Chemoimagination

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“Marisela!”

Rigo cried out and Marisela came running into the boys’ bedroom. He was standing before the left side of his bed, shining a flashlight on both the bed and the wall behind it. Alex stood beside him, speechless, clutching the cuff of Rigo’s sleep shorts. With the lights off, the only thing easily visible was the part of the thing that his flashlight illuminated.

A large mass that looked like a skeletal chest bulged out from the wall, its ribs protruding, thumping as if there were a heart underneath. From that mass extended several inky tendrils, thick at the base, and thinning as they extended along the wall, one of them even peeking out from under the bed. Above the chest was some kind of dark rupture where a head might otherwise be.

Marisela gasped and stumbled back. She quickly recovered herself, turned on the room lights, and rushed forward to gather the boys in her arms. But when the lights went on, the thing on the wall vanished.

She frowned.

Still catching her breath, she reached toward the wall, but Rigo caught her hand. He said nothing, but when she glanced at him, the quiet concerned terror in his eyes was convincing enough.

“Did you see it?” he asked as she backed them away from the wall and out of the room.

“Of course, I saw it. What the hell was it?”

“My dad can’t see it,” Rigo said. “So he doesn’t believe it’s there.”

Marisela looked at him. “Okay…” She gulped and took a breath. “Tell me everything.”

***

Marisela took them downstairs into the kitchen. She’d just made some triple chip cookies (she put milk chocolate, peanut butter, and caramel chips). Those cookies were one of many reasons that Marisela was Rigo’s favorite cousin. Though she was sixteen and he was still only twelve, she didn’t treat him like a baby—even when she was babysitting, as she was that night. She’d been cool to him long before she started babysitting, when she and her parents started coming around just to help out.

She would talk to him about the subjects she was studying at school and actually made them sound interesting. She sometimes used coarse language when she wasn’t in complete control of herself—like when she was raging mad or extremely happy. She played weird made-up games with them and bought them little toys they didn’t even know existed. She’d grown up reading and loving the same books and comics that Rigo loved.

Marisela and her family had moved closer to theirs when his mother had left, or when she was taken away three years ago. It had been a strange time, a really bad time for him, his dad, and his baby brother.

Rigo stared at the plate of cookies. His stomach was churning too much to enjoy any of them now. Now that he knew he wasn’t seeing things. He glanced through the kitchen door to the stairs that led up to their bedrooms. It was up there, lurking. If they kept the lights on, maybe they wouldn’t see it at all. But it would still be there. He thought he’d seen it the night before. He thought he’d been having a nightmare, where he saw it, some kind of monster inside the wall, its chest thumping with hideous heartbeats. He couldn’t breathe in his nightmare, and he couldn’t breathe when he woke from it.

Now he knew. Even if Marisela hadn’t seen it. Now he knew it wasn’t a nightmare.

***

Rigo sat down at the kitchen table with a glass of water and began to explain. He thought it all started a month ago when he came back from camp. He’d been gone a few weeks with his class. It was the longest he’d been away from his family. He’d been somewhat worried about his dad and brother being without him. But the closer it got to the trip, the more excited he felt. His dad trusted the teachers and parents who were going along as chaperones. Alex seemed okay too, except that he’d started wearing those footie pajamas that he hadn’t worn since he was a toddler. It became easier and easier for Rigo to believe that his dad and brother would be fine, since they’d have each other.

In the days before Rigo left, Alex had thrown some tantrums. Marisela remembered one of them. Her uncle had asked her to babysit last-minute when he got stuck in a meeting at work that was going to run late. Alex usually behaved. He usually acted all cute and sweet, and she would give him an extra cookie (he didn’t know she’d actually gotten their dad’s permission ahead of time). But that night, he wouldn’t do anything she asked him to do. So Rigo told Marisela about the camping trip. She said she would stop by to check on Alex and her uncle while Rigo was gone, and she had.

It seemed to help a little that Rigo gave Alex permission to sleep in his bed while he was gone. Alex thought Rigo’s side of the room was the coolest. The posters on the wall, the comics under the bed, the baseball stuff that seemed to change location depending on the season. Rigo had come back home to find a stuffed Tyrannosaurus rex on his bed. That was Alex’s favorite toy. He wanted to be a dinosaur when he grew up.

