At the home of the Graham family, just beyond the front entrance and directly to the right, there is a triangular shrine dedicated to the family children. Each of the three children is given a portion of the shrine — a picture and a collection of trinkets meaning something to that child, toys or books or sport memorabilia. The items on the shrine are old. The memories they represent are fading. The parents don’t know what else to do. At night they look at the shrine and cry. “What happened to our children?” they say. “Where have they gone?” On the television there is an AMBER alert, but they are too caught up in their sobs to notice.
Children are going missing in Bobtown. During a press conference, the city police chief offhandedly refers to the situation as a “real caper.” Parents are outraged. They want bigger words to describe their grief. Hate mail begins filing into the department, which quickly turns to death threats. A few locals are ousted as Communists. Everyone becomes suspicious. Soon people buy wooden planks at the lumber yard and begin boarding up their windows. Something bad is coming. They can feel it.
At Shelly’s Diner, Judge Thomas takes an unopened bottle of beer and smashes it over the head of a man who had made some remark about all the missing children turning up on a kiddie porn site. Things were tense. Someone had to mop up the beer.
One night as Richard Plink, the local movie projectionist, walks home from work, he thinks he hears the sound of children’s laughter coming from a far-off plantation field. That night, he has a nightmare about plastic baby parts disassembling and forming together in grotesque patterns, inhuman combinations of eyes and toes — but then the morning comes and it’s forgotten.
The school principal has to figure something out. He calls an agency on the phone, a place that specializes in “body placement.” They work out a deal and an eighteen-wheeler full of Asian and Hispanic children arrives at the school. They file out of the back and into seats where the missing children once sat.
“Who are these kids?” the teachers ask. “Where will they sleep?”
“It does not matter,” says the principal. “What matters is tax margins. What matters is profit ratios.”
A commotion occurs during Sunday Mass. The child responsible for the falsetto vocal harmonies in the choir is nowhere to be found. The hymns will never be the same without his prepubescent chords. When the youth minister hears the news, he leaves the service in a fit, and in a rush to demonstrate his dissatisfaction with current events, he swerves out of the parking lot and right into the grille of a semi delivering pancake batter to the local grocer. It splashes all over the road. People are devastated. Pancakes were their favorite.
“Something’s gone wrong here,” says the mayor to a gathering of people in the town square. “There is something bad happening in this town.” He waves his hand in wide arcs, trying to signify the reach of this thing. “It’s like a fog of poison, like a radioactive dust cloud.” People pass him by and do not pay attention. Most are unaware of his stature. Some think he is homeless. “It’s taking our children and ruining our minds. And what’s worse is, no one seems to notice.” Someone tells a store clerk about a strange man and how he is scaring them.
“I do not know this man,” they say.
Eventually cops come and remove the mayor from his soapbox. He struggles, proclaiming his job title and stamping his feet, saying that he owns this town, but they do not listen. They put him in a cell with a drunk.
“You and me both, brother,” the drunk says.
The local arcade has to close down. More than half of its customers are on the backs of milk cartons. The owner, Patrick, sells what cabinets he can and scraps the rest for a personal project. He takes the metal pieces, the boards and the circuits, and melts them down. He casts them into a mold that resembles a set of four blades. Something like a helicopter rotor. Then he attaches the mold to a custom circuit he designed in his spare time, one connected to a wireless brain in his remote control. He tests it to see if it flies. Then he attaches a camera to the base of the thing, pointing down. “This will be perfect for my short film,” he thinks.
Two days pass and more AMBER alerts are broadcast, but he’s busy perfecting his flying technique. At first he fumbles with the controls which causes the drone to crash. Without employment, he has time to make his drone more stable and wind resistant. He tests it over and over so that he can get the perfect shot for his short film. He knows of the perfect open field in which to test its night vision capacities. That night he drives out to the old plantation and pilots the drone high into the air and all around the field. He thinks he hears something in the wind but chalks it up to his nightly weed use. After some time he brings the drone back and drives home. When he uploads the footage to his computer and sees what’s on it, he calls the police chief and tells him he thinks he may have found the children.
The footage is grainy and oddly tinted green. It looks like the earth is sinking. “It has a range of 200 feet, vertical,” Patrick says. The chief watches the tape with incredulity. “Here, it’s about to happen.”
On the footage, a giant, bulbous head comes into frame mere feet from the camera. Though difficult to make out in the darkness, the head seems to be made of composite parts. Something fleshy. As the camera moves, the thing seems to stride in circles, taking massive steps. Then the camera returns to the ground and stops recording. The chief looks to Patrick.
“Where did you take this footage?” he says.
The next day Patrick takes them to the site. They comb the entire plantation and find nothing. Not even giant footprints. Everyone goes home disappointed. They think Patrick is a fraud. The chief reheats leftover meatloaf and watches his game shows, trying to shake off the edge of a bad day. He hopes sometime soon there will be an assault. Maybe even a murder. Anything to break up the monotony of disappearing children.
That evening, there’s a disturbance downtown. A building falls. People die. Reports of a massive, undulating monster come down the pipeline. It isn’t just one thing, people say. It’s like it was made up of things, made up of people. Mrs. Cobb swore she saw the face of her missing Annie in the creature somewhere.
When authorities arrive at the scene they swerve their patrol cars, call for backup, and start pelting bullets. The thing shrugs them off and stomps around the square, toppling bistros and cafes, kicking over kiosks and photo booths. Tanks arrive and lob artillery, which only seems to aggravate the monster further. It tramples the patrolmen and throws their vehicles past the horizon.
