Follow the leader.
The game is simple: as one acts as leader the rest must follow and mimic their actions. Fail to copy the leader and you’re out of the game. The last one left wins and becomes the new leader. The game starts over again.
Special was not a fan of follow the leader. It was a complete ripoff of Simon Says (or maybe Simon Says was a ripoff of it?) and it was not a very fun game to play at school. More often than not, an unwilling kid from her class would be the leader. Instead of relishing their position as the top dog, they would squander it, finding ways to quicken the game and exhibit no effort. Their laziness turned follow the leader into an assignment rather than a fun exercise. Mrs. Woodfork made sure that every student got a chance to be the leader, no matter how bad they were, no matter how little they wanted the spot, every kid had a turn.
It was Special’s turn now.
She felt like she could be a good leader. No, could wasn’t good enough. She knew she was a good leader. To be in charge first required respecting the position as follower. For this, Special was very well acquainted. She had followed the directions and rules at school, making sure to be a good student—a good listener—so that one day she could carry that success forward. She had followed her passion for art and tried her best to use her creativity in positive ways. She had made sure to ask the hard questions when needed, taking the time to understand the why’s; not always solving them, but at least trying to. She had followed her mama, from birth until now, into happiness and despair, wherever she went she had followed her and loved her more than anyone could comprehend.
All of her life … a follower.
All of her life … waiting, hoping for the chance to lead.
Special looked at the back of the Dead End sign that faced her living room, in a way symbolically telling her day in and day out that whatever path she aspired to be on was going nowhere. She had always hated that sign, its ugliness magnified by the abuse and vandalism it faced over the years. It served no purpose other than to tell people to turn around. Go back to where you came from! That night, she finally found a purpose for it.
“You’re practice,” she said to the sign.
She raised her hand. The paper mushies stopped marching. She remained facing forward. “For your first order, I want you to tear down that sign!” she said. “NOW!”
The paper mushies ran forward, some of them tripping over their awkward feet. They branched out, climbing the fence posts and walking across the wooden guardrail to the Dead End sign at the center. A few of them fell off the narrow rail, but most of them managed to make it to the middle. The paper fasteners had greatly improved their mobility. One group took the initiative of pulling on the top of the sign, trying to bend the metal forward. Another group attacked from the back, throwing their bodies into the sign, trying to loosen the screws from the wooden guardrail.
Special was scared of the power the little paper mushies possessed. They were relentless in their pursuit. This power had not been taught. It was there the moment they had climbed out of the barrel. Where did it come from? Was she connected to the paper mushies in more ways than she had originally thought?
The sign began to bend; the wood started to splinter. A paper mushy climbed through a hole located between the E and A of DEAD and used its stubby hands to try and push the sign away from the wood rail. Screws snapped. Wood crumbled from rot and pressure. The sign ripped from the rail, falling onto the end of the road. Special had been scared before; now she was amazed. The paper mushies were better than she could have ever imagined.
They picked up the sign and brought it over to Special, a gift for their leader. She commended their good work and squatted down, telling them her plan for getting rid of Shawn. I was to remain at the front of the house, monitoring things from outside. Special was going to go inside and talk to Shawn. I was worried about Special confronting him. I knew the girl could handle herself, but I didn’t know how Shawn would react to her proposal. Special planned to ask him to leave, a simple get out! and never see you again. We both knew that Shawn was not someone who would go quietly. We both knew he wouldn’t leave if she asked. But that didn’t stop Special from trying. In her mind, she would never know what could have happened if she didn’t try. Maybe the paper mushies didn’t need to be used.
The paper mushies got into their positions. A third of them stood below the kitchen window, ready to wreak havoc if need be. Another third of them climbed the downspout next to the living room window and squeezed through the exhaust vent at the top of the house. They crawled across the insulation in the attic to a small door on the ceiling in Special’s closet. The last third got onto the hood of Shawn’s Nova, bunching together in a circle at the center. They waited for my command. Everyone was ready; everyone was looking to their leader. I can honestly say I had never been more nervous in my entire life.
Special casually walked up the porch steps and opened her front door. Shawn was right where she thought he would be, in the living room watching TV. Ianchelle was in the kitchen doing some last-minute cleaning.
