Jack

Six-year-old Cory tucked her flannel nightgown tight around her bare legs. The old farmhouse was cold. Cory sat on the top step staring down the dark stairway. She listened for any creak of the pine boards that would tell her that her mother was coming. A naked light bulb with a drawstring rocked back and forth in the draft and cast barred shadows of the stair rails along the cracked plaster walls. She licked her lips.

“Mommy, when are you coming up?” she called softly. The bare walls swallowed the sound of her voice.

“Get into bed, Cory,” her mother said. “I’ll be up as soon as I get these pies in the oven.”

Cory didn’t want to go into her bedroom alone. Bad things would get her. That’s what Billy Farkin had said on the playground. Bad things like little girls. Tonight they’ll come for you, Cory. It’s Halloween night. They’ll come for sure. He’d hissed when he said it. She looked back at the dark doorway to her bedroom. A full moon shining through the window silhouetted a leafless tree, casting ghosts of boney branches across her bed cover.

Why was Billy mean to her? She remembered him pulling her swing seat away then squatting in the dirt hollow beneath the swing. Bad things happen on Halloween. Oh yes, they do … and bad things happen to little girls. He’d rubbed his nose on his wrist then pointed that finger straight at her. And they’ll be coming for you, tonight. He’d squinted his piggy eyes and flexed his fingers like claws as if to grab her.

“Mommy, come tuck me in!” Cory shouted, this time hearing her voice echo. No reply came. She wished her daddy was there, but she knew he was at the garage trying to get the car fixed. She wiped her wet cheek and blinked away tears.

Tonight bad things will get little girls.

CREAK, THUMP, she heard something in her bedroom. Cory snapped her head around and pulled her heels close beneath her to jump. A shadow moved. She looked harder. The twisting light bulb lit a corner of her bed. The dust ruffle waved. Behind her bed, a single candle flickered soft and golden from the jack-o’-lantern her daddy had set on the steamer trunk.

“Mommy! Come tuck me in!” Again, there was no answer. Cory stood and edged toward the doorway.

Tonight, Cory . . . bad things will come.

Cory leaned into the dark bedroom, careful to keep her feet in the triangular patch of light beside the door. The wind whistled. CREAK, THUMP, a frosty gust slapped one of the tree’s skeletal branches against the loose-fit single-pane window. SCRATCH, SCRATCH, sharp branch sticks like tiny claws scraped the glass, sending shivers up Cory’s neck.

They’re trying to get in . . . the bad things are coming.

“Cory, go to bed,” her mother called. Cory ran back to the top of the stairs.

“Grandma wants to make pies for Mrs. Jones, too, and daddy’s still in town, so don’t wait up. Crawl into bed. I’ll be up as soon as I roll out the extra pie dough.” Mommy doesn’t know about the bad things, Cory thought, hearing no fear in her mother’s voice.

“Mommy! I’m scared. Billy said . . .”

“CORY! Get into bed. If you’re scared—talk to Jack.” Her voice trailed off to murmurs with grandmother in the kitchen.

Cory tiptoed back to the light triangle in the doorway. The jack-o’-lantern’s candle flickered orange shadows and wafted smells of hot wax and pumpkin. Cory kneeled and looked under the bed. The dust ruffle swayed like an unseen monster, breathing and waiting.

Bad things are there, watching for little feet to come close.

“JACK!” Cory whispered loudly. “Are your there?”

“I’m here, Cory!” The jack-o’-lantern’s flame danced. “Come to bed. I’ll watch for you.”

“Jack, you better help me.”

Cory pulled herself upright, widened her eyes, and took a deep breath. The jack-o’-lantern flared a bright smile that shifted the moon shadows. Cory bolted forward, jumped, and grabbed the smooth comforter. Feet, she thought, feeling the dust ruffle brush her ankles. She curled her legs up behind her before any swift-closing claws could catch them. The comforter pulled loose and began sliding. Cory felt herself slip. Exhaling hard and pulling, she wriggled her way up.

The candle sparked. “Good work, Pumpkin! You made it!”

“Ha! Jack!” Cory turned the edge of the bedcovers back then rolled and squeezed her legs between the cool tight sheets. She pulled her nightie close about her, tucked the covers so nothing could creep under, then propped her head with the pillow.

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“Don’t call me Pumpkin, Jack.”

“Don’t call me Pumpkin, Jack,” she said with a sigh. “I’m a little girl. You’re the pumpkin.” She pointed a bent finger at Jack’s dancing eyes. “I know you are, because I went with Daddy to get you from the pumpkin patch. You were a big orange pumpkin on a curly vine.” She rocked her head as she spoke. “We brought you to the house, and Daddy gave you that big smiley face—just like I told him to.”

“Yes! He did, Cory.” Jack’s candle glowed. “And he put me right here at the foot of your bed to keep the bad things away.”

“Bad things like little girls,” Cory whispered. “That’s what Billy Farkin said.” She looked at Jack beaming beyond the foot of her bed. “How can you help me, Jack? You are little like me—and monsters are big,” Cory swept her arms wide, “this big.”

“Because I’m magic.” Jack’s flame snapped bright.

“Magic? How?”

“Your daddy put magic in me. Remember when he carved my face? He loved his little girl with every stroke. Love is magic.”

“YES!” Cory sat up, raised her arms, and put her hands on top of her head. “And Daddy was laughing, and he said when he was away, Jack would watch over me.’”

“Yes, your daddy was laughing … laughing is magic too, Cory.” Jack’s flame twinkled. “And it doesn’t matter how little you are, not when you have loving and laughing magic.”

A new tear glinted in Cory’s eye. “I wish my Daddy was here. But, I’m real glad he made you for me, Jack.”

“Cory?” her mother said from the doorway. “You still talking to Jack?” Her mother smoothed the quilted bedcover. Leaning close, she framed and kissed her little girl’s face. Cory smelled cinnamon and cloves. “Good night, Sweetheart.”

“I love you, Mommy.”

“Sleep tight! Do you want me to leave the light on in the hall?”

“No, I’m not scared any more.” Her mother left. Cory looked toward the glowing face just beyond her bed. “Good night, Jack.”

“Good night, Pumpkin!” Jack’s candle twinkled.

“You’re the pumpkin, silly Jack. I’m a little girl.”

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Family Pride

“What do you mean, we look good. You look good.” Jackson pointed to his mental imprint projected across the table. “I wasn’t sure you or Galactic Phoenix survived when CANUS was overrun. I barely escaped, but I kept the GP schedule on the calendar just in case. When Sezuia told me my ‘brother’ had reserved the Shigematsu room, I hoped it was you.”

“We had to keep to the original schedule. The starship’s program is hardwired to update in sixty-eight years.” Jackson’s imprint smiled. “That’s how long it will take my program to catch up with it. The update window’s only open for three days; that’s to keep it from begin hacked.” The imprint cocked its head. “I’ve been training for this for ten years and it still sounds crazy.

“You must be ready to leave,” Jackson said.

“I’ll transmit in ninety minutes.”

“How’d the training go?”

“Great. I can repair tech gear and restore any antique from the last century.”

“Mom and Dad would be proud,” Jackson said.

“It’s strange. Remember how we’d hide whenever Dad needed help with the plumbing or gamma shields?” Jackson nodded. “Never thought that’d be my ticket to the stars. A lot of physicists like me applied, but when they reviewed the flight roster they decided what they really needed was a handyman. That’s how I made the final cut. When I arrive at Galactic Phoenix, I’ll have two years to get the old starship online, fix whatever needs fixing, and keep it running until we land on Skolni. By then GP will be over two hundred years old.” He looked at Jackson. “Unless we discover some sort of FTL drive, this’ll be the last time I see you.”

“If we do, my son’ll meet you on Skolni.”

“We have a son?” The imprint’s face twisted. “Does that make me a father … or an uncle?”

“Not yet, but there’s still time. I’m young and Janet’s young,” Jackson insisted. “Do you miss having a body?”

“Not as much as I thought. I still think about our old cravings: food, gin, women … okay, just Janet. But my ego needs have certainly changed, or maybe the engineers deleted that from my imprint program,” he shrugged. “Fear too, all gone. That’s probably part of not having a biological body.” He looked up. “Speaking of bodies, when we land I will get a robotic humanoid body. That’s another advantage to being the GP’s handyman. The other two scientists’ll have to make do with farming and construction equipment until we can build more humanoid chassis.”

“Sounds like you’re still excited about the mission,” Jackson said.

His imprint locked onto his gaze. “It’s everything to me. All I can think about is getting my family safely to Skolni. I feel like every one of those eight billion embryos and seeds are my children. I love them, all of them, every toad, dog, worm, fish, spider, bird, goat, reptile, all the plants, too,” he rolled both hands out, “and all the humans, of course.”

“Do you know whose genes they selected? That data hasn’t come out.”

“It doesn’t exist anymore,” the imprint said, looking down at the table. “Galactic Phoenix was classified. When we evacuated CANUS, all the records were lost or destroyed.” The imprint glanced down at the table’s embedded clock. “Since human survival demands genetic diversity, we think they sent a cross section of the Oslo Gene Bank.”

“Time to leave?” Jackson asked.

“Almost. I’m happy to be going, but I know I’ll miss everything here on Earth. Send regular updates, particularly about my yet-to-be-conceived son.” He frowned. “I won’t get anything until I reach the starship, but then they’ll keep coming for as long as you send them.

“Will do. I’ll send movies and pictures, too,” Jackson said, tearing up. “Thanks for doing this for us. It’s been our dream since we were boys.”

“Send things for the children, too. Anything you can think of. I’ll have about a million kids to raise, and they’ll all want to know about their Uncle Jackson.” His imprint waved and faded. “Take care of Janet for us.”