BY KRIS JACKSON
Copyright is held by the author.
“STEPHANIE, WILL you hurry up please?” Brenda snapped. “We’re going to be late! Do you need me to tie your shoes for you?”
“I can do it, Mommy,” Stephanie said, jumping quickly to task. Brenda was happy to see her daughter was finally focused. It had taken hours of hard work and practice and tremendous patience, but Stephanie could tie her own shoes, and she had only turned four years old the week before. And that wasn’t the only thing Stephanie could do. Stephanie was very bright, and most important of all in this world, very pretty.
The boot room at the preschool was chaos, as usual. The four-year-olds were carrying backpacks or toys to share and jabbering away to their mothers, their friends, or themselves. They bumped and jostled each other as each struggled, in various degrees of success, with the task of getting their outside shoes off, and putting their inside shoes on. Younger siblings crawled and toddled underfoot, getting into whatever they could and attempting to stuff the more interesting-looking items into their mouths. One preschooler was crying hysterically. He cried every day he went to preschool, until the second his mother left. As soon as the door closed, mother out of sight, the boy’s tears would dry up, and off he’d go, playing with the matchbox cars or the Legos or the tool set, happy as a clam.
Thank God Stephanie doesn’t do that, Brenda thought. Just thinking about the other mothers looking at her kid like the way the moms were looking at the little boy now made Brenda want to crawl into a hole.
Not her kid. Never.
“All done, Mommy!” Stephanie said. She started running towards the classroom.
“Wait, you didn’t do it right,” Brenda said. “The loops are too loose. You’ve got to pay attention to what you’re doing, Stephanie. You’re better than this. Here, I’ll do it for you.”
Stephanie stood still while Brenda fixed the sloppy laces. The task complete, Stephanie tried to take off again. It was irritating. Why did Stephanie like school so much? They did far too much playing there. This was school, wasn’t it? Why waste your time playing when you can do something useful?
“Stephanie, did you forget something?” Brenda asked.
Stephanie stopped, her little body tense, her shoulders still slumped. Brenda made a mental note to work on Stephanie’s posture later.
“Stop being such a silly child. You’ve forgotten your alphabet book. You need to show it to the teachers. You wrote your name and some words in there, not just the dumb letter F, and I want them to see how smart, how advanced you are!”
“Yes Mommy,” the little girl said, taking the book. She put it into the basket with her name on it.
Brenda watched her daughter run into the classroom. It was now time to face the other mothers for a bit of chit-chat, the part of the day Brenda detested. It’s not that she didn’t like the other mothers. She just wasn’t very good at chit-chat, never had been. It took effort, and it was something she would sometimes practise at home, imagined conversations in front of the mirror where Brenda always said the right thing. In order for Stephanie to be Popular, Brenda herself would have to be Popular. And unlike Brenda, with Stephanie’s good looks and outstanding academic ability, Stephanie had a real chance at it. Popular girls didn’t get spitballs in their hair, or gum put on their books, or signs taped to their lockers inviting them to “eat shit.” Popular girls had everything, and Brenda was determined her daughter would have it all.
“How’s the little one, today?” Brenda asked Claire. She couldn’t remember the toddler’s name. Claire was Jenna’s mom, and Jenna was close to Stephanie. Jenna was also pretty, and thus likely to be Popular. A good friend for Stephanie.
“Oh, he’s a handful, as always,” Claire said, shifting the squirming toddler from one arm to the next. The boy was fussing, trying to get out of his mother’s arms and getting angry that his attempts were thwarted. “Ever since Owen started to talk, he seems to think he owns the place. And he’s up half the night, so it’s just hard to keep up with him sometimes.”
“Tell me about it,” Brenda said, nodding in sympathy. “When Steph was his age, she was obsessed with talking. Would just talk my ear off. Said her first sentence before she was even two years old. I remember it clear as day – she said “it’s Steffie’s birthday soon!” She was so excited for her birthday party. Is Owen using sentences yet?”
