PseudoPod 524: Flash on The Borderlands XXXV: The Kids Are All Wrong
Bells chime, I know I gotta get away
And I know if I don’t, I’ll go out of my mind
“Accident Report” first appeared in Midnight Echo Issue #11.
“What the Dollhouse Said” was originally published in Devilfish Review, Issue Ten, July 24, 2014 and it will be reprinted in a forthcoming issue of Jennifer Brozek’s Evil Girlfriend Media Shorts. This story was also accepted for illustration in Bonnie Stufflebeam’s 2015 Art & Words Show
“MeetWorks Daycare” is a PseudoPod Original
by Jarod K. Anderson
I remember being worried about the cost of another citation. That’s why I made a complete stop at the corner of Deer Run and Milner Roads. My last ticket was over $300, and I was fresh out of second chances. Not just from the DMV.
If I had skipped that stop sign altogether, like I used to, or even settled for a rolling stop, maybe I wouldn’t have given the Devil a chance to get into the car.
But I obeyed the law and he got in. I watched him do it as I was looking both ways. He walked right out of the bushes and up to the passenger’s side door. My son, James, was in his car seat, playing with his stuffed stegosaurus and telling me why peanut butter was the best food of all. I could see his little blond head, nodding in agreement with himself, in the rear-view mirror. The door latch clicked and the Devil sank into the seat next to me like it was the most natural thing in the world. It was, I guess. James didn’t even stop talking.
You know ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ by the Rolling Stones? That part about guessing his name? That’s complete bullshit. Nobody would have to guess. I knew who was walking up to the car the second I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye. I would have known it had I seen no more of him than a finger, a corner of his jacket, the toe of his shoe.
I don’t mean that he looked like the Devil. Not in the classic sense. No pointy goatee. No horns. He looked like somebody’s uncle who works in real estate. I just knew him. I knew him as well as I know my own reflection. The fact that I had never actually seen him before didn’t seem to matter.
No shock of fear went through me. I didn’t scream or scramble to grab James and run off down the street. Instead, impulse led me to nod to the man and ask how he’d been. The danger in his green eyes wasn’t like a cocked gun; it was more a thing of unchecked potential, like the feeling we have about our fathers when nothing seems to be too heavy or scary or complicated for them to handle – a complete and terrible faith.
“I know nobody trusts you anymore,” he said, fiddling with his seatbelt. “It wouldn’t matter how long you stayed sober. It wouldn’t matter if you had kept the job, or made it to daycare at 5:30 on the dot every damn day.”
The Devil leaned forward and rubbed at a coffee stain on the dashboard with his jacket sleeve. I think James was trying to tell me something about hot air balloons. It was hard to listen to them both. I tried to keep a neutral face, but I felt a lump growing in my throat.
“I don’t want to see you like this,” he said. He paused long enough to shoot a funny face over his shoulder to the back seat. I heard my boy giggle, like tinkling bottles, but I was looking away, trying to wipe my eyes without being noticed.
“Look at me, Son,” I heard the Devil say with commanding tenderness. As I turned, I noticed that James had stopped talking; he was staring up at the man with wide eyes. We both were.
The Devil raised his clenched fist and held it perfectly still in the center of the car. All three of us watched it, as if somebody had plucked something legendary from thin air and held it up in defiance of our drab little world.
“This is not your fault,” said the Devil in a child’s voice. Then, in one liquid motion, his fist shot towards James and stove in his chest like an empty can. There was a dull crunch and James’s bright head bowed forward like a prayer. When the Devil turned and embraced me, the scream that was welling up inside me died on my lips.
“The worst of it is over now,” the Devil whispered into my ear, stroking the back of my head. “You’ve been so very brave. You didn’t ask for any of this, and you’ve been so brave.”
I could hear a smile in his words, but there was no mockery in it. Not like the people afterwards. I couldn’t see my son’s face, just an unbroken line of blood, too bright and too red, like a wire running from his lap up to where his chin must have been.
I don’t know when I took my foot off the brake, or when we idled into the intersection. With the Devil cradling my head, my chin on his shoulder, it wasn’t hard to remember that he was supposed to have been an angel once. When I finally looked up and saw the truck coming, I remember leaning into the blow. Then everything was simpler, for a while.
What the Dollhouse Said
by Karen Bovenmyer
Eleanor gets on the bus in uneven pigtails and a faded dress. Don’t sit by me, new girl, I think. Billy pokes me with a pencil, but sees her quick. Coyote boys always see what’s vulnerable and trembling, and she probably knows that, because she sits behind the driver.
