A sharp pain stabbed Jane's brain. She jumped up in the bed with a start, nearly knocking the book over.
"Are you okay, honey?" asked her mother.
"I don't feel good." She held her ears. "It hurts."
"What hurts? Your head?"
Jane nodded. "Please stop yelling at me."
"But I'm talking normally."
"It sounds like shouting."
Shame licked his lips. "I see you're enjoying my lies," he murmured. "Just keep entertaining them. Like I always say,
The fears that flow
Make leprosy grow.
Chicken out, chicken in,
As I pick on your sin."
"I could have said it better myself," twittered Worry, the shriveled up stick hovering nearby whose mop of greasy, tangled hair and sizzling wings crackled as he flew.
Shadowing him was Lonely, a squatty little devil with a wide, cavernous mouth who liked to swallow his food whole. He and Worry had been out for a late night stroll around the neighborhood when they smelled the feast cooking. Mmm... Roast chicken. It wouldn't be long now.
"You two behave yourselves," Shame warned them. "One mistake by you bumblers and Blame Game will have my head."
Sure we will, they nodded.
Yeah, right, thought Shame. My goose is cooked.
That was Saturday night. For some diabolical reason, Jane had no further symptoms until Monday morning during preschool. She was sitting at a table making a hen out of play dough when suddenly another little girl pointed to her forehead, saying, "What are all those dots?"
Meanwhile Worry fluttered through the room, cackling panic in every corner.
"Ew! Janie's got measles!"
"Ahh! Run away!"
"She's gonna make us sick!"
The students' cries sent easily ruffled teacher Mrs. Poulter flying to Jane's table in a flurry of anxiety. Her high-pitched voice squawked like a brooding hen. "Why all this fuss over a little red play dough?"
One look at Jane's polka-dot face sent her clucking, "Oh no! It's measles! We're all going to die!"
"Oh what fun!" exclaimed Shame, holding hands with school strongman Shun. Together they danced circles around Jane, whispering to all her classmates, "Cooties! She's got cooties!"
Worry pumped the voice of frantic Ms. Poulter across the phone lines. "Mrs. Seeker, you must pick up your daughter at once before everyone gets infected!"
One slight twist by Lonely turned the word "infected" to "insected" in the ears of Jane, who knew what insects were and didn't care for them one bit. She shuddered.
Two hours later she and her mother were squeezed into a corner of a waiting room where a dozen mommies sat trying to shush their noisy children. Wriggling toddlers ran about faster than runny noses, crawling under chairs, throwing temper tantrums, and crying over diddlysquat. Screaming babies refused the soothing charms of every pacifier. The only breaks in tension came when one or more of the little munchkins skipped behind the magic door into Doctor Land. After what seemed like forever, it was finally Jane's turn to get a lollypop.
But the candy was much stickier than expected.
"Eeek!" yelled the lady behind the peep hole. "Didn't you read the sign? Kids with chicken pox are to use the back door, not the front. Good heavens! Who knows how many children she's infected?"
There was that word "insected" again.
Shame shone his pitchfork's laser tines into Jane's eyes, showing her a vision of the hen she'd made in class pecking little red bugs off her face and neck. Thinking about it made her want to run home, dive into bed, and duck under the covers.
Lonely dug the nails in deep. "Why not crawl into a nice, deep hole?" With great relish he served this thought food dished from the hottest ovens of the abyss - a stark picture of days to come.
Shame spent the week's remainder poking Jane's red spots, while Worry stung and prodded Mrs. Seeker night and day. "Is your girl all right? What if she dies from this? She could be scarred for life! Hover, hover, little mother. Every hour on the hour. Take temperature, pump liquids, pour on pain relief. No time to rest!"
His words had the desired effect. Soon Mrs. Seeker was peddling circles around mole hills, like Joshua marching around Jericho. But her fretting did the opposite of her intent. Instead of shrinking the sores, it grew them into mountains.
So much fuss over a little pox!
But no one saw the chicken that came with it, the one that clucked past sound bites into present tension long after the bumps had gone.
"Who knows how many children she's insected... insected... insected?"
To avoid the beak, Jane made an eggshell house and ducked inside it. But it proved no refuge from the pesky hen. The more she ducked, the more it clucked. The more she thought "insect," the more it pecked. The more it pecked, the more reject-ed and ashamed she felt.
"Why are you such a chicken?" kids would ask her.
"Why do you hide your face behind your hair?" her parents wondered.
"Why won't you talk to me?" teachers would demand. One even kept her in at recess time to punish her growing fears.
But all that did was feed Lonely, who was getting fat as a pig off their frustration.
But Shame was living even higher off the hog, feasting on the finest pain in Pitsville, eagerly awaiting his promotion to Head Blamer. News of his success had spread far and wide, nearly ruining the meaning of his name.
One day Suicide dropped in on him while he was sipping a cup of hot chocolate at the Down-Luck.
"You have done well, Shame," he snickered. "For a JUNIOR mischief maker. Now it's time for the pro take over."
Shame snarled deeply, hackles raised at this moocher's threat. "Why hire a slug whose stats are in the dumps? The way things are going, one might just take you for a gospel preacher."
Suicide reached ten bloated claws toward Shame's neck and squeezed. "They may be down for now, but just you wait! I'll soon have all I can eat and more!"
With one arm he threw Shame to the ground, then stalked into the night, eager for a taste of fresh meat.
abyss: big mouth gone amiss; don't go there, it's not worth it
cooties: little bugs that are not "cuties"
gospel: the good news of Jesus Christ
hackles: dog's bad hair day
Jericho: another word for sin city (see Joshua chapters 2 through 6)
moocher: like a vulture or hyena, only less noble
sound bit - a bite of sound
stats: statistics (it's a numbers game)
tension: like walking on eggshells, or a tightrope (take your pick)
present tension: a play on the words "present tense"