Bouncing Baby Boy

Gary Poland Jr., first child born on the Moon and already in the history books. His dad nicknamed him Micro-Gee.

Raising a child on the Moon brought new challenges. Micro-Gee walked, ran and climbed early. Armstrong base lacked day care facilities.

Sometimes parenting in an extreme environment means making some creative decisions.

For readers who enjoy a light science fiction father-son story.

🚀

On Earth Gary Poland Junior would have weighed six pounds eleven ounces but on the Moon he weighed in less than a pound. He pinked up right away as the multi-armed Obgyn-bot cleaned and measured him. Then two long white arms lowered the baby down into Gary Poland’s waiting hands. The baby hardly weighed his hands down. He worried about dropping him.

“Your son’s Apgar scores are very positive,” the Obgyn-bot said.

Gary Poland Senior looked into that wrinkled face and smiled. “I’m going to call you Micro-Gee.”

Micro-Gee looked up at Gary’s ruddy face and screamed out his first cry.

Gary beamed. “Boy has a good set of lungs!”

On the bed Gary’s wife Claire managed a weak smile. “Our oxy bill is going to go up.”

“It’ll be worth it,” Gary promised. He gently laid Micro-Gee on her breast. “You’ll see.”

🚀

What Armstrong lacked in space it also lacked in character or comfort. Being a family of three allocated Gary, Claire and Micro-Gee a dome-shaped chamber eighteen feet in diameter. Two hundred and sixty-four square feet of lunar concrete floors, with matching walls and ceiling. Still, Gary thought it was much better than their previous habitat which had just been a partitioned section of a lava tube containing a bed that rotated into a desk surface during the day and a small wash basin. This space actually felt like it could become a home.

Gary and Claire stood in the center of the dome―Claire cradling Micro-Gee in her arms―and marveled at the sense of space. Claire laughed. “This is really going to cut into our budget.”

Gary beamed. “We’ve moved up in the world. You’ll see.” He bent and looked down at Micro-Gee’s sleeping face. “And we owe it all to him. I wouldn’t have applied for my promotion if you hadn’t gotten pregnant.”

“I thought they were going to ship us back Earthside.”

“More expensive than letting us stay here. They’ve got too much invested in us for that.”

“But what about my job? It’s not like there’s a daycare around here.”

Gary slipped an arm around Claire’s waist. “We’ve got all this space now! I’m sure we can set up a corner for you to work in. Plus, when he gets older, it’ll be easier. There’s probably going to be other kids. Maybe we can work out something with other parents. The colony is going to grow. Micro-Gee is just the first.”

“Maybe,” Claire said dubiously. “There isn’t really a corner in here. It’s round.”

Gary laughed. “It’ll be fine.”

🚀

Gary heard screaming before he even reached the hatch. He picked up his pace. He took a deep breath and palmed the hatch plate to open the door. The sound that came out cut right through his skull. He winced, put on a smile and stepped through before the door closed. Their chamber smelled faintly of pee these days. Claire sat on a red and black blanket on the floor with Micro-Gee trying to twist out from under her hands. His tiny face scrunched up and another ear-splitting scream came out of his tiny mouth. Claire looked up at Gary. Her blond hair hung limp around her colorless face. Even her blue eyes looked paler than usual. The only color in her face came from the dark circles under her eyes.

“Can you help me with this?” Claire glanced down at the diaper.

Gary set his bag down beside the hatch. “Of course.”

He joined her on the carpet. “Should I change or hold him?”

“Just change him. I’ve already got him. He shouldn’t be moving around this early!”

“That’s on Earth. We’re going to be redefining the developmental milestones for here. He never had any problem lifting his head. He’s probably going to be up running around earlier than a child on Earth just because it’s easier here.”

“But he’s rolling himself around the room! I tried using the pillows to fence him in but then I’m afraid he’s going to roll onto one and suffocate himself.”

“We’ll just have to keep an eye on him.” Gary bent down, grinning at his son. “Isn’t that right Micro-Gee?”

🚀

By six months of age Micro-Gee could run, jump and climb. Abilities that on Earth would have taken him twice as long to develop came to him easily in the lower gravity on the Moon. It also meant greater challenges for Gary and Claire.

“I have to go to this meeting,” Claire said one Tuesday morning. “It’s the L-5 conference. We’ve been planning it for the past eight months!”

“I realize that.” Gary kept an eye on Micro-Gee’s progress climbing up the netting attached to the walls of their room. A room that felt much smaller these days. The netting helped as it gave Micro-Gee far more room to explore. But he still couldn’t get over the image of his son hanging from the netting overhead. “It isn’t my fault that the last solar flare knocked out three of the telescopes in the array. We need those telescopes online before daylight comes or it’ll delay dozens of research projects.”

“Du du!” Micro-Gee shouted.

Both parents looked up with alarm. Micro-Gee hung overhead.

“Du du. Du du. Du du.”

“You shouldn’t have let him watch that movie. A baby his age!”

Gary shrugged guiltily. “I didn’t think he’d actually pay attention.”

Screeching, Micro-Gee released his grip on the overhead netting and plunged towards his father. Gary caught the boy neatly which caused Micro-Gee to erupt in laughter. A second later he squirmed and grunted to get down. No doubt to climb up and do it again.

“I’m going,” Claire said. “I’m sorry about the telescopes but I have to go.”

She picked up her bag and looked at Micro-Gee climbing up the netting again. “You guys have fun.”

Then Claire was gone leaving Micro-Gee with Gary who looked up at his son climbing upside down now on the netting. He didn’t have any problem wrapping his fat little toes around the netting to help hold on either.

“Be careful,” Gary said. “You don’t want to fall.”

Micro-Gee giggled and let go. Gary lunged to catch him but couldn’t get there in time. Micro-Gee landed on his padded bottom and immediately bounced up on his feet and ran unsteadily back towards the wall.

Gary caught his balance and straightened up. “What am I going to do about the telescopes?”

First he tried calling the Dean of his department. The message indicated that the Dean had gone off to the L-5 conference, the same one that Claire was attending. Peter couldn’t because he was still on medical leave. Manami couldn’t get away from her work analyzing and processing the batches of data gathered for distribution Earthside. It really looked like he was the only one that was trained to do the repairs necessary and if he didn’t it would cost the entire colonial operation.

“Du du!”

“I’m not going to catch you,” Gary warned. He looked up at his son. “I’m trying to call someone.”

“Du du. Du du!” Micro-Gee let go of the netting.

Despite what he had said Gary dropped the phone and caught his son. Micro-Gee cracked up at that and wanted down again. Gary scooped up the phone before Micro-Gee could grab it.

“What am I going to do with you?” Gary asked.

🚀

The rescue ball was a sphere big enough for an adult if they stayed in a seated position. Flexible, durable with projected holographic displays and a built-in air recycling system and equipped with a powerful transmitter, the rescue ball was designed to be used in pressurization loss emergencies when there wasn’t time to put on a spacesuit. A person simply pushed head first into the ball which automatically sealed itself.

Micro-Gee loved the rescue ball. Gary felt pretty bad about putting his son in the ball until he saw how much fun Micro-Gee had rolling the ball around the telescope installation. Gary kept a small video feed running in the lower left quadrant of his helmet tuned to the feed from inside the ball. From the inside the ball looked almost transparent with a geodesic lattice and a few heads-up displays monitoring status. Micro-Gee rolled around the Lunar regolith in the spotlights from the rover. Gary kept talking to him so Micro-Gee wouldn’t get scared while he worked on the telescope.

“Hey, buddy. I just need to pull this fried board and swap in the new one. Won’t take a minute. Don’t go anywhere.”

Since Micro-Gee mostly seemed to be rolling the rescue ball in circles that didn’t seem to be a problem. Gary studied the access hatch. No removable screws here that could be lost. Just big easily gripped red knobs that disengaged to provide access to the panel. He spun the first two and glanced down at Micro-Gee. His son sat in the center of the ball clapping his hands. Something he did when he was pleased with what he had done.

“That’s right, very good baby.” He spun the remaining two knobs. The panel came free and swung open.

Inside a green flip release allowed access to the primary circuit board. Micro-Gee cracked up laughing. Gary glanced up. The ball rolled past the telescope, bounced over a small rock and Micro-Gee cracked up again. The sound of his laughter brought a smile to Gary’s lips. He pulled the circuit board and slipped it into the slot in the replacement case. Then he took the new board out and slid it into place. Micro-Gee laughed again. Higher pitched.

Gary glanced at the display. Micro-Gee looked happy and all the readings showed green. Gary shoved the latch into place to secure the board and took out his diagnostic tablet.

“Du du.”

Gary glanced at the screen. Micro-Gee tottered in the ball. He spread his arms.

The tablet interfaced with the telescope. Gary triggered the diagnostic routines to check the circuit board.

“Du du. Du du!” Micro-Gee laughed and on the display seemed to pitch forward.

Gary jerked his head up looking for the ball but he didn’t see it anywhere. On the screen Micro-Gee lay against the side of the ball laughing. What was he doing? Gary accessed the rescue ball systems and expanded the sensor data. He switched to an external view.

