Kel couldn’t find Mama anywhere.
Not in the garden on the sunny hillside which lay nestled behind the small glittering dome of the second story of their house, and not in the bright woods in the valley below.
Kel pulled the rounded front door open, set a gathering basket down on the shaped wood bench just inside, and called out… but there was no response.
Kel shrugged out of their red cloak and hung it by the door.
(“To make you easy to find!” Mama always said when she put the cloak on Kel in the morning, holding the fabric together until it stayed.) Mama was not there to coax the fabric open, so Kel had to work the cloak up and over their head to get it off.
The house felt empty. Cozy wood and plush fabrics everywhere didn’t make up for the stillness. The usual life it buzzed with was silent in her absence. The curved walls and open spaces—that normally wrapped around Kel like a just-right blanket—felt rigid and wrong.
“Mama!” Kel called again, climbing the stairs to the second floor, looking down over the ground floor one more time, as if Mama might be hiding against a wall.
Kel dropped their backpack in their bedroom—a wide wedge of the upstairs dome—and then went back out to check Mama’s room.
The arched door was open, which was not unusual.
The closet, however, was slightly ajar, which was most unusual.
Curious, Kel pulled the closet open and then yelped in surprise when a small glittering blue thing tumbled out, bumbled across the room, bumped up against the opposite wall, skittered a little up the curved side of the room, and then flipped over onto its back, dozens of tiny sparkling legs waving helplessly as it rocked haphazardly on the rounded upper surface of its back.
Kel laughed in spite of themself, as they went over to the thing and picked it up, saying, “You’ve gotten yourself into a pickle!”
The thing was large enough around to need both of Kel’s arms wrapping around it, but small enough that it wasn’t that heavy. Kel turned it over. “What are you?”
Small stalks stuck up around the rim of the small domed creature, waving and twisting as Kel picked it up, but when Kel spoke, every stalk twisted and pointed at Kel, as if they were looking Kel up and down.
When a voice came out of the small domed thing, Kel was so surprised that they dropped it onto its many legs.
“‘ellllll come,” it said in an oddly fuzzy voice and then skittered back into the closet.
Curious, Kel followed.
image © Craig P. Burrows, used with permission
The closet had always curved around the edge of the room, Mama’s extra clothes hung on hooks, and a few things they rarely used tucked neatly away along the wall.
It had not always had a small square door at the back of it, as if the wall of the closet itself was ajar. The creature skittered through the doorway.
“Wait for me!” Kel trotted through the opening.
Kel’s eyes adjusted quickly to the dim tunnel as they wondered why—how— there was even space behind the closet. Mama’s room was at the back of the dome, up against the hillside. The only reason the closet was there at all was that a window would be impossible.
Kel was familiar with the old stone of the mountain behind the house, and the idea that it contained tunnels was as startling as if someone had told Kel that the stars could talk. The rock simply was. One climbed it until the air got thin to look at the rich sparkle of the night sky. One did not go into it.
But as improbable as the tunnel was, Kel was curious and so followed the little thing up and in, trailing fingers along the odd surface of the tunnel wall.
There was light—diffuse, impossible to pinpoint—and once Kel’s eyes fully adapted to the darker tunnel, the wall gleamed deep orange and dark gold, in regular segments that made a subtle texture under Kel’s fingers.
Mama had once shown Kel a book full of strange animals from far away and long ago, and one of them had had skin like this wall.
“Snake,” Kel murmured, walking just fast enough to keep up with the little scurrying thing. “If a snake was hollow, this is what it would look like. How did someone put a snake inside my mountain?”
“Nnnnake,” echoed the thing in front of them.
The tunnel twisted and turned and turned back on itself.
“What are you, little bug?” Kel asked as they walked.
“‘ot bug.” Its voice rasped, nasal and strange.
“You’re not a bug?” Kel asked.
“‘Ot bug not bug bot bug,”
Kel stepped forward just fast enough to pick the thing up again to look it over. “Are you hurt?”
“O’en, ot ug bot bug.” All the little stalks were pointed at Kel again, and one arched over to touch Kel’s hand.
Kel laughed, confused. “Open? Broken? Okay?”
“Ow,” the thing said matter-of-factly. ”Bot bug.”
“I think I’m going to call you ‘Bot Bug’ for now,” Kel said.
Something poked Kel sharply through the little stalk. Kel yelped and dropped the creature. Blood welled up from the pinpoint prick, and Kel stuck their finger in their mouth as the bug scurried onward.
“I can call you something else!” Kel called after it. “You didn’t have to poke me!”
“ ‘el come,” the bot said, and started moving faster.
“I’m coming,” Kel said, and continued to climb further up, further in.
By the time they’d been climbing for an hour, Kel had begun to regret leaving their pack in their bedroom. Worry over Mama warred with growing impatience. Kel had looked everywhere else, and this seemed the most likely of unlikely places, but they had no idea how much farther the tunnel would go, and the little bug wasn’t stopping to rest.
“How far is it?” Kel called out to the bug, who was starting to pull away as Kel’s enthusiasm flagged.
“‘Ot far, Kel come.”
“You did say my name!”
“Ssssssay ot o’en.”
“Well, I haven’t met any other bugs that could talk, so it’s still pretty impressive,” Kel said. “Can I rest?”
It skittered to a stop. “Est.”
Kel sat on the curved floor of the tunnel, and the bug sidled closer.
“You’re not going to poke me again, are you?” Kel asked.
All the stalks pointed at Kel. “Oh poke.”
“No poke. Fix.”
One of the stalks bent toward Kel.
Kel muddled that for a moment, and then warily stuck the finger that had been poked out towards the little bent stalk.
“Touch?” Kel reached a little farther, and touched the stalk. It glowed briefly, and something cool touched Kel’s finger.
Kel stared at the finger, which seemed to have acquired a subtle sparkle. A moment later, the small annoying ache from the jab disappeared.
“You fixed it!” Kel said.
“Fix. Bot. Kel.”
“Did you fix me or did I fix you?” Kel asked. “Are you Bot?”
“Yes,” Bot said, and skittered back up the tunnel. “Kel come.”
“What about my other questions?” Kel called as they climbed to their feet.
“Yes.” Bot said. It waited until Kel had started moving before it resumed moving.
Kel ran their hands over short, tight curls in frustration. “Start making sense, Bot.”
It wasn’t too much longer before the snaky tunnel turned into a grey stone ramp, like the rock of the mountain, but without the shimmer. And at the top of the ramp, a heavy, square door, which slid back without help when Bot came near.
“So much metal,” Kel mused, passing through it into a room like nothing they’d ever seen before. No curves, no wood, no growing things. Dim lights in rows along the edge of the floor. Hard corners. Greys and blues and slick black like water on stone.
Kel called out, “Mama? Are you here?” but there was no response.
Kel walked curiously around the odd room, and then reached out to touch the smooth, dark table with a play-roughened brown finger.
A bright spark glowed between their fingertip and the surface below, and the whole room came to life, lights on every surface.
Kel squeaked. Bot whirred and slid into the wall. “Wait, come back,” Kel called, but the bot was gone.
“Where did you go?” Kel asked the air. “Mama? Are you here?”
The wall opposite the door lit up with a face Kel had never seen before, and it said, “Mama is not here.”
Overwhelmed, Kel ran.