by Kelly Barnhill
It was easy enough to lose a child by accident. To do so on purpose was nearly impossible.
The child slid his fat, slick fingers into her hand. Hung on for dear life. He rubbed his face on the seat of her skirt and hooked his arm into her purse’s glossy leather strap. Meanwhile, people passed by without a glance, their hands full of drooping cotton candy and oversized stuffed dogs with weak seams or shrill whistles shaped like birds. Aggressively unattractive parents wooing their children with sweets and grease and cheap toys. Fran pressed the fingers of her free hand to her mouth and choked down bile.
The child stumbling next to her hip was not her own. This child, with his thick lips and the watery squint of dull eyes, was her lover’s child. Or, more specifically, her lover’s wife’s child.
If a child was an anchor on a good man’s soul, Fran reasoned, if it kept him from daily loving his love, would it not be better if such a child disappeared?
Children disappear every day. Just watch the news.
When Fran was fourteen, she took her little sister to the park. The little girl flew higher and higher on the swing—lace bobby socks, black Mary Janes, a dress lined with crinoline flapping about her spindly legs like white and pink wings—while Fran leaned against the elm tree and let Jonah Marks slide his hand into her shorts. Let him hang on tight.
“Watch me,” the little girl cried, “Watch me.” Her voice bounced against the basketball court, rustled the leaves, floated on the breath of Jonah Marks, on his wet lips and insistent tongue. Watch me.
When she turned, the little girl was gone. The swing still arced back and forth, a memory of her body. “She flew away,” she told her mother, her father, the social worker, and the police. “I heard the rustle of lace and the flapping of wings. I heard a voice echo within, around and above. She flew away.”
And she may have done. Really, who’s to say?
But Fran’s little sister was a pretty child. No one ever snatches the ugly ones.
Fran’s lover’s son was not a pretty child. He whimpered and wheezed. He chortled and pleaded. An endless litany of wants.
Grant me a snow cone.
Grant me a foot-long.
Grant me a deep-fried candy bar on a stick.
Fran tried to dash away at the restroom, but the child appeared like magic at the doorway and grasped the hem of her skirt. Fran tried to dodge him in the haunted house, but he kept close to her heels in the dark. He hid in her pocket. He slid into her shoes. The pendulous weight of him swung from side to side. She heard him flapping and flying. Watch me!
Fran sent the child to the top of the giant slide hoping for an opening, but a convention of officers gathered to look appraisingly at the hordes of ugly children hurtling down the yellow humps, their faces lit with misplaced love. She couldn’t slip away.
The child at the top of the slide—her lover’s wife’s child—shivered and shook. He gripped the burlap sliding sack the way a skydiver hangs onto his defective parachute before his final bounce upon a pitiless ground. Fran looked up. Felt her shoulders hemmed in by police.
She flew away, she wanted to say to the cop on her right. Children disappear every day, she nearly said to the cop on her left, especially the pretty ones. It isn’t my fault that the boy is hideous.
The ugly child peered down at Fran, held her gaze. She imagined him in black Mary Janes. Bobby socks with lace at the ankle. The wind lifted his pale hair, like the crinoline lining of a fluttering skirt. Watch me! He swayed and swayed and Fran found herself swaying too.
Grant you feathers, murmured her lips.
Grant you wings.
Grant you light and wind and helium.
Grant you cloud and moon and star. The vacuum of space. The infinite distances between love and lover and love.
The child sat on his burlap and pushed off.
And somewhere inside, Fran grew wings.
She flew away.
Red lips invite trouble, when trouble requires an invitation. Which it usually doesn’t. Margaret knew that trouble hid under dirty rugs and scratched coffee tables. It lurked behind heavy drapes like a vampire in an old movie. It gathered in great clouds like pollen in the spring and fall and settled like dust in between.
Margaret stood in front of the mirror painting black around the eyes, muting acne scars and pustules with muddy makeup, and crafting a false beauty mark at the hollow where her chin met her neck.
She wore pink lips to school, black lips to visit her grandparents, and red lips for everything else. She wiped Vaseline across her small, white teeth to prevent stains—like blood on crisp new sheets. The color of the lip is significant, Margaret knew. The color matters. Ask anyone you like.
A teacher, for example, is terrified by a red lip. He pulls at his earth-tone tie again and again until his face goes red, then purple, then green. He stammers and hesitates before shooing a girl away.
Pink, though. Pink was a different story.
Two weeks with pink lips. Only two. By then he was weak and trembly, his fingers fluttering gently as they grazed her neck.
They found him the next day. Heart attack. Hard-on. Pink lips. Really, who’s to say? Margaret offered no opinion.
Her mother snored in the next room, her new boyfriend—also snoring —at her side. The room stank of liquor and love, and Margaret wrinkled her nose as she slipped inside.
Now originally, Margaret had intended the black lips for her grandfather, but her grandmother, somewhere between the tuna casserole and the Cool Whip surprise, ran her fist through the porcupine spikes of her black and white hair. She shivered.
“I was a Girl Scout once, did you know?” her grandmother asked. Margaret curved her black lips into a grin. She slipped her supple fingers into her grandmother’s rice paper hand, felt the old woman’s soul leak out in a long, slow sigh as she leaned inexorably in.
When they found the old woman the next day, oven mitts still on the hands resting above her heart, her blackened lips still puckered in a sigh, they shook their heads.
Borrowed time, people said.
Margaret crawled in between her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Her mother slept open- mouthed, wet breath catching in her throat.
“It’s only a matter of time,” her mother had said earlier that day as she checked the fit of Margaret’s new bra. Her thumbs lingered on the dense, round breasts as though checking for freshness. “Every Tom’s Dick’ll want a taste. A kiss I mean.”
