Bad Penny in the Deep, Dark Burbs
Hi. My name is Penny and, yes, I’m one of those feral children you’re always hearing about. Now, I know you city folks think the ‘burbs are just wall-to-wall cannibalism and marauders and chthonic deities that consume the dreams of children — and that’s all true! — but there’s a lot of other stuff you don’t hear about, like the beautiful things that swim through the cornstalk sea or the way the wee dogmen dance by moonlight.
So, to set the record straight — and to save myself alotta time, let’s be honest — I’m putting to paper some of the things people ask me the most. If you don’t see your question here… too bad, I guess? You’ll just have to find your own feral child and pester them with questions. I have other things to do, you know.
#1) “Why did your parents abandon you?”
Are you kidding? They’d been trying to get rid of me for years! When I was but a babe, my mother threw me out with the bathwater. Fortunately, the bathwater threw me back. At the tender age of four, they tried to sell me to the witch who runs the corner store. That old bag took one look at me and had a vision of being stuffed into her own oven by a cackling preschooler. She declined the offer.
The one that finally stuck was on my eighth birthday, when they tossed me in the minivan and dropped me off at Skhoul. No, that’s not a typo: ‘School’ is a place for learning, whereas ‘Skhoul’ is a dying god from before the dawn of time. It has a thousand eyes, but cannot see, so I dove under the rusted wreck of a mid-size sedan just before its squamous tentacles burst through the front doors and began thrashing about for me.
There I stayed for hours, long after the great beast had retreated back into its pit below the gymnasium. I crawled around until I found a station wagon with a little engine grease left in it, which I used to rat up my hair and paint my face for war. I even found a lacrosse stick behind the corpse of some insane or guilt-ridden parent. The parking lot was lousy with ‘em.
Right around three o’clock, the beast disgorged its horde of little marauders, screaming and whooping like deranged howler monkeys, climbing over each other to board their warbuses. I slipped in among them, kicking and biting just to blend in. Ten minutes later, I melted into the darkness while the ravenous horde pillaged a 7-Eleven.
#2) “Is it true that your house walks on frog legs?”
Absolutely not. It’s Mama Yaga’s house, not mine, but it does have frog legs. The whole house can up and hop away at a moment’s notice, even reach the spirit world, if it wants. When it lands on another house, it just squashes it flat. Somehow, nobody ever seems to notice.
Mama Yaga is a real wicked witch. She can call up the four winds and knows how to make it rain. She has a spectral hound that does her bidding. She knows the secret languages of every plant and animal. She trafficks with cannibals and ghoulies, portmanitous and the damned, but she is neither their friend nor their ally. She’s her own woman.
The only reason she lets me hang around is because I remind her of her daughter. The poor thing was taken by Strangers many years ago. Some say it drove the old lady mad; others say she was mad already. All I know is that she cooks me dinner any time I come around, insists on calling me ‘Tiffany,’ and likes to braid my hair.
#3) “Where can I get a magical bike like yours?”
You can’t. I earned mine through pain and suffering. Also, I’m friends with a witch. The thing you gotta understand about bikes is that, in the ‘burbs, they’re freedom. Without one, your range is limited, you’re vulnerable to highwaymen, and other kids will make fun of you. I wasn’t about to put up with any of that, so I resolved to steal me a bike.
The first place I tried was also the most foolish, but the marauders at Skhoul always have the best bikes. They’re all tricked out in spikes and armor and streamers on the handlebars. Unfortunately, they’re also tricked out with booby traps. I narrowly avoided a blast of salt acid and three poison darts before I decided to call it a day.
Next, I tried ambushing these homeschool kids I hate. Their parents ring this ridiculous bell at dinner and their domesticated offspring come a’ runnin’. It’s so cute, I wanna retch. The pollyannas just leave their bikes in the yard like the world’s not full or murders and thieves and feral children waiting patiently in their bushes.
Anyway, I just about had my hands on this sweet BMX when their family dogman — a nasty little Pekinese-Scottish mix — came charging across the yard at me, snarling and cursing in its impenetrable accent. Honestly, I couldn’t understand a word, but it was definitely threatening and probably scatological. If not for their invisible fence, it woulda been me or him.
When I got back to Mama Yaga’s place, demoralized and exhausted, she took pity on me and set about building a bike from scratch. She spun spider silk into a chain that never skips, trapped a lucky cricket in a matchbox to use as a bell, and fashioned wheels from a pair of enormous dreamcatchers. It was one of a kind and it was perfect.
