never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.
Happy birthday dear Jimmy Happy birthday to you!
Jimmy inhaled noisily — as deep as he could, until his chest hurt — and then, blowing out his cheeks, he carefully blew. He wanted to snuff all the candles out on the first try. The last time he had made it was two years ago, but then there had been two candles less. Last year it hadn’t work out, but last year’s cake had been larger, sized for half a dozen guests, and the candles on it had stuck out farther from each other. Today, nine candles stood nearby. The cake was small, as there were no guests at all, except for Dad and Mom. The family had had to leave the city in summer, and Jimmy had not yet made any friends in the new place. Almost two months still remained till the school, and the nearest town where the school was located — quite a tiny town compared to the one where had they lived before — was almost six miles away. Only brown potato fields with rare farm houses stretched along the gray strip of the highway, and this birthday was going to become the most boring in the short Jimmy's life. Although his parents, to their credit, tried their best. But there was something... fake in their fun. Like the day they had announced to him, smiling broadly: "We will only live a while in the country until Dad finds a new job. Courage, cowboy, that's a real adventure!"
There wasn't even a smell of an adventure. There was a smell of the mustiness of an old house, which had been boarded up almost as long as he, Jimmy, had lived in the world. It smelled of dust, dried out wood, sun-warmed rust. The basement smelled heavily of moist dug dirt. His parents forbade him to go down there, fearing that he might fall from the staircase, which was steep and seemingly not repaired for a long time. But he had absolutely no wish to go there anyway. No, not there.
Jimmy thought that if he snuffed all the candles out on the first try, then life would
return to what it had been before. They would leave this dreary gray-brown place and go back to the large multicolored city where there were movies, amusement rides, a park with a pond and fountains, and ice cream trucks. In the fall he would not go to a scaring new school, where who knew how a newcomer would be treated, but instead he would meet his old friends — Tom, Henry, Rodney, Pete and even Bob, even though he was mean; and smiles on Dad and Mom’s faces were real, not forced.
He tried very hard, but one candle on the side remained burning.
The boy still had some air in his lungs, and bringing his lips closer to the candle, blew, all of it out. The candle sputtered and went out, so be assumed he had made it. His parents clapped happily. But, he knew that he was just cheating and he had not really earned his wish.
“And now...” Dad winked slyly and took something from under the table. It was wrapped in sequined blue gift paper and tied with a red ribbon. The gift packaging, however, did not deceive Jimmy — the contents looked rather shapeless, and he realized that the gift was not from a store because there definitely would have been a box.
As if having caught doubt and mistrust in the eyes of his son, John Horrell did not give the wrapped item to him, but instead quickly unpacked the gift himself and only then solemnly handed it to Jim.
The boy, however, felt uneasy and just looked at it with growing bewilderment.
It looked almost like a large, ten inch long, tuberous potato, each tuber of which was painted in its own color. All colors were bright, even lurid (although Jimmy did not know such a word). However, the bright colors could not hide the fact that the thing was clearly not new: the tubers looked worn, their once glossy shine turned dull, and even a few small scratches could be seen. On the sides of the "potato" hung two flexible legs, ending in black rubber suction cups, similar to clown boots. And that was all there was.
It was definitely not what Jimmy hoped to get for his birthday. The year was 1996, and he wanted a game console. Of course, he guessed — he was not so naive at his age of nine — that after what happened to Daddy’s job, they wouldn’t buy a brand new PlayStation, like the mean Bob had brought to school to brag but never agreed to lend it to anyone even for a day. But maybe at least a Sega Mega or Super Nintendo? Formerly, Mom stubbornly said that consoles are bad for eyes and that in her time children were happier and healthier without any computers, but recently she seemed to be more open to them.. If only what had happened to Dad and them all had not happened...
"What is it?" Jimmy asked, clearly disappointed.
“A toy,” answered Dad, continuing to smile as if he was giving his a whole personal computer. But Mom smiled a little confused — it seemed that the gift was a surprise for her, too
Jimmy took the “potato” with both hands and found it unexpectedly heavy — at least two pounds. To the touch it was cold, solid and somehow surprisingly smooth, despite the tiny scratches. It was tempting to stroke it over and over again.
“It is not from the store,” Jimmy observed accusingly, adding "It is old."
“That's right,” Dad smiled again. "But it's much better. There are thousands of identical toys in stores, and anyone can buy them. But nobody else has one like this."
“You made it yourself?” the boy inquired
“No,” Horrell Sr. shook his head. “When I was as old as you are now, my father gave it to me for my birthday. And now I give it to you."
“It is that old?” Jimmy's eyes widened.
“Well, Jim, don’t make me a fossil,” John chuckled. "It was only 23 years ago. “But actually it is older than that because my Dad got it from his Dad. Your great-grandfather."
"The one who died in the war?' the boy ascertained.
"Yes. This was his last gift to his son, your grandfather, before he went to Pearl Harbor."
“Wow,” Jimmy said. Two feelings fought in him — contempt of old things which were junk (at least in the eyes of most boys his age) and respect for really old things like you see in museums. And Pearl Harbor, in his view, was a very ancient event, almost like the War for Independence. Before, Dad had already shown him a portrait of Jim's heroic great-grandfather — a black-and-white, slightly faded photo of a brave sailor — and it was hard for Jimmy to believe that his great-grandfather could look not like an old man, but even younger than his dad. The phrase “grandfather’s toy” was hard to appreciate, although he understood that once his grandfather, whom he had never seen, had also been a little boy. In any case, the great-grandfather's and grandfather's memory demanded respect, and Jimmy asked:
"And how do you play with it?"
Jimmy turned over the “potato” (its legs limply rotated in the side holes in the middle of the body, remaining hanging down) and almost flinched in surprise: two round green eyes stared at him. In fact, they were only balls made of green glass or semitransparent plastic; they had no pupils and whites —only in the center the green color was a little darker than near the edges, and even that might be a trick of the light — but to Jimmy there was no doubt that they were eyes .
“Push them,” said Papa.
The boy held out his finger doubtfully — he didn’t like the idea of pushing someone’s eye — and pressed the left button. With some resistance it went deep into the "potato", gently clicked — and lit from the inside with a green light. Intrigued, Jimmy pressed the second button.
As soon as it also lit up, the toy in his hands whirred softly and started to slightly vibrate. It seemed like he was holding a purring kitten. A cold and solid kitten... however, no: as soon as the toy turned on, it began to warm under his fingers. But nothing more happened, and Jimmy opened already his mouth to ask "Is that all?", when suddenly the sagging legs of the "potato" jerked and firmly straightened in full length, as if the toy was stretching itself after a long sleep.
“Put it on the floor,” Dad suggested.
Jimmy did. The toy stood on its legs for some time, continuing to rumble faintly —then suddenly it made a new sound, something like hissing, and began to dashingly march across the room, loudly smacking its black suction cups. When it reached the left wall, it made a sharp, soldier-like left about face (as far as, of course, it was possible to talk about a face of a bipedal potato), whirled around the invisible axis connecting the bases of its legs (green button-eyes, which had shone the floor before, starred upwards), and it went back — now in a completely different, short trotting gait, quickly bending its knees (as far as the term "knees" fit to the legs with no visible knuckles or joints). Jimmy laughed and applauded; even Mom, who had previously looked at the toy dubiously, smiled now — quite an amusing performance !
The toy went under the chair of its new owner. Jimmy waited for it to come out on the other side, but the smacking steps fell silent. The rumbling and hissing was no longer heard either. After waiting a bit, Jimmy leaned over, peered under the chair.
"Oh!" he exclaimed disappointedly. "Where is it?"
There was no toy under the chair, nor on the floor around. Jimmy even looked under the table, but found nothing there either.
"Where is my toy?" he asked in a suddenly indignant voice. Seeing that his father was barely holding back his laughter, he finally made sure that he has become the victim of a prank, and demanded loudly, almost ready to cry. " It’s not funny, I want my toy!”
“Look behind you,” said Dad.
Jimmy turned on his chair — and recoiled in surprise, and then laughed . The toy hung on the chairback, clinging to its back side, and looked at the boy with its green glowing eyes.
The boy stretched his hands to it, but at the same moment the suction cups came loose, and the toy fell to the floor. "Ouch!!!" Jimmy exclaimed, sure that it would break. But the toy, having hit the floor, whirled its legs in the air, bent them again, rested its suction cups against the floor, and then rose up, as if nothing had happened, and stomped forward in a funny waddling gait (already the third one). At first it walked around the table, and then marched in a straight line until it rested against an old sofa in the corner of the room. With a short "Bop!" its button-eyes popped out again, legs bent, the toy sank to the floor and froze.
"It is not broken?" Jimmy asked.
“No,” Dad smiled, “it is strong. It is just resting. And you may eat your cake now."
The cake! Indeed, Jimmy almost forgot about it, but now he remembered. Mom had already cut a large piece for him and poured tea in his cup. But while Jimmy was eating, he kept glancing at the corner where his new toy was.: what if it ran away again?
But, the toy remained there, waiting.
A few hours later, when Jimmy, who had played enough, was finally sent to bed WITH his new toy and a promise not to turn it on at night, John was sitting in the kitchen. On the table stood an electric kettle and two plates with leftover cake.The curtains on the window, despite the late time, remained open — unlikely anyone, except for some nocturnal bird, could look into the house from the outside, thus the current inhabitants of the old wrecked house could freely admire the magnificent view of the potato fields, immersed in darkness, and the narrow unlit strip of Route 13, where very rarely lights of an occasional car passed by. If there are roads in Limbo, they must look alike.
Emma came back and sat down next to her husband.
"So, did he fall asleep?" John inquired.
"He is sound asleep, embracing your toy. While when he first saw it, he looked going to cry with disappointment. He's dreamed of a game console….”
“Well, you know that we cannot afford that right now. Such a luck — I've got to sorting out junk in the attic and found it there."
“So you just found that thing in the attic? And the whole story about the last gift of the heroic grandfather was just made up for?“ Emma had never before heard that story, or even any mention of a strange toy.
“No, it's all true,” John replied, looking again absently to the window. “Anyway, that's what my father told me. By the way, my grandfather was not actually heroic. I've read his letters to my grandmother. He did not know he was going to war. He thought he was damn lucky to serve on a Hawaiian beach. Everyone knew, of course, what was happening in Europe, and of our growing tensions with Japan, but few believed that the Japanese would dare to attack us. They had already attacked the Chinese — of course, the British colonies — well, why not, but not us, not America. 'Let them look at the map, what they are and what we are...' Americans were only afraid that Roosevelt would start the war himself. Nobody wanted that. Let the Brits, French, Russians and all the rest deal with their problems themselves... He died on the Arizona in the very first minutes of the war. I sometimes wonder if he even knew what was happening... They've never raised Arizona, you know? His remains are still down there with her"
“Brr,” Emma cringed, imagining this picture: the cold darkness, the corroded bulkheads, overgrown with algae, and scattered remains of the crew, crowded in the corner from where the air had left last. Small fish emerge from empty eye sockets, crabs crawl in and out of lipless mouths....
"Why brr?" John shrugged. "Under water or underground — dead is dead – there’s no difference."
"And what about that toy?" Emma returned to the previous topic. “Did he mention it in his letters?”
"Nope. And why would he?"
"Well, maybe,’How is my son, does he like my gift?'"
"How was his son doing, he asked, of course, but unlikely he was concerned with that toy. Maybe he didn’t even remember what he had presented to his son before leaving. He probably saw something funny at some rummage sale and bought it, glad to save money and time..."
“Or maybe it wasn’t him but your father who bought it and made up the story about his father’s present? Just, you know, I can’t believe such things were produced even before the war. In the seventies — yes, there were already all kinds of electric toys with lights, and walking robots, probably, too... but in the early forties it was very unlikely. In the old days, there were no small batteries yet. Seems to me, the toys of that time could move only if wound up with a key."
“Maybe,” John agreed easily. “Why does it bother you that much?"
"It’s ... just, well,…… a strange thing. I've never seen anything like that."
"But you must agree — it stomps pretty cool."
"Well, yes. Just like something alive. And a different gait each time. And it even climbs the walls."
“It can even jump, and rather high... You know, when I first saw it, my reaction was just like Jimmy's. I hoped they would give me a police car with flashing lights. But after a few minutes I was completely charmed by that thing," John sipped his tea and added, continuing to look out the window into the night: "It was my last happy birthday."
