This trilogy (each book about 90 k) is made up of braided first person narratives, and set in the witch-ocracy of Tovar joined to New Jersey by a very open portal.
Sarcastic zombie who’s too kind for her own good.
Naïve clone from Philadelphia exploring fairyland.
Were-miniature schnauzer suffering from PSTD.
A bat-shit crazy ghost who either wants the others to stitch up a tear leading to yet another world… or to use the third world’s power to conquer the undeserving masses.
Living Dead Girl
Even inside my coffin, I knew when the Angel floated down. The canvas tent hiding me from the audience did nothing to dampen the crowd’s thrilled whispers and shuffling feet.
“Welcome, friends.” The Angel’s voice was soft, precise, and projected by the shape of his golden mask. If anyone asked, he sold some bullshit about the face of an angel being too glorious. Usually, they asked about the halo, which I thought looked fake as shit, but floated over his head and inspired a lot of awe. “You are about to enter the center of Madame Lacha’s Carnival of Wonders, Delights, and Terrors. It’s not for the weak-hearted or the faint-willed.”
As if people from Earth travel through a portal and wander this deep into Tovar to grab a cup of tea and chat about the weather.
He made the usual chat. The experience would alter them to their core…blur the line between Heaven and Hell…turn off any cell phones. Don’t touch the displays.
I mentally went on the tour with them. Gargoyle was the first specimen. Literally, he was made of rock. Not carved like most Earth tourists thought a gargoyle would be, but a heap of small stones shaped like a man. He sat in a puddle of pebbles and made shapes with his magic. A dolphin poised above gravel waves. A delicately blooming rose that hardened into a solid lump when he handed it to a lady. A balloon on a string that quivered in the air and shattered to pieces when a child touched it. An arrow pointed up the staircase to the strongman.
Bob, a guy from Earth, lifted heavy things over his head. Big ball weights. A chair. A chair with a lady in it. A chair with the biggest man in the room.
Every night without fail our plant in the audience, a swaybough named Abby, called, “Lift Gargoyle.”
And without fail, every night Bob grunted, strained, but ultimately lifted the man made of stone to triumphant applauds. No one ever noticed the little stalagmite of stone that actually held Gargoyle up.
Then Feather-head ran into the room and begged to be lifted next.
For my five yegg, Feather-head was the saddest attraction inside of the show. He was a half-wit, and somewhere along the way, the swayboughs decided to put him in a dress and call him Lady Feather. The audience laughed and so did he, too dumb to know he was the joke.
The dress—a frilly pink which contrasted the polished brown of his skin beautifully—was modeled after Earth’s Victorian gowns although I don’t think anyone on Earth wears that fashion anymore. Bob lifted “Lady Feather” with two fingers, then tossed him up above the crowd. People covered their heads waiting for him to crash down on them. Instead, Feather-head flitted slowly, skirts billowing. Abby whistled in his direction, and they all cooed in amazement when her breath carried Feather-head away. Then Bob would bat him and there’d be a game of Toss the Lady, which ended when Feather-head planted his feet on the ground and became utterly unmovable. Everyone tried, including Bob, and no one could make Feather-head budge. Bob made a joke about the fickleness of women—which used to be Feather-head’s line, but most nights he forgot his lines—and the audience laughed and moved on.
The tourists wandered leisurely through the menagerie. Mandrakes under bell jars. A stuffed Basilisk that Lacha had suffocated when it grew too dangerous to live. Unicorns with plaited manes, bleached fur, and scrubbed asses, so they looked less feral than they were. Lacha fed them drugs to keep them calm. They died young, but they always looked so pretty with their heads in a swaybough’s lap.
The swayboughs were all over the carnival since Lacha never had a shortage of stupid girls selling themselves in exchange for training in the magic arts. Lacha only took pretty girls or very talented ones. Pretty girls are always useful. Some dressed as fairies behind mirrors to make them look tiny. Some danced with snakes. Some just did little tricks with fire and air.
Lacha had other people in there too. She had a centaur who gave children rides if they paid her a yegg. We had a wolf in human skin who talked about skin-changers and the shifter communities in Rath Cairn to school groups. He preferred the adult shows where he danced to the heavy beats and pulses of Earth music and stripped until he was too naked to hold his shape and transformed into a howling beast. He dove at the prettiest girl and a swaybough—usually wearing only slightly more than the wolf—whipped him into submission.
