Prompt: he was just a kid.
It honestly was a humanitarian effort. It was supposed to help, at the very least, two humans in particular. Him. And me. I was what passes for a fresh adult these days, just starting my thirties and inheriting my parents’ old house while they finished work on their retirement home. I was single, but I had a good job, plenty of space, and I never was much of a dog person. (Something about them not having much color to their iris always creeped me out. If the eyes are the window to the soul then a dog’s are all fogged up.)
So I entered the Warm Inspiration program. It was something like a mentoring program, but you also offered up your home in case of any domestic discord or sudden displacement. I was assigned to an eight-year-old boy named Rian. I tutored him in chemistry, which I had a masters in, for several weeks without incident.
The program was supposed to help with my own credentials. I was looking to jump ship from my current research lab over to a think tank with lofty goals. They wanted to end world hunger, make clothes that never wore out, and turn everything you could possibly buy in a grocery store non-toxic. If I wanted to help drive that tank I had to have at least one credit for a charitable service.
Then, sudden displacement. Rian’s parents were getting a divorce and for reasons not explained to me the kid needed a place to stay for about a week. I had to say yes. I used to have a babysitting gig in high school so I tried to channel that, even the fake smile and wave, when he arrived with his little red backpack and excessive dangling key chain toys.
The social worker who handed him off made some very strange comments. She looked jumpy and kept glancing back at her empty car as if there was a dog in there about to die of heat stroke. She told me there was only one rule beyond the obvious ones. I was to give him no more than two hours each day with his tablet. I looked down to see how the boy reacted, but he wasn’t looking at us. He held the social worker’s hand and stared off into the screen of trees that separated most houses in the gated community.
“We’ll have so much fun we won’t even need that thing!” I blithered. She looked at me like someone in high heels sinking into a pile of quicksand. She handed Rian’s little hand over and left swiftly. “Okay, let’s go inside.”
The first night was normal. I fed him one of the five recipes I knew how to make: pesto ravioli. He would be staying with me for six days, and I had no idea what I was going to make on the last one. Perhaps we would go out. There’s always a way to cover your weaknesses with something that looks like a qualification or a reward. That was how I would immerse myself in that luxurious think tank when the time came.
He wanted to watch a movie afterwards, which was fine by me. I didn’t immediately realize that meant on his tablet rather than on my parents’ giant TV. It was an ordinary kid thing with giant robots, each monster full of collectible goodies like lumbering titanium pinatas. The run time was ninety minutes, so it was within the limit. I failed in my duties about fifty minutes in. I fell asleep, lulled by the dead eyes of the animated characters.
I awoke with a start some time later. The tablet nearly slid off my lap, but I grabbed it, turning on the screen. It was paused on the film’s credits and Rian was nowhere to be found. I called his name, but there was no answer. I frantically tapped a few spots on the screen to minimize the film and check the time. There was a browser window open as well.
I was practically screaming by the time I made it to the last room in the house. I had my phone out, ready to call the police. I’d already entered 9 and 1 when I whirled around and saw him standing in the doorway of the screened-in patio. I couldn’t say anything for a moment; all my thoughts caught in my throat like a ball of wet tissues. He looked different. His big brown eyes were as dead as any character in the movie. Deader than a dog’s even.
He shouldn’t have been able to sneak up on me. I looked everywhere. Inside hampers and chests. Closets. He giggled my worry away, saying he was just hiding, but I was angry. I tracked molecules in electron microscopes. Things didn’t hide from me and definitely not in my own house.
“What were you looking at on the internet?” I asked him, pulling him back to the kitchen and pointing to the tablet’s browser. “I’m supposed to monitor your screen time. Did you go over two hours?” He shook his head in the negative but it struck me as a reflex, more of a chemical reaction in his brain than an actual denial.
That was the end of it for the time being, but there was five more days of this. We didn’t watch any more movies. He looked at the tablet for the full time each day, but he no longer seemed interested in what he was doing. His eyes wandered, just like they did when the social worker dropped him off. My nerves got worse. I just knew I’d done something wrong. It was like that Gremlins film. He’d seen something on that screen when I wasn’t paying attention that triggered something in his malleable soft little mind.
Horrible scenarios played out in my mind regarding his parents’ divorce. He was the reason. Little Rian and too much screen time. It had to be why neither of them wanted him. They were each sitting in a house somewhere, drinking in the peace, knowing his internet-deadened eyes weren’t aimed at them.
“Rian, I know this is a weird question, but what’s up with your parents? Are they…” I turned around, cookie in hand to placate him, but he was gone from the couch. The tablet was lodged between the cushions as if suddenly dropped.
I didn’t run around this time. I investigated. I had a hunch, so I grabbed my label maker and started roaming around the house quietly, slapping the letter C on anything roughly Rian-sized. ‘C’ meant cleared.
“You can’t trick me!” I shouted after a while. The boy reappeared around a corner. There was a little ‘C’ sticker on his forehead. Even with my suspicions validated I still collapsed against the wall. This kid was hiding from me, literally turning into random objects in my house. He could’ve been a hamper or a flowerpot. “What is this?”
“I hate that screen time rule,” the kid said. His mouth was contorted in violent rage, but his eyes were empty. His pupils looked like mere icons I could tap to open some horrible organic eldritch program in his blank slate of a brain. “There are so many things to see on the internet. I know I’m growing up, and everything I see counts. I can be anything I want, as long as I’ve seen it.”
In my panic I put my hands over my eyes for just a moment. He was gone. I found the little curled ‘C’ on the hardwood. The screen door was open. He was out there now, as a sapling or a dog. I lost a kid. Now that think tank is out of my grasp. They think I’m crazy now, because I keep trying to tell them they need to shift their efforts.
They shouldn’t study anything but little Rian. Of course, he’s probably already studying them.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by DarthRevanll during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!