Subterranean Press

Skip to Main Content »

Shopping Cart (0 item)
My Cart

You have no items in your shopping cart.

You're currently on:

Fiction: What We Take When We Take What We Need by Daryl Gregory


He almost missed the welcome sign. The two-lane highway snaked up into the mountains through dense walls of green, the trees leaning into the road. After so many years in the north it all seemed too lush, too overgrown. Subtropical. Turn your back and the plants and insects would overrun everything.

Then he saw it, the sheet metal half swallowed by ivy, its message punctuated by bullet holes. Welcome to Switchcreek, TN. Population 815 . The number was a lie, unchanged since the day Paxton drove out twelve years ago. Unless it wasn’t a lie. Unless no one had died or been born or moved away in all that time, the town waiting for him like an old dog that wouldn’t leave the porch, and now that he’d returned the number was true again.

He fought the urge to slam on the brakes. He could turn his rust-pocked Ford Tempo around and head back to Chicago. The day he left Switchcreek he’d promised himself that he wouldn’t return until his father’s funeral.Terribly sick didn’t count. Mortal danger didn’t cut it. Yet a phone call had gotten him up at six in the morning, made him drive 500 miles. And then it pulled him across the invisible town line.

Welcome back, #815.


The house where he grew up was a little three-bedroom frame house at the foot of Mount Clyburn, surrounded by trees. His father’s car, an ancient Ford Crown Victoria, squatted in its usual spot. It looked like it hadn’t moved in years: Tires low, brown leaves shellacked to the body and windows. He pulled in behind it and stopped, but didn’t shut off the engine. He leaned forward and folded his arms atop the steering wheel, letting the struggling air conditioner blow into his damp ribs.

The picture window drapes were closed. The white paint had grayed, begun to flake. The screen door hung open, but the wooden front door was closed.

Finally he turned off the car and stepped out. Hot, moist air enveloped him; he’d forgotten how punishing August in Tennessee could be. He walked through the high, uncut grass to the cement porch and knocked. Waited and knocked again. After a minute he cupped his eyes to the diamond-shaped window set in the wood. He could make out a patch of familiar wall, then nothing but shadows. He tried the doorknob—locked—then stepped back.

Something glinted in the grass beside the porch: a syringe and needle. What the hell? He crouched, picked it up carefully by the middle. The inside of the tube was yellowed but empty. He set it on the edge of the step where he could find it later.

He walked around the corner of the house, stepping carefully through the high grass, wary of more sharp metal. The side window of his father’s bedroom was filled by a silent air-conditioner; the glazed bathroom window next to it was closed and dark. Behind the house, the backyard had shrunk from the advancement of the brush line. The rusting frame of his old swing set leaned out of the shrubs. Further back, the low, cinderblock well house—made obsolete by the sewer and water lines added in the 70’s—sat almost buried in the undergrowth like a Civil War fortification.

The door to the back porch was unlocked. Pax went through it, to the kitchen door. He knocked once and turned the knob. The door swung open with a squeak.

“Hello!” he called. “It’s me.” The air smelled sickly sweet and fungal, a jungle smell. “It’s Paxton,” he added stupidly. From somewhere near the front of the house came the low murmur of television voices.

The kitchen was as he remembered it, though dirtier than his mother would have ever allowed. Dirtier even than they’d kept it after she died. In those years they’d lived like tenants without a landlord, a teenager and an old man who had become a parent much too late to have the energy to do it alone. But even then they’d never let things slide this far. The garbage can overflowed with paper and plastic containers. Dishes sat in the sink. In the center of the breakfast table was a white ceramic casserole dish, the aluminum foil peeled back.

Pax made his way through the dining room, dusty and preserved as an unvisited exhibit, to the living room, where he found his father.


The Reverend Harlan Martin had a firm idea of what a pastor should look like, and it began with the hair. Each morning after his shower, he’d carefully comb back the wet strands from his forehead and spray everything down with his wife’s Alberto VO-5, clouding the bathroom. Sunday required extra coats, enough hairspray to preserve his appearance through a fire and brimstone sermon, a potluck dinner, a visitation or two, and an evening service. His Sunday hair was as shiny and durable as a Greek helmet.

As a child, Pax loved when the hair was down, as when his father slept late and came to the breakfast table unshowered, pushing the long bangs out of his face like a disheveled Elvis. Like now.

His father sat sprawled on the couch, head back and mouth open, eyes closed. His dark hair, longer than Pax had ever seen it, hung along the sides of his wide face to his jaw. His body was huge. His father’s side of his family were all big, but this was beyond anything Pax had seen. He seemed to have put on a hundred pounds or so since Pax had left.

“Harlan?” Pax said. The atmosphere in the room was hot and unbearably humid, despite the ceiling fan turning above, the air heavy with that strange odor like rotting fruit. He took a step forward. “Harlan?”

His bulk spread across parts of three cushions. He wore a blue terrycloth bathrobe half closed over a white t-shirt, and black socks stretched over broad feet. His face was deeply cratered, the skin flaking and loose.

His father’s chest moved. A whistling wheeze escaped his mouth.

Okay, Pax thought. Still alive. Until that moment he hadn’t realized how he’d been braced to find a corpse.

The coffee table and chairs had been pushed to the walls, leaving a wide space with clear view of the television’s flickering screen. The television abruptly became louder—an ad—and Pax flicked off the set.

