By E. Cluff Elliott
Headed home from Grandma’s house, their bellies full of mashed potatoes, roast beef, and corn, the Connells stopped at a small gas station along the way.
Dad said something Bernice didn’t quite catch, and then he got out of the car and headed inside. Mom sat in the passenger seat, looking over the headrest with care in her eyes and love in her smile. Bernice, only a few months from turning four, sat on her booster in the back seat, holding a Raggedy Ann doll up with two hands. She sang the My Little Pony theme, yet with different words, her own words. Her voice, on the other hand, was that of Raggedy Ann’s, a high-pitched soprano that seemed almost inaudible.
“Those are pretty words,” her mother said.
Bernice looked past the doll. “It’s a pretty song.”
The driver door opened and Bernice’s father plopped inside carrying a large paper bag. He stashed the bag behind his seat and closed the door, ready to go. “You’re going to have to start drinking a different kind of wine; this Merkin crap’s twenty bucks a bottle. I spent twenty on mine and got enough to last me till the end of the week.”
“Somehow I doubt that, Larry.” There was a sigh in her voice; the same kind of sigh Bernice heard when her mom had enough of her current behavior.
Her dad huffed. “That’s coming from a woman who can’t go to bed without a tall glass of wine to cool her nerves, and don’t think I haven’t noticed because I have.”
“I don’t have to explain my drinking habits to you. I am a grown woman if you haven’t noticed. I have a job. I do my own taxes…”
As Bernice’s dad started the car and took the Connell family out to the Toll way onramp, Bernice tried to ignore her parents. It was not an easy thing to do. First, she put down her Raggedy Ann doll and picked a coloring book off the seat next to her. She only had three crayons in the car, all of which were resting beneath her feet where they had fallen shortly after leaving Grandma’s house. She tried to reach them, but unless her arm grew another foot in the next few minutes, it would never happen. She gave up on the crayons.
“So, you take care of everything by yourself now, or do you still have the pool boy drop by once a week to service your water? Or is it the mailman this time?”
“Larry, you know damn well I haven’t seen either.”
They sounded mad, but Bernice’s mom sounded as though she might be on the edge of tears.
Bernice fought hard to ignore them, inspecting the stack of kid’s stuff piled on the seat next to her. She found a couple books previously hidden by the coloring book, her Mr. Men and Little Mrs. Books. There were only a few in the car but at home, she owned the entire collection, some of which belonged to her parents when they were kids. Those ones were kept on high shelves where she couldn’t reach them, but Bernice still thought of them as hers. She reached, plucked the closest book, and settled back into her car seat.
In the front seat, Bernice’s mom tried to change the subject, deftly switching topics as if she were dealing with one of her patients at the hospital. The technique, designed to preoccupy the patient’s mind with an unrelated subject in order to help keep uncontrollable emotions controllable, was one that she used on Bernice a time or two. The object in those cases happened to be something small, perhaps a cookie or toy, but in this case, it was different. Bernice knew how mean her father could be. “I thought you said we were going to the mall for cookies?”
Merging onto the Toll way, Bernice’s father ignored the question and moved to the car into the far left lane.
“Are we going to get cookies, or are you going to break another promise to your daughter?”
Bernice opened her book and flipped to the first page. Mr. Grumpy, a blue, rectangular fellow with a top hat and a dower expression, stood in front of Mr. Daydream who was deep in one of his special moments. From memory she knows Mr. Grumpy is asking Mr. Daydream what he’s doing, to which Mr. Daydream answers “Daydreaming.”
On the next page, Bernice saw Mr. Grumpy’s dower expression quirk into concern as he professed the nonsense behind Mr. Daydream’s daydream. Something as fickle as imagination made no sense to Mr. Grumpy, and seeing someone entertaining the idea made him feel, well, grumpy.
Bernice’s father was like that; he always had something to scold her for, and he never seemed happy unless he was drinking what her mom called Ginger Juice.
Bernice’s mom folded her arms and gazed out the passenger window. “I don’t know what I was thinking; you have your beer for the night, so why would you be interested in a little public interaction? Obviously, a cheap buzz is better than taking your daughter out for cookies. When was the last time you had a cookie, Larry? Do you even remember what cookies taste like? Or has the beer killed all your taste buds?”
Ranting on, her mom reminded Bernice of a book, not in the car but at home on a bookshelf: Little Miss Chatterbox. In the book, some of the other Mr. Men and Little Miss characters invited Miss Chatterbox to watch a movie one night, but Miss Chatterbox couldn’t keep quiet so she was asked to leave. Miss Chatterbox later learned to stay quiet and everything was ok, but Bernice wondered if the same would be true for her mom.
Then, in the mind of Bernice Connell, something unique happened; her perceptions about her parents changed. Her father, obtuse, and so much like the character in the book on her lap, became Mr. Grumpy. He still wore the same clothes, his white work shirt bulged over the top of his thick frame, but underneath those, his skin began to turn blue as his body began to enlarge and flatten into a rectangle. Completing his change, a small lopsided top hat appeared out of nowhere. Her mother made a similar change; her body plumped to resemble a purple dome as her hair clumped together, dangling at either side of her swollen face in two blond pigtails. Like her father’s metamorphosis into Mr. Grumpy, her mother became Miss Chatterbox.
Their transformation made Bernice giggle, but seeing how angry the two of them were she decided to keep her entertainment to herself.
“Are you even listening, Larry?” asked Miss Chatterbox, almost turning into Miss Bossy as her voice boomed through the car.
Mr. Grumpy was silent then did something Bernice would never forget; he reached across the car and used the back of his hand to slap Miss Chatterbox.
Bernice’s giggles disappeared as she and Miss Chatterbox screamed in unison, one in pain and the other a witness to it.
Mr. Grumpy’s dower expression transformed into the hurtful glower Mr. Mean wore when rampaging through town. Then the transformation spread, morphing his body once again to resemble the mood he felt. His skin turned red and plumped at the edges, giving him a round appearance. Lastly, as his green top hat darkened to black, he focused on Miss Chatterbox.
“I’ve heard enough, so the less you talk the better, got it? You might have gotten away with that kind of attitude before today, but not anymore.”
Bernice waited for Mr. Mean to look back at her, perhaps send some of his hostility her way, but he didn’t. Instead, he became more intent on the road ahead of them.
“Does your girlfriend feel the same way?”
“I told you, I’ve heard enough, Gina! I’ve paid my dues! I repented my ways and, at least I assumed, you forgave me. So why the hell are you bringing up the past like this?”
“Flowers and an apology note doesn’t count, you pathetic jackass.”
Like lightening, Mr. Mean’s arm reached across the car a second time and connected with the side of Miss Chatterbox’s face, breaking the skin and making a two-inch gash across her purple cheek. Then with the same hand he used to assault his wife, Mr. Mean reached behind his seat, pulled out a can Ginger Juice, and popped the top as if nothing had happened.
Bernice leaned forward, trying to see Chatterbox’s face, but the headrest blocked her view. “Are you ok?”
There was no answer.
Bernice repeated the question.
“Are you going to answer your daughter?” His voice was flat, perhaps restrained by the effects of the drink in his hand, but that never lasted long; Mr. Mean’s routine of spite, hate, and greed wouldn’t allow it.
Through the space between the headrest and the seat, Bernice watched Miss Chatterbox shy away as Mr. Mean raised his hand again.
“I’M FINE; I’m fine, baby girl.” As she spoke, a sniffling sound wound its way around her words, seeming to drench their meaning in tortuous undertones that made Bernice want to cry.
She knew Miss Chatterbox was in pain, a fact that made her want to cry, but she tried to restrain herself. If she couldn’t keep quiet, Mr. Mean might start swinging at her so she focused on something she could do. She strained to see the loving look that would bring comfort to her otherwise disjointed world, a dark and spiteful world. It did not come.
Instead, the threatened hand came down and made a thwacking sound somewhere out of sight. Little Miss Chatterbox seemed to hold a scream in, changing her skin from purple to blue as if she were choking on something. Then her blond pigtails vanished and she seemed to sprout lengths of bandage that covered her injuries of their own accord. Completing her change into Little Miss Whoops, she filled the car with a pained yell, leaning toward the center of the car and doubling over.
“Tell your daughter, not me,” said Mr. Mean sipping Ginger juice and seeming not to notice the moans of pain coming from the passenger seat.
With great care and a caution never before seen by Bernice, Miss Whoops turned to face her daughter.
Bernice gasped at what she saw. On the right side of Whoop’s face, her mascara smeared in high arches where she’d rubbed at her tears, coloring her blue skin with a dark mocha. On the left however, her mascara smeared down to mingle with a thick coating of blood still oozing from the open wound on her cheek. It was enough to make Bernice’s stomach turn.
Miss Whoops tried to smile but the sight of those disheveled lips turning into a grin seemed to make the image worse. Dried blood cracked and flaked around the edges of her wound. A bandage moved to expose the bruised skin around her eye making her look like a raccoon or a Loris out for an evening prowl, but Miss Whoop’s eyes looked far from happy. She looked dismal, dejected.
