I decided to go back through it and break it up into individual chapters, to make it a little easier to get through.
Hope you enjoy it!
When I was born, I got my fifteen minutes of fame on page 5 of the National Mirror. Sandwiched between stories about a man who could see out of his glass eye and a demon-possessed spider monkey was a picture of me curled up in the palm of my mother's hand while she looked down lovingly. The headline read (I swear I'm not making this up), "MOTHER MILLER'S MIRACULOUS TOY BOY!"
That was how SPECTRUM first found out about me. Apparently, they have a couple of specialists on staff that do nothing but comb the tabloids for potentially interesting articles. I still think it's funny that a nationally renowned research firm would cite the Mirror as a source, but Gary says it's these unconventional strategies that have kept SPECTRUM out in front. But I digress...
When the powers that be at SPECTRUM learned of me and became convinced that I wasn't a tabloid hoax, they approached my mother. I don't know the particulars of the deal-I like to think it was my best interests, and not the substantial monthly checks, that persuaded her to turn me over to them. I do know that my mother's visits came less and less frequently and finally stopped altogether when I was five.
I don't remember much about my mother. Her face is faint in my mind, and would have probably been long forgotten if not for the pictures in the Mirror. I remember her hand, the soft warmth of her palm and the gentle caress of her fingers. I remember red fingernails and the smell of lotion and perfume.
Let's not mince words. I've spent most of my life as a specimen. However, it really hasn't been so bad. I mean, at least I had a room that was designed for me. I had clothes custom-tailored, and I had meals specially prepared. I had a TV, a stereo, and all the books-on-disk I would ever care to read. And I had friends. Louise, Gary, Sally, Alan... These people cared for me-hell, they raised me! I've never had to endure a single moment without at least one of them nearby.
I'm standing at the upstairs window of my dollhouse, staring out at the vast expanse of the living room beyond. My stepsister Nicole is lying on the floor, watching TV. Naomi, my stepmother, sits on the couch behind her, smoking a cigarette before she goes to start dinner. My father is working late again. I get the feeling this happens a lot.
It's only been two days, but I hate it here, living like a hamster among these cretins. I hate Paul Dalton, who fathered me seventeen years ago and popped back up in my life, unwanted and uninvited, two months ago. I hate his wife Naomi, a skinny blonde who wears too much makeup and smokes too much. And Nicole-sweet, pretty eleven-year-old Nicole-scares the living hell out of me!
As if reading my mind, Nicole glances over and sees me standing at the window. She bares her teeth at me in a predatory grin, then turns to her mother. "Momma, can Ray watch TV with me?"
Naomi looks at me and shakes her head. "No, sweetheart. Leave Ray alone. He doesn't like to be touched." She's still looking directly at me when she adds, "Although we may need to work on that."
She's still pissed about the trip from SPECTRUM two days ago. She and Paul came out to pick me up, and I spent the entire trip riding in a shoebox on her lap. The box was a bare, boring prison of cardboard that smelled faintly of leather. I was wishing she'd put the lid back on; it would be dark, but at least I wouldn't be subjected to Naomi's unstopping scrutiny.
"You doing okay, sweetie?" she asked as I sat huddled in the corner, as far from her as I could manage. I looked up into her massive face, and she smiled when I met her gaze.
"I don't like cars," I said, shouting to be heard. "I don't like traveling."
"Well sorry, your majesty," my father said, glancing at me from the driver's seat. "We could've had SPECTRUM mail you to us, but I figured this would be more comfortable." I think he was trying to be funny, but I didn't feel like laughing.
"Don't worry, sweetie," Naomi said. "We're almost home." Her smile widened into a grin. "You know, Nicole is so excited about you. She can't wait to meet her new brother."
I said nothing, contemplating the fate that lay ahead for me. Visions of Elmyra danced through my head. The cooing and the petting... "Oh, the cute widdle cuddly-wuddly..." It was the idea of being played with that terrified me.
"Aren't you bored just sitting there?" Naomi asked. "You want me to hold you up so you can look out the window?"