“Hey, mama,” she said.
“You’re back! I’m glad you’re back. I didn’t know how long you would be.”
“You can stop the cleaning.”
“Oh, but I need to do it. I didn’t realize how messy it was in here.”
Special wanted to tell her that it was about to potentially get very messy. “Sorry. Some of that’s my fault.”
“I was looking for things to help make the paper mushies the other day.”
Ianchelle shook her head. “So that’s why it looks like a robber went through my kitchen.”
“Sorry.” She got close to Ianchelle, standing on her tippy-toes to whisper in her ear. “All of the paper mushies are ready. I’m going to go talk to Shawn.”
“Ready? What do you mean?”
“They’re here. Outside and inside.”
“Inside? I didn’t see you bring any in to show me.”
Scratching could be heard above. Ianchelle looked up at the ceiling. Small dust particles fell. Squirrels had been in the attic before, but this sound was different, more persistent than critters scurrying about. This sound had a purpose.
“What’s that noise?” Ianchelle asked.
“I told you, mama. They’re here.”
“The paper mushies.”
“The paper things you and Mr. Potmis made?”
“They’re … up there?”
Special opened the kitchen window a crack. “Outside too.”
“How did they get in the attic?”
“I showed them how.”
Ianchelle’s eyes got as big as saucers. I don’t know if she believed the paper mushies were alive at that point, but she knew something was going on, something she had no control over at the moment.
Special stomped her way into the living room, standing directly in front of the TV.
“Special! Move out of the way!” Shawn said. “I can’t see!”
She didn’t budge.
“Special, you’re blocking my view!”
She stood her ground, arms crossed, and eyes unblinking like two missiles locked and loaded on their target.
Shawn smirked and relaxed in his chair. “Ok. Ok. I see what this is. You got something to say to you’re old friend Shawn, don’t you? Well, come on now. Spit it out.”
Special was apprehensive at first, wondering if she should let the paper mushies do their thing and get out of the way. But she felt it was important for Shawn to know her feelings. She had been silent for too long. She needed him to see her emotions and hear them loudly.
“I want you to say sorry to my mama,” she said.
“Special …” Ianchelle said, standing in the tense air between Shawn and Special.
“Sorry! Now, what for?”
“For hurting her. For disrespecting her. For being a bad person to her. And to me.”
“Now why would you say an awful thing like that?”
“I’ve seen you do it. Don’t lie.”
“You’ve never seen any such thing.”
“I have! Stop lying.”
He started to laugh. Special’s fists became two tight balls tapping the sides of her legs.
“If I’m such a bad man who does all of these bad things then why does your mama keep inviting me over?” He tried reaching for Ianchelle’s hand but she didn’t take it. “I wouldn’t be here if she didn’t want me to be here. Why haven’t you said anything about me hurting her before?”
“I’m saying it now! Say sorry or else.”
“Or else I’ll make you leave. Say sorry and walk out that door or else I’ll force you out!”
Shawn wasn’t laughing anymore. He stood up, first looking at Ianchelle to show his disappointment with her. Then, he turned his bitter eyes toward Special. They were the same eyes he had before the outbursts started, lifeless eyes drenched in hate. Special was worried that she had provoked him too much. And then there was the gun to worry about.
“You need to apologize for how you’re acting, little girl, and for these ridiculous accusations that you’re bringing against me. Tell me you’re sorry and maybe I’ll let this one slide.”
“No! You say you’re sorry. You need to leave now!”
Shawn raised his hand and appeared as though he was going to hit Special. Instead, he brought his hand against his chest and grinned. “You’re trying to get your old friend Shawn all riled up and get him in trouble. You’re clever, you know. I don’t know where you get it from. Certainly not from your broke mama who owes me money. I have no intention of leaving. I have every right to be here. In fact, I’m hungry. I think I’ll go to the kitchen and get a snack.” He looked at Ianchelle. “Chelle, what do you have in the refrigerator? Any leftovers from your shitty box dinners that I can indulge myself in?”
“Stop it!” Special said. “I warned you. Leave now!”
