Genre: Horror
Subject: A Prodigy

Synopsis: A caretaker accepts an offer to look after a troubled young genius at his family’s home on Lake Erie’s northern shore. While encouraging the boy’s bizarre scientific pursuits, she becomes increasingly immersed in his grotesque experiments.


James Eaton was an imposing figure, his fiery ginger hair brushing against the saucepans dangling from the ceiling. He glared first at Daisy Clarke and then at his wife, sipping from a coffee mug and thumbing through Life magazine at the kitchen table. “I’m worried, Ms. Clarke,” he said. “That my boy has not been rightfully looked after.”
Daisy winced, the last copy of her reference letter crushed in Mr. Eaton’s paw. “I can assure you, sir, I am well versed in the methodology needed—”
“Our son is not normal,” Mr. Eaton said.
“He killed the dog,” Mrs. Eaton said, not looking up from her magazine.
“He needs supervision,” Mr. Eaton said, smoothing the reference letter on the counter. “He respects my presence when I am here, but when business draws me away…”
“We lived in New York for a short time,” Mrs. Eaton said.
Mr. Eaton took a deep breath. “The boy needs a guiding hand. As you may have noticed, our neighbors are few and far between. The schoolhouse is not an option at the moment.”
“The schoolhouse? He was enrolled at Columbia—” Daisy stopped short, knowing instantly that she had overstepped her bounds.
“If we wanted an analyst, we would have left Alexander at the goddamned sanatorium,” growled Mr. Eaton.
Daisy stood, flattening her skirt. “Mr. and Mrs. Eaton, as you know from my letter, I have cared for troubled boys—boys far more disturbed than Alexander. I believe my reputation precedes me, and if it has not, then shame on you. If I knew that I was going to be admonished like this, I do not think I would have endured the train ride.”
Mr. Eaton stared down at his shoes. “It was a tragedy, what happened to those boys, Ms. Clarke. You have my condolences.”
“Thank you.”
“Can you cook?” Mrs. Eaton asked.
“I can,” Daisy said, exasperated.
Mr. Eaton took a bottle from the dumbwaiter, found it empty and opened another. “Stay the night, Ms. Clarke, and we will give you our decision in the morning.”
“Only if I can meet Alexander first,” Daisy replied.

She squinted into the afternoon gloom and saw the boy squatted over a fish carcass, probing at it with a geometry compass. Daisy hiked up her skirt and picked her way through the saw grass path toward the dunes, careful to make enough noise so as not to startle him.

“When I spoke out against the war, my parents placed me in a sanatorium,” Alexander said, scrubbing his hands raw with Tide Soap Flakes under the steady gush of well water.
“I heard it was because of the dog,” Daisy replied.
The boy locked the pump against the metal pole and stared out at Lake Erie. “Have you heard of eutrophication?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Take a look at my father’s forearm sometime. There’s a dent there the size of a jawbreaker.”
“Eutrophication is the causation of dents in forearms?” she playfully asked.
The boy smiled. “Sometimes.” He reached out for her hand, and she stepped back for a moment, startled by the adult gesture.
Alexander shrugged. “I just thought you might have trouble going uphill… in the sand… in those shoes.”
It seemed to her that the Alexander was imitating a theater show that he might have seen, or parroting a reproach his father would have given his mother. Charmed, she played along and took his hand. She was immediately grateful—the sharp heels of her boots counteracted gravity, and only the boy’s smooth palm prevented her from tumbling backward down the dunes.

Daisy was undressing when Mr. Eaton flung her door open and wobbled drunkenly in the doorway, his shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows. She noticed the crater in his forearm, like someone had removed a potato and neglected to replace the earth. He smiled at her sheepishly. “The boy saved my life,” he said. “Insisting I go to that specialist.”
Mr. Eaton offered Daisy the job as Alexander’s caretaker on the slurred condition that she would care for the boy as she would one of her own. She dutifully accepted and had him sign the contract she had brought with her from Toronto in the event he did not recall the conversation in the morning.

