“We need to take Johnny to a psychiatrist,” a concerned mother told her absent-minded husband, while he browsed through the pages of The New York Times. He sat at the head of the table, ignoring every word his wife had spoken, but suddenly shifting his undivided attention toward her after the unexpected mention of a shrink.
He set the paper on the table, next to a plate with wheat toast and scrambled eggs. Looking at his watch, he realized it was time for him to go to work. He wanted to take a sip of his coffee but decided to wait. “Why would you want to do that?”
Mother spoke, but a brief moment of hesitation on her part suggested there was something she didn’t want to say. “He’s always in his room, doing God-knows-what and… and I don’t think he’s got any friends.”
Father seemed unfazed; even if they were talking about his kid. Now he took that meritorious sip of coffee, looked into his wife’s eyes with those blue piercing eyes of his, which were the first thing Mother fell for the first time they met. “So, being a fifth grader with no friends, somehow tells you our son needs a shrink?”
That was a real question, an eye-opener, the kind of question that might as well close any argument in the world. But Mother wasn’t convinced because there is a reason why she thought Little Johnny needed help. She just didn’t know how to say it. “I believe he’s being bullied, too,” she said. “I saw these ugly bruises in his arms the other day as if someone had held him tight and… and.”
Now Father realized it was time to appear more supportive. He held her hand and gave it a gentle but firmed squeeze. “Go on, baby, tell me.”
A tear menaced to slither down her cheek, but, like a real gentleman, Father produced a white handkerchief with red dots off his pocket and nestled the salty liquid with it, making it soak, penetrating the fabric at once. “I think it was a professor who made those marks to my baby!” she said. “It doesn’t look like something a kid his age would do!”
Father thought about it, while part of him paid attention to the TV in the living room, which had been on the entire time but nothing of importance had caught his eye. But now something did, the story of a pedophile who had been working in the area, stealing kids, having his fun and letting them go right after that. Unfortunately, none of his victims had been able to identify the man.
Mother thinks their kid has been molested as well, Father thought.
“Baby,” he said. “Why don’t you set an appointment with one of the counselors at school, first, instead of going to a psychiatrist? What do you say? One of them can have a chat with Johnny, get a glimpse of what’s going on?”
Mother thought that was a good idea. “I’d love that.”
Right after that, Johnny came down the stairs. He wore a blue sports jacket over a white shirt and black pants. His blond, straight hair covering his left eye while looking down on his smartphone. He had his headphones on, but the volume was loud enough for Mother to hear the obscenities pouring out of it.
“What are you playing, love?” she asked.
He looked up, tossed his head back to uncover his eyes. “Grand Theft Auto, mom,” he said, while the character on the screen of his iPhone smashed a woman’s head with a bat.
“Baby, you shouldn’t be playing those games,” Mother said, while Johnny placed his bright, red backpack on the table, next to a plate of cold eggs and toast and orange juice that had been sitting there for a while.
“Why not, mom?” he asked, nonchalantly, then smiling at his dad.
“Because there is too much violence in those games, baby, and I don’t want you to_.”
“Mom,” he said, interrupting her. “I don’t mean to be rude, but you should stop watching Forensic Files. It’s the same kind of violence, you know.”
Father spoke, “John!”
Father only calls him ‘John’ when he is mad.
There was a moment of silence. Everyone ate; Father would periodically look at the TV screen, just to see if they said anything else about the pedophile. He’d then look at The Times but grow bored because all they could talk about was the motherfucking new president of the USA. It was 2017, and the world seemed to be heading toward its own demise. They should’ve kept Obama in The White House. That guy knew how to do his job, He thought. Then, he looked at his watch. It was time to go. “Babe, I’m taking Johnny to school,” he said while standing up and putting on a black jacket over his blue shirt.
“Oh,” Mother said, “But I thought I was going to talk to a counselor.”
“Don’t worry, babe,” he said, resting an assuring hand on her shoulder. “You do a lot for us, already. It’s only fair that we give you a hand. I can take care of that.” He then looked at Johnny. “Right, son?”
By then, Johnny was already on his feet with his backpack behind his shoulders. “Yes, dad,” he said to him. And to Mother: “Sorry, mom.” He kissed her on the cheek before walking away, holding Father’s hand.
