In the shade under the bleachers, Kristin peered through the space between the benches onto the football field. The team was running practice routes in cut off red and white jerseys. Nearest her was a group doing tackling drills. The crack of their helmets made her wince as they collided and struggled to wrestle each other to the ground. Kristin bit her lip. The whole mess, the tan arms, the straining muscles, it was absolutely delicious. Maybe she should have tried out again this year for cheerleading.
Above her head, Iggy floated and bounced in concert with a small yellow butterfly. Kristin pulled her gaze away from the choreography of skin tight polyester for a moment to acknowledge him. His full concentration on the butterfly, he barely reacted when she poked him in his back sending him drifting slowly away from her. It always came as a bit of a suprise that touching him felt like running her finger across the skin of a warm marshmallow. He seemed to be enjoying himself, his nubby little arms swimming through the air, flitting back and forth like a songbird. Iggy was her favorite of her followers, though she believed that he was also the most stupid. Stupid was good though. Stupid meant generally easy to manage. The others weren’t as simple.
She became aware that she hadn’t seen the rest for some time. In the past, the followers had gone days, even weeks without popping up. Lately though, if she took her attention off them for more than a few hours, something, somewhere was likely being set on fire. It was exhausting. It was her senior year and the last thing she wanted to do was play den mother to her gaggle of imps.
The breeze picked up and Iggy spun around in the current of cool air. Kristin giggled despite herself and reached up to help him back down.
“What are you laughing at, weirdo?”
Kristin spun around to see Emily with her hand cocked on her hip standing next to Caleb. “Uh, nothing. What are you laughing at?” Kristin brushed a few strands of raven black hair away from her face and jutted her chin up in the air like a princess.
“Quit creeping on the football team and come on. This shit’s not going to smoke itself.” Emily dangled a small baggy and motioned with her head for Kristin to follow.
“Cheeba!” Caleb added gleefully, as he concentrated on tapping out a text.
As she walked toward them, Kristin glanced back. Of course Iggy had vanished. Nothing was ever easy.
Between school and the highway there was a wide, densely wooded area that local kids, for generations, had used as a hiding place for caches of Playboys and pilfered half-empty bottles of Goldschläger. Offering the perfect combination of natural seclusion and sound proofing, The Gulch, was a regular hangout for truants and stoners. In the distance, the freeway traffic emitted a constant low hiss that could be mistaken for the rushing water of a large river if one was unfamiliar with the local geography or an idiot.
The three found a small clearing and sat on the corpse of a fallen tree. Emily packed a bowl and they passed the pipe between them until they felt interesting. Kristin wasn’t really in the mood, but took a couple small hits to be social.
“Have you ever thought that maybe we’re all just living inside a really complex, like, computer simulation?” Caleb coughed through a thick cumulous of smoke.
“Like The Matrix?”
“Yeah, like maybe when we die, we’re just being unplugged from the machine so that some super advanced alien race can harvest us for food.”
Emily considered this for a moment. “If they were so advanced, why wouldn’t they grow meat in a vat or something. Why bother going through the trouble writing all that code, building our incubation tubes and waiting 80 years to eat some wrinkly old grandma?”
“No, like, it only seems like we live 80 years because of the program,” Caleb scratched the side of his head where he’d recently shaved an asymmetric swath, “In reality we could still be young, babies even, though we think we’ve lived a full life.”
“Seems like a big waste of time.”
“Well, we basically do the same thing with cows, right? Especially the ones that get to live on those huge ranches. They think they’re living a full, happy cow life until one day -blam! Bolt through the dome.”
“I guess, but it’s not like we put virtual reality goggles on them that make them think they’re somewhere better than they are.”
“Sure, and if we were as dumb as cows, we wouldn’t need the simulation either. But the aliens know we’d revolt if enough of us knew what was up. Honestly though, I wouldn’t even want to know the truth. Mexicans don’t like change.”
“You’re only half Mexican.”
“That’s the half that makes all my important decisions though,” Caleb grinned.
Emily fell silent and tried decide whether or not Caleb was being racist.
