Happy Little Town
Mr. Nails opened his eyes at 7:03 am on the dot. 7:03 seemed the perfect time to wake up, or so he told himself. He looked over to where his wife would normally be sleeping. She wasn’t there. Instead a hand lay on the pillow, with bright yellow nails and a ring that looked like a bird's head on the thumb. His wife never wore nail polish like that, so it definitely wasn’t her hand. Good, good. She would need both hands to do tasks, anyway.
He sat up, stretched, and looked around his bedroom. Someone had come in the night and burned all his shoes. They sat in a smoking pile in the corner. Good, good. That was very good.
Dressing in a suit and a tie, Mr. Nails found a pair of rain boots under the bed that the shoe burner had apparently missed. Those would work just as well. And they were liquid-proof. That would be very useful, indeed.
No one was in the kitchen, but breakfast had been left for him. Mrs. Nails probably had something to do early. They always took turns making breakfast for one another. Yesterday Mr. Nails made 47 raw eggs, a pile of dirt, and a head of cabbage covered in lighter fluid. This morning a smoothie sat waiting on the counter.
Taking a sip, Mr. Nails tasted banana, clumps of hair, and something metallic. Not Mrs. Nails’s usual smoothie, but it would do.
Mr. Nails whistled to himself as he left for work that day. Outside Mrs. O’Hair watered her garden. Slowly, methodically, she cut off the head of a dove and squeezed out the fresh blood over the petunias. A few stray drops landed on her light blue dress in a nice way. Her baby lay on the ground, red faced and wailing loudly. Like any dutiful mother, Mrs. O’Hair ignored the child. Good, good. That was very good.
Mr. Nails waved and got in his car. A body lay behind the back tires. He didn’t think he had time to move it so he simply drove over the prone figure. The crunch reminded Mr. Nails of something, but he could not think of what. As he drove up the street, he saw Miss Somebody, who lived next door, talking to a neighbor and writing in a notebook. She looked concerned. That wasn’t good. No, not good at all. Mr. Nails smiled a wide, wide smile at her, to show her how she should be. She did not smile back. He tried smiling even wider, so wide it felt like his skin would split open. Still, she did not have even a bare hint of a grin.
Momentarily, his mind drifted to a BAD thought. SOMETHING IS WRONG! His mind yelled. But as quickly as the thought was there, it slipped away in a milky, colorful, pleasant haze.
As Mr. Nails drove out of the neighborhood, he saw Mr. Tailor waiting at the bus stop. He pulled over to speak to his friend.
“Why, hello Mr. Tailor! We still on for bowling later today?”
“Hello Mr. Nails. Yes, yes. Everything is good, very good. Got my bowling ball right here, I’ll see you tonight for that game.” He held up his bowling ball bag. A red liquid was seeping through the fabric and puddling on the ground.
“Good, good. I’ll see you then!” Mr. Nails waved as he drove away.
The drive through the city was pleasant. Helicopters droned overhead, occasionally crashing into a tree or the ground in a spectacular ball of fire. The local elementary school seemed busy. Children clawed at the asphalt of the basketball court, rubbing their fingers to bloody stumps on the hard ground. The teachers walked around, screaming at nothing and clawing at their eyes. The roof of the school seemed to be melting like an ice cream cone in the sun, thick rivers of liquid streaming off the building and dripping over the playground.
Miss Racer sat at the entrance to the office, next to the security gate.
“Good morning Miss Racer! Just coming in to work.”
She looked up at him. Her eyes were teeth. She reached out a hand for his security badge and her fingers were teeth. When she opened her mouth to speak, he could see she had many more rows of teeth than a person typically did. Good, good. That was very good.
“Good morning Mr. Nails. This is no longer enough to get in. I need blood. Or tears.”
“Oh gosh, I don’t remember hearing about that. I don’t think I’ve got much of either of those.”
When Miss. Racer shook her head, her eye teeth rattled. “I can just take a bit. Hold out your arm.”
He did as he was told. She was security, after all. She would know what was what. She pinched him with her fingernail teeth. A drop of blood welled up on his arm. It looked much more jelly-like than normal.
“Thank you, Mr. Nails. You may go in. Oh, and Miss Somebody, you know, my neighbor from next door? She was looking for you.”
