Children Shouldn’t Play with Anything by Steven Holding

The meal, of course, was delicious. Wine was flowing. Expensive, obviously, but he’d come to expect nothing less. As he took another sip from his glass, taking a moment to savor the bitter-sweet taste before allowing the glowing liquid to slide down his throat, Thomas reflected upon how much he loathed Atkinson’s dinner parties. Or rather, just how much it was that he loathed Atkinson himself.

The more he thought about it, the more he realized just how many aspects of the man’s character he despised. Sitting there, half-listening to the inane chatter being exchanged between his other half, Liz, and Wendy, Atkinson’s wife (his third to date; the other two, unsurprisingly, had both been traded in for newer, younger models), the list of grievances he held against the bastard scrolled through his mind like a never-ending credit sequence found at the conclusion of some mindless, trashy Hollywood epic.

Everything about the man made his blood boil.

He hated him for his wealth, his success, his impeccable taste.

He hated him for having a beautiful wife, a beautiful daughter, a beautiful life.

He hated him for having an absurd Surname as a Christian name.

But, most of all, if he were being brutally honest, he hated him just for being so fucking perfect.

And yet, despite all these resentments, he once again found himself sitting in the man’s house, eating his food and swilling his booze, listening to more of his anecdotes, which, annoyingly, never seemed to be dull and always left Thomas feeling green with envy, all the while sporting a huge artificial grin that was beginning to make his cheeks ache.

Just because the two of them were, supposedly, friends.

How, when, and why their relationship had been formed was lost to Thomas somewhere in the dim, distant past. Of much greater importance was the reoccurring question that plagued him every time he endured another one of Atkinson’s social soirees. Why, after all these years of silent seething, allowing one resentment after another to gradually pile up, resulting in a staggering, swaying tower of complete, unadulterated repugnance, had he never, ever once summoned the courage to terminate their comradeship?

For this, he had no answer.

“What do you think about that then, Thomas?”

The question pulled Thomas out of his daydream, forcing him to focus upon the small talk floating across the dinner table. He turned his attention towards his inquisitor, acutely aware that he had absolutely no idea what the subject was that he was being asked to express an opinion upon.

“Err…that’s a tricky one, I suppose. Many ins and outs and all that.”

Atkinson smiled at him, revealing a bright white set of unnaturally even teeth. Thomas felt his contempt bubbling up inside him once again. That, or possibly the beginnings of an attack of indigestion. As the tip of his tongue rolled across his own incisors, bothering the tiny flecks of food that were trapped against his gums, he faced another round of questions. How was it, he thought, that a slim, slip of a man such as the one opposite him could devour such copious amounts of food, wolfing it down like a starving mongrel, yet never appear to gain an ounce of weight? And why on earth did he never seem to end up with any rogue pieces of gristle stuck in his teeth, ruining his permanently amused expression? Once again, he seemed at a loss to provide an explanation. Atkinson continued to beam at him, his piercing blue eyes unblinking.

“Thomas, are you zoning out on me again, buddy?”

Thomas shrugged his shoulders, offering a sheepish smile. “No mate, no. Just a little tired, that’s all.”

The door to the kitchen was flung open, cutting Thomas short and allowing him a welcomed escape route out of the awkwardness of the conversation. All four adults looked up from the dinner table over towards the doorway. Standing there was Helena, Atkinson’s little girl. Behind her, peering over her shoulder, was Becki, Thomas’s daughter and his only child. The two girls were breathless, red-cheeked and sweaty from playing in the garden whilst the grown-ups had been finishing their meal.

“We’re bored of being outside,” panted Helena, “And anyway, it looks like it’s going to rain.”

“We’re going upstairs to play,” chipped in Becki, screwing up her freckled face into a tight grimace. Thomas sighed, acutely aware of how plain his daughter appeared compared to the blossoming beauty of Atkinson’s offspring.

Atkinson smiled, raising his wine glass in a mock toast towards the two girls. “Okay girls, God bless you. Oh, just one more thing, though…”

The two girls hung round the edge of the door frame, grappling with each other like chimps.

“What’s that, Daddy?”

Atkinson raised his empty hand to his lips, pressed his fingers against his mouth, then blew an invisible kiss at them.

“Just make sure you have lots of fun now. Or else you’re in big trouble!”

The two girls burst into a dual fit of giggles, then vanished just as quickly as they had appeared. The only indication of their movement was the clump-clump of little feet as they dashed up the stairs. Thomas turned towards Atkinson, grateful for the shift in attention.

