The Creep by Keith Proctor

Jack Holcomb turned down his long gravel driveway nearly a month to the day after Eliot disappeared. The sun was just a rim of light behind the mountains. Overhead, the sky was already black.

In the old farmhouse, the kitchen light burned. Ada was waiting. Though they’d been together three years, she hardly knew Jack’s son—Eliot had wanted nothing to do with them. Still, she was a part of this.

Over the past month, she’d borne Jack’s anguish, rallied his spirits, showed up at his house to make dinner. Silently, Jack rehearsed the conversation they were about to have. Parking next to her car, he ratcheted on the emergency brake, stepped through the chill November air, up the steps, and into the house.

For weeks, every evening, Jack had gone looking. He drove into the sprawling city, past the dead shingle factories and lumber mills, along the dark river, into the dismal neighborhoods where Eliot had lived—places haunted by junkies and strays. The headlights swept down alleyways, over brick exteriors, still splotchy with faded ads for soda or dishwashing detergent. He slowed when passing the homeless wraiths who camped under awnings or pushed full carts along sidewalks, trailed by dogs. From bar to bar, he carried an outdated photograph, asking strangers if they knew his son.

Ada was in the kitchen, her slender back to the door, turning chicken breasts in a skillet. Over the sizzling oil, she hadn’t heard him come in. For a moment he simply watched her. Over the years they’d talked around marriage, but they liked their routines. She was divorced, too—though, unlike Jack, no kid. She had a house in town, her own life, and a job as a college counselor in the same school district where Jack had spent his career teaching English.

Finally, Jack spoke up. “I found him.”

Startled, Ada turned to look at him. Then, wiping her hands on a dishtowel, she crossed the kitchen and pulled him into a tight embrace.

She stepped back. “Well?”

“It’s what we thought. He’s got the”— he waved his hand—“the Creep, or whatever they’re calling it.”

“Where is he?”

“He got picked up by one of those collection teams. He’s being held in some kind of state-licensed facility.” Jack shook his head. “You should have seen the place. It’s a kennel.”

“Still,” she said. “Thank God they’re the ones who found him, not those”—she waved a hand—“those vigilantes.”

“Well, maybe.” He frowned and, at Ada’s questioning look, he went on. “This facility, it’s not a hospital. They’ll only hold Eliot until he’s reached the last stages of the affliction. Then they’re empowered to—I quote—'initiate disposal.’” He gave a quick, humorless laugh. “How’s that for a euphemism?”

She exhaled. “Oh.”

Eager to busy his hands, he turned away and retrieved a colander from the cupboard, and from the refrigerator, a bag of mixed greens. He imagined his son, weeks ago, alone somewhere, his body betraying the symptoms: spasms, vomiting, vision flickering in and out. How did Eliot get it? he wondered. From a girlfriend? Was he attacked?

After rinsing the greens in the sink, Jack turned off the faucet and shook the remaining water from the colander. Over the kitchen sink, a dark window threw back a reflection of them both, of Ada’s alert face.

He’d bought the house when Eliot was still a child. He and his wife had entertained vague plans for another—a little brother or sister. There was room to grow. The house had two stories with a wrap-around porch, tilting floorboards, a brick chimney that jutted into the air like a finger signaling ‘just a moment.’ Five acres, most of them empty field. On the backside, a forest of dark pine crept in, reclaiming the land.

A few years back, he built the big, detached shop that doubled as a garage where he piddled around with a table saw, changed the oil in his pickup, and stored Christmas decorations.

Jack looked at Ada. “I’m going to bring Eliot home.”

She didn’t move.

“There are state requirements for home care,” he continued. “I’ll need a secure space, dimly lit. Eliot’s docile and, in any case, would be sedated. Still, the state requires reinforced walls and a prison-grade door.”

She was already shaking her head. “But he’s contagious.”

“It doesn’t spread as easily as you might think, otherwise everyone would have it. It’s bloodborne. One can take precautions. And, like I said, he’ll be sedated.”

“So, where would you—”

“In the shop.” Jack glanced toward the dark window. “There’s plenty of space. Heat, electricity. A former student of mine is a contractor. I’ll hire him to add a room inside, one that meets the specs.”

Ada pulled the skillet off the burner and turned off the heat, the chicken done. She leaned against the counter, facing him, and crossed her arms.

“Are you thinking this through?” she asked.

“I’m his father.”

“I’m not sure that’s an answer.” She ran a hand through her hair, dark brown shot with gray.

“When he was a kid, I didn’t do a thing for him.”

“So, you want to prove you’re not the man who raised him? Well, you’re not.”

He hoped that was true. An old memory viciously asserted itself of an argument in the kitchen and Eliot, maybe eleven or twelve, red-faced, crying, trying to pull away, but Jack—drunk, losing his temper—grabbing his son’s arm and jerking him back.

He drifted back to the present. “I’m his father,” he said again. And that was the end of it.

After a cheerless dinner, Jack retired to his office at the back of the house. He’d fallen behind in grading for his freshmen. Settling into his chair, he pulled the topmost essay from a stack of student papers, saw the author’s name, grimaced, and selected another.

He sat for a time, adding or deleting commas with a red felt-tip pen, offering gentle, neatly scripted suggestions in the margins. It was tedious work, navigating the thickets of run-on prose, subject-verb disagreements, eccentric word choice.

The TV mumbled ominously in the den. Ada watching the news.

His mind drifted inevitably to earlier in the day: He’d followed a doctor of some kind down a long, tiled hallway. Oily shoe skids on the tile. The stink of antiseptic.

“People watch too many movies,” the doctor was saying. “Late-stage individuals like your son are still alive. They breathe. They can starve. Of cour