The Stuff from Home

The Stuff from Home
by Stanton McCaffery

Every quarter-mile or so, they passed another tent. Jim had their own tent tied together and strapped to his back. Sheila had offered to carry it many times, but Jim refused, of course. “Homeless,” Sheila realized, was not a good word at all, but possibly better than “abused” or “victim” or “dead.”

They passed a tent with a crow sitting on top of it. Its eyes were balls of glass circled by thin outlines of dried blood. Its claws tore into the canvas.

“Shoo,” Jim said.

They walked on. The crow flapped its wings loudly and flew above them. It stayed nearby, circling within view.

“It’s too cold,” Sheila said. The cold was making her sick. A ball of unpassable mucus sat like a fist in her chest. When she coughed, her eyes watered and her insides burned.

Bare trees cracked in the wind. Their path was an abandoned rail line, a narrow corridor of vegetation and refuse packed between apartment complexes and the New Jersey Turnpike. Some houses stood off in the distance behind a thin line of trees and dead weeds. The telephone poles were covered in indecipherable graffiti tags, looking ominous, as if they would morph into hands, reach out, grab Sheila by the throat, and strangle her.

She couldn’t believe how bad they smelled, like dirt and sweat, somehow perspiring despite the freezing temperatures. They had been on the road a month now, pitching their tent night after night in some wooded area behind a school or grocery store, or in an abandoned lot, Sheila always worried they’d be found. With her still a minor—less than a year from turning 18—she’d be returned home. She had no clue how far they had traveled. She’d asked Jim many times, but he didn’t know, either.

“I told you,” Jim walked a few paces ahead of her, his head down against the wind, “we’ll find something. Alright?” He briefly turned his head to look back at her. He gave a slight smile to mask his irritation.

“You and your promises.” Sheila kicked a stray pebble and it hit the back of Jim’s boot without him noticing. She saw him rubbing his fingers together vigorously but wasn’t sure if he did it because of the cold or because of nerves. She coughed again, and it raked the inside of her throat raw as if someone had run razor wire against it. She stopped and put her hand on her chest.

“Jim,” she said. Off ahead, a rabbit ran through the bushes, rustling dead leaves and cracking twigs.

“I know,” said Jim. “I know.” He slowed down to walk next to her and put his gloved hand on her shoulder.

Sheila stepped to the side. “Let’s just keep walking. I want to stay as warm as possible.”

Jim raised his hand in a gesture of surrender and shook his head. “I’m trying to take care of us, okay? We had to get out. The way I see it, there was no other option.” Tears started to build in his eyes. “Sooner or later, he would have killed you.” He wiped his face. “Maybe both of us.”

Sheila stopped walking. She rubbed her eyes and looked around. Crows watched her from above, their jarring squawks mocking her. After a moment, they continued flying. Sitting upon nearby overhead wires, their eyes seemed to follow her.

Jim scanned the neighborhoods through the trees. Discarded shopping carts lay sideways in frozen puddles of mud. There was a constant buzz of traffic: tractor-trailer brakes, souped-up engines, broken mufflers, angry horns. Puffs of steam pumped into the air out of factory stacks on the other side of the Raritan Bay.

Sheila had no idea what he was looking for. Every ten or twenty paces, he would stop and stare at the houses on the streets. Sheila could hear his jaw chattering. She knew he wouldn’t admit to being cold or scared, or any other weakness. He was the protector. But there were other traits too, ones that Jim wouldn’t admit to having, just like weakness, traits Sheila knew were lingering under the surface, waiting to come out. Traits that had been passed down.

Sheila reached into the pocket of her old, thin coat and grasped the small teddy bear she had brought with her. Gray and missing fur in spots, it was the only comforting memento she was able to grab when they had hastily packed in the middle of the night. Something from her preteen period: an oversized keychain she hung from a zipper on her backpack in middle school. A gift from her mother. A childish comfort, her father called it, a trick. “There is no comfort and there is no escape,” he would say. Watching a flurry of snow fall to her brother’s shoulder, Sheila wondered if her father had been right. She looked down at the bear once more and put it back in her pocket.

“Through the woods,” Jim said, pointing off to a dead-end street on the other side of the trees. Sheila could glimpse some small shotgun houses. Jim bounced off in their direction, his pace faster than Sheila had seen in days. She followed behind him, navigating between the trees, weeds, and thorns, wondering what was next.

