A little boy was clicking his jaw. He was doing it to annoy a little girl. He was in love with her. She had pretty red hair, nice skin, and the freckles on her nose . . . well, he wanted to lick them off her face. He sensed the perverse nature of this desire, but he was too young and unfamiliar with the character of his impulses to think twice about the desire: one time was enough, and then the thought was gone . . .
As he continued to click his jaw, he could almost taste those freckles. He had to have them in his mouth right now! But he couldn't just walk up to his love and start lapping at her nose like an excited puppy. He had to get her to fall in love with him first. And the best way for a little boy to get a little girl to fall in love with him is to make her hate him by annoying the crap out of her.
Click! went his jaw. Click! Click! Click! His mouth opened wider and wider each time he did it, and drool began to flow down his chin.
The little girl pretended he didn't exist.
The little boy pretended that she wasn't pretending he didn't exist, and went on clicking and drooling.
Crouched down on their knees, the two children were digging for adults in the soil of the neighborhood playground. The adults in the neighborhood had disappeared a few days ago; sick of always having to take care of the children, they made a communal decision to bury themselves underground in hopes that, after a while, the children would get the hint that nobody liked them and go away. So far the effort was ineffective. Not only were the children not going away, they persisted in trying to find the adults and dig them out of the ground. It was frustrating for the adults. But they had promised themselves to stay where they were for at least a week, dreaming of and praying for a neighborhood that was not subject to the cries and whines and whimpers and demands and threats and maligns and freakery and demonism and pathology of Young Life.
The ground beneath them was very soft and brown. They had dug up over two feet of earth a piece, but they hadn't uncovered any adults yet. They would dig for a little while longer and then move to another spot.
Click! Click! Click! Click! Click!
Eventually the little girl was forced to say something to the little boy. She didn't want to say something to him, but his jaw was driving her up the wall.
"Stop doing that," she said. "It bothers me very much. You're a very bothersome person, do you know that?"
"What?" replied the little boy, playing dumb. He clicked his jaw especially loud, so loud the group of children digging for adults on the other side of the merry-go-round heard it. They stopped digging and looked in his direction with dazed and curious expressions, as if they had just woken up from being knocked unconscious.
The little girl looked at him with an embittered expression, as if somebody had just dunked her head in a pot of garlic water. She sat back on her knees and put her tiny fists on her hipless hips. "Stop that, I said. Stop making that noise with your mouth. It's distracting me. I'm trying to concentrate. I'm trying to find my mom and dad so I can ask them if I can stay up past my bedtime. How am I supposed to do that with you doing what you're doing? You're drooling all over the place, too. You're gross. You're ugly. Go somewhere else. I was here first."
"I was here second," the little boy responded matter-of-factly, not looking up at her, continuing to dig, drool and click.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means something. Nothing means nothing."
"Nothing. It means I was here second and you were here first and it doesn't matter one way or the other, k?"
"I don't get it. I don't get what that means."
"That's because you're a girl and girls don't get anything. Dig your hole, why don't you?" Click!
"Oh!" said the little girl. "Oh! Oh! Oh!" She wanted to say something clever to the little boy, something that would make him feel as retarded as she felt right now, but she couldn't find the words. So she said "Oh!" one more time.
"Stop saying 'Oh'," said the little boy. "It's really starting to bug me and I'd appreciate it if you'd shut up. Thank you."
A deranged, wide-eyed glare overcame the little girl's face. How dare that creep! Her lips began to twitch with rage. They got to twitching so intensely that the little boy could actually hear them.
"You're lips are making a funny sound," he said. "Tell them to knock it off."
The lips pinched together as if a clothes pin had been applied to them. A long, tense pause followed . . . Then the little girl calmly leaned over, as if she was going to whisper a friendly secret into the little boy's ear, and yelled, "I HATE YOUR GUTS, FREAK!" When she yelled, the kids over by the merry-go-round glanced at her. She cast an evil glance back at them and said, "MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS, NERDS!"
Being nerds, the kids obeyed.
The little boy smiled. When the little girl had told him she hated him, that meant she loved him. He may have been young and idiotic, but he wasn't young and idiotic enough to not know that saying you love somebody and saying you hate them means the same thing. His plan had worked. He could now lick her freckles without feeling guilty about it. Just a few more louder-than-hell clicks to make sure his lover genuinely hated him, and wasn't just saying that to make him behave . . .
The little girl stood up and threw her fists down at her sides. "I'm going over there. You stay here. Don't follow me, or I'll scream. I hope you die!" She waited for a response. Didn't get one. She stomped away.
Proud of himself, the little boy snickered under his breath. He would give the little girl a minute or two before disobeying her command and allowing true love to run its course. He scooped another handful of dirt out of his hole.
And exposed the face of an adult. The face was pretending to be asleep, but he knew otherwise: it was the face of his mother and she was always pretending to be asleep—ever since his father left them and moved to Gary, Indiana . . .
"I know you're faking it," he said. There was no reply.
He clicked his jaw once . . . twice . . . a third time . . .
The eyes of his mother opened. They were red, worn, sickly eyes that looked like they had been crying for years. "Keep it up young man," she said, "and your jaw will fall off. It'll fall right off of your face. Then what the hell will you do?"
The little boy shrugged.
"Don't shrug at me. Listen to me. I want you to stop acting up and mind your goddamn manners. Do you understand?"
The little boy shook his head no.
"Yes you do. You understand me perfectly. Now be a good boy and bury me. Bury me, and don't ever try to dig me up again. Pack a bag and move to a different country, too."
The little boy blinked at his mother. She blinked back at him.
Maddened, his mother ordered him to go to his room. He refused. She told him to get a handkerchief and wipe the drool off of his face. He refused. She called him a bastard. He called her a bitch. They continued to bicker until a ball of dirt fell in her mouth and she choked on it. Her face convulsed, and her eyes rolled back into her head.
The little boy knocked on his mother's forehead as if it was a door. "Anybody home?" he asked. But he knew the answer to that question.
He pushed all of the dirt he had dug up back into the hole, then stood and patted it down with his feet. When he was finished, he stared down at the grave and worried, for a fleeting moment, about his own mortality. But then the moment was gone . . .
The dizziness of freedom washed over the little boy as he quietly, creepily slunk towards the little girl, who was digging another hole, this one beneath the colorful bulk of a tall spiral slide.
Copyright © 2002 by D. Harlan Wilson and Bewildering Stories.