Archive for the ‘Free Fiction Friday’ Category

I’m in the middle of writing a novel about a teenage girl in an extremely patriarchal society who decides to become a knight, then ends up forming an odd kind of bond with the dragon she sets out to kill. Tentative title is: Damsel Knight.

Or in other words, I’m playing with this great new toy and won’t have time to make any smaller toys for a while. I’m 57 thousand words in and still going strong. Estimating another 30 thousand words, but we’ll see.

That should tie me up for at least another month, and after I’m planning to sit down and write out the next stories in the Crystal Wolves series. I’m leaving the last two short stories up until I decide what to do next. Let me know what you want me to do.  Do you want me to recycle the last ten or so short stories? Or would you prefer to see something different? Insights into the writing process? Something I haven’t thought of yet?

Name away and I’ll consider it.

The reviews will continue to come every Wednesday. I’ve already read enough books to last a good few months yet! And since my goal this year is to read 86 books (one more than my achievement last year), I should have no problem keeping up with that.

I’m also thinking of doing something related to disability and representation of that and other minorities in media and books. Not sure on the details or time-frame yet. Any interest in something like that?

Ok, enough procrastination. Back to writing.

“Please, please, please come trick or treating with me?” Akina asks, putting on her best puppy dog eyes. She leans closer to her sister, hands clasped together over the giant ‘S’ of her superman costume. “We do it every year. We can’t stop now. It’s a tradition, who knows what bad voodoo fallout could happen.”

Sesi shakes her head, causing her tightly wound brown curls to sway lightly. Her hands are folded perfectly in her lap, her back a straight line. Seeing her so poised in the somber black dress she always wears, it’s hard to remember they’re identical twins. Where Akina’s eyes are a bright dancing honey, Sesi’s are dull and unfocused. Akina’s skin is a rich brown, while Sesi’s has a sickly, almost gray tint.

“Sesi,” Akina whines, flopping onto her back on her sister’s bed. The mattress barely notices her weight. “You haven’t left the house in months! It’s SO boring! It’s like you’re ninety years old, not nine!”

“You can still go out,” Sesi says, though her brow furrows in worry. She doesn’t move from her spot, perched at the end of her bed, staring out the small window.

“Hardly anyone talks to me anymore since last year,” Akina says. She stares up at the ceiling, and the line of paint that cuts it in two; one side pink with dancing princesses, and the other blue with sparring superheroes. The line travels down the walls to a large carpet with marbled patterns of pink and blue.

Sesi always hated the compromise. So Akina’s always surprised when another day after moving out goes by and her sister doesn’t try to paint over the blue with pink.

“If I go out they’ll get me,” Sesi says, her fingers clutching the duvet so tight her knuckles shine white. “They lie in wait, in shadows, behind doors.”

Akina huffs a sigh. She has no clue who the mysterious ‘they’ are, she doubts her sister knows either. All she knows is there are only so many board games you can play before you start losing it. She wants out. She needs out. “We had a deal. I don’t upset Mum and Dad by moving things. You lose the fruit loop act and quit making them worry. Staying in on Halloween night is totally fruit loops!”

Sesi hunches her shoulders, looking away from the window, where fading sunlight accompanies the shrieks and laughter of children on the street below. “I heard they poison the candy.”

“Whoever told you that is an idiot,” Akina says, rolling her eyes. “Are you seriously telling me that if I brought you some Halloween candy you wouldn’t wolf that stuff down?”

Sesi looks down at her white socks and says nothing.

“Right. I thought so,” Akina sits up on the bed and grins at her sister. “So come on then. Let’s go. I’ll knock on all the doors. You just stand there and look cute.”

“What if they get you?” Sesi asks, her voice barely above a whisper.

“They can’t get me,” Akina gestures to the ‘S’ on her superman costume. “I’m invincible, remember?”

Sesi glances from her socks to the window, her expression pained. “You fill a bucket and I’ll go out.”

Akina frowns. “How full?”

“All the way to the top.”

“You’re kidding me, right?” Akina asks, almost falling off the bed. It had been the goal of the two girls to fill the giant orange trick or treat buckets their father had given them every year. They never managed it. The bucket was too big, and the streets of their village too small. “That’s a cop out. You just don’t want to go.”

“You fill one bucket all the way to the top, and I’ll go outside, knock on a door and say trick or treat if someone opens it.” There’s a steely look in her eyes that speaks of determination.

Akina hesitates. It’s tempting. Sesi hasn’t stepped outside the house in months. Anything to stop her twin sister turning into Mrs Dulce – the old lady with all the cats – is a good idea. Except for the little detail about it being impossible.

“How about half a bucket?” Akina asks. Half a bucket was hard, but not impossible on a good Halloween.

“Whole bucket or no deal,” Sesi says simply. “Or are you too chicken to take on the challenge?”

Oooo…low blow. There’s nothing Akina likes more than a good challenge. There was a time when she would’ve leapt at the taunt, eager to prove she wasn’t a chicken. She likes to think she’s matured over the past year.

“You’re on,” her voice says before her mind can react. So maybe she’s still got a bit of maturing still to go.

***

Akina slips on the white sheet her sister used as a ghost costume last Halloween. The superman costume is nice and all, but she wears it every day. She needs something a little different, something that will get her noticed.

Giant orange bucket in hand, she clambers down the drainpipe. Their parents are downstairs, ready to greet the trick or treaters with none of their usual enthusiasm. Part of the no moving things rule makes opening any of the downstairs doors with them around a no no, let alone trying to creep past them carrying an orange bucket and dressed in a sheet.

Once on the ground, she moves off the front yard, onto the pavement. The house looks downright depressing, and not in the good Halloween way. Last year they’d strung up orange and black lights, hung bats around the door, and a witch on a broomstick from the window. Four hand carved pumpkins had leered from the driveway, and Mum and Dad answered the door dressed as Mr and Mrs Frankenstein (Frankenstein’s monster, Dad had corrected her), speaking in nothing but moans.

