THE INSIDE OF TOBY'S HEAD was lined with plaid and could be packed like a suitcase. It reminded Toby of the pattern inside Doug's hunting jacket, which Doug had grown too big for and given to Sammy. That was the second thing Toby put inside his suitcase head--the jacket that had been Doug's. The first thing was this: Before Gram there had been Mom.
"You're the youngest," Gram liked to say. "The last of us to see it."
Sometimes, when he and Gram were alone, she’d ask him to try to remember. "Think, Toby," she'd say, "to back before they put you in your mama's belly."
Toby would search the soft plaid of his mind, pushing past the hunting jacket, past Doug's old truck sprouting weeds in the front yard, past the names of planets and teachers at school. If he did this long enough, he'd see a Christmas tree, covered in silver hair, rising in a dark room. He, or someone like him, would reach out to touch it and a hand would come down hard on his head. The house with the Christmas tree was different than the house where he lived with Gram and his brothers--the color of the wood was different; there was the stuffy feeling of things having been the same forever--so he guessed it must be the place Gram was talking about.
"Was it beautiful?" Gram wanted to know, her eyes shaking with little dots. Toby could see the tree, filling all the space in his vision, nightmarishly tall.
"Yes," he said, and she would breathe out, shuddering. "That's heaven, Toby."
WHEN THE MACHINE SHOWED UP, Gram was already gone. She'd died in the early morning, hours before Sammy got there to help her down the stairs. It was Sammy's job to help her from the chair to her bed at night and from her bed back to her chair in the morning. It was Toby's job to open the door for the church woman, who came on Tuesday afternoons to help Gram in the bath. After Gram fell asleep, back in her chair, the church woman would give Toby a loaf of bread and a jug of milk to take to the kitchen. As she was leaving, she would sometimes look down at Toby and say, "Next time I'll bring you something special." Toby would look at the church woman's bag when she came around again, but it was never more than the loaf of bread and jug of milk. Doug could suck down half a jug like that just walking through the door after work.
It was Doug's job to make sure a flashlight turned on when he touched it to a battery. A long line of flashlights came at him all day on a belt, flashing once then moving on. He said that at night, when he got home, he could still see the lights, turning on and off, which might have been why he couldn't stay away from the machine.
IT WAS A BIG BOAT OF A THING, propped up on four wooden legs, with an upright box at the head, like a tombstone. On its face was an image of a buffalo, running from a slew of arrows, one already pinned to a red blot in its hide. Behind the arrows rode three naked men on horses, with long, flying braids and big white smiles, pitched forward in cartoon ecstasy.
"Where did you come from?" Doug's voice was greasy and older than it had ever been.
Toby had just come down the basement stairs. He'd been about to ask Doug why Sammy wasn't home yet, but got distracted by the smiles on the faces of the naked men shooting arrows. They must have been painted on a pane of glass, because their faces would suddenly light up from behind, making those smiles even brighter.
Doug stood at the end of the machine, fingering a plunger with a metallic ball. He snapped it back and the machine erupted into musical bells and loud pops. Toby watched Doug's long middle finger work a button at the side, holding it down, then tapping it furiously. There was a drop, a repetitive pinging of mechanical spinning numbers, and Doug brought his fist down and ran his pelvis into the end of the machine.
"Go to the hiding place and get me my cigarettes, Toby."
Doug and Sammy kept a store of bottles and magazines in the toolshed, under a bale of hay. Gram would be upset if she knew Doug was smoking in the house, but Toby supposed it must not matter now that she was dead, even if it had only been since that morning. Still, he thought it was important to remember that Gram wouldn't like it, and to feel sorry inside--a thing to keep.
Outside, Toby looked away from the windshield of the crumpled truck, afraid of seeing a reflection, or worse: the empty spots where the glass was cracked. It was dusk and the corn was roaring. Some people might think of corn as quiet, like a vegetable patch or a hay field, but Toby knew that when the stalks were tall, they could crash together, louder than your voice if you ever got lost out there.
Sammy's bike was not propped in its usual spot against the porch railing. He must have been burying Gram, like he'd buried their dog, Little Man, after he died from eating rat poison. Toby didn't consider how Gram would have fit on the bicycle or whether there would be a funeral. That morning, he'd heard Sammy saying she'd been dead most of the night and that Toby couldn't miss any more school. Toby walked to meet the bus, wondering why Gram had spent the night dead rather than asleep, if she was going to spend it in bed anyway. At school, he assumed the teachers knew everything, that every grownup must know, so he hadn't said a word about Gram being gone.
Now, it was almost night. In the toolshed, Toby saw the cat that liked to sit on the hay. He would have liked to make friends with that cat, but Little Man hated cats, which made Toby feel bad about being nice to one. Once, Little Man had jumped out a two-story window to chase a kitten in the corn. Toby liked to tell that story, about his dog flying through the air. When he told it, he saw it from below, looking up at the dog’s spotted belly, even though he'd been the one to open the upstairs window. That was another secret tucked in his head--not the window part, but the part about remembering something from a different pair of eyes.
The toolshed smelled like cat piss and putrid straw. The cat made a harsh, vibrating sound, then disappeared into a black corner. Toby felt around in the space below the hay for the carton of cigarettes. He wanted to hurry back and take a better look at that machine. Its being there hadn't settled with him, how it could just appear like that, with all those parts springing into action without so much as a sputter.
Toby liked when you could see the start of something all the way to the end. Gram had made wreaths to sell at the church fair every year. They weren't the kind you'd get at Christmas; these were made from bits of old clothes and ribbon and sometimes gold wire, or something special, like a charm in the shape of a horse. Toby liked to watch the wreaths grow under her hands, because he knew what to expect from the first knot to the end. Gram's old hands would claw up and down, braiding and pulling, like crows building a nest. Toby would watch her hands so he wouldn't have to see the dark windows of the living room that looked back at him with his own face.
Gram had meant for the wreaths to be sold as decorations for the home-some were pink and green for Easter, or soft and blue for a baby's room--but she found that most people liked to use them for graves, or markers on the side of the road. Toby’s bus passed one every day, right around where Autumn Tracy was dropped off. It was pink and red--the red coming from one of Toby's old shirts--with a big bow that always looked crumpled and wet. A girl who had been in Doug's class died when her truck had hit a tree. Doug said her body flew from the driver's seat twenty feet into the cow pasture and that, by the time the fire department showed up, the cows had licked off all her clothes. Doug was always telling that story, like it meant something important. Toby wondered why the wreath had been nailed to the tree and not put twenty feet into the cow pasture, but no one ever answered that question, so he'd focus on the red shirt. It had been his Christmas shirt, with a snowman on the front.
"There was a cat,” Toby said when he handed the cigarettes to his brother. Doug pulled one with his teeth, grimacing. His face was red and orange in the glow of the machine, which flashed like a fire truck without sirens.
"You know about Gram?" Doug asked with the cigarette still on his bottom lip. Toby nodded, looking at the smiling men with the flashing teeth. He wondered how Doug had gotten something as big and loud as that down into the cellar without anyone noticing. Toby had an uncomfortable feeling, like he was seeing someone's insides, open and aglow and full of strange pumping and flexing.
"Sammy took a job at the Hathaways' for a few days," Doug said. "When he gets back, tell him he'd better strip that bed down."
Sammy was always taking jobs at the Hathaways', or farther down the road--for Mr.Delaney when it was haying season. Mr. and Mrs. Hathaway liked Sammy, liked him so much, he bragged, that when he turned ten, Mr. Hathaway taught him how to drive the tractor, so he wouldn't have to push a wheelbarrow anymore. Some days, when the work was slow, Mrs. Hathaway would even call him in sick for school. Gram would never do a thing like that.
Doug jammed his hip into the machine and the bells started. His fingers twitched over the buttons and smoke came trailing out his nose, like he was connected to a big engine.
Toby found a bag of chips in the kitchen and took them upstairs to his room where there was a TV. He turned it on so he wouldn't have to hear the popping bells and Doug's swearing downstairs. He turned the sound up so he wouldn't have to feel the door to Gram's room, which he hadn't had the courage to close.
IN THE MORNING, the TV was showing a commercial for a breakfast--making machine that could pop out scrambled eggs, or little, perfectly round pancakes. Toby looked at it a long time, wondering how long he'd been awake and why everyone in the commercial was shouting. There was something about their beaming faces that made him uneasy, so he turned the switch and went looking for Sammy, to get ready for school. He remembered the machine halfway down the stairs, the same time as he heard the bells and the ching-chings from below the floorboards.
Doug was always at the factory this time in the morning, unless it was Saturday, which in that case meant no school. If Sammy was at the Hathaways', then Gram would be waiting in bed for her orange juice. Toby went to the fridge and found the bottle. He shook it and poured it into one of Gram's plastic cups with the built-in straw. Even as he was walking back upstairs with the juice in his hand, he knew what he was doing must be wrong. But he decided it was just a game, something to be carried out from beginning to end. He went into Gram's room, stood by the bed, and poured the juice onto the pillow. Back downstairs, Doug was tearing up the kitchen, drawers hanging open, papers and bits of mail scattered everywhere, Doug swinging around like a scarecrow in high winds. He stopped moving when he caught Toby standing in the doorway. He blinked his slow, red eyes.
"What happened to school?" he said. The sun was coming through the window, hard. Toby saw the patterns of dust and fingerprints along the countertops, something that must have always been there, hiding from sight.
"I thought we could make pancakes," Toby said, not knowing why he was saying it. "I thought we could make them really round this time."
Doug's voice was like a drain clogged with hair, getting ready to burble something foul.
"Get your ass to school," he said, and Toby didn't wait another second. He ran past the truck and down the driveway, straight down the road-not so much from Doug, but from the machine. There was no way Doug could build a thing like that, and he'd need a truck to move it to the house. Toby remembered the night Doug rolled home with the truck all smashed up. Gram had been madder than ever.
"I want you to look at my face, Douglas!" she yelled. "I want you to see me when I say I will be dead before this family can afford a new truck."
And now she was and there was no new truck, just that colorful, flashing mess in the basement. It must have been there always, Toby decided, waiting for someone to turn it on.
Toby meant to take the road down to the Hathaways' farm. They had big horses there with feathery legs that turned to icicles in the winter. Sometimes, when school was closed, Sammy would take Toby with him, letting him break the ice on the water troughs with a hammer. But when he came to the fork, Toby found himself walking his bus route instead, unable to deviate from the course he was used to taking day after day.
He made it to the shoulder of the highway before he heard the slow crunch of a car pulling up behind him, then quick footsteps over gravel.
"What on earth brought you out here?" A gloved hand grabbed his shoulder and he was strapped quickly into the front seat of the church woman's station wagon, a photo album wedged under his bottom. The woman got behind the wheel and struggled with a pile of keys in her lap, shaking her head. Her lips peeled back over her teeth in a way that made Toby think she was looking to bite someone. She was muttering.
"No coat," she said to her lap, then turned the key in the ignition. She was wearing a purple windbreaker zipped halfway over a sweater with an embroidered turkey on the front. Toby noticed his fingers were red and stiff. The vents blew lukewarm air at him.
"I'm sorry to hear about your grandma," the church woman said. "But it is always best to go before winter hits, if you can."
The back seat of the station wagon was stacked with paper towels, bags of dog food, plastic grocery bags bulging with scarves and mittens. The woman's hand came down on his knee.
"She’s in heaven now," she said.
Toby pictured the big tree, covered in silver hair, taking up all his vision. The hand coming down from nowhere. He rubbed his forehead as if he'd been struck, and wondered where there was room for Gram in that heaven, if maybe she'd have to find herself another one. As they pulled away from the curb, the woman asked questions about school, about Toby's mother. It had been a long time since Toby had seen his mom. He tried to keep her face packed safely away, but whenever he looked for it, he could only come up with the face of Ms. Stevens, his teacher from last year. He thought about sleeping and dreaming and being dead--how, if you couldn't do all three at once, maybe you could do two. Which two, then? He rearranged the possibilities in his head until everything felt pushed around.
Toby woke in his driveway, the car idling, but the church woman was no longer behind the wheel. The station wagon was parked close to Doug's old truck and Toby could just see the rim of the truck's window. Something solid seemed to roll over inside, and Toby covered his eyes with his hands. The vents blew hot air, rough against his face. When he opened his fingers, the church woman was coming down the porch steps, showing her teeth, like she was going to nip. Doug was in the doorway, smoking and waving angrily. He was holding some sheets of paper in one hand and he stopped waving to look at them as soon as the woman was off his porch.
Toby's door swung open and he slid off the photo album, into the cold. He watched the church woman's station wagon nudge back, then creep forward to turn around before creaking away. Toby felt as though he'd been gone all day. His stomach growled, and something meowed inside the old truck. The screen door of the house bounced and when Toby looked back, Doug was gone.
THAT WAS WHEN the boy showed up on Sammy's bike. Toby thought it was Sammy at first, but Sammy had reddish hair and a white line under his chin from when he cut himself jumping off the statue in front of their school. This boy had brown hair, no scar, and a tooth missing at the bottom, just like Toby. The boy jumped off the bike, letting it drop at the side of the house, then walked up the porch steps and caught the bouncing door in his hand. He was wearing Sammy's hunting jacket--the one that used to be Doug's. Just in case it really was Sammy, Toby started asking him about Gram and what about something to eat. But the boy who looked like Toby didn't say anything. He just went inside.
