Jonah peered into the puppet pit. Wooden heads turned up in unison, greeting him with painted, blank-eyed stares. Creepy as hell, yet even after all the weird shit Jonah had seen dealing stolen spells on the streets, the puppets fascinated him like nothing else ever had—the mime with the monocle and the overly red lips; the clown with the bulbous, misshapen nose; the fancy lady with the feathered hair and the elongated head; the childlike jester. The closer Jonah leaned toward the metal grating that covered the pit, the more clearly he heard the puppets’ ceaseless titters and the clacking of their wooden jaws.
Reuben joined him at the pit, baseball cap pulled low, shadowing a knife-scarred face. The Judge’s goons were gonna give Reuben hell for the cap. Orange jumpsuits ain’t for accessorizing—that’s what they’d been told their first day on the Judge’s farm, along with “don’t ask questions” and “don’t touch the puppets.”
“So, you in or not?” Reuben asked.
“I told you ‘no’ already.” Jonah cast an anxious glance around. No sign of anyone, but the Judge’s foreman, a fellow by the name of Big Pete, had a knack for showing up just as shit was about to go down. “You get caught jacking the Judge’s car and they’re gonna haul your ass straight back to juvie.”
“Better than here.” Reuben spit into the puppet pit. “I can’t take another night listening to these creepy little fuckers.”
“I feel you, man. I do.” Jonah hadn’t slept much himself since he and Reuben got yanked out of juvie a week before to serve the rest of their time on the farm—part of some new reform program. Jonah liked that idea: reform. Finally doing something honest with his life. But the farm made getting there maddening as hell. All that tittering and clacking from the puppets dogged him no matter how far he ventured from the pit, like the sounds had burrowed deep into his brain.
“So, you’re in then?” Reuben pressed.
“You know what ‘no’ means, right?”
“Why don’t you explain it to me, professor? Show me how smart all those books of yours make you.”
Jonah had a few choice insults in mind, but before he could hurl one at Reuben, a glint from the pit caught his eye: his favorite puppet, the Queen of the Night, captivating in her silver gown and her crown of jeweled, sparkling spikes. She was the one thing that made Reuben’s plan tempting. If he snatched her before taking off, then maybe he could work out what kind of magic the Judge had used to create her. Find the right buyer for that spell, and Jonah could turn a tidy little profit, maybe enough to set his mother up real nice.
But then he imagined the look of disappointment his mother would give him when she figured out where the money had come from. And she would figure it out. She always did. Jonah shook his head. No, he was gonna get off the farm the right way. He was gonna earn it.
“I’m doing this with or without you,” Reuben said. “Tonight.”
“Then you’re doing it without me.”
“What the hell you got to stay for?”
“I heard guys have really turned it around here. Guys like Tyrone.”
Reuben snorted. “I ain’t heard nothin’ from Tyrone.”
“Because he bettered himself. Doesn’t have time for thugs like you now.”
Reuben muttered something about Jonah’s mama having time for thugs like him, but before Jonah could meet insult with insult, the Queen of the Night caught his eye again. He stared at her sparkling crown, mesmerized, barely aware of his fingers sliding around the pit’s grating.
“What’d I tell you about poking your fingers in there, boy?”
Jonah backed away from the pit, head down as the Judge’s foreman, Big Pete, strode toward them. Big Pete had the kind of presence you could feel coming, with broad shoulders, a beady-eyed stare, and biceps bigger than Jonah’s head. Despite the summer heat, Big Pete wore his usual long-sleeved flannel shirt and thick leather overalls. Leather was harder for the puppets to claw through, he claimed.
“These ain’t toys we’re dealing with,” Big Pete said, his voice like thick gravel. “These are nasty critters.”
“Why keep ‘em around then?” Reuben asked. “What’s the Judge need puppets for?”
Jonah cringed. What the hell was Reuben thinking? You didn’t question guys like Big Pete—especially not when you were planning to steal his boss’s Jaguar. You just kept your head down and your mouth shut except for a “yes, sir” or “no, sir” as required.
Big Pete stood silent for a long while, chewing on a wad of tobacco while he scrutinized Jonah and Reuben, his brow so furrowed that it looked as if his face had swallowed his eyes. Between each smack of Big Pete’s lips, Jonah heard the puppets: titter and clack, titter and clack. The sound pulled at him, insisting that he turn toward it, but Jonah kept his eyes fixed on the ground. One glance at the Queen of the Night on Jonah’s part and Big Pete would know he had been thinking about stealing her. It was like the guy could read every would-be crime on a person’s face.
