's 2018 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by Samuel Peterson (email)

I suppose it all began when I first revised the sign outside my home.

It was never a particularly big or eye-catching affair, just a humble, handwritten notice my niece helped me make. It let the passing public know that I was an experienced caregiver, and would offer my quality childsitting services for an affordable price, even on short notice. It caught no one's eye in its first month sitting at the end of my yard, so I took a marker to it and made one clarifying amendment: "all age ranges accepted."

I had years of experience in caring for both infants and those in hospice, after all; though I was now technically retired, I felt I was still more than qualified to care for anyone who required it. Any family in need had but to ask, as I certainly wasn't doing much else of note with my free time.

It had only been two days after that revision that a knock came at my door. By the time I got there, all I found was a small plastic tray on my doorstep, perhaps eight inches on a side and only two inches tall, containing a little blue bead and a crumpled note. Whoever left them for me was nowhere in sight.

I had some trouble getting at it -- my darned back isn't what it used to be -- but I managed, and was able to read the note with some effort. It looked to have been written one letter at a time, by unskilled and shaky hands, perhaps by someone whose first language wasn't the king's English.

"please care water put , soft later get : door place night pay fair very thank !"

At first, I suspected it was some sort of odd prank, or perhaps my niece taking pity on me, trying to cleverly give me something to do; some little toy or trinket to "care" for while no one yet had need of my services. Perhaps it was because I wanted to humor her, in turn, that I did as the paper asked. It was no great trouble, after all. The note, chickenscratch that it was, seemed to only require that I put this little bead in water, and return it later. I supposed I could just leave it in the same tray it had come in, on the doorstep.

When I filled the tray with water from the tap, however, something curious happened. Bubbles immediately began to spout from the little marble, like soda fizz! Only they wouldn't pop; they just kept coming, and I have to admit, I still thought it was a toy at first. Some cute little contraption that, if it wouldn't entertain my grandchildren, certainly had entertained me!

But those bubbles, soon they rose out of the water in the tray, not like soap overflowing in a tub, but emerging in a specific shape, almost with purpose. They carried the bead with it, too! Stuck, right in the middle of it all, and soon enough of the growing bubbles had taken shape that I understood: they had made a little fat torso, with similarly proportioned arms, and even legs, all made purely of bubbles! No head, that I could see, but still supposing it was a toy I figured, well, they can't always work perfectly, can they?

The darned thing kept going, though! Once it finished making a little body, sitting in the tray, each of the bubbles filled themselves up with the water, one at a time, and I'll tell you, I began to wonder what these bubbles were made of that none had popped. I dared to poke at one, and it just jiggled and bounced, causing the little body to bob back and forth ever so slightly, like gelatin. I was so transfixed with it all that it took me a moment to notice: the bubbles had stopped filling up at only about a third of the way, the water I'd put in the tray now completely drained and, clearly, not nearly enough to fill the whole body.

Carefully, as not to disrupt the little bubble sculpture too much, I brought it under the tap again, running the water into the corner of the tray -- and wouldn't you know it! The bubbles started sucking the water right up again! I had to be careful to get a better grip on the thing, more supporting the bottom of it; the bubbles were light, but the water was becoming hefty in its volume.

Eventually, in only a few minutes of streaming more water in, filling up each bubble one after another, the little thing surprised me again! Once all the bubbles were full, they still kept taking in the water in the tray, and now it finally formed a head! I could barely believe it, since there were no bubbles to hold it there; the water simply began to take shape on top of the torso, wobbly and seeming suspended, as if gravity was no concern. I feel a bit foolish now, but in the moment, I really thought children's toys had come quite far!

By this point, I had to set the tray down in the sink, the amount of water held by this little creature now rivaling that of a full saucepan, maybe more. Once its head stopped growing, just a few inches bigger than a billiard ball, it finally stopped taking in water, and I turned off the tap when it had a nice inch or so left in the tray. I watched it a little more, fascinated, as its head and its body slowly jiggled and swayed -- as if in an invisibly blowing breeze. The head in particular was the most dynamic: it rippled from end to end, and then back again, as if forever reflecting the initial disturbances of it simply coming into shape.

Only, as I watched, I saw the ripples slow and slow, and in fact the water seemed to become quite thick; I realized I could no longer see the marble in its chest, the water having become a cloudy blue around it. The only remaining hints of its original transparency were the edges of its outermost bubbles, where the fluid was thinnest. I remember there was a moment therein when I thought to myself, "that's a beautiful baby blue..." and it clicked with me! This little thing, toy or not, was a little baby! If I squinted at it, its shape was darn near close enough, if completely blue, and a bit smaller than a human baby. (I only wish most babies were little enough trouble to fit in such a small tray, never mind peacefully sit still there!)

It was at this point that I could no longer convince myself this was some simple toy. They had come up with some crazy things to market in the past, to be sure, but those factories and entrepreneurs were too soulless to capture the essence of an innocent little child like this. If that hadn't been clear to me before, it certainly was once the head settled in its new shape, taking on cute little eyes, a nose, and even a mouth!

She stared at me curiously, this bubbly blue baby, and I did so back, for a good twenty seconds or so. And then she smiled at me! She giggled, jiggling with each strange hiccuping breath, and showed me a personality as well: the little bugger squirted water at me!!

Right from her barely-formed mouth, which I could only make out the shape of from the shine under my kitchen light, a short stream of water aimed right for my face! It splashed directly on me, too slow to avoid it, and I noted it was cool, feeling the same temperature as the water I'd put in the tray. It didn't seem to be the thicker blue stuff her body was made of, either; this was just regular old water.

Wondering if she had somehow used the water in her tray, like a little water pump, I carefully held one defensive hand between us and checked the level of the water under her. Amazingly, it had actually gone up! I saw it was going up even now, visibly rising up to the edges of her tray. What a curious little thing to behold!

