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The Bad Kid (1990)

The Bad Kid (1990)

©1990, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (1990). The bad kid. Unpublished short story.






The Bad Kid

A Short Story by Dallas Denny


Miss Grant was not in a good mood. When she was having one of her days, as she was today, applicants tended to irritate her, but this man would have irritated her at any time. He was dressed nicely enough. His hair was trimmed and he was neatly shaven, and his shoes were even shined, but there was an air about him. He stank— figuratively, although at least half of the applicants were literally malodorous— of fear. He was making supplicating motions with his hands, moving his thumbs against his fingers as if he were nervously rubbing the brim of a hat, but he was wearing no hat—not that a hat, even if it would cover his thinning hair, would be any particular improvement, in Miss Grant’s opinion.

“Let me see if I have this right,” said Miss Grant in her most professional passive-aggressive manner. “You are asking the Department to take your child?”

“Yes,” said the man.

“But you aren’t having any sort of financial hardship.”

“No, ma’am.”

“And your wife isn’t able to care for him.”

“As I explained, my wife is incapacitated.”

“Is there no other family? Someone who would care for him?”

“Not anyone who could take him,” said the man. “My parents are dead, and my wife’s mother is, too. Her father is in a nursing home. She has no brothers or sisters. I have a brother, but I lost touch with him years ago. He may be dead, for all I know.”

“And you’re not asking for help because you fear you might abuse the child in some way.”

“Certainly not.”

Miss Grant was in somewhat of a dither, because she had just run through the list of reasons why a parent might want to temporarily give up his or her child. But Mr. Johnson wasn’t asking the Department of Family Services to care for the child on a temporary basis. He wasn’t asking the Department to take care of Benjamin until he could get his act together, or until a specific problem was taken care of. He didn’t want to see the child again, ever, or so he said.

“It’s not that I don’t love Benjamin,” volunteered Mr. Johnson. “I do. I just wish to be rid of him and any and all connections to him. And right away wouldn’t be too soon.”

Four-year-old Benjamin Johnson, the subject of the conversation, sat in a chair, innocently studying his shoes. He was a beautiful child, the sort, Miss Grant thought, any parent would love. “Mr. Johnson,” said Miss Grant, “parents don’t ordinarily just waltz in here and hand over their children. It just isn’t done. Perhaps he could stay with his mother. You said she was incapacitated. Perhaps if we provided supportive services for her, she could manage little Benjamin. What, exactly, is wrong with her? Does she live in the vicinity?”

“Yes,” replied Johnson.” Physically, she’s here in town. But it’s not a question of her needing a bit of help with him. She’s in a hospital room stuffed full of tubes. The doctors say there’s damage to the brainstem, and they don’t think she’ll ever wake up.”

“So she’s in a coma, then?”

“Yes.” Johnson dabbed at his eyes.

“I’m so very sorry. May I ask what happened?”

“She was in the kitchen on a stool, apparently getting a heavy pot from the top shelf of the cabinet. She slipped and fell, and the pot— it was made of cast iron— somehow struck her in the back of the head. Or at least, that’s the paramedics’ best guess about what happened. I was at work, and she was home with Benjamin. When I came in, she was just— lying there, and Bennie was in a chair, making a big mess with the Cocoa Puffs.”

“So perhaps what you’re saying is that you feel that Benjamin is a bit much for a single man to care for.”

“No! It’s not that. I could manage three children if I had to. It’s— it’s Benjamin himself.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand, Mr. Johnson. Does Benjamin misbehave?”

“Not in any overt fashion. At least not usually. But he—look, Miss Grant, there’s no rule that says parents have to like their children. I don’t like Benjamin. And neither did Mrs. Johnson. We had discussed coming here, and now that— now that—”
Johnson put his hands over his face and began sobbing unquietly.

“Mr. Johnson!” said Miss Grant sternly. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing!”

After a moment Johnson raised his head and looked at Miss Grant through reddened eyes. “You think I don’t feel terrible about it? You think Gloria and I didn’t cry together practically every night, didn’t try to convince each other it wouldn’t make us bad parents or bad human beings to send Benjamin away? We beat each other up about it all the time, but at the same time, it was becoming increasingly clear to us that Ben wasn’t the child we had wanted. We didn’t want to keep him.”

“But why?” asked Miss Grant, looking at Ben’s cherubic face. He now had his shoe off and was swinging it about happily. “Look at him. What terrible thing could this child possibly have done to make you want to give him up?”

“It’s not what he’s done,” said Johnson, a bit too loudly, “so much as who he is.”

“I’m afraid that makes little sense to me,” said Miss Grant.

Johnson controlled his arms, which he had been waving about erratically. “I understand he’s a handsome child. He’s bright, reasonably well-behaved most of the time, and healthy. But I don’t want him. And I can’t explain why, except I will say this.” He looked hard into Miss Grant’s eyes. “Benjamin belongs someplace else. I don’t know where, in some trailer park in Alabama maybe, with a father who would beat him and a mother who would pinch him when no one was around, or maybe in some upscale New York high rise where Mommy and Daddy would have no time for him and he would be raised by an au pair. Maybe his father should be Gary Gilmore and his mother Lizzie Borden. I don’t know where he’s supposed to be, but I do know this: he should be somewhere, anywhere, but in our home. If he stays with me, something terrible is going to happen.”

“Mr. Johnson!” snapped Miss Grant. “Such talk of abuse is the one thing that will cause the Department to intervene.”

Johnson looked at her, horror in his eyes. “Not to him,” he said in a small voice. “To me.”

Miss Grant had Mr. Johnson wait while she took the matter to her supervisor. “If we were to go into the business of taking unwanted children off of parents’ hands, we would be even more swamped than we already are,” the supervisor snapped.

When she returned, Miss Grant told Mr. Johnson there was no possible way for the Department to assume custody of Benjamin.

“But you do it all the time!” cried Johnson.

“Yes, but only in cases of abuse or neglect or exploitation— and even then we do everything possible to keep the family together.”

“So if I were to beat Benjamin,” Mr. Johnson said bitterly, “or leave him at the bus station, you would take him from me.”


“But if I bring him here and ask you to take him, you won’t.”

“That’s about it,” sniffed Miss Grant, who was anxious to wind up the interview and go to lunch.

“Did you ever read Catch-22?” Johnson asked suddenly.

“No, Mr. Johnson, I didn’t.”

“Well, this is certainly a catch-22. If I beat Benjamin, you’ll take him, but if I bring him here and ask you to take him, you won’t because I haven’t beaten or abandoned him.”

“I would say that’s correct.”

“What if I said I beat him?”

“If you were to say you beat Benjamin, I wouldn‘t believe you.”

“Catch-22!” Johnson cried triumphantly.

“If you say so, Mr. Johnson. Now if there’s nothing else, I do have other responsibilities.”


Two days later, Johnson was back, late in the day, with Benjamin in tow. He burst into Miss Grant’s office unannounced.

“I ask you two times to take Benjamin!” he shouted.

“Mr. Grant! However did you get in here without an appointment? I must ask you to leave right away.”

“Please take him,” begged Johnson. He was unshaven and looked gaunt. “I tried to leave him at the airport, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I tried to hit him, so I could show you a bruise, but I couldn’t make myself. You must take him now. Time is short.”

Miss Johnson briefly considered asking her supervisor whether the Department should indeed take the child, but considering how surly her supervisor had been that morning, she decided against it. “Mr. Johnson, you must leave now and take the child with you. And I don’t want to see you back here.”

Johnson turned, shoulders slumped, then turned back and leaned over Miss Grant’s desk. He said in a small voice, “I didn’t want to tell you this. It sounds too crazy. Ben destroys his toys. No matter what we get him, he will take it apart in unusual ways. We used to have a cat. We had had it for years, since long before Benjamin was born. One day Ben was demolishing a G.I. Joe doll, pulling off its limbs, and he looked in a most peculiar way at Sparks, the cat, and said, “You’re next.”

“You’re not going to tell me—“ began Miss Grant.

“I most certainly am. It wasn’t long after that that Sparks went missing. We didn’t find him until he began to smell. We found him in the back of the closet in Ben’s room. The little bastard had twisted a piece of wire around her neck and stuck a piece of wood in a loop and twisted it until—“

“Surely you don’t think Benjamin did such a horrible thing,” Miss Sparks interjected. “He’s only a child!”