“What’s anyone need a puppet for?” Big Pete finally said. He stripped off his thick work gloves and pointed at Reuben. “You. Take that damn hat off and get the stick from the shed. And you,” He pointed at Jonah. “Get ready to open the pit.”
Jonah crouched beside the pit, one hand ready to unlatch the grating, his gaze glued to Big Pete. If he managed to learn any of the big guy’s spells before leaving the farm, he wanted it to be this beauty coming up.
Big Pete cracked his knuckles and raised his hands in the air. “Open her up!”
Jonah unlocked the grating and heaved it open. The puppets jumped and clawed at the pit’s steel walls, trying to climb out. But before any of them could get a handhold, phosphorescent strings shot from Big Pete’s fingers and attached themselves to the puppets’ limbs. The clacks and titters silenced, replaced by a pained whine as the puppets became Big Pete’s unwilling marionettes, at the mercy of every twist and twirl of his fingers.
Big Pete yanked the puppets up and out of the pit. Several strings tangled, and the Queen of the Night stumbled, landing near Jonah’s foot. On instinct, Jonah reached down to help her up, but Reuben, stick in hand as Big Pete had ordered, smacked her out of reach, so hard that Jonah had to fight the urge to slug him.
“Are you thick, boy?” Big Pete barked at Jonah. “These little parasites would do worse than kill you.”
“What do they do?” Reuben asked.
“Nothing pleasant.” Big Pete snatched the hat off Reuben’s head and threw it in the pit. “Now come on while your boyfriend here gets this pit cleaned up.”
Rage flashed across Reuben’s face—a twitch of the cheek and a narrowing of the eyes that Jonah recognized all too well. Jonah tensed, wondering if Reuben might be dumb enough to try taking the stick to Big Pete.
“Yes, sir,” Reuben said instead, his reply crisp, anger simmering beneath.
With a grunt and a jerk of his stringed hands, Big Pete dragged the puppets behind him, moving so fast that it was near-impossible for them to get their footing. The few times one did, Reuben whacked it with the stick.
Jonah grabbed a shovel and a pail, then took a deep breath before climbing down into the pit. Puppet shit smelled worse than even the filthiest back alley he had ever hidden from the cops in, like crap dipped in formaldehyde. It made Jonah glad he didn’t know what was in that bloody-looking slop Big Pete made him feed to the puppets.
It didn’t seem fair that he was stuck with pit duty when Reuben was the one mouthing off all the time. But at least cleaning up didn’t take too long—scoop out the dung and the piss-soaked straw, hose down the scratched steel lining that kept the puppets from burrowing their way out, throw down a new bed of straw. Mindless work, but it gave Jonah time to pay attention to other things, like the farm’s layout. He took note of every tree, every tool shed, every row of crops, every vehicle parked at the end of the long winding driveway that led up from the main road, every loose fence slat along the property line. You could never know a joint too well. Jonah had no intention of escaping, but circumstances changed sometimes, and you had to be ready. If he had learned that lesson earlier, he wouldn’t have ended up on the farm in the first place.
Jonah spied Big Pete and Reuben standing further uphill, just outside the Judge’s white-columned monstrosity of a house. This was the first time Jonah had seen Big Pete take the puppets up to the house; normally he just dragged them around the fields until Jonah finished cleaning. The Judge strolled out to meet Big Pete, looking about as Southern fried rich as they came—white suit and a straw hat, walking cane polished to a shine. A black-suited bodyguard even bigger than Big Pete shadowed his every step. The Judge inspected the puppets, circling around them. When one got too close, he smacked it with his cane; the crack of wood-on-wood was loud enough for Jonah to hear all the way out at the pit.
Finally, the Judge pointed to one of the puppets. His bodyguard raised a hand in the air. Like Big Pete earlier, strings extended from the man’s fingers, cast like fishing lines. The strings latched onto one of the puppets. The jester, Jonah realized after a squint of his eyes and a crane of his neck. Several strings fell away from Big Pete’s hands, and the men parted ways—the Judge and his bodyguard toward the house with the jester, Big Pete and Reuben back toward the pit with the rest of the puppets in tow.
Jonah quickly returned his attention to pitching fresh straw into the pit, tossing the final clump in just as Big Pete and Reuben reached him. While Reuben used the stick to force the puppets back into the pit, Jonah kept his head down, determined not to show even the slightest interest in what had transpired up at the house. From the way the puppets jittered and whimpered, he had a feeling the jester wasn’t coming back.
