Friday
May292015

The Children's Book

Rob Walsh


 

It was nearly evening when our daughter came home from school. She didn't answer when we asked if she was okay or where she had been. She looked different, like maybe she wasn't really ours. She looked the same, of course, and we're doing a poor job explaining everything, but there was something underneath we couldn't fully see, a sort of liquid scarring that rolled away if we tried to hug her. That was the day she found the Children's Book.  

The Children's Book didn't have an owner's name written within, the insides unmarked and clearly expensive, the pages textured like nice business cards. We called the school right away to report the Children's Book and were connected to the principal. He was a new principal. This was his first week on the job. He didn't have a principal's tone yet. He still sounded like a secretary, like the first secretary had found the matter of the Children's Book so inconsequential that she had just shrugged us off to some secretary in the opposite corner.

Flipping through the book later that night, I probably would have grinned at some of the clever illustrations if I was not still shaken up over the return of my missing daughter and her refusal to explain where she had been.

Soon it was as dark as it was going to get that night. We went into our daughter's room. In a few years she would be old enough to have a lock on her door, and we would have to knock before entering, so we enjoyed while we could the luxury of strolling into our daughter's room without fear of discovering her doing anything that we weren't supposed to see.

"Tell us where you were today and what happened."

"Tell us everything."

She shook her head. She was lying in bed, covers pulled to her chin.

"Tell us," we warned.

"I just want to sleep," she said.

We asked if she wanted us to read to her from the Children's Book.

It was, after all, finer than any book in our house. The story itself was a bit dark—everyone vanishes at the end, a trail of blood unrolling into the sky—but it seemed to carry a hopeful message. On the spectrum of DARK and LIGHT we decided it would be a five, with zero being hell and ten being eternal release.

Most books for children were eights or nines. There were not enough fives, we decided after reading the Children's Book.

The author's name was Stellzman and it took only a few weeks to track him down. Stellzman lived in an apartment, a one bedroom, but his bed and dresser and so forth were in the main room near the kitchenette. The bedroom itself had been converted into a workspace or a place of meditation, professionally sealed-off, extra locks visible on the outer door.

We had never met a writer before. Stellzman was rumpled and underweight, so underweight that it could not have been an accident, it was a trait that he deliberately affected, and his small eyes radiated intelligence.

"I'm a fan," my wife said. Her blouse was wet under the arms, soaked; we were both nervous to meet a writer for the first time.

"I'm a bigger fan," I said, which wasn't true, I was just caught up in the moment.

He invited us to sit at the kitchenette counter. There were only two stools, so Stellzman stood. He said that we must have questions for him and invited us to fire away. We asked him about the Children's Book, about his influences and where he found inspiration, but this conversation seemed to bend as time went by until he was asking us questions and writing the answers into a yellow pad.

"Age?" he asked.

"Twelve," we said.

"Hobbies, interests, partners?"

We told Stellzman it seemed she had memorized the entire map of the world, all these little freckle-sized towns she would never once set foot in. She liked to sing, also, but only when she thought nobody was listening to her.

"Makeup?"

"No," we said. "We'd maybe allow her, but she's never asked."

Stellzman looked almost angry, a red storm hidden behind his eyes. "Psychological makeup," he clarified.

Oh. Our daughter had just always seemed normal, psychology-wise. But that answer did not satisfy Stellzman.

"Pills?" he asked.

"No," I said, since I didn't see how my daughter's medications were any of his business.

"What if I said I want her to be in my next book."

"What?" we asked.

"I want her to star in it," he said.

"The Children's Book II?" we asked.

"I'll need to meet her first, screen her, and it will have to be a private screening—" he pointed toward his workspace or place of meditation, the locked room "—though you two are welcome to remain in this adjacent room during the procedure."

We didn't agreed to those terms. We never let our daughter alone with strangers. My wife offered to host the meeting at our house, to cook a nice dinner in honor of his writing, but Stellzman showed no interest in leaving his apartment, saying he had everything he needed right here, all of his books and notes. Then we tried another angle: We said we would bring some of our friends, between five to ten of our friends, and he could read to us from his work, something that was almost finished and needed only a public performance by which to test its effectiveness.

Stellzman considered that. Eventually he dismissed the idea as too disruptive of the mood he needed to foster within this, his home-office space. So we left without striking any bargain.

A couple of years later, Stellzman's new book came out. A sequel, like we had guessed. The main character was a young girl our daughter's age. At the end of the book she survived, which caught us off guard because we didn't think Stellzman believed in that sort of thing. The character reminded us so much of our daughter that we read the book again and then again. The book was full of details only me, my wife, or my daughter could have known.

She denied seeing him, of course, and then locked us out, for she was old enough now to do so.

We were not the sort of parents to bang on doors, so we offered her a reward for opening, a little bit of pocket money, and reluctantly she let us back inside.

"You can tell us," we said.

"There is nothing to tell," she said.

"About your relationship," we said. "Your relationship with Stellzman."

She insisted she had never met the author of the Children's Book, going so far as to say the new book didn't hold her interest for a moment, her being into horror now, which explained the solid black outfits and heavy eyeliner. We were in our pajamas, but even at that late hour she was wearing a sort of black canvas that revealed the tops of her breasts. She had grown up so quickly.

We read the book again, both of us finally conceding that Stellzman knew her better than we did. The details were too faithful, and many of them so obvious we cursed ourselves for never having seen them before. We didn't know how he did it. We thought back to that time we had met Stellzman at his apartment. Some strange man on the other side of the river knew our daughter better than us, and he had never even met her. We tried to write about it, to compose a work that would counter Stellzman's, but we were not the same as him and our writing didn't lead us deeper into the girl, but in fact muddled things further. What we did instead was take a drive. All of the windows were rolled down. The cold air came and came. We would drive, and at the end of that drive, we felt confident we would know exactly what to do.