Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Convexity of Our Youth

A Disclaimer

The children of Burke’s Point Elementary can’t be blamed. When the orange ball rolled onto their playground, they couldn’t have known what it was. We didn’t discuss the orange ball with them, didn’t explain to them its importance, its danger. We didn’t even tell them it existed, though some of them had undoubtedly heard vague rumors about it from sadistic older siblings and precocious cousins with little parental supervision. We wanted to turn a blind eye to the orange ball, hoping that what we didn’t acknowledge couldn’t touch our lives. If we didn’t speak of it then surely it would have no reason to seek us out; it would roll past our town and work its horrors somewhere else, somewhere far away. Though it might bounce against the concavities of our skulls, tinting every thought orange, orange, orange, we feared to let its name roll off our tongues. We believed in the prophylactic power of ignorance, that if we provided no magnetic pole of recognition, the ball’s compass would never point in our direction. So the children of Burke’s Point Elementary—our children—couldn’t have guessed that when the orange ball spun its way onto their blacktop and they began kicking it back and forth, shoes slapping rubber, rubber throwing up pebbles and dust, laughter spilling over the schoolyard as the ball seemed to zig and zag of its own volition, it would, for all intents and purposes, kill them all.

A Background

Our town is, in many ways, like any other town. Imagine parallel lines of artisan boutiques running beside a brick-laden boulevard that sprawls outward, onto a few dozen crosshatched streets along which stand sentinel rows of townhomes and condos. Beyond the townhomes and condos, imagine that the streets gain curvature and turn to winding roads that slide by cozy one-story, two-story, and three-story homes replete with manicured yards and picket fences and two-car garages. And on the fringes of it all, where the roads meet the infinite progress and regress of the interstate highway, imagine the dense modern fortifications of commerce—the strip malls and chain stores and supermarkets and fast food parlors and gas stations and motels and casual family eateries all vying for patronage. Our town is, in this, like any other town: the fruition of some sort of dream and the image of some sort of beauty, though neither may be ours.

Just as is the case with our parents and grandparents, most of us have lived here our entire lives, with, perhaps, a brief four-year foray to a college or a university within driving distance during our early adulthood. Occasionally we venture outward, to other towns, other cities, other regions of the world where people speak with intonations different from ours and wear clothes designed more for function than for form, but, though we may be charmed or fascinated or surprised by those other places, we are, inevitably, neither drawn away from our town for long nor tempted to remain elsewhere. We are tethered to our town by a dull, soothing comfort and, with the lengths of our tethers, have woven complex webs of existence to further secure ourselves here.

Life is, you might say, easy for us. We have no great wealth but also no real poverty, no overwhelming love for our neighbors but also no outstanding hatreds. We are not a people who leave our doors unlocked throughout the night, but neither are we a people who suffer from any crimes worse than petty theft and vandalism. We have achieved a level of contentment and stasis in which our primary worry is losing our contentment and stasis. Thus it is that everything we do, every decision we make, every social, cultural, fiscal, philosophical, theological, and political step we take as adults, as citizens, and as parents is designed to uphold the most sacrosanct of our shared values: security.

A Symptom

After the orange ball had been spotted on the elementary school playground by an astute second-grade teacher, the sixteen boys and girls involved with its play were rushed to a secure hospital facility where, mere hours later, the symptoms of contact began to manifest. We knew what to expect as we huddled by the side of our children’s beds. First came the uncontrollable leg spasms that, had the children been upright, would have sent them sprinting into the blustery night at ten or fifteen or however many miles per hour their muscles and ligaments could carry them before completely shearing away from bone or snapping apart. Impervious to muscle relaxants, the spasms lasted for several grueling hours during which our children alternately laughed and cried, sang unfamiliar songs and shouted words we’d never taught them. As they sweated through their bedsheets, we sweated through our clothes, waiting for a resolution that we’d fooled ourselves into believing might arrive.

Once the spasms had run their full course, metabolic exhaustion set in and extreme cramping stole over our children’s tender bodies from head to toe. Despite the best efforts of doctors and nurses to rehydrate our children and replenish their depleted electrolytes, chorales of anguish blared from the isolation ward, driving us to near madness with their fiery accusation of our universal impotence. If hell has an anthem, truly we believe it must be the ululation of one’s children in hysterical, unending pain.

