“When I die,” the five-year-old told his little sister, who was three, “I won’t be in the forest.”
“I’m not going die,” she answered.
“You will, Jane. Nothing lasts forever.”
“I’m not going die,” she clarified.
“When you’re an old woman, you will.”
“I’m not going die!”
“Jane! Listen! Calm down. It will be so, so peaceful.”
But she was already crying.
Their mother called down the hall: “What’s going on in there?”
“Desi says I’m going die!”
“I didn’t say now. But she will die. Everyone does!”
“I’m not going die! Mama!”
“Desi, tell your sister she’s not going to die. Janie, you’re not—nobody’s dying.”
“Nobody’s dying,” their mother said firmly.
But somebody was dying, downstairs in the den that overlooked the woods behind the town house. His name was Peter Elroy, once a well-known name, still known in some circles, though never for the reasons he’d hoped. Years ago he had been the best friend of the children’s father. More recently and for longer they’d been enemies. So why had he come? A broken promise will tie two people together more surely than any ceremony.
His wife had arranged the visit, had called the boy’s father to say that Peter Elroy was dying and was trying to put his affairs in order. That wasn’t true. He was dying, yes, but it was his wife who was putting things in order. You needed to think of the last line of your obituary, Myra liked to say—to be fair, she’d advanced this theory before Peter’s diagnosis. You want to give people hope. So she had called and extracted an invitation. She would deliver Peter and go see her sister, who lived nearby, whom Peter Elroy loathed. Evie, the sister, was made of rice pudding, body and soul. One of the things that rice-pudding Evie had once said to him: “You take up all the available oxygen in any room you’re in.” Of course he did. That was how you won. You took up as much of the available anything as you could.
Ian wants to see you, Myra had said, and Peter Elroy had answered, Ian doesn’t want to see me. But his wife, who liked to make people hope, had made him hope. They got to the awful place, a duplex in a development called Drake’s Landing (though there was no landing nor body of water to land from nor any interested party named Drake), only to be told that Ian Casey had been called away on business and would be back the next day. Ian’s wife, who broke the news, was decades younger. She had long black hair with the kind of ragged hem that came of never having it cut. “He gives his greatest regrets,” she said. “But please, come in.” The note said in Ian’s dyspeptic scrawl, Sorry, sit tight and I’ll be back. The paper was now crumpled in the otherwise empty leather trash can in the corner of the den-slash-guest-room.
What was killing Peter Elroy was pancreatic cancer.
Now he sat, jilted, ditched, first by Ian and then by his wife. When they had found out that Ian had gone, he had turned to Myra and said, “Let’s go.” She looked helpless, shook her head. “No, love,” she said, and he understood this had never been about seeing Ian: It had been about Myra, her need for the oxygen he was always gobbling up. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
His polarized glasses had turned amethyst against the sun that came through the sliding doors. Outside the house it was winter, sort of, but bright and clear, with thin snow cover that showed the pentimenti of fallen leaves and tree roots beneath it. His glasses were the opposite of the weather: overcast when it was bright, clear when it was cloudy. They suited his mood. The visiting invalid. He had been parked. Really, thought Peter Elroy, he should be in a wheelchair, with a plaid lap robe. Instead he sat on a white leather sofa whose every part seemed either to recline or slide away for storage. Everything in terrible taste, the sectional sofa (what a word, as though the sofa wished to perform surgery on you), the characterless glass desk, the framed art that looked like smudged Xeroxes of stock photos, the whole cheaply built development. A bronzeish pot the size of a toddler stood in the corner, as though punished, and he knew that even the arrangement of branches therein had been purchased at a store. The living room was filled with fake antiques. The sofa was distressed. So was the table. So (joked Peter Elroy to himself) was Peter Elroy. Truthfully, he was so delighted at the badness of the taste that he could ignore the shame of that delight, and the wisp of sorrow that none of his long-ago lessons had stuck.
Of course there were the film posters in the den, each exactly the same size and framed the same way. Four of them, the newest more than ten years old. No poster for the first one: Peter Elroy’s star vehicle, the reason he and Ian had not spoken in thirty years.
“Why are you wearing a ring on your little finger?” the boy asked. He stood in the doorway of the den, almond-eyed and brunet, like his young mother. Nothing of his father’s swaybacked puffed-chest stance.
“It’s a signet ring.”
“Men don’t wear jewelry,” the boy said.
“Don’t they? Your father has a wedding ring, surely. Not even his first. Third wife, no doubt third wedding ring. Unless he recycles them. Does he?”
