Σάββατο, 1 Ιουνίου 2019

Doll's Eyes

Published in Issue 17, Volume 10 of Schlock! Magazine 

The old ogre sits at the head of the table, porcelain teeth clacking like castanets around a mouthful of mashed potatoes. His shriveled, shaking hand struggles with the fork as he shovels bits of overcooked beef past his dried, cracking lips. Gravy-stains dot the front of his shirt like freak oil spills.

I hate coming here every Sunday, forced to sit on the same creaking chairs in the same mahogany table, in this place that smells like chlorine and pine sap. I hate it that Dad makes me call the ogre ‘grandpa’. Grandpas aren’t supposed to be shriveled and angry and mean. They’re not supposed to look like fairy tale monsters.

Everyone else has long since finished their meager Sunday dinner. To pass the time, the grown-ups wipe their dishes of any trace of leftover food with slices of bread, scooping up every last drop of gravy before wolfing it down. To keep myself from nodding off to sleep, I take my fork and Dad’s (laying uselessly beside his plate) and built a makeshift arch on the tablecloth, setting them up in an inverted v-shape. Across from me, cousin Eve hands her own fork. Using the third one as support, I set up a rudimentary tipi, wrapping the foundation around with a napkin.

"Quiet." the old ogre mumbles through a mouthful, spraying bits of mash and beef all around. I'm halfway through folding the napkin to make an entrance to the tipi when Dad reaches out to grasp my hand. He squeezes my fingers together until I stop. When we're out of here and heading back home, he'll ask me if it still hurts and buy me a bucket of ice-cream, as usual. "I won't have any tomfoolery at the table" the ogre manages as he finally finishes lunch. Aunt Vera swoops in like a hawk, stacks the plates and cuttlery in her arms before disappearing in the kitchen. The door rattles in the doorframe as she slams it shut with the heel of her foot. Unlike the others, Aunt Vera never could stand being around the ogre. Not like Uncle Jeb, the firstborn son, always eager to please the wrinkled monster or Dad, never working up the courage to stare into those doll-like eyes on the ogre, perched in those sockets like bulbous freshwater pearls.

"That was a great meal, Father. Wasn't it a great meal?" Uncle Jeb says, nudging cousin Eve. He looks terrified. Then again, they all do. Scared of the old toothless, clawless ogre, stuck in his wheelchair with his bag of urine hanging by the arm-rest, scared silly of those doll-eyes, those tiny arms with the walnut-sized knuckles. I chance a glance at the painting set over the fireplace, an artist's depiction of the ogre back in the days of his youth: the shiny bald cap, the tiny moustache over his lip. It's all there, but the eyes are all wrong: they’re caring and intelligent, like a regular grandpa’s eyes. Not big and hungry like pits you could fall into forever.

"I've brought you all here" the ogre says, nipping Uncle Jeb's glowing tirade in the bud "to discuss the matter of my inheritance. I've decided it's time you each got your due." he lets the last word linger, savoring the tight-lipped silence that's come down in the living room like a black cloud. He savors it, maliciously. The ogre wipes his hands, the napking rustling across his parchment-dry skin. Bobby, my bother, he used to say that the ogre looked like an unbandaged mummy. It used to drive Dad up the wall every time he’d catch Bobby saying that. Except Bobby didn't care. Bobby hated the ogre. He hated how the ogre made him stay quiet all the time, how he'd never let him shut the bathroom door when he was visiting. Bobby hated how the ogre would always make him turn out his pockets to make sure he hadn't stolen anything or slap his hand away when he'd try to refill his plate. Boy's fat enough as it is, the ogre told Dad once. Bobby called the ogre something colorful and the ogre said Dad he'd strike him from his will if he didn't put a leash on the boy. Dad tried, of course, but Bobby wouldn't have any of that. He just turned tail and ran, soon as he was old enough to drive.