Mom put a hand on her chest. That was a moment of happiness like no other. She stood up and picked up the plates and silverware and took them to the sink. You know what they say about feelings? The way they cloud your judgment? They make you overlook thinks or even overthink things. They make you see beauty where there is ugliness, they make you see right where it is wrong. And sometimes, while washing the dishes, feelings also make you forget how many forks and knives you put on the table that morning.
Don’t Talk To Strangers was blasting in Father’s car on their way to school. Johnny and Father didn’t talk a lot. Father was the kind of man who didn’t yell much. Yes, he would lose his temper every now and then, but, unlike mother, he was able to keep his feelings and emotions to a minimum. That’s why he and Father got along better, which made it an excellent idea for them to have a small conversation about things.
“How’s school, Johnny?” Father asked. “Your mom tells me you don’t have any friends.”
Like more people do these days, Johnny was glued to the screen of his phone, but when Father talked, he knew it was time to put the phone down and listen. “I don’t like anyone, dad,” he admitted. “They are all stupid.”
Father chuckled, which took Johnny by surprise. “You think I like half the people I work with at the office? They all suck!” He said all that with a smile, which made Johnny feel more comfortable. He loved his dad’s layback attitude instead of mom’s worrisome and sensitive manner. “However,” Father added. “You have to learn how to mingle. I’ve told you that before.”
Father also wanted to talk about the pedophile, but then realized they were nearing the school and it would be wise to have that conversation another day. Besides, Father had already told Johnny that a school counselor would talk to him later that day; for some reason, kids are more open when talking to strangers, even if they are constantly told not to.
Father made a left and parked outside Aliso School, Home of the Lions, in the small and almost forgotten town of Carpinteria, fifteen minutes south of Santa Barbara. There was a brown and big bulletin board outside of one of the classrooms, and a bunch of white posters of missing dogs covered it. There was also a sketch of the pedophile, giving a description of how he may look like.
May, Father thought, so much for that.
“Goodbye, dad,” Johnny said while stepping out of dad’s black Ford Focus. “Will you pick me up later?”
Father made a face, uncertainty. “I don’t think so, Son. Would you be ok walking home?”
The sun was up, and its rays hit Johnny’s face, so he had to squint. “I’ll be safe, Dad.”
“Good boy!” Father said, “And remember: Don’t talk to strangers!”
Johnny smiled. “I’ll try.”
Father didn’t like that answer but decided not to pay attention to it. He left, glancing briefly at Johnny while he took something out of his jacket and put it in his backpack.
Most of the children were gone from school. Johnny was standing out front, next to the brown board with the pictures of the missing dogs and the rough sketch of the pedophile. Surprisingly, there was no mention of what vehicle he drove. The kids who had come forward had different theories about his car and/or his general description. One said his car was black, just like Batman’s, other kid said he looked like the guy from the Sherlock movie, and one kid even swore he was the tall and slender man they talked about in the internet creepypastas.
The Sherlock movie? Johnny thought, yes, he kinda looks like Robert Downey Jr.
Johnny liked to be informed, even at his young age, and that was one of the many reasons why he loved talking to his parents. They both have taught him a lot about the real world: Don’t talk to strangers. They have also taught him how to behave: You have to learn how to mingle. I’ve told you that before.
There were two other kids a couple of steps away from him, laughing and watching a video and saying to themselves: “Cash me ousside, how ’bout that? Cash me ousside, how ’bout that?”
Johnny squinted, thinking: do they have any mental capacity to glimpse at the amount of their own stupidity? Of course, those were big words for a ten-year-old, but it was his father who’d said those words before, while they had one of their many nocturnal conversations in Father’s garage.
I’ve told you before, son. You have to learn how to mingle. He remembered father’s words once more while carefully glancing at the two kids. You think I like half the people I work with at the office? They all suck!
The two kids glanced at Johnny, and that moment of laughter stopped for a second. Then, Johnny smiled at them and tossed his head back. They did likewise and kept looking at their phones.
The principal’s car was the only one in the parking lot. Johnny glanced behind his shoulder and saw the old and fat man in his office, practically undressing with his eyes the young brunette he was talking to. His secretary? Who cares?
