gresh-eldritchevolutions_133x200.jpgWatch Me If You Can

a short story from Eldritch Evolutions

When I wrote “Watch Me If You Can,” which first appeared in the Infinite Loop anthology along with “CAFEBABE,” I was working 60 hours/week, attending night college 4 nights/week, handling ridiculous amounts of chores and errands, and taking care of my two young children. “Watch Me If You Can” was a reflection of my own life pushed slightly into the future.


Watch Me If You Can

NOW YOU CAN BE TWO PLACES AT ONCE, proclaimed the sign perched on the display case. Nelly stooped, and eyes aglitter, peered at the array of DoAll wrist straps in the case. It would be a difficult choice. The straps were all so gorgeous; some were clear and glossy with embossed gold filigrees, others were muted shades of purple overlaid with cloudy pinkish swirls, and still others rippled like the gentle waves of an ocean lapping the shore. Nelly particularly liked the rippling DoAll strap. Its waves were gentle and soothing, and she stared at it, intoxicated as if contemplating the depths of the ocean.

“Two places at once,” she murmured. “It’s just what I need.”

“And it’s acrylic polypropylene,” said a voice, “durable, lightweight, and fashionable.”

“Huh?” Nelly snapped her head up angrily. “I was relaxing!” she almost screamed at the young clerk, who shrank back from her and stammered, “I-I’m sorry, Ma’am. I figured you’d want to know the features.”

Nelly sucked in a deep breath and slowly expelled it. “I don’t get much chance to relax,” she explained to the cowering clerk. Foothills of pimples ranged across his forehead. “Geez, how young are you?”

“I, uh, I’m...thirteen,” he muttered, averting his eyes.

The mother in her quickly surfaced. Her anger melted into pity and concern. “You should be in school instead of working here at Digitos. What does your mother say about this?”

The boy blushed and shuffled his feet. “We need the money. Dad’s working two jobs and Mom’s working three, and we still can’t make ends meet. I go to school all day while working fulltime here. In fact, at this very moment, I’m failing a calculus test.” He gestured at the DoAlls in the case. “They keep perfect time. In two places at once.” He looked at her hopefully. When she said nothing, he added: “Perhaps you need something to pump up your own timing.” She scrunched her eyebrows together, puzzled. “I’m wearing the new heart beat strap,” he explained. “It accelerates my pulse so I move quickly, think faster, stay alert when I haven’t slept all night.” He pointed to a purple and pink strap pulsating on his wrist.

Nelly eyed the boy and shook her head sadly. And she thought she had it bad, working 60 hours per week while attending night college and raising two children. She hadn’t received a pay raise for more than ten years. The only way to move up in the company past the level of clerk was to possess a PhSciD, which meant that she must earn a five-year Mistress degree and then a six-year PhSciD encompassing both humanities and scientific studies.

“Actually,” she said, “I need to be three or four places at once, but two will have to do.”

The young boy beamed at her. “Are you interested in a heart beat model? Synchronizes your life and times...”

“No...” Nelly said slowly, “if caffeine makes me jittery, imagine what that strap would do. I’d be shaking like a SuctionLounge addict.” She eyed the ocean strap. “I need to slip into something warm and soothing, something that will calm me down. Besides, I’m expecting another baby in a few weeks and the heart beat strap might be dangerous.”

The young boy plucked the ocean model from the case and pressed it around her wrist. The warm DoAll seemed to melt into her flesh, leaving a shimmering blue and green stripe on her skin. A gentle shiver shimmied up and down her spine as if she’d slipped into a tub of exotic bath oils. “It’s marvelous,” she cooed. “I feel more relaxed already. How does it work?”

He shoved a colorful leaflet across the counter. “This will tell you everything you need to know.” He handed her a blue velvet case the size of her smallest fingernail. “The key’s in here. Don’t lose it.”

Nelly paid for the DoAll with her money card, draining her credit to under ten dollars. Her husband worked three jobs to pay the rent. Fretting that he would be furious about the expensive purchase, she waddled to the women’s rest room, where she plopped onto a SuctionLounge and opened the leaflet.

Insert a card, intoned the SuctionLounge.

Nelly ignored the command. The Lounge would demand money only twice before leaving her alone.

Insert a card, the Lounge intoned again, this time loudly.

A curtain whipped open to Nelly’s left and a woman rose from an adjacent SuctionLounge. “Shut your curtains and drop in your card, would you? We come in here to relax while we’re being drained.”

