Daniel is close to breaking. There’s only so long he can handle looking after six kids before he snaps. So when little Biebo hands him his plastic phone and tells him it’s for him, he does what any self-respecting parent would do, and answers it. Bad call. Very bad call.
Warning: This is horror and subsequently, not very nice…
I can’t take it any more. I can’t take the screaming and the anguish and the anger. I’m sitting here in the kitchen with my head in my hands and I just can’t handle it. How does anyone deal with this? How can anyone seriously consider doing this for a job?
I drag breath in through my numb lips and raise my head.
‘Daddy, he took my doll.’
‘Mr Sullivan, Eric keeps driving the buggy into my legs.’
‘Mr Sullivan, I really really really need a wee.’
There’s no escape. There’s no way out of here, save time. I can’t fight it. I can’t use my brains to concoct some A-Team style escape vehicle, nor my strength to break free from the chains dragging me even now to the bottom of my own personal ocean. There’s no escape.
I heave the same sigh I imagine Sisyphus used to upon watching his boulder roll back down the hill. Then I stand, brace myself, and once more enter the fray.
A half hour later, I discover a temporary relief, a brief moment of peace in the chaos that is unaccompanied parenting. It’s more wonderful than I can possibly describe. The five children to whom I am currently mother, father and head executioner sit around the table, mouths stuffed with oat cakes and carrots.
There’s not one thing on the table that contains any refined sugar. There’s nothing here, theoretically, that can make the day any worse. But then, I’m sure the person on the lowest level of hell doesn’t feel better for knowing there’s nowhere beneath them.
My wife, just before she skipped off for her spa day with a smile on her face, mentioned the sugar thing. Just a passing comment, but I’ve latched onto it with all the aggression of a dog with its favourite rubber bone. No sugar is good. Sugar is bad. Children are evil. No, hang on, that’s my subconscious speaking.
As silence reigns unabated, I lean back in my chair, fold my arms, and rest one leg over the other. I can do this. It’s not actually as bad as everyone says. Actually, no one else seems to say it’s this bad. It’s just me, assaulted by the noise and the fear, that thinks it’s worse than being forced to watch an entire Bob Dylan concert with only the vocal feed to listen to.
Then it hits me. There are supposed to be six of them. Six, not five. My mouth moves but nothing comes out, save the frantic blubbering of a middle aged man in the first stages of breakdown. I can’t even remember everyone’s name. My two are at the table. So that leaves Eric – nice kid, if a little violent – Elisa – utterly obsessed with princesses to the exclusion of all else – umm, sod it, oh, Tripod – as barking as his mum, spends most of him time chewing his own foot and… God, I can’t remember.
Brendon? Brandon? Brian?
‘Mr Suuulllliiiivvaannn!’ My heart begins its slow climb down from my throat as I dash into the lounge. What’s happened? He’s eaten the sofa. He’s head-butted the fire place once more than he should and he’s bleeding all over the carpet? He’s created, using only building blocks and fluff, a time travel device and has miraculously transported dinosaurs into our lounge.
I skid to a halt just inside the door and freeze. Biebo Suncloud – and how could I forget a name like that – is sitting in the middle of the carpet, looking as cute as roses and holding his little toy phone up to me. The room is intact and he isn’t covered in either blood or poop.
My shoulders collapse and I exhale with the force of a small tornado. Why am I panicking so much? Of them all, he’s actually the nicest. Far nicer than my two, even if he does have a name taken straight out of the crazy hippy parenting book.
‘Mr Sullivan, it’s for you.’
I take the phone, beaming down at him with one ear still trained on the kitchen.
I drop the phone and stare at it. It stares back at me. I nudge it with my foot. Biebo is staring at me, lower lip trembling. I try a smile, but it’s caught behind the massive lump in my throat. A light sweat springs up on the back of my neck, prickling and cold.
‘It’s for you.’ He says, eyes wide and hopeful. I’ve seen eyes like that before. They normally come right before I say ‘no’ and the tears begin.
