With the day’s teaching done and the school cleared of children, it was time for Luke to wipe the floors. He mopped the dark hallways lined with lockers. In the classrooms, he lifted the chairs onto the tables and mopped the chequered tiles beneath them. He mopped the cafeteria. He mopped the changing rooms. He mopped the main hall, noticing, as he always did, how small a large room could feel when it was empty. Faintly he heard conversation coming from the admin office down the corridor, beyond the double doors. A burst of laughter.
When he rolled his bucket past that office a while later, Eileen Bathory called out to him.
“Mr Trapper, I need a word if you’ve got a minute,” she said.
The headmistress closed the door to the office, leaving them alone in the corridor. As she did this, Luke scanned the faces of his colleagues, trying to work out which of them had made the inevitable complaint. They all looked down at their keyboards. The only one that Luke did not suspect of snitching was Lev. There he was at his desk near the door, cheerily humming and scribbling away with a biro taped to his foam hand. Lev smiled at Luke, having no alternative – his face had been stitched that way, after all – and gave a comical little salute. Luke waved back, not without friendliness.
“Were you speaking to someone earlier?” said Bathory. “On your phone, I mean.” Luke had known Bathory since he too was a student at Shallow Creek High. He felt he’d aged many decades since then, although in fact fewer than a dozen years had passed. By contrast, Bathory had taught here since before Luke was born, yet she hardly seemed to have aged at all. She was still the tall, stiff woman with long limbs and hair so black it looked lacquered.
“At lunchtime?” he said. “Yeah. I rang the housing association, then I spoke to my brother. Why?”
“Yes. Why, Ms Bathory?”
“Because I’ve had a message from a colleague. They say they heard an offensive word.”
Luke sighed. “Oh, jeez. I didn’t think anyone could hear us.”
Bathory crossed her long arms. “Well, they did. In fact, several people did.”
“It’s just – it’s hard for Philip. Different. He’s spent years in prison, and the world changes so fast. Calling someone a stringf – using that word – well, it’s just a habit from when we were kids. You remember how it was.”
Stringfellas. That was the word Philip Trapper had used, and which Luke had almost repeated. It was one of several terms for Shallow Creek’s Puppetfolk population that were now very much off-limits. Stringfellas, foamers, dollies: all were part of the local parlance when Luke and Philip were children. Even as recently as eighteen months ago, when Philip had gone back inside, referring to a Puppetfolk as a toy was as banal as calling them a Frenchman, or a brunette – or at least that was how it seemed to one half of the town. The opinion of the other half had never really come into it.
“That’s just Philip’s way,” said Luke. “He won’t have meant any harm.”
“That’s hardly the point,” said Bathory. “He might not have intended any offence – something I very much doubt, by the way – but that doesn’t mean offence wasn’t taken. Words like that can still be hurtful to others who hear them.”
“Like Lev you mean?”
“Not necessarily Lev – anyone.”
“Because Lev can’t hear, can he? His ears are not actual ears.”
Luke clamped his hand to his mouth. He’d misspoken, and he knew it. Briefly his boss seemed about to become truly angry, but almost in the same moment she softened. Eileen Bathory was a severe woman, but sometimes kindness did flit out of her, like a shrew from its burrow. “Mr Trapper, you’ve suffered too because of your brother’s actions. I know you have. People can be very cruel when they’re angry.”
“Yeah,” said Luke automatically.
“And you work well here. The children like you – the humans and the Puppetfolk. That’s a rare quality.
“But because it’s rare,” she said, “I’d hate to lose you for something as silly as this. So let’s just agree that you’ll stop using your phone during working hours, OK?”
Luke’s groan bounced off the walls. “But Ms Bathory, I’m meant to call Philip’s probation officer twice a week, and she only works mornings.”
“Tough. He’ll have to do it himself in future. He’ll manage.”
“I wish that was true,” said Luke. “Are we done?”
“Yes. No. Almost. Are you – are you free tonight, Mr Trapper?”
Luke’s mind lost its moorings. Was Bathory asking him on a date? But no, of course not; it was just her awkward phrasing. She was in fact wondering if he might come back in later to help set up for the Shallow Creek Community Jamboree, which was due to be held on the school’s grounds that weekend. It’d be fun, she said. A chance to mingle. A chance to make friends.
