Fiction Friday: Pretend Play

I knew there was something strange about him on the second day. At the interview he’d seemed like a normal toddler, and the first day I put the oddness down to toddler eccentricity. By that second day, however, it was clear that this child was slightly out of step with the world.

“James, please stop biting the chair leg.”

The little boy looked at me and continued to chew. In the interview I’d noticed the chew marks and assumed a dog was responsible. I guess not. Sighing with exasperation I coaxed him away and set him up with some painting. That seemed to hold his attention, until—

“James! Stop! The paint is not for drinking!”

His lapping little tongue was covered in red paint, as was his nose and chin. He looked for all the world like he’d settled in to tear apart a zebra carcass. He’d certainly do well as a lion cub, with his shock of sandy hair and sturdy little body. It hadn’t escaped me that his preferred mode of travel was crawling, either.

When Mrs. Goodman came home I brought up my concerns. “I haven’t actually seen James walk yet. I know you said he could, but I’m just wondering if, well, he is. Actually. Because I haven’t seen it. Yet.” I floundered, not wanting to offend, knowing how touchy parents can be. “And he isn’t talking to me. He growls. A lot. And he bit me. Is he going through a dog phase or something? Pretending?”

Mrs. Goodman smiled brightly. “Why yes, dear, I’m sorry. I thought I mentioned it. James loves dogs, and he’s often pretending to be one. Is that all?” Her polite expression coupled with the raised eyebrows effectively dismissed me and I mumbled a response before hurrying off. As I left, I saw James on the ground with a soft toy in his mouth; he was shaking it back and forth, a low rumble coming from his belly.

On the way home I put it out of my mind; I’d definitely looked after more difficult children than James. It would be hard to outdo the Blunt twins, after they ambushed me and tied me up. But James, he was just odd. Odd I could handle.

Over the next few weeks I got to know James better. He still preferred to be a dog most of the time, but occasionally his cute little kid side would come out. He only had a few words, disturbingly “meat”, “bone”, and “kill” were among them. I knew he had a teenage brother, so I rationalised it again after Mrs. Goodman dismissed my concerns once more.

The hardest part was taking him to the park. He would insist upon tearing around on all fours, growling and harassing the other children. I had to follow him closely to prevent him biting them. Once he managed to get his teeth onto a little girl’s arm and it was like trying to get a pitbull to release. The poor girl actually fainted and the mother screamed so loudly I was scared someone would call the cops. Finally I growled at him to let GO and he did, scurrying after me with a proud look on his face. We stayed away from the park for a week after that incident.

As the season turned from summer to fall I realised James was growing very fast. At sixteen months he was the size of an average four year old. His sandy hair refused to be tamed and his resemblance to a little lion cub grew. I’d never seen Mr. Goodman but I assumed James took after him, since Mrs. Goodman was quite dark in appearance. Again I confronted her about James’s refusal to speak, walk and act like an otherwise civilised child. Again she dismissed everything I said. “He’s fine,” she said. “Totally normal. His father was like this too, according to my mother-in-law.”

As the leaves dropped from the trees, and normal children rugged up against the cold, James fought coats and shoes and wailed if I made him wear a hat. If we made it to the park with him fully dressed, buy the time we left he was in the bottom layer of clothing, barefoot and bare head and still warm as toast. I gave up, and didn’t bother talking to Mrs. Goodman. As far as kids went, he was still easier than the Blunt twins.

One day James found an injured pigeon. He stared at it, fascinated and puzzled. Of course I ushered him away from it, terrified that he would bite its head off. “Meat?” he asked me.

“No!” I flapped my arms. “It’s a bird. It’s hurt and can’t fly.”

He flapped his arms too, and settled on his tummy to watch it. “Home?” He looked so hopeful I couldn’t deny him, especially since he hadn’t just eaten it then and there, as I’d feared he might. I unwound my scarf and picked the fluttering creature up, gently binding its useless wings. Then I carried it home while James scampered around me.

We found a box and I freed it from my scarf before placing it in. James crawled off to find a blanket and returned with it in his jaws. Once the pigeon was snuggled in to his satisfaction he lost interest and wandered off. I hoped Mrs. Goodman wouldn’t be too upset about our little invalid.

She was unfazed. “That’s fine dear, we’ll take it down to the vet in the morning.” Oh, of course, the weekend.

“If it’s too much trouble I can drop by and take it—“

“No, no, enjoy your weekend. James will enjoy the trip to the vet I’m sure.” She waved airily at me. I said goodbye to James and went home.

Over the weekend I wondered how the pigeon was, and on Monday the first thing I asked was, “how is the pigeon James?”

“Meat. Bone.” He looked at me, all childish innocence. I stared at him, a sinking feeling in my stomach.

“The pigeon, James, did you take it to the vet?”

He frowned. “Kill. Meat.”

“Did you kill the bird James? Did you eat it?” I couldn’t quite keep the horror out of my voice. He nodded happily and crawled off to play with his toys, a game of pounce and slaughter. I decided to put it out of my mind—he was only a toddler, after all. Sometimes toddlers say they do things, when they haven’t.

