For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.
Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.
Wish me luck!
I wrote this from a cafe last night because there was a work party where I knew the booze would be flowing. It was a very wise choice, all told. While I was able to tweet with coherence, I wouldn’t put bets on being able to write more than 140 characters at a time.
Anyway, today’s character – chosen non-randomly this time – is Emma Confrey, from day 78: Mother’s Day. A secondary character we don’t know a lot about, but that’s okay. She’s important nonetheless and I think there’s something interesting about her.
Full disclosure: the story was inspired by an Idea Book I picked up at the Mark Twain House when I was back home in Connecticut, and this is one of the few stories that I wrote while I was on vacation. That in itself is deserving of some slow clapping, I think. The book suggested the first line – The last time I saw my mother was fifteen years ago – and my imagination just went off with itself. Starting from a catchy first line is a fun way to write, so if you ever think of a really snappy opener to a story, see where it leads you.
So, Emma. Let’s see what the story tells us about her. For one, she’s a scientist, and she clearly thinks that her daughter Donna ought to be one too. She’s the kind of mother that all teachers fear – the one who is so intimately involved with her daughter’s academic life that she may as well be running it. She pushed Donna into science classes, and saw no problem with doing her science fair project for her.
At the same time, she’s a very irresponsible and distant mother. Donna (who is the POV character in the story) tells of her mother spending most of her time in the garage/lab, rarely coming out to spend time with her child. There’s no indication in the story that she actually cares about what her daughter wants or needs, and only spends time with her when she eats or when it otherwise cannot be helped. For her part, Donna would rather stay with her father, but the pro-mother bias of family court didn’t agree with her.
In this story Emma announces that she’s built a time machine in the garage. Rather than try and spend time with her stuffy teenage daughter, she announces that she’s going to jump ahead fifteen years and have a drink with her much cooler, older daughter. She grabs a couple of beers, heads out into the garage, and vanishes. The machine indicates that her destination was August 11, 2026 at 10:24 AM.
Fifteen years later, against her better judgment, Donna comes back to the house. The house is dilapidated, and the machine has long since been shut off. Donna waits until the appointed time, but her mother never shows up.
What we can say easily about Emma is that she’s a really crappy mother. Her work is her life, and anything else is peripheral to that. Her disinterest in her daughter is so pronounced that she won’t even talk to her as she is – she has to go to the future where, presumably, a “better” daughter will be. One who, it who should be pointed out, would have lived for fifteen years without her mother’s influence, something I don’t think she really thought about.
So the real question is why she had a daughter in the first place? Perhaps it was something she thought would be interesting. Perhaps she thought it would make for an interesting project or experiment. Perhaps it was an irrational biological urge. Whatever it was, it passed quickly. She returned to her science, leaving her daughter and husband to take care of each other.
For his part, her father seems like a decent guy, even though we don’t see much of him in the story. I like to think that he honestly believed he would get custody if he divorced Emma, and it broke his heart when he didn’t,
The upshot to this – if there is any – is that Donna turned out to be remarkably self-sufficient. This is something she probably wouldn’t appreciate until she was older, but not having her mother to take care of her caused Donna to draw on her own creativity and strengths. Abandoning your child to her own devices isn’t a recommended parenting technique, but if you must do it you should hope your child is strong enough to work life out on its own.
Emma did build a time machine, by the way. It worked just as she meant it to, the problem was her lack of foresight rearing its ugly head: without anyone to take care of the house, the electricity was shut off. No electricity meant no power to the time machine, which meant that she couldn’t complete the trip she’d started. If she had been a better mother, perhaps, Donna would have been able to keep the torch burning, as it were. She would have had an emotional investment in her other’s success.
But no. Emma stepped into that machine, and she was sent off on a one-way trip into the timestream. Perhaps if another character invents a time machine she can find her way back , but for now I’m assuming the same thing that Donna is assuming: her mother is dead and gone, and has been for a long time.
A happy story? Not at all. But I liked it anyway…
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
There’s not a whole lot of places you can go after you nearly destroy the world.
Prison, sure. If you’re into that kind of thing.
Unfortunately, I’m not. I’ve been to prison before, of course – any good supervillain has. The odd bank robbery, maybe a hostage situation. Property damage, that kind of thing. Frankly, I’m of the opinion that if you’re a supervillain and you haven’t been to prison, then you’re just not setting your sights high enough. And boy did I set my sights high. Tornado swarms, a pair of force-5 hurricanes. The wind was at my fingertips, and everything was going my way. For a while, at least.