As our babies screamed and thrashed through a hurricane of tears, we wrung our hands and tore at our hair and prayed to our myriad deities for succor and mercy. We discovered, however, that succor and mercy were in short supply, even for us, even for our town, which we had always assumed must exist as a tiny sparkle in the corner of our gods’ eyes. Indeed, only when the doctors pumped the children full of opiate pain killers—so many, in fact, that we feared coma must be near—did the cries subside and our beloved quietus regain temporary control of our lives. Then, only then, with our children in deep chemical slumber, did we again feel safe.

Of course, this was only the first symptom of the ball’s infection and, as we understood it, the least severe. There would be two more symptoms yet to come, two more symptoms for which none of us could be properly prepared, unimaginable as they were.

Our peace was, in the end, a fragile lie.

A Realization

We initially learned of the orange ball seven years ago. Rumors of the ball’s existence had been spreading across the internet for months prior to our localized revelation, but this spotty information was relegated to fringe news sites, shared social media posts, and obscure discussion forums—none of which registered on our tightly focused radar. We didn’t read to the margins of our world; we didn’t feel that we needed to. The margins were for those people too unmotivated or too deviant to find their way to a more stable center. Surely, we believed, our town and our lives were near the center of whatever vast page reality had been impressed upon. Thirty minutes curled up with the local nightly news on television, an occasional foray across the main page of a cable news network’s website, a glance at a nationally distributed magazine: these were the energies we deemed it necessary to expend in order to remain informed citizens of greater, polished society. So while the ball rolled on and families in other communities—dust-ridden rural locales and bullet-populated inner city neighborhoods, mostly—dealt with its aftermath and expressed their despondency, their fear, and their anger through peripheral channels, we went about our days in relative peace and naiveté.

It wasn’t until the ball passed through a town much like ours, a town sealed tight in its onion-layers of self-satisfaction and supposed normalcy, a town with the anywhere name of “Vernonville,” that the mainstream media followed its bounce. In Vernonville, cameras captured grim men in pressed, button-down shirts and sensible khaki pants, quavering women with tasteful makeup in smart, monochrome wrap dresses, and tearful children in all manner of character-emblazoned shirts, pants, and shoes. These were a safe people, an ordinary people, a people with enough time and money and respect for the prescribed social order to arrive for interviews entirely photogenic, even in the face of crisis. We worried over the people of Vernonville, because, in truth, what the cameras in that quaint suburban town captured was nothing less than ourselves, doubled at another point in space.

To the media, the people of Vernonville spoke of an inexplicable childhood illness run rampant in their town, of an orange ball with which the stricken youths had played. They spoke of their outrage, their sadness, their memories, their lack of understanding. They asked for prayers and protection and they insisted that the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization investigate the disease, for, surely, disease it had to be that their children had contracted. To pacify the people of Vernonville, the CDC and WHO did, indeed, finally launch an investigation, but, ultimately, neither found evidence of a pathogen or a wicked foreign invader endlessly multiplying in the blood of the town’s children. The lone key fact the doctors and scientists at the CDC and WHO discovered—or what they knew all along, more likely—was that a series of past incidents in other locations mirrored the situation in Vernonville. All the rural nowheres and the urban centers that had cried out for the selfsame recognition and investigation that Vernonville received were at last acknowledged, if only as fragments of a greater pattern and decimals in a ledger.

The situation in Vernonville, combined with the newly revealed information that the incident was not isolated and that the orange ball had spread a sickness to children elsewhere, sent us into a low-boiling panic. We began to discuss the ball at work, at PTA meetings, at the gym, in our bedrooms well after midnight—anywhere that our children wouldn’t hear. We drove by our homes and our children’s schools during our lunch breaks, just to spot check for orange balls that might be lolling about outside. We threw into the garbage any orange balls that our children or our pets possessed and bought them shiny new blue or green ones for their enjoyment. Even the recreational basketball league at our local YMCA switched from traditional orange and black balls to red, white, and blue Team USA balls.

As days passed, our fear did not abate, but, instead, settled into our routines. We formed a community watch group to buy all the orange balls in the all the stores in town and burn them in pre-selected dumpsters; we gathered up orange traffic cones and hurled them into gutters wherever we passed them; if we were sports fans, we stopped following the NBA and NCAA basketball altogether. We even purchased oranges at the grocery store with less frequency. And yet, despite all our activism, we spoke of the ball less and less, almost as if we didn’t give it second thought, almost as if it was something we’d never heard of, almost as if it didn’t even exist.

