Just Right

John Scalzi has posted the first chapter of The Android’s Dream on his website, with the following notice.

Happy March 12! As you all undoubtedly know, March 12 is the day that Coca-Cola was first sold in bottles, which means, for a Coca-Cola fiend such as myself, it’s pretty much a national holiday. As you all are no doubt also aware, it is customary on Coca-Cola Bottling Day for science fiction authors to celebrate by decanting an excerpt of their latest work for their thirsty audiences.

I had been thinking about posting the first story I sold, because I’m fond of it and don’t think there’s a reprint market for it. So in honor of March 12, I decant “Just Right”, my first sale, for you. I sold this to the First Line. I should warn you, it’s not genre fiction so may not qualify for the festivities.

Just Right

“Why are you always so cynical?” Celia asked, as her husband came through the door and headed for the toaster-oven again. She could not help laughing a little while Lou tried to balance his bagel, a cup of coffee and make sure that he had turned the toaster-oven off. Turning back to the cupboards, she set their son’s Cat in the Hat bowl on the table.

Lou shook his head. “I’m not cynical.” He checked the switch again. “I’m cautious. I just wanted to make sure I turned it off after I toasted my bagel.”

She laughed. “Which is fine, love, but you’ve checked it already.”

“Do you know how many houses burn down each year because of toaster-ovens?”

“And this isn’t cynicism?”

“Not at all. A cynic believes in the worst of human nature. If I were cynical I would worry that you had turned it back on just to bother me.”

“But it’s not on.”

“No.” He looked at the dial and fiddled with it. “It’s not.”

Sliding her arms around his waist, Celia whispered, “The house isn’t going to burn down.”

He half-smiled. “I know.” Lou pulled her against him, and she relaxed against the comforting pressure of his arms. “What are you and Mason going to do with your first day of summer break?”

“I thought I’d start by making breakfast instead of letting the poor boy fend for himself.”

“Unfair.” Lou scowled, but she could hear laughter in his voice. “I’ve made him breakfast every morning while you’ve been teaching.”

“I’m not sure that handing a six-year old a box of cereal and a bowl counts as making him breakfast…”

He laughed aloud then. “Point.”

“My love.” Celia nuzzled the skin under his jaw, enjoying teasing him with her lips. “Do you know that you are about to be late again?”

She felt him jump in her arms. “Crap.” Lou kissed the top of her head quickly and ran out the door, grabbing his coffee as he passed. “Love you!”

“Goofball!” She shook her head, smiling at her husband’s ritual morning dash. Eight years of marriage and she was not sure she had ever seen him leave the house on time.

Humming to herself, she wiped the crumbs from Lou’s bagel off the counter. It felt so good to have time to spend in the morning. For the past year, she had gotten up before the sun in order to drive an hour to school; on the weekends, she had just wanted to sleep in as late as possible, trying to recover from her seventh graders. Summer break promised the chance to be ‘Mom’ again.

She breathed in, contentment filling her lungs. Time to be Mom. Celia tilted her head toward the ceiling and called, “Mason, time for breakfast!”

She could hear his footie pajamas slapping down the stairs before her son ran into the kitchen.

“Hey, hey! No running in the house, young man.”

He immediately stopped running and walked over to her. “Sorry, mommy.”

“It’s okay.” She smiled at her little man. Mason was such a good boy, so intensely concerned with doing things right. He even folded his clothes. His dirty clothes, mind you, and he was only six. “Do you want -?”

The front door opened, and Lou ran down the hall into the kitchen.

“Hi.” He reached into the refrigerator and grabbed an apple.

“Lou?”

“Just wanted a snack for the road.” He ran his hand across the toaster oven as he started out the door again.

“Just wanted to be late, you mean.” She aimed a swat at his rear.

He was already running back out. “I know, I know….”

“No running in the -.” The front door slammed behind him.

“Your father is a strange man.” Celia ruffled her son’s hair. “Do you want eggs or cereal for breakfast?”

“Cereal, please.”

She pulled down the box of cereal and slid her finger under the cardboard tab.

“No, Mommy. You’ll do it wrong.”

She looked blankly at the box in her hand and at the bowl on the table. “Mason, I think I can manage this.”

“No, you can’t!”

“Ah. A family of cynics.” She pulled the tab open.

“No!” Mason wailed a long crescendo of pain. The little boy’s face flushed. “I’ll have to hold my breath,” he said, with a sort of panicked desperation. His eyes were huge and fixed on the cereal box while his hands clenched in spasmodic rhythm.

Celia stopped, shocked at the excess of emotion. “Mason, honey-.” She put down the cereal and stepped toward him.

He darted around her and reached for the box but stopped as if there were an electric barrier around it. “You have to close it.”