Blackness.

Nothing but black outside the ball.

“Micro-Gee!” Gary left the telescope and bounded over towards where he’d last seen the ball. He still couldn’t see it anywhere but out of the range of the headlights the surface was dimly lit. He triggered the tracking systems. The ball’s position showed up but what it showed made no sense. According to the readout the ball should be within two meters but he didn’t see anything. All sharp-edged shadows and small rocks. Tracks from previous visits crisscrossing the area. Nothing that looked like the rescue ball and he should be able to see the exterior lights.

Micro-Gee stopped laughing. On the screens Gary could see him standing up, pushing against the ball but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

“Hang on, buddy. I’ll be right there.”

He walked forward carefully, afraid of what he would find but he thought he already knew. Sure enough, as he closed on the position indicated he saw what at first looked like another shadow on the other side of a boulder but the shadow was round and too large to come from the boulder. Micro-Gee had found a hole and must have rolled right into it.

A hole meant a lava tube, which meant that this area could be unstable. The last thing he needed was to fall into a tube himself and get hurt. He checked the rescue ball systems. Everything green. Micro-Gee had given up trying to move the ball and sat in the center of the ball picking at his toes.

“That’s it,” Gary encouraged him. “Play with your little piggies. I’ve got to get a few things from the rover.”

Gary bounce-walked back over to the rover and grabbed a long probe from the tool rack at the back. At the front he opened the releases on the winch and pulled out the cable. He clipped it to his suit. Then he turned around and headed back to Micro-Gee.

Micro-Gee was beginning to get frustrated. He stood up again and beat his fat fists against the side of the rescue ball but whatever it’d fallen into it was wedged.

“It’s okay, Micro-Gee. Dada’s going to get you out of there.” Gary reached the edge of the hole without breaking through the ceiling. He activated his wrist-lights and pointed them down the shaft. It curved down and about three meters down he could see the rescue ball. Dirt covered the top, blocking out the exterior lights. That must have come from the sides when Micro-Gee broke through. The trouble was that the shaft didn’t look very wide. Gary couldn’t be sure that he could fit down there and he needed to get down in order to attach the winch cable. His other option was to go back to the rover again and send a distress signal. But a rescue could take time. The rescue ball was designed to keep an adult alive for several hours and should be able to last even longer with Micro-Gee.

Micro-Gee started crying. He beat his fists against the sides.

He couldn’t make his son wait. Not without at least trying first. If he could get him out easily then it’d be done. “And we won’t tell Mama, right Micro-Gee? Hang on, buddy. I’m going to come down there and get you out.”

Gary held onto the probe in case he needed it to dislodge any debris and sat down on the edge of the hole. Narrow, but he might make it. And if he didn’t the winch could pull him out. This was exactly the sort of thing that they were trained not to do. He felt sick. On the screens Micro-Gee screamed some more and pounded on the side of the ball. And fell forward.

Shit, he must have dislodged the ball. Micro-Gee laughed and crawled forward. The tracker showed the ball moving away.

“Micro-Gee! Wait!”

Gary slid into the hole. He just fit. His suit scraped on the sides. He kept telling himself that it was reinforced. It wouldn’t tear easily. In moments it widened out and he reached the spot where Micro-Gee had been stuck but no longer. Debris had caught the ball but now it had moved away. Gary was able to bend over and crawled after the ball. A short distance later he could stand up.

He was in a big lava tube. Easily the same size as the colony tube but it ended a short distance ahead in a flat wall. Someone had to know this was here, didn’t they? He saw the rescue ball about a meter away rolling towards the wall. Gary bounced after it and caught up. He put a hand out and stopped Micro-Gee. He sent a visual image into the ball.

“Hey there buddy, just Dada. How about we go back to the rover, okay?”

Micro-Gee tried to grab him but his arms passed through the image. He blinked in confusion.

“Don’t worry about it.” Gary grabbed the recessed handles and picked up the ball. As he turned with it his light flashed across the wall. It gave back a metallic gleam.

What? Gary walked closer and set Micro-Gee’s ball down. Micro-Gee laughed and rolled towards the wall. Gary stayed beside his son and widened his wrist light. The wall was metal. And down towards the right side where rubble piled up alongside the wall he saw a hexagonal opening. And lying in front of the opening a splayed form in a dusty red suit. Except that the shape was all wrong. Micro-Gee rolled right towards the body.

A body? Gary stopped the ball. He activated all of his cameras and turned the light onto the body. It was a body. His throat felt dry. A body in a space suit but the legs were long and bent oddly. Same with the arms. The helmet was a wide, flattened oval shape at one end but the light didn’t reveal what was inside. Whatever it was the suit didn’t look human.

“Micro-Gee, what did you find?” Gary wondered.

🚀

Micro-Gee became an instant celebrity. The baby that fell down a hole and discovered an ancient spacecraft. Teams of researchers descended on the Moon to study the craft and its occupants. Whether Gary was a fit parent or not also became a frequent discussion. Gary defended his actions, arguing that nothing he’d done jeopardized Micro-Gee’s safety. It just went to show that life on the Moon was going to be like life anywhere, with its own hazards and you just dealt with it the best you could.

Micro-Gee’s only words on the subject? “Du du!”

🚀

2,832 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 53rd weekly short story release, written in July 2010. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story What Dragged in the Cat?.

Bed Bugs

No one really understood what it took to be a single parent running your own business out of your house.

Anne treasured a few hours of uninterrupted sleep and nap time when she could get a little work done.

No one could expect her to do everything. She had to prioritize. Sometimes things just creep up on you, as Anne discovers in this story.

🐛

Anne had her arms full of fresh-smelling, warm right-from-the-dryer clothes when she stepped out of the laundry room and saw something long and dark slither rapidly away from her bare foot.

She screamed! She jerked back. Clothes flew into the air and rained down around her. She hit the door frame. Blood rushed to her face and she brought her hands up to her mouth. A short slender woman in her twenties, suddenly realizing that her reaction must have looked pretty silly. She laughed uneasily and peered around.

Had she really seen it? Had that been a snake?

If there had been a snake she didn’t see it now. She looked at the clothes scattered about with suspicion. What if the snake was under that black t-shirt? Or her purple panties?

Then suddenly she heard baby giggles and Carrie toddled across the hard wood kitchen floor towards the scattered clothes. Anne stuck out her hand.

“Stop!”

Carrie skidded to a stop, wind-milled her arms to keep her balance. Her big eyes looked at Anne in total surprise.

“Sorry, honey,” Anne said quickly. “Momma’s not mad, but stay there. Okay?”

A wide smile spread across Carrie’s fat round face showing her four bottom and four top teeth. Deadly cute, Anne thought, and wicked.

“No, Carrie. Stay there.”

Carrie laughed and toddled rapidly across the floor towards the fallen clothes. If she hit them she could slip or worse ― she might step on the snake! Anne lunged forward, stepping right in between her black lace bra and the dark blue hand towels. Not fast enough to stop Carrie from grabbing the violet washcloth.

A long black and yellow snake jerked into motion. It slid across the wood to Carrie’s leg and curled around a fat ankle. Carrie stopped. The snake slithered right around her leg, up around her waist and out around one out-stretched arm so that its head came back looking right at Carrie’s face. A long tongue flicked out as if tasting Carrie’s breath.

Anne felt like her heart might explode. “Oh. Oh. Oh. Shit. Carrie! Don’t move! Don’t move, honey!”

Carrie turned her head a bit to the side with her blue eyes locked onto the snake’s yellow gaze. She giggled deep in her chest and brought her arm and consequently the snake’s head closer to her face.

Anne reached out towards the snake. She didn’t want to spook it. What if it bit Carrie? Was it poisonous? How would she know? Shit. Shit. Shit.

Fuck!

She clenched her fingers into a fist and froze. Maybe it would just slither away on its own. The snake slid further up over Carrie’s arm. The end of its flicking tongue only a hair away from Carrie’s face. Carrie reached over with her other hand, her fat fingers reaching out for the snake.

“No, honey! Don’t grab it!”

Carrie didn’t even look up. And she didn’t stop. She grabbed the snake just behind its head but gently. Then she lifted it up and took a hold of its body with the other hand. She slowly lifted it up and then lowered it down over her head so that the snake hung like a scarf over her shoulders.

Carrie laughed and clapped her hands together. The snake lifted its head and regarded Anne with black eyes. Carrie lurched into motion, toddling towards Anne with outstretched arms. Anne screeched ― Carrie giggled ― and Anne jumped back. Carrie kept coming and Anne couldn’t help it. She back-pedaled away from her daughter.

“Stop! Stop, right now Carrie!”

Instead her daughter just kept coming. Anne scrambled backwards and her foot came down on something hard that twisted underneath her. Pain flared in her ankle and she stumbled. Almost fell down. A bright red plastic triangle block. She caught her balance and saw the snake watching her with those horrid black eyes. The tongue came out and tasted the air. Carrie kept coming.

