Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The West Topeka Triangle

As much as the other kids in my neighborhood like to tell me I’m a know-it-all, I realize just how short the list of things I actually know is one cold winter morning in 1987. I know my vocabulary words, everything that can be known about the Bermuda Triangle, and how well-liked a kid is by who they walk to school with.

Almost everything important that ever happens to me happens on the walk to or from school. My family lives in The Coyote Rise Townhome Co-op, which is one and a quarter miles away from McCarthy Elementary School (according to my stepdad). It’s too close for them to give us bus service, so every weekday morning, twenty-six kids leave our beige box townhouses, falling into our places in the “Coyote pack,” and make the walk without adults. We dart across a busy two-lane road with no crosswalk, pass over the cracked and patched asphalt of the West Topeka Baptist Church parking lot, and into a rarely-mowed baseball field. We stroll down a line of overgrown trees, across a dry creek bed that hasn’t contained water in our lifetimes, then skirt a small pond where mallards nest in the spring. We struggle up a small hill which becomes treacherously slick after rain. At the top of the hill, a cul-de-sac feeds out into streets lined with real houses built in the 1950s, the kind that don’t share walls with their neighbors. We call it the “rich neighborhood.”

I walk in the front of the pack because nobody likes me. I’m too poor, the other kids think I think I know everything, and I have big ears that stick out at right angles from my head. Some of the kids call me Dumbo so they can see me cry. It almost always works, even though I know it shouldn’t. My little sister and brother walk in the middle with all the other K to threes. Safe and anonymous. I like not having to worry about them. I have my own problems. Like Brendan.

“Hey, wait,” Brendan says, hurrying along behind me. His fat cheeks jiggle and he breathes hard like he’s been running since Coyote Rise. His backpack keeps slipping off because he only wears one shoulder strap like the cool kids. That slows him down some, but he catches up with me eventually.

Brendan walks with me sometimes. I’m an easy target for his insults. To his credit, he doesn’t lean too heavy on the Dumbo thing.

“Give me that branch, faggot,” Brendan says. “You’re just going to try to shove it up your ass.”

The day before, I found a fallen tree limb, longer than I was tall, in the trees beside the dry creek. Today, I’m using it as a wizard-staff/walking-stick. Sometimes a group of middle school kids let me play D&D with them after school. I’m almost as obsessed with wizards and elves as I am with the mystery of the Triangle and its victims.

“I’m not a faggot,” I say. But you are sack of crap, I think, but I don’t say it.

“You’ve never had a girlfriend,” he says. “That makes you a fag.”

“But you don’t have a girlfriend either.”

“Yes, I do. She just doesn’t go to our lame-ass school. Now gimme that stick.”

I walk faster. Brendan struggles to keep up.

“If you make me run, I’m really gonna be pissed.”

I can outrun him. I’m not fast, but I can run farther and longer than anybody at school. I’m always first to finish the “mile” run during phys ed. This one time, I told my step-dad my four-and-a-half minute time at dinner, proud that I was the best at something. He slapped me on the cheek and called me a liar. The fastest man in the world can barely run a four-minute mile, he said. So I guess it isn’t really a mile, just four times around our school.

“You run like somebody is chasing you,” our PE teacher says every year. I think, “of course I do,” but I don’t say it. Somebody’s always chasing me. When he says it, the athletic kids sneer at me, even though they’re good at actual sports like soccer and basketball. Luckily for them, I can’t outrun the speed of sound. They can always call me names.

“Goddamn it, Four-Eyes, I want that stick,” Brendan huffs. Now we’re out past the pond, where I hope to go check for duck nests after school if Brendan isn’t still hounding me.

He continues on like this through the rich neighborhood. He gets more and more agitated, and I’m worried he’s going to start hitting me soon. I jog around a corner and shove my staff in the evergreen bushes across the street from school, and then I break into a run when I reach the mowed soccer field that stretches between the school fence and the gym doors. Inside, there’s usually a bored teacher drowning herself in coffee keeping an eye on us kids who come to school early. There’s a whole bunch of us because of what time our parents have to be at work. Some come for the free breakfasts because they’re even poorer than I am. We at least have generic Pop-Tarts and Kix cereal at home. I think Brendan comes early just to have more time to pick on me.

If he catches up with me before I get inside, I’ll probably take some hits. But he won’t hit me where a teacher can see him. I’m not fast over short distances, though, and I barely make it inside ahead of him. He doesn’t punch me, but he doesn’t shut up either.

“Where’d you put that stick, dickwad? I want that stick. After school, I’m going to beat you to death with that stick.” He backs me up to the brick wall of the gym over by the window where we get our milk cartons at lunch. He keeps on with his threats. My heart won’t slow down from running. I want to get away. I need to get away, but he’s blocking me in.

I don’t know why I do it. My arms move without me telling them to, and I watch myself like a movie as my hands grab the sides of his head and swing it against the brick wall. Four times, I bash Brendan’s skull against the bricks. I wonder if the Triangle is making me do it, somehow.

There’s a horrible sound that I don’t recognize at first, but it’s me and I sound like the raccoon I found caught in the rusty jaws of trap out in the woods. I could hear it screaming almost all the way home when I went to get help from Mom. When we came back, it’d gnawed off its leg and limped away.

