Fiction: The War on Children by Mouncey Ferguson

Murphy’s war with the neighborhood boys began on his walks. It was April and the summer heat hadn’t set in yet, so he walked most days. The hills were still green and the air smelled of pollen and the highway. His daughter was 10 months old, and he wore her strapped to his chest in the carrier. Walking with her was the best way to get her to start her nap.

The boys were 13, maybe 14. They loitered in front of the gang house on the corner, the one that got raided by the cops every year or two. They had shaved heads. Their bones were thin and sharp under the oversized white t-shirts and baggy jeans that seemed to be their uniform. Murphy passed them at the corner as he turned into the park . Occasionally he’d see them further in, sitting on one of the cement picnic tables. He never saw one of them alone.

These boys seemed not to notice him. They didn’t even look his way. But the way they fought with each other bothered him. There’d be three of them on the sidewalk, and two of them would be ganging up on the third, punching and jabbing. They would all be laughing. The boy getting punched would be dancing and laughing, fending off the blows as best he could, but a few punches would get through, and when one connected, there’d be a moment of wide-eyed shock and recognition, then more laughter, but louder.

Then, for no reason Murphy could discern, the tide would turn, and the one getting punched would start punching one of the others, and then the third would join him, and now those two would begin raining punches on that one. And so the cycle would repeat through the afternoon as they rotated who took the beating, who dished it out, all of them thin, their shirts a brilliant, impossible white against their brown skin. Murphy would tighten the straps around the baby and turn into the park and he would hear their laughter fade as he headed away from them.

But it stayed with him, that laughter: high and frantic, almost girlish. It played in his mind when he sat across from his wife at the dinner table. It played while he washed dishes and sterilized bottle parts. It played as he sat in the office of their OBGYN, waiting for the ultrasound for their second child.

***

“I know this feeling,” his wife said. She was standing naked in front of the floor-length mirror in the hall after a shower. This was back in November. She still hadn’t lost the weight from the first child and her breasts were still large from daily nursing. She looked herself up and down.

It was too early for the drug store tests to even detect the pregnancy. But she knew. And there’d been that one night they hadn’t been careful.

“What are we going to do?” she asked.

“Well, you said you wanted two,” he said. It seemed like the right thing to say.

She turned to him, naked, still damp, and hugged him. As she did so, she tripped over the dog.

***

The dog was getting feeble. Its eyes were cloudy and by all indications it was completely deaf. On the last vet visit, it bit down on the hand of the tech while she checked its teeth. Murphy had had to pry the dog’s mouth open and found himself apologizing.

Things used to be different. The dog had been savvy and fast, almost neurotic, the way herding breeds often were. For years, they went running together every day. This was before the knee pain, before the back pain, before the children. They’d jog through the neighborhood and the dog would stop and wait for him at the street corners. They’d finish in the park, and Murphy would pretend to stop and catch his breath. The dog knew the game and would watch him carefully, waiting for the cue. Then Murphy would take off at a dead sprint for home and the dog would take off too, and they would race, mouths open, full of joy.

As the years passed, though, Murphy’s muscles tightened—the sprints got slower. The dog’s speed waned, till he would finish 20 yards back, panting and smiling. A few years back, Murphy realized he was no longer a runner and that was that.

But they were animals together. Murphy respected the creature on that level. He’d never had the dog neutered and it had never been a problem. He’d even tried to breed the dog once with a neighbor’s Pomeranian and the dog simply didn’t seem interested. Maybe he was gay? It seemed a possibility.

But now there was almost nothing left of the dog’s personality. All the poor thing could do was hobble around the back yard to relieve itself. Murphy tried to scoop all the poop, but there were always small turds scattered in leaves or in tufts of chickweed. It made mowing difficult, and Murphy seemed to always have some amount of dog shit on the soles of his shoes. He left the shoes sitting upturned on the front porch to dry in the sun.

***

Murphy worked from home now. It was better this way, he could help care for the baby, and he’d never liked the office much anyway. He worked from the small, unpermitted room at the back of the house. The walls were so thin and the window so badly installed, it was like being outdoors.

Days went by where he saw no one but his wife and child, plus his mother or mother-in-law if one of them was staying with them. Thus the situation with the neighborhood boys took on a greater level of importance in his mind.

***

Things heated up when he came down the gully into the park and found five of them surrounding a three-legged stray. Several of them were poking it with sticks. They were laughing, cackling like witches.