"No!" I shouted, wincing as her enormous hand moved toward me. It stopped and jerked away suddenly, and Naomi frowned.
"I was just asking, sweetie," she said, a bit icily. "You don't have to be rude about it."
Paul sighed and said, "For Christ's sake, Naomi. Why don't you leave the boy alone?"
"I was just asking him, Paul. I don't need the two of you biting my head off about it."
She glared down at me, then slammed the lid down in place. I spent the rest of the trip in blessed silence and darkness...
Naomi snubs out her cigarette, stands up, and walks past my dollhouse on her way to the kitchen. I find myself staring at her feet as she walks by-the way the sandal dangles from her toes as she lifts her foot, then slaps against her sole with each step. I feel like a voyeur, a pervert, but I can't help it. It's just one of those buttons that is so easily pressed.
I can still hear Louise's voice explaining to me, with great patience and only a modicum of embarrassment, how boys my age tend to go through a "sexual awakening" in which they experience feelings of pleasure mixed with guilt, yadda, yadda, yadda. She also explained to me that sometimes people associate sexual feelings with non-sexual objects or body parts. She called it a fetish and she assured me that it was nothing to be ashamed of. I remember her giving me a reassuring smile, but I was too embarrassed to smile back.
The thing is, there's more to it than that. Unless you've spent your life the size of an action figure, you can't possibly know what it's like. In my mind, people are little more than a group of their various parts. Louise is a lovely, gentle face that loomed over me for most of my life. She's a soft hand with long, elegant fingers that held me so lovingly so often. That's how I relate to people-as collections of vast body parts.
I wonder if Noami has seen me looking...
Nicole has been watching me steadily since her mother went into the kitchen. I keep hoping she'll forget about me and go back to watching TV.
No such luck. With one furtive glance towards the kitchen, Nicole crawls over to the dollhouse on her hands and knees. I back away from the window as she peers in.
"Raaaay," she whispers. "Come out and play."
"Not now, Nicole," I answer as reasonably as I can, hoping she can't hear the tremble in my voice. My legs are shaking from her sheer size and nearness, but I don't want her to know how nervous I am.
"Come on," she says. "I won't hurt you." She taps a fingernail on the plastic window frame. "I just want to hold you for a minute."
"Just leave me alone," I shout, and this time my voice does break. She giggles and her malicious smile fills the window.
"Little pig, little pig, let me come in," she says in a gruff, playful voice, climbing to her feet. "Or I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house in."
The floor shakes violently, and I stumble onto the green sponge that serves as my bed. I watch with mounting horror as my dollhouse slides away from the safety of the stucco wall. I feel vulnerable, suddenly at Nicole's mercy.
Her grinning face fills the vacancy of the fourth wall, and I can smell that weird, fruity perfume that she wears. Her hand comes slowly towards me. I roll off the bed and scamper to my feet, bolting through the bedroom door. I run past the plastic stairs, towards the bathroom. The doorway is suddenly filled with her palm as she blocks it from the other side. I turn and run back towards the bedroom, but she has done the same thing with her other hand. I jump around the banister and start down the stairs.
Too late, I see her bare foot blocking the bottom of the stairs, her monstrous toes slowly wriggling. I try to go back up, but she has laid her hand on the floor above, blocking my escape. Frustrated, I sit on the stairs and shout, "Leave me alone!"
She flicks at me with her enormous finger, knocking me down the stairs. I hit her foot and roll off it, landing on my back. Helpless, I watch her hand descend on me. I squeeze my eyes shut as she grasps me between her thumb and forefinger. Gripping me tightly around the waist, she holds me up to her face.
"I told you to come out," she whispers. "You should have listened to me." Her breath washes over me, smelling of cinnamon gum. She sees me wince and blows on me through puckered lips. Warm, wet air blows the hair from my face, and I nearly gag on the sickening sweet smell.
My protest is cut short by a sudden, fierce pinch that forces the air from my lungs. I throw back my head but I can't find the breath to scream. I kick and flail and pound on her fingers until she finally relaxes her grip. Defeated, I hang limply between her fingers. I blink back tears of frustration.
"Say you're sorry," she says. It hurts to talk, but I finally manage a weak apology. She grins at me. "Now say, 'I love you, Nicole!'" I painfully squeeze the words out, and she smiles triumphantly. "Now say..." she trails off, trying to think of something properly demeaning for me to say. It doesn't matter; at this point, I'll say anything to placate her.
"Nicole!" Naomi's voice is shrill and angry. Nicole thrusts me back into the dollhouse, knocking my plastic dining room furniture aside and dropping me in a heap on the floor. I hear the slap of Naomi's sandals as she storms in angrily from the kitchen.
"I was just looking at him," Nicole says, glaring at me. Naomi grabs her by the arm and snatches her away from the dollhouse. Nicole's foot catches the wall, jarring the house and knocking everything in it askew. I cover my head, bracing myself for the collapse that never comes.
"Go to your room," Naomi shouts. Nicole starts to protest, but Naomi cuts her off. "Get your ass in your room right now."
Nicole storms off, grumbling under her breath. After a couple of seconds, I hear the bedroom door slam. I look up and cringe as Naomi's hand reaches for me. I back away instinctively from her outstretched fingers, and I hear Naomi's exasperated sigh. She snatches me up roughly and yanks me into the air with a speed that makes my stomach lurch.
"I'm not going to hurt you, Ray," she says, glaring at me with enormous eyes. "I just want to see if you're okay. Why do you have to be so goddamned skittish?"
For several uncomfortable seconds, I lay huddled in her palm as she prods me with the nail of her index finger. She rolls me on my back and studies me, taking some kind of perverse pleasure from my discomfort.
"She didn't mean anything by it," Naomi says. "And if you didn't get so melodramatic every time one of us wanted to hold you, shit like this probably wouldn't happen."
An angry retort pops into my head, but I bite my lip and simply nod. Things may suck right now, but starting an argument with Naomi can only make them worse. "I know," I say, trying my best to sound reasonable. "It's just going to take some getting used to."
"You're not the only one, kid," she says, setting me down on the carpet next to her foot. I stand up and walk back to the dollhouse, trying not to stare as I walk past. The white leather strap of her sandal runs along the top of her foot and down between her toes. Her nails are adorned with chipped, pink polish. I have this overwhelming urge to touch her foot, to run my hands along her toe... It's a crazy thought, but one I can't seem to exorcise.
"Something wrong?" she asks, wiggling her toes.
"What?" I glance up, my cheeks flushing. I see a small smile creep across her face and I realize that I have been busted.
"I asked if there was anything wrong," she says. "You've been staring at my feet all day, and I was wondering."
Sheepish, I shrug and stammer, "I wasn't... I mean... I didn't..."
Her laugh is a mean, humorless snort that makes my stomach knot. She raises her foot slightly and says, "You'd better get back in your dollhouse before somebody accidentally steps on you."
I bolt for the safety of my house, stumbling across the shag carpet until I reach the garish plastic floor. Naomi is still chuckling when she steps over the dollhouse and nudges it back against the wall with her foot. I spend the next twenty minutes huddled in the corner, wondering if I'll ever feel secure in this place again.
As far as my life is concerned, it's hard to say just when the shit hit the fan. But my best guess would be my sixteenth birthday party last January.
That day went pretty much as usual until my stint in the lab with Gary. He set my carrier down on the table and opened it up, as he always did. Only this time, when I stepped out onto the table, everybody jumped out and yelled "Surprise!" and started singing Happy Birthday. There was even a birthday cake of sorts-a Twinkie with a burning candle.
They finished singing and Louise lifted me up so I could blow out the candle. One of Gary's assistants, a fat college kid named Tony, raised his camera to snap my picture. Gary sighed and muttered something about security, but Tony just grinned back and promised him the photos would never leave the lab. "Just one," he begged. "For the bulletin board? I'll develop it myself."
"Okay," Gary relented. "For the bulletin board."
It was the last time we ever saw Tony.
The picture appeared in The National Mirror in February, in a special WHERE ARE THEY NOW edition. I was on page two this time. The headline read, "SPECTRUM'S SPOONSIZE SPECIMEN." The article gave a lurid account of how my mother had sold me to the lab, where I was subjected day in and day out to inhumane experiments. And next to the photo of me in my mother's hand was a new picture. The Twinkie had been cropped out-all that remained was me, dangling between Louise's finger and thumb near the open flame of the candle.
I can only imagine what kind of battle SPECTRUM's public relations people were left to fight. Alan Mackey, one of their top security guys, was called back from Germany to investigate the security breach and figure out who was responsible. Poor Gary was called to the carpet for allowing the photo to be taken. For nearly two weeks, everything came to a halt. The tutoring, the experiments, the therapy sessions, everything. Then one day, Louise came in to talk to me.
"Everything's going to be fine," she said. "The project should resume on Monday." Even so, she didn't look terribly happy about it.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"We got a call this morning from a man named Paul Dalton. Ever heard of him?"
She sighed. "He says he's your father."
I met him about a week after that. He was a short man (well, relatively speaking), incredibly tan, with black hair that stood up like a pompadour. I disliked him on sight.
"I can't believe it," he said, shaking his head as I stepped out of my case. "I'm glad I finally get to meet you." His voice choked when he added, "Son."
"That remains to be seen," I said. "If you're my father, why would wait until now to show up?"
"I didn't have a choice," he said, his voice growing whiny and defensive. "Your mother and I split just before you were born. I didn't even know she was pregnant. Hell, she didn't even know. But I saw her picture in the Mirror last month, and when I saw your birthday I did the math and figured it out."
"Well, thanks for stopping by," I said. "Nice meeting you."
He shook his head. "I'm getting you out of this place."
I clenched my fists and shouted, "I don't want to leave. You've got no right!"
"You're just saying that because you've been brainwashed," he said. "I read about the kind of things that go on in this place, and I can't allow them to do that to my son."
"They're good to me here," I said, feeling panic creep into my voice. "Really. They've been like a family to me since Mom..."
"I'll never forgive your mother for selling you to these Nazis," he said. "I only hope you can forgive me for not being there for you before now."
"I'm not leaving," I said as defiantly as I could.
"We'll see," he said, standing up and stepping back. "I've got a lawyer looking into it."
"It's for your own good, son," he said, walking toward the door. "I'll see you in a week."
Louise held me in her cupped hands, trying to soothe me as I cried. "He can't take me away from here," I kept yelling between sobs.
"We're going to do everything we can," Louise said. "Gary and I won't let you go without a fight."
"You're damned right," Gary said. "'Nazis,' my ass."
Louise nudged him with her foot. "Language."
We were sitting at a large conference table with Alan and a bunch of people I didn't recognize. One of them was a scary, thin guy with white hair and thick glasses. From the way he spoke, I figured he was from SPECTRUM's legal department.
"From the mother, we have this nice, legally-binding document," he was saying. "But unfortunately for us, the father never signed anything."
"Have we made him an offer?" Gary asked. "Maybe we could pay him to walk away."
"Maybe, but I doubt it."
"Come on," Gary shouted, slapping the marble table. "You're not buying his line of crap about protecting his son, are you?"
Louise's hands closed protectively around me and I felt her stand up. "I'm taking Ray back to his room," she whispered.
"We're thinking he might have gotten a better offer," the lawyer was saying as we left the room.
I still don't know the particulars, but apparently Paul Dalton showed up at the preliminary hearing with some unexpected legal firepower. I was remanded into his custody until the matter of my guardianship could be settled. Gary was furious when he got the news. Louise cried. But I was just numb-I had been crying nonstop since Dalton had first shown up. By the time that creepy SPECTRUM lawyer explained to me that I would be going to live with Dalton and his family, I had no tears left. Just the chilling resignation that my blissful life at SPECTRUM was soon to end.
Naomi is putting dinner on the table when my father gets home. He gives her a perfunctory peck on the cheek, then goes into the bathroom to wash up, still grumbling about the day he had.
Nicole sits at the dining table, toying with her silverware and occasionally glaring at me. When she sees me looking back, she presses her bare foot into the carpet and twists it, as if grinding out a cigarette. She then gives me an evil grin.
