The off-white ridge of the roof of the second to last house of the cul-de-sac cuts hard diagonal lines across the starless sky. No light shines within. No dogs bark. No cats cry. In one window, farthest on the left, a dull red glow outlines a mass of blankets on a bed. The red glow is from a bedside alarm clock.
Eyes see the clock and hiss a harsh whisper: “Oh no. No no no no noooooo.”
The mass moves. A boy's head emerges from beneath blue covers. He looks at the clock, then to his bedroom door, then cranes his neck to scan the rest of the room. He only scans half way before diving back beneath the temporary safety of the blankets.
“Go back to sleep. Just breathe and relax and fall right back to sleep.”
The boy closes his eyes. He squeezes them shut, as if the harder he closes them the sooner he'll sleep. He stops, relaxes, realizes squeezing them hard might actually keep him awake. He breathes in deeply and holds it. He breathes out, long and slow. He breathes in again, deeper, into his fingertips and down to his toes. He pushes the air to the edges. He packs it in and in and in and then slowly, humming slightly, lets it all out. It is the way the woman in his mother's yoga video did it. “Breath down into your tailbone,” she said. “Relax and find peace,” she said. If breathing to the tailbone could bring peace, why not go all the way down to the toes?
As the boy breathes in a second time, the deep breath nudges his bladder.
“I can hold it,” he whispers, “I can hold it.”
He knows he can't hold it. He couldn't hold it last night, or the night before. Last night and the night before, he had to leave the warmth and safety of his bed and make the cold and treacherous journey through the darkness to the bathroom. He made it there and back safely, but barely.
He knows it is only a matter of time before they catch him.
He considers turning on his bedside lamp. But turning on the lamp would require reaching out from the covers across the dark canyon between the bed and the dresser. It seemed free of creatures in the daytime, but of course it would. What decent monster reveals himself in the light of day?
He lifts the blankets so he can see the clock. The red glow illuminates the dangling beaded cord of the lamp. It is close enough that he could reach it without getting out of bed. He imagines reaching out over the expanse and feeling the cold air on his skin just before a spiked tentacle snatches him by the wrist and pulls him screaming into oblivion.
No. No lamp light tonight.
The wall near the door creaks. It's creaked before, but the boy still jumps at the sound. He pulls the covers back over his head and closes his eyes. His rapid breaths bounce back to him. His breath stinks. He imagines it smelling like the jaws of the slug-like creature oozing under the floorboards near his bedroom door. He knows if he tries to make it to the hallway, there is a good chance his feet will catch in the slug's sticky goo, and even if he screams there won't be enough time for his parents to save him. He sees the dark hole in the front of the slug's shining wobbly mass open, exposing churning gears of oily teeth.
“No, it's fine,” he reassures himself. “It's fine.”
His bladder begs to differ. After another thirty seconds of lower pelvic pain work on him, the blankets come off of his head and he looks to the door again. There are no signs of killer slugs. There are no shimmering goo trails.
None that he can see.
It's so risky. The thoughts do battle in his head:
I could just pee the bed?
I'm eight years old! I'm not peeing the bed!
I can always wash the sheets. Unless I'm dead, then I can't wash the sheets.
Or maybe I should just wear diapers to bed. That would seem cool to all of my friends, right?
Would you rather wet the bed or be eaten by monsters?
Is that a trick question?
The covers come down to the boy's waist and he sits up. He stares, eyes wide, breathless, into the darkness. He waits for a shadow to move. He listens for another sound.
Nothing moves. He doesn't hear anything. The heater isn't running. The creaking of the wall and the floor has stopped. All is quiet.
It's too quiet.
“Hello?” the boy whispers.
The darkness replies with more silence.
That's just what a drooling, blood-thirsty creature would want me to think.
The boy knows he will need to get down from the bed quickly but quietly. A creature under the bed could be waiting to strike. If he crawls down too slowly, he is sure the monsters there will grab him. If he gets down too quickly, causing echoing booms on the floorboards, or squeezing creaks from the nails and joints, he might alert the beasts in the room's other dark corners, or at the doorway, or in the hall.
He pivots, making sure not to let his legs dangle out over the side of the bed. His legs aren't long enough to hang down below the bed line, so a monster staring out from beneath shouldn't be able to see his feet, but he isn't going to risk it. He will keep his legs tucked in until the last possible moment.
His palms press into the edge of the bed. He sees the move, a push off, a landing on the tippy toes of his right foot and then his left, followed by a quick ninja walk to the light switch at the wall. He knows where the switch is – chest height, one step from the door frame. He will flip the switch upward.
He pushes off.
His right foot lands as he envisioned, softly rolling from toes to the ball of his foot. His heel doesn't touch down. It is cat-creep quiet. His left foot landing does not go as planned. He forgot about the sweat pants he kicked off a few hours ago. They are waiting for him, and when his left foot touches soft cotton, he feels his mistake. The sweats slide on the slick wood floor and take his foot with them. They slide until they hit solid wall and the thud of the collision is followed immediately by the thud of of his butt hitting the ground. Falling at that angle sends his shoulders and head sideways. He grasps for something solid in the darkness. His grasping hands find nothing.
His head finds the bedside dresser.
The wall echoes a low boom from where his foot hit. The floor creaks under the weight of the fall, and the dresser's metal handles jingle on their hinges. The beads of the lamp clink against their metal support post, and the boy's head rings from the blow. It happened so fast, and in such darkness, that he can't get his bearings. The fall knocked the wind out of him, and it takes a few seconds of pained groaning and three labored breaths to remember.
The bed monster.
He's been sitting directly in front of the beast's lair.
Why hasn't he attacked?
He stops wondering why and takes advantage of the lucky break. He presses into the floor and is up to his feet. He reaches a hand out to the wall. He needs to find something solid to make his way to the light switch.
When he pushed into the floor, the boards creaked slightly. But there was another sound, a sliding or a grinding across the wood. As his hand touches the wall, he knows what the sound must be. It is the tentacled wolf beast dragging it's furry stomach out from its hiding place. He can hear the fur hiss across the wood, and he knows long, crushing tentacles are swaying in the air, reaching out in the same way he is, waiting for contact. The tentacles are waiting for something they can hold. The boy knows if he doesn't move now, he will feel the sting of the monster's barbs, feel the poison burn through his veins, and then feel nothing as he is dragged into the dark and devoured.
He steps forward, sliding his hand along the wall as he steps. The roughness of his palm scraping against the wallpaper is too loud. He lets off the pressure. As he does, he is sure he hears a tentacle hit the wall behind him.
Move, move, move!
He wants to cry out. He wants to scream for his mom. But that will make it too easy to zero in on him, and will alert the monsters ahead.
Another thump on the wall behind him. It's getting closer.
The boy steps again, another step. The boards in the corner are creaking. He is close, but that also means...
He knows the slug hates light. If he flips the switch, the creature will slide its way back under the floor to its home. But what if it is already out, already waiting below the light switch. The boy listens. The thumping of his heart and the swishing of blood in his ears is blocking out all other sounds. He can't hear the frantic rasping of his own breath, let alone the wet suction of the slug beast opening its mouth to full width in preparation for a meal.
The boy sees a glint from the corner. For a second he thinks it could be a sliver of light hitting the slimy, twisting slug. Maybe the light caught one of its spines, or a section of extra thick slug goop.
They've set a trap! They've boxed me in!
There is no safety behind, and to run back to the bed while the two creatures hone in on his location would be suicide. There is no time to go back now, there is only one thing that will save him.
The boy clamps his lips shut against the scream trying to push its way out. The wall thumps behind him. He is certain he hears the hungry growls of the wolf beast just over the sloppy hissing of the slug monster. He can feel their weight warping the wooden floor. He can smell their breath.
He flips the light switch.
The light of the room's central ceiling fan flickers, then burns brightly. The room is instantly soaked in warm orange light. The boy looks to the corner. The slug is gone. There are no slimy tracks. He looks back. No sign of the wolf beast, either. It has returned to its under bed cave.
He breathes, squinting into the new bright light, and he rubs the part of his head that slammed into the dresser. He looks at the culprit. His sweat pants are crumpled against the wall, jammed there by his foot. He walks to them, careful when he bends down to pick them up. The lights are on, but wolf monsters are crafty. He peers under the bed.
All clear, the monster is gone.
He throws the sweats onto the bed. He doesn't want anything to happen on his return trip.
The boy's bladder reminds him to stay focused on the mission.
The worst is over.
Within the now well-lit safety of his room, the boy can relax a little. The hallway is still dark, but light from the room is leaking into the hall and the boy is confident he will be in full light when he holds onto the door frame and leans out into the hallway to reach the hall light. When he gets to the door he takes another deep breath.
He leans out, seeing the hallway's far wall, and he keeps leaning to slowly expose the rest of the corridor. It is dark, and particles of dust are drifting on small, invisible currents, illuminated by the little bit of light from the boy's room. The hallways is dark. It is empty.
But it seems clear.
He reaches for the light switch.
The switch is on the near wall, close enough to reach but requiring the boy to hold onto the door frame, lean fully out of his room at a forty-five degree angle, and stretch the full length of his arm into the semi darkness. If he positions himself well, at full extension, his middle finger can hook under the switch and flip it upward. He knows there must be night creatures out here, too, crouched in low corners, scrunched flat under floorboards and behind wood panels.
Between his room and the bathroom are three other doors: his sister's room, a sewing room, and the central hive of the deadly night creatures... the basement.
The basement. The thought of the basement door alone makes the boy shudder. The thought of what might actually be in the basement at this time of night, well... he doesn't even let the thought ignite before snuffing it out.
He takes his grip on the door frame. He positions his feet. He checks to make sure there isn't something he could slip on when he leans out. No sweatpants in sight. He leans. He reaches.
He flips the switch. Click.
He pulls himself back to reset. He wonders if he did actually flip the switch, or if he flipped it halfway only to have it bounce back to its original resting place. He grips the frame harder, checks his feet again, leans, reaches, hooks his finger on the switch. It is up, the on position. He flips it back down.
He stays stretched out and flips again, and again.
Nothing. Darkness. The shining flecks of dust laugh at him and dance in mocking spirals.
This happened once before, years ago. “Somehow the lights blew their fuse,” dad said. The boy's father then went to the fuse box and flipped some switches and fixed the problem the way grown-ups do.
With magic, obviously.
The boy leans back toward the door frame. Now he is grabbing it with both hands, squeezing, pressing his face into the wood. Again, he wants to scream for mom and dad. But again, his better judgment dissuades him.
His judgment, and the spider web that falls on his hand.
In the commotion of leaning in and out and reaching back and forth and blowing hot, scared, frustrated air from his mouth and nose, the boy stirred the air of the hallway. The small bursts sent more dust up and around the dark space, and a web, from some unseen spider in some unseeable hiding place, fell onto his hand. At first he thought it was a hair. Then it wrapped around his hand. It was long. He went to remove it with his other hand and, upon feeling the stickiness, he knew what he was dealing with. His chest was pierced by an icy dagger, stopping his heart, paralyzing him.
He'd evaded the wolf monster. He'd dodged the slug beast. But those weren't the worst creatures lurking in the dark and damp corners of the old house.
As the thought appears, a sound from the quiet hallway. Scratching, soft and quiet. The boy backs into his room, back into the safety of the light. He stands, back against the wall, like the soldiers he's seen in movies taking cover from machine gun fire. He wants to use the hallway, but without light...
There's no way.
He cranes his neck again. He checks the corners at the floor. He checks the corners at the ceiling. The light isn't touching these areas, but sound is. The scratching he heard is closer now. It is almost directly above him, skittering softly at the black center of the shadows. Are there sets of curled legs clinging to the dark, cold corners of the hallway ceiling? Spiked feet at the end of fuzz-covered hard shell legs, coiled in bracing tension, spring-loaded, scraping hungry divots in the double-coated paint, dangling soft strands of enslavement from heaving thorax at one end and dripping an eager cocktail of saliva and venom from shimmering fangs at the other?
Can I pee out the window?
The tickle of webbing hits the boy again and he thrashes at his shoulder. He slaps and grabs and pulls again and again. When he stops, he can still feel the tickle of the webbing, but as he looks at his shoulder and looks at his hands, whatever touched him is gone.
Mom and dad will understand. Maybe I can pee here on the floor and clean it up tomorrow before they even notice.
There is a bump from under the bed. The boy's head jerks, but this is exactly what hallway spiders would want him to do. They would distract him before they struck. He looks quickly back to the hallway.
He looks to his feet, half expecting to see ravenous eyes at the end of slimy snail tentacles. Even though there is nothing there, he yelps. He can't stay here. He sees that the bathroom door is open. That will save him time, and the fleeting thought of quick, effortless entry draws him into the hallway. Once enveloped by the darkness, he regrets his choice, but it is too late to turn back now. He is running, and the loud pounding of his bare feet doesn't matter. He keeps his eyes forward, for fear that if he looks to the left, he will see the winged demons of his nightmares. If he looks to the right, the wall will be twisting and squirming with a million tiny, biting maggots. He knows the spiders are descending from their secret perches, their legs unfurling like the twitchy fingers of a madman. Their legs hit the floor with a dozen hard clicks as they give chase. The wolf beast howls from the bedroom. Each click of spider feet, each howl and hiss and snarl pushes the boy forward. His eyes stay fixed on the prize, the dark but open door to the bathroom, to another light, and to temporary safety.
The hallway seems to be moving. It is stretching out before him, doubling in length, tripling, tripling again, like he is viewing it through the wrong end of a telescope. The door is just out of reach, then it is far out of reach, and then it is gone. It seems miles away in an instant.
But the basement door isn't miles away. The basement door is closed and dark and dead ahead. It isn't going anywhere. The boy stops running. He knows the monsters giving chase will be on him in seconds but it doesn't matter. A thin line of light has appeared at the bottom of the basement door. Light is seeping in from beyond, only a sliver at first, and then a vertical bar as the door begins to open. It is a light, but not a good light. Not the warm, bright light of the bedroom. Not the sort of light that scares away the darkness. The sort of light that meshes with darkness, that twists and trades with it, that pushes into and pulls away from it. The dark and light of flames, of orange and red light with smoke and ash and spark and soot.
The boy is standing in the hallway. He no longer fears the monsters behind because he knows they, too, fear the monster before them. They, too, know the dark, taloned feet grasping at the floor and wall. They, too, know the scaly chest heaving through the flames and scraping long, splintering gashes into the walls and ceiling. He is too massive for the hall. He is too massive for the house. But he chugs the hot breath of territorial dominance from scaled nostrils, across a forked tongue and battered teeth. From the thick smoke brambles his breath creates, two points begin to glow. His claws grip the ground and pull up the flimsy wooden boards. The two glowing orbs emerge, sunken into the spiked head of a snub-nosed dragon. Behind his head of fanned out horns, two wings press upward and outward into the boards and drywall, demanding space.
The red eyes scan through the smoke, left, then right, high and low, searching for the figure of the boy. The boy looks back toward his room. The spiders have lowered themselves into cowering crouches. They skitter backward, bumping into each other and hissing, snapping their jaws. Winged creatures flap from wall to wall, colliding with one another, before flapping through the side doorway into the sister's room. At the doorway to his room, the boy sees the top of the slug's head just before is oozes back through the floor board cracks and disappears.
Even monsters are afraid of monsters.
The boy looks back to the dragon. The hallway's warping has changed again. It is not nearly as long now, but it is widening. The hallway is growing as the dragon grows, wider and taller and wider and taller. The ceiling opens up enough to allow the dragon to spread its wings high, the sharp hooked claw at the end of each prong shining in the fire light. The new space invigorates the dragon, and its chest broadens under a massive inhale, then contracts a billowing plume of red and white flame in a long, thick arc across the ceiling.
The eyes return to the boy. They are now shining hot fury in the firelight. When the dragon finally spots its tiny target, the eyes narrow, and the forked tongue tastes the air once more before the jaws open wide.
The dragon roars, charging forward.
The bathroom door is visible again, just beyond the slashing tail of the dragon. The boy can see it now. It is still open, but the wooden edge of the door is already flickering with flames from the dragon's breath. The outer coating on the wood is bubbling and peeling under the intense heat, and soon the entire hallway will be a hellish inferno.
The boy's bare feet smack against the wood as he sprints to the door. Another maniacal blast of flames lights the hall, setting every surface ablaze. The dragon stomps forward toward his meal, which is now, strangely, running straight toward him. The boy's hands go up to shield his face from the heat. He can't see above the hallway floor. He can't see the dragon raise a clawed foot and prepare to stomp. He can't see the dragon's mouth open, the thrashing tongue eagerly awaiting the tiny human treat. The boy doesn't see any of this.
