by John Waterfall
I bought the walrus at the carnival off I-95. The one that sets up in the lot next to the Carvel every August. And I say bought because I couldn’t knock over a physically impossible pyramid of soup cans. My wife whispered “pussy” into my ear and squeezed my butt a bit too hard for it to be funny. So while she and Jackson were spinning in the tea cups, I doubled back and slipped the carnie a twenty. Then I went cock-walking back with a big grin on my face, windmilling my throwing arm, a spaniel-sized walrus tucked behind my back, Windex blue with a pink Santa hat stitched on crooked. For Jackson it was love at first sight.
I said I won it, and to this day Meg doesn’t know any different. It remains one of the great secrets of our marriage. I’m proud that she thinks I earned it. But I bought it. And I wish to God that I hadn’t. Because for a summer it ran our life, and so did Jackson, who was an imperious little shit around that time. And I know this is something all parents say. But for us it was true. It really was. Because when we didn’t do what Jackson wanted, Sneakaboo got upset. And that’s why my nose looks the way it does. That and the frying pan.
Sneakaboo got its name on the drive back. Jackson was refusing to get into his car seat, wanting to ride the walrus like a horse instead. I said it was okay. Because forty-five minutes of screaming is too much. And it was okay, ’til I got pulled over by a state trooper and lost five hundred dollars and a point off my license.
While I was busy learning about parental neglect, Meghan did her best to distract Jackson, using the walrus for a game of peak-a-boo, only Jackson regurgitated it as, “Sneakaboo! Sneakaboo.” Which, I’ll admit, was a little heart-melting. At the time.
That was one of the last good days. With a difficult child, you have to count those. To hold on, because you have to remind yourself that it’s worth it. Because when you’re shit deep, the shit’s the only reality, and those memories are the proof that it was better and can be again. That you do, in fact, love your children.
Look, I’ll admit, I wasn’t always the best dad. I got angry. Meg’s always been the one to remind me that you can’t yell at a child the same way you yell at an adult. Or a teenager. You’re really not supposed to yell at anyone. But Jackson would have these meltdowns, over nothing, just nothing, and I’d blow my lid. I’d call him spoiled. Tell him how different it was for me. All that.
I still don’t know if we ever did the right things with him. Maybe he needed a little fear of God. Maybe things would have been different. I don’t know. I don’t think Meg does either, though she’ll never admit it. Little Hurricane Jackson is what we called him back then. Our little hurricane Jackson.
That night, Jackson insisted on having Sneakaboo in his crib. Which scared me, because I’d heard stuff about kids smothering themselves. But he screamed. And Meg did that thing that made her right about everything and me wrong about everything and we all went to bed angry and nobody had sex. Then it got weird.
The next morning, Meg came in to wake me with a look on her face. She sat on the corner of the bed and stared into space and put a finger to her lower lip and pulled it a little. For a second I thought that I was right, finally right, that our son had died in his crib, face down in a carnival prize. Then I heard Jackson squeal in his room down the hallway, and Meghan looked at me like she was going to say something, but didn’t.
Sneakaboo had doubled in size overnight, fluff bursting from its ruptured seams in white gouts, the protruding cotton bulbous and gnarled like fungal growths. The face is what got me. It had torn free from the rest of the fabric, a button-eyed blue circle floating on an extended neck protrusion of coarse cotton. Its mouth a little curlicue of black stitches, drooping from a spade of a nose that fused into tusked jowls. The whole countenance screwed together into a pink-cheeked squint-smile. I’m telling you, it was Michael Myers-esque. Real dead-eyed.
Jackson wouldn’t let me take it from him, wouldn’t let me look at it. And when I tried, he screamed, and I swear the thing shuddered.
Meg thought it was bedbugs, that the carnie had given it to me as payback for winning at his rigged game, which of course I hadn’t. Or for being upper middle class. I didn’t say anything to dissuade her. Anything seemed better than telling her that it had moved.
