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This story contains snakes, insects, bullying, urination, references to child sexual abuse, and potentially upsetting depictions of psychiatric treatment.
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About the Author: Sara Kate Ellis is a 2011 Lambda Emerging Writers Fellow and the winner of the 2015 Defenestrationism short fiction contest. Her stories have appeared in The Red Penny Papers, Ideomancer, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Crossed Genres.
She lives in Tokyo with her partner and her cat, Tom, and likes soba.
The Squeaky Wheel
By Sara Kate Ellis
THE CAFE WAS DIM and smelled like rain and shoe polish. Danieli Kleig held her mother’s hand tightly as they tripped their way through the crowded arrangement of sofas and easy chairs. Wet umbrellas and backpacks tossed sloppily to the floor were spread before her like mines on the threadbare carpet. But it was the faces she didn’t like, the eyes drifting over her as she passed, the women cooing and threatening to reach out and squeeze a cheek, the men visibly irritated by the loss of attention.
They both paused as they spotted Danieli’s father, half hidden by a spider plant and the old school newspaper he held in front of his face. “Final Social Security Payouts to Occur in 2043,” the headline read.
He’d taught Danieli to read just a year ago. “It’s a way to keep an eye on things,” he told her, “but it’s also an escape when you need it. The only way to guarantee time with people you can stand.”
She felt her mother’s hand on her shoulder, heard the fabric of her raincoat rustling as she bent closer and said with the lightest theatricality, “Daddy’s hiding from us. Why don’t you go surprise him?”
Already people were noticing. An elderly woman nearby lifted her head from a book. A teenage couple, wearing matching college sweatshirts, looked up eagerly from a padscreen revealing a FUNFUNDZ display just as a raucous fanfare sounded from its tiny speaker. Danieli squinted at the ticker as it added another zero and the couple looked back down, high-fiving each other. She took a single step forward until the boy shot her a look and winked.
“Sweetie,” Sam said. She had straightened now, was already giving up. “He’s right there.”
Danieli tightened her grip on her mother’s hand. If she was going to travel that endless plain of eyeballs and whispers and muddy boots, it wouldn’t be alone. She glanced up uncertainly and Sam’s strained smile fell to meet her.
“You’re five, Dani,” Sam whispered. “Almost six. This is getting ridiculous.”
A waiter, balancing a tray of coffee drinks cleared his throat behind them and Sam bent low, slipped her arms under her daughter’s and carried her to the corner. Once they were close enough, Danieli dropped to the floor and ducked behind her father’s paper.
Samantha Kleig watched the paper rustle, waiting with mild impatience and a growing emptiness in her stomach as the two of them stayed like that, whispering to each other. The headlines shot out at her like a headache. “Governor Kyle Vows No More Funds for Public Schools. Monitoring of Sex Offenders will Shift to Private Firms.”
For the first time that morning, Sam heard her daughter laugh.
“The appointment went well,” she said. “Doctor Lawrence is a good fit for her.”
The two of them stayed behind the pile-up of bad news, and Sam plucked the meal-pad from the newly vacated table next to theirs. She tapped in an order of coffee, fruit, and cinnamon toast. Doctor Lawrence had had only an early slot available, and Danieli hadn’t eaten more than a yogurt pack.
“All we have to do is wait for the test results.”
Her stomach growled and she craned her neck toward the counter. The waiter was fiddling with a stack of water glasses, resolutely ignoring the flashing red light on the order board. This was what Berto liked about this place, she decided, that he could go unnoticed among so many people.
Outside, the rain took a violent turn, battering the windows, pouring down the glass in torrents. The whispering behind the paper continued.
“Roberto,” Sam said.
There was a pause and her husband lowered the newspaper.
“Yeeesss?” he said. Danieli laughed again. He was still handsome, Sam thought, even though his hair was thinning and he was getting soft in the middle. Charm could carry you a long way. Men more than women.
“Doctor Lawrence says he can get Danieli in a program as early as next week.”
Berto smiled flatly and passed his daughter the newspaper. She clambered off his knees and slipped into the space between his chair and the wall, then set about noisily folding the pages. She steepled them the way he’d taught her, with one end resting on the arm and the other balanced against the lower ridge of the boiserie, so that it formed a tent.
His daughter safely distracted, Berto’s expression soured. “You said it was a psyche test for school admission.”
It was unsettling to see his mood shift, Sam thought, his jaw setting, the mirth in his eyes disappearing. Amid the gloom of the café, it was as if they’d turned black.
