Kevin Deenihan lives in Torrance, California with his wife Lia and two boys.
KING OF ELVES
“Golden locks, they love those,” the vice-principal said, looking at the boy. “Tousles. Curls.”
Maya smiled at the woman, tight and hard. The vice-principal had arrived unannounced. She wore dark grey over black, and her eyes were drawn to Milo’s toys, to the colorful counting mat on the floor. Maya had not offered her coffee, so the vice-principal had simply made her own, finding the beans and the filter and the water, while she talked.
“Elves love blondes,” the vice-principal repeated. She took a tentative sip of Maya’s coffee, and nodded, approvingly.
Maya hesitated. She had expressed the most tepid of doubts, to a mom she trusted -- had trusted -- at a non-school event. They had no wardrobes, no creaking old beds with dark spaces, they had no dazzling pink princesses entranced with unicorns and promising smiles. Just two boys. “There was that article…” she said, intending to trail off.
The vice-principal said nothing. Maya was forced to continue. “He’ll lose his innocence naturally, he’s outdoor all the time. He’ll squish spiders and ants and bees and wander onto the internet. He scrapes his knee. By age five…”
She did trail off, determined now. She wanted to order this woman out of her house. The vice-principal had her foot on the playmat, tapping it against a pair of brightly colored legos.
“They want him,” she said. “We’ve been starving them successfully and systematically for decades, now. We have cut abductions to a thin railroad of the neglected. And yet, in nice neighborhoods such as this one, with their many bedrooms and playdates and shiny SUVs out front, we have seen a dramatic uptick in lost children. Santa Monica lost three last year.”
An infuriating pitch. Maya wondered if she could scream at this woman. Tell her about Maya’s own upbringing in the shit neighborhoods east of anywhere noticeable. She held off, concerned that this vice-principal had a government tie. Also, it was a very
“Well, we’ll think about it,” Maya said, brightly.
“Innocence Day is in a week,” the vice-principal said. “Think carefully. Think very long and hard.”
“We certainly will!” Maya said brightly. She waited for the vice-principal to put down her coffee and leave. The vice-principal stood.
“Maya,” she said, “where is your son?”
She frowned. “Upstairs. Playing in his room.”
The vice-principal was silent. Everything was silent. Maya heard the wind outside, a distant dog barking. Suburban sounds. She stood up and forced herself to walk very slowly. She walked up the stairs, the vice-principal immediately behind her. There were no closets in Milo’s room. No, she was lying to herself. They were boarded up, drywalled over. But they were still there. There was an empty cavity underneath his bed, covered in plywood. There was silence from his room, the door closed. Already he was being passed from stag to stag in some world other than this, clothed in leaves, told he was King of Elves…
She opened the door. Milo sat on the floor. He was looking at a phone she didn’t recognize. Myra stared at her son’s blonde curls. The vice-principal walked inside and picked up the phone, and slipped it into a pocket. When -- how had she passed it to him? Milo complained about the phone getting taken away.
“I will see you next week,” said the Vice-Principal.
There was a nanny doing dropoff on Innocence Day. Maya stared at her, appalled. Today, of all days? Maybe, she told herself, the parents would be there at pickup, to make that mandatory run for ice cream, sold half-off at ice cream stores across the city. Sure.
“Mom, everything okay?” Milo said. He still had a trace of a lisp, and Maya was considering speech therapy. Outside of his bright blonde hair he was just another boy. He himself had picked out a bright red Ninja Turtles shirt, and Maya had horrified herself thinking about how it wouldn’t show any blood stains.
“Sure,” Maya said. Should she hug him? No, too obvious a tell. But Milo could tell the scene was off -- too many wan Moms and stiff Dads, dropping off the kid together. David sat in the passenger seat, drumming his fingers on the side of the car, staring at his phone. He had taken a quick snap of his son. “The parents are going to a conference, so you’ll be -- you’ll be out back I think. It’s a conference.”