She's mad at me because she got grounded. No TV for two days. And to add insult to injury, Naomi made her come over here and apologize to me. Which she did, sweetly and sincerely. Hell, I was almost convinced until she leaned in close and whispered through the window, "I'm going to squish you."
I turn away from the window and fall shivering into a yellow, plastic chair. I've never felt so alone and so helpless. I miss my friends at SPECTRUM and I would sell my soul to be there and away from this place.
I hear the slap of Naomi's sandals approaching. "Dinner time," she mutters. Before I can stand up, my house is moved away from the wall. She crouches and thrusts her hand into the room, setting the little plate on the floor in front of me. The plate contains a chunk of chicken breast, a couple of pieces of shredded lettuce and the torn corner of a piece of bread. At my size, the meal is repugnant. But I know Naomi is in no mood to hear about it, so I thank her.
"You're welcome," she says. But instead of standing, she stays and watches me a few seconds. Then finally, she whispers "Ray?"
"That thing that happened this afternoon, between you and Nicole? I don't think your daddy needs to know about that."
Leverage! For the first time, I realize I'm not completely helpless. If Naomi wants my cooperation, she's going to have to earn my trust. I pretend to mull it over, saying, "I don't know. It's kind of early in mine and Dad's relationship for me to start keeping secrets from him."
She leans in closer, her angry face suddenly way too close for my comfort. "Let's put it this way," she says, her voice dripping with menace. "If you tell your daddy, he'll punish Nicole and then he'll yell at me for letting it happen. And when he goes to work tomorrow, I'll have you all to myself..."
And suddenly, my illusion of power is gone. I realize just how helpless my situation is. I'm at her mercy, and she knows it. And, God help me, I think she enjoys it.
"Okay. Fine. I won't say a word," I tell her. A tight-lipped smile appears on her face. So smug and arrogant... I clench my fists at my side and once again choke back the anger and frustration.
"Thanks, sweetie," she says. She touches her fingertip to her lips, then gently touches it to me. I close my eyes and sit there defiantly, refusing to flinch or move away.
They all three eat their dinner without talking. The awkward silence is broken only by the sound of silverware clinking on the plates. Then Nicole's voice pipes up, "Daddy? Can Ray sleep with me tonight?"
I hold my breath, honestly afraid of what his answer might be. Fortunately, Naomi says, "I don't think that's a good idea, sweetie. Maybe later, when Ray is more comfortable in his new home."
"Say, that reminds me," Paul says around a mouthful of chicken. "I was talking to Rachel Foster today, and she warned me that the media is going to go nuts once Ray's story breaks. Her firm is supposed to handle the publicity, so if any reporters call or come by, we're just supposed to give them her name and number."
"Reporters?" Naomi asks. "Nobody said anything about goddamned reporters."
"Naomi, honey, it's to be expected. Before this is all over, I expect we're all going to be a little famous. Ray, most of all."
"Cool," Nicole says. "Are we gonna be on TV?"
"Maybe," Paul answers. "Maybe some big shot producer will see you and decide to make you a movie star."
"Oh, Daddy!" Nicole giggles. "I can't wait to tell Kim!"
Naomi heaves a martyred sigh. "So, does that mean we don't have to keep Ray a secret anymore?"
"Right," Paul says. "I was thinking about throwing a barbecue or something this weekend. Invite our family and friends over and introduce them to Ray."
"Oh, for Christ's sake Paul," Naomi snaps. "Thanks for giving me so much notice. I'll have to go grocery shopping tomorrow, and the house is a mess. I told Suzy not to come this week because I thought we were supposed to keep Ray under wraps."
"Well, call her and ask her to come tomorrow," Paul says. "Hell, invite her and her parents to the barbecue."
Paul and Nicole chatter on happily about the cookout, gradually warming Naomi to the idea. In a matter of minutes, they're all tossing out names to be added to the invite list. Cheryl and her daughter Kim from next door... Jim and Barbara Rose... Linda and her husband... Naomi's sister Debbie...
God, I am so not looking forward to this...