The crowd never noticed when their angelic guide ducked away, and in private took off his mask and white robe and long gloves. He reappeared as himself. Just Crane. Half man, half bird, all monster. He chattered his deformed black beak-lips, flapped his thickly feathered arms, twisted his long neck. His very wide, very white eyes were unnerving, and people would scamper away when he brought his feather-capped head close to them. He didn’t wear a shirt, and his waist was so small, some people asked where his internal organs hid. Crane did not speak, only squawked and pecked people until they all went into the next room.
As if the angel’s abandonment allowed the darkness in, the crowd now found themselves surrounded by skeletons. The bones of a three-headed Afreet with his six arms raised as if killed mid-attack. The siren with her bony legs spread and a minotaur charging her, frozen on his pedestal, never getting nearer to his prize. The yothgre torso with his bleached fingers wrapped around the handle of the ax embedded in his skull like he was still trying to pull it out. I cut my fingers on the jagged rows of his teeth unloading that skeleton once.
Deeper into the darkness. A demon’s shriveled testicles in a crystal jar, a headless man in a cage, reaching down, a calcified mermaid. The ‘demon’ balls were just rotten avocados, and the man without a head was Jevee, another swaybough, practicing her illusion spells. But the dead merrow was real. Rumor around camp went that the mermaid drowned ten years ago in the menagerie. Lacha was the type to work her people even after death.
“Friends…” Like a miracle of magnanimity, their angel reappeared. His golden mask covered the twist of his beak, the robe covered his narrowness, the gloves hid his feathers and mud brown skin. “I implore the squeamish to leave the tour now. In fifteen minutes, the Dreaded Dragon Lord and his Deadly Dragons will display a flying spectacle. Perfectly safe.”
He was delighted by his alliteration. “There’s an ice cream stand just outside. And as always, our lovely ladies are ready to tell your future.”
Giggles as the swayboughs, the stars of the delighting portion of the carnival, skipped away.
The Angel pled once more. “Last chance for anyone to leave the tour now before seeing… what cannot be unseen.”
I hated that line. Sounded stupid every time he said it.
“No one? Very well, then. I give you…” The curtain fell down as the Angel announced the star of the terror portion of the carnival, me. “The Living Dead Girl.”
There were always gasps, sometimes screams. Does wonders for a girl’s self-esteem. I was more terrifying than a demon’s pickled sex organs. But at least I was more interesting than ice cream. Not as tasty.
Crane usually described me as a murdered child and gestured to the knife plunged into my side. Except for special occasions, the blade was staged. But the muscle and ribs showing through skin that was more translucent than brown were not. My withered right arm rested on my belly above my normal left one. My hair, long and dark, splayed around my head to highlight my sunken cheek, exposed teeth, and of course, horror-of-horrors, my empty eye-socket.
Well, not totally empty. I put a little bowl of dirt and some worms in there.
“How the hell is it still alive?” Someone always asked some variant on that question.
Another man, wearing a white shirt without sleeves which seemed very impractical, said, “well-endowed for a little girl.”
Crane slipped accidentally into his actual voice disgusted by the remark. “She’s also dead, sir.”
I wished I could keep my good eye shut. Crane said it was creepier when I looked at people. But when I could lie there with my eyes shut I could disappear. I’d imagine staring up through green forest branches, at a great mountain with a bit of sky above. In the distance, high on the mountain, there was a stone fountain made mostly by nature but with some human intervention. The waterfall came from the rough outcropping extending over a sheer slope, but the waterfall’s lake had been dammed by intricately carved stones. It made a pool that was in constant motion and somehow never overflowed its walls or grew filthy with the pines needles and leaves. If I disappeared fully into the vision, I could hear the ocean at the base of the mountain.
Then I could escape the tourists.
When looking was no longer terrible enough for the audience, Crane put his hand on the coffin. He still jabbered on about what had killed me, but it was the signal for me to perform. I stirred and groaned a little. Sneered with the skinless side of my face. Lifted my withered arm and flexed my gnarled fingers.
Most nights, Crane said, “anyone who wishes to learn their future from the dead can purchase some blood and feed the living corpse.”
