They Must Play
Julie sat at her kitchen table staring at the walnut finish. When they’d purchased the table, the finish gleamed in unblemished glory, but the years had been as unkind to it as it had to her athletic figure. She could blame the kids for both, but they were just easy targets. The truth was both simpler and more complex: complacency. Who knew that something that seemed so comfortable could be so bad for you.
Complacency doesn’t mean what people think it means; it’s all about holding onto what’s comfortable to avoid things that are unpleasant, pretending that nothing’s changed.
The first time Bobby raked the table with his matchbox car, both she and Steve were quick to correct him. Steve bought a sealer and fixed the scratch; if you looked closely, especially in the bright sunlight from the sliding glass doors, you could see the line from where he’d carelessly dug the edge of the small metal car into it, but no one who didn't know it was there ever saw it. Between them, they had at first buffed out or repaired several such scratches from cars, dolls, and Legos, but after Bobby carelessly gouged the edge of it with his football helmet, they both seemed to just stop caring.
The used to go for walks as a family, and sometimes her and Steve would get a little alone time, just the two of them walking hand-in-hand like they did before the kids. In the evenings they took turns with their individual workouts, she would spend an hour doing aerobics which evolved into yoga, and then Steve would lift weights in the garage when he wasn't doing yard work or one of his many DIY projects. It was difficult, but they made it work. Things got a little easier when Bobby started school while Bea spent her days with Mrs. Rostler romping around in daycare. Raising two kids had its challenges and complications and sometimes the days blurred together, but her and Steve had done it all together.
“Mom, do I have to go to Dad's this weekend? His girlfriend wears so much perfume. It's awful!”
“Your dad wants to see you, Bea,” Julie said; she couldn't see beauty in the table any longer, just the scratches and places where the finish had worn away. She viewed herself in much the same way, especially after the divorce.
“You can but mom me all day long, it's not going to change anything.”
A sigh and stomping feet carried her daughter out of the dining room and up the stairs. Julie didn't move; she sat idly running her fingers over the table. She wondered when they had let complacency ruin a piece of furniture they both loved; she wondered when they’d stopped caring.
A scratchy shout sounded from outside. Pushing her chair back, she stood and started for the living room, stepping over the melted crayons she never quite got out of the carpet while trying to ignore the Bobby shaped dent in the wall from the failed wrestling move. Across the street Mrs. Denton was screeching at the spoiled Winslow girl to get out of her front yard. Julie stood at the window shaking her head. If the old kook didn’t want kids in her yard, she shouldn't have that big plastic play place on her front walk.
“That woman is so weird,” Bea said, stepping up next to her.
When Julie glanced down, she noted that the almost teenager was staring down at her phone. With classic Mom hypocrisy, she put her hand on her daughter's shoulder. “She's not a kook, she's old and has been alone for a long time.”
“I didn't say she was a kook, I said she was weird. And old or not, she has those ridiculous plastic pigs that she moves like they're playing and whenever anyone goes near them she freaks. Does she think they’re her kids or grandkids or something?”
“It's weird Mom, you can't say it's not.”
Julie didn't have to look down to see the eye-roll, and the girl wandered away with that loud sigh that only teenage girls can make. Preteen, she corrected herself. Thinking about Bobby being in high school and Bea a few months away from thirteen is what put her in this particular unhappy reverie that engulfed the kitchen table and the carpeting and the walls and…her life. The house was falling apart around her while she was apparently doing her best to ignore it and everything else that used to matter.
Across the street Mrs. Denton was sweeping the walk with her old straw broom, the same one she waved angrily at anyone who dared step onto her front walk. The old woman always had one eye warily watching for kids coming up to the staged pigs. Julie remembered the time before Mr. Denton passed. The two of them had seemed so happy. He always decorated the house for holidays and theirs was the house on the street that always attracted the most trick-or-treaters. She used to make pies and cookies for bake sales without being asked and wouldn't accept more than a thank you for her efforts. They were social and friendly and pleasant, and then he died suddenly; she’d had him cremated with no viewing. And then those ridiculous plastic pigs showed up on her front walk.
The people of the neighborhood speculated wildly about what happened to her. Some argued that she wouldn’t let people over because she was grieving, others thought she was hiding evidence that she’d murdered her husband. Most everyone agreed that she'd lost her mind, though things were never really that simple. Thinking about her own life and how things changed over the past few years: the arguments, Steve moving out, her weight gain, Bobby's worsening temper, Bea growing distant, the divorce, Steve's girlfriend. Staring at old Mrs. Denton, she couldn't help but wonder if she was looking at her own future.
Blinking back tears, she was about to turn away when Mrs. Denton collapsed.
