Fiction


Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

 

Tic Tac Toe

By Rebekah Bergman


The party ended in a dozen popped balloons and a bloody puddle on the floor.  The balloon destruction had been a festive, joint event.  But the blood was Tac’s fault; she’d gotten over excited, and scratched Toe across the face. Collapsed on the Oriental rug, Toe howled like a sick coyote.
            “Where’s Pip?” Tic asked, poking a sibling in the side with unnecessary force. 
            “Who knows!” Tac said, playing with a foot.
She leaned down to pick confetti from her brother’s hair and piles poured out like rain.  Tac threw a handful upwards and Tic blew them with a wet breathe into her face. 
            “Certainly hope we aren’t too noisy.” 
            “Oh no, we’re perfectly quiet. Angels really!”
She punctuated the irony with a pull on Tic’s hair.  Tic screamed and laughed and they fell to the floor and laughed and laughed and laughed.  Tac punched a jawbone.  They laughed some more. Toe coughed blood onto the carpet.  They laughed until their ribs cramped up and Toe got the painful kind of hiccups and then they napped off their amusement in a pigpiled sibling heap.    

Impish voices carried up the narrow staircase to the attic where Pip paced anxiously. Below her a dozen pops had just fired in rapid succession.  She stuck her index fingers deep into her ears, concentrating on the noisy scrape of nail against mind.  Charlie slept on her pillow.  The children had wrought chaos since they arrived.  That was on Saturday. 
            “Mister Charles, what is the date?” 
            The tabby rolled onto his side, and purred.  Brown saliva poured from his mouth. 
            “Mister Charles? MISTER CHARLES, I am speaking to you. Do you at least have the time?” 
            The cat opened his eyes, farted, closed his eyes again. 
            Pip sighed and tried to read the grandfather clock.  It had stopped ticking.
             “Move over, Charlie.” She pushed her fat pet, “I would like to rest too.”   
            Tic, Tac, and Toe.  A mouthful of tongue-twists for an ancient woman like Pip.  She couldn’t even keep their nomenclature straight; though their names were something rather fluid to be sure.  Pip was convinced that the tykes swapped identities (one of their nastier pranks) so that Tic became Tac and Tac to Toe and the whole cycle moved up a notch (or sometimes 2!) every day.
            A momentary quiet downstairs.  Pip nuzzled her face against the smelly cat and the 2 of them slept like bears.  Noises in the kitchen permeated her dreams.
 
Toe made himself a sandwich in the kitchen—ketchup and marshmallows, his second favorite and a fine choice for a growing boy’s third dinner. Napping made him hungry.  Tac bit off all the crusts.  His bloody wound had already scabbed over and he let Tic pick at the fresh skin.
            “Why is it so WHITE in our PLAYROOM?” Blank but expectant stares turned his way.
            Toe spent the evening orchestrating a finger-painted revolution.  They polka-dotted the ceiling.  They splatter-painted the floor. Pressing palms into the colors they hand printed the walls. A fat piñata hung from the rafters, broken and forgotten.  One leg stuck out at an impossible angle.  They painted around it. 
           

“Did you know, Mister Charles,” Pip said now fully woken by the sickening smell of acrylic, “they took my bedroom away.  Away!  My bedroom, Mister Charles, They took it away!” 
            Silence.  Charles had meandered downstairs while Pip slept.  Reaching to pet the absent cat, Pip found only a tangled hairball encased in dust. 
            “Mister Charles!” she yelled, “MISTER CHARLES, Come back! I was SPEAKING to you! ” 
            She rubbed her sore hips and got out of bed. 
            Pips’ hips had recently been cracking in their sockets, making startlingly loud and unexpected pops.
            “Can’t you stop that infernal racket?” Tic had yelled through Pip’s bedroom door.  The siblings sat in the kitchen, slurping cereal from wine glasses. Pip didn’t respond. Tic threw a dish that shattered in the hallway. 
            “Ya Pip.  It wakes me up at night,” said a cranky, groggy Toe. 
            Granny Pip pushed her joint back into place.  The creaking reminded Tac of grating teeth and scraping chalkboards.  She sang, “Pips’ hips pop! Pips’ hips pop!” Her eyes shone like fire.  “Stop the pop, Pip. Make it STOP!” 
            Granny Pip drew her lips into a tight line and limp-paced her room on tiptoe. 
           
            The next morning she’d woken in the attic with nothing but a mattress and a sheet.  She realized instantly what had happened: a unanimous decision to move Granny Pip to the third floor library. The thick film of dust and piles of volumes would muffle her hips.
            “You don’t mind, do you Gran.” Tic had whispered in a syrupy voice from the staircase.  “You can just stay up there and read all day! It’ll be great.  No distractions, just books. Pages to dance your little eyes through!”
            They giggled, no doubt thinking of Pip’s half-blind eyes.   
            “Yell if you need anything.” They leapfrogged and tumbled all the way down the stairs.   Pip placed her clawed hands in her ears to block out the thumping.   

The narcoleptic cat slept with no regard for twilight and dawn.  But the children had arrived on Saturday.  So Pip had taken to marking days in estimations, etching X’s in the wall with her fingernails.  She felt the marks; she hadn’t eaten in 3 X’s.
            “Mister Charles!” she whispered loudly, “Please do bring me some food when you get back.  And tell me the time! And the date as well!”  She heard movements in the basement. 

“Where’d all the balloons go?”  Toe asked with a quick glace around the playroom.  “I want to pop something.”
            “I think Tac broke the last few with her teeth” 
            “Let’s blow up a dozen more, then.  I want to POP something! POP POP POP.  Come on!” 