A Second Symptom

After our children’s cramps unknotted and melted away, the second symptom began to manifest. Its appearance could have been mistaken for an unusual rash or an off-color bout of jaundice, but we knew better. The circular, orange blotches that crept over our children’s skin had no dermatological precedent except in the history of the towns the ball had visited.

For many of us, this was the most difficult stage of the illness. Though our sons and daughters remained firmly ensconced in cradles of opiates so as to not feel the flesh-peeling inflammation that the children of Vernonville had, we found the mere presence of their infected bodies intolerable. We sat by their beds with our faces turned away, unable to watch as the blotches spread and joined with one another, forming Rorschach patterns we feared to interpret for what they might reveal about ourselves. We were asked by doctors and nurses to comfort our children, to hold their hands and wipe their chins as saliva leaked from their lips, but we could not bring ourselves to touch them. With every new sore, with every new patch of smooth, glistening orange, they drifted from us, becoming less a part of us and more a part of the ball. Theirs was a future we could not countenance, let alone accept.

In the hallways and common areas of the secure facility, we pounded vending machines with our fists though we were not seeking refreshment and we stared into bathroom mirrors for hours though we were not preening. In the facility’s lobby, we gave interviews to assembled reporters, our faces properly stoic, our words sufficiently labored. In the facility’s parking lot, well-meaning friends and family lit bonfires and invited us to stoke the flames with balls of diverse size and color, balls that they had purchased for precisely that therapeutic kindling purpose. And all the while, as we sulked about the facility in our bubbles of distraction, our children lay in their rooms, alone, transmuting.

The bravest among us eventually worked up the courage to return to our ailing offspring. We pulled up chairs beside the hospital beds and, tears welling at the corners of our eyes, whispered unheard endearments to our sons and daughters while stroking their swollen pumpkin-hued foreheads. Even for those of us with iron resolve, however, the caresses did not last long. We pulled away our fingers and wiped them on our pants, our dresses. We ran to the nearest bathroom and scrubbed our hands under scalding water, so desperate were we to remove the sensation of our children’s rashes against our flesh. For what we touched when we stroked their heads was not soft, pliable skin, but a hard, dense surface that barely yielded to the pressure of our fingertips. Where once had been ridges and divots and tiny, perfectly formed imperfections was now an expanse of smooth, featureless orange. Doctors who had biopsied the rashes of children in other towns had long ago determined the nature of this impossible flesh. It was a substance the world knew well, a substance that had no place in human biology, and we shuddered to witness it merging with our children, becoming our children, our children becoming it.

Brave or not, we fled into flasks, into puffs of cigarette smoke, into passionless sex in the hospital bathrooms. We spent our last remaining energies in pursuit of merciful distraction. We refused to contemplate the truth of the situation, and the truth was this: by the time the second symptom had run its course, our children would no longer be copies of ourselves, but products of forces far beyond our control. By the time the second symptom had run its course, our children would be, effectively, rubberized.

A Referendum

When, a few months after Vernonville, the orange ball appeared in another town like ours and the death toll ticked higher in that small burgh than it had in any of the previous places the ball had infected, we experienced a surge in anxiety unlike any we’d known before. Every bounce of a kickball and spin of a bowling ball and hollow plink of a ping-pong ball against a table sent us into cold sweats and caused us to glance over our shoulders to make sure nothing was rolling up behind us. Accident rates in town doubled. 9-1-1 calls reporting suspicious incidents tripled. We became a study in paranoia. So, in conjunction with the PTA and several local religious groups, our mayor called a meeting to discuss “the ball dilemma” and invited all concerned adults from the community to attend. Minors—even teenagers who understood the issue at hand—were strictly prohibited from entering the town hall during the meeting due to the nature of the subject matter.

On the evening of the “ball dilemma” discussion, seating at the town hall was elbow to elbow and hip to hip. It seemed that every person in town over the age of eighteen had come to listen, if not participate. We all wanted resolution. We wanted the mayor or the president of the PTA or a local minister or rabbi or imam to give us instruction, to tell us that our town would be safe if we simply followed an enumerated plan with easily accomplished steps. Instead, we were faced with a coterie of leaders who, through PowerPoint slides and Excel spreadsheets, explained that no feasible protection was possible. We couldn’t wall off the town from the rest of the world—though some of us would have surely felt more at ease behind medieval battlements—nor could we afford a video surveillance system for the town’s perimeter. We couldn’t track the ball’s movements—not even the Department of Homeland Security had been able to manage that feat yet, or so it claimed—nor did we have the resources to set up an official ball patrol. We couldn’t even print informational posters because we had no information to convey that might have been of use in case of the ball’s appearance. For all intents and purposes, we lacked any meaningful choice of action.

