I’ve been extremely busy this week editing on my novel manuscript, so I’m going to be lazy and post one of my favorite short stories. I sold ”The Show” to Sam’s Dot Publishing, and it was included in the May 2010 issue of Cover of Darkness.
“The Show” was inspired by an article I read in my local newspaper dealing with a girl who had schizophrenia. It percolated around in my brain for a few days, and led to this:
When Tock the cat came to visit, she made me do mean things. Mama said to ignore Tock, that she wasn’t real, just in my head. But how could I ignore something ten feet tall and purple all over, and that yelled at me to hit things?
And really I didn’t want to ignore Tock ’cause she was fun to play with. Boy, could she make me laugh. She made Minute Hand and Second Hand, the two rats that lived in the wall behind the cook stove, do all kinds of funny things. Like dance on the table while we ate supper. ‘Course, it wasn’t very funny when they tramped around in the potato salad. Yuck! Who wants to eat potato salad that rats have tracked through? Not me. And I didn’t want Mama to eat any either, so I pitched the bowl with its squishy yellow footprints out the back door.
And that made Mama mad.
She got mad at me a lot. Daddy did too–-before he left with That Hussy, and “Lord only knows if he’ll ever come back.” That from Mama.
And then it was only Mama and me and little Joey. Joey was just one and didn’t talk to me, and Mama watched soaps all day and drank Coke and rum and was wasted again in Margaritaville, and didn’t talk to me either.
But Tock talked.
She told me stories about all kinds of stuff. Like the snakes that lived in the place where water came from, how at night they squiggled and wiggled through the pipes and squeezed out the kitchen faucet and curled up in the sink and slept. One morning I got up and saw them, maybe ten, looking like a whole sink-full of slippery, scaly loops of rope. Mama ran water in the coffee pot right over them snakes while they squirmed and hissed and she never even seen them. Tock said that only special people like me could see them.
Sometimes I didn’t like seeing things. Sometimes I didn’t like being special.
See, sometimes it was nice to just be plain old Shasta Jane Sweeten, like I was when I got up this morning. I felt so good that while I ate oatmeal I sang “Denise” along with the radio. Oh oh oh, Denise, dooby do, I’m in love with you, Denise, dooby do.
“It’s not polite to sing at the table,” Mama said. She put Joey in his highchair and slid on the tray, then plopped a bowl of oatmeal down in front of him. She pulled out a chair between us, and while me and Joey ate, she drank coffee and smoked Winstons that taste-good-like-a-cigarette-should.
Denise-dooby-do went away and the news came on. I didn’t like news. All they did was talk. Talk, talk, talk. Singing was better. So I sang–but only in my head so I didn’t bother Mama. I think her head hurt ’cause her eyes were all red and scrunched up and her hair was a brown frazzle, sticking out this a’way and that a’way. When she looked like that and I made too much noise, she always said: “Be quiet, Shasta, I have a headache.”
Now me, when my head hurt, I thunked it against the wall till I knocked them two old ladies who lived across the street out of it. Mama didn’t like me doing that. It made her cry, especially if I started bleeding. But there wasn’t any other way to get Miss Delia and Miss Lucy to leave me alone and quit poking around in my brain with their long, skinny knitting needles; it wasn’t like I could reach in my ear and pull them out, or something.
I heard the toot-toot of a horn, and glanced out the kitchen window. Between the half-open yellow curtains I saw an even yellower school bus screech to a stop, and a bunch of kids clomp up its steps. This morning they were just kids; most of the time, though, they were big, giant cockroaches and ants and flies that got on the bus and went off to school.
I couldn’t go to school no more. When I’d tried to squash one of the cockroaches–I think it was Lizzy McDaniel ’cause it had red curly hair–with a rock a while back, Mama and Daddy had come and got me and I haven’t been back since.
And that was when they started fighting all the time. Daddy told Mama I was kitzo-something-or-other–I thought that was some kind of disease–and I needed to go to a doctor; Mama said I just had a good ‘magination was all. I guess Mama must’ve been right ’cause I didn’t ever feel sick.
Now, Mama asked, “Are you finished, Shasta?”
I saw that my bowl was empty. “Yes, all done.”
She mashed out her cigarette. “Would you take Joey to your room and play? I think I’m gonna lay back down for a bit.” She looked down into her cup of coffee.
Poor Mama. She looked so tired.
I slid out of my chair and went around the table to her. I patted her on the back. She raised her head and smiled at me, and her arm came up like she was gonna touch me, so I stepped back. “I love you, Mama,” I said, and that got a little smile.
