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I HAD known him as a bulldozer, as a samurai, as an android programmed to kill, as Plastic Man and Titanium Man and Matter-Eater Lad, as a Buick Electra, as a Peterbilt truck, and even, for a week, as the Mackinac Bridge, but it was as a werewolf that Timothy Stokes finally went too far. I wasn't there when it happened. I was down in the ravine at the edge of the schoolyard, founding a capital for an empire of ants. "Now, of course, this right here, this lovely structure, is the Temple of El-bok," I explained to the ants, adopting the tone my mother employed to ease newlyweds through the emptied-out rooms of the depressed housing market in which she spent her days. I pointed to a pyramid of red clay at the center of a plaza paved with the crazy cross-hatching of my handprints. "And this, naturally, is the Palace of the Ant Emperor. But, ha ha, you knew that, of course. Okay, and over here"--I pointed to a sort of circular corral I'd formed by poking a row of sharpened twigs into the ground--"all of this is for keeping your ant slaves. Isn't that nice? And over here's where you milk your little aphids." On the heights above my city stood the mound of an ordinary antville. All around me the cold red earth was stitched with a black embroidery of ants. By dint of forced transport and at the cost of not a few severed abdomens and thoraxes I succeeded in getting some of the ants to follow the Imperial Formic Highway, a broad groove in the clay running out the main gates of the city, up the steep slope of the ravine, and thence out into the tremendousness of the world. With my store of snapped-off ant body parts I pearled the black eyes of El-bok the Pitiless, an ant-shaped idol molded into the apex of the pyramid. I had just begun to describe, to myself and to the ants, the complicated rites sacred to the god whose worship I was imposing on them when I heard the first screams from the playground.
"Oh, no," I said, rising to my feet. "Timothy Stokes." The girls screamed at Timothy the same way every time he came after them--in unison and with a trill that sounded almost like delight, as if they were watching the family cat trot past with something bloody in its jaws. I scrambled up the side of the ravine and emerged as Timothy, shoulders hunched, arms outstretched, growled realistically and declared that he was hungry for the throats of puny humans. Timothy said this or something like it every rime he turned into a werewolf, and I would not have been too concerned if, in the course of his last transformation, he hadn't actually gone and bitten Virginia Pease on the neck. It was common knowledge around school that Virginia's parents had since written a letter to the principal, and that the next time Timothy Stokes hurt somebody he was going to be expelled. Timothy was, in our teacher Mrs. Gladfelter's words, one strike away from an out, and there was a widespread if unarticulated hope among his classmates, their parents, and all of the teachers at Copland Fork Elementary that one day soon he would provide the authorities with the excuse they needed to pack him off to Special School. I stood there awhile, above my little city, rolling a particle of ant between my fingers, watching Timothy pursue a snarling, lupine course along the hopscotch crosses. I knew that someone ought to do something to calm him down, but I was the only person in our school who could have any reason to want to save Timothy Stokes from expulsion, and I hated him with ail my heart.
"I have been cursed for three hundred years!" he declaimed. He was wearing his standard uniform of white dungarees and a plain white undershirt, even though it was a chilly afternoon in October and ail the rest of us had long since been bundled up for autumn in corduroy and down. Among the odd traits of the alien race from which Timothy Stokes was popularly supposed to have sprung was an apparent imperviousness to cold; in the midst of a February snowstorm he would show up on your doorstep, replying to your mother's questions only when she addressed him as Untivak, full of plans to build igloos and drink seal blood and chew raw blubber, wearing only the usual white jeans and T-shirt, plus a pair of giant black hip boots that must have belonged to his father--an undiscussed victim of the war in Vietnam. Timothy had just turned eleven, but he was already as tall as Mrs. Gladfelter and his bodily strength was famous; earlier that year, in the course of a two-week period during which Timothy believed himself to be an electromagnetic crane, we had on several occasions seen him swing an iron manhole cover straight up over his head.
"I have been cursed to stalk the night through all eternity," he went on, his voice orotund, carrying all across the playground. When it came to such favorite subjects as lycanthropy and rotary-wing aircraft, he used big words, and had facts and figures accurately memorized, and sounded like the Brainiac some took him for, but I knew he was not as intelligent as his serious manner and heavy black spectacles led people to believe. His grades were always among the lowest in the class. "I have been searching for prey as lovely as you!"
He lunged toward the nearest wall of the cage of girls around him. The girls peeled away from him as though sprayed with a hose, bumped shoulders, clung shrieking to each other's sleeves. Some of them were singing the song we sang about Timothy Stokes,
Timothy Stokes, Timothy Stokes, You're going to the home for crazy folks,
and the one singing the loudest was Virginia Pease herself, in her furry black coat and her bright red tights. She was standing screened by Sheila and Siobhan Fahey, her best friends, dangling one skinny red leg toward Timothy and then jerking it away again when Timothy swiped at it with one of his werewolf paws. Virginia had blond hair, and she was the only girl in the fifth grade with pierced ears and painted fingernails, and Timothy Stokes was in love with her. I knew this because the Stokeses lived next door to us and I was privy to all kinds of secrets about Timothy that I had absolutely no desire to know. I forbade myself, with an almost religious severity, to show Timothy any kindness or regard. I would never let him sit beside me, at lunch or in class, and if he tried to talk to me on the playground I ignored him, it was bad enough that I had to live next door to him.