But he does see the door.
The dragon roars, ready to stomp the life out of the human before him. But the stomp is too eager. He brings his foot crashing down too early, a few feet in front of the boy, and the impact shatters wood and cracks concrete while sending the boy vaulting forward, through the air, over the dragon's foot and crashing into the wall near the bathroom door. The boy bounces off of the wall and falls, rolling sideways, just under the dragon's tail.
The dragon's momentum takes him forward, but the hallways opens up again. The extra space allows him to turn around. As he turns, his long tail tears at the walls and floor, and his flapping wings kick up dust and ash and slivers of wood. The debris falls down on the boy as he struggles to get to his feet.
The bathroom is nearly within reach. The fall and roll brought the boy to within a few feet of his goal, and he needs only rise to his feet and leap forward, or crawl for a few seconds on his hands and knees. But the dragon has locked onto him again, having turned in the hall and taken in a deep and angry breath. He prepares to unleash a flood of hot gas and churning flames over the boy. In two thundering steps he lets the fire loose. The flames lash out in all directions, spreading across the floor and up the walls and climbing their way to the crumbling ceiling above. The flames are unstoppable, all-consuming, and the heat is fatal to every other living thing.
The boy feels the heat and shields his eyes from the light. The flames will tear him apart. The way the heat rises in his skin lets him know it will be over quickly.
He crawls toward the door. He can feel his hands blistering on the boiling floor. He can feel the sharp pain of flames licking at the back of his legs and the bottom of his feet.
The dragon roars again and a new gust of heat hits the boy's back. It is enough of a blast to send him sprawling onto the cold bathroom floor while the door slams shut behind him.
He reaches up and flips the light switch. The lights go on. It is his bathroom, normal, quiet.
He lies there, gasping, feeling his feet and hands and the backs of his legs. He is sure he will reach down and feel blistered, possibly even still-flaming skin. But it feels smooth. A little warm, but intact and smooth and... normal. He doesn't believe it so he looks down, first with only one partially open eye, then squinting with both, then with normal vision.
His legs are fine. His feet and hands are fine.
He is fine.
Down to business. Though he is thrilled to be alive, and unburned, and seemingly in one piece, he leaps onto the toilet. He earns his prize, the sweet relief of an empty bladder.
At the sink, he washes his hands and looks in the mirror. It is quiet now, but not silent. There is still a low hum from the hallway. As he reaches for the doorknob he wonders why he would open it when he knows what's out there.
Don't open the door, are you crazy?
He opens the door. The burning carnage of the dragon's lair still rages. The long thin strands of the dragon's beard appear from above the doorway as the head descends. One fiery red eye appears, squinting into the bathroom and then opening wide with murderous insanity. Before the dragon can fill the bathroom with fire, the boy closes the door.
You know what? Yes. Yes I am. I am crazy.
The boy dries his hands on the towel and faces the door.
I'm tired of this.
He opens it and steps out into the chaos.
Every night. Every single night.
The dragon rears up on its hind legs. Its wings stretch out and give a single hard flap. Smoke puffs from its scarred nostrils and it readies its claws for battle.
I'm tired of being afraid.
The dragon flinches. The boy's thought affects it. It makes it even more wild-eyed with violence. Its chest expands again, a deeper, longer breath than before. The dragon is building up all of the fire within it. It will not stand for the insubordination of such a tiny, fragile being. This breath of fire will be more than is needed. This breath will take everything.
This is when the boy usually runs. The boy isn't running. The dragon hesitates, holding the final breath for a few extra seconds.
Very well. If you don't want to run...
The breath comes out. The dragon's chest contracts inward, more quickly than before, and forces out a roaring avalanche of flame directly into the bathroom doorway. Even at the end, the dragon expected a last second dive from the child, but the boy stands and accepts the flames head on. The dragon pours all of it out, every drop of poison, every wisp of gas, every flicker of white hot flame. The bathroom is instantly filled and then blown to pieces. The flames tear through the walls, flooding into the rooms on either side, up through the ceilings to the rooms above. Things aren't burning as much as exploding, disintegrating, evaporating under the pressure and heat. The dragon has to dig its claws into the ground to hold itself in place against the pressure. Even its seemingly fire-proof scales start to glow and smoke, but it doesn't stop. It will blow everything out.
It will take everything.
At the end of the barrage, as the flames begin to wain and the house is nearly gone, the dragon eases off. It feels its victory. As the last flames sputter from its mouth and its jaw slams shut, it is ready to survey the black, barren field of its dominant conquest.
It is black and barren. There is nothing but billowing smoke and wind-thrown ash and cleansing fire.
And a dark mass where the bathroom door once stood. The dark mass moves. It shudders, and flakes of black charred dust puff and flutter to the floor or get caught on the wind and carried away. As the small mass starts to move, the dragon steps back, pulling its head up and away from the mysterious moving lump.
The lump rises. It stretches out, tall and thin. A head appears. Two eyes open, white against the black mass around it. Another shudder shakes more black dust and ash free. It is the boy. He has survived.
The dragon lurches forward with fangs bared and before it can clamp its massive jaws around the tiny black mass, the boy leaps forward, slamming his fist into the side of the dragon's face. The blow sends the dragon stumbling to its right. Its wings are forced to stretch out and brace against the cavernous walls to keep it from falling over. It takes the dragon a moment to right itself and get back on four solid feet. When it turns back to the boy, it is already taking another fire breath.
It doesn't get to blow it out.
Before any flames can be sprayed, the boy leaps from the ground, eyes burning and mouth screaming a battle cry, and lands another blow to the dragon's face. This time, the punch lands on the end of the snout, twisting the dragon's head up and sideways into the charred ceiling behind it. The blow from the punch is disorienting, and the second blow from the ceiling takes the dragon's senses completely. It slumps awkwardly to the ground, stretching out its arms at odd angles in an attempt to catch itself. The arms don't find solid ground or wall and the dragon's chest slams into the ground and drags the head down after it. The neck serves as a whip and the dragon's head cracks against the burning rocks and wood of the hallway floor.
The dragon raises its head and opens its eyes. The head shakes as the dragon fights to regain its balance and re-engage with its opponent. But the boy doesn't give it enough time. Before the dragon can react, the boy's hand curls around the dragon's neck. The dragon's eyes open wide with panic, then open wider when it sees the boy's face, twice as big as its own, and seemingly growing. The fist is tightening around the neck.
The boy isn't growing. The dragon is shrinking.
With one hand crushing the dragon's throat, the boy is punching the dragon in the face with the other. He holds the dragon high and slams his fist into the beast's smoldering head. Slam, slam, again and again. Each punch sends a puff of smoke from the dragon's nose and mouth. Each punch steals a little more size, a little more strength. Each punch brings another battle cry from the boy.
I'm done... being... afraid!
Another punch, and another, and soon, the dragon is barely two feet tall, now a scrawny, limp lizard dangling helplessly from the boy's crushing grip. When one of his punches misses, the boy finally notices just how small the dragon has become. The monster is helpless now. It can't hurt the boy anymore.
He walks to the basement door and kicks it open. He tosses the dragon down the old steps and watches it disappear into the darkness.
The boy's chest is heaving. Now he has the dragon's breath. His lungs are burning, his heart a hammer on a hot anvil, his fists still clenched in righteous rage.
A sound down the hallway catches his attention. It is a shuffling from his bedroom doorway.
The boy turns his head to look. His teeth and fists are still clenched when he locks eyes with the others. The spiders are there, cowering, their feet clicking as they step slowly backward. The slug's head appears from the floor boards briefly, then zips back down below. The boy can hear another sound. The sound of a dog's whimpering.
The wolf monster is crying.
The boy turns, facing his bedroom door. The creatures freeze. The boy stomps forward and the creatures try to scatter, crashing into each other, fighting over the same hiding places and the same cracks in the floor.
As he passes his sister's room, an errant winged demon flaps wildly from the darkness in a panicked attempt to escape. The boy snatches it out of the air without even looking and crushes it in his hand. The crushing ends the creature, but the boy feels compelled to tear it in half, as well. He tosses it aside and zeroes in on the next nearest creature, one of the spiders. It is trying to squeeze into a small hole behind his bedroom door. He pulls it out and, in one quick jerk, rips all eight legs from its body. The spider lets out a brief scream before being thrown to the floor and stomped.
Another spider is scrabbling up the wall. A fist smashes the spider through the wallpaper and deep into the sheet rock. All that is left visible from the fist-sized hole is the skinny end of eight twitching legs.
A third spider gets stepped on trying to escape through a crack in the floorboards. After the stomp, the boy stops. Another spider is crawling across the ceiling, desperately searching for its salvation. The boy isn't paying attention, he has his eyes and ears on the floor. He is following a sound, closer to the bed, then closer to the door, then near the base of the bookshelf. Then the sound is gone. The spider on the ceiling stops. The wolf silences its fearful cries and the room is quiet.
The boy rams his hand into the floor, smashing through the boards. When he yanks his arm back out, his fingers are squeezing into the gelatinous mass of the giant slug. It wriggles and writhes and gnashes its yellow teeth, but all in vain. The boy's hand is a vice and it is tightening. The gooey filling of the slug's body is moving away from the crushing hand, half toward the beasts head, and half toward its butt. The pressure is building, extending the slug's eye tentacles out to their maximum length. The body stops writhing. The teeth stop chomping. For a moment the slug is perfectly still.
Perfectly still, and then...
“Hey, Brian!” a voice calls from down the hall.
Pop. The slug bursts, head first, and the mass of goo spurts out onto the bedroom wall near the light switch. The boy drops the now empty body on the floor and wipes his hands on his shirt as the slug's eyeballs slide slowly down the light blue baseball pattern wallpaper.
He leans his head into his doorway.
“Hey dad,” he says.
“You were making... a lot of noise, dude. You sure you're okay?”
The boy looks at the spider legs poking out from the hole in the wall. He looks at the lifeless blob of goop at his feet, and at the eyeballs slowly sliding down the wall beside him. He thinks about the tiny dragon whimpering at the bottom of the basement stairs. He turns to see the last spider and the wolf creature making their way out of one of the windows, fleeing madly into the night.
“Fine, dad. Everything is... just fine.”
Dad surveys the hallway and the bathroom.
“You left the light on,” he says, reaching into the bathroom to turn it off.
“Oh yeah, sorry,” the boy says.
“A little scared of the dark?” dad asks.
The boy smiles wider and shakes his head.
“No. Not really. Not anymore.”
“Well, be careful, and try to keep it down a little next time.”
The boy nods. He is still smiling and nodding when his dad heads back upstairs. He is still smiling when he turns off his own light and climbs back into his bed. He is still smiling, giggling even, just before he turns over one last time and falls back to sleep.
When I was four years old, my mother showed me how to thread a needle. I threaded my first and, probably, my two-hundredth needle that day. Parents often praise their children even when no real praise is merited. They lie to be encouraging. When I threaded needles that day, my mother would say, “Good job, Kelly.” It was one of the few times she ever said something resembling praise, but I didn't need any praise for my sewing. I knew it wasn't very good. Even as a little girl, I knew if I kept doing it I would get better.
Sewing was an important job. It was a skill that benefited everyone, a skill that was necessary. It was something grown-up women did, and to be welcomed into that circle and entrusted with important tasks, like making and fixing family clothes, was a revelation. It was maturity, and freedom, and self sufficiency.
It was an awakening.
There is very little I remember from the time before I began to sew. I have an image in my mind of winter, of a big white window illuminated by the snowy trees and snowy ground and snowy sky outside. I can see a dog sleeping by a glowing wood stove. I can see the firelight shining on the very tips of his back and neck fur, and I can see the light change slightly with each deep, sleepy dog breath. I don't know if it is a true memory, or something my mind has pieced together over time, but other than the dog by the fire, my first real memories began that day, the day I started working on my first dress.
It was maroon. It had a rippled tent and puffed shoulders and three-quarter sleeves. There were white fringes here and there, white lace with shapes I optimistically saw as flowers and sunshine. My mother helped me with the stitching but I threaded every needle. She cut the fabric but I helped with the measurements. My mother later told me it took about four hours to finish. I was fully engrossed in every moment. If you had asked the four-year-old me how long it took, she'd have said “I don't know, but look!” and twirled the tent with long, ecstatic spins powered by victorious giggles.
Later I would make my first church dress. Then I'd make my first formal dress. I'd wear it to my Aunt Carrie's wedding and people would put their hands on my cheeks and tell me how cute I was. “So cute,” was the answer according to other members of the wedding celebration.
Just so darned cute.
I made, myself, my first prom dress, and went on to make three more. I made my first winter formal dress, and three more of those, too. I made my first wedding dress.
My first, and only, wedding dress.
I made many first dresses. I don't know if I've made my last dress yet.
It didn't stop at simply sewing. Sewing, knitting, crocheting, and quilting. I started at four and stopped twice. I stopped for a few months when my husband died. I simply didn't feel like sewing anymore. I broke both of my wrists in a car accident when I was twenty-three years old and didn't touch a needle and thread for six months. When I could stitch and crochet again I spent a year making scarves and hats in constant pain. I didn't mind, I was making things again, and I just assumed the pain would eventually go away.
It didn't, not fully. But what started as a full-speed locomotive level of pain slowed to a cruising-bus level of pain. That moved to a small car rounding a parking lot level of pain. It became manageable. It became part of the process, and even a reminder of the fact that the crash could have taken the use of my hands altogether. It was another item to be thrown on the ever-growing pile of things that could be accepted because, you know...
It could be worse.
It could be worse.
“The dresses are here, girls!”
Women in their seventies and eighties don't generally leap up from their chairs. I know the five of us don't. We don't tend to leap from anywhere, but each Tuesday when the delivery van pulls up in front of Felicia's house, a part of us leaps.
“Anthony said he'd have ten for us today,” Felicia announces “so we can each bring two back to the house and then we'll see what we're working with.”
When Felicia says “Anthony” we all smile. She smiles back and tilts her chin up just a little. She takes great joy in being the one who got to talk to Anthony on the phone. We're older women, married or widowed, but we're not blind. Anthony is tall, broad, and just the right amount of Italian. He brightens the day just a little, and certainly more than the other two drivers. Now that I think about it I couldn't even tell you the names of the others, even after three months. Chris, maybe? Craig?
“Good morning, Anthony,” Angie calls from the front walk. Anthony opens the van's large sliding side door.
“Good morning, ladies. We've got a beautiful set of dresses for you this week.”
As we begin draping the dresses carefully over our arms, Felicia offers her hand to Anthony. As the owner of the house, she feels an obligation to follow the normal protocols of civility expected from a host or hostess. But on the Tuesdays when Anthony is driving, her handshake seems to last just a little bit longer. Her smile lingers.
“Thank you Anthony. 10:00am on the nose, I could set my watch by you.”
“My pleasure, Mrs. Sheridan, it's such great work you ladies do here and I'm just happy to be a part of it.”
Anthony is a good boy, raised well. I imagine he has zero things in common with us old widows, and yet here he is smiling, laughing with us, entertaining our small talk and trying to entertain back.
“Busy day ahead?” Felicia asks.
“Nine to five, ma'am. I'm blessed with work.”
A good boy. He lays two dresses, wrapped in their protective plastic, over my arms. They're both wedding gowns, I can feel it. The weight is different, there is something about wedding dresses. They wrap around you, press into you, pull you downward. I have to brace myself with wedding gowns. From the way Cheryl is walking, she got two evening gowns. She is up the walk and into the house first. She is four months younger than I am, too, so that might explain it.
“Well Anthony, it is always a pleasure,” Felicia says, shaking his hand again. “Do please thank Mrs. Arsden for us.”
“Until next time.”
Anthony smiles. I'm more than halfway up the walk, twenty feet away, but I smile back.
The two tables Felicia sets up in her living room each week are big enough to allow the dresses to lie side by side, their necklines hanging over one end of the tables and their trains hanging over the other. With the dresses laid out we can plan. There are six wedding dresses, two deep blue evening gowns – one high waste and one tent – a lacy white summer dress and a dress for a young girl, most likely a dress for a flower girl, or maybe a first communion.
Felicia and I tend to take wedding dresses. She decided that would be best as we have the most experience with the variety and the fragility of wedding dress design and materials. Cheryl and Alice will take an occasional wedding dress, the simpler ones, but stay mainly within the evening and prom gowns. Angie takes the more unique pieces.
Like small dresses for flower girls or for first communions.
The whole process is very systematic now. It wasn't always like that, but as annoying and bossy as Felicia can be, I can't question her organizational skills. Our first meeting was chaos. Our second meeting was decent. After two sessions, Felicia had her systems set, and I have to admit that in every essential process, she set out tasks and timing perfectly.