She lowered her voice. “You saw her when we came in. Oh wait,” she leaned her head back and snorted. “You didn’t, did you? She was clinging to me like I was dangling her over a cliff.”
“Not fair, Sam,” Berto said.
As if on cue, the listless waiter appeared with her order. She reached up and took the tray, plucking a cube of cantaloupe and nearly swallowing it whole. She needed to settle her stomach, to stay calm and make him see reason.
“You know,” she said, taking another piece. “The Fielders boy, the one you called a dunce? He just funded his entire trip to Elsinore Camp. At six. It was his own campaign and he—”
“I’m sure his parents had something to do with that,” said Berto.
“Maybe, but Billy Fielders has friends. Lots of them. From play dates, from the Christmas pageant, even from that crap public school he goes to. And Sarah Chao, you know the girl whose Mom’s a lunch lady? She just funded her first year at Pencey kindergarten.”
“I don’t know why you persist in these comparisons,” Berto said. “We got Danieli into a much better school than any of those brats, and we can afford it. Easily.”
“It’s not about comparisons,” Sam said. “What about when she’s there and can’t make any friends? What happens when she goes to high school or college? Or years from now when we’re gone and she gets a divorce or needs to keep a business afloat, or fund some serious medical issue? Long game, Berto. She needs friends.”
“Dani has friends,” Berto said. “Lena is a terrific friend. So is Bryce.”
“Two friends, Berto. Two.”
Berto leaned over, took a quick glance inside the tent. “That’s more than anyone needs,” he said. “More than most people have in a lifetime.”
Sam stifled a sigh. God, did she have to do everything? Have to think about everything?
“If you haven’t noticed, real friends are a luxury these days. For pampered little boys like yourself. Only you aren’t that rich anymore, Berto. She needs to get out there, build a support network now. We’re not always going to be here for her.”
Berto flinched and Sam saw his hands go white. He reached into his pocket and produced a handkerchief, dabbed it at his forehead. Sam felt a wave of guilt wash through her. She hadn’t meant for it to sound that harsh. Berto provided a comfortable living for them, one they could retire on, but not enough to secure Danieli’s future, and as the youngest child in an old money family, he had neither the motivation nor the instincts to make more. She reached over and lifted a cup of acrid smelling coffee to her lips. A pinging sound, like the tilt on an old pinball machine, startled her and sent the dark liquid sloshing into her saucer. The two of them watched the teenagers smooch gleefully over their padscreen. How much had they brought in, Sam wondered. Enough for a year’s tuition? A study abroad program in Rome?
Berto checked once more to see if Danieli was listening. Then he turned back to his wife.
“Any side effects, any at all, and we pull her out.”
WHEN HAD IT CHANGED, Sam wondered. Certainly, the promise that if you worked hard, you’d get somewhere had long been rescinded. As a girl, after her father had left, she’d watched that one recede like her distant memories of movie theaters and libraries.
But it used to be that you could still feel adequate as a self, even proud of your decision not to try too hard. People, her mother once told her, the ones who counted at least, would see the good in you.
You had to be likable, and not quietly so. It was a full-time job.
Sam saw it here in the lobby of the Secure Futures building, an incredible extension of the open office where everyone was on display. The entire building was a maze of cubicles and private chambers, separated only by glass walls that gave the impression of an enormous stack of Tupperware. The people inside were stabs of tastefully muted color, spinning like petals in their chairs, darting out from behind bookshelves or hanging plants as they chatted with careful amiability into their headsets. It reminded Sam of an exhibit she’d seen as a child, the remains of corpses, preserved and sliced open so you could see everything inside, organs and veins, twisting their way around sinew and bone, a network of cells keeping it all together, but dead.
She squeezed Danieli’s shoulder, watched her child register every flicker of movement through the glass surrounding the reception room.
“Samantha Kleig?” called a woman behind them, and Danieli spun around before Sam’s ears registered the sound.
“So sorry to keep you waiting. Renata La Priore.”
La Priore was youngish, wore a quail egg blue suit, and moved with the kind of choreographed grace you’d expect from an old fashioned etiquette coach. Sam rose to shake her hand and watched her child uneasily as they were ushered into the elevator.
Inside La Priore’s office, the walls blocked out the rest of the building, shifting into a Cascade forest, the grassy scent of juniper berries and pines settling around them as a jay cried somewhere in the distance. Danieli gasped, clambered around on the sofa to take a look.
