© by Dana Kroos
First Place - Short Story
When the monsters from outer space came for Derrick, a stiff jolt woke me in the middle of the night. I sat straight up in the lower bunk with the covers still tangled around me. The humidity of July in Indiana smothered my chest and lifted my head away from my body. The whole room was shaking, vibrating in a strange, mechanical rhythm that sent the shadows spinning across the ceiling. The walls trembled and heaved like huge lungs gasping for air. The colorless framed pictures slid from their hooks and slammed to the floor. Everything was falling in on us.
I tumbled out of bed.
The floor was still when I landed. I stood with my eyes level to Derrick's top bunk watching as his body thrashed into the mattress, filled with a new supernatural strength. His back arched, lifting him into the air. They had finally come for him, just like he'd said that they would - the monsters from outer space - to steal him away in the night. He looked like he was pulling the whole room with him and fighting it all at once. I thought that the entire bed would lift up like a rocket to blast him away. And then I fainted, landing on the carpeted ground with one tooth knocked loose.
I woke up with my tongue slipping in and out of the new hole in my mouth. The bed was still and Derrick was gone.
Two months later I was sitting on the back porch with the sun burning my eyes. Derrick was spinning again. Around and around until he was too dizzy to stand. Then he stopped with the mush in his brain still swirling, like the ice cubes in my father's whiskey glass, and tried to hold his body upright. He tilted and wobbled, his glazed eyes streaking back and forth as he watched the world land and rise and land again and again. Finally, he fell to the soft grass, legs toppling clumsily over his head. He lay there in the sun, smiling and shrieking with laughter.
No one said anything.
My father swirled the ice in his whiskey again, and my mother looked away.
I was trying not to stare. I pretended that I was looking off, far off, beyond the yard, somewhere in deep thought, but secretly I was watching my little brother as he rolled on the grass in his bleach-white pants wondering what it felt like to have the grass tickle your ribs when your shirt came un-tucked, and jealous that my parents let him do whatever he wanted while I had to sit stiff at the table on the porch with my hands in my lap and my lips silent.
The woman with the brown skirt-suit arrived three minutes early that day with a file under her arm. It was September and the warmth was slowly being sucked away by a cool breeze. Derrick and I were dressed in the white slacks and sea-green polo shirts that my mother had set out for us. He had refused to get dressed that morning and had stood naked in the middle of our room screaming and beating his fists against his head when she held out his clothes. She ran in terror from him, when he began to lunge at her with his teeth gnashing, and curled-up in the hallway sobbing uncontrollably. My father finally tackled Derrick to the floor. Derrick wailed and fought like an animal caught in a trap while my father forced him into the clothes, furiously tugging at his arms and prying his head through the shirt. In the end, they had both sat on the carpet, red and hot and out of breath with sweaty, matted hair, glaring at each other and not making a sound.
My mother made iced tea and lemonade. She wore a summer skirt, rosy cheeks and little, silver earrings that glistened in the sun. The woman in the brown skirt-suit sat with her legs crossed, drinking the tea politely and talking to my parents about how slowly autumn was coming that year. Derrick wouldn't sit still. He knocked his glass from the table. It shattered on the ground and he ran off. The woman smiled and gave my mother a comforting touch to the arm before she began to pick up the pieces. My father shook his head and told her just to leave it.
Derrick was six that summer and I was eight. We wanted to be major league baseball players, even though neither of us had ever played. Instead, my father gave us a summer reading list and my mother signed us both up for violin lessons. We would hide comic books in the hard cover novels my father bought for us and sit up nights reading about monsters from outer space and creatures that grew out of swamps. In the comics everyone was always terrified of them but in the end they were defeated by heroes that sent them back to whatever dark place they had come from.
Derrick wasn't afraid. He wanted them to come for him, to steal him out of bed in the middle of the night and carry him away to a place where there were no violin lessons or boring summer reading lists, to a place where he would be allowed to play baseball and get dirty and stay out long after dark, and where my parents wouldn't be able to yell at him and he could do whatever he wanted. I thought of that as we sat at the table sipping iced tea and lemonade, watching him roll around in the grass chasing things that the rest of us couldn't see.
