“Thanks for inviting us,” Tanya says to Jocelyn. The two moms are sitting on a bench at the playground. The orange sky is a mix of sun and volcanic plumes, the temperature a pleasant 320 degrees, and the light breeze carries the scent of decay. “This is such a pretty park.”
“My pleasure,” Jocelyn replies. “It must be hard, being new in town. I’m so glad that you joined us! We hold these ‘Mommy and Me’ playdates every Tuesday morning until school starts. Gotta keep the little demons busy!”
The kids seem like a well-behaved bunch, Tanya thinks. Three of them are screaming and kicking at each other as they build and destroy sulfur castles in the sulfur box. Four others have stuffed a smaller kid in a duffel bag and are hitting him with lengths of pipe, while another group joins some parents in whipping rocks at nests of flame-bats.
Tanya sighs. She wishes that her son Johnny was more of a joiner and didn’t misbehave so often. These kids are the sort of demons he could use for friends. They’d be good influences.
“Which one is your boy again?” Jocelyn asks Tanya.
Tanya looks around, then spots Johnny, sitting by himself on a rock in a pool of lava near where flames lick at the edge of the playground. She points. “The one with the blue jacket.”
“What is that he’s doing?” Jocelyn asks, her brow furrowing.
Tanya takes a deep breath before answering. “He’s…doodling,” she says softly.
“Oh,” Jocelyn replies after a beat. “He’s being so…quiet.”
“They say he’ll grow out of it,” Tanya says quickly. “I think he’s just trying to get attention. The divorce and the move have been hard on him. Which kid is yours?”
“The blonde in green,” Jocelyn answers. Tanya sees a group of five kids swinging pole saws at each other and hacking off each other’s limbs and digits.
“I’ll introduce you to my little hellion,” Jocelyn says. “Ashley!” she screams. “Get your tail over here!”
Ashley gallops over. She is cradling her severed arm. “Look what happened to me, Mommy!” she says brightly.
“That’s great!” Jocelyn says. “I’m glad you’re having fun, honey.”
“She looks just like you,” Tanya adds, relieved to not be talking about Johnny’s misbehavior. “She’s got your tusks.”
“That’s mostly from my husband’s side. He’s full Nazgul. I’m only half.” She rummages through her bag as she asks Ashley, “You want a juice box?”
“Yes!” Ashley shouts, defiantly jamming her arm back onto her body and flexing her claws. “One with a straw. A big, big straw. I want to throw a billion zillion straws in the ocean!”
“Aww,” Tanya says. She wishes that Johnny would talk sweet like that. “She’s a precious little thing.”
Ashley snaps her jaws at Tanya.
“She’s very spirited,” Jocelyn says as Ashley snatches the juice box from her. “Now that she gets that from me.” Then to Ashley, she adds, “Ash, why don’t you take a juice box over to Tanya’s son Johnny? He’s sitting on that rock in the lava pool.”
Ashley looks at Johnny, then laughs. “That kid? The one who’s drawing? I’m not bringing him a juice box! He’s not an acid face and he doesn’t smell!”
“Ashley!” Jocelyn sputters. She sounds mortified, but Tanya has heard plenty of kids talk about Johnny like that before. It comes with the territory when your kid acts out in public.
Jocelyn says sternly to Ashley, “Young lady, what did you really mean to say?”
Ashley stomps her cloven hooves a few times, then mutters, “Fine. Johnny is an acid face. His face is full of acid. And he smells really bad. But I’m still not bringing him a juice box.” She then runs to rejoin the pole saw kids.
“I’m sorry about that,” Jocelyn says. “Kids. Honestly, I don’t know where they pick up that stuff. She’s never like that at home.”
“It’s fine,” Tanya replies. “Obviously, I’m dealing with behavior issues of my own.” She turns to see Johnny walking over to her. “Speak of the little angel,” she adds under her breath.
“Hi mom,” Johnny says when he reaches the bench.
“Johnny, this is Mrs. Hunter,” Tanya says.
“Hi,” Johnny says, adjusting his glasses and smiling. “It’s good to meet you, Mrs. Hunter.”
“Wow,” Jocelyn says, sounding shocked. “I mean…hello, Johnny.”
Johnny turns to Tanya. “Mom, I was thinking…when I grow up, I want to help people.”
Jocelyn gasps. Tanya hears one of the parents sitting behind her say a little too loudly, “He’s a little saint, is what he is.”
“Oh my gods, Johnny,” Tanya says, feeling mortified. “This has to stop. Don’t you want to go blow something up? Or steal a soul? Maybe take a turn hitting that kid in the duffel bag with the pipe?”
“I’m good,” Johnny says. He starts walking back to the rock, adding over his shoulder, “I’m going to go draw some pictures of world peace. See you, Mom.”
“We’re going to talk about this later!” Tanya yells after him. When he’s out of earshot, she turns to Jocelyn. “Now it’s my turn to be sorry. That outburst…maybe coming here today wasn’t such a good idea.”
Jocelyn pats Tanya’s leg with her claw. “I’m sure it’ll work out,” she says. “He’s new in town. He’s adjusting.” Then she leans in and whispers conspiratorially, “Our oldest was a bit like that when she was little.”
“Really? What did you do?”
“Parenting 101,” Jocelyn replies. “First, we ignored her, then we deprived her of sleep and water. Eventually, things changed for the better, and she became far more destructive and self-centered. It was just a stage she was going through.”
“The loving approach,” Tanya says. “Got it. Guess I’ll keep trying.”
“Little demons need help becoming big demons.”
“Amen to that.”
“Ooh, I do love a mom who swears!” Jocelyn says, laughing. “Once the kids are in school,” she adds, “most of us parents still get together on Tuesday mornings. A little walking, a little coffee, some mutual beheading. Helps us to lose our sanity. Parenting is tough. It’d be great if you could join us.”
Tanya brightens. “Thank you. I’d like that!”
She smiles to herself as she turns to watch the kids play. Maybe with some time and impatience—and the help of a new friend—she and Johnny will adjust.