The year before that they’d been vampires, and the year before that, werewolves. Every year the decorations were pulled out, and the makeup and fake blood splattered on. They’d bake cookies, then sit and watch horror movies neither of the girls were allowed to watch any other time, and wait for it to get really dark before they went trick or treating.

This year – nothing. Not one light hung from their plain house. Inside perfectly normal parents sit in front of perfectly normal television, waiting to hand out perfectly normal candy.

BORING! She sticks out her tongue at the house from under the sheet. While they’re in there moping, she is going to have some fun!

She eyes up the kids running back and forth along the rows of houses, arms full of candy. If she’s going to stop her sister growing up to collect more cats than sense, she needs to consider tactics.

Step one: start the trick or treating early. Get in there before all the good candy goes.

Step two: look cute. Not the easiest thing to pull off wearing a sheet, but luckily she’s not an amateur. She pulls the tattered teddy bear out of the bucket, holding its paw in one sheet wrapped hand. Making her walk a little unsteady, she attaches herself to a small group of twelve year olds dressed as zombies. Their gory makeup looks so fake it’s laughable.

The next front door they go to opens up to see her standing small against the older children. She holds up the orange bucket, the words ‘CANDY PLESE,’ written in barely legible crayon.

The older woman’s fixed on smile drifts past the other children and settles on her. She beams. “Well aren’t you just the cutest thing,” the woman says, before giving her twice as many pieces of candy as the older children.

Once the door closes the twelve year olds glare at her. She smiles at them from under the sheet and moves away to hide most of the candy in the backpack under her sheet. It’s simple psychology. The adults see a little kid with barely anything in her bucket, they’re going to feel more generous than if it’s got loads in.

With only a few pieces of candy looking awfully lonely at the bottom of the large bucket, she moves to the next house, keeping her eyes out for another group of older kids to tag along with.

A deep satisfaction spreads over her. She’s got this thing down.

An hour later and she’s not so sure. She’s hit every house they’d usually hit on Halloween, and when she measures out her loot, the bucket’s only half full. She sits on the pavement, staring at it, and seeing her sister spending another day, another week, another month hiding away in their house. Mum and Dad aren’t in good shape to look out for her, so she has to do it. And she’s not going to let her down.

She gets to her feet and shoves most of the candy back in her backpack. Darkness wraps around her and the other children, illuminated by creepy Halloween decorations in the lines of houses.

The way she sees it, she has two choices. Either she walks along the winding country roads to the next village, which would take way too much time, or she tries something that scares even her.

***

Akina stands on the pavement outside the plain looking house. A small enclosure of green separates it from the houses next to it. Children circle around it to get to its neighbors, giving it a wide berth. Apart from the lack of decorations, there are no signs to tell you this building is different from any of the others, but all the children know that’s not true.

There are four blacklisted houses in the village. Places not even the bravest children go to on Halloween. This is one of them.

Steeling herself, she walks up the path. A few children stop to stare at her, then rush past, muttering.

Mr Jacobs is his name. Akina only knows that because her father caught her and Sesi talking about him with one of the other kids from the neighborhood. He said they should know better than to spread gossip about someone just because they were different. What if it were someone talking about us behind our back because of our skin color?

Akina doesn’t think that’s a very good argument. It’s one thing to have dark skin and frizzy hair in a neighborhood where everyone has pale skin and straight hair. It’s another to be a mean old man who scares little kids and buried his own wife in the backyard. Kelly Dawson told her that, and her Mum is a lawyer, so it must be true.

The curtains shift, and one beady eye pokes out at her. It takes everything she has to keep going.

The front garden is overgrown, and as she gets closer to the front door it gets more and more difficult to tell where the path is. Her mind spins around to Mr Jacob’s dead wife. He wouldn’t have buried her in the front yard, would he? Nausea floods over her as her mind conjures up images of Mrs Jacobs reaching up a rotted hand through the long grass, grabbing her ankle and dragging her down to where she can’t see her family anymore, and can’t look out for Sesi.

The front door swings open with a bang.

She’s seen Mr Jacobs only rarely, a crooked figure with great bushy eyebrows set in a permanent scowl. “Get off my lawn!” He yells, waving a long wooden cane at her. She’s heard stories about that cane. Ryan Jessup swore Mr Jacobs, who most children only know as ‘that crazy old man,’ beat him half to death with it after his ball went into the man’s front yard.

Akina backs up until she feels the stone slabs beneath her feet, then stands her ground. She holds up the bucket, trying to keep her arms from shaking.

Mr Jacobs stares at her for a long while, his jaw working as if wondering what insult to yell at her. Then he wanders back into the dark cavern of the house, leaving the door open behind him. He appears a few minutes later and throws something at her.

She scurries back a few steps, wondering what kind of weapon he’s trying to hit her with. Her Dad said he’d been in the war. Her muscles tense as she thinks of a grenade heading her way. Sure, she’s invincible, but that doesn’t stop her being scared.

The object clicks on a paving stone, then rolls to a stop. It’s a pack of extra strong mints.

“Bunch of freeloaders,” Mr Jacobs says, scowling at her. He disappears back inside the house, slamming the door behind him before she can say thank you.

Akina scampers forward and picks up the mints. She takes care to stick to the bits of paving stone she can see. One down, who knows how many more pieces of candy to go.

***

Johnson brother’s mechanics is more of a scrap yard than anything else. Some of the kids sneak in though they’re not supposed to. It is awfully tempting. The thin mesh of wire surrounding the yard is rusted completely through in places. Not anything gaping, but enough for a small determined kid to squeeze through.

This time Akina uses the front gate – not that she’s admitting to there being any other times.

A light shines from the front building – a rectangular hut with walls that look about as thick as cardboard. She heads toward the wooden steps, bucket in one sheet covered hand, and bear in another. Her arms try not to tremble.

