Instructions Not Included.

By Victoria Costello.

“I sit down behind a dumpster and declare it my kingdom.”

Artwork by Juliet Petrarulo.

          I sit down behind a dumpster and declare it my kingdom.    

I begin by drawing knights to fight my holy war.

I draw an angel. I give her eyes and tits.

I almost forget that I’m back here because I’m scared of the world.  

It’s not like I wanted to bail out of Ms. Lacey’s class. But I can’t control when a voice shows up. This one’s a real nasty Tony Soprano type who ambushed me while I was putting the final touches on the skull I made from scratch. 

“Mixed media,” Ms. Lacey calls it. It’s a cross-section of the human brain on cardboard. A twig for the stem, a sliced golf ball makes an amygdala, a slew of tiny nails hammered in the shape of the frontal lobes. Each nail is a neuron, connected to each other with dental floss. It’s a rough facsimile, but pretty accurate. Close enough to get me in trouble with Tony. 

“Hey, kid. What’s da matter with you? Don’t you know that stuff is classified?  Shred it before I shred you.” He flipped me out real good.

A kid in my shrink’s waiting room gave me a heads up about aliens posing as psychiatrists so they can hook kids on certain psychotropic drugs and turn us into robots to do their bidding. I’m guessing Tony handles alien security, and he suspects I’m on to them. Maybe I am. I took the threat seriously enough to ditch my antidepressant, cold turkey. Nobody knows about that.

Now I’m crouching low to the ground thinking the aliens must be pretty far along in their plan if they’re worried about a middle school kid making a humanoid brain from nails and dental floss. The problem is, I ran out of there and forgot to destroy it.

Holy shit. Here comes Ms. Lacey tiptoeing in her high heels around the burgers and beans strewn on the blacktop. She’s holding my mixed media. What if Tony takes it out on her?

Okay, I’ve got a plan, but I need some carbon-based matter. I grab a half-eaten burger from the dumpster and hold it in my hands, concentrating so I absorb its beefy nature. Gag me, it stinks so bad. This hasn’t come up before, so I improvise and create an airtight shield around my middle brain to section it off from the olfactory bulb. I can do this because our smell receptors are off by themselves in the older, limbic system. I say the code… sorry, spells are on a need-to-know basis… which puts a hologram of Teague out in front of the dumpster so I can stay back here, invisible.

“Teague, are you okay?” Ms. Lacey’s sweet voice. 

She’s the only person on the planet I still like talking to. Just not now, cuz if I don’t concentrate, my spell will break. 

“This is fantastic work. Do you want to finish it?”

Houston, we’ve got a problem. Teague out there is shaking, which means my spell is unstable, so he’s going in and out of life forms. Maybe I screwed it up with the airtight shield. 

“Teague, do you hear me?” It’s Ms. Lacey talking to me, I mean him.

“All right. I’ll keep it for you. Should I call your mom?” 

WTF? Did she forget? Even if I could talk, I wouldn’t have the energy to explain my real mom died when I was five. They probably buried that factoid in my student file. Maybe they didn’t let her read it. I’ll give her a pass for not knowing the single most important thing about me.

She gives up, so I break the spell and head home.

It sucks that Ms. Lacey won’t make through the school year. I saw it like a movie in my head after Christmas break when she started wearing her engagement ring. A head-on crash on the thru-way. I’ve been wracking my brain to figure out what I can do to keep it from happening. The problem is, if I tell her, she’ll think I’m crazy and stop being my friend. Maybe I got it wrong. It won’t happen. Or it won’t happen to her. I wish I could believe that. 


It’s Saturday morning, and Maureen, my sort of but not really grandma, since we’re not related by blood, says I have to clean my room. 

“The smell is terrible! I can hardly breathe in here.” 

I’m lying on my bottom bunk, trying to read; she’s standing in the doorway. “So don’t come in.”

“Clean it, or I’m cutting off our cable TV.”

