The Radio Game
rating: +16+x

“It’s going to be worse today.”

The voice slithered out of the darkest corner of the pantry in a sinuous almost-whisper, and Dierdre’s eyes widened when she heard it. She felt no fear, only surprise and curiosity. Her hand froze in midair, not quite daring to reach for the box of Fruity Pebbles. Her mouth crept into a solemn worry-line, an odd thing to see on a little girl's face.

“Go on, Dierdre, get your cereal."

The voice sounded like how spider legs felt, but she still, for some reason, was not afraid. Standing on tippy-toe, she reached the third shelf of the pantry and pulled the cereal box down into her arms.

“How’dja know my name?” she tentatively inquired, as the storm began to rage upstairs. She could hear the bellows of Bad Words and white-hot shrieks, the whirlwind of curses and objects being thrown against the walls. Mommy and Karl were having a discussion again. Mommy called them discussions, anyways, but Dierdre knew that what she really meant was that a nasty fight was underway.

Mommy always came downstairs after the discussions with poorly concealed bruises, reeking of cigarette smoke. She would smile and things would be okay for a little while, but not always, never always no matter how many times she promised.

That’s why Dierdre had the Radio Game.

The Radio Game was a little game that she played, one she invented all by herself. When Dierdre played the Radio Game, Mommy and Karl’s discussions weren’t really there. They were just broadcasts on the radio, and all Dierdre had to do was reach into her brain and turn the dial until they became harmless crackles of static that couldn’t scare her anymore. She played her little game whenever things got too weird or too scary (which seemed to be more often than not, these days) and she’d gotten so good at it that she hardly noticed the discussions at all anymore.

But, lately, things had gotten a little strange.

She’d been playing the Radio Game as soon as she opened her eyes to the sound of screaming in the mornings, lately. It had become so natural that she’d actually forgotten it was only pretend. The dial must have been broken, or maybe just stuck. Whatever the reason, she supposed that the voice in the pantry must have had something to do with it.

“Eat your breakfast, Dierdre,” it instructed, as if on cue. “We’ll talk.”

“Okay,” Dierdre said obediently, and opened the cabinet for a bowl and a spoon. She set the items down carefully on the tabletop, and filled the bowl with rainbow-colored, sugary goodness. She retrieved a heavy gallon of milk from the refrigerator and succeeded in filling her bowl without spilling a drop. Despite the voice’s insistence, she didn’t sit down to eat until the milk and box were back in their proper places, like Mommy taught her. However, she left the pantry door ajar, and studied its depths with the careful sort of scrutiny reserved for the doddering elderly and toddlers on the verge of kidhood.

The cereal was good, and she munched happily. She could hear vague screaming upstairs, but she hardly paid it any mind. There were more interesting things at hand, presently.

“It’s getting worse,” the voice said conversationally, “much worse. It was never this bad before.”

“Yeah,” Dierdre agreed resignedly, and swung her feet beneath the table.

“It bothers you.”

She felt a funny little chill run down her spine at those words, and a strange feeling, like she’d walked into a spider’s web and that the stickily intrusive threads were clinging to her skin. A yucky feeling.

“I guess,” she said, a little uncomfortable, nervously chewing on her spoon. “Who are you, anyways?”

She did not receive an immediate answer. There was a brief but perceptible pause and the question seemed to hang on the air, unanswered. She could hear the chaos upstairs with perfect clarity, as if she had been standing in the room with her mother. All she could hear were words she had been told never to say. Grown-up talk. She didn’t like it. It sounded ugly and mean.

“I’m your friend, Dierdre,” the voice finally responded. “I’m your friend and I want to help you.”

“Okay,” she acquiesced. She liked friends, but namely, she didn’t want to have to listen to the commotion any longer. The voice certainly was good at making a distraction for her.

“Why do you live in the pantry?” she inquired.

“It’s a good place to hide,” it responded. “You know all about that. Don’t you, Dierdre? About hiding?”

