Author’s Note: This story was previously published in Time for Bedlam (Saltboy Press, 2005). I was inspired by an article that described a curious trend of a shared mythology developing in homeless shelters across the country.
“The New Gods of the Lost Children”
by Jason Andrew
Elizabeth hid under the blanket in the shelter trying not to draw attention to her. The cot hurt her back, but she was afraid that if she moved the children would notice and quit telling the stories. “Tell us again about the Blue Lady, Ruthie,” the little girl named Lisa asked.
Elizabeth made a mental note to privately interview Ruthie in the morning. She was a gregarious and intelligent ten-year old mulatto girl who had come to serve as the children’s defacto shaman. “She lives far away in the water, but she can hear her name, her secret name,” Ruthie said earnestly. “She can only help you if you call her. If you and your friends are on a corner on a street when a car comes shooting bullets, you can call her true name, all the kids will be safe. Even if bullets are flying, the Blue Lady makes them fall on the ground. But if you call her without need, then Mr. Bang comes.”
Elizabeth was careful to log the gender and the race of each of the children. The stories seemed to come from a myriad of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. It was fascinating to attempt to trace the origins of the new mythology. “I don’t believe you,” Laney, a seven-year old African American girl from Chicago, retorted.
“I’ve seen her,” Andy, a five-year old Caucasian boy from Phoenix, whispered.
A chorus of voices murmured their agreement. “The Blue Lady kept my mom from leaving the shelter. She cast out the demon in her and now she don’t smoke no crack,” Maria, a nine-year old Hispanic girl from an unknown location, revealed.
The children, Elizabeth observed, believed that demons inhabit people during times of stress and force them do commit unspeakable actions. It was an interesting form of cognitive dissidence that allowed the children to hate the actions, but still love the adults in their lives. Elizabeth decided to put Maria on the short list for family interviews.
It was sometimes difficult for Elizabeth to match their voices with faces, but she hoped that the new digital recorder would capture the moment with enough clarity that she could memorize them. She was suddenly very glad that Doctor Sloniker had insisted upon altering the waivers for the shelter, even if they had been less than honest with the parents about what they were studying.
The children barracks in the shelter always had an adult present to ward off sexual predators. Twice a month, Elizabeth slept overnight with the children as part of her work for her master’s degree. She had always been a light sleeper, even as a child in a house crammed with siblings. It was their quite whispers that first stirred her. Elizabeth listened to the stories while lying upon the uncomfortable cot convinced that it was a dream. It wasn’t until she turned over that the children rushed to their beds that Elizabeth had realized that she had managed to peek into a rare window into a secret life.
“What about Mr. Bang?” Laney asked, trembling.
“He’s a tall black man with a long black coat and a hoodie. His eyes are pure white and they give him away to the rich people. So he wears dark sunglasses, even at night,” Ruthie explained. “He can kill anyone with just his long, bony finger. He shoots bullets. And right before he’s about to kill, you can see doves fly. Even Satan fears him. Especially now that he’s weak. That’s why he hates Seattle.”
“Why does he hate Seattle?” Andy asked.
“Satan was driving around the wharf looking for places to feed his demons when he saw a girl alone. He went after her, but she knew the Blue Lady’s true name,” said Ruthie. “The Blue Lady came and held up her hand and the water washed over Satan. When the water touched him, his horns appeared and the water turned to blood. He’s weak now and can’t hide. That’s why Mr. Bang runs things. He lives in the old fridgerators on the side of the road. Can’t escape him here or in Hell.”
There were two rows of old metal-framed bunk-beds in the center of the room surrounded by dozens of cheap plywood dressers colorfully decorated with happy cowboys and cheerful rodeo clowns. It was obvious to Elizabeth that the room had been designed by committee to attempt to instill a sense of home and security to the children.
