The following is from Victor LaValle’s novel, The Changeling. A retelling of a classic fairy tale with elements of horror and fantasy, The Changeling depicts new father Apollo Kagwa as he navigates the otherworldly corners of NYC. LaValle is the author of six previous works of fiction, has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award, and teaches at Columbia University.
This fairy tale begins in 1968 during a garbage strike. In February New York City’s sanitation workers refused to pick up trash for eight straight days. One hundred thousand tons of garbage filled the sidewalks, spilled into the streets. Rats ran laps alongside morning joggers. Rubbish fires boiled the air. The five boroughs had been given up for dead. Still, there was some cracked magic in the air because that was when Lillian and Brian met. Each had journeyed from far-flung lands to find one another in Queens. Neither could’ve guessed the wildness that falling in love would unleash.
Lillian Kagwa emigrated from Uganda while Brian West arrived from the only slightly less foreign territory of Syracuse. This daughter of East Africa and son of upstate New York met at a cut-rate modeling agency on Northern Boulevard. Neither was a client.
The week of the garbage strike Lillian got hired as a secretary at the agency, greeting guests at the front desk. A pleasant sight for folks strolling sidewalks saddled with week-old waste. Brian, a parole officer, had been paying occasional visits to the agency’s founder, Pavel Aresenyev, one of his parolees, who’d spent four years in prison for fraud. Brian didn’t believe Pavel had gone legit. But that week Brian became focused less on Mr. Aresenyev and more on the new secretary who greeted him when he arrived. Meeting her felt like finding a rose growing in a landfill. Brian dropped by the modeling agency four times that week.
Despite his immediate attraction, Brian had a habit of mispronouncing Lillian Kagwa’s last name, and Lillian kept mistaking Brian for other white men. Hardly kismet. Still Brian West—short, stocky, and persistent— simply wouldn’t quit. And on the days when he didn’t show up, Lillian, to her own surprise, found she missed him.
Lillian Kagwa had come from Jinja, the second-largest city in Uganda, where she’d lived through the country’s emancipation from Britain and its eventual homegrown rule by Milton Obote. Obote used the army and his secret police, the General Service Unit, to rule the land. They spread wickedness wherever they went.
In 1967 Lillian and three cousins were traveling to the capital, Kampala, when they were pulled over by three men claiming to be agents of the GSU. The four cousins sat quietly as the agents inspected their identification, then demanded the only male cousin—Arthur—come out and open the trunk. Arthur didn’t want to leave Lillian and his sisters and hesitated. In that moment, one agent leaned in and casually shot Arthur in the stomach.
Lillian and her cousins were temporarily deafened by the sound, blinded by the muzzle flash, but Lillian still sensed the agent who’d fired the gun pawing inside the car to pull out the keys. Lillian, at the wheel, shifted the car into drive and shot off before her senses had returned to her, weaving across the two-lane road like a drunk. The agents fired at the car but couldn’t pursue it; their own vehicle had run out of gas. They’d set up the checkpoint to steal a suitable vehicle and would have to wait for another.
Lillian reached Kampala in half an hour, speeding the whole way. Arthur died long before that. An incident like this hardly counted as news- worthy. Uganda, as a whole, was going buckwild, and Lillian Kagwa wanted out. One year later Lillian secured a visa to the United States.
In 1968 Lillian came to New York. She was twenty-five and knew no one, but because of Uganda’s British rule, she already spoke the king’s English, and this made her transition easier. One of the reason’s Mr. Aresenyev hired her at the modeling agency was because her command of English was so much better than his. She made the business sound serious, legitimate, though Brian West’s suspicions were right: the whole thing was a scam. Lillian didn’t know this when she accepted the work. All she knew was the job paid twice the state minimum wage, three bucks an hour. Back in Uganda, she hadn’t been able to find work of any kind, so she cherished the gig. And what was a garbage strike compared with state-sanctioned murder?
The agency, Glamour Time, was run out of a windowless second-floor office near Queensboro Plaza, remote from any hub of high fashion but centrally located for soaking the aspiring models of working-class Queens. Potential clients could join the agency as long as they had headshots. Luckily, Mr. Aresenyev had a small studio right there at the agency and could snap the shots himself for a fee. For certain young women, he offered to take the shots after hours, just the two of them. The streets of New York were overrun with uncollected garbage, but Glamour Time carried its own stink. The only honest aspect of the business was the East African woman answering phones out front.
