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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer


              The key wasn’t exactly where Liam had told Ellis it would be, and that annoyed Ellis. So maybe that’s why he didn’t feel like he had to abide by Liam’s request that he stay out of the locked room at the end of the upstairs hallway. There wasn’t any reason for Ellis to go upstairs. The shop-vac he wanted to borrow to use on his partially-flooded basement was in an unused bedroom on the ground floor of Liam’s house. It wouldn’t have occurred to Ellis to go upstairs at all if Liam hadn’t told him that the key was a master key that worked on every lock in the house and that he should not use it to enter the locked room at the end of the upstairs hallway. That made Ellis curious. That tempted him. But still, he probably wouldn’t have done it if the key had been where Liam had told him it would be. The fact that he had to spend a couple more minutes looking for the key made Ellis feel a bit spiteful, made him feel as if Liam had earned his disregard with his imprecise key-hiding.

                Ellis carried the shop-vac to his car and loaded it into the back seat. Then he returned to the house and hurried up the stairs to the second floor. He was excited to break Liam’s rule. The door at the end of the hall was just over five feet tall. It had three locks, but the master key worked on all of them. As Ellis swung the door open, he noted how thick and heavy it was. Entering the room, Ellis felt something tap at his mind three distinct times. Not a physical tap, but he didn’t know how else to describe it. Two recessed lights in the ceiling were turned on, but as Ellis scanned the room, he saw no switches on the bare walls. In the middle of the room was a wooden coffee table. On top of the coffee table was an ant farm: two rectangular panes of glass separated by an inch of dirt and framed by a black plastic stand. Ellis was not close enough to see the ants inside the ant farm but he could see the squiggly tunnels they had made in the dirt. He was confused. Why all this secrecy and security for an ant farm? Was Liam just that embarrassed to be interested in ant farms? Or maybe the ant farm belonged to Janelle, Liam’s wife. Maybe she was embarrassed to be so interested in ants? But Ellis could think of a lot more embarrassing interests than ants. And it didn’t seem like someone would go to all this trouble just to conceal an embarrassing hobby. Maybe the ants in the ant farm were extremely rare and extremely valuable? Maybe Liam and Janelle were worried that if people found out what kind of ants they had here in their house, then unscrupulous entomologists would try to steal them?

                Ellis took a step toward the ant farm and stopped. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed something small and cream colored tucked into the top left corner of the room. He looked and saw a small camera watching him. At that moment, his phone began to vibrate in his pocket. Ellis didn’t need to look to know that Liam was calling him. What could he do? His only idea was to put on a little act for the camera. He began to unbuckle his belt as he looked around the room with an expression of surprise and confusion on his face; an expression such as one might make upon walking into what one assumed was a bathroom only to discover that it wasn’t a bathroom. Then Ellis made a face that he hoped said “I’m such a dummy” and he slapped his forehead with the heel of his hand for good measure. Then he left the room and locked it behind him, all three locks. He rushed downstairs, locked up after himself, and returned the key to where he’d found it, which was not where Liam had said it would be. On the way home, Ellis ignored three more calls from Liam. He suspected that meant his pantomime had not worked. When he got home, anticipating that Liam would try to get his shop-vac back as soon as he could, Ellis got to work on the water in his basement right away.


                That evening, Liam came to Ellis’s house. Ellis thought the best course of action was to play it casual on the off chance that Liam really believed Ellis had mistaken the ant-farm room for the bathroom. Ellis had never done much acting so he really didn’t know if he was good or bad. Maybe he was great! Maybe Liam had been completely convinced and had been repeatedly calling Ellis and was now knocking on Ellis’s front door for a reason other than being upset with him for flagrantly defying him. As Ellis opened the door, he decided to begin the conversation on the offensive. “Hey, Liam,” he said. “How come the key wasn’t where you told me it would be?”

                Liam had obviously not expected this. “What?” he said. He wore his glasses, which was rare, and a jacket, which was strange because the night was humid. His hair was combed back from the small scar on his forehead, a sign that Ellis had grown to understand meant that Liam was feeling self-assured.

                “You told me the key would be under the third flower pot on the right,” said Ellis. “But it wasn’t. It was inside the flower pot and half-covered by dirt.”