It was, therefore, not surprising that when the presentations ended and the mayor opened the floor for questions, the town hall broke into a silence reserved for sepulchers. We dared not speak or move, as speaking and moving would imply that the meeting was truly nearing its conclusion, that our authorities had failed us and left us without plan or direction. The notion of confronting such a limbo we could not abide. So we sat and waited in the anticipation of one last key address or instructional video. Our leaders fidgeted, unsure of the silence’s tenor. We held our breaths, unsure of the question to ask. And, somewhere, the ball kept bouncing, entirely sure we could not stop it.

Finally, after the tension had grown so sharp it could slice through the hall’s concrete walls, one of us—Marcus Jefferson, the proprietor of our town’s used bookstore—stood and asked the question that would govern our lives for years to come.

“If you don’t have a plan to deal with it,” he said, “and we can’t prevent it from happening, then why are we even talking about it?”

The question provoked no answers from our leaders, but it did raise applause and echoes.

Other voices in the crowd, our voices, yelled at the stage, asking “Why? Why? Why do we need to discuss it? Why should we even bring it up?”

The mayor responded the only way she could. She asked us what we wanted to do about “the ball problem.” She asked what our democratic solution might be.

Again we slid into silence. We’d never imagined the decision might fall to us. We had no idea how to prevent the ball’s coming; we had no special information, no learned insight. We only knew that we were frightened. So when Jessica Cadiz—a manager at one of our town’s three banks—stood and said, “Let’s try to ignore it. Let’s imagine it doesn’t exist. Let’s push it away as best we can. Let’s strike it from our vocabularies and close the browser windows when we see stories about it online and turn off the TVs if newscasters start yammering on about it. And, for the love of God, let’s never allow the kids to know what it is, to know that it’s out there. At least not until they’re older,” we all understood why.

The applause for Cadiz’s suggestion shook the floor and rattled the windows. A chant of “ignore it, ignore it, ignore it” erupted from the crowd. We, the people, had spoken. Shortly thereafter, our mayor called for a vote, a referendum, and what would become known as the Cadiz Proposition unanimously passed into our town charter and into our law.

A Final Symptom

A child whose skin has remolded itself into a two-inch thick layer of orange rubber can barely be referred to as a parent’s “flesh and blood,” yet this is how, even after the second stage of the ball’s impact, we still thought of our children. The doctors at the secure facility kept them under constant sedation, so it was impossible to know how much the transformation had affected their perception of the world. Did they still think like our children? Would our fumbling hugs still soothe them? Did they still feel the warmth of sunlight and cool breezes the way we did? Was a kitten’s fur softer or harder under the stroke of their new skin? Would they still look at us and call us “father” or “mother” or would they now refer to us by words we couldn’t understand? We didn’t ask, and they couldn’t tell.

The doctors claimed that the sedation was imperative, not because the rubberized flesh by itself would necessarily cause pain, but because the final stage of the ball’s infection involved a horror for which there was no cognate in the annals of medical literature. Ushered from the treatment rooms due to what the medical staff called “the unpredictability of the final stage,” we watched our children on monitors from areas within the facility labeled only as “safe zones.” Vaguely scented like fresh carpet, these areas resembled bizarrely arranged discount furniture store show rooms, with disparate couches and loveseats and plush recliners and end tables encircling central banks of computer monitors and television sets. The walls of the “safe zones” were also entirely lined in mirrors, which both lent to the commercial effect and led many of us to believe that as we watched our children, so too were we being watched from behind those mirrors.

Over the course of the three days following our children’s dermal mutation, we sat in these safe zones in relative silence. Occasionally, we would leave and find our way to the hospital’s roof. There, six stories from the ground, we would consider leaping off the edge, into a more certain madness. However, none of us had the energy or the willpower to actually make the jump. Instead, we would simply stand on the rooftop ledge and wonder what revelations the air between the tips of our toes and the tarmac below might hold. Perhaps the wind whipping by our faces in that two or three second plunge might speak to us of death’s mysteries. Perhaps the very ground below might whisper wisdom as it collapsed our forms. We would never know.