Daisy woke up from her travel-induced slumber, her bladder full. She found the bathroom, careful to not make noise.
On her return, Daisy made a wrong turn, stumbling at the end of an unfamiliar hallway. A door was cracked open, and sounds of wet growling and hitched breathing escaped into the hallway.
Daisy glanced inside the room and saw two small twin girls sleeping fitfully on separate single beds, their sharp gray teeth biting at raw lips, lubricated with mucus and spittle. Their huge foreheads lolled from side to side, too heavy for their malnourished four year-old bodies. Only the cotton straps woven through the bed slats prevented the twins from crashing to the wood floor below.
One of the twins convulsed, rattling the glass bottles on the medicine table across the room. Her dead-fish eyes bulged, straining, before she relaxed and collapsed back into her discontented sleep.
“What are you doing?”
Daisy—startled—bit her tongue. With the taste of blood welling in her mouth, she turned and saw Alexander standing in the hallway, his flannel pajamas three sizes too large. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“My parents should have told you,” the boy said, leading Daisy back to her room. “The nursemaid had the night off and I’m sure it just slipped their mind.”

In the morning, Daisy attempted to make small talk with the nursemaid, but the large, sullen woman spoke only in grunts and muttered about dry toast.
Through the window, the clouds had not lifted and Daisy could barely make out Mr. Eaton in a rowboat on the lake. The dinghy traversed a circular pattern through the choppy waves, Mr. Eaton’s strong arm outpacing the weaker one.
Daisy was about to take a sip of water when Alexander banged into the kitchen from the outdoors, wearing yellow rubber gloves and carrying a wet canvas bag filled with green lake algae. “Don’t drink that,” he said, taking Daisy’s glass and dumping its contents into the sink.
Alexander grabbed Daisy’s hand with his slimy gloves and pulled her down the stairs into the poorly lit basement before she had time to protest. “The water isn’t safe,” Alexander said, tugging on two naked light bulbs. The boy yanked off his gloves and tossed them into a bucket in the corner. He reached into a crate marked Sparklett’s Bottled Water and came out with two glass bottles. He popped the caps with his teeth and handed one to Daisy. “If you’re going to be my au pair, I want you to stay alive at least a little while.”
Alexander drank deep while Daisy took a tentative sip. “I tried to get my father to invest in water purification,” he said. “But he’s more interested in real estate. I told him that he has to get out of the market by ‘28—1929 at the latest.”
“I read that you were quite the little economist,” Daisy said, exploring the cramped quarters, blanching when she caught scent of a tub of rancid algae.
“They wanted me to be, but I sort of sabotaged that by championing Socialism, railing against war, and expressing my concerns that there was no God to save us.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because I want to be an explorer and botanist. Like Meriwether Lewis. Only in South America or along the Nile or something like that. I hated New York.”
“Tell me about your dog, Alexander.”
The boy rummaged through a milk crate and started setting beakers and flasks on the tin shelf attached to the crumbling basement wall. “Rufus had a tumor on his skull that you could see through his fur,” he said. “It was interesting to me. And if you want to think that I killed him, go ahead. You wouldn’t be the first.”
“I’m on your side,” Daisy said.
Alexander struck a match and lit a Bunsen burner. He handed Daisy a pair of aviator goggles. “Then put these on. We’re testing for phosphates.”

It was nearly dawn when Alexander shook Daisy awake. “One of the twins died,” he said. Mrs. Eaton and the nursemaid’s wails competed upstairs while Daisy boiled three bottles of Sparklett’s water for tea. Mr. Eaton sat at the table, playing with his cufflinks.
Alexander trundled down the stairs in a dark charcoal suit, and Daisy noticed Mr. Eaton’s face blush a deep red. “What is this now?” he barked at his son.
“I want to observe the autopsy,” Alexander said.
“Autopsy? There is no autopsy.”
“But we need to determine the cause of death.”
“She has suffered enough. I will not tolerate one more word—”
“Father—” Alexander crumpled to the floor, Mr. Eaton’s blow to his head so swift that it seemed to Daisy that it might not have even occurred.

After three days, Alexander broke his silence. “I was excited about having a younger sibling,” he said. “But then the twins just came out all wrong.”
Daisy and Alexander were reading in the attic, the rain pattering against the skylight. “I’m sorry about your sister,” Daisy said.
“She was in a lot of pain.”
Daisy nodded. “I read about eutrophication,” she said. “Phosphates from pollution causing mutations in the marine life.”
“No one believes me. They go fishing and cavorting in that goddamn lake all the time.”
She took his hand and squeezed it. “I believe you, Alexander.”
“You do?” The boy’s bruised eyes filled and then welled over.
Daisy let him sob into her frock, not minding the wet tears on her collarbone. She played with his hair until he was silent and exhausted. He exhumed himself from her grip, and she carefully wiped his swollen face with her handkerchief.
“Who knows,” he said. “My parents probably even had intercourse in there.”
Daisy laughed, unable to contain herself.