                “Uh, well, that must have been a miscommunication between me and Janelle,” said Liam. “Sorry. But you got in. You got the shop-vac.”

                “Yeah,” said Ellis. “Eventually.”

                “So,” said Liam, “I actually came to talk to you about something else.”

                “You can have the shop-vac back,” said Ellis. “I’m finished with it.” He pointed to the damp spots on the knees of his gray sweatpants as if they were proof of what he was saying.

                “Oh, uh, OK,” said Liam. “But, no, Ellis, listen. I saw you go into the upstairs room I told you not to go into. We have a camera in there and I get an alert on my phone when-”

                “I thought it was the bathroom,” said Ellis. “If you watch the footage again, you’ll be able to tell that I had mistaken it for the bathroom. Watch the footage again with that in mind and you’ll see what I mean. For example, I start to undo my belt shortly after entering the room. Why else would I-”

                “No, no,” said Liam. “You don’t understand, Ellis. I’m not upset that you went into the room. I’m actually thrilled. On the one hand, you did exactly the opposite of what I asked you. But on the other hand-”

                “The key wasn’t where you said it would be,” interrupted Ellis. “I had to look all over the place for it.”

                “But on the other hand,” continued Liam, “if you hadn’t ignored my request to stay out of that room, I never would have found out that you can handle it.”

                “Handle what?” asked Ellis.

                “Being in the same room as Renato,” said Liam. “That’s the name of the ant that lives in the ant farm you saw.”

                “There’s only one ant?” asked Ellis.

                “Yes,” said Liam. “Renato, yes. And you were in the same room as him, you looked right at his farm.”

                “Yeah, I guess I did,” said Ellis. “That’s how I realized I wasn’t in the bathroom. Because there wasn’t a shower or toilet or sink or anything, just an ant farm.”

                “Look, Ellis, just drop the act, OK? I know you didn’t think it was a bathroom. But I don’t care. I don’t care because Janelle and I can finally finally take a vacation. Did you know that we haven’t been on a vacation together for 9 years? Janelle goes without me, sometimes, but I never get to go. I mean, I’ve taken time off of work, but we always have to stay around home so I can watch Renato. We’ve never been able to leave anyone else in charge of Renato. But you can watch Renato! You can watch him while we’re on vacation! You can stay at the house, of course, and we’ll pay you. We’ll pay you well. Janelle is so excited. We were trying to decide between the beach or the mountains, but then we thought, well, it’s been 9 years, why not both? So we’re going to do both. If you agree to watch Renato for us, of course. But you will, won’t you? Please. Please. You can name your price.”

                Ellis was thrown. This was not the direction he had expected the conversation to take. “Wait, what would I have to do?”

                “Just stay at the house,” said Liam. “Or just swing by every day to check on Renato. Make sure he seems OK, feed him little bits of fruit. That’s it.”

                “I mean, it sounds easy,” said Ellis. “But I’m confused. Why does it have to be me? You don’t trust anyone else you know to give an ant bits of fruit every once in a while?”

                “Renato’s different,” said Liam. “He can’t be around most people. Until today, I actually thought he couldn’t be around anyone except me, not even Janelle.”

                “But why?” asked Ellis. “What makes me different than Janelle or anyone else?”

                “Let me ask you something,” said Liam. “When you went into Renato’s room, did you feel anything strange?”

                “Like what?” asked Ellis.

                “It’s hard to describe,” said Liam. “But did you feel something? Probably right when you walked into the room? You probably don’t want to mention it. There’s probably something inside of you that’s resisting mentioning it. But you know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”

                Ellis didn’t know why he suddenly felt uncomfortable. He did know what Liam was talking about. He knew exactly what Liam was talking about: those three taps he’d felt on his mind. And he did feel resistant to mentioning it. His internal struggle must have registered on his face because Liam smiled and nodded. “You do know. I can tell. But he couldn’t get to you. He tried. But he couldn’t. I had to get surgery to be able to be in the same room as him.” Liam pointed to the scar on his forehead. “Have you ever had brain surgery, Ellis?”

                Ellis shook his head.

