When James was settled in a beanbag chair, the blanket tucked around him to keep him warm, and his eyes had closed without being all scrunched up, Dr. Conjeeca and Darnelle sat down at a melamine-topped table on chairs a little too small for them, and Dr. Conjeeca sighed.
"I should know James's history already," he said in a soft voice, so as not to wake his young charge. "But so many children came in these last two weeks I've had a hard time just putting names to faces. So try not to sound too smug, Darnelle, and bring me up to date on this one."
Darnelle slipped a hand into a deep pocket in her sagging black cardigan hunting for sweets. The cardigan was covered in a variety of dog, cat and hamster hairs, and despite the Matron's continuing attempts to have the cardigan burned, it continued to reveal allergies in every child she talked to. Her hand found a small paper bag filled with aniseed balls and she put them on the table. The bag, sad grey paper softened by many clutching hands, sagged on to its side and the aniseed balls began to run out and dash for the freedom of the table edge.
"James's grandmother died first," said Darnelle, her hand expertly blocking the aniseed balls's run. "That was about a month ago. James and his sister were staying with her for a couple of days, and everyone was asleep when the fire started. James only remembers being woken by his grandmother, who was on fire herself at that point and her chasing him down the stairs and out of the front door. She never left the house though; at the front door she stopped, closed and locked the door, and went back in."
"Good grief, why?" Dr. Conjeeca picked an aniseed ball up and toyed with it, squeezing it between his finger and thumb.
"I've no idea, James didn't see her again after that, although he did see the roof of the house cave in, crushing both the top floor and everything in the ground floor. He says that he still had dreams about that."
"And his sister?"
"Died in the house with grandma. The curious thing is that everyone denied he had a sister after the fire; even the fire and police reports don't mention her being in the house."
"That does seem a little odd. Are you sure that James isn't making her up? Could this be some kind of distancing? Pushing his emotions, perhaps guilt, onto a fictional sibling until such time as he's strong enough to own them himself?"
Darnelle crunched her aniseed ball and half-grinned at Dr. Conjeeca. Her teeth, stained red by the aniseed seemed bloody and hideous. "Have you been reading my textbooks again, Hank? I told you, next time you do that I'll give you so many neuroses you'll barely qualify as a vegetable, let alone Director of the morbid Orphinarium."
"Really, Darnelle, this is hardly sophisti--"
"Oh shut up, Hank. I've got the girl's birth certificate, so she hasn't been invented by a little boy's tremulous id. She was real, at least up until she and grandma burned to death in a house fire."
"What happened to the rest of his family?"
"That's odd in itself. First his older brother was run down in the street by a pensioner out of his tiny little addled mind on pseudo-ephedrine. The pensioner was in a mobility vehicle that had been inexplicably over-powered and he pursued the boy for several streets before catching him and driving over him repeatedly until his limbs came off. The boy died of blood loss, and the pensioner died from attempting to crash into the ambulance."
"Good lord!" said Dr. Conjeeca. "What on earth possessed--"
"We don't know. The boy's existence is also now being denied."
"And the rest of his family?"
"Found with their bodies in their beds, and their heads lined up in neat rows on the shelves of the fridge. The dog, a German Shepherd, was in James's bed. No-one could explain why they were all there when he arrived home from school."
"And is their existence now being denied?"
Darnelle just nodded, and popped another aniseed ball into her mouth.