I scoop the phone off the floor and examine it. Pretty standard stuff. Plastic, buttons bearing pictures of animals, no antenna or way or receiving anything whatsoever. So I’m imagining it. My fevered brain said something and I was just close enough to the edge to think it came from the phone.
I press it back to my ear. ‘Hello?’ I manage a smile this time and even a chirpy nod. Biebo looks considerably happier.
‘Hello, Daniel. You might not want to drop the phone again, that poor little boy looks ready to cry.’
‘I see Fay convinced you about the wall paper. I have to agree, it does look nice with the carpet.’
‘Who the hell is this?’
‘Now, now, no need to blaspheme. I’m no one. How can I be, you’re speaking to a toy phone.’
‘But…’ my mouth dries out at just the same time as my brain. This is it. The children have driven me over the edge. I knew it was coming, I knew it. I begged her not to go. I warned her again and again. I can handle two, particularly when I can be horrible to them, but not six, not when I have to be nice.
‘Are you still there, Daniel?’
‘Are you my madness?’
The voice laughs. It’s made tinny and thin by the phone, but there’s a depth to it that cuts right through my head and makes me bend double. The sweating’s worse now and my t-shirt’s sticking to my back.
‘Who are you?’
‘I’m little Biebo Suncloud’s imaginary best friend.’ He snickers just after he says the name.
‘Rubbish. He’s barely three, there’s no way he’s got an imaginary best friend.’
‘Well, I suppose you would be an expert on those things, wouldn’t you? Do you still speak to Little Benny?’
I gag and cover my mouth. Memories I didn’t know I had come burbling up from the depths and swamp me. As the mud clears, the voice returns.
‘How about if I tell you I’m not imaginary?’
‘I’d tell you I’m mad and put the phone down.’
‘You don’t want to do that, Daniel.’
‘Why the hell not?’
I do. Silence. Blessed silence, not even the smack of lips or crack of oat cakes. My face goes cold as I race back into the kitchen. It’s empty. Their plates are half full, or maybe that should be half empty. Either way, they’re gone and they haven’t eaten enough.
A smile creeps across my face as I press the phone back to my ear. ‘You do know you’ve just kidnapped five hungry toddlers, don’t you? Do you have any idea what happens to hungry toddlers when they get bored or upset?’
‘No one gets bored here, Daniel.’
There’s a long silence, after which I hear the kind of chuckling you’d expect from a man wearing a white hockey mask and sitting behind a glass screen.
‘Where are they?’ I’m trying to keep my voice calm, but it’s tough. I scramble back into the lounge. Biebo is still watching me, though he’s calmer than I expected. In fact, he’s eerily calm, like he’s been given a dose of prozac.
‘WHERE ARE THEY?’ My voice cracks halfway through. ‘What have you done with my kids?’
‘They’re not just your kids, though, are they? I’ve got a few here that others have put in your trust. Imagine what they’ll think when they come to pick them up and you tell them the man on the other end of the toy phone kidnapped them.’
‘What do you want?’
‘That was quick. You must watch plenty of movies. Normally they spend much longer screaming and panicking before they get to the point.’
‘Who are you?’ It crawls out of me in a whisper. My throat’s closed up completely and all I want to do is curl up on the couch, but the kitchen is still empty. ‘Who are you?’
‘Why does everyone ask that? Does it matter?’
‘It… why are you doing this?’
‘A better question, in my opinion. I’m hungry.’
‘What do you want?’
‘Biebo Suncloud. The little brat sitting in your lounge will fill my stomach just perfectly. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, because I won’t actually eat his flesh. But his soul will fill the little hole I’ve got just perfectly.’
‘Biebo. Take him into the garden, cut his throat, and leave him where he falls. I’ll do the rest. No one will know.’
‘What do you mean? WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN?’
‘You heard me, Daniel, now, hear this.’ The soft hiss on the other end of the phone goes away to be replaced by a silence that speaks of a vast space. Coming from somewhere within it I can hear my children.
Rebecca is crying. She must have cried a half dozen times in her entire life. She’s four and she doesn’t cry. But I’d know that sound anywhere. Seth’s crying, too, but that’s a much more familiar tone. My children are crying.
