“Darling”

If anyone had thought to ask her, she’d have told them that she always felt that the biggest mistake Frankenstein had made was thinking a man could create life.  That was the very essence of woman’s work and his creation would have turned out a whole lot better if it had been a woman piecing it together, bringing it to consciousness.  A woman wouldn’t have run from it in horror.  That was how a mother’s love worked, something a man could only receive, never give.

The child had been strangled by a father like Frankenstein, one that had couldn’t understand the life he contributed to creating, and crushed the poor child’s windpipe in his rage.  She imagined the child had been crying and wouldn’t stop and so the father had sought to silence the child, but the reasons really didn’t matter.  A windpipe would be easy for her to fix.  The color of the face could be improved.  The rest of the body was fine.  Life would be no trouble for her to restore, to give to the child, as was her role as a woman.

And so she did.

And she called the child only Darling.  And Darling, whose larynx had been crushed beyond repair, a new one never making itself available, never called her much of anything at all.  But Darling loved her and she loved her Darling.  That was for sure.  She would do anything for Darling and Darling would, in kind, do anything for Mother.

It would have been very easy for her to keep Darling in that little body she’d repaired.  Darling’s brain had been a bit damaged from death and as such, Darling might not have minded staying a child forever.  But she didn’t feel that was right.  A child should be able to grow and develop, even one as special as Darling.

Of course, Darling’s maturation presented very interesting and unique problems.

The first thing they had to do was relocate.  It would be better for them both to be in a more isolated area with fewer neighbors.  Suburbia was nice, but the people there were too bored.  They looked for things to talk about.  And they didn’t know that little Darling even existed as she’d taken extensive pains to keep that out of their minds and out of their mouths. If she were to attempt to help Darling grow up while she was still living in that little cul-de-sac, her odd behavior would attract too much attention, too much talk.  She was barely able to keep up the stringent level of normal required by the neighborhood when she first brought Darling home.  As it was Darling was struggling to thrive in such an environment, with time outside severely restricted.

She researched online for weeks, looking at ghost towns and abandoned houses, places that could be furnished and lived in with no one being any the wiser.  Places that could be easily converted for their needs without any neighbors questioning why anyone would need such odd equipment in their homes or worrying about late night activities noticed by the neighborhood watch.  Isolated places where Darling could play outside in the sunshine without any judgment or condemnation.

The place she found was across the country in Oregon, a falling down mansion in the middle of some overgrown woods.  The locals believed it was haunted, nobody had lived there in decades, and it didn’t seem like anyone claimed any ownership of it.  It just existed, much like Darling’s body before she breathed life back into it.

She and Darling would do the same to this house.

It took an agonizingly long time to prepare for the move.  The continued need to present as normal as possible meant that she had to go through all of the related hoops.  She put her house up for sale, told curious neighbors that she’d gotten a job transfer, and endured a going away party.

She took two days to pack her things into a moving truck that she’d rented.  This was important as she had to stow Darling away inside the truck in the middle of the night so the neighbors wouldn’t see.  Once they were well away from anyone who knew her name, once she found a safe place to stop, Darling could get out of the back and ride with her in the front.

Darling didn’t mind the arrangement.  Darling was very agreeable for the most part.  She made her child a nice, comfortable spot in the back of the moving truck and well after midnight, hustled Darling out of the house and inside the truck.  Early the next morning, she pulled out with everything important to her and drove out of the neighborhood she’d lived in for the past ten years.

Once Darling was in the cab of the truck with her, the ride was much more enjoyable.  Darling watched the countryside pass with rapt attention, sometimes uttering sounds and pointing out the window.  Mother smiled and nodded and talked about what they were seeing.  Darling was easy to entertain.  When they stopped for meals and bathroom breaks, Darling passed for an ordinary child, albeit a special one, his pale coloring attributed to a recent illness to anyone looking too closely or expressing any concern.  Waitresses smiled and commented on what a well-behaved child Darling was.  Mother couldn’t help but be proud of that.

