PART I: A LIFE STOLEN
“Robert! Whatever you’re doing in there, knock it off!”
The object of this direction froze; throw-arm stiffening in mid-air, too late. The glob of putty had already launched from his hand and quickly struck wall, floor and window with a loud succession of “WHAPS!”
“Robert Andrew Morris! If I have to come in there!”
Robert was unmoved. Yesterday his big brother had bought him his first ball of silly putty and he had made the remarkable discovery that it bounced. Just like a rubber ball! In addition, he reckoned, based on experience, that at least three to four more chances to hurl the putty ball remained before the patience-level of his family reached the snapping point and one of his siblings would be ejected from the couch to put an end to it. This, in turn, would produce a scrap between mother and unwilling daughter-turned-disciplinarian, who would resist having to compel her sluggish body off the couch to perform any kind of task other than running to the bathroom. Sarah had already arranged a large supply of easy-to-reach, completely un-nutritious snacks on the living room table, enough for an afternoon’s television, and did not expect to be disturbed. Predictably, she would promise to take care of business “at the commercial.” By that time, as Robert well knew, she would have conveniently forgotten her mother’s directive entirely. Consequently an eruption would ensue between mother’s insistence that her children police themselves while she battled household drudgery, and her daughter’s resolution to remain inert. Further minutes of whining and badgering would follow. The entire process would blessedly extend little brother’s playtime. And so Robert, secure in the fact that punishment would be neither swift nor final, returned to the business of indulging in his passion of the moment with all the confidence of a feudal lord in his manor.
By now the ball was hurtling ‘one more time’ against the wall as hard as Robert’s hands could heave it. A series of thumps, irregular in tone and volume, followed. Then, inevitably, disaster struck. On display at the corner of the study desk stood a model green 1968 V8 Ford Mustang fastback. After his big brother had built the model, Robert had begged for permission to borrow and place it on his desk, where he could admire it and pretend that it was his own. A day of pleading produced a one-day loan. But now Robert stared in disbelief as the putty ball zeroed in on it. Long hours of painstaking effort were almost completely destroyed in a fragment of a second as the model was sent flying violently into air. While Robert watched in horrified disbelief, the vehicle bounced of the wooden floor three times before skidding against the wall, minus two wheels and a rearview mirror. Robert fearfully rushed over to attempt damage control. After a hopeless attempt to conceal his crime by re-attaching the severed parts, he his the car inside his desk drawer and ran to his brother’s room in search of glue. Robert placed the ruined vehicle back on the desk and sighed. The only thing to do seemed to be to return to his interrupted play. The model already half-forgotten, he sat down crossed legged, head bent over in concentration, two bright, pinkish hands clasped, pushed, pinched and molded the squishy ball into an orb. He was a study in concentration, looking more like the acolyte of some eastern cult rather than a boy intent on childish amusements. He continued rolling the ball around in his hands, carefully noting imperfections, and shaped it into a near-perfect sphere before sending it on its terminal flight. The ball ricocheted unexpectedly straight back this time. Robert had just enough time to close his eyes and duck. With eyes still shut, his ears registered a “bang!” and a dull ‘plop, followed by complete silence. Robert’s head darted about the room, puzzling over the most likely point of landing. He finally selected his bed as the best candidate from which such a soft noise could be produced. Two small hands and arms were soon sweeping the covers and sheets in large-circular movements. Nothing. A fruitless search under pillow, covers, sheets and under the bed followed. His patience, thin as a rule in any case, was spent and he cursed the demon ball for violating the laws of physics and reason, taking his anger out on his side of the room, hoping by sheer destruction to force the ball to appear. Before long his entire area was a ruin of scattered toys, spilled out clothes and upturned containers, in the middle of which sat Robert, whose teary, red-faced and ear-piercing protests finally drew the ‘aid’ of his family in the form of his sister, who had finally been motivated from the couch in order to personally investigate the source of, and effect an end to, the escalating disruption of weekend calm. She stormed into the room, loudly broadcasting her annoyance at ‘always’ being ordered to leave the television to take care of this or that crisis.
“What are you doing?!” she demanded, arms akimbo. Two hardened eyes shot at her little brother, demanding an easy fix.
“My ball! I threw it over there and I can’t find it anywhere!” Robert screamed.
Sarah cast her eyes about for a few seconds, and then directed a controlled voice at her raging sibling.
“Well, where did you last see it?” came the voice of reason.