I imagine most people my age would have found this terribly upsetting, being such a strange and unknown thing, but for myself in particular, well, I never said "humans only" on my sign! And why should I have, now knowing that it would have quite possibly barred me from ever seeing such a marvel? I'm sure my niece and many others would get lost in the details as well, trying to figure out if it was "magic," or "aliens," or some other odd conspiracy. It hardly mattered to me where this little one had come from, in place or people; she was a child in need of care, and I had been appointed as the one to give it.

The day passed quite quickly as I played with this little tyke -- who I opted to temporarily name Bubbles, in lieu of a name provided on the paper. I was admittedly not quite sure if she required the same care as most infants, but I seemed to do a good enough job all the same. When I offered her some apple sauce, she was perfectly happy to eat it right up! I couldn't imagine what force drew it through her watery head and into her body, rather than just floating there, but she showed no obvious signs of allergic reactions or what have you, and I hadn't much been provided an allergens list. If she needed a more proper diet, her parents would surely know the one to give when she went home.

At one point I propped her tray up in the sink, so it didn't cover the drain, as she very much continued to produce a seemingly endless amount of water. Only I soon realized I hadn't needed to; just as the water level was nearing the top of the tray, suddenly it sank all at once, and wouldn't you know it! Like the heartiest growth spurt you could imagine, she grew another arm!!! Right out of the middle of her chest, a bit off to the side, as if sprung randomly. It moved just as fine as the others, and it wouldn't be the last, bless her. In retrospect, I believe it happened about once every hour or so, and it wasn't exclusive to her arms; she grew another leg about half the time as well, seeming to switch off between the two on some unknowable schedule. By the end of the night she must have had a half dozen of each, at least!

My mind buzzed when it first happened, and I wondered beyond wondering if this was normal. Obviously, most human babies didn't do this, but they were becoming less and less comparable as a metric for normalcy. I couldn't help but wonder if I was supposed to drain the water instead of letting arms grow -- or if I should in fact pour more water in to encourage it? I opted to stay in the middle and do neither, leading to her steady growth, and could only hope that was alright with her caretaker. I hadn't been told not to, anyhow; hopefully this was just normal!

It was curious, too, seeing that she still had her original bubble limbs, but all the new ones were plain water, unsupported much like her head. Or rather, plain liquid -- though they were clear upon first forming, each arm and leg quickly clouded until they matched the hue of her body, just like her head had. It certainly made it seem tame by comparison when she continued to spray me with water throughout the night! Still, I managed to distract her well enough with some colorful plastic rattles, eliciting more than one excited jiggle as we took turns shaking them, her managing just as well with any hand I put one in, bubble or no. Truth be told as well, I much prefer the baby that shoots plain water at me, as opposed to any other fluids!

By all, caring for Bubbles proved a much calmer endeavor than I could have anticipated, and I suppose I'm grateful for such an alien experience being so simple despite itself. Perhaps it was just her young age, but though she was capable of sitting upright, and certainly came to grow enough legs for it, Bubbles never showed any interest in getting up from her tray or trying to explore. She was also possibly the least fussy baby I had ever seen, never showing any discomfort from her menagerie of limbs or crying even once in the hours I had her. She even proved perfectly capable of giggling and, at one point, blowing her own spit bubbles! (They did not seem to share her properties, for which I was only temporarily mortified, and then more relieved. She could already produce new limbs in one manner; the chaos of another seemed simply excessive!)

When night finally arrived, little Bubbles had about tired herself out, head drooping slightly with closed, watery eyelids. It occurred to me plainly that, as per the note's instructions, I'd have to give her up soon. Admittedly I'd grown to adore her novelty, but I certainly didn't have the confidence or right to continue caring for her on my own. And as if in response to my musings, she surprised me again, one last time! Her whole body, which once sported many human features -- a mouth and eyes on her face, little fingers and toes on her hands and feet -- all of it gurgled slightly and resorted to a wholly unrefined appearance, completely losing any definition to it.

When I recovered from the brief shock of the experience, fearing this was what an alien baby looked like when it perished -- and only recovering upon noting that she still jiggled as she "breathed" -- I wondered: did it take effort to look like a baby? Was this now her "true" form, as... really, just a collection of blobs? Her arms and legs seemed to have become a mix of indistinguishable liquid tentacles, a mere two of each coated in bubbles -- yet they had never shifted place once, even now. She had never swapped an arm for a leg, or any other body part, but clearly these were not shapes she could maintain while unconscious. How very curious! Like some sort of matronly scientist, I wished I could study her and learn more about this strange physiology.

Yet I had a more important duty, and instructions to follow to fulfill it. It was not my place to try to keep this little girl for myself, away from her natural parents.

I wasn't quite sure how to transport her without disturbing her, but upon picking up her tray, I found she merely wobbled, and did not wake. This made it trivial to bring her to the front door she'd originally been left at, where I opted to set her down on the table reserved for my porch plants, scooting some aside with my arm to make room. It occurred to me there both that I had no idea who to expect, nor at what specific time, though it excited me terribly to know the face of Bubbles's mother or father. So I reasoned I would just keep her company on the porch until someone arrived.

But when I ducked my head back inside to get my watering can, to tend to the plants around Bubbles while she napped, I came back to find she had disappeared! I was mortified, naturally, but after a brief moment of panic saw a note had been carelessly left in the small puddle her tray had made. The handwriting was instantly recognizable, even as it began to smudge in the water, and I could not touch it for fear of tearing it:

"great help ! next day pay sorry bye thank !"

A moment of looking for any other signs someone had been here revealed that, indeed, a little splash and trail of drips marked the stone path up leading up to my door, disappearing behind the corner bend at my house's first edge. I considered quickly hurrying out to follow them, just to see who had brought me this little bundle of joy, but, well... if the parent of such a strange little baby wanted to stay hidden, perhaps all too fearful of being spotted in this regrettable culture that shunned stark differences, then who was I to try and wrest that comfort from them?

I retired for the day feeling I had learned something about the world, and what occupied it. Something wonderful, and joyous that I could never have imagined, now all the richer for it. Sleep was easy that night, perhaps from the, odd as it was to think, familiarity afforded by caring for something else. Someone else. I wondered, lying in bed, what kind of adorable, unheard of creature Bubbles might grow up to be? Similar to a human, perhaps, if her baby form was any indication? Maybe she would grow new bubbles with age, or maybe she would in fact shed her bubbles instead...?

It was the next morning before I realized I had drifted off. A peaceful and dreamless sleep, and certainly quite restful. I had only gotten halfway through breakfast when there came another knock at my door.

Even though I immediately hurried to it, I still must not have been fast enough; there was no trace of any possible parents upon my arrival. But more curious than that, there was now both another tray and what looked to be a sizable mason jar on my porch. (Whoever brought them had been courteous enough to use the table this time, nestled between the plants in much the same place Bubbles's tray had sat. My back thanked them.)

This new tray was mostly similar to the one from yesterday, only this one was a matte black and nowhere near as thin; the walls of it must have been a half inch thick at least, and this time it came with a long, similarly thick handle. It reminded me of a well-used cast-iron pan, only more square-shaped, and somehow even darker than those I had used before. And this time, instead of a blue bead, there was a little red one -- it looked to be in the shape of a four-sided pyramid, completely unlike Bubbles's round bead in every way save for size.

A note under this new bead had a longer message than before:

"pay here enjoy fair ? yes . sorry wait , busy new care : red put fire full care ! ! ! need brave strong night return yes ? thank !"

The unexpected new bead aside, I supposed the jar was my payment. Finally giving it a good look, I saw what seemed to be raw chicken legs inside! Similar to those from a butcher in almost every respect, including shape and size, only they were each a rich and deep blue -- as if someone had simply dunked ordinary poultry in potent food coloring, which I might have even suspected had it not been for the peculiar nature of yesterday's events. A quick sniff, after loosening the jar's lid, and I could tell the meat had a sweet aroma to it; perhaps it was normal chicken, after all, and merely marinated in some sauce? Perhaps even something Bubbles had helped with, generating water like she had? I had run no experiments with it; maybe it had some interesting cooking applications! I almost wished I had saved some, just to try.

There was evidence against this, however, as the turkey legs proved to be much softer than normal legs ought to be. They had much more give than normal meat, even in the sections that looked to be bone, something I had not known any sauce to be capable of doing. It was akin to a dog's rubber chew toy, or perhaps a firm and layered gelatin, shaped using detailed molds. They weren't quite identical enough for that to be feasible either, though. I could scarcely imagine what sort of jelly bird these could possibly have come from, then, though it delighted me to no end imagining them jiggling around in their coop!

Counting them, I found their total number to be five. The spoils of two and a half alien poultry were, apparently, fair pay for a day's care of Bubbles. Unconventional, but truth be told, I wasn't doing it for the money. I would have done it for free had I been asked, even for human children, a fact which I only neglected to put on the sign at my niece's mention -- something about not scaring anyone off with an offer that seemed too good to be true, which I supposed was fair. At any rate, I was more than happy to accept such a novel, if not exotic gift, and couldn't wait to try cooking them later that night.

As for the red bead... I'll admit, I was at first hesitant to follow the instructions on the paper. It seemed that it wanted me to cook this little bead, if not putting it directly in a fire, then putting the tray it was in over one. And the tray seemed a perfect shape and material for it, certainly. But would this really be alright?

It took me near a good ten minutes of procrastination before I finally conceded to the request's unusual logic, during which I stored the meat away and meticulously cleared the counters. The note mentioned I would need in my arsenal "brave strong," and "full care ! ! !" so I took as many precautions as I could think to, including donning the fire-retardant apron my husband once gifted me, and digging out an old fire extinguisher from the garage. Best case scenario, I figured, was a baby more or less exactly like Bubbles, only matching this new element -- and that meant the very real possibility of a baby that could spit fire. Frightening, to be sure, but not enough to deter me from perhaps my oldest passion.

When I finally turned on the burner underneath the tray, I started it off at low, and then gradually brought it midway to medium. When that produced no reactions even after a full, tense minute, I brought it completely to medium, and held the knob there, ready for the first sign of trouble. The thickness of the tray's material must have really been something, if not that of the bead itself, because it wasn't until several minutes on high that a reaction finally occurred.

It was small at first, the red bead jumping a bit and seeming to have "popped" much like popcorn does. It was even a little deformed now on the side, slightly bursting outward of the red shell with a black interior. And then, it popped again! And again, and again, more times than I thought to count, the bead puffing out a little bit more for each bounce in its tray. With every pop, the red shell became more easily lost in what was a black, ashy texture, a bit more coarse-looking than burnt popcorn.

Eventually, the popping stopped once it had reached the approximate shape of a ball, no traces of its original pyramid shape remaining, about four inches in diameter. The pops had gradually slowed up to this point and, when an entire minute passed without any sign of movement, I wondered if I had made some sort of error somewhere. I had little option but to wait and think about it; the note had been dreadfully nonspecific, and besides failing to expect another baby so soon, I'd yet to have a chance at meeting or talking with the person who had been delivering them to me.

In the midst of some idle musing about whether this ball was perhaps an egg, soon to hatch, abruptly it finally continued its growth: the entire thing burst into flames! In less than a second, bottom-up, it became unto a harshly roasted marshmallow, and I panicked slightly, reaching for the fire extinguisher I'd left on the counter nearby. As it occurred to me that this might be a baby made of fire, however -- and therefore terribly inappropriate to extinguish it -- the ball rocked about, rolling in a particular manner that could not be simply settling in the pan.