It was too sterile to work, Elizabeth decided. They lived in a chaotic world of change where little was certain. She reminded herself to include the unspoken backpack rule in her thesis. Each child had a backpack that contained their entire world. All of their clothing and toys had to fit into a single pack. Parents often pulled them from the shelter, seemingly at whim, and they never knew when they might return. If by chance one of them did receive something new, they had to get rid of something old. Like a tortoise, they carried their world on their back. The stories were something the children could take anywhere.
The grey walls of the kid’s room were covered with crude pictures sketched in donated crayons. Now that Elizabeth had heard the stories, she could see the Blue Lady protecting children and Mr. Bang killing the saints and the sinners. Elizabeth found herself mentally writing the conclusion of her thesis: The imagination of these children conquered these grey walls.
“Mr. Bang killed my big brother,” Andy said suddenly. Elizabeth concentrated on the new story. Andy rarely spoke of his family. Elizabeth suspected it was not a happy story.
“What happened?” Lisa asked, horrified.
“Jeff was working at a gas station to pay rent,” Andy continued. “He wouldn’t sell beer to some kids so they beat him down. Possessed by demons. Mr. Bang came and pointed his finger right to his head.”
The children only spoke of Mr. Bang in reverent, hushed whispers as though saying his very name might summon him. The next voice that spoke did not belong to a child. “She can hear you, children.”
Adults were not allowed in the child barracks at night. There were too many disturbed sexual predators running around on the streets. Elizabeth pulled back the blanket and flicked on her flashlight to scan the room. The children leapt to their beds and quickly pulled the covers over their faces and pretended to be sleeping. Elizabeth’s folding cot blocked the only entrance to the barracks and the door to the bathroom was open.
Whatever had occurred, it was obvious that the children would not be telling any new stories that evening. She thought about the stories of these lost children as she drifted to sleep.
* * * *
“I think it’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant,” Doctor Sloniker said excitedly. “I think if you continue along this course, your thesis will be brilliant and likely published.”
The luxurious office was quite spacious and located on the corner of the building so the Professor had two large walls of glass overlooking the student quad. The remaining two walls were occupied by two giant, dusty wooden bookshelves that were overflowing with books. In the center of the office, adjacent to the door, was a large antique wooden desk. Elizabeth sat opposite of her advisor and was somewhat surprised at his enthusiastic reaction to her work. “I just feel uncomfortable. It feels wrong, like I’m invading their privacy.”
Doctor Sloniker was the tenured, assistant chair of the psychology department. His hair was long, grey, and tied back into a respectable ponytail. He wore thick rimmed, brown glasses and sported a goatee to try to seem relevant to his students. “But you’re going to be helping these poor kids. Helping others council them and address their fears. For example, this Mr. Bang character is obviously a modern reincarnation of Death. Note the hood references and the bony fingers. These stories are their way of dealing with death. These poor kids are building a whole mythology to explain an unexplainable world.”
Elizabeth nodded demurely. “I just never imagined that such a place could exist. Not in America. I grew up on a farm in Idaho with five brothers and sisters. I knew things were hard for some, especially in this economy. But I never knew there could be such despair.”
Doctor Sloniker nodded sympathetically. “Ms. Wellington, I know that life here in Seattle hasn’t been easy. But if I may, you wouldn’t have come here if you were looking for easy. You wanted to make a difference in the world. That was why I assigned you to that shelter.”
“I appreciate the extra effort you’ve given me, Doctor Sloniker.” Previously, her faculty advisor yawned his way through their student-teacher meetings and made vague recommendations. This was the first meeting to take longer than five minutes and Elizabeth was frankly concerned. “It just feels oddly intimate like I’m spying on the only bright spot in their lives.”
“Ms. Wellington, I can’t stress enough how important this work could become. Let’s take just one detail from the stories and examine it a bit. One of the stories mentioned Mr. Bang living in abandoned refrigerators. Doubtless the children have been warned numerous times not to play near abandoned refrigerators and certainly not to play inside of them for fear of getting trapped in them. Obviously, the refrigerators represent a certain amount of fear, but what else could a refrigerator represent to a child?”
