A Week Later
Jimmy and Ronnie Dunne had been Fostering since before they had children of their own. When their eldest, a boy named Dale, was born they worried that the work would be too much for them, that their little bundle of perfection would sponge up all the love they had for their kids.
They were wrong.
When Jo came along two years later they still had a house full of children in need of a forever home. That was eight years ago and while it was true that they couldn’t take nearly as many kids as they once did, they still tried to keep at least two in the house with them at all times.
They never lost track of those that moved on, they never stopped thinking of them as their kids, and their own children had always thought of themselves as being part of a large family, treating each new kid as if they were a long lost cousin. They’d even decided to adopt one of their charges, a bright but fragile 12-year-old boy named Bobby.
The Dunne household was truly blessed.
That is until 17 weeks, three days ago when Naomi came to live with them.
For whatever reason Dale and Jo didn’t take to Naomi. In fact, Dale had made it clear that he hated her, even going so far as to call her “It” when their parents weren’t around.
Even Bobby, who’d always been nice to her, treated her poorly when the kids were around. Naomi had been through this before though. What was different was how Jimmy treated her. He took her fishing and was showing her how to fix cars.
She felt she would love him if she could. She even found herself forgetting that she was just a doll when she was alone with him. She’d even call him Dad if he’d ask her.
“Have they found your boss’ friend, hon?” – Ronnie, sitting down for dinner.
“Nah, she’s gone. It’s been almost two weeks since the ass scared her off.” – Jimmy, still washing his hands.
“James Orville Dunne, I know you don’t like the man, but Theros took that poor woman in, and you said it yourself he’s been nothing but kind to her. Besides, she disappeared during that blackout after the fire downtown.”
“Yeah, I guess, she was really sweet too, just a big ol’ kid. She loved those old beaters out in the yard.” – Jimmy, finally sitting down.
Naomi hadn’t eaten anything, she always waited for Jimmy to say:
“Y’better eat, girl! Them bones ain’t gonna grow themselves.”
Naomi smiled and ate a big bite of potatoes.
Missy cursed Theros’ Name. He’d demanded that she go into the sewer, the SEWER, to help him find that thing. He was, in fact, still insisting that this was all her fault.
Dexter wasn’t a child. She wasn’t their little sister. She was a living, breathing engine of destruction and just because she had tried to treat the monster like a human being, she’d tried to make it act like a person… so far as Missy understood people anyway. That didn’t make her its keeper!
How DARE he demand that she go and help find the thing. As far as she was concerned it was better that the thing had gone wherever it was that it had gone off to.
“Bring her back and all is forgiven? Who the hell are you to tell me you’ll forgive me?”
She’d reached another junction and sprayed her mark to remind herself which way she’d come from, half wondering how she knew to do some of the things that she knew, half wondering why the sewers were so large.
She’d caught wind of the hulking child about a block back, when the water, which had been up until this point about ankle deep suddenly plunged into a seven-foot pool, at the bottom of which stood a number of jagged metal pipes. When she’d dragged herself out of the thing she found a large rod embedded in her thigh, the impression of a large human hand pressed into it.
This had been Dexter’s idea of a trap, it seemed.
She’d proceeded more carefully since then.
The left fork in the tunnel should have ended in a bricked wall, but instead something very large had torn a massive hole in it. She had no trouble getting over the rocks, having used the rod she’d removed from her leg as leverage, but she hadn’t expected to see the sheer size of the chamber she found on the other side.
Partially hewn from the raw earth by water and partially carved out by some previous city planning, the 15 by 20-foot chamber was submerged in water nearly to Missy’s knee once she’d tumble-walked down the pile of stones, bricks and tiles that made a strange sort of misshapen staircase at the entrance.
At the far wall, covered in putrid rags was Dexter, a bit of what looked like a soggy paperback book hanging dumbly from her mouth. Anger and befuddlement creased her oddly beautiful face.
“Why couldn’t you have just gone home?” – Missy shouted.
The monster spat out the filthy pages.
“This Dexter’s Home!”
The Wretch took another bite of her book and went back to work on the far wall.
“No. It’s not.” – Missy could feel the anger bleeding out of her as if through the gaping hole in her leg.
“The blockhead’s been looking for you.” – Missy
“He wants to put me in cage.” – Dexter, swallowing hard.
“He does not! He’s not even mad at you, he’s mad at me, you he’s worried about.” – Missy
Dexter responded by turning and shoving her fist through the wall.
It was going to be a long night.
Helm Street Elementary School
The Next Day
The playground was chilly and overcast, Naomi was wearing a jacket and scarf because Ronnie insisted, but the coat was open and the scarf hung loose. In other words, she looked like just about every other kid save that her cheeks weren’t flushed from the cold.
She sat alone on a swing, her notebook’s back cover was open and she was taking notes about what she saw the other kids doing. She wrote them in Japanese because she’d learned from her…mother… that people didn’t like it when you took notes about them.
There was a commotion behind her and she’d made a mental note to check it out when she was done figuring out exactly how the strange series of squares and semi-circles on the ground determined the pecking order of the girls who threw rocks and hopped across it.
Sadly her study of the ritual was cut short when one of the girls, the one whose turn it was to throw a stone at the numbered squares, stopped, turned to Naomi and screamed across the yard
Why did she want Naomi to fight?
The artificial girl turned to her left and her right before catching motion in her periphery. It seemed that the commotion she had heard was that of a ring of boys playing some sort of game that she’d never seen.
Now other kids were rushing in to see what was going on.
Naomi closed her notebook, put away her pencil and ran after.
She felt the heat of the fire inside her heart reach her skin and felt the crowd accept her as one of its own. These few short moments were the only ones that allowed her to feel like she belonged somewhere, other than when she’s with Jimmy. Jimmy always made her feel like she belonged.
