That night, I dream for the first time I can recall in years, and it is an insanity. I’m sorting through old photos, those old Land camera types, knowing that I’ve never before seen that type of photo outside of photos of them in coffee table books, but I’m in the photos. The background scenery, the manners of dress, all of it makes me think of the inlay images on a live record someone in my family owned when I was young. Leonard something. The cuffs on all the jeans are flared. There are jackets made of things which no longer exist, like tweed and corduroy. That man would have to be my father’s age just as I was being born. But it’s me.

And it’s Willie, but in the photo descriptions written on the backs, he’s called Will or William, depending on the handwriting, both of which appear to be a woman’s. He doesn’t have the ears or the tail or the rat nose. He looks like a normal little boy. It’s almost 100 years ago.

Third birthday, stunned children with gaping mouths damp with slobber tantalized by cake and glowing candles, gifts wrapped in raging colors and ribbons.

Snow fort; I’m teaching him how to low crawl and throw grenades using snowballs, idly remembering I was some years before his birth drafted and served six months as a trainee during a tense period where an ancient enemy began massing tanks on our border, then just as quickly demobilized once the International League had brokered a peace deal.

I’m teaching him the mechanics of throwing a rugby ball on a giant green farm field; I think the name on the back is a town with a native name I can’t pronounce. I thought they were all changed by that time. It’s my uncle’s property. I remember planting the cedar along the long drive from the narrow county highway up to the top of the hill where he built the house and raised his family.

Exploding puffs of pink, green, white, orange, and blue neon in the sky, National Day. I remember the thing we didn’t photograph, the helicopter among the fireworks which plunged into the river under circumstances that were never explained. The war started a month later.

My nervous tanned face, forced smile, holding Will up to wave at steely-eyed troops in uncovered olive drab trucks marked with words in a different language.

Family reunion, Line of Control, no one’s smiling. I don’t see Will.

And then the photos slip from my shaking hands and they glide across this slick, clay surface at my feet. Adobe, I think it’s called. Everything around me seems to be made of it, though I didn’t notice it at first. I have never been any place like this before. And I can hear him screaming. Will or Willie. The surface pours down into a giant black hole, a cave mouth. I gingerly walk in, the screams louder, echoing in stereo. It must be a tunnel complex.

The screams take on the form of words. I follow them and eventually find Will. And it’s Will, no big ears, no tail. No whiskers.

He’s lying on a shelf carved into an otherwise entirely smooth and featureless wall, and his face has been beaten so bad his eyes are swollen shut. They look like overripe plums shoved into his eye sockets. There’s some sort of web wrapped around parts of him, he’s covered in what I think are insect bites until I notice a few of the wounds are joined by staples. One leg appears to be broken; it’s swollen and pale green. I don’t think he notices I’m here. Pus leaks from most of his cuts and reeks of something spoiled.

Then I hear grunts and deep intonations. I can’t make out the words; they’re coming from further in the dark. Finger snaps, not so far off as I thought. Do they see me?

Will has noticed these sounds, too, and his screaming petered out to light moaning, a dying tantrum. It looks like he’s trying to concentrate.

I have to go. I am seized for a moment by the horror of what I’m about to do and blurt out a sharp cry, the most pitiful groan of despair I’ve ever heard any living thing make. He instantly recognizes my voice and starts screaming again, begging. Daddy. One of my hands clutches at my stomach and I’ve shoved the other over my mouth to hold back the crying and the vomit. I hear chains dragging and shuffling from the dark and I start to slink away. His screams grow more desperate. He’s begging me not to leave him. I’m at a full clip running out the mouth of the cave when the screaming stops and I can hear only laughter, then a howling tinnitus like a siren. The chains are whipping something fleshy. It makes me think of the sound of a rubber ball being kicked. One final scream is choked off in a moist gurgle.

I bolt upright in bed. I know how this ends. I always knew what kind of story this was going to be. I always knew what kind of story my life was. But at least I know that it ends. That everything ends.


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

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2
  3. Part 3
  4. Part 4