Tor.com is honored to reprint “Playing Nice with God’s Bowling Ball,” a short story by N.K. Jemisin, originally published in the August 2008 issue of Jim Baen’s Universe.
In “Playing Nice with God’s Bowling Ball,” a police detective tries to understand how a children’s dispute over a playing card could have led to a mysterious disappearance.
Playing Nice With God’s Bowling Ball
“I didn’t mean for anything to happen to Timmy.” Jeffy Hanson sat before Grace in a chair big enough to swallow him, his head bowed and hands limp in his lap. “I told him not to feed it like that. I told him what would happen.”
“Let’s just start at the beginning.” Detective Grace Anneton gave Jeffy a reassuring smile, though he didn’t lift his eyes to see it. In spite of herself, Grace felt sorry for the kid. She knew better; he could be some sweet-talking little punk, trying to snowjob her with his big, brown, puppy eyes. Or a sociopath, already skilled enough at seven years old to emulate emotions he didn’t feel. She shouldn’t feel sorry for any confessed murderer, no matter how improbable the murder sounded. But she did.
He took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. “It was for my mom. The card. I wanted to get it back from Timmy. You know Monster Fusion King?”
Grace sifted through her memory and came up with an image: a sign in the window of the local convenience store. MONSTER FUSION KING SOLD HERE! “Some sort of card game?”
He nodded. “Me and Timmy, we get new packs on Fridays. Timmy always gets four or five. I only buy one. My mom used to give me an allowance, but when Dad went away and we moved here to the city she had to stop. We don’t have a lot of money anymore.”
“So how do you get a new pack every week, Jeffy?”
“Mom gives me lunch money. But at lunchtime I get water instead of juice and I save up what’s left and I use that to buy my pack for the week.” He looked up at Grace, a different sort of guilt flickering in his eyes. “Do you have to tell my mom that?”
Grace smiled and made a mental note to check for a financial motive if the kid’s confession turned out to be more than a load of hooey. “I don’t think we’ll have to tell her that, Jeffy. So. This all started when Timmy got a card you liked?”
“No.” He looked down at his hands again. “I mean, yeah, he always had cards I liked, but that wasn’t what started it. Timmy was a real collector. He even got MONSTER KING magazine. He had almost all the cards ever made.”
“I see. And how many cards did you have?”
He shrugged a little. “Not so many.”
Of course. “So this started last Friday when you got your new pack?”
He nodded. “I got a really good card, the Cuckoo Chimera. It’s a special contest card, only a few ever made. Only I didn’t know that, not then. Timmy said he’d trade me for three of his repeats—ones he already had, I mean. I said yes.” He frowned and squirmed in his seat.
Grace read his restlessness. “I’m guessing it was worth more than three cards.”
“Yeah. My friend, Eduardo, said he saw one for three hundred dollars on eBay.”
Holy shit, Grace thought. I gotta start collecting cards. ”When did you find this out, Jeffy?”
“At school on Monday. That’s when I talked to Eduardo. A lot of the kids in my class are into Monster King.”
“I see. And you got mad.”
“No.” He looked up at her, frowning again. “I didn’t care about stuff like that. Timmy was my friend. But that night when I got home, my mom was crying.”
“Her car—it’s really old—broke down at work. She said she couldn’t afford to get it fixed. My dad, he…” Another of those little shifts of discomfort. “He doesn’t send money to take care of me like he’s supposed to. He doesn’t think I’m his.”
Grace’s eyebrows shot up. What kind of parents would tell their child something like that?
“They argued a lot, before he left. Sometimes I listened.”
“I see. So your mom was upset.”
“Yeah. She couldn’t afford to get the car fixed unless she took money out of the rent and if she did that we’d lose the apartment.”
“That must have made you feel really bad.”
An unhappy nod. “I asked her what she needed to fix the car and she said, ’Three hundred dollars.’”
Definitely a financial motive. And definitely more than manslaughter. Grace kept her voice even. “So then you wanted your card back.”
