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Writer Dan Chaon’s latest collection of short fiction, “Stay Awake,” has been called a “peek into loss and darkness.”
In it, a couple’s eagerly awaited child is born with two heads, a grocery store clerk returns home to find out that his parents have committed suicide, and a man slowly recovers memories of his mother, who killed two of his younger siblings when he was a child.
“I think that I’ve always had an interest in the macabre, and I don’t think that necessarily precludes having a fairly cheerful daily life.”
“What I’m interested in is the way that people cope with grief, with loss, and with this psychological state that people in extreme situations find themselves, which is somewhere in between real life and a kind of dream world,” Chaon told Here & Now‘s Robin Young.
Chaon says he finds inspiration for his stories in real life.
“I think the two-headed baby was something I might have seen on Oprah.. it’s not like I’m just inventing this stuff, it’s out there,” he said.
Chaon also says that it’s easy to write off certain people as monsters, but in his fiction, he likes to explore why those people behave as they do. For him, writing is like acting – it gives him an opportunity to be taken places emotionally that he might not go to otherwise.
“I think that I’ve always had an interest in the macabre, and I don’t think that necessarily precludes having a fairly cheerful daily life,” Chaon said.
The collection marks Chaon’s return to short narrative after he published two novels, and it has been chosen as a New York Times Editor’s choice.
Gene ’s son Frankie wakes up screaming. It has become frequent, two or three times a week, at random times: midnight—three a.m.—five in the morning. Here is a high, empty wail that severs Gene from his unconsciousness like sharp teeth. It is the worst sound that Gene can imagine, the sound of a young child dying violently—falling from a building, or caught in some machinery that is tearing an arm off, or being mauled by a predatory animal. No matter how many times he hears it he jolts up with such images playing in his mind, and he always runs, thumping into the child ’s bedroom to find Frankie sitting up in bed, his eyes closed, his mouth open in an oval like a Christmas caroler. If someone took a picture of him, he would appear to be in a kind of peaceful trance, as if he were waiting to receive a spoonful of ice cream, rather than emitting that horrific sound.
“Frankie!” Gene will shout, and claps his hands hard in the child ’s face. The clapping works well. At this, the scream always stops abruptly, and Frankie opens his eyes, blinking at Gene with vague awareness before settling back down into his pillow, nuzzling a little before growing still. He is sound asleep, he is always sound asleep, though even after months Gene can’t help leaning down and pressing his ear to the child ’s chest, to make sure he ’s still breathing, his heart is still going. It always is.
There is no explanation that they can find. In the morning, Frankie doesn’t remember anything, and on the few occasions that they have managed to wake him in the midst of one of his screaming attacks, he is merely sleepy and irritable. Once, Gene ’s wife, Karen, shook him and shook him, until finally he opened his eyes groggily. “Honey?” she said. “Honey? Did you have a bad dream?” But Frankie only moaned a little. “No,” he said, puzzled and unhappy at being awakened, but nothing more.
They can find no pattern to it. It can happen any day of the week, any time of the night. It doesn’t seem to be associated with diet, or with his activities during the day, and it doesn’t stem, as far as they can tell, from any sort of psychological unease. During the day, he seems perfectly normal and happy.
They have taken him several times to the pediatrician, but the doctor seems to have little of use to say. There is nothing wrong with the child physically, Dr. Banerjee says. She advises that such things were not uncommon for children of Frankie ’s age group— he is five—and that more often than not, the disturbance simply passes away.
“He hasn’t experienced any kind of emotional trauma, has he?” the doctor says. “Nothing out of the ordinary at home?”
“No, no,” they both murmur, together. They shake their heads, and Dr. Banerjee shrugs. “Parents,” she says. “It ’s probably nothing to worry about.” She gives them a brief smile. “As difficult as it is, I’d say that you may just have to weather this out.”
But the doctor has never heard those screams. In the mornings after the “nightmares,” as Karen calls them, Gene feels unnerved, edgy. He works as a driver for the United Parcel Service, and as he moves through the day after a screaming attack, there is a barely perceptible hum at the edge of his hearing, an intent, deliberate static sliding along behind him as he wanders through streets and streets in his van. He stops along the side of the road and listens. The shadows of summer leaves tremble murmurously against the windshield, and cars are accelerating on a nearby road. In the treetops, a cicada makes its trembly, pressure- cooker hiss.
Something bad has been looking for him for a long time, he thinks, and now, at last, it is growing near.
