Near the Present Day
The presents were unwrapped and the paper balled into garbage bags on either side of a tree that was leaning to one side after being nearly knocked over three times in the course of a hectic Christmas Day. Unwrangled bits of gift wrap still littered the furniture, the tables were still covered with cookie crumbs and sticky moisture rings, and Edgar Teller's favorite chair had a new cranberry stain on it.
The floors, however, were spotless.
Marshall Teller was at the bottom of his third glass of eggnog.
He scowled at the empty cup, put it down next to the TV, and turned to scowl at the group of three assembled on the sofa in front of him. All three of them shifted uncomfortably, trying very hard not to meet his eye.
"So," he began, mindful of the fact that he was talking to adults and trying very hard not to lapse into the voice he reserved for misbehaving nieces and nephews and the more capricious Eerie spirits. "Obviously, we need to talk about Simon's gifts."
"I know," his sister Syndi said, finally raising her eyes from her own glass. Her gaze shifted toward Dash on her right and Sara Sue on her left. "The three of us probably should have coordinated."
"Not what I'm talking about, Syn." Marshall folded his arms. "I'm talking about how there are certain categories of things we do not give Simon—ever—for very good reasons."
"I know!" said Syndi. "That's why I talked my gadget-happy husband out of getting him the Alexa. I guess I wasn't thinking about this that way. I was thinking about how he needed a new one after the story he told me about the poltergeist or whatever in the living room carpet, and that ours has made life so much easier, especially since the twins, and…well…"
Marshall took advantage of the pause as she trailed off to glare at Dash, whose fault the entire haunted carpet incident had been in the first place. "Dash?"
Dash's face was the picture of innocence. "Yes, Slick?"
"I know you know better. Why?"
"I don't know."
"Yes, you do. I don't know why you do anything, but you usually have some mega-twisted explanation that only makes sense in your own head. What were you thinking?"
Dash huffed. "I was thinking that I wanted to spend what little hard earned money I make on a present for my best friend, Simon. Why?"
"Right." Marshall, who was all too familiar with the look in Dash's eye, braced his hands on either side of Dash's lap and leaned down until they were practically nose to nose. "Lie to me again and you'll be sleeping on an air mattress downstairs until Arbor Day."
Dash squirmed a little, but kept up the defiant look of innocence.
Marshall moved closer still. "And I'll tell my mother all about what really happened to the—"
"Okay, fine! So I maybe sort of almost got caught by Mr. Radford."
Caught. Which meant he wasn't out spending his hard earned money on anything.
"Shoplifting?" Marshall threw up his hands and turned away. "Again? Really?!"
"I have to keep my skills up," said Dash, in a tone of voice that suggested this was eminently reasonable.
"By stealing from our friends and semi-allies? At Christmas? You know, I don't know why I bother trying to convince anyone you ever became a law-abiding—" He broke off, aware that he had bigger things to worry about than having this particular argument right now. "So you almost got caught by Mr. Radford, and…?"
"Grabbed the most expensive-looking thing I could see on my way out the door."
Marshall groaned. "If I find out you're banned for life I'm not talking Mr. Radford out of it this time. Why did it have to be the World O' Stuff? If your criminal tendencies had to come out, why couldn't you go back to, I don't know, defrauding people on eBay again?"
"It was the 24th and there wasn't time to—"
"Great. So not only was it a shoplifted gift, it was a last-minute shoplifted gift. I'm sure your best friend appreciates all the thought and effort you put into these things. I don't know why we keep inviting you to Christmas at all."
"You're the one who married him," Syndi muttered.
"We're not married!" Marshall shouted. "We're—" Then he realized this wasn't the place to have this argument for the twenty-seventh time, either. This was about Simon.
He turned to the third person in front of him, who was staring at him shyly through the curtain of hair that hid half her face.
"Sara Sue, I know you probably haven't been dating Simon long enough to know this," he began gently, "but he has this sort of history with electronics. They have a tendency to develop, for lack of a better word, feelings—"
"Oh, I know."
That brought Marshall up short. "You do?"
"I wanted to get him a pet."
"And you thought this would be the best way to—?"
Sara Sue shrank a little into the couch but held Marshall's gaze. "He won't get a dog because you hate dogs."
Something about the way she said it made Marshall feel like the cruelest and most unreasonable person on the planet. "With good reason! We had a very bad and murder-y experience with dogs when we were kids."
