Miss Darling by Sarah Priscus

The kids huddle shoulder-to-shoulder, biting their nails and eating scabs, as Mr. Morris opens the door for Miss Darling. She hops out of the car, squinting and rocking. She’s as tall as a third grader, naked except for a straw hat and a thick layer of wiry hair. Her toes are orange circus peanuts on the pavement. Her teeth are cracked squares, like Chiclets.

“Look!” one of the kids yells. “She’s smiling!”

“Hi, monkey!” a smaller kid yells, his tongue tangling. “Say ‘hello’ back, monkey! Say it back!”

Mr. Morris scolds the crowd. “Don’t you know not to yell at an ape? That’s what she is. An ape like you and me. A chimpanzee, to be precise.”

“An ape,” the kids repeat as they drift home. “An ape, like us.”

At dinner, the kids ask why Mr. Morris has a funny monkey in his house. Their parents push forward plates of creamed corn. “He lost his job,” they say. “And desperate men are silly.”

At dessert, the kids ask if they can have pet monkeys too.

The kids kick their soccer balls into Mr. Morris’s yard as an excuse to catch a glimpse of Miss Darling through the patio windows. Sometimes they hoist up a little kid to peer into the bathroom where Miss Darling number-twos in the toilet like a human being. If they slip along the fence, they can see the apricot kitchen, where Miss Darling follows the first command Mr. Morris taught her: grabbing a sippy cup, opening the fridge, and pouring a half glass of orange juice (pulped, not from frozen—the real stuff.)

Mr. Morris’s house is the color of vanilla cake. The stucco is peeling. Some kids pick off paint chips and chew on them.

Mr. Morris teaches Miss Darling to shake hands. She does it right. The kids hum, impressed, until Miss Darling shakes Mr. Morris’s hand so hard he yelps. The kids cover their mouths so Mr. Morris can’t hear their giggles. A little kid laughs too loud. The other kids pull her into the thicket before Mr. Morris can spot them. She sucks her thumb.

The kids crawl away when it gets dark, devastated to leave.

One morning, the kids catch Mr. Morris while he’s taking out a garbage bag full of diapers and juice boxes. They ask his plans for Miss Darling.

Mr. Morris puffs up. “I’m going to put her in movies.”

The kids’ eyes go moony.

The kid-crowd grows in the yard. Kids sit in wheelbarrows, kids squat behind firewood piles, kids put their hands over their eyes and think they’ve gone invisible. Mr. Morris never looks out the window.

Mr. Morris gets meaner. Miss Darling sleeps too much, he says. She’s dirty and dumb. She’s lazy and good-for-nothing. Some kids stick their fingers in their ears, fidgeting. Mr. Morris calls Miss Darling an idiot. She scuttles towards the TV, pointing, wanting to watch her show. Mr. Morris wipes his face with a dishrag. The kids repeat the words they learned, murmuring, “Idiot.”

A heat wave sways across town.

Mr. Morris spends four hours demonstrating a jazz square for Miss Darling, but she’s only interested in eating the crumbs off the carpet. Mr. Morris cracks a can of cheap beer.

“That’s what my grandpa drinks!” a little kid shouts.

Mr. Morris bolts to the window. The kids disperse. He surveys the yard.

The next day, the blinds are drawn. That’s fine. Little kids observe atop older kids’ shoulders, peeking into the kitchen windows. “His shirt’s off,” one kid reports.

Mr. Morris hooks a shock collar around Miss Darling’s neck. She pouts on the floor, refusing to budge. Mr. Morris does a jazz square over and over, his house shoes beating against the linoleum. He sweats until he’s soaking wet. So wet he looks like he’s been hosed down. He kicks Miss Darling. He shocks her. Her eyes go wide. He does the jazz square again then points to her. This is her chance. Her moment. Her performance.

She looks right into Mr. Morris’s beady eyes and number-twos on the hallway carpet. She steps in it and runs in circles, then squares, tracking it across the house. Hooting. Smiling.

Mr. Morris falls. His knees land in the dirty pile. The kids gasp. His mouth moves like he’s talking but he says nothing. He groans, grunting as he collapses further, panting. His chest heaves. His lips split again, his white teeth gnashing. Mr. Morris shrieks, beating his waxed chest and howling to the ceiling.

Miss Darling slips around her owner on the floor and walks to the fridge. She gets a cup and pours herself a full glass of orange juice.

Some kids scatter, and some kids stay, and some kids squirm sideways, but all of them, without understanding why, are laughing.

SARAH PRISCUS — Sarah is the author of GROUPIES (William Morrow, Summer 2022). Her short stories and poetry have been published in Ellipsis Zine, New South Journal, Milk Candy Review, Atlas and Alice, and elsewhere. She is represented by Mariah Stovall of Howland Literary. She can be found on Twitter at @sarahpriscus, on Instagram at @sarah.priscus or at sarahpriscus.com.

Art by LAURIE MARSHALL — Laurie is a writer and analog collage artist from Northwest Arkansas. Her words can be found in some cool places but Flash Frog tucked into a special place in her heart when they asked her to illustrate their amazing July stories. She believes in the power of Militant Optimism, prefers her chocolate dark, and is currently raising gray tree frog tadpoles on her back patio. Find her on Twitter @LaurieMMarshall.