“Nothing to worry about, honey. It’s a projection,” Sam said. “Isn’t it neat?”
Danieli looked at her with a mix of disbelief and contempt. “How do you know if someone’s behind you?”
La Priore chuckled and took a seat across from them. “I know you’re a busy woman, Ms. Kleig, so I’ll get right to it. As Dr. Lawrence told you, Secure Futures offers a two-pronged approach to therapy. A combination of traditional treatment and P.R. makeover.”
“He told me about the treatment part,” said Sam. “How does the rest work?”
“After we’re certain the medication regimen is working, we start slowly. A few arranged play dates, small at first. Then gradually, we build up to more populated events with the other children in our care. To your friends, family, and associates, however, it will all come off as natural socialization.”
“Good,” Sam said. She cleared her throat softly. “My husband is insistent about this being a gradual process. You see, Danieli’s a smart girl, very smart, other than this... developmental issue. She’s just so frightened of everyone.”
La Priore smiled warmly. She leaned over and placed her chilly, manicured hands over Sam’s.
“That’s the issue with many of our clients. Fear. All we hope to do is to encourage our subjects to see opportunities with the same frequency that they might be alerted to dangers. By the time she finishes with us, she’ll have a robust and diverse garden of friends and associates and all the skills necessary to tend that garden, make it flourish well into old-age.” She smiled down at the girl. “You like gardens, don’t you, Danieli?”
“Just the bugs,” said Danieli. Then she pulled her hand away and shoved it into her pocket.
THE MACHINE WAS a fort. That’s how her mother told her to think about it. But she didn’t feel safe the way she did in a blanket tent at home or up in the tree house she’d built with Daddy: Her hands and feet were strapped down and there were snakes attached to her head that tickled and writhed as her weight shifted and turned in the cylinder.
This was an important part of her treatment, Dr. Lawrence said. Along with the pills, the special light would kick in like a jumper cable, make her happier. Make her fun.
“You’re cocooning,” he’d said the first time she went in. “Soon,” and he hooked his thumbs together and fluttered his fingers, “you’ll be a butterfly.”
Danieli didn’t want to be a butterfly though. She wanted to be a bee or a grasshopper, something that people left alone or at least had decent odds of getting away. This wasn’t like that. It was already her fifth time and she didn’t feel better at all.
But when she woke up on the hospital cot a few hours later, she felt lighter, the way she did on Saturday mornings after a long sleep, the smell of French toast wafting up the stairs. It was dark outside, but the air felt crisp and full of possibility. And when the nurse, a woman who’d frightened Danieli into tears just a week ago, entered the room with her clothes, she discovered she could look her in the eyes and smile.
SAM HAD NEVER had a problem with the ones who really needed it: people who couldn’t afford an operation or whose insurance backpedaled after their houses had been destroyed in a wildfire or a flood. But there were those others. Five years after graduating from the art academy, she saw an old classmate, some smarmy self-proclaimed performance artist, who’d done nothing but post barely veiled plagiarisms of Rumi on his blog, asking for a year’s rent on a website. His pitch: “You like me, don’t you?”
That same year, the woman who’d stolen her first college boyfriend funded an all expenses paid bacchanal to the Greek isles. A spiritual retreat she’d called it. Sam had heard otherwise. “At least Sally Field worked for a living,” she’d griped to Berto. He hadn’t gotten the reference.
Other than a few close friends, Sam’s likability extended itself to her mother. And Berto, who seemed like a kindred spirit when they’d met. He was from an upper class Buenos Aires family, and he shrank from such exhibitionism in the way that old money--still able to afford privacy--did everywhere. Berto had enough wealth that Sam would never need to go begging to anyone but him.
It was good timing.
By then, the pundits and the politicians were adding their voices to the millions of pleas and requests, using them as examples of American generosity. It was time, they said, to leave the safety net to the network. People were innately good, after all. Look at all the success stories, at the N.G.O.s, and microloans. Why couldn’t it work for welfare and public education?
She watched Danieli emerge from the sliding glass doors, felt a tinge of relief and pride as the girl cheerfully greeted a passing janitor. The treatment had been rough going in the first few months, but it was working, and sometimes, Sam felt a vague guilt at liking this version of her daughter better. It was like favoring one child over another, only that other child was fading, disappearing from her memory as a newer one took hold.
They spent the rest of the morning shopping and visiting a museum, and Sam was delighted to see the girl demand to purchase a souvenir in the gift shop by herself. Before, she’d been too shy to approach the counter, but there she was, lapping up the attention, smiling back with all the cheeky aplomb of some 1940s child star.
