A Story About Becoming the Paranoid Parent

“Bears Are Robbers Of Bees” by Matt Dojny

AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS

Walking to work in New York City, no one waits for the light to change. I’ve heard you can get tickets for jay-walking, but I’ve never seen it happen. I stand four feet out in an intersection to peer around parked cars. If a fellow pedestrian finds an opportunity to cross that I’ve missed — seized a brief moment between passing cabs, for example — I feel left behind, a little jealous and a little impressed.

My Brooklyn neighborhood is favored by couples with young children, couples like Allison and Peter who we meet in Matt Dojny’s “Bears Are Robbers of Bees.” I notice these parents dutifully waiting at red lights, pushing a stroller or gripping the hand of a toddler. When I see these parents, I think, when I have a child, I too will diligently wait for the light to change, teaching my child safe habits. Then I wonder, will I always? What if there is no one coming, what if the streets are deserted, what if we have someplace to be? Will I stand there unmoving, too aware of the gruesome possibilities that may befall the precious life for which I am responsible, to cross against the light?

If coping with daily life requires a certain degree of acceptance by the childless, it requires self-deception by the parent. Driving on a highway, crossing the street, standing near the edge on a crowded subway platform: hold your habits in slightly different light and they become suddenly terrifying. “Bears are Robbers of Bees” is a wonderful, creepy story, cast entirely in that light, one where real-world daycare disasters and Grimm’s fairy tales have equal bearing on how a mother worries about her son.

Allison and Peter have just enrolled their son Dashiell in Jellybeans Daycare. The teacher, Miss Niz, as she’s known to the students, is indeed someone out of a fable. “She is in possession of a fleshy ampleness,” Dojny writes, and her eyes are “the color of dirty snow.” In one light she’s a doting school marm, a child-whisperer; in another, she is witch-like and sexually perverse. These observations are filtered through Allison’s insecurities about her own maternal signifiers and paranoias drawn from the nightly news.

Beyond her speculations, she has only Dashiell, her exuberant, playful son, from whom to get first-hand information. This is the same child who rattles off questionable facts he learned in school (“There’s a worm that eats itself if it can’t find any dinner”; “Baby humans are born with no knees”), and tells a story about his grandmother killing a rat with a gold shovel she bought at Baskin & Robbins. So when his reports of what goes on at Jellybeans Daycare become more disturbing, the reader is as unsure as Allison whether to believe it.

Through expertly layered uncertainty and subtle evocations of dread, Dojny demonstrates that the burden of the parent is also a virtue of the writer: the ability to see and describe the world as a series of strange, intertwining dangers.

Halimah Marcus
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading

 

A Story About Becoming the Paranoid Parent

“Bears are Robbers of Bees”

by Matt Dojny

Jellybeans Daycare occupies the entire ground floor of a brownstone on North Dominick, and — apart from a childish drawing of a red jellybean taped beneath the bottom buzzer — its presence is nowhere acknowledged on the building’s exterior. Peter insists that this anonymity must be in order to prevent its location from being advertised to predators. But to Allison’s eyes, the lack of signage lends Jellybeans a disturbingly provisional quality, and every evening, when she arrives to retrieve Dashiell, she half-expects to find the building emptied of furniture, toys, and children.

Jellybeans is owned and operated by a woman called Anzhelika Nizhnyaya. Allison assumes she is Ukrainian, because all of the Lincoln Park daycares are run by Ukrainians nowadays, but in reality the woman was born in the Tuva Republic of southern Siberia. If Peter and Allison were to hear the story of her journey from Siberia to Chicago — crossing the Tannu-Ola mountain range at the age of thirteen, eating only zhimolost and myshey and rotten cheremukha, huddling in catchments after nightfall to avoid the red wolves, the black wolves, the white wolves — Peter would surely find the tale both glamorous and heartrending.

Allison would find it disturbing, yet somehow unconvincing.

When Allison visits Jellybeans for the first time, and attempts to pronounce Anzhelika Nizhnyaya’s name aloud, it is suggested that Allison should simply call her “Miss Niz,” as the children do. After that, whenever Allison addresses the woman by this name, she feels as though she is herself a child, or a hapless employee, forever on the verge of losing her job.

The woman — Miss Niz — is not unpretty. She is in possession of a fleshy ampleness that some men might find enticing, in that it makes her appear sexually available. She wears brightly-patterned peasant dresses without a brassiere, and is frequently barefoot in the classroom. Her waist-length hair is silvery white — despite the fact that she can’t be much older than 30 — and her cheeks are forever flushed pink, as though she is still on her journey through the mountains. Her eyes are wet and overlarge and the color of dirty snow.

Allison finds the woman’s body to be a bit excessive, its womanliness over-exaggerated, as though she were a primitive fertility statuette come to life. The woman’s immoderate breasts and hips and thighs seem like a direct reproach to Allison’s boyish chest and nervous skinniness. Allison is thought to be beautiful by many — a barista recently told her, “I would kill for your cheekbones” — and she is regarded with envy by the other mothers at Jellybeans. Although, after having Dashiell she has been steadily losing weight, and her beauty has tipped into severity, the presence of her skull too obvious behind the taut skin of her face. She has always had an underlying air of morbidity to her, with her bloodless skin and wine-red lips, and she continues to dress in all black, as she has done since she was a sophomore in high school. Allison has shed her other adolescent Gothic affectations. She no longer smokes cigarettes, no longer dyes her hair. But she feels like a liar every time she tries to wear color.