When Toby got to the cellar, the boy was already there with Doug. They were sitting on an old mattress that had been dragged close to the machine, which was still blinking silently. Doug showed the boy something on the piece of paper, his voice soft, patient, like Toby remembered from a long time ago. He wondered if Doug was sleeping down there now.
"Here's where the trouble is," Doug said, pointing to the paper. "The ball hits the spinner and the wrong lights light up." The Toby on the mattress paid close attention to whatever was on the paper and the Toby standing at the bottom of the stairs was looking at him. He couldn't explain what was happening, only that Gram was gone and if she could just leave like that, then maybe people could also just show up, like the boy in Sammy's coat. That coat was supposed to be his when Sammy grew out of it, but maybe who the coat belonged to was just one of those slight differences, like whether you're asleep and dead, or just asleep.
Doug handed the piece of paper to the boy and went to the machine, pulling back the trigger and ramming his hip into the corner. The machine flashed and popped. It seemed much louder than the night before. Doug's face swam in the orange and red lights.
"See? The wrong fucking lights. On and off. All over the field."
A white smile sprung up under his nose, like the smiling men chasing the buffalo. It reminded Toby of a dog that couldn't properly close its mouth.
Toby went to his room and turned on the TV. He watched it until the room grew dark and the 5:30 news came on. He could never follow the words spoken on the news, the way each sentence rolled into the next, like waves that never broke. Toby had a box of Gram's fruit candies and chewed in a daze, until he heard footsteps in the hall. It was the boy in Sammy's jacket. He came into the room and sat on the floor facing Toby, breathing softly through his mouth.
"It's called a scheme-attic,” he said, sliding over the piece of paper. It looked like a tangle of black lines and circles, with numbers scattered around, like an impossible connect-the-dots puzzle.
The other Toby closed his mouth in a sly grin and said: "I took it from him." He grabbed the paper back and left the room. Toby went to the window, pushing his face to the glass so that his own reflection would not be in the way. He saw the boy cross the front yard to Doug's truck, pull open the driver's door with some difficulty, then climb inside. The truck door closed and Toby had a dark feeling in his chest, like something had crawled in there and turned to stone.
THE CHURCH WOMAN was there the next morning clunking her shoes around downstairs. Toby found her running water over a heap of dirty dishes in the sink. There was a long gurgle that seemed to reach somewhere deep into the house. The woman looked up and wrinkled her nose at Toby, tightening her lips, but then seemed to remember something pleasant and her face changed. She turned off the water and the two of them stood hearing the faint pinging of the machine below.
"Good morning, Toby," the woman finally said, smiling. Her eyes fell onto the boots on his feet, which he'd slept in.
"Why don't you find your coat? I have something special for you in the car."
Toby couldn't think of what to say. Hadn't that boy taken his coat?
Or was the coat still Sammy's?
The woman took his hand and began walking. They made it to the front porch and Toby saw the station wagon parked next to the old truck, just like it had been the day before. Her grip tightened and he was suddenly afraid; what if the boy was still in there? What if he was asleep, or watching from the window? Toby could not decide which would be worse. The other Toby shouldn't be there. Not in Doug's truck. Not with Sammy's jacket. Toby pulled his hand away, scratching his palm on the woman's ring. A wind started to blow and the corn jumped in waves, making a coarse sound. He stepped down from the porch and heard the woman say his name in a low, warning tone, as if she knew what he was thinking. He tried another step forward, almost surprised at the working of his own free will, and he ran.
Toby could feel the other Toby watching, sitting cold behind the wheel of the truck. He could see himself, through the eyes of the other Toby, disappearing into the corn, followed by the church woman who lunged repeatedly at the hood of his sweater, like it was a trailing dog leash. It was easy for him to run through the straight rows of corn, dodging into another row whenever he felt the church woman getting close. But after some time, he slowed and realized that the sound he was running from was not the woman's breath, or the swish of her windbreaker, but the stalks crashing together around him. He stood still for a long time, unable to think of what to do, like an animal lingering in an open trap, suspicious of its freedom.
He'd been lost in the corn before, times when he'd gone in after Sammy, trying not to be seen, but also trying not to lose sight of his brother. One time, Toby followed Sammy and watched him sit on the damp, clay-like dirt. Watched him take from his pocket a book of matches, strike them, one after another, until all the matches were burned. Sammy had left the little black points in the dirt, but put the empty book back in his jacket, the jacket Toby now wondered if he'd ever get.