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The Chores That Could Have Been

              The ring of Perry’s cell phone reverberated through the deserted concourse of the Quaintbridge Mall in Heavenburg. The mall had been on a steady slide toward oblivion for a while, but the post-holiday atmosphere was especially bleak. Closed stores, abandoned kiosks, flickering lights, strange shoppers. It was a far cry from the vital center of retail it had been in Perry’s youth.

               The phone call was from Amelia, one of Perry’s many older sisters. Perry answered. “Hey,” he said, keeping his voice low so it wouldn’t echo. He sat down on the edge of a dusty, dried-up fountain shaped like a leaping fish. The pipe inside the fish’s mouth from which water was supposed to arc was rusty green.

               “Have you seen the weather?” asked Amelia. “It’s getting bad.”

               “I saw the forecast,” said Perry. “But I haven’t looked outside for a few hours.”

               “It’s getting bad,” said Amelia. “They’re telling people to stay off the roads. They’re saying they won’t send anyone to pull you out of the ditch if you get stuck. If you drive, then you’re accepting the risk. That’s what they’re saying.”

               “I’ll be fine,” said Perry.

               “I think you should get a hotel room in Heavenburg,” said Amelia. “And come back to Multioak tomorrow after the plows run.”

               Perry chuckled. “No, I’m not gonna do that, that’s a waste of money.”

               “Come back now, then,” said Amelia. “Before it gets worse. And before it gets dark.”

               “I’ll be fine,” said Perry. “I’m an icy roads pro. You know that. I’ve never gone in the ditch, not even once.”

               “But what if you do this time?” asked Amelia. “There’ll be no one to help you. You’ll be stuck in your car all night.”

               “I’ve got my coveralls and blankets in the trunk and peanuts in the glove box,” said Perry. “But that’s beside the point because I’m not going in the ditch. I’ll get home just fine.”

               “Will you leave now, though?” asked Amelia.

               “Not quite yet,” said Perry. “I wanna walk around a little more.”

               “How much time can you spend in that depressing mall?” asked Amelia. “I do not understand what you do there. I don’t know why you like it.”

               Perry couldn’t answer that question. Not for Amelia and not for himself. “I’ll text you when I get home so you know I made it,” he said.

               “All right,” said Amelia, reluctant but resigned.

               Perry ended the call and slipped the phone back inside the pocket of his gray jeans. He headed for the out-of-order escalator, climbing it like stairs, escalating himself. Arriving at the mall’s second floor, Perry turned to face the dead Rappleman’s department store, the ghostly outline of its sign stained on the wall above its dark, sealed entrance. Perry longed to commune with its spirt, but he knew it was long gone. More like departed store. Rappleman’s departed store. That was more like what it was now. Not department, but rather departed.


               The roads were terrible, slushy snow on top of a glassy base of ice. Perry had opted to take the back way home from the mall, his family’s classic route from his youth. His reasoning was that the worse roads would be worth tolerating in favor of dealing with the greater number of bad icy-road drivers on the highway. And he still thought it was the right decision, but wow, as soon as he got out onto the county roads beyond Heavenburg’s city limits, his progress slowed to an embarrassing degree. Perry had always prided himself on his ability to maintain a respectable rate of speed even in bad conditions, had vowed to never become one of those skittish motorists creeping along with hazard lights blazing, but now even he did not feel safe going faster than 30 miles per hour. He would have been more ashamed if there had been any other cars on the road to witness his tentative advance, but there were none. The falling snow blotted out the lights from the isolated houses dotting the countryside and reduced Perry’s world to the interior of his car and the overlapping cones of unsatisfying visibility created in front of him by his headlights.

               The deserted roads made Perry feel better about rolling through stop signs, but he felt the lack of friction between his tires and the pavement every time he tapped the brakes, every time he had to make a turn and the back of his car waggled to and fro like the tail of a fish. If he didn’t end up in a ditch – no, when he didn’t end up in a ditch – this would become, easily, his greatest feat of bad-weather driving of all time. This would be the drive he would reference as proof of his ability to handle icy roads. But now, here in the moment, as he set about actually accomplishing this feat, it took a painful quantity of concentration. And it was hard to tell where he was. All of his familiar landmarks were concealed behind the curtain of snow. The road signs were blanked out too, just white-frosted rectangles on the ends of ice-encrusted poles. And wouldn’t that be frustrating. To end up in a ditch after driving far enough to make it home, but having not made it home because he had missed a turn because he couldn’t recognize the turn in these conditions. That would be a cheap way to lose. But no, he wouldn’t let that happen. He would figure it out. He would drive as long as it took and he would successfully stay on any road on which he found himself for any reason and he would make it home under his own power.

