Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things

 

CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS

By Jonathan Peace


1

‘Children shouldn’t play with dead things!’ Gamma Jacobs yelled, as she wobbled down the pathway leading from the broken front door of her house. She leaned heavily on the crooked walking stick as she pottered forward, her destination the morning’s Ossett Herald that the damned Robert’s kid had left soaking up the morning dew in her rose bed. Again. 

She’d complained to Tom Foster, the owner of the small town paper, several times now over the phone but still that rat-faced kid threw the damn thing into her garden every damned morning from the pavement instead of taking but a moment to get off his three-speed Raleigh and walk a dozen or so steps to her doorway and slot the paper through the letterbox. Well, she’d catch him one of these days, right before he could let the paper fly, and then we’ll see. We’ll just see. 

‘Hey!’ she yelled again, this time balancing enough on her one good leg to raise her stick and give it a good warning shake at the three kids clustered together on the small grass park across the road. She felt the twinge run the length from her pinky-toe right to her upper thigh and bit back the snarl of frustration that always accompanied the biting pain. PAD, the doctors called it; peripheral arterial disease was the correct name, the one she used whenever she was called upon to explain why she was fifteen minutes late to church, thirty minutes late to Linda’s Tuesday book club; a week late to her daughter’s Sunday lunch. Why did everything have to be reduced down to an acronym or code word these days, anyway? she thought as she hobbled another couple of steps towards the rose garden and her ruined newspaper. Why can’t people just damned well say what they damn well mean?

Another shout came from the park across the road, this one full of revulsion and awe at the same time. It was just after nine and why weren’t these little bastards in school anyway’s?

‘Why aren’t you little bastards in school, anyways?’ she yelled, waving her walking stick as best she could. Her hip gave a warning groan, a ripple of pain starting to warm up her upper thigh. If it got to tingling she’d be in a world of hurt, but right now all that mattered was getting her paper out the damn rose bed and those damn young ‘uns from out the park and away from whatever the hell that was they was poking a stick at. Even from this distance and with her bad eyes, she could see it was large and furry and dead. Very dead.

‘You keep back from that, you hear?’ she yelled, waving her stick once again despite the twinge that rippled up her leg, just beneath the surface of skin that suddenly felt as hot as a griddle.

Across the way, one of the kids looked up, a blonde-haired boy who appeared six going on sixteen dressed as he was in a short-sleeved t-shirt under a bleached denim jacket. All that was missing was slick backed hair and a cigarette hanging from his mouth and he’d be the spitting image of the first boy Gamma Jacobs went a-courting with. She paused in her hobbled movement, the soaking paper momentarily forgotten as she tried to recall the name of that damned boy, the one who made her lips chaffed with all the slobbering kisses he’d planted on her. Jimmy? Billy? Damn it. . . what the hell was that pucker-face called?

The boy across the way, the one with the denim jacket and the smug grin on his face threw her a wave with the middle finger and turned back to whatever it was they were poking on the wet, green grass of the common.

‘Well, that’s a kick up the saggy-end,’ Gamma Jacobs muttered, each word thick with the throaty mucus that had built up overnight. ‘You’re itching for a cane on your behind!’ she yelled, giving it another shake. ‘Don’t think I won’t!’

Another ripple of pain began in her thigh and she slammed the cane back to the ground in order to steady herself and stop her body from collapsing forward. She let out a whoosh of air as the ripple changed into another tingle-jingle as she’d described the tickling sensation she’d been feeling for the last seven or eight years at her doctor’s appointments. No longer a sneaky sensation that teased, it ran all up her thigh, past the ruined hip that had caused all of this in the first place and into her abdomen. If it had stopped there, she probably could have made it back to the house, turning round carefully on the garden path, being extra sure not to tangle her feet or clip her ankle with the silver-tip of the walking stick her youngest son had given her. If it had stopped there, she probably would have been able to give Tom Foster at the Herald another call and maybe, just maybe, get the damn Roberts kid fired from his round.