Elizabeth pondered that a moment. “Let’s see food, cold, maybe a kitchen?”
“Where does one typically find a refrigerator, Ms. Wellington?”
“Inside the home.”
“Exactly! I find it very interesting that these children have chosen to link a symbol of evil with the ideal of the modern home.” Doctor Sloniker smiled smugly. “I think that provides keen insight to their thought process and an educated councilor might use that insight as a lever to help them break the cycle of homelessness.”
Elizabeth frowned. “But Doctor Sloniker, I’m not certain that these symbols would translate everywhere. While this is a fascinating case study for my thesis, this is just a local phenomenon.”
He smiled, showing more teeth than normal. He stood dramatically, strutted around his desk, plucked a yellow folder from his shelf and handed it to Elizabeth. She opened it gingerly as if it might bite her. There were dozens of drawings, obviously done by children with crayons, of a battle between a blue lady and a skeletal black man with a hoodie. “Well, I have some good news on that front. I was very excited about your findings and was talking about it at a dinner party this last weekend and to my surprise, my wife’s cousin runs a shelter in Portland. He sent me scanned copies via email. Look familiar?”
“Oh my, these look like pictures of the Blue Lady and Mr. Bang. But that would mean these stories have spread from Seattle to Portland at the least. Is that possible?”
“These stories seem to be popping up all over the place. A colleague of mine in Miami has identified a symbol on a wall that sounds remarkably like this Mr. Bang character. He’s sending an intern to take pictures of it.” He put his hand on her shoulder and massaged it gently. “It’s possible that you have stumbled onto something huge, Ms. Wellington.”
It was difficult to breathe. She concentrated on the drawings. “I was just lucky, Doctor Slonikier.”
“Luck is merely knowing what to do with opportunity, Ms. Wellington. Thankfully, I have the resources to help you a great deal in this situation.”
Elizabeth bit her lip. She avoided looking him in the eyes. “How so, Doctor Sloniker?”
“I’ve assigned three undergrads to work on our project with you. They will start collating the date from other universities. You will need to write a short prospective to familiarize them what elements to look for.” Doctor Sloniker patted the small of her back. “I’m looking into grant funding and so far it looks very promising.”
“Grant funding? Isn’t this going too fast?” Elizabeth protested. She was very uncomfortable with his use of the term our project.
Doctor Sloniker leaned close. She could feel his stale breath on her cheek. “We have to act now before someone else publishes about our find. This would make both of our careers, Ms. Wellington. We have to seize the opportunity.”
Elizabeth stood quickly, wrapped her arms around her backpack as though it were a totem. “I haven’t been able to document any additional stories, Doctor Sloniker. Ever since that night, that voice, the children avoid me. Ruthie won’t even look me in the eyes.”
He shook his head, smiling smugly. “Ms. Wellington, we’ve played the recording dozens of time and none of us have heard the voice you are taking about. You can’t even identify it for us. Is it possible that you dreamed it?”
“No. I was awake, I’m certain of it. I just need more time, Doctor Slonkier. I feel rushed.”
He nodded paternally. “Maybe I can help you. What’s troubling you?”
Elizabeth had read many of Doctor Sloniker’s published papers while an undergraduate. He was one of the reasons that she had decided to go against her father’s wishes and move to Seattle for graduate school. She had been unprepared for how youthful he appeared. He was an attractive, brilliant man and she had been quite disappointed when she had learned that he was married. He had never shown any interest in her until now, but it felt uneasy to her. “I’m having a hard time breaking the code, so to speak. Finding the moral center of the stories. There’s something we’re missing because we’re not on the inside. If we don’t take the time now, we could be caught with our pants down.”
Doctor Sloniker removed his hand and sat back at his desk intrigued. “Please explain, Ms. Wellington.”
Elizabeth sighed. She had given this quite a bit of thought and wanted to show off for her advisor and she was suddenly very glad that he was on the other side of the desk. “The Blue Lady feels right, feels familiar. Take a dash of the Lady of the Lake and add in a generous helping of Virgin Mary. These kids tell these stories like they’re preparing for a war.”