He nodded as he drove in. Miss Somebody didn’t work at the office. Why would she be looking for him here? Oh well, it was probably good. Yes, very good.
Inside the office Mr. Nails found that Mrs. Earl, the receptionist, had turned into the physical embodiment of nostalgic melancholy. She hovered as a greenish cloud over the desk.
“Mrs. Earl, did you do something to your hair?”
She sighed. “Nothing will ever be as it was. Not now, not ever. It was different then, and then had to change.”
Mr. Nails nodded at her and smiled. “Yes, that is true. We can not freeze time. Unless we kill it and put it in a box.”
“You should put things you kill into a bowl, so you may admire it on your counter. Like bananas.”
“Any mail for me?”
The cloud of Mrs. Earl pushed a box towards him. “Just the one.”
Taking the box to his desk, Mr. Nails ripped open the cardboard and found it to be full of dead possums. He dumped the animals out on his desk and began stamping them with a [SOLD] stamp. After finishing that, he decided to grab a cup of coffee.
Mr. Appleman stood in the break room pouring scalding hot coffee over his face and screaming.
“Good morning Mr. Appleman. The coffee any good today?”
“AAAAHHHHH!!!!!!” Mr. Appleman screamed, flailing wildly.
“Great, thanks.” Mr. Nails held out a cup and let his co-worker pour the hot joe into it.
“AAAHHHHH!!! DID MISS SOMEBODY FIND YOU? AAAHHHHH!!!!”
“No, not yet. I heard she was looking for me.”
“AAAHHHH!!! YES, SHE LIVES NEXT DOOR TO ME, YOU KNOW. WE TALKED EARLIER TODAY. AAAAHHHHH!!!!”
Mr. Nails nodded. Good, good. Yes, that was very good.
Walking back to his desk, Mr. Nails took a second to look out the window. The trees lining the courtyard slowly, ever so slowly, crept towards the office. Eyes opened and closed slowly, so slowly, all over the bark. Red and yellow and purple eyes. Several employees stood near the back door, smoking combs. The melted plastic filled the air around them with a sour-looking cloud. Gravity seemed to have stopped working quite right in the parking lot. A number of cars began floating off the ground, drifting away through the blood- red clouds. Someone trapped in a car screamed and screamed and pounded on the glass of the door. Good, good. That was very good.
Mr. Nails went back to his desk. After a sufficient time spent pulling out his nails and shredding papers marked “IMPORTANT! PLEASE READ! WE ARE TRYING TO SAVE YOU! DO NOT DESTROY!” he left and headed to the local grocery store. Sitting outside, pulling out her blond hair in fistfuls and attempting to feed the clumps to her doll, was li’l Lilly. She looked up at Mr. Nails with bloody eyes. Gore ran down her cheeks and she smiled.
“Hello Mr. Nails. My dolly is hungry, can I have some hair for her?” Her voice sounded distorted, like it came through an old radio.
Mr. Nails grabbed a bunch of his hair and ripped it out. It hurt. Good, good. Yes, very good. Handing over the hair, he said, “Here ya go, kiddo. Have fun.”
“Thank-thank-tha-n-n-n- Wrrrrrrrr.click.click.click.” li’l Lilly said as she jerked and shook. Smoke began to pour out of her ears and mouth and nose, black and acrid-smelling.
Inside of the grocery store, people milled around, jamming vegetables into mouths and eyes and ears. Bag boys cut off customers’ fingers and hands and arms and bagged them up. At the baker’s counter stood a freshly baked cake with a cooked baby on top. It smelled crispy, almost like bacon.
Mr. Nails walked to the shelf of cereals. Miss Ice stood staring at the boxes of frosted crushed glass and anthrax covered wiring.
“Hello Miss Ice! Looking for something healthy for the kids?”
“Oh. No. We ate the kids yesterday.” As she said it, a look of confusion and concern swept her sweet face.
“Now that I say that, I can’t quite remember why we did that. Children aren’t for eating.”
“Of course children are for eating! Good, good. It’s very good to eat children!” Mr. Nails said it because he knew it was right to say, but he too felt confusion and concern. The feeling welled up in him for a time until it felt like his heart would burst. But something, a milky, colorful, pleasant haze, drifted over his mind again.
