A six year old kneels before the flaming candles. Jimmy’s mother kneels next to him. Words pour slowly from his mouth. They are the first words he ever spoke. He knows them by heart. He has no idea what they mean.
Before them a small statue stares back. It scares him. Hollow, stone eyes watch him intently. A stone mouth pulls back into a tight mouth of indifference. Tiny stone knees pull up to the chin, stone hands draped over them. He can’t stop speaking until his mother tells him to.
Beside him she rises. Her eyes are closed while Jimmy glances over to follow her movement exactly. Sweat breaks out on his forehead from the hot candles. His mother drops her head abruptly, utters the phrase for the last time, and turns to Jimmy.
This part is hers and hers alone. She whispers words too silent for him to hear, and when her eyes open, the way she studies him, every time it makes him nervous, as if she’s waiting for him to do something wrong.
She never says a word to him. The two stand in unison. They leave the small room hidden behind the pantry wall. Hollow stone eyes watch them leave.
An eight-year-old Jimmy runs quickly up the stairs. Mr. Barrie is waiting for him in the third bedroom on the left. He sits on the edge of his thinly framed bed, wearing only an undershirt and boxers.
“My water?” he says while raising a shaggy, gray eyebrow.
Jimmy hands him the glass. Sweat glistens on the man’s balding head, his undershirt stained yellow. “When’s the air conditioning getting fixed?” he asks.
“Soon,” Jimmy answers, his tone polite, his arms at his sides as he waits to be dismissed.
“It’s always soon. I’ll leave before it happens. You tell your mother that, you hear? I’ll leave if it doesn’t get fixed tomorrow.” He guzzles down half the water before slamming the glass on the bedside table. “And put some ice in it next time. Now get out of here.”
Jimmy’s gone, down the stairs, sticking out his tongue even though Mr. Barrie can’t see it. He had said last week he would leave if the air conditioning weren’t fixed.
“Did you attend to him?” Jimmy’s mother asks when he walks into the kitchen. She is preparing her special dish the two of them always eat before the ritual, laced with her seasonings.
“Yes. He says he’s going to move out if the air conditioning isn’t fixed.”
Three days before Jimmy’s eleventh birthday he kneels before the alter, his forehead on the ground, his mother beside him. The statue no longer scares him. The childish fears of his youth, of the dim glow of the candles, the hollow eyes always watching him while he repeats his prayers, has left. The words, however, remain as meaningless to him as they were when he was younger. Perhaps, he often considers while awake at night, they have lost even more meaning.
When his mother rises he rises as well. He doesn’t need to look to know when she moves. Every action is engrained into his body. They stand together, leave together, while up above them Mr. Barrie sleeps. As soon as they emerge into the dark kitchen Jimmy can hear the man’s snores.
“What were you thinking?” his mother asks him suddenly, her face a silhouette in the darkness as it turns to face him. She has never asked him this question before.
“What?” he asks, aware of the hesitance in his voice.
“Your mind wasn’t focused, was it?”
He wants to turn on the light. He wants to dispel the visage standing before him.
“It was,” he protests. The hard slap sends him stumbling into the wall.
“Never lie to me again.” Her voice is a force more painful than any slap she could deliver. Tears spring from Jimmy’s eyes. He lays huddled against the wall, cowering before the person towering over him.
Suddenly she’s kneeling down in front of him. Her face comes into his view, eyes wavering before she reaches out and pulls him closer. “I’m sorry,” she whispers, “but you mustn’t stray. You mustn’t deviate at all.”
He holds her, feeling awful for the thoughts he had had. She is his mother. She wants only what is best for him. He tells himself he won’t allow his mind to wander again.
Jimmy stands at the top of the staircase and stares at the neighborhood beyond his home. Across the street some children play, younger than him, he thinks, but not by much. In his thirteen years of life he has never spoken to another child.
Behind him he hears Mr. Barrie. He is dressed neatly today, in his good suit, and won’t be back for the next week. Jimmy’s mother isn’t home, gone to the store, but she’ll be back soon to see Mr. Barrie off.
He stares at Jimmy, a different man, Jimmy thinks, when he’s wearing his work clothes. He travels around on occasions to sell whatever it is he sells. Jimmy has never asked.
“Nice day out,” Mr. Barrie says. He sets down his bag and walks up behind Jimmy. The suit hides most of his growing gut. His hat covers up his balding head.