“You don’t think I have any friends?” said Luke.
“Well, I don’t know,” said Bathory. “Do you?”
Luke looked down at the mop, twisted its head hard into the bucket. “Yeah, course I do,” he said. “Loads.”
The way Bathory spoke, her clunky movements: you might almost say they were wooden, but that really would be insensitive, given the rumours. “Mr Trapper, I have to speak honestly here. You’re a decent man. But your brother… Well, you really ought to let him take responsibility for his own fate. You deserve a life of your own.”
Luke continued to corkscrew the mop into the bucket. “Thanks for your concern, Ms Bathory. I’ll bear that in mind.”
“Very good,” she said. “So, what do you say? Can I tempt you along this evening?”
“Of course. Another time, then. Thank you, Mr Trapper. I won’t keep you. It’s Friday, after all.”
As Bathory pushed open the door to the office, the admin staff once again declined to meet his eye. All except Lev, that is. From his desk, Lev waved at Luke and gave him the same dopey, benign smile as before. Luke pointed at Bathory’s retreating back, then made a jokey throat-slitting gesture and rolled his eyes up into his head. Lev put a three-fingered hand to his mouth and tittered. His head bobbed cartoonishly. The plastic rod attached to his wrist glinted in the light.
The Puppetfolk community of Shallow Creek was born one summer around fifty years ago, when a travelling circus came to town. Apparently, there’d been some kind of quarrel in the outfit, and so at the end of the season a long convoy of performers’ coaches and clown cars had pootled out of town, leaving behind a troupe of puppeteers, who decided to stay put and build their own micro-society on the scruff of land they’d been abandoned to. These early settlers were known to be friendly enough on an individual level, but as a group they were ferociously self-contained. That insularity made it just too easy for the myth-makers of the day, and before long the puppeteer-people became the subject of cruel stereotype. They’re not right in the head, folks said. Those puppets they have? They treat them like they’re alive. Like they’re actual people. Just try and peek under or behind one of them, to see the human operating it, and watch how offended they become.
Change came the day a willful seventeen-year-old left the troupe and moved into Shallow Creek, becoming the camp’s first emigrant. Eileen Bathory’s marriage to the townsman didn’t last, but her ambitions for her people did. Over the next four decades, nobody would do more than Bathory to degrade the prejudices that had hardened against the puppeteers. When she took over at Shallow Creek High, she instituted an equal-access policy for indigenous and puppet-troupe children. She encouraged her people to live and work in town, and for Shallow Creekers to trade with the camp. Most radically – and controversially – she petitioned for the puppets to be recognised as equal citizens. Not the puppeteers; the puppets. Bathory’s argument was that her community’s many dolls, marionettes and foam characters were too deeply entwined in its culture – its identity – to be divisible from it. There are not people and puppets, she said, only puppet-people. Puppetfolk.
She became a laughing stock, a pariah. Acidic old rumours welled back up. She’s a freak, a carny. See how stiff she is, how awkward? That’s because she’s half-puppet herself. Be careful or she’ll turn you into a puppet too.
Bathory persisted. She set up scholarships for young Puppetfolk, and later founded the Shallow Creek Community Jamboree to celebrate and normalise Puppetfolk culture. And it worked. Ten years in, the Jamborees were among the biggest events in the town’s calendar. Thanks largely to Bathory, people had even learned to ignore the puppeteers and address their puppets directly, to the point that it was now taboo even to acknowledge the muttering, twitching human under the desk or behind the counter.
But the town’s hearts were turned decisively not by the goodness of Eileen Bathory but the badness of Philip Trapper. Luke was nine when it happened, his brother twelve. The victims’ names were Guido, Foss and Henderson, and they were two wee bunnies and a sparrow, barely more than finger puppets. Philip set upon them in the darkness at the edge of the fairground. But it wasn’t his mugging of the Puppetfolk’s few coins that so appalled the town. It was the way he’d stomped on the tiny creatures until they were nothing but bobbled rags, then pointed and laughed at their horrified, injured operators as they’d scurried away.
