Chapter Description: After a long first day as a student instead of a teacher, Clark finally goes to see the remnants of his life one last time.
Chapter 54: Every Little Thing Falls Apart
“Are you sure you want to do this?” It was Janet, because of course it was. She’d coaxed my cooperation out of me by dangling this last meal in front of me and now she was trying to talk me out of it. “This could...this could go not the way you want it to go.” She sounded cautious; choosing her words carefully. Trying to let me down easily.
I was still in my sailor suit. From my car seat I looked down at my stomach, not feeling anything but well aware that something was happening on the inside. Chances are it would be another few hours before it kicked in, yet it was inevitable. “Yeah. I’m sure, Janet.” One losing battle at a time.
“Clark, I know you don’t like Miss Forrest but…” Her eyes flickered with indecision. Perhaps she was feeling the cognitive dissonance of what she’d just done to me. A trace of guilt. Another wedge between us. Was she trying to justify?
“Janet…” I stowed away my boiling anger. Bottled it up. “...can we talk about this after I say goodbye to my wife and tell her how much I love her and will miss her and how at the very least she owns our house now and is safe. Can we please wait and have this conversation after that?”
Janet stared at me in the rearview mirror, then looked away. “Fair.” Janet didn’t know the meaning of the word. Not really. I was beginning to think that no Amazon could. “How do you want to do this?”
I thought for just a second. What would Cassie do? Answer: Cassie wouldn’t do it. But what if she had to? “When the GPS leads you to the block, keep going,” I said. “Then find somewhere out of the way to park. I’ll switch it into those clothes you got me.”
“Make sure she’s home, and then change you in the backseat,” she paraphrased. Damn those choice of words. I couldn’t even tell if she was doing it on purpose or whether her particular brand of Amazon cruel and crazy was kicking in.
Then a fragment of the old Clark Gibson charm kicked in. “If you want, you can stand outside the car and watch, but I’d appreciate it if you gave us some space.” It’d be easier to talk to Cassie and tell her to wait for a Tweener messenger if no one else was listening in. “For her sake. It might show her how trustworthy you are.” If I couldn’t stop the crazy, I could at least direct it in a way that would benefit me.
Even from the driver’s seat, Janet seemed uncomfortable. “Okay,” she finally said. “But please don’t leave my sight…”
I bit my lip. “Yes, Mommy.” Best to hedge my bets.
Just do this. Just do this and get through the night. Tomorrow I could probably find a way to message Tracy for her to deliver to Cassie. What message though? I didn’t exactly have a plan, yet. Just a framework for delivering a plan. Escape infrastructure, if you will
Oh! New Idea! I could test Tracy out. I could give Cassie a codeword to wait for, like ‘Sharkbite’.
And then Cassie would have to tell Tracy something like ‘Minnow’.
That way when Tracy got back to me, I could ask her what Cassie said. If Tracy replied with ‘Minnow’, I’d know that she really talked to my wife.
Any other response would mean Tracy was lying to me, which would suck, but then again I could at least know whether to trust my old assistant. I wanted so badly to trust someone from before this mess went down.
Damnit now I was doing it to myself.
Doing it to myself…?
I fidgeted in my seat and wriggled out of my own head. “What?”
The car was no longer moving. “Is this your old house?”
I craned my neck as best I could and stopped breathing. No blinking. If I could have willed it I would have stopped my heart right there, but was left with the thunderous pounding starting in my chest and spreading all the way from my ankles to my ears.
“Clark?” Janet looked genuinely distraught, unsure of what to say.
“Get me out.” The words sounded hollow coming from me. “I want to see.” A lie, technically. No one wants to see something like this, but there was an underlying compulsion; a bit of thanatos.
“Clark. I’m so sorry.”
“I want to see.”
“Clark. Cassie’s not in th-”
“I WANT TO SEE, JANET! NOW LET ME SEE!” Janet jumped in her seat. Her, the mighty Mommy Amazon, jumping at my roars. Who said I didn’t have a teacher look or a teacher voice? The cost of confirmation, however, was too much...
Janet cut the engine and walked around. She opened my door, and unbuckled me, picking me up out of the car. She was mumbling something to herself, her lips moving but no sound coming out.
“Put me down, please.” My voice came out hollow again. Quiet. Dead.
She put me down on the ground, and I walked around the front of her car to see it for myself. No hand reached down to grab mine or yank me back up. I stepped and beheld a terror that I had never even pondered.
From the sidewalk I could see where my bedroom used to be. I could see into my bathroom, the giant sized toilet cracked but standing like a monument to the fallen. I needed neither door, nor window to see through to them. There were none to be found.
I knew the kitchen, the living room, the spare bathroom and the guest room that would never have any guests from memory and guesswork alone. Nothing stood to mark their passing beyond what the wind couldn’t sweep away.