Suddenly she hears it – the reason why this place is blacklisted. A shrill barking erupts out of the darkness. It sounds angry.

It’s too late to head back to the gate. The hut is closer, but when she tries to move her feet stay frozen in place. She stumbles backward as sharp teeth flash in the shadows, and something warm and solid barrels toward her.

‘I’m invincible,’ she reminds herself, squeezing her eyes shut. ‘I’m invincible.’

A sharp tug pulls the teddy bear out of her hand. She opens her eyes, shocked to see the dog growling and shaking the toy from side to side.

“Hey!” She yells, anger drowning out fear. She grabs the bear, and the dog seems to take this as an invitation to play tug of war. Its tail wags. Akina gets the impression rumors about this dog were greatly exaggerated.

“Ripper! Leave!” Says a booming voice from the top of the stairs to the hut.

The dog drops the toy so fast, Akina has to pinwheel her arms in order to not fall down. Her eyes look up toward the voice. It’s one of the Johnson brothers. Akina never bothered to learn which was which. He stands at the top of the stairs, leaning against the wooden railing. The light from the open door behind him accents his round figure.

“Well I’ll be,” he says staring down at her. “Steve! Get the candy! We got ourselves a trick or treater!”

“Kidding me, right?” Shouts a voice from inside. “Someone actually braved the pooch?”

The man at the top of the stairs grins down at her. “He’s just cranky because now he can’t eat it all himself.”

***

Two thirds of a bucket full, only one house to go.

Mrs Dulce lives on the edge of the village in a little cottage that reminds Akina of something from a fairy tale. Sesi once said she wanted to live in a place just like it when she’s older. Akina hopes she means without the two dozen cats.

She walks through the gleaming picket fence, all her nerves on edge. Several gnomes stare at her from the perfectly tended grass. The house itself is candy floss pink with baby blue window frames and door. It’s way too perfect.

Sesi says it reminds her of the little cottage the dwarfs own in snow white. Akina thinks more along the lines of the gingerbread house owned by the cannibalistic witch in Hansel and Gretal.

She hesitates a moment, then knocks. It’s not like she’s got any choice. There’s only one more blacklisted house, and that’s one she can’t go to. Not yet.

The door springs open as if Mrs Dulce were lurking behind the door, waiting for the moment her fist made contact with the wood. Akina jumps backward, wary. The kids say Mrs Dulce is a witch. That’s why she lives way out here away from everyone with her many cats.

What she sees is nothing like she expected. Mrs Dulce smiles down at her, and her blue eyes sparkle like she’s genuinely pleased to see her. She’s tall, with a doughy face and wide figure.

“Oh my goodness. I wasn’t expecting visitors. This is a pleasant surprise.” The woman adjusts her glasses and peers down at her through them. “And aren’t you just adorable. I haven’t had a trick or treater come way out here in years. Come in come in. You’re just in time.・

Akina hesitates in the doorway. She peers down the narrow hallway the woman disappeared down. A cat passes and stares at her, seeming unimpressed by what it sees. It stalks away, fluffy tail held high.

The woman leans back to look through the door at the other end of the hallway. Her plump face wrinkles with confusion as she fiddles with the ties on her pink fluffy apron. “No need to be so polite dear. Come in and make yourself at home.”

Curiosity gets the best of her, and she takes one cautious step after another down the hallway. The room at the end opens out into a large kitchen. Akina stares at oven, trying to figure out if you could fit a child in there.

She scans the room cautiously, finding no obvious child cages, or cauldrons, or giant dusty book of magic spells. What she does see are a lot of cats, and on a small coffee table by a window, dozens of cookies.

Mrs Dulce walks over to the coffee table, a cooling rack full of brownies in her hands. She sets them down on a cheerful looking plate with a cartoon cat on it. “Fresh out the oven,” she says with a bright smile. “Please. Help yourself. I do love baking, but I always make too much for me to eat. You’d be doing me a favor taking some of these out of my hands.”

The next hour is spent listening to Mrs Dulce as she talks about her late husband and how he loved her cooking. Akina feigns interest, looking through the sheet at pictures of the seven children who have grown and left home, and doesn’t have to feign interest when the topic turns to Mrs Dulce’s time as a pilot for the RAF.

Every now and again she takes a brownie or a cookie and brings it under the sheet, pretending to eat it, while really tucking it away in her bag.

“Well,” Mrs Dulce says, glancing at the clock. “I’d best let you get off home. Let me wrap up some of these for you to take back to your parents.”

Some turns out to be almost all of them, and Akina ends up staggering away with half the giant bucket full.

Mrs Dulce waves at her from her front gate. “It was wonderful talking to you,” she calls after her. “Please come back soon.”

‘I will,’ Akina decides. She’s a pretty neat old lady, and definitely not a witch.

***

Akina walks toward her house with a skip in her step. She’s done it. With the half a bucket full of brownies and cookies, and the candy in her bag, she’s got enough to fill the whole bucket all the way to the top.

Sesi has to leave the house now. And she knows exactly which door she’s going to get her to knock on.

There are no lights along the country road between Mrs Dulce’s house and the rest of the village. It curls and winds like a snake. That’s why she thinks the car doesn’t see her.

It hurtles out of the dark like a demon, the headlights blinding her. She’s well over on the side of the road, but it catches the bucket with a solid bang and sends orange plastic and cellophane wrapped brownies and cookies everywhere.

It doesn’t even slow down.

Akina stares after the bend in the road where it disappeared, taking a moment to realize her sheet had been ripped off as it passed. She pats her hands over her superman costume, checking she’s all in one piece. She’s only been invincible a year, so it doesn’t hurt to check.

She finds the bucket on the other side of the road in a hedge. There’s a giant hole in the side and only three lonely looking brownies at the bottom. A search finds four more salvageable brownies, two cookies, and her sheet.

