“Ah! You are here, you have arrived! Good! Come in – out of the rain – No! You must step overthe welcome mat – it has defenses, you see, necessary protections against the fools, the meddlers, the curious and the unwanted! And salesmen – oh, the salesmen! But come in!”
Julie carefully stepped over the welcome mat and looked warily at the stooped man with the flying hair and white lab coat. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Julie?”
“Yes, yes. I’m Dr. Crawley – we spoke on the telephone, the telephone! Come in, so I may close the door – people, they may be watching.”
Julie came into the house, and Dr. Crawley closed the door and slid a large deadbolt into place.
“There!” he said. “Now, we may talk, without fear! Yes – I am Dr. Crawley, and you are here to oversee my child while I am forced – forced, I tell you! – to absent myself for some time! Now divest yourself of your windbreaker – it is wet, and dripping. The electrical systems, the short circuits, the waveform generator – we must be careful!”
“Sure.” Julie tried not to stare at his humpback. She set her backpack down, then slid off her jacket and looked around for a closet. She found instead an old-fashioned coat rack, festooned with stained lab coats, improbable hats, and a bright blue little girl’s coat. She hung her jacket up next to the coat.
“I think you said you saw my note up at the FoodieMart?” she said.
“Yes, exactly, precisely – the note, advertising your utility! The FoodieMart – wretched place, the Muzak! But a source of needed… ingredients. For my work, my work! But come in, sit! You must hear my instructions, I must attend to your demands for compensation, and then – then! – I may go, for a short time!”
“Uh huh.” It was a large living room, made small by the amount of – things – in it: shelves and shelves of old books and papers spilling out of binders, tubes and wires and electronic parts scattered over the floor, jars of – was that an ear? Beakers of murky fluids. A lava lamp on a side table. “Uh, nice place?” Julie said.
“Sit!” One enormous pile of spare parts smothered a sofa. Dr. Crawley swept the detritus clattering to the floor, clearing a spot. Julie sat down, and Dr. Crawley sat uncomfortably close to her, breathing in her face, his breath reeking of onions and something Julie vaguely recalled from science class. Could people eat formaldehyde?
“Yes! Now, the negotiations – I have read about this stage! Let us commence!”
“Well, uh, I usually get like ten bucks an hour, and double if you’re late, and ice cream or something in the fridge—“
“Ah!” The doctor clapped his hands. “Acceptable! Ten dollars per hour – that is in the local currency, which simplifies matters, yes – and, in addition, you may have two fudgesicles or three popsicles, or one fudgesicle and two popsicles – but not the grape! No!”
“Uh, OK, I guess.”
“The refrigerator you must use – there! – no, not the padlocked one, the other one! The padlocked one: I have cravings, unhealthy, evil – the Ben and Jerry – particularly Jerry, a demon! I must guard myself against the enemy – do not open it, do not look inside it, do not listen to any voices! Use only the other one!”
Julie got up to look at the indicated fridge. It gave her a chance to escape the doctor’s breath. “This one is OK, though, right? This one, with the note on it?” The note was mostly illegible, but seemed to be about a “deallth ray.”
‘Yes, yes!” Dr. Crawley scurried over to the refrigerator, and snatched the note. He gave her a suspicious glare, then, with a crafty look in his eye, said, “Oh – the note – the reminder! A simple reminder, for me to buy – cadmium! But not at the usual place, no. Nothing sinister in that. And eggs, yes – just normal, unfertilized chicken eggs, I tell you! Bananas – yes, bananas. Few appreciate the lethal nature of the common banana!”
“Yes. “ The angry doctor put a hand to his mouth. “I understand, as well, the unwritten permissions. When the child is asleep, if your boyfriend comes here, all mating must occur in the lab, and samples must be obtained – watch the filmstrip. Cadmium – I said I had to buy cadmium? Yes, actually I doneed some – of course! The subconscious, directing my utterances!”
“Um, yeah, I don’t actually have a boyfriend, although there is a certain creep who can’t accept that. So about how long do you think you’ll be?”
“How long – yes, the length of time, the duration! I must go to the courthouse, explain to the fools there – fools! Red means ‘stop,’ they say, but why? An arbitrary system! A simple series of electrical impulses would be far simpler, less open to interpretation! I shall outline my system. It shall take me one hour, or two – and after that, when it is dark – yes – I need to visit the graveyard, my favorite one, the one just off 17thStreet, on the right, just past the pho restaurant, the place with the noodles, the noodles, I tell you! And I will need both hands – both hands – for my work there. The graveyard, not the pho place.”
“Well just if I have to stay past eleven, then I’m supposed to get twelve dollars an hour.”
“Twelve! Ha! Twelve!” The doctor convulsed in silent glee, or pain – it was hard to tell.
“Yeah, so, like what time is your daughter’s bedtime? Oh, and what was her name?”
