Wednesday 17 January 2024

Maybe-Maybe Land by Gio Clairval, herbal tea


Matt and Gwen’s virtual playground was a square-shaped island with a large cove, like a bitten-off mouthful of gingerbread, populated with sirens and sharks. There were mountains covered in palm trees, and lakes swimming with magical fish—very nice imaginings. More recently, though, Ms. Dearling, while running the weakly parental review, encountered less cheerful themes like algebra, bloody fights under the bleachers, dead leaves to rake into mounds higher than houses, unsolved gruesome murders, but also images of what kids their age, twelve and thirteen, loved best: the buxom gym teacher, the history teacher with a rakish goatee, pizza days, getting rebellious tattoos and upgraded brain implants, that sort of things.


Lately, Ms. Dearling found things she could not understand, and of these, the most recent and quite perplexing was a thirty-foot-tall white cylinder—a tower, apparently—with small vertical openings like embrasures in a medieval castle. A vermilion liquid seeped out of these, looking very much like raspberry juice.

Ms. and Mr. Dearling-Hadley had bought the rights to Maybeland despite the price. Mr. Hadley wanted to have what the neighbours had, and Ms. Dearling couldn’t resist the stories her colleagues flaunted at their online coffee breaks: Maybeland is the perfect nanny, they said. You will find nothing better. The kids will be overjoyed, and you won’t even know you have them. (By the way, she worked with numbers in neat columns, while her husband worked with digits mined in great disorder and tidied up by smug AIs.) Getting back to the stories told by her co-workers, according to those doting moms and dads, kids found joy in expressing their feelings (mostly young love and a lot of frustration at their too-controlling or not-controlling-enough parents, not to mention a general sense of being persecuted by said parents for no good reason at all) to a sympathetic expert system that only had internal rules to better serve its young customers.

The Dearling-Hadleys thought of themselves as lower-middle-class folk, and it could have been enough to fulfil their dreams if Mr. Hadley hadn’t wondered, not incorrectly, whether they were rather poor, a family at the bottom of the barrel. Their house was the most basic kind of enhanced home; it didn’t have any expensive features, except for Maybeland, which was installed in the spare room, where sister and brother spent most of their free time.

 ‘Dear,’ said Ms. Dearling to Mr. Hadley, ‘we hardly see the kids anymore.’

 ‘It was the point of getting that expensive digital nanny, right?’

 Ms. Dearling felt heat on her cheeks. ‘I never intended it this way. They’re wired to that thing all the time, and I’ve seen strangeness in their logs. I mean, the weirdness is weirder than the usual imagined things teenagers cook up.’

 ‘What do you mean, love?’

 ‘I think you should see for yourself. Now’s the perfect time.’

 And there, on the white walls of the imagining room, appeared the mysterious white tower with small vertical openings like embrasures to shoot through with culverins. A vermilion liquid poured out of these holes, looking very much like beetroot smoothie.

 After connecting their implants to the system, they entered Maybeland through the backdoor Ms. Dearling used every Friday night for review purposes. A panel opened on the wall. Mr. Hadley gallantly stooped to enter first, and Ms. Dearling followed. All these things were virtual, all right, but still. Ms. Dearling knew that what seemed imaginary and innocuous in the physical world became real and dangerous in virtuality. And she also knew that her kids’ adventures could be unsettling.

Inside, the sight took Ms. Dearling’s breath away. It was a luxurious pavilion,  thirty yards long and twice as wide, with a ceiling shaped like a big top, sheer curtains covering the sides. Under the ceiling, a scintillating cloud floated above them like a lazy whale. The floor was made of mother-of-pearl tiles in the same hue as the rest of the room and the furniture: leather sofas and armchairs grouped to invite board games, and emperor-sized beds with modern canopies made of white spinnaker sails. Vases so large she wouldn’t have been able to encircle them with her arms stood everywhere, filled with white roses releasing a delicate scent. Despite the breeze that entered through gaps between the shifting curtains, the place was as hot as an oven.

 ‘This is where they go to play?’ Mr. Hadley wiped the sweat from his eyes with a tissue. ‘It seems like a rather grown-up setting to me.’

 ‘It’s a live-in kitchen.’

 ‘This is unusual for kids their age.’

 ‘It must be Gwen’s Maybeland, but you’re right.’ Ms. Dearling asked herself where the red liquid that oozed from the openings seen from the outside was hidden. Surely beyond the sheer curtains.

 A hunting horn blew, and the wind carried the barking of hounds and the doomed prey’s frantic screams.

Ms. and Mr. Dearling-Hadley explored the sprawling pavilion and even ventured beyond the curtains, out in the open, but saw nothing except for the silhouettes of running quadrupeds in the distance. How could Dearling smell anything happening so far away from where she stood? It must have been dream logic. And the moving shapes looked two-dimensional, like shadows thrown by figurines. If she ignored the strong smell of wet dogs, she could have thought those running animals were paper cuttings or characters from a Javanese puppet theatre.

 They left the tower, projected on the wall, the same way they had entered, through a low door. After leaving the room and closing the soundproof door behind her, Ms. Dearling unplugged herself, feeling a little sick.