News reports initially held the body count at 83 but when they couldn’t keep up with the incoming reports of fatalities, they just stopped keeping a tally. “A lot,” they said, a lot. It was headed towards the suburbs and there was no point in staying indoors. “Walls won’t protect you,” the reports said. “Your home will be destroyed.”
Soon the streets fill with a moving mass of bodies. A sea of aimless evacuees. Mothers and nephews and siblings of the missing children, all huddled together and in fear, shivering with cold and uncertainty.
And then the thing comes into view, towering above the neighborhood homes and oak trees, its face a mash of different flesh tones. Its footsteps shake the foundation. When some of the younger ones see the thing, they begin walking toward it, reaching out their hands to touch it with curiosity in their eyes. As their palms make contact with the thing’s massive feet, they fall into it, swallowed whole by a black gap that immediately seals itself shut. People start screaming. People start running.
The thing topples power lines, kicks over cars, tears roofs off. It spits onto people, hawking gobs of mucus that trap and drown them. More and more children run at it laughing and force themselves inside.
Soon the only people left are the adults. They all gather onto an expansive yacht, motor out into the bay, and watch the land dwindle in the distance. The thing picks up power cables and drags them around, tears apart amplifiers and stereos, making a massive microphone. The people on the boat squint to see.
Then the thing speaks.
At first all the adults hear is a moan that blasts across the water and echoes off the nearby mountains, reverberating back and forth, creating waves in the bay that force the adults to brace themselves, to hold on for dear life. Then it starts forming syllables, words. It says, “No.” “Nnnnnno.” It lulls on the “n” like its palate is heavy. It says, “Bad. Been bad.” “You been bad.”
The pure force of its words sends some adults flying into the air. The rest scream and clutch the boat’s railing with both hands, their legs jutting into the sky, their hair blasting in the wind. “I don’t like bedtime,” it says. “I want ice cream.”
The captain of the boat sets it to full throttle away from the monster. Their little city of Bobtown shrinks into the horizon, the silhouette of the thing standing high above the landscape, its head blocking out a red sun. Still they hear its voice.
“You don’t get to tell me what to do anymore,” it says. “No more broccoli. No more brussel sprouts. No more visiting smelly grandpa. I make the rules now.” The adults look on horrified. Some cover their mouths with their hands.
“Why aren’t you listening to me?” the thing says.
The adults huddle together.
The thing starts for the shore, then takes a step into the bay. It continues forward until its head is the only thing above water, and then its head submerges and disappears.
The adults scramble to the railings and scour the bay, searching frantically for a sign of its movements. A ripple on the blue expanse. An out-of-place wave. But nothing surfaces. The monster is gone.
They return to the shore that night, go home, and begin to rebuild their town and their lives. Some folks have other kids. Most do not.
There are news stories and cameras and interviews and talk shows and exposés and everyone on the planet has the thing on their mind for a moment. Soon the thing is just a memory, a story told to relatives and the inspiration for stories and films. One in particular, “Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner,” a senior thesis by film student Paul Stewart from Delaware, becomes a minor cultural phenomenon.
In the film, a boy loathes all that is good. Despite his parents’ best efforts, he refuses to eat anything but candy, to drink anything but soda. He kicks dirt in the faces of other children. He throws cats by their tails. As a last resort — fearing their son might become psychotic — they lock him in the basement and administer a schedule of starvation.
Long days melt into weeks, the sun’s rays rotating beyond the single basement window over and over again. Between curses directed at his parents, the boy moans with hunger. He looks frail.
Then, the door at the top of the stairs creaks open just a touch and a lone celery stalk rolls down the staircase. His response is immediate, ravenous — the stalk vanishes into his mouth.
This cycle of starvation and vegetables perpetuates until a point where the boy is effectively broken. Even after they let him out of the basement, his eyes only light up for veggies. Even after his third year in school, after his first kiss, his first lay — vegetables dominate his dopamine system.
The school counselor tells the parents to see a doctor, who directs them to an addiction specialist, who asks them if they have any idea as to why their boy is the way he is.
“Has your son ever experienced any traumatic events in his past?” he asks.
The parents shake their heads.
“None that we know of,” they say.
Meanwhile, the boy sharpens a stalk of celery with a knife. He takes the improvised weapon to the grocery store and hides it in his pocket while he pushes a cart full of stolen vegetables through the front entrance. When a clerk comes yelling, demanding the boy pay for his items, he jabs the sharpened stalk into his eye and dashes out with the cart, laughing and shrinking into the dropping sun.
In the last scene of the film, the parents visit their boy — now middle-aged and residing at a mental institution — to finally receive some sort of closure. They ask him endless questions, but not once does he say a word. The parents cry and cry, slam their open palms against the bulletproof glass, but the man remains silent. The fading image is a slow zoom inward on his face, as the right edge of his lip cracks into an almost imperceptible smile. Then, cut to black.
Paul Stewart says his film is symbolic. “It definitely has a point,” he says. “Whatever it is, it’s not autobiographical,” he says. He stresses this urgently. “It is not autobiographical.”
Mason Morgan writes fiction, satirical articles, and the occasional serious thing. He was the previous opinion editor at his alma mater A&M’s paper, The Battalion, and he also contributes to High Faluter rather infrequently. His first fiction piece, Americans At Work was recently published in Deadlights Magazine.