“What happened then?” Emma asked softly. Throughout their marriage, John had barely told her about his childhood. She only knew that his parents had died early, and the boy had been raised by his aunt, the sister of his father. From her, now also deceased, they had inherited this house — which in better times they never dreamed to live in nor even to visit. A real estate agent had told them that the house required major investments to be put up for sale — and even then there would be no guarantee of finding a buyer in this god-forsaken land of abandoned and broken down farms. The wooden walls were eaten by termites, the roof leaked when it rained, the floor resembled a golf course — not by value of course but by its hills and hollows — and the floorboards creaked at every step. John, however, had said —usually after paying the property tax — that something had to be done with the house, but nothing had came of it, until bad luck and a bad economy brought them here after they lost their home in the city. They sold both cars and bought a used pickup truck, which fit their new status of rural dwellers. There was still money set aside for Jim's college, but it was the last emergency reserve. Initially John had been going to repair the house himself, since he now had plenty of time, but Emma disliked the idea, fearing that it would end up with an electric shock or a fall from the roof. Indeed, the house was not fixable by a minor layman's patch. They had already had to pay a significant sum to an electrician— and now it was plumber's turn...
“It was 1973,” John said. "The last good year. And then..." he sent a piece of cake into his mouth, as if trying to sweeten his memories, "then the crisis began. Do you remember it?"
"I was five years old."
"Well, you might hear some talks of your parents... The market was falling, many were losing their jobs. At first, that was not a big deal for our farm. My father did not trust banks and all the more he never dealt with stocks. And then Arabs jacked up oil prices fourfold. And our truck and tractor turned from breadwinners into the opposite. Farming in these lands — and actually everywhere else — has never been a very profitable business, and such an increase in gas prices destroyed many farmers, not only us... We had to sell the machines to pay off loans, Mother and father began to quarrel often, she shouted at him that he was a loser, that he was doing nothing to find a job, that we all would be living on the street soon... Father began to spend more and more time at a bar, and then started to get drunk alone. I plugged my ears in my room, but I still heard them yelling at each other in the evenings... And then, after one of these quarrels, my mother ….well,she just disappeared."
"What do you mean by 'disappeared?'"
"I do not know how the quarrel ended. I fell asleep with my head under the blanket before that happened. It was a nasty night, there was thunder, rain was falling... But in the morning my mother was gone, and my father said that she would no longer live with us. That she left us."
“And... have you never heard from her again?”
“Never,” John shook his head.
“But...” Emma said, startled, “…you don’t think that..."
“ I don't know,” John answered simply. "At first it did not occur to me that my father was capable of such a thing. I was ten years old.... but then, the more I thought about it..."
"And what about the police?"
"What about the police? No one filed a missing person report."
"Women usually do not run away from home, abandoning their own child. Sometimes that happens when they leave with a lover... but your mother didn’t have one, did she?"
"That I do not know. In front of my eyes, nothing like that happened, she was at home almost all the time, and no stranger came to visit us... but nothing can be absolutely ruled out. The sheriff came to talk with my father a couple of times, but that was all. They had no reason to charge him... or even arrange a search on our site. And I... sometimes I thought I would run away myself. My father drank more and more, after the disappearance of my mother, I almost never saw him sober, but... you know, I loved him. In fact, I loved both of them, and when they quarreled, the most painful thing for me was that I could not side with any of them. I suffered for both simultaneously. But when Mom... disappeared, I believed she had betrayed me. Me and him. And I could not forgive her, but I began to love him for two. And he loved me... he never hit me, even when he came barely standing. On the contrary, he found me, hugged me, pressed me to his chest, stroked my head... and drunk tears flowed from his eyes. He smelled cheap whiskey and sweat, sometimes urine, his unshaven stubble pricked, I felt disgust and repulsion... and at the same time I felt so sorry for him that I was also weeping my eyes out. “Dad, Daddy, don’t drink anymore, let's live again like before...”He, of course, promised, and that, of course, was just an empty talk. And then, one night... there was a fire. The most interesting thing is that I do not remember it at all. I know about it only from other people's words. By the time someone called the firefighters and they arrived from the city, our wooden house with all the extensions had burned to the ground. And I was sitting on the ashes, alive and intact, clutching the toy in my hands. This one. That was the only thing I brought out of the burning house. They said that it was very hard to take it out of my hands... I was in shock, I did not realize anything and came to my senses only a few days later. Since all attempts to find my mother were unsuccessful, Aunt Lucy adopted me. She lived in this house alone — her husband had died in Vietnam at the very beginning of the war, and they'd never had children. I can’t say that she was unkind to me, but... life with her was so boring and dull that I ran away from here as soon as I was sixteen, with the firm intention of never coming back,” John grinned wryly and saluted with a tea cup to the wall.
"And what about the fire? Have they found the cause?"
“The official conclusion is that my father fell asleep drunk with a live cigarette. But the insurance company tried to challenge it. The house was mortgaged anyway, there was nothing to pay, and the only way my father could leave me at least some money was through arson and suicide under the guise of an accident. But they could not prove anything."
“He couldn't do it for you. After all, you could burn, too."
“Maybe he didn't think about it while drunk,” John shrugged. “Or he put me outside in underpants and undershirt in advance. Or maybe the official version is true. I say, I don’t remember anything."
“Yeah,” Emma sighed, after a moment of silence. "A terrible story. Why have you never told me about that?"
"What for? The story, as you rightly noted, is not joyful. And,” he tried to smile, “I didn’t want to scare you. What if you decide that killing wives is hereditary in our family?"
“Then why did you tell it now?”
“I don’t know... just by the way,” he again broke off a piece of cake with a fork and began to chew gravely.
“But your grandfather didn’t kill anyone,” Emma said seriously.
"Sure. Not even the Japanese, he had no time. Let alone my grandmother. She died of cancer after his death, but long before my birth. And even my father, in fact... I say, I do not know. Maybe my mother still lives somewhere with a new husband."
"I hope to God she does."
“I don’t think God has anything to do with all that,” John replied in the same serious manner.
A dusty blue pickup truck taxied to the house. Emma got out of the cab with half a dozen plastic bags in both hands and slammed the door shut. After unloading the bags on the porch, she returned to check the rusty mailbox (nothing), then climbed the steps.
John sat at the kitchen table over a stack of newspapers with a pencil in his hand, his left hand propping his cheekbone. Nearby stood a telephone brought from the corridor — an old one with a dial.
"How was your trip?" he greeted his wife without turning his head.
“Fine,” she dumped the bags onto the counter and began to lay out their contents to the shelves of the cabinets and the fridge. “Got more advertisers for you,” she slapped the second stack next to the first one.
“Okay,” John answered, turning a page.
"Found anything worthy?"
"Not so far. At the best, it was 'leave your number, we will call you back.'"
“And no one did, of course.”
John did not consider it necessary to confirm the obvious.
“I think you could find a job in the Internet faster.”
"To hell with the Internet. In this wilderness, it costs tons of money. And the connection definitely stinks."
"But there you can find job offers throughout the whole country, not just in the vicinity."
“And how do you imagine going to an interview somewhere in Alabama? Well, of course, that would make sense if I knew in advance that the result would be positive — but as I don't...."
“By the way, did you check the mailbox today?”
“Not yet. And you?" John did not limit himself to phone calls; he mailed his resumes as well.
“Nothing,” Emma sighed.
He turned a page again.
“Maybe you just... lower your sights a little?” she softly suggested.
“I'm not going to work for peanuts,” John snapped.
"Well, just temporarily. Until you find something better."
“There is nothing more permanent than something temporary,” he muttered.
“Exactly,” Emma said with annoyance. "This house, for example. Living in such a shanty, you could tame your pride a little."
“That's not at all my wounded pride!” he turned to her, for the first time since the start of the conversation. "It's just irrational. If my resume says I agreed to work with demotion, this would be a bad signal to all my future employers."
"You males are masters of finding rational excuses for your complexes!" Emma wanted to say, but restrained herself. Instead, she said:
“I could be a cashier again. I don’t have to care about the brilliance of my resume. Just today I saw a Dollar Tree want ad."
“You know very well that are pennies, too. And also, you hate that job."
“Well,” she forced a smile, “on the other hand, thanks to that job I met you.”
“And who are you hoping to meet this time?”
It should have sounded a joke, but John's tone failed to be joking
“Pennies are better than nothing,” Emma said.
"After all we've sold, we still have money for a living. And enough time for me to find something worthy. So get all this nonsense out of your head."
"I wonder if his father told his mother the same?" an unpleasant, as if alien thought pricked Emma. At least, John didn't drink. Well, maybe a can of beer in the heat, but no more than that. Even at their wedding, he refrained from champagne. Probably the example shown in his childhood was imprinted in his memory for life.
“What is Jimmy doing?” she asked, changing the subject.
"Playing in his room, what else."
"With your toy?"
“In recent days, he is spending too much time with it, I think.”
“Well, what else should he do in this hole?” John shrugged.
“Yes, but... he has other toys, too. And he always loved to draw. And cartoons. But now, every time I look, he’s always with it. While, actually, what so special is it doing? Well, it walks around the room in different manners. It makes a few meaningless sounds. And that’s all."
"Children have a rich imagination. Their best friend may be a teddy bear which does not walk anywhere and does not make any sounds. Or even a fictious character. And here, after all, there is a mechanism which behaves almost like a living creature. Like, a toy car and a kitten in one..."
"But it just doesn’t look like either a car or a kitten. It doesn't look like anything at all."
“Thus, all the more room for imagination,” John shrugged again.
“Had you also spent that much time with this thing yourself? And perceived it... how?"
“You know,” John answered after a short pause, “it’s funny, but I cannot remember much. Yes, I remember that I played a lot, and it was fun. When my parents began to quarrel, it became almost the only outlet for me . To look and listen to how this thing stomps and rumbles, and as if not to notice anymore how they yelled at each other behind the wall. But what else I thought and felt... Do you remember well your relationship with your dolls when you were nine or ten?"
“ Well, in fact I do,” said Emma. “My favorite was Elizabeth. Then there were Margaret and Jennifer, they seemed to be competing with each other for my affection. I preferred now one, then the other, but not for very long — to tease the rest one, but not to offend her seriously. And there was Mary, whom I kept scoffing at. And can you imagine — I still feel ashamed before her of doing that. I would have even begged her forgiveness if she still... existed. Stupid, huh?"
“Well... probably no more stupid than sympathizing with the fictional characters of books and movies,” John answered. "As for my toy, I probably forgot a lot because of the fire. I said that when they found me, I hadn’t wanted to let it out of my hands... but later, when they brought me to senses, it was like cut off. Any interest I had in it disappeared. A psychiatrist would probably say that this way my subconscious mind repressed the traumatic memories of the fire. So the thing spent twenty years in the aunt’s attic... you believe, I really forgot about it completely, until I came across it two days before Jimmy’s birthday."
Emma finished with groceries and, having washed a large red apple, headed for her son's room.
Jimmy was sitting on the floor, and the toy walked around him. This time it moved in a weaving drunken gait, staggering from side to side. At first Emma thought that it was broken, then — "how can it not fall?" As if hearing her thought, the toy tripped on own feet and fell. Jimmy laughed. The toy, however, refuting any assumption of its malfunction, raised one suction cup after another, rested them against the floor and rose again. It stood staggering for some time, and then moved forward anew. This time Jimmy pushed it himself, forcing it to fall again.
“Take care, you'll break it,” Emma warned sternly. Although deep down she might not have been upset by such an outcome.
“ No,” Jimmy shook his head, only now turning his attention to his mother. “It cannot be broken.”
"Do you want an apple?"
"I do!" the boy, without getting up, held out his hand. Having taken the apple, he brought it to his mouth and was about to sink his teeth in, but then he suddenly changed his mind and handed the red fruit to the toy. It, which had just risen to its feet once again, leaned forward and remained in this position for several seconds, as if sniffing the proposal, then swung back. Jimmy giggled contentedly and bit into the apple himself. Droplets of juice sprinkled.
Emma felt uneasy. What she saw resembled not the action of a mechanism — rather, the meaningful behavior of a living being. That is, of course, somewhere in NASA labs it was certainly possible to make such a robot, and not only these days, but a quarter-century ago as well. But for a children's toy of the early seventies, that was perhaps too cool — let alone the forties...