                “I guess you’re just naturally immune, then,” said Liam. “Or you achieved immunity through some other means. Maybe some psychological trauma earlier in your life, like, some kind of psychological defense mechanism that you built up to deal with other issues. Who knows? How doesn’t really matter to me. So will you take care of Renato for us, Ellis? Please say yes. Please. It would mean so much. I’ll pay you fifty dollars a day while we’re gone. How’s that? And you can keep the shop-vac. It’s yours.”

                “What would have happened to me when I went into that room if I wasn’t, uh, immune?” asked Ellis. “What happens if I lose my immunity while I’m taking care of him?”

                “That won’t happen,” said Liam. “Why would that happen? You’d have to let that happen, and why would you do that? For you, it’ll just be checking on an ant and giving him some more fruit pieces when you see that he’s out. If something seems wrong with him, you’ll call me and I’ll get back as soon as I can. But nothing will happen to him. He can take care of himself. He just needs food. He can’t get his own food. That’s all he needs from you. And, obviously, you can’t let anyone else into that room. No one else. No one. Just you. I’ll give you 75 dollars a day. That’s 75 bucks a day for, like, 30 minutes of work if you count driving to and from my house as work.”

                “I’m nervous,” said Ellis. “It seems like you’re avoiding my questions.”

                “100 dollars a day,” said Liam. “And we’re going to be gone for two weeks. So that’s 1,400 dollars. Plus the shop-vac! And you have nothing to worry about. Just check on Renato, feed him when he needs it, don’t let anyone else into his room, and, you know, don’t let him in. You know what I mean by that. When he’s trying to get in, don’t let him. But why would you? You wouldn’t do that. You know not to do that. You instinctively know that. You already proved that. Just trust your instincts and you’ll be fine.”

                “OK, I’ll do it,” said Ellis. “For 100 dollars a day plus the shop-vac. How will I get into the house?”

                “I’ll leave the key under the third flower pot on the right,” said Liam. “For real this time. I’ll put it there myself.”

                “You’d better,” said Ellis, attempting to reclaim some authority.

                “I will,” said Liam. “I will! I’ll call you later with the details as soon as I talk to Janelle!” He ran across Ellis’s yard to his car, turned to give one last, giddy wave, and then drove home to deliver the good news to his wife.

                Ellis closed the door and returned to his basement. Now that the standing water was all sucked up, the basement floor was drying. That was good. He was glad he’d never saved up enough money to carpet the basement like he’d originally wanted to when he bought the house ten years ago. He gazed upon the shop-vac that he now owned. His basement would probably flood again. Having his own shop-vac would be good. And 1,400 dollars was a lot of money for him. Maybe he’d spend some of that money on a vacation of his own. How long had it been since he’d been on a vacation? Probably not since he’d gone on a cruise with his family when he was in college, and almost twenty years had passed since then. He didn’t want to think about those three taps he’d felt on his mind when he’d entered Renato’s room so he didn’t. He’d always been good at not thinking about certain things. Usually, that skill harmed him by preventing him from dealing with problems until it was too late. But now it was finally going to pay off for him. 1,400 dollars was a lot of money for Ellis. And the shop-vac looked almost new. Ellis wondered if Liam had ever used it.


                This time, the key was right where Liam had told Ellis it would be. It was just after noon on the first day of Liam and Janelle’s vacation and Ellis had come to the house to check on Renato. It would be his first time being in the same room as Renato since the day he’d come to the house to borrow the shop-vac. On the phone, Ellis had asked Liam if he should come over one more time before Liam and Janelle left on vacation just to confirm that it was safe for him to take care of Renato, but Liam had firmly rejected this idea, insisting that it was unnecessary. Ellis worried that Liam was prioritizing his vacation over Ellis’s safety, but he didn’t want to appear cowardly so he didn’t push the issue. Now, as he climbed the stairs to the second story of Liam and Janelle’s house, Ellis felt nervous. His pulse quickened and his hands began to sweat. Not just the palms, but the backs of his hands too. Liam had told him that Renato’s little pieces of fruit would be in the refrigerator in the kitchen, but Ellis wanted to look in on Renato right away, just to get it over with, to break the suspense, to prove to himself that there was nothing to worry about.

