Our 2007 Fiction Contest Winner
"I saw part of a man," Daurie said.
"In the trees by the river."
We were walking downhill.
The leaves skittered under our feet, and other sliding noises filled the woods.
"Was he dead?"
"It was only part of a man."
We made our way along the path, Daurie leading, allowing the branches he moved to swing back at me. I kept my head down, looking along the edge of the water where orange and brown leaves soaked in clumps. A boat's motor zzzzed around the bend, toward us.
We came to a space in the trees and watched the boat pass by. A blonde man with sunglasses drove it, and after he had passed, the waves shook against the bank of the river, sloshing the sheets of wet leaves.
We went down a damp hill, between two pines, and there in the needles was a torso dressed in a flannel shirt. The arms of the shirt were empty and flat.
"It's a torso," I said. I knew it was called that from hearing about killings and from those guy-with-no-arms-or-legs jokes.
"Touch it," he said. He was daring me.
I went to it. I was afraid and didn't want Daurie thinking I was afraid. I bent down in front of it and tapped it. Then I touched the chest and pressed my fingers into it.
"Pull up the shirttail."
"No," I said. I thought about blood and remembered a surgery I saw once on TV. My stomach felt like it could come loose from me.
"It's not what you think."
"Is it guts?"
"Pull it up. You'll see."
I grabbed the shirt between my fingers and lifted, expecting to see intestines rolling out like snakes. But there was smooth skin where you should have been able to see inside. And there was a small metal knob and a kind of slot. I ran my finger along the bottom of the torso, and it felt like skin, even with little hairs sticking out. I backed away from it. It was real, but not real.
"Is it one of those store dummies?"
"A mannequin?" Daurie said. "I don't think so."
"Where's the rest of it?"
We looked around in the bushes and in the rocks by the river. I expected there to be a head or an arm, but we looked and we didn't find anything but smashed beer cans that had turned white in the sun.
We left it there. We could touch it, but we didn't want to touch it long enough to move it or try to lift it. Daurie said we should bring Miller out to see it. Miller was older, in eighth grade — a year ahead of us. Maybe he knew something about it.
The next morning the three of us walked around it, kicking at the pine needles. Daurie had unbuttoned a few of the buttons on the flannel shirt, brown curly hair there underneath. We looked at the neck, saw a hole and little metal pins inside. Everything on it was soft except for the metal parts.
"It's a goddam government project," Miller said. We got quiet. Miller's dad worked at the national research lab. Maybe he had told Miller stories about the men they were making.
"What's it for?" I asked. "Killing?"
"What the hell else would you do with a cyborg?"
The wind rushed up from the river as we stood there, and got the leaves going. A shiver started in my back. It moved up. Soon it felt like someone was tickling me behind my neck. I even turned around, just to check.
"Well, we can't leave it here," Daurie said. He squatted right next to the torso and pulled gently at the chest hair. The skin moved up with the hair when he pulled.
"Should we tell someone?"
"We can keep it in my dad's workshop," I said. My dad had a bad back. He hadn't been in his workshop in ages.
We lifted the torso, and though it was pretty light, all of us helped carry it. We walked along the river. The leaves trembled on their branches. My house was up the hill, and we stopped, until Daurie, who went ahead, told us the coast was clear.
We put the torso in the corner of my dad's shop and looked at it one last time. The white light in the workshop made it look fake, but outside in the sunlight it could have fooled anyone. I found a blue tarp and they helped me wrap the torso inside of it. We swore we'd keep this to ourselves. Then Daurie and Miller left.
That night I heard a tapping on my window.
"Brian," said a voice in a loud whisper. "Wake up, Brian."
The house was dark except for the light from the street outside. I went to the window and lifted it. Miller stood outside on the grass.
"Brian," he said. "I don't know the combination."
"What?" I said, still tired.
"I don't know the combination to your dad's workshop."
My clock said 1:17. I didn't know why he wanted in my dad's shop. There was someone out there with him on the lawn, someone back under the trees. I thought that it was the police, or that Miller had brought someone from the lab to take the torso back where it belonged. My heart was wide awake inside me.
"Who's with you?" I whispered at him.
He looked back into the darkness. "That's Jeannie McAdam. I wanted to show her, so can you come open it up for us?"
Miller had never talked to me so nicely, so I said yes and put on my jeans and my shoes and crept out of the house. I walked through the yard and felt the wet grass on my ankles. They were leaning against the door when I got there, close together. I looked at Jeannie and she smiled. She didn't know my name.
"You can't tell anyone," I said to her.
"Shut up and open the door," Miller said, punching me hard on the arm.
I had to spin the combination twice and Miller sighed when I took too long. It was black inside the shop, but I could smell gas from the mower. I could even taste metal in the air that reminded me of a long time ago when I put a nail in my mouth. I stepped inside, my hand out searching for the string to the light. I caught it and pulled and the room lit up and the light buzzed over us. Miller went right over to the tarp and Jeannie walked behind him, keeping away. He unwrapped it and I expected it not to be there, but it was there.
Jeannie looked at it over Miller's shoulder. "It's a dummy," she said.
"No it's not," Miller said. "Touch it."
Jeannie didn't move.
"Touch it," Miller said, louder.
She looked at me. I shrugged. Then she moved closer to it and I followed her. She squatted and I leaned in behind her. She smelled like clean, clean sheets. Her hair was up in a ponytail, and I could see the back of her neck, a red-brown beauty mark there. She reached out a hand and touched the torso on the stomach, over the shirt. I wanted to touch her beauty mark the way she was touching the torso right then.
"Feel the hair there," Miller said, pointing to the chest.
I noticed her shiny pink nail polish as her fingers went through the hair. When she touched the skin, she pulled back.
"It's warm," she said. "Why is it warm?"
The night was cool and wet. It should have been cold.
"It's not warm," Miller said, reaching out to it. "It's just not made of metal."
In a little while they left. They didn't ask if I wanted to go where they were going. I went back to bed, but I couldn't sleep. I smelled my hands, and they smelled metallic, like they smell when I've held a wrench in my hand for a long time. I couldn't go back to sleep, so I watched the dark window until the pink light came through the trees.
"Miller showed it to Jeannie McAdam," I told Daurie the next day.
"They came over at 1:17 in the morning."
School had just let out and we walked home together. "The last thing we need is girls seeing it."
"I know," I said.
"Girls can't keep quiet. They talk all the time."
We went to my house, and then to my dad's shop, but we just sat near the torso without uncovering it. I didn't turn on the light, so it was pretty dark inside. We talked about anything but it for a while, about the World Series and other things at school. But then Daurie walked over to the corner where it was.
"Do you think it could be aliens?" He asked. "You remember that movie we saw where the aliens were disguising themselves as people?"
"It could be from a UFO," I said.
"I think I have it narrowed to the government or aliens," he said. He kept talking about robots and spaceships and all kinds of things like that. I talked about them too, for a minute, but then I got bored. While he kept talking, I thought about Jeannie McAdam. I tried to listen to Daurie, but I kept seeing her, the way she looked with her hair pulled back. The way she looked squatting by the torso.
"Here comes Miller and Derek," I said, looking through the window.
"We should never have told anyone. It's like we're running a damn museum."
They came inside and Derek said, "Where is it?"
"Where's what?" Daurie said.
I went ahead and pointed. Derek unwrapped the tarp and picked it up. Then he stripped it out of its flannel shirt and turned it over, looking at the back. We hadn't seen the places where the arms were supposed to attach until we saw Derek looking at them. He was older than us, in high school.
"Turn on the light," he said.
I did and he rested the torso on his knee and looked over it. I noticed for the first time that it had nipples. I didn't want to be the one who pointed it out and no one else said anything.
"There's no label or serial number," he said.
"No price tag either, huh?" Daurie said.
"Shut up," Derek said. He set it back in the corner, but didn't bother to put the shirt back on.
"They test new planes with those things," he said. He walked around my dad's shop looking at the tools on the wall. "They need to know stuff," he said. "Like how much oxygen is in the air up there or how many Gs a man can take. So they use these dummies. They're research dummies. It belongs to the government."
"Miller says it's a cyborg," Daurie said.
"What the hell does Miller know? He's 13."
"Shut up," Miller said, but in a quiet way that didn't sound like him.
Derek said that the feds would come looking for it soon, that it might be a national security thing, but if they didn't, maybe we could sell it on eBay in a couple months. For a minute I wanted to tell everyone we should get rid of it. It was too risky to keep it. But I kept quiet and pretty soon everyone went home for supper.
That night I listened to the sounds coming from outside, wondering if I was under surveillance. Every crunch of a leaf sounded like an FBI agent making his way to my window. I couldn't sleep. I thought about what Derek said and decided he was stupid. Why would they put a test dummy in a flannel shirt? Why wasn't there a dent in it from the fall?
The next day, Jeannie McAdam stopped me outside of school, just after the warning bell.
I didn't know how to talk to girls and my breath started to get away from me.
"Hi, Brian," she said smiling. "Do you still have that thing?"
"Yeah, I still have it," I said.
"Can we come by and see it?"
I looked down, then around, at anything but her. "I guess."
She turned to go, then over her shoulder said, "We'll be there after school."
I forgot to ask who else was coming.
I got home fast after school, didn't wait for Daurie or anyone. I went inside the house to brush my teeth and comb my hair. In the mirror, my head looked like it didn't fit my body.
Dad was on the couch, nursing his back, when I walked through the living room toward the door.