It was toward Virginia that Timothy now advanced, a rattling growl in his throat. She drew back behind her girlfriends, and their screaming now grew less melodious, less purely formal. Timothy crouched down on all fours. He rolled his wild white eyes and took a last look around him. That was when he saw me, halfway across the yellow distance of the soccer field. He was looking at me, I thought, as though he hoped I might have something I wanted to tell him. Instantly I dropped fiat on my belly, my heart pounding the way it did when I was spotted trying to spy on a baseball game or a birthday party. I slid down into the ravine backward, doing considerable damage to the ramparts of my city, flattening one wing of the imperial palace. All through the ten minutes of growling and alarums that followed I lay there, without moving. I lay with my cheek in the dirt. At first I could hear the girls shouting for Mrs. Gladfelter, and then I heard Mrs. Gladfelter herself,, sounding very angry, and then I thought I could hear the voice of Mr. Albert, the P.E. teacher, who always stepped in to break up fights when it was too late, and some bully had already knocked the glasses from your face and sent your books spinning away across the floor of the gym. Then the bell sounded the end of recess, and everything got very quiet, but I just stayed there in the ravine, at the gates of the city of the ants.
As I tried to repair the damage I had done to its walls, I told myself that I didn't feel sorry at all for stupid old Timothy Stokes, but then I would remember the confused look in his eyes as I had abandoned him to his rate, to ail the unimaginable things that would be done to him in the fabulous corridors of the Special School. I kept recalling something that I had heard Timothy's mother say to mine, just a couple of days earlier. I should explain that at this point in my childhood I had acquired the shameful habit of eavesdropping on the conversations of adults, particularly my parents, and, worse, of snooping in their drawers--a pastime or compulsion that in recent months had led me to discover nude photographs of my mother taken with my father's Polaroid; school documents and physicians' reports detailing my own learning disability, juvenile obesity, hyperactivity, and loneliness; and, most recently, a letter from my mother's attorney cheerily explaining that if my father persisted in his current pattern of violent behavior he could be restrained from coming anywhere near my mother ever again--a development for which I had on certain bad evenings prayed to God with desperation, but which, now that it had become an actual possibility, struck me as the most miraculous of ail the awful wonders set loose upon the world in the course of the past year. There had been no mention in the lawyer's letter of whether my father would be allowed to come near me. At any rate, I had been hanging over the banister of the hall stairs the other morning, listening in, when Mrs. Stokes--her name was Althea--came over to retrieve a two-hundred-dollar pair of Zeiss binoculars Timothy had given me the day before in exchange for three tattered Mister Miracle comic books and a 1794 one-dollar coin that he believed to be genuine but that I knew perfectly well to have been a premium my father received several years before on subscribing to American Heritage.
"You know," Althea Stokes had told my mother, in that big, sad donkey voice of hers, "your little Paul is Timothy's only friend."
I DECIDED to spend the afternoon in the ravine. The sun started down behind the embankment, and the moon, rising early, emerged from the rooftops of the houses somebody was putting up in front of the school--brand-new split-level houses my mother and her company were having a hard time selling. The moon, I noticed, was not quite full. As I worked to rebuild the ghost town I had made, I felt keenly that my failure to help Timothy was really only the latest chapter in a lifelong history of inadequacy and powerlessness. The very last line of that letter I'd found among my mother's papers was "I think we should be able to have this thing wrapped up by November fifteenth." If this was true, then I had less than one month in which to effect a reconciliation between my parents--a goal that, apart from wishing for, I had done nothing at all to bring about. Now it appeared that my father would not even be allowed to come home anymore. My fingers grew stiff and caked with clay, and my nose ran, and I cried for a while and then stopped crying, and still it seemed that my absence from the classroom went unnoticed. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. After a while I gave up on my city building and just lay there on my back, gazing up at the moon. I didn't hear the scrape of footsteps until they were just above my head.
"Paul?" said Mrs. Gladfelter, leaning over the lip of the ravine, hands against her thighs. "Paul Kovel, what on earth are you doing out here?"
"Nothing," I said. "I didn't hear the bell."
"Paul," she said. "Now, listen to me. Paul, I need your help."
"With what?" I didn't think she looked angry, but her face was upside down and it was hard to tell.
"Well, with Timothy, Paul. I guess he's just very wound up right now. You know. Well, he's pretending he's a werewolf today, and even though that's fine, and we all know how Timothy is sometimes, we have serious things to discuss with him, and we'd like him to stop pretending for just a little while."
"But what if he isn't pretending, Mrs. Gladfelter?" I said. "What if he really is a werewolf?"
"Well, maybe he is, Paul, but if you would just come inside and talk to him for a little bit, I think we might be able to persuade him to change back into Timothy. You're his friend, Paul. I asked him if he'd like to talk to you, and he said yes."
"I'm not his friend, Mrs. Gladfelter. I swear to God. I can't do anything."
"Couldn't you try?"
I shook my head. I hoped that I didn't start crying again.
"Paul, Timothy is in trouble." All at once her voice grew sharp. "He needs your help, and I need your help, too. Now if you come right this minute, and get up out of that dirt, then I'll forget that you didn't come in from recess. If you don't come back inside, I'll have to speak to your mother." She held out her hand. "Now, come on, Paul. Please."