The boy said, “You don’t have a wedding ring.”
“Wedding rings are a continental affectation. I have the important piece of equipment.”
“A wife. Original model. Myra.”
“My wife’s named Myra. Where’s your sister?”
“Wake her up, why don’t you. Send her in.”
After thinking about it the boy said, “I’m supposed to look out for her.”
Peter Elroy laughed. “Fair enough.”
“I know everything about mummies,” said the boy.
“I don’t doubt it. The funerary arts. If I don’t last the week, tell your parents I’d like a few dead cats in my tomb. Don’t bother about mummification.”
“They take the brains out with hooks through the nose.”
“I know. Happened to me once.”
“No it didn’t.”
“No, it didn’t. I’m joking. Where’s your father? Making a movie?”
“Don’t say what. Say, I beg your pardon.”
The boy sat in the wheeled chair at the glass desk and opened the drawer. “He’s teaching a master class,” he said at last.
“Of course. Not just a class. A master class. Do you watch his movies?”
The boy shrugged. “I don’t get screen time.”
“What does that mean?”
“No TV or computers or stuff like that.”
“Ah.” Peter Elroy leaned back and the sofa tilted. The movement was a knife in his back. He struggled to get himself upright. “No television! No computers! What century is this?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what century it is?”
“No,” said the boy.
“Lucky,” said Peter Elroy. He had the sense on the leather sofa of being a dollar bill folded into a wallet. No. Not a dollar bill. A receipt. “What I wouldn’t give. I had rather too much screen time, courtesy of your father. That’s what happened to me. Did you know that?”
“No,” said the boy.
“Ask your father. He’s a wolf.”
The boy thought about this. “He’s not.”
“I don’t mean it badly,” Peter Elroy lied. He hadn’t meant to bring up the documentary, or wolves either. “Wolves are marvelous creatures. Do you know about them? They’re not small. Everyone imagines them as small. They’re this big.” He held his hand up over his head. “You must never say anything bad about a wolf.”
“Because they will eat you. Like this.” He lunged and barked. “Let’s hear you do a wolf.”
The boy tried.
“That’s a coyote,” said Peter Elroy in a disgusted voice. “Wolf. Listen.”
He’d been dreaming of wolves lately; he had wolves on the brain. In his dreams he couldn’t tell whether they’d come to protect him or rip him to shreds, and though he thought about telling Myra, he was worried she would say, Well, it’s obvious. Wolf equals death. She prided herself these days on how easily she could say death and dying, and Peter Elroy was mostly grateful for that ease.
No, he thought now. The wolf wasn’t death.
“Try again,” he said to the boy, but then the Young Mother poked her head into the den and said, “Could there be less howling, please?”
On her hip she balanced the little girl, who had a look of Victorian disapproval on her face. Even the girl’s dark hair looked annoyed and half-awake.
“Let’s go make lunch,” the Young Mother said to her.
“I don’t vant to. I vant to stay my Desi.”
“I’ll keep an eye on her,” said the boy.
The Young Mother looked at Peter Elroy. “Please,” he said, and meant it. Three-year-olds were worse at conversation than five-year-olds, but on the other hand they were better people. They lacked ambition. He sensed that the boy already believed himself to be the smartest person in any room.
“Down you go,” the Young Mother said to the girl, and set her on the floor. “Can I get you anything, Peter?”
“Glass of cold arsenic.”
“A glass of white wine, then.”
She looked at her watch. “Really?”
“Palliative,” he explained. He turned to the girl. “Can you do a wolf?”
“All right,” the Young Mother said dubiously, and left the room.
“Rawer!” said the girl, showing her little pointed incisors.
“Very good,” said Peter Elroy. “Extremely frightening.”
“Jane thinks she’s not going to die,” the boy offered.
Peter Elroy appraised her. “If anyone could buck the system, it’ll be Jane here.”
“But everybody dies!” the boy said, exasperated. “That’s how it works.”
“Rawer!” the girl said again.
“No, Jane. Like this.” The boy howled from his stomach. It was a good performance. “I’m not afraid of wolves,” he said when he was done.
“That’s not interesting,” Peter Elroy said. “Let’s talk about what you are afraid of. Mummies?”
“I’m not afraid of anything,” said the boy.
“I’m not afraid of ghosts. I’m not afraid of pirates. I’m not afraid of lions.”
“I’m not afraid lions,” said the little girl.
“Shh, Jane. I’m not afraid of vampires.”