“Excuse me?”

“You have to close it, please.”

Celia blinked. “You don’t want cereal anymore?”

“Yes, but you opened it so you have to close it.”

“You can close it yourself after you have your cereal.”

“No. Now! You have to close it now! Please.”

“Mason, I’m trying to understand. Do you want cereal or don’t you?”

He vibrated with anxiety. “I do want cereal but you have to close it, because you opened it and if you don’t then I have to hold my breath.”

“Are you telling me that if I don’t do things your way you’ll hold your breath?”

“I don’t want to, Mommy.” Her son started to cry, not like a tantrum, but with a hurt, baffled intensity. “I don’t want to hold my breath. Don’t make me. Please don’t make me.”

Celia felt like she was looking at two different boys. One was spoiled, demanding and rigid, the other seemed terrified. Why? Over a cereal box? Almost, Celia almost closed the box as he had asked, but she was not about to be emotionally blackmailed by a child.

The closest Mason had come to a tantrum like this had been when he learned to tie his shoes. It had taken him four hours and he had cried tears of frustration and rage then, but her little man had not wanted any help. He had wanted to get it “just right” all on his own. Fours hours later, he had done it.

Now he was upset about breakfast. What had Lou been doing while she was at school? She rubbed her temples and sighed. “Mason, I’m afraid that you have to deal with the fact that the box is open. At this point, you may pour your own cereal or I can do it for you.”

“But-.”

“When has crying ever gotten you what you wanted?”

He snuffled and with shuddering breaths slowly quieted himself. “Can I- can I have something else for breakfast?”

“No, not after all that crying. I gave you a choice earlier.”

His face crumpled and for a moment seemed as if the crying would begin again, instead he reached forward and closed the box with deliberate care.

Then he held his breath.

Celia folded her arms, unsure what he was trying to prove but prepared to wait him out. The long seconds passed while Mason stared at the cereal box, not breathing. His face turned red.

A minute passed.

“Mason.” Celia started to scold, but stopped when he began to sway slightly.

His eyes rolled back in his head and his knees buckled. Celia tried to catch him, but his small body crumpled to the floor. She flung herself down beside him.

Mason breathed as if he had just run a race. His face was flushed and damp with sweat. She pushed his hair back from his forehead.

His eyes fluttered open.

Celia’s breath rushed out of her in relief. “Oh, thank God.”

“It’s okay now, Mommy.”

“Sweetie….” She did not know what to say. “Never. Never, never do that again.” What do you say to a child who held his breath until he passed out?

“I didn’t want to.” He smiled. “But it’s okay now. I can pour my own cereal.”

“But- you could always do that.” She had offered that choice to him earlier, hadn’t she?

He shook his head. “The box was wrong, but it’s not anymore.”

Celia sat on the floor, feeling battered. Her son stood and fetched the cereal box as though nothing had happened. He balanced on one foot and she stared numbly at the smooth plastic sole of his pajamas. What was going on?

She heard the box open and the crinkle of the liner. Mason shifted his weight to balance on the other foot. A piece of cereal rattled out of the box. Another followed. Then a third. A fourth. Celia looked up as the fifth piece landed softly in the ceramic bowl.

Her son stood balanced on his left foot, holding his right carefully off the ground. His head was cocked to one side studying the box, which he held tightly in his hands so that each generic wheat square tumbled separately from the package. After each piece fell, he blinked.

“Mason?” Her voice was little more than a whisper. She swallowed against the fear in her throat. “Mason? Sweetie?”

Another square fell.

She stood up. Her breath felt tight. She wanted her asthma inhaler.

Rattle against ceramic. Blink.

“Sweetie, what are you doing?”

Mason ignored her and stared at the box, making minute adjustments to let another single square tumble out.

“Mason. Mason! I asked you a question.”

Her son did not answer. Another square fell. He blinked.

Celia put her hand on his shoulder.

Two squares fell.

Mason screamed. A raw, tearing sound ripped out of his throat. His face distorted, twisting into a scowl of pain and anger. “You ruined it!” His brows pulled down, almost hiding his eyes. Tears sparked on his red, red cheeks. “I hate you! I hate you!”

He slammed the box back on the table, picked his bowl up and poured the cereal back into the box, then closed the cardboard top. His chest heaved with sobs. Mason wiped his nose on the sleeve of his pajamas and drew in a deep breath.

He did not let it out.

“Mason, stop that.” Celia knelt down, took him by the arm and turned him to face her. His lips were pressed whitely together. “Breathe.” Not again. “Don’t do this! Open your mouth.”

He screwed his eyes shut.

She fought the urge to shake him, setting her teeth against the desire. She felt his arm tremble under her hand. Celia dropped a hand to his round belly and tickled him.