And so I took her hand, and let her pull me out of the ravine and across the deserted playground, aware that in doing so I was merely proving the unspoken corollary that my mother had left hanging, the other morning, in the air between her and Mrs. Stokes. There was a song about me, too, I'm afraid--a popular little number that went
What's that smell-o? Paul Kovel-o He's a big fat hippo Jell-O He's a snoop He smells like poop He smells like tomato beef Alphabet soup
because at some point in my career I had acquired the reputation, inexplicable to me, for exuding an odor of Campbell's tomato soup--a reputation that no amount of bathing or studied avoidance of all the brands and varieties of canned soup ever rid me of. As if this were not bad enough, I had to go around with a thick wad of electrician's tape on the hinge of my eyeglasses and a huge Western-style tooled-leather belt stuffed one and a half times around the loops of my trousers. It had been my father's belt, and bore his name, Melvin, stamped along its length, in big yellow capital letters set amid bright green cacti, like a cheery frontier invitation for all to come and yank my underpants up into my crack. I sat alone at lunch under an invisible and mysterious hood of tomato smell-- a scent dangerously similar to the acrid tang of vomit-- walked myself home from school, and figured in all the dramas, ceremonials, and epic struggles of my classmates only in the unlikely but mythologically requisite role of King of the Retards. Timothy Stokes, I knew, as I followed Mrs. Gladfelter down the long, silent hallway to the office, hating him more and more with each step, was my only friend.
He was sitting in a corner of the office, trapped in an orange vinyl armchair. There was a roman numeral three scratched into his left cheek and his brilliant white shirt and trousers were patterned with a camouflage of grass and dirt and asphalt. His chest swelled and then subsided deeply, swelled and subsided. Mr. Buterbaugh, the principal, was standing over him, arms folded across his chest. He was watching Timothy, looking amazed and skeptical and somehow offended. Mrs. Maloney, the school secretary, who a dozen times a month typed the cruel words "tomato soup" onto the cafeteria menus that my mother cruelly affixed with a magnet to our refrigerator, rose from behind her desk when we came in, and gathered up her purse and sweater.
"I finally reached Timothy's mother, Mrs. Gladfelter," she said. "She was at work, but she said she would be here as soon as she could." She lowered her voice. "And we called Dr. Schachter, too. His office said he'd call back." She cleared her throat. "So I'm going to take my break now."
At two o'clock every day, I knew, Mrs. Maloney sneaked around to the windowless side of the school building and stood behind the power transformer, smoking an Eve cigarette. I turned, with a sinking heart, and looked at the clock over the door to Mr. Buterbaugh's office. I hadn't missed the whole afternoon, after all, lying there in the ditch for what had seemed to me like many hours. There was still another ninety minutes to be gotten through.
"Well, now, Timothy." Mrs. Gladfelter took me by the shoulders and maneuvered me around her. "Look who I found," she said.
"Hey, Timothy," I said.
Timothy didn't look up. Mrs. Gladfelter gave me a gentle push toward him, in the small of my back.
"Why don't you sit down, Paul?"
"No." I stiffened, and pushed the other way.
"Please sit down, Paul," said Mr. Buterbaugh, showing me his teeth. Although his last name forced him to adopt a somewhat remote and disciplinarian manner with the other kids at Copland, Mr. Buterbaugh always took pains with me. He made me swap high rives with him and kept up with my grades. At first I had attributed his kindness to the fact that he was a little heavy and had probably been a fat kid, too, but then I kept hearing from my mother about how she had run into Bob Buterbaugh at this singles' bar or that party and he had said the nicest things about me. I stopped pushing against Mrs. Gladfelter and let myself be steered toward the row of orange chairs. "That's the way. Sit down and wait with Timothy until his mother gets here."
"Mr. B. and I will be sitting right inside his office, Paul."
"No!" I didn't want to be left alone with Timothy, not because I was afraid of him but because I was afraid that somebody would come into the office and see us sitting there, two matching rejects in matching orange chairs.
"That's enough now, Paul," said Mr. Buterbaugh, his friendly smile looking more false than usual. I could see that he was very angry. "Sit down."
"It's all right," said Mrs. Gladfelter. "You see what you can do about helping Timothy turn back into Timothy. We're just going to give you a little privacy." She followed Mr. Buterbaugh into his office and then poked her head back around the door. 'I'm going to leave this door open, in case you need us. All right?"
"This much," I said, holding my hands six inches apart.
There were three chairs next to Timothy's. I took the farthest, and showed him my back, so that anyone passing by the windows of the office would not be able to conclude that he and I were engaged in any sort of conversation at all.
"Are you expelled?" I said. There was no reply. "Are you, Timothy?" Again he said nothing, and I couldn't stop myself from turning around to look at him. "Timothy, are you expelled?"
"I'm not Timothy, Professor," said Timothy, gravely but not without a certain air of satisfaction. He didn't look at me. "I'm afraid your precious antidote didn't work."
"Come on, Timothy," I said. "Cut it out. The moon's not even full today."
Now he turned the werewolf glint of his regard toward me. "Where were you?" he said. "I was looking for you."
"I was in the ditch."
"With the ants?"
"I heard you talking to them before."
"So, are you Ant-Man?"
"Because, I'm not anybody. You're not anybody, either."
We fell silent for a while and just sat there, not looking at each other, kicking at the legs of our chairs. I could hear Mrs. Gladfelter and Mr. Buterbaugh talking softly in his office; Mr. Buterbaugh called her Elizabeth. The telephone rang. A light flashed twice on Mrs. Maloney's phone, then held steady.
"Thanks for calling back, Joel," I heard Mr. Buterbaugh say. "Yes, I'm afraid so."
"I went to see Dr. Schachter a couple times," I said. "He had Micronauts and the Fembots."
"He has Stretch Armstrong, too."
"Why did you go see him? Did your mother make you?"
"Yeah," I said.
"I don't know. She said I was having problems. With my anger, or I don't know." Actually, she had said--and at first Dr. Schachter had concurred--that I needed to learn to "manage" my anger. This was a diagnosis that I never understood, since it seemed to me that I had no problems at all managing my anger. It was my judgment that I managed it much better than my parents managed theirs, and even Dr. Schachter had to agree with that. In fact, the last time I saw him, he suggested that I try to stop managing my anger quite so well. "I don't know," I said to Timothy. "I guess I was mad about my dad and things."
"He had to go to jail."
"Just for one night."
"He had too much to drink," I said, with a disingenuous shrug. My father was not much of a drinker, and when he crashed the party my mother had thrown last weekend to celebrate the closing of her first really big sale, he broke a window, knocked over a chafing dish, which set fire to a batik picture of Jerusalem, and raised a bloody blue plum under my mother's right eye. People had tended to blame the unaccustomed effects of the fifth of Gilbey's that was later found in the glove compartment of his car. Only my mother and I knew that he was secretly a madman.
"Did you visit him in jail?"
"No, stupid. God! You're such a retard! You belong in Special School, Timothy. I hope they make you eat special food and wear a special helmet or something." I heard the distant slam of the school's front door, and then a pair of hard shoes knocking along the hall. "Here comes your retard mother," I said.
"What kind of special helmet?" said Timothy. It was never very easy to hurt his feelings. "Ant-Man wears a helmet."
Mrs. Stokes entered the office. She was a tall, thin woman, much older than my mother, with long gray hair and red, veiny hands. She wore clogs with white kneesocks, and in the evenings after dinner she went onto her deck and smoked a pipe. Every morning she made Timothy pancakes for his breakfast, which sounded okay until you round out that she put things in them like carrots and leftover pieces of corn.
"Oh, hello, Paul," she said, in her Eeyore voice.
"Mrs. Stokes," said Mrs. Gladfelter, coming out of the principal's office. She smiled. "It's been kind of a long afternoon for Timothy, I'm afraid."
"How is Virginia?" said Mrs. Stokes. She still hadn't looked at Timothy.
"Oh, she'll be fine," Mr. Buterbaugh said. "Just a little shaken up. We sent her home early. Of course," he added, "her parents are going to want to speak to you."
"Of course," said Mrs. Stokes. I saw that she was still wearing her white apron and her photo name tag from her job. She worked at the bone factory out in the Huxley Industrial Park, where they made plastic skulls and skeletons for medical schools. It was her job to string together all the delicate beadwork of the hands and feet. "I'm ready to do whatever you think would be best for Timothy."
"I'm not Timothy," said Timothy.
"Oh, please, Timmy, stop this nonsense for once."
"I'm cursed." He leaned over and brought his face very close to mine. "Tell them about the curse, Professor."
I looked at Timothy, and for the first time saw that a thin, dark down of wolfish hair had grown upon his cheek. Then I looked at Mr. Buterbaugh, and found that he was watching me with an air of earnest expectancy, as though he honestly thought there might be an eternal black-magical curse on Timothy and was more than willing to listen to anything I might have to say on the subject. I shrugged.
"Are you going to make him go to Special School?" I said.
"All right, Paul, thank you," said Mrs. Gladfelter. "You may go back to class now. We're watching a movie with Mrs. Hampt's class this afternoon."
Mrs. Maloney had reappeared in the doorway, her cheeks flushed, her lipstick fresh, smelling of cigarette.
"I'll see that he gets there," she said--uncharitably, I thought.
"See you later, Timothy," I said. He didn't answer me; he had started to growl again. As I followed Mrs. Maloney out of the office I looked back and saw Mr. Buterbaugh and Mrs. Gladfelter and poor old Mrs. Stokes standing in a hopeless circle around Timothy. I thought for a second, and then I turned back toward them and raised an imaginary rifle to my shoulder.
"This is a dart gun," I announced. Everyone looked at me, but I was talking to Timothy now. I was almost but not quite embarrassed. "It's filled with darts of my special antidote, and I made it stronger than it used to be, and it's going to work this time. And also, um, there's a tranquilizer mixed in."
Timothy looked up, and bared his teeth at me, and I took aim right between his eyes. I jerked my hands twice, and went fwup! fwup! Timothy's head snapped back, and his eyelids fluttered. He shook himself all over. He swallowed, once. Then he held his hands out before him, as if wondering at their hairless pallor.
"It seems to have worked," he said, his voice cool and reasonable and fine. Anyone could see he was still playing his endless game, but all the grown-ups, Mr. Buterbaugh in particular, looked very pleased with both of us.
"Thank you very much, Paul." Mr. Buterbaugh gave me a pat on the head. "Remember to say hello to your mother for me."
"I'm not Paul," I said, and everybody laughed but Timothy Stokes.