Why didn’t she say that in the first place? You’d think someone who’s already raised three kids, two and three-quarters since my Mom didn’t make it to twenty-one, would be better at this enforcing the rules shit. 

Okay, so it’s pretty messy in here. Layers of crap everywhere. I can’t see the floor but usually I don’t have to. Clothes, empty cans, food wrappers, ditched notebooks, CDs, magazines, stuff I pick up outside, mostly rocks. Whoa! My missing Marvel Classics’ Superman and Spiderman comics! I thought I threw them out by mistake. The six, all classics and worth money, still in their individual plastic sleeves. I put them on my top bunk for safekeeping. Crunch. Oh shit, I just cracked the glass on the framed photo of me sitting on my real grandma’s lap. The two of us smiling like we have a secret. Out of all of ‘em, Gran was the only one who know how to act like a mom and now she’s gone too. I’ll just ditch the frame and stick it under my pillow.

Things are getting tense between Maureen and me cuz it’s getting harder for me to fake it. Every time I do something weird at school, the principal calls her and she finds me a new shrink, whose job it is to make me stop acting crazy. 

The latest thing they’re all riled up about is me not wearing shoes, inside, outside, anywhere. Like I told them, I need to feel my feet on the ground, and I can’t with shoes on. So what’s the big deal? I doubt any of them get it because they all respond the same way, nodding and telling me they hear me. Then, as if I didn’t just tell them the shoe thing is non-negotiable, they gripe about broken glass, nails, insurance, winter weather, blah, blah, blah. Mrs. Principal say if I don’t wear shoes on school grounds, she’ll suspend me, so it’s turned into a cat-and-mouse game where I carry flip-flops in my backpack and put them on when I spot her or one of her spies.

Maureen says I have until Monday morning to clean my room or she’ll call the cable guy. 

I’m lying flat on the bottom bunk weighing the pros and cons of doing it versus not. I don’t care if she grounds me. I have no friends. Keeping cable TV is probably a good enough reason to do it. No more Beavis and Butt-Head or X-Files. And not just because those are my favorite shows. Having the TV on helps me drown out the voices. If the screen goes quiet or black, they can’t get to me so easily.

Nobody knows about the super-sized rats who come around when I’m home. So far, they haven’t shown up anywhere else. They talk to me like low-life adults, tell me I’m an ugly piece of shit, say I’m one of them, and I don’t belong with humans. 

The worst is Larry. He’s a pit bull who talks like a kid and pretends he’s my super-fan. Larry can tell when I’m having a bad day. He’ll say, since it’s not gonna get any better, I might as well off himself. 

Shit. What am I doing? I shouldn’t even let them get this far into my brain. “Da, da, da, da, da, zippity, da dooooooooooooo.”

“Ha! Fat chance, kid. We’re coming for you!”  

Too late. Larry. He’s staring at me sideways from the edge of the dark screen, his black eyes beaming like headlights stuck on extra bright.     

“Now be a good little boy, Teague, get up and clean your room.”

“You’re not even real; you’re some trash that fell out of my brain.”   

“Ha! You wish. Sure you want to take that chance?”

“Yeah, what are you gonna do about it?”

“For starters, I’ll be up your ass 24/7. You’ll never get rid of me.”

“And if I do it?”

“Then I’ll give you the rest of the day off.” 

Larry usually keeps his word. Unless he doesn’t. All right. 

I roll off the bed and land on a couple of layers of random crap: McDonald’s wrappers, socks without mates, poems scrawled on scraps of paper, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figure. That was like five years ago.

Obviously, I don’t need two beds. But since Maureen throws nothing away, I came up to switch between the top and bottom, depending on how things are going. If it’s a nasty day, I sleep on top. If my day is going all right, I switch to the bottom. I can’t tell yet whether doing something this stupid is helping me achieve my main goal of not acting crazy. But I’m willing to try anything if it keeps me from having to go to another therapist. Their idiotic questions… “So Teague, how are you feeling now?” If I knew how I was feeling, I wouldn’t be sitting in their claustrophobic offices. For me, name-checking feelings like sad, angry, even happy, is like trying to separate shades of black in a moonless sky. So hard it’s stupid to try. 

