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Story 4

Steve Rogers


Steve Rodgers has been reading science fiction since he was old enough to carry a stack of hard-bound books out of the central library. He's been writing all his life, including a novel started when he was 18.

In his adult life, Steve is a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction whose short stories have appeared in Deepwood Publishing's Ruined Cities anthology, Cosmic Vegetable's Anthology of Humorous SF, Longcount Press's Songs of the Great Cycle (Mesoamerican Fantasy), all for sale on Amazon. His short fiction has also appeared in several on-line magazines, such as Perihelion, Stupefying Stories, Black Denim Lit, Electric Spec, Newmyths, and many others. Steve has won several Honorable Mentions and Silver Honorable Mentions from the prestigious Writers of the Future contest, and has attended the Viable Paradise science fiction writing workshop. He is currently working on a Fantasy novel duology Morphat, which will be out in 2016.

Steve Rodgers lives in Southern California with his wife and dog. You can find out more about him at his author website:

A Junior-High-schooler who lives in a strange house with even stranger relatives, an impressionable robot and a ghost from the 1960's anti-war movement lead to mayhem, hilarity and ultimate triumph in The Science Project.


The Science Project


When other kids claimed their families were weird, they always mentioned stupid stuff like their dad singing in the kitchen, or parents shaking their hips at a school party. But for Mort Passon, weirdness was like the ThroneMaster game he played on his PC: There was first level with the occasional charging Orc, worth about one singing dad. And then there was Level Twenty with hordes of dragons and fire everywhere, equivalent to Uncle Fantome shooting electricity through dead animals in the basement.

Still, he’d never dwelled on his genetic misfortune until that Saturday just before seventh grade, when Tommy Cazzolli asked the question that jolted him out of his sunburned haze.

“Mort, why do you cut your hair so it comes to a point over each eye?”

Mort removed his arm from his face and squinted at his friend. He sat up and dug his toes into the sand, cheeks aglow from the beating San Diego sun. The roaring surf was punctuated by the shrieks of kids diving into the waves, as if trying to catch fish with their teeth.

He shrugged. “Dunno. My mom cuts it this way.”

 “Demisse...” Tommy said wistfully. “Tell me again, why do her eyes glow red?”

 “She’s got some problem with red light, makes her wear red reflective contacts.”

“Oh,” Tommy said, twisting the boogie board leash around his wrist. His black hair hung in wet strands like the seaweed they’d picked off moments earlier. “But then she wears that really bright red lipstick to match, and that black dress with the weird symbols, and the bluish-black hair. Kind of freaky.”

Now Mort peered into that dark pit of insecurity that yawns wide when something you’d accepted your entire life was about to revealed as unacceptable. “My grandmother made the dress, and my mom says she likes the lipstick to match her eyes.”  

Tommy nodded vigorously. “Sure, it’s not like there’s anything wrong with it.  Your mom is dang...,” he swallowed slowly, “she’s really, uh... Cool looking. Like some gorgeous devil lady.”

Mort scowled. “Can we stop talking about my mom?”

“Yeah, that would be good.”

They lay back down for a while, as Mort listened to the pounding waves and contemplated his tribe. As weird as mom was, his dad Cadvir made her seem blander than mashed potatoes on toast. His uncle Fantome was worse, and he didn’t even want to consider his sister Tarantia, who spouted misery so dark, she made other Goths nervous. He’d always known his family was different, but now, in this uncertain summer, it all came crashing onto him like a bucket of cold water.

“Anyway,” Tommy said, “if I were you, I’d get a new haircut before school starts back up.”

And with that, Mort’s circle of self-doubt was complete.

It was a summer of changes, the last Saturday before sixth grade turned to seventh, elementary school turned to middle school, and their status as kings of the hill got reset to bottom of the pack. A blisteringly hot day of obliviousness, where nervous anticipation could be buried under sparkling blue water and foamy whitewash of a summer day at the beach.

But on the bus ride home, Mort couldn’t stop Tommy’s words from worming through his thoughts. Sure, his family had always been odd, but now the implications for his future social life seemed particularly stark. The more he hashed it over, the more convinced he became that the ninth graders were going to eat him for lunch.

The bus stopped, and they stepped into the east county neighborhood they both called home. The turrets and spires of Mort’s house were visible above the suburban tract homes of the surrounding landscape, as strange in that triangular skyline as a windmill in a parking lot. With boogie boards slung over their backs, they walked past succulent gardens, red-tiled rooftops, and windowed doorways until they reached Mort’s drawbridge.

“Man, you could have an awesome nerf-arrow war from your house,” Tommy said, gazing at the castle’s crenellated wall.

“Already scoped it out,” Mort said. “From the top, you can hit everything except the space in between the fire hydrant and the stop sign. If you were going to set up a war, that’d be the safe zone for the Vikings on the bottom.”

Tommy nodded in approval. “Sweet. We are so doing that.”

They fell into a long silence then, knowing that summer was coming to an end right here, right now.

Finally, Tommy sighed. “Well, I’ll see you Monday.”

“Hey, do you wanna come in for awhile?” Mort asked. “My mom’ll make us something to eat.”

“Uh, well...” Tommy glanced at Mort’s house again, and Mort ran his eyes along the stone fortress that quarantined his family from the normals. The castle’s outer wall rose high above their grassy front yard, its drawbridge resting on a swampy sinkhole that had been Cadvir’s last attempt at a moat. Four turrets jutted from the stone facade, and behind the wall rose two pointed towers with one narrow window each, as if the house squinted suspiciously at the rest of the neighborhood.