Nelly ignored the impatient, overbearing woman, who was probably as exhausted as Nelly and blowing off steam.

The woman scurried off, muttering about errands and laundry and a job clerking at the movie chip store and a job slicing soy roasts at the deli counter and a job inserting hair at the implant shop.

Nelly looked at the leaflet. On the first page was a warning printed in huge, black letters:

DO NOT USE THE KEY EXCEPT IN EMERGENCIES.

Intrigued, she read the fine print:

This product is not guaranteed to work in more than two places at once. Although the key will transport you to a third location, the key should be used ONLY BY SERVICE ENGINEERS and ONLY IN EMERGENCIES.

Nelly shrugged. Two places at once was enough. To program her new watch, she simply told it where she wanted to go.

“Station 1: SuctionLounge. Station 2: Home.”

She was whisked home in a rush of air. Her husband, Mello, was spreading soy whiz on a slice of bread. He dropped his knife on the kitchen table. “Where’d you come from, Nell?”

She was sitting across from him sipping decaffeinated coffee. “I bought a DoAll strap,” she said airily, and she waved her wrist to show off the new toy. “I’m sitting on a SuctionLounge at Digitos while I’m here in the kitchen.” She felt the baby kick and squirm. The split in time must have bothered the fetus.

“Those things are dangerous, honey. Especially when you’re pregnant. What’ll happen to the baby while you’re flitting around town?” His bloodshot blue eyes flickered with concern. He wore moonglow eye gel to cover the red exhaustion rims around his eyes. Eye hubcaps, Mello always said, can get man fired. Means you’re pushed to the max. An easy target for heart disease.

Nelly pressed a button and the curtain to her SuctionLounge whooshed open. At the same time, she explained to her husband, “The DoAll is guaranteed for safety if I’m oscillating between two places, so the baby’ll be fine. Mello, my love, I just can’t take the stress anymore. I have a genetics exam tomorrow night and I haven’t had time to study. My boss is breathing down my neck. Seems that a flood of new PhSciDs just graduated and he wants to hire one in my place. And I worry about the kids constantly. I don’t see enough of them. I need the DoAll strap.”

“I know what it’s like to be exhausted,” Mello said. “Listen, whatever it cost, if the DoAll helps you, it’s well worth it.”

Nelly sighed and sipped her coffee. “Where’s the milksweet?”

“We ran out. You’ll have to use milk and sugar.” He pointed at the refrigerator.

“I’ll do without,” she said huffily. “No time to put two things into my coffee.”

“Time!” Mello screamed. He slammed his fist onto the kitchen table and cringed. “I almost forgot. I have to be at Wimple’s in ten minutes or the old man’ll fire me!”

“Relax. Get a DoAll, honey. Then you can be two places at once. Think how romantic our lives will be.” She winked at him, but he was already gone and she heard the Blastcub engine roaring down the driveway.

In the kitchen, Nelly rinsed her coffee cup with bottled water. At the same time, she left the Digitos women’s room. In both places, she wondered how her children were doing at the babysitter’s house. The babysitter wore a DoAll and worked as a forms processor all day while watching kids at home. Nelly often worried about Laura, who was two years old, and Flora, who was four: in the house all day with a woman who was only half there.

Nelly reset her strap: “Station 1: CompOst. Station 2: Babysitter.” Instantly she was transported to her padded gray cell at CompOst, the computer research company, and to the living room of Sarah Grubs, forms processor and babysitter.

Her boss whirled her chair around to face him. He had a bulldog’s face and a police dog’s snarl. “Where’ve you been, Ms. I-wanna-getta-head Nelly? Gorfum’s screaming for the data on the Q bus. Word’s come down we’re to work 40 hours of overtime for the next month. And that means all of us, kids or no kids!”

Sarah Grubs slammed little Laura into the wall. “I told you not to do that!”

Nelly shoved Sarah Grubs onto the sofa and scooped Laura into her arms. “How dare you strike my child!”

Sarah recoiled and twittered, “I-I didn’t see you there, Nelly. She-she, the little monster, she was squeezing sweetpaste on the rug while I was at the grocery store.”

“And what were you doing at the grocery store, Sarah, while you were supposed to be here with the children?” Nelly’s head was whirling, her teeth clacking like typewriter keys.

“You listen to me,” her boss flared. “I don’t know where your head’s at—grocery stores and children, laundry and babies—but you’d better get it grounded right here at CompOst or your job will be off line. We can easily find someone with the proper credentials to fill your position. Lots of guys would be happy to have your job.”