With more force than needed, Reuben knocked the last of the puppets into the pit—the Queen of the Night. Jonah balled his fists, unclenched them just as fast. As much as he wanted to shove Reuben straight in after her, he kept his cool, closing and locking the grating as soon as the strings detached from Big Pete’s fingers.
Big Pete wiped their fibrous remnants on the legs of his overalls, then nodded toward Reuben. “Go up to the house and get me a towel.”
Reuben started toward the house, stick still in hand—at least until Big Pete snatched it from him. Reuben paused, stiffened, then continued on.
Big Pete looked Jonah up and down. “Don’t like cleaning up puppet shit, do you?”
“I tell you what . . .” Big Pete glanced after Reuben. “You keep tabs on that buddy of yours for me, and I’ll make sure you land some better detail around here.”
He knows, Jonah thought. He knows Reuben’s up to something, and so he’s testing me.
Snitching was about the worst thing you could do back in the neighborhood. With no small amount of guilt, Jonah remembered all the times Reuben could have ratted on him and didn’t—not even for money. Because that was the code. You stood by your own.
But this wasn’t the neighborhood, Jonah reminded himself. He thought about Reuben smacking those puppets harder than necessary; just like all those guys Jonah had seen hitting his mother back home. No, this was the farm, and the farm had a code, too. Follow it, and the worst Reuben would end up with was a beating before they hauled him back to juvie.
“The Judge’s car, sir,” Jonah said, meeting Big Pete’s gaze. Let him see the truth there. Let him see a guy who was gonna turn himself around and go clean. “Reuben’s planning to jack it tonight.”
“And you were planning to help him?”
“No, sir. I told him ‘no’ more than once.”
Big Pete studied him for a long while, like a lie was a thing he could find in the whites of Jonah’s eyes. Finally, Big Pete smiled.
“Keep your mouth shut and your nose clean like you’ve been doing, and one day you might find a place for yourself here like I did. Maybe learn a few of my tricks.”
“Yes, sir,” Jonah said with forced earnestness. Big Pete could work some sweet magic, but his spells weren’t enough to make Jonah want to stick around and become one of the Judge’s lackeys. No, if he was going clean, then he was going to be his own man.
Jonah lay on his cot that night, eyes closed, listening to it all go down: Reuben sneaking out of the shack they were housed in, his pathetically small sack of belongings tossed over one shoulder. The click of a car door, then the engine turning over. The shouts and curses as the Judge’s men ambushed Reuben. The grate over the pit opening, closing. The titter and clack of the puppets louder than usual.
Then came the scream.
Jonah bolted upright. He heard a pained cry, unintelligible, then another scream, unmistakably Reuben’s.
“The Judge had that little punk sent straight back to juvenile hall,” Big Pete told Jonah the next morning.
Jonah hadn’t asked, and he didn’t believe it. He’d been up all night, listening, watching as the sun rose. Not a single vehicle had left the farm.
They killed him. They killed Reuben and it’s all my fault.
That thought played over and over in Jonah’s mind, as relentless as the puppets’ titters and clacks.
The puppets. He’d heard the pit opened and closed the night before, right before Reuben’s scream. First chance he got, Jonah peered into the pit, unable to shake the image of the puppets chowing down on Reuben’s limbs the same way they went at that bloody slop they were normally fed. But instead of blood, Jonah was met with nothing more than the same blank-eyed stares he always saw.
No, not the same ones. The jester was gone, of course, but now the clown puppet as well.
“Nose out of the pit, boy,” Big Pete snapped. “You’ve got work to do. Important visitor coming by tonight.”
Big Pete at least made good on his word. Instead of cleaning up the pit, ratting out Reuben had earned Jonah a day mending the lattice skirting that ran underneath the house’s front porch. Yesterday, he would have welcomed the change of pace. Today, Jonah decided he’d rather have the smell of puppet shit back in his nostrils than deal with the guilt gnawing at him. Reuben deserved a lot of things, but nothing that would make a guy let out a scream like the one he’d heard.
It was the not knowing that chafed at Jonah the most—what they’d done to Reuben, why they had opened the pit, what had become of the missing puppets. “Don’t ask questions,” he imagined Big Pete saying. But there were ways to get answers without asking questions. Jonah left one lattice panel loose, propped just so; no one would be the wiser unless they put pressure on it. It’d be a small opening once removed, but enough for someone as scrawny as Jonah to slip underneath the porch. Just in case.
