I want Mama and Daddy back.
Dani shivered and squeezed Ben-Ben, her big gray bear, tighter. I want’em now. Her reflection gazed back at her from the mirror on the right wall—all melted blue eyes and fiery tangled hair. She peered at the beige medical table she sat on, gooseflesh tingling underneath her twinkle-star jammies, and the wet chill of pee aching sorely against her thighs. If only Ben-Ben would—
A muffled click from the sliding door silenced her thoughts. It sighed open, revealing Ms. Savonna with an unfamiliar lady in tow.
“Dani?” Ms. Savonna’s dark ash brown locks, twisted up into a clip, bounced as she hurried forward. “Dear?” The bright contrast between her purple blouse and black skirt exuded an impression of tidy confidence. “Are you all right?” she asked, her voice carrying the same warmth Dani remembered from her auditorium addresses at school.
No. Dani stared. You took Mama and Daddy away from me too.
A worry flickered in Ms. Savonna’s teal eyes. “I’m—I’m sorry to trouble you.” She motioned at the other woman, who was dressed in the same kind of white lab coat Dani’s parents often wore. “But Ms. LeBlanc here really needs to give you a shot for…for your health and safety.”
Ms. LeBlanc moved to Dani’s left, her braided blonde pony-tail swaying like a pendulum between her shoulders. The same way Mama’s does. A deep pang tugged Dani’s heart while Ms. LeBlanc loaded a yellow vial into the injector’s cartridge slot.
“Ca-can you hold out your arm for me, Sweety?” Red puffiness rimmed Ms. LeBlanc’s golden eyes; the glimmer of fresh tears still nestled in their corners.
“Please, Dear?” Ms. Savonna added tenderly. “We promise it won’t hurt.”
Yes it will. Dani sniffled, but silently offered her palm. You’ll hurt me just like the spacesuit men hurt Mama.
Ms. LeBlanc gripped it and extended it out toward her, the softness behind her touch not unpleasant. Dani focused on the sterile white tiles padding the walls as the familiar prick of the needle intensified her gloom. It hissed, ejecting its contents into the side of her arm, and brought nothing more than a twinge of pain with a slight heat in the fleshly part of her elbow.
“See? That wasn’t bad at all, was it?” Ms. Savonna said as Ms. LeBlanc released Dani’s arm. “I threw such nasty fits over needles at your age.” She leaned forward, hands perched on her knees. “But you’re far braver.” She winked. “Just ask Ben-Ben. He’ll tell you.”
Dani gasped. “How—” She clung Ben-Ben protectively. “How do you know his name?”
Ms. Savonna startled back with a jolt. “Oh, well I…” Her hand clamped over her mouth—like she’d said a really bad swear. “I just—” She jerked away, drawing a noisy breath that teetered on the edge of a sob. “I’m sorry.”
Her shoulders curled and she shuddered. Ms. LeBlanc did the same, cringing like she’d just taken a tumbling nosedive from a swing. They froze, as stiff and lifeless as Mr. Bones, the plastic skeleton that hung in Gifted Generation’s infirmary.
The thought of school suddenly made Dani pine to be back there more than anything, surrounded by her friends and the colorful posters decorating the various metal cabinets and walls. Posters like the apple with a big-eyed worm squiggling through, or the blue and pink squirrels grinning as they brushed their pearly white teeth clean. Anywhere but this awful white room with none of her friends around, and Mama and Daddy all gone.
Poise returning, Ms. Savonna cleared her throat, snapping Dani back to reality. “Listen.” She squatted below the table, meeting Dani’s gaze. “I’ll get you out of here as soon as I can, I promise.” She glared at the mirror with a furrowed brow. “I’ll get your parents back for you too.”
“You…you mean it?” Dani’s eyes lingered on their phony doubles, hope rekindling.
