There I was, standing outside the front door, key in hand and full of apprehension at the thought of turning the lock. Would there be a fire this time? A dead goldfish next to shattered glass? Perhaps some form of family heirloom would be ruined beyond comprehension. In any case, I knew what I had to do to stop this madness. The only problem was finding the balls to bring it up to my wife. I thrust the key into the deadbolt and with a quick turn, I opened the door.
I was immediately accosted by Stripey. Or was this one Moustache? I always got the current Cat of the Week mixed up with the previous. He clawed at my feet frantically, making quick work of my neatly shined shoes.
Susie rounded the corner, sliding on the wood floor in her frilly pink socks. “Daddy, has you seened where Marmalade went?”
I pointed upstairs, unable to take my eyes off the wreck that had been my dress shoes.
“Thanks, Daddy!” More scrambling of socked feet, then thump, thump, thump up the stairs.
When I opened the closet to put up my coat, I found Tim crouched on the floor, hugging his knees and gripping a massive flashlight. “Monsters again?” I asked.
“No sir. There's these cheese cows…the cows that we get our cheese from? They're mad cuz I took the last of the Kraft Originals,” he said, tightening his grip on the flashlight. He pushed his crooked glasses up his nose. “But I got them this time. They can't fit in the closet because they're too wide. Their girth is too much. I learned that word today, Pop. It's like wide but sounds more scientific.”
I placed my coat on an empty hanger. “You do realize son that cows don't hold vendettas against people who eat their cheese, don't you?” I asked.
“What's a vendetta?” The glasses slide down again.
“Never mind. I'll tell you at dinner.” I shut the door and headed for the kitchen.
“Honey? I'm back.” I prepared the nicest smile that I could muster, or at least one that would be neutral enough to avoid getting yelled at for something. Immediately, the darling, doting wife turned away from the stove to face me. Before Samantha even opened her mouth, I could see her entire day, playing out a strange theatrical performance on her clothing and visible areas of skin.
Too late, I realized a smile was the worst thing to have on my face.
“Well, that's just lovely!” she said dryly, wooden spoon at her side. “Because I know that all I've been thinking of today as I dodged an invasion of lizards, cleaned poop, repeatedly washed clothes, shopped for food for seven on a budget barely fit for two, wrestled a four-year-old into a school bus, all on half a bagel from seven this morning mind you, I know that I've been thinking it'll all be instantly fixed once my darling husband comes home and works his magic to make everything all better with his mere presence and a story of his wonderful day at the office.”
She shoved the wooden spoon back into the boiling pot and stomped over to the fridge to rummage around. “Did you ever even consider the fact that maybe you could do something to help out besides bringing home shriveled up bacon? Because last I checked, your insight hasn't done a damn thing to get this household into any better shape in the last five years.” A shrill wail erupted nearby as the twins battled each other in the high chair over a bowl of strained peas.
“And you two! I've just about had it with you! Can't you just suck it up and eat the stupid peas instead of trying to shove them into each other's eyes?” She slammed the fridge door and made her way back to the high chair. Grasping a spoon in each hand, she shoved peas into the two small mouths at once. “If you don't like it, you can just starve!”
“Um, dear, I think there's something we should talk about—” I started. I was interrupted by a loud crash.
“I told you to stay away from your Aunt Gladis's birthday present, dammit!” Samantha yelled, running into the living room.
Without direction the twins immediately took globs of peas and smeared them on one another, as well as their clothing. “Hey now, stop that,” I said, grabbing the bowls away. The twins began to scream again. I quickly scraped peas from both sticky faces and shoved the blobs into their mouths with my fingers. “Do you just not like spoons? Is that it?” I wondered aloud.
Samantha returned, Fredrick in tow by the ear, a box filled with shattered glass tucked under her other arm. She shoved both into my arms.
“I am trying to finish dinner. Please take care of this.”
“But—” I stopped short upon receiving a terribly dirty look.
Taking Fredrick by the hand, I tugged him into the other room, bringing the box with me. I put it on the table and leaned Fredrick closer to it.
“Fredrick, what was in this box?”
