by Ferrett Steinmetz
Last night’s blizzard had choked the roads, leaving the cabinet factory short-handed for the Friday shift. So Michelle’s boss had called to give her a choice: she could come in for an emergency shift today and keep her job, or she could keep the day off she’d requested to visit her daughter at Shadow Transit, in which case she’d get her ass fired.
“Thank you,” Michelle whispered, glad beyond belief. “I’ll come in. Just…call them for me? Please? I’ll give you the number; they won’t listen to me. Make sure they tell Elizabeth that Mommy’s sorry.”
Jackson made his apologies, saying how he was sure Lizzie was needed wherever she was, but he had quotas to meet. Michelle barely heard him. She felt the giddy relief of a kid hearing that school was cancelled. Her boss had made the choice for her; she didn’t have to play with Lizzie this month and pretend that everything was okay. No three-hour drive out to the Colander. No watching teenaged guards struggling to remember how to pronounce English words. No worrying about what Lizzie had meant for days afterwards. She was free for another month and hated herself only a little for it.
It was going to be hell digging the Pontiac out (she’d be lucky if she could get that rattletrap to start up), but she’d have had to do that anyway to visit Lizzie. She’d been putting it off, not wanting to make the effort, but now she had to get to work.
As she pulled the shovel from the hall closet, she stepped on one of Lizzie’s old Barbie dolls that still littered the floor. It snapped underfoot, a noise that sounded to Michelle like her daughter’s spine snapping.
She knelt down, feeling stupid as the tears rolled down her cheeks, promising God she’d be good if the Barbie was whole. Then she balled her fists; something listened to prayers, but it was sunk deep in the ocean and refused to drown.
The Barbie’s leg had popped free from the torso. Michelle snapped it back into place with quivering hands, then carefully placed the Barbie back, face-down, into its groove in the dusty shag rug. It felt like lowering a body into a grave.
The groove was where Lizzie had dropped the Barbie a year ago, when the Shadow Transit agents had come for her.
Michelle looked over Lizzie’s other toys. Her breath squeezed tight in her throat, but, no, the rest were where Lizzie had left them. Lizzie’s Raggedy Ann still lay in the middle of the living room floor, her wooden blocks in their pseudo-Stonehenge configuration.
But she’d moved a toy. She’d broken the chain.
She’d doomed her daughter.
Michelle blushed with shame. That wasn’t how magic worked; a twelve-year old Shadow Transit agent, stammering glottally as she tried to remember how to form human words, had let that slip. Still, every time Michelle was tempted to tidy up, she couldn’t bring herself to break that fragile web. She still believed that by keeping all the things Lizzie had loved perfectly in place, she kept some mystic gate open to guide her daughter back home.
She wanted her Lizzie back. Even if the way Lizzie played with Barbie dolls now scared her.
The Shadow Transit agent who’d told her about magic had disappeared soon afterwards. Michelle had wondered how that agent’s mother felt when she got the letter explaining how her child had made the ultimate sacrifice for humanity’s safety. The government never told you exactly what happened. It’s not safe to understand their exact missions, they said, and Lizzie had bled enough of the alien waveform into Michelle’s head for her to know that was true. But to not know how your daughter had died?
Michelle imagined two soldiers delivering that manila envelope, imagined wringing the paper in her hands as she wondered whether her daughter had been chewed up by some snarl of extra-dimensional math or had gotten an embolism from a mispronounced syllable or whether she’d just gnawed her wrists open because the Dreamer never stopped broadcasting its cancerous thoughts from under the sea…
Michelle buried her head in her hands. She could keep her job, or she could go to the Colander and exercise her monthly visitation rights. And if Lizzie died before she got out there again, wouldn’t she spend the rest of her life wondering if today’s visit could have made the difference?
She had to go.
She packed a lunch bag of peanut butter sandwiches, trying to figure out how she’d pay the rent, but just as she was considering how to tell Jackson she wouldn’t be in today, he called back. Shadow Transit had informed him that firing Miss McGindy would be an extremely inadvisable action. His voice quavered as he offered her an extra vacation day.
Michelle headed out, afraid of seeing Elizabeth, afraid of not seeing Elizabeth.
The drive out of Denver wasn’t as bad as she’d feared, even though the CD player was on the fritz again, and she had to listen to Christian AM radio the entire time. As she’d expected, the road through the peaks to Shadow Transit wasn’t plowed. She cursed, wondering how she’d make it through the drifts, but then, an army supply truck roared up the road. She tailgated, half-blinded by the plumes of snow it kicked up, letting it break up the snow banks for her.
Michelle suppressed a flush of irritation as she fishtailed up the peak. Shadow Transit wasn’t even really in Colorado, so why’d they make the trip so inhospitable? It was as though they wanted to discourage all visitors, even though the psychologists assured Michelle that she was critical to Elizabeth’s developmental adaptation to the externally-induced linguistic waveforms.
By the time she made it to the gates, her thighs ached from working the clutch. The Colander had no waiting room, just a small, heated shack for the guards, so Efro hiked through the snow to meet her at her car, wearing nothing but a dark trench coat over summer shorts. He was a lean black teenager, waiting with an anesthetized calm as the guards frisked her in the windy parking lot. The guards, hardened military vets, glanced down rather than make eye contact with him.
“Trip all right, Missus McGindy?” he asked, as though being up to his bare calves in snow didn’t bother him at all.
She nodded absently. It should have reassured her, having the same escort four times in a row (they usually degenerated quickly, growing increasingly wild-eyed, until one day, they weren’t there, and no one would answer questions about them), but it just made her want to ask him about puberty. You weren’t supposed to discuss your Shadow Transit kids with the outside world, so the government gave the parents a forum you had to dial up to using a special modem, where everyone’s real names were obscured.
Still, a man called DELTA OCHRE (Michelle’s code name was ARROW PUCE, an ugly name she’d requested to change) had posted that once the kids made it through adolescence, they were safe. Well, comparatively safe—fireman or fisherman odds, anyway. The post had been scrubbed within fifteen minutes, and DELTA OCHRE’s account purged, but Michelle had wondered if the post had been deleted for being true or false.
It’s not like Efro would tell. The parental gate-escorts were infamously closed-mouthed. Would Lizzie live long enough to get her turn activating the Colander? Or was the Colander what eventually drove them mad?
Efro led her into a titanium bowl of a room, laser-etched with distorted holes that seemed to twist in the corners of her eyes—the Colander. “You know the drill,” he said, pricking her finger with a needle and smearing her blood onto an onyx plate screwed into the floor. “I’ll chant. When I give the signal, close your eyes and think a human thought.”
They wouldn’t tell her what a human thought was. Telling you would defeat the purpose, they’d said. You’ll do fine unless you’re not human, in which case, we strongly suggest you tell us before the gate activates.
She swallowed her fear and imagined the scent of Lizzie’s hair, convinced she’d be transported deep undersea, but thoughts of Lizzie were apparently enough.
Efro chanted. Michelle clutched the bag of peanut butter sandwiches, crusts cut off, to her chest. Come the signal, Michelle thought of the way Lizzie had always begged for peanut butter sandwiches at dinner. She squeezed her eyes shut, felt squashed like a tube of toothpaste, and when she opened her eyes, they stood in the Habitrail. Michelle knew the visitors’ section by heart, though she had no clue where it was located. Some of the forum-parents theorized it was on the moon.
But now Michelle looked out of place in a curved children’s playroom in her thick woolen coat, while Efro looked positively comfortable in his shorts.
“Sit down,” Efro said. “Elizabeth’s been waiting all day.”
“A good kind of waiting or a bad kind?” Michelle asked, but Efro had already closed the rounded hobbit-hole door behind him.
Michelle squatted onto a bean-bag chair, sliding uncomfortably on the curved floor. The room was packed with toys, as befitted Shadow Transit’s spectacular funding. As always, Michelle searched for a hard angle anywhere in the room but found only oval cubbyholes, rounded crayons, circular television screens; even the PlayStation’s case had been customized to a flattened sphere.
Its official name was the Shadow Transit Research Center, but its ovoid, windowless rooms made it look like a high-tech hamster cage.
It was cumbersome, but Michelle understood why the Shadow Transit kids were terrified of right angles. When Lizzie had bled signal into her, Michelle had glimpsed our world from the Dreamer’s perspective. She’d realized hard angles were intersections of dimensions and that there were things curled up in every hard edge like a spider; if they noticed you noticing them, they could slither out to drag you back through the angles of time itself.
It sounded as crazy as saying two plus two equals purple. And it was crazy but also true. The rules the Dreamer bled into our universe were dead-real, as arbitrary and unarguable as quantum physics. Trying to pack its concepts into one’s head meant losing other human touchstones.
Michelle clutched the lunch bag to her chest, eyeing the door warily.
What human thoughts had Lizzie lost?
Michelle wasn’t sure how to tell if her daughter was going insane, because kids weren’t stable. She remembered how Lizzie would boldly greet her favorite aunt one day and then hide behind Michelle’s legs the next. Lizzie slept through the night for years without a nightlight, and then suddenly developed a terror of the dark. That was just how kids were; their personalities were fluid like water, ever-changing.
Lizzie had become more serious and regimented since coming here, but wasn’t that what happened when you put a kid in military camp? Lizzie used to love snuggling up with Mommy to watch The Little Mermaid, but now, Lizzie said she didn’t like the way movies lied. Was that okay?
They let her visit only once a month. There would be changes, even if this was just summer camp. But she couldn’t tell what was normal, because none of this was normal.
Michelle winced as the door clacked open. In a way, it’d be easier if Lizzie came in as eye-jittery as the older kids, creeping between spaces. But Lizzie was always so happy, so bright, so eager to play…
Oh, Lord, don’t let her play.
“Mommy!” Lizzie cried happily, her eyes clear and shining, and hurled herself into Michelle’s arms so hard they both tumbled off the beanbag. Michelle buried her face in Lizzie’s brown hair as Lizzie squeezed her tight.
And, for a time, everything was okay.
“You hungry?” Michelle asked, unfolding the crumpled lunch bag. Lizzie still hadn’t let go; she made purring noises as she kept her face buried in Mommy’s shoulder. “I brought peanut butter sandwiches, just the way you like ’em…”
“Yuck,” Lizzie proclaimed, coming up for air long enough to stick her tongue out. “I hate peanut butter.”
That was new. Michelle swallowed back an irrational sadness as she refolded the bag and put it aside. One less certainty in coming here, now.
She struggled with what to say next. Conversation was so difficult; therapists monitored their every word to ensure Michelle minimized her contamination. A simple “What’d you learn this week?” could lose you visiting rights for two months.
“So…what do you like?”
“Mommy!” She squeezed Michelle, adding a little butt-wiggle this time.
“So you just wanna snuggle Mommy? The whole time we’re here?”
“Mrf.” Lizzie burrowed into Michelle’s coat, the same way she’d snuggled beneath the covers on sleepy church mornings. Maybe she’ll just stay this way the whole time, Michelle thought guiltily. That’d be nice.
Except it wouldn’t. Lizzie had fallen asleep in her arms during one visit, and Michelle had been a wreck all that month. She’d lay in bed awake, wondering whether Lizzie’s eagerness to drift off in her arms was evidence of a new form of trauma.
“So…” Michelle started, then paused. Lizzie could volunteer information; it was deemed traumatic to make children keep secrets from their parents, even if said secrets might chip away at the parents’ sanity, but as the guardian, you could never ever ask questions.
The half-answers, though, were dreadful shadows.
She wished Lizzie still liked movies. Movies were safe talk. They wouldn’t let Lizzie watch TV, and the cabinet factory was pretty boring, and what else did you talk about with a kid?
There was only playtime.
“Do you want to?to play, sweetie? Maybe some Uno or dominoes or, or…”
Michelle forced a grin. Her smile was a stiff mask, but Lizzie beamed back.
“Teacher says get ready for claaaaa-aasss!” Lizzie sing-songed.
Michelle did not wince.
Lizzie instructed Michelle to set up all the dolls in the room at little desks, being quite specific about where each doll sat. That was new, the full classroom of teddy bears and weeble-wobbles, not the barking of orders. Lizzie was an obedient child, but in playtime, she became quite bossy.
It’s the natural reaction to a strict teaching environment, ENTANGLE INDIGO had posted. When they get their hands on some power, they want to play with it.
“They never let us just play,” Lizzie beamed, clapping her hands. “Even the video games are just more tests. No, Mommy. No. Giorgio-doll sits by the rail. I told you.”
Michelle put all the dolls in the right places, noting the space cleared for her at the center. Meanwhile, Lizzie had found a stick of red greasepaint. She drew three wavering lines over her left eye and into her forehead.
“I am Mrs. SHATTERED TAUPE,” Lizzie said, standing up straight. “Yes, that is a funny name, but that is the name you will call me. Shattered. Taupe. And if you make fun of my name, you will get the bowl full of stars, and you do not want the bowl full of stars…do you?”
She glared at Michelle, the effect accentuated by her greasepaint scars. Michelle shook her head. She couldn’t ask what the bowl was.
Lizzie nodded once in satisfaction. “Now, we grade you.” She snatched a box of gold sticker-stars and walked around the room, placing the stars on the dolls’ foreheads, sometimes just one star, sometimes four or five.
“Is?is that the bowl of stars?” Michelle asked, hoping the therapists would recognize she was just going along with Lizzie’s playtime. Lizzie whirled on her, mock-angry.
“Words are different things over there, Lizzie!” Elizabeth-teacher said. “Their words are us. They can manipulate us through words. We need to speak their language before it makes our whole world sick. This is why all the little boys and girls are dying to learn this language, and this is why you must not speak unless we tell you to. Say the wrong words, and you twist yourself into the bowl of stars forever!”
The blood drained from Michelle’s face. Lizzie’s scowl loosened into sadness. “But we love little girls at Shadow Transit, and Elizabeth is new, so Elizabeth just gets a time-out. Is that okay? A time-out?”
Lizzie searched her mother’s expression, fretting. Michelle remembered to nod. Lizzie smiled.
“Time-out for little girls,” she repeated and knelt down to sticker a baby doll’s head with five stars, ten stars, a sheet full of gold stars, until the head was wrapped in a glittering disco ball.
“These,” Elizabeth-teacher said, flattening three stars against Michelle’s forehead, “Are ’Ceptor-genes. You don’t want too many. Three is baby-bear just right.”
Lizzie picked up a single Barbie with no stars, tossed her off to one side, face-down.
“That one has no stars,” Michelle said. “Is she safe?”
Lizzie gave her a mischievous look. “Noooooooo.” She shook her head as she drew the word out like taffy, then tittered. “She’s in terrible danger. But she doesn’t know.”
“We must protect her. Right?”
Lizzie nodded absently. “Okay! Teacher-time!”
“Is my time-out up?”
“Stray words kill! Always raise your hand!” Michelle obediently raised her hand. “Yes, Elizabeth, your time-out is over. And since you are a good girl with only three ’Ceptor-genes, you may try to draw a gliff.”
Lizzie climbed on a stool to tug a Dora the Explorer backpack over Michelle’s head, then thrust a magic marker into her hand. “Now you can see Dreamer. Draw.”
“Don’t look at Dreamer!” Elizabeth-teacher yelled. “Just listen. But not too much! Just hear whispers, the whispers will make your brain twist a little, then outline the twist. It’s like coloring books in your mind.”
Michelle scribbled on the paper, crying. She’d glimpsed the Dreamer just once, when Lizzie had woken up shrieking, broadcasting signal and filling Michelle’s head full of visions, so full she needed triple-doses of sleeping pills to get through the night.
Because when she slept without the drugs, Michelle remembered a thing the size of a continent with a face like a waterfall of slime, curled up in a space that shouldn’t exist under an oceanic shelf, twitching as it slowly wakened, and underneath it, churned millions of things, like bubbles in the bottom of a soda glass, each such a violation of three-dimensional space that it made Michelle want to slit her wrists rather than acknowledge them, each ready to rise hungrily when the Dreamer awoke.
The next day, Shadow Transit had arrived unbidden to take Elizabeth. That was their job, they explained. The Dreamer would wake soon, sure as Satan. They needed anyone who could understand its visions to help fight it. And half-terrified of the Dreamer, half-terrified of Lizzie, Michelle had transferred her custodial rights to Shadow Transit.
Elizabeth-teacher whipped off the backpack. Michelle’s purple-crayoned scribble lay lifelessly on the desk. But Lizzie brandished something she’d drawn on a sheet of butcher’s paper, a twisted star that flickered between states like an optical illusion. The paper crumpled and flexed as the sharp-edged sigil in the center struggled to pull itself free…
“You made something new!” Elizabeth-teacher yelled. “What does it do?!”
“I?I don’t know…”
“Nobody does!” Lizzie yelled, holding the paper high in exultation, running around the room. “But it’s new! A discovery!” She grabbed the doll with the gold-starred head, popped the head off at the shoulders with a cry of “BOOM!” and flung it into the corner. She found the dolls with more than four stars, yanked their heads off, flung them all into the corner. Then she got a tablecloth and placed it solemnly over the heads.
“Nobody knows what it means,” Elizabeth-teacher said, shoving the squirming insignia into Michelle’s face. “Not even the smartest doctors. Do not turn your head away! No, you must look at it and look at it and look at it, until either your dolly-head goes boom or you can tell us how to use it. Otherwise?”
She stomped on the face-down Barbie. Pink plastic limbs flew like shrapnel.
Michelle sobbed. Lizzie slashed three lines through the sigil; it stopped twitching. Lizzie crumpled the paper, then crawled into Michelle’s lap. “It’s okay, Mommy,” she pled. “It’s just playtime.”
Michelle wanted to ask how close this playtime was to reality, but she couldn’t. Shadow Transit was watching.
Lizzie’s concerned look deepened. “It’s just play, Mommy,” she said, wiping away her mother’s tears. “We’re learning to speak it. That’s how you got here; the gate’s made of un-words. My head’s made of un-words.”
Michelle scratched at the tears on her cheeks, feeling the throbbing ache of I’m a terrible mother, I’m a terrible mother. Comfort shouldn’t flow from child to parent. Maybe she could be a good mommy if she could just stay, just follow Elizabeth in class, but even then, there was so much at stake.
Lizzie wrapped her arms around Michelle’s neck. “No more playtime for Mommy,” she whispered, and Michelle sensed a mournful loss in her daughter’s voice, the same loss Michelle had felt when she’d realized there would be no more peanut butter sandwiches.
She was unable to cope, so her little girl was growing to fill the void. Maybe that was why all children grew up.
“We can watch a movie,” Lizzie suggested.
They put on The Little Mermaid, which had too many tentacles now for Michelle’s liking. And during the climactic scene, when Prince Eric drives his ship’s prow into Ursula’s belly, and the music swells, Lizzie whispered a helpful secret in Mommy’s ear.
It was exhausting, trying not to think about what Lizzie had told her, so Michelle stopped for coffee on the way home. The lights at the truck stop seemed too bright; the people moved too fast, but she couldn’t bear to be alone.
She looked at the waitresses and the truckers in the booth texting their loved ones and the weary mothers towing squalling children through tire-tracked snow. So many people.
They kept a wary distance from Michelle, because Lizzie’s gold stars were still on her forehead. She hadn’t taken them off. Because she knew.
Michelle kept thinking of what Lizzie had whispered in her ear. Lizzie had sounded cheerful. But Michelle couldn’t ask. So, as always, she assembled the shadows of Lizzie’s playtime into a shape as hard to look at as Lizzie’s sigil.
It’ll be over by summer, Mommy, Lizzie had whispered. He wakes in March.
Lizzie had sounded hopeful, even excited. The sound of a child who’d been told that it would be a thrilling fight they could win. And who knew? Maybe they could.
But Michelle looked at all the people in the truck stop, their foreheads bare of gold stars, then thought of rising creatures, twisted angles, and face-down Barbies snapping.