But that stuffed t-rex wasn’t the only thing that had changed. Rigo noticed some kind of stain on the wall, a strange dark stain that was only visible during the evening when the sunlight was fading. Rigo tried not to be angry at his little brother, and mostly succeeded only because he didn’t know how Alex could have possibly made a stain that appeared and vanished. Before leaving, he’d been worried that Alex might pee the bed, so he and his dad had lain down some waterproof underpads below the fitted sheet. But his sheets were clean and dry when he returned, so the weird spot on the wall didn’t seem as big of a deal at first.

But then it seemed to get worse. His favorite poster had some discoloration. Marisela had given him that poster as a birthday present. It was a poster of Manifestus, one of the comic book heroes that both of them loved.

Learning chemistry had made Marisela appreciate the comic even more, because even if the science wasn’t quite right, it was imaginative. Marisela told him imagination was the most important ability that human beings had (after love).

Manifestus had many abilities. He could fly, lift heavy objects, project shields to protect other people from falling debris, see danger from miles away, and on and on. But all of those abilities were only secondary abilities. His primary ability was something called “chemoimagination.” Whatever he imagined, if he focused enough, his body could manifest through special chemicals that other people didn’t have in their bodies. How he was endowed with chemoimagination was one of the over-arching mysteries of the comic. He needed to focus so he could manifest his powers responsibly. In the beginning, he would draw an image of himself as a hero, then look at and touch the image. If he summoned his powers without focusing, they would go crazy and might hurt people, including Manifestus himself.

Rigo had started showing Alex his comics, starting with Manifestus, because that’s the one his dad had first introduced him to. It was on his mind a lot, because he’d started thinking about coincidences in his life connected to those comics. His dad had given them to him just before his mom left. Marisela had come into his life and started explaining stuff from her science classes, like genes and chemicals. And Alex seemed to have tantrums whenever Rigo too was agitated. Maybe it was just because they were brothers. But maybe there was more to it.

Rigo thought he was starting to remember some weird stuff from when his mom was still around. He had tried not to think about what happened, but when he did, he always remembered it as her leaving. But now he thought she might have been taken away. He was too afraid to ask his dad just yet. Marisela didn’t know anything at all. She’d just been told that her auntie was very sick and she had to help out her uncle and cousins. Rigo’s mother had some condition, or something that was contagious enough that she was a danger to her family. She had to leave to undergo treatment. The treatment would be so serious that she wouldn’t be able to see her family for a long while.

Rigo was old enough to remember, vaguely, parts of their parting. He wanted to hug her, but she wouldn’t come close. She cried and blew him a kiss and touched her heart. And then she left.

And she never came back.

***

That was three years ago. But Rigo remembered strange things happening in the house when she was still there. He remembered being afraid of ghosts, and when his parents did the usual checks of the closet and under the bed, they didn’t just smile and ruffle his hair and tell him it was all clear for the night. They told him all was well, but if he ever saw something, he should come tell them right away. When he asked them what the monsters would look like, they told him that it wasn’t monsters they were worried about. It was other bad things, like diseases. They were vague about it. Rigo thought it was because he was young and they didn’t want to scare him. But now he wondered if it was because they themselves didn’t know how to describe what made them afraid.

He remembered that they would not let him come into their bedroom for a long time, a year maybe, before his mom went away. Again, when he got older, he explained it away to himself. He told himself they just wanted to do grown-up stuff and he probably didn’t want to know anyway. But one day, his mom was really sick. He heard her throwing up, and it sounded gross but also scary, because she sounded like she was in pain. She sounded like she was screaming and crying at the same time. Rigo was scared, but he dared himself to go in the bedroom to ask if she wanted some water, or just to stroke her back, like she did for him when he was throwing up. He managed to get in the room and see her for two blinks of an eye before his dad yanked him out into the hallway.

He apologized for scaring Rigo, but told him that it would be scarier if he got sick like his mom, since he was so little, and his body might not be able to take it. Rigo went to his room. His baby brother was in there, sleeping soundly in a cradle. He knew his dad would come in a few minutes to check on them both. But he was scared. His mom had been a little sick when his brother was still in her belly. Alex didn’t look sick. But what if he got sick later? What if Rigo did?

Rigo tried not to think about it, but he couldn’t keep the image of what he had seen in his parents’ room out of his mind. Before his dad had yanked him out of the room and shut the door, he had seen something on the wall of the bedroom. It was a tree. It looked like it was growing out from under the house and through the wall. There were bright green leaves, almost glowing, sprouting from a few branches that were poking through the wall next to the bed. There was even a black-and-orange butterfly perched on the part of the trunk that looked like it was trying to tear out of the wall. His mother sat under the branches, hunched over, breathing hard. He wished she would lift her head and look up at the tree.

