The tree house
"Did you hear the news?"
“Who hasn’t? Isn’t it terrible?”
"I can't believe the school board allowed it, and after all our lobbying and hard work, to just cave in like that! It's completely disheartening to realize that your voice as a mother counts for nothing."
"Dollars before people, Cathy. That's how this world works."
"Exactly. I always had my reservations about that man as the chair of the school governing board. And the fact that his wife works for Geneticore. It's shameful!"
"I know. His motives for allowing the proposition to pass are questionable, to say the least. He’s hardly neutral, is he?"
"That's exactly what I was saying earlier at the Mothers Union meeting this morning. Didn't I say that, Helen? Weren't those my exact words?"
Dean, who has been impatiently waiting for the talking cluster of his mother's friends to remove their coats in the hallway so he can get past them, starts to irritably kick his soccer ball against the wall.
"Dean, stop doing that! No playing in the house. I’ve told you a hundred times."
One of the cluster—a young, unfamiliar blonde woman—gives a wry smile. "I don't know what you're all so worried about. The presence of the Geneticore kids at the school won't make any difference to Dean and his friends. Life will continue as it always has. If anything, things will be even easier for them. The few minor chores that they're still saddled with—carrying their own books, standing in the lunch queue, taking their own notes in class—will all be covered by the clones."
Dean hasn't really been listening to the conversation but the sudden silence that descends over the hallway sparks his interest.
"Who would like some coffee?" his mother asks with a stiff, too-bright smile, and Dean knows that the young blonde woman with her painted red mouth and quick words won't be invited again. He thinks about smiling at her, admiration for her rebellion making him briefly forget his antipathy towards adults, but she gives him a glance behind the backs of the other women trooping into the living room that stops the impulse in its tracks. It's a look Dean doesn't understand, except he thinks it’s supposed to make him feel ashamed.
It's a feeling that briefly stays with him as he goes out to the garage to get his bike, but Dean's young and not especially sensitive so he forgets about it by the time he gets to the top of the driveway. He's unhampered by the concerns of adults, and adventures are planned for the afternoon.
Making an obvious show of turning left, he double-backs behind the hedge on the other side of the road, ducking low so he won't be seen from the house.
It takes him just under twenty minutes to cycle the deserted road to the biopark, weaving from side to side to avoid the potholes sprouting with grass. He climbs off his bike when the fenced boundary of the park appears ahead of him and wheels it onto the overgrown footpath running adjacent to the road so he can remain hidden behind the line of trees.
The park was abandoned a few of years ago after the second wave viruses broke out. It’s still guarded, but the security is low key, mostly just for show. A division of Geneticore men in black military uniforms comes out once a month on a regular schedule and an old mutant lives permanently in the guard house at the gate. Dean can see him in the distance ambling along the perimeter of the fence in a dignity-mask which covers his head and face like a beekeeper's hood.
Dean’s mom told him there used to be a lot of mutants, just out on the street like regular people, except covered up of course, but now it’s really unusual to see them in public because most of them died or ended up working in the factories with the clones.
When Dean first discovered the abandoned reserve, he used to spend hours shadowing the guard and trying really hard to get a glimpse of his face, imagining all the horrible deformities it was hiding, especially after his stepdad got him a pair of electroencephalogram binoculars for his birthday. But the guard doesn't seem to ever take the hood off, even though there's nobody out here to see him. Dean thinks that’s really weird. Why would you keep yourself covered up all the time like that when there’s nobody to see what you look like?
Nobody but Dean, who eventually grew bored of the long surveillances and imaginary radio communications with his secret troops hidden in the wilds of the biopark: "Be on the alert. Elephant Man is on the move. Over. Any activity on the perimeter? Over. Elephant Man has gone to roost. Over and out."
At fourteen, Dean is too old for imaginary war games, but he’s in a similar situation to the mutant guard: there’s nobody out here to laugh at him.