“I’m afraid vampires,” the girl said sadly.
“Me, too,” said Peter Elroy.
“I’m afraid volves,” said the little girl.
“I’m kind of afraid of bullies,” said the boy.
“I was a bully,” said Peter Elroy. “A man needs to be a bully, if he wants to get anything done. Your father will tell you otherwise, I imagine, but do you know what? Your father is a bully. Bigger bully than me.”
The boy frowned, his eyebrows serious. “My dad is not a bully.”
“He bullied me pretty bad. One day you’ll watch that movie and see. There’s nothing like a wolf, you know. A volf. Your father,” he said, and then he stopped. He told himself it was the morphine that was making him talk to small children like this, but he would have any day of his life: He just spent no time with children. “You must look after your parents, you know. Otherwise the wolves will eat you.”
“Will they really?” said the boy.
“Not out of meanness. It’s just their nature.”
The boy scratched his chin in a cartoon of thoughtfulness. “How do you get them not to?”
“You talk to them. Wolves are very reasonable. Do you speak wolf?”
The children shook their heads, but the girl said, “I do, a little bit,” and she measured with her index finger and thumb the little bit of wolf she spoke.
“No, you don’t,” said the boy.
“It’s all right,” said Peter Elroy, “I’m fluent.”
Eventually the Young Mother cleared the children out for lunch. She put the glass of wine on the desk, where he couldn’t reach it. “You rest,” she said to Peter Elroy. “That sofa reclines, if you’re interested.”
She had not mentioned his diagnosis, and he knew that she wouldn’t. This was the trouble with a terminal illness: You weren’t allowed to be sick, you were only dying, and nobody wanted the answer to the question How are you feeling? to be Ever closer to death, thanks.
Once she’d gone he sat back carefully, so as not to call any of the sofa’s hardware into action. For a moment he imagined making a break for it while the children ate their lunch. He would step through the sliding glass doors and just—go. He could picture them opening the door to the den, warily at first (so as not to disturb him), then flinging it open, then looking around in shock. The strange gentleman was gone. Perhaps he’d leave his cufflinks and ring behind; perhaps nothing but a cutting scent that might be either an expensive cologne or a cheap antiseptic. They’d touch the leather of the sofa where he’d been sitting. It’s still warm. He can’t have gotten far.
The truth was he wasn’t sure he could stand up off the sofa. Instead he looked at the woods, not filled with wolves but dotted with chipmunks. The trees were so slender you could see the passing traffic on their far side.
Peter Elroy, disappear? He had no talent for it. That was the problem.
Unlike Ian, whose name was at the bottom of those four posters (where was Peter’s?) but who wasn’t in evidence anywhere else in this awful, characterless house—and hadn’t Peter tried to teach Ian that character was everything? Even the children seemed to belong only to the wife, lean and dark, whatever her family background was: She was some ethnic cocktail he couldn’t pinpoint, and that irked him. He wanted to ask her what she was, but you weren’t allowed to do that anymore.
Ian Casey, the invisible man. That was what he was famous for, how he made his living: He edited out even his shadow if it fell across an interviewee, his most passing camera-shouldering reflection in a shop window. Peter could only imagine what he looked like now: heavier, the sandy blond hair grown long and sandy gray. Reclusive director Ian Casey, he was occasionally called, as though he lived in a folly at the back of someone’s garden instead of in an ugly gated community. The people in his films seemed to forget that he was there, that the microphone was live and the film was rolling. They said things they never should have, and they said them at length. He gave them enough rope. He’d given Peter Elroy enough, thirty years before. He’d said, “A story about an unlikely friendship. You and me. Just talking.”
So they borrowed a car and drove cross-country. Or rather, Peter drove. Ian didn’t know how, and besides, someone had to hold the camera. It was 1981. They’d known each other since they’d been teenagers, and they’d always talked about a cross-country trip. Ian was in grad school in New York; Peter had finished his second year teaching economics to undergraduates in New Hampshire. Ian was small and fair-haired, in dirty T-shirts from fifteen years before, Dylan and the Dead. Peter favored ragtime, and off-color antique jazz you couldn’t play on the radio. He pomaded his dark hair and wore cufflinks and mocked.
Big Peter, little Ian. Those last days of his illusions. If they were illusions. He still didn’t know whether the film had caused his downfall or simply pointed out that the downfall was inevitable.
