I inhaled a slow, noisy breath through my nose, setting the phone down and placing both palms on my face. I rubbed ever upward slowly, my fingertips prying underneath my thick glasses, squirming towards my eyes to gently massage them. When that was done I repositioned the digits to my temples briefly as the blood throbbed painfully. I looked down at the dimming screen, perched atop my handwritten scrawl on the clipboard I’d lifted from the research facility. My focus vacillated between the paper and the repugnant summoning instrument shrouding it: first up to the right, then to the screen as it clicked off, then down, then across to the upper left before moving in a clockwise direction tracing across the visible portion of the notes. As if prompted by the notion of potential sustenance, my stomach growled. The thing was wizened, grey and shrunken like some sort of sad and tired grandfather. When it deigned to request something of me, I found myself compelled to oblige however grudgingly.
There were skid marks in the hardwood floor where the legs of my rickety antidiluvian chair laboriously dragged across the surface. The grooves were filled with dust and tinged with remnants of old wax from Cheryl’s former efforts to maintain a semblance of order in my office. Fred had scared her off, particularly after Darren declared the little monstrosity to be his brother. The corner of one side of my mouth perked slightly as the muscles deep in my cheeks tugged insistently, forming a faint and lopsided smirk in response to the memory of that day. How glorious it’d been. Dinner might in fact be more pleasant than anticipated, should my son opt to demonstrate his singular expressiveness again. I would have to attend, then, and see for myself.
Skriiiitch. The chair moved backward and slightly to the right along its predestined path as I stood. The furniture pads my wife once carefully applied had long since worn down to nothing or had flecked off, the adhesive too weak to withstand the force of friction along such an uneven surface as the ruts my repetition had created. Per their prevailing tendency, my unused joints crackled in protest. I rotated my shoulders back and flicked my neck first to one side and then the other, rewarded with a crisp snapping sound as the gases escaped the synovial fluid occupying the joint capsules. As usual I began to convince myself that perhaps I needed the break after all.
The floorboards outside the door just two steps to the left always creaked under my weight, gangly as I was. This functioned as a sort of alarm system for me, warning me whenever my inner sanctum was seconds away from being infiltrated. It was similarly a notification to the other occupants in my home that I was on the move, which was a rare scenario. Wraithlike and lost in thought, I passed through the hall and descended the stairs as if floating. Had Cheryl the mind to throw a Halloween party she wouldn’t need to decorate as my presence alone was sufficient, particularly given the reputation I’d acquired. Darren would never bother with such a trivial social endeavor, but my wife felt a mysterious need to integrate with the local populace. Despite the consistent failure of her efforts, she was tireless in this specific cause. I couldn’t fathom her urgency, yet her single-minded drive was a common trait between us. Perhaps at one time long ago we’d shared one vision, but that era was left to dust and darkness. I chalked it up to hormones.
Darren noticed me even as I silently walked in the shadows, not bothering to flick the switches to illuminate my path. Cast in the warm glow of the dining room’s cheerful lamplight, his form was soft, having years left before his features shed their childlike gentleness. His eyes however were hawkish and deep, pools of intensity that mirrored the unhealthy monomania possessed by both of his parents. I wondered what he might adopt as his crusade, and furthermore when the signs would begin to surface. When had I in my youth taken so intensely to science? Darren was eight now, possibly. I couldn’t be sure. I never remembered such things unless they impacted my occupation. My present doings related to streamlining Fred’s brethren and despite his insistence of relation to the semi-responsive contrivance on my desk I hadn’t taken my son up as a test subject.
Cheryl flinched a trifle, caught off guard as I stepped into the genial radiant circle staving off the night. Light created shadows. My existence shouldn’t have surprised her, yet somehow it did all the same. Humanity had an interesting way of lying to itself rather convincingly, or simply omitting facts to suit the pervading worldview. Coping with my simultaneous permanence and impermanence was a daily challenge.
“Oh! Good evening, honey. I wasn’t sure if you’d be joining us. We just sat down. Here, let me get your plate.” She uttered with a half-smile as her face flushed a delicate pink. The discoloration was likely due to her embarrassment, knowing that I’d of course seen her jump. I took my seat at the head of the table.
“Thank you. What’s for dinner?” It soothed her when I elected to embrace social norms. I even made a show of peering over at Darren’s place setting. He didn’t react until my eyes locked with his. We exchanged a knowing leer.