The following day Bathory, acting on intuition, had raided Philip’s locker. And sure enough, there in his journal was a gloating depiction of the deed, complete with a mocking caricature of the escaping puppeteers. Philip got three months in a juvenile facility for assault on the (unnamed) operators, and he would later spend many more years locked up for other petty misdemeanours – affray, handling stolen goods – but he was never punished for murdering the Puppetfolk. Because that’s what he was, in the eyes of Bathory and many others: a killer. Until he paid for that sin, there would be no justice. The circle would remain unclosed.
Luke, meanwhile, had done nothing but pay for it. Nowadays the ‘murders’ were rarely mentioned overtly, but they didn’t have to be. They made themselves known in the frostiness of the townsfolk’s demeanour, their unwillingness to be anything more than passingly civil with Luke. It didn’t matter that he was blameless, that he’d been as sickened as anybody by the act. Luke had Trapper blood, and that blood was spoiled. His life would never be his own.
Or so he thought.
The mobile buzzed on the chair’s arm. Luke moaned, waking. He’d been having a happy dream in which he and Philip were jolly little puppets, incapable of evil and blame both. Now a chat-show face grinned at him from the TV. He pushed a pizza box off his chest, kicked aside a single empty beer can.
“Little brother,” said the heavy voice on the line. “What’s occurring?”
Luke rubbed his eyes. “Nothing. Just trying to lead a quiet life. You should try it.”
“Not my style, Lukey, not my style.”
“What do you want? It’s late.”
“I want you to come down Jack’s and have a beer with me. Two weeks I’ve been out and still I haven’t seen your face.” Late last spring, Philip had spent an evening at home drinking with his acolytes. When they’d drained their cans of lager and rubbed their gums with the last dustings of cocaine from the coffee table’s surface, the gang went out in search of further chaos. Which they failed to find, since it was 2am on a Sunday. After an hour of hollering and glass-smashing in the square, somebody reported the drunken idiots. Shaking them down, the copper found in Philip’s pocket the wallet and car keys of a recently burglarised pensioner, and that was the end of the elder Trapper’s latest tenure as a free man.
Luke: “You haven’t seen me cos I’ve been busy sorting your life out. How’s the flat?”
Philip ignored this. A lifetime of institutionalisation had endowed him with a unique sense of entitlement. Housing, food, a phone: those things were all arranged by other people. It was no concern of his. “Come down the pub,” he said. “There’s a bunch of stringfellas in the corner trying to look like they belong here. It’s hilarious.”
“Fine. Give us a lift home though, yeah? I can’t even piss in a straight line right now.”
Philip hiccupped, then he seemed about to speak some more, but he was interrupted by a boorish singalong that broke out in the pub. Luke held the phone away from his ear while his brother yelled tuneless obscenities down the line.
“Here’s one for you,” said Philip, when the braying was done. “There was a young man from Nantucket/ Who fell into bed with a puppet…”
Luke hung up, held the phone in his hand for the eight seconds it took for the device to vibrate again.
“I can’t call Stephanie for you anymore,” Luke said. “As of today, I’m banned from using my phone at school.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. You coming down here then or what?”
“Bruv, come on. I’ll behave. I’m saluting here, swear. Scout’s honour.”
A bitter smile flashed across Luke’s face. Philip Trapper, man of honour. It was too good.
“Just promise you’ll be ready to go when I get there, alright?” said Luke. “I don’t want —”
“Don’t want what? Don’t wanna be seen with me?”
That was the deep truth, but Luke forewent it for a shallower one. “I don’t want to get there and find you with a brand-new pint in your hand. In twenty minutes I want to be back at home, in bed.”
“Good kid,” said Philip. “You know I’ve always —” but whatever he tried to say next was swallowed into a liquid belch. This was what passed for affection between the Trapper brothers.
When Luke pulled up outside Jack’s Tavern, it was to a scene of recent mayhem. Broken glass lay scattered across the pavement. Someone’s motorbike had been shoved over. People paced around, filming the devastation. A huge anthropomorphic bear of a Puppetfolk was being restrained by three human men from doing violence to a fourth male who sat slumped on the kerb. Getting out of the car Luke saw, with utter inevitability, that this fourth person was his brother. Philip’s head was between his knees and blood was dripping from his face into a small puddle. A woman approached, and for a foolish moment Luke thought she might be trying to help, until he came close enough to hear what she was saying.
“You’re a scumbag,” she hissed. “A dirty, intolerant scumbag. You’re gonna get yours one day, Trapper. My boyfriend comes from Puppetfolk, you know that?”