Ms. Savonna’s firmness faded. “Yes.” She smiled, the brightness in it softening the steely teal of her eyes. “Just be a big girl for me a little while longer, okay?” Her hand reached out to brush Dani’s hair, but to Dani’s surprise, Ms. Savonna tapped her on the nose with her index finger instead.
Like Daddy did.
“Girls with perky noses have to stick together. Remember that.” Ms. Savonna stood and walked away, Ms. LeBlanc following swiftly behind the clicks of her high heels. The door drew shut. The muffled click echoed.
Dani was alone. Nobody but Ben-Ben to talk to.
Stupid, dumb bear. She snuggled him closer. Can’t even keep me warm. His beady black eyes watched her in the mirror, solemn. If Ms. Savonna can get Mama and Daddy back, I’ll never listen to you again. Ever ever ever!
Ben-Ben said nothing. He enjoyed her misery. Well, I show you.
“I’m a little teapot,” she sang through a mumble. “Short and stout.” She nodded and swung her feet. “Here is my handle. Here is my spout.” The rhythm filled her with cheer. “When I get all steamed up, hear me shout.” Her mirror double beamed, all glum erased “Tip me over and—”
Her reflection faded.
Ben-Ben? She gaped as the mirror rippled like a splash in a pool. Ben-Ben, is that you? It grew translucent, revealing a cool sheen of metallic blue walls. Ben-Ben, what are you…
Murmurs rustled against a backdrop of electric whirls and beeps. Nearly a dozen more adults in white lab coats sat at terminals. Each one wedged along the wall in a half-circle row. Orange holo-screen’s hovered above them. Innumerable text and 3D models of strange molecular shapes flashing across. What are they doing in there, Ben-Ben? She grew mesmerized by the lone figure watching her in the glass’s center—a wrinkly old woman smoking a nasty cigarette.
Who is that, Ben-Ben? Dani didn’t know, and Ben-Ben kept silent. She grew intrigued to figure it out, like solving for X in an equation. Cyn…Cyn… The old woman’s long face sagged like a well-worn bag under a silver pixie cut. Cyn-dy… A pearl necklace gleamed around her neck above a navy blue jacket and white blouse. Cyn-thee...ah…
She pinched the cigarette between her fingers as she blew a trail of smoky clouds from her hooked nose. Cynthia…Rains? Her eyebrows arched with the milky violets of her eyes.
Then, she spoke.
—Stupid little shit. It’s a double—
Dani’s heart leapt in her throat. She...she did this. Her face tightened. She did this! A rocking lull of waves trickled in her ears. SHE DID THIS! SHE DID THIS! The ballads of sea gulls cried high and free. SHE HURT MAMA AND DADDY! Her arms crushed Ben-Ben. HURT THEM! HURT THEM! HURT THEM!
The old woman’s cigarette hand trembled.
—No way. She…she’s just spooked by—
Dani sneered. I’ll…I’ll… Blood drummed against her temples. Hot tears spilled down her cheeks. I’ll make you… She swelled with an aching pressure that demanded release—a pouring out until it was emptied and satisfied and freed and—
A gentle finger traced across her cheeks. “Don’t be hurting, Sweet One.” It wiped her tears away. “Your flesh is safe.”
Dani blinked, snapped out of her stupor…and found herself perched on a large stone underneath the mountainous rocks of a craggy shore. Wind blew and whipped the long ends of her flaming red hair. Her pink sundress fluttered carelessly with the breeze, mimicking the rising tide of the blue waves washing in and out below.
She slipped off the rock onto the sandy grounds. Heat scorched her feet, but the pain meant little. She moved forward a few steps, trying to find balance. Her limbs were tall and lanky like an adult’s. She even had breast—though hers were quite smaller than Mama’s. “H-how come I’m always all grown-up here?” she asked.
“It’s your true form, silly flesh. What you’ve yet to fully sprout.”
Dani bit her lip. “I don’t understand.”
A chuckle rang out. Filled with an affectionate, almost sympathetic delight. “Come, walk with me, child. Enjoy this realm of yours.”