“Over there! I threw it right there!!” Sarah winced as the piercing shrieks of anguish hammered her eardrums.
She recovered herself and attempted to draw from her baby brother a precise, detailed description of the exact trajectory taken by the lost object, but her helpless sibling was limited to the same shrieking and unhelpful mantra choked out thru pitiful tears; “It went right there!!” Sarah gave up on her irrational brother and considerately made a fairly thorough search of the entire room but ended up with a verdict of doom; “Gosh! It really is gone. Well, I bet mom will find it when she cleans. You can always buy another one.”
Thoroughly uncomforted by these words, Robert maintained a fetal position several minutes after her departure. He barely moved until glumly answering his mother’s call to lunch, after which he performed one last hopeless, perfunctory search for the ball before heading out to the side of the house to collapse in a miserable heap and nurse his grief.
The elapse of half an hour found Robert sufficiently recovered enough from the trauma of the putty ball to quest for new amusements. It was Saturday, after all, and adventure beckoned in the untamed wilderness behind the house. The Morris family was very fortunate. There was a singular lack of bothersome teenagers, loud families, or irritating pets of the constant-barking, garbage-can raiding or chasing the school-kid on his way home variety. Their own comfortable house was situated between the terminus of two country roads. In front a paved road ran up past them to the top of a rise and then dissolved into dirt. It’s parallel version behind their house was a seldom-used dirt road which disappeared into the property of their neighbors up the slope. It’s main purpose, as far as Robert was concerned, was to mark off the boundary between civilization and the realm of the unknown; a vast stretch of fields, hills and gullies that reached as far as Robert’s probing eyes could see. Robert squinted at the far-distant mountains that dissolved into purple haze, contemplating the wonder and mystery of it all. But not too long.
His small legs churned over the old dirt road that marked the dividing line between their property and plunged into the chaparral field behind their house and was soon scrambling through the brush. The field behind their house was enormous and so full of ravines and tall, thick brush that a person walking into it became swallowed up within minutes. He had long since populated it with the delicious creatures of his imagination, and transferred on to it from out of the silent pages of his books all sorts of colorful characters, breathing life into the lonely, dusty brush. He lifted up the wooden sword he had brought with him and bravely met his first challenge; single-handed combat with a mob of pirates. His elation over an easy victory was deflated by a sharp, wooden pain in his right thumb. He lifted his hand for a look. Blood! Right where the thumb joined the palm. He manfully and painfully extracted the splinter with his teeth and walked on, sword at the ready, but the possibility of more splinters and the throbbing from his wound caused his appetite for violence to rapidly dwindle. He cast the sword aside in a clearing where he wouldn’t forget it and marched on, purposefully crunching dry leaves and twigs under foot. The soothing silence of the field began to snuggle into his soul, thoughts of rampage and slaughter faded. He soon found himself hurtling down a slope along the trail he had made for himself, if a trail you could call it, for all it really consisted of was the extremities of bushes broken, smashed and shoved out of the way. That was fine with him; more hidden and secret that way. He was heading towards a little clearing astride the tiny brook that ran through the middle of the field. It was a special place; no one in the whole wide world was aware of its existence save himself. This thought alone was enough to imbue it with an aura of sacred magic. He reached it after a few minutes’ and sat down at its bank, settling down to breathe in the beautiful solitude of the place. The outside world did not exist here. As far as his family and anyone knew, he could be on the far side of the moon. The buzz of satisfaction from that thought brought a smile to his face. On days like this when he craved disappearance, he would not return to the ‘real’ world until the day was far spent. He was convinced he had found paradise. He settled himself down and beheld his private kingdom.
Towering brush hugged both sides of the brook and in places the longer branches thrust out right over it, shading the water here and there, giving it a feeling of enclosure and security, as well as relief from the August heat. At one point, though, the brush was back a ways from the water, revealing enough ground to sit on. Robert had been quick to see its possibilities and had worked to widen it even more, creating a little ‘beach’ on which he could sit next to the sparkling water. This particular day was warming up quite a bit and he welcomed the relief that this shady, watered place offered, although at this point of the year the brook threatened to become merely a series of mud-holes rather an actual brook. Yet the small pool of water he was sitting near was still several inches deep and invitingly called him to dip his feet into it. He did not do this, however, for he was too enchanted by the wonderful variety of life he observed, and he was reluctant to disturb it. Water bugs darted here and there on the surface of the sluggish water and a few tiny fish could even be seen, darting nervously here and there, living out a precarious existence within their rapidly shrinking world. All was quiet except for the hypnotic, intimate, noise of insects accompanied occasionally by sporadic, fitful melodies of hidden birds, or the occasional ’plop’ sound the fish made as they moved up to the surface. At infrequent intervals an airplane would appear in the far distance, tearing through air, tracing long-white streams through the hot blue sky, so far away that it could not be heard.
