The book came in a bundle of clothes and toys she had gotten from Michaela, otherwise Sofia would never have read it. The characters were small, squat people in furry suits who played and bounced all day in a cross between a heavily-frosted cake and a theme park. The kind of sugary treacle she so loathed in children’s products. But Deacon was six and hadn’t quite started on his ‘too old for this’ phase so she brought the book out at bedtime.
“What’s that?” he asked, foot hanging out of his balloon quilt.
She tucked it back in. “A book from Michaela. You remember her and Sawyer, don’t you?”
“The bossy girl.”
“She gave us this book,” Sofia said with a smile, “so I thought you might like to hear it.”
His little face drifted into placid content after a few pages, and he was asleep by the time she closed the book.
Dear God, the saccharine tone was obnoxious. But he had liked it. She had a hard-bitten rule not to dismiss children’s media simply based on her adult preferences, and so she read it to him the next night. And the next. And the next.
The shift began gradually so that she hardly had time to notice anything at all. In general, Deacon began acting more cutesy and younger than he was, and sometimes he would ask for the book in the middle of the day. It seemed harmless enough, so Sofia indulged him.
The only visible symptom Deacon developed was what her mother called, ‘mentionitis.’ He couldn’t let a single event go by without comparing it to something in the book. This seemed normal, until the day Sofia took him to the supermarket.
“How’s about rigatoni for dinner, squirt?” she asked, dumping cans into the cart.
He didn’t answer. She turned to find he was weaving his fingers into the wire of the cart, mouth a downturned bow.
“What?” she asked.
“Mrs. Fur only cooks sweet things for her family,” he said.
She ruffled the hair on his forehead. “That’s because furries have a much simpler digestive system,” she said, “if a human ate like that, they’d get so sick they’d start talking funny.”
Deacon’s frown deepened. He refused to move with the basket when she got it rolling again, so Sofia sighed and tugged on him.
“Come on, Deacon,” she said, “don’t be a brat.”
Deacon was staring death at her.
“What?” she asked.
“Mrs. Fur only calls her family sweet names,” he said, tears pooling in the corners of his eyes.
Sofia rolled her eyes. “Oh stop it, Deacon.”
She jumped back as the boy erupted into a scream as if he’d been hit. Sofia felt her resolve draining as she hunched away from the accusing stares all around her.
“Deacon, you have to stop this,” she said weakly, “it’s just silly.”
Deacon’s response was to take another lungful of air and continue screaming. Abandoning hope, Sofia grabbed him up and ran from the store. Deacon began thrashing like a shark on a fishing line. It was all she could do to manhandle him into his booster seat.
Deacon bit her. He was missing his front incisor so her flesh flooded into the gap as the edges of the neighboring teeth dug in and drew blood.
Sofia cried out and thrust him back into the chair. Deacon was crying, but it was all breath. What tears began in the store evaporated, now the rest of his face scrunched up as if attempting to make room for his mouth.
Sofia had to hold him down with one hand as she struggled to buckle him in, praying that nobody was calling the cops on her. She peeled out of the parking lot, tires screeching in the same octave as her son.
She put him to bed as soon as they got home to the apartment. He rose, cranky, in time for dinner, but wouldn’t give more than one-word answers before bed again.
Sofia sat up that night. He had never been a cranky child. Even as a baby he had never cried. What was the sudden drastic shift in temperament?
The next day, with Deacon safely ensconced at school, Sofia paid a visit to his pediatrician. It wasn’t reassuring.
“So, no fever, chills, or aches?” Dr. Bachman asked, tapping through WebMD.
Sofia shook her head.
“No recent head injuries?”
Sofia thought a moment, then shook her head.
“No dietary changes?”
She shook her head.
Bachman tapped away. “So, these sudden mood changes, they started fairly recently?”
She nodded. “Do you think it could be some sort of early-onset disorder?”
“Could be,” the doctor said mildly. He was still looking at the computer.
Sofia looked down at her folded hands.
“He’s never really been an imaginative child,” she said, “but he’s become…dissatisfied with reality. Angry, even.”
Then Bachman jokingly said, “it didn’t happen after you read The Furry Family at Giggle Park, did it?”
The smile faded from his face when he saw the look on Sofia’s.
“How did you know?” she asked lowly.
Bachman tried to smile again. “That’s a very popular book right now.”
He seemed uncomfortable under her stare.
“Some families find it difficult to deal with children’s popular media,” he said evasively, “they may show a profound lack of understanding towards the child’s feelings; the child may pick up on this and act out accordingly.”
“I see,” Sofia said.
“Like many such crazes, I’m sure this book is just a phase and in a month or so he will be fixated on something else.”
Sofia paid him for nothing and left.
She visited Michaela to ask if Sawyer had been enjoying any fits of pique lately. She stopped mid-sentence when she saw the wound high on Michaela’s cheekbone. Crusts of red puckered the pink skin like clumsy stichwork. Michaela gave a dry laugh and pointed to it.
“My little princess,” she said.
When Sofia’s look of horror didn’t abate, Michaela tucked a lock of copper hair behind her ear and rolled her eyes.
“She’s been having quite a temper lately. I think she might be hypoglycemic.”
Sofia cleared her throat. “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that. I’ve been having trouble with Deacon lately.”