“Her name was, and remains, Molly! You will meet her soon – soon – she is unavailable at present, but I shall introduce you before I must leave. Now you will explain the concept of bedtime.”
“I mean, what time should she go to bed?”
“When she is sleepy, when her motor functions have deteriorated to the point at which the need for sleep becomes unavoidable, of course! ‘Bedtime’? Mad! Madness, I tell you! Bedtime!” Dr. Crawley threw a hand up in the air and paused. “A time-bed, on the other hand – yes…”
“All right. Um, is there like an emergency number I should have?”
The doctor cackled as if at a shared joke, then subsided. Finally he admitted, “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You know, an emergency number. That I can use.”
“‘Emergency number’ – an interesting concept! Are you referring to pi? But my dear, I have conclusively proven that pi is useless, useless I tell you! My own system is far superior, and much more effective. I can show you, prove to you – but you must not laugh! No, not like those fools at the academy – but I’ll show them. I’ll show them all, I tell you!”
“I actually never really thought much about pi.”
“Excellent! You have a discerning mind, young lady. Perhaps if I may examine its structure, its inner workings – but not now! I must go! I must not drive – no! But the number 72 bus is always late, and the driver rolls his eyes!”
Doctor Crawley whirled about and snatched a huge, old-fashioned microphone off a shelf. “Molly! Molly, attend me! Come here, I tell you!”
A moment later a door Julie hadn’t noticed before opened, and a little girl came through it. Molly was thin, with overlarge eyes and unkempt hair, wearing outsized pajamas, dark gray with mathematical formulae and parabolic arcs in thin black script. After coming in Molly turned to close the door behind her.
Dr. Crawley leapt up and stumbled over to her. He opened the door Molly had closed, just a crack, and peered through, then closed it firmly. He rattled it to make sure it was secure, then nodded. He laid a fatherly hand upon the child’s head, and together they came closer to Julie.
“Hi, there. I’m Julie.”
“How old are you, Molly?”
“On the next anniversary of my birth I shall be eight.”
“Molly!” Dr. Crawley admonished. “We have talked about this, discussed this! At great lengths!”
Molly frowned for a moment in thought, then smiled and said, “I should have added, ‘as the fools reckon the passage of time.’”
“Ha! Exactly!” Dr. Crawley rubbed his hands. “So linear, so limiting, so aggravating! But I shall show them – yes, show them all, I tell you! And then they shall crawl before me, begging for mercy, for forgiveness, for freshly laundered sheets – and I shall deny them all, until they agree to--”
“Father, you must leave soon, correct?”
“Leave? Go? But where? The lab in the basement, the pens in the backyard, the jars of quivering protoplasm in the attic--”
“The court! Of course! I must leave! Young lady – Julie – I leave my progeny in your hands! Take care not to damage her tissues, her DNA!”
“Uh, she’ll be fine, doctor. Um, what about dinner? Should I order a pizza, or something?”
“Order a pizza! Order a pizza! Ha!” The scientist chuckled. “No, no, my dear. No, that would be useless! Food – dinner – Molly can show you. There are edible – things – here and there, I am sure. I am off!”
“Um, is Molly allowed to watch TV? Or certain channels—“
But Dr. Crawley was gone, leaving the front door wide open. Julie stepped over some decaying journals and broken vacuum tubes to close it.
“We have no TV,” Molly said.
“Whoa. Bummer, huh?” Behind the couch, in a pile of rags, something scuttled, wheezed, and then was still.
Molly was still standing next to the sofa.
“What was that noise?” Julie asked. “A rat?”
Molly moved just her eyes. “It used to be.”
“Um.” Julie snagged her backpack off the floor. “How about a game of Uno?” she said.
“You must explain the reference,” said Molly, and although she had the vocabulary and grammar of a stuffy professor, her eyes were curious and her mouth was ready to smile. Pretty open-minded for a kid that was probably homeschooled.
“I’ll just show you. This will be fun.”
Two weeks later, Julie was just leaving school when a hand grabbed her shoulder.
Julie spun about. There, blinking in the sunlight, was the stooped, stained, lab-coated figure of Dr. Crawley.
“Dr. Crawley! Jesus! You scared the shit out of me!”
The angry scientist glanced down at the pavement, then gave a low chuckle. “A euphemism? An exaggeration? I believe so. Yes, the absence of olfactory evidence—but wait! You do remember me, remember our former encounter?”
Julie’s breathing was returning to normal. The scientist had returned home much later than promised, with wet shoes and as smear of something oily in his hair, but he’d paid without a fuss, and had seriously overestimated the tip, which was nice. She tugged at her backpack. “Sure, I remember you. How’s Molly?”
