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A Pile at Ease

                 The house did not have a security system. Fenton did not know that when he broke in; it just turned out to be the case. He had not thought to worry about the presence of a security system, but when he broke one pane of glass on the back door by striking it with a rock, reached through this new hole, unlocked the door, opened it, and stepped into the house, he was surprised by the silence that greeted him. That was the moment when he first realized that there could have been an alarm. But there wasn’t an alarm and he was inside someone else’s house, although whose, exactly, he didn’t know. That was the point.

The room that Fenton found himself in was small and neglected. In it were empty boxes, a broken bicycle, a broken bicycle pump, something so broken that Fenton could not tell what it was, and a saggy loveseat. Fenton closed the back door and locked it again. He knelt and picked up all of the pieces of glass that he could find using his phone’s touchscreen as a makeshift flashlight. He put the pieces of broken glass in one of the empty boxes. Then he strode forward and opened the door opposite the back door. This door led into a dark pantry, the shelves of which were mostly not stocked, but to the extent that they were stocked, they were stocked with some cans and some cereal. Fenton exited the pantry and entered the kitchen. He closed the pantry door, which was similar to an average closet door in many ways, behind him.

Standing here in this other person’s kitchen, in this kitchen of a person he did not know and about whom he knew nothing, Fenton began to feel at ease for the first time since he could remember. It had taken him so long to figure out what it took to make him feel at ease. It had taken him his whole life to this point. All 25 years of it. Really, he hadn’t known for sure what it would take to make him feel at ease until this precise moment when his theory had been confirmed. He had been experimenting with intention for just over a year. He had started from the assumption that in order for him to feel at ease, solitude would have to be a component. He knew he would never be able to feel at ease in the presence of other people. Being near even one other person significantly heightened his base level of discomfort. Being near a lot of people was misery. It wasn’t as bad if the people were all focused on their own tasks, such as shopping for groceries or pumping gas into their cars, but Fenton avoided social events at all costs. The dread of attending his own high school graduation party had been such that Fenton faked his own kidnapping in order to prevent it from happening. The idea of parties in general was enough to make Fenton squirm in discomfort, but the idea of a party focused on him was utterly unbearable. His parents had known the kidnapping was a lie, so they just had the party anyway but told the guests that he was sick. Then they kept one third of the money Fenton had received as graduation gifts in order to punish him, which Fenton considered a fair trade-off. His parents funded his entire junior-college education anyway. Fenton wished that solitude was all he required to feel at ease. Solitude was easy to achieve. If solitude was all Fenton needed to feel at ease, then he would be perfectly capable of spending most of his life feeling at ease.

But solitude on its own was not enough to make Fenton feel at ease; he knew that too. How many times, for example, had he been left alone in his family’s home when he still lived with his parents? Many times. And had he ever felt at ease while left alone in his family’s home? No. Once he went to college and lived in apartments with roommates, did he ever feel at ease when his roommates were gone and he had whole apartments to himself? No. Did he ever feel at ease now that he had his own apartment and spent large portions of his life entirely alone in it? No. What about solitude combined with a natural setting, such as solitary walks in the woods? Did those make him feel at ease? No. What about spending the night in a cave by himself? Had that helped him to feel at ease? No.

The experimenting had gone on like this for weeks and weeks and months. Alone in a distant relative’s house, alone in a friend’s house, alone in a neighbor’s barn, alone in a friend’s hobby store after it closed for the night: none of these attempts helped Fenton to feel at ease. Why not? Was he sure that solitude was a component of whatever it was that he needed in order to feel at ease? He was sure. He pondered many scenarios. He thought about all the things he had tried in terms of how they were similar and how they were different. Fenton confided in a close friend named Amy, and she pitched ideas to him too. The process was long and arduous. But it had paid off. He had feared that it never would, but now it had, it was paying off.