Claire looked uncomfortable. She shifted the heavy diaper bag she was carrying to the other shoulder. “Not exactly,” she said slowly. “But he’s getting there. Said momma the other day, and moot. It was his way of asking for milk. It was terribly cute.”
“Awww, that’s adorable!” Brenda gushed. She mentally ticked off another checkbox – another kid who failed to meet the milestones at the same time as Stephanie had. So far as she could tell, none of the other kids were doing much more than drooling and pointing and using the odd word (if you could call “moot” an actual word) before they were two, a sure sign that her Stephanie was the brightest in the class.
“Hey, is that the new kid?” Claire asked, gesturing as best she could with her arms full of toddler and baby survival gear. “Gosh, that little girl is cute as a button!”
“New kid?” Brenda turned and saw a woman who looked like she belonged on the cover of a magazine, tall and elegant and looking like a celebrity with her dark wide sunglasses. Her long, dark hair was silky smooth, not a strand out of place, her nails gelled, and her stylish clothes made Brenda acutely aware of her own jeans and sweater combo. In front of her was a little girl who was equally Vogue, right down to the matching sunglasses. Her walk was not like the bouncy, jumpy steps of a nervous preschooler going to her first day of school, but more like the confident stride of a seasoned CEO. Brenda watched as the little girl took off her shoes, grabbed a brand-new pair out of her backpack, and expertly tied the laces together. No rabbit ears for this girl. The laces were tight and neat and perfect.
I’ll bet her mother curls her hair like that, she thought. Nobody has natural curls like that. Brenda’s own curls were always done up carefully – if she didn’t the result was a fuzzy, brillo pad mess. Thank God Stephanie had inherited her dad’s poker straight hair, or she would have to add curling Stephanie’s hair to their already busy schedule.
“Hello,” Vogue-mom said, taking off her sunglasses to reveal a pair of eyes heavily framed by thick lashes. She smiled, showing two rows of perfectly aligned white teeth. “Is this where the preschoolers go?”
“Yes,” Brenda said, a little too tersely. She forced herself to relax. It wouldn’t do to be seen as unfriendly. The little girl might be a good friend for Steph. “Sorry, just right over here. Where the door says —”
“I see it Mommy!” the girl cried, triumphant. Even her damn voice was cute. “There, on the door! It says ‘ready, set, grow preschool.’ Common, let’s go — I wanna meet the kids!”
“Be patient, Bree,” Vogue-mom said, laughing. “I know you want to make some new friends, but you have to hang up your backpack and coat first.”
“Oh, right. Thanks Mommy.” And without missing a beat, the little girl spotted the hook with BREE written over it in rainbow letters. She hung up her coat and backpack.
“Don’t forget your snack,” Claire said kindly. Bree looked at her mother with distaste.
“Do I have to, Mommy?” she said, wrinkling her button nose in disgust. “It’s so yucky to eat that stuff!”
“Yes, Bree. Take your snack. If you don’t want to eat it, don’t worry about it. We can get something to eat later.”
“Okie dokey!” Bree grinned. And then she disappeared in the classroom.
Brenda remembered seeing Bree reading the words on the door, her heart sinking. That doesn’t prove anything, Brenda thought. That doesn’t prove she can read — maybe she just memorized the words. Besides, she looks a bit bigger than Steph, she’s probably closer to five, and Steph just turned four. In a few months, I’ll bet Steph will be reading circles around that kid.
“You’ll just love this school,” Claire was saying. “Jenna adores it. And the teachers are so great with the kids — really, I don’t know how they can get such a big group to do so much. Are you new to the neighbourhood?”
“Just moved in,” Vogue-Mom said. “We move around a fair amount, and I’m not sure how long we’re staying. I’m Karrie, by the way.”
“I’m Claire. Mom to Jenna and this little monster here. This is Brenda — her daughter is Stephanie.”
“Nice to meet you,” Brenda said, pasting a smile on her face that felt too tight. “Sorry, but I’ve gotta run — booked a doctor’s appointment. See you guys at the pickup time!” Brenda didn’t wait for a response — her emotions were too strong — she turned and left, almost running.