                When he arrived at the door to Renato’s room, Ellis used the master key on the three locks, swung the short, heavy door open, and stepped inside. Immediately, he felt something tap three times on his mind. The feeling was no more or less intense than the first time it had happened, but this time it was scary. The first time, Ellis hadn’t known what the feeling was so he had just ignored it. This time, he knew it was the feeling of Renato trying to get in somehow, whatever that meant. He had tried to press Liam for more information on what that might mean on the phone, but Liam had remained vague on the subject. Eventually, Ellis had decided that Liam didn’t actually know what it would mean for Renato to get “in” to someone’s mind.

                Just inside the door to Renato’s room, Ellis stood still and waited. Would there be more taps on his mind? Another attempt? He looked at the camera in the top corner of the room, then at the ant farm. After a minute of nothing else happening, Ellis felt silly and he approached the ant farm. He was curious to see Renato up close, but also wary. He bent down so that his face was level with the ant farm and peered through the glass and into the network of branching tunnels through the rich, brown dirt. At first, he saw no ants at all. The ant farm appeared empty. Was this whole setup a scam of some kind? Did Renato even exist? But then movement in a small chamber in the upper corner of the ant farm caught Ellis’s attention. There he saw a single ant, small and reddish brown. Ellis didn’t know enough about ants to know what specific kind of ant Renato was, but he looked like a normal ant, like the kind of ant Ellis had seen in the cupboard under his kitchen sink or the kind he’d seen streaming from a crack in the sidewalk toward a fallen popsicle on the curb. A normal ant, a regular ant.

                As Ellis watched, Renato paced back in forth in his little chamber a few times, then headed down a tunnel toward the bottom of the ant farm. Nothing about his behavior seemed un-ant-like or threatening or dangerous. Ellis stood upright, reassured. There was nothing for him to be nervous about. He wasn’t certain there was anything for anyone to be nervous about. The fact that Liam had gotten brain surgery because of this ant was either very strange or a lie or a delusion. Maybe Liam was the one to be worried about. Although those taps on Ellis’s mind were real, weren’t they? He’d felt them twice now. But what were they really? Was there any way to prove that Renato was their source? No. No, there wasn’t. Ellis went down to the kitchen, fetched a little piece of fruit for Renato, returned to Renato’s room, opened up a little hatch in the top of the ant farm, and dropped the fruit inside. Then he closed and locked the door to Renato’s room behind him and went home.


                As the days went on and Ellis continued to visit Renato once a day to either give him a small chunk of fruit or not, depending on whether the previous chunk of fruit had been consumed yet, the three taps that Ellis felt on his mind every time he entered Renato’s room went from being unnerving to annoying. Because what did they mean? What did they really actually mean? Because Ellis wanted to feel special. He wanted to feel gifted, perhaps even supernaturally so. He wanted to feel like the only person in the world who could resist Renato. Was the money the real reason he had accepted the responsibility of caring for Renato while Liam and Janelle were gone? Or was he excited by the idea that he was exceptional in some strange way, that Liam had recognized that exceptional quality and thought it was worth paying for? None of the rest of the traits Ellis had been born with had ever paid off. Not that he expected any of his bad traits to benefit him – although he knew of several people who had been served pretty well by their bad traits – but Ellis had good traits too, and those good traits had been just as useless as his bad traits, and sometimes they’d been just as detrimental, if not more so. So now Liam had discovered this trait that Ellis didn’t even know he had. A good trait, supposedly, and Ellis was going to get 1,400 dollars out of it plus a newish shop-vac. But in the grand scheme of things, that really wasn’t much. What could Ellis get with 1,400 dollars that he really needed? A car that was just as bad, if not worse, than his current car? A mid-tier gaming laptop? Which would be fine. The money was easy. But Ellis’s mounting feeling of disappointment revealed something about himself that he had not known: he had been hoping that his daily encounters with Renato would make him feel cooler. He had been hoping that he would get some sense of what was actually at stake, of what grave consequences his special brain was protecting him from.