Indeed, it soon sprouted thick little arms and legs made of fire, in a much more violent and sudden fashion than Bubbles had, and flailed them around slightly, as if trying to maintain its balance where it sat. How such a creature could be totally okay with a body coated in fire was beyond me, but I supposed I had no right to question it after being so willing to accept a child made of water.

When it finally seemed settled, the body rocked slightly, and then slightly further again, and then, as if sneezing it into existence, a head of fire now burst from the chest. Much to my original fears, this was accompanied by a gout of flame shooting from the pan a good five feet forward, thankfully missing me and only gently singing the wood cabinets on the other side of the kitchen. (I instinctively shot a burst of the fire extinguisher at it before I could be sure, anyway.)

This new baby, though -- who I felt compelled to call Roy in my head, again not provided a name -- looked around with wild curiosity now that he had a head. Despite being made entirely of flame, his head maintained a relatively cohesive shape, his little eyes even seeming to maintain their own particular shade of red. It made for a somewhat ominous appearance, like a stereotyped image of the devil's own child, but I saw no malice in him. He simply seemed curious, maybe even a little antsy.

He was quick to stand in the tray, still looking around, and nearly gave me a heart attack when his wobbly legs gave out and he fell back down. I thought for a moment he might fall out of the pan, and feared how I could possibly shepherd such a volatile being, but luckily he landed on his tush right back inside. There, he finally settled his gaze on me, apparently content with the observations he'd made of my kitchen. He blinked at me in fact, and I blinked back, and in the couple of seconds that followed I had a sudden compulsion to shield my face, as it had been directly after our impromptu staring contest that Bubbles first spat water at me.

But no flames came just yet. The little tyke merely seemed amused when I brought my hands back down, giggling a little. Ah! So his object permanence was not much different from a human infant's. I took advantage of this to keep him distracted with a short game of peek-a-boo, while I considered how at all I could keep him occupied and cared for until night.

Almost none of the toys and playthings I owned were fireproof, being largely made of wood and plastic or something thereabouts; certainly nothing that could withstand the heat of this little fella. And while I had enough of them that I could afford to let a few melt, I still had no idea what that could possibly mean for his health, if anything. I wouldn't want a human baby to play with melted plastic, and I wasn't sure I could be any more reckless with a fire child.

Hoping I could solve two problems with one solution, I got out some more apple sauce once Roy began to lose interest in my disappearing act, and offered a spoonful to him. He peered at it curiously, and seemed to sniff at it, but showed an immediate distaste for it and backed his head away. Too sweet, perhaps? Or... too wet?

He began to hiccup small burps of flame at it, and while I wasn't sure if that was quite intentional, it seemed obvious he didn't want any. Perhaps a soft cracker would do? I showed him one, on the end of a fork, and he seemed no more interested. Normally I was just fine with letting a fussy baby choose not to eat -- their parents would usually know their preferences better than me, and no one's ever perished from only a day of hunger -- but in Roy's case... This was a baby made of flame, perpetually on fire! That surely would require a lot of energy, wouldn't it? I wasn't sure if I really could let him "starve," not unless he truly wanted nothing more than a hot pan to sit in.

After a dozen or so attempts with various food items, and practically on a whim, I tried something I wouldn't advise anyone ever try with a human child: I offered him a woodchip to eat. I had an already-open bag of them from when I'd taken up gardening, and I figured, heck, what else would fire be interested other than wood to burn?

I didn't try to put it in his mouth, of course; I'd hate to feed a baby its choking death. But darned if my intuition wasn't spot on, because the moment I put one in the tray with him, he delighted in burning it up with his touch, and rubbing the ashes all over his flaming belly. Again: not ideal for a human baby! But I was't dealing with human babies, no matter how much they superficially resembled them. It was also clear bathing wasn't likely possible with a literal fire child, so I figured if anything, the instinct to rub ashes on himself made wood a good thing.

I tried not to feed him too many, but how can a humble old mother know what constitutes "too many" in this case? Fire eats more than babies do, in my experience, even if the fire is a baby. I decided on, as an initial serving, only a small handful to give him. They served the apparent purpose of both entertainment and growth, as Roy would hug them close, giggle at their combustion in his arms, and even swallow a few whole. A bit upsetting and worrying to see, but I tried to keep an open mind: even Bubbles had quickly shown how much she was not a human. I shouldn't strictly expect Roy to behave like a "normal" kid -- nor should I even think anymore that only humans are "normal!"

Roy quickly proved a little insistent on me feeding him more woodchips, getting upset when I wasn't giving him unfettered access to the bag, even hiccuping flames if I hesitated long enough, and I'll admit: I may have spoiled him. I was told to be careful by the note, but I couldn't know for sure what all that applied to -- was feeding him the real danger, or was it starving him? And, well, I suppose at some point I figured Roy would know better than me if he ever got too full for more, if fire could ever be "full" of its fuel, so in time I wound up feeding him the whole bag of woodchips. (It was only three quarters full at best, anyway.)

I noticed about halfway through the bag's contents that Roy had visibly grown, as well! Perhaps from adding mass to himself in the form of the wood ashes, in addition to the chips he actually ate whole? Whatever the case, it occurred to me that his tummy had grown to about six or seven inches across, looking to have nearly doubled in size. Contrary to this change, his arms and legs had remained about the same, now looking a bit small on his larger body. Or perhaps it was a trick of the eyes, and they simply hadn't grown as much in proportion? Either way, I hoped I could keep him small enough as not to exceed the width of his pan. So long as I rationed "food" with him, as I had technically done with the half hour or so over which I fed him the woodchips, it seemed more or less possible!

