A Place for the Children

by Dan Devine

Will awoke, remembering the sound of a truck horn, deep and low and so loud that he could feel it rattling the bones in his chest. There was something important about that sound, or the events that came right after, but he couldn’t think of what.

Then he opened his eyes and gasped in wonder, the notion completely forgotten. For Will found himself in the home of a giant. It was as if he had climbed Jack’s beanstalk to the clouds and snuck in beneath the door. A fireplace towered to his left, the stonework a sheer cliff that stretched upwards from the yawning cavern of its unlit depths. Its mantle hung several stories above him.

Before him spread a sea of plush white carpet. It reached almost to his shoulders and brushed against him, tickling, as he pushed himself forward. Colossal chairs and tables loomed around him, and in the distance he could see miles of flowered wallpaper running along the horizon.

There were other children here, chasing each other through the carpet and laughing, and everywhere there were toys. Balls and bats, cars and trucks, figurines and dolls—all made for a person of his size. They littered the ground so thickly that Will had to take care with each step not to trip over something. Even his room at home had never been this messy.

Bending down to inspect a few, he found that many of the playthings seemed old-fashioned. There were no TVs or Playstations here, only yo-yos and jacks. Many of the toys were strange ones that he didn’t recognize. Here and there among the carpet stood life-sized toy soldiers keeping guard over its fibers. Most were painted in bright red and blue and were vaguely familiar in style, like something that kids would play with in old movies.

One of the soldiers that Will passed was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. Its face was painted white with splotches of bright colors, but instead of the friendly face of a clown, it had the sinister smile and the rosy cheeks of the joker from a deck of playing cards. It wore a uniform of red like all of the others, but in the place of one arm it had a broad white knife with grooves along one side. It looked a lot like the knife you’d find in a set of plasticware. Will shivered and looked away.

A few boys came sprinting by, one stopped to grab his arm. “Come and play with us!” he urged, smiling cheerfully. Will fell into step behind them.

They led him beneath the shade of a massive coffee table, twenty feet high. Will saw that several colored strands of mismatched yarn had been woven together to form thick, fluffy ropes that hung down from the tabletop. Glancing upwards he wondered how any of the children would have ever found the courage to make the first climb up the table’s knobby legs unaided.

“Hey new kid, you gonna play or what?” shouted one of the larger boys. He was a bit older than Will, probably nine or ten.

They had apparently done their best to create a playing field here. The attempts to flatten the carpeting had failed, though it retained a partially bent-to-the-side look that differentiated it from the remainder of the rug; and the heaps of toys that formed a ring around it implied that they’d taken the time to try and clear the ground so that one could run without obstructions. At each end of the field there were two large piles of toys that marked the boundaries of a goal.

Two groups of kids stood opposite each other at the middle of the playground. All of them were looking at Will. He noted that most of the players were boys, though a few of the tallest girls were taking part as well and many more sat around the perimeter playing with dolls or chatting while no doubt occasionally looking up when things sounded exciting.

Will jogged over to join the team of the boy who had called to him. He saw that the boy was holding a football. He supposed that made sense, it’d be hard to kick a soccer ball through the carpeting. Most of the children gave him welcoming smiles but the big boy just nodded, all business.

“Can you catch?” he asked.

Will shrugged, having never really played football before.

“Guess we’ll find out,” said the boy, shaking his head doubtfully.

Will wasn’t big for his age, though the majority of the boys here were about the same size, but he was very fast and this soon had John, the quarterback, acting much friendlier. Even Noah, the quickest child on the other team, seemed to be having trouble covering him; and Will was also fast enough to get in the way of several passes when he was playing defense.

Will soon found himself having a blast. He caught two touchdowns and would have had more if he hadn’t dropped some balls that he should have caught. He was rapidly making friends among his teammates, as young boys do, and only regretted that he was too out of breath to ask them many questions about how they had come to be here.

The game was just nearing its end when a great clamor erupted from above—children screaming, blowing horns, and stamping their feet. Will froze and looked up at the underside of the table above, wondering at the cause of the commotion, but most of the children burst into motion at once. They rushed towards the crude ropes that hung down from the tabletop and began scrambling up them in a panic.

Only Will and a few of the other kids remained where they were, staring about themselves dumbly. John whacked him on the back and to get his attention. “Come on, new kid!” he shouted brusquely. “The soldiers are waking up!”

Will roused himself and followed the older boy, though he likely wouldn’t have been able to make the long climb up the rope without John repeatedly tugging him up by the collar. It was only when he had reached the top, and had a bird’s eye view of the scene below, that he really understood what John had been saying.

All over the household, the toy soldiers were coming alive. They marched stiffly across the carpet on their jointless legs, splitting up to patrol the entirety of the room. He saw more moving across shelves and bookcases in the distance.

Will heard a shout from directly below him and he realized that some of the children were still trapped down on the carpet. No doubt new kids like him, they had been slow to recognize the need to flee and now they were having difficulty making the climb and kept slipping back down the soft ropes onto the ground. Older boys and girls quickly slid down the ropes to rescue some but not many were willing to take the risk as the soldiers grew near.

“John, what will happen?” asked Will, terrified.