The guard lost his allure because he never really does anything. He sedately patrols the reserve or he remains unseen in the guardhouse or he tends the vegetable patch next to it. Nobody comes to visit him and he never goes anywhere else. Sometimes he sits up on the roof of the guardhouse reading printed books or watching the sun set. It seems like a very boring life to Dean. But he's still a part of Dean's secret world out here, a peripheral character, the only halfway human one that he can absorb into his games.
The fascination with the mutant guard waned even more after the building of the tree house became his primary preoccupation.
Dean thinks about the tree house all the time, when he’s in class, when he’s having dinner with his mom and step-dad talking across him, when he’s lying in bed at night: the construction difficulties, the glorious promise of it. Most of the day he’s just clock-watching and counting the hours until he can come back out here.
There’s a boy-and-bicycle sized hole in the fence and a narrow metal bridge just after it over a deep ditch that he navigates quickly and with the ease of long practice. He follows the dirt track running alongside the fence until he gets to the rusted metal housing that once held an automatic spray-gun that is his marker for another path into the jungly interior of the park.
He hides his bike under the natural camouflage of a thick ground creeper, turning his face away from the fetid breath emanating from the open mouths of the waxy purple flowers covering it. He hasn’t ever gotten used to that smell of dead, rotting things. He banks on the hope that Elephant Man hasn’t either.
After hiding his bike there’s the usual battle through the dense green wall of plant life to get to the clearing. It’s impossible to create a permanent path because the plants in the biopark are rapidly regenerative, designed to grow back exactly as they were before. It used to be fun, breaking everything, smashing and jumping with impunity, but it doesn’t really count if it’s not real.
Dean pauses when he eventually makes it into the clearing. Every day he thinks his tree house couldn’t be more amazing than the day before, and every day he’s surprised. The wooden boards of the half-built walls hug each other tighter than they did yesterday. In a day or two they will be trying to strangle each other but today they’re still friends. Fat bunches of fluffy pink flowers have burst through the boards overnight. Trailing tangles of tiny, spiky blue orchids hang heavily over their soft pinkness, like a floral, color counterargument. Dean looks up at his creation and smiles in wonder before casting a critical eye over all the new growth, the places where he will have to cut and saw and chop.
He didn’t know that the boards would continue growing or that vines and flowers would creep out of chinks in the wood, competing for the right to live. If he had, he might not have started building the tree house in the first place. But it’s too late to think like that. It’s a competition now: him against the plants and their constant, unnatural growing. And Dean’s stubborn. He’s not going to give up.
He accidentally stumbled on the clearing when he was exploring one day. The biopark scientists must have been experimenting with using the timber for construction. It took a while for him to get into the big, rusted metal strongbox filled with tools, but curiosity and perseverance eventually won out. The pile of flat timber boards stacked up next to the strongbox is held in place by a bendable cage made of copper-colored rods emitting a low, buzzing noise, vibrating on some frequency that seems to prevent the constant growth lying dormant in the wood.
The first time he tried to touch the cage, even with his sleeves pulled protectively over his hands, he got knocked halfway across the clearing on his ass, and he’s been dreaming about little fungal plants growing underneath his fingernails ever since.
But there’s enough space between the rods to reach inside and slide the wooden planks out individually, and he’s better at not getting shocked anymore.
The strongbox contains some individual copper rods, a tempting but daunting source of building material. If he could just activate a couple of them and get them into the joints of the tree house, then maybe he wouldn’t have to work so hard to stop his building project from destroying itself. But he hasn’t been able to figure out how to switch them on, and even if he did, he wouldn’t know how to handle them without electrocuting himself.
Before starting on the tree house, he goes over to the edge of the clearing, where a defensive circle of the buzzing rods holds back the invasion of the plants, so he can check on his animal traps. The first trap gives up two green mice and a vole with swollen gills under its ears. A lot of the animals in the park are sick or mutated. He’s noticed that the mammals seem slightly better off than the reptiles. One of his traps down near the river holds a small green and blue lizard with twinned heads, one half-dead and dragging behind the other. Dean crushes the bad head between his fingers and is repaid with a sharp bite by the ungrateful healthy twin. He stands on the lizard in retribution and the feeling of shame that he felt before comes back to him.