My mother’s house in Queens was just like I remembered it. A squat little brick affair set back from the road. You had to walk up a couple of steps from the sidewalk and open a flimsy little gate to get to the front door, which she never used anyway. As far as she was concerned, only visitors would use the front door. It opened into the living room, which she kept spotless with the kind of obsession that soldiers usually reserve for cleaning their guns. The living room was the one room in the house that I never went into, on pain of death. Back when I was still into that whole “following the rules” thing. By the time I grew out of it, my rebellious urges had grown pretty far beyond sitting on mom’s plastic-covered sofa. In her house, the side door was good enough for family.
I knocked on the front door. This is mom, not the White House. I can’t assume anything anymore.
There was a moment of dreadful silence, and then the slow unlocking of the five deadbolts that she’d installed over the years. The door cracked inward, and I saw half of my mother’s face peek out of the darkness. I spread my arms wide and dropped my duffel bag to the ground. “Ma!” I said, forcing cheer out in my voice in waves. “Look who’s home!”
Her dark eyes glanced up and down just once. Then she said, “Come around to the side.” The door slammed, and she slowly started redoing all the locks.
My mother’s house was like a time capsule, where everything just stopped changing somewhere around 1992. She had the same appliances, the same fixtures, the same wallpaper. I felt bad when I realized that I had never once offered to buy mom a new fridge or something, no matter how much I stole. She’d never say anything, of course. But I knew that she knew that I was thinking it. Somehow.
I put my bag down on one of the kitchen chairs and sat in the other. My mother started fixing a glass of iced tea.
I suppose that everyone goes through this when they grow up, but my mom looked so… small. Her hair was dark, but there was gray starting to show through, and she moved more slowly than I remembered. She was wearing houseclothes – a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt that matched. This from the woman who had a knockoff Chanel and a fake pearl necklace that she would wear just to go out to the supermarket. Something had happened to my mother, and I suspected that it was somehow my fault.
That could just be my mother’s superpower, though. I can control weather, she can make even a hardened supervillain mike me feel incredibly guilty without even saying a word.
She put the iced tea on the table in front of me and then took the remaining chair. The tea was super-sweet, of course. For a little while, it was just us and the tick-tocking of the cat clock on the wall.
Finally, she said, “I saw you on TV last week.”
I just nodded and sipped my tea.
“That hurricane of yours ruined my gardening.” She gestured out to her tiny backyard garden. The usual chaotic rush of flowers and vegetables was just a broken pile of leaves and stems. “It was just about time for the dahlias, too.”
“Sorry, mom,” I mumbled around the glass.
We sat there for a while longer. I started out the window a little more, and I missed the sunflowers that should have been just about over by now.
“Will the police be coming by?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I never let them know who I was,” I said. “A friend of mine hacked into the Department of National Security database for me. They think I’m from Jersey.” This got as much of a laugh out of her as I could expect – a dry chuckle.
She stood up, slowly. “I’ll make up your bed,” she said.
“Mom.” I reached out and took her arm gently. “Mom, let me take care of that.”
“Nonsense.” She swept my hand away. “I’m your mother.”
And that was it. She walked down the hall to where my old room used to be. I was by myself in the museum kitchen, just me and my iced tea and a spare costume in the duffel bag. And no plan. No idea what I was going to do next. I stood up and looked out the window at the garden. Amidst the mess, mom had cleared out a space in the corner. There were a couple of plants growing there – I have no idea what they were. Green is green, as far as I’m concerned. But they were growing. I concentrated a little, and a brief rain fell around the plants. Just a bit of water sucked out of the air. Nothing dramatic. A little rain.
Mom wouldn’t let me go too far, I was pretty sure. She couldn’t solve my problems. She couldn’t make the police leave me alone, or make the heroes let up or anything like that. But there was iced tea. There was a bed and some time to sit down and figure things out.
That would be enough.
“Did you bring it?”
Michael took the handsaw out of his bag and brandished it. “Yup. You?”
Alec walked around to the back of his car, his flashlight still off. He popped open the trunk, and gestured to the aluminum case that was inside. “I got it,” he said. He took the case out, closed the trunk, and then switched on the flashlight. “Let’s go,” he said. He set off with a quick stride. Michael hefted his bag on his shoulder and followed.
In the summer, Lakeside Park would have been full of people, even as midnight drew near. They’d be having moonlight picnics, romantic get-togethers, maybe just lying back and counting stars. But as winter drew near, the park emptied out. Tonight, there was no one around, and that suited Michael and Alec just fine.
