After a couple of incidents I got a reputation as someone who couldn’t look after kids properly. Bad things tended to happen. I had no explanation for it. 

I could have made more from the menial work the agencies offered, but that wasn’t the point. I liked to take the bus over to the other side of the lake, the parliament side, where my mother worked when she wasn’t sick. She was a night cleaner at the National Library and a day cleaner in people’s homes. I told people she worked in personnel. 

Here, the houses were nicer and the children were easier to handle. Their parents were embassy staff, museum board chairs, firm partners, acting-directors. During the summer, magistrates had heart attacks on the jogging paths. Now it was winter and the gardens were humble with frost. 

Finishing their homework was simple and graceless. I was allowed to declare which rules were unimportant. I told them whatever facts came to me, and they would listen,as long as I called them whatever nicknames they wanted. 

‘Drinking sea water is disgusting and will drive you insane,’ I told Julie. 

‘Ok,’ said Julie. 

Their parents left me money in glass jars along with invitations to eat whatever I found.These people would let anybody into their home. 

Depending on their spirit, I would have to keep them from hurling themselves down a flight of stairs or visiting their eyeball with the burning plane of a hair-straightener. There were three of them and all came to harm. 

 

Julie had contracted a virus at birth that caused her to go a little blind. She was sensitive about the corrective patch covering her eye, too embarrassed to go to school sometimes. 

One afternoon I took her to lunch on her parents’ card at one of the restaurants near the supreme court building. There was a smell on the wind, and I asked Julie to switch places with me so I wouldn’t have to stare through the window at the lake, which was brown and utterly unhaunting. I planned to run into my old school friends who worked on this side of town, people I hadn’t seen in years who’d moved back after university for jobs at think tanks devising jaywalking policy. 

Julie was squinting at my phone, from which she was streaming videos of civil unrest at tremendous volume. I gathered she was terrified of being injured in a terrorist attack. 

Occasionally she screamed. The waiters looked at her like she was a crow I’d taught to speak by feeding it meat out of my hand. 

‘That stuff will all blow over by the time you’re old enough,’ I told her. She played me a video of a bomb going off at a jobs centre in Hamburg; nothing big. The victims wandered through the dust with their hands in front of them, like sleepers woken too early, searching for a glass of water in the night.

‘This is nothing,’ I said, taking the phone and hunting down a clip for her. ‘You have no idea. You don’t understand how bad it can be.’ 

 

My mother had her thyroid thing. That night I stopped in at St. John’s public and watched her sleeping in a dim room she shared with two other women. They spoke quietly in that dismal hospital way. 

‘Wake up,’ I said. It wasn’t even 6pm. 

The women stopped talking. ‘She said she owns a book that teaches you how to hypnotise yourself so you don’t worry so much,’ one said. ‘Will you bring that with you the next time you visit?’ 

I looked at my mother, open-mouthed in sleep. 

‘No,’ I said. ‘I can’t.’ 

 

Donovan was dim and healthy, and his ability to love seemed bottomless. In school, he wrote plays in which his friends achieved their wildest dreams. He made a beetle sanctuary under his pillow; he found the idea of fishing abhorrent. He got bitten by a snake while we were at the big solstice dance they hold every winter. 

Winter is not a snake bite season, but it’s not really a dancing season either, so there you go.

Donovan’s parents had wanted a night out and I’d agreed to bring him with me to see the bonfire and the sellers of warm wine and the dancers with their masks. I was talking to one of the dancers at the time. We were in the tall grass, far from the heat. Donovan was eating kernels out of some kind of gourd I’d bought for him, tearing through the grass after shadows. 

‘A youth pastor once said he could tell, just by looking at me, that my path was that of a leader’s,’ I told the dancer. ‘He wasn’t even my youth pastor, so it’s not like he had to say it.’ 

‘I know what you mean,’ she said. ‘I thought I was meant to be a doctor until I realised how violent it was. Now? I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t even remember the last time I spoke to my family.’ 

‘Are they still alive?’ 

‘Yes,’ she said, surprised. ‘I’ve never been to a funeral.’ 

She pointed over to Donovan. He had stopped making any noise. I saw that in his hands he held the dark, slinged body of a snake, one end of it attached to him. 

Nothing happened for a few seconds. ‘Donny, is that poisonous?’ I asked. 

I was trying to remember if I had seen a medical tent at the dance. But I was drunk, and could only picture a cartoon hospital shaped like a cloud. 

‘I thought they all were,’ the dancer said. Over her shoulder, a big wind scattered the fire and everybody was running. 