Pulling the sheet back on, she sighs and heads for home.

***

“So I did have a full bucket,” Akina says, tossing the sheet on Sesi’s bed. “But then some idiot decided to take up the whole road. Look what he did to my bucket! And all those cookies! It’s a tragedy worse than that sappy film you stayed up late to watch, the one where they talk funny.”

“Romeo and Juliet?” Sesi asks, picking up the bucket to peer through the hole. “I thought you hated that film?”

“I do,” Akina says. “That’s why I called it a tragedy. Now are you going to hold up your end of the bargain?”

“Measure it out,” Sesi says, her face impassive.

Akina drops to the floor, clutching the bag. “But I just explained,” she says, her voice a high pitched whine.

Sesi opens up the pink floor to ceiling wardrobe on her side of the room. She digs around, then takes out an intact orange bucket. “Measure,” she says, dropping it in front of Akina.

Grumbling, Akina empties the candy and cookies into the bucket. It comes up to just over two thirds full. Not enough. Her shoulders slump. All that work for nothing. “You need this Sesi,” she says quietly. “You can’t go around scared for the rest of your life.”

Sesi crouches down, sifting through the candy. Her hands shake.

“Do you really want another year of being scared?” Akina asks. “This ‘they’ you’re so frightened of – maybe they aren’t as scary as you think they are.”

Sesi doesn’t look at her, keeping her honey colored eyes fixed on the bucket. She takes a deep breath. “OK.”

Akina rocks back on her heels. Surprise jolts through her. “OK? Really OK?”

“Yeah,” Sesi says, her voice small and wet. “I’m ready.”

***

They walk to the last blacklisted house hand in hand. Neither of them wear a costume, Akina in the superman costume she wears every day, and Sesi in a black dress. The intact orange bucket dangles in Sesi’s other arm, still filled up with candy.

No tricks this time. That’s not the point of this.

At a distance the house looks like any other in its row. It’s faceless. Four windows, one door, boring white paint.

Then they get closer.

‘Murderer,’ stands out in bright red spray paint across one of the downstairs windows. A pumpkin lies in smashed pieces along the garden path. Egg and shell stick to the door and windows.

“Don’t let go,” Sesi says, her voice pleading.

Akina grips her hand tighter. “I won’t.”

Sesi stands in front of the door, brow creased with the effort of getting her breathing to calm down. Then she knocks, at first with hesitation, then more firmly.

After two beats the door cracks open.

Sesi lifts her orange bucket. “Trick or treat.”

The woman drops to her knees like she’s been shot. Tears pour out of red rimmed eyes and down irritated cheeks. Her face is swollen and blotchy, and her hair harried. “I’m sorry,” she gasps between sobs.

Sesi’s eyes soften, and for the first time in a long time, Akina sees a expression other than fear settle on her sister’s face. “It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t kill her.”

“I didn’t know he’d -” the woman shakes her head, tears scattering with the movement. “He was sick. I know that won’t make it better. Some boys, they attacked him, and he started getting scared all the time. When your sister knocked on the door he panicked. He got the gun, and it went off, and your sister was on the other side. He didn’t mean to. He was just trying to protect us.” She waves a hand behind her, and Akina sees a little boy around Sesi’s age peering at them from around a doorway.

“He’s getting better,” he says, clinging to the door frame. The scowl on his face is defensive, but his voice is hopeful.

“Yes. He’s being treated now. He’s getting better,” the woman says, wiping her face. “I just wanted you to know. I don’t know if anyone explained why he did what he did. That it was an accident and won’t happen again. I don’t want you to think he’s some kind of monster.”

By the stiff set to Sesi’s shoulders, Akina guesses that was exactly what she thought. Hopefully now she won’t. Hopefully now there’ll be one less ‘they’ in the world to scare her.

“I’m betting you want some candy,” the woman says, pushing herself to her feet. She dabs at her eyes self-consciously. “We haven’t had many trick or treaters this year, so there’s a lot left over.”

The boy moves toward the front door slowly. When he sees the bucket his jaw drops. “You’ve got a lot of candy.”

Sesi gives him a shy smile. “Want to trade some?”

***

Akina helps her carry the full bucket home, being careful to make it seem like Sesi’s doing all the work. Without the sheet, no one can see her except Sesi. Given how proud she is of her sister right now, she’s not sure that’s a bad thing.

“What?” Sesi asks, brow creasing with worry. “Why are you staring?”

Akina tilts her head and shoots her a smile. “Just thinking. I don’t think I’d mind it if you became a cat lady. They aren’t as bad as I thought they were.”

“I’m not some mindless robot,” I say, trying to hold my temper in check. “This choice will decide the rest of my life. I should be the one to make it, not you. Art is my passion. Nothing else will make me as happy as that will.”

“Art won’t pay the bills,” my mother says, her nose held high. I love her, really I do. I love both my parents, but that doesn’t stop me hating them right now. “Now science, or business, they’re still recruiting people like that. Choose one of those. Something that will let you make something of yourself.”

My father nods from where he stands at the kitchen counter, chopping vegetables on an honest to God old fashioned chopping board that looks out of place on the shining counter. The kitchen helper buzzes about on the surface of the counter, looking as confused as it always does when my father does this old school act. “World’s a different place now Adam. Used to be there were all kinds of jobs. Now we’ve got automatic cooks, cleaners, waiters, I even hear they’ve got machines performing surgery now. Sure they say it’s all there for our good, and it would be if they got off their asses and decided on another solution than sitting back and letting thousands of people fight over a few hundred jobs. You know, I read the paper the other day, and they were asking for a PhD for an entry level clerk job. A goddamn PhD, can you believe that?”

I shake my head mutely. It’s not good to say much when my father starts on one of his rants. It only encourages him. What little interest I had in the economy died a long time ago, back in the first few weeks after my father’s company laid off all its workers and replaced them with robots.

