The Chronicle of Charlie Spector

Shannon Schuren

Deimos eZine 2013 Short Story Contest Winner

Shannon Schuren lives in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin. Her short stories have appeared in Big Pulp, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and an upcoming issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. She was awarded the top prize for prose poetry in the Eighth Annual Binnacle Ultra-Short Competition, for a story that was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize. When she isn’t writing, she works as a librarian and finds being surrounded by thousands of books both inspiring and distracting.

Dinner was eaten and the gloaming light through the French doors leading to the verandah had slipped away to full darkness when their hostess suggested they retire to the study for coffee and brandy.

“Olivia likes to pretend we’re living in the 1900’s,” her husband told their guests, “and that we are the keepers of one of those big old country houses, where people still ‘retire’ to another room after dinner.”

Olivia swatted at her husband. “Fine. Have it your way. Who wants to head into the den and get drunk? Is that better?”

The two women laughed politely as their husbands raised their hands.

She led the party into the next room, where a grouping of comfy looking leather sofas invited their guests to sit beside the crackling fire. One of the men, a fellow lawyer, leaned back and clapped their host on the shoulder. “How’s the writing career coming? Any new stories you’re willing to share?”

“You’re a writer?” the lawyer’s wife asked.

“He’s a damn good one. Horror, mostly. Always the highlight of our retreats. Of course, none of us can ever sleep afterwards, but what the hell? That’s the fun of it.”

Olivia, who had been stoking the fire, returned to sit on the arm of her husband’s chair. “Darling, why don’t you share your new one?” she asked, smoothing one of his curls behind his ear. “About the preschool teacher. It’s dreadfully creepy,” she promised their guests, rubbing her arms and shivering. “And I haven’t heard the ending yet.”

From the corner of the room, his mother made a small noise in the back of her throat, like the mewl of an injured kitten.

“Are you okay, Mother?”

All heads turned towards the old woman, brittle and shrunken underneath her shawl, tucked away like an uncomfortable piece of furniture kept around for sentimental purposes.

Her head quivered on her thin neck as she stared down at her liver-spotted hands and ignored her son.

“I think it’s wonderful the way you care for her,” one of the women confided.

Olivia squeezed her husband’s arm. “They’re very close. After his dad…” She let the sentence trail, and after a moment of uncomfortable silence, pasted on a bright smile and finished with, “Well, it was just the two of them. So, about the story. Is it finished?”

His eyes flicked in his mother’s direction, then settled on the fire. “It’s finished.”

 

 

They say that everyone in prison is either innocent or psychotic. The trick is figuring out who’s who, and then staying as far away from the psychos as possible. Not as easy as it sounds, but at five years in, Linda was learning.

The guard tapped her as she was on her way in from the yard.  “Someone here to see you.”

Since she hadn’t ever had a visitor other than her lawyer, she assumed that meant FBI. And FBI meant hassle. They would not let it drop, these guys. She already knew how this interview would go because she’d been through it a thousand times.

She followed the guard down the corridor, the fluorescent lights giving her blue jumpsuit a fresh look. She could have been a doctor or a nurse, in another life. He ushered her into a private room, the kind reserved for conversations with lawyers or wardens – anyone from law enforcement, really. After all, they were the most important people in the inmates’ lives now.

She didn’t recognize the guy with the slick hair and hundred-dollar suit seated across the table, but it didn’t matter. He looked like every other agent she’d ever met.

“Linda.” He nodded as she sat at the end of the table, and made no other attempt at greeting. They were cold, these guys, as if they’d all been trained that any sort of warmth whatsoever was a waste of energy, maybe even a liability. Or perhaps they’d seen so much that the warmth had been sucked away. It could go either way. “You’re probably wondering why I’m here.”

“Not really.” She met his blank stare with one of her own. “You’re here to ask me about Charlie. Because I was the last one to see him.”

