A short story
By David Iseman
Arne showed up on time. But he wasn’t right.
It had been three days since he had a bump, four days since sleep. Sherry had promised him beer. That would help.
He scratched behind both knees before knocking on her door.
His jeans were stiff; must have been the mud near the fish market by the tracks. He stomped his boots outside the door. The impact tickled his spine, sent electric shock to his neck, shook his eyeballs. He took off his cap and scratched his head with both hands. He thought about turning around; he needed some gak.
But he knocked again. He owed this to Sherry. He wasn’t gonna let her down. She had to get to work. He could help for at least one night.
“Hey handsome. Little late, and a little bit gray.” Sherry opened the apartment door with one hand while using the other to pull up a tight turquoise skirt. Her bra was unclasped and, for a moment, Arne took in the cleavage with lust. That only made his eyeballs shake harder. Rubbing his eyes, he remembered why he was there.
“I’ll be alright,” he told Sherry. “You said I could sleep at least some of the time, right?”
“Shouldn’t be a problem. I put her in just about 10 minutes ago.” Sherry walked over to check on the crib by the front window. “You know the drill if she wakes up.”
“Check diaper. Pat back to burp. Make sure formula’s not too hot. I used to do this, remember?”
“Been a long time since we were fosters, pal. But I have to admit you were good with the little ones. Someday, maybe—”
“What kinda beer ya got?” He interrupted as he moved to the kitchen to check the fridge.
Sherry didn’t answer, instead moving to her bedroom to finish dressing. She put on lipstick in a hallway mirror before rushing over to put one hand on Arne’s shoulder. “I shouldn’t be too long past 4. Club closes an hour later tonight but I’ll have my phone. Yours working?”
Arne held it up, waving it in front of his face as he slumped into the living room couch, reaching for the remote.
“Not too loud, slick. You don’t want her awake and screaming. Try to get some rest while she sleeps.” Sherry threw a throw pillow at him from a nearby recliner, started toward the door but spun back toward him in the open doorway.
“Hey, don’t forget. Her soft toys like the bears and that goofy Christmas duck you gave her are in the basket under the crib. They can help if she wakes and will not settle. But, no toys in the crib. She should stay on her back.”
“Heil momma!” Arne put both boots on the coffee table, saw how they shed dried mud and quickly placed them back on the floor.
Sherry shook her head, looked toward the ceiling, exhaled loudly and hurried out the door.
Arne walked to the front window and watched her get into her Uber. Sliding past the baby’s crib, he bumped it with his hip and froze, worried she would wake. He toed the wicker basket under the crib to shake the toys, activate the light on the Christmas duck. He giggled at the writing on its red scarf: “Don’t do quack.”
The baby yawned. She stretched but stayed asleep.
He started his search.
Kitchen drawers. Jewelry box. Underwear drawer. He figured Sherry had a little stash somewhere, just a little taste to get him through til sunrise.
Nothing. No, wait. By the bed, on the stand, at least an Ambien. And some cherry NyQuil in the drawer.
He drank three beers quickly, and put on the TV. Some kind of kid movie, with pirates and a dragon. Claymation figures. Weird looking kids who kept shouting something like “kicky skickity, kick.” Poor reception from the antenna turned voices to static, but only about half the time. He kept the volume low.
Anything was better than the silence. He pulled a fleece blanket across his shoulders, his cap past his forehead and tried to keep his eyeballs still. He reached inside his pants to try to get to that itch behind his knees.
He scratched at his chest, too, his neck, then his forearms. As he nodded off, he felt blood under his fingernails.
When he heard the crying, he thought it was a cat outside. He ignored it, but he realized his teeth chattered every time he heard a cry. Suddenly it turned to a screech, then a shriek, then voices.
The kids, skinny and sharp-boned, pulled at his forearms and hugged his legs.
“Bedtime,” he said, trying to scoop up their toys.
But they grabbed at them — tiny metal cars, Legos, plastic army men, trolls, hollow plastic balls with lights inside, blinking, pulsing, shooting sparks that Arne felt in his spine — ignoring his commands.
“It’s bedtime,” he shouted.
