Most days, she just wanted to hurl her folders, cell phone, and the keys to her banged-up old Ford into the nearest needle strewn ditch and say to hell with her damned job. Today was certainly no exception, not with the way the sun was beating down on her like it had something personal against her comfort. She adjusted the suit-jacket she wore, the seams itching under her armpits, her thick stack of paperwork held before her like a loaded weapon. There was no police escort this time, which made her nervous since this was a primary assessment, but the location had placated her supervisor enough to make her believe where she was going posed no danger.
Marjorie sighed. Janet didn’t have the best track record when it came to common sense, an issue that irked her considering she’d been vying for Janet’s supervisory position for some time now. It wasn’t fair that she could send four social workers unprotected into possibly violent homes and yet somehow refrain from being directly reprimanded for lack of foresight. If anything, it was the front line workers who got the tongue lashing, the insistence that they be the ones to better judge a situation, and to have the brains enough not to walk into a potentially dangerous situation. But not all homes had the usual needles strewn about and drugs on the counter which indicated a certain level of criminality; there were those that didn’t quite have that big, ragged, filthy banner across their doors proclaiming, in blood red script: Here Be Dangerous Offenders.
Case in point this current home, which was not, as per usual, in a dilapidated apartment complex with plaster chipping off the walls, hallways reeking of piss. It had taken a few disbelieving glares at her GPS to ensure that yes, she had found the correct address, that this white fenced, perfectly mowed lawn, and beautifully manicured, thick green hedges belonged to her case file. Granted, such niceties could be deceiving, if she believed what was written in Janet’s oblique scrawl. “Call to 181 Dundy Lane from concerned citizen. Citizen quoted as saying there are ‘too many babies’ and the mother is considered delusional.”
She has been sent on assignment alone to a wealthy crazy woman’s house who may or may not have “too many babies.” The street was far too quiet for that first assumption, but from the ragged appearance of the woman who flung open her door upon Marjorie’s arrival on her cobblestoned pathway, the latter was no doubt true. She hugged her files close to her, not appreciating the scrutiny the disheveled woman was giving her. Marjorie gave her scuffed black pumps a cursory glance before straightening her shoulders and getting down to business. The woman’s wild red hair and even wilder eyes led Marjorie to suspect she was coming off tranqs. Probably something prescribed by a well-meaning but misguided doctor. Addicts were notorious for convincing the medical health establishment of their supposed suffering.
“Child Protective Services,” she announced, her voice clipped and formal in the manner of a police officer. “We received a call this morning that you were experiencing some distress?”
The woman in the doorway of the beautiful house nodded fervently. “Yes, yes,” she said, her voice high-pitched. Hysteric. “That would have been from the exterminator. He wasn’t much use, but I called him first, assuming it was the right thing to do. You call them when you have uncontrollable pests and…”
“Excuse me…Mrs. Helen Carmichael?” Marjorie interjected, reading the name off of her notes. “It says here that you were reported due to neglectful condition in your home in regards to your children…”
“Oh, I wouldn’t call them children… Not exactly,” Mrs. Carmichael said. She ran a shaking hand through her thick mass of red curly hair, her manicured nails like dots of pimples embedded in her mane. “I mean… Yes, they do look like children, on the outset, or some of them do…” She shuddered and let her hand fall to her side, her eyes shut and a heavy sigh of frustration escaping her. “Look, this is hardly my expertise. My doctor is not being of any help, and according to his office he’s left the country for an indefinite amount of time. I have a suspicion it’s due to avoiding a lawsuit from me. This whole mess is partially his fault, but I’m not averse to understanding this could be genetics. My family is very prone to cancers, especially on the maternal side.”
“Mrs. Carmichael, may I please come inside?” Marjorie said. Her voice suggested replying in the negative was not an option.
“I’m at my wit’s end,” Mrs. Carmichael replied, a distracted glaze in her eyes that suggested she’d performed some serious self-medicating. She moved away from the door and slunk into her house, no invitation properly afforded, though her voice continued to echo through its vast interior. The richness of the place not lost on Marjorie as she stepped onto the front porch and then through the front door. The high ceiling dwarfed them as Marjorie made her way into the living room, her worn pumps clacking on the pristine clean and polished oak floors. The carefully chosen furnishings that adorned the brightly lit living room beckoned her to take a load off by sitting on a cream coloured leather sofa. Marjorie kept her shoes and her coat on, her files delicately balanced in her lap as she sat on the sofa. Mrs. Carmichael was busy in the kitchen area of the living space, a long, grey, marble-topped island separating the two areas and giving Marjorie the sense of an above-ground, airy basement, where comfort was king, and the bar was always open. This feeling was cemented when Mrs. Carmichael approached her with two delicate wine glasses perched in her fingers, the contents clearly Caribbean Cruise in nature.
