The mother swung her head down, making eye contact with the large black goggles that engulfed the majority of the little girl’s head. She shifted the basket of laundry from her left hip to her right. “Brenna?”
“Are we going to get dinner soon?”
“It’s barely even—” her mother checked the broken clock on the wall before remembering it hadn’t worked in years. “It’s not even six yet. Are you hungry? I just gave you a snack.”
Brenna shook her little head, the goggles wobbling comically. “No, I just wanted to know when we could get dinner.”
“It’s ‘cause she wants to go to sleep,” her brother said from across the room. He looked at them upside-down, dangling his head off the front of the couch. “So she can take off her goggles.”
Their mother knelt by Brenna, putting the basket of laundry down by her side. “Is that true, honey?” When she looked directly at Brenna, she could almost see the horizontal lines that divvied up the vision of the little girl. Not for the first time, she wished Brenna had been twins so she could have experimented with horizontal lines as well.
Brenna nodded shyly, looking over at her brother, Oliver, for validation. “They hurt more in the afternoon. Can I take them off? Just for a little bit?”
“Her hair is starting to fall out where the straps are,” Oliver added, his face turning a rich purple.
Their mother ran her fingers along the straps that kept the goggles affixed to Brenna’s face before standing back up. “Tell you what. I can adjust the straps tonight, alright?”
Brenna’s nose twitched. “Couldn’t I just take them off for a little bit? I’d keep my eyes shut, I promise.”
“No, honey, you know we can’t do that. You seeing things normally might skew my results, and you know how long I’ve been working on this paper.”
“I said no!” Immediately Brenna backed down, shrinking away from her mother, who sighed. “I’m sorry, Brenna-bean. Mommy is just… Mommy isn’t having the best day today, okay? I’m sorry I snapped at you.”
Her brother piped up, turning himself right side up on the couch. “Is it because of what happened to Peter?”
His mother sighed again. She always forgot how tactless he was a few months after the surgery. At least she was getting good data out of him still. Usually usefulness dropped beginning in pubescence, but Oliver was rounding thirteen now and he still managed to rewire his brain from the damage she routinely administered, which was incredible. Maybe he was habituating to the damage itself? She would have to remember to put that in the limitations section of her paper. “Yes, Oliver, I’m sad because of Peter.”
“I’m sorry, Mother.” Oliver cast his solemn brown eyes downward and his mother melted. Although she’d never admit it, she had always considered him the most adorable of her children.
Brenna picked at the straps. “So you’re going to fix the straps tonight?”
“Sure, honey. Do you know where Jaime is?”
“He’s upstairs with Mira,” Oliver said, bouncing off the couch and to his mother’s side. He was almost as tall as she was now, she thought, and with a pang she thought of Peter, who had towered over her towards the end. “Do you want me to get him?”
“If you would.”
Oliver dashed up the stairs with reckless abandon. “Be right back!”
Brenna looked up at where he’d gone longingly. “Can I go play with Mira and Oliver?”
“Not yet, honey. You’ve still got a few worksheets to do.” Brenna scowled, but returned to the table. “And no turning the paper either.”
Brenna’s lip trembled. “But then I can’t—”
“That’s the point, dear. As soon as you finish, you can go play.” Her mother lifted the basket back up, repositioning it on her hip as she left the kitchen. She’d barely started to put the dirty clothes in the washer before she heard Oliver yell “Mother! I’ve got Jaime!”
“Be careful on the stairs!” She yelled back, hastily shoving the clothes in. The crashes that came right after she finished speaking disappointed, but did not surprise her. At least Jaime wasn’t crying.
She put the last mate-less sock in the washer before getting to her feet again. There was never a moment of peace in this house. The mother had long considered getting some outside help but she knew full well that would never happen. Nobody would understand her work—she’d learned her lesson with Peter’s father years ago. “Is everyone okay out there?”
“We’re fine, Mother!”
When she reentered the kitchen, Oliver held Jaime up like his youngest brother was a prize he’d won at the fair. Their mother couldn’t help but smile—she was lucky, she knew, that her children got along as well as they did. “Thank you, Oliver. Why don’t you go upstairs and play with Mira for a little bit and I’ll call you down for dinner later.”