I floated going back and pressing the carnie, and she pounced on the idea. So I took a few hours while Meg went about distracting Sneakaboo away from Jackson, a tactic that involved pints of ice cream. I want to add here that it’s not like we spoiled the kid because we were lazy. This was just how he was. He got angry, he got scared, and it drove him nuts. Just nuts. And after hours and days we had to give in. There was no choice. No improving him. We checked. We did tests. All I know is that he wasn’t happy, and that he hated it as much as we did.
So I go to the carnival and, what do you know? Thing’s gone. Packed up and disappeared. Just an empty lot of bad grass, tinged and bald where the big machines had rubbed it away.
I smoked a cigarette without fear of getting caught and counted the weeds, the little drug bags. I walked to the exact spot where I thought the stall was and just stood there, waiting for revelation. It was a nice day, and the cars on the highway whistled past, and all together it was a pleasant break from being a dad. There’s something profound in standing where a carnival once was, a mystery to how all that neon bustle went poof.
I went to the Carvel and got some strawberry ice cream.
When I got back, Jackson was watching cartoons in an ice cream coma. Courage the Cowardly Dog, I think. Meg was poring over Sneakaboo with a magnifying glass, bug hunting. She’d over-invested at this point. As scary as the whole thing got, parts of it excited her. She loves this kind of stuff. Horror movie stuff.
I wrapped my arms around her neck and smelled her head and we watched the rest of the show in silence.
“No bugs.” She said.
“No carnie.” I said.
By bedtime we’d decided that we were crazy, that the walrus was poorly made, that we just hadn’t noticed that it was as big as a Saint Bernard between the tantrum and the highway stop.
We tucked Jackson in alongside his monstrosity and watched him sleep. I was happy that I had given him something that he was in love with.
It was not an uncommon occurrence for Jackson to wake us up in the middle of the night with outrageous demands. That night was no different, only he didn’t come alone. As Jackson toddled into our room like he owned the place, Sneakaboo came loping in after him. It had grown again, sprouted huge muscular arms of cotton that it used to knuckle itself forward, dragging its walrus bulk behind it.
Meg screamed and scrambled towards the headboard, pulling her legs to her chest in a frenzy of sheets.
“Holy shit.” I think I said.
I got up, knocked over my bedside lamp and stood there with my fists up.
“Gwilled cheese.” Jackson squeaked, bouncing his hands on the mattress in his little boy way, not reading the room at all. Sneakaboo slouched behind him, vibrating, head weaving on that too-long neck, shredded blue face impassive and wrong, tusks undulating like roach antennae. That was the worst part. The part that still gets me nauseous. Those fucking tusks.
“Gwilled cheese.” Jackson said again, then again and again. “Gwilled cheese! Gwilled cheese! Gwilled cheese!”
“Holy shit.” I probably reiterated. Inside I was going, No. No. No. No. No. This is not a thing that is happening.
At this point, having not gotten what he wanted, Jackson decided that it was time for all hell to break loose. He started screaming. Not crying, screaming. Angry and wild. Meghan started moaning and I looked at her and she was just tearing the sheets, trying to pull them into her body. I looked back towards Jackson and the Sneakaboo was pulling itself towards me, loping on those massive fists. I was still going, No. No. No. This is very obviously not a real thing that’s happening. It’s got a stupid Santa hat. Look at that stupid Santa hat. It’s the summer.
Then it reached me, put me in a headlock and threw me to the shag carpet. Never let anyone tell you shag carpet is a bad thing. Shag carpet might have saved my life that night. Because that monster started pummeling me, and wouldn’t you know it? Those fluffy fists felt like rocks.
I crawled away from the beating, bloody and bruised, and somehow, I don’t remember how, made my son a fucking grilled cheese sandwich.
How do I describe this next part? Our son came into possession of a magical creature that amplified his tantrums into moments of real physical danger. So yeah, it sucked. And neither of us knew what to do. And the things we did try resulted in beatings, in being flung across the room into walls. Resulted in concussions and bone bruises and staggered visits to our doctor, who gave us each a very impassioned speech about domestic violence.
So for survival’s sake we maintained a hands-off policy at first. We watched our son play with his monster from doorways, from the top of the stairs; quietly swooping in if he couldn’t open a peanut butter jar.