“Go for a walk,” she suggested to her son. "The sun is shining. Just don't get close to the highway."
“I don't want to,” Jimmy answered, eating the apple.
"You can’t stay at home all the time. You must move, breathe fresh air, stay in the sun. It produces vitamin D."
“It's boring there,” Jimmy muttered, turning his head after the toy which was hissing and stomping around him in the opposite direction now.
“You can take your toy with you,” Emma suggested.
“No,” Jimmy bit the apple again. “It doesn't like sun.”
"Doesn't like? Who told you that?" Emma leaned over and picked up the toy from the floor. It immediately stopped moving its legs, but the woman continued to feel vibration and slight heat under her fingers. Obviously, the motor inside continued to run. "Jimmy!" she squeaked in a thin voice, blocking her own mouth with the toy from her son. "Jimmy, let's go for a walk!"
"Give it back!" the boy jumped up, discarding the half-eaten apple, and literally tore the toy from his mother’s hands. The apple fell to the floor and rolled aside.
“Jim, don't dare to throw food on the floor,” Emma said sternly. "Not for that I drove to the city, stood in line and spent my and Dad's money."
"Go away!" the boy muttered, clutching the toy to his chest. “It doesn't like you!”
“This is mutual,” thought Emma, and said out loud:
“James Gregory Horrell, my patience is over. Give me your toy, you're punished."
"For what?!" the boy backed away from her demanding outstretched hand. Tears glittered in his blue eyes wide open with indignation. “For telling the truth? You told me to always tell you and Dad the truth!"
Emma felt embarrassed. Well, yes, of course, the child had a rich imagination. He did not distinguish truth from fiction. And if he expressed claims to his mother on behalf of the toy, she should think what she had done wrong, and not punish him only deepening the emerging crack.
“I understand that this is your favorite toy,” she said already much softer. "But this is not a reason to behave rudely. And to throw food."
“I'm sorry, Mommy, I will be good,” Jimmy muttered, looking at her with round, honest eyes.
“Alright,” she relented, rejoicing at the opportunity to retreat without losing her face. "Pick up the apple and wash it thoroughly before eating. And still, take breaks, don't sit there all day long. Otherwise you'll become fat, weak and ugly, and children at school will laugh at you."
“Okay, Mommy,” Jimmy agreed easily.
Smack-smack-smack-smack — the sucker-feet stomped behind Emma's back when she was closing the door.
“Looks like that's the plumber,” John remarked, looking out the window. A white truck with a blue “Mr. Plumber” on its side was turning into the driveway .
Emma's face showed an instant displeased grimace — the family was just sitting down to lunch, and it would be better of course if the plumber arrived after the meal — or, on the contrary, a few hours before. But with all these service men it's never possible to agree on the exact time. Which is, however, understandable — they do not know in advance how much time they'll have to spend with previous customers...
John got up from the table and went to meet the repairman. Going out onto the porch, he saw him walking towards the house — a short man in a gray jumpsuit and a red baseball cap, with a once black, but now graying mustache. He carried a wooden tool box. Following the owner, a curly white dog jumped out of the vehicle — probably a cross between a poodle and some other small breed — and trotted to the house, too, friendly wagging its tail.
“ Hi, I'm Dave,” the plumber introduced himself." And you're, I guess, Mr. Horrell?"
“You may call me John. And this,” John nodded at the running dog with a smile, “is your assistant?”
"It's Tobias. I have no one to leave him with, and he gets very sad if locked at home for the whole day. He'll just wait here outside. Do not worry, he's is the kindest dog, he wouldn't hurt a fly. So, if you have chickens or rabbits here, they’re absolutely..."
"No, we don’t have anything like that. Come in. Actually, we were just about to have lunch, but I guess you won’t shut off the water in the kitchen — so will we be able to wash the dishes later?"
“Since you have problems in the bathroom, I’ll probably not need the kitchen,” Dave nodded, going up the steps. “Toby, wait here!" he strictly ordered to the dog which ran after him. “You don't go to the house!”
At first, the dog seemed to shut its shaggy ears to those words, but suddenly, already on the top step, it froze as if it stumbled upon an obstacle. Then the fur on its scruff stood on end, and it slowly backed away. And then it suddenly began to bark furiously at the open doorway, as if warning its owner not to enter there in any case.
"What's wrong with him?" Dave was surprised, turning around. "Toby! Toby, stop it! Excuse us, John, he'd never behaved like this before... Toby, whom I've told!"
John even turned around, looking inside the house through the open door. He saw nothing unusual. The dog continued to bark, breaking to a whimper, crouching and jumping on the steps of the porch, daring neither to approach nor to retreat and leave its owner.
“He probably smelled something in the house,” Dave said apologetically. “Old houses, you know, have all kinds of smells we people don’t even notice... Maybe some rat under your floor.”
“I hope not,” John tried to smile (“All that's missing here is rats!”) "Looks like he’s scared as hell. It is unlikely that the smell of a rat can frighten a dog that much."
“ Well, I’m saying that he’s the kindest dog, wouldn’t ever fight, even with a rat... Toby, stop it at last! In any case, " Dave smiled broadly, showing the missing tooth in the upper right, — I hope you do not keep at home some monster from horror movies which feeds on visiting plumbers."
“ Well,” John answered him in the same spirit, “my wife and son are sometimes unbearable, but not enough to fit that definition. Okay, Dave, come in, sooner or later he’ll get tired of barking. We aren't going to tie his mouth shut, after all."
“No sir, I don't want to bother you and your family. I'll put him in the truck.” Dave lowered the tool box onto the porch. "Toby! :Let us go! If you do not know how to behave, you'll sit in a hot and stuffy truck!"
The dog barked a couple more times, backing off the porch, and then ran to the truck in front of its owner, rejoicing that the man decided not to enter this terrible house. But after the cab door slammed behind the dog, Dave hurriedly returned. Toby began to bark again, but it could hardly be heard behind the raised window.
“Won't he suffocate there?” John asked anxiously.
"I left a chink on the other side. Forgive us, I feel awful. I say he never before..."
"It's okay. Come in."
The men entered the house.
After showing the plumber the bathroom and listing the problems (which, in general, Dave already knew from the phone order), John returned to the kitchen. Dave laid out his tools and set to work.
Some time later, he heard something like a clatter of little feet behind him. The sound approached from the corridor and ceased behind him. “It seems the dwellers have a little kid,” he remembered. Dave, an old bachelor himself, had nothing against children, unless they got in the way and prevented him from doing his job. And now the rusted pipe under the sink, which did not want to budge, required all his attention and efforts, and he did not react to the sounds behind him, hoping that the curious kid would leave without distracting him. Also, Dave’s pose wasn’t the best for a conversation — on his knees, with his head under the sink and his butt outward.
The child did not say anything, but did not leave either. In any case, Dave did not hear any new steps. For some reason, this speechlessness behind him — not just silence, but namely speechlessness, implying someone else's presence — made him feel uneasy. He felt an unkind examining gaze on him... a gaze that could hardly belong to a little child. Although scientists claimed that it was actually impossible to feel someone’s look and such feelings were only a figment of imagination and self-suggestion. But you never know what scientists say... they still could not figure out whether mobile phones were harmful or not. And Tobias had sensed something in this house... something that he had never sensed anywhere before, while in his life, rather long by dog standards, he probably had smelled a dozen or two of rats .
"Hi, kid," Dave gave out at last.
Dave thought that a child might be very young and thus unable to speak — judging by the frequent and small steps he heard, it really could be a two-, at most three-year-old baby. Or maybe it was not a human being at all. But... an animal? But the sounds were neither like tapping claws (wouldn't Dave know them!) nor the quiet steps of soft paws.
The pipe finally succumbed, and Dave was very tempted to pop out from under the sink, clutching this rusty thing in his hand like a weapon. But that would be, of course, the height of stupidity. He forced himself — calmly, carefully and with no rush, as always — to put the new pipe in place, and only after that, having climbed out from under the sink, he turned back.
There was nobody either in the bathroom or in the corridor.
So, it was just a false feeling, Dave thought. Or maybe the child had really come, and then left, but he did not hear.
The plumber laid a rusty pipe on the floor and stood up, straightening his aching knees and back. After all, he was becoming a little old to work in crooked poses... He would rest for a couple of minutes and then would deal with a bath faucet.
Dave opened the valve, made sure there was no more leak under the sink, then closed the water again and pulled out a new faucet wrapped in brown paper. Having removed the wrapper, he suddenly noticed some green lights reflected in a shiny metal surface. Perplexed, he raised his head...
A strange multi-colored object hung from the ceiling right above him, looking like an awkwardly fat mutant cucumber which bumps grew like cancerous tumors. Dave especially disliked the lowest (or upper, if to consider this crap turned upside down) "bump" — a crimson tuber, like a carbuncle ready to spray pus. And right beneath this bump, two round green eyes burned, staring at the plumber, like a predator at the prey. A predator going to jump. If he had not raised his head in time...
Dave tried to push away the stupid association. He saw that the thing was inanimate. Of course, this was just some kind of household appliance. Like... what kind of device can be suspended from the ceiling in the bathroom?... well, maybe an air freshener. The work of some crazy designer, who decided to conquer the market with an unusual shape. Or a smoke and carbon monoxide detector at the same time (that's why there were two green lights), although the bathroom is a strange place for such sensors. But well, the owners of the house know better.
But just... Dave was not sure that he had seen this thing when he entered the bathroom. Of course, he had been looking then not at the ceiling, but at the usual area of operations — a sink, a bathtub and a toilet bowl. While, probably, he still had had to notice a multi-colored and even luminous thing, at least out of the corner of his eye...
Dave slowly, as if enchanted, extended his hand to touch the doodah. But the ceilings in this old house were quite high — which could not be said about Dave himself — and he lacked a few inches. How did the owners use it? The man — John — probably could reach the buttons (now Dave clearly understood that these were not “eyes”, but just buttons recessed in hollows), if he stood on tiptoe, but even this was not very convenient. And his wife... well, probably no unless she jumped. However, if it was turned on once and then worked till the end of its service life, then that could be done from a stepladder.
Dave, of course, neither jumped himself to get to the thing nor poked it with a long wrench or a pipe section. The last thing he needed was to damage his customers' device, unrelated to his job, just out of curiosity. However, Dave was reasoning so calmly being sure that the two white tubes on which the doodah hung were firmly attached to the ceiling. If he knew that this rather massive-looking thing hung right above his head on two suction cups only...
Dave shook his head — what people didn’t sell and buy nowadays! — and returned to his work. He decided to pay no more attention to the multi-colored object.
The lunch had ended long ago, and Jimmy had gone to his room. Judging by the sounds, he finally was watching cartoons, rather than puttering with his toy; but his parents were still sitting in the kitchen. Recently, they often stayed here, perhaps because this room seemed brighter than the rest ones. The window there was no larger than in the other rooms, but there was a lot of white — cabinets, the fridge, a tablecloth on the table. Other rooms seemed to be saturated with darkness which was oozing from time-stained bare wooden walls and from similar looking floorboards. Even on bright days the very air there seemed musty and old.
“Looks like our plumber is taking his time,” John said with displeasure.
“How do you know how much time he needs?” shrugged Emma. "There is nothing easier than someone else's work."
“What are you implying?” John suddenly got angry.
“Nothing,” Emma said in surprise.
“The fact that everyone around is working, and I'm just messing around?” he cringed.
"What at all has this to do with you? I know very well that you are looking for job. I’m only talking about not judging others whose work you don’t understand."
"That's not rocket science — to replace a couple of pipes and gaskets."
“Well, if it's that simple, why don't you do it yourself?” Emma could not resist to say.
“Weren't that you who were against me doing the repair myself?!”
"Yes, because you would not have done it right!"
“Well, and who is judging the other now?”
“Don't yell,” Emma grimaced. "Jimmy will hear. And the plumber, by the way, too. What's bothering you?" Previously. they quarreled very rarely. Of course, after John had lost his job, they hadn't had much causes for joy, and she'd often seen how angry John had been, but that anger had not gone against her. On the contrary, he had sought solace from her. “Go and check what he's doing there, if that bothers you so much,” Emma added.