“No, that's what is in the box now. I'm asking about the past.”
“I don't know. I couldn't get it open without dropping it. For all I know, it was broken glass from the start.”
“Tell you what, let's just say that once I find out how much this cost, we'll be taking it out of your allowance.”
“But I don't get an allowance.”
“Just go get cleaned up for dinner.”
I put the lid back on the box and carefully shelved it behind a stack of photo albums. Maybe ‘out of sight, out of mind' would help in this situation. Returning to the kitchen, I made myself steadfast in my original goal.
“Did you take care of it?”
“Good. Round up the kids, food's ready.”
I glanced about to see if anyone over the age of two was about, then sidled up to Samantha and gently started to rub her shoulders. “Honey…there's something I'd like to talk to you about without the kids present…”
“Honestly Mark, I don't feel like it tonight and there's too many little ears running around. God knows we don't need another set to appear because of it.”
“No, no, not that, this is completely different. I know how to solve all our problems. Look, there were these flyers they were passing around the office today,” I said, reaching into my coat pocket. “And at first I thought, no, they can't do that, that's not legal, but the more I thought of it, the clearer it became and well…really, you need to see for yourself.” Pulling my hand back out, I presented her with a small laminated flyer. She stared at me for a moment, then at the flyer.
“Rent-A-Kid?! You have got to be kidding me! For one thing, we don't need more rugrats running about, especially since they apparently don't seem to get a sense of responsibility even when they get older and not to mention the outlandish prices of such a venture—”
“Sweetie, you're reading the wrong part. The bottom. Look at the bottom.”
Her eyes darted back down to the flyer. “Rent-A-Kid is seeking worthy potentials to help with our endeavors to let future parents know the wonders and endless bounty of rearing children…oh, that's a laugh...Wait. Potentials?”
“There are multiple programs depending on the attention span and money of the yuppie couples that want to see what it's like to have a child. Two weeks, five weeks, a month, a year….at any rate, they take your kids, feed, clothe and watch them for you…and you get paid for it!”
For a while, she just stood their in silence, staring at the flyer. Finally, she threw her arms around me and kissed my face all over. “This is by far the greatest idea you've ever had in your entire life! Now, we just need to pick who goes first…what order, is there a minimum?”
“Let's let dinner decide that,” I said with a satisfied smile. I turned in the direction of the stairs and yelled. “Kids, get your butts down here now for food!”
A stampede of dirty feet and sticky hands flooded down the stairs. Chairs scraped against the wood floors and butts flopped into the seats, words streaming out miles a minute.
“Ricky says that they got this dark skinned lady that comes to their house and makes their supper every night. He said only important people get one and I told him ‘We're just as important, stupid,' and that we got one. So where is she? I know you're hiding her somewhere.”
“Has anybody seened my new lizard friend? He was going to have a tea party with me and Fluffers. He's really pretty, all orange and blue and shiny…”
“Is there cheese in that? If there's cheese I can't eat it because they'd realize that I was out of the closet and at the dinner table and get me for sure!”
A clatter on the floor signaled the twins had shoved the bowl of peas onto the floor, screaming as they did so. Among the calamity of noises, a small smile crept upon my wife's face, probably the first she'd had all day. Hell, probably all week. This was going to be a tougher choice than we thought, but a delightful one all the same.
The rain poured down outside the small office building, leaving long wet streaks on the windshield. Deciding who to take was extremely difficult. We knew for sure that we didn't want to take several of them at once. That would make us look desperate. Eventually, the consensus turned to the child that brought the most trouble for such a small size.
“Daddy will you watch Whiskers while I'm on vacation?” Susie had asked an hour earlier as Samantha adjusted Susie's poofed-out rain coat.
“Of course, Sweetums,” I lied. I knew full well that Whiskers or Ringtail or Moustache, whatever the hell his name was at the moment, would seize the opportunity to escape his pig-tailed captor and be off into the streets before we'd even left the neighborhood. Susie's short attention span kept me from feeling guilty over the matter.