Perry did not see the car in the ditch until he was almost on top of it. He wouldn’t have noticed it at all if he’d been driving any faster. His first instinct was to maintain forward momentum. If he stopped, how sure was he that he’d be able to get moving again? But then he remembered that there were no rescue vehicles available tonight, that no one else might pass this way until morning or beyond. What if the driver was hurt? What if the driver were to freeze to death? Muttering curses, Perry gently pumped the brakes until his car skidded to a halt thirty yards beyond the ditch-bound vehicle. Leaving the car running and the lights on, Perry ducked out into the wetness and coldness and shuffled up the road with his shoulders hunched against the wind. The stuck car did not appear to be damaged. The tail lights glowed like the mournful eyes of a beast with a toothache. The tailpipe leaked exhaust. The car had veered off the right side of the road but, amusingly – sort of amusingly – the left turn signal blinked like oops oops oops.

Keeping one hand on the side of the car so he wouldn’t slip and fall as he navigated the slope of the ditch, Perry slipped and fell into the ditch. As he struggled to regain his feet, the driver’s side window above him lowered in a series of jerks.

A voice came from inside the car. “Are you harmed or unharmed?” A mittened hand appeared, extended downward, offering assistance.

Perry took the hand and pulled himself upright. “Thank you,” he said. “Are you OK?” The driver was a man around Perry’s age. He had a gray scarfed wrapped around his neck and wore a driving cap. A cloth bag tied at the top with a twist of wire rested on the passenger’s seat.

“I find myself fine,” said the man. “But stuck fast. As you see.”

“Yeah, that’s why I stopped,” said Perry. “Is someone coming for you?”

“Alas, no,” said the man. “No one can reach me.”

“Where are you headed?” asked Perry. He crouched so that the car would serve as a more complete windbreak.

“Home,” said the man. “I was running errands in Heavenburg, but on the way home, well, this mishap occurred.”

               “But where’s home?” asked Perry. “If it’s close, I can take you there. If not, I can at least take you some place that is close so you don’t have to spend all night in your car.”

               “That would be nice and preferable,” said the man. “I’m nigh unto out of gasoline. I don’t want to freeze until death. It’s supposed to get below zero degrees Fahrenheit tonight. Maybe even negative-ten, that’s what my co-brother asserted.”

               “Come on, then,” said Perry. “Lock up and let’s get to my car.” He put his bare, red hands on the cold metal of the car to keep from falling and fell his way back up to the road. The stranded man followed, leaving his car quiet and dark, now, as if inviting the weather to do whatever it wanted to it, blow it away, bury it in snow, whatever.

               Once they were back in Perry’s car, he noticed that the man had brought the sack with him. It took up his entire lap. “You never told me where you were headed,” said Perry. He held his hands up to the heater vents, rotating them forward and backward.

               “My error,” said the man. “I thought I did. I was headed to my home in South America.”

               “South America?” asked Perry. “You were driving there?”

               His tone made the man smile. “It’s a town,” he said. “A small town near here. You haven’t heard of it? I believe it’s named after the continent of the same name. I believe the continent preceded the town, though.”

               “I haven’t heard of the town, no,” said Perry. “It’s nearby?”

               “Pretty nearby,” said the man. “I can guide you there.”

               “I just hope I can find my way home from there,” said Perry. He shifted into drive and applied gentle pressure to the accelerator. The tires spun but managed to find enough purchase to ease the car onward. 

               The man fastened his seatbelt, a tricky maneuver with the sack in his lap. “I’m named Seth,” he said. “In case you want to address me by my name.”

               “Thanks,” said Perry. “I’m Perry.”

               “You’ll take a sharp right soon, Perry,” said Seth. “It isn’t an easy turn to recognize even in summer daylight.”

               “I’m surprised I’ve never heard of South America before,” said Perry. “I grew up not too far from here in Multioak. I’m very familiar with the area.”

               “It’s very small,” said Seth. “Not many there. Mom, my co-brothers, and I are the most prominent citizens, I’d say. The other residents don’t contribute much. Here’s the turn.”

               Perry never would have noticed it on his own. The road didn’t look any worse than the roads Perry had been driving on since he left Heavenburg, but there was something especially overlookable about it beyond the fact that it was not marked by a sign.

               “There will be an intersection eventually,” said Seth. “When we get to it, we must turn left.”

               “Did you grow up there?” asked Perry. “In South America?” His curiosity about this town he’d never heard of was a comfort. It took his mind off of the riskiness of his driving and allowed instinct to take care of it for him.

               “Mostly,” said Seth. “I came to South America when I was a young boy.”

               “Huh,” said Perry. “What do you do for work?”

               “Oh, I do chores,” said Seth. “And sometimes, like today, I run errands, which is a special variety of chore, really.”

               Perry had more questions, but a dip in the road sent the car sliding into the oncoming lane, the back end fighting to get away from him, resenting Perry’s control. He turned into the skid, skillfully countering the car’s momentum.

               “Wow,” said Seth. “You’re good at this. I got picked up by the correct guy to be picked up by.”

               Perry accepted the compliment as he brought the car back into line. “I would have been in a ditch long before I got to you if I didn’t know what I was doing,” said Perry.

               “Here comes the intersection,” said Seth. “Remember, we must turn left. It’s crucial that we do so.”

               “Is that another car in the ditch?” asked Perry.  