“Okay, Mother.” Oliver handed Jaime to her smoothly, which was impressive, considering how big Jaime was getting. She smiled fondly down at her youngest son—soon, she knew, he would be too big to rest in her arms like this, but for now, she could bear the weight. She knew she needed to treasure these moments while they lasted—her children grew up so quickly, right before her eyes. He looked up at her with the bright blue eyes he’d inherited from his father, and he giggled. His scars were healing nicely, she thought, running the pads of her fingers over the sides of his head. She’d done an respectable job stitching him back up, if she did say so herself.
“You ready, Jaime-Jam?” she cooed, putting him on the floor. He was too old for baby-talk, she knew, but he was her baby, for now, so she couldn’t help herself. Brenna looked up, a scowl plastered to her mouth under the goggles, and their mother almost laughed. Looks like someone was a little jealous.
He nodded at her after a moment, trailing after her to the living room quietly.
“You’re being such a brave boy today,” she said, praising Jaime as she taped the modified shock collar to the soft skin of his inner arm. She made sure to only tape where there wasn’t hair so it would hurt less when she pulled it up at the end of his session. “Are you ready?”
Jaime nodded, which wasn’t promising—she really would have preferred if he had answered verbaly. She strapped him into his little chair and they began, her pointing at object and asking him to form correct sentences with them. She was impressed—during their whole session, she only needed to shock him five times. Sometimes she wondered if she had impaired his speech centers too much; other times, she worried she’d damaged them too little. The data was solid though, and as she looked down at the results of today’s session, it was clear that the paper she wrote on Jaime would be one of her more successful ones.
“You did so well today! You barely cried! I’m so proud of you!”
Jaime smiled weakly. “Thanks…. Mo—ther.”
His mother checked the time—it was already seven thirty. She should start dinner already. “Oliver! Can you come here for a second?”
“What is it?” he hollered down the stairs from his room.
“Can you watch Jaime while I start dinner?”
“But Mother, I’m playing a game.”
“Then pause it.”
“You can’t pause an online game, Mother.”
His mother pressed her fingers to her temple. “Can you just come get him and bring him upstairs?”
Oliver crashed down the stairs, almost slamming into the wall. He grabbed his little brother’s hand and with nervous, twitchy energy he led him back upstairs.
Their mother ducked into her study for just a moment and breathed in the stillness. Her study was the only place in the house where she could even hear herself think. She put her notes from the day’s session with Jaime on top of her laptop, making a mental note to put them into the computer later.
The peace and darkness of her study called to her, coaxed her, cajoled her, telling her to sit, to relax, to take a load off for a minute. She fought it as best she could. There was still so much to do.
The laundry needed to be taken out of the washer, she noted, taking a frozen pizza from the deep freeze. Should she make two? The mother rolled her eyes at herself; of course she should make two, she had four kids to feed. Cheese would be okay, right?
“I’m done with my worksheet,” Brenna said from directly behind her, and her mother jumped.
“Don’t startle me like that.”
“Sorry, Mother.” The little girl held her worksheet up to her mother. “Can I go play now?”
“Sure, sure. But dinner will be ready in just a few minutes.”
Brenna was already running up the stairs. Her mother sighed. She almost called Brenna back down to help set the table, but she figured the little girl had had enough for one day. Brenna wasn’t that little anymore, she reminded herself. Her birthday was in a few weeks, and she’d be turning eight. The mother shook her head—it had been eight whole years since she’d brought that baby into the world. She chuckled to herself, picturing how ridiculous the goggles had looked when she’d first put them on Brenna when she was only a few hours old. They’d hardly fit at all then. She’d have to remember to buy eggs and milk to make a cake for her. The ding from the oven startled her and she jumped—the pizzas were done. So much to do, so much to do.
Laying the pizzas out to cool on the stove, she let herself breathe, reminding herself that she wouldn’t be a very good mother if she worked herself too ragged. “Kids!” she yelled up the stairs, knowing it would take them a while to come down, “Dinner’s ready!”