“Mommy, do I smell good?” Stephanie asked.
“What do you mean?” They were on their way home and Brenda was thoroughly exhausted. It was hard keeping up with all those conversations at pick-up time, and she had practised like crazy during the school time, making sure her expression was just right. And everyone was talking about Bree. Bree did this and Bree did that and isn’t Bree so darn cute? It made Brenda want to throw up.
“Well, Bree said I smelled good enough to eat. Is that a compermint? You know – a nice thing to say?”
“Compliment,” Brenda corrected automatically. “And yeah, I guess you always smell nice.”
“Bree said she would like to have a sleepover. Bree is nice. I like her. She didn’t eat anything at snack time. Said she didn’t like her snack. Her granola bar looked good to me. It was even the chocolate kind. She can read books, you know. The teachers are amazed. She can —”
“I don’t want to talk about Bree!” Brenda snapped. “And if you want to learn how to read, we’d better start practising.”
“OK, mommy,” Stephanie said, chewing her already ragged fingernails.
“And get those hands out of your mouth!”
Bree. Bree, Bree, Bree. Brenda thought. Everybody’s fucking little darling. She reads, she listens, she’s polite, she’s confident, and she’s beautiful. She’s . . . da da da-da . . . Superkid!
Stephanie practiced reading and shoe tying for the rest of the day.
“Brenda, would you and Stephanie like to come to our house for a playdate?”
Ugh, it was Vogue-mom. In the three weeks since Bree had started in school, Brenda had yet to see one flaw in either of them. Vogue-mom (Karrie, she thought, I have to remember to call her Karrie) was looking fresh and styled and relaxed as usual. Bree, it turned out, was a genuine piano prodigy, and from the boot-room where they waited for the kids to be done class, Brenda could hear an expert rendition of Itsy Bitsy Spider playing flawlessly on the Yamaha keyboard. The other kids were singing their hearts out, hideously out of tune with the song. She would have to teach Stephanie how to sing properly.
Brenda smiled, covered her mouth with her hand, conscious of her own slightly crooked teeth. “Of course,” she said brightly, “We’d love to! Stephanie talks about Bree an awful lot — they must be good friends.”
“They are,” Vogue-mom — Karrie — said. “They’re very close. Stephanie’s a lovely girl. I think they’ll be friends for a long time.” She smiled widely.
Brenda noticed, to her delight, that Vogue-mom didn’t look quite so polished today. Brenda could see her makeup lines, and her face seemed to have a pale tinge to it.
“OK, when were you thinking?”
“Oh, this afternoon would work for us. Or tomorrow, if that doesn’t suit you. I know it’s short notice, but Stephanie has been really bugging me to have a friend over.”
Brenda was a bit startled — she wasn’t prepared. One of the first rules of playdates was that while your kids were busy playing together, you were spending time chit-chatting with the mom of the house. Getting to know each other. Perhaps even becoming friends. It was a tricky proposition. Brenda liked to write out a list of conversation topics before attending these things — it was generally a lot more intense than the ten minutes or so at drop off or pickup time.
“Tomorrow would suit us,” Brenda said, thinking it would at least give her the night to practise. Should have seen this coming, she thought, mentally smacking herself on the forehead. You idiot, how could you be so stupid?
“Great! I’ll text you our address. See you around 10:00 tomorrow!”
They lived in a Vogue-house too.
It wasn’t huge, but it was definitely in an upscale neighbourhood, a gorgeous stone-grey two-storey that seemed to welcome you with tea and a plate of steaming, freshly-baked cookies at the door. Inside, everything gleamed, recently painted and brand new. It smelled of light lemon polish and baked bread and a mouth-watering roast of some kind slowly roasting in its own juices. A giant handcrafted fireplace dominated the living room, complete with an enormous cast-iron pot hanging overtop a crackling, cheery fire. Spring flowers adorned the coffee table, and art that looked like it belonged in a museum of priceless treasures hung on the walls.
