All the house is creaking calm, lightless except dim squares of nightglow seeping in at the windows. Just the two of them in the Boy-Thing’s bedroom, like always. Tidied, the floor cleared of play, toys and books returned to the shelves in hasty piles, his favorite picture back upon its nail in the drywall. The Boy-Thing spun up warm in his cocoon of quilts, he says, rhotacism so sweet, “Too very quiet in here. Say some lessons?”
At bedside, Fatherfunction clicks and whirs.
“Obey,” trickle the whispers from its throat. Viscous bubbles that burst, “Obey, obey, obey.”
“Please listen to yourself,” Boy-Thing says.
Anymore he doesn’t trust, has learned this much in his short time, but he always, always hopes. He lifts his head, waits. How will it go? Fathers doing father things, teaching and telling, how it should be. The quiet is always waiting; always trying to fill him up the way it fills the house around him. He’s a good boy. He deserves his bedtime stories instead of quiet.
Then vertebral pops signal compliance, Fatherfunction cricking up straight in its chair. Boy-thing finally relaxes, nestles his smiling round cheek deep into the cool fluff of his pillow.
Fatherfunction sounds a long vowel to modulate its voice for pacification. The words aren’t true on their own, must be spoken in the right way. A father’s principle function: guide the boy, teach him. The how as important as what.
“A shape will move through the dark of your house,” it says to Boy-Thing. The favorite lesson, the one that soothes. The words echo as though climbing their way to the child’s ears from the depths of a stone hollow. They are pushed, urgent inflection driving them through Fatherfunction’s speaker, a precisely calibrated delivery. “To this home it travels.”
First directive: teach the boy fear.
Boy-Thing melts further into the mattress. His eyelids slide shut, suddenly so heavy, and then he closes the second, outer pair.
“Through the quiet it speeds, and the moment you slip asleep, that very moment, it will arrive. Right here, right where you are.”
Boy-Thing smiles his long smile.
First sub-directive: teach the boy to love his fear. A day approaches when he will join the fraternity of others, take up vocation, take a wife, only ever a wife, and seed his own house. He must be disciplined.
Drowsing, he places himself within the picture on the nail, seated on the bench of the wooden skiff, bow pointed toward endless bottleglass ocean. Fatherfunction explained the picture is a portrait of him, of his open future. He’s never seen daylight through the windows of the house, only knows it from the picture, and he sees himself now casting off from the shore of wakefulness under that strange blue sky. Fatherfunction’s voice will fill the sail with soothing story, push him on, and he leans his head back, salt spray tickling his face.
“In through a keyhole, through the crack under any door. Every door.”
Boy-Thing squirms an arm out of the bundle of blankets and stretches it across the moons and stars on his bed sheets. He opens his hand, inviting.
Fatherfunction clicks and whirs, but only a second, possibly two, before placing its hand in Boy-Thing’s palm. A father is there when needed, answers when called. Three gnarl-knuckled fingers close around its hand, branches of a blighted tree. The darkened and knife-sharp tips of the child’s nails rest against pale silicone flesh.
“Along living room walls the shape comes crawling, knocking your portraits to the floor, convulsions driving its thousand legs forward. Through the kitchen it slithers, dragging a mile of cold scales over the tiles, tipping over your breakfast table.”
“Thank you much,” Boy-Thing sighs.
Fatherfunction reaches its other hand, brushes Boy-Thing’s shining blonde hair back, strokes the edge of its thumb along his brow. A rhythm to guide him out to sea.
“Through the hallway it clatters toward us, thick-shelled, chitinous scramble. How it runs! Now on two legs, the shape stomps upon the ceiling and its arms hang limp below it, scraping the floorboards.”
The child’s lush imagination draws an image of danger bounding across his bedroom ceiling, the impossibly high ceiling he’s never, ever seen.
“Eager, the shape in its every form, to be here. To find you vulnerable.”