A particularly loud crash from upstairs diverted her attention. Something heavy, she thought. Karl wasn’t big and strong like Daddy had been, but for some peculiar reason, he seemed to have a knack for throwing heavy objects around during discussions. Maybe it was all the horseshoes he played, maybe not, but whatever the reason, it made her nervous.

“The way he looks at you,” the voice interrupted, “that makes you nervous, too? Doesn’t it?”

“I guess so,” she admitted reluctantly, not wanting to recall the thing that she’d tried to forget about, had only even thought of because the voice had mentioned it. Mommy gave her a t-shirt to wear to bed once. It was baggy on her, and there was a big open part in the front.

“He looked at me. And he…asked me to sit in his lap,” she explained, rubbing her arms, her skin suddenly crawling with remembered discomfort. “It made me feel like there were bugs all over me.”

It was difficult for her to explain the way she felt, the way his hand rested on her thigh, and the way her entire leg had seemed to writhe with horrible discomfort.

Mommy was crying upstairs. The yelling surged, then died, then rose up again, horribly. Dierdre had heard enough, she decided, and reached for the dial-

-but nothing happened. She had to listen.

Had to.

The thought made her feel that yucky, spider-webby feeling again. She rubbed her arms briskly, trying to rid herself of the imagined, gossamer threads, then carried her bowl to the sink. She’d done okay, there were only a couple of pebbles floating in the milk, and they were too soggy to eat, anyways. Usually, she would start another bowl and watch some cartoons. By the time a few of the boring ones had ended, Mommy would finish discussing things with Karl and she’d come downstairs and join her on the couch. Her face would be puffy, but they’d talk and laugh together at Scooby. Dierdre longed fiercely for Mommy to come downstairs now and watch Scooby. But-

“Your Mommy doesn’t like watching Scooby very much anymore,” said the voice. “Not since she hurt her arm.”

For the first time, Dierdre started feeling afraid. She didn’t want the voice to talk about that. She didn’t want anyone to talk about that, not ever, she didn’t even want to think about it. It was just a movie. It was just a bad dream. It hadn’t happened.

“Mommy needs time to get better,” she said adamantly, trying with all her might to stop the bad movie in her head that wanted to play. In the movie, Mommy was going down the stairs with her big bag, and Karl was yelling in his scary mean voice and grabbing Mommy’s arm, grabbing Mommy’s arm and shaking her, shaking her by the arm until she screamed, and there was that crack noise, that awful noise like sticks breaking. And later, after they came home from the hospital with Mommy’s hand in a big white sling, Mommy told her it was just a movie. Just a scary movie, just a bad dream. It wasn’t real, it hadn’t happened, she’d just fallen down the stairs. It wasn’t the way Dierdre thought, so she mustn’t tell, or else-

“It wasn’t a movie or a dream. It wasn’t on T.V. You were awake. You saw it. You know you did,” insisted the voice.

“You can’t know this stuff!” Dierdre shouted.

She could still hear the noises upstairs. The slaps and the crashes, the bad words and the screams. Mommy was crying. Mommy was saying “please”. Dierdre covered her ears and whimpered. Karl told her on many an occasion that crying was for babies, but she really felt like crying right now. She couldn’t even find the dial, let alone turn it to make the noise stop.

“It’s okay, Dierdre,” the pantry said alluringly. “Why don’t you come in here with me?”

Her mother’s voice, bursting free from the din, the sound of a caged bird which has taken flight briefly, only to be slammed back into its prison.

“Karl, Please! Pleeeeeaaassse!”

Diedre darted into the pantry, ducked under the lowest shelf, huddled in the corner, and drew her legs up to her chest. She did not shut the door, but the sounds were slightly muffled in here without her having to do so. It was cold, but not uncomfortably so. A breath of stale air hissed in through a crack in the wall, from the basement, and tickled the nape of her neck. She shuddered all over at the sensation, but did not move from her position.

