Another lousy dawn. His knees were scraped. His clothes were soggy. His head throbbed, and his gums felt like they’d been worked over with a billy club.
He reached for the bottle he kept under his pillow and took a swig. Tasted rotten, but it did the trick. Helped him remember the bolt of insight he’d had, just before everything went black: His parents were trying to kill him.
He wasn’t born yesterday. More like three years ago. He noticed things. For instance, that his dad left the house every morning wearing a mask. A bank robber, obviously.
Or that his mom stayed home all day, talking to her people. The lookouts, the crooked back-office staff, the pediatrician — they were all on the take and they all answered to her. He caught on quickly. She was Mrs. Big.
Oh, she could get all nice and friendly, like when she told him he would be going to something called preschool. Sounded awful: a room crammed with kids he didn’t know. A strange woman making him play stupid games, take unwanted naps, eat awful snacks. And worse.
You see, while his mom was busy talking to her TV, the one with the keyboard, she left him in front of the other TV.
After he tired of those bland and chirpy kids’ shows, he would press the button in search of more violent programming. He would end up at the news.
It was usually about something called the virus. He saw scary pictures of people with tubes down their throats and, sometimes, being lowered into the ground.
It was then he understood why his dad wore a mask. As a bank robber, you don’t want to be recognized — especially by a virus.
On TV he saw guys in suits, clearly undercover cops, saying, “You don’t really need to wear a mask.” Yeah, right.
He also saw guys in white coats say masks are essential in schools, where the virus hangs out looking for easy marks. One of the white coats said 15 percent of new victims were children. The kid couldn’t do the odds, but he knew they weren’t good.
He also knew his folks weren’t happy with him. They argued a lot about being cooped up, stressed out and missing their old lives, i.e. before the kid came to town.
The message was clear: They wanted him out of their hair. If he didn’t move fast, preschool would be his one-way ticket to the long goodbye.
So, he packed some clothes, a few cookies, his nighttime doggie. He was almost out the door when his mom grabbed him from behind and spun him around. She was smiling that deadly smile. He knew it was curtains.
But, then she handed him something. A mask. Just his size. In his favorite color, blood red. With pictures of little cars and trucks on it. What the … ?
Suddenly, it all became clear. The joke was on him. His parents were not trying to kill him after all. Instead, he would be joining the family business.
He was pleased. And why not? Robbing banks with daddy all day would be a lot more fun — and certainly safer — than sitting in a classroom. Especially with all those crazy adults going to the mattresses over the politics of school safety.
He looked up at his mom. This, he told her, could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Inspired by the just-published story collection “New Teeth” (Little Brown, $27) by Simon Rich, a novelist, screenwriter and son of my former Time Magazine colleague Frank Rich.