Aaron Polson is a high school English teacher and freelance writer. He holds a B.S. from Kansas State University in English/secondary education and an M.S. in counseling psychology from the University of Kansas. During the 2006-07 school year, Aaron was nominated for Kansas Teacher of the Year. He resides in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, two sons, and a rather sturdy tropical fish. You can visit him on the web at http://www.frozenrobot.com.View all articles by Aaron Polson
"That thing just moved," Dexter said as he replaced his glasses on his face.
"What?" Cole asked, glancing toward his friend. "Just a trick of the light, Dex." The thin boy perched on the dryer like a junkyard buzzard. His eyes scanned the scene, and he hopped from his perch. "Check it out."
Dexter made one last furtive glance at the hunk of steel before swishing after his friend through the thick grass. Cole meandered past loose hunks of broken chrome and black rubber tubing until he came upon a half-buried exercise bike. He swung one leg over the seat and pulled himself into a proper mount. In the grass behind them, Ralph scavenged on the ground for small bits of treasure like a chubby raccoon.
Cole pushed his feet in vicious circles on the loose pedals of the bike. "Look, I’m winning the Tour…one last stretch into Paris…Cole Garrow wins again!"
"What’s that?" Dexter pointed a finger across the field of junk to a large, rectangular box poking up behind a mound of splintered wood.
Cole hopped down from the bike and followed Dexter’s finger. "That’s Ralph’s fat ass." He picked up a chunk of rubber tubing and hurled it toward the blob of white t-shirt and sliver of pink skin sticking out of a tuft of thick grass. "Yo Ralph! You’ve got some serious plumber’s crack."
Dexter ignored Cole’s antics as he walked toward the box. It leaned at an angle, like some crooked giant jabbed the thing into the ground. As he moved closer, the silver handle melted into view, and Dexter realized that the box was really an old refrigerator. His grandmother had one like it that she always kept filled with cookies, cakes, and soda for his visits. "I thought they usually took the doors off their hinges," he mumbled to no one in particular as he crossed the last few yards of rough ground to the appliance.
Dexter’s fingers wrapped around the silver handle just as Ralph yelled, "It's five-thirty! I have to be home by six! Let’s go!" Dexter pulled slightly, but the door held firm.
"Are you looking for something to eat?" Cole’s sudden voice made Dexter jump; he wasn’t ready for his friend to be right behind him. "C’mon Dex," Cole said. "Let’s get out of here." He smacked Dexter across the back with a boney hand.
An hour later, Dexter sat across from his sister at their kitchen table. Sandy was seventeen, five years Dexter’s senior, and one of the popular queens at Springdale High School. Where Dexter was average and plain, Sandy sparkled. She sparkled from her thick golden braids to her lithe, cross-country runner’s body. They sat at the table as mismatched siblings, poking at brown remnants of KFC on mismatched plates.
"So, Dex, how was your day?" his mom asked. She was a slight woman with dark hair, and she always wore a strained look on her face—a side effect of the two jobs she juggled to keep the family functioning.
"Fine. I just hung out with Cole and Ralph. Rode bikes." Dexter spoke down into his plate.
"Rode bikes to the junkyard, right Dex?" Sandy burned his scalp with her eyes.
"Yeah Mom. Out behind that place where they used to repair lawnmowers by the highway," Sandy said, stretching the word "highway" for full effect.
"Dex, you know I don’t really like you riding near the highway." Mrs. Wilcox wiped her mouth and lay down the napkin. "It’s so dangerous. After your father…and that Denison kid…I can’t…"
"We were very careful, Mom. No sweat." Dexter squeezed the last two words between clenched teeth and glared at Sandy. She poked her tongue at him.
"No more of this, understand?"
Dexter held his fork in a white-knuckled hand and nodded consent. He held the other hand under the table with middle finger extended in his sister’s direction.
"I heard the bell…did anyone else hear the bell?" Mrs. Smoltz, Dexter’s seventh grade English teacher waddled into the classroom just after 8:10 that Monday morning. A large woman with bright pink face and pen dangling around her neck on a black cord, she always gave the class commands framed as questions.
Dexter ignored her instruction about the daily grammar lesson that morning—he considered it five minutes of boredom that never affected his grade anyway. Instead, he filled the margins of his notebook with doodles. Today, the doodles manifested as little black ink drawings of an old refrigerator dropping on his sister. He spent extra time on the viscera and blood, shading the latter in heavy black for full, eye-catching effect.