“OK, I will,” John got up and left the kitchen.
After turning into the corridor leading to the bathroom, he saw the open door and two legs in dusty boots protruding from there. Dave was obviously lying on his back on the bathroom floor. His legs were motionless, and there was no sound from within — no tinkling of wrenches or what the plumber's work should be accompanied by. Only from Jimmy’s room something roared and shot, and cartoon voices squeaked.
John suddenly felt uneasy and quickened his pace. For unknown reason he imagined a dead body of a woman spread out on the tiled floor, with the sodden hair like disgusting icicles in a dark, almost black puddle, spreading around the head...
"Dave, are you okay?"
The legs bent at the knees, and the head appeared in the doorway.
“Me — yes,” Dave said. “But your toilet bowl, I’m afraid, should be replaced.”
"Damn!" John could not restrain himself. The recent extra expenses made him mad.
“I fixed the other things for you here,” Dave continued, standing up from the floor. “The riser under the sink, the gasket, the bathtub faucet, the shower head... if you wait a couple of minutes, I'll write you the invoice,” he pulled out a double paper from his toolbox, and then a pen from his overalls pocket.
“Yeah, sure,” John muttered. "And the toilet... how bad is it?"
" There's a big crack. I kind of caulked it, but it's not going to last. And the drain will not work well, because the pipe is scaled from the inside. We have hard water here, scale accumulates — in all pipes, not just in that one. I would advise you to install a water filter for the future."
The telephone rang in the house.
“We're not going to live here long,” John said. “Just to stay for... a while, until we return to the city.”
“Ah, well, that's your business,” Dave, leaning the paper against the wall, was slowly writing the numbers in a column. "By the way, may I wonder — what is that tricky gizmo on your ceiling here?"
"John!" Emma appeared in the doorway. "They are calling you about job!"
"I'm coming! Emma, pay off Dave..." John ran away down the corridor.
Emma came near, nodded to the plumber, took the invoice and frowned when she saw the total.
"Dave, will you accept a check?"
“I would prefer cash, ma'am.”
“Um... I'm not sure I can find that much cash now. I would have to go to the bank, and you'd have to wait for me.” she looked at him pleadingly.
“Alright,” the plumber agreed; he did not want to linger there, and Toby must have all been exhausted, locked in the truck. “Today I’m not going to the city, but I think it’ll be okay if I cash your check tomorrow or the next day.”
She ducked into the room and quickly returned with a check and a pen. The plumber told her what to write in the field "Pay to", thanked her and went to the door. Already having stepped one foot on the porch, he suddenly turned around, remembering a question that he had not received an answer to, and asked the hostess about the "odd little appliance in the bathroom."
"Which one?" Emma was surprised.
“Well, that...” Dave’s finger described something lumpy in the air, “multi-colored, with two large green... bulbs.”
"Ah, this is probably my son’s toy. I will tell him not to leave it just anywhere."
"A toy?" Dave marveled. "Wow, what only they don't produce nowadays. Okay, ma'am, have a nice day."
The worn out Tobias paced behind the window when he saw his owner. The plumber strode to the car, hiding the check in his overalls pocket.
Cartoon voices still came from Jimmy's room. Emma opened the door. On the TV screen, Uncle Scrooge was swimming in money. "Why am I not Uncle Scrooge," Emma thought grimly.
The boy was sitting in front of the TV on the floor, legs crossed. For some reason, he preferred to watch TV like this, rather than from an armchair.
The toy lay quietly nearby. Off, with dark dead eyes.
"Denver? So far?"
“Closer than Alabama,” John grinned.
“But that's... six hundred miles, I guess. And you are going to be there tomorrow morning?"
"More than seven hundred miles. But it's okay, if I leave tonight, I should arrive with some margin."
“Why can't they find someone there,” Emma muttered doubtfully.
“They need a man with my qualities,” John smiled confidently. "Still young, but with team leadership experience. Ambitious and energetic. In fact, they are opening a new shopping center in Fargo. But interviews for such a position are held at their HQ in Denver."
“But you are going to drive all night long. Including on mountain roads... They could at least give you more travel time!"
“They asked how soon I could arrive. I replied — tomorrow nine a.m. For sure that went to my advantage."
"You said yourself that such long trips make sense only with a guarantee of success! And they probably have lots of candidates..."
“Look, what do you want?” John became angry. “One day you make a claim to me that I'm not looking for a job all over America..."
“I did not...” she tried to object, but he did not listen:
“Another day — that I'm going for an interview through a couple of states. Choose something one after all!"
“I'm just worried you're going to drive all night without sleep,” Emma said meekly. "And in what condition will you appear in front of your employers after that?"
“In perfect condition,” John snapped. "I said, I’ll arrive early and I will have time to spruce myself up "
“And I'll be left without a vehicle here,” Emma sighed. "In this hole."
“Just for one day,” John relented. "Tomorrow evening I will be home."
"We should still buy a second car. Surely we can find a used one for just a thousand."
"We will, and not a used rusty clunker. After I get this job."
And so he left. Not even having dinner, because "eating makes him sleepy." He took only a thermos of coffee and a few sandwiches with him. Jimmy was not at all saddened by his father’s departure (although previously he used to cry when Dad left even for a day and could not wish him good night — which caused Emma's shameful jealousy); he also did not want to keep company with his mother and, barely having finished dinner, ran back to his toy. Emma scanned the TV channels for a while (but found nothing interesting) until it was time to put her son to bed. (In recent days he climbed between the sheets without objection, clutching the toy to himself —that was at least some benefit from that thing.) Then Emma got to bed herself with a book, but her eyes glanced thoughtlessly through the pages, skipping the meaning. She told herself she had to be glad that John would get a good job, and that everything would finally become as before, or even better — but instead she only felt a nagging anxiety. As a result, she turned off the light earlier than usual, almost sure that she wouldn't be able to fall asleep and would toss and turn, trying to drive away worried thoughts, until midnight. However, contrary to her fears, she fell asleep almost immediately.
She woke up in the middle of the night from the strong feeling that there was someone in the bedroom.
It was completely dark. Emma realized that she was facing the wall, where her husband usually slept. It took her a few more seconds to realize that John was not there — and not because it was he who was standing now in the doorway, probably after going to the bathroom, but because he was traveling hundreds of miles away. It also could not be Jimmy — sometimes he came to his parents in the middle of the night complaining about a bad dream or feeling unwell, but he wouldn’t have stood silently, and she would have already heard his mournful “Mo-om...” Realizing all this, and especially the absence of her husband, made her feel real horror. Although, of course, if someone really burglarized their house and was already in the bedroom, what could John have done, armed with nothing but his underpants and blanket? He had a pistol — and John showed her how to use it — but, of course, the weapon was not in the bedside table drawer (there was a child in the house!), but in a small locked safe along with all sorts of documents. No chances to reach it now. Emma felt her fingers becoming ice-cold and her heart pounding at almost triple speed. However, the room was completely quiet. Not a slightest rustle or creak disclosed the presence of the intruder — and their wonderful floor, of course, would have creaked under the feet of even the most cautious thief. “This is all nonsense,” Emma told herself. “You just had a bad dream. You need to roll and see that nobody is there.”
However, she could not dare to do it. She could not force herself to move — and thus show the enemy she was awake. Although, it seemed to her, her heart was beating so loudly that it could be heard at the other side of the house.
So she lay motionless, covered in cold sweat and listening to silence for a minute or two; but still no sound confirmed an alien presence. Finally, cursing herself a cowardly fool, Emma rolled sharply to the other side, ready to... she did not know to what — fight, scream (who would hear?!), jump out the window (what about Jimmy?!)...
The door, barely visible in the darkness, was ajar. But there was no one in the room. Only a little above the floor, two round green eyes shone brightly, staring at her.
"Damn, fuck you!" Emma swore loud and lowered her feet to the floor. She'd told Jim to turn the damn thing off when he wasn’t playing with it! However, Emma immediately remembered how she had put her son to bed — the button-eyes were unlit then. Although, of course, Jimmy could click them later... even unknowingly, in a dream...
Emma went across the room to pick up the toy and take it back to the nursery. Suddenly, something solid crunched under her bare foot. Some kind of trash? Where could it get from in their carefully cleaned bedroom? Maybe a piece of termite-pitted ceiling crumbled out?
The toy stood motionless, it did not follow the walking woman with its eyes — after all, it was a simple mechanism, and the “eyes” really were just buttons... Yet Emma did not dare to touch it in the dark, but groped the switch and turn the light on first. She also turned to look what she stepped on — and grimaced in disgust, seeing that she had crushed a hefty black cockroach. Most likely, it was already dead when she stepped on it, since it had not run away at her approach... All that was missing were those creatures! John and she had already had to pay for ants and termite extermination before moving here — but, apparently, those measures were not enough...
Emma picked up the toy from the floor and pressed both buttons at once to turn it off. Nothing happened. The buttons did not pop out of their recesses and continued to glow. She tried to push them one after another. No effect. "Damn you!" Emma cursed again, this time in her mind. Well, if you don’t want to turn off in a good way — I’ll just take the batteries out of you!
She turned and rotated the toy in her hands, looking for the battery cover — but also without success. What was this after all?! Emma returned to the middle of the room and stood right under the lamp, turning the toy this way and that, carefully examining it, sliding her fingernails on a smooth surface in the hope of finding a gap — all in vain. Nowhere were any gaps, or screws, or latches — not even seams or rivets, no traces of assembly at all. The damn thing looked like a single monolith. Emma examined and felt each of the colored bulges — there were ten of them, but no one could be pressed or rotated. Maybe the toy was charged from the line power? But when Jimmy had unwrapped his father's gift, there had been no power supply or wires. And, as she saw now, on the body there was nothing like a socket for any kind of a connector.
There were also no inscriptions — no name, no logo, no country of origin. However, all that, of course, could be on the label which later had torn off...
Well, the label — okay. But how had the toy gotten into the bedroom? It, of course, could walk anywhere when it was turned on... but until now Emma had never seen it leaving the nursery. Well, yes, Jimmy probably just had always turned it back before. And if, for example, now he dropped it from the bed while sleeping, the impact could turn it on, and it started walking... But the nursery’s door was closed, Emma had closed it herself. Not locked, of course — but to enter or exit, one had to turn the knob. The same was true for the door of the parents’ bedroom.
Well, maybe Jimmy had gone to the bathroom at night and left his door open. But anyway, Emma definitely had not gone anywhere since she'd got to bed. She could not have just dreamed that her door had been closed before shed turned the light off!
Or could she? There must be a reasonable explanation for everything. And, when John returned, he would tell how the power was provided for that thing...
But what Emma was sure of was that she would not put this crap in her son’s bed again.
But where to put it? Emma would just have put any other toy in some cardboard box (all the more some of the boxes were still unpacked after the move — John had said that that made no sense, because soon all those things would have to be moved back). But as for this thing — especially as long as it remained on, or retained the ability to turn on, for that matter — Emma wanted to lock it at least in a safe. Together with the gun and documents... However, as soon as she thought about that, she immediately dismissed the idea. She did not seriously fear that, in that case, opening the safe next time, she or John would see important papers torn into scraps — or, moreover, would get a bullet. But... but. Call it intuition or just fear, but she would not do it.
She wondered where else to lock the toy. A large room, such as a basement, was definitely not good — try to find it there later! Emma remembered the suitcase with the combination lock which they used for vacation trips and which John had put in the storeroom. Yes, that would do. And then she would wash her foot and remove the remains of the cockroach from the floor.
She walked out into the corridor and looked into her son's room. The door, as she expected, was ajar. Jimmy was sleeping peacefully.
The toy in her hand suddenly began to move, shifting its legs, and Emma felt such disgust as if she was holding a giant insect. What at all did John and Jim found attractive in this thing?! Emma did not throw it on the floor only because she did not want to wake Jimmy. She hastily left the nursery, not forgetting to close the door.
"Where is my toy?!"
“Where is your 'good morning?'” Emma in a dressing gown stood at the kitchen table, spreading sandwiches with jam and peanut butter. The morning really looked good — not a cloud in the sky, the sun filled the landscape outside the window with bright colors, making it not as dull as usual. The only thing that spoiled the idyll was a fly buzzing around the kitchen, which Emma had tried to kill several times, but to no avail.