When she made her way out, she found Jim standing on a porch. The house had wooden boards covering the windows and front door. She walked quickly past the other houses and up the steps to Jim, where she saw a piece of paper stapled into the plywood covering the door. “Property of the Woodbridge Savings Bank,” it said, and beneath that, in bold, “NO TRESPASSING.”

Jim tore off the paper and tossed it over his shoulder. “Help me get this wood off.”

He pulled a flathead screwdriver out of his bag and wedged it between the wood and the doorframe. He pried, opening enough space for his and Sheila’s fingers to pull. They repeated the process three more times at each corner. Finally, with an abrupt shake, Jim yanked the wood off and placed it against the railing. The nails that held it to the doorframe fell through the gaps in the wood flooring of the porch and onto the gravel underneath.

Sheila tried the knob. Locked. Jim rolled his eyes and motioned for Sheila to step aside. He took a breath and a stepped back. He lifted his foot slowly and grunted as he kicked the door. He did it again. On his third try, the door flew open.

He walked around to the back of the house as Sheila went inside. She flicked a light switch, and to her surprise, the place still had power. Given that her breath had stopped steaming as it left her mouth, she guessed it had heat, too. Only one piece of furniture remained: a saggy brown couch with stuffing poking through the fabric. Sheila threw her bag down on it. In the kitchen, a fridge was still humming. She walked over and peered into it.

Jim came in. “Bank must be paying the utilities. Any food in there?”

“Only thing I see is frozen waffles,” said Sheila. On the fridge door was a child’s drawing of a stick-figure family in front of a giant sun so big that had it been real it would have burned the family to ashes. “No stove. Maybe we could start a fire in the back to warm them up?”

Jim tilted his head. His brows drew close to one another. “Are you serious?” He clenched a fist and moved in close. “That won’t attract attention now, will it? Maybe we should go door to door and tell all the neighbors the new squatters have moved in.”

“I’m just trying to think,” Sheila said. “I’m hungry, okay?” Her voice was high and weak and her trembling body still remembered the fierceness of the cold. “You didn’t pack nearly enough food.”

Jim sighed heavily and stepped back. “I’ll figure something out, but now you’ve got a place to get warm for a little while. Be happy for that, would you?” he said.

His lips were pressed tight, but the way he was looking at her brought back a sudden memory: Their mother had said she was tired and didn’t want to go to the store, that she would go in the morning instead. Before their father slapped her with the back of his hand, he stood and stared at her for a solid three seconds, three seconds that felt like an infinity, three big ticks from the grandfather clock that had one of their father’s stuffed crows sitting on it. The memory of what his face looked like for those three seconds was vividly branded into her mind. Jimmie’s face looked the same.

Jim’s expression relaxed. Maybe he saw my fear, Sheila thought.

“Stay here,” he said, motioning to the couch. “I’ll find something. You need to feel better; I need to think.”

Sheila followed him toward the front of the house and caught up with him at the threshold.

“Thank you,” she said, briefly resting her hand on his shoulder. He gave her a quick smile and touched her hand. She stood in the doorway as he walked away. Behind him, she saw a black car pass slowly by. On the other side of the street was another crow.

Throughout their lives, their father taxidermied crows and sold them on the internet. He would get money from selling them to collectors, but neither Sheila, nor Jim, nor their mother Kate ever benefitted from the money that would arrive in the mail. Their father, a man who had literature from the John Birch Society lying around the house and always decried what he called the global Jewish banking conspiracy, would cash the checks and keep the money in coffee cans buried in the backyard. Jim dug one up and took it with them when they escaped, but they had spent that money on food long ago.

The crow cawed a piercing sound. Jim gave it the finger as Sheila closed the front door. She sat on the couch and covered herself with a blanket from her bag. She coughed and stared at the walls around her, bare and yellowed, whiter in places where pictures had hung, dust and spiderwebs in the corners. A loveless place now, but maybe once, it had been different.

How long could they stay there? Could they stay long enough for her to get over her cold and the cough? Long enough for it to get warm outside? Long enough to plan their next step? The questions swirled in her head as she dozed off.

Her sleep was intermittent, broken up by pain in her chest and the sound of her own snoring. In the shards of the dreams that reached her, she saw her mother, her jaw shattered and one eye dangling, hanging by a bloody string of nerves, the socket busted by her husband’s tack hammer.

“Your brother,” she said to Sheila through broken teeth, “he has a destiny.”