“We didn’t raise you to be some vagrant,” my mother says, tapping absentmindedly on the kitchen table, its surface just as gleaming as the counter. A web page opens up, and she expands it and clicks onto her emails. “How about being an electrician? I hear they still make a pretty penny.”

My father raises the knife, and the kitchen helper takes advantage of his distraction by gathering up the already chopped vegetables into a bowl it carries on its back. It buzzes happily as it scoops. “She’s got a point. If you want to go where the money is, then look at the jobs that won’t go away, not for a while at least. Machines need maintaining, designing and selling. Though thinking on it, the selling part’s been taken over a lot lately too. How about looking into designing robots? A lot of art in there I’d expect.”

“Or something stable. Medicine or police work. I can’t imagine they’ll be doing without police officers anytime soon.” My mother presses her lips together right. “Not with all this awful crime.”

“Careful there,” my father says, shooing away the kitchen helper with a hand. “Terrible pay, and they don’t recruit much. Did you know that most low ranking police officers are volunteers now? We need the bastards, but no one wants to pay for them.”

I don’t want to be a police officer. I don’t want to be an electrician. All I want to do is draw, paint and create for the rest of my life. Nothing else will make me happy. “Billy’s parents are letting him study drama.”

“Billy’s parents can afford to have him living on their couch the rest of their lives,” my mother says, typing away at a new email. “We don’t have that kind of money.”

My father’s head droops lower, like it usually does when the topic of money comes up. He returns to chopping up the rest of the vegetables.

It’s a lie though. Even without my father earning a wage, my mother’s job alone brings in more than enough to pay for our decked out home in the country, and her compulsion to have the latest gadgets. I don’t remember her job title, something in software development. Whatever it is, we never want for money when it’s something they want. Expensive robot, cruise holiday, study books, no problem. Art supplies, no chance.

“You could be worrying over nothing,” I say, trying to be reasonable, ignoring how my blood starts to simmer in my veins. “I could graduate and get a job straight away. Isn’t it important that I try? This is my dream. I’ve never wanted anything more in my life.”

“You say that like you’ve lived more than seventeen years of it,” my father says, watching with a bemused expression as the kitchen helper tips the bowl of vegetables into a preheated wok. “Trust us on this son. We’ve got your best interests in mind.”

Simmering blood spills over into boiling. “What you’ve got is your best interests in mind.”

My mother finally looks up from the dining table. The looks she gives me seems designed to freeze my insides rock solid. “There’s no need for that.”

“You’re not listening to me,” I snap. Anger floods over me in hot and cold waves. “I want this. I need this. What if I died tomorrow? Then how would you feel about forcing me to study something I don’t love?”

My mother shakes her head. “Stop being dramatic. Go to your room and calm down.”

“It’s always like this,” i say, wanting them to listen, wanting them to see. “I dare to voice an opinion slightly outside your own and you act like I’ve broken some sacred law. I’m a human being, not some kind of robot. You can’t expect to give me orders and have me jump to complete them the rest of my life. It’s my life. I should decide how I want to run it.”

“Room Adam,” she says, pointing a shimmering finger nail at the door. “NOW!”

I turn to leave, but not before deciding one thing. I’ve going to make them pay. I’ve going to make them regret treating me like this.

***

I feel ten years old again, sitting on the dusty floor of the tree house me and my father built long ago. Except, back then it was something to play in on warm summer days, maybe an occasional sleep over on a nice night, not six days and nights cramped in a box of rotting wood that leaks when it rains. The sound of scrambling on the tree trunk below is a welcome distraction from the four walls, but I don’t look up from the sketch I’m drawing.

It’s of my father, me and Billy, heaving boards of wood as we built this place. My mother stands at the bottom of the tree, a dubious smile on her face. She’d wanted to get one of those ready made tree houses that pretty much build themselves. But my father wanted to do the whole thing by hand. ‘It’ll teach the boy a lesson in life,’ he’d said, and it had. Watching this tree house take form under our hands is the best memory of my life. Every day before we’d start work, I’d draw our progress so far, wanting to document its construction. I think it’s one of the things that got me hooked on art in the first place.

The trap door next to my feet creaks open. A tingling mixture of dread and hope spreads through me before Billy’s head pokes through the opening. I sag with relief and disappointment. My parents haven’t found me yet, but they also haven’t thought to look here.

I know it’s juvenile hiding in a tree house barely an acre from my house. I know that. But me and Billy used to play here all the time as kids, and something in me wants to go back to that. Kids are allowed to dress up and play pretend, to draw as much as they like. No one talks about dusty old careers and making life choices designed to kill you slowly from your soul to your body. The older I get, the more I want to be a kid again. And part of me thinks my parents should realizes that, because then they’d know exactly where to look for me.

Billy gives me a grin, his bright eyes twinkling from under a blond mop of hair, and drags his considerable weight up into the tree house. He huffs and slams the trap door closed, before dropping his backpack on top of it.

I rock back and forth in anticipation. “What’d you bring me?”

Billy kneels down and starts pulling out the contents of the bag. He’s surprisingly agile for a guy his weight. People assume just because he’s big he’ll be this clumsy dumb thing, but that’s as far from the truth as it can get. I’ve seen him at some of his gymnastics competitions, and let me tell you, the guy’s a ninja when he gets going. More than that, he’s a good friend.

He places a box of bright colorful donuts on the floor, tops it with a bag of fish and chips and multiple Chinese takeout containers. A bottle of cherry fizzy drink is placed next to it, and then he finishes his performance by upending the bag and tossing out several packets of crisps and chocolate. Scratch that. He’s a very good friend.

“I also got the book you asked for,” he says, holding it out to me.