"Where is my toy?!" Jimmy repeated in accusing tone. “Did you take it away?”
“It...” Emma was tempted to say “went away,” which was, in general, not far from the truth. But instead, she said: "... broke."
"You're lying! It can't break!"
“You may not say 'you're lying' to your mother,” Emma said sternly. "Apologize, or you’ll get no breakfast."
“But you may lie to your son?” Jimmy objected in a very adult way, without even thinking to apologize.
“My son promised not to turn his toy on at night,” Emma reminded. “So who of us is lying?”
“I didn't turn it on,” Jimmy shook his head.
"Who then — maybe it turned on itself?" Emma ironically raised her eyebrow.
“So you see, that means it is broken,” concluded Emma, pleased with the logical combination. Still, convincing a child with reasonable arguments is much more correct than using the universal “argument” “Because I said so!”, as her own mother had done in her time.
But Jimmy did not seem convinced by her impeccable logic.
"It did not break. It is always like that."
"Okay," Emma was very patient, "but how to turn it off, do you know?"
“It can't be turned off.”
"How can that be? It was off when you got to bed."
"It turns off when it wants."
"Well, there you are! It turns on by itself, it turns off by itself. Working things do not behave like that. Imagine that your TV would turn on in the middle of night and turn off in the middle of a cartoon."
“What did you do to it?!” Jimmy was still deaf to her reasonable arguments.
“I...” Emma was tempted to say “threw it away,” but she was frightened of the impending tantrum and answered the truth: “... locked it away.”
"Give it back!" the boy categorically demanded.
“No, Jim,” she returned to her strict tone. “You will not play with a faulty toy,” but, looking into his eyes, which widened from resentment and anger, she nevertheless added conciliatorily: “When Dad returns, he will try to fix it.”
“If you don’t give me my toy, Dad won’t return!” shouted Jimmy and ran out of the kitchen, depriving her of the last word — "you just lost your breakfast!"
Emma sighed and looked at the sandwiches that she had made; more than she could eat alone. The morning, when she'd almost managed to regain her carefree mood to match the sun outside the window, was spoiled. It was not only a quarrel with her son — children's grievances are short-lived - at least, Emma hoped so. But Jim's stupid words — without a doubt, said simply out of anger and without any real basis — nevertheless aroused again her concern for John. What if after several hours of night driving he still fell asleep somewhere on a mountain road? Or something happened to the brakes of the old pickup? No, of course not, that was utter rubbish... he should be having his interview right now, and in half an hour or so, he would call...
She poured tea for herself and went to the fridge for a lemon. She opened the door, pulled out a fruit drawer and grimaced in frustration: all four lemons lying there were moldy white. Emma pulled out the box completely and discovered that the things were even worse: cucumbers turned into a soft rotting porridge, also covered with long whitish smears of mold, and tomatoes were all blacked out. A fetid rotten slurry splashed at the bottom of the box.
What the hell was that?! Last evening, when she was cooking dinner, everything had been fine!
Emma pressed her ear to the side of the ancient fridge. All that was missing was... No, it worked, rumbling steadily and vibrating slightly, as usual. Probably, there was a power loss at night.
What else? Milk — of course, also sour. Open cans of beans and corn... mold in both. Cheese... damn, it too! How could that happen — the power could be lost for at most, well, five hours — since she had gotten up in the middle of the night, when the lights were working — and the air in the closed fridge heats up not immediately! Apples... well, at least to them definitely nothing could happen in that hours, they can be stored for many days without any fridge! Emma took out a couple — the apples looked and felt normal. However, she suddenly vividly imagined a scene from horror movies: she bites off a robust, tasty looking dark red apple — and everything inside it appears black with rot and full with moving worms. It seemed so clear to her that she felt sick. Emma washed one of the apples and carefully, as if clearing a bomb, she cut it in half with a large knife.
Nope, no worms. White juicy apple flesh, with brown seeds cut in halves with a blade. At least something was in order. Although, of course, it just could not be otherwise.
Emma pulled on a pair of yellow gloves, dumped the spoiled food into the garbage bag, then washed the drawer and returned it to the fridge. The main problem was that she couldn’t drive to the store for new groceries — she had no car! Of course, she and Jim would not die of hunger today, but... Without any enthusiasm already, she returned to the table where sandwiches and her already cooled tea were waiting for her. She made a sip, deciding whether to finish this cup or pour it out and make a new one.
Something slipped into her mouth. Some kind of lump. Emma reflexively spat it with the unswallowed tea back into the cup..
It was a big fly. Most probably, the very one which she hunted in vain — and which finally decided to meet her halfway and to complete its life journey in her cup.
And here Emma vomited, nearly turned herself inside out — into the cup, on the table, on the plate with sandwiches and on the floor.
By the time Emma finished tidying up the kitchen, John had not called yet, so she decided to continue cleaning in other rooms. The best way to distract yourself from unpleasant thoughts and conjointly to spend time productively. She forbade herself to look at the clock until she finished. She did not clean up Jimmy's room — during the holidays it was his own duty, and the way he behaved in the morning certainly excluded indulgence — but she still glanced in the nursery. The boy, who contrary to her expectations did not eventually come to ask for breakfast, sat at his table drawing enthusiastically; he must have heard his mother opening the door behind him, but ignored her. Emma had an evil thought of taking his drawing-book away so that he would still feel punished, but she told herself that she should not take it out on the child. It would be extremely foolish to first be annoyed that he spent all the time with the toy, and then to interfere with him when he still found himself another occupation.
When Emma finally finished cleaning, the clock was 2:12 pm. The phone was still silent.
And then Emma felt real fear.
Obviously, no interview, even if it had begun later than planned (but not five hours later!), could last so long. And finding a phone in Denver was not a problem. (John didn’t have a mobile phone, not even in the best times — for he was mostly within reach of either a work or home phone and considered a new-fangled toy which cost $900 (not including the monthly fee) a waste of money.) Suppose the interview had been unsuccessful, and he did not want to upset her. But he obviously had to understand that she would be much more upset, having no news from him at all! Not even knowing if he made it to his destination!
"If you don’t give me my toy, Dad won’t return!”. The stupid phrase, so successfully superimposed on her own anxiety, did not go out of her head. She was tempted to go to her son and question him why he had said so. Oh, nonsense, of course. He'd simply cried out in vehemence the first thing that, in his opinion, could hurt her. And if he realized that he could scare her in such a primitive way, he would twist her round his little finger. As if she were a little schoolgirl, listening to scary stories around a campfire or in the dark bedroom during a sleepover... She remembered a girl from her class who, just when they had been nine years old, had spread a rumor about herself that she was a sorceress and any girl whom she would be angry with would lose her own mother. For almost two months, the other girls were fawning upon her, sharing breakfasts they brought from home and even doing homework for her — although her words were supported by absolutely no proof. But no one risked to check. Until a new girl appeared in their class that gave the “witch” a good bashing. As it turned out later, she had done that not because of critical thinking. She just hated her alcoholic mother and hoped to get rid of her that way...
Of course, the threats appeared to be complete nonsense. And the fake "witch" got such a harassment in revenge that she eventually jumped from the school roof. The suicide attempt hadn’t worked out for her either — she had gotten off with a broken leg, and only then the whole bad story became known to the adults.
One way or another, there was no more truth in Jim's morning words than in those threats. But why doesn't John call?!
Anyway, it was time to cook lunch. That was another occupation which helped to distract from bad thoughts. They had no fresh vegetables today, and spaghetti and cheese were also no more an option. But at least she could fry potatoes with fish sticks.
As soon as she dropped everything into a frying pan and covered it with a lid, she heard the sound of a vehicle approaching. Emma rushed to the window, but it was just a white and blue mail truck. But who else could it actually be? Even if John was nevertheless going home without calling her, he could not have arrived so early.
Emma left the house and headed for the mailbox. She found there a local newspaper which they had subscribed to shortly after the move. Having returned to the kitchen (the frying pan hissed on the stove), Emma began to leaf through the pages, thoughtlessly glancing at the articles on various topics: the upcoming fair, debate in the county administration, buying a new school bus, the building of the old movie theater in the city was finally bought from the previous owners and would be demolished, one of the local churches was closed due to the resignation of an elderly pastor and a lack of parishioners, a tour of a local country group and all the like. She knew that she was really interested in the incident column, although she told herself that it was completely stupid, because even if something had happened to John, it could have happened within four states, so no mention in the local newspaper did not mean...
"Road Accident on State Route 13, One Dead"
Emma's throat instantly went dry.
"July 31, 6 p.m. An accident occurred on Route 13 five miles east of Edgeley. On a straight and level road, a pickup truck veered off the lane and struck a pole. The driver, David Jackson, 54, died at the scene before help arrived..."
Thank God! Rest in peace, David Jackson, whoever you were, and thank you for not being John Horrell.
Stop. David Jackson? The name was familiar to Emma. Of course it was far not rare, but... Sure, just yesterday she made a check payable to that name! However, maybe it was just a namesake? She continued to read:
"According to preliminary police report, no alcohol or drugs were found in the blood of the deceased. The probable cause was that the driver lost control due to an attack of his own dog which was riding in the same cab. Numerous bites were found on Mr. Jackson's body. The dog survived the accident, but was shot dead by the arrived police officer because it was aggressive and did not allow paramedics to approach the body."
Sure. The dog. Emma remembered that she'd heard furious barking yesterday.
She felt instant joy at the thought that the check in Jackson’s overalls pocket had not been deposited, and immediately reproached herself for it. Of course, all the personal belongings of the deceased would be passed on to his relatives... he'd lived alone, that's why he dragged the dog with him, but after all, he probably had someone somewhere. One way or another, an heir who had the right to cash the check would be found.
And, of course, even if not, she should not rejoice at someone’s death due to a couple of hundred bucks! That's terrible, she did not expect such a thing from herself. This was... almost as if she had killed him herself! Just because he had done his job for her. Maybe, some contender for the position that John was going to take wanted his rival to crash along his way as well...
"Please forgive me for such thoughts and make John return!" she thought, addressing she did not know whom. Her parents were zealous Catholics, but she had not attended church since she'd fluttered out of her parents nest. Or escaped from her parents prison, to be more precise.
The burning smell interrupted her thoughts. Damn, she completely forgot about the pan!
Fortunately, it was not too late, and the lunch did not turn into embers yet. Emma went to call Jimmy.
She found him at his former occupation. He did not respond to the invitation to go to lunch, continuing to intently move a pencil on paper.
“Jim, did you hear me?” Emma asked sternly from the doorway. The boy, without turning around, muttered something inaudible. "Still sulking because of his toy," Emma realized and entered the room.
"What are you drawing? She asked conciliatorily, approaching the table.
“Nothing,” Jimmy muttered, covering the drawing from her with his elbow.
"Your drawing-book is not going anywhere. Go to lunch."
“I don't want.”
“Well, well,” Emma grinned. "Do you mean you are on a hunger strike?"
“Maybe I am,” the boy grumbled, still leaning on the table and not looking at her.
“Then you will not eat dinner either?” she asked in an ironic tone.
“Maybe I will not.”
"No, come on without 'maybe', otherwise what kind of hunger strike it is. If you are such an unbending fighter, then I don’t cook for you. And then you'll change your mind and want to eat — but there will be nothing."
“I will not want.”
“Well, we'll see,” Emma said angrily. “But it will be too late,” she turned and left the room.
The phone still did not ring.
"Maybe still to give Jim back the damn toy?" she thought drearily, sitting alone in the kitchen and pushing food around the plate. It was harmful for the child not to eat all day long, he was already thin. And she couldn’t feed him by force. And, of course, she would never hit her son. And what for, after all? Yes, he was impudent, but he also could be understood — for no reason, she took away his favorite toy, which John and she had gifted him with before. More precisely, Dad gifted, and Mom took away... although, of course, John gave the present on behalf of both of them. And what so terrible, after all, could that toy do — even if it, for example, had a loose contact, responsible for turning it on and off? It could not shock or cause a fire — no matter how tricky its battery was, it could not be that powerful. This toy had absolutely no sharp or anyway else harmful parts. In fact, a cat walking around the house at night could be much more dangerous — its claws, and allergies, and... fleas maybe, or some germs... and it could not be turned on and off at one's wish., too
Convincing herself with all those reasonable arguments, Emma, however, did not want to admit even to herself that she had one more
reason. "If you don’t give the toy back, Dad won’t return." Nonsense, of course. Total, absolute bullshit. If for no other reason than because, even if... something happened, it had happened already, and neither the return of the toy nor anything else could change it anymore...
Emma got up and went to the storeroom.
She was almost ready to see the suitcase being violently broken from inside and, of course, empty. But no, the suitcase lay still, safe and sound, where she had left it. Maybe the damn thing finally ran out of charge, Emma thought.
And then she heard knocking. Uniform, like steps of a mechanism knowing neither fatigue, nor doubt, nor pity. What it, in fact, was. Knock-knock, knock-knock. Let-me re-turn . Knock-knock, knock-knock. Or-John will-not...
Emma shook her head, pushing away the obsession. It was clear that the toy had not turned off and continued to try to walk inside the suitcase — but, lying on its side, just knocked on the wall. Proving once again that it was just a bunch of springs and gears connected to the motor. But still, Emma most of all wanted to shut the storeroom door again. Perhaps even after piling the suitcase with something heavy to be sure. Something through which this knock would not be heard.
But instead, she pulled the suitcase from the dark inside into the corridor. With trembling fingers she turned the wheels of the combination lock and opened the lid.
The knocking stopped instantly. The toy lay motionless on its side, with its legs limp like pasta. But the green button-eyes still glowed.
Emma looked at it for a while, then picked it up like a dead rat... worse, like a dead rat that could come back to life at any moment. However, touching the bends of the smooth body had, in a strange way, a calming effect on Emma. Still, this thing was surprisingly pleasant to the touch. What was its body made of? It seemed neither plastic nor metal. Maybe... ceramics coated with colored glaze?
Emma caught herself standing and stroking colored tubers with her fingers for several minutes. What would have Freud said about that? However, in fact, the toy was not associated with anything sexual — neither male nor female. It... was not associated with anything at all. Even the distant visual analogy with a potato — or some other root crop — was destroyed by completely different tactile sensations.
Emma headed to her son's room.
"Jimmy!" she entered, holding the toy behind her back. “Jimmy, don't you want to tell me anything?”
This time he turned and looked at her. First gloomily, then with hope. Perhaps he realized what she was holding behind her. Maybe he noticed a green reflection...
"Well?" hurried him Emma.
"Sorry, Mommy, I was rude. I won’t be like that anymore,” Jimmy said.
“That doesn't sound very sincere,” Emma said.
"Honestly, I promise!" exclaimed the boy, getting up and coming up to her. Now he looked at her bottom-up almost imploringly.
“Alright,” Emma took pity, taking her hand from behind. “But remember what you promised. You can’t love a toy more than Mom and Dad. It is just a thing, it is not alive."
Jim grabbed the toy with both hands and pressed it to his chest. For a moment, Emma felt unpleasant to look at her own son. The little boy suddenly reminded her Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. "My precious..."
“And you will no longer sleep with it,” Emma continued. “At least until Dad fixes it. As it turns on in the middle of the night, it must be put into a box. Now put it down, wash your hands and go to dinner. Actually, everything has cooled down already, but you must blame yourself, you should not have been naughty."
With obvious reluctance, Jim laid the toy on the bed (it still made no attempt to move its legs — by what principle did it start it anyway?) and left the nursery. Emma wanted to follow him, but her eyes fell on the drawing-book left on the table. What did he draw so enthusiastically for half a day?
She opened the first page. A large starship was depicted there, moving through bespangled space. She was attacked by two smaller ships, firing rockets at her. The spaceship shot back; the doubled dashed yellow lines apparently meant laser beams. They ran into a jagged red blot, from which formless debris scattered in all directions — obviously, this was the fate of the third attacker. Another ship of the third design came from above, intending to support unclear whom. However, this drawing was already several weeks old — Emma remembered that Jim had already shown it to her and even explained who there were the Cardassians and who were the Federation, although she certainly did not remember it.
The next picture demonstrated an astronaut in a spacesuit, firing from a blaster at a green dinosaur hanging over him. The next drawing — another cosmic monster with tentacles which fought against robots. "Still, there is too much violence in these movies he watches — even in cartoons!" Emma thought, turning the page again.
Here the style and plot changed dramatically, and Emma somehow realized that it was drawn today.
There was nothing of space or future here. A man with a long black beard, in a long-sleeved black suit and hat, depicted in a running pose, with both hands was raising up at an angle a pitchfork A woman in a long dress with an apron was impaled on the pitchfork, apparently, just an instant before, after trying in vain to escape from him. Bloodstained tines protruded from her abdomen, and long drops of blood flew from her mouth. The bonnet falling from her hair froze in the air. A little girl with pigtails ran towards the killer with her mouth wide open, shouting desperately In the lower left corner two chickens were running away.
All this was drawn, of course, with an inept childish hand, like previous space battles — but it was noticeable that this time the author paid much more attention to details, trying to draw every button and lace, every drop of blood — and even saliva flying out of the girl's mouth. The figures and facial features did not allow to distinguish a man from a woman and an adult from a child — this was possible to do only thanks to hair, clothes and growth — but the poses of all depicted ones, including even running birds, surprisingly realistically conveyed the dynamics of the terrible scene.
“Oh my God...” Emma muttered and looked at the next page.
There was a continuation of the story. Now the girl had rushed away from the bearded man, but it did not save her. Instead of the pitchfork, he now had a scythe in his hands, and with it he cut the girl in half. Her lower half still continued to run, while the upper half, raising its hands and still screaming, was falling sidewards into the grass. Blood and some bits and scraps flew in all directions much more abundantly than in the previous picture.
The third drawing showed the predictable ending. The bearded man hung in a noose, jerking his legs; his eyes were bulging, his tongue fell out of his mouth. His agony was calmly watched by a boy in short pants, standing in the lower right corner.
The fourth drawing. Change of scenery. The inside of some big barn. A man, this time without a beard, but with a large mustache, stood, leaning on a long, bloody ax, and looked at the watch on the chain, taken from his vest pocket. On the floor in front of him there were two arms, chopped off to the elbow, and two legs — more than knee-high. A woman with a big belly crawled away from him, resting her stumps against the floor and leaving a long bloody trail behind her. She was obviously pregnant. The man had given her time, Emma realized. If she managed to crawl out of the barn in time, her child would have a chance...
New page. No blood, no murders. The picture was almost idyllic — a man and a boy were eating under a tree in the garden. They had full plates of something brown. Nearby there was a barbecue, and smoke still curled over it...
But the man, judging by his mustache, was the same one. And Emma felt a lump in her throat when she guessed what they were eating.
"She still couldn’t," Emma thought. "She did not make it. Ran out of time or stamina..."
The following picture. The moustached man was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, and even if the image were more skillful, he could have been identified only by his mustache. Above them there was nothing but a broken crimson line and a single round eye hanging on a thread of a nerve. Red blood and gray brains flowed abundantly down the wall. Nearby stood a boy with a double-barrelled gun, which was almost bigger than him; the ends of the barrels were bloodied. It was unclear whether the boy had taken the gun after the suicide of the man or shot him himself...
Emma could not believe her eyes. A nine year old child couldn’t draw such things. He just couldn’t imagine such things. Murders and blood, yes, but a pregnant woman without arms and legs, who was trying her best to save her unborn child... no, definitely not. What was he watching?! The TV in his room was set up only for children's and family channels... Were it several months ago in Fargo, she could have suspected that some his friend had foisted an adults horror comic on him — but here and now Jim just had nobody to talk to or to get things like that from. Of course, she should interrogate him where he got all these stories. But what if he insisted that he invented them himself? Or, say, saw them in a dream? What's then?
Emma, who was about to turn the next page, winced from that harsh sound behind her and nearly dropped the drawing-book. Then she quickly turned around. The toy still lay on Jimmy's bed, but its green eyes popped out and turned dark.
“I hope you're discharged at last,” Emma muttered. And then a new sound made her wince again — it was the ring of the phone.
Emma quickly shut the drawing-book, laid it on the table and ran out from the room.
"Mrs. Horrell? This is the state police... I'm afraid I have bad news for you, ma'am..."
She vividly imagined the whole conversation while she was running to the phone and bringing the receiver to her ear. Or maybe it was just a wrong number...
"John! John, thank God... John, damn you, why the hell you did not call?!"
“I didn’t call until everything became clear completely,” John muttered, and his tone showed that nothing good had become clear.
... It happened in Nebraska, on a narrow, no passing stretch of highway, shortly before dawn but still in dark. The road was empty, except for a single tractor-trailer dragging from the opposite direction. And from behind of the trailer, right head-on to John some nutcase leaped out, who, the thing is, was tired of dragging behind the truck and, obviously, did not expect an oncoming car on the all empty night highway. John reflexively twisted the steering wheel all the way to the right and flew off the road. There was no steep there, there was only a shallow and low slope, but that was enough for the pickup to turn over several times and rest upside down. John, as he was fastened, escaped with only a couple of bruises, but for the pickup, of course, the trip was over. Neither the tractor-trailer driver nor the culprit of the accident even tried to stop and offer help. Maybe they did not even notice what happened in the dark already behind them.
“ I wish I had rammed him!” boiled John. "Then he would have paid all the damage, as the clear and only culprit! But now it turns out that I crashed my car myself, and that's my only problem!"
"Don't be silly!" Emma exclaimed angrily. “The last thing you needed was a head-on collision because of some lousy money! You would have been both dead already!"
“Not me,” John said smugly. "Our Ford is still as sturdy as a tank. And if his tin can would have squashed together with him, so he deserved! His insurance company would have paid me every penny. Or his heirs."
“Actually, drivers die in sturdy cars more often than in 'tin cans,'” Emma said didactically. "Because when the car crumples, it absorbs the shock. I read it in a magazine."
“If you're so smart, why did you work a cashier in Walmart?” John snapped.
“How can you!” she gasped with indignation. "You know, I could not afford college, and..."
“Okay, I'm sorry,” he backpedaled. “I had the worst day of my life... and, in fact, it's not ended yet.”
So he continued his story. He got out of the pickup without any problems, but the overturned vehicle was not visible from the highway, so he hardly could count on the help from passers by. John walked along the highway back towards the nearest town, trying to stop rare cars on the road, but no one stopped to pick up a stranger thumbing in twilight on an empty highway. Probably being almost uninjured in the accident played a cruel joke with him: if he were covered in blood and torn clothes, someone would have surely stopped or, at least, informed the police upon reaching the nearest phone.
It took John almost two hours to get to the town, and about the same time to organize the rescue of the ill-fated pickup. After the rescue team had finally put Ford on wheels and pulled it with a cable on the highway, the “tank” looked almost intact, apart from smashed out windows and scratches — but, of course, the engine did not start. He had to haul it to the city on a tow truck platform. John described the circumstances of the accident to a police officer, but, as he remembered neither the license plate nor even make and model, there was no chance that the violator of the passing rules would be found.
By the time he was finally able to call his potential employers, it was almost 10 a.m..
They sympathized with him dryly, and for the possibility of postponing the interview to a later time, they suggested him to call again in the afternoon. During that time, he found out what the repair would cost him. In total with the cost of the rescue operation, it came out just a little less than he'd paid to purchase that pickup. The only good thing was they promised to repair it quickly — "a day, maybe two." However, he was ready to rent a car and drive to Denver. But, when he phoned there again, he was informed that, “unfortunately,” the vacancy was already taken.
Probably, they did not need a manager who had an accident right on a day very important for him. Even if that accident was not his fault. Moreover, in the latter they could rely only on his words.
After that, John rented a room in a motel and called Emma.
"Anyway, why didn't you call me right when you got to the phone?” Emma was indignant. “I'm losing my mind for half a day!"
"I had more urgent problems."
"You could not find even a minute? After you informed these snobs in Denver, you could not spend a minute on another call?
"Just to say that I crashed our pickup and was late for the interview? Would it have consoled you much?"
"Yes! At least I would have known that you were alive and well!"
“What wrong could happen...” he began irritably but realized that in this situation it was not the proper phrase. “I was hoping that later I could report good news as well. At least some good news."
"It’s hard for a man to admit defeat," thought Emma. "Moreover, I warned him that he should not drive at night. He did not want to hear 'I told you!...'"
“You know, you weren't the only one who had an accident,” she said and told him about the plumber.
“So much for the kindest dog,” said John when she finished her story. "However, it, of course, is not to blame... That's why it barked that way. Obviously, it was already sick, but we did not understand."
“You think it was rabies?”
“What else? Caught from some rodent. Remind Jimmy once again not to touch any animals outdoors."
"He stays at home all day long anyway... By the way, how to turn your toy off? I tried to press the buttons, but to no avail."
"My toy?" John asked, obviously thinking of something more important. “Ah, that one... I don’t remember ever turning it off. It always did it by itself."
“But how to change its batteries, do you remember?”
“John, stop repeating like a damn parrot!” Emma again got angry. “You did it recently before presenting the toy to Jimmy!”
“I didn’t,” John was surprised.
"How could it be? You want to say that you just found it in the attic where it had stayed for more than twenty years, swept dust from it, pressed the buttons — and it turned on?"
“John,” she felt the chill of growing fear in her stomach again, “but it's just not possible. Even a Walmart cashier knows that any batteries will discharge in twenty years. Moreover, before that you'd played with it yourself. And never changed batteries as well?"
"Nope. It always just turned on. Look, what's the damn difference? Do you understand how much money we lost today, not to mention that I did not get a job?! If we can save at least on batteries, that's the last thing which will make me upset!"
“John, listen to me! You give our son some strange thing that came from nowhere..."
"I told you, my father..."
“It has no marks about its manufacturer,” Emma continued without stopping. "Nobody knows who made it and when. It cannot be disassembled. It turns on by itself and turns off by itself. It walks, jumps, can even climb walls. And for all this it does not need either batteries or power line. And our child is busy with it all day long. Don't you care a hoot about all this?"
"I care how we will pay bills if everything goes as it goes! And that thing... well, it works not on batteries, but on some, well, I don’t know, photocells — what's the difference?"
"Photocells need light! And it walks around the house at night! And Jimmy said it doesn't like sun!"
"Jimmy!" John snorted. “What else did Jimmy tell you? Something about Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus? Okay, I'm already yakking on the phone damn long. If all this bothers you so much, we'll discuss it when I return."
"When will you?"
“I've told you, tomorrow nigh at best! Maybe a day later."
"And I'm completely alone here, even without a car. All the vegetables spoiled, and I can't even go to the store."
“Emma, what can I do? You can survive a couple of days without fresh vegetables."
“Okay,” she sighed fatefully. “Don't drive too fast,” although she, of course, wanted him to come home as soon as possible. “And get enough sleep.”
Having hung up, she stood silently for several minutes near the phone. John indeed called right after she returned the toy to Jim... damn, nonsense, of course. After all, the accident happened much earlier.
Yes. It happened at night closer to the morning. After Emma locked the toy in the suitcase.
Jimmy appeared from the kitchen and nearly skipped to his room.
"Jimmy!" Emma called him loudly. "And who will brush your teeth?"
The boy dutifully trudged back into the bathroom. For some time the noisy water was heard from there. Emma remembered that the man who had fixed that water for them yesterday was already dead.
“Dad called,” she informed the boy when he left the bathroom.
Jimmy, hurrying to the nursery, did not dignify her with an answer.
“He will come back... in a day or two,” she continued, raising her voice.
“I see,” the boy muttered, realizing that she expected some kind of reaction from him.
"Jimmy, wait a minute!"
He stopped at the doorstep of the nursery, looking at her with "what else?" expression.
"What are you drawing?" she asked, trying to keep her voice as soft as possible.
“I draw what I want,” Jimmy scowled, obviously ready to defend his freedom of artistic expression.
“You draw terrible things. Where did you get them? Saw on TV? Or maybe someone told you horror stories?"
"Who can tell me anything?" He looked at her, rounding his eyes with indignation, as if saying "you yourselves took me away from all my friends!"
“Then where is all this from?”
“Jim, you have just apologized and promised not to be rude anymore!”
"I'm not rude."
“Then tell me... who are all those people that you drew today?”
“Just... people,” Jimmy shrugged.
“Have you heard anything about them before?”
“Okay... can I ask you not to draw such scary things anymore?”
“Because it scares and upsets your mom.”
“But I am not drawing for you. I didn’t ask you to look." This "didn’t ask" clearly sounded as "didn’t allow".
“Jimmy... maybe you're angry at someone? At me, at Dad? And that's why you draw such terrible pictures?"
“No,” he said finally.
"Tell me the truth. No one will punish you."
"It's the truth."
"Maybe..." it was a totally monstrous thought that would have never occurred to Emma before, but now she forced herself to continue: "...maybe Dad did something to you... something bad? And he told you not to tell anyone about that, not even your Mom?"
“No,” he looked at her in surprise, obviously not understanding what she meant.
“Okay,” Emma sighed, not knowing what else to say (“A lousy child psychologist I am!”) "You may go play."
Jimmy instantly cheered up and disappeared into the nursery. For a while, Emma waited for him to come out complaining that the toy no longer turned on.
But it, of course, did.
Despite all the bad news from John, at first Emma was relieved. The main thing was that he was alive and well. But soon her sucking anxiety repossessed her, and by evening Emma was jitterring again. On the one hand, the thoughts of the dangers awaiting John on his way back became more and more obsessive, and the rational consideration that he had traveled thousands of miles in his life without any incidents, and after the accident he would be especially careful, was a poor consolation. On the other hand, those terrible drawings of her nine-year-old son haunted her. The more Emma thought about them, the stronger was her belief that they were not just a fruit of gloomy imagination and of anger of a child deprived of his favorite toy. If their house were connected to the Internet, she would certainly have searched the network for descriptions of such murders, but alas... She even seriously considered whom to call and to ask to make such a search for her, but the only one who came to her mind was Paula, their former condominium neighbor in Fargo. They had a friendship as families while they had lived nearby (although since the Horrells had to move out, they didn’t communicate), and Paula definitely had the Internet as well as lots of free time usual to a childless housewife. However, Paula was an outstanding coward who had never watched even the usual crime news, let alone horror movies, and an offer to look for such terrible things would have surely shocked her. And her husband, who always came home late from his job, was of course too busy.
And that damn toy... Emma wondered where to close it for the night — while leaving in Jimmy's room according to the compromise they reached — and various lockers came to her mind, like a sturdy chest with a padlock from the movies about pirate treasures. Some kind of strong box that cannot be opened from the inside... Or maybe... a cage. If they had ever kept birds or rabbits here, something like that might well be found in the attic.
Emma took a flashlight (John, she remembered, had told her there was no electricity in the attic, and expressed his indignation at this fact — like at the other "virtues" of the old house), lowered the wooden ladder by pulling a rope and climbed into the attic.
Influenced by all previous thoughts, she did this not without inner trepidation, but there was nothing creepy nor romantic there. There was stuffiness due to the sun-heated roof, there was smell of dust, and there were obscure silhouettes in the darkness — rectangular or rounded, but causing none frightening associations. The flashlight beam turned them into now an old dry cupboard (how was it dragged up that ladder?), then into a wicker rocking chair, then into a rusty kid's tricycle (who was its last rider? Obviously not John, who had been ten already when moved in here for the first time), then into an ancient sewing machine, covered with a quilted bedspread, and so on. Usual junk that had been piling up for decades. Emma moved forward — and then staggered back with aversion, having got her face into a cobweb. Frowning in disgust, she nevertheless continued her journey, waving the long handled flashlight in front of her, like a Jedi's lightsaber, in order to clear the road from webs. A round table with a broken leg and a cumbersome, utterly rusty iron put on it — not yet electric but coal one... a large tasteless lampshade hanging obliquely on a horned hanger... a chamber pot covered with a lid on the floor... a large cardboard box with phonograph records in yellowed envelopes... another box with some magazines... Emma, out of curiosity, brushed the dust from the top one. Popular Mechanics, 1962. Probably the late husband of Aunt Lucy was subscribed to it. Emma decided to take several issues with her, curious what popular science magazines had written more than thirty years ago. Probably that by the end of the twentieth century we would already have cities on Mars...
However, she did not see anything like a lockable box or cage, and therefore continued the search. A large tin can with paint dried long ago... a pair of high water boots... a fishing rod leaning against the wall... a wooden horse... another cardboard box — this time with toys. Perhaps, among them some box or case will be found — or even the box from the toy itself? The flashlight illuminated a bald doll, a rusty dump truck, a shabby teddy bear and...
This time, Emma screamed and nearly dropped the flashlight, realizing what she had nearly touched. What for the first moment seemed a worn out, with felted fur, tiger or some similar toy beast — really was a beast, but not a toy. Most likely, a cat, or maybe a raccoon — at that stage of decomposition it was already difficult to say. In the flashlight beam glanced small bared teeth of a skull tightly covered with mangy skin. In the empty eye sockets small white worms — larvae of flies — still moved. Stink, however, was not felt — at least against the stale musty air of the attic. Probably almost everything that could have got rotten had decayed already.
Emma backed away and felt how now the hair on her nape stuck to a cobweb. "Shit!" she spun around and hit her right elbow against the cupboard. A sharp impulse of pain pierced her arm from elbow to fingers, momentarily depriving them of strength, and she dropped the flashlight.
It fell to the floor and rolled aside, but did not turn off and did not leave her in the dark. However, bending down to pick it up, Emma noticed something else.
The floor under her slippers was covered not by dust — or, more precisely, not only by dust. It was peppered with insect remains. Mostly with small wings of flies (as well as, probably, ants and termites), but there were also larger reticulate wings of dragonflies, and whitish or gray wings of night butterflies. “Well, sure,” Emma told herself, squeamishly picking up the flashlight and wiping it with the skirt of her gown, “there are lots of spiders here. The wings of all their victims fell to the floor for decades. And also, John had called the pest control to poison termites and ants!”
In any case, she did not want to stay in that place for even a second more. And that... dead cat, or what kind of creature it was... maybe even a fox... should be, of course, thrown away, but she wouldn’t touch it even through a glove. She had tot tell John, let him deal with it. After all, it rotted there for weeks, if not months... how had it gotten here? Climbed through some hole while the house was still boarded up, and then could not find a way out? Died of the anti-termite poison? And that... toy... could it really lie in the same box with the carrion when John got it out without even noticing? However, she herself had almost taken the corpse for another toy...
Emma hastily went to the exit, but still remembered her intention about the magazines and grabbed a few from the box without looking.
Going down the ladder, she scolded herself for stupidity. Why had she even needed to climb there?! To prevent the toy from wandering where it should not, there was no need to lock it in a box or a cage. It was enough to shut it in
(a body bag)
any bag with a zipper. And since it should be Jimmy's duty, his school bag fitted just right.
But first, she would scour that damn colorful thingy with all the detergents in the house. And if, as a result, something short-circuited inside — well, all the better.
TV voices came from Jimmy's room again. That's good, watching cartoons like all normal children. A perfect time to take the toy from him without any argument.
Indeed, Jimmy didn’t even react when his mother entered his room. Emma looked around for the toy and at first, to her surprise, did not see it anywhere, but then she noticed a green glow from under the bed. She knelt down, then bent low — and met the gaze of two round eyes. As if in the twilight under the bed hid a large
(dead and rotten)
cat, ready to claw the outstretched hand.
But, of course, the toy did not attempt any resistance and did not try to hide even deeper. Emma pulled it out and left the room almost on tiptoe, not wanting to attract the attention of Jimmy, who seemed completely absorbed in Duck Tales.
Emma took the toy to the bathroom and, having already squeezed the green gel onto a stiff brush (a chemical lemon scent spread in the air), she did what she had never thought of doing before — she brought the toy to her nose and sniffed carefully. At first glance — more properly, at first snuff — the toy did not smell anything, but then... did Emma actually discern a faint smell of decomposition against the lemon aroma, or was it just a trick of her imagination? She began furiously rubbing the toy with a brush on all sides. Foam drops were falling into the sink. Green eyes did not go out, but legs with the suction cups hung motionless.
Emma was very tempted to plug the sink, fill it with water and hold the toy at the bottom until it drowned... that is, of course, until the water short-circuited it, and the button-eyes darkened. Perhaps someday she would do so... but not now. Now she did not need a new quarrel with Jim...
... and let John return home first.
In the evening, Emma lay on the bed with old magazines, hoping that this would help her escape from anxious thoughts. There really were a lot of optimistic articles about space, but not only on this subject. One of the articles that caught her eye was dedicated to the bright future of atomic energy. “By 2000, and probably earlier,” the author prophesied, “the world will forget what gas stations are. We will drive cars powered by a small plutonium granule that needs to be replaced no more than once every few years...”
Emma read, sneering. And it was, apparently, written by some PhD, at least — a graduate of a decent university... Just imagine the reaction of either the authorities or neighbors or the potential owner himself, if someone nowadays was offered a car which used instead of gasoline a piece of an atomic bomb, a radiation source!
And suddenly cold overwhelmed her. A machine with an energy source that does not require replacement and recharge for many years...
Of course not. No one had ever produced such children's toys. Neither in the forties, nor in the fifties and sixties.
More precisely, no one put them on sale. But what if, in those years when such ideas were considered promising, some experimental prototypes had been developed? And probably not for children. For something much more serious. But due to someone’s oversight, after the program had been closed, one of the experimental models occurred outside the lab...
Emma’s first impulse was to jump out of the bed, to tear that thing out of her son’s hands (oh my God, Jimmy has been playing with it with bare hands for many days and for many nights has slept with it!), to wrap it with all the foil found in the house (lead would of course be better, but aluminum would probably also work?) and to bury it as far as possible and as deep as possible. But then she again tried to suppress the panic with rational reasoning. If that thing were indeed atomic, it probably would have had a radiation sign and all sorts of other warnings, reliably engraved and not just printed on a peelable label. Like "Property of the US government. If you found it, call..." And its appearance would not be so ridiculous.
But what if it had been developed not for America at all? If such things were supposed to drop into the Soviet territory? Then everything matched. Maybe the plan had indeed been that children would have found them and brought the bright multi-colored walking toys home. And there... it was hard even to imagine what functions a combat machine disguised as such a “potato” could perform. Passive radiation damage among them was only a side effect...
Emma jumped out of the bed again, but again stopped. She did not consider herself naive, and therefore did not believe there were any abominations which the government was absolutely incapable of. Especially — in those years. But, firstly, what is the point of sending complex and probably damn expensive — like everything military and atomic — mechanisms in the homes of ordinary Russian inhabitants? To achieve any kind of massive damage, such things would have been made in millions. The good old atomic bomb was much simpler and more reliable. Even if they were able to cross the border on their own, with that quantities KGB would probably have quickly paid attention to them. Secondly, even if the plan was targeted towards children, it would still be logical to mask the combat devices for something more understandable — cars, dolls, humanoid robots... Thirdly, atomic engines are probably not so small. And certainly they could not be made so small at that era. (And if that thing was really made not in the sixties or seventies, but even before Pearl Harbor, then even more so. Then anything atomic was just a twinkle in Einstein's eye.) And the main thing — John, after all, had played with that thing for several months in his own childhood, and nothing had happened to him. He was healthy himself, and his child was born healthy, too.
Nothing wrong happened to him, yes. But to his parents and home...
But it was not the toy that had caused the 1974 crisis, after all! It was not the toy that made his father drink, and it was not the toy that set fire to his house. That was ridiculous. There were the results of the investigation. One could only doubt whether John's father had thrown a burning cigarette drunk or on purpose. But blaming an alleged nuclear-powered military device escaped from a secret laboratory for this quite natural tragedy was pure paranoia. Neither tabloid would ever print such a bullshit.
There was, of course, no plutonium in this thing. What was, then? The devil only knew, that was why there were engineers who graduated from college, and not Walmart cashiers who ran away from home at 17 and drew their education from popular magazines. Yet Emma would have been happy to get rid of this crap once and for all.
But let John return first. So that it wouldn’t be like "Dad gave it, and Mom took it away." And besides... no, this was, of course, nonsense, but let him return first.
Emma looked at the clock and went to put Jimmy to sleep. Her son, apparently wanting to demonstrate obedience after the morning conflict, had already sunk into the bed. The toy lay in a zipped school bag (Emma checked), and, as Emma had ordered, not next to the bed, but on the opposite side of the room. The woman kissed her son, turned the light off and went out.
She slept badly. She continually dreamed of the toy, sneaking into her bedroom again and staring at her with a cold and dead green look. Emma woke up time after time and made sure it was just a dream. The bedroom door remained closed. No one bothered her.
The next day seemed to Emma one of the worst in her life (in which, in fact, especially in her young years, there were plenty of unpleasant days). And this was despite the fact that nothing happened on that day. That's it — absolutely nothing. She sat glued to home, unable even to go to the store (her traditional way to unwind, if she even didn’t have the real need to replenish sharply depleted kitchen supplies). To cook something special was not possible due to lack of ingredients; to do a major cleaning again in the rooms polished already the day before was silly, reading eluded her mind, and on the TV there were only dumb afternoon shows, interspersed with the same five-minute commercials every twelve minutes. The sun, dimly shining through a haze, did not please, it was hot, stuffy and dusty outside. And also the flies. Three or four flies, periodically starting to buzz, no matter in which room she was. This time, Emma did not allow them to commit suicide in her cup and hunted them with a towel until she finished them all. Well, at least some entertainment... It's necessary to put new screens on the windows, she thought. Or maybe they got into the rooms not from the street, but from the attic, while she'd climbed there yesterday? Emma remembered the floor, all covered with fly wings, and shuddered in disgust. For some reason, in memory this picture seemed even more disgusting than in reality.
John did not call, and that made Emma particularly angry. Obviously, the pickup was not ready yet, and he did not consider it necessary to spend his precious time ("What is he doing in this hole in Nebraska, I wonder?") and his no less precious quarters for a call from a pay phone. Well, of course, since there was no news, that made no practical sense. But just to call and reassure his wife, who was losing her mind from anxiety and boredom, was, of course, not an option. That’s men all over...
Jimmy, however, carefully represented the goody-goody, answering all questions in "yes, Mommy." style She probably had never heard that "Mommy" instead of usual "Mom" so many times a day. Of course, Jim from time to time called her "Mommy" and even "Mommy dear", especially when he came to snuggle (when, by the way, had he done it the last time?) or hoped to beg something with a naive childish cunning. But even that cunning was touching in its own way (and therefore often achieved its goal). But his current deliberate obedience, which stunk of falsehood a mile away, irritated Emma much more than yesterday's rudeness. She knew how hypocritical nine-year-olds could be — after all, she had not forgotten (and was unlikely to ever forget) her own childhood. But she believed that adults made them so, forcing a child to fear their cruelty, injustice and arbitrariness. She always wanted to be to her son not a tyrant like her own mother, but a friend...
But now, it seemed, the only friend Jimmy needed was a ridiculous multi-colored crap, stomping with small sucker-ended legs.
When twilight began, Emma finally became convinced that John would neither call nor come today. So, tomorrow she would have a similar nasty day... At least half a day. Maybe the pickup would be fixed in the morning, and John would be home before evening. May be.
After she had put her son to sleep (and barely restrained herself from yelling at him in response to another unbearably sweet "good night, Mommy"), Emma fell on her bed herself and again began to thoughtlessly click the TV remote. For some time she tried to watch a comedy, but stupid jokes with bursts of offscreen laughter only increased her irritation. Eventually, she settled on some kind of melodrama — old, still black and white. For a married couple, which was quite happy in marriage recently, everything went wrong as if by itself, the characters quarreled, the wife suspected her husband, the husband was angry with his wife. Emma watched the conflict developing with a feeling similar to malevolent satisfaction.
“... I'm fed up with your nitpicking! Who did you think you were marrying — Jesus-fucking-Christ? Instead of supporting your husband in an hour of need..."
"An hour of need?! Your 'hour' lasts for almost a year! And you need the support only 'cause you can no longer stand on your feet 'cause of your booze!"
"As if it's all about just me! Many have hard time now..."
“But not all of them, instead of looking for a way out, get drunk every night at the bar! Pissing last family money away! You know, I don’t give a shit what'll happen to your health and how quickly you're going to drive yourself to grave. But you got into the money I put aside for Johnny!"
“We cannot afford saving now. We have to live on something till things get better. And the guy is only nine years old. Do not think I love him less than your, but he ain't need this money for a long time. I just borrowed from him, okay?"
"No, not okay! Not the fuck it's okay! Your things will never get better, 'cause you are loser! A drunken scumbag, deceiver and thief!"
"Shut up, woman! You are still in my house, and I ain't allow anyone to..."
"But that's, by the by, fixable! I'm leaving you, Jeremy! Right now! I’m taking my son and leaving!"
"At night in such a rainfall? Safe travel to you! Will you sleep in a puddle?"
"I’ll sleep in a motel in the city. And you know what I'll tell you? When you sober up enough to get to your stash, you'll find there just enough for a bottle of cheap whiskey. A single one. That’s all you still deserve.” The woman took a decisive step toward the door.
"Hey!" the man finally realized that she was speaking seriously. "Wait, you! You can't just go away like this!"
“And who will stop me?”
“Yourself may go to hell, but I ain’t let you take Johnny!”
"He ain't let, oh just look at him!" She took the door handle, not even considering to turn at look at him. "You ain’t even able to wipe your ass. Happily stay, loser."
"Wait, who is told!" roared Jeremy, jumping up from a sagged sofa. In three leaps he covered the distance separating them. The woman had already opened the door and stepped out into the unlit corridor, but he grabbed her hair from behind and jerked back sharply. She screamed.
“Get out of me, you bastard!” she tried to break free, and then kicked the heel of her shoe into his shin. "Bitch!" Jeremy barked (it must have been painful) and with all his might hit her head against the jamb of the ajar door.
There was a vile crunch. And it was not a crunch of the wood — at least, not only.
The woman's body went limp at once. For several seconds the bewildered man held it by hair, then hurriedly laid it on the floor, at the same time dragging it deeper back into the room.
The skull was broken over its entire height; a deep dent marking the fissure vertically crossed the forehead, eye socket, cheekbone and upper jaw. The right eye popped out of the socket as a large round cloudy bloody drop and lay on the cheek, held by a cord of nerves. The upper jaw was fractured, and fragments of crumbled teeth were visible from under the rapidly swelling bleeding lips. The lower jaw was not broken (although it also lost a pair of teeth), but was knocked out of the joints, and stuck out crooked to the left, giving the already mutilated face a particularly eerie look.
Nevertheless, the woman was still alive. She tried in vain to say something — obviously asked to call the ambulance.
“Right now,” muttered Jeremy. "I'll help..."
He quickly got up and went out. Blood oozed from the wound on woman's forehead, eye socket, nostril and broken mouth, gradually soaking her fair hair, scattered around her head. Toes of her shoes trembled, her fingernails scratched the floor.
Jeremy returned, but not at all with a telephone or a first aid kit. He held a heavy hammer in his right hand and a black plastic garbage bag in his left one. He crouched next to his wife; now he looked no longer bewildered, but businesslike, as a man who faced a well-known and quite surmountable problem. The woman's surviving eye widened in horror when she realized what he was going to do.
Jeremy pulled the bag on her head and tightened the ribbon around her neck. And then he began to hammer what was inside with all his strength. Outside, a thunderstorm raged, drowning almost all sounds in its roar. When the contents of the bag lost any resemblance to a human head, turning into something shapeless, he carefully checked again whether the neck of the bag was tightened well — clearly not wanting anything to leak out — and then stood up and left the room again. Perhaps this time he went for a shovel, for a saw or for a larger bag, in which he could pack the whole body...
Emma suddenly realized that the picture was no longer black and white, and all this in general was not happening on the TV screen, but in the very room she herself was in. Somehow, the killer still didn't notice her, probably because he was too busy. But now, if she didn’t escape before he returned...
She tried to jump out of bed, but her body did not obey her — as if she were lying dead with a plastic bag on her head. A door slammed somewhere in the house— for sure, Jeremy was returning with some cutting tools from the shed. In horror and despair, Emma rushed with renewed vigor, and this time she managed to slide out of the bed. Having hit the floor, she jumped up in the dark. The floorboards outside were already creaking under the heavy steps of the killer — but she threw herself at the door towards those terrifying sounds, hoping she would have time to slip away, because there was still no other way out of the room.
She did not have time. The door swung open and Emma smashed right into a male figure blocking the passage.
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