Joyland

The Midwest |

Murder Games

by Caitlin Horrocks

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

Ella’s backpack sagged with flashlight and string, fruit snacks and masking tape and two forks and a bike helmet. The best part of adventures was always the planning. “Goggles,” FootFoot the kangaroo suggested adding. “A compass,” Duncan Hines said, a bear the chocolate color of the frosting. Ella considered the one in her mother’s phone; she played with it while they waited for allergy shots. The allergies were why Ella didn’t have pets, the flesh blood drool noise kind. Her animals were real in different ways.

At the allergist Ella looked for north, true north, and then her mother pointed 7,000 miles southeast. This was where Ella’s father was. It was hot and dry and her father wore only clothes the color of the dryness. He slept in a long building where the sand snuck in, and he blew this sound into the telephone for Ella, the fizz of dirt against metal. It was a different hour in this country, sometimes a whole different day, and Ella often asked her mother what her father was doing. “Sleeping,” she’d say, or “eating,” or “working.” Ella’s father was a mechanic, and these past months it had been easy enough for Ella to picture him underneath trucks instead of cars, brown beasts instead of their red minivan. “He’s thinking of you,” her mother would say, even when she’d already said “sleeping.” “He’s safe,” she added, when it had not occurred to Ella to worry, and then Ella did.

“No compass,” Ella said to Duncan Hines, because her mother needed to be avoided. Her anger was palpable, rising off her like cartoon stink lines, filling the rooms downstairs. All Ella had done was ask her where Blanket was, and BOOM. A thousand-pointed star of Angry. Blanket was missing, but Ella would have to find him herself. This was the Mission.

Missy the Kitten begged to be on the Expeditionary Force, but Ella didn’t like girl toys. She didn’t like the pink thread dividing Missy’s paws into toes, or the curled lashes painted on her plastic eyes. Missy said “Be careful!” and “Not so high!” and “Don’t get caught!” This was what being a girl meant to Ella, because this was what Ella herself was like. She was afraid and tired of being afraid. She existed inside herself, a geode, a peach, an egg. Her soul was the candy she tucked inside FootFoot’s pouch, forgot and pulled out months later covered in fuzz. Why would she want to play with more versions of her own limitations?

Was Ella thinking this, all this, exactly this? No, of course no, but also yes. Perhaps not in these words, but the thoughts were there. Once she overheard her mother say, “Well, they’re very resilient at that age. It’s hard to know how much they’re really picking up on.”

Everything, Ella thought. I am paying attention to everything.

She listened and collected the items she didn’t understand, held them like the lobed pieces of a puzzle that might yet be completed. So far there was no image, only holes, but she was trying. Blanket’s disappearance, her mother’s mood—perhaps this afternoon some key piece was at hand, a corner or edge.

All her best animals were big-souled, fearless and adventuresome. They were all boys: FootFoot and Duncan Hines and Dinomite the Dinosaur and Bonk the Bear whose butt was a rubber ball that was supposed to bounce. But he was named after the sound he made when Ella threw him, the way he thudded against the floor and slumped over. He wanted to be on the Expeditionary Force anyway. Boys were brave. Brave but stupid. They smashed themselves against objects that had no give. Last week Ella’s brother Josh leapt off their backyard swingset and an exposed screw ripped across his upper arm. The skin split and even before the blood, something yellow bulged out. Fat, she supposed, it must be fat, but who knew their swingset could unleash it, could expose the body’s secrets?

Blanket was splitting too, ragged around his edges. Every night in bed she walked this territory with her lips, ran the unraveling hem across her mouth until she knew each thread. She held him the way her mother held rosary beads, the way she knew God with her fingers. Blanket could read the inside of Ella’s head without words, without judgment. He would never be angry with her. He was like God in this way, but better. As his hem unraveled the old river of him ran out, the white fabric stiff against her lips. She thought of how small she was, back when Blanket was this white, and how perfectly he knew her, even then.