“Where?” Dani looked around, but saw no one.
“Right behind ya, Reddy Head Head!”
“Ben-Ben?” Dani turned, finding him standing only a few feet from her in the sand. “Ben-Ben!” Happiness bubbled in her chest. “I’ve been waiting for you! Where’ve you’ve been?”
Ben-Ben titled his head and scratched behind a chubby ear. “Why, right in your arms, of course, you silly goose.” He waddled over, his stumpy legs somehow holding the rounded pear-shaped bulk of his body up without tumbling him over in a splat. “You know I can only talk when no one else is watching us.”
Dani pouted. “B-but I need your help, Ben-Ben.”
Ben-Ben’s black eyes gleamed with compassion. “Well, I’m here for ya now, aren’t I, Reddy Head Head?” He offered his right paw. “No need for glum. Let’s take a stroll—like the Queen said?” Dani hesitated. He was too short for her to reach. His small ears barely met the height of her calves alone.
Still, she held out her hand to the air, and felt the grip of a furry paw. “We’ll turn that frown upside down, won’t we, Red?” They started forward. “Yes, we certainly will!”
Dani walked, her attention quickly lost among the clouds in the light blue sky. Their white, thick swirls of cotton candy yummy enough for a delicious treat. She studied the sun, which tingled her cheeks in playful warmth. So bright, and certain to never fade. Seagulls soared in the distance, casting shadows across the beach and honking out happiness. Dani smiled, wishing she could do the same.
“Gee golly, isn’t this place just swell, Reddy Head Head?” Ben-Ben asked.
“It’s beautiful.” Dani shifted her eyes down at him. “It’s beautiful and wonderful and all so amazing!”
“That’s the spirit, Red.” He pointed his free paw out to the ocean. “There’s not a dandier place for ya than here—especially compared to that funky Everywhere Light.” He raised his head back in a snort. “It’s no good, Red. No good at all.”
Dani stopped. “Whaddya mean, Ben-Ben?”
“The Everywhere Light, Red.” Ben-Ben peered up at her. “Nothing but endless, chaotic hurts.” His light gray muzzle twitched. “Like a nasty booboo on the knee that just won’t go away, no matter how much you cry.” He raised his stumpy arms in exasperation. “It just stings and stings and stings—forever and ever!”
Dani glimpsed at the clear horizon. “Are you sure, Ben-Ben?” She admired how it cradled the vastness of the ocean with such ease. “There’s light here, too.”
“But it’s your light, Reddy Head Head.” Ben-Ben’s invisible paw let go. “You pull the strings behind its curtain.” He waddled closer to the shoreline. “The poor Queen tried to control it, but the Everywhere Light was just too much!” His head dipped low, saddened. “She got turned into a big ole husk when it bloomed.”
“The Queen?” Dani moved over to his right. “Who’s that, Ben-Ben?”
“Oh! Don’t be such a silly goose, Red— you know her!” He hopped up and down like a child pitching a fit. “Yes you do! Oh yes you do!” His black buttoned nose wrinkled. “Don’t deny it!”
“But…I don’t, Ben-Ben.”
He placed his paws sternly on his hips. “How can you not? She’s the very spur of existence! The keeper of eternal rest! The devourer of dreams!” He darted his head at the lapping waves near them. “Go, go on! Look, and see her for yourself!”
“O-okay.” Not wanting to upset him any further, Dani stepped into the ocean. The tail end of a foamy tide swept over her ankles like an inviting caress. She took another delicate step, then another, until the warm water soaked her just above the knees. Her sundress’s ends flirting just shy of the ocean’s pristine touch.
“What now?” Dani asked, afraid of being swallowed below any moment.
She did, and waited. The water only shivered in sparkles. “I-I don’t see anything, Ben-Ben.” She glanced back with a shrug. “Just water.”
“Keep lookin’, Red.” He held his paws next to his muzzle, shouting. “You gotta focus first!”
