The Fanishing Ones
by Lucy Goldring, 3.49am May 10th 2022
Rebecca jetted out her urine as fast as humanly possible and tried not to think about how many sweaty, poo-smeared bums had sat on the seat before her. Jogging back from the toilets, she decided she would volunteer for first watch in the kid supervision roster.
She couldn’t see Junie with adults. When she learnt that the children had already gone in on their own, Junie toddling after the older ones, her stomach flopped over like a soggy pancake. What the hell were they thinking? She couldn’t blame Kev. He’d been checking in the coats and was just as agitated her. With the exception of the child-minder, Junie had always been under their vigilant eye.
‘What’s the worse that can happen?’ offered Charlotte, keen, as ever, to showcase her Steiner-infected parenting style. Christ, it was like she’d never even heard of Lord of the Flies. Rebecca shook her head at her on-off friend, in part to disperse the mishmash of scenarios gaining colour and shape in her mind. The area was in the grip of a missing kids crisis: three children apparently snatched from their beds in the space of a month.
Rebecca kicked off her trainers and sprinted for the gate. The words ‘stay-safe-Junie-don’t-hide-from-me-Junie’ looped through her mind like a mantra, as the dead-eyed teen nodded at her wristband and waved her through.
Entrance to the main play space was via an enormous ball pit. Dragging her legs through the oversized pearls, Rebecca felt like a doomed insect. She kept her eyes on the thick plastic flaps through which Junie had apparently disappeared. The kids that didn’t move in response to her bossy chorus of ‘excuse mes’ Rebecca nudged aside.
Although she hadn’t really trusted Charlotte’s claim that The Amazing Maze Place was ‘absolutely suitable for a four year old’, Rebecca was shocked by what she saw. She emerged through the butcher’s flaps into a dimly lit industrial play cage with multiple levels and countless ways to navigate them. The main routes were highlighted by lines of neon lights, which throbbed to the rhythm of deafening nineties techno. The vibe was tacky nightclub – literally, her socks were sticking to the floor. 2 Unlimited’s ‘Get Ready for This’ was translating, by unshakable association, into the taste of sicked-up Malibu on the back of her tongue.
In addition to the inflatables, hamster tubes and rope bridges, were several cordoned-off zones where kids queued for a choice of high-octane entertainments. Wilf and Rosa, Charlotte’s insufferable twins, were over in the far corner, jostling to be first for the rodeo ride. They would have ditched Junie the second they got inside, whatever Charlotte, their pleading minion, might have suggested. Rebecca estimated that there were about 300 children in the complex altogether, ranging in age from six to thirteen. Yes, there was a smattering of younger ones, but each was accompanied by an adult. The few members of staff she could spot looked beyond bored, already jaded by life. The nearest was a lad with terrible acne, yawning so hard that his head had aligned with the ceiling. Pointless to ask if he’d seen a tiny girl in a dinosaur t-shirt; the place was overrun with dinosaur t-shirts.
Rebecca put on her pre-schooler head and darted towards the most enticing route. She visualised her anxiety as an advancing wave and flung herself up and over, onto a bouncy violet walkway.
Junie was four – only just four and small for her age. Four was losing your way and panicking. She had to go FAST. Four was needing to go to the toilet this second, Mummy. She had to go FASTER. Four was colliding heads with an older child round a tight bend… four was getting your finger stood on… your arm snapped like a twig. Junie might already be hurt, might be screaming in agony… to nobody at all, nobody that gave a rat’s arse at least.
Fuck, fuck, fuck-fuck-fuck.
Junie was, in fact, sitting calmly on the edge of an inflatable, protected by a soft pillar at the rear. Although she was less than ten metres away, Rebecca found herself running at full pelt. In the half an hour they’d been apart, Junie might’ve developed teleportation abilities – ones that could only be defused by a mother’s touch.
At close range, her daughter seemed less of a flight risk. She was pressing her heels into the squish, fixed on exploring her own mind rather than some other place. Rebecca flumped down, pulling Junie into a hard embrace.
‘Love! Here you are! Have you been… have you been having fun? Are you okay?’ Rebecca was out of breath, her heart beating in techno-time. She swallowed back tears and concentrated on the familiar herbal must of Junie’s scalp. But there was another smell too, something like decaying fruit and meat – gone-off meat?
‘Yes, mummy, I like it in here.’
‘Use your big voice, Junie, Mummy can’t hear you very well.’
‘I said, I like it in here!’
‘Great! Did you go exploring?’ Rebecca’s mind was twitching in a hundred directions.
‘Yes! And I made friends.’
A lurch in her stomach at the thought of the obnoxious adolescences she’d encountered; the boys a head taller than her that had shoved and kicked each other, called each other ‘fucking pussy’ and ‘whiny ass bitch’.
‘With little children like you? With other four year olds?’
‘One was four, one was four and a half and one was six.’
‘How lovely. Were they on their own too?’ This seemed unlikely given what Rebecca had observed.
‘It was them, Mummy.’ Junie had clambered off her lap and was looking around in a vague way.