Grandfather had built this throwback at a time when this area was good only for orange groves--to ‘resemble my house in the Old Country’, he’d supposedly said, though Mort seriously doubted anything like this existed, anywhere. None of Mort’s neighborhood friends had ever dared to step foot inside, not even on Halloween, when his heavily lipsticked mom gave out kidney-shaped chocolates from beneath red, glowing eyes.

Especially not on Halloween.

So it was surprising when Tommy finally looked at Mort and said: “Sure. I’ve always wanted to see your house.

Mort blinked. “Great.”

They threw their boogie boards onto the lawn, then stepped past the baby-eating gargoyle statues and onto the drawbridge, footsteps creaking on the wooden slats. Mort opened the heavy wooden door, and the mustiness of Fantome’s basement experiments wafted outward, a cloud of stale air that brought the scent of singed fur and damp wood.

“I keep telling him to close that basement door,” Mort mumbled. But Tommy had already stepped inside and was busy drinking in the assembled artifacts of their main room, barely visible in the low light. His eyes travelled over the eight pictures of grandpa gazing sternly from every angle, up to the Gothic chandelier in the room’s center, over to the rows of bookshelves lined with leather-bound tomes, to the fireplace mantle urn topped by the two fingers in a V-sign, then back to the pictures of grandpa.

Tommy tiptoed toward the fireplace, his gaze never leaving grandpa’s glowering image. “His eyes sure do follow you,” he muttered.

“That’s grandpa,” Mort said. “He built this place, then disappeared.”

“You mean he died?”


Mort followed Tommy to the fireplace, where his friend was staring at the urn on the mantle. “What is that? And why are there two plastic fingers above it?”

 “Those are the remains of Great-Uncle Ghuld,” Demisse said, her two red eyes piercing the gloom.

Tommy jumped so far back, he slammed into the wall, and would have fallen into the fireplace but for Mort’s hand on his shoulder. “Uh, Mrs. P,” he stammered, his chest heaving. “I... I didn’t see you there...”

“She has a way of doing that,” Mort mumbled.

Demisse glided close, her face leaving the shadows to expose a raspberry swirl of red lipstick and white cream. A long, black dress dragged behind her, its tail disappearing into the darkness. “Old Great-Uncle Ghuld was really quite the character,” she said.

“Uh, how so?” Tommy asked, finally finding his voice.

 “Well, he was big in the anti-Vietnam war movement. He protested the daily bodycounts by digging a grave next to an East Coast military base, getting inside, and refusing to move until they called off the draft. Eventually everyone forgot about him, and a construction company plowed over the hole.” Here she mimicked patting dirt over a hole, her pointed nails waving close enough to Tommy’s face to turn him cross-eyed. “A few years ago they dug him up, and we’ve put his cremated remains here with his fingers in a peace sign, as he’d have wanted it.” Demisse laughed, her bluish hair fluttering backward as if a breeze had wafted through the room. “Ghuld sure was a strange one.”

 “So, those are real fingers?”

“Of course,” she said, resting sharp nails on Tommy’s shoulder. “What else would they be?”

Tommy seemed frozen in place, though whether from the reality of the fleshy digits above, Demisse’s sudden appearance, or fascination with her hand on his shoulder, Mort couldn’t tell.

She clapped her hands. “But you need something to eat.” She whirled around, her dress flying behind her, then glided across the living room and into the kitchen.

Tommy stared. “How does she do that? I mean, it looks like she’s hovering above the floor...”

“She took ballet a long time ago,” Mort said. “With those long dresses, you can’t even tell her feet are moving.”

Tommy nodded. “Yeah, sure. Her feet have to be moving.” He turned around. “What’s that clinking sound?”

Mort nodded his head in the direction of the bookshelves. “My dad has a workshop behind that hidden door. He restores old medieval equipment, then sells it on EBay.”

“You have a secret room? Dude, that is excellent.”

“Come on, I’ll show you,” Mort said, walking to the bookshelves. He stopped and turned to Tommy. “Just pull the shelf there, and it’ll open.” He hesitated. “I try not to touch this thing. There’s a dead rat in the door, and it gives me the willies.”

 “How do you know it’s there?”

Mort shuffled his feet uncomfortably. He and Tommy were fast enough friends that exposing his bizarre house and family didn’t seem quite so terrible anymore. But revealing his own weirdness was something else entirely.

“I can see death. Not just death, but diseased, or dying things. I don’t really know how.”

“You mean like the time we passed that warehouse and you said someone had died in there?”

Mort winced; he’d forgotten about that one. He nodded, searching Tommy’s face for any sign that he’d just loaded one freaky straw too many onto his friend’s cart. But Tommy just shrugged and pulled the shelf.  

“That’s cool,” he said, making appreciative noises as the entire wall swung around on smooth ball bearings.

Beaming, Cadvir looked up from the metal contraption he was working on. “Mort! And Tomathon! Good night!”

“It’s afternoon, dad--“

“--Wow,  look at this,” Tommy exclaimed, his eyes travelling over the hanging chains, manacles, halberds, and other medieval metalwork. “This is really cool.”