This phrase had been used countless times: by the police, her lawyer, even his mother during one excruciating visit in which her hollow, red eyes looked as if they might bleed from the effort of her begging. Linda wasn’t sure exactly when it had changed, but sometime in the last few years, they’d tacked the word ‘alive’ on to the end. She was the only one who refused to use it.

His eyes bore holes into her skull. “Interesting choice of words.”

“Why is that?”

“Because they’ve found him.”

She’d had enough experience with these guys to know that every word was weighed, every nuance calculated. And he’d said ‘found him.’ Not ‘found his body.’

“How is he?”

He ignored that, but she thought she detected a slight grimace, a tightening of the skin around his jawline, a small squint of those cold eyes. “I need you to tell me again about the day he disappeared. Start from the beginning, and don’t leave anything out.”

Sheer spite made her want to refuse. She’d made this same statement to the police long ago; she’d testified at the trial. None of it had made a bit of difference. She was guilty in their eyes, had been since the moment she’d opened her mouth for the first time.

But now, finally, something had changed. They’d found him. Which meant that whoever had taken him, wherever he had been, now there could be evidence to clear her name. The thought of freedom was enough to make her take a deep breath and close her eyes.

Rain beat hard against the glass block windows of the old gymnasium, but the sound was lost amid the crushing volume of eleven four-year-olds. They bounced their shrieks and squeals off the wood floors and cement walls faster than the red playground balls they threw, and if her headache was any indication, with better accuracy. The cement wall was cool against her forehead, and she only closed her eyes for a second. Maybe two.

“It was October 22nd. A Thursday. Just before five o’clock.” This part was rote, the date seared into memory like the tattoo of a concentration camp survivor. “We were in the gym.”

A ball smacked into the back of her head.

She turned to find the perpetrator, raising an eyebrow at a small boy who had his hands clapped over his mouth.

“Sorry, Miss Linda.”

She checked her watch once more, the fifth time in as many minutes. How was it that the days seemed to drag on longer as the daylight hours grew shorter?  Time for a head-count. Ten. Ten little screaming –

Wait.

She counted once more.

Still ten.

She grabbed her whistle and gave three short blasts, the sound like a dagger in her temple. The children clutched their ears and scampered to the far end of the gym, lining up against the cracked blue wrestling mats like tiny army soldiers. Or trained monkeys.

She followed, counting again as she went. A stray ball rolled across the floor, bumping into her foot as she came to a stop in front of the line of ten children.

Only ten.

“I did a head count, and that’s when I realized there were only ten kids. I should have had eleven. Charlie made eleven.”

He cleared his throat. “Why?”

“Why what?”

“What made you decide to count?”

They’d asked her that at the trial, too. As if the very act of my noticing his disappearance cemented her guilt. “Habit, I guess. We did it all the time. It was so you didn’t even know you were doing it.”

“Unless you came up short.”

She nodded.

“And where did you think he’d gone?”

His phrasing was different than before. Not, ‘what did you think had happened to him?’ which what they’d asked at first. And later, ‘what did you do to him?’ No, now it was ‘where had he gone?’ Anxiety prickled at the back of her neck. Where had he gone?

“Where’s Charlie?”

Some shrugged, others giggled.

“Maybe he had to go potty.”

It was the only logical explanation. The outside doors were locked and fitted with an alarm. If he’d gone that way, she’d have heard him.

“Brittany, go upstairs and ask Miss Monica if Charlie went back to use the bathroom.”

She scampered off through the other door.

Her monkeys began to chatter, and one of the boys shoved another.

“Feet on the yellow line, please. Hands to yourself.”

“Miss Linda, can you slam dunk?”

She glanced up at the basketball hoop above her head, the net frayed, the rim bent so that it hung down at an angle.

“Maybe in this basket.”

She turned as her director entered, the clip-clop of her heels echoing through the gym.

“Brittany says you’re missing someone.”

Linda sighed. “Not missing, exactly. He probably went to use the bathroom.”

“I never saw him. And I just checked the restroom.”