Another thing that won’t go away: there is a small white scar above Allison’s eyebrow where she pierced it when she was twenty-two, and sometimes at work she strokes it while deep in thought. She is ashamed of this scar, and likes to touch it.

There are thirteen children in Dashiell’s class, overseen by the woman’s two assistants — a pair of attractive and seemingly interchangeable girls who are, in fact, Ukrainian. Their role is to help Miss Niz herd the little ones from Breakfast Time to Play Time to Lunch Time to Nap Time to Circle Time to Snack Time, until the parents start trickling in from work to herd their children home. The two girls appear to be hardworking and capable caretakers, although Allison is often taken aback by their provocative outfits: the short skirts, the midriff-baring halter tops, the oversized earrings. They do not look like caregivers so much as employees at a mid-level escort service.

The Ukrainian girls treat Miss Niz with a deference bordering on fear. Without any words exchanged, the girls appear to intuit her wishes at any given moment, hurrying from room to room and retrieving the necessary snacks or books or baby wipes. Allison is reminded of the way ants communicate, using subtle sounds, scent, and touch.

Allison is never certain of the names of these two girls. After a time, it seems too late to ask.

The first morning that Allison drops him off at Jellybeans, Dashiell throws a tantrum, begging her to stay and clinging to her ankles. Allison is finally forced to scurry out the door as the woman, smiling serenely, wraps her arms around the sobbing child and pins him firmly to her chest.

All that day Allison waits for the inevitable phone call from Miss Niz, telling her that Dashiell is inconsolable and must be picked up immediately. But no such call comes. When Allison slinks out of work at 5:30 and hurries back to Jellybeans to retrieve her son, she finds him nestled against the woman’s bosom, sucking his thumb, half asleep.

“Dashy was brave soldier today,” says Miss Niz, petting the boy’s hair. Her voice reminds Allison of an actor doing a bad Transylvanian accent. “He cried in the start, but then I make him happy.”

Allison reaches for her son’s hand. “Let’s go home, honey. I’ll make you some piggies in blankets.” She feels an urgent need to get out of this place, this overwarm room with its insistent odors of sweat, gingerbread, bleach, sour milk.

Dashiell nestles deeper into the woman’s body, looking like he is part of it, growing out of it, like a mushroom spore on a rotten stump. “I couldn’t sleep at Nap Time,” he says proudly. “So she took me to the Jellybean Room. I got a red.”

“A red what?”

“A red jellybean!” Dashiell cackles at his mother’s ignorance. “Then I was soooooo tired, I was like this.” He spreads his arms, letting his limp figure loll between the breasts of Miss Niz.

“You’re a lucky boy, getting such a nice treat,” says Allison. “You know you aren’t allowed to have sugar unless it’s a special occasion. But the first day of school is special, I suppose.”

The woman shows her teeth in a quick grimace. “Dashy enjoy the Jellybean Room very much,” she says, then lowers her voice to a stage whisper. “Children are like the donkey. They answer to the promise of carrot — or the threat of the whip.” And then the woman beams at Allison, as though she has imparted some ancient wisdom, or perhaps made a terrific joke.

Allison presses her lips together into what she hopes is a smile. She grabs Dashiell in a single quick movement, before he has time to protest, and shouts her thanks over her shoulder as she carries him out the door.

That night — after Dashiell falls asleep, and Allison and Peter are on the couch, eating bánh mì and drinking Grenache and watching Shark Tank — Allison casually suggests, during a commercial break, that perhaps they should transfer Dashiell to another daycare. Busy Bubbles on North Elston, or maybe Little Einsteins, where Michael and Nicole send Sullivan.

“Why in the world would we do that?” says Peter, not taking his eyes off the television. On the screen is a beautiful young woman in a leotard doing the downward dog on a scenic hilltop, the sun rising behind her. She suffers from genital warts, but with the help of her new medication, she won’t allow this to prevent her from fulfilling her potential. Possible side effects include dry mouth, heart palpitations, vertigo, and premature death.

“I don’t know,” says Allison. “There’s something about that place. It doesn’t look clean, for one.” She is thinking about the uninterrupted black smudge that runs along the baseboards of the Play Space, as though the room had been inexpertly renovated after a fire.

“You seemed okay with it when we took the tour.”

“That woman calls him Dashy. Dashy. What an awful nickname.”

“What woman? Anzhelika?”

Allison gives Peter a side-eyed look, and opens her mouth to ask him a question, but does not ask it. Instead she says, “Oh, and listen to this.” She repeats what the woman said about the carrot and the whip.

“I’m sure it’s some old adage from the motherland. ‘Zee child, eet is like veal calf — you must keep eet in box all day long, until zee body become soft and delicious.’” Peter grabs at his wife’s stomach, giving it a squeeze, but Allison slaps his hand away. She is staring at the wall above the television as though watching some refracted scene play out there.

“Allie. What is it?” Peter mutes the commercial and touches her arm. In a low voice, he asks, “Are you thinking about Kidzville?”

“No,” she says. “I don’t know. No.”

“Because that was awful, of course. But it was just a random thing. Those people — ”

“I said that’s not it.”

“Then what’s the matter?”

But Allison cannot find the exact words to explain her concern. She’s thinking about the carrot, the whip. She’s thinking about refined sugar and the smell of sour milk. She is also thinking of the thick black hair that sprouts from the woman’s armpits — black, despite the whiteness of the hair on her head — and how this hair is somehow pornographic, forcing Allison to imagine the mass of black curls between the woman’s legs, the black spidery hairs crawling up towards her belly. She imagines Peter, kneeling before the woman on the carpet, burying his face between her flowing white thighs. He is suckling at the thing there as though he were a baby. The woman stroking his hair as she stares ahead, patiently taking her pleasure.