“I guess,” Jimmy says.
“Why don’t you go out there, play with the other kids?” Mr. Barrie asks even though he knows the answer. He asks Jimmy a lot of questions he knows the answers to.
“My mom won’t let me.”
“Your mom is a bit of a nut if you ask me,” Mr. Barrie says with a snort. Jimmy resists the urge to get drawn in. Mr. Barrie enjoys drawing out the anger. Jimmy won’t give him the pleasure.
“She only does what’s best for me.”
“Keeping you prisoner is what’s best for you? No way to raise a kid if you ask me.”
“I don’t mind.” The lie is flat and obvious.
“Well,” Mr. Barrie says, and leans down as he says it. Down below they both can hear the front door opening. “If you ever want to get out and explore a little, just let me know, and maybe I can help you out. Shame to see a kid lose his youth.” He winks, pulls abruptly upright. His eyes focus on only the window by the time Jimmy’s mother reaches the top of the stairs.
Wrinkles line her face framed with straight brown hair, and in the middle of it her eyes leap between Jimmy and Mr. Barrie. “Hello, Ruth,” Mr. Barrie says as if suddenly surprised by her appearance. But her hardened eyes focus only on Jimmy and the look he can’t wipe away from his face.
“I’ll see you off, Michael,” she says.
Mr. Barrie picks up his bag and actively avoids looking at Jimmy as he walks down the stairs. Jimmy can hear the two of them talking in hushed tones before Mr. Barrie leaves and Jimmy’s mother returns with a look Jimmy doesn’t like.
“I don’t want you talking to Mr. Barrie anymore unless it has to do with getting him something, you hear me?” She grabs his arm, jars it painfully, and Jimmy can only stare into her worried gaze, at the wrinkles around her eyes. Mr. Barrie told him once that his mother had been quite a looker, as he had put it, before she had had Jimmy.
“Go to your room for the rest of the night. I’ll bring you your dinner. And I don’t want to see you staring out this window.”
She turns from him before he can answer. She’s walking down the staircase before Jimmy can settle his thoughts. He spends the rest of the night in his room and listens to his mother down in the kitchen. She forgets to bring him his dinner. He’s never gone without food for so long before, and his stomach keeps him awake late into the night.
The next morning Jimmy awakes to the sound of his mother’s voice. She stands in his open bedroom door. She hasn’t slept; he can tell from the reddened eyes she stares at him with.
“Come,” she says, and Jimmy follows her down the long staircase and through the kitchen into the pantry.
The ritual has grown in frequency ever since Jimmy turned twelve. Now they regularly do it twice a week, some times more. Never have they done it so early in the morning.
Jimmy’s head spins as he walks through the pantry. He glances back at the kitchen where he knows his mother spent her night. Through the kitchen window the world outside looks darker than he thinks it should, the air thick with fog, but when he blinks the image is gone and the sun is rising.
Now he is forced down onto the floor while his mother’s shaking hand lights the two candles. Rather than lower his head Jimmy stares at the stone statue and its hollow eyes, the darkness in them deeper than before, like when he was a child and it still scared him.
His mother’s fingers dig into the back of his neck, force his head down, her words sharp as she tells him to begin. And Jimmy does, repeating his meaningless chant, letting it absorb his entire mind until he knows nothing but those words circling through him.
It calms him. The dizziness goes away. He glances up at the stone statue, but it doesn’t frighten him anymore. It looks like nothing but a statue. Quickly he lowers his head before his mother can see him. They perform the ritual as always, perfectly in sync. By the time they’re finished his mother’s shaking has stopped. She offers a tired smile.
She makes him a large breakfast that morning, everything he loves, covered in her special seasonings. Mr. Barrie won’t eat anything with her seasonings on it. Everything Jimmy eats has at least a little of them in it. She apologizes for forgetting his dinner. “I was just so angry at Mr. Barrie I couldn’t think straight,” she says. He’s never heard her apologize so much. She promises to never forget to make him a meal again.
When Mr. Barrie arrives back Jimmy’s mother yells at him. Jimmy awakes to the sound of them shouting. This isn’t new. Lately, Jimmy’s mother shouts at Mr. Barrie a lot. Jimmy can’t hear what they’re saying. He never can. Occasionally he hears a few words louder than the others before the voices quickly drop.