He mocked Iowans and he mocked Mississippians. In Nevada he wanted to visit a brothel so he could mock both the prostitutes and their customers. He patted waitresses on their behinds as they walked past—that was part of the joke. He was a young man who acted like a daft rich uncle from a 1930s movie. He sang along to the dirty songs on the tape deck. He joked. He was funny. Ask anyone! Ask Ian Casey, who—Peter Elroy was sure of this—scrubbed the soundtrack clean of his own laughter at Peter’s jokes.
Even when Ian showed him the movie—screened on a sheet in his New York apartment, the spring after the trip—Peter didn’t get it. Surprised, yes, to see that Ian had edited himself out of every frame, that he’d turned a conversation into a monologue. But he still thought it was good, he believed (as he’d believed for some time) that he would become the most famous economist in America. Talk shows, news hours, op-ed pages. The movie would get him there faster, and when he watched it he saw himself saying wonderful, shocking things.
Later, he tried not to be too hard on himself for not understanding. There wasn’t a man in the world smart enough to see his own subtext.
In the forest, the wind and the wolves both howled: It was a competition. The minute we are born, we are on our way to death, a visiting hospital chaplain had once told Peter Elroy, but that was bullshit, wasn’t it. You might as well claim that you are on your way to sleep from the moment you wake up, true enough for a few people but not for most. The path to death was less definite than that, and Peter Elroy had just started to look for it and couldn’t find it, couldn’t find it, forgot what he was looking for. He had the sense that he was batting branches out of his way. Something was coming for him and he had to escape.
He woke up with a hand on his forehead.
As he’d napped, the sofa had slowly reclined of its own accord. He blinked up at the ceiling, and then at the Young Mother, who leaned over him.
“Can I get you anything?” she asked.
His skull was still swamped with sleep. The hand wasn’t helping, and he struggled underneath it.
“Sorry,” she said, and stood up. “You just didn’t look comfortable like that.”
“Can I get you some dinner?” she asked.
“Is it dinnertime?”
“Past,” she said. “I just put the kids to bed. Tell me what you’d like to eat.”
She didn’t know how to do this. He was hungry, but he couldn’t imagine negotiating a solution.
“It’s all right,” he said.
“Shall I make up your bed?” the Young Mother asked. What she meant was: arrange the polyester sheets around the slick leather of the sofa.
“That would mean getting up,” he said.
“Here,” she said. “Let me help you.”
She took his elbow. Together they maneuvered him into the desk chair, and he sat down, panting.
“Does it hurt?”
“Only when I don’t take my morphine.”
“Should you be drinking?”
“Why not?” He set his arms on the glass desk, which was freezing cold; he was surprised his wrists didn’t bind to the surface. “I’m not operating any heavy machinery.”
At last she said, “You look good.”
This was such a terrible lie he wanted to punch her. “How would you know? We just met.”
“Well,” she said. “Well, I’ve seen the film. You look just the same as you did thirty years ago.”
“You’ve seen it,” he said. For some reason that hadn’t occurred to him.
“Of course. That’s how I met Ian. He came to give a talk at my grad program. He showed it.”
“Another master class,” he said.
“I guess. You know,” she said, “he was really sorry not to be here when you arrived. He misses you a lot, I think.”
“Well, next time!” said Peter Elroy in a jolly voice.
“He’ll be back by dinner tomorrow.”
He shook his head. “You know he won’t. That boy is on the lam. He’s legging it. He’s calling hourly to see if the coast is clear.”
“No, he’s not.”
“I’m not lying,” she said. “He wouldn’t do that to me.”
“Ah,” said Peter Elroy, looking around the room. “All right. No poster, by the way? Here am I, the eponymous Peter Elroy.”
She looked at the wall, and then he could see a hole where the nail had been.
“We took it down before you came,” she said at last.
He remembered the poster: a picture of him, looking over his shoulder, a horrible smirk on his face. The name of the film—him again, his name—at the bottom. It played on the festival circuit before PBS picked it up and demolished his life. “That film’s older than you,” he said.
“About the same.”
“What did you think?”
“Of Peter Elroy? It’s been ages. I don’t really remember it.”
“Me neither,” he said, though that wasn’t true. He’d only seen it once, but he thought he could describe every frame. For a while after the broadcast he thought about watching it again, to see what he’d missed, but that seemed an exercise in self-loathing.
“Anyhow, you’re different now,” the Young Mother said.
“I am not,” he said hotly. “I never was that way in the first place.”
“You said those things. Nobody made you.”
Those things. He’d said them for years to no ill effect, those things, things that made people gasp and yell and fume and laugh. Things that made his students that year argue back or nod in agreement and write on their evaluations, Professor Elroy is a genius or He’s kind of a jerk but he does know everything about economics.