His father suddenly lifted his head, turned to glare at Pax. His eyes were glassy, the lids crusted with sleep matter.

“Out,” his father said, his voice garbled by phlegm. He coughed, and raised a wide hand to his mouth. The arm was as pockmarked as his face. He pointed past Paxton’s shoulder. “Out of my house!” He still had it: the Preacher Voice.

“It’s me, Paxton.” He crouched down next to his father, and winced at the smell of him. He couldn’t tell if he was delirious or simply confused by sleep. “It’s your son.”

The huge man blinked at him. “Paxton?” he said warily. Then: “It’s you.”

Pax gripped his father’s hand. “How you doing?”

“My prodigal son,” his father said.

“The only kind you’ve got.” Pax tried to let go, but his father squeezed harder.

“Who called you? Vonda?”

“Close,” Pax said. He extricated his hand and stood. He was surprised to feel something oily on his palm, and rubbed his hand dry on the back of his pants. “I need to open some windows.”

“She wants me. Wants to milk me like a cow. You can’t be here.”

Pax pulled open the big front drapes, and fought down a wave of dizziness. The air in the room was too close, too fetid. The sickly sweet odor had blossomed, become suffocating. He’d been told Harlan was in trouble, but nothing had prepared him for this.

“You’ve got to leave,” his father said, his tone no longer firm. His body, huge as it was, looked like a bag to hold an even larger man. The skin hung loose at his neck and cheeks, and now beads of sweat appeared along his brow. How long it had been since his father last ate? Could he even move?

Harlan’s face shone with sweat, as if breaking a fever. A water blister had appeared on his cheek, as large as a walnut, the skin so tight it was almost translucent. Pax stared at it in horror.

“Oh,” his father said softly. “Oh, Lord.”

“Harlan, what’s going on?” He tried to keep the panic out of his voice.

“You took me by surprise,” he said. He looked up, smiled faintly. His eyes were wet. Two more blisters had appeared at his neck. They seemed to expand as Pax watched. “You better leave now.”

Pax turned toward the front door, lost his balance, and caught himself. He turned the lock and yanked the door open. The air was too heavy to offer much relief. Keeping a hand against the wall to steady himself, he made his way back to the couch. The telephone wasn’t at its old spot on the end table. He’d called the house a dozen times over the past few days, but it had rung and rung.

“Where’s the phone, Harlan?” Stains the color of pink lemonade had appeared on his father’s T-shirt.

His father looked up at him with half-closed eyes. “Paxton Abel Martin.” He said the name with a slow drawl, almost singing it, in a voice Pax hadn’t heard in a long time. He had a sudden memory of being carried up the church stairs in the dark—he must have been four or five—held close in his father’s arms.

Pax kneeled in front of his father. The rich, fruity smell enveloped him. Pax gently pushed the robe further open, and began to lift the T-shirt. Blisters had erupted over the skin of his belly: tiny pimples; white-capped pebbles; glossy, egg-sized sacs. The largest pouches wept pink-tinged serum.

“Oh Jesus.” Pax bunched the edge of the T-shirt and tried to cover one of the open sores, but the oily liquid soaked through and slicked his fingers. “Listen, we’ve got to get you to—get…”

His fingers burned, but not painfully. He looked at his hand, rubbed the substance between his fingers. Slowly his gaze turned to his father, and their eyes locked.

There you are, Pax thought. There, waiting beneath the sagging flesh, the mounds of pitted and pocked skin: The man who carried him up the stairs. Relief flooded through him. What if they’d been lost forever? Pax and his bloated father were here, in this stinking room, and they were also Harlan Martin and his four-year-old son, climbing out of the church basement after a long Sunday night service. He felt himself being carried, and at the same time felt the weight of the boy in his arms.

And then Pax was on his back, staring at the ceiling. He raised a hand—I see that hand, his father used to call from the pulpit, I see that hand—but his limbs were so heavy, and his arm fell to the floor with a distant thump.

He listened to the sound reverberate through the bones of skull. And then the world slipped sideways and pitched him into the dark. 


A young man lay sprawled across the braided rug. Skinny, head shaved like a criminal, a tattoo on his left arm. Still, unmistakable. He nudged the boy with his foot—and felt the poke under his ribs. That confused him. He tried to turn, to see who might be behind him, but now his arms and legs refused to respond. The boy on the floor made a noise, opened his eyes—

—and the room spun, then just as suddenly shuddered to a stop like a jammed gear. Paxton blinked hard, awake now.

His father loomed over him, a huge shadow limned in daylight. “I thought I’d made you up,” Harlan said.

Pax slowly sat up. His arms and neck trembled to keep him upright.

His father said, “I’ll make you breakfast,” and turned toward the kitchen. He moved like a man in a heavy diving suit, plodding across the ocean floor.

Pax got to his feet. He felt light-headed, then waited until it passed. Morning light burned through the windows. Jesus, he thought. Passed out all night? He shuffled to the kitchen doorway and leaned against the frame.

“I’m not going to a hospital,” Harlan said. He stood in front of the open refrigerator. The blisters seemed to have receded, but his face, which had been slack and baggy last night, had filled like a balloon. Harlan peeled back the lid of a Cool Whip container, sniffed, then tossed the bowl onto the top of the pile of garbage.