WHEN I got home from school my mother was down in the basement, at my father's workbench, dressed in the paint- spattered blue jeans and hooded sweatshirt she put on whenever it was rime to do dirty work. She had pulled her hair back into a tight ponytail. Normally I would have been glad to see her home from work already and dressed this way. One of the sources of friction between us, and among the various angers that I had supposedly been attempting to manage, was my dislike of the way she looked as she went off to work in the morning, in her plaid suit jackets, her tan stockings, her blouses with their little silk bow ties, her cabasset of hairsprayed hair. In the days before she went back to work my mother had been a genuine hippie--bushy-headed, legs unshaven, dressed in vast dresses with Indian patterns; she was there to fix bowls of hot whole-grain cereal in the morning and to give me a snack of dried pineapple and milk in the kitchen when I came home. Now, every morning, I fixed myself a breakfast of cornflakes and coffee, and when I got home I generally turned on the television and ate the box of Yodels that I purchased at High's every day on my way back from school. But my pleasure at the sight of her in her old, ruined jeans, patched with a scrap of a genuine Mao jacket she had bought as a student at McGill, was diminished when I saw that she was dressed this way so that she could stand at my father's workbench and toss all the delicate furniture of his home laboratory into an assortment of battered liquor cartons.
"But, Mom," I said, watching as she backhanded into a box an entire S-shaped rack of stoppered test tubes. The glass, in shattering, made a festive tinkle, as of little bells, and the dank basement air was quickly suffused with a harsh chemical stink of bananas and mold and burnt matches. "Those are his experiments."
"I know it," said my mother, looking grave, her voice filled with vandalistic glee. My father was a research chemist for the Food and Drug Administration. He was a small man with a scraggly gray beard and thick spectacles. He wore plaid sports jackets with patches on the elbows, carried his pens in a plastic pocket liner, and went to services every Saturday morning. He held a national ranking in chess (173) and a Canadian patent for a culture medium still widely used in that country, where he had been born and raised. "And he worked very hard on them all." She hefted the heavy black binder in which my father kept his lab notes and dropped it into a box that had once contained bottles of Captain Morgan mm; there was a leering picture of a pirate on the side. "For years." The laboratory notebook landed with a crunch of glass, breaking the throats of a dozen Erlenmeyer flasks beneath it. "I've asked him many, many times to come over here and pick up his things, Paulie. You know that. He's had his chance."
"I know." On his departure from our house, my father had taken only a plaid valise full of summer clothing and my grandfather's Russian chess set, whose black pieces had once been fingered by Alexander Alekhine.
"It's been months now, Paulie," my mother said. 'I've got to conclude that he just doesn't want any of his stuff." "I know," I said.
She surveyed the wreckage of my father's home laboratory--a little ruefully now, I thought--and then looked at me. "I guess it must seem to you like I'm being kind of mean," she said. "Eh?"
I didn't say anything. She held out her hand to me. I grabbed it and tugged her to her feet. She lifted the Captain Morgan carton and stacked it atop a Smirnoff carton filled with commercially prepared reagents in their bottles and jars; there was a further crunch of glass as the upper box settled into the lower. She hoisted the stacked boxes to her hip and jogged them once to get a better grip. One carton remained on the floor beside the workbench. We both looked at it.
"I'll come back for that one," my mother said, after a pause. She turned, and started slowly up the stairs.
For a minute I stood there with my hands jammed into my pockets, staring down into the box at my father's crucible tongs, at his coils of clear plastic tubing, at his stirrers, pipettes, and stopcocks wrapped like taffy in stiff white paper. I knelt down and wrapped my arms around the carton and lowered my face into it and inhaled a clean, rubbery smell like that of a new Band-Aid. Then I lifted the carton and carried it upstairs, through the laundry room, and out into the garage, trying to fight off an unsettling feeling that I was throwing my father away. The rear hatch of our Datsun was raised, and the backseats had been folded forward.
"Thank you, sweetie," said my mother, gently, as I handed her the last carton. "Now I just have to load up a few more things, and then I'm going to mn ail this stuff over to Mr. Kappelman's office." Mr. Kappelman was my father's lawyer; my mother's lawyer was a woman she called Deirdre. "You can just stay here, okay? You don't have to help me anymore."
"There's no room for me anyway," I said.
Most of the space in the car was already taken up by packed liquor boxes. I could see the fuzzy sleeve of my father's green angora sweater poking out of one carton, and, through the finger holes in the side of another, I could make out the cracked black spines of his college chemistry texts. Stuffed into the spaces among the boxes and into odd nooks of the car's interior were my father's bicycle helmet, his clarinet case, his bust of Paul Morphy, his brass wall barometer, his shoeshine kit, his vaporizer, the panama hat he liked to wear at the beach, the beige plastic bedpan that had come home from the hospital with him after his deviated-septum operation and now held ail his razors and combs and the panoply of gleaming instruments he employed to trim the hair that grew from the various features of his face, a grocery bag full of his shoe trees, the Montreal Junior Chess Championship trophy he had won in 1953, his tie rack, his earmuffs, and one Earth shoe. There was barely enough room left in the car for the three boxes my mother and I had dragged up from the basement. I helped her squeeze them into place, audibly doing more damage to their rank-smelling contents, and then my mother put her hands on the edge of the hatch and got ready to slam it.
