Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things

by Thomas Kearnes


          The sudden noises echoed through the house, disturbing Maxine as she unpacked. The move to a suburb outside Indianapolis hadn’t gone like she and Walter had hoped—amoral furniture movers, two missing boxes, broken dishes. Maxine’s heart skipped to hear Persephone giggle upstairs and then the whir of wheels atop a wooden floor; her daughter had found her skates. Maxine wanted to shout at the ceiling—not indoors, we had a deal!—but she knew Walter would never back her up. She could hear him: Let the kid have fun. She could feel his hand upon her hip. After all that’s happened, we need to embrace the light.

          Walter had adopted these noxious platitudes shortly after Athena’s death six months ago. Heaven has a new angel, he’d said; Maxine had wept. God brought this burden because we’re strong, he’d said; Maxine had wept louder. Everything happens for a reason, he’d said; Maxine wished she, too, had died inside that incubator, gloved fingers caressing Athena’s frail form, Maxine taking a sharp breath before placing them over her infant daughter’s chest. Athena’s heartbeat was as quick and elusive as a pinprick.

          Collecting the shards of a ceramic dinner plate, Maxine looked up to see Persephone in the doorframe. The girl dug her foot into the hallway carpet, a bull eager for its dance with the matador. The skate’s back wheels spun uselessly. “I’m bored. Everyone is old and stupid.”

          “It’s only been two days,” Maxine said.

          “I can’t text Aimee.”

          “You’re too young to text.”

          “Can we have pepperoni pizza?”

          “We’re not getting pizza again.” Maxine shrugged and tossed ceramic shards into the trash can. “No skates in the house, sweetie. We had a deal.”

          Persephone refused to obey, and Maxine refused to push the point. When her daughter asked to explore the block, Maxine nodded absently then started on another box. Persephone started first grade in two weeks, and Maxine seized any opportunity to distract the girl.

          She’s too young to be out alone, Walter would say. It’s horrible enough to lose one child. Maxine would reply as she always did: Darling, I’m so tired.

          Twenty minutes passed, but Persephone didn’t return. Maxine, however, didn’t notice, busy lining the wall over the stairs with family photos. Of course, the only images of Athena were taken from outside her incubator. In one, her rubber doll-head turned toward the lens, black eyes empty and uncomprehending, and in another, her rubber doll-fingers reached nowhere, unaware there was nothing to grab. Maxine brooded over her two daughters’ similarities: the puckered mouth, goldfish eyes, bowtie ears. Persephone, too young, hadn’t been allowed in the hospitals’ nursery. Maxine and Walter secretly agreed with the staff’s decision.

          Maxine felt lacking in some essential way. She’d failed to tether Athena to the earth, and now she entertained horrid daydreams: a terror-minded teen storming Persephone’s classroom; a twister sucking Persephone from beneath a mattress slapped over the bathtub; a child pornographer stealing her from sleep. The girl’s bedroom overlooked the neighborhood that Maxine and Walter had selected with a surgeon’s precision. Still, dangers festered in other lawns, behind others’ fences—dangers Maxine found so patent, her only means of coping was to swiftly deny their reality.

          Why can’t I see Athena, the girl had asked Maxine the day before Athena fell silent among the feckless beeps and mechanical sighs. You promised.

          The land line’s ring was foreign to Maxine—she didn’t at first understand its meaning. It was Walter. They spoke in familiar, clipped phrases as if they were the leads in a screwball farce.

          “Darling,” Maxine asked, “Persephone needs you here in the house.”

          “How will I pay this house if I don’t work?”

         “She’s upstairs sulking as we speak.” The lie came easily to Maxine. Her skin pricked while she waited for him to take the bait. Her disappointment upon hearing his reply again pricked her skin, more sharply this time.

          “It’s a great neighborhood,” he said. “Tell her to make some friends.”

          “We haven’t been here long enough.”

          “This is a fresh start in a fresh place, honey. Let’s stay positive.”

         Maxine felt alone in their large, unfriendly home with its cherry-paneled walls and dark-hued ceilings that loomed like thunderclouds. For a moment, she remembered Athena’s hand inside hers, her gloved hand. Actually, she’d been able to grip her infant daughter’s entire arm. She’d felt the tiny being’s heartbeat, too fast and too quiet. A car horn’s bleat shattered her reverie. She glanced at her watch. Persephone had been gone a half-hour.