Philip lifted his bloodied, grinning face. “Love, don’t talk shite,” he slurred. “Your man don’t come from Puppetfolk, cos Puppetfolk ain’t real.”
This set the woman into a squalling rage. Her friends held her back as she snatched and caterwauled. Philip watched in drunken amusement.
Luke stepped in and dragged his brother to his feet. He was very aware of all the phones being pointed at them. He knew that when their owners replayed the clips later, they’d make no distinction between the men on the screen.
He pushed Philip into the car. Walking around to the driver’s side, he caught sight of a blue alien-type character being comforted by a group of onlookers. The puppet’s arm-rod had been snapped, and now the limb drooped uselessly at its side.
Luke slammed his door, made an angry botch of getting his seatbelt into its slot. “Why?” he said. “What was the fucking point?”
But Philip was already snoring, his lank hair smeared against the window’s glass.
Luke stopped the car outside Shallow Creek High.
“Oi, dickhead,” he said, punching Philip on the arm. “Wake up.”
Philip squinted out of the car’s window. “What we doing here?”
“I’m taking you to the sick room. There’s antiseptic and whatnot in there. Looks like you got a splinter of glass or something in your lip. It’s fattening right up.”
Philip probed his mouth with a finger. “Yeah but why here? Ain’t you got any of that stuff at your place?”
“Have you got any at yours?” said Luke.
“Just be quiet when we get inside,” said Luke. “Visitors aren’t meant to go in without permission.”
“Nnngghh,” said Philip.
The brothers crept in through the admin office, then moved quickly down the long, dark main corridor to the sick room. At the corridor’s far end, in the assembly hall, Puppetfolk were constructing stalls for the Shallow Creek Community Jamboree; Luke could hear their goofy chatter over the banging of hammers and scraping of saws.
“Bit late for DIY,” said Philip at full voice. Luke hushed him.
Reaching the sick room, Luke tried the door’s handle and was relieved to find it unlocked. He cracked on the lights. Philip went straight to the cot and stretched out, ready to be tended to. Luke opened the mirrored cabinet above the sink and removed the green case of first aid supplies. As he rummaged through the case, the Puppetfolk’s conversation resolved into a group song, sung to ease the burden of work. It was a silly, childlike ditty, but it saddened Luke to hear it: not the tune, but the camaraderie in its performance. The Trappers had been raised to believe that Puppetfolk were less than them, that they were literally objects. And yes, if you were totally literal-minded, maybe that’s all they were. But their singing spoke of something beyond the observable, and it was heard by a hurt and keening part of Luke. The Puppetfolk were not real, but Luke longed for what was real in their song.
“Thanks, matron,” said Philip, once Luke had tweezed the glass-fleck from his lip and found a plaster for his cut eyebrow. “So you work here, then. With foamers. All day long.”
“Uh-huh,” said Luke. He was in no mood for chat.
“Even though…” Philip began, and waved his hand between himself and Luke. Even though you’re related to me. “Jesus. They really are a simple-minded bunch, ain’t they.”
“Well, it wasn’t them that gave me the job. It was Ms Bathory.”
Philip sat up, swung his legs down over the cot’s edge. “Bathory? Eileen Bathory? She’s still here?”
“And you work for her?”
“That I do.”
Philip’s jaw muscles tightened. He snorted like a bull released into the ring. He paced the small room, trying to comprehend this enormous treachery. “It was her got me put away, Luke.” He brought his face to within six inches of Luke’s own. “And now you, my own brother – you take orders from her?”
A flame flew up inside of Luke. He grabbed Philip by the lapels of his corduroy jacket and slammed him against the cabinet. “You got yourself put away the day you killed three Puppetfolk, you moron.”
Philip laughed a grim stew of ale and whisky into Luke’s face. “Fuck me, she’s got to you too. You’re a puppet-lover. I bet that’s why she gave you the job, ain’t it – so she could control you like a little dolly.”
Luke was not done. The deep truth was rising. “And don’t you talk to me about brotherhood. All my life you’ve done nothing – nothing – but cause me trouble.”
“Take your hands off me,” said Philip.
“I hate you,” said Luke. “You’re my family, and I despise you.”
Philip showed nothing but profound boredom at these words. “Fuck’s sake,” he said, and punched Luke hard in the gut.
