When the two kids knocked on his door, Rob was lifting up his rat's cage door to put food in the dispenser. He smoothed Hector's soft, brown fur and kissed him on the nose, then closed up the cage to run and get the door. Rob's black hair stuck up in all directions, like a piece of modern statuary, and he was still in his plaid bathrobe and brown fuzzy slippers. The coffee was still percolating, the sleep grit was still in his eyes, and he was only now thinking of breakfast. So, when he saw the two neighbor kids -- a quiet boy of about age 10 with a long nose and a young girl with red pigtails and fat cheeks of about age 8 -- he was less friendly than he wanted to be.
"What do you want?" he grumbled. "It's 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Didn't your parents teach you not to bother people then?" The children lived in an apartment down the hall from him, and he mostly avoided looking at their parents. The father had a military crew cut and a bodybuilder's body, and the mother had raccoon mascara eyes and long, stringy brown hair. It was rumored in the building they fought a lot, but it wasn't any of his business. Except for playing his music too loud sometimes, no one in the building had any problems with him, nor did he have problems with them. Most people in D.C. left each other alone, especially in this still not quite safe Mount Pleasant neighborhood.
"We want you to be our daddy," said the boy.
"We don't like our parents," said the girl. "We want new ones."
Rob laughed, that was his first reaction.
"Don't we all," said Rob. "When I was your age, I wanted my parents to disappear, too. But I can't be your daddy. That position's already filled. Now, scoot, go back to your place."
"We don't want to go back," said the boy, who Rob noticed was shaking slightly. His dark green eyes looked frightened. The little girl, who was chewing on her fingernails, didn't look up at him.
"Why don't you?"
"Because our daddy's hitting our mommy. Like he always does," said the girl.
"He's a bastard," said the boy. "He's a bad person. We want another daddy."
Rob didn't know what to say. Looking into the hallway, he scanned the hall going toward the kid's apartment, watching for the parents to show up. When after a minute they didn't, Rob told them to sit on the couch.
"Do you want me to call the police?" he asked them. "I can call them and help get this settled."
"Doesn't matter," said the boy. "Cops came and he did it again."
"He says he won't but he always does," said the girl. "He's a liar."
Grabbing the remote control on the armchair, Rob turned on the TV to the cartoon channel. He rubbed his hands together, pacing back and forth near the couch and the kids. He didn't want to get involved. He always broke off relationships with his women, so he wouldn't have to deal with kids. Dealing with kids was not up Rob's alley.
"I can't be your daddy. I can barely take care of myself sometimes, much less kids. And it's not my choice, anyway. Your parents are your parents, no matter how good or bad they are."
"Our daddy doesn't let us watch violent cartoons," said the boy.
"Not good for us," said the girl.
Rob looked at the screen, where a cartoon cat was hammering a dog with a sledge hammer. The kids looked at it aghast, as if being forced to watch concentration camp footage. Turning it off, he kneeled next to the kids to explain his position further.
"You see, I don't know how to handle kids or what they need or anything. I am just some guy you don't even know. Don't you have any relatives nearby you could stay with?"
"Nope," said the boy. "They all live in Virginia."
"We can't go out of the building. Daddy says strangers will get us."
"I see," said Rob. He decided what they needed was food. Sprinting into the kitchen, he found a blueberry muffin mix. Using the last egg in the carton and some of the dregs of oil he found in the bottle, Rob mixed the ingredients together while keeping an eye on the kids. They hardly moved; they seemed like they were dulled by some drug. Rob scrubbed the muffin pan and poured the mix in, and then he set the oven on for 350. The kids had changed the channel to a nature show on public TV about penguins in Antarctica.
"You guys like muffins?"
"They're okay, Daddy," said the boy.
"Look, don't call me that. I'm just having you kids in here until things calm down with your parents. Then I think I might call social services on them. Something has to be done, here."
"They've come too. They fool them. They pretend things are nice," said the girl.
Rob heaved a deep sigh. "You kids, just hold tight. I'm going to clean up a little bit."
Rob went into his bedroom and put on some clean clothes. He brushed his teeth and combed his hair. Looking into the bathroom mirror, he noticed more thinning hair and shadows under the eyes. He didn't want to believe it, but he looked like he could be a daddy.
The muffins were soon done, if a little overcooked. He had stayed in the kitchen while they were cooking, afraid to break the strange silence in the living room. Every once in a while one of the kids would whisper to the other, and the listener would shake his head or start to cry a little. Rob emptied the tin and brought a plate of muffins with a container of margarine and a butter knife.
"Our ex-daddy doesn't like us to eat margarine," said the boy.
"He won't let us eat sugared cereal either," said the girl. "I don't know about muffins. I don't think so."
"It seems like your daddy didn't want you to do much of anything," said Rob. "He wouldn't like you being over here at a stranger's place, would he? Watching violent cartoons and eating sweet stuff?"
"He doesn't care now," said the boy. The girl nodded.
"I know. That's because he's doing bad things to your mommy. You know it's wrong, right? You shouldn't treat people that way. Like I said, I'm going to call about this."
The two kids shrugged and began to eat the muffins. They scarfed them down, like they hadn't been fed in days. They licked the crumbs off their fingers, even. Rob wondered if they hadn't eaten dinner last night; sometimes when his parents had been fighting he didn't get his meal either. He grabbed the phone to make the call, but the two kids were standing right next to him.
"Whoa! You kids are quick! What's up? I'm making that call."
"We ought to leave now. I don't think you can be our daddy," said the boy.
"Why not?" Rob asked. He couldn't believe he felt hurt by that statement.
"You don't care what we watch or what we eat."
"And you got a rat," she said. "We just noticed that. We're not allowed to have pets."
"Hector? He's completely harmless. Look, I'll let you pet him." Rob went over to the lift the cage and grabbed the squirming animal. He walked over to the kids to show them. They walked backward, their eyes wide and their breathing loud. The girl looked white and pale, as if she were hot and going to faint.
"Keep tit away from us," said the boy. "You're not a daddy. You're a scary guy."
"I'm not scary," he said, bringing the animal closer. Hector's limbs clawed the air, and his nose twitched and sniffed. Rob didn't understand why they were afraid. Hector would never really bite anyone; he was completely domesticated.
"You're crazy!" the girl squealed. She opened the door for both of them to run out. They fled down the hall, disappearing around the corner. Rob shook his head and closed the door. He sat down on the couch and looked at the muffins on the coffee table. Picking one up, Rob slathered margarine on it and gnawed on the muffin. He twitched his nose and scanned his environment for anything missing, finding nothing. Rob then turned on the TV to the cartoon channel. Another cartoon cat was running after a mouse, trying to catch him before he went in his hole. The cat smashed into the wall and Rob laughed. He forgot about the phone call he was going to make; he didn't want to get involved, really. He was not their daddy. He was no one's daddy at all.
About the author:
Don Illich is a writer and editor who lives in Rockville, Maryland. His work has appeared in verge magazine and McSweeney's Internet Tendency. He is single and looking, so feel free to e-mail him.