          Maxine began her search. Peaceful Acres was the sort of fabricated neighborhood Maxine had ridiculed as a girl. She didn’t resent the slight decline in economic status her move here signified; at least, she didn’t openly resent it. The rows of dull and identical two-story homes hypnotized her. She spotted a group of children huddled in a knot, as if debating the next play in football. Above their heads, the end of a hockey stick bobbed in and out of view. Where had they come from? Though she’d dismissed Persephone’s complaint about no children, she secretly agreed with the observation. Lavender Avenue seemed anemic in the kid department. Maxine did not trust large groups of children. She quickened her pace.

          As she hurried, some children urged the others to disperse. They were dressed smartly, clean with expensive haircuts. As the crowd thinned, Maxine exhaled with relief to spot Persephone among the makeshift mob. The girl poked at something with the hockey stick. Maxine’s relief evaporated, however, to discover what her daughter found so compelling.

          The cat was dead, dead and fat. Its belly swelled like a full moon, blackened from the road’s grease and dirt. Its right eye had popped from its socket and dangled onto the creature’s angular, prescient face. Blood had dried into a dark burgundy pool though Maxine didn’t notice any wound. The animal seemed ready to explode, an overinflated balloon, but Persephone kept stabbing it. Maxine worried it might rupture like a piñata, the remaining children snatching the innards as it they were Easter eggs.

          “What on earth are you doing, sweetie?”

          “Mommy, make it live again!”

        Maxine stared at her daughter, oblivious to the departing children. The cat’s remaining gazed at the woman, accusing her. She grabbed Persephone’s wrist. The hockey stick clattered to the asphalt. They began across the street. Persephone resisted, but her skates betrayed her, all too eager to roll.

          “What have I told you about that?”

          “I didn’t touch it.”

          “Don’t get sassy.”

          Persephone glanced over her shoulder. “He needs a doctor, Mommy.”

          “A doctor can’t help him now.”

          “But Mommy—”

          The green minivan zipped past, missing Maxine and her daughter by inches. The driver swore at them and mashed his horn. Maxine fell to her knees, clutching the girl. Terror bubbled behind her eyes, the reality of what had happened (or what almost had happened) detonating like a cloudburst. Her skin turned moist, her heartbeat thudded. You can lose all you love in a moment, she thought. That’s all the time God needs.

          “You didn’t look before crossing the street,” Persephone said.

         Her innocence stunned Maxine, rearranged her molecules. She laughed and finally released the girl. “No, sweetie,” she said, “I didn’t. Shame on me.”

        Maxine watched the girl skate toward their new home. She was small for her age, not quite delicate but certainly not robust. She feared Persephone would be too preoccupied with her own thoughts to put up a defense if faced with danger. She was like a magnificent butterfly bobbing on the breeze toward the grill of an eighteen-wheeler. Still, Maxine would never admit both her children couldn’t thrive in the world.

          She hoped that would be the end of Persephone’s preoccupation with death. As Maxine settled into the house she’d begun to resent, she shuddered to find Persephone vegetating before Headline News, enraptured by the latest natural disaster or atrocity in the Middle East. She watched her daughter stand on the stairs, gazing at the photos of dead Athena. Walter dismissed her fascination as normal, hardly worth mentioning. “We should be thankful it isn’t sex,” he told her, hand on her hip. Maxine was not mollified. He recommended they send Persephone to the city to visit her best friend, Aimee. “She makes our little girl so happy”, he said. “Don’t you want her to be happy?” Maxine sighed and flopped onto the bed. Walter’s eyes lit up, amorous, but Maxine’s hard glare doused his desire instantly.

          “That Aimee kid is a juvenile delinquent,” she said.

          “Nonsense,” Walter said. “She’s just a bit of a daredevil.”

          “She set off the burglar alarm in our old condo.”

          Walter rolled his eyes, dismissed her.

          “On purpose,” she added.

           He sat next to her. “It would get her out of your hair,” he said. “Just for the weekend.” He lightly grazed her shoulders. As his fingers increased their pressure, she recalled with a stabbing pain how she hungered for a touch that did not end in death.