Murphy headed right in. “Hey, hey, hey!” he yelled. “Leave it alone.” They stared at him blankly.

The baby shifted against his chest in her sleep—he didn’t usually talk on their walks. It was May now, hot, and sweat pooled in the folds of her chin. She smelled like yeast.

The boys didn’t move. Their eyes flicked around the circle at each other. The cars along the 110 sounded like surf against a sandbar.

Murphy tried to usher the stray dog away, but it snarled at him. “Come on, damn it, go! This is your chance!” he yelled. He drew his leg back as if to kick it.

Eventually the boys backed away. They seemed embarrassed for Murphy. What had he expected, that the dog would follow him home? It wandered off. The boys continued to watch him. He thought maybe they would go after the dog, but what could he do?

He never saw that dog again.

***

But now they knew him. Now the boys stopped their sparring and stared at him when he passed them at the corner. He nodded. They didn’t respond. Their eyes followed him, watching.  Now he was known.

***

The second child was born without anesthesia, but not by intention. After the marathon of the first child’s birth, his wife asked for an epidural as soon as they got to the hospital. Somehow, though, the anesthesiologist missed her spinal column with the needle, so it never took effect.

His wife convinced herself that it was working for some hours, but the truth was she could feel everything. She moaned. As the contractions got harder, she screamed. Murphy said all the things they’d told him to say in the birthing class and none of it seemed to be enough.

Only minutes after the birth, his wife was laughing with the doctor. They made jokes about eating the afterbirth, how the baby looked like Winston Churchill. Only four months had passed between when the first child stopped breastfeeding and the second one was born.

***

He got into his car one day and noticed that the papers on the passenger seat seemed to be in a different order, as though someone had rifled through them. A week later, he found the glove compartment open and his registration was gone.

Now they know your name, he thought.

He started keeping a baseball bat by the front door, in the basket with the umbrellas and the yoga mats.

***

Murphy’s dog took to wandering the house in the middle of the night, circling the dining room table for hours, delirious. His legs had trouble getting purchase on the hardwood. Click-click-click, his nails went on the floor. He would slip and stumble, get to his feet again, keep going, like a goldfish circling its tank endlessly, remembering nothing of its last trip around.

Murphy went out to the dining room and tried to calm the dog down. When he turned on the light, though, the dog stopped and looked at him without recognition. “It’s me,” Murphy said, and stroked the creature’s head. The dog let itself be touched, but didn’t seem to like it. Murphy thought the dog was trying to place him, the way some people sometimes searched for a certain word when they spoke.

***

Murphy stepped out onto the front porch one day and noticed a pair of his shoes was missing. Or had he taken them himself? He couldn’t remember. He scanned the street.

His neighbor later told him that she’d seen two of the neighborhood boys loitering on the sidewalk in front of Murphy’s house. “I told them to get lost, they’re no good,” she said.

He never mentioned any of this to his wife.

***

By June, it was in the high 90s every day. Murphy’s mother was in town for several weeks to help with the babies. She and his wife were out shopping, leaving both babies home with him.  The infant was napping. Murphy had just finished giving the older child lunch when he saw two boys open his gate and come up the front walk.

He didn’t have much time to react. He yanked the baby from her highchair, rushed out to the back yard and put her down in the grass, sitting up. He wanted her away from whatever was about to happen. He ran back inside, picked up the baseball bat, and opened the front door.

Two teens with thick black hair stood on the porch. The one in front was handsome in a cartoonish way, his features almost too perfect. The one behind had intelligent eyes and held a clipboard. Both wore collared knit shirts with short sleeves. They were 14, maybe 15. These were different boys, Murphy realized. Not from the block. As nonchalantly as he could, Murphy let the bat slide back into the basket by the door.

“Can I help you?” Murphy asked. His heartbeat was high in his head.

“Hello, sir. We are selling subscriptions to the Pasadena Star Gazette,” said the handsome one in front. “It’s only $12 for three months, and it’s okay if you don’t want to read the newspaper. If you want, we won’t even deliver it. We’re trying to go on a trip to Disneyland. I get to go if I can sell 50 subscriptions.” The boy reached into a duffle bag slung over his shoulder and pulled out a copy of the newspaper. It was thin, like a flyer.

The other boy, standing behind, said nothing. He studied Murphy. His index finger twitched on the hand holding the clipboard, like a cat’s tail as it stalks prey in the grass. Murphy could smell cologne coming off both of them.

Murphy took the paper the boy held out. His heart was still pounding. He’d never heard of the Pasadena Star-Gazette. Part of him doubted such a paper existed. He’d heard about these operations, where the teenagers go door-to-door selling subscriptions, but are actually working for pennies an hour while all the profits go to some fat asshole with half a sandwich in his mouth. It was a pyramid scheme. A scam.

“No, thank you,” Murphy said.

“You don’t have to read it,” the handsome boy said. “I’ll make sure it doesn’t even come. We just need you to subscribe. I only need to sell five more. Please sir, don’t you want us to go to Disneyland? It’s only $12.”

“I’m sorry, no.”

“Would you consider donating a few dollars? Anything will help.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Not even one dollar?”

“No,” Murphy said. His voice sounded thick, drunken. The handsome one took a step back. The silent one’s finger twitched faster. “I don’t want this paper,” Murphy said, enunciating each word as though speaking on a poor telephone connection.

The two boys backed off the porch. “Sure, buddy!” the handsome one shouted, grinning.  “Looking good, buddy! Thanks a lot. Enjoy that dollar!” The silent one, walking backward, opened the gate without looking, as though it was a latch he’d practiced opening hundreds of times in the dark.

They headed off down the sidewalk together, laughing.

That’s when Murphy remembered the baby. He leapt the sidewall and sprinted down the cement path beside the house. She was sitting right where he’d left her in the grass, upright and smiling. She had something brown in her hand. Murphy approached her, cooing baby talk.

He was still a few feet away when he realized that the thing in her hand was poop. One of the dry, ancient turds left by his dog. Closer, and he could see brown flecks on her lips. She’d been teething on it.

He lifted her quickly and knocked the turd from her small, fat fist. She giggled. He turned on the hose, filled his mouth with water, then squirted it into her mouth. She coughed but was still laughing. After the third squirt, her laughter turned to a nervous whimper—she was no longer enjoying the game.

He peered into her small, toothless mouth and saw that there were still flecks in there. He filled his mouth one more time and squirted it in, then took her inside and washed her hands and face and changed her outfit. He never mentioned the incident to his wife.

***

Several days later, Murphy let the dog out to do its business in the back yard. He went back to his desk for a few minutes, sent a few emails. It was scorching, over 100. He was in bare feet, shorts, and an open shirt.

When he went to bring the dog back in, he found the front gate propped open. He’d left it that way himself earlier in the morning to bring in groceries. The dog was nowhere to be seen.

He ran to the front porch to grab a pair of shoes, but there were none there. Had they been stolen? Or had his mother taken it upon herself to clean them?

He took off down the sidewalk in his bare feet, lumbering like a savage. He called loudly for the dog, but it was pointless. When was the last time the dog had come when called? When was the last time it had responded to any noise?

The neighborhood boys were sparring at the corner, but they stopped as Murphy ran up to them. “Have you seen my dog?” he shouted, not meaning to speak so loudly. “Did my dog come past here?” He tried to calm his voice. “He’s gray and old.”

“I didn’t see a dog,” one boy said. He looked at his sparring partner. “Did you see a dog?” “I don’t know,” the other said. “I don’t think so. We’ll keep a lookout, though.”

For a moment in his mind, Murphy imagined finding them with his dog, intending some kind of careless harm. He saw himself wading into the thicket of them, swinging the boys around like large branches, hurling one at another like some magical Norse warrior.

“Okay, thanks,” he said, and turned and ran into the park barefoot, dodging rocks and twigs and broken glass. The pavement was scalding so he moved to the grass. He could feel loose, gopher-thrown dirt between his toes. Behind him, the laughter of the boys ebbed beneath the sound of his own panting breath; the cars passing on the highway sounded like ocean waves. He ran on, unneutered, joyous with mourning, calling for the thing that could not hear him, the animal he would never be again.

Mouncey Ferguson has been a professional writer for 20 years. He studied creative writing at the University of Virginia under Rita Dove, Charles Wright, and others. His short story, “Lake Worth,” was published in The Antietam Review and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He has written a number of feature scripts, and his horror-thriller, “Donner Pass” aired on Showtime, Netflix, and can currently be seen on Amazon Prime.

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