Smilers

Aiden rests his chin on the back of the living room couch, watching his older brother mow down zombies in ZomPlex. The zombies grab at Zach’s avatar, mouths moving like they’re chewing. Aiden’s not sure if they’re supposed to be hungry or angry or both. Their facial expressions don’t match any of the cards from the game he plays on Tuesdays with Ms. Hampton. Zombies don’t make a lot of sense to Aiden, but that’s okay, lots of things don’t make sense to him; he’s barely seven.

Aiden taps Zach on the shoulder. “You said you’d take me to the pool.”

“Busy here.” Zach jerks the controller.

They’ve gone to the pool almost every day this summer. Aiden even jumped off the high dive with Zach a few times. Aiden loves that feeling in his stomach more than anything. But the past couple of days, Zach hasn’t wanted to do anything except kill zombies.

“You promised,” Aiden says. “I’ll tell Dad.”

“Go for it.”

Aiden walks toward the kitchen. “I’m going.”

Zach ignores him.

Their dad is sitting in the breakfast nook in his plaid pajamas, paper raised. The headline FINAL COUNTDOWN is in big black letters across the top. A grid of old people’s faces, each with a gigantic smile, covers the rest of the page. Aiden says, “Zach won’t take me to the pool.”

His dad doesn’t say anything. Sometimes, it takes him a minute to finish reading.

Aiden looks closer at the pictures. The first one is this ancient lady with like two hairs on her head and no eyebrows. Her smile is so huge, Aiden can see her gums. Her name is Irene Rable and she is 102 years old. The people in the pictures get younger and younger going down the rows. The last person, Norwin Osterreich, is fifty-seven. Still really old.

“Dad” — Aiden runs a finger along the table — “can you make him take me?” His dad still doesn’t say anything. “Please?”

Nothing. Aiden’s used to people ignoring him, but not his dad. Something’s wrong, but Aiden isn’t sure what, exactly. His dad’s been reading the same paper for like a week, and Aiden knows it doesn’t take that long. Aiden’s sort of an expert on the subject; he reads like a third-grader even though he’s only in first grade. He’s not very good at some stuff, but he’s a very good reader.

“Dad, why won’t you answer me?” Aiden peeks around the paper. His dad’s smile looks just like the old people’s in the newspaper. Smiling means happy, he always gets that card right with Ms. Hampton, but happy won’t get Zach to take Aiden to the pool.

The situation, Aiden decides, calls for extreme action. He needs his wolf mask. He isn’t supposed to know where his dad hid it earlier in the summer, after Aiden went on a clawing, howling rampage. His dad isn’t very sneaky. Aiden found his mask a few days ago, while hunting for snacks.

He climbs up onto the kitchen counter and pulls open the cabinet above the fridge. His dad’s still reading the paper. Aiden pulls the mask on and leaps off the countertop, landing bent-kneed, hands raised like claws. He doesn’t risk a howl, though. Instead, he creeps into the living room and stands behind Zach. The wolf mask doesn’t just make him look tough, it also makes him extra stealthy.

Zach jerks his controller, fingers racing between buttons, yelling at the TV.

The TV screen splashes blood red. Zach’s avatar sinks to the ground, surrounded by the groping, grinning dead. “Fucking zombies!”

“Dad! Zach’s cussing!”

Zach jumps off the couch. “You scared the crap out of me, Aid!”

“Aaa-oooooooo! Aaa-oooooooo!” Aiden’s howl is muffled by the mask.

“Whatever,” Zach slumps back on the couch and restarts his game. “Little freak.”

Aiden keeps howling.

Zach says, “Okay, I get it.”

Aiden lays panting, listening to Zach shooting things. “Let’s go to the pool!”

Zach sighs at the TV. “Can’t you see I’m saving the world here?”

“There won’t be anyone to save if I die of boredom.”

“God, you’re so literal.” Zach’s fingers are busy again, his mouth slightly open.

“Zaaaach,” Aiden says.

“Fine. Let me clear the factory first.”

“Ten minutes?”

“We’ll see.”