But that’s how it works, isn’t it. Only in person can you be larger than life. On a television screen you’re cropped, alone: a buffoon. Once they showed the movie on PBS, he became famous (among people who watched PBS, at any rate) as the embodiment of everything that was bad about people who liked money in the early 1980s. He seemed to be a young man who drove across the United States expressly to feel superior to all of its inhabitants, delighted that he had a way to beam his vileness into living rooms everywhere. He didn’t get tenure, left his teaching job. He ended up teaching in junior colleges awhile, and then got a job with the Small Business Association, giving extremely cautious advice.
“I can see where you didn’t realize how you’d come off. That’s the thing about privilege,” the Young Mother explained.
“Oh, fucking privilege,” he said.
“When you come from money—”
“Who says I come from money? Surely your husband didn’t tell you that. His lies are generally ones of omission.”
He could see her take him in, the cufflinks, the expensive shirt that had been starched—actually starched! In the twenty-first century!—the hair that he still combed back. Everything about him suggested generations of money. That was on purpose.
“Well,” she said, “you did. In the film. Didn’t you?”
“Maybe I come from Dorchester,” he said. “Maybe the Caseys were rich in comparison to my family. Maybe I knew his mother and kissed his kid sister. In the old days you were supposed to be ashamed of coming from nothing. Now it’s the opposite. Nothing is worse than childhood comfort, if you want to really make it. Ah!” he said. “I can see you’re already more interested in me. All my mitigating circumstances. You can forgive me if I came from nothing.”
“But did you?”
“Did I what?”
“Come from nothing!”
“You’re not listening,” he said. But he couldn’t say it. Only Ian knew Peter Elroy before he was Peter Elroy, when he was Pete O’Neill from Dorchester (the first thing he learned to do in college was pronounce Dorchester like someone not from Dorchester; a linguistics professor had explained that the first vowel sound was a giveaway, Dwa-chester, nearly).
“Look,” he pleaded. “You live with a documentarian. Surely you understand that everything is a matter of editing. I’m sorry. He’s not here. Did I say all those things? Yes. I was answering questions that your future husband asked me.”
“You’re tired,” she said, and at first he was insulted and then he realized she spent her day telling unreasonable people they were tired and then he realized it was true. He was tired.
“I’ll make your bed up,” she said.
With his thumb he felt his signet ring, bought from his favorite antique dealer in Portland, Maine, when he was a freshman, visible in the film. Even, if he remembered correctly, in the poster. He wondered for the first time whether it might have made a difference if the film had been honest about his origins. But he never would have been honest. He could be seen as a poor kid or a fraud or an asshole. Nobody felt pity for an asshole, so that’s what he chose. He hated pity, though now it was the medium he lived in, a kind of emotional aspic he was too weak to punch aside.
The Young Mother was leaning over the sofa, and he had an urge to pat her bottom.
“He’s probably screening Peter Elroy tonight,” she said over her shoulder. “It’s the one colleges request, you know.”
She stood up suddenly and he put his hand on her torso, higher up than he’d intended. He could feel the weight of her breast in the crook of his thumb, the underwire of her brassiere just below.
She looked at him sorrowfully. “Privilege doesn’t just mean money, you know.”
“He assassinated me,” Peter Elroy said at last. “I loved him anyhow.”
In Las Vegas all those years before, they found an old boxing gym. They’d met in a boxing ring, after all, at the Boys’ Club.
“It feels good to hit someone in the face,” said Peter Elroy to the camera after the match. He was laughing, absurd in his slicked-back hair, his trunks pulled up above his waist. “It feels great. Especially a guy who won’t fight back. That’s where the real pleasure is. When you hit and hit and the guy just gives you the big girlish eyes, Stop it, you brute!”
He was talking to Ian, of course. He was speaking of himself. Ian, who had just hit Peter in the face. Peter, who would not fight back: He was too squeamish, too afraid he might do real damage, he could look into the future and see that he’d never forgive himself if he broke Ian’s nose. When they were fifteen he’d promised Mrs. Casey he’d look after Ian, and he was scared of nearly nobody but Dolly Casey.
“My God,” said Peter to the camera, afterward, the pain in his jaw just starting to assert itself. “It does feel good.”
Doesn’t it? You got me, Ian.
Nobody made you say those things, the Young Mother had said, but that wasn’t true. Everyone did, all the time. They begged him to say those things. Especially Ian, because they were what he thought. Ian was shy. Peter put everything into words.