Well, almost perfect. With Skhoul eating so many of the children’s dreams, most of what’s left over are crappy adult dreams. I can’t tell you how many loose teeth I’ve had to pry from my spokes on account of people’s anxiety. But sometimes, you catch a nice, happy dream and the tires get so light you can do a pretty mean mid-air 360 with a barspin, no sweat.
And, no, it’s not for sale.
#4) “What swims in the cornstalk sea?”
When the snow’s on the ground, it’s nothing but hoop snakes and abominable snowmobiles, but when the stalks are high and the moon is bright, you can watch the stumpback whales breach and leap and smack their driftwood tails against the corn, while schools of flaying fish zip through the night air, slicing grasshoppers to ribbons.
#5) “Will you sell me a dogman?”
Why?! So you can keep him in your purse while you traipse around the mall? Absolutely not! It’s disrespectful.
Look, he might be a pint-sized, bipedal schnauzer with puppy dog eyes the size of saucers, but his ancestors terrorized the prehistoric livestock that used to roam these ‘burbs. And she might be a cynocephalic Chinese Crested with a pink bow between her adorable, puffy ears, but her relatives once ruled a whole kingdom in India. Look it up!
It’s hardly their fault that a witch’s curse turned them into wee, precious pygmies that can fit inside a handbag. I mean, it’s kinda their fault for pissing off a woman who’s mastered the 36 cynocephalic transformations, but that’s no excuse to humiliate them further, not just so you can chat up the cuties at the dog park.
So, no, I won’t sell you a dogman.
#6) “Fine, but what’s a Portmani-whatever?”
Portmanitous are the animating spirits of two not entirely dissimilar things, like drive-thru windows and confessionals, or horseshoes and handgrenades. They’re extremely useful, as otherworldly entities go, but they’re not easy to deal with. They always have ulterior motives.
Not too long ago, I got it into my head to heal Mama Yaga’s broken heart. You know, with magic. So I started flipping through Mama’s cookbooks when she was out flying around in her Maytag washing machine or passed out drunk on bathtub gin, which was a lot of the time.
Turns out, magic and cooking have a lot in common. You gotta gather all the right ingredients and combine them in just the right way. For this spell, I had to gather a dozen roses and lay them out on a baking sheet, then stick them in the oven until all that remained was a pile of ash. Next, I had to prick my finger and, mingling my blood with the ashes, trace out the spirit’s symbol: a heart with a crown of flame.
I closed my eyes and focused on my heartbeat, visualized a fireplace and threw all my thoughts into the flames. I fell into a trace for who knows how long, then suddenly there was a woman in the kitchen with me. She was baking cookies, crouched down and staring into the oven while she bounced excitedly on the balls of her feet. She looked like my mother.
She asked me what I desired. I told her about Mama Yaga’s broken heart, about her missing daughter, and asked if she could do anything to fix it. She said she could, but only after I’d brought her “…the fire that warms the heart of your home.”
I rolled up a magazine and turned on the stove, but she just laughed and shooed me away. “Not her home! Your home! The one you were born into.” I put my face in my hands. Of course that’s what she wanted.
“That’s the problem with people,” she said, handing me a cookie with chunks of chocolate like icebergs stalking the Titanic, “they never really know what they want.”
And then she was gone like she’d never been there at all. Only the cookie in my hand remained. I let it grow cold as I sat there, contemplating what might happen if I went back to my parents’ house, what I’d like to say to them and what they could possibly say to me.
I asked myself… what was in my heart?
That’s how Mama Yaga found me, gazing into my navel while the room filled with gas from the wide-open oven. She took one look at the cookie and knew exactly what had happened. “That’s what you get,” is all she told me as she opened the windows and shut off the gas.
She was right, just not in the way she thought. I’d realized that I didn’t need anything from my parents, not anymore. Whatever words I had for them, they were really just for myself. They didn’t need to be spoken.
So, I didn’t get what I asked for, but I got something I wanted, which is more than I can say for the portmanitou. And Mama Yaga didn’t want her heart mended, anyway. She told me later, “Hearts are a lot like atoms, endlessly powerful when fused together or broken apart.”
Alright, I think those are all the most common questions. If you wanted to know where the Strangers took Mama Yaga’s daughter, complain to all the sickos who keep asking me to sell them a purse dogman. I already answered six questions when five woulda made a better listicle.
To everybody else, I hope this was a helpful glimpse into that strange, dangerous territory just outside your ideal commute range. Maybe now you can stop choking my inbox like a toll troll with an early morning jogger in his concrete fists.
This is Bad Penny, signing off and definitely NOT hiding in your bushes.
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