Months earlier, Derrick ran a high fever in the night and had a seizure. He was rushed to the hospital and the doctors stood around him watching, baffled as he fought against restraints with a new wildness in his eyes. There was nothing they could do. He had practically bit the tip of his tongue off when his teeth clenched during the spasms and they stitched him up, observed him and tested him again and again. Finally they sent him home leaving us with more questions than answers. When he came home from the hospital, my mother tucked him into the top bunk and looked at him sympathetically like he had a bad cold and she was waiting for him to recover. She combed his hair with her fingers for hours, gently setting each strand back into place.
My mother didn't know what to pack for Derrick when the woman came for him. No one was sure how long he would be gone. She put all of his fall clothes and his winter jacket into a small, blue suitcase and set it by the front door. Derrick was "tentative," that was the word that the doctors used to describe him, the same word that made my mother tear-up, and my father huff as he gave a hard circular jolt to his whiskey. That was supposed to make it all fine somehow, the screaming, the fighting, the grass stains and the broken glass because it was only tentative, not necessarily definite, not necessarily forever. There was still a chance that he could be healed, taught, disciplined out of it and brought back to the world with the rest of us. I knew that he was never coming back.
The morning that I was found crumpled on our bedroom floor with my tooth knocked clear across the room I was interrogated relentlessly by my parents and every adult who could get their hands in a concerned but critical grasp to my shoulder. I knew that Derrick wasn't playing around that night, which is the excuse I gave for every "why" that they'd thrown at me: "Why hadn't I run for help?" "Why hadn't I screamed?" "Why hadn't I tried to stop it?" But the truth was something that they would never understand.
I had never been afraid. It was incredible and exciting when it happened. I felt calm and safe as I watched Derrick clutch the bed, his knuckles turning white with the strain, bracing his body against the rails of his top bunk. His open eyes rolled back partly into his head so that I could still see the ring of blue that surrounded the brown. Red veins broke across the whites of his eyeballs. The moon poured through the window and caught us both in crisp, blue shadows setting his figure in an eerie glow. I smiled at him lying there convulsing, watching the paths of energy rush through his body in waves.
Then I glanced out the window and waited.
In the back of my mind I was wondering how I would explain to my parents that the bed was gone, that the room was burned up in a fiery blast from rockets. And then all of a sudden there was blood. A thin stream that ran down the corner of Derrick's mouth and soaked into his pillow.
Everything went dark and I dissolved into the ground.
The woman in the brown skirt-suit finished her tea, and leaned forward. "Are you ready?" she asked my parents cautiously.
My mother looked up and then across the yard where Derrick was lying. She didn't answer. My father nodded and stood from his chair. He drank the last swallow of his whisky and set the glass on the table with the melting ice cubes falling to the bottom.
My brother came when he was called, running towards us with his arms out like wings at his sides and his cheeks puffed, his mouth blowing and singing.
"You're going to go with Mrs. Burk for a while," My father spoke slowly, clarifying each syllable so that his words fell apart without meaning.
Derrick didn't look at him. He was still blowing through puffed cheeks.
My father picked up the little suitcase by the door and the woman took Derrick gently by the hand.
My mother looked down at her son, biting her lip and squinting her eyes hard, holding her face together as it tried to fall apart. She took his head in her hands, and then with a deep breath she hugged him against her chest and kissed the top of his forehead.
He moved back limply when she let him go, not looking at her at all. He puffed his cheeks again and stretched out his arms at his sides flying beside the woman in the brown skirt-suit as they walked away.
I lay that night alone in our bunk bed looking at the blue patterns of light that covered the floor. I closed my eyes tight, and tensed my muscles, digging my hands into the mattress and arching my back. I tried to feel the bed shaking, the tremors filling my body like an electrical current and lifting me away. I wished hard that the monsters from outer space would come and take me away, like they had done for Derrick. But nothing happened. I stopped and opened my eyes not knowing how to feel. My tongue slipped into the fleshy groove left in my mouth where a sharp tooth was poking through and I imagined Derrick playing baseball on strange dusty landscapes with grass stains on his bleach-white pants smiling and laughing hysterically.