The Middle

[Contemporary short story, ~1400 words. -ARG]

 

Fire don’t care that it’s winter.

The air gets hazier as we rocket through the Smokies, Mom and me, taking mountain curves like she doesn’t remember she’s a cop five days a week. We’re already later than we would be, with traffic from the rain that ain’t where it needs to be, and we’ve been in the car six hours and I’m on no sleep.

Wildfire ain’t supposed to be out east. East we worry about storms, like Katrina or Fran, way back when. But turns out droughts can happen anywhere, and fire don’t give a damn that we ain’t prepared for it.

“If we have to evacuate, the dogs go in my car. Papaw can’t go with them, because they tear his skin.” Mom tells me. She’s right. I’ll drive Papaw and Nana back, in their impala. Only if Papaw gets discharged. I don’t know what we’ll do if the fire gets to the hospital.

“If we gotta.” I agree. “They’ll stay with you? What about the cousins?”

“It’ll be tight.” Her knuckles are white on the wheel. “But we’ll manage.”

We been looking for a way to get them moved outta the mountains for a while now. With Papaw’s heart, and Nana’s memory going, it’d be easier to have them closer. But they won’t do anything they don’t wanna.

Hospital’s a big, pretty place, and we gotta confirm where Papaw is. The news is on in his room– a cycle of reporters talking about the fire, people that lost their homes, videos of smoke covered mountains and hills of flame and one pair of guys driving down with fire on both sides. We’re all waiting to hear if they’ll call an evacuation for the trailer we ain’t at. Papaw and Nana fall asleep to the noise, the little green lines on the EKG, the hum of the heparin IV, Gatlinburg mayor giving a speech on TV. The governor talks about how special this place is, but it’s hard to care about the outside world.

A lab tech comes in to take blood, but her pulling tape rips Papaw’s skin. Paper thin, fragile. I guess she didn’t know because she felt bad, but ‘feeling bad’ don’t stop the bleeding. We call a nurse and she wraps up his arm. We won’t let that happen again, but that doesn’t undo the damage.

We feed Nana from the cafeteria. She hasn’t been eating, but she will if we watch. Time passes like molasses, and we wait. The chairs are hard, and there’s only two, so I walk around, or I sit on the floor. The nurse doesn’t like that. Doesn’t stop me.

Mom points to the TV, the one I’m trying my damnedest to ignore.

“That motel ain’t two miles from you.”

That perks me up. I hope the dogs aren’t in danger. When men face danger, people like to say they have a fight or flight response. Ain’t right. Men also freeze like deer do. I freeze, I know I do.

“I don’t think it was wildfire.” Papaw says. He sat up for dinner, needs help to do it. He’s hurting. He’s been going all his life and he don’t stop unless he’s hurting.

“Arson?” Mom asks.

“Yea.”

The TV drowns out the rest. I don’t doubt it, but I don’t want it to be arson, and I don’t wanna listen to the damned TV. I don’t wanna listen to anything else either. I get glued to my phone instead.

Embers can float a mile, it says.

 

Papaw needs help getting to the bathroom. Mom helps.

“This little gown they give you don’t cover your backside anyhow.” Papaw says. Temp’s set to eighty and he’s still shaking cold. I talk to Mom. Nana ain’t been home in some days, and Doctor ain’t coming today, most like, so I gotta drive Nana back. Back, toward the fire, where their dogs are. I keep saying we’ll run if they say, but they don’t say yet.

Fight, flight, freeze.

I drive back toward the fire, Nana my passenger. I make a turn too quick and loll her neck- I forgot how gentle I gotta be. She sleeps some after that. The fire glow doesn’t overrun the city glow, the Winterfest lights, the advertisements. I can’t see stars. Maybe smoke. Maybe light pollution. Maybe I just ain’t looking hard enough. Wind’s rough on the highway.

Embers can float a mile.

I sleep for ten hours, fitful, with a tornado warning blaring around 2am. I ignore it, pass back out, and hope I’ll even wake up for an evacuation. Morning comes like it always does, and Mom wants us back at the hospital, but I make sure Nana eats first. I drive back with blinking eyes, oil and tire lights on in Nana’s car. She reaches over to switch off the warnings, and I wonder how long she’s been doing that.

“What did it say?” I hadn’t caught the warning that time.

“Oh, I don’t know. It wasn’t what I wanted to see.”

Nothing to say to that.

We get there, parking in the pouring rain since Nana won’t let me drop her off. She walks slow, and I hold the umbrella. Mom texted asking for prayers since Papaw already got wheeled into the procedure.

My nails got picked apart from chewing, which I shouldn’t do around so many sick, but I’ve got an itch in my gut. Papaw wakes up, and we wait more, and sometime Mom and I go get oil to put in Nana’s car. There’s gotta be a bubble in the line somewhere, but it doesn’t get too hot on the road, so we’ll look later. The air is wet, and cold. Fire must be contained, right? We’re safe now, right?

The nurse comes in for midday pills, and we help Papaw sit up.

“You sound alright. How’re ya feeling?” The nurses treat Papaw kindly, and he teases them and jokes on, amiable as ever.

“I may sound alright, but I ain’t chasing no twenty year olds.” Papaw chuckles. I can tell he’s cold though. His hands shake, legs are mottled, and his arms got a dozen thick red bruises. My hands shake too, but I can hide that. Ain’t nobody looking at me anyway.

I leave for walks every so often. When the rain lightens up, I even go outside. People light up on the sidewalk, even though there are signs all over about how the hospital grounds are smoke free. Wonder if the wildfire can read.

That ain’t funny. People are dead. Count keeps going up each day, from finding the bodies. Tornado fatalities not included. I think they ought to be.

Cold bites.  I should’ve brought a thicker coat.

 

It’s past midnight, and we wait for the cardiologist again, but he’s not coming. I need to take Nana home while I can still drive. I can’t stand the TV anymore, taking any excuse to be out of the room. Everything’s still closed, still cold, still dangerous. My hands shake, like I know I’m on the cusp of disaster. If I leave tonight, will it be the end? I just want the cardiologist to come by like the nurses said he would, to tell us how much danger Papaw’s in, whether he’d get to go home soon.

I’m irritable on the way back, driving gentle but following my GPS to the letter. Nana’s lived here her whole life, but sometimes she gets lost or her directions get flipped, and I’m still worried I’ll blow a tire and have to change it in the dead of night.

We get back and I pass out, and it’s near noon before I wake up to a call from mom. I mutter that we’ll leave soon, and try to blink the tired out of my eyes.

The car starts outside. I bolt up to look out the blinds.

Taillights.

Nana shouldn’t be driving, but she don’t care. I pull on my jacket and step outside to watch her car whizz down the gravel.

I wrestle the emergency Marlboro out of my wallet. My shakes calm long enough to let me text mom. I let the cold bite, filling my lungs with that sweet, deadly relief. Fire, Tornado, danger, nothing. This ain’t the end. It’s the goddamned middle.

I stamp the butt out, because embers can float a mile.

And fire don’t care.

News & Chapter Titles

Hello Humans! Anybody feel a draft in here?