For a horrible moment, time ground to a halt and she stood there paralyzed and staring; when it passed she found her voice. “Bea, call 9-1-1, now!” And she was out the door.
* * *
Everything had happened so fast. Mrs. Denton was sweating profusely, and obviously in pain; Julie tried her best to comfort her until the ambulance arrived. Not sure what else to do, she rode with them. The old woman was gone before they got to the hospital, having had suffered a massive heart attack without ever uttering a word. The couple had a son, but he’d died before they’d moved to Coal Ridge; a wild animal attack if she remembered correctly, so there was no one else. It ended up being Julie who who’d arranged for her to be cremated; afterward all that remained of the Denton’s was an empty house with plastic pigs arranged around a play place on the front path.
* * *
“Why are we even doing this?” Bea asked, carrying some assorted plastic containers, with her blinged phone stylishly sticking out of her back pocket. “Bobby doesn’t have to be here, why do I have to be here? This isn’t fair.”
“No, it isn’t,” Julie replied. “Nothing about this is fair, but it is what you agreed to not to go to your father's this weekend. The Denton’s don’t have anyone left and eventually the bank is going to come in here and take everything. They’ll throw away anything they can’t sell; would you like someone to just come in and throw away your memories and keepsakes?”
“But what are we going to do with them?”
It was a fair question and one for which Julie didn’t have a real answer. “We’re going to box them up and I am going to see if I can find a relative of theirs who might like to have them?”
“But what if you can’t?”
“We’ll deal with it then.”
“So instead of the bank throwing out their stuff, are we going to?”
A long sigh and an eye-roll, then predictably, “I hate when you use my name like that.” As they walked up to the house, she pointed and said, “Can we at least throw those away.”
Julie looked at the pigs positioned on the play place. Someone had moved them. “No. Mrs. Denton loved those, we'll just leave them there for now.”
“How can anyone love something so ugly?” Bea offered, setting the containers down and reaching down for the one that looked like it was about to go down the slide. Not really knowing why, Julie grabbed her daughter's hand, pulling it away hard enough to make the girl stumble. “What the heck Mom?”
“Just leave them be.”
“You're not funny and that hurt.”
“I didn't mean it that way Bea.”
An angry pout crossed the girl's face and she reached out to swat the pig, but it must have been more precariously balanced than it looked because it dropped down the slide, rolling over at the bottom to land on its feet facing them.
“I told you to leave it alone, now pick up those boxes and let's go inside.” After making a show of rolling her eyes, Bea slowly started picking up the plastic containers; Julie noticed that several of the pigs were facing them, it was odd that she hadn't noticed it before.
“Do you see this, Mom?”
Julie looked over; feathers littered the ground just off the path, near the back of the play place. “One of the neighborhood cats probably got a bird, just pick up the boxes and stop stalling.”
“How are we even going to get in, Mom.” Her tone was verging on disrespectful.
Without saying a word, Julie walked to the house and retrieved the key from under the mat that Mrs. Denton always left her husband for when he would lock himself out. She held it up to Bea and grinned. The play place was visible over her daughter’s shoulder as she approached, several of the pigs had been moved. “I told you to leave those pigs alone.”
“I didn’t touch them! Why do you always accuse me of stuff I didn’t do?”
“I can see that they’ve been moved Bea.”
“Well, I didn’t do it.”
Julie started walking back towards the play place, but Bea stepped in front of her.
“Come on, Mom! I don't want to be doing this all day.” That tone again.
“Well prepare to be disappointed then because this is what we’re doing today,” she told her daughter, turning back to the house.
“How’d you know that key would be there?”
A small laugh slipped through her lips. “Complacency.”
* * *
The next three hours were spent in idle exploration and collecting pictures. The house was much better organized than Julie would have thought, defying that cluttered mind, cluttered home saying.
“Mom, did you know that Mrs. Denton’s name was Elizabeth and Mr. Denton's name was Burt, and their son's name was Nathan, and that Mr. Denton was a physicist and that Mrs. Denton was a writer, and that they met at someplace called three-mile island?”
“Where did you find all that?”
“Some on the back of pictures, but mostly in this.” Bea held up a hard-bound book with a faded black cover. “I didn't know people had paper blogs.”
“You shouldn't read someone's diary, Bea.”
“She's dead Mom. Besides, why would you write stuff down if you didn't want someone to read it.” Her daughter had a point. “And I don't think you were right about those pigs, she hated them.”
“It's right here.” She opened the diary to a page with a folded corner. “Burt’s insistence on keeping those damn pigs in the cellar is going to destroy our marriage. I hate them and sometimes I hate him for bringing them into our lives.” She looked up at her Mom. “And it just gets weirder from there. There’s this whole section called they must play.
