Be Strange or Be Forgotten
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rating: +22+x


I was nervous. Shaken and nervous, terribly so. The past few nights I had awoken to the sounds of helicopters, and I thought I imagined there to be voices reverberating through the space. The great dark woods outside of my window suddenly felt less like a wall between me and the rest of the world and more like a great suppressor of my senses. I stared between their bars of bark and their perfect ever blossoming greenery and felt uneasy. I couldn't fall asleep like this. I rose, closed the curtains, and then crawled back into bed. The mobile that hung over my crib tinkled softly, and the glow in the dark stars around the room twinkled and sparkled at me. I had closed the curtains, why couldn't I fall asleep? I pulled my blankets closer to me. I wished that Mom were here to tuck me in. It was cold. It was a cold dark night, and I had work to do in the morning.

I decided that if I couldn't get to sleep then I would just get up and do it. I turned on my bedside lamp, and stared across the room at the empty beds. This room was too red for my tastes. I was going to have to move. I opened the big candy cane door and exited into the hall. The kids' room's door was ajar. I peeked in, and saw the six little guys fast asleep. They were all so cute. So precious. I gently pushed their door closed. There was a soft rustling once I had done that. Maybe they weren't as asleep as I had imagined. I silently locked their door. Didn't want them to wander the house at night. I limped down the stairs and flipped on the kitchen light. I opened the oven and took out a cinnamon bun. I hobbled over to the couch and laid down. It was hard to move now that I couldn't feel my right foot, but work had to get done as always. There was always work to get done. Another product to make, another hand to shake, another cookie to bake… I should have been a poet. I imagined that poetry would have been an easier occupation than toy making.

Of course, you have to follow your heart. My heart was in tiny gears and wind up keys and making education fun. I hated my heart. My heart had chosen wrong, it was broken. How stupid did a heart have to be to choose to work with children? I hit the arm rest a couple times. I was slowly rubbing the bony part of my left wrist raw. It was pink and flat. I didn't think it was supposed to be flat. To my knowledge, bony parts of wrists weren't supposed to be flat. I breathed heavily on the couch before standing up again. I almost fell back down due to head rush, but held onto the back of the couch to stop myself. Walking towards the bathroom, I tripped on a Lego creation by one of the kids.

"AAaaah!!"

I caught myself on the fireplace, but not without hitting a rib on the cobble. That hurt. I think I woke up the kids. There was a commotion upstairs, and the door was jostling. They were ignoring their bed time. Again. I was going to tell them all about that in the morning. All about it, yeah. All about it. I stumbled towards the bathroom, but changed my mind. I had gotten up to do work, I was going to do work. Near the stairwell I opened a door that looked like a closet. It opened into a staircase that led down. Down into the basement. Down into my workshop. They were moving again. This wasn't any good, they weren't supposed to move at night. They could climb the stairs, and that would be bad. No kid wants that. No kid at all.

What was that?

I stood absolutely still. The house was quiet, the house was still. There wasn't even a ticking clock, or a dripping faucet, or a wind outside that jostled the windows. There wasn't a bird chirping in the night, a wolf howling at the moon, a squirrel that just so happened to be on the roof. There was nothing. Absolutely nothing. All was calm. Very, very calm. I must have imagined it. Or must I have? There was one noise now. My heart was pumping, as it usually did. It was pumping hard. It was so loud, it felt like I couldn't have possibly heard anything else. I felt unsafe. I felt absolutely caked in a thick, muddy paranoia. Justified? It didn't matter at that point. I closed the basement door, and slunk to the real closet by the bathroom. I took solace in having a cold, metal rod in one hand. I felt like a man. I never noticed that I was living life as a boy… but, but I was! I had been, for the longest time. I might not have worked by kids, but my whole life I had spent working by children. I was moving up in the world. I was —

No, no I wasn't crazy, because there it went again. A… a something, it was so slight that whether it was a sound or a feeling was indistinguishable. I felt watched… I felt that every window was a liability, every corner hiding something sinister and disagreeable. Sweat ran down my forehead like heavy rain. I felt completely in the open, but simultaneously unable to move. Frozen in place. My muscles felt like concrete. Even the kids upstairs had fallen totally motionless.