Suddenly irritated, he stalks back up to the clearing and glares up at the tree house. He’s never going to be able to keep up with its constant growing. There’s probably some clever method to building with the wood that the Geneticore scientists thought up, a way to line up the planks so everything grows together organically, but Dean doesn’t know how to do that. He’s only a kid, not a biologist or an engineer. He isn’t even very good at Science. Or at any of his subjects really. It’s a constant disappointment to his mom. The tree house will just carry on growing and twisting and getting all jumbled up until it becomes a monstrosity, a great big mutant tree house.
If his real dad had still been alive, he would have helped Dean build a proper tree house at home. Angry tears well up in Dean’s eyes and a feeling of frustration makes him pick up a rock to throw it at the object of his irritation. The rock goes over the half-built wall and hits something soft-sounding. A shocked, wounded noise comes from inside. Dean startles, but somehow it’s not all that surprising. The tree house is so obviously alive, why wouldn’t it feel pain? Except that the unhappy sound continues and then fades into a very human sounding groan.
For a moment, Dean really still believes the tree house made the noise until he finally accepts the idea that someone is hiding up there. He picks up a bigger rock for protection, scared now. Undecided what to do, he shuffles nervously from foot to foot and cocks his head to listen for any more sounds that might identify the hidden threat. Nothing but the sound of his heartbeat in his ears and the low buzzing hum of the copper rods.
Running away is the obvious choice. Anything could be hiding behind the wall. Maybe it’s the guard, finally caught up with him, or some freakishly mutated, carnivorous, tree-climbing animal lying in wait for him. Dean bites his lip and hesitates, caught between two equally unappealing choices. He doesn’t want to get eaten, obviously, but running away is tantamount to giving up his stake on the clearing and all his hard work.
The thought of losing the tree house makes the reckless streak in his personality team up with his stubbornness to overcome his fear. That’s his tree house, even if he was just throwing rocks at it a minute ago, and he’s not giving it up that easily. Rock clutched in his hand, he climbs cautiously up the rope ladder, staring upwards, ready at a moment’s notice to scramble back down again.
A huddled figure consisting of long, slim limbs, knobbly knees, a thatch of brown hair and wide eyes comes into view when he peeks over the ledge. It’s a boy. Dean sucks in a surprised breath and the boy does the same.
Lifting his head over the wooden platform, Dean asks in his most threatening voice, “What are you doing here?” wary still, but braver in the face of the other kid’s obvious apprehension.
“Nothing,” the boy whispers, licking dry lips as he creeps closer to the wall and peers at Dean through long brown hair hanging heavily into his eyes.
Dean drops the rock, hauls himself up on to the platform and stands up to his full height. “You shouldn’t be here. This is my tree house. I built it.”
The boy looks Dean over and then casts a glance around, over the knotted humps and lumps in the walls and the buckled flooring. He looks back at Dean. “It isn’t built right,” he says quietly.
Dean blinks in surprise and sputters, “That’s because it keeps growing. It’s not my fault.”
The boy looks back at him steadily, a stubborn tilt to his jaw now. “It’s still not built right.”
Affronted, Dean snaps, “Nobody asked you for your opinion.”
The boy shrugs and rubs his forehead, looks down at the smear of blood on his fingers. “Why were you throwing rocks at it?”
“Did I hit you?”
The boy grimaces and nods, lifts the collar of his shirt and wipes the blood away. Dean notices the simple matching cotton shirt and pants, institutional grey in color, like a uniform. “Sorry,” he says, even though he feels stupid apologizing. He dodges the question by pretending the tree house wasn’t the actual target. “I heard you and thought you might be a killer mutant bear or something.”
The boy’s lips twitch.
“Are you okay?” Dean asks him.
The boy shrugs again. “My head hurts a lot.”
Dean thinks he might be exaggerating. There’s only a small scratch hidden by the heavy fringe of hair. “I said I was sorry. Anyway, you shouldn’t be here.”
“Why?” the boy asks with solemn curiosity.
“It isn’t allowed. The reserve is off-limits to civilians.”
“But you’re here.”
His logic is frustratingly logical. “That doesn’t matter,” Dean answers quickly. “I was here first.”
“Have you got something to eat?”
Dean contemplates the abrupt change in subject, then sits down and starts tugging at the thin green tendrils growing up between the boards, keeping the boy warily in his peripheral vision. “Maybe,” he says after a suitable length of time. “Have you got something to trade?”
“No, I haven’t got anything.”
Dean looks at him skeptically.
“But I could help you, if you wanted me to help you, with the building.”
Dean hisses in irritation and stands up. “I don’t need your help!”
The kid traces a whorl in the wood with his finger. “I’ve been thinking about it. If you aligned the boards differently, where the growth lines are, they’d sort of counteract each other. They’d stop growing so quickly. Look at this section here.”
Reluctantly, Dean goes over and peers at the boards in question over the boy’s shoulder. What he says is true. It’s something Dean has already considered, but he’s not quite sure how to match up the boards in the right way. He has tried, but when it happens, it happens accidentally.
The boy turns and looks up at him, wide eyed and serious. “It’s good, though, that you built all this by yourself. It’s crazy looking, but it’s pretty, like something out of a story.” His lips twitch again as if he’s thinking about smiling.
Dean is flattered but pretends not to be. He gives the boy a disparaging once-over. “Yeah, you couldn’t have done it by yourself. You’re really shrimpy-looking.”
Recently, Dean’s been watching his body changing in the bathroom mirror with a removed sort of fascination: the growth of his legs, the lengthening and bowing, the suggestion of heaviness in his shoulders. He’s not going to allow this skinny, floppy-haired kid to invade his space and simultaneously criticize it.
“It’s not always about how big you are,” the boy counters. “Sometimes other things count more.”
“Like being smart.”
“I’m smart,” Dean snaps defensively.
“I didn’t say you weren’t. It’s pretty smart to have figured out how to build something like this in the first place, even if you probably should have thought about it a bit harder before you started.”
“Leave nothing today undone,” Dean quotes a slogan from a t-shirt he found in a box of his dad’s things in the attic. “It’s a saying,” he adds when the boy looks uncomprehendingly up at him.
Just then the boy’s stomach rumbles loudly.
“I did bring some food,” Dean says grudgingly. “It’s in my backpack. You go down first and I’ll follow you.”
The boy looks unsure, so Dean says, “I’m not going to push you down the ladder,” but he can’t help adding, “If you think about it, though, this would be a great place to hide a body if you were planning the perfect murder.”
Dean has been watching some of his Dad’s old movies, especially the black and white murder mysteries, and he’s become fascinated (in an abstract sort of way) by the idea of how somebody might go about plotting the perfect murder. It’s a concept that seems both outdated and excitingly forbidden to him. Nobody really gets murdered anymore but he knows that it used to happen a lot. There used to be whole families of people called the mafia who would murder people just for disrespecting them. They came from a place called Italy, which is across the ocean in the dead-zone.
A serious, contemplative expression accompanies the boy’s response. “I don’t know. Things don’t seem to die here. A dead body might try to rise again as a mutant zombie out for revenge.”
Dean laughs, surprised, and also vaguely impressed. “That would be pretty cool.”
The full smile, when it comes, is also a surprise in the way that it transforms the boy’s face. “Yeah, I guess it would be.”
Dean continues the story as they climb down the vine ladder. “But when the zombie tries to climb out of its shallow grave, the roots of all the trees and plants will have grown into its flesh and bones, so it won’t be able to escape.”
He waits expectantly and the boy just naturally picks up from where he ends. “So it spends years, centuries, planning and plotting and fossilizing until it finally pulls itself out of the shallow grave, a monster, half-tree half-man, and takes its revenge on all the ancestors of its murderer.”
Dean likes that enough to give him the bigger half of his cookie when they sit down on the grass underneath the tree house. The boy looks like he needs it. He thinks for a minute before saying, “Until it gets to the very last ancestor, the end of the murderer’s blood line, a seven foot Viking woodcutter living deep in the snowy forests of Scandinavia.”
The boy laughs, some cookie crumbs escaping his mouth. “Really?”
Dean doesn’t dignify the implied criticism of his narrative skills with a response. He hands over an unpleasantly chewy granola bar but keeps two blocks of soft and precious chocolate wrapped in foil for himself, ignoring the envious glances being sent his way.
There’s a silent pause before the kid picks up the story again. “The woodcutter knows that his days are numbered. He can’t defeat the tree zombie but he knows it’s his responsibility to keep his blood line going because they’re a family of monster hunters and it’s destined for one of his children or his grandchildren to save the world in the future.”
Dean remains silent and sucks on one of the blocks of chocolate, pretending not to listen.
“The tree zombie doesn’t realize that the woodcutter knows this girl, that they were secretly watching each other all the time and had fallen in love. Nobody knew. Not even her parents. So the woodcutter sneaks into the village late one night and uh... you know...”
Dean glances sideways to see the boy blushing. He smirks but can’t stop the heat that rises in his own face.
“Anyway, so on the night the tree zombie comes to kill him, the woodcutter fights hard because he desperately wants to live, but in the end he dies heroically by sacrificing himself and burning down the forest, because he knows that he’s left part of himself behind.”
“That’s a pretty lame ending,” Dean says without meaning it and hands over the other block of chocolate.
They sit for a little while without talking, thinking about zombies, about leaving part of yourself behind, about homework, about how hungry they still are and how much they’re dreading dinnertime, not realizing how much their thoughts are following similar paths as they watch the orange sun sinking lower through the green of the trees.
“I need to go home. My mom’s going to kill me.” Dean gets up and looks down at the boy. “If you want to come back tomorrow and help me build, that would be okay, but don’t go up there without me, okay?”
Dean likes the boy’s simple acceptance, the way that he doesn’t have to justify his possessiveness. “Okay then. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
And they do see each other the next day, but not at the clearing.
Most of the school is excitedly waiting for the arrival of the Geneticore kids and Dean is sitting with some other students on a wall at the entrance waiting to jeer at the clones as they file through the front gate.
The principal explained to them in a special assembly how schools all around the country have to open their doors to the clones because there aren’t enough teachers to educate them in the institutions. Dean has a cousin in another sector who has been sharing classes with cloned kids since last year already. He told Dean that all of them were really weird and quiet and that they didn’t stick up for themselves, even when the real kids played nasty tricks on them. He thought that maybe they didn’t actually have proper feelings, not like normal people, and recounted a story about a group of boys holding down a cloned girl and stapling a “Kick Me” note to her back that she didn’t try to remove, even though there were splotches of blood on her shirt. She got kicked all day and didn’t cry, not even once, and Dean’s cousin was in all the same classes as she was, so he definitely would have seen if she had cried.
The principal had instructed them to be restrained and orderly but there’s a buzz of uncontrolled excitement in the air when the clones arrive in big transporters with darkened windows. They get off and start to file into the school, wearing grey uniforms and walking past with identical, closed expressions and downcast eyes.
And that’s when Dean notices the boy from the clearing. He glances at Dean, must recognize him, but doesn’t acknowledge him in any way. The kid next to Dean on the wall puts his leg out and trips the boy. Everybody laughs. The clones hardly respond, just carry on filing past, but for a second there’s a flash of emotion in the boy’s expression when he looks straight at Dean after stumbling over the other kid’s outstretched leg. It’s unsettling. Dean isn’t used to these feelings of guilt and shame and decides he definitely doesn’t like them.
It’s a really strange day and nobody does much work; even some of the teachers are acting weirdly. They seem nervous, talking too quickly and too cheerfully. The clones sit silently by themselves in class and don’t interact with anyone, not even with each other.
Fourth lesson into the day and Dean’s bored and hungry, looking out the window and wondering why all the clouds look like hybrid animals. The teacher is moving around the room collecting in their assignments. Dean glances at her as she takes a piece of paper from a cloned girl. The girl and the teacher’s fingers inadvertently brush against each other and the teacher quickly jerks her hand back as if she just touched something really unpleasant. She looks embarrassed and starts blushing. Dean didn’t think teachers were physically capable of blushing. The cloned kid tightly clasps her hands in her lap, her eyes lowered and cheeks pink. The teacher looks around and Dean quickly averts his gaze, pretends he didn’t see anything.
At lunchtime Dean has to stay behind to catch up with homework after class and pretend to listen to a boring sermon from his Physics teacher. The usual stuff about his social responsibility to do his best and be someone who counts, that the dwindling population of original human beings makes achievement a necessity, not a luxury.
The cafeteria is almost empty when he eventually gets there. The boy from the clearing is eating by himself at a table. Dean gets his lunch and sits a few seats down from him on the opposite side of the table, giving him furtive little glances. The boy ignores him.
After a few minutes Dean hears a sharply indrawn breath. He looks up from his lunch to see that a group of bigger kids at a table behind the boy are sniggering. One of them—a mean, aggressive kid that Dean can’t stand—is flicking food from the end of his fork at the back of the boy’s head.
The boy’s expression is a closed mask of acceptance as he sits rigidly in his seat, his knife and fork slack in his hands, flinching slightly each time he’s hit, noodles and sauce dripping from his hair and sticking to his shoulders.
Looking at him like that, Dean makes a decision. He calmly sets aside his plate, scrapes back his chair, stands up, steps up onto the chair, over the table and down the other side, mock strolls up behind the older kid, who looks over his shoulder with a comically confused expression just before Dean shoves his face straight into his plate.
Dean doesn’t let go, has both his hands clamped tightly around the back of the kid’s head and neck, pressing him facedown and trying to drown him in pasta sauce. He’s vaguely aware of noise and commotion around him but has gone into tunnel-vision mode. It happens to him sometimes. It takes a kidney punch to snap him out of it and three of the bigger kids to haul him off.
An hour later he’s in the principal’s office with his mother, distracted by a throbbing pain in his side and a tingling bruise waiting to swell his cheek, sitting through his second lecture for the day.
It’s not the first time Dean has been in trouble for fighting at school. It’s becoming a worrying pattern of behaviour, according to the principal.
Anger management... mediocre academic performance... a general lack of engagement... social withdrawal... grief and confusion over the regrettable death of his father.
Dean’s heard all of it before. By the time the principal starts on the social responsibility argument, he has totally zoned out, but he tries to look vaguely remorseful when he catches his mother glaring at him. Her face is too tight for a full expression; she was at the NewYou spa when the school summoned her to take him home. She spends a lot of time there.
They continue talking about him as if he weren’t in the room so Dean starts counting the holes in the air vent behind the principal’s head. He likes counting things, finds it to be a surprisingly soothing activity. Plus, it has the added benefit of making it appear as if he’s earnestly concentrating on whatever the principal is saying.
In deference to his mother’s faith and senior position in the Mother’s Union, the principal says, “Blessed be the bountiful mother,” at the door as they’re leaving, shakes his mother’s hand and gives Dean another disappointed look.
“Blessed be,” His mother responds shortly and grips Dean’s shoulder to lead him out, her long nails digging into his skin.
She doesn’t say anything until they get out of the building and into the car.
“It’s embarrassing, Dean, that’s what it is!”
Dean sighs, stares out the car window and waits for his third lecture of the day. He’s heading towards a personal best.
His mother sharply presses the button to close the window between them and the driver before turning to face him with the full force of her irritation. “This thuggish behavior reflects badly on me. You need to grow up and accept the way things are, as I’ve had to. He left us, Dean. Both of us. We don’t owe him or his memory anything. He abandoned his family and his responsibilities. He probably didn’t even care about us in the first place; otherwise, he wouldn’t have been leading a secret double life and involved in who knows what illegal activities. I’m sorry, but the truth is that your father got what he deserved. Brian tries to be a good father to you. He’s the model you should be aspiring to.”
Brian spends most of his time at work and is barely even aware of Dean’s existence. But Dean doesn’t say that. He just wants the lecture to be over with.
His mother takes out a compact and studies her reflection in the mirror, smoothing the tight line of her jaw and the puffiness around her eyes. “I suppose you’re upset about the clones coming into school. And that’s understandable. We’re all upset about it. Just stay away from them and concentrate on your work.”
“This other kid was being really mean to one of them in the cafeteria.”
His mother glances sharply at him. “So you thought it was your responsibility to protect one of them? God, you’re just like him sometimes: stupidly sentimental about things that don’t matter and oblivious to the things that do.” She takes a tube of lipstick out of her bag, slides the pale pink across her lips and pouts at her reflection. She used to be really pretty but Dean doesn’t like how tight and pale her skin is now. She reminds him of one of those hard-faced, yellow-haired porcelain dolls he’s seen in the museum.
She turns in her seat and takes his hand in a conciliatory gesture. “They’re not like us, honey. They’re more like animals, and sure, it’s not nice to be cruel to simple creatures, but you have to keep in mind that they don’t have feelings like we do. They don’t have the pieces of us that make us truly human. They don’t have a soul.”
“How do you know that for sure?”
She sighs and frowns at the dirt under his fingernails, tries to run a long nail under one of his to clean it, an irritating habit that Dean hates. He pulls his hand away.
She sighs again. “Because you cannot copy a soul. Only God can create the essence of the human spirit. Don’t they teach you this in your Ethics lessons? Why am I paying such a fortune for your education when you don’t seem to be learning anything?”
Of course, she doesn’t actually pay for anything herself. Brian does. He pays for the expensive presents and the expensive school and for his mother to spend all her time at the expensive spa or at Mother’s Union meetings. Ready-made families don’t come cheaply for men who are ambitious and don’t have the time or the sperm count to make one of their own.
“They’re genetically designed, Dean, man-made, like the A.I. machines. Some of them are really smart and designed to work in higher level jobs, some of them are soldiers or fodder for the factories and others are designed for... less pleasant occupations. But all of them are working drones. They don’t have a real mother; they’re just birthed by breeder clones. Scientists can’t create a soul in a laboratory. Only a fertile human mother can be the blessed vessel for God’s greatest creation. And that’s what you are, baby.” She leans forward and kisses him on the forehead, gently pats his swelling cheek. “Now stop fighting at school and try to improve your grades.”
That’s the signal for the subject now being closed. Dean has noticed his mother will do that. If something makes her angry or unhappy, she either ignores it or pretends it’s something different.
When they get home, Dean lies on his bed and waits until he hears her go out again before removing one of the ceiling boards in his bedroom and sliding out the box of his father’s things. She’d go ballistic if she knew he had it. Dean isn’t even sure she knows the box exists. He found it one afternoon about six months after his dad’s disappearance when he was messing around in the attic.
He goes through all the familiar objects again, lifting out each one and handling it like a blind person might investigate the appearance of something through touch. His dad used to be a collector, mainly stuff from the 1960s and 1970s, music records and memorabilia, a leather jacket, some old t-shirts in protective plastic covers. Museum pieces. There are some old, faded paper leaflets and booklets tied together that he doesn’t unwrap. Most of them are banned anti-genetic-experimentation leaflets. He doesn’t like looking at them because the pictures give him nightmares. There are also propaganda booklets from organizations Dean has never heard of. It’s all stuff from an older world that he can’t quite imagine.
“Who were you?” Dean whispers, his face buried in the smell of the leather jacket. “What were you doing?” It offers no answers to his questions. Nothing in the box does.
His dad was killed in some sort of explosion. Geneticore men came to the house and questioned his mother, took away his dad’s computer, poked around the house, but without urgency or thoroughness, as if they already had the answers they wanted. They told them that for over two years Dean’s dad had been secretly working for a militant fringe group that was targeting government projects, like the genetic institutions. They said he was seduced by their lies, by their outlandish conspiracy theories. His mom had never explained it properly to Dean, and when he tries to ask her about it, she makes him feel guilty by crying or slipping into a depression that can last for days. It’s just not worth it anymore.
Dean sets aside the leather jacket and picks out a sonogram printout from the box. He traces a finger slowly around the outline of a head, the face, a little bump of a nose, down the chin and the vulnerable swell of a chest. Dean’s brother swimming in his own secret grey world. As he’s done hundreds of times before, Dean wonders how different his life would have been if his brother had survived childbirth.
But there’s no point in wondering about what can never be. Dean has no brother and no father. He gives the sonogram and the leather jacket a final stroke each and packs everything neatly back into the box.
His mom grounded him but Dean knows she won’t be back before dinnertime. She never is. He has a couple of hours before then.
It’s possible that the boy got scared off after the fight in the cafeteria and won’t be at the clearing, but Dean doesn’t think so.
He’s right. The boy is standing beneath the tree house waiting for him to come crashing through the jungle. Stealth is difficult through the thick screen of plants. Dean crosses the clearing and stands awkwardly in front of him, waiting, irritated at feeling off-balance in his own familiar space.
“Does it hurt?” the boy asks, looking at Dean’s cheek.
“No,” Dean lies.
“So why ask if you already know?”
“It’s the kind of thing people are expected to say.”
“What? Do they give you a manual at the institution? The beginner’s guide to useful conversational phrases. Human interaction 101.”
The boy looks at him coolly. “You’re a very angry person. You should try to deal with your feelings. It’s not good to be out of control.”
Dean really doesn’t need another lecture. Not today, not here, and not from this cloned kid who has no right to criticize him. “And you should just shut up. What do you know anyway? You’re just a cheap knockoff of a real person. And you’re welcome, by the way, roboboy!” Dean shoulders past him to check on the traps. His hands are shaking as he frees a green shrew with massive twinned ears and a stumped nose.
“My name’s Sam and I actually don’t have any mechanized parts.”
Dean’s about to make some sarcastic comment about the pointlessness of having a real name if a serial number will do when he picks up on the slight inflection in the boy’s voice. It’s a joke. He remains crouched in front of the trap, twists around and looks up at Sam, who is standing directly behind him, his lips pursed in a way that Dean is starting to realize means he’s stifling a smile.
Dean snorts in acknowledgement of the joke and his own rude behavior. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that. It’s just—I don’t know. It’s just been a weird and shitty day.”
“My dad died two years ago. He got blown up.”
Sam hesitates then nods again as if that was a perfectly normal thing to say. Dean doesn’t know why he said it except maybe it explains why he’s angry quite a lot of the time. He grips Sam’s hand, turns it over and looks at the tattoo on the inside of his wrist. Sam stiffens and looks like he’s going to pull away, then relaxes and allows Dean to rub a finger over the printed code. He can feel the tracker chip embedded just under Sam’s skin. He looks up at Sam. “So that’s who you are?”
Sam looks at the tattoo and shakes his head. “No, that’s my original’s code. I’m a copy, but I’m not exactly the same.”
“Do you know who he is? Your original?”
“Do you wonder about him?”
“All the time.”
“I guess you would.” Dean lets go of his hand and stands up. “Do you want to help me trim the tree house? I have to do it almost every day or it starts to grow into the tree.”
“Okay. Will you bring me something to eat next time?”
“Yeah, okay.” Dean feels happier now that they are on familiar transactional ground. He smiles at the assumed next time.
Dean was walking back towards the tree house. He turns around at the unexpected sound of his name. “Yeah?”
“Why did you do that today?”
Pausing, Dean studies the ground and considers his response. He hadn’t been thinking about what he was doing, just acted on instinct. He’s been told on numerous occasions that it’s a character fault. “Because I hate that kid and because it wasn’t fair. Don’t flatter yourself. It wasn’t really about you.”
Sam frowns and looks at Dean like he’s a puzzle with some missing pieces that he’s trying to fit together.
Dean turns quickly away and starts bossily telling Sam which tools to get out of the strongbox.