If we did not head to the rooftop, we would leave the safe zones and wander through the dark wards that sprawled under our children. We would pass skeletal figures hooked to spider webs of IV tubes, bodies suspended in vats of brightly hued gels, and other children stuffed inside windowed copper tubes, clearly suffering from a dread malady different from that of our own children. We would continue downward, downward, until we reached the basement of the facility, where we discovered the morgue and its seemingly infinite rows of tabled corpses, some of which were wrapped in thin, clear plastic sheets and others which were encased in silver mylar bags. To this room we would take our husbands, our wives, our boyfriends and girlfriends and secret lovers and there, amongst the plenitude of the dead, we would explode into a molten flow of volcanic sex, entwining with our partners in as many configurations as we could devise, often knocking bodies to the floor with the force of our writhing and tumbling naked after them. We didn’t care that the dead watched us, were part of the act. Indeed, we wanted them to see. We wanted them to know. Why, we couldn’t explain.

So, mostly, we remained in the safe zones, silent and unmoving, unless, of course, we didn’t. All of which is to say that we knew not what to do with ourselves or how to act as our children, for all intents and purposes, died. While we sat in silence, every one of our children’s bones and internal organs were evaporating. They did not liquefy or explode or turn putrescent and rot; they just evaporated, into air, leaving behind nothing but an expanding bubble of space and increased pressure. Brain and heart, spine and scapula: it all dissolved to nothing. As our children’s brainwaves diminished and their heartbeats flatlined, the space within them grew larger and more rounded. Their tiny bodies expanded and inflated and gained contours no human shape was ever meant to contain. Their shoulders and torsos became one with their heads, with any trace of their necks disappearing; their legs and arms descended into the vastness of their abdomens. With every passing hour, they took on new convexities, new spheroid shapes. They were all Violet Beauregarde, eternally trapped in Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Over the final symptom’s three day reign, our children continued to expand, to inflate, until, when all was said and done, there were no more bones or organs left to dissolve. What lay in our children’s beds then were no longer our children, but enormous orange rubber balls with the distorted and elongated faces of our individual sons and daughters imprinted upon one of their sides. Somehow, even after this, even after the final symptom had run its course, the worst had not yet arrived, for, when the life-giving machines were shuttled away and times of death were officially stamped on certificates, our children, whatever they now were, began to move once again. They began to bounce. They began to roll from side to side. They began to roll toward us. And we, more fearful than we’d ever been, more uncertain and filled with shame than we thought possible, clawed at our eyes and wished that we had never tried to hide the ball from our children or ourselves in the first place.

A Scientific Inquiry

Epidemiologists have studied the effects of the orange ball and have determined with certainty that the symptoms it causes cannot be traced to a viral, bacterial, fungal, or parasitic source. Despite extensive tests of our children’s every conceivable tissue and bodily secretion, there is, they say, no detectable pathogen present in their bodies either pre-transformation or post-transformation. This conclusion has led numerous researchers to suggest that the vector for transmission may lie on the molecular or atomic level—a potentially provable proposition, but one that will require many more years of study.

Another faction of scientists—mostly biophysicists—have conjectured that what occurs to the infected children has little basis in any macrocosmic discipline. These experts have advanced a hypothesis that the wholesale restructuring of an organism can only find its catalyst in the quantum realm, amidst probabilities so infinitesimally small and possibilities so strange they might be thought impossible. Therefore, in their view, it is far better to approach the issue as a problem of fundamental forces and abstract equations than cellular division and genetic re-encoding. Intriguing though the concept may be, it is untestable with current medical technology.

Still another segment of the scientific community washes their hands of the entire matter, choosing to believe that the orange ball and its accompanying syndrome must be either grossly misreported or an outright hoax. To the myriad MDs and PhDs in this camp—none of whom have seen a ball-child in person—the situation is undeserving of serious attention and, in their assessment, a blemish upon those scientists willing to examine the phenomenon.

Needless to say, the underlying reason for the changes to our children remains unknown and we are forced to wonder not just “Why?” but also “How?”