“Wow, man, isn’t seven such a cracking age. Don’t you wish they could stay that way forever?”

“Well…” said Wendy from across the table. She fixed Thomas with the usual withering stare she seemed to reserve solely for his benefit. He was still unaccustomed to her gaze, despite having been on the receiving end of it more times than he cared to remember. “They have to grow up sometime, and Atkinson and I feel it would be highly irresponsible to stifle a child’s development.”

Thomas felt himself squirming in his chair. Wendy, a teacher by profession, always seemed to address him as if she were talking to one of her naughty pupils. He detested her for it, but not as much as he detested himself for the uncontrollable feelings of lust her strict headmistress routine seemed to awaken within him. Atkinson, ever the peacekeeper, intervened.

“What I think Wendy is trying to say, is that it’s important not to cling onto your kids too much. You can smother them with your expectations, apply too much pressure. Sometimes it’s just best to let them do their own thing. You know what I mean?”

Liz, much to Thomas’s annoyance, flapped her head in agreement. “Oh, yes, of course, yes, we agree wholeheartedly. Thomas and I try very hard to allow Becki the space to breathe, to explore, to be herself. Don’t we, Thomas?”

Thomas nearly choked on the partially chewed king-sized prawn he had surreptitiously slipped into his mouth whilst Atkinson had been talking. He stared at Liz, raising an eyebrow quizzically. His wife did not seem to see Atkinson and his brood in the same light as he did. Her almost childlike adoration of their family had caused him to wince in embarrassment on more than one occasion. He found it grating the way she seemed to hang on every word that came out of Atkinson’s constantly cheerful mouth. The way she acted, fawning over him like a star struck teenage groupie sitting cross-legged at the feet of their pop idol guru, made his stomach flip and his skin crawl. Her behavior, as unbearable as it was, wasn’t the worst aspect of their little dinner parties. That honor was reserved especially for the excruciating moments when Atkinson and Wendy joined forces and began spouting what Thomas could only think of as their liberal, new age, hippy-dippy bullshit. They seemed to regard their parenting skills as faultless, and their ridiculous lecturing would often make him physically cringe. Liz’s response was the complete opposite. She resembled an over-excited puppy dog that was expecting a treat, sitting up to attention and wagging their tail. As he briefly shut his tired eyes, Thomas swore he could almost hear her panting.

A sudden loud bang from upstairs diffused the situation. All four of them looked upwards as the chandelier above their heads began to rock backwards and forwards.

“Sounds like they’re having fun,” said Atkinson as he reached across the table for some bread. Liz leaned forward in her chair, grabbing the hand-woven wicker breadbasket off the tabletop and passing it over to him. Thomas stifled a yawn as his wife flashed her broadest, doe-eyed smile towards Atkinson.

“And where is Gregory today?” she asked as Atkinson took a small wholemeal baguette out of the basket and set about tearing it into smaller pieces.

“You know what lads of his age are like, embarrassed to spend any time with their family. He went out to see a movie last night with a bunch of mates, ended up staying over at his friend’s house.”

Thomas forced another couple of prawns into his mouth and chewed upon them laboriously. He pictured Gregory, Atkinson’s sixteen-year-old son. The boy took after his father in almost every aspect. Good looking, athletic, academically gifted. Thomas considered the teenager as equally repulsive in his apparent faultlessness as he did his old man. He would often wish that the boy would go off the rails like one of the teenagers he would see in the dreadful soap operas his wife seemed addicted to. A severe problem with drugs, perhaps, or just an admission of being a compulsive shoplifter. Even a lethal drunk-driving car crash wouldn’t go amiss. One, or indeed all of these, would have brought immense joy to him. Any fly in the ointment of his friends’ otherwise perfect existence would have been warmly received.

“Still thinking Oxbridge?” continued Liz. She toyed with the remains of her salad, pushing the leaves ’round and ’round her plate with her fork, each tiny revolution cutting a clean path through the streaks of her leftover coleslaw. The motion reminded Thomas of the homeless guy that always seemed to stumble out in front him at the traffic lights on his route to work. The poor bugger always drooled more mess onto the windscreen than he ever seemed capable of cleaning off.

“Cambridge, we think,” replied Atkinson.

“Thought as much,” mumbled Thomas.

“What was that, mate?”

“Nothing mate, nothing.”