Much to our surprise, Jackson could largely exist without our involvement, living off toilet water and boxes of cereal. But he still needed us. He still fell flat on his face and cried at the injustice of it all. Still needed a bedtime story to fall asleep. The only thing the Sneakaboo had for him then was rage, thrashing blindly as Jackson howled in misery. Our son still loved us. Still wanted us. He just had the ability to overpower us and didn’t understand what that meant. So we got back in there. We had to. And that meant getting beaten up whenever Jackson’s mood swung during a diaper change.
The worst part was when Jackson forced us to play with Sneakaboo, to willingly wrestle with the horrifying creature and act like we were in on the joke and not shitting ourselves stupid. I cried the first few times. I hadn’t cried since I was a kid, not even when my dad died, but I did then, and not like a man, not like a grown-up. I cried like a child. I whimpered. I wet myself. I mean, I thought it was going to kill me. Every time Sneakaboo put me in a headlock at the behest of our little boy emperor, I waited to hear the sound of my neck snapping. And then, slobbering and humiliated, I had to watch my wife do the same.
I don’t know how we made it. I guess we got used to it, but those first few times, smashed into that penny-store monster’s brittle fur . . . the feeling, the horror. The way it moved, always dead-eyed, animal and inanimate at the same time, those tusks always going, flickering, the one part of the creature that didn’t feel like it came from Jackson but from somewhere else, beyond the pale.
Look, back then, and I don’t mean to brag, I mean why would I, but back then, I did my husbandly duty. I took every beating I could to spare Meg. Volunteered myself for every play session. And when I couldn’t go on, when I was about to tag-out and slit my wrists, she did the same for me.
When you have a kid, your affection, your bone loyalty latches on to them, and as a result you lose a little of what you had for your spouse. That’s what had happened with me and Meg when Jackson was born. We both loved him so, so much. But when Sneakaboo came on the scene that loyalty flipped back. Meg and I were always in the trenches together, always consoling each other, and it was like when we were in college.
Our bodies told each other what we were giving to our marriage every night, as long as we both weren’t too exhausted. It felt safe, being so clearly on the same team, even if we were never too far from our son’s silent enforcer.
And as we got used to the pain it started getting funny. I mean, it was just, so, so ridiculous. It was a walrus in a Santa hat. If there’s one thing life has taught me, it is that there is not a single horrifying thing that cannot be made less so by the addition of a Santa hat. What did horrify me was that I started to hate Jackson. I started to hate my son.
After a few weeks things started moving towards normalization, or rather to a form of it. It was all a matter of anticipating Jackson’s needs and preparing to distract him when his mood went sour. I quit my job. We slept in shifts so we could have the grilled cheese ready before he started wondering where it was. I ordered a mini fridge to keep ice cream in his bedroom and hid cookies in strategic locations. The point was to always have a plan. And it worked. Most of the time. But it wasn’t ideal. He still was making all the decisions. Plus he was getting obese, which the pediatrician would give us the eyebrows for if we ever made it out of the house again.
But the system gave us time to make plans. To think about how to get rid of Sneakaboo. We thought about calling the cops, but were afraid they might take Jackson away from us. Meghan was worried that the government would experiment on him, or put him on television. Which sounds like something the government might do, I guess.
We considered our options, covered the fridge with the numbers of priests and parapsychologists. But in our hearts we knew, or maybe hoped, that there were no answers outside our four walls. It was just our son that was happening to us, the unknowable piece of him just outside our reach, the hurricane. And if we could find the eye of it, we could will him towards normalcy. Of course there was also the issue of being seen, of being judged, of being liable, the implication that our son’s mental control over a violent and impossible monstrosity might somehow reflect poorly on our parenting.
What became apparent was that our time was not infinite. We made calls, cancelled nana’s visit, told friends that Jackson was suffering from something deeply contagious, but sooner or later, the time shut away would become weird. Then it was only a matter of when, not if, child services showed up at our door. In America, you can’t simply disappear your kids, not after the grid knows about them.