“Yeah. I called Timmy that night and told him I knew he’d made a bad trade and it wasn’t fair and we should reverse it. And he said it wasn’t his fault I didn’t know about the contest cards.” Jeffy’s brow tightened. “And then I told him about my mom and he said yeah, right it was a good story but he wasn’t falling for it and too bad, so sad.” Jeffy looked up at her. “I got mad then.”
“I can imagine.” Revenge motive too, maybe. Damn, the poor little brat might be looking at murder one. “So what did you do, Jeffy?”
“I told him I’d do anything to get the card back. I offered him everything I had—all my cards and my roller blades and even my Click-n-Go robot set. But he said he was going to keep the card because in a year it might be worth twice as much. He said he would only give it to me if I gave him something really, really cool for it. And then he laughed and said I’d never be able to give him anything that cool because I was poor, so that was like asking me to give him the moon or a black hole or something.”
Grace shook her head. Kids could be real little monsters sometimes. Then she shoved that thought aside; she was feeling sorry for the kid again.
She leaned across the table and folded her hands. “Jeffy, when you came into the precinct, you told the officer at the front desk that you might’ve killed Timmy Johnson. Is this why you killed him? Because he wouldn’t give your card back?”
Jeffy frowned again. “No. I told you, I didn’t mean to. It was an accident.”
“But if you were angry with him—”
“I wasn’t, not once he said what he wanted. I gave it to him and I told him how to take care of it. But he didn’t pay attention.”
Neither had Grace, apparently. She frowned in confusion, trying to figure out what she’d missed. “Gave what to him, Jeffy?”
“I already told you,” Jeffy said, with an exasperated air. “Timmy said he would give me the card back if I gave him something like the moon or a black hole. I couldn’t think of anything else, and the moon was too big, so I made a black hole and gave it to him. It was just a little one. But he started feeding it this giant stuffed panda he got from Coney Island last year. The panda was even bigger than he was. I tried to stop him. I told him it was too big. But he dented the special container it was in, and the black hole got loose and ate him.”
Then, apparently oblivious to Grace’s stare, the boy burst into tears. “I told him to be careful.”
In the observation room, Grace rubbed her face with her hands. Beyond the one-way glass, little Jeffy sat with his head down on his folded arms.
“So the kid is crazy,” said Captain Dewitt.
“Not necessarily.” Taliafero, Grace’s partner, regarded the boy through the glass. “Could be a cry for attention or some bullshit like that. He killed somebody but can’t say where the body is; no, wait, he only thinks he killed him; no, wait…” He shook his head. “Prank, maybe. Or just a flat-out lie.”
Grace shook her head. “Put a kid that age in front of a cop and they might tell little white lies, but not the kinds of whoppers this kid is spinning. He actually believes what he’s saying.”
“Could he be…” Taliafero waved a hand. “I don’t know, confused? Maybe the Johnson kid fell into a sinkhole. This kid sees what happens, doesn’t know the word for it and calls it a black hole. And he feels guilty because maybe he wished something bad would happen to little Timmy ’cause little Timmy’s an asshole, and he comes up with this story.”
Dewitt shook his head. “We can get Dr. Howard to examine the kid if it comes to that. In the meantime, get his mother in here and take an official statement. If the kid did kill somebody, I don’t want him getting off on a technicality.”
They took another statement from Jeffy once his mother arrived. Grace watched closely while Taliafero conducted the interview. Taliafero asked Jeffy the same questions in different ways, urged him to repeat certain details, made him describe the three hundred-dollar card and retrace his steps from school to home every afternoon. But despite all that, Grace detected no inconsistencies in the boy’s story.
She watched the mother, too. Mrs. Hanson, a thin woman in a faded dress, who had perpetually-tired eyes, listened to the story with a little frown on her face, showing surprise only once. Not when Taliafero mentioned“possible harm to Timmy Johnson”—that had only made her frown deepen. But when Jeffy gave his black hole explanation, her eyes widened, her breath caught and her body language screamed anxiety in a way that no detective could have missed.
