Background: I’d been bouncing around the idea for this one for awhile, but it only crystallized when I read “Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory” by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creator of Bojack Horseman. There was a story in the collection about alternate universe wedding planning that provided the format for this.
When they heard that Avery and I were planning to have a baby, all my friends were exploding with advice about how best to take care of the egg. I was having lunch with Wren at the little Italian place halfway between our offices, and when I declined my usual glass of Pinot, she said, “You’re not gravid, are you?”
“Actually, I am,” I said, smiling. “I’m due to lay in two weeks.”
Her eyes widened. “That’s amazing! I’m so happy for you!” And without pausing long enough for me to thank her for her enthusiasm, “Have you figured out how you’re going to brood it?”
“I’m torn,” I said. “Avery wants to us to brood it ourselves, but my work only gives two months of maternity leave, so even if he brooded two out of the three months and I only took one, that would still only leave me one month to spend at home with the baby. I think it’s more important to have the full two months after hatching, when you can actually interact with the baby. Right?”
Wren nodded sagely. “That’s what Jay and I thought as well. That’s why we had our au pair do the brooding, and then we took our parental leave after hatching. Of course, the au pair still helped us night nurse–I’d highly recommend it if you can. If you can have the same au pair stay on after hatching, her rapport with the baby is really helpful in getting him or her to calm down quickly. I think her voice reminded our little Griff of being back in the egg!”
I’d been nodding along, but now I said, trying not to sound apologetic, “I don’t think Avery and I can afford a live-in au pair, Wren. I was debating more between renting a home incubator and brooding it ourselves.”
“Oh, I’m a firm believer that home incubators do just as good a job, if not better, than a human brooder. Incubator technology has improved a lot these past few years. It used to be just temperature and humidity control, periodic rotation, and some ambient sounds on a timer, but modern ones can collect data from your egg and adjust their routine. And of course you can record your voice, and some of them even come with educational scripts you can read from that are supposed to be effective in accelerating development. You just don’t get that extra je ne sais quoi a good au pair can offer.” She grabbed her phone with her immaculately manicured maroon-colored nails and said, “Jay has a friend who runs a home incubator startup. He might be able to set you up with a sample of some kind, if you’re interested.”
“Oh, that would be great, Wren, thanks,” I said. If we did end up with an incubator, Avery was going to want to do his own research and probably end up going with the Wirecutter’s rental recommendation, but having a free option might sway him, especially if its capabilities were similar to the alternative.
“No problem, sis,” she said, putting her phone back in her designer clutch.
“Sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear,” said a woman’s voice from the table next to ours. I turned, looked, and tried not to let judgment show on my face. She was a Goop-looking type, a beachy blonde with a fringed suede crop top, bleach-stained mom jeans, and what looked like two pounds of crystal jewelry dangling all over. “You know incubators cause micro-cracks that affect your baby’s health, right? And there’s no substitute for egg-to-skin time when it comes to bonding. Mothers have brooded their own eggs for millennia, that’s how it’s supposed to be done. And did you know that the Unabomber was brooded in an incubator?”
Wren and I exchanged a glance, stiff smiles on both of our faces. “Thanks for the advice,” Wren said, “but it’s her own choice to make, wouldn’t you agree?” She turned back to face me in a conversation-is-over kind of way.
“Now, I know you can’t have an affogato or a digestif right now, but how about some celebratory gelato?”
A couple of days later, I was on my weekly jog with Robin when I broke the news to her.
“No way!” she excalimed, turning to jog backward so she could look me up and down. “I did think your complexion looked really glowy today.”
I laughed. “I’m pretty sure that’s sweat and sunburn.”
She turned back around. “So do you have a name picked out yet?”
“I like Bran for a boy and Ava for a girl. Kind of like Avery junior, but subtle. He doesn’t like that idea though–he thinks people would think he’s self-aggrandizing, I think–and prefers Columba for a girl, which is his mom’s mom’s name.”
“Columba! What an old lady name.”
“Well, that’s kind of the point. And names come and go in cycles anyway. Maybe he’s just ahead of the trend.”
“Do you know how you’re going to brood yet?”
This again. “No, we’re still deciding between home incubator and brooding it ourselves,” I said. “Wren gave me an earful about the merits of having a live-in au pair, though.”
Robin laughed. “She would. Hey, for what it’s worth, I think incubator is the way to go nowadays. I wouldn’t trust any stranger with my egg, and what if she has like, cold extremities or something? Or has to go to the bathroom every half hour? I for one welcome our robot companions. They’re much more reliable, and don’t need benefits.” She paused to catch her breath. “Anyway, I think all that stuff about the baby being able to hear you and bond through the egg is B.S.–I was industrially brooded, and I’d say my relationship with my own mother is better than that of most people I know who were personally brooded. And even if you don’t believe that, modern incubators can do all this fancy audio and pheromone sprays and touch-stimulating stuff that can put your mind at ease. But I mean, take all this with a grain of salt, I guess, since I don’t have any kids and don’t truly know how I’d feel if it was my own egg.”
“Yeah, I’m leaning toward home incubator as well,” I said. “Avery is leaning toward brooding it ourselves, but he’s the one with the six months’ paternity leave. I’m not sure how I feel about asking him to brood the entire time so that I can maximize my time with the baby after hatching–it feels like I’m not pulling my weight, and I’m also a little worried that he will have better rapport than me because of some kind of imprinting through the eggshell. Is that crazy?”
Robin made a noncommittal noise. She had a low tolerance for anything that smacked of pseudoscience.
“Either way,” I continued, “maybe it’s selfish of me to want to get an incubator, if the only reason is to deprive Avery of egg-to-skin time. If he wants to spend three of his six months off just sitting around with an inert ball, I guess I shouldn’t stop him.”
Robin didn’t reply. We both noticed we’d been slowing down while we talked and were now moving at a twelve-minute-mile pace, and both giggled and sped back up.
“I admire your self-awareness,” Robin said. “But there are other points in favor of–and against–incubators aside from your own motivations.”
“True,” I said. “I’ll tell Avery what I just told you when he gets home tonight. We’ll work it out. Thanks for listening.”
“No problem, Feebs.”
That Saturday, I was at my older brother Tory’s house for a barbecue, while Avery was out of town for a friend’s bachelor party. As I walked into the backyard, his three boys, Fowler, Faulkner, and Aeëtes, were running around like maniacs as usual, today’s game being to pelt each other with dried beans, while Tory worked the grill and my sister-in-law Raven sipped her Riesling, both of them doing their best to ignore the occasional stray bean that came their way.
“Phoebe. Tory says you’re gravid?” Raven said, her eyes glittering with excitement behind her oversized glasses. “Congratulations! You’re going to be a great mom.”
“Thanks,” I said, dodging a flying bean. “Any words of advice? Even my childless friends seem to have oceans of it, so let’s just get this out of the way.”
Raven laughed. “The first thing that comes to mind is, if you find out it’s going to be a boy, crack that thing open.” As if on cue, a bean hit the back of her head, and she whirled and shouted, “Enough with the beans! Go play with your LEGOs that you didn’t put away when I asked you to earlier.” The boys trooped inside and slammed the screen door behind them. Raven turned back to me. “We’re going to have a lot of little bean plants coming out of our lawn in a few months. Hopefully the squirrels will take care of most of them. Do squirrels eat beans?”
“Anyway, in all seriousness, I do think you’re going to be a great mother. And you know you have me and Tory to ask if you need help or advice. I wouldn’t say our house is the most peaceful environment, but I’ll make sure the boys are civil.”
“You brooded yours yourself, right?” I asked. “We’re still debating between home incubator and brooding ourselves, but I think we’re leaning toward the latter. Or, more specifically, Avery would be brooding himself, since his job gives a lot more parental leave.”
“Yeah, I brooded them all myself. I’m not sure if they can hear you through the egg or whatever, but I did like to sing to them, and I think the eggs give off some kind of pheromone or something that makes you enjoy sitting on them. I wasn’t bored. It also was a warm fuzzy that I could be there, you know? I felt like I was fulfilling my duty as a mother.” I nodded, and she continued. “But brooding yourself also has the added anxiety of am I doing it right? You know, you freak out if anything goes slightly off script. You had to get up to poop and it ended up being a long poop, and you come back and you’re not sure how long it’s been, has it been longer than the recommended twenty minutes? Or, you shift your weight and it squishes into the crevice of your knee a little, and was that too much force? What if I just snapped his neck?” She paused, remembering. “But I think they’re pretty robust, actually, and the guidelines they have online are pretty conservative. At least, everyone I’ve talked to about self-brooding has had a similar experience.”
I made a mental note to tell Avery all this, or at least have him ask Raven about it himself. He was the type to freak out like that, and she wasn’t, so if Raven was having doubts while brooding, Avery would be having a full-fledged mental breakdown. Maybe an incubator was better, since it was more foolproof.
“But I was able to be a stay-at-home mom,” Raven said, looking at me over her glasses. “There’s definitely a cost-benefit calculation that needs to happen, between the opportunity cost of whatever progress I would’ve made in my career during that time, the money we saved not renting incubators or hiring nannies or spending on daycare, the increased happiness of spending additional time with my boys, the increased craziness of spending additional time with my boys…”
“Dinner’s ready!” Tory yelled. “Fowler, can you wipe down the table? Faulkner, help me bring the food over. Aeëtes, go get the plates and silverware.” The boys hopped to.
As we all took our places at the table, mine in front of a rather well-done burger and a calcium supplement–thank goodness the rare meat, alcohol, and other restrictions only lasted two weeks–Aeëtes, seven years old, said, “Did you know in some cultures they eat chicken eggs? Isn’t that weird?” I wondered if eggs were on his mind because he’d been eavesdropping.
“It’s not that weird, we eat chicken bodies,” countered eleven-year-old Fowler, waving his teriyaki drumstick to demonstrate. “What’s the difference?”
“The difference is it’s been born,” said Aeëtes. “Some animals give live birth, like certain fish and lizards. If someone cut open a fish mom and took out the unborn fish baby and cooked it, wouldn’t you think that’s weird?”
“Did you know some animals that give live birth have identical twins?” said nine-year-old Falkner, not wanting to be outdone. “They’re like, the exact same organism, down to the last gene, isn’t that weird?”
“How does that even happen?” I asked. “Normally twins are just two egg cells released at the same time that end up enclosed in one shell. But how could you have two eggs that have the exact same genes?”
“It’s just one egg that somehow splits in half in a freak event,” said Falkner. “I don’t know how. It’s not common I think. In egg-laying animals when that happens one or both twins dies, since there’s only one yolk to feed them. But in live birth animals, the mother’s body can supply them both like they’re regular twins.”
“Weird,” I said through a mouthful of burger. “Imagine being one, you’d be literally not unique, you’d have no extra information to contribute to the world. Or maybe it would be like being in two places at once. That’s a superpower I’ve always wanted.”
“Are you hoping for a girl or a boy?” asked Fowler, abruptly.
“Honestly I think I’d be happy with either. I think I’d like to have two, and I’d like one girl and one boy, but I’m not picky about the order.”
“I hope it’s a boy,” said Aeëtes. “Then we could teach him how to play baseball and ride a bike and stuff.”
“You could teach a girl how to play baseball and ride a bike too,” said Raven. “In fact, I think you should.”
“None of the girls at school play baseball,” said Falkner.
“Well, this one will,” said Raven, firmly. I smiled to myself, looking forward to telling Avery that not only had our child’s gender been decided for us, but her sporting career as well.
We ended up with the sample startup incubator Wren had offered to hook us up with. It was very high tech–it had a tablet-like display where you could view graphs of your egg’s vitals over time, see pictures of what the fetus would look like at that time (and to what fruit it was currently comparable in size), and select a stimulatory regimen based on what you wanted your kid to be: classical music for mathematicians and violinists, new age music for the emotionally intelligent, podcasts and public radio for intellectuals, recordings of your voice to encourage bonding. A cushioned pedestal with soft actuators could rock and roll the egg gently. A mobile app allowed you to monitor the egg from anywhere. And of course the device looked like a clean, featureless white box with tinted windows. In return for utilizing this miracle of technology, we had to fill out daily surveys through the app about how we were enjoying the various aspects of its functionality. How intuitive was the UI? How confident were we that it was doing a good job? How much do we like the entertainment choices? Where is it located in the house? We never would’ve sprung for something so extra if we hadn’t had the opportunity to use it for free. The incubator even would’ve told us the baby’s gender, but we chose to keep it a surprise.
When it was close to hatching time, the incubator gave us lots of alerts on our phones and on its screen. It said we could take the egg out now and hold it, but hatching might take hours, or we could wait until the first crack formed, and the device would let us know when that happened so we could rush over. Avery wanted to hold it, so we powered down the device for the first time in months and sat on the couch with our leathery little grapefruit. It was midmorning on a Thursday, both of us having started our parental leave that Monday in anticipation.
“Wait, should I get a towel?” I asked, getting up. “Where do we keep our old towels?”
“Don’t we want our firstborn to hatch into that baby blanket your mom gave us at the shower, and not an old towel?” said Avery.
“No, the baby blanket is for swaddling after it’s hatched, I’m pretty sure,” I said. “We don’t want it to be all nasty for the photos.”
“Okay,” he said. “Go get both. The towels are in the laundry room closet. The baby blanket is in the baby’s room closet.” I hustled off, worried that it would hatch without me, even though it hadn’t even moved yet.
I returned with the items and sat back down next to Avery. “Did it move at all yet?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. I spread the old towel in his lap. “Do you remember what we learned in the infant CPR class?”
“I think so,” I said. “I really hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“What about the shell, do you want to keep any?” he asked.
“Not really, seems kind of gross. I never understood parents who keep hair and teeth and things. It’s macabre. Did you want to keep some shell though?”
“No, I agree. What would we do with it?”
“Why are we talking about this now?” I laughed.
“I think it moved!” he said, holding the egg out to me. I put my hand gingerly on top of it, but it wasn’t moving anymore as far as I could tell.
Then I felt a kick. Or maybe it was a headbutt. My heart leapt in my chest. “I felt it too! Ohhhhh my god I am not ready for this.”
Avery maneuvered the egg so that we were both supporting it in one hand, and then put his free arm around my shoulders. “Yes you are. We’ve done everything we could prepare for, and there are always going to be unexpected things we couldn’t have. I’m confident you and I can figure it out. We’re better equipped than a lot of first time parents, for su–” The egg jolted again, and we fell silent. A slight bulge appeared in the side, and then a crack. It was happening! A tiny triangular piece of shell broke off. Then the action stopped. All the reading we’d done assured us that this was normal, that fully emerging from the egg could take hours, but I still couldn’t help but worry. I peered inside the microscopic hole, but couldn’t see anything.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” said Avery. “They’ll make it out.”
Ten minutes passed before another tiny chunk of eggshell, next to the first, cracked off. And then another agonizing fifteen before the egg horn emerged, giving us the first glimpse of the top of our baby’s head.
“I just want to break it open and yank ‘em out so bad,” I said. But all the literature said that that would cause life-threatening shock to the baby, so I just gritted my teeth and continued to gently support the egg with one hand. I squeezed Avery’s leg with the other. “I wish they would hurry up!”
“Me too,” he said.
Another forty minutes went by, and we had to carefully shift our posture because Avery’s arm was asleep. My heart was in my throat with every miniscule jostle. The baby was experiencing this, right? What did they think was going on outside? Maybe we were scaring them into staying inside longer.
Another twenty minutes went by, and the baby freed their whole head, and after that the hatching accelerated. After two hours in total, we held our squalling newborn daughter swaddled in the baby blanket. I was glad we had the towel on hand, as the amniotic fluid was quite sticky and smelly and disgusting. I threw the towel in the trash can.
“Columba.” Avery had gotten his way with the name with the qualification that we’d nickname her Colby. “Here, you should hold her.” He handed the baby to me.
“Hi Colby,” I said. “Welcome to the world.” I petted her soft little head, awkwardly avoiding the surprisingly hard and rough egg horn. It seemed incongruous, compared to the pinkish-brown softness of the rest of her body. The horn was still firmly affixed to the top of her forehead, but was supposed to fall off by the fourth day after hatching or so.
“Do you want to keep the egg horn?” asked Avery, loudly, above the crying.
“I don’t really mind one way or the other, but you seem to want to,” I said, bouncing Colby gently to try to soothe her. “There there.” She cried louder.
vi. Maximum Ride But Biologically Plausible
Background: Maximum Ride is a James Patterson young-adult series about a flock of fast-talking teenagers who are hybridized with birds, who fight whitecoats and mutant wolfmen and save the world from evil corporations and also global warming. The plot is ridiculously tangled, the rules are constantly changing, and many events, abilities, and plot hooks are mentioned once and never brought up again. Oh, and the biology makes absolutely no sense. But the characters are fun, the action is enjoyable, and the concept is worth exploring, so in the spirit of rationalist fanfiction, here’s my take, with all the inconsistencies ironed out.
The creature behind the glass screeched and jumped onto a platform in the enclosure, her tawny wings battering the boy creature who had been sitting there. He screeched back and hopped off, gliding to the ground and folding his wings. The girl creature started to preen, zippering her primary feathers between her teeth and sometimes pausing to crunch on mites. It was a disturbing sight.
“This is the latest batch?” I asked sharply, turning to Dr. Batchelder. I could tell he was in fight or flight mode, his face ashen, teeth almost chattering.
“No ma’am. These are the previous generation. The newer ones are too young though, so you’ll have to wait a couple more weeks to observe them. I’m really sorry for the delay.”
“It’s fine, Batchelder. Are the new ones a significant step up from this? In terms of trainability, language abilities, and socialization.”
“They are noticeably more vocal, and perform better in certain puzzle-solving tasks, than these did at that stage in their development, but no, it’s not a huge step up from these. They are still not yet passable.”
“And that dominant female individual there, she’s the one cloned from my donation in this batch, correct?”
“Does she have a name?”
“She calls herself Max.”
“Max? I wonder where she heard that.” I turned back to the glass and watched her intently. She had finished preening for now and was sitting hunched on top of the platform, looking around with intense, black eyes. She was maybe three and a half feet tall standing up and looked like a skinny four-year-old. Like the other two subjects in her enclosure, she was dressed in a miniature baggy gray jumpsuit with holes in the back for her wings. She noticed me watching and spooked, diving off the platform and flapping up to a higher platform where she’d have a better vantage point.
The facial resemblance was uncanny. Previous batches had had more birdlike faces, with the reptile-like jaw and inner ear bone arrangement, which made them look just a bit alien. I checked the spec sheet. This one had mammalian jaw and ear bones, though she didn’t have external ear pinnae. Despite that, I thought she did look a lot like me. (We’d long since figured out how to suppress beak development and create birds with teeth. That was relatively easy, given the genes were still there, birds having evolved from toothed ancestors.)
“Let’s bring her out here,” I said. Dr. Batchelder turned, but the ponytailed grad student who had been hovering over his shoulder had already hustled off toward the enclosure door. Good. At least someone here is on the ball.
It had been only a couple of years since China had legalized certain types of human embryonic modification. While more invasive genetic techniques that resulted in deformed or otherwise nonviable subjects were still banned for use on human embryos, most designer-baby labs, including ours, were perfecting a regimen of limited amounts of genetic slice-and-dice, fetal limb grafting, and hormone treatments.
The grad student had entered the enclosure holding a grilled cheese sandwich in one hand and a loop on a stick, like the thing park rangers use to relocate rattlesnakes, in the other. All three bird creatures stopped what they were doing and watched her progress silently. She carefully set down the sandwich on a flat rock and backed up a short distance before calling out, “Here Max!”
Max fluttered down from her perch and hopped over, her body oriented sideways and her teeth bared in a nervous grimace. I scratched my nose, and she tensed, crouching and looking right at me with those featureless black eyes. I froze, suppressing the urge to apologize, and averted my gaze. Out of my peripheral vision I saw her snatch the sandwich and hop backward a few steps, and begin wolfing it down with a minimum of chewing.
After she’d finished and licked her hands and fingers, she fluffed her feathers contentedly, looked up at the grad student, and held out a hand, as if she were inviting the other to dance. Deftly, the grad student slipped the lasso over Max’s wrist and snugged it. Then she stood and started walking toward the exit, Max following with her chin up, the other bird creatures’ eyes still locked onto the action. Clearly, there were some complex social dynamics at play amongst the small flock.
Max and the student emerged into the corridor and stood at attention in front of Dr. Batchelder and me.
“Hi Max. How are you doing today?” I asked. I know some of the handlers and researchers use baby voices, sometimes known as “motherese”, on the subjects, claiming it produces a more favorable reaction. I’ve never felt the urge to do so, even though Max was technically my progeny. The way I see it, children are going to absorb whatever is around them regardless of delivery, so why dumb down your discourse?
Max kept her eyes on the floor and shrugged. From a wild animal just a moment ago, she now was acting like a human kid. This was progress: none of the previous batches had exhibited this type of behavior. I glanced back at her spec sheet. It stated that she was just twelve weeks old, but claimed that she could already say five words–no, mine, Max, ball, and Papa (referring to Dr. Batchelder)–and understand far more. The developmental milestones of modified children were always mixed up and often surprising.
“Can you look at me?” I said, crouching down.
She took a step back, shaking her head. “No, no,” she mumbled.
“She’s shy with strangers,” the grad student volunteered. “Dr. Batchelder can probably get her to do whatever it is you’re looking for.” I glanced back at the doctor, who had remained a deferential distance behind me, and nodded. He crouched down next to me, pulled out a pink stress ball from his lab coat pocket, and held it out toward Max.
“Here, Max. Ball.” His voice was high and ridiculous.
“Ball.” She snatched the ball and threw it hard to the ground, then knelt to pick it up. She did this repeatedly and didn’t look like she intended to stop.
“Max, can you hold the ball? Hold it still?” The doctor closed his hands around her hands, around the ball. “Hold the ball still,” he repeated.
“Ball.” She looked up and made eye contact with Dr. Batchelder. “Papa.” I glanced at the grad student. She had a dopey sentimental look on her face, and didn’t notice me watching. I’d thought the type of people to be attracted to a career at a human experimentation lab would be a callous, bottom-line-driven bunch, but clearly I was wrong, at least anecdotally. I made a mental note to get around to looking at that employee satisfaction survey data from last month.
Dr. Batchelder glanced at me. “What did you want to do with her?” His businesslike tone contrasted absurdly with his motherese voice from a moment ago.
“Show her to an investor.”
He masked his alarm poorly, and Max jerked her hands away and squeezed the ball tightly to her chest. The grad student tightened her grip on the leash.
“It’s okay, Max. It’s okay,” the doctor crooned sweetly. “Don’t be afraid. We’re just going to have another visitor, is all. Just another friend for you to meet.” Max didn’t change her posture, but allowed him to slowly stand up and move to her other side. Without taking her eyes off me, she took Dr. Batchelder’s hand, still clutching the ball in the other.
“I think we’re as ready as we can be,” he said. “I just wish you’d run this by us earlier.”
“You would’ve told me no,” I replied. “Anyway, this way I could preview the demo myself–if she wouldn’t stop being wild, I’d have just concluded with a window tour of the clean rooms and had him go home. The fact that she’s upright and talking could be a big win though. Tell Mr. Huang we’re coming out momentarily,” I said into my radio. I started moving toward the door at the end of the corridor. I didn’t look back, but as I expected I’d only made it a handful of steps before I heard Dr. Batchelder’s urgent whisper over my shoulder.
“You didn’t mention it was Huang!” he hissed. “You’re taking a huge risk! What if he insists on meeting his own donation? What if he hates him? Or gets attacked?” Max looked up at him and tugged at his hand. “Sorry, dear,” he murmured. “Be brave for Papa, okay? Brave.” I wondered if this habit of repeating the ends of phrases produced better results. I doubted he’d thought to look up if it had been tested and published. Although, to be fair, if it had been it would almost certainly have been on human children and not precocious bird creatures.
I pushed open the door to the lobby, where a tall, thirty-something Asian man stood, escorted by a receptionist. Hearing us enter, he crossed the room, smiling, taking two long, confident strides for every four of the receptionist’s high-heeled ones.
“Good to see you, Mr. Huang,” I said, sticking out a hand.
“You too, Dr. Janssen. I’m glad to see so much progress has been made since the last time I was here!” He seemed genuinely excited. “This is one of the latest?” He gestured at Max, who flinched, but barely. It looked like she’d understood Dr. Batchelder’s duplicated instruction.
“Yes, this one’s my donation. She has the best rapport with Dr. Batchelder here, but I’ve been assured that yours is exceeding expectations as well.”
He crouched down as I’d done and looked at Max, who, surprisingly, only cocked her head and met his gaze. Perhaps his resemblance to her littermate piqued her curiosity. I realized that in the absence of mirrors or photo albums, Max probably didn’t know what she looked like. I made a mental note to ask if they’d put them through the mirror test, and if not, to do it promptly. It might improve her reaction to me, at least.
“Hi there, Max,” said Mr. Huang. “Aren’t you a cute one!” I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. Against all expectations, this multimillionaire bachelor employed fluent motherese.
Max held out her hand with the leash and the ball. Mr. Huang moved to receive the ball, but instead Max just pointed at his face. “Fang,” she said.
“Not Fang,” he corrected gently, “Huang!”
“Fang is what her flockmate–your donation–has been calling himself,” Dr. Batchelder said, awe in his voice. “She recognizes you! This is unbelievable!”
Mr. Huang smiled broadly at Max. “You’re a little genius, aren’t you? I hope Fang isn’t as adorable, or I might have to take you both home with me!”
“Fang,” said Max again.
“The rate of vocabulary additions in previous batches has actually picked up around this stage of development,” the grad student supplied. “It’s pretty common for them to pick up one or two new words a day from twelve to fourteen weeks, and accelerate to–”
Dr. Batchelder and I both shot her a look, and she broke off. I take back my previous comment about being on the ball. “Don’t ruin the moment!” the doctor scolded, laughing nervously.
I turned to Mr. Huang. He’d stood back up and was skimming over the info sheet the receptionist had given him.
“How’d you choose the hybridization species for the three in this batch?” he asked.
“Max here is hybridized with zebra finch,” said Dr. Batchelder. Max, who’d been craning her neck to look around the room, glanced up at him when she heard her name. “Zebra finches, being a scientific staple for decades, have one of the best-understood genomes, epigenomes, and embryonic development routines, making the species a natural choice for a first pass. Similar reasoning drove the decision to go with canary for the second subject, the one who calls himself Iggy, but we thought that using material from a different phylogenetic family might manifest differently, so we ought to try both and compare. Your donation, Fang, is part crow. While that species is the least understood at a molecular level, we wanted to see if it had any measurable effects on intelligence.”
“Inconclusive at this point, as they’re still so young, but I’m optimistic based on what I’ve observed so far. Of course, the human component, accounting for 98% of the genome, plays a much larger part in cognitive ability.” I sent Dr. Batchelder a scathing look for such barefaced flattery, but neither he nor Mr. Huang changed their mild expressions.
“Any other species you’re planning to try?”
“We plan to try grey parrot next, but adapting the technique to a non-passerine is going to be a lot of overhead. We won’t be ready for a first pass probably until Q1 of next year. And then there’s a lot of short-term iterating that needs to happen before we can get the subject to this level,” he said, gesturing at Max. “Most of our efforts right now are focused on refining the three species we already have had some success with.”
“And they can fly, right?”
“Yes, that’s never been an issue since the first batch. Getting them to come down when you call is the trick.”
“Run me through your procedure once more. Super high level.”
“Would you like to do the honors, Allison?”
Allison beamed. “Sure, Dr. Batchelder. Before fertilization, we edit both the egg and sperm DNA, inserting the bird sequences as well as modifying some native human sections to play nice with the altered biology. Oh, and we also insert one insect sequence to help the brain deal with the extra limbs, but it’s really minor and doesn’t express in any other ways.” She paused, maybe to see if this news bothered her audience, but Mr. Huang was just nodding, so she continued. “Then we fertilize, and implant the zygote in the incubator. There’s a carefully crafted hormone regimen the whole time it’s in there. Then we let it divide for a couple of weeks and take DNA samples from the amniotic fluid to start growing our modified bird embryo in parallel. Then we do the wing grafting, which is still a manual process done under a microscope, and we keep the bird embryo alive for as long as we can as well, just in case we need its cells for something later down the line. During the rest of development, we dose the wings with bird growth hormone, which is conveniently nonreactive with human cells, to get them to come out large enough for flight. Due to the genetic changes, they develop faster than human embryos, so sixteen weeks later, we remove them from the incubator. Right now, the bird growth hormone treatment has to continue as injections for a large part of childhood, since they don’t have a pathway that regulates it. And there you have it!” She gestured at Max.
“What remains to be done before you can go to market?”
The two scientists looked at each other before Dr. Batchelder answered. “Well, we’re working on getting the whites of the eyes to show and the ears to come in–”
”–I was hoping you’d say that, honestly it’s pretty freaky–”
”–but for some reason the ears in particular are proving really difficult to do genetically. We might have to resort to fetal grafting, but there are a lot of reasons we don’t want to do that. Other than that, it’s mostly just tweaking the genes and hormones to improve temperament and appearance further, fleshing out the education plan, and collecting more cognitive and behavioral data. There’s a lot of work–” Max started tugging at his hand– “–sorry sweetie, just give Papa one minute–a lot of work that still needs to happen just to have science-backed answers to parents’ anticipated questions.”
Mr. Huang nodded, satisfied. Max tugged harder and started emitting high-pitched whimpers–really high-pitched, like a mosquito tone. Dr. Batchelder winced. “We’re working on that, too–preventing the development of the syrinx,” said Allison. “This batch only has a rudimentary one. You should’ve heard the noises the previous ones could make.”
“We’d better take Max back. She needs to be changed and fed,” Dr. Batchelder said apologetically. “Let’s go, Max, and have another sandwich,” he said, his voice rising two octaves. “Another sandwich!” The three of them turned and went back into the corridor, the door swinging shut behind them.
“I’ll send you a follow-up email tonight,” said Mr. Huang. “Thanks a lot for showing me this. The biology, at least, is looking really promising. The business model, though….” He smiled. “I just have to convince myself people are really willing to pay as much as you’re projecting for angel babies. She is quite adorable though.”
“Thank you for taking the time to come out here,” I said, shaking his hand again. “I’ll look forward to your reply.”
vii. Uriel, Part 2
Background: This is a sequel to a short story from my previous creative writing post. If you haven’t read it, please go back and read that one first!
I hadn’t been this excited in years.
Uriel had me working on an expansion to the spaceship. I’d always had a mild suspicion there was more to the ship than was accessible to me, but after two years of living here in monotony, I’d mostly forgotten about it. Now, suddenly, where there had been a blank white bulkhead, there was a sliding door. Close examination of the area around the door revealed a retractable wall panel that had hidden it previously. I inspected the rest of the ship, looking for similar hidden doors, but found none. Either this expansion was the only one planned, or Uriel had other tricks up his sleeve.
Behind the sliding door was a blank, sterile space, its floor plan a mirror image to what I’d thought was the entire ship before. There was an identical chandelier-on-rails in a huge, barren white room, an identical dumbwaiter next to an identical, unslept-in bed, and an identical unused bathroom, closet, and exercise room.
“What’s all this, Uriel?” I’d asked when I saw the new space for the first time. “Are we expecting a guest?” I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but could already barely contain my excitement. How strange; when I lived on Earth I’d never looked forward to having a guest. In fact, I’d usually dreaded it, or made excuses to prevent it. But I guess two years of solitary confinement can change a person.
“I can neither confirm nor deny that statement at this time,” said Uriel in his usual infuriating way. “But I have many requests to make of you, in order to make this space habitable. Are you open to hearing them?”
“Of course,” I said. “If it’s not because we’re having a guest I will be REALLY ANGRY–” I contorted my face into an exaggerated mask of rage “–but I’m happy to have a new project to work on regardless.” Since it was Uriel’s prime directive to take good care of me, I was pretty sure, based on the way he phrased his responses, that making distressed faces and sad noises caused Uriel the closest thing he could feel to physical pain.
“Good, sir, very good,” said Uriel. “The first thing that needs to happen is setting up the second pasture, so it has as much time as possible to reach equilibrium. I’ve made as close an approximation of subsoil, topsoil, and humus layers as I could using the inputs we have access to, but it will need biological help to achieve the same productivity as the first pasture.”
“Why another pasture?” I asked. “Why not a forest, or a swamp, or a coral reef?”
“You cannot subsist on the outputs of a coral reef,” said Uriel. “And you do not have the requisite skills to keep it alive.”
“I could learn,” I said, somewhat impatiently. I was itching to get started on laying down the subsoil so that we could welcome our guest sooner. “Don’t you have Internet access still? Or at least, access to a saved state somewhere, if the Internet has ceased to exist in the past couple of years? You could download a coral reef care manual for me to read.”
“If that is your next reading material request, I can grant it,” said Uriel.
“No! Jeez, don’t you know a rhetorical question when you hear one?” I made an exaggerated displeased face, and then a mental note not to let these weird faces become too much of a habit, for the sake of the guest. Uriel had a rule that I could only get a new piece of entertainment when I had completed the previous one. Why this was better for my mental health, I have no idea. Maybe it was just to prevent me from accessing too much information, some of which could be disturbing, while still allowing me to stave off boredom and learn some things. Or maybe the earning of rewards was in itself more rewarding than just getting them for free. Either way, I definitely didn’t want to have to slog through a potentially thousand-page black-and-white home-aquarium care manual before I could read anything else again.
I got to work shoveling.
After three weeks of labor–on top of my usual chores of taking care of the cows, chickens, and grass of my own pasture, as well as my garden–the expansion was complete. I covered the second pasture room with three layers of soil plus manure and sowed seeds for new grass, and now friendy green shoots were starting to appear. It would be another couple of weeks before the grass was tall enough to support the cows and chickens, but Uriel had timed the insemination perfectly, and that’s exactly when all of the babies were due. Since the two pastures were adjacent, the plan was to have a single larger herd and larger flock, which would take up a larger area at a time and move through both pastures as if they were one.
Using chicken wire, I fenced off a corner of the second pasture for a second garden, and planted different crops than were currently growing in mine. While I’d grown different crops at different times over the past two years, there was only so much space in my little garden. Having access to additional types of foods simultaneously would open up a world of new culinary options. It was almost as exciting a prospect as the potential guest!
I built a larger chicken coop out of wood that Uriel must have been saving in museum-like inert conditions for this exact purpose, and moved the birds inside it. I deconstructed the old coop, cleaned it out, re-planed, sanded, and stained all the pieces, and built a nice rocking chair and end table, which I put in the corner of the guest bedroom. I also built myself a stool for putting on my boots, so I wouldn’t have to do it from my bed, where I risked getting dried mud on the sheets.
I deep-cleaned my entire living space. There was a robot vacuum and a robot mop that came through every day and did an okay job, but there were certain crannies that only human fingers could reach. I took all my sheets out into the pasture and beat them with the shower curtain rod, watching the dust fly. From across the field, the cows looked at me curiously.
I painted one of my bedroom walls gray, and painted one of the guest bedroom walls a medium blue. Uriel didn’t have many colors available, but I mixed some primary colors until I got a shade I liked. I built a shelf out of more reclaimed chicken coop wood, hung it on the blue wall, and put a wishbone on it. A lame decoration, I admit, but I didn’t want to spend too much time on trivialities in case it delayed the guest’s arrival, and I didn’t want to impose my tastes too much. And, I secretly hoped the guest and I would be able to fill the curio shelf together.
After the calves and chicks were born and the grass was tall enough, I got the newly enlarged animal groups used to moving through both pasture areas. The cows were spooked by the door initially and wouldn’t cross the threshold, but the chickens showed no such qualms and immediately started exploring the new area. Eventually, the cows moved in as well, with one of the calves leading the way. Normally I don’t name my animals because I know I’ll eventually have to eat them, but I imagined the guest might ask their names and be disappointed if none existed, so I allowed myself to start thinking of that brave calf as Alexandra the Great.
“Uriel, I think I’m done,” I said, watching the cows frolic in their new home. “Was there anything else on the list?”
“No, sir, you’ve exceeded my expectations,” he said. “I think our guest will really enjoy the accommodations.”
My breath caught. That was the first time Uriel had confirmed that there was actually going to be a guest. Until now, I’d been trying to keep from hoping too much, steeling myself for disappointment. Although there were still so many unknowns about the nature of the guest that I may still be disappointed.
“I’m going to close off the guest’s quarters, but leave the second pasture and garden open to your side,” said Uriel. “Please give the guest three days to acclimate to the situation. Then I will introduce you.”
It was the longest three days of my life.
I didn’t know what to do with myself. I exercised a lot, showered a lot, patched a hole in my overalls’ knee, examined my face and teeth in the bathroom mirror, finished my book but didn’t ask for a new one just yet (what if the guest had a recommendation?), shadowboxed, picked at my food, practiced headstands, and laid awake at night thinking about what I was going to say.
I was never good at making friends. I’d had a decent relationship with my parents before their deaths, but I wouldn’t say we’d ever been really close. There were a few kids I’d play with at lunch in elementary school, but I’d never called anyone my best friend, and as I got older I ate lunch alone in a classroom with my sketchbook. I’d had a couple of flings with girls in college because I felt I was supposed to, but no serious girlfriends. I’d been cordial with my coworkers on the organic-locavore-management-intensive farm, but never wanted to go out for beers with them after sundown. Then the apocalypse began, and I withdrew from society almost completely, tending my parents’ remote few acres by myself as I’d learned at work and occasionally driving three hours to the nearest town to trade eggs, milk, and meat for fuel, books, paper, and clothes. Then, I was kidnapped out of the blue by someone who was being paid by Uriel.
To be honest, I felt like the last two years I had been less alone than before. I’m pretty sure I had said more words cumulatively to Uriel than to any other individual. And there was the whole thing about being someone else’s number one priority, which I had never really experienced. Maybe that had been one of Uriel’s meta-goals all along, to socialize me enough that I would be able to appropriately handle having a human guest. Now that I thought about it, it seemed a narrow line to walk–the more time I had alone, the more I would eventually want a guest, but the less able I would be to host one.
I figured, though, since my well-being was Uriel’s motive, the guest would have to like me. He would choose someone who would, no matter what I did. Right?
Even if I believed Uriel would do his superhuman best, though, his abilities were limited. What if Earth was too chaotic at this point for him to have any control over who came to space? He’d previously made money through gainful employment–in the age of remote work and deepfakes, who could tell the difference? and he could hold ten or more nine-to-fives at once–and then multiplied his wealth through smart investments. Then he’d hired humans to build this spaceship and to kidnap me. But if the world economy was in shambles, his electronic wealth might have no value anymore. I’m sure he could influence people in other ways, but deception and persuasion don’t move mountains the way finances do. His options for willing and capable spacefarers might be limited.
Another possibility is that the guest has been in cryonic stasis or something this whole time. I’m sure there are additional preparations he performed that I still don’t know about (the preserved wood for the larger chicken coop was a minor example), so it’s definitely a possibility. But if he’d chosen an ideal friend for me two years ago, would he have been able to predict how I would change? Would they still be ideal now? Maybe there are armies of frozen people in the bowels of the ship right now, allowing Uriel to select the best candidate after gathering more information about me. Despite the creepiness of the premise, I halfway hoped that it would be the case, since it would give me the best chance of getting along with the guest. And the potential for more guests in the future? Again, I was surprising myself; gatherings of more than two had always seemed overwhelming to me, but here I was, trying to make myself the first host of a party in solar orbit.
Finally, it arrived. Introduction day!
I showered, shaved, brushed my teeth, ate breakfast (yogurt with raspberries, the least likely to cause offensive breath, I thought), made my bed, flossed, and brushed my teeth again. I would have liked to dress up a little, but all I had was numerous pairs of overalls and flannel shirts, so there was little agonizing over what to wear. I put on my least worn-out set of clothes, sat on my new stool to pull on my boots, and said, “Uriel! I’m ready!”
He didn’t immediately reply, which had never happened before. There was only one explanation I could think of: the guest wasn’t ready yet. I tried to compose my expression and stop smiling manaically.
“What day is it?” I asked.
This time I got a prompt answer. “It is Wednesday, February 24,” said Uriel. “It has been two years and twelve days since we left Earth.”
I opened my sketchbook and wrote down “February 24: Introduction Day” so I wouldn’t forget.
“How much longer is it going to be, Uriel?” I asked, tapping my feet nervously. Again, no reply. I wondered if, counter to my previous assumption, Uriel could only have his attention on one thing at a time.
I sat ramrod-straight on my little three-legged stool for what felt like twenty minutes. My back began to ache, so I laid down on my bed, careful not to rumple the sheets. I’d only been laying like that for a few seconds when Uriel’s summons finally came. “Sir, the guest is in her pasture. I recommend you go introduce yourself now.”
It was a her! My heart soared, and then immediately fell. Did Uriel expect us to be mates? Did she expect that I expected us to be mates?
I walked as evenly as I could out into my own pasture. The chandelier was shining brightly and the air smelled fresh. I could see a small figure, also in overalls (!), striding with purpose toward me through the waving grass. She was dark-skinned and stockily built, and had her dark hair pulled back in a braid and tucked under a bandana. As she came closer, I could see that she had wide-apart eyes and was probably in her early thirties. Exactly my type–there was no doubt in my mind that Uriel wanted us to be mates. But I couldn’t let her know that, or she’d hate me–wouldn’t she? I waved at her and tried to put a mild, pleasant expression on my face. She didn’t wave, and continued walking briskly toward me. I expected her to stop at a reasonable friendly distance, but she didn’t–she walked right up and slapped me across the face.
“YOU are the reason for this!” she was shouting. She had a slight accent that I found extremely pleasing. She’d hit me so hard that I had tears in my eyes, but I was smiling goofily despite the pain. “You kidnap me and FREEZE me against my will for TWO YEARS, and FLY me out into SPACE just to be a SIDEKICK to some GRINGO? What kind of JOKE is this? Why are YOU so special? Who died and made you king? ARGHHH!” She looked like she was about to wallop me again, but instead just turned and stormed back into her rooms, slamming the door behind her. I stared after her, still grinning and crying at the same time.
“Uriel,” I said.
“Yes, sir?” His tone never changed much, but I was pretty sure he was having a hard time figuring out exactly what I was feeling. Heck, I was having a hard time figuring it out.
“I think you chose well.”
Her name was Paola, and I learned her story over the next few weeks.
Two years ago, she had been living almost as solitary a life as I had. She’d been employed, along with her father and two brothers, at a big industrial-organic farm that specialized in baby spinach. Before that, she’d worked other crops, moving with the seasons and the opportunities and the whims of the family. The spinach was highly labor-intensive–since it was organic, they used human weeders instead of herbicides–and thus low-margin and expensive, and so it was one of the first agricultural victims of layoffs as the apocalypse was ramping up. Paola and her family couldn’t find an alternative farm job, since all the workers were in the same boat, with huge numbers of other organic and specialty farmers looking for work while incumbents were expecting to be laid off at any moment as well. Then a plague struck the state she was living in especially hard, causing city folk to flee, fearing infection, and the less scrupulous and more desperate to raid whatever homesteads and barracks happened to be in their path. Vagrants brought the plague to Paola’s father and one of her brothers, who insisted that she and her remaining brother flee before they fell sick as well. The two of them eked out a living in an isolated, mountainous area with rocky soil that could only be reached on foot, surviving on goat’s milk and potatoes and the occasional hare or fish they could trap. But eventually, a raider with a gun still managed to find them and fatally wound Paola’s brother before she was able to bash his head in with a shovel. She used that same shovel to bury her brother, which took forever because of the rocky soil.
After the worst of the plague had run its course, people returned to the cities and rule of law and a semblance of an economy seemed to return, at least based on what Paola could pick up on her hand-cranked radio. And then, of course, she was kidnapped.
I knew from what I’d picked up on my own hand-cranked radio that things were bad. I just hadn’t imagined the individual horrors everyone was experiencing.
I admired Paola’s survival instinct and her matter-of-fact way of speaking (though I could tell she was grieving). I loved the way she really observed her surroundings, noticing things about the ship and the plants that I never had, despite the fact that I’d lived here for years.
I felt like what I imagined Uriel must feel like all the time–always trying to gauge her moods and needs and reactions, trying to figure out when to be present and when to give her space, when to do favors for her and when to let her take care of her own half of the ship, when to say what was on my mind and when to hold my tongue.
We spent a lot of time together but also a lot of time apart. She wasn’t a native misanthrope like me, but she was still getting used to the situation, organizing her own thoughts and feelings, and paying respects to her old life.
It was three months before I dared set foot in her room. She’d sent me a text message through a screen that had appeared next to my bed one day, which had previously looked just like the wall, asking if I wanted to come over. (I knew Uriel had more tricks up his sleeve than just the hidden door.) I debated with myself for a bit before deciding that acting like a lovestruck, contrary teenager was ridiculous under these circumstances and I should just take her at her word. Clearly I wanted to go over there. If she invited me, what else was there to it?
The room hadn’t changed too much, but I could tell from the scuff marks on the floor that she’d been using the rocking chair, which made me happy. There was a book on the end table I’d made, something nonfiction about octopuses. And there was a little doll made of a scrap of bandana and a chicken feather, stuffed and tied with dried grass, on the shelf next to my wishbone.
“Hi,” I said, taking my boots off just inside the door. I didn’t want to get dirt on her things, but now I was worried that my feet would smell. Ugh.
She was sitting on the floor with her back against the bed, and looked up at me and smiled. “Hi.”
There was a silence. There was often silence, but I was comfortable with it, and she seemed to be as well.
“I like your little doll,” I said.
“It’s my brother’s bandana,” she said. “I don’t have any photos, but this way I can still sort of see him every day when I wake up.”
“That’s very nice,” I said. I almost said “that’s very sweet,” but thought that “sweet” might be demeaning to her brother’s memory. But was “nice” too bland?
“I was wondering about the wishbone,” she said. “Does it mean something to you?”
“Honestly, I didn’t really think about it when I put it there. I was pretty short on time and limited in available materials…although now I’m thinking maybe I should have given you one of my sketches, that would have been an obvious choice…”
“Let’s break it,” she said, standing up. She retrieved the wishbone from the shelf and held one tine out to me. “Are you thinking of your wish?”
We snapped the wishbone. She got the larger half.
I didn’t ask her to tell me her wish. I had the rest of forever to figure out what it was.
Trigger warning: gore
The human in the elevator was getting nervous.
Mama had hijacked the music system again, and the bland bossa nova faded out and was gradually replaced by a horror movie soundtrack. The lights flickered and dimmed. Mama stood on the side near the buttons, her eyes lowered, her long dark hair obscuring her face. I was holding her left hand and staring up at the man, watching his face twitch as the music heightened. When I was littler, I’d sometimes ruin the mood by giggling, but I have a much more reliable steely gaze now that I’m eight.
Now Mama was slowly raising her gaze to look the man in the eye, her red irises glittering in the low light. He gave a start, his eyes flicking back and forth between her, me, and the elevator door. I could see his pulse fluttering in his neck and smell a slight acrid tang of sweat.
Ding! The elevator arrived at the eighth floor, and the music and lights abruptly returned to normal. The man was falling over himself to get out, and was gone before the door was half open. Mama and I watched him run down the hotel hallway, staying motionless in order to form a nice tableau in case he glanced back, but he didn’t.
Mama says one day I’ll be as beautiful and scary as her.
I’ve read Interview with the Vampire and Dracula, and according to Mama, real vampires don’t work like that. We need real food in addition to blood, and child vampires do grow up, and we aren’t afraid of garlic or sunlight (though Mama’s eyes are sensitive to it) and we can’t turn into fog or bats. And we certainly aren’t bound by rules about entering freely and of your own will, or anything like that.
But we are supernaturally seductive, ageless blood-drinkers.
Here’s Mama’s routine. She checks us into two rooms at a fancy hotel in a new city and spends a day or so scoping out various attractions nearby like casinos, street fairs, farmers’ markets, and other cash-only establishments. Then she gets dolled up and heads to the hotel bar, or a trendy cocktail bar if there’s one nearby, sitting down with a Bloody Mary to wait for our next victim to present himself. Usually I’m stuck in the hotel room or at an arcade while she’s doing this part. Mama trusts me to keep my mouth shut.
As different men come and go at the bar, Mama eavesdrops and sizes them up, especially noting if they have any particularly fancy watches, cufflinks, rings, et cetera, and making sure they’re visiting from out of town, eventually selecting a sufficiently affluent- and credulous-seeming mark. She starts flirting with him, and gets him to buy her another Bloody. Mama is really, really good at flirting. She knows exactly when to play hard to get, when to escalate, what not to say. They don’t stand a chance.
It seems to the mark that she’s about to invite him back to her hotel room when she makes it clear that she’s not a one-night-stand girl, on principle. She usually prefers to wait until the third date, but for you, big shot, it could be two. She makes a plan for tomorrow (tomorrow is always Saturday) to have him take her to the aforementioned local cash-only attraction. If it seems advantageous to have me there–if he’s a child at heart, or if he’s shy with women, and tomorrow’s location is a child-friendly one–I get to tag along. We always have a blast, trying to bum as much free stuff off our patron of the day as we can and generally being exuberant whenever he gives in to our whims. Mama is always on alert though to make sure we aren’t overstepping our welcome–we need to be able to bring him back to the hotel at the end of all this.
Then comes the second-most-important part: the ATM visit. Our wanton habits have caused our patron to run out of cash, so we stop by an ATM to get some more–just a little, for dinner at the authentic cash-only Brazilian restaurant we have our hearts set on. Mama and I stay a respectful distance away from the man at the ATM, but Mama has super-sharp eyesight and perfect recall, and can always skim his PIN.
After an amazing dinner (we impress him with our appetite for super-rare steak, men are always amazed by this and say things like “You aren’t like other girls”), we all head back to the hotel, with Mama now laying it on thick, holding his hand and making googoo eyes. Mama sends me to my room and says she’ll be over to tuck me in in thirty minutes, winking unsubtly at the mark. The two of them enter Mama’s room.
I’m never there for this part, but this is how I imagine it goes, based on what I see afterward. Mama suggests they take a shower, so as not to soil the sheets. They turn on the water to let it get hot and begin undressing each other. Mama takes his shirt off. He starts unbuttoning her dress, but there are about a hundred buttons all down the front and he struggles with the one just under her breasts. (It’s a false button, sewn into the bodice for this purpose.) He works at it, bringing his head close. He’s so embarrassed and flustered and trying to focus on this task and not ruin the atmosphere, that he never sees the knife coming. Mama plunges it upward into his throat and simultaneously shoves him backward into the bathtub. He whacks his head on the tile and can’t even scream. Mama turns off the water and stoppers the tub to collect the blood. Getting out the cocktail shaker, she scoops out about a quart and mixes four Bloody Marys, two virgin, with all the fixings–Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, celery salt, the works. Then she comes and knocks on my door.
We spend the rest of the night drinking the Bloodys, laughing and chatting, playing checkers, and watching bad game shows on the hotel TV. I love spending time with my mama.
At around midnight, she sends me back to my room so she can dispose of the body. She has a little hacksaw that can be taken apart, the body zipping into her purse handle, the grip doubling as a wine opener, and with plenty of extra blades stowed under a secret flap in the bottom of her purse. It takes her hours to dice the whole thing up into flushable pieces. Usually, when I wake up around seven the next morning, I turn on some cartoons in my room because I know she probably won’t finish til eight. She says when I’m older she’ll teach me how best to butcher a body, but for now I’m happy to sleep in.
Once Mama’s done, she knocks on my door and we go on an ATM run and then out to breakfast. Then she has a quick siesta in the hotel room until it’s time to check out at eleven, and we hit the road, ready to explore new places and see new sights and spend our new money, until Friday, when it’s time to feed again.
Mama says some people condemn our lifestyle as evil. But does anyone say lions are evil for killing and eating zebras? Is it evil when a bear kills a hiker, or a shark kills a surfer? Predators just do what they have to do. It’s just more difficult if the prey happens to be sentient.
“Men are scum, Sophie,” she’d often say. “Especially rich men. Don’t you ever forget it. Even if we weren’t just doing what we have to do to survive, the world is better off without those we remove from it.”
But everything changed when we met the silver fox.
Mama usually avoided men over the age of thirty-five, both since young blood tasted better and since older men were less likely to be desperate enough for sex to play along. Even some men she thought were gullible enough in the beginning, she would let go after our outing, if she sensed they were getting suspicious. But for some reason, this particular mature individual caught her eye. We had a lovely day at the racetrack (Mama always makes sure to make long-shot bets, since the whole point of the outing is to force the mark to go get more cash–and it’s more exciting anyway, and the heightened feelings work to our advantage) followed by a delicious dinner of Peking duck that they carved right in front of us into thin, fatty slices with crispy skin. Everything was going according to plan, including the slaughter and Bloody Mary party, until we woke up on the hotel room floor in broad daylight to the sound of screaming.
I tried to open my eyes, but they felt like lead. Peering through my eyelashes, I saw a housekeeper run out of the bathroom and into the hallway, slamming the door behind her. What time was it? What had happened?
“Mama,” I tried to say, but it came out as a pitiful cough. With an immense effort, I turned my head, and saw Mama laying on the floor next to me, still unconscious, but breathing. I would have breathed a sigh of relief, if my lungs had been working normally. Instead, I just continued panting shallowly, and tried to collect my thoughts.
It must have been the blood. That silver fox must have had some strong painkillers or something running through his system. Either my faster metabolism, or Mama’s unintentional mixing of barbiturates and alcohol, had caused it to pass more quickly for me. I only had a few minutes before the housekeeper called the police. We needed to get out of here. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t move my limbs.
An agonizing minute passed. I continued to try to get up. While I was trying, I was formulating a plan. We would go out the fire escape. I would have to carry Mama. We would hide in a bush until she woke up and could drive us away. Don’t forget the cash, it’s in her purse. We were only on the second floor, so it seemed like it should be possible, at least when I was feeling normal…
I must have fallen back asleep, because the next thing I knew, a policeman was picking me up.
“Help! Mama!” I tried to yell, but it came out as a yawn. They must have gotten Mama. If she had been able to escape, she would have taken me with her.
“What do we do with the kid?” someone said. “She’s gotta be complicit, right? She’s old enough to know better.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” said someone else. “She could have been accompanying that murderess for her entire life. Would you know better?”
“The TV was on,” said the first someone. “That means she didn’t keep the kid totally isolated, right? Don’t most books and shows have the bad guys murdering innocents, and the good guys sending them to jail? And even in the absence of any outside information, don’t you think there’s something inherently disturbing and obviously wrong about cutting people up into tiny pieces?”
“We’ll have to have the shrink make the call,” said the second someone, as I lapsed back into senselessness.
I woke up tied to a metal chair. My neck and back ached worse than I’d ever felt, and my mouth was sandpaper that tasted like swamp. It was hot and the air was still, and I could barely see what else was in this dim little room because of the bright overhead light shining in my eyes.
“Water–” I said hoarsely.
I heard a beep, followed by a door unlatching and footsteps coming toward me. A late-middle-aged woman held a cup with a straw to my lips. I drank the whole thing in two seconds, slurping loudly. Without saying a word, she turned on her heel and left the room. A minute later, I heard the beep and the door and the footsteps again, and she was back with a second cup of water. I downed that as well, not quite as quickly.
She took the seat across the table from me and pushed the light out of the way. I tried not to feel too much gratitude.
“Honey, what’s your name?” she asked, in a businesslike yet grandmotherly way.
I said nothing.
“It will be better for both of us if you cooperate,” she said gently. “I don’t think you’re guilty, and if we can establish that quickly you can be out of here in no time.”
“Where’s Mama?” I rasped.
She looked at her folded hands for a moment before answering. “Your mama is in a questioning room right now as well, in this same building,” she said. “She still hasn’t regained consciousness, but the doctors said she’ll be fine and it’s only a matter of a couple more hours until she’s up, and maybe a day or two until she’s back to normal.”
“Your mama is…” she trailed off. “Actually, how about you tell me about your mama. What is she like?”
“Mama said I shouldn’t talk about her to anyone,” I said.
The lady blew air out the sides of her mouth, causing a stray gray hair to fly upward. She looked at her hands again. “I admire your loyalty,” she said, still looking at her hands, “but your mama did a very bad thing. Many very bad things. And she is going to have to take responsibility for those things.”
“What kind of responsibility?” I said, a terrible gnawing feeling growing in my stomach. This couldn’t be happening. No, no, not my Mama…
“She will almost certainly be imprisoned for life. And she will possibly be sentenced to death. I’m trying to save you from–”
“NO!” I yelled hoarsely. “It’s not fair! It’s just who we are! Do you put lions in jail for hunting zebras?” I started crying and couldn’t continue.
“What?” the lady said, surprised. “Lions?…oh…that actually explains a lot.” She stood up from her chair. “Sorry, sweetie, I’m going to have to speak to my colleagues about this. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” The door beeped again and let her out. I tried to control my sobbing, but it was no use. There were tears and snot everywhere and I couldn’t even wipe my nose. I felt utterly alone.
There was another beep, and the lady came back in. She had another cup of water, which she offered me, but I shook my head. She sat down and leaned toward me with her elbows on the table. I averted my eyes. She took a deep breath before beginning to speak.
“I gather your mama has told you that she is a vampire, and that she needs to drink blood to survive,” said the lady. “I have to tell you, there is no such thing. Your mama is a human woman, and she is a serial killer.”
I looked up in surprise. No such thing? I’d never had such a thought. “But she has super vision…and perfect recall…and doesn’t age…”
“Have you actually seen her do any of those things in a superhuman way?” the lady asked gently.
“I’m…not sure,” I said. I didn’t want to think about it. It felt like the world was collapsing around me.
“What’s your name?” she said again.
“Sophie,” I stammered.
“Sophie, sweetie, how old are you?”
“So the furthest back you can remember is around five years ago, right? And your mama looks like she’s in her mid thirties now. So ‘not aging’ over five years…does that really require magic to explain?”
I said nothing.
“What does your mama say will happen if she doesn’t drink blood?” The lady clicked open a ballpoint pen and opened a steno pad.
“She’d starve,” I said.
“After how long?”
I shrugged. “We usually feed once a week, but sometimes we go a week without.” I saw her look up from her note-taking at the word we.
“But she eats human food too, right?”
“Okay, how about this. We’ll keep you both under supervision for three weeks. You’ll be able to see each other, but not all the time. And we’ll provide plenty of human food, but no blood, and we’ll see what happens. If your mama starts seeming worse for the wear, I’ll believe you, and we can make our next decision from there. Okay?”
I didn’t feel as if I could say no, but nodded anyway.
Note: The page image was generated by the deep learning model DALL-E Mini in response to the prompt “the best art”. The other eight images generated were all variants of Starry Night by Van Gogh. I’m not sure what this one is supposed to be or why it was so different than the rest.