Lacha told me the vials were full of real blood, but Crane said it was just a little water mixed with mandrake juice for color and texture. It tasted like some chocolate sauce and spices were mixed in as well, though it wasn’t for my benefit. Customers liked to smell the contents of the vial before they poured it into my mouth.
Often they’d miss. Afraid to get close. They should have been afraid. I took great delight in grabbing their arms in my withered claw and glaring into their eyes until I could actually see their future. I especially loved to tell what they really didn’t want to know.
And some tours, we had a different script.
Crane said, “The Dead are… restless. We should depart.”
As they shuffled away, I lurched forward and clawed for the nearest customer. The dirt and worms tumbled from my eye socket as I targeted the most vulnerable, a father holding his daughter. The kid screamed.
The Angel, all glowing halo and stunning wings, stepped between them and me. He shouted some made-up words. I hissed and coiled back into my death pose.
The customers eagerly left the dark tent. Only then did they think to applaud.
When Crane finished collecting tips and came back in, I sat scooping the worms back into the cup.
I smiled faintly at him. “Quick tour.”
He flung the mask and halo in the corner. A groan whistled past his beak-lips. “Fuckin’ discount groups.”
“Yeah. They sounded drunk.”
“You think?” Crane unlaced his fake wings and angelic robe and chucked them on my coffin. I’d clean them later.
Crane flicked his fingers and his wind magic carried his red tunic from a hidden nook in the tent and deposited it in his hand. He slipped into the tunic, looking more like himself in red. He rubbed his long neck, which reliably ached after bad groups. Then scowled over at me.
It was nothing I did. Crane generally scowled. His face didn’t soften much when he said, “How old are you?”
“Uh…” It surprised me to be asked. “I’m taller than Isme, so… maybe older than her?”
Crane considered. “That makes you about eleven or twelve. That dress is a bit small.”
Those were his final thoughts on the matter. He perched on his stool and started counting tips, but I glanced down at the dress. It was a simple white frock, half-lace and half tatter at the hem. I’d noticed it ended higher on my thigh recently and had shrunk around my back. “Mr. Crane, does that mean I’m growing?”
“The hell kind of question is that?” Crane snorted. “Of course, you are.”
I gasped more than a little thrilled. “But Goryner said dead things don’t grow.”
The old goblin trained dragons and Lacha herself had forecast that he’d smoke himself to death within four years. I was something like his apprentice only because he wouldn’t shirk his duty to the dragons by not training me. And though he didn’t have a spit of affection to spare for anything but his winged beauties, he’d never been overly cruel to me. I didn’t think he’d lie.
Crane lifted his eyes. “Well, what does Goryner know about living dead things? You are obviously a child growing up. That prick in the crowd certainly noticed.”
I stayed in the coffin, knees tucked up to my chin. “I don’t care about that. But…don’t people usually remember being little? Like Isme talks about when she was five, and she was sold to Lacha. If I’m the same age, shouldn’t I remember something before?”
“They say on Earth, a poor memory is the key to happiness.” He flicked through the cash, pretending he wasn’t paying attention to me. But I knew he’d lost count and was only going through the motions.
So I persisted. “Mr. Crane, how did I actually die?”
“You came to us dead.” He put the cash down. “I don’t know more than that. Lacha’s the only one who might, and it wouldn’t be wise for you to ask her.”
“But don’t I have the right to—”
“No. You don’t.” He said crossly. “If Lacha wanted it known, she’d have told me. A witch keeps secrets for a reason.”
He pocketed the cash and tested what sympathy would sound like in his voice. It rang hollow. “Now, I believe you can live a reasonably pleasant life if you let yourself. It’ll be easier when you’re older. When your place in the caravan is more… respected. But if you start poking and prodding around your past, you’re only going to find darkness and pain.”
I flexed the withered hand clasped around my knee, watching the knotty bones through too tight skin. “I understand. I don’t like it, but I thank you for your wisdom.”
“Wisdom?” Crane scoffed and opened the curtain, letting sunlight stream into the tent. “Self-preservation. Nothing wholesome created you, Dead Girl.”
Everything hazy. Behind bars. Where’s Daddy?
Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!
Every raff always tells Webster to shut up. Daddy never said shut up.
Webster hurts, so Webster lies down. The air smells like fur and urine and metal and clean things. Why bars?