That was the apparent challenge, then: keeping him calm and content enough not to hiccup flames or otherwise ignite my home, but at the same time not feeding him so much that he became a natural inferno. Mercifully, he seemed to emit no smoke, and like Bubbles showed no interest in leaving his tray. If I couldn't handle a little heat in the kitchen now, after all my years on this earth, how could I call myself a proper mother? I pressed confidently on, or as confidently as I could muster.

By the time the bag ran empty, it had fully occurred to me I could not feed Roy woodchips forever. I only had two other bags, not nearly enough to last until night, and it seemed unlikely I'd be able to ration them such that I could quickly get more from the store. I severely doubted I could pour a whole bag in his tray and buy myself enough time for it, never mind how much of a fire hazard that represented! But as he got upset that I was no longer feeding him, I thought to show him the empty bag, perhaps to convince him the food was gone. He instead grabbed the bag itself, quickly igniting it and forcing me to drop it, but he hugged it too! A small but important reminder that things other than wood could burn. I wondered...

Quickly, while he hugged the bag and turned it to ash, I rushed to the garage. It took some digging in the mounds of my husband's dusty old junk, stuff he'd never touch again even if he still lived on this earth, but I found it: an old bag of charcoal.

Roy was thankfully curious enough in my fiddling with the new bag not to get too upset when his disappeared, and soon I was able to give him his new fuel: one lump of charcoal, delivered via the end of a metal spatula.

To my relief, he seemed quite happy with it. Perhaps it was like a gobstopper for him, with how long it lasted? He wasn't very capable of picking up the whole thing with his little arms, but still seemed to enjoy holding it, and occasionally dusting himself with whatever could have stuck to his flaming hands. Hopefully this would do; I wasn't quite sure how fast he burned things, nor how he compared to fires of the unliving variety -- though even that thought gave me pause. Could I be sure anymore that all fire was not alive? Was the fire under his pan truly a plain and unthinking energy, or did it have its own life worth acknowledging too?

I wasn't quite sure if I could handle all water being alive, so I hoped for simplicity's sake these babies were the exception, and not the rule.

Regardless, time passed faster once I had found the charcoal. Perhaps not as fast as with Bubbles, but Roy proved relatively easy to occupy so long as at least one lump sat in his pan, and if I did it right I could put two in, far enough apart that he couldn't focus on them all at once. I wondered at one point if it would be okay to cook meat in his pan, and if he would be interested -- but he hadn't liked the bologna I let him sniff, so even without other concerns, perhaps that would just be a little rude. I had other burners on my stove, after all; his fire wasn't a desperate commodity.

That's how it occurred to me, after I had the time to finish breakfast: I still had those blue chicken legs in my fridge! I seemed to have much more time to myself, and few ways to safely or meaningfully interact with Roy. I had at one point tried patting his back with the spatula, but he just seemed to be a little annoyed by that, hiccuping a bit. My oven mitts weren't fireproof, so hopefully his parents could give him any physical attention he might require once he went home.

...A thought occurred to me then. Were his parents necessarily the ones who gave him to me?

I didn't mean to assume anything untoward, but I had to wonder: was he from an alien species that spanned the elements, hot and cold alike? Or was he perhaps an orphan -- or was Bubbles, or even the both of them? Their biology, if that was even an applicable word, differed so much from what little I knew that I couldn't be sure whether they were related, or if that was at all possible. Was that racist?? I still could barely wrap my head around their unusual methods of transport, with these beads and trays. Surely I wasn't watching them be born, when they came out of these beads -- was I? They both had seemed much more capable of coordination and movement, not to mention sitting up, than any newborn I'd ever seen. I only wished I could actually speak with whoever left them with me, just once, just to ask them about these things.

Oh! I felt silly for not thinking of it earlier: I could write them a note, in turn! Clearly they knew how to read, even if not very well. They seemed to either be too fast for me or prefer their anonymity, but surely I could communicate with them this way? The only trouble might be getting Roy not to burn up any note I composed or left near him, and if I could pass that hurdle surely we could maintain a proper correspondence! I'd have to ponder how best to word it, though; something else to consider before night fell.

And fall it indeed did, sooner than I meant to let it! I barely had the presence of mind with all the novelty of today and yesterday rattling in my mind to eat lunch, especially being that I planned on a jelly-meat dinner. Though he continued to grow bigger, in a manner some might describe as worrying, Roy remained relatively content and unbothersome in his tray. His final size -- or his belly's, anyway -- must have reached a foot and some change across, his arms, legs, and head completely tiny by comparison; they definitely had not grown at all. I say that only "some" might see this as worrying due to the simple fact that Roy's steady growth was quite in line with Bubbles's, and his temper never worsened with his volume. Given that, I was quite free to compose a note at my leisure, and prepare a nice meal for myself with little trouble.

I wrote what I hoped would a comprehensibly simple letter for his caretaker, attempting to mimic their own notes, in hope of being better understood:

"please look! one ask for you: may we speak? in person, please would help me much!"

I made sure to write in large block letters across the whole of a sheet of printer paper -- another of the garage's bounties -- and even thickened the lines of each letter with pen once I had outlined them in pencil. It took some time, especially as not to cramp up my hands with fast work, but I had plenty to spare.

As for the chicken, their final release from the fridge came at relatively simple means. I had no idea how best to dress them, and so hoped a small splash of basic oil and spices would do. I baked them as I would any drumsticks, on a pan with the aforementioned fixings. Despite my fretting and helicoptering near the oven, peering in the window more times than there were minutes to bake, they caused no disaster. They did not melt defiantly despite their jelly softness, did not explode or change size unpredictably, did altogether nothing out of the ordinary that I could see! A blessing, I supposed, that they were similar enough to earth birds (or at least the earth birds I was familiar with?) to cook like them too.

I'm no food critic, but for any measure I could imagine, they tasted quite good! Their sweetness was more than apparent in the finished product, accented rather than replaced by the spices I used. They had even attained a certain level of crispiness on the skin, albeit one closer to a gelatinous film than that of an ordinary drumstick. The texture was perhaps a bit gooey, but not rubbery like I expected; it was softer than a gummy candy, but only just, and practically a melt-in-your-mouth sensation. The bones still being as soft as they were, I felt I could have eaten them too, though I wasn't quite so bold as to try.

The exact nature of their taste isn't one I have nearly refined enough of a palate to paint, but after only a single bite I still couldn't help but imagine some sauce had been employed after all. Their sweetness particularly reminded me of an apple's, not quite so crisp as the kind you'd pluck fresh from a tree, but still with a soft tang, almost as present as what seemed to be the normal taste of cooked poultry. Whatever the cause, it was undeniably some of the most tender and juicy meat I'd ever eaten, and were it not for my little stomach, I'd've happily gobbled them all up that same night I cooked them!

Leftovers, then; the two I couldn't finish would make a fine breakfast on the morrow.

I tried one last time before putting them away to get Roy to show any interest in food, thinking perhaps these alien fowl might appeal to him, but even cooked he just hiccuped at them. Just as well, I supposed! He can have his char if that's all that strikes his fancy.

When he began to drift off, as Bubbles had, I deduced with some short mental math that Roy had used up maybe two lumps of charcoal for every hour I'd had him. I couldn't have used even an eighth of the bag I'd fed him with; hopefully a good sign if more fire babies would be entering my home. But with his rest came a decidedly fine hour in the early night to wait for his caretaker. I considered once again how best to transport an alien baby without waking it.

He was at least much tamer now, his ashy and glowing body seeming more like the embers of a wooden bowling ball than an alien child, and in fact he had also lost much of his form in a similar manner to Bubbles. Only, instead of tentacles or blobs, his fire seemed to retreat almost entirely inside his belly, that shell of char maintaining only a very slight blanket of soft flame. He nearly looked cool enough to touch, but I couldn't risk it; a body literally made of ash seemed fragile enough, and while Bubbles had been resilient to poking, frankly there was no obvious benefit. I just hoped that his parents, guardian, or otherwise could give him everything he needed, if not physical love then whatever substitute he should require.

The burner had been off for ten minutes before I finally ventured to lift his pan, surprised only slightly by its weight -- his body looked like ash, but really had that bowling ball heft to it. Thankfully, perhaps by grace of being slightly flat on the bottom or sticking slightly to the pan, Roy did not roll in my handling, and I was able to bring him to the front door. I brought the note as well, realizing well in advance how possible it was that if I left Roy alone to go get it, he might very well disappear by the time I returned.

In fact, it wasn't until I took a chance on ducking my head inside my front door again, walking only a few paces before coming right back, that he was replaced by a note. It was naught but a couple of seconds that I had been gone; this must have been someone who really knew how to book it! I noticed the note I left had not disappeared with them, and feared they had disregarded it. Then I realized just how long their own note was:

"hello whoa ! good good work ! ! next day pay : like before oh . paper ? to read . hold please oh hm not now sorry lots of do ! sorry maybe a day , safe until day ! bye thank !"

Had they written all that while I was inside? They couldn't possibly have read my note and formed a coherent (by their standards) response to it otherwise. Just how fast were they, anyhow??

I supposed it didn't matter much; they obviously still wanted nothing to do with being seen. If I was meant to coax them out of that shyness, it would just have to be a matter of time and trust, like with anyone. I decided to take what pride I could in, apparently, my "good good work" caring for Roy. The strangeness of it all aside, never mind the unique safety concerns, it had been much less difficult than ordinary children. No diapers to change, relatively minor upkeep... just to keep myself fully occupied, I almost considered writing a second note to ask for two babies at once, assuming two more were available. Was one more even a guarantee?

Well, one way to find out.

Come the third day, I was allowed to finish my breakfast before a new knock came, heralding now a silvery metal tray with a yellow cube-shaped bead, and a squat round tin that housed, of all things, cooked slices of ham! The smoky aroma was instant, and made me wish I hadn't just finished breakfast for what a fine addition they would make. They were apparently the spoils of an alien pig as well, each a deep burgundy rather than the gentler pink of ham, even cooked. A fine way to color-code rewards for childcare, I supposed! They did not seem to have the same jelly-like floppiness to them as the chicken, no more than ordinary ham is floppy. What they did have was a strikingly uniform roundness to them, each just smaller than the one beneath it, for what must have been a dozen of them. I imagined the slices might have made a dome shape had there been enough of them, instead of cutting off at only a couple inches tall of a stack.

What sort of curious farm did this person own or manage that it had all these strange beasts on it, never mind in such quantity as to make payments out of them? I hoped we could have a chance to talk soon; we didn't have to sit down for a spot of tea, but to at least touch bases wouldn't be too much to ask, would it?

I checked the note under the new bead:

"day pay ! good eat fair new one : gold ! plug use toys ? ok . full care ! ! ! night return thank !"

It just didn't get any more comprehensible than this, huh? I honestly might never have figured out what it meant if not for this tray's unique addition.

Where Roy had a handle to his tray, this one had more of a short cord, and indeed a little plug on the end of it. It was all silvery, like the tray, but the cord was flexible, and the the base of the plug felt softer than the tines. Honestly, with how perfectly it looked to fit in an electrical outlet, and how passive these babies had been, I wondered why it was that my help was even necessary. Not that I wasn't happy to have something to do, mind! And of course, several notes now had mentioned being busy, or something to that effect. Perhaps that was all it was, and as small of a gesture as this was to me, it was huge to them.