Things we find out about Eleanor: a bunch of teenagers live in her house and she cries during Animal Kingdom because she has a pet rabbit named Ralphie. Coyotes can’t resist tears—they are merciless. I feel real sorry for Eleanor, even though she keeps them all, especially Billy, away from me.
She cries more than I think anyone can, at first, but she is the only kid who visits the dollhouse. I don’t know how it got there. It looks like it grew by accident in the root knuckles of a wide old apple tree on the edge of the playground. It smells strongly of cats, like my aunt’s house, and is white as antlers. It twists like grandma’s fingers, but the spines and knobs come together to make something that looks like a dollhouse just the same, with an open door, windows, and a steeple roof. There is always a small animal rotting there, tufts of fur missing.
At first, Eleanor seems scared of it like the rest of us. The coyote girls (they move in packs too) tell her she smells like Goodwill. The coyote boys throw gum or capless markers that leave black splotches on her clothes. She finds out quick that when the coyote boys are chasing her, they won’t come close to the dollhouse.
I feel sorry for her, watching her cower away from it, yet close enough to the dollhouse to keep back the coyotes. But, even in her apple-root circle, she is my shield. With her on the playground to taunt, I’m forgotten. They are held apart, Eleanor and the circling coyotes, but I know it won’t last. The apples grow red and heavy on the boughs, and coyotes are smart hunters.
She stops crying eventually. Even when Billy pulls the wings off a fly during times-tables, Eleanor doesn’t cry anymore. When he smashes it across her spelling test, she hands it in with guts smeared across d_e_f_i_n_a_t_e_l_y. Her face is stone.
She spends every recess at the dollhouse, closer and closer. I see her with her ear pressed against the open attic window, like it was telling her secrets. The coyote girls avoid her. Maybe coyote girls are smarter than coyote boys.
When the apples get big and start to fall, Billy sees how many bruises he can cause when the recess teacher isn’t looking. Since unafraid-Eleanor isn’t as much fun anymore, and, really, nobody is safe when the apples are ripe, I brace myself. When Billy nails somebody else in the face with an apple, the recess teacher takes a bloody nose to the nurse. No one’s surprised when Billy throws an apple at Eleanor. The other coyotes join the game and throw apples at her and the dollhouse, laughing.
Eleanor protects the dollhouse with her body. Apples pelt it and her with dull thuds. I think she’ll start crying again, but she doesn’t. The coyote boys run out of ammunition. Apples are scattered all around the dollhouse and Eleanor, and there are no more in reach of anybody else.
Eleanor stands up.
That look is only for the coyote boys. All the color flows down out of her face, like she is horn or bone. Her eyes and mouth look like the empty holes of the dollhouse.
Billy picks up a rock. The other coyotes pick up rocks too. I know Eleanor isn’t going to move or give in or duck. They are going to hit her with rocks while the teacher is gone.
I grab Billy’s wrist. “Stop,” I say.
He pushes me down. I cover my head, but Eleanor steps out from under the apple tree. She touches Billy’s shoulder, lifts up on her tiptoes, and whispers in his ear. Billy’s head tilts toward her, as if to hear her better. He makes a choking sound. Then he runs from her, tears on his cheeks, sobs floating in the air behind him.
The coyote boys look at each other. Eleanor looks at them, no expression at all on her blank-paper face. They drop the rocks and run. There is only me and Eleanor and a dead rabbit under the drooping apple boughs. She holds her doll-like hand out to me, white, empty, alone.
I take it.
The coyotes leave us alone now, Eleanor, and me. We never cry. We spend our time at the dollhouse, listening.
by Michael M. Rader
We leave the children at the abattoir because it’s the only daycare center in Custer County. This is very convenient for the slaughterhouse-men in their white suits but less so for us. We leave, expecting the children to be skinned and slaughtered in our absence because we are pragmatic fatalists. This is the fear every parent has. You’ll understand when you have children. Of course, our children are unconcerned. The daughter merges into a frantic race across the killing floor and I hear their screams of naïve joy over the boom hum clank of the machines. I frown as the son plays with a set of dolls carved from unusable bones. Like every father, I do not want the boy to be a queer, you will understand this also when you are a parent.