Cadvir stood up straight, his slicked-back hair soaring a few inches above his head, and his unruly eyebrows creating shadows over his cheeks. “My life’s work, village child,” he said.

Mort rolled his eyes. “He sort of thinks he’s a poet...”

Cadvir stomped to Tommy and grabbed his arm. “Let me show you around, Tommith. Here we have a curved axe, used for beheadings before the guillotine. And here we have a halberd carried by the Hapsburg palace guard to gore anyone who got too close to the Emperor. And this device with the rollers is a rack, used to stretch out any unfortunate trying to stretch the truth.”

Cadvir’s eyes widened at this little joke. Then he tilted his head back and roared with laughter, bushy eyebrows dancing like frantic caterpillars. He froze, looked at Tommy, and then roared again, a shiny dangle of spittle connecting his upper and lower lips. The lights flickered on and off, displaying his white face in flashing shadows for a brief second before everything went finally dark.

“Curses, the lighting conduits are quite unbalanced in this room,” Cadvir said.

“We have electric problems,” Mort said apologetically to Tommy, just as the light came back on.

Cadvir straightened, and turned to a white-faced Tommy. “Brilliant! Now, on this wall--”

“--Devilled eggs and tomato juice, anyone?” Demisse called, as she glided into the room with a tray of jiggling white ovals. Her black dress swirled to its finale in front of Tommy, as she held out the plate of devilled eggs.

Mort looked at the tray and cringed. His mom always faced devilled eggs down on the flats, with the egg humps topped by a pimento-stuffed half-olive so they looked like nothing so much as a big, green eyeball.

If Tommy’s face had been white before, it was deathly now. “Uh...uh...”

And suddenly Mort felt crashing guilt for bringing his best friend into this house of loons. What had he been thinking? He decided Tommy had had enough.

Tommy finally steeled himself and popped a devilled egg into his mouth. His eyes widened. “Hey, these are good...”

“Wonderful,” Cadvir said. “Now, as I was saying--“

“Dad, Tom has to get home before four.”

Tommy shot him a grateful look, then turned to Cadvir. “I do hafta go Mr. P, but I sure would like to see this some other time.”

“Ah, it is unfortunate, but understandable, young squire. When our paths cross again, I shall show you the Iron Maiden, a most beastly contraption, but one that I have lovingly restored.”

Tommy nodded uncertainly, and Mort pulled him out into the living room, and into a maelstrom of heavy flapping. A shape whizzed by them, followed by a loud bellow of triumph from the basement. “Eureka! Alive!”

Tommy stared at Mort. “Did he really--I mean--“

“We think some of the ‘dead’ birds Fantome hauls in are really just stunned, and he zaps them back awake.” Mort watched the bird flutter about in the rafters, then led Tommy through the door and out to their lawn.  When they were standing under blue sky again, Mort sighed.

“Look, I’m sorry for bringing you to the freak show...”

Tommy shook his head. “Don’t say that about your own family. They’re cool. Different, but cool. Your dad’s a maniac, but completely awesome.”

Mort searched Tommy’s face, but saw only truth there. He nodded. “OK. I’ll see you Monday.”

“Yeah,” Tommy said. “See you in seventh grade.”


 Monday morning dawned bright and hot, and Mort found his head baking in the sun as he stood on the street corner, comparing schedules with Tommy and Jim Brevia.

“Looks like we all have the same first period science class,” Jim said flatly.

“And that’s it,” Tommy said. “You guys won’t have me to save your sorry butts the rest of the day.”

It was a measure of their sour moods that no retorts were issued at this. Jim merely grunted and gazed down their street, as if searching for any excuse to return home. Mort put his hands over his head to block the sun.

“Well, I guess we better go,” Mort said.

They nodded and began walking to Roseville Middle School, packs drooping from their backs. It was a silent walk, each of them lost in their own thoughts, and after twenty minutes they sullenly stepped onto the bustling campus. They turned left and entered the East hallway, a gleaming tile rectangle filled with kids of all colors and sizes, each yelling or slamming a locker door.

“It’s bigger than I thought,” Mort said uncomfortably.

“And noisier,” Tommy said.

Mort’s eyes followed a red-headed girl. “It might not be that bad...“

“--Hey, Frankenstein!” came a call from behind them, and they all turned around to see three older kids, each about eight feet tall and wide as a house.

Ninth graders. The one who’d spoken had wavy blond hair, and a jutting chin that dared anyone to throw a punch at it. And he was looking straight at Mort.

Jim looked at his Mickey Mouse watch. “Excellent. Harassed after only three minutes on campus. I wonder if that’s some kind of record.”

 “Just ignore them and keep walking,” Tommy said, and they all turned back around.

“--Nice haircut, ‘tard,” called the blond kid again, and Mort spared a quick glance backward. He was about to turn away again when something under blond moron’s eye caught Mort’s attention. He stopped and turned fully to face the boy, gaping for a long moment. Then he dropped his pack and began walking towards his tormentor.

What the frick are you doing?” Tommy hissed, as the three ninth graders started squealing with pleasure.

“Little creep wants a fight,” one of them laughed, as Mort walked slowly forward, staring at the thing below the ninth grader’s eye.

“Dude, I am not getting involved in this,” Tommy called out behind him. After a few seconds, Mort heard Tommy sigh and rush to his side. “You’re so going to owe me,” he whispered.

Tommy was good people.