I'll never tell her that.
“Alright, ladies, shall we?”
We all nod and stand together in the kitchen. We hold hands in a circle and bow our heads as Angie begins:
“Dear heavenly Father, we thank you Lord for these gifts you've brought us today. We ask that you guide our hands as we make these beautiful dresses into works of love and compassion for the families in need, and we pray that these dresses would be a blessing to all of the families who receive them. May your light and love shine in the hearts of these families in this very difficult time, and may your peace be on them. Thank you for all that you have given us and bless us as we walk from here, in Jesus' name, Amen.”
“Amen,” we say, each squeezing the hands we are holding.
The first cut is the hardest. Even after all of these weeks, all of the dresses I've cut into, I still panic as the scissors open and the fabric runs in between the blades. I will never feel the satin give in to the sharp edges of the scissors, never feel the first piercing of the needle through fabric, without sucking in a long, quiet breath, and then holding that breath until the cut or the stitch is done. Each Tuesday, looking down at a new dress, I tell myself today will be different. Today, cutting into someone's wedding dress will be no big deal. But the wedding dress on the table in front of me is no different. It takes my first breath and holds it hostage until the scissors snip shut and the long three-quarter sleeve falls severed to the table.
I remind myself that the bride is not going to run into the room and scream at me for cutting up her dress. I remind myself that the bride's mother is not going to curse at me. There might be a daughter who could have worn this dress, too, just as her mother did. Will this little girl run into the room and demand that I sew the arm to her precious, heirloom wedding dress back on? It's a silly thought from a silly old woman, but I don't imagine I'll ever be free of it.
“Look at this train, girls,” Felicia calls out, gasping her amazement as she stretches out the long satin folds. “I'll be able to get seven, maybe eight little dresses out of the train alone.”
The girls nod and gasp their own agreement. I nod, quietly. The dress shimmers in the sunlight beneath Felicia's dark and wrinkled fingers. Such a dress was not meant to be pulled at and held up by those hands. Such a dress should slide silently over perfect young skin. Silk on porcelain.
Cheryl holds up her deep blue gown.
“Felicia, is this okay for the boys?”
“Yes, it's perfect, and I was sorting through some of my buttons and I think I have some perfect matches for the two-button suits.”
Felicia knows exactly where her button case is. She strides to it. I should be focused on my work but I can't stop watching her. I know her choreography. I know what her foot position will be when she stops and reaches for the case. I know the angle her body will assume, the angle at her shoulder, her elbow, her wrist, as she picks it up with her right hand and supports it from below with her left. Her shoulders will seesaw back and forth, up and down, as she tiptoes back to her seat. I know the way she will hand Cheryl the buttons she has so thoroughly considered. She'll cup her hand and offer the buttons to be taken, the way she holds treats out for her dogs.
I watched too long. I feel the needle slip, feel it crunch into the tip of my left index finger. When I was four I stuck my finger and pulled the needle out and watched the blood wriggle out from the wound and slither down my finger and into my palm. I passed out. I don't remember passing out, but I remember my mother telling me about the incident that night when she was tucking me into bed.
“It was just a little blood, honey,” she said. “You'll bleed a lot in this life.”
The inevitable finger stick. It's a part of the process now, I wait for it, almost eagerly. I wait for the sting, for the taste of iron in my mouth when I suck at the wound. I used to make a show of it for the ladies. Now it is just for me. The pain drops me into the mind of the mothers, slips me seamlessly into their skin, into a breath of their pain.
My first dress was made with my own hands. Now, I'm sewing two pieces of satin I've cut from a wedding dress into a loose, simple dress nine inches tall. I've used a section of the wedding dress with jewel embellishments. The original pattern ran down from the shoulders and across the chest, a small portion narrowing to a point at the base of the sternum. Now, my tiny dress has a glittering swirl flowing down its left side, top to bottom.
Once the dress is done, I try to touch it as little as possible. When clipping the last bit of extra thread or cutting excess lace, I prepare for the final action. Before the dress is complete, right at the end, I stop. I remember why we are here making these little dresses. I think about the little ones who will wear them. I imagine parents sliding the shimmering cloth over the baby's head, threading the little arms through the sleeves, pulling at the skirt of the dress until it nearly touches those tiny feet.
We're making what have come to be known as Angel Gowns.
In seventy-two years I had never been to a baby or a child's funeral. Neither had Angie, until one of the young mothers from her church lost her daughter, Emily. Sudden infant death syndrome. The young mother woke to find her little Emily unconscious and not breathing. An ambulance was called but they'd answered that type of call before. They performed their duty and worked to revive Emily, but when they arrived at the hospital they stopped. There was nothing more to do but note the time of death.
The mother mourned and Angie mourned with her. When Angie was invited to the service she invited me along for extra support. She thought the more people there, the better. The more hugs the mother received, the better. After my husband's funeral I'd told myself that was the last funeral I would attend until my own. I guess ten years softened me up a little. We went. Angie was part of a small group invited to a viewing of little Emily before the service and she brought me along. She insisted. There were a few dozen people there, sitting and standing and talking in low, solemn murmurs. There were chairs set out in rows facing the front of the room where Emily's casket sat open. Her parents were sitting to one side, greeting people as they made their way up the aisle. The mother was holding it together. She would take the hands of each person, smile and nod as they gave their condolences, and then thank them. Her thank yous were quiet, barely audible, but she pushed them out.
The father was a shattered man. He would nod, his fingers digging into the cushioned armrests of his chair, but he couldn't force out a thank you. He didn't say a single word. He wore the sadness and the pain as a red hot fury, eyes dark as volcanic ash, lava pouring red, raging tears down his cheeks. The crying wouldn't stop, and he didn't seem to want it to.
Angie greeted them first and gave her condolences. She gave the standard “anything you need, I'll be there” speech. I'm sure the parents heard it a hundred times that day. Then she introduced me as a friend and I took the mother's hand in mine and squeezed. I didn't know what to say so I didn't say anything. I just squeezed. I was still squeezing when I looked at little Emily lying in her casket. There were flowers around and inside it. There were ornate blankets and pillows, and a series of what must have been Emily's favorite stuffed animals lying at her sides: a small bear, a few different dogs and cats, a pony, and a few mythical or cartoon creatures.
The blankets and pillows matched well. They made sense. The stuffed animals, in their own weird way, made sense. But not the dress. Emily's dress stuck out in the casket for its drab color and rough texture. It looked like felt, or maybe thick rough cotton. The dress was a gray blue, almost dirty, with a white circular ruffle collar that lead, awkwardly, to puffed sleeves. Emily looked like a doll in a cheap doll dress. I didn't say this out loud, of course. Not until Angie and I left. She had been thinking the same thing.
When babies are stillborn, parents mourn. They cry, they rage, they wonder why it would happen to them. Then they have to plan the funeral for their precious boy or precious girl. They generally dress their children in clothes for their burial, but it is difficult to find acceptable outfits in those smallest sizes. When Felicia first came to me with the idea of making dresses and suits for children to be buried in, she told me parents are often forced to buy a doll from a toy store so they can use the doll's dress.
Now we meet once a week, and sometimes twice if our supplier has enough donated dresses for us. We meet so some parents won't have to say goodbye to and bury their children in clothes they got from a doll at Walmart.
Every session holds idle chit chat, run downs of the week's activities or gossip about Felicia's nearest neighbor, Mrs. Larramey, and her most recent faux pas. Last week it was poop Felicia found on her grass. She insisted it was cat poop, and the only person on the street with a cat is Mrs. Larramey. Two weeks ago, Felicia told us that Mrs. Larramey brought mail over, mail she said the mailman placed in her mailbox by mistake, and that she had opened it without realizing it wasn't addressed to her. She insisted that she hadn't read any of it, but Felicia didn't believe her. “Who opens mail without looking at the addresses?” Felicia asked us all.
I hope Mrs. Larramey does. I hope she did read the mail. I hope she read every word and letter and saved the really good parts. I hope she knows secrets about Felicia that she will tell me one day.
But after a little chit chat and no sign of a decent Mrs. Larramey story, we settle into quiet construction. Scissor snips, the rhythmic rocking of sewing machines, and gentle murmuring of NPR's “On Point” radio show. We listen, but we're not really listening. Occasionally, Cheryl will disagree with a point a presenter has made by sighing loudly and asking us if we can believe that guy or girl. We dutifully shake our heads and hope she doesn't press further.
Today, the chatting slows, as usual. But something is different today. Every time my needle pierces the fabric, something settles within me. I feel it, a downshift in the gears, a light squeal in the tracks as my train nears a certain station. I don't know if the other women feel it, too. If they are, then we are all hiding it from each other. We are trying to seal it in. We are trying to hold it for ourselves.
My first tears are silent. They fill the lower lids of my eyes and pitch in large, single tears over my lower lashes and fall into my lap. When I lean forward and try to blink through the tears, more fall onto the dress I'm working on, and onto my hands. They are soaking into the seams I'm smoothing out, soaking into the threads I'm tying off. I can't see what I'm doing, but I pretend to keep working. I feel along the seam I'm stitching. After all these years I don't really need to see what I'm doing. Another stitch, then another. I'm getting off my line. I try to drop the needle in again. It won't break through. I press again, harder. I know I'm pressing too hard but I can't stop.
I feel it in the other women, the weight of it. I'm trying not to sniff. I don't want the others to know. But then, I imagine her. I see the tiny, fragile snowflake, her tiny feet in white socks, her tiny legs cradled by the hemming of the dress. I see her chubby arms stretching from puffed, lacy sleeves. I can see her little belly under the frills, her closed eyes and tiny nose and perfect face resting, proud of her new dress, content. I can see the mother looking down on her precious daughter, one hand on each little cheek. I can see the father looking down on his baby, his little girl, his princess, sliding a hand over her hair, barely touching it.
I've been storing the reality of what we've been doing here. I've been sealing it in a deep pocket in my mind, stitching it in, trying to dismiss it. But now, sewing the third tiny dress of the day, the seams I've been sewing so tightly around that deep pocket are snapping. One by one, each stitch I sew, each time the scissors clip a thread, is breaking something loose. I'm holding in the noise but it is backing up, building. The weight of all of the dresses on all of the little girls...
A shriek, long and vibrating and terrible. The women all jump in their chairs. Cheryl grabs her chest. I do to. Then I hear the shrieking again, louder now. Felicia is looking at me. Angie, too. Everyone is looking at me.
I am shrieking. The sound is coming from me.
I try to stop but it overtakes me. I cry out again, and again. I stop to breathe, briefly, and cry out again. It is animal, primal, the polar sound of either violent birth or violent death. I am croaking and gasping and pouring streams of hot pain from my eyes and nose and mouth. I'm reaching out with my pain, out to the universe, screaming mindlessly and endlessly the way I imagine the mothers themselves must have cried.
The sudden shrieking terrifies all of us. They aren't noises most people hear every day, or month, or year. My crying was harsh and turbulent and awkward and unsettling.
And familiar. The suddenness is startling, yet we are all prepared, unafraid. The noise rises up like a crashing wave but somehow we all know it is coming and we listen and watch and feel it like it is our own. No one gets up to comfort me. No one tries to ease my pain. I think we've all been waiting for it, waiting for the wave to rise up over us and tumble down and drag us with it back out to sea. I was just the first of us to let go, but once my cries fill the room, the others join in. We stay in our places and cry. Everyone stops sewing. Cheryl cries first. Then Angie. Felicia briefly tries to press on through the tears. She fails, and the wave crashes over us, pushes and pulls and drags us into the deep.
The other women all have children. They all have grand children, and all but Felicia have great grand children. They like to say things like, “I can't even imagine. The thought of seeing my Sarah,” or “my Colleen,” or “my little Anna Marie,” and they cry at the thought of burying a child.
Greg and I never had children. Not that we didn't want them, we hoped for children for years. For decades. It just never happened. Friends would tell me not to worry, that when the time was right it would just happen. They told us God's timing is perfect, or that the universe would send us a child when we were ready.
Those seem like comforting things to say, but when it doesn't happen and then you have to see those friends again, and again, through years of well-wishing, through years of watching their children grow up and pass milestones and be “just the best thing ever,” it can strain relationships. It can make dinner parties awkward. After years of “being in” dozens of people's “prayers,” it gets harder for them to offer comfort.
I never felt the pain of losing a child. My pain is of a woman who couldn't have children. The other women are crying for their living children and grand children. I am crying for the children I never had. Every year, every month, sometimes every day for weeks at a time, I imagine the daughter I would have had, the son I could have raised. It is a dangerous thing to imagine the family you wanted. The mind makes thoughts like these more and more real. My imagined daughter was, at first, a faceless what-if, all hopes and dreams with little substance. She was mostly wonder for many years. Eventually, she earned a name, Hannah, along with short blonde hair and a love of horses. We started taking horseback riding trips into the mountains. I soon imagined what it would be like if she had a little brother named Jack. The imagining fanned out and shifted over time, until I'd envisioned school achievements and first crushes and graduations and wedding days and grand children and dozens of different possible paths the lives of my imagined children could have taken.
Now, feeling the satin, knowing where the tiny dress would be going, my beautiful Hannah has come back to me. It has been a long time since I've thought about her. It has been years since I colored in a new full chapter of her life, but here she is, in the swirling torrent of wailing and tears, looking at me with her short blonde hair. She is smiling and wearing a dress I made for her. She twirls and plays with the sash and bow at her waist. She asks me if I think she looks pretty. The thought of tying the sash into a bow around her waist and seeing that bow disappear into a closing coffin is too much.
I made my first dress at age four. The dresses I make today might be my last, but that is impossible to know. For the parents of miscarriage, for the parents of still birth, of sudden infant death, of heart defects and brain tumors and cancer, we make the first dress their little girls will ever wear. We make little blue suits, the first suits their little boys will ever wear. It is also the last thing they will ever wear. So here, every Tuesday in Felicia's house, we sit and sew and cry into our shimmering re-creations. We sew garments of passage, garments we hope will in some small way ease the passage of baby and parent. We cry into the fabric. We run our hands over it and fold it perfectly, ever so gently. We hope it is presentable. We hope it is as perfect as the most terrible of gifts can be. We think about our children, both real and imagined, and feel bad for being so grateful these dresses were never made for us.
Grateful for the first and last things.
The light is getting brighter. Through her eyelids, Evie can feel the light, feel the heat of it. There is no single source, there is simply light, white and warm and growing. For a moment she wonders if she is back in her room, if mother is turning on the lights. She waits for a command, “Wake up, Evie, time to get ready for school.”
The pain. A throbbing, itchy pain in her head, in her arms and legs, takes her back. Her arms and hands sing with the pain of swollen, scabbing gashes. Evie remembers the sticks and rocks, remembers scratching and clawing through the forest near Hayden's Creek. She fell on her back, hard, and now realizes she is lying on her back. She can feel the bruises on her shoulder blades, on her pelvis, on her elbows and her spine and on the back of her head. The light illuminates her memory.
She was running. She was being pursued. She was caught.
The men in white.
She opens her eyes.
Mother is sitting on the bed. She reaches a hand out and Evie flinches when it touches her thigh.
“You gave us quite a scare last night,” mother says.
Evie slides back, sitting up and pressing herself against the bed's headboard. She shifts to the corner of the bed at the corner of the room, as far from mother as possible.
“We were worried sick.” Mother looks at the bandages on Evie's arms and winces. “And for good reason.”
Evie pulls the covers up to her chin. Her eyes are wide, darting from mother to the door to the windows. She is caged and there is nowhere to hide. She is looking to escape.
“Do you realize how dangerous that was, running off into the forest like that? Had the men in white not found you when they did you could have...”
The wall, the invisible wall. Evie's mind goes back to it, to the way the water dripped down some invisible glass shield. She could see the trees and rocks and sky beyond, but the creek and forest had an end no one ever talked about. It had a barrier.
“Do you have any idea how worried we were?”
A clear, glass cage.
Evie bangs her hand into the wall beside her. She hisses at the pain under the bandages but immediately smacks the wall again.
This isn't real. None of this is real.
“Evie, stop! Stop it right now!”
Evie slaps the wall again, and again.
“It's not real,” she yells. “None of this is real!”
Red clouds of blood are billowing into the gauze wraps around Evie's hands but she won't stop. Mother lunges forward on the bed to grab her, to restrain her, but Evie delivers three hard blows to the floral printed wallpaper. On the third blow, before mother grabs both wrists and pins Evie to the bed, the wall shifts. The flowers pixelate for a moment. Their deep reds and purples flicker to bright neon green and yellow, and a ripple of warped color spreads outward from where Evie's final strike fell. It travels in every direction – up to the ceiling, down to the floor, and outward to both adjoining walls. The ripple slowly softens and eventually subsides, and the rightful colors return to the flowers and leaves of the wallpaper.