Now, parked in front of this drab, grey building, a few second thoughts began sneaking their way back to the front of my mind. Samantha jostled me from my thoughts by knocking on the window. She waved for me to hurry up. I pulled my coat tightly around my body and slipped out into the rain, hurrying off towards the door where mother and daughter waited.
Inside, the waiting room area looked the standard of any pediatric or dental clinic. Susie immediately attached herself to the fish tank on the far wall, assigning names and declaring who would go home with her first. The room was empty, save for one lone receptionist behind the check-in counter. Samantha hustled over to the woman, whose left cheek puffed out, a small white stick protruding from her mouth. There was a pile of sticks and wrappers cluttering the countertop area.
“Hello, we've got an interview with the professor...”
“Fourf eme?” asked the receptionist, not removing the stick from her mouth. “What?” asked Samantha.
The woman yanked the stick from her mouth, producing a purple-colored lollipop. “First time?” she asked again, looking up.
“Oh, yes, we—”
“Take a clip-board and fill it out.” The woman tapped on a pile of boards with sheets of paper. Samantha took a board and walked back over to one of the seats. I took the seat next to her, in case she needed assistance.
“What kind of questions are these?” she grumbled, filling out quickly and haphazardly. I read some of the questions she'd already answered and noticed she was taking care to gloss over a few matters. She signed vigorously at the bottom. “Here, your turn.” She passed the clipboard to me. As I stared at the form, I had the sudden realization that nowhere on it was there an area for the child to acknowledge their consent. I shrugged it off and signed anyway, then returned it to the woman behind the counter.
Susie's interest in the fish waned, and she turned her attention to some nearby toys in the corner. I watched her carefully from my position across the room. There didn't seem to be anything terribly frustrating about her, besides her incessant need to bring in a new animal every day. In fact, if it was just Susie, we'd probably be well-off. Instead of squeezing everyone into a crowded mini-van, we could travel in a smaller, more modest car, perhaps a Lexus or Jaguar.
The door beside the counter opened. A man in his mid-to-late thirties stood framed in the doorway. Dressed in a collared shirt with a bow tie, sweater vest, khaki slacks and a white lab coat, he seemed like a very personable person, the type you might talk to over the fence as you trimmed the hedges, as most people with hedges do on occasion, I guess. He looked about the room and, quickly realizing we were the only ones there, smiled. “You must be the Turner family. I'm Professor Mason. Please, come this way.”
“Come along, Susie,” said Samantha.
“But I'm making the wall pretty,” said Susie. She'd apparently gotten bored with the office coloring books, opting for a bigger canvas.
“Jesus Christ , child! I can't take you any—” Samantha stopped short, glancing at the professor.
“If you could, step this way.”
The hallway resembled every other hallway that might lead to a dentist, shrink, or gynecologist office. Modernistic paintings hung on the wall along with the occasional, self-esteem boosting posters that encouraged you to GO FOR IT! Professor Mason turned the corner and gestured to a small office. Directly across the hall from it was a physical examination room containing large machinery. I looked back to the office where the professor stood, still smiling. The more he smiled, the more unsettling it appeared. I stepped quickly inside.
The desk was pristine, with not so much as a pencil displaced. A thin laptop rested on the desk, facing away from the doorway. Professor Mason walked swiftly behind his desk, sat down, and opened the laptop.
With only two chairs in the room, Susie immediately hopped into my lap, her legs swinging back and forth high above the floor. Occasionally, she managed to kick me hard in the shin. I winced. Samantha glared slightly at Susie, but quickly regained her composure. The professor hadn't given us any sign as to his disposition; the last thing we wanted to do was offend him in some way that would blow our chance.
Professor Mason remained quiet for quite some time, looking carefully at the computer screen, with the occasional “Hmm…” or “Interesting.” This went on for quite some time, to the point that it appeared he'd forgotten that anyone else was in the room. I glanced back to my wife, whose temper was gradually rising. I decided it best to step in.
“Well, are we in the clear?” I asked, trying to sound normal and friendly as possible. Susie squirmed in my lap, smacking my shins again. “I'm assuming you looked over that mass of forms we filled out for you.”