Sarah Grubs shook her curls and laughed. Nell had always suspected that Sarah was a nervous witch who cared nothing for children, but what choice did Nell have? “Ah, don’t worry,” said Sarah, waving her hand to dismiss the subject. “My strap popped me from my office to the store, that’s all. I was here with your kids the whole time. You know how it is. You work all day. You work all night. Sometimes you lose your temper a little. It doesn’t mean a thing.”

“Well, it means something to me,” Nelly snapped. “I’ll watch my own children from now on, thank you.” To her boss, she said sweetly, “You’re right, Mr. Smitherton. My job means a lot to me. I’m only two years away from earning my Mistress degree. I’m enjoying the classes very much and look forward to the six-year studies leading to the PhSciD degree. It’s an honor to work at CompOst and I’m lucky that the company is willing to pay for my classes.”

“Can’t get anywhere these days without a PhSciD,” Smitherton said gruffly. “It’s like a union card. You mommy trackers are lucky to have the Mistress degree. It’s much harder to earn a Master’s.”

“Yes, sir,” said Nell primly. The baby was thrashing, her stomach churning. She had to get rid of Smitherton so she could relax on a SuctionLounge for a few minutes and calm down. “I’ll retrieve that Q bus data for you right away and ship it over the tube.”

“Mama,” cried Laura, clinging to Nelly’s shirt, “I thought you’d never come!”

Flora heard her sister’s cries and scurried down the hall.

“Mama’s here! Is it time to go home?”

“It’s time to go home.” Nelly pressed the Enter button on her computer keyboard and hugged Flora. “And we will never come here again.”

“Oh, goody, goody.” Her children clapped their hands gleefully.

“But I need the money, I need the...” Sarah’s voice faded and died as Nelly instructed her DoAll strap to send her to “Station 1: Home. Station 2: CompOst.”

She felt a slight whoosh of air. With a shriek of horror, she realized that she had pressed the Delete button instead of Enter. Her fingers clicked furiously across the keyboard and she sent a backup copy of the Q bus data to Smitherton. She settled the children at the kitchen table and gave them each a popsicle. The fetus walloped her guts with its left fist, and a sledgehammer of pain crashed down her legs.

“I have some studying to do,” she was saying...when everything went black.

o0o

When her eyes fluttered open, she saw two red ovals hovering over her. “Mello, my love.”

He gently stroked her cheek with his calloused, work-worn hand. “You’re doing too much, honey,” he crooned. “Slow down until the baby’s born. Promise me.”

“I can’t.” The darkness of the room terrified her. “What time is it?” she cried. The baby within her awakened and thrashed.

“Almost time for work, honey, but you can’t go into CompOst today. You have to rest.”

“I have to go! I have to shovel CompOst data for 16 hours today or Smitherton’ll fire me. I have to study for my genetics exam; it’s tonight! I have to stay home with the girls.” Then she remembered that she had fainted. “Where are the girls?”

“The girls are sleeping. They trashed the house after you passed out. There’s a lot of cleaning up to do.” He paused, rubbed his bleary eyes, and said, “Why do you have to stay home with the girls? What happened to Sarah Grubs?”

“I fired her,” Nelly said wearily. “She was slamming Laura into the walls when I showed up...when was it?...yesterday?” She rubbed her burning eyes, struggled to keep them open.

“Don’t dig at them with your fists,” Mello said, “or they’ll puff up into hubcaps. Say, what’re we going to do for a new babysitter?”

“Don’t know.” Nelly swung her legs over the side of the bed and hoisted her gigantic, pregnant bulk into a sitting position. Luckily, with a new baby due soon, she would have three weeks of maternity leave to find a new babysitter. She clawed at her right eye.

“Hubcaps, Nell, hubcaps,” warned her husband, waggling a finger in front of her face. “Can’t lose your job. Speaking of which I have to go to work. Promise me you’ll take it easy today.”

“I promise,” she lied.

After the Blastcub roared away, Nelly dug the fingernail-sized case from her purse and removed the tiny key. She inserted the key into the side of her DoAll strap. Warnings were for the birds. If a service engineer could be three places at once, so could she. She wet her lips, pondered, and then said clearly: “Station 1: Home. Station 2: CompOst. Station 3: Neurotech University Library.”