His meatless, eight-year-old frame, sandy brown, unkempt hair, and jerky, hyperactive movements proclaimed a body made for action. But this was sweetened by a sensitivity displayed by a noticeable tenderness of the blue-gray eyes, gentle features of the face, and the long moments he gave to simply sitting, watching and listening. At these times, away from any form of agony the world had to offer, he could believe that time itself stood still. But time could not stand still. Not for Robert Morris, nor the fish in the brook, nor for anyone. Robert was to find that his earthly paradise with its enchantments was but a mirage. And for him, it began with that most changeable of quantities; the weather.
The day had started out bright, hot and dry but now suddenly humidity settled on his body, joined by a slight dimming of sunlight. Earlier during his sojourn into the field a great wall of grey-brown clouds could be seen inexorably and majestically approaching from the west. He had not paid them much attention. But now the wall of clouds had changed into a steel-gray blanket brooding over the field, changing the mood dramatically. Sunlight no longer danced on the water’s surface illuminating the silent, magical world beneath. Colors dulled, the illusion of timelessness was lost. The tiniest droplet of moisture tickled his right cheek. After a brief pause more and larger drops started to pelt the ground and plants with an irregular, gentle tapping, rapidly increasing in tempo, slowly dampening the earth, his body, and his mood. He did not like getting wet. He had not expected rain, as there had been none ‘forever.’ Stupid clouds. His solitary reverie ruined by the disappearance of mesmerizing summer light and warmth, he got up and began moving quickly towards home to avoid the rapidly-increasing downpour. This was not easy as he had only very recently begun to clear a trail through the field to his brook. Tough branches that would have taken a saw to remove still thrust out into the trail and left painful scratches on his arms if he wasn’t careful. These obstacles combined to make progress quite slow, despite his frantic efforts to escape a drenching. The rain intensified with surprising speed and soon developed into a full-scale downpour. After tripping twice and being savagely clawed and bloodied by a gnarled branch that jutted out into the trail, he finally emerged into the relative clearing near the dirt road behind his house. He was free to go at a full sprint now. Only trouble was, by this time he was completely soaked. He looked at his clothes, now clinging to his body like dish rags and finally succumbed to the forces of nature. He stopped running and looking up into the vault of heaven, opening his laughing mouth to drink in the rain.
His revived spirits were full of inspiration again, the return home must be an adventure, too. He was the gazelle on National Geographic. His legs grew long, slender but incredibly powerful. With remarkable speed and dexterity he began darting right and left, swerving to avoid bushes, rocks and indentations. A lioness was in full pursuit. She had decided to make a desperate try for him. This would be her last chance to provide food for her helpless, whining cubs. The river would soon become too swollen. If she did not hurry, the gazelle would cross and she would be that much closer to starvation. The gazelle’s heart pounded with strain and fear, legs began to stiffen with fatigue, ready to collapse, black, darting eyes caught site of the river, (the dirt road separating his backyard from the field) still horribly out of reach. The thump of the lioness’ paws drew perilously close. The hot breath of the fearsome king of hunters tickled his ankles. His leg muscles began to seize up with fatigue and stress. What gives? They never get tired on television! He thought. Terror gripped his heart as he felt powerful jaws about to sink into his leg, snapping bone. But at the last possible second he bounded across the river with a triumphant leap; a tremendous surge of relief surged through his stressed-out muscles as he sailed through the air to safety. For all its vaunted power, the mighty king of beasts had been humbled by its only weakness; fear of water. He cantered leisurely the rest of the way into the house and entered through the front door sweaty, dirty, waterlogged and exhilarated.
A comforting, seasoned aroma greeted his nose and brought a delightful thrill to his hungry stomach as he splashed toward the warm, safe kitchen, leaving a wet, dirty trail behind him.
“Oh there you are. I was beginning to wonder what had happened to you,” his mother said without looking up from the frozen peas she tumbled into a small pot of water. But his soggy tramping into the dining area did bring the unwanted motherly attention of his sister. “Oh my gosh, you’re soaked to the bone!” This comment persuaded his mother to better appraise the situation. One horrified look led to a quick succession of orders: “March right into that laundry room and take those clothes off! Take a shower. Then go to your room and put on some dry clothes. You might as well go ahead and get into your pajamas. But make it a quick one because dinner is almost ready.” He gladly followed these instructions, happy to peel the wet, smelly layers off his body.