“Steak, green beans, mashed potatoes and salad.” Cheryl responded from the kitchen as she served up my food. Long ago she’d realized that I would only ladle up a small portion for myself, and like the mother she was she insisted that I eat more. She additionally asserted that I was not to leave the table until I cleared my plate of whatever she put on it. Although it sounded absurd, I was predominantly fueled by coffee and the sparse instances when I sat down for a meal away from my work were so few and far between that she was the last bastion preventing my already emaciated form from becoming wholly skeletal. Thus, I didn’t fight her on it. Darren was similarly obligated and I wholly believed that without her acting as the linchpin affixing us to a semblance of an eating schedule the two of us would waste away.
“Here you are, John.” I had to admit that the food smelled delicious. My stomach stirred from its usual stupor and announced its intention to digest everything promptly. Cheryl sat down next to me across from our son, who seemed lost in the corridors of his own mind. “Darren, let’s say a prayer.” She bowed her dark head, folding her small, soft hands in on each other as she muttered quietly to herself, almost unintelligibly. It may as well have been in another language for all the use it served. Darren however obediently mimicked her motions and mumbled his own incantation. Out of curiosity I attuned my hearing to his request.
“Dear Lord, please let the teachers at school stop trying to make me play with the stupid kids in my class since I just want to read my book. And Mom too. She keeps bringing these dumb neighbors over and I hate them. Amen.”
Had I been forced to offer a plea to an alleged invisible protector, I may have said something similar myself. I stored this information in my memory for later use. Of the late I’d begun noticing that Darren was unavoidably a little human, yet still separate from the run of the mill herd. He was in fact remarkably akin to what I’d been like at his age. Was he seven? Ten? What grade was he in, anyway? It was difficult for me to discern particularly as his mother treated him like a child much younger than his demeanor projected.
The ceremony was over, and it came time to consume the food my wife had so carefully prepared. She was, if nothing else, a phenomenal cook. She took delight in manifesting the countless recipes she found in magazines and on the internet. Her skill in the kitchen was her saving grace and lit the beacon of hope for her eventual assimilation into the community. I’d married her in part for her drive, but she was also the only person I’d met who was capable of instilling a desire to eat within me. The rigors of my mind required nourishment, yet the very act of taking time to masticate, swallow and digest – not to mention prepare – the necessary comestibles were a tedium I barely tolerated. It was almost painful, except in the case of her cooking.
“It smells wonderful, Cheryl.” I smiled genuinely, a slight inflection to my voice that pleased her as she returned the gesture. The times I demonstrated approval were scant and nearly all related to her efforts to act as my lifeline. Her eyes seemed to sparkle.
“I hope it’s okay! I tried a new marinade.” I didn’t bother to respond, instead cutting a piece of steak. I preferred my meat rare, and it was appropriately bloody and pink. My mouth watered at the sound of the flesh severing beneath my knife. I took a bite and savored it, rolling the juice with my tongue as I chewed. I nodded as an expression of my enjoyment. The meal progressed as usual, but I noticed that Cheryl paused in her daily activity report twice, glancing down at my steak momentarily each time.
“What’s wrong?” I inquired directly. She looked befuddled.
“What do you mean?” I took my time chewing the bite I’d taken, swallowed and took a sip of my beverage. I gesticulated at her with my fork, using my free hand to thrust my glasses up again as they’d slid down once more.
“You keep staring at my plate. Did you poison me?” I asked this with a mildly jovial lilt, intending to help her relax despite the fact that I was so rarely jocular.
“No, of course not.” Darren nonetheless looked between her and my plate, then down at his own. He stopped mid-mastication, absorbed in the notion that his mother might have attempted to kill me. “I’m just preoccupied, is all.”
“With?” There was a long pause as she hesitated. I knew that it was a problem with me that she didn’t wish to discuss in front of our son. “Go ahead.” I encouraged.
“I was just thinking about your—the—that—” She was having difficulty forming the words. I smiled, this time in amusement.
“You were thinking about Fred.” Cheryl looked confused. “The experiment on my desk.” Her shoulders and back stiffened as she realized that I’d given it a human name. Some of the blood left her cheeks and lips.
“Uh…” she glanced momentarily at Darren. “Yes. That.”
“What about it?” She was silent again. I waited.
“Do you have to keep it here? I don’t…like it.”
“That’s okay. I doubt you’ve hurt his feelings.” My son chuckled softly and returned to eating, entirely unmoved other than his mild entertainment at her absurdity. She fell silent and focused on her plate for the rest of the meal. When she stood a short time later to clear away the dishes, I noticed that she’d only consumed half of her steak.
She was imagining eating Fred again.