“Hm? Oh, right. Yes,” said Professor Mason, not looking up from the computer. “Quite the interesting responses, I must say…”
Samantha could hold it in no longer, and spoke before I could ask anymore questions.
“Are we candidates for potentials or not?” she asked sharply. “We're very busy and I have four other children running amuck at home with a woman who's babysitting them for the first, and probably last, time.”
“Ah, so you're very stressed then, I take it?” Professor Mason reached into a drawer of his desk, producing a pen and legal pad, which he began to write on.
“Yes, I am stressed. I'm stretched in twelve different directions every day and have been for the last five years. Our house is too small, our budget laughable, and my God-forsaken husband can't keep it in his pants long enough to keep the situation from getting worse!”
“Uh, honey? Little ears?” I said, covering Susie's ears a little too late.
“Is Mommy mad at you Daddy?” she asked, tilting her head upward.
“To be frank with you, Mrs. Turner,” said the professor, “one would assume that if your husband isn't able to resist you that it means he finds you attractive, even after having had so many children, and you reciprocate these feelings. Otherwise, you would not have so many children in the first place.”
Samantha's face flushed.
“You seek the easy solution to your problem,” Professor Mason continued, “a solution in which you have almost instant gratification. I can give you this solution; however, I think it wise to consider why you came here in the first place.
“I understand that you are overwhelmed, underappreciated, and essentially not given the respect you believe you deserve, Mrs. Turner. However, the amount of discipline plays heavily into what you get out of your children. They may have you outnumbered, but if you utilize your natural position as mother, they will adhere to your requests. The ones that are old enough to comprehend them anyhow.
“Our services are only to be offered as a last minute source of peace and quiet, which, granted, you most certainly do need. But as is company policy, we require the children we loan to be of the utmost politeness and full of boundless cooperation. At least enough so we don't have to pull out the switches too terribly often.”
“Th—what did you say?” asked Samantha.
“Oh, yes. Corporal punishment is of the utmost necessity to ensure our clientele are satisfied with their temporary children,” said Professor Mason with a smile. “It's actually quite refreshing for both parties. The child is given a sudden reminder that the world is not their oyster, whereas the Resident Reprimander delights in the satisfaction of blatantly beating the child silly.”
“Nothing…too harsh…I'm guessing?...” I said with uncertainty.
“On the contrary, we have the latest in Child Reprimand Technology. If you would, step this way and I'll show you.”
Outside the office, we were ushered into the room across the hall. The bulky equipment suddenly became a lot more detailed. Levers, knobs, buttons. Hooks, needles, hammers. Somewhere in the midst of the various objects of discomfort rested a simple leather chair. The height suggested it was meant for small sizes.
“Now Susie, if you would please sit right there,” directed Professor Mason. Susie scrambled up into the chair.
“We wouldn't want to give any of our clients the wrong picture of what it's like to raise a child. If we did that, they'd never come back,” said Professor Mason with a small chuckle, flipping a few switches. “Therefore, it is imperative that we send children with good manners that will keep them coming back for more.”
“Isn't that kind of…lying to them?” I asked. “I mean, aren't these people that are considering having children themselves? Do you really want to make them think it's really easy?”
“In all honesty, we've had very few couples that actually go on to have their own children,” said Professor Mason. He examined a few gauges before pressing several buttons at once. “As a matter of fact, they seem to prefer the variety they get by borrowing the children of others.”
“Then they don't really care,” I said. “I mean, they can't. If they keep switching off kids just for a lark, they can't give that much love and attention to them.”
“Enough to satisfy their deep-seated maternal and paternal needs for that time period,” said the professor. As the conversation had been going on, the machine gradually grew louder and louder.
“So uh, what exactly is this thing for again?” I asked loudly, covering my ears.
“This is the pinnacle of Child Reprimendation Technology. You see, our business is two-fold. In addition to assisting the childless couples of the world, we have taken time to do research into the habits and failings of children on the whole. The more money we get from our clients, the greater funding for our research into machinery that can give just the right amount of customized discipline to each individual child.”