In my disconnected state, I am slow to notice that everyone else is quiet and watching us. I can hear Brendan begging someone to help him, but he doesn’t seem too hurt. I guess I’m not very strong. Mrs. Carter waddles toward us through the crowd, shouting. I let go and stare at her. I can’t hear anything now over the ringing in my ears and the blood rushing through my head. I want to lie down.

She marches us to the principal’s office, hands gripping hard around our upper arms. Past the secretaries, and straight into his office without a word to them. Mr. Howard stands up, frowning.

I don’t know how tall Mr. Howard really is, but if I had to guess, I’d say he’s just shy of seven feet. His hair is silver, cropped short like my great-grandfather’s, another military man, although Grandpa Hawkins had fought in Dubya-Dubya-Two and Mr. Howard in Korea. An enormous wooden paddle hangs on the wall behind him, almost as big as an oar. I’m not even sure it isn’t an oar, but it doesn’t intimidate me much. Parents have to sign a consent form for him to use it on us and my mom thinks spanking is “barbaric.” Not Brendan’s mom, though. Inside the office, Brendan puts on a good show and cries a lot. It’s not his first time in here, or mine either, but every other time I’m the one who had his ass kicked.

Brendan and I answer his questions about what happened. I’m honest, but I can’t really say why I fought back this time. I tell him about my wizard staff and Brendan’s taunts. Brendan doesn’t disagree.

“Where’s this stick now?” Mr. Howard asks with a frown.

“I hid it,” I say.

“I want to see this thing,” he says. He puts on his coat and I lead them to my hiding spot. I hate him quietly for making me show Brendan my best hiding place. Hiding places for stuff you can’t take into the school are hard to come by.

I take out the stick and Mr. Howard whistles. “Who do you think you are? Moses?” He reaches for the stick. I hesitate, but hand it over. I don’t have an ounce of anti-authoritarianism in me. My step-dad made sure of that a long time ago.

“Are you going to call my mom?” Brendan asks, voice a high whine.

“Jason, should I call his mother?” He asks me. I raise my eyebrows and look back and forth between them.

“Why are you asking him? He beat me up!”

“No, it’s okay,” I say.

“Brendan, go to class,” Mr. Howard says.

“You’re not going to call her?”

Mr. Howard gives Brendan his “I killed Koreans for my country, so what do you think I’ll do to you if you don’t listen?” look and Brendan huffs off.

“Merlin,” I say, after I’m sure Brendan can’t hear us.

“What?”

“Not Moses. Merlin,” I say. “I bet if I was a wizard like Merlin, nobody would try to take my staff or call me a faggot.”

“Don’t be so sure of that,” he mutters, thinking I can’t hear him, but it’s the one upside of the big ears.

We walk slowly back across the field toward the school. Mr. Howard doesn’t say anything for a while.

“Can I get my stick back after school?” I ask.

“I trust you not to misuse it, but I don’t think it’s a good idea for the others. I better keep it.” I nod. It makes sense. I’d probably do the same if I were him.

“Are you going to call my dad?” It’s a little trick I read about in a book once. If he calls my mom, she’ll tell Bill, and I’ll have “hell to pay” (as Bill would say). But if Mr. Howard calls Dad, nothing will happen at all. Dad is always telling me to stand up for myself, and when he thinks I can’t hear him, wonder how he ended up with such a pussy for a son. Dad grew up with four brothers and three sisters in the country. He knows how to stand up for himself.

“Do you think I should?” Mr. Howard asks. I’m pretty sure he’s trying to teach me a lesson here. I don’t say anything for a moment while I try to figure out the right answer, but he continues. “I don’t think you’re going to hurt anyone again, do you?”

“I am not even sure why I did it this time.”

Mr. Howard squats down in front of me, doing that thing tall adults do when they really want to make an important point. I have to force myself not to look down. They never like it when you look away. He says: “There is an animal in all of us, Jason. We’re all of us tainted with original sin since Eve ate the apple in the Garden of Eden.”

I nod. I’ve read the Bible, or at least the good parts in the Old Testament. All the Jesus on the mound stuff in the New Testament was boring compared to the blood and sex and smiting in the early books.

“Deep down, each one of us is capable of doing something monstrous. God-willing and a heap of prayer to help, we keep it inside.”

We walk back to the school. I can see inside my classroom through the row of windows looking out onto the asphalt playground. Mrs. Dario stands at the front of the class leading the Pledge of Allegiance. My classmates stand beside their desks with their hands over the hearts, facing the flag and the poster of Ronald Reagan on the wall below it.

I’d tried praying to Ronald Reagan once. He always seemed so friendly on television. Reagan didn’t have a better track record answering me than God did, but he did like to talk a lot about Star Wars, so he was still coming out ahead.

“I said, do you understand?” Mr. Howard asks, steel edge to his voice. He’s been talking, but I didn’t heard him.

“Yes, sir.” That is always a safe bet.

My principal smiles. He has one of those smiles that made you feel a little uneasy. All teeth and no eyes. “Good. Get to class and don’t bring any more walking sticks to school.” He waves at my teacher, and she nods. I go inside and take my seat as Mrs. Dario starts going over today’s vocabulary words. They’re written on the chalkboard in neat block letters:

ABANDON
BLUNDER
HOAX
INVISIBLE
MENACE

I know them already.