Anne looked behind her at the sliding glass door. An idea came to her. She hurried over to the door and forced a smile on her face. “Come on Carrie! Let’s go outside!”

Even to her own ears her voice sounded high-pitched and fake. Carrie obviously didn’t care she just kept coming. Anne opened the sliding glass door and stepped out. She moved back away from the door. Carrie appeared in the door, squinted and hung onto the side to step out onto the back porch. She immediately did what she always did and headed for the steps and the lawn beyond. Anne crossed her arms and watched. She felt sick. What if the snake bit Carrie? She didn’t know if it was poisonous. She didn’t want to touch it. So far it didn’t show any sign of wanting to leave Carrie.

Carrie reached the steps and sat down to scoot down the two steps. She stood up and ran towards the lawn. Right at the edge she forgot to step up and tripped.

She fell flat forward on the grass. Anne hurried towards the edge of the porch and saw the snake slither away unharmed into the grass. Carrie picked herself up and patted her chest. When she didn’t see the snake her little face screwed up and she screamed.

Anne scooped her up and ran up the stairs back into the house. She shut the slider and locked it while still holding Carrie. Then she went to the couch and sat down rocking her daughter.

“It’s okay. It’s okay now.” She didn’t know who she was trying to reassure more, her or Carrie.

 

🐛

It was absolutely the weirdest thing ever, a fact that somehow escaped people when she told them about it. Her own mother said, “Anne, that’s just what children do. They love all those creepy crawlies.”

Anne shuddered. “I never liked snakes!”

To which her mother responded, “But Anne, you were always a fussy girl. You’d go into hysterics if a bug so much as crawled on you. I guess not much has changed.”

After that Anne sat stewing at the window looking out at the yard. A perfect lawn. Flower beds with roses kept trimmed around the edges. All sorts of roses. She loved looking at the roses. Carrie was down for a nap. She still had reports to finish for her bookkeeping clients. She needed to get as much of that done before Carrie woke as possible. These days it seemed nearly impossible to get anything done when she was awake.

Anne got up from the couch and headed down the hall to Carrie’s room. She eased the door open and looked in at Carrie sleeping peacefully in the oak crib.

The spider crouched with malevolent intent on Carrie’s arm. Giant freaking spider! All big hairy brown legs and body. Carrie had her arms up, hands palm up beside her cherubic face and the spider was right on the soft underside of her arm next to her elbow. Two legs waved in the air as if the spider just need to pick the most delectable place to bite.

Anne felt like she had swallowed a tennis ball. She couldn’t breathe at all. There was a giant freaking spider on her daughter’s arm and her hand felt glued to the door jamb. She couldn’t breathe. Her heart probably wasn’t even beating anymore. In her head she heard a high keening noise that she couldn’t get out but then she realized that she was getting it out, that that sound was really coming from her and oh my god giant freaking spider!

If anyone were there to say “just a spider” she’d hit them. If she could move. But what was she going to do? Stand there and watch the spider bite her defenseless daughter? What kind of mother would she be? Carrie would hate her. She could just see the disgust in Carrie’s eyes every time that a bug came into the house and sent Anne into cataleptic shock.

Anne managed a breath. She could do this. This. Remove the spider. How? She let go of the door jamb and could almost swear that her fingers creaked. She drew another breath. Let it out.

She could do this. Would do this.

Anne eased into the room on tiptoes. She slowly reached out and picked up Mr. Moo from the end of the crib where the raggedy cow hung watching over Carrie. Fat lot of good you did, Mr. Moo. Time to make up for it.

Right up alongside the crib. Then Anne brought Mr. Moo up into the air. Her hand shook. She took a breath and swept Mr. Moo down. The raggedy cow, still soggy from Carrie teething on him, snapped across Carrie’s arm and sent the spider flying out of the crib into the center of the room.

Carrie screamed. Anne looked down and saw the skin on Carrie’s arm had turned bright red. Shit! She reached in and scooped up her daughter. Cradled her and grabbed her arm to look at it closely. No fang marks. She’d done that, when she hit the spider the raggedy cow and snapped across Carrie’s arm like a locker room towel. Shit. Shit. She rocked Carrie.

“I’m so sorry honey,” she murmured as she backed out of the room. The giant freaking spider had scurried off into a toy or under the dresser. Maybe in that hole in the wall where the previous owners had pulled through cable into this room. “Shhh, honey. It’s okay now.”

Anne closed the door and took Carrie down the hallway to her own bedroom. She sank into the rocking chair and tried not to sob as she rocked Carrie back to sleep. And what made her feel really guilty? She wanted to go scrub Carrie’s arm where the spider had touched her. What kind of a mother was she?

 

🐛

The question plagued Anne the next day. She hovered over Carrie while her daughter played with blocks. She put off doing the laundry because she didn’t want to leave Carrie alone in the living room. They read books together and played patty cake. Carrie’s arm didn’t even have a mark on it anymore but Anne still felt guilty.

A little after three Carrie started rubbing her eyes. Then when the plastic barrel of monkeys wouldn’t go back together again she screamed and threw the toy away. Anne scooped her up and rocked her.

“Time for a nap, honey. Somebody is too tired.”

Carrie nodded sleepily against Anne’s shoulder. Anne kissed her soft hair and kept rocking her until Carrie’s breathing settled down and she went limp in Anne’s arm.

Even though it made Anne’s stomach feel all fluttery she took Carrie into her room and laid her down in her crib. Anne had picked up all of the toys early that morning and had vacuumed all of the cracks and crevices. She hadn’t found the spider, which bothered her still, but it didn’t seem to be anywhere in the room. It must have crawled away.

Carrie looked so peaceful lying in her crib. Her face scrunched up a bit as Anne lay her down and then she was peaceful. For several minutes Anne stood beside the crib watching her daughter. Then she realized just how grungy she felt. She hadn’t showered today because she had been so afraid to leave Carrie alone. But she was sleeping peacefully and Anne could leave the doors open. And it wouldn’t take very long to just get in, a quick wash and then out again.

The hot water felt great. Twice she stuck her head out and listened but the house was quiet. Anne finished washing and toweled off quickly. As she walked down the hall she thought she heard something and stopped. It had sounded like Carrie laughing. Or coughing. But nothing now.

Anne went into her room and pulled on underwear, jeans and a plain green t-shirt. She left her wet hair loose and walked in bare feet across the hall over to Carrie’s room.

She eased open the door.

Peeked inside at the crib.

Her brain couldn’t process what she saw. She didn’t see Carrie. It didn’t make sense. Carrie couldn’t be in the crib, but she couldn’t have left.

A swarm of flies crawled around over the blankets. Then the flies moved enough that Anne saw a small pink pinky finger before more flies crawled over it again.

Carrie! Anne ran into the room. Flies crawled all over Carrie. A few buzzed around in the air above her as if searching for a place to land. Others crawled along the light wood rails.

Carrie giggled. Anne realized that her daughter was awake. Flies moved and she caught a glimpse of Carrie peeking out at her between the flies. Carrie giggled again.

Anne took a step back. Her hands pressed against her mouth. She bit down on her knuckle. This wasn’t normal. Something was horribly, horribly wrong!

Carrie rolled over and the cloud of flies buzzed up around her. Anne saw her daughter sit up, smiling. She looked up at the hundreds of flies buzzing around her and spread her arms. As if invited the flies started landing again all over her arms, her face, her head and everywhere else. The flies enveloped her once again.

“Mama?” Carrie waved her fly-covered arms the way she always did when she wanted to be picked up. “Mama?”

Sobbing, still biting her knuckle, Anne shook her head. She backed up into the hall.

“Mama?” Carrie cried out, more frantic.

Anne popped her finger out of her mouth, flinging spittle onto the wood. “I can’t!”

She turned and ran away from the room. Down the hallway, out and across the kitchen, through the laundry room. Unable to stop. Out into the yard. She staggered out right into the middle of the grass and dropped to her knees.

Faintly, from the house, she heard Carrie screech louder. “Mama!”

Anne’s gut clenched and up came coffee with eggs whites and toast and bacon all splashed across the brilliant green lawn. A fly buzzed through the air and circled her head. She screamed and scrambled away across the grass batting at the fly.

 

🐛

Anne huddled in the back of the ambulance watching the flashing lights from the police cruiser. Neighbors must have called after she ran out of the backyard screaming. So embarrassing, but they’d know. They’d understand. All they had to do was go inside.

Poor Carrie. She must be so scared. Anne turned and looked at the paramedic slipping a blood pressure cuff on her arm. An older black woman with gray in her hair and a thin, kind face, she smiled at Anne.

“There, just a little pressure now.”

“My baby, she’s inside,” Anne said. “Is she okay?”

Pressure built on Anne’s arm. “I’m sure that they’ll take good care of her. Let’s just look after you right now.”

Two police officers, both heavy set men, walked past the ambulance. Anne caught snatches of their conversation.

“― a mess. Food and dishes everywhere in the kitchen ―”

“Lost it, looks like.”

Anne looked at the paramedic. “What are they saying?”