You know what's best for you, you do the same too. Bobby told me, the night he'd packed his stuff and went out the door. He stroked my hair even as I was bawling like a baby. Just six more years, little brother. I'll come by to pick you up myself, soon as you've blown out the candles. And Bobby climbed into the beat up second hand car he'd bought with his savings from his crappy night shift manager job, drove off into the sunset with his mirrorshades on like a nascent rockstar. He drove that car into a fuel tanker on the highway, six months later. They wouldn't even let me see him in the coffin, after. Dad said it was for the best, between sobs.
"Now, I haven't been a bad father to you all." the ogre says, wiping his mouth. "I made you, I clothed you, I raised you; I worked myself raw to make something of myself, build this here house with my own two hands. Taught you all how to live in this cruel, crazy world and how to make a living for yourselves. Made damn sure you'd know better than to dily-dally" he stops, shooting a glance at our side of the table. Dad's hands are red and raw from washing them with hot water to remove any trace of the paint-streaks from his weekend workshop. The ogre didn't like to hear about Dad's painting, about his dreams to make something beautiful happen on canvas. Dad had to give up a Fine Arts scholarship because the ogre didn’t want him to forcing him to stick around to tend his estate. Reduced him to scrawling on an empty canvass in the garage on the weekends, narrating the history of art to me as I sat on his lap. "Made Jeb a lawyer, didn't I? And a good one at that" the ogre beams. Uncle Jeb nods, cracking his usual empty grin, all teeth and gums. "Damn straight, Father" Uncle Jeb says. Never mind that Uncle Jeb had never set foot in a courtroom for the past decade, leafing through piles of discarded drafts of the Great Novel he never got to finish.

"And Vera. My little girl. Didn't I find her a husband, a cushy job, a big house?" the ogre says, at the top of his lungs. The dishwasher door slams shut from the kitchen. "You got that right, Father" Aunt Vera shouts from the kitchen, running the tap at full force so we won't hear her cursing from under her breath. None of us like Aunt Vera's husband. Sure, he is a big-shot doctor, a surgeon-king, the kind that other doctors would stand at attention the second he'd walk into the room. But Aunt Vera sometimes calls home in the middle of the night and Dad has to drive to her house, no matter how early he'd have to wake up in the morning and Aunt Vera sleeps in the big bed on her front with long red stips running down across the skin of her back. When the moonlight creeps through the windows just right, they look like zebra stripes. Aunt Vera would take a cab to go back, the next morning. Dad had stopped driving her back a long time ago.

"That last stroke" the ogre says, wheeling himself away from the dinner table, turning around to look out the reinforced window pane. A precaution he'd picked up after convincing himself that he was important enough to assassinate. "Gave me some very useful perspective. I decided it was time I arranged the matter of my legacy. Perhaps you can be trusted with it, after all. There's no will, not just yet. After today, everything will be put in writing. Permanently." the ogre watched our reflactions from the glass. From the corner of my eye, I caught the barest flicker of a smile. The kind cats have on their faces, after they've severed a rat's spinal column. "You must each prove your own merit to me." with that, the ogre swiveled his wheelchair, began to wheel himself around the table. "You'll be put to the test. You and your children. Judged by the merits of your brood."

"Come on, Father, quit it with the drama." Dad says. The ogre stops dead before him. His arm whips out in a flash, his withered hand slapping Dad across the face. The sound of flesh on flesh booms like thunder. I stare at Dad, as he clasps the red welt on his cheek. He seems to shrink, between blinks of an eye; by the time I've reached out to see if he's alright, he looks younger than my brother. When he pushes my hand away, he's a teenager again. As soon as the ogre parks himself in the middle of the living room, Dad has turned into a frightened child. Now I know why Bobby hated the ogre. I know why they're afraid of it. Like a cone snail: he's tiny and fangless and shriveled, but every inch of the ogre's skin is dripping with venom. "I want each of you to come to me, stand at my feet. Prove to me how much you love me." the ogre croaks.

Aunt Vera pops her head out from the kitchen, her mouth a gaping O. I can see her eyes flitting back from the ogre to Uncle Jeb and Dad, back to the ogre. She struggles with the proper words, but nothing comes out of her mouth except a string of nonsense. Dad is the first to get off his chair. I grasp the hem of his pants, try to say he doesn't have to do it, we can just go. He doesn't need the ogre; he's big now. We can just go in the car, we can just leave. Except I don't say any of that out loud. Dad doesn't even spare me a glance. He walks to the ogre, grasps his shriveled hand and kisses his upturned palm. "Thank you, Father. For everything." he croaks, voice barely above a whisper. The ogre nods, leaning down close to his ear. "The boy, too."

