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Words by Evan Mallon
Image by Samantha Dade
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published in The Sonder Review.
Lucas had appointed himself curator of Bluebird’s only museum long before he was found in the woods, searching for bits of it to swallow.
Roan Boylin hesitated, face knotted, looking as if a person, any person, was the last thing he expected to find in the woods on his way to school.
‘Oh. Roan, hey,’ Lucas said, hiding his sifter behind his leg.
Of all the people who might have found him, Roan was as good as Lucas could have hoped for. They sat in the same row periods five through nine and, much like himself, Roan passed the day in a precautionary hush; laughing when others did and speaking only when spoken to. Whatever made him seem less friendless than he actually was.
Only once, as a full-faced, bare-bellied child, had someone caught Lucas swallowing something others couldn’t. It was two days shy of his sixth birthday and a fierce mugginess had descended on the town of Bluebird. His mother, still clinging to the last tentacles of spring, pressed a Pepsi against her cheek, its chill a denial that summer had arrived for good, that it was finally time to shut the windows and turn on the air. Agreeably cooled, she popped the cap and listened to it roll across the floor before drinking the bottle down.
Lucas stood in the doorway, watching her. Over the course of his six years, he had begun to decipher the tones of the world he inhabited. For example, he could tell that the jangle of keys has a lighter echo than that of coins being dropped into a dish; how the wind, overstuffed with the dregs of a just finished gale, drags across the window like a sack of bricks; that bottle caps, when allowed to roll, resemble the crunch of a bike tire gliding over broken glass. And, it was that sound, which drew him into the kitchen. When he saw the cap resting against the floor trim, waiting, it seemed, just for him, Lucas pasted both hands over his mouth so that no one would hear him smile.
What followed was not particularly enjoyable. His mother drained the bottle just fast enough to see him snatch up the cap, dust it off and swallow it down. As they drove to the hospital, she filled the car with a panic too unstable for Lucas to harness and climb over. If he could have, he would have grabbed hold and built a perch from which he could whisper into her ear that she shouldn’t worry. He considered himself a pro, after all. He did this all the time.
Once his stomach had been scanned and photographed, Lucas was ushered into a room where the doctor was attempting to explain to his mother what Lucas had known all along.
‘Nothing,’ he said, holding up the x-ray. “No bottle cap. No lacerations. Nothing.”
Right then, as he watched his mother demand a second opinion, insisting that she knew what she saw, that something must be wrong with her boy, Lucas decided that he needed to be smarter. That he could never again be caught doing what he loved. And he wasn’t. Not until Roan.
‘What are you doing out here?’ Roan asked, as he took a step forward.
The truth was simple enough: the woods were the last area in town that Lucas had yet to bleed completely. Years of swallowing had drained the blown out factory on the edge of the river, relieved Bluebird’s library of their retired encyclopedia, volume by volume, set by set, and emptied Fort Fun – the only amusement park the town of Bluebird ever had the initiative to build – of anything and everything worth swallowing. Pennies were taken down with the same care given to a family of raccoons. The rotted seat of a Ferris wheel was just as precious to him as a sun-warmed robin’s egg. Lucas did not discriminate. He wanted to swallow the world. To keep it safe so that it would be there when he felt alone.
Since that day at the hospital, Lucas had prepared a list of fictions that would, if he were ever caught again, explain exactly why he was knee deep in dirt, digging through junk, plucking secrets out of the ground. Or, something else even higher up on the apple tree of embarrassment. He scrolled through them searching for rescue, but one by one they were arrested at his lips. It wasn’t until that moment, as Roan was staring at him, that Lucas realized how useless this list was. How impossible his curating was to explain away. So, against his better judgment, Lucas told the truth.
‘Looking,’ he said
Roan nodded once, as if ‘things’ satisfied everything he needed to know. He even skimmed the area for things that he could claim for himself, hoping the rules of ‘finders keepers’ held true in the woods.
‘Cool. Mind if I look too?’
Lucas shrugged, which was as good an invitation as Roan had ever received.
The next day, Lucas woke early, wanting to get a head start on the daylight.
Usually, when the time came for him to pack it in and head to school, he managed to find at least an item or two worth his time and his throat. Study hall and recess were used to catalog that morning’s treasures in the museum’s ledger and then, if time allowed, flip to page one and get lost in all that he had swallowed. Some items still made him blush more than others. The star, for example, that dangled off his mobile as a toddler and hummed to him a song so sweet that he swallowed it to never forget. There was also the length of roller coaster track from Fort Fun’s centerpiece, The Barnstormer. For an entire week after he took down that yard of rusted steel, Lucas swore he could hear the screams of riders past welling in his ears, thanking him for not letting them be forgotten any longer.