When he comes home at night everything is normal. They live in an old house in the suburbs of Cleveland, and sometimes after dinner they work together in the small patch of garden out in back of the house—tomatoes, zucchini, string beans, cucumbers—while Frankie plays with Legos in the dirt. Or they take walks around the neighborhood, Frankie riding his bike in front of them, his training wheels squeaking. They gather on the couch and watch cartoons together, or play board games, or draw pictures with crayons. After Frankie is asleep, Karen will sit at the kitchen table and study—she is in nursing school—and Gene will sit outside on the porch, flipping through a newsmagazine or a novel, smoking the cigarettes that he has promised Karen he will give up when he turns thirty-five. He is thirty-four now, and Karen is twenty-seven, and he is aware, more and more frequently, that this is not the life that he deserves. He has been incredibly lucky, he thinks. Blessed, as Gene ’s favorite cashier at the supermarket always says. “Have a blessed day,” she says, when Gene pays the money and she hands him his receipt, and he feels as if she has sprinkled him with her ordinary, gentle beatitude. It reminds him of long ago, when an old nurse had held his hand in the hospital and said that she was praying for him.
Sitting out in his lawn chair, drawing smoke out of his cigarette, he thinks about that nurse, even though he doesn’t want to. He thinks of the way she ’d leaned over him and brushed his hair as he stared at her, imprisoned in a full body cast, sweating his way through withdrawal and DTs.
He had been a different person, back then. A drunk, a monster. At eighteen, he married the girl he ’d gotten pregnant, and then had set about slowly, steadily, ruining all their lives. When he ’d abandoned them, his wife and son, back in Nebraska, he had been twenty-four, a danger to himself and others. He ’d done them a favor by leaving, he thought, though he still feels guilty when he looks back on it. Years later, when he was sober, he even tried to contact them. He wanted to own up to his behavior, to pay the back child support, to apologize. But they were nowhere to be found. Mandy was no longer living in the small Nebraska town where they’d met and married, and there was no forwarding address. Her parents were dead. No one seemed to know where she ’d gone.
Karen didn’t know the full story. She had been, to his relief, uncurious about his previous life, though she knew he had some drinking days, some bad times. She knew that he ’d been married before, too, though she didn’t know the extent of it, didn’t know that he had another son, for example, didn’t know that he had left them one night, without even packing a bag, just driving off in the car, a flask tucked between his legs, driving east as far as he could go. She didn’t know about the car crash, the wreck he should have died in. She didn’t know what a bad person he ’d been.
She was a nice lady, Karen. Maybe a little sheltered. And truth to tell, he was ashamed—and even scared—to imagine how she would react to the truth about his past. He didn’t know if she would have ever really trusted him if she ’d known the full story, and the longer they have known each other the less inclined he has been to reveal it. He ’d escaped his old self, he thought, and when Karen got pregnant, shortly before they were married, he told himself that now he had a chance to do things over, to do it better. They had bought the house together, he and Karen, and now Frankie will be in kindergarten in the fall. He has come full circle, has come exactly to the point when his former life with Mandy and his son, DJ, completely fell apart. He looks up as Karen comes to the back door and speaks to him through the screen. “I think it ’s time for bed, sweetheart,” she says, and he shudders off these thoughts, these memories. He smiles.
He’s been in a strange frame of mind lately. The months of regular awakenings have been getting to him, and he has a hard time going back to sleep after an episode with Frankie. When Karen wakes him in the morning, he often feels muffled, sluggish—as if he ’s hungover. He doesn’t hear the alarm clock. When he stumbles out of bed, he finds he has a hard time keeping his moodiness in check. He can feel his temper coiling up inside him.
He isn’t that type of person anymore, and hasn’t been for a long while. Still, he can’t help but worry. They say that there is a second stretch of craving, which sets in after several years of smooth sailing; five or seven years will pass, and then it will come back without warning. He has been thinking of going to AA meetings again, though he hasn’t in some time—not since he met Karen.
It ’s not as if he gets trembly every time he passes a liquor store, or even as if he has a problem when he goes out with buddies and spends the evening drinking soda and nonalcoholic beer. No. The trouble comes at night, when he ’s asleep.
He has begun to dream of his first son. DJ. Perhaps it is related to his worries about Frankie, but for several nights in a row the image of DJ—age about five—has appeared to him. In the dream, Gene is drunk, and playing hide-and-seek with DJ in the yard behind the Cleveland house where he is now living. There is the thick weeping willow out there, and Gene watches the child appear from behind it and run across the grass, happy, unafraid, the way Frankie would. DJ turns to look over his shoulder and laughs, and Gene stumbles after him, at least a six-pack’s worth of good mood, a goofy, drunken dad. It ’s so real that when he wakes, he still feels intoxicated. It takes him a few minutes to shake it.