Dewitt noticed it too, and rapped on the door to bring Taliafero out. Closing the door, he turned to them and folded his arms. “So?”
Taliafero shook his head. “I can’t crack the kid, but the mom sure is interesting.”
Dewitt sighed and nodded. “And here I was ready to call this a case of too much high fructose corn syrup.”
“Shouldn’t we send a forensics team over to the Johnsons’?” Grace asked. “Hard to indict anybody for murder if there’s no evidence that a murder actually occurred.”
“I don’t want to send a team yet. I’m with Tally on this maybe turning out to be a prank. But you two go check it out. Holler if you see any black holes.”
Mr. Johnson wasn’t home. Mrs. Johnson let them in. She was a pretty woman, but there was a dull sort of glaze to her eyes that Grace had seen before. Denial, probably, or shock. That desperate creeping fear that only the parents of a missing child could ever know.
“It’s about time,” she said when Grace and Taliafero entered the house. Despite the words, her voice was without heat. Without any emotion, in fact, spilling out of her in a soft, droning babble. “I called in the missing persons’ report this morning. You want a description of what he was wearing? I’ve been trying to find a good photograph—”
Grace cleared her throat uneasily. “We’re not exactly here about the missing persons’ report, Mrs. Johnson.” She glanced around the foyer of the place—a four-bedroom duplex in a nice brownstone, worth a lot these days but probably not when they’d bought it. There was something strange about the place, she noticed at once. Something off-kilter. But she couldn’t put her finger on the source of that feeling.
Mrs. Johnson walked past them toward the living room. A half-burnt cigarette smoldered in an ashtray on the table; she picked it up and waved them toward the couch. “Talk to me about what?” Her eyes lit in sudden hungry anxiety. “You found Timmy?”
“No, Mrs. Johnson. I’m sorry.” Taliafero looked uncomfortable. “Do you know a friend of Timmy’s named Jeffrey Hanson?”
The Johnson woman seemed to wilt; her dull glaze returned. “Jeffy? Sure I know him. Weird kid, but nice enough. What’s this about?”
“Why do you say he’s weird, Mrs. Johnson?”
“He just… is.” She made a vague gesture with the cigarette; smoke swirled in loops around her. “Quiet. Polite.” Her lips quirked in a faint, fleeting smile. “Well, maybe I’m just used to Timmy. But I’ve heard weird things about his mom.” She shook her head. “Anyway, what does he have to do with my son?”
Taliafero cleared his throat. “This afternoon, ma’am, Jeffy came into the precinct and asked to be arrested. He said, and I quote—” He flipped through his notepad. “’I think I killed Timmy Johnson. It was an accident, but I think maybe I should go to jail.’”
The Johnson woman’s face went slack for an instant. “Timmy’s dead?”
Quickly, Grace spoke up. “We’re not certain, Mrs. Johnson. Jeffy says it happened here, in Timmy’s bedroom, but obviously you would have been the first to know if that was true. And Jeffy appears to be… confused… about the details of the crime. So we can’t jump to any conclusions about Timmy yet.”
The shock began to clear from Mrs. Johnson’s face. She swallowed, took a breath, noticed that her cigarette was about to drop some ashes, and absently stubbed it out. “When… when will you know more?”
“Well, first we’d like to examine the crime sc—the place where it supposedly happened,” Grace said. “May we?”
The woman nodded and waved them toward the stairwell. “Up on the left.” She fell silent then, lost in the daze of her own terrible thoughts. Grace and Taliafero glanced at each other, then made an awkward exit to go check out the scene.
But when they opened the door to the Johnson boy’s room, they both stopped in shock.
Parts of the room were still normal. A bookcase set into one wall held all of the usual accoutrements of the small-boy lifestyle: large binders labeled“MONSTER KING” in a blocky hand, an open box of Legos, a row of books arranged with a mother’s neatness. On a nearby wall were posters, one of the Yankees’ Derek Jeter and another of some spiky-haired anime character. Below the posters was a bed, more or less in order. They could see that at one point it had been neatly-made, but now the sheets hung half on the floor and the bed itself had been partially pulled away from the wall. It dipped at a precarious angle toward the yawning, splintered pit in the middle of the hardwood floor.