“Fine – no, no! That is not the word! She is healthy, yes, but altered, oddly changed!” Dr. Crawley tugged at his hair. “Last Wednesday I came home – never mind where I was, where I had been, what I had been doing, had done – it’s irrelevant, irrelevant, I tell you! But I discovered upon my return, I found, yes, that her fingernails had become an alarming shade of bright pink! I searched for an explanation – conducted tests, examined her genome--“
“Oh, Doctor, I left her some nail polish – during my visit, she and I did a little, you know, and she liked it, so I had some left over, so I just gave—I hope it’s all right. I think it’s organic. Or non-toxic, one of those.”
“Yes – my chemical analysis, the spectrometer, and finally I asked Molly. She wants more!”
“I think I got it at Rite Aid.”
“Rite Aid! Rite Aid, you say! Ha!”
The doctor simpered at her, as if expecting her to say more.
“So,” Julie said, “I guess I’ll see you around. Say hi to Molly.” She turned to go.
“Stop! Wait! Pause, I tell you – I mean, I askof you!”
Julie looked back. The scientist had an anguished look in his eye.
“Is everything all right, Dr. Crawley?”
“I – no – I am unsure, uncertain! I will explain. I have endeavored to be a good parent. I feed my offspring when it occurs to me, and provide clothing of a sort. The heat – the air-conditioning – the level of humidity – controlled by a disembodied brain, logical, precise! And yet…”
“Since your visit, she – I mean Molly, not the disembodied brain, Molly, I tell you! She has seemed discontent. The nail-coloring agent, just one example, one sign. She has asked to see cartoons! Cartoons!”
“Well, I guess that’s normal, right?”
“Normal! Normal! That my offspring – my daughter--” Dr. Crawley clutched at his head with one hand and at his stomach with the other. “Oh, the pain! Julie – have you children of your own?”
“Then you may find the concept difficult. But that my – my daughter… She wants to get a game called Uno. And watch cartoons. Nail polish, and she wants colorful pajamas!”
“Yeah. Um, I’m not sure what you want me to do? To help? I guess I can take her shopping, or something.”
“Shopping! Yes – I shall provide funds, sufficient in quantity, completely untraceable! Molly awaits in the car. Shall six hours be adequate? I shall operate the vehicle!”
“You mean now?”
“Yes, immediately! A solution has presented itself!”
“But I have this thing--”
“I can remove it! Under anesthetic, if you insist!”
“I mean my boyfriend. Well, ex-boyfriend. He says I got to meet him.”
“Postpone your meeting. An elegant solution.”
“He might not like that. And I kinda have to, you know, keep him from going off.”
Dr. Crawley grabbed Julie’s sleeve, but his eyes were kind.
“Well…” Julie glanced around, but her friends had gone, the sidewalk all but empty.
“Tell me! Explain! Elucidate!”
“It’s kinda embarrassing. But my boyfriend, I mean my ex-boyfriend, Eric, he’s sort of a control freak, you know? And he says if I don’t go out with him, he’s going to put out some stuff about me on Facebook. Lies, but if people start talking….”
“Facebook! Face…book! My dear, you have a mind much like mine! But yes, yes – the fools will talk! But you’ll show them – you’ll show them all, I tell you!”
“Yeah, yeah, so I got to go now, but I can see Molly another time.”
Dr. Crawley did not let go of her sleeve. “An alternate suggestion,” he said, “would be to invite your ex-boyfriend to my lab.”
“Yes, yes!” Dr. Crawley cackled. “My lab! I shall drop you and Molly off at the mall – the shopping mall! And then invite your ex-Eric into my lab. There are many things I can do, yes!”
“Things? Like – what?”
“Oh, my dear, you need not inquire! And afterwards, after I have disinfected the area – I shall return to the mall, and pick you up!”
“And what about Eric?”
“Indeed! Indeed! People will ask! They will ask, and ask, but the explanation to their questions will never be found, or understood – beyond their comprehension!”
“I don’t know,” Julie said.
Dr. Crawley nodded at her.
“He is kind of a dick,” Julie said. “But I mean, I wouldn’t want anything, you know, permanent, to happen to him.”
“I see, my dear, yes I see! You are troubled by a conscience. Very well! There are many – things – I can do that will not be, as you say, permanent, at least not to a casual observer. I can show him things, subject him to various frequencies, perhaps gently dose him with a concoction I have developed, and which requires an unwitting subject – oh, yes, my dear, he will suffer but little. And after – after his visit, I will, I can guarantee, that he will cease to trouble you with his Facebook!”
“Well, I guess that would be all right. And just to be clear, I don’t mean that he shouldn’t have anypain at all. Just not, you know.”
“I fully understand! No obvious disfigurements, no extra – appendages. Come with me, to the car, to Molly! We shall meet with Eric, you shall take Molly shopping. “ Suddenly Dr. Crawley stopped short. He grabbed at his flying hair. “Measurements! I have neglected to take measurements! Shoe size, pajama dimensions--”
“Don’t worry, Dr. Crawley,” Julie said. “I can handle that. I’m like an expert.”
This story originally appeared in Crowded.