“Anyways,” says Peter, “we’d lose our $750 deposit if we took him out now. Let’s sleep on it.” And then Shark Tank comes back on, and Peter unmutes the television, and no more is said of the matter.

At work, Allison googles is my daycare licensed chicago and makes her way to the site for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Jellybeans had been so highly recommended on the Working Moms listserv, it had never occurred to her to check its credentials. She types jellybeans into the Search and after an interminable wait, she is delivered to an empty page. No data to display. Her heart flashes with panic. She tries jellybeans, inc and jellybeans daycare and jellybeans, llc and jellybeans daycare, llc. With every unsuccessful search she feels as though she is sinking a little deeper into the floor. Then she searches for Little Snowflakes, the new daycare on South Halsted. No data to display. She searches for Little Einsteins, Tiny Bubbles, and Chickpeas, but none of them turn up. Perhaps she’s not entering the correct search terms? Or perhaps all of the daycare centers that she and her friends send their children to are unlicensed. Perhaps that’s normal, one of those things that everybody knows but no one talks about, an open secret.

Then her manager comes to her with a question and Allison closes the browser window, deciding in that moment that the site is clearly broken and that she will not return to it.

When Allison and Peter first started dating, she would lie in bed with him and enumerate her fears, beginning with the smallest and working her way up to the largest and most outrageous. A perceived slight by a coworker; the suggestion of a lump beneath her armpit; the possibility of becoming bipolar late in life, like her Aunt Mary. Allison once described to him a vision she’d had while eating lunch at Au Bon Pain: there was a nuclear war and she was somehow the sole survivor, caught eating a Roasted Eggplant and Asiago Hot Wrap, haunted by an entire city of ghosts.

Peter would listen quietly to these fears, touching Allison’s hair, running his hands lightly across her body beneath the sheets, and when she was finished speaking he would say to her in a quiet voice: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. At the time, Allison did not know that Peter was quoting the medieval Catholic mystic Julian of Norwich. It sounded as though he were speaking from a position of authority and foreknowledge. Coming out of Peter’s mouth, the words had the ring of truth.

Peter was born and raised on Staten Island, not far from the area known as Fresh Kills. Originally a salt marsh, Fresh Kills was transformed into a massive garbage dump in the late 1940s. At its peak of operation, 650 tons of trash were added daily, eventually turning it into the world’s largest man-made structure — a range of small mountains molded from 150 million tons of solid waste. After 9/11, the site was filled with the wreckage and debris from Ground Zero, including the unidentified remains of victims from the attack. Soon thereafter, it was determined that Fresh Kills had reached full capacity, and the facility was shut down.

The mounds were covered over with layers of compressed dirt, rip-rap, water, plastic, concrete, and topsoil; the noxious landfill gas and leachate byproducts were sucked out of the mounds, siphoned off by an unseen network of drainage channels; and native grass and tree species were planted on top of the mounds, so that the site was ultimately transformed into a verdant public park that betrayed no signs of its former purpose. A visitor to this park could conceivably stroll the grounds without being aware of what lies beneath his feet.

It has occurred to Allison more than once that her husband, as he moves through the world, is not unlike a visitor to this park.

After the first day, Dashiell goes to Jellybeans without any fuss. When Allison retrieves him after work he is glassy-eyed, drunk with exhaustion. Over dinner he talks non-stop, rattling off the new information that his small, spongy brain has absorbed: Butterflies taste their food by standing on top of it. There’s a worm that eats itself if it can’t find any dinner. Baby humans are born with no knees. Rats laugh when you tickle them.

“They laugh? Is that actually true?” asks Peter.

“Eat your peas, Dashiell,” says Allison.

“It is true. Anzhelika said.”

“She might be confused,” says Allison. “There’s a slight language barrier.”

Dashiell’s face grows serious and thoughtful. “When Grandma and me was walking down the street, we saw a rat one time.”

Peter grins. “And did you tickle it?”

“No. We saw it in the street and Grandma went into Baskin & Robbins and got a snow shovel.”

“Someone at the Baskin & Robbins gave her a shovel?” Allison seems somehow vexed by this idea.

“No, Grandma bought it. It was made of gold.”

“Grandma has very expensive tastes.” Peter smiles and winks at no one in particular.

“And she took the shovel and killed the rat with it.”

Peter begins to laugh. “I have to say, Allie, this does sound like something your mother might do.”

“Dashiell, please stop talking nonsense and eat your peas.”

Dashiell picks up a pea, holding it in front of his nostril, as though considering whether or not to insert it. “Anzhelika says bears are robbers of bees, because they steal their honey.” He pops the pea into his mouth. “But it’s okay, because it’s Mother Nature. And you know what else?”

Right now, her son is reminding her of an ex who used to do too much coke and talk at her for hours, as if every single thought in his brain were worth expressing, moving from topic to topic without any discernible transitions. Dashiell’s voice is turning into a kind of white noise. Allison tries to tune back into it.

“What else,” she says.

Issue №257

Jump to story

AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS

Walking to work in New York City, no one waits for the light to change. I’ve heard you can get tickets for jay-walking, but I’ve never seen it happen. I stand four feet out in an intersection to peer around parked cars. If a fellow pedestrian finds an opportunity to cross that I’ve missed — seized a brief moment between passing cabs, for example — I feel left behind, a little jealous and a little impressed.

