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Ned's Head MAG
Aunt Helena arrived at the door with a bang that Harold might have expected from a firecracker or a large bag of pretzels hitting the ground, but not a grown woman. She pounded the door three times; by the third, the poor thing was practically off its hinges.
Harold gulped. He knew these taps, reminiscent of family reunions, funerals, and generally bad times. When his mother started up from the sofa, he drew his finger across his neck and whispered, “Don't do it, Ma. Don't open the door.”
As usual, Mother didn't listened. Trance-like, she patted Harold's head and continued toward the door. With a half-mumbled sigh that might have been directed as communication with her son (but most likely not), she opened the door.
Aunt Helena was there where once had stood innocent ground. Her hair curled tightly around her head like a mackerel. It smelled of mackerel. Very likely, it was a mackerel. Even more likely, Aunt Helena was a squid dressed in a mackerel wig and a displeasing polka-dot dress. Nobody seemed to notice this except Harold, and when he shakily pointed it out to his mother, she slapped his hand and told him to be polite.
His mother told him to be polite often. It was all she knew how to say. He didn't take it personally – after all, he wasn't the one who'd let a squid relation into the family room.
“Shall I come in?” said Aunt Helena, stepping one foot in before anyone answered her. “I have business to discuss with you before we leave, Margaret.”
Margaret, otherwise known as Harold's mother, nodded absently and waved her in. Before Aunt Helena went so far as to put both her feet in the door, however, Harold screamed.
“Don't let that squid-lady in, Mom!” he cried, clinging to her skirts. “She'll ink all over the carpets.”
“I'll never,” said Aunt Helena, although she did take a step back.
For reasons unknown to Harold, his mother frowned at him the same way she did when he had said something rude. She said nothing, however (which only disappointed him further), and instead smiled knowingly at Aunt Helena. “We'll have to discuss it on the way to the theater; I'm afraid Harold's having a breakdown.”
“Is he?” Aunt Helena raised an eyebrow. “Very well. Let's go, then.”
Harold's mother attempted to walk alongside Aunt Helena, but her son tugged at her skirt again. She smoothed it and glared at him. “Yes? What is it?”
“I don't want you to go,” he said plainly. “I'm worried. How do you know she's related to us, Mom?”
Margaret rolled her eyes and brushed him off. “For goodness sake, she's my sister. You're twelve years old, Harold. Please try to work these things out on your own without me spelling them out.”
“She's a squid!” cried Harold and hunched himself up. Quieter, resigning to his defeat with curled up hands and a pout, he said, “What am I supposed to do while you're gone?”
“Babysit Ned like I told you, please,” she said. Before Harold could respond, she sidled over to the red-faced Helena and stepped out the door. Through the crack she squeezed, “Be a good boy, Harold.”
The door shut; Harold pressed his ear against the wall and heard an enormous sigh puff. Then nothing. Babbling of the neighbors and the odd baby wailing in the distance, but nothing that mattered.
He lifted his ear from the door and, with an angry shrug, stalked off down the hallway. Speaking of babies, indeed. Harold flung open the door of his little brother's room and ran in. The bright colors hurt his eyes, which only elevated his anger.
“Where are you, Ned?” he roared, kicking blocks over, stamping on the carpet, and screaming to hold back his sobs. He ravaged the room searching for his little brother. When he discovered the crib, he unleashed on it the ferocity of a cat discovering that its owners got a puppy. “There can't be many places for you to hide, baby, and when I find you–”
Harold found the baby in his crib, as expected. His slobbering, muck-making ick of a brother. Harold gazed upon him and felt the natural burst of loathing. He glared at the child as its squibby red face peeped up at him. “Just where Mom left you, I see. How cunning.”
The hatred that Harold felt for Ned by no means extended to all babies; even ugly babies he at least tolerated with a smile until he could slip away. The issue for Harold was that Neddie didn't belong to him at all, or even Harold's mother. He belonged to Darren.
Darren had left three months after Ned was born and, unfortunately, didn't take the quibbling baby with him. And although it resembled the bald-headed and scrubby-faced Darren much more than it resembled Harold or his mother, they had to keep it. Moreover, Harold had to keep it while his mother went out with new Darrens and aunts and anyone except her child to fancy outings and restaurants.
That was why Harold hated Ned. That he was a baby had nothing to do with it – it was that he didn't belong.
“I hate you,” Harold whispered at Ned while the little boy grabbed at him between the bars. Flecks of spit marked the extent of his hatred, which he struggled to wrap his head around in his twelve-year-old vocabulary. But, oh, by the fire in his eyes, he tried. “I've always hated you, and I'll never love you. Nobody will ever love you because you're stupid and you belong to Darren and even Mom says so, so there. What are you going to do about that, Ned?”
The spit-up-stained creature squinted at Harold as if pondering a perplexing question. He giggled innocently and then held his breath, grunting. He grunted for a long time until – pop! – Ned's head came clean off and thudded to the bottom of his crib.
With a cry, Harold flickered his eyes back and forth over the baby. Had he died? He couldn't explain a death to Mom, he just couldn't, even if it was just this skunk baby. But, no, aside from the obvious detachment of his head, Ned appeared fine. He cooed at Harold's distraught sneer as he tried to connect the baby's head and the blank space where now it wasn't. But he couldn't; it was as distant a gap as Ned's head and his neck to even begin fathoming how this had happened.
Or what he was going to tell Mom.
Blank-faced, ears trying not to hear the baby head babbling in its crib, Harold left the room, shutting the door. He sunk to the ground, back against the door, and closed his ears, trying to think of anything but the baby. Anything but the baby.
Anything – he broke into confused tears – but Ned's head.