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Scavenger


by J. Fallthrough


I let Archer throw a handful of chocolate chips into the oatmeal that was simmering on the stove. It started to froth, quickly becoming a little mushroom cloud on top of the pot. A spasm of fear passed across Archer's face, which was too fat to be cherubic. I grabbed his hand and we took a step back while I twisted the gas down with my other hand. Not soon enough to stop the now-brown oatmeal from dribbling over the sides of the pot, but by the time Mr. and Mrs. Evencall, Archer's grandparents and my employers, awoke I would have it all cleaned up. We did this almost every day. Archer woke up at around 6 AM and met me at the door when I arrived about a half-hour later, so we could spike his breakfast with the forbidden—sometimes chocolate, sometimes caramel or whipped cream. Once candy corn.

After his mother had died in a car accident Archer came to live with his grandparents. He had ballooned up since then and his new guardians didn't understand why. There had been trips to the doctor, and, of course, a rigid diet and exercise regimen imposed. There was even talk of a personal trainer for the eight-year-old. Just yesterday, I heard Mr. Evencall say to his wife that Archer's head reminded him of an over-inflated balloon and they had to do something—as if they had done nothing up until then.

            I ladled the oatmeal into a bowl that had a smiling bear painted at the bottom of it. Archer dumped in another handful of chocolate chips, and I wrapped up the package and put it in my purse. When he was done I scrubbed his hands and face of any chocolate and got him dressed for school. His uniform had been altered to accommodate his body, which was swelling in ways that made standard sizes useless.

            “Notebook?” I asked Archer

            “Check,” he replied.

            “Lunch?”

            “Check.”

            “Homework?”

            “Check.”

            “Drafink?” I whispered.

            Archer smiled and hugged me.

            “Drafink,” he whispered in my ear.

            He zipped up his book bag, which bore the emblem of Braxton Hall, and we headed for the minivan that Mr. and Mrs. Evencall had designated mine during working hours. I slid open the back door, and Archer heaved himself up.

            When we arrived at the school I waited in the car until Archer disappeared through the doorway. The help of some other family honked her horn at me, but I didn't budge from the circular driveway until I saw him waddle into the 150-year-old building that looked like the kind of place where terrible things happened in soundproof stone chambers.

            It was just as I was leaving Braxton's leafy campus that Addy called me.

            “Mom,” he said.

            “Addy, no.”

            “You don't even know what I'm gonna ask.”

            “Oh, but I do.”

            “You're a fucking mind reader now?”

            “I'm a mother Addy. Mothers can read the tones of their kids' voices. When their kid's a scaphead it's especially easy.”

            “Mom, I can pay you back. I just need to seven dollars to get to a job inter—”

            I hung up.

            The Evencalls were waiting for breakfast at the dining room table when I returned. I made Mrs. Evencall an egg white omelet with spinach and mushrooms. Then I blended up Mr. Evencall's green juice. They we're both in their seventies, but in a forgiving light they could pass for 50. They sat with perfect posture even when they ate. Mr. Evencall avoided a potbelly with daily tennis matches and Mrs. Evencall spent three afternoons a week with a personal trainer. When she wore a sleeveless blouse the muscles in her biceps jutted up under her loosened skin as if in defiance of it.  

            “Butterball get off to school okay?” Mr. Evencall asked when I placed the juice before him.

            Mrs. Evencall fulfilled her duty to both grandson and husband by shooting an exasperated look at Mr. Evencall before smiling at him.

            “Just fine,” I said.

            “Lucretia, I left a list of things to pack in the kitchen. Did you see it?”

            “Yes, Mrs. Evencall. As soon as I clean up the breakfast dishes I'll get to it.”

            They were leaving tomorrow for one of their vacations to someplace where the temperature never exceeded 80 degrees. They did this every winter for six weeks and left me to live with Archer. I looked forward to the break from the shabby apartment that I shared with Addy and, almost always now, with his scaphead friends.

            I cleaned up the kitchen for the second time that morning. As I was putting away a glass I realized that it had a tiny chip in it. I wrapped it in a few paper towels and set it aside in the pantry. I would take it home with me. I often took things from the Evencalls, but I don't consider this stealing. I think of it more as scavenging. I like to imagine myself as a vulture—but pretty—swooping in to take things the Evencalls either had thrown away for minor imperfections or would. I now had a collection of stuff that was once theirs but had been discarded for no good reason: a pair of strappy sandals with the heels slightly worn down that were only a little too small for me, a coffee pot that had been replaced with a newer model, blankets with barely noticeable tears, even a mattress that I had Addy help me take away when the Evencalls were gone last year.

            I busied myself with cleaning the rest of the house until it was time to pick up Archer. He was easy to spot amid the sea of Braxton Hall uniforms because he stood alone instead of in a clump they way the other kids did. Archer had few friends. When he saw me turn into the driveway he face lit up with excitement and he waved. He boarded the minivan and we weren't far out from Braxton when I heard his snores. I looked in the rearview mirror saw his little double chin jiggle with their vibration.

            I pulled into the ice cream shop and started singing the little song Archer and I had made up. “Ice cream cones and silenced phones/Grandma and Grandpa don't need to know/When we eat our yummy snow.” Archer giggled before he opened his eyes. He undid his seatbelt, slid open the door, and grabbed my hand.

            “Klenar?” I asked him just before he we got to the counter.

            Archer nodded.

            I ordered him an ice cream sundae.