He gasped with angry laughter; his eyes opened in wide outrage. Howling, he twisted in her grasp. “Stop! No mommy, stop!”

She let go and he held his breath.

Celia tickled him again.

“Stop!” Mason swung his arm and slapped her. Celia sat back on her heels, stunned. “Go away! You ruin everything. I hate you.” He crossed his arms protectively across his stomach and held his breath again.

Celia ground her teeth and grabbed her son. He screamed, twisting, kicking, biting; tears streamed down his face. He flailed out and hit her.

She shook him. “Go to your room!”

Like a switch, he stopped fighting her though the ragged sobbing remained. “I don’t hafta have cereal?”

“What? No! No breakfast.”

Mason flung his arms around his mother’s neck. “Thank you, Mommy.”

She wrapped her arms around him, too bewildered to do more than press her cheek against Mason’s face, mingling her tears with his.

The front door opened.

Lou ran into the kitchen and stopped short, staring at his family. Celia looked up from her son, to her husband. “What are you doing here?”

“I-,” He ran his hands through his hair. “What’s going on?”

Celia looked at the box of cereal. “I don’t know.”

“Don’t cry, Mommy.” Mason touched her face with his small hand.

Lifting a hand to her face, she wiped futilely at her cheeks. “Go on to your room now.”

Mason trotted out of the kitchen and stopped on the threshold. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

He didn’t mean to? Celia almost choked on the frightened laughter that threatened her. She forced herself to smile calmly at her son. “I know you didn’t, sweetie.”

Lou watched him go and turned back to Celia. “What happened?”

Sitting on the floor in her kitchen, Celia wrapped her arms around herself. “I don’t know. He wanted cereal and then complained that I wouldn’t do it right. Then he held his breath till he passed out and yelled and hit me.” She shivered. “I don’t know what set him off. Has he been like this all year?”

“I don’t know. I’m usually so late that I’ve just been giving him the cereal box…” Lou licked his lips. “He said you didn’t do it right?”

She nodded.

“Did he say what right was?”

“It was crazy, Lou.” She got off the floor. “It was like he had to pour the cereal one piece at a time, and blink, and stand on one foot and… I don’t know.”

Abruptly, her husband turned away from her and dialed the kitchen phone. “Hey, Gary? Yeah. I’m not going to be able to come in today.”

“You don’t-.” She started to tell him that it was nothing but Lou held up his hand to signal her to wait.

“My boy’s not well and I need to stay home.” He listened for a moment. “Great. Thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

When he hung up, Celia said, “I’m sure it’s just a phase. You didn’t have to do that.”

Lou walked across the kitchen to the toaster oven and stood with his back to her, staring at it. “I’m not cynical.”

She squeezed her eyes shut, and shook her head. “What?”

He turned. “I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.”

“What. What are you telling me?”

“I have a compulsion to check things repeatedly. Endlessly.”

She raised her hands, as if she could push this information away.

“We’ve been married for eight years!” Celia forced her voice away from hysteria. She fought for air. “How could I not know this?”

He smirked sourly. “I’ve been dealing with this since I was ten. I’ve gotten pretty good at hiding it.” Lou reached out and flicked the toaster-oven switch on and off. “Do you know what it’s like to meet a beautiful girl and spend every moment worrying that one day she’ll find out that you have to do crazy things?”

“But you don’t do crazy things, you’re just cautious. Right?”

“Really?” He turned away from the toaster-oven to face her fully. “Why am I home now?”

Celia opened her mouth but words would not come; her gaze dragged to the toaster oven.

“Or how about this? I didn’t come back for an apple earlier. I’ve been checking the toaster oven since yesterday. I would’ve spent all day at work worrying about it.” Lou slammed his hands against the counter. “God! I spend most of my time trying to hide the fact that I have to double, triple, quadruple check things. It’s not like I actually think that the stupid toaster oven will catch fire and burn the house down, but I have to check it anyway. Most of my overtime at the shop is from checking the figures that the computer spits out, because there might be an error in programming, and then I have to check my own numbers in case I made a mistake and then-.”

“You could have told me.”

“I didn’t want you to think I was crazy.”

“I wouldn’t have.”

“Why not? I do.” His face twisted into the same mask of pain that she had seen on Mason. Lou covered his face with his hands and breathed out heavily. “It’s probably hereditary.”

She held herself very still, afraid that she would come apart. “But…, Mason wasn’t checking double-checking anything.”

“Yeah.” He laughed, with a raw catch in his voice. Lowering his hands, he wiped his eyes. “Well, we’re not all the same. Sounds like he has a doozy.”

“Will it get better?”

Lou looked at her. Celia thought her heart would break from the despair in his eyes.

“I haven’t.”

THE END

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