IT’S ME! I just finished the first draft of a new novel. This WIP came in just over 100,000 words, and 253 pages. The draft is loosely a YA comic fantasy, which I worked on for Camp Nanowrimo.

So, for this first post after Uncanny Valley, I’m talking about “Ahead of Fate” (the working title). Since I already have a synopsis and world information up on my still-in-progress website, I’ll be sharing the chapter titles that have been making me snicker for the better part of 3 non-consecutive months.

(I have a serious affection for puns.)

Table of Contents

  • Chapter 1: Demon, Deserter, Shifter, Slayer
  • Chapter 2: Sakura Nova
  • Chapter 3: A Brief Chase
  • Chapter 4: A Doggone Shame
  • Chapter 5: Orange You Glad?
  • Chapter 6: Pray It Forward
  • Chapter 7: Seven Minutes in Heaven
  • Chapter 8: Maid in the North
  • Chapter 9: A Whirlwind Bromance
  • Chapter 10: Six Ways to Sunday
  • Chapter 11: Net Prophet
  • Chapter 12: Conversion Therapy
  • Chapter 13: Reckless Abandonment
  • Chapter 14: The Prodigal Child
  • Chapter 15: The Last Peace
  • Chapter 16: The Human Race
  • Chapter 17: Ragnarok
  • Chapter 18: Pyramid Scheme
  • Epilogue: Kale Smoothie

 

I’m really looking forward to getting feedback from alpha readers on this piece.

In general, I don’t see many authors using chapter titles. Anybody know why? I love them.

-ARG

Uncanny Valley (Part 5)

[Violence. Puns. -ARG]

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4

 

Valley’s mad dash led her by a fireplace, from which she hastily pulled an unknown steel item. It turned out to be a small shovel, and she aimed it like a club after her pursuer.

It struck him across the neck, but he was no longer flinching from any of her blows.  Valerie pressed on. Andy was moving slower now, humoring her. He knew she couldn’t get out, just a rabbit down the wrong hole.

And there was no way her tired legs were going to make it all the way up those stairs. Would death even be so bad? Valerie snatched picture frames off the wall as she ran up the staircase. They were pictures of a growing baby, of Emily, that were clearly older. There was something about the clothing that screamed not-this-decade.

The pictures only slowed the man slightly. He avoided stepping on them, which gave her the barest of advantages as Valerie forced her frustratingly sedentary legs upward. Eight more steps, Five more steps.

He grabbed her leg by the ankle, ripping off one of the flat shoes. She kicked, she screamed, and she smashed the frame in her hand across his face. His cheek was opened, skin taken away from the bone. She didn’t know when her screaming turned to crying as well.

A piece of glass gashed her trapped calf, letting blood out everywhere. Valerie would have never imagined that the slipperiness of her own blood would be her saving grace- He couldn’t hold onto her leg after she started freely gushing all over.

Valley ignored the cold sting as she scrambled up the remaining steps and ran into the nearest room, shutting the door behind her. It was a dull pink, as if it had never been painted after having been a nursery, with a small twin bed with drawers beneath.

The door wouldn’t lock. And even if it could have locked, it wouldn’t have kept the man- that thing- out for long. Valley looked toward the windows, but even before she started searching for something to break them with, she realized they were barred. Small bars painted white, on second floor windows.

This was Emily’s room- a twenty-seven-year-old, trapped in her nursery, and in a prepubescent body. Claire was right to have done whatever it took to cure her daughter.

Thumps hit the door she was trying her best to brace against. Her whole body shook with the impacts, and one pushed her halfway across the room. She scrambled backward, toward the small bed.

The man seemed to stall, having concluded that he’d won, and took a look around the infantilized room of his would-be-adult daughter.

Valley held her breath, watching him, watching the doorway. With the windows barred, that was her only way out.

“I will get her back.” Andy murmured, in that deep baritone that upset a similarly deep part of Valerie. She couldn’t help her hands from shaking any more than she could stop her leg from bleeding.

The large man looked at her like she wasn’t even a person, absolute contempt in his eyes. She knew he had the capacity to kill her, right now, and not even bat an eyelash. But there was nothing else to fight back with. Nothing. She couldn’t even lift her arms.

Andy walked over and reached a whole large hand into her hair, twisting as he pulled upward. Shrieking, Valley had to follow where he was walking, scrambling on her knees. Her unliftable arms found themselves grasping at his unrelenting grip.

She couldn’t even form coherent screams.

He pulled her to the room where this all started, the master bedroom, and dropped her near the bloodstain and the hypodermic needle. Her fingers tried to wrap around it, but found themselves lacking the strength.

“Where. Are. My. Girls.”  He demanded in that same tone. Valley lay breathing onto the carpet, her unfocused eyes trying to put two blurry needles back into one.

Andy let out a beastly roar- the equivalent of a baritone doll shriek. That was a sound that humans couldn’t make, because Andy wasn’t a human. Valley recognized it, in the pit of her stomach. Who wasn’t a doll in this damn city?

“TELL ME!” He shouted, flipping Valerie over roughly.

His face came into focus, all angles and hate. Valerie latched her eyes onto his, trying to sit up. From sheer frustration, her fingers had gained a little strength, just enough to grab the syringe. Barely enough.

“You want the truth?” Valerie spoke quietly, tasting a surprising amount of blood. Her mind tried to catch something to say, just one thing to stall him.

Valley pushed herself back the short distance to the wall, and tried to stand. He watched the needle in her hand, and she kept it between them like a crucifix.

Glass from the open window sliced into the palm trying to hold her up.

“What is that?” Andy asked, warily. Valerie held the needle up, as though studying it while leaning on the sill to hold herself. Finally, luck. He didn’t know it was empty.

“You know what this is.” She said. He wasn’t far, maybe a foot away.

“The enzyme.” He answered. “But how-”

Valley didn’t let him finish.

“Me.” She told him, some of the strength coming back into her voice, but not her body. “I retrieved it. I cured them. And now, they’re both free.”

“How dare you!” Andy started, but he didn’t lunge.

Because of the needle, she put together. Andy was a doll- the screech had told her that much. The enzyme might still be in the needle, and with all his injuries, he couldn’t afford to be cured. The everactin running through his veins might be the only thing preventing him from bleeding out. If only she had realized it earlier or had taken the needle with her, this could have ended so much sooner. Valley didn’t have everactin to prevent her from bleeding out. Hot blood still ran down her legs, and she had to blink it out of her eyes.

The image of Karen and Darren lived behind her eyelids. Her babies, stuck without a mother, maybe sent back to the rescue group they had come from. Maybe separated. She hoped someone would realize she was missing before the twins got too desperate.

Fresh anger came up her throat. She wasn’t going to get to see them again. And it was all this man’s fault, so she would hurt him in the only way that he could truly be hurt.

“I will NEVER tell you where they are.” Valerie shouted. “You are NEVER going to find them.”

Andy lunged as Valley leaned back, her arms and legs and scalp slicing against the shards of glass. She watched the dark sky above as she fell, and in those few, tiny seconds, she might have seen a pair of stars shining brightly.

She hit the ground back first, crumpled among the remains of a jewelry chest, and stopped breathing.

