eighteen little heads

Omega and I crept across the dimly lit room, then stood intrigued before the AVC. Its mantel, two meters long, held eighteen smiling little heads, some with shoulders and upper torsos, others had complete bodies—heads, feet, and everything in between. Several of the heads belonged to the same people, at different ages, as we would soon discover. Toward the right end of the mantel was a group of five, seated around a tiny table scattered with dishes and food: an old, white-haired woman, slightly hunched forward, a middle-aged man, with buzzed blond hair, holding a glass out above the table, a woman with hazel green eyes and short red hair, a boy perhaps my age, eleven, and a little girl, possibly seven or eight years old. All five had their eyes turned on Omega and me, and judging from the expressions on their faces, I could only assume they were happy to see us.

Omega raised her hand toward the head on the left end of the mantel. A man, who appeared to be in the final decade of his cycle, and the woman next to him, followed her hand with their eyes. Omega swiped her hand through the two heads.

“Hello,” the first head said.

We both jumped.

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” the same head, that of the old man, said. “My name is Awkley.” The man smiled, blinked, and nodded.

Omega stared slack-jawed at the head. “Is it a book?” she whispered.

“Yes,” the head said.

“No, no, no,” one of the heads to the right of it said. I didn’t catch which one.

I glance from the first head to the next, a woman, apparently an older version of the red headed woman at the table. Without turning, I said, “They’re not real.”

“Well, obviously,” Omega said.

“How are you doing?” the second head said.

I leaned in close for a better look.

“Welcome to our house,” the old woman’s head added, “My name is Ketley. And you are?”

“What?”

“Now that’s a pleasant name.”

Omega and I looked at each other.

“And you are?” The old woman smiled at Omega.

I turned back to the holo head and said, “Not ‘what’ … Z. My name is Z.”

“Zeee?”

“Yes, Z, and this is Omega.”

“Oh mega,” the third head, a man with unruly gray eyebrows and slightly pointy ears, said.

“What is your name?” Omega said.

“Murse,” the head said, smiling and raising its left brow independent of its right. “I don’t believe we’ve met before, have we?”

“How do you do that?” I said.

“This?” It raised its right brow and lowered its left.

“I mean talk. I mean, how do you … I mean, like real people talk?”

Omega shoved her hand into Murse’s head. “You’re just holograms.”

“And you are not?” the head to the right of Murse said. It was the head of a beautiful woman, whose age was impossible to determine – between thirty and forty would have been my guess. She had blond hair, like Omega had back then, in her youth, so light it was nearly white. I had to look hard to see she had eyelashes and eyebrows. Her eyes were so beautiful, I found it hard to move on.

“We’re real,” Omega said, “see?” She gave me a firm nudge.

“So you are,” the pretty head said.

Clunk! “No more real than we are, Em.” The man at the tiny table had set his glass down. A little of whatever was in it splashed out onto the table top. “See?” He gave the little girl sitting next to him a nudge.

“Father.”

“Awkley, you don’t need to kill the children to make your point,” the younger lady at the table said.

“You’re Ketley, right?” I said.

She turned to me with a puzzled look on her tiny face. “I used to be like that,” she said, “always forgetting names, sometimes seconds after being introduced. It’s all right, you’re young, don’t worry about it, you’ll learn. Yes, Ketley, a kettle version of Awkley The Awkward.”

“You used to live here?” Omega said.

Half the little heads spoke in unison. “We still do.” The other half were shaking their heads, no.

I gave a quick study of the various faces on the mantel and realized there were three each of Ketley and Awkley, and the young woman next to the young man at the far right end bore a striking resemblance to the little girl at the table, whereas the male at that end was an older version of the boy at the table. There were five other faces, three men and two women, who had watched, smiling steadily and blinking, but had, to this point, remained silent. I said, “Omega just wants to know if you’re a book about the people who lived here?”

“No,” the second of the five silent heads, a man of maybe thirty, with a large forehead, and a receding hairline, said, “we’re just visiting. Though I suppose we visit here a lot. I’m Vosraque, and this is my little Puddin’ Pie, Tum.”

