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 From bar to bar, he carried an outdated photograph, asking strangers if they knew his son.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 course, certain functions are dormant. The nerves are largely dead. They’re somewhat like lepers. Their cells don’t regenerate. Wounds won’t heal. Over time, their cognitive functions start to cease. No long-term memory, no speech. They’re highly photosensitive. Something happens to their eyes. Acute light is agonizing.” They passed into a gloomy hall, lit by weak bulbs. “Once the malady progresses to a certain stage, some become violent, but not all. Most simply waste away.”
They came to a door. An eye panel slid open.
Jack bent to look in and pulled immediately back. He’d been expecting to see Eliot asleep in a corner—at some point, sedatives had been mentioned—but instead, his son’s gaunt, brittle face was just on the other side of the reinforced glass. Waiting. The skin pulled painfully tight over the architecture of the skull. The lips receded, possibly gone. A flash of brown, broken teeth. From deep hollows, the eyes stared, marbles pressed into flesh.
Ada stayed the night. While they lay in bed, Jack stared into the dark.
“He doesn’t have long,” he said quietly. “Two months on the outside is what the doctors estimate. He won’t make his thirtieth birthday.”
Ada rolled over. “Does your ex-wife know?”
“I don’t even know where she is.”
“She has a right to know.”
Ada reached out, taking his hand. “If you bring Eliot here, don’t tell anyone. You want to get that former student of yours, the contractor, to do some work? You can’t breathe a word of what it’s for.”
“I want a storage room,” Jack was saying. He and Tripp, the contractor, stood in the echoing, windowless space of the shop. The scent of wood shavings and gasoline. “There, in the back.” He pointed. “So really, all I need is for you to put up a wall.”
Jack recalled Tripp as a student—a bit obtuse, but well-meaning. Impressionable.
“Not a problem, Mr. Holcomb,” Tripp said. “But you don’t want just a frame and sheet-rock deal instead? Gypsum would be cheap and quick.”
“No, I have some trouble with moisture in here. I don’t want it getting soggy on me. Let’s do cinder blocks, like we talked about.”
“Moisture, huh?” Tripp looked around the shop, eyes tracing up the walls, across the rafters, and back down. Jack detected some note of dubiousness, but Tripp just made a note on his legal pad and said, “Okay. No problem.”
“And, before I forget…” Jack fished his notes from a coat pocket. “These are the dimensions for the door.”
Tripp, seeing them, whistled. “That’s not standard.”
“I found a custom deal,” Jack explained. “I wanted a door big enough that I can easily move things in and out. Just leave me the space, and I’ll install it.”
The truth was the doctor at the medical facility holding Eliot had referred Jack to a merchandiser for penitentiaries. Jack didn’t want a solid door with an eye slot like they had, but something where he could sit near Eliot. Talk to him. He ordered a barred security door with a locking slot at the bottom, so one could slide a tray of food through.
Tripp shot Jack a wise smile. “I know what you’re doing,” he said.
Jack felt a spike of anxiety that he tried to mask. Maybe he’d underestimated Tripp. “What?”
“You’re building a safe room.”
Jack blinked. “A safe room? From what? Serial killers?”
Tripp shrugged. “Or the creeps.” When Jack said nothing, he continued. “The government says they’ve got a handle on it, but that’s bullshit, pardon my French. Over in Clayton, there’s a guy sure the creeps will overrun everything. He hired my uncle’s backhoe to dig out a bunker. Says he’s going to stock it with canned food, water, ammo.” Tripp shook his head. “World’s upside down. The government should be snuffing the creeps out, not giving them medical care. That’s why people take matters into their own hands.”
Jack eyed him carefully. “They’re ill, Tripp, but they’re still people. Like us.”
“My cousin got the Creep,” Tripp said, his face lit up by sorrow and disgust. “They’re nothing like us. Dump them all in a hole and fill it in.”
Jack, looking away, cleared his throat. “Well, it’s just a storage room.”
“Whatever you say, Mr. Holcomb.” Tripp made a notation, his expression sunny again. “I can get started tomorrow, if you like. Should be done Saturday.”
They shook hands. As Tripp pulled out the driveway, he waved and gave two quick bleats with the horn.
Tripp worked in the mornings and, when Jack came home, he got a snapshot of the day’s labor: a rising wall of wood planks, an open rectangle for the door. Tripp used Jack’s table saw to cut two-by-fours, leaving the shop hazy with dust.
At school, Jack was impatient. Distracted. He stumbled through a lecture he’d been delivering for ten years. Losing his train of thought, he stared helplessly at his notes, disoriented, a man unable to retrace his path in the woods. The kids, arrayed before him, sat politely with open notebooks. This was the senior honors section—his best students—but they couldn’t hold it in forever. Someone muttered a joke and laughter rippled hesitantly through the room. He didn’t blame them. The next day, he showed a movie.
Finally, the weekend arrived. Saturday morning, Jack descended the stairs on stiff knees. The coffee maker gurgled and steamed.
Ada sat at the table, hair wet from the shower, newspaper spread out. “Have you seen this?” A headline about creeps executed in a warehouse, their bodies arranged in a row.
“It was on the news last night. Some church leader is claiming responsibility.”
Pulling a mug from the cupboard, he glanced out the window and noted Tripp’s pickup.
“Tripp is supposed to finish today,” he said. “After he’s gone, can you help me install the door?”
“Where is it?”
“UPS delivered it yesterday. I stashed it in the cellar. It’s heavy.”
She nodded, eyes drifting back to the newspaper.
“There’s a whole slang,” she said. “Creep, of course, but also biter, ant, stiff.”