Jonah was back on his cot by nightfall, hustled out of the way before the Judge’s big fancy guest arrived. Like the night before, Jonah lay there listening. Soon enough, tires rumbled up the driveway. A car door opened and closed, then the front door of the house. When all but the puppets’ titter and clack fell silent, Jonah slipped off his cot and out into the darkness.
You could never know a joint too well—that lesson was about to pay off. Jonah had been keeping tabs on how many guys the Judge had patrolling the grounds at night, where and when. There hadn’t been much else to do with the titter and clack of the puppets keeping him up most nights.
The Judge’s house looked downright sinister in the dark, lit up from within like a jack-o-lantern, with curtains billowing wraith-like in the open windows.
No good letting it spook you, Jonah told himself, keeping to the shadows as he crept toward the house. Sweat poured down his face, from fear as much as from the summer heat. He didn’t want to end up like Reuben, whatever the hell had happened to him. But he needed to know what was going on up at that house.
Voices drifted from an open window—the dining room. Jonah hurried toward it, crouched beneath. He’d only be able to linger there for so long before someone came by on patrol, but that was where his loose panel of lattice came in, giving him an easy hiding spot beneath the porch.
“Senator,” came the Judge’s voice, “I’d like to introduce you to the latest beneficiary of this fine reform program we’ve launched here. This here is Reuben.”
Jonah’s mind spun from shock to relief and back again. Reuben was all right?
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Senator, sir.”
That voice—Reuben’s, yet off somehow. Like it had been flattened out, none of his usual rage and defiance lurking underneath.
Chairs scraped against hardwood, followed by an animated, unfamiliar voice, presumably the senator’s.
“Thank you, son. Mighty polite of you.”
Jonah almost laughed at the absurdity of Reuben pulling out a chair for anyone, let alone a senator.
“I’ve been impressed with the results, Your Honor,” the Senator said. “I can see this thing going statewide, even national given time. But you’ve been cagey on the details. You’re going to need to be more forthcoming if you want me to support any more funding for your project. There have been some concerns expressed, you see—the family of one of the boys. These boys may be criminals, but we need to make sure they’re not being harmed in any way.”
The Judge chuckled. “It’ll be my pleasure to show you exactly how the process works.”
A rustle sounded from nearby. Jonah’s pulse quickened. In his surprise at hearing Reuben’s voice, he’d almost forgotten about the guard on patrol. Jonah darted toward the porch and removed the loose panel, quickly but quietly. He started crawling through the opening, but his jumpsuit caught on a splintered piece of lattice. Jonah cursed under his breath and tugged. His jumpsuit pulled free, and he scrambled the rest of the way beneath the porch.
Had the guard seen him? Jonah stayed as still and silent as possible while he waited for the answer, splayed out on his stomach, breathing in cold, foul-smelling dirt. The guard’s steps drew closer, slow and steady. Something skittered over Jonah’s ankle. He gave an involuntary twitch, but no more.
“Get it out of me!” came the senator’s voice from inside the house. “Get it—”
The shout cut off abruptly, but Jonah heard plenty else from the open window: a thump and a crash, like furniture knocked over, then anxious muffled voices.
The guard on patrol paused beside the porch, snickered, then continued on.
Jonah clenched at the dirt, trying to keep his trembling breaths under control. Something squiggled beneath his palm; he bit his lip to hold back a yelp. He had to wait until the guard finished his sweep of the front of the house—something the guy seemed determined to do as slowly as possible. The prick even started whistling, like he was out for a leisurely stroll. Finally, after minutes that felt like hours, the whistling faded as the guard rounded a corner to continue his patrol along the other side of the house.
Jonah let out a heavy, quaking exhale, then sucked in a deep breath that he immediately regretted—underneath the porch smelled as bad as the puppet pit, making him sick to his stomach. Jonah crawled toward the hole in the lattice, but stopped short as the front door swung open overhead.
“It’s been a pleasure, Mr. Senator.”
“Yes, it has, Your Honor. You needn’t worry about that funding coming through.”
The senator’s voice, so lively before, sounded eerily sleepy now.
“Good to hear, my friend, good to hear,” the Judge said. “You be careful heading home now.”
The urge to run grew as strong as Jonah’s nausea; he was going to puke if he didn’t get out of there. Too slowly, the front door closed above. The senator crossed the porch with heavy, stilted steps.