I accepted the new bead, at any rate, though I didn't plug it in until I'd stored the freshly gotten meats and, as a precaution, donned a pair of rubber dishwashing gloves. I never much was one for electronics, but I knew some of the basics, and sticking something that appeared to be pure metal into an outlet was, at the very least, not something to do unprotected. Rubber was a good insulator, or so I'd heard, and the things lying around my home hadn't failed me so far!

I prepared a nice spot on the kitchen counter in front of the outlet previously reserved for the toaster, a task made easier by my clearing them for Roy, and plugged the darn thing in.

Immediately, there was a loud pop, and it was so surprising I thought the jolt that ran through me was actually a surge of electricity. Nope; merely my own shock at the latest peculiar transformation these beads had to offer!

Out of the bead, something no bigger than a die you'd find in a board game, a thin metal wire had begun protruding itself, and was apparently protruding quite fast! It spun in a tight circle, looking like a spring being made by this tiny cube, only now and then the spring would quiver in this way or that. It might stretch momentarily, or squash itself down, or widen the size of its bend and shrink it again. All while still sliding a longer and longer unbroken length from this bead!

Soon it stopped making a single spring and, arbitrarily, started winding in a different direction. The way it moved implied the growth was happening at the tail end of the wire, yet something about the whole process told my eyes it was sliding from the cube as an origin point. An optical illusion? An oddity of an unfolding oddity? I couldn't say. I could only watch as it continued its exotic dance, the wire growing at what must have been a foot a second, maybe faster. Its sheer length had quickly exceeded the apparent capacity of the bead's volume, though that impossibility was nothing new.

I don't know how many times that wire bent and twisted and doubled back on itself, at some point opting not to spiral along anymore and simply begin weaving a complicated mess of itself. At several points I was reminded of steel wool, though this wire was nearly as shiny as the tray. And finally, in only a few minutes time, the shape resolved itself: a little wire-mesh baby!

Its skin, if you could call it that, crackled a bit with a pulsating yellow glow, and I hesitated to touch him even with the gloves on. I called him Zach after realizing I had once again missed my chance to get a name -- was that so much to ask, even from an alien parent? Surely they had names! Surely they had not evolved some ridiculous means of naming that was based on smells or some such nonsense. I thought for a moment perhaps their colors were their names, as listed on the different notes -- but that seemed to make as much sense as naming a baby "human," or "pinky." Possible, I supposed, but not very well sustainable across a species!

I supposed it didn't matter. These babies were each only in my life for a day, and maybe their parents had good reason not to go giving their names out. Never mind the fact none of them had spoken more than a hiccup or a giggle! I could make do with temporary names to give them in my head, even if I'd still grouse about it to myself.

Zach, in my distracted musings, opted to grab me himself, and even through the gloves I felt a soft tingle. I wasn't sure if that was good, bad, or somewhere in the middle, but at least it didn't hurt. It was refreshing, as well, to be able to pick up a solid baby -- though he didn't much like that! He liked his tray, I think, calming the instant I put him back down inside it, perhaps giving me all the insight I needed into why they never tried to leave them.

I wondered if these trays even had names, or if there was a strange store somewhere you could buy them from, never mind their exact purpose. Little nurseries for these young ones, perhaps? Holding pens that held them purely by virtue of being better to sit in than anything else? Oh, what I wouldn't give for there to be a smaller divide between the apparent need-to-know basis I was on, and my nagging curiosity!

To be a bit curt, Zach fell remarkably in line with the behaviors of Bubbles and Roy -- and he wouldn't be the last. What made him grow, I found, was letting him play with little gadgets or gizmos, the sorts of things like... Well, for example, the touch of an unused lightbulb would briefly illuminate it, then fizzle it out and make Zach jitter with what I presumed was a giggle. Holding both ends of a double-a battery in his hands would both drain it and energize him, seemingly literally, and he'd bounce in place for a while before calming down.

He seemed to be sustained perfectly well by the tray and the outlet it was plugged into (though who knew what it was doing to my electricity bill), but was all the happier when he had something to play with, as had the previous babies. And I enjoyed my time with him, just as I had the two before him! I treated him, and Bubbles and Roy, as I had and would again my own children.

But I don't suppose you're here to listen to me crow about the joys of childcare. I don't suppose I'm here just to espouse them, either.

The novelties of these babies didn't end with Zach, though they can be summed up somewhat easily, if you can do without a perfect transcript of my wondering and repeating thoughts between each moment looking after them. After Zach, whose entire body only grew thicker and denser with his metal wires, I was gifted the day after with some shimmering yellow mutton, the taste of which stood my hair on end.

The bead proffered then was a green little thing I covered in soil in its tray, and grew a leafy baby from. She grew better in the sunlight, though enough indoor lighting also did the trick. The reward for her was a spongy green steak, delivered the next day. A translucent bead arrived next: he liked the breeze of an electric fan blowing on him, becoming a cloudy vapor that blew around his tray but still never left it. He grew by having things to thunder and rain on, an ephemeral cherub with the powers of the weather. And for him, the next day I received a meat that I could only identify as such by taste, because it was as clear as glass and in a shape I could not parse.

Each of them reverted to a more primordial form when they slept -- hibernating, perhaps, as they routinely did so at night without fail -- and each of them came without a name, leaving only with the ones I offered them. Zach unwound into a loose ball of wires, nearly twice his size as a baby with the loss of tension. Blossom's leaves unfurled into what was nearly indistinguishable from a small bush, no traces of humanity left in her. Claude resolved into a perfect cloud shape that, mysteriously, followed the tray it floated over even as he slept.

And there were more. Some of them bead colors I had handled before, some of them newer ones again, and indeed, once I put forth the question in a note one night, I was allowed to care for two, three, even four at a time. Once I knew what to do with them, it was nearly trivial, though that never ruined the excitement of getting a fresh batch of babies each day, knowing I'd have to juggle their needs in a dance that really only became demanding when their numbers were so high. And every time, I received color-coded rewards for every baby I cared for, repeat rewards being much the same for repeat beads.

