Steven had just finished a cigarette and lofted the butt off the loading dock when Bitsy appeared and told him there was barf in the interrogation room. This was no surprise. There was always barf somewhere. In the interrogation room, in the supermarket, in the post office, in the dentist’s office. In the nail salon. Steven arrived in the interrogation room to find a woman holding a crying child by the hand. Wherever children played and ate cake, some of them barfed. Usually the smaller ones. Steven threw a wad of paper towels down and told everyone to clear out. The name of the place was You Can Touch This! but barf was an exception. No one touched barf but Steven. The interrogation room looked like a real interrogation room, only much shabbier. All the furniture—like most of the furniture at You Can Touch This!—had been donated, in this case by the local police precinct, on the (entirely true) premise that anything grown-ups did for real, kids would enjoy pretending to do. Bitsy and her partner, Tina, had done a reasonably good job of removing the rusty metal parts from donations like these—and covering the electrical outlets and fuse boxes, and so on—providing beleaguered parents a guiltfree environment in which they could let their children roam around like wild animals. Bitsy had a marketing degree and she understood the market.
There was a table in the middle of the interrogation room surrounded by three aluminum chairs and a lamp that could be trained directly on the “suspect.” In one corner, there was a cart with wheels on it, on top of which sat a broken polygraph machine. The thin metal arms that had once recorded vital signs were bent like a tangled clot of coat hangers, but kids still loved attaching each other to it. Its surface was dappled with fruit juice and icing. The half dozen photocopied flyers posted around the room—featuring a clip art image of a tank—had failed to prevent this. They said: “Absolutely no food and/ or drink in the Interrogation Room.” Steven locked the door behind him. The kids could still see him, through the window and via the surveillance camera that broadcast the contents of the interrogation room on a screen outside the door. Foreheads lined the window and children’s eyes peeked just above the sill. Steven cleaning barf was suddenly much more interesting than the operating room, the telemarketing center, the broken MRI machine, or the forklift with no engine. Steven swirled his mop selfconsciously until Bitsy’s voice came over the intercom, informing everyone that a puppet show was about to take place. The foreheads vanished from the window, and soon Steven heard Bitsy’s husky voice from the other side of the warehouse in the twin roles of Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming. Steven sprayed deodorizer in the air and closed the door behind him. Steven decided it was a good time to go to the bathroom. He was aware how dangerous it could be to go to the bathroom at You Can Touch This! It took only one hysterical child—and, as far as Steven could tell, it was the rare child who was not hysterical—to report that you had touched them inappropriately, and your job and your life (as you knew it) would be over.
This was what had happened to Steven’s predecessor—Randy—whose picture now appeared on a popular government website devoted to the criminally touchy. Bitsy and Tina seemed to think that in Randy’s case this was deserved—that he had in fact done some touching—but Steven thought this just proved that once one hysterical, sugar-crazed kid started talking, suspicions never really went away. Steven did not take chances. He made it his policy never to be alone in a closed room with anyone younger than eighteen, even though he himself was only sixteen and a virgin. Most of the time this was easy. Like the interrogation room, every room at You Can Touch This! had half walls or a window to prevent just this kind of secrecy. The official policy was to leave the doors to the bathrooms open—according to the photocopied flyers that appeared above the mirrors and in every stall—but Steven felt this left him vulnerable. He preferred to wait until the children were trapped in the puppet theater and then go to the bathroom by himself, locking the door safely behind him. He had tried other strategies, including clapping his hands while he was in the bathroom—to make it clear he wasn’t touching anything at all—but this made it difficult to handle his business and he was always peeing on himself. After Steven locked the door and sat down, he flipped open his phone. No messages. As he was finishing up, he received a text from Tina—this is how they found him when they couldn’t find him—announcing a “juice spill in the copy room.” The copy room, in this case, was the actual copy room, where Tina and Bitsy made copies of the warnings and instructions that were taped up everywhere—always in layouts involving clip art of clowns or dinosaurs or tanks. Steven unlocked and opened the bathroom door to see that a line had formed. The puppet show was short. There was a woman shepherding five little boys, one of whom looked up at Steven with a confused look. “What are you supposed to be?” he asked. This question made sense. Bitsy and Tina not only put on the puppet shows and served pizzas to parties in the private rooms that had been constructed along one side of the warehouse, but they dressed up too, based on the season and occasion. They dressed up like princesses and queens and witches and lady golfers and whatever was required, really. But Steven was not wearing a costume. Steven was being Steven (or so Steven thought), with his blue hair and his black fingernails and his pierced nose with a chain that ran to a clip that gripped the rim of his right ear. They had agreed on an answer to this question, however, which he was to provide whenever kids asked what he was supposed to be. That way, Bitsy said, he would fit right in. “A zombie,” he said, brushing the hair out of his eyes and smiling vaguely. The boy—like the woman and her other charges—seemed satisfied. In the copy room, it was Tina who had spilled her juice, laced as it always was with Southern Comfort. The paper was jammed and Tina was stabbing at the Copy button, producing a steady stream of useless beeps. Steven rolled his eyes and told Tina to step aside. In some ways, Bitsy and Tina were as hopeless and irritating as his own mother, except that they weren’t ashamed of him and they gave him someplace to stay. He carefully dried the buttons with a series of paper towels and opened up the machine’s various hatches to relieve the jams before running off a dozen copies of a page with a dinosaur on it that warned of a “$10 fee for cleaning up of ‘accidents.’” He wasn’t quite sure what Tina was after, but he figured she meant the barf in the interrogation room and he wondered who would get the ten dollars.
He taped the flyers up in the interrogation room, in the supermarket, in the post office, in the dentist’s office, in the nail salon, and in the pond of rubber balls, which was basically impossible to clean when barfed in. He then took his spot at the cash register. The last of the day’s parties were getting ready to leave, but they’d first have to clear the gauntlet of goodies Bitsy and Tina had amassed by the exit in an attempt to generate incremental income. (Bitsy understood the market.) These items ranged from the arguably educational (balsa wood models of triceratopses), to the frivolous (candy jewelry), to the ethically questionable (toy soldiers painted in desert tones). Nevertheless, the area where they were sold was impossible to avoid. Bitsy had turned it into a sort of corral through which all traffic had to filter. On the way into You Can Touch This!, children flew through without distraction, hypnotized by the promise of fake teleconferencing centers and cupcakes with blue frosting. By the time they were leaving, however, their ability to resist was compromised by sugar and fatigue and that terrible childhood sense that the best day of your life is coming to an end and can’t it please, please, please last just a little bit longer? Parents huddled outside the enclosure, hoping to hustle their children through quickly enough to avoid delays, whining, and discretionary spending. Some succeeded, but many did not, and Steven waited at the register for negotiations to wind down in screams and tears and final, desperate purchases. Once the last child had extorted the last candy cocktail ring, the silence inside the echoing expanse of You Can Touch This! practically rang. “Holy fuck!” Bitsy groaned like a bear while she stretched her back. “I thought they’d never leave.” She said this every night and Tina, tipsy, always laughed. With the kids gone, they all smoked cigarettes while Tina tallied the day’s receipts and prepared to close for the night. “Need a ride somewhere, Stevie?” Bitsy asked. “Want to catch a movie?” He rolled his eyes and shook his head. He thought he might die of embarrassment, even though no one was around. “Too cool to be seen with a couple old lesbos?” Bitsy said, grabbing the much smaller Tina around the waist and poking her face over her shoulder, like they were posing for a picture. “I’ll just stay here,” he said. “Suit yourself, Champ,” Bitsy said as she and Tina left the merchandise corral and headed out the front door. “Catch you in the morning.” Steven checked the lock on the steel door by the loading dock, shut off the industrial lights that hung far overhead, and settled into the Holiday Inn Express Child-Friendly Accommodation. The bad part about the Holiday Inn Express Child-Friendly Accommodation was that it had to be referred to by its full name. Holiday Inn Express had donated it to You Can Touch This! on this condition. The good part about it was that it was an exact replica of an actual Holiday Inn Express Child-Friendly Accommodation, which meant that Steven had a hotel room where he could stay for as long as he wanted. That’s why Bitsy and Tina had been able to take him in when his mother had thrown him out for being, as she said, a total queer-bait. The only other slightly bad part was that children played, and fought, and peed, and jumped on the bed all day in the donated Holiday Inn Express Child-Friendly Accommodation, so it was a mess and it smelled like milk. Steven didn’t mind too much. The television worked and if you kept the lights off, you couldn’t see the fingerprints all over the screen. He shook the bedspread to rid it of giant plastic toys and crumbs, then carefully smoothed it out on top of the bed and propped himself against the headboard. The remote control was nailed down, but he’d gotten good at operating it without looking. As he surfed for horror movies, his phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out and slid it open to see a text from his father. “Call your mother,” it said. Steven tossed the phone on the bed and zoned out to an airing of Near Dark he’d been lucky enough to find. He was startled when he heard the door by the loading dock rattle. The warehouse was creepy at night, but Steven liked its stray creaks and its weird hollowness. Who knew what could be lurking where? It was his milieu. This noise was not mysterious, however. It was someone trying to get in. His father, or his mother maybe, with the police. He turned off the television. He got up and slowly crept out of the Holiday Inn Express Child-Friendly Accommodation and to the power box to turn the overhead lights back on. Almost as soon as he threw the switch, which made a big sizzling click like something in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, he heard a shriek by the loading dock. He ran across the warehouse as fast as he could, slipping on the smoothed concrete floors in his socks, to reach the room just beyond the dentist’s office. But the banging and shrieking was not coming from the outside. Right by the door was a little boy, crying and thrashing at the door with his fists. Steven froze. Images of Randy’s image on that government website flashed before his eyes, and this—this was so much worse. Here was a child who could not be more hysterical, in a situation where they could not be more alone. In a warehouse? It was like a joke. Steven searched his mind and couldn’t discover a single reason why this was not, in some sense, a kidnapping.