Instead the tingle-jingle became a tangle-jangle in her upper arm, the sensation of ants scribbling across her skin forcing an ugly grimace across Gamma Jacobs face. Her lips spread back revealing sickly-yellowed teeth like jagged rocks that stuck out from the ruined beach of her gums. Locked between two cracked teeth was the rotten strip of a beef dinner she’d had a couple of nights ago. She’d been gumming on that one for days now, and the questioning probe of her tongue suggested that there was another day, at least, of flavour there.

BOOM!

An explosion of pain thundered in her chest, an almost physical slap that sent her rocking backwards. The walking stick, bent and crooked partway down, flew in the air as she lost her grip on it. Her right foot shot out, arcing upwards as she began to fall back.

‘FU—’ she began but her words were punched from her lungs as another jolt slammed her chest.

Miraculously she found her feet. One slipper had shot off and was lying in the wet grass to one side. She could feel the cold wetness of the grass on her foot and the sensation brought a reminder of a smile to her face. A whisper of wind caressed her cheek and she saw the silhouette of a bird – was that a Jayhawk? – dance across the sky.

A second later and she collapsed to her knees. Billy Peterson, she thought, that was the name of the boy who kissed like a slobbering German shepherd. Two seconds after that she fell face down into the grass, the morning’s Ossett Herald scant inches away, lying partially in the rose bed, the paper torn and soaked.

 

2

James Willikar, the kid with the denim jacket and the attitude, gave the dead squirrel another poke with the stick he’d found at the foot of the oak tree. In his chest, his heart beat wildly and his hands were slick with what his brother would call terror-sweat. Any second now he expected the squirrel to jump up and grab the tip of the stick, or twitch madly when he pressed it into the jagged hole in its side.

‘Go on,’ Sally shouted from behind him. ‘Do it again!’

James turned and gave her stink-eye. ‘Why don’t you do it?’ he asked her, holding the stick out. ‘You’re so keen, why don’t you have a go?’

Sally Bends backed away, hands raised up. Her jeans had about a dozen holes across the legs, and for some reason she had yet to explain, the pockets had been turned inside out and hung just below her hips like the pale ears of an elephant. Ian had a joke about making his own version of that by pulling his pecker out through his fly to be the elephant trunk. ‘I seen your pecker,’ Sally Bends had laughed, ‘and there’s no way an elephant, even a baby elephant, could get a drink with a trunk that small.’

Everyone had laughed. Everyone that is, except Ian who had stared daggers at Sally. Ian Peterson was the eldest of the group; twelve now and thirteen in December, he had been the head of the group when they all met up in Mrs Nash’s English class. Put together to work on a piece of creative writing, the four got on well almost from the start. The one outlier had been Wendy Jackson, or as Ian had christened her, ‘Windy’ Wendy.

She had come to their table and as she sat down let out a fart so powerful it had silenced not only the three sat around the table but also the class. A horrible, terrible moment of silence followed before Ian broke out in huge bellows of laughter that sent Wendy running from the class in hot embarrassment. Mrs Nash had sent Sally after her, and eventually the pair had come back and resumed their seats. But the name had stuck, and while their friendship grew, Wendy always remained set back from the others.

But the friendship did grow and, pretty soon, theirs was a tight group, the Fearsome Foursome as they were known at Trinity High School. They went everywhere together, sat together in class, or as close as the teachers would allow, because they could get distracted very easily.

As the dead squirrel had proven.

It was Sunday morning – the reason they weren’t in school, which they would have happily told Gamma Jacobs if a heart attack hadn’t sent her face first into her much beloved rose bed – and they were supposed to be going to Greene Park where they planned to throw a frisbee around for a few hours before going to The Lodge with their parents for a birthday lunch. It was James’ dad’s birthday; he turned forty-five and had invited everyone to a special Sunday lunch at the posh restaurant. The Fearsome Foursome had gotten on so well that their parents had also become friends.

They had met up at James’ house this morning and had set off to the park. Ian had brought the frisbee and Sally had promised snacks, but as they were making their way across the Common ground Ian had spotted the dead squirrel.

‘Best leave it,’ Wendy had said. There was no mistaking the nervous tremor in her voice. She had already started moving away from the group, taking her pristine white trainers off the gravel path and onto the wet, muddy grass in an effort to steer the foursome away from the dead squirrel that lay directly in their path. ‘Who knows where it’s been.’