“It’s that bread you’re feeding him, isn’t it? I’m telling you, once you go gluten free, the change is amazing.”
Sofia forced herself to smile. “No, actually, he’s giving me trouble about a book.”
“Oh, that thing. Yes, Sawyer went ape for it. I had to give it away to get a little peace.”
Michaela touched another strand of hair away from her forehead. She had a shoe-shaped bruise just below her hairline.
“So the book…affected her?” Sofia asked.
“Worse than those awful Shrek movies. I don’t know what she sees in the stupid thing.” Michaela arranged her cardigan decorously on her chest. “I have some more books if you want them. Some cookbooks. Easy, even if you’re not a natural cook.”
“I have a doctor’s appointment,” Sofia lied and fled.
It was just a book. She paged through it just to be sure. No subliminal messages hidden in the illustrations, no secret meanings that she could see. All the book did was present a world so impossibly perfect and sugary that real life looked like hell compared to it.
Maybe that was it. That was all. It spoke to kids on such an effective level that its voice was stronger than parents or peers, seducing them away from reality.
She would stop reading it. In time, he would forget.
That night in bed she brought out Hunches in Bunches and Deacon’s face fell.
“Where’s my book?” he asked.
Sofia cleared her throat. “Sweetie, mommy needs a break from that book. And you know, sometimes you can love a thing too much. It makes everything else harder when you only have one thing to love, because you can never get anything else done. Do you see?”
Deacon was beginning to shake. “I wan’ my book,” he said.
“Want,” Sofia said, “and I’m sorry, but the answer is no. What do you do with the answer you get?”
Deacon did not respond ‘you don’t throw a fit,’ nor did he actually throw a fit. Instead his face churned into a look of hatred so concentrated she worried about his face muscles.
“I wan’a read about Mrs. Fur,” he said in a strained voice, “I wan’a read it for sleepytimes.”
She had never, not once, used that word to describe bedtime.
“You can have this book,” she said in the calmest voice she could muster, “or you can have nothing.”
“I want my book,” Deacon screamed. He threw himself backwards and began pounding on the wall with his feet.
Sofia forced herself to walk out.
She looked at the book again. The asinine illustrations of the family of humanoids wearing full-body fuzzy parkas bouncing and singing and being generally cute. The short, simple words that flowed from end rhyme to end rhyme.
Something thumped against the wall in Deacon’s room.
Was there something hidden in it? Something she couldn’t perceive with her adult eyes, something that perverted children’s perception so that they gradually lost the taste for anything besides the book?
It was a quick trip to the incinerator chute.
That night was broken up by random noises of things being tossed in Deacon’s room. Sofia barely slept. In the morning, they were both going to the pediatrician. They would get medication, or therapy, but they were working on this.
“Deacon?” Sofia called. She wiggled the chair she had wedged beneath the knob until it came loose. “Are you ready to be good?”
The door swung open on a scene of chaos. Everything that could be was broken. Furniture upturned in a show of strength impressive for a six-year-old.
And in the middle of all it, like a baleful god, was her son.
Deacon’s face gathered into a snarl. His lip drew down to display the broken fence of his bottom teeth.
“Where’s my book,” he whined, “I wan’ it.”
His posture was hunched and knotted. He stood more like an ape than a little boy, arms flexed to show muscle.
And it was so completely perverse how he spoke high in his throat, in a baby voice he had never used before. He didn’t even sound human.
Sofia whispered, “Deacon.”
Her underused hind brain sent signals to her feet and she began backing away.
“I wan’ it,” he repeated more forcefully, fingers curling into talons.
You are not a monster, Sofia thought listlessly. You are a six year old boy. You didn’t even weigh eight pounds at birth. You kiss me on the hand every time I drop you off at school. You’re not going to kill me.
With an unholy howl, Deacon launched himself at her.
He tore after her throat, screaming nonsensically as he beat her with every available limb. Sofia’s startled muscles flew into action. She tried to pry her son’s hands from her vitals, finally managing to fling him away. Deacon hit the upturned mattress and sprang back, launching himself at her legs this time. Sofia could not kick her son, not even now, so she tried instead to fall on him, confine him with her weight. It only half-worked. Deacon clawed and spit at her, trying to pry his legs from beneath her.
She didn’t know he had grabbed the bookend until he hit her with it. L. Frank Baum’s bronze head thudded into her collarbone. Sofia fell back with a cry of pain.
Deacon got to his feet, cords standing out on his neck. Spittle flew from his mouth as he breathed heavily. He raised the bookend like a club. Sofia crawled backwards, unable to decide between righting herself or grabbing for a makeshift weapon. Deacon screamed. Someone answered him.
Sawyer appeared at the window. She had to’ve shimmied up the fire stairs to do it. She had a feral expression equal to Deacon’s, and her cashmere jumper was soiled and torn. A few strands of red hair were caught in the crack between her canine and incisor teeth. She had a knife.
With a howl, the little girl launched herself at Deacon. They fell to the floor, scrabbling at each other. Sofia managed to get to her feet.
With the ferocity of tigers, the two children writhed around, trying to draw first blood.
Sofia had a single moment of doubt, a single moment where parental urge nearly overcame instinct, and then an errant tooth hit her in face as Deacon screamed. Shaking, she turned and fled.