Webster covers his eyes and thinks of Daddy. Where did Webster leave him?
Daddy would hold Webster if he were here. He would put Webster in his lap and sing to Webster and tell Webster “nothing to worry about.”
He would say to the raffs. Change? Change? Anything appreciated.
The raffs would sometimes look at Webster and shake their heads with the sad. Sometimes yell. Sometimes the good raffs would change, and Daddy would thank them, and they would move on.
Daddy would buy cans and open cans and give Webster the food from the cans and eat some himself. Or sausage in Center City. Webster is hungry and whines. Everything smells wrong here. No grass, just other sniffers and they haven’t been anywhere but the metal-places.
Food… Food… Daddy, give Webster food…
He’s a noisy shit.
He’s been distressed all day.
Yeah. What I said. Noisy shit.
I hope he calms down soon. No one will take him if he acts like that.
The raffs never stop talking.
A raff comes to Webster. She offers her hand to Webster. She is young and clean. She could make babies now. Her skin has a cream and flower and alcohol and dog food smell. She smiles. She is a good-girl-raff. Webster whines and looks at her, but Webster doesn’t move closer.
Hey, puppy. Do you miss your old owner? Such a good dog. Loyal little boy.
She pets Webster’s head. Her fingers are small and too sharp.
Not like Daddy.
Webster whines and backs away from her and into the shadow. Hide. Nowhere to hide. Just more bars, more paper, more smell of fur and urine.
Webster wants Daddy. Daddy. Where did Webster leave him? Did Webster get caught by the bad raffs? Did he?
Daddy was cold. It was very cold outside. He put Webster inside his coat and went to the inside place, but someone saw Webster, and they told Daddy he had to put Webster outside. Those raffs yelled at us. Yes, they did, they yelled at Daddy and Webster.
So, Webster yelled at them, Raffs! Raffs!
Then someone who was not Daddy picked Webster up and put Webster outside where it was cold, and the ground was white.
Webster shouted for Daddy, then Webster heard and smelled Daddy. So Webster ran out to him, and Daddy picked Webster up and brought Webster to another place.
Daddy put Webster inside his coat. Daddy shivered and talked about the raffs, and Webster licked his face.
It was very cold.
Daddy got very cold.
Then Daddy got too cold. Webster went to yell at the inside place and then the sometimes-good raffs with the sticks and the talking-boxes and the flashy-box-on-top cars. Sometimes we ran away from them. Sometimes they would change for Daddy.
The sometimes-good raffs followed Webster, and we ran back to Daddy. They got very quiet and stopped trying to catch Webster. They shook Daddy, but Daddy didn’t wake up.
Webster put his head under Daddy’s hand, but Daddy wouldn’t pet Webster. Daddy smelled wrong.
Then the really bad raffs came and put Webster in a box with bars. Webster shouted for Daddy. But he hasn’t heard Webster yet.
Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!
Daddy! Where’s Daddy! Daddy!
Leave him alone, Josh. He’s just hungry.
He wouldn’t eat this morning. Probably diseased. Wasn’t it with a bum?
Daddy! Daddy! Where are you, Daddy!
A homeless veteran who spent the last of his warmth keeping that puppy alive.
Still using that fancy degree I see.
Daddy! Daddy, take Webster to the park! To the river! To the food place! Take Webster away, Daddy!
The good-girl-raff puts a plate of food, chunky wet delicious smelling food, outside the bars. She makes pleasing noises at Webster.
She is not Daddy. But she has food and a nice face. Webster whines and slinks away from the bars.
Good dog. Good doggie. You hungry?
Webster is hungry, yes. Very hungry.
She opens the bars and Webster comes. The floor ends, and the next floor is far. Webster is so high up. Webster whimpers and backs away. The fall scares him.
Good boy. Here’s some nice food.
Can’t wait to neuter that bastard.
God, I can’t stand you.
She closes the bars again.
Webster eats. But Webster doesn’t enjoy it.
Webster looks at the good-girl raff. Maybe she’s wrong. Maybe… maybe Webster is a bad doggie and Daddy…No. Webster is always good.
Daddy just can’t hear Webster yet.
