The Gray Day
D. Richards

If a life is lived with nobody watching, will anyone notice when it ends?

He woke to the sounds of squeaking bed springs. The red enameled Mickey (M-I-C-K-E-Y) Mouse alarm clock on his night stand cheerfully told him it was 6:45 a.m. (why because we like you). He rolled onto his back and stared at the water stains over his bed. Squeak squeak squeak came again from his mother's room.

His ears searched the house for any noise to mask the squeaking. The soft tick tock of the mouse (M-O-U-S-E) clock, forever guarding the gates of time with a sickly sweet disposition and oversized black ears. Tick tock, tick tock. The water faucet in the bathroom down the hall, drip, drip, dripping an unstoppable tattoo. Never slowing or ceasing no matter how raw he wore his hand on the rusty metal handles. Tick tock, drip drip, squeak squeak, pause, squeasqueaksqueak, faster and faster. Almost over now.

A bird chirped outside the snow-covered window, excited about the coming sunrise or perhaps lodging a neighborly complaint about so much racket at such an early hour. Its peaceful dreams of soft spring soil bursting with winter-fattened earthworms no doubt disturbed by the ever increasing cacophony from the next room.

Moan, moan. Groan, squeak, oh yeah... oh yeah. Shh... pant pant... not so loud (his mother). Ugh ugh ugh, wheeze.

Mr. Potter. The boy recognized his wheezing moans, always transparent through the plywood walls of their apartment.

The bird chirped again and lit off in search of a quieter spot to sing the songs that would attract a mate of his own.

Tick tock, drip drip, squeak squeak. Moan, groan... oh, god, oh god, oh yeah. The noises collided as the pace reached maddening new heights. The boy closed his hands over his ears so hard they hurt, screaming noiselessly as the train of sound derailed in a final burst of Oh guhhh, yeah, oh...yeah...uh...uh..uh..mmmmmmm.

Tick tock. Drip drip. (See ya real soon!)

The boy balanced precariously on a three-legged stool, stretching to the tips of his toes, straining to grasp the bottom edge of the Count Chocula box. Mr. Potter came into the kitchen barefoot on the cool tile floor. Holding the box tight to his chest, the boy climbed down from the stool and sat cross-legged on the floor. He set to shoving handfuls of the count of chocolate into his mouth from the wax paper packet inside. While he ate his breakfast he watched Mr. Potter rummage through the stacks of coupons and unpaid bills on the top of the refrigerator. His blue shirt bore the county sheriff's patch on the shoulder. It was unbuttoned, revealing a tremendous belly so thickly matted with black hair that the flesh underneath was barely visible. Mr. Potter wheezed and coughed as he searched. Abandoning the refrigerator, he turned and noticed the boy staring up at him.

"Hey boy, got a cigarette?" He chuckled at his own joke.

The boy watched him for a moment longer, methodically chewing his cereal. The hair covering his belly had spread to every bit of exposed flesh except for the top of his head, which gleamed brightly under the bare fluorescent bulb.

"Squeak squeak squeak," the boy replied in a monotone, searching the box for another handful of chocolate goodness.

Mr. Potter looked blank for a moment. Then slowly his face began to swell and turn a harsh red. "Why you little..." he wheezed.

"Oh god, oh yeah," the boy said blandly, never looking away.

Mr. Potter began to shake. Slowly he took large breaths and let out tense sighs. After a moment he forced an attempt at a smile and bent down to ruffle the boy's hair.

"Our little secret, right pal?" His sweet tones belied the murder in his eyes.

The Potters lived in the apartment below the boy and his mother. One week a month, when Mrs. Potter drew the graveyard shift at the silicon chip factory outside of town, Mr. Potter would come visit with his mother at night. He didn't always wake up there, in case Mrs. Potter came home early, but he and his mother had been up late drinking last night. The boy had heard them come in at 2:15, Mickey time.

Sometimes Mrs. Potter would grab the boy in the hallway and ask him in a harsh whisper if he ever "saw her old man nosin' around his house." She'd promise him candy if he told her what he knew, but since she never had any to actually offer him, the boy told her the same thing he told Mr. Potter about "their little secret."

"Squeak squeak squeak," he said, and returned to his cereal.

His mother was snoring by the time the boy was getting his coat on for school. Stopping by the refrigerator, he filled his pockets with raw hot dogs and a half a block of Velveeta.

On the first floor of the apartment building he waited for the school bus to come. The day was obscured by the frost on the glass doors, letting only a dull gray light pass through. He whispered softly as he waited, "Here kitty kitty, here kitty kitty." He laid the hot dogs and cheese on the carpet by the stairs. "Here kitty kitty, here kitty kitty."

He'd last seen the cat outside the front doors of the building. His mother had started putting it outside when Mr. Potter came over for his secret visits. The cat had tucked itself as far back as it could under the thin evergreen bushes on either side of the entryway; there was a vent that let out hot air if anyone in the apartment ran the quarter dryer in the basement. The boy had called to the cat again and again but with no reaction. He crawled under the bush, calling softly to it all the while. The snow soaked his coat, making him shiver. He called, "here kitty kitty, here kitty kitty," crawling on his belly closer and closer. Finally he was unable to go any further under the bush and had to use a stick to prod the cat into motion. It felt firm, frozen firm. He knew right away that it was dead.