At the eye of the storm of children were not¬ two boys as she’d surmised by the sounds of jocularity, but a pair of girls beating up a small boy.
It took only a moment to recognize the coat and dark hair and screams belonged to Bobby. She liked Bobby.
“Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!” – The crowd chanted
“Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!” – Naomi sang along
She felt her heart beat harder and hotter.
For a moment she touched humanity. Why didn’t it feel better?
Naomi stepped into the eye, leaving the safety of the crowd and felt their eyes on her. The magic of the moment was ruined and she now she only felt the hostility of the crowd. A part of her was comforted by the animosity. She knew it well.
Naomi asked herself what had made her step in. Why had she made this mistake?
Because Jimmy would have stepped in.
Jimmy would have wanted her to help Bobby.
She felt something hard and plastic inside her melt away, she felt…human.
She didn’t know it, but she was blushing.
“Stop! This ain’t right!” – Naomi said, doing her best impression of Jimmy
“What?” – one of the girls
“What did Bobby do to you that you felt you had to beat him for it?” – Naomi.
She felt something change in the crowd. The girls looked down at Bobby and then at Naomi again.
“You’re right. Bobby, I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking.” – one of the girls as the other bent down to help him up.
“We should have been being on this.” – the girl, swinging at Naomi.
It seemed she’d made a major error for engaging so many children at once.
She saw it coming and tried to side step the punch.
“Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!”
The girl hit her solidly across the face, on some level Naomi knew that she should cry.
She didn’t know how so instead she decided to run… except that she couldn’t leave Bobby.
Naomi felt the oil in her veins boil with pyros and momentarily transmute into elemental blood and the illusion of humanity shimmered faintly as the heat called to the girl’s own heart. Naomi imagined the girl had feelings for her and the pyros burned hotter, transmuting hypothesis into reality. Too late Naomi felt that fire burn in her own heart and for the second time in less than a minute her cheeks flushed.
The girl’s cheeks burned red hot. Her eyes became glassy with tears.
“I’m so sorry, I don’t know why I did that.” – the girl
“Just back off.” – Naomi
“What are you doing, Chelsea?” – the other girl.
“Just leave them alone.” – Chelsea said back.
In that moment Naomi realized that her love for Jimmy wasn’t just because he wasn’t afraid of her. It was because of what he represented, he was someone she looked up to. His opinions mattered and if need be she’d do anything for him.
It was a strange epiphany to have while surrounded by 10 year olds on a playground as the lunch bell rang but there it was.
Naomi’s eyes were on Chelsea but her mind was racing with the knowledge that for the first time in her impossibly short existence she actually understood what it meant to be a child.
She had to tell Jimmy.
Mitch’s Old 78
Theros was moving boxes when he heard the slamming on the bay door.
“Jimmy, get the door!”
“Jimmy, get the damned door!”
“I’m getting it!”
Theros heard the mechanic let loose a quiet string of expletives before the door opened.
“What are y’all doin’ here?” – Jimmy
“Bobby was getting beaten up by a girl and…” – a girl’s voice
“It wasn’t a girl, it was a boy named Chelsea!” – a boy… probably Bobby.
Theros came around the corner, still lugging the box.
“I thought I told you I didn’t want kids playing around the –“
The words died in Theros’ throat, he recognized Bobby right off, Jimmy’d brought the kids around before things went sour between them. His other boy, Dale, had gotten stuck in a drum and Theros had said that the place wasn’t safe for them while they were fixing everything up.
Bobby wasn’t why he’d stopped talking though.
For a second he saw a girl with dusky skin and almond eyes standing next to the boy but then he got a good look at her and saw the truth.
The girl had no skin, not really, instead she was coated in a pale rubber sheath. Her hair was synthetic; her eyes were glistening marbles.
He’d seen little girls carrying dolls around before, he’d never seen one this large or this well-articulated, but there was no doubt that she was, in fact, a doll.
Had Jimmy done this?
The doll’s pretty silicone face was twisted a literal mask of fear.
“Never mind… you got family matters.” – Theros, turning to walk away.
The doll whimpered as she noticed the patchwork of dead flesh and steel that made up his face. Theros’ heart broke.
The Wretch sat the box down and turned back toward the living doll approaching to a safe distance before taking his knee.
“Hi, I’m Mr. Theros. I’m very sorry for scaring you and for yelling at your father. I promise I’m not nearly as scary as I look.”
Theros held out his hand but the girl pulled away. Knowing that it was getting more awkward, he got off his knee and went back to work.
No sooner had he picked the box back up than he felt the dry heat from beneath the garage.
The basement door slammed open and Dexter, naked but for a filthy wife-beater and her sludge covered legs, stomped into the garage.
Theros dropped everything and hugged the misshaped woman.
Missy was right behind the nude hulk. She looked unhappy.
Dexter saw the crying doll-girl being hugged by Jimmy and snarled. The girl cried harder. Dexter smiled.
The tears ended immediately. They wouldn’t be coming back. Maybe not ever. At this moment the doll who had only moments before feeling more human than she ever had suddenly realized that none of it actually mattered. She was just a doll after all.
Fear was all she felt at this moment.
Jimmy hugged her again.
“You okay, girl?” – Jimmy.
Naomi didn’t respond.
The air was hot and dry outside the garage and Dexter felt more at home than ever. Perhaps if she’d been a deeper thinker she might have noted that it seemed to better fit her own mood, unfortunately she only knew that it seemed right.
Where before she might have played with the cars now she simply tore them to pieces and as she did so the smell of ozone grew and thunderheads seemed to form from the ether alone.
By the time she’d taken apart a ’73 Buick with her bare hands the sky was full of murky and thick thunderheads while the heat had reached a nearly 80 degrees.