It was beautiful.

***

“Now my dad lets me go in there all the time,” Rigo said. “There’s nothing there. Maybe he covered it up, but…I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if it’s still there, but invisible.”

Marisela was gazing at Rigo, her eyebrows crinkled as if she were concentrating and worried at the same time.

“Why didn’t you ever tell me all this before?” she asked.

Rigo looked down and shrugged. He looked up at her again. “I couldn’t remember. I…didn’t want to. But since I got back from camp, I’ve been trying to remember. And I’ve been focusing on seeing the tree. I think it’s a good thing. But this thing on my wall, that’s a bad thing.”

“No kidding.”

“Mari, what if I got something from mom? Some disease, or power. Or what if it’s a curse? What if my dad was trying to tell me, but was too scared, so he gave me the comic?”

Marisela frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, what if my mom had it? Chemoimagination.”

Marisela sat back in her chair. She didn’t say anything.

“My dad can’t see it. But you can. Maybe it’s because our moms are sisters. When it was just a black spot that I kept seeing, I told him that I was afraid we had mold, so he checked it out, but he couldn’t see it, even at night. He checked the wall, smelled it and everything—I told him not to, but he did, and he didn’t see it. I can’t see it either when there’s too much light.”

“So, it’s only visible in dim conditions,” Marisela said, narrowing her eyes. “Okay, before we start jumping to conclusions and buying you a cape or coming up with names, let’s think about this. Maybe you were right about the mold. Maybe that’s why you’re remembering some tree-like thing on the wall from when you were younger. But it might be something rare, so rare that we’ll need some expert scientist to come take a look.”

Rigo felt panic rising in his chest. “I’m not afraid of having powers or mold, but…” He couldn’t finish his thought, but Marisela understood, as he hoped she would.

She took her hands in his. “No one is going to take you away. Not if I can help it.”

Rigo felt better, but not by much. He looked up at her and frowned. “What can you do?”

~~~

Marisela had decided on what to do. She would convince her Uncle Frank that there was definitely something weird on that wall. She had let the boys fall asleep in the living room that night. But when her uncle came home, he admonished her not to let that happen again on a school night. It wouldn’t be a problem for Alex, who only had half-days. But Rigo wouldn’t be properly rested.

She tried to tell him about the wall, and for just a moment, she thought he was angry with her. He was partway up the stairs when he turned and frowned. But then his expression softened and he warned her to be savvier in the future, and not buy into everything Rigo said. The older he got, the wilier he was becoming. Then he asked her mundane questions about the movies she’d let them watch and the snacks she’d let them eat, and so on.

She kept in touch with Rigo through video-chats, and they talked at a family dinner they both attended for some visiting relatives. She did as much research as she could on molds and fungi. But Rigo told her that his dad had had the air in the house tested, especially the bedrooms, and they’d found nothing.

It wasn’t until the next night she was babysitting that they got more answers than they could have hoped—or feared—for.

~~~

Marisela was trying to do her homework, skipping around from advanced algebra to art history to chemistry. She couldn’t concentrate. The boys were asleep, in their room, even though it was a Friday night. Rigo had said it was okay, that he hadn’t seen anything since that last time. He was still having bad dreams, and still trying to shine a flashlight on the wall whenever he woke from them, and still checking on Alex to make sure that he didn’t wake him and that he was okay. But he never since saw even a faint hint of a stain.

Uncle Frank had been spending a lot of time with his sons. Rigo and Alex had both been in good moods, calmer than she’d seen them in a while. That made Marisela feel better. But she was sure she hadn’t imagined what she’d seen that other night. She had no way to explain, unless her uncle was right, and Rigo was putting one over on her. If so, her little cousin had some impressive illusionist talents.

Her uncle wasn’t coming home that night. He’d flown out to some meeting that morning and wouldn’t be back until the following afternoon.

Marisela hoped it was a quiet night. She put away her homework. She would finish it later, when she got home. She turned on the television, and before too long, she had fallen asleep.