 

Another cacophonous symphony of devil music reached Pip’s ears and she returned to her pacing.  Coats of dust loosened from their books and fell in clouds around her.  She coughed and coughed and coughed.  She couldn’t stop.  She couldn’t inhale.  She leaned against the bookshelves and coughed and coughed and coughed.  3 books fell out and to the floor.  They landed with a soft thump. 
            “SHHHHH!” she told the books. Her stomach rumbled loudly.
            “SHHHHHH!” she told her stomach.  (Where was Mister Charles with her midday meal?)
            She groped but couldn’t find him.  Her stomach growled again. 
            “I said BE QUIET!” She sat down.  Balancing a book on her lap, she carefully ripped out a title page, crumpled it quickly and threw it in her mouth.  It tasted chalky. Her stomach noise grew fainter.  She ate pages ravenously, swallowing several chapters. 
            By the time Mister Charles returned, empty handed, Pip had consumed 3 books.    

“Pipping and popping and hipping, not stopping!”  Tic sang, snuggling tightly into the one twin-sized bed they’d all been sharing.  “Wonder where our Granny went!”
            Toe’s eyes were already closed.  Tic pushed him over. “Oh shut up, will you,” he said with a nudge. “We don’t care about stupid Pip and her stupid hip squeaks… Pip squeaks! Ha.  I hope both her leg bones pop out and she dies.  Wherever she is I hope she dies!”
He smiled and fell instantly to sleep. 

Pip could hear these whispers.  Devils. She told Mister Charles.  Evil little imps. 
            Hours later the broken grandfather clock awoke suddenly with new life.  It chimed the hour and roused Pip from a book-induced delirium.  Her mouth was dry.  She yawned, cracking her lips in ripples from left to right.  She bled from the mouth as the clock chimed the hour. 
            “SHHHH!” she spat in blood and phlegm.
            It chimed on.     
            “Mister Charles…” she said meekly, “do make that clock shut up.” 
            Mister Charles was gone.
            “Mister Charles do fetch me a glass of water before you return.”
            She coughed. 
            The clock chimed. 
            “BE QUIET”
            It grew louder. 
            Pip pulled the ancient clock towards her with skinny old arms.  It wobbled twice then toppled to the floor. Gears broke, springs sprung, and the glass face shattered in tiny, shiny pieces. 
            “There,” she sighed.  The grandfather clock was crushing her left leg.  “Now all the elders in this house are silent.” 
* * *
“Do you think that was Granny?” an orphan whispered.  Terror buzzed across the bed.  They hadn’t been asleep; fearing noises in the attic they’d stayed up talking of their parents—trying hard to remember but mostly making it up.
            They hadn’t seen the white-eyed old lady in days.  Granny Pip frightened them with her muttering and rocking and her taxidermy stuffed cat. She liked her house to be silent.  They’d done their best to abide and had thought they’d been keeping out of her way. 
            “Should we find her?” the oldest spoke up.  “That sounded terrible.”
            They creaked up the stairs, holding hands.  Granny Pip was half-asleep.  The bone of her left leg popped through her skin, yellow and covered in dust. 
            “Oh Mister Charles” she said from behind her cataract eyes, “Have the children gone home already? I can’t hear them anymore.  It’s so quiet.” 
            A collective gasp from the center of the room sent dust circulating in waves.     
            “SHHHH!” Granny Pip urged, coughing again, “Charlie you must be quiet!”
            Their teeth began to chatter, their tiny bodies to tremble. 
            Granny Pip heard them cackling.  They were doubled over with it. It poured from their bile-lined bellies up and out their gargling throats.  They hiccupped and convulsed with it.  Their eyes turned to fire coals.  The devils.  The imps. 
            “OH don’t!” Pip yelled, “don’t be so loud. DON’T! I cannot stand the noise! Oh DON’T!”
            The children screamed. 
            The children held hands and danced around their grandmother, singing and taunting.
            “What is wrong with you?!” Pip pushed on her hips, pressed on her eyes, thrashed about below the clock until finally, she freed herself and stood on frail broken bones.     
            “I asked you to be quiet.”  Her deep-river wrinkles twitched. She stared through white eyes.  
            The grandchildren cried.
            They hooted and howled.      
            Granny Pip thrust her fingers in her ears, scratching at the insides of her head.   It didn’t help.   
            “Quiet.  I said QUIET.  MISTER CHARLES HELP ME” she hobbled towards her evil houseguests with painful steps. 
            They morphed before her into a single three-faced monster. 
            They clung to each other, three frightened orphans. 
            Pop! went Pip’s hip.  Pop! Pop! Pop!
            “QUIET!” she screamed and popped from her joints.
            She groped blindly in the dark, in her blindness, until she found a large, knotted hairball near the edge of the bed. 
            “Ouch!” The little girl screamed as Pip lifted her from the scalp “Ouch! OUCH!” 
            Pip spun her in wide ovals overhead. The child made an inhuman noise. 
            “SHUT UP CHARLIE!” Pip yelled at the girl and let go, mid-spin.  She landed on her head below an etched wall of X’s. 
            They were crying. 
            They were still laughing. 
            Louder now. Midget evil clowns with their paint-stained hands, holding their party balloons. Taunting her. 
            She pointed her clawed-fingers.
           
            Pop!
            Pop!
            Pop!

            The night ended in Three silenced siblings and a bloody puddle on the floor below, Tic, Tac, Toe.  Three in a ro

 

*****

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