“Sparks was so gentle,” said Johnson. “She didn’t even scratch him, even as she was dying. Or maybe he was just quick. There wasn’t a mark on Bennie.”

“That’s horrible.”

“There’s more,” said Johnson. “Benjamin had… experimented on Sparks’ body. How he did the things he did without getting covered in blood, I’ll never know. The closet was a mess.”

“Mr. Johnson,” said Miss Sparks, who was by now thoroughly shaken. “Perhaps it was someone else, an older child, or a neighbor.”

“No, it was Ben, all right. And do you know what he said when his mother confronted him about the cat?”

“I can’t imagine, Mr. Johnson.” Miss Grant shuffled some papers. “Perhaps I can arrange for you and Benjamin to have regular visits with one of the therapists at the mental health center.”

“He looked at Gloria and said, ‘You’re next.’”

“Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes. I’m convinced that Ben caused whatever happened to Gloria. Maybe he pulled the stool out from under her. And maybe the pot didn’t hit her when it fell. Maybe as she was lying there, stunned, he picked it up and finished what he’d started.”

“I can’t believe that.”

“Yes you can. You must. Because I’m next. He told me so.”

“Mr. Johnson, I can’t bring myself to believe a four-year-old child could be so thoroughly evil. But I am convinced that you believe it. You’re partially realized your goal. I’m no longer sure Benjamin will be safe at home with you. I’m going to open a case and assign a worker. She will look in on the two of you at least twice a week. I’m also making an appointment for you to see a therapist. And I can help with finding day care, if you need it.”

“Miss Grant, it sounds as if you’re expecting me to take Benjamin home today.”

“I most certainly am.”

Grant was near panic. “But I can’t. I can’t have him at the house! Don’t you understand? I’m next!”

“Mr. Johnson…”

“I have his things in the car. Please let me go out and get them.”

Miss Grant thought for a moment. With Johnson in such a state, maybe it wouldn’t be wise to send him home with Benjamin. “Alright, then. I’ll arrange for respite for a few days, give you a chance to collect yourself. How’s that?”

“Oh, thank you! Thank you. I’ll just go get his things.” Johnson fairly fled through the door.

Miss Grant smiled at little Benjamin. “Your father has gone to the car to get some of your things. When he comes back, I’ll be taking you to a nice place to visit for a few days. Okay?” Benjamin nodded his head solemnly.

Miss Grant turned her attention to the not inconsiderable stack of paper in her in box. She glanced at Benjamin from time to time as she sorted the paper into piles: do now, do later, no action needed. It wasn’t until she became aware of a faint knocking noise that she realized that it was Johnson. Since four-thirty had come and gone, the door at the top of the stairs was locked. She rose, crossed the hall, and opened the stairway door to find Johnson balancing precariously on the landing with a big load of boxes and bags. “I got it all in one trip,” he said triumphantly, his eyes just showing over the top of the stack. Miss Grant stood aside, holding the door wide to let him pass.

Just as Johnson started to move forward, something small, moving fast, passed her on the left. She turned her head, belatedly, then turned it back just in time to see Benjamin launch himself into the air. “Daddy!” he screamed. Spreading his arms, he landed atop the pile of goods. His momentum drove Johnson from the landing. Miss Grant watched in horror and fascination as he was knocked backwards, going horizontal, bags and boxes flying. Benjamin was clinging like a leech to his chest, and forcing, Miss Grant was almost sure, his father’s head backwards so it would bear the brunt of the impact.

Then it was over. Johnson lay on his back on the landing below, his head crammed into the corner between the wall and the floor, his skull pushed well out of shape. Miss Grant was sure he was dead. Benjamin was nursing a skinned knee and crying. Miss Grant tottered to her desk and dialed the emergency number, then made her way shakily to the landing, where she stepped over Johnson’s body to console the child. “There, there, she said, hugging him. “It’ll be all right.”

The paramedics came, and the police. Finally it was over. The police had finished their investigation, the gawkers had gone back to wherever it is that gawkers go, and the blood on the stairway had been mopped up. Johnson was in the morgue and Benjamin had been taken to a foster home. Miss Grant sat at her desk, at an hour when she had usually long been home, and remembered the two words Benjamin had whispered in her ear as she gave him a last hug before he was taken away:

“You’re next.”