Chapter 5: XXX SM
Chapter 3: Matt & Laura’s Excellent Adventure

Chapter 4: Purple Sequins

Matt would have turned his desk to the window except the Bloodhounds were six cubes from his office and they had two fulltime bodies dedicated to trolling for protocol breaches. He’d been on their hot list for three years. Turning his desk was not an option.

As documented in the Human Resources Employee Handbook:

Section 3, Part A, Paragraph 12, Sentence 5: Employees occupying offices with doors are required to situate all office furniture such that the employee faces the door, and the computer monitor does not.

A grammatical nightmare, but clear enough.

His window view was underwhelming, but the view from the glass wall was soul crushing. People smiled and waved when they walked by. He had an entire drawer dedicated to ‘Welcome Back!’ cards; key words and phrases from each sentiment and signature highlighted and typed into an Excel spreadsheet for further analysis.

Corporate America produced miserable, back-biting assholes. Smiling, happy people were a clear indication of an oncoming assault. They were smiling and waving at him. Matt Franklin was a dead man walking.

 This wasn't supposed to happen. He should be happy; he should be content. He should see the best in everyone; he should not see weasels walking upright and sporting Armani suits. He leaned forward and vomited into his recycling bin. Time to call Christie; his butterfly eyes were producing bad data.

Christie wasn't available but she left a message while he was at lunch. Something about ‘trusting the process’. Not helpful.

When he called a second time, for clarification and possibly a short bitch session, she yelled at him.

“Matt. I’m not your therapist. If you need a therapist, we’ll refer you to the sixth floor. And you don’t like ‘trust the process?’ Fine, try this: TRUST YOUR PEOPLE NOT TO BE THE ASSHOLES YOU BELIEVE THEM TO BE. Seriously, Dude, give it a shot.”

Be the person your dog thinks you should be.

Fuck the dog.

Also, not helpful, but he let it go. He wanted to tell her there were barbarians at the gate, but he didn’t have any evidence to support the existence of barbarians beyond the Middle Ages. If he waited quietly, maybe they’d show up. THEN, he could call Christie with a reasonable complaint.

Matt worked himself into a raging hate-on, a skin crawling, jaw clenching, eye bulging full out loathing of his team. Morning kickoffs were almost bearable. They were meant to last no more than fifteen minutes, and nobody got to sit. Nobody got to ask questions either; just state your business and shut up. He acquired a stopwatch and clicked the button in three minutes intervals. Stopwatch went off, speaker shut the hell up. Nobody took notes.

He didn’t think this was exactly the way the Agile Project People said it should work but the education budget didn’t cover the cost of training for individual contributors. He told himself to lighten up. Maybe he’d carve a few minutes from the afternoon meeting and review the basic premise again.

Matt’s afternoon meetings had always been a free for all and began promptly at whatever time Matt bothered to show up. They had the room from 2:00 – 3:00.

Veronica and Bradley were standing at the door at 2:05. The rest of the team was seated; ostensibly prepared, laptops open, phones stowed. Matt was nowhere. Bradley was marginally irked because he was well prepared. He didn’t miss deadlines very often, but when he did, Matt was well advised ahead of time. It took him six months to get over it anyway.

Veronica nudged Bradley into the room and started the meeting. They were going to lose the room at 3:00 and she happened to know Human Resources had already called Matt on the carpet twice for consistently running over by fifteen minutes, leaving the 3:00 attendees standing in the hall. If Matt could just stay on topic…

At 1:50, Matt entered the last stall in the men’s room one floor down and crouched over the toilet seat. He stayed on his perch, even after his quads cramped up. His right foot splashed into the bowl when his leg gave out at 2:05. He balanced precariously on the edge of the seat; one foot in, one foot out, both hands splayed against opposite walls. His left leg was officially dead.

Matt was using the stall door as a focal point when something splashed his left ass cheek. He was wondering if his waterlogged right foot was having a mini seizure when something bit the back of his ankle. He rolled forward and peered into the bowl. A sparkly purple Koi with Piranha implants launched itself out of the water and latched onto his nose. 

Matt and the Koi fell forward and hammered the tile floor. When he opened his eyes and dragged his right foot out of the bowl, the Koi was gone, and Matt’s face was starting to resemble hamburger. He resigned himself to his 2 PM meeting.

It was hard to be mad at them for starting on time. It was good of them to not mention the new contusion on his forehead, the chunk of flesh missing from the tip of his nose, or the absence of one shoe and one sock. The back of his right ankle was still dribbling a viscous trickle of blood.

He steadied himself against the table and took his seat. Veronica handed him a glass of water, the first aid kit, and a roll of paper towels. She gave him a minute to sort himself out and asked if he’d like a recap. She was smiling. Why was she smiling? Why wasn’t Bradley cowering? Why wasn’t the rest of the team absorbed in their phones? “Commence!” he barked. The corners of his mouth turned upward at an odd angle.

*

Laura stood in the doorway. “Christie, did you just yell at my husband?”

“Yup, sure did, should have done it a month ago.”

“Is he OK?”

“Inasmuch as Matt is ever OK, Laura; but I’m done coddling him. He’s got a new life happening right outside these doors and he’s spending ninety percent of his energy poking holes in it. He did better with his glasses!”

“That’s because he didn’t know. Now he knows.”

“We shouldn’t have told him. Is that what you think?”

“I don’t know, but it’s something to think about going forward. Maybe soften the truth a little; people might find a new outlook more palatable that way.”

“You mean, lie? That’s what you mean, isn’t it? Have you considered the ethical, moral, and legal ramifications? Do we want Kevin wandering the floors again? That went well, don’t you think?”

“Christie, it always comes down to communication, what you say and how you say it. You don’t have to lie, but maybe dial back on the science fiction factor.”

“It’s not fiction, Laura, just science. Speaking of full disclosure, does Matt know you’re working here?” you self-righteous twat

“Nope. And he’s not going to. Right now, it’s still a lie of omission because he hasn’t asked and I’m going to ride that omission until it drops dead at my feet.”

“What do you mean, he hasn’t asked? I know he knows you’re working because he can’t decide if he should whine about it or be happy his wife no longer wants him dead.”

“And you want to know why he’s avoiding the questions, am I right?”

“That’s exactly what I want to know. I’ve got a pretty good read on your husband, Laura. He LIKES to ask questions. He likes to ask hard questions, especially if he thinks he can make people squirm. Why hasn’t he asked you?”

Laura wondered if AO permitted witch burning.

“No, sorry, AO doesn’t permit intentional human sacrifice of any kind.” She paused to watch Laura’s smug face drain itself grey. “Matt’s afraid of you, isn’t he?”

“Fucking terrified and to be honest, Christie, his fear is not my problem. It’s his. I’m not tiptoeing, artificially smiling, or ‘softening’ my demeanor for anyone, much less my husband. If we were fighting, I’d say there was something for me to work on, but we’re not. Things are damn pleasant at the Franklin household these days. And because I know you’re thinking it, yes, the sex is just fine, although I’m not buying the relevance.”

Laura turned toward the elevator bank. Six or seven? Soft science or the real stuff? Screw it, he can make his own counseling appointment. I’m not coddling him either. She stepped into the elevator, held the door, and yelled back at Christie, “Speaking of full disclosure, don’t you think that’s a talent you might want to share with the rest of us?”

Laura let go of the door and scratched at the back of her ear. She and Margaret were about to have a Come to Jesus Meeting. This shit was going to stop today, preferably in the next thirty minutes.

Margaret. Margaret, Margaret, Margaret. Dickhead Margaret. Where to start this afternoon? The woman was not stupid, but short on self-preservation. There was still feedback coming from her implant and she needed Margaret to put some skin in the game. Tweaking an implant to eliminate feedback was something Laura could have handled in two minutes if it was embedded behind someone else’s ear. If she had to fix it herself, she was going to need Evans to disconnect, and Evans would NOT disconnect. According to Christie. Also, according to Christie, she needed to handle Margaret without escalation. Fair enough.

Laura slapped the side of her neck and nearly bit the tip of her tongue off. She wasn’t sure what the hell Evans was going on about, but she was catching one out of every fourth word. She waited until the squealing stopped, took a breath, and said, “Dr. Evans, when you yell into the back of my ear, it’s all garbled. Want to try that again?” Dr. Evans did not want to try that again. The implant was silent. Or Dr. Evans was trying again, and the implant was silent…

“MARGARET! NOW, PLEASE! Get this thing out of me. Just get it out and lay it on the table over here.”

Margaret was whispering. “No, Laura. We can’t do that. You know what’s going to happen to him if you disconnect.”