My Brooklyn neighborhood is favored by couples with young children, couples like Allison and Peter who we meet in Matt Dojny’s “Bears Are Robbers of Bees.” I notice these parents dutifully waiting at red lights, pushing a stroller or gripping the hand of a toddler. When I see these parents, I think, when I have a child, I too will diligently wait for the light to change, teaching my child safe habits. Then I wonder, will I always? What if there is no one coming, what if the streets are deserted, what if we have someplace to be? Will I stand there unmoving, too aware of the gruesome possibilities that may befall the precious life for which I am responsible, to cross against the light?

If coping with daily life requires a certain degree of acceptance by the childless, it requires self-deception by the parent. Driving on a highway, crossing the street, standing near the edge on a crowded subway platform: hold your habits in slightly different light and they become suddenly terrifying. “Bears are Robbers of Bees” is a wonderful, creepy story, cast entirely in that light, one where real-world daycare disasters and Grimm’s fairy tales have equal bearing on how a mother worries about her son.

Allison and Peter have just enrolled their son Dashiell in Jellybeans Daycare. The teacher, Miss Niz, as she’s known to the students, is indeed someone out of a fable. “She is in possession of a fleshy ampleness,” Dojny writes, and her eyes are “the color of dirty snow.” In one light she’s a doting school marm, a child-whisperer; in another, she is witch-like and sexually perverse. These observations are filtered through Allison’s insecurities about her own maternal signifiers and paranoias drawn from the nightly news.

Beyond her speculations, she has only Dashiell, her exuberant, playful son, from whom to get first-hand information. This is the same child who rattles off questionable facts he learned in school (“There’s a worm that eats itself if it can’t find any dinner”; “Baby humans are born with no knees”), and tells a story about his grandmother killing a rat with a gold shovel she bought at Baskin & Robbins. So when his reports of what goes on at Jellybeans Daycare become more disturbing, the reader is as unsure as Allison whether to believe it.

Through expertly layered uncertainty and subtle evocations of dread, Dojny demonstrates that the burden of the parent is also a virtue of the writer: the ability to see and describe the world as a series of strange, intertwining dangers.

Halimah Marcus
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading

Reading In The Schools by Hannah Rahimi

Dashiell is changing. He is changing in subtle, almost undetectable ways — ways which only a parent would notice. Although even Peter does not seem to notice many of these changes.

When Allison tries to discuss the changes with Peter, he makes the observation that children are constantly changing, and how can one really keep track? “The Buddhists have an expression,” says Peter. “Life is change.” He sighs contentedly, because he feels that this is a satisfying way to end this particular conversation. Peter is a collector of quotations, pieces of wisdom — not trite banalities, but things that strike him as being so true that he has an obligation to commit them to memory. Many years ago, Peter told Allison that his motto was, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work” — although Peter’s work is in real estate, which does not offer much opportunity for originality, or violence.

Dashiell appears to be losing weight, growing long and lean, emerging from a chrysalis of babyfat. Is he too skinny? He eats like a horse and he glows with good health but his ribs are so pronounced now. Allison doesn’t like being aware of the skeleton inside of her child.

Dashiell’s hair feels persistently greasy, despite the fact that Allison washes it every night. He has a new and distinct odor, or rather, two odors: the clammy tang of flopsweat, and also an exotic, smoky scent that reminds her of the joss sticks that she burned in college. He perspires when he sleeps and when Allison makes his bed in the morning she sees that his sheets are imprinted with a damp yellow discoloration, a vague body-shape that reminds her of the Shroud of Turin.

From time to time Dashiell awakes in the middle of the night jabbering and crying, inconsolable. Peter sleeps like the dead so it’s always Allison who runs into her son’s bedroom to care for him. During these terrors, Dashiell will scream at her that his hands hurt, his feet hurt, his tongue hurts. She gets him water and sings to him and rubs his back until he finally exhausts himself and dozes off. Dashiell is bright and happy in the morning, having no memory of the night before. Both he and Peter listen to Allison with blank politeness as she recounts the awful scene that occurred at 3 AM. She finds herself wishing that there were another witness to these night terrors. She shouldn’t be the only one.

There are symptoms during the day as well. Dashiell says there is a crawling sensation on his heart, as though it is covered with ants. He says it feels like there are feathers moving inside his blood. He says that he can smell electricity when he closes his eyes. Allison resists the urge to look up these symptoms on the Internet but at night she lies in bed wondering if her son has some rare disease — the type that’s so obscure and deadly, they don’t even bother fundraising for a cure.

When she can no longer stand hearing these complaints, Allison brings Dashiell to Dr. Keller for a check-up. He laughs when she describes some of Dashiell’s symptoms. Dr. Keller tells her that the boy’s health is fine, just fine. He speculates that the boy has an overactive imagination, and possibly low potassium levels. Dashiell needs to eat more bananas.

Dashiell had been a difficult and greedy baby, always wanting to nurse, always at Allison’s breast, always needing to be held. The moment he was placed into his crib he’d begin screaming. Maternity leave was hard on Allison. When Peter arrived home from work in the evenings, she would thrust the baby into his arms and go and lock herself in the study with a magazine and a glass of wine. When her leave finally came to an end, she felt a guilt-ridden thrill at the prospect of returning to the quiet and boredom of her cubicle.

Allison understands now that she is not temperamentally suited for having a child. She is not made of the stern stuff necessary to shepherd a child through this life. She was not like one of those frontier women who could have a child die in the morning and would resume harvesting grain in the afternoon — no, she was like one those barren and hysterical Victorian women who would lie in bed with a false illness, staring wild-eyed at the peeling wallpaper.

Dashiell continues to have daily complaints, and each description of each new symptom fills Allison with a fresh bout of anxiety. Peter listens to Dashiell’s symptoms with amusement, asking scientific-sounding questions, goading him on. Peter lacks the imagination to experience any fear of the unknown, and in this regard he is perfectly suited for parenthood.

Another new thing is the baby talk. It creeps in slowly — at first it’s just the occasional mispronunciation, the intentionally garbled syntax, gradually increasing in frequency until one day Allison realizes that there is nothing but baby talk coming from the mouth of her son. Dashiell is fully committed to this new mode of speech, a method actor who refuses to break character.

“Anzhewika says I’m huh wittle baby boy,” he explains at dinner, “so now me tawk wike a wittle baby.”

Peter jokes about it with their friends, saying his son talks like Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar. But Allison cannot bear it. She imagines strangling Dashiell, very measuredly and gently, until he speaks normally again.

“You’re my little baby,” says Allison, stroking the fine blond fur on the nape of Dashiell’s neck. “But please use your big-boy voice.”

Naughty wittle baby,” he sings.

“Dashiell, I mean it.” Her voice has gone hard now. “Speak normally.”

“But me can’t, because me a wittle baby.”

Allison turns to Peter, her eyes imploring. Peter sighs and pats his son on the shoulder. “Buddy, we can’t understand you when you speak like that.”

“No! Me have to speak wike — ”

“Dashiell! Do you want a Time Out?” Allison glares at the chair in the corner of the living room. The Time Out chair is actually the nicest chair in the house — a white leather Eames knock-off that, despite its inauthenticity, was still outrageously expensive. Peter refers to it as the Chair of Sorrow. He often threatens to send Dashiell to the Chair of Sorrow, but rarely follows through.

Peter murmurs, “I read that we’re just supposed to ignore it, not punish — ”

“Dashiell’s a big boy,” says Allison, looking wildly back and forth between her son and her husband. “He needs to speak like a big boy. If he wants to talk like a baby, he can do it during his Time Out.”

Allison quickly gets to her feet, preparing to drag her son to the chair. But Dashiell slides out of his seat and hurries past her. He grabs a wooden spoon from the countertop and, grinning at his parents, hops up onto the Chair of Sorrow. “Naughty wittle baby,” he sings, smacking himself on the forehead with the spoon, keeping time. “Naughty wittle baby, buzz buzz buzz.”

“That voice makes me want to jump out the window,” says Allison, later, pouring herself more wine. Wine seems to have lost its effect on her, and has just become a kind of dry, mildly unpleasant water. But she keeps drinking it, hoping it will once again make her feel relaxed and adult.

“The Voice of Defenestration.” Peter smiles as though he’s been waiting for an opportunity to use that particular phrase.

“And he’s got a funny odor now. Have you noticed?”

“Funny how?”

“Remember the way he used to smell? His hair, when he was a baby?” Allison bows her head and closes her eyes and inhales, as though that baby is at her breast now. “He smelled like nothing at all.”

“He’s just going through a phase, Allie.”

“I don’t think so.”

Peter studies her curiously. “What do you mean?”

She doesn’t know what she means by that herself, but it feels true.

Dashiell comes into their room in the middle of the night. He stands over their bed. Allison wakes up to the sound of his breathing, sees his black silhouette.

I’m going to abduct you,” he whispers.

She sits up, unsure if she’s having a dream. “What?” She reaches her hand out to him but can’t find his body in the darkness. “Dashiell? What did you say?”

I was honest.” Dashiell sighs and climbs up into their bed, nestling between her and Peter. “I was honest, but I gave up,” he murmurs. His eyelids flutter, then grow still.

“What did you say?” Allison gently shakes him, peering down at his face. “Dashiell. What did you say.”

The following night, Dashiell returns to Peter and Allison’s bedroom, crawling over their sleeping bodies and sliding silently beneath the duvet. And suddenly that’s the new routine: Dashiell coming into their bed every night. Peter tries to put a stop to it, occasionally frog-marching Dashiell back into his own room — but he usually remains asleep, oblivious to his son’s presence.

Allison likes having her baby boy next to her. Dashiell slept in their bed when he was first born, a tiny thing crawling upon her in the night. However, Dashiell has grown so long-bodied, it is like she is sleeping with two men. In his sleep Dashiell turns and braces the bottoms of his feet against her side, a constant pressing. If she rolls away from him, he whimpers and once again finds her with his feet. It reminds her of how, before Dashiell was born, he would press his feet against the inside of her belly. As though trying to keep her at bay before he was even outside of her body.

Some nights, Allison lies awake, anticipating Dashiell’s arrival. When he finally enters the room, she feigns sleep, waiting to feel his feet against her stomach.

One evening Allison arrives a half hour late to pick Dashiell up at Jellybeans and can’t find him. She doesn’t see him in the Kitchen Area, or in the Toy Zone, or in Book Corner. There don’t seem to be any adults anywhere, only a few exhausted-looking children idly playing or just sitting scattered across the floor.

“Dashiell?” she calls, trying not to sound alarmed. “Hello?”

One of the the two Ukrainian girls emerges from the bathroom, holding hands with a crying child. The Ukrainian girl is dressed in an orange halter top and an A-line miniskirt with kitten heels. She wears donut-sized hoop earrings and smells like Obsession, which was the perfume that Allison herself wore when she was a very young woman.

“Sorry, um — ” Allison places a hand on the girl’s shoulder in lieu of saying her name. Allison has questioned Dashiell many times regarding the names of the two Ukrainian girls. He claims that they are called Poopy and Weep-Weep. “I’m looking for Dashiell? I’m a little late…”

The Ukrainian girl points toward a door in the back of the Toy Zone. “Jellybean Room,” she murmurs.

Miss Niz materializes in the doorway as though on cue. Dashiell is behind her, clutching her skirt. There is something wrong with his face — it appears puffy, with bright red splotches on the cheeks. He catches sight of his mother and hurries in her direction, emitting a low moan. Allison reaches out as he passes but she does not touch him.

“Dashiell,” she says as he disappears around the corner. There is the sound of a door slamming.

The woman walks up to Allison and wrinkles her nose. “He is going to make a Number Two,” she says.

“Is he okay?” Allison wants very much to go after him, but remains where she is. “He looked — tired, or something.”

“Dashy is very bad napper,” says the woman, shaking her head with disapproval. “You must fix the sleeping plan. He is too old for your marriage bed at night.”

“What?” Allison turns and looks at the woman. She is gazing serenely at Allison, eyes shining and bulbous. Her body appears particularly over-ripe today, breasts bulging at the fabric of her dress, as though she has the heads of two small children hidden under there. Allison wonders if the woman is pregnant, or is simply somehow succumbing to voluptuousness.

“Dashy tells me he sleeps with you and Daddy,” says the woman. “My advice is, this makes a bad attachment, and will confuse healthy sleeping. Also, for you to be a happy Mommy, you and Daddy must have…” The woman interlaces her fingers and pushes her chapped red hands together as though killing an insect. “Adult friendship,” she says.

Allison laughs brightly, looking away from the woman and her hands. “Dashiell doesn’t really sleep in our bed,” she says. “I’m not sure why he told you that.”

The woman turns abruptly and leaves the room, as though summoned by an unheard call. Allison watches her go, then lowers herself onto a child-sized chair and remains seated until the woman returns with Dashiell. He appears almost like a different child now, his face relaxed. He smiles at his mother strangely — the tight half-smile that one might give to a coworker on the street — then he retrieves his jacket from the coat closet and walks out the door.

That evening, Allison considers skipping the nightly ritual of Bath Time, but her desire to have a clean child triumphs over her ennui. When the water is the correct temperature she peels off Dashiell’s clothing and places him into the tub. He stands there, shin-deep in water, staring at her blankly.

“Sit down, honey,” says Allison. “I’m not in the mood to fight you tonight.”

“Tell me a stowy and it has to be twue,” he says quickly.

“Yes. Okay. Fine. Just — sit down.”

He eyes her with suspicion, as though unsure if she is going to keep her part of the bargain, then gingerly lowers himself into the water. “Tell it,” he says.

Allison and Dashiell both find Bath Time unspeakably boring. Allison has never quite gotten accustomed to cleaning the body of another, and as she methodically scrubs Dashiell’s armpits, his feet, his bottom, it always feels as though she’s overlooking some crevice where the grime is invisibly accruing. About a year ago, Dashiell informed her of his new policy: he would submit to Bath Time on the condition that Allison tell him a story while bathing him. It could not be a made-up story, it had to be a true story from Allison’s life — an adventure, a catastrophic near-miss, anything involving violence, embarrassment, disease, bodily functions, thievery. So Allison had dredged up a lifetime of memories, recounting every juicy story she could think of: being robbed at knifepoint in Venice; defecating into a backpack while stuck in a traffic jam; vomiting in the hot tub on her wedding night; on and on and on. Eventually, as she began running out of choice material, her stories became less and less interesting. Finally she had to resort to fibbing, claiming to have experienced things that had actually happened to friends of hers, or occasionally presenting a news item as a personal experience. Lately she had been forced to invent her stories from scratch, a new lie every night.

“Tell it!” says Dashiell. “Tell the stowy.”

Allison nods and begins to speak without knowing where her words will take her. “One time,” she begins, “when I was a little girl… I was very tired.” She yawns, stalling for time. “I was so tired, and, so I got in my bed and went to sleep.”

“Was it night time?”

“Yes. So I went to sleep, and I started to have a dream. And in this dream — ”

“Dweams is not weal,” says Dashiell. He is always very strict about the rules of Bath Time storytelling. “Tell a twue stowy.”

“This is true. Because, this dream wasn’t like a normal dream. In the dream, I was aware that I was in a dream. This is called lucid dreaming. And so when I woke up inside my dream, I realized that I could do whatever I wanted to do. I thought to myself, I want to fly, and I started floating around the room. My dog Lizzy came in and I made her start singing Happy Birthday to me.”

Dashiell laughs at this. “Dogs can’t sing!”

“I know, but, I was the boss of the dream, so I could control the whole world. Then I decided — I wanted to some dessert. And suddenly, right on my lap, a giant marshmallow appeared.”

“How big?”

“This big.” Allison holds her arms out in front of her like someone preparing to waltz. “So I started eating it. It was really, really yummy, and I ate and ate it, I couldn’t stop. But then, I began to feel full. I decided I wanted to wake up and get out of my dream. I woke up for a second, opened my eyes, and then went falling back down, down into the dream. This happened over and over. Like I kept getting sucked back to the bottom of a deep ocean.”