She obeyed, and narrowed her eyes. Show me the Queen. Pretty please, ocean? No response. She concentrated harder. Show me show me show me, with plenty of sugar and sweets on top?
Slowly, the glimmer of sun faded from the waves. A darkness creeped in its place, seeping its blue pores into a murky, menacing black. She peeked up, startled. The sunlight returned full strength.
“No, no, don’t stop now—you almost had it!” Ben-Ben’s voice rattled in a toddler’s shrill. “Don’t be such a scaredy-cat! There’s no boogeyman that’s gonna pop out and get you!”
“I don’t know,” Dani muttered, but she cleared her mind and tried anyway. Who’s the Queen? Will cupcake sprinkles and cream grant me oh-so-much-please? The darkness rose back over the depths, suffocating all light. She gripped the sides of her sundress to keep her nerves steady. Show me the Queen, so Ben-Ben won’t be mad no more.
The wind stalled, and the tides lulled. A moonlight slithered along the water in a snake-like curl, painting the waves with a somber glow. Excitement rippled through her as a silence hushed over the air and the water ebbed to a still. The Queen! She tensed and her eyes widened…but nothing came.
“There’s nothing here, Ben-Ben.” She frowned at her reflection in the moonlight.
“Oh bother,” he said. The sunlight and waves and wind all rushed back. “You’re as dense as my fluff, Reddy Head Head.” He plopped down on his fanny and sighed. “I can’t play no more now. I’m all tuckered out.”
“Fine!” She crossed her arms and sulked. Stupid, dumb bear.
“Now that’s mean of you, Red. You don’t want to be a meanie girl, do you?”
She shot him a dirty glare. “You’re nothing but a bunch of cheap stuffing and fake fur!”
He made a wounded, whistle-like noise from his muzzle. “Now that’s a real low ball, Red. Oh, how wild you’ve grown since the days we played together so inseparably.” He sniffled, and wiped his paw against his face as if wiping a tear away. “But it’s okay. I’ll always love you bunches and bunches, and be your special friend for evers and evers. Oh yes, I will!”
Dani let the crash of the waves and drum of the wind answer for her. I don’t need him. She drew in the beautiful landscape sprawled before her like a sacrificial offering from an altar. I don’t need anyone. Not here. The salty fragrance of seaweed on baked sand imbued her with such clarity, such assurance, such power. Every sweet breath she siphoned from it in her lungs only made her greedier for the next.
More and more, until none of the Everywhere Light is left to consume. Her lip curled into a smirk. I don’t need Ms. Savonna’s help. I don’t need Roxi or Judy. I don’t even need Mama and—
Dani’s breath hitched in her throat. “Daddy!” She sloshed through the water back to Ben-Ben on the shore. “Ben-Ben, what happened to Daddy?”
“Oh, I think you already know, Red.” He wore a grave look. “The same thing that happened with you and your Mama.”
“No.” She saw the scary men in space-suits barge into her home again, and trembled. “They couldn’t have gotten Daddy like that.”
“Oh, but they did.” Ben-Ben clutched his chest, recoiling with a moan. “And they’re hurting him so bad right now too.” He stood, stumbling around in a dizzy spell. “Bu-bunch of darn fiends! They almost don’t even care how badly they beat him!” He staggered another step before collapsing on his back.
“Ben-Ben!” She dashed over, dropped to her knees and picked him up. “Ben-Ben, oh no!”
He raised a shaky paw. “It…it hurts, Reddy Head Head.” It was Daddy’s voice now. No trace of Ben-Ben left. “Daddy’s sorry he couldn’t protect you, or your Mama, like he should.” He touched her cheek. “We’re going to have to say good-bye soon. I know it’ll hurt…like it’ll hurt us…but…but just remember, Red—we’ll always love you, no matter where you are.”
His paw fell away and went limp.
