Charlie Eats the Paper Gods
~ H. L. Fullerton
Nothing at FAIHT (Featherstone’s All Inclusive Harmonic Tutelage—the most-exclusive, inclusive, learning-centric kindergarten preparatory) was ever considered a problem. Until four-year-old Rederick Thuman joined Miss Kinders’ class.
“How did you do that?” Tommy Yen-Zarif whispered across the snack table to Rederick.
“I didn’t do it,” Rederick said. “Charlie did.”
“What else can Charlie do?” Evergreen Masoda asked. “Can he make my milk chocolate?”
“Charlie can do anything.”
“My milk’s still white.”
Rederick shook his head the way his mom did when he forgot to put the toilet seat down. “That’s ‘cause you don’t believe.”
“I believe,” Tommy said and Tommy’s milk turned colors.
“Charlie likes you now,” Rederick said and hummed while he ate the rest of his jelly and cream cheese sandwich. Miss Kinders, who was eavesdropping on the exchange, turned white and clutched the pentagram she wore around her neck.
When Miss Kinders (whom Mrs. Featherstone had hired as much for her fantastic name as her qualifications) first mentioned the Rederick-Charlie situation, Mrs. Featherstone thought she’d have to fire Miss Kinders for being intoxicated. Then Mrs. F herself witnessed Rederick’s . . . well, it could only be called indecency, and decided a sip, or a fifth, of vodka was in order before inviting Rederick’s parents in for a chat about the Disappearing Paper Dolls.
Mundie Thuman, Rederick’s mother, texted her husband during her phone conversation with Mrs. Featherstone’s assistant, first to determine his availability for their meeting with the headmaster, then to theorize what the agenda would be and how they should handle things. Both agreed that no matter what the infraction was and it had to be an infraction, right? No one was summoned into the headmaster’s office as a reward and Eamonn assured his wife that he’d sent in the tuition money so it wasn’t anything financial . . . Yes, yes, tuition had most certainly been paid; he was looking at confirmation from their bank this very second. Puzzled, the Thumans agreed that whatever this was about, they would take Rederick’s side because children needed to know they were loved unconditionally. Any punishment, if warranted—oh, what could Red have done?—would be handled at home. By them. The Thumans parenting style could best be described as ‘United Front’ and this was what they presented to Mrs. Featherstone.
First thing Mrs. Featherstone—who’d taught the pre-K set for three decades and had dealt with all sorts of delicate issues—asked the Thumans was, “Have either of you taught Rederick magic tricks?”
“Magic?” Eamonn said, at the same time his wife said, “No.”
The headmaster made a check mark on the papers in front of her. “Ventriloquism?”
The Thumans shook their heads.
“And you’re still practicing humanists?”
“Perhaps,” Mundie said, feeling in control for the first time since she’d entered the building, “you best tell us what this is about.”
Mrs. Featherstone sighed. “Rederick’s pranks are disrupting the class. We understand the enthusiasm of young minds, encourage it at its proper time and place, but Rederick’s in—” Here Mrs. F. almost blurted ‘indecency’, but caught herself at the first syllable, “enthusiasm is affecting the other children’s ability to learn.”
“What kind of pranks?” Eamonn asked. He was careful to modulate his tone, keep any pride out of it, but he couldn’t help thinking, My Red’s an entertainer. Still, the boy Mrs. Featherstone was describing didn’t sound like their Rederick. Eamonn had to work to get his son to smile, such a serious boy he was; him clowning about in class was hard to imagine.
“Miss Kinders had the class cut out paper dolls. It not only allows them to practice fine motor skills, but illustrates how we are all connected and depend on one another. Also, it encourages them to stay in line and hold hands whenever we leave the classroom. A strong chain will never lose a link, I always say.”
“What does this have to do with Rederick?” Mundie asked. She glanced at her watch to remind Mrs. Featherstone how important the Thumans’ time was, how expensive. “Did he refuse the assignment?”