“Kicky skickity, kick!” They shouted together, climbed his body and pulled his fingers apart to get at what he held. A boy with a pancake face wrapped his legs around the crook of Arne’s elbow to hang there, reaching for toys with both hands. Another shimmied up Arne’s pant leg and hung with one sinewy arm from his belt. Arne swatted at him. A chubby kid with a head like a turtle shell sat on Arne’s left foot and hung on, Arne nearly fell as he lifted his leg to try to shake him off.
He felt them claw at the back of his calves.
“Bedtime! Lights out,” Arne snarled, flipping the switch on the wall.
Someone turned it back on.
“Skicky skickity, skickeroo. A toy for me, no toy for you.”
They spoke as one. But they scrambled as many. Four. Five. Ten? Arne saw skinny arms like corrugated plastic straws, long wooden legs connected like Tinker Toys, a body like a praying mantis, one like a snake.
“No more play. Bed!” Again, he shut out the light.
In the dark, the hollow balls flashed red and blue and purple as they bounced on the floor.
“Toys!” a kid with six arms announced as he scampered on to Arne’s shoulder and stretched one arm three times as long as his body to flip the light switch back on. Arne grabbed the spider boy to pull him from his shoulders, dropping an armful of toys. He tried to be gentle with them. He didn’t want to hurt anyone. As he set spider boy to the ground, three others grabbed Arne’s arms and neck, hanging, reaching, climbing. He pushed them away with more force.
Their cries turned to screams, cackles, crackling. The spider boy climbed the front of Arne’s shirt, stared at his face and flashed his teeth. Arne covered the boy’s mouth with his hand. The boy twisted away, biting at Arne’s jacket cuff. Arne put both hands to the boy’s throat.
“Kicky! Skicky! Skickitty-skick! Toys for us. No toys for you.” The others screamed from the floor where a pile of toys covered Arne’s feet. Throbbing, it grew higher than his shins. He dropped spider boy and kicked and pushed at the pile with both hands. Pulsating, the pile birthed four sticky plastic hands, and flying sticky monkeys, sticky men, red and black and translucent, all bobbing near Arne’s forearms.
Arne kicked and pounded. He stomped.
Finally, the shrieking stopped.
He pulled a pillow over his head and buried his face in the couch. He felt blood in his mouth. He had bitten his cheek. He swallowed and slept.
A siren on the TV woke him. Some dumb cop show. He looked for his beer. Gone. His head throbbed. He sat up, elbows on his knees, rubbing his eyes. That’s when he saw the crib.
It lay on its side over the smashed wicker basket. The mattress sat askew, covering something. He stared without moving. He called the baby’s name.
He was afraid to go close. He stayed in his seat, taking in the the broken crib slats, the toppled floor lamp, the basket. Pieces of wicker hung from his shoelaces.
“No, no, no, no.” Arne knelt on both knees. He hugged himself hard. His hat was gone. He scratched at his hair. His head spun. He lifted the mattress, which was stained with red. NyQuil? Worse?
He gasped when he saw more red. He threw the fleece blanket into the crib, covering everything over like a tent. He couldn’t look. But he leaned in close to listen for a breath or a cry. He heard nothing but wind and rain on the front windows.
Jumping to his feet, he looked for his phone. Instead of dialing, he just stared at the screen. What time was it? Already 6:03. Sherry was late. Why didn’t she text? She must be headed home. Fuck, she could walk in right now. He looked at the door then back at the crib. He vomited on the coffee table.
Arne’s instinct said flee. He could leave, say he wasn’t here when she got hurt. He could say he didn’t know what happened. Or, he could just disappear, run, get the train. He scratched his thighs outside his pants. He needed a hit.
The floor lamp on the carpet gave him an idea. He tossed some books from a stand near the door to the ground. He threw a desk lamp on the recliner. He could fake a burglary. He could knock himself out. He could … No!