At night, she parked the moving truck in rest areas and the two of them slept in the cab.  Darling, though, wasn’t much of a sleeper.  Mother wasn’t sure why that was.  Perhaps it had something to do with being dead once.  Darling would sleep, or appear to be sleeping, for no more than a few hours at a time.  It had been that way since Mother had first breathed life into Darling.

After the first night, Mother woke up to find Darling sitting in the passenger seat of the truck, staring out the window, mouth open, chin wet with drool.  It was a sweet sight to a mother.

She woke up after the second night to find Darling gone.

Panic that only a mother who’s lost sight of her child knows filled her body, banishing any traces of sleepy confusion.  She bolted up right, looking around the small cab, peering out of the windows.

Darling was nowhere in sight.

The passenger side door hung open and she cursed herself for not hearing it.  Being asleep was no excuse.  She was a Mother and a Mother was supposed to be able to sense their children, know what they’re doing, know that they’re in trouble.

She jumped out of the cab of the truck and hurried around the front of it.

It was just before dawn and the light filtering in through the trees that surrounded the deserted rest stop was still hazy.  There were shadows everywhere.  Crossing the dewy grass, she looked around, keeping a sharp eye for the green shorts and blue shirt that Darling was wearing which might stand out in the dim light.  Darling didn’t get to go outside very much.  The child was by no means disobedient, but did have a curious streak which might have been too strong to resist while Mother slept.

Walking away from the decrepit rest stop building and towards the trees, she moved slowly, listening, looking, resisting the panic building in her muscles that wanted her to rush around in a frantic search.

She stopped and spun a slow circle, making sure that no one else was around before she started calling.

“Darling!  Darling!”

Chipper early morning birds answered her.

“Darling!  Where are you?  Mother is looking for you!”

She waited and then she heard it, a low grunting tone that stood out from the birds’ high tweets, and she rushed toward it.

Just inside a cluster of trees about thirty yards from the parking lot, she found Darling squatting down, staring at something in the undergrowth.

“Darling, what are you doing?” she asked, approaching slowly.

Darling responded by grunting and pointing.  Something in the underbrush moved, shaking the leaves as it ran away.  She didn’t see what it was.

With a sad keening noise, Darling stood up.

“What were you looking at, Darling?”

Darling pointed and made some urgent, throaty noises, sounding as though he wanted to make a word that started with a B.  She put her hands on Darling’s shoulders and tried to see what was so important.  There was nothing but underbrush and dead leaves.

“Come on,” she said, steering Darling around and navigating them both out of the trees.  “You can show me in your book.”  She took Darling’s hand as they walked back to the moving truck.  “You mustn’t leave without telling Mother.  You scared me.  I know you’re curious and I told you that we will explore together all around our new house.  But this is a strange place.  You mustn’t wander away.  You don’t want to be lost forever.”

Darling made an almost scared sounding noise and the child shook his head no.

Safe back in the cab of the truck, Mother handed Darling a special book that she’d made for her child.  Because Darling had so much trouble speaking, she put together a book of pictures that represented words that Darling knew.  It helped sometimes when Darling was struggling to communicate.  She didn’t like Darling to get frustrated.  Darling’s temper was unpleasant.

Darling flipped through the pages excitedly until finally finding the one he sought.  Darling pointed to the picture, jabbing a stubby little finger at the image of a rabbit.

“Oh!” Mother said.  She smiled at Darling.  “You saw a bunny.”

Darling nodded, smiling a very crooked, half-paralyzed smile and closed the book, putting it on the dashboard of the truck.

She wondered what the rabbit thought of Darling as most animals tended to react with fear.  They could smell something not right about him, smell the death on her child.  It made her sad sometimes to know that she’d never be able to teach Darling the responsibility of owning a pet.  She felt that was an important life skill, to learn how to care for something smaller and weaker than you.  Empathy and compassion are important traits for a mother to instill in her child.

“You did a very good job picking out your word, Darling,” she said as she pulled the truck out of the parking space.  “Mother is very pleased in how well you learn.”

Darling gave a hoot of glee and she smiled.

“But remember, you mustn’t wander off again,” she said and glanced over to see that Darling wasn’t listening anymore.  The countryside rushing past had her child’s attention now.