                But that wasn’t happening. And that’s why the three taps on his mind – always exactly three – had become annoying. They revealed nothing, they proved nothing, and they didn’t make Ellis feel cooler, heroic, or exceptional. And then, at the beginning of the second week of caring for Renato, Ellis looked at the camera in Renato’s room again. Why had Liam gone out of his way to tell Ellis not to enter Renato’s room? And why had he then mentioned that the key was a master key that opened every lock in the house? And why did it look like his shop-vac had never been used? And now that Ellis thought about it, he had told Liam that his basement had flooded and that he needed a shop-vac, and then three hours later Liam had called to say he had a shop-vac that Ellis could borrow. Why had he not mentioned the shop-vac when Ellis had first told him about his flooded basement? Was it because Liam had to go out and buy a shop-vac before he could offer it to Ellis as long as Ellis was willing to come over to the house and pick it up? And there was that camera, of course, watching Ellis every time he came into Renato’s room, documenting everything he did, all of his interactions with Renato. And also, that scar on Liam’s forehead did not look big or severe enough to be the product of a real brain surgery. And 100 dollars a day for a few minutes’ work seemed more like the kind of money one would receive for participating in some kind of weird experiment, not for giving fruit to a pet ant regardless of that ant’s supposed mental powers.

                But what was the experiment? Was Liam making a fool of Ellis, preying on his vanity to convince him to take part in a study to see how he’d react to the conditions of this absurd scenario? But if that were true, then where did those taps on Ellis’s mind come from? Was there some kind of device hidden in the wall? Maybe it was, like, a high-frequency sound machine that…that…well, Ellis didn’t know how it would work, but something with waves that would feel like tapping on his mind? On his brain, really.

                Ellis realized that he’d been staring at the camera for a few minutes as all these thoughts occurred to him. He tore his eyes away and tried to appear casual as he checked on Renato. The chunk of fruit Ellis had dropped into the ant farm the day before was only partially-consumed so he turned and left Renato’s room, closing the door and locking it behind him. He didn’t know what he was going to do. But he knew what he wasn’t going to do. He wasn’t going to play Liam’s game.


                It had not been easy for Ellis to get someone to come over to Liam and Janelle’s house with him. For one thing, Liam was pretty much his only friend with which he hadn’t burned every bridge, and even that was due more to Liam’s forgiving nature than Ellis treating him better than the other people he knew. Now, of course, Ellis suspected there was a reason for that forgiving nature, but he didn’t know yet. That’s why he needed someone else. But since no one he knew was willing to just do him a favor, Ellis had to come up with another way to get someone over to Liam and Janelle’s house. So instead of asking for a favor, he posted an ad on an online community forum for Multioak offering to pay someone fifty dollars if they would help him move a heavy dresser in an upstairs bedroom at his house. There was no dresser, of course, and the house was Liam and Janelle’s house, and the upstairs bedroom was Renato’s room.

                Ellis got exactly one response, but that was all he needed. He sent a few messages back and forth with the guy, then talked to him on the phone. His name was Sam and he was 19. He had taken a year off from everything after high school, but he was planning on starting community college in the fall and he was trying to earn as much money as he could without getting an actual job. Ellis gave Sam the address for Liam and Janelle’s house and told him to be there at 10 the following morning. Sam negotiated the time all the way up to 2 in the afternoon.

                The next day, Ellis made sure to get to the house early so that he would not be seen arriving at the house that he had claimed was his. Not that being seen arriving would have blown his cover – he could say that he had just been out running an errand, for example – but Ellis thought that if Sam was feeling weird at all about this job, it would be less concerning for him if Ellis was already there in the house and acting like he really lived there. He could be shoeless when he answered the door, maybe, and still holding the TV remote as if he had just switched the TV off upon hearing the doorbell.

                When Sam showed up, he did not appear to feel weird about the job. In fact, he barely seemed conscious. His knock on the front door was loud and crisp, but when Ellis answered shoeless and TV remote in hand, he found Sam leaning against the railing on the front porch as if already exhausted. He wore untied basketball shoes, no socks, red basketball shorts spattered with dark paint, and a t-shirt with the sleeves asymmetrically cut off. His hair was chin-length and had an oily sheen. His eyes were bleary. In a way, Ellis was actually happy that Sam gave a bad first impression. That way if there was any truth to Liam’s claims about Renato’s powers, he would feel less bad about Sam falling victim.

                “Hey,” said Ellis. “You’re Sam?”

                “Yes,” said Sam, gathering his strength and pushing off of the railing into a more-or-less upright position. “You got the money?”