A Treatment

The symptoms having finished their grotesque parade, we were left with their result—a roomful of huge rubber balls bouncing and rolling about the hospital ward under what appeared to be their own volition. We watched, fascinated and horrified, as the faces of our children, forever frozen in a dilated sleep, spun about the balls’ surfaces. The doctors assured us that the balls were not our children, could not be our children, as our children had surely died when the dual hemispheres of their brains evaporated. Time and again they explained that, clinically, our children were gone. And yet, for all the explanation and entirely rational assurances, the movement of the balls—nonstop and just a degree under total chaos—reminded us of our daughters and our sons and their feverish orbits of play. When we gazed through the windows of the secure ward, we saw both our children cavorting in a schoolyard and utterly alien beings performing a dance we could not understand, and, in truth, we could not distinguish between the two despite our best efforts. We watched the balls for many weeks this way, our terror becoming familiar, our sense of certainty in the world further eroding.

Thus it was that by the time the doctors at the facility presented us with two options for the balls’ futures—to leave them in the facility for continued study or to take them home with us—we chose to take them home. The doctors, the facility’s administrators, and a panel of high-level bureaucrats from various government agencies all attempted to convince us that turning over guardianship of the balls to the facility would be in everyone’s best interest. These things, they said, should not exist—by all rights, cannot exist—yet they do. These things, they reiterated, were not our children. These things, they warned, would be well beyond our control and may even pose a danger to others. Of course, we knew the doctors were right. We knew that we would never be able to touch our children again without shivering, that we would never be able to look at those child-sized orange balls without worrying that unknown intelligences might be looking back. We knew that we could never talk to them again without nervously contemplating all the unfathomable thoughts and incomprehensible plots that might be incubating beneath their surfaces. We understood that the balls were not our children anymore. Yet, by the same token, we could not shake the impression that the balls were not not our children, either. Somewhere within them still floated fragments of our DNA and, therefore, we believed that somewhere within them surely floated remnants of our children. However fleeting or memorial those remnants might be, we could not leave them to the emptiness of the facility and its doctors clinical probing. So, instead, we took them home with us. In this decision we were sorely unprepared.

Once in our houses, the balls went wild. Brimming with an unnatural energy, they slammed against our walls and bounced from our floors to our ceilings in rapid, machine gun succession, perhaps testing the boundaries of our homes. They cracked our windows and shattered our lighting fixtures, knocked over our tables and splintered our chairs. They rolled throughout our houses every minute of every day, always in motion, always progressing toward a destination we could seemingly not provide. Sometimes they even bounced against us—often with enough force to make us stumble or send us sprawling to the ground—and we, unsure of what else to do, fled from their advances, scraped and bruised as we were. Whether the bouncings were attacks or gestures of play or symbolic movements beyond our guessing, their violence caused us to worry for our lives, especially after several of us suffered concussions and broken bones. Therefore, in order to protect ourselves, we did what any reasonable community would do—we instituted a treatment plan for our ball-children’s unchecked mania.

Our options to this end were admittedly limited. We owned no golden egg with which to bankroll a major project and we received no meaningful guidance in our planning. At secret meetings held in neutral locations, we brainstormed and we deliberated and, ultimately, we embarked upon a plan that we thought most effective under the circumstances. Laughable though it may seem, we bought high-end treadmills and, between their arms, rigged leather harnesses that would support the weight and girth of our transmuted children. Into these harnesses we wrestled the frenetic balls, locking them in place with a variety of straps and buckles while making sure that they could still spin freely within their binds. We provided a modicum of leeway in the harnesses’ lengths so that the rubbery dynamos could also bounce a few inches into the air, off the treadmill track, if they needed to bounce at all.

Once we were certain that the ball-children had been firmly restrained and fully introduced to their new living arrangements, we turned on the treadmills and set them rolling at a sprinter’s pace. There, in those harnesses, we’d planned that they would spend every moment of the rest of their strange existences, safe and secure, locked in place yet spinning ever forward, on a path we’d made for them, a path that could cause no damage or destruction. We would never unfasten their buckles or loosen their straps; we would never lift them out of their bindings or wash the residue of the treadmills’ rubber belts from their orange sides. We would not even pause the treadmills’ circulation unless their motors burned out. We were too frightened to do anything other than maintain the ball-children as surreal conversation pieces and monuments to our parental failure. We were not offering a cure to our children, but a palliative to ourselves. And, in this, we were relatively satisfied, at least for a time.

 A Divide

Other towns deal with the orange ball and their own infected offspring in other ways.