He had to get her help. The hospital wasn’t that far. He could get someone’s attention, drop her and run. He grabbed the car seat from the corner of the room. He lifted the mattress, turning his head to avoid seeing any more red, or what he had done. He wrapped everything he touched in the fleece. He placed it all in the seat. It sat in a crooked, disjointed pile. Nothing moved. He vomited again. He didn’t try to adjust the straps of the seat. The fleece would do. It was only six blocks. He checked his phone to be sure of the intersection. Get there, find an ambulance guy and run. He’d go back to Portland, or maybe head south.
He didn’t close the apartment door. He tried to jog but stumbled and caught himself, holding the handle for the car seat with both hands.
On the street, he pushed through the rain. The wind caught the fleece and lifted it in a wave. It brought Arne false hope. He thought maybe, just maybe, she had moved. No. The blanket settled, its pockets filling with rain. Watching his steps, he looked down to see a puddle reflecting the white neon of Tommy’s Diner. Arne stopped. He shivered. He studied the rain hitting the puddle. He had an idea.
It was busy in the diner, far busier than he had seen on other mornings. He would have no trouble finding someone. He looked to his right. A large woman wearing shorts sat with her thighs forcing her legs apart. She sucked a supersize Coke through a straw. A skinny man using oxygen peeked out from the chair behind her.
To the left were two separate tables with two men each. Arne grabbed a handful of ketchup and mustard packets and napkins from the counter and moved to the empty table between them. He put the carseat on the ground under his orange vinyl chair and sat down.
Which ones? The bigger, rougher two, he decided. He waved to one, who ignored him. “Suck my dick,” Arne said, grabbing his own crotch. The guy’s nostrils flared but he turned away. Arne smashed two packets of mustard on his table, splattering the back of the guy’s jacket. Some hit the second rough guy in the face.
“You stupid mother fucker.” The guys with splattered jacket turned in his seat to stand over Arne, using a napkin to wipe away the yellow from wherever he could see it. Arne needed to do more. He squeezed a ketchup packet until it exploded on both of them. The guy cursed and pushed Arne with both thick arms, sending him backward.
Arne made sure his feet got caught in the chair, which fell on the car seat and Arne fell atop both of them. Arne jumped up and began screaming, “The baby. The baby! You hurt the baby!” The two men, and the others at the other table nearby, stared at the car seat. Arne ran for the door screaming, “Help. We need an ambulance. Call 911.”
He got out the first glass door of the front vestibule and turned to look back, hoping they were not following him. He smashed face-first into the exterior glass door and pushed through, rolling down four concrete steps. He hit his head on the sidewalk. He stared at a streetlamp as the screeching started again. The kids pulled at his hair and walked on his face. “Kicky kicky skickitty-skick. Stingy Arne is a prick.”
Arne kicked hard, and the kids scattered but didn’t flee. Two held his legs. His arms were also pinned. Lying face down on the wet sidewalk, he turned his head, one cheek to the sidewalk. He saw half the world, and it was full of herky-jerky kids screaming. Spider kid leaned in close to stare in Arne’s eyes then jumped, coming down with giant clown shoes in the puddle pooling at Arne’s left cheek. Gray-black water splashed into both of his eyes.
“Stop fighting. Stop struggling.” The policewoman kneeling into Arne’s spine and holding one arm had her cuffs out but missed the first time she tried to hook his wrist. Her partner leaned down and screamed in Arne’s face: “Calm down. Do you have anything on you that can hurt us? Sharps? A knife?”
Soon, Arne was sitting on the curb, cuffs behind his back, surrounded by the two rough men from the diner, the diner’s manager and the two officers, one of whom held the car seat.
He looked for an ambulance. He saw none. Maybe they already took the baby.
“What are you on?” the female cop asked, as she looked through his wallet. “Arne Rarparsin. From Portland it says here. OK Arne from Portland, talk to me. What are you on? Where’d you get this baby seat? Did you have some crank today? Oxy? What did you have to drink?”
Arne raised his chin to let the rain hit him full in the face. He cried as he spoke. “That guy in the diner pushed me. Knocked the baby’s seat over. He hurt the baby.”
The cops didn’t speak.
“He’s nuts,” the bigger rough guy said, and he spat on the ground near Arne’s leg.
The female officer called dispatch, checking for warrants.