About a hundred feet from where they parked, in a clearing where people gathered for their barbecues on the Fourth of July, they set the case down and turned off the flashlight to let their eyes get used to the darkness.
“You ready for this?” Michael asked.
Alec nodded, and wondered how he had let five years go by so quickly. How he had allowed things to go this long. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m ready.”
“If you’re not, we can still-”
“I said I was ready, man.” Alec swallowed hard. This would be the night. This would be the last break he had to make, the final string to cut. After tonight, no one would ever be able to hurt him again.
When he could make out Michael’s face in the darkness Alec pulled the case towards him. He undid the latches on the front, and each one sounded like a gunshot. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and flung the top open.
The ventriloquist dummy inside was a masterpiece. Its face was hand-carved, with barely visible seams for the mouth. The eyes had been painted with large, blue irises that glowed in comparison to the doll’s short, dark hair. The overall effect was that of a strange intelligence, made only slightly more unsettling by the carefully cartoonish proportions of the head.
He sat in front of the case for a minute, looking at the doll. It seemed lifeless, carefully folded into its carrying case. For a moment, he worried that the tuxedo was getting wrinkled, but then remembered what they were there to do.
“You okay?” Michael asked.
“Yeah,” Alec said, holding up the saw. “It has to be this. He… It has to be unmade.” Quickly, without thought, he grabbed the dummy out of the case and lay it on the ground in front of him.
This was the present his mother had sent him when he graduated from high school. The day after graduation, when he was looking forward to one last summer of fun with his friends, this large aluminum case arrived in the mail. When his father saw who it was from, he walked out of the room without saying a word.
The case contained, along with the dummy, a videotape and an envelope. The tape was labeled, “Watch me first.”
Hello, Alec. His mother’s face on the screen looked older than he remembered, but ten years would do that. She wouldn’t look right at the camera, but kept shifting her eyes to the left and right, up and down as she spoke.
I know we haven’t talked much since I left, and I’m sorry about that. I meant to get in touch, I really did. She ran a hand through thin, graying hair. I guess there’s no time like now. Okay. She took a deep breath and let it out. By now, of course, you’ve seen the dummy. Its name is Mister Woobles, and it is your birthright. Whatever plans you have made, Alec, it is absolutely essential that you put Mister Woobles first. She finally stopped glancing around and looked right into the camera. Guard him with your life, Alec. Protect him from all harm, and he will protect you. Until-
Alec paused the tape and looked at the tuxedo-clad dummy in the box, then at his mother, frozen in mid-sentence. He was thinking so many things, had so many questions, that his mind could only focus on one thing – Mister Woobles?
He wanted to call his father into the room, to ask him what the hell was going on, but he knew that wouldn’t work. His father hadn’t so much as mentioned his mother’s existence in the last decade. As far as he was concerned, she never existed. Whether Mister Woobles was an element of madness that pre-dated her abandonment or not, Alec couldn’t even imagine. He looked at the dummy again. Its eyes were open, looking at him.
He turned away and resumed the tape.
-you’re ready to pass him on to someone else, you have to keep Mister Woobles with you. She paused, blinking. I know how this sounds, Alec, but it’s very important. I’ve done… I’ve made decisions I’m not proud of, Alec, and leaving you is at the top of my list. Sending the dummy to you doesn’t change anything or make things better, but I really do believe it’s something that needs to be done.
She stopped here, and hung her head for a moment. That’s all I can really say, she said. Take a look in the envelope now. She looked up, into the camera again. I do love you, Alec. Remember that. She reached towards the camera, and the screen went blank.
Alec shut off the TV and looked in the case again. The dummy was still staring at him, and it occurred to him that he had no idea how to make it close its eyes. He snatched the envelope from the case and slammed the lid shut.
It looked like it was some kind of hotel stationery, and his name was written on the front in large, uneven letters. When he opened it and started reading, he had to sit down.
If you’re reading this, it said, I’m dead. Well, I’m dead whether you’re reading this or not, but that isn’t really the point. By now, you should have watched the video, so you know that you have to keep the dummy with you from now on. It’s my last wish for you, Alec, and I know he’ll do right by you. He certainly did right by me. Until now, anyway.
Please let your father know. I would send him a letter, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t read it and that’s fair. If he’ll listen, tell him that I’m sorry, and if I could explain, I would.