It wasn’t the breaking and entering that made Fenton feel at ease. Breaking in was the part he would have preferred to do without. But how else to gain access to a lived-in home without having any prior contact with its resident or residents? Fenton didn’t want to know their names, didn’t want to know what they looked like. He didn’t even want to know the address of the house he was in. He had worn a blindfold while riding in Amy’s car on the way to the house. Amy was the one who had found the house. She knew things about the resident or residents, but she had upheld her end of the deal and not revealed any of what she knew to Fenton beyond assuring him that he would have the house all to himself until 9 p.m. Fenton didn’t know how Amy knew what she knew and he didn’t want to know.

                As near as Fenton could figure it, what he needed in order to feel at ease was to be inside of a house that was designed and built for human beings to inhabit, and that was in fact inhabited by human beings, but what he did not want, aside from any of the house’s inhabitants being there at the same time as him, was to have any associations between the house, the things inside the house, and the people who lived there. For example: he did not want to see a chair at the kitchen table and be able to imagine anyone who lived in the house sitting on it, leaning forward with her elbows on the table, tapping the soles of her bare feet on the tile floor to the rhythm of some marching band tune stuck in her head. He did not want to see a clock on the wall and be able to imagine anyone who lived in the house glancing up at it, checking his watch to make sure the times displayed were as they should be, nodding in approval when he saw that the time displayed on his watch was still two minutes faster than the one displayed on the wall clock, which was as it should be. When he knew who lived in a house, these associations came to Fenton unbidden and continuously, and they made him feel ill at ease. That’s why being alone in his house didn’t work. Everything he saw, he associated with himself. And that’s why being in the houses of his friends and family didn’t work: he associated their houses and the things in their houses with them. And even the houses of strangers didn’t work if he met the strangers first because he associated their houses and everything in their houses with the loose, brief impressions he’d had of them. It didn’t help that he was very perceptive. Even just walking past someone in the street could forever form an association for Fenton between that stranger glimpsed one time and a certain telephone pole or mailbox. But here, alone in this house of a stranger or strangers, the kitchen chair was just a kitchen chair, unburdened by any associations. The clock on the wall over the doorway to the living room was similarly unburdened. And so was everything else.

                Fenton walked into the living room. He breathed freely and enjoyed the relaxed pace of his pulse. There was a single lamp on in the living room. It sat on an end table, was small, and its light was dim. Fenton looked at it and appreciated the fact that he did not feel obligated to imagine one of the residents of the house turning on the lamp. The lamp was unencumbered by associations with people. Fenton looked at it as a switched-on lamp, not as a lamp that anyone in particular had chosen to switch on.

                There were framed pictures of people on the mantle over the fireplace and hanging on the wall. They did nothing to interfere with Fenton’s at-easeness. The pictures were abstractions. Fenton did not associate the pictures with specific people, not even the people pictured in them. The pictures were like the furniture and the appliances and the knick-knacks. There was no risk of the people in those pictures stretching past the borders of their frames to sit on the couch in front of the TV or stand on a ladder to dust the tops of the ceiling-fan blades. A picture could not manufacture a human association with its environment on its own. Fenton’s eyes held the pictures for a few meaning-free moments and released them. He ambled around the living room, his pant legs brushing against the furniture, savoring everything. He wondered if he would be able to return to this house in the future to achieve a similar effect or if it would be spoiled by associations with himself visiting this time. Would he look at that chair and associate it with himself looking at it now? It was an interesting question to which he did not know the answer. He decided to go upstairs. He felt at ease in a hallway, in a bedroom, in another bedroom, in a bathroom, and in a third bedroom that was being used as a workout room.

