A man’s voice rises through the floorboards, muffled and unintelligible, but the little girl knows his message quite well. “Splosions,” she says somberly, mimicking the anchor’s delivery, as she pushes Mommy across the plastic floor and toward the pot boiling on the stove. “Lots and lots of splosions. Fifty ba-jillion people are dead and a building blowed up and lots of people are dying.”
Her hands work deftly, helping Mommy place breakfast on tiny plates before bringing her back to the ironing board standing just an inch from the TV. Little has been logged into her muscle memory, but these simple chores have become the foundation upon which all else stands. “That’s so sad,” the little girl says, pushing Mommy back and forth to mimic speech. “It’s gotta be those moose-lambs.” She’s heard Mommy say this before—and a few other choice words she’s not permitted to say—and Daddy, too. She’s never met a moose-lamb or even knows what one is, but she knows she’s supposed to fear them. Her parents tell her that. And the TV does, too. So she does.
Upstairs, just a foot above the first floor, are two bedrooms separated by a plastic wall and a closed door. On the left side is her room, the walls adorned in pink and white polka dots and the floor littered with half-inch dolls and stuffed animals and discarded pink outfits. Her three-inch counterpart sits amongst the chaos, smiling blissfully despite the mess. She is a good little girl, not kicking up a fuss or bothering Daddy or doing anything to rouse his anger as he gets ready in the room next to hers.
Meanwhile, after sifting through the wooden dresser and pushing Mommy’s pink dresses to the side, Daddy has finally found this morning’s outfit: a black suit with a red tie. He must like what he sees as he stares at himself in the floor-to-ceiling mirror, for a never-changing smile greets his reflection. Once, not too long, the young girl had directed Mommy to put on this suit, and Daddy had laughed at her when she did, and so had the young girl. What a sight to see, Mommy wearing Daddy’s suit. “That’s not right,” Daddy had said, and then, in a sterner tone, he had instructed her to remove it. He did not have time for such nonsense.
That session of playtime had been much different than this morning’s reality, though, when savage thunderclaps and muffled apologies had woken the young girl to a world of chaos. Daddy was angry, and Mommy had somehow spurred that anger. Maybe she had said something wrong or had forgotten to do something important. Whatever it had been, Mommy was now saying, “I’m sorry,” and “Dave, please, please, I’m sorry,” and “Dave, please, don’t do this.” At some point, Mommy yelped like the dog across the street did after it had disobeyed Mr. Johnson and felt the force of a newspaper falling upon its nose.
“We should just get rid of them,” the young girl says now, shaking the miniature television and once more adopting her best newsman voice. “We should kick out all those moose-lambs who do bad stuff and hurt real ‘Merican families, and we should kick out all those Mexicans, too,” and Mommy and Daddy, in unison, say, “Amen.” Meanwhile, with memories of this morning’s storm coursing through her fiction like a virus, she absently lifts the pink bed and places it atop her three-inch counterpart, now lying face-down on the floor.
Whenever Daddy yelled, the young girl first snuck under the covers and then, if the roar persisted, under her bed. The shadows, though they scared her at night, provided a much-needed respite from the horrors of daylight. Mommy had told her countless times whatever monsters she saw in the dark were only products of her imagination and not to be feared. The horrors of daylight, though, Mommy did not have a remedy for. In fact, she never mentioned them at all, as if their absence from conversation denied their very existence. So she followed suit and never said anything, not even when the fear was so bad that tears started and wouldn’t stop, not even when she felt like screaming or running away or charging into their bedroom and telling Daddy to stop it, Mommy didn’t mean it, please, stop this, Mommy, get up, don’t let him do this, why do you let him do this, don’t let him do this anymore. Yet she remained where she was, as she always did; and after enough time had passed and after Daddy had slammed the front door and gone to work and after the persistent sounds of Mommy’s sobs had cooled to intermittent cries and then to unnerving silence, she cautiously peered out from under her bed, surveyed the emptiness of her room and the stillness it presented, and proceeded with her morning routine: the doll house and the tiny family living blissfully within those plastic walls and all the jobs needing attention.
“Fetch me a drink,” Daddy commands from upstairs, the young girl dropping her voice several octaves to mimic her father’s imperious tone, and Mommy scurries to the refrigerator and gathers several plastic mugs, crying, “Coming!” Even at the age of five, she knows they all have different ways of coping: Daddy has his drinks; Mommy has her chores and the newsman saying they’re all going to die; and their daughter has her plastic world.