          “I’ll think about it.”

          Late that night, hours after Walter sang to Persephone about a little teapot, short and stout, and Maxine looked on from the doorway, she jerked awake, startled to hear the front door close. She considered waking Walter, but couldn’t bear more of his condescending “attention.” Instead, she quietly headed downstairs. In the kitchen, she thought about grabbing a knife. Finally, she left the house unarmed. This was a safe neighborhood, she told herself. Persephone’s boredom with it was as good an indication as any.

          Lavender Avenue was abandoned. As Maxine reached the curb, she realized she’d failed to check Persephone’s room. Walter would be incensed to learn that, she thought. Of course, this oversight was easily explained: Persephone had been the one at the door. Maxine had known it the moment she woke. The girl lurked somewhere in the still neighborhood.

          After passing one dark house after another, too timid to step upon any lawns, much less peer into any backyards, Maxine saw a child-sized figure in the shadows between two streetlamps. As she approached, she recognized Persephone’s nightgown and wild curly hair. This was the same spot where Persephone had disgraced the dead cat. The girl didn’t look up at Maxine, but instead continued gazing at a dark stain by the curb. She didn’t acknowledge her mother until Maxine’s silhouette mingled with her own.

          “What happened to him, Mommy?”

          Maxine knew what she meant. “I don’t understand, sweetie.”

          “Did it get up and leave? Is it better?”

          Relief inflated Maxine like oxygen gulped by a drowning man. “No, sweetie, God took him to Heaven.” She didn’t really believe in an afterlife, a secret she’d hidden from Walter their entire marriage, and she was tempted to make a crack about Anima Control’s slow response. She knew, however, a good mother would offer Persephone her hand and guide her back toward the house—no tears, no accusations, no anger—so that’s what she did. Maxine called Aimee’s mother the next morning. She insisted the girls spend the weekend in her daughter’s new neighborhood.

          She had rules for the girls. Failure to heed them would result in no dinner at Chuck E. Cheese and no new Pixar film. Of course, work took Walter away for the weekend. The upside, Maxine thought, was that Persephone would credit her and not Walter for this indulgence. After six hours of cackling and chattering while a storm threatened, however, Maxine made no resistance when the clouds cleared and Aimee demanded they go outside. Persephone slapped on her skates and followed her friend outside.

          While the white noise of the house—the hums of the refrigerator, central air conditioning, and clothes dryer—soothed Maxine, she didn’t truly relax until a glass of red wine. Walter had insisted they share it on a special occasion, but she doubted he’d notice. She didn’t think about Persephone or Aimee, she didn’t think about Athena. Instead, Maxine thought about the house, how to manipulate its domineering persona into something warmer. First, she’d repaint the ghastly ceilings. She wondered if the Addams Family had lived there before her. Her home improvement fantasies bewitched her until she heard the screech of tires and screams of children erupting directly across the street.

          As if in a fugue, Maxine slowly rose to her feet. She calmly passed through the door into the neighborhood. She should call the homeowner’s association about all this reckless driving, she thought. Her refusal to panic centered about her faith that bad fortune would befall Aimee before her daughter. Aimee was reckless, insolent and rebellious; Persephone was merely curious about morbid things. Even the end of the hockey stick bouncing over the heads of another group of children didn’t inflate her fear.

          The kids dispersed as Maxine approached, and she was about to admonish her daughter before she realized that it was actually Aimee poking away at something on the asphalt. The girl’s head whipped up at the sound of her voice. She dropped the stick and fled down the road, screaming and crying.

          Persephone’s body lay on the asphalt, her limbs jumbled like those of a sock monkey. At least one was broken, likely more. Bright red blood pooled beneath her head, the fluid oozing toward the curb. Her face was blank, as if she expected the sky to open and admit her. Still in shock, Maxine knelt to check her daughter’s breathing—there was none. Please, God, she thought, not my other daughter. Not unless I can go with her.

          As Maxine choked out silent tears, however, Persephone blinked. Maxine recalled Dorothy’s face as her relatives rejoiced over her return from Oz. “Mommy,” the girl cried, forcing Maxine’s hand over her tiny chest, the joyful muscle now pounding inside. “I’m not dead anymore!”


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