Mr. Aresenyev’s business might’ve run just fine for quite a while, soaking hopeful young women for years, except his damn parole officer had made the front office into his second home. How were you going to run a decent fraud when a cop was stopping by every other morning? Brian West was bad for business. And since he was smitten with Lillian that meant Lillian Kagwa was bad for business. So Mr. Aresenyev fired her. Not the smartest plan, but Mr. Aresenyev wasn’t bright. Now Brian pursued Pavel relentlessly, an Inspector Javert from Onondaga County. Charging for the headshots wasn’t illegal, but running a photo studio without a permit was enough to count as a violation of parole. Pavel Aresenyev went back to jail. Brian West got a commendation. Lillian Kagwa needed a new job.
She worked as an administrative secretary at a law firm in midtown Manhattan. The new job paid less. She moved into a smaller apartment. She cut off all communications with Brian. He’d cost her a good job, and the commute to midtown added a half hour of travel time each way, so no, she did not want to get dinner and a movie with Brian, thank you. Anyway, she was young, and it was New York City, where a lot more fun was to be had than back in Jinja. They met in 1968 but didn’t go on their first real date until eight years later.
Brian West gave Lillian room, backed off by a borough; he rented a place on Staten Island, but he couldn’t stop thinking of her. Why? What was it about Lillian? He couldn’t quite explain. It was as if she’d cast a spell.
Brian West had been the only child of two wildly unromantic drunks. At twelve Brian had a job selling candy at the Elmwood Theatre. He made the mistake of proudly displaying his earnings to his father, Frank. He expected a pat on the shoulder, words of congratulations; instead the boy endured a strong-arm robbery right in his own living room. His dad bought a case of Genesee beer with the money. Mom and Dad finished it before bedtime. A household like that will either break you or toughen you up. Maybe both. What was waiting on a woman to forgive you compared with having your father beat you up and steal your first paycheck?
Late in 1976 it finally happened. Brian West and Lillian Kagwa went on a date. They’d both been twenty-five when they first met during the week of the garbage strike, but now they were thirty-three. Lillian had met a lot of men during those intervening years, and Brian benefited from the comparison. He worked hard, didn’t drink, saved his money, and paid his debts. Funny how much she valued such qualities now. The only hiccup came at dinner, when Brian talked about how much he wanted children, the chance to be a husband and a father. As soon as he’d seen her at Glamour Time he’d sensed she would be a wonderful mother. When he finished talking she reminded him, gently, that this was their first date. Maybe they could wait to make wedding plans until after the movie at least? To Brian’s credit, he didn’t act wounded or angry—he laughed. He didn’t know it, but it was at this moment that Lillian truly fell for him.
He took her to see Rocky. It wouldn’t have been Lillian’s choice, but halfway through the movie, she started to enjoy herself. She even saw herself on the screen. A fierce dreamer. That’s what this movie was about. And wasn’t that her? She liked to think so. Maybe that was why Brian brought her to see this picture. To show her something about himself that he could never put into words. He’d told her the story of being robbed by his father, and she’d told him about Arthur getting gutshot in the car, and now here they both were in a darkened Times Square theater. Together. A pair of survivors. It seemed so unlikely—all the life that had led them here—as improbable as myth. In the dark she held his hand. Though they wouldn’t have sex for another three hours, it would be accurate to say their first child—their only child—was conceived right then. A thought, an idea, a shared dream; parenthood is a story two people start telling together.
By April 1977 Lillian was showing. Brian found them a two-bedroom apartment in Jackson Heights. Their son came in September. Brian thought it would be weird to name a half-black kid Rocky, so instead they named him Apollo. Brian liked to carry the newborn in the crook of one arm, cooing to him, “You are the god, Apollo. Good night, my little sun.” And they lived happily ever after. At least for a few years.
By Apollo’s fourth birthday Brian West was gone.
Brian hadn’t run off with another woman or skipped town to move back to Syracuse. The man might as well have been erased from existence. He couldn’t be found because he’d left no trail, neither breadcrumbs nor credit card receipts. Gone. Disappeared. Vanished.
When Apollo was born, Brian and Lillian thought they’d reached the end of the story, but they’d been wrong. The wildness had only begun.
Right after brian went missing, the boy began having a recurring dream. Since he was only four, Lillian couldn’t make much sense of the details. Most of it came in the long hurried babble of a scared child in the night, but she pieced it together.
