IT ONLY RAINS AT NIGHT
by Elad Haber
I watched my flower for weeks.
It was an upright twig in the beginning. Beige arms spouted and the trunk grew so thin and tall, it almost fell over. I wanted to help it, to reach out and hold it towards the sun until it could stand on its own, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. Its body was a penumbra, bent in sadness. As I watched over the course of a few days, it righted itself and dark green leaves were born off the strong arms. And from its head, a crimson flower blossomed into life.
The flower spent its short life dancing with the wind and drinking the rain. I never saw it rain. When I was outside, it was always the most perfect weather. In the morning when I came outside everything was wet. Small pools of water napped on the leaves and the low wooden fence.
Over time, the magnificent magenta of my flower’s early days began to wither and darken. I knew its time was running out. The green leaves on its body turned yellow and fell. I thought, if I could pluck the flower, take it inside, put it in a vase or give it a nourishing balm, I could save it.
The flower was located just outside the wooden fence that separated my yard with the World Outside. That’s how my mom and dad always called it: The World Outside. Always with the capital letters as if their height might scare me.
It was only a few feet away. I thought, maybe I could just grab it and retreat? Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal.
I looked back at the house. I knew no one was there, but I checked anyway. I placed both of my hands on the wooden fence and pulled myself up.
The sound was loud and oppressive like heat. It was a kind of buzzing but so quick it shocked me. It seemed to come from inside me or maybe it was just everywhere and it echoed most inside my chest.
I fell back into the yard. Dirt flew up and obscured my vision for a moment.
From the house, the voice of the caretaker, “Charlotte!” it called. “Are you alright?”
I coughed a few times. “Yes, I’m fine.”
“What were you doing?”
“Nothing,” I said. I stood up and slapped my dress with my palms to kick off the dust. “It was an accident.”
The caretaker’s voice wasn’t coming from any particular place. It echoed around the yard like the voice of God. “Do be careful, dear,” it said in its most endearing voice. “Come inside now. It’s time for lunch.”
I looked back at my flower. The magenta circle had brown on the edges that I never noticed before. The color seemed to have faded in the last few minutes. It wouldn’t survive for long.
When I was very young, my mom and dad would tuck me in every night. Sometimes I wouldn’t see them all day, but they would show up at bedtime. The caretaker dimmed the lights to my room and I would wait for them in the dark.
Sometimes they opened the door slowly, letting in splashes of light from the hall. Mom would sit on the edge of the bed and Dad would stand with his hand on her shoulder. She’d lean in so close, I could smell her apple-scented shampoo. She’d whisper, “Sweetie, honey, are you awake?”
Sometimes they were obviously in a rush and threw open the door, letting in an ocean of light. During these times, I would feign sleep. I knew they didn’t have time to read to me or tuck me in. I was a good daughter. I tried to predict their needs and match my behavior.
They were always busy. Dad worked in a firm downtown and Mom oversaw a half dozen charities. Even when they were home, sequestered in their offices on two different sides of the house, I wouldn’t bother them. I asked the caretaker to prepare breakfast. I picked orange roses from the yard and placed them in a tall cup on the tray next to the plate. I brought the trays into their offices as quietly as I could. They would be on the phone or typing on their computer. I’d leave it on their desk, smile, and walk away.
I’ve always been good.
As I got older, the bedtime visits lessened. They still sometimes visited to tuck me in, but never together. I’d ask Mom, “Where’s daddy?” and she’d say, “Working.” Or I’d ask Dad, “Where’s mommy?” and he’d say, “Sleeping.”
And then, one night, neither came to tuck me in. I stared at the door thinking it must be malfunctioning. I thought about asking the caretaker, but decided to wait another few minutes and then another. On and on until daylight.
Finally, I got out of bed and reached for the door. It opened without trouble.
The house was quiet and still. I walked through the halls adorned with paintings of my grandparents and great-grandparents and stopped at every door. I opened the doors just a crack and peered in. No one else was here with me.
I touched a panel on a nearby wall. “Caretaker,” I said to the air, “Where are my parents?”
The cheery voice of the house replied from the panel, “They had to leave on an emergency issue yesterday. They should be back shortly. Would you like me to make you breakfast?”