Milo lost interest. He had seen some friends, and drifted over to them, yelling.
“Want to see?” David said, pulling up the photo.
“What, exactly, would I be seeing?” Maya said. She slipped into the driver’s seat. They had already dropped off Logan at daycare. Two empty car seats sat in the back.
“He’s not even going to remember,” David said. He sounded half-amused, and it bothered Maya tremendously. “This is going to be an ice cream day for him. That’s it.”
“Fine, go to work, then,” Maya said. She looked hard at him. David knew she only looked right at someone’s eyes when upset. He went back to his phone. “We should’ve done this ourselves.”
“I’m okay with professionals handling it,” David said. He slouched. “I heard that some people are trying pornography. It’s illegal but I guess it works. And less cleanup.”
Maya tried and failed to stop herself from imagining that. She put the car into drive. A parent behind her honked. There was a fleet of SUVs, today, Moms dressed with care in dark clothes.
“I got a bottle of wine at home,” David mentioned. “Big bottle of white. I figured.”
“Wine is for celebrations,” Maya said. “I checked. We have plenty of gin.”
“Gin it is,” David mumbled.
“My name is Veronica Jarrod, and I was taken,” said the vice-principal. “Slide.”
It clicked up on the main screen. A picture of a very young girl taken with very old film, in black and white. She had frizzy hair and wore overalls. The caption read “1939” in Comic Sans, for whatever reason. Maya shook her head. She was a graphic designer.
“I was 6. I don’t remember anything of the abduction itself, but it was from a standard wardrobe, in my sister’s room. I spent the next fifty winters in a land of ice and snow, traveling to all parts of my distant kingdom in a sledge driven by wolves. I met with other abductees in my glittering palace, where I gave them bracelets and rings made of warm ice, and treated them to sherberts and floats and creams of every flavor.”
Great, Maya thought, now getting ice cream afterwards would feel weird.
“Slide. And then I because unacceptably old, and I was led in grass chains by a pack of my capering friends, and I was thrown out. I woke in a field in 1983, in the middle of summer, on a pack of ice melting beneath me. And now I work in education.”
Maya noticed the logo of the Department of Defense along the bottom row of the next slide. She felt a little vindicated -- she didn’t yell and throw hot stolen coffee at a government agency.
David had vacated almost immediately, to “go to the bathroom.” He had been gone for ten minutes.
“We’ve made real progress,” said Veronica. She clicked through chart after chart. “Abductions, far down. Our Standard Furniture initiative has decreased incursions by a marked percentage. Many of the elves who have infiltrated our plane have been emaciated, noticeably weak. And, of course, Innocence Day.”
The older teachers stood in a line at the back of the auditorium, with lowered eyes, basking in the seniority. Younger teachers without union benefits were out back, on the blacktop, comforting long lines. A few of the Innocence Team walked by briskly in their long red robes, wands in holsters.
The door opened on the far end of the auditorium. Parents turned. An older man stood there in wine-red robes, backlit by the streaming sunlight outside. He held a clipboard. They had been warned about this. Recalcitrant kids may need parental involvement in the process. Everyone in the auditorium thought: please let my child not be recalcitrant.
“Milo Fonseca?” the man said.
Maya stood up.
She was ten, and they played elves. Maya dressed in green and they all made bracelets out of construction paper, bracelets and tiaras. Three neighborhood girls and her, chased inside by a rare rain. Maya and Astrid, and a girl whose name she didn’t recall, and Joan.
They liked her house because her Mom was never there, predictably never there, not like Joan where the household size was unpredictable day to day. Maya prided herself on the house always being clean, and they had the money for paper and glue and scissors. She made a point of handing out the paper herself.
“We can all be queens or we can all be princesses but I don’t want us to mix them up,” said Astrid. She was all in royal purple, her tiara towering three layers high. “Queens are above princesses so that’s not fair to the princesses.”
“We can be more than that,” Joan said. She had big plastic glasses, and her bracelets were intricate with cut-outs. “There’s baronesses and countesses and marquesses.”