Monica’s office was just outside the gym. Her desk faced the hallway, and any child foolish enough to try and sneak off once without telling a teacher was not likely to do it again.

“At first, I assumed he’d gone to the bathroom.”

“But he hadn’t.”

She didn’t feel the need to answer. They both knew he hadn’t.

“What did you do next?”

Linda felt the back of her neck tingle and she turned to look at a small door in the far corner. “Then he has to be in the locker room.”

She heard a sharp intake of breath and scanned the little faces in front of her. They were all silent, frozen for a tiny moment with eyes wide and mouths open. She knew they were thinking of the rumors that the locker room was haunted—by a lonely child, by a sharp-clawed monster, by a brain chewing zombie. The story changed, but the fear did not.

“Go find him, then. I’ll take over here.”

She started to protest, then bit her lip. They were just stories. Not even very clever ones. And Charlie was her responsibility.

The children’s chatter faded as Monica led them out the door and back up the stairs to their classroom. It was just Linda, alone in the gym.

And whoever might be in the locker room.

“I went to check the locker room.”

“Reluctantly.”

The single word was a slap, and she straightened in her chair.

Don’t be silly, she chided herself. It’s just Charlie. Charlie’s in the locker room.

Now she could hear the rain, along with the roar and clatter of the overhead duct system. Her feet squeaked on the polished floor, the one improvement Monica had conceded to make to this dilapidated old building. The parents had raised the money and the director couldn’t refuse.

As she reached the door, a tennis ball dropped from overhead, its sides flattened and scorched, like a muffin left too long in the oven. It bounced once, then hit a flat side and rolled toward the locker room.

Linda bit back a scream. No need to panic. It happened all the time.

She looked up at the heating system suspended overhead. The tennis balls were the perfect size to become lodged in the grooves of the blower. They stayed there until they burned enough to become loose, then they fell. Once, when the preschool had been closed for a week over the holidays, they’d come back to find almost a dozen of the blackened toys scattered across the gym floor.

Where the kids kept getting the balls was another mystery altogether.

She kicked aside the ball, squared her shoulders, and shoved open the door. It resisted, as if dreading the intrusion as much as her, and she had to plant her thigh against it while she wheeled over the mop bucket. It was important that the door stay open. For the heat, she reasoned, though a small voice inside whispered, liar.

“I checked it,” she said again.

“And what did you find?” He was leaning forward now, his pen clenched in his fist, knuckles white.

She shivered and wrinkled her nose as the smell of things fetid and mildewed assaulted her, things like dirty socks and dead spiders. Why on earth would Charlie want to come in here? None of the teachers ever did if they could help it, and it was off-limits to the children.

She realized she’d just answered her own question.

“Charlie? Are you in here?”

Linda kneeled down on the cold cement floor, paint flecks clinging to her jeans as she peered underneath the shelves.

“Charlie? You need to come out right now.”

No Charlie.

She swallowed around the sudden lump in her throat. “Nothing. He wasn’t in there.”

His probing gaze locked on hers. “And you searched everywhere.” It wasn’t a question so much as a statement of disbelief.

“Yes,” she said. “And so did his parents. And the police. And the FBI.” She stressed this last part, even as she wondered if he had been one of the initial investigators on the case. Her memory from that time was hazy, living as she had been in a state of perpetual panic, on little or no sleep. That was before the vague, dull horror of losing Charlie began to give way to the terrible knowledge that she was going to be blamed for his disappearance.

“You all went over it with a fine-tooth comb. There weren’t that many places for a little boy to hide. Or where he would have wanted to.” She shivered, remembering the dank, dark room.

“He must have been in there somewhere,” the fed said. “Because he’s come back out.”

She blinked. “I’m sorry?” They were all words she knew, but he wasn’t using them in a context she understood. “He came out? Out of where?”

He stuck a finger inside his shirt collar. She could see his Adam’s apple bobbing there, shiny with a faint sheen of perspiration. “He just… walked out of the locker room this morning.”