Thomas jerked, the impact of Liz’s size six stiletto as it connected with his shin sending a bright bolt of pain up through his leg. His knee crashed into the underside of the dining table, causing the condiments to jolt as if they were suddenly possessed of their own free will. Liz stared at Thomas, attempting to convey her annoyance with him through a series of abstract facial contortions. Even though she resembled a convulsing patient undergoing extreme electroshock therapy, both Atkinson and Wendy seemed oblivious to the situation. Thomas was used to this. When the pair of them pontificated, he was confident that he could have stripped down to his underwear and stood on his head whilst reciting lewd limericks and remain completely unnoticed.

The sound of footsteps cascading down the staircase, chaotic and wild like those of a drunk stumbling home at closing time, announced the return of the two girls. They ran back into the kitchen, stockinged feet slipping and sliding upon the tiled floor, Helena leading the way with Becki a close second behind her. Helena was carrying an empty wooden toy crate clutched tightly to her chest.

“Need some stuff from the kitchen!” she barked as the two girls marched to the far side of the room and flung open every available cupboard door, rummaging through them all manically.

“What are you up to, Becki?” asked Thomas, “Not making too much mischief I hope?”

Liz glared at Thomas for a second time. He jerked his leg back as the toe of her shoe narrowly missed his already bruised ankle. Thomas shook his head at her, sticking out his tongue in defiance.

“You’re such a child!” she hissed at him under her breath. On the other side of the kitchen, the two girls had their empty crate perched precariously upon the edge of the draining board. They filled the vessel with items pilfered from under the sink. Thomas watched with curious fascination as Helena and Becki tossed in a chaotic mixture of junk. Bin liners, dishcloths, a bottle of bleach. All went into the box, all seemingly selected at random. Thomas turned to Liz.

“Should the kids really be playing with all that stuff?”

For a split second, a fleeting look of concern flickered across her face as she watched Helena slip a large kitchen knife into the box.

“Err…maybe, you’re right,” she replied, and then added, “For once in your life.” The comment, hastily tacked onto her sentence as she pushed back her chair and stood, made Thomas clench his teeth.

Wendy suddenly slapped her hand down onto the tabletop, making Thomas flinch and stopping Liz in her tracks.

“Don’t be silly Liz,” she spluttered. Atkinson leaned in, bottle in hand, and poured some more wine into Liz’s glass as she sank back down into her seat.

“Yeah, be cool Liz. Can’t you see what the kids are up to?”

Thomas squinted, his brain grappling with the slow realization that there was something different about the two girls. It took him a second or two before everything clicked into place. The pair of them were both dressed in matching outfits. Each of them appeared to be wearing a large, slightly off-white men’s shirt. Presumably old work attire that Atkinson no longer required. Both girls had their shirt on back to front, the buttons done up to the collar, the sealed seam of the shirt running down the length of each girl’s back. Of course, he thought to himself. The universal uniform of a child about to make a mess.

Wendy leaned in, her mouth so close to Liz’s ear her tongue was almost grazing her lobe. One of her arms, loose and thin with a bunched-up collection of bands and bracelets gathering around the wrist, dangled around Liz’s shoulder as if palsied.

“Can’t you tell darling? The girls are going to create some art! How marvelous!”

Helena paused and stared at her mother, her hand upon her hips, a look of frustrated impatience souring her near perfect features.

“Like, whatever mother.”

Thomas felt an overwhelming sense of empathy with the girl’s response. Liz continued to almost drool onto Wendy as Atkinson sat back in his chair, sipping at his wine, his mouth almost reaching breaking point as his smug grin continued to stretch further and further across his face.

“You must understand,” continued Wendy, “Helena shows such a creative spark. But so many parents try to push in the wrong direction and they snuff out that creative flame. They think they are encouraging, directing, nurturing, but in fact, all they do is censor.”

Liz continued to nod, an appropriate “um” or “ah” escaping from behind her pursed lips, each noise reinforcing her obvious agreement. Atkinson deposited his glass onto the table and placed his fingertips together. He closed them tightly, forming a close approximation of a church steeple with his hands, then tapped his chin.

“You really just have to let them be free. Free to experiment, free to try things out. Role playing, dressing up, developing themselves, expressing themselves, whatever they want to do. You just can’t smother a blossoming flower, Thomas! It’s cruel to force your own expectations on to somebody else, especially a kid.”