Mira came down first, her lopsided gait thundering down the stairs in a distinct way. She galloped up to her mother on all fours. “I smell pizza!”
Her mother smiled down at her, putting her plate on the floor so Mira would be able to eat it. “You’re not wearing your brace today?”
Mira shrugged, sloping her shoulders to reach for the pizza. “It’s getting a little small.”
First Brenna’s goggle strap, now this. Her children were growing up so quickly, right before her eyes. “I’ll start work on a new one for you then.”
Mira smiled gratefully, craning her neck up to look at her mother. “Thanks, Mother.”
“Of course.” Her mother eyed Mira’s bowed back and not for the first time wished she could get an x-ray of her daughter’s bone structure. If any of her living children were flawed experiments, it was Mira—keeping her from ever becoming bipedal was interesting, sure, but without an x-ray, it yielded very little actual data. The mother sighed. Mira was almost sixteen and her mother was still no closer to writing the case study for her. At least Mira’s quadrupedal nature didn’t seem to hurt her as much anymore—maybe her pelvis had finished shifting after puberty? Her mother would give anything to be able to use an x-ray to actually get some data from her sixteen-year-old project.
Oliver came down a second later, leading Jaime back down. “Ooh, pizza! Thanks, Mother!”
“Thanks!” Jaime echoed, looking at his big brother, who helped him into his highchair. Brenna appeared moments later, carrying the doll her mother had specially made, the one with the affixed goggles just like hers.
By the time her children had finished, there was only one piece of pizza left for their mother. Tomorrow, she thought to herself, she would really have to make something healthier. Something with salad, maybe, if she could find the time after Oliver’s session but before Jaime’s. She reached for the pizza scraps, and was halfway to Peter’s room before she remembered. She sighed, and finished her walk there anyway.
The smell wasn’t rancid anymore, once she’d cleaned out all the defecation. The bright lights still shone down on her, nearly blinding her, but she didn’t have the heart to unwire the room. This was his room, after all, her Peter. She looked up, sadly, at the broken window he’d smashed and somehow wriggled through. She’d been busy that day, making sure Jaime’s suture scars didn’t get infected. She still blamed herself for his escape.
It had only been a month, but when his mother closed her eyes, she could only see the trail of blood that had led her from the outside of her window to the mound he left in the snow where he had died. Her heart squeezed when she thought of her eldest son, her most prized project. He had almost been eighteen when he had died.
Brenna’s voice broke her from her reverie. “Yes?”
“Will you read me a story before bedtime?”
With a heavy heart, the mother closed Peter’s door and trailed upstairs. “What do you want to hear tonight?”
It was Blue Squirrel Dreams of Blue Acorns again, and once again the mother did all the funny voices to make Brenna giggle. Once the lights were off and the world was pitch black, her mother felt around and undid the straps that attached Brenna’s goggles.
“Goodnight, sweetheart. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Her mother strapped Brenna’s goggles to her arm so she could put Jaime to bed. He didn’t want a story, he just wanted his stuffed duck, and when she kissed his nose he giggled. He wouldn’t be her baby forever, she knew, but for now, she would enjoy it.
Mira’s door was shut, but Oliver’s was open, and she popped her head inside to tell him goodnight. “Goodnight, Oliver.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Traipsing downstairs, the mother collapsed on her computer. She just wanted to sleep but there was so much work that needed to be done—Brenna’s goggles needed adjusting, Jaime’s data needed inputting, she needed to sketch out an upgrade to Mira’s quadrupedal brace. She breathed a long sigh. She loved her children, powerfully and absolutely, but she was so exhausted being their only caretaker 24/7. And then there was Peter. The mother could let herself cry here, in the confines of her room, but the tears didn’t fall. Her Peter was gone.
Later that night, in her own tiny bathroom, the mother took a test and was pleased to see the little blue lines appear, just as she had suspected they would. She smiled, softly. Peter’s room would get a new resident. In a way, she thought, placing one hand on her belly softly, Peter was coming back to her in spirit. She walked back to her silent room and smiled. Her life may be hectic, exhausting, devastating in ways, but the mother still couldn’t wait for her new experiment to begin.