“Tell me,” Pax said, and then coughed. “What the hell’s going on, Harlan?” His father hated it when he called him Harlan.

“I’m fine,” his father said. He opened another plastic bowl and put it back. “The women from the church drop this stuff off, leave it on the porch. It goes bad fast.” He bent and reached deeper into a shelf. “If you’re here for money I don’t have any.”

“What? No.” How fast the man could piss him off. Pax had never asked him for a thing since he left home. “I’m here because Uncle Lem told me to be here.”

Harlan shifted his bulk, stared at him. “Lem talked to you?”

Lemuel Martin was Paxton’s great uncle, on his father’s side, another man who’d never left Switchcreek. The last time Pax had seen him, when he was nine or ten, his uncle was already an old man, morbidly obese and rarely talking.

“I could hardly recognize him, but yeah. Five days ago.” Lem gargled like a man drowning from the inside.

“How did he find you?”

“Jesus, does it matter?”

“You move around like a hobo. Arizona, New Jersey, Chicago.”

“I’ve been in Chicago for the past five years, Harlan. It’s not too hard to look up a phone number.” His father had called him exactly twice in twelve years. “Christ, all you have to do is call Aunt Jen, I always keep her—”

“Stop talking like that—Christ this, Jesus that.”

“Tell me what’s happening to you, Harlan.” His father scowled, and Pax said. “Look, I know there’s something that runs in the family, something on your side, that you guys never talked about. I wasn’t completely oblivious as a kid.” Harlan grunted, a sound that could have meant anything. Pax said, “I thought it was just the size thing, like Uncle Lem, or, I don’t know, depression. God knows that makes sense. But last night you were hallucinating, and there was that, that stuff.”

His father turned back to the fridge. “What did Lem tell you?”

“Nothing that made sense. He was rambling, talking senile. He said you were sick—terribly sick.”

“That’s it?” Harlan asked.

Don’t forget mortal danger, Pax thought, but stifled that. “Before he hung up he made me promise not to tell anyone he called, especially not Vonda.” Lem’s daughter. She was a little younger than Harlan, so had to be in her sixties by now. She’d lived with her father her entire life, even as a couple of her husbands moved in and out. Pax said, “You were talking about her last night, too.”

His father slammed the refrigerator door. He went to the counter and fished through a pile of mail. “Here,” he said, and tossed Paxton an envelope. “Cash this and get me some groceries.”

“You’ll have to tell me what’s going on sooner or later, Harlan. And you have to see a doctor.”

“You’re staying?”

Pax shook his head. “I’ve got to be back at work by tomorrow morning.”

“Didn’t think so.”


Paxton crossed the two-lane bridge and then slowed as he came into town, though that was too big a word for the short strip of buildings. Half of them were boarded up, and the others—the Gas-n-Go, the Power Rental, the Icee Freeze—looked slump-shouldered and tired.

He parked outside the Bigler’s Grocery. Only four other cars in the lot. He leaned against the roof of his car for a moment, breathing in, breathing out. He felt not so much hung over as wrung out. No drink or drug had ever hit him that hard, that fast.

Inside the store he tried to move quickly, filling up his cart with canned goods and frozen dinners, anything his father could make in a microwave, anything that would keep.

He saw Jo Lynn before she saw him, and turned down another aisle. He walked quickly, his chest suddenly tight. Then he heard light steps behind him and she said, “P.K.?”

P.K. Preacher’s Kid. Nobody had called him that since he left Switchcreek.

He turned, putting on a relaxed smile. “Hey, Jo.” She looked the same. A dozen years, ten extra pounds, the shitty polyester Bigler’s smock—none of it made a difference. Still beautiful.

“What are you doing here?” she said. “Visiting?”

“Just for a couple days.”

They talked for five minutes. He memorized everything she asked him and instantly forgot his answers. He looked at her tiny feet in the cheap black shoes, at the ring on her finger. He remembered a day a few months before he left town, lying in the grass on the hill below the cemetery, looking up at her. She stood with her legs apart, the light making a scrim of her pale yellow sundress, her thighs in shadow. She reached up to her shoulder, and that moment—the moment the spaghetti strap slipped from her sunburned shoulder—he’d felt a white blast of lust that had never been matched in his life, before or since.

Jo pursed her lips, waiting. She’d asked him about his father.

“He’s doing fine. Well, no, he’s not actually. He’s not been taking care of himself.”

Her eyes went sad. Harlan had been her pastor since she was a baby, and she’d refused to think badly of him even after Pax showed her the stripes Harlan had laid across his back, even when he told her the names Harlan had called her. “I’ve been worried about him since he left the church,” she said. “I’m glad you’re there for him.”

“I’m hardly doing anything,” he said. Truth that sounded like false modesty—a special class of lie. “Listen, Jo…”

This was the moment he’d run through his head on a thousand nights, the 3am rehearsals that kept him from sleep. In the first few years after he left, he’d called her house countless times and hung up before anyone could answer. He’d written a hundred letters that hadn’t gone further than a sentence.

She looked at him, and he said, “It was good seeing you. I better go, though. He’s waiting for me.”

“Tell him I’m praying for him.” She touched his arm. “And you too, P.K.”

He forced a laugh. “I’ll take all the help I can get.”

The warmth of her fingers lingered on his skin.