"No." Dad says. The ogre takes his hand away from his grip, waves Dad away. "You never had the stones, anyway. Jeb?" he barks Uncle's name and he springs into action, taking cousin Eve by the hand. I watch her struggling to get out of his grip, but Uncle Jeb doesn't seem to care. He grasps her wrist tightly, leads her in front of the ogre and pushes her down to her knees in front of him. "Come on, sweetheart" he manages, his hand still grasping her shoulder. "Tell Grandpa what you told me, in the car." he coos, in that sickly-sweet tone of his. Uncle Jeb has always had a flare for the dramatic, the painstakingly rehearsed. The ogre loves that kind of thing. Cousin Eve struggles with it, mumbles a short 'no'. Uncle Jeb's grip on her shoulder tightens until she finally grasps the ogre's hand, looks him in the eye and says, in that sweet sing-song voice of hers: "I was telling daddy how much I love coming here, grandpa and how much I love your stories. I want to be as hard-working and rich as you, when I'm all grown up. I'm so proud of you, grandpa." A load of bunk, of course. Cousin Eve hates coming here way more than I do. But Uncle Jeb has probably drilled these words into her for weeks now, made her drop to her knees on the hardwood kitchen floor until her presentation was Oscar-worthy.

The ogre reaches out to stroke her hair. Eve almost pulls away, but Uncle Jeb keeps her in place. Shriveled fingers run through her hair, stroke her blushing cheeks. Jeb drops next to her, on his knees. He takes the ogre's hand in his, kisses it. "She adores you, Father. We owe everything to you." Once again, that knowing cat-grin spreads across the procelain teeth. The doll-eyes shift to Vera's shriveled form, lurking in the kitchen doorframe. "It's your turn now, Vera" he says, his voice like nails, dragging across marble.

"You can't be serious" Vera mumbles under her breath. "Of all the selfish, stupid things you've made us..." but the ogre doesn't bother with her. He spares a glance at her, contempt written plainly on his face. He looks at Vera as if she were a
pile of garbage, piled by the kitchen door. "The vacation house is your, Jeb. You're a good boy." the ogre says. He rummages around in his trouser pocket, takes out the dog-eared notepad, its pages smudged black after a thousand revisions of his Last Will And Testament, fills in his final verdict. "Now, for the apartment building in the city..."

Uncle Jeb gets off the floor, patting Cousin Eve on the back. She looks embarassed but she doesn't let Uncle Jeb see it. Evecan’t stand to see that ear-to-ear grin disappear. Dad looks crestfallen: he'd grown up in that vacation house by the sea, raised by his grandmother for the first ten years of his life. The ogre had left him there, as soon as Dad was cleared to leave the maternity ward. The ogre used to say that Dad had killed grandma on the day he was born. ‘The boy was born feet-first. Don’t take much more than that to see that he’s not good.’ he used to grumble when he’d get good and drunk, even when Dad was right there in front of him. The ogre only suffered the boy when he would hear his tiny voice on the other end of a telephone line. When he finally did find it in his heart to see his second son, he'd replaced grandma with Aunt Vera's mother. Every single photograph, painting, every trace of his mother's existence had been thoroughly erased. All Dad had to go on was the half-remembered stories of Uncle Jeb, shared over a bottle of whiskey on New Year's. "Father, don't do this." Dad says. "Do whatever the hell else it is you want, just...not like this. Not in front of the kids."

"You can go whenever you like. I’m not keeping you." the ogre says, waving Dad away. "Just don't expect anything more from me. This is your last chance. For all of you. And Jeb's already in the lead." I can see Dad's lips getting thin, the color draining from his face. His mouth becomes a pencil-thin slit, the lips tightly pressed together. I've seen that look before, when I was very little and very stupid and I found the bottle of chlorine under the sink and nearly drank it. Soon as I had vomited the worst of it and got home from the hospital Dad grabbed me by the ear. He twisted it good so he'd be sure I'd never do it again. Dad had that look on his face for the rest of the day. "Which one of you wants the fifth-story penthouse? A house of your own. Rent-free." the ogre says, enticingly.