Luke went down with a windless groan. He wormed at his brother’s feet. Philip bent to him. “You’re right, bud,” he said. “I am your family. And I’m all you’ve got, ain’t I, you little no-mates. So you’re stuck with me.” And to emphasise the point he lay back down on the cot with his hands behind his head.
Luke rose heavily while his brother lounged. Dully, resignedly, he tidied away the first aid materials in their green case. He zipped the bag and put it back in the cabinet, which he then closed…
..and gasped when he saw Eileen Bathory staring back at him in the mirror’s reflection.
She stood in the doorway, as still as a tree. Next to her was Lev. The puppet’s lower half was hidden by taboo and the corridor’s darkness, but around Lev’s waist Luke could see a bright yellow toolbelt. Attached to his foam hand was a large claw hammer.
Bathory turned to the puppet. “Lev, go back to the hall. I’ll be there in two minutes.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said the puppet. He bobbed away out of sight.
Bathory took a single step into the room. With that one motion she seemed to grow even taller. Luke made a matching movement backwards, until he came to rest on the sink under the cupboard.
Bathory stared at Philip. “You,” she said.
“Yeah, me,” said Philip. “Look, just save your breath, alright? I know I ain’t welcome. But don’t worry, I weren’t intending on sticking around. Fact I’ll be on my way right now if it’s all the same to you.”
“Yes,” said Bathory coldly. “You do that. You leave now.”
Philip brushed past her and entered the corridor. He turned left, heading away from the hall and towards the admin office through which they’d entered. “Not that way,” said Bathory. “It’s locked now. You can go out through the hall.”
Philip looked wary, just for a second. From the hall Luke could still hear the Puppetfolk’s singing. It seemed a little louder now, like they were working up to something, some kind of a climax. “Makes no odds to me,” said Philip, and strode to the right.
Luke and Bathory followed Philip down the corridor. “Ms Bathory, I’m so sorry,” Luke whispered. “If you’ll just give me a minute I can explain every—”
“Luke, you have nothing to apologise for,” she interrupted. It was the first time she’d addressed him by his first name since he was a child. “You’re the one who’s owed something. Remember that. But we’re owed too. Remember that as well.”
When they entered the hall, it was into a delirium of Puppetfolk colours: sunflower yellow, Ribena purple, bottle green, flamingo pink. They were dancing and singing in a riot of happiness. Some had even formed a conga line and were snaking around the edge of the room, kicking their feet in time with the dance. It seemed impossible that this chaos could lead to any kind of productivity, but then Luke smelled fresh paint, and behind the conga line he saw a row of neatly constructed stalls. The Puppetfolk had worked together, they’d worked well and they’d worked quickly, and now they were celebrating their effort.
Philip walked straight into the melee, wanting keenly to be done with it all. But there was no way through the conga line, and he couldn’t reach the exit. He threw his hands in the air.
“Can you, uh… Can you get them to let us through?” he called to Bathory.
“You can just go ahead and ask them yourself, you know,” she said, over Luke’s shoulder. “Go on. Ask.”
Philip looked uncertainly at the cavorting Puppetfolk. He rubbed his nose. “’Scuse me,” he said, his eyes to the ground. The Puppetfolk didn’t hear him. “Said ‘scuse me.” Still no response from the dancing puppets.
“Fuck’s sake fucking toys!” he roared, and shoved through the line, pushing down an elderly doll-lady in a milkmaid’s dress, who fell in a tangle of wires. Immediately the singing ceased and the Puppetfolk stood still. In the aftermath of the singing the silence was a huge, walled thing, like the inside of a balloon. Everything stopped – even Philip was stunned into motionlessness. Luke forgot to breathe.
Only Bathory remained composed. She waited for two nearby Puppetfolk to help the marionette to her feet, discreetly straightening her wires as they did so for the benefit of her operators up in the hall’s rafters.
“I think you’d better apologise to Mrs Altermatt,” said Bathory, as the puppet recovered.
“Do what?” said Philip.
“Apologise,” said Bathory. “Then when you’ve done that, you can apologise to us all. Not only for your language just now, but for the other thing. Because you never did, did you? You never said sorry for Guido, Foss and Henderson.”