Her mother had been insisting that Blanket needed to be re-hemmed, his edges turned under before he unraveled completely. This was murder to Ella, mutilation. She would sooner sew her own edges shut, her fingers to her palms, arms to her sides, toes agonizingly to her ankles.

“We have to re-hem it before it falls to bits,” her mother said.

“You can’t. You just can’t. It’ll hurt him.”

Her mother sighed. “Even if it does, honey, it has to happen.”

When the topic of the blanket comes up, years from now, her mother means it to be funny. Ella is a sophomore in high school. Josh spent a year in college, dropped out and joined the army. He’s stationed down in Texas. He says it’s hot. He says he’s happy.

Ella’s first boyfriend’s mother has driven the couple home from the movies and waits while the boy walks Ella to the door. Ella’s mother invites them inside. The boy gestures at the idling minivan—he shouldn’t keep his mother waiting. The minivan is nice, but not too nice. The boy’s family has more money than Ella’s, but not too much more. The women wave at each other, a little salute. This is a milestone for everybody, the children old enough to be shepherded home in the dark, monitored with concentration: Is that lip gloss rubbed off on the boy’s mouth? Clumsy blue marks on the girl’s neck? A satisfaction along with the worry: we have all made it this far, all of us grown up tonight, or nearly. No one has been lost along the way.

“How was the movie?” Ella’s mother asks, and both teenagers shrug. They bought tickets for a PG film so they could sneak into an R-rated one, and neither can think quickly enough to form an opinion of a movie other than the one they weren’t supposed to see, flying body parts, a sinister serial killer. A teen died in a swimming pool drain. Another in a blender, bit by bit. Ella will have nightmares tonight, but she won’t admit it. Not to her mother, not to Liam. Things have always been too real to her. They take on life when she isn’t looking, the world filled with inadvertent spirits. Her mother’s told her this is melodramatic, the way molehills become haunted mountains. She’s tried, but she can’t blunt her own imagination the way this boy apparently can, the way he laughed out loud during the scene with the industrial dough kneader.

An orange ball sailed into her bedroom and hit Ella in the back of the head. Nerf, she was relieved, without needing to look. She turned around. Josh still had a bandage around his upper arm. When their father was on Skype, Josh wore long sleeves. Their father told him to take care of the house, take care of his sister, and sometimes for an hour Josh and Ella tried to play catch in the backyard. “You’re afraid of the ball,” he complained and Ella thought, Duh. Josh lost half his baby teeth to balls. The Tooth Fairy left him a note saying, Be more careful, or no more quarters. Their father was at home then, and the tooth fairy’s handwriting looked suspiciously like his. Everybody wanted Ella to be tough until they wanted her to be something else. They wanted her to stand in front of the ball until it hit her in the face and then they wondered why she didn’t move away. They wanted her to be strong and not miss her daddy too much, and then when she didn’t come to the phone because she was in the tree outside with Blanket and it was a lot of work to climb that high, her mother yelled.

What,” Ella had asked. “What did I do?”

“If I went away, would you stop caring about me?” her mother had asked.

Of course not, Ella thought, but everyone was telling her all the time that her father was safe, so then why did it matter if she spoke to him now or tomorrow or next week?

“You’re a little monster sometimes,” her mother had said.

“Look out,” FootFoot whispered, and Ella felt the animals crowd closer to her. Josh picked Banana out of the heap and threw him into the air and this was supposed to annoy her but the joke was on Josh because Banana was already a bird, and Ella didn’t even like him. Banana was from the Goodwill. When her mother gave him to Ella, camouflaged in a toy store box for her birthday, she could tell he was already dead. He had empty black eyes and the weird scent of the secondhand store, the damp, gray smell like… dirty? Poor? Poorness? Poor people? None of the nouns were right. There were only adjectives, no “poverty,” not for Ella, not yet. To Ella, poor people were still the ones on television with no food but round stomachs, something she didn’t understand but refused to ask about. Discretion was always the better part of dignity. She did not know what poor people in America might look like. She did not know why their things smelled so weird. And she did not know, if they were so poor, why they owned Banana before she did, why this smell had come to infect her house.