In the end the thing that made sense was fire. To simply wait till Jackson was passed out and torch the fucking thing. Unfortunately Jackson usually slept in Sneakaboo’s arms, huddled into that strange mass of blue and white froth like a chimp baby, which made me jealous to no end. But it didn’t always happen that way: every now and then the kid passed out in a pile of empty ice cream pints like an adorable little drunk, leaving the Sneakaboo inert and vulnerable, except for those tusks.
Fire poker. Rag. Chemical log. One bucket of gasoline. A place where I couldn’t burn the house to cinders. The silver buckle belt my father gave me on my twenty-first birthday. One black burlap sack. That’s what it took. I’ll never forgive myself for the last one. I know Jackson doesn’t, even if he can’t remember. Speaking of, black burlap is hard to find and hard to buy without oozing guilt. Got it at the hardware store across the highway from the Carvel. How do you want to see the world?
It was a Sunday night, August seventeenth. I made sure I was drunk enough to feel mean, sober enough to act. Meghan was upstairs crying herself to sleep. Sneakaboo, that big blue fuck, had torn out a piece of her scalp while she was reading a book to Jackson and stretched his patience too far. So yeah, I felt mean. I felt good and mean.
I lured Jackson to the basement with ice cream sandwiches, doing my best to stay out of sight. One sandwich at the top of the stairs, one at the bottom. One down the hall. One at the top of the basement stairs. If this plan seems strange or odd, I was pretty much half-insane. I was shirtless. I thought I was Rambo. But it worked. I watched from the shadows as my son followed my trail, the Sneakaboo hulking behind him, a cheap monstrosity loping through the columns of moonlight that barreled through the windows, my little black-haired boy leading him along, ragged and long-haired like one of those kids raised by wolves.
When I was sure he was following, I crept ahead to the basement. We had an old CRT TV down there hooked up to a VCR. I pressed play on Fievel Goes West, Jackson’s favorite, and turned the sound up. I’ve yet to meet the toddler that won’t cross deserts to follow the sounds of a distant cartoon.
I hid out of sight, flattened between the wall and the open basement door, my fire poker held tight, wrapped to the point with gasoline-soaked rags and chemical-log skin, primed to become a flaming spear at the stroke of a match. The bucket of gasoline lay at my feet. The idea was to set the creature on fire and then keep it burning, but to do that, I needed Jackson out of the way.
From the top of the stairs my son called to me, “Ada? Addy?” His versions of dad and daddy.
“Down here, buddy.” I called to him, my heart trying to punch its way into my throat. “Come watch cartoons with Daddy.”
He squealed and started clomping down the stairs, which I realized he shouldn’t be doing by himself. I checked the impulse to run to him, reminded myself that he wasn’t alone, that he had his own profane interloper that was stealing all my dad moments. I lit the poker. And God forgive me for this next part, when Jackson emerged, happy and messy with ice cream plastered to his face, I stepped out from behind, covered his head with my burlap bag, tied the belt around his neck and flung him away. Again, I am so, so sorry for this last part. Definitely a low parenting moment for me.
Things happened quickly after that. Jackson screamed, screeched really, burning out his last good breath on a whine pitchy enough to make my eyes swim. And Sneakaboo went berserk, started smashing and twirling without a target, blinded without Jackson being able to identify the source of his unhappiness.
I went for my gasoline bucket and caught a flipper-fist that broke my jaw and sent a tooth skittering. That was almost the end right there. I dropped to the ground, half my face wrapped towards the back of my head. Through bloody fingers I saw my boy, tugging at his neck, clawing, and that gave me all the wind I needed. I struggled up, bucket in hand, turned to the rampaging walrus thing, the creature eerily soundless in its fury, and doused it in gasoline. The Sneakaboo didn’t so much as flinch: no recognition, no animal reaction to being soaked in the pungent grease. I balked for a second, one final second, picturing my son burning alive, then I stabbed my burning poker into Sneakaboo’s fluffy guts and set that fucker to fry. It went up in an eye-blink, the gasoline a spreading blue ripple, riding a whooshing sigh that tingled my spine. There was no noise, no noise in all that chaos, Sneakaboo thrashing like a silent movie Frankenstein as it twirled into ashes, launching droplets of fire in all directions, almost beautiful.