Wendy turned and stared at Thomas, her eyes narrowing, neglecting to make any attempt towards concealing her contempt.

“God, Thomas, really! Your attitude stinks. It’s tantamount to child abuse!”

Thomas placed both his hands beneath the table and curled them into two tight fists. As the girls blundered past him, their arms overflowing with their collection of knick-knacks, he struggled to control his breathing. He silently counted to ten, barely preventing his lips from moving, the biting sensation of his fingernails as they pushed into the flesh of his palms providing a comforting focal point for the rage that was simmering deep within him.

“Thomas,” mumbled Liz, “Really, please, stop it! You’re embarrassing me now.”

He sucked in a lungful of air, tasting again the tang of spice and seasoning that had accompanied the meal. He could feel himself teetering dangerously upon the edge of an explosive meltdown. Strangely, this see-sawing, as he swung between the possibilities of whether or not to unleash his furious wrath, lurching first one way then the other like a dysfunctional pendulum, seemed to have the peculiar effect of slowing down his perception of the events that surrounded him. He felt as if he were an actor in a film, unknowingly viewed by an unseen armchair audience, totally unaware as his pivotal scene was played out and broken-down frame by frame.

He blinked, this singular action itself seeming to take an eternity, then lazily rolled his gaze towards Atkinson.

Atkinson was frozen, statue like, iconic; trapped and captured in a pose that was representative of all his maddening flaws. His perfectly manicured hand was curled around the stem of his wine glass, clutching at the crystal receptacle and holding it aloft as if it were every prize trophy that had slipped out of Thomas’s grip during his grim, lonely school days. Atkinson’s top lip was curled in a sneer that was almost worthy of Elvis, his facial gymnastics seeming to radiate a self-conscious awareness of his own self-appointed status as king of all he surveyed. As he looked at him, Thomas could see with perfect clarity that Atkinson was unashamedly staring at Liz’s breasts.

From upstairs, as if from a million miles away, came a muffled crashing, followed by a banging on the floorboards. The noise, for Thomas, felt warped and distorted, as if an infant were chewing on the sound vibrations and slowly blowing them out into an ever-expanding bubble. Ignoring the racket, he studied Wendy, his heightened state of awareness allowing him ample time to examine her face in detail. Once again, the mixed sensations of attraction and revulsion, strangely equal in their measure, left him feeling hollow and confused. She was caught in the middle of a sentence, a vague sneer causing her face to curl, her moist tongue teasing him as it lay trapped in between the tips of her front teeth. Thomas was again sent hurtling back to his schooldays, as, simultaneously, a blinding revelation exploded in the forefront of his mind. He recognized Wendy now. She was nothing more than another in a lengthy line of unobtainable fantasy figures. A continuation of a never-ending chain started long ago in the painful formative years of his adolescence. She was a twenty-year-old student French teacher on exchange from Calais smoking Gauloises; she was the head of the girl’s hockey team, smiling while mopping sweat from her brow; she was the blonde Lolita that was the top dog of the posh girl’s clique chewing bubble-gum. She was all of these, and she was none of these, and she was no one.

His ruminations were interrupted by further noises from up above. They seemed to emanate from somewhere directly over his head. A strange piercing noise, shrill and high. An alarm, perhaps? He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he was sure he recognized it from somewhere. In a second it had ceased, a quiet calm returning. Now that it had stopped, the source of the distraction was no longer a concern to him. Not in his current state of mind.

And so, his attention shifted to Liz. His partner. His wife. His better half. She, too, appeared to be playing musical statues, a motionless mannequin now that the tunes had stopped. He could clearly see every tiny detail of her, every pore upon her face, every hair upon her head. It occurred to him, then, that he could not recall the last time he had stopped and considered her face. The elegant beauty of her features. The perfection of her eyes, of her skin. This realization sent shivers through his body, ripple after ripple, wave after wave, spreading through him like rings across a pool of water after a heavy stone has been dropped; the boulder breaking the perfection of the smooth surface, then being left to plummet, sinking down into its depths. But what Thomas found even more shocking, was the strange sensation of seeing further, deeper, cutting right back through the years, peeling away time as easily as lifting thin layers of skin, revealing the features, the face, of the person who he had fallen in love with so many years ago.

He sighed.

That person was no longer there. That person was no longer there. Everything suddenly became clear to him. He was, he found the strength to acknowledge, married to nothing more than a phantom.

He was in love with the shadow of a ghost.