Josh bounced Banana off the ceiling a few times. The fan was off, and the bird flew neatly between the still blades. Ella kicked the backpack with the Expeditionary Force supplies under her bed. She took a pink Barbie hairbrush from her nightstand to groom Bonk’s fur.

“I’m having people over tonight,” Josh said. “So you have to stay out of the way.”

The black paint on Bonk’s eyes was scratched. His gaze drifted leftwards.

“Mom said we’re ordering pizza but once we eat you should play up here.”

“Okay,” Ella said. She didn’t even want to play with her brother’s friends. All their games were boy games, all with “murder” in the name: Murder Ball and Murder Jump and Murder Swing, and when it was dark and their mom was in bed there was Murder, plain Murder, the boys wandering through the house tagged out one by one by the Murderer. Once they invited Ella to play and left her alive on purpose, wandering through the house in the dark by herself while the boys played video games in the basement. She cried when she found them and couldn’t tell, when Josh took her hand to lead her back to her bedroom, whether he was sorry or just embarrassed.

“Don’t get in the way.”

Okay.”

If Blanket were here there would be preparations. He would be folded, hidden under her pillow. She knew how he looked to anyone besides her, how limp how gray how ragged. She didn’t want Josh’s friends to laugh at him, at her. But Blanket could be anywhere, could be found and tossed up into the ceiling fan tonight. The Mission was more urgent than she’d realized.

“Do you have Blanket?” she asked her brother.

“I told you, no. I don’t know where it is.” Josh stopped tossing Banana. “You know Mom needed to hem it. You know it was falling apart.”

“He’s fine.”

Josh shrugged, looked at her with a dangerous pity. He changed the subject: “You can borrow my reading book tonight, if you want.”

Now Ella shrugged. This was a privilege, but she didn’t want Josh to know. Her own reading textbook was dull, with stories about things like crossing the road and eating vegetables. Josh’s book had adventures. The best story was about a thief, caught in the act. The owner of the house promised not to call the police, and the thief laughed. “You think I’m naïve?” he asked, and there was an asterisk after naïve and a definition at the bottom of the page: childlike. This offended Ella. What was “childlike” about the thief, the hushed confrontation, his doomed leap from a window, or the way he appeared on the next page with a bandage around his head? What could the word mean, really? Foolish? Stupid? Why a children’s book that insulted children?

Josh brought the book from his room and she turned to her favorite page. Someone had drawn two black fangs in the thief’s mouth, the eyes erased to two white spots. “It wasn’t me,” Josh said automatically.

Maybe naïve meant trusting, in which case how adult a definition, how trusting they were to think kids so trusting. Ella tried to imagine the way her mother imagined her, a bright rubber ball whizzing through the world. Naïve, she thought towards her mother. You are so naïve.

Nine years later, when Ella stands on the porch with her boyfriend, she knows he would rather die than kiss her in front of her mother. They would both rather die. In a blender. But he wants to be manly. He takes her hand and then lets go, brief as a kiss. It feels ridiculous. Ella looks down at her surrendered hand, dangling fingers, green nail polish. She does not love this boy, not even close. They started sitting next to each other in mythology class, their language arts elective, so he could copy her answers about the Moirai and Parcae. He is hard to joke with because he takes everything literally. He’s pretty naïve, Ella thinks, but she doesn’t really mind. They are learning things they will need later, for other moments, other people, other kisses. They are only marking time.

Ella’s mother thanks the boy for getting Ella home safely. Ella goes inside and watches out the window while Liam switches places with his mother, so he can practice driving. Ella is one month younger, still waiting on her learner’s permit. She holds her breath while the boy backs out slowly, but he doesn’t hit anything. Then he is gone, out of sight up the road. In the kitchen Ella takes a soda from the fridge. Her mother follows her, a conspiratorial smile as if there are details Ella will now divulge, girl talk they are about to have. She even braces her hands behind her on the kitchen counter, pulls herself up and thonks the cabinets with her heels. She begins joking about the embarrassing things she could have done, wanting credit for not doing them: naked baby pictures, clumsy old drawings, Ella’s animals. “Duncan Hines!” her mother says. “Or Bonk. I could have brought out your Blankie. Remember when—”

“Yeah,” Ella says flatly, because of course she remembers, and this story is not funny to her. She can grow up and get old, but it will still not be funny. Her animals are stashed now in her bedroom closet, tied in plastic bags she would once have been convinced would suffocate them. They are not really alive to her, but they are not quite dead. An aura clings to them, even if it’s only the memory of what it felt like to be certain they breathed and spoke and loved her. To be certain there was a set of rules, a code that governed who lived, and who stopped.

With Duncan Hines in her backpack, Ella canvassed the upstairs: her room, already torn apart from searching, the bathroom, the linen closet. There was Josh’s room and her parents’ room, but she wasn’t supposed to go into either, and she was still hoping to find Blanket on undisputed ground. Downstairs, in the living room, she was the thief in Josh’s reading book, poking through the couch cushions and behind the forest of photographs lined up on a bookshelf: portraits, family portraits, her father, over and over again. It was disconcerting, this forest of faces. When her father first left, her mother suggested that Ella stand at this shelf and talk to him about her days at school. Ella had talked about how Bonk the Bear hid in her backpack without her permission, and Gus Stepansky saw him and made fun of her.

“Your father says you shouldn’t take your toys to school,” her mother said. “He says to tell you you can’t be bullied if you don’t give them reasons to bully you.”

Gradually Ella stopped telling stories in the living room. She still talked to her father, but at night, in her bed. She talked about how Gus Stepansky’s father was married to a stepmother, and Ella wondered if she thought of Gus the way Ella thought of Banana: you smell funny. Someone else has already loved furrows in your hair. There are other lips on your skin. Scratches across your eyes. Or maybe it was too different. Gus would grow, but animals only got grimier, looser, until eventually they fell apart. Ella understood this in a way more real to her than the dead bird Josh found one day on the sidewalk, more real than Bambi’s mother or even her own grandfather. More real than what she knew her mother feared, her father leaving so long he never came back. She understood things through her animals, and this was not a small or stupid way of understanding, just different.

“I need to find Blanket,” Ella told her father’s picture. “Have you seen him?”

Her father’s bright smile never changed. Ella imagined her mother choosing another man to bring into the house, a new father to nuzzle her head and find her wanting.

Out the side door and into the yard. Plastic table, plastic sandbox in the shape of a turtle, two plastic chairs blown over. An empty birdfeeder. Ella had no idea why Blanket would be out here. This was why adventures needed preparation: because once they were underway they were always disappointments. In her backpack the string was unused, the flashlight unlit. She took the fork out just to feel like she had packed more wisely than she did. “En garde,” she said, and shook it at the swingset still marked with Josh’s blood.

Her mother rapped on the kitchen window. She held up the phone and gestured Ella inside. “Your dad,” she said, as Josh finished his turn and handed the phone over.

“How was school?” her father asked.

“Fine,” Ella said. They’d done math worksheets where correct answers gave the colors for a picture, and her bee ended up purple. But with her father gone, she could leave things out. He’d never see the purple bee. Josh could wear a long-sleeved shirt. This was a new way of being a daughter, a new way of telling stories. Later she would feel this year was the beginning of—not deception, exactly. Editing, perhaps. The silences that go inside the stories.

