First there’s a Lunar Park craze in Dodge City and then this:

 

Shelflife, 3, still lived at home with his parents, a mom and dad.

 

They did things like sleep at night.

 

Slept straight through till the next thing.

 

In a house on a Dodge City Street. A prefab, if that’s the term. A McMansion, if it’s not.

 

TONIGHT they come.

 

Everyone’s tucked in. Prayers have been said in the directions of overhead light fixtures and screen windows. Lava lamps have been extinguished but stay hot, cooking dust.

 

Shelflife’s in one room and the parents are in one room, tucked in, eyes closed — whether sleeping or not is private, but they’re not looking wildly around, ready for anything, if that’s what you want to know.

 

They don’t see them enter.

 

See what or who or whom enter?

 

The Delegation. Sheathed professional entities, not like “faceless hooded creatures of the night that seem to float an inch off the cool creaky floorboards” or any such.

 

They take their shoes off downstairs, rummage through the pantry cabinets, eat a few handfuls of dry cereal apiece (there are, I’d guess, six or eight of them). Then it’s upstairs, to work. There’s a certain window in the night that they have to reach people during.

 

They’re standing in the part of the hall equidistant from the two relevant bedrooms, and, I don’t know the specifics of how, they wake up both Shelflife and his parents at one and the same moment.

 

Then they’re all standing there, yawning, like there’s been a stomach-cramps episode and daycare tomorrow has come into question.

 

One Delegate reads:

 

“The Nobel Prize is hereby awarded to INSERT NAME for his/her uncanny evocation of the nuanced grottular inner-twistings of the self-regurgitating capstone on the maleficence of the one or the other of several of the … ”

 

It’s reading off a Kindle and apparently the screen has just died. It looks around with an expression that may be of helplessness. There’s a giggling from its colleagues, a sound like The Awful Fanfare, if I’m remembering correctly.

 

“Never mind about that,” the bearer of the Dead Kindle says, after either thinking or doing nothing for a moment. “The Nobel Prize is yours, yay.”

 

 

Another Delegate hands him a Knut Hamsun book — Growth of the Soil — to show him what league he’s now in. Then, maybe thirty seconds later, it makes an impatient motion summoning it back, like it expects Shelflife to have read it by now.

 

His parents have looks of grief, awe, a kind of warped and fearful joy, either at the trauma of this intrusion or the windfall of Their Son, a Nobel Prize Winner at 3.

 

There’s silence, or, anyway, quiet. It’s not clear if the Delegation is about to leave or stay.

 

It’s hard to say how I know this, that is, to transmit what was intuitively clear at the time, so maybe a declarative statement will do: the Official Horror is that Shelflife is being prepared to be fed to some half-sentient mass of skin and teeth vegetating in a tub, one of those things which eats only Nobel Prize Winners, and likes ’em young …

 

BUT what we can all tell though no one will say it is that it would be nice if this were the case. It’d be way easier to swallow than the truth.

 

“Where is it?” gets asked eventually, to cut off any more thinking about the truth. The Official Horror is bad enough and it’d probably have a hard time getting up to a PG in the scheme of what’s actually afoot.

 

“Where is what?”

 

“The … ” You can tell that what wants to be said is The Nobel Prize. But, “The thing.”

 

“Oh,” the bestower of the Prize looks around. “Never mind about that,” it says. “The thing is internal.”

 

Shelflife looks like he understands. It’d be nice for him to have a badge or other decoration to wear, don’t you think? But he’ll face up to it in another way.

 

*****

THE PARENTS and Shelflife either wake up or emerge from their rooms having been awake for untold grueling hours. They come down to the breakfast table, sunny, and look at each other like what does a Nobel Prize Winner do at breakfasttime?

 

They turn on the radio and that Mountain Goats song with the line “and cloven hoofprints turn up in the garden” comes on, so they turn it off.

 

Gossip fans out through Dodge City like a deck of, I’ll just say for now, cards.

 

“At least it was finally awarded to an American,” is one line of thought.

 

“The first since Checkhov,” someone adds.

 

Anton Checkhov?” asks another, like maybe he knows him.

 

“The thing I don’t get, you know,” says one friendly farmer type shooting the shit with his buddy farmer type at a diner like a couple of example-cases from Methland, “is why those … things or what have you … didn’t have the speech memorized by now. I mean, if they’ve been going around doing this for years, like the papers say, don’t you think it’s fishy that they had to read it off that … that … computer thingy?”

 

*****

I could go on in this vein, but there’s the matter of The Slo-mo Hate Crime.

 

After breakfast, Shelflife’s mother opens the front door to get the mail and sees that the guys are back at work on the Hate Crime. They’d been at it for months, on the front lawn, but, lately, they’d taken a break. She used to refill their coffee thermoses and make them sandwiches on occasion, just to reduce the awkwardness of their presence, but that was a while ago.

 

They wave at her, and she can’t help but think that their return this morning has something to do with the Delegation from last night. Maybe they’re somehow involved with the truth, the unofficial horror behind or inside the Official.

 

She’s often wondered what sort of Hate they’re working on. Some days it looks like a regular old Swastika, other days a Blood Altar, a Gallows or Public Torture Rig, a Cranial Treehouse. It used to seem funny not to know, but not right now.

 

Right now a clock starts to tick, like disaster is drawing near. She runs inside to find Shelflife surrounded by the press, holding forth.

 

When she first got inside her idea was to get him out of the house, into the car and out of Dodge City before the Hate Crime was finished, all the way up to her parents’ place in Peoria, but now she’s not so sure. Maybe, as a Nobel Prize Winner, it’s his destiny to go out there and confront The Slo-mo Hate Crime, see it for what it really is in a way regular folks aren’t equipped to …

 

She’s there reconsidering when They stream through the front door, dispatch the press with a single fluent gesture. Then, covered in tissue and viscera, they turn and look obediently at her son, and she understands that she has about two seconds to leave this house and never return, and she does.

Advertisements