“No, no. Rederick participated. But after . . . well, some of the chains disappeared.”
Mundie straightened in her chair. “Are you accusing our son of stealing other children’s paper?”
“Not stealing.” Mrs. Featherstone pursed her lips. “Some of the children encouraged Rederick to . . . show off. I, myself was there. He said, ‘Eat the dolls’ and then the dolls disappeared. Like a magic trick.”
Eamonn, a jokester himself, said, “Did you check his sleeves?” His wife frowned her eyes at him and his smile disappeared.
“We checked everywhere for the dolls and couldn’t find them.” Mrs. Featherstone didn’t mention that it had, in fact, looked like someone was dining on doll spaghetti. Chains of paper dancing in the air, then disappearing into an unseen gullet. Chimp, chomp, gulp and little confetti flakes falling to the floor. No, no need to mention that to the Thumans. They’d think she’d gone ‘round the bend. As it was, they looked at her as if she were the Big Bad Wolf and they a couple of woodcutters with new hatchets.
“Did you ask Rederick about the dolls?” the mother said.
“He blamed it on Charlie.”
“Have you spoken to this Charlie’s parents?” the father asked.
“There is no Charlie,” Mrs. Featherstone said, then, “There’s more.” And she told the Thumans about how it rained glitter during quiet time; the banana stickers on the ceiling; the marbled crayons which made it impossible to teach children their colors, the re-arrangement of the alphabet letters; the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t missing keyboards, Rederick’s insistence on Charlie as the perpetrator of all these acts and the way he’d convinced the other children to believe in—and blame—his imaginary friend. Then she mentioned the disappearing paper dolls again because of its leap from harmless-but-concerning behavior to something that needed to be dealt with immediately. “We’d like to work on helping Rederick discern real and imaginary and hope that you can reinforce that distinction at home. Reinforcement is very important at this age, as I’m sure you know. It’s one of FAIHT’s four columns of learning. Perhaps the most important.” Mrs. Featherstone folded her hands across her desk, partly to keep the trembling hidden, but also to impress upon the Thumans that if they didn’t stop this Charlie business, she’d have no option but to expel Rederick. By the looks on their faces, the Thumans understood her unspoken threat.
That evening at the dinner table, Eamonn and Mundie exchanged looks over Red’s head, wanting to approach the subject of Charlie in the best manner possible. At no point should Red feel as if they were accusing him of anything. They would simply ask him about Charlie, then decide if they needed to make an appointment with a child psychologist. Perhaps their pediatrician could prescribe something. Most likely Mrs. Featherstone and Miss Kinders were wrong about Charlie belonging to Red’s imagination. Red would tell them it was someone’s nickname or another child’s creation and they’d all breathe easier, maybe even laugh.
“I’m done,” Rederick said. “Can I color?”
“May I,” Mundie said and Red shimmied off his chair until his toes touched the floor, then went running for paper and crayons. The Thumans eyed the crayons, happy to see they were all solid colors— just the way the manufacturer sold them. It gave their faith a boost: all would be okay.
“Hey, bud,” Eamonn said, picking up a crayon. “Tell us about Charlie.”
“Charlie’s silly.” Rederick drew a sun, colored it purple.
“Have we met Charlie?” Mundie said.
Rederick shook his head. “You can’t see Charlie.”
“Because we’re grown-ups?”
“No. ‘Cause Charlie’s imaginary. Like the wind.”
Both Thuman parents inhaled sharply. Mundie urged her husband to ‘go on, ask’ so he said, “Wind is a real thing. Did you mean imaginary as in something that’s made up, like you made Charlie up, or invisible as in something you can’t see with your eyes?”
The Thumans sat back in their chairs. This wasn’t going according to plan. Mundie braved, “Is Charlie a friend? From school?”
Rederick tilted his head as if considering the question or listening. “He says he is.”
Eamonn looked at Mundie. She looked at Rederick, mouth tight. “Did you read about Charlie in a book?”
