BY DAVID MATHEW & M F KORN
Treat your nerves like guitar strings, thought Penguin.
Don't strum them too hard; just play.
He smiled. Pleased with the lines (he'd be using them in the novel) Penguin donned a windcheater and thought: I'm going to see the kid. She always made him feel better. Besides, Penguin could hear no banging; perhaps she was finished… He wanted to see her project, and to let her know that an adult other than her parents was interested in her handiwork. That meant a lot to a child. Penguin would be embarrassed to regard himself as a writer if hadn't realised that much.
Exiting was easier said than done, however. Getting dressed was all well and good, but who was going to assuage the naked terrors in his head?
Penguin called Judy.
'I'm thinking of going outside,' he told her. 'For a walk.'
'Are you drunk?'
'Yes. Bourbon. Five large ones.'
'And why do you want to walk?' she asked.
'I thought you'd be happy.'
'I am. But happiness doesn't get audited. Sorry. They're gonna look at all of my files, and I have to show that I quizzed you about your decision, and tried to make you decide on…' Judy blundered; she was attempting not to you use the word decision - to override an ugly sentence - but she had already used both decision and decide. The inspection was eating up her lexicon.
'Why can't you lie?' asked Penguin. '
'Do you need community assistance?' asked Judy - and Penguin guessed from her tone that someone had entered the room. Perhaps they were tapping the call…
Nevertheless, Penguin was getting upset. 'I don't need anything,' he stated clearly. Less than a second later, refreshed by his anger with his case worker and current friend, he was shaking his head. He popped a mint and watched the news. Emptied the dish-washer.
Time-evading techniques. Penguin was frightened of going outside… No, wait; he was a writer, yes? He could do a lot better than that. He was petrified, wasp-stung and snotty with the terror of going outside. That any closer?
Not that Penguin was anti-social, or anything like that, but he liked being safe inside his house, sipping on bourbon and working on the magnum opus. Unfortunately, the novel was now 1200 pages long; way too sprawling for any publisher.
He walked into his backyard. Like a horny dog at the chair leg, the sun went at Penguin's baldspot. If it was true that you lost most of your body heat through your head in the winter, you sucked in there during the summer. But it's not so bad, is it? The world… The yard was trimmed, though only because he paid someone to cut it. His neighbors were nice; he glanced over at the Jimney's house, and thought of the first time that he'd met Beth, their little girl, a month earlier…
She was about eleven years old, and hammering away boards and ragged pieces of wood to make what looked to Penguin like a dishevelled clubhouse. With an effort he walked to the edge of his yard, ten feet from where the monstrosity stood.
'What you making?'
Beth showed little reaction. 'A clubhouse for my friends,' she answered.
'Cool And how many members are there?'
'Three. But two of them are dogs.'
Due to the bourbon warming his empty stomach, he asked nicely, 'When you finish, can I come and join your friends in the clubhouse?'
'Sure. If you wanna…'
'And I guess you'll tell me when it's time for my initiation, huh?'
'Sure will.' A smile.
Not a mean bone in her little soul, Penguin thought. 'Your name's Beth, right? Well, I'm Frank Penguin. I know it's a funny name…'
Beth hammered (with remarkable confidence, her interlocutor thought) at a nail. 'It's not so funny. I have a cousin? His name's Jim, but they call him Jism.'
'Jism? Who do?' Penguin asked.
'Just everyone!' Beth turned to Penguin and their eyelines connected. 'But there ain't no one'll tell me what it means,' she said.
Suddenly Penguin needed to go back inside. You filthy little girl, he was thinking. She knew all right; someone had told her… But his anger soon evaporated, and he watched her clubhouse progress. Day after day Beth built, gathering wood from the newly built houses down the street. Her clubhouse now occupied the back corner of the yard where he couldn't see it too well.
Now the hammering had stopped.
A stench was coming from his backyard. A racoon had died, or a cat. Well, I'm not going to be doing much about that, am I? Realistically.
Penguin sauntered over to the clubhouse, smiling, drunk. Beth peered from inside. 'Okay, you wanna join my club?'
'Sure!' There were bumps and molehills on the ground, Penguin noticed. Why had Beth been digging in the earth? 'Where are your other friends?' he asked, the creator inside him having taken over- and violently. That is, the fear.
When had Penguin last seen her parents? Or Beth playing in here?
'I'm ready for my initiation,' he managed to say.
Beth pointed to the shallow graves. 'Now you can meet my friends,' she replied as she bashed in Penguin's skull with a ball peen hammer.
He was slowly losing consciousness as he watched her playing Tea-sets with his corpse, which she propped up next to two other bodies - those of her parents.
'Would you like a cup of tea?' she asked no one in particular.
From inside the kitchen, Penguin shook his head.
'No, thank you.' But maybe he'd write that one down.
Sure as God made little apples, Penguin wasn't leaving the house today. He couldn't face it. Pouring another bourbon, he even wondered if he'd been out there in the first place. Sure enough, the clubhouse was being built; but Penguin couldn't recall Beth's face, the naughty thing.
He picked up the telephone.
'I've changed my mind,' he told Judy. 'Come and see me when you can.'