               “So it is,” said Seth. “In fact, it appears to be my co-brother Nate’s car. We have to pick him up as well!”

               “That’s fine,” said Perry. “There’s plenty of room in the back seat. I assume he’s headed to the same place as you?”

               “Indeed so,” said Seth. “He was running errands as well. Today is Errands Day, after all.”

               Perry stopped the car in the middle of the intersection. He didn’t think they’d be there long, and he figured it was even less likely to encounter other cars on roads he’d never known existed. He felt as if Seth had directed him onto the back side of the map.

               “You remain in here,” said Seth. “I’ll fetch Nate.”

               It didn’t take much to convince Perry to stay in the warm car. He didn’t relish the idea of falling in the snow again, and he had no confidence in his ability to prevent it. Inside the car, he had a real, if tenuous, mastery over the ice. Outside of the car, that mastery fled.

               After a few short minutes, Perry saw two figures rise out of the ditch near the dark bulk of the stranded car and approach through the continuous assault of the storm. Crossing into the headlights, Seth led the way followed by a larger, more ungainly man in a long coat carrying a sack similar to the one waiting for Seth in the passenger’s seat. It did not take them long to get situated in Perry’s car. Seth returned to his previous position and Nate crawled into the back. Based on their relative size, it probably would have made more sense for Nate to sit up front, but Perry didn’t suggest a switch. “Are we ready to keep going?”

               “Yes,” said Seth. “It isn’t far now. When you come to the T in the road, make a right-hand turn.”

               “Thank you very much for picking me up,” said Nate. “I have an irrational fear of the cold.”

               “I think fear of this cold is pretty rational,” said Perry. He was grateful for the slight dip in the road in the direction they were headed. Gravity worked in their favor to get the car moving again. He glanced at Nate in the rearview mirror and saw that he too held the sack on his lap despite the empty space next to him on the seat. Nate appeared to be roughly the same age as Seth and Perry. He wore a thin mustache well. His lips looked painfully chapped. His eyes were nearly circular. He wore his stocking cap so there was a lot of extra room between the top of his head and the top of the cap, which bent sideways against the car ceiling.

               “I hope Ryan made it home,” said Nate. “He drove past me some time ago.”

               “Who’s Ryan?” asked Perry.

               “Another of our co-brothers,” said Seth.

               “He saw you stuck and didn’t stop to help you?” asked Perry.

               “I don’t blame him,” said Nate. “He was all over the road. I glimpsed his eyes. Such fright in them! I’m not certain he even registered that the stranded soul he was careening past was I.”

               “And what do you think of our savior’s driving in such threatening circumstances?” asked Seth, turning in his seat to smile over his shoulder at Nate.

               “I’m quite impressed,” said Nate. “You don’t make it appear effortless, sir, but I like that in a talent. Like dancing. I like to see the effort. That’s what assures me that I couldn’t do it.”

               “Thanks,” said Perry. “Having more weight in the car helps.” He wanted to ask what the difference between a brother and a co-brother was, but felt it might be rude, for some reason. The two men didn’t appear to be related, but they both possessed a certain air of naiveté. Or maybe that wasn’t quite it. Maybe it was just that they talked a little weird and Perry wasn’t equipped to interpret that as anything but naiveté.  It made sense that the fault would lie with him. He hadn’t been raised right, had never recovered from his parents’ rancorous divorce, had recently come to feel that all his potential had been squandered before he’d even known he had any. His sisters had all come out more or less unscathed – as far as Perry knew, at least – but something had gone wrong with him. His friendships were shallow, his romantic relationships went quickly sour, he’d had a few run-ins with the law the reasons for which he could not adequately explain to anyone who cared. He was an OK worker, but did not understand where money came from or where it went; he felt like a senseless conduit for money, it passed right through him without making an impression.

               “That’s Ryan’s car,” said Seth. “Ahead in the ditch. Do you see it, Perry? On the left side of the road.”

               Perry eased the car to a stop. It seemed the snowfall was lessening a bit, or maybe he was just getting used to it.

               “I’ll gather him,” said Nate.

               “We both will,” said Seth.

               The co-brothers piled out of the car, and the air that came inside during the brief span in which the doors were open had a deadly edge. This cold would kill if given an opportunity. Perry held his hands up to the heater vents again, assuring himself that they still provided their counted-on warmth.

               Seth and Nate were back faster than he expected, slamming the doors and puffing into their hands.

               “Where’s Ryan?” asked Perry.

               “The car is vacant,” said Nate. He sounded worried. “Our co-brother Ryan is not inside of it.”

               “Did you see footprints?” asked Perry. “Other tire tracks?”

               “No,” said Seth. “But the precipitation is heavy and the wind is disruptive. If prints or tracks there were, now they are filled.”

               “How far are we from your home now?” asked Perry.

               “Some few miles remain between here and there,” said Seth.

               “I don’t know him,” said Perry. “But I don’t think he would try to walk home from this distance, then, right? Someone else probably picked him up.”

               “Perhaps it was Eric,” said Nate.

               “Who’s that?” asked Perry.