And right then I did love her. But later when Mama was asleep, Tock crawled in my bedroom window and told me how Mama was going to slice me and Joey up and feed us to the snakes, and I didn’t love her no more.
“You’ve got to get rid of her,” Tock lisped around her pointy yellow teeth. She plopped down on my bed, her big, purple butt right on top of Snow White’s head. “She’s tired of taking care of you and Joey. She wants rid of you. If you don’t do something, you’re gonna wake up one morning and you’ll be fish bait–and Joey too. She’s gonna whack-whack-whack with that big old butcher knife, cut you up into itty-bitty pieces.”
“Like a chicken?” I asked, in my mind seeing Mama’s hands working as she cut off wings and legs, and split breasts. I hadn’t thought of it before, but I bet it hurt awfully bad to be cut up. Not the chicken, ’cause it was dead and when you’re dead you don’t feel nothing. But when you’re alive…
I remembered when I’d been out in the backyard a while back, no shoes on, and had stepped on a broken beer bottle out in the tall grass next to the fence. It had kind of stung, and when I looked at it and seen all that blood, I’d gotten sick at my stomach. And later, after Mama had bandaged it up, it’d throbbed every time my heart beat.
How would it feel if you got cut up in pieces–I’m in pieces, bits and pieces? Would every chunk sting and throb and feel like throwing up?
Tock splayed the claws of her left paw, and looked between her toe pads. A fat tick the size of a marble was wedged between the middle two. She pulled it off with her teeth, then spit it on the floor. “Something like that…but smaller pieces.”
Keeping my eyes on the tick as it flailed around on its back like a turned-over turtle, I asked, “How many pieces?”
Tock shrugged. “You do the math.”
And I did. In my head, I multiplied all the whacks as they twoed and foured and eighted, making smaller and smaller pieces of me, and kept on until I was in chunks small enough that a snake could swallow. How many? Somewhere around nine-hundred-ninety-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-ninety-nine best that I could figure.
That sure was a lot of pieces. I didn’t think I could stand that much stinging and throbbing and puking.
The tick righted itself and began waddling across the floor toward Joey, who was backed up in the corner sucking his thumb, his blue eyes all big and round and fastened on me and Tock. See, he was afraid of Tock, though I didn’t know why ’cause Tock had never hurt him. But the tick might; it might give him a disease.
I stepped on the tick and it squished like an overripe tomato. Red gunk oozed up between my toes. Yuck!
I gagged. Tock snickered. Joey whined.
I snatched up the bedspread where it made a big fluffy vee at the corner, and wiped my foot on Grumpy’s frown. Hi-ho, hi-ho.
“Do it now,” Tock said.
“Do what?” I pushed folds of the bedspread between my sticky toes, soaking up tick blood.
The bed springs squeaked, and Tock’s giant shadow fell over me. I looked up from cleaning my tick-bloody foot, looked up, and up some more, to Tock’s grinning face. “Get rid of her,” she said.
She wanted me to do something bad to Mama; I saw it in her inky-icky-black eyes. And though I didn’t love Mama right then ’cause she was gonna feed me and Joey to the snakes, the thought of hurting her made me hurt–sort of. But I knew better than to argue with Tock. She always got what she wanted. One way or another.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
With a purple paw the size of a basketball, Tock smoothed back my hair, and leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Smash in her head. Smash it flat. Hit her in the head, and don’t stop hitting till it’s as flat as a pancake.”
My stomach did a somersault. “That would…”
“Kill her. Yesssssss…”
Kill Mama? Not just hit her like I had the redheaded cockroach? Or the big old fat fly dressed up in Jimmy Walker’s clothes?
Tock pranced across the floor to the closet, leaned over and poked her head inside. Her tail swishing back and forth, she slung out clothes, she slung out shoes, she slung out books and games, and finally she stopped slinging and turned around. In her paw was the baseball bat Mama had bought for me two years ago when I was eight and had played softball with the Mulberry Wildcats–for two whole weeks before I’d smacked Willard Jones in the knees with it and was thrown off the team.
Tock held out the bat. “Take it,” she said.
I didn’t know if I wanted to. It was heavy and hard and had made Willard cry really bad when I’d hit him with it. I didn’t want to make Mama cry like that.
Tock thrust the bat practically under my nose; I could almost smell the wood. “If you don’t kill her, she’s gonna cut you up.”
I still couldn’t make myself take it.
I looked over at my little brother. He’d scrunched himself up into a ball and was pressed as tight into the corner as he could get. His unblinking eyes stared out of the shadows.