He asked her what she was going to do tomorrow, which was an impossible question to answer. She wondered if he had any idea what her life was like. She went where people told her, took the brown paper bags they pressed into her hands, and at the appointed hour, she ate what she found there. Sometimes in the afternoon her mother’s car pulled up, and they went home, and sometimes they went to the grocery store or the dentist or the Goodwill.

“Maybe tomorrow we’ll go to the dentist,” she told her father.

“You have a dentist appointment?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then why…? Never mind,” he said. “You keep doing good at school, okay?”

The doorbell rang. “Pizza’s here,” Ella said.

“What kind did you get?”

I don’t know.”

“Well, have a piece for me, okay? Pepperoni.”

“What if there’s no pepperoni? Josh likes sausage and Mom likes mushrooms.”

Ella hated both these things, and hoped perhaps her dad would remember and comment on the injustice. But he just said, “Have a piece for me whatever it is.”

Ella nodded, which her father couldn’t see. Her mother paid for the pizza and after putting it on the counter, reached for the phone. “Be careful,” Ella said. “Don’t be naïve or anything.”

He laughed. “OK, sweetie. Back atcha. Don’t be naïve.”

There was sausage and mushroom but also plain cheese, which wasn’t as good as pepperoni, but it was something. Josh’s friends began to arrive. Ella stood with her back to the wall so no one could make fun of Duncan Hines poking out of her backpack. “Take your pizza upstairs,” her mother said, handing her a grape soda, paper plate, paper napkins. Ella was never allowed to take food upstairs.

She carefully set the pizza on her bedroom floor, next to the pile of animals. “There’s something I have to do,” she told them. “I’ll be back soon.” Downstairs, she could hear her mother chatting with the women dropping their sons off.

Her mother’s laughter, or perhaps just the thudding of heels on the cupboards, conjures Ella’s father up from the basement into the kitchen. They hear his footsteps starting at the bottom of the wooden stairs, and wait for them to rise. His presence has long since ceased to be special. Ella is grateful only when she remembers to be. In church, sometimes. At Thanksgiving dinner. He has left the Reserves and in the extra weekends he does woodworking. He has a workshop in the basement, loud saws that allow him to stay hidden and oblivious, that give him an excuse to say he never heard any boyfriend at the door. Ella’s mother says he spends too much on tools, but he owns his own shop now, auto body and detailing, and there is enough money, even for the saws.

“How was the movie, sweetie?” he says, and Ella shrugs.

“I finally met Liam,” her mother says.

“Finally?” In Ella’s mind they’ve barely been together.

“He’s perfectly nice. He was very gentlemanly.”

The dough kneader, Ella thinks. His laughter. She looks balefully at the blender on the counter behind her mother, the cord coiled around it.

“I was saying I could have brought out the baby pictures,” her mother says. “The Blanket.”

“What blanket?” her father says. There were so many of these moments when he first came back, little gaps of experience that could be dodged or backfilled but never completely erased.

“I thought you got rid of him,” Ella says. “That’s what you said, that he was making me too upset.”

“Of course,” her mother says. “I forgot.”

In the kitchen there is a long, awkward silence. Ella wishes Josh were here to throw something at somebody, to rip himself open accidentally. “So what did happen to him?” Ella asks. “Could you have brought him out?” Nine years and this is the first time she’s asked this question.

“No,” her mother says. “No, I couldn’t have. I didn’t think about it. It’s been a long time.”

Ella’s father steals the soda out of her hand, trying to break the tension. He takes a long swig, asks what she’s doing having caffeine so close to bedtime. She looks at him, effortful smile, pale dust on his jeans, wood shavings caught in his bootlaces. She remembers to be thankful. There was a time she could have lost him and she didn’t. Her story is not that kind of story. She can forget the way he hides downstairs, the way he sits inside of silences. She could throw her arms around him but doesn’t. She is not the little girl anymore who would do that, dance unselfconsciously on top of her father’s shoes. She is wearing flipflops, and kicks one off. She presses her right foot on top of her father’s boot, brief and light as a kiss, and hopes he understands.