“Margaret. I think it just happened. He must be down on the fourth floor because we ought to hear screaming. I just need you to get this thing out of me so I can fix it. Then I need you to put it back in. Fast. Please?”

“Laura. I can fix it. I’m sorry.”

“Margaret, if you fix this thing right now, in under twenty minutes, you won’t hear another word about it.”

“I can fix it in five, just come here.”

“What?!”

“You said…”

“You’re right, I’m sorry, carry on.”

Margaret made a small incision behind Laura’s right ear. She bent her head forward and reached for a surgical headlamp. This bot was one of the smallest she’d developed, smaller than the dust mote soldiers. The headlamp was pointless, this had to be done on the table, magnified at least a gazillion times. Gazillion, she’d informed Laura on day one, is an actual scientific measurement. That was the wrong starting foot.

She didn’t expect Laura to forgive the interview conversation, but she would like to be forgiven for an inept attempt at humor. She’d been hiding on the other side of the lab avoiding ‘the look’ and admitted she might be showing a few of her own teeth. The problem with hiding yourself is you also hide your work and if your work is good work, everybody loses. So sayeth Dr. Frank Johnson Evans the Fourth.

They both heard him scream. Margaret put the first prototype behind her own ear and while it didn’t have half the functionality Laura was walking around with, it had no feedback, and she could hear all the way to the ground floor. She wasn’t connected to anyone either, that was a plus. On the other hand, without peer connectivity, a lot of what she learned never made it out of the lab.

Most of what Laura learned was fed directly to Dr. Evans, emotions, and all. She decided to fix the thing in Laura’s head because she knew he was suffering. She also didn’t want him up here anytime soon. Based on their last hallway conversation, it was perfectly clear he’d picked up on the tension with Laura. And he was pissed. The only thing he wasn’t pissed about was that Laura hadn’t personally brought it to his attention.

Margaret closed her eyes and recited The Spaghetti Monster prayer:

I am the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Thou shalt have no other monsters before Me (Afterwards is OK; just use protection). The only Monster who deserves capitalization is Me!”

It was better to be blind than attempt tweaking microscopic things as if your eyes were part of the process; they couldn’t be, so they stayed shut. Unfortunately, she wasn’t finding what she expected in the dark. What should have been lodged behind Laura’s ear was gone. She told Laura to freeze, went to the wall phone, and dialed the AO 911.

She gave precise instructions, including the exact location of Dr. Evans: curled in the fetal position in the back of the coat closet, fourth floor, reception. “No sedation, sorry. Not so much as an aspirin, I don’t want his symptoms masked.”

AO 911 delivered a sweating corpse on a gurney. She thought he might have expired on the way up to seven, but she wasn’t going to be that fortunate. Not that she wanted him dead. God no! She did not want him dead. She just didn’t want him wanting her dead.

Dr. Evans and Laura were slapped down on a table with their implants locations aligned, although one of them didn’t seem to have an implant anymore.

She didn’t need the surgical lamp. Dr. Evan’s implant was pulsing. She gave it a poke, on general principle, and it poked back. She removed one of her gloves and brushed a bare finger over the pulse. The implant pulled back. Margaret applied pressure and the implant vanished. It had to be in there. It was literally RIGHT THERE! She applied a little more pressure. Nothing. Margaret gave Dr. Evan’s neck another frustrated poke. Dr. Evans sat up and screamed.

She slammed him back on the table and looked at Laura. Was she breathing? She didn’t look like she was breathing. Mother of God, I AM going to die in here! Laura opened her eyes.

“Margaret. I am not dead. Dr. Evans is not dead. You are not dead but you’re going to be if you don’t do something.”

She heard me! Holy fuck, she heard me!

“Yes, holy fuck, I heard you. I can still hear you. Can we get on with it?”

Margaret stopped. “Don’t you think that’s a talent you might have shared with the team?” “Fuck you, Dickhead Margaret, and fuck ratfink Christie too. Can we PLEASE get on with it?”

Margaret tapped behind Laura’s ear again, gave up and rolled her on her side. “Laura, what are you seeing right now?”

“Honest to God? Margaret, I’m staring at a HUGE Mother Fucking Koi. And Margaret? This purple bastard’s wearing sequin evening gown with a nifty set of piranha implants. Is there something you’d like to share?”