Aunt Vera steps in before Dad's even had the chance to get off his chair. She shoves Uncle Jeb and Cousin Eve out of her way. "Father, please. You know I need that place. We need that place, Tony too. Get out of that terrible apartment back in the Heights, get our lives in order..." she pleads. The ogre nods, indifferent. Aunt Vera sets her back straight, shaking with rage. Her fists clench shut, the pale strip of flesh where her wedding ring should be flowing into the white of her knuckles. She drops to her knees, takes the ogre's ankles in her hands like an ancient greek war widow, bartering with the gods for her husbands' life. "Father, please. Please, it's the one thing I've always wanted. The one thing I'm asking. I gave up everything; I married Tony, just as you told me. I quit my job, became the kind of woman he wanted when he came to you. The things I let him do to me, just to keep him happy..." Aunt Vera bites her lip, stifling back a sob. "Please, Father..."

"You need to try harder than that." the ogre rasps, his voice sandpaper-coarse. He's keeping it together, his face a mask of apathy but I can see it, right there, I can see the tiny grin that's taken root just behind his eyes, I can see the apples go big and wide, he hairs on the back of his neck standing on end and I know that I hate the ogre, that I don't want to be near him ever again in my life. I take Dad by the wrist, lean in to whisper that I want to leave, I want to get out of here, please Dad, let's just go. But Aunt Vera is on her hands and knees now, her forehead bent so low it's resting on the marble tiles of the floor. Her hands grasp blindly, place the ogre's heels on the back of her head. She's letting him use her like a footstool. The ogre doesn't stop her. He leans back, stretches those scrawny legs on her shoulderblades, just like a cat. "Any other takers?" he says. Dad is frozen with shock. Uncle Jeb's blushing. We exchange glances, Eve and I, utterly speechless. "I guess it's yours then, Vera" the ogre nods. He retrieves the notebook scribbles in her name and the adress of the apartment building. Vera nods, breathes out a tiny thank you, Father as she returns to her place by the kitchen doorframe. Her arms are wrapped tightly around her chest. Like Dad before her, she seems smaller now, diminished.

"Now, for this house. My house." the ogre says. "This place I built with my own two hands. You won't have it until I am gone, but it is my most cherished creation. I won't give it away as easily.” His eyes drift over to Dad and I watch him freeze, just like a deer halfway across the street, struck by the headlight of a car; Dad’s shoulder’s sag, his hair stand on end. It’s so quiet I can hear the faint grinding sound his teeth make, see the outline of its jaw against his cheek, sawing back and forth. Dad takes a step toward the ogre and if I see him fall to his knees, if I see the ogre using him as a footstool I know he’ll never live it down. If I let Dad humiliate himself for the ogre’s pleasure, he’ll live out the rest of his days hating himself, hating me for seeing him like this. I’m on my feet and run for the ogre before he’s mustered up the courage to do it. There’s a tug on my shirt sleeve, but I brush it away. Time seems to stretch out forever with every step I take. If I was smarter, I wouldn’t be doing this; not for everything in the world. By the time I’ve reached him, I realize I’m taller than him, stronger and wider already and I’m just a kid, standing up to some cheap animatronic gremlin straight out of a cheesy horror flick. The ogre doesn’t like that. He doesn’t like the way I look at him, like a dung beetle stuck under the sole of my shoe. He hates how I can look into his eyes and know I’m not afraid of him, how he knows that there’s no contempt in my eyes, at least nothing that will linger; as soon as he’s dead, he’ll be discarded in the depths of my memory, left to rot like all those cartoon jingles and bicycle mishaps and schoolyard jeers.