“Oh, shut up, ass wipe!” Tum said. “You’re supposed to treat me like a lady, not some cheap dessert!” She turned from her mate to Omega. “Don’t be a fool. Don’t get linked to a man who describes you in edible terms. They do that to make up for their lack of sophistication.” She then turned to me and winked. “Vos Dear, would you just look at this. Isn’t he adorable?” Her dark eyebrows did a quick series of pushups. “Oooo, bumba, bumba.”

“Sweetie Tums, you’re making Awkley’s new guests uncomfortable.”

“Oh, Honey Buns,” she mocked. “Sugar Turd …” She crossed her eyes and pretended to choke. “I am about this close to puking!”

“Muffin Dear,” Vosraque croons, “they can’t see how close you mean. They can’t see your hands.”

“Muffin Dear?”

“Come on you two,” the male head, to the left of Vosraque said. “You’re going to leave them with the wrong impression.”

“What? That my mate has no class, no backbone, and you have no sense of humor?” Tum turned to me, then Omega, and back to me. She appeared puzzled. “Speaking of no sense of humor … What is with you two?”

a stray sheep

It of course sounded unlikely, perhaps even impossible, yet the boys’ father had always lived under a stringent rule of integrity. They had never had cause to doubt him, and being they were so strictly forbidden to go beyond ‘the locked door,’ they had no way of testing his word. What choice did they have, but to have faith and fear the cellar? Hadn’t they, after all, heard on numerous past occasions the curious noises in the night? Wasn’t it likely the noises came from below? From Uncle Lu?

Regardless of the weak bits of rationale he devised in support of his father’s account, Jack suffered from something which could only be interpreted as a doubt—the very thing his father had warned him against—the weakness, the flaw which could someday land him in that terrible void beneath the house—the very thing he struggled to believe in.

***

The days that followed passed without incident. Approaching the middle of summer, the days became warm and dry. The boys rode their bicycles down the sidewalk to a small, city park, not far from their house. They sat in the grass under a shade tree watching a man throwing a Frisbee to his dog.

“Do you remember father talking about Uncle Lu when we were little?”

“Yeah, I think,” Judas said.

“I don’t.” Jack’s eyes drifted down to the clover near his feet. “Well, maybe. But I don’t remember what he said about him. Do you?”

“I remember him once saying that he was crazy, and mean … and he cooked one of his own kids alive.”

“You do not.”

“It was a long time ago, but I remember.”

“Well, why isn’t he in jail then? That’s murder. Or in the crazy hospital?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it was something else he said, but that’s what I remember.”

“And you believe it?”

“If that’s what father said, then yeah.”

“You don’t even know. You believe something you probably just imagined.”

“I don’t know. All I know is, we have a crazy uncle locked up in the cellar. I don’t plan on ever going down there. Do you?”

“But doesn’t it seem odd … I mean, the whole thing. Does father have him chained up or something? And how does he eat? You think father takes food down to him every day?”

“When we’re at school. And at night, when we’re asleep.”

“What about the time we went up north, that funeral? We were gone for—“

“It doesn’t matter! Father says he’s down there. I know he’s down there. Father would never lie.” Judas produced an impatient huff. “We shouldn’t even be talking about him.”

“What about Pucer? What’s that?”

Judas’s eyes jerked back over his shoulder for an instant, and then turned back to his brother. “I’d be very careful saying that if I was you.”

“Pucer Holflapper.” Jack said the name loud enough for the man with the dog to hear. The kids playing on a nearby set of swings might have heard, too, were they listening.

“Sheez, Jack,” Judas whispered, “you’re going to get us both killed. I’m serious.”

“All right, all right.” He looked at his brother and crossed his eyes. “What if I just whispered it? Pucer Dwain Holflapper.”

“Stop it.”

“Shit, Judas, you think he hears every little thing we say? Maybe we’d better not even think Pucer … Oops.” He slapped a hand over his mouth. “Sorry, I said the P word again. When we get home, I’ll gargle with Liquid Plumber. That should fix it, don’t you think?”

Judas pushed himself up from the ground.

“Where’re you going?”