One morning after a particularly vivid version of this dream, Frankie wakes and complains of a funny feeling—“right here”— he says, and points to his forehead. It isn’t a headache, he says. “It ’s like bees!” he says. “Buzzing bees!” He rubs his hand against his brow. “Inside my head.” He considers for a moment. “You know how the bees bump against the window when they get in the house and want to get out?” This description pleases him, and he taps his forehead lightly with his fingers, humming, “Zzzzzzz,” to demonstrate.
“Does it hurt?” Karen says. “No,” Frankie says. “It tickles.”
Karen gives Gene a concerned look. She makes Frankie lie down on the couch, and tells him to close his eyes for a while. After a few minutes, he raises up, smiling, and says that the feeling has gone.
“Honey, are you sure?” Karen says. She pushes his hair back and slides her palm across his forehead. “He’s not hot,” she says, and Frankie sits up impatiently, suddenly more interested in something that is happening on the Fuzzy Fieldmouse show, which is playing on the TV in the living room.
Karen gets out one of her nursing books, and Gene watches her face tighten with concern as she flips slowly through the pages. She is looking at Chapter 3: Neurological System, and Gene ob-serves as she pauses here and there, skimming down a list of symptoms. “We should probably take him back to Dr. Banerjee again,” she says. Gene nods, recalling what the doctor said about “emotional trauma.”
“Are you scared of bees?” he asks Frankie. “Is that something that ’s bothering you?”
“No,” Frankie says. “Not really.”
When Frankie was three, a bee stung him above his left eyebrow. They had been out hiking together, and they hadn’t yet learned that Frankie was “moderately allergic” to bee stings. Within minutes of the sting, Frankie ’s face had begun to distort, to puff up, his eye welling shut. He looked deformed. Gene didn’t know if he ’d ever been more frightened in his entire life, running down the trail with Frankie ’s head pressed against his heart, trying to get to the car and drive him to the doctor, terrified that the child was dying. Frankie himself was calm.
Gene clears his throat. He knows the feeling that Frankie is talking about—he has felt it himself, that odd, feathery vibration inside his head. And in fact he feels it again, now. He presses the pads of his fingertips against his brow. Emotional trauma, his mind murmurs, but he is thinking of DJ, not Frankie.
“What are you scared of ?” Gene asks Frankie, after a moment. “Anything?”
“You know what the scariest thing is?” Frankie says, and widens his eyes, miming a frightened look. “There ’s a lady with no head, and she went walking through the woods, looking for it.
‘Give . . . me . . . back . . . my . . . head. . . .’ ”
“Where on earth did you hear a story like that!” Karen says.
“Daddy told me,” Frankie says. “When we were camping.” Gene blushes, even before Karen gives him a sharp look. “Oh, great,” she says. “Wonderful.”
He doesn’t meet her eyes. “We were just telling ghost stories,” he says, softly. “I thought he would think the story was funny.”
“My God, Gene,” she says. “With him having nightmares like this? What were you thinking?”
It ’s a bad flashback, the kind of thing he ’s usually able to avoid. He thinks abruptly of Mandy, his former wife. He sees in Karen’s face that look Mandy would give him when he screwed up. “What are you, some kind of idiot?” Mandy used to say. “Are you crazy?” Back then, Gene couldn’t do anything right, it seemed, and when Mandy yelled at him it made his stomach clench with shame and inarticulate rage. I was trying, he would think, I was trying, damn it, and it was as if no matter what he did, it wouldn’t turn out right. That feeling would sit heavily in his chest, and eventually, when things got worse, he hit her once. “Why do you want me to feel like shit,” he said through clenched teeth. “I’m not an asshole,” he said, and when she rolled her eyes at him he slapped her hard enough to knock her out of her chair.
That was the time he ’d taken DJ to the carnival. It was a Saturday, and he’d been drinking a little, so Mandy didn’t like it, but after all—he thought—DJ was his son, too, he had a right to spend some time with his own son, Mandy wasn’t his boss even if she might think she was. She liked to make him hate himself.
What she was mad about was that he’d taken DJ on the Velocerator. It was a mistake, he’d realized afterward. But DJ himself had begged to go on. He was just recently four years old, and Gene had just turned twenty-three, which made him feel inexplicably old. He wanted to have a little fun.
Besides, nobody told him he couldn’t take DJ on the thing. When he led DJ through the gate, the ticket taker even smiled, as if to say, “Here is a young guy showing his kid a good time.” Gene winked at DJ and grinned, taking a nip from a flask of peppermint schnapps. He felt like a good dad. He wished his own father had taken him on rides at the carnival!
The door to the Velocerator opened like a hatch in a big silver flying saucer. Disco music was blaring from the entrance and be- came louder as they went inside. It was a circular room with soft, padded walls, and one of the workers had Gene and DJ stand with their backs to the wall, strapping them in side by side. Gene felt warm and expansive from the schnapps. He took DJ’s hand, and he almost felt as if he were glowing with love. “Get ready, kiddo,” Gene whispered. “This is going to be wild.”
The hatch door of the Velocerator sealed closed with a pressurized sigh. And then, slowly, the walls they were strapped to began to turn. Gene tightened his grip on DJ’s hand as they began to rotate, gathering speed. After a moment the wall pads they were strapped to slid up, and the force of velocity pushed them back, held to the surface of the spinning wall like iron to a magnet. Gene ’s cheeks and lips seemed to pull back, and the sensation of helplessness made him laugh.
At that moment, DJ began to scream. “No! No! Stop! Make it stop!” They were terrible shrieks, and Gene held the child ’s hand more tightly. “It ’s all right,” he yelled jovially over the thump of the music. “It ’s okay! I’m right here!” But the child ’s wailing only got louder in response. The scream seemed to whip past Gene in a circle, tumbling around and around the circumference of the ride like a spirit, trailing echoes as it flew. When the machine finally stopped, DJ was heaving with sobs, and the man at the control panel glared. Gene could feel the other passengers staring grimly and judgmentally at him.
Gene felt horrible. He had been so happy—thinking that they were finally having themselves a memorable father-and-son moment—and he could feel his heart plunging into darkness. DJ kept on weeping, even as they left the ride and walked along the midway, even as Gene tried to distract him with promises of cotton candy and stuffed animals. “I want to go home,” DJ cried, and, “I want my mom! I want my mom!” And it had wounded Gene to hear that. He gritted his teeth.
“Fine!” he hissed. “Let ’s go home to your mommy, you little crybaby. I swear to God, I’m never taking you with me anywhere again.” And he gave DJ a little shake. “Jesus, what ’s wrong with you? Lookit, people are laughing at you. See? They’re saying,
‘Look at that big boy, bawling like a girl.’ ”
This memory comes to him out of the blue. He had forgotten all about it, but now it comes to him over and over. Those screams were not unlike the sounds Frankie makes in the middle of the night, and they pass repeatedly through the membrane of his thoughts, without warning. The next day, he finds himself recalling it again, the memory of the scream impressing on his mind with such force that he actually has to pull his UPS truck off to the side of the road and put his face in his hands: Awful! Awful! He must have seemed like a monster to the child.
Sitting there in his van, he wishes he could find a way to contact them—Mandy and DJ. He wishes that he could tell them how sorry he is, and send them money. He puts his fingertips against his forehead, as cars drive past on the street, as an old man parts the curtains and peers out of the house Gene is parked in front of, hopeful that Gene might have a package for him.
Where are they? Gene wonders. He tries to picture a town, a house, but there is only a blank. Surely, Mandy being Mandy, she would have hunted him down by now to demand child support. She would have relished treating him like a deadbeat dad, she would have hired some company who would garnish his wages.
Now, sitting at the roadside, it occurs to him suddenly that they are dead. He recalls the car wreck that he was in, just outside Des Moines, and if he had been killed they would have never known. He recalls waking up in the hospital, and the elderly nurse who had said, “You’re very lucky, young man. You should be dead.”
Maybe they are dead, he thinks. Mandy and DJ. The idea strikes him a glancing blow, because of course it would make sense. The reason they’ve never contacted him. Of course.
He doesn’t know what to do with such anxieties. They are ridiculous, they are self-pitying, they are paranoid, but especially now, with the concerns about Frankie, he is at the mercy of his fears. He comes home from work and Karen stares at him heavily.
“What ’s the matter?” she says, and he shrugs. “You look terrible,” she says.
“It ’s nothing,” he says, but she continues to look at him skeptically. She shakes her head.
“I took Frankie to the doctor again today,” she says after a moment, and Gene sits down at the table with her, where she is spread out with her textbooks and notepaper.
“I suppose you’ll think I’m being a neurotic mom,” she says. “I think I’m too immersed in disease—that ’s the problem.”
Gene shakes his head. “No, no,” he says. His throat feels dry. “You’re right. Better safe than sorry.”
“Mmm,” she says thoughtfully. “I think Dr. Banerjee is starting to hate me.”
“Naw,” Gene says. “No one could hate you.” With effort, he smiles gently. A good husband, he kisses her palm, her wrist. “Try not to worry,” he says, though his own nerves are fluttering. He can hear Frankie in the backyard, shouting orders to someone.
“Who’s he talking to?” Gene says, and Karen doesn’t look up. “Oh,” she says. “It’s probably just Bubba.” Bubba is Frankie’s imaginary playmate.
Gene nods. He goes to the window and looks out. Frankie is pretending to shoot at something, his thumb and forefinger cocked into a gun. “Get him! Get him!” Frankie shouts, and Gene stares out as Frankie dodges behind a tree. Frankie looks nothing like DJ, but when he pokes his head from behind the hanging foliage of the willow, Gene feels a little shudder—a flicker, something. He clenches his jaw.
“This class is really driving me crazy,” Karen says. “Everytime I read about a worst-case scenario, I start to worry. It ’s strange. The more you know, the less sure you are of anything.” “What did the doctor say this time?” Gene says. He shifts uncomfortably, still staring out at Frankie, and it seems as if dark specks circle and bob at the corner of the yard. “He seems okay?” Karen shrugs. “As far as they can tell.” She looks down at her textbook, shaking her head. “He seems healthy.” He puts his hand gently on the back of her neck and she lolls her head back and forth against his fingers. “I’ve never believed that anything really terrible could happen to me,” she once told him, early in their marriage, and it had scared him. “Don’t say that,” he ’d whispered, and she laughed.
“You’re superstitious,” she said. “That ’s cute.”
He can’t sleep. The strange presentiment that Mandy and DJ are dead has lodged heavily in his mind, and he rubs his feet together underneath the covers, trying to find a comfortable posture. He can hear the soft ticks of the old electric typewriter as Karen finishes her paper for school, words rattling out in bursts that remind him of some sort of insect language. He closes his eyes, pretending to be asleep when Karen finally comes to bed, but his mind is ticking with small, scuttling images: his former wife and son, flashes of the photographs he doesn’t own, hasn’t kept. They’re dead, a firm voice in his mind says, very distinctly. They were in a fire. And they burned up. It is not quite his own voice that speaks to him, and abruptly he can picture the burning house. It’s a trailer, somewhere on the outskirts of a small town, and the black smoke is pouring out the open door. The plastic window frames have warped and begun to melt, and the smoke billows from the trailer into the sky in a way that reminds him of an old locomotive. He can’t see inside, except for crackling bursts of deep-orange flames, but he ’s aware that they’re in there. For a second he can see DJ’s face, flickering, peering steadily from the window of the burning trailer, his mouth open in a unnatural circle, as if he ’s singing.
He opens his eyes. Karen’s breathing has steadied, she ’s sound asleep, and he carefully gets out of bed, padding restlessly through the house in his pajamas. They’re not dead, he tries to tell himself, and stands in front of the refrigerator, pouring milk from the carton into his mouth. It ’s an old comfort, from back in the days when he was drying out, when the thick taste of milk would slightly calm his craving for a drink. But it doesn’t help him now. The dream, the vision, has frightened him badly, and he sits on the couch with an afghan over his shoulders, staring at some science program on television. On the program, a lady scientist is examining a mummy. A child. The thing is bald—almost a skull but not quite. A membrane of ancient skin is pulled taut over the eye sockets. The lips are stretched back, and there are small, chipped, rodentlike teeth. Looking at the thing, he can’t help but think of DJ again, and he looks over his shoulder, quickly, the way he used to.
The last year that he was together with Mandy, there used to be times when DJ would actually give him the creeps—spook him. DJ had been an unusually skinny child, with a head like a baby bird and long, bony feet, with toes that seemed strangely extended, as if they were meant for gripping. He can remember the way the child would slip barefoot through rooms, slinking, sneaking, watching, Gene had thought, always watching him.
It is a memory that he has almost succeeded in forgetting, a memory he hates and mistrusts. He was drinking heavily at the time, and he knows that alcohol grotesquely distorted his perceptions. But now that it has been dislodged, that old feeling moves through him like a breath of smoke. Back then, it had seemed to him that Mandy had turned DJ against him, that DJ had in some strange way almost physically transformed into something that wasn’t Gene ’s real son. Gene can remember how, sometimes, he would be sitting on the couch, watching TV, and he’d get a funny feeling. He ’d turn his head and DJ would be at the edge of the room, with his bony spine hunched and his long neck craned, staring with those strangely oversize eyes. Other times, Gene and Mandy would be arguing and DJ would suddenly slide into the room, creeping up to Mandy and resting his head on her chest, right in the middle of some important talk. “I’m thirsty,” he would say, in imitation baby-talk. Though he was five years old, he would playact this little toddler voice. “Mama,” he would say. “I is firsty.” And DJ’s eyes would rest on Gene for a moment, cold and full of calculating hatred.
Of course, Gene knows now that this was not the reality of it. He knows: He was a drunk, and DJ was just a sad, scared little kid, trying to deal with a rotten situation. Later, when he was in detox, these memories of his son made him actually shudder with shame, and it was not something he could bring himself to talk about even when he was deep into his twelve steps. How could he say how repulsed he ’d been by the child, how actually frightened he was. Jesus Christ—DJ was a poor wretched five-year-old kid! But in Gene ’s memory there was something malevolent about him, resting his head pettishly on his mother’s chest, talking in that singsong, lisping voice, staring hard and unblinking at Gene with a little smile. Gene remembers catching DJ by the back of the neck. “If you’re going to talk, talk normal,” Gene had whispered through his teeth, and tightened his fingers. “You’re not a baby. You’re not fooling anybody.” And DJ had actually bared his teeth, making a thin, hissing whine.
He wakes and he can’t breathe. There is a swimming, suffocating sensation of being stared at, being watched by something that hates him, and he gasps, choking for air. A lady is bending over him, and for a moment he expects her to say: “You’re very lucky, young man. You should be dead.”
But it ’s Karen. “What are you doing?” she says. It ’s morning, and he struggles to orient himself—he ’s on the living room floor, and the television is still going.
“Jesus,” he says, and coughs. “Oh, Jesus.” He is sweating, his face feels hot, but he tries to calm himself in the face of Karen’s horrified stare. “A bad dream,” he says, trying to control his panting breaths. “Jesus,” he says, and shakes his head, trying to smile reassuringly for her. “I got up last night and I couldn’t sleep. I must have passed out while I was watching TV.”
But Karen just gazes at him, her expression frightened and uncertain, as if something about him is transforming. “Gene,” she says. “Are you all right?”
“Sure,” he says hoarsely, and a shudder passes over him involuntarily. “Of course.” And then he realizes that he is naked. He sits up, covering his crotch self-consciously with his hands, and glances around. He doesn’t see his underwear or his pajama bottoms anywhere nearby. He doesn’t even see the afghan, which he ’d had draped over him on the couch while he was watching the mummies on TV. He starts to stand up, awkwardly, and he notices that Frankie is standing there in the archway between the kitchen and the living room, watching him, his arms at his sides like a cowboy who is ready to draw his holstered guns.
“Mom?” Frankie says. “I’m thirsty.”
He drives through his deliveries in a daze. The bees, he thinks. He remembers what Frankie said a few mornings before, about bees inside his head, buzzing and bumping against the inside of his forehead like a windowpane they were tapping against. That ’s the feeling he has now. All the things that he doesn’t quite remember are circling and alighting, vibrating their cellophane wings insistently. He sees himself striking Mandy across the face with the flat of his hand, knocking her off her chair; he sees his grip tightening around the back of DJ’s thin five-year-old neck, shaking him as he grimaced and wept; and he is aware that there are other things, perhaps even worse, if he thought about it hard enough. All the things he ’s prayed that Karen would never know about him.
He was very drunk on the day that he left them, so drunk that he can barely remember. It is hard to believe that he made it all the way to Des Moines on the interstate before he went off the road, tumbling end over end, into darkness. He was laughing, he thinks, as the car crumpled around him, and he has to pull his van over to the side of the road, out of fear, as the tickling in his head intensifies. There is an image of Mandy, sitting on the couch as he stormed out, with DJ cradled in her arms, one of DJ’s eyes swollen shut and puffy. There is an image of him in the kitchen, throwing glasses and beer bottles onto the floor, listening to them shatter.
And whether they are dead or not, he knows that they don’t wish him well. They would not want him to be happy—in love with his wife and child. His normal, undeserved life.
When he gets home that night, he feels exhausted. He doesn’t want to think anymore, and for a moment, it seems that he will be allowed a small reprieve. Frankie is in the yard, playing contentedly. Karen is in the kitchen, making hamburgers and corn on the cob, and everything seems okay. But when he sits down to take off his boots, she gives him an angry look.
“Don’t do that in the kitchen,” she says icily. “Please. I’ve asked you before.”
He looks down at his feet: one shoe unlaced, half off. “Oh,” he says. “Sorry.”
But when he retreats to the living room, to his recliner, she follows him. She leans against the door frame, her arms folded, watching as he releases his tired feet from the boots and rubs his hand over the bottoms of his socks. She frowns heavily.
“What?” he says, and tries on an uncertain smile.
She sighs. “We need to talk about last night,” she says. “I need to know what ’s going on.”
“Nothing,” he says, but the stern way she examines him activates his anxieties all over again. “I couldn’t sleep, so I went out to the living room to watch TV. That ’s all.”
She stares at him. “Gene,” she says after a moment. “People don’t usually wake up naked on their living room floor, and not know how they got there. That ’s just weird, don’t you think?” Oh, please, he thinks. He lifts his hands, shrugging—a posture of innocence and exasperation, though his insides are trembling. “I know,” he says. “It was weird to me, too. I was having nightmares. I really don’t know what happened.”
She gazes at him for a long time, her eyes heavy. “I see,” she says, and he can feel the emanation of her disappointment like waves of heat. “Gene,” she says. “All I’m asking is for you to be honest with me. If you’re having problems, if you’re drinking again, or thinking about it. I want to help. We can work it out. But you have to be honest with me.”
“I’m not drinking,” Gene says firmly. He holds her eyes. “I’m not thinking about it. I told you when we met, I’m through with it. Really.” But he is aware again of an observant, unfriendly presence, hidden, moving along the edge of the room. “I don’t understand,” he says. “What is it? Why would you think I’d lie to you?”
She shifts, still trying to read something in his face, still, he can tell, doubting him. “Listen,” she says, at last, and he can tell she is trying not to cry. “Some guy called you today. A drunk guy. And he said to tell you that he had a good time hanging out with you last night, and that he was looking forward to seeing you again soon.” She frowns hard, staring at him as if this last bit of damning information will show him for the liar he is. A tear slips out of the corner of her eye and along the bridge of her nose. Gene feels his chest tighten.
“That ’s crazy,” he says. He tries to sound outraged, but he is in fact suddenly very frightened. “Who was it?”
She shakes her head sorrowfully. “I don’t know,” she says. “Something with a ‘B.’ He was slurring so bad I could hardly understand him. BB or BJ or . . .”
Gene can feel the small hairs on his back prickling. “Was it DJ?” he says.
And Karen shrugs, lifting a now-teary face to him. “I don’t know!” she says hoarsely. “I don’t know. Maybe.” And Gene puts his palms across his face. He is aware of that strange buzzing, tickling feeling behind his forehead.
“Who is DJ?” Karen says. “Gene, you have to tell me what ’s going on.”
But he can’t. He can’t tell her, even now. Especially now, he thinks, when to admit that he’d been lying to her ever since they met would confirm all the fears and suspicions she ’d been nursing for—what?—days? weeks?
“He’s someone I used to know a long time ago,” Gene tells her. “Not a good person. He’s the kind of guy who might . . . call up, and get a kick out of upsetting you.”
They sit at the kitchen table, silently watching as Frankie eats his hamburger and corn on the cob. Gene can’t quite get his mind around it. DJ, he thinks, as he presses his finger against his hamburger bun, but doesn’t pick it up. DJ. He would be fifteen by now. Could he, perhaps, have found them? Maybe stalking them? Watching the house? Gene tries to fathom how DJ might have been causing Frankie ’s screaming episodes. How he might have caused what happened last night—snuck up on Gene while he was sitting there watching TV and drugged him or something. It seems farfetched.
“Maybe it was just some random drunk,” he says at last to Karen. “Accidentally calling the house. He didn’t ask for me by name, did he?”
“I don’t remember,” Karen says. “Gene . . .”
And he can’t stand the doubtfulness, the lack of trust in her expression. He strikes his fist hard against the table, and his plate clatters in a circling echo. “I did not go out with anybody last night!” he says. “I did not get drunk! You can either believe me, or you can . . .”
They are both staring at him. Frankie ’s eyes are wide, and he puts down the corncob he was about to bite into, as if he doesn’t like it anymore. Karen’s mouth is pinched.
“Or I can what?” she says. “Nothing,” Gene breathes.
There isn’t a fight, but a chill spreads through the house, a silence. She knows that he isn’t telling her the truth. She knows that there ’s more to it. But what can he say? He stands at the sink, gently washing the dishes as Karen bathes Frankie and puts him to bed. He waits, listening to the small sounds of the house at night. Outside, in the yard, there is the swing set, and the willow tree—silver-gray and stark in the security light that hangs above the garage. He waits for a while longer, watching, half expecting to see DJ emerge from behind the tree as he ’d done in Gene ’s dream, creeping along, his bony, hunched back, the skin pulled tight against the skull of his oversize head. There is that smothering, airless feeling of being watched, and Gene ’s hands are trembling as he rinses a plate under the tap.
When he goes upstairs at last, Karen is already in her nightgown, in bed, reading a book.
“Karen,” he says, and she flips a page, deliberately.
“I don’t want to talk to you until you’re ready to tell me the truth,” she says. She doesn’t look at him. “You can sleep on the couch, if you don’t mind.”
“Just tell me,” Gene says. “Did he leave a number? To call him back?”
