d been made of reason and quiet jokes and a gentle hammocky love that didn’t call attention to itself but never went anywhere. Even his face was frozen in childhood, with his wide open eyes and patient expression, his uncomplicated features still waiting to be filled in by age. But now she knew she’d romanticized all of it, because he couldn’t just say I understand, and he was looking at her cock-eyed, like she was a curiosity— when did she end up on that side of his stare?
Thomas was still looking at her. She took a breath and closed her eyes, trying to move back into less infuriating territory. Facts. The exterminator. That’s what they’d been talking about. “I just meant, it might be a good idea—”
Paul did not push anything aside. He kept going. “Because that’s what people like exterminators are for, isn’t it?” He didn’t even know he was doing it. “To tell us whether or not we should be worried?” He abandoned the paper and leaned forward in the chair to tousle Thomas’s hair. “Right, kiddo?”
Thomas turned towards his father, then back to her. “What’s an exterminator?”
Something felt loose behind her eyes. It was all wrong, the interruption, the way he’d rubbed the kid’s hair… “It’s a man who kills things,” she said.
“Pests,” said Paul. He looked at her like she was a kid making too much noise in a restaurant. “He kills pests.” His eyes lingered on her for a second. Then he turned back to Thomas and his face went soft again as he explained, “Little creepy crawlies that are in your house but shouldn’t be there.”
Thomas frowned down at his trucks, like he didn’t find this answer entirely satisfactory. Annie had never met anyone whose face so transparently displayed the thinking process. People called him precocious, and told her and Paul that he seemed older than he was, but Annie thought the compliment was glib, and inaccurate. Her son wasn’t an old-seeming kid, but, really, two people in one. He was a child and an adult, and if there was anything precocious about him it was his ability to maneuver between the two so fluidly. When he turned back to Annie, his face was eight years old again. He was grinning with his mouth open; the one missing tooth in his top row made all the rest look uneven, and gave his entire mouth a look of sweetly sloppy innocence. “Can I see the cockroach?” he asked.
“It’s not there anymore, kiddo,” Paul answered immediately.
“We don’t know that.” Annie looked at her husband, whose put-upon expression only egged her on. She stood up from the couch and walked over to Thomas, wanting to make some kind of contact, and could only come up with a clumsy grab at his hand. “We don’t know that,” she said again. “In fact, let’s go look now and see if it’s there.”
“Annie—” Paul stirred in his chair. Annie could tell it pained him to do so; the philosophy of the chair was that it was a place you settled into at the beginning of the evening and dialed your body down until it was time for bed.
“Let’s go,” she said, tugging at Thomas’s hand. “Come on, let’s go.”
They looked for a long time. His mom was nice that way; she let him do the weird things he wanted to do. Sometimes he thought his dad didn’t like how weird he was. Parents weren’t supposed to care about stuff like that, were they?
After a while, his mom said, “Hold on, I have an idea.” She went to the cabinet where they kept random stuff, like cleaning supplies and extra bottled water.
“Here,” she said. She handed him a flashlight. It was heavy and yellow and had his name on it. His mom had let him write it there because he liked the way it looked, even though it wasn’t really his. “Shine it under the refrigerator. I bet he’s hiding there. Be quick, though. They don’t like light, so he’ll probably try to run away.”
Thomas got down on his hands and knees. He looked back up at his mom, backwards. She nodded. “Good,” she said. “That’s it.”
He didn’t turn the flashlight on right away. It was so dark he couldn’t even see dust, but he knew it was there because he could smell it. Darkness was scary, but turning the light on was scarier. When he did, the cockroach, whatever it was, would be right up close. Then, his mom had said, it would run away and disappear; just like the monsters.
Thomas wondered if his mom was a monster right now, standing behind him. Maybe that was why she’d brought him in here in the first place; maybe she wanted to eat him, and she didn’t want to share with his dad.
He turned around again. She was still his mom.
“You okay?” she said.
“We don’t have to do this, if you don’t want to.”
Thomas shook his head. “I want to.”
He really did want to see it; he was scared, but that kind of made him want to see it more. He wanted to catch a real live monster in the act. His parents were way too fast for him. He pushed his thumb into the big rubber button on the flashlight, and it clicked as he let go.
He saw it right away. It turned and looked at him. Thomas knew it wasn’t really looking, that it probably didn’t have eyes the way humans did— his dad had taught him that— but it felt that way. It was bigger than he had imagined, maybe even the size of his thumb. He should have asked his dad if cockroaches bit, like mosquitoes; it looked like the kind of thing that could bite. Its antennae wiggled up and down, like they were reaching for him.
It’s so close, Thomas thought, and then he realized that it was always close, even when he wasn’t looking under the refrigerator. They lived in the same house, he and the cockroach. Whenever it wanted to, it could decide to leave the kitchen and come up the stairs—
“See anything?” his mom asked.
Her voice surprised him. He’d kind of forgotten she was there. He turned back to her, and when he looked back under the fridge, the cockroach was gone. He could hear its feet scraping against the floor, fast, like little drum beats.
“It was cool,” Thomas said. He heard his father saying something in the other room. He kept the flashlight on, wondering if it might come back.