“It will be ok, darling. Don’t worry about me; I’ll be fine, ok? You understand, baby girl?”
Bernice nodded, and for a moment, it seemed as though it might even be true, but it was hard to believe.
Mr. Mean laughed, then finished off his first can of Ginger Juice before pulling out a second. “See, now was that so hard?”
Stifling her sobs, Miss Whoops said, “What happened to you, Larry? When we first got together you never would’ve started drinking on the road. And we may have yelled at one another but you’ve never hit me. So, what’s changed, Larry?” Her voice sounded sympathetic, comforting, the same way she talked to Bernice after she scraped her knee or tripped and bumped her head.
“It’s ten PM, Gina; I doubt the cops are going to notice.”
“Your daughter certainly will! Do you think drinking in front of her is such a great idea that you have to immortalize it with the backside of you hand? Do you want her to grow up needing a closed fist just to feel loved? Yeah, but at least the cops won’t see, right?” Miss Whoops straightened the more she spoke, regaining confidence despite her wounded body, and regaining some of her previous Miss Chatterbox attitude.
Mr. Mean went ridged, seeming to dwell on each accusatory word, his anger building like a volcano ready to pop. “You better back off, Gina.”
“Or what, Larry? Are you going to hit me again, maybe show our daughter how a REAL man does it?”
“What’s stopping me?”
“You’re incredible,” Miss Whoops said sounding amused. “First you have an affair with Miss Nineteen-and-still-wets-the-bed, and now you’re going to sink lower by making the wife-beater part of your permanent wardrobe.”
“So, you’re still stuck on the cheating thing? That was two months ago, Gina. Nothing’s happened since then. And if you weren’t such a heartless bitch you’d see I deserve a little more respect for my efforts.”
“What efforts, Larry?”
“I bring home the money,” Mr. Mean said as if that was just about the most obvious fact in the world.
Miss Whoops shook her head, settling back and brooding in silence.
Mr. Mean’s arm shot across the car. It collides with the left side of Miss Whoops’s face. There’s a loud crack like splitting wood. A split second later, there’s a deep thud as her head connected with the passenger window, fracturing the pane with a crunch. The sounds made Bernice feel sick as her gut twisted with a bitter gurgle, forcing the taste of vomit to momentarily take up residence in her mouth. She did not vomit, but it was a close thing.
Miss Whoops tried to cry out, but the terrified plea fighting to escape her lips only came out as a dull mumble. There were words in that plea, unintelligible words, but words all the same, desperate for peace and delirious with pain.
Mr. Mean flexed his right hand. “Don’t you ever shake your head at me that way again, do you understand me? I’ve put up with you for far too long, Gina! You whine, you cry, you mope…about everything.” Mr. Mean’s voice changed into a high squeal, rising until it was cartoonish. “‘You always want meatloaf, and you know I hate making meatloaf,’ or ‘Your beer cans are messing up my end tables,’ there’s always something, Gina!”
The vocal rendition pierced Bernice’s ears and brought tears to her eyes. She hated hearing Mr. Mean yell; he scared her.
“You know what, Doctor Connell?” asked Mr. Mean, adopting his pervious contempt. “I think it’s time to switch roles for a session or two, you know? The same way you make your patients switch roles in marriage counseling. In the construction world—the world of men, I might add—switching roles is a common thing, as common as attendance to your hookey self-help classes. Sometimes a worker will start on with a dry walling outfit, and before you know it he’s traded up the ladder and found his way into insulation or roofing. See where I’m going with this? I think we should try that same method and see where it goes. What do you think bitch? Do you want to see how much I hate you? Do you want to see things from my side of the mirror?”
Miss Whoops moaned, trying to talk through her muffled cry, but her words fell into obscurity behind closed lips.
Mr. Mean laughed and leaned back, relaxing his right arm between the two front seats creating a bridge of living flesh between the headrests. “Oh yeah, you don’t have much to say, do you?”
Miss Whoops whimpered.
“No, I didn’t think so. I guess it’s a good thing I plan on showing you anyway. And as bad as things are I think you’re going to like what I show you. In fact, I know you will.”
Bernice grabbed and punched at his arm, making contact the only way she knew how, replicating the violence she observed. Her desperate attempt, however, only turned the monster in her direction. He wasn’t bleeding or crying the way Miss Whoops was—which was frightening enough—but the empty gleam in his eyes scared Bernice; it scared her the way some strangers scared her upon first glance; the same kind of strangers whose smiles seem long and deceiving. It was as if Mr. Mean was a shell, an empty husk with doll-like eyes and air between its ears, emotionless.
