By Joe Baumann
When I opened the door and found a naked man facedown on the front porch, I assumed he was a drunk. But then he stretched up, extending his arms so his back curved like he was a seal, and he smiled at me.
“Oh good,” he said, springing to his feet. He had a hint of a British accent. “I’m in the right place.”
Neither my brother or sister seemed perturbed by the man’s nudity; he sat at the kitchen table and they bounced around him, gawking like they’d been given a pony for Christmas. Our parents, like so many other families’, had disappeared years ago, poof, vamoose, abracadabra, gone.
The man was built like a swimmer, hairless and with little fat on his body; I could see the striations in his shoulder muscles, and his upper back was lined like a road map. I found a pair of sweatpants and asked him to put them on. He obliged. They dangled above his ankles when he sat.
The next morning, another one appeared on the porch.
I am a locksmith by trade, an occupation that has become lucrative since the parents disappeared.
My vision got blurry and I smashed against the wall like a pinball on my way to the bathroom.
Lots of houses were left with kids no older than twelve or thirteen in charge, children who weren’t used to having to keep track of bills, schedules, or, most valuable to me, keys. For the first few weeks our street alone had at least one case a day of some kid getting locked out and trudging down to our house, banging on the door and begging to be let back in. Their voices were always crowded with tears, sobs threatening to waterfall out of their wriggling lips. Because most of these kids also didn’t yet have access to their parents’ bank accounts—much less their own jobs—I bartered for frozen tv dinners or blankets or, if they knew where it was, bottles from their parents’ liquor stashes.
At night, after I’d dragged my eternally bouncy brother and sister to bed, I would sit in what had always been my father’s recliner and watch HBO while sipping a glass of whatever spirit I’d last managed to exchange for my services. I used the rocks glasses my parents used to set out for themselves during special occasions. My mother would catch me staring with the hunger of near-adulthood, and she would pat my arm and tell me that I hadn’t much time to wait.
Because I had no parent to teach me the ins and outs of alcohol, I got very drunk the first time, swallowing down gulps of Bombay Sapphire like I was chugging a can of Sprite. My vision got blurry and I smashed against the wall like a pinball on my way to the bathroom. I spent the next day vomiting, my brother and sister taking turns poking at me.
The second one looked, while he was prone on the ground, identical to the first: strong legs, calves like rolling pins, triceps popping like thick chicken wings. He leaned up and greeted me with the same hint of an accent and equal excitement at winding up on the correct porch as the first naked man. His nose was more aquiline, and he had a stronger hairline. They looked like they might be brothers, fraternal twins perhaps.
My brother and sister were running laps around the coffee table while the first naked man—still wearing his sweatpants and, at my sister’s request, a pink wrinkled apron that she found stuffed in a drawer—cooked breakfast. The house smelled of bacon.
“Is he going to replace Arty, too?”
“I don’t know,” I said, and dragged this second naked man down the hall. I found him another set of sweatpants, gray like the first pair. They were my father’s, and they drooped down his hips, threatening to slip right off.
“Maybe some underwear too,” I said, handing him a pair of boxer briefs. He shrugged, a goofy smile on his face. Then he bowed, and wandered toward the sound of my siblings’ laughter while I hurried to get ready for work.
Before my parents’ disappearance we had a nanny named Arty who watched my brother and sister during the summer. He cooked for them, picked up the wave of toys that followed them like footprints, and did laundry. Arty didn’t vanish like the rest of the adults, even though he was older than both of my parents and had thinning hair that he kept cut short to hide the bald patches, but he did quit. The day after our parents went missing, I awoke to him standing in my doorway, a battered suitcase at his side. He told me, mouth downturned, that it was time for him to go, and before I could beg him to stay, he had spun away and let himself out the front door, not even taking a moment to pause and look one last time at what he was leaving behind.
There were twelve of them all told. On the thirteenth morning, instead of another naked man I found only the Sunday newspaper wrapped in slick ripe-banana yellow. I’d run out of sweatpants after the third one showed up, and had to start rooting through my father’s jeans. I was too short, too spindly-thin for my clothes to fit them, and most of my father’s clothes were too loose, falling off like baggy dresses on hangers. We made do with cinched-tight belts. None of them were worried about wearing shirts.
My sister was right: they did seem to want to replace Arty. They had somehow assigned themselves different tasks, one of them cooking meals, another jotting down a grocery list after hemming and hawing at the open pantry and then the half-empty refrigerator, others making our beds and sweeping the hardwood floors. Another took our dog, Prank, for a walk, still shirtless, even though the fall chill had descended.
“You don’t want a coat?” I’d asked. “Shoes?”
His smile revealed perfect, bleached-white teeth. “Only if you want me to wear them.”