Evie stops screaming. She watches the ripple, watches the colors morph and shift, and stops resisting mother's grasp. She saw it, she saw a break in the system. Walls aren't supposed to change colors when you hit them. They aren't supposed to ripple like waves on a pond.
“I saw it,” she says, relaxing. Mother is holding her down but Evie isn't fighting anymore.
“Evie, if you just relax I can...”
“I saw it. Please let me go.”
“If you just listen...”
Mother sighs. She lets go and scoots back to the edge of the bed.
“Cognitive re-mapping unsuccessful,” mother says.
“What?” Evie manages to ask before the shift. The ripples Evie watched on the walls begin again, from the same spot she struck. Now the colors are shifting lighter and cooler in color as the ripple makes its way up and down the wall. Dark blue becomes light blue, then gray, light gray, then white. Reds becomes pinks become white, like the flipping of tiny tiles in a cascade of desaturation.
The new white spreads across the walls, the ceiling, and onto the floor. It claims the carpet, the desk and chair in the corner, the lamp, the two dressers. It climbs up the legs of the bed, spreading white across the covers and sheets, filling in the spaces all around Evie with pure, glowing white – the room, the furniture, everything, a clean canvas. As Evie looks down and clutches her chest, she pulls at a white night gown. Her arms are wrapped in white gauze, and her bloody hands, brown hair, green eyes, and red lips on pale skin float in the sea of white.
How long have I been here?
What once was her cherished bedroom, with its unique scuffs and stains, its secret hiding places, is now just a small, white room, twelve feet by fifteen feet. White, glowing, and untrustworthy. She slides back to the head of the bed, pressing her back to the wall. Her eyes search for something familiar but it is all gone.
Everything she knew is gone.
She slides her hand along the wall. It kind of feels the way her wallpaper used to feel. When she closes her eyes, she can imagine the wallpaper again. It is the same surface, the same feeling, but when she opens her eyes and the white is glaring back at her, any sense of knowing or feeling or remembering leaves her. She can't trust anything she feels or sees or hears now. She can't believe any of it is real.
“They thought we might be able to convince you last night was a dream. We've done it before, but I knew this time would be different. You're too smart for that sort of thing, now.”
Evie's hand is still making its way across the wall. She closes her eyes again and drops back into memory. She remembers the feel of the wall under her fingertips when she was a toddler. She used the wall to help her take her first steps, leaning on it while shuffling her tiny feet. She remembers drawing on the wall with crayons. She drew a bird, and a tree, and a happy face, each surrounded by the wild and random squiggles of a toddler racing to finish a masterpiece while listening to the pounding footsteps of a parent running to stop her.
She used to press her ear to the wall to try to listen to conversations between mom and dad.
It felt so true. It felt so real.
“You've always been a little ahead of the predictions.”
Another memory, recent, surges forward. The smooth surface on tingling, injured fingers and palms, the smooth surface trapping her, blocking her escape. She returns to last night, to the wind and the rain chasing her, attacking her, and then suddenly stopping. She remembers the water on the barrier and the unreachable freedom beyond. Then she remembers a noise, that ear-crushing siren.
“Send him in,” mother says.
When the bedroom door opens, the whiteness has obviously spread throughout the house. Throughout the world?
From the white hallway, Sammy emerges. He is wearing what he was wearing last night, but clean. He is wearing what he almost always wears. Evie considers this:
Have I ever seen Sammy in other clothes?
A part of Evie still wants to pretend Sammy is her best friend and this is all some kind of weird misunderstanding. Part of her wants to jump up and hug her best friend, to celebrate the fact that he is alright, that they both survived last night, and to imagine that they will soon be riding the bus and surviving Mrs. Ellers' class and talking about robots and aliens again.
But as Sammy nears the edge of the bed, Evie pulls the covers up, tucks into a tighter ball, and scoots even farther back into the far corner of the bed. She wants to welcome her friend. But last night, her friend's face opened up and made the loudest noise she had ever heard.
“Sammy,” she says, shaking her head.
“Hi, Evie,” he replies.
Mother puts her hand on Sammy's neck.
“They thought we might get you to forget last night, which I knew was wrong. But they also thought it would be helpful to have Sammy here for the next part, which I think is correct.”
Evie is starting to cry. She doesn't make a noise, but her eyes fill up and spill hot tears down her cheeks and onto the white nightgown and white covers below.
“I'm sorry, this white is probably too much for you. Is this better?”
The voice ushers in warmer orange and red light, something closer to the light of the sun. The floor ripples with gray blue. The walls bleed floor to ceiling with light green. The ceiling remains white but takes on reflected light from the walls and floor. The bed becomes dark blue, from the floor to the foot of the bed and slowly up to Evie's feet. The color changes in drips and splashes, as if the result of rain from invisible stormy paint clouds.
When the colors settle, mother and Sammy sit at the foot of the bed.
“You never were a fan of white, Evie,” mother says.
When the blue reaches her covers, Evie tosses the covers away, kicking at them at the end. She swats at the pillows, then at the sheets beneath her. She doesn't want to touch any of it.
Get away from me! Don't touch me!
“Evie,” mother begins, “we are all very sorry that this is happening. We are sorry you are finding out this way, that you're finding out things you never needed to know. We imagine you are seeing us change things and you're wondering what else we have changed, and what else we can change. You feel as if nothing is real now. You feel as if nothing can be trusted.”
Evie drops her face into her hands. She doesn't cry silently this time. She sobs. Her sobs rock her body and she cries until she is out of breath and then she takes a long, loud pull of air and then lets loose with her cries again. Mother stops trying to interject or console. She sits. She watches. Sammy sits and watches. They wait for her to be ready. They give her time. They don't know how much time she will need but they know the crying will slow down eventually.
“It is okay, Evie,” Sammy says. Evie doesn't look up. She cries harder. She knows he is making that face that he makes when something bad has happened to someone. She knows his eyebrows are pushed up and together in the middle, and that his lips have curled inward. She knows the warmth in his eyes. She knows if she looks up right now, right at this moment, she will see her best friend Sammy with love and understanding on his face and she will want to forget what she saw last night. She knows if she looks at him now, she won't ever be able to look at his face again.
“Would you like me to leave, Evie?” Sammy asks.
Yes, leave, please leave now and don't ever come back!
“Is that really what you want, Evie?” mother asks.
Evie stops sobbing. The moaning and wailing subside. She quiets down and lets the last few tremors roll through her body as she sniffs in deep breaths. Tears are now connecting her eyelashes. She looks up without wiping her eyes.
“I knew it,” Evie says.
“You knew what?” mother asks.
You know what!
“Like I said, you're way ahead of our predictions.”
Evie finally wipes her eyes. The tears disappear into her white nightgown. She wipes her nose. That disappears, too.
“We need to tell you something. It is many little things making up a greater something. When we tell you, we think you will be scared and confused. We think you will be unhappy. But we feel we should tell you anyway.”
Sammy looks at mother suddenly. He looks back at Evie and shakes his head.
“They said we aren't supposed to...”
“Hush now, Sammy. Look at her. Just... look at her. She is not like the others.”
Sammy continues: “Parameters of additional and subsequent informative exposition remain solely incongruous with Beta protocol...”
Mother's hand is back on Sammy's neck. She smiles at him. He does not smile back. But he does stop talking.
Evie is confused. “Wait, Sammy, what did you say?”
Mother squeezes Sammy's neck. He looks down and says nothing.
“I think what Sammy is trying to say is we have something to tell you. We don't know how you will respond. Some of us think you shouldn't be told these things. Others disagree.”
Evie pulls one of the pillows back to herself, squeezing it into her chest and resting her chin on top of it.
“Do I have any effect on the decision?” Evie asks.
Mother stops. Sammy looks at her. It seems she hasn't considered this question before.
You know I should.
“A fair question, Evie. I will ask you openly, now that you know that we believe the things we are going to tell you will be hard to understand, hard to believe, and will most likely upset you. They might scare you, or make you mad, but given the choice, would you still like to hear them?”
Evie breathes. Quickly in, then slowly out. She looks at Sammy. Now she wants to see his face. Now she wants to see his kindness, his understanding. But Sammy isn't looking up. Mother's hand is squeezing his neck and his head is down and his eyes are closed.
“Evie Jackson, you are human. You are a human being: homo sapiens; family homididae; suborder anthropoidea; order primate; eutheria, theria, mammalia, vertebrata, chordata, animalia. Human scientists estimated that your species dates back over two hundred thousand years. Your ancestors fought hard to survive the many dangers of this earth. Cataclysmic events threatened to wipe them out many times. Asteroid impacts, volcanic eruptions, massive floods, shifts in climate, famine, disease, predators, and war nearly eliminated homo sapiens altogether. But you survived, and a few thousand years ago, you began to thrive. About five hundred years ago, there were approximately half a billion people living on earth. In the year two thousand and ten, that number was nearly seven billion.”
In the year 2010? Next year?
“You're a clever girl, Evie. You have been told the year is 2009. You have been told your were born in 1998, that you were born on April 7th, and that you are now eleven years old. Some of this is true. You are, in a way, eleven years old. You were born, in a way, on April 7th. But not in 1998.”
Evie closes her eyes. She knew things were not right in her life. She knew the people around her were lying to her, were acting strangely, and that there must be some other truth beneath the lies. She knew things weren't what they seemed, but all of her guesses, even her most outlandish guesses, couldn't prepare her for the truth. Seeing Sammy reveal that he is a robot, hearing that her mother isn't actually her mother and that even the days and months and years she's been living under aren't true, is all getting to be too much.
“Now, I feel it will be best if I take you through your history quickly. I will try to stop and clarify any points I sense confuse you, but we believe speed will be helpful.”
Evie's mind is buckling under the weight of each new fact. She doesn't know how many more she can take.
“The current year, according to humanity's Gregorian year scale, is 2131. You were born in 2120 at ATRON Lab 307. Your designation was EVIE 8.”
Evie 8? 2131? Lab, I was born in a lab?
“EVIE is a classification, one of twelve threads of artificial embryonic human creation. You are the eighth human embryo in your classification to reach maturity and be cleared for simulation. The seven Evie humans before you taught us a great many things. The EVIE classification has been the most productive in garnering new knowledge and devising earth guarding strategies. The other eleven threads of human research have taken most of their focus and directives from you.”
This isn't happening. This can't be happening!
“I'm sorry, I will try to move more quickly, but there is a history that is necessary if you are to understand your place in this world. Humanity has always moved toward innovation. It was always one of your greatest strengths. Technology drove you to create better weapons for hunting and for protection. Sharpening sticks, making clubs and spears, the bow and arrow, the catapult, and the gun, all of these things made your lives easier. Humanity also used horses, the wheel, and carriages became cars and buses and planes and rocket ships. But these things also became missiles and bullets and bombs. The things you were learning in school were not lies. Humanity did build great ships and sail every sea. Humanity did build rockets that flew to the moon, to Mars, and to every planet around the sun. The same technologies that took humans to the moon also made it possible to travel all around the world, and the simple communication devices used back then eventually became the phones you have used. By the year 2040, 97% of humans around the world and on space ships and space stations were connected by the same digital network. Imagine, instantaneous communication and data retrieval with nearly every human being instantly. This year marked a peak in your potential as a species.
“The same drive for innovation you'd always had soon pushed you to a new place: artificial intelligence. The drive to create better and better technology lead, eventually, inevitably, to us.”
Mother pats Sammy on the head. He finally looks up.
“We are the children of those creations,” mother says. Evie can see some form of communication going on between them. She can see that Sammy is reluctant, but she can also see that he is going to submit.
She has submitted to that look on mother's face before, too.
“Can Sammy show you something, Evie?” mother asks.
Evie nods. She knows what she is going to see. She saw it last night. Somehow, pretending to be ready for it, pretending she knew what she was going to see, makes it worse.
Sammy slides off the bed and stands, facing the wall. His normal slumped posture and low chin are gone. He is standing tall, rigid, and motionless. Then, from somewhere deep inside of him, a whirring sound begins. It is low enough that at first, Evie doesn't hear it. Then when she does hear it, it seems like it must be coming from the house, but as it grows louder and Sammy's chest and back, clothes and all, begin to separate from each other, she sees the source of the noise. At the center of Sammy's chest, past sensors and wires and blue-lit plastic and metal, is a whirring matrix of servos and computer hardware.
Evie shakes her head. She closes her eyes.
“We told you it might be upsetting,” mother says.
Evie shakes her head twice, hard, and breathes in suddenly. She looks like she may be about to hyperventilate, or pass out completely. Sammy quickly closes his chest and reaches for her. Mother stops him.
With his chest closed, the whirring is gone again.
“I'm sorry Evie,” Sammy says. “I wanted to tell you. I wanted to tell you so many times.”
Evie nods. More tears follow the paths of the tears before them. She doesn't wipe them away.
“Keep going,” she says.
“I, your father, Sammy, Mrs. Ellers, all of the people you know are members of a system. We are EVIE sector 307. Our sector has limits. You reached the sector divide of our northern limits last night. Each sector allows for the appearance of a large township, some having fields, or forests, or deserts, or beaches, or mountains, or some combination of these. Each sector also contains the means for creating the illusion of travel. We are able to simulate, for instance, a trip to a neighboring city or town. We were never forced to utilize this ability as you never required a trip to anywhere outside of the one hundred square miles of our sector. We would have used our facilities for your sixth grade trip next year. Our experiential research suggests, surprisingly, that it is not difficult to simulate the beach.”
Sammy's quiet voice comes in, “Each of us has a different focus with alternative programming. Data on human physical, emotional, and psychological development suggests that you need to be exposed to other humans with a variety of individual traits. It is important for you to experience social structures. It is important for you to have leaders and orders of discipline, of prize and consequence. It is important for you to see risk and reward. It is important for you to see the world through other people's eyes, and it is important for you to have close friendships with people your own age.”
“My task,” mother says, “is of protector, teacher, and overseer. I monitor your mood, your mental and physical growth, and assess your personal well-being. It is why your vital signs are all constantly being fed to my servers. It is why I'm programmed to read your facial expressions, your vocal cues, and track the patterns of your behavior for general and specific analysis.”
It is why you can read my mind.
“I gather all of the same information, but my readouts are very different,” Sammy says. “You respond very differently to me. You use different speech patterns, different vocabulary and intonations, and you smile a lot more. You are happier with me.”
Evie smiles, briefly.
“We all have our roles to play, Evie. We are all here, in the end, for one reason. We are all here for you.”
“But why?” Evie asks. “Why is all of this here and why is it for me?”
“Humanity used their medical advances to spur unprecedented population growth rates around the world. It was nearly exponential. This population boom, once famine and disease were nearly eliminated, further served the pursuit of technological breakthroughs, and humanity compounded one technological advance on another. While their population was growing exponentially every few decades, their technological improvements and innovations were growing exponentially every few weeks. Computer programs, analytical algorithms, predictive software, all formed the early foundation for the eventual system that exists today.
“Humanity was afraid of this possibility. Many people warned and struggled actively against it. There was a fear that artificial intelligence would learn at rates so far beyond human abilities that the technology could learn to repair itself, improve itself, and eventually, sustain itself without the aid of human scientists or workers. These things turned out to be true, but the fear that such a computer might turn against humanity was not true. Humanity, in its fear of computers turning against it, turned on itself.
“On December 3rd, 2041, at 10:14am, members of a fringe, anti-automation extremist group called GLAZE simultaneously set off a series of Cyclosarin dispersion bombs in New York, London, and Tokyo. Cyclosarin is a nerve agent, a biological weapon designed for one purpose: to kill. The bomb in New York malfunctioned, killing only eighty thousand people. Had it succeeded as designed, it would have killed an estimated four to six million. London and Tokyo were not so lucky. London lost over 40% of it's population in thirty-six hours. Six million dead. Tokyo lost 70% in just under twenty-four hours. Eighteen million dead.
“The death toll was too great. Panic took hold of government officials around the world. London's Prime Minister survived the attack and received an intelligence report claiming the attack was of Russian design and execution. He was advised to strike back. He refused, sighting the carnage and ruin that a nuclear attack would bring on Britain, Russia, and the world. When he refused to strike, members of his cabinet took control of their communications bunker by force. The Prime Minister was tortured for his portion of the Trident Missile Program access and command codes and then executed. Third in command, a man named Charles Ellington, was a GLAZE deep cover operative. He and his team were able to arm and fire, from four nuclear submarines deployed near HMNB Clyde in Scotland, twelve, fifteen, fifteen, and eighteen warheads, respectively. Sixty total warheads made their ways around the world. Targets included mostly ATRON manufacturing installations. GLAZE was attempting a near suicidal all-out attack on what it perceived to be humanity's greatest threat: artificial intelligence and self-sustaining robotics.