The raffs call the metal bars ‘crates’. The sniffers are not unhappy here, and Webster’s crate smells like Webster now. Webster has a lot of time to miss Daddy. Webster also misses the park crowded with the smells of sniffers and squirrels, and the don’t-go-near flowers and the sticky scent of the grass blades still bleeding from the last time the roaring metal thing sliced them. And Webster also misses the river where the bridge stones heated Webster’s paws and where the grass never bleeds but blooms into thick clouds of seeds, and none of the flowers are don’t-go-near. Webster misses sunshine and sausages. Hot dog for my hot dog, Daddy says in the summer. Daddy wouldn’t make Webster stay in a crate.
The sniffer in the crate across from Webster looks at Webster and sighs. If we were in the same place, Webster would smell this other sniffer and know him. But we’re not in the same place, and we can’t play, and Webster misses Daddy.
Daddy would tell Webster what to do, to run away, or to bite or to eat, or to be good. He would tell Webster it’s safe. He would tell Webster if these were good raffs.
The good-girl-raff rubs Webster’s head.
You still playing with the mopey one?
Yeah, he’s so sad. He misses his person.
Don’t anthropomorphize the dogs, Alice. It’s gonna get put down by summer at this rate.
They don’t get put down until they’ve been here a year, Josh. Maybe if I teach him some tricks, someone will take him. Poor puppy. Just wants his person.
Webster licks Alice’s hand. Alice understands Webster. Webster misses Daddy.
This place has a pattern. Raffs come and go throughout the day. There are some raffs that come every day or just about and stay for a long time, like Alice and Josh and Dr. Frank. Other raffs come in for a little while and pick up things and then go away forever. Sometimes they bring sniffers ‘into the back’ where all the stings and metal and clean white tables live. Most of the time the sniffers taken into ‘into the back’ come back. But sometimes they go away forever. Sometimes sniffers get put in crates and sometimes sniffers are taken out of the crates by strange raffs, and then they go outside, and they go away forever.
Yes, sir. This little guy is practically a purebred mini-schnauzer. He was owned by a homeless vet who died this winter. Real tragedy. Webster—that was the name on the tag—lead the police to his body.
She says this to a lot of raffs.
Would you like to see his tricks? He’s very smart.
It makes them sad, and they wiggle their paws near Webster. So, Webster sniffs them and lets them pet his head. They like this. They go away.
When the door opens, nice clean scents come in. There are flowers, somewhere. Webster can smell them.
Yes, sir. Practically a purebred. He was owned by a veteran. We think he’s about three years old. Would you like to see his tricks?
Webster still misses Daddy, but Webster sniffs this new raff. A whiff of powdery laundry mixed with a stinging sterile alcohol stink almost masks the fresh scent of a little boy’s poop. Webster can smell the little boy raff all over him. He must have cuddled with the boy and stroked his head. He must have been a very-good-boy-raff
Too clean to be Daddy’s smell. Webster whines and drops his head.
What’s wrong with him?
Nothing. Webster is very healthy. He just misses his last owner.
Oh. Well, I’m looking for a more playful puppy.
Alice gives Webster’s head a rub, and she and the other raff move away.
When he leaves, he takes another sniffer with a rope and some toys and a bag of food. Webster smells the outside, the flowers and the grass and Webster wants to go outside and play.
Webster is very bright. His temperament may be a little depressed, but when he’s in the right frame of mind, he won’t stop until he learns a trick. Very stubborn about it.
The crate door opens, and Webster comes to the front because Alice likes it when he does. Webster gives his tail a few wags, just like all these happy dummy sniffers, and looks up at this new raff.
He’s a tall one with fur on his face and studies Webster. The furry face speaks with a low voice like Daddy did.
How does he get along with other dogs and people?
He’s not very social. He likes puppies. He learns quickly. For example.
Alice picks Webster up to put him on the counter.
Webster puts his paws into the air.
Good boy, Webster.
Funny name for a dog.
It’s actually his previous owner’s name. When he came in here about a years ago, his owner’s military tags were wrapped around his neck for a collar. But he always answers to it. Right, Webster? Speak.
Webster barks because Alice taught Webster to bark when she said speak. Webster prances through his tricks. Webster sits, lies down, speaks, shakes, rolls over.
And here’s the advanced stuff.
Alice holds the hoop and Webster trots up to it and jumps. She makes kissing noises, and Webster follows her fingers.
If he’s so trainable why is he slated to be put down in a week?