Aiden watches Zach shoot zombies and die over and over again. The factory is a gigantic dirty, leaky complex. Zach might never clear it.

Ten minutes later Aiden says, “Can we go?”

“One more try.”

Aiden thinks maybe he can lure Zach away from his game with snacks. He goes to the Mini-Mart alone sometimes, it’s just down the street. Aiden watches until Zach is deep into wasting zombies again, then slips out the front door.

He climbs over the porch rail and drops down into the shrubs, sneaking along the minivan’s bumper, and darts behind the big tree in the front yard. His wolf mask makes him sneaky fast. From there, he crawls to avoid being seen by Mr. Fugleman, who is, like always, raking leaves. Mr. Fugleman is very serious about his leaves. His dad calls Mr. Fugleman a cereal rakist, which doesn’t make any sense. Cereal sounds good, though.

Mr. Fugleman looks unusually happy today. Smiles with lots of teeth must mean very happy. His lips are pulled way back into his cheeks, exposing a full mouth of crooked teeth.

Aiden gets up and runs in a low crouch, so fast Mr. Fugleman probably doesn’t even see him.

A block further, safely beyond Mr. Fugleman’s yard, Aiden is loping across a wide lawn when he hears a rumbling engine and loud music. Aiden races behind a cluster of shrubs, only his wolf-head peeking out above the leaves. The car is a black convertible with the top down.

The car slows.

Aiden tenses, ready to make a break for it. The car is still a few houses away when it stops. The engine revs and the car swings sideways as the tires squeal. Aiden covers his mouth — he had almost howled. So cool!

The car swings back the other way, the tires now smoking. Then it hitches and shakes, makes a clunking noise, and screeches to a halt. The car starts again, then jumps forward and lurches to a stop. Aiden has no idea what’s happening.

The car starts up again, lurching less as it moves forward. As it passes, Aiden sees it’s Rory, a bully from Zach’s class. Zach calls him a dick face, or maybe it’s dick hat. Rory’s head, which barely sticks up above the dashboard, is bobbing to the music. His sunglasses are way too big, too. They weren’t his, though, they were the lifeguard’s. At the pool a few days ago, Rory had walked stiff-legged behind the lifeguard, arms outstretched like a zombie, moaning “Brains!” The lifeguard had ignored him and just kept pacing alongside the pool. Rory was probably into ZomPlex, too. Aiden didn’t get why people made fun of other people, but he recognized when it was happening. But Rory was just stupid. Obviously the lifeguard wasn’t a zombie, he was smiling and he wasn’t trying to eat anyone.

Rory turns down the next street. Aiden stays hidden until he can’t hear the engine or squealing tires, then breaks into a crouched run.

• • •

The Mini-Mart is empty other than Beth, who is leaning against the register, texting. He waves, but she ignores him. She probably doesn’t recognize him with his mask on. Zach gets all red-faced whenever he sees Beth. He says she’s the extreme hotness.

Beth used to babysit kids around the neighborhood, but she’s in college now. She’s always nice to Aiden. One time, she covered him when he was thirteen cents short on a pack of Skittles. She had said, “Does your mom know you’re eating that crap?”

“She lives in Iowa.”

“Oh,” Beth had said. “Go ahead and take it.”

Today, though, Beth doesn’t look up from her phone.

The Mini-Mart is trashed. The plexiglass donut doors are lying on the floor in a slurry of crushed potato chips, spilled soda, and plastic wrappers. Aiden wonders why Beth hasn’t cleaned it up. Someone has made a heaping pile in the candy aisle. The shelves are empty, other than a torn-open box of black trash bags. Aiden roots around in the pile, pushing aside Paydays, Sweet Tarts, and a sticky clump of smashed Hostess pies, until he finds some Twizzlers. A pounder bag, even — score! The chip aisle has been cleaned out, too, but he finds a single bag of Cool Ranch Doritos way in the back on the bottom shelf. Twizzlers and Doritos should be enough to bribe Zach with, but he grabs some beef jerky just in case.