Roan waited for him, leaning against a wind-tilted jack pine with a brand new sifter lying at his feet, shimmering in the cockcrow light like a bowl of seawater.
Earlier, as Lucas had dressed, he told himself that he should dig elsewhere. Some place far from the site of yesterday’s unveiling. With Roan at his side, the morning had lingered and his digs were tentative and fruitless. Nothing was cataloged. Nothing was saved. For the first time, in as long as he could remember, Lucas left empty handed.
But, leaving a place unsearched was too much for a curator of his ilk. The memory of things unswallowed would haunt him like the beasts of lost opportunities so often do, until he found his way back. All he could do was hope that yesterday’s lack of discovery had soured Roan’s desire to dig.
‘Check it out!’
Roan’s voice raised an octave in excitement as he kicked at his new sifter. Try as he might to ignore it, Lucas could tell it was much nicer than his, which was nothing but an oblong piece of ruined plastic that his father had given to him on their one and only trip to a beach. That day, Lucas found a jellyfish, a pocketknife, and two wooden buoys that had washed ashore, swallowing them all.
‘Didn’t think you’d come back,’ Lucas said, looking up into the trees. Dawn had been swept away and the sky was overcome with a tide of tiger orange so thick that he wondered what it would taste like.
‘I got this for us,’ Roan said, holding out his sifter, his skin blanching at Lucas’s words. For Roan, friends were fragile things, apt to shatter at a hiccup, and already he could hear the glass cracking as he watched Lucas watching the trees. ‘I thought it might bring us better luck than yesterday.’ His voice was hopeful.
A pair of cardinals rocked on a branch above them, their song misting through the woods.
Inhaling the melody, Lucas said the words he’d knew he’d probably regret, ‘It’s cool, it’s nicer than mine. Nice job.’
‘I have a good feeling about today,’ Roan said, smiling. ‘If there are things here, we’re gonna find ‘em.’
The thought that a simple ball of dirt could hold grains born hundreds of years apart, and long before him, was always a humbling one to Lucas. To scoop up that much time in his hands made him feel resonant, utterly in tune, however briefly, with the world he wanted so desperately to catalog and keep within him. He thirsted for that moment when a treasure was uncovered; when the quake of discovery would rumble up his spine and make the hairs on his arms rise to peek above his skin, curious of what things were to come.
‘I think maybe we have something.’
Lucas pointed at the pear shaped clump resting against the edge of the sifter.
‘You’re shivering’ Roan said.
Ignoring him, Lucas collected the clod of dirt from the sifter, squeezing it. A thin whisper hushed through his fingers as the lump crumbled. He shut his eyes and lulled the grains around his palm, letting them roll and kiss and say farewell before opening his hand and blowing them away.
‘What is it?’ asked Roan.
There, among the fleeting dust, was a ring, glistening like starlight. A band of white gold looped around, blossoming, at its top, into a diamond the size of a half-eaten pea. Rings, Lucas thought. The museum was filled with troves, forged of silver or plastic, but gold is the darling of any curator worth their salt and he could never have enough.
Laying it on his tongue, Lucas swallowed it, easily as a pad of melting butter.
‘What are you doing?’ Roan choked out, skin suddenly ashen.
Lucas re-filled the sifter, shaking it.
‘It’s okay,’ he said, eyes focused, searching.
A shard of blue glass began to take shape as the dirt fell away. Glass in itself was an easy enough thing to find, but Lucas had never seen any so deliciously blue. The word “elixir” was raised along the shard’s rounded shoulder: an oddity to be noted in the ledger.
‘It’s alright,’ he said, sliding the glass into his mouth, ‘I’m fine. Just saving it, that’s all.’
Lucas looked up at the cardinals, still singing above them. They burned like tiny fireballs against the backdrop of layered branches. If only one would slip and tumble into his mouth, scorching a path all the way to the museum’s entrance. Then, this morning would truly be perfect.
‘What does that mean? Saving it?’
‘For my museum.’ Lucas patted his stomach as he checked his watch. ‘We’d better go. We’ll be late for school.’
The color had gradually begun to return to Roan’s face, spreading across his cheeks like a chain of freckled islands. Leaving was out of the question. Sitting there, under the umbrella shade of the treetops, Roan realized that Lucas had shown him something that no other person ever had —a secret—and Roan was not about to allow this moment to end so suddenly, simply because of something as inconsequential as time or tardiness.
‘Can I see it?’ He asked, ‘Your museum, I mean. I want to see it. If you’ll let me.’
Working his way up from Roan’s warped pair of Chuck Taylor’s, Lucas, for the first time in two days, really took the time to appraise his companion. Ordinary camouflaged shorts, a sleeveless t-shirt that bore the Milwaukee Brewers logo above the breast pocket, his face, blotchy from the heat and shielded behind a pair of crooked glasses, lenses the shape of a shot glass.
