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That Wretched Grin

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"Benny!" I called, as I rushed in through the door.

"Daddy's home!"

Benny, my 3-year-old son, sprinted into my arms just as I finished closing the door. I could tell he was more excited than usual to see me, and I knew why. Hell, I was pretty excited myself.

Benny had learned to read recently, and he read voraciously. In mere weeks he'd read every child-friendly book in the house. Of course, I was more than willing to feed that habit, and had been buying him a new book every Friday. Today, when perusing the book shelves of my local thrift store, I noticed "The Cat in the Hat". How had I not bought this for him yet? Some of his first books were "Green Eggs and Ham" and "The Lorax", and he still read them from time to time when he didn't have a new book to read. I knew he'd love another Dr. Seuss book.

"Do you have a new book for me Daddy?"

"I sure do, kiddo." I reached into the plastic shopping bag on my arm and pulled out the Dr. Seuss classic. It didn't take him long to recognize the name Dr. Seuss on the front cover, and when he did he squealed with excitement.

"Thanks Daddy!" the boy shouted, snatching the book and bolting toward his room, almost running into his mother, Kathryn, as she rounded the corner from our bedroom.

"Careful sweetie," she chided. "Don't want to hurt the baby."

"Hi honey," I said as she walked toward me.

"Welcome home," she replied, pulling me into an embrace.

"How was your day?"

"As good as you'd expect." She turned and looked at Benny's bedroom door. "You spoil him, John."

"Oh come on, Katie, it's not like a book every now and then's going to cause any harm. Besides, with all the reading he's doing, I bet he'll be a hell of a scholar one day."

"Just remember you'll have two on your hands soon."

The weekend passed as it normally does. Benny spent a lot of his time out in the living room or the front yard with me, since he rarely sees me during the week due to my work. He spent the following week mostly in his room reading, as he often does. It wasn't until Friday that I noticed that something was amiss. I came into the house, but Benny didn't run to greet me like I'd come to expect on Fridays. Instead, the house was eerily quiet. As I closed the door, Katie came out to greet me.

"Hey John," she said.

"Hey honey," I replied. "Where's Benny? I've got a new book for him."

"I think he's in his room, reading."

I nodded, and walked to his bedroom door. "Hey kiddo," I called as I entered.

"Hey Daddy!" he replied. He was sitting on his rug, peering up at me from behind "The Cat in the Hat".

"I've got a new book for you," I said, procuring a copy of "The Giving Tree" from a shopping bag I had on my wrist.

"But why would I want a new book?" he inquired. "This one is perfect!"

"Well 'The Cat in the Hat' is a classic, but isn't it getting old by now?"

"Why would it get old?" Benny puzzled. "It keeps changing!"

I knew kids around Benny's age had very active imaginations, and his constant reading only fueled his, but this was still unusual. After all, he'd get sick of almost any book after a while, and even the ones he didn't get sick of, he'd never claimed they changed. "Do you mind if I see?" I asked.

"Sure!" Benny responded, handing me the book.

I looked through the book start to finish, but from what I could tell it was exactly the same as how I remembered it. It was just a flight of fancy after all, but for some reason I still felt uneasy as I handed the book back to Benny.

"Well, I'll just leave this here if you want it," I said, placing the new book neatly on Benny's bookshelf.

"Thanks Daddy!" he chimed as I left his room.

"No problem kiddo," I said, closing his door.

"What's going on?" Katie asked as I walked away from Benny's bedroom.

"Nothing's going on, Katie. He likes the book is all. Though let me tell you, he has one active imagination, that kid."

"What do you mean?"

"He told me the book changed."

"It changed? How?"

"I don't know."

"You didn't ask?"

"Honey, it was nothing. Just his imagination. Hell, I even looked through the book myself, and it was the same as always."

Sure as I was that night, as the weekend went on and Benny stayed holed up in his room, coming out only when it became an absolute necessity, I grew anxious. When Monday rolled around, and Katie was kissing me goodbye, I gave voice to my concern.

"Katie," I said quietly, "Could you keep an extra close eye on Benny today?"

"Of course, honey," she replied, matching my tone. "What's wrong?"

"He hardly came out of his bedroom all weekend. I'm just worried about him."

"He'll be alright," she asserted, speaking casually again. "Now go on, you don't want to be late to work."

When I got home, nobody came to greet me. I walked over to my bedroom door and peered in to see Katie asleep on the bed. I then decided to check in on Benny. When I walked in, I saw my son hanging from the ceiling, his neck wrapped tightly in a noose.

I immediately felt faint, and barely kept myself from passing out. As the initial panic started to fade, the endless echoes of "Why?" in my head began to change to "How?". He was 3 years old. He couldn't even reach the ceiling, much less tie a noose and...

I felt nauseous as the image of my son came rushing into my head again. Suddenly I was filled with a cold dread, as I realized the only way my son could have been hanging that way: If somebody else put him there. I grabbed my phone and called the police. When the operator picked up and asked me for my emergency, I barely found the strength to mutter "My son... he... he's dead." I broke down sobbing, and was still crying when the police arrived a short time later.

Two police officers entered Benny's room, alongside two paramedics with a gurney. When they returned, there was a body bag on the gurney, and seeing the bag draped around Benny's small figure made me break down sobbing again.

"I'm sorry for your loss Mr. Stret," one of the police officers said, "but we both know he couldn't have done that himself. Do you know anything that could aid in our investigation?"

"I... I don't, no," I choked between sobs. "But... but my wife, Katie... She was home today... She might... be able to help you..."

"And where is your wife?"

"She's sleeping... in the bedroom right around the corner there..." I said, pointing toward the hall.

"Thank you, Mr. Stret."

The two police officers entered my bedroom. After some time, they exited the bedroom, and they brought with them my pregnant wife, struggling against her handcuffs. She was crying and screaming that she didn't know anything, begging me to tell them she was innocent.

I couldn't bring myself to say a word.

Days passed. I hadn't been to work since the incident. I hadn't eaten, hadn't slept. Hell, I hadn't done much of anything. All I did was think. How could this have happened? Not two weeks ago I was the happiest man you could find. A wonderful son, a loving wife, and a second child on the way. I was living the dream. Next thing you know, my son is dead, and my pregnant wife is in police custody because she may have killed him.

She may have killed him... Something about that still didn't sit right with me. It was more than just not wanting it to be true. It felt wrong. I remembered the last conversation I had with my 3-year-old son...

"It keeps changing."

I got up as though in a trance, and walked to Benny's room. Just walking through that doorway again I felt as though I would break down sobbing. Then I saw it, on the floor: "The Cat in the Hat", open to somewhere in the middle of the book, face down on Benny's rug. I picked it up, and looked at the page he had it open to. There was the titular Cat in the Hat, but where he normally wore a kind smile, now there was a horrible toothy grin, running from ear to ear.

That wretched grin would've sent a chill down my spine all by itself. But as if to compound on the horror, in his hand he held the hand of what looked like a drawing of Benny. The text on the page read:

"Find me more children

To take for my own,

Or your newborn child

Won't make it back home"

I realized with despair what this meant for my wife; the police would never find the true culprit, and Katie would be wrongfully convicted. After all, what reasonable police officer would believe that it was a children's book that killed Benny? But even worse, now it was threatening to take the one good thing I had left in this world.

"Please," I begged, "Just take me instead!"

"Adults are no fun

To play with in my games.

It's your kid or theirs.

Who'll be sent to their grave?"