As he drew, a small wad of paper glanced off his right shoulder. Dexter turned to find Cole’s grinning face sitting directly behind him. "Hey dude. You gonna try out for basketball?" Cole whispered.
Dexter shrugged. "I dunno."
"Gentlemen?" Mrs. Smoltz commanded with a usual question. "Is there something I can help you with?" Dexter’s face washed red and he rotated forward in his seat.
He ignored Mrs. Smoltz’s lecture on Call of the Wild and scribbled a few final details on his drawing as the bell rang. "Dex, you comin’?" Cole asked.
"Yeah, just finishing something."
"Let me see," Cole said, jabbing a thin finger into Dexter’s notebook. "Sweet holy Jesus, Dex. That’s messed up." He smiled, grinning widely, his white teeth almost reflecting the black-inked blood stains spilling across Dexter’s paper.
Dexter snatched the notebook and shoved it into his backpack. "Look, I’m not crazy right?"
"Just tell me I’m not crazy, okay?"
"Whatever." Cole shrugged.
"I saw something move in that junkyard on Saturday." Dexter pulled the backpack over his shoulder. "And that ‘fridge pulled back when I tried to open the door."
Cole stared at him for a few pregnant seconds. "Nope, you’re nuts. Forget about basketball. Maybe we don’t want you on the team," he said. His face opened in a wide, smart-ass grin. He punched Dexter lightly on the arm and squirted from the classroom into the hallway.
Curiosity and fear worked on Dexter, opposing forces that captured his thoughts the rest of the day. His doodles grew increasingly detailed as he ignored his math, social studies, and science teachers that morning. PE, or "physical endangerment" as Ralph liked to call it, arrived at the end of the day, and Dexter found himself opposite Cole in a game of three on three basketball.
"Here’s your big chance Dex," Cole said as he dribbled the ball around the top of the lane. "Come and get it." He taunted Dexter with crossovers and all manner of basketball moves a scrawny twelve-year-old shouldn’t be able to perform.
Cole faked one direction, and Dexter lunged for the ball, sprawling on the floor after stumbling over his own feet. He hit hard; the finely waxed court smacked his pale flesh. His left ankle popped when he twisted to the ground. Cole had blown by him, and then arced the ball in a perfect lay-up straight through the hoop.
"That’s right. I’m the man." Cole thumped his chest while Ralph scurried over to Dexter and helped him to his feet.
"You okay, Dex?" Ralph asked, but Dexter shook his head and spent the rest of PE sitting in the bleachers with a bag of ice on his ankle. Cole didn’t even look at him as he made for the shower when the bell rang.
Dexter waved to Ralph in the hallway as his chubby friend wobbled to chess club practice. Cole was busy with basketball tryouts. Dexter was alone with an aching ankle. Something called him from the junk, and he would answer. Limping out of the building to his bike, Dexter tightened his backpack straps and pushed hard on the pedals toward the highway, wincing with the pain.
Cars and trucks cruised by the plain boy on a bike as he sat at an intersection, waiting for a break in traffic. He saw the driver’s as robots instead of real, living human beings. In his mind’s eye he saw the challenge—to brave the flow of metal beasts to enter the junk kingdom beyond. A small gap slipped open between two cars and Dexter pumped hard to make the distant shore. One of the drivers honked, and when Dexter turned to look he saw the man’s extended middle finger. However, he was safe on the other side, huffing and puffing, but safe.
After stashing his bike in the bushes, Dexter squeezed through the branches and foliage just at the border of Ralph’s "Land of Lost Appliances". A little scratched and still nursing the sore ankle, he surveyed the unruly grass and derelict hulks. The scene was like a sea of rough green and brown devouring metal icebergs.
He had slipped into another world; the hum of highway traffic vanished. As Dexter took a few, limping steps toward the piles of abandoned appliances, the junk listened, hunkering in a quiet, hushed patience. Even the air was different somehow, electric, full and heavy with something he hadn’t noticed on Saturday.