When he'd returned that day from school he had looked again and seen that it was gone. He wasn't sure if he believed it or not, but he'd heard somewhere that cats have nine lives, so he'd taken up the habit of leaving it treats, just in case he was wrong.

After he felt he'd given the cat enough time to return to him he began to draw tiny roadways on the frosted glass of the doors. Drawing was his favorite thing to do, especially tiny mazes and highways. As he drew he imagined the highways packed with tiny cars filled with tiny families. He drew the roads they went down in tighter and tighter circles. He pictured the father banging on the steering wheel of the station wagon and cursing at the world for not providing him with an exit. When he'd drawn so much that the frost melted to reveal the snow-covered streets outside he'd breathe on the window until he could begin anew.

As he waited for his bus he drew and softly sang to himself, "Oh god, oh god, oh yeah, oh god."

On the bus he found his seat. It was always vacant. Reserved just for him. He tried most of the time not to notice but some days he was aware that the other children would switch seats to sit by their new best friends, or maybe to get away from their old ones.

Today he played with the frost on the window, continuing his master plan for the never-ending highway. Lost in his work, he'd try to ignore the spit wads that struck his head and face, shot whenever the bus driver wasn't watching. He worked diligently on his highways, until the fog disappeared and revealed the flat gray outside world. He'd lean in close and breathe a new window canvas to life, all the while pretending not to notice the soft giggles coming from the surrounding seats.

In the classroom he sat in the uncomfortable wooden desk seat he'd been assigned in the back corner of the classroom. He used a yellow number two pencil to draw his tiny highways on a weathered Big Chief tablet. Lost in his tiny world of automobiles and highways and very unhappy fathers always looking for an exit, he sometimes thought he could hear the teacher calling his name. The other children would laugh and laugh until they were hushed. He just bent over closer to the paper. If he squinted hard enough he could almost see them moving, hear them screaming, "Daddy, are we there yet?"

At lunchtime he sat alone, eating everything on his plate without tasting or caring what it was. Unless it was chili day. On chili day they gave him a cinnamon roll.

He would carefully set his plate aside and unfold his thin white paper napkin and set it in the center of the yellow linoleum topped table. Daintily, he'd place his cinnamon roll on the napkin and begin the process of unrolling it. Many times in the process it would threaten to break at one of the thinner turns of the inward spiral. When the occasional inevitable break did occur he would stop and with great care mash the torn bites of the moist dough back together until they were once again whole. When he'd finally reach the center he'd turn the entire length of the pastry on its side and put both ends into his mouth. He'd chew the entire length of the roll to its end, never swallowing until he'd managed to put the whole thing into his mouth.

"Boy," the teacher snapped, snatching the pencil from his hand and breaking him abruptly out of his fog. "What are you wearing?"

He stared down at his highways, perfect circles, no beginning, no end, wishing he could swallow her whole.

The other children giggled, of course.

Leaning closer so the others might not hear she asked again. "Boy, are those pajamas?"

Go away, go away, go away, he thought.

The class laughed harder. "Shut up," she told them. "All of you just shut up!" They were instantly quiet. Even he could feel how much she meant it.

"Boy," she started, and then stopped, letting her thoughts fade away.

Go away, go away, go away. She sighed, shaking her head.

He never looked up, never moved.

Gently she laid his pencil down on the almost black paper in front of him. He quickly scooped it up, trying hard to re-establish the block he had on the world.

"You poor thing," she whispered, laying a hand on his shoulder. "You poor, poor thing."

On the bus ride home he sat with his hands clenched tightly in his lap. He felt as if he were trapped on one of his highways, spiraling tighter and tighter into himself.

He thought about her, the teacher, putting her hand on him. Every time he felt it in his memories the lump in his throat grew larger, until it seemed as if he were choking. Opening his mouth to gasp for air, the tears started to come. A spit wad stung his cheek, followed by a barrage of them. The bus driver glanced into his overhead mirror, the giggles faded and the straw weapons disappeared. He ignored them, straining to see even a hint of color in the view through the window. There was none. Just gray.

Just another gray day.

The bus lurched to a stop. Lifting his books from the space that had always been empty in his seat he moved for the doors. "You poor thing," one of the girls from his class mocked as he passed. Their whispers and laughter blurred into a dull noise at the back of his mind. The frayed wet ends of his pajamas swished against the rubber running mat as he walked. The driver held open the doors, letting in the gray, letting him out.

The gray day swallowed him. The tears ran down his cheeks and froze on his coat collar.

Squeak squeak, Mr. Potter, squeak squeak, mother. Tick tock drip drop squeak squeak. Oh god oh god goes the chugga chugga choo choo train come to drive little boys insane. Squeak squeak says the tiny family waiting in the wings to come and kidnap the boy for a ride on the no-exit highway.

Following the color green, the boy shed his coat and pajamas and laid his books aside. "Here kitty kitty," he cried softly, as he lay down naked in the snow.

"Here kitty kitty, here kitty kitty." The tears turning to ice, the ice filling his soul, the soul swallowed as whole as a cinnamon roll by the gray.

They say the little boy just gave up.

D. Richards ( Hails from Lawrence, Kansas. "The Gray Day" was inspired by a story he read as a child about strange deaths and mysterious disappearances. He is currently at work on a full-length novel.

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 8, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1998 D. Richards.