               “Another of our co-brothers,” said Nate. “Also out running errands this Errands Day.”

               “How many of you are there?” asked Perry.

               “Exactly five,” said Nate. “The perfect number of co-brothers to have.”

               “Were you all driving tonight?” asked Perry.

               “Yes,” said Seth. “Running errands.”

               Perry shifted back into drive and pressed the accelerator. This time, he thought it might not happen. He thought he might have to ask the co-brothers to get out and push. But no, they were inching ahead, progressing, building inertia. They were driving.

               And they had driven less than half of a mile when they came across Eric’s car tilted on its side in a ditch. Eric and Ryan were outside of the car, standing alongside the road and waving their arms at Perry’s oncoming headlights. Sacks like Seth’s and Nate’s rested in the snow next to their feet. They were shocked when Perry came to a skidding stop a few feet from them and Seth rolled down his window to invite them in. In seconds, they were wedged into the back seat with Nate.

               “Does anyone want to put their sacks in the trunk?” asked Perry.

               The co-brothers looked at each other worriedly, wrapping their arms around the sacks in their laps.

               “Never mind,” said Perry. This time, as he accelerated the car, the wheels spun fruitlessly for a full minute before suddenly grabbing at the pavement and twirling the car in a complete circle. The co-brothers all shrieked, but Perry didn’t panic, and they had soon resumed their journey to the town of South America. But it did seem inevitable that they would encounter the fifth co-brother before they arrived at their destination. Perry was almost planning on it. He wondered where that brother would sit, though. There were no available seats remaining.

               “There,” said Eric. He had a voice perfect for radio and a friendly squint. Shoulder-length black hair interspersed with silver strands hung from beneath his hunting cap earflaps. “That’s our home ahead.”

               “What is?” asked Perry. “That light?” A beacon of blinking red shown through even the blowing snow, which had picked up again, if it had really ever lessened.

               “It’s atop the tower,” said Ryan. It was the first he’d spoken. Most of his face was bundled away. “Its visibility is key. It’s helpful! And eases us.”

               “Huh,” said Perry. “Well, if we’re this close, then the other…guy must have made it home. Even if he went in the ditch, he could have safely walked. Unless he came from another direction.”

               “No,” said Seth. “He would not have come from another direction. This is the only direction by which you can come to our home by car. And besides, we are still five miles away from home. The light is farther than it appears. Its enormity and power make it seem nearer than it is. Five miles would be too distant to walk in this weather. One would die, surely.”

               “But look there!” cried Nate. “Just ahead, in the very center of the road! Jonathan’s car is upturned onto its top side and afire!”

               Perry slammed on the brakes to avoid colliding with the crashed vehicle, fighting the shuddering steering wheel as the car twisted this way and that, the shrieks of the co-brothers again adding to the chaos. They came to a stop mere feet from disaster. In an instant, all four co-brothers were out of the car, the doors left standing open, scrambling around Jonathan’s flipped vehicle on their hands and knees. From what Perry could see, they had found Jonathan still strapped into the driver’s seat. They pulled him free and hustled him, dazed and bleeding from a wound above his eye, to Perry’s car, stuffing him into the back seat.

               “We must push the wrecked car into the ditch so we can advance along the roadway!” cried Nate, and he, Seth, and Eric set to work accomplishing this while Ryan tended to Jonathan.

               “Watch out!” called Perry. “If it’s on fire, it might explode!”

               If the co-brothers heard him, they gave no sign. Under normal conditions, their efforts to push the car off of the road while it rested on its roof and hood would have been foolhardy, but the surface of the pavement was so slick that the car slid into the ditch under the influence of their combined power with only moderate resistance. Then the fire fizzled, defeated. The pushers returned to Perry’s car, clapping each other on the shoulders.

               “There isn’t enough room for everyone,” said Perry. “One of you who’s doing better will have to wait here for me to come back for him.”

               “Nonsense,” said Ryan. “I’ll ride in the trunk.”

               Eric snorted. “I’m allowing myself a moment of sarcasm to say that Mom would certainly allow that to occur were she here.”

               The other co-brothers chuckled, even Jonathan who could barely keep his eyes open.

               “She is not here,” said Ryan. “Not presently. And I do it not as a lark, but sacrificially, so that we may all ride together and arrive home simultaneously, the best way for us to arrive.”

               “I believe his motives are clean,” said Seth. “And while I did laugh at Eric’s well-chosen moment of sarcasm, I now find myself in agreement with Ryan’s plan, and I endorse it, and I will be surprised if I regret that decision.”

               “Then I too am persuaded!” said Nate.

               “And even I!” said Eric.

               Jonathan murmured.

               “Uh,” said Perry. “I guess I’ll pop the trunk.”

               The co-brothers cheered. All of them. Perry wanted to cheer too, but he was too self-conscious.


               Perry had never seen a town like South America. In the center of a cobblestone square, a narrow tower six stories high rose over a series of derelict storefronts and a few scattered homes, all of them with darkened windows and extinguished porch lights. The tower itself, though, was alight at every level, from its brilliant red light at the very top calling home its co-sons to the warm light spilling through opened curtains and peeking around the edges of closed curtains in every window from the sixth floor to the ground floor.