“Limper, mime,” he added, lifting the carafe from its cradle. Coffee dripped from the filter and sizzled on the heating plate. “Goldfish.”
“Goldfish?” she wondered, looking off.
“I’m going to take Tripp some coffee.”
The shop’s garage door was open. As Jack approached, Tripp emerged, greeting him.
The room was done, more or less. Tripp had finished grouting the cinder blocks the day before and now a wall blocked off the back third of the shop, creating a somber, windowless cell.
Tripp blew into the coffee mug. “Hey, I was going to ask,” he said. “How’s Eliot doing?”
“Eliot.” Tripp smiled. “Your son.”
“I didn’t realize you knew Eliot.”
“I don’t really, but I mentioned to my cousin the other night that I was doing this job, and I guess they go way back.”
“Your cousin,” Jack said, uneasy.
“Right. A few summers ago, they built decks together, did some house painting. He said Eliot’s been out of touch.”
“Eliot’s fine,” Jack heard himself say, but he felt like he was elsewhere, somewhere overhead, floating uncertainly, a helium balloon tossed on currents of air. “Honestly, I don’t talk to him much myself.”
Eliot arrived in a featureless white van, the windows tinted. A kidnapper’s van. The driver backed expertly through the open garage door and planted the rear bumper near the cell door. Jack pushed the button, and the garage door rattled down.
Two men climbed out, both in gray coveralls. One, an immense man, tattoos flashing at his collar, who gazed out at Jack with drowsy, half-lidded eyes. The other, older, smaller, with a steel-gray buzz cut and a lean, muscular face.
They went about with a measuring tape, inspecting the cell, getting the dimensions of the interior, checking the gap of the food slot door. While they worked, Jack peered into the van’s rear window but saw nothing through the heavy tint.
There were forms to sign—releases of liability, care instructions, and so on—and Jack scratched out his name and date onto each. They walked him through the dosage chart for Eliot’s sedative, which was to be administered daily with one of the recommended foods. All various kinds of vegetables mash. Because of his teeth, they explained. When Jack needed to completely sedate Eliot, perhaps to clean out the cell, he simply needed to follow the instructions on the chart. One of the men, by way of illustration, traced the appropriate column with a dirty fingernail. They provided him with a three-month supply of the sedative. More than enough, they said.
They cycled through these instructions with indifferent efficiency. While they spoke, they regarded Jack without expression, just drifting along, following a script. “Any questions?” they asked, but didn’t wait for the answer.
They popped open the van’s rear doors. Inside was a long black oblong box. A coffin with holes for ventilation. Using a paramedics’ stretcher, they pulled the box out of the van and wheeled it into the cell.
“Your son’s currently sedated,” the older man said and checked his watch. “You have three hours or so before he wakes.”
They unlocked the box and tilted back the lid. Eliot was under some kind of screen, a steel mesh that was unfastened and pulled aside.
One of the men, the big somnolent one, bent down, worked his hands under Eliot and lifted him from the box. For a moment, in this stranger’s arms, Jack’s son resembled nothing more than a sleeping child.
Once they’d gone, Jack stood for a time in the doorway to the cell, examining from a safe distance this sunken body, stretched out on the floor like the carcass of a starved bird. Jack’s vision blurred, and he experienced a sudden sickness—something approaching shame—and turned away.
In the house, he retrieved a sponge and filled a bucket with warm soapy water, then returned to the shop, the shoulder carrying the bucket drooping from the weight.
He knelt beside Eliot and moved the wet sponge over the shoulders and arms, the knobbed joints and vented ribs. Suds pooled in the hollows at the collar bones and the grime came away in brown streaks.
He worked carefully. In places, the dry skin had split or torn. Gaping, bloodless wounds that would never heal. The hands were the worst. Exposed bone flashed white at the knuckles and fingertips, as through holes in an old pair of gloves.
Pausing, Jack lay his palm on his son’s chest. He searched the face for the ghost of his child who, as a boy, had been slight, pretty, with hair almost to his shoulders.
Again, he checked the time; it was getting late. He dipped the sponge into the dark water and wrung it out. A rivulet flowed to a drain set in the concrete floor and gurgled hollowly as it fell.
Three days later, after work, Ada came by the house and found Jack in his office, slumped behind the desk, looking gray in the November light. A shoebox of loose photographs sat before him. His eyes lifted as she stepped into the doorway. They hadn’t seen each other since Eliot had arrived.
“We’re doing okay,” he said, anticipating her question. He rolled a bottle of Eliot’s sedatives back and forth in his hand. “He’s quiet. He keeps to the shadows. Hardly moves, except to eat. He squats down over the bowl and scoops it up.”
He gestured to the shoebox. “I talk to him, show him pictures. Tell him the story of his life.”
“And? Any response?”
“It’s like talking to a stone.”
Ada leaned against the doorframe. “Well, that’s not surprising, is it?” she said gently. “It’s what the doctors had said. What were you expecting?”
“I don’t know.” He let a hand fall to his knee. “Something, I guess. Some spark.”
“I think this—" She hesitated. “I don’t think there’s any coming back from this.”
“Well”—he began curtly and looked away, the window giving him a view onto the back of the shop—“My mind would be gone too if I were eating two of these for breakfast.” He tossed the pill bottle onto the desk, the capsules rattling.
“They’re for everyone’s safety.”
He searched her face, desperate to change the subject. “Can I make you dinner?”
“No. Thanks. I just wanted to check on you. I’ve got an early morning tomorrow.”
He nodded, disappointed.
She pulled a slip of paper from her pocket. “I brought you something.”