Ha! It’s seven pm. I beat Maureen’s deadline by fourteen hours. “Hey, I’m done!” I yell.

She’s at the door, holding an empty laundry basket. Her eyes go sideways to the closet where I’ve piled dirty clothes, actually all my clothes since I can’t tell them apart, up to the top shelf. 

“Put some of those in this basket, and I’ll start a load. First your whites. Quick now, so I don’t have to go in there myself.” 

“All right.” My weed is in the gym bag hanging from a hook, and I really don’t want her near it.

“You’ll feel much better with a clean room!”

“I don’t know about that.”

“Wait and see.”

She was a little bit right about that.

So the room thing works out okay. I still have cable and my weed is secure. Everything stays status-quo for the rest of the week. Until Friday, when my report card comes. My bad luck, Maureen gets the mail before I can make it disappear. When I meet up with her by the front door, she’s already opened it, so I’m stuck.

“You need a magnifying glass to read this thing.” She holds the printout to her nose. “Teague! How does anyone as smart as you get four F’s?” 

The sliver of air next to where the balls of my feet touch the wood floor is a safe space and that’s where I put all my attention. 

“Do you even go to these classes? Teague?”

Make her stop, make her stop, make her…

“Teague, I asked you a question!”

Her face has red splotches all over it. She looks like Cruella de Vil.


“All right. First thing Monday morning, I’m calling Ms. Lacey. She made a point at parents’ night of telling me she thinks you’re very talented. I see she gave you a C, your best grade.” 

Should I tell her? If I do, maybe she’ll warn Ms. Lacey, so she’ll think twice about getting in the car with her fiancé. Except, if Maureen doesn’t believe me, she’ll get madder. I’m gonna have to risk it. “Um, that won’t work.”

“Why not?”

“Something bad will happen to Ms. Lacey. She won’t be around on Monday.”

Maureen scrunches her face and puffs her cheeks like she’s going to burst. “What a terrible thing to say! Of course, she’ll be around. It’s only the end of March. The school year lasts another two months. That gives you one more quarter to fix this! I know you don’t want to repeat the eighth grade.” She walks away, shaking her head. 

As if that’s my biggest problem. “Fine,” I say.

Except nothing’s fine. I leave by the kitchen door and head straight for the weeping willow at the edge of our backyard. A stream behind it keeps the ground pretty swampy. I touch her trunk to say hi. Oh, yeah, this willow is a momma. I don’t know how I know that. I just do. I lie down under her branches and try to relax, but my chest is stuck. Like my stupid brain thinks, if I don’t breathe, maybe I can make this shit about Ms. Lacey go away.

Hey, Mrs. Willow, can you help me out here? I stare up through her crown and let my eyes blur. Her branches move in the breeze, they’re like hundreds of arms swaying, reaching down, stroking me. 

I remember one time when me and Gran were back here and her friend, Mr. Malone, came over with some apples from his tree. When he left, I asked Gran why he had an inky black shadow trailing after him. She frowned and got all quiet. When I asked what was wrong, she said it might be Mr. Malone’s time to meet his maker. Sure enough, the next day he died from something. That bothered me. I asked Gran if I should have warned him, and she said, No, that wasn’t my job. So why am I allowed to see it? I asked her. She said I’d have to figure that out for myself when I grew up. Yeah, right. What a mindfuck.  In the meantime, she said all I could do if I was worried about someone was to pray for them. Like I should talk directly to God or find an ally to help get the Big Man’s attention. That’s how I ended up picking the Archangel Michael to be my ally. I haven’t prayed much since Gran died. So, shit, I guess it’s worth a try.