Crash


I'd… I mean, it's no secret, is it? I knew when I was done for. It was a quality I liked to pride myself on. When a project just wasn't working out, I wasn't the person who would power through anything. I couldn't do that to myself, not when I knew there was something better I could put my energy into. That was besides the point, but still. I wasn't much a fighter. Not really. Not ever. As soon as the gas started filling the room, I knew there wasn't a point. I covered my mouth, only inhaling enough to wrack me with coughs. There wasn't a point. I didn't know if there was ever really a point. I guessed that it was all subjective. I started leaning towards the stairs, hearing the clear yells and grunts of men outside. They weren't a problem. I knew where my priorities lied. I needed to check in on the kids.

The sun was coming up. Dawn of another day. I winced. Did I ever really amount to anything? Was monetary value all that I strove for? What were my goals? What were my ends that I needed to make meet? The sun was coming up, and it glared at me.

"Do you see the sun, kid?"

The stairs were quite the obstacle at this hour of the day. To think I had stayed up the whole night, just because I had been hearing helicopter blades before. I guessed it wasn't so silly, but it was pretty silly. I needed to not stay up that late. It was bad for me. I began to cry, climbing that stairwell felt demeaning. Just another hurdle to cross. Nothing ever came easy. I guessed that was life. My feet landed on the landing.

"You see that big ball of gas and fire?"

That was a door being thrust open downstairs. I sauntered towards the kids' room, trying to pay it no mind. The door handle was rustling. I could hear the children as they clambered at the door. Like little dogs, chewing on the bars of their crate. It didn't do them any good. At the very least, things were finally getting resolved.

"It's circling you, kid."

It felt like I had spent my whole life waiting for things to figure themselves out. Spent it all just hoping that the next thing would be the last thing. Life was just a long complicated list of things, and I never realized how tired I was of things. Needing to eat, needing to drink, needing to make money, needing to make friends. Needing the newest smart phone. Needing to be the best toy maker. Needing to need. Needing to live.

"You're the star, Brian!"

I unlocked their door and opened it. They were all so… cute. They must have been so scared. I tried to smile at them, tried to show them it was all okay. It was a white lie. Maybe it would make things easier. I certainly hoped it would. All these children I had rescued from their unfortunate situations, to give them an occupation. They were going to travel the world. They were going to be able to share the joys of childhood with kids anywhere and everywhere. They looked very concerned. It must have been the tool in my hand.

"Life's a show kid."

Bang. Bang.

"Stop crying."

Bang.

"Stop moving."

Bang. Bang.

"Stop screaming."

Bang.

They were on the stairs by now. I sat down on the bedside, and wiped the tears from my eyes. It could have been so magical. It could have been so grande, so complete, so artistic, so tasteful. It could have been Wondrous. There was never anything more tragic than what could have been, what was so close to being, what wanted to but ultimately couldn't come to fruition. I tasted the salt and enzymes as they ran down my cheeks and into my mouth. There wasn't time for that. There wasn't time for anything anymore. Really, there just wasn't any time at all. Just as I heard people outside the door, I held that horrid contraption to my chin.

Life was a show, and I was the fucking star.



B a n g .



Baxter turned the corner just in time to see the tall, skeletal man fall backwards onto the bed. He was wearing a black and orange pinstripe suit, and his big top hat with cat ears lied next to him. His fingernails were long and sharpened. His face was painted to look like a tiger. The gun laid on the floor. As others searched the house up and down, trying to find co-conspirators, Baxter just stood there. The room was coated in blood, and the viscera of a handful of children. Baxter slowly stepped into the room and checked behind the door to make sure he wasn't set up for an ambush. The space was thankfully empty.

He turned back to the room and thought that he caught movement behind the second bed. He rushed over to find a small Indian child caught in the side. He immediately radioed for medics to come to the second floor, and held the child in his arms. The kid was in shock. His eyes were wide, his breaths were inconsistent. Baxter was never good with kids. He picked up the child and carried him downstairs just as the rest of the Strike Team was confirming that the house was empty. Baxter yelled for medical assistance, but nobody came. He didn't know what to do, or how to react, until… until the kid just stopped moving. He gave three short coughs, and then his head rolled back. Baxter stood with the child for a long while, just holding him, hearing the "all clear"s go through his head one after another. He laid the child down on the couch, and somberly stood upright.