*

Leaning against the slide, watching him crawl around in the bark, I heard someone come up beside me. “Excuse me?”

I jumped and turned. An earnest dark face peered at me. “Is that your child?” She was pointing at James.

“I’m his nanny. Why? He’s well looked after, I assure you, he doesn’t seem to feel the cold.” I felt anxious.

She shook her head. “No, no, not that. I just wondered… is he a wolf child? There were stories where I grew up in India about them.”

I laughed. “No, he’s just a strange little boy.” Inside though, I felt my stomach twist. That night I googled wolf children, and discovered a mental illness called “lycanthropy”. James seemed to fit the bill perfectly. I agonised over whether I should say something to Mrs. Goodman. Surely if her son had a mental illness, I had a professional duty to inform her of my suspicions so she could access help for him? Finally I resolved to tell her, the very next day.

*

When Mrs. Goodman got home I mustered up all my courage and told her I needed to speak to her.

“I’m concerned that James is not exactly normal. I’ve been doing some reading, and, well, I wondered if you had heard of lycanthropy?”

She appeared bemused. “You think my son is a werewolf?”

“No no!” I laughed nervously. “It’s an illness, of the mind, er… where a person believes they are a wolf.”

“James is not yet two, Ms. Walker. He has no concept of himself as ‘human’, he just is himself.”

I struggled to find words. I couldn’t believe she would just dismiss it again. “What happened to the pigeon?”

She sat back, a flat expression on her face. “I took it to the vet.”

“James said he killed it. And ate it.”

“James is a baby.” She looked menacing, as she sat there. We were at an impasse. Finally I broke the silence.

“I don’t think I can continue working for you, Mrs. Goodman.”

She nodded. “I think that’s a good decision. I’ll ensure your pay is up to date. Thank you for your care of James.” She stood and watched me as I gathered my belongings. I left the room and walked down to the front door, then realised I hadn’t said goodbye to James. I hesitated at the door, but I thought of the strange kid and wanted to at least say a last goodbye. I crept up the stairs and peeked into his room.

And screamed.

Because there, crouched on the floor, playing pounce and slaughter with soft toys, was a lion cub.

—-

Prompt: For some extra fun each month, we are utilising ”Story Starter” die. Look at each face of the dice, ponder on its significance to a character, setting or plot you may have bubbling away.. now write – using these as your inspiration. (The images were a lightbulb and what looked like a baby casting a monster cat shadow).

I admit I’m going through a bit of a writing slump, but I really wanted to use the prompt today. I decided early on my baby would be a shapeshifter, but thought I’d toss in the lycanthropy red herring for fun. I wrote it with the belief that the ending was very obvious, and I’m not really happy with the prose but it was fun to write. It IS a first draft after all!

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11 thoughts on “Fiction Friday: Pretend Play

    • It’s hard when you know the ending, I tend to make (on first drafts) the “twist” way too obscure because I think the whole thing is so obvious! Hooray for redrafting ;).

      And pounce and slaughter is totally in with the werebeasties!

      • ill have to catch up on my werebeastie child games, because it has eluded me so far.

        got an idea for the FF in two weeks time, struggling to come up with one for next weeks 🙂

  1. I loved this one! I had a horrible time with the prompt, so I didn’t play along this week. I love where you took the prompt; it’s a great story! I think you did a good job balancing the hints in the story, referencing his size and looking like a lion cub, with the twist at the end. I’m the same way about protecting my twist endings. Too often, I’m too cryptic and leave my audience scratching their heads.

  2. Enjoyed the story especially from the story dice for this prompt. As I read I hoped it was going to be a werecreature and was rooting for the were-lion since we really don’t seem them enough, so very spiffy.

  3. I was curious as to where you were going with this initially, then settled in to watch the reveal take place. Nice work. And a good red herring.
    Adam B @revhappiness

  4. I realy enjoyed your story. I imagined James to be a werewolf or shape shifter in the beginning but then you convinced me, I too got carried away with the lycanthropy. The red herring perhaps worked too well 🙂

    And if this is your writting slump (having not read too much of your work other than FF) I would love to see you when you are on a roll! Well done.

    • Sorry, I just noticed these typos

      – “I really enjoyed your story” (not realy)
      – “And if this is your writing slump” (not writting)

      The desperate need to correct them 😦 is now satisfied 🙂

  5. I, too, really enjoyed this. It seemed strange but definitely held my interest to the end which I didn’t see coming at all.

    Sympathies for the writing slump. I was there too a while back. Didn’t take part this week though as I couldn’t make anything of the prompt. But there’s a Friday Flash piece up on my blog.

  6. The number of responses you had to this shows how good it was. Personally I’d say your writing slump was worthwhile if this is what you produce at the end.

    I agree with everyone above – the ending wasn’t at all obvious. I took the lion cub comment just as a description and didn’t think anything more of it.

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