Stories

What Boys Do – Dawson Wohler

Lauren woke up alone.
Her husband Frank had left, as he did every weekday, without saying goodbye. He had silenced his 5:50 AM alarm, showered, dressed, and left. Frank was the Vice President of Dealer Sales at the local branch of Second Civic National Bank. He never talked about what he did there and she never asked. It was a place as distant from Lauren as the jungles of Borneo. More distant. She had at least seen pictures of Borneo.
Lauren crawled out of bed and into the bathroom. She knelt before the toilet and was sick. She brushed her teeth without looking in the mirror. There are prettier things to look at, she told herself. The claw-footed bathtub, for instance, with its glimmering gold faucet always drip-drip-dripping water no matter what Frank did to it. The white tiled walls still glistening with condensation from Frank’s hundred and twenty degree shower.
All these Victorian details and more had been enumerated in the listing when they purchased the house three years ago. What if we offered you five fireplaces, three bedrooms, and over 4,000 square feet worth of Ohio history for just $89,500? it asked. It’s hard to believe, but this majestic Zanesville house is the real thing! Enjoy the charming porch, or peek inside for a glance at the magnificent mahogany staircase! It went on and on about the intricate woodwork and historical hardware. It really had been a steal for the price, especially on a Vice President of Dealer Sales’s salary. She spit the vomit-flecked toothpaste into the sink.
Lauren returned to the bedroom and pulled a robe on over her pajamas before sitting down on the bed and forcing one swollen foot, then the other, into her pink slippers. She wound her way through a twisting labyrinth of garishly wallpapered rooms and dark parlors, past heavily curtained windows and cavernous fireplaces, until finally coming to the front door. She stepped out onto the porch and went down to the mailbox, surveying the street as she walked.
The leaves on the trees were already beginning to change and fall, but the houses behind them had been kept in historically accurate stasis for nearly one hundred and fifty years, and Lauren thought, would probably stay exactly the same for the next hundred and fifty. As she pulled the newspaper from the mailbox a breeze blew down the street, rustling the leaves and catching her bathrobe.
Had this happened six months ago, the scene would have been fit for the cover of an old Ace paperback. The fallen leaves (red, yellow, and brown) skittering down the cracked asphalt as the wind plays in her curly black hair and makes her robe billow out behind her, hinting at the girlish figure that lay beneath it; her stately home rising up ominously in the background, all grey stone and red velvet siding.
But as it was, Lauren was a far cry from one of those pale dimestore damsels. Her robe billowed out behind her, but the twenty five extra pounds that came with the pregnancy had blurred her once waiflike figure, distending her stomach and swelling her breasts and thighs to nearly twice their original size. She pulled her not-quite diaphanous bathrobe tight against herself. All these changes disgusted her, but Frank seemed happy enough with them. Lauren tried not to think about that too much as she turned back towards her home, clutching the newspaper to her chest.
As she drew nearer to the porch, Lauren was not at all surprised to see a man sitting in her glider smoking a cigarette.
A sense of unreality had been steadily creeping in at the edges of her life in the months since she had watched that little red plus sign bloom like a calla lily on the pregnancy test. Doors Lauren was sure she had closed would be found hanging open, lights would turn off and on on their own accord, and then there was the sound. Always the sound.
At all hours of the day, just at the edge of her hearing, Lauren could hear a metal grating sound, like a pair of rusty scissors opening and closing. It was a sound that conjured up images of hospital rooms and somber looking doctors; faded memories of teenage trips to the clinic. Trips she took long before she had ever met Frank.
“Your imagination’s getting to be as big as the baby,” Frank always said when she tried to tell him about the strangeness. Frank would laugh at his own joke, and then he would turn on the television and forget everything Lauren had said. He loved Cops. But she knew what she had seen. What she had heard.
So, really, the man sitting on her porch seemed like a perfectly natural part of her domestic reality, the reality she no longer bothered to share with her husband. And didn’t the stranger look like he belonged there more than she did anyway? Slowly rocking back in forth in the glider wearing suspenders and dress pants over a white button-down shirt, the man seemed to be nothing more than another piece of historical hardware; as much a part of the house as the hinges and nails that held it together.
“Jesus. Didn’t expect you’d be here so soon,” he said between quick drags on his cigarette. “We still got another girl in there, but you’re welcome to go in and wait in the parlor ‘till Ruth gets her patched up and ready to go.” She almost didn’t notice the blood on his cuffs.
Lauren stood staring at the man that had inexplicably materialized on her porch for a moment, unsure if she should fish her phone out from the pocket of her robe and call Frank. And say what? she thought. That there’s a man on the porch smoking a cigarette? She could imagine what he would say about not calling him at work unless it was an emergency she couldn’t handle on her own; about her goddamned imagination; about who put the fucking food on the table…
“Go on, go in. You’re expected” the stranger told her, pulling her back to the porch. Then, as if in a dream, Lauren did as she was told and crossed the threshold into her home.