Julie walked over to her daughter. “Let me see that.”
A terrified scream came from the front walk, causing them both to start. They glanced at one another and then started for the front door, with Julie pulling her daughter back to open the door herself. Little Emma Winslow, known around the neighborhood as that spoiled little Winslow girl, sat on the path screaming, two of the plastic pigs sitting on the ground next to her.
“What the fuh--?” Bea muttered, hesitating as she looked at her mom.
Julie directed a scowl at her and stepped off the porch. “Emma, honey, what’s wrong?” That was when she saw the blood. The little girl was holding her ankle with both hands, and blood was flowing from between her fingers, beginning to puddle on the ground.
“Holy shit!” Bea exclaimed from behind.
“Bea! Call Mrs. Winslow, now!” She was trying to assess the wound, but Emma was screaming at the top of her lungs, her eyes wide as she stared at the ground.
“Why would I have her number?”
“My phone is on my dresser at home but get me a dish cloth from Mrs. Denton’s kitchen first. I need to stop this bleeding.” She tried prying the little girl’s fingers away from the ankle, but they were locked in place. “Emma, it's okay. We're going to get your mom, but I need to look at the cut on your ankle.
For her part, Emma continued to stare wide eyed at the ground and wailed. Her voice was beginning to crack from the strength and strain of the screams.
“That is so creepy,” Bea’s voice sounded from behind, thrusting a green and white checkered dishcloth at her mother. “She turned all the pigs to face this way.”
“Go get my phone and call Mrs. Winslow!”
“You're welcome Bea,” the preteen mumbled to herself. “This is why you should carry your phone, Mom,” she said as she moved quickly down the front path.
Doing her best to ignore the annoyance she felt for her daughter, Julie tried to calm the howling little girl to little avail. She looked around, trying to figure out on what Emma got wounded, that was when she realized that all the plastic pigs were on the ground around them.
Her brow furled deeply as she tried to make sense of it. They were little plastic pigs, situated on a play place. Someone had to have moved them. Searching the immediate area, she saw no one; neighbors who heard Emma wailing had begun coming out, but none of them were close. A gleam caught her eye, she looked down to see that the plastic mane of one of the larger pigs appeared wet.
“It jumped at me,” Emma’s raw voice squealed, tears running down her face as she held her ankle.
“What jumped at you, sweetheart?”
The little girl lowered her head, sniffing, her eyes closed tight against the pain. “One of the piggies.”
Julie felt something near the leg on which she was kneeling a moment before pain lanced through her calf. Jumping up, she looked down to see one of the plastic pigs on the ground seeming to look up at her. Her blood gleamed around its mouth.
“This can't be happening.”
Another pain filled howl filled the air.
One of the plastic pigs was on Emma’s arm. “What the fuck!” She kicked the one near her, it tumbled a short distance away and landed on its feet facing her. “What the ever-loving fuck!” Her voice sounded shrill in her own ears as she grabbed the plastic pig on the little girl's arm. When she tugged on it, Emma wailed in agony.
Glancing around, the other plastic pigs seemed closer and all around them. “What is going on here!” Something new crept into her voice...panic. The wound on her calf was beginning to throb as well as burn, and for just a moment, the plastic pig in her hand felt squishy as she was able to finally pull it away from Emma's arm.
Blood dripped from its mouth.
Julie slammed it down to onto the path. It landed on its feet and was looking up at her. “What. The. Fuck!”
“Oh, you can say it and throw those ugly pigs, but I can’t; how is that fair?”
Looking up, Julie saw her daughter step onto the path. “Stop Bea!” Her commanding tone caused her daughter to step back. Trying to ignore the pain in her calf, she reached down and picked up Emma before the pigs could get any closer. In her mind she was taking the little girl across the street, but she wasn't moving. It felt like something was holding her there, not letting her move.
“What are you doing, Mom?” Bea called from the end of the path. The preteen took a step forward.
Julie glanced down at the pigs; one of them was looking at Bea. “No!” She held Emma close and tried to take a step but couldn't. The pigs seemed to be closing in around her. Three of them were facing Bea now.
“Mom, I have your phone, I can help.” She took another step onto the path.
Panic closed Julie's throat; blackness gathered in the corners of her eyes. She couldn't move, she couldn't speak, and her calf burned like it was on fire; Emma sobbed into her shoulder, holding so tight it felt like her little fingers were digging into Julie's flesh. One of the bigger pigs was near the toe of her shoe; Bea took another step forward.