When next she woke, she thought she’d heard a scream. She glanced around the living room, forgetting where she was for a moment. She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. She wanted to call out to the boys, but it was the middle of the night. If she had just dreamed that scream, she didn’t want to wake them. She bounded upstairs.

~~~

She carefully opened the door to the boys’ bedroom. In the dim moonlight that came through the window, she saw dark tendrils squirming over and around Rigo’s bed. She rushed inside and turned to see Alex sitting up in his bed, wide awake. He was staring at Rigo, and she realized that the scream she’d heard was Alex’s scream. She went to Rigo, recoiling as the soundless tendrils whipped around her. She shook him gently. He was soaked in sweat, breathing shallow breaths, and grabbing at his throat.

Not knowing what to do, she hooked her arms under his armpits and pulled him out of bed. He was too heavy for her to carry, so she dragged him out of the room and lay him on the ground. She flicked on the light, but it wouldn’t turn on. She gasped as she spied a tendril reaching through the light fixture. She waved Alex over to her, but he wouldn’t move. He wouldn’t look at her. She glanced down at Rigo. Now that he was outside of the room, he seemed to be calming down, taking deeper breaths, though he wasn’t yet awake.

Marisela dashed to Alex’s bed. She embraced him and lifted him. She turned to face the thing on the wall. Her eyes had adjusted to the dark and she could see it more clearly as she backed out of the room. It was the same thing she’d seen before, the dark mass that looked like a skeletal chest, ribs stretching the wall. Now she heard a faint thudding heartbeat. Now tendrils extended beyond the wall, running under the bed, and along the adjacent wall. She held onto Alex tight, and noted that his stiff body seemed to relax as she hugged him. The tendrils withdrew. Alex had been holding his breath. She felt his chest start to rise and fall against her own. And the thumping behind that monstrous ribcage began to calm.

The lights suddenly came on. Marisela flinched.

“What’s going on?”

Marisela jerked again. She looked behind her where Rigo sat in the hallway, awake, and breathing heavily but freely.

~~~

“I think it’s Alex,” Marisela said.

Alex was in the living room, watching some twenty-four hour cartoon channel, while Marisela and Rigo kept their eye on him from the kitchen, where they were half-heartedly making some hot chocolate.

“I mean, I don’t have proof, but after what just happened, it makes sense to me.” She sighed and asked Rigo for the seventh time if he was really okay.

Against her wishes, Rigo had gone back into the room to grab his box of Manifestus comics. He hadn’t seen the “wall monster,” as he called it, this time. But he seemed to believe every word of what Marisela said. Alex had said nothing, and they had asked him nothing, not wanting to upset him.

“Okay,” Marisela said, pulling out an issue. “For the sake of figuring this out, let’s imagine that Alex is manifesting some…ability. He probably doesn’t even know he’s doing it. So he’s definitely not in control of it.”

“Just like my mom.”

“And it’s a problem, because it’s obviously hurting at least one person, you. But why?”

“Maybe he’s mad at me. And he can’t say.”

“I don’t know. Alex isn’t shy about telling us how he feels. So maybe, he’s feeling something he doesn’t know he’s feeling.”

Rigo frowned. “I don’t get it. How can you not know what you’re feeling?”

“Well, if the feeling is not conscious. If it’s in your subconscious? Do you know what that is?”

Rigo shook his head. “Kind of, but not really.”

“I’m not sure I understand exactly either. But it’s like what you feel or know, but you’re not aware of it. Like instinct.”

“Like a gut feeling?”

Marisela’s eyes suddenly widened and she snapped her fingers. “Like repressed feelings, or memories. They’re there, but you can’t—your mind—can’t see them. Unless, maybe unless you try to focus.”

Rigo’s eyes widened too. “Like when I was focusing on remembering my mom.”

“Right, so we have to figure out what repressed feelings a five-year-old is feeling that would make him subconsciously manifest that thing.”

“But how will that help us get rid of it?”

Marisela furrowed her brows, concentrating. “Good point. We’re not therapists. What can we do to help him?” She held up a comic. “We can use the strategy that Manifestus uses. Or try anyway. We can get Alex to focus.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not trying to be irresponsible. I am going to tell your dad.”

“What!”

“I have to. We need his help. Something is definitely going on.”

“What if we’re crazy? What if that’s what’s going on?”

“Rigo…”

“Stuff like this isn’t real,” he said, holding up an issue of Manifestus. “Maybe my mom’s in a mental institute. Maybe that’s why they won’t let me see her.”