“At least wear my flip flops.”
My sister watched him leave, head pressed against the glass of the front window.
“They’re bigger than you,” she said.
“Why are they bigger than you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know who they are, even.”
My sister shrugged at this. “They’re our friends. They want to help us.”
“How do you know?”
“What else would they be doing here?”
Our parents disappeared three weeks after Christmas. The snow on the ground was hard-packed, the kind that crunches like a crumpling soda can when you step on it, your foot’s smashing into it delayed by just a second so that you feel weightless for the finger-snap just before your heft pushes through, taking jagged chunks out of the surface, leaving behind lines like veins in broken glass. I felt that same weightlessness when I woke up, and the entire house was doused in it. My brother and sister were already awake and watching cartoons; they’d helped themselves to bowls of cereal, droplets of milk sloshed on the kitchen table where they’d poured it over the marshmallowy shapes. Their bowls were full of nothing but swirling pinkish-green film by the time I scuffled into the living room. My sister had her spoon in her mouth.
“Where are Mom and Dad?” I said.
My sister plucked the spoon from her mouth and licked it like she was savoring a lollipop.
“They’re gone,” she said.
“Where did they go?”
“Don’t know,” she said.
“They’re just gone,” my brother added.
Their nonchalance reminded me of those devil children from horror movies, and I felt a fever breaking on my forehead. The cartoon went to a commercial and my siblings pushed themselves off the floor, picked up their cereal bowls, scampered into the kitchen, and dropped them in the sink.
“Can we play hide and seek?” my sister asked.
“We’ll hide and you seek,” my brother said.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. My vision swirled with bruised yellow splotches; my tongue went dry. The sound of my siblings’ laughter as they tucked themselves away in our parents’ closet, legs slunk behind one of my mother’s long gowns, died off like a fading breeze.
I searched the house for our parents: no one in the master bath, or the basement, on the back deck, or in the garage. Their cars were both still there, keys hanging on hooks my mother had adhered to the kitchen door. Her purse was slung in its regular spot on the back of a kitchen chair, and my father’s wallet and his spare change splayed on the dining room table. When I flung open the door of their closet, I ignored my sister’s hushed giggling and my brother’s swallowed chortle and surveyed the clothes hung on either side of the walk-in: no noticeable absences. The shampoos and shaving creams were on the caddy in the shower, deodorant bars and my mother’s vitamins lining the bathroom vanity.
“I’m worried,” I said when I returned to the closet and shoved apart the hangers covering my sister.
“Why?” she said.
“Mom and Dad are gone.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Should we find them?” my brother said, stepping out from behind my father’s neckties.
“Let’s go,” my sister said, and they both shoved past me, running down the hall.
My sister named the men. She called the first one—whom she had grown enamored with and followed around while he moved between the stove and refrigerator making meals—all the while wearing the same pink apron—Arty.
“Because he looks like Arty must have when he was young,” she said.
“I’m not seeing it,” I told her, squinting at the no longer naked man. “But couldn’t that be confusing?”
“What about Arty Two?”
“I guess so. What are you calling the others?”
“Barty, Carty, Darty, Farty.”
She giggled. “He’s the smelly one.”
“Which one is that?”
“Then Garty, Harty, Jarty, Karty, Larty, Marty.”
“And Narty, huh?”
“You okay with this, Arty Two?”
“Of course,” he said, voice prim, proper, and relaxed all at once. He slid us each a plate of fluffed scrambled eggs. “Orange juice?”
When my parents found out they were having twins, they told me that I was also supposed to have a twin, but it was absorbed in utero. Apparently, at some point in the first trimester I decided I wanted to be the sole object of my parents’ attention and affection and I gobbled up my sibling, early enough that there was no way to tell whether it would have been a brother or sister. A vanishing twin, they call it. After my parents told me this I wondered about this disappeared twin, the sister or brother that never was. I heard its voice at night, giggling into my ear. After the disappearance, it started asking me if I missed our parents, because they were with it now. Just as I absorbed my twin, my twin licked up my parents, pulled them out of the world that I knew and into its, and they would never be back.
They are mine, the voice said, and I was inclined to believe.
I came home from work and headed straight to the basement to put away my work belt and heard muffled groans. Our parents kept an extra bed down there, a double, for unexpected guests. The room was colder than the rest of the house, the insulation thin, the crack beneath the door always letting in whiffs of cold air. A thick set of quilts were piled on the bed like pancakes, and they’d been neat and ordered, hugging the mattress evenly on both sides, from when my mother last made the bed before she disappeared, covered in a dusting of Prank’s hair from when he sleeps down there in the summer.
But the blankets were disheveled, crumpled and crinkled. A pair of pants lay in a floppy loop to the side of the bed I could see.
And there were two bodies beneath them.
They sat up, two of the men, the blankets falling down around their hips. I couldn’t recall which ones they were; I thought of them all as Arty. The Artys, I guess. These two had their arms around one another. They didn’t look ashamed, exactly, or embarrassed, just surprised by my presence.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt,” I said.
“Should we get back to work?” one of them—Garty, maybe?—said. His companion grinned, whispered in his ear, and they both giggled as though reduced to children.
“Um, no, that’s okay,” I said. One of them had started to slide out from the bed, his bare leg snaking out from beneath the blanket. “Why don’t I just go upstairs?”
“If that’s what you want,” the perhaps-Garty said.
I turned, took the stairs two at a time, and shut the door behind me, face flushed.
After a while, neighbor kids started knocking on the door, not to ask for help, but to get a glimpse at the men who’d taken up residence in our house.
“How did you hear about them?” I asked one pair of girls who were maybe ten or eleven. Both were blonde and snow pale. They grinned at me and I thought they looked like sheep. Then, seeing one of the men walk by behind me, they shoved past me and started squealing at him.
“Please don’t tell people about them,” I told my brother and sister.
“That’s not a reason.”
“Because I said so.”
“But why do you say so?”
“Yeah, why do you say so?”
“Because I don’t want strangers knocking on our door and staring at them.”
“But they don’t mind.”
“Yeah, Arty Two said he doesn’t mind.”
“So did Barty, and Carty, and Darty, and—”
“Okay, okay.” I held up a hand. “Let’s get ready for bed, alright?”
“Are you ashamed of them?” my brother said.
“No. Why? I just don’t want them to become a spectacle, that’s all.”
“What’s a spectacle?” My sister bounced onto her feet and darted down the hall toward the bathroom. One of the men, who was lying on the couch, yawned and asked if he should help her.
“No,” I said, waving for him to lie back down. He had on a flannel shirt that was too tight for him, the rolled-up sleeves squeezing around his arms like a pair of blood pressure cuffs.
As my brother sprinted past me, Prank huffing and chasing as well, I thought about my sister’s question.
It is all a spectacle, I thought.
For the first few days following the disappearances, I kept my brother and sister home from school and watched the news, swapping from channel to channel so that there was a constant flow of reportage. My siblings complained, swooning on the floor and screaming for their favorite cartoons, but I held the remote over my head and scooped the two of them up if they tried to smash at the buttons on the set itself. They threw tantrums, dropping glasses of milk and juice, stomping around so hard I thought they might put holes in the floor with their heels. Eventually I caved and dressed them up for school, dragged them to the car, and poured them into the back seat. They bemoaned their fate all the way to the building, sounding like I’d condemned them to death.
I stopped in their principal’s office after squaring them away in their desks. Their teacher gave me an unnerved nod as I left.
“I’m sorry they haven’t been here for a few days,” I told the principal. She had on large glasses and her hair was curly, the color of a brick house. “It’s just, well, we’ve had some family stuff.”
“Parents went poof too, huh?” she said, peeling off her glasses like a coat.
“Um, yeah.” I shifted my weight and stuffed my hands in my pockets.
“Mine, too. In their eighties. It hasn’t ever been so quiet in my house.” She shut her eyes and took a few deep breaths. “Marvelous, isn’t it?”
The sleeping arrangement was unwieldy. The Artys were taking turns in my parents’ abandoned bed and the bed in the basement; two others slept on the two living room couches, and one crooked himself onto the recliner at night. This left five of them strewn about the floor, unless my brother and sister decided to sacrifice their beds for their favorites when it was their turn to go bedless. I did not opt to share my personal space.
And the food: I wasn’t sure how we managed to feed fifteen people and a dog without running out of money fast.
“They have money,” my sister said.
“Where are they getting it? I’m not paying them,” I said.
“They came with it.”
When I walked in, they stopped, in synchronization, and smiled, waving at me like members of a cult.
I chose not to point out that they were naked when they arrived. I did not want to have to explain naked any more than I already had. I didn’t want to explain ATMs or checking accounts or bills or any of that to my brother and sister, who would bounce around asking why, why, why, how, how, how, what’s that, what’s that, what’s that. I wanted to close my eyes for a few minutes, let the caterpillars of color crawl across the swirling dark of my vision, and lose track of things, and later open my eyes and find our house emptied again, just me and my brother and sister, the constant hiss of the shower or the squeak of floorboards under two dozen feet silenced, with nothing but the babbling sound of Prank’s dog collar rattling from down the hall.
“But I love them,” my sister half-screeched, half-said.
“We’ll visit them.”
“No we won’t. I know we won’t.”
“Yes we will.”
“You shouldn’t talk to me like that.”
She screeched again and stomped off. I watched her trail down the hallway and slam her bedroom door.
The day before, I’d found the Artys in the dining room, constructing a new table. All twelve of them were bunched into the space, sanding and staining wood, putting together some mediocre-looking chairs that seemed to want to be oak but were clearly some lesser material. When I walked in, they stopped, in synchronization, and smiled, waving at me like members of a cult. I’d asked what was going on, and my sister, bouncy as ever, said they’d decided to make us a larger dining room table.
“For what?” I said.
“For everyone to eat at.”
“There’s no way to fit fifteen people in this room. And where did they get this stuff?”
“They bought it.”
I wanted to ask how, but I no longer cared to understand or explain.
The next morning, I broke into an abandoned house a few blocks over on a dying cul-de-sac where no one mowed their lawns with care and weeds had sprung up in the large cracks in the street. The house was laden with dust, and the electricity was spotty—but still working—and there was running water. No beds, but I figured if the Artys could scrounge up the materials for a dining room table, they could manage mattresses and blankets just fine.
And then I told my sister I was moving the Artys out of our house. She had a meltdown.
“Let them stay one more night. Please?”
I sighed. “If that’ll make you stop whining.”
“We can throw them a goodbye party at least?”
What my sister did not tell me was that she had told her friends from school that the Artys were moving into a new house and that her classmates should come watch the proceedings. A procession it did turn out to be: I doled out most of my father’s clothes, especially the older ones that might fit the Artys, from the days before my father let himself go and became round all over. I should have felt something in gutting the walk-in closet, but even when my father’s half was sparse, his clothes parceled out to each of the Artys, I felt no different. My parents were gone, and soon the Artys would be, too.
Because you never loved them, the specious twin voice in my head said. You don’t love any of them.
I tugged at my ear.
When I opened the front door, the gaggle of children from my sister’s class waiting on the porch cheered as though we were a rock group and they had been yearning for us to open our set. My sister squeezed by me and started galloping around in the yard like a cowboy on a bronco, leading her friends in an energetic lap through the grass.
“What is going on?”
“They want to give a fanfare farewell.”
“Where did you learn that?”
My sister rolled her eyes and took Arty Two’s hand. “You can be in front.”
“He doesn’t know where he’s going,” I said.
“Fine, he can be in front after you.”
We proceeded down the sidewalk like a parade, I its unhappy grandmaster. The Artys followed, falling into an ordered line. My siblings and their friends pranced into the street, weaved between the Artys, floated out in front of me, looking back to make sure they didn’t miss us turning off our path. The walk took less than ten minutes.
“Here we are,” I said. The house was a two-story, canary yellow with white columns and a wrap-around porch. The paint was flecking off in pocks, and a few of the spindles along the rails had been kicked out. The glass in one pane in the bay window was spidered but functional.
“Are you sure they have to stay here? Why can’t they stay with us?” my sister said, voice nasal and clogged.
“Yeah, why?” my brother chimed in behind me.
“We went over this.” I turned to Arty Two. He was wearing one of my father’s shirts, unbuttoned. The cotton hung over him like a poncho, revealing the rivulets between his muscles. “You want to do the honors?”
“If that’s what you’d like me to do.”
I moved aside. “Go ahead.”
The children fell silent when Arty Two stepped to the door and reached for the knob. Everything was blind quiet, crackling with the sparkle of energy that simmers through your limbs when you get a little static shock.
And then, in the space before Arty Two turned the knob and before I might stop him, I realized what would be on the other side of the door: our parents, and all the other children’s parents, lying on the ground in their own filth and grime, eyes wild and hair unkempt, faces blemished with the dust laid over the house. They would stare up at us all like wild animals, unfamiliar with our eyes or our language or our voices. The children would scream, some running to their parents, others away. I would stand still as a stone while my brother and sister looked to me for answers, for what to do, and as had been the case for so long, I would have none. I would stare at our parents and my head would fill with that rasping, dull voice, laughing at me and all around me, like I was in an echo chamber. The Artys would be gone, vanished as quick as they had appeared, clothes puddled on the ground to mark where they’d ascended away like fire smoke, and it would be only me there between the children and the parents.
I swallowed and felt a tingling in the back of my throat. My legs wobbled.
Arty Two turned the knob, and the whole world screamed.
Joe Baumann is an Instructor of English at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri, where he teaches creative writing, literature, and composition. He is the author of Ivory Children and Rolling Girl, Shepherd Hill, two flash fiction chapbooks. His work has appeared in the Tulane Review, Lindenwood Review, Hawai’I Review, Folio, and several others.