The two of them walked toward the grinning ninth grader, who was busy cracking his knuckles and flexing his neck. They stopped in front of him, and one last locker door banged shut before the entire hallway fell into a deep hush.  

The blond kid grinned and pushed Mort back. “Throw the first one, punk. Go ahead.”

“What is that below your right eye?” Mort said, struggling to keep his balance.

 “What are you talking about, you little freak?”

Mort peered into the diseased flesh under the kid’s eye, a seething decay that stretched tendrils in a thousand directions. Transfixed, he watched the sick tissue throb slowly. “Your right eye. There’s some kind of growth or something just below. It’s not a problem now, but it will be. Seriously, I’d have it checked out.”

The blond kid stared, and Mort realized that this would be a good time to stop talking. He turned around and the two of them began walking back, Tommy’s face scrunched tight with the anticipation of a fist in his back. But it wasn’t until they’d gotten well out of punch-range that blond kid’s voice rang out.

“Yeah, you’d better walk away, you wussies,” he shouted, though Mort could have sworn he heard a tremor there.

The hallway mayhem began anew as they melted back into the crowd, a cacophony of yells and banging metal. Mort returned to his pack and closed his eyes, feeling sweat drip down his chest. He opened his eyes again to see Jim staring at both of them.

 “OK, what just happened there?”

Visibly shaken, Tommy just shook his head. “I have no idea.”

First period found Jim, Tommy, and Mort sitting in science class, as far to the back of the classroom as possible. Mrs. Arnaud droned on in the background, while Jim picked at the wood chips on his desk, and Tommy drew a hand in his notebook.

“Now remember, the science project will be thirty percent of your grade, so this is your chance to really show me what you’ve got,” Mrs. Arnaud said brightly. Mildly intrigued, Mort watched her arm-fat jiggle with every mark on the chalkboard.

“You’ve got two months, people, and in that time, I want to see that you’ve used the scientific method or a bit of clever engineering to research a topic, or build something that will solve a problem. It’s OK if someone helps you, but you have to present on your own. If you need ideas, I’ve got a list of projects--from studying fish growth rates at different light levels, to building a circuit, to using a microscope to research the effects of soap on bacteria.”

“I’m going to use a microscope to count the bacteria in my boogers,” Tommy whispered, causing Mort to issue a loud snort.

Mrs. Arnaud turned to look at them. “And Mort, since you seem to have something to say, you can be the first presenter.”

Tommy grinned at Mort, and Mort kicked him under the desk.

Mort put his head in his hands. First day of Middle School, and he’d already been harassed and he’d tweaked his science teacher. It was going to be a great year.

A bank of gray clouds followed Mort home that day after school. Much as he tried to squash the memory, shouts of ‘Hey Frankenstein’ rang through his skull like some frantic train bell. Today, his family’s oddities were a giant brick-stuffed suitcase chained to his wrist.

He got home and stomped up the spiral staircase to Cadvir’s room in the North Tower, expelling dust clouds and passing his mom’s bat paintings, which lined the tower walls like some vampiric animation show.

Mort stood in his dad’s doorway and stared at Cadvir asleep in his bed, a padded cushion walled on all sides by wooden planks. How had he never noticed its resemblance to an open casket? And his dad’s sleep, so still and silent--was his chest even moving?

 Cadvir’s eyes shot open, and he bent to a perfect ‘L’ sitting position, an eerie movement that resembled a marionette being pulled up by its strings.

“Mort! Would you like a tonic?”

Mort blinked. “Uh, no thanks. Dad, why do you sleep in a coffin?”

Cadvir seemed genuinely surprised. He twisted to look around him, then turned back to Mort. “What? No! Young larva, you know I retain problems rolling during my slumbers. These planks prevent me from descending to certain harm during the darkness. Much of our family suffer this ailment; I’m told all slept this way in the Old Country.”

“That was France, right?”

Cadvir grinned, a toothy smile that seemed to stretch from ear to ear. Somewhere, a light flickered.

“Or thereabouts.”

Mort scowled. “If we’re from France, how come our last name doesn’t have the stupid nasal twang to it? Why do we have to pronounce ‘Passon’ like someone is dying? And how come--“

“Mort!” Cadvir said sternly. “So many inquesteries on this black, moonless night.”

“It’s afternoon, dad--“

“--Perhaps we have not spent enough friendship time of late,” Cadvir said, concerned. “Come, let us journey downstairs to hammer fourteenth-century torture implements in a time of father-son bonding.”

“No thanks, dad.” Mort sighed. “Where’s mom?”

“She paints in the South Tower.”

Mort knew better than to disturb his mom’s painting sessions with the various bat colonies and rodent families living in the tower spire. He nodded, and as he left the room, heard the ‘oomph’ of Cadvir slamming back down to his bed.

He stomped down the staircase and walked toward Tarantia’s room, listening to the sounds of screeching guitar and heavy base grow louder with every step. Stopping before her door, he watched it vibrate in time to the cacophonic drums.  After a long internal debate, he steeled himself and knocked.

Sounds of three locks turning, then the door opened to release a physical shockwave of reverb, and the visual shockwave that was seventeen-year-old Tarantia.

Mort felt the air compress around his body, his eardrums screaming for mercy as he stared into his sister’s scowling face. It was a face of heavy black lipstick and shaved eyebrows replaced by thin pencil lines--an angry inverted triangle pointing to her thrice-pierced nose. Her hair was formed into black spikes that circled her head like the Statue of Liberty crown, matching the spikes on her leather boots.

“What do you want, Coyote Meat?” She yelled over the music.

“I want to know how you made it through Middle School,” Mort shouted back.

Black lipstick curved into an upward triangle. “You piddled on yourself at school?” she shouted.

Mort shook his head. “I want to know how you made it through Junior High!”

Tarantia’s frown returned, as if trying to decide between admitting him or squishing him under one studded boot. Finally, she stepped back. Mort walked in, quickly scanning her room.

To his left, a black hat swarming with wasps. To the front, a concert poster of Marilyn Manson, ripped in four lines, like someone had raked sharp fingernails through it. Next to that, black and white posters of dead bodies from historic crime scenes, glaring down on Cthulhu the Python, who was currently wrapped around a bedpost and two lamps. To his right was the door, studded with three deadbolts to thwart Uncle Fantome’s occasional attempts to rescue Cthulhu’s rodent lunch. All of it a blur of vibration, as the wall-mounted speakers shook the foundations.

Tarantia touched her sound system, the music stopped, and Mort stumbled forward, as if someone had just depressurized the room. He dug a finger in his ear.

“Wow. Was that organ music I heard, behind the jet engine noise and the insane screaming?”

Tarantia grinned, her pencil-line eyebrows moving close together. “You bet. That’s Fecesium, the hottest band in Pulpit Metal.”

“Pulpit metal? Is that a thing?”

She watched him in pity. “Oh Mort. Are they picking on you? It’s no wonder; you’re such a scrawny, clueless insect.”

“Not helping.”

Tarantia cracked her knuckles. “You want to know how I made it through Middle School? I did it by being bad-ass. By making sure anyone who crossed me would pay for it later. By getting a reputation. Here, look at this.” She brought the black hat and a trailing cloud of wasps closer to Mort. “When I walk around with this hat, what do people see?”

“A lunatic who’s going to need a paramedic?”

“No! They see someone who doesn’t give a crap. Anybody who’d wear this would just as soon tear your head off as look at you. No one picks on a kid wearing a wasp hat.” She put the hat down and dug through her skull-shaped black bag. Then she walked to Mort with a jar of black paint and a brush. “I’m going to help you. Stand still.”

She proceeded to dab black paint around Mort’s eyes, as wasps flew through his vision and landed on her hands. “There,” she said, eyeing her work critically. “That’s the first step. You got to look like you don’t care, and black eye-rings are a start. You’re going to be my project this year. Come back every week, and I’ll turn you into a dark minion of death that no one will mess with.”

“Uh, ok...” Mort said, getting up. He was pretty sure he wouldn’t be coming back; he really wasn’t fond of any strategy that increased his weirdness level. He turned to say something else to Tarantia, decided against it, and walked to the door.

But just as he grabbed the doorknob, hell froze over: Tarantia turned Mort around and wrapped her arms around him.

 “Middle school sucked,” she said, holding him tightly. “I remember. But stay awesome, and it will get better. I promise.” Mort hugged her back after one shocked moment, trying to remember the last time his sister had displayed any remotely human trait. He figured it had been somewhere south of thirteen.

Tarantia pushed him away, her scowl back in place. “Now scram, before I feed you to Cthulhu.”

Confused, Mort found himself shoved out the door and blasted with music again, as the three locks clicked behind him. He sighed and ran a hand through closely cropped hair. After a moment’s deliberation, he began walking to the basement staircase to see Uncle Fantome. With all the loonies in this household, it was a strange fact that his dead-animal zapping, masochistic, mouth-scarred uncle was sometimes the sanest adult in the castle.

Sounds of sobbing wafted from below as he descended to Fantome’s workshop. Mort entered the open doorway to see his uncle holding a dead skunk in two hands, his needle-encrusted dome bent over the creature’s midsection.

Fantome lifted watery eyes, moving slowly lest the sharp inward spikes on his leather vest press too deeply into his shoulder. “Oh, Mort. This one left babies, and a mate. Why can’t I bring her back? Why?”

Mort shook his head and stepped closer, watching Fantome wipe his eyes in careful movements. Of all the freakazoids in Family Passon, Fantome took the circus sideshow award. Every morning, he pushed hundreds of needles into a perforated metal helmet, just far enough in to cause him pain with every head-turn. He wore leather vests with spikes sewn into the inseam, ensuring a constant supply of new puncture wounds. His mouth was sea of scars, the result of a lifetime of meals eaten from the end of a sharp knife. And for all that, Fantome’s demonic metal tortures masked the gentlest soul Mort had ever known.

“Everything has to go sometime,” Mort said softly.

“But not so early,” Fantome sniffed. “She was so young, oh, so young. I buzzed her for three hours, but still she wouldn’t come back to me.” He wiped his nose then stared at Mort, his scalp-needle forest glinting in the dull light.

 “What is that around your eyes?”

Mort self-consciously rubbed his eyes. “Tarantia painted eye-rings for me, said it would make me a bad-ass at school.”

Fantome looked pained -- this time, mentally. “You can count on the fact that everything uttered by any seventeen-year old girl is patently false. They’ll start making some true statements again by twenty, and once they’re married, everything they say is right. But at seventeen, it’s all crap.” He walked slowly to Mort and rubbed the makeup off, grunting as the shoulder spikes dug into his flesh. “Why would you let her do this?”

Mort shuffled his feet. “I don’t know. I went to ask her how she survived Middle School, and it spun out of control from there.”

Fantome cocked his head. “I think I just picked up KFMR. Happens occasionally with the hundred antennas on my scalp.” He looked back at Mort. “Anyway, school problems, huh? Don’t I know how that feels.”

Mort scowled. “What’s wrong with our family? We’re all so frickin’ weird, and I don’t think Mom and Dad even realize it. I got harassed on my first day of school, and now I have this stupid science project that I don’t know how to complete, and I ticked off my science teacher. Middle and High school are going to suck so heavily.”

Fantome twisted thin lips surrounded by scars. “So they’ve never told you have they? About our family. “

Mort shook his head.

Wincing, Fantome pulled up a chair and sat down. “Mort, way back when, our ancestors were in a class of people called Animators.”

“What, they worked for Pixar?”

“Don’t be smart. Animators were folks with some special connection to the dead, professional psychics who could temporarily infuse living creatures with deceased spirits. People would hire us to lie in the grave with a loved one, then cast their spirit into a willing volunteer for one last conversation. Sometimes, when there was no human volunteer, we’d even animate farm creatures, so the deceased could be around their loved one a few days more.”

Mort stared. “That’s crazy.”

Fantome sat back slowly. “Is it? Then why does every person in this family have some preoccupation with death? Your dad sleeps in a coffin. Your mom bakes food shaped like body parts. Your sister posts pictures of dead people on her wall. You have a knack for seeing death, and me...,” he pointed to the rows of power supplies and cables used to shoot electricity through dead animals..., “I have this.”

Mort swept his gaze across the lab equipment, and felt a rare insight. “You hurt yourself to block out their pain, don’t you?”

Fantome nodded, a blur of bobbing head spikes. “I’m cursed with empathy, Mort. I can’t stand their anguish; I see it, I feel it. It makes me crazy. Only by taking on some small measure of their pain can I sleep at night.”

Mort smiled. For some reason, he felt better. And he realized that of all the people in this fortress asylum, he was by far the closest to his disturbed uncle, a lost soul who felt emotions that made sense. If that made Mort even more of a freak, then so be it.

“I have an idea for your science project,” Fantome said. He got up slowly, grabbed a metal box, then pressed several buttons. Loud grinding echoed from a basement corner, followed by a humming sound. Then, there was a crash of something falling to the floor, and a huge metal thing began rolling toward them.

Mort stared at the gleaming black robot, a five-foot high creature of dark metal tubing, rotating camera lenses, and giant battery packs. It rode forward on four spherical wheels, stopped about ten feet away, and raised one arm. Then, with a loud crackling sound, a lightning bolt appeared between two electrodes at the tip of the arm.

“That is absolutely the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” Mort whispered. He knew Fantome had spent years getting his Ph.D in electrical engineering, but he had no idea he’d been working on this. “And you’ll let me use it for my science project?”

“On one condition,” Fantome said slyly. “I’ve built Rob-Zombie here with every potential for full autonomy, but no software to drive it. I’ve got microcontrollers on every joint, every axis, and each of them can control the stepper motors with maximum granularity. But so far, all the main CPU software does is accept commands from this remote controller. I want to give Rob-Zombie life.”

Mort swallowed. “What are you saying?”

“Animation, Mort,” Fantome hissed. His eyes bulged outward like some giant, spiked insect. “Our ancestors could animate pigs, sheep, all kinds of creatures besides humans. I want to animate Rob here, and you’re the one to do it!”

Mort stared. “Why me? And who’s going to dig up some cemetery plot anyway?”

Fantome rushed toward him and stopped, groaning in pain. He wiggled the spikes in, then finished a much slower move to Mort’s side. “You have the power, Mort, I can feel it. The strongest animators were those who could see death, and in our family, that’s only we two. But you’re much stronger. And we don’t need to go to a cemetery; we have Great-uncle Ghuld’s remains. I’ve already dug a grave for just this purpose -- though I was going to try to do it myself.”

 “This is absolutely insane, Mort said as he stomped up the basement stairs. He stopped at the top, not turning around. “Let me think about it.”

That evening at dinner, Mort picked at his food, thinking. Cadvir sat at the head of their dragon-legged table reciting poetry, while Demisse mechanically stabbed at her stew, her eyes that pale crimson color they got when she was half-missing. Fantome ate quietly, sometimes grunting as the sharp end of the knife hit him on the lip, while Tarantia bobbed her shoulders, her headphones blaring music so loud it was enough to vibrate the wasp hat atop her head.

All of them in their own worlds, ignoring Cadvir’s lilting poetry recital. Mort ate listlessly, re-hashing his choices. He’d love to have a cool robot for a science project, but what if it was so weird, none of his friends would talk to him again? Wouldn’t it be safer to do some study on how soap killed bacteria?

One of Tarantia’s wasps buzzed across Mort’s vision, and landed in his heart-beet salad.

“Mom!” Mort said, disgusted.

Demisse’s eyes shifted from pale pink to full glowing red, as if she’d just returned from some distant planet. “Tarantia. Keep your beasts away from Mort’s food.”

Tarantia pretended not to hear, but she kicked Mort under the table, then got up and moved one seat over. And that’s when it dawned on Mort. The robot would be his way of being bad-ass. He didn’t need paint, he didn’t need attitude. For once he was going to use weirdness to his advantage. He was going to do the coolest thing that had ever been done in school, and if it was so cool that no one got it, well who cared anyway?

He looked at a bloody-mouthed Fantome from across the table. “I’m in.”

Fantome smiled widely.

The next two months were a blur. Mort spent every free moment down in the basement with Fantome, soldering loose capacitors, binning parts, and helping Fantome load the latest  microcontroller code into the little processors that moved Rob’s legs, arms, and cameras. After Mort suggested that they should mount their old garbage disposal on Rob’s left arm, they spent days beefing up the unit to five horsepower, and another week re-building the back brace to hold a bigger car battery.

The main microprocessor in Rob-Zombie’s brain-case held only enough smarts to receive signals from the remote and communicate those to the smaller microcontrollers--Fantome insisted it do nothing more than that, so there’d be enough “space” for Ghuld’s personality to settle right in. Mort had no idea whether this made sense, but he figured none of it really made sense if you stopped and thought about it. So, he kept his mouth shut.

 At school, he continued to get the stink-eye from the blond ninth grader, whose name he learned was Sean Rikers. Sean threw the occasional hallway barb Mort’s way but never openly challenged him, as if afraid to hear another word about his eye. And that was perfectly fine with Mort -- he could handle any stupidity if it meant he didn’t have to go toe-to-toe with a ninth grader.

So it was that the two months flew by as if they were nothing.

The Thursday night before the science project was due, Mort, Fantome, and Rob-Zombie stood over the six-foot grave Fantome had dug in the back of their yard, with Mort holding Ghuld’s remains.

“Didn’t dad complain about this giant hole in the yard?” Mort asked.

“Are you kidding? He asked me if he could sleep in it.” Fantome pushed some buttons on the remote, and Rob-Zombie rolled to the hand-cranked platform.

 “Here goes,” Mort said, following the robot to the wooden slat. Fantome began turning the hand-crank, grimacing as the spikes dug into his torso. “Now remember,” he grunted, as Mort and Rob descended into the pit. “Keep in contact with Rob and Ghuld at all times.”

The platform hit the ground, and Mort lay back with the urn on his chest, grabbing one of Rob-Zombie’s wheels. He stared at the rectangle of night sky from the grave’s bottom, reflecting on the strangeness of what he was doing. Yet being here didn’t feel creepy or claustrophobic. To Mort it felt oddly calm, and--right.

Night settled in, and soon the only sounds were the chirps of crickets and occasional sigh from above, where Fantome watched over the grave. Mort’s mind began to wander, casting the four walls of his tomb in blurry edges. He looked at his chest and saw an orange glow surrounding the urn--Ghuld’s spirit essence, no more alive than a video recording. He focused on this, watching the orange glow reshape and ooze, like a jar of thick liquid. Then, without warning, that orange glow crawled up his arm, through his chest, and into Rob-Zombie.

Mort shuddered, feeling an alien presence that lasted but a second before it was gone. The robot seemed to vibrate, and Mort sat up, fully awake. The vertical camera mounted on Rob’s front shifted up by 3 inches.

“Uh, Fantome...” Mort said softly. Then the robot’s swiveling horizontal camera mount began twirling about its head, the voice synthesizer LED lit up, and a computer voice sounded.

“It’s damn dark in here. Someone light a draft card.” The monotone voice began warbling in something that might have been distantly related to a laugh.

 “Fantome!” Mort shouted.

“Eureka!” Came Fantome’s cry from above, and then sounds of the turning crank intermixed with yelps of pain, as Fantome began furiously cranking the platform out of the hole. As they reached the top, Ghuld rolled his way off the platform, his horizontal camera swiveling.

“What a drag. Let’s split this scene--”

Fantome yanked the power cord out of the battery socket, and Ghuld went dark. “You have to save as much juice as you can,” he said, head-spikes glinting in the moonlight. “Ghuld’s animation will only last a couple days, but you’ll have enough time to do what you need tomorrow.”

Mort nodded, grinning. Tomorrow was going to be an interesting day.


The next morning, Mort waited with Ghuld at the street corner, watching his friends’ eyes grow wider as they approached from down the block. Tommy and Jim walked tentatively to Ghuld, then began inspecting his cameras, battery pack, and the garbage disposal on his left arm.

“Dude...” Tommy started.

“My science project,” Mort said, grinning. “Pretty cool, huh?”

“Way cool,” Jim said softly.

“So how does it move?” Tommy asked excitedly. “Is there a remote control or something?”

Ghuld’s front-mounted vertical camera slid upward until it reached Tommy’s eye level. “Why do all you cats have buzz-cuts? You’re not John Birchers, are you?”

Jim and Tommy stood still as rocks.

Mort grinned. “My uncle and I programmed him to sound like a 60’s war demonstrator,” he said, hooking two index fingers.

Jim turned an intense stare on Mort. “Do you know what I’m not going to do? I’m not going to ask why you just made air quotes when you said ‘program’.”

“So freaking sweet,” Tommy exclaimed, practically skipping around Ghuld. “Mort, this is seriously the most awesome thing I’ve ever seen. Jim, hand me your new Iphone, I need to look up John Birch...”

They began walking and rolling to school, and Ghuld’s horizontal camera rotated to take in the rows of identical red-roofed houses. “Depressing, man. This is some kind of suburban hell...”