A green, four-door car came and parked next to the two boys. The kids looked at the driver and picked their backpacks off the pavement and stepped into the car. The blonde woman behind the wheel apologized for being late. Johnny heard her just before the door slammed shut. The car sped away and disappeared behind the corner.
He looked around and waited. Any minute now, he thought. His father had messaged him, letting him know the counselor would see him after school. That was the reason why he stood there but was growing tired of waiting. Besides, there were no other cars in the parking lot, so it was safe to assume the counselor forgot about him.
Johnny was about to give up when another car appeared around the corner and came down the same road as the green car. It was an old, dark blue Sentra with tinted windows. The car slowed down, and it drew closer. The driver rolled down his window and gave Johnny a big smile. He was a middle-aged man with an unkempt goatee and an unmistakable look of lust in his brown eyes. The quietness of the street made the chewing of his gum a lot louder than it should be.
He kinda looks like Robert Downey Jr, Johnny thought.
He had his backpack on his shoulders and his smartphone in his pocket.
“Hey, buddy! You alright?”
Johnny shrugged and looked at his feet. “Just waiting for someone,” he said. “Probably forgot about me, so I guess I’ll go home now.”
The man nodded, seemed to think it over for a bit. “Wait no more,” the man said, and that strange, lusty look lingered on his face. “I’m the counselor. Your dad, Mr. Yates, told me he wanted me to have a chat with you. His words, not mine!”
Mr. Yates, Johnny thought. That was a good hook to make any ten-year-old idiot believe that they could trust anyone. But Johnny wasn’t an idiot. Don’t talk to strangers, Rick Springfield and his dad had advised him against it.
“I don’t talk to people I don’t know,” Johnny said. “Besides, if you were the counselor, why are you coming from outside the school? Shouldn’t you be in the school like everyone else?” he glanced back, briefly, and saw the principal with his hands behind his neck, smiling, looking down, while the brunette was nowhere to be seen.
Johnny had an idea what she was doing.
The man smiled, mulling over the kid’s words. Too smart for a ten-year-old, he thought. “You’re absolutely right,” he said. “I should’ve been here but had to go take my wife to the airport. She’s going to San Francisco. A family emergency.”
Johnny squinted, “LAX?”
The man shook his head. “No. There is a small airport over in Goleta. You didn’t know that?”
No. Johnny didn’t know that. However, considering that the man had mentioned Father’s last name, it was plausible that he was telling the truth. “All right,” he said. “Let’s go to your office.”
The man parked his car, got out, and walked next to Johnny, while his hand rested comfortably on Johnny’s back.
He didn’t like that.
At that time, the school looked like the abandoned city of Chernobyl in his early stages back in the eighties, before all the mold and putrefaction had settled in and turned the place into a ghost town. Johnny smiled at that thought. He had a flare for the ugly side of life.
They walked into the office, which had an invisible miasma of smoke hovering under the ceiling. The man hadn’t introduced himself yet, but a brief glance at the nameplate took care of that. Brian Parks, it read. There was also the obligatory picture of the happy couple on the desk, Parks looked ten-years-younger in it, was clean-shaven, and the young, black-haired woman next to him had that broad smile that nearly touched her earlobes. There was also a small wooden box next to the picture, and what looked like a candy wrap sticking out of it, like the hand of the undead coming out of a grave.
Brian sat on a chair next to Johnny, too close for comfort, and put the picture down as if he were ashamed of something. “Got any kids?” Johnny asked.
“No. Unfortunately, no,” Brian said but didn’t offer further explanation.
Johnny had an idea why. Maybe Mrs. Parks couldn’t procreate? Who cares?
“So,” Brian said, “I think I haven’t properly introduced myself_”
“No need, Mr. Parks,” Johnny said. “I already saw your nameplate.”
That smile again. “You are a smart kid, aren’t you?”
Johnny shook his head. “No. I only observe a lot.”
Brian was satisfied with that answer. “Great,” he said. “Tell me more about you? Is there anything you feel like you want to talk about?” Seemingly, Father had filled Brian in on Mother’s suspicions, and he was trying to somehow make Johnny comfortable and talk about it.
Brian didn’t speak for a moment, waiting for Johnny to say something, but he kept on chewing his gum. That noise was beginning to feel slightly unbearable. Johnny lowered his head, unable to keep eye contact. He wanted to speak but didn’t know how to start.