 ‘Yes, it’s odd, love,’ said Mr. Hadley, ‘and it’s hot as hell, but it could just be Gwen’s dream kitchen.’

 ‘It could be, but the oddest thing is that I can’t remove that white tower from the program logs. I can tidy up all the other remnants of the kids’ imagination, but not the white tower.’

 ‘Why do you even have to do that? Cleaning up, I mean.’

 ‘It’s in the instructions, to avoid the persistence of negative experiences. But why can’t I remove the tower?’

 ‘Some bug? There’s nothing the next upgrade won’t be able to fix.’

 ‘You’re right, dear. You know I worry about nothing.’

 If Mr. Hadley heard the irony in Ms. Dearling’s tone, he gave no sign of it.

 The Dearling-Hadleys consulted Dr Barbara Yaga, a spindle-shanked AI wizard and paediatric psychologist, who came to check the program.

 The word EAT was repeated everywhere on the walls. This was new.

 ‘What are we looking at, Dr Yaga?’ asked Mr. Hadley. ‘Are they thinking of snacks?’

 ‘This word is common in the pre-teens’ imaginings,’ Dr Yaga said. ‘Most children don’t like the nutritious meals they’re served at school. Texture is a problem, and smell is too, but the issue is being tackled. Don’t worry, they consume their rations anyway.’

Ms. Dearling wondered why Yaga looked like she was sorry, as if she had done something wrong.

‘They miss the good old home-cooked dishes,’ the AI wizard said.

‘But they’ve never eaten those!’ Mr. Hadley said.

‘Who has, in the last fifty years?’

‘True,’ Yaga said, sounding wistful. ‘They have some of those experiences in Maybeland, like roasting a wild pig on the fire camp, and tasting potatoes cooked in ash then sprinkled with salt and rosemary, and filling their bowls with carrots, lentils, and white beans seasoned with olive oil, black pepper, and grated parmesan. And the kids often mention the delectable fried rice balls with tender pork meat in the centre.’ She released a tiny sigh. ‘Maybe programming those long-forgotten sensory elements was a mistake.’

Once Dr Yaga left. Ms. Dearling offered, ‘We could try cooking dinner tonight.’

Mr. Hadley looked dubious. ‘I don’t think we have the credits to buy fresh ingredients. We could program those dishes into the CookPro.’

‘But, dear, how would synthetic food compare to their imagined dishes? We must put a dent in our budget, I’m afraid.’

Mr. Hadley coughed. ‘I was already thinking of making a, huh, little dent. I wanted to buy, huh, real cake. Oh, well. It was a surprise for our anniversary tomorrow, along with a couple of candles and a regrown rose for you.’

Her husband’s attention made her chest warm inside. Still, their hard-earned money shouldn’t be squandered on their own gluttony. Giving the kids what they wanted was more important. A quality family dinner. Yes.

The next day, a full meal was on the table, piping hot and smelling like heaven, and a cake, made of actual flour, eggs, and butter, waited on the side.

Ms. Dearling and Mr. Hadley were left at the table alone.

‘If you don’t come to eat right now,’ yelled Mr. Hadley, red in the face, ‘I’ll shut down your damned Maybeland for a week.’

Ms. Dearling pulled at his sleeve.

‘Or forever!’ he thundered.

Gwen and Matt tumbled out of their imagining room.

‘Daddy, come on, you can’t be serious,’ cried Gwen.

‘Big words.’ Matt spat. ‘But you’ve never actually done it.’

Judging by his expression, Mr. Hadley wasn’t ready to back down. ‘I’ll show you.’ He jumped to his feet, clattering the chair behind him, and went to open the control box, where the quick-programming keys gleamed. Switching off the damn thing is what he did, and a discombobulated Ms. Dearling watched her kids storm out, hissing all kinds of threats.

On top of the stairs, Gwen stopped and turned around. ‘I hate you!’ She slammed her door so hard that the hinges complained in tinny voices. Home Control asked about the mental health of its human guests and offered to make them cups of calmomile. [sic]

 ‘She hates us now,’ Ms. Dearling breathed out.

 ‘Oh, love, she’s thirteen. Hating her parents is what she’s expected to do.’

 ‘Not this way, dear. She sounded like she meant it.’ Ms. Dearling hurried with her words. ‘I was wondering. Maybe we don’t need that CookPro and the lights that turn themselves on, following us around, and the self-cleaning floors and windows. Maybe we could do everything ourselves.’

 ‘But neither of us has time to do anything, love.’

 ‘We work so hard to pay for everything we’ve got. What if . . . Maybe we’d be better off in a simpler home with no costly apps?’

 ‘We should ask Dr Yaga for advice, love.’

 Ms. Dearling had a bad feeling about all this, and an expert’s opinion might help.

 When Barbara Yaga arrived the day after, carrying an attaché case at the end of a toothpick arm and a lemur hand, Matt and Gwen had left for school. In the living room, where hidden speakers hummed a soothing therapeutic music, the Dearling-Hadleys poured out their preoccupations, but Yaga didn’t even let them finish their report on child disobedience.

 ‘It happens frequently,’ she said, ‘but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously.’