But even as Fenton felt at ease for the first time in his life, as far as he could remember, some discontent began to creep in. He couldn’t help but feel this would be a better experience if he were not a person. The very aspects of the environment that made him feel at ease had also begun to make him feel like an interloper, an intruder. He wished he could be an identity-less spirit floating through the house. Or, even better, another piece of the furniture. These feelings confused him. Was being at ease really what he was after? Was the feeling of ease that he had been experiencing up until these thoughts had occurred to him real or was it an artificial feeling of ease created by a mistaken impression that he had found an environment in which he could feel at ease? But if that were the case, why had he never achieved a feeling of ease by mistake before tonight? Fenton no longer felt at ease. But was that caused by the breakdown of the facade of the empty and unfamiliar house as a location in which he could feel at ease? Or was that because his own brain was sabotaging an actual solution to all of his problems? Disturbed, Fenton left the bedroom-turned-workout-room and stood in the upstairs hallway. Just how well thought-out were his difficulties with feeling at ease? Were they consistent at all? What if they didn’t conform to the internal logic he had always assumed they did? What if he would always be able to find new ways to feel ill at ease no matter his situation or environment for the rest of his life? Fenton looked at his watch. It was 8:38. He didn’t have to be out of the house for another 22 minutes, but he was ready to go. He was rattled. He needed to rethink some things, maybe everything.

When he reached the bottom of the stairs, he stopped. Had he heard voices? He wasn’t sure. And then he heard something of which he was sure: the sound of a key in the lock of the front door. He panicked. It couldn’t be Amy. She didn’t have a key to this house. Whoever was coming through the door would not be pleased to see Fenton in the house. They would shout, demand to know who he was, call the police. If he ran, they might chase him, try to tackle him. If they carried guns, they would be within their rights to shoot him. He had two seconds to act, if that. He wouldn’t be able to make it to the kitchen doorway in time. He would be seen. He didn’t want to go back upstairs, it would be too easy to get trapped there. At the foot of the stairs, right next to Fenton, was a closet, and that’s where he chose to hide. He opened the closet door, stepped inside, and closed it behind him just as the front door swung open and person after person entered the house, chatting and laughing. Fenton saw the crack under the closet door brighten as the ceiling lights in the living room were switched on.

He felt very, very ill at ease.


“All right,” said a man with a loud voice. “All right, everyone listen up! John is going to be here with Angie at a little after 9, so you all should be figuring out where you’re going to hide now. He’s going to text me when they’re a couple minutes away so that’ll give you time to get out of sight, but there are, like, 20 of us, so it might be hard to find a place if we’re all looking for one in a big panic at the last second.”

“Does Angie know we’re going to be here?” asked a different voice.

“No,” said the first voice. “That’s what makes this a surprise party. That’s why we’re hiding.”

The group chuckled.

“Wow, sorry,” said the second voice. “I didn’t know. I’ve never been to a surprise party before. I’m not stupid.”

“No one said you were stupid,” said a third voice. “We just thought it was obvious.”

“Well, it’s not obvious.”

“You really don’t know what a surprise party is?” someone else chimed in. “You’ve never seen one on TV or anything?”


“You’re lying, Thomas. We all know you’re lying.”

“Look, it doesn’t matter,” said the first voice, trying to regain some control. “We’re all on the same page now, so let’s go. Find a place to hide. You don’t have to hide there yet, but you should be ready to hide there when I get the word. And make sure you’ve got your own place. I don’t want two people to go for the same place, and then have someone just standing out in the open when Angie comes through the door so the whole surprise is ruined.”

“But does she know there’s a party?” asked Thomas. “I mean, not a surprise party, but just a regular party?”

A few people chuckled but more people groaned.

“What?” shouted Thomas. “Why is that such a dumb question?”

People began to move around. The general talking and laughing returned. Fenton heard something thump against the floor and someone shout, “Careful!” He felt three distinct droplets of sweat running down his back. When he had first ducked into the closet, he had assumed that only a few people were coming into the house and that they would, at some point, either go upstairs or go into the kitchen so he could slip out of the closet and leave the house unheard and unseen. But instead, the house was filled with people, more people were on the way, they all intended to stay for at least a few hours, the living room would have the highest concentration of people throughout the duration of the party, and the odds of someone deciding the closet would be a good place to hide were extremely high. He would probably be discovered at any second. He was sure of it. What could he do? Hope no one decided to hide in the closet. And if someone did decide to hide in the closet, then he would, well, he would-

                The closet door opened. There stood a young man with messy hair, a thin beard, and glasses. He looked mildly surprised. “Oh,” he said. “You’re already in here.”

