On Account of the Living

This selection is part of Nonbinary Review Issue #14: The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Get NonBinary Review #14 from the Zoetic Press website. 

John Carlyle stood from behind his desk and extended a hand. “Thank you for making time in your schedule to meet with me, Mr. Marinkovic.”

His visitor ignored the handshake offer and sat brusquely. “Save it, please, and let’s cut to the bloody chase. What’s the problem this time?”

Carlyle sat, face sober, and steepled his fingers before him. “It’s not often easy for a parent to hear…”

“Skip the handjob, please.”

“Very well.” He cleared his throat. “Your son does not appear to be cut out for this pre-K school.”

Marinkovic’s expression didn’t change. “Didn’t Ignacio Estrada say something like ‘If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn?’”

Carlyle did not immediately respond, but instead leaned forward for his desktop computer mouse. “Permit me to illustrate the problem?” Without waiting for a reply, he clicked at his computer and a video began playing silently on a television to one side of his desk.

A young boy with mousy brown hair is clearly engrossed in finger painting on beige paper, along with several other children. In walks an older, heavyset woman with her hands cupped together; the children jump up to greet her with excitement and cluster about her. She walks with them to a low table, says something to them, and they respond by moving their things off the table. The woman places what she’s carrying down on the table and removes her hands to reveal a blue jay, its neck clearly broken. The video pauses.

“The bird flew into one of the school windows and died,” Carlyle explained. “Ms. Gordon brought it in to show the children.” He then clicked the mouse.

The video resumes. Children begin to point and speak animatedly…all except for the boy with the mousy brown hair whose lip begins to quiver for some seconds before he begins to cry. The video pauses.

Marinkovic shifted in his seat. “What of it? With no context, Sergei might have…”

Carlyle held up his left hand, palm out, and wordlessly clicked to activate another video.

It is the same room, but the camera shows a different angle. It is darker than in the earlier video because the shades are down. The children lie on mats on the floor in various poses of sleep. The young boy—Sergei—begins to twitch, then grimace. His tiny arms flail, and his feet kick about. He begins to pant, head shaking emphatically back and forth as if forcefully screaming “NO!” The camera zooms to show tears streaking his cheeks, then pans lower to show a wet spot form at the crotch of his blue shorts.

“This? This is what I’m paying for?” Marinkovic stood abruptly.

“He had a nightmare, and wet himself, Mr. Marinkovic.”

“So? Lots of children do when they’re young!”

Carlyle gestured at the screen where the video had paused. “This was the afternoon after seeing the dead bird. Note that the other children are all sleeping soundly.”


“If you’ll calm yourself and be seated, I’ll show you the most significant evidence I have as to why your son doesn’t belong at this special pre-K program.” He studied his computer screen, moved the mouse and double-clicked once more. “Given the above episodes, the following test was absolutely warranted.”

Sergei is alone in a play room, playing with building blocks. The door opens and a young girl with curly blond hair and dark eyes comes in. The boy raises his head and looks to at her, and there is delighted curiosity on his face. He stands up as the girl walks over to the table and says something to her. She glances at the table, then back at Sergei, who smiles and nods. She reaches and takes a block, then adds it to what the boy was building. Soon they are taking turns, and both are laughing.

Suddenly, the girl stops laughing and her eyes go wide. She appears to be choking, struggling for breath. Sergei jumps to his feet, hitting the table, and the blocks fall and scatter everywhere. The girl falls backwards and the boy falls to her knees at her side. The camera zooms in as his lips begin to quiver, and his face screws up and tears begin falling as he starts yelling out loud. The video pauses with him mid-cry.

Marinkovic frowned and glanced at Carlyle with a loathing typically reserved for finding a dead mouse in one’s cupboard. “Just what kind of sick bastard are you?”

“I am the headmaster of the most exclusive pre-Kindergarten school program in the world; I’ll do whatever is necessary to preserve the reputation of this school and its children.” He jutted his chin in the direction of the video screen, his eyes never leaving those of the furious parent before him. “You’re just angry because I’ve forced you to face the fact that your son is simply not suited to this program.”

“His new playmate collapsed in front of him, and….”

Carlyle’s hand slapped the desk with the sound of a gavel banging out a sentence. “Come now, Mr. Marinkovic! You knew the girl was dead the moment she entered the room, even via the film, didn’t you?”

Angry eyes glared back at him, but there was no reply.

“We’ve use her for years to test our students’ aptitudes—she was animated by Ms. Gordon, in fact, in this instance. Do you know what most children do, sir?”
Marinkovic looked away and said nothing.

“Most have the same reaction as when the see the dead animal—the blue jay, in this case. Sometimes it’s a turtle, or a mouse… Regardless, they typically respond with fascination, looking to understand. One in a fifty begins to explore their own abilities at this point; it’s a rarity, but some talent manifests so early and powerfully that they can make ‘Necro Nellie’ twitch, or move her hand.” Carlyle leaned back in his chair and again steepled his fingers. “None who cry, or wet the bed during a nightmare after seeing and touching a dead creature go on to become great necromancers.”

Marinkovic’s face was red when he turned his gaze back to the headmaster, and when he spoke it was through gritted teeth. “I’ll have you know that his grandfather was the scourge of the Ukraine, finally caught and burned to death after the uprising of the cemetery at the St. Peter’s and Paul’s Garrison Church in Lviv! That his father has surpassed even that feat, through the selective animation of historical figures over 500 years old!”

“That may all be true, sir, but…”

“But nothing!” Marinkovic stretched out a hand, fingers rigidly clawed.

“Oh please. I have my own powers, and…erk!” Carlyle’s mouth gaped open and moved silently. He stood abruptly, palms flat on his desk, and struggled for breath. His head snapped up, and his eyes went wide in horror and disbelief. He brought up one hand to his chest, the other curled to gesture, but nothing happened. The headmaster made the gesture again, more frantically, but again nothing happened. He fell back into his chair, back arched, eyes panicked, chest heaving but unable to breathe.

Marinkovic stood slowly, clawed hand turning over, as if he now held something clutched in it. “My son will be a great necromancer, you pissant, self-important little fool,” he snarled as he moved closer. “And do you want to know a secret? Something to which no one else living is privy?”

Carlyle heaved like a fish in air, eyes rolling back in their sockets.

Sergei’s father leaned close and whispered to the dying man. “When I was young, I, too, wet the bed. I grew out of it.” He suddenly squeezed his hand into a fist and the headmaster went absolutely rigid for several seconds before he finally slumped in his chair and did not move again.

“And so will my son.”

* * *

Alina Marinkovic leaned her head back and rested it against her husband’s chest as his arms enfolded her. “Are you certain this is for the best?”

“Of course. Look at how happy he is now.”

She turned within his embrace to gaze up at him. “But what about you? You were so proud to have him in that pre-K.”

Marinkovic smiled at her. “Let’s just say it didn’t quite live up to its reputation. I’m sure he’ll do fine with home-schooling for a while.”

“Well. I will say it’s nice to have him here, and it’s more convenient than having to drive him there and back every day.” She turned once again, and they watched Sergei together wordlessly for a few minutes. “And you’re sure about his tutor?”

“Mr. Carlyle and I spoke at great length, and I’m sure he would rather die than fail our son.”

Alina beamed. “That’s so sweet! What kind of man is he?”

Marinkovic thought for a moment, then kissed his wife on the cheek before replying. “Animated.”

David Hoenig has had stories published in Flame Tree Publishing, Cast of Wonders, Elder Signs Press, Zoetic Press/NonBinary Review, Drunk Monkeys Literary, and Dark Chapter Press. He is working on his first novel.