"Where you goin'?" he asked.
"Meeting some friends."
My dad smiled. But he didn't say he knew. "Must be some important friends," he said.
I waited in the shop, sitting on top of the riding lawn mower. I hadn't turned on the light. I watched through the door and I could see all the way down the driveway to the street. I thought I saw them a dozen times, but it was always someone else, just passing by. The shop was cold, and my hands were freezing. I rubbed them together. I thought about who might be with Jeannie, what other girls. I imagined what they would be wearing. I imagined holding their hands, kissing them. I imagined that they didn't really want to see the torso, that they wanted to see me alone. I had time to imagine nearly everything. They weren't coming.
But then they did. I saw Jeannie turn down my driveway; a girl I didn't know following her. They were pretty. They were in my driveway.
I stepped out of the door and motioned to them. They walked through the yard to my dad's shop. Jeannie looked like she was holding in a laugh. I was afraid they would laugh at me.
"Hey," I said when they got close.
"Hey," Jeannie said. "This is Shelby."
Both girls smiled and nodded. "I'm Brian," I said, though I knew they knew my name now. I felt stupid for a second. But then we were in the dark shop and the smell of oil and mechanical things was strong. I liked that I hadn't turned on the light, that we had to sit there for a minute with only the gray light from the overcast skies outside coming in through the door. The girls sat close together, like they were scared of the place.
I pulled the string and the light came on.
"Where is it?" Shelby asked.
"Here," I said, and I walked over to the corner and lifted the tarp.
I had forgotten the shirt wasn't on, and I felt embarrassed that the torso was naked. But a little excited too. The girls giggled and I listened to the way they breathed in when they first saw it, and I liked the sounds they made. I noticed that the shop didn't smell like gas, but like them, like whatever perfume or fruity lotion they had rubbed on themselves.
"You can touch it if you want," I said.
Jeannie said, "Yeah. She has to touch it."
They kneeled on the concrete beside it and touched it and squealed. "It's gross," Shelby said. Jeannie touched it too, and even I leaned and ran my hand along the side of it. It could have been a real person, the way you could feel little bumps on the skin in places.
I was going to say something, but I heard the screen door on the back of the house slam shut and I jumped and snagged the light. They were in the corner with it in the dark and they looked at me like I was nuts.
"Cover it up," I said. "My Dad's coming."
They covered it and then they moved toward the door. My dad was on the back step looking toward the shop. He was squinting, trying to see inside.
"Brian," he said. I didn't answer. "Brian, I know you're in there. What are you doing?"
I waved the girls to the side of the door so he couldn't see them. I opened the door and stuck my head outside.
"Who's in there with you?"
"Just some guys," I said.
"Well, get out. I don't want you playing in there."
"Okay," I said and I closed the door.
I watched through the window until he had gone back inside. "You have to go home," I said.
"Your dad doesn't know about it?" Jeannie asked from behind me.
"No. Don't tell anyone else about it."
"We won't," she said. They went out the door and I watched them go down the driveway and disappear around the corner.
The next morning we ate breakfast as a family for the first time in a while. My dad smiled as he stretched and said his back felt great.
"All of a sudden, it's perfect," he said. "I'm a new man."
"Don't go and strain it again," my mother told him.
"Oh, hell, no," he said. "I'm no idiot. Light stuff for me for a long time yet."
But on the way to school I thought about him going out to his shop. He had said he would stick to light stuff before, only to be out in his shop with the heaviest tools. The torso wasn't even well-hidden, just lying there under a tarp waiting for him to find it. I walked to school, sweating and wondering. I sat through my classes and new possibilities would pop into my head. Maybe the torso was a bomb. Maybe it belonged to some terrorist somewhere, and it would explode or they would come to get it and kill my dad because he was in the shop with it. I saw Daurie at lunch.
"We've got to move it," I told him.
"My dad's gonna find it, or whoever it belongs to is going to come back."
Daurie ran his hand through his hair. The lunchroom was crowded with bodies. I saw Jeannie and Shelby sitting at their table across the room. The bell rang before Daurie said anything else, and everyone got up to leave for class. They had tried a few times to keep everyone from leaving at once, but it never seemed to work. The way out of the cafeteria was always like a river of bodies. You got in a current and it kept pushing and pushing you toward the door.
"We can take it to my house, I guess. I'll keep it under my bed."
We were in the current of the crowd, talking over all the voices around us.
"We should have left it there," I said. "We should have left it by the river."
"Whatever," Daurie said. "It'll be cool. Relax."