“I like marquesses!” interjected the nameless girl.
“...and you can be more than one,” said Joan. “Like you can be Countess of the town and you can be Duchess of the wild. There’s all sorts of titles in the Realm.”
They giggled. They had absorbed enough from older kids to know that elves were for kids, that they had to Fall or were Fallen in some way to never see the broad grin of a sparkling boy, dressed in leaves. That elves were bad but the glamour, the glamour. It was all an intoxicating blend on a rainy Sunday.
“Okay, lets check the pantry,” Joan said. “Remember, think good thoughts.”
“Of what?” Maya said. She felt at sea. Joan was hijacking her house, more than a little.
“Oh, come on. You know what I mean,” Joan said. She laughed, and Astrid joined her. Maya smiled, tightly, and led the way to the pantry. It was a dark brown wood, and they had closed it a half-hour ago, to give the elves a chance.
“Okay, Fair Folk, I… abjure and conjure thee,” Maya said. She flung open the door. Waiting for the soft trill of the Fair Folk, a small figure tugging with amusement at her cardstock finery, replacing it with gold and jewels.
The sour scent of old spices wafted out. The closet was empty of magic.
There was a sharp gasp behind her. They all turned, but Maya’s mother was already among them, ripping off bracelets and tiaras. Their arms were tugged and yanked, and a loosed staple raked across Maya’s arm.
“Mom, we were just…” Maya started.
The slap across her face knocked her to the ground.
Maya walked out into the sunlight. She had texted David. She wondered if he would come. Probably five minutes late, pushing it as far as he could.
The playground was a sea of sobs. There were seventy children or so, many Maya recognized from past playdates or birthday parties. The hysteria was widespread, boys and girls with their faces screwed up in big red sobs, their hands held tightly around their sides. The staff walked among them, blithe and unconcerned. They had the kids in a long line, trailing towards a bubbling steel pot. The memory potion, to soothe without erasing.
Maya regarded the new sinners. They weren’t bloody. No, there were a few flecks on their shoes. Just a little bit of blood.
Her son stood apart, with a young witch next to her. She had done her robe up with a black rope and knelt next to Milo, encouraging him with a big friendly smile. She glanced backwards, noticed Mother approaching, and gave a curt and professional nod.
“Milo, your Mom is here, okay? Just like you wanted. Okay?”
“You can put your hands over his,” the older man said. “He does need to push, however. We’ll let you know if he did it correctly.”
Milo stood in front of a small plastic box. It was clear. There was a small rabbit inside, and a very sharp blade above it, with a handle attached. A little bunny guillotine.
Inside, Veronica discussed impact. “The rabbit is the smallest mammal demonstrated with 100% certainty to remove innocence,” she said. “The blade is enchanted, the amount of effort practically minimal. Guinea pigs do not work with total reliability. Innocence requires a certain level of cultural conditioning. Hence the rabbit. Slide.”
Maya kneeled on top of an old outline of a basketball court. She put her arm around Milo. He was sobbing. She let him cry it out for a minute. The witch stood up and dusted off her robe, and checked her watch.
“Milo, lets just do this,” Maya said, softly.
“Why?” Milo said. He was bewildered. “You want me to kill a rabbit? Why? Why would I do that? Why?”
Maya considered him. She should’ve thought of what she would say, in advance. From the side of her eye she saw David approach, slowly and reluctantly. Words like “it’ll help you, honey,” tasted acid in her mouth. “You need to do this for your own good” felt like honeyed poison. Her jaw clenched.
“Do you want ice cream today?” she said, eyes wide. Milo looked at her, puzzled. She put his hands on the top of the handle. “Do you?”
“Y...yeah,” Milo said. He was a little over five.
“And do you want to play on the iPad tonight? Do you want TV?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Milo said. “But…” he looked helplessly at the rabbit.