                “Yeah,” said Ellis. “Come on in. We’ll move the dresser and then I’ll pay you.”

                “I need half the money first,” said Sam as he shuffled through the front door. “These online jobs are mostly scams.”

                “Yeah, you said that on the phone,” said Ellis. He pulled a twenty and a five out of his pocket and handed them to Sam who checked to make sure the total was correct, then folded the bills and slid them into his shorts pocket. “Where’s this dresser?” he asked, hair hanging in his face.

                “Upstairs,” said Ellis. He tossed the TV remote onto the couch as if he owned both the remote and the couch, then knelt to put his shoes on and tie them. He was proud of his performance whether it was necessary or not. “Follow me,” he said.

                On the way up the stairs, Sam twice stepped out of his left shoe and had to pause to get his foot back into it. Ellis was glad that they weren’t really going to be moving any heavy dressers. He didn’t think Sam was capable. How could you move a heavy dresser if you couldn’t keep your shoes on your feet?

                As Ellis unlocked the three locks on the door to Renato’s room from top to bottom, Sam said, “That’s a lot of security for a bedroom. You paranoid?”

                “I keep my valuables in here,” said Ellis. He opened the door just enough to duck through so that his ruse wouldn’t be revealed until Sam was inside the room. Ellis walked through the door, felt the familiar three taps on his mind, and motioned for Sam to follow, which he did. Ellis watched Sam’s face as he entered, looking for any change that might reveal that Renato had gotten “in.”

                Sam’s expression revealed nothing except for perhaps some very mild surprise. “No dresser,” he said as he looked around the mostly empty room. “Whatever, I got my 25. Easy money.” He turned to leave.

                “Wait,” said Ellis. “Just a second.”

                “If you touch me, I will knock you out,” said Sam. He paused. Tears appeared in his eyes. His jaw relaxed. His posture improved dramatically.

                “What’s wrong?” asked Ellis, his hands suddenly sweaty on all sides again.

                “It’s beautiful,” said Sam, his voice bold and clear.

                “What is?” asked Ellis. “What’s beautiful?” His phone buzzed and buzzed and buzzed in his pocket.

                Sam ignored him, overwhelmed by something to which Ellis had no access.

                “What are you hearing?” asked Ellis. “What are you seeing?”

                Sam looked off into space somewhere over Ellis’s head.

                “What’s he saying to you?” asked Ellis.

                Sam lowered his gaze to meet Ellis’s eyes. “Thank you,” he said. “I know this wasn’t your intention, but I’ll cherish this forever.” He turned and walked out of the room.

Ellis hurried after him into the hallway. “Hey,” he said. “Give me the 25 dollars back. You didn’t do any work.”

Sam turned at the top of the stairs to face Ellis. They stood at opposite ends of the hallway, a gulf of shadow between them. Sam’s posture was still great, his voice was still powerful. “In your ignorance, you deceived me. In your ignorance, you intended me harm. I will be merciful and not seek to punish you beyond keeping the 25 dollars. That will be the full extent of your punishment.” Then he descended the stairs without once stepping out of either of his shoes and left the house.


Ellis went back into Renato’s room. Tap, tap, tap. He looked from the ant farm to the camera to the ant farm. Why didn’t the pieces fit? He had been so sure that something fraudulent was going on, that Liam was using him in some way, that the incomplete story Liam had given him was an absurd cover story for something else. But had he really been sure? If he had been sure, then he wouldn’t have needed to test Renato’s powers on Sam. So there had been a part of him that still believed, or wanted to believe, Liam’s stated version of reality. And Sam had experienced something. Whether what he had experienced came from Renato or not, Ellis couldn’t say, but Sam had experienced something.