He took the long way home, past the elementary school, over the single-lane bridge to Piney Level road, and on toward the church where his father had been pastor, the church he’d grown up in. When he rolled past it he realized where he was really going.

He told himself he’d just drive by, look at the house and move on. He needed to get home before the frozen food thawed. Then he was pulling into the long driveway of Uncle Lem’s house.

His great uncle and Vonda lived in a tin-roofed frame house cut into the side of the hill, the red clay rising up like a tidal wave behind it. Between him and the house was a cement patch holding half a dozen vehicles, a couple late models but most of them beaters. Out in the fields to his left, a few more junkers—an El Camino, a blue pickup, a van-sized RV—huddled beside the gray, knock-kneed barn, drowning in tall grass.

Pax was halfway to the screen porch when a tall, beefy kid, maybe 18 years old, banged through the door and stood at the top of the step. “Back,” he said. “Back to your car.”

He was a big, block-faced kid, shirtless, with a pale chest and a whiter belly. He wore long, Vols-orange basketball shorts and spotless white athletic shoes. In his left hand was a lime-green aluminum baseball bat.

Pax stopped, held up his hands. “I’m Paxton Martin,” he said. “Harlan’s son.” He tried to think who this kid could be. Too young to be Vonda’s son. Her grandson, then? A complete stranger?

“Grandma’s not here,” the kid said. His face and chest shone with sweat, as if he’d been working out inside the old house. “You better leave now.”

“Who are you—Clete? Bonnie’s boy?”

“Travis. Clete’s my brother.”

“We’re cousins, then. Your grandmother Vonda’s my second cousin, so you’re…” Shit. Gazillionth cousin? Thug twice removed?

“I’ll tell her you called,” Travis said.

Pax nodded toward the window at the left side of the house, where his uncle’s bedroom used to be. “I just came to see Uncle Lem. I’m only—Jesus!”

Travis jumped the two steps and landed with the bat raised. Paxton backpedaled. “What the hell’s the matter with you!”

Travis swung hard but didn’t step into it, not really trying to connect. The brush back. “God damn vampire,” the boy said, and took another step forward, cocked the bat. “God damn junkie…”

Pax backed up fast. He refused to turn and run, not for this chubby punk. The kid let him climb into his car, and when Pax drove away he looked in his rearview mirror and the boy was standing at the end of the driveway, the bat in his hands, like a God damn caveman.


His father sat on the couch, snoring in front of the TV, mouth open, jowls sagging. Deflated again. The sight stopped him, and something in his chest twisted like an old wound.

Let him sleep, Pax thought. He carried the groceries into the kitchen and began putting things away. God, the mess. Maybe it was a mistake to bring in fresh food with the kitchen so filthy. He opened the windows, turned on all the lights. Ten years in the restaurant business, working every position from dishwasher to waiter to line cook, had inured him to vile substances that bred in the dark. He cleared the counters and the refrigerator, threw out everything that was remotely suspicious, filling two garbage bags, working as quietly as he could so that he wouldn’t wake his father. Then he started pulling dishes from the sink and stacking them on the counter.

At the bottom of the sink he found a stubbed out cigarette. He picked it up, pinched the damp thing between his fingers. His father had never smoked a day in his life.

He thought he heard a phone ringing. He threw away the cigarette and went into the living room, where the TV and his father’s snores drowned out everything. He turned off the TV, then tracked the faint noise to his father’s bedroom. The ringing stopped as he walked in.

The room looked much as it had a dozen years before: a long, mirrored bureau, wood veneer bedside tables, the long gauzy drapes his mother had liked. The bed was unmade, the bedclothes pushed against the wall. The box spring had been lifted off the frame and reinforced by a row of 2x4’s, but his father’s weight had still pressed a hollow into the mattress.

Pax found the phone jack in the wall and followed the cord to a pile of laundry. If his father had wanted to turn off the phone he could have just yanked the cord. Or maybe he was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to plug it back in. Pax unplugged it and carried the cord and receiver to the living room.

His father was staring at the blank TV screen. “I was watching that,” he said.

“Tell me the name of your doctor, Harlan.”

Harlan closed his eyes.

“If you don’t tell me, I’m just going to call one at random.” Pax went to the wall and squatted to plug in the phone. “There’ve been people in the house, too. You know that, right?”

“Of course I know it. They sneak in here like Noah’s sons to the tent.”

Paxton looked him, drawing a blank. Harlan said, “Have you forgotten everything? Genesis nine twenty-two. Now help me up.” He raised his arms like a child.

“Was it Vonda?” Pax asked. She wants to milk me like a cow. “Vonda or her grandson?”

“Up,” he said.

Pax stepped in front of him. His father was just so damn big. Pulling him upright, Pax realized, would be an engineering problem, an exercise in mechanics and leverage. He straddled one of his father’s legs and got a hand under each arm. “Ready?” he said.

Pax braced his feet and leaned back. His father held onto him, then with a lurch rose from the couch. For a moment they held each others’ arms like dance partners: London Bridge is Falling Down. He was shorter than Pax remembered. Or maybe his spine was compressing, fat and gravity conspiring to mold him into a sphere.

His father looked up at him and laughed. “He arose!” Like that his mood had lightened. He lumbered toward the bathroom, planting each huge foot a few inches in front of the other.