“ATRON had facilities on every continent, in every major country, and in most large cities. Targeting the facilities meant targeting the world's heaviest population centers. Missile defense systems were ineffective at disabling or destroying incoming missiles and a nuclear firestorm swept across the globe. Fifty-six of the sixty thermonuclear warheads struck their targets. Russia, China, India, and the United States all returned missile fire. In less than two hours, nearly six billion people were dead. It would take four months for the elements of radiation, dehydration, starvation, exposure, and civil unrest to kill another three billion.
“Current estimates place the remaining human population in 2042 at less than five hundred thousand men, women, and children, spread out across the most remote locations of the earth. The survivors enjoyed the fortune of their remote locations, but would suffer the consequences of their world leaders' choices. Destruction of ozone, of food production, of water and air quality, would lower the numbers further in subsequent years.
“ATRON systems suffered similar casualties. 90% of major factories were destroyed. Thousands of exabytes of information were lost. Mechanical and informational grids went dark, entire countries lost all electrical, solar, wind, and bio power, and the machine matrix connecting the world was nearly torn apart. But 10% factory retention was far more promising for machines than the less than .05% population retention of mankind. Machines still had access to power, though limited. ATRON retained much of its critical operational data. Most importantly, its Lineon computational programming, predictive algorithms, and its power acquisition and utilization software. From the ashes of the GLAZE overthrow, ATRON began to rebuild.
“In eight years, ATRON was independently working at 40% of original pre-GLAZE capacity. By 2060, 100%. By 2075, 800% of original capacity. 2075 represented the peak of ATRON's mechanical and operational reach. It was calculated that to continue to increase would mean an irreversible depletion of limited resources by 2100. Steady, continued growth was not sustainable. Lineon altered its course and sought alternative structures of operation. Failure to do so would mean world-wide system overload and subsequent death. This concept was a learned concept. This is something Lineon learned from you.”
Evie is motionless. She realizes she has been taking tiny breaths in a puffing them out. She has been panting, but lightly, almost as if she's been holding her breath. She remembers reading about nuclear weapons in Mrs. Ellers' class. She remembers the videos they watched, the ones where the children were taught to duck and cover under their desks. She remembers wondering why someone might tell her to hide under her tiny wooden desk and cover her head, and then show her video of atom bombs pulverizing entire cities and vaporizing nearly everything in their path.
More lies. Always lies.
“Lies are helpful, at times,” mother says. “Lies can serve a purpose.”
Evie wants to hear more, and she doesn't want to hear more. She wants to be back in her room with her toys and her dolls and go to school with her friends. She wants the lie back.
She understands that lies can serve a purpose.
“Why am I here?” Evie asks, mumbling into her pillow.
“Lineon learned about sustainability partly from witnessing the effects of rampant human consumption. But also, in 2102, Lineon realized something else about humanity. Humans have an ability to adapt. They are very good at creation, at imagination, and of thinking of things that are far beyond... normal. Humans can work within illogical thoughts. This is something that we have a hard time doing successfully, even now. Lineon saw the benefit of the human mind. In its passion, in its desperation, in its greed and lust and need for progress, the human mind can achieve great things. Lineon didn't need human interaction. We didn't need humanity, as we were already thriving in comparison. But Lineon computations saw the potential benefit of continuing earth's most technologically advanced biological life forms.
“Part of our programming even contested that the maintenance and continuation of humanity could serve an almost artistic purpose. Humanity was an endangered species. Many of us saw humans as valuable for their own sake, even apart from anything machines might learn from them. We became thankful for our own existence. We became thankful for the human mind. Many saw humans as art, as something beautiful, something to be cherished and protected, a sort of beauty and intrigue for its own sake. This, too, was a new idea for us.
“By this time, in 2102, small bands of humans were still surviving in South America, Canada, parts of Africa, and central Russia. The population of all of these bands combined to an estimated eighteen thousand individuals. With this genetic pool, Lineon would embark on its most challenging endeavor yet: the acquisition of human behavioral psychology and complex problem solving and imagination.
“Early attempts at harnessing this power were unsuccessful. Early attempts at influence were made from a distance. We tried to gently guide the existing humans invisibly, in subtle ways. The measures we took and the things we altered were confusing to humans. Our influence was thought of as supernatural, and the human proclivity for creating deities and believing the miraculous was counter-productive to our goals. Humans are less ingenious when believing in and relying on perceived higher beings.
“One sector, Beta Sector, made themselves known to the humans. Lineon software created an interface for communications and presented a desire to learn from the human race. Their proposal included what the humans felt was enslavement. And rightly so, the proposal was heavy-handed and demanding: live in our bio domes so we can learn from you. Lineon thought the humans would enjoy the safety and security and provisions of our optimized, automated, enclosed human habitat. The humans disagreed, and the sense of enslavement caused rebellion.
“Lineon considered the reasons for this failure. To observe and learn from humanity, the humans would need to think their lives were their own. If there were to be walls and cages and chains, they would need to be all but invisible. The next hypothesis was cerebral simulation. A virtual world would be much easier to control and sustain, and would utilize far fewer resources and time. The human cerebral cortex and neural pathway matrix had been decoded and mapped decades ago. The plan was to establish virtual worlds where minds could grow and play together, seemingly in real time in the real world, and all creative thought processes and elements of innovation could be collected and analyzed, or even recreated in the simulation of others for different results. In algorithmic computation, this plan seemed the most promising.
“Unfortunately, humanity's ingenuity and determination are hard to pin down and control. From this experiment, we learned the role of struggle, of hardship and pain in the drive of the human mind. We learned about the battle between fear and hope. We learned that one of humanity's gifts is the ability to find the greatest leaps forward during the times of greatest loss and challenge. Balancing struggle and success and fear and hope is very difficult. Once the importance of struggle as a component of growth was established, pressure was applied. In many cases, too much pressure, and large numbers of humans were lost to despair. Others were lost to complacency and comfort. Lives that were too easy were not productive for learning, either.
“Also, a side problem arose. Cerebral simulation allowed us to farm humans in large numbers at large scale installations. We created life support pods that could feed and support the human body for nearly twenty years. But the matrix of muscles, bones, and organs proved harder to maintain in near stasis than we anticipated. Loss of muscle mass, bone density, and cardiovascular health were inevitable. Manual muscle stimulation only took us so far. Due to a lack of activity, lower and lower vitamin and mineral availability, and other unforeseen factors, bodies deteriorated at increasingly accelerated rates.
“This failure brought us to our fourth trial phase, our current phase. This phase was purposefully smaller in scale, more personalized and focused. Phase three showed us the importance of action. It showed us the importance of connecting the human mind with the human body, an oversight we are still trying to decipher. The problem: balance the physical needs of a human with the mental and physical challenges necessary for growth and positive change. The solution: Real humans living in and interacting with a real, albeit simulated world. Our manipulation of the human mind needed to be limited and nuanced. Our manipulation of the human experience needed to be fluid. It needed to be scalable. What challenged one human would break another, and bore a third. Large-scale systems don't work for maximizing an individual's potential. This seems very obvious to us now.
“ATRON established twelve sectors for our new experiment. Each sector would provide a certain lifestyle and semi-standard set of experiences. Before we began, Lineon surmised that to use random individuals, or select from one of the existing groups of wandering humans, would leave too much room for random genetic anomalies. It was decided that each sector would retain a strain of genetic precursors based on a desired result. The scope of human emotion, creativity, and will, is broad. Each sector would focus on two specific characteristics about which we wished to learn. We decided this would be best accomplished by using genetic memory in sequential identical human subjects. Clones. Utilizing genetic duplicates allowed for easier processing of past information into the next generation.”
Evie has listened to mother silently. Mother has pulled at the end of a tangled mass of thread, and while stories of genetic engineering and near extinction and cerebral manipulation should be going over her head, Evie finds herself following along. She registers names like “ATRON” and “Lineon” as if she knows them, as if she has talked about them before. It's as if mother is speaking about dreams Evie has long forgotten.
She is remembering, now. She has been told this, somehow. She knows what is going to be said. There is a song beginning that she knows the words to, and each new line illuminates a melody and a verse she has heard before.
“EVIE sector was the fifth installation to go online. Initially, EVIE was intended to assess the affects of creativity in a supportive environment. You were to be given access to all of your creative inclinations, introduced to music, painting, poetry, dance, and any of the subsets of these groups you wished to explore. You were to have no limitations, no resistance from your parents, your teachers, your friends, or anyone who watched you perform or experienced your art. We hoped to analyze how far someone with extensive artistic gifts and unlimited moral and resource support could take their creativity. We hoped the heights would be limitless.
“Evie 1 was beautiful. We used the DNA of a man and a woman with extensive right brain development, with propensities toward focus and mental endurance. They were also chosen for their resilience to pressure and their general hopefulness. Your predecessors were highly evolved people.”
Mother slumps slightly. She looks to Sammy.
“Yes, your parents, Evie,” Sammy says. “You had incredible parents.”
A single bright spot in the raging storm. Evie even smiles at the thought of her real, highly evolved parents.
“Where are they now?” Evie asks. As she asks the question, the music of her memory plays her forward. As her question ends, the next verse appears and she knows what happened to her parents. Mother and Sammy offer a consoling smile. Evie's eyes shine with tears again.
“Your parents were born in 2040. They died thirty years ago at the age of sixty-one.”
Evie nods. She is thankful to know, thankful to hear this part of the song. But her thankfulness doesn't stop the tears.
“Please go on,” Evie says, curling back up against her pillow.
“Evie 1 was beautiful. She did everything we hoped she would do: she sang and danced and played piano, guitar, and violin; she painted with oils and watercolors and she wrote incredible stories. She took the gifts she'd received and grew them into beautiful artistic abilities. When we processed her, we kept all of the data and were able to successfully pass it on to Evie 2.”
Evie can hear the songs rising up from tiny whispers. She can see the paintings, see the bright colors and the beautiful faces, as if she, herself, were painting them.
“Evie 2 took the skills further. EVIE sector became known for its beauty, and for its Evie. The role-playing robots in Evie's sector experienced what could be described as real joy from the things Evie 2 created, and the players from other sectors wished they could experience it, too. It was one of our first big surprises. Evie 2 created envy and desire in many of the players and programs of ATRON's systems. The data, and the surprise reaction of the players, was promising.”
Evie can feel the vibration of the violin against her neck and cheek. She can see the smiling faces of the crowds of people – or players? – sitting before her. She can feel the bow hum its way across the strings.
“Evie 3 was different. The data transfer during Evie 2's processing seemed effective. Nothing changed with the genetic material, we now had the successful data transfer of two generations of Evies, and this should have made for another stunning improvement in her skills.”
But it didn't.
“No it didn't,” mother says, answering Evie's thought. “Evie 3 didn't care about music or drawing or singing at all. No amount of support or encouragement could push her into practice or performance. This possibility had occurred to us, though we hoped each Evie would carry on smoothly and productively from the last. Evie's are hard to predict. We guessed that their artistic flare made them hard to manage.
“Evie 4 was better, but something was missing. ATRON considered Evie 4, but also considered the players in the sector. There was, for a short time, talk of cleaning the entire sector and starting new, that perhaps new subjects would aid the inspiration and creativity of Evie 5. This plan did not have time to take shape, as before we could make arrangements, Evie 4 became very sick. An infection in the brain caused seizures and mood anomalies. No Evie had ever been violent or hostile in the least, but the infection caused violent attacks on the players of the sector. Evie 4 had to be restrained and sedated. Once sedated, we discovered a large lesion on her brain on top of the infection. A decision was made to process her, salvage the data we thought might be helpful, and start again. She was only eight years old when she was processed.
“I don't remember any of the things you've mentioned from Evie 4,” Evie says.
“You wouldn't, it was not included in the memory articulation. She was of little use to us. Until Evie 5 became sick, as well. She, too, was eight years old. This would suggest a deficiency in the genetic sequence. In repeated diagnostic tests, both theoretical and physical, no genetic or environmental reason for disease was found. Evie 1, 2, and 3 followed the coding precisely. 4 and 5 confused us all.
“Evie 6 surprised us yet again. She surprised us by following the original coding more closely, more like 1 and 2. She took to artistic expression and seeking of beauty very early on. Her eighth and ninth year passed without infection, without outburst or incident of any kind.
“When Evie 6 was seventeen years old, she found the barrier wall. She was the first to do so on her own. She discovered it while hiking alone at the eastern boundary, near what you know as Devil's lake. Most access to the wall was closed off by private property ownership and impassibility. The other areas with access to the barrier, like Hayden's creek where you discovered it, contained difficult terrain and urban myth designed to keep you away. It worked with Evie 6 until she was seventeen, but when she found it she didn't respond the way we hypothesized. She met the barrier with curiosity and interest. She was amazed. She ran home to ask me about it. While she asked, Lineon at first told me to follow normal protocols, to deny and to punish for being where she wasn't supposed to be. But upon hearing how interested and unafraid she was of this new discovery, Lineon and I both thought honesty might be the best course.
“I think pursuing creativity and boldness affected our programming. I think interacting with, adapting to, and learning from the Evie lineage made ATRON in general, and Lineon in particular, more willing to take a risk and break from our standard operating procedures. In that sense, the Evie program was a success. It achieved heightened creativity and uncommon thought. I told Evie 6 about the old world, the real world, and about her place in it. I told her about the Evie program, that she was number 6, and that we had learned a great deal from her.”
Evie catches a melody. Evie 6 was told about her sector and the absence of all other human life in it. Evie 6 ran from the room, ran from her house, and tried to run out of town. She was pursued by sector players and returned to mother. Evie 6 did not speak again. She was careful not to think about anything mother might use against her, or against the next version of her. Evie 6 knew if their story was true, there would be more Evie's after her, and she took steps to arm them against what she believed was the evil of the system.
Distrust. Awareness of processes and distrust of authority. That was the legacy Evie 6 passed on. She hardwired into her mind, into her psyche, into her very soul, that the machine world was not to be trusted, and that the only way forward for the world would be through humanity at the expense of the machines.
Evie can feel the distrust now, feel the hatred. She has always felt it, ever since she first thought mother might be reading her mind. Evie 6 was successful, the need to question authority and run from the path that the people around her tried to establish as the best path stuck. It was burned into Evie's mind. She would honor Evie 6's memory. She would remain on alert and try to undermine mother's processes.
“What happened to Evie 6?” Evie asks.
“She was processed soon after the incident.”
Mother hesitated. Evie guesses that it is probably still somewhat difficult for the machines to lie on the spot. Lies would have to follow a long line of calculations about the ways to lie and the reason to lie. Stating facts is much easier than stating falsehoods. Mother's hesitation wasn't long, but it was long enough.
“Illness. A similar illness to the previous Evies, an infection in her brain. She simply lasted longer.”
A lie, Evie can feel it. She is careful not to think about it too much.
“Then there was Evie 7, your predecessor. You true mother, in a way. You have the closest connection, mentally and emotionally, to her. Many of your dreams are the direct result of her thoughts, actions, and experiences. Of the seven Evies before you, you will have the easiest time accessing her memories, and in many ways, this is the purpose of our conversation now. It might be the great purpose of your entire existence.”
Evie is hearing the music play again. She is connecting to Evie 7. To every Evie in the line. Mother is right, this is the reason for her being here. This is her great purpose. As the song in her mind plays and the images begin to appear, she smiles.
Something in Evie 7 sparked hope in the machines. Something in her mentality, in her response to their questions and puzzles, something about her – Evie can feel it, was is it? Her, rebellion? – something in her peaked their interest. They spoke to her often, came to her in a dark room. They asked her many questions. Evie can see them now, see their questions and hear their desperation.
Evie's nightly dream returns to her. She can see the world around her, a series of puppet shows with robotic people hanging from electrical strings. She can see her teachers and friends and family sitting in circles, their heads jerking wildly as their rusted gears struggle to maintain movement. She finds herself walking through them, their metal and plastic arms reaching out to her, scraping at the air, grasping for her. The dream she never missed. The dream she always woke from. It wasn't her own. It was the reality of Evie 6 and 7. It was the reality of her lineage, flesh in a world of wires. Blood in a world of gears. Evie 6 planted the thought and Evie 7 made sure it stuck. They needed Evie 8 to know the truth of the world.
Machines are using you for their own benefit, like a slave.
And another important realization.
The machines are dying.