She pauses, and Dashiell snaps at her: “Then what?”

“I kept doing this for a while, trying to wake up. Whenever I went back into the dream, I was still eating the giant marshmallow. I felt so full, my tummy was about to explode. In my dream I was rolling around, eating this pillow, and then in real life I rolled out of bed and fell on the floor and woke up. And I saw that my pillow was all wet, and I realized that I’d been chewing on it all night when I thought I was eating that giant marshmallow.” Allison pauses, wondering if that’s the end of her story. She had thought she was making the whole thing up, but now it has the feeling of an actual childhood memory, accidentally unearthed.

Dashiell claps his hands together. “You ate your piwwow!”

“No baby talk. Yes, well, I was trying to eat it. Isn’t that funny?”

He chews on his lip, thinking. “Sometimes, at Nap Time, I fall asweep and have a fast dweam and get scared and start cwying.”

“Oh, honey. I’m sorry. Does anyone help you?”

Dashiell nods. “Anzhewika comes and takes me to Jehwybean Woom.” He lowers his voice and regards Allison slyly. “She says I’m huh fayvwit wittle boy.”

“Please, no baby talk. You’re her what?”

Fayvwit! She gives me a wed jehwybean, evwee day, and then…” He stops short, pressing his lips into a thin line. His eyes enlarge with some unexpressed emotion.

“And then what?” Allison drops the washcloth into the water and studies Dashiell. His body looks so thin and white beneath the water. It calls to mind a dying oarfish that she saw once while kayaking along the Gold Coast — which is ridiculous, because her son looks nothing like an oarfish. “And then what, Dashiell?”

He covers his face with his hands and whispers between his fingers, “I can’t tell you.”

“What do you mean?”

Shhhhhhh,” he says, glancing to the side as though addressing an invisible companion.

“Dashiell, I — ”

“It’s a secret.”

A dreadful prickling sensation gathers at the base of Allison’s skull, crawls up her scalp, and covers her forehead like a veil. A child with a secret seems like a precursor to calamity, tragedy. “Tell me,” she says. “Remember, no one can ask you to keep a secret.”

“Uh-uhn.” Dashiell farts in the water and laughs a cloying, babyish laugh.

Allison grabs his shoulders with such force that his laughter immediately pitches up into a shriek. “You do not keep secrets from Mommy,” she shouts, surprised by her own ferocity. Upon seeing the look of terror on Dashiell’s face, she quickly releases him. Two bright pink thumb-shaped marks glow on his pale shoulders.

“Sweetie,” she says, “I’m sorry, but — you have to tell me.”

Dashiell hesitates, then says in a small voice: “She give me a shawt.”

“A what? No baby talk.”

He sighs. “She gives me a shot.”

Allison becomes very still, watching her son. “What are you talking about? Who does?”

“Anzhelika.” Dashiell sticks his face in the water, blowing bubbles. “I’m not supposed to tell,” he adds, smiling at her radiantly.

Allison shakes her head. She does not believe him, of course, not for an instant, but she cannot stop herself: “Where on your body do you get this shot?”

Dashiell shrugs, bored now that his secret is out. “Different places. Today it was here.” He points to the crook of his left elbow. Allison grasps his arm and brings it to her face. There is a tiny red bump there. It is perhaps a bug bite, or a clogged pore. Some kind of birthmark. She should know every single mark on the body of her son, shouldn’t she?

“Dashiell, I know it’s fun to tell stories sometimes. But this is serious.”

“It’s twue.”

“It can’t be true. You’re just being silly.”

“It’s twue, it’s twue, it’s twue!”

“You swear to God? No baby talk.”

“Anzhelika gives me a shot. At Nap Time, when the other kids are asleep. Then she gives me a jellybean, and I can sleep.”

Allison sits back on her heels and runs a wet, soapy hand through her hair. “I know you are lying to me,” she says quietly, and starts to cry.

After Dashiell is asleep, Allison slips out of his room and goes into the bathroom. She slowly removes her clothing, watching herself in the mirror as she does so. She is thinking about what Dashiell told her, a shot, what could that possibly mean? She pushes the thought away, gazing at her body. A shot. Allison’s breasts seem to be receding into her chest. Her hip bones jut out like axe handles. Have they always done so? Her clavicles make her think of a cartoon character who has swallowed a coat hanger. A shot. She tries to picture the pendulous breasts of Miss Niz hanging from her own thin frame. She cups her hands in front of her and feels their heaviness in the air.

A shot.

When Allison emerges from the shower, Peter is in bed reading The New Yorker on his phone. She sits on the edge of the mattress and tells him what their son has confessed to her. She has to repeat it twice before Peter responds.

“Dashiell is a nut,” he says, not moving his eyes from the screen.

“So you don’t think it’s true.”

“Do I think it’s true that the sexy Siberian lady gives Dashiell a daily injection?” Peter inflates his cheeks, then deflates them, shaking his head. “I do not.”

“Sexy?”

“Don’t you think Anzhelika is a little bit sexy?”

“She’s fat.”

“She’s… Rubenesque. More cushion for the pushin’.” Peter falls silent for a long moment, then says, “Did you read about this chef who got tongue cancer?”

“Why are you being so awful?”

He finally lifts his head and looks at his wife. His expression changes, and he touches her elbow and says, “Hey, c’mon. You’re the only sexy lady I know.”

“I really don’t care if you want to fuck the daycare teacher.”

Peter squints at his wife as though performing a complex math problem in his head. After a long pause he says, “You’re worried about what Dashiell said.”