• • • •

At lunch, I expect everyone to ask about my “outburst,” but as we wind through the line to collect our slices of pizza on plastic trays, all anyone’s talking about is Kim Davidson. She hasn’t come to school today and the police showed up in her fourth grade classroom.

The news hits me like my own head smacking into the gym wall. Kim Davidson, missing too? Kim lives (lived?) a building down from ours in 1127 B. I have spent many nights laying on my top bunk and thinking about the color of her hair. Trying to describe it just right to myself. It’s like wheat in late summer. It’s like the sun at noon. It hurts to look at, in a good way.

Kim is the first to go from Coyote Rise. She is a kink in my theory. It worries me.

I collect my slice; it has exactly three slices of pepperoni on it. There is no way to arrange three points without them forming a triangle. An omen, I wonder? I sit at the far end of a table where Bobby Mavis is holding court. “The cop had a huuuuge gun on his belt. Anybody could just reach out and grab it. I totally could have.”

“You dumbass,” says Becky Collette. “If you’d tried that, he woulda blown your head clear off and not gotten in trouble for it.” Becky should know, because her dad’s a cop. “When’s the last time anybody saw Kim, anyway?”

“Yesterday at school,” Bobby says.

“I saw her last night riding her bike,” I say. I’d been reading a Bobbsey Twins mystery by the window. She had pedaled by, the red and white tassels on her handlebars blowing in the breeze, and her hair tied over her shoulder in a ponytail. I wanted to call out to her, to say hello, but Bill called me to dinner. I didn’t see her ride back home.

“Nobody’s talking to you, nerd,” Becky snaps. “Go sit somewhere else.”

I know what happened to Kim. I know what’s happening to all the other kids that have disappeared. But even if I tell them, they won’t believe me. The Triangle won’t let them. So I don’t say anything. I stand up and take my tray to another table.

Brendan sits down beside me with a greasy grunt. I look around for a teacher, but whoever has lunch duty has ducked out for a smoke. Brendan probably knows that. I grip my tray, ready for something. He’s probably spent the whole morning planning his retaliation.

“Hey,” he says. “Did you get your stick back?”

I look down at my food. “No. Mr. Howard kept it.”

“That sucks. It was really cool.”

“Yeah.”

“I wish I had found it.”

I try to listen to the conversation about Kim at the other table, but it’s too noisy in the lunchroom. Then Brendan does the first thing he’s ever done that has surprised me.

“Um. Sorry I pushed you around,” he says, voice practically a whisper.

“What?”

“You heard me, dickcheese,” he snaps.

“It’s . . . okay?” I’m not really sure what else to say. Most of my days follow a pretty basic script; people make fun of me, I pretend not to hear them. I’m off the script now. I’m surprised to at how good it feels. My heart is racing again and my palms are sweaty against the sides of my lunch tray.

“Do you play Nintendo?” Brendan asks. “I’ve got Super Mario 2.”

“That’s cool.” I didn’t even know there was a Super Mario 1.

“You can come over today and we’ll play it. If you want. But I get to be player one.”

I nod to myself. Now I see. Brendan wants to get me on his territory. He’ll probably lock me in a closet or something, figure out some way to torture me without someone being there to intervene.

“Okay. Sure.”

“Cool. See you after school,” he says. He gets up and buses his tray, then heads out to the playground. I watch him go, wondering when the Triangle replaced him.

• • • •

After lunch, two blue-uniformed officers come talk to our class about the missing kids. Nobody knows anything, has any good answers for their questions, so they give us our third safety lecture of the year. Travel in groups, always tell your parents where you’re going to be, and never get in the cars of strangers. We’ve heard it all, internalized it. Lived it. My cousin Chris got in a car with a stranger two years before and he’s still going to therapy because of what happened. He got off lucky, though, compared the others. He got to go home.

I spend the afternoon ignoring Mrs. Dario. She has a Cuban accent and a lot of kids make fun of her for it. I like the sound of it. And she loves America more than anybody I know. She especially loves Ronald Reagan—almost as much as she hates the Communists. I don’t really understand all the details, but I guess the Communists invaded Cuba and made her come to Kansas. One time, she was reading us a story about the Revolutionary War and she started to cry. The whole class gave her a hug, even me.

Instead of listening, I think about why the Triangle would want Kim. I go through my “what” theories about aliens and Atlanteans, body harvesting, organ farming. Mind slaves to the slug overlords of Neptune. When the bell rings at the end of the day, I rubber-band-snap back into my body from wherever my mind drifts when I’m thinking hard. I feel like I go into a forest far away when I’m thinking about important things. The trees are enormous, so tall that the leaves disappear into a mist. The air is cool and wet. I don’t recognize the place, but I’ve searched books for pictures that match it. It probably doesn’t exist except inside my head. Or maybe it’s inside the Triangle, on the other side. Wherever it is, it’s the safest place I know.

I work on the new wrinkle with my main “why” theory on the walk home. Everybody else is long gone, so I don’t have to hurry or pay too much attention or worry about bullies. I can’t seem to piece together how the Triangle picks who it takes. My best idea until now is that it’s the opposite of a bully.

