More Than One Way

by Michael Haynes

I’d just finished feeding Alissa the first time she started to disappear. It startled me so much, feeling her weight decrease in my arms and seeing her fade away, that I nearly dropped her right on her head. What was left of it, at least.

Our orange tabby, Melvin, picked that moment to find a speck of dust to chase across the room. I glanced up at the sound of his galumphing, so I wasn’t actually looking at Alissa when, quick as a wink, her weight felt normal again. Looking down, I saw that she was the same smiling ten-month-old she had been five minutes before. Melvin had plopped down in his favorite spot, just outside the pantry where we kept the cat food, and I had to wonder if I’d hallucinated the whole thing. After all, even here on the first self-sustaining colony outside the solar system, babies didn’t just vanish.

But it happened again later that afternoon. Alissa was playing on the floor, contentedly whacking a few balls back and forth with a stick. I wasn’t willing to leave her alone even long enough to go to the bathroom, but I had been able to get a bit of work done, reviewing time off requests and updating the duty roster for the colony. I was deep into these adjustments when Melvin yowled. I looked up and saw Alissa half-there again; she seemed a little more transparent to me this time. I dropped my work and hurried to pick her up, coming to her just as she resolidified.

I held her closely and tried to slow my own heartbeat. Being a mother had delivered plenty of moments where I felt unsure what to do already, but this one trumped all the others. Worse, I didn’t even know who to go to for help.

As I was sorting through the possibilities, Henry got home from his shift in the Advanced Projects lab. I handed him Alissa, said “Keep a good hold on her!” and darted to the bathroom.

“Everything alright, Claire?” he asked through the door.

“How’s Alissa look?”

A moment’s pause. “She looks fine to me. Why?”

I washed up and came back into the hall, taking her from his arms. “Because… And don’t you dare laugh at me, Henry Martin, she’s half-vanished on me twice this afternoon!”

His brow furrowed and I pressed on. “I know what you’re going to tell me, babies don’t vanish, half or otherwise. But I saw this and felt it and Melvin did, too!”

Henry found a new level of brow-furrowing and put his hands under mine, which were clutching Alissa. “Our daughter is half-disappearing and you’re talking to our cat?”

“No! I mean, yes, she’s half-disappearing but no I’m not talking to Melvin. He yowled.”

“It was a ‘Hey, your kid is vanishing’ yowl?”

“Henry!” I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I snarled his name a second time and stormed off.

Nothing unusual happened until later that evening. I had to shoo Melvin away from the pantry twice while I cooked our dinner. The meal was a silent affair other than Alissa’s occasional interjections.

The silence moved to the main room of our quarters after dinner. We were all occupied with our own tasks. I had my staffing adjustments, Henry was catching up on his messages to and from colleagues, and Alissa happily returned to her ball-and-stick play.

A yowl broke through the quiet, but it came from Henry, not Melvin.

“No!” Henry yelled, diving onto the floor and wrestling Alissa’s stick away from her. She did what you would expect and started her own epic cry.

He ignored her, an all-to-typical reaction by him to her tears. “Has she been playing with this today?” he asked me, brandishing the six or so inches of black metal in my direction.

“Off and on.”

His mouth moved and I knew he was biting the inside of his cheek again. “Ah,” was all that came out when he opened his mouth.

“Why?” I asked, starting to realize that I might not like the answer.

“Um.” He twirled strands of his hair around one of the fingers of his empty hand. “When Alissa seemed to be partially disappearing –”

“There was no seemed about it!” Our daughter was still crying. I knelt down and plucked her from the floor.

Henry’s face looked abashed and I felt a half-second of sympathy for him, like I always did when he had that look, until I remembered what we were talking about. “Henry. Martin. Rodriguez,” I said, enunciating very clearly. “What aren’t you telling me?”

He scratched his beard and glanced down at the stick in his hand. “Well, this is one of the things I’ve been working on in my spare time at the lab. It’s supposed to be a teleportation wand. You hold onto it, visualize where you want to go and – poof! – you’re there. Well, that’s basically it. It’s all a bit more complicated than –”

I couldn’t stand to hear another word. “And you let our daughter play with this?”

Henry bit his lip. “I’d brought it home from work yesterday. I was going to work on it a bit last night, the adjustments for the distance phasing were giving me trouble.” His voice trailed off. We both looked to where the bag he carried back and forth to work sat in its usual spot, well within Alissa’s reach.

And then she was fading, or phasing, or whatever again. She felt lighter now than on the day we brought her home and I could see my hands through her.

“Henry. Make this stop.”

His eyes were fixed on our daughter.

“Henry!” I’d been mad at him moments before but now I was afraid. Afraid and desperate for him to help keep our daughter safe. “What do we do to keep her here?”

Henry’s answer – “I don’t know” – slunk out of his mouth.

And then she was back again, whole in my arms. Still smiling, still Alissa. But for how much longer?

“It’s getting worse each time,” I told him.

“I’ve never tested it on anything as large as a human. Only rats. And the results…” He waved a hand through the air.

“What does this –” I mimicked his gesture. “– mean?”

“They’ve been inconsistent. I’ve lost a few.”

I gasped.

“Oh, I don’t mean they died. I literally lost them. Well, I guess I don’t know for a fact that they’re still alive…”

Henry’s face turned down and he swallowed hard. I shifted Alissa to one arm, her weight even more comforting than usual. With the other, I reached out and touched Henry’s cheek.

“You’re a great engineer, Henry. There’s got to be a way to cancel this out and I know you can find it.”

He glanced at me and I might have even seen a tear gathering in one of his eyes. There was silence for a long moment.

“It’s like she and the device are in some sort of loop. Maybe if I tried activating it again on a different target…”

“Fine! Do that!”

Henry frowned. “It has to be a living target and it’s not like I brought a rat home with me.”

“What would happen to the target?”

“I don’t know. Maybe nothing. Maybe it’d get stuck in a loop like her and start fading away.”

Into the space after his words came the familiar thump-thump-thump of Melvin’s tail whacking the floor outside our pantry.

Henry’s eyebrows shot up and he darted toward the kitchen. I felt a little queasy and sat down on the couch. Of course we’d have to risk Melvin to try to save Alissa, but I couldn’t feel good about it. He wasn’t the most pleasant creature in the universe but he, like Alissa, was ours.

Henry came back with Melvin who squirmed and hissed in Henry’s arms. Just then, Alissa started to fade away again.

“We’ve got to do this now, Henry!”

“It’s going to be alright, Melvin,” Henry muttered as he fiddled with a little knob at the end of the teleportation rod. Our daughter was wispy, like a ghost, and her weight felt like it had been taken almost completely out of my arms. “Everything is going to be just fine.”

And then, just like that, Melvin was gone and Alissa was solid in my arms. I smiled and held her close to my chest. Henry was grinning, too.

“How about that!” He looked back and forth between our daughter and his invention. “It worked.”

He frowned a bit, then. “But what about Melvin?”

We went through our rooms – kitchen, bathroom, two bedrooms – quickly and didn’t see his plump orange body anywhere.

“He could be just about anywhere, I suppose,” Henry said. “I guess we can put up a ‘lost cat’ sign and hope that someone –”

I shushed Henry and he fell silent. I thought I’d heard… Thump-thump-thump. There it was again! I hurried into the kitchen, but it was as empty as it had been moments before. No Melvin to be seen.

“Did it turn him invisible?” I asked Henry.

In reply, clattering and rustling noises combined with a familiar yowl culminating in a thump against the door of our pantry. Henry reached for the door and there, looking lordly as he could be, sat Melvin, finally surrounded by all the cat food he could ever want to eat.

The End