Fiction by Michael Chin
Chelsea picks fights.
She knows better than to touch Lily’s things. Knows that if she takes one of her big sister’s presents, Lily’ll scream at her or hit her or worse.
But Chelsea insists.
She plucks Lily’s stuffed elephant by the trunk. Lily sees her and snatches at the plump gray body. One second there’s a tug of war and their mother’s hollering at them to look out for the tree. The next second, the elephant’s in pieces—the body still in Lily’s arms, the trunk in Chelsea’s greedy little fingers, a blizzard of fluffy white filling scattered across the living room.
I scoop Chelsea in my arms, up over my shoulder. She’s already bawling and I recognize that what my father always told me is true—the anticipation is worse than any punishment you’ll ever levy on a child. At three years old, she knows what’s coming just as well as everyone else in the room. I carry her away to the foot of the stairs, put her over my knee, and slap her bottom—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven—
“Don’t you think that’s enough?” Mark—my wife’s brother’s wife’s brother stands, forearm over the banister, tumbler of Jack Daniel’s hanging loose from his fingertips.
Eight. “Why don’t you go back in the living room, pal.”
“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”
I deliver nine and ten slow and steady enough so the prick knows he didn’t rush me. I let Chelsea run off and cry herself dry on her mother’s lap. I stand. Mark’s taller than me but lanky, and I’ll bet he’s never been in a fight in his life. He’s the kind of kid we’d chuck mud bombs at back home. “You want me to spank you, too?”
He raises his glass, and for a second I think he’s going to throw his whiskey in my face. I’d deck him if he did—no two ways about it—and I don’t care if the rest of the family takes his side. He sips his drink and smiles. “You know, Lily’s the one who should be in trouble. She’s got to learn how to share.”
I could get into it with him about how Chelsea ought to know better, but I get the sense that’s what he wants—to draw me into a child’s argument.
“And I’m sure you’ve heard spanking isn’t good for kids,” he says. “It makes them fear adults, and teaches them it’s OK to use violence when someone does something wrong.”
I liked Mark at first, the way I like my mother-in-law—that she’s so starved to interact with children she’ll come to our house any night of the week to stay with them, and I can take the wife out to dinner, get her drunk on table wine, get laid. Mark took an interest in the girls’ toys. He followed them around in their imaginary worlds and talked to them in stupid voices. He gave me a Christmas without the burden of children.
I liked Mark at first, but now I see him for what he is. “You spend a day playing make-believe and think you’re a better father than me?”
He looks at the ground.
A floorboard creaks under my foot as the house bends to me. “You ever change a diaper? You ever teach a little girl how to ride a bike?”
He takes a step back.
I swing my hand up like I’m serving a volleyball and knock his tumbler out of his hand. It shatters against the hardwood.
The wife comes to us. Chelsea at her hip, red-eyed and snotty. The rest of the family follows.
“It’s OK.” I fold my arms in front over my chest. “Mark just dropped his drink.”
Mark eyes the ground and looks at Chelsea for a second. “Be careful. There’s broken glass.”
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at Oregon State University. He won the 2014 Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction from the University of New Orleans and has previously published work in journals including Bayou Magazine, Weave Magazine, and The Pacific Review.