viii


I miss the next two days of work, lying in bed, hacking and coughing. I rediscover baths in a big way; they soothe my congested chest. Otherwise, I read and sleep.

I worry obsessively about the shop, and yet it seems unreal. I think often of the four horsemen and their nightmares, and the road that may or may not run off and along the highway, on the other side of town.

Every once in a great while I awake with a jolt. Someone walks by my window and I see things. Deaths of people close to them. Failure. Suicidal thoughts. Past events that shame them, that they carry inside and hide and sometimes battle in their sleep.

With Gospherus, it's different. Sometimes I see him, little Sylvester, son of an eccentric, doting woman in out-of-date glasses who inherited enough money to live comfortably. He is her life. Sylvester is a sickly child, often indoors, prone to reading. He fares only moderately well at school. Once he gets passed the second grade, most classmates treat him with either hostility or indifference. He forms a few friendships, short lived.

When he is sixteen, his beloved cat, Mr. Stripes, a tiger-striped sort of creature, runs afoul of a passing car. Sylvester finds him dead by the roadside. He buries him in the backyard and cries and cries.

A week later, he has to make an informal presentation on any topic in drama class, so he talks about his cat. Some girls lead the applause. But later, he walks through the halls of his school. He thinks he hears, I think I hear, a passing kid mutter, "Waa. It's just a fukkin' cat."

He quits school at the end of that semester. I don't know what he has been doing, between then and now, beyond what he has told me. Most of the time, he seems strangely happy.

I have to return to work.

I don't know if you've ever worked in retail, but it rarely affords much in the way of benefits. I cannot afford to be sick, especially since I own the shop.

We sell second-hand things, books and records and CDs and DVDS. We've been surprisingly successful, though the digital world and the weak economy have conspired against us in recent years. I have a skeletal staff. Vanessa doesn't mind the extra work, but she has a child at home and her own limits.

I take an extra dose of Store Brand Cold and Flu medication and force myself to see how we're doing.

We're situated just outside the nice blocks downtown, where the road runs crooked and the buildings more decrepit. Frankie sleeps against the alleyway between my shop and the 24 hour Laundromat. He's an old addict, and the police often ignore him. I don't know how long he's been there. The temperature hovered just above freezing last night, and that was a rare event, this time of year.

He opens his eye and my head aches. I rest one arm against the door. Frankie was ten. The groundskeeper at the local park, who used to show the boys pornographic pictures sometimes, got him into a conversation, asked him to help bring some things into the storage shed. He tried to kiss Frankie. Then he rubbed himself against the boy. The images go further and I try to stop them.

I'm going to go crazy. Surely people have happy memories. The horsemen just won't let me see them.

The shop looks the same. We still have the best SF/Fantasy/Mystery section in the county. When Vanessa arrives she tells me we've sold that set of children's books from the 1930s, full price, and no haggling. She's thrilled. Behind her smile I see a fight with her boyfriend. It happens when she is nineteen. She has just begun to suspect she is pregnant. He breaks up with her.

It's five years later, I know, and she seems happy as she goes through the purchases from the day before, the best bits of a CD collection, some guy who's gone entirely digital. We got them for a song.

Rachel enters the shop. She's a regular, a woman in her mid-fifties, a collector of 45s from her childhood, and albums with interesting covers. She likes the soft sound of vinyl. It reminds her of her youth.

Our eyes meet and we both feel a shudder. I cough, and apologize. I'm still not well, I tell her.

"Oh, honey, you should still be home in bed," she says. She tries to sound like a jovial neighbour, but I hear the tremor in her voice, and I know.

She's been there before, though she doesn't know it, not really. She was a teenager, shooting hoops for her school. They were returning from a tournament. The bus went off the highway, onto a side-road, though the local police insisted they hadn't, that no road ran there.

A shape made its way towards the bus. She never saw it, not clearly. When she first moved to this city as an adult, a consequence of her ill-fated marriage to Earl, she recalled that stop, but she still drives miles to avoid that place. The thought of it, the creature running towards them in the night, chills her blood yet.

She was in the car with her daughter once, who drove by the place, oblivious to the danger. Rachel began crying. Later that day she came out to her children, finally. Years of self-imposed repression passes through her mind now, in front of the old vinyl records, and finds its way into mine. Her daughter assures her they still love her. Her son no longer speaks to her. Her daughter-in-law calls her vile names. She has never held her granddaughter.

They told her it was a bear. She doesn't believe it. She cannot explain it, but she believes they encountered something unearthly that night. And something behind that shape warned her never to return.

She's ignored a few spiritual injunctions in her time, but she'll continue to respect this one.

After closing, I fall asleep in the back. The nightmare takes me to a farmhouse, something out of American Gothic. There's a couple of farm-folks, too, grinning happily. They want me to come into their house. I see animals in the yard. One of them emits a mournful moan.

They aren't sheep, or cows, or pigs. They're human beings, twisted and shuffling about on all fours. They move slowly, back and forth, like caged bears, in a state of melancholy madness I cannot fathom.

I arrive home at six-thirty. Gospherus looks like he's been crying, but he sounds happy. Elated, in fact. But he wants me to tell him about my day first. I keep it brief. I know he wants to speak.

"Are you still hearing people's bad thoughts?" he asks me. I nod. "I am sorry," he says. I can see he thinks it would be in bad taste to tell me his news, but I ask, and finally he says, "I saw something on the television today. It was a different channel. I don't think we have watched this channel before. I can't find it now. The trees. They were so beautiful. I don't see trees like that around here. There were boys and girls, and they were all colours, and they sang. One of them was even green. They sang very well. Their parents and their neighbours were in the audience. They were all very proud of them."

He sets his cactus down on the end-table, beside his glass of pink lemonade, but picks it up a few seconds later.

"They were a choir of children. They were beautiful and scary. They sang a song about marching. The song was about a very bad place, but all the people in the whole world got together and they made the bad place go away. And when there were no more bad places like that, everyone agreed to do their very best to be a friend to everyone else." He stares ahead, somewhere between excited, earnest child and alien philosopher.

"I have to go," I tell Gospherus. "To see if that road on the map is real."

"I know," he says. He tightens his grip around the planter of his cactus. "I will go with you."


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Ring around the rosie.

Little kids go round and round.
The cutest things that can be found.
They spin faster, and faster
and faster again,
before tumbling to the ground.

Pocket full of posies.

Little kids run to and fro.
Dirty and sticky from head to toe.
Just look both ways before you cross the street
or there's someplace else you'll go.

Ashes, ashes,

Little Jimmy lies so still.
Much too young to have a will.
Everyone mourns without abandon
as the driver foots the bill.

We all fall down.

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