Aiden walks carefully across the broken glass to pluck a couple of sodas — the only Dew left is Baja Blast, not his favorite, but way better than Pepsi.

Aiden puts his snacks on the checkout counter. Beth doesn’t scan them. She’s still leaning against the register, smiling down at her phone. Now that he looks, her smile doesn’t look right. Her upper lip is pulled up so high he can see the gums above her teeth. Wolves do that when they’re snarling, show their gums, but people don’t usually smile that way, at least not in the pictures Ms. Hampton show shim.

He reaches into his pocket and —

He forgot his money.

“I” — Aiden tries hard, but not even his mask can make him strong enough to stop the tears — “um, I forgot something.”

Aiden runs down the nearest aisle. He clenches his hands and jumps up and down. He tries not to howl, but it happens anyway. He’s so mad at himself. And hungry. Why didn’t he bring his money? How stupid!

Aiden has money at home, but it’s a long walk. Plus, Zach might notice he’s back and not let him leave again.

Aiden lifts his mask and wipes off his face before going back to the counter. Beth is still texting.

“I forgot my money at home. Can I maybe pay next time?”

Beth doesn’t say anything.

“It’s me, Aiden.” He lifts his mask. “You babysat me. And my brother, Zach.”

Beth doesn’t even look at him.

“Can I pay next time?” He watches Beth’s face carefully. Her smile doesn’t change.

“Okay, I’ll pay next time.” Aiden says, lowering his mask. He doesn’t want her to think he’s a thief.

The Twizzlers crinkle when he tucks them in the back of his pants. He cracks his Dew as the doors slide open, takes a big swig, and races home, howling.

“Aaa-oooooooo!”

• • •

Aiden stands behind the couch for ten minutes, trying to be patient. Zach didn’t notice him come in, his headset’s on and he’s talking to another player, probably the blonde in pink camo. She’s plowing down zombies with a pair of huge pistols. They’re still trying to clear the factory.

“Yeah, a real paper.” Zach says, “Hasn’t moved in a week.”

The avatars run across a catwalk, staggering zombies following them, groping hands reaching up from below.

“You the youngest? Sucks, man. I’ve got a little brother.”

Now they’re running down a flight of metal stairs.

“No, luckily he’s clueless.” They gun down the hordes at the bottom of the stairs. “Nothing I can do about it, though, so I might as well let him enjoy — behind you, man! Behind — ”

Both characters die in an explosion of limbs and boiling black smoke.

“Shit.” Zach throws himself back on the couch. His head bumps Aiden’s bag of Twizzlers. “Aid! Fuck, don’t just stand there like that!”

Aiden offers him a Twizzler.

“Not you, Crash — my little brother. Gotta go.” Zach pauses as he’s pulling off his headset and adds, “You too, man. Good luck.”

“Who’s Crash?”

“Some guy online. He can’t get past the factory either.”

“Why’s he playing a girl?”

Zach pulls out a plug of five or six Twizzlers. “Where were you hiding these?”

“I wasn’t hiding them. I just got them from the Mini-Mart.”

Zach looks back at the TV, thumbs his controller to start a new game. “You shouldn’t go out alone.”

“I’m going to the pool next.”

“No way, Aid.” Zach grabs more Twizzlers.

“I’m going.”

“You can’t go alone. I’ll take you,” — the game is drawing him back in — “in a minute.”

No” — Aiden pulls on Zach’s shoulder — “you always say that.”

Zach isn’t listening.

“I saw Beth at the Mini-Mart.”

Zach’s fingers don’t slow, but something flickers across his face.

“She said she was going to the pool later.”

Zach turns all the way around. “Did she really?”

“You love her!” Aiden says.

That usually gets Zach going, but not this time. But Zach also doesn’t see the horde of zombies piling onto his avatar. “What did she say?”

Aiden picks at a cushion. He’s glad he’s got his mask on.

“Tell the truth, Aid. It’s important. What did she say?”

“Nothing.”

“Didn’t think so.”

“Don’t tell Dad,” Aiden says. Their dad is cool about most stuff, but not lying. “Okay?”