Like a blown piece of paper, he drifted from item to item, really scrutinizing the fine chrome detail on the old style washing machines and a peculiar stack of hubcaps. A corner of a black picture frame jutted out from under one chipped and dented disc. Dexter stooped and pulled the frame from the pile, dropped his backpack on the ground, and brushed the dust from the glass with his shirt sleeve.
A family of four watched Dexter from inside the frame. The parents, a mother with red-brown, billowing hair and a father with very little hair of his own, stood behind their sons—or the boys Dexter assumed to be their sons. They looked like twins, but clearly not the same age. The oldest wore a wide smile under his dark hair and ice blue eyes. The smaller boy held his lips in a tight, stoic line. Something distant and haunting floated in that boy’s eyes.
A crunching, metal-rending crash sounded behind Dexter, and he spun to see the source. The junk moved—bits and pieces of wavering, shimmering metal. Dexter stumbled, feeling the brush of black drain hose skirting past him in the grass like a thick python. The hose wound through the shifting fragments of animated junk and snaked across the top of the refrigerator.
Stunned momentarily, Dexter now ran, dragging his weak foot through the snatching weeds. Tears pushed out with the pain, but Dexter didn’t stop until he had scrambled through the bushes, grabbed his bike, and pushed it toward the highway. He hopped on the moving bike and squeezed through the traffic; a large truck just missed him. Its horn screamed as Dexter’s bike hit the curb, jumped onto the sidewalk, and rolled into the neighborhood beyond.
Dexter arrived home before his mother and sister and avoided any awkward questions that would require an explanation of the impossible events at the junk field. That night, as he stretched in bed, his mind wandered, trying to force logic into what happened—how the junk moved. He eventually faded into sleep only to wake to the realization that he left his backpack out there, across the highway with the thing.
While shuffling through his day at school, Dexter tried to work through anything that would excuse what he saw—wind, the pain in his ankle, or even the ample mass of gory doodles he sketched during the day. He faced three "disappointed" teachers to whom he explained that his bag, homework and all, was simply misplaced. Dexter found himself locked between his abstract fear of the impossible and the very concrete reality that he needed that bag. After school, he again rode his bike to the junk heap.
The field of wasted scrap lay before him just like yesterday afternoon. Dexter walked into the midst where mud and grass met discarded bits of metal and plastic.
A silence hung in the air, and the soft scratch of Dexter’s pant leg against the tall, jagged grass seemed the only sound in the world. He traced his steps from yesterday, but couldn’t find the backpack. He circled the leaning construct of shiny hubcaps and combed the weeds and mud, but he couldn’t even find the old picture frame. "Aw hell," he muttered and plopped in a bucket seat torn from an old car.
Quickly, before he could move, a length of discarded garden hose encircled his waist, strapping him to the chair. Dexter dug his fingers around the coil and tugged, but those bonds held him fast. Fear ruled him, blind panic, and he kicked and thrashed against the chair.
The thing rose up. The old refrigerator, the one that had tugged back on Saturday, sat at the center of a swirling mass of banging and whining metal. The pile of junk stacked itself into a tower, raising the refrigerator under two broken bed-frame legs, a jangling conglomeration of metal, rubber, and wood. Dexter ceased his struggle, but his body convulsed with sobs, shaking under his green bonds. Its thick black arms helped push the thing to full height, towering above Dexter. His eyes were shut against the abomination, but he could hear the writhe of black drainage hose in the grass. "Don’t kill me," Dexter whimpered from his quivering lips.
The squeaks and strains of metal scraping metal faded, and he opened his eyes slightly. Bent in front of Dexter, the giant amalgamation held his backpack, one strap looped around the end of the black pipe. The thing dropped his backpack with a dull thump on the ground in front of him, and then it sat on an old washer with a thunderous clank. Dexter’s heart throbbed through the tight straps of garden hose for a few moments, and then the hose loosened, freeing him.
Despite being released from his bonds, Dexter didn’t move. Moments passed into minutes; the boy sat and stared at this unreal animation while the junk sat and regarded the boy. Eventually, Dexter scooted forward on his seat, bent down and wrapped one hand around the backpack’s rough strap.
"Nice monster," he muttered, slowly standing.
On top of the refrigerator torso, an old TV set rotated from side to side—a makeshift head answering "no" to the word "monster". Dexter didn’t move, but the hulk stomped over to the half-buried stationary bike. One black arm poked at the pedals and sent them spinning in circles. The TV-head turned toward Dexter, and the boy walked toward the thing.
