Earworm: Part 1 — The Prodigal Son Returns

EarwormContinued from: Earworm: Prologue

Greta’s knuckles tapped on the door like the head of a woodpecker. “William, wake up,” she called through the door. “That boy sleeps forever,” she said to herself. Three more raps on the door. “William?” The edges of her voice were becoming frayed with worry, as if this was the first time William had ever overslept. But what if his heart stopped during the night? What if he stopped breathing? What if he drowned in his drool? “William?”

“I’m up, I’m up.” William sat up, his head feeling as if someone implanted a shot put in the place of his brain. He squinted through the haze of receding sleep, white blurs fading with each blink like electric cobwebs falling from his eyes.

On the other side of the door, Greta walked away, grumbling, “How many times do I have to knock before he finally gets up…”

William looked around his room, most of his things still packed in boxes. He knew Greta was probably already unpacked before the last box even came off the moving truck. William yawned, pulling his legs from beneath his covers and making his way to the bedroom’s door. Walking as if wearing Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein shoes. He lurched into the bathroom, flipping on the fluorescent light. Its atomic brightness causing his eyes, with another flare of cobwebs, to readjust again. He then slipped into the shower, losing himself, at least for a few cherished minutes, into the steam and noise of oblivion. After his shower, he followed the rest of his morning routine as automated as an assembly line—brushing teeth, combing hair—and when he was done, he stepped back, looking at his face in the mirror. His dark eyes peering back at him from his reflection. He was too thin. Greta saying this was due to a high metabolism. Telling him, with a gentle spank of her oversized bottom, that it was something he’d be happy to have later in life. But it seemed like he was waiting forever to fill out. For his clothes to not hang from him like a scarecrow’s attire. He ran his fingers through his hair, a thick nest of black that never seemed to lend itself to any style, and a strand fell into his eyes. He brushed it back, creating a hump, a bad-hair-day tumor on top of his head. He turned back and forth, viewing the anomaly from every direction, patting it down with his hands. He said to the mirror, “Hi. I’m William Knight. I’m new here.” Then he clicked off the light and left the bathroom.

In the kitchen, Greta was buttering an English muffin. “Do you want breakfast?” she said, her voice bitingly jovial.

“I’m not really hungry,” he said.

“You’ve got to eat, William. Malnutrition is the leading cause of cancer. Without nutrients, your body eats your good tissue. It just eats it. And then the cells feeding on your body’s good, healthy tissue become cancerous like…”

William closed his eyes, Greta’s voice filling his head like helium. One day, his head might just keep filling and filling and filling until… Pop. “Okay,” William said, holding his hands at his sides. “I’ll have an English muffin.” He opened his eyes and looked at her. The emotion on her face was unreadable. “Please,” William added, sitting at the kitchen table.

“Gotta eat,” Greta said, splitting a muffin with a fork and dropping it into the toaster. “Don’t eat, don’t live. It’s a simple law of nature. Oops…” The butter knife clanged on the floor. Greta picked it up and inspected it like a forensic scientist. “Better get a new one,” she announced, moving to the silverware drawer. “Do you see animals not eat for no good reason?” She picked out a clean knife. The muffins sprang from their slots. Greta looked at William. “Well?” she said, waving the knife in his direction.

Did she ask him a question he was supposed to answer?

“No,” she answered for him, saying, “They’d die.” The way she flung the knife from butter to muffin was trowel-like, resembling a mason mortaring bricks. She served William his breakfast on a paper plate that read: Happy New Year! spelled out in tiny champagne bottles. She had an endless supply of these plates, yet William had no memory of ever having a New Year party. When Greta dropped the plate onto the table, the flattened muffins bounced in a spray of crumbs. “Right?” she said.

Was that another question he was supposed to answer? “What are you talking about?”

“The importance of a good diet,” she said, nestling her squat body into her chair and chomping into her English muffin—a mere warm up for the marathon of malted milk balls she would pop like an addict from a gallon box throughout the day. Greta continued babbling about nutrition and animals, but to William, it was blades of a fan cutting air, a droning hum filling the room. William wolfed down his muffins. “You know, William, one of these days I’ll be giving you the Heimlich. And you drink that juice much too fast, no wonder you’re so gassy.”

William stood and was on his way to deposit the paper plate into the trash when he let out a groan.

Greta saying, “What was that for?”

“Nothing,” he said, “I’m just running late.”

William headed down the hall, Greta’s words following him like a pestering sibling tugging on his shirttails, “Remember to brush your teeth again, because little crumbs can get caught between your gums and teeth and push the two apart, that’s how you lose your teeth. That’s how…”

William grabbed his backpack from his bedroom and ducked into the bathroom. He stared into the mirror and turned on the faucet. The water swirled down the drain. The hair tumor had sprung up once again. William wet his fingertips and worked it back into place. Well, here he was. It was time for another fun-filled day at that synonym for prison, that metaphor for hell, that place called school. But this time it was a new school. Would this school be different? Would he really have, as Greta had said while leaving their old house for the final time, a chance for a new start? And could he get a new start returning here to Mystic Island? Despite the years that had passed? Despite the new name? “Try not to be such a goofball today,” William said to his reflection. He shouldered his backpack and returned to the kitchen, bidding Greta goodbye, and then he was out the front door and into the late September sun.

At the end of Highland Street, a boy stood at the bus stop. The kid glanced at William for a brief moment and then searched the street as if trying to conjure the bus into existence. “Hi,” William said to him.

“Hey,” the kid said.

“I’m William Knight.”

“Good for you,” the kid said, turning his back to William, trying to conjure the bus again. When finally the bus appeared, many faces peered from its windows like tortured souls. The bus’s folding door screamed open, seeming to call, All aboard, Willy.

William did what it told him.

Continued in: Earworm: Part 2 — William’s Hope 

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