The room felt smaller somehow, or else she was bigger. Like Alice in Wonderland, growing so fast the blood in her veins had to rush to catch up. She felt it, warm in her cheeks; heard it pulse in her ears. Her eyes, too, felt too big for their sockets, bulging with the promise this one sentence had afforded her. “He’s alive!”

“You sound surprised.”

“No. I’m not. I mean, I never lost hope. But so much time has passed….” She trailed off and bit her lip. “How is he? And where was he?” She hadn’t realized she was standing, but sat down hard as the realization hit her. “How can they be sure it’s even him?”

Now the fed stood and cleared his throat. “It’s him,” he said, pulling a picture from his wallet.

She recognized it, or thought she did. They had photos done on the day he’d disappeared. This one had made the circuit of all the television news stations, as well as flyers and posters around the area. Charlie, with his blonde head of curls, his red checked shirt bright against his rosy cheeks.

The photographer had been set up in the gym since seven, her bright lights casting odd shadows against the cinderblock. Linda shivered and pulled her sweater tighter as she watched the woman try to coax a smile out of Charlie.

“I’m cold,” he pouted. “I want to go home. Linda, can you come play at my house again?”

She felt her cheeks redden. “Not today, Charlie.”

“We can play hide and seek again.” His little face was hopeful, and she had the fleeting thought that he’d do anything to get out of having his photo taken.

“Look at the birdie. See the birdie! That’s a pretty birdie!”

Linda tried to hide her smile in her sleeve as Charlie’s scowl widened. “I’m not a baby,” he declared.

He wasn’t. In fact, in the little man clothes his mother had picked out, he looked more like a midget farmer.

He turned to Linda as the camera flashed, eliciting a hushed curse from the photographer. “Maybe this time Mommy can play too.”

“Does he still look the same?” she asked.

“You tell me. That photo was taken this morning.”

She stared at the sullen preschooler in the photo, watched him as it tumbled from her fingers. “I don’t understand.”

“Neither do we.”

These feds had a way of avoiding questions that would have done her mother proud.

“When is Daddy coming home?” Linda asked. She knew the question might make mommy angry, but she needed to know if he was going to make it to her birthday party. He’d promised her a surprise this year, something special now that she was a big five-year-old.

Mommy wiped her hands on her apron and scowled out the window, her mouth puckering like the elastic on the sleeves of Linda’s favorite seersucker blouse. “I thought I told you to set the table,” she said, shooing her from the kitchen with a flick of the dishtowel.

“That’s not possible,” she tried again. “Charlie was four when he disappeared. He’d be nine now. This can’t be him.”

“All I can tell you is that this little boy,” he jabbed a finger at the photo, “wandered out of the locker room at approximately oh-eight-hundred hours this morning, startling a teacher and a group of kids playing in the gym. When she asked him his name, he said Charlie. He’s been since identified by several teachers and his parents as Charles Spector.”

“His parents.” A picture of his mother’s anguished face swam into her head.

“He’s still wearing the same clothes he disappeared in.”

She stared at the photo. “What you’re suggesting is impossible.”

“I haven’t suggested anything.”

“You said it’s him. It can’t be. It has to be some other boy who looks just like him.”

“Some other boy named Charlie Spector.”

 “Kids lie. What about DNA?”

“They’re running the tests. But I have to say, the kid was pretty convincing. He asked for you.”

Her heartbeat slowed, tripped, seemed to catch itself. “What does that mean?”

“He asked for his teacher. Miss Linda.” He consulted his notes. “And his friends, Brittany. And Trey.”

“Miss Linda, can I get a bubbler drink?”

“Not now, Trey. Wait until we line up to go outside.”

“Miss Linda, Charlie’s pushing me!”

“Tell him how that makes you feel, Brittany.”

“It makes me feel bad!”

“Miss Linda, Brittany said I made her feel bad.”

“So don’t push her anymore.”

“He mentioned picture day.”

Her throat felt tight, and her vision was blurry with tears. “How can this be? Where has he been?”