"God, Dex. You’re an insensitive little shit. Mom’s been worried to death about you," Sandy said to her brother as he tried to squeeze past her onto the porch.
"I lost track of time," Dexter answered.
"Like hell. You were at that stupid junkyard again, weren’t you?"
Dexter shoved her and slipped through the front door. He noticed his mother sitting at the kitchen table, her face red with puffy eyes. He dropped the backpack at his feet and sat down on the steps leading to the kitchen. After waiting a moment, he said, "Sorry, Mom."
She looked at him then, directed her worn eyes at him, and said, "Sorry? Dex, it’s almost seven o’clock. The sky’s dark. We eat at six." She shook her head.
"I’m sorry, okay."
"Look, I called the police. You’ve never been gone this long on a school night." She stood and moved to the phone. "I’ll call them again, tell them you’re safe. I can’t do this again Dex. I don’t need to lose you like that Denison boy…" She put a hand to her forehead and reached toward Dexter with the other. "I just love you sweetie, after Dad…I just worry about you, okay?" Dexter slipped next to his mother and she hugged him tightly. "Promise you won’t stay out again, not this late…and stay away from that place."
Dexter pressed against his mother, inhaling the smell of her work uniform: Pine Sol and dust. "Sure," he mumbled, thinking about the junk and the strange thing that lived there but feeling the weight of responsibility to his mom.
Dexter slammed his locker with a vicious crash before school on Wednesday morning. "Ralph, do you know some ‘Denison’ kid? Mom mentioned him a couple of times. She sounded kind of like something bad happened to him." Dexter said nothing else—not ready to face Ralph’s skepticism or reveal the strange creature that grew out of debris.
"Denison…" Ralph’s voice faded thoughtfully. "From here?"
"Yeah, I guess. We’ve lived here my whole life. She almost said it like I should know who he was." The warning bell rattled.
"Look Ralph, I’ll see what I can do. See you in PE." Ralph turned and wobbled down the hallway.
In English that morning, Dexter doodled the junk monster instead of his mangled sister. Cole walked past him after class, looked briefly at Dexter’s drawings, but said nothing. Cole hadn’t spoken to Dexter since Monday and the sprained ankle.
"Hey Dex," Ralph huffed through his crunches in PE that afternoon. "I…found something…about…Denison." His face swelled red and sweaty. "Tell…you after….class."
Dexter sat on a bench in the locker room after class, pulling a sneaker on over his swollen and wrapped left ankle. Cole breezed out of the locker room flanked by two other members of the basketball team. After their shadows faded from the doorway, Ralph waddled to Dexter with his backpack in tow.
"Here’s something you might want to see," Ralph said as he reached into his pack, rummaging for an unseen object. His chubby hand pulled out a sheet of paper from one of the school’s laser printers. "I found this on the Sentinel’s website, you know, the local paper. Anyway, I hope this is what your mom was talking about."
Dexter glanced at the sheet, and then looked at Ralph. "Hey thanks. Uh, what are you doing after school today? I thought maybe…"
"I can’t today. Chess practice. Sorry."
"No sweat. Thanks though," Dexter said. He held up the paper. After Ralph walked away, he read the article. Five years ago, Eric Denison went missing from Springdale. He was twelve at the time—just like Dexter was now, but the picture bothered Dexter the most. The portrait in the paper was a black and white double of the younger brother in the family photo from the junk field.
Dexter’s mom found him sprawled on the couch watching TV when she came home between shifts that evening. "Dex honey, are you alright?" She sat down on the couch next to him.
He didn’t look at her, but scratched his short brown hair. "Yeah, fine."
"You aren’t usually home this early on a Wednesday, what’s wrong?"
"The ankle kept me out of basketball tryouts on Monday. Ralph is busy with chess club. I promised I’d be good." He smiled stiffly.
She patted him on the leg. "The junior high years are tough buddy. It sounds like you, Cole, and Ralph might be growing apart."
"Yeah," Dexter said, but he wasn’t thinking about his friends. In his mind, he juggled the promise he made to his mom with the curiosity and wonder that dwelled with the junk. Dexter wanted to ignore the desire that grew to see that thing again. He remembered the tears after his father’s accident.