Mr. Nails bought himself a sandwich, with spoons and turkey and turpentine dressing. As he sat on the ground of the parking lot eating, the metal of the spoons cutting into his gums and tongue, he started to feel the strange concern again. It started slowly. As he gnawed the sandwich, the feeling gnawed at him. This seemed … wrong. Where had his wife been this morning? Why was Mrs. O’Hair watering the garden with blood? Shouldn’t it be water? People don’t have teeth for eyes or consist solely of haze that is the physical embodiment of nostalgic melancholy. Children do not smoke and make clicking noises and sound like old radios when they speak. And that was not a bowling ball in Mr. Tailor’s bag. Looking up from the sandwich he no longer wanted to eat, he saw Mr. Tame and Miss Yesterday, talking by the bus stop. Well, no not talking. Yelling. Screaming. The bus, a twenty foot tarantula with wings, pulled up to the stop. Miss Yesterday pulled a large machete out of her purse, cut off Mr. Tame’s head, and threw the head into the tarantula’s open mouth-door. Mr. Tame’s body walked out into the road before being hit by a speeding car. Miss Yesterday looked at Mr. Nails before taking her machete and neatly cutting herself in two, right across her belly. The two halves of Miss Yesterday crawled away from each other.
Mr. Nails stood up and began walking to his car. He needed to get home. He needed to do something, but he didn’t know what. Something besides just the going home. Or maybe, the going home was the important thing.
The entire drive home he alternated between the concerned feeling and the milky, colorful, pleasant haze. Alternated between SOMETHING IS WRONG and EVERYTHING IS GOOD, GOOD, VERY GOOD.
The whole city seemed off. Police riding atop tall, spindly- legged giraffes threw blenders and vacuum cleaners at a group of pregnant women, who had climbed to the top of the library and set it afire. The women didn’t seem to mind the flames creeping ever closer to them. At the local park, parents dug holes in the purple and yellow grass and planted waling babies upside down. A dog had apparently turned inside out, its ribs glistened in the sun and the animal dragged its intestines behind it like a leash. As the dog ran, a flock of flying books chased it, pecking at the bits of organs with their paper beaks.
His neighborhood looked the way he remembered it, but also not the way he remembered it. Several of the houses had been replaced with house- sized ships in house- sized bottles, or mounds of jelly beans and severed toes. Hair grew on a few lawns, long and grey and greasy. A front porch swing suspended itself in the air, not attached to anything. It swung faster and faster, the person on it wailing and clutching the seat and trying not to be thrown off.
Pulling up to his own house, Mr. Nails did not see his wife’s car. A bicycle made of bones lay on the sidewalk, and a metal and glass bear slept on the lawn.
Miss Somebody, who lived next door, stood on the front porch, clipboard in hand. She looked concerned. Mr. Nails smiled at her, extra wide, to show her everything was good. She frowned.
Mr. Nails began to cry.
“Miss Somebody. Have you seen my wife?” He said between sobs.
Miss Somebody shook her head. “Why did you start crying?”
He shook his head. “Everything is wrong. No. Everything is fine. No. Everything is good, good. Very good. No. Everything is wrong.”
He didn’t know which of those answers was right. He couldn’t remember anymore.
“Mr. Nails. Do you remember what your wife looks like?”
He shook his head again. This hadn’t occurred to him. People should know what their spouses look like, right?
“It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. Listen, this is very, very important. I have something for you.”
She held something up in her hand. It took a second for the object to form itself into something recognizable.
“What is it?”
Mr. Nails stared at her. “It’s an apple of course.”
“Ah, yes. Okay, the apple is for you. What do you do with apples?”
“You. You...replace someone's heart with them?”
Mr. Nails could tell from Miss Somebody’s face this was not the right answer. He put his hands to his face hopelessly. The conflicting feelings were swirling around in his brain, a tormenting dance.
“No. That’s not right. You eat apples. Yes. Eat them.”
For the first time that day, Miss Somebody smiled. “Yes. This apple is for you. Please eat it.”