Mr. Eaton left on business with the nursemaid in tow, agreeing that she deserved a much-needed week with her sister in Oshawa. Daisy consented to make sure that the remaining twin was fed and given her medicine.
Alexander helped with the nursing duties, despite Daisy’s protests. He changed the toxic diapers, cleaning his sister with a love and care that Daisy could not even pretend to muster.
They settled into a comfortable routine, eating large breakfasts and playing badminton in the front yard when the wind died down in the evening. Mrs. Eaton, Daisy learned, kept the same schedule as the housecat, and slept more often than not.

The sun made an appearance and Daisy basked outside in its glow. Alexander sat next to her in the sand, restless.
“Tell me about the boys you took care of before me,” he said. “What were their names?”
Daisy propped herself up on her elbow, deep in thought.
“I read your reference letter. They were in a sanitorium. Like me.”
“Julian and Samuel. They were brothers.”
Alexander waited for her to continue.
“They had some bad things happen to them when they were little, and then they did some bad things to other children, but Julian and Samuel had kind souls. I don’t believe boys your age are capable of evil.”
“How come you’re not taking care of them anymore?”
“They decided to commit suicide, Alexander.”
“I did my best to protect them, but everyone was just so… brutal. I did my best.”
“I believe you.”
“They deserved better.”
They sat there in the sun for a moment, and Daisy knew that Alexander had something to tell her. “You said that you were here to help me,” he said.
Daisy nodded and let him lead her into the house.

The twin’s body was rigid; her eyes open in frozen agony.
“How did this happen?” Daisy asked.
“That’s what I need to find out,” Alexander said.
He had cleared the medicine bottles off the table and laid out the set of kitchen knives, bottles of Sparklett’s water, two sets of yellow rubber gloves, and both pairs of aviator goggles.
“The first thing I need you to do is give my mother a sleeping pill,” the boy said.

Daisy sat next to Mrs. Eaton’s bed, her thoughts blank. She waited to make sure that Mrs. Eaton did not move, and then stood, flattening her skirt.

The boy was methodical. He began by turning the twin on her back, and made a jagged incision under the rib cage.
Daisy blinked behind her aviator goggles, the sound of muscle tissue tearing nearly causing her to retch. She imagined the glistening lung she helped Alexander extract was a jellyfish—the tumors lining the viscous flesh were hatchlings clinging to their mother’s tendrils. Daisy and Alexander were setting them free.
The second lung tore in half, the stench overwhelming Daisy, sending her hurtling down the stairs, through the kitchen and out onto the lawn. She rested her face on the cool grass, breathing deep into the clean, damp earth.

Daisy gathered herself. There was still a lot of work to be done and the boy needed her help.

Alexander brooded on the floor, the blood congealing on the sheets and seeping through the feathertick mattress. “I regret it,” he said, composure faltering. “I didn’t need to open her up for proof.”
Daisy knelt tenderly down next to him. “It’s okay, Alexander. We just need to clean up and everything will be right as rain.” She tried to hug the boy but he jerked away.
“I want my mother,” he said.
Hurt, Daisy watched him slump out of the room. She thought that she had understood him. She thought all he needed was a push in the right direction from an understanding adult, a conduit to help realize his genius. She had the best intentions for him, but it pained her to realize that he was still a boy who needed his mother.
She padded down the hall and heard the boy sobbing. Daisy grimaced and opened the door to Mrs. Eaton’s room.
Alexander looked up, cheeks streaked with tears. “I didn’t ask you to kill her, Daisy,” the boy said.
“Stop being such a child.”

Daisy could hear the automobile motors rumbling in the distance: the Port Dover fire engine, the ambulance, perhaps a hearse. She decided that she had gone for a long stroll along the lakeshore. When she returned, the twin’s room was a terrifying sight and Mrs. Eaton had been smothered in her sleep. Daisy had rushed outside in a panic and saw the boy’s body floating facedown in the Great Lake, his dead eyes staring down at the eutrophic algae below. It was a tragedy for a boy of such a young age to take his own life.
She would give it a proper amount of time before she allowed herself to ask Mr. Eaton for a reference letter.