“Don’t worry about it. Please hold still.”

Anne leaned forward, straining to hear. She didn’t see Carrie anywhere. Who was taking care of her?

“Ma’am, please?” The paramedic pulled on her arm.

Anne pulled away and stood at the back of the ambulance. “Carrie?”

Then she saw her daughter. Carrie sat on the roof with bright yellow and black butterflies all over her upraised arms. Carrie waved her arms and a couple butterflies took off into the sky.

“Carrie!”

Hands grabbed her shoulders. Anne jumped out of the ambulance and ran towards the house.

“Help here!”

Carrie toddled towards the roof’s edge. Didn’t any of them see?! “Carrie!”

Anne stopped and pressed her hands to her face. Carrie teetered right on the edge. Anne heard them coming, running up behind her. “Please, honey?”

More butterflies took off. Carrie snatched at them with her perfect, delicate fingers and then she fell and as she fell she broke apart into dozens of butterflies.

They scattered, flapping away in all directions. Carrie’s laugh floated on wind.

Hands grabbed Anne and dragged her away from the house. She sagged in their grasp and watched the butterflies that had been her daughter fly away.

🐛
2,737 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 41st weekly short story release, written in July 2010, and initially released under my “R.M. Haag” pen name. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing a novel, Europan Holiday, now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my horror story Hauntlet.

The Bug Builder

Jeb Petersen discovers an inexplicable talent. Give him a few dried maple leaves, a bit of walnut shell, twigs and blades of grass and he can create a butterfly. But what gives his creations life?

When ten-year-old Katie trespasses on his farm her presence threatens his creations and the tie they give him with his son.

A story of love, loss, miracles and healing.

1

Jeb Petersen watched his property from Peter’s room on the second floor of his old, weathered gray farm house. He wasn’t watching the apples rotting on the trees in the orchard. Or the chickens scratching in their yard.

He was watching for the bald girl that had trespassed on his property. Twice!

Shaking his head, Jeb looked down at the desk. The same worn desk where Peter had done his school work, put right beneath the window so he could look outside. Sometimes Jeb had threatened to put the desk over in the corner if Peter couldn’t focus on his work. That boy loved being outside.

One finger stroked down the smooth spine of a dried apple leaf, carefully pressed so that it lay flat and brown beneath his finger. Each rib stood out. Beside it, another brown and pressed leaf. A matched set for the apple bug he was building.

Jeb pulled over a dried brown cigar-shaped piece of apple. It looked just about perfect. It took practice to carve the shape you wanted out of a fresh apple and know how it would look when the apple dried in the sun on the window sill. It felt tough and leathery beneath his finger.

Working carefully, Jeb picked up one of the leaves and studied the stem at the end. Out came his pocket knife and he carved off a couple woody slivers, leaving a sharp point at the end. He poked the end of his finger. Just about perfect, or as perfect as you got this side of the rainbow.

Jeb pressed the pointy end of the leaf stem into the flesh of the dried apple. It stuck nicely out at an angle. He picked up the next and carefully trimmed its stem down to a point, then stuck it into the apple as well. Two wings for the apple bug and they looked real good too.

He picked it up and gave it a good eyeballing. Even unfinished it looked like a bug, especially the way some bugs could mimic leaves or other parts of plants. But there was still work to get done.

Jeb put the unfinished apple bug down and picked up two apple seeds. They had to be small, not too big or they looked wrong. He shoved the pointy end into the apple bug’s head, first one than the other. Two black eyes glimmered up at him. All the other parts were laid out and ready, but they were delicate and easy to break.

A couple antenna from dandelion puffs.

Legs selected from tiny delicate twigs on the apple tree.

He was sticking on the fourth leg when he glanced up, looked out the window and there was the bald girl, just running behind the old oak tree out by the chicken coop! Jeb shook his head, but the hand holding the apple bug was steady.

Jeb had to work quickly now and sweat beaded on his brow. The last thing he wanted to do was mess up this bug. He got the fourth leg stuck on fine. The fifth was harder because he didn’t have much to hold on to and for the sixth he pinched the body of the apple bug with a pair of tweezers. That worked and he got the sixth leg stuck into the dried apple body.

His breath blew out and the wings rustled with the faint sound of falling leaves.

The bald girl was out there, getting into who knows what. Jeb put the apple bug down, gently, gently! It stood proudly on its six legs, one front leg raised as if caught taking a step.

He clutched the desk and waited. Come on!

Then the apple bug reached up and ran first one front leg, then the other across its antenna. The wings flexed, swung forward and back, then vibrated so fast that they made a faint humming sound. Its twiggy legs creaked as it crouched and then it sprang up into the air. The apple leaf wings beat rapidly, carrying it on up into the space above the room’s rafters.

Jeb jumped up and ran out of the room. He stopped in the doorway and looked back at the apple bug, now walking upside down along one of the rafters. His throat tightened.

“I’ll be right back. I’ve got to chase that trespassing girl off before she causes more trouble.”

The apple bug fluttered its wings. Jeb left.

Downstairs he banged out the screen door onto the wide wrap-around porch. His boots crunched on dried maple and oak leaves blown up on the porch during the storms. He kept meaning to get out with a broom. Ophelia wouldn’t like it, the place looking like this, but he thought that maybe she understood.

Jeb stomped out to the top of the steps. “Hey! I saw you! I’m going to call the police if you don’t get off my property!”

She popped out from behind the oak tree like a jack-in-the-box. A tiny wisp of a thing, not more than a couple turkey’s weight on her bones. She wore glasses with dark cat-eye frames. Not a bit of hair on her head. She had on a pair of worn blue jeans, frayed and holes in the knees, and a white t-shirt. A man’s t-shirt, much too large for her that it hung off one bony shoulder, and hung so low it almost reached her knees.

“Will not!”

Jeb took a step down onto the middle of the three steps off the porch. He dug into his pocket and pulled out the cell phone. Damn thing wasn’t even charged but she didn’t have any way of knowing that. He waggled it in the air at her.

“I will. I’ve got my phone right here. I’ll call ‘em and press charges of trespassing. They’ll toss you in jail, child, so you’d better high-tail it on home before I stop being nice!”

The bald girl planted her hands on her hips. “Will not, ‘cause I’ll tell them about those bugs you’ve got.”

Jeb felt a knot in his stomach like he was going to be sick, but he knew kids. He had to stay firm. Make her go home and stay there before she ruined everything.

“And you know what else will happen then? CPS, you know what that is? Child protective services. You’ll get locked up as a trespasser and then they’ll come in with their social workers and their rules asking if your parents are really good parents or not. They might just decide that you have to be taken out of your house and given to a different family. One that will teach you manners, teach you to listen to your elders and not trespass on other people’s property!” That left Jeb feeling a bit dizzy and breathless but he held the phone up, flipped it open. “So what’s it going to be? You gonna get out of here and leave me alone or am I going to make that call?”

She crossed her arms and shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere. Call who you want, but they aren’t gonna do any of that to me.”

“No?”

“No.” She said it so confidently Jeb felt like the time he had played poker in Las Vegas, only to realize that the other players at the table were taking him for everything that he had in his pockets.

“Why’s that?”

“‘Cause I’m dying.” She said it so matter-of-factly, with a hint of regret, that Jeb believed her instantly.

All the wind went out of his sails. He sank down, reaching back as he sat on the edge of the porch, his hands draped over his knees holding the useless cell phone. “Oh child.”

Jeb heard a scratching noise and saw one of his spiders, made from dried melon rinds for the body and long willow twigs for the legs, crawling along the porch railing. It stopped for a minute and then crawled onward. Out in the yard the girl lowered her arms and took a few steps forward.

“So? Are you gonna tell on me? I just wanted to know about the bugs.”

Jeb rubbed his upper lip. His tongue felt thick, useless and he could taste a bit of the chicken that he had for lunch stuck to his teeth. A flutter of wings and a maple butterfly, its bright yellow wings made from pressed maple leaves, fluttered past his head as it flew around the porch. He watched it fly in a circle, then flutter off around the corner of the house. When he looked back into the yard the girl was closer, her eyes big as she watched the maple butterfly disappear around the corner.

“What’s your name, girl?”

Her name was Katie. Ten years old and bald because of the cancer treatments that didn’t work. She didn’t come closer than ten feet from the porch at first, as skittish as a feral cat, but that was okay with Jeb.

Just thinking about how Katie was going to get buried beneath the black earth made his head hurt so bad that all he wanted was to curl up on the couch and sleep with the afghan Ophelia had knitted. After Peter’s passing he had done a lot of that.

Jeb cleared his throat. “How —” His voice broke. He tried again. “How long?”

Katie shrugged her bare shoulder. “Any time, I guess. They don’t know. I have seizures. They say that one of these times my heart will just stop and I’ll go to heaven.”

Words escaped him. What did you say to a ten-year-old after that?

The girl edged a couple steps closer and he saw her watching one of his egg shell beetles trundle along through the leaf cover. Dry leaves tumbled out of its path as it clambered up and over obstacles. She reached out with her hands as if she could catch it, grab it —

“Don’t!”