“He says he went into the locker room to hide. He says he heard you calling him.”

She shook her head hard, trying to rattle things back into place.  “This is a trick of some kind.”

“His mother doesn’t think so.”

“What about the FBI? What do they think?”

“They aren’t thinking. Yet.”

She swallowed the nasty comment swimming on her tongue. Give these guys an old-fashioned crime scene and they were like kids at the beach. But put them in the middle of some unexplained phenomenon and they were just treading water.

“And what does this mean for me? Obviously I didn’t stash the kid in the gym for five years. I’m innocent. This proves it.”

He inclined his head, which could have meant he agreed with her, or that he had a crick in his neck.

“I want to see my lawyer.”

 

 

“So he’s like what, Rumplestiltskin?” Jerry asked, when she’d told him the story.

“Wrong fairy tale, jerk.”

He might have been her lawyer, but he was also a jerk. In fact, he’d been a jerk since they day they’d met.

“Show me yours, I’ll show you mine.”

Linda nearly choked on the vanilla soft serve, and managed to avoid dropping the cone only by shoving it halfway up her nose.

“Show you my what?” was the brilliant reply she came up with after she’d wiped her face clean with a napkin. Jerry was a year ahead of her in school, and though she found him attractive in a geeky, intelligence-is-hot kind of way, she’d never pictured any sort of romance between them, especially not one he initiated.

Nevertheless, a half-hour later she was naked in the backseat of his car, which was conveniently parked behind the Dairy Queen while her cone melted on the hot pavement outside.

“Sorry about your ice cream.” His smile was sheepish as he pulled up his boxer shorts.

“That’s all right. I wanted chocolate anyway.”

“Rumplestiltskin was that troll who turned straw into gold, and then tried to steal Rapunzel’s baby,” Linda corrected him.

“Who am I thinking of, then?”

“Rip Van Winkle, probably. He fell asleep for like 20 years, and when he woke up, everything was different.”

“No kidding.” He pulled files from his briefcase, his gaze focused on the scarred table in the semi-private cell they’d been allotted.

“Except Rip Van Winkle still aged. He had that long beard when he woke up. He was narcoleptic, or in a coma or something. This is more like that movie with the kids who go into the coat closet.”

“The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.” He looked up now, his eyes unnaturally large behind his wire-rimmed glasses, shirt wrinkled, tie crooked.

She resisted the impulse to straighten his tie and went on. “Except it’s not like that, either. When those kids came back, time had passed for them, but not for anyone else.”

“So it’s the opposite of Narnia.”

Linda nodded. “Holy shit. That means we’re Narnia.” So where the hell had Charlie gone?

“I’ve spoken to the DA,” Jerry said. “They are willing to concede that your case might bear another look.”

“Bear another look? They’ve found the kid. I didn’t take him. What’s the problem?”

“The problem is, this sounds more like an episode of Star Trek than anything real.”

“What the hell, Jerry. They found him. He’s alive. But you still think I’m guilty, don’t you?”

He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I’ve told you dozens of times, it doesn’t matter what I think. I don’t have to believe you. I just have to try and get you off.”

“We both know how well that worked out.” She held out her hands. “Did you really think I was capable of, what? Abusing him? Killing him? Chopping him into pieces and flushing him down the toilet?”

He winced. “No. Nothing like that. I just thought, sometimes, well, you were so determined….”  

“Maybe I’m pregnant this time.” She sprawled across his sheets and pressed her hands to her belly.

Jerry groaned and threw a hand across his face. “Don’t even joke about that.”

“Don’t you want to have kids some day?” She twined her legs around his naked body and turned to face him, her lips formed into a small pout. “Think of all the fun we’ll have trying to get pregnant.”

He pushed her off, sat up, and slipped on his glasses. “We’ve been over this before, Linda. I’ve still got two years of law school and then the bar exam. I don’t have time to even think about kids, much less have one.”

She watched as he rose and walked naked into the bathroom, staring at the freckle on his left cheek until he closed the door.