“If you want all these fun things, you need to do what I say,” Maya said. She saw him riding free in a glade, a blade of reeds on his head, clad in riding leathers, a bow across his back. They would love his curls in the Realm. “Milo! Push down on the FUCKING HANDLE!”
The word did it. Every five year old knew the word Fuck. There was nothing more serious. Her son pushed hard on the handle without even her hand on him. It sliced clean.
There. She had made him into poison food. He had been stained. Maya sat back, and turned her head. David arrived at just that moment, and gathered Milo up. He had a bright smile for his son. “There! See! Like going to the dentist!” Milo clutched at him, briefly younger. Her son wiped his nose on David. David chuckled mildly. He smelled of cigarette smoke. Maya had known he had a pack left, in the back of his sock drawer. But he must’ve bought a lighter recently, or bummed one outside. Probably not hard to find a smoking parent, today.
They ushered Milo over to the next line. He had been the very last child. A witch beckoned over a pair of school janitors, and they began to stack the small tombs onto a pallet, their hands in heavy gloves.
Baskin Robbins was extremely crowded, even with the giveaway. There were big crowds of docile children, waiting patiently in their third line of the day.
Milo was among them. His eyes were glassy, like the others. His face was very calm. His hair stood out, in the crowd. There weren’t many blondes. She kept focusing on it, after that terrible visit, the vice-principal harping on the curls, the curls.
The ride there had been very quiet. David had been silent, far away. Milo had been drugged, his crying forgotten. She had checked his shoes -- they were clean. Three sinners in that car. Maya had been glad for the silence.
“First time, right?” another Mom said. Maya turned, surprised that anyone would talk to her. It was the Mom that she suspected of ratting her out -- Abigail. “This is my second time through. And I have another one, too. Such a blah day.”
“Yeah,” Maya said. Sellout. Rat. Would it punish Milo to accidentally forget to invite his friend to the next birthday party? Yes.
“He’ll be drugged until dinner time, then he’ll be starving. I swear, next time we’re going to do it at home,” Abigail said. She gently shook the shoulder of her nonresponsive child, who was mechanically eating ice cream.
“Oh, Veronica said that was a bad idea,” Maya said. Abigail narrowed her eyes. “Who?” she said.
“The woman. Who made the presentation,” Maya said.
“I should’ve warned you. That thing just makes you feel like absolute SHIT,” Abigail said.
Milo had been back to normal by after dinner. He had destroyed an entire box of mac n cheese, hadn’t mentioned a thing about the day. Didn’t seem to realize he had been out for ice cream. After dinner he had pushed his little brother to the ground, and Maya had just watched it, letting David handle minor discipline. He had smacked his little brother around before, remorseless. But he had needed to kill a bunny, apparently, to make him unappetizing. Was he worse now, in some way? Or had she just cut off a diseased limb? A waving lure? Honey, you can be president, or an astronaut, but you cannot romp with the elves in a dusky glade. But he had read a bedtime story complacent and giggling, and fallen to sleep on schedule.
“Don’t stand in the doorway,” her husband whispered. “He’s fine. He doesn’t remember any of it.”
Maya shook her head, minutely. She had been thinking of the boarded over closet. They couldn’t remove any of it, yet. They still had a second kid to send through the line. Would she have to threaten this one, too? Would it be better if she didn’t?
“Why did you tell the vice-principal about me?” she said.
David looked away. Ah-ha. It had just been a guess. “I didn’t want to take chances,” he said. “You kept talking about this like it was killing his childhood.”
“Uh-huh,” she said.
“I had a kid in my town get taken. My parents told me about him, growing up. He never came back. So no, I didn’t want to mess around showing my first-born son soft-core porn. I wanted the professionals to handle it.” He looked at her. “Alright?”
“I guess,” she said. She felt a distant echo of that old slap. No elves! Take that FUCKING tiara off! “It’s over.”
“Once Logan is old enough, it’ll be over,” David corrected.
Strangers can always come into the house, she wanted to say. But she wasn’t sure if he’d get it, and was afraid of what would happen if he did.