“Nope. Not just yet, but you and Dr. Evans are going to surgery. Close your eyes, take a breath, and hold it please. This is going to hurt.” Margaret slammed a seven-gauge needle into Laura’s thigh on the word ‘hurt’. Laura shrieked and went down hard.

Both bodies were loaded onto gurneys and at Margaret’s instruction the techs followed her toward the freight elevator.

Margaret was running.

*

American Ophthalmologists was a wholly owned subsidiary of a highly diversified company called Delta Holdings. AO (American Ophthalmologists) was responsible for a single project, code name: Blue Dog. Delta Holdings ran a stealth brand recognition campaign for nearly four years before the final team was in place. The subliminal dog message was still embedded in at least half the sample population. Most of them wondered if the dog still cared.

The property at 220 North Avenue West was appropriated early in the second year of the campaign, but the facility wasn't completed on time. The core team occupied the first two floors with a makeshift lab and minimal medical facilities for close to a year. Shortly before the seventh-floor lab was fully operational, the first pair of glasses were beta ready. Matt Franklin’s lenses weren’t halfway through the second stage of lab testing.

The development team, subcontracted by Delta Holdings, completed the system build and ran the preliminary smoke test. A team of analysts was recruited, indoctrinated, and put in place. The analysts played Speed Poker around the clock. All three shifts were fully staffed and the designated poker tables at capacity. Aside from the cards in their hands, they had nothing to analyze until Matt put on the beta glasses and walked out the door.

The stream of information went from 16kb a day to a terabyte in the first three days. Twenty-eight nearly spent decks of Bicycle Playing Cards flew into the air. Matt Franklin was either the best or worst candidate they could have hoped for.

Margaret's response time exceeded expectations but made the analysts uncomfortable. There were two additional researchers, but Margaret ran the team according to Dr. Evan's direction which was giving her whiplash. The Lead Analyst made a good argument for pulling the subject off the street but was shut down and sent back to the second floor. Tweaks could be made remotely, but they couldn't keep up with the incoming data, which was how they missed the worm.

The Lead Analyst returned to the War Room and delivered the news. She asked if there were questions. There were none; but ten analysts stood up and abruptly left the building. She glowered at the remainder of the team for a few seconds, and just as abruptly, headed for the elevator bank.

She turned back at the open elevator door and yelled, "Nobody moves until I've spoken with Dr. Evans." Nobody moved. Most of them were thinking about the contracts they'd signed.

When the subject was finally pulled off the street with his glasses removed, the analysts lost the data connection. They acquired fresh decks of cards and decided to mix things up a bit by trading Speed Poker for Double Deck Speed War. The data firehose would be back and most likely without warning.

By the time the new connection was in place, one of Margaret’s researchers had given notice. Three days later, the second didn't come back from lunch. Dr. Evans, who lived in the lab didn't come back either. He'd done the initial install with the subject and cleaned up the mess on the back end. Margaret's permanent lenses were at least a year from human trials. Now they were in Matt Franklin’s eyes.

She was stuck with the triage which is why her behavior during Laura's interview concerned both Evans and legal. If Margaret was a danger to the project, she'd have to be removed and Evans had no idea how to replace her. He could drive vision, but he couldn't do Margaret's job. He was counting on Laura to buffer him from Margaret's periodic fits. He was also counting on her to follow Margaret around until she taught herself enough about the bots to handle at least the day-to-day adjustments. 

The auditory implants were developed using an archaic singleband transmission technology and modified to spec. Laura transmitted directly to a download folder stored by the implant behind Dr. Evans’s ear. For the most part, transmission was asynchronous. Dr. Evans could communicate with Laura, but her bot was not equipped with a storage and retrieval device. Dr. Evans got it all, including her disbelief and extreme irritation. He waited for Margaret to get her shit together.

He was aware of the problem with the implant, but he needed Margaret to take initiative. Or at least stop lying to Laura about what she could or could not do. Laura was very close to ripping the thing out of her neck and fixing it herself. The whole team understood what would happen to Dr. Evans if she did that. He was grateful she waited.

He heard it coming, crawled into the back of the coat closet on the fourth floor, and waited for the inevitable.

He was in no way prepared for the fallout. 

Laura and Dr. Evans were side by side in a large examining room converted to an ICU. Margaret wanted to transfer them to Beth Israel in Boston but was overridden by the man from Delta.

