“Who’s Stagger Lee? Who’s the music man?” she asked.
They sat in the field that was the room that was memories.
Sunday thought. “What do you know?” he asked.
“He’s one of you, I think,” Izzy said. “He’s one of the people in the hotel. Nina calls him the music man, but my grandpa calls him Stag.”
Sunday shook his head. Shake shake shake shake shake shake shake shake shake.
“I never heard a name for him. That never really comes up,” he said. He stuffed a fistful of crackers into his mouth. Wrappers littered the ground. Izzy ate as well. “But he’s a bad guy.”
“Yeah. Nina says he plays with his food. Like he tortures people. I think he – my mom is dead because of him.”
Sunday was very quiet. His whole frame seemed to come into focus. “I didn’t know your mom was dead,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Izzy smiled sadly at him, and didn’t meet his eyes all the way. Sunday stopped her from looking back down and held her by the hand. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
“Thank you,” Izzy said.
“I’ve never lost somebody, really,” Sunday said. He looked very far away. “I had a mother.” He started to speak and got tangled in the words. He stayed quiet for a few minutes and picked at the grass.
“A few months ago he killed a friend of mine. And I thought – I don’t know. I saw him for a second afterward and I didn’t recognize him. I thought maybe I was crazy or seeing things or something. Nina and my grandpa told me about what he was, but still. Who is he?”
“The person I knew was a …” he struggled with the words. “A malignancy. And a thug.” He sat there with a strange look on his face, remembering. “And a monster,” he said after a minute. “He comes from an old story. An old idea.”
“Older than you?”
“No,” Sunday said. “He’s not as old as me. I don’t really – how do years work now? Is it still eighteen before nineteen? Or does nineteen come before eighteen now? You all keep changing it.”
Sunday counted out on his fingers.
“It would have been about three or four hundred years ago, I think. Not too long ago. And it was a Thursday. Somebody probably dreamed too hard. Who knows. The impression I got from him was that he was petty, and a bully. I thought he was ambitious, or driven, or whatever the word is, but I think now that he was scared.”
“Of what?” Izzy asked.
Sunday shrugged. “I never asked him. I don’t even know if I’m right about it. Like I said, it was just an impression. But he wanted something that he wasn’t allowed to have. And he went far to get it, like Thursday does, and that’s why I thought he was driven. It was all he thought about.”
“Was that the note?”
Sunday was vaguely surprised. “Yes,” he said.
“My grandpa told me about it. He has it now. Do you know what it says?”
He shook his head. Shake shake shake shake. “That’s not my job. And even if I did I couldn’t tell you. It’s an old, old truth, is what they say.”
“Anyway, he took it. Did the dad you miss … did your grandpa, I mean. Did he tell you that only one person can know what’s on that note at a time?”
“He stole it from somebody, and he made them forget. You’re not allowed to do that here. You’re not allowed to get rid of ideas that don’t have any other home.”
“Did he kill who he stole it from?”
“Yes. He carved him up, and he took it.” Sunday put his hands in his pockets and sighed. Izzy didn’t know how old he was, but he looked old. This happened a long time ago, she knew. “And once he knew it,” Sunday continued, “we couldn’t take it from him. So they told him to leave and never come back. If he comes back inside it’d kill him. They gave him a little room to live in, but that was it. They barred him, and that was a mistake. He would turn up in dreams every once in awhile, and those always floated back here, and they were horrible. He was making people do things. I don’t know why. And I don’t know what happened after that,” he said quickly.
He was a bad liar. He had already said that he knew who Nina was.
“Nina stole the note,” Izzy said. “She wrote about it.”
And there they sat. She let it drop. He didn’t have to say a thing.
“I’m going to meet him.”
“I saw him here. I need to see more.”
“You said that you had never seen him before your friend’s house.”
“But you saw him in here?” Sunday asked. He indicated the spreading field.
“This place belongs to a memory of yours,” Sunday said. “If he was here, then –”
“Then I’ve met him before, yeah. And he made me forget. And if I forgot that, then what else did I lose?”
“Small girl –”
“So I need to see more, so I can figure it out. Right? That’s what I’m supposed to do, right?” She looked at him pleadingly. “I need to go back and see what he was doing to me.”
“What happens if you find out?”
Izzy shook her head. “I don’t know. I tell someone. Something. I don’t know.”
“Who will you tell?”
Izzy gestured towards Nina’s notebook. “Anybody,” she said.
Sunday sighed and looked at Izzy very carefully. “There are other things, small girl. Like the tree and the rain, you know? There are happier things than this. You don’t need to.”
“Yes I do.”
“I know,” he said. “But will you finish you crackers first?”
“Sunday,” she started.
“There are happier things,” he said again. “Things that you can see. This place is beautiful, and – and there are so many things here. Everything is here.” He had not let go of her hand, and looked afraid to.
“You don’t get it.”