Jackson choked out a groan like a squashed toad and I remembered what I had done. He was on the ground contorting his little body, bucking his spine in a way no child should, blood trickling down his shirt front.
I grabbed him bodily around the waist and hauled him up the stairs, straight into Meg, ragged and unkempt in her flannel pajamas. She looked at my bloodied face, to our son trussed up and bagged like a shot deer, back to me. Then she hit me in the head with a frying pan.
I’m not going to ask for sympathy. I believe in what I did, although perhaps not in the way I did it. Frying pans are just what happens when you make a unilateral parenting decision. The pain was bad. Struggling into consciousness to see my son foaming at the mouth in his mother’s arms was worse. I watched him spit out the tip of his tongue into her lap. Just the very tip. He lived. He’s not rolling his R’s or anything, but he lived.
Meg gathered him up in her arms and took him out into the night, to what I later learned was the hospital.
For a while I thought I was going to die, slumped there at the top of the basement stairs, all beat the fuck up, choking on burning stuffed animal and gasoline. But I didn’t die. The fire burned itself out, suffocated in the concrete tomb that was our basement.
The cops didn’t come. Neither did the fire department. If they had, I don’t think we’d have survived. As a family, I mean. I don’t know why. The whole thing sure felt loud, felt out of hand in the way that attracts neighbors. But asides from my son’s single scream, I suppose it was all silent; just a little darkness in the fringes of suburbia, out where there’s still a little woods to get lost in.
The ambulance didn’t come either, so I can assume that around that time Meg didn’t care if I lived or died. I don’t blame her, but I can’t say I don’t hold it against her.
I spent two days drinking water from the toilet, eating from the torn bags of cereal Jackson had left around the house. Like father, like son.
Eventually I got to my feet and went to the basement. The floor where Sneakaboo had burned was scorched deep black, beautiful brushstrokes of char, the cork tiling whirled and swirled, melted and reformed into alien ripples. It looked like a spiral galaxy of black and brown, twisting towards an ever dark center of carbon, and a bubblegum pink, lightly singed Santa hat.
I put the hat on. It smelled like caramel. I put it on and went to the CRT (which, remarkably, was in perfect working order) and watched Fievel Goes West in its entirety. Twice.
Then I went out and staged a car crash to explain my injuries.
When you hold your child, there is not an ounce of your body that does not feel love. Love drawn from your body, milked from your pores. You will tell yourself there is not a thing you would not do, no violent death you would not endure for this child. And all that love you feel, all that honest affection, won’t protect them from the things you will do to them. From the things they will do to themselves.
Meg stayed with her mom for two months and didn’t answer my calls. I cleaned the house and waited. Made it so everything was as it was before we went to the carnival, before the carnival went to us. Then she and Jackson came back, and for a while we didn’t talk about it.
It took a year for Jackson to feel comfortable with me. For him to trust me to throw him in the air and catch him on the way down.
I severed a part of his childhood: not a vital part, but an important one. That kind of violence, it’s a scary part of the world, and it’s something he learned from me. And I pay for it. Whenever I see him, I think about what’s hiding behind his blank stares, what kind of anger is hidden within my son. Is it real? Did I put it there? Or was it there to begin with? Deep down, inside his soul, is something twitching?
I imagine the phone call, the news that he’s strangled his girlfriend in a roadside motel. That he’s come into work and shot up the place. That for the last two decades he’s been busy hacking drifters into pieces. I don’t know if other parents feel this way, if we all chronicle our guilt and wait for the day it comes back to slit out throats. Maybe he’s just what he appears to be? A good kid.
About the Author
John Waterfall is a writer living in Brooklyn and a graduate of the New School’s creative writing MFA program. A proud father of two cats and one baby girl. His work can be found in Jersey Devil Press, Unnerving Magazine, Underland Press and others.
About the Narrator
Kaz is actually three tentacles in a trench coat, able to mimic human speech through an obscure loophole in Eldritch Noise Ordinances. By day, Kaz pretends to be a member of the terrestrial band When Ukuleles Attack.