In Mercury, Ohio, the citizens have built a windowless, private gymnasium the size of an entire office complex for their ball-children. Within this gym the ball-children permanently reside, never allowed to exit the building’s triple-locked steel doors, even with supervision. The people of Mercury reason that their ball-children should never want to leave the gym, given that it’s equipped with a dizzying array of tubes and chutes and mazes and wheels in myriad sizes and shapes. It is, after all, designed to be a ball’s veritable paradise. And yet, when questioned about the usual movements of the ball-children within their unique enclave, Mercury residents recite an odd fact: No matter how often the ball-children run their mazes or blast through their chutes, no matter how much exuberance they seem to emit as they slide and bounce and roll, they always end their day by congregating around the doors, rebounding against them lightly.

Elsewhere, in Sutter’s Glen, Tennessee, every family of a ball-child owns an oversized, triple-reinforced bouncy castle which their individual ball-child inhabits. These bouncy castles are a significant source of revenue for the people of Sutter’s Glen, as they allow the families of ball-children to offer wealthy curiosity-seekers the opportunity to purchase exclusive admissions to view their ball-children. It’s rumored that, for the right price, the people of Sutter’s Glen will even allow patrons to enter the bouncy castles and play with their ball-children. Through this trade, the community has grown quite wealthy—so much so that Jaguars and Porsches and Ferraris are now common sights on the streets of Sutter’s Glen. It should be little surprise then, that, privately, many of the town’s citizens whisper a desire for the orange ball to return, to transform the rest of their children, to help them erect more bouncy castles in their backyards.

In yet another locale—Kylersburg, Wyoming—the ball-children are herded onto a ranch with absurdly high, electrified fences. There, after they have been stamped with a unique number and fitted with a tiny tracking device, they are given free reign of the open fields and sky. On the ranch, they are treated much as any other herd of livestock; they are frequently rounded up and counted, often driven from one area of the ranch to another so as to evenly wear on the land, and occasionally used in special rodeos during which ranch hands attempt to rope and tie them or ride them like angry steer. The people of Kylersburg contend that, as a whole, their treatment method is by far the most natural and humane of all known treatment methods. Perhaps surprisingly, few outsiders argue with the assertion.

Finally, in Vernonville, Texas, in the town that ignited our initial fears, the people have no ongoing treatment plan, as the treatment they eventually instituted was of a singular and final variety. “Shots from heaven,” some of the citizens of Vernonville call their particular treatment. Others refer to it more modestly as “A mercy.” No matter what moniker they choose, the people of Vernonville claim they feel no remorse or guilt over their actions. They say they simply copied the treatment from their traditional methods for handling lame horses and terminally ill pets. They say that the greatest kindness they could show to their children was to let the dead lie down. Whether or not this statement rings true, one thing is certain: The people of Vernonville no longer need to worry about their ball-children, because there are no longer any ball-children in Vernonville to worry about. Considering this outcome, some might argue that their treatment has been the most successful of all.

A Revelation

After our treatment plan went into effect, we returned to lives of relative normalcy. We went to work and complained about paperwork and bosses rather than silently hunching at our desks, worrying over what the balls might be doing to our possessions and our loved ones while we were away. We attended movies and ate at fine dining establishments. We went out for drinks with our friends and argued politics and sports with our families. We walked about our homes with confidence, with surety, with the peace of mind that no weighty orange ball might be tracking us from behind, waiting to pounce upon us and send us careening down a flight of stairs or through a window to our certain dooms. Gradually, we returned to our blissful old routines and, in a sense, the sharp edges of our lives once again began to wear smooth.

Meanwhile, however, the treadmills kept running in the background.

The ambient thrum and whir of treads cycling around and around became as ubiquitous to us as the soft whistle of breath from our own nostrils. We avoided the rooms in which we’d placed the ball-children—often keeping the doors to those rooms closed, if not altogether locked—but no matter which room or closet or hidden alcove of our homes we might try to hide away inside, we could hear the treadmills spinning. Music, sound machines, televisions blared at painful volumes: nothing entirely muted the noise. It became clear that if we were in our homes, we could not escape the treadmills’ flat song, and because we could not escape we were perpetually on the verge of remembering why they ran nonstop. Even when we were not at home, many of us heard the treadmills’ rhythmic drone, as though it had somehow recorded a loop of itself upon the very drums in our ears. Animated luncheons with friends, meetings with important business clients, birthday parties for significant others: all of it played out with the soundtrack of the treadmills whispering in the background. Our lives may have been returning to a state of normalcy, but it was certainly not the normalcy we’d known before the ball.