Pax made them a supper of canned spaghetti and afterward they sat together on the couch, watching TV, the way they had after Mom died—until the fighting started and it became impossible for them to be in the same room, the same town, and finally, the same state. They talked only during the commercials and said nothing of consequence. Pax did not bring up the way his father had beat him for any infraction. Harlan did not bring up how Paxton had run around, drinking and smoking dope and getting girls pregnant, bringing shame to the preacher’s house.

Neither of them brought up Mom.

His father favored the Discovery Channel. Animals killing animals, raising animal babies. Funny, Pax thought, how they showed so much of the killing but so little of the screwing. Pax was bored and anxious, irritated by the smell of his father that covered them like a tent, and growing impatient because he knew the next fight would be coming—or rather, the old one would resume. But he sat there until the end of the fucking program, so he could check off another point in his Dutiful Son column. When I leave, he thought, Harlan won’t be able to say I didn’t help him. He won’t be able to say I didn’t try.

“I know you’re going home in the morning,” his father said. His voice was slow, as if he were falling asleep.

“I’ve got to work,” Pax said. At a shitty job that he would have been happy to quit. But a job.

His father nodded. “Do you have girlfriend?” When Pax didn’t immediately answer he said, “You’re not married, are you? You don’t have children?”

“God no. No children. I’m not exactly husband material,” Pax said. “Or boyfriend material. Actually, I’m not sure I’m material.”

His father grunted. Was that a laugh?

They watched the screen until another commercial break, and his father said, “Twice a week.”

Pax looked over and said, “Dad!”

Harlan’s face had flushed. Liquid gleamed on the backs of his hands. “Twice a week she comes, sometimes three,” he said. “But with you—with you here it’s different. You have to leave, Paxton. You’re just making it worse.”

“That’s it, I’m calling the doctor. We can—”

Harlan grabbed Paxton’s bare arm. “Don’t.” His father’s hand was damp with sweat. “Don’t have any sons. Even if she begs you. Don’t do it.”

Pax scrambled off the couch. His skin tingled where his father had touched him.

Harlan’s robe lay open. The blisters had erupted again. They were everywhere on his skin, all sizes, weeping and glistening. His father reached for him again and Paxton stepped back. He remembered that electric rush that had struck him last night, left him lying stupid on the floor. Love, or something like it. Connection. The eggshell had cracked open and for a moment everything had run together; he’d forgotten who was Paxton and who was Harlan. The feeling had been exhilarating and suffocating at once. A child’s emotion: Love indistinguishable from total immersion.

Watch yourself, he thought.

His father’s eyes were unfocused. “Every good tree,” he said. “Every good tree brings forth good fruit. And every corrupt tree…”

Pax went into the kitchen and brought back a plastic garbage bag and a roll of paper towels. A blister near his father’s neck had already split, weeping liquid. Pax put the bag over his hand and crouched beside his father. He touched a corner of a paper towel to the spot, and the substance soaked into it. He held it away from himself like a lit match and dropped it to the floor.

The serum kept flowing. Pax tore off more towels, pressed them into the blisters, made a pile of damp wads on the floor. He worked for fifteen, twenty minutes—an eternity—until finally the flow subsided. His father had fallen asleep, his breaths coming deep and easy now.

Pax stood up, dizzy and sweating. He retrieved another garbage bag, shoveled the crumpled and damp paper into it, then finished by pushing the first bag into it as well. He carried the sack out to the back yard.

It was evening but not yet fully dark. He held the bag in his hand, letting it twist, and stared up at the tops of the pines, dark against the bruised sky. Despite the heat and the thick humidity, he felt an anticipatory chill, as if he were thirteen again steeling himself to jump off the high rocks into the ice cold water of the Little River.

He opened the bag and reached in. 


Vonda and her grandsons showed up three days later. They climbed out of a beat up Toyota SUV and walked across the yard, Vonda in front, Travis and another huge boy—had to be his brother, Clete, they looked so much alike—clumping behind her. Vonda was a small, bony woman, angular as a voodoo fetish, her tank top and frayed cutoff jeans hanging off her like laundry.

Paxton stepped back from the door’s tiny window. He knew they’d come, sooner or later. He’d been listening for the slam of car doors, waiting for the hard knock. She said, “I know you’re in there, Paxton. Open the damn door.”

“I have a gun,” Pax said. His father didn’t keep any firearms in the house, not even a .22 squirrel rifle. It was probably the only weaponless household in East Tennessee.

“Well good for you,” Vonda said. “Now open the door so Travis can apologize. He told me he was kind of rude to you the other day.”

He stepped back from the door and listened. His father still snored in the back bedroom. He spent a lot of his time sleeping these days. So did Paxton.

He opened the door halfway. Vonda stood on the step with her hands on her hips—bones on bones—a gold cross bright against brown skin baked and cracked by sixty years of sun and cigarettes. A heavy smoker who’d been heavily smoked.

“You don’t look so good,” she said.

Pax gripped the edge of the door. “What do you want, Vonda?”

“Don’t be that way,” she said. “I changed your diaper more than once. You used to run around my house naked.”

Uncle Lem’s house, Pax thought.

Vonda said, “Say what you came for, Travis.” The boy stared at Paxton with half-lidded eyes. She backhanded him across the bicep. “Travis!”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “For scaring you.” Clete snorted a laugh.