My house: Broken. Burnt down to ashes. Yellow caution tape squared off my entire front yard. The blaze had been contained so as to preserve most of the sod but everything else had been torched. Outside that initial patch of green, from the closest blades of grass to the crumbling frame, were in shades of gray and black. The gray of smoke and the black of ash. Despair and death.
The closest neighboring house had those same colors bleeding into the outer walls. Smoke damage. I don’t know if I imagined it or if the wind still carried the smell of burning cinders into my nostrils, even though there was no heat. My life. Literally everything I’d ever built up and strived for had collapsed into dust, with just the broken skeleton as a bare remains.
I took a step forward.
I heard Janet but I ignored her. I was numb inside. A deer in headlights. I took more steps. A moth to flame. It would be easy to duck under the tape. For someone of my size, ‘duck’ would be a misnomer.
“CLARK!” Footsteps behind me. Too far behind. She’d given me too much space. She’d catch me in a dead out run but… I could run. Run away. Use the openness to my advantage and make a run for it. I didn’t have to duck and weave to get through the wreckage as much.
“CLAAAARK!” She wasn’t picking up speed. Not running. If I sprinted now I might stand a chance.
Or I could just go back to my room. Go to my bedroom. Lie down. The mattress didn’t look too bad. Maybe I could smother myself in it; impale myself on charred up coils of spring. Maybe I...
“Careful, Little boy.” I was yanked up before I could finish the dreadful thought. “That’s not a playground.” Two unfamiliar hands hoisted me up by the waist and whipped me through the air. “Let’s...put...you...riiiight here while I talk to your Mommy.”
The umbrella stroller I was placed into enveloped me. The new Amazon’s hands worked fast, faster than Janet’s; maybe even faster than Beouf or Zoge and I was restrained in what felt like the blink of an eye. “Huh?”
I looked up and saw my attacker. Not Janet, but familiar; oddly so. Dirty blonde hair that was neatly parted in front and swept into a ponytail. Green condescendingly smiling eyes shown against scarlet lipstick. They popped against her light gray shirt and greenish brown vest. The comfortable “mom jeans” looked like something Janet might wear on campus. The whole look screamed so casual as to somehow seem bougie. Total soccer mom.
Where did I know her from? I didn’t know any soccer moms.
Janet was on us in a flash. “Clark!’ She said my name for what felt like the millionth time that day. “Honey! You can’t go in there!” She immediately regarded the newcomer. “Thank you so much!” Followed quickly by, “I am so sorry!”
The women waved Janet’s apology off. “Don’t worry about it. Babies sometimes get ahead of themselves. And us,’ she laughed and extended her hand. “Helena Madra.”
The new Amazon threw me a wink. “You’re Little boy is an adventurer, isn’t he?”
My house...my whole life...everything I’d ever built was crumbled not sixty feet away and my grief was being reduced to the misadventurous curiosity of a child.
You know what I was almost thinking...I just didn’t have the strength to think it. Sometimes even the T-word is not enough.
Janet let out a tired laugh; a fake laugh. “It’s been an adventure alright.”
“Just like my sweet, Amy.”
Something almost clicked in my head, “Amy?”
“Hi.” My tunnel vision cleared up. I wasn’t the only Little in this stroller. It was a double.
Like almost all Little clothing, the dark blue dress failed to come down far enough to hide her padding with the diaper swollen and pressed up against the buckle. The dark, almost navy blue dress complimented the near pristine white of my own outfit and dark blue trim. Even if the Peter Pan collar wasn’t quite the same style. The Mary Jane shoes looked uncomfortable as anything, not that she’d have to do much walking in them.
Light brown hair and artificial freckles stared back at me and sent me to a happier, if more precarious time in my life. It was the missing gap in her front teeth that finally made me recognize her.
I’d met them on the bus after me and Cassie’s date at the barbecue joint. They’d gotten off at our stop and we stayed on even longer just to avoid them.
“Have you had your baby long?” Helena asked, sounding casual.
Finding someone who didn’t seem to judge her relaxed Janet. “Not long,” she replied. “But I knew him before his Maturosis manifested.”
That was apparently the right combination of words to unlock Helena’s mouth. “Maturosis? Oh my goodness! You know about Maturosis?!”
“I do,” Janet nodded. “I work at Oakshire Elementary!”
Helena put a hand to her heart. “That’s so sweet that you adopted your baby right when his Maturosis flared.”
It didn’t take a degree in psychology to see that Janet was low-key eating this up. It was the weekend all over again.“Thank you.”
“Is your Little boy enrolled there?”
“Today was his first day.”
“Mrs. Beouf was absolutely instrumental in helping my Amy realize she was a baby. She’s so much happier now! I just know yours will learn and grow.” She was talking about me like I wasn’t even there. “They even have a Little teacher there who helps out from time to time so that the babies can see that it has nothing to do with their size! Isn’t that a happy coincidence?”