I understand bullies. Bullies look for things that stand out. Kind of like how white blood cells will attack bacteria and viruses and stuff—bullies are the human response to things that are weird and threaten the safety of the group. Bullies enforce something I’d read about in a public library book called “social cohesion.” There was a lot of other stuff about the core family group and monkey social structures that was over my head, but I understand “social cohesion” because my entire life, I’ve known that I’m not part of it.

“The nail that sticks up gets the hammer,” Bill likes to say whenever I forget myself and complain about bullies in front of him. Mom frowns but she never corrects him.

Unlike a bully, the Triangle always takes away the conformists. Until Kim, none of the poor, latchkey Coyote Rise kids have disappeared. It’s always the normal kids in normal “rich” neighborhoods whose parents are still married, the ones who don’t have siblings locked up in juvie, whose parents aren’t drunks or druggies. But Kim lives (lived?) with her uncle, who everybody knows sells weed, and her parents were both in the state pen.

I’ve never really been afraid of the Triangle because I’m not what it wants. But now I’m not sure. Should I be afraid? It’s another thing to my list of worries.

I snap back into my body to find that I’m in front of Brendan’s place. He’s sitting on the stoop waiting for me and eating a Snickers. He leads me inside without a word from either of us.

I know Brendan is an only child when I see his bedroom. He has a Nintendo and a Sega hooked up to a TV bigger than the one in our living room. He even has a computer in the corner, but it has a dust cover on it and doesn’t look like it gets much use. Instead of books on shelves, he has little Lego constructions that look just like the things on the box. Real Lego, too, not the Construx knock-offs like I have. I think maybe they’re even super-glued together. I try not to let my offense show.

We talk about impersonal stuff like school and TV shows. He loves Saved by the Bell but I’m more of a Duck Tales fan. We don’t talk about the fight at all.

It turns out that Brendan doesn’t want to lock me in a closet or do anything weird. He really wants to play video games. We play some Mario 2 for a while. It’s fun, but kind of dumb. While we play, Brendan tells me all about his games and all the cheat codes he knows.

“You sure know a lot about video games,” I say, then feel stupid for it.

“I’ve read every single Nintendo Power they’ve ever printed. That’s, like, all I read.” He takes a sip from his second can of Mountain Dew. “You know a lot about everything else, though.”

It’s hard for me to take the compliment. I list for him the things I actually know instead of saying thank you.

Brendan pauses the game. “The Bermuda Triangle? What’s that?”

“Stuff disappears in the Bermuda Triangle all the time. You can see where it is by drawing a triangle on a map. The corners are in Miami, Puerto Rico, and Bermuda. All kinds of planes and ships have gone missing for years.”

“Missing?”

“They vanish. Like, in 1945, these five bombers were on a training exercise out of Fort Lauderdale. Flight 19. Even though they had compasses and stuff, they radioed that they had gotten lost in a mysterious fog. The military searched for them for days. Nobody ever found the planes or bodies or anything, but people picked up their radio transmissions for days afterward. Can you even imagine what that must have been like?”

“Where do they go?”

I frown. This is the unknowable part. “Another dimension, probably. Maybe Atlantis. Aliens abducted them. Nobody knows, but there are all kinds of theories. Some of it ties into this thing called the Philadelphia Experiment, but I don’t know as much about that.”

“Okay, what’s that, though?”

And so I tell him all about how the US Navy experimented with cloaking technology, about the men who become stuck out of phase with our reality, half here, half not, and even stories of time travel and teleportation. And of course they’d done it all in the Bermuda Triangle. I talk for an hour, unloading all these stories I’ve collected from library books and weird late night TV shows. I can’t remember the last time I’ve talked for so long. Brendan listens, asking good questions here and there, like he really cares.

“Woah. That’s fucking crazy stuff.” Brendan lays back on his bed and stares at the ceiling. “I never knew any of that.” In that moment, I feel very strange to realize where I am and how I got here. How Brendan doesn’t make me to want to run the other direction anymore. I remind myself that maybe this isn’t the real Brendan; he’s been replaced by the Triangle with a duplicate so of course he’ll believe me. I can probably tell him anything I want now.

“I think Topeka has a Triangle, too,” I say, almost whispering. I have to tell him, even if he is a pod person. The D&D kids never listen. They just call me a dumb kid and threaten to stop letting me hang around them.

“The disappearances,” he says, sitting upright suddenly. “That makes sense.”

“It does?” Not sure what else to say. I didn’t expect his reaction.

“Hell yes. The cops haven’t found jack-shit, everybody knows that. That’s probably because they’re vanished, just like those planes in your story. So where’s our Triangle?”

“Do you have a phone book?” We go downstairs and find one in a drawer beside the phone. There’s always a map of town in the front of phone books. I take a pen from a mug beside the phone and draw out the sides. “One corner is Hillsdale Park. Another is Topeka West High School. The last one is the Kmart.”

“How do you know this?”

I draw a star for where each one of the seven missing kids lived. They all fall inside the bounds of the Triangle. I’m kind of guessing about the exact location of the corners, but it works.

“Huh,” he says. Somehow, he’s eating another candy bar. He touches the map and leaves a brown thumbprint on the page where Coyote Rise stands. A message from the Triangle, I wonder. Is it telling me, “I know where you are” now?