Baxter glanced to his left, and saw the outline of another child standing in the doorway to the basement. This one just seemed to stare at all the people moving around, and soon someone had knelt down next to it — keeping a gun on it at all times, of course. It seemed genderless, and… shiny. Plastic. Baxter walked over to it, hearing the other operatives gathered around asking it questions and making sure to never get too close. Its movements were stiff, its eyes were doll like. Its mouth kept opening and closing. It was making a small "ah" each time.

The operatives glanced between each other, trying to find hints at what to do. The thing took two jerky steps forward, using only its left leg, and then fell onto its face. On the back of its head was a small switch. The thing jerked and shook and banged against the floor before going still and just waving its right arm. On its back, its painted on shirt read "Vend-a-Friend™ by Wondertainment!" The team shared looks, and then Baxter shot the poor thing. He snuck down the stairs into the basement, with two operatives following close behind. The whole space was filled with an inky black, and a noxious fetid smell. Baxter flipped on the lights.

Baxter had seen worse. It didn't make the scene any better. They — or, some of them — stared at Baxter and his crew. They didn't all have full bodies. They didn't all have full heads. They didn't all have eyes, and they didn't all have mouths. Many abandoned projects lied around the room, twitching and struggling to get up. One doll kept swerving and bumping into walls until it fell again, showing that its face had been melted. There were scraps of plastic and parts sitting on shelves. Tools, both familiar and enigmatic, were hung on the south wall above a big… well, it used to be a green workbench. Most concerning were the husks left in the corner, rotting and being picked at by flies. Baxter motioned the team away.

"I'll take care of the dirty business. Soak the place in gasoline."

The operatives nodded softly, and backed out of the basement, back up the stairs. Whichever ones out of the dozen or so that could look followed Baxter everywhere he went. Some began to walk, some stumbled, some crawled, and some could only try to move in his direction. Baxter wouldn't sit long enough to let himself get attached. He pulled out his rifle and aimed it at the first one. His finger fondled the trigger just as he felt a tugging on his back leg. Turning around, he saw the little one. A legless one, pulling on his pant legs. It was a smaller one, with darker skin tone, and a green shirt painted on it. A green shirt that read "Keep Calm and Read a Book". It tugged a couple more times. It didn't have a lower jaw to speak with, and it only had one eye. It was pathetic. It was terribly pathetic and hopeless.

Baxter lowered the rifle, and stared. Some others had made it up to him and were silently softly tugging on his clothes. He slung his rifle on his back and picked up the small legless green one. He picked it up and looked into its eyes, and it held its stiff arms out and repeatedly patted the breather on his gas mask. The small crowd of disfigured plastic children, some making small "ah"s and others squeaking slightly as their plastic parts rubbed together, clung onto Baxter's legs while he held the toy. They held eye contact for a long time, ignoring the ruckus upstairs, before Baxter took the thing closer and embraced it. The little things arms waggled at his sides, its tiny immature hands pulling on his straps a bit. The grunting of men upstairs, combing over the place for hints and materials and pouring fuel over the whole thing, slowly faded into white noise. Baxter breathed heavily. Baxter closed his eyes. Baxter squeezed the little thing, and stood in place without any intention of ever moving again. A voice over the intercom.

"House searched. Awaiting your command, Baxter."

Baxter sighed. A heavy, angry, agonizing sigh. He put down the little boy, back into the crowd of malicious toys, and felt a weight fall upon his shoulders. The mission was over, but there was still work to be done. They didn't wait to see the bonfire to its end.

On the way back, the team was boisterous. Another mission come and gone, another story started and stopped, another item on the paycheck. Hearing that the mission was over, Lynn had called from her infirmary bed. She wanted to know how things had went: if the bastard was dead, if anyone got injured, if anyone was rescued. He assured her that the kids were alright.