I only ever wanted the best for you, Alec. I just never knew how to do it until now.
The letter and the video and the dummy had been from a crazy woman. That was the only explanation. He took the case up to his room and left it under his bed. He did show his father the letter that night. He read it, folded it up, and asked Alec what he wanted for dinner.
In the next few months, Alec only opened the case twice more. The first time was to close the dummy’s eyes. A quick Googling showed him how to do it, and he rested slightly easier after that, but not much. The case – Mister Woobles — was always in the back of his mind. It was like Tolstoy’s polar bear. The more he tried not to think about it, the more often it showed up.
He wouldn’t explain it, either. His father didn’t want to know what was in the case, and Alec made sure none of his friends found out about it. Those who had known him long enough were aware that his mother had run away. The fact that she had gone crazy and probably killed herself was more than they needed to know. Mister Woobles would be his alone.
When he moved away to college, he brought it with him. Not because he needed it, not even because he necessarily believed his mother’s words about the dummy “doing right” by him. He found that he couldn’t bear to let it go. The case called to him, lurked in the corner of his mind, and until he knew where it was, he wasn’t able to relax. His stomach tied itself in knots, and leaving the case alone by itself became harder and harder.
Michael was the one to set him on the path to freedom. He was Alec’s first roommate, and was naturally curious about the case when they moved in together. On the first day, Alec shoved it as far back in the closet as it would go, and when Michael asked what it was, all he’d say was, “Nothing.” He never mentioned it, never explained.
When he came back from class one afternoon and saw Michael playing with Mister Woobles, he erupted in rage.
His scream was wordless and furious. He dropped everything on the floor, ran over and grabbed the doll from Michael’s hands. By the time he managed to stuff the doll back into the case, he was weeping openly.
Michael watched him for a moment, and then said, “Dude.” He approached Alec gingerly and rested a hand on his shaking shoulder. “What’s going on?”
Everything came out that night. The tape, the note, the dummy. His father, his mother, five years of wondering what was going to happen next. Five years of carrying that case around from place to place, carrying it in his mind.
It took all night for Michael to convince Alec to destroy Mister Woobles. He skipped his classes and made sure Alec didn’t shove the case back into the closet again. It was Michael who came up with the plan, the location, the time. “Tonight,” he said. “Tonight and it’s done.”
He chose the park because of its serenity. The city had spent millions putting it together as a sprawling natural area, intended for the citizens to use as a way to recharge and refresh themselves. It had countless little streams and pools and fountains, green groves of trees and vibrant flower beds. There were barbecue pits and a small skateboard park, playgrounds for children and walking trails for the elderly. Very few people agreed on anything the city government did, but nearly everyone loved that park.
Michael had a streak of mysticism about him. He read books by long-dead practitioners of magick, had crystals on pendants and was known to dabble in tarot reading. He did rituals before tests – little things on a portable altar he had brought with him from home. When Alec asked about it once, he said, “Humans need rituals to keep the world in order. And without order, what are we?”
He was full of lines like that.
The saw was Alec’s idea. He needed to see Mister Woobles undone, to become something other than what it was. If he buried it, if he threw it in the lake, the dummy still existed – it still was. But in pieces, it would finally be dead.
There, in the darkness, Alec began to saw at the neck of Mister Woobles. The saw slipped at first, and he held his breath. But once the teeth bit into the wood, he started to saw faster at it. The eyes were still closed, and he expected them to burst open, for the mouth to move and to scream in his mother’s voice about the terrible thing he was doing.
But it didn’t. The saw blade cut quickly through the whole thing, and Mister Woobles’ head dropped onto the grass. Alec breathed a sigh of relief and looked up to Michael, who was holding a large pair of sewing shears. Alec cut through the dummy’s costume with ease. The tiny tuxedo lay in tatters on the ground, taking the arms and legs with it. All that was left was the hollow torso, with its intricate levers and rods.
Alec stood up, raised the remains of the dummy above his head, and dashed it to the ground. It cracked, but did not break. He started to stomp on it, bringing heavy boot heels down on the shell, and it shattered in moments. He did the same to the head, and pieces went spinning away. The dummy’s face was his face, was his mother’s face, his father’s. One of those blue eyes cracked in half and he stepped on it again and again until it was nothing but a pile of powdered glass.
He didn’t realize he was crying until Michael grabbed him by the arm. “It’s done,” he said. “It’s done. You can relax now.”
“No,” Alec said. “We still have to burn it. Then it’s done.”