“What the…?” Taliafero murmured aloud. Grace stepped into the bedroom, moving gingerly even though the outermost edges of the floor seemed stable. The pit started a foot or two into the room. From there the floor had been demolished in a rough circle, bits of plaster and wood sloping dangerously toward a hole maybe five inches across at the center. They could glimpse the room below—the kitchen—through the opening.
Grace had a sudden vision of a whirlpool made of wood and lathing rather than water, twisting with hellish speed as it descended into… what?
A black hole, like the kid said.
She pushed that thought aside.
“Looks like somebody dropped God’s bowling ball in here,” Taliafero muttered.
“We thought he’d run away,” said Mrs. Johnson. Grace spun around. She’d been too stunned by the hole to hear the woman coming up the steps behind them.
“That’s why we waited ’til today to file the report,” Mrs. Johnson said in her heatless, spiritless voice. “We thought he’d gotten into something—fireworks maybe—and run away because he thought we’d be angry. But I don’t care about the floor.” She rubbed her eyes; Grace’s heart ached for her. “If you find him, tell him that. The floor doesn’t matter, I just want him home.”
Grace pointed at the floor. “Mrs. Johnson… do you have any idea what could have caused that?”
The woman looked up, her eyes haunted and very, very lost.
“No,” said Mrs. Johnson,“but there’s one in the kitchen, too.”
They searched the basement as carefully as they could in the area under the kitchen hole. But there was nothing—no blood, no fireworks residue that they could see, no signs of a struggle. The basement had been set up as Mr. Johnson’s den, with an old couch and TV and ugly carpeting. The couch was out of position just as the Johnson kid’s bed had been, and the TV stand lay on its side, the TV a shattered wreck beside it. Aside from that, the room was clean. There was no sign of whatever had punched its way down through two floors.
“And there’s something else weird,” Grace said. Taliafero, who stood under the kitchen hole peering up at it, glanced around at her.
She gestured at the couch and the floor. “Where’s the debris? There should be a pile of lathing down here, but there’s nothing. Not even dust.”
Taliafero frowned and gave the room a second look. “No nest-lining, either.”
“This is a guy’s private hang-out zone. There should be chip bags, sports magazines, beer cans and stuff.”
“Maybe he’s the wine spritzer type.”
“There’s no remote for the TV. You think he’s a Luddite, too?”
It was all weird, Grace agreed privately. All part of the off-kilter feel of the place. Now that she’d seen the damage, Grace suspected most of the floors in the brownstone sloped a little. That was what she’d noticed before, at least subconsciously—perspectives gone skewy, her balance slightly disrupted. If a forensics team measured the place, they would probably find all of the furniture just a teensy bit out of position, and all the walls minutely warped. All pulled toward whatever had started eating its way through the Johnsons’ house.
“Whoa—hold up.” Taliafero, peering into a corner beside the couch, straightened with something in his hand. Grace came over. It was a child’s toy, or partly one. The outermost portion of the object was made of Legos, built into a boxlike frame. The inner portion was a mass of what looked like quartz, bits of it charred, threaded through with strands of colored spaghetti. Fiber optic wire? Or something else? Whatever it was, it seemed to be growing out of the crystals.
“Busted, whatever it is,” Taliafero said. He poked the burnt portions with the tip of a pencil.
“Bag it,” Grace said. “Maybe the lab boys can figure it out.”
The lab boys sent back a report a few days later. No blood traces, no fireworks residue, and the crystalline portion was simple rock sugar. The spaghetti strands were some polymer they were still trying to identify, but it would have to wait as three higher-priority cases had come in. Across the bottom of the report, some wit had scrawled,“Chalk this one up for the X-Files!” and a happy face.