“Any half-assed meals for your bestest old friend Shawn? Anything at all?”
“There’s … there’s some leftover lasagna,” Ianchelle said. Special couldn’t tell if Ianchelle was playing along with her little game, or if she was sincerely answering Shawn’s question. There had been so much control and abuse over the months that maybe she didn’t recognize his words as hurtful anymore. Maybe they were so common that they seemed normal, they seemed like the way you’re supposed to talk to someone else.
Special knew that even with Shawn out of the picture there was a long healing process ahead. They would get through it together. That much was certain. They would find their way again, but it wasn’t going to be easy.
Shawn’s walk into the kitchen was lackadaisical, a way to show that he didn’t feel threatened by Special’s proposal. He opened the fridge, snooping around for the lasagna leftovers. He pretended he couldn’t find them when they were right in front of his face.
Special’s knuckles cracked, her fists unable to be clenched any tighter. She called to the paper mushies with a resounding yell.
“Kitchen team … GO!”
Shawn was too preoccupied with his demonstration to notice the paper mushies crawling under the window that Special had opened. They dispersed throughout the kitchen, opening cabinets and drawers.
Special turned to Ianchelle. “See, mama, I told you they were alive.”
Ianchelle was speechless, as she ought to be. What would you have said if you saw a group of paper things ransacking your kitchen?
To say anything would have undermined the moment. Sometimes, an incredible moment needs silence, not words. Let it be what it is: unbelievable. No commentary needed.
The next part of this story is the one you’ve been waiting for. I want to slow it down for you so that you can get a clear understanding of what transpired. In situations like these, things tend to feel like you’re in slow motion when you’re there; however, from an outsider’s perspective, it’s all such a blur. I would bet that the entire event, starting with Shawn pulling the lasagna from the fridge, and ending with him running down the road screaming bloody murder, lasted approximately 72 seconds. I find that number to be quite symbolic because that was the number of paper mushies Special and I had created. You might think I’m being a bit obvious with my guess, but I’m telling you that if I would have been tracking time, 72 seconds is what I would have got. Not one second more, not one second less. 72 was the golden number for the day.
Shawn held the plate of lasagna in his hands, a look of victory in his eyes. As he pulled the plastic from the lasagna, a metallic sound caused him to turn around.
This is what he saw:
A line of paper mushies holding spoons, forks, and knives like melee weapons on the counter. Three paper mushies operating a hand mixer: two holding it up while one pushed the button. Paper mushies holding spatulas, steak forks, and chip clips that chomped down like shark bites. One had a dozen toothpicks in their hands. Four others held a rolling pin. All of them were looking at Shawn, waiting for their leader to give the order.
“ATTACK!” Special said.
A group of paper mushies flung balls of brown sugar and flour at Shawn. He dropped the plate of lasagna, smashing it on the floor.
“What’s going on? What are these things? What are these evil things?”
The flour and sugar exploded all over his clothes. Forks and spoons bounced off his head. Paper mushies jumped into the open fridge and rummaged around for food. They tossed grapes and cheese sticks at Shawn’s back. From the counter, Tupperware and bowls were launched. One hit his ear and broke into pieces. It was an all-out siege war!
Shawn pointed at Special. “You’re doing this? You demon child! You’re possessed!” He shielded his face with his hands. Forks dented the skin on his fingers. There was a little bit of blood on his ear from the ceramic bowl. “Tell them to stop. Tell the paper satans to stop!”
Special didn’t tell them to stop. Instead, she called for more.
“Bedroom team … ATTACK!”
Special’s door flung open. A toy bus full of yelling paper mushies (no sound came from their Sharpie mouths, but they were wide open and angry) was pushed into the kitchen. One of them held out a paintbrush like a lance, ready to joust. Five paper mushies with handfuls of glitter threw them at Shawn. It was like fireworks were exploding all over his skin. A paper mushy was driving a pink Hummer erratically. They crashed into the kitchen table instead of Shawn’s legs. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was because of a design flaw from the old man who pieced them together. A large group of paper mushies carried different color markers. They lunged at Shawn, coloring his jeans with quick jabs. All the wiggly eyes that usually looked every which way were locked onto him. They didn’t bounce around inside the plastic shell, they stayed put, fixed on their enemy.
