2560 words, short story
Of Sight, of Mind, of Heart
2016 Winner: Aurealis Award for Best Science Fiction Short Story
You name your first child Ben.
“In the manual it says it can be better if you don’t name them,” the nurse-tech says, as she bundles the small squalling form into your arms. “But it’s okay if you do, everyone does.” Her eyes are kind. You don’t understand the sympathy you see there.
Ben is a good baby. He sleeps more than usual. More than normal children. You stand by his cot and watch him often. His lashes are dark against his cheek and he makes little suckling noises in his sleep. Sometimes his small body twitches, all over. You think that if you stand there long enough, quietly enough, you will be able to see him growing.
You haven’t been returning your mother’s phone calls so your mother drives an hour and a half and drops in unexpectedly.
Ben is crawling with an easy mastery, turning on a dime and scooting across the floor on his knees in his green corduroy trousers. When your mother picks him up he says “Mm-ba!” and laughs, high and delicious.
“Was it the money?” your mother says, and you shrug, although it wasn’t the money, not really, not mostly.
Later, your mother looks at Ben and not you as he tries to grab her chin in his hands and says “Why didn’t you tell me?”
You rub at the injection-site between two of your vertebrae, right at the base of your neck. “I didn’t think you’d approve,” you say. You watch the tightness around her lips and see the thing she does not say. I don’t.
You drive up for your nephew’s first birthday party although you really don’t want to. You watch Milo pulling up on the furniture and notice that Ben is already a little taller. Your sister looks great, although she is all over-bright and flustered.
“It must be nice for you,” she says, as she watches Ben totter towards you with his unsteady gait.
You nod, and wish she’d left off the last two words.
One of your cousin’s girls is tearing around the back yard in a Boogey mask, making the other children scatter and scream. You know it is a Boogey mask, because the other kids are shrieking “watch out for the Boogey,” although its features are generic monster really, green lumpy skin, bulging eyes, red slavering maw. No one knows what real Boogeys look like, they’ve never captured one, never examined and dissected one, only blasted them to teeny tiny pieces. They probably don’t look like that at all.
Everyone sings for Milo and watches him open his mound of presents. You resolve that when you get back home you will buy Ben a new toy and wrap it up and give it to him so that he can tear off the paper and squeal, even though it is not his birthday.
Ben plunges his fist into his yellow plastic bowl.
“Cake!” he says.
You put yourself into Ben’s stimulation chamber, out of curiosity. The colors and patterns, words and music, the way it shifts and shifts and is never still gives you a headache.
Ben is healthy, intelligent, and active, everything he was engineered to be. It doesn’t say it in the manual, but you know from the center that when they grew kids up quick in the lab, that even though they’d been screened for mental disorders, without mothers (or sometimes fathers) something would go wrong with a lot of them. They’d get depressed, they’d wig-out, they couldn’t work well in a team. Without mothers.
At night Ben has started escaping from his cot. He is a strong baby, good at climbing. He makes his way into your room in the darkened hours and you are woken by a little voice at your side saying “Up! Up!” You know you should take him back to his own room, all of the books say you should. But you don’t.
Your once-best-friend is getting married and even though you haven’t seen her for nearly two years you feel the tug of wanting to go. Your mother still lives a street away from your friend’s parents and she knows all about it, and when she offers to look after Ben for a day and have him sleep over that night you get swayed by the lack of reluctance in her voice.
When you arrive at your mother’s the radio is talking about the latest wave of Boogeys that’ve been defeated, twelve light-minutes away from Earth. It doesn’t talk about the soldiers who died, out there far away.
“Leave it,” you say, as your mother reaches over and switches it off.
“Sorry,” says your mother. Although you can’t tell if she is sorry for having the radio on, sorry she turned it off, or some other sorry that is to do with her faraway expression and not the radio at all.
You slick back your short hair and scrape yourself into clothes that don’t feel comfortable and totter off to the wedding. You’ve never said goodbye to Ben before and your throat constricts over the word, but he opens and closes one chubby fist in a wave and goes back to digging in the garden with your mother, dark soil on his arms and one cheek.
It is very late and you’ve had more fun than you expected to have when you let yourself back into your mother’s house. You’ve drunk champagne and you have a blister on your heel and you are laughing to yourself as you go up the stairs, feeling like a teenager. When you see Ben asleep in your bed you stop and stand still and realize that you haven’t thought about him all night, not once.
That’s normal, you think, but your hand strays up to the back of your neck and you feel cold all of a sudden.
You don an old t-shirt, the school-logo faded, the fabric soft against your skin after so many washes, and climb into bed. Ben’s small body gives off a surprising amount of heat and you curl yourself around him but it is a long time before you sleep.
Ben loves the park at the end of your block and you take him there most every day now. The regular denizens of the playground become familiar after a while—the dark-haired, dark-eyed little girl who always howls when she has to go home; the boy who is usually hanging upside down making faces while his mother constantly talks on the phone, her voice high and agitated; the solemn little boy who loves the slide. Many of them were bigger than Ben when you first started coming. Now—not so many, not as many. You watch as Ben navigates the monkey bars with an easy grace.
A girl about Ben’s height that you haven’t seen before pushes him as he lands. Ben tumbles onto the sand but ends up on his feet, like a cat. He scowls at the little girl then runs towards the swings.
“Sulisa” hollers a tall man who is presumably her father. “No pushing!” He comes up to you and offers you an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry about that,” he says. “She’s gone a bit feral since the separation.” You stand there as he tells you about it, wondering why he is confiding in you. People don’t usually start talking to you. You don’t think you look very approachable, your face is closed rather than open.
“I’m tearing my hair out to be honest,” the man says. He still looks like he has plenty of hair. “I wish they came with a manual!”
“Mine did come with a manual,” you say softly.
Ben has a new fascination with astronomy so you let him stay up past his bedtime and drive him out to the farmland halfway to your mother’s house so that you can escape some of the light pollution, sit on the bonnet of your car, and look at the sky.
It is a clear cold night and the stars are clustered thickly bright and deep.
“Which one is Mars?” Ben asks, snuggling into your side. Of course, of course.
“There,” you say, pointing. You know where Mars is. Everyone knows where Mars is. “See the very bright one that looks a little bit reddish.”
“It’s pretty,” he says.
“Yes,” you say, because it is, even so.
“Mars is where the Boogeys are,” he tells you, in his high sweet, little-boy voice. Of course. How did he know? His second cousins? The TV? His stimulation chamber maybe. It doesn’t matter.
“Yes,” you say. “Mars is where the Boogeys are.”
“But the Boogeys didn’t come from Mars, did they Mama?”
“No sweetie,” you say. “We don’t know where they came from, but they came from somewhere else.”
“Are there lots of Boogeys Mama? Lots and lots and lots and lots?” His breath makes little puffs in the chill of the air.
“Yes,” you say. Because there are lots. Lots and lots and lots and lots. More every day, they say. So many. Too many, maybe, probably too many.
At the moment, it doesn’t feel close, looking up at that little spark of light. Ben’s small body is pressed right against you. It feels like a story. Far away in the sky, not real.
“I’d be good at being a pilot Mama,” Ben says, his face serious, his cold little hand curled in yours.
“I bet you would,” you say. “But now it’s time to get you to bed.”
“I don’t like the Boogeys Mama,” Ben says, and yawns.
“No,” you say. “I don’t like them either honey.”
Your mother is keen to take Ben and Milo to the beach for four days. It’ll ‘give you a break’ she says.
You are not sure you need a break, or what you would do with one. But you are touched that your mother wants to take the both of them, and Ben likes Milo, even though he is too small to really play with now-days. And Ben has never seen the ocean. And there is no ocean on Mars, or anywhere in all the space between.
When you open the door to them four days later you are stilled by a kind of shock. You’ve spoken to Ben on the phone every night, and you haven’t forgotten him, of course you haven’t—but it’s like all of the thoughts and feelings and memories of Ben have been in a box, and the box is over in a far corner, and you haven’t looked into it lately, not for a while. All of the urgency, the immediacy, the power of those thoughts had been leeched out. It returns now with a wallop that makes you draw in your breath sharply.
He was only gone four days.
Ben is telling you with great excitement tales of sand crabs and fishing, ice cream and sandcastles with moats.
“Oh,” you say, because you are noticing that his cheeks look a little less chubby, as if you can start to see what the planes of his face will be. And is he taller too?
“Look Mama,” says Ben, showing you the most exciting news of all. “My tooth is wobbly!”
“Oh,” you say again.
Your mother makes you a cup of tea even though really you should have offered to make her one.
“How can you bear it?” you say.
“What?” says your mother.
“It doesn’t matter,” you say, and sip your tea.
But your mother answers you anyway.
“We had more time, of course,” she says. “They replace themselves—you’re always losing the child that was; the newborn, the baby, the toddler, but they get overwritten in your mind, in a way, by their new self.” She stops to listen to the boys laughing in Ben’s room. “But for you . . . it is so quick. You can hold it all in your mind, all at once, simultaneously.” She looks down at her cup. “It’s enough to break your heart.”
You had thought your mother didn’t understand.
Usually you hate and avoid Christmas with a passion, but Ben is excited and all of a sudden you want all of it, every last drop—feasting and tinsel and lights and cookies in the shape of Christmas trees. You drive up to your Mother’s and sing songs loudly with Ben the whole way. Silent Night. Jingle Bells. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Ben knows all the words but you’ve given up being surprised about how quickly he learns.
Everyone exclaims over how much Ben has grown; which is a given, like talking about the weather. You hug Milo, who is just beginning to run everywhere and think I remember when Ben was doing that.
No one talks about Ben’s birthday or what happens next, but people seem to touch you a lot. A hand on your shoulder, in the middle of your back, on your arm, little pats as you serve the potatoes.
You’ve bought Ben more presents than is perhaps warranted, and have wrapped each one in different shiny paper. Books and felt pens and a scooter, puzzles and magnets and walkie-talkies. It’s his first Christmas, and his last Christmas and his only Christmas, and you’d wrap up the moon if you could.
“On my birthday, I’m going to the Recruit Training Center,” Ben says to you, matter-of-factly.
“That’s right.” Too soon, oh, too soon, my son. He’ll be at the Center for a year. By the end of that year he’ll be taller than you.
“I’m going to help save the world.”
“That’s right.” You are proud of him, and you wonder, for not nearly the first time, whether they made him this beautiful on purpose.
“And I’ll be big and brave without you, and I’ll come back to you one day Mama.”
No, no you won’t, you think, but you don’t say it because now your robust and resilient little man who almost never cries is wiping at his eyes furiously.
“That’s right,” you say, pulling him towards you, “and I’ll always love you too, always.”
More than anything you want this to be true.
And maybe one day he knocks on your door.
Because the Boogeys have been defeated, wiped out, obliterated, and he gets to come home. Because maybe he remembers or maybe he has looked up the information about you.
And you blink at him for long, long seconds.
And then something stirs in the back of your mind and you start to pull old, old memories from somewhere deep in there where they have been archived.
He says hello and he says his name and now the memories are avalanching through you, picking up speed and weight and power; a cold sweet rush of all the different sorts of love, the way your heart was breaking and expanding at once, both together. The nights where the world shrunk to a point, a singularity, where it was just you and him, awake and alone together in the night. It all comes back.
Something softens around the edges of his face and you wonder what he remembers now.
And you ask him inside with a joy that makes you ache.
Or he never knocks.
You name your second child Vincent.
You never have a third child.