Their son stopped coloring and giggled. “You’re silly. Charlie’s not in a book. Kids can’t read. Charlie’s in the sky. Is the sky invisible or imaginary?”
The Thumans could see their approach wasn’t working. Red wasn’t about to confess to making up a prankster persona. Eamonn decided to dig deep and coach the answer out of his son. There had to be a reason Red was pretending about Charlie and if they could figure out what that was, then they could cure their son and he’d turn into a happy, well-adjusted pre-schooler with a bright education ahead of him. It took a few tries to pry Red’s attention off the sky’s realness. Eamonn wanted to take the crayons and paper away from his son—but that’s what his father would’ve done so he knew it wasn’t the right thing to do. “Mrs. Featherstone told us about the paper dolls, son. You know it isn’t right to rip up other kid’s work. It might hurt their feelings. You wouldn’t want anyone to rip up your drawing, would you?”
Red looked at his dad. “You’re gonna rip up my drawing?”
“I’m not going to do anything to your drawing. I just want you to understand that you have to be respectful of people’s things. I know you know how to share. Well, sometimes sharing means not touching or breaking other people’s things.”
“So you won’t make anything else disappear like the paper dolls, right?”
“It wasn’t me. It was Charlie.”
The Thumans felt like failures. Their son wasn’t understanding them at all. Did he know what an expulsion from FAIHT would mean on his permanent record? Why was this happening to them? Eamonn tried one more time. “Why would Charlie do something like that, Red?”
“Pommer said he wouldn’t believe in Charlie unless Charlie ate the paper dolls so Charlie ate them.”
“Rederick. Charlie isn’t real.” Mundie put her hand over her son’s drawing. “He’s imaginary. Like the cartoons you sometimes watch on TV.”
“No. Charlie’s real. He’s a god. Like Evergreen’s Yahweh and Pommer’s Vishnu and Miss Kinders’ Crone and Green Jesus.”
“But, Red, honey,” Mundie said, using her best child-friendly voice, which was the same sing-song manner she used at work for stupid employees, “we’re humanists. We don’t believe in gods.”
“I believe in Charlie.” Rederick took his crayons and went to his room. Eamonn and Mundie stared at each other, each hoping the other knew what to do next. None of the parenting articles they’d read said anything about what to do if your child created his own god.
“It’s all-inclusive,” Mundie said when her husband balked at her strategy for handling Mrs. Featherstone. “It’s right there in the name: Featherstone’s All Inclusive Harmonic Tutelage.”
“I don’t think we should encourage this ‘god’ thing.”
“We’re not encouraging. This is just a phase. It’ll pass. Three months from now Red won’t even remember making Charlie up. But do you want Red kicked out of kindergarten prep over an imaginary friend who thinks eating paper is the height of comedy? Do you want his future ruined?” Mundie stared at Eamonn until he answered.
“Then we tell Mrs. Reinforcement-is-one-of-the-four-pillars-of-enlightenment what Red told us: Charlie’s his god. All faiths, creeds, whathaveyou are welcome at FAIHT. Well, Red’s now a Charliest. I’ve already filled out the declaration form and you’ll drop it off when you take Red to school.”
“You didn’t actually put ‘Charliest,’ did you?” Eamonn said.
“Don’t be ridiculous. There isn’t a box for that. I checked ‘monotheist, other’. Thankfully, Rederick hasn’t created an entire pantheon so we only have to get rid of one god. How hard can that be? In the meantime, if that woman tries booting us from her school, we’ll sue for religious discrimination.”
“I don’t think—”
“Eamonn. We. Are. Doing. This.”
