Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fiction: The No Ones By Philip Roberts

The therapist said Jack had a problem with authority, lack of proper discipline, a need to show his independence. The therapist was wrong. Teachers said he knew the rules but chose willingly to disobey them. Jack wanted to see the consequences for his actions, and had found those consequences inadequate, but they, too, were wrong. Jack’s mother chose to blame his father, and in her weaker moments, took all of the blame upon her own shoulders. On those nights she reached for the bottle in the back of the cabinet while Jack slept.

Jack could have told them the real issue, and actually had at first. He tried to tell his mother and the therapist and the teachers about the No Ones, and for his trouble the therapist suggested he be placed among other children to help him get over his imaginary friends. But as Jack got older, even as his fear of them remained, he saw in them the life outside the boundaries of everything he was taught.


This was a school day, and Jack was eleven. He ate his breakfast and watched his mom read through the newspaper while she avoided looking at him. They rarely spoke.

“What are you going to do?” His mother asked without looking at him. She wasn’t reading the paper anymore. She stared at it only so that she wouldn’t have to see her son and see that emptiness to his face.

“Go right to school,” Jack answered. This pleased her, and that is why he said it. Had she not been his mother, he wouldn’t have cared about pleasing her, but even as Jack’s interest in the world faded, something in him clung to her. He respected her and the things she had done to pull her life back together, and he wished he could be the son he had been in his youth.

“That’s good. Try to make it through school without upsetting any of your teachers.”

Something in him snorted at the notion of teachers—they didn’t know what existed—what the world really was. That was the chief source of his trouble in school. He didn’t fight and he didn’t call people names because what was really the point? After seeing beyond the veil, even if only glimpsing it, normal quarrels felt hollow to him.

“Be home right after school,” she said as he began for the door. “Right after school, and I’ll…make you something special for dinner, okay?”

She looked up from her paper, and Jack met her eyes. Even when she smiled she looked sad to him, her mouth quivering around the edges, waiting for her to give it permission to droop back down.

Jack simply nodded, and he left through the door with his rain slicker on and his backpack in hand.

There weren’t any of them near the house. No shapes outlined by water, just a quiet neighborhood for him to walk through. He found a smile on his face, surprised by it, unaware of where it had come from.

Up ahead he saw the puddle, and before his mind could even react his body was in motion. He was too old for this kind of stuff, he thought, not that it stopped the short laugh or leap that dropped him feet first into the water.

Immediately he distanced himself from the puddle. Ashamed of what he had done, he thought. What was the point in it? It had become a mantra for him whenever something inside of him wanted to have fun, to be a young boy, to enjoy the life he had.

It isn’t right, another part of him would say. It isn’t just about seeing the shimmer of them or the outline in the rain or even the deeds they perform. Why could he see when no one else could?

And then the calling came. He never knew when it would happen, or even what it meant, but when it came he always listened. His path diverted from the sidewalk and away from his mother’s decree of straight to school.

Head down, slicker pulled tight around him, Jack pushed through a side yard, over a fence, across a back yard, until he saw another yard and a car just passing by. Too late, his mind told him, but for what he didn’t know.

What he did see was the man across the street staring at him. The man had no umbrella or raincoat, the suit he wore soaked through with rain, and his once well combed hair matted to his head. The man cocked his head to the side and offered Jack a bemused smile. “And what are you doing here, boy?” he called out.

An air of importance surrounded this man, and as much as Jack felt drawn towards him, he was also afraid.

“Bad mess, huh?” the guy asked, and smiled even more.

A squirrel had recently been struck on the road, the corpse smashed flat, bloody guts splattered out from the body. Just as with the man, Jack’s mind became split, both horrified by it and drawn to it. He wanted to reach down and pick the animal up. Carry it with him.

Jack ran back the way he had come. The sense of direction that had brought him to that road left him, and Jack stumbled through yards in his attempt to find his way to school. Over ten minutes passed before he emerged onto a street he knew, and in the middle of it he saw a No One.

No matter how often he came across them, Jack’s stomach always tightened, especially on rainy days such as this one when he saw them the best. He couldn’t quite make out the shape of them, each different, and none of them quite human. But even when he couldn’t see them, he could always hear them, and drawing nearer to this one, he heard it too.

The sounds were nonsensical, yet they held a certain form and structure. He listened to another language, one beyond anything people had ever produced, and perhaps beyond his ear’s ability to hear. He rarely saw more than one of them at a time, and yet they were always speaking.

He often wondered if he could touch them. He had seen cars pass right through them before, but then the people inside couldn’t see them, so perhaps it was different.