Shawn started to scream. Boy, did that man have a scream, something that’s burned into my ears for eternity.
He tried fighting back, but strength mattered not when he couldn’t discern what was happening. Everywhere he looked, every direction he thought he could flee a paper mushy was there causing chaos. An orange was bounced off his head. His entire shirt was covered in sugar and flour. The rolling pin was swung into his shin, the connection sounding similar to a wooden baseball bat going yard at Comerica Park. They started to crawl up his legs like bugs, poking and prodding him. He managed to swat a few of them away, crunching their wooden bones with the heels of his feet. But the terror was too much; the incomprehensible brawl his breaking point. The man that had controlled their lives for too long was now a withering infant pleading for mercy. The paper mushies weren’t what scared Shawn the most; it was who was controlling them, who had discovered the power to bring inanimate objects to life and wielded it with such tenacity.
He was terrified of Special.
I’ve lived long enough to know that a person in pain can only take so much. A person can only sit back for so long before they stand up and do something. A person, like Special, will eventually fight back. It’s inevitable. It’s human. Those that are beaten down will rise again, stronger than before, louder than before. Those that are hurting will bring the hurt to you. Magic, like hope, is one of those unseen variables that can turn the tide. A lot of people don’t believe in either of those things, but you know what, there are some of us do. We ain’t waiting for you to believe what we believe.
Shawn was a tornado, throwing himself into the dining table. “Tell them to stop!” he said, his arms flopping around as if there were no bones in them at all. “Tell the paper satans to stop. I’ll leave and never come back. I’ll leave you two alone. I promise! Just tell them to stop!”
He sprinted toward the front door, objects ricocheting off his back. He opened the door and went for the Nova. That was where he saw me and the last of the paper mushies waiting for him. Shawn liked to sometimes leave his keys in the car under the front seat. Unfortunately for him, he had left them there that day. I had started the car; the paper mushies did the rest. Four paper mushies stood on each other’s shoulders to make a line high enough to be able to honk the horn. Paper mushies grabbed onto the windshield wipers and rode them like some thrill ride. The headlights flicked on and off while crazy music blasted from the speakers. Two large groups—one on the hood and the other on the trunk—hopped up and down, bouncing the frame. The Nova was alive just as much as they were.
Shawn screamed his loudest scream yet and pulled a gun from his waist. He started shooting at the paper mushies on the car, punching holes into the metal frame. I took cover behind a trash barrel; Special and Ianchelle took cover in the master bedroom inside. The car was rocking so hard that the loose muffler finally fell off and hit the driveway with a cloud of rust debris. The paper mushies that were still hanging on to Shawn’s clothes crawled toward the gun. They used their stubby hands to cut into his arm. He dropped the gun and fell over. The paper mushies carried the gun away and out of sight.
“This house is cursed,” Shawn said. He stood up and held the wounds on his arm and his ear. He then did something I never expected to see: he ran down the road, never once looking back. “The paper is alive. It’s alive! And the demon child is their master!”
He was nothing but a speck on the horizon.
Things settled down after Shawn left. The paper mushies assembled near the front porch. Those that were still in one piece tended to the others who had been injured in the scuffle. Special and Ianchelle came outside, joining me on the porch. We all had that look, that what just happened? glare beaming from our eyes. There were a variety of emotions brewing inside of us.
Finally, there was peace.
“We did it, Mr. Potmis! We scared him away,” Special said.
“You did it, Special,” I said. “This was all you.”
“No, you helped. It was you too.” She looked at Ianchelle. “And you too, mama.”
Red and blue flashed down the road. Somebody had called the cops. My first thought was that it was because of the shooting. But people had shot at the Dead End sign all of the time and there was never one call made. I think the cops were called because of the screaming. Ain’t nobody in Morrow Square ever heard screaming like that before.
The paper mushies got into a large circle. I wasn’t sure what they were doing, but it seemed like they were aware of the approaching cop car. They looked up at Special, saluting her one more time before they disintegrated, their arms and legs breaking down and blowing away in the wind, all of their evidence erased.
A final emotion was shared between us: loss.