Doctor Sloniker scratched his chin. “Don’t forget the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio. Water is a metaphorical source for purity. The ocean has always been a symbol for source of spirituality. There’s a paper that theorizes that such symbols are a left over instinct from our ancestors that lived in the water before we evolved. Very interesting that these kids would pick up on it.”
Elizabeth nodded politely. “It’s more than that. I don’t know how, but it’s like they’ve discovered something old.”
Doctor Sloniker scoffed. “Certainly, we can see elements of it in older mythologies. It’s a unique amalgamation of things the kids hear or see in the movies. It’s like an x-ray directly into their brain. We can see how being homeless effects their sense of identity, their fears, their dreams. Do you think you could get some of these kids to talk to you about it?”
She considered that carefully. “Well, the children do seem to like me. But there’s some sort of taboo about telling adults about the Blue Lady. It’s on the second tape.”
“I recall, but if you could get even one of them to talk. You’d have everything you need.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Do you want to come over to my house for dinner this evening?” Doctor Sloniker asked.
“Will Mrs. Sloniker be there?” Elizabeth asked, hopefully.
“Sadly, he is visiting her mother so I’d appreciate the company.”
“I have a lot of work to do if I am to write that prospective, Doctor Sloniker,” Elizabeth protested.
“Of course, I look forward to seeing your work.”
* * * *
Elizabeth took two extra shifts the following week at the shelter. Ruthie was gone. Her mother, in a strange stupor, had checked her out of the shelter. There was something about Ruthie that intrigued Elizabeth. As a little girl in a largely hopeless situation, she seemed filled with dignity and possibility. Elizabeth envied her strength. When the other children thought that Elizabeth couldn’t hear them, they whispered about demons taking over Ruthie’s mother.
That night Elizabeth checked her equipment and then pretended to sleep at the adult cot near the door. When the children finally believed she was sleeping, they pulled out their flashlights and huddled together. “You hear about what happened to Ruthie?” Andy asked.
“I hear Mr. Bang sent a demon inside her mom and then lured them out and killed her,” one of the scared voices replied.
Lisa sniffed, suppressing tears. “Where’s Ruthie?”
“I heard she has a foster momma now,” Andy said, reverently wishing for a happy ending for their friend.
“That must be nice. The Blue Lady took care of her.”
The others murmured their agreement. It was very much like the beatification of a Saint, Elizabeth decided. How long until Ruthie passed into legend and became a patron saint of these lost children, she wondered?
“Why can’t the rich people see Mr. Bang and Satan?” another voice asked.
“Satan blinds them. They want to help, but they forget with their doings. And when they cause too much trouble, he sends Mr. Bang. They need us to be poor to feed from us,” Andy explained, much like Ruthie would have.
“Why doesn’t God fight them off?” Lisa asked, horrified.
Elizabeth found it interesting that Andy had absorbed much of Ruthie’s previous authority. “A couple of years ago, Mr. Bang and the demons invaded Heaven in a drive-by. God had a palace of beautiful blue-moon marble. They didn’t kill him, but they hurt him so God had to hide. Most of the angels died.”
The children whispered their astonishment. “That when the Blue Lady came to lead the Angels. They’re fighting the hordes until God gets better and comes back. But the demons feed on us. On hate, on greedy people, and bangers.”
“I heard more and more demons keep coming. Can’t we stop them?” Lisa asked, feeling a bit heroic.
“The doors keep getting open. Old fridgerators that people leave out in the open. Broken mirrors that have seen someone die. Places littered with rusted old needles,” Laney said, in a hushed voice.
“We have to be strong. Things will get better, if we believe,” Jessica added.
“That’s right,” Andy said soothingly. “Fear is the thing the demons love the most. Just don’t be afraid. The Blue Lady will protect us.”