Katie jerked, jumping in place.

I have seizures. Jeb heard her say it again and felt badly for barking at her. He forced himself to take a breath.

“They’re very fragile. It might break if you touch it.” Or worse, like the last time.

“I’m not going to try to break it. I just want to see.”

“You broke the last one.” The words came out harsher than Jeb intended. He didn’t shout, but the shout was buried there in his tone, ready to erupt again.

One of these times my heart will just stop. He knew how that felt. He still couldn’t understand why his heart hadn’t stopped yet.

“I didn’t!” Katie crossed her arms tightly, hugging her thin ribs. “I didn’t do anything to it, but it did something to me.”

“What’re you talking about?”

Her fingers brushed across her forearm. That’s right where he’d seen the hazelnut ant, three days ago when she’d first come onto his property. He’d come out back to check for the eggs and found her sitting on the porch with the hazelnut ant on her arm. She jumped up and the ant tumbled onto the porch and had broken apart, nothing but nuts and grass and twigs. She left him there staring at the pieces while she ran off.

“I had a bruise. I bruise easily. But I didn’t do anything to it, I just held out my hand and it crawled onto my arm. I just wanted to see it, I wasn’t trying to break it or anything. It got to my bruise and just stopped. Then you came out and scared me!”

“I wasn’t trying to scare you.”

“Well you did!” Katie rubbed her arm again. “I didn’t notice until I got home, but the bruise was gone. Just like magic. I kept coming back because I thought the ant might help me more, because I’m sick.”

Jeb saw that Katie was about to cry but he steeled himself against that. It wouldn’t work. Not with him. “Maybe you didn’t mean too, but you killed it. It fell down and just fell apart. And it was a piece of my son, a piece of Peter. That’s what they are, pieces of his soul. He makes them live and you took that away.”

“I didn’t take anything. It crawled onto me. I didn’t pick it up or anything!”

“It was still broken.” He’d taken the pieces and tried putting them back together again but it hadn’t worked. The hazelnut ant hadn’t moved again. It was still on top of his dresser. “That piece of his soul, it’s gone thanks to you.”

Tears glimmered in Katie’s eyes like drew drops on the grass. “It isn’t my fault.”

She jumped up and dragged an arm across her nose. Jeb couldn’t keep looking at her. He looked down at his hands. On the ground the egg shell beetle kept going on its way, exploring whatever there was to see down among the leaves.

It was Peter. He had loved being outside, and that love of the outdoors, that’s part of what kept the bugs going. Jeb knew it, he felt it down in his bones. Watching the bugs was like hearing Peter’s laughter on the wind or catching a glimpse of his reflection in the pond. He was gone but as long as the bugs were here part of him was still here, too.

The words stuck in his throat. He wanted to explain, make Katie understand but he heard leaves crunch underfoot and when he looked up she was running away.

Poor child. Any time, I guess.

“It isn’t my fault,” Jeb said. The egg shell beetle stopped. Two chicken feather antenna waved at him.

“It isn’t my fault,” Jeb whispered again. “And what am I supposed to do? I can’t lose you again.”

The beetle trundled on, pushing under the next leaf as Jeb lowered his head onto his arms. What could he do? The bugs were all he had left of Peter. He had to keep them safe. If she thought they could make her better, she might come back.

Jeb slid down off the porch, watching his feet, and crouched in front of the eggshell beetle. It crawled out from under the leaves. Ever so gently, as carefully as the first time he had held Peter after his birth, Jeb scooped up the eggshell beetle. He held it in his hands, twig legs scratching at his skin as it tried crawling up over his thumbs.

“I’ll keep you safe. Shhh. Don’t worry.” Jeb turned and carried the beetle back up into the house.

2

Gathering up the bugs took the rest of the afternoon ‘cause they kept finding ways to hide and then each time he tried bringing in another one into the house he had to watch out because the others kept trying to escape. The maple butterfly, oak-leaf moth and the new apple bug fluttered against the windows like a fall storm. The spiders and beetles and stick bugs crawled around the room scritching and scratching.

Jeb sat on the couch with his face in his hands.

This was as bad as the times he had to send Peter to his room for something or another. All that boy wanted to do was run and play out in the fields and woods. To be outside breathing fresh air. Locking him up was the worst punishment Jeb ever inflicted. He never raised a hand to the boy, never had to because mostly Peter was a good boy.

Wings and legs scrambled, seeking a way out.

Jeb rubbed his face, wiped his eyes and looked up where the bugs battered themselves against the windows. If they kept it up they’d break something. The egg shell beetle had tipped over and was kicking its legs in the air.

Peter couldn’t understand being punished now. The bugs held pieces of his soul. His laughter. His love of sunlight on fresh green leaves. The fun of twisting dried grass into new shapes. The joy of walking through dry leaves in the fall. The delight he had of snow on tree limbs. Everything that Peter had loved about being outside, that was in the bugs and here Jeb was, punishing him for it.

Outside the sun hadn’t quite set yet, in fact the sky was turning a lovely shade of red with the setting sun. It was going to be a real fine sunset. Jeb let out a breath he didn’t even know he was holding and choked back a sob that threatened to overwhelm him. He sniffled, rubbed his eyes again and stood up.

“Shhh.” He took a couple steps toward the door. The bugs kept trying to get out. “Shhh. It’s okay. Let’s go back out. I’m sorry. I didn’t —”

Jeb took a deep breath. “Let’s go see the sunset, okay?”

On the way to the door he righted the eggshell beetle and moved it aside so he could open the door. The apple bug, the newest one of the bugs, flew past his head. The others followed and Jeb stepped outside as they all flew and hopped and crawled out with him. The butterflies and moths flew in circles around him and the sound of their wings reminded him of Peter’s laughter.

He wasn’t even surprised to see Katie back. She came out from behind the oak tree. He saw her look at him, look at the bugs flying around him and she laughed and her laughter was clear and lively, the pure joy of a child. It made his heart feel good to hear.

Then the bugs left him. They flew and hopped and crawled toward Katie. The eggshell beetle stopped next to Jeb’s foot.

“It’s okay,” Jeb said, though the words threatened to stick in his throat. “You go on now.”

The eggshell beetle waved its feathers and then crawled off down from the porch.

Katie saw the bugs coming and she took a step back and raised her hands as if to ward them off.

“Don’t be afraid, child. They aren’t gonna hurt you,” Jeb called. “I think Peter wants to help you. I’m sorry I tried to stop him. I shouldn’t of done that.”

Katie lowered her arms, clasped her frail fingers together and watched the bugs with wide-eyed wonderment. The apple bug reached her first, fluttering around her head and then it settled gently on her bare shoulder where it stuck out of the too-large t-shirt.

The other bugs reached her and Katie carefully sat down on the ground and reached out her arms to them. She laughed when the melon-rind spider crawled up onto her hand. She giggled when the maple-leaf butterfly landed on her head. They all came, pushing through the leaves to reach her, crawling up on her faded jeans to settle on spots where she had worn holes in the knees.

Each one found a place of bare skin. The eggshell beetle reached her last and she cupped it gently in her hands while the others balanced on her arms.

She sat like that for a couple minutes and Jeb thought his heart would break from the beauty of it as she sat with the bugs beneath the oak tree and the brilliant red sky above. Then the sun slipped over the horizon. A wind came up, stirring the leaves in the yard and when it reached Katie the bugs just drifted apart. They floated away into all of the other leaves.

The wind died and the bugs were gone. Katie looked up at him and he could see her tears catching the fading light. She stood up and brushed off her pants.

“Thank you,” she said.

Jeb shook his head. “No need to thank me, child. That was Peter. I believe he wanted to help you. I don’t know if he did or not, but that was my son. He was the sweetest boy.”

Katie smiled a brilliant smile like a sunrise. “I know he helped me. I can tell.”

“That’s good, then.” Jeb’s throat tightened. “You’d best get home before your parents worry.”

“Okay.” She waved and then she was gone, sprinting off with the grace of a deer.

Jeb sat back down on the porch. He watched the wind blow the leaves and heard Peter’s laughter. He saw the stars come out and saw Peter’s bright smile.

3,405 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 35th weekly short story release, written in November 2011, originally published under my pen name “Michael Burges.”

Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is the Halloween story Trick or Treat.

Strange Babies

The daycare embodied Terry’s dreams in bright colors, chalk, and  giant crayons.

Terry Jackson built a modern daycare with all of the amenities. A safe haven for the children — and the key to his future. Opening day, time for the children to arrive.

Only these children looked at him with very unusual eyes, strange eyes.

For science fiction readers who enjoy a vision of a new sort of childhood.

Terry stood in the middle of the room looking at a dream made real, with giant crayons on the walls above the waist-height chalk boards. Two wood pyramid shaped shelving units, with purple and green cloth block drawers, and secret passages, took up the center of the room. A wading pool filled with assorted rubber and inflated balls, none smaller than his fist, sat to one side and there were three small tables surrounded by pillow animals. It was a world of bright colors and fun made physical and it was all quiet and still new. But outside a car pulled up and signaled the final realization of his dream. The room was only missing one thing. Kids.