Sara Sue's eyes shifted to Dash and back again. She raised the one eyebrow Marshall could see, countering his argument without saying a word.
Marshall fell silent.
Sara Sue turned back to Dash. "And he won't get a cat because you're allergic."
Marshall snorted. "He's not allergic. He's just scared of them."
There was a gruff noise of righteous indignation from the other end of the couch. "I am not!"
"Yes, he is," Marshall continued, aware they were getting off track, but unable to help himself. "A talking cat almost tricked him into switching places with it in alternate dimension once back in the mid-nineties and he's been afraid of them ever since."
"I'm not afraid of them! I just hate them. They're sneaky little bastards that do nothing but destroy things, shed hair everywhere, and sleep all day."
"Now who does that remind me of?" said Marshall, who'd picked a wad of grey out of the shower drain just that morning.
"Anyway," Sara Sue interrupted. "I knew it was too soon for another jackalope, I didn't want anything that lives in a cage or a bowl, and I know I could just draw him something, but this year, I wanted to get him something real."
Did she not know how much Simon loved her drawings? Judging by the look on her face, Marshall realized, she probably didn't.
"I think—" he began.
He was interrupted by the sound of footsteps. And whirring.
Simon Holmes entered the room, followed by three different models of Things, Incorporated's popular robotic vacuum cleaners. The noise they made was almost a hum of contentment as they trailed behind him, catching up to him periodically and rubbing their small, circular bodies against his shoes.
Behaving like no robotic vacuums Marshall had ever seen.
Simon stopped and the machines slowly began rotating around him, making a louder version of their contented hum as they followed, one behind the other, vacuuming a new circular grove into the already-spotless carpet. After the fourth or fifth rotation, it started to sound a little bit like chanting.
Marshall watched Sara Sue's face as she began to realize what he, Dash, and probably Syndi already knew. They had a problem.
"How are your new…gifts doing, Simon?" Marshall asked.
"Great!" Simon knelt down and scratched the nearest vacuum on the top of its hard plastic case. "This one's Spot. The one with the extra long battery life over there is Mr. Blinky. And this little guy," here he paused to scritch the one with the automatic dirt disposal unit, "hasn't told me his name yet, but I'm sure he will soon."
"You know, you could always return a couple of those, Simon," Syndi suggested gently. "I saved the receipt for ours. I know nobody needs three vacuum cleaners."
"No, I couldn't do that," Simon shook his head as he straightened. "See?" he said, as Mr. Blinky and Spot bumped up against each other and went whirring off in opposite directions. "They're making friends already."
"This is your fault," Marshall mouthed silently at Dash. "You're handling this." In truth, there was plenty of blame to go around, but it was easier somehow to assign it all to Dash than it was to deal with his sister or Simon's girlfriend.
"I was thinking about taking the guys over to Harley's house," said Simon. "Letting them work out some energy. You know he's got all that carpet and it could always use cleaning." Which was a very diplomatic way of saying that Harley Holmes had the sort of carpet that used to be white and was now various shades of grey interspersed with some interesting stain patterns.
Simon glanced toward Sara Sue, and Marshall could see the indecision on his face, his desire for togetherness and moral support warring with his instinct to spare someone who had more than enough dysfunctional family issues of her own from dealing with his brother any more than she had to.
"I'll come with you," Marshall offered.
Simon beamed. "Thanks! That'd be cool of you."
Marshall faced the three on the sofa again. "Why don't you three finish thinking about that thing we were discussing, and we'll handle it when I get back, okay?"
He moved toward Simon, then jumped back as two of the robot vacuums suddenly moved to intercept him, one of them nearly rolling over his foot.
"Sounds good, Mars," said Syndi, warily.
"What thing?" Simon asked.
"Nothing. Just a mess that needs cleaning up," said Marshall. "Not," he added quickly, "anywhere on the floor."
Simon seemed a little confused, but shrugged, kissed Sara Sue—earning a few revs from the vacuums that to Marshall's ears sounded almost angry—and went to get his coat. His new pets trailed behind.
Marshall followed at a careful distance.
"At least when he takes over the world with his robot army, he'll leave clean floors in his wake," he heard Dash mutter.
Given the state of their floors at home, Marshall had to admit this wasn't the worst that could happen.