With no recollection of how he got there, Thomas found himself standing up. Liz, Atkinson and Wendy were all still seated around the edge of the table, each one of them silent, each one of them staring up at him.

Again, from above, came the sound of muffled noises. Were they voices? Thomas no longer cared. Not now. He was finally ready to vent. His voice, as it escaped from his mouth, was alien and unrecognizable, both to him and to everyone else. It had become a stranger’s hiss. He, he realized, had become that stranger. The dark bogeyman he had always warned his daughter to stay away from. Still, like an avalanche, the words came.

“You pathetic bunch of…” He looked at them all. Looked at them all looking right back at him. “Cunts!”

The last word seemed to explode from him. A ferocious ejaculation, volcano-like in its intensity, the discharge a jet of foul, stinking pus squirting forth from a red, infected boil.

Thomas smiled.

And then, after relenting and releasing the pressure, came a sweet, liberating sense of relief. An incredible lightness flowed through Thomas’ body. The poison seeped out of him, leaving him cleansed, leaving him purified.

“What…what did you say?” said Atkinson, his voice a tiny whisper, finally breaking through the stunned silence.

Thomas turned and stared directly at him, meeting his gaze with his own imperfect, food-stained grin. “You heard me!”

For a few seconds, there was still no response from anyone. Then slowly, life crept back into the three of them. Atkinson turned and looked at Wendy, who, in turn, was staring at Liz, who, in turn, was gawping at Thomas.

Thomas sniggered. “You wanker!” he added, between his snorts of laughter.

“I beg your pardon,” said Wendy, her face becoming a mask of complete and utter bewilderment.

“Bitch!” snapped back Thomas, the word barely recognizable as an insult, hidden deep within his spluttering fit of hiccups and giggles.

A heartbeat later, the room erupted into chaos.

Atkinson leapt to his feet, his chair toppling to the floor behind him with a clunk. He leaned over the tabletop, one hand flat upon the surface supporting himself, the other pointing an outstretched finger at Thomas, the digit waggling in the air wildly. Wendy, her dark eyes wide and dilated, slapped both of her hands over the lower half of her face, hiding the shocked ‘O’ shape her mouth was making. Liz, too, was standing, edging her way towards Thomas around the circumference of the table. All three of them were yelling at the same time, their voices mixing into a frenzied blend of outrage.

“My god, Thomas, what the devil do you think you’re playing at?”

“Please…”

“How dare you come into my house and use such dreadful language!”

“Please…”

“I can’t believe it! I just can’t believe it!”

“Please, everyone…”

“I think you owe Wendy and Atkinson an apology, right now!”

“Please…please everyone…”

“I should slap some sense into you, you foul-mouthed lout!”

“Please everyone, stop shouting…”

“I just can’t believe he said such shocking, awful things!”

“Stop shouting!”

All four of them turned towards the voice. It was coming from the doorway of the kitchen. Standing there was Becki. In one quivering hand, she held the carving knife. Beads of blood, their color almost black in the sterile electric white light of the kitchen, dripped slowly down the length of the blade, falling to the tiled floor, collecting and forming into a tiny puddle. The shirt she was wearing was smeared with even more of the stuff, bright crimson streaks up and down her chest, her whole body now a crazed, abstract work of art.

“Oh, my god!” said Liz. “Becki, sweetheart, what’s the matter? What’s wrong?”

Becki sniffed, her eyes filling with tears. She raised her free arm up to her face, using the sleeve of her shirt to wipe at her nose. The movement left another smudge of blood smeared across her cheeks.

“We…we were playing a game…” she whispered.

“What?” Atkinson said, his voice trembling, “What’s going on?”

“Where’s Helena?” Wendy asked.

Becki choked back a sob, releasing her grip upon the handle of the knife. It fell to the floor. “It was Helena’s idea to play doctors and nurses. I’m the doctor and she’s the patient.”

Thomas raised his hands and clutched at his hair.

“Only now,” continued Becki, “we’ve finished the operation. But she won’t wake up!”

Her tears flowed more freely, the saltwater mixing with the blood on her face, diluting it and turning the fluid a much lighter shade of pink.

It didn’t take much longer for Thomas’s giggles to turn into screams.

Picture of Steven Holding

Steven Holding

Steven Holding lives in the United Kingdom. Most recently, his stories have appeared in the collections Annihilation from Black Ink Fiction and Year Four from Black Hare Press.

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