I take it, breathing in that musty book smell, running my fingers over the pages. A real honest to God paper book. I like reading on a interface as much as the next guy, but there’s something reassuring about having the whole book right there in your hands. It’s like you could drop off the ends of the earth, into some distant place where they don’t have electricity, and you don’t have to worry about where your next charge comes from because you have all you need right there.

“Have I ever told you how awesome you are?” I say, setting down the book next to my sketchpad.

“Not enough,” he says, settling on the floorboards. He takes in the room, eyes sweeping over the thin plastic window, the rags for curtains, my pile of sleeping bag and blankets, and the various buckets filled with water from last nights rain storm. “I’d bring a tarp to cover the roof, but given you don’t want your parents knowing you’re in here.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I shrug. “That portable heater you brought works well enough.”

“Yeah,” he nods, frowning. I’ve gotten plenty of frowns from Billy since I told him my plan to make my parents worry. To make them regret taking me for granted, and put things in perspective enough for them to start taking my opinions seriously. I don’t think he understands. His own parents are all about free choice and following your dreams. They’d never stand in the way of something he really wanted.

“I went to your house today,” he says hesitantly. “Your parents still say you’re visiting relatives for a few days, but they said you’re coming back tomorrow.”

I lean back against the wall behind me. “And still no police?”

“Not a one,” Billy says, opening up one of the packets of crisps. “You’d think if they called them, they’d come to talk to me. Everyone at school knows we’re tight. But nothing. Seems a bit weird if you ask me.”

I nod my agreement. Seems very weird. A pang of fear runs through me as I wonder if they’ve given up on me, but no, they can’t have done. I’m their only son. We may have grown distant lately, but I love them, and they must love me. When I woke up after almost breaking my neck falling out of this tree house as a child, they’d been so happy they had tears in their eyes. They’d stuck with me through that and all the medical procedures that followed.

That kind of love can’t be washed away by a couple of disagreements.

“Did they seem upset at all?” I ask, my heart clenching.

“’Course,” he says, sounding offended that a parent wouldn’t be upset when their child was missing. “I mean less today, but maybe they’ve got in their head that you’re coming back tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” I shake my head. My hand curls into a fist over the smooth pages of my sketchbook. “That’s not going to happen.”

Billy frowns again; the expression of someone who disapproves of what you’re doing, but is too loyal to go against it. “How long are you going to keep this up?”

“As long as it takes,” I say firmly.

***

I make my way down the rope ladder carefully. It’s the day after Billy last came to give me supplies, and he hasn’t come all day. Somethings wrong. It has to be. He wouldn’t abandon me for no reason.

Below the tree house, I peer into the darkness. It’s warmer than it has been the past few nights, but moisture hangs in the air like a threat. I don’t have much changes of clothing, so I don’t want to be stuck out here longer than necessary. I glance left where I see the dot of Billy’s house in the distance, and right, where a small hill hides my house from view.

Gritting my teeth, I turn right. It’s eight in the evening. My parents won’t be in bed yet, but they’ll be winding down, maybe in front of a screen, or in my father’s case, a book. I want my father’s solid hugs, my mother’s voice telling me she loves me. Maybe it’s been long enough. Maybe they’ll listen to me now.

Even if I decide they need longer, I could still sneak a look to check. I need to see them. I miss them.

I stick to the trees that grow between ours and Billy’s garden. The lawn bots keep the rest of the land pretty tame, but my father and Billy’s wanted to keep at least some of the trees that came with the place. Now I have another reason to be grateful for that.

As soon as I get over the hill I can see the light shining from the lounge window. I move closer, rushing over neatly cut grass to one of the trees nearer the house. I squint through the darkness, making out my mother’s figure on the sofa, and my father slumped over a book in his armchair. They look tense maybe. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just reading into things with hopeful thinking.

I hesitate, shifting from foot to foot. It’s not that cold, but my skin tingles for the warmth of the house. My food rations have decreased to a few packets of crisps, and I can’t help but think of our fully stocked fridge and overflowing bowl of fruit. Fruit has never been Billy’s favorite food, so I haven’t had any for a week. Too long to go without hearing the sharp crunch of an apple, and the sweet taste of its juice. My muscles ache at the thought of spending another night with only a sleeping bag between me and the floor when I have a bed inside calling to me.

Mind made up, I step forward, turning over a dozen explanations for my absence. Then I freeze.

Through the lounge window I see another person walk into the room. My mother looks up from the screen with a smile, and my father gives them a nod. The figure flops down on the sofa next to my mother, giving me a full view of their face.

It’s me.

Another me sits next to my mother, staring at the screen. He’s wearing the green shirt my mother says brings out my eyes. His brown hair is neatly combed back into place, and he’s smiling.

I blink, my brain stalled. The ground tilts dangerously under my feet. I’m me. I’m ME! So how can there be a boy who looks exactly like me, be wearing my clothes, and sitting with my parents in my house?

***

I stretch the last of my rations over the next day. It’s the first day back at school after break. If other me is like me me, then at the end of the day I’ll walk back from the bus stop side by side with Billy. There’s a secluded path between a mass of trees that leads to both our houses. That’s where I wait.

I clutch a half rotted board pried from the tree house decking. It’s the closest thing to a weapon I could find. Its weight in my shaking hands gives me some comfort.

They come around the corner right on schedule. I hear Billy’s deep bass tones, though I can’t make out the words. Then I hear my voice. I cringe. Do I really sound like that?

“You’ve been a good friend, but I can’t hang out with you anymore,” other me says. “We’re just going in very different directions, and I need to concentrate on my science and maths if I want to pull my grades up enough to study a decent subject at university.”

“I still don’t understand,” Billy says as they pass by the tree I’m hiding behind. “Two days ago you were saying you’d never be happy unless you were doing art, and now you’re packing it in?”

“There are more important things than drawing,” other me says. “Like choosing a career that will make enough money to support myself. Something that’ll make my mother proud.”

Really I sound like a pompous ass.