               “Pull right up to the door,” said Seth. “We haven’t many guests, but when we do, yes they can park there!”

               Once he had parked and turned off the engine, Perry hit the trunk release button and Ryan crawled out none the worse for wear. The co-brothers hustled Jonathan up the porch steps and through the front door in a human cluster that made it difficult to tell who was bearing his woozy weight. Perry trailed after them and watched them disappear inside with one foot on the lowest porch step, wondering if the fact that Seth had referred to him as a guest entitled him to follow the co-brothers into their home. Had the invitation been implied? The front door still stood open, after all. But maybe he should just head for home. He could find his way; there hadn’t been many turns and he had a good sense of direction. And the night was growing ever colder, he could almost feel the minute gradations on his exposed cheeks as the temperature ticked downward. He recalled, then, that the co-brothers had left their precious sacks in his car. He could carry the sacks inside for them. Then, if they wanted him to stay for a bit, they could say so. If not, it would not appear to them as if Perry had intended anything beyond doing them one last favor.

               He had just taken his foot from the porch step and turned back to his car when Seth called to him from the doorway. “Perry, come inside! You must rest before you return to your travels!”

               The ground floor of the tower was an open space with a large, modern kitchen that transitioned into a large dining room. Recessed lighting contributed to the warm and inviting quality of the space. At the far end of the dining room, Jonathan lay on a rug in front of a crackling gas fireplace while Ryan crouched nearby, monitoring his condition. Nate and Eric stood near a row of wooden pegs mounted on the wall and removed their winter clothing, hanging their coats and scarves on pegs over which their names were painted, arranging their boots on the tile floor beneath, and stacking their gloves and hats on a shelf above. On the wall opposite the coat rack and midway between the kitchen and dining room were three ornate wooden doors with hand-carved signs hanging over them, one of which read “stairs,” one of which read “elevator,” and one of which read “restroom.” To the right of the restroom door was a dark, square, waist-high opening in the wall labeled “sack chute.”

               “Sit down in a seat,” said Seth, closing the front door behind Perry, trapping the winter storm outside. He walked to the dining room table. “One such as this, if you want to.” He pulled one of the six chairs out from the table and motioned for Perry to take it. Before he sat down, Perry noticed that the name “Seth” was painted on the seat of the chair.

               “We’ll warm you some soup along with warming our own,” said Seth. “We’ll fetch our sacks from your car once we’re nourished.” He crossed to the kitchen and opened an industrial-sized fridge, withdrawing a giant pot. His boots left wet prints on the tile. Eric came into the kitchen to help, opening a deep cupboard and extracting a stack of five white bowls and one gray bowl. With his hunting cap removed, Perry saw that Eric’s long black-and-silver hair was thinning on top. Nate went to the fire and knelt to help Ryan remove Jonathan’s winter attire, then sat with Jonathan while Ryan took his turn at the clothing pegs. Eric set out the bowls on the kitchen counter and ladled healthy portions of dark-colored soup into each one while Seth joined Ryan in shedding his outer layers. Once all of the co-brothers had partially disrobed, Perry saw that they wore matching sets of blue thermal underwear that covered them from neck to ankle and thick black socks. Seth and Ryan returned to the kitchen; Seth helped Eric with the soup, running the bowls through the microwave two at a time, while Ryan went into the door marked “restroom” and emerged with a small brown bottle, a cotton ball, and a bandage, which he took to Jonathan. Nate helped Ryan dab Jonathan’s wound with the cotton ball soaked in the liquid from the bottle and apply the bandage to Jonathan’s head. Then they gently raised Jonathan into a sitting position and he opened his eyes and asked, “How am I?”

               “Improving,” said Nate. He stood and took Jonathan by both hands, hoisting him to his feet and offering his arm for support. Jonathan accepted. Ryan gathered the medical supplies and returned them to the restroom while Nate helped Jonathan to the table, lowering him into the chair next to Perry, who did not see which name was printed on the seat.

               “I thought I was driving well,” said Jonathan, giving Perry a weak smile. “And maybe I was…until I wasn’t. Is that a saying?”

               “Is what a saying?” asked Perry.

               “‘I thought I was driving well and maybe I was until I wasn’t,’” said Jonathan.

               “Not that I’ve heard,” said Perry.

               “You’re the superior driver to all of us,” said Jonathan. “Tonight, you demonstrated that.”

               “Well, it’s something I take pride in,” said Perry. “Driving when the roads are bad.” He saw no point in false modesty.

               As they spoke, Eric put the bowls of re-heated soup on a tray and the other co-brothers sat down at the table. They watched as Eric opened a drawer and extracted six spoons, slipping one into each bowl. Then he carried the tray of soup to the table and distributed a bowl to each man. Perry had expected to receive the one gray bowl, but Nate got it instead. Perry wondered what it signified, if anything.

               Eric took the one remaining seat, smiled, and said, “I say – and I hope you all concur – that we should delve in.”