Sheila awoke fully to the sound of the front door creaking open and the feeling of the cold working its way inside. She wrapped herself in her arms, wishing she could sleep longer, and watched Jim come through the door. The sun behind him cast his shadow on the floor. He closed the door behind him with a quick motion of his foot.

“I found something,” he said.

She looked down into his arms, where he was cradling a toaster. It was dented and dirty. The metal was too dull to reflect her face, the cord was frayed in places, and she could see dust bunnies in the two bread slots.

Jim watched Sheila as she looked at the toaster, her expression downcast and brooding. He sneered. “Let’s give it a try, okay?”

“I hope it works,” said Sheila. “I’m so hungry I could almost eat those waffles cold.”

Jim waved his hand into the air. “Relax. Let’s find out.”

Sheila rubbed the back of her neck. Above her head, she heard the sound of birds congregating on the roof. Their talons were groping the shingles. They pecked the walls. She walked to the fridge, took the waffles from the freezer, and handed them to Jim. The drawing of the stick-figure family fell to the floor.

“Those fucking birds,” said Jim. “We just can’t seem to get away from them.” He shook his head and plugged the toaster into a wall socket by the kitchen counter. A circular piece of plastic on the top lit up red. It flickered on and off at first, but once Jim pushed harder on the plug and jostled it a bit, it stayed steady.

Sheila stared at the light.

Jim pushed the freezer-burned waffles into the toaster. After a minute, there was a ringing sound that made Sheila jump as the waffles emerged from the metal slots.

“Get them out,” she said.

They were stuck. Jim tugged on them, but they retreated back into the machine. He tightened his fingers on the waffles and flicked his wrist. Nothing. He held the hot metal and pulled. There was a vibration inside the machine and the waffles were gone, yanked from his grip. He picked up the toaster and slammed it back down onto the counter.

“Piece of shit!” he said. “Piece of fucking shit!”

“Calm down. Please, calm down,” said Sheila, softly.

Jim looked at her over his shoulder. “Don’t tell me to calm down!” Spit flew from his mouth. “Why don’t you figure something out? I can’t always be the one doing everything, you know!”

The toaster shook the top of the kitchen counter and made a churning sound. Smoke seeped from the bottom and a spark shot along the power cord. The waffles flew across the room, mangled and burnt. From the holes in the toaster, there came a stream of black feathers and sawdust.

Sheila coughed. “What is it, Jimmie?”

Jim grabbed the dusty toaster, tearing the cord from the wall. He spun around with it in his hands and slammed it against Sheila’s face. The pain was sudden and overwhelming.

“Shut up,” he said. “Shut up!”

Sheila fell to the floor with a mass of blood and sawdust in her eyes. The sound of screaming birds grew closer. Her face rested on the child’s drawing that had fallen onto the floor. A trickle of blood dressed the skinny family in red. She cried and hugged her knees.

After minutes of lonely, hopeless sorrow, more painful than the death of her mother, Sheila saw Jim’s boots in front of her face.

“I never wanted to be like this,” he said. “It’s out of my control.”

Sheila closed her eyes and continued to rock herself on the floor. Then came the sound of Jim’s boots on the wood floor.

“Somebody’s coming. We need to go.”

Sheila felt his hands on her shoulders. He lifted her to a sitting position, putting one hand on her back and the other under her knees. Sheila felt herself being lifted in to the air and slung over Jim’s shoulder. He carried their bags in his other arm.

Sheila heard a voice: “The property has been vacant for about a month, but I think you’ll find it is in fine condition.”

Sheila felt dizzy from bouncing along on Jim’s shoulder as he ran. A murder of crows hovered above them, swooping down occasionally to peck at them. Jim ducked and swore each time.

“I don’t want to stay outside,” Sheila said. She began to cry. Tears, snot, and blood dripped from her head and left a trail on the sidewalk.

After another block, Jim stopped running. Upside down, Sheila saw through the woods to the path they had traveled before they found the house. Through her tears and blood, she saw twisted tree limbs and old telephone poles.

“Look,” Jim said. Sheila looked up. On the street was the black car from before.

The doors were open and the engine was running. The soft, spotless gray interior was inviting, begging for their entry.

“No,” Sheila said, “we can’t.”

“What the Hell else are we gonna do? We’ve got nothing.”

He rested her on the passenger seat and reclined it. She looked up at the dome light on the ceiling.