Mr. Anderson, in his Men in Black suit, was a random lurker. Nobody knew why he lurked but understood he came from Delta. Because he came from Delta and didn’t bother anyone, he was generally ignored. They only saw him a couple times a month anyway. He was waiting for her when she came out of surgery.

She stepped out of the hazmat suit, turned to scrub, and there he was, like a piece of used toilet paper on a sterile floor. She had no idea how he got through the doors. She knew his name, nothing else. No title, no job function, no credentials, and no reason to believe he was qualified to make any medical decision beyond a hangnail, and probably not that.

She couldn't shake him either. No matter what she did or where she went, the man was never more than three feet off her tail. She wasn't surprised when he followed her into the ladies room, but she drew a firm line at the stall.

Margaret was digging her nails into a fresh roll of prison-grade toilet paper when he got impatient. "It doesn't have windows", she told him through the door. "But I think the toilet escape plumbing might in place..." The door missed her knees by less than a centimeter and shattered the wall tiles. “I see you’re completely devoid of humor, Mr. Anderson. 

Margaret scrubbed and grabbed a fresh suit from the closet. When he tried to follow her back into the ICU, she turned on a heel, poked a finger into his chest and said, "and THIS is another line I'm drawing, but it's not personal, like the toilet. It's personal, as in, if these people die because you bring some shit piece of bacteria in here, it will be the end of you. It may well be the end of me, but you will be an inanimate corpse." She made him strip and step into the shower that was currently doing double duty as a decontamination chamber.

She'd have taken more pleasure watching if he'd bothered to squirm. When he stepped out of the shower, she gave him a good, long up and down. Yup. Just a man. All the right pieces parts in all the right places. He also looked like he knew his way in and out of a hazmat suit. 

Laura was conscious, Dr. Evans was not. Margaret was very clear with Laura, "I don't care what you think you hear, that man is in a coma because I fucked up. He's not talking, Laura. He's not talking, opening his eyes, or responding to the four-inch needle I just stuck through his foot."

“Actually, Margaret, he would really appreciate it if you removed that thing. It hurts like a... I'm sorry, sec, what? OK, I'm happy to repeat that... he says it hurts like a Mother Fucker."

"Laura. Please."

"Margaret, darling, Dickhead Margaret..."

"Did you just call me Dickhead?"

"What?! Inaccurate?”

"Fair enough. What can I do for you, Laura?"

"First, you can get rid of HIM."

"I can't. He's from Corporate and he won't leave."

Laura looked at Mr. Anderson and said, "Get out. Now. Get out now. No more warnings, you leave on your own or I remove you. You won't like it."

Mr. Anderson said nothing.

"Mr. Anderson, really, I think leaving the room would be wise. I'm not sure what she's getting at but if she tells you she can do something, she can and will."

Mr. Anderson said nothing.

"Dude! She is NOT going to speak again. I don't know what she's going to do but speaking won't be part of the equation. As much as you irritate me, you appear to have rubbed this one the wrong way. Like, all over her brain or something. Please go. Please save yourself. Please save me the trouble of having to scrape you off the ceiling."

Mr. Anderson took two steps toward Laura's bed. He stopped mid-stride on the third; one foot hovering several inches above the floor and both hands over his nose and mouth. Small trickles of blood seeped through his fingers. Margaret whispered, "Mr. Anderson. Turn around and walk out that door while you still can…And clean yourself up before you leave the scrub room!" He slammed the door on the way out. She added that to the growing list of things she did know about Mr. Anderson.

A real ICU would have had glass walls, and this sucked because Margaret couldn't tell where he'd gone. Laura said he was heading down to the lobby and not to worry until his replacement showed up. His replacement was going to be somewhat formidable. 

*

It was dark and Laura wondered what her husband was doing. Dr. Evans told her not to spend too much energy on it. Matt was having a hard time processing information past five or six in the evening anyway. He'd probably see two hungry kids, feed them, and go to bed. The kids were used to putting themselves to bed, right?

She asked if he was still in pain; he lied and said, two on the scale. She knew anyway; he was feeding her a steady stream of information, as if the implants were in reverse. They didn't talk about the implants. Dr. Evans called them the elephants in the room that needed to just sit there for a while. When he slept, she climbed aboard his alpha waves and joined him in the cloud. 

Laura was just slightly north of alarmed. “Where the hell are we, Dr. Evans?”