He took a deep breath. This was it, he was confident that he had covered everything. The door burst open and Angie leaned in grinning ear-to-ear beneath her spiky blond hair. “Ready, boss? Is the paint dry?”

“Yeah. Send them in as they get here.”

Through the windows he saw a woman, middle-aged, with straight red hair, walking up the sidewalk carrying a small child wearing a knitted white cap. Snow white curls peeked out beneath the cap. Girl or boy, he couldn’t tell at this distance but he thought she looked like a girl. Tiny thing. But he took all ages. The different rooms of the first floor were all decorated as well, but this was the living room. Most of the kids would be in here. If he did get any older kids he had the family room set up with more age-appropriate diversions like the Wii.

He walked over to the chalk boards mounted along the wall beneath the fake giant crayons. He looked down into one of two buckets at either end of the boards. Both were full of different colored sidewalk chalk. He had several erasers in the tray along the top of the boards. He touched them, brushed off his hands.

The doors opened again. Angie sending in the woman he had seen and her child. The woman was dressed in an expensive-looking black suit dress.

“Good morning,” he said cheerfully. He hurried over and looked at the mother, then the child. Bright blue eyes looked back at him. A pretty child, a girl he surmised from the green dress that she wore beneath the white jacket. “Hi there.”

“This is Mrs. Watson and her daughter Emily,” Angie said. “I’ve got someone else coming in?”

“Thanks Angie.” Terry looked at Mrs. Watson. “I’m glad you brought Emily here. I’m sure we’ll have a good time. Right Emily?”

Emily looked right at him with brilliant blue eyes. So blue they almost looked like gemstones, they were really quite remarkable. She didn’t blink and didn’t seem the least bit nervous. And she didn’t respond. He glanced at her mother.

 

Mrs. Watson bent and put Emily down. “Emily is a special girl. I’ve given your assistant her lunch.”

“We provide meals as a part of our serv—”

“Please don’t. I’ve already explained to your assistant. Emily has a particular diet. No snacks, nothing except the lunches that I pack.”

Terry nodded. “Of course. Is she allergic?”

“No, her condition is genetic. I think you’ll find several of the children have the same condition.”

“I don’t understand. Are they related?”

Mrs. Watson took out an iPhone. “I’m sorry Mr. Jackson, but I really must go. I’ve given your assistant all the particulars, please familiarize yourself with the material. I appreciate your cooperation on this.”

“Of course. Whatever you say. We’re here to help.”

“Excellent. I’ll be back before six to pick Emily up. Good bye.” Mrs. Watson turned around and left, her shoes leaving small dimples in the rubberized flooring that slowly faded.

Terry turned around and saw Emily slowly walking around the room just looking at everything, taking it all in. He started over to say hi again when the door opened and Angie was showing through a man in a business suit. He was also carrying a young girl with snow-white curls that looked so much like Emily that she had to be her sister. Her eyes were also blue, also had that gem-like quality, but in her case the color was a deeper blue heading toward violet. It made him wonder if the girls were wearing colored contacts. But who would give kids this age colored contacts? And why had they brought them separately? A divorced couple, each with custody of one of the girls?

“This is Mr. Highsmith,” Angie said, her tone clearly troubled. “And Elisabeth. I’ve got others coming in.”

“Mr. Highsmith, Terry Jackson. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Of course.” Mr. Highsmith put down Elisabeth. “I’ve left instructions at the desk, but I find it best to tell everyone involved. Elisabeth and the others should only have the specific meals that the parents have provided. Don’t stray from our guidelines. No snacks outside what is provided. Adjust your schedule to suit their meal plans.”

Terry didn’t care at all for Mr. Highsmith’s tone. “Just a second, I don’t understand what’s going on here. Are the girls related?”

“In a sense, Mr. Jackson, but you don’t need to concern yourself with that. Just provide a safe and engaging environment during work hours. That’s all you need to worry about.”

“Of course, that’s what we do.” In a sense? Terry wanted to ask what he meant but Mr. Highsmith looked ready to leave already.

Mr. Highsmith looked at his watch. “Great. I’ll be back before six to pick her up.”

He turned and left. Terry reached out, thinking to shake his hand, but the other man was already going through the door as someone else came in. Two more parents, two more girls, but these two didn’t look like Emily and Elisabeth. The first had raven dark hair and the second had nothing but peach fuzz on her head. Erin, with the dark hair, the other was Edwina. Both also had remarkable eyes. Erin’s like obsidian, so dark he couldn’t even see her pupils. That definitely wasn’t normal. Neither were Edwina’s eyes, a sort of rose quartz in color. The girls ran around him into the room. Terry greeted the parents, a Mr. Conway and Ms. Smith, but he was drawn more to the children. All four girls were exploring the room but spent no more than glances on each other. No laughter. No interacting. He was still watching the girls when their parents left.

Screaming behind him caught his attention. Terry turned around just as Angie was opening the door.

“This is the last one,” Angie said.

The mother coming in behind her was entirely unlike the cold, standoffish business types that had dropped off the girls. She was tall with a big build and brown hair with lighter streaks. She wore a nice blue blouse cut low enough to show a hint of generous creamy cleavage. The screaming came from the boy she towed into the room by one arm. Auburn hair flying away in all directions, he tried to set his feet and pull away but he didn’t have a chance against her. He grabbed for the door frame and missed. The whole time wailing at the top of his lungs.

Terry glanced back at the girls. They had all stopped what they were doing and were staring at the boy the way kids might watch an interesting bug. Terry left the girls and went straight to the boy. He crouched down in front of the boy. As he expected the boy saw him, stopped screaming and tried to hid behind his mother’s ample thighs.

“Hey, there. I’m Terry. What’s your name?”

The boy peeked out, staring at him with wide, perfectly ordinary hazel eyes. Nice enough, but this guy was out of his league in this room.

“Let me guess, is it Logan?” Terry waited. The boy didn’t respond, but he leaned out a little farther. “Richard? Paul? John?”

The boy’s mother nudged him with her knee.

“Max,” the boy said.

“Ahh, like Max in Where the Wild Things Are?”

The boy grinned widely and growled.

“I see, a wild thing. Okay, Max. How old are you?”

Max held up four fingers.

“Great. Well, Max, you see this room?” Terry moved to the side so that Max could see the room. The girls hadn’t moved and were watching this exchange. “We’ve got all sorts of fun things for you to do here for a little while. Then later your mother will come back and pick you up. How’s that?”

“Okay!” Max left his mother and charged over to the bucket holding the chalk. He grabbed a big blue piece and started drawing on the board.

Terry stood up and looked at Max’s mother. “Hi, Terry Jackson.”

“Sarah Nichols. You’re good. I’m glad I decided to bring him here. He can be a handful.”

Terry shrugged. “No problem. We’re happy to have him.”

“Great.” Sarah kept looking at him directly. The prolonged eye contact was interesting. Her eyes were like her sons, a nice warm hazel color. “I’ll be back at four, after I get off work. Ever since his father decided to go for younger, thinner and dumber it’s been a struggle.”

Terry held out his hand. “I’m happy to help. We’ll have fun.”

She shook and her hand was warm and soft. She smiled and Terry felt his heart skip a beat. He let go reluctantly.

Sarah crouched down. “Max? Momma’s going to go now.”

Max glanced over his shoulder and absently waved at his mother. More of a go away now gesture than anything else. Sara stood back up. She smiled at Terry. “Thanks again.”

“Happy to help.” Terry followed her to the door. He looked back and the girls had returned to exploring the room, but they kept glancing over at Max. Still, it seemed safe enough at the moment. He slipped out after Sarah. “Ah, Mrs. Nichols —”

She turned around, still smiling. “Sarah, please. I’m not missus anything now. I took back my maiden name in the divorce.”

“Sarah, does Max have any particular dietary concerns we should know about?” Terry noticed Angie watching him from the front desk. Probably wondering what he was doing since she would already have the information.

Sarah shook her head. “No, that kid’ll eat anything.”

She waved her fingers at him and headed for the door, with a perky “Bye!” directed at Angie as she passed the desk. Angie came out from behind the desk after Sarah was gone. She smirked at him and glanced back at the door.

“You liked her, didn’t you?”

“I’m friendly with all of the parents.”

“Yeah, a regular prince charming. Did you notice how strange those girls are?”

Terry nodded. “You mean their eyes? Yeah. I should probably get back to the room. I don’t want to leave them alone too long.”

He headed that way and wasn’t surprised that Angie followed him.

“I mean no one has eyes like that,” Angie said. “I especially didn’t like Erin’s eyes. She looks like she belongs in a horror movie. And what about the names?”

Terry reached the door to the room and looked through the glass. He didn’t see Max anywhere and the four girls were standing around one of the pyramid units. “Shit.”

He pushed through the door and went inside. All four girls looked up at him as he came in and those strange eyes of theirs brought him to a stop. He looked around the room. No sign of Max. “Max? Where are you?”