Jim sat down and drove off. “A full tank,” he said.

They drove south on Garden State Parkway, cruising through moderate traffic. After an hour, they neared the Pine Barrens with half a tank of gas left. The sun was out, a ruthless winter sun that reflected painfully off of the snow on the side of the road.

Jim pulled down the visor and was hit in the face with a scalpel. It cut a gash into his right eyebrow.

“What the fuck?” Jim tossed the scalpel into the back seat and slowed, steering the car toward the shoulder. When he pressed on the brake, nothing happened. He took his hands off the wheel, but it kept steering itself. “Jesus Christ,” he said. “What the fuck is this?” Sheila looked at the gas gauge: A quarter-tank left.

She levered the seat up and pulled on the handle of her door. It was locked and wouldn’t budge. She popped open the glove box, and twisted bird guts fell into her lap. She screamed and pushed them back in, feeling them squish and burst into her hands.

Despite the speed of the car, a crow flapped down out of nowhere and landed on the hood. Then another, and another. Three crows with bleeding glass eyes stared at Jim and Sheila. Grains of sawdust flew from their mouths. Sheila looked outside to signal for help, but only blank emotionless faces stared back at her. No one looked concerned, no one picked up a cell phone to call for help. A child in the back seat of one car pointed at the birds and smiled.

“The thing is going to run out of gas,” said Jim. “It’s not going to take us around forever.”

She took the teddy bear from her pocket. Her heart felt like it was going to burst from her chest, and her face was still swollen and bloody from being hit with the toaster. She pulled the bear out only to calm herself. It had bloody eyes.

“Get over it, girl,” it said in a deep, familiar voice. Its mouth was filled with broken, bloody teeth. “Get over it and get what’s coming to you.”

She began to sob and shake. She threw the teddy bear into the backseat and slammed her hands onto the dashboard. As she kicked the passenger side door, Jim turned to face her.

“Quit being such a whiny bitch.”

The car tore through familiar streets. Pine trees rooted in sand. Chain-link fences Sheila had known since childhood. A stop sign that marked her old school bus stop. The car just made it onto the gravel driveway of their home before it ran out of gas. Sheila looked to the patch of grass where she found her mother’s body when she was a little girl, a crow pecking at the remaining eye.

“I don’t want this,” she cried. “I just want us to be okay.”

Jim faced the windshield and kept his hands on the steering wheel—10 and 2, just like they learned in Driver’s Ed.

Crack. A crow smashed the wind shield with its beak. Crack. Crack. Crack. Dozens of birds landed and began pecking and clawing at the glass. Sheila brought her hands to her face and pushed tight against the seat. The dome light above her burst, sending glass into her hair. She screamed.

Jim said to her in dead monotone: “Inside is the only option. Back where we started.” A tear of blood ran down his cheek.

Sheila pulled on the door handle. This time, she heard it click. She pushed open the door.

“C’mon!” she said.

Jim opened the driver’s door and got out, robotically. Sheila ran.

A crow came down and dug one talon into the skin of her forehead, the other into her hair. She grabbed its dirty black feathers and ripped the thing off of her, pulling out hair and tearing grooves into her face. She thrashed it to the ground, but it screeched and flew back into her face. She blocked it with her arms and kept going, trying not to slip on the ice.

A torrent of black stuffed birds flew at her, forcing her toward the house for safety. Jim walked, oblivious to the chaos around him. Birds were perching on his shoulders and head.

Sheila reached the front door, but Jim was slowly approaching. His eyes were dead-looking, glassy. His skin had darkened to gray. His mouth looked long, pulled out at the lips. His teeth were gone. His hair was black instead of dark blond, a mess of matted clumps. Sheila swatted the birds from him and pulled him inside with her.

Inside, spread on its back on the kitchen table, was a corpse, dressed in her father’s yellow-and-black flannel shirt, covered with sawdust. There was congealed blood on the table and floor, and a revolver on the ground. The face, half blown off, was Jim’s.

Sheila gasped and jumped backward, her body pressing against the dense mass of her brother’s body. She grabbed something with her hands: feathers.

Sheila turned around to face the thing. Mid-turn, she could hear the talons on the linoleum floor. She closed her eyes to hug what was there. When she opened them, the giant crow that was once her brother opened its beak and leaned toward her face.

The end was quick.

Copyright © 2015 Stanton McCaffery