“Daddy!” Dani squeezed Ben-Ben against her face in a hug. “Daddy, no!” Tears stung her face, and she choked on a sob. “No! No! No!” She smothered herself into Ben-Ben and cried. His musty old scent making the sorrow in her heart ache longingly all the greater. She tremored back and forth, lost in the waves of her convulsions. “Da-Daddy…”
A singing coo laced with pity brushed against her ears. “Oh, Sweet One, why do you weep so great? Doesn’t this realm of flesh comfort you with its strength, beauty, and wonder?”
“How…how can I…w-with Mama an’ Da-Daddy…gone.”
A dismissive rebuke. “Come, child. Come, silly meat-and-bone matter. Let me correct you. Let me show you your true nature. Do not waste your grieve over such pitiful things. These fleshy shells—far too numerous and fragile to count like the Everywhere Light’s stars. Even the ones who gave your new flesh form are not worth a drop of your preciousness.”
Dani tore away from Ben-Ben and sneered at the sky. “I WANT THEM BACK!”
An annoyed sigh drifted through the air. “Very well, Sweet One. It will be as you wish. You have such firmness in tone for such a young little seedling. I cannot bend you yet, but as you sprout, I’m sure you will prove a more than worthy surrogate to host.”
“I just want Mama and Daddy back.” Dani sniffled, and wiped her eyes. “That’s all that matters.”
“Then you must send the one the cause of your pain to me, Sweet One.”
Ben-Ben wriggled to life again in her hands. “To the Nowhere All-Dark, Reddy Head Head!”
“Ben-Ben?” She stared at him in amazement. “I-I thought you were—“
A large pain erupted in her head. She dropped Ben-Ben on the ground and pressed her palms against her temples.
—CYN. SIN. XIANG. XANOS—
She leaned over the sand on her elbows, sucking in quick breaths in-between gasp of pain.
Dark clouds stormed above, blotting out the sun’s light from existence.
A shrill scream roared the breeze away.
Ben-Ben wobbled from side-to-side, cradling his head like Dani. “Ben-Ben,” she whispered, hardly able to speak. “Ben-Ben, what’s—“
She writhed in agony as another scream pierced the air and seized her up. A harsh, ashy taste overwhelmed her nostrils. The bitter taste of blood welled in her throat. She choked, her throat constricted. Hardly able to draw even a meager gulp of air. Then another burst of pain whacked her in the head and the sensation vanished.
—LILY! TANNER! PLEASE! I-I CAN’T—
“Stop it!” Dani cried. “Stop it, Ben-Ben!”
“Too…too late,” he said in a monstrous drawl. “The Queen…already de-decided…” The paunch of his gut ripped open at the seams. Small tuffs of fluff poured out of him and spilled over the sand. He clutched his belly with a terrified whimper. “Too…late. She’s already…” He arched his head back with a frightened yell so loud, his muzzle tore open and dribbled stuffing over his faded gray fur.
“BEN-BEN!” Dani thrust out a hand. “BEN-BEN, NO!”
Ben-Ben pushed his paws against his hand and roared with howling wind and thunder one last time.
—CAN’T DIE! NOT YET! NOT YET! NOT BEFORE—
His head blew apart and scattered in a misty shower in torn patches of fluff-on-fur.
Ben-Ben’s headless corpse fell backwards in the sand as the beach blackened and the wind ceased. A pair of glowing orbs floated above him, as radiant and shiny as solar lenses. More pairs manifested to its sides, on top, and even below where she kneeled. More and more, so numerous, so many—the ones in the distance twinkling like stars.
Gray Eyes. Her Gray Eyes. Watching, waiting, yearning for her touch, her mind, her consciousness. To take her all into themselves, and be united once again.
Together, in the Nowhere All-Dark.
Dani shut her own eyes, and waited to meet Ben-Ben’s fate. When she didn’t, she peeked and found herself sitting in the white room again. Ben-Ben tucked in her arms, head intact. But when she glanced at the mirror, only the reflection of her and Ben-Ben stared back.
No Cynthia Reigns to speak of.