“No,” Karen says. She doesn’t look at him. “He just said he ’d see you soon.”
He thinks that he will stay up all night. He doesn’t even wash up, or brush his teeth, or get into his bedtime clothes. He just sits there on the couch, in his uniform and stocking feet, watching television with the sound turned low, listening. Midnight. One a.m.
He goes upstairs to check on Frankie, but everything is okay. Frankie is asleep with his mouth open, the covers thrown off. Gene stands in the doorway, alert for movement, but everything seems to be in place. Frankie ’s turtle sits motionless on its rock, the books are lined up in neat rows, the toys put away. Frankie ’s face tightens and untightens as he dreams.
Two a.m. Back on the couch, Gene startles, half-asleep as an ambulance passes in the distance, and then there is only the sound of crickets and cicadas. Awake for a moment, he blinks heavily at a rerun of Bewitched, and flips through channels. Here is some jewelry for sale. Here is someone performing an autopsy.
In the dream, DJ is older. He looks to be nineteen or twenty, and he walks into a bar where Gene is hunched on a stool, sipping a glass of beer. Gene recognizes him right away—his posture, those thin shoulders, those large eyes. But now, DJ’s arms are long and muscular, tattooed. There is a hooded, unpleasant look on his face as he ambles up to the bar, pressing in next to Gene. DJ orders a shot of Jim Beam—Gene ’s old favorite.
“I’ve been thinking about you a lot, ever since I died,” DJ murmurs. He doesn’t look at Gene as he says this, but Gene knows who he is talking to, and his hands are shaky as he takes a sip of beer.
“I’ve been looking for you for a long time,” DJ murmurs, and the air is hot and thick. Gene puts a trembly cigarette to his mouth and breathes on it, choking on the taste. He wants to say, I’m sorry. Forgive me. But he can’t breathe. DJ shows his small, crooked teeth, staring at Gene as he gulps for air.
“I know how to hurt you,” DJ whispers.
Gene opens his eyes, and the room is full of smoke. He sits up, disoriented: For a second he is still in the bar with DJ before he realizes that he ’s in his own house.
There is a fire somewhere: He can hear it. People say that fire “crackles,” but in fact it seems like the amplified sound of tiny creatures eating, little wet mandibles, thousands and thousands of them, and then a heavy, whispered whoof as the fire finds another pocket of oxygen. He can hear this, even as he chokes blindly in the smoky air. The living room has a filmy haze over it, as if it is atomizing, fading away, and when he tries to stand up it disappears completely. There is a thick membrane of smoke above him, and he drops again to his hands and knees, gagging and coughing, a thin line of vomit trickling onto the rug in front of the still-chattering television.
He has the presence of mind to keep low, crawling on his knees and elbows underneath the thick, billowing fumes. “Karen!” he calls. “Frankie!” but his voice is swallowed into the white noise of diligently licking flame. “Ach,” he chokes, meaning to utter their names.
When he reaches the edge of the stairs he sees only flames and darkness above him. He puts his hands and knees on the bottom steps, but the heat pushes him back. He feels one of Frankie ’s action figures underneath his palm, the melting plastic adhering to his skin, and he shakes it away as another bright burst of flame reaches out of Frankie ’s bedroom for a moment. At the top of the stairs, through the curling fog he can see the figure of a child watching him grimly, hunched there, its face lit and flickering. Gene cries out, lunging into the heat, crawling his way up the stairs, to where the bedrooms are. He tries to call to them again, but instead, he vomits.
There is another burst that covers the image that he thinks is a child. He can feel his hair and eyebrows shrinking and sizzling against his skin as the upstairs breathes out a concussion of sparks. He is aware that there are hot, floating bits of substance in the air, glowing orange and then winking out, turning to ash. For some reason he thinks of bees. The air thick with angry buzzing, and that is all he can hear as he slips, turning end over end down the stairs, the humming and his own voice, a long vowel wheeling and echoing as the house spins into a blur.
And then he is lying on the grass. Red lights tick across his opened eyes in a steady, circling rhythm, and a woman, a paramedic, lifts her lips up from his. He draws in a long, desperate breath.
“Shhh,” she says softly, and passes her hand along his eyes. “Don’t look,” she says.
But he does. He sees, off to the side, the long black plastic sleeping bag, with a strand of Karen’s blond hair hanging out from the top. He sees the blackened, shriveled body of a child, curled into a fetal position. They place the corpse into the spread, zippered plastic opening of the body bag, and he can see the mouth, frozen, calcified, into an oval. A scream.
Excerpted from “Stay Awake” by Dan Chaon. Copyright © 2012 by Dan Chaon. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.