               The co-brothers nodded their agreement, then began to eat their soup. Perry joined them. The soup was good, spicier than he’d expected. It made his nose run. He took a napkin from a stack in the middle of the table and used it to dab at his nostrils every four or five bites. When his soup was almost gone, he paused to ask, “Is your mom home? You mentioned her earlier.”

               “We don’t know our moms anymore,” said Seth. He took one last bite of soup, then pushed his empty bowl away and leaned back in his chair. “We were referring to a woman we call Mom. As if that were her Christian name. But she is not the mother of any of us.”

               “Oh,” said Perry. He felt somewhat short of breath. He felt a flicker in his heart. He felt a ripple in his brain. “But she lives here?”

               “Yes,” said Nate, the second co-brother to finish his soup. “She’s sleeping now. She goes to bed at the most sensible possible time. As do we on many days, but an exception is made on Errands Day since we often arrive home late.”

                “Mom prefers not to wait awake for us on Errands Day,” said Eric, a drip of unswallowed soup trickling from the corner of his mouth. “So she isn’t aware of how late we remain up.”

               The other men snickered, but without nastiness. They were all pleased with their small-scale rebellion.

               “Do you…” said Perry. He didn’t know how to finish his question. He didn’t know what he was asking.

               “We like it well enough,” said Ryan. He had made the least progress on his soup. Even Jonathan, wavering in his seat, had eaten more. “Chores can be tiresome, but also, the garbage can’t just stay indoors, the lawn can’t just grow forever, the mailbox will not withstand an infinite quantity of mail.”

               “I…” said Perry. He didn’t know where he was going with it. He didn’t know what he wanted.

               “We appreciate your admiration,” said Ryan. “And yes, it’s nice to know our chores, how to accomplish them efficiently, what purpose they serve. It’s nice to awake in the bunk room and hear the snores of four of your co-brothers. If they’re all sleeping peacefully, why shouldn’t you do the same? And you drift off knowing your snores will comfort them if they awaken abruptly before morning as you did.”

               “What about…” began Perry. He made no effort to conclude. Ryan would know what he meant.

               “Leisure is a chore, too,” said Ryan. “And I’m sure you don’t use the word ‘chore’ as we do here. Our leisure is structured and satisfying. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily educational, or even wholesome. It is often impractical, occasionally even transgressive.”

“What about you?” asked Seth.

               “What about me?” asked Perry.

               “What is your life like?” asked Seth.

               Perry said nothing, but the co-brothers appeared to grasp what he felt.

               “Our life isn’t perfect,” said Nate. “There are drawbacks. We don’t know when, or if, Mom will begin sanctioning marriages.”

               “I’m single,” said Perry.

               The conversation faltered.

               Jonathan lifted his bowl to his lips and drank the final two swallows of his soup. Then he asked, “Do you know family? Do you work for wages?”

               “Yes,” said Perry. “Yes to both. But it’s…they’re…”

               “It’s better to be content,” said Jonathan. A tiny red dot had appeared in the center of the bandage on his head, the first sign of soak-through.

               Outside, the wind howled around the tower, furious at the existence of such an impervious refuge. Perry dreaded returning to his car alone, returning to his house alone. He no longer wanted to prove his abilities to himself. He’d rescued the co-brothers from what amounted to five separate accidents, he’d proven enough. Now, he wanted to stay with them as long as he could. He wanted to learn or absorb or otherwise acquire even a sliver of what they had. He didn’t know what it was, exactly, but he could feel its absence in himself, and he now recognized that absence as the source of much of what he loathed about how he’d turned out, what he had grown up to be, where the events of his life had deposited him. Where the events of his life had deposited him prior to tonight, that is, because it now seemed that there could be a way out, a trapdoor, something in the way these co-brothers – a term that made more and more sense to Perry – but, yeah, there was something in the way they spoke, walked, handled objects, blinked their eyes, ate their soup, wore their socks, there was something in the way they did everything – and there was something in this place, too, this tower – that hinted at escape.

               “We should retrieve our sacks from Perry’s car,” said Seth. He stood and stretched. As he did, the door marked “stairs” banged open and an old woman in an extremely thick beige bathrobe stepped into the kitchen. The co-brothers froze in the midst of scooting their chairs back from the table, exchanging rapid looks of concern.

               “Mom,” said Seth, turning to face the woman. “Did we ourselves waken you?”

               “Not at all,” said Mom. “I was wakened by force I cannot name.”

               “Why did you not use the elevator, Mom?” asked Nate. “It’s better for your knees. Much better, we think.”

               “I did not want to broadcast my descent to the whole of the home,” said Mom. “In case certain wrong behaviors would be quickly rectified prior to my appearance. For example, why are none of you in your assigned chairs? Why has Nate eaten from the guest bowl?” She turned to face Perry. Her straight hair was dyed faintly red, but showed gray at the roots. She looked to be near the same age as Perry’s mother, but she had a rounder nose than Perry’s mother, thinner lips than Perry’s mother, fuller cheeks than Perry’s mother, smaller ears than Perry’s mother, and wider-set eyes than Perry’s mother. She didn’t look much like Perry’s mother. “It’s you,” she said, and her look showed that she knew exactly who Perry had been, and who he probably was now. This was she: the woman who had attempted to abduct Perry when he was eight years old, the woman who had used her extensive knowledge of his favorite cartoon to lure him, to convince him that she was his mother.