He left her speechless again. Marisela was scared, for Rigo and Alex, and for herself. She was sure she wasn’t hallucinating. But she had never before seen something so unbelievable. She didn’t know what the right thing was to say. So she said what she wanted and needed to hear in that moment.

“I’m going to help you.”

***

Of course, his dad didn’t believe Marisela when she told him everything she’d seen. She didn’t throw Rigo under the bus by revealing anything he had told her. She just stressed again and again that she didn’t think it was safe for the boys to be in that bedroom. She didn’t know if it was mold or some phenomena that she could not explain, but there was something dangerous there.

When she mentioned Rigo’s breathing, his dad assured her that he would get his son a check-up, and that maybe Rigo had developed allergies or asthma. She didn’t say anything about powers or monsters.

Rigo had expected his dad not to listen to his sixteen-year-old niece. But he hadn’t expected his dad to tell her that he wanted her to stay away for a while, because she might upset her cousins. He said it gently, and he told her that he would let her know how the boys were doing. And that he believed she was sincere in trying to protect them.

Rigo didn’t understand why his dad was behaving that way. His parents had once told Rigo to let them know if he saw anything unusual in the house or in his room. Now he had done that and his cousin had done that, but his dad was ignoring them.

Marisela asked if she could say goodbye. She told them she’d be busy with school and test prep and wouldn’t see them for a while. But when she hugged him goodbye, she passed Rigo a note. She told him not to sleep in his bed. To call her anytime if he needed help and not to worry about her getting in trouble.

***

After lights out, Rigo would leave his bed, properly tousled, and sleep in a sleeping bag beside Alex’s bed. Alex loved it. He wanted to sleep in a sleeping bag too, and sometimes Rigo let him, as long as he was away from the wall. Rigo kept a flashlight by his side. He set an alarm to wake him in the middle of the night, so he could shine that flashlight and check the wall. He set another alarm to go off before their dad came to wake them, so he could shove his sleeping bag into the closet, and scramble into bed. After a while, he started turning the overhead lights on. He pressed a blanket against the bottom of the door to block the light from reaching the darkened hallway and alerting their dad.

He spent as much time as he could showing the Manifestus comics to Alex, reading them out loud, and trying to teach his little brother how to focus.

“Form with your hands. Aim with your mind. Believe with your heart,” he said. Every cover had those words written on it. The Manifestus motto, it was called. The hero used it to help himself summon, manifest, and control his powers.

The nightmares continued, but Rigo didn’t wake up sweating and suffocating anymore. Still, he started getting angry at his dad. Rigo still doubted himself sometimes, especially when he asked Alex if he remembered seeing anything bad in the room, and Alex said “no” each time. But most of the time, he knew he had seen something that was really there. And he was sure that his dad had some answers to his questions, but wasn’t sharing them. What he didn’t know was why his dad was hiding things.

One day, Rigo asked his dad if he could visit his mom. He thought his dad would be surprised. He’d even asked right when his dad took a sip of orange juice, expecting a spit-take. But his dad just said that he wasn’t old enough to visit his mom yet. So he asked if he could call her, email her, or even just send her a handwritten letter. His dad agreed to the handwritten letter and took it from Rigo and said he sent it.

But Rigo didn’t believe him.

And one day, he tearfully asked his father if his mom was even alive. That time, his father did look shocked.

Rigo forgot to set his alarms that night. The next morning, his father found him and his brother sleeping on the ground in their sleeping bags with the overhead light still on.