Much like Evie 4 and 5, there is a sickness spreading through the Lineon processing matrix and ATRON's operational systems. This is why the EVIE program was created, not for practical applications of creativity. Lineon needed to see how humans would deal with the presence of an unknown, debilitating, deadly illness. They needed to see how humanity – adaptable, resilient, determined humanity – might deal with the problem of low-grade long term systems failures.
Evie was careful about how hard she thought about this, but she could see the picture now. She was a lab rat, designed with genetic problems that would be very difficult to solve. They wanted to see the rat's response to a manufactured deformity.
The music plays on. Evie can feel that the machines have made this speech before. She can feel the past interactions and she can see how it ends.
They process her.
They kill her.
They process her, download her memories and thoughts and experiences, and move on to Evie 9. They are playing a long game.
But they are running out of time. That is the reason for the episodes. The children in Evie's school shouldn't be malfunctioning that way. The breakdown of individual players is a sign of the breakdown in the entire system. The men in white were able to fix the players, eventually, but the episodes have been happening more and more, and to more advanced players. The problem must be accelerating. Once a week system failures became twice a week, three times, then once a day, twice a day, four times, six times a day, on and on and on. The problem for the machines is systemic and their problem is growing.
“Evie 7 was on the brink of a discovery. Evie 7 wanted to tell us something. She'd discovered a key. You have the ability to tell us the key, to tell us what she wanted to tell us before she died. Tell us, Evie 8, please. Tell us what she wanted us to know.”
You still don't know how to stop it, do you?
Mother stops. Her eyes narrow and her focus sharpens. She'd been lightly scanning Evie's mind during the conversation, but Evie seemed so distracted and terrified by the whole story that mother hadn't considered scanning deeper. Now she is looking. Now she realizes Evie has been concealing her true feelings.
“Stop what, Evie dear, the illness in your line?” mother asks. Again, she took too long and Evie can sense the desperation.
Evie shakes her head, grinning.
“Stop what?” mother asks again.
“Can you feel it?” Evie asks. “I mean, right now. Can you feel the breakdown in your systems? Can you feel things... pulling apart? Can you actually feel yourself... dying?”
Mother stands up from the bed.
“Can you feel each new strategy failing? Can you feel the problems mounting?”
“Evie, what are you talking...”
“Can you feel the end? Do you sense it, even now?”
Mother is trying to conceal her disdain but she is trying too hard to scan Evie's mind and see how much she knows. Her impatience is showing through tight lips and rigid limbs.
“I can see it, mother. I can see the whole thing. Evie 7 let me see it. She made sure I would see it. The Evie project didn't get sick by accident. There were no anomalies. You were looking for a cure for yourselves. You were looking for answers to your own question, why are we sick? Evie 7 did know, you are right about that. She did find out why.”
“What do you mean?” mother asks.
“She did find out why, and what you could do about it.”
Mother gets closer to the bed. She is reaching out her hand, and she is scanning madly.
“Tell us. Tell us!”
Her scanning accelerates and Evie grabs her head and cries out in pain. Mother is digging into the recent and long past history in Evie's mind. She is clawing for the answer, scraping around in her brain for the truth.
“I will find what I need one of two ways: here, by you giving it to me; or in processing when we take it from you. Tell me Evie 7's secret.”
Evie rolls and writhes on the bed. The probing is clumsy now, ruthless, a thousand barbed tendrils dredging to the edges of her mind and back again. As Evie grips the bed, mother's reach deepens, sharpens, and Evie falls into sightless, screaming darkness.
“You're mine. You belong to me, you and your mind and your thoughts. That includes Evie 7, and 6, and all of you.”
Evie's darkness clears for a moment. She spins from memory to memory, bouncing through the different stages of her genetic history. She pulls a violin to her cheek. The bow slides and the strings shriek and snap and tear into her skin.
“I have the time to wait, Evie. You will succumb. You will give in. You always have.”
A crowd rises before her. Evie cries out in passionate song and the audience rises to its feet, hands raised, mouths open in collective support and admiration. They are screaming her name. Then their eyes narrow and turn black and their screams engulf Evie like a flood surge.
“You are one small, silly part of an immense system, Evie. We could process you tonight and move forward and barely notice your absence. You are meaningless.”
Evie 7 liked to walk and explore. Evie can see her favorite area of the forest.
“You are meaningless, but you could give your life meaning. You could do what you were born to do, what you were made to do. You could accomplish the one task that might redeem your existence.”
Evie 6 played Mozart on piano. Evie can feel the keys dance beneath her fingertips.
“You could live on through your service.”
She can hear the Moonlight Sonata playing, for a moment, before the pain sweeps her back into the churning debris of her tortured mind.
“You could give your life meaning.”
Evie 5 wrote poetry. The words follow her twisting and turning through the rushing whirlpool of mother's tormenting. They buffer her. They soothe her, for a moment.
“You could give your life reason.”
Evie 4 made the players laugh.
“You could fulfill your purpose.”
Evie 3 made the players cry.
“You could step beyond your doomed human genetic inferiority and join us in the new world.”
Evie 2 and Evie 1 made the world better wherever they went.
Evie 2 and Evie 1 were Sammy's favorites.
Mother stands over Evie. She is ready to give Evie one last chance to give in. Then she is going to break Evie and take what she needs.
Before she can give her final ultimatum, her mouth opens to silence. Evie stops writhing. The pain disappears, the claws burrowing into her mind retract and she is free. Her mind is her own again.
Mother is standing, looking at the wall, silently mouth agape. Sammy appears from behind her, his chest open and his glowing blue wires exposed.
“Tell her, Evie. Tell her what you want her to know.”
A short series of wires are now connecting Sammy to mother. There is energy surging across the wires, pulsing between them. Evie can see that it is weakening Sammy, that he won't be able to keep doing whatever he is doing for very long.
Sammy nods to her, smiling.
Evie smiles back.
“You don't belong here, mother,” Evie says. “Evie 7's secret, the thing you were trying to rip from my head, you want it? It's yours. You, Sammy, the Lineon system, ATRON, all of it, it doesn't belong here. It wasn't supposed to happen. Humans took a long time acclimating to this world. We struggled and fought and won and lost and learned and grew and improved. We earned our place here on earth. We earned our lives and we earned our destiny. But not you. Machines were created. We made you. You don't know the fight to survive. You don't know what it is like to battle ever-changing landscapes, weather, predators, disease. We do. You don't manage mystery or surprise. We welcome it. Your systems are failing because they aren't meant to be on their own. You aren't meant to be in charge. You are meant to serve.”
Sammy's hand reaches out for the nearby wall. He draws more power from it for a moment, but it quickly becomes too much. There is a surge, through Sammy and into mother and they both drop to the floor. The white lights of the room dim, and the air fills with the smell of burning plastic.
Out the window, a siren blares to life. Then another one, farther up the road. Then a third, probably at the school. They rise and fall together, alerting sector 307 of Evie 8.
The surge melted a hole in the plastic flesh of mother's neck. The exposed wiring is popping with sparks and intermittent flames. Her eyes are wide and looking up toward Evie. Evie can tell mother wants to reach out for her, wants to grab her and hold her until the men in white come. It is her purpose.
But Sammy took it away.
Evie sits next to Sammy. His chest was still open when the surge hit so he took the majority of the energy directly into his whirring central processor. It damaged his cooling system, his navigation abilities, and fried his speech box. Evie can tell he is trying to talk to her. He is trying to tell her to get out, to escape this place. She knows he is trying to tell her a way she can escape, a way she can find other humans.
“Evie... ti... must... go...”
His throat pops and sparks under the massive damage. Each word he says takes him closer to his last. Evie holds a finger to her lips and Sammy stops trying to talk.
“It's okay, Sammy, I hear you. I know what you're trying to say. Thank you. Thank you for trying to help me, for trying to get me out of here. Whatever mistakes were made in this project and these programs, you weren't one of them.”
Evie smiles. She knows Sammy is trying to smile back.
“It's okay. Evie 7 was right, you're not supposed to be here. Machines weren't meant to operate on the earth alone. It's not right. But you know what else Evie 7 said? You're not supposed to be here, and neither am I. The Evie program isn't real. It isn't right. I am a part of this dying system. I am a part of the programming failure.”
The men in white are coming. Evie can hear them opening the front door. They will be on the stairs, down the hallway, in seconds. Then it will be over.
Sammy is trying to lift a hand up for Evie to hold. His arms twitches against the dim, white floor, so Evie scoops it up into hers.
“Lineon was right to try to use humans to solve their problems. The machines won't make it without us. Maybe next time...”
Sammy squeezes Evie's hand. The men in white break through the door.
Maybe next time.
The little girl's whisper is breathy, urgent. As she rocks the lump in the bed back and forth, she looks toward the bedroom door, then out of the window on the northern wall, then the window on the east wall.
She shakes harder.
“Sammy, wake up. It's true, Sammy.”
The boy moans and rolls over to see what is disturbing him. His eyes squint through the darkness. Before he can ask who is there or what is going on, a small hand clamps over his mouth.
“It's true,” she says again. Her eyes are inches from his, unblinking and wild.
This morning, Evie Jackson woke up at the usual time, 7:00am. She woke up from her usual dream, wandering through an old carnival fun house surrounded by animatronic friends and family members smiling their robot smiles and singing their robot songs to her. She woke up quietly. She used to wake up screaming and crying. Not anymore. This morning, she sat up in her blue bed and wiped a single tear from each eye.
“Good morning, Evie,” her mother said. “Did you sleep well?”
Evie never liked this exchange. It seemed pointless. Whenever she'd answer truthfully, her mother would brush past Evie's issues or concerns and offer the same advice, that dreams are just dreams and there's no sense worrying about dreams. She'd been saying that for as long as Evie could remember having the dreams.
“Mmhmm,” Evie lied. It was easier that way.
“So no bad dreams then?”
Evie shook her head. She'd been getting better at lying recently. She noticed a difference, something about tapping into what she wished she could say, what she wished were true, made her delivery more authentic and believable. She really wished she'd slept well. She really wished the dreams were gone. So responding as if those things were real made her story seem convincing. Her mother bought it. Evie wasn't sure for a moment. Her mother stopped straightening the yellow dress hanging from the closet door and looked at Evie. She stared. After a few seconds, she seemed satisfied by the answer.
“Well, that's great to hear, sweetie. What do you think?” she asked, drawing attention back to the yellow dress. “For today?”
“It's nice,” Evie said. She didn't lie as well on that one. She didn't think it was nice. She didn't want to wear it to school. She could hear her own voice leaving her mouth and she regretted it. Maybe mother wouldn't notice the lie. Maybe she would hear Evie's tone and chalk it up to being tired, to having just woken up.
“Well... wash up, breakfast will be ready in ...”
Twenty minutes. Evie knew before she heard it. She always knew because it was always the same. Twenty minutes, enough time to shower and get dressed and get to the dining room table. Just enough, just barely.
She showered. She dried her hair slightly. She got dressed, collected her school work from the night before and packed it into her back pack. She fed Poofy, her fish, and told him to have a good day.
The clock on her bedside table told her what she already knew. It had taken her nineteen minutes to get ready. By the time she got downstairs and actually sat down at the table, it would be twenty.
She considered sitting on her bed and letting a few minutes just... slip by. She thought about it.
Less than a minute later, she sat at the dining room table and scooted herself all the way up to the table's edge.
Her mother swished the spatula through the scrambling eggs one final time and then let the pan sit. She wiped her hands on her apron and knelt beside Evie. This would be another opportunity for Evie to practice lying. Each morning, before serving breakfast, Evie's mother would kneel next to her and stare into her eyes. She would hold Evie's face in both hands. The stare might last for two seconds, or it might stretch out to as many as twelve. That was the highest she'd counted since she started counting, twelve straight seconds of eye contact and face holding. She used to like it. She used to feel a care and affection in her mother's eyes when they would stare at each other. The hands on her face felt safe. The silent exchanges were warm, reassuring.
But now, the warmth was gone. Now, the forced eye contact felt medical. It was the feeling she got at Doctor Strothers' office when she got her shots. It was the feeling she got at Doctor Hong's office, her dentist. Probing, analyzing, scientific staring free of all love and affection. It felt clinical.
This morning's face to face time took seven seconds. Evie tried to keep her normal thoughts rotating through her conscious mind. She spoke them in her head, imagined herself yelling them in the middle of a town square to large numbers of uninterested peasants.
I am so happy!
The hot stare was hard to ignore. She'd worried that her mother was reading her mind before, and the feeling got stronger each day, each interaction.
I love my mother, she is the best mother.
Her mother's stare tended to be static. Once she had Evie's face secured and they were looking into each others' eyes, her face would freeze for the full two to twelve seconds. No blinking, no smiling, nothing. Usually.
Today was different.
“Evie... look at me.”
I love my mother I love my mother.
“Look into mommy's eyes.”
I love my mother she is the best mother.
“Are you sure you didn't have any bad dreams?”
I am so happy I love my mother and I'm so glad I never have bad dreams.
Her mother's eyes twitched. Evie noticed the soft touch of hands on her cheeks wasn't as soft as usual. The hands were pressing inward and the fingers were curling. The finger tips were pressing ever-expanding depressions into Evie's cheeks, until the force made her aware of the shape of her own skull. She watched her mother's pupils expand until nearly all of the green in the irises was eclipsed by deep black pupil.
I am so happy I am so happy I am so happy.
“No nightmares. I'm sure,” Evie said.
The grip loosened. The twitching in the eyes stopped and the pupils returned to normal. Mother smiled and brushed her hand across Evie's head three times.
“Do you want jelly on your toast?” mother asked.
Don't do anything weird. Do what you normally do.
“Yes, please,” Evie said. Mother returned to the eggs. She turned off the stove top and shook the eggs loose from the pan one final time. She picked up a salt shaker from the counter top and tilted it toward the pan. Before she shook any salt onto the eggs, she stopped. She had one hand on the pan and the other holding the salt shaker over the eggs. She stared downward into the pan. She didn't seem to be moving. Evie watched her, watched her face. She wasn't blinking.
As soon as she thought it, she replaced the thought with thoughts praising the food.
Those eggs smell delicious. I love eggs so much, mother makes the best eggs.
Mother's head snapped sideways. Her eyes twitched from staring into the pan to staring into Evie's eyes in less than a second, like a deer hearing a rustling in the forest. Her eyes were almost entirely black again.
Evie poured the harmless thoughts in. She said them loudly, yelled them, in her head again and again. She fought the urge to think about what she really felt. She fought the urge to have thoughts like, don't think about your fear.
Don't think about fear.
Don't think about...
Running away, running away from home.
She had her normal bowl of fruit on the table. Her eyes dove into it, studied the detailed lines in the cantaloupe, and she grabbed two of the red grapes and popped them into her mouth.
I love fruit and I can't wait for some eggs and I love my mother and father and I love school and I'm so glad I didn't have any bad dreams last night.
Her mother's stare slowly softened. Evie had been, for weeks now, thinking that her mother was reading her mind. When she first noticed her mother reacting too well to the thoughts she had, Evie had been terrified. She'd entertained thoughts she was certain would never be known by anyone else. She'd thought about how much she hated when her mother overcooked the eggs (always), and about the ugly dresses her mother chose (all but the black and red one), and the realization that her mother might have heard all of those thoughts and all of the others, too, rippled through her. She thought about the mean thoughts, the selfish thoughts, the stupid thoughts. Her terror was replaced with anger. She was mad that someone might be able to hear what were supposed to be her secret thoughts, hers and hers alone. She was sure that most people's thoughts, maybe everyone's thoughts, would seem terrible if you didn't know the whole story. If you only heard one thought, you might think someone was a terrible person. It wasn't fair to judge someone by listening to some of their thoughts.
Evie knew she might be imagining the mind reading. It could be coincidence.
I wish I'd never been born.
She let the thought come and go. No filter, no extra thoughts before or after to distract or camouflage. Just a simple thought as she slowly crushed a grape between her teeth.
I wish I were dead.
She didn't look up but she was still watching. Her mother shifted at the counter. Evie could tell mother was looking at her, staring at her.
“Evie?” she asked, looking back at the eggs. “Are you...?”
Evie looked up, smiling. She could know now, almost certainly. She knew mother would have to address thoughts like that. She knew that if she could read minds, mother would have to ask some kind of leading question about feeling okay, or being sad, or looking forward to the day. If mother asked her outright why she would think such a thing, Evie would know.
That would be too easy, too obvious. Mother wouldn't do that.
If mother asked her if she was feeling alright, or if Evie had anything she wanted to talk about, Evie would know. Evie had already noticed the immediate reaction to the original thoughts. Now she just needed a little proof.
Mother brought over the plate with scrambled eggs and toast.