“Maybe the Triangle is why you tried to crack open my head today,” he says with a chocolate grin.

I wince. Here it comes, I think. But in a way, the hint of threat is a relief. The natural order of things will be restored.

After a while, the nail that sticks out wants to be hammered.

“What do you plan to do?” He waves his hand at the map, and the natural order continues unnaturally. “Did you tell the cops? Show them this?”

“Yeah.” I tell him about Officer Dan. After the second visit from the police this year, I told Officer Dan my first theory. I drew him the Triangle on a piece of construction paper, from memory. Only four kids had vanished back then.

Officer Dan was nice about it, but he said that he had read a book about the Bermuda Triangle that I hadn’t called The Bermuda Triangle: Mystery Solved. It explained that the Triangle didn’t exist. Didn’t exist. It was made up by a guy named Edward Van Winkle Jones to sell books, and a careful study showed that the Triangle had no more disappearances than any other random area of ocean.

Brendan sniffed. “What a dick.”

“Yeah! I think the Triangle controls the adults somehow. It’s the only explanation. Seven kids have disappeared, so why do we still walk to school on our own? Why do we stay at home by ourselves all afternoon?” Why is Mom still married to Bill? Why do I never see Dad anymore? I don’t say any of that. I just think it.

“Yeah, well. Kids are disappearing, but our parents still have to go to their shitty jobs,” Brendan says. Is that the Triangle talking, or my bully? I don’t know, and there’s a third option I’m almost afraid to even think, but there it is. Brendan might actually be talking as my friend.

“Until today, I thought that Coyote Rise kids were immune to the West Topeka Triangle. That it didn’t want us. But Kim . . .”

“Kim Davidson. Damn.” Brendan blows air out of his cheeks in a lazy attempt at a whistle. “What a hottie. I can’t believe she’s gone, but you know she wasn’t going to be part of the Coyote pack anymore.”

“No.” I blink. “What do you mean?”

“Kim was moving to Kansas City with her mom. She got out early on parole. Didn’t you hear? I guess nobody really talks to you at school, so why would you know that?”

I try not to wince, but I don’t do a very good job of it. His bedside phone rings, saving me his half-hearted apologies. Brendan answers and talks to someone I eventually realize is his mom. I’ve never heard Brendan mention a dad, and there’s a rumor at school that his mother was raped and Brendan doesn’t have a real dad at all. That made an evil sort of sense to me before today. Now I feel terrible for believing it.

“Okay. I’ll microwave a Hot Pocket. Yeah—he’s still here. Okay, I will. Bye.” He hung up the phone. “Mom says to ask if you want to have dinner. She’s going to be home late.” I look at the cat-shaped wall clock and realize the time. Bill is going to be furious if I don’t get home now.

“Thanks, but I can’t. I better go.”

“Hey, want to walk to school together tomorrow? We can talk about what to do about the Triangle.”

Do? Do what? I was curious what he thought we could ever do about any of it. “Sure.” I let myself out, screen door slamming behind me as I take off at a run.

Bill gives me a mean glare when I come in, but he doesn’t say anything. He’s already watching Wheel of Fortune, so I won’t have his attention for a while. I go up to my room, which I share with my little brother. He’s under the covers sniffling. I feel bad; whenever I’m not around, Bill takes out his anger on Gnat. I drop off my bag, pat Gnat on the shoulder for a moment, then head downstairs as Mom walks in the door.

She gives me a distracted kiss on the forehead and asks me about my day. She’s already in the kitchen before I can muster up the kind of answer she wants to hear.

“I’m really sorry to hear about your friend Kim, honey,” she says, placing a large pot of water on the stove. She tears open a box of spaghetti noodles and stares into the water. I want to tell her it’ll never boil that way.

“She wasn’t my friend. Not really,” I say. Mom thinks everybody in the complex is my friend, no matter how many times I correct her.

“I think Brendan might be, though.”

Her eyes widen, and she smiles. She looks happier than I’ve seen her in a long time.

“That’s great, honey.”

“We hung out after school.” I feel embarrassed for not telling her about the fight, but I know she has enough worry about with her receptionist job where the doctors are really demanding.

“Go tell your brother and sister dinner will be ready in ten minutes,” she says. I do as I’m told. By the time we’re all seated at the table, she’s done microwaving the sauce. I pop in a couple of slices of bread to make garlic toast while she sets the table.

Bill walks in and throws his third can of beer in the trash. He takes a seat at the head of the table where Dad used to sit. I can just barely remember what it was like before the divorce. Gnat was too young and can’t remember at all. Sissy might, but we never talk about it, so I don’t know. Anyway, Bill treats Sissy a lot better than Gnat and I. Better even than Mom.

We get through another beer before Bill starts in. Gnat had left a toy on the stairs the night before, and Bill had almost slipped and broken his neck on his way to work in the morning. Didn’t we know how good we had it, and shouldn’t we show him some goddamned respect for working so hard to provide for us when we weren’t even his flesh and blood?

Tonight I don’t want to be the nail that sticks up. I want keep my mouth shut and wonder at the injustice of a universe that doesn’t make people like Bill disappear and instead targets golden-haired girls like Kim Davidson.

I hear myself talking, but I swear the words don’t come from me. “If you hurt Gnat again, I will kill you. I will stab you to death in your sleep.”