                “Uh, yeah,” said Fenton.

                “Sorry,” said the young man. “I didn’t see you go in. I thought it was empty.”

                “No,” said Fenton.

                “You must have gone in right away,” said the young man. “You really wanted to reserve your spot, huh?”

                “Yes,” said Fenton. “That’s right.”

                The young man half-turned and looked around the living room. Beyond him, Fenton saw other people milling around, ducking behind furniture, pretending to hide behind a very narrow floor lamp in a cheap bid for laughs. The young man turned back to Fenton. “Is there room for one more in there? It looks like there is. If we just move that snow shovel to the middle, I can stand in the opposite corner. It might be a little tight, but it won’t be for too long. You don’t care, do you?”

                “Uh, well,” said Fenton.

                “Listen up!” Fenton couldn’t see the speaker but he recognized the organizer’s voice. “I just got the text, John and Angie are a little early. He tried to stall her but he said she’s acting suspicious. Everyone, get into your hiding places now. When the lights come on, that’s your cue to jump out and yell ‘surprise!’ Let’s go!”

                There was a flurry of activity as the surprisers scrambled for their hiding spots.

                “If you don’t have a place to hide, just go to the kitchen! Just get out of sight! Hurry, I have to shut off the lights so Angie doesn’t see that they’re turned on when they pull up!”

                “I’m out of options,” said the young man to Fenton. “I gotta hide here with you. It’ll just be a couple minutes.” He moved the snow shovel out of the opposite corner, pushed his way into the closet, and closed the door behind him. A few seconds later, the light coming into the closet under the door darkened. Fenton heard snickering, whispering, and shushing on the other side of the door. “So how do you know Angie?” whispered the young man. “Work?”

                “Yeah,” whispered Fenton. “Work.”

                “That’s what I figured,” said the young man. “I know most of her friends from school, so I figured you must be either a work friend or, like, a cousin or something.”

                “I’m a work friend,” said Fenton. His mind, desperate for any sliver of hope that his rising unease might soon begin to recede, latched onto this tiny life preserver accidentally delivered to him by his young closet-mate. If the party was comprised of several different groups of friends, then maybe everyone would just assume he belonged to a group they didn’t know. As long as he avoided Angie herself, he would be able to pass more or less unnoticed through the crowd and make his escape. He would have to look normal though. People would be suspicious if he didn’t look normal. If he looked too ill at ease, he would draw their attention and they would ask questions. He could not look as ill at ease as he was already feeling, and he knew that ill-at-ease feeling would only increase once he was out of the closet and actually in the heart of the party, the last place he would ever want to be. But actually, maybe he didn’t need to be able to fake feeling at ease after all. What if, when everyone jumped out and shouted “surprise,” he just headed straight for the kitchen and out the back door? Would anyone really question that? Would anyone stop him in the excitement of that moment? Everyone would be looking at Angie and laughing and cheering. Would anyone really have the gall to stop a stranger and ask him where he was going in such a hurry? Angie might wonder who he was, but he would have his back to her and there would be no reason for her to suspect that a true stranger was in her home. She would probably just assume someone had brought him along as a plus-one. Yes, that was the new plan. It was good. It would work. Or, wait, why couldn’t he just go now? Everyone was hiding in the dark. Those who saw him would assume he didn’t like it in the closet and was going to the kitchen so he would be out of sight in there. The people in the kitchen might think it was strange when they saw him go into the pantry, but by then he would already be well on his way to being out the back door and gone! Yes, OK, that was the new plan, he would-

                He heard a key in the lock of the front door, a man’s voice and a woman’s voice. He heard the front door open. “Don’t turn the light on, John.” The voice belonged to a woman. Angie, Fenton assumed. “John, I’m serious, do not touch that light switch. Get away from it.”