Angie came in beside him.

“Max? It’s Terry, remember?”

He heard a muffled, “Yeah.”

“It came from the purple pyramid,” Angie said.

That was the one that the girls were standing around. Terry walked past the green pyramid and looked down at the girls. They were all watching him. He smiled broadly and crouched down so that he’d be on their level.

“Girls, where is Max? Do you know where Max is?”

As one all four girls pointed at the pyramid. Terry reached past Erin with the creepy dark eyes and Elisabeth with the almost violet eyes and pulled out the purple cloth drawer at the middle of the pyramid. It was full of foam blocks, so it was very light, and he sat it to the side. In the dim center of the pyramid Max sat with his legs up to his chest and his arms wrapped around the legs. He looked scared.

“Hey, man. It’s okay. Are you hiding in there?”

Max nodded but his face scrunched up like he was fighting back tears.

The shelf that the drawer had sat on hinged up. Terry lifted it and the magnet on the end held it up out of the way. Terry pulled out the two bottom drawers, also full of blocks, and pushed them aside so that the way into the pyramid was open. He held out his arms. “Come on, buddy. Let’s come out. It’ll be okay.”

Max shook his head.

Terry got down on his knees and sat back on his heels. “You don’t want to come out?”

Max shook his head again.

“Why not?”

Max leaned over and looked past Terry. Terry turned and saw the girls crowding around beside him, all peering in at Max. When he looked back Max had his face hidden in his arms. Terry turned to the girls.

“Girls, can you give Max some space? He’s feeling shy right now. Why don’t you take a look at some of the other things in the room?”

“No,” Emily said.

Erin said, “We.”

“Don’t,” added Edwina.

“Want to,” finished Elisabeth.

Then all at once, together, they said, “We want to play with the boy.”

A cold shiver ran down Terry’s spine and for the first time he really understood what it meant when people said that someone had walked over his grave. Suddenly he felt like crawling right into the pyramid with Max and pulling the drawers in behind him. That’s what Max must have done in those few minutes when Terry had left him alone because he was attracted to Max’s mother.

Except he wasn’t a four-year-old boy. He was a grown adult and no matter how creepy the girls acted he still believed that they were little girls. They weren’t monsters. They weren’t demons or aliens. Something was definitely strange about these girls but they were still only little girls.

He reached out and placed a hand on Elisabeth’s shoulder and one on Edwina’s since they were the closest. “I know. I know you want to play with the boy. I understand that. You want to play with the boy because he’s different. I get it. But right now he’s not ready to play. If you give me a chance, I might be able to change his mind, but to do that you need to go find some other things to play with right now. Okay?”

“Okay,” Edwina said.

“We’ll,” Erin added.

Elisabeth said, “Go.”

“Play,” finished Emily.

Creepy, creepy, creepy. Terry struggled to keep his smile pleasant and warm. It evidently worked because the girls stayed true to their word and wandered away to explore the other toys in the room again, but they didn’t stay together. The way there were talking together he expected them to stay in a group but once they left they drifted apart. Emily went to the green pyramid and pulled out one of the drawers full of bright red foam blocks and dumped them on the floor. She sat down and started building something.

Elisabeth went to the chalk board and started drawing with green chalk.

In the corner of the room Erin sat down at one of the tables with a the Toy Story 3 tag junior alien and started using it on one of the tag books while Edwina sat on the opposite side playing with a doll.

Terry turned back to Max. “Max? Max, look at me.”

Max kept his face buried in his arms and shook his head.

“Come on Max. What happened? Did they tease you?”

Max went very still for a moment, but then shook his head.

“Pinch you?”

Another head shake.

“Lift you over their heads and throw you around the room like a giant beach ball?”

Max lifted his head with a small smile on his face. “They couldn’t do that!”

“No? Oh, that’s right. I’ll bet they walked around on their hands.”

Max laughed. “That’s not it!”

“No?”

Max shook his head.

Terry rocked back on his heels. “Farted fantastic farts?” A snort of laughter and another head shake. “Scratched their fingernails on the chalk boards?”

Max shook his head again, biting his lip when he looked past Terry. Terry looked back and saw Emily sitting on the floor with her red block building rising in front of her. Some sort of tower. “So, what are you doing hiding in a pyramid?”

“I don’t know.”

Terry crawled forward part way into the pyramid and turned sideways. He put his arms over his knees, copying Max’s posture. “Look man,” he whispered. “I get it. These girls, they’re different than any little girls I’ve ever seen too.”

“Their eyes,” Max whispered.

Terry nodded. “I know, right? And the way they talked? Finishing each other’s sentences? That was pretty strange too, wasn’t it?”

Max nodded quickly.

“But that doesn’t make them bad or anything, does it? And don’t you think they’re pretty?”

Max’s eyes narrowed and his mouth opened in a silent laugh. He shook his head.

Terry shrugged. “Okay, man. I guess you’re still a little young to be interested in girls. No problem. But hey, they’re just kids right? So they’re different. To them you’re the one that is different. That’s why they were so interested in you. I’ll bet it just surprised you and sort of freaked you out. Am I right?”

“Maybe,” Max whispered.

“Okay. Great. Then why don’t we go out there? You don’t have to play with them if you don’t want but just don’t hide from them. Deal?”

Max seemed to think about it for a few seconds and then he nodded.

“Great. Let’s get out of here.” Terry paused and looked around the inside of the pyramid. “Although this is sort of cool.”

Max laughed.

Terry crawled out. Emily glanced over but didn’t stop her construction of the foam block tower. Terry stood up as Max came out of the pyramid. Max stood for a minute, biting his lip, then walked over to where Emily was building with the blocks.

“Can I help?” he asked.

Terry noticed that all four girls looked at Max, but the others stayed where they were and only Emily answered.

“Yes,” she said. She picked up a block and held it out. “You can put the blocks on that side.”

“Okay.” Max took the block and put it on the tower wall on his side. The tower had a hexagon shape with everything precisely lined up. He didn’t place it as precisely as Emily had been doing but she didn’t say anything, just picked up the next block and handed it to Max as well. He put that one on the right side of the wall. Emily put the next one perfectly in place.

Terry went over to one of the other tables and sat down where he could watch the kids play without being in the way, glad that the first trial of the day looked resolved. It was actually very cute the way Max and Emily kept looking at each other. Both of them were studying each other. At least it was cute until Terry noticed something else strange about the girls. Every time Emily took a peek around the tower to look at Max, the other girls also peeked at him. Elisabeth would turn and look away from her chalk board drawing to look at him, somehow managing to keep drawing as she did, while Erin and Edwina would both look up from their play at the table to look at Max. The glances were quick, but perfectly synchronized.

Terry shivered. How could the girls possibly do that? They didn’t look at each other first, but as one they turned or leaned or lifted their heads to look at Max. Even though they all kept doing what they had been doing it was clear that their actions weren’t occupying their attention. All of their attention was still focused on Max, just as it had been when he was still hiding inside the pyramid. It was like one of those cop shows, when they showed the undercover cops staking out someone and even though they might look like someone homeless, or a harried mom, or a guy out for a jog they’d all be watching the same guy. And if you watched the big picture long enough you could pick out each of the undercover cops because they didn’t quite fit.

The girls were like that. They didn’t quite play. Anyone looking in might think it was a quiet day care with some children playing. But watch long enough and discover that the girls were all interested in the boy. Even more than that, though, was the eerie synchronicity to their movements.

Terry’s cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out. There was a text. From Angie. Come out front.

Terry pocketed the phone and stood up. That got everyone’s attention. He held his hand up to the kids. “No worries. I’m just going to help Angie out up front. Go ahead and keep playing, and I’ll be right back.”

The girls all turned back to what they were doing. Max shrugged and accepted another foam block from Emily. Great, hopefully he wouldn’t come back to another problem after he left the room.

Out front Angie was standing behind the desk looking at the monitor which showed the feed from the four webcams in the corners of the room. She twisted her hands together as she looked at him.

“Terry? What’s going on? Those girls, they aren’t normal!”

Terry nodded. “Noticed that did you?”

“Terry!”

“What? What do you want me to do about it? The kids are getting along now. When their parents come back to pick them up maybe we can find something out.”

“We should call them now.”

“Angie—”

“Look!” Angie pointed at the monitor.

Terry sighed but he looked. All four girls were still doing the same thing that they’d been doing before. Emily and Max were both standing now to build the tower and had moved on to the green blocks after running out of the reds. They seemed intent on building the tower as tall as possible. Emily’s side looked perfect but on cam three Terry could see that Max’s side was much less even, but the tower still stood. Erin and Edwina hadn’t left their table, and Elisabeth remained at the chalk board drawing, he realized, a picture of Max and Emily with their tower. She had already drawn Emily with far more skill than he would have expected from a child her age and was working on the tower drawing now.

“They’re unusual,” he said. “But —”

“They’re strange.” Angie took a deep breath. “Look, I’ve been watching. The way they move? How they act? It seems very strange. And what about their eyes? That can’t be normal.”

“What do you think it going on?”