“Please, grandpa.” I say, dropping to my knees for him. “Dad needs the house. We’re barely making rent as it is and he needs to be out of the city. He’s killing himself every day, driving two hours to work and back again.” The ogre looks at me, puzzled, as I fall to my hands and start to crawl on the floor, wagging my behind like a dog for him. I undo my belt and strap it into my waistband, letting it hang down between my legs like a long, floppy tail. Muzzling my face against his leg I try my best not to reel back in disgust as my cheek brushes against the fabric of his trousers, feeling his thigh against my skin. His scent fills my nostrils: green soap and old sweat, caked over for days. Old aftershave and stale air surrounds him, the kind of smell a vampire would have. Count Orlock, stuck in his castle with no one to visit. Nosferatu, his long teeth replaced by porcelain facsimiles, his talons chipped and split in places, his joints popping uselessly with every step he takes, his hunched form ravaged with arthritis. Jumping in place I bark out loud, yapping like a Chihuahua, sticking out my tongue to pant at him. It’s driving him crazy. I can tell he loathes the way I put my hands on his knees, fingers balled into fists like paws and muzzle against his chest. Aunt Vera cracks a tentative smile, then a steady stream of giggling. She barely has time to let out a tiny ‘sorry’ before bursting into laughter. Dad catches it next, his worried gaze slowly melting away, catching Aunt Vera’s giddiness like a virus. He lets out his signature snort before finally guffawing out loud. Cousin Eve chimes in. She bites her lip to hold it back like a champ, before she herself bursts out in laughter. Uncle Jeb manages to hold back the worst of it. He keeps it up for a good ten seconds, before he popping as well. The ogre’s magic is undone, with just a bit of fooling. Like Rumpelstintskin, the awful monster’s magic melts away, revealing the powerless old man underneath.

“Enough” the ogre groans, uselessly. I stop yapping and frown, turning my head to either side, this way and that, hang out my tongue. Another round of laughter. “I said, enough!” he roars and pushes me off him. I fall on the marble tiles with a thud, the belt buckle rattling on the floor as it slips away from my waistband. Everyone goes utterly silent. In his wheelchair, the ogre is shaking with rage. His hand reaches out to grasp me. I tense up, as his fingers run through my hair. He gives them a harsh, short tug. The belt’s in my hand the next second, wrapped in a half-knot. I smack it against the marble tiles to drive my point home. The ogre catches on quickly. He knows that I’m not afraid to use it. With his children here he might dodge a proper beating, but that doesn’t mean he’ll risk getting belted in the mouth. The ogre lets go, gives me a short harsh shove. “You can have the house.” He tells Dad. “But you’ll teach the runt some manners.”

“I promise, Father.” Dad says, taking me in his arms. He hugs me for only a few seconds: a quick, deep embrace that says ‘proud of you’. “We’ll take good care of this place. It’s everything to us.” Dad says, even as the ogre jots another thing on his last will and testament. When he is done, he doesn’t stash it away. Instead, the ogre wheels toward the dusty fireplace. He removes the grille with reverence, thrusting his hand into the pile of cold ashes that’s slowly congealed into a half-solid mess at the bottom, his hand covered wrist-deep in soot. He blows against the tiny bounty that he’s retrieved: a thin book, his prized ledger. The grown-ups look at it as if it’s a living, hissing thing. The record of the ogre’s entire fortune: every cent of it that he stashed away, all the gold and the bonds and accumulated currency. Dad has never told me exactly how rich the ogre is, but judging from their expressions, I’d have to guess he’s loaded. Uncle Jeb tenses up the second he sees the ledger as the ogre wipes it clean on his trousers, blows away the ash and flicks the pages, just so. Out of everyone gathered here, he’s probably the only one who knows how big that string of numbers in the ledger’s last page is.

The ogre seems to soak in the grown-ups’ tension. What little damage I might have done with my stunt seems to have disappeared in the blink of an eye. He’s grinning now, the sun’s rays glinting evilly on his porcelain teeth. “The money. Now there’s a clincher, isn’t it?” the ogre says, nodding. “My entire life’s work. I was going to divide it, let each of you have their share, do the best you could do with it in all your limited capacity. But then, I decided against it.” the ogre says, his eyes shooting daggers at me. With dramatic flourish, the ogre throws the ledger on the floor, in the middle of the living room “Winner takes all.” he rasps.