Ella turned the doorknob of her mother’s room. She saw the sewing machine on top of the dresser, Blanket’s body neatly folded beside it. Ella screamed, and her mother came running to see Ella unfolding Blanket, pressing the hemmed, amputated edges to her lips. There was nothing familiar left. He spilled limply in her arms. “He’s dead,” she said. “He’s dead.”

“He can’t die,” her mother said. “He’s a blanket.”

Of course he could die. He’d been dying already, unraveling into threads and dust and laundry detergent. But this was apocalyptic, a house burnt before it could collapse.

“You can’t just decide he’s dead. Why would you do that? Why would you do this to yourself?”

Ella had failed to protect him. The Mission came too late. Her mother was a murderer but so was she. Her mother took Blanket’s corpse from her, seemed to think if she could hide him Ella would calm. Ella kept wailing, barely able to breathe, and her mother rubbed circles on her back until Ella imagined the skin over her shoulder blades splitting like Josh’s arm.

She woke up later in bed, in her nightgown, aching throat and gummy eyelids. Her mother sat on the floor in a cone of light from the bedside lamp. She was peering into her lap and did not look up to notice Ella had woken. Her mother looked warmer, softer, in the light from the pink lampshade. A small piece of metal glinted in her hand, with a sharp, curved point. The house was quiet so it must have been very late, Josh and his friends exhausted and silent downstairs, the murder games concluded. Ella’s mother held Blanket up, farther into the light, trying to undo the new stitches. But Blanket’s flesh was too fragile. Where she pulled, the old fabric gave way before the new thread. A hole opened up and another and another and her mother swore softly, pressed her hands together, crumpling the corpse. Ella said nothing, did not reach to touch her mother’s hands or head, so unusually low, at Ella’s eye level. She looked at the part in her mother’s hair, the pale scalp and the tiny holes where the hair began. You’re naïve, she thought. You’re very naïve.

This night would come back to her for years, feeling more and more like a dream. It came to her when her father returned, the ceremony in a local gymnasium, balloons and confetti. It came to her when she talked to her brother before he left for basic training, about that year their father was gone, and they realized they had completely different memories of that time. “I cut my arm on a BMX bike,” Josh said. “Not on the swingset.” Neither she nor Josh could recall how the story with the thief had ended. Growing up had been so far a great un-knowing, an erosion of the facts that had once seemed very clear and precious to her. Ella forgot, eventually, whether she really saw her mother crying on the floor, trying to undo what was already done, or whether she’d only wanted to. She forgot the rage and grief she felt, the satisfaction at her mother’s unhappiness. It was child-like but it was incandescent, furious, alight in a way she worries sometimes she’ll never be again. She wants to know if her parents have ever felt that way, but she doesn’t want to ask. All the possible answers are bad ones: that they never have, and she’s a little monster after all; or that they did once, but age leached it from them; or that adulthood holds such pain and rage that Ella knows nothing yet, after all. That so much worse is still to come.

That night in the kitchen, Ella decides she does not want to press the issue. She does not want to know one way or another, if Blanket is still in a box somewhere in the house, if he ended up at the Goodwill or in the trash. After all, he’s been dead for years. She once thought that when she grew up she would be able to choose what she felt, one single, practical, voluntary feeling at a time. Naïve, she thinks now. That was naïve. She says goodnight to her parents, hugs them both, leans into her mother’s softness and her father’s sawdust and flannel, embarrassed by how eagerly they hold her. That night she dreams the memory, her mother white-draped and ancient, herself the child she’ll never be again. It no longer feels like a puzzle piece, a sharp corner or edge. It is a scalloped question that could fit anywhere. There is a chorus of whispers, ancient weaver women whose names were on that week’s mythology midterm: Penelope, Arachne, the three Fates—spindle, rod, knife. There is no blade that mends, they sing. Only the going forward. Only our readiness for the cut.