The whoosh of air was more like a blast. The fetus banged its fists against her and jabbed her with its toenails. At home, she ignored the pain, stuffed a load of laundry into the washing machine, and washed the stack of dishes that had somehow grown into a tower overnight. At work, she ignored the pain, switched on her CompOst terminal, surveyed the four piles of blueprints and software printouts on her desk, and fumed about how she, a mere Grade 3, was doing the work of an analytical Grade 10. In a cubicle at the library, she ignored the pain and glared at the tittering young students who were poking fun at her; then she opened her genetics book and forced herself to memorize links between human and mouse genes.

She was writing a report about proposed changes to the Q bus fault detection loops when Smitherton rapped his knuckles on the top of her terminal. She jerked back, sending waves of agonizing cramps throughout her midriff. She pressed the Save button, and still cringing, smiled a weak, twisted smile. Smitherton returned the smile, except his version was more twisted than weak. He introduced her to a recent PhSciD graduate, a fellow with white eyeballs sans flabby, red hubcaps. “Your replacement while you’re on maternity leave.” Smitherton’s eyes glinted like shards of splintered glass. “Teach him everything you know about the Q bus. Then, if you decide to stay home with your baby, we’ll have a knowledgeable guy lined up to assume your duties.”

The baby clobbered Nelly’s insides, trying to punch out Smitherton and his new PhSciD friend.

At home, Nelly rinsed her favorite coffee mug, the one with the picture of the frazzled frump and the caption “Mistress of My Own Time,” when the baby pummeled its fists into her ribs, trying to smash through to Smitherton. Nelly’s fingers splayed open and the mug crashed into the sink. She doubled over and clutched at her stomach. One hand, white and shaking, fumbled for the faucet and turned off the flow of rusty, greenish water.

The frazzled frump had splintered into three jagged pieces. Tears sprung into Nelly’s burning eyes.

In the library, the young students encircled her, anxiety smeared across their faces, as she writhed on the floor, clutching her genetics book. “Get the librarian!” somebody cried, and a girl scampered off. Nelly moaned and clawed at her stomach with her free hand.

Nelly’s mind reeled from place to place. Where was she? What should she do first: yell at Smitherton, soothe her children, or peel her body off the library floor?

To Smitherton, she said: “Tyrosine and threonine.”

To Flora, she screamed: “I’ll take the Q bus to hell before I tell this guy anything!”

To the students, she grated, “Young pain in the butts, get your own diapers.”

“If not for your delicate condition, Nell, I’d fire you,” retorted Smitherton.

The students edged away. “We only wanted to help. You oldtimers are so hyperstressed.”

“Youngsters are hyperstressed!” Nelly screamed.

Smitherton slapped the young PhSciD’s back. “This youngster is very capable, very relaxed, and much cheaper than you, Nelly. He’s willing to work as a Grade 5 until he masters the Q bus detection loops.”

“A Grade 5!” shrieked Nelly to her children. “But I’m only a Grade 3!”

Flora was a blubbering heap on the kitchen floor. “No, Mama, I’m four and Laura’s two.”

Nelly clambered into her chair and tried to hide behind the library cubicle, but her gigantic abdomen thrust her two feet from the desk. Cheeks burning, she flipped through the genetics book without comprehending a word. Euglena and rat kidney RNA have similar proportions of adenine, uracil, guanine, and cytosine...

“Of course,” she said desperately to Smitherton, “I’ll be happy to teach—er, what’s your name?—Ted everything I know about the Q bus.”

She swished Laura’s poop-filled dydee and read a Mother Goose rhyme to Flora. Then she spooned soy nuggets and milk into Laura, folded a mountain of laundry, and created time compartments with Flora’s TinkerTimes.

She was pumping faulty Q signals into the cocky PhSciD, burying her detailed chip analyses under a pile of twenty indirect pointers, scouring the “Hire Me I’m Desperate, Please!” ads in the newspaper for babysitters, wringing soapy rubber pants, and memorizing the last details about how guanine bonds via hydrogen to cytosine—

when her water broke.

At home in the bathroom, she wiped the rusty, greenish water crud from the face of her DoAll strap. It was 7 o’clock, the exact time of her genetics exam. She’d studied all day and, baby or no baby, she was going to take that exam!

She summoned the dredges of her strength. “The baby will have to wait until the exam is over,” she said to Smitherton, her daughters, and the library in general.

Desperately wishing that she could use her DoAll strap to send Smitherton to the depths of hell, she ordered the strap: “Station 1: CompOst. Station 2: Home. Station 3: Neurotech University, Building A48E-2, Room 9Z9.”