He grinned. This was the first opportunity he’d had to bring a friend to the playground. “Mrs. Franklin, we just happen to be standing in the AWS Cloud.”

"Why are we standing in the AWS cloud?"

"Because this is where everything's happening all the time."

"That's a joke, right? The bots don't live in the cloud, just the code. The bots..."

"The bots live wherever I tell them to live."

"Dr. Evans, this is getting a little creepy.”

"Mrs. Franklin, you haven't seen the half of it. But you're going to see, right now if I can pull it off."

"Whoa, back up the big ass truck. I believe we're already well outside of my clearance."

"Mrs. Franklin, TS clearance is rarely revoked. Expired, maybe, but not revoked without cause."

"I haven't had TS clearance since I was just out of grad school."

"Well, guess what?"

"What?"

"No. Guess."

"Oh, FUCK YOU, FRANK!"

"Finally! Does this mean we can dispense with the formalities?"

"Fuck. You. Frank."

"OK, baby steps, got it."        

"What am I guessing, Frank? Because you know I don't guess. I surmise, but I never guess."

"Hate to be wrong, eh? OK, what was the question?"

"Fuck you, Frank. You're telling me I still have TS clearance."

"No, not exactly. I'm telling you your expired TS clearance was renewed just before you left this building with your offer letter."

"Frank. This is not a Government Installation. You told me that when I asked."

"No, I didn't."

"Yes, you did!"

"Laura, what I said was, ‘not as far as you know’. Chevy Chase, get it? Caddyshack? That’s not the exact quote, but close enough. As far as you know."

"Fuh..."

"Yes, fuck me, Frank. I understand. Can you put that aside so we can get some work done?"

"Yeah, Frank, have at it. Turn my world upside down.”

"Open your eyes, Laura."

In the galaxy that was at least part of the AWS cloud, Frank and Laura stood upright on absolutely nothing. They stood in the center of a dust storm, tiny bright lights dancing, fighting, making love, in a violet slipstream. Frank handed her a surgical mask and mimed putting it on. He remained mask-less but stopped talking other than to whisper, "It's not good to inhale too many of them. Just watch. Margaret will be back eventually, but our bigger problem is going to be what Delta sends to replace that troll you ran out of here."

*

Sam had a problem. Both parents returned to the workplace on Monday, August 29. That left her a week to find morning care for Jeffry; school started the following Tuesday. The high school bus stopped in front of the house at 7:02 and returned for The Littles at 8:20. This was Sam's personal black hole: an hour and eighteen minutes in freefall. 

After school care wasn’t much of a problem. Mr. Hunter was more than happy to have the kids for a couple of hours; they were self-sufficient, and Sam was very responsible. Sam got off the bus at 2:20 and let herself into the house. Matt was convinced she'd lose the house key, but Laura didn't want Reed’s day disrupted until 3:40, which was eight minutes after Jeffry's bus.

Sam rolled her eyes back into her head, doing a fair impression of Regan MacNeil without the pea soup and head spinning. She was working on that. "Sam. Stop it. Matt, look at Jeffry, please." Jeffry's face was mottled green.

"Matt, let me see if I understand this. Letting the kids watch The Exorcist was a perfectly fine idea! Your daughter's nearly got her head on backwards and Jeffry's turned green again. If you think exposing them to Linda Blair was a perfectly fine idea, I'm failing to understand how that logic brings you to Sam losing the house key. She's got Reed to fall back on, Matt."

Sam counted on that hour and twenty minutes to get most of her homework done before Jeffry bounced off the bus and rolled himself to the front door. She figured she could have snacks prepared and bagged, and the door locked behind her in time to meet his bus.

Before delivering themselves to Mr. Hunter’s front door, she ran her brother around the back yard, like a Greyhound on race day. When the Tigger effect wore down, they delivered themselves to After School Care. Her dad didn't know about Mr. Hunter’s house key; she'd had that since his hospital stay.

Her agreement with Mr. After School Care was they'd check in upon arrival and then retreat to the kitchen or back yard making as little noise as possible. Despite his offer to feed them, Sam brought Jeffry home at six and started dinner, which was on the table promptly at seven. Eventually she cut her recipes in half because the leftover situation in the refrigerator was out of hand. 

All that after school and evening business was fine; unlikely to result in a seriously maimed or missing child. Leaving Jeffry in the blackhole between 7:02 and 8:20 was not an option. Best case, he’d simply forget to get on the bus; worse case, he’d freak out on the bus and bite someone. He’d be banned for life.