There was silence and then a collective gasp of awe. The blanket covered her eyes, but she was certain that someone was shining a bright blue light upon her. Did they know she was listening to them? The light gradually brightened in intensity and power. Startled, she pulled the blanket down and was dazzled by the ethereal blue light. It was as though the ocean had been transformed into a brilliant spotlight cast straight into her soul. Within the light, a tall, feminine shaped silhouette touched several of the children upon their heads as though blessing them. By the time her eyes adjusted, the children were in their beds pretending to sleep in the darkness.
* * * *
Elizabeth was too terrified to sleep the rest of the night. She spent her time watching the children, who occasionally seemed to either be sleeping peacefully or not so secretly sneaking peeks at her. The kids had previously ignored her as much as possible. She was just another liberal, white adult that couldn’t see what was real. Suddenly, all of the children in the shelter referred to her as Ms. Wellington and spent as much time in her presence as possible.
Could that have been real, Elizabeth wondered? Did she dream the whole thing? She had been very tired and listening to the children talk about the Blue Lady. What if she wasn’t dreaming? What if what she saw actually happened? If there was a Blue Lady, then there could be a Mr. Bang. Confused, frightened, but determined, Elizabeth decided to confront the matter directly.
As soon as her shift was over, she returned to her dorm room and began to research. Previously concerned that the children were just retelling stories from another forum, Elizabeth had already searched the net for references to the Blue Lady and Mr. Bang. This time, she decided to search using the parameters of ‘Seattle,’ ‘occult,’ and ‘magic.’ She had expected one or two hits at the most, but was surprised by the sheer volume of hits. There were schools, jewelry for sale, a bookstore, and even a news article from the Seattle Times about a local detective saving a child from a cult in Renton. How had she avoided learning about this?
She found a pagan bookstore on Capital Hill. Although it was Sunday, it was open and just a short bus ride away. She packed her bag and ran to the bus stop just in time to make it. The store was called Source of the Spring books and was cramped, slightly disorganized, but obviously a labor of love. The range of the selection was dizzying. Elizabeth had imagined Vincent Price standing on a velvet carpet with a pentagram and a goat’s head. Instead, the store was like a yuppie craft store that smelled of lavender. In the far end of the store was equipment for making candles of varying scents. The walls were lined with art from religious symbols from across the world. There were self-help books, medicinal books about healthy eating, and women’s spirituality. Near the cash register were twin display cases resting at a perpendicular angle showing daggers, runes, tarot cards. Her father would have screamed at her just for being here. “Can I help you?” the thin cashier asked.
“I’m just browsing,” Elizabeth replied, uncertain what she should say or even look for.
“Is this your first time?” he asked.
Elizabeth smiled and blushed just a little. “Is it that obvious?”
The cashier laughed. It wasn’t a mocking laugh; it was a laugh almost designed to share life. “Nothing wrong with that. My name is Daniel. I own this place. Can I show you around?”
Her father certainly wouldn’t have approved of Daniel. He was too thin, his brown hair was too long, and he was too short. She shook his hand and noted that it was soft and warm. He smiled freely and that endeared him to her. “Well, I’m not really sure what I’m looking for.”
“Well, why don’t we start at the beginning? What church did you grow up in?” Daniel asked.
“Latter Day Saints,” Elizabeth replied, suddenly finding her shoes very interesting.
“OK, so you see a lot things around here that make you a little nervous. That’s ok. It’s ok to be nervous. What are you interested in?”
Elizabeth didn’t want to lie to Daniel, but she also didn’t want to admit that she might have seen the Blue Lady. “I’m writing a story and I’m looking for background information. Could a group of people or kids make something happen because they believe it enough?”
Daniel thought about it for a moment. “Well sure. Or at least tons of people believe that to be the case. Snake handlers believe that. People that believe if their faith is strong enough that the snakes won’t harm them. Many different religions around the world are based on that conceit. Hell, there’s a famous local homeless guy that swears he fell in love with a goddess.”
