THERE ARE FIFTY TO A HUNDRED CHILDREN hammering at the door to my apartment. I can’t count them. They stuck chewing gum over the peephole. I can tell by the noise that there are lots of them. The knocking is high-pitched: small fists.
The crowd of kids hammers at my door, slamming against it with their little bodies, and it’s an issue because I have to read all of these books. They call out to me, loudly, telling me, hey, sucker, open up. But I can’t—I can’t open the door, and with them there, I can’t read. There are stacks of books everywhere, and my apartment is too small. I can’t get more than fifteen feet from the door, the children, even in the bathroom.
Sometimes it sounds like the children are banging on the ceiling of the apartment below me, too. Sometimes it sounds like I’m surrounded by children, kids on all six sides, including the windows.
I really need to read the books. I need to have read them by the time the woman comes back. Or else what, I don’t know. When I rise to pace around my apartment, angry at the kids, I knock over stacks of books. I hope that the order I read them in isn’t important. There’s one separate, special stack, smaller than all the rest, to the side near the dehumidifier.
The children have started sliding things under the door. Not letters, but things—pencils, candy, flattened cardboard boxes, feathers from what looks like a pigeon they’ve caught. I slide them right back. I don’t want them.
When the woman came with the cart of books I wasn’t ready. It had been explained to me that this was going to happen soon, but still, I wasn’t ready. It was a lot of books. I didn’t have anything else to do, I had just been dumped or maybe it was that I was fired, she said. It wouldn’t be a problem. A crew of workers unloaded the books into my apartment, putting them in piles on the floor and on the furniture. Mostly on the floor; there’s not a lot of furniture.
The “done” stack of books is three books high—the books I had read before the children came. No progress since. I make myself sit down on the floor and take a book off of the nearest stack. The sounds have changed. What are they doing? I go to the door to look, but can’t make anything out. The light through the diaphanous membrane of chewing gum is effulgent and pink. “Diaphanous” and “effulgent”; words courtesy of book number three. The knocking is now less frequent, but harder. Perhaps older, stronger children have taken over the shift.
I’m worried that the kids will somehow find the battering ram that the landlord keeps for special occasions. I’m not sure about the nature of the siege. Am I the only one? Is the whole building under attack? I’d stick my head out of the window and look around if I wasn’t so scared that a child would get in.
Is it ethical to scald a child, with water from a pot on the stove, if one does gain entry? Will one of these books have the answer to this question? Is that what is happening, the books, the kids? Are they part of this?
Is there a single leader to the child army? Can this leader be reasoned with, bargained with, so that an armistice could be achieved? To what slight is this mob responding—is it specific, or general? I’d consider bribing the children but all I have is books, books and some dry goods and some stationery.
The woman told me that I was to be examined, after reading the books. Physically, I asked? Physically, she said. And then she left, stepping around the stacks. She was wearing the university uniform, a floor length gown, with substantial creative license. She left, and then the children came.
Their hammering and yelling hasn’t abated, and it’s been two days. I take the most boring record, the most child-unfriendly record, I can think of, put it on the turntable, and play it so hard that the needle of the record-player snaps off. No effect.
The Masters of Past Time: Or, Criticism on the Old Flemish and Dutch Painters was an easier read than Beef Cattle Production and Trade, but neither of them was quite as much of a slog as the eleven-part Collected Prose Poetry and Drama of John Lyly, Containing The Anatomy of Wit and Other Works. (Books listed in descending order of position in pile.)
When the children came I was laying on the rug on the floor opening and closing my eyes in time with the music coming from the radio. I was trying to see if it would be different this way, the music. When they started knocking I vaulted myself onto my feet, jiu-jitsu style. It was a single knock at first, and then more and more little fists hammering, like the start of a big rainstorm. I looked out of my peephole, and saw pink.
On a notepad I’ve marked down important quotations from each book. It felt like something I should do. So far, nothing applies to this situation.
The kids have found the doorbell and are ringing it, ringing it cruelly. I bang against the door from the other side, in a contrapuntal rhythm against the ringing of the bell. Ring, bang. Ring, bang.
Some selections from my notes:
One is always tempted to question these indifferent, phlegmatic painters and to say to them: Is there then nothing new? Nothing in your stables, your farms, nothing in your houses?
In conjunction with teasers a chin harness incorporating a large ball-point marker is now readily available or a marking crayon or coloured paint such as the ‘sire-sine’, may be fastened by a special head-stall to the submaxillary region of a vasectomized bull or steer. This method is effective, provided adequate time is spent to accustom the bull or steer to the harness. Similarly the cow can be painted on the butt of the tail and the mounting teaser rubs and disturbs the paint. Alternatively, the teaser can be painted on the sternum and the cow is marked when mounted, the painted sternum is pushed across the loin of the cow.