He saw two more before he reached the school, both of them at a safe distance, and he realized upon entering the building how late he was. His teacher scolded him and Jack stood without a word before her.

The older Jack became the less he reacted to anything. He knew people viewed talking to him the same as they did talking to an inanimate object, and if he responded, they pulled back in surprise.

He didn’t listen as the teacher spoke. He stared at the wall as if he could see through it. The other children didn’t bother him. They never picked on Jack, because whatever made Jack different went beyond mere social problems.

Some days Jack felt almost normal, but today, after his outburst with the puddle, the child in him had vanished. Out on the playground he saw more of them. They rarely gathered like this. Jack counted five, and thought he saw another outside of the fence.

There was something in the air. An unease touched Jack’s stomach. They knew, he thought. They knew he could see them, and they were gathering.

A sense of urgency began to creep up on him. It always took him somewhere, and when he arrived the sense of lateness came. He wasn’t fast enough; never fast enough to catch whatever it was he was supposed to catch. He had stood up in class before and left, his teacher’s cries following him out the door. Hopefully that wouldn’t happen today. He wanted to make his mother happy.

Windows made up the wall of his classroom. The windows showed Jack the street outside and showed him the man in the suit standing on the sidewalk watching him. Outwardly Jack showed no signs of anything. Staring at the man who smiled and lifted up his hand to wave, Jack thought he had seen him before.

How long had this man been following him?

Not far from where the man stood, Jack saw a No One. It wasn’t the only one, three others, perhaps. They stood so close together it might have been three or one giant one. Their sizes were never consistent.

The man outside dropped his hand, still smiling, and started down the street. He passed directly through the No One without stopping.

At recess more of the No Ones were lingering around the school. Lightning split the sky and in the flash of light he almost saw them. This had never happened before, but today, when that flash of light came there was substance to the invisible forms—the flicker of an image.

And the man was waiting for him.

He wasn’t smiling now, but the smile was there in his eyes. His suit clung wetly to him and he stood near the edge of the playground. Jack walked to him out of curiosity and fear.

None of the teachers saw Jack stop before this stranger and tilt his head. Other children noticed, and pointed, and thought it best not to interfere with anything dealing with Jack.

“Who are you?” Jack asked him.

The man knelt down and stared into Jack’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry for the time you’ve been robbed. This was my fault, and making it right isn’t going to be pleasant, but it’s the only way.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I had to pull some strings and rearrange things a little, but that wasn’t much trouble, not compared to what you’re going to have to go through. But I felt like saying I’m sorry first. I’m glad I found you, though. You don’t know how long I’ve been looking.”

He stood then, stood and started away from Jack even as Jack called after him. The man didn’t hesitate or look back. As much as Jack wanted to follow after him, the child in him said no, and the child in him was coming back.

Fear gripped him along with a sense of isolation worse than he’d felt in a long time. He turned back to the other children, some of them staring at him, and he cried. It hit him hard, these emotions. His mother’s worried eyes filled his mind.

His knees buckled and Jack collapsed to the ground in this heap of tears until that cold, emotionless side of him returned, and never before had it felt so separate from him, as if his body was being taken over by another person. He shrieked at it in his head to go away and let him wallow in whatever he wanted to wallow in, but he had no say in the matter, and suddenly the tears were gone. He stood up with his indifference.

By the time school finally came to an end the calling was there. It reached into him and pulled him by a string through the building and out into the day. The rain hadn’t faltered, but the No Ones were gone. Jack didn’t see a single No One as he ran through the wet, suburban streets.

Straight home, his mother had told him, but the calling couldn’t be ignored even if a child named Jack wanted to. Those were the rules of the real world, and those didn’t apply to him. He was beyond such things, and the calling, that was the real rule, the most important rule.

But the calling was leading him somewhere very specific, Jack saw, and he knew where it was leading him. He was still going home.

Now he did see a No One, and then another, and then even more as his house was coming up.

His mother was in the distance, too far for him to know it was she and knowing still that it was. She had an umbrella in her hand and a bag in the other from the liquor store up the street. And all around her the No Ones gathered.

They were not going to do this, he screamed to himself. He didn’t care what they were or where they came from. Jack could see them, and perhaps Jack could stop them.

A car was coming from around the corner, fast, and his mom was crossing the street with a hunch that said her day at work had been hard and tiring and she didn’t care about anything but getting home and opening that bottle.

Jack screamed to his mother. His voice shook with fear, and at his cry his mother turned to him. She stopped in the street to turn and see her son. “The car,” Jack shouted.

The tires squealed in an attempt to stop but the road was too slick and his mom was too unmoving.