The phone was buzzing in Ellis’s pocket again. Liam must have seen the footage of Ellis bringing Sam into the room. He was probably either upset about it or pretending to be upset about it. Ellis wasn’t interested in listening to either possibility. He walked over to Renato’s ant farm and knelt on the carpet in front of it. Renato was in a chamber near the middle of the ant farm. He had pulled the remaining fragment of the chunk of fruit Ellis had given him the day before down into the chamber with him and he was snacking on it. As Ellis watched Renato eat, he couldn’t help but feel as if he looked content. Could an ant look content? Did Ellis only think that Renato looked content because Renato was in the midst of eating his favorite food, fruit chunk? No, it went beyond that. Renato looked content. Ellis had to wonder: did anyone ever look at him and think he looked content, even while he was eating his favorite food, a spicy omelet? He knew the answer was “no.” And then he thought about the look on Sam’s face as he’d left the house. That went beyond contentment. That was pure satisfaction, fulfillment, transcendence. Ellis knew that not only had he never looked like that before, he never would at any time in the future. How did he know? He just knew. True fulfillment, no matter how transient, was just not in the cards for him. He was immune to it. That’s what his exceptional quality, his gift amounted to: an immunity to satisfaction, to fulfillment, to transcendence. Sam hadn’t wanted it, but he’d gotten it anyway. He couldn’t stop it. He was powerless to resist it. Liam, for whatever reason, did not want it. He’d gotten surgery to avoid it.

Ellis tapped on the glass three times. Tap, tap, tap. “What if I let you in?” he asked out loud.

Renato continued to eat his fruit.

“I’ll go out and then come in again,” said Ellis. “This time when you knock, I’ll let you in. You’ll show me what you showed Sam, right? Right, Renato? That’s what I want.”

Renato abandoned his fruit and went scurrying off through one of his tunnels to the left, but not in a way that seemed to be a response to anything Ellis was saying.

“I’m doing it now,” said Ellis. “I’m going out, but I’ll be right back.” He rose from his knees, turned and walked out of the room, closing the door behind him, standing in the hall with his hand on the knob and quietly counting to ten, then to twenty, then to 60. With his pulse pounding in both anticipation and dread, Ellis opened the door and walked back into Renato’s room.

Tap, tap, tap.

Ellis didn’t know what to do differently. He tried to feel very open. He envisioned opening a door to find an ant waiting on his porch, he envisioned welcoming the ant into his home. He envisioned an ant crawling through his hair and then down into a small hole that had been drilled into his skull. Was it working? Was Renato in? Sam’s reaction had been somewhat delayed. Had it taken this long, though? Shouldn’t he be hearing or seeing or feeling something by now, experiencing something other than doubt and frustration, perhaps the two most common feelings of his entire life, including childhood?

Seconds kept passing, kept ticking by, and nothing happened.

Ellis left the room and closed the door. This time he locked it, all three locks, one for each of Renato’s customary three taps. This time he counted to 60 very, very slowly. Then he unlocked the door and went back into the room. He felt no taps on his mind.

“Renato?” Ellis said aloud. “Are you there?” He hurried over to the ant farm, his eyes darting through the pathways like ants themselves until they ran into Renato’s lifeless body, lying on its back with its legs curled inward like a cartoonist’s rendering of any dead insect, stopping just short of having Xs for eyes.

It occurred to Ellis, then, that perhaps he had been wrong about which side of the door Renato was on. Which side Renato was on relative to Ellis, anyway. Maybe doors weren’t the best metaphor for how it actually worked, but maybe Renato hadn’t wanted in. Maybe he’d wanted out.

Ellis’s phone began to buzz in his pocket yet again. He took it out, declined the call, and blocked Liam’s number. Then he went downstairs to the refrigerator, took out all the little pre-cut chunks of fruit that Liam had left for Renato, and tossed them out the back door into the yard where he assumed the wild ants would be pretty excited about them. As he drove home, Ellis felt neither satisfaction nor fulfillment nor transcendence, but he did feel a sort of low form of freedom, and if that was the best he could hope for, then he’d take it.

Discussion Questions

  • What would it take for you to let a powerfully psychic ant “in?” What do you think would happen to you once the ant was “in?” What's the difference between letting a powerfully psychic ant in and letting a powerfully psychic ant “in?”

  • Do you ever NOT feel like you’re being manipulated by outside forces?

  • Have you gained more from your good traits or your bad traits?

  • Name the actor you think would be most capable of making an observer believe that he or she had honestly mistaken a triple-locked ant-farm room for a bathroom.

  • Who is the most interesting ant you’ve ever encountered?

  • List four feelings that you’re certain your face will never have the opportunity to authentically express?