“Should be free,” Mr. Barrie says along with other words Jimmy can’t hear.
“Needs to be controlled,” Jimmy catches from his mother. He kneels on the floor in his dark bedroom with only the thin line of light from beneath his door. Suddenly the voices stop. Footsteps pound loudly across the floor.
“Jimmy?” his mother calls out.
Jimmy hurries as quietly as he can across the room and jumps into his bed. He feigns sleep when his mother walks up the stairs, opens his door. She closes it without saying a word. They don’t fight anymore that night.
On Mondays Jimmy’s mother goes into town to get the groceries. When Jimmy was younger he was allowed to go with her. Now he doesn’t get to leave at all. Six months have passed since the last time he has left the house.
His mother leaves shortly after their morning ritual. That, too, has changed. “Now is the difficult time,” she said to him once. “You mustn’t stray from your duties, and you mustn’t allow anything to distract you.”
First it became daily, every night, and then twice a day, every morning as well. Often in the afternoon they go into the back room.
On that Monday morning Jimmy cleans the dishes. Mr. Barrie walks down the stairs when Jimmy isn’t paying attention. “Hey kid,” Mr. Barrie says to him, smiling from the kitchen doorway. Jimmy doesn’t talk to Mr. Barrie very much anymore.
“Beautiful day out,” Mr. Barrie says. Jimmy doesn’t answer him. He finishes up with the dishes and gets ready to start up the laundry, but Mr. Barrie is standing in his way.
Mr. Barrie looks more youthful than normal. His spirits have been up in the past few months. He says his money has been good lately. Jimmy’s mother mutters other things under her breath, and won’t tell Jimmy what they are when he asks.
“Look,” Mr. Barrie says, kneeling just a little to look at Jimmy eye to eye. “Your mother’s gone for the day. You know it, I know it, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately that you need to have a day free. Can’t tell me you wouldn’t like that.”
Don’t talk to Mr. Barrie, Jimmy’s mother says in his mind, but his mother’s authority isn’t what it once was. The repetition of the walls surrounding him lights a fire of rebellion in Jimmy’s mind.
“What do you mean?” Jimmy says to Mr. Barrie’s growing smile.
“I’ll take you into town is what I mean, drop you off at the library. Never been to one, have you?”
“Thought as much. You just spend your day there and I’ll pick you up tonight.”
“But mom will be angry at me. I won’t be here for-” Immediately the words cut off. Jimmy’s face scrunches with hesitation and a hint of fear.
“What is it?” Mr. Barrie asks.
No one is supposed to know about the rituals, and to Jimmy’s knowledge, Mr. Barrie doesn’t. On most Mondays they hold both an afternoon and evening ritual. Jimmy will miss the afternoon one for sure, and probably the evening one if he’s gone too long. But, the yearning to leave outranks his mother’s voice screaming in his head.
“Okay,” Jimmy says. “Please take me to the library.”
They drive in silence. Mr. Barrie smiles the whole way. The smell of fresh air through the window and the breeze across Jimmy’s face blocks out whatever punishment his mother will have waiting for him.
Mr. Barrie stops in front of a large cement building covered in stone carvings. “I’ll take all the blame for it, okay?” he says as Jimmy gets out.
Jimmy nods and knows Mr. Barrie is wrong.
Time leaves him then without his knowledge. The building is massive, dominates all his attention, until ten o’clock turns into one, and then into five, and still Jimmy wanders through the long rows of books, picking one up to glance through its pages before moving on to the next. At eight he realizes how late the time is, but when he walks outside, Mr. Barrie isn’t there.
The night is cool, but a fever burns in Jimmy’s temple. He stares at the street in front of the building and sees what looks like a haze of fog drifting in from the north. This feeling, he realizes, was with him in the building as well, but he had been too preoccupied to notice. Now he feels the heat inside his body. He hasn’t eaten since breakfast.
He turns to study the building, to distract him, but the stone animals stare at him. He thinks of the statue and its hollow eyes always watching him. He feels the heat of the candles across his face. A deep headache pounds behind his eyes. He can almost feel them pulsing.
Mother, he thinks. He needs to get home. Leaving was wrong. His mother told him to never leave the house without her, and now Mr. Barrie isn’t coming. They have a phone, he knows, because he has heard Mr. Barrie make calls, but Jimmy doesn’t know the number.