Kristin ran her finger along the decaying skin of the fallen tree and her attention began to wander. Emily and Caleb eventually reached an impasse when she insisted that any species advanced enough to travel through interstellar space would obviously be vegan anyway. She’d been vegan for almost a month, so it came up often.
In the silence before Caleb’s next deep thought, the hairs on Kristin’s neck stood up and she had the familiar feeling of being watched. She looked up to the branches above her. There, tightly hugging the torso of a panicking juvenile squirrel, was Muff. Kristin sprang to her feet.
“Uh guys, I feel like shit. I think I’m going to head home,” Kristin said as she grabbed her backpack.
“Oh, ok. I’ll walk with you–” Emily began to reach for her things.
“No, that’s cool. I think I just need some, uh, quiet.”
“Ok. Suit yourself, love. I’ll call you.”
As Kristin walked off, the debate over interstellar food ethics started again with renewed rigor. She glanced over her shoulder up at the tree in time to see the young squirrel being dragged into a hole in the trunk, its claws frantically scrambling for purchase.
Half-way home, Kristin’s phone vibrated. She pulled it from the pocket of her jeans and read the text from her mother: ‘Dinner in 30. Also we need to talk.’ Kristin’s mind began to race. What had she forgotten to do? Take out the trash? Lock the doors when she left for school? Or had one of the imps broken something again. She was starting to run out of excuses for all the vase and mirror damage being done around the house.
As she walked in the front door her mother seemed in a cheerful mood, bopping around the living room arranging and dusting, humming along to the song playing through her earbuds. Kristin attempted to sneak past her to her room but was unable to escape the manic pull of her mother’s whirlwind domestic joy.
“Oh, honey! You’re home. Good, good, good! We have so much to discuss.”
Her mother was practically levitating. She vibrated across the room and embraced Kristin with a hug and a juicy kiss on the forehead. She laid her hands on Kristin’s shoulders and looked directly into her eyes.
“18. I can hardly believe it! It feels like just yesterday I was changing your diapers and squishing your adorable, chubby cheeks.”
“Kristin, I’ve been thinking we should do something really special for your birthday. Your father does too. He should be home any minute.”
“Mom, I told you already I don’t want to make a big production out of it.”
“Nonsense! This is a huge milestone in your life, dear. A girl only becomes a woman once, you know? Have I ever told you about my 18th?”
“Your grandmother took me up to the lake house for a whole week and arranged for all of my friends to come. She hired a caterer and had a man come with a trailer full of horses for us to ride. The cake was four tiers high with chocolate frosting and gold leaf. It must have cost her a fortune, but it was absolutely the best time I’ve ever had in my life. Aside from meeting your father and having you, of course.”
“I’m sure it was, but I don’t want you to go through all the hassle. It’s not that big of a deal.”
“Not that big of a deal?! Oh, dearie. My sweet girl. I assure you it is. But we’ll wait for your father to get home first before we make any decisions. Go get washed up and set the table, please.”
Kristin’s mother resumed her dance-cleaning, a habit that generally doubled the amount of time it took her to complete any task. Kristin walked to her room, flopped down on her bed and exhaled loudly. Maybe she could join the Peace Corps or buy a motorcycle and ride it through South America. As she was formulating various escape plans, she heard a noise and looked up at the headboard. There, sitting with their legs dangling over the edge, were Caro and Sprocket. They both were covered in brownish flakes that Kristin hoped was not, but assumed was, dried blood.
“God, what have you two assholes been doing?”
Caro cocked his head to the side and produced a baby-blue robin’s egg. He held it out to Kristin. Kristin reached up and took the egg. It was still warm and heavier than she’d expected. She slid her thumb over its smooth curves and examined the tan speckles that dotted the shell. Above her, the two imps began to wrestle, pulling at each other’s limbs and grabbing bits of elastic white skin, until they lost their balance and tumbled out of view. Kristin peeked under her bed and found them floating inches above the carpet, still tangled together like an angry wad of cotton balls.
Opening the door to her closet she pulled out an old shoebox and stuffed it with socks. Setting it on her desk, she slid her lamp over and placed it directly over the opening. She laid the the egg in the center and covered it. How warm is an egg supposed to be, anyway? She figured there wasn’t much chance of it actually hatching, but trying to care for it least she could do for its mother, or what was left of her. She stared at the blue gem shining under the incandescent bulb and thought about where she’d be able to find some worms. Her contemplation was interupted as the front door closed and the muffled voices of her parents signaled her father’s arrival. As she was about to open her door she turned back to Caro and Sprocket who were both now hovering over the box.
“Leave it,” she said sternly. The two imps looked at each other and then at her. Then Caro slapped the back of Sprocket’s head and the two became embroiled in another silent arial struggle. Kristin clenched her fist and closed the door behind her.
In the kitchen, Kristin’s parents stood facing each other by the stove. Kristin’s mother was smiling up at her husband and playfully flicking his nose with her feather duster when Kristin walked in the room.
“Get a room you two,” Kristin slouched into her chair at the table.
“Oh, hi sweetie. Your mother was just telling me about the plans for your big day. What are we thinking? Adventure World? Maybe head out to the coast for some snorkeling and fish tacos? Laser tag?”
“What? Laser tag? What am I, a 13-year-old boy?”
“Everyone loves laser tag,” her father said pointing his forefingers out around the room while making “pew” sounds.
Kristin sunk further into her chair and wondered if the Peace Corps had a field office in Antarctica. As she stewed, her mother brought dinner to the table and chatted with her father as they sat down to eat.
“You know dear,” her mother said between forkfuls of chicken, “we’ve both been waiting for this day for a long time. There’s… it’s a big deal for lots of different reasons. Not just for you but for the whole family.”
“Yeah, I know mom. Your little girl is getting all grown up.”
“Well, yes, but it’s more than that.” Kristin’s mother seemed uncharacteristically at a loss for words. “You see, we, the ladies in our family are, well, special.”
Kristin’s father glanced at his wife and reached out a hand to hers.
“Goodness. I didn’t think this would be so difficult.” Kristin’s mother was beginning to sweat and she took her napkin and patted her brow. Her father gave her a sympathetic look.
“It’s ok, Janice. Why don’t you just show her.”
Kristin’s mother paused and then slowly pushed her chair out from the table. Kristin sat up and as she was about to tell her parents to stop acting so weird, her mother snapped her fingers and an imp, blue like the color of the robin’s egg, appeared on the table between them. Kristin stared dumbstruck at the imp as it jumped from the table and landed on her mother’s shoulder.
“Get the fuck out of here!” Kristin yelled, “Why… why didn’t you tell me? I thought I was a fucking lunatic all this time.” Tears began to well up in her eyes and she shot up from the table and ran to her room, slamming the door behind her.
“Well that could have gone better,” her father said, pushing a stalk of asparagus across his plate. “I’ve never understood why we’re supposed to wait until 18 to do this.”
“It’s tradition, Frank. Passed down from the old country. 18 is when the training is supposed to begin.”
“You’re family hasn’t lived in ‘the old country’ for five generations, Jan. I doubt anyone would care if we updated the rule book. We knew she’d been seeing them for years now.”
Janice sighed. “I know. It didn’t happen so early for me or for mom or even grandmother, as far as I know. I think it’s something in the food nowadays. Artificial hormones or something. Girls just mature faster than they used to.”
“Hey, I like to shift blame to the evils of big-agriculture as much as the next guy, but I think we could have handled it a little more tactfully.”
“I had a whole thing prepared! But my nerves got the better of me.”
Frank stood up and gave Janice a hug. “It’s ok, dear. I’m sure we’ll be able to find her a reasonably priced therapist.”
“Stop it.” Janice’s imp rose off her shoulder and floated over the two of them. “Let’s go see about doing some damage control.”
Janice knocked softly on Kristin’s door.
“Go away!” They could hear her sobbing on the other side.
“Sweetie, your father and I are sorry if we upset you. We know how difficult this whole thing is. Can we please come in so we can explain.”
“I can tell you from experience that it does get easier, but there’s a lot you need to know about your gift-“
“Gift? These things are not a gift. They are a gift like herpes is a gift!”
Janice and Frank exchanged a look. “Hun, your mom feels terrible about making you cry. She thinks it may have something to do with how much milk you drank as a kid.”
Janice punched Frank in the shoulder and pushed him away from the door. “He means I should have said something to you sooner. We’ve known that you have had the gift for some time now but we weren’t supposed to say anything until you turned 18. That’s how it’s always been in the family.”
“Wait, what do you mean ‘always been’? Nana has these things too?”
“Every woman on my side of the family as far back as we can trace has had the gift, though how they manifest varies from generation to generation. Kristin, let’s not have this conversation on opposite sides of a door. We’re going to come in, ok?”
There was a long pause and then the door cracked open. Kristin walked back to her bed and her parents followed, sitting on opposite sides of her as she wiped her face with her sleeve.
Janice cleared her throat. “Well, you’ve met Hercules.” Hercules floated through the room and over to the desk landing next to the shoe box. “Would you mind showing us yours?”
“How? I thought I was the only one who can see them.”
“Usually yes, but that’s actually one of the things you have control over.” Janice whispered a few words into Kristin’s ear and Kristin closed her eyes then snapped a finger. A moment later all four of Kristin’s followers popped into the middle of her bedroom. Caro was still wrestling with Sprocket. Muff floated on his back staring intently at an acorn clutched between his limbs. And Iggy hovered with all four appendages splayed out like a child making a snow angel, a yellow butterfly wing sticking out of his mouth.
“Iggy, drop it.” The imp turn toward Kristin and opened his mouth revealing an inky black void. From it the butterfly emerged flying in bewildered loops off into the corner of the room.
“My,” exclaimed Janice, “quadruplets. And quite a spirited bunch, to say the least.”
Hercules took his attention off the robin egg and looked over at Caro and Sprocket. Caro kicked Sprocket sending him spiraling away and floated down to the desk. The two circled one another and sat. It was the most calm Kristin could remember Caro ever being and this worried her.
“Can these things die?”
“Only when we do. You can think of them as extensions of your own spirit or soul. Basically they are manifestations of your life-force. As long as you breathe, so do they.”
“So I’m stuck with them forever?”
“I suppose, in the way a mother is ‘stuck’ with a daughter forever if she’s lucky.” Janice put her arm around Kristin. Kristen groaned. “But they can be trained. Hercules wasn’t always as obedient as he is now. He had a thing with goldfish… it was unpleasant. Also he wasn’t a fan of your father when we first met. He used to put spiders in his shoes.”
“Your mother kept it all a secret from me for a long time. I thought maybe the spiders, and the missing keys… the dead birds I kept finding on my doorstep were just karma keeping me evened out for being so lucky to have met her.”
Frank stood and walked over to the shoe box and peeked inside. “A gift from your friends?”
“I guess. I’ve never seen Caro be so gentle with anything. It’s probably filled with poop.”
“Huh,” Frank looked down at Caro.
“Say, is that, um, blood?” Caro turned his head toward Frank and smiled.
“Probably. I told you, he’s got issues.”
Janice walked over to the desk and placed her hand, palm up, next to Hercules. He looked back and forth between Caro and Janice’s hand and reluctantly bounced onto it.
“I don’t have any experience with training so many at once,” she said as she held Hercules up to her face, “but we’ll call Nana in the morning and see what she has to say. There’s actually more to all of this than just these little rascals. We have lots of time to cover everything, though.”
“Come on, sport. What do you say we finish up dinner and we’ll see if we can tally up how much these things have cost me in repairs over the years. It’ll be fun.”
Kristin smiled. It felt like a huge weight had been lifted off of her to know that she wasn’t insane, or at least no more so than her parents.
“Ok, I’ll be out in a second.” Her parents walked out and she was left with her followers, the egg, and the silence in her room.
“You heard em, twerps. Looks like there’s a new sheriff in town. Things are going to be a lot different around here.” The imps looked at each other and hung their heads. Then Caro zipped over to Kristin’s dresser. As she was walking toward the door he pulled out a red Bic lighter and hugged it. As she was closing the door she turned to him, “A lot different.”