Jesus, Pax thought. He really did want to shoot both these kids. “I know what you’re here for,” Pax said.

“Do you, now?” Vonda said.

He’d thrown away the needle and syringe, but now he wished he’d left them on the porch. A smoking gun. “That’s over,” Pax said. “All of that. You won’t be touching him again.”

Clete said, “Looks like you’ve been touching him yourself. How you liking the vintage, cuz?”

Vonda raised a hand to silence the boy. She said to Paxton, “So you’re staying, then? Years without a word, then you just move back in?”

“Pretty much.” He’d missed work, hadn’t even called his manager. If he wasn’t fired by now he would be soon. He was playing it day by day.

Vonda said, “You don’t know what you’re getting into, Paxton. Your father has needs—special needs. Are you prepared to take care of him, every day, for the rest of his life?”

“I’ll get help. I’ll call his doctor.”

Clete and Travis laughed, and even Vonda smiled. Clete said, “Listen, cuz, if you haven’t called yet, you ain’t never going to.”

“I’ll call the cops, though,” Pax said. “Just stick around.”

“I’m here to help you,” Vonda said. “And help Harlan. He used to be a self-righteous son of a bitch, and lord knows he can get mean. But he needs help. He’s hallucinating sometimes, isn’t he? Calling you names? And then there’s the weekly sweats—”

“Weekly? Try every night,” Paxton said. “Eight-fifteen, like clockwork.”

Travis and Clete exchanged a look. After a moment Vonda said, “So you know what we’re talking about. It’s even more important we help you out, Paxton. If you don’t get the vintage out of them they go a little crazy. It’s not pretty, but you have to do it.”

The phone began to ring. Pax said, “Get the hell out of here.” He started to close the door.

Vonda put out a hand to stop him. “I’ll give you another week, Paxton. You’ll see you’re in over your head, and then you’ll call me. And you know what? I’ll come back, with no hurt feelings. Because that’s what family’s for.”

He closed the door, locked it. Then he hurried to the living room and picked it up on the sixth or seventh ring. He knew who it would be. The labored breathing on the other end of the line confirmed it.

“They’re coming for you,” a voice said. A voice drowning in phlegm. “You and the vintage.”

That word again. “They came and went, Uncle Lem,” Pax said. Or rather, they were leaving now. He watched Vonda and the boys climb into the Toyota.

“Already? No. I have to go, I have to—”

“Wait! They just pulled out this second. You’ve got time. Are you all right? Are they hurting you?”

“Past hurting,” he said. “Your father, though—” He coughed wetly. “It’s the age. They’ll be after him.”

“You have to tell me how to handle them, Uncle Lem. How to handle him. You have to tell me what to do.”

“Do? You do your job.” He coughed again. “Do what your father did for his father.”

A loud clatter as Lem clumsily hung up the phone. From the back bedroom, his father shouted a question.

“Nobody, Harlan,” Pax called back. “Go back to sleep.”


The vintage rolled in and receded like a tide, the flow growing stronger each night. The longer Pax stayed, the longer they talked and sat together and ate together, the more Harlan produced. It usually came on in the evenings. His father would look down at himself, and say, “Ah,” as if he’d spilled something on his clothes. Then Pax would run to get the extraction kit.

He’d gotten the supplies in Lambert, ten miles away, where nobody was likely to recognize him and nobody had. In a drug store he’d picked up antiseptic wipes, a box of vinyl gloves, skin lotion. Syringes and needles, though, weren’t on any of the shelves, and when he finally asked for them the clerk looked at him like he was a junkie. Did he have a prescription? He went to a couple hardware stores and kitchen stores, inspecting caulk guns, bicycle pumps, turkey basters, frosting sprayers, looking for anything he could rig. Then in the JC Penny’s housewares department he found a nickel-plated monster called a marinate infuser. Eight inches long, with loop handles, a plunger, and a 30-cc needle. The tool Dr. Frankenstein would reach for to inject a couple quarts of spinal fluid. Pax used it in reverse, drawing the fluid out of his father, pressing it into tiny rubber- capped containers he’d found on the Tupperware aisle, each one holding a few ounces. After attending to his father he’d stack them in the freezer. Then, later in the evening, he’d remove one. One or two.

Hours later he’d wake up, not sure if was in bed, on the couch, inside or outside. His first sensation was of his own mass, the vast bulk of his body stretched out across the dark like an unsteerable barge. And at the same time, he felt the brittle angles of wrists and ankles, the knobs of his knees like two river stones, the blades of his hip bones, the shallow pit of stomach. He stared at the walls of his bedroom, and up at the trees that lined the yard. He breathed and heard himself breathing.

The split, when it came, left him not just alone, not just half of what he’d been, but some smaller fraction. A shard. Near dawn he’d fall into a more fitful sleep, and by ten or eleven a.m. the cycle would begin again. He fed his father, moved laundry through the washer and dryer, cleaning the rooms. Each day he picked out something to do outside—mowing the lawn, clearing brush, washing the cars—just to get him into the fresh air.

“You don’t have to prove anything,” his father said. It was Thursday or Friday morning, and Pax was making his third attempt at scrubbing the kitchen floor. There seemed to be nothing he could do about the smell of the vintage. It was permanent now, baked into the walls and floorboards.