DareDevil. KareBear. Her loves. Valerie tried to say it.

But Valley had stopped breathing.

 

**

“Who was she?” The doctor spoke, looking over the young woman lying on the table before him. She was fresh, and her wounds hadn’t quite stopped seeping yet. It wouldn’t take long.

“No idea.” The Company representative answered. “That’s why she’s listed as Barbie Doe on her tag.”

The doctor snorted, somewhat annoyed. Company representatives were the worst.

“You must have more information than that.” He spoke. “Why was she at the house of Subject ANDY? What happened to his handler?” The sedated Ken Doe that lay on the nearby slab had already been identified as Andy Ellison, a subject in a classified Myst trial that the doctor himself had helped research in many years back.

“Based on residue from the upstairs carpet, the wife carved out her microchip and got a hold of enough enzyme to reassimilate, for her and the girl.” The representative spoke coldly. “Abandoning the subject with what we can only assume was a poorly thought-out replacement handler.”

The doctor spritzed the exposed muscle with some protein catalyst.

“But we have no idea who Barbie is or where she comes from.” The doctor answered.

“Serves us right for expecting Ellison to handle the situation.” The representative retorted. “Dolls aren’t the top of the intellectual spectrum. I swear, that everactin does something to their brains.”

“It’s best you not speculate, agent.” The doctor answered. “It might be best that no one knows who Barbie is. That’s fewer people to come looking for her.”

“So you don’t recommend we keep her as Subject Andy’s handler?” The representative asked. The doctor glanced over to a nearby table.  The large male was strapped there, twitching gently in his sleep.

“No. I’m recommending termination for him. His violent tendencies haven’t dissipated after fifteen years. We should have terminated him long ago, but for nepotism.”  The doctor continued, pulling back the lips of the young woman to examine her teeth. “This is a fertile female in her twenties that has just been tossed in our laps. I’m recommending the commission sector. She’ll do well.”

The representative sucked teeth quietly.

“So we’re not expending energy to figure out her identity?” He asked.

The doctor shook his head.

“No. She was as good as dead when she came here- a vegetable. We administered the protein, which means she couldn’t become who she was regardless. Therefore, meet Barbie. Our newest product.”

The young woman’s eyes opened as a small electric spark crossed the table lengthwise.

“Come on, Barbie.” The representative smiled, reaching a hand out toward the newly made doll. “Let’s go party.”

 

**

Mallory hadn’t answered any of Hank’s phone calls. That figured, second dates were difficult to come by, but he’d really liked her. Mallory had come all the way to his work, and liked his pasta. Hank hadn’t even seen that nice woman that had set him up with her niece since then, or he’d have asked.

His sister hadn’t gotten around to harassing him yet this week about his love life, but he was sure the call was coming. She’d expect to hear more about this mystery girl that met him for lunch last week. Hank put his phone down in disgust.

He was just so done with searching for humans. Maybe it was time to take up his company wares. The general public didn’t know about adult dolls, but part of his job as a doll-human specialist for Myst company had filled in Dr. Bernard.

He supposed it wouldn’t hurt to look at the options. He could get his sister off his back, and finally have someone else to cook his pasta with. A doll couldn’t eat with him, of course. Biologically, dolls shouldn’t have much human food. Limited pasta, mostly Manufacturer-produced protein shakes.

He scrolled through pictures online, on a site he really shouldn’t have visited at work. The company probably wouldn’t mind, since his money would go back to them. After all, it wasn’t like this particular site was secondhand. Adult dolls were large ticket items, bringing in a lot of revenue.

Hank scrolled through the commission section, the financially responsible choice. He’d been thinking about that last date when he filled them in. Brown curly hair, not too tall, sweet round face…

He scrolled through the potential matches, and stopped with his pointer hovering over one. The resemblance to that Mallory girl was uncanny.

Order placed.

The End

 

[Feel free to leave feedback! What worked, what didn’t, lingering questions (like did I write this whole thing just for the Barbie line??). -ARG]

Uncanny Valley (Part 4)

[Much violence, Reference to abuse. -ARG]

Part 1   Part 2  Part 3

 

Strength came back into Valerie’s arms slowly. On the soft carpet, she felt like she could just sleep there, although not with her head throbbing as it was.

With the minimal strength in her arms, she pushed herself off the ground a little. Her body was frustratingly heavy, and the unusually sparkling world swam in her eyes. Claire was a phenomenal home caretaker if every surface literally sparkled- Or maybe that sparkle was just in Valerie’s head.

Claire. The memory came back in pieces, starting with the hypodermic needle that was laying precariously on the carpet, ready to pierce a foot. Valerie picked it up, trying to think of a better place for it than the floor.

But it was on the floor because Claire had used it on herself. Because she had been a doll, and was now a cured doll. Just like her daughter.

Car approaching, front drive.” The security system announced. Valerie jumped a little, and looked around, before recognizing the feminine voice of the integrated smart system.

Valerie made her way toward to the window to see the sleek, black, high-end automobile pull into the drive where her own car wasn’t. A dark pit grew in her stomach, and she backed from the window. The person driving that thing was bad, and Valerie’s gut usually gave people the benefit of the doubt.

A ringing noise came from somewhere in the room. It seemed familiar.

Valley slow brain soon recognized it as her phone’s ringtone. She searched for it, finding it in her purse right on top. Usually it was buried under her wallet, but her wallet was nowhere to be seen. Other things might be missing too- her keys, the third vial, her gym card. Valley vowed to search further later, after she answered the phone.

“Hello?” She asked.

Claire’s voice answered.

“Good, you’re up. If you want to live, I suggest you get out of there. My husband is home.”

“Did you hit me? Why did you leave me here? Where are you?” Valerie asked, before Claire’s sentence registered. “He’s at the front door.”

“He’ll know something’s wrong, I’m expected to meet him at the door.”  Claire spoke. “We don’t have much time left. Do you think you can get out the window?”

“Why would you leave me here just to tell me how to escape? Why would you leave me here at all?”  Valerie asked, frustrated by the high ratio of questions to answers.

“Because she needs you to make enough noise so He doesn’t track us right away. We’ve got to get away from traffic cameras.” Emily’s voice piped up, snotty as usual.

“Look, I’m sorry about what we had to do.” Claire started. “But if you don’t get out of there, you’re going to die.”

“Or worse.” Emily added, followed by a strange thump over the phone.

“Get to the window.” Claire demanded. It was the most mom-like commanding voice Valerie had ever heard from her. She did as Claire said, trying to ignore the pounding in her head.

“It’s locked.” Valerie answered.

“Yes, you’re going to have to break it to get out. Go lock the bedroom door and find something to break the window with.”

Valerie walked over to the bedroom door and locked it. There was no way that lock would hold up for long against a fully grown man.

Coincidentally, a fully grown man was bellowing Claire’s name from downstairs, and Emily’s. He didn’t seem in dire straits just yet.

“Your jewelry case?” Valerie asked her phone.

“That’ll work. You’re going to have to hit it hard, like harder than you ever have hit anything before, or it won’t break.” Claire explained.

Valerie scoffed a little, just like Emily.