“What about creating a spirit or something unique?”
“It sounds like you are talking about a tupla,” Daniel explained. “It’s a Tibetan concept. The idea is that you can create an entity entirely by your imagination. Kind of like a character in a novel, except you don’t write tulpas down.”
“Are they dangerous?”
“I don’t know,” Daniel admitted. “Some stories have them being dangerous creatures that try to trick you out of your life-force. Others have them as protectors of children. When you start researching different beliefs, you’ll find so many contradicting answers that really in the end all you can do is ask yourself what sounds true.”
Elizabeth knew what she had to do. She bused across town to the shelter and frantically searched for the children. Some of them were playing basketball in the parking lot. It was a warm spring day and Andy and Laney were sitting on a bench whispering to each other. They stopped once they saw her. “Hello, Ms. Wellington.”
Elizabeth brushed her hair out of her face and knelt beside them. “I need to talk to you two. About what I saw.”
“Saw what?” Andy asked.
“The Blue Lady,” Elizabeth replied. “I think I saw her.”
Laney gasped. Andy looked like he might cry. “You didn’t see anything, Ms. Wellington. It was just a dream, see?”
The wind cooled and gained strength. Elizabeth’s hair jostled. Doves cooed and took flight. “There shouldn’t be doves around here.”
“He’s here,” Laney cried, pointing behind her.
Elizabeth spun on her heels to look where the little girl was pointing. A tall, lanky black man strutted across the pavement. The wind blew his trench coat like he was a superhero preparing for a fight. He peered over his dark glasses revealing his milky white eyes. His large hood covered most of his head and seemed immune to the wind. He smiled; his front gold tooth gleamed with power. “You shouldn’t be here, Elizabeth.”
The other kids, except Andy and Laney ran. Elizabeth felt her knees buckle. “You aren’t real. You aren’t a demon. Just something these kids made up!”
Mr. Bang laughed. “It don’t matter what I am. Demon? Man? Figment of their imagination. What matters is power. Power to do what you want. Power to get what’s yours. I get mine. These kids are mine.”
“No, they belong only to themselves.”
“You don’t even belong to yourself, Elizabeth. Frightened little girl. Afraid to disappoint Daddy after Momma died. Letting him touch you. Letting anyone touch you. Never fighting back.” He extended his long bony fingers to caress her cheek.
Andy shoved himself between Mr. Bang and Elizabeth. “Leave her alone! She doesn’t understand!”
Laney cried a name, a holy name. Mr. Bang regarded her with amusement. “The Blue Lady can’t help her. The fight left her a long time ago. She is now nothing, but a walking shell.”
Elizabeth was too frightened to move. “Please don’t.”
Mr. Bang forced her to look into his eyes. “You’ve made me powerful woman. That pleases me. Surrender unto me and I shall let you live.”
“Don’t do it, Ms. Wellington! Don’t give in!”
“Elizabeth, I need you.” Mr. Bang spoke in her father’s voice. “Come with me.”
“No! I won’t! I won’t!” Elizabeth shook her head, fighting tears. She pounded her fists upon Mr. Bang impotently. “You can kill me, but you can’t have me.”
Mr. Bang shook his head in disbelief and raised his hand. “It could have been magic, Elizabeth.” He pointed a long, boney finger at Elizabeth and whispered “Bang!”
She dropped dead instantly; her heart shattered.
* * * *
“Tell us again about Elizabeth and the Blue Lady,” a little girl named Sara asked.
“Elizabeth was a white woman who was going to school to learn to help people. Help children like us. She believed and so the Blue Lady tried to help her. She could hear the secret stories, but couldn’t hear her true name. “Andy explained to the huddled mass of children. “When she was a little girl, her Daddy told her stories and hurt her. He was possessed by a demon. She believed in Mr. Bang in her heart and he killed her because she feared. But she told the secret stories to others. The rich people don’t believe, not yet. But their kids will one day. They’ll know the secret stories of the Blue Lady and then this war will be over.”