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By Piers Anthony
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2011 Piers Anthony
All rights reserved.
Abner paused to survey the site: it was a nice suburban house surrounded by a park-like landscape. The sign said GRANVILLE VILLAGE NURSERY SCHOOL – "IT TAKES A VILLAGE." The clamor of happy children could be heard from inside.
He knocked on the door. A middle aged woman opened it. "Mr. Slate?" she inquired.
"Yes. I just wanted to inquire–"
"Of course. I am Mrs. Johnson. Please do come in."
He followed her into a small private office and took the indicated chair. "If you don't have room for another child–"
"I regret to say it isn't that, Mr. Slate. I believe in candor, and there is something I think you should know, though my colleagues advise against this." She paused significantly.
"Something about Olive," he said. He knew he was not going to like this. "I realize she is a headstrong child. That's why we felt that the experience of a good, disciplined nursery school would be appropriate."
"Ordinarily, yes. But Mr. Slate, this–this may be something else. Of course we can't be certain, nobody can be absolutely certain in a case like this, but there is strong suspicion. We simply can't afford to take the chance."
Abner tried to make his stomach muscles relax. "Take what chance?"
"The chance of the disruption her presence could cause. The–the danger."
She visibly steeled herself. "Mr. Slate, we suspect she might be a sopath."
This caught him by surprise. "A what?"
Her mouth formed a grim smile. "You are not familiar with that term, of course." She paused again.
Abner resisted the urge to point out that his question had already adequately indicated that. "Yes."
"Now understand, we could be mistaken. It really is almost impossible to be sure. Still, considering the welfare of the other children, we must err on the side of caution."
"What is a sopath?"
"And naturally it has nothing to do with the merit of the parents. It is essentially random. So I mean absolutely no offense to you."
This was definitely what he had feared: that there was something fundamentally wrong with his child. "What is a sopath?" he repeated grimly.
"Please be patient with me, Mr. Slate. This is an extremely uncomfortable matter."
He gazed at her intently.
"I need to provide some background," she said after a moment. "Mr. Slate, are you a religious man?"
"What has that to do with this?"
"We are nondenominational, of course. But there is one aspect that relates regardless. Religious folk tend to grasp it more rapidly."
He was annoyed, but bore with it. "We attend the local Protestant church every Sunday, and support it financially. Is that answer sufficient?" He was actually a doubter, stemming from his military experience. He had seen and experienced things that no God worthy of the name would have tolerated. But that was none of her business.
"Do you believe in souls?"
This caught him entirely off-guard. "Souls?"
"More specifically, in reincarnation?"
"Reincarnation! That's not Christian."
She would not be swayed. "Do you?"
"Maybe," he agreed reluctantly. "But I did not come here to discuss theology."
"This is beyond theology, Mr. Slate. This is a drastically secular matter at this point. But it will help if you do believe in the immortality of souls."
What could she possibly be getting at? She did not seem to be proselytizing. "Assume that I do."
"The soul normally enters a baby at birth, and remains with that person throughout life, departing only when that person dies. Then it becomes available for a new baby. Souls are immortal, as human beings are not."
"If you are trying to push a religious point, Mrs. Johnson, I will make a formal protest."
"I am not, Mr. Slate."
"There is a secular point to this?"
"Very much, Mr. Slate. It seems that souls do exist, and that the number of human souls is limited to something above six billion. Perhaps that is the limit beyond which the original generic soul can no longer be divided. Unfortunately our population has recently expanded beyond that limit. Do you understand what that means?"
"How do the extra babies acquire souls, then?"
"That is precisely the question, Mr. Slate. Some babies are born without souls, because the souls have run out. Only a minority, at present, because the deaths of souled people constantly return souls to circulation, as it were. But the number of vacancies is increasing, as the population continues to grow. The–the ratio is changing. Perhaps five years ago only one baby in ten thousand lacked a soul; now we suspect it is more like one in a hundred."
Abner dreaded her point. "And you think Olive is one of these soulless ones?"
"This is what we fear, Mr. Slate. We call them sopaths. That is a contraction of sociopaths—children without conscience. Because you see, we now know that the soul is the source of conscience."
"But isn't conscience learned?"
"Yes. But the capacity for it must exist. A sopath lacks that capacity. A sopath will never develop a conscience. Will never feel remorse. Never love selflessly. The only thing that moves a sopath is the prospect of immediate personal gain, and the only thing that daunts a sopath child is the threat of immediate pain or death. They are literally ungovernable, short of ugly measures. Now can you appreciate why we don't want to take your little girl?"
"Damn!" It made too much sense. He had hoped that Olive was merely wild, but she did fit the pattern this woman was describing.