Pax had started the projects with a vague notion that he was preparing the house so that his father could get by alone, though Pax no longer had a clear idea of when he was leaving.

“You need to eat,” his father said to him. He was standing up in the doorway, holding himself erect.

“I’m fine,” Pax said.

“You’re not fine. I know what’s happening, Paxton. All this. It’s not the first time.”

Paxton stood up. “Really. When were you going to tell me?”

“Not ‘til you needed to. Maybe never.”

“Shit, Harlan! What about when it happens to me? You’d be dead and I wouldn’t know what the hell was going on.”

“Mostly it skips. There’s only one or two every generation—”

“Every generation? How long has this been going on?”

Harlan pulled out one of the metal chairs and sat down. After a while he said, “Your grandfather begged me to end it. I couldn’t do it. And later, your mom…” He shook his head. “I was weak. I knew what she was doing—what she wasn’t doing.” He looked up. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but your mom—”

“Don’t worry, I know I was a mistake.” He walked to the back door and yanked it open. The room was hot, and it wasn’t even noon. He had to get a couple more air conditioners into this house or he’d never make it through the summer. “Vonda’s coming back, Harlan. I need to know what she’s doing with this stuff. Is she selling it?”

His father frowned. “To who?”

“I don’t know—anybody. You have to understand, this…” He couldn’t sayvintage; that was Vonda’s word. “This stuff is stronger than anything I’ve ever heard of.”

“It’s no good outside the family, Paxton. There’s no one to sell it to.”


“Sons and grandsons, yes. Daughters too, I suppose. But it does nothing for outsiders.”

“Maybe she’s selling it to cousins, then.”

“She wouldn’t do that,” Harlan said. He didn’t sound sure. “It doesn’t matter if she is. Let her do what she wants. Go back to Phoenix or Chicago or wherever it is you’re living now. I have my own plan.”

Pax didn’t believe him for a minute. “I’m not leaving you to her.”

Harlan tilted his head. “Why not?”

He didn’t have an answer for that yet.


There were only two checkout lanes open at Bigler’s, but he picked hers. “That should make quite a few meals,” Jo said. The cart was piled high.

“I’m stocking up,” Pax said.

“Good. You look like you could use it.” It’s true, he’d dropped weight, and he hadn’t started with much to spare. She said, “How is your father doing?”

“Good. I mean, okay.”

She nodded, and Pax couldn’t bring himself to say what he came to say. She worked quickly, scanning and bagging the items with practiced speed.

“You’re staring at me,” she said.

He felt heat in his cheeks. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just—” He glanced behind him. There was no one else in line. “Were we in love, Jo? Or was it all just teenage hormones? Just chemicals?”

She tucked the last item, a box of cereal, into the bag. “I loved you,” she said.

“But we were just kids.”

“Old enough.”

Old enough to make a baby. Old enough to lose one.

Her parents hadn’t wanted him at the hospital—hadn’t wanted him anywhere near their daughter ever again. His father washed his hands of him. Within two weeks of that night Pax was gone to Arizona to live with his mom’s sister.

Jo finished ringing him up, and didn’t object when he signed Harlan’s name to one of his father’s checks. She said, “I held a service, you know.” Her voice was light, matter-of-fact. “They didn’t want a public one, so I held my own. Out by the church. I only carried it for six weeks, but to me it was already our baby. I could feel it.”

Maybe that was the difference. Jo had chemicals running through her system telling her the child existed, that there was someone there to love. He had nothing to hold on to but a concept. An abstract idea.

He touched her arm. “Jo, if we could start over—”

“Start over?” She drew back. Her smile was some mix of disbelief and pity. “Paxton, I’m married. I’m happy now. I have two beautiful children.”

“That’s… good. I’m glad you got over me.”

“Of course I did. It’s been twelve years. What did you think I would do?”

He pushed his groceries out to the parking lot. As he finished loading, Jo came out of the store holding a plate covered by a clear plastic lid.

“For your dad,” she said. “He always liked coconut cream pie.”

“Uh, okay,” he said, and took it from her.

“Tell him I’m sorry for his loss.” He stared at her blankly and she said, “His uncle. Lem?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I thought that’s why you were buying all that food. We got the news this morning when Travis came in. What’s the matter?”

“When did he die?”

“Last night, I think. Travis said it was going to be a quick funeral.”

“I have to get home.” He set the pie on the passenger seat, then climbed in. He looked up at her through the open side window. “Jo, I’m sorry. For everything. I was a coward.”

She didn’t contradict him.


He’d braced himself for the sight of Vonda’s Toyota, but the driveway was empty except for his father’s Crown Vic. Pax left the groceries in the car and went inside. His father sat on the couch, a folded towel on his lap, watching the television.

“Uncle Lem is dead,” Paxton said.

Harlan nodded. “I figured. The phone’s been ringing off the hook.”

“You didn’t pick up?”

“They’ll say their condolences, but I know what they really want. Where’s the food? I’m starving.”

Pax ferried the groceries into the house, checking half a dozen times for cars coming down the lane. He quickly made his father a sandwich and a tall glass of sweet tea, then stood where he could keep watch out the picture window.

“You’re making me nervous,” his father said.

“We have to leave, Harlan. I’m taking you back to Chicago.”

His father looked at him. “In what?”

