Plugs

X had never considered the possibility that his origami constructions might spring to life. Through all his years of paper-folding, his early fascination with the Asian craft blooming into obsession, the endless competitions, the early arthritis, the impassable barrier between his talent and his imagination, through all of this his miniature creatures remained inert, frozen in the act of running, or slithering, or pecking. But tonight, his most recent fauna, birthed from printer bond, stirred.

“We know what you have done,” said the paper cow, its hide revealing the left eye and nostril of a 13-year-old boy from Kuala Lumpur. The corner of the boy’s eye was raised, suggesting a big smile. His skin was dark and rough, as if he had spent every waking moment in the scorching Malaysian sun.

“We know,” said the paper crane, its creases half-obscuring the face of a seven-year-old girl from Semarang. Though X could not see her face, he knew it in his mind, could remember the gap made by the missing front teeth as she had grinned up at him, taking his hand and trusting him as if her own kin.

“We know,” said the lumbering paper gorilla, made from the obituary notice of two ten-year-old twin boys from Penang. Their screams, too, had been identical.

More and more of the dead-tree atrocities, the collected evidence of X’s crimes, printed from internet news stories and charity sites and then shaped into bats and elephants and frogs and tigers and pandas and a hundred other animals, rustled toward X, slow as the undead, each whispering, “We know.” An army of his perversities, his many sins, each folded animal a reminder of a life held, touched, taken.

“Stop,” X said. “I am sorry. Please stop.”

“We cannot stop,” said the paper cow, commander of this zoological army, edging ever closer to its creator. “You have made us so very thin and so very sharp.”

And then all of the origami animals moved as one.

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Thomas followed the map’s instructions out of the city, off the highway, into the woods.

He parked at the pulloff, hiked what seemed longer than a mile over mud and slick leaves, found the house.

He didn’t owe the Aarons anything, really. When he’d told them the company he was working for, he had no idea they’d find an agent or invest in the very financial instruments for which he was writing math. They hadn’t told him.

Frozen rain rattled down. A copse of birch trees grew up against the house’s walls, erasing whatever path once led to the front door. Even if the market hadn’t tanked, Thomas couldn’t see how they could afforded to restore it — three stories of Victorian so far from existing roads.

When Marilyn asked him go upstate and shut off the water in their summer house, it seemed like the least he could do with his Saturday. Inside, it didn’t look like the summer house of a small college football coach and his high school secretary wife. Every wall was all shelves and every shelf was crowded with seashells, unfamiliar musical instruments, crystals, lizards in jars…

He looked at the instructions to see where he’d gone wrong. The laser-printed map was now a numbered list in Luther’s handwriting. Directions: find this piece here and move it to there.

Death mask of Marie Antoinette from the library to the kitchen. Gorilla shinbone from the upstairs bathroom to the front hall rug.

No matter how many times he asked himself, he knew he hadn’t seen what future that was hiding in the formulae.

Model of the central city of Atlantis from the pink bedroom to the green.

Could have seen, but why would he have even looked, when everyone was doing so well? When he was doing so well.

Griffin’s skull (boulder-heavy and, he was sure, really some kind of dinosaur) from the rolltop in the library to the dining room sideboard.

A rearranged constellation of curiosities, completed when he set the owl’s beak on the chessboard. He heard the door lock, looked in time to see it merge with the wood of the walls.

The phonograph wound itself and spoke in Marilyn’s voice, “Thomas, dear, make yourself at home. Don’t be angry with us. We aren’t angry with you. But the house needs a caretaker, and we thought you could use some time for reflection…”

Jonny’s a space pilot. He’s got an airship made from an old tire swing. Lucy-Jane’s his girl. She’s wearing tin foil over her dress. I’m an alien lurking on a distant moon, waiting to shoot Jonny down, to pick over his bones. I’m going to go easy on Lucy-Jane, though. Things are rough with her mom and dad shouting all the time right now.

Jonny steers his ship down onto my planet. I clamber over the moon rocks and the slide. His cockpit opens with a hiss and he swings up high into the air and leaps out. Lucy-Jane follows more daintily, her foil outfit glinting in the light of the twin suns.

As Jonny surveys the barren landscape and Lucy-Jane asks what he sees, I crawl close. My tentacles drip ooze. My fangs drip blood. And then I leap. But Jonny, space hero that he is, feels the motion in the air. He spins, his laser pistol already unholstered.

But I leap too wild, and he draws too fast, and his fist catches me in the jaw, and I spill to earth, biting my tongue, the taste of my blood hot and sudden in my mouth.

And then whoever I am is lost back on earth, and now I am the alien, and I’m on Jonny, space idiot, and I am spitting my blood at him as I hit him. And I’m crying, and I think he’s crying. He better be crying. I am an alien. I feed on his tears.

Lucy-Jane ends it. She pushes me off him. I sprawl on the grass. On the moon rock. We both lie there panting, sniffing.

“Why is it always fighting? Why is it always aliens and fighting?” She shouts it. And suddenly she is crying, suddenly there are tears. They stand out, bright as jewels on her tin foil outfit, shining in the light of the twin suns. “Why doesn’t anyone ever come in peace?”

And she turns and she runs, off across the moonscape and out of the park and away into the distance of outer space, out into the great unexplored stars that Jonny and I have no idea about, won’t even realize exist until the slow time travel of our lives has left the park and our spaceships far far behind.

Rose looked all around the little meadow and listened intently. It was safe, for the moment. She sat in the grass among the roots of a big oak and held out her hands to her two little girls.

“All right, my little bunnies,” she said, wrapping one arm around each of them as they came to her. “What story do you want today?”

“The one about the lady in the garden who could never find the rabbits!” said the elder girl, squirming close. The younger pushed the hair out of her face and copied the squirm. “About the lady and the garden!” she confirmed.

“Again?”

The girls nodded, grinning.

“All right. Well, once there was a lady gardener who grew the most beautiful lettuces anyone had ever tasted. The spinach in her garden–”

There was a noise. She stopped, listening. The girls froze in place. The sound came closer: footsteps

*

Old Mike pushed through pine branches to step out into the meadow. He was sure he’d heard a woman’s voice again, though there wasn’t another house around for a dozen miles.  Over by the big oak, the grass shuddered as a little group of rabbits bolted away.

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