Mr. Mean grabbed Bernice’s hand, squeezing until the pressure from his grip made her cringe. The two of them locked eyes for a long moment, and then he threw her arm to the side hard enough to make the cringe turn into a sharp pain. She screamed.
“Stay the hell out of this, you sniveling brat, or I’ll line you out, too.”
Tears streaming down her cheeks, Bernice cradled her arm as she shrank away from Mr. Mean.
Ahead of them, the Toll Way interchange loomed on the horizon like the arms of an octopus, reaching out in huge arcs that spanned over east and westbound traffic. Between each arm towering light poles illuminated everything beneath their glow. On a normal night, Bernice would be glad to recognize those lights because that meant they were less than ten minutes from home, but not tonight. Tonight, they brightened the interchange, as if the arms of the octopus might retract its tentacles and eat them. That was absurd, Bernice knew, but she couldn’t help holding on to the image.
Mr. Mean turned back toward his prey, grinning with a look of savagery on his face. “Now, where were we? Oh yeah, you want to see life from my side of the fence. Well tonight’s your lucky night.”
Miss Whoops coward in the passenger seat making sniffling sounds that resembled a draining sink coupled with a whipped dog.
“No, no,” Mr. Mean teased, “don’t say anything; I know that cracked jaw is probably pretty painful without any drugs, so we’ll keep this brief. We just have to reach the right spot. Aww, here we go…”
Watching Mr. Mean crack open another can of Ginger Juice, Bernice felt the car move to the right, toward the northbound interchange. Half way across and directly over westbound traffic, Mr. Mean hit the brake and parked the Toyota on the left shoulder. It was wide enough to keep the small car out of harm’s way, but the buffer zone between the two was small enough Bernice could feel the car sway with each passing threat.
Mr. Mean did something out of view and a soft click-click click-click joined the radio as The Beatles started playing “Love Me Do. With all the commotion since leaving Grandma’s, Bernice forgot the radio was even on; the song seemed alien but at the same time it touched a part of her that seemed to reinforce the idea that the worst was over.
In the front seat, Miss Whoops swayed, her eyes fluttering as if she might faint.
Mr. Mean caught her, cradling her weight with one arm and shoving his door open with the other. “Easy there Little Miss Tipsy,” he said, proceeding to pull her over the center console, catching her pants on the emergency brake lever before yanking her free and forcing Miss Whoops out of the car.
Mr. Mean had more to say, but because of the distance between them, Bernice only heard an unintelligible drone. And short of climbing from her seat—a big no-no under any circumstance—she knew that wouldn’t change. Instead she contented herself as an observer, stretching to keep Mr. Mean and Miss Whoops within sight. As she watched, something happened; Mr. Mean and Miss Whoops reverted into her parents once again, shedding their persona and disowning their awful behavior as if it were the skin of a snake.
Bernice smiled, happy to see her parents hugging and dancing as they moved further from the car. She imagined her father begging for forgiveness as her mother wept on his shoulder, bathing his western style shirt in sweet tears of resolution. They were in love when Bernice imagined what they were saying and that was enough for her.
Glancing down, Bernice noticed her mother’s camera sitting among her toys and books. She knew she wasn’t supposed to touch it, not without her mom’s help, but she had an idea her mom would let her slide this time. Straining against her seatbelt, she snatched up the camera and started fiddling with its buttons. For a heart wrenching moment, Bernice faltered, unable to make the camera do what she wanted. But in the end, she hit the correct button and the shutter clicked open with a whine of gears.
Pleased with the noise, Bernice smiled and aimed the camera. The first picture she snapped looked as though her mother was in mid-flight, back arched with her arms spread wide. Below her, Bernice’s father looked poised to catch his dancing partner. It was a stunning photo. In the second picture, almost a complete contrast to the first, Mr. Connell stood on the concrete barricade above westbound traffic. Facing his daughter with an expression of uncontrollable glee his right arm created a right angle as he waved to the camera.
Bernice lowered the camera. She looked around, searching, but saw no one; her parents were gone. Would they be back? Of course, they would. They were her parents and they loved her. Why wouldn’t they be back?
Picking up Raggedy Ann, Bernice began to hum as sirens approached. She was excited to show off her new pictures, but she was satisfied to wait for her parents’ return.
*Originally published online in the June/July edition of SNM Horror Magazine 2012