Brenda’s heart sank. How was she supposed to invite this woman to her own house? The second sacred rule of playdates was that you must, at some point, return the invite. Brenda’s mind pictured the toys that were scattered in her own living room, dishes soaking in the sink, her husband Gary’s dirty socks sitting on the kitchen counter. The sink in this house looked like it hadn’t even seen a dirty dish, let alone had one dare to offend its gleaming presence. And dirty socks? Heavens, no. These people didn’t sweat in their socks — it wouldn’t do.
“What a lovely home,” Brenda managed to say.
“Your house is beautiful!” Stephanie said. “Is it brand spanking new?”
Karrie laughed. “Pretty close, my dear. We are the first ones to live in it.”
“Hi Steff! Come in! Let’s go play! Come on!” Bree said, with even more than her usual eager energy. She grabbed Stephanie’s hand and tried to pull her into the house.
Stephanie hesitated, her eyes wide. Brenda flushed. “Stephanie!” she barked. “Quit being so shy. Go play with your friend!” She turned to Karrie. “I’m sorry, Stephanie’s not normally so standoffish. I don’t know what’s gotten into her.” Brenda shut the front door behind her, and she saw her daughter jump a little at the sound.
“Now remember, Bree, you need to wait until later before you show Stephanie your special surprise.”
“Of course, I won’t forget!” Bree said, her eyes twinkling.
And then Brenda saw something.
Bree’s eyes were bright, too bright, they nearly glowed, and for a moment, something about Bree shifted, as though there was a shape of something underneath, struggling to get free. And for a moment it did — a black thing, skinny and hairy like a giant spider’s leg, poked out from Bree’s neck and reached towards Stephanie. An unmistakably needy look, a hungry look, appeared on Bree’s face.
Then it was gone. It was less than a second. Bree grinned and she was back to her old self again, adorable with her curls and her little jeans and pink frilly shirt.
Brenda shook her head. What was wrong with her? Obviously, she didn’t see what she thought she saw. She looked at Stephanie, and oh my god, the little brat had wet her pants. Brenda hadn’t brought a change of clothes. Now what was she going to do?
“Mommy, I don’t feel well. I think I’m going to throw up.”
“Stephanie! Don’t be silly. You’re fine, just feeling a little nervous, that’s all.” Brenda felt her face flush in embarrassment. She gave her daughter the obligatory comforting hug and then shooed her towards her friend, furious at her. She could just deal with her own wet pants. “I’m sorry,” she said to Karrie, “I just don’t know what’s with her. But she’ll be fine. Really, she’s been anxious to come since yesterday.”
“Of course. Don’t worry about it. Bree — why don’t you take Stephanie up to your room while us grownups talk?”
“You bet!” Bree said.
“Please, mom, I want to go home!” Stephanie cried, tugging on Brenda’s sleeve like a toddler. If Brenda didn’t do something, Stephanie was going to throw a temper tantrum, and can you just imagine what all the moms would say if they heard about that?
Karrie walked over and locked the front door. She sighed. “Bree, you forgot yourself for a moment, didn’t you? I think you scared your friend.”
“I’m sorry, Mommy. I’m just sooooo hungry, and Mrs. Penner smells so gooooood!” Bree’s eyes glowed, brighter this time, and something dark and hairy poked through the skin at her cheek, her throat, her chest. Stephanie screamed, hugging her mother, and Brenda could only stare, mouth hanging, eyes wide, her shock freezing all thought completely.
“Yes, I know she does, but we’re not going to eat her. I thought you wanted a friend to play with?”
“Yeah . . .”
“Well, you can’t expect Stephanie to be your best friend if you eat her mother,” Karrie said matter-of-factly. “Besides, I’ve got dinner cooking on the fireplace — you’ll eat soon enough, and we might have some friends to share it with.”
This is not happening, Brenda thought. You’re in bed, dreaming, and none of this is happening. It was a sane thought, a comforting thought, and Brenda embraced it like a blanket fresh and warm from the dryer on a January day. But Karrie was talking to her, and Bree . . . well, Bree was sniffing at Brenda’s shoes, reminding her of a dog about to receive a choice mutton chop from its master.