“I won’t, Aid.” Zach pulls more Twizzlers. “Go put on your suit.”

• • •

On their walk to the pool, Zach waves to Mr. Fugleman.

“Don’t!” Aiden says, pulling on Zach’s arm. Aiden can’t wait to jump off the high dive. “He’ll talk forever.”

“Probably not today,” Zach says. He was right, Mr. Fugleman keeps raking, smiling away.

They don’t see anyone else on the walk to the pool. Rory’s black convertible is in the parking lot. Aiden stops.

“What’s up, Aid?”

“Rory’s been driving that car around.”

“So?”

“He’s mean.”

“I’ll protect you.” Zach spits in the back seat as they pass. “Sweet ride for a dick hat.”

Aiden smiles up at Zach.

Rory and his big, stupid buddies are in the deep end, so Zach makes Aiden play in the kiddie pool. “Just until Rory leaves,” he says. “Then we’ll have the whole place to ourselves.”

“I’m going to own the high dive!”

“You bet you are.” Zach runs across the concrete and flings himself into the big pool.

There aren’t any other kids in the kiddie pool — usually it’s mobbed, so packed he’s never really noticed how shallow the water is, or how warm. The big pool water is nice and cold, especially the deep water. Aiden splashes around for a while, but the water fort isn’t the same without someone to chase, and the water cannons are sad, weak little streams without the heat of battle. He has his mask on but being a wolf-pirate alone isn’t so great.

Zach looks like he’s having fun, though. They’re all yelling and running around, sailing off the high dive, pushing each other into the water, cannonballing. The lifeguard walks back and forth, ignoring them.

Rory is big and awkward on the high dive, like he doesn’t understand how the board bounces. He keeps pushing the other boys off, acting like he owns it or something. Aiden laughs when Rory pushes Zach off the high dive and then loses his balance and falls in himself. He’s a dick hat.

Rory climbs out of the pool yelling something, and suddenly the whole pack of boys is racing across the pool deck after him in a wet thunder of slapping feet and fist bumps. They disappear into the locker room.

Aiden isn’t going to miss the chance to get a quick jump off the high dive. He adjusts his mask as he runs wolf-fast across the concrete.

He flies up the ladder and runs to the end of the board, where he bounces up and down, up and down, up and down, and then up and out over the water, wrapping his knees with his arms. He doesn’t realize he’s howling until he plunges into the water.

The water is cold, and it feels great as he sinks. His mask feels weird, pressed against his face, cold and close. He watches an older woman in a black suit swimming in the lap lane. Her hands sweep through the water, big knuckles and brown splotches and red nails.

When he eventually must come up for air, Rory is pointing at him, yelling something. The other boys dive into the water in a pack. They come at him like sharks. They haul him out of the water, hollering and laughing.

Rory has Aiden by the arm. “What are you doing here, wolf-boy?”

“I just wanted to” — Aiden looks around for Zach but doesn’t see him — “I just wanted to jump off the high dive.”

“Wolf-boy wants to jump off the high dive!” Rory marches Aiden across the concrete.

Rory’s cronies are all laughing. Where’s Zach? Aiden tries to pull away.

Rory drags Aiden toward the ladder. “Afraid, wolf-boy? You should be.”

Aiden pulls away, but Rory is much stronger. “Let go!”

“Listen to wolf-boy howl!” Rory makes high-pitched whining noises. As Rory pulls him up the ladder, Aiden wraps his arm around the rail and holds on as hard as he can. Rory jerks his arm, hard. “Let go, you little shit.”

“No!”

Rory punches Aiden in the stomach and he loses his hold on the rail. Rory pulls him toward the end of the diving board. Aiden wraps himself around one of Rory’s thighs, twining his legs around his calf, his wolf-snout pressing against Rory’s knee.

Rory waves his arms and hands in the air. “Oh no! Wolf-boy’s biting me!” He grabs Aiden by the shoulders and pushes forward, putting all his weight into his knee, pressing Aiden into the sandpaper texture of the diving board.

Aiden wants to howl, but Rory has crushed the air out of him. When Rory lifts his knee, Aiden scrambles backward, toward the end of the diving board, gasping. His mask is not making him brave right now.

“Wolf-boy wants to jump!” Rory yells, flexing his legs, pushing the diving board down and up.

Aiden crouches and grabs the diving board. He doesn’t mean to, but he pees himself. A puddle spreads across the board and trickles off the sides into the pool below.

“Wolf-boy pissed himself!”

All the boys are laughing.

Rory kicks Aiden.

“Don’t!” Aiden howls and rams his head into Rory’s stomach. Rory steps back and loses his balance. He grabs Aiden with one hand as he falls backward, bouncing off the edge of the diving board. There is a loud crack and Rory cries out as they fall. They hit the water in an awkward tangle. Rory’s knee hits Aiden’s face. His mask slips off and slices away. Aiden grabs and claws and kicks and screams. His mouth fills with water. Rory tries to push Aiden away, but he grabs Rory’s arm. Rory’s scream is dulled underwater. He jerks away, kicking Aiden as he struggles to the surface, his left forearm suspended awkwardly below the elbow in the water.

Aiden swims from Rory and hangs on the lane divider, panting. Rory is screaming, swimming one-armed toward his buddies at the pool edge. They all look a little sick. Aiden hears someone splashing toward him — it’s the woman swimming laps. When she reaches forward with her splotchy claw arm, her head turns toward Aiden to take a breath. She has a giant grin frozen on her face. Aiden doesn’t understand how anyone could be that happy swimming laps.

Rory screams as his gang pulls him from the water. With his good arm, he points at Aiden. Aiden scrambles out of the pool, bumping his chin and shins and knees, and runs.

• • •

Aiden sits on the curb outside the pool, crying. Without his mask, he’s powerless.

Zach sits down next to him. “You okay?”

“No thanks to you.”

“I was taking a dump, Aid. What happened?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?” Zach holds out the wolf mask. “Apparently some kid in a mask broke Rory’s arm.”

Aiden smiles at Zach and pulls on his mask.

“How about we get out of here, maybe make a pizza and watch TV?”

“Really? Wait” — Aiden slides his mask onto the top of his head — “you’ll just play your stupid game.”

“Not tonight.”

“Right.”

“I won’t. Not until you fall asleep.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

“Can we really have pizza?”

• • •

After pizza and Jurassic World on Blu-ray, Zach boots up his game, but only after Aiden says it’s okay. He’s still trying to clear the factory.

Aiden watches for a while, half asleep. “Are we really going to the pool in the morning?”

“You bet.”

“First thing?”

“Wake me up and we’ll go.”

“Don’t stay up all night killing zombies.”

Zach laughs. “If I do, you can go to the pool without me.”

• • •

Aiden wakes up in his bed. Zach must have brought him up, he doesn’t remember coming upstairs or putting on his pajamas. When he goes to the bathroom, the light doesn’t work. He sees his trunks hanging in the shower — the high dive! He pulls them on, grabs his wolf mask, and races downstairs.

Zach is on the couch, clicking and punching his controller.

“Zach” — Aiden punches his shoulder — “you stayed up all night!”

Zach doesn’t say anything, he just keeps clicking away. But the TV is off.

Aiden leans over the back of the couch. Zach is smiling, but his smile isn’t right. He has never smiled like this before, big and toothy.

“Zach! We’re supposed to go to the pool! Now, before Rory gets there. Remember? The high dive?”

Zach remains glued to the dead TV, his eyes ticking back and forth like he’s tracking zombies in the factory. Aiden tries to take the controller away, but Zach holds on.

Aiden storms into the kitchen. “Dad, something’s wrong with Zach!” His dad is still reading the paper. “I know you’re not reading that!” Aiden pokes his dad’s arm. “Dad!” Aiden grabs the paper and tears it out of his hands. “Dad!”

His dad doesn’t move, doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even blink. His elbows rest on the table, shreds of paper held in each hand, his eyes moving back and forth, smiling.

Aiden lets out a ripper of a howl. “Stop ignoring me!”

Aiden stands in front of the TV, blocking Zach’s view. Aiden howls. Zach keeps clicking away, his eyes focused past Aiden, on the screen.

Aiden runs through the house howling. “Aaa-oooo! Aaaaaaa-ooooooooooo!”

When he tires of that, he decides to go to the pool. Zach said he could. He’s going to need supplies for the journey — even wolf-pirates must eat, and Zach burned through the rest of the Twizzlers.

Today is going to be epic, he’ll need more than Twizzlers anyway. He needs meat. There were Slim Jims in the Mini-Mart candy pile. Aiden gathers up his allowance, filling his pockets with coins.

Mr. Fugleman is out raking again, but Aiden’s deep in wolf mode. Nothing can stop him — except Rory, who’s parked at one of the pumps at the Mini-Mart. Aiden sneaks along a row of trees and crouches behind the dumpster.

Rory’s sitting in the driver’s seat with his arm, wrapped in a towel and duct-taped, resting on the door. He has his big sunglasses on, his head turned toward the Mini-Mart, smiling. The car isn’t running, and the loud music is off, but Rory’s head is bobbing to some kind of beat.

Aiden growls softly. Aiden looks inside, wondering if one of Rory’s buddies is inside. Other than Beth, it looks empty.

Aiden isn’t leaving without his Slim Jims. He’ll have to be fast — and fierce, if Rory comes after him. Aiden lopes across the concrete, quiet and fast. When he reaches the doors, he turns his head and snarls. Rory hasn’t moved. His glasses are so big they cover the corners of his smile.

Inside, Aiden dumps fistfuls of coins onto the counter. “That’s for yesterday and today.”

Beth is still texting.

It’s dark, even for a wolf, so Aiden lifts his mask to find the Slim Jims in the candy hoard. He grabs as many as he can find. He needs to stay hydrated, so he takes the only soda he can find, a dusty can of Pepsi he finds under a cooler. It’s better than nothing.

Aiden slides up to the front window and peeks outside. Rory hasn’t moved.

“I’m a wolf-pirate,” he says to Beth. “Aaaaaaa-ooooooooooo!” In a flash, Aiden is outside and running. He doesn’t slow down for a whole block.

• • •

The pool is mostly deserted. The lifeguard is walking back and forth, the smiling woman is still swimming her laps, and the other women are still sunning on their loungers.

Aiden drops his towel and howls as he does an epic cannonball into the deep end. His mask comes off, but he swims down and grabs it before it gets away. He climbs out of the pool and scrambles back up the ladder to the high dive.

He jumps down on the end of the board, then as high as he can in the air, out over the water. His stomach flips as he falls toward the water. He’s laughing like a crazy person, flailing his arms and legs. He hits face first, and the mask presses hard against his cheeks and forehead, sliding to one side. He’s laughing so hard he almost chokes underwater. But wolf-pirates don’t choke — or drown.

He swims to the lip and pulls himself up. He shoots up the ladder and bounds off the board again and again and again.

He’s having the time of his life.

Aiden stops once or twice for Slim Jims and Pepsi. By early afternoon, he’s getting tired. His shoulders and neck are hot with sunburn, but he doesn’t care.

He could do this pretty much forever.

He springs off the high dive, rising high in the air. When he strikes the water, his mask shoots off and zigzags away. He sinks through the warmer upper layer of water into the cooler depths. The water feels good on his stinging back, pushing away the heat on his neck and ears and nose. The water stings his eyes, open and staring, but the cold feels surprisingly good on his teeth.


Chip Houser lives in St. Louis again — after trial lives in Kansas, Italy, Germany, and Colorado. Despite several decades actively trying to shake the profession, he’s an architect. He has an MFA from the University of Missouri in St. Louis, where he was Assistant Editor for the literary journal Natural Bridge. His fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, New Myths, The Arcanist, Every Day Fiction, and many other venues. Dark Morsels, a collection of his tiny fiction, is forthcoming from Red Bird Press. Someday soon you may find more of his carefully nurtured oddities at chiphouser.com, but for now go with Twitter: @chazzlepants.