October 25, 2016
A kid answered the door. He wasn’t wearing pants. He had on a white Buffalo Bills T-shirt over light blue boxers, and a pair of men’s suede slippers that hung two inches beyond his heel. He was skinny and sandy-haired and pimply. His eyes were small and the whites were cloudy and yellowish but the blue iris was very bright. The warmth of the house met Tracy’s face and softened it.
“Hola,” Tracy said. She was shivering from her waist and her lips wouldn’t meet.
The kid stared at her.
She took her hand from her pocket and jerked her thumb backward over her shoulder in the direction of her truck. “I’m in a ditch,” she said.
The kid wasn’t tall enough to see over her shoulder, so she stepped to the side so he could gaze out around her.
“I don’t have my phone on me,” she explained.
The kid looked back at Tracy. A painful-looking pimple rose from the direct center of his chin, like it had been placed there as a challenge. The kid’s slim shoulders trembled with cold. She could see his left nipple through his t-shirt. He was holding a tumbler with an inch of caramel-colored liquid in it and several tinkling ice cubes.
“You wanna come in or something?” His voice was lower than she expected – he sounded more man than boy.
Tracy nodded. She followed him into the house and stood on the mauve doormat as the kid reached behind her to pull the door shut.
A grand marble banister bisected the entryway; the stairway was wide and curved to nearly a right angle so that she couldn’t see exactly how far up it went and what lay at the top. The handrail was black iron with ornate posts. Fake ivy was spiraled neatly around it the whole way up. A Tiffany chandelier lit the vast chamber. It was silent as a tomb.
It was easily the most impressive house Tracy had ever set foot inside. It looked like the places they featured on those television shows about celebrity homes. She found it hard to believe a place like this could exist a mere three or four miles from her own home.
“Take off your shoes,” the kid said.
Tracy was taken aback by his tone, but figured it was a house rule, and she wrestled her heels off with her toes. She placed them neatly at the edge of the rug. Her stockings were soaked. She was still wearing her winter coat, and she pushed the hood back from her face. The fake fur that lined her hood was ratty and smelled like cigarettes and a barn.
“You wanna use my phone?” the kid said. There was no upholstery in the entryway, and his voice reverberated as though they were in an empty chapel.
“I guess,” Tracy said. “Your folks around?”
“Nope.” The kid stepped behind Tracy to lock the door both at its brass knob, as well as the deadbolt six inches above it. He kicked off his own shoes, then went to the banister where he set the tumbler on the bottom step, then leapt up the stairs in quick rabbit strides, skipping every other one.
Tracy’s sleeves were sopping wet from the snow, and clung to her wrists like cold slugs. She pulled the AAA book from her pocket. She flipped through the book to locate the number for weather-related emergencies and stuck her index finger in it to hold the page. Tracy peered at the tumbler on the bottom step, went to it and leaned her nose in over the glass to investigate. Her face immediately woke to the sting of alcohol at her nostrils.
She blinked and straightened up and walked softly to her right, where the entryway opened to the living room. It was immaculate, with rose-colored carpet, dark cherry furnishings, gauzy curtains. A china cabinet to her left held rows of porcelain and pewter and carnival glass plates, displayed on little wooden stands with legs. Across the room, a painting of a black Labrador with a pheasant in its mouth hung above the piano. Huge framed photographs of kids with serious expressions rested on the fireplace mantel. The fire lapped upward from fake charred logs in even, controlled flames. The couch and loveseat were matching cream-colored leather, and an enormous flatscreen occupied nearly an entire wall. The television was on and an advertisement for a collection of literature on Christian marriage was playing, muted.
Tracy was startled by the sudden clang of a cowbell and quickly turned to her sharp left, where she noticed a six-foot tall birdcage on the far side of the china cabinet. She took several steps toward the cage. It was made of bamboo, with a domed top and several perches within it. It smelled vaguely of cedar. The cowbell swayed on a thick silver chain. A waist-high tray held both a Tupperware container with some reddish crumbs, and a stuffed yellow mouse with a shredded tail. The bird was perched on the far side of the cage, staring motionless at Tracy and gripping the side of the cage with its talons. It was remarkably big, football-sized, cobalt blue with gold in its beak and circling both eyes.
“It’s a hyacinth macaw.” The kid was suddenly at Tracy’s side and he gazed in at the bird. He said in a rather nasty tone, “Thinks he’s such a smarty. His name’s Simon. He’s my stepdad’s.”
The bird turned its head to face the kid and blinked once.
“Does he talk?” Tracy asked.
“A little.” The kid looked in at the bird. “Do you talk?”
The bird said, “A little,” in an unpleasant squawk. He readjusted his talons around his perch and bobbed his head up and down.
“What else do you say?” Tracy asked the bird.
The bird made a high-pitched catcall whistle and exclaimed, “You’re something else!”
The kid said, “He says that to everyone.”
The kid offered his cell phone to Tracy. He had remarkable fingernails for a kid, she thought; perfectly clean, evenly cut and smooth edges as though they’d been filed. Tracy took the phone and stared at it in her hand for a moment, thumbing the smooth, even plane of a screen with no keyboard.
“One of them iPhones?” she said. Most of the young staff members at the restaurant used these, but she’d never even laid a hand on one.
The kid snatched it back from her and quickly pulled up a dial pad.
Tracy entered the AAA number and was put on hold. She watched the bird clean itself beneath its wings, snapping at his feathers with his beak and waggling his head back and forth. The dispatcher who finally answered her call said it might be up to two or three hours until they’d get someone out there. Roads were bad all over the county and they had a long line-up of folks in need of help.