                In the dark closet in the dark house, Fenton looked in the direction of the young man for some clue as to what was happening, but the darkness obscured whatever clue may have been there to see.

                “I know you’re here,” said Angie. “All of you. Do not jump out and yell ‘surprise’ at me. Do not, do you understand? I’m going to turn the light on, but understand that the surprise is already ruined, so I will be very, very angry with you if you insist on jumping out and yelling ‘surprise.’ OK? So here’s what’s going to happen: I’m going to turn on the lights, but none of you are going to jump out and yell ‘surprise.’ You are going to come out of your hiding places quietly and everyone is going to gather together here and we are going to figure out who thought it would be a good idea to leave me an anonymous note spoiling this surprise party.”

                Fenton heard murmuring on the other side of the door.

“Are you serious?” asked a man’s voice.

                “Yes, John, I’m serious.”

                Through the crack under the door, Fenton saw the lights come on.

                “Surprise!” shouted one person.

                “Are you kidding me, Thomas?” asked Angie. “What did I just say?”

                “I’ve never been to a surprise party before,” said Thomas. “Cut me some slack. I was just doing what Lonnie told us to do.”

                “But the exact opposite of what I just told you to do,” said Angie. “Is this everyone? Did everyone come out of their hiding spots? Is this everyone who was in the kitchen too?”

                “I think so,” said a woman.

                Fenton did not reach to open the closet door, but neither did the young man who was inside the closet with him, which surprised Fenton. But Fenton wasn’t going to question the young man’s motives. Fenton preferred to stay hidden in the closet too. This was not an opportune time to make an escape.

                “Where’s Colin?” someone asked.

                “I don’t know,” said someone else.

                Fenton heard the young man across from him in the closet inhale very slowly.

                “Did anyone see where he hid?”

                “Did he leave? Maybe he left.”

                “You know,” said Angie. “I first heard about surprise parties when I was six years old. And ever since then, I’ve wanted one. Just one. A second one could never be as good as the first, could never be as surprising. Because that’s the best part of a surprise party, right? The surprise.” She paused.

                Someone coughed. Other than that, it was so quiet that Fenton never would have guessed that there were more than 20 other people gathered just on the other side of the closet door. But they were there, and knowing they were there made Fenton feel so ill at ease that he wanted to pull his own skin off.

                “So imagine how I feel,” said Angie. “Here’s my surprise party. All planned. And I had no idea. My birthday isn’t for another two months! But today after work, I find a note on my car. A hand-written note. And it says, ‘Surprise party for you tonight.’ And that’s it. But that’s enough. That’s all it took to kill my lifelong wish.”

                “It wasn’t me,” said someone. “Angie, I would never do that.”

                “Well, we’ll see,” said Angie.

                “What do you mean?” asked John. “What are you talking about, Angie?”

                “Everyone stay here,” said Angie. “Don’t move. John, don’t let anyone leave. No one.”

                Fenton heard someone walk right past the closet door and up the stairs to the second floor. The young man, who Fenton had gathered was probably Colin, allowed himself to exhale.

                “What’s she doing?” asked someone in the living room in a low voice.

                “I don’t know,” said John. “She didn’t tell me about the note either. I thought she was acting strange, that’s why I hurried her over here.”

                “Did anyone here really leave her that note?” asked the organizer. “Seriously, if you did, just speak up so we don’t have to prolong this.”

                “I’m leaving,” said a woman. “This is all making me really uncomfortable. I didn’t leave the note anyway.”

                “No,” said John. “Stay where you are.”

                “You can’t keep me here against my will, John.”