We each go to our jobs. I am a television actor, but not a famous one. I am typecast as the small man who warns braver men not to do great deeds. I have grown a very thin mustache for this character, and I do it very well. I do not meant to brag, but this constitutes a significant percentage of our monthly income. The wife works at an abattoir in another state. Her abattoir competes directly with the one we leave our children at, which is part of why we are so afraid they will skin and slaughter our children. The matron of the daycare assured us that this will not happen, of course, but we can never fully escape our fears. This is the nature of being a parent.
Here is a tip, and it is a tip for new parents as well as old. Arrive at your child’s daycare during odd times. They will not abuse your child or the other children if they cannot predict when you will be there. We arrive 3 days later at 2:03 AM to collect our children. A single sodium light–the only illumination after miles of dark road–casts a bilious cone across the door. The sign for the daycare reads Meetworks with two ‘E’’s rather than an ‘E’ and an ‘A’ which is a play on an old homophone. We both agree this is very clever.
The slaughterhouse is half-lit, which we understand. We are not unreasonable, we know that half-light can save cost. We cannot find the childcare employees, but we hear their footsteps from far away. They must double as security guards at night because the crew is a skeleton one. Times are tight, so is money. I locate the sign-out book underneath a band saw. The wife finds our children’s backpacks behind the ammonia sink which, if you think about it, is the cleanest place in the abattoir. We find the son and the daughter in a pile of children who are huddling together for warmth. They are unclothed save for the wet animal skins draped around their bodies. They smell of ammonia. We unstick our children. The daughter grabs the hand of a very small girl from the pile and asks us if can take her new friend home. We agree that this is okay. My heart sinks when I see a jagged bone doll clutched in the son’s hand, wreathed in runnels of his blood.
As I get the children’s shoes on, I notice that the wife is examining the machinery and taking notes. Corporate espionage endangers our children, and I get very angry. I don’t yell though. I channel this anger into my artistic process. I think the small man who tells braver men not to do brave deeds has an undercurrent of anger that informs his decisions and his actions. I think he wants brave men to die, even though they never do.
We walk to the car as a family singing Row Row Row Your Boat. The new friend joins in easily, her voice blending and vanishing into the daughter’s voice as we sing in round. The sodium light shrinks behind us as we walk across the length of the fractured parking lot, stepping over the cracks and chasms of its surface. The parking lot is empty; I don’t know why we parked so far away. During the trip to the car, I force the son to throw his bone doll into one of the chasms. To be fair, I force the daughter to leave her new friend in the parking lot as well. They both cry, but I remind them to never hold onto the things from the places we have been. The wife nods at my wisdom and I incorporate this feeling of pride into my character.
We reach the car just as the sun rises to caress the white concrete of the abattoir with clean light. The sight of the imposing, industrial edifice takes my breath away. The parking lot is filling up as the slaughterhouse-men arrive with their children. We get into the car and I start it. The wife points at the clock and reminds me that we need to drop the children off at the daycare in just a few minutes. The wife points out that we are already late. I turn off the car and we unload the children. I pick up the son and the wife picks up the daughter and we run across the parking lot so we will not be late.
You’ll understand when you have children.
About the Authors
Michael M. Rader
Michael M. Rader is an electrical engineer and busy father who writes horror and science fiction stories in the slivers of time found between those responsibilities. His other works can be found in Fiction Vortex magazine and World Weaver Press’ Corvidae anthology.
Jarod K. Anderson
Jarod K. Anderson is a fan of comic books, tattoos, pulp detective novels, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, video games, and all things sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. Jarod’s work has appeared in numerous online and print publications including Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, Apex Magazine, Fantasy Scroll, and elsewhere. His bestselling books of speculative fiction writing prompts (co-written with Leslie J. Anderson) include: Inklings: 300 Starts, Plots, and Challenges to Inspire Your Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy and 100 Prompts for Science Fiction Writers. Find Jarod online at: jarodkanderson.com.
Karen Bovenmyer is the Assistant Editor of PseudoPod. She is an academic, writer, and teacher at Iowa State University.
About the Narrators
Troy Volin is a fan of all science fiction. He lives in Chapel Hill, NC where he raises children, develops software, and develops other software developers.
Heather Simmons grew up in South Africa and has made her home in the United States. She is an active participant in community theatre with radio experience and can be reached for narration requests at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeremy Moran is a writer, filmmaker, and actor based in Austin Tx. You can usually catch him doing improv around the city. Check out his writings and films at www.jeremymoran.com. Follow his happenings at @moranicjeremy on Twitter.