Without a body or evidence that a murder had even occurred, they couldn’t charge the Hanson kid. The holes in the Johnsons’ floor could have been caused by anything. And although they had the kid’s confession, the assistant DA laughed at the notion of filing an indictment with the evidence they had. So Captain Dewitt ordered Grace and Taliafero off the case.
But the case lingered in Grace’s thoughts for the whole week afterward. She lay awake in bed contemplating little Jeffy Hanson’s unhappy face and the yawning pit where Timmy Johnson had last been seen. Finally, she decided to follow one last lead.
She got up early one morning and went over to the Hansons’. Mrs. Hanson met her at the door, looking more tired than ever. She didn’t seem surprised to see Grace.
“I’m keeping Jeffy home from school today,” she said. “He hasn’t been sleeping well lately. Do you have to talk to him again? I’d like to start putting this behind us.”
“A child is still missing, Mrs. Hanson,” Grace said.
The woman sighed and held the door open. Jeffy stepped into the hallway as Grace came inside.
“You didn’t believe me,” he said. He was scowling. “I don’t want to talk to you.” He stomped out of sight.
Mrs. Hanson sighed again and closed the door behind Grace. “Come have a cup of coffee at least.”
They sat in the claustrophobic kitchen, at a table whose center was piled high with bills. The one on top bore a past-due notice.
Mrs. Hanson caught Grace looking and offered a thin smile. “Haven’t quite mastered the financials of the single-mother thing yet.”
Grace sipped coffee. “Jeffy’s father doesn’t help out much?”
“Try ’at all.’”
“You can file a claim with the state, you know. They’d track him down for you.”
Hanson shook her head, running one hand over her graying hair. “No. I don’t need his money.”
Grace tried to use a delicate tone. “Jeffy might.”
“I know. But I can’t afford a lawyer right now.”
“All you need is proof of paternity.”
Abruptly that peculiar, anxious tension was there again in the woman’s body language. Grace watched closely as Hanson looked into her cup of coffee, fidgeted with the handle, shifted on her chair. “I don’t want Jeffy taking any blood tests. Besides, it’s not that important.”
“If Jeffy killed someone because he wanted to get money for you, it’s important, Mrs. Hanson.”
She winced. “He said he didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt.”
“It sounds like you believe him. His whole story, I mean.”
Now the woman’s face tightened in an odd expression—half proud, half rueful. “Oh, yes. Jeffy never lies.”
Tension gathered in the pit of Grace’s belly. “There have been other incidents like this?”
“No one’s gone missing or been hurt before, if that’s what you mean.”
It wasn’t, and the woman damn well knew it.
Grace leaned forward. “Mrs. Hanson, if you know anything about Timmy Johnson and you don’t tell us, you’ll be an accomplice in whatever’s happened to him.”
The woman shook her head. Curiously, she seemed to relax a bit as well. “I don’t know anything about that. Really. I’ll admit I didn’t like the boy much. This wasn’t the first time he’d taken advantage of Jeffy, though Jeffy’s the forgiving sort. But I certainly wouldn’t have wished harm on him.”
“You believe the Johnson boy is dead, then.”
Mrs. Hanson smiled, knowingly and utterly without humor. “I asked Jeffy about that last night. You know what he said?”
“’Things are different in there, Mom.’” She imitated Jeffy Hanson’s solemn soprano perfectly. “He said Timmy still existed, sort of. That’s what he said, sort of. So I looked up black holes on the internet to try and understand. You see, the flow of time around Timmy, close to the black hole, is bent. It’s a matter of perception. To us, outside the hole, he vanished quickly but will slow down as he gets closer to the hole. Eventually, if we could see at the microscopic level, he’d look to us as if he was frozen in place. But for Timmy, time is stretched out. Only an eyeblink has passed since he started to fall in; he probably doesn’t even know he’s in trouble yet. It might take him years—by our reckoning—to fall in all the way. Or he might already be gone; it really depends on which theory you pick.” She sipped her coffee, then swirled the remainder around in her cup. The dark liquid swirled about the center in a miniature whirlpool.