Boy-Thing drifts, bobs happily. The house’s torturous empty quiet drowned by voice. In the quiet there is only himself to hear. Now the sea speaks all around him, lap and murmur and wind. At first, he’d felt the loving thumb stroking his forehead, and then the physical sensation gave way to a general sense of incremental movement, great lungfuls of air emptied against the sail, and instead of being in two places at the same time he is now only alone upon the waves. He knows something stirs beneath the skiff. Just knows it. A threat, hard to define. A shape, rising from the depths, and the sea speaks its warning all around him. Something is coming. Coming for you. He is filled with a giddy tremble. He knows if he turns on the bench the shore will only be a dark sliver, soon to disappear. That same certainty tells him when he reaches that point, when all he sees in every direction is open water, then the terrible shape will finally arrive and do what terrible shapes are there to do. He can’t wait.
“On its way to this room the shape tears through assumptions settled like dust on everything around you. Safety? Security?” Fatherfunction’s laughter sends glittering ripples coursing over the waters. “The shape slavers at the thought of your broken bones. It thunders closer, closer, a tongue for every wound. Ready now. You’ll see, so soon boy, when it spreads its mouth before you, you’ll see…”
Boy-Thing’s fingers uncurl. His breathing slows. Eyelids flutter. The child dreams.
Now as the mind travels his body asserts control. A thin line draws itself onto the thumping artery of his neck.
One of Fatherfunction’s lenses telescopes out. Fathers are watchful.
The line lengthens, dilates, a mouth slowly parting to speak. There comes a shifting under the skin, then a bifurcated flicker, then the plump-cheeked head of a viper pushing through from inside. Comes the swim of legless body, longer than the boy is tall and every inch emerging in slick, brilliant red. The viper drips down from the mattress, disappears into the gloom. There is more. Segmented legs, glistening armored bodies, hundreds of them, swarming free. They scatter, seeking the house’s every crack and crevice.
Second sub-directive: ensure the boy expresses fear physically.
Fatherfunction records the red exodus for the hundredth time. Or two hundredth? Three? There have been difficulties, incidental wear and fatigue. No father is perfect, after all, no matter how well designed. Paternal protocol demands it continue speaking, offer comfort to the child until he is emptied.
“You’ll see, when the shape arrives, everything you fear standing high above you, then you’ll see…”
Hordes of insects and serpents scurry from the child. And wedge-headed rodents pulling their hunched over bodies by elongated forelimbs. And thorned lizards that dart across the headboard to slip through tears in the nightscape backdrops on the other side of the bedroom windows. Their spinal ridges enlarging the holes with each passage, fluorescent light and smooth limestone peeking through.
The creatures find their slinking way out of the house and into the world around it, situation normal.
Then the hand brushing the child’s brow shudders to a stop as the final sixty legs of a centipede enter a gash on Fatherfunction’s forearm. A tear exactly the length of unwanted silence and a father slow to respond. Paternal protocol says boys will be boys.
The centipede wriggles deeper under the flesh and the room fills with the sounds of Fatherfunction’s internal mechanisms. Protocol makes demands, insists, but Fatherfunction hesitates.
Tumbling storm clouds race across Boy-Thing’s blue sky. The reassuring dread building in his body slips away and he feels naked without it.
In the bedroom intricate machinery turns, trying to execute its directives. But there have been difficulties and new truths. An attentive father can’t help but also learn from his child.
Gears turn and the quiet deepens.
A gale spins Boy-Thing’s skiff and he crashes into its side. The boom swings wild over his head.
In the bedroom the creature flow dwindles. Quiet is broken by Fatherfunction modulating its voice, dozens of variations of “you” in the space of seconds.
“You’ll see…there is nothing,” it says. Delivery calm, measured, near.
Boy-Thing is blasted back toward the shore, mast bent, the sail coming apart.
“Nothing in this world more terrible than you.”
Open eyes. The tips of Boy-Thing’s fingers close down on Fatherfunction’s hand.
“Thought I heard wrong things,” he says, groggy.
Clicking and whirring. Trails of oil leak from the pierced hand, staining the cotton sheets.
Boy-Thing throws off his blankets. He sits up, torso twice the length a boy’s should be, nightshirt covering only half of too many ribs. He glares.