‘Becca, Seth, it’s okay, daddy’s here, daddy’s here…’ Except I’m not. I’m on the other end of a phone that shouldn’t work and there’s nothing I can do.
‘Give them back. Give them back, you bastard.’
‘Now, now, there’s no need for th—’
‘There’s every need. Give them back or—’
‘Or what, Daniel? You’ll go all Liam Neeson and hunt me down? Good luck with that. I’m not some random tourist, little man, so don’t threaten me like one. Also, I don’t think you’ve got the stones, even if you could find me.’
‘No buts. I’m bored and Fay’s going to be home in an hour. Two ways this plays out. Sacrifice Biebo and the rest come back, or never see your children again.’
‘But…’ I stare at the little boy in the middle of my lounge. I don’t know him. I can’t believe I’m already thinking I don’t know him. There has to be another way. I should call the police.
I reach for the phone, the real one. ‘What exactly are you going to say?’ The voice asks me.
I stare at the phone, at my screen saver of Fay and the kids, grinning up at me. What am I going to say? ‘Excuse me officer, a disembodied voice has stolen five children. Me, mad? Of course not.’
I throw the phone at the wall and wince as I hear the tell tale crack of the screen. Then I burst out laughing. I’m worried because my phone screen’s cracked. I look back at Biebo. His lip is wobbling again and I kneel in front of him. ‘Hey, little guy, don’t worry. All is well.’
He gives me the big trusting eyes and nods, then wobbles his way over to the sofa. I watch him wobble. Seth’s going to be walking any day now. Any day.
I place the phone carefully on the sofa and stare at it. I can’t move. I can’t do anything. It’s so quiet in here, you wouldn’t believe there’s a little boy in the room at all. Would his parents really miss him? My mouth fills up with bile and I put my head in my hands.
The clock ticks past and I imagine Fay sitting in a jacuzzi, laughing with her friends. I try to imagine her face when she realises what’s happened, but my firewall blocks it before I can see her eyes. I didn’t know I had a firewall, but it’s way better than anything Mozilla ever created. Not that I need to see her eyes.
The sweat on my back dried up a while ago and my t-shirt crackles against my skin. I can feel every single hair on my neck and every time my muscles shift from the pressure. I don’t dare move. I can’t move.
Half an hour passes and in that time, Biebo does nothing except chew a cushion and check in with me now and then via a brief glance over his shoulder. The movement reminds me of Seth, just before he does something he knows he shouldn’t.
I crack a smile just as a tear runs down my check. A distant wailing makes me jump and I slam the toy phone to my ear. They’re all crying now, all five of them. Screaming and wailing. My chest hurts like someone’s put their foot on it and is pressing down. I can’t breathe.
‘I hate you.’
‘They can hear you, Daniel, crystal clear.’
‘Becca, are you there?’
She just keeps on screaming.
‘Just joking. They can’t hear anything. They can’t see anything either. It’s dark where they are, pitch black in fact, and they’re all alone.’
I hurl Biebo’s plastic phone at the wall and it bounces off. When it lands face up on the sofa, I can hear him laughing.
The kids found me first. I was in the garden with blood on my hands. There was a depression in the grass in front of me, but nothing there. But there was a lot of blood. That’s what they tell me, anyway, I don’t remember so much of it.
The kids were eating lunch, they tell me, when I dragged Biebo through. Apparently I told them I was going to change his nappy. They were too engrossed in their oat cakes to wonder why I was doing it in the garden.
I spoke to them. They’re sure I spoke to them. I can’t have spoken to them because they were in the darkness, but they say I did. I don’t know anymore.
The food here’s alright. I get letters most days, normally from the kids. I got a different one today, though. It came from Pat and Brian. It said they forgive me. I’m not sure what they’re forgiving me for, but the ink was a bit splotchy in places, like someone had split water on it or cried on it maybe.
Fay says she wants to call and speak to me, but I can’t go near the phone. I’m can’t remember quite why, but I know I don’t want to. I’m safe in my little room, so long as I don’t go near the phone.