He was little; he wouldn’t stand a chance against Mama with a butcher knife.
My fingers closed around the bat.
“Good girl,” Tock said. She padded on her hind paws over to the door, and opened it wide. She turned back to me and grinned her pointy, yellow grin. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
But I couldn’t get the show on the road. I couldn’t move. My feet were stuck to the floor.
Tock snorted. She stomped back to me, her tail twitching with every heavy step, and got behind me and shoved. Out the door and into the hall we went, and there was Minute Hand and Second Hand. Chittering something that sounded like “Hit her, hit her,” the two rats danced circles around me and Tock as she pushed me down the hallway to the closed door of Mama’s bedroom.
Everybody stopped. Tock stopped pushing, I stopped walking, and Minute Hand and Second Hand stopped dancing and talking.
Tock reached around me and slowly pushed the door open. A shaft of light spilled into the dark room, ran across the floor and jumped up on the bed where Mama lay on her back. Snoring.
Tock’s paw spread out between my shoulder blades, and nudged me forward. “Do it,” she whispered.
I moved slowly across the gold shag carpet. Each step was hard, like trying to walk in rubber boots that were plumb full of rain-water. I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to hurt Mama.
Then I heard Joey’s voice, teeny-tiny and far away, call out my name: “Tassa…” And I gripped the bat with both hands, squeezed till my fingers were numb and white. He was little. I was big. I had to protect him.
My feet stepped light and quick and I was at the bed and I raised the bat and I started down with it. And Mama’s eyes popped open.
“Shasta!” Mama threw up her arms, and the bat thunked them and not her head. I raised the bat again, but before I could bring it down, Mama reached up and grabbed it and yanked it out of my hands. Then, quick as a cat, she scrabbled up on her knees. Her arms straight and stiff, she held the bat out between us like it was a cross and I was a vampire or something. “What are you doing?”
I had to get it back. I had to stop her. I had to kill her!
I lunged for the bat, but Mama jerked it aside. I fell flat on my face into a cloud of bedcovers that smelled like lavender bath salts. And then the smell was all around me as Mama rolled me and wrapped me and I could hear her crying and saying my name over and over again. And I couldn’t move my arms or my legs. I could barely breathe.
Then over the sucking noises I was making and the sniffling noises Mama was making, I heard Joey. Crying.
Mama went dead quiet like she was holding her breath. “Joey…” And I felt the bed jiggle, then go still. Then from a ways off, I think out in the hall, “Joey…”
I felt a sharp tug and I rolled and rolled, out of the bedclothes and onto the floor. Tock loomed over me, a frown pulling down the corners of her mouth allowing only two long fangs to poke out. Boy, did she look mad.
“Get up,” she said. “Go after her.”
“But she’s got…” I swallowed a lavender-tasting lump in my throat. “The bat.”
“But you’ll have this.” Now Tock smiled, exposing a cave of needle teeth, and held out Mama’s butcher knife. Light winked happily along its sharpened edge. “Now go, slice her open like a watermelon. I wanta see guts.”
Boy, sometimes she could be so disgusting.
She held out her other paw and I grabbed it and she hauled me to my feet. Then the knife was in my hand and I ran up the hall, dodging Minute Hand and Second Hand who were loop-de-looping around my feet, to my bedroom. Mama was in there with Joey on her hip. Her eyes got as round as Joey’s when she saw me.
“Slice her, dice her, chop her,” Minute Hand and Second Hand chirped.
“Do it,” Tock said from behind me. “Do it, or you and Joey are fish bait.”
Not fish bait, but snake bait. Mama was gonna chop us up and feed us to the snakes. Mean Mama. Bad Mama.
I raised the knife high and stepped through the doorway.
“Shasta, you stop it right now.” Mama backed up a little. “Put the knife down. Now!”
Joey’s crying turned into wailing. What was she doing to him?
I felt a shove against my back and heard a raspy: “Go.” And I ran toward Mama. I had to stop her. I had to save Joey. As hard as I could, I brought down the knife, aiming for Mama’s heart–and pain shot through my hand and crawled all the way up to my shoulder. The knife dropped out of my numb fingers. Mama had hit me with the bat! And she was raising it again!
I spun around, looking for Tock. But there was no Tock. Gone. Like she always was when things went wrong. And then something walloped me across the shoulders and knocked me down on my knees, and I didn’t have to look to know that Mama had hit me again. She’d never hit me before. Why was she doing it now? And she was screaming. And cussing. And crying.
What was wrong with her?