As they walked, kids left their houses to follow them, many coming up to Ghuld and touching his metal casing, or dancing in front of his cameras. By the time they reached school, Ghuld was leading an army of children behind him, and this only drew even more crowds when they stepped onto campus. The bell had rung, but those still on their way to class stopped what they were doing to swarm around Ghuld. The robot waded into the crowds fearlessly, stopped, and rotated its head mount horizontal camera.

“Groovy, we’ve got enough here to get this little protest noticed,” came Ghuld’s mechanical voice. It raised the electrode arm, and a bolt of electricity shot between two prongs. “You ankle-biters over there form a line. When the fuzz comes, we’ll charge ‘em before the water cannons come out...”

This seemed only to further draw in the crowd, and Mort called out before he was pressed out of earshot. “Ghuld, I’ve got a whole class full of kids who support the war. You need to come talk to them.”

Ghuld swiveled his camera toward Mort. “Lead me to those idiot sticks,” he said. Mort turned and led Ghuld and his entourage to the door of Mrs. Arnaud’s class. He motioned Ghuld to stay put, then entered the classroom with Tommy and Jim.

Suzie Emerson was just walking back to her seat when they entered, and Mrs. Arnaud turned a stern gaze their way. “Mort, you were to be the first speaker, and you’re late. Susan just presented her project on snail locomotion; I hope you can show us something equally interesting.”

“Oh this is almost too beautiful,” Tommy said, finding his seat.

“My science project is Ghuld the robot,” Mort said theatrically, then turned to the door. “Ghuld, please come in now.”

Ghuld wheeled in, his garbage disposal going full tilt, and bolts of electricity shooting through his fingertips. The class stared in dumbstruck silence as Ghuld rolled to the front and stopped.  He moved his vertical camera up and down twice.

“What are all you little fascists looking at?”

Mrs. Arnaud sat down.

“Do you Dullsville Dorks even know what’s going on in the world?” Ghuld said, his mechanical voice removing any sting from his words. “Out there, thousands are dying every month fighting Johnson’s war, dropping Napalm on innocent Vietnamese children. We are going to put a stop to it. Now repeat after me: ‘One, two, three, four, we don’t want your freaking war!”

For a long moment, the only sound in the room was the hum of fluorescent lights.

Ghuld’s garbage disposal arm whirred. “What, are you cats deaf? I said...”

This time, a few of Mort’s classmates joined in the chant. The next time through, it was half the class. And by the fourth chant, even Mrs. Arnaud was pumping her fist in the air, yelling for an end to the Vietnam war.

 “Ghuld,” Tommy called, raising his arm. “Do you have anything to say to all the...,“ he looked at Jim’s Iphone, “...John Birchers in the room?”

Ghuld’s lights blinked, and his garbage disposal arm cranked up to full speed. “Damn Bircher right-wing nutcakes!” Ghuld rolled to a desk in the front row and fed a mechanical pencil into his arm, shooting plastic shavings from the garbage disposal’s other end. “Bunch of racist quacks. Why don’t they volunteer for the draft if they love it so much?” Ghuld flew into a frenzy then. He began circling around the class, collecting pencils and feeding them into the grinder on his arm. Everyone ducked as Ghuld rolled down the aisles, spraying pencil shavings in every direction. Finally, he circled a desk and rolled out the door, his synthesized voice spouting expletives that faded into the background.

The classroom was silent as a tomb. Mort stood tentatively. “Mrs. Arnaud I...”

“You better go get him,” said a white-faced Mrs. Arnaud.

Mort rushed to the door, then stopped and turned back to her. “Um. I get an A, right?”

Mrs. Arnaud broke her dull stare to look at the pencil shavings covering her classroom. “Only because I have to reduce all this to some kind of grade.”


That weekend was a good one. Neighborhood kids Mort had seen but never met knocked on his door, asking if Ghuld could come out and play. Some of them brought branches and toothbrushes to see if Ghuld’s cranked-up garbage disposal could shred them into pulp. Unfortunately, as Fantome predicted, Ghuld’s spirit had fled Rob-Zombie by Sunday, and according to Fantome, it was impossible to animate the same vessel twice. But while Mort had to invent stories about software glitches and broken parts, it turned out not to matter too much. Mostly, those kids were fascinated by the neighborhood castle, and really just wanted an excuse to meet the bizarre family that called it home. Mort was sure that a few of them would eventually become friends.

The following Monday, Mort, Tommy, and Jim walked down the East Hallway, noticing a subtle change in the air. Mort could almost swear that Roseville Middle School had somehow become--friendlier. Kids who’d never even noticed him now nodded in his direction, or gave him a brief smile as they passed.

“Whoa, look at this,” Jim said pointing. They stopped to stare incredulously at the giant banner over the lockers: an American flag with a peace sign where the stars should have been. Below it was a picture of Ghuld the robot, and the words “Charge ‘em before the water cannons come out,” in bold blue highlight.

“Hey, Mort,” called a voice, and Mort turned to see Sean Rikers and his two cohorts walking by, each wearing a haircut that came to a point over each eye, just like Mort.

Mort lifted a couple fingers. “Uh, hi...”

The three of them turned to stare at the ninth graders’ retreating backs, until the bigger kids became swallowed by the crowds.

After a long, silent moment, Tommy shook his head. “It is going to be a strange year.”

The End 


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