Eamonn dropped the paper off. He also explained to Rederick about the imaginary nature of gods and that Charlie was only an attempt to make sense of a world that Red didn’t quite understand, but one day Red would learn physics and then he’d see there wasn’t anything to be afraid of and there was no need to believe in a larger power directing unseen forces. Red said, “I’m not afraid of Charlie, Daddy. He makes me laugh.” and ran down the hall. Then he ran back. “Here. Charlie made this for you. You can use it at work.” Rederick handed Eamonn an orange crayon containing squiggles of blue, green, brown and pink. It still had the maker’s paper label tightly wrapped around it. Eamonn rolled it between his fingers until he could read the color’s name: Atomic Tangerine.
He clutched his present and wondered if it was possible for a four year old to use crayons as a foreshadowing device.
Miss Kinders stared at the form on her desk and realized that the Thumans knew nothing about religion; otherwise they’d never have declared Charlie a god. In front of her, the class whispered about Charlie in that stage-whisper way small children had—not a true whisper, more of a sibilant yell. She had to get the class under control, get Charlie under control. A magical imaginary friend was bad enough, but now with half the class professing faith in ‘Charlie’ and the Thumans declaring his godhood . . . Miss Kinders stood. Her chair scraped against the floor and the children laughed.
“Charlie made the chair fart,” Pommer said.
Contradicting children only made them argumentative so Miss Kinders dragged a screeching marker across the white board and regretted that chalkboards went the way of pen and paper—fingernails across a chalkboard would’ve made a much more satisfying sound. “I make the things in my classroom . . . talk.” Miss Kinders pulled her authoritative voice out of her bag of tricks. “I also make them quiet and that includes all of you. There will be no art today. Instead, we’re going to talk about gods.” Murmurs broke out. Eyes glanced Rederick’s way. Miss Kinders rapped on her desk, feeling a bit like Poe’s raven. “And rules. We’ll talk about gods and rules.”
Rederick’s face bunched up. He crossed chubby arms across his tiny stubborn chest. “Gods don’t have rules.”
“Yes,” Miss Kinders said. “Yes, they do. Let’s start with the ancient gods. Anyone here worship Zeus or Apollo?” Two hands went up. Miss Kinders let out the breath she’d been holding. Her double minor in comparative religion was about to make itself useful. If she couldn’t make Charlie disappear, she’d truss him up with restrictions so tight he’d wish he were imaginary. It never occurred to her that she herself had made the mistake of believing in him.
On his way to work, Eamonn worried that he and Mundie were committing a monumental parenting blunder, the kind other parents would whisper about and shake their heads until someone said, “Well, it’s not surprising about the Thuman kid. Remember how he invented a god and his parents declared it a religion? I mean, you might expect something like that from animists, but a couple of atheists should’ve known better.” Expulsion was the least of their worries; Red could be socially ostracized. His friends’ parents would never invite over a kid who came with his own god and a boatload of glitter. The Thumans didn’t have the social or financial clout to pull a thing like that off. Maybe Mrs. Featherstone had done them a favor by threatening expulsion. This way they could nip this Charlie thing in the bud before it did more than smudge Red’s future. Next year Mrs. Featherstone would be a memory in a scrapbook; it was the other pre-K thru 12 parents he and Mundie needed to keep ignorant of the Charlie situation. He’d message her as soon as he reached the office so they could strategize.
Mrs. Featherstone was on the phone with the Yen-Zarifs who were concerned that their son Tommy was being recruited by a cult. They wanted to know if ‘All Inclusive’ meant that proselytizing was condoned on campus. They wanted it stopped. They wanted Tommy switched to another class and kept away from this Charlie and his religious ramblings, and they wanted contact information for Charlie’s parents. What kind of people let their child believe that God spent his time turning white milk into chocolate? The Yen-Zarifs were all for religious tolerance, but this type of talk was sacrilegious. And, they reminded her, Tommy was not supposed have chocolate—it contained caffeine and the Yen-Zarifs’ religion prohibited caffeine. Also, potassium sorbate made Tommy unruly.