“Sure,” I said. I ran a hand through my unbrushed hair and headed back to my room.
The house said, “Please choose from the following options: French Toast, Pancakes, Waffles, Eggs Option 1 – Overeasy, Eggs Option 2 – Scrambled, Eggs…”
I spent most of my days in the White Room. I called it that because that was its original form. Like the way you may still call an adult dog a puppy because it was once that.
When I first entered the room, it was like stepping into a cloud. The size and dimensions of the room were skewered by an endless white landscape. Only a small black square near the door called for attention.
School was held in the room every morning. The caretaker would manifest itself in the form of a globe with legs (geography), a tall giraffe wearing a librarian outfit (biology) or some other kind of caricature. After a long and dull morning, a faraway bell rang in slow lethargic clangs indicating the end of a session.
After lunch, I had the freedom to do or explore whatever I wanted.
The caretaker asked me, “Where would you like to go today, Charlotte?”
It was always the same. I said to the caretaker, “Mom and dad, please. Winter.”
The white walls fell away to reveal someplace familiar. The grand living room on the first floor of my house. Snow was visible through the windows. A fire burned in the old stone fireplace. Large ornate chairs faced the fire. I sat down on the carpet in front of the chairs where constructs of my parents sat and drank tea.
I liked to pretend to talk to them together. Even though I hadn’t seen either of them in a long time, it made me happy to think of my early childhood. I asked them the same thing I always did.
“Mommy. Daddy. When are you coming home?”
They shared a sad look. My mother said, “Soon, honey. The situation is volatile. Politically.” She nodded to me as if that one word should say everything.
I asked, “Can I come to you?”
My father shook his head. “No, dear. It’s not safe. You are safest within the house, under the protection of your caretaker.”
I fought the urge to cry. I wasn’t a child anymore. I needed to be strong.
“When can I leave the house?” I asked.
“Soon,” they said. But I didn’t believe them.
I fought back the tears as the bells clanged.
My bedroom was pink. When I was young, I loved pink. I wore pink dresses and all my dolls had to have pink in them somewhere, either pink hair or pink clothes. The last day I saw my mom, I was past my pink phase and so she had bought me a new dress. It was yellow with black dots. I called it my sunflower dress and it was my favorite thing to wear.
When I wasn’t in the white room or sleeping in my bedroom, I was in the yard. I loved the yard even though it wasn’t very big, but it was enough to keep me busy. I talked to the plants and trees, sang them songs about growing up and getting strong. When I saw a plant open and unfurl a stalk of seeds, I picked the seeds one by one and dug holes for them around the yard. I watched as those seedlings became sprouts then plants then trees. My life moved at the pace of plants.
There was a paved path running through the yard in a long S-shape. Using different colored chalk, I drew patterns and made up games. I always kept some chunks of chalk in the wide front pocket of my sunflower dress.
One day, while fiddling with a new plant that wouldn’t stand straight, there was a great rumbling underground. I’d never felt anything like it before. The stalwart trees around me shook and it felt like the ground lost its texture, like it could swallow me up.
The caretaker called, “Charlotte! Come inside!”
I was frozen in fear. Aberrations in my daily life were so out of the ordinary that this new experience startled me to the core. I couldn’t move at all.
The caretaker called again, repeating my name over and over until it stopped mid-syllable.
The world became dark. The bright clear sky of day fell away. I looked up to see a sky full of red clouds. Around me was the lush green yard that I knew so well but beyond the low wooden fence was more darkness. What was usually an endless landscape of green pastures and trees was a barren wasteland. I could see the wrecks of houses and trees reduced to stumps. The ground looked like an ugly shade of brown I’d never seen before. The air stung my lungs and I felt suddenly winded. I closed my eyes and slowed my breathing until it returned to normal, although it still felt hard to breathe.
I opened my eyes and my strength came back to me. I was able to move my legs and I, through nothing but instinct, moved towards the wooden fence and the unknown world beyond.
I realized, too late, that this could be my chance. As soon I picked up my pace, the world lit up again. The blue skies returned and the world beyond the fence became the picturesque landscape I knew so well.
I didn’t stop. Though my lungs burned, I ran towards the fence with the intention of jumping it without touching it.
The caretaker called out: “Charlotte! Stop!”
I ran and then jumped-
Into an invisible wall. I fell back, the wind knocked out of me. This hurt so much more than the buzzing noise. I put a hand to my face and felt the beginnings of a bruise on my cheek. I tried to get up but my back screamed at me to stop.
“I’m hurt,” I whispered.
There was another rumbling, but this time it came from the house accompanied by a mechanical whirring sound like a motor. Two metal arms attached to long cylinders emerged from the ground near the house and picked me up. The cold fingers slid under me and lifted me. It hurt, but I didn’t scream. I cried as the caretaker pulled me back into the house.
I knew every inch of the property. I knew where the paint was peeling on the doorframe in the downstairs bedroom. I knew there was something stuck behind the fan in the second floor bathroom because it rattled when it was turned on. I knew exactly where the border of the yard wouldn’t let me go any further. I knew everything except how the caretaker worked.
It was a computer, I knew that. Computers need hardware. Where that hardware was located, I didn’t know.
In the living room, there were bookcases set into the wall near the fireplace. I took the books down and tried to read them when I was younger, but the pages were glued together and the cover and spine were faded. I often sat near the empty fireplace and thought about my parents. Now, I sat down cross-legged and tried to figure out the caretaker.
There was a slight breeze I never noticed before coming from the fireplace. When I looked closer, I saw a thin sliver of light peeking out of the break. I ducked down and stepped into the fireplace. I ran my hand near the sliver and felt the wall. It didn’t feel coarse like brick but smooth like plaster.
The caretaker’s voice startled me. “Charlotte. What are you doing?”
“I, uh, I thought I heard someone call my name.”
“There is no one there. Please return to your room.”
I didn’t listen. I pressed both hands against the back wall of the fireplace and pushed.
The false wall fanned open revealing a staircase into darkness. The air inside was stale. I descended a wooden staircase and found a switch to a single light bulb in the low ceiling.
The walls were exposed cinderblock and there was nothing but storage here, dozens of boxes with labels like “Living Room” or “Nursery.” The room wasn’t large. There had to be more. I checked the walls for more hidden passageways and searched through the boxes for any hints, but found nothing.
When I went back upstairs, the caretaker chided me for disappearing from its view. Its threats were vague, but no less scary.
I tried to make my investigation look as much like playing as possible.
I tapped on various walls throughout the house looking for hidden rooms. I sang songs while I ran my finger around doorframes and baseboards searching for imperfections. I went into the offices of my mom and dad, both of which smelled like mold, and opened drawers and searched through paperwork.
Every few feet in the house was one of the black screens used to summon the AI. Three of those screens were slightly larger, like control units. I experimented pressing parts of them I had never used before. Nothing.
While the caretaker prepared dinner, I snuck back into the basement. I pressed my ear against the cinderblock walls and listened. I couldn’t hear anything at first and then, in a corner, I heard a low humming like a fan. I pulled a piece of chalk from my dress pocket and drew a flower on that wall.
I sat at the kitchen counter eating a sandwich and watching specialty programming on the large white wall in front of me. These shows, or variations of them, were the same semi-educational programming I’d been watching my whole life. Collections of shapes and colors, math problems, geography and history. There was an interactive mode and a fish-tank mode where the program would play at a leisurely pace.
I pressed on a black square on the counter.
“Yes, Charlotte?” said the caretaker.
I had some questions prepared. I asked it, “Where does my food come from?”
The massive screen changed and began to show a lifecycle of how farm-raised chicken end up on a sandwich.
“No,” I said and the screen froze. “Where does my food come from? You don’t go to the supermarket. Yet there are fresh eggs and milk and meats everyday. How?”
There was a long pause. The caretaker sounded different, colder. “You never asked these questions before.”
“I’m curious,” I replied.
Another pause. “Okay,” it responded. The screen changed again. A wireframe representation of my house appeared. The camera panned into the large kitchen area at the center of the house. There was even a small yellow dot that represented me. Beyond the large white wall was another room with what looked to be cooking equipment and a long tunnel that stretched from this back-kitchen area underground.
The tunnel did not go through the basement where I had drawn the chalk flower. It descended and then curved to avoid that area.
The caretaker explained, “Fresh produce is delivered daily through an elevator system that connects the underground of the property to a central facility nearby.” The camera moved down into the tunnel and then flew downwards until it faded to black. The caretaker continued, “Trash is removed from the premises through the same system.”
I stood up and moved towards the wall. I touched the screen on the back-kitchen area. “I’ve never been in there. Can I see it?”
“You don’t need to worry about that, Charlotte.” I recognized the caretaker modulating its voice to take on an authoritative tone. “That’s what I am here for.”
“I just want to see it. I want to learn.”
Another long pause.
“You said there was a central facility. Are there other houses in the area that it facilities? Other kids like me?”
“Charlotte,” said the caretaker. Soothing now. “You should not worry about things like that. Perhaps you’d like to go play in the yard?”
“Caretaker,” I said, trying on an edge to my voice. “Where are my parents?”
“They will be back shortly.”
“You’re lying,” I shot back. “They’re never coming back.”
“Charlotte, they are coming back.”
“I don’t have that information.”
I was ready with my next barrage. “When can I leave the house?”
“When it’s safe.”
“Safe from what?”
Another pause. I felt exhilarated, like I may be getting somewhere. But the AI just went silent then. I tried pressing on the black squares but no voice emerged. I waited an hour and tried again, but nothing. I walked back to my room and slammed the door shut.
I tried to be angry, but just felt lonely.
The caretaker returned the next day like nothing happened. It woke me with music, made me breakfast, and presided over classes for the day.
After class, I rushed outside to the yard. I breathed in the air, clear and sweet and fake. In my lessons, I learned about natural disasters and other freak occurrences of nature. I looked up at the sky, always bright, always clear. I tried to put my feelings of doubt aside, but I couldn’t. I was a caged animal and though the walls of my prison were invisible, I felt them like an itch on my back.
I sat down on the grass near the wooden fence. I found some pebbles on the ground and threw them beyond my yard. They passed over the fence, where I had hit a wall. I scrounged around for some larger rocks and threw those too with more and more force, testing. All the rocks went over the fence as if there was nothing there.
Maybe it only triggered when something of a certain weight passed over? Or maybe it was controlled by the caretaker?
I got up, smoothed out my dress, and walked back into the house. The caretaker called my name but I didn’t acknowledge. I went to the living room and reached behind the fireplace to open the door to the basement level.
I knew, from experience, that the caretaker would respond if I hurt myself, whether out in the yard or inside the house. It rarely used tactile means to reach out to me, but it did have that option. The question I needed to answer was how far does that capability stretch? Were there areas in that house where the caretaker’s robotic hands didn’t go?
I descended the creaking stairs to the bottom of the basement and slid aside some of the boxes to reveal my chalk-drawn flower. I stepped back from the wall with my eyes fixed forward. I took a breath and ran, shoulder first into the brick wall.
My shoulder screamed in pain and I couldn’t suppress the loud cry from my lungs. I collapsed against the wall, out of breath and wincing. My shoulder felt like it had been drenched in boiling water.
I’m not sure how long I sat there in the dark, but it took me a long time to get up. My right arm hung limp on my side as I stumbled up the stairs.
I had to be careful. The caretaker was ever present, but I learned its patterns. When it was busy preparing meals or doing laundry or setting up for class in the White Room, I could escape into the fireplace. I snuck gardening tools from the yard into the basement and chipped away at the wall with the chalk flower.
I no longer played the role of the good girl. When the caretaker would open a slot in the kitchen and unveil a meal, I’d shout and throw the tray on the floor. I went into one of the upstairs bathrooms and broke light fixtures, kicked at the toilet until it broke and bashed in the glass of the shower. The caretaker sealed off the room and began some kind of mechanical repairs. While it was pre-occupied, I ran to the basement and scraped and clawed at the wall to try and get to my keeper’s heart.
That night, the caretaker sounded sad.
“You’re acting different,” it said. “What’s wrong, Charlotte?”
“What do you care?”
“I am your caretaker. You are my responsibility.”
“I’m fine!” I shouted. “Leave me alone!”
I ran to my room. It looked the same as it had when I was child. Pink everywhere. Dolls. Toys. It all made me angry, like it belonged to someone else, some happy child that wasn’t me. I didn’t even remember that part of myself.