“My poor DeeDee,” the voice consoled, seemingly all around her. She closed her eyes, briefly comforted by it. DeeDee was her special nickname. Only Mommy and Daddy called her DeeDee.
“You just want it to stop,” the voice crooned. A spider slithered out of the corner of the pantry and climbed onto her shoulder. She did not flinch as it crawled up her neck, made its way down the length of her hair. It felt like a comforting hand, a warm touch in the darkness.

“I can help you.”

Mommy screamed.

It was the most horrible thing that Dierdre had ever heard, and she cowered away from it, burrowing her face in the corner of the pantry, pressing the palms of her hands against her ears so hard it hurt. Even still, she could hear it. She could hear Karl snarling and growling and howling. Mommy wasn’t even saying “please” anymore. That’s when Dierdre at once understood that things were REALLY BAD this time. The discussions usually were over once Mommy started saying “please”. It was the magic word, after all, but Karl seemed to not care about manners, now, not anymore. Something REALLY, REALLY BAD was about to happen. Or happening already. She shook all over with helpless fear.

“You have to do something, DeeDee. Something to make it stop.”

“But how?” she moaned. She was only a little girl, so little. All she wanted was to watch Scooby with Mommy and Daddy, but Daddy was gone forever. Mommy got herself all mixed up with Karl, and Dierdre was all alone, now.

“Look at the floor, Dierdre. Go on. Look.”

She did. On the ground, not an inch away from her feet, was a yellow bottle. There was a picture of red fire on it. It also said some words that she couldn’t read. The bottle was very dusty. She remembered that Daddy used to use it on the grill for cookouts in the summer, but since Karl never cooked anything, the bottle was left at the bottom of the pantry. Daddy always told her never to touch the bottle because it could make a fire.

The voice told her what to do.

“No,” Dierdre said, her thumb finding her mouth and staying there. “I’m not supposed to.”

“Just this once, DeeDee. Just this once is okay.”

Upstairs, Mommy was screaming again. Dierdre felt an urge to scream with her, to commiserate her agony.

Instead, she picked up the bottle.

“You know where Mommy keeps them. Right next to the microwave, in the little frog dish.”

“I’m not supposed to,” she said again.

“Just this once, DeeDee. Go on.”

The matches were right where she knew they would be, next to the microwave in the frog’s mouth. She picked them up, looked at them dubiously… then put them right back where she found them.

She didn’t need the matches, she realized. She didn't need the matches at all.

Dierdre unscrewed the bottle of lighter fluid, and let it spill out. It glugged and splashed and stank, but she had work to do. She soaked the curtains and the dish towels. She dumped it into the recycling bin that was filled with cardboard, emptied half of it into the big barrel of trash. She poured a line of it across the floor, out the door, and into the living room. When the bottle was empty, she tossed it onto the couch. She stepped around the mess she had made, and retreated in the direction of the pantry, out of the way.

“Now," the voice urged.

Dierdre looked at the kitchen, and the flames sprouted everywhere. Hungrily, they trailed across the floors, crept up the cupboards, spread down the walls and across the ceiling in lazy, blazing tendrils of impending destruction.

But it wasn't enough.

More, she thought, her hands swelling with unnatural heat, her eyes crackling, her heart vibrating in her chest. Make it stop. She had to make it stop.

The curtains caught, and then the trash barrel. Somewhere, the smoke detector began to wail, but she paid it no mind. Fire, the robotic female voice inside the device announced, uselessly. Fire.

All Dierdre had to do was nudge with her mind, and the blaze spread even further. Flames crept up the curtains and engulfed them. The carpet in the living room too began to smolder. The family couch was a nest of burning death.

"Enough," the voice murmured.

The work complete, Dierdre slipped backwards into the pantry, closing the door behind her.

She could smell what she had done, and hear it, and feel the heat. She cowered in the corner, frightened. She had done a very bad thing. She had started a fire. Her trembling, reddened hands were smoking.

“It’s all right, DeeDee. Good work."

Dierdre realized that Karl was the one who was screaming, now, but it didn't make her feel good. It made her feel awful, actually. She played the Radio Game to turn the noise down, and curled downwards into a miserable coil of sickness and shame.

The house burned around her, and in the spidery darkness, she wept.

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