Charles was in the yurt and would not come out. He had crept in at night when everyone thought he was sleeping. Despite the crooked smile and useless right arm he could still surprise them. At supper the next evening all eyes were on the empty chair. Jill, who was standing at the window, said, “He’s still in there,” and everyone felt glum. Beth carried a plate of food out to the yurt. She knocked on the door. “Go away,” said a voice. Returning to the house, Beth reported that Charles sounded subdued. In later testimony she changed that to “muffled.” She left the plate on the ground by the door and next morning it was empty. They wondered what he was thinking about in there. They imagined him seated in the dark gnawing on a chop bone.
Every night one of them went out to the yurt and left a plate of food on the ground, and every morning when they looked out the food was gone. One morning at breakfast Beth came in from the yard carrying the plate, empty as usual, and Warren said “Raccoons,” and everyone’s heart sank. The next night Steve went out and put his ear against the side of the yurt. “He’s chewing,” he whispered. He tapped on the wall of the yurt and the chewing stopped. “He’s eating, that’s a good sign,” Lily said, and they all brightened, until Monica reminded them that she had eaten like a horse right up to the day she swallowed a whole bottle of pills after supper and they had had to pump her stomach out.
“He went in there to send us a message,” Rachel said, and they all agreed, though no one could think what the message was. Warren, who was interested in Zen, said, “Maybe it’s the message of no message,” and everyone nodded. They couldn’t imagine what Charles was thinking, and that took them aback. In fact they had never known what he was thinking, even on his best days, but they only realized this after he went into the yurt because that was such a surprising thing to do. Charles, everyone agreed, was a closed book. “Enigmatic,“ Beth added, trying to be helpful. “He played his cards close to his chest,” Marek put in, and they all glared, because that was the wrong tone.
Charles had seemed such a reliable, predictable person. He had never done anything surprising before except for having a stroke, though Rachel said that this didn’t count since he had been even more surprised than they were, and Lily said that it shouldn’t have surprised anybody who saw how he ate. They had missed the warning signs, and now they blamed themselves. They all agreed that they ought to have known something was wrong when he dropped the flag ceremony. Beth recalled seeing him alone in the yard listlessly throwing rocks at the chickens. Ronald remembered the morning he had found him in the hammock reading The Brothers Karamazov. Everyone agreed that this was not like the Charles they knew.
The flag ceremony had been such a comfort to him after the stroke. Everything he did was predictable until he went into the yurt. The ceremony had come off every day like clockwork, Charles out in the yard at sunrise with the bugle. Though nobody else was fond of the flag, which they all agreed stood for things they could not approve of, they admired the way he had worked the rope with just his left arm and his teeth. Standing at the base of the pole he had watched the flag unfurling in the morning sun. “There she blows,” he would say every time in the most chipper way imaginable. They were supposed to stand at attention, but they just glared and slouched or refused even to come out of the house. It was the flag ceremony that had turned them against Charles.
With Charles in the yurt life was easier for them all. It was a relief not have him popping up when you wanted to be alone, making irrelevant comments while you were trying to think, insisting on games after supper, and saying “Roger that” when you asked him to take the trash out. It was only now that they realized how tired they were of his war stories. Weeks went by, and they didn’t talk about Charles as much as before. Sometimes when they were having lunch at the big table under the oak, someone might, in the midst of the revelry, glance over at the yurt, and that would remind everybody that he was crouching in the darkness there, and the conversation would flag while they adjusted. The idea that he was listening to their laughter frightened them a little. They slept with windows and doors locked, not to be surprised again. He was still in there when the police came. They pointed their guns at the yurt and Charles crawled out. His hair was full of dirt and leaves, and he wore an expression none of them could read.
Sam Savage is the author of the novels The Criminal Life of Effie O. (2005), Firmin (2006), The Cry of the Sloth (2009), Glass (2011), The Way of the Dog (2013), and It Will End with Us (2014). He’s no stranger to Numéro Cinq: in May 2015 an in-depth and fascinating interview with him appeared here. In March and then April of 2016 we published his short story “The Awakening” and Zero Gravity: Collected Poems (1981-2015), respectively.
Savage’s short story “Cigarettes,” originally published in The Paris Review (No. 211, Winter 2014), was an O. Henry prize winner in 2016. It is published this month [here I mean September] by Anchor under the title The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016.
The Way of the Dog came out in Spain recently, and a French edition will appear soon. Firmin has already appeared in translation in over a dozen languages.
A collection of short stories is scheduled for publication sometime in 2018 under the tentative title An Orphanage of Dreams. “Dispatches” is from that manuscript.