Mr. Nails took the apple. It was perfect-looking, a lovely shade of green, round like the sun, and without any blemishes or bruises. It felt far heavier than what he would think an apple should feel like. The first bite was wonderful, refreshing and cool and sweet. The second bite burned his mouth and throat. The third bite felt like it would start a raging fire in his belly. He wanted to stop eating, but he kept chewing and swallowing. He ate everything, stem and seeds and all. The pulpy mass in his mouth felt sticky and hot, then cold and slimy. He imagined worms and slugs slithering down his throat and up his nose. Into his brain.
When he had eaten the whole apple, he showed his empty hands to Miss Somebody. He opened his mouth wide so she could see he’d swallowed everything.
She smiled again. “You did very good. Everything is going to be okay. This next part will be a bit strange, but I promise I’ll be with you the whole time.”
“Where is my wife?”
“You don’t have one. You never did.”
The ground dropped away. The neighborhood receded from Mr. Nails view, and the two of them drifted up into the clouds. The sky took on a green, shimmering quality. Everything smelled of plastic and rubbing alcohol. Mr. Nails felt like his whole body was on fire. Like ants were crawling under his skin and chewing him to pieces. He began screaming. The sound echoed around the empty space they flew through. Miss Somebody reached out her hands to him, but could not quite touch him.
“It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be---”
She was gone. He was gone. He was dead. Or he never existed. Or he existed, and something had extinguished him, like a little candle. He consisted of just a mind, a consciousness, floating in nothing. Screaming without making a noise, flailing without having a body. Feeling every sensation at once, and none at all.
He existed as nothing and everything for an eternity. Or maybe for only a second. In actuality, he was in the strange limbo for seventy three minutes. Mr. Nails, or really Durnwood Maze, opened his eyes groggily. Nurses in clean, crisp, white jumpsuits hurried about the room, bending over people in hospital beds. Wires snaked from the prone people's heads. Durnwood gingerly reached a hand to his own head and found wires sticking into his head.
Miss Somebody sat next to his bed, looking a mixture of concerned and happy.
“I’m not Mr. Nails,” Durnwood said with a parched sounding voice. Miss Somebody held up a cup with a straw for him to take a tentative sip of water. It felt like he hadn’t used his voice in weeks.
“No, you are Durnwood Maze. You are sixteen years old. You go to Euporie High School where you are in the eleventh grade. Do you remember what happened?”
He turned his head from side to side, trying to look at the other people lying on beds. He recognized the one to his right. Holly Byrne. They had history class together. On his left, Khin Ito. Also in Durnwood’s history class. Neither of them moved. No one in any of the other beds moved.
“We were. We…” His mind felt fuzzy. Like someone had wrapped it in cotton.
“You were on a field trip. Remember?”
“We went to. To.. To the New Nile Historical Museum. We saw the mummies and the antique shuttles and went to the…”
He stopped. He could vaguely remember everyone happily picking characters off a screen. Not a video game. No. Something else.
“You were doing a simulation of 1951. Remember? Just after World War 2 ended.”
He nodded. It hurt his head to nod.
“It was a daily life simulation. Someone uploaded a virus into the simulation, while your class was attached. Durnwood, you’ve been stuck for three weeks. But you are out now. It’s going to be okay.”
He looked at the other people, lying unmoving on the beds. Why was no one else moving?
“How many other people have woken up?”
She looked down for a second. “I think you should get some sleep. You’ve had a very trying ordeal. I’ll get a nurse to move you to a private room now and your parents will be here soon.”
“How many of my friends are awake? Is Miss Patel awake? She did the simulation, too.”
Miss Somebody (or whatever her name really was) stood up. “I’ll just get a nurse. Hold on one second.”
Durnwood sat up. The cord in the port at the back of his head pulled tight. He reached around and unhooked it. As he swung his legs over the side of the bed, Miss Somebody grabbed his arms and tried to force him to stay seated.
“You need to rest. Please lie down. It’s going to be okay. But I need you to lie down.”
It was not going to be okay. It was never going to be okay. But Durnwood didn’t quite know that yet. He still clung to the hope that everything would turn out okay. He clutched to this hope as a nurse advanced on him with a syringe. He desperately tried to hold onto that useless, pointless hope as she injected him and he slipped into a black, dreamless sleep.