HOW TO KEEP YOUR BOY, by Nick Ostdick

For more by Illinois-based Ostdick, see his last T2H short, “Storms.”

Begin with a ghost. Dim the bulbs in your small rented cabin until the moonlight beams bluish shadows down over everything. Sit on the arm of the foldout sofa where your five-year-old son sleeps — weekend visitations only, as your ex-wife stipulated, and once in a while on Wednesdays when she has date-night with her new beau, a lounge singer named Tony. Then, lean close and whisper that his mother’s house, the one he lives in now, is haunted, terribly so. Let the echo of a coyote from high on the piney ridge ring and slowly die off in the thin air. Let it stir and mix together, the howling and the story: about an escaped mental patient who broke into a suburban family’s home to hide out and in the middle of the night eat each member of the family one by one, father then mother, saving their little boy for last, drinking their blood like Kool-Aid and picking his teeth with their bones. Tell your boy, who holds his Operation Desert Storm G.I. Joe tight at his chest, that the creaking in the attic right above his bedroom is the ghost of that mental patient, hungry and yearning.

Pull the covers up to his chin, hold them there. Pat his head. Ruffle his sandy-colored hair. Act like you have all the answers, so he feels safe–with you. Switch on the TV, the zombie movie from earlier. Leave it on mute, just a black and white glow, as if a star has lowered into the room, bright and dusty. On the screen a zombie is chasing a woman down the street, arms raised over its head and mouth wide with snaggled teeth. Watch your boy squirm beneath the blankets. Watch him squeeze Joe. Watch the fear fatten in his blue eyes.

Do not feel happy about this. Do not picture the two of you ice-fishing in the morning, teaching him how to cast, how to dangle a line down an icy hole. Do not dream of summers spent at the racetrack, the two of you watching muscle cars take loud, violent laps. Do not imagine how the freshly unpacked boxes that carried his belongings might look scattered about the cabin — snug, cozy. Do not get carried away thinking about the future. Do not think about your love for him, how you miss him so hard your heart is one big Charley Horse, or how it’s nearly impossible to compete with a loving mother and a man who can sing like a bird. Do not dwell.

Instead, light a cigarette and crack a window. Switch on the space heater, flurries of wind making the room seem as vast as the frozen hills outside. In the kitchen, blend up some chocolate malts, thick ones, and when you return to find your boy standing up on the sofa-bed, legs trembling in green Hulk PJs that you’ve never seen before, retuck him, and when he looks at you with swelling eyes and asks, Is that story true, Daddy? Is it real?, hand him a glass of frosty chocolate and tell him this can be his new home if he wants: that if he feels unsafe with his mother, with Tony, all he has to do is say so. When he doesn’t respond, the zombie now chasing a little boy through a redbrick bungalow and cornering him near a bedroom closet, point at the screen and say, That looks like your bedroom, doesn’t it? and when your boy squints and shrugs, say, That could be you, you know, if you stay over there, and lean in and kiss him goodnight.

Tomorrow, try monsters, ones that feed on the family pet, like his dog Bosco.
The next night, maybe aliens, the kind that suck his brains out through his eye sockets in the middle of the night.

Then zombies, like in the movie.

And when those fail, do not give up. You’re his father, after all. So regroup. Say whatever it takes. Do whatever is needed. Whatever is necessary to keep him frightened. Whatever is necessary to keep him here.

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