When I got home, it was very dark and a misty rain was falling. The white light from the shop stretched out over the fallen leaves. I knew Dad had found the torso; I knew he was waiting for me in there, ready with questions. I stopped to listen for the sound of tools from inside, but all I heard was the dripping from the trees. I slipped into the house and went straight to my room. I took off my clothes and got into bed and lay there shivering and waiting for the sound of the door. It took a long time before I heard it and my father's footsteps in the living room and kitchen. But he didn't come back to my room. It was gray and blank outside my window, with black wiry branches of a tree there. I listened. I almost dreamed myself to sleep thinking about what was going to happen next.
Then I heard a knock on my door. I didn't answer. My mother opened it and stuck her head inside.
"What's wrong, baby?" She asked.
"I'm sick," I said.
She walked over to the bed. She had a worried look on her face like she did when I was little and sick and the look made me feel better. She sat on the bed next to me and felt my forehead, then leaned in and kissed me. Her perfume smelled like dry flowers. She put her hand on my bare chest and looked down at me.
"Poor baby," she said. "What's the matter with you?"
"I ache," I said.
"I'll get you something."
My dad moved down the hallway, stomping almost. He thrust his head in. "Is this about the leaves?"
I lost my breath. I heard him say leaves, but I was thinking other things.
"You're playing sick to get out of raking this weekend?" he asked. His smile was warm and usual, but I thought it could be a knowing smile too. He walked into the room and felt my forehead. His hand was scratchy and cold.
"No fever," he said to my mother.
They talked about their days, right there above me, nearly everything that happened, and I kept waiting for something about the torso in the shop, but nothing came up and soon they were gone. I stayed in bed all evening and the sky grew dark and empty. The phone rang and my mother came to the door.
"It's for you," she said. " Do you want to talk?"
She handed me the cordless phone and closed the door.
It was Daurie. "Sorry I didn't come over. But we can't move it here."
"We can't keep it here."
"Where do we put it?"
"We need to call the police."
"Are you nuts? It's worth money."
I clicked the phone off. It rang again and I clicked it on and listened.
"Don't do anything with it," he said. "Maybe Miller could keep it at his place."
I clicked the phone off again. I didn't want Miller to hide it. I didn't want it, but I didn't want him to have it, either.
I waited until the house was black and quiet. I put my clothes back on and sneaked out the back door. I didn't even turn on the light when I got to the shop, but I felt for it in the corner. The tarp was still covering it. It was still naked. I remembered Jeannie saying it was warm, but it felt so cold up against me. I gathered it in my arms and took it out and down the hill to the river. The moon was bright and the river water looked blue and cold. I made it to the rocks by the bank and set the torso on them. I wrapped it tightly in the tarp and stepped over the rocks to the edge. I threw it as far as I could, but only got it a few feet.
It looked like it would go straight to the bottom, but then it started to float, turning in the water as it went away. I followed it from the bank and saw that it was starting to sink. The water must have been filling it through the holes. It was too close to the edge, but it was sinking and it was going. It wasn't where my dad or mom would find it.
I walked back to the house in darkness. I took off my clothes and lay in bed in only my underwear. I was a little sweaty from taking it to the river, and out of breath too. I wondered if I would ever feel safe enough to tell this to my parents. Thinking about telling it made me nervous, even thinking about telling Daurie made me nervous. But when I thought about telling Jeannie or Shelby, the idea made my stomach feel heavy and light at the same time. I closed my eyes thinking about them.
"What do you mean it's gone?" Daurie asked the next day after I told him the torso was missing. "What did you do with it?"
"Nothin'. I swear."
He stopped looking at me and looked around at everyone in the cafeteria. "We could be in serious trouble here," he said.
"My dad could have found it," I said. "He could have gotten rid of it or called someone."
"We both know it was the government, Brian. And if you think you can lie to the feds, you're f**ked in the head."
The rest of our lunch we spent talking about baseball. But I was only half listening. I watched Jeannie from across the room and when the bell rang I got up without looking at Daurie or saying anything to him. Everyone was trying to get out and I was caught up in the rush toward the door. Somehow I made my way to her and when she saw me she smiled and moved the hair away from her eyes.
"Hi," she said.
"Hi," I said.
My legs could barely move me, but the crowd pushed us on. There were a couple people between us, but I couldn't tell you who they were. We passed through the cafeteria doors then turned down the hall toward the stairs. She moved ahead of me a little ways and I followed her around the landing and down. The crowd thinned out and we stopped near some lockers.
"I have to tell you about last night," I said.
I told her how the torso looked in the moonlight and how it floated and filled with all that blue-black water. Her eyes were beautiful, wet and shiny. She smiled while I talked. She listened, and then I told her she was the only one who knew what had happened. She was the only one who knew where the torso was now. She leaned into me and pressed her cheek to mine. I pressed back into her softness. Her arm swung around and I felt electricity blooming inside and a cool sweat breaking out all over.
"You still smell like the river," she said.
The bell rang and she moved away, waving. I wiped the sweat from my soaking face and swore never to tell the story again.