Uncle Jeb shoots up from his seat, climbs over the table. His patented leather shoes slip on the tablecloth. He falls halfway across, banging his knees on mahogany. The impact crashes the leftover wine glasses. The fine crystal shatters under his bulk. Cousin Eve lets out a tiny yelp when she notices the long red streaks that have torn through Uncle Jeb’s shirt, where the glass shards have poked into his skin. Uncle Jeb doesn’t seem to notice as he jumps into the living room floor. Dad watches him leap into the air past him. His hand grasps Uncle Jeb’s ankle, stops him dead in mid-air. There’s a short, snapping sound as Uncle Jeb’s teeth click together, then a muffled scream. Blood runs down his lips, flowing freely from his severed tongue. Dad steps over him just as Aunt Vera skitters across the floor to grasp the ledger. I watch in horror as Dad grasps her long, auburn hair and tugs back, snapping her head back. Aunt Vera lets out an animal noise and slashes at the air at Dad’s face, her nails dragging across his cheeks. She misses Dad’s eye by half an inch. Red streaks burst into being across the left side of his cheeks and forehead. Dad stifles a scream, twists Aunt Vera’s arm. She howls and kicks blindly, getting him in the shins. They both go down in a tumble of fists and legs. Uncle Jeb howls something I can’t quite make out at Eve. Blood trails from his lips. Something red and shiny plops out of his mouth! “’Edgeh! Het the ‘edgeh!” he shouts at Eve, who’s frozen in place. The color’s drained from her face, eyes transfixed into the red mess that’s her father’s mangled mouth. In the blink of an eye, she’s snapped into action. By the time I’ve worked out it’s time to get off my sorry behind she’s already halfway across the living room floor. Aunt Vera is pummeling Dad across the face with her delicate hands. He shields his face with his arm draped over it for a while before finally finding an opening, landing his fist on her chin with full force. Aunt Vera slumps on the floor, sobbing with pain. “Get her!” Dad howls at me and I know he’s talking about Eve but she’s too far away and my knees have turned to jelly and everything smells like blood and sweat and Uncle Jeb is saying something through the bile and the spit running down his mouth…

The belt flies from my hand, thrown clumsily across the room. The buckle strikes the back of Eve’s head. It doesn’t knock her out, but the pain is sharp and clear enough for her to stop dead in her tracks, bawling in pain. Jumping over Uncle Jeb’s grasping hands, I slide down across the marble tiles and make my way to the ledger. My fingers wrap around it and I grasp it. Eve’s nails dig into my palm the next second. Her vice-like grip draws blood. She sinks her teeth into my ear. The pain is unimaginable. My hand flails wildly, striking at her forehead, her shoulders, her cheeks. Eve grons, sinks her teeth deeper. The ledger crumples in my hand, soaked in sweat. Eve’s grip tightens and I let go, howling in pain. She snatches it it, making her way to Uncle Jeb already up on his feet. Dad’s getting up from floor, his face streaked with blood. Aunt Vera is against the wall, clutching her belly. Uncle Jeb’s has just gotten the ledger in his hands, when as Dad’s fist smashes into his temple. It sends him reeling on the big couch. Dad’s glasses are smudged, bent out of shape. Uncle Jeb is choking, spitting out his own blood. Aunt Vera is screaming something at the top of her lungs, too hysterical to even make out. Everything becomes fuzzy, the edges sinking away out of everything. My ears are ringing and I’m feeling sore and dirty all over but I can make it out perfectly now:

The raspy, hoarse sound the ogre makes.

He’s laughing. We’re killing ourselves for him and he’s laughing. He’s having his chuckle as his own children fight like animals.

“Daaaad!” I scream, over the howling and the growling and the screaming and Vera’s bawling and Eve’s weeping. They stop,  just long enough to see what me pointing at the ogre with my grimy hands, let them take a good long look at his rotted tree-bark face. At the way his false-teeth rattle against the gums, how they fall out of that slit of a mouth and tumble down to his lap. The ogre stops, too late. The game is over now, for good. Dad lets go of Uncle Jeb, hands shaking. Aunt Vera stumbles on her feet. Tears roll down Cousin Eve’s red-raw cheeks. Patent leather shoes crunch on the shattered remains of wine glasses. Uncle Jeb puts down the ashtray he was about to brain Dad with. The ledger’s still in his hand.

“Well then.” the ogre says, the cat-smile crawling across his toothless, collapsed lips. “I guess Jeb wins this one.” His gnarled fingers grasp the false-teeth, set it back into his mouth. “Good boy, Jeb.” is all he says as he wheels himself back to the head of the table. Uncle Jeb’s shaking all over. The ledger’s a bloody, pulpy mess in his hands. He opens it up to see, making out the smudged mess of a sum on the last page.