When they got home, Berto was waiting for them in the living room, his face drawn.
“Danieli,” he said before their coats were off. “Room. Now.”
The girl’s eyes widened as she placed her coat on the lowest hook. “Is everything okay, Daddy?”
Sam watched her husband wince at the perfect guilelessness in the child’s voice. He looked away, as if trying to avoid the eyes of a street vendor.
“No,” he said. “Go!”
Danieli glanced up at her mother, shrugged innocently as if to agree with her that yes, this man was crazy. Then smiling sweetly, she strolled quietly out of room and closed the door behind her.
“What is it now?” Sam said. “First, you say she’s ignoring you and now when she tries to communicate, you—“
Berto shot her a look that made her freeze and they waited in silence until they heard Danieli’s bedroom door close.
“I got a call from Lena’s mother,” he said. “Danieli and a couple of her new pals locked her out of the bathroom. She urinated on herself in the hallway.”
“Jesus.” Sam closed her eyes and rubbed the back of her neck. “Are they sure Danieli was involved?”
Berto stretched out an arm and drummed his fingers on the edge of the sofa. “Not just involved. She was the mastermind. Apparently the bullying’s been going on for weeks. They just didn’t know who was behind it. Until now.”
Sam walked over and sat down next to him, her expression grim, but inside, she felt a strange sense of elation. If the girl was bullying another child, it meant she’d made friends, was choosing to be part of a group. That had to count as some kind of progress, didn’t it?
“I don’t know what to say about this, Berto,” she said. “I mean it’s not good, but kids are cruel. It’s part of growing up.”
Sam fired a look at the closed door and lowered her voice. “Things get complicated at this age. Friendships break up and kids do some pretty awful things.”
“Not my kid,” Berto said. He shifted away from her on the sofa, then stood abruptly. “I’m going upstairs to talk to her. Make her understand exactly what she’s done.” He paused as he turned the door handle. “I don’t care if you keep her in the program, but the medication stops now.”
“NOW THIS LITTLE FELLAH,” said the man, “is a personal friend of mine. A western basilisk come all the way from Ecuador just to be my personal necktie.”
The lizard was small for its type, its ears jutting out like a mouse. It wriggled as the reptile man held it up by both ends, wrapping it like a balloon animal around his neck. He made a mock choking face, capped teeth glinting in the waning sunlight, as the animal clung to his skin. “Looks good, if I do say so myself.”
The children shrieked and clamored to get closer, and Sam craned her neck, trying to spot Danieli in the crowd. It was the first party she’d been invited to on her own, a birthday for a wealthy classmate named Kerry Anne, held at the family’s seaside estate. Sam had felt a rush of pride seeing Danieli’s name listed on the social register. Over time, she thought, these listings would add up. Danieli’s profile would be spotted on Internet fast lanes, her connections screened for colleges and clubs and job placements at the better companies. Among this group, however, she was nowhere to be seen.
She remembered La Priore’s tight smile as she explained the situation, that her husband wanted to “go the natural route.”
“Of course,” La Priore had answered. “It can work. Medication isn’t everything.”
It was becoming apparent, however, that to Danieli it wasn’t nothing, either, and a month later its effects were wearing off. Now it was three months after the incident at school, and Danieli had nearly made them late. She’d holed up in the bathroom complaining of a stomachache, and once they arrived, stayed close to Lena, the two of them having reconciled through the force of their shared alienation. They stood at the back of the crowd as Kerry Ann unwrapped presents and took a swing at a piñata that showered its tiny guests with gift certificates and tickets to local museums.
“That accent,” said a woman. “It’s fake.”
“Pardon me?” Sam turned to see Kerry Anne’s mother sidling up to her. The woman leaned in closer as she said, “Can you hear it? He’s shifting between a Crocodile Dundee and a London estuary.” She rolled her eyes in breezy disgust and extended a hand to Sam. “Don’t know where my husband finds these people. Deanna Jaynes.”
“Sam Kleig,” she said, shaking her hand. “That’s very observant. I’ve never been to either place, actually.”
Deanna laughed good-naturedly, but Sam wondered if this admission might hurt her later, make her look uncultured. The two women watched in easy silence as the reptile man slung the lizard on a crate behind him and produced a snake from his pocket. He reached out and offered it up like a tin of sweets.
“Now then,” he said, “who’d like to pet this little fellow?”
