The weight of his father’s hand against his shoulder supporting his tiny frame seemed to be small encouragement. Across the doorway to his home was a hostile kind of face he never had much exposure to — a scowling, fox-like face, thoughtful yet aggressively sharp in every detail, belonging to a girl who looked to be no older than himself.
“Hey, relax,” his father tried to say in his most reassuring tenor, the petrified child gripped like moss against his leg, “This is going to be your new little sister, Aoife. There’s nothing to be scared of. Try saying hi.”
The frightened, bespectacled boy waved his hand awkwardly as the girl glared daggers back, offering a loud hiss in return. As if confronted by a wild animal, he stole his hand back with a jolt, tucking himself further behind his father’s leg.
“Well, that’s not the worst we’ve seen,” he joked to the haggard woman behind the girl, “Are those all of her belongings?”
“Yes,” she said cheerily her tone in distinct contrast to her looks, “She hasn’t got much in the way of clothes, so as we’ve discussed earlier, you may wish to visit a store sooner rather than later.”
The boy peered back out and noticed her dress for the first time. Plain, ill-fitting, they were obviously hand-me-downs. He felt very self-conscious in the nicely ironed shirt and overalls his mother had made him wear that morning. If only she were here right now.
“That’s not a problem,” the father replied, “Thank you so much for dropping her off. I understand that it was quite inconvenient to arrange something like this. My wife takes the car to work, and with that new law…” he trailed off.
The woman laughed, “Yes, yes. It’s not a problem. She’s certainly a special one. I was willing to pull a few strings and call in a few favors for her. No one else was willing to take her until now. Was Solomon the same way?” The woman smiled down at the half-hidden boy named Solomon.
His father rubbed his head delicately, “Same way… you know, maybe so. He was utterly terrified of people, but he’s gotten so much better. Aoife might not be so different. She just expresses it in a different way. Oh, but those are the papers I need to sign, right? Please, come in. There’s no need to do that at the door.”
Aoife entered first, practically sniffing the air, brushing past both Solomon and his father as if in disdain.
“Hey, buddy,” his father whispered as he bent down to Solomon’s ear, “Can you go show Aoife to her room? It’s the one we painted together, remember?”
Solomon nodded with an unsure expression. Aoife glanced at his direction with a bored one. The woman added reassuringly, “It’s okay, hon, go check out your new room.”
As the children made their way up the staircase, the adults left to continue their discussion in the kitchen. “So she’s just like him then?” the father asked once he was sure they were out of earshot.
“Engineered and abandoned,” the woman noted with an alarming resignation, “At first it was a tweak here or there, and now we have these super human children being discarded because they aren’t quite perfect. Have you heard of the news just today?”
The father sighed, “I heard another gene lab got busted in Portland.”
“Actually the same lab that Aoife came from.”
“You’re kidding,” the father leaned in, “Were they able to track down her parents?”
“They only track the parents if there’s a benefit. In the end, rescuing children just make for good headlines. Then, they’re left forgotten. Just look at Solomon. I’m guessing his biological parents are just like the rest and want nothing more to do with him.”
Solomon tried to pretend not to hear as Aoife inspected her new room. It was decorated in a way that seemed to befit a normal seven-year-old girl, but she found it condescending. “Hmph,” she grunted as she tossed a stuffed sheep back onto the neatly made bed it had been resting on, “Show me your room,” she barked at the boy.
“O-okay,” Solomon said as she brushed past him again into the hall way. He followed closely by as she barged into his room heedlessly. It was decorated in a similar layout with the same little sheep doll resting against his bed frame. The furniture itself were a little more utilitarian, but not by much. However, one thing did seem to catch her eye.
She walked over to a picture frame, picking it up with both hands. Inside was a photograph of Solomon playing at the park with his adoptive father. The two seemed comfortable with each other. Next to it was a picture book.
Solomon walked over to her, suddenly reminded of what his father had told him before today. There would be a girl coming who needed lots of love because she didn’t receive a lot from the people around her. He should be nice to her until she learns how to be nice, too. “That’s me and my dad on my birthday,” Solomon explained pointing to the picture.
“Do you love your dad?” she asked in a quiet tone, gripping the picture frame.
“Yeah, he’s really nice.”
“Do you listen to everything he says?” she asked again. “Because that’s why he pretends to love you.”
“Um,” Solomon began to say when she suddenly dropped the picture frame, cracking the glass. “Oh no!” He rushed over to pick it up to inspect the damage. “Why did you do that?”