My mother gasps. Bill roars, stumbles onto his feet, and the chair goes crashing backwards behind him to the kitchen linoleum. “What did you just say?”

I say it again. I say it a third time, only this time my lips are moving and I feel like I’m echoing the voice of someone else.

My mother stands his chair up, and Bill falls back into his chair at the head of the table. He’s gone pale. He doesn’t say anything. Nobody says anything, but there’s a humming in the air that I can feel in my teeth. Then I feel an electrical, snapping sensation; everyone relaxes—the scowls and frightened glances go smooth.

The Triangle has reasserted itself. Bill takes another drink of beer. My mother dishes up another helping to Gnat. I excuse myself and go to my room.

I read in my top bunk bed, close enough to the popcorn ceiling that I can reach out and make it snow if I want. Right now, I’m working on the Mystic Places book in the Time-Life Series of the Unknown that they’re always selling on TV. I got mine for twenty-five cents at a garage sale. I’ve read it three times already, but I’m trying to figure out if the sides of the Triangle might be ley lines, related somehow to the Pyramids or maybe even Stonehenge.

I only read a few pages before I fall asleep. I dream about a world covered in interlocking triangles, lines of power running from mystic place to place of ancient power. Swirling vortices form within them, sucking up boats, airplanes, children, animals, everything, a world dotted with growing black holes with endless hunger. They inhale until nothing is left, until the plants and animals are gone, and the world is a barren rock, and then that goes next. The planet gone, the Triangles somehow still remaining. It looks in my mind kind of like that thing in another of my books, a Dyson sphere. And then it too is gone, a Big Bang in reverse.

• • • •

“We have to test the theory. What do you call it?” Brendan asks as we walk. All I can think about is the cold morning air on my sides where there are holes in my thrift store coat.

“What? Oh. An experiment?”

“Exactly. We need to do an experiment.” He jumps across the dry creek bed. “You know about science and stuff, right? How do you do one?”

“I think we have to pick a variable and change it and measure the results. And, uh, then we change the theory based on that.” I have an old textbook somewhere in my closet that explains it better. I make a note to read it after school.

When we get to the cul-de-sac, the D&D middle school kids are standing in a driveway sharing a cigarette. Only Todd and Bend of them are wearing coats; Jerry and Wheeze are shivering in their Metallica and Iron Maiden shirts.

“Hey, runt,” Todd the dungeon master says, pointing the cigarette at me. “You hanging out with fattie now?”

I don’t know what to say. I don’t know anything. I shrug. I expect Brendan to say something, to defend himself. He never backs down to kids our age, but now he walks past me and continues toward school. My face burns with, what? Embarrassment? Shame. Older kids always make me flustered. They operate by rules of behavior I don’t understand any better than the ones adults do.

“Heh, guess not,” Jerry the fighter player said. Jerry likes me best of the four of them; he lives down the street in Coyote Rise, too. “Doesn’t that kid pick on you all the time?”

I nod. “I kind of beat him up yesterday.”

“And now he wants to be your friend? That’s fuckin’ pathetic.” Todd laughs. “We’re gonna cut class and explore the sewers under the park. I wanna try to summon a demon again, too.” He patted his backpack. “I even remembered to steal my mom’s flashlight this time. Want to come?”

“Technically, they’re storm drains,” Wheeze the wizard says. “Anybody got another cig?”

“No, dude, he’s in grade school. He’ll get in deep shit if he doesn’t go to school,” Jerry says.

“Yeah,” says Ben, the thief in real life and the game. Everybody knows he shoplifts all the time, mostly because he’s always talking about it. “With all the disappearances, they’ll have the cops after us by lunch.”

“Go on to school,” Wheeze managed to say before breaking out in his trademark cough. “Come by the basement after. We’re going to try that new Ravenloft module.”

“Okay,” I say. “Good luck in the sewers.” I run to catch up with Brendan, but I can’t find him anywhere along the route. I double back twice, thinking maybe I just missed him. I try not to think it. I look as long as I can, but I know I can’t be late. I can’t risk getting in trouble two days in a row. Even Mr. Howard has his limits.

I get inside the gym just before the bell rings, and only just catch Brendan slipping out into the hall. I call his name, but he doesn’t answer me. I tell myself it’s just because it’s so loud in the gym.

• • • •

Today’s vocabulary words are:

BETRAYAL
INDIGNATION
REMORSE
DETERIORATE
LOATHE

I know them, too.

• • • •

“Sorry about earlier,” I tell him. Brendan is showing me where the hidden warp pipes are in Super Mario. I really like his bedroom. I wonder how many years of allowance I would need to save up to buy my own TV and Nintendo. Not that Bill would let me anyway.

“Are those teenagers your friends?”

“Most of them don’t like me. I think they feel sorry for me, so they let me play D&D with them,” I say. I feel a little guilty for not going over like they asked. As the party cleric, I know they need me to survive combat. They may not like me very much, but they like my healing spells in the heat of battle well enough.

“That’s cool,” he says. “D&D seems pretty gay to me. Pretending to be wizards and shit? Video games are more fun.”

“I guess.”

Neither of us says anything for a while. We don’t take our eyes off the screens. The pixel plumber on the screen ducks down into a pipe and disappears. Weird symbols fill up the screen.

