Could Be by Janelle Bassett

Could Be

In the two-story house with a finished basement and a kitchen island, three children go downstairs onto an expanse of carpet. The carpet is covered in plastic objects pretending to be playthings. The children (whose health, home, and belongings are fully insured) pretend to be in great danger.

The child named after an obsolete boat part crouches behind the sectional. The other two children (named for a flower and a season) sit on the floor and mime a cozy dinner, tucking their feet under them as they tuck into unseen meals.

“Is this pasta handmade?”

“It is — just me and my crank. The olive oil is from a specialty shop that sells aprons featuring puns about olives. That said, I hope no one is lurking nearby.”

The crouching child scratches at the couch fabric.

Flower kid stops pretending to coil pasta around a fork. “What was that sound?”

“Probably just the ice maker or a commuter train coming to a halt.”

“But… what if it’s something much worse?”

The children on the floor go wide-eyed and put their arms out to show the badness that they are aware of its presence. It they are mauled, at least they won’t have to suffer the indignity of hearing the detective say, “They never even saw it coming.”

They gradually lower their arms to show the badness they’re willing to call a false alarm so that it can tease them further.

“So tell me about your day, sweetheart. Did you get the recognition you deserve?”

The child behind the couch fingertips the fabric. The waiting is even more titillating than the scratching — it pairs better with the crouching. The child moves fingers to lips and breathes moisture onto them, releasing a bit of the condensation that forms inside a waiting body.

“I got plenty of recognition, yes. But not enough. Tomorrow I’m planning to up my protein and wear a darker colored belt… see if that helps.”

The child behind the couch sneezes. The pent-up condensation couldn’t be suppressed by the confines of this pretend story line. The boat child is about to whisper an apology when the flower child (a better improviser) says, “Did you hear that nearby explosion? Do you think the neighborhood is going up in flames?”

The child named for a season pretends to look out the window which does require some acting, being in a basement. “I heard it. But the boom is firmly outside. We are safe here, and free from any hostile presence.”

Having been summoned, the croucher hops over the couch and sallies forth holding a plastic mallet with a dangling yellow string that once attached it to a rainbow xylophone, yelling, “I’ve been here all along!”

The fake-dinner-eaters don’t run, they panic mostly with their eyes as the child embodying danger touches the mallet to their necks. After the touch, they slump onto the carpet and die without a struggle. Instead of going limp and flat to die, they curl their fingers into claws and hold them with bent elbows above their bodies.

Most of the death they’ve witnessed first-hand has been of the avian variety.

The killer eats the remaining pasta without utensils then stomps around picking up imaginary lamps and vases to shatter against the walls while providing the sound effects “k-cha, k-cha.”

The child named for a flower imagines being a corpse now covered with shards of porcelain and tries not to smile about it.

A mother calls from above, “Kids, it’s bath time! You can each take a bathroom but maybe bow to the hot water heater before you come up.”

Then everyone is alive, climbing, and ready to rid themselves of the day’s residue.

*

Several blocks over, in the courtyard of a poorly-maintained apartment building, a child named after a soap opera villain links arms with a child named after a bar of soap. They pretend to be royalty walking among their subjects as they step over glass shards, as someone is cursing from a window, as no one is watching them.

“Olay and I thank you for coming! Our kingdom is vast and smells how you’d expect a thriving kingdom to smell. We awoke this morning sniffing the air and saying, ‘Ah, another day without a whiff of burning plastic.’”

“Another day making decisions that benefit everyone. Two car garages for all!”

Olay removes both crowns and passes them around the imaginary crowd that tends to gather whenever they leave their castle, giving everyone a chance to feel they too had been born lucky.

Olay bends down, pretending to comfort a crying child who hasn’t gotten a turn with the crown. Olay gives the child a scepter which he promptly runs away with.

The royals know the child will go bury the scepter in the sewer to keep it from his siblings, who’d only take it and bury it for themselves. Olay gasps, “That sewer is a hotbed of disease and serpents.”

(They never claimed to have a perfect kingdom, a concession that made them competent and effective leaders.)

The child named after a soap opera villain runs to stop the child from lowering himself into the sewer. “You may keep the scepter in our castle. We have a drawer with a handle just your height. Don’t worry sweet thief, generosity comes naturally to me.”

Olay asks the fictional bugler to play a note to indicate the day has been saved and the royals and subjects share an all-food-groups feast, where the boy holds his scepter while giving his royal benefactors the recognition they deserve.

When the children finally get cold enough to climb the stairs to their apartment, they feel as if they are climbing away from a place they belong even as they get closer and closer to home.

*

Earlier, all the yet-to-be-named children floated in warm growth-sacs with identical accessories and imagined that someday, somehow they would have enough room to be able to fully extend their neck, arms and legs into the shape of a star.

 

Could Be

 

Janelle Bassett’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Offing, Longleaf Review, The Rumpus, Slice Magazine, Okay Donkey and X-R-A-Y. Her story collection, “Thanks for This Riot” was short-listed for the 2019 Santa Fe Writers Project Award. You can find her on twitter @hazmatcat and, more authentically, on Instagram @jbknows.

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Art Fernando Botero / Micah MacAllen CC2.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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