               Perry stood straight. Would she appreciate good posture? “For years,” he said in a voice of discovery, “I’ve returned to the Quaintbridge Mall. Hoping, I now realize, that you might come back for me.”

               “And why would I?” asked Mom. “You made your choice.”

               “My mother frightened me!” said Perry. “I know that now. She frightened me into accepting a life so much more frightening than this one. I want this. You don’t know how it appeals to me.”

               “You say so now,” said Mom. “Now that you’ve lived the alternative. But these boys were bolder.”

               “Their mothers didn’t come for them?” asked Perry. “Their mothers didn’t put up a fight?”

               “No, no,” said Mom. “You don’t get to find out anything else. Even this glimpse is more than you deserve.” She turned back to the co-brothers. “Have the sacks been deposited in the chute?”

               “It is unfortunate that I have to deliver the news of ‘no,’” said Eric.

               “What happened to your head, Jonathan?”

               “I crashed,” said Jonathan. “As did we all. Excepting this Perry man. He picked us up one after the other and brought us here. Had he not, I would have died, and the others may have as well, freezing solid in their stuck cars, leaving you alone in this tower at an age too advanced to start over with boys other than us, I’d think.”

               Mom turned back to Perry, the harshness of her expression diminishing by degrees as she pondered Jonathan’s account. “Thank you,” she finally said.

               Perry was overcome with relief. He found he could not stand Mom’s displeasure with him. “I only wanted to help,” he said. “To contribute. And I can contribute more, I’m sure of it.”

               Mom’s eyes hardened again. “Whoa, whoa,” she said. “Contribute more?”

               “If I were allowed to stay,” said Perry. “I’d be leaving almost nothing behind.”

               “That’s supposed to convince me?” asked Mom. “That’s supposed to impress me?”

               “I’m not trying to impress you,” said Perry. “I need what you’re offering here. I need chores and structure and camaraderie…”

               “Stop,” said Mom. “Don’t valorize what I’ve done here. I took these boys from their families and made them my own. If it’s turned out well for us, well, who can say why?”

               “I can’t explain it either,” said Perry. “I just know that this feels like what I’ve wanted for…for…since you took me. Almost took me.”

               “Boys,” said Mom with a snap in her voice. “Go get your sacks from the car. All of you.”

               “Even I?” asked Jonathan.

               “All of you,” repeated Mom.

               “Do we need to bundle all the way?” asked Nate.

               “Just boots,” said Mom. “As long as you hurry.”

               The co-brothers trooped over to the pairs of boots lined up beneath their hanging coats, stepped into them, and hurried out the front door, their loose laces flopping. The last man out closed the door behind him.

               Mom gave her attention back to Perry. She now looked stern, but also thoughtful, also perceptive. “It’s too late for you,” she said. “You can’t be undone.”

               “But I can be,” said Perry, growing desperate. “I’m very shallow, very thin. There’s so little holding me together.”

               “Every word you say confirms that all is as it should be,” said Mom.

               “I feel the opposite,” said Perry. “The exact opposite.”

               “Where did you learn to drive on icy roads?” asked Mom.

               “I don’t know,” said Perry, miserable. “My mom, I guess.”

               “And how old were you when you learned?”

               “I guess as soon as I could drive,” said Perry. “Or, that’s when it started. Why are you asking me this?”

               “My boys have many chores that they do for me,” said Mom. “They’ve had many chores in the past, they have many chores now, and they’ll have many more chores in the future.”

               “That’s what I need,” said Perry.

               “No,” said Mom. “You’re not one of my boys. But you did, it turns out, have one chore to do for me after all. Your chore was to save my boys, to bring them home. And you did it well, Perry. If you had been one of my boys, you never would have learned to drive on icy roads as well as you do, and tonight you would have died in a ditch along with all the rest of them. So, no, you do not get to take part in the life we have here. But you’ve made it possible for that life to continue for us. Do with that what you will.”

               “But what do I do now, then?” asked Perry.

               “That isn’t my concern,” said Mom. “My concerns end with my boys.”

               As if on cue, the co-brothers burst back into the house, red-faced and shivering. Each man had a sack in his hand except for Jonathan, who looked ashamed.

               “Four sacks?” asked Mom. “Only four sacks? Where is the fifth? Jonathan, where is your sack?”

               “It’s the fault of all of us,” said Seth. “When we pulled him from his car, we forgot to pull his sack out also. It must still be in the car, which we pushed into a ditch. The good news is that we saw the fire go out and we do not believe it will have exploded. So the sack must still be in the car, virtually unharmed.”

               Mom looked stricken. “But boys,” she said. “The sacks must go down the chute prior to dawn’s arrival! You’ve known that for decades!”

