“Couldn’t we just hang out here?” Hugh pleaded.
“No! We spend enough time here already!” Nella responded, gesturing around them. They were sitting on a crumbling concrete stage in the amphitheater of a long abandoned park. This is where the old circus used to set up when it was in town. Performers of all sorts would stand on this very stage and do their acts. For whatever reason, the place had always made Nella uneasy, whereas Hugh enjoyed the somber quietness. It brought back fond memories for him, though he had never elaborated on that to her. He felt like it would only complicate things.
“I just like it here,” he said softly.
“It’s creepy,” she shot back.
Hugh had known this was coming for some time. He and Nella had been dating long enough that it was strange that she had never met his family, but he couldn’t bring himself to bring her home for introductions. His mother was, well, what one might call different. Hugh had tried to explain his reservations about Nella meeting her, but she was having none of it. She loved him, she had stated matter of factly, and therefore, she would love his mother.
“Let’s go!” she demanded, grabbing his arm and pulling. He went limp and let her pull him over. He toppled like a sack of flour, landing heavily on her foot. She started laughing and continued to pull, but she was not strong enough to do much more than rock him.
“Fine!” she said, and then plopped down on top of him, “If you want to stay here so bad, we can.”
Hugh wished that her statement was true, but he knew full well that she would begin to pester him again within a few minutes. It wasn’t that he was ashamed of his mom. He really wasn’t. He loved her, and she, well, he supposed that she could love? She had always supported him, that much he knew, and taken as good care of him as she knew how.
“I just think it’s weird,” Nella started, “That you say you love me, but you won’t let me meet anyone who is important in your life.” Hugh sighed, hearing a hitch in her voice. She covertly brushed a tear away from her cheek and sniffled slightly. It was then that Hugh knew he wasn’t going to win this round. It was time for her to meet his mother.
During the walk to his family home, Hugh argued back and forth with himself about what he was about to do. He felt bad, ambushing Nella with the oddities that surrounded his upbringing, but he couldn’t figure out how to phrase anything to explain things. His mother was different. He had told her that. Hugh had been adopted, he had also pointed out, though he did not go into the details of his unorthodox adoption. Although, to be honest, if she didn’t gather that he was adopted when she met his mom, perhaps she was not nearly as observant as he had always assumed. He chuckled to himself at the idea that she would be unaware of it, and turned to smile at her. Anxiety had spread across her normally cheerful face. This was a big step for both of them. Hugh squeezed Nella’s hand and her eyes frosted over with impending tears.
“We don’t have to do this,” he whispered, pulling her into a hug.
“Yes we do! I’m just nervous. It’ll be fine,” she perked herself back up. Her stubbornness was one of her most prominent traits, and Hugh had learned to love it.
“Well, if you’re sure,” he started, his eyes drifting away from her.
“Of course I am!” She cut him off.
“Well, then, we’re here,” he motioned down a gravel path through a heavy canvas of trees. An old iron gate hung slightly ajar, creaking with the breeze.
As they walked down the path towards the dilapidated house, Hugh’s mind wandered. He didn’t remember much about his adoption. His memory came in patches, anyway, and that part of his life was especially threadbare. He could remember hearing music at a distance and going to it, through a fog of tears. His mother was gone. He couldn’t find her. She had vanished into the crowd; her frail body seeming to dissipate into mist. Hugh was small enough he dodged through the crowd unnoticed, like a rodent desperately seeking shelter from some incoming talons. Calliope music. It teased and frolicked towards him and then shrank back, pulling him along on its tails.
“What’s that?” Nella asked, pulling him from his memories. Hugh looked at her in confusion, still trying to force his consciousness into the present.
“That sound?” She tilted her head and cupped her ear with one hand as though trying to amplify whatever it was she heard. “Don’t you hear it?”
Hugh stopped and listened. Faintly, he could hear that same old calliope music that had lured him to his new family so many years ago. The music had become such a normal part of his life, he almost didn’t hear it at this point. It was almost as though he had grown up inside a music box.
“That’s my mom,” he grinned at her.
The music grew louder as they got closer, reaching full performance volume as they entered the old house.
“Mom!” Hugh shouted, closing the door, “I’m home!”
The music faltered slightly and then continued, growing louder.
“We’ll come to you, Mom, just stay where you are,” he called out. The music stopped suddenly.
“We?” a tinny voice responded, “‘We’ indicates plurality. Have you brought a companion?”
Hugh smiled nervously at Nella. Her brow furled with confusion, and she walked alongside him, leaning against him more than she normally would have done. They passed through a dusty old dining room. The table was covered with a variety of gadgets that Nella could not identify. Only one place on the table was uncovered and usable for its traditional purpose. Her eyes darted around, taking in as much as she could. Everything about the house seemed antique. Lithographs littered the walls. An old fashioned coffee mill was perched on the countertop next to a stack of weathered newspapers. When at last they made their way into an old sitting room, Nella’s eyes continued to scan her surroundings.
“Mom,” Hugh said, “this is Nella. Nella, this is my mom.” Nella searched to see who he was talking to.
“Salutations,” the tinny voice rose as if from a series of pipes that stood in the middle of the room. Nella nodded towards it.
A cacophony of metal against metal and hissing steam suddenly rattled through Nella’s chest and she noticed the pipes began to move towards her. Her eyes focused at last, finally seeing the face of Hugh’s mother. Her face was made of copper, frozen in a permanent theatrical smile. The mouth opened and closed when she spoke, much like that of a ventriloquist’s dummy. With each step that she took, metal clinked and clanked about, and the pipes that rose from her torso played the tune that Nella had heard as they approached the house.
“Hugh, your companion appears to be frightened,” his mother stopped in her approach, and with that, the music ceased.
Hugh turned to Nella and shrugged slightly before explaining.
“My birth mother left me a long time ago. I found mom at the old circus. She took me in. Her inventor, who I have always just called grandpa, taught me how to properly maintain her gears and workings before he passed away,” he breathed heavily, the anxiety of finally having this conversation rippling through him. It was a speech he had rehearsed over and over in his mind for years, and yet he found himself unprepared facing the moment head on.
“I know this is a lot,” he whispered, closing his eyes tightly. He felt Nella squeeze his hand, and when he opened his eyes, he saw her stepping forward.
“My name is Antonella, but I go by Nella,” she smiled gently at the machine’s face, “what would you like for me to call you?”
“I am an Automaton Steam Calliope Model 036,” the voice rattled briefly as the question was processed, “You may call me Calli.”