Nights at the store, the brother and sister bagged the groceries that tumbled down the conveyors, rarely looking up, a simple nod of the head at a thanks from a customer. The girl, Merrill, was fifteen and quite tall for her age. The brother, Nate, was sixteen and trying to grow a moustache. He often wore a green knit hat. They didn’t talk much with the cashiers or the manager. A yes sir, no ma’am here and there. When the store was slow, they brought in the carts, held contests between each other: who could bring in the most. Other times, one of them would take the push broom and move down the aisles, collecting the candy wrappers, the spilled sugar, the vegetable leaves in the produce corner, while the other rotated stock, made the shelves look full. They had a rubber ball, the size of a tennis ball, but bright red that they played a game with, sometimes down an empty aisle and sometimes in the parking lot. There were rules involved in the game, it was clear to the manager the times he watched them: the number of bounces, the left or right hand that they sometimes grabbed with, sometimes slapped back. Often enough, they simply rolled the ball to each other, set it to strange spins, and after, they would hold up fingers – between two and five, he could never predict. When he asked the girl about the rules, she simply blushed and looked at the floor, like she’d been caught stealing something.
It was late summer, almost autumn, and after work they’d play other games in the parking lot, and the manager would watch them out there while counting his receipts, marking up the inventory for the next day. They’d ride a shopping cart down the hill, one inside the cage, other times the both of them hanging off the back. For all their games, they rarely smiled, and something about the way they held themselves reminded the manager of his brother, who had died as a child. He’d been younger by many years than these two. They would often bounce the red ball over top the manager’s car – one of the few left in the lot at that hour – and he considered each time to go out and chase them off. But he was afraid they might take it harder than he’d intended, like his younger brother had taken things, and other than the games they gave him no trouble, which was rare for his workers.
Merrill and Nate were not aware that they were watched. The windows at the office were dark, and they could see only the dull lit aisles in the store, the stillness inside. Often, they’d watch the heat lightning in the sky, the red blip of the radio tower beyond the treeline, a small and slow airplane headed miles toward the county runway. This night, a small bat skipped around the glow of the streetlamps, searching for the night bugs that were also drawn there. Nate found the smallest of pebbles and began tossing them up at the lights, and the bat would swoop and dive at what the boy threw, catching the small stone for a moment, then dropping it again. Merrill watched them both.
“You try it,” Nate said to her.
“Because a rock is like a big bug to him.”
“But not when he catches it.”
This response annoyed him. “So?” he said.
“So, would you tease a blind person?”
He frowned. “Don’t be a dolt.”
“You’re the dolt.”
“Oh, that’s clever,” he said.
He tossed a few more, and eventually the bat figured out the game. They collected the rest of the carts, though their shift was over, set them in a line near the front door. After, they could hear the deep whistle of a train from beyond the back of the store, through the narrow woods, the bells of the crossing signals, the rumble of boxcars along the tracks. They picked up their aprons and box cutters from the sidewalk and headed that way. It put Nate in mind of a story he’d once heard: a deaf girl picking flowers too close to the tracks. He named her Klara in his mind, as he and his sister picked their way through the woods toward the train. His mother had told him that story, as a warning, though she’d left out the name. He thought about the engineer in the locomotive, and what he must’ve been thinking, looking down the tracks at the girl. The man must have pulled and pulled at the horn, and the boy tried to figure if the man understood her as deaf after a time, or just without sense. Hadn’t the girl felt the vibrations of the tracks? There was no answer, but the boy liked to think about these things: at what point the man had punched the brakes. The boy thought of the man, thinking. The number of cars behind him and the distance ahead to the girl.
They waited, watched the dark boxcars and the rounded petroleum tankers pass, felt the rumble beneath their feet and the breeze, which smelled of coal and grease, at their faces. As the last car passed, they watched the cloud of dust and grit that settled behind it, the moon ahead, low. It seemed that the train might be headed there.
Across the tracks and into the next line of trees. They found the creek that they could jump and the ditch that they couldn’t. Their feet slipped in the dirt and mud, and they picked mosquitoes and thorns from their necks and arms.
The cemetery was beyond the other side of the woods, and in the starlight it often looked like a miniature city to them: buildings and roads, shadows that somebody could hide in. They hopped the gate, watched the sculptures as they passed: an angel here, like a child, an eagle and an owl sitting together there. The first time, they’d thought the owl real. They stopped at the largest angel, the one not like a child, just before the lane of unmarked graves. The angel was tall and dark and skeletal and it held a large sword above its head. In the moonlight they could see the jagged teeth and the empty eye sockets. The mouth looked like it was ready to scream bloody murder, or commit it, and they didn’t consider it much like anything they’d like to meet in heaven. They stood watching it for a while, as they always did, nudging each other with a finger or an elbow, trying to work up a scare.
Merrill tried to make a scary voice. “Bring me back my eyes,” she moaned.