She let it go and allowed the child to enjoy the ride.  She knew that Darling understood.  For a damaged brain, it still functioned fairly well when it came to learning things.  And the personality was a sweet one, despite the temper flairs caused by frustration.  Once again, as she had many times over the last few years, she wondered how anyone could try to destroy such a charming child.

As she came to cruising speed on the highway, she reached over and patted Darling’s hair.  Darling didn’t seem to notice.  The child’s mouth was hanging open and his eyes were glassy, a sign of contentment.

She’d get her child a new body.  She couldn’t wait to see what Darling could be when he had the chance to grow up.

They drove up to the house in the middle of the night.  She felt it would be safer that way.  A moving truck trundling down a road, headed toward a house never sold, one that was supposedly haunted, would attract too much attention.  So they made their way under cover of darkness, just as Darling had been smuggled out of their last home.

She followed the directions that she had memorized, turning off of the wooded, seldom used back road and onto a narrow dirt one that the weeds were trying to claim.  Tree branches scraped at the sides of the truck and slapped the wind shield with a weak effort; tall grass whipped at the wheels.  Darling stared around wide-eyed.

The woods had taken over the yard, coming right up next to the house and leaving no place to park a bike, let alone a moving truck.  She parked the truck on the dirt path, leaving it running and the headlights glaring, the only source of light able to penetrate the insulated darkness.

“Wait here, Darling,” she instructed and took a flashlight out of the glove compartment.

The house looked much like it had in the picture she’d seen, abandoned, but still livable.  There’d be no lights or running water, not until she got that taken care of by rigging up a system herself.  In order for her to get Darling a new body, they’d have to remain completely off-grid so no one would know they were there.  She didn’t need electric people and water people snooping around.  She didn’t need anyone snooping around.

The front door to the house was unlocked, but stuck with disuse.  She put her shoulder to it and pushed.  It swung open with a great creak.  Giving the room a quick once over with the flashlight, she walked back to the truck and retrieved Darling.  She held her child’s hand as they walked across the threshold, the two of them entering their new house for the first time together.

The house had an open floor plan.  The front room expanded towards the kitchen, a step the only thing separating the two rooms.  To the right of the front door was a stairway that led to the second floor.  Dust layered the floor like a rich, gray carpet.  Cobwebs hung from the ceiling and spread across the banister like drapes of fabric.  The windows were tinted with grime.  Patterns in the dust on the floor suggested that animals had been squatting here and she wouldn’t be surprised to find one or two of their corpses about.  The whole place smelled of must and disuse and neglect.

It was perfect.

She took a deep breath as she looked around, shining the light slowly over various surfaces.  Darling stood next to her, holding her hand.  She smiled and gave Darling’s hand a squeeze.

“This will be our new home,” she said and she looked down at her child.  Darling stood there with his jaw slack, staring around.  “Do you like it?”

Darling gave a grunt that sounded a little like a no and she squeezed his hand again.

“It needs to be cleaned up, Darling,” she said.  “Once the whole house is clean and all of our things are inside, it will seem much more like home.  I think we’ll like it here very much.  You can play outside during the day as long as you don’t wander too far into the woods.  I’m sure there are animals around that you can watch.”  Darling hooted excitedly at this.  “And once we get settled in, we’ll get you a new body so you can grow up.  Won’t that be nice?”

Darling gave another grunt that sounded a little like a yes.

She smiled and squeezed his hand again.

It took a month to get the house cleaned up and in proper order.  She scrubbed the floors, walls, and windows from sunrise to sundown with Darling helping however he could.  He often got sidetracked, staring off into space or out a cleaned window.  She promised that as soon as the cleaning was done, Darling could go outside and play.  In the meantime, they worked and slept on air mattresses in recently cleaned spots.

Once the house was cleaned, Darling was allowed outside to play, all day if he wished.  She marked off Darling’s play boundaries by putting brightly colored tape on the trees and repeatedly told Darling not to go past the tape.  And he minded her because he was a good child.

While Darling played outside, she set up the house with water and electricity.  It only took a week for her to get that done.  It was really no trouble, just time consuming.  She was quite gifted when it came to being resourceful and that came in handy for living off the grid.