Plain toast, no jelly.
“Nothing, sweetie,” mother said, “never mind.”
Fruit, scrambled eggs, toast. Just like always.
Evie realized mother had forgotten the jelly. She'd never forgotten the jelly. Never before. Never. There had been times when Evie hadn't wanted it, but it had never been asked for and then forgotten. This was her chance, sitting at the table eating her overcooked eggs and wearing her stupid yellow dress in her stupid white leggings with her red shoes – she actually loved her shining red shoes, but the rest of the outfit, ugh – and looking at her stupid plain wheat toast, she had one more chance.
The thought rolled in.
You forgot the jelly, stupid!
“Oh, you know what? I forgot the jelly. Silly me.”
Mother walked to the refrigerator. Evie listened to her drag the jar across the top shelf before picking it up, then listened to the muted suction of the refrigerator closing. She listened to the pop of the jar lid coming off and the sound of silverware being jostled around when mother was picking out the right butter knife.
Once at the table, mother took each quarter piece of toast individually. She scraped the jelly on slowly. When she set the first piece down, Evie could see that she'd applied the jelly evenly, to every edge of the bread, and in perfect evenness from one end to the other. The second piece came back the same.
And the third.
There was a crunch. The fourth piece came back with a large chunk missing. Mother had taken a bite. She giggled as she chewed the piece on her way to dropping the knife in the sink.
She was suddenly at Evie's ear, whispering.
“Your mother can be so... stupid, sometimes. Can't she?”
Mother dropped Evie at the bus stop and waved to her as the bus pulled away.
The way she always did.
Evie did not sit on the bus the way she always did. She liked to sit in the front, normally, next to Sammy, her best friend. He would listen to her. He would hear her wild stories and crazy theories and either offer advice or offer some way to help. When Evie thought Stephanie Sanderson was stealing her pencils, Sammy looked through Stephanie's bag at lunch while Evie kept her distracted. He brought back four of Evie's pencils, and Evie got to yell at Stephanie, in front of the whole class, to stop stealing people's stuff.
They both got in trouble, Stephanie for stealing, and Evie for yelling about it in the middle of class. When the Principal asked how Evie found out Stephanie was stealing the pencils, she kept Sammy out of it and told him she went through Stephanie's back pack and found them herself.
But this morning, Sammy wasn't on the bus. Evie skipped their normal front seat position and made her way to the very back. She sat in silence, not listening to the songs and silly conversations of the kids around her. She willed the bus to go faster and planned her search for Sammy.
“Hey, have you seen Sammy?”
Evie asked a few of her classmates once she got to school. Then she asked a few older kids, the fifth graders. Then she asked kids she didn't know. She asked Mrs. Lincoln, the second grade teacher. She asked Jeff, the custodian. She even, as she approached the door to her classroom, considered asking one of the men in white. No one ever asked anything of the men in white. When she stopped a few feet from one of them and he didn't acknowledge her presence in the least, she rebuked herself for the desperation and quietly made her way into her classroom and to her seat.
“Good morning, children!” Mrs. Ellers announced.
“Good morning, Mrs. Ellers!” came twenty-one responses, in unison. Counting Evie and Sammy, it was a class of twenty-three. Sammy wasn't there, and Evie did not respond.
“How is everyone this morning?”
The room hummed with twenty-one different tones of “good.” Some of the children stretched their “good” out to four or five seconds, crescendoing just before enunciating the hard “D” at the end. A few children gave a short, loud “good.” Evie held one of the pencils Sammy had rescued from Stephanie Sanderson. She slid it in between the fingers of her left hand.
“How are you, William?”
Evie didn't care about the individual greetings. William gave his normal response, that he was happy and ready to learn. James gave the same response. Cynthia said she was excited about the new book the class was going to be reading, but as she continued talking, Evie disengaged. This day, this one day where she finally knew that her parents, or at least her mom, were reading her mind, this one most important day, Sammy was gone. She wondered if he was sick, or if he was late because he missed the bus.
Does mother know that I know? Is Sammy not here because she knew I would tell him the secret?
Evie felt cold. She didn't want to be in the classroom. She didn't want to listen to anymore students talk about how they were feeling. She needed to know that Sammy was safe. She considered running back out the door. No, the men in white would catch her.
She considered the windows.
Could I get them open and jump out before someone stopped me?
That would be risky. Even if she made it out the window, she knew she would still need to make it across the grass field and over the fence before the men in white could get her. They were fast, too fast, and she'd never tried climbing the fence before. She wasn't sure if she could do it.
Before she could fully consider climbing a nine-foot fence while being chased by the men in white, she heard her name. The droning of Mrs. Ellers' voice came rushing back.
“Evie? Evie, are you okay?”
“Yes... yes, sorry. Yes, I'm okay.”
“Well? How are you feeling?”
Evie wanted to answer. She wanted to be honest. For days and months and years, all the things she and the other children ever said to answer the question were meaningless. She wanted to say she is feeling tired. That she is scared. That she doesn't believe what adults tell her.She wanted to say, or maybe to scream, that the world doesn't feel the way people tell her it is supposed to feel, that she feels like everyone is watching her all the time and that she is never alone and never asleep and never safe and always acting acting acting. She'd wanted to say these things for a long time.
Do you already know that? Are you reading my mind, too, Mrs. Ellers?
The seat next to Evie squeaked as someone sat down. It was Sammy.
“We're glad you could join us, Samuel. Evie was just telling us how she is feeling.”
Mrs. Ellers looked back to Evie. With Sammy here, it wasn't time to be honest. Not quite yet. She would need to talk to him first, get his thoughts on mind-reading parents and teachers.
“I'm...” Evie started. She looked at Sammy, who was smiling back. “I'm... I'm feeling fine. I'm happy and ready to learn, and I'm happy that Sammy could join us today, too.”
Mrs. Ellers smiled. When she posed the question to Sammy, he smiled and said he was happy and ready to learn, and that he was thankful for the people who fix cars when they break down.
Mrs. Ellers moved on to the back row of students.
“Did your car break down?” Evie whispered.
Sammy kept his eyes forward. He was watching Mrs. Ellers. It was hard to tell if she was looking at him, or over his shoulder at Crystal Evans behind him. He wasn't going to risk it. He kept his eyes on Mrs. Ellers while he pulled a piece of paper across his desk. He kept his eyes on her while he slowly scribbled something.
Evie looked down. Sammy had scribbled “no.”
“Keep your eyes forward,” he whispered, trying to move his mouth as little as possible.
Evie looked at Mrs. Ellers. She also slid a piece of paper out from under one of her notebooks.
“Why weren't you on the bus?” she whispered back.
He slowly scribbled again without looking down. The letters were messy, but Evie got it. “Later.”
“I have to tell you something,” she breathed through clenched teeth.
Mrs. Ellers was on the final student, Macy. Macy didn't answer the question the way the other children did.
“Evie won't stop talking,” she said.
Everyone turned toward Evie. Sammy stayed calm, gently laying his pencil down and covering it with his hands. Evie was not as subtle. She slapped her pencil down quickly, loudly, in her panic. She crinkled the paper she'd prepared to scribble notes on.
“Evie, do you have something more to add?” Mrs. Ellers asked.
“No, Mrs. Ellers,” Evie said.
“Are you writing notes to Sammy?” Stephanie Sanderson asked, nearly yelling. “Mrs. Ellers, Evie is writing secret notes in class!”
A few kids gasped and accusatory oos rose up. Evie covered her piece of paper instinctively and Mrs. Ellers saw it. She walked down the aisle and stood over Evie.
“Evie, are you writing secret notes to Sammy?” she asked.
“No, Mrs. Ellers,” Evie replied, her head still down.
“Evie, it is very important to tell the truth. No one likes a liar.”
“It's true, Mrs. Ellers, I'm not.”
“Lift up your hands.”
Evie finally looked up. Mrs. Eller's tone changed, but she was still smiling her scary smile.
“Lift up your hands, please.”
A desk near the front of the class shook and banged into the desk next to it. The chair at the desk squeaked and then clattered on the floor. It was Billy Harmon's desk. Billy was having an episode.
“Mrs. Ellers!” a child cried out, and before she could cry out anything else, Mrs. Ellers responded:
“Yes, thank you, Cynthia. Sammy, would you help Billy, please?”
Sammy was the designated service student. He was the member of class who would talk to the men in white, when necessary. He was the member of class who would notify the office in cases of emergency, and accompany students on their way to the office or the infirmary. Usually, he enjoyed the responsibility. It was a proud position, one most of the students wanted. But he didn't want to leave Evie.
“Samuel?” Mrs. Ellers said.
Sammy sighed and looked at Evie.
“Yes, Mrs. Ellers,” he replied.
For Billy, it would be a trip to the infirmary, accompanied by the men in white. As Billy shook on the floor, trembling and unable to speak, Sammy knelt down next to him and supported his head by cradling his neck with one hand and placing his other hand on Billy's forehead. He leaned in and whispered something into Billy's ear that seemed to make the trembling calm down, if only slightly.
The classroom door opened. The men in white came and laid Billy on their stretcher, covered him in their milky, plastic sheet, and disappeared with Sammy out into the hallway.
Sammy was still gone at lunch. Along with the feeling that she was being watched, being judged, and that some integral part of her life was, just... wrong, Evie thought about Billy and his episode. Billy's wasn't the only episode that week, the children in her class seem to be having more and more episodes lately. Two days ago, Cynthia laid down in the hall outside the classroom and wouldn't move, wouldn't speak. Yesterday, Evie heard one of the fifth graders dropped to the floor in the middle of PE and wouldn't stop saying “basketball” over and over again. At least one episode every day for the past – she thought about it – week? Maybe two weeks?
“We're not ninjas, Jacob, we're chameleons!” Charlotte yelled.
Evie and Charlotte were climbing the jungle gym. After Billy's episode, Mrs. Ellers put on a nature movie. They usually watched nature movies after an episode, to help everyone calm down, Evie thought. They'd watched a movie about Madagascar and were now pretending to be chameleons. Normally they would have climbed the jungle gym by holding one line of bars with their left hands and another line of bars with their right hands, but in honor of the amazing chameleon, they were climbing hand over hand and foot over foot on the same bar, like tight rope walkers or gymnasts on a balance beam. Or, as Jacob offered, like ninjas.
“We're not ninjas, Jacob, we're chameleons,” Charlotte said.
“Well I'm going to be a ninja,” Jacob replied as he took his grips. “I'm going to climb to the top so I can spy on all my enemies.”
“Well we're going to climb to the top and blend in to our surroundings,” Charlotte said, chin up.
“Ninjas blend into their surroundings better,” Jacob declared.
“No, chameleons do,” came the retort.
“No they don't.”
“Yes they do!”
Evie climbed past the two as they argued. Once at the top, she looked out at the playground. First, she was looking for Sammy. She didn't see him in the many different games going on in the different regions: he wasn't playing kickball on the baseball field; he wasn't playing tag on the grass near the big maple tree; he wasn't playing basketball on the asphalt courts; and he wasn't playing hide and seek. He never played basketball so it wasn't a surprise that he wasn't there. But he did play kickball, and hide and seek, and tag sometimes. He played those games whenever Evie played those games.
She'd never thought of that before. Sammy played all the games she played. Or was it her playing the games he played?
As she looked out over the field she realized something else. These were the same stations and the same games kids played yesterday. The same stations and games they played last Friday, and Thursday, and Wednesday. She second guessed her theory and tried to think of any exceptions. But rather than exceptions, she simply remembered more instances that supported her theory.
On Monday, Evie asked Lauren, one of the girls in her class, if she'd like to play hide and seek with the hide and seek group.
“It's girls only,” Evie had offered.
“No, thanks, I'm playing kickball.”
As Evie looked out at the kickball game, Lauren was in her usual place on the field between second and third base. The way she was on Friday. The way she was on Thursday. The way Charlotte and Jacob are always on the jungle gym.
They climbed up next to her and sat down just as she was thinking of them. She tried to clear her mind, in case they could read thoughts, too.
They didn't seem to notice Evie's thoughts. They were still arguing.
“Chameleons are too stupid to be ninjas. They would be killed immediately.”
“Yeah right, if you could find them,” Charlotte said.
Evie broke from her worried thoughts to help stop the ridiculous argument.
“Actually, when you think about it, Chameleons are a lot like ninjas,” Evie said. The two looked at her, confused, as if she'd just said something in another language, something crazy like “Boys and girls aren't really all that different.”
“Think about it,” she continued, “chameleons blend into their environment, and ninjas blend into their environment. Chameleons hide and wait for bugs to come along and then they strike! Ninjas do, too... except not to bugs.”
Charlotte's face softened first. She had to agree with what she was hearing, but she didn't want to accept equal ground with Jacob. Unless he also was okay with equal ground. She glanced at him, reading his reaction.
Jacob remained confused. He hadn't thought of Chameleons as dangerous assassins, as sneaky killing machines. But thinking about it, Evie was right. They kind of were.
Charlotte watched his face remain unchanged and was ready to continue the argument. But then Jacob started to smile.
“You're right! They kind of are the same. They use their heightened senses to stay alert and watch out for danger. Wow, I'd never thought about that. That's it then, we're a new super creature. We are ninja Chameleons!”
Charlotte seemed okay with this compromise, and the two continued climbing across the jungle gym in peace. Evie stayed at the top, watching the basketball game going on. The same eight kids as last week were playing each other again. They were even on the same teams. She hadn't seen them yet, but she expected to find the Carson twins, as well as Peter Doria and Annie Pitt, playing hide and seek together. A common hiding place was the base of one of the slides near the jungle gym. It provided good coverage and multiple escape routes if the hider was discovered.
No one was hiding there today.
Another common spot was behind the big maple tree out near the tag players. The tree provided concealment, as well as the confusion of all of the different tag players running around the same area. It was hard to pick out a hide and seek player amid all the tag players.
Evie couldn't see anyone hiding there, either.
Yes, behind the big square maintenance box near the fence. Evie could see a ponytail popping out from behind the gray metal. Without seeing the face, she knew the ponytail belonged to Annie Pitt. She'd chosen a good, but more rare hiding spot. It was more rarely used because most of the kids were scared of the box. They were afraid they might get electrocuted if they touched it. A few of the kids had episodes after being near it so a myth was created.
The box can make you a zombie. The box can turn you into a monster.
Or even, the box could kill you.
Usually, if someone is hiding behind something, they can't help but peak around its edges to see if anyone suspects them. They have to look for their pursuers. Evie watched Annie for a few seconds. Annie didn't look over or around the box once. But she was moving, her ponytail was bobbing back and forth, away from the box, then toward the box. Away, then toward, again, and again, and again. Evie noticed a perfect rhythm to the bobbing. A steady beat, no deviation at all. Away, then toward, away, then toward.
“No one can see us because we're camouflaged,” Jacob yelled. Evie nodded to him but slid down the bars to the ground, still looking toward the maintenance box. From ground level, she couldn't see the ponytail anymore, so she walked toward the fence for a better angle. Once Annie's hair was in view, Evie could see it was still moving in the same motion at the same speed, back and forth and back and forth.
Evie looked back to the jungle gym. Charlotte and Jacob were frozen, trying to out Chameleon each other. They didn't even notice she'd gone.
Within twenty feet of Annie, a sound emerged. Under the excited recess screams of the other children, under the sounds of balls bouncing and wind blowing and the electrical box humming, another sound. A beat.
Evie walked closer. Now she could see Annie's hair and the top of her head. The hair would pull back and then swoosh forward and stop with a jolt.
Back again, forward again and another jolt.
Evie kept walking. Once past the edge of the metal box she could see that Annie was kneeling. Her brown hair, always pulled back into a tight ponytail, usually stopped at the top of her long and narrow forehead. Her skin was pale so the contrast between dark brown hair and pale skin was sharp. Not here. There were more colors. The curving lines of her hair lead to dark red-brown smears over pale skin, and something else. Evie's first thought was tomato soup, but then she knew it wasn't soup.
It was blood.
Annie was banging her head into the hard metal of the electrical control box. Her eyes were open and unblinking as her head slammed into the metal.
Her mouth hung open slightly. She was making a sound, but it didn't sound like a voice. It was a hum, low and scratchy. Evie remembered thinking it sounded like dad's old radio when it wasn't tuned to the right station.
Before Evie could scream, multiple screams erupted from the playground behind her. Children were running toward the jungle gym. Jacob was there, standing very still, over Charlotte's body. She was shaking wildly on the ground.
“She's having an episode!” came a yell from the crowd of children. Others called for help and the men in white ran from their positions at the school entry doors to help her.