Nate set his hands in his pockets. He watched the clouds behind the statue, kept an eye on the length of the sword, the broken tip at the end.
“Did you see it move?” said Merrill. There was hope in her voice.
“If it’ll make you happy, I’ll say that I did,” he said
But honestly, it always seemed to move a little, so they walked on, nudged each other some more as they made their way past the gravestones. Merrill stopped and straightened a cluster of dead flowers that had been knocked over. When they came to the unmarked graves, they both thought of the ghost stories: one of the cashiers had told them this. When the ghosts were alive, generations ago, they’d worked in a textile mill, south of the town, and then they were burned up in a fire. The mill was made of bricks, and there were no windows, and the foreman – examining the remains – couldn’t tell one worker from the other. Immigrants, they were believed to be, and no one came to claim the bodies. So, they got buried here, in a long line, with just the date of their deaths. If you walked close enough, they’d reach up and grab you, and they’d steal your name. This is how the story went. And after that you were just nobody. Nate kept his distance, but Merrill walked close enough, felt that they could have her name if it would do them some good. But neither ever walked over them.
They hopped the far gate after that and headed east.
They were miles from The Sound and from home, but they were getting closer. The smell of saltwater was in the air. At a familiar neighborhood, Merrill and Nate balanced on the curb as they walked, made their way around garbage cans and mailboxes, took three steps each in the driveways. A few dogs barked from backyards, and they could see their shadows at the fencelines. They passed all sorts of things in yards: cars with hoods up, no engines inside; lawn chairs here and there; a mower in a yard with no grass; and once a pyramid of beer bottles set on wooden boards. In one driveway they passed a pair of boots, empty, but pointed out at the road, like they were waiting for the owner to return.
They listened to the static of radios here and there, somebody running an electric saw in a garage. It put Merrill in mind of their previous home, years ago, when they’d lived with their mother, where Merrill and Nate would often enough sit at the kitchen table alone, listening to the rattle of the old refrigerator.
Lights were on in houses, though often curtains were drawn, and from the curb Merrill and Nate began to imagine what might be happening inside each house. This was a game they often played. It was almost all guesses. They couldn’t see much.
“Somebody’s in love,” said Nate, pointing at the first chosen house.
“Somebody’s coming out of it,” said Merrill toward the second.
“Some woman playing checkers by herself.”
“A pair of men, watching baseball, naked.”
“That’s good,” said Nate. “I like that one.” He waited for the next house, tried to think up something to top it. “Somebody hiding a body.”
“A human body?”
“Yes, a human body.”
“You’ve done that one before.”
“All right,” he said. “Somebody chopping one up then. Feet first.”
“Blech,” said Merrill. They rounded a corner and went up another street. She waited as they walked. It was important not to get too far ahead.
“Some child escaping a bath,” she said. “But he’s not going to be able to escape it forever.”
Nate looked at the next house. It was small, and there were no lights on. The windows were all shut, but the front door was open.
“There’s some parent waiting up there,” he said. “Trying to keep their kid alive.”
They listened to the dogs as Merrill considered. Above them, the moths and the night bugs hovered around the streetlamps. The next house was all lit up, and they could see people inside, about a half dozen, more in other rooms.
“They’re all waiting for some woman to make them a sandwich,” said Merrill.
They watched the people as they passed the house. It seemed as if there might be some somber occasion happening inside.
“What kind of sandwich?”
“Different kinds,” she said. “There’s not enough turkey to go around, so she’s using some leftover breakfast sausage. She’s cutting it up into thin slices. There’s also an avocado, and there’s a visitor to the house who’s never had an avocado. He likes it. He tries to grow avocados when he gets back home, but he’s not successful. He takes it as a defect in his character.”
“He sounds like a loser,” says Nate.
Merrill shrugs. “I like him,” she says.
“Why is it the woman making the sandwiches?” says Nate. “Why can’t the men make their own sandwiches?”
Merrill almost crosses her arms. But she keeps them at her sides. She rolls her eyes. “We’re three houses behind.”
Nate stops. He closes his eyes. He stands military straight. He’s got bad posture and is over accounting for it. He looks like someone about to do a backflip. “Three houses back there are three people watching television. It’s a show about making little chairs. Little-kid chairs. The daughter, a teenager, thinks, that’s what I’d like to do when I grow up, make little-kid chairs. The other two people – they could be her parents, but maybe not – don’t take her very seriously. But she’s serious. She meets a carpenter. She meets a lot of carpenters. They teach her what they know. She’s not very good at first, but she gets better as she goes along. In a few years she starts making these little-kid chairs. She puts an ad in the newspaper. She’ll make your kid a little chair, and she’ll even paint the kid’s name on the chair. But the problem is when parents start to arrive, there’s something about the chairs that they don’t like. There’s something, to their surprise, a little creepy about the chairs. Something says to them, some voice, it says, don’t put your kid’s name on any of these chairs. The voice seems to indicate that something really bad will happen if they do.”