Grace took a swallow of coffee as well, mostly to offset the chill that moved down her spine. “What are you saying? That Timmy’s not dead?”
“I’m saying Timmy Johnson may very well live forever.” Mrs. Hanson gave Grace another of those strange, bleak smiles. “You still want to arrest my son for murder?”
“Crazy son, crazy mother,” Taliafero said, later that day when Grace told him about the impromptu interview. “You didn’t believe her, did you? It’s not the first time she’s pulled this loon job.”
“Check this out.” Taliafero woke up his computer and googled the name of Jeffy Hanson’s mother. The top of the list of responses was a site for THE AQUARIAN ASSOCIATION OF ABDUCTEES.
Grace groaned. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Ee-yep. Our black hole boy is, according to his mother’s testimony on this site, the ’demi-human result of a transcendental visitation by otherworldly beings.’ If this is what the kid’s father had to put up with, no wonder he booked.”
“No doubt. But…” The Hanson woman hadn’t seemed crazy, Grace recalled. Far from it. Neither had little Jeffy. “Any chance she might be telling the truth?”
Taliafero stared at her.
She felt her cheeks grow warm. “That Jeffy isn’t her ex-husband’s kid, I mean. You know, maybe his mom had an affair—” with Steve Hawking“—and came up with this to explain it.”
“Hell of a way to tell the kid he’s an accident.” He sat back in his chair. “We could always call Child Protective Services.”
Grace shook her head. “I don’t think there’s any abuse or neglect here. This sounds like just another of those gentle lies parents tell their kids. ’Fido ran away’ instead of ’Fido got creamed by an eighteen-wheeler.’”
“Either way, now we know who’s been putting ideas in the kid’s head. Just as well we gave up on this one.” He leveled a look at her then. “You should let it go, too.”
He was right, of course. Though it troubled Grace deeply that the Johnson boy was still missing, he was just another of the ugly little loose ends that never seemed to get tied up in her job. She had done the best she could; it was time to move on.
Another week passed. Timmy Johnson was put on the state and national lists of missing and exploited children. His father went on the evening news, weeping and begging his son to come home. Several dozen Timmy sightings poured into the division after that, then trickled off in twenty-four hours; all of them were false alarms.
Grace wrote one last report for the file. The most likely theory of the crime was that Timmy Johnson had used some sort of explosive to severely damage his parents’ home, then run away rather than face the music. There were ten thousand predators on the street who would target a scared, vulnerable little boy. The confession by Timmy’s friend Jeffy was assumed to be a lonely, unhappy child’s bid for attention, fueled by his lonely, unhappy mother’s long term quest for same.
She put the file on her captain’s desk, then got out a phone book and started making some calls.
That afternoon, Grace took off work early. She made one stop along the way, then drove to P.S. 1138 around 3 p.m. She waited while children filled the courtyard and began trickling away on foot and in buses and carpools. After a half hour she caught a glimpse of a familiar dark head of hair. Jeffy Hanson walked away from the school alone, his head down, bookbag sagging and hands in pockets. Grace got out of the car and trotted over to join him.
He spotted her coming and stopped. “I still don’t want to talk to you.”
“Just one last thing, Jeffy. Can I walk with you, at least? Won’t waste your time that way.”
He heaved a sigh. “Okay.” He resumed walking, still at the same slow pace.
“You usually walk home alone, Jeffy?”
“No. I used to walk with Timmy.” There was deep sorrow in the boy’s voice. That, more than anything else, reassured Grace that she’d made the right decision.
“Tell me something, Jeffy. What happened to the black hole?”
He paused for just a step, though he resumed walking quickly. “You didn’t believe me before.”
“Well, you can’t really blame me for that. Nobody’s ever made a black hole before. But I did some reading on it, after I met you.” She slipped her hands into her pockets, looking up at the bright autumn sky. “The black hole started to fall into the Earth, didn’t it? After it ate Timmy. It would have gone to the center of the planet and kept growing there. It might have eventually eaten us all. But you stopped it.”
