None of the Children Know They Aren't Real

(February 4, 2007)

It's 3 PM on a sunny day in the inorganic forest; gangly shadows splay out across asphalt paths crisscrossing the pasteboard loam, and trees with bark of tempered glass sway in a vague approximation of their leafy counterparts. Children have gathered in the courtyard of the wood's tallest landmark, a building so big that its cloud-soaked top floor is better fodder for legends than any bedtime story about witches and warlocks. Surrounded by their own reflections, stretched images of a dozen little people splitting and reforming at different angles created by their oversized playground, the children assemble in a circle to face each other.

One steps forward and nears all of his companions as he enters the ring, dragging a large sack behind him. This is When the House is Paid Off; he wears a shirt emblazoned with the image of a well-kept but unassuming home, and his muddy blue jeans appear to have been patched with thatch. With a quick nod toward the sun-drenched building, When the House is Paid Off reaches into his bag and begins to retrieve its contents. He exposes a series of objects to the climate-controlled air, glancing at each for a moment or two before passing it to one of his friends. The boys and girls grab at their newfound possessions with eager glee, eyes glowing with expectation and feet tapping at the ground in impatience; however, no one says a word. Apart from the hiss of the wind filtering through the air ducts overhead and the smothered echoes of brief anticipatory dances, these transactions are conducted in silence.

Once the treasures are distributed, the group of half-sized explorers disbands without comment; each turns with a flourish and darts off to explore the well-groomed landscape. A short and nondescript girl clad in overalls of no discernible colour, labeled inside her own head as I Don't Think the Dog Would Like Her, shimmies up the trunk of a tree placed with calculated precision outside the building's lobby. She clambers upward from branch to branch with a book clenched between her teeth, nails digging into the bark and arms hauling her weight with no apparent effort. When she reaches a branch extending at the level of the office's third floor, she swings herself onto it and walks half-bent like a monkey toward the window.

Spitting the book into one hand and tearing at it with the other, I Don't Think the Dog Would Like Her rends pages three and four at a time from their binding. She throws the paper - so pristine and shining triple-bleached that it meshes neatly with its surroundings, a synthetic prop against its synthetic backdrop - at the glass, her eyes shifting hue from blue to green to brown but remaining fixed on the people sitting inside.

- they are flimsy grey spectres that blur by with the breeze -
- the colour of my dreams, if I had dreams -
- "They're fed on Taco Bell and antifreeze!" he crows with pride -
- Could you dumb it down a notch? The morons are listening -
- "I'm terribly sorry," he whispers, "but I've been lonesome. I'd be lying if I pretended that I'm not also happy." -

Sections of text flit by, floating meaningless outside of their natural contextual habitats, as the girl grins and pulls. After a few minutes, she reaches into the book again but her knuckles graze only empty covers, stripped of their filling; she dangles her legs off of the branch and tosses the trade-bound husk away. It lands noiselessly in grass manicured too close to the ground to obscure its title, printed neatly and without imagination across its face: Whenever Work Lets Up, I'd Really Like To Write One.

What if I'm a Bad Mom? glances at the gutted book, then returns his attention to the lobby's spartan interior. He sits with his legs bent into the lotus position, a guitar settled across his lap and a few scraps of what look like corporate letterhead lying in front of him. He opens his mouth and begins to strum the guitar as he reads from the paper, but his fingers and tongue release no notes. Instead, the words spiral upward from where they've nested in the earth, surrounded in gentle colours which hint at their intonations:

Someday I'll write the most beautiful song you've ever heard, and it will show you just how much I love you. I just need to get inspired first, just need to feel more settled, just need to relax, just need to wait a little longer, just need to feel ready...

The syllables twirl and twitch as they glide like birds taking their final flights out to sea, and the higher they go, the more they fluctuate. As each letter reaches the building's top storey, it breaks off from the rest and shatters, scattering red- and purple-tinted pixels which vanish against the colour-corrected sky. What if I'm a Bad Mom? sees the full cant off of the scribbled pages and then smiles with relief as he tosses his guitar aside, his hands faintly stained the colours of the words. He flops backward and begins to perform a gleeful analysis of the clouds, pointing at the most interesting shapes for I Don't Think the Dog Would Like Her's benefit.

The other children are similarly industrious: When the House is Paid Off affixes handmade Christmas cards to a series of halogen lights, each bit of cardboard labeled with names too faint to make out. Maybe Once I'm Promoted totes an oil painting of a beaming woman, its frame labeled 'After I'm Retired, I'll Learn,' over to a bench dotted with the remnants of cigarettes. Art of all kinds is slung onto concrete dividers and across marble lumps of strategic atmosphere, half-formed and indistinct, by cheerful creatures who are similarly ill-defined. Footprints dot the courtyard and creative shapes overtake its preplanned angles; the dozen little people prance on silent feet, making their little changes in every direction.

But now it's 5 PM in the inorganic forest, and noisy footfalls fill the air as the building's occupants spill out. A hundred adults flood the courtyard's paths, gravitating toward the parking lot and surrounding themselves with a thick chorus of "maybe"s, "once"s, "when"s, and "if"s. No one seems to notice the bits of paper, colour, texture, and light which weren't here at 8:30 AM; however, each person pauses for a moment and blinks in the sunlight as he or she catches sight of something dark. The bewildered workers then shake away various but similar thoughts - after all, how could there be so many afterimages of children lurking in their peripheral vision when there were no children here in the first place?