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By the time I got home I was exhausted. As always, Mrs. Evencall kept adding to her list of things that needed to be packed, and I wound up searching the attic for a ball gown she hadn't seen in probably a decade but suddenly needed for her trip. I heard the scapping even before I opened the door. Addy sat on the old mattress that I'd taken from the Evencalls with two other men and a woman. In the middle of them was a hand mirror that I'd also scavenged was striped with a couple of yellow lines of scap and a straw flecked with blood sat next to it. A cut glass punch bowl that formerly belonged to the Evencalls sat on the floor. It was half full with Fruit Loops. All these scapheads wanted was sugar.

            “Gimrek,” the man with long white hair said when he saw me. He was the friend Addy had been arrested with last year for robbing a convenience store. They had spent a month in jail and together while there had descended into the deep silence that happens when scapheads enter withdrawal. I don't know if Addy even remembers that I refused to bail him out, but I do know that if he does he hasn't forgiven me—as if I'm the one in need of pardon. I held my breath because these scapheads gave off an awful odor when they got high. It was like rotting fruit mixed with burning tires.

            “Unglit, vassent entred,” Addy said to his friends. The joke at my expense made them all smile.

            I'd never seen the woman before. On one knee of her crossed legs sat a notebook, on which she'd drawn a diagram of a house. On her other lay the sleeping bald head of the other of Addy's male friends. She had rust-colored hair and her face and neck were dappled with pimples. She was the only one who didn't laugh, but that was more because she was transfixed with the drawing than concerned about my feelings.

            I stepped over a corner of the mattress to get to my bedroom. It was then that I caught a closer glimpse of the pimply woman's drawing and got a vague sense of recognition.

            The creak of my bedroom door grazed against the cacophony of scapping. I changed out of my uniform and sat on my bed. I unwrapped the glass I had taken from the Evencalls and placed it on my nightstand, next to the picture of Addy playing his violin. Before he got addicted to scap, Addy was headed for greatness—and it wasn't just me who thought that. All of his teachers said so. He could play any instrument he picked up, but it was when he played the violin that I felt like everything I saw around me was nothing like what was really there. 

            I slid my finger along the chip in the glass. There was a time that I wouldn't have brought something like this home because I would have worried about Addy cutting his lip on it. I had a tendency toward overprotection. Most mothers of prodigies do. Of course, that was before the scap.

            No one really knew where scap originated. There were theories—rumors, really. It had leaked from a lab working on migraine cures; it was the creation of some half-mad chemist who saw God in his compounds; the military was involved. 

What we did know was that it was highly addictive and that the main visible effect was speaking in a language that resembled no other and having no memory of the language after the scap wore off.

The few people who managed to beat a scap addiction said that the language triggered a euphoria and that was why they chattered until they couldn't take it anymore and fell into a coma-like sleep. No one has fully translated it, but I believe I've come closer than most of the neurologists and linguists and other professionals who for a long time didn't get much farther than figuring out that “scap” was a greeting.

The door creaked open and Addy stood there, his lips frosted with the neon pink sugar of the Fruit Loops. His eyes were like blue marbles pressed into a face that seemed to sink in more everyday.

“What is it?” I said.

He started to say something and then caught sight of the glass on my nightstand. He came toward me and took the glass in his hand. I grabbed his wrist.

“Grek Strustrek,” he said.

“Yeah, I took it from them, but that doesn't make it yours,” I said.

He put the glass back down on my nightstand.

“Get out, Addy,” I said.

I locked the door when he left.

I closed my eyes, lay down and covered my head with a blanket. I could hear the scapping through it. It didn't really matter because it had been a long time since Addy and his friends and their euphoria had kept me awake. I was just about to fall asleep when the pimply woman's drawing flashed across the untethered screen of my mind. I sat up when I realized what it was.

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It was a week after the Evencalls had decamped to St. Bart's—longer than I would have thought—that they came. Archer and I were in his bedroom, lying on our backs on the floor. His stomach protruded out more than usual because we had just finished a large pizza and half a box of cookies. It looked like a little hillock and a walked my fingers up it. He giggled.

Then I heard the woman's voice.

“Cratnoy, cratnoy, cratnoy,” she said.

“Delgris,” Addy said.

Archer shot up, fear in his eyes.

I sat up and cradled in him in my arms.

I heard them smash the curio cabinet.

Archer's body heated up and his tears started to soak through my shirt. He gulped for breath.

“All okay. Mommy would never let anyone hurt you,” I whispered in his ear.

I heard the sound of metal hitting the floor. They were emptying the kitchen drawers. Then a scraping sound that made me think they were moving the sofa out of the house. Archer tensed up when he heard both of these sounds.

Soon we heard them making their way up the stairs. These were heavy footfalls for such light people. I thought I could her some panting.

Archer bit down on the collar of my shirt as them we heard them pass by on the way to the master bedroom, where they would find Mrs. Evencall's jewelry, her antique dressing table, and—if they weren't too stoned to find them—a collection of gold coins in the shelf of the walk-in closet.

I flung off my shoes and took off Archer's slippers.

“Let's go,” I whispered to Archer.

We grabbed the bags I had packed and I guided Archer out the bedroom door, down stairs and out to the mini-van.

As I drove out of the driveway, Archer pulled out a stuffed giraffe I'd packed in one of his bags. He held it to his chest and bit into its ear. I slid on the pair of Mrs. Evencall's sunglasses that I had taken. They were slightly too small for me, as would be the clothes and the shoes I'd requisitioned from her closet. But maybe that didn't matter. After all, we were both about to become very different.   

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