“Oops,” she shrugged with a smirk, “Sorry.”
Solomon had no idea what to do. His brain seemed to race to find the proper answer, but he looked down at his father’s beaming face in his hands. “It’s… fine. You didn’t mean to do it…” The words could barely come out.
His father sighed as he sipped a cup of hot tea at the kitchen counter, “When Solomon first came home, he had an awful temper. Meek and mild as a lamb most of the time, but he would have these fits of inconsolable rage. My wife and I had no idea how to handle him at first. It’s been five years since, and he’s gotten so much better. You know he’s only in third grade but already reading at a middle school level?”
“That’s what these children are like. When given the proper environment and care, they’ll naturally excel. The institutionalized ones like Aoife… they end up struggling, so finding them homes where they can express their talent and find happiness? That’s what I live for.”
“Yeah, I saw it for myself. Solomon is smarter, faster, stronger than all of his other classmates. He never gets sick. He doesn’t even get tired. If his parents wanted a superhuman kid, they had one, but instead they just… threw him away because of his eyesight? If I ever got a chance to meet them, I would love to give them a piece of my mind.”
Solomon placed the picture frame back onto the drawer, picking up the picture book next to it. He showed it to her, adding, “This was the first book I read with my dad. Do you want to see?”
She snatched it from his hands.
“See,” he said hesitantly, “It’s about a little duckling.”
She began tearing the first page. “Oops.”
“Hey!” he cried, his horror spiking every heart beat into his ears, “Stop that!”
She tore a little bit deeper.
He reached for the book before she could do more damage, but she hopped away with unexpected agility, reaching for the inside corner of the page again. With a slow, loud rip, she continued. Solomon felt dizzy, but behind his thick glasses, his gaze was laser focused on her and the book in her hands.
The haggard woman finished her tea, “It’s always the children that suffer most the ambitions of the adults. It’s something my boss used to say, but every day it rings true. We mess around with their genes, and they become victims of our hubris.”
The father gave a sad smile, “I would do anything to change it, but what’s done is done. All we can do is try our best moving forward.”
“We could cure the world of every illness, but there will always be selfish people. Makes me wonder if we’re not meant to have this much control.”
“I think it’s inevitable. What parent wouldn’t want to prevent an illness for their child? Then if presented the option, what parent wouldn’t want their child to have every advantage available to them? It was never going to stop at curing cancer.”
“So what do you make of these parents then? They treat their own children like household appliances. Having so much control must make them believe that they’re interchangeable. Look at some of the other countries around the world. There’s rumors that China is going to look into warranty programs on their engineered children.” Her otherwise calm demeanor seemed to waver as she punctuated her sentence with cough. “Isn’t it maddening?”
The father nodded in agreement, “It is, but no matter how much things change, I truly believe in the deepest core of my being that the answer is love.”
A resonating thump from above startled both of them. The two adults silently made eye contact and began to walk towards the stairs.
Aoife cradled her nose in her hands, blood slowly pooling in them. The pain made her unable to focus on anything in front of her. Before they had even begun fighting, she had jerked backwards and slammed her own face into the open door, but she was more than ready to pin the blame on Solomon. Her mind started to concoct the perfect scenario to get him into the most trouble.
Suddenly, she heard a familiar rip. Solomon had ripped out the rest of the page and a few more and started to wipe her hands with them. She froze, unable to fully process what was happening. The paper wasn’t particularly absorbent.
Wasn’t this book so precious to him that he was ready to attack her?
He handed her another page, one where a sad, lonely duckling could be plainly visible. “Here, you can stop the bleeding with this, too.” She accepted the page, still in shock.
“Solomon! Aoife! Is everything alright?” His father appeared from the hallway. “Oh my goodness, what happened, you two?”
Aoife stared from the ground up at the man, blood still dripping from her nose, “I… He…”
The woman showed up right behind him, horrified.
The little girl continued absent-mindedly, “We were playing, and I hurt myself. He helped me.”
“Let’s get you cleaned up then,” the father said relaxing his shoulders. “Looks like you need to wash your hands, too, buddy,” he smiled at his son, “C’mon.”
Aoife stood up, still holding her bundle of bloody paper when the woman approached and gently took the scraps from her. She seemed like she knew there was more to this story than what she saw. “I’ll throw this away,” she whispered, “No more trouble-making, hon.”
She nodded as Solomon’s father took her hand.