“I was wrong, okay? I admit it.”

She noticed he hadn’t apologized. “So what do I have to do to get out of this place?”

“I’m filing the paperwork today. In the meantime, Charlie wants to see you.”

“He does?” She relaxed. She’d always liked Charlie. “Sure. I’ll see him. I would have done that anyway. I’m as curious as they are. But I don’t want to see his mother.” She shuddered at the memory of the shattered woman. “Tell them to send his dad.”

Jerry blinked at her from behind his glasses but didn’t say anything.

She never had been able to tell what he was thinking. That was probably why it hadn’t worked out between them. That and Vince.

 

 

The gym was just as Linda remembered, big and cold and hollow. The floor looked like it needed resurfacing again, and the mesh that separated the stage area had been replaced by what looked like a garage door, but those were the only changes. Balls still lodged in the rafters, the moldy blue mats still hung from the walls. The room still smelled of rubber and dust. And now freedom. But then, everything smelled like that, especially places she now associated with cops.

Linda listened to the police argue with her lawyer, their voices loud in the empty gym. They sounded like angry children playing at being grown-up. She felt weak and tired, and she just wanted to wake up from this nightmare and go home. Because that was what this was—a nightmare. Charlie had wandered off somehow, inexplicably. She couldn’t find him, the cops couldn’t find him, his mother couldn’t find him.

He was gone. As if he’d never existed.

And they thought it was her fault.

She loved kids. She’d never do anything to harm one of them. Sure, sometimes they were loud and sometimes they asked the same question over and over and over again, but everyone had some part of their job they didn’t like. That didn’t make them criminals.

Charlie and his dad were waiting on the far side of the room. Charlie’s hair had been combed back with something wet, the curls straightened and plastered against his head. He wore dark pants and a sweater vest, while Vince was dressed like he’d just come from the office. Her jeans and faded sweatshirt seemed out of place, too informal for discovering a portal to another dimension, perhaps, and she realized she’d inadvertently dressed for the job she no longer held.

“Charlie. It’s so good to see you.” She held her arms wide, the way she used to all those years before, when she’d greeted the kids first thing in the morning and they would run to her with hugs and effusive greetings.

Today, Charlie remained standing beside his dad, stiff and straight, like some sort of life-sized doll.

“Vince.” She nodded at him, taking in the changes: the hair graying at the temples, the bags under his eyes, the lines around his mouth. It had been a long time. He hadn’t come to visit her in prison, not even on that painful visit from his wife, but then she hadn’t really expected he would.

Now he focused his gaze on the painted wooden floor.

“My lawyer said you wanted to see me.” She flicked an uneasy glance toward the locker room. “I thought maybe we could go to McDonald’s. They have a play land.” She trailed off uncertainly. How old was Charlie now? He still looked four, just as the fed had said. It couldn’t be possible. Had his mind aged? 

“I don’t care for McDonald’s,” Charlie said, in the same high, sweet voice she remembered, but with the language of an older child. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to show you the locker room.”

She felt lightheaded, and looked around for something to sit on, but of course there was nothing. She settled for the floor, her legs weakening before she realized she’d made the decision.

Charlie’s face twisted into what might have once been a smile. “You’re not scared, are you?”

Vince spoke for the first time. “Whatever you want, buddy. Whatever you want.”

She suspected this might be the mantra for the rest of his life, having been given this miracle of a second chance. Whatever Charlie wanted. Still, she owed him that much, didn’t she? He had survived. And now he wanted this one small thing from her. That was all that mattered.

“Okay. Let’s go.” She got to her feet, reached for the rusted door handle, and pulled it open.

“Charlie?”

The rooms swallowed her voice, stripping her authority and leaving her alone and small. Though they called it the locker room, it was actually two large rooms with a small alcove in between. The first was used for equipment storage, the lockers long since scavenged and replaced with wooden shelves stacked with tumbling mats, badminton rackets, baseball mitts, a volleyball net, and a multi-colored parachute. Aside from this crap, it was empty.