“Is that what you told Emily to do to my head?”

There was silence on the other side. The window was fifteen feet up. If Valerie dropped down to the ground there, she’d probably break something. What if she couldn’t run? What if she just injured herself and couldn’t continue? Would anyone even call the police?

… The police.

“I’m calling the police.”

“You’ll be dead by the time they get there.” Claire told Valerie, in no uncertain terms.

“Just listen-” Claire started urgently. “Andy is an evil man, with a lot of power. That’s why he got away with having us turned. No matter what you do, don’t let yourself get caught by him. Die first.”

“I won’t die. I have Karen and Darren to take care of. I’m their mom.”

“Anything is better than him catching you.” Claire insisted.

“Even sacrificing some empathetic stranger?” Valerie asked with incredulity.

There was another pause on the other side.

“Good luck, Valley.” Claire answered, before the line clicked dead. She started to dial the emergency police number before something gave out in her phone- a spark- and the smell of burning silicone repulsed her just in time for her fingers to drop the melting phone. It shriveled on the carpet. Valley didn’t even bother cursing at her terrible luck today.

Valerie dumped the contents of the jewelry case on the ground as she moved the solid wooden cupboard. Her head on fire, Valerie lifted it above her head and slammed it into the window.

And again, harder, when it didn’t shatter. Her arms were losing strength again. This time a small hole was made, slicing her arm a little. But Valerie tried not to pay attention as she smashed the rest of the large shards out, hearing someone try the bedroom door behind her.

Valerie let the jewelry case drop to the ground below with a terrifying thump. Something inside Valley told her she couldn’t make it, that it was too far. But if she could get the man to think she’d gone out the window, maybe she could get down the stairs. As fast as she could, Valley hid behind the dresser near the door.

The man from the car barreled himself against the lock. The paltry wooden thing flung open as the man, Andy, headed directly for the broken window.

As silently as she could manage, Valerie snuck out the now-open door, to travel down the stairs.

On the trip to Claire’s bedroom, Valerie hadn’t realized that the third step from the bottom squeaked.

A chill passed through Valley as her heart skipped, and she ran.

Valerie raced toward the front door as she heard thundering footsteps practically falling down the stairs.

The doorknob, clenched in her hands wouldn’t budge. It wouldn’t turn. She rattled it, and a frustrated scream ripped out of her lungs. She didn’t want to die here. Not here.

Valerie fumbled over an end table, bashing her thigh, trying to get away from the door. The large man crashed into the front door with a thud, although he didn’t go through that one. Valley could feel the floor rumble slightly at the impact.

Valerie stumbled like she couldn’t control her leg stumps at all. She flung whatever she could behind her- loose lamps and baubles and things she didn’t have time to recognize. She didn’t dare look back. He could be there already, ready to grab her.  She couldn’t let him get her.

The kitchen had to have something. She reached there, grabbing for the largest knife she could find.

She threw the resulting bread knife to the ground, and grabbed the next one out of the rack.

A long, six-inch knife or so fast in her trembling hands. Valerie gripped it tight, watching for the approach of the man of the house, her blurry vision fixed on him as he loomed toward her.

He was taller than she expected, with dark hair like Emily. His face seemed to swallow the features around him, from his ears to his cheeks, but his nose was sharp.  His mouth reminded Valerie of an alligator, a wide strip across sallow cheeks. She felt like he was going to devour her whole, and then move on to the next meal.

She bared the knife at him.

“Stay away from me!” She exerted in a shaky voice.

He took another step.

“Where. Is. My. Wife.” He demanded.

“Stay back!” Valley shouted.

The man stopped, still, but he hadn’t finished. Valerie needed that knife. She still had this overwhelming feeling that he was going to kill her, that she would die tonight.

“Where did my family go.” He spoke in that same dark voice.

“They’re gone.” She told him. “They’re gone, I don’t know where. She hit me.”

He graveled in a groan. He wasn’t a man, she thought. He was a monster, waiting in the recesses of the forest.  The sound developed into an echoing crescendo into a bellow.

Without warning, Valerie distracted by the bellow, he barreled toward her. Valley pushed the knife toward him, but he didn’t seem to care. Her wrist bent back and she felt the countertop smash into her ribs as she crumpled.

Her face and arms and torso felt an uncountable number of cracks. She pushed the man away from her to no avail, her hands still gripped around the knife. Valerie thought she hit him, that she stabbed him or at least hurt him, but he didn’t stop.

Valerie kicked out as hard as she could, to nothing. The knife clattered to the ground after he slapped it out of her hand. Her face felt swollen, even as much as she tried to protect it with her arm. Her other one grasped around at whatever it could find.

She grabbed a small pliable bottle from the spice rack, and smashed it against his face. It exploded, and, she closed her eyes and dropped.  She crawled out from around his legs as quickly as she could. Somehow, her hand scraped over the knife on the ground.

When Andy grabbed around her legs, she lashed back with the knife toward her legs, catching his cheek. Valley lashed again, and again, slicing her own thigh one of the rampant stabs. He loosened, and she crawled further.

She stumbled up to her feet and dashed toward the door, but the kitchen’s exit was locked as well. How many damn doors had to be locked in this house?

Claire and Emily had been prisoners here.

Valley had the realization very suddenly- Claire had her break the window because there was no other way out of this house. To leave, Valley would have to break a window, and she wasn’t going to be able to do that while running.

End Part 4

Uncanny Valley (Part 3)

[Mild Violence, Needles. -ARG]

Part 1

Part 2

 

Valerie met Claire for coffee near her work.

One of the things that Valerie noticed about Claire was how perfectly manicured her nails were. She had a small bag crosshatched, but it couldn’t have fit much more than a lipstick in it.

“I didn’t realize I was supposed to dress up.” Valley muttered, plastering a smile on her face. Claire returned a perfect smile.

“Oh, you weren’t love.” Claire answered. Why call Valley love? “I just need to meet Andy for lunch after this.”

Claire pulled a small card out of that tiny purse. She passed it to Valley across the table.

“The guest pass will get you into the building.” Claire explained. “You’ll walk in, get scanned, and go directly to the small conference room. There will be a small box, with three vials. Hide the vials in your purse, preferably next to some tampons.”

“Where is the small conference room?” Valerie asked, tucking the key into her hand.  “What exactly is the key for? What if somebody stops me?”

“The key is a guest pass for family members. If someone stops you, explain that you are going to meet your boyfriend for lunch. Doctor Bernard. The small conference room- this is important- is down the hallway to the right, in room  1-4-1-4.”

“Who’s Doctor Bernard?” Valerie asked.

“You have a lot of questions. Doctor Bernard, Hank, that’s the man I set you up with for lunch today!” Claire explained, with quite a large smile. “He’s lovely, a little lonely, but if you look past the facial scarring I think he’s really a lovely man.”

“You set me up with someone?”

“It’s all part of the ruse. You have time, right? He’s expecting you around 11:30.” Claire patted her hand. “I must be going. If I’m late to meet my husband, he gets irate. He really has a temper.”

Claire stood with from the table and took her latte with her. Valerie stood as well, ready to go on her way. She didn’t have a good feeling about Claire with her husband.

She glanced back, just in time to see the older woman with her perfect hair, toss the latte in the nearby can as he hurried on her way. Valerie supposed she didn’t like it.

Or, perhaps, her husband wouldn’t like to have seen it.

 

**

Inside enemy territory, Valerie waited with the vials in her purse for her lunch date.

Hank Bernard met her in the small conference room 1-4-1-4, and introduced himself with a nervous smile. He was cute, in a lopsided kind of way, but he’d clearly taken the effort to try to fix his hair.

“Hi, I’m Hank.” He introduced himself, reaching out a hand. The other hand was filled with a small canvas bag.

“Hi, I’m -” Valerie stopped. Should she give her real name? What had Claire said? “I’m Malerie.”

Oh god, now he was going to think her name was Malerie. Oh god.

“Mallory. Cute name.” He smiled at her, dropping her hand from the shake. She pulled her purse close to her. “I hope you like pasta.”

“Sure.” Valerie answered. He thought her fake name was cute. Did he know about the vials? She’d gotten them before he’d arrived, but did Claire have two contacts? “I- I don’t know very much about pasta though.”

He laughed.

“That’s probably good. This is kind of a bastardizaiton of pierogies and pasta al pomodoro.” Hank explained.

“Literally no idea what those are.” Valley answered.

“All that matters is how it tastes. I hope you’re hungry. Or not hungry if you don’t end up liking it, I guess.”

Valerie laughed, sitting down. He pulled out some dishes, and a small heated lunchbox from the canvas bag.

He couldn’t know about the vials. He just couldn’t. Hank was too sweet to know any of that.

“So, what do you do here, exactly?” She asked.

“I develop new training methods for the dolls.” Hank answered. “And the humans around them. Probably the humans moreso.”

“Oh,” Valerie started. “I thought you were a doctor?”

“I am!” He answered. “But the philosophy kind, not the medical kind.”

“I have two dolldren.” Valerie volunteered.

“Tell me about them.” Hank suggested, also pointing to the lunch. Valerie picked up her fork for the strange pasta dish. The pasta was soft, and the cheesy potatoes reminded her of thanksgiving a little. She didn’t know how she felt about the tomato.

“They’re from the same batch, and their names are Karen and Darren. I like to call them KareBear and DareDevil.”

“Rhyming names- common with multiples I think.” Hank inserted. “What are they like?”

They talked about Valerie’s dolls for the better part of an hour. Hank was especially interested in the different aspects of their personalities, how even though they were from the same litter they’d developed so radically differently. Valley certainly appreciated the attention.

Hank walked Valerie to the lobby doors, which made getting through security more easy. Valerie’s nervousness was explained away by date jitters- Date jitters that left her with a lingering kiss on her cheek.

After the remainder of her work hours, Valerie headed directly for Claire’s with the vials, for her daughter and Valley’s twins. For Emily, and Karen, and Darren.

And after they cured Emily, Valerie was going to have a long talk with Claire about leaving that easily enraged husband of hers.

 

**

Claire met Valerie with a hug in the doorway of a two-story suburban house with a perfectly manicured lawn rivaled Claire’s fingernails

“That went so much more smoothly than I expected.” Claire told her, pulling her inside the large house and pressing some security buttons on the side. A feminine, instructive voice came from the box, stating ‘System Armed.’ “Emily’s upstairs. Can I get you anything?”

What a host, postponing the curing of her own dying daughter to make Valerie comfortable.

“No thanks.” Valley answered, digging through her purse for the vials. “How did lunch with your husband go?”

“About as well as can be expected.” Claire answered. “I have to check in with him every few hours. He inherited that business from his father, but you wouldn’t know he was just a figurehead by the way he prances about.”

“He doesn’t-” Valerie started, not sure if she could finish. She’d wanted to wait until after they’d used one of the vials to cure Emily.

“Hm?” Claire mused, touching various kitchen implements. The granite countertops were beautiful next to the classic nickel brushed sink and stainless steel accoutrements.

“He doesn’t hit you, or Emily, does he?” Valerie asked.

“Oh dear,” Claire looked at Valerie with affection, pushing a piece of hair out of her face. “How sweet of you to be worried about us. Are you sure I can’t get you some water?”

Valerie shook her head.

“No thanks. We should just cure Emily and take the rest to my place. I don’t really want to meet your husband.”

Claire chuckled a little, and led Valerie upstairs.

Emily waited patiently in her mother’s room, in another black band t-shirt and torn jeans. Those kept going in and out of style. Claire took one of the vials from Valerie, and a syringe from a small bag on her dresser.

“You ready honey?” Claire asked.

“I’ve been ready, mom.” Emily answered. The preteen gave a side glance to Valerie, before tilting her head to the side. Her neck was exposed, and Valerie was not at all prepared for that. She thought for sure the needle would go in the preteen’s arm.

Valerie shut her eyes and looked away while the needle went into the girldoll’s jugular, slowly. Nothing happened for several seconds. Emily just breathed heavily, sitting on the floor.

The reaction hit very suddenly.

Emily groaned heavily, clutching at her heart. The gauze she was holding dropped.

“It burns, Mom, it buuuuuurns.” She wailed. Claire knelt next to her, the emptied syringe in her hands, pressing gauze back to her daughter-doll’s neck.

Valley supposed the girl wouldn’t be a doll much longer. The enzyme would travel through her bloodstream, destroying the protein that kept her ageless. Emily would be made whole, by removing something.

“I know it hurts, baby. It is temporary. The poison will be out of you soon.”  Claire promised.

“Should I be getting you something? Water? Bucket?” Valerie asked. She had no concept of what to do with her hands.

“There’s a cup in the bathroom. No-” Claire told Valley. “Bottled water from the kitchen. To flush her system.”

“Right.” Valerie answered, running out of Claire’s bedroom. They should have been more prepared. Valley hadn’t known what would happen. Had Claire?

Valerie found some bottled water in the refrigerator, returning upstairs with five or six bottles clumsily stacked in her arms.

“Here, I brought them.” She spoke, coming into the room.

Valerie dropped the bottles. Claire writhed in pain on the floor. Her legs seemed to be seizing, much worse than Emily.

“What happened to her?!” Valley asked, rushing over to her friend. Claire’s mouth had started foaming, dripping thick bubbles of spit onto the carpet.

A second needle stuck out from Claire’s jugular, tearing a hole as she thrashed.

Valerie held Claire’s head still and removed the needle as gently as she could. She scrambled for the gauze, trying to keep the blood in with her fingers.

“What do you think happened to her, idiot?” Emily groaned, a half bottle of water at her lips as she gasped for air.

“I don’t know! I -” Valerie focused on keeping Claire’s blood inside of her.

“God, you’re dense. She’s a doll!” Emily scoffed. “You think she ever cared about your stupid pets? Dolls can’t get past security to get into the facility, so she used you to get the enzyme.”

“How-” Claire was starting to seize a little less, developing the wherewithal to hold gauze to her own neck and grasp for one of the loose bottles.

“Do I have to beat it into your head?” Emily had a particular rudeness that Valley had difficulty ignoring. “Mom and I were human, and we got turned into dolls.”

“How? Why? Who would do such a thing?” Valerie looked up at Emily.

She gave a haughty laugh, reminding Valley how much older than her body Emily was.

“If you think my mother was monstrous, wait until you meet my father. He’s the reason we’re like this.” Emily told Valley, coldly.

“When would I meet your father?” Valerie asked, still shocked.

“You’re going to keep him busy while we run.” Emily told her.

“I-” Valley wasn’t sure what she was going to say next. A crack sounded, and there was nothing but white-hot pain in the back of her head. The floor came toward her face suddenly, and all of her vision was red.

Uneven footsteps crowded around Valerie’s head and she wavered in and out of consciousness.  She couldn’t move. Her breath was caught somewhere between her heart and her throat. The empty, bloody hypodermic needle lay in front of her.

And the beveled steel was all Valley saw as Claire and Emily left.

 

End Part 3

Uncanny Valley (Part 2)

(Part 1)

 

The dollctor checked the twins’ teeth and toes and everything around and between. Their dollctor, a sweet young man with a constant gentle voice, made Valerie and her twins feel at ease.

“I’m just going to check a few things. Dolls have a very particular feature- a mark of the company that handles them tattooed on the palate of their mouths. A doll’s age can be told by the amount the mark has faded. Karen and Darren are both young, so they still have very bright tattoos on the roofs of their mouths. You can see here-” The dollctor let Valerie peek at the inside of Karen’s mouth. A large M with a hash mark through it, the logo for Myst Manufacturer, was bright against the gummy background.

“From this, I’d say that she’s about five years old, and she’s reached her allotted maturity.” He continued. “Their anatomy is quite similar to humans, but they don’t have to age and grow old like we do.”

The dollctor chuckled. Valerie nodded. That much, at least, she knew about dolls, but sometimes it was easier to just let people speak than assert what she knew and didn’t know. She’d never studied medicine of any sort- especially not doll medicine.

“Of course you knew that. I just like to remind owners during their periodic visits. The reason they don’t grow old is a protein, called everactin.” The dollctor explained. Valerie had heard that too, that the creation of dolls was some attempt to test the ability of this protein to prevent human aging, but it never worked on humans. “If there are any problems, one of the first things we do is to draw blood to examine the resiliency of the everactin.”

“NO SHOTS!” Karen screamed, with a doll screech. Darren heard her and let loose a howling shriek as well, before making a full attempt to escape through the door.

Fortunately, doors at the dollctor’s office had been designed with this exact scenario in mind, and had more difficult handles to manage than Valerie’s apartment.

“My babies, we talked about this.” Valerie spoke, lifting a struggling Darren from in front of the door. “The shots are to keep you healthy.”

“Yes, your adoptive mother is quite right,” The dollctor agreed. “Infection-triggered antibiotics, vaccines for preventable illnesses, time-released parasite prevention, and a very small amount of an enzyme to prevent unnecessary protein buildup.”

He said all this, but Valerie could barely hear him over the chattering and shrieks of her dolls, and her mostly ineffective attempts to shush them.

“Would it be alright for me to get sympathy shots?” Valerie asked. “My babies, if I go first, will you calm down some?”

Karen watched me with dark, sharp eyes.

“Ice cream.” She demanded.

“Yes, my baby. We’ll get ice cream right after.”

“And hot dogs?” Karen demanded, pointing at her brother. Valerie nodded.

“Ice cream and hot dogs, yes.” Valley answered. “But you have to be brave.”

“Human food can be a special treat sometimes, but I hope you’re not feeding them large quantities of-” The doctor started.

“I know, I shouldn’t be eating ice cream either, this is just a very stressful day. One-time event.” Valerie cut off the overly talkative doctor.

Valley’s requested sympathy shot barely stung, but she still didn’t enjoy it by far. She certainly didn’t have the stomach to watch the needle go into her skin. She didn’t look at all until after the tiny dab of blood was covered up with a bandage. Their yearly vaccines were administered to Valley’s brave little creatures with minimal crying, especially after the spritz of everactin helped their tiny little pinpricks close up right away. Valerie didn’t get a healing spritz like the twins did- it didn’t work on humans.

Two hotdogs and three ice creams later, the three were back in Valerie’s apartment. In a haze of happiness, Valley pulled Claire’s card from her pocket. It was such a simple thing, just her name and number. Claire Ellison. Business cards were a relic from another time, and rarely used in Myst’s ever-connected city.

A play date would be good for her dears. And maybe it would help Claire’s older doll learn to behave well with others. Valley might even be able to figure out whether the twin’s chatters were understood by other dolls, or just themselves.

Besides, human interaction outside of work would be a rare treat Valerie.

 

Claire and Valley met with their dolldren in a nearby park the next Saturday. The older woman was more stylishly dressed down this time, with twentieth century vintage-esque overalls and long hair draping halfway down her back. Emily, however, seemed much the same. Valley imagined Emily was the kind of girl that didn’t wear shorts.

No, Valley was still thinking about the preteen like she was a human girl. Emily was a doll, albeit a very willful one. Valley just seemed to remember dressing in a similarly rebellious fashion when she’d been Emily’s age. Claire and Valley sat on a bench while the dolls played.

“So, how old is your Emily?” Valley asked. Claire smiled at her, in much the way that Valley’s own mother used to. She was about twenty years younger than Valley’s mother, but the smile was the same. It said ‘I’m humoring you’ in the same way.

“She’s twenty-seven.” Claire answered. Wow, that was much older than Valley had expected.

“Wow!” She responded. “She’s older than I am.”

“Really?” Claire answered. “It gets harder to tell age with age I think. How old are yours?”

“Five.” Valley answered. “Well, five-ish.”

“And they’re twins?” Claire looked at Valerie.

“Yes, from the same batch. Sequential numbers.”

“You’re lucky. You’ll have a lot more time with them.” Claire sighed. “I’m worried about Emily. She’s starting to approach the age where the Everactin starts creating problems.”

“Oh no. Did the dollctor give you bad news?” Valley asked.  The twins’ dollctor had mentioned drawing blood to examine the resiliency of the protein if there were problems. Had that happened to Emily?

Valerie watched the three dolldren play. Emily threw a disc, while the Darren gave chase. Karen was plucking flowers or grass and watching everyone in turn. The fence around the park made Valley feel at ease.  They could run around all they wanted and couldn’t bolt off and get lost.

“They never tell me anything I don’t already know.” Claire sighed. Valley felt an unexpected sadness- even if dolls lived for fifteen or twenty years, it was never enough. The two women sat in silence, watching their dolldren before Claire spoke again.

“What would you say if they could grow up, and like, have human jobs? Wouldn’t that be neat?” Claire mused. Valley thought about it.

She imagined her Karen, all grown up, in a dress suit- Her hair would be up in a huge fluffy bun, with sharp eyes. She could be anything, the clever girl.

Her Darren on the other hand, Valerie’s wild child, she could see him running through the streets, investigating things. Valley could only imagine him outside, no office jobs for him. She’d have to help him wrestle with his hair to prevent it from matting, because Valley could be sure he wouldn’t take the time.

“I would love to watch them grow up.” The images of her twins all grown up was invading Valerie’s mind, even as she watched them play with the much older Emily. At twenty, Valley had opted to adopt dolldren rather than raise human children. She’d selected the much less expensive and much lower responsibility option, but Valley hadn’t considered having children in years. How could any human children replace her twins?

They looked so very human. Why did they make dolls like this? Why would the Manufacturers make dolls look so human? Dolls were grown as necessary organ replacements, and rather than disposing of the non-matched donors, these were adopted to territory citizens as companions. All major companies used this method, and the terrifying pre-company tradition of keeping castrated animals as companions died after dolldren flooded the market. Sweet toddlers that never grew old and would never outlive their caretaker- people had loved these new companions. Valley loved her dolldren. And now, at the thought of her twins dying one day, her heart was breaking.

“Now it’s all I can think about.” Valley muttered.

“Gets into your head, doesn’t it?” Claire answered. She wasn’t looking at Valerie, but at Emily. “You know what the worst part is? They could do it. Dolls aren’t that different from humans.”

“What do you mean?”

“Think about it. The Manufacturers say that they first designed dolls for organ replacements, so they have to be compatible with humans, right?”

“Sure.” Valley answered. That was pretty obvious.

“Do you know how that works?” Claire asked.

“No.” Valley answered. “Does anyone? I thought it was a trade secret.”

“Parts of it are, but you know about the synthetic protein? The one they call Everactin?”

“Sure.” Valley answered. “The one that prevents aging for dolls.” Claire gave a small laugh, one of those things people can’t help but give when someone says something stupid. Valerie frowned. It’s not that she wasn’t smart, it’s just that she sometimes didn’t make the right connections.

“It does much more than that. But any protein can be undone, if you have the right enzyme.”

“Okay…” Valerie tried to follow the logic. “Are you saying Emily would age if she had the enzyme?”

“I’m saying, if you remove the protein, Emily wouldn’t even be a doll anymore.” Claire looked at Valley now, and Valley was impressed with how sharp her eyes seemed, sharp like Karen’s.

“Then what would she be?” Valerie asked.

“Human.” Claire answered. “As human as you are.”

Their surroundings suddenly seemed surreal to Valley, in a fenced in park with the three potential humans playing nearby.

Potential humans. Some protein separating the dolldren, and the adults. That was nothing right? Nearly nothing.

Valley could feel her stomach flipping over.

“I have to go.” Valley called Darren to her, ready to trap him in her arms when he came in for the attention. With him in her arm, Valley walked toward the fence exit. She grabbed Karen’s hand on the way past. Karen seemed to understand that Valley wasn’t in any mood to fuss with her, that Mom was serious.

The drive back to her apartment was filled with doll chatter that Valerie couldn’t pay attention to.

Karen and Darren were only different from her because of a protein. That was it. That couldn’t be it, right?

There were thousands of dolls, maybe hundreds of thousands. Thousands of lives were saved by dolls, and a billion-dollar industry had cropped up because of the technology.  But if what Claire said was true, dolls weren’t just creatures that the Manufacturers had created synthetically? These were humans, who had been slated by fate and profit for a life without ever maturing past the stage of toddler.

That couldn’t be right.

And their life was shortened. From what the dollctor had mentioned, the protein ends up causing problems eventually. Everactin, the protein that the Manufacturers had imbued their dolls with, was causing them to die after twenty years. Or less.

Valerie felt herself start to tear up, not a good way to drive, even if the car did most of the work for her. She rerouted the vehicle to a nearby car wash, and scanned her small phone through the window to pay for the cleaning.

The mesh of the brushes flopping every which way in soaping foam on her car was soothing, and she’d found early on that the twins liked to see it too.

Valerie let herself cry a little in the thought of it, while the twins cooed from the backseats of her compact car. They liked the little drips of water moving upward best, near the end.

The wash gave her enough time to compose herself, dabbing her eyes messily with the edge of her soft cotton shirt.

“KareBear? DareDevil?” Valerie started, looking back at them with a wide grin. Karen watched her right away, although Daren was distracted by the gravity-defying drips on the window as the undercarriage was dried. “How big do you want to be?”

“As big as you, mom.” Karen answered. “Can we get more ice cream?”

Valerie laughed, trying not to choke out tears. Her clever girl had remembered the explanation about her mom eating ice cream and getting bigger. Valley only vaguely recalled that conversation, from more than a year ago.

“And what about you, my Darren.” Valerie asked.  Darren took a quick glance at her.

“Bigger.” He answered. Valley laughed at that too. What a cop-out. That was her Darren.

That settled it. Valerie called Claire, yet again.

“What do I have to do?” She started. “What do we have to do to fix them?”

And thus began a very long, very illegal phone call.

End Part 2

Uncanny Valley (Part 1)

[Uncanny Valley is a sci-fi horror short story, split into 5 parts. The bloodiness sticks to parts 4&5. -ARG]

 

The Myst-City provided telescreen served as background noise as Valerie unwound from another hectic day in her single bedroom apartment, absently patting the thick dark hair of her little girldoll. The girldoll and her batch-brother’s yearly wellness appointment tomorrow morning meant Valley’d taken a few hours off work, but filing the required requests for time off had been the easy part. The hard part was telling her dolldren that they’d have to see a dollctor in the mornings.

“DareDevil? KareBear? I have something I want to tell you about tomorrow.”

“Mom?” Karen looked up at Valerie. The little doll was curled, half on her lap, half off. Valley loved how warm Karen’s little arms felt. Karen responded to her name more readily than Darren. Valley’s independent boydoll was currently in the process of going through Valley’s purse in the middle of the floor.

“Darren, you too. Listen for a minute.” Darren sat up, his feet touching together in front of him.

“Mo-ooom!” He whined, with a little screech that was very particular to dolls. This was a good-natured screech, unlike some of the others she’d heard from him in their three years together. An upset Darren made screeches like skidding tires or rubbing bricks together.

“Just one minute. I just wanted to tell you we …. have to go to the Dollctor’s tomorrow.” Doll-doctors had to go through rigid medical training just like doctors that treated humans, although their courses were vastly different. Valerie had never been terribly interested in the medical side of things, though.

“No!” Darren shouted, before taking his chubby little legs toward the bedroom. Karen cuddled closer to her mom, putting one hand on each of Valley’s cheeks.

“But mom, why?” She asked. She was always such a smart, sweet girl. Valley looked into those big brown eyes.

“Because we have to make sure you and Darren are healthy. And you need vaccines every year to stay healthy.” Valley told her.

“I don’t understand.” She told Valerie. Valley heard that from her a lot. At least Karen could recognize when she didn’t understand.

“If you get sick, you could die. I don’t want to lose you. I love you.”

“I don’t understand.” Karen repeated.

“I know baby, I’m sorry.” Valerie hugged her close.

“MOoooom.” Karen squirmed away, and stalked back to the room to harass her brother.

Valerie would see what they’d gotten into in a minute. Until she heard little angry screeches, there was no need to go back there. She was comfortable in the spot she was in.

The next morning, Valerie struggled with preparing to go to the dollctor appointment. Loading the twins into the car was always a bit of a disaster, and today was no different. Darren hid every time. Karen often tried to convince Valley that they needed to bring an unreasonable amount of snacks. Valerie had heard the word ice cream more times in the past half hour than the number of times she’d eaten ice cream in her entire twenty-five-year life.

“If you tell me where Darren is, we can stop for ice cream after the dollctor’s.” Valerie appeased her little Karen.

Karen led Valerie by the index finger toward the bedroom.  The little girldoll certainly understood bribes.

“He’s there.” She told her mom, pointing to the closet.

“Thank you, KareBear.” Valerie gave Karen a small pat on the head.  A pleasant little shriek escaped the girldoll for the praise.

“Darren, honey?” Valerie spoke to the laundry. There was movement in the pile of dirty, and she noticed an unassuming patch of black hair. Valerie crouched to talk to him.

“Darren, my baby, will you come out? We have to go soon.” Valley told him. “We can get ice cream after the dollctor.”

“No.”

“No, you don’t want ice cream?”

“No way.” He reiterated.

“Why not?” Valley asked.

“The doctor might take out all my bones.” Where had he heard such a thing? Why would he think that?

“A dollctor would never do that. They work very hard to make sure you are healthy, and I will be there the whole time.”

“But they might make a mistake.”  Darren sat up in the clothes to look at Valerie.

“Sometimes people do make mistakes, but I won’t let them hurt you, baby.” Darren looked sheepish, and Valley could see the early-life months that he spent in the rescue center on his face. He was distrustful of medical places, and medical people. His dark eyes were narrow, watching her.

“You aren’t going to leave me there?” He asked. A little pang went through Valerie chest. She reached forward and hugged Darren.

“No, my love, I will never leave you. Not ever.” Valerie told him. “They would have to kill me to take me away from you and your sister.”

Darren wrapped his arms around Valley’s neck and let her pick him up.

“And I can have ice cream?” He asked. Valerie giggled some.

“Yes!” Valley answered. Darren buried his little face in his mom’s neck.

“We get ice cream! You said earlier!” Karen exclaimed. “Pick me up too!”

“Karen, I can’t pick you both up. I’ll pick you up when we go get ice cream.”

“Can I get two ice creams?”

“I’ll think about it, KareBear.” Valley told her. “If you get two, then I have to get Darren two also.”

“I like that.” She told her mother. “He doesn’t eat much. I’ll get his extra.”

Karen explained this to her mother as they walked out to the car, while Valley tried to dissuade her from eating three scoops of ice cream. Her counting was exceptional for a doll, but relating the amount of human food to a hurt tummy was less so.

After parking in the small lot for the medical facility, the three of them walked into the Dollctor’s, and Valley sat Karen and Darren in small chairs as she signed them in. The twins were staring wide-eyed around the area, with none of their usual chatter. Valerie was glad that she only had to bring them in once a year. She hated to see them so concerned, tiny eyebrows furrowed with worry. Because she only had two dolldren, and these were her first, she couldn’t be sure whether the chatter and shrieks they usually gave were universal to other dolls, or if it was some specialized twin language.

“My loves, did you save a spot for me?” Valley asked. She picked up Karen and took her space, placing the girldoll on her lap. Darren leaned against her arm, wary.

They were watching a preteen sitting next to her mother. The girl had a pair of headphones hooked up to a phone, and had dressed herself in some black band shirt Valerie didn’t recognize.  The edgy preteen crossed her legs and rolled her eyes at Valley and her dolls.

Karen gave a warning screech- the loud, vibrating kind of sound Valerie only heard when the twins were upset. Valley shushed her girl, holding her tight so she couldn’t attack. It was doubtful that her babydoll could do much real damage, but Karen could pull hair with the best of them. Being largely ineffective wouldn’t stop her KareBear from giving it her all.

The preteen gave a screech back, and Valley felt herself jump in her seat- She wasn’t sure she could believe what she’d just heard.

Humans couldn’t make that noise, but dolls were never that old- they stayed the same physical age perpetually, around two or three. The twins would look like human three-year-olds for the rest of their lives, some twenty years or so. The preteen in the obscure band shirt couldn’t be a doll, so how could she make that sound?

Now Darren was clutching his mother’s sleeve, giving small screeches himself.

The mother reached over to the preteen and smacked her leg.

“Emily, quit teasing them.” The mother scolded.

The preteen scoffed.

“I’m sorry. She doesn’t like coming here.” The mother explained. Her coral print dress and tight bun made Valley think of her as someone who taught middle schoolers, rather than just the mother of one.

Valerie gained her composure as quickly as possible. Years of sales experience had taught her well, before landing the position of assistant manager at a Myst-City tourism boutique. Valerie smiled at the preteen’s mother.

“Mine don’t either. I’ve had to resort to bribery.” Valley told her. The woman in the bun tapped her nose knowingly.

“Concert tickets. Expensive ones, I’ll have you know.” The mother winked, and gestured to herself and her unusually developed doll. “I’m Claire, and this is Emily.”

“I’m Valerie. This is Karen and Darren.” Valley introduced her small family. Darren was watching close.

“Rhyming! Cute-” Claire exclaimed. Perhaps she was in sales as well, Valerie imagined, although some people are just naturally that friendly. The woman continued. “They are precious. Ems, would you like to introduce yourself?”

The preteen took a deep breath and lifted herself up. She came over to Darren and reached out her hand.

Valley murmured encouraging noises to Darren, and he investigated the older doll’s hand.

After deciding Emily was acceptable, Darren jumped off the chair and dragged her to the set of toys that were situated in the corner. Karen turned around a couple of times in my lap, before resettling.

“They’re so cute together.” Claire smiled at the pair, while Valerie watched as well. Karen kept wiggling, trying for Valley’s attention. Valerie touched the girldoll’s hair affectionately, an eye on Darren and his new friend.

“Claire and Emily!” The receptionist called.  “Right this way.”

Emily led Darren by the hand back over to Valerie, while Claire stood. Claire pulled a small card out of her purse, and handed it to Valerie.

“We should schedule a play date. My number’s on there.” Claire explained, before walking with Emily toward the hallway. Valerie nodded, as Karen hugged her neck possessively.  The card was a simple white thing, with just a name and a number.

Claire and preteen doll left, and Valerie was left to handle Karen and Darren. Karen held her mother’s face again, staring her right in the eyes.

“Mom, I don’t like her.” She said.

“Don’t worry, KareBear.” Valley started, holding her little hands. “Everything will be alright. She just has an older one.”

Karen pursed her tiny little lips, her dark eyes trying to bore into Valley’s soul.

“You don’t understand.” She spoke.

“I’m sorry baby. Sometimes I don’t understand.” Valley apologized.

“Ice cream?” Darren suggested. “Ice cream and a hot dog?”

Karen’s face immediately switched to procuring-treats mode.

Valley talked with the both of them about the various attributes of both ice cream and hot dogs before the receptionist called out.

“Darren and Karen!” Valerie stood, leading each of her dolls with a hand to follow the receptionist. “Right this way.”

 

End Part 1.