The biggest chore, the one that took the longest, was setting up her work room.  She didn’t call it a laboratory.  It wasn’t that kind of thing.  She didn’t mix together volatile chemicals (just plain old ordinary ones) or create monsters or anything like that.  She just needed a work space so she could get Darling a new body.  The basement was perfect for this.  It was unfinished, but large and open, like the house, and the door could easily be locked from either side, an added protection from snoopers.  Everything she needed fit down there with more than enough room to move around and work without being crowded.

Once the work room was set up, it was just a matter of finding a new body for Darling.

“You understand that you will not look the same when you get a new body, right, Darling?” she asked.  “Your face will be different and your body will be different.”

It had been three weeks since she’d finished the work room and they’d settled into their new home nicely.  Even though she still hadn’t found a new body yet for Darling, she was doing everything she could to prepare her child for the impending change.

Darling grunted yes.  It sounded much more like a yes than usual and she was pleased how much her child tried to speak despite the crushed larynx.

“You understand that your new body will be larger than the one you have now,” she said.  “You’ll have to learn to control it.  I know you get frustrated, but you mustn’t be frustrated about this!  You’ll be learning to walk and talk and eat and all of those things all over again.  You will have to be patient, my Darling!  It’s very important that you be patient.”

Darling nodded, eyes on her, looking very much like he understood.  And Darling did.  She knew that her child understood.  But Darling had the memory of a child, at once long and short.  She would have to remind him again tomorrow and every day until the transition.  And once the transition was done, she would have to preach patience to her child every day still.  The brain would be much the same, but the body would be different.

A bigger body meant a bigger tool for temper and she needed to make sure it was controlled.

Sometimes she doubted her choice to give Darling a new body.  Her child’s brain would only develop so much.  Death had a tendency to stunt growth in the mind, not just the body.  It was true the Darling had made some progress, had been able to learn some things, but the truth was that she wasn’t sure just how much Darling’s brain would mature given the traumatic events it had experienced.  It was possible she was just going to make a giant child and that would likely be just as unfair as never getting Darling a new body at all.

“Darling,” she said, a thought occurring to her.  “Why don’t we do this?  Why don’t we keep the body you have now and if you don’t like your new body, if your new body ends up not being good for you, we’ll put you back in your old body.  How does that sound?”

Darling ponder this over for quite a while, to the extent that she thought she was going to have to repeat herself.  But eventually, Darling nodded his head.

She patted his hand.

“Good.”

He died of an overdose.

They weren’t sure if it was accidental or intentional, but since he’d been a popular football player, the star of the defensive team, a hulking boy that everyone loved, they decided to call it accidental so they could use his death as a PSA to his classmates and the other kids in school about the dangers of doing drugs, even once.  It was likely he’d been doing cocaine for a couple of years and his use had only recently gotten serious, and if you asked his friends, they’d eventually admit that was the truth after a lot of prodding to get them to say anything at all.

But the only aftermath of his death that she was concerned with was what they were going to do with the body.  When she found out they were going to cremate him, she was pleased.  Cremation meant no digging up graves or breaking into coffins, things that could arouse suspicion.  Cremation just meant stealing a corpse and replacing it with ashes.  It was a shockingly easy thing to do, especially since those in the funeral business were reluctant to ever admit that anything might have gone wrong and the wrong body might have ended up in a certain urn and they weren’t even sure where the right body was.  Too much bad press, too much pain for the family, too much litigation that follows the pain.  Nobody wants that.

Conducting her theft in the dead of night, it was nearly sunrise when she brought the body home and lugged it downstairs to the work room.  Heaving the massive teenager on the table, something she wouldn’t have been able to do if she hadn’t specifically trained for it because she wasn’t a big woman, she gave thanks that the football playing boy had OD’d instead of shot himself or hung himself or something.  It would be easier to clean out his body for use.

She worked day and night, only stopping on occasion for brief rest periods and some nourishment and, of course, to tend to Darling and remind her child what was going to happen when he got a new body and not to go beyond the brightly colored tape on the trees when he went outside to play.  It took her longer to prep this body than to prep Darling’s original one despite the lack of damage to the new body.  It was because this body was so much bigger.  So much more preparation was required.