“You vulture. You dirty bastard vulture.” Aunt Vera breathes out. The ogre waves her away. “Don’t be a sore loser, Vera.” just like that. And I know that Aunt Vera could just reach out and choke the life out of him right then and there and no one would stop her. All she would have to do is put her thumbs against his windpipe and clench them shut. It wouldn’t even be a fight. But she doesn’t. None of them do it. I watch Dad and Uncle Jeb and Aunt Vera as they file out of the door, not a word exchanged between them. There’s a patch of hair missing from the back of Dad’s head, torn out. Aunt Vera’s nose is bent the wrong way, bleeding. A bruise is blooming over Eve’s right eye. I know that I’m never going to see her again. The ogre is still at the table, his eyes fixed into mine. A vein’s throbbing on the top of his head. “Don’t you look at me like that, you little creep. I’m not old enough to come over there.” he grumbles at me.

Dad reaches out for Aunt Vera in the drive way. She’s fumbling with her car keys, struggles to fit them in the latch. She slaps his hand away. “Don’t” she whimpers. Dad doesn’t push it. We watch as Uncle Jeb speeds away from the curb, his car fishtailing as he takes the next turn. Aunt Vera is gone in the blink of an eye, clipping one of the hedges as she goes. “Easy now” Dad tells me, then suddenly goes pale when he tries for the passenger door. He pats himself down. “I left my car keys back there. You wait here” he says. He looks horrified.

“It’s okay. I’ll go get them.” I say. Dad looks relieved and terrified at the same time. Even now he’s still afraid of the ogre. I am, too. But I hate him so much more than Dad ever will. If Dad’s hatred for the ogre is a black iron ball, then mine’s the size of an island. Big and roiling and black than a starless night. Halfway up the stairs, I notice that the door is halfway open. None of the grown-ups bothered to lock it. It creaks on its hinges like a cheap horror movie sound effect. My eyes look around the ruined living room, drift down to the streaks of drying brown on the wall and the carpet at the fine powder of glass peppered around the dining room table. A soft, rasping sound catches my attention. I turn my head, thinking that the ogre’s somehow sneaked up on me, his hands reaching out to grasp me, his thin, scrawny legs rushing toward me with inhuman strides. I bite my lip to keep myself from screaming as I turn around…

Except there’s no one there.

The tiny sound comes again. ‘Ack, ack’ it goes. Like a pigeon’s heartbeat, dying with its wing crushed by a passing car. It’s coming from under the table. My eyes scan the room. Dad’s car keys are on the tablecloth. Tip-toeing on the tiles, I go for it, stopping only to make sure that the ogre hasn’t set a trap. My hand darts out and I clutch the keys in my palm. They’re in my pocket in the next heartbeat. I’m about to head back, when the sound comes again.

‘Ack, ack, ack’

And my heart plops down into my stomach. My knees turn into jelly and I know, I just know that I have to look under the table. I wrap my fingers around the fabric, take a deep breath, plunge under it.

The ogre’s there,. His eyes are wide open. His mouth is a glistening 0-shape, his tongue hanging out. “Ack, ack” it goes. The left side of his face is frozen in horror. The right’s hanging limply. The veins on his bald head are sticking out, throbbing weakly. There’s a patch of red just under the skin of his left eye. The doctors had told him to watch for a stroke. They’d had Dad and Uncle Jeb and Aunt Vera swear up and down that they wouldn’t over exert him.

I feel the ogre’s hand grasping my wrist, holding on to it. He tries to say something, but his lips move uselessly. His plea is just a string of nonsense. Slapping his hand away, I let the tablecloth drape over his body and walk away. Just to make sure, I slam the door behind me shut and walk to Dad, giving him my best frustrated expression as I hand him the car keys. “Can we go now?” I tell him. Dad doesn’t suspect a thing. He has no idea that the ogre’s dying in the living room. I won’t tell him until at least tomorrow. Or the day after that, just to make sure.

“Sure thing. You wanna grab some ice-cream?” Dad says. I nod, smiling. It sounds like a great plan.

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