She said, "Stand clear." I flinched. I guess I must have shut my eyes; after a second or two I realized that she hadn't closed the door yet, and when I looked at her again her eyes were scanning my face, darting very quickly back and forth, the way they did when she thought I might have a fever.
"Paul," she said, "how was school today?"
"How's your asthma?"
She took her hands off the lip of the hatch and crouched down in front of me. Her face, I saw, was still buried under the thick layer of beige frosting that she applied to it every morning.
"Paul," she said. "What's the matter, honey?"
"Nothing," I said, turning from her unrecognizable face. 'I'll be right back." I started away from her.
"Paul--" She took hold of my arm.
"I have to go to the bathroom!" I said, twisting free of her. "You look ugly," I added as I ran back into the house.
I went to the telephone and dialed my father's number at work. The departmental secretary said that he was down the hall. I said that I would wait. I carried the phone over to the couch, where I had thrown my parka, and took my daily box of Yodels from its hiding place inside the torn orange lining. By the time my father took me off hold I had eaten three of them. This didn't require all that much time, to be honest.
"Dr. Kovel," said my father as he came clattering onto the line.
"Paul. Where are you?"
"Dad, I'm at home. Guess what, Dad? I got expelled from school today."
"What? What's this?"
"Yeah, um, I got really mad, and I thought I was a werewolf, and I, um, I bit this girl, you know--Virginia Pease? On the neck. I didn't break the skin, though," I added. "And so they expelled me. Can you come over?"
"Paul, I'm at work."
"What is all this?" His breath blew heavy through the line and made an irritated rattle in the receiver at my ear. "All right, listen, I'll be there as soon as I can get away, eh?" Now his voice grew thick, as though on the other end of the line, while he held the receiver in the middle of his blank little office in Rockville, Maryland, his face had gone red with embarrassment. "Is your mother there?"
I told him to hold on, and went back out to the garage.
"Mom," I said, "Dad's on the phone." I said these words in a voice so normal and cheerful that it hurt my heart to hear them. "He wants to talk to you." I smiled the conspiratorial little smile I had so often seen her use on her clients as she hinted that the seller just might be willing to come down. "I think he wants to apologize."
"Did you call him?"
"Oh, uh, yeah. Yes. I had to," I said, remembering my story. "Because I got expelled from school. I have to go to Special School now. Starting tomorrow, probably."
My mother put down the hoe she had been trying to squeeze into the back of her car and went, rather unwillingly, I thought, to the phone. Before she stepped into the house she looked back at me with a doubtful smile. I looked away. I stood there, behind her car, gazing in at ail my father's belongings. My mother had said that she planned to take them over to his lawyer's office, but I didn't believe her. I believed that she meant to take them to the dump. I hesitated for an instant, then reached in for my father's laboratory notebook. He had always been more than willing to show me parts of it, whenever I asked him to; and naturally I had taken many furtive looks at its innermost pages when he wasn't around. But I had never really comprehended its contents, nor the tenor of the experiments he'd been performing down there in our basement over the years, although I had a general sense of disappointment about them, as I did about his whole interest, professional and avocational, in the chemistry of mildews and molds. Yet even if there was nothing of interest in his notes--a likelihood that I still could not fully accept--I nonetheless felt a sudden urge to possess the notebook itself. Perhaps someday I would be able to decipher its cryptic formulae and crabbed script, and thence derive ail manner of marvelous pastes of invisibility and mind-control dusts, unheard-of vitamins and deadly fungal poisons and powders that repelled gravity. I reached for the notebook and then decided also to take two of the boxes of laboratory equipment. I knew who would keep them safe for me; I hoped, as I never had before, that he would still want to be my friend.
I peered around the side of the garage, to make sure that my mother wasn't watching from the front windows, then ran as quickly as I could toward the stand of young maples and pricker bushes that separated us from the Stokeses. The boxes were very heavy, and the shards of glass within them jingled like change. It was dinnertime, and nearly dark, but none of the lights were on in Timothy's house. I supposed that he had been taken to see Dr. Schachter, and ail at once I worried that he would never come home again, that they would just send Timothy straight off to Special School that day. Some people claimed that the little yellow van that sometimes passed us when we were on out way to school in the morning, its windows filled with the blank, cheerful faces of strange boys none of us knew, was the daily bus to Special School; but other people said that you had to go live there forever, like reform school or prison, and get visits from your parents on the weekends.
My mother was calling me. "Pau-aul!" she cried. She was one of those women who have a hard time raising their voices; it always came out sounding hoarse and friendless whenever she called me home. "Pau-lie!"
I hid in the brambles and studied the dark face of Timothy's house, trying to decide what to do with my father's things. My arms were growing tired, and I needed to go to the bathroom, and for now, I decided, I would leave the boxes at the basement door. I would come back later to ask Timothy, who on occasion appeared in the avatar of the faithful robot from Lost in Space, to guard them for me. Timothy slept in the basement of the Stokeses' house, under a wall hung from floor to ceiling with his vast arsenal of toy swords and firearms, in a room strewn with dismembered telephones and the bones of imitation skeletons. I tiptoed around the side of the Stokeses' house and into their weedy backyard. The moon was high and brilliant in the sky by now, and I thought that, after all, it was pretty nearly full. I approached the basement door, keeping an uneasy eye on the shadows in the trees, and the shadows under the Stokeses' deck, and the shadows gathered on the swings of the creaking jungle gym. Since my last visit, I saw, Timothy had marked the entrance to his labyrinth with two neat pyramids of plastic skulls. My mother's raspy voice fell silent, and there was only the sound of cars out on the country road, and the ghostly squeak of the swing set and the forlorn crooning of a blind Dalmatian that lived at the bottom of our street. Carelessly I dropped the boxes on the step, between the grinning pyramids, and ran back through the trees toward my house, heart pounding, tearing my clothes on the teeth of the underbrush, certain that something quick and terrible was following me every step of the way.
