Brenna R. Singman
Michael tucked the blanket around his grandson Harrison and typed into the wall panel. The soft lullaby filling the room faded, and the spinning lights shut off. Only one light remained from the toy chest where a metallic orb gave off a faint blue glow. Michael picked up the smooth casing and couldn't find any switches or buttons.
"Damn fingerprint recog," he muttered as he started burying the toy beneath the plushes and action figures. It rattled in his hand, and the soft blue melted into a noxious purple and then a violent red. Michael dropped the sphere with a gasp that led him to cough up a wad of ashen phlegm into his grandson's garbage pail. He grabbed the flask from his pants pocket, stared at it mournfully as he always did, and kicked it back to wash out the burped up cigarette taste. He tried to use one to quit the other and somehow still got stuck with both.
Gentle plinking filled the room like a thousand pianists' fingers dancing over keys. Michael snapped towards the toy chest again. The music box must have popped open somehow. It was hard to remember which toys were voice activated or not. The white wooden chest glowed in that terrible red, and a little voice accompanied the soft symphony.
"Damn machines," Michael growled as he dug the metal sphere back out. He nearly dropped it as he realized it was no longer perfectly smooth. A square hatch popped up like a camera shutter to reveal a tiny screen with green numbers, symbols, and Latin letters. It was precisely why Michael told his son Noah not to buy the damn toy. None of them could fix it if something broke. A light flashed across the window, blinding Michael for a moment. A flashlight? Headlight? No, the room was on the second floor of the house.
His gut told him to move out of sight. He crouched beside the crib and took another quick swig from his flask. His already frayed nerves weakened as he heard a sound downstairs. Noah and Felicia wouldn't be home for hours. The toy continued streaming a list of numbers and letters, supposedly coordinates. Was it their house? Who was after them? Gentle creaking from the staircase reached his perked ears. Dulled inhibitions, Michael liked to say at the early AA meetings, heightened his senses. He needed to get Harrison out.
With adrenaline pouring through his veins like a free flowing tap, Michael shoved the window open. A burst of cold air chilled him to the bone. He swaddled Harrison in his blankets, and tucked him in his arms. Then he grabbed the metal ball that hadn't quieted yet. Michael peeked through the window at the roof lined in frost and the frozen droplets pooled around the gutters. He winced as the aging, underutilized muscles in his legs protested his crawling past the sill to the slightly sloping roof. Fear kept him warm as winter swelled around him, the baby, and the strange little toy. Michael took each step towards the gutter as fast as he dared, Harrison starting to fuss and squirm despite Michael's best efforts to shush and warm him.
Behind them, Michael heard heavy thudding on the door, attempts to kick it down. His knees shook, but he held Harrison and the sphere close and peaked one last time over the edge of the roof. The flask was out of reach for a final shot of courage. Before he could prepare to pounce, an explosion erupted from the bedroom, knocking Michael, Harrison, and the toy from the ledge along with biting shrapnel and fire...
"...by a miracle of God we survived," Michael said with a shaking voice. He stood in front of his chair in the circle of husbands, mothers, students, corporate bigwigs, athletes, and others with addiction. "In my stupor, I ran with my grandson and his A.Z.U.R.E. We ended up on the East Side, not far from the docks. I dumped the toy and left. Woke up to cops shining lights in my face. Harrison was okay. And, uh," he stumbled and wrung his wrists. "I spent the summer in rehab yelling about a toy that was a government spy bot and how the Feds were after me. It was...rough. But I'm here now. Clean fifty-seven days. Best thing is my son's forgiveness and letting me stay with him. So...y'know, I guess that's good. Uh, thanks."
Michael sat down, face burning with embarrassment. He passed the brightly painted wiffle ball to the woman beside him who stood and started speaking. The rest of the hour crawled by in ringing deafness as Michael thought back on his darkest day. His grandson would laugh about it as he grew up, but there would always be some fear behind his parents' eyes. Michael couldn't take that back.
A poised man in a polo and dark denim waved Michael down from outside a sporty car parked in front of the recreation center. Michael smiled and immediately stood straighter and fixed his own collar as he approached. He hugged his son, two quick pats on the back.
"How ya doing, pop?" Noah said.
"Good. Good," Michael answered. He got into the passenger seat as Noah sidled into the driver's side. "I'm alive another day, thank God."
"Getting that token soon, right? Two more days?"
"Don't rush me," Michael laughed. "Three more."
"Just excited, right, babe?"
Felicia smiled in the back and jingled a plastic chain over her infant son's face. The baby cooed, and the sounds were lost as the car revved and took them out of midtown. In the opposite direction, heading further east towards the docks of the Carlyle Bay, a rusty dumpster near an abandoned warehouse started glowing red.
"Coordinate Location Lost. Reset. Hello. I'm A.Z.U.R.E. Good night."