He didn’t yell at Rigo. He just told him to get ready for school. And when it was bedtime, he made the boys get into bed. He turned on night lights, but he turned off the overhead light, and left the door open. He told them that there was nothing for them to fear in that house but their own fear.

~~~

Marisela heard singing. It was her phone. When she realized who she had assigned the ringtone to, she sat upright, wide awake.

She answered the phone and was surprised when Alex—not Rigo—was on the other end of the line.

“Mari, come over. Rigo won’t wake up,” he said.

The pit of Marisela’s stomach dropped.

“Alex, is your dad there?” she asked. “Go get your dad.”

“Come over.”

“Go get your dad, Alex. Where is your dad?”

“Come over.”

“Okay, I will. I will. Stay on the line with me, okay?”

But she heard a thud—maybe the phone dropping—and Alex screamed and cried out for his dad.

Marisela threw on a jacket and sneakers and bolted out the door. She was only a few blocks away, but it was too far to run. She grabbed the keys to her mom’s car, and drove over to her uncle’s house. She burst into her uncle’s house, yelling for him, for Rigo, for Alex. She ran up the stairs and stopped short when a pungent odor struck her.

The door to the boys’ room was open. She had her phone in her hand, three numbers already punched in. She just had to press “send.” Thick tendril crawled along every wall of the boys’ room, and along the floor, where her uncle lay in the grip of dozens of thinner tendrils, gasping for his life. Marisela pressed “send” and when the operator answered, she gave the address and said her uncle and cousin were suffocating. The operator wanted more information, but Marisela could see tendrils wrapping completely around the bed where Rigo lay, unconscious and not breathing. Alex was sitting on his own bed, grasping his favorite toy, the plush tyrannosaur. He wasn’t crying, but he looked like he was about to.

“I have to help them,” Marisela said, and she lay the phone down on the table in the hallway.

She called out to Alex, told him to come to her, but he wouldn’t respond. She called out to her uncle, who was awake, and waving her away. She called out to Rigo, who wouldn’t wake and wouldn’t move. The ground was squirming with tendrils.

Marisela stepped into the room. She knelt down and tried to free her uncle. When she touched one of the tendrils wrapped around his throat, it felt so cold, it burned, and her hand recoiled.

She tried again, calling out to Alex and telling him it was okay. She told him to keep calm. She went over and held him, hoping her touch would comfort him as it seemed to do last time. But he kept moving away from her and staring at his brother. There was terror in his eyes. The tendrils of the wall monster grew in bursts, crawling past the threshold of the boys’ room, and along the ceiling.

Marisela then tried to go wake Rigo. She took off her coat and lay it on the tendrils before trying to touch them. She yelled Rigo’s name, compelling him to wake up. To her surprise, some of the coils wrapped around Rigo drew back enough for her to lift him out of the grasp of the others. She hugged his unconscious body to herself and started to pull away from the bed, intending to take him outside, then come back for her uncle and Alex. She strained to hear the sound of sirens, but all she heard was the eerie rustling of the tendrils moving past and against each other.

Suddenly, something wrapped around her waist and around Rigo as if binding them together. She jerked away and kicked at the tendrils that were crawling over her feet. She ducked her head under one of Rigo’s arms and wrapped her arm around his waist. She tried to take a step, but as careful as she was, she was tripped up by tendril. She and Rigo both fell.

“Alex!” she cried. “Alex, you need to focus.” Rigo told her he’d been trying to teach Alex. “Remember what Rigo taught you. Form! Aim…”

The tendrils had scattered the contents of the room all over the floor. There were Manifestus comics everywhere. Marisela pulled one out and offered it to Alex, hoping he would touch the comic and focus his powers, the way the hero did, so he could take control over the special chemicals in his body that had become activated and gone wild. But Alex didn’t move.

Tendrils wrapped around Marisela’s chest and her neck. They no longer burned, but they scratched and squeezed. She couldn’t pull them off. She looked around for a knife. She found a pen and stabbed the tendrils, but they weren’t soft like flesh. They were hard, more like the roots of a tree. She could think of nothing else to do but to try and wake Rigo again. Just before tendrils pinned her arms to her sides, she put the comic in Rigo’s hand, and whispered in his ear that his brother needed him. And she prayed for the paramedics to hurry.

***

Rigo woke. He woke with the sound of his mother’s last instruction in his ears. Her instruction for him to take care of his brother. He was dazed to find himself on the ground, the room covered in tendrils and stinking of rot. He spotted the figures of his father and cousin encased in the tendrils, being squeezed to death. The wall beside his bed bulged out in sharp ridges, behind which something pulsed and thudded rhythmically.