I felt the blood drain from my face. She’d looked me in the eyes and buckled me into this stroller, but hadn’t made the connection. She’d ID’d me on that random bus encounter, but now was talking as if she didn’t recognize me? Did I look that different without my beard? Maybe it was just a matter of expectations.
Next to me, the Little woman with the missing teeth’s eyes lit up. I heard her whisper, “Bus kid!”
Away from the stroller, Janet smiled. The smile didn’t quite register as anything more than polite. She didn’t correct the woman about the status of that Little teacher. Instead she changed the subject. “I notice you have a dual stroller. Twins? Siblings?”
Madra started to gush. “Hmm? Oh no. My sweet girl is the only Little I need in my life full time. I just got the double stroller so that if she’s helping me watch one of her friends, we can go on walks together and she won’t be separated by another stroller. Socialization is very important for a baby Little’s continued happiness. Sometimes we can get so protective of them that we put ourselves at the center of their lives and cloister them off from each other. We tell ourselves that Mommy and Daddy attention is all they need, but they also need their own friends.”
“Babies need friends who are like them. Not just parents. Not just classmates. Not just bigger children.” Janet was nodding along, but her tone had taken on something of a rote quality. She was quoting something.
Amy’s Mommy beamed. “Exactly! Little Voices?”
“Just started reading some of their literature,”
“Oh you’ve totally got to come and-”
Speaking of ‘Little Voices’, the one right next to me spoke loudly enough to grab my attention. The finger attached to that voice was poking me in the shoulder relentlessly.
“Um...hi?” Great. Another Little who had gone past the edge. Another Ivy.
“You’re the Little boy who I saw with the Little girl on the bus that one time and my Mommy talked to you and I went down on the bus and I found the gum I wanna say it was cherry no wait it was strawberry the cherry gum was another time and then we got off the bus and the gum tasted real good but my Mommy made me spit it out because she didn’t want me to choke and we talked about emus and what birds say what’s your favorite color?”
Correction: She wasn’t Ivy. This might be worse… “Um...you didn’t talk this much before…?”
I kept one ear on the Mommies chatting each other up. “Why are you talking to me now?”
“You were a stranger. Now you’re a baby so it’s ‘kay. So anyways I like strawberry gum and my Mommy said I shouldn’t have gum cuz I could choke and it stays in your tummy for a long time but she said I could have strawberry ice cream but ice cream has a different mouth feeling and I like chocolate and vanilla ice cream better maybe if I could get that fancy space ice cream. My favorite color is lavender. That’s like a fancy purple, ya know?”
Slowly, I nodded, though I did not speak at first. Too many emotions. Too much crashing down all around me. I’d been debased, advanced on, mocked, harassed, condescended to, intimidated, coerced, and brow-beaten. This blast from my past was one straw away from breaking my back. “Um…yeah?”
“-Littles who lived here.”
My ears perked up. They were talking about what happened! I leaned forward in the stroller. Janet’s eyes made contact with mine. “Oh? There were Littles who lived here?”
“Oh yes. I think so. A Little girl, I think. Poor thing-”
A finger poked my shoulder and out of habit I turned to face its source. “So why do you think they call it a rectangle because it’s not very tangled up its lines are super straight and the angles aren’t wrecked either so that can’t be it,” she paused long enough only to snort at her own words, ”seriously though I think I ‘member reading it being from another language but I don’t read magazines that don’t have crayons anymore. What’s your name?”
“Clark.” I immediately realized I shouldn’t have answered. It only encouraged more talking when I needed unfettered hearing.
“It happened this weekend. Amy and I live a few blocks over but-”
“- going into Mrs. B’s class are all the toys-”
“-Little girl had a breakdown or something. Maybe her Matur-”
- there’s a difference between toys and blocks ya’know-”
“Lucky none of the others houses caught fi-”
-eouf does she still have those funny glasses-?”
“Police and firefi-”
“-bout Jessinnia he’s the octopus stuffie- “
“Vans from Child Protective Services came and-”
“-home with me some of the other kids prolly call him somethi-”
“So it’s sad about the house but at least she’s likely getting the love and care she needs.”
“You can’t let them call him the wrong name, it’s rude.”
I hadn’t heard it all through the inane babble but I’d heard enough. This clueless, typical Amazon gossip, believed that a Little girl played with matches or something and set the house on fire.
Instantly, I knew the truth. No. Not my Cassie. That’s what went down. Not by a longshot. My love. My brave, beautiful wife did something much more poetic. Much more rash and angry. Much more herself.
When I didn’t come home, Cassie had figured out what had happened right away. Of course she had. But she hadn’t known about Janet’s ‘gift’ to me in fully declaring my adult status dead. She had seen the trap. She had known that sooner or later the Amazons would come for her in one form or another, and decided to go out with a bang.