The windows were gorgeous, overlooking the city, showing the rides and the bright cheery landscapes. The Frite Lite Roller Coaster whizzed past, and shook the room slightly. The committee sat in a terrible, pervasive silence. A couple sniffles, and some blows of noses, were the only sounds currently heard. Around the table sat many colorful individuals — Mr. Ribbit, Golly Molly, Mrs. Ribbit, Dr. Quack, Judy the Tongue, Cheese Louise, George Georgeson, Bob Bobson, Moccasin, George Bobson, Bob Georgeson, Smoke Ferguson, Tailor Itkin, Jetfuel, Jimmy the Jello Fellow, Forgan Meeman, Bill Sipmann, Vira the Party, Potato Reginald, Parry the Seamstress, Beryllium, and the current company head, CEO Holly Light (who held the honorary title of Dr. Wondertainment). Their usual goofy grins had all been wiped from their faces and replaced with various states of disrepair — some stared blankly at the table, others wept profusely, some twitched with anger, one leaned back in their chair and looked at the ceiling, but Holly was the loudest. She wailed and moaned on her big purple and yellow throne that stretched nearly to the cathedral high ceiling. Her usual well kept illustrious mile long white hair was entirely untouched today, matted and tangled in places and covering her face. The left armrest on her throne had an automatic tissue dispenser, which she was threatening to deplete. Leaning down and crying into her lap hid her face almost entirely in her hair, but her perfectly circular eyes showed when she looked up in another great moan. It was a long time before the meeting really officially got underway. Holly Wondertainment's right hand woman, Tongue, ultimately took over the meeting in her place.

"It ith to everyone'th thurprithe that we gather today to discuth… Polly'th Grow-N-Know Piano Plant. She hath refuthed to continue working on it, and… and we have workerth who… we… have workerth that have no projectth to work on. We need to figure out how to… put them to work." … "Any thuggethtionth?"

"I don't like dodging around our problems, Tongue," Smoke spoke up, "just tell us the bad news and what we're going to do about it."

Tongue looked at Holly for guidance, but just found her chugging a water bottle to keep the tears flowing out of her face. Tongue wasn't good at big crowds like this, but if she wanted to be Holly's successor — which she did — she was going to have to get good at it. Why did this have to be her test run? She cleared her throat, licked her lips, and shifted her tongue out of Tailor's leg space. His foot and her muscle had collided a couple times and it was getting uncomfortable at this point.

"…Wondertainment, the company, ith arranging an honorary funeral for Brai- for, uh, for Brian Harding right now. It'th… not many people are invited. It'th eckthpected to be jutht me, Holly, 3T, and Polly. Anyone who knowth of it ith invited, but our main conthern ith that… people will dithrethpect him."

"And why shouldn't they?"

"We're all thtill people… we're holding a more public funeral for all of the kids we- he… he hurt. All of the families of those kids have been invited. We're still unthure what our public thtatement on the matter will be. That'th what we're all really here for. We're all here to figure out what we're going to thay."

The room lay in contemplation for a long stretch of time. The Frite Lite Roller Coaster was making its second round, and shook the room once more. The sobbing had quieted down since the beginning of the meeting, but the room was flush with red cheeks and watery eyes. Mrs. Ribbit croaked, Smoke exhumed, Tailor hummed, Potato curled into a ball. Judy sat back down, and let the room sort itself out once more. Until somebody else was ready to say something, there was nothing to be said. Soon enough, Mr. Ribbit raised his head and his voice cracked as he spoke.

"'We're sorry'?"

He looked gravely around the room, and then buried his head back into his arms. Mrs. Ribbit came up to him and hugged him as he silently shook in his seat. Then followed Beryllium, Jetfuel, and Party. After that, G.G., B.B., Cheese, B.G., Quack, Jello, Tailor, Sip, Forgan, G.B., Moccasin, Potato, Molly, Parry, and even Smoke got up and huddled around Mr. Ribbit. Judy took Dr. Wondertainment by the hand, letting Holly use her tongue as a tissue, and walked her over to the growing pile. Pulling up pillows, blankets and bean bags, the group entered a cuddle puddle for emotional support.




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