 

Tomasz had a bad immune system and poor kidneys and a liver about half the size of a regular liver. I’d arrive at his home as his academic tutors were leaving and run the dialysis machine and make him his afternoon snack—soft food with different important powders concealed within. He looked like his mother had spent too much time around a computer while she was pregnant with him. 

What could I do for him? By the way his tutors wore their hair, I could tell they had bachelor’s degrees, maybe even something more. He spoke just about as little as the other kids but showed less interest in the world. 

God he was sad. God he was miserable, and it made me miserable to look at him. I had my own problems, but he had no friends to speak of. His eyes were green and pathetic. 

I couldn’t take him to lunch because he had to be within about thirty feet of the emergency booster packs they kept bolted to every wall in the house. 

My mum had her surgery and her thyroid thing cleared up and her bone thing returned. At St. John’s, I heard about a service that connected old folks with rehabilitated dogs from insane and tragic backgrounds. The dogs were all fine now, I was assured, as long as the old folks weren’t too rowdy with them. 

‘Tomasz doesn’t have the ability to be rowdy,’ I told them over the phone. ‘Come for an afternoon.’ 

‘You’ll have to pay,’ they said. 

‘Of course.’ 

But there was some mistake. The dog wasn’t fine. The one they sent was monstrous, not just big but truly frightening; blind in both eyes, about a hundred sharp teeth. It looked like something out of a myth. 

As soon as they let it out of the van it ran inside and got Tomasz by the shirt and tore off with him into the downstairs bathroom. The dog had chewed most of the hair off his head by the time three policemen came and took care of it in as loud a fashion as you can imagine. 

God, the mess. It was the worst thing I ever saw in my life. 

 

The kids at the at-risk centre were all bright and troublesome. They came from all over, always on the news whenever a car got stolen or somebody dumped paint in the river. 

I answered an ad from the centre, looking—begging—for childcare professionals for course-correction sessions. This was it, I suspected. This was what I was meant to beach myself upon. I had the speech of my life prepared for them; about history, about the grim economy they were destined for if they didn’t steer elsewhere. 

It was a dark weeknight. Nine or ten of them gathered around me as I brought out a piece of tissue and showed them what happens when it is put to a flame; how quickly it is enveloped, how useless it is afterwards. 

‘No blowing your nose on this thing!’ I said. And the kids laughed. 

They watched as the tissue burned. I knew then who they were: nothing but blue-souled little children, easily captured by displays of basic physics, wanting only for the gentle wonders of the world to reveal themselves. 

Then, as I was about to launch into my speech, one of them stuck me in the leg with a shard of a shattered CD that had once been an educational videogame. They missed my artery, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any blood. 

The sun had set outside and the streetlights were coming on. The kids chased me out and beat me in the street with whatever they could find. Table legs, plastic trash cans. Some of them had strong, quick hands, and goaded me into single combat before humiliating me with their superior technique. I called for my mother, sleeping somewhere. 

They stuck the pages of my notebook together with spit, broke my cigarette lighter open and emptied it onto the lawn. 

Then, when I thought it was over, their leader, the tallest child I’d ever seen, began bearing down on me with his dirtbike. There was no headlight. Please, I thought as I ran into the darkness. Please

 

I didn’t have to do this. So I stopped. Once I was discharged from hospital, and the youth centre’s settlement money came through, I turned my back on the childcare industry for good. 

I called the agencies and took whatever they would give me. I learned modern filing techniques, got basic accreditation as a cellphone screen repairman, saw the famous sites of our city from the assistant’s seat of an orange tour bus, one with a hydraulic lift for the ailing folks. I worked as a night guard at a modern art gallery that seemed to be full of mirrors, and borrowed many CDs from the library without having to pay a cent for them. 

Those kids grew up, presumably; disappeared in their own little ways, some of them happily, I’m sure. Donovan ended up living, but it took a lot of modern medicine. He awoke with many different ideas; I saw him dreaming them as he lay in his hospital bed that night, out of his mind on venom, and years later he called me and left a lengthy voicemail, though I’ll never know what he said. 

A completely different person, then. I was better for being rid of him. I was stronger now that the children were gone and I no longer had to remember their nicknames. 

But sometimes, without knowing why, I’ll start running again. I’ll run and won’t stop until my legs feel like they’re about to fold under me.

The noise of the dirtbike just behind me, an inch from my ear. Screaming something, a word.

 

 

 

Jack Vening is a writer of short fiction from Australia. His work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Best Australian Comedy Writing and many places elsewhere. Some of it can be found at jackvening.net.

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