It wasn’t easy at first—one had to find just the right books, and overlapping them to form a sturdy structure took some planning in advance. Page count was important. For mortar, I had to use what was at hand peanut butter, toothpaste, the dregs of a pail of spackle—but these came through alright in the end. The wall was two books deep, with a base of thick anthologies. I’d left a gap in the center through which I can hurl javelins when the time comes. When I had cemented the final book on top of the barricade, I returned to my throne of books to sit and wait.
Through the gap I watch as the last hinge screw pops loose and the door begins to fall. The children’s voices come through the opening, and then the children do.
I didn’t even want to become a doctor. That’s just what I thought I wanted, as a child. I thought it would be excellent, to have that on my credit card, so that everyone would have to say it.
There was an impromptu funeral on my street last night. I didn’t go—I was afraid to join the crowd—but I watched from my window. The child had only died an hour earlier, and they gathered where he lay. An ice cream truck struck him down. It had come around the corner at full speed and hit the kid before the driver could get to the brakes. It’s possible that the driver, who looked to be around nine or ten, couldn’t reach the pedals. I didn’t see it happen, but I heard it—the music-box tune dopplered by speed, the squeal of rubber as it came around the corner, then, after a pregnant pause, the music being turned off. It wasn’t the kind of impact that you’d really hear.
I was in my little attic, trying to fix my scooter, when it happened. All the scooter parts were spread out on the funny pages on my living room floor. I was fussing with a manifold when I heard the truck coming, a pretty regular sound these days. Most road traffic seems to be ice cream trucks, when it’s not the converted buses that the kid army uses for their patrols. I heard the truck coming, and then it stopped, which was usual, but then the music turned off, and then the truck’s engine, and I could hear a commotion of little voices.
My little Honda was half together when the funeral began. The mourners were wailing; for a dirge they put the ice cream truck’s tune on at half speed. More newspapers around, the funnies, all they let them print anymore. Their chorus of cries was deafening, it was like being in a pediatrician’s office.
“Turkey in the Straw” played slowed-down had these sort of Wagnerian trembles in it that I never noticed at full speed.
I watched as one of the children came out of the back of the truck. He was dressed in black, and he dropped down from the truck with a couple of foil packages in his hands. He approached the body, all spread out and small on the wet asphalt. As the others circled around him, he removed the dilly bars from their packets and put one over each of the dead child’s eyelids.
And then they cleaned up and got out. They put the body in the back of the ice cream truck, which made a certain kind of sense, and drove off, music still on. I sat on my window ledge and watched it go, listening to the music fading off, and then listening to the rain.
The children have taken over the park. Out of all of the parks in the city, they have chosen to annex the one that I need to cross through to get the subway. When I pass the threshold I break into a sprint. In hindsight, maybe it would have been better to go slowly, to stay in the cover of trees, close to the groundline. I’m only five or six paces in when the barrage comes, a brutal hail of pinecones. I cannot see the children, which I guess means they must be in the trees. I run faster, the cones bouncing off of me, the impact stinging where the pointy bits get me just right. The onslaught is thick, well-deployed; I’m running through a cloud of woody missiles. One pings off of my ankle and nearly brings me down, but I regain my balance and press on. I scream at the invisible children to stop, and as I do, a small pinecone goes into my open mouth. I can hear their laughter over the hot blood hammering in my ears.
The path lets out into the square in the middle of the park, and, entering the clearing, I am completely exposed, at their mercy. I run faster. The fountain is full of children, the statue in the fountain’s center swarming with them. A small child straddling the head of the bronze general scans the horizon with a telescope. He turns it on me and shouts orders to the amassed kids below, but I am already through the square with the gates in sight. The pinecones have ceased, and so has the laughter. I run, closing the distance, and ten feet from the exit I feel something tighten around my ankle and in a flash I am wrenched off my feet and hoisted, upside-down, in the air. Through my greying-out eyes I see the inverted face of a particularly cruel-looking child. He grins his gap-toothed grin at me, and the circle of my vision closes up like the end of an old cartoon.
ANDREW ZULIANI is a writer and musician who lives between Vancouver and New York. He is working on a doctoral dissertation on flatness and depthlessness in postwar literature, and on a novel about surfing and the apocalypse. He has had poetry published in The Capilano Review and Lyre.