"I'm home!" I said, coming into the brightness and warmth of our hall. "Here I am."
"There you are," said my mother, though she didn't look all that happy to see me. She laid a heavy hand on my shoulder. It smelled of butyric acid and dextrorotatory sucrose and also very faintly of Canoe. "I just got off the phone with Bob Buterbaugh, Paul. He told me what really happened at school today." She had yanked her hair free of its ponytail and now it shot out in ragged arcs around her head, tangled like the vanes of a wrecked umbrella. "Do you want to explain yourself to me? Why did you lie?"
"Is Dad coming over?"
"Well, yes, he is, Paul--"
"--because he feels that he really needs to see you, tonight. But the two of you will have to sit outside in the car and talk, or go somewhere else. I'm not going to let him in the house."
I was astonished. "Why not?"
"Because, Paul, your dad--you know as well as I do-- he's become, well, you know how he's been lately. I don't have to tell you." As if she were angry, she folded her arms, and clenched her jaw. But I could see that she was trying to keep herself from crying. "I have to set some limits."
"You mean he can't come over to our house anymore? Ever again?"
There were tears in her eyes. "Ever again," she said. Once more she crouched before me, and I let her take me in her arms, but I did not return her embrace. In the picture window at the end of the hall I watched her reflection hugging mine. I didn't want to be comforted on the impending loss of my father. I wanted him not to be lost, and it seemed to me that it would be her fault if he was.
"He said he's going to collect his things. So I guess it's a good thing I didn't get rid of them, eh?" She gave me a poke in the ribs. "He must want them after all. Hey," she said. "What is it? What's the matter?" She followed my gaze toward the picture window, where our embracing reflections looked back at us with startled expressions.
"Nothing," I said. A light had just come on in the Stokeses' house. "I--I have to go over to Timothy's. I left something there." "What?"
"My Luger," I said, remembering a toy I had lent to Timothy sometime last summer. "The pink one that squirts."
"Well, it's time to eat," said my mother. "You can go after."
"But what if Dad comes?"
"Well, what if he does? You can go over to Timothy's tomorrow. He's probably not allowed to see anyone anyway."
IN FIVE minutes I bolted my dinner--one of those bizarre conglomerations of bottled tomato sauces, casseroles- in-boxes, and leftover Chinese lunches that were then the national dishes of our disordered and temporizing homeland--and ran out the front door into the night. I was sure that Timothy had found the cartons by now. What if he thought I had meant them for a present and refused to give them back? My father was going to be angry enough about my mother's treatment of his chemistry things, but it would be worse when he found out that most of them, including his notebook, were missing. I sprinted across our yard as quickly as I could, considering my asthma, and went crashing through the maple trees toward the Stokeses' house. There was a burst of red light as a thin branch slapped against my left eye, and I cried out, and covered my face, and ran headlong into Timothy Stokes. My chin struck his chest and I sat down hard.
He smiled, and knelt beside me. "Are you all right, Professor?" he said. He was wearing the same pair of white jeans and stained T-shirt, under an unbuttoned jacket that was too large for him and that bore over the breast pocket his own last name, printed in block letters on a strip of cloth. He pulled a flashlight from his pocket and switched it on. The beam threw eerie shadows across his cheeks and forehead, and his little brown eyes were alight behind his glasses. I saw at once that the antidote I'd administered to him that afternoon had worn off, and he showed no sign of having been subjected to any weird therapies or electroshock helmets. His face looked as solemn and stupid as ever. He wore a rifle strapped across his back and a plastic commando knife in his boot, and three Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos hand grenades poked through the web belt of his canteen, and in his right hand he was carrying, as though it were another weapon, the thick, black, case-bound notebook.
"That's my father's," I said. "You can't have it."
"I already photographed all of its contents with my spy camera," he explained. "I have every page on microfilm. Plus I ran an extensive computer analysis on them." He lowered his voice. "Your father is a very dangerous man. Look here." He opened the notebook and shone the flashlight on a page where my father had written, "Myco. K. P889, L. 443, Tr. 23," and then a date from three years earlier. The rest of the page was an illegible mishmash of numbers and abbreviations, some of them connected by sharp forceful arrows. The entry went on for several pages in the same fashion, cramped by haste and marginalia. I had seen plenty like it before, and I had no doubt that it described a process that could be used to get rid of something that grew between the tiles of your bathroom, or on the skin of your pears.
"Did you see?" said Timothy.
"See what?" I said.
"Your father is Ant-Man," he said gravely. 'I've suspected it for a long time." He unhooked the canteen from his belt. It was covered in green canvas and it sloshed as he waved it around. "This is the antidote."