“I didn’t want this to happen this way,” Karrie said. “But Bree really likes Stephanie a lot, and she’s so lonely, with nobody to play with. We really were just going to have a playdate today and make a decision later. But now it has to be done. Bree — stop that sniffing at once! Do you still want Stephanie to be your friend?”
“Yes, please mom! Please, please, can I, please?”
“OK then.” She gave her daughter a warm smile and ruffled her hair. Brenda saw that the hand ruffling Bree’s curls was covered in coarse black hairs, and the gel nails that Brenda had so admired were yellowed, scaley, and curved like talons.
Brenda, her mouth feeling like cotton, tried to speak, but nothing came out but a squawk. Stephanie was crying openly now, clinging to her mother like plastic wrap to a sandwich.
“It’s very simple,” Karrie said, and Brenda noticed that Karrie’s breath had a foul stench, like rotten eggs. “You have two choices. I can turn you into one of us. The process doesn’t hurt — I’m told it’s quite pleasant, really — but afterward, you’ll be quite different. Our true selves are hideous to humans, but we can put on whatever mask we like. We’re also a lot stronger and smarter than you, and we live a lot longer too — assuming we get enough to eat. And we don’t really change, so my little Bree here will always be a child. And a child needs someone to play with.”
“That’s you!” Bree said, smiling brightly at Stephanie.
Whatever mask I want? Brenda thought. She was still in shock, still in denial that this bizarre situation was happening, but her mind seized on the idea, like a drowning person seizes a lifeboat. Whatever mask I want? The shock was beginning to ebb as her mind worked over the possibilities.
“Are you vampires?” Stephanie asked, tears streaming down her face.
Bree laughed. “Vampires aren’t real. But we’re kinda like that. We live forever like a vampire. We can go out in the sunshine and we don’t suck blood. We need food like all the time, or we start falling apart. I’m always super hungry. We eat —”
“We’re from an ancient race that has been here since before humans,” Karrie interrupted her daughter, ruffling her hair again with her clawed hands. “But we’ve kept well hidden over the years. Some of your kind called us shapeshifters. The First People here called us Wendigo.” She shrugged. “Either of those work.”
Brenda thought of her husband, Gary, safely at home. He was probably watching the Roughriders game right now. “What about my husband?” she asked. “Won’t he notice something different?”
Karrie laughed. “Husbands? No, I wouldn’t worry about them. They’re not very observant. If you don’t want to change him to one of us, he won’t notice. And sometimes, I find them useful to keep around for awhile. Like pets, only these ones don’t piss on the carpet and they’ll change a lightbulb for you if you smile pretty.”
“Then that daddy goes into the pot and you get a new daddy!” Bree said enthusiastically.
Brenda nodded absently, her mind still focussed on what she considered to be the important part of this situation. “So we could be beautiful? And smart? And live forever?”
“And eat PEOPLE!” Stephanie cried. “I don’t wanna eat people. I wanna go home! Please?”
Bree’s mom shook her head, glanced over to the pot sitting overtop the fire, and for the first time, Brenda realized what the pot was really for, and what was in it. The smell that she had so admired earlier revolted her, and she almost threw up.
But the right choice was obvious, and not really even that hard. “You do what you gotta do to get along in this world. Come on Steph. Let’s go. Let’s be beautiful!”
“Wonderful!” Karrie said. “Bree, go get the green box from my room. We’ll take everyone downstairs for the Adjustment.”
Stephanie ran then. But she had no chance, really. Especially when her own mother caught her.
Hours later, the four of them sat down together at the kitchen table, identical china plates in front of each of them. Brenda looked over at her daughter’s beautiful face with her eyes that were now framed by thick lashes. Brenda’s perfect teeth chewed hungrily on the meat that clung to the bone. She smiled, satisfied. It tasted so good.
The laces on Stephanie’s shoes were tied in perfectly neat little bows.