The bat banged against my head–boy, did it hurt–and slid down the side of my face, ripping at my ear before smashing onto the floor beside me. And I knew if I didn’t get out of there fast she was gonna kill me. Squash my head as flat as a pancake.
I scrambled on my hands and knees toward the door, the bat thwacking the floor behind me, and when I reached it, I grabbed the knob and pulled myself up. I looked back and saw Mama right behind me, holding Joey on her hip with one hand and swinging the bat with the other. And she was still yelling. No words that I could make out; just crazy sounds like the twitchy man in the wheelchair behind us in the checkout line at K-Mart had made. Her eyes were kinda like his had been too: glassy and wild and not all there.
Mama was crazy. Crazy as a bedbug. And she had my little brother and he was screaming at the top of his lungs too. But he wasn’t crazy, just scared.
I was scared too.
The bat whistled past my head and I dodged back, then took off running. I had to get out of the house before Mama splatted my head.
Down the hall I ran, the bat banging and Mama yelling and Joey crying right behind me. Across the living room to the front door, grabbing the knob and twisting–thanking Jesus it wasn’t locked–running out on the porch and into the yard.
I saw Mr. Mason pushing his lawnmower alongside the white-picket fence that separated his yard from ours, and I raced toward him. He was bigger than Mama; he’d keep her from smashing my head. When I was about halfway across our yard, he looked up and saw me, and he jumped the fence and ran to me. He pushed me behind him and faced my screaming mama.
Mama tried to go around Mr. Mason, but he moved with her, staying between us. She kept swinging the bat at me, hitting Mr. Mason’s legs, but not very hard ’cause I think she was getting tired.
“Stop it, Eloise!” Mr. Mason said. “What in the hell’s got into you?”
“Get…out…of…my…way,” Mama said between gulps of air. “I’m going to…kill her.” She swung the bat underhanded, and when it bumped Mr. Mason’s knees, she dropped it. Then she just sort of melted like the Wicked Witch of the West; holding tight to Joey, she puddled out right there in the overgrown grass. And over Joey’s crying and Mr. Mason yelling for someone to call the police, Mama said: “Before she…kills…me.”
Nobody heard her but me, though. Not Mr. Mason who reached down and picked up the bat; not Mrs. Mason who had both hands over her mouth as she stared wide-eyed at Mama; and not even Miss Delia and Miss Lucy who stood out on their front steps, their white heads close together, whispering, their beady eyes on me, their mouths scrunching up like they’d eaten sour persimmons, both wrinkled faces pulled down in saggy frowns. And I could feel them beginning to scratch around my hairline. “Stay away!” I turned my back on them and wrapped my arms around my head and squeezed my eyes shut.
Mr. Mason patted my shoulder. “Don’t be scared,” he said. “I won’t let her hurt you.”
He was talking about Mama, but it wasn’t her I was worried about ’cause she was all blubbery like she’d drunk a whole bunch of Coke and rum; it was Miss Delia and Miss Lucy’s knitting needles that scared me.
“Are you all right, Shasta?” asked a soft voice that went with the soft arms that circled me. The yeasty smell of baking bread tickled my nose, and I didn’t have to look to know it was Mrs. Mason. “Did she hurt you, dear?”
I shook my head. “No, ma’am.” I did hurt, though, my head and my back and my arms–Mama had hit me about everywhere except my feet–but Mrs. Mason would hug me even tighter if I said so, and hugs were yucky things.
I let her squeeze me for a minute. Big people acted funny if you didn’t let them hug you–except for Mama ’cause she knew I didn’t like it.
I eased out of Mrs. Mason’s arms and turned around. Mama still sat in the grass, but now she wasn’t making any noises. Her head hung over like she’d fallen asleep, but she wasn’t asleep ’cause her hands were pulling at the grass on either side. Joey still sat in her lap. And he was quiet now, too.
Mama didn’t say a word a little while later when the police took her away. Joey did, though; he said: “Tassa,” just before a woman policeman picked him up and got into another car with him.
Then a third car driven by a fat woman came, and I was put in the back seat. But before the fat woman got in, while she was talking to Mr. and Mrs. Mason, Tock squeezed in the open door, climbed over the front seat, and thumped down beside me.
“Time to get this show on the road,” she said, her toothy grin stretching out below bouncing red-rubber-ball eyes. She rubbed her front paws together. “You ready for the show, Shasta?”
I figured I might as well be, ’cause Tock wanted a show, and Tock always got what she wanted. One way or another.
I wondered whose head she’d want me to squash next. “Yeah, I’m ready.”