“I do. He took things from you. He took your mother and your friend. I have a mother. My mother is January. She’s days and days.” He picked up a wrapper from the ground and let it blow away in the breeze. “I would be very sad if anything happened to my mother. And now I have a friend, too. I don’t want her to be sad.”
“What do you want me to do?” Izzy asked.
His shoulders slumped. He thought and thought. When he looked back up at her, his eyes were very strange.
“Are you afraid, too?”
“Tell me why.”
“Him. Stagger Lee. The music man.”
Sunday nodded. “I’ve decided something.”
“What is it?”
“You would rather be sad than afraid.”
Izzy nodded. He nodded with her. Nod nod nod.
“I understand,” he said. “Are you willing to see things that will hurt you?”
Nod nod nod. Nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod.
“What was your mother’s name?” Sunday asked.
“Her name is Gret Parsons. Why?”
He closed his eyes and wiped the cracker crumbs from his hands. “There are more memories here than yours,” he said. “And you would rather be sad than afraid.”
Sunday stood up and stared at the tree at the center of the field. Before his gaze, it wavered and dispersed into the changing air. They were in a room again. The floor began to shift and crack. It fell away into a dim light that surrounded the pair. They stood on nothing as the room crumbled away.
Izzy gaped. “Are you doing that?” she asked.
The room settled again. There was a new door inside. It read “431 Clover Street” in little gold letters.
“Do you know what’s inside?” Sunday asked.
“Will you look?”
“Once we go in you can’t stop it,” Sunday said.
Izzy opened the door. This time Sunday walked through with her. To where Gret Parsons died. He held her by the shoulder.
It was a living room, and it was ruined. The radio was playing.
Immediately she felt herself being drawn out of herself again, into the fabric of the carpet and into the walls and ceiling. She felt a lack of herself as Izzy Parsons went away again. Sunday held onto her and the feeling left her. It had not passed but fled. She was herself, and the room was a room. It was a living room, and it was ruined. But she was not it.
Broken and splintered furniture, dust and smashed windows, trash bags and papers, a postal box on a chair, sleeping bags, a gun on the floor, and her mother kneeling down and examining.
Izzy stared as hard as she could. How she moved. How she breathed. What order she thought of things. Where her eyes went as she looked around the room. She took it all. She perceived and did her very best to retain the impressions of her mother.
Gret walked into the kitchen and Izzy followed. She heard her mother swear. She heard Sunday whimper.
There were bodies. There were flaps of skin and muscle and bone. Mr. and Mrs. Leigh. Every detail. Every detail. She perceived.
White paint splattered the walls: “we’ll now go to the tents and put on the gloves; and I’ll try to make you feel what a sweet thing it is to be alive.”
Her mom pulled her gun from its holster and crept out of the room. She walked silently. Izzy watched her feet. She followed her upstairs and checked the house. Her mother was quick and quiet and not afraid.
In the kitchen, her mother looked carefully at the bodies and followed a trail around the house that Izzy couldn’t see. Some logic drove her from point to point. Her mom pulled her phone out and dialed.
“Police. This is sergeant Gret Parsons, with the military police. I’m at the site of a murder in a residential area. I’m at 431 Clover Street. Three people are dead inside the house. No, I’m okay. The bodies look old, and there’s no sign of anybody else in the house. Umm … three bodies – two adults, one child. All mutilated. Cut apart; there are pictures scattered all over the kitchen. It looks like they’ve been tortured. Yeah, the power’s been cut in the house. Understood. 431 Clover Street, Wilkes-Barre Township. Gret Parsons. I’m with the 320th. Yes.”
The phone left her ear. A rush of static and music. She watched the color drain from her mom’s face. Sunday squeezed her hand.
“Shit. Shit, shit.”
She ran into the living room and tried the door.
She ripped open the box on the chair and looked inside briefly. She discarded it, uncaring. Izzy looked over her shoulder.
There was a camera inside – she had seen it before, when the doorbell rang at her grandpa’s house.
“Hello? Hello? This is Sergeant Gret Parsons, 320th Military Police Battalion. The house is occupied. Do not approach. Tell the squad car not to approach the house.”
She shut the phone angrily. She put her gun away and waited for a moment. A second voice.
“Did they hear you?”
“I’m alone. How about you come over and we talk.”
“Are they coming? Do you think they can hear you?” The voice’s body appeared. Stagger Lee. Izzy was frozen. Her mother was not.
“No,” she said. “Nobody’s coming.”
“I told them not to.”
“You’re not Jim. What are you doing here?”
“I’m Gret. How about we sit down?”
“Oh. No, I think I’ll stand. It’s almost time to go. Why did you tell them not to come?”
“Because that was you on the phone.”
Their voices were pleasant. He took a step towards her mother, who didn’t back up. Every detail. Every detail. How she held herself. Where her hands went.
“Did you kill that family in there?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Stagger Lee said.
“I’m not sure I understand the question.”
The innocence reminded her of Sunday. He really didn’t understand. He wasn’t lying. It was nauseating.
“Did you kill a girl named Chelsea a few months ago?”