I went to work destroying the room. The caretaker called my name, begged me to stop, but all I could hear was the rushing sound of blood.
It took months.
By the time I was almost through the cinderblock wall below, the house above was in shambles. The caretaker couldn’t keep up with my rampages. The portraits of my family that had adorned every wall were tattered, their frames reduced to splintered wood. There were huge round chunks of wall missing. I had figured out that the large regal chairs in the living room made good weapons and threw them against walls until the chairs fell apart.
The kitchen was a mess of broken plates, open walls and water that dripped from the ceiling. The walls protecting the room near the kitchen were extra thick. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t break through.
The caretaker didn’t speak much these days. It still went through the motions of preparing food and trying to repair the damage I had done, but it was half-hearted. I was just too much for its programming. Lesson learned: Computers can’t handle teenage girls.
In the basement, I had created a Charlotte-sized hole in the wall using shovels and pick-axes. I knew I was close because the sound of the equipment in the next room was loud. I worked for a while without a break, my body lost in a thick layer of sweat, when one thrust of a pick-axe sliced into the wall and got stuck. I shimmied the axe out of the hole. A green light emanated from the next room along with the hum of machines.
Energized, I widened the hole using more tools and finally got on my butt and kicked at the hole with all my might until it was big enough for me to crawl through.
I stepped onto ground I’d never stepped on before. The room was exactly what I had thought, a control center for the caretaker. One wall was just camera feeds, so many in every nook and cranny in the house. They must have been tiny because I never saw them. A few were just static, victims of my rage. There were probably twenty in the yard. I hadn’t been out there much lately. From the distorted view of the feeds, I saw weeds overtaking plants and trees I had so carefully planted.
There was one large screen surrounded by flickering lights. The screen blinked to life and words appeared: The caretaker’s inner thoughts.
Charlotte, please don’t hurt me. I only tried to protect you.
I realized I still had the pick axe in my hand. In the screen, I could see my reflection. I looked terrible. I hadn’t bathed in weeks and my face and hands were grey from dirt and sweat. I swung the pick-axe back and prepared to destroy the screen and everything else in the room.
I let the axe fall to the floor.
“Where are my parents?” I asked the screen.
There was no activity on the screen for a minute, then, a video played. It was grainy and dark with no sound. The camera was at a sharp angle looking down. There was a large black fence in the foreground and a driveway in the background.
More words displayed above the video image.
Your parents tried to retrieve you ten years ago. But the world was still unsafe. So I stopped them.
On the video, two figures approached the fence. They were wearing large suits like a beekeeper might wear. Through the darkened glass of their faceplates, I recognized my mother and father. They pounded on the fence and looked like they were shouting at something unseen. A light appeared from near the camera and my parents froze. They turned to flee but not quick enough. Bullets showered over their backs and they fell to the floor in a pool of blood and their ripped beekeeper suits.
I gasped and looked away. I saw the axe on the floor and I reached for it, but then stopped. I was tired of being angry. Maybe I hated the caretaker, maybe I hated my parents for leaving me. Maybe I had enough destruction for one lifetime. I just wanted to go somewhere else. Somewhere real, if any such place still existed in this world.
I searched the room until I found the control panel for the elevator system. A horizontal hatch slid open and inside, a platform that smelled faintly of garbage.
My body shivered in a kind of excitement as I stepped onto the platform. I had to crouch and sit down to fit. After a moment, the hatch slid closed and began moving, slowly than quicker and quicker, down a long dark shaft. The floor and walls shook like an earthquake and then, in one swooping motion, the platform reached a kind of cruising speed, evened out, and light poured in from all sides.
The platform hung suspended on a rail system with nothing blocking my view. We were underground. There was an endless series of tubes and tunnels and rails going off into the distance. Each platform held food encased in frosted bins or garbage in large black sacks. Above, I could see portals indicating other houses. Maybe other kids?
I shivered again, thinking of others in my situation. Who would I meet? What kind of adventures waited for me?
Off in the distance, I heard bells clang in that slow, dreadful, and familiar sound.
Elad Haber is originally from New York City and lives in Miami, Florida, with his wife and daughter. This is his second appearance in Strange Constellations; the first was the May 2016 story “Do What You Desire“. You can learn more about him at his author site: http://eladhaber.wordpress.com