“Mr. and Mrs. Yen-Zarif, I fully understand all your concerns and, of course, we have Tommy’s dietary—” Here, Mrs. Featherstone remembered not to use the word ‘restrictions’ because parents who sent their children to Featherstone’s All Inclusive Harmonic Tutelage did not want any reminders, even subliminal ones, that their progeny were prevented from participating in anything, even those things they themselves had expressly forbidden. The role of FAIHT was to open doors, not slam them shut and engage the deadbolt. “—requirements in his file. Please be assured that FAIHT was unaware that food sharing was occurring. I will make sure that stops today. I cannot, however, due to legal ramifications, release information on other children or their parents. But I will see about relocating Tommy to an environment better suited to his needs. While diversity is one of FAIHT’s four columns of learning, we can’t allow it to negatively affect any of our students.” She’d also see about getting Rederick Thuman under control. If Miss Kinders hadn’t any success in curbing the boy’s imagination, then perhaps she wasn’t the wunder-lehrer Mrs. Featherstone had imagined.
Miss Kinders marched her class through the halls to the library. “No whispering,” she said, keeping her eyes straight ahead so she couldn’t see any more things that would shake her faith. She was the adult. She knew better. She’d show Red books filled with commandments; she’d show him that you couldn’t just invent a god and let it do whatever it wanted; she’d show him; she’d show them all.
At his desk, Eamonn Thuman reached for a pen and picked up the many colored crayon. How strange the crayon felt in his hand, not like a pen at all, but something mightier. Would it work?
Eamonn pulled a blank sheet of paper from his printer and scribbled circles on it. The crayon worked. That surprised him though he wasn’t sure why. Then he caught sight of his scribblings. It was if . . . It looked like . . . but it couldn’t be . . . Eamonn shaded another section of paper and yes, an image was appearing. The crayon was functioning like his printer, except instead of laying down black letters on white paper, it was creating a waxy paintingwithout being told to.
He adjusted his grip. Realized that the wrapper was now pink. He checked its name. Atomic Tangerine had morphed into Radical Red. Heart jumping in his chest, Eamonn put the crayon tip to paper and colored. When he’d filled the page, he saw Red and a bunch of other kids running around tables piled with books. A woman towered over them, her eyes raised to the heavens, her face twisted in a scream, her arms clawing at air.
Eamonn shook his head, but the picture didn’t disappear. He flipped the page and threw the crayon onto the floor. He focused on his computer screen and willed himself to forget what just happened. But he couldn’t. He kept thinking, Charlie. His eyes drifted towards his desk and the overturned paper. Which wasn’t blank. It was the declaration form he’d handed to Miss Kinders. Stomach sinking, he picked up the form and peeked at the back. The drawing was still there, and maybe, just maybe, the figures had moved. Eamonn squeezed the form.
Miss Kinders. Eamonn scrambled from his desk, form in hand, and grabbed the crayon off the floor. He headed back to FAIHT.
Streamers of paper-god cut-outs flew from FAIHT’s collection of holy tomes, decorating the library as if it were a non-denominational pine tree. Kids clapped and twirled, laughed and chased the paper gods. Miss Kinders shouted for them to sit down and be quiet. She grabbed at books only to have them torn from her hands.
“Noah’s ark!” Evergreen Masoda pointed to the train of paper animals dancing across the shelf tops.
“Look, it’s Vishnu,” Pommer said, eyes wide as his god’s form emerged from the pages of a book, arm in arm in arm in arm.
A string of pentagrams, like the one around Miss Kinders’ neck, twined around her, pulled her into a waltz. She broke free. “Enough,” she yelled. Her eyes locked on Rederick and she marched towards him. “You stop this now. There are rules. I showed you the rules. You have to follow the rules.“
“Charlie doesn’t like rules,” Rederick said, eyes focused somewhere high above her left shoulder. “And Charlie isn’t in a book. Gods shouldn’t be in books. Gods can’t write.”
Rederick interrupted her. “Charlie says he can eat all your gods.”