There was a man knocking at the front door. When Apollo unlocked it, the man pushed his way in. He knelt down in front of Apollo. He had a face, but he took off that face. The face underneath was the face of his daddy. Brian West opened his mouth, and a cloud spilled from his mouth. Apollo watched the fog roll out from his father’s throat and began to cry. The mist filled the apartment until the boy could hardly see. His daddy picked him up. Now the sound of rushing water, loud as a waterfall, filled the apartment. Apollo’s father carried him through the fog. His father finally spoke to him. Right about then Apollo would wake up screaming.
This nightmare came to the kid night after night for weeks. Apollo no longer wanted to sleep, and Lillian couldn’t shut her eyes because she knew, at some point, her four-year-old boy would be in terror.
You’re coming with me.
That’s what Brian told Apollo in the dream.
While trying to console him, Lillian asked why those words made him wake with such fear. His answer cut her down through flesh and bone. It wasn’t fear that made him cry out. It was longing.
“Why didn’t he take me with him?” Apollo said.
Eventually the nightmare passed, or at least, Apollo stopped talking about it. This let life reset to its new normal: Lillian, a single mother who worked full time, taking classes on Saturdays to become a legal secretary, and raising her child alone, a life both grueling and rewarding. Apollo, a bookish child, growing up to be self-contained and watchful.
They stumbled along like this for eight more years. By the time Apollo turned twelve, they never spoke of Brian West and neither expected to make him a topic of conversation for the rest of their days, but then one afternoon Apollo received a message from the man. A gift.
This was in the fall of 1989, and Apollo Kagwa was a junior high school student at IS 237 in Flushing. With Brian gone Lillian reverted to her maiden name and she damn sure did the same for her son. He became a Kagwa by legal decree.
They erased the West from their lives.
Even a self-contained and watchful kid like Apollo could end up running with a crew. He had two best friends and did well in American history with Mr. Perrault. Lillian had passed her classes to become a legal secretary and found a better job at a law firm in midtown Manhattan. But the work had her keeping even longer hours, not getting home until eight o’clock sometimes. Latchkey kid was the term. Adults lamented this new reality on the Donahue show. They scolded working mothers who were damaging their poor kids by their need to make a living.
Apollo spent that afternoon as kids do when they don’t have to be home right away: dipping into the nearby diner to play a few quarters’ worth of Galaga, then off to the bodega for quarter waters and chips, looping around the corner to Colden Street, where a game of running bases had popped off. He played for an hour or three, then headed upstairs. It had been—in all honesty—a day or two since he’d had a shower, and the game worked up a funk even he couldn’t ignore. Apollo turned on the shower and had stripped halfway down when he heard heavy knocking coming from the far end of the apartment. When he ignored it—probably just a neighbor looking for his mom—the pounding only got louder. The hot water in the shower started to form steam. When Apollo walked out of the bathroom, it looked as if he’d stepped out of a cloud.
He’d made it halfway across the apartment before a prickly feeling ran across his neck. The knocking at the door continued, but he looked behind him to find the steam in the bathroom flowing out into the hall, as if it was following him. Apollo felt woozy just then. As if, without knowing it, he’d taken a step into someone’s dream. His own dream. He felt jolted by the realization. He’d had this dream, night after night, when he was young. How young? Three or four? There had been knocking at the door, and the sound of running water, the apartment dense with fog and . . .
He ran for the front door. As soon as he got close, the knocking stopped abruptly.
“Wait for me,” he whispered. He felt stupid when he said it. Even stupider when he repeated it.
His father was not on the other side of the door. His father was not on the other side of the door. His father was not.
And still Apollo snapped the locks open. He felt as if he was shrinking. How had he opened the door in that dream? How had he reached the top lock when he was only a small child? Anything was possible in a dream. How about now then? Maybe he’d fallen asleep in the bathroom, sitting in the tub, and some random firing of electricity in his brain had helped this fantasy resurface. Apollo decided not to care. There was a certain freedom in knowing you were in a dream. If nothing else, he might open the door and see his father and be reminded of the man’s features. He couldn’t remember them anymore. But when he opened the door, his father wasn’t there.
Instead a box sat on the threshold.
Apollo leaned out, as if he’d catch a glimpse of his dream father, maybe farther down the hall. Nobody there. He looked back down at the box. Heavy cardboard, one word written on the lid in black marker.
Apollo went down on a knee. He picked up the box—it wasn’t heavy— and brought it inside with him. The contents of the box shifted and thumped. He sat on the carpet in the living room. He opened the lid.
From The Changeling. Used with permission of Spiegel & Grau. Copyright © 2017 by Victor LaValle.