               Nate stepped forward. “I will hike to Jonathan’s upturned car and retrieve the sack.”

               “You’ll die!” shouted Mom. “And then we’ll have neither you nor the sack! How will that set of circumstances help us?”

               “Then I’ll hike to Jonathan’s upturned car,” said Eric, stepping up next to Nate.

               Mom slapped her forehead. “You’re less hearty than Nate, Eric. None of you is capable of completing this chore in the manner suggested.”

               Perry cleared his throat. He tried not to sound pleased with himself. “I could do it,” he said. “I could drive there and back inside of half an hour.”

               Mom stared at him, her expression cycling between subtle shades of illegibility. “Go,” she finally said.

               “On one condition,” said Perry.

               “I’ll accept you on a trial basis,” said Mom. “But I won’t paint your name on anything until you’ve shown you’re not a single-trick pony. Nobody here performs only one kind of chore.”

               The co-brothers cheered. This time, Perry joined them.


               While the temperature had continued to drop and the wind had picked up, the roads actually seemed to have improved. The snow had stopped falling entirely and the wind had actually cleared much of it from the blacktop. There was still ice, but it was easier to see gleaming in the headlights, and less snow also meant a more consistent driving surface, which was good even when that consistent surface was bad. What really sent you into the ditch were the unpredictable combinations of surfaces coming at you in close succession.

               Perry arrived at Jonathan’s car – his upturned car, as the co-brothers called it – in even less time than he’d hoped. How soon would he be considered a co-brother? Would he have to wait until Mom deemed it official? Would there be some kind of ceremony? Or would Seth, Nate, Eric, Ryan, and Jonathan make it happen sooner? Would their acceptance, which they seemed eager to extend, expedite the process?

               Leaving his car parked in the middle of the road, Perry hopped out and scurried to Jonathan’s car. He didn’t even fall, this time. He maintained his balance even as he navigated the ditch. The sack was not difficult to find. It rested on the ceiling of the car beneath the upside down passenger’s seat. Perry didn’t even have to work the door open to retrieve the sack. He just reached right inside through the shattered windshield, grabbed the bag, and practically skipped back to the car. He wasn’t even tempted to look in the sack. Either he’d find out later what was inside or he wouldn’t. All he had to worry about was accomplishing his chores, whatever they were, and Mom would take care of the rest.

               Executing a cautious four-point turn, Perry pointed the nose of his car back in the direction of the blinking red light, the tower where Mom and the co-brothers waited, his new home. He touched his foot to the accelerator, gave it a little gas, and was in the ditch before he could cry out, blink, think. Stunned, he shifted into reverse, tried to back onto the roadway, but it was impossible, his rear wheels were in the air, his front wheels were buried to the fenders in a snow drift. Perry screamed, he blasted the horn, he tore his scarf from around his neck and ripped it into fragments.

               He didn’t know Mom’s phone number, if she even had one. He couldn’t reach the co-brothers. And even if he could, what would they do? Nothing. Mom wouldn’t let them try. There were no emergency crews running tonight. His sisters couldn’t help even if they wanted to, and he wouldn’t ask them to take a risk like this. He had no friends skilled enough to be capable or who cared enough to be willing. There was only one option.

               Perry pulled out his phone, scrolled through his contacts, selected one.

               She picked up after two rings. “What is it, Perry?”

               “I’m stuck in a ditch,” said Perry. “And I’m a long way from home. I need you to come get me, Mom.”

Not ‘Mom,’ not a mom, his mom.

               “Let me get dressed,” said Celeste. “I’ll call you back in a minute for directions.”

               “I’ll be here,” said Perry. He hung up and sat in his car listening to the wind, still howling, but with laughter now. He still had a decent amount of gas. Not enough to get through the night, but probably enough to last until Celeste arrived. Or almost enough. He turned the heat all the way up, wishing he hadn’t destroyed his scarf.

               He had almost made it out. He had almost snatched a second chance. But now here he was, suspended in between, waiting for his old life to come reclaim him, carry him home, and tuck him in. He took Jonathan’s sack and held it in his lap. He untwisted the wire and tossed it on the floor. He opened the mouth of the sack and peered inside at the actual substance of these errands, these chores.

               And saw junk. Wadded up newspapers, chunks of rubber, oily rags. Nothing of interest. Nothing of value.

Discussion Questions

  • As it took longer and longer for this Bedtime Story to come out, on what date did you just assume I was dead?

  • How do you stay out of the ditch?

  • If you could trade your current lifestyle for that of a kidnapped tower-dwelling co-brother, how quickly and enthusiastically would you do so?

  • Did you know that Indiana has a town called “Peru” except they pronounce it “Pe-ru?” Did you know that Indiana has a town called “Mexico?” Did you know that Indiana has a town called “Honduras?” Did you know that Indiana has an unincorporated community called “Chili” but it’s spelled with an “I” at the end like the food, but they still see it as a tribute of some kind to the country?

  • Rank the following in order from best to worst: chores, errands, work.