“Hey, I seen him before,” the diner’s manager said, turning toward the male cop. “He’s been in before with Sherry. She’s a dancer. Cute one. Wears that big fake fur. I think she lives down in the Hodge, couple blocks. She’s been in with her baby.”
Arne sat alone in the police cruiser. The cops had already let the rough guys go. Didn’t matter. He’d stick to his story. What else could he say? That he hurt the baby? He would never do that. He was stupid, weak, dumb. But he wasn’t evil.
He tried to think of what to say to Sherry. It seemed like an hour had passed. Why were they just holding him here? Why not take him to jail? Or beat him. Or just shoot him dead. He deserved it. He shut his eyes. He wished he could just stop breathing. He wriggled his wrists behind his back. The cuffs dug in. He could feel blood. He pulled at the cuffs harder. He deserved to suffer.
The rain eased up. The male cop stood under the diner awning, talking to someone. A woman in a big furry coat, black and white with lines like a zebra. Arne recognized it. They had found it together at the thrift store. Sherry loved how she could wear it over her fleece and over the baby’s snuggly without feeling squeezed. She walked to the cruiser.
“Man, you took it mega level this time, handsome.” She smiled broadly and tousled his hair. “What the fuck
Why wasn’t she screaming? Why no tears? Didn’t they tell her?
“I’m sorry Sherry. I musta gotten delirious or got some bad crank the other week. I woke up and everything had already gone to shit. I don’t know how I can — ”
Soft crying interrupted, then a wail. Arne’s head spun on a swivel as he looked for the spider kid.
Sherry pulled her coat apart at the neck. The baby screwed up her face and screamed until Sherry found her pacifier and stuck it back in her mouth.
Arne’s stared, eyes huge.
“Is she okay?” he asked. “I tried to get her to the hospital. I had her in the car seat.”
“Dude, you are still trippin’. You did nothing with this baby. When I got home, like way early this morning, hours ago, you were still out cold. Couldn’t wake you even with water. I’ve been out with her since I took her out of the apartment. Things were fine when I left. When did you finally get up?”
“What? What about the blood? The basket? The crib?”
“Look man. You’re talking nuts. Why the fuck did you take my car seat to the diner? And those toys? Were you taking Christmas duckie for a walk?” She laughed so hard she had to hold the baby’s head to keep her steady.
“Look, you’re just lucky those dudes didn’t fuck you up bigtime. I’m trying to sweet talk the cops. I know the lady cop from the club. I dunno, though — ”
“Sherry, what time is it? How long was I out?”
“It’s after 7 p.m., dumbass. You were on that couch when I got back at 5 a.m. so I let you sleep. We have been way over at Lila’s all day for that birthday party. Cops tracked me down through my landlord. Boy, you are really gonna have to check yourself. This kinda shit is getting real old.”
“I thought it was still morning. I thought I hurt the baby.” Arne sniffled and wiped his nose on his shoulder.
“I thought I broke the crib with the baby in it, and I thought I saw blood, and I thought I put her in the car seat. I was trying to get her— ”
“Get her where, Dr. Strange? To the fuckin’ diner? So you could start a fight with some dude just trying to eat his chicken nuggets? You are nuts, Arne. Seriously deranged. I know we go way back but I seriously think you need to … look, just get yourself some help. Call me later when you get out.”
Sherry shut the back door hard.
The lady cop opened the front door and got behind the wheel.
“Sorry there Portland. You’re obviously freakin’ high but I still gotta take ya down to the city’s wonderfully secure and warm Concrete Motel, at least for tonight. It ain’t real comfortable and you’ll have a couple roommates. But it’ll have to do. We gotta wait here a while, though, so lemme know if you’re gonna get sick or otherwise soil my lovely limousine this evening.”
She adjusted the rear view mirror to see if he was listening. He looked at the mirror just then, too.
In it, he saw the spider kid, his mouth open wide, his teeth clattering, shooting white sparks. The teeth got bigger. The kid opened wide, screaming high-pitched static. His tongue filled the mirror. A shriek, like a laser, slammed Arne’s right temple. “Toys for us. No toys for you.”
Arne tried to shut his eyes but couldn’t.