Jack’s eyes clamped shut. He couldn’t watch, and he didn’t, but he heard. He heard her scream of pain and heard the car come to a halt and heard her call out to him. When Jack’s eyes opened he could see the white face of a teenager behind the wheel of the car and his mother’s body near the gutters like discarded trash, and he ran to her.

The No Ones began to circle in. Lighting gave them form, so many of them marching towards his mother, and that was something he couldn’t allow.

“Don’t go near her,” he screamed, and they knew who he talked to. They stopped then, all of them, and while he couldn’t see their faces, he knew they stared at him. They had been quiet before, but at his shout their voices picked up in unison. “I’m not going to let you touch her,” Jack screamed while beside him the panicked teen stumbled out of his car.

“I’m so sorry,” the teen said. “I already called the police.”

Jack barely heard him, and wasn’t sure if the teen was talking to him or his mom. What Jack saw was the wall marching towards him. What he heard was the roar of so many of them speaking another language.

What defense did he have against them? What could he do to stop whatever it was they meant to do to him? Jack didn’t know, but so long as it kept their attention on him, he thought it was fine. If they couldn’t touch his mother, perhaps she wouldn’t die. The ambulance would arrive in time and they would save her.

A hand he couldn’t see latched onto his arm. Others joined it, not physical, he didn’t think, almost like wind hardened into form. Jack screamed without thought. He forgot about his mother and saw only the figures illuminated by the lightning. The strange voices drowned out the world, and the more he heard them the more they sounded like words. He still couldn’t understand what they said, but the idea of it carried through: you don’t belong.

Over all of it he heard his mother screaming his name. He heard the startled gasps of a teen who had had his life changed too much already that day.

The hands pulled Jack to the ground. They reached through him, the air passing into his mouth and into his body. That feeling filled his entire body, not pain, he didn’t think, the feeling beyond the body and incapable of being expressed by it.

Fear broke out, the emotion like a bright beacon in his mind, and he understood that the indifference was going away. Held down by the No Ones, he writhed in his fear, almost reached out to take the other part of him back, the part they were stealing from him.

And then they were gone.

His eyes opened to see the dark clouds and the flashing lights of an ambulance coming towards them. He saw a frightened teenager keeping his distance out of fear, and his mother’s face with blood running down her cheek peering down at him. She was crying.

Jack reached out and hugged her. He couldn’t recall the last time he had, he suddenly realized, but doing it then felt good and felt right because he loved her, and he wouldn’t let them take her.


Jack stood in front of the window and stared at the street below. The rain had weakened, but still it persisted, and his mother lay on the hospital bed behind him. She was asleep, and he had been told she would probably sleep for a few hours. But she would be fine.

Someone knocked gently on the open door behind him. He turned to see the man, his clothes the same, dry now. He smiled at Jack like he had when they had first met, and walked up to him. “She’ll be fine,” he said.

“Who are you?” Jack asked.

“I think the less you know the happier you’ll be. When it comes to me, let’s just leave it at that.”

“What happened today?”

He smiled a little wider and shook his head. “I’m just here to make sure everything turned out like it was supposed to and that’s all. If you’re looking for answers, I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointment. The only thing I’ll tell you is that someone screwed up, and you got placed in a bad situation. I remedied it, though. Those things you were seeing, getting the message to them isn’t easy, and your mom had to suffer a little because of it, but don’t worry about her. She’ll be fine, and so will you.”

With that he turned from Jack. He watched the man leave and then looked back to the window because the truth was Jack didn’t want to know. He agreed with the stranger that some things were best left to the unknown. Jack had seen too much already.

Outside the room he heard a commotion. People ran in front of his door with equipment in hand, and Jack couldn’t help being drawn to the sounds.

Two rooms down he saw nurses gathered around. Jack did his best to cling to the wall and not be seen as he inched closer until he could see the old man. They placed the handles onto his chest and sent a jolt through his body but Jack knew from the expressions that all of it was too late. He watched the man as he died.

Jack wondered if one of them was in that room right then. Was there a No One, invisible beside the bed, or maybe two or three of them? Were they waiting to take the man’s soul with them, if that’s what they did? Most of all he wondered if the No One that had been inside of him was in that room. The man didn’t need to tell Jack for him to know what had been inside of him. He had felt it when the others pulled it free from the prison of Jack’s body.

Jack turned from the room. He was done with death for now. There was a world of rules. Not the rules of existence beyond the flesh, but the rules of the world and the rules Jack had been taught when he was a bright little boy. Jack wanted to follow those rules, and be that little boy again.

No comments: