July 2020

Little Annamarie wore a mournful expression. “Mama,” she said, “I can’t find my Chorley.” Chorley was a ragged stuffed elephant that the girl had had since she was two.

“Where did you leave it?” the Mama asked, the air of distraction hardened on her features. She had taken off the VR glasses that she customarily wore throughout the long hours of the day, and even the child could see that she was irritated by the interruption.

“If I knowed, I wouldn’t be sad,” the girl pointed out.

“Knew,” Mama corrected.

Annamarie stamped her foot. “Mama, I need my Chorley.”

Mama sighed and turned away from her desk. “Child, I’m very busy with a big project. If you need your toy right now, you’ll have to look for it.”

She went back to tinkering with the things on her worktable: an odd assortment of wires and pentacles and computer chips and silver. This was merely a ruse, but Mama did not want the child to consider that Annamarie herself was the true project of the day. The weird energy of the awful, ancient house had combined with the child’s own latent gifts, attracting or creating a … thing. The thing came every night, and seemed to grow and fluctuate with the child’s moods. It was intriguing, and unexpected, and Mama thought Annamarie might even have an early breakthrough, gaining a measure of control over her aura—most of the children in the Endeavor did not have any kind of control until they reached puberty. After weeks of monitoring it, she’d realized that the toy was somehow amplifying Annamarie’s aural energies, and Mama decided that taking it would present the child with a fascinating new challenge.

It was not strictly prohibited in the Endeavor; side projects were allowed as long as they could be justified.

Annamarie spent a spare minute sulking before retreating in defeat; the Mama did not respond to this tactic.

Annamarie looked under her bed again, and in her closet. She was not, as a rule, a messy child, being rather precocious and having a strict Mama in the bargain. It was all the more mysterious that she couldn’t find the toy, to which she had a deep attachment. She’d awakened from her nap to find it missing, and had looked all around their large and drafty house without a successful reunion with her lost Chorley.

At dinner Mama asked, “Did you look for your toy?”

“Yes, Mama.” Annamarie was subdued.

Mama looked up from her soup and her newsscreen. “Did you find it?”

“No, Mama.”

“Hmm. Well, I suppose you’re too old for it, anyway.”

This was grievously unfair, but Annamarie knew better than to remark upon it. Although she had an excellent vocabulary for a six-year-old, she could not explain to Mama that the stuffed toy had been painstakingly imbued with protective magic for the last four years, and that there were likely to be dire consequences if she were to retire to bed without it tonight. The spaces beneath the bed and within the wardrobe appeared to be perfectly mundane during daylight hours, but were in fact deep and dangerous repositories for the most nightmarish of creatures once darkness fell.

While she wanted to wail and kick her heels against the floor, Annamarie knew it would do no good; instead, she retreated to her bedroom. She looked around the familiar space, fighting the tears that threatened to fall down her plump cheeks.

She had a small desk, suitable to her short form, upon which she’d accumulated an assortment of electronic gadgets and loose ends from Mama’s workshop, the yard, and the shadowy corners of the house. Annamarie had collected circuit boards since she liked the dark green shine of them, and countless wires, and other odds and ends, mostly gathered because of their interesting shapes.

There was a small, high window opposite the door, with a tattered pink curtain that hung limply over it. The curtain matched the quilt on the bed, and those two items were the beginning and end of any bright color in the room, except for, on a shelf over her bed, three other stuffed animals: a parrot, an anteater, and a jaguar. They had never held the special place in her heart which was reserved for the Chorley (named after the young elephant in the bedtime stories her Papa used to tell her).

She had two hours before bedtime, during which she was expected to study or, at the very most, quietly play. Mama was not supposed to be disturbed except during Meeting Times. Mama did not like other interruptions.

Annamarie pulled out her box of circuit boards, and a fistful of wires, and a small screwdriver she’d taken from the kitchen toolbox, and imitated the air of quiet contemplation Mama wore while she did her tinkering.

The girl frowned; she was missing something.

After a moment, she stood on her bed and pulled the other stuffed animals down to the floor with her. “I haven’t knew you as long as my Chorley,” she said quite solemnly, “but I still love you.” She tapped her fingers against her lips, an uncommonly grown-up gesture. “I think you need to be boosted.”

She selected a box-cutter—spirited away from Mama’s worktable weeks ago—and ripped open the back of the jaguar without hesitation. Annamarie began to play intensely and with great purpose.

Mama, watching from the monitor, did not interrupt her child at bedtime. She was pleased and fascinated by this turn of events, which she had not anticipated, and she took notes for an hour, watching the child’s selections and choices, enjoying the way the child mimicked her own work habits. The thaumo-meter hummed happily, measuring the surging energy around the child. Mama watched until the girl went to bed on her own initiative, the three newly modified stuffed animals arranged around her.

The thing that came in the night was perhaps more hungry than inherently evil, but still terrifying to little Annamarie. It oozed into the cracks created by darkness, nesting beneath the bed or curling in the closet. An unwary heel could be grabbed, tugged, and nibbled, if a dash to the bathroom was not properly executed.

The Chorley had protected her. The toy was alive with four years of devoted love; it was a powerful talisman against the thing, which was, after all, only acting according to its own nature. The Chorley repelled it, sent it scuttling for easier prey in other drafty houses. But now the Chorley was gone, and Annamarie had had to make do on short notice.

Mama straightened her glasses, ran her hands through her short-clipped hair, and turned on the dozen monitors which measured everything from the temperature of the room to the ectoplasmic content of the local atmosphere.

The other Mamas had much less to deal with. None of them had gotten stuck in a dark old house full of eaves and topped with crenellations—one variable too many, she’d argued, but been overruled—and most of the other Mamas still had their Papas around to help with their experiments. This Papa had gotten sentimental, protective of the innocent little girl, and that would not do. He’d been retired, peacefully enough. But then he’d tried to come back for Annamarie, and now Mama didn’t know where he was, or if they’d even let him live.

She snorted to herself, turning off her computer screen and powering down her laptop for the night. She had a few hours of peace before the child woke. Annamarie was largely self-sufficient, but still required some persuasion in order to get her up and prepared to log in to her morning classes. Mama needed to sleep, but first she went through her own nightly ritual—which involved tea and a night light and a particular quilt, and which she never, ever would have admitted to performing to any of the other Mamas. She did not share anything with them beyond her notes on the child.

When Mama was fast asleep, and Annamarie tossed and turned beneath the surface of consciousness, the thing that came in the night began to ooze and creep into the girl’s room. It had, as it always did, bypassed the lonely rooms of the house, and it moved by instinct away from the Mama’s nightlight.

It slithered into the dark, cramped corner of the little girl’s closet, watching her sleep. She was sweaty, muttering to herself and twitching; the best time, when it could invade the dreams and feed on the terror. An unwary foot was all well and good, but the thing that came in the night preferred fear to flesh. It liked to play with its food.

The child’s talisman was gone: its bright blue glow, its glowering eyes, were not there to ward and guard the child. The thing that came in the night moved forward, undulating out of the closet, claws scraping into the cracks of the floorboards.

But it paused mid-rear before pouncing, studying the child on her bed more carefully. There was something wrong… something different.

The thing hissed, a slow angry boil of frustration and irritation.

Here were three new champions; and while they did not shine brightly, they cast their own faint glow through the room, and the edges of their light were painful to the thing that came in the night. They were nowhere near as strong as the Chorley, but they were vigilant, and there were three of them, and they were full of the love and playful energy of the child. Of course, Annamarie was extraordinary—or she would not have been chosen and taken for the Endeavor—and the toys were only one of the ways that her gift had manifested. That bright curiosity burned into something real, something that could affect the world in unexpected ways: it was exactly what the Mamas were trying to measure and control, with limited success. And now that power had been transferred into the toys, giving them a smaller measure of the child’s aura, and granting her a sunny protection even as she slumbered.

The thing was forced to retreat, and it went, simmering with fury.

The Mama was unbearably smug during the conference call that took place during the early morning hours. She had every confidence that she understood the energies she’d measured.

“And she received no guidance from you on the matter?” the GrandMama asked.

“None at all,” Mama assured her with a sniff. “She created three new guardians. All weaker than the one that’s been soaking up her energy this whole time, but it was enough to get that… thing to leave her alone.”

Another one of the Mamas spoke, hesitant. She was a new Mama, on her first child. “And you’re certain that Annamarie doesn’t suspect your part in any of this?”

“Of course not!” Mama said, though she did not really consider her answer before she said it. It had never even occurred to her as a possibility. Of course, the girl was precocious; all of the children were extraordinary. That was the whole point of the Endeavor. But they were still children, and Annamarie was only beginning to develop her talents.

“Keep a sharp eye on her,” the GrandMama said. “The… thing is still a new development. We don’t want your situation to go awry again.”

The Mama schooled her face carefully, though she wanted to scowl. There had been no need to use that last word. This experiment was completely different, and Annamarie was far more talented than the last child the Mama had raised. It was hardly her fault that the last experiment had been abbreviated; of course, the child had died, so there was nothing that could be done about it except to move on. “I will certainly monitor the situation and present all my findings,” she said. “On the child and the… thing.”

She set aside her feelings of unease after the call. Certainly, there were more variables here than she had wanted, but she would work with what she was given, and she would be promoted within the Endeavor. If Annamarie lived, perhaps Mama could even move up with her. After all, she was the one who had thought of this experiment, and it looked like it might be just the emotional push the girl needed to advance her thaumatronics skills. If not with Annamarie, perhaps next time she could still begin with an older child, already aware of their aura; Mama had earned that much by now, surely. No more shepherding babies through their formative years. That would be a nice change.

For her part, when Annamarie woke, the girl was rested and relieved. The thing in the night had not gotten her, and her nightmares had been mild, even without her Chorley. She hugged her toys tightly in gratitude, and then got herself dressed and found breakfast and waited for Mama to log her into her class.

The toys were left to rest on the neatly-made bed, rather than the shelf above, and they were pleased with their change in status. It was not every day that a toy was elevated to best and beloved, and now that all three of them were now on the bed, well, they could not help but be pleased with themselves.

After her classes, and after Annamarie finished her walk—ten times around the yard, no more, no less—she took her nap with all three toys cuddled in her arms. None of them were particularly large, and with the modifications she’d made, they all had a few sharp edges and pokey bits. The girl didn’t mind; she loved them all the more now that she’d made it through a night with them.

When she woke she had a little while before Meeting Time. Mama was busy in her office. She was very pleasant today, and had given Annamarie a cookie when she finished lessons. After her nap, Annamarie had an odd idea.

“Are you sure?” she asked the anteater, who seemed the wisest of the three.

The stuffed toy did not answer out loud, but Annamarie nodded reluctant understanding nonetheless.

Taking the jaguar under her elbow for courage, she crept out of her room, avoiding the creaking floorboards and slipping through Mama’s bedroom door, opening it just shy of where it let out a long creaking groan. She rarely came in here; it was a cold room, always clean and tidy but never comfortable. Mama’s bed was small, like her own, and although the room was much larger than Annamarie’s, there was scarcely any more furniture in it.

Annamarie stopped, listening. She thought she heard a soft rustling from the darkness beneath the bed. She gripped the jaguar extra tight around the middle; the jaguar did not mind. Annamarie took comfort from his steady, stealthy presence, and edged around the room toward the closet.

This door let out a soft whine and Annamarie stopped with her head cocked, listening for Mama. She shivered and took one of the deep good breaths, and then she looked up on the top shelf of the closet.

There was her Chorley, carelessly flung so that it had toppled over on its side and lay on both of its own big, floppy ears. Annamarie let out a little sniffle at this pathetic sight. She reached her arms up, the jaguar still grasped by one ankle, and stood on tippy toes, but came nowhere close to reaching the stuffed elephant.

Annamarie left Mama’s bedroom door propped open and crept back to her own room, sliding her bare feet along the rough floorboards where she knew they wouldn’t creak. She gulped for air, back in her own room, and crushed the jaguar against her cheek for a final boost to her courage. Then she took the parrot and left her room again.

She paused outside Mama’s office door; Mama was on the phone with someone, talking in one of the other languages. She was leaned back in her chair, with one arm over her eyes. While Annamarie watched, Mama straightened and lowered her arm, and her eyes brushed past the doorway where Annamarie stood.

But she didn’t see Annamarie. She swiveled to face her desk, and Annamarie wrenched herself along.

She hovered uncertainly at Mama’s closet door, looking at her Chorley. The one eye she could see—a scratched black button peeking over the edge of the shelf—implored Annamarie for rescue.

The little girl braced her feet evenly beneath her and tossed the parrot up toward the top of the closet. It was an impossible throw in the too-narrow space between the door and the shelf, and the elephant rested heavily and certainly on that shelf. Yet an instant later, both toys came tumbling back down and the girl caught them with no more than a muffled, feathery thump.

She heard a clunk and a clatter from Mama’s office, and whirled around, clutching her toys. Another moment passed without a sound, and she tiptoed to the door, edging around Mama’s dresser. When she passed the ugly little porcelain nightlight, the elephant’s trunk snagged on the cord, and the thing tipped over with a crunchthud. The girl winced and froze. She set the light back upright, and fled to her own room. She did not tell Mama about the nightlight—Mama had taken her Chorley, after all, and could not be trusted—and there were no monitors in Mama’s room, so, in later review, the other Mamas would never fully understand what happened that night.

When Mama came and got her for Meeting Time, the girl was on the floor, contentedly playing the coding game on her tablet. The parrot, anteater, and jaguar were ranged around her, as though they were participating in the programming.

“Make your bed more tidily tomorrow, Annamarie,” Mama said. “It’s very lumpy today.”

“Yes, Mama,” the girl said.

“Go and wash your hands and join me for supper,” Mama said.

“Yes, Mama.” She leapt up from the floor, grinning, but Mama had already started down the hall.

They ate a quiet dinner, and when they were done, Mama went back to her office and the girl went back to her room to do her homework.

When she went to bed that night, Mama was disgruntled to find that the bulb of her nightlight was not working. She gave a soft, muttered curse; she didn’t have any spares. She’d have to get one tomorrow. Still, she was a grown woman, she reasoned. How much could a child’s boogeyman really bother her?

At least she thought so, for a few more hours.

Annamarie slept blissfully well that night, with her modified toys ranged around her and the Chorley hugged tight in her arms. In the morning she woke late.

GrandMama was there. Annamarie did not like her. “Where’s Mama?”

The old woman sniffed. “She’s not… well. She won’t be looking after you anymore.”

“Will I get to see Papa?” A surge of excitement rippled through her.

“No,” GrandMama said quickly. “No, you’ll have a new Mama. I’ve come to take you to her.” She glared around Annamarie’s room; she found no fault with it, but still did not like the room… or the house, for that matter.

It took next to no time for Annamarie to dress and gather her things, hastily arranging her toys beneath her clothing. GrandMama recalled, uneasily, the Mama’s report on how Annamarie had used her toys to channel her growing power… but with so many changes today, she would not take the toys from the child now. No, a smooth transition would be best; once everything else was under control, a new Mama could get the girl in line. GrandMama offered a hand, which the child reached to take, but a yucky jolt went through Annamarie’s arm. She pulled back to grip her suitcase instead.

“Are you ready, then, child?” GrandMama asked.

Annamarie nodded. Mama had always told her that she had to obey GrandMama, but Mama had taken her Chorley. Annamarie made a secret promise to her Chorley that she would not trust GrandMama, not ever. Or the new Mama either. Annamarie walked down the steps after GrandMama: suitcase dragging behind her, and, tucked carefully into the bag over her shoulder, her Chorley.

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