“No.” Allison gets into the bed, pulling the duvet up to her chin. She stares at the ceiling. “He kept insisting it was true. He would not crack. It was kind of weird.”

“Because your son is a weirdo.”

“I was thinking of asking Miss Niz about it. Just to put it to rest.”

“I don’t know, Allie. She’ll think you’re insane.”

“Could there be something happening at that school? Maybe it’s his way of telling us… something else?”

“This is about that whole Kidzville thing, isn’t it.”

“No. I don’t know.”

Peter places his palm on his wife’s forehead, as though taking her temperature. “That brain of yours. Releasing its black ink.” He removes his hand, then says, carefully, “You know how you were talking about going back on some kind of meds? My sister claims that Paxil has changed her life. Maybe — ”

“Why would you even say that?”

“I just want you to be, like, the best version of yourself.”

“Okay, Oprah. Thanks for the feedback.”

Peter grins and says, “How dare you call me Oprah.”

Allison drags her hand across her eyes. She’s quiet for a time and when she speaks again, her voice sounds small and uncertain. “It’s not just Kidzville,” she says quietly. “There was also all that horrible daycare stuff that happened in California, when I was a kid.”

“I meant to tell you — last month there was an article in the Atlantic about that. I didn’t realize how bonkers the whole Satanic Panic thing was. Kids were testifying that they were forced to have sex with clowns and robots. Forced to watch their teacher drown baby mice and then eat them.”

“God.”

“At one daycare in Dallas? These kids said they were put on a plane every day, flown to Mexico, and filmed having sex with Mexican soldiers. Then they’d be flown back home in time to be picked up by Mommy and Daddy.”

“I really don’t want to hear — ”

“My point is, it turned out all these kids were just making shit up. Almost every single case from that time has been overturned. The police coerced these crazy testimonies from four-year-olds. I’ll send you a link to the article.”

“I’m just wondering about Dashiell’s state of mind. How could he come up with something like that?”

“Didn’t he recently tell us that your mother killed a rat using a golden snow shovel?” Peter rolls onto his side and curls his arm around Allison, moving his face close to hers. “He’s four. He makes things up. Our job, as the adults, is to stay here. In reality.” Peter’s voice is like a warm blanket wrapping itself around her head. The relief she feels makes her skin tingle, makes her eyes wet. “All shall be well, and all shall be well,” Peter says, resting his palm flat upon Allison’s hip. “All manner of thing shall be well.”

Allison turns to her husband, lightly touching his chest. Then she switches off the lamp and climbs on top of him, taking him in her hands, worrying his body with knowing urgent fingers.

Peter looks up at her, startled, clutching his phone to his chest as though it might protect him. But it is too late: she has greedily surrounded his body with hers, moving over him as though he is a pile of earth that she is tamping down. After a short performance, she rolls off him, spent, and falls almost immediately to sleep.

Peter’s body continues gesturing upwards, towards nothing.

When Allison and Dashiell arrive at Jellybeans the next morning, Miss Niz is at the stove making Farina, and the two Ukrainian girls are getting the children settled at the little tables. Allison hangs up Dashiell’s coat and kneels in front of her son.

“Dashiell,” she says.

His eyes are elsewhere, scanning the room. “What, Mommy?”

Allison follows his gaze over to the woman, standing at the stove. The woman is watching them with a look of intense concentration as though attempting to memorize their features. Or perhaps she is thinking about something unrelated, a fight with a boyfriend, some unknowable Siberian reverie.

Allison turns back to her son. She takes hold of his chin and directs his face towards hers. “Dashiell!”

“What?” he says, blinking up at her.

I cannot bear the thought of you having to move through this world for another single second.

“If you play outside today,” she says, “please try not to get your new shoes all muddy.”

“Okay.” He kisses her distractedly, then wanders away, joining Harrison at the Science Table. The two boys put their hands into the Texture Bin, scooping up the dried multicolored pasta and heaping it into piles. Dashiell selects a piece of fusilli and takes a bite. Harrison laughs and Dashiell takes a bigger bite. He spits the dry pasta onto the floor, then looks around. Mommy is gone. Anzhelika calls them to the table, and the children eat their Farina with raisins and almond milk. Afterwards they clean the kitchen while singing the Tidy Up song. Natasza reads them a book about Volcanoes, then Agata brings them into the Art Room and they make volcanoes out of construction paper and pipe cleaners and glitter. They go outside to the fenced-in yard and play Parachute and Shadow Tag and Button Button until Anzhelika calls them back in. Natasza and Agata line the floor with sleeping mats and turn on the white noise and dim the lights and the children lie down on the floor. Dashiell is asleep, and then he awakes with a start, whimpering. He sits up in the darkness. His eyes are half-open and he is listening to the sounds of the room, the breathing of the children around him.

Anzhelika’s hand comes to rest on his shoulder. He whispers to her that he had a bad dream. Anzhelika nods and leads him silently through the maze of sleeping children into the Jellybean Room. She crouches down and whispers to him that she is his Mama Bear and he is her wittle baby, that she will make those mean dreams go away, she will gobble them up. She places her fingers on his brow, as though extracting unseen strands of dark thought through the wall of Dashiell’s skull. She cups her hands, holding the bad dreams within them like a bug she has captured, then lifts her hands to her face, pressing her palms against her lips. She chews the air, swallows.

Anzhelika smiles. She whispers, “Roar,” and shuts the door behind them.

Copyright © Dojny 2017. All rights reserved.

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