“Would you like to call your dad?” Brian suggested. “Tell him you’re already here with me?”
“My phone is dead,” he said.
“Right.” For some reason, this made Brian smile.
Johnny was staring at the window; one hand playing with the zip on his bag, while a quick glance at Brian told him that smile of his was out of place. Brian looked at him up and down, sizing him up, like a piece of meat. Johnny pretended not to notice, but every time it happened he felt a rush as if waiting for something to happen.
He kept playing with the zip of his bag.
“Well,” Brian said. “At least tell me how was school today? Have you made any new friends?”
Johnny shook his head, still unable to speak.
Brian chuckled. “Ok, I’ll wait.”
Johnny was looking down one more time, staring at Brian’s sweaty and shaky hands. He looked anxious as if he wanted to do something. His mouth was slightly open, and the hair of his mustache covered half his upper lip.
“I really don’t know what to tell you,” Johnny said, “Mother and Father want me to make friends, but I say that I come to school to learn, not to socialize.”
“Socialize?” Brian said, “that’s a big word for a kid your age.
“See? There’s nothing I can learn from kids my age,” he said, then, Brian saw what looked like a window of opportunity for him to talk more.
“Tell me more,” Brian said.
“I don’t know. I have a feeling I understand why Father wants me to appear normal. Does it bother you that people want you to appear normal, Mr. Parks?”
That was a hell of a question. Johnny waited for an answer, while he kept playing with the zip of his bag.
Brian felt like he was in Johnny’s shoes. Never before he had come across such a challenging and smart kid. Johnny didn’t talk a lot, but when he did, the words he spoke were impressive. Brian had a hard time trying to hide his fascination for him. He rested comfortably on his back, trying to come up with an answer to Johnny’s question, while briefly noticing that he had already squeeze all the juice of his gum but kept masticating it nonetheless. Brian looked at the box next to the picture and opened it. There was an assortment of candies in it: sour worms, sour patch, mini Sneakers, Butterfingers, lollipops, etc.
“Would you like one?” Brian offered, making a weak attempt at dodging the question.
Johnny smirked. “Taking candy from strangers? I think I’ll pass.”
“We’re aren’t strangers, anymore, remember?”
“It’s ok. I don’t like candy anyways.”
Brian pulled his chair even closer, knee-to-knee, and the expression on his face was hardening as if he couldn’t keep the counselor façade anymore. Johnny -just like the smart kid he was- began noticing these changes. “I’m still waiting for your answer, Mr. Parks,” Johnny teased him; the look of defiance on his face was too obvious. He was now able to keep eye contact.
A shade of anger covered Brian’s face. “I think you should really have some sweets,” he said, trying desperately to keep his cool. “You should also remember to respect older people. I’m here to help you. It’s not the other way around.”
Johnny shook his head. His hand was still fiddling with the zip of his backpack, pulling it all the way open, then closing it again, while still expecting something bad to happen. Brian was getting upset, wondering why he kept doing that. Trying to find an explanation, Brian thought Johnny was intentionally enticing him because he wanted to be punished.
Without thinking whether it was appropriate, Brian put his left hand on Johnny’s thigh and gave him a morbid smile. He was already salivating.
Johnny didn’t like it. “Take your hand off me,” he said, a hint of anger rising up inside of him.
Brian raised his eyebrows; surprised he had misread the boy. Little did he know; misreading boys was something he always did. “Yeah, sure. Sorry, Johnny.” He said, turned away, both hands now reaching for something behind the wooden candy box.
In that split second, Johnny saw his chance. He reached into his open bag and pulled out the knife he took from the table that morning. Earlier that day, Johnny had honed the blade in the restroom, making it sharp enough to easily cut into the thickest skin. He stabbed the side of Brian’s neck, just as he was turning around with a knife of his own.
Compared to Johnny’s, his was a nice-looking, black knife with an edged blade; he couldn’t hide his admiration, even after the knife made a small cut on his forearm. He pulled the knife off Brian’s neck and yelled for help, while a stream of warm blood sprayed onto his chest and neck from the open wound. Not knowing exactly why, Johnny stabbed him a second time, this one straight into his ear. He couldn’t help but think of mash potatoes as the knife pushed through brain matter.