                Fenton heard footsteps overhead, then coming back down the stairs. “I have paper,” said Angie. “And a blue pen. The note was written in blue pen. You’re all going to take turns writing ‘surprise party for you tonight’ on these pieces of paper. And you’re going to do it one at a time so I can watch you do it and I will know if you’re deliberately using your off hand, OK? So don’t try to pull that or I’ll know you’re guilty.”

                “And what if you find the person who did it?” asked someone. “Then what?”

                “Then I’ll know who to cut out of my life forever,” said Angie. “And so will all the other people who consider themselves my true friends.”

                “What if I just leave?” asked the woman who had already declared that she was leaving. “What if I don’t want to play this game?”

                “Then I’ll cut you out of my life forever too,” said Angie. “For not being willing to write five words to confirm the authenticity of our friendship.”

                “Is this common for surprise parties?” asked Thomas.

                No one answered his question.

                “Do we really have to go through all this?” asked someone. “It was probably Colin. I know he was here. I parked right behind him around the corner. We got here at the same time, practically. And now he’s gone. That can’t be a coincidence, right?”

                “Is his car still here?” asked someone else.

                “I can go check.”

                “Go check,” said Angie. “But if you don’t come back, I’ll assume you were both in on spoiling my surprise party for me together.”

                “I’m not gonna leave, Angie, jeez. I’ll be right back.” The front door opened, someone went outside, and the door closed.

                Fenton couldn’t see Colin’s face in the dark but he could hear how unsteady his breathing was getting. It was becoming increasingly plausible that Colin was as ill at ease as Fenton, maybe even more so. However, sensing Colin’s extreme discomfort further stimulated Fenton’s extreme discomfort propelling him to new levels of feeling ill at ease.  In the living room, the party guests – or whatever one would call them now – had recovered from their initial shock at Angie’s surprise undoing of their surprise and were beginning to talk among themselves again in tones of concern and outrage, speculating, accusing, and denying.

                The front door opened again. “Colin’s car is still there.”

                “What does that mean?”

                “Either he left on foot or he’s still hiding.”

                “So he might still be in the house? Listening to all of this and staying hidden?”

                “Did anyone see him leave? No? Did anyone see where he hid?”

                “Maybe he went upstairs?”

                “Colin! If you’re here and you’re hearing this, come out!”

                “Everyone help me look for him,” said Angie. “John, go stand by his car so if he’s already out of the house, he can’t drive away.”

                For Fenton, ease had never felt so unattainable. And yet, it was close. It was on the other side of a transparent membrane. He could see it, even, through the membrane. But he could not cross the membrane. It was designed specifically to keep him out. Colin was doing a good job of crying miserably in near total silence, desperate as he was to not give away his position, to cling to his concealment for however many more seconds he could. Fenton sensed Colin’s miserable tears more than he heard them.  Fenton felt so ill at ease that he wanted to melt, to dissolve, to explode, to disintegrate, to rapidly decompose, to implode, to burst into a cloud of dust, to be eaten from the inside, to be flattened, to be-

                He opened the closet door just enough to slip out, stepped into the living room, and closed the door behind him. The people in the living room ranged in age from their early 20s to their late 20s. Fenton thought he may have recognized a few of them from school, but none of the people appeared to recognize him at all. It was like a party but much worse. A party filled with open hostility and tension. And there wasn’t even music. Angie asked the question with her mouth that everyone else was asking with their eyes: “Who are you?”

                Fenton, never more ill at ease at any moment in his life prior to this one, felt cracks run through the core of himself, beginning deep in his foundation and racing outward and upward, branching and branching again. His body was dividing and subdividing along hundreds of fault lines he hadn’t known were there, shifting, splitting, buckling. Fenton crumbled from his feet up, collapsing into a pile of rubble on the living room floor, a knee-high heap of gravel-sized detritus. He still had not answered Angie’s – and, indeed, the room’s – question. But the question no longer applied. That was the beauty. When one has thrown one’s old recliner chair in a bonfire, does one then point at the pile of ash that remains hours later and say, “That is my recliner chair?” No.