It wasn’t long before the noise from the treadmills took its toll. In small ways that would have been imperceptible to anyone unfamiliar with our community, we began to wear thin. Our laughter at even the best-told jokes faded faster. Our goodnight kisses took on an unexpected hardness. Our footsteps came faster, lighter, as though we were trying to outrun a looming danger without showing any appearance of panic. We began to suffer from insomnia and panic attacks, which would lead us to pace in our yards during the witching hours of the night and, trembling, stare at the starlit sky. We lost weight—small amounts at first, healthy amounts we should have lost anyway, but eventually enough to make strangers wonder which wasting disease we must have developed and how many months we had left to live. Worst of all, we began to let our thoughts float away from us. We began to consider the balls as our children. We began to imagine what they might do if they weren’t on the treadmills, speeding to nowhere. We began to try to grasp their needs and intentions and desires, impossible though the task might be.

Through our unrelenting contemplation, we were slowly drawn back to the rooms in which we’d placed the treadmills. At first, we stole into the rooms for the briefest of seconds, barely glimpsing even a flash of orange. But seconds stretched to minutes and minutes stretched to hours. Soon, we were spending entire evenings in the treadmill rooms. We watched the ball-children roll in place, our thoughts rolling with them. We could not stop envisioning new scenarios for them, were we to set them free of their shackles. Some of us conjured wild fantasies about the ball-children forming utopian ball-societies that operated without prejudice or hatred or any of the plagues of our human society. Some of us sketched nightmares of ball invasions, with our spherical overlords inflating us to bursting in an effort to assimilate us to their ways of being. And some of us simply hoped that the ball-children might roll to the ends of the earth and back, collecting experiences and perceptions and loves and dreams along their journeys.

No matter their substance, beneath all our thoughts settled an abiding sense of guilt. When no one else was home, we curled up in the treadmill rooms and we wept. We cried for the children we’d lost and we cried for the things they’d become that we’d never let live. We knew we’d wronged the ball-children. We knew we’d trapped what was not ours to trap, held on too tightly to a control we never really had in the first place. If the balls were to save us, we knew it was right. If they were to destroy us, we knew that was right, too. And if they bounced off to distant futures not meant for us at all, we knew that would be best, for in those futures we would find a sanctuary that we’d been missing for quite some time.

So we conferred with one another and we decided to engage in a final treatment so shocking, so revelatory, that no other town had even considered it. We decided to unbuckle the ball-children, open wide the doors to our houses, and, with no small amount of commingled anxiety and excitement and regret, let them roll past us and out of our town. Our final treatment, the only treatment we could justify in the end, was to simply let them roll away.

A Mystery

There exists even less data on the nature of the orange ball itself than its terrible effects on our children. Its first documented appearance occurred in a rural farming community in the heartland of the nation—a place called Goldenrod, Nebraska—where, eight years before our own tragedy, it infected its first three children. Its trajectory since then has followed no discernible pattern or logical progression, thus making any prediction of its present or future movement an exercise in pure divination. Its origin is equally the province of speculation and often involves theories that touch on fantastical notions of extraterrestrial intervention, interdimensional slippage, demonic corruption, and clandestine military projects gone awry. Beyond firsthand accounts, visual evidence of the ball itself is also utterly nil, as every attempt to photograph it or record it to video has resulted in nothing but blurred or fuzzy images. Though numerous adults have seen the ball in person and can attest to its physical reality, it has, as far as we or anyone else knows, never been so much as grazed by an adult hand. Many people, ourselves included, wonder what might happen if such an interaction were to occur. Would we, too, be transformed into balls, dead in humanity but vibrant and alive in a new state of being? Is the transformation a curse exclusive to our children? Or have we adults already been cursed in a less tangible way? About any of this, we may never know.

Kurt Fawver

Kurt Fawver is a writer of horror, weird fiction, and literature that oozes through the cracks of genre. His short fiction has won a Shirley Jackson Award and been previously published in venues such as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Aeons, Weird Tales, Vastarien, Best New Horror, and Year’s Best Weird Fiction. He’s the author of two collections of short stories–The Dissolution of Small Worlds (Lethe Press) and Forever, in Pieces (Villipede Publications)–as well as a novella, Burning Witches, Burning Angels (Dunhams Manor Press), and two chapbooks, Pwdre Ser (Dim Shores Publishing) and Problems in River Heights (Unnerving Press). He’s also had non-fiction published in journals such as Thinking Horror and the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.