She wouldn’t use the term ‘God’—such comparisons would be blasphemous, and both Mommy and Daddy have warned of what happens to sinful little girls—but that feeling of omnipotence preludes each session of playtime, the ability to construct and direct a world of her own creation as intoxicating as any drink Daddy might demand. That is, until she actually moves the pieces and realizes she’s merely pushing them along a pre-determined track. Like a roller coaster at an amusement park, the operator might make the cars go faster or slower, but she cannot make them veer outside the path laid for her. Thus, when her plastic family rises from bed, they proceed with routine, and perhaps to deny the storm that shook their household this morning and so many more before it, she chooses a happier routine; yet, this, too, is restricted to a happiness she knows, a set of events her parents have told her mean happiness: Daddy getting ready for work, Mommy working in the kitchen, and their little girl playing with dolls in her room. Even when the storm that jarred her awake this morning seeps into that world—her plastic counterpart still cowers under the bed, after all, as Mommy and Daddy prepare for the coming day—she resists giving into that scenario and letting it play out for her to see from a third-person perspective: Daddy is a good man, all parents fight, and she will be a good little girl and play nice in her room and not concern herself with adult matters.
“Here you go, hon,” Mommy says, holding a plastic cup in her outstretched plastic hand, as her daughter drags her up the stairs and past the bed lying atop her daughter’s back and through the doorway leading into their room, nearly knocking the door from its hinges as Mommy collides headfirst with the barrier. And in all the commotion, she drops the drink, not spurred by the planned narrative but merely goaded by the laws of physics, and the plastic girl whimpers, and so does the girl made of skin and bone.
Daddy stares at the drink lying on the floor, his eternal smile masking what lurks behind that glossy façade. Often, her father’s friends have told her what a good man Daddy is—he is a good man, she reminds herself now—yet sometimes she knows when Daddy smiles, it speaks lies. Sometimes, when Daddy smiles, something awful is raising the corners of his lips, a lion feigning empathy to catch his foolish prey off-guard. “You stupid bitch,” he mutters, the little girl dropping her volume so no one can hear her. Such talk is grown-up talk, and good little girls would never say such things. Yet playtime has always been a story cobbled together from what she knows, so she uses the parts available to her, including those forbidden words her daddy loved to say. “You clumsy, stupid bitch.”
Daddy grabs Mommy’s arm and throws her to the ground. Mommy begs. Mommy pleads. And the little plastic girl still hides under her bed, terrified to do anything more.
The young girl has not deliberately made this change in the narrative’s direction, this turn from tranquility to horror; no, the virus spawned from this morning’s event has redirected the story’s outcome. And pushing the story to something different now would be as easy as having the rollercoaster stray from its track just as it reached the top of the hill, its occupants realizing all too late their fear of such a fall.
“Please,” the little girl whispers, tightly gripping Daddy’s plastic head, “please, stop.”
And she does have the power to stop it, she realizes—this is her story, after all—but Daddy takes a monstrous step forward, and then another, and then another.
“You stupid bitch,” Daddy roars, picking Mommy up and throwing her into the plastic wall separating the two bedrooms. It shakes against the impact, moving the small house an inch to the left. Downstairs, the quake rocks the plastics dishes and mugs and the ironing board and sends them crashing to the ground.
Beneath her, the newsman continues his unintelligible drone, speaking of foreign invaders and the threat they pose to good American families.
“You fucking bitch.”
He towers over Mommy, both still wearing their painted smiles.
But her pleas are mere whispers, lost in the shadow of her assailant and the power of his commands.
And the little girl whimpers, tears in her eyes, about to bear witness to what she was spared this morning.
Until the narrative shifts again.
This time, it is not routine she draws from but a pain growing in her stomach, from the throbbing buzz in her head, from the shadows encircling her vision.
With a quivering hand, she turns over the pink bed, the haphazard movement sending it down the staircase and into the living room where it collides with and overturns the ironing board and TV.
The little plastic girl stands upright, pushes through the open door, and sees Daddy standing over Mommy and the plastic cup that served as the genesis for this morning’s storm. She smiles at Mommy; Mommy smiles back; and Daddy smiles at them both.
“Stop it,” she says, her voice rising above the newsman’s muffled voice from one floor down. “Stop it now.”