The boyfriend leaned in the recliner, his hands occupied by a cigarette and an icy highball glass. But his fingers itched. Margaret could tell.
“A kiss is a dangerous thing,” the boyfriend said. “I feel sorry for the poor son of a bitch. Won’t know what’s hit him until it’s too late. Still,” he said, dragging deep on his cigarette, “not a bad way to go.” He gave Margaret a full-handed smack on her rear as she passed.
Margaret leaned over, placed her hands beside his shoulders, peered into his sleeping face.
“Too late for you,” she whispered in the dark. His face was calm, his jowls slack. The stubble on his chin stood at attention. His lips were full and slightly parted, the corners twitching with each breath. He was both beautiful and foul—the infinite beauty of a finite life. Margaret marveled at each liquor laden breath as it pooled and luxuriated in his damp mouth. And, without meaning to, she licked her lips.
She licked her lips again. Tasted musk and cinnamon, and oh god, salt, sweat and lemon juice, and oh god, grass and wheat and meat and milk. Tasted birth and youth and decay.
She licked her lips again. Felt her body shudder and buck. What is it, she wondered, about dying that makes us feel so alive?
Reginald curled his body up the long radiator pipe. Winked one yellow eye. Winked the other. He tested the air with a quick flick of the tongue.
“Mind your own business,” Estelle said, returning the gesture, though she knew he wouldn’t notice.
Estelle sat at a desk with one hundred and two different file folders on the surface—all color coded, labeled and stacked neatly according to year. Receipts here. Earnings reports there. This is what she had been told to do when the audit loomed: to prepare. They don’t look out for your best interests, so don’t expect it, they said. They care about numbers and procedures and forms. They care about quotas. If it were up to them, they’d swallow you whole.
“They can try,” Estelle chuckled, as she pulled Andrew and Arnold out from their hiding place in the bottom drawer and draped them heavily on the ground. They lifted their flat heads and gave her twin looks of indignation before sliding across the floor and under the upholstered chair.
The young man appeared in the doorway. He had long, white hands, tapered fingers, and narrow hips. A blue suit and a blue tie and a haircut both severe and modern.
“I see you’ve been busy, Ms. Russo. I appreciate your work, but I assure you it was not necessary. I’m top in my field.”
He remained in the doorway. From his position on the radiator pipe, Reginald tasted the air. He leaned closer and unhooked his jaw.
“No, no,” Estelle said firmly. Reginald pulled back, chastened.
“Oh, yes, I assure you I am,” the young man said. “May I come in?”
“Please do,” she said, winking one yellow eye.
He sat on the upholstered chair, resting his briefcase on his knees. Estelle stood. Her body was long and supple. She slid like oil across the room to the chair opposite the young man. Gave a slow, mesmerizing grin. Flicked her tongue.
Arnold unfurled from underneath, elevating hungrily behind the chair. Robin, Mae, and Chavez peeked their heads from the grooves of the couch cushions.
“No, no,” Estelle said again.
“I’m sorry?” said the young man.
“Nothing,” Estelle said, winking her other eye. Arnold sniffed and slumped to the floor, while the other three retracted without commentary. The young man glanced at the floor, but saw nothing.
“Look,” he said, “it doesn’t really matter what you have organized in what file. I’ve already seen it. How you’ve slid under the radar this long is a mystery to me, but it doesn’t matter now. There’s consequences.”
“Nibble, nibble, little mouse,” Estelle said. “Always nibbling on the things that aren’t yours.”
“The government,” he said primly, “is not a mouse.”
The new brood woke and came tumbling out of the hole in the wall. At a hand signal from Estelle, they fell upon one another and played dead, as they were trained. Diana, Elizabeth, and Eleanor glided in through the open door and moved regally towards the guest. Their golden eyes glittered like crowns. Estelle breathed deeply through her nose, flicked her tongue once again. The young man smelled green and young. Tight fiddleheads before they leaf. The budding of spring. The tang of green apple again and again on the tongue.
“Who said anything about the government?” Estelle said, “I’m talking about you.” She leaned in. “Little mouse.” She unhooked her jaw.
Swallowed him whole.
“My father says I can’t play with you anymore.”
Annabelle shrugged. “He’s not the boss of me.”
“He says your mother isn’t raising you right.”
“Could be,” she said, squatting on the ground. She spat on the bare dirt. Drew with her finger.
“He says you’ll grow up just like her. He says the neighborhood doesn’t need another one.”
Annabelle drew a picture of a house with a sun and a heavy cloud. She drew a man inside with a woman. The man was on his knees. The woman had her head tossed back.
“He says you’re all the same. He says I’m not supposed to chase a dirty skirt.”
Annabelle drew heavy drops coming out of the cloud. She drew a flood that bent beams and rotted floors. She drew swollen banks and ruptured dykes and water that would not be bound. She drew a broken house, tumbling down the river and floating off to sea.
She washed the land clean with the back of her hand.
“Um.” He kicked at a clump of weeds with his sandal. “Do you know where my dad is?”
“With my mom. At my house.” She looked up and smiled. “They floated away.”
He bent down, rested his rear on his heels. Annabelle drew a boy and a girl in limitless space. She gave them wings. The boy arched his back as though it itched.
“Can I go with you then?”
“Suit yourself,” she said. She took his hand. Hung on tight.
They flew away.
Kelly Barnhill’s first novel, THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK — a lyrical fantasy for Middle Grade readers — is set for a Spring 2011 release by Little, Brown. She’s ridiculously excited about it. She also writes short stories, which have appeared in Fantasy, Weird Tales, The Sun, Clockwork Phoenix, and a bunch of other places. She’s been known to apply her penchant for all things Odd, Strange, and Downright Disgusting, in producing high-interest non-fiction books for kids. She’s published 13 so far. You can find out more about Kelly at her web site.
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