If we couldn’t have our house, no one could. Burn it all down and escape back to the trailer park. Start over. Divorce me, become Cassie Braun and not look back to protect herself and everyone else left in her life. It was exactly the kind of thing we talked about doing in the worst case scenario.
She got sloppy though. Sloppy or unlucky or both. She got caught fleeing the scene, or they realized it was arson immediately, or the Amazons realized there was a Little living in the house and the fire was all the excuse they really needed.
My wife was gone. Gone and chances are I’d never see her again, and if I did there was a fifty-fifty shot that she wouldn’t recognize or remember me. She definitely wouldn’t love me anymore, regardless.
I’d doomed her with my hubris. Doomed her with my ambition. Didn’t fucking listen to her and lied to her and myself for far too long. I’d won so many battles that I’d thought myself invincible and instead of taking a single defeat- a defeat that was really only admitting she was right- I doubled down and cost us everything.
“-and that’s why I think axolotlotls are like Little frogs.”
Janet came over and unbuckled me, scooped back up and plopped me back on her hip like the last five minutes hadn’t even happened. “Well thank you for telling me all that Helena. I appreciate it.”
“No problem,” Helena said. “I love chatting people up. It’s my only vice.” My everything destroyed and trampled in less than a week and it was just gossip to her. My past and future no longer existed but at least she had a neat bit of trivia. “How did your Little stinker get away from you anyways?”
“Oh it’s embarrassing,” Janet lied. “I stopped to change him in the backseat and he just slipped off when I was balling up the old Monkeez.“
“Ha! I’ve fallen for that one before. Don’t beat yourself up.”
Janet was keeping my secret and honoring my privacy. There was a strange kind of honor in that. I should have been touched. I was just furious. Furious with myself. Furious with Janet. It didn’t make sense but I was furious with Cassie, too. Why couldn’t she have waited for me?
“Say bye-bye, Clark.” I said nothing. My eyes went dead like a shark’s. “He’s just shy.”
Amy piped in for me. “Bye-Bye, Clark! He’s just shyyyy!”
“Oh my sweet girl!” the Gossip said, “She was talking about her baby.”
“I’m a baby!”
“I know, but you’re my baby. She was talking about hers.”
“Oooooh,” the Little girl nodded sagely.
Back in the car. Back to another prison. Back to a life with no chance of reprieve. “Clark,” Janet said. “I’m so sorry, hon.” Dead silence from me. “I swear I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have offered or suggested it if I knew it was going to happen.” I was shaking. Humming on a toxic cocktail of near homicidal emotions and with nothing left to look forward to. “Maybe you’ll see her in Mrs. Beouf’s class…?”
“I hate you.”
She’d heard me. “I hate you.” I said it again, even softer.
“I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. I hate...I ha...I...” I’d cried a lot already over the past several days. Had managed to go almost an entire day, tear free. Had thought things were looking up.
I was quiet this time, but I cried all the same. I kept muttering “Hate...hate...hate...hate...hate…” Softer than a whisper no one could hear me. A rain of grief over my face. All water. No thunder. The lightning, I kept bottled up inside my heart.
“I’m so sorry,” Janet told me as she held me. “I’m so, so sorry.’
She coddled me and cuddled me. “I’d take it all away if I could.”
She hugged me and fed me. Wiped away the torrent from my cheeks. “You can call me Janet if you want.”
She fed me real food, not stuff out of a jar or anything pre-processed that could have been tampered with. Fresh fruit and vegetables. “Even in front of others...I won’t get mad if you call me Janet.” Took a few bites just in case.
She bathed me and washed my hair with relaxing shampoos. “If you want to talk about it, I’ll listen…”
She wrapped me up and changed me and plopped me in front of the television. The Muffet show was on. One of my favorite re-runs...the one at the train station because the usual venue was being fumigated. “It doesn’t even have to be...I mean it can be about anything you want.”
She checked and changed me again. Put me in jammies and put me to bed. “Goodnight, Clark. I’ll have the baby monitor on. Call me if you need anything and I’ll come running.
I finally found my voice after she left. “I hate you.” It was loud enough to hear this time. “I hate you so much. So fucking much. I hate you.”
On the cushioned mattress I muscled myself up to standing and looked directly at the baby monitor. ‘I hate you.”
“I hate you.” I didn’t yell it, just said it loud and clear.
“I hate you.” Kept it up for hours. Kept saying it again and again and again until the room got dizzy from exhaustion.
“I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.” Janet never came. For all I knew, she’d heard me and then went and cried herself to sleep and turned her end of the transmission off.
Didn’t matter much to me. I needed to say it. The thing of it was, I wasn’t even entirely sure who I was saying it to.
“I hate you.”