Despite the peculiarity suggested by the sudden appearance of the stranger outside, the foyer was exactly as she left it not five minutes before when she walked out to get the paper. The dark wood of the staircase still climbed up and up to the second floor, the chandelier still hung down from golden chains, and the wallpaper held its dizzying crimson damask pattern. Her home was just as immutable as her neighbors’, inside and out. It suddenly became difficult for Lauren to believe that the man on her porch was real. Absently, she sat the newspaper on a table in the entryway. She was proud of herself for not calling Frank.
But before these thoughts could take hold in her mind, the door at the head of the stairs swung slowly inward and two women stepped out onto the landing. One, a willowy blonde, was leaning on the other, seemingly unable to support herself. The other, for her part, was a powerfully built brunette. Even from the foot of the stairs, Lauren perceived a strange and severe strength in the woman’s plain features.
“Careful, careful,” the brunette said to the blonde as they began to descend the stairs. “You’re going to have to take it easy for the next few days.”
“I-I know. Thank you,” the blonde replied.
“Oh, hello,” the brunette said, shifting her attention to Lauren. “Did Will let you in?”
“Uh, yeah. Yes, he did,” Lauren said.
“I’ll be with you in a minute. I’m going to walk this young woman to her ride.”
Lauren nodded that she understood, and the two women walked by her on their way out to the door. As they passed, Lauren felt a shiver go down her spine. The kind of shiver she only got after barely clearing an intersection, or when she stopped just short of hitting a deer on some dark country road. The kind of shiver that let her know that death had been close at hand and was only now narrowly avoided. The baby stirred inside her.
The brunette returned and asked Lauren her name. “Unless you don’t want to give it. Plenty of girls don’t and I don’t blame them.”
“Why wouldn’t I tell you my name?”
“You’re a little too old to be that naive.”
The insult once again reminded Lauren of her situation, talking to people– or things that looked like people, at any rate– that probably weren’t really there. If she were going to go along with their charade, to enable their existence with her belief, they could at least be polite.
“My name is Lauren, and I don’t appreciate–”
At that moment, the man from the porch (Will, was it?) came in from outside, saying; “She’s in rough shape, Ruth. Did you give her anything for the pain?”
“We’d be in enough trouble if anybody found out about us as it is,” Ruth said. “You really want to add opium to the list of charges?”
Will was silent.
“Whatever your name is, we know why you’re here. We understand your position. Let’s all go upstairs and we can get started,” Ruth said to Lauren, taking her by the hand and leading her up the steps towards her bedroom. Lauren, once again under the spell of this bizarre masquerade, did not resist. Will followed close behind.
“Lay down,” Ruth instructed Lauren. She did as she was told and laid down in the bed that she and Frank had shared for the last three years. Ruth grabbed a bag Lauren had never seen before off of the rich oak dresser that stood in the far corner of the bedroom.
“This is what boys do,” Ruth said, pointing to Lauren’s belly. “They have their fun and then leave us to deal with their mess.” Ruth began producing a collection of evil looking tools from her bag and placed them on the nightstand as she spoke: miniature shepherds hooks all covered in barbs and teeth, a variety of clawed forceps, and several speculums that looked more like can-openers than something that should be in any operating room. Ruth tested the forceps, and they made a sound like a pair of rusty scissors opening and closing.
Suddenly, Lauren understood.
“Shh, shh. It’ll all be alri…” Lauren half heard Ruth say as Will held a chemical-smelling rag over Lauren’s face and the ceiling began to crawl above her. Her thoughts began to drift and drift, and soon her eyes fluttered shut and she let herself slip into the black void that had slowly begun to eat away the edges of her vision.
Lauren woke up alone.
She turned her head from left to right searching for Ruth and Will, finding neither. The ceiling must have exhausted itself while she slept, for it was now again at rest. For a moment, Lauren was no longer convinced that she had even left the bed that day. The paper was still in the mailbox. The stranger was never on her porch. Dimly, Lauren became aware that her sheets were damp with blood.
She sat up and saw the battered, unnameable thing laying between her legs. Pulled into the world too soon, its tiny head had been crushed like some kind of grotesque Faberge egg, spilling the yolk of its brain onto the bed in a blue-grey puddle. The veins beneath its translucent skin had ruptured, painting its entire body a sickly shade of red and casting its intestines in stark relief against the background of the blackened mesentery tissue. Lauren screamed into the emptiness of the house.
When Frank came home that night, the paper was in the foyer waiting for him.