When she came to apologize, they asked her to meet the new children.
She said yes, of course. What else could she say?
They led her, Mr. Sparotti beaming, to the living room.
The first child's head was blue, oval, perfectly smooth, utterly featureless. At first, she thought it was made of stone, but a second glace showed that it was perfectly polished wood, stained a deep dark blue, the natural lines of the wood still visible beneath. The second child's head was equally oval, equally polished, equally featureless, but stained a green, dark green.
They had placed the children, gracefully enough, in a loveseat near the fireplace, dressing them in blue jeans and simple green T-shirts. From the poses, she might have thought that one child was studying the Scrabble game on the table, while the other child had turned to look at the fireplace and watch the dancing flames. They looked, for a moment, calm, relaxed, almost bored. The firelight shimmered on their polished heads.
"They're very good, aren't they?" asked Mr. Sparotti.
Mary had literally no idea what to say.
"Er," she managed, after a moment. "Yes. Yes."
"Well, go on," Mr. Sparotti said. "Say hello."
"Hello," she managed, nodding at the children. It seemed completely inadequate. "I'm Mary," she added, after a moment, and then could have kicked herself.
"Beautiful, aren't they?" said Mr. Sparotti.
"Yes," Mary agreed, and they were, or would have been beautiful, she thought, in a museum, in a store, on a stage—any place but here, on Mrs. Sparotti's flowered blue loveseat. The firelight left lovely dancing patterns on the polished wood. She tore her eyes from the children with an effort.
Silence fell. Mr. Sparotti rubbed his hands. She had to say something. Anything. She swallowed. "So," she said, as Mr. Sparotti stood there, beaming—beaming?—he could not be beaming, should not even be smiling—"Did you, um, make them?"
"No, no," Mr. Sparotti said, eagerly. "Not made, no. They just—"
"We had nothing else to care for," said Mrs. Sparotti, in an utterly flat voice.
Mary swallowed. Just get it over with, she thought. "I should—" she started.
"Sit. Yes," said Mr. Sparotti, still smiling. "You should sit. Sit. I insist. You are our guest. And, to answer your question," he added, "no, they were not made. They were placed in our care. And do you not think," he added, spinning around in a small circle, "that we are caring for them, quite quite well?"
"We have," Mrs. Sparotti repeated, in that flat voice, "nothing else to care for."
Mr. Sparotti smiled at Mary, and then at the wooden children.
"Coke?" he said. He looked apologetically at his wife. "Pure sugar, I know. Still. We do have a guest. Perhaps, as a special treat?"
The blue child pushed out a hand.
"And would you care for coffee?" Mr. Sparotti asked. "Or tea? Or Coke?"
The green child bent over the table.
Mary blinked. She was seeing things, that was all. Seeing things. The children had not moved, were not moving now, even if one them had grabbed a Coke and was holding it in a stiff wooden hand, even if the other had suddenly bent over the coffee table to move a Scrabble tile around. She shook her head. Focus, she told herself. Focus.
And yet she was watching the firelight dancing over the wooden heads again, her mouth empty of the words she had come to say.
"Coffee," Mary said. "Yes. Coffee would be lovely. If it isn't any trouble."
The blue child turned its head towards her.
She was going mad, of course. Not surprisingly. She was going a bit mad, that was all, and seeing things. It happened all the time, she was sure. She would have coffee, and that would help.
"No trouble at all," Mr. Sparotti said. "It is already made. I would suggest Scrabble, but we have too many players, ha ha."
Mrs. Sparotti rose ponderously from her seat, and returned with a mug of coffee. Mary placed her fingers around it, and tried to breathe, to focus. She took a swallow of the coffee, wincing a little—it was instant, and awful. But that was hardly the point. She had to say it. She had to get the words out. A second sip. She looked at the two figures on the couch, now stiff, unmoving. A third sip.
"I came—" she started, then abruptly stopped again, as the blue child rose from the loveseat, and walked, jerkily, to the empty space in the room.
Mary's fingers tightened on the coffee mug.
It—he—it moved, Mary realized, as much as she could realize anything, choppily, clumsily. As if someone were dangling it from strings, or wires, only—it had no wires. Nothing she could see, in any case. It turned to her, and gave a little bow, and turned to Mary, and gave another little bow.
Mr. Sparotti looked spellbound. "Wonderful! Wonderful!"
It was dancing, if it could be called dancing, swinging its feet against some unknown rhythm, hands dangling. Its feet made no sound against the floor. It swung its head backwards, almost as if it were laughing, except, of course, that it could not laugh.
Mary gathered up her thoughts. "I came," she repeated—
Now the green-headed figure arose, moving awkwardly to join the blue-headed child—no, creature—no, child. The green-headed child placed a light, tentative hand on Mr. Sparotti's arm. Mr. Sparotti giggled, grabbing that hand, pumping it vigorously. The green child pulled away, whirling.
"—to apologize," she continued, although she did not think Mr. Sparotti heard.
"I polished them," said Mrs. Sparotti. "They needed cleaning, polishing. I cleaned them." Her hands were clasped tightly on her chair, her knuckles white.
"Yes," Mary said. "I can see that."
The firelight shimmered on the polished heads of the children as they swirled, smashing into each other, and falling. The green child smashed into the blue child, and fell; Mr. Sparotti giggled again, then lifted the green child up, whirling her—it—her—around in the air. Mrs. Sparotti closed her eyes.
Mary did not close hers. She took another sip of coffee; grasped the mug in fingers that were turning white. "I swear, I don't know how it happened—"
The green child spread out its—her—its arms, as the blue child arose in a clatter of wood, spreading its own arms wide. They began to circle around Mr. Sparotti with their awkward, unsteady gestures, soundlessly stamping their feet. Mr. Sparotti clapped his hands again. Mrs. Sparotti clenched and unclenched her hands.
"One moment, your child was there," Mary said. She was not seeing this. "The next moment, not there."
Mr. Sparotti began to spin as the children clapped their twiggy hands and stamped on silent feet.
"I swear," said Mary. "I don't know what happened. I swear it. I know, I know, you placed your child in my care, and apologies are not enough, nothing I ever say will be enough—"
The wooden children flung their heads back, almost as if they were laughing.
"Nothing else," whispered Mrs. Sparotti, and the children flung their heads back again.
"I am beyond—" Mary started, and then stopped, as the children smashed a vase off the mantelpiece, sending it flying.
Mr. Sparotti swirled in between them, giggling, beaming, and Mary stood. "I swear—" The children moved forward, hugging Mr. Sparotti, banging their wooden heads into his heavy belly. She could not tell if anyone had heard her, if anyone would ever hear her, if it would even matter. "I swear," she tried again, but Mr. Sparotti only laughed. She placed her coffee mug down on the table, spilling a little on the Scrabble board. Mrs. Sparotti did not move to clean it up, although she stood, moving her bulky body slowly, ponderously, toward the jerky, awkward dancers and Mr. Sparotti's jovial smile. "So sorry," Mary said, but Mrs. Sparotti did not turn. She picked up a child, to dangle it, and the child kicked and swung, the firelight dancing upon its polished head, and then she too began to dance.
Mary could have sworn the children waved at her as she backed away from the room, moving swiftly towards the front door. And then, she stepped outside, and let night consume her, and left the Sparottis dancing near the flames, holding their new children, not tenderly.
Mari Ness worships chocolate, words and music, in no particular order, and lives in Central Florida next to an alligator infested lake. Her work has appeared in a number of venues, including Fantasy Magazine, Hub Fiction, The Edge of Propinquity and Everyday Weirdness. She keeps a disorganized blog at mariness.livejournal.com.