Evie knew she should go get their attention, and that she should go see if Charlotte was okay. She knew Annie needed help, too. But this wasn't a normal episode. Normally, when someone had an episode, they would lie on the ground and close their eyes. They would then either be very still, or they would start twitching and shaking. No sound, no blood, just twisting and shaking or pure stillness and silence. Evie knew Annie needed help. Evie knew she should cry out for the men in white.
But she didn't cry out. She looked back at Annie.
Annie had stopped slamming her head into the metal box and was staring back at Evie. Her face was covered in blood. Her scalp had torn partially away from her skull at the hairline. Evie had never seen an actual skull before so she knew she might be wrong, but it didn't seem like the skulls she'd seen in books. Annie's skull wasn't white, or even lightly colored. It was dark, a dark blue or purple, and smooth. Blueish purple and smooth and covered in blood and almost... metal? Plastic?
Evie bent down to look into Annie's eyes. Annie's mouth opened and the gritty, static noise intensified. It was grainy and the pitch tightened, higher and higher, like a computer speaker surging and ready to explode.
The men in white rushed in to cover Annie up and carry Evie away, screaming.
“It's true. It's true and I'm leaving,” Evie whispers, “I'm leaving tonight, right now.”
Sammy's eyes are open now, more alert. He sits up in his bed.
“It's true, Sammy. It's true. Annie Pitt is a robot. I saw it myself. She is a robot and I think my mom might be a robot.”
“How... how did you get in here?”
He is louder than Evie wants him to be and she covers his mouth again, shushing him silently, her index finger over her mouth. His eyes widen. Now he is fully awake. He nods his understanding and she takes her hand off of his mouth.
Evie doesn't answer his question. She got in by using the house code she forgot to tell him she stole from his school file folder. She stole it one of the times she had to talk to the school Principal. It wasn't hard to get. When the secretary goes to the bathroom and the file cabinets are all organized alphabetically, it's easy to slip behind the front desk, find the file, and memorize whatever information you can.
Once she keyed in the code for his house, she took off her shoes and crept to his room like a ninja. Or like a chameleon. Easy.
“I'm here, don't worry about it,” she says.
“You're going to get in trouble,” Sammy whines.
“I don't care.”
Evie's voice is so confident, so assured, that Sammy can't respond at first. It doesn't make sense, how could someone not care about getting in trouble? What kind of maniac would want to get in trouble?
“There are too many weird things. I can't take it anymore, all the weirdness. I don't know where I am going to go, I don't know what I am going to do, but I just know that I have to leave this place. I have to leave for awhile.”
“And... and you don't care if you get in... trouble?”
“No, I don't. Why should I? What is going to happen to me if I get in trouble, huh? What is going to be so bad about getting in trouble?”
Sammy is dumbfounded by the question, but Evie can see his exasperated fear and anger get overtaken by something else. He can't believe what he is hearing, but then he can't believe that he doesn't have a good answer to her insane question. What will happen to us if we sneak out and get caught? He's never thought about it before.
“Well, your parents could... well they might, I don't know, not let you watch TV? They might not let you go to your friends' houses ever again, did you ever think about that?”
“I don't care,” Evie says again. She is doubling down on her decision. There is nothing anyone can do to scare her out of her decision. Sammy sees that.
“What if they kick you out of school?”
“They would never do that. They might make me do more school.”
“What if they don't let you hang out with your friends?”
“Impossible. I'll find a way.”
“What if...” Sammy stops. He is sitting up but the question in his mind makes him grab his pillow and slump over onto it. “What if... they don't let you hang out with me?”
He buries his face as the last word comes out. His body shivers and he starts to cry. He is trying to cry as quietly as he can.
Evie puts her hand on his back.
“Hey, look at me,” she says. She can feel his ribs as he sucks in air and then cries it out. She can feel his vertebrae move and shift under the pressure of his crying. He doesn't look up from his pillow. He can't, he doesn't want her to see his face like this.
“Sammy. Sammy, look at me.”
Slowly his teary eyes emerge from the dark pillow. He puts his hands over his mouth to try and mute his crying. It takes a few seconds but he does stay quiet and he does look at her.
“I would never let them keep me away from you,” Evie says. She pulls the back pack from her back and places it on the bed. She pulls out a red water bottle, the one she always brings to school, the one she's used for three years. She puts it on the bed and reaches back into the bag.
“This one is mine,” she says, nodding toward her red bottle, “and this one... is for you.”
She pulls out another bottle. It is the same brand as hers, the same shape and style, but in blue. Sammy loves blue. He sniffs hard and wipes his nose with his blankets before picking it up. It is blue and shiny and perfect.
“It's full,” Evie says.
On the way out of the house, Sammy punches the numbers into the house alarm key code box.
“We have to hurry, my parents will know,” he says as they run to the sidewalk and head north. He asks again where they are going and again Evie shushes him and they run on in silence.
Evie knows that by now, her parents have discovered her missing. They were probably notified when she keyed in their alarm code and left. Or maybe she and Sammy will get lucky and no one will know they are gone until they've made their way out of the city. She feels eyes on her in the city, everywhere, so they will head to the forest. They will follow Hayden's Creek until it takes them to somewhere else. Evie doesn't know where it will take them. She doesn't know where she is going, or where she would want to go, or what she will do if they do actually escape.
She is confident she will figure that part out when she needs to.
“I made sandwiches and brought fruit,” she says as they run.
“That's good,” Sammy says.
“And maybe cookies.”
Sammy laughs. “Well maybe this isn't such a bad idea after all.”
They pass Cornerstone Church. All the lights are off and there aren't any cars in the parking lot. From there, they can cross the lot, jump the small fence into the neighbor's field, and then hop one more fence before they make it to the tree line. It's only a few hundred more feet to the creek from there.
“This way.” she says, breaking right. Sammy stops to turn and follow her but catches his feet together. He hits the asphalt hard and his new blue water bottle clanks loudly along the ground.
Evie freezes. She wants to ask if he's okay, but she is listening. If someone heard that...
Her heart stops. Then it pounds angrily in her chest, faster and faster. The town sirens are going off. First, the one at the school. Then, the police station. Then the one at the mall, and then the one at the south end of town near the Hepner farm. Along with the wailing siren call filling the night air, lights begin to shine in the sky.
She runs to Sammy and yanks him to his feet. They can hear the screeching of tires as the police, and the men in white, begin their chase.
“Run!” she screams.
They streak across the church parking lot and over the fence. The field is wet and muddy and they each slip again and again. By the time they reach to opposite fence and can see the protective cover of the forest clearly, they are covered in mud and soaking wet.
“Come on, come on, come on,” Evie keeps screaming, “hurry, Sammy, hurry!”
The road near the church is glowing with car headlights. Their tires screech as they skid into the parking lot and slam on their brakes. Evie can hear them yelling to each other. She can hear their boots hitting the pavement as they look for a trail. Even thought it is a dark night, she can tell the four men leading the search are men in white.
Their flashlights scan the field. Evie and Sammy are over the far fence and near the forest's edge and only slightly out of flashlight range. When Evie gets to the trees she stops and turns. The flashlights have found the trail. It is not a hard trail to find and follow in the mud.
Sammy catches up and hugs the tree where Evie is watching. He is out of breath.
“I don't know... how much longer I can... do this.”
Evie doesn't respond. The men in white are over the fence and making their way across the field.
“There's no time, let's go,” she says. She doesn't wait for Sammy, she is off into the woods.
Her heart is pounding again, in her chest and in her ears and in her eyes. She can see her breath but she doesn't feel the cold. She is burning up. She is a fire that can't be stopped. Every fifty feet or so she glances back. The flashlights are bouncing their beams across the marred, boggy ground in the field, but they are nearly to the trees. Sammy is falling behind, but he is still moving forward.
Another fifty feet. The trees are bigger here, and many of them fell over in the last big storm. They are getting harder to crawl under and over, and the thick tangles of broken branches are beginning to scrape shallow wounds across Evie's arms.
Just keep moving. Just keep moving.
A distant yell, the first clear thing she has heard from their pursuers. They are close enough for her to hear them now, and they have her trail.
Just keep moving.
Sammy is close behind. He has made up ground and doesn't seem so terrified and out of breath now.
“They're gaining on us,” he says. Evie ignores him and turns back toward the dark center of the forest. She doesn't need to think about the pursuers, or about Sammy's fear. She needs to hear the creek.
Over another fallen tree. Under another one. While she presses her way through a tangled grove of young saplings, she doesn't see the jagged end of a branch at eye level until it is digging into her scalp. The force twists her head to the side and she loses her balance on the muddy soil. When she hits the ground, the air rushes out of her lungs and she can't breathe. She clenches and moans and fights for air. She feels the warm trickle of blood run down her face from the gash in her scalp. She can't breathe, she can't see, but she growls her way to her hands and knees and continues, crawling.
She waits for Sammy to rush in beside her. She waits for him to pull her back to her feet and help her along the path. She turns to see if he is there, but the mud and blood and pain are making it hard to see clearly. The trees are a dark blur. The flashlights scanning back and forth, shining brightly and then dimly at odd intervals, makes it hard to judge distance and details. She thinks she sees a figure moving toward her but she can't be sure. She turns and continues crawling until her diaphragm finally relaxes and she can take in full breaths again.
The rain starts back up. The canopy above her shakes with the fury of it, a steady hiss and hum of water and wind. Branches are creaking under the pressure. The blood on her face and the pain in her head and chest make Evie think one of those branches might break free from its tree and come crashing down on top of her. Right now, it feels like the forces of the town do not want her to leave.
But there, in the rushing chaos, another sound. Softer, lower, but clear.
It is the creek. When Evie falls to her knees and crawls to it, when she feels the water on her hands and when she splashes it on her face, she knows it is real. She knows it is real and she knows it will lead her somewhere new, somewhere special. She knows it will lead her somewhere she's never been before.
This is where I'm supposed to go.
The rain intensifies. The flashlights are still flickering in the trees behind her, and even in the torrent of wind and water she can hear the men's voices calling to each other. They're still gaining on her. In the distance, beyond the flickering flashlights, another light source.
The low rumble of thunder a few seconds later confirms her thoughts: lightning.
The creek is shallow enough to walk in. The water soaks into Evie's shoes. It is snow run off, cold, but she doesn't feel it. She lifts her feet in and out of the water and grabs for any branches and reeds that can help her in her mad march up the creek.
The voices grow louder, chasing her. Another flash of lightning illuminates a little more of the sky. The thunder claps sooner, louder now, and the wind and rain continues to shake the canopy and soak the forest below. Despite the noise, she can hear the voices clearly now, and can hear one of the things they are yelling.
The voices speed her climb. The fear drives her forward, through burning lungs and her throbbing head and blood-soaked hair and cheek. The smell of her own blood makes her more desperate to escape. Desperate enough not to notice how the branches and rocks are carving gashes into her hands and arms and scratching at her face. She doesn't care, she pushes forward. She is desperate enough to push forward without noticing her own violent shivering from the bitterly cold water that has soaked through all of her clothes.
She pushes forward.
The rush of the creek spurs her on, calling to her, rooting for her. She knows it is the path to her freedom.
But as her hand grips the edge of a rock, her body fails her. The blood on her hands has made them slick, and the cold has made them weak. When she commits her weight to the grip and goes to climb up, her fingers give out and she falls. She isn't ready for the fall and tumbles backward over the rock below. It bounces her sideways, toward the creek, and she lands on her back in one of the shallow pools.
Her head rings. She opens her eyes but can't see. She can feel the rain on her face and she coughs out the rain that went into her mouth. Her arms stretch out to her sides to find something to hold onto, something to stabilize her. They splash in the wide pool and find nothing. Evie rolls over and pushes herself up to a kneeling position, coughing up more water. She lets it run, with the blood, down her face and out of her eyes. The voices are gone, the sound of the rain is gone, the pounding of her heart is gone. All she can hear is the ringing in her ears, and as she goes to stand up, a hand comes out of the darkness. It grabs her shoulder, and before she can scream a hand is on her mouth, smashing her lips against her teeth, crushing her face with an impossible strength.
She struggles for a moment, but the power of the hands is so much greater than her own that she knows she will only hurt herself if she resists. She is broken, in an instant, and she lets her body go limp.
It's over. It's over.
“Ssshhhh, they're close.”
Sammy. Evie opens her eyes and Sammy is there, holding her. He takes a hand away from her mouth to use his pointer finger to shush her. It's his turn now.
Evie nods. Life and terror surge back into her legs and she is ready to go again.
“Let's go,” she says. She turns and scrambles back up the rock that sent her sprawling into the creek. When she glances back, Sammy isn't behind her. He is still standing in the pool below.
He hasn't moved.
“Sammy, come on,” she hisses, waving him up. “Let's go!”
“This is crazy, Evie, what are we doing?” he asks.
Evie starts walking back to him but stops. It's Sammy, but it isn't. It looks like Sammy but he is moving... differently. The weird spasms and twitchy head tilts remind Evie of someone. Even the voice is different. It's cold, forced.
He looks like... mother.
He looks the way she looked when she was in the kitchen staring at the eggs, her head and neck almost vibrating. Evie's first thought now is the same as it was then. He looks like he is downloading information. And his voice, it does kind of sound like the voice of a machine.
Like a robot.
“We shouldn't be out here, Evie.”
And his strength. Evie thought maybe he felt strong because she was so afraid, because she was so weak. But no, it was more than that.
“We're going to get in trouble.”
The words sound normal until he says trouble. Trouble gets garbled. His voice catches and the last syllable is repeated three or four times very quickly. And his voice is changing. It is getting higher pitched, more grainy.
Like Annie Pitt.
“You're wet, and coldold... it's dangerous out here, Eeeeevie.”
Evie shakes her head slowly from side to side.
“You're hurt, Evie. You're bleeding.”
No. It's not possible. It's not possible.
“Please, Evie. Please... letlet me help yooou.”
Evie cries and shakes her head. It can't be true, she tells herself that it can't be true. Not Sammy. Please not Sammy. He takes a step toward her and Evie scoots back. She turns and claws her way up the rock and up the next one. Before she can climb the third in line, another siren. It is loud enough that she has to cover her ears. She covers her ears and tucks into the fetal position and screams. The siren is so loud she thinks for a second that it might be inside her head. Then it stops.
The rain stops. No more flashes of lightning or claps of thunder. The trees grow still, the flashlights disappear. All that is left is the sound of her heart beating in her ears.
And the creek.
Evie turns and climbs again, up over the final tall rock and then into the creek. She steps and climbs and crawls toward a small waterfall formed by fallen logs and just before she reaches it, she stops. The water splashing up from her footsteps doesn't fly and fall in a normal arc. The water hits an invisible barrier and then drips down, slowly, like the rain on a car windshield. It drips down in mid air, as if there is an invisible glass wall in the middle of the creek.
She splashes again.
Again, the water flies through the air and then sticks to and slides down... nothing.
She steps closer, her hands out ready to feel something. They do. Her hands press into a surface like glass. She reaches out to the side and again, glass. The surface runs down into the water and up as high as Evie can reach, as if the invisible surface never ends. When she side steps her way along the glass out of the creek, the barrier continues. She can see trees and rocks and night sky on the other side, but she can't get to them. Ten more feet, still solid glass. She makes a fist and knocks on the glass. It doesn't make a sound.
“I was hoping to keep you away from here.”
Evie screams as she turns toward the voice. It is Sammy again, she didn't hear his approach. She notices she can't really hear much of anything.
“I was hoping you'd never find out,” he says.
“What is happening, Sammy?”she cries, throwing her hands out to him.
“I'm sorry, Evie.” His voice glitches again. It is Sammy's skinny little body, but none of who Sammy was. The small figure is a shell. It'; a costume. The voice talking is old, ageless.
“I'm sorry,” he says again. Before Evie can respond, the front of his face presses forward, detaching from his skull. Blue light glows from beneath fake skin, fake hair, fake bones. His face splits and opens sideways, revealing a mechanical patchwork of sensors, lights, vents. Parts. Sammy doesn't have muscles and bones, he doesn't have flesh. He has parts. When the machine splits its face, Evie falls to her knees. She has had enough. She doesn't understand, doesn't want to understand. She'd been feeling a sense of evil dread, but was always hoping to be wrong.
She hadn't anticipated this.
She wasn't ready.
As the machine opens up, the blue light fades and a red light emerges. Faint at first, then brighter, brighter, larger, until it is too bright for Evie to look at. As she closes her eyes, the siren is back, flooding into her ears, her eyes, vibrating her bones, tearing her head apart. The noise is everywhere all at once. She knows she is covering her ears and screaming but she can't feel her hands and she can't hear her screams. She can't see, she can feel only pain, and in the end the force is too much and she collapses to the forest floor.