The fog grows thicker. It swarms down the street, towards Jimmy, engulfing everything but the area directly around him. He can feel the stone eyes of the animals at his back and he runs from them.
He knows the way home. He was watching carefully during the drive, and even with the fog, Jimmy knows where he has to go.
The heat pours through his legs. He wants to stop it hurts so badly. Thinking isn’t easy anymore with the pulsing in his head. He sees Mr. Barrie’s smiling face as he kneels down to tell Jimmy to get out. Mr. Barrie knew this was going to happen he suddenly thinks, and knew about the rituals in the room behind the pantry.
Up ahead, through the haze of the dark fog, Jimmy can see the two-story house he has spent his entire life in. A light glows in the living room.
Just being in the house makes him feel better, but it doesn’t stop the pain. The fog doesn’t follow him. This house, he suddenly thinks, is protected against the fog.
As soon as he’s through the door he hears his mother calling to him. Through a haze of pain he sees her appear, drag him towards the kitchen without a word. On the kitchen table is a bowl of soup. Her special seasoning is mixed into it, the smell of it everywhere, and the smell makes Jimmy feel sick. He doesn’t want to eat the seasoning.
Behind him Jimmy hears movement.
“That stuff won’t work anymore,” Mr. Barrie says.
Dark anger tenses in his mother’s face. “You stay away from him,” she screams, her hands clawing more at Jimmy’s arms. He allows her to pull him through the open pantry. He has trouble thinking. The pain in his head is too powerful. His mother pushes him to his knees. “Repeat your prayers,” she whispers in his ear, her voice thick with emotion.
Quickly his mother darts out of the room, while behind Jimmy he can see the long shadow of Mr. Barrie in the doorway. “This is for the best, Ruth. You shouldn’t have tried to contain it.”
In front of Jimmy the stone statue watches him. He can’t remember his prayer anymore. The throbbing won’t let him remember. The first words start to come to him, but his tongue, tense with pain, won’t form it.
His mother emerges with a bowl of her seasoning, lights them on fire. A thick, noxious odor fills the room. Jimmy has trouble breathing the smell is so awful.
Jimmy coughs, entire body shaking with it, his throat being torn to shreds by the painful coughing fit. He can’t speak anymore. He collapses onto his side.
“Please,” he hears his mother say beside him. She grasps at his shirt. She tries to pull him closer, her teary face right in front of his. “You have to say it. Don’t give in yet. Breathe in the fumes and say the prayer. I can’t do it for you.”
But her words are hard for Jimmy to hear. The smell is too terrible, the fumes acid down his throat. He can’t say the prayer anymore. His eyes flutter upward. He can see the hint of a dark fog infiltrating the house.
Beside him his mother’s soft voice keeps begging him. All Jimmy knows is the stone statue in front of him and the dark tunnels of its eyes.
“Leave it be,” Mr. Barrie shouts. “This is what we wanted. What was the point if we keep it contained?”
“It can’t be controlled,” Jimmy’s mother screams, and suddenly she’s gone from his side.
The two are fighting, their shadows jumping across the small room, but Jimmy can’t break his eyes away from the statue to see. Mr. Barrie screams in pain. A heavy body falls to the floor followed by footsteps running into the pantry.
“I’m so sorry,” he barely hears his mother whisper before the pain pierces his back. Finally his eyes leave the statue. In the middle of his chest he can see the tiny point sticking through his shirt, where red spreads outward, and then the feeling fades along with his vision. His mother’s arms wrap around him, draw him close. He can feel her tears on the back of his neck. “Forgive me,” she whispers over and over again in his ear.
The fog grows thicker, clouding out the flames and the statue, before absorbing Jimmy completely.
He awakens to the gaze of the statue. It can’t control him anymore. The statue shatters against the wall. There is no pain when the knife slides out of him.
His mother is gone. On the kitchen floor he stares at Mr. Barrie and the ragged remains of his face. The pungent smell of seasonings lingers in the air, but they can’t harm him now. A smile touches his face, and he says his prayer slowly, letting each word crawl across his tongue. That, too, cannot harm him. He knows what it means now.
He opens the back door to a world of deep fog, where somewhere the mother of his flesh has disappeared. Given time he’ll find her.
He steps out into the welcoming arms of the fog, and back into the world from which he had been summoned.