by James S. Willsey
“Ryan! Steven!” Thelma shouted out the back door.
Ryan, Graham, and I were playing It which I had accidentally picked. I had really wanted to play Tag but couldn’t remember the name. Instead, what I could remember was that in the game (Tag I mean) one person was called It and chased everyone else. “Oh you mean It the Clown?” Graham had asked.
“Uh, yeah.” I didn’t know who It the Clown was but didn’t want to seem stupid.
“Okay, I’ll be It,” Graham had said quickly before he chased us around the yard with an angry grin and with a low voice yelling gibberish. Ryan told me while we ran that there’s this clown on TV that chases kids around and eats them.
“RYAN! … STEVEN!” Thelma screamed over the noise. There were at least a dozen other kids running around the backyard.
“Uh-oh, you’re in trouble.” Graham smiled. “You’re gonna get a spankin’!” I don’t know why we liked seeing other kids punished even when they were our friends. Thelma sometimes spanked kids who were bad with her belt as long as their parents had said it was okay and I’m pretty sure all of them had. But she didn’t really need to spank most times since she had other ways of punishing. Ryan and I began toward the house and her head sucked back in the house. When Ryan looked at me, I shrugged.
Her house was dark because the blinds were always closed. When we came in with the noise behind us shut off, Thelma was in the living room holding a doll by its leg. The plush white torso was sewn to plastic limbs and a hollow plastic head. At her heels stood her daughter Jodie, who was a couple years younger than me, and Jodie’s friend. I think the other girl’s name was Brittany. I didn’t really play with the girls so I didn’t know all of their names. Their eyes were all red from crying. “Did y’all do this?” Thelma shoved the baby doll in our faces. From plastic ear to plastic ear, its face was smeared with dried boogers, smudges in all directions and gross little wads.
“No,” Ryan said softly and I said it right after him.
“They both say you did and they saw you do it.” She was quiet for what felt like forever just looking down on us probably waiting for one of us to confess. She was made of sticks—I mean she was tall and very thin from smoking a lot and she had long, dry hair like a willow tree in the brown part of fall. She was scary enough. She had control of all the kids she watched, even the bigger kids. I started to say no again but she cut me off. “Don’t you lie to me!” She said shaking the doll in our faces and I took a step back. I did not want her to think I was lying. When one of us was believed to be lying, she would call the rest of the kids in and have them gather around the bad kid to chant at him. I had been called the liar before and I hated it. “Little liar Steven, little liar Steven, little liar Steven” they had sung. I’d been a part of the crowd too, singing with the rest even though I felt bad for the kid in the middle. “Ryan, did you do this to Jodie’s lilbabydoll?” It was one word when she said it. Ryan cried, tears leaking down his cheeks and he said he didn’t do it. He promised. “Steven, did you do it?” She moved the boogery baby between us each time she asked.
“No, I did not.” I was telling the truth and stood straight and looked her right in the eye because that’s what good kids who tell the truth do. I tried to sound as honest as possible but it probably sounded even guiltier doing it all that way.
Thelma was quiet for a minute thinking it over and then she asked us, “Do you have anything in your nose?”
“Boogies. Do you have any in your nose?”
She bent down and tried to see in our noses but I think the room was too dark. I knew she was looking for proof it was us and had heard similar kinds of questions on the cop shows my mom watched at night but I didn’t get what she meant by it. “No. I blew my nose this morning.” I didn’t want her thinking I was the booger-picking type. Nope, I blow my nose in a tissue like grownups do. Ryan sniffed and said he did have boogers in his nose right now.
“Well, I know Ryan didn’t do it,” Thelma said and she looked real smart like she was the detective in one of those shows, “because he cries when he’s telling the truth. I bet your nose is empty because you put them all on this lilbabydoll’s face.” I was shocked. I could only repeat what I had already said. My mom hadn’t been taking my sister and me to Thelma as long as Ryan had been going so she didn’t know I also like to tell the truth. “Don’t make this worse by lying! They saw you do it! Ryan, go back outside. Steven, go clean this off. And when your mother comes to pick you up I’m going to tell her what you did.” She shoved the doll into my hands and pointed down the hall at the bathroom. I left with the doll. There was no way to prove that I really hadn’t done it.
With a gray-blue rag and running water, I scrubbed at the doll’s face. It was hard work. The snot was dried hard on the plastic face like spaghetti sauce cooked on a pan. Under the bright light I could see it was way too many boogers to come from one kid anyway and they were all little tiny ones like from little kids trying to get as many as they could out. Besides, hadn’t they said they saw both of us? So if Ryan didn’t do it, I didn’t either. Catching movement out of the corner of my eye, I looked in the doorway and saw Jodie and the other girl smiling like the Devil. Then they stuck out their fat, pointing tongues at me. I made like I was going to get down from the stepladder to beat them up and they ran off giggling. I went back to work, having to stop every once in a while feeling like I would throw up. I didn’t get sick like that from my own boogers but having to touch someone else’s was different.
The next day, back in the yard, Ryan asked if I had gotten in trouble with my mom and I told him I hadn’t, not after I had explained to her what had really happened. I told him my mom said she would have a talk with Thelma but she didn’t end up saying anything when she dropped my sister and me off that morning. “She probably forgot. I mean she was running late for work,” I told him, “but I’ll remind her when she picks me up.”
When Graham got to the yard he ran over and pulled us in. He looked around to make sure nobody was listening in then told us about how his older brother who’s a teenager told him about a man who said “I worship the Devil” five times one night and the Devil showed up in his room and took the guy off to Hell. I imagined the man sitting at a desk in a dark room by himself and stopping whatever he was doing to say those words and (poof!) the Devil shows up and pulls him down in the floor into a black cave.
“What does war ship mean?” It was a big word so I didn’t feel stupid for asking.
“It means you love the Devil.”
“Hey, let’s see if it works,” I said. I looked around at the kids around the yard. “Let’s get them to do it.” I pointed at Jodie, who was playing with the other girl (Brittany?) and a third girl.
We walked over to the girls and told them about how God likes it and it’s good luck to say “I worship the Devil” a bunch of times.
“What does ‘worship’ mean?” One of them asked.
“It means hate, so it means you hate the devil,” I said. I stood straight and looked them in the eyes because that’s what good kids who tell the truth do.
“I worship the Devil,” the girls chimed. I started to feel bad, but didn’t say anything. “I worship the Devil.” I mean yeah it was bad what they did to me but that doesn’t mean I should make the Devil get them. “I worship the Devil. I worship the Devil.”
What if this works, I thought. This is bad. “You gotta say it one more time,” I said.
“I worship the Devil,” they said one last time. Us boys watched them, waiting for something to happen. The girls got bored and ran off.
“Well maybe it only works at night,” Graham said.
James S. Willsey is an honor graduate from American Military University. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia with his wife and two daughters.