As the children squealed and reared back, Sam scanned the crowd, hoping that Danieli might be the first to step up. The girl loved reptiles, and it would be a moment for her to shine among her privileged peers, but Dani wasn’t in the crowd. She forced a smile for Deanna’s sake as Kerry Anne stepped forward, her hands extended like someone anointed.
“The birthday girl!” said the man, his accent slipping into a drawl. Sam noticed it this time as he dropped the snake into the girl’s hand, smiled as it wound compliantly around the child’s arm.
“Isn’t she a dear?” Sam said, backing away. As she turned, she spotted Danieli and Lena. They were across the field in the refreshment tent, hunched over a picnic table and partially obscured by the shade. Berto was there, too, she discovered, parked beside the bowl of grown up punch. He toasted her as she approached.
“This is more fun than I thought,” he said, offering her a cup. “Peace and quiet.”
Sam didn’t answer. He was goading her ambitions again. She took the plastic cup he offered her and downed it.
Berto nodded toward the two girls. “I mean it. I think Danieli’s having a really good time.”
Sam looked back. They were playing cards, some kind of fortune telling thing, but it looked crass, like a game of poker in a back room.
“Who will be the one I marry?” Lena said.
Danieli shuffled through the cards and produced a king of spades.
“Eww! No way!”
Sam felt her body relax as the alcohol hit her and slumped down into a folding chair. “You think so?” she said. “I’d say we’re back to square one.”
Berto took a seat next to her. “You don’t get to paint it that way. Dani’s working really hard to make up for what she’s done. To me that’s more progress than the lot of these... these...” he lifted his hand, gestured out at the piles of discarded wrapping paper overflowing onto the lawn from two enormous trash cans. In the grass, a tangle of red ribbon fluttered beneath a discarded box like a scalper’s trophy. Berto gave up, dropped his hand and took another drink.
“Save it for when she’s forty, Berto,” Sam said.
She rose and walked over to the girls.
“Why’d you leave the show?” she asked, her voice rising as her hopes sank just a little bit farther. “Thought you’d be interested. He’s got some pretty amazing stuff over there.”
Danieli looked up. Her eyes had already regained some of the grim suspicion of her previous self. “I didn’t like him.”
“That’s silly,” Sam said. “You liked the boa constrictor at the zoo.”
“She meant him,” Lena said, nodding toward the stage. “I didn’t like him either.”
Oh Lena, Sam thought, not the sharpest pencil. The show was over now, with only a few of the children remaining. They dangled their legs off the stage as the late afternoon softened into dusk. Sam gripped her empty cup harder, squeezed it just tight enough to hear the plastic crackling beneath her fingers. Behind her, the canopy rustled.
“Ma’am? Sir?” A uniformed officer ducked inside. He jabbed a thumb toward Danieli and Lena. “Those your kids?”
“Yes,” Sam said, “Why?”
The officer ignored her. “All of ‘em?”
Berto nodded. “Yes. Everything okay?”
The cop held up his hand and gestured for Berto to come closer. He nodded sharply Sam, “might I recommend you get those kids ready to leave?”
Sam glared at him, but the urgency in his expression set off alarms. She snatched up the card box, ignoring the girls’ protests, as she gathered up a stack of queens.
The cop was whispering something to Berto. “Infiltrated... parolee… used to work as a party clown.”
Furious, Sam straightened. “You talking about the reptile man?” she said.
The cop shot a worried look at the children. “Ma’am.”
“I asked a question,” she said.
He nodded gruffly and turned back to Berto. “Private firm made a goddamned mess of things. Guy’s been out for three months. Didn’t light up at any of the employment agencies. Not a one.”
“I’d get these kids home now,” he said. “We’ll be around for questions.”
He slapped Berto on the back and hurried out of the tent, barking into his walkie-talkie until another voice rose above his own. A woman’s voice, worried, then shrill.
Deanna Jaynes stood in silhouette, a hand raised to her eyes as she faced the bright glare of the setting sun.
“It’s okay, ma’am.” Another officer was talking to her, trying to calm her down as he waved a small army of cops across the sand. “We’ve got her.”
“I told you I didn’t like him,” said Danieli. “You shouldn’t have to like everybody.”
“No, Honey,” Sam said, feeling her body start to shake. “No, you shouldn’t.”
She turned to her daughter, pressed the pack of cards into the girl’s hands as she watched a twist of ribbon blow across the lawn, encircle Deanna Jayne’s ankle as she stumbled after the cop towards the beach.