“I knew her.”
“I did too. I’m sorry.” He walked to within inches of her, passing Izzy and Sunday to do it. She watched his stride. Every detail.
“You’re Jim’s daughter,” he said. “I’m sorry about your dad. Nobody deserves that. Nobody deserves that, Gret. I’m so sorry.”
He hugged her. Izzy sobbed loudly and shut her eyes.
“Nobody deserves to die, Gret.”
“No. Nobody does.”
Izzy’s legs gave way. She hit the ground hard and shook. Both hands covered her eyes. Sunday knelt in front of her and held her and held her. Whatever happened after that happened in the dark. But she could still see. She could see through her eyelids. She could see when she turned around. She grabbed at Sunday, trying to distract herself. She looked into his face.
She heard her mother speak: “Did you write that on the wall?”
“Yes,” Stag said. “It’s George Borrow. From Lavengro. Do you know it?”
Sunday pushed Izzy’s head into his shoulder and whispered to her. Whatever it was he said, Izzy didn’t hear.
“I now wandered along the heath, till I came to a place where, beside a thick furze, sat a man, his eyes fixed intently on the red ball of the setting sun,” Stag said.
“Please. Please don’t. My –”
Her voice left her.
“’What is your opinion of death, Mr. Petulengro?’ said I, as I sat down beside him.
‘My opinion of death, brother, is much the same as that in the old song of Pharaoh, which I have heard my grandam sing —
Cana marel o manus chivios ande puv, Ta rovel pa leste o chavo ta romi.’ When a man dies, he is cast into the earth, and his wife and child sorrow over him. If he has neither wife nor child, then his father and mother, I suppose; and if he is quite alone in the world, why, then, he is cast into the earth, and there is an end of the matter.’
‘And do you think that is the end of a man?’
‘There’s an end of him, brother, more’s the pity.’
‘Why do you say so?’
‘Life is sweet, brother.’” Stagger Lee smiled.
“Please don’t do this,” her mother said. “You don’t have to do this. Please don’t.”
Izzy shook her head. Shake shake shake. Shake shake shake. Please don’t do this. Please. She sat and shook and cried. Sunday shielded her as best she could. Through everything, she saw her mother stop moving completely. Just stop.
“Do you think so too? Do you think life is sweet and beautiful, Gret?”
“Do you think, Gret? Don’t you think life is beautiful?”
“No,” she said.
“There are cancers like you in it.”
“Gret, if you believed that bad things took joy from the world you would have killed yourself. Fear sits next to joy, but it can’t replace it. Life is beautiful even when it’s scary. And why would someone want to die, when there is so much to live for?”
“You killed her for no reason. You killed her. You –”
The room was silent, except for Izzy’s sobs.
“Okay,” her mother said. “I know what you are.”
“Do you know why I’m here?”
“You want my dad.”
“I want what was taken from me.”
“Your dad locked me up. He didn’t play fair, Gret. And he took something that should be mine.” He smiled pleasantly. “I’m going to stop your lungs,” he said.
Izzy screamed and didn’t stop until her voice broke. She scratched at the ground and at her face and at Sunday’s back. She pushed away from him with all she had and tried to run to her mother. Sunday held her tightly, immovable.
“Go fuck yourself,” her mom yelled. Izzy heard it despite the fear in her. “What? You think you can scare me? All you’re gonna do is kill me. You think you can scare me, too? You think you – you think you can scare me?”
She gasped and sputtered. Spit rolled from her.
“Gret, death is the worst thing in the world. Death is the end of life, and life is wonderful.” He took her by the shoulders.
There was nothing left in Izzy. Her mind left her, and she could still hear the words. But there was nothing left to comprehend.
“Gret. Gret, stay with me. Listen to me, please. Shh, listen. I’m going to kill you, Gret. I’m going to kill you and cut you up because I know he loves you. They’re never going to find you. And when they go looking I’ll kill them too. And then I’ll come to your house, and I’ll kill Jim, and I’ll kill whoever else comes to save him, Gret. I’ll kill him after I’ve taken his girls away from him. I’ll skin him and I’ll throw him away. I’ll tear his skull apart and see his inside him, and I’ll take what’s mine. Shh. Gret. Shh, now. I won’t kill Izzy, Gret. I’m going to keep her with me, and she’ll hold my hand. But not until after I hurt her. She’ll be first.”
Nothing inside Izzy. Nothing left. Stagger Lee ran his hand through her mother’s hair.
“She loves you so much, Gret.”
Izzy didn’t hear Matt and Zig enter the room. She didn’t see their eyes. She didn’t see the knife or her mother as she bled. Sunday just rocked her back and forth. Her mother’s last words were “stop toying with me and hurry up.” Izzy didn’t hear them.
Hours after Gret had bled to death, Izzy and Sunday sat huddled where they were, in the corner of a hotel room. No one spoke for the rest of the day or the rest of the night. In the morning, Izzy said something to him, muffled by their proximity.
“Show me again,” she said.