The child didn’t notice Steven. He just kept pounding and crying. He was maybe five, although Steven had trouble distinguishing ages from four to fourteen. He was blond, and pale, and had a round face that was now as red as a tomato from crying. Steven worried that the zombie explanation wouldn’t go far this time, but he had no choice, so he approached carefully and leaned down toward the boy. “Can I help you?” he said. He knew this was ridiculous, but the kid turned and looked at him full face, blubbering, and fell into his arms. Steven cradled him awkwardly—he would have preferred to handle barf—and tried to calm the kid down. He reached for his phone and realized he’d left it in the Holiday Inn Express ChildFriendly Accommodation. “It’s all right,” he was saying. “It’s all right.” Steven could not remember the last time he thought anything was all right. “All right,” he said. “Calm down. What’s your name?” He was careful not to scratch the boy with his nose chain. “Ashton,” the boy said. “Action?” Steven clarified. “Ashton!” the boy said, impetuously, rubbing one of his wet eyes with the heel of his hand. “Okay, Ashton, we’re just going to get my phone so we can find your parents. Can we do that?” Ashton nodded limply. Steven stood up and took Ashton by the hand and led him through the dentist’s office, the supermarket, and the post office to the Holiday Inn Express Child-Friendly Accommodation. His phone was where he had left it. He picked it up and—without letting go of Ashton’s hand—dialed Bitsy’s number. “Bitsy, Bitsy,” he cried when she answered, relieved to be freed of total responsibility. “There’s a kid named Ashton . . . Ashton, what’s your full name?” “Ashton Jacob Hunter.” “Ashton Jacob Hunter, and he got locked in, and he’s here right now, and we’ve got to find his parents, and you’ve got to come right away.” "Son of a bitch,” Bitsy bellowed into the phone. “We’ll be right there.” Steven sat on the bed and looked at Ashton, who was just standing there, staring at him. Help was on the way. “I’m hungry,” Ashton said. “I need to go to the bathroom.” The bathroom. The word was like a knife in Steven’s heart. Here they were, already so far past his well-considered comfort zone, and now the bathroom? “There it is,” Steven said, pointing to the fully-functioning bathroom in the Holiday Inn Express Child-Friendly Accommodation. “I need help,” Ashton said. “Help? Are you sure you can’t hold it?” “I need to go!” Ashton said. Steven, aided by more images of Randy’s image on that government website, quickly calculated whether it would be better to have a happy, satisfied Ashton when help arrived or an angry, impetuous Ashton. He plucked the child from the bed and took him into the bathroom. He got down on his knees, undid the button and zipper on Ashton’s corduroys and picked Ashton up and sat him on the toilet seat. And there they were, facing each other, their noses just inches apart. A shiver of relief worked its way through Ashton’s little body. “What are you supposed to be?” Ashton asked. “A zombie,” Steven said. Ashton pulled his pants up on his own, and Steven helped zip and button them. He took Ashton by the hand again and led him back through all the rooms and the dentist’s office just as Bitsy was throwing open the steel door from outside, along with a policeman and a frantic woman who was Ashton’s mother. “Ashton, oh my God,” she screamed as she ran up to him and plucked him from Steven’s side. “Oh my God, honey, what have they done to you?” “Now let’s not jump to any crazy conclusions,” Bitsy said. She remembered Randy too. “It was an honest mistake. He’s fine.” She reached out and tousled Ashton’s hair with one of her big hands. Ashton’s mother pulled the boy away from Bitsy angrily. “What did this man do to you?” she asked the boy.
“What man?” Ashton asked earnestly. “What man?”
Ashton’s mother hustled him away from the loading dock and
toward her car, the policeman right behind her. “He’s not a man,”
Ashton sang as the woman buckled him into his car seat. “He’s a
“A zom-beeeeeeeee,” they could hear the boy happily wailing as
the car wheeled around and turned toward the exit of the industrial
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