"Of course we're not certain, Mr. Slate. I hope we are mistaken. But we feel we must not take the risk. Do you understand?"
"Yes," he said tightly. "How did you identify her, after only a brief interview?"
"We have had experience. One sopath is more than enough to alert a person. But I repeat, we are not sure of your child. All children are selfish; it takes time to distinguish natural childishness from incorrigibility. But it's a calculated risk that we feel we can't afford."
The woman was after all being practical. "I fear you are right. Assuming Olive is a–a sopath–what can we do about it? How should we handle the situation?"
"Mr. Slate, it is not my place to advise you on such a thing."
"What should we do?" he repeated firmly.
"I can give only an opinion, which may be erroneous or inapplicable to your case."
He was tired of evasions. "What?"
"Mr. Slate, there is only one treatment we know, and only one cure. The treatment is permanent incarceration, in the manner of a rabid animal. You must cage her."
"We can't do that. What's the cure?"
The woman winced as she spoke. "Death."
"You're telling us to kill our baby."
Mrs. Johnson backed off immediately. "I shouldn't have said that. I apologize."
He shook his head. "You said what you meant."
"I didn't want to say it. Surely I am wrong. How can anyone destroy a little child?"
How, indeed! Yet he had done it while serving overseas. He had been a sergeant, trying to protect his complement from surprise attack. They had pursued a suspected young sniper, who had fled into a house and not emerged. They had a mission to accomplish, and could not afford to be ambushed on their return. They had to take out the sniper, and could not take time to lay siege to the premises. "Burn the house," he had ordered tersely. They had done so, then discovered it was an orphanage. Several children were burned to death. The suspected sniper was merely an older child spying on the foreign troops. The horror of it had haunted him for months.
Abner stood. "Thank you for your candor, Mrs. Johnson. I think we do have a problem."
She stood too. "I fear I said too much. It is not my business to diagnose any such condition."
He saw what was bothering her. "I will consider this interview to be private. I thank you for your information, uncomfortable as it is."
"And of course I'm not recommending that you--"
She could get in trouble with the law for suggesting that a child be killed. "Of course. I will seek other information."
She nodded. "That would be appreciated."
Abner drove home, deep in thought. He hated the notion, but knew that the woman had spoken truth. Olive was incorrigible. He had not wanted to believe it, but too much was falling into place. The nursery school woman had not offered a revelation so much as confirmation. Now he had a name for it: sopath. One who was sociopathic. Not crazy, merely without conscience. There were others like her. And a rationale: she lacked a soul. It was not the fault of her upbringing, but of the accident of timing. She had arrived when no soul was available, missing her window of opportunity. Apparently souls did not offer twice. Maybe it occurred at the moment of birth, and thereafter the avenue into the baby was closed off. A practical rather than a religious thing.
Zelda met him at the door, wearing a bathrobe. She looked the question. He shook his head.
"Damn!" she said, echoing his own reaction. "I know it seems unloving, but I wanted to have her out of the house for a few hours at a time, so I could relax."
"Where is she now?"
"Asleep. She does get tired after rampaging, fortunately. It's a small blessing."
"Playing a video. He'll be entranced for at least an hour."
"You knew we'd have to talk."
She nodded. "It has been too pervasive, too rough. I feared what you would learn."
"With justice. Have you heard the word 'sopath' before?"
"Yes," she said grimly. "That's what I feared. I overheard two women talking at the store. Incorrigible?"
"If she is one. They're not sure."
"She is one. Is there any treatment?"
"They–they said she had to be caged–-or killed. That once a sopath is born, there's no further chance for a soul, and therefore there can be no conscience. It will just get worse."
Her eyes were fixed. "Abner, before we–we continue this discussion—can we take a break?"
She let her robe fall open, showing her bare breasts.
Surprised, Abner did a quick assessment. Zelda, unlike most women, grew passionate when stressed. It was her way of diverting the bad feeling. This was bad news, but he could not demur.
In moments they were at it, making desperate love. Zelda was a well-formed woman, always a pleasure to see and touch. But he wished there could have been some other occasion for this delight.
As they concluded, there was a sound. Both of them paused, but it seemed to be nothing, so they relaxed.
"You were saying?" she inquired as she cleaned up. Her mood had definitely improved.
"They have had experience. They won't take a sopath. The term is a contraction of sociopath, and it means a hopeless case. They say it's not our fault; she just happened to be born when there wasn't a soul available."
"Caged or killed," she repeated as she dressed. "Abner, I can't do either of those things. She's our child."
"I know." He spread his hands. "We'll just have to watch her. Closely."
"But how can I get a job if I can't leave her alone?"
"Maybe there's a facility for them. A place where they know how to handle them."
"Like a prison?" she asked sharply.
"Like a reform school."