That movie was supposed to be a love story: the little quiet guy and the big loud guy who had known each other forever, who insulted each other, who got along because they both suspected the other might be—might be—his intellectual equal, when the rest of the world were morons.
It could have been a love story. Now, thirty years later, thirty years since he’d seen it, Peter Elroy decided to believe that it was. He’d discovered, as he got sicker, that he could do that, resolve to believe something, and he didn’t know if it were a side effect of cancer or medication or the closeness of death or even age—he would die prematurely but he wasn’t young, not an age that was precocious for anything but death. An age to tsk over, that was all.
It was meant as a love letter. Peter Elroy had thought so when he saw it, and Ian Casey had, too. It was the rest of the world who got it wrong.
The Young Mother left without helping him back to the sofa, which he could tell would be impossible to sleep on anyhow: The sheets would slip, whisper awfully in his ear. In a moment he would use the wheels of the desk chair to propel himself to the bathroom down the hall. He tried to look past the reflection of the room in the sliding glass doors. Of course Ian wouldn’t come. He had to stop hoping he would. Myra would collect him, would sit and talk a while with the Young Mother, would say, “It was worth a try,” would say, as they drove away, “At least you met his family.” The wine was still on the desk and now he could reach. He drank, wincing at the warmth of it. He could practically taste the picture of the adorable animal on the label. Six-dollar wine. Wine for people who either don’t drink wine or drink too much of it.
He felt the cell phone in his shirt pocket and wished Myra would call.
They’d been married twenty-five years and he could still feel a panic—not in his heart, just below—any time he suspected she wasn’t thinking about him. It laid him as low as any deeper, more sustained unrequited love he’d ever felt. Of course she loved him, he knew that, he just wanted her to love him all the time.
He tried to send her a message on brain waves. Whatever you were thinking of: Think of me. Another thing technology had ruined, the ability to dial a number, let it ring, hang up. How often had he done that, only wanting to change what a girl was thinking, without her knowing he was the one who’d done it.
At that very moment, he thought, the lights were coming up, students were applauding, and the film professor who’d organized the event was saying, “Mr. Casey was kind enough to agree to a short Q & A.” A young man with a Q puts his hand in the air. No. A young woman. “Yes,” Ian says, and she asks, “How did you find that guy?”
Say my name, thought Peter Elroy, first at the girl, and then at Ian. But his imagination failed, and he couldn’t think what Ian might answer.
He felt his phone again. If only he could picture where Myra was. They’d be back at Evie’s house (a place he’d never seen) surrounded by Evie’s children and grandchildren (people he’d never met).
Somewhere, a dog barked. No it didn’t. Only in novels did you catch such a break, a hollow in your stomach answered by some far-off dog making an unanswered dog-call. Dogs were not allowed at Drake’s Landing. Still, surely, somewhere in the world a dog was barking, a cat was hissing, a parrot with an unkind recently deceased owner was saying something inappropriate to an animal-shelter volunteer.
Outside, in the light from the Drake’s Landing’s floodlights, the snow sparkled like something that wasn’t snow. Diamonds, or asphalt, or emery boards.
A knock at the door: the children.
“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” Peter Elroy asked. He pointed at the hallway behind them and frowned, though he knew he was less frightening now that it was dark and his glasses were just clear glass.
“We had a bad dream,” said the boy.
“About the volf,” said the girl.
He did not feel repentant. All he ever wanted: people thinking of him against their will. What got him in trouble in the first place.
“Are wolves real?” the boy asked, in a voice that knew the answer.
They had not come to him for comfort: They would have woken the Young Mother for that. She would have told them that there were no wolves in Connecticut. Or she would have lied entirely, said, no, wolves were not real, not anymore, they belonged with ancient Egypt and dinosaurs and Knights of the Realm and pirates of the Long John Silver sort, in books and legend, the glittering viciousness children loved, sabers, fangs, cutlasses, claws: Things they could claim for themselves because the original owners were extinct.
“Of course they’re real,” Peter Elroy said. “And they’re coming. Not for you. They wouldn’t eat you. You’re too small. Too thin. All bone. A wolf would look at you and think, Disgusting.”
“Dis-custing,” the girl echoed.
“But I’m lovely,” said Peter Elroy. “I’m delicious.”
“We’ll protect you,” said the boy.
“Darling,” said Peter Elroy, “it’s all right. Let them come.”
And they did, one night soon afterward.