He clamped the notebook under one arm and with his freed hand unscrewed the cap. I inclined my face slightly toward the mouth of the canteen, extended my fingers, and wafted the air above it toward my nostrils, delicately, as my father had shown me. I detected no odor this way, however. So he stuck it right under my nose.
"It smells like Coke," I said. "You put salt in it." Timothy didn't say anything, but I thought I saw disappointment flicker across his flashlit face. "What would happen if I drank it?" I added quickly, not wanting to let him down. There was something about the way Timothy played his game, the thoroughness with which he imagined, that never failed to entrance me.
"That's what I'd like to know," said Timothy. "What if it said in this book, here, that your father has been giving you the secret formula to drink, like one drop at a time in your cereal, ever since you were a little baby? And what if that's why you can talk to ants, too?"
"What if," I said. I had always felt sorry for Ant-Man, a superhero whose powers condemned him to the disappointing comradeship of bugs. "Timothy, what happened to you today? What did they say? Are you expelled?"
"Shh," said Timothy. The notebook went flapping to the ground as he reached for me, and drew me to him, and covered my mouth with his hand. His voice fell to a harsh whisper. "Someone's coming."
I heard the sound of a car climbing the hill. A pair of headlights splashed light across the front of my house. I yanked my head free of his grasp.
"It's my dad!" I said. "Timothy, I need to get his stuff back--now!"
"Quiet." Timothy loosened his hold on me and brought the canteen up to my lips. I took a step away from him. "Quick," he said. "Swallow this antidote. We don't have time to test it. You'll just have to take the risk." He patted the dull black barrel of his rifle. "I've already loaded this baby with antidote darts."
From the distant front porch of our house I could hear our front door squeal on its hinges, and then the separate voices of my parents, saying hello. I tried to make sense of their murmurings, but we were too far away. After a while there was another long squeal of hinges, and the door slammed shut, and then our house creaked and resounded with the passage of feet along its hallway.
"Oh, my God," I said. "I think she let him go inside."
"Come on," said Timothy. "Drink this."
"I'm not drinking that stuff," I said.
"All right, then," he said. "I'll drink it." He threw back his head and took a long swallow. Then he handed the canteen to me, and I drank down the rest of the antidote. It was sweet and sharp tasting, and bitter through and through. I felt pretty sure that it was just Coca-Cola mixed with good old sodium chloride, but then, after I got it down, I realized there must have been something else mixed into it--something that burned.
"Take this," he said, handing me the plastic commando knife. He said that it was in case something went wrong; the rifle was only for delivering the antidote. He said, "Stay down."
He led me out of the trees, across our moonlit backyard, and up the short, grassy slope that rose to the back of our house--a silvery gray shape loping along in a sort of crouched-over commando half-trot. The sleeves of my parka whispered against my sides as I ran. I belched up a fiery blast of his formula, and then laughed a tipsy little laugh. Timothy stepped up onto our patio and unslung the rifle from his shoulder. A radiant cloud of light from our living room came pouring out through the sliding- glass door, illuminating the trees and the lawn chairs and the grill, and the crown of Timothy's close-cropped head as he knelt down, raised the rifle, and waited for me to catch up to him. When I got there he was peering in, his face looking blank and amazed behind the luminous disks of his spectacles, his breath coming regular and heavy.
"Can you feel it?" I said, kneeling beside him. "Is it working?"
He didn't say anything. I looked. My father and my mother were sitting on the sofa. He was holding her in his arms. Her face was red and streaked with tears, and her mouth was fastened against his. Her sweatshirt was hiked up around her throat, and one of her breasts hung loose and shaking and astonishingly white. The other breast my father held, roughly, in his hairy hand, as if he were trying to crush it.
"What are they doing?" Timothy whispered. He set the rifle down on the patio. "Are those your parents?"
I tried to think of something to say. I was dizzy with surprise, and the formula we had swallowed was making me feel like I was going to be sick. I sat there for a minute or so beside Timothy, watching the struggle of those two people, who had been transformed forever by a real and powerful curse, the very least of whose magical effects was me. I felt as though I had been spying on them for my entire life, to no profit at all. After a moment I had to look away. Timothy's gun was lying on the ground beside me. I reached for it, and held it in my grip, and found that it weighed far more than I had expected. Its breechblock was steely and cool.
"Timothy, is this real?" I said, but I knew he would never be able to answer me.
I stood up, my head spinning, and stumbled off the patio, onto the frost-bright grass. Timothy lingered for a moment longer, then came hurtling away from the window, passing me on our way into the woods. Under the maple trees we threw up whatever it was that he had given us to drink. He seemed to lose some of his enthusiasm for our game after that, and when I told him to go home and leave me alone he did.
LATER ON that night, my father and I fetched his notebook from the pile of dead leaves in the woods where Timothy had dropped it, and went over together to the Stokeses' house to retrieve all the pieces of his shattered laboratory. My father's arm lay heavy around my neck. I told Althea Stokes about the rifle, and Timothy was forced to produce it and surrender it to her. It had been, she said, his father's. I helped my father carry the cartons out to his car, and then in silence we and my mother removed all of his other belongings, one by one, from her hatchback, and loaded them into the trunk of our big old Chevrolet Impala. Then my father drove away.
The next morning at eight, a little yellow bus full of unknown boys pulled up in front of the Stokeses' house, and sounded its angry horn, and Timothy went out to meet it.