"I can’t drink on duty,” Marjorie protested.
“Oh, you will,” Mrs. Carmichael insisted. “It’s a tequila sunrise, and I made it good and strong. You’re going to need it. After what happened with that poor exterminator… I know better now, so go on, drink up.”
The sparkling, summerlike drink was thrust into Marjorie’s hand, and she held it unsteadily, unsure of where to put it down. There were no worn-out coffee tables here, no seventies-styled junk pieces full of chips, coffee-ring stains, and other assorted maltreatment. The sofa was placed in a fiercely clutter-free environment with the hem of a rather high-end Persian rug tucked beneath it. Marjorie held onto the offering, the itch to actually drink it and possibly have another weighing heavily on her.
“It would be best if I saw the children, Mrs. Carmichael,” Marjorie said.
Helen Carmichael knocked back her tequila sunrise in exactly two large gulps. From the unsteady gait of her walk, it was clear this had been a habit since morning. “If that’s what you want to call them,” she said, the empty wine glass dangling in her grip. “I keep them in the closet. It’s quieter that way. Mind you, they don’t make too much noise, but it’s like a buzzing, you know? Like mosquitoes.” She scrunched up her shoulders and her face. “Neeeeeee, like that. From the scale of them that’s the best they can do to get attention. Neeeeeeeeeeee.”
“Excuse me, did you say you are keeping your children in a closet?” Marjorie, the drink still in her hand, abandoned her papers to walk with purpose ahead of Mrs. Carmichael. Safe home, her ass, she was going to have to call the damned police after all! These rich bitches… What was it now? Drowned in the bathtub? Suffocated in the crib? There could be tons of reporters crawling over this one, especially with such an upper class family like the Carmichaels.
“Well, there really wasn’t anywhere else safe enough to keep them,” Mrs. Carmichael protested. “I used to take them out in the afternoon and leave them on the kitchen counter, but you see, we have a cat, and one day we had a horrible incident.” She sighed and opened a thin door next to her refrigerator. A broom and dust mop were in evidence, but there were no signs of children. “This is probably the safest place for them, and I can still take them out and feed them here in the kitchen. You see, this is my trouble, I don’t know how to take care of them, considering their unique problems. That is, of course, if they are children, which the exterminator insisted they were. I don’t know – you deal with these sorts of issues often enough I’m sure. Perhaps you are the best judge?”
“Mrs. Carmichael,” Marjorie said, checking her watch with her tequila sunrise-free wrist. “Do you have any children here or don’t you? Despite your delusions, I assure you, there are none in your closet.” She turned her back on the frazzled woman, resting her wine glass on the grey marble countertop. “I’ll be sure to refer your case to a more appropriate department, maybe that of social services. They could get you some help, maybe a hospital stay is in order. I’m here to deal with real children at risk, Mrs. Carmichael, not imaginary ones.”
“There’s nothing imaginary about my children,” Mrs. Carmichael replied, her lips a terse line of pink. She took a shoebox with holes in the lid off of a shelf in the closet. “I’m not sure about keeping this nursery box here so close to the cleaning fluids, but as I’ve told you before, I don’t have many places to put them.” She placed the shoebox on the island counter, and braced her palms flat on the cold marble surface.
There was a sound coming from the box, this Marjorie couldn’t deny. She eyed it with question, a distinctive “Neeeeeeeee” emitting from it in varying decibels.
“Open the lid,” Mrs. Carmichael dared her.
Marjorie steeled herself. She’d dealt with worse than death before. She took the lid off the shoebox.
Twelve? No. Thirteen? Fifteen… Fifteen.
Tiny mouths screamed, their faces purple in fury. Marjorie held her palm to her mouth, lunch dangerously close to spilling out. Some were bigger than others, and some had only partial limbs, stumped at the knees or at the elbow as though halted through mid-development. They cried and demanded, a tiny Neeeeee that hit the ear like the high-pitched whine of a mosquito.
“Dermatitis,” Mrs. Carmichael said.
They were lined up within the shoebox with care, a dishtowel serving as a blanket. Fifteen babies, tiny, tiny babies, no bigger than her thumb, mostly formed and awake and aware enough of life to be weeping at its beginning. “What the hell is this?” Marjorie said, her fingers still clamped tight on her cheeks.