Luke was as tense as any of the Puppetfolk around him. He sensed the vastness of this moment for Bathory and her people. It was the final step of a long and exhausting journey. The closing of the circle.
But Philip Trapper spat on such notions, just as he now spat on the hall’s varnished floor. “Like fuck I will.”
Luke felt suddenly heavy. He wanted to intervene, to do anything, to apologise on Philip’s behalf, because despite Bathory’s assurances Luke truly was sorry, sorry for so much, but then reparation came into the world in the form of Lev’s claw hammer, which flew through the air, end over end, and barked Philip on the brow. Philip went cross-eyed. He crumpled to the floor, unconscious.
If Luke was shocked by this act, it was nothing against the shock of seeing its perpetrator. Lev had not thrown the hammer; his operator had. He was a small, balding man in wire-rimmed glasses and dark clothes. The creature that had been Lev lay before him in a purple heap. The man stood with a fearful, angry tension in his eyes. Luke tried not to stare at the puppeteer, tried to obey the taboo. But now the other puppets were dropping too as their own operators climbed down from the rafters, stepped out of person-sized outfits, emerged from remarkable nooks that Luke had not noticed. Twenty, twenty-five of them in all, men and women of many ages and several races. They were all dressed in the same black and khaki as Lev’s man, but they stood in a state of desolate vulnerability, as if they were naked.
Suddenly the puppeteers on either side of Luke grabbed his wrists. He tried to shake them off, but although they were small, skinny people, there were many of them, and the aggregate of their strength was overwhelming. He tried to cry out No but there came another hand to cover his mouth.
He felt yet another, cooler hand on his shoulder. It was Bathory’s. “Ssh,” she said. “You have nothing to be afraid of. A good thing is happening. Let it come.” Her lips were an inch from Luke’s cheek, but he felt no breath on his skin.
Now the other puppeteers closed in on Philip. They did so quietly, with orderliness. There was no rage; their conviction ran too deep for that. They simply went to work, and their work was conducted instinctively, fraternally. Luke heard a groggy moan from Philip as they bore down, but it was quickly stifled. Beyond that there was only a low muttering as the puppeteers went about their business. Luke writhed and spasmed in the grip of his holders. Bathory’s hand was still on him too, patting his shoulder in her best attempt at reassurance. Luke saw a clutch of puppeteers hurry away, then return with several short planks, some metal pins and a coil of nylon wire. They consulted with Lev’s handler, who had by now taken up his hammer again. Lev’s man moved in on Philip. Luke shut tight his eyes, and he wished he could close his ears too, but there was no hiding from the sickening, muffled howl that came from Philip when the hammering began. The screaming seemed to last forever, until it stopped. He’s fainted, he heard somebody say. That’s all. The hammer-tapping resumed. Luke struggled. Bathory patted his shoulder.
Then it was over. Luke’s handlers let go of his wrists, freed his mouth. As Luke opened his eyes, he caught sight of two puppeteers stealing up a ladder and into the rafters at the side of the hall’s stage. Over their shoulders they each carried a pair of X-shaped paddles, fashioned from the planks. Attached to the paddles, trailing them like spiders’ silk, were the nylon lines. The mob of puppeteers around Philip dispersed, allowing Luke’s eyes to follow the threads to their other ends. Philip lay in a pile, still unconscious. There was blood at his wrists, ankles and knees, where they’d hammered the pins, but not much. They were expert craftspeople.
“Your brother has something he needs to say,” said Bathory. Luke had never heard joy in her voice, but there it was now, unmistakeably. Then the lines went taut as they were manipulated by the operators up in the rafters, and Philip’s limbs began to move. The puppeteers brought him upright. He dangled for a moment, until they mastered control of his heavy arms and legs, and then they walked him in lumpy flops and steps up onto the stage. They flumped him to the centre of the board. “I’ve been a very naughty boy, so I ‘ave,” said somebody in a squawking parody of Philip’s voice. “I’m gonna go away for a very long time and fink about what I’ve done.” Philip’s puppeteers had him lift one limp hand above his head and waggled it for him. “So bye-bye now, Lukey,” said the mimic. “Bye-bye, everyone.”
As his brother was doddled through the curtain, Luke Trapper watched in horror, in sadness, in relief. Eileen Bathory squeezed his shoulder. And then Luke found himself waving back.