“To choose ways of not acting was ever the concern and scruple of my life.” — Fernando Pessoa


When I returned home, the door was locked, exactly as I’d left it, and I would check the other door as well as the windows on my old house on Kinzie Court, and find them in the same condition: locked, unbroken, undisturbed, no footprints in the garden spoil outside. This added to my surprise when I recalled the slurping and crunching sounds trickling out of my kitchen as I first walked in before I caught the sound of scampering and the pantry door being pulled shut.

My great fear was it was the Centralli and they’d beat me twice as hard for discovering them blundering another surveillance or investigation. Trembling, I called out, I apologized, but I heard nothing. I begged again for good measure and still heard nothing.

I walked into the kitchen and saw several large piles of crumbs and more than a few spills, clustered around the refrigerator, whose door was hanging open. There were trails, long wet smears studded with crumbs, leading into the small pantry I’d just heard being closed. So, I opened it.

Nothing stared back at first as I examined each shelf carefully. Then I heard a small squeak from the bottom.

I squatted, expecting to find a mouse, or perhaps a colony of mice, given the size of the mess all over my fucking floor, and I began to idly wonder how they opened the door, or whether I had failed to shut it. Then I saw it, or him, more accurately. I had never seen such a creature before. But he was certainly a he.

He looked like a small boy, and he was, all things considered; looked to be around five years old, wearing a striped sweater beneath a pair of denim bib overalls, dinosaurs on his socks, low-top Chucks. But he also had ears like an elephant. His…I don’t know, maxilla? It was like a mouse’s, or a cat’s, a pink, damp inverted triangle for a nose, whiskers, fur in the immediate area surrounding both. He also had a tail, long, covered in coarse, slick, gleaming fur, like a dog, active, constantly thumping into things, except here in the pantry, where it was tucked between his legs and clenched in his tiny little fingers, each of which was topped with a fingernail about an inch too long, the inside of each caked with about an inch of impacted filth.

He started weeping.

please please no please don’t send me back

I recoiled, horrified, flinging myself backward, losing my balance and toppling over, yelping, sliding through the mess on my floor into the cupboards beneath my sink, staring at him in disbelief. I could scarcely breathe.

He begged for my protection, explained about the lab, how he slipped out.

He begged for my guardianship, to live somewhere happy, this sad, sentient thing. There is nothing more horrible than the abomination you pity. You somehow know he won’t make it. The monster. The adorable little monster.

And he was adorable. I almost laughed at him. He didn’t know what he’d just gotten himself into.

I wouldn’t bother telling him as he wouldn’t possibly understand, but I remembered the world he for some reason thought he was escaping into. It was a long time ago. I asked his name and age, and he didn’t know either. I said I’d call him Willie. I had, quite fucking unbelievably, already made up my mind to help him. I had no idea why.

But first, I told him: he stunk. He didn’t like that. I said he needed a bath and his clothes needed a washing. He liked that even less. He pouted. He started to pitch a fit; I was terrified the noise would travel, alerting paranoid neighbors, summoning the Centralli. There are no children registered at this address. I shushed and shushed and shushed him, hissing angrily, and it just pissed him off. I begged, and he pounded on me with ineffective fists the size of crabapples. I finally bribed him with food.

I knew someone who had a kid once. I remembered some of it, testing the bathwater on the inside of your wrist, that kind of stuff. I got him cleaned up. I thought he seemed old for diapers and he shrieked that they were pull-ups, not diapers. Okay, then. He’ll have to sit here, wrapped in blankets, until his clothes are dry and I can buy some more not-diapers for him. The one he was wearing had to be cut off with a scissors and weighed almost as much as he did. The odor was indescribable. I could not bring myself to look inside of it. I asked when he last ate, when he left the hospital or lab, how long he’d been wearing these clothes, but just as with his age, he had no conception of time and its passage.

I’m frightened. Not of him, but of my impulsiveness, of the likelihood he’ll be discovered. I cannot believe I agreed to do this.

I had no toys and couldn’t buy him any. There are no children registered at this address. So, I would distract him with television, and he would curl up in my lap, like a cat or my own son, if I’d ever had one, and I would stroke the thick, wavy hair on his head or his big floppy ears while he stared at the television, blinking softly, eyes glassy, mouth hanging open, his breath slow and steady and raspy, becoming richer with coughing mucus as the days turned colder and colder headed deeper into fall. I asked him how he knew he’d be happier outside the hospital. He didn’t know. I asked how he knew what it meant to be happy. He didn’t know. I asked if he was happy now, with me. He said yes. I would grab his tail lightly and it would slowly pull itself free of my grasp, then thump insistently on the couch until I gently grabbed it again.

I would softly hum a sad, old popular song played on an acoustic guitar, singing the words I barely remember from around when I was his age in a whisper, gently rubbing the fuzz on the backs of his giant ears, the words something like I can’t go back again.

Cleaning his massive, floppy elephant ears is something of a chore, pure terrorism for him. It takes three or four cotton swabs at a time, clutched together in a tight bundle, cotton white when they enter the canal, covered in a gleaming, creamy caramel when they emerge. He scrunches up his face, moans; I laugh, assuring him I’m almost done. I show the evidence of the filth, of the necessity, to his pouting indifference every single time, always failing to move him.

The only thing more difficult than that is trimming his fingernails. I have never seen a living thing mewl in such desperation. He stomps, he recoils, his face drawn into a twitching cringe, no, he insists, no, he doesn’t need his nails trimmed. But he does and I persist, eventually winning out, earning another acid serving of his fuming contempt. I now constantly think of my own exhausted parents. They warned me this would happen. If they could see me.

I am terrified as I leave him alone every day to step out into our ultraviolent world and go to work. Nearly nine hours a day in front of that television set and he usually pisses himself and my blankets. There is no other choice. There is nothing we can do.