“God damn it,” Brendan says. He yanks the cartridge out and blows in it, then returns it to the machine. When it turns it back on, it still doesn’t work. I stare at the symbols for a long time. Wondering what the Triangle is trying to say. Is it ancient Atlantean? Or maybe just Japanese.

“Stupid thing always breaks at the worst time. Sorry.”

“I should get home,” I say. “I want to plan our experiment.”

“I’m going to call the Nintendo hotline and yell at them until they send me a new game,” Brendan says, red-faced and sweaty. I let myself out as he dials the number, apparently from memory, and begins yelling.

• • • •

I lay in bed that night unable to sleep. Unable to think of a variable to test in my experiment. The only idea I have is that I should become as normal as possible. Become the nail that doesn’t stick up in any way. Become, somehow, what the Triangle wants. And if it takes me, then I will know for sure that I was right all along.

A while ago, I would have liked that. But now, I don’t; not really. I need something else.

My bedroom curtains light up suddenly, someone shining a flashlight on them from down at ground level. The D&D kids sometimes sneak out to shoplift. They like to take me along because I’m good at distracting the clerk. I go along because I’m afraid Todd will kill off my level six cleric if I don’t. And I don’t do anything illegal myself. Not really.

I put on some clothes, slip on my coat, and sneak downstairs. I go out the basement door, far enough below the master bedroom that I won’t wake Bill or Mom. Jerry’s waiting for me on the patio.

“Hey, Jason,” he says. “We’re making a cigarettes and Playboy run at the Kwik Shop. Coming?”

“Okay,” I say.

The Kwik Shop is a couple of miles away. It’s a long walk, especially because they stop to vandalize stuff along the way. In another apartment complex, Wheeze shows how you can punch the plastic globes on the street lamps and take them off. Wheeze pretends to be a trooper from Spaceballs for a while before kicking it like a soccer ball into an empty lot.

Halfway there, I get a funny feeling, that tension in the air again. Todd whispers, “Someone’s following us.” I look over my shoulder, and I make out the silhouette of a large car rolling down the street toward us, all their lights turned off.

“Don’t look,” Jerry hisses. I turn back. We keep walking.

“Why would someone follow us like that?” I ask.

“Run for it, “ Wheeze yells. They take off in different directions into the shadows. I can’t move my legs. I can’t move at all.

The Triangle has me now. I gasp for air. My mouth fills with the sting of salt.

The car rolls to a stop beside the sidewalk where I’m stuck. The passenger side window cranks down. I look, and in the dark, the face seems almost familiar.

“Hey,” a man’s voice calls out. The dash suddenly lights up as he turns on his emergency lights. I can see Mr. Howard. “What are you doing out here this late, Jason?”

I attempt a shrug.

“Get in the car and I’ll drive you home.” He smiles.

I still can’t move. I can’t talk. I’m drowning in something, I think.

Mr. Howard’s face shifts. I’ve never seen him so angry. He snarls, “I said get in the car!”

“They told us not to,” I manage at a whisper.

“I’m not a stranger, am I?”

The hum is everywhere around me. I feel like I am going to break into a thousand pieces, and I cannot move. The hum builds like the crescendo at the end of “Stairway to Heaven.” I know somehow that I am about to die, and I am okay with it. I’m ready for all of the misery to be over now. I give in to it.

For a moment, the world is silent; I imagine it sounded like this before the Big Bang, before anything. Time and space skip.

Behind us, the siren of a police car wails in two short bursts, and suddenly the street around me is painted red and blue. Mr. Howard’s face goes blank, neutral.

I can move now, but it’s too late. The cop yells at me to stay where I am. I turn around and I hold my hands in the air so they know I’m harmless like they do on TV. The cop on the passenger side gets out and walks towards me while the driver talks on the radio inside his car. It’s Officer Dan.

He tells me not to move, and walks over to Mr. Howard’s car. They talk in low voices for a while, pointing at me, but I can’t tell what they are saying. All I can think about is what Bill is going to do to me when they call home. I hear the phrase “Neighborhood Watch.” I guess that’s why Mr. Howard is out driving around late at night.

Officer Dan waves at Mr. Howard, and he drives away slowly. For a moment in the light of the headlights, I see Jerry hiding in the bushes on the other side of the street. He sees me see him, and shakes his head, then crawls back out of sight.

Officer Dan asks me a lot of questions. Why am I breaking curfew? Where are the other kids? I tell him I don’t know. I don’t know anything at all.

“We’ve called your parents. Your dad is on his way to pick you up.”

“My dad?” I ask. “Are you sure?” Officer Dan doesn’t answer, but instead lectures me on how dangerous it is for me to be out, that the other kids I had been with weren’t my friends. He talks until my dad arrives behind the wheel of his beat-up El Camino. He’s wearing his pink bathrobe and not much else. He gives me his sternest look, but there’s no heat in it. “Get in the car while I talk to the officer,” he says. I do what I’m told.

“Damndest thing,” Officer Dan says. “I could have sworn we were six blocks over, but I must have gotten turned around in the dark.”