But Daddy will not stop. He swivels toward her, says, “Good little girls do not speak to their daddies like that. You are a bad, bad girl,” and makes a fast approach; and the little plastic girl is powerless to stop him. But the girl of flesh and bone is not. Her right hand lets the little girl go, balls into a fist, and slams the three-inch figure into the wall just before he can throw his little plastic girl to the ground. His lifeless body collides with the wall dividing their two worlds, its impact far greater than Mommy’s had been, and the sound of plastic breaking, of something permanently snapping loose, fills her with dread; but the adrenaline continues, this deviation from the track as exciting and terrifying as that first fall of the rollercoaster, and something inside begs her to continue. So she throws him again, and then again, and then when that will not suffice any longer, she picks up Mommy and Daddy’s bed and slams it atop that tiny plastic figure, still smiling in spite of the unimaginable pain.
Then he and the bed and the dresser with all its black suits and pink dresses collide once more with the wall, and it finally breaks loose and pushes the contents of the girl’s room down the stairs and into the living room. And now she’s rising to her feet and surveying the war-torn landscape of her plastic house, yelling obscenities at Daddy and Mommy and her smiling, plastic counterpart, yelling nonsense, crying, shrieking, howling. Raising her right foot high above the house, she screams one final curse, and brings it down upon the plastic walls, the floor, the ironing board and the dishes and the pots boiling on the stove, crunching them beneath her weight and eradicating this world of all its misery and human failings—
The scream startles her back into routine: She is to be a good little girl and quietly play with her toys, while Mommy goes about her chores, and she is not to cause a fuss.
Yet she has made more than a fuss, and the evidence lies at her feet: pieces of jagged plastic and droplets of blood stain the carpet. At some point, she must have cut her bare foot while stomping the life out of that once pristine house, and the sight of red brings her pain to the forefront; yet when she cries, it is not just the pain in her foot prompting her tears. There is something more, something that has been hiding under a bed in her mind, and now that it’s stepped out of the darkness and revealed itself to the light, it can never go back.
“What have you done,” Mommy cries, ready to pounce, unleash, punish. “What is the matter with you?”
The young girl can only stares at her mother, as a cocktail of sorrow and rage makes her head begin to swirl, for before her is both victim and would-be assailant, a model of pity and the perpetuation of an endless cycle that will see the young girl eventually grow into this death sentence. The girl that had stomped a hole into her doll house cannot allow that, cannot allow fears of punishment to hold her back now, so she picks Daddy up from the rubble, clutches him in her fist, and then throws him across the room, where he hits the wall with a dull thud.
But the girl has her own questions. “Why,” she screams. “Why-why-why-”
They are not the questions, themselves, but rather their beginnings, the words following too large for the young girl to speak: Why does he keep doing this to you, to us? And why do you keep saying he’s a good man? And why do we keep letting him back in when he does these things? Again, pity steals her heart, for she knows what her mother has been through, the pain she’s borne, but Mommy continues to glare, her brow dipping over her ever-narrowing eyes, and the girl knows such pity will not stave off Mommy’s attack.
She could hide under bed and find refuge in the shadows.
She could apologize and beg forgiveness.
But she also knows where such words will eventually get her and what retreat would do to her now.
“Why does he do this?” she somehow manages.
Mommy’s eyes widen, her carefully-erected façade breaking like a weathered dam, letting loose years’ worth of tears. “Shelly…I….”
But that’s all she can manage, the words ostensibly too large for her, as well. Silence follows, until, at long last, Mommy clears her throat, wipes her eyes, and finds the script written for her, whispering, “I think playtime is over.”
The little girl, though, looks at the plastic wreckage, at Daddy lying motionless across the room, and then stares back up at the woman before her.
“I wasn’t playing,” she says.
“And it’s not over.”
Downstairs, a pundit speaks of the nuclear family and how it is the heartbeat of this country and the cornerstone of civilization. The little girl, meanwhile, watches her mother fight back tears, which will wash away the makeup concealing the evidence of this morning’s assault.
“I said, it’s not over, Mommy.”
It is not an act of defiance: It is invitation to kneel amongst the plastic wreckage, clear it away, and build something new, together.
For the last eleven years, Tim Hanson has taught high school
English, a passion rivaled only by his love of writing. His work has appeared
in numerous publications, including The 3288 Review, BoomerLitMag, Pennyshorts,
CommuterLit, and Beautiful Losers. Currently, he is working on his first novel.
You can read more about Tim at TSHanson.com.