Angie sank down into her chair. “I don’t know, but no way those kids aren’t related.”

Terry noticed something happening in the room. It started with Elisabeth. She looked away from the drawing on the chalk board and looked right up at the webcam. As soon as she did the other girls also stopped what they were doing and looked at a webcam. Each of them picked a different camera to face.

Angie kept talking, oblivious to what was happening. “Maybe it’s like that old movie, the one with the kids —”

“Angie. Look.”

Erin and Edwina had risen to their feet without letting their strange eyes shift from the cameras in the corners of the room on that side. Emily had turned away from the tower she was building with Max and was looking straight at camera two. Erin’s eyes bothered him the most, because they looked like dark pits.

Angie hugged herself. “What are they doing?”

Max finally noticed that Emily had stopped building. He looked around the room and obviously saw that the other girls were also looking up at the webcams. He looked up too, and his forehead wrinkled, then he looked back at Emily. Terry saw Max say something but they didn’t have the mics enabled. The system was set up so that parents could log in with their child’s information and watch what was going on with their kids.

“Turn on the sound.”

Angie didn’t move.

“Angie! Turn on the sound.”

Max was saying something else but Emily didn’t budge. None of the girls moved. They all stared at the cameras without moving. Angie tapped a couple keys and suddenly they could hear Max.

“—wrong? Don’t you want to play?”

All together the girls spoke. “Our parents are coming. They’ll be here soon. Do not be alarmed.”

Angie gasped. Moving again with that eerie synchronicity, the girls all lay down on the floor, heads pillowed on their arms in a fetal position, and appeared to go to sleep.

“I’ll take care of Max,” Terry said. “Try to get their parents on the phone.”

“They said their parents — “

“I know. Try anyway.” Terry was already on his way to the door. He reached it and went inside.

Max was shaking Emily’s shoulder, but when Terry came in Max ran to him. Terry braced himself as Terry flung his arms around Terry’s legs. Terry patted his shoulder. “It’s okay Max.”

Max drew back slightly. “What’s wrong with her?”

“They’re tired, that’s all. They needed to take a nap.”

Still holding onto Terry’s legs, Max twisted around to look at Emily. As far as Terry could tell she looked peaceful, her side rising and falling with each breath. With her eyes closed she looked like any child. The same with the other girls. Terry crouched down and put his hands on Max’s shoulders.

“Say, do you like video games?” Max nodded. “Great, we’ve got all of the Lego games in the other room. What do you say we let Emily and the others nap and we’ll play a game?”

“Okay,” Max said. “I’m not tired.”

“That’s good.” Terry stood up and held out his hand. Max took it and walked with him to the other room.

Angie was just getting off the phone when they got out to the main desk. She smiled at Max, and looked up at Terry. “I talked to Mr. Highsmith. He’s on the way with the others. He asked us not to do anything about the girls.”

“Great. I’m going to show Max the Wii.”

“Okay. I’ll keep an eye on the girls.” Angie settled back into her chair.

In the front room Terry turned on the television and the Wii. He handed controllers to Max. “What do you think? Lego Star Wars? Harry Potter?”

“Harry Potter!”

“Harry it is then.” Terry loaded the game disc into the console and picked up a second set of controllers. “Let’s play.”

“I get to be Harry. You can play Ron.”

“That’s fine, Max.”

Mr. Highsmith, Ms. Watson, Ms. Smith and Mr. Conway all showed up together. Terry saw the large black van pull into the parking lot. He relinquished his character to computer control and put down the controllers.

“I’ve got to talk to some parents, Max. Are you okay here?”

“Sure!”

“Great.” Terry reached the front hallway as the parent delegation, led by Mr. Highsmith came into the hallway. Terry held out his hand. “Mr. Highsmith, thanks for coming.”

Mr. Highsmith shook his hand quickly. “Yes, Mr. Jackson, I suppose some explanations are in order.”

Terry nodded. “I’d think so.”

Mr. Highsmith glanced back at the other parents for a second. Terry couldn’t quite interpret the looks they exchanged but then Mr. Highsmith turned back to him. “Our girls aren’t exactly normal.”

“We noticed that they seemed kinda strange, not just their eyes.”

Ms. Smith managed a weak smile. “The eyes were deliberate.”

“Deliberate?” What exactly did she mean by that?

“Mr. Jackson,” Mr. Highsmith started again.

“Terry.”

“Okay, Terry. I’ll make this as simple as possible. Our girls aren’t human, they’re like robots —”

“Cyborgs, actually,” Ms. Watson said. “They’re hybrid organisms, both machine and organic.”

“I’ve read science fiction,” Terry said. “I know about cyborgs. Okay, so what are cyborgs doing in my daycare?”

“We wanted to try them in a natural environment, interacting with regular kids. A Turing test of their behavior.”

That made sense. “To see if they could pass for normal kids?”

“To other kids,” Ms. Watson clarified. “We were able to monitor them remotely both through your webcams and their own built-in feeds.”

“Needless to say the test was a failure,” Ms. Smith said. “They have the ability to link to one another, which gave rise to the strange behavior you observed. I had made the recommendation that their links be deactivated —”

“In any case,” Mr. Highsmith said. “I’m sure you can see that we still have work to do.”

Terry shook his head. “I don’t know that it’s a good idea to drop cyborgs into a daycare. What if they had injured a real child?”

“They would never harm a human,” Mr. Conway said. “There are strict safety protocols in place.”

“We don’t need to burden you with the details, Terry. But we do thank you for your assistance, this was a valuable test. I believe we paid for all four prototypes for the month, that should provide sufficient reimbursement for your trouble?”

Angie gave Terry a look that suggested he’d better keep his mouth shut. It bothered him that they dropped off their cyborgs for a test. He crossed his arms. “And I suppose we have to keep our mouths shut about this?”

Mr. Highsmith gave him a thin smile. “That would be the wisest course of action. Otherwise the legal debate could be quite ruinous to an operation such as yours. I think we’ll take our property back now?”

“Right.” Terry stepped out of the way. “I’m not stopping you.”

With a nod Mr. Highsmith and the others walked past him to the room. As they came back out Max came out of the front room and pressed up against Terry.

“What are they doing?”

“Taking them home,” Terry said.

“Oh.” Max raised a hand as they headed out the doors. “Bye bye.”

2

That evening Terry sat alone in the dark playroom after Sarah picked up Max. He had enjoyed how excited Max was to tell his mother about their games of Lego Harry Potter, and what they had for lunch, and how Terry read to him. Sarah’s eyes had looked at Terry warmly after that, which was interesting. Max hadn’t brought up the girls. It was as if they never existed.

That’s what kept him up now. The girls had seemed strange, that much was true. Unnerving. But he hadn’t doubted that they were real girls. Not at first anyway. How much longer would it be before the company perfected their cyborgs? Perfect little children that followed directions and always did what they were told. Would people choose them over real children? Some might.

Terry got up and turned out the light. The playroom seemed very empty, and dark. Tomorrow he’d see about getting some more kids so that Max would have someone to play with.

5,310 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 28th weekly short story release, written in December 2010. I originally released this about a month later on Amazon.com and other retailers. I’ve taken it down everywhere else, leaving it up at Amazon since it was under my name (I pulled down everything under my pen names).

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is a paranormal story, Artifact Angst.

Daily Update, or Finishing, and Again

Truth-Seeker
Truth-Seeker

Current Word Count Stats

Today: [postwc] | Month: [postmonthwc] | Year: [postyearwc]

 Today

Today was one of those days when I knew the Day Job was going to impact my creative efforts. It was a good day, but a busy one that wouldn’t give me a chance to really get off by myself for breaks when I could write. No breaks, really, since I was always “on” conversing with interesting supporters of the library. It was the annual Friends & Board Forum for all of the library supporters. Among other things, I was co-presenting about local authors and what the library is doing to develop more of a local author collection.

Knowing that I wouldn’t have much time, I made sure to get to bed at a reasonable hour last night so I could get a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately the dog and the child determined that sleep wasn’t going to really happen. On the one hand they did me a favor because I ended up getting up early and that gave me more time to take a ride on my trike this morning, and to work on my current short story before I had to leave and drive an hour out to Shelton. So (lack of sleep aside) it ended up being a good morning.

After getting home I spent another half hour writing and finished up the short story. That’s the third short story I’ve finished since I completed my last novel. The question to decide tomorrow is whether to start the next novel now, or do one more story.

The other fun thing today was the reissue of my short story Truth-Seeker, now available from Glittering Throng Press (and retailers) in e-book and print editions. This is a story that originally came out under my retired pen name, Michael Burges. Now the story is out in my preferred edition, under my name as I continue to reissue and release my work.

Tomorrow starts my weekend — which will likely be full of other activities than writing or illustrating, but I’ll find some time to create something new.

To catch up on other posts in this series, check out the contents page: Working Creatively With a Day Job.

If you enjoy these posts, please comment and share with others. It does take time that could be spent on other projects, so if you want to show additional support, consider picking up copies of my books or stories either for your own enjoyment, or for someone else.