Tracy hung up and reported this to the kid, then she tapped the corner of the phone against her chin. “Well, now I can’t think who else to call,” she said.
“Aren’t you married?” the kid said.
“Geez-oh-Pete,” Tracy said.
“No friends?” The kid didn’t seem suspicious nor particularly concerned, just casually intrigued by this idea.
“Yeah, I’ve got friends,” Tracy said. “I don’t keep their numbers memorized. Do you have a phone book or something?”
The kid laughed. “A phone book?” He took his phone back from her.
He used the bottom inch of his t-shirt to wipe the screen of his phone. “I don’t care if you hang out here,” he said. “My stepdad Kevin, he’s a real prick, but he can probably help you with your truck, him and my mom will be home in an hour or two.”
Tracy considered this. “That’s a little weird, don’t you think?”
The kid shrugged. “No,” he said. “I don’t think it’s that weird. I don’t think it’s weird at all.” He nodded into the living room. “I’m just watching T.V.”
“I’m Tracy, by the way,” she said.
Tracy shivered from the base of her spine. Her hands were still waxy pink and puffy from the cold.
Charlie said, “Do you want to borrow something of my Mom’s so you can warm up? She wouldn’t care.” He stared at Tracy’s body for a moment and said, “I think you’re about the same size.”
Tracy weighed the offer and tried to place herself in Charlie’s mother’s shoes. She wasn’t sure if she’d want just any old stranger off the street wearing one of her outfits. On the other hand, she was sure to get sick if she didn’t dry off and warm up. She’d want to be hospitable to someone in her position.
“My mom’s really nice,” Charlie insisted. “I’m sure she wouldn’t care.”
Tracy pointed toward the tumbler, still resting on the bottom step of the staircase. “Would your stepdad care that you’re drinking his whiskey?”
Charlie jerked his head around and scowled at her. “It’s bourbon. And I’d say that’s none of your business. Especially after I let you in my house and all.” His adolescent voice honked like a clarinet.
Tracy made a little noise with her tongue on the roof of her mouth. “I just don’t wanna be part of any bad scene or anything.”
Charlie returned with a pair of fleecy pajama pants, a pale yellow t-shirt and wool socks in a neat pile. He showed Tracy to the downstairs bathroom. It was spotless with a classic beachy theme; a conch shell for a soap dish, coconut handsoap, the bathmat sky blue. Tracy took off her own clothing and spread it over the shower rod. She dried herself completely with a plushy hand towel, until all her goosebumps had retreated, before dressing herself in Charlie’s mother’s clothing.
She was tying the ribbon belt of the pajama pants at her waist when she thought she saw a shadow pass directly beneath the bathroom door. Her breath snagged suddenly against the back of her throat like she’d swallowed a hair. She glanced at the handle to make sure she had locked the door, then pressed her ear to it. The only sound she could hear was the faraway prattling of the television in the other room. The shadow was nothing; she’d only spooked herself.
The yellow shirt was thinner than she’d have liked, and both garments fit too tightly. She grasped the shirt in her fists and pulled it out from her body in handfuls to stretch the thing out. She wished she was wearing a white bra rather than her cheapo one with the red plaid pattern, which showed clearly through the shirt. She did lunges in the pants so that they would accommodate her ass. She had a great body for her age, men in bars said so all the time, but she reckoned she was a good two or three sizes larger than Charlie’s mom. She imagined that Charlie’s mom, living in a house like this and all, probably did a lot of yoga and drank a lot of green juice.
Charlie had poured Tracy both a glass of water and a glass of bourbon when she returned to the living room. She took a seat at the far end of the leather couch, which sank generously beneath her as though it had been holding its breath in anticipation of her. Charlie was watching the television intently. A televangelist stood at center stage, and the rumbling of an audience bellowed from surround sound. The screen was so large the man was eight feet tall. A line of audience members gathered in front of the preacher, who held a woman’s face in his hands.
Tracy had only ever passed this channel en route to other shows; she’d never watched more than ten seconds of a program like this. She thought it was horseshit. She took a seat next to Charlie. His fists were clenched like he was watching a sporting event.
The camera panned in on the preacher. He wore a gray pinstripe suit and gold tie. His face was frighteningly large and detailed on the high definition screen; cheeks flaming with rosacea and a very intense expression. He clutched a woman at the sides of her face, and murmured. Her long blonde braid swung free and low behind her.
“Here she goes,” Charlie whispered. Tracy glanced sideways at him. His whole body was tense like he was about to jump out of his seat.
“Here she goes,” he said again. “Watch this.”
The woman on the television convulsed and then wilted into the arms of two broad and muscular men behind her, her braid dropping so low it grazed the ground. The preacher gyrated briefly, and gestured for the next person to come forward as the woman was carried away.
“I LOVE this guy!” Charlie said. “Don’t you love this guy?”
Tracy stared at him.
“He’s the best in the business,” Charlie offered. “The business of hypnosis, I mean.”
“How do you mean?”
“I’ve read all about it. These guys are all trained hypnotists. You can talk people into anything when they’re under a spell.”
Tracy said, “I’ve seen that movie about the hypnotist. The one from the nineties. You seen that? Pretty scary stuff.”
“Wanna see something?” Charlie said. “Follow me.”
REBECCA KAUFFMAN is originally from rural northeastern Ohio. She eventually moved to New York City, where she received her MFA in Creative Writing. In the years since, she has worked primarily in restaurants and intermittently as a teacher. She currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Adapted from Another Place You’ve Never Been, by Rebecca Kauffman, Copyright © 2016 by Rebecca Kauffman. With the permission of the publisher, Soft Skull Press.