After five days of work, she rested, sleeping nearly sixteen hours.  When she returned to the work room, she confirmed what her exhausted mind had determined before she’d stumbled off to bed.

The body was ready.

It was time.

She held Darling’s hands as he walked unsteadily across the kitchen floor.  They’d done this before, when she first gave her child life, but this time Darling was much bigger.

As much as she’d prepared Darling for the change, for the newness of larger limbs and a greater height, she’d forgotten to prepare herself for the change as well.  Gone was the sweet child’s face that she used to look at down near her hip.  Now she was looking up over her head at a face that was almost a man’s.  Large hands gripped hers instead of the small ones she was used to.  The clothes he wore belonged to a man, not a little boy.  The once dark hair was now much lighter, almost blond, and the brown eyes were now hazel.  At once she was proud and heart sick over what she’d done.

Darling shuffled across the floor, his new face pinched in concentration, his mouth frowned deeply as he focused; a look that she instantly recognized as her child’s even if his face did have different features now.  Darling had been having a difficult time learning to work his new, larger body after so much time in his smaller one and his brain, stunted some by death and upset a little by the transplant, was having a difficult time becoming accustomed to its new home.

“Very good, Darling,” she encouraged as they made it to the opposite end of the kitchen without any falls.  She smiled up at her child and he looked down on her.  His face relaxed a little, but he was still focusing hard on keeping himself upright.  It might be a while before things became natural to him again.  She just hoped her constant reminders of patience would help Darling keep his temper.  “Would you like to do it again?  Or do you want to rest?”

Darling nodded, his head jerking oddly.  “A…gan.”

She smiled up at Darling again as she slowly turned the two of them so they could walk across the kitchen floor once more.  Without the damaged larynx of his old body, Darling was speaking more clearly now, but still only one word sentences and still favored grunting.

They could work on speech later.

First, walking.

Darling was a good boy.  He was helpful and he was kind.  He made the adjustment to his new body slowly, but with no temper tantrums.  And Darling liked his new body.  He liked that he was taller than Mother and could reach things for her and lift things for her.  He liked that he was so strong.  Darling had always been a happy child, but this was the happiest she’d ever seen him.  His speech improved much slower than his motor skills.  With Mother’s encouragement, though, and his new voice, Darling was able to tell her “love” several times a day while he hugged her or patted her face, and she would return his affectionate gesture in kind.  She didn’t mind that she had made Darling a momma’s boy.  Darling thought she was a good mother and that was all that mattered to her.  The life she had created appreciated his existence.  Not every mother was so lucky.

They lived together in that hidden house, only once being snooped upon by teenagers.  She’d done what she could to make the outside of the house look as run down as possible so no one suspected someone might live there, hiding her car carefully in the woods, but curiosity is curiosity and even though she encouraged it in Darling, she dissuaded it in others.  She and Darling had great fun that night scaring off the teenagers by pretending to be ghosts.  They’d screamed at Darling’s hulking shadow and ran for their lives and after they were gone, Mother and Darling laughed and laughed.  No one had dared to come back since.

Though life with Darling in his big body pleased her, she couldn’t deny that she missed the little boy Darling had once been.  His mind was still childlike in a way, but that wasn’t the same as having that innocence in a little body.  And he’d gained so much experience that she knew he’d be able to take care of himself if anything happened to her.  There was now so much more that he could do for himself, so many things that she had once done for him that he could do on his own.  In little ways, he didn’t need her anymore, thanks to his teenaged body.  He had grown up, just as she wished he’d do, and he’d grown up well.

She still had his old body, though, that little one with the broken larynx, the one he’d existed in for so many years, carefully packed away and preserved like a keepsake, like baby teeth the tooth fairy collected and locks of hair from the first haircut and a baby’s first pair of shoes all bronzed.  It was better than a baby book. With her method, it could last decades.

But still…

Perhaps, if the occasion arose, she could give Darling a little brother or sister.

Perhaps.

***

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