He said nothing for several seconds, and then finally: “Yeah. It went kind of slow at first. So I ran down to the basement and built something to stop it. Then I built something else to hold it, and I took it away.”
Grace felt her heart speed up; she swallowed. Never mind the sensible, skeptical questions. Never mind how he’d stopped it or how he’d contained it or how he’d created the damn thing in the first place. Those weren’t the important questions right now. “Where, Jeffy? Where did you take it?”
“I haven’t figured out where I can put it that’s safe.” He slipped his backpack off one shoulder, reached inside, and pulled out a lidded coffee can. Or at least, part of the strange object was a coffee can. The rest was a bizarre conglomeration of crystalline masses, colored spaghetti, assorted oddities—she glimpsed a silver chewing-gum wrapper twisted into an odd shape inside one of the crystals—and components from what had to be Mr. Johnson’s TV remote. A“mute” button poked out of the object’s side.
“I’m scared to leave it at home,” he said very softly. “Sometimes my mom cleans my room.”
Grace stared at the can, aware that if she once looked inside it, the universe would change. Not in the ways that mattered. Murders wouldn’t stop, bad things would still happen to good people, and kids whose only crime was selfishness would still suffer fates they didn’t deserve. But her place in the universe, her conceptualization of it, would be altered beyond all recognition, and perhaps destroyed. For how important could her job, her life, her very existence be in a world where seven-year-olds carried black holes around in their school bags?
Then the moment passed, and she lifted her eyes from the coffee can to look at the solemn face of the boy beyond it. A boy whose eyes were ringed in dark circles because he hadn’t slept well in weeks. A boy who held the earth’s death in his hands, too afraid to let go.
“You can’t destroy it?” she asked.
“No. Not yet. Maybe when I’m older. I’ll understand it better, then. Maybe I’ll be able to get Timmy out, too.”
She made herself reach out and take hold of the can. The crystals felt slightly warm under her fingertips.
“Then I’d better hold onto this for awhile,” she said. “In the interest of public safety—at least until you’re old enough to get rid of it. But you have to promise not to make any more. Agreed?”
Jeffy brightened at once, the burden of responsibility lifting from him almost palpably. “Really? Okay!” Then his small face clouded. “But you have to promise not to play with it. Not even a little. You’re a policewoman, so you have to do what’s right.”
“Not even a little,” Grace agreed. ”In fact, I won’t even open it.”
Then she reached into her blazer pocket and pulled out a small paper bag, which she handed to him.
He frowned, opened it, and took out the Monster Fusion King card. His mouth formed a big silent“o”.
“That’s the one, right?”
“It sure is! But…” He frowned in confusion. “It can’t be the same one.” Timmy had taken that one with him.
“It’s not. But the original deal was the card for this, so I figured the price was the same.” She lifted the coffee can. “Fair is fair.”
He grinned up at her in delight. Grace couldn’t help grinning back. One day, when Jeffy grew up and came into the full power and genius that was his true father’s gift, she hoped he would remember this day. Maybe one small act of kindness would stay with him despite the abandonment and loneliness and cruelty he’d experienced in his life. Maybe his destiny could be shaped by the small joys of human life: a mother’s love, the games of childhood, the satisfaction of making someone else’s life a little easier. Maybe then little Jeffy would grow up to build miracles instead of nightmares.
“Now.” Grace put a hand on his shoulder. “I hear the comic book shop around the corner buys rare cards. They’re expecting you.”
“Okay!” He tucked the precious card into his backpack. “And I’ll come find you when I know how to get rid of it. I promise.”
He waved and ran off. Grace watched him go, then headed back to her car, where she tucked the coffee can into the storage net in her trunk. That would do until she could take it up to Poughkeepsie and stow it in her mother’s attic. It would be all right there for a decade or two.
She drove very, very carefully on the way home.
“Playing Nice with God’s Bowling Ball” © N.K. Jemisin, 2008