Once his clothes were heaped near the washer and his skinny, naked body standing in front of the glass doors of the shower, his active mind insisted on morphing the shower into something more. A simple shower no longer existed. Certainly not to an impressionable brain now forever stamped with that image; the steam, the sound of spraying water, the furtive, purposeful approach, the knife, that scream. The purpose of a shower was no longer to be confined to anything so mundane and practical as the removal of dirt from the body. Simply unthinkable! It was a place of doom! He entered the shower and innocently closed the glass door. Only vague forms could now be seen through it. Water flooded from the spout, raising clouds of steam. The door silently opened. He could see…he could hear…the hand, the knife. A fluttering of fear coursed through his heart with a resultant change of scene; much better to be killer than victim, and he, a deadly menace. Now he became the “Thing,” able to tolerate astoundingly high temperatures. They would try first to eradicate him with a stream of super-hot water. First, turn up the red “H”, careful to avoid the painful spray. And then to OUCH! carefully test it. Slowly, slowly he would gage his superhuman ability to withstand temperatures well beyond human endurance. But, alas, despite a courageous effort, his pitiful humanity was simply too fragile, even standing in the shower away from the inflammatory liquid was quickly becoming unbearable. He turned on the cold water, ever so gradually, causing almost imperceptible changes in temperature. Just to the first mark on the knob. Ow! Then to the second mark. Would he achieve a new record? The third mark, that did it! A new record and barely tolerable. He eased himself in. Only then did he realize how miserable he was soaking in hot water on a warm summer’s day. He increased the cold water to obtain relief and instantly had it at full blast, as was the hot water. He put his foot over the drain and let the water rise. How long would it take to turn the shower into a pool? He grabbed the soap, intent on squeezing it hard enough to hit the ceiling. Perhaps this time he would make it. He was interrupted before he could try. His sister was sent to remind him of his mother’s long-forgotten admonition to ‘make it a quick one’. She carried out her task sharply, adding a string of her own stinging comments about brain damage, wasted water, damaging the environment, and selfishness towards the family by steaming up the house on such a horribly humid day. That and growing hunger pangs finally led to a business-like shampooing, soaping, and rinsing off.
It was seven-thirty before he was free again. He grasped his latest comic in his hands and hunched over on the floor next to his bed, positioning his body so as to catch the hall light, and was soon oblivious to external stimuli. Atom Man had now found it necessary to shrink down to a sub-atomic level to avoid detection from the evil Tormentor. That was a dark and incredibly powerful nemesis to be avoided at all costs. The sub-atomic level was even stranger and more cool than his usual shrink-size when he shrank to, say, the size of an ant.
“Turn on the light, it’ll hurt your eyes to read in the dark,” scolded his sister, flipping the switch as she came into the room.
“I wasn’t in the dark; I was using the light from the hallway.” Countered Robert, sidestepping the real reason; that he was simply too lazy to get up and turn on the light. Although, to be fair, that was only partly true. The dimmed lights added a dramatic ambience to the desperate struggle of Atom Man to save the cosmos from a death-like slavery which was certain to be imposed upon all life-forms once Tormentor emerged from the contest triumphant.
“It’ll still hurt your eyes.”
“No it won’t.”
“Yes it will.”
“No it won’t.”
The sound of determined steps pummeled his ears as his sister stomped out of the room to the kitchen eager to snare her obstinate and ignorant younger brother with adult backup “Mom, will it hurt your eyes if you read in the dark with only the hall light coming in?”
The response muffled through the wall with its unwelcome verdict: “Yes, if you’re going to read in there you really need the light on.”
Instantly the march of victory back into the room began: “Mom said….”
“I heard, I heard!”
“I’m just trying to help you. You don’t want to go blind do you?”
“I’m not going to go blind.”
“You will if you keep reading in the dark.”
“I wasn’t reading in the dark I had the hall light on.”
“Go ahead and ruin your eyes then.”
Robert’s eyes narrowed into angry slits as he shoved his face back into his comic. Atom man had shrunk down so far that the world looked like so many spheres orbiting and floating in space. Atom Man had to be very careful at this level in order to avoid being pulverized by the super-fast atomic particles. Unexpectedly, Robert felt considerable pressure on his spine. The weight increased as his sister’s heels jiggled and dug into his back muscles as she struggling to stay balanced. He looked up to see her reaching for something on the wall, using him as a footstool. When she was done, she got off and walked away to her side of the room.