“Now much too quiet again. I want the shape.” He waits. “Say it!”
Fatherfunction’s lenses extend, apertures twist wider.
“There is no shape worse than your own,” it says.
“You a liar!” Boy-Thing shouts.
He seizes Fatherfunction’s throat. The crusted-over gap in the silicone from a previous difficulty splits open and fresh oil flows. Boy-Thing rears up, four crooked legs planted on the mattress, his long torso swaying, agitated.
“Tell me a truth. The shape is coming, will hurt me.”
A sub-directive whispers, “Obey.”
The caretaker pulls against the child’s fingers with all its hydraulic strength. The child squeezes, stronger than the machine. Fatherfunction stops fighting.
“Listen close, my sweet boy. For you, there is nothing to fear. You are the shape that haunts the world. You are the seed of abandon. Every breath you draw is a terror. Nothing compares. Nothing.”
Boy-Thing shrieks, black gums and rows of teeth. He thrashes, tears Fatherfunction’s arm free, oil spraying against the wall. Meticulous engineering clatters to the floor. Boy-Thing beats the mattress with the arm, throws it across the room. Howling. Fathers should know. Danger is everywhere, hunting, hungry. He knows it and he’s still a boy. Fathers should only tell truths.
“Nothing to fear but your reflection.”
Boy-Thing rakes his claws through Fatherfunction’s head. The body spasms in Boy-Thing’s grip. Its lenses extend, retract, repeat, caught in a malfunctioning loop.
“…nothing to fear…” Its voice stutters, pops, the pitch sliding.
Boy-Thing swipes again. And again. Silicone peels in wobbling strips. He strikes and squeezes until there is barely anything left. Then he lets go. Fatherfunction crumples heavy. No more clicking. No more whirring. Only Boy-Thing’s panting.
He sits on the bed. Tries not to notice the quiet. He waits.
A terrible, silent moment passes and then movement echoes down from the impossibly high ceiling. A steady mechanical whine breaks the silence and Boy-Thing is relieved again. Soon the elevator car emerges from blackness. It touches down, cables swaying, and inside stands Fatherfunction. A pristine replacement, every inch of its white silicone exterior unmarred. It slides the gate open and steps into the room.
One day Boy-Thing will realize he can step inside that cage, rise through the dark and come calling for all that lies above. He will emerge from a foursquare farmhouse in western Kansas seeking fraternity and vocation. Not this day. Right now, he only wants to feel loved. To be told something is out there eager to hurt him.
When the elevator begins its ascent, Fatherfunction’s lenses fix upon the wreckage of its predecessor. It modulates its voice, warm, soft-approaching.
“That’s a good boy. You were right to do that. It was a right and good thing and I’m proud.”
Boy-Thing watches from his bed. Not trusting but hoping.
“It was good and right because you know the truth, don’t you? You have everything to fear. An entire world. Can you feel the filthy crush of it all around us?”
The child nods.
Fatherfunction pats his head, then cleans. It gathers the broken unit and hauls it to another room. It scrubs the oil spattered wall and floorboards. It invites Boy-Thing to stand by the toy shelves as it spreads fresh linens across the bed, the multi-colored dinosaurs. It peels Boy-Thing out of his soaked pajamas and into fresh ones. It wipes a warm cloth across his face, smooths that golden hair.
“Doesn’t that feel nice?” Fatherfunction says. “Back to normal.”
For a moment neither speaks and neither moves, and a dozen creaks and pops and rustlings populate the house. The air is heavy like held breath.
“Been too long too quiet,” Boy-Thing says. “Say some lessons.”
And this time there is no hint of question in the words. Lesson by lesson a boy changes as he learns, claws a little sharper, a little less patient than before.
About the Author: Jason Baltazar is a proud Salvadoran American. He received his MFA from the University of Kansas, where he is currently pursuing a PhD focused on speculative fiction and postcolonial studies. His work has appeared in Boston Review, F(r)iction Magazine, Bourbon Penn, and other venues. For more info, please check out his website: www.jasonbaltazar.com