“I told you, dermatitis,” Mrs. Carmichael said, as though this explained the horrific phenomenon away. Morbidly fascinated, Marjorie watched as one infant curled to its side, its purple face wracked in seeming pain, its tiny limbs flailing. Beside it, another frailer brother lay still. It had been this way for some time, from the mummified look of its skin. A sister was at its feet, her tiny mouth chewing on a partial foot.
“Oh, my God.” Marjorie pushed the box away from her, bile rising steadily up from her gut and into her throat.
“I thought it was just a rash,” Mrs. Carmichael said, shrugging. “The doctor. He said it was treatable.”
“Are they miscarriages?” Marjorie said, mostly to herself. “But surely they can’t live like this… They can’t live when they’re that small, and there’s so many…”
“Oh, there were more than that,” Mrs. Carmichael insisted. “There’s always more. Hundreds more. That’s why I need the doctor, you see, because he has to stop them from growing. See, here’s another one, and this one…” She held out her wrist for Marjorie to inspect. A series of odd shaped bumps littered the surface, four sets of what appeared to be limbs growing out from beneath her palm. Marjorie frowned, and bent to get a closer look at what at first glance was a wart on Helen Carmichael’s thumb. The bump moved, and to her horror a screaming infant face suddenly emerged, its pink mouth open, revealing a fiercely purple maw.
“They fall off after a time, sometimes in the shower, so I can’t always rescue them,” Mrs. Carmichael said. “I hope that doesn’t make me some kind of murderer. It’s not like I can control it. My biggest problem are the ones that sort of survive, like these. I don’t know what to do with them. They just cry all the time, and I’ve tried feeding them, but they don’t want any formula. They do enjoy raw meat. And I have to be so careful, it’s quite draining. As you can see, that dead one there, it’s feeding this one. Ugh, it’s disgusting, but what can I do? I was hoping the exterminator would have some answers, to help me make my decision. They are so small and so miserable. This is where you fit in, I should hope. What is your expert opinion?”
Marjorie, being an advocate for children, had a set script for the most basic of conversations in regards to their welfare. They are innocents, she would explain. They are not doing terrible things on purpose, they are merely children, they are clean slates, angels that wet and poop themselves. They are to be protected. They are our future. They are, despite appearances, remarkably strong.
The strong survive.
She pushed the shoe box away from her, vomit welling into her mouth. She released her disgust in Mrs. Carmichael’s sink. She ran the water after she was finished, her mouth rinsed, her composure only partially established. “Get rid of them,” she said. “Toss them in the trash, in the fire, whatever you have to do. Just get rid of them!”
“But I’ve tried!” Mrs. Carmichael whined, the delicate heel of her five hundred dollar shoe hitting the oak wood floor with frustrated anguish. “I tried everything! I cut them off before they were finished growing. I put rubbing alcohol on them to dry them up. I used antibiotic cream, I even used sandpaper as an exfoliant – nothing works. They keep coming back!”
Marjorie pushed past Mrs. Carmichael, the buzzing of the screaming infants in the shoebox taunting her as she grabbed her papers off the cream coloured couch, her files clutched close to her heart. This would be her last case. Ever.
“But you have to help me!” Mrs. Carmichael shouted after her. Marjorie ran out the front door, her scuffed pumps pounding the cobblestones as her heels hit the ground. She couldn’t get to her car fast enough. She couldn’t feel safe enough, not ever.
She should have had that tequila sunrise.
By the time she hit the highway, Marjorie was still wondering if what she’d seen was real or hallucination. She’d been working too damned hard, that was true, and Janet was going to get a piece of her mind. She’d cracked, that was all. After all the horrors she’d seen, all the damage done to children over the years, it was finally enough. She couldn’t possibly do this job one more day and still count her emotions as human. This was about survival, about making it through life in one piece.
She was haunted by it. All those miserable little pieces of humanity languishing in a shoebox. The tiny, half-formed limbs, the purple faces, the open, hungry mouths. How many cases had she worked on over the years? Hundreds? There were thousands in the files, thousands upon thousands, millions of cases in the world.
Evolution. Survival. To be a kid in this world, in this tough, unloving world, it would be a hell of an advantage to be born with the need to eat your competitor.
Marjorie rested her arms on the steering wheel, the traffic jam before her stretching for miles. She scratched the underside of her wrist, only to frown and give what she had thought was a mosquito bite a better inspection.
A tiny series of bumps. Four. A reddened, raised area made it five.
It squirmed, a face no bigger than a bite.
A silent scream bled purple.
Currently, M. Jones is the managing editor of the speculative ezine The Random Eye. She is also working on a collection of short horror stories and a series of horror novellas inspired by ecological issues.
For more information on M. Jones and her particular brand of horrible thoughts, please visit her website.
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