They talk for a few more moments, but I don’t listen. I’m busy knotting myself in worry. Dad shakes Officer Dan’s hand, then gets in beside me. We sit parked on the street in the dark while Dad lights a cigarette. He doesn’t say anything until it’s gone, and lights another one.

“You sneak out a lot?” he asks. “I’m guessing with those juvenile delinquents. The ones you play that game with?”

“Not really,” I say. “Yeah. I won’t do it again. Ever.” I start to cry, but Dad laughs. The sound is so surprising that my tears dry up. It’s warm, not angry. I realize how long it’s been since I heard that laugh of his. Before my parents split up.

“I don’t care if you do it again. Just don’t get caught, and don’t get me up on a work night to come get you,” he says. “I’ll drop you off home, but don’t fuckin’ tell your mom about any of this. She’ll have a stroke.”

“Okay.”

“You’re lucky I went to high school with Dan Burtowski.”

It’s a short drive back to Coyote Rise. I want to ask Dad all kinds of questions. Why hasn’t he come to get us for the weekends lately? Why isn’t he mad at me for breaking the rules? I just think them. I don’t ask them.

“Don’t slam the door when you get out. I’ll see you later, okay?”

“Thanks, Dad.” I don’t ask when. I don’t want to hear him lie tonight.

He sighs. “It’s okay. I was your age not very long ago. I still remember . . . anyway. Night.” He drives off. I sneak back inside. I can’t even tell how long it takes me to go to sleep.

• • • •

In the morning, the complex is blanketed in a thick fog. I wake just in time to hear Mom at the door calling out to me from downstairs.

“Be careful today! There’s supposed to be freezing rain later. Call your grandma for a ride if it starts up, okay?”

“Okay!” I lie. No way would any of us call Grandma for a ride. She makes us feel guilty the whole way, even in the worst weather, and complains about everything all the time. It’s better to walk, even if it gets a little slippery.

I make sure Sissy and Gnat are up and moving. I have a fistful of dry cereal and a glass of milk, grab my bag, and walk to Brendan’s building. I figure he won’t be there, or the old Brendan will come back and he’ll be waiting to taunt me. But he’s waiting on his stoop. He smiles when he sees me and bounces up onto his feet.

“Isn’t this fog fucking awesome?” We begin to walk towards school in the white-out world. I worry for a moment that I might get lost, but our feet know the way.

“Brendan?” I ask as we cross the dry creek.

“Yeah?”

“Are we friends now?”

He doesn’t say anything for a moment. I can barely see him in the mist. “Do you want to be friends?”

Do I? I think so, but I’m not sure. “Yeah,” I say. “You?”

“Yeah, okay. This doesn’t mean I’m going to go easier on you when you’re being a dork, though.”

In a way, that’s a relief. “Okay.”

We continue walking. Past the pond, the fog is even heavier. The world is quiet. No ducks, no bird song. No cars on the freeway in the distance. Just the sound of dry leaves and grass beneath our feet.

Up the hill, past the cul-de-sac.

“Did you come up with an experiment?” He asks.

“Ah . . . not really,” I say. I want to tell him about last night. But I’m afraid what will happen to him if I do.

“I don’t think it matters if we know about the Triangle,” he says. “I think you’re right. It does something to parents. Nobody will ever listen. I told my mom about it and she just laughed and shook her head. Told me to stop listening to your crazy stories.”

“Oh.”

“She doesn’t have the energy to care about anything by the time she comes home. She just tells me to be careful and goes to work. They all do, I bet. When I grow up, I’m not going to have a real job. I’m going to work for the Nintendo Help Line.”

“What about . . . your dad?”

He laughs that kind of laugh when you think something should be funny but you know it isn’t. I laugh it all the time. “My dad left when I was a baby. Nobody knows where he went. Maybe he went into the Triangle and never came back.”

“Maybe,” I say. “Maybe that’s where everything goes when it goes away.”

Down the nice streets with the houses now. We don’t talk anymore. The air seems to swallow up all sounds. We reach the fence at the edge of the fields that surround the school. The school is erased from the world by a grey smudge of fallen sky. We are the only people in our pocket of world.

“I can’t see anything,” he says.

I squint, then feel dumb for having done so. I can’t be sure where the sky ends and the ground begins. I know the sun is up, but I cannot tell where it is. Was this what the pilots of Flight 19 felt like?

“Do you think the school’s still there?” Brendan asks. His voice sounds distant to me, like someone shouting through a storm drain.

I’m afraid, but I don’t know what I am afraid of most: that the school is there and obscured by fog, or that it’s vanished into the Triangle, taking our teachers, Mr. Howard, the school library, almost everything in my life, good and bad. I’m afraid to know if it’s all gone, or if I am.

It feels good to be afraid. It feels good to feel like I have something worth losing.

I begin to run. I don’t know if I am running forwards or backwards; towards or away. I run for what seems like a very long time, Brendan trailing behind me.

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Jeremiah Tolbert

Jeremiah Tolbert has published fiction in Lightspeed, Fantasy Magazine, Interzone, Asimov’s, and Shimmer, as well as in the anthologies The Way of the Wizard, Seeds of Change, Federations, and Polyphony 4. He’s also been featured several times on the Escape Pod and PodCastle podcasts. In addition to being a writer, he is a web designer, photographer, and graphic artist. He lives in Kansas, with his wife and son.