For the first week, she took him with her and deposited him at the elementary school administrative office. Could they just hold him for a bit? They were out of breath, having bolted from one school to the next and Sam didn't manage to make it to first period anywhere near on time. She expected to get away with it through the first-class rotation but after that she'd be in deep shit.   

On the third afternoon, Sam called the elementary school and asked to speak with the nurse. "Hi, this is Laura Franklin, Jeffry Franklin's mom?"

"Of course. What can I do for you?"

"Well, Jeffry's before school care hasn't worked out and I'm not sure what to do with him. Last year he rode the bus with his sister, but now she’s on the high school bus."

"Yes, I am aware of your current situation. Your daughter deposits him in the office and runs back up that hill like a lunatic. I can't imagine she's made it to first period on time yet."

"I know. It's not optimal but it's kept him contained."

"Mrs. Franklin, are you aware of the early care program we have here? The program we've been managing for over a decade now?"

"Really?! How did I miss that? I certainly called every source I could think of."

"Except this one. Apparently."

"Great! Can you tell me who to contact?"

"I can, but I think they're full."

"Well, that's not exactly helpful, is it?"

"Alright, maybe we can work something out."

"Today?"

"Unlikely"

"Well, until we work something out, Jeffry's going to continue showing up at the office."

"Alright, Mrs. Franklin, I'll make a call now, but let me ask you something, Early Care starts at 6:30. Is getting him here on time something you can manage? By on time, I mean not before 6:30. You absolutely may NOT drop him outside the gymnasium doors before they’re unlocked."

"Yes. I can make that happen. When can I expect to hear back?"

"Quicker than you can imagine. I'm going to put you on hold for a minute."

Sam watched the clock on Reed's kitchen wall. It was an old-time analog thing with a sweeping needle that let you count the seconds. Jeffry didn't know what to make of it. She watched the needle sweep over the top three times. The nurse came back just as the needle was passing the bottom. 

"OK, Mrs. Franklin, here's the deal. We can make a space for Jeffry starting Monday. The cost is $200 per week, assuming he'll be utilizing the entire two hours."

Sam’s jaw dropped

"Is there a problem, Mrs. Franklin?"

"I'm startled at the cost. That's $20 an hour. Unless your student/caretaker ratio is 1:1, that's an awful lot of money to leave a kid in the gym ten hours a week."

"Mrs. Franklin, take it or leave it but I need to know now."

"Done. I'll drop him with a check for the week on Monday."

"No, you'll drop him with a check for the month on Monday. This isn't a summer day camp week to week arrangement."

"Done. Can I prorate it for this month?"

"Tread lightly, Mrs. Franklin."

Sam didn't bother with her parents. She went into the man cave and rifled through Matt’s desk until she found the checkbook. She wrote one check for each month through the end of the school year, not bothering to postdate them. She was pretty sure by the time the bank statement arrived, she'd be able to convince her mother that she'd talked to the school nurse and written the checks herself. Getting him delivered at 6:30 was an open issue.

By Sunday afternoon, Sam managed to pawn Jeffry off on Mr. Hunter who would be more than happy to pick him up at 6:15 and deposit him at the gym. Jeffry didn't process the fact of a much earlier wakeup until Sam stood in his doorway Monday morning. It was 5:45 and she wasn't ready to be up either, but it beat the high school bus option with a big fat stick. 

Samantha Blue Franklin started the 9th grade on September 6. She was still eight years old. On September 13, she turned nine; an event that came and went without remark. She couldn't blame Mr. Hunter; he had no reason to know. She couldn't blame Jeffry, he still couldn't tie his shoes and generally had no idea what day it was, much less the month. She didn't want to blame her parents. Life got weird about the middle of May and slipped a deeper into the twilight zone every day, but they were happy.

Mr. Hunter asked if she felt bad, or maybe even a little resentful about the absence of both parents. She said she missed them but didn't miss the two most miserable people she'd ever met. She was willing to do her part to maintain sanity and equilibrium.

Mr. Hunter stopped mentioning her age. She was an anomaly he didn't understand, but eventually accepted at face value. She knew she was holding onto the birthday non-event but didn't really know what to do with it. Later, she regretted having not told him. He might have talked some sense into her. Or at least smacked her parents upside the head.

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