Good point. His Tempo was too small by half, and the Crown Vic probably didn’t even run. “I’ll borrow a truck.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Harlan said. “This is my damn house. You’re the one who needs to leave.”

“You really want me out of here?”

“Of course I do. I never wanted you here in the first place.”

“Liar.” His body had been telling a different story since Paxton had arrived.

“You’re throwing me off balance, son. Before you came, they couldn’t get anything out of me but dribs and drabs once a week.”

“You told me it was two or three times a week.”

“They see me like this, they find out how much I’m producing, they’ll get ideas. And now that Lem’s gone—”

“I’m not going to let them take you,” Pax said. He’d never told Harlan that Vonda and the boys had come to the house, or that he’d let slip how often the vintage was flowing. “I’ll call the police. I don’t care who finds out, I’m not going to let them kidnap you.”

“No! No police,” his father said. “When Vonda comes, let me handle it. Do you hear me?”

“Handle it how?”

“Never mind how.” He handed him the empty glass. “Just fill this up.”


For hours Paxton paced the little room, and then tramped random paths through the grass of the front yard. The phone rang a dozen times an hour. He’d decided to adopt Harlan’s policy, and let it ring.

Near 8:00 the sun began to drop behind the trees. Pax didn’t want to turn on the living room lights because the glare would make it impossible to see the driveway. His father refused to turn off the TV, though. Pax began to think that Vonda wouldn’t show up tonight. And what if she didn’t, what then? Stand watch every day?

Pax was at the window again when his father said, “Ah.” Pax turned. Harlan’s eyes had drooped. His face had begun to glisten.

Shit. The last thing he needed was the vintage coming in with Vonda here. And then he realized that that was exactly what she was counting on. Roll in on the high tide like a pirate and take what she wanted with Harlan too disoriented to fight her.

“Hold on, Harlan. Stay awake.”

“‘New wine in old bottles,’” he said.

“Matthew, uh, nine?”

His father grunted. “Good boy. Nine-seventeen: ‘The bottles break, and the wine runneth out.’”

Behind him, a pair of headlights swung down through the trees.

“I’ll do it,” his father said. “I’ll break it wide open. Stop it all.” His hand fumbled for the towel that lay over his lap.

Paxton pulled it out of his grasp and opened the towel. Inside was a black revolver. A .38? .32? “Jesus Christ, Harlan! Where the hell did you get a pistol?”

Outside, the lights of the SUV were aimed at the front window.

Pax took the gun, then went into the kitchen. He opened the freezer and pulled out the white kitchen bag he’d put there. He looked at the five remaining capsules and thought about popping one open. But no, he couldn’t afford to be in two places at once.

He walked out the front door, the pistol in his right hand, the bag in his left.

Vonda and the boys were waiting for him, the headlights making them into silhouettes. Vonda wore some kind of dark, sack-like dress.

“I really thought you were lying about the gun,” she said.

Clete reached behind him to his waistband. “Look, we’ve got ‘em, too.” Both boys drew out silver automatics. Rap video weapons.

Pax felt his knees go loose. He’d never pointed a gun at another person, or had one pointed at him.

“Here,” he said. He tossed the bag toward them. The frozen plastic containers clattered inside as it hit the ground. “There are twenty capsules, a few ounces each,” he said, struggling to keep his voice level. “That’s from one week.”

Travis palmed his gun and picked up the bag. He tugged open the mouth and tilted it to catch the glare of the headlights. “Shee-it,” he said.

“Harlan only does that when I’m around,” Pax said. “Even if you took him, you couldn’t get him to produce like that. I’m betting that’s a lot more than Lem ever put out.”

“And I’m betting there’s more of that in your freezer,” Vonda said.

“A little bit,” he admitted.

“Or I could just take the cow.”

Or, Harlan shoots himself,” Pax said.

“The preacher? I don’t think so.”

“Vonda, where do you think I got the gun? I pulled it out of his fucking hand.” Pax stepped forward. “That’s Harlan Martin in there, Vonda, not some ninety year old man too terrified to cross you. You should know the difference between Lem and my father. If he wants out, he’ll find a way.”

She eyed the bag. “Every week you’ll do this?” Vonda said. “Week in, week out.”

“I told him I wouldn’t leave him.”

“You’re fooling yourself,” she said. She was silent for half a minute, then finally she shook her head. “All right,” she said, and nodded at the boys. Travis took the bag back to the SUV. “You too, Clete.” He followed his brother back to the vehicle.

Vonda nodded toward the house. “You want Harlan to think you’re doing this because you love him, Paxton? That you’re just being a good son? Fine. But you and I both know that this is because you’ve gotten a taste of the vintage.” She laughed. “That’s not love, Paxton. That’s addiction.”

“Explain the difference.”


Harlan was waiting for him, still holding onto consciousness. Pax went to the kitchen. He unwrapped the gun, looked for a place to hide it, and finally put it in the freezer. Then he walked back in with the towel.

“You’re still here,” his father said.

“Still here, Dad.” Pax sat next to him and began to pat his face with the towel.

Harlan closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the cushions. “I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I could have stopped all of this. But I couldn’t—”

“Shh.” Pax said. He pushed the hair from his father’s eyes. “Go to sleep now. We’ll talk in the morning.”



P.O. Box 190106 Burton, Michigan 48519