Susie had covered her ears as well. “Mummy, I don't like this noise, make it stop!”
“Why does it have to be so loud?” demanded Samantha. “You're going to bust our eardrums!”
“Nonsense!” said Professor Mason. “That machine's down the hall. This one is for the sub-class of children who are obsessed with bringing home animals. It just takes it a while to boot up.”
Suddenly, the noise cut off. A gentle whirring noise replaced it, as the various widgets of the machine flashed and beeped in sync with it.
“Now then, for the reprimendation,” said Professor Mason. He pulled a lever, and a small slot on the machine opened. A slender steel tray slid out and came to a stop in front of Susie. Resting on it was an open-topped glass box with several lab mice scurrying around inside.
Susie squealed with delight. “You look like a Mickey! I know a kitty back home that would love to play with you! Are these your brothers? You have to have tea with me!” Susie reached her hand into the open box.
Electricity shot violently through the tray. All three mice dropped dead.
“What the in the hell?” yelled Samantha. I stared dumbfounded at the box as little wisps of smoke floated above the dead mice. Susie had yanked her hand back and was clutching it, tears streaming down her face.
“Daddy?! Mummy?! What happened to my new friends?...” she asked, sniffling. “Why does my hand hurt?..”
The tray slide back into the machine, but returned almost instantaneously with another box of mice.
“A-are you okay mices?” asked Susie cautiously. She reached inside again, only to have another bolt of electricity shoot into the box. Again, the mice were dead.
“Mummy, what happened? Why can't I touch the mices?” asked Susie, holding her injured hand close to her body. The tray slid back into the machine once more. The compartment above it opened, revealing a television screen. It flickered on, static rippling through the image. A woman I recognized as the receptionist was on the screen.
“Susie,” she said, “these mice are not your friends. If they were your friends, they would suffer like this everyday. They are dead because you keep trying to play with them.”
Susie stared at the television screen. “Mommy, I don't understand the lady, what does she mean?...” The tray slide back out again, only this time both boxes of dead mice were on it. Susie stared horrified at the mice, the back at the screen.
“This is you fault, Susie,” said the receptionist. “Until you are older, you cannot have pets, because this is what will happen. Do you understand now?”
Susie nodded slowly, not taking her eyes off the boxes.
I couldn't take it anymore. I kicked the tray, causing the boxes of dead mice to fly up into the air. Samantha screamed as they fell down, several landing on her. I picked up Susie and turned to face the professor.
“I don't think we'll be using your services in either direction, Professor,” I said, staring fixedly at him. Susie gripped my shirt tightly and started to cry.
“Now really, was that all necessary?” asked Professor Mason. “Your child is already on the right path. A few more sessions and she'll be—”
“Screw you.” I grabbed Samantha's arm and pulled her out of the room. She was still screaming frantically even though the dead mice were no longer on her, and she didn't stop until we were outside.
“What…why did?...oh God…” she stuttered, shaking all over. The rain gave her sudden realization, and her face grew angry. “What was that? Can people really do that sort of thing to children? We should report that man!”
“Maybe later,” I said. “Let's just get out of here.”
Samantha suddenly realized Susie was there. “Oh, baby, I'm so sorry we let that man do that…” She took Susie from my arms, carrying her to the car.
“I don't want anymore animal friends, Mummy,” she said quietly. Her face was still wet from crying. “I'll just break them.”
“It wasn't your fault, they just weren't very good mice,” said Samantha, buckling Susie into her seat.
“I don't want anymore…”
“You know, I was just thinking,” I said, getting into the driver's side, “that we haven't been to the pet store in a long time. Whiskers looked like he might need a friend.”
“Whiskers doesn't like me a lot,” said Susie sadly. “He kinda scratched me the other day. It hurt a lot”
“Then we'll get you a better pet,” said Samantha as she got into her seat. “I'll bet the nice people at the store can help you find a pet that likes you a lot.”
“No mice, Mummy…”
“No honey, no mice,” I said. I pulled out into the street. In the rearview mirror, I could see the receptionist stepping outside with two boxes that she dumped into the trash.