Oh, the usual. Not enough room. He’s a black dog, and those are always hardest to adopt. He’s not social or playful. A real challenge. Webster’s a very serious puppy. He’d be good at The Hill. Very professional little guy.
You don’t have to sell so hard, Alice. I’ll take him. Usual price and… arrangement?
Yes. No one will know you were here. Thanks for taking him. I just wanted you to know… he’s a good dog. He’s a smart dog.
The furry face picks Webster up. Webster wags his tail. Furry Face smells very different from Daddy. Like soap and burgers with ketchup and cheese, and also sugary sweet drink and someone else’s cigarette smoke in his hair. Maybe this raff will be like Daddy. Maybe Furry Face will take Webster to the park and ask other raffs about change and give Webster sausages.
Webster will do his best to follow this raff and to be a good-doggie. Furry Face carries Webster in the crate to a big white van. Webster smells the grass. And the chicken and salt and sauce from a cart down the street and the foul car stink. Outside is so good.
Inside the van, other sniffers growl and menace each other. Webster doesn’t want to go inside. Webster wants to be outside with the grass and the flowers. Webster wriggles, and Furry Face holds Webster tighter.
The new Daddy puts Webster into a crate stacked on top of another crate and Webster sees a bulldog in the crate next to him. He sniffs. She is older than Webster, smells like flea soap, won’t have puppies today, and she ate some biscuits not long ago. Webster likes her smell, and she wags her tail at Webster, so she likes Webster’s smell too. Webster thinks he loves her, but we cannot smell each other to know for certain.
If the metal bars were not in the way, if Webster could get closer, Webster would play with her. Instead, Webster lays down in the smaller crate and sighs.
I believe my name was originally Yellow. I have very vivid memories of wearing the sunflower shirt. Then again I recall wearing black, and I know I had my share of violet days as well. Still, I am quite sure I was originally Yellow.
Like almost everything else, the confusion about names was Violet’s fault. The fool.
It was a long time ago when we were still smaller than the Moms and Dads, and we never left the sleeping room.
The sleeping room was approximately seventy feet long and eighteen feet wide. We called it the sleeping room because we slept there. All our names for things were quite obvious in those days. The sleeping pods—stationed in pairs so that one brother would have his feet facing the wall and head facing the aisle—dominated one end of the white-tiled room. This left, of course, a good forty feet for the play area, not that we did much playing. The play area was delineated by four couches that could seat three of us at a time.
When we were older, we left the sleeping area and went to the kitchen and the cafeteria. Every morning, after we returned from breakfast, the Moms and Dads rolled in the book carts and two long tables, and we would study. By noon, lessons done, we would return to the kitchen and cafeteria, make and eat lunch, then return to the play area where the Moms and Dads would organize us into art or music or puzzles depending on what day of the week it was.
This was when we experienced our first big change. Suffered it, one might say.
Someone, another small person, was in the room when we returned from lunch.
The Moms and Dads had rolled in a puzzle, a big one, the kind that when assembled would be an amusement ride. One can tell not only because of the 12v battery but because of the handful of pieces that looked like dissected animal parts.
But that other small person. Smaller than Mom Joyce, he wore a very long pink, very sparkling shirt and no trousers. This stood out in my memory because it was indecent to not wear trousers. One ought to be punished when one does not wear trousers.
He was also strangely colored. We all had white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. And while we debated whether yellow or pale red or a very light beige was more an appropriate descriptor of our skin, we unanimously agreed that blond was a special word for yellow hair, and blue was the correct shade. However, this new small person was so different he rendered our conversations about our appearance arbitrary.
For example, his hair was brown, and his eyes were green and blue and brown. We’d never seen anyone but Moms and Dads with different hair and eye color. We’d never seen anyone but Moms and Dads and us.
We all stared trying to figure out what this new small person was. He clutched closer to Mom Joyce, holding her hand. He did not have the confidence of a Mom or a Dad, and he was smaller than them so he should have been an us. But his face was different than ours—in obvious ways, like not having blue eyes and blond hair but also in subtle ways. His nose and mouth were shaped differently—so he couldn’t possibly be one of us.
Mom Joyce put her hands on the new person’s shoulders and said, “boys, I want you all to meet my daughter, Karen.”