 Barbara Yaga opened her attaché case and connected a device to the control box, reading the results on a display. She nodded knowingly.

 ‘Dr Yaga, do you think I was too, huh, radical,’ said Mr. Hadley, ‘when I shut down the program?’

 ‘Not at all. Your children need detox and rehabilitation.’ She closed her attaché case with a click that sounded definitive. ‘We’ll come by tomorrow to take them to the Intensive Adaptive Care Unit. Your imagining room will be dismantled, and the program deleted. You should have the kids’ implants removed, too, until they’re cured.’ Yaga wrinkled her nose. ‘What’s that foul stench?’

 ‘It comes from the imagining room. Didn’t you switch it off, dear?’

 ‘I did!’ cried Mr. Hadley. But I don’t understand. Can the thing switch itself on, Doctor?’

 Yaga twisted her mouth, her hollow-cheeked face darkening. ‘It shouldn’t.’

 The door stood ajar, and an unseasonal heat wafted out, along with the sugary scent of pear pie and the dirty-sock smell of wet dogs.

 The three of them entered. Barbara Yaga stared at the white tower and the red liquid streaming down from slits in the facade, looking very much like cranberry sauce.

 Ms. Dearling hurried with her words. ‘Perhaps we should take things more slowly.’

 Mr. Hadley stomped his foot. ‘It looks like the white tower has taken over the entire Maybeland, and that might be connected with the program’s refusal to shut down. The kids are under the influence of that thing! Sorry, love, but Dr Yaga is right. We must dismantle the room and delete the program.’ Mr. Hadley turned to the expert. ‘We’ll see you and your people tomorrow.’ He shook hands with Yaga, imprisoning her bony hand in his bearish mitt.

 Yaga left.

 ‘Shutting down the program is not the solution, dear.’

 ‘Do you have a better idea, love?’

 ‘I told you already. Let’s move into a simpler house without sending the kids away.’

 ‘Too late for that. Dr Yaga has surely sent a notification to Social Services.’

 Ms. Dearling set her jaw, thinking that the last word had not been said. ‘I’ll go pack their things then.’ She went to Gwen’s room but came out right away. ‘Gwen’s bag is here, and her jacket, too.’ She stormed into Matt’s room and found his backpack as well. ‘They were supposed to be at school.’

 ‘They must have sneaked in while we were talking to the doctor in the living room,’ said Mr. Hadley from the bottom of the staircase.

 Her face scrunching up, Ms. Dearling let her footfalls hit the steps heavily until she reached her husband, who took her hand and patted it.

 Without saying another word, they both lumbered into the imagining room.

 Inside, the heat was unbearable, but neither Gwen nor Matt rested on the two pastel-coloured mattresses. On the wall, the projection of the white tower beckoned, its low door wide open.

 Her stomach was filling with ice despite the heat. ‘I don’t want to go through that door,’ she said. ‘Let’s wait here.’

 Mr. Hadley balled his fists. ‘I’m going in!’ He rushed inside, just as his wife cried, ‘Don’t!’

 ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea,’ she added in a low voice, but she stooped to enter.

 In the centre of the pavilion, the gleaming kitchen seemed larger than before. A grinning Matt stood by the immense grill, where the flames flared up like bluish, undulating teeth.

‘What are you doing?’ said Mr. Hadley, his baritone voice rumbling.

‘We should go, dear. They’ll come out, eventually.’

‘Where is Gwen?’ Mr. Hadley shouted.

Matt scoffed. ‘She’s out, playing with our pets. Why? Are you telling us what to do even here?’

‘We’ll talk with them when they come out, dear.’ Ms. Dearling pulled on her husband’s sleeve. ‘Let’s go.’

They turned toward the door, but the low panel had melted into a flowing curtain.

‘What’s happening, dear?’ When Mr. Hadley didn’t answer, she looked around and saw him strutting toward their son. Judging by the stiffness in his shoulders, she expected to hear a loud admonition, but then howling filled her ears, and this noise was drawing near. She glanced about as the sound seemed to come from every direction, from behind the curtains that were now being pulled outward in the hot wind, affording her glimpses of the colourless expanse.

 Dark shapes approached, still too far for her to make them out.

 Ms. Dearling stood, petrified and unable to think.

 She called her husband, wiping the fat tears that rolled down her cheeks. The howling grew louder.

 Ms. Dearling ripped the drapes as she stumbled into the white landscape outside the pavilion. She glanced over her shoulder, but Mr. Hadley was nowhere in sight.

 Out of the distant plains, big black dogs approached at a gallop, their glimmering eyes reflecting the light from the campfire.

 Gwen led the hunting party. As she drew near, walls appeared all around, made of white bricks, rising ever higher, hemming in the pack of dogs and Ms. Dearling, along with the white pavilion.

 A red rain fell on the white soil, forming a rivulet that soon became a frothy stream at Ms. Dearling’s feet, splashing all over the ground and soaking the walls up and up, toward the misty sky.

About the author

Gio worked as an international management consultant. Now she writes and translates stories from a few languages into English—check them out in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (Macmillan) and The Big Book of Classic Fantasy, . . . 

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