Something deep inside her started to well up; she might not be able to save herself, but there was no way in hell she was going to let these damn plastic pigs hurt her daughter. With sweat forming on her brow and her vision beginning to darken, she lifted one foot off the ground and pushed her leg forward. It felt like a collective will was pitted against her own, but she stared at her daughter and pushed herself forward. “Beatrice Marie Ross, step back.” The words were more growled than spoken.
For once, the preteen did as she was told without argument.
Each step Julie took was easier than the last, but even as she fought off the paralysis, the pain in her calf intensified and the blackness closed in; she was no longer sweating out of effort, but agony. The last thing she remembered before the blackness took her was handing Emma over to Bea and seeing the worry on her daughter's face.
* * *
Spring and summer had gone, the kids were getting ready to go back to school, and after several weeks of physical therapy that ended with her getting fit for a prosthetic leg, Julie was back home. She stood on her front porch with the one crutch that had become so much a part of her life. Something in the back of her mind tried to remind her that she and Steve had designed the porch together, agreeing on the large swing, but negotiating through almost every other detail. There were so few things that they actually agreed on, no wonder it hadn't worked out.
Sometimes she wondered if when she'd sent him to Mrs. Denton's house to get the play place and the pigs if she secretly was hoping they'd eat him. They hadn't, of course, but sometimes she liked to think about what would have happened if they had; she wouldn't have had to see a psychiatrist to keep custody of the kids, that was for certain.
Staring at the house across the street that was now up for sale, Julie noted that her calf itched, but there was no point in reaching down since there was nothing there. Afterward, the doctors had told her that the wound was septic, and that they didn't have a choice; it hadn't made it any easier for her to deal with the loss. Emma had fared better physically, probably because none of the big ones had bitten her. She had all her limbs though she seemed to catch every bug that went around; emotionally though, she hadn't yet recovered. The last time Julie had talked to Virginia Winslow, she said that Emma was still having nightmares and the fights about her going outside for any reason had devolved into a stubborn refusal.
She was young, with luck she would recover.
“Out here, Bea.”
“I'm getting ready to go to Dad's, are you sure that you're okay here with them?” The teenager nodded towards the play place on the side of the house, surrounded in chicken-wire.
Julie nodded. “So long as they have a place to play and no one goes near them, everything will be fine.”
“They got a raccoon or something yesterday, Bobby said there was blood and fur in the chicken-wire.” Bea stared at the house across the street for a moment. “This is so fucked up.”
She turned a scowl on her daughter.
“I know, I know, just because I'm a teenager now doesn't give me permission to talk like my father.” She turned. “But it is just so fuh--messed up.”
“It is, but someone has to make sure they don't hurt anyone else and since Mrs. Denton is gone and no one seems to believe us, I don't see that we have much choice.” A small, slightly manic grin touched the corners of her lips. “They must play.”
Bea shivered. “God, I hate when you say that, it’s so creepy!”
Steve's car pulled up to the curb; even though he could clearly see that they were standing on the porch, he honked the horn. Julie sighed; Bea rolled her eyes. Her ex-husband used to get out of the car to ask her how she was doing and about the house and the kids, but now he would just sit there and wait for his daughter, suspiciously staring at the side of the house. They all knew full well that Bea didn't really want to go with him and only went because she felt obligated, but still they pretended. At one-time Julie might have felt bad about it, she might have tried harder to convince Bobby to go see him or Bea that her father should be something more than an obligation but fuck him. He left when things got difficult and then when all this started with the pigs, he’d just checked out completely.
“I wish I'd never found that stupid diary,” Bea said, stepping back inside to grab her pack before stopping to give her mother a hug and kiss.
The teenager let out an exaggerated sigh accompanied by an eye-roll, with just the slightest hint of a grin, “Bye Mom.”
Julie watched her daughter go and felt for the diary in her pocket. Its pages included detailed instructions from Mrs. Denton on how to keep the pigs distracted to keep them contained, as well as all the ways that she and her husband had tried to destroy them, and the pain and loss it had caused. The Denton’s carried a lot of guilt, which was probably why they had always seemed so selfless and giving. A shiver raised gooseflesh on her arms; Julie told herself it was from a cool breeze and not thinking about how she would feel if the pigs got out. She took a deep breath; winter would be coming soon and they wouldn’t be able to keep the pigs outside any longer. Not that there was any way in hell that she was letting them into her house. Bobby wanted to get another shed for the backyard and put them there, unfortunately the book said that in freezing temperatures they’d seek out warmth and that meant people.
After waving to Bea as Steve’s car pulled away, she stared again at the house across the street. The old woman had hated the little bastards possibly more than Julie did, after all, they'd taken her child and her husband, but Julie was determined not to let them take anyone else…ever.