                “I left that note on your car,” said the pile on the floor. “I spoiled your surprise party, Angie.”

                “Why?” asked Angie. “Why would you do that? I don’t even know you.”

                “Do you want to check my handwriting?” asked the pile on the floor. “Is that what you want? Because, I mean, I’d be happy to, but…” It didn’t need to mention its lack of hands. It was impossible for anyone in the room not to notice the pile’s lack of hands.

                “You really did it?” asked Angie. “You spoiled my party and then crashed it and then just, like, fell to pieces on my carpet?”

                The pile on the floor knew Angie would never accept the real explanation. “Yes,” said the pile. “That’s what I do. I’m sorry, but it’s the only thing that makes me feel…good. It’s the only thing that gives me peace.”

                “That’s so specific,” said Angie. “And it’s mean. And sick. Look at you. Look at what you are. You’re just a mess. Can someone get this thing out of here?”

                “I can,” said Colin. “I found this snow shovel in the closet.”

                “Oh, there you are,” said Angie. “Where were you?”

                “The bathroom,” said Colin. “Brushing my teeth.”

                Everyone chuckled affectionately.

                “And then while you all were talking to this pile on the floor here and not paying attention to me, I went into the closet to find a shovel.”

                Everyone sort of nodded at this unnecessary additional clarification of Colin’s recent actions which had already been more or less established.

                It took Colin a few trips to get the whole pile outside to the curb in front of the house. When he had deposited the last of the pile inside onto the pile outside, Colin said, “Do you want to know why I left her that note on her car?”

                “Sure,” said the pile, not really caring one way or the other, too at ease to care about anything.

                “Because she ruined my surprise party a few years ago,” said Colin. “She doesn’t know she did, but she did. She whispered to my ex-girlfriend about it right in front of me and I heard everything. She’s a terrible whisperer. Her whisper is really loud. But did I call her out? Did I ruin the fun for everyone else? No. I went to the party and I pretended to be surprised when everyone jumped out and yelled ‘surprise!’ I thanked them all for the fun surprise. I didn’t freak out and try to humiliate her in front of everyone.” He sighed and leaned on the shovel. “Anyway, you saved me in there. They would have turned on me. All of them. That’s basically my entire friend group in there and Angie’s pretty much the leader. Everyone takes their cues from her. If she told them to turn on me, they would have. They’d all choose her over me, I know that much. So, thank you. Will you be OK out here like this?”

                “Sure,” said the pile. “I’d be fine anywhere like this.”

                “All right,” said Colin. “Good night.” He went back inside.



When Fenton got back to Amy’s car, she was upset. “Where were you? I’ve been calling and calling you.”

                “Oh,” said Fenton. “Sorry, had my phone on silent. I got stuck in the house longer than I expected.”

                “I was just scared you got caught,” said Amy. “It’s well after 9 now.”

                “Sorry,” said Fenton.

                Amy started her car and pulled away from the curb, executing a U-turn that almost clipped the bumper of a truck parked on the opposite side of the street. “Well,” she said. “What about your theory? Did it work?”

                “No,” said Fenton. “My theory was way off.”

Discussion Questions

  • Do you prefer your furniture with or without associations? Why?

  • What’s an appropriate fate for someone who has willfully spoiled a surprise? What about for someone who has spoiled a surprise by careless accident?

  • If the pile couldn’t write as a pile because it didn’t have hands, how was it talking? And where did the pile’s clothes and phone go?

  • How at ease would you feel as a crumbled pile of yourself?

  • Should everyone in modern society be expected to have a rudimentary knowledge of surprise parties? Should those who do not be coddled by the rest of us?

  • To what extent have you experimented in an attempt to discover the combination of circumstances required to make you feel at ease? Have your experiments yielded any favorable results?