She rubbed her arms and gritted her teeth, trying not to think about the vermin that nested here.

The small, dark space to her right had been the washroom. Now, it held the base of a broken toilet and a porcelain sink, its bowl stained the copper color of dried blood. The frame of an old mirror still clung to the wall, the glass long ago shattered and removed. She spared barely a glance in the room, just enough to convince herself he wasn’t there. In five years of working here, she’d never set foot in it, and she didn’t want to break the streak now.

If he was here at all, he had to be in the second room, which had been the shower room back when this was the first school building in town. Twin metal posts still rose out of cracked tiles, the rusted showerheads pointing ineffectually towards missing floor drains. A broken trampoline leaned up against one wall, while wheel-less tricycles crowded another. Now it was the dumping ground for anything deemed unsafe or beyond repair. This was where the old toys went to die.

If anything, it was worse than she’d remembered. The space seemed more congested, the light dimmer. Had he really hidden in here for five years?

She stared down at his slick blond head and tried not to imagine him pounding at the door and screaming to be let out.

“I heard you calling me,” Charlie said, tipping his head back, his little face solemn.

So different from the smiling boy she remembered. Now, he looked hunted. Haunted.

“Please come out, Charlie. Your friends went back to the room for snack. Aren’t you hungry?”

 “You sounded worried.”

“I was worried.” She tried to smile at him, but the coldness in his eyes melted it before it reached her lips. Her gaze darted to Vince.

“That’s not true,” Charlie said.

Something in his voice turned her blood cold. He was standing much too close, and the smell of bubblegum on his breath mixed with the mildew on the walls and made her dizzy.

“Why would you say that?” she whispered, her voice so high-pitched she barely recognized it.

Linda moved to the far corner of the room, which lay in shadows. A pile of nap mats lay scattered on the floor, the corners chewed, the stuffing scattered across the floor. She could just make out a thatch of blond hair poking up from the pile.

 “Because I knew your secret. I knew what you were doing at my house with Daddy when Mommy was gone. When you sent me out to play hide and seek.”

“This isn’t hide and seek, Charlie.”

She moved to the mat and yanked it aside, revealing a naked doll with rigid plastic limbs. Her teeth and eyes had been blacked out with marker, and her arms bore the scars of at least a dozen unnecessary surgical procedures.

She fanned her face to cool it. “Don’t be silly, Charlie. It was just a game.” She thought about kneeling down, but found she couldn’t bring herself to look into his dark, empty eyes.

“I hid in the backyard. I was out there by myself for so long. You never came to find me.”

“That’s because you were such a good hider.” The words were flat: a lie even to her own ears.

Vince remained silent, a robot standing beside them, his hand clamped on Charlie’s shoulder as if afraid to let go. Or maybe he couldn’t.

 “This isn’t hide and seek either, Linda. It’s justice.”

Charlie slipped from beneath his dad’s grip and darted across the floor, his tiny foot kicking at the mop bucket as he raced past.

She backed away from the lifeless doll and ran for the door as the wheels of the mop bucket squealed in protest and the door swung shut.

No! Her mouth formed the words that wouldn’t come. Don’t leave me here!

 She shoved at Vince, her feet sliding on the moldy concrete floor. As she fell to her knees, the door slammed shut on Charlie’s grinning face.

 

 

The guests were quiet, perhaps struck dumb by the sleepy effect of the fire and the brandy, though most of their glasses sat untouched on the low table in front of them.

“Quite a story, Chaz. You are one twisted individual. What the hell goes on in the head of yours?” his friend asked. “Never mind. I’m sure I don’t want to know.”

“So what happened to them?” One of the women finally posed the question, her eyes bright in her flushed face.

Charlie didn’t answer, just swirled his brandy and stared into the dying fire. Finally the elder Mrs. Spector rose and hobbled from the room, her tear-stained, hollowed cheeks seeming to signal the end of the dinner party.

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