"She's only three years old!"
And that was only part of the problem. "We'll think of something," he said with obviously false hope.
She opened the door, stepped into the hall, and screamed.
Abner leaped to join her. There was blood spreading from Jasper's room. "I'll handle it," he said, steering her back into the bedroom. She went without protest.
He looked into Jasper's room. The boy was sprawled across his bed, bathed in blood. A pool of it was jelling on the floor, extending to the doorway. The boy's throat had been slit.
Abner leaped to the small figure. The blood was still spilling out. He caught a fold of the sheet in his hand and clapped it to Jasper's throat. He felt a faint pulse. Had he stopped it in time?
"Zelda!" he called. "Call an ambulance! He's alive but fading." Then he held on, holding the boy's remaining blood inside while waiting.
Zelda got on the phone, and soon the ambulance arrived. Abner got out of the way and let Zelda handle it. She was competent, now that there was something positive to do. If the boy had been dead, it would have been another matter.
Numb, Abner walked to Olive's room. She was just finishing a candy bar. There was a spot of blood on her nightie.
He kept his voice level. "Where did you get that bar, Olive?"
"From Jasper," she answered matter-of-factly, licking her fingers.
"Did he give it to you?"
"How did you get it from him?"
"I snucked behind him and cut his throat and took it."
"Olive, you shouldn't do that."
She continued licking her fingers, ignoring him. And of course it was a stupid thing to say. The word "should" had no meaning for her, only "can." Jasper had had something she wanted, and wouldn't give it to her, so she had taken it. By almost killing him.
He closed the door and walked back to the bedroom. Zelda was standing where he had left her, facing away as the medic continued to stabilize the boy. "That sound," she said.
What could he tell her? "Maybe you better lie down. I'll call the police."
"They have already done that. I'll go to the hospital with Jasper. I just want to know."
There was no way out. "She tried to kill him."
She nodded. "Why?"
"She wanted his candy bar."
She shuddered. "Tell them it was an accident."
Because even after this she couldn't stand to do what they had to do. He knew better, but couldn't have her freaking out right now. "Okay."
They took Jasper away, and Zelda went with them.
Abner waited. If they had gotten over there when they heard the sound, would they have been in time? He suspected not. The child had "snucked" up behind her older brother with the knife while he was preoccupied with the video game, and sliced his throat. Had she even asked for the candy bar? Probably not, as she knew he wouldn't share. The sound might have been him collapsing on the bed, or her departing the room with the candy bar.
They should have locked her in her room until they could watch her. They had been caught short by that lapse.
The police surveyed the scene. They found the knife where it lay under a sheet. It would have Olive's fingerprints on it. "They were playing," Abner said. "We didn't realize the knife was real. It was a horrible accident."
The man nodded. He spoke into his radio. "Sopath. Come clean it up."
So they knew about sopaths. How was it that the news had never become public? But Abner knew the answer: to avoid panic. They were keeping it quiet, because the problem had no ready solution.
The man turned to Abner. "Keep it locked up." He departed.
"It," not "her." Yet who could say they were wrong? Abner went and locked Olive's door.
It took hours for the numbness to wear off, gradually replaced by pain. They had almost lost their son, murdered by their daughter. What were they to do?
Zelda returned from the hospital. "He's in intensive care, scheduled for surgery. I couldn't watch or do anything. But I had to do something, so I came home. Olive needs care."
"You know we can't just ignore what happened. The police said—"
"I know what they said. But I can't do it. We'll just have to make it safe."
Safe for whom? But he let it pass.
They carried on as if nothing had happened. The police cleanup crew had restored the crime scene to pristine quality. There was no further evidence of the disaster. Except for the absence of Jasper.
Zelda fixed a meal for Olive. Neither adult was in a mood to eat, but the child gobbled down her food with gusto. It was clear that she felt no remorse for her dreadful act.
But when it was time for her bath, she said no. Zelda didn't try to reason or argue with her. "If you don't get in the tub, I will put you in."
"Then I'll hold your face under the water."
The child gazed at her mother appraisingly. Zelda's eyes were focused on distance and her mouth was a thin line. Olive decided to take her bath.
So had it been a bluff? Abner wasn't sure. Zelda was like a zombie at the moment, but the wrong nudge could send her into an ugly fit. Olive had realized that, and taken the expedient course. To her mind, drowning was a feasible mechanism, if one had the power to enforce it. Zelda was normally a gentle person, but she had been pushed to her limit. Much as Abner had been when going after a fleeing figure who might have gunned down one of his men. It did not require many such ambushes to evoke deadly toughness in the objects of such mischief.
Excerpted from The Sopaths by Piers Anthony. Copyright © 2011 Piers Anthony. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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