I remember what it used to be like, before the Centralli. I still cannot believe that this happened, that it goes on.

Here’s my first reminder. I get them daily: they’ve stopped a woman and are choking her preteen daughter until her face turns purple while the woman cries and pleads; she doesn’t know anything; she doesn’t know anything about bombs. Back in the day, the cops used to jail people who did shit like that.

But not anymore. They’re the ones who do it. It’s a hugely different world from the one I grew up in. And that was a very mild example of the change; the Transition, it’s called, in official texts. I’ve seen toddlers speared through their faces with meat hooks and dragged around on them, through the nose and out the mouth, usually, sometimes vice versa, sometimes under the jaw, their parents beside themselves in horror, of course. I saw them staple a baby to a tree by its hands with a nail gun. I saw them strangle another with barbed wire. They are sometimes hurled and kicked like footballs.

Copspeak has changed as a result. When I was a delinquent teen, a lifetime ago, many lifetimes, they usually implied sexual violence awaited me once I landed in prison, invariably to be inflicted by black inmates. Now they just threaten your kids. They threaten to microwave them, to boil them, to stomp their ugly fucking faces in, to spit roast them, to seal them in leaky 55-gallon oil drums and hurl them into Lake Michigan. They threaten to eat them. They threaten to duct-tape them to trees and leave them there until they fucking die, maiming anyone who tries to help. They threaten to force the parents to watch all of it.

Certainly, all this has conspired to reshape the family, mostly destroying it, but it paradoxically has led to an increase in birthrates, though marriage or parental cohabitation are not quite as common. You see people screwing everywhere, straight-up skirts up, dicks out, solid making love. They fuck constantly to replace lost children. They mostly then abandon the kids once they’re verbal, for obvious reasons, though many, in fact a slight majority, can’t bring themselves to. The abandoned ones who survive rove in gangs, assaulting and robbing adults when they’re sure they can evade the Centralli, usually living in and off of dumpsters and landfills. They practice types of cannibalism. Most women are pregnant, as often as possible, and the Centralli even prey on their fetuses when they deem it necessary for public order.

I was robbed by one of those youth gangs once. They were all around 12 and they just swarmed me. It was like I was in knee-deep wet concrete, unable to walk, flailing my hands uselessly as their own groped my pockets and anywhere else I may have been hiding cash or scrip; when one paw a bit too forcefully grazed my balls, I started getting a bit more physical in return, and then anyone who wasn’t spitting in my face was biting me everywhere from my feet to my stomach. I started throwing punches and one of the little bastards hit me in the side of the face with a brick. I was knocked out cold and they took everything from below the waist. They usually take it all once it goes that far but they couldn’t get my shirts or jackets over or around my briefcase, which is always handcuffed to my left wrist. I was somewhat surprised they didn’t cut my hand off. So, I got to walk home like an olde-timey Benny Hill sketch, right hand over the bush, briefcase hand over the crack, instead of darting nude from shrub to shrub like some fucking filthy degenerate.

The children have a sense of their worth to the childless, the ones who lost kids or can’t have any. They sometimes abduct other kids and sell them to these desperate people. They sometimes target people who do have kids and abduct and ransom them. The cleverest is a modern variation on the skin game, where they sell a member of their own gang to a family, then retrieve him or her and inflict that agony on another unsuspecting couple or person all over again.

Other, worse people run that con, too. Most often, they’re Centralli agents with money problems. There’s seldom actually a kid at the end of it.

Perhaps most awful of all are the kids no one really wants, the crippled or mentally retarded, especially those with Down syndrome. No one buys them and the youth gangs can’t train them the way they can regular kids. Sometimes they learn to speak if they elude death and will try to attach themselves to families, boasting of their abilities to sweep kitchen floors or walk family dogs, that they can be of some kind of household use. They’re generally ignored. Others attempt to join the youth gangs, approaching them with toothy smiles and outstretched hands, opening lines they must’ve seen on television or something, since they make no sense in reality, asking where these little motherfucking thugs went to school or what their favorite sports are, and the gangsters laugh, spit in their faces, whip them with belts, shove them into traffic. I think this is the saddest thing the post-modern world has ever inflicted on me, the occasional spectacle of a retarded child who can’t understand his own victimization, who can’t understand why no one cares about him. His arms flail clumsily around his head to protect him from the punches and slaps of the more coordinated children. His weeping sounds like the braying and bleated of a donkey, like he’s mocking the sounds of his own despair and agony. Whipping sounds crack sharply from belts. Cars honk, car tires screech, adults sometimes yell. A few even laugh, though I think that’s just nerves. The pleas are always carved from the same words. No. Please. Stop. Why. I have no answers and no power to do otherwise.

And there is no other choice. There is nothing we can do. The world became what it became by whatever force or motion.

No matter what kind of man you are, you’ll be stopped occasionally by women who beg you to fuck them, to impregnate them. In some ways it’s stunning how many men refuse despite that being generally the only access to sex they’ll ever have. Even in my old age, I’m accosted, though I have always declined.

So—obviously—concepts like sexual fidelity and legitimacy and that sort of thing are all gone, totally alien to the younger people I supervise at work. I’ve been warned to stop bringing it up by frightened people with more to lose.

As happens on every commute, I start crying. Most people do. We wander about, red-eyed, sniffling, groaning, amid plainclothes police who periodically stop teens just to kick them in the groins for no evident reason, pointing and cackling at them as they plunge to the ground in agony, writhing, scarlet-faced from the knocked-out wind. They wave their batons and prods at us if we stare too long.

And there is no other choice. There is nothing we can do. The world became what it became by whatever force or motion.


For all installments of “The Engineers,” click here.