“They still have a chance,” he replied, pointing towards the ropes of yarn which had not been retracted. “The soldiers haven’t found a way to climb up to the table yet, they can’t bend their arms enough to use the ropes so some of them make it up here to safety. Otherwise, they need to start hiding. If they keep their heads down there and don’t overreact they’ll be all right. It’ll be a long night of running and they might get hurt some, but they’ll be okay.”

As he said this, one of the soldiers reached the edge of the playing field. Seeing the children who remained there, it raised the hand that held a bugle to its mouth and blew a haunting tune. Upon hearing this, the other soldiers changed direction and doubled their speed, hurrying to the quarry. By far the fastest of them was the joker-faced soldier that Will had noticed earlier. John pointed to it as it approached.

“The Scarecrow seems to be their leader,” he said. “I know he doesn’t look like a Scarecrow but Amy, one of the younger girls, called him that once early on and the name stuck.”

“What will they do?” Will found himself whispering. John only nodded silently towards the scene unfolding below.

The Scarecrow and his troops had surrounded a young boy. He couldn’t have been more than three. He looked up at the much taller soldiers and shook, bawling in terror. The Scarecrow’s bladed arm swept up and the thing lunged forward far faster than Will would have believed it could move. The knife was broad and round and did not appear sharp at all, but it cut into the boy as if he offered little resistance.

Will heard the child scream in pain and buried his head in his hands so that he would not have to watch. “No!” he shouted, but John shook him and forced him to look again. Surprisingly, Will saw that there was no blood, and though the child had been stabbed through the chest and collapsed, he was now rising to his feet.

The boy’s confusion had stopped his tears for the moment but the Scarecrow showed no compassion and swiftly struck again. The boy howled even louder this time.

“Why would you watch them do this?” cried Will.

“To be ready to warn them,” replied John.

A momentary gap appeared in the shuffling line of soldiers, and seeing it the young boy dove through and ran for freedom. It took a moment for his captors to clumsily reverse direction on their stilted legs and it seemed as if he would make his escape.

Will cheered but was amazed to find himself drowned out by those around him shouting in alarm. Belatedly, he realized that the soldiers were moving much slower than they had moments ago, as if they did not want to catch the boy and sought only to drive him onwards.

“Turn back! Turn back!” John and the others were yelling at the top of their lungs. “We can’t go into the fireplace!”

But either the distance was too great for the boy to hear or he was simply deaf with fear, for he smiled as he fled straight towards it. Reaching his goal, the boy dropped through the metal grating below him, perhaps hoping to hide in the ashes beneath.

Instead the fireplace roared into life for a brief instant and Will thought he could see a shape moving in its flames. A deep laugh echoed through the room, cutting off the young boy’s screams and making Will’s hair stand on end.

“Come to me, my children!” boomed the thing in the fire, its voice echoed off of the walls. “End your torment, for you will all be mine in the fullness of time!” The laughter came once more and then the flames disappeared. The soldiers resumed their patrols.

A few more children managed to climb their way to safety with strength born of fear. Others remained on the ground but constantly on the run, and all managed to avoid capture until the time, several hours later, when the soldiers returned to their starting points and froze into place. The crowd of children on top the table broke up and began heading to their ramshackle beds and homes made of paper and scraps to catch some sleep.

“And this happens every night?” Will demanded of John.

John nodded, then grabbed Will by the shoulders and stared directly into his eyes. “The important thing to realize is that you cannot die here,” he said. “No matter how much they hurt you, pain is all that they can cause. Do not let them lure you towards the Exits—there are more than just the fireplace and we will teach you about them, but there is no coming back from whatever lies on the other side.”

“But why?” asked Will, to him it seemed the only important question but he knew that he wasn’t expressing it well enough. He tried again. “But why are any of us here?”

John looked at him for a long moment and finally just shrugged. He pointed over to a book that lay open, taking up a large portion of the coffee table. Then the older boy mumbled something about seeing him later and stumbled off to bed.

Will approached the book and at first he took it to be a Bible, but as his eyes scanned the words he found instead that it was some sort of theological textbook. It seemed like something that they would make you read at religious school. Most of the words were too complex for him to understand, but one passage in particular had been underlined to draw your attention to it.

These are the words that were highlighted: “Such infants as quit the body without being baptized will be involved in the mildest condemnation of all.”

Will studied the words for a moment, trying to puzzle out their meaning, then shook his head and headed off to find the makings of a comfy bed. Then he remembered the sound of the truck horn, deep and low—and the impact…

Will stopped and reflected on all that had just happened in this giant’s house. Despite the frightening experience it seemed there must be something hopeful about this place, what with all the playthings and new friends he’d made. He never really got discouraged about things before, and he would not do so now. If there were Dangerous Exits, then surely there were Exits to a Better Place as well—and perhaps all everyone had been waiting for was for him to find them. After all, this house had clearly been built for someone far greater than its toys.

© 2008 Dan Devine
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.

Dan Devine is a scientist by day and an aspiring science fiction author by night, though he'll write anything that pops into his head. For a short time he served as editor of Fools Motley Internet Magazine, but he recently decided to shut it down and focus on improving his own writing. He has since had stories published in Dark Fire, Afterburn SF, and Flash Tales Magazines. For more of Dan's stories, visit here.

Also, read Dan's two-part spiritual coming-of-age adventure published by ResAliens.
The Pride of the Tribe, Part 1
The Pride of the Tribe, Part 2