You might have guessed where this is leading by now, but up to this point I still hadn't put two and two together. Under the influence of keeping an open mind, repeatedly being exposed to new babies and therefore assuming new farm animals weren't off the table, I only had a question once. It was several weeks in of caring for novel aliens, after I'd had a chance one night to restock on supplies, some for ordinary babies and some not, like formula and teething rings. Around then, after another blue bead and another bubble baby, the drumsticks I received the next day didn't have that same apple taste I remembered from the initial batch. Never mind my curiosity, I had quite liked the taste, so I addressed this with a note:

"an ask for you what sauce you use before? with blue legs first time tasted like apples"

I got a response appended to that night's note, which read:

"sauce ? use not you did , smelled apple taste yes ? was you not ?"

That puzzled me, at first. The chicken legs I received had definitely come smelling sweet, and nothing I added before baking them used apples. It was nonsense; I would have remembered making, let alone applying, an apple-based sauce to the legs. I would have remembered...

Apple sauce.

I fed Bubbles apple sauce. Had that changed the flavor of the water she produced? I figured, that must be it; I was on the mark the first time, when I imagined she had helped out. I struggled to write a new note for clarification, what had to be a silly misunderstanding, for the next day:

"fed apple sauce once gave water apple taste? you used water for sauce?"

The response seemed more confused than I was:

"what sauce ? ? plain work i did simple , clean ! pay share fair of ! feed apple : you ? go in ! simple you do ? ok . not me"

I continued caring for the babies I received between notes, but something settled in my chest. Something unpleasant. I didn't feel like eating the foods I was gifted anymore, and I didn't feel like waiting any longer on that promised meeting. I told the stranger simply:

"please can we talk in person? would help me greatly i know you are busy just a short chat? please?"

When I ducked my head in after leaving that note, the ritual now for getting an unnaturally fast reply, I was surprised to actually see someone on the porch when I returned. I couldn't know what made this time that I asked different from the various other nights I'd asked, but I was so grateful to finally have a real chance at settling this. I smiled on instinct, but was caught off-guard by her attire.

Everywhere I looked her clothing was thick and multicolored, reminiscent of many small animal pelts carefully sown together, arranged seemingly without pattern though striking in its design all the same. I caught sight of blue feathers, red leather, silvery threads with a gold sheen. Her outermost layer looked to be a large shawl, and I could see nothing on her person that did not look to be handmade, quite possibly by herself.

She stood with a bit of a hunch, in fact leaning heavily on a gnarled cane that looked closer to a long, dried out plant stalk than a tree branch, or anything made from wood. I could not clearly see her face, seemingly shrouded in darkness beneath her colorful hood, yet her eyes were piercing and prominent -- a perfect gray that glinted in the porchlight even as her face, and I noticed now her hands, refused to manifest as anything more than silhouettes. Was her skin naturally this dark?

"We talk?" she asked in a creaky voice that instantly informed me of her seniority to me, and what sounded like a thick accent not from earth.

"Yes. Please," I responded as soon as I remembered my tongue. "The babies..."

"Returned, safe," she nodded, indicating the table on my porch.

"No, not just today's; all of them."


"Are they... where do they go, after I'm done? To their parents? Are you their mother?"

Her eyes betrayed a look of confusion, as if something was cutely illogical in my words. Like one might react to a child asking if the sky ever gets sad, and that's why it cries rain. She shook her head. "No. Not mother. Not more than farmer mothers crops. Farmer parent you think?"

I shook my head. "No, of course not. But that's not--" She harrumphed, but let me continue. "...The babies. What do you do with them?"

She gave me an appraising look, the kind that seeks to understand by sheer force of will, or so it felt under her withering gaze. She sighed. "You simple, yes? It okay. I explain. Bring baby you, yes?" She paused, apparently wanting an answer, so I nodded. "Yes. You raise, night all day. Grows. Yes?" I nodded. "You return. Home, I take. Then busy. Next day you reward--"

"Wait, please; busy with what?"

"What not? All!" She waved her arm not resting on the cane. "Depends color. Colors, now! Busy me, you keep. Much work. I fast though. Any color prepare? Easy."

"You prepare them. How?" I felt I was getting nowhere, but she finally answered me in a way that struck home.

"How you think? Busy! Use base, use knife. Hooks! Hands mostly. Depends color but messy! Always, but. Worth busy yes? Good meat, yes?" She seemed almost proud of herself, a note of satisfaction in her voice. I felt sick.

"The babies... you prepare them into meat?" I could barely get the words out, but she beamed.

"Yes! After grow, prepare! You get, now. I go, now?"

I shook my head. "You... How?"

"How how how? You get, you not?" She rapped her cane on the porch. "What how?"

"The babies! They don't... they aren't chickens, or cows. How can you do that? To turn them into meat, or serve them up?" I meant it as a moral question, but she apparently took it only as a question of method.

"Said! Use base! See baby change, yes? Many change, keep! Grow, change, lots! Day not just; night! Baby not always you baby. Can bird baby. Duh!"

She could have just said "magic" and it would have hurt no less. The babies I cared for, and played with, gave names to... they were just butchered? Fed back to me the next day? Not even that; I had chosen myself to eat them, so stupid with my ignorance.

I barely noticed she had continued. "Can different, yes. Blue, not bird? Sure. Not as good! My bases best. Work master. You get?"

I desperately wished I didn't. My tears choked me, and my vision swam. "Every time? The pay you gave me, the colorful meat -- every time it was from the baby I cared for the night before?"

She smiled at me, simple and sweet, yet coldly vicious and mocking.

"Yes. Each!"