This time, the whoosh of air was like a plane ride in a tornado. Labor pains ripped through guts. Her lips were parched, her eyes stinging and dry. In the hall of Building A48E-2, she inserted her money card into the life fountain and lapped some drops of purified water.

Flora wailed for a Mother Goose story. Smitherton cursed and threatened to fire her.

Nelly choked on the water, and to nobody in particular, she sputtered: “Damn you all, I’m having a baby!”

Laura whimpered that she was mama’s baby, and Flora pressed the emergency ambulance code on the computer. Seconds later, sirens shrieked in the distance as medtechs raced toward Nelly’s house.

Smitherton grimaced and muttered something about how Nelly always wanted special consideration. He hammered on her keyboard and soon she heard the wailing of the medtech siren in the hall.

In the genetics room at Neurotech University, Nelly accepted her exam from Professor Tempel. “I didn’t even see you come in, Nelly. For a woman in your condition, you certainly move quietly.” He slumped into a chair at the front of the room and contemplated his knuckles.

Nelly scribbled frantically on her exam paper. She knew this stuff, all of it! She’d get an A for sure and pass with highest honors!

The baby was clawing its way out. A violent thrust.

“Aaaarrrggghhh!” screamed Nelly at a pitch high enough to disrupt nucleo-satellite transmissions between Germany and Japan.

A fellow old student raced to her side. “Don’t worry, I’m a nurse. I’ve delivered hundreds of babies.” He eased her to the floor.

“The exam,” whispered Nelly, “I must finish it.”

“Somebody help!” cried the nurse, but the other old students were too busy racing against time, trying to finish their exams before their next work shifts.

Professor Tempel twittered incoherently in a corner of the room, “I have five children—all brilliant and successful and nine beautiful grandchildren.” He wrung his hands and mopped sweat from his brow onto his shirt sleeve.

The medtechs shoved Smitherton aside and stripped Nelly’s clothes off. “Get the strap off her wrist.”

A distressed woman tugged at Nelly’s wrist. “It’s melted into her skin.”

“Unbuckle the thing. Just get it off.”

“I can’t...it won’t budge.”

Nelly’s head thrashed from side to side. Her body was splitting down the middle. Her legs were being wrenched from her hips. Black, fuzzy clouds floated across the room.

Several students flung their exams onto the Professor’s desk and hurried from Room 9Z9. The nurse tried to chisel the DoAll strap from Nell’s wrist with a pencil. The pencil point broke. “Where’s the key to this thing?”

“Don’t know,” whispered Nelly. Her lips were dry and sore and caked with muck. “Maybe... kitchen table.” The baby thrust into Nelly’s groin. She howled.

“I see the baby’s head,” said a medtech in her kitchen. “Push! Push!” Then: “Damn it all, where’d she’d go?” Nelly saw her body flicker back into view. “Hold her down. Tight!”

In her padded CompOst cell, a medtech screamed: “She’s disappeared!” As Nelly flickered back into view, hands scrabbled to press her to the floor, but she saw herself fade into the rug and out of sight.

She was on the edge of unconsciousness, hanging as if from a cliff over a gray, foaming sea. Her body seemed to pulsate from one place to another. CompOst. Kitchen floor. Genetics room.

“Lady, where’s the DoAll key?”

“Kitchen table?” To whom had she responded?

Swirling gray. Unrelenting crescendos, waves of pounding pain, beating against her, devouring, shredding, pulverizing her insides. The DoAll strap blazed on her wrist, searing a ring into her flesh.

As if from afar, somebody’s voice throbbed in her ears: “It’s flashing a warning: THREE PLACES. EMERGENCY. TERMINATE OPERATION. THREE PLACES.”

Nelly pushed with all her might. This would be the last push, the push that would catapult her new baby into the world and send her, recoiling as if elastic, back into the peaceful cocoon of her own body.

Two medtechs and a nurse sighed, and announced: “A healthy baby boy. Eight pounds, two ounces.”

o0o

Nelly sank into the bed cushions with her three new babies. Helplessly she looked up at her husband.

Mello looked back at her. In his eyes was the raw hopelessness of a man plodding toward the electric chair. Two flabby hubcaps encircled each bleary eye. But he said bravely, “I guess we’ll both need DoAlls, huh, honey? Maybe one of those new models that lets you be four places at once.”

 

Watch Me If You Can

A short story from Eldritch Evolutions

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