Go, go, go, Jonah thought, willing the man to walk faster.
A jingle sounded as the senator passed overhead. The man paused, made some sort of gurgling noise, then continued toward his car, this time without the jingle.
Christ, had they put the jester puppet inside the guy? Get it out of me; that’s what he’d screamed earlier. And the missing clown puppet—was that what they’d done to Reuben, too?
By the time the senator’s car door finally opened and closed, Jonah couldn’t hold it back any longer; he retched.
Almost . . .
The engine started. Another eternity, and at last the senator’s car pulled away.
Jonah bolted out from beneath the porch. He had lost track of what time it was, whether one of the Judge’s men might be coming by on his rounds, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to get the hell away.
Screw reform, he thought, running toward the western edge of the farm, only memory and moonlight to guide him. Hop the fence and there’d be miles of forest to put between him and the Judge’s horror show of a farm. But as he passed the puppet pit, Jonah’s steps slowed. He didn’t just hear the puppets’ titter and clack, he realized; he felt it, like something tugging at his insides. Big Pete had called the puppets parasites, and Jonah finally understood why. And it gave him an idea.
There was nothing he could think to do for Reuben, but he could at least give the Judge one final fuck you.
Jonah opened the nearby tool shed, waited. No sign that anyone had heard, that anyone was even near. He felt around in the dark until his hand closed around the stick. Weapon in hand, Jonah crept toward the pit and reached for the grating’s latch, unlocked it, waited. Still no sign of anyone. Inside the pit, the puppets hushed.
Jonah opened the grating and backed away, stick at the ready. The puppets jumped and clawed at the pit’s edge until one after the other secured a handhold and hoisted itself out. Jonah thought he’d have to beat some of them off, but instead he watched with a feeling of vindication as the puppets scurried through the darkness, tittering and clacking their way toward the Judge’s house. Their wooden-limbed stampede would have been comical if he had never heard Reuben and the Senator’s screams.
Jonah was about to resume his escape, but a glint in the moonlight captured his eye—the Queen of the Night’s crown. She lagged behind the other puppets, slowed by the length of her gown. Jonah’s gut told him to let her go, but another thought gave him pause. He had to tell the authorities what was happening on the farm; it was the only decent thing to do. But who would take the word of an escaped screw-up like him? He was gonna need proof.
Jonah hurriedly grabbed some rope and sackcloth from the shed, slung it over his shoulder, then crept toward the Queen of the Night, ready to whack her from behind and bag her. One step then another, long strides to catch up to her without running. He was just about there, one step away, when a twig snapped under his foot. The Queen of the Night whirled and leapt at him. Her fingers dug into Jonah’s skin; pain flared up his arms. Jonah tried to pull her off, but his limbs stiffened. His knees buckled and he collapsed to the ground, unable to move. The Queen’s face, a thing of beauty to him before, now looked unnaturally elongated, with eyes full of a terrifying, unending blackness.
“Please,” Jonah whimpered, barely able to move his mouth.
The Queen crawled beneath his shirt and started burrowing into his stomach, her spikey crown cutting its way through his skin, inch by inch. Jonah screamed.
God, pull it out! he thought. His arms wouldn’t respond.
The Queen’s feet disappeared from view. But he felt her moving, digging out a space within him, her fingers latching onto his insides. The tickle of a spell filled his head.
Get it out!
The puppet stilled, and though Jonah’s fevered thoughts continued to whirl, the rest of his body grew slack. Inside him, the Queen of the Night raised an arm; Jonah’s own arm mirrored the movement. He willed his body to resist, but it obeyed her every move as she forced him to climb to his feet.
And then her thoughts—like a whisper at first, they grew clearer and clearer, forcing themselves upon him until he knew all that she knew. The Judge only thought he was in control; the puppets had plans of their own. And when the Judge’s reform program went national and his sphere of influence widened, the puppets would be the ones in position to pull all the strings.
No need to turn your life around, came a thought that was not his own, but the Queen’s. I can do it for you.
Jonah would have shuddered if he could. Instead he walked unwillingly toward the Judge’s house with a puppet’s stiff-legged stride, the titter and clack echoing louder than ever within his mind.
Barbara A. Barnett is a writer, musician, orchestra librarian, Odyssey Writing Workshop alum, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-around geek. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, Black Static, and Evil Girlfriend Media’s Stamps, Vamps & Tramps anthology. Barbara lurks about the Philadelphia area and can be found online at www.babarnett.com.
Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.