The device was implanted when Tommy was three years old.
Too young, in his mother’s opinion, but her husband Keith got his way, as usual. “Integration is easier at that age,” he’d insisted, sounding like the glossy brochures he devoured. “The nano-tendrils embed in the growing human brain, making a better connection, and the infant body recovers from surgery without leaving a noticeable scar. Besides, you don’t want Tommy to be left behind, do you?”
And no, she didn’t, any more than she’d wanted to be left behind when Keith upgraded to a younger, sleeker wife, two years and one promotion later.
The divorce… well, he’d had all the power, all the money, hadn’t he?
So she’d settled. Of course she had. Meekly taken the house and the inflation-linked maintenance. Accepted his terms for visitations, which always left both Tommy and her frazzled.
“My little Superman,” Keith would say, as he swooped in to pick his young son up, taking him to all the exciting places and getting him so worked up that a crash was inevitable—but it came on her time, not his.
And the presents… The ones that cost ten times what most kids’ toys cost. Device-compatible electronics that Tommy could control with a little effort. Just flashing lights, at first, just bells and whistles.
The toys had grown increasingly sophisticated with every passing birthday, every lonely Christmas, demanding more of Tommy’s concentration. Cars he could steer. An Etch-a-Sketch he could control by staring intently at it. A whining, hovering drone, its foam surround protecting it (but not the flower vases or the picture frames). And the latest ones, with legs and arms that moved stiffly, clumsily, Tommy’s shoulders and hips twitching in empathy.
They gave her the creeps. Tommy latched onto her unease and exploited it, using the mind-controlled devices to give her unexpected scares. Hiding his toys in cupboards or behind doors, waiting for the right moment to activate them, to leave her with her heart pounding, dreading the next encounter.
She couldn’t ask Keith to do or say anything about it. Tommy’s father was proud of each and every merry jape. “Superman!” she’d hear him crow over the video call when he was supposed to be telling Tommy off.
It was always going to come to a head. Regrettable, it should happen on his ninth birthday. There had been a party; Tommy’s disappointment in his father’s absence partly compensated by the dozen school friends he’d invited—some with their own devices, their own toys—but mainly by the newly arrived present, the biggest of the lot, costing nearly as much as a second-hand car. A gleaming, two-foot-high robot with an inbuilt speech synthesizer that Tommy used to hound little Gemma Braithwaite, scaring her almost to death.
She’d had to call the parents, have them collect their charges nearly an hour earlier than expected—the annoyed and pitying looks they gave her, the fierce glare from Mrs Braithwaite hardest to take of all, as Gemma sobbed in the back of the self-driving car.
As soon as the last child left, and while Tommy was still coming down from his chocolate cake sugar-rush, she had it out with him. And he with her, using words she was shocked he knew, words he could only have learned from his father.
She snapped. No more toys until he apologized, until he grew up.
She’d flicked the off switches one by one as she gathered them. Tommy did his best to make them evade her grasp, laughing hysterically as he sent them scooting beneath sofas, or lurching away from her fingertips. It wasn’t her fault she’d pulled the new robot’s arm so hard it snapped off, trailing wires.
Tommy rounded on her then, there at the top of the stairs, the laughter gone, his face white, fists rigid with anger.
She was never quite sure how it happened. A foot…slipped.
If her arms hadn’t been full of those damned toys, perhaps she’d have been able to stop the fall.
Keith doesn’t visit anymore. Doesn’t call, doesn’t send presents. She knows he blames her, just as she blames him. Tommy doesn’t seem to notice or mind. In his device-compatible wheelchair, he scoots around the specially adapted downstairs rooms, a one-armed robot toy perched in his lap. “My little superman,” the echo of its distorted voice rattles around the carpet-less corridors. “My little superman!”