He rose, and was able to tear free of the tendrils. Like Marisela, he tried to pull the tendrils off his father and his cousin. But he couldn’t. They were too strong. He turned and looked at his brother, who was staring at him but didn’t seem to see him. Rigo leapt onto his own bed. Filled with terror, he reached out and touched the pulsing wall. The wall seemed to turn translucent, and he saw what was contained behind the rib-like ridges in the wall. He saw the heart of the beast.

He pulled one of the ribs and it came away, tearing a piece of the wall with it. Revealed behind the wall was a living heart, bright red and beating fast, as if frightened. There were tiny tendrils wiggling out of the heart like parasites. Only a few of them were connected to the larger mass.

Rigo looked at the heart, ready to reach in and squeeze it, kill it. The wall monster had no head. The way to kill it had to be to destroy its heart.

He scrunched up his face and in that moment, if it weren’t for the fact that he was the only hope for everyone in that room, he would have sat down and cried.

He hadn’t noticed that in one hand, he was holding something, a tendril-stained copy of Manifestus.

Form with your hands. Aim with your mind. Believe with your heart.

He looked at the beating heart and reached his hand toward it. It didn’t look like the heart of a monster. It looked like a heart that was hurt, diseased. A heart in need of help. Rigo touched the heart, and it immediately froze. He couldn’t see it, but he felt that the tendrils stopped as well. They stopped growing and moving.

Focus, he thought to himself, just as Manifestus did.

He thought about the center of the heart. He thought about Manifestus’s powers. Something manifested. He was doing it. He could see it. He could see through the heart. The dark cavern where the seed-egg of the monster lay. He could see something manifest. A bright marble of light. It began to grow like a bubble, shimmering in many colors. The seed-egg retreated. The tendrils squirmed away. The bubble grew larger, driving away the tendrils, until it pushed them all out of the heart. The bubble then grew to encircle the heart.

Rigo turned around and found his brother staring at him from across the room.

“Alex, help me,” Rigo said. “We’ve gotta save Dad and Mari.”

Alex glanced down, wide-eyed, at the forms that lay on the ground. The tendrils had stopped moving, but they hadn’t vanished. Their family was still encased, still suffocating. Their dad had stopped moving.

“It’s okay. Come see. I’m right here. I won’t leave you alone.”

“Promise?”

Rigo shook his head. “Promises aren’t strong enough.”

Alex hopped off his bed and ran to his brother.

Rigo showed him the heart.

“It’s your heart, and you have to take it back.” He showed Alex the shield around it. “I’ll leave that shield inside your heart. It’s a piece of me. See? So I won’t leave you. But you need to focus the way I just did. To make all these bad roots go away, so they’ll leave Dad and Mari alone.”

Alex reached out and touched the heart. Rigo put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. For a moment, nothing happened. Then, slowly, the tendrils—the roots—began to dry out and crumble. Rigo collapsed the shield until it was marble-sized again, and took his hand away. The heart seemed to collapse as the bubble did, and Alex wrapped his fist around it, and pulled his hand out of the wall.

***

Marisela gasped for air. Rigo pulled the dead and dying roots off her. When she recovered herself, she put her arm around Rigo and turned to see that Alex too was okay. Alex hopped down from Rigo’s bed and slammed a fist on his father’s chest. Their dad immediately coughed awake. The room was covered in dust, and though it was fading quickly, it still made them cough.

Rigo didn’t want any of them breathing it in. He told Alex to go downstairs, and he helped Marisela and his dad down the steps as they heard the sound of sirens.

***

The paramedics gave Marisela, Rigo, and his dad oxygen, and though it seemed to help, everyone was otherwise okay. The paramedics checked the house and said they didn’t find anything dangerous, and that their smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors were showing normal readings.

The paramedics left once they were convinced everyone was okay. They didn’t find any evidence of harmful chemicals or foul play. The bad smell had faded quickly and was gone by the time they arrived. So was the dust. No one’s throats bore any bruises. The paramedics asked if their family had a history of panic attacks, and several other questions. Rigo’s dad assured them the family would get checked out as soon as possible.

Rigo told his dad and cousin what happened while they were unconscious. It really was as if they’d been trapped in a nightmare. Marisela felt bad when she realized that the paramedics would have gotten trapped too and would have suffocated if Alex and Rigo hadn’t saved them.

Rigo’s dad turned on all the lights in the house, including the porch lights. They all went together to the boys’ room, wanting to see for themselves that the tendrils were gone. The walls showed evidence of some cracking, but that was all.

***

Rigo’s dad gathered them all in the living room, around glasses of water that would later become mugs of hot chocolate for the kids and coffee for him.

“She made that tree to protect us while she was gone,” he said. “I don’t know what went wrong. It wasn’t meant to hurt us. It’s made out of love.”

“And fear,” Rigo said.

His dad nodded. He believed he understood the whole story now. Their mother had been afraid before she left. And Alex too had been afraid. He was only a baby when his mother went away, but when she left it was painful. His dad believed that terrible parting imprinted on Alex, mind, body, and heart.