Michael had a can of lighter fluid in the bag. They picked up all the pieces they could find, dumped them into one of the barbecue pits, and saturated them. Michael handed Alec a box of matches. He lit one, set the flame to the remains of the dummy, and stepped back as they exploded in flame.
He wanted to feel relief. All that was burning there was a pile of wood and fabric, and with it his mother’s madness, his father’s rage, his own terror and responsibility. He wanted the fire to burn away at him as well, to eat away those parts that had been so badly damaged and to renew him.
He just watched it burn, and tried not to think about what it all meant. That would be for tomorrow.
“Kevin? Time for dinner, sweetheart! Don’t make me call you again!”
“I’ll be up in a minute, mom!”
“This is the second time, Kevin. It’s getting cold.”
“I know, mom – I said I’ll be up in a minute!”
“What are you doing down there, anyway? You’ve been in the basement all week.”
“It’s nothing, mom!”
“Your father and I are worried about you, Kevin….Kevin? That’s it, I’m coming down there.”
“What? Mom, no, you can’t – No! No no no no – awwww, mom!”
“What on earth have you been doing down here? My God!”
“Jeez, mom, I told you not to come down here.”
“I mean, just look at this mess. Why do you have a shopping basket full of batteries? And broken remote controls? And is this -”
“Mom, could you put that down please? It’s delicate.”
“It looks like my old colander. But what are all these wires sticking out of it?”
“Mom, look, just put it down and go back upstairs. I’ll be up in a minute.”
“And what’s – what’s that smell? It smells like… Like… Kevin, have you been smoking down here?”
“Yes! Yes, mom, that’s exactly it. I’ve been smoking and I feel terrible about it and I promise that I’ll stop, so just go back upstairs and-”
“What’s in here?”
“Oh. Oh my God, Kevin, what have you done?”
“Don’t touch me!”
“Oh God, is that Racer? You – you said he ran away and-”
“Yeah. That’s Racer. He – quiet, boy! Quiet!”
“Wh- where’s the rest of him?”
“Buried out back, mom. I…. Oh. Okay. You, um…. I’ll just… clean that up after. Don’t worry about it.”
“Sweet Jesus, Kevin, sweet baby Jesus….”
“Mom, I know how this looks. Look at me, Mom. I know how this – shut up, Racer! – I know how this looks. And I know it looks pretty bad. But if you look at the bright side-”
“Bright side? Bright side? You have your beagle’s headin a jar, Kevin! And it’s still alive! How – And these machines? Did they do this? Did you make these?”
“That’s what I’m talking about, mom! I made these! Out of the crap that people throw away. Out of the things in my head! Look at Racer, mom – he got hit by a car, okay? And I kept him alive! No one else could have done that!”
“Do you see this machine, mom? Hold on, let me find….”
“Okay, Look at this metronome, okay? Nice beat, four-four time, keep your eyes on it…. You watching? BAM! Huh? Isn’t that cool? Localized time distortion! I can dial that baby down to almost nothing!”
“I have an antigrav plate down here somewhere, and a new plastic that can replace human skin cells. If I can find the remote, I’ll show you my army of mind-controlled cockroaches. Okay, maybe not them, but didn’t you wonder why your roses grew so big last year? Why they screamed sometimes? Or what happened to those kids who egged our house last Halloween? Not a coincidence, mom. I mean just look at all this stuff!”
“I… I’m looking, Kevin.”
“Mom, forget about Racer. Racer was just a stepping-stone, a way up to something better! Mom, listen to me: in a few years, I’ll be able to figure out how to keep people alive indefinitely. And not in a jar, either. I have stuff down here that’ll change the world, mom. Don’t you see?”
“Yes, Kevin. I see.”
“Do you understand why I did all this?”
“Yes, Kevin. I understand.”
“So… we’re cool? Mom?”
“Kevin. I’m going to go upstairs now. I’m going to call a doctor or someone, because this… This isn’t normal.”
“No, mom. No, you can’t do that.”
“I have to, Kevin.”
“No, you can’t. I’m not ready – the world’s not ready! You have to just – Mom, wait!!”
“I can’t let you do this, Kevin, not under my roof!”
“Mom, no! Stop! NO!!“
“Oh, mom. You shouldn’t have made me do that.
“You’ll be fine like that. You won’t have to worry about getting old, anyway. Not for, let me see…. Huh. Two point three million years. Damn. I am good.
“All right, then. Dad first. Then dinner. Then the world.”