"You’re a great kid, Dex. I know it’s tough." She stood, walked to the stairs, and climbed to change for her second job.
He wanted distance and time to make the junk monster go away. He wanted to forget the picture of Eric Denison he found among the hubcaps. He needed to know if the refrigerator had pulled back. Dexter’s doodles took the form of Eric all day. He pulled the folded Sentinel article from his notebook and sketched the boy during each class. Something floated beyond his understanding; something linked the junk with this missing boy.
"So, are you going to the scrimmage tonight, Ralph?" Dexter asked his pudgy friend while lacing his shoes after PE.
"Naw. We have scholar’s bowl practice today. Alternating with chess club, you know." Ralph’s mouth melted into a frown as he nodded toward the athletic boys in the opposite corner of the locker room. "I don’t really need to see Cole show off, anyway."
"Oh," Dexter stood up and slammed his gym locker shut. "Yeah, I wasn’t going to go either. Stuff to do." He hesitated for a moment. "Look, Ralph. I saw something in the junk the other day. Something big, moving. Alive."
Ralph sat back on the bench and examined Dexter. "Like what?"
"Like, well like a giant man made out of junk." Dexter’s face felt hot.
"Okay." Ralph bent down and continued to tie his shoe.
"Yeah. Clearly you’re either fucking with me, which wouldn’t be very nice, or your subconscious has constructed a surrogate to replace your deceased father."
"I’m not fucking with you Ralph." Dexter frowned while trying to understand the second part of Ralph’s rationalization.
"Look you should come hang out with the scholar’s bowl squad. You could maybe help out." Ralph shrugged. "I gotta go. See you tomorrow."
Dexter watched him leave, watched the jocks leave after him, and waited in the locker room for a few minutes, alone.
He needed to know; he wanted someone else to know. Within twenty minutes of the final school bell, Dexter stood at the edge of the junk field. He pushed the images of his mother’s red eyes deeper in his memory. "The picture," he muttered to himself, "if I could find that picture."
Dexter began picking around the hubcaps again, walking in ever-widening circles as he fanned out from the heap of silver disks. No sound found him—the highway noise vaporized, and the breeze died within the tree-lined confines of that field.
When his circles spread wide enough, the path brought him within feet of the old refrigerator. Dexter stopped walking and examined it for a minute. Last Saturday was on another planet, a place where Cole, Ralph, and he were still friends and junk didn’t come to life. He stepped closer to the door. His fingers twitched as he reached for the handle.
As his hand wrapped around the hunk of chrome, a sudden chill soaked his bones. This was no breeze, but a premonition, something floating in the air from the junk. He pulled. A distant truck horn sounded on the highway. The door gave, almost sending Dexter sprawling on the ground. He stumbled backwards and reeled at the smell and a puff of dust.
There, inside the refrigerator, was a corpse—an awful, stretched-skin mummy. Too thin and beyond gaunt, its frame was about Dexter’s size. This had been a boy about his age. Eric Denison. The corpse clutched the black picture frame to its chest. Dexter staggered backwards, retching, and tripped over a discarded golf club.
The door snapped shut as the junk rose up again, a swirling mass of knocking metal. It towered above Dexter, throwing a shadow over him. Dexter turned on the ground, and scrambled toward the edge of the junk field, running hard enough to rattle his sore ankle, but feeling nothing but the fire eating at his lungs. The junk clanked and groaned behind him, driving into the earth with heavy, pounding steps.
Dexter burst from the bushes, wasted no time with bike, and sprinted into the highway. The heavy grill of a large truck roared close, so close that Dexter felt the radiator warmth. A heavy blow caught him across the back, and he tumbled head first across the street, crumbling in the gutter. A large metallic crash ended a deafening squeal of brakes. A few pregnant moments filled with loud voices, confusion, and rushing feet.
"Here son, let me help you up," an old man said as he placed his arm behind Dexter’s back. "You had quite a spill. If it wasn’t for that old refrigerator, hell. You’re lucky, is all."
Dexter felt a throbbing lump on the back of his head. "Refrigerator," he mumbled. He looked toward the highway, the crowd gathered around a large, off white object in front of a smashed truck. He dropped his head and noticed the black picture frame of the Denison family photo sitting in the gutter next to him. With one hand he lifted the frame, examining the smile on the younger boy’s face while someone in the street started shouting.
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