Miss Kinders stepped back from Rederick, mouth open, hand clasped around her necklace. “No,” she said, but already pages of god-dolls were disappearing. Motes of paper fell to the floor, coating everything in a grayish dust. “No!” she screamed.
“You can’t trap gods in books,” Rederick said. “Rules make them weak.”
“There is no Charlie,” Miss Kinders said. “It’s you. And I can stop you.” Courage gathered, she ran at Rederick.
The library door crashed against the wall, but Miss Kinders wouldn’t be distracted, so she didn’t see Rederick’s father race into the library, waving a piece of paper. He stopped short when he realized the teacher was lunging at his son. Tables, chairs and children separated him and Rederick. Eamonn couldn’t get to her before she got to Red. Not knowing what else to do, he threw the crayon Charlie made for him at Miss Kinders.
It hit her in the head. There was a soft pop. A cloud of glitter exploded into the room and everything froze. Rederick moved out of reach. Said, “I’m okay now.” and everyone unfroze.
Miss Kinders’ pentagram rose towards the ceiling. Her arm yanked at it, but it kept rising, pulling her to her toes. Her fingers burned and she let go. Watched as her encircled five-sided star was crushed into a ‘C’ and dropped against her chest. The fight went out of her then. She slumped in a nearby chair, one meant for a body much smaller than hers, and wept.
“Did you see her necklace?” Tommy said. “C is for Charlie.” The children stopped frolicking and gathered around her in a circle. “Tell us another story about Charlie,” they said and sat at her feet.
Eamonn Thuman grabbed his son and headed for the nearest exit. He slowed when he realized Red had grabbed another boy’s hand and that boy was holding the hand of a girl in a green dress and Eamonn realized he’d turned into the Pied Piper leading a line of children into the hall. He set Red down, found his son’s hand, and said, “Okay, we’re all going to go see Mrs. Featherstone and give Miss Kinders a moment to herself.” He tried not to think about reappearing declaration forms, exploding glitter crayons, or how much he and the children looked like a chain of paper dolls.
The Thumans withdrew Rederick from school that very afternoon and sued FAIHT. Miss Kinders was fired for proselytizing to her students and instigating the kiddie faith riot, which is what the media dubbed the library incident. Mrs. Featherstone decided inclusiveness was more trouble than it was worth and renamed her kindergarten preparatory the Fourth Academy for Cooperative Thought, or FACT.
Rederick didn’t mention Charlie again, much to his parent’s delight—”I told you it was a phase,” Mundie would say when the subject came up, which wasn’t often, because the Thumans didn’t talk about FAIHT or crayons. In the fall, Rederick went to kindergarten. The only blight on the Thumans’ enthusiasm was that Evergreen Masoda (who’d also had that Charlie-cult-starting Miss Kinders) was in Red’s class. Eamonn and Mundie discussed switching Red out, but decided a friendly face might help their son make new friends. Real friends. And Evergreen was a pretty little thing who other children flocked to. This could only help Red’s social standing.
At lunch, Evergreen sat next to Red and shared her fruit snacks with him. “I miss chocolate milk,” she said.
“Me, too,” Red said. “But we don’t want to scare the grown-ups again.”
“Charlie isn’t scary,” Evergreen said.
“I know. My daddy says people are scared of things they don’t understand. He says physics will fix it.”
“Does Charlie know physics?” Evergreen asked, playing with her new necklace, which looked like a silver ‘E’ had been reshaped into a shaky ‘C’.
“Charlie knows everything,” Red said and his monogram necklace floated up from his shirt’s placket a tiny bit—not enough to frighten anybody, just enough to catch the light and cast a rainbow—or a grin—on the cafeteria ceiling.
H. L. Fullerton writes fiction—mostly speculative, occasionally about being haunted—which can be found in more than 50 anthologies and magazines includingMysterion, Translunar Travelers Lounge, andLackington’s, and is the author of the somewhat haunting novella: The Boy Who Was Mistaken for a Fairy King.
You may follow them on Twitter at @ByHLFullerton.