Brian dropped his blade, while his body slumped in the seat and erupted in a wave of quivers, jerking, until the last breath came out of his mouth. His dead eyes looked into Johnny’s face, and instead of a smile, a look of sheer horror took over his face for the last time.
Johnny pulled the knife and looked at the blade for one second. He seemed to be enjoying the moment as blood covered Brian’s clothes. A minute later Johnny couldn’t even contain his laughter. This is the rush he was waiting for. Killing dogs in the neighborhood? That wasn’t good enough for him anymore.
He opened the door and ran, his knife falling to the ground in the process. The principal had heard the shout, so he came out of his office, still zipping his pants. The young brunette behind him was cleaning cum off her mouth with a napkin while yelling, “What’s going on?”
By then, Johnny was already in front of them, putting on the best frightened voice he could come up with and said, “I… I think I’ve killed Mr. Parks! There’s blood everywhere and… He attacked me with a knife, and…” he stopped, unable to keep talking, as though he was too agitated.
“I’m calling 911,” the woman said.
“Please do!” The principal agreed.
Johnny embraced the man, looking for that extra need for protection, that cherry on top that would make the most skeptic person believe his story. He looked down and smiled briefly, making sure no one would see him.
It didn’t take long for the police and the news van to come. Nowadays, thanks to the inception of social media, bad news traveled faster than ever. Johnny didn’t change anything about his story. It was perfect the way it was, featuring a frightened child, a known child molester, and a self-defense kill of Hollywood proportions.
Open and shut case.
The man doing the news broadcast looked like Tom Selleck. His cameraman was a short and beefy Hispanic man with a kept goatee. He focused his camera on Selleck’s twin as he spoke with Johnny’s parents. They were clearly stricken, and even if nothing significant had happened to Johnny, they couldn’t help but think “what if.”
Outside the principal’s office, a paramedic checked the wound on Johnny’s forearm, put a Band-Aid and said, “You’re a lucky kid, you know that?”
Johnny didn’t know what to say to that, “I guess.”
Selleck’s twin ended up his broadcast saying how big of a hero Little Johnny was, and encouraged everyone to come forward and personally congratulate him for his valor. Mother embraced her husband while cleaning her tears with that white handkerchief that still had the red dots.
Johnny approached her parents, while the principal walked behind him with his backpack. “Here you go, Mr. and Mrs. Yates. Take this young hero home.”
Mother smiled proudly. “Sure will. Thank you very much for_.”
“Don’t thank me. It’s me who will always be thankful. I cannot believe I didn’t see it. The most audacious and insidious pedophile this town has ever seen was hiding in plain sight, and only your son was able to_” he stopped as if he’d forgotten what words he wanted to say next. “Thank you, little Johnny. God bless you.”
As they left, one of the police officers suggested he should seek therapy to help him cope with the trauma he just experienced. To mother’s surprise, Johnny immediately accepted. “Maybe we can do that tomorrow, mom?” he said. “I’m a little tired right now.”
“It’s ok, baby,” she said, a tender hand caressing his blond hair.
They walked away, toward their car, Mother and Father sat in front while Johnny sat in the back. Mother said, turning around, “I’m glad you accepted to have therapy, baby.”
“I know, mom. Now I understand what my father means when he says that I have to learn how to mingle.”
Father looked through the windshield mirror. “Sorry about those bruises on your arms, but I told you about killing those dogs. People were beginning to suspect.”
Little Johnny was under the impression that his mother didn’t know about the dogs. Only his father. “Oh, I knew all along, baby,” she said. “We just didn’t want you to feel overwhelmed, knowing the kind of person you were becoming.”
Johnny was confused. “I thought you talked about seeing a psychiatrist because_.”
“Because you don’t have any friends?” she asked, looking back, smiling widely at him.
It all made sense now. The reason why Little Johnny wanted to kill. Even if Father knew and kept his secret, it has been Mother all along who had passed down to him that urge to kill. “I don’t mean to be rude, but you should stop watching Forensic Files. It’s the same kind of violence, you know.” He remembered what he told Mother that morning.
It all was strange but beautiful at the same time. Johnny smiled, feeling more confident. Killing a human being felt way better. He would just have to do it again. Soon.