Hey Michael. Remember me? The thing is Ms. Lacey is a real good person and a super art teacher. So it would mean a lot to me, and I’m sure to her, too, if you could stop this car crash from happening. How about it?

I get no answer, so I try again. This time on my knees like at church. I throw in one of my spells and concentrate real hard. While I say the words, I picture Ms. Lacey all safe and well—walking into the art room without a scape on her. 

Listen, Michael. I’m sure you’ve got a lot of people wanting things from you. But I’m telling you there’s nothing more important than this. PLEASE. WATCH OUT FOR HER. In my humble opinion, this isn’t her time to meet her maker. She’s got important stuff to do. For one thing, I need her. So please. Think it over. Or just do it. Thanks.

If this doesn’t work out, I’m gonna ask Michael Archangel to ask God to take this gift off my hands and give it to someone else.


On Monday morning, I wake up scared shitless. At breakfast, my Cheerios are a soggy flotilla sailing around my bowl. Maureen comes in the kitchen with the newspaper, sits down and opens to the front page.

 Please, please, please.

“Mary, mother of God…” 

Oh fuck.

She reads… “Shortly before midnight on Saturday, Susan Lacey, a popular River Vale art teacher and her fiancé, Thomas McCann, were involved a head-on collision with a drunk driver going the wrong way on the New York Thru-way.”

Wop. My head. Like the ceiling is crashing down on me.

“McCann was pronounced dead at the scene. Lacey was treated for minor injuries…

Huh? She’s still reading.

“And released from the hospital on Sunday.”

I sit straight up in my chair. “She’s all right? Is that really what it says?”

Maureen is bug-eyed, annoyed. “Yes. She survived with minor injuries.”

She goes back to the paper. “What a shame about Tom. His poor mother.”

“Whoa! This shit works.” I take my first deep breath of the day. Blood rushes to my head. My whole body tingles. “Amazing.”

“What?” She’s pissed. Then, as if she just remembered what I told her on Friday, she freezes and does a double-take. “How did you know?”

“Sometimes I see things.”

Her mouth drops open. “That’s ridiculous. You just—” 

Right. She can’t write it off so easily. When she reaches for a cig, her hand is shaking. She puts it between her lips with the lighter in her other hand.

I don’t know what she meant by ridiculous. I tried to get her to help me stop the whole thing from happening. It’s terrible Ms. Lacey’s fiancé had to die like that. But hey, at least she’s alive. What good would it have done to have them both die? I still can’t believe it. Hey, Michael, I’m sorry I ever doubted you—and your boss.

I’m tracking the smoke from her cig up to the ceiling when the glitch in my thinking shows up like a big fucking 404 error message on the screen of my pathetic life.

What if Michael and the Big Man had nothing to do with the way things worked out? What if I messed with Ms. Lacey’s fate just enough to kill off her fiancé, like when I screwed up the spell behind the dumpster by sectioning off my olfactory bulb. which would make me a murderer, wouldn’t it? Here we go again. Where are the instructions when you really need them?

The school bus honks.

“Go.” Maureen nods at her purse on the counter. “Take some money from my wallet for lunch.” 

Yeah. Lunch. Got it.

The Blood Pudding – September 17, 2020

Victoria Costello is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and a science journalist turned fiction writer. “Instructions Not Included” is an excerpt from THE ORCHID CHILD, a three-generation family saga centered on the coming of age of a neurodivergent teenager from New York who finds validation for parts of himself that don’t conform in a stubbornly-enchanted Irish town. Costello’s articles have appeared in Scientific American Mind and Brain World. Her memoir, A LETHAL INHERITANCE, was published by Prometheus Books in 2012. She holds dual US and Irish citizenship and lives in Northern California. See more of her work at

Artwork: Juliet Petrarulo is inspired by colour memories and nature. Landscape, semi-abstract, figurative, animals are revealed in her art. You can find her here.