‘I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say it’s not going to jump up and bite you,’ Ian said with a smirk. He was the one who’d found the stick and gave the first prod much to the horror of James. His face had gone green and it now looked like he was going to be sick.

When Gamma Jacobs had yelled from her garden he had nearly bolted, but Ian had stopped him from running. ‘What’s she going to do?’ he said, grabbing hold of James’s arm. James looked over quickly to where Gamma Jacobs tottered down her garden path. The rose bushes were thick but he could see they were starting to go brown at the bottom, a sure sign they were dying.

‘She might tell my mum,’ he said. ‘They go to the same church, and I can’t afford to get grounded again this month.’

Wendy gave a little squeal that made everyone turn away from the old lady. ‘It moved,’ she said, pointing at the dead squirrel with a hand that everyone could see was trembling. Sally’s mouth had dropped open in a startled ‘O’, her eyes nearly as wide. She took the stick from James and gave the chest of the squirrel a gentle prod. The fur was dirty and matted, the grey hairs thick with mud.

‘That’s not going to do anything,’ Ian said. ‘Jab it again!’

Sally shook her head but did as she was told.

The chest of the squirrel burst open and the stick plunged inside. Sally squealed in fright, as did James. Even Ian made a disgusted sound as grey-white maggots pooled out, their wriggling forms rolling over each other as they emerged from within their furry cocoon.

‘That’s disgusting!’

‘Gross!’

‘Oh my god, I think I’m going to puke!’

‘Where’d she go?’

That last came from Wendy who wasn’t looking at the wriggling mass of white that now covered the dead animal. Instead she was looking across the road to where a few moments earlier Gamma Jacobs had been stood yelling. Now all she could see was the tall bushes of the rose garden, beyond which the door to her house remained open.

Without waiting for the others, Wendy started walking towards the house. James, his face now a pale green, saw her move away and immediately began following her. Sally was next, dropping the stick to the ground, its tip coated in a thick grey slime. Only Ian stayed with the squirrel, fascinated by the way in which the body now trembled as the maggots writhed against and within its carcass. Realising the fun was over, he gave the animal one final nudge of his boot, then ran after his friends.

 

3

‘Wow,’ Ian said, moving a little past Wendy so he could see better. She was stood in the garden path, the hastily thrown newspaper still in the flower bed beside her.

Gamma Jacobs lay face down, her crooked chin propping her head up at a disjointed angle. One arm was outstretched, the wrinkled skin of her fingers already slick with gathered dew. The hem of her skirt had lifted revealing thick medical stockings. Her black slippers hung from her heels, gripping precariously, almost desperately, like a person hanging from a cliff, determined not to fall.

Ian looked down at the old woman, silent and still. His eyes never moved from the body as she tilted her head side to side, examining Gamma Jacobs from several different angles.

Sally gasped when she entered the garden, her anxious question about whether they should go onto the old woman’s property forgotten as soon as she saw the body. She let out another soft sigh of worry, her eyes darting around to see if there was anyone else nearby.

The street was silent.

They were alone.

‘Is she—’

‘Dead,’ Ian answered in a strange voice. His eyes never left the old woman lying face down in the grass.

‘Christ!’ James finally said as though discovering how to talk for the first time. ‘She might be a grumpy old bat, but I didn’t want her dead.’

‘Was,’ Ian said, his voice as light as a cloud.

‘Huh?’ said James as he moved closer to Wendy. He could feel that something had shifted, something in the dynamic of the group. They all could. Wendy moved her hand and took James’ in hers. They squeezed fingers together, taking a little comfort from the touch.

‘She was a grumpy old woman,’ Ian continued. ‘Now she’s nothing.’

Ian knelt in the grass, ignoring the wet sensation that chilled him. His trainers were now stained with grass-juice, but he didn’t care. Or he didn’t notice. He was captivated by the tilt of Gamma Jacobs head.

‘What do we do?’ Wendy asked behind him. Bending further, Ian stared into the sightless eyes of Gamma Jacobs. He could see his reflection distorted and twisted across those dull hazel surfaces as he leaned in closer.

Ian smiled.

‘Get a stick.’

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