Merrill breathes in deep. “You are so weird,” she says.
“I’m not done,” Nate says. His eyes are still closed. “So she’s stuck with all these creepy little chairs in her house. Even she thinks they’re creepy. Her boyfriend, he has a hairy back, and one day he’ll be her husband. He likes the chairs, and he likes her. But she wants to be done with those chairs. She takes them out to the curb one day to get rid of them all.”
Merrill interjects. “But even the garbage men don’t like the chairs.”
“Absolutely,” says Nate. “Those garbage men are scared too. They want to leave those chairs there. But they pick them up and crush them in the compactor. They smash them until those chairs can’t hurt anybody anymore.”
“That’s a great story,” says Merrill.
“I’m not done yet,” says Nate.
“We’re going to be here all night.”
“I know for a fact you have nothing better to do.”
“Don’t be so sure, but go on.”
Nate opens his eyes. “So, she gives up chair-making. She makes hats. It’s a lot less work and less creepy too. She eventually starts her own business, through mail order. It’s called Tippy’s Hats. Though that’s not her name. Tippy. It’s just what she calls the business. It’s a hit.”
Merrill waits. She watches him.
Nate shrugs. “That’s all,” he says.
She sometimes thinks her brother is crazy, and this greatly endears him to her. She knows that she’s crazy. He’s her only true friend in the world.
“There’s a man who owns four birds in the next house,” she says. “All day long he talks to his birds, hoping they’ll talk back to him. But they’re not the kind of birds who can talk. They never say a word a word ever. They’re finches and canaries. They just sort of look at him. He lives a life of great disappointment.”
Nate nods at the next house. “The woman there is in love with the bird man. She thinks it’s great, how he talks to his birds. But he hardly notices her, even though she brings him tomatoes. Most weeks of every summer, she brings him a half-dozen tomatoes. To him though, she’s just the tomato lady.”
They walk on.
“This is suddenly depressing,” says Merrill.
“It’s your turn,” says Nate. “Lift us up.”
She thinks about that. She hops over the lid of a garbage can.
“The husband of an astronaut lives there,” she says. “His wife is in outer space, but there’s a problem with the spaceship. We’re all worried about her. The people on Earth. Us. We’re all worried about her and four others in the spaceship. There’s some door in the spaceship that won’t close, and they can’t come back to Earth if that door won’t close. No one wants to say it, but they’re going to run out of oxygen.
“The husband,” Merrill continues, “he has a lover. It’s a man. It’s a man he knew when they were both in high school, and in the last year they’ve reconnected. The husband is surprised about all this, but when he’s with his lover he’s not surprised at all. On the fourth day of the crisis in space, he understands a clear truth: his wife is going to die by the end of the week. She’s dying right now as he’s thinking this. He’s overcome with guilt. He loves her very much. And, at the same time, and he’s not proud of this, he’s happy. Because he can be who he is now. In fact he already is who he is.”
Merrill looks over at her brother. He’s stepped off the curb and walks beside her now. This is the last story of the night.
“Go ahead,” Nate says. “I want to hear the finish.”
Merrill keeps walking but steps down off the curb too. “The next evening, the door closes. The door in the spaceship in outer space closes. One of the astronauts had a good idea. All five of them now, they’re going to make it back just fine. The husband, he lies in bed on Earth with his lover. The two people that he loves most in the world are alive. This makes him feel alive. He feels like his heart is going to come out of his chest and burn the house to the ground. Bad times are ahead, but he’s happy for the first time in his life. When his lover starts to snore, it doesn’t bother the husband as much as it used to. He doesn’t notice the noise so much. He notices his lover’s breath moving in and out.”
Nate kicks a soda can. He puts his hands back in his pockets. Merrill has worked on that story all week. She has tried to get it just right. Having told it now, she feels like the second half started to fall apart. She should’ve left out the snoring part. She looks at her watch. It’s almost midnight.
Nate looks ahead. There are a few more houses, though their father’s trailer is still a mile past the neighborhood. Nate spits. This is a habit he has taken up recently. It annoys Merrill to no end. She suddenly shivers. It’s cold out. The stories – especially the creepy chair story for some reason – had kept her warm. She feels as if a thin ghost has passed very quickly and uncomfortably through her. When she remembers this walk, years later, she’ll remember Nate as the one with the shivers.
“Do you think they’re watching us?” she says.
She points up at the houses. “The people in there.”
Nate shrugs. “Why would they bother?”
“It might be interesting for them.” Merrill considers the light in the windows. “We may seem like we’re just outside, but we’re actually far, far away.”
“Nobody” is a story from Thieves I’ve Known, winner of the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award. Thieves I’ve Known will be published in September 2013 by the University of Georgia Press.