‘Which ‘them’, sweetheart?’ She did a haphazard scan of the room before turning back to study her daughter’s face. ‘Who do you mean?’
Rebecca wasn’t used to seeing Junie with enlarged pupils for any length of time. When she comforted Junie after a nightmare, she always flicked on the big light and her daughter’s pupils shrank back to innocent dots. These neon-tinged pools suggested newfound wisdom, enhanced powers of perception.
‘The boy with the glasses, the girl with the owl top and the boy with long ginger hair. The fanishing ones!’
‘You mean you saw the photos, darling?’ There were photos stuck up in the foyer of the play centre, along with on every lamppost and shop window in the postcode.
‘No, silly! They were the ones I played with. In our den. We did dizzy-spinning. They had very cold hands and they didn’t talk to me, but I didn’t mind.’
‘What do you mean, darling? What den? Is it a funny story for Mummy?’
Junie sighed the sigh of a weary grown-up. ‘Just follow me. This is the way we go.’
Rebecca had to concentrate hard. Junie was faster through the gaps and round the corners, entirely adapted to her new terrain. When other thoughts arose – tried to mesh with what Junie had told her – she steered her mind back on task. There was no way Junie was getting more than three foot ahead, even if she had to shove a few dickheads out of the way to keep up.
Suddenly, Junie swerved off to the left, squeezing herself between the outside of a bouncy castle and the breezeblock wall that formed the internal perimeter of the building.
‘Junie, Mummy can’t fit through there!’ Shit.
But Rebecca found she could. If she went in sideways, awkwardly crab-walked her way along, she could ignore the discomfort of her chest and nose scraping against the tough seams of plastic. Even so, Junie was gaining ground and now a gang of kids were piling through, pummelling Rebecca’s head into the wall. She channelled the pain, took two giant sidesteps and made a grab for her daughter’s hand.
They stumbled out into a dark space, about four metres squared, directly behind the battle beams area. Rebecca had passed the beams, and the deep trench beneath, on one of her circuits, and wondered if it was possible for a child to suffocate in foam blocks.
Where they were standing, three plastic baskets of spare balls occupied most of the floor. The rest was crisscrossed with black cabling, held down with shiny grey tape. Everything looked organised, safe. That was Rebecca’s first impression. Then the smell hit her nostrils – the same putrid smell that clung to her daughter, but stronger.
Junie was standing by a plug point staring at the wall. Rebecca followed her daughter’s gaze to an oblong stain, or shadow maybe, about the height and width of small child. She felt sick and detected the first tiny pulse of a migraine.
‘It’s gone, Mummy, gone. I can’t find it.’ Junie was twisting her t-shirt into a tight knot the way she did when she messed up a drawing. ‘This was the way in. Just here, Mummy. This was the door to our den!’
Tears were springing from the corners of her daughter’s eyes, her distress spiralling now. Junie wasn’t a liar and one of the things she hated most was being made to look like one.
Rebecca could feel her surroundings closing in. The squash of inflatables against her ribs, the choke of rope around her neck, the techno thud-thud-thud colonising her thoughts. Junie had positioned her hands in the centre of the stain. She had begun to push her upper body against it, causing the unicorns on her socks to rise, as if in expectation. Rebecca opened her mouth, was summoning some soothing words, when the bricks took on the appearance of wet soil. What the hell? It was dark, she was tired, that the hell. The wall was rotten from lack of ventilation and –
Junie’s fingertips began to disappear.
‘Junie, no!’ Rebecca plunged both her hands into thick sludge and found Junie’s fingers, which she attempted to interlace with her own. But there seemed to be more than ten fingers – some of them pointed the wrong way. Icy cold fingers that scratched and pinched. Little fingers that curled and gripped and pulled. She managed to wrap a leg round Junie, who was still lunging forward, and used gravity to heave them back. They crash-landed on the baskets, spilling a chaos of plastic balls into the dark.
Junie was up and wailing, more distraught than Rebecca had ever seen her. Rebecca hoiked her onto her shoulder and speed-walked past the battle beams to the green-lit emergency exit. She ignored the zombified stare of the scrawny woman-child monitoring the door, barged her way outside. The music cut out behind her and was instantly replaced by the clanging of a fire alarm. With her left hand, Rebecca wriggled her phone from her opposite pocket and messaged Kev: ‘meet entrnce now’.
Kev came jogging through the doors in less than a minute, Junie’s crying guiding him like a beacon.
‘Oh, thank goodness. Hey love. Sh sh. You’re okay now.’ He shot his wife a weary smile, not noticing how she shook – how she couldn’t stop shaking – but pausing to take in her dirt-caked forearms. Rebecca needed to say something, but where to even begin –
Kev’s face was crumpling into an expression of bewildered dismay.
‘Becs, have you seen this?’ Kev was swallowing hard, like that time he’d accidentally smoked skunk. Rebecca looked down to where Junie’s shorts had ridden up, to the virtually white skin of her thigh. There, in grainy scratches of brown and red, she found her brand new mantra: