Silverwood: Chapter 4

“Helen?” Henry said. He tapped his foot on the floor. He crossed his arms. He uncrossed his arms. He sighed loudly. He pushed his hair back from his face. He crossed his arms again.

Out the front window of the apartment the sun was just dipping behind the buildings across the street. Car horns and engine noises echoed from below and people vigorously maneuvered around in various directions. A dog barked.

Their mom had been gone an extra long time. Usually she reappeared around mid-morning, having been out all night, and fell asleep until this hour. But whatever she was doing seemed to be taking much longer. It seemed like this happened every week or so. It messed up Helen’s theory that her mom was a bouncer at a club. Surely the club closed at some point? It didn’t make sense.

Helen was sitting on a plastic lawn chair in the front room of the apartment, hunched over a thick science fiction paperback. Her hair hung down like curtains on either side obscuring her face and her view of her brother standing impatiently a few feet away. Soda cans and wrappers were strewn on the carpet around her feet, mixed in with pieces of wire, lightbulbs, a couple tools, and what was left of a remote control.

There were boxes spread around the room. Some of them were partially unpacked. Some weren’t opened at all. Some would not get opened before it was time to move again. A couple of them served as a living room table.

“Helen?” Henry said again.

Helen looked up finally. “What, Henry?”

“I’m done with my homework,” Henry announced. His eyes looked intense in much the same way that Helen’s often did.

“You said we could find out what the thingy does, when I was done with my homework. Which, I am done, now. So can we do that, now?” Henry asked. For a nine-year-old, now meant now.

“Right… okay,” Helen said. She folded down a page and shut her book and put the book down on the table-box with a thud.

In the back room of the apartment in a corner behind a sleeping bag on a foam mattress, there was one box that wasn’t cardboard like the others. It was a substantial black case with a silver handle and solid-looking hinges and latches on it. It was the kind of container you might use to carry equipment for a touring rock band or maybe a touring stash of weapons. This box contained the ‘thingy’ that Henry was talking about.

In the past the two of them had breached the box a few times, glancing at the contents before snapping it shut again in fear of being discovered. Each visit to the box had gotten a little longer and brought on a little more curiosity.

“Okay,” Helen said. “Let’s do this.”

Before Helen could even stand up Henry took off running into the back room. He hurdled over Clarence, the retriever dog napping in the doorway. Clarence flared his nostrils and gave his ears a shake and that was it in the way of reaction.

Henry popped the latches and the hinges creaked a little as he lifted the lid.
Helen stepped over the dog.

“Here it is!” Henry jumped up with thingy in hand.

The thingy wasn’t a particularly exciting-looking object. What made it fascinating was how hard it was to explain. It was square and palm-sized, with a screen on one face. On one edge there was a single button and on another three was a slot like you might find on a coin-operated parking meter. It was made of grey metal and had scratches and rounded-off corners. It looked like it had been banged around a lot. It seemed futuristic and old at the same time.

Maybe the thingy had been on adventures. Maybe it had traveled the world with somebody. Maybe that somebody was their mom. Or their dad. But neither of those people were here at the moment. And the thingy was here.

When a machine has something like a coin slot, it is almost impossible to resist the urge to figure out what sort of coin, or token, is supposed to go in there, in hopes that it will make the machine do something. They tried a nickel, but that was too thick. A quarter just about fit, but jammed. There were some parking tokens and other things around, those didn’t do anything.

Henry fished a round thing out of the bottom of the black box that looked just odd enough it might work in an odd little device. It was like a coin, but it had a square hole in the middle and some characters stamped on it that were impossible to read. And it was in the box. It had to be related. Right?

Henry grabbed the coin and started to shove it into the slot. He paused.

“What if this works? What if it does something bad? Or weird?” Henry said.

“It can’t be that powerful, can it?” Helen said. “It’s a little square. It’s not a laser gun or a robot or anything.”

“You do it,” Henry said. He pressed the device and coin into Helen’s hand.
Helen held the device and the coin away from her at arms’ length as if they might explode on contact. She put the coin into the slot most of the way, but hesitated. What if they couldn’t get it back out? What if it broke? Now she had doubts.

Henry was hopping from one foot to the other with excitement. “Okay!” he nearly shouted. His hand shot out and he shoved the coin the rest of the way in.

“Henry!” Helen cried. It was too late. The coin fit exactly and disappeared inside with a decisive clonk.

The two of them stood hunched over the thing transfixed as the little screen lit up with static and then switched to rows of characters and numbers. Then more static and finally something that looked like a map. The map moved, and moved some more, like they were flying over a particular area. It stopped. A circle formed, large as the screen, and then smaller. And smaller. It was zooming in on something.

Henry touched the screen with a finger. The map moved. He scooted it one way, then the other. “This is our building,” he said.

Helen tried moving the map. “You’re right,” she said, “And that’s the building across the street. I wonder what these lines are going between them.”

Suddenly a red band blotted out the map with the word in bold white letters: UNAUTHORIZED.

“Whoops,” said Henry. His shoulders dropped. “I guess we need a password or something.”

“Well, that’s not very exciting, is it?” Helen said. “Is that all it does? It’s a map? Maybe that’s why it’s been dumped in here. Maybe it’s obsolete.” She ran her thumbnail along the back of the device, looking for somewhere to open it up. Surely there was more to this thing.

“Don’t even think about it,” Henry said, seeing how Helen was looking at the device. He had seen this look many times. It was the look of his sister when she was about to disassemble something. “You know you won’t get it put back together before Mom gets home.”

“You’re right,” Helen said. Too bad. She really wanted to see what was in there. Henry took another look into the box. He peeled something off the bottom with his nails.

“What’s this?” Henry asked. He held up a clear piece of plastic the size and shape of a credit card.

“Wow Henry, that’s really exciting. I bet you can see through it.” Helen didn’t mean to sound discouraging, but this wasn’t much to look at. Probably part of the packaging for something else.

“Yeah, I can see through it,” Henry said, holding the card in front of one eye. “WOA! What the heck!” He brought the card down and stared at it, wide-eyed. He looked through it again. “That’s crazy!”

“What?” Helen asked, grabbing for the card, but Henry was too quick and kept possession. He ran to the kitchen and slapped the card onto the front door of the refrigerator.

The card’s edges lit up and it began scrolling a display of data. Like a magnifying glass, but for information.

Helen appeared over his shoulder. “What is it doing?”

“It’s telling you stuff about whatever you put it on, that’s what! Here’s the fridge. The make and model, height, width, everything, even what’s in there,” Henry said. “Look, it knows there’s cheese inside.”

“Does it know it’s stinky cheese?” Helen asked. The card did not know the cheese was stinky. At least the display did not mention this.

Henry peeled the card off the fridge and stuck it on the toaster. Not much to learn, there. A date of purchase, toast settings. The toaster did not have a very interesting life.

“Let me see that,” Helen said. Henry handed it to her. She placed it on the front cover of her science fiction book. The book’s text scrolled across it, slowly at first. Helen picked the book up and the text moved faster. She turned the book this way and that. The text turned also. It was displaying the book’s entire contents. This was some sort of universal information – sensor? Reader? Not only could it read chips and circuitry and telemetry, it could read words in print. Now that was interesting.

“What do you think it’s for?” Henry asked. “Like, what job requires something like this? Is mom a spy?”

Before Helen could answer, they heard a noise that could only be the deadbolt on the front door. They looked at each other in surprise/terror and sprung into action. Henry dropped the card and the device back into the box and Helen latched it shut. She pushed the box back so it exactly matched the indent in the carpet where it had been sitting.

Henry re-hurdled over Clarence and ran into the other bedroom. He dove into his sleeping bag which was where he kept his pajamas for just this sort of situation. In the outer room Helen scooped up some of the food wrappers and threw them in the trash. She sat back down in the lawn chair and assumed a casual pose.

With horror, Helen realized they had left the coin inserted in the thingy.

Dead giveaway. A second deadbolt on the door slid open. Helen hurdled the dog again and popped open the box. She grabbed the device and shook it but the coin did not budge. A third deadbolt on the door squeaked aside. Helen pushed a button and by some miracle the coin slid out. She stuffed the coin in her pocket and shut the box and hurdled the dog one more time and landed back in the lawn chair just as the door opened.

Kate Silverwood came in to the sight of her daughter sitting with feet up on a box reading and looking very suspicious.

Kate slumped down in a lawn chair opposite her daughter. She swung her feet up to rest on a nearby box. She swung her feet back down, and pulled her boots off, and then put her feet up again.

“Did you eat?” Kate asked.

“Yeah, mom, a couple hours ago. You?” Helen looked up and noted the bruise running along her mother’s jawline.

“I had something on the way home. Henry’s in bed I presume?”

“Probably not asleep yet, if you wanted to say goodnight,” Helen answered.

Definitely not asleep, since he just dove under the covers three seconds ago, Kate thought.

With the heaviness of mental and physical fatigue Kate pulled herself back up out of the chair’s sagging webbing and shuffled into the next room. Helen could hear hushed voices and the sound of covers being rearranged and tucked in.

Kate returned and straightened the lawn chair before sitting back down. She squinted, leaned forward, picked up an envelope from the pile of unopened mail on the box-coffee table. She flipped it over, then tossed it back down.

“Henry says he drew me a picture and he’ll show me tomorrow,” Kate said.

“He’s getting really good,” Helen said.

“Yeah, he’s a talented kid,” Kate agreed.

“He’s perceptive too, mom – he doesn’t miss a thing.”

Kate paused. “No, I suppose he doesn’t.” She looked over at her daughter. Helen had always been a natural explorer, finding the edges and venturing outside the lines, much like Kate herself. Kate and Helen understood this about each other, and that their bond was strong, but also changeable. More like a dotted line than a solid one. They each had a need to maneuver and find their own separate way in the world. But Helen shared another facet with her mother which was that of the fierce and loyal protector, particularly of Henry. Kate could see that protector in the way Helen kept a watchful eye on Henry not just at school but in regard to his artwork. His art was a strange and singular language, complex and layered and not like anything from a regular nine-year-old. Helen paid attention to this. And attention is an important form of protection. Attention might be the one thing that you need to have more than anything else in order to really protect someone.

Henry’s thoughts had a tendency to get away from him like scattering birds and sometimes he couldn’t catch up. Some of this scattering could be attributed to Henry’s own self but a lot of it came from the experience of moving around constantly and never staying still. Henry was a person who needed a home base. And he had a powerful vision that had not yet been shaped into anything. His drawings still looked like fragments and shards. A lot of them ended up incomplete half-figures abandoned in mid process. Some of them layered on top of each other so thickly they became a solid blob of pencil and ink. He drew until the paper fell apart and the heel of his left drawing hand was shiny with smeared graphite.

Henry was sitting cross-legged inside his sleeping bag with a flashlight lying on its side next to him. The light cast a triangle of illumination across a sheet of paper on which he was quietly drawing with a pencil.

“Today Henry drew a picture of you walking into a volcano,” Helen told Kate.
“That doesn’t seem good,” Kate said.

“At school today he got into a fight with some girl,” Helen added. “He said she grabbed his sketchbook away and tried to look at it with some other girls. Henry grabbed it back and almost hit her in the head with it. But he missed.”

“That is good that he missed,” Kate said.

Helen agreed. Sometimes bad aim is a blessing. “Henry says that he can draw the future,” she said.

“Great, so there’s a volcano in my future?” Kate wondered.

Helen had not considered this. “Probably not,” she said, hopefully.

Kate exhaled. She considered her daughter’s face. She could still see the little girl outlined there, the one who could roll up small enough to fit in Kate’s lap. It was as if someone had just kept drawing the outline of a person bigger and bigger until now here was a full-grown version. But what did that mean to be full-grown? Was it time to explain to these kids what Kate did for work or where their father was? Where was the line between protection and exposure? Was it safer to tell them or did knowledge put them in harm’s way? Why was there no obvious boundary like a bell going off or a sign on the side of the road? A part of Kate wanted just to buy a few more days, weeks, months before forcing Helen and Henry onto the field of play. What if they were not ready? What if…

Enough. At some point the kids would figure it out themselves. This would be soon. Kate could tell. She stood up.

“I’ll talk to Henry about the drawings,” Kate said to her daughter. “He needs reminders not to get too gory or the school will start calling.”

“For sure,” Helen agreed.

“And Helen,” Kate said, “is anything in the apartment rewired? Or reinvented? Since I was last here? I’d rather not blow up anything or start a fire…”

“Nope, mom. I was reading,” Helen said. “I didn’t take anything apart.” She was being truthful at least about that. She had not dismantled anything in the last day or so.

“Okay. Goodnight, kid,” Kate said. She smiled an exhausted smile and headed off into the back room. Helen hoped the black box didn’t look out of order in some way they had overlooked.

“Goodnight, Mom.”

Henry had fallen asleep with pencil in hand. The flashlight was out. If it had been on it would have cast light onto a drawing of his sister Helen, facing away, and in front of her, facing the viewer, a detailed and highly accurate rendering of a Tromindox.

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