‘Sure,’ Lucas said. ‘But you’ve got to take your shoes off first. I don’t want you tracking mud through the halls.”
Speaking to a police officer turned out to be less intimidating than television had made it seem.
‘The boy’s mother said he spent the last two mornings before school with you,’ the shorter, older of the two officers said.
‘She said that you two were,’ he flipped to the first page of his notebook and ran his finger along the margin, stopping half way down, ‘digging. Is that correct?’
‘Yes sir, that’s right,’ Lucas answered.
Lucas didn’t think the man looked much like a cop at all. Other than his uniform and concise way of questioning, he looked more like someone who had slipped up, who had put all of his eggs in a single basket, only to watch them spoil one by one.
‘Digging for what?’
‘Things,’ Lucas said. ‘Stuff I can sell. Trinkets, antiques, whatever.’
He eyed the badge pinned above the officer’s nametag. It appeared to be made of bronze, possibly copper, both worth preserving.
‘Out there, mostly.’ Lucas pointed in the direction of the woods. ‘Sometimes by the river. But mostly out there.’
The officer nodded and flicked his head in the direction of his partner. Much younger, his partner was well tanned with a uniform that fit his body as if he were born into it. Leaning into the radio clipped to his shoulder, the officer said, ‘Check the woods. The boy says that’s where he last saw him.’ Lucas eyed his teeth, which were unnervingly white, lined up straight and true like a row of freshly planted tombstones.
Behind them, neighbors had begun to mill about the sidewalk in front of Lucas’s house, drawn to the pulse of flashing lights, which twirled from the patrol car in the driveway.
‘You haven’t seen him since this morning then?’
‘No, sir. He showed up today same as yesterday and we dug. Then I went to school.’
‘You two didn’t go together?’
‘How come? Seems kind of strange, leaving a friend alone in the woods.’
‘I couldn’t stay’ Lucas answered smoothly. ‘One more tardy slip and I get detention. I told Roan that it was time to go, but he said there was something special that he wanted to see. That's the last time I saw him.’
‘He wouldn’t have perhaps said what that something was?’
‘Can’t recall,’ Lucas said. ‘There’s nothing special in Bluebird as far as I know.’
The answer seemed to be enough for the time being, because the officer nodded and folded up his notebook.
‘If you see him, or if you remember something else, you call this number.’
Lucas took the business card. In the upper corner was an exact copy of the badge pinned to the man’s chest. It took every flake of willpower he had to slide it into his pocket instead of swallowing it on the spot.
‘Yes, sir. Anything to help.’
Sitting on the edge of his bed, Lucas traced the sunset’s bruised colors creeping in through the shades. They fell across his sheets, dappling Roan’s shoes. After school, he had run straight home to scrub the dirt from the patterned cracks of their bottoms. When he was finished, he had laid them on the windowsill to soak up the last of the sun’s pungency. Now, clean and ripe with the bright tartness of the faded afternoon, Lucas chose one and swallowed it from heel to toe.
The day had been wonderfully disheveled. An avalanche that had sent him tumbling through its highs and lows, only to spit him back out just as he had started: at his bedside, humming with exhaustion.
The evening air carried a patina of humidity that weighed down Lucas’s arms as he reached for the other shoe. Even the gnats wanted to escape the night’s thickness, pinging against his window screen as they hunted for salvation.
Where would he dig tomorrow? Lucas thought as he swallowed the other shoe. The woods were out. Once word had spread of Roan’s disappearance, people would descend on them with flashlights and good intentions, looking for the boy who was invisible until he vanished. Perhaps he should take a day off. Lay low.
Outside, the streetlights clicked on. Their florescence spilled across the ledger on his desk, reminding him of duties yet unfinished. There was cataloging to be done.
Ring: White gold with a single diamond, carats unknown.
Glass: One shard. Blue. ‘Elixir’ imprinted on edge.
Shirt: Sleeveless, sports related.
Spectacles: Strong prescription, thin wire, thick glass.
Shorts: Pocketed, camouflaged.
Shoes: Two. Black with white bottoms. Cleaned.
Visitor: Boy. Currently in attendance.
Still parked in his driveway, Lucas heard the patrol car drum to life. Watching the soundless pulse of its lights disappear around the corner, he decided that it was his duty to lay low. At least for a day – a full twenty-four hours he could use to celebrate. The museum had its first visitor, after all. Better to give his guest some time to take it all in, before he opened his mouth and filled it with something new. Ledger in tow, Lucas slipped into bed. Flipping it open to the first page, he began to read, savoring each entry, blushing as he went.
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