I step out into the path behind them. Loose stones scuff under my shoes. Billy turns around, and his eyes go wide.

“Hey you…me,” I yell at the back of my too neat hair.

Other me turns around. His jaw drops open. I understand the feeling. Looking at him now, face to face is like looking into the mirror at a neater version of myself. He’s wearing the suit I’d lost a while ago deep in the back of my wardrobe. He has my eyes, my nose, even the scar across my left eyebrow where I fell and hit the edge of a table playing tag when I was seven.

“Who are you?” He asks, shock making him look dazed. “Why do you look like me?”

I clutch the wooden board tight enough to get splinters. “I’m Adam Karel, only son of Timothy and Josephine Karel, seventeen years old. And I don’t look like you. You look like me!”

He shakes his head. “That’s me. I’m Adam. I always have been. Billy, are you seeing this?”

“Yeah,” I turn to the larger boy. “Billy, are you seeing this? I’m the real one. You know that, right?”

Billy glances at me, and then the other me beside him. He looks like he’s one more shock away from whimpering. “What’s going on here?”

“Good question,” I say, stepping nearer to the other me. I stop close enough to see the flecks of blue in my green eyes. “What are you exactly? Some kind of bot?”

I look around his – my face, looking for a mark. It’s one of the rules for lifelike bots. They have to have some kind of bar-code holding their product information, so people don’t mistake them for human. Most service industries mark them some place obvious like the forehead or cheek. Some of the higher end models get away with putting it on the back of the neck. It’s something that gets a lot of flack from those who remember the bot crimes that triggered all the regulations, but it’s not illegal as long as it’s not covered.

“I’m me,” he says, splaying out his arms, his green eyes wild. “I’m human. If anyone’s the impostor here, it’s you.”

“Human,” I say, giving a small spin with my board held high in case he pounces. I gesture my weapon at him. “Now you.”

He turns slowly, and I see not one trace of a mark on his pale skin.

I wait until he’s facing me again. “You’re an illegal.”

He glares at me. “I’m human.”

“You have to be an illegal,” I say, a cold hard knot of anger pressing deep into my stomach. My own parents replaced me, and with this THING. “Bots aren’t allowed to pretend to be human.”

“I’m not pretending!” He screams at me. “I am human. I’m real. I’m -”

I swing the board. It cracks against other me’s head so hard the vibrations make my teeth chatter. Billy, who has watched the whole thing with mute horror, jumps back with a squawk.

Other me slumps to the ground, but he’s still moving, so I hit him again. I raise my arms to hit him a third time, and maybe a forth and a fifth, when Billy wraps a beefy fist around my wrist.

“He’s bleeding!” He shouts in my ear. The words are barely audible over my hammering pulse. “Look. Look! He’s bleeding!”

I look. He’s crumpled on the damp ground, his knees pulled to his chest in protection. The wound to the side of his head gapes open. I glance down at the board and see the culprit: a bent nail. And he’s bleeding.

I swallow, dropping to my knees beside him. The blood is red. Bot ‘blood’ is transparent, sometimes yellow, I think I once heard of a blue, but never red. Red is too close to human, and difficult when it comes to repairs. I don’t even think bots had red blood back when the regulations weren’t so strict.

He groans, sounding so human that for a moment the thought that he might be wavers in my mind. No. I’m Adam. I always have been. He’s some THING my parent’s had made to replace me. My mother works in software development for bots. My father used to work the mechanical side. It’s not unfeasible that they, or their contacts could have made something this life like. Is it?

Desperation claws at my stomach. My hands reach for the wound. I have to know.

“What are you doing?” Billy asks, his usually powerful voice soft and breathy.

My hand hovers over the wound, then make a quick detour for other me’s school bag. I dig out my water bottle from where I usually keep it. Carefully, I pour the contents over the wound, pulling back the edges so I can see. It’s pretty deep. In a human, deep enough to see the skull. .

Other me hisses, waving his hands weakly in my direction. Billy starts toward us, then freezes.

Metal glints up at us through the wound. He’s not human, but he’s also not just an illegal bot. He’s like nothing I’ve ever heard of before.

***

By the time we heave my replacement home Billy is shaking so hard he can’t seem to speak. It’s a disquieting sight. He has his ups and downs like any other guy, but for the most part Billy is a pretty stable guy. Guilt rushes over me. I forced him into this.

“You can go Billy,” I say after we lay the shocked bot down on the sofa in the living room. “I’ll deal with this.”

He nods, round face quivering. He opens and closes his mouth several times before words come out. “If I’d known he was a bot, I never would have. I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault,” I say. All of this is my parent’s fault, and that thought makes me angry enough to scream. “Go home, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He gives another trembling nod, then turns to leave.

Just me and IT now. I take a deep breath, looking at the whimpering form on the sofa cushions. I quickly look away. He looks so human, eyes shining with through fluttering lashes. Blood clots in a mass on the side of his head. It’s hard to remember he’s not like me in anything but outside appearance.

I make my way to the kitchen to search for a phone. I have work to do.

***

My mother arrives home at the same time as my father. The quirk causes something to stir inside my chest. It’s not like my father has much to do outside the house, but on days like this when everyone is out, he likes to be out too. I think he wants to feel useful.

I look up from the armchair as they walk into the house, talking about their days. They enter the lounge, see me and smile, and for a moment everything is normal, until their eyes travel as one to the sofa and see other me lying there.

“What did you do?” My mother shouts, striding past me to kneel at other me’s side. She examines his head with a tenderness reserved for only her very favorite gadgets, and me.

“I think the question is what did you do?” I say, struggling to keep my cool. I thought I’d be more angry, but seeing them here after so long, I’m reminded how much I love them, and that feels worse right now than hating them. I want to hate them. I want to hate them so badly. “I leave for a few days, and instead of looking for me you – what? Decide to replace me?”

My father doesn’t move from the doorway, his face unreadable. My mother doesn’t get up from other me’s side.

“Or is this about me wanting to study art?” I ask, my fingers digging into the arms of the chair. “You figure out I didn’t turn out the way you wanted, so you make a bot to replace me? I’m your son, not one of your toys! You can’t just throw me away because you want a newer model.”

“He’s right Josephine,” my father says, stepping to my side. He places a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “He’s our son.”

She shakes her head, turning to sneer at him. “You didn’t want him. You never even liked him.”

Shocked hurt floods through me, but my father gives my shoulder a firm squeeze. “I grew to like him,” he says, warmth in his voice. “I grew to love him.”

Something manic comes over her expression as my mother turns back to my replacement, stroking fingers through his hair. She used to do that to me, I remember, when I was sick and after falling out of the tree house. “Maybe we can keep them both,” she says desperately. “If we get someone to forge the birth certificate, and say we had twins. There was a time you wanted more than one child. Do you remember?”

“That’s not going to happen,” I say before he can reply.

Something in my voice makes her look at me. I shift under my mother’s fearful expression. She knows what’s coming.

“I called the police,” I say quietly. “They know there’s an illegal bot here.”

Her grip on other me’s arm tightens.

“I didn’t say where it came from,” I add quickly. “You could say it was a competitor trying to frame you. Things can go back to how they were.”

That’s all I’ve wanted ever since I saw the other me through that window. I just want my parents back. Even if it means them worrying about my future, and having to fight to keep the parts of life I love. Even if it means studying a subject I don’t want to.

She lets her hand drop from other me, into her lap. “I see.”

From outside comes the crackle of tires over gravel. I sit up straighter in the armchair, relief washing over me. It’s almost over. “That’ll be them.”

My mother gets to her feet slowly and gives me an even look. “Will you let me and your father explain things? I think it will sound more credible coming from us first.”

“Yeah, sure,” I say, happy to get her on board. Despite all the hurt she’d caused me trying to replace me with one of her toys, I can’t help but think that I should make more of an effort to connect with her. I’ve always leaned toward my father’s technophobia rather than my mother’s extreme, so we’ve never seen eye to eye. I make a note that if we ever get over this, I should try asking her to teach me something about what she does at work. I think she’d like that.

She walks out of the room, and with one final squeeze of my shoulder, my father follows.

The bot even has simulated breathing, I think watching it. It’s creepy the extent my parent’s went through to make it lifelike. Anyone seeing it now, bleeding and sleeping deeply would assume it’s human and not even take a second glance.

“You can’t do this Josephine!”

My head springs up at my father’s shout. Heart hammering, I push myself to my feet and walk through the kitchen to the hallway where the commotion is coming from.

I turn the corner in time to see a bulky police officer snapping cuffs over my father’s wrists. My mother stands in front of them, her arms crossed over her chest.

“What – what’s going on?” I ask, crossing the distance between us in a few strides. “What are you doing to my father?”

The two officer look from my mother to me.

My mother takes a step away from my side. “And this is the bot he built to replace our son,” she says, gesturing at me. Her eyes hold a level of coldness I’ve never seen before.

“I’m not a bot,” I say, shaking my head. I barely hear the words over my heartbeat. What is she doing? “I’m Adam Karel, human. Scan me if you want.”

The female police bot removes what looks like a small silver torch from her belt. I close my eyes as the blue light washes over me. She returns it to her belt with a click.

Her handler lifts a radio from his side, eyes locked on me. “This is Lima Delta three. We have a confirmed illegal bot at our location.”

For a moment I can’t speak. “I’m human,” I say again, the words feeling more like a plea this time.

The police bot tilts her head, giving me a clear view of the blue bar-code on her right cheek. “The internal scan confirms you are robot in origin. Your denial of that fact and absence of mandatory product information confirms you are an illegal robot.”

“Dad, Mom, tell them,” I say, swinging my arm wildly through the air. “Tell them they’re wrong.”

My father hangs his head. My mother looks anywhere but me, her body taut with tension.

I don’t understand. I don’t understand, and then suddenly I do.

My parents can built robots so lifelike that even they think they’re human. My mind flashes back to the tree house, the day I almost broke my neck. Waking up weeks afterward, and my mother being so happy to see me that she cried. All those medical treatments that followed, all which coincided with mysterious growth spurts. Bots don’t grow after all. They can only be designed to look older.

“The tree house,” I gasp.

My father nods. Tears run down his face.

It pieces together to make a picture so horrible I can’t look away. The tree house. The day twelve year old Adam Karel fell and broke his neck. The day his parents – or maybe only his mother at first – decided to hide the body and replace him with a bot, with me.

“Bots aren’t supposed to feel,” I say, warmth prickling at the back of my eyes. “I feel,” I glance between my father who must have once hated what I am, and my mother who’s sending me to my death. “I feel.”

My father shakes from the tears wracking his frame. My mother still won’t look at me.

Hot anger bubbles up. “They’re going to kill me. You know that!” I shout at her. “Don’t you feel anything for me? What kind of human are you?” I take a step toward her.

“Stand down,” the police bot says in that plain monotone voice. She holds something black and bulky in one of her hands. A stun gun. I’d seen pictures when we’d learned about the Bot crime wave at school. “Comply and come with us or we’ll be forced to take extreme measures.”

I take a measured breath, my eyes drifting over all four of them. I open my mouth to tell them about the other me lying on the sofa, then close it again. The only thing that will accomplish is two of us being carted away to be decommissioned, stripped down, unmade. I can’t do that. I’m not some heartless robot.

Two choices, and not the ones I thought I’d be making days, or even hours ago. Go willingly to my death, or try to stay alive. I turn to run.

I make it two steps before pain shoots down my spine, causing all my muscles to seize up and spasm. This isn’t right, I think as blackness rushes over me. I’m me. I’m human. I’m me.