“Home.” He hopped on his bike, and started peddling away. “I don’t want to end up in the cellar with you.”

“But he really can’t hear us here.”

His brother said nothing more, just kept on going.

A few moments later, Jack got to his feet, walked his bike over to the swings and let it fall to the ground. He plopped down in the one and only unoccupied swing, pushed off, then started pumping himself higher and higher.

“Hey.”

He turned toward the swing next to him and only then realized it was his neighbor, Lanny.

“You’re Jack, right?”

“Hi, yeah. I didn’t … I uh …”

“Wasn’t that your brother? Jim? Jake!”

“Judas.”

She began dragging her feet, bringing herself to a stop. “Yeah.” She glanced toward his bicycle lying in the grass, and then at Jack as he swung past. “Don’t you think it’s a bit weird that we live next to each other … and we never talk?”

Jack dug his heels into the sand beneath the swing, slowing down, bringing himself to a stop. Without looking at Lanny, he said, “It wasn’t me, you know? I don’t know why … well, I kinda do. My father didn’t like you guys.”

“You kinda do?”

“I don’t know.” He shook his head. “I guess it was all the cussing.”

“Well, fuck that shit.”

Jack turned. Lanny gave him a smile. “Yeah,” he said, “fuck that shit.”

“I remember your dad used to be kind of mean to you guys.”

He turned. “What?”

“I don’t mean, mean, but I guess … strict, you know?”

Jack swayed from side to side in his swing. “Really?”

“Stricter than most dads.”

He’d tried, in the past, comparing his father to others, but had never arrived at anything conclusive. His opinions kept shifting as his father seemed to shift. “He’s all right, as long as you aren’t bad.” He stopped swaying and kicked at the grass bordering the sand below him.

“Maybe that’s the same as any dad,” she said.

“I’ve met a few I’d gladly trade for.” His eyes became briefly entangled with hers before he managed to pull them away.

“Remember when Frank and I had to apologize for cussing … out on the front porch? Remember?”

“Ohhh … yeah.” He closed his eyes. “I’m sorry about that.”

“It doesn’t matter. That was a long time ago, and it wasn’t your fault.”

“It was stupid.”

She chuckled. “It was.”

“Yeah, well, that’s my father.”

“What’s he do?”

“What’s he do?

“Yeah. What’s he do for a living?”

“I’m not exactly sure.”

She gave him a curious look. “You don’t know what your dad does?”

“Well … he writes.”

“Writes?”

“Books.”

“Story books?”

“No, books, like … I don’t know what kind they are.”

“Oh.” She became quiet, thoughtful, then, “How come you don’t go to the same school as everyone else?”

He searched for a safe, acceptable answer. “I don’t know.” But he did know.

“A friend of mine told me you’re special. I told her I didn’t think so, though.”

“Huh?”

“You’re not, are you?”

“Special?”

“You don’t look like it … or talk like it.”

“What?”

“Well, where do you go to school?”

“Academy for the Past.”

“Oooo… that place is scary.”

“I don’t think it’s scary. My father always said that public schools are scary. This is my last year there, though. The Academy doesn’t take kids past the seventh grade. I’ll have to go to public school then.”

“Is it true, they spank you if you don’t do your homework?”

“Yeah, I guess. But everyone does their homework. They don’t do that in public school?”

“You can sue them for it.”

“Do you like it?”

She turned and gave Jack a twisted face. “Being spanked?”

“No! The school.”

She snorted—“Just kidding.”—then laughed. “It’s OK, I guess. I like some of it, but not all of it. I hate history. I hate Mr. Sadler. Ugh!”

“Well, if I go to public school, maybe I’ll see you there.”

“Maybe you’ll be in my class,” she said. “How old are you?”

“Twelve.”

“Oh, I’m thirteen.  Just had my birthday last week. That means you’ll probably be in the grade behind me.” She gave him a fake frown, followed by a quick, fake smile. “But I might still see you there, anyway. Will you say hi if you see me?”

“Do you want me to?”

“Yeah. I’ll say hi too.”

Jack looked at his watch. “Crap! I gotta go.”