I gasped. Daughter meant a little girl. A real live little girl. Just like in the storybooks. Lessons came to life. Not a long shirt, but a dress. A pink dress and not a ‘he’ at all. Because ‘she’ was the proper pronoun for females like the Moms and the girls in storybooks. Karen must have been a shade of pink.
Mom Joyce pointed at us. “Karen, that’s Red, Yellow, Green, Black, Gray, Blue, Indigo, White, Orange, and Violet.”
We all smiled, bowed our heads, and said, “pleased to meet you, Miss Karen.”
Karen looked afraid, but Mom Joyce smiled. “Very good, boys.”
“All ten passed criteria one acknowledging Karen’s gender and age.” Dad Bruce spoke into his wrist-recorder. He cleared his throat. “Unanimously.”
Mom Joyce went on smiling. “Karen is here today to help you put together the big puzzle. You are to play nicely. The puzzle will be a very large elephant. If you assemble it quickly enough, then you may all take turns riding the elephant.”
How exciting. We all studied the pieces without leaving our formation, assessing, judging, deliberating, delegating internally.
“Go on, Karen.” Mom Joyce pushed the new person towards us.
“Mommy, why do they all look alike? They’re weird.”
“That’s not nice, Karen. They are normal little boys, and they would like it very much if you played with them.”
I stepped forward and smiled. “Yes, please, Miss Karen. We’ve never met a little girl before.”
Karen regarded me with baffling uncertainty, then stepped back again.
“Yes, Miss Karen, come help with the puzzle,” said Red stepping forward and smiling.
“It’s an elephant, Karen!” White stepped forward and smiled.
“Mommy’s right here, darling.” Mom Joyce nudged her again, so Karen walked forward and finally joined us.
The timer began.
Immediately, the ten of us industriously sorted and categorized the inner frames. Once that was accomplished, three of us put those together while the others went about separating the other pieces according to color, size, and purpose.
I fashioned the outside edge of the trunk, hauling one block to its mate when I noticed the little girl just stood there.
“Help out,” said Green.
Karen looked confused. “What am I supposed to do?”
Gray tried to be nice. “Well, Pink. You can put the frame together with Yellow, Red, and I.”
“My name is Karen.” She stamped her foot.
Gray bit his lip and looked around at the rest of us. Karen was obviously a shade of pink. I knew about shades of colors. Golden, sunflower, vomited corn.
Yes, I was definitely Yellow.
Karen slowly moved blocks and even worse put them in the wrong place. It became clear to all of us that she was not clever. More importantly, she was going to cost us our elephant ride.
Violet said, “That connects with this one, Karen. Bring it here, please.”
“No. It fits with this one.” She pushed the piece aggressively into a place where it did not belong.
So I picked it up and brought it to Violet.
“Hey, that was mine!” Karen stamped her shoes, which were also pink. Little lights flickered in them. “Jerk.”
I had never heard the word ‘jerk’ used that way and I thought it was a new shade of yellow. “No, just Yellow, please.”
I handed the ear part to Violet who slipped it easily into place. “And Violet said please. Besides, you’re working on the foot.”
“This is stupid. Your names are stupid,” Karen said. “Violet is a stupid name for a boy.”
We all looked at each other a moment, ten identical faces searching for answers.
Then Violet said, “Pink isn’t playing nicely.”
“I agree. Pink said ‘stupid.’ I heard him…” I realized my mistake. “Correction, her… so sorry. I heard her.”
White hit a button on the wall to stop the timer on the activity. We all stepped toward the little girl to take her arm so the Dads would know whom to punish. Karen needed to be brought to the rabies room for reprimand.
Karen screamed and ran away, which wasn’t fair. None of us ran away when we had to be punished. Certainly, none of us would scream like that. It wasn’t rational.
“Pink,” shouted Orange. “Hold still. Or Mom Joyce won’t be able to tell you apart.”
“I don’t wanna be you! I wanna stay me! I wanna be Karen!” She sobbed. “Let me go.”
Most of us had a hold on her, so I didn’t try to wedge in. I just went over the facts of the case against her. She’d called Violet and me stupid. She said Violet was a stupid name for a boy. It occurred to me in the picture books, only girls wore violet.
Violet held her arm, but he stared at his shirt.
He was thinking about it too. Stupid name for a boy. Something that set Violet apart from the rest of us. Something to make him… different.