“Hey, I’m not a piece of furniture!” he protested, noticing the chair right next to them.
His sister ignored him except to rub salt into his wounded pride with a slight smile of amusement. Robert let out an exasperated sigh and glued his eyeballs back to his comic
“Hey Robert, where did you put that car that goes with my doll house?”
“I don’t know,” Robert hissed, fed up with constant interruptions.
“Well you had it last!”
“Beats me,” he repeated calmly, attempting to imitate the blasé attitude that his sister had perfected and hopefully generate some suffering on her end for once.
“Well?! Where did you put it!?”
“I didn’t put it anywhere!” He said, his feigned non-interest rapidly weakening in the face of bubbling rage.
“So it’s just floating in the air?” she said, dripping with sarcasm. Robert’s mouth opened in reply.
“Oh there it is! Under your bed is not a good place for this! This is a collectable, one-of-a-kind Tammy Doll.” Robert scrunched his brows down and gripped the pages of his comic, straining to blot out his exacting sibling. It worked. Multi-colored spheres moved fiercely in every direction. With awesome agility Atom Man negotiated this hazard as well. He was just about ready to invade the Tormentor’s very body when the aroma of an unexpected dessert offered Robert enough of an incentive to find a stopping place.
The smell pulled him in the direction of the kitchen in time to see his mother pull out a steaming hot tray of cinnamon rolls from the oven.
“Can I have one?”
“O.K. but they’re still too hot. Wait ‘till they cool off a bit. Do you want
some milk with it? “
“Robert! Get the butter!” ordered his older brother as the entire family rushed to join in the feast. Robert amiably complied, happy that his experienced brother had the presence of mind to remember the necessity of hot, melted butter. John, Sarah and Robert settled into their places, delighted over yet another unexpected and delicious offering from their mother. Cold water gurgled into cups then mother sliced several generous chunks of butter and deposited one on top of each roll. Robert observed, fascinated by the process of dissolution as the soft, yellow, creamy substance sank into the sweet bread and slowly waterfalled down the side. Robert attempted to push the dissolving butter more into the center so each waterfall was equal but only received a scolding for his pains. She placed one on a plate and set them before each child. It called loudly to Robert, who noisily blew on his, impatient for them to cool down already, but restrained by the painful cost of impatience, remembering the time only last week when his greedy lack of forbearance had led to a painful mouth-burn from chili.
“After you finish these rolls its time to brush your teeth and go to bed.”
This direction was met with quiet compliance from three happy mouths full of sugar, bread and warm butter. Cherished memories arose along with the smell and taste of the rolls, and fueled by a sugar buzz, Robert began peppering his mother with questions about Christmas.
“That’s not for a long time,” said his sister, who’s love affair with life was threatening to be quashed by increasing pressures to act ‘mature,’ whatever that meant, and who always ready to quell her little brothers’ turbulent excitement over life. “You may as well not even worry about that.” But Robert was not to be kept down.
“What about Halloween?”
“In about two months,” answered his mother. “You better start thinking about what you want to be. “
“How about Atom Man?”
“Great, then you would be invisible,” His sister replied.
“That would be cool!” Robert’s eyes widened at the thought.
His head sank wearily into the soft pillow, his mind still alive with speculation. How would it be if he could be as small as Atom Man? He began working it out: first, he would shrink to about 2 feet and slide off the bed. He would continue shrinking, and by the time he hit the carpet he would be about 3 inches tall. Then he would shrink to about 1 inch, still big enough to walk on the carpet. Even smaller! The strands of carpet appeared like trees. He had noticed something remarkable from examining them some days ago. His mind had been obsessing with all things microscopic. This had been going on ever since his dad had bought him that comic. He began spending more and more time down on all fours, his face shoved close to whatever surface he happened to be on. Among other amazing lessons, he learned that each strand of the carpet in his room was made up of several more even smaller strands. By straining his eyes, he could make out that, incredibly enough, even tinier strands formed those. How far did it go on? If he were Atom Man he could end this mystery. Next, he would grow big enough to fit into his matchbox cars and play with all his toys. It would be like having all the friends in the world, right in his own room. But at last, these romping of fantastical imaginings drifted into dream-like images and his avid mind surrendered to unconsciousness.
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