When Rigo went to camp for a few weeks with his class, it must have triggered something in Alex. It was the first time Alex had ever been parted from a close family member since his mother left. It must have been then that the seed had been planted. Rigo came back, but while he was gone, his brother’s fears manifested as he stared at the empty bed night after night. The love he felt for his brother, wanting to keep him close to his heart, was twisted by the fear that he felt of his brother leaving him forever, just like his mother had. They had manifested in that wall monster, growing invisibly, because love and fear cannot be seen by mortal eyes.

Alex was overjoyed when Rigo came back. He always understood that Rigo would only be gone for a little while, but the damage was done. A few nights after his return, Rigo had started feeling suffocated in his dreams and gasping for breath when he woke.

Their mother had this power, chemoimagination, or whatever it was. But when it got out of control, the way that she and their father had handled it was by ignoring it, pretending it didn’t exist. And it would go away. That was why their dad had discouraged both Rigo and Marisela.

He had hoped that his sons would be spared the awful burden their mother bore. But he had witnessed signs. Strange things happened even after their mother left, like that supposed earthquake that woke Rigo once, where he felt as if he’d been floating above his bed and fell on it. Their father feared it was Rigo who might be starting to manifest an awesome but uncontrollable power. Their mother was alive and as well as she could be. But she had to stay away. She was hundreds of times stronger than Alex. She had even offered to divorce their dad and give him full custody of the boys.

“I couldn’t see anything,” Rigo’s dad said. “I just felt as if I couldn’t breathe, as if a rope was tied over my chest and my arms and legs. Then I saw Marisela come in, and she looked like she could see something I couldn’t see.”

“The tentacles? The giant skeleton chest on the wall? You couldn’t see any of it?” Marisela marveled.

Rigo’s father shook his head. He gave a sober and silent chuckle as he picked up a copy of Manifestus. “My body doesn’t have the right chemistry.”

Their mother hadn’t manifested her abilities until she hit puberty. She seemed to have things under control, but then she had Rigo, and her abilities grew stronger.

“Because her body went through another change,” Marisela said, her eyes wide. “The pregnancy.”

Rigo’s dad nodded. “And then it happened again when Alex was born. Only this time, she couldn’t get a hold of it.”

“But what is it? What’s the power they have?”

Their father lifted up an issue of Manifestus. “This is the closest I’ve ever come to explaining it. Chemoimagination.”

“That’s why you gave Rigo the comic? To get his mind ready?”

Rigo’s father looked at him. “Your mother made me promise not to tell you anything until you were old enough to understand what might happen to you. The different ways your body might change. The comic’s also quite good though.”

“Will I get abilities?” Marisela asked. She looked half-worried and half-intrigued.

“I don’t think so. I think you and many others on your side of the family are carriers. I thought one of my sons was a carrier too. But they are both manifesters.”

“I like your pijamas, Mari,” Alex suddenly said. He tugged at the collar of Marisela’s pajamas. They were black and covered with haphazardly tiled images of little white skulls, yellow-blue bolts of lightning, and powder-pink hearts.

Marisela smiled and hugged him. Alex was still wearing the footie pajamas, but he was fidgeting with them. Rigo had a feeling he’d be seeing his little brother back in big boy pajamas soon.

Rigo’s dad rose. He was composed, and he seemed calmer than he’d seemed in a long time. He told them he was going to call Marisela’s parents and let them know she was at their house, and that Alex had called in a babysitting emergency. He would get her off the hook with her mom for taking the car without permission.

He asked if anyone was hungry.

Everyone was mostly thirsty, and the house felt suddenly chilly without the energy of a living monster heating up the place.

***

Rigo had more questions for his father, and he could tell that Marisela did too. Alex didn’t seem to be feeling scared or guilty, but it might be a matter of time before he put the story together, then he too would have questions.

But for the time being, they got blankets, fluffed up the couch pillows, and put on some old movies. Every now and then, one of them would glance back at the stairs. But the more time passed, the easier they breathed, and the more their exhaustion overpowered their caution. Marisela and Alex fell asleep first, Alex clutching his t-rex and snuggled next to his cousin, who had one maternal arm slung over him.

Rigo and his father sat on comfy chairs that flanked the couch where the others slept. Rigo saw some tension return to his father’s face as he glanced at the sleeping Alex. Rigo understood. Something would have to be done. If the night was not a fluke after all, not some shared nightmare, then something would have to be done about his sons and their manifestation of chemoimagination.

 

Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel.  Artwork: “Manifestation” by Sanjay Patel.

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