Peter came home with a large box from school. It had “fragile” stickers on every side, and “caution: live animals” on the top.
“Is it time for silkworms already?” Rob said as he watched his son load it gingerly into the back seat, “I thought that wasn’t til third grade.”
Peter belted the box into the seat. “It’s not silkworms. I got it from soc- sosh-”
“Sociology.” Rob read it backwards in the rearview mirror. “Interesting. What is it?”
Peter shrugged, slamming the passenger door. “Dunno.”
They opened the box on the kitchen table. A novel-thick instruction book came out first, followed by Styrofoam cartons that had further injunctions against careless handling plastered all over them. There was lab equipment, tiny boxes, and something that looked like a purple pedometer.
Rob looked at the book.
“’Little people‘,” he read aloud. Peter handed him a safety-orange school announcement. Rob read that.
It is time for your child’s first crucial lesson in empathy. Announcing:
They breath, live, and eat just like you do. Each one had its own life story, enclosed in a handy booklet.
Rob looked over at the instruction novel and said, “ha!”
Learn to care for, feed, and play with your little people. BUT DON’T BE MISTAKEN!!!
Little people are not pets. They are living, breathing, thinking beings. Their lives are precious and fragile, just like the life of every child at this school—
Rob snorted and put the flyer down. Peter had slit the tape with a butter knife and was now staring inside with awe.
They were people. Perfectly detailed, perfectly miniature. They even wore different outfits. Rob blinked and moved closer. The little people were blinking and rubbing their eyes, a few looking at the giants with mild terror. They were barely the size of Rob’s hand, too small and too fluid of motion to be toys. What were they?
Peter’s eyes had lit up. He said, “cool!” and picked up a man. Rob could tell by the massive wince that Peter had applied just a little too much pressure, just like he had with his ill-fated gerbil Hamburgers.
“Careful kiddo,” he said, “that’s a little tight.”
Peter frowned and adjusted his grip. The little man suddenly fell, three times his own height, to the tabletop. He landed on his arm and hip. He screamed.
Peter’s eyes popped wide and his mouth compressed until it disappeared. He looked to his father. Rob knew he had to be white and drawn. It was awful, a tiny human scream. Like a rodent’s.
Hurriedly, Peter went to pick him up again. Rob reached out to stop him—too late, too late—as the boy grabbed for the injured side with his fingers. They could practically hear the crunch. The screams were louder, unbearable for their familiarity. Peter dropped him again, a shorter distance this time, on the box. The other little people immediately crowded around him, making scared eyes up at father and son.
Rob swallowed. “I think you need to put your toys away for now, bud. Let’s get dinner.”
He read the instruction book in bed.
“Empathy exercise—bullshit,” he called to Marilyn in the next room, “this is just another way of traumatizing them into obedience. We gave them the monthly drills, we voted for the personality tests, what the hell else do they want?”
“You have to admit Rob,” his wife called back over the buzzing of a lady shaver, “they are at the age when they really start forming ideas of right and wrong.”
“Yeah, but what the hell good does it do to scare them into it?”
Marilyn appeared at the door. “Isn’t that a little dramatic?”
“You didn’t see his face. It was horrible. I’m just saying, why not give them…pollywogs, or something like that? Caterpillars. Mice. Why does it have to be things that look like us?”
“Maybe it doesn’t have the same impact,” Marilyn said. She was brushing her hair, frowning down at the flyer.
“It would get the job done.” Rob swallowed. “I don’t think I’ve told you this yet: I had to kill a rat when I was his age.”
Marilyn looked up.
“It was caught in one of those sticky traps. We couldn’t let it get away and make more rats so I…I had to go get a rock.” he swallowed. “You ever do something like that? It’s hard. I had to hit it until blood came out its ears before it would stop screaming.” He let the book fall open into his lap. “I still dream about it, sometimes. Now tell me that didn’t teach me empathy with living things.”
Marilyn smiled grimly, looking up from the flyer. “We found a dog someone had run over partially. It was too far gone to even notice.” She got a faraway look. “It kept licking the sidewalk, I remember. Just staring at us and licking this one spot. Didn’t even realize how it was already dead.” She came back to the present. “We finally managed to put it out of its misery, but it died hard.” Her face softened. “I think this might be a little easier lesson than…that. Okay?”
Rob flipped to the last page. It had one phrase printed in block caps: tyrants owe their ascent not to their peers, but their acquitters.
“I guess,” he said.
Peter came in the den the next day, looking spooked out of his mind. Rob had been working on a model of an ocean resort, but he caught sight of his son and his fingers dropped the tiny paintbrush.
“Hey, hey pumpkin-eater,” he said, opening his arms, “why the long face?”
Peter did not return the hug. His face was drawn, and his eyes were teary.
“I was just working on my empathy exercises,” he said.
Rob cleared his throat. “And?”
“I feel sick.”
Rob stood and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Why don’t you show me what you were doing?”
Peter’s activity table sat beneath a world map the size of his bed. The US and Australia were in pink, Europe in blues and greens, and a large swath of the map showing Eurasia and Northern Africa was a dead gray labeled with three barbed, interlocked semicircles.
The little people were divided into camps on the table. Each group had their own habitat, number- and color-coordinated for convenience. The open area between them had been converted with a tiny fence to a holding area. There were two groups separated by a steel fence, they huddled into each other and stared across the divide. Peter shoved paper into his father’s hands. Rob read:
Put groups Sigma and Theta into staging area. Recreate storm with enclosed storm kit. Give only Theta storm gear. Observe.
Rob looked down and frowned. The little people didn’t look at him.
Now, hook up electrodes to floor.
Rob shouted, “what?”
Give Sigma the insulated gear. Notice how there is not enough gear to cover entire group. Observe.
Rob glared at the staging area. The little people looked downcast. Some of them were indeed soaked, those with rainy-weather gear held it aloft so that it covered more people.
Peter was looking at his father.
“I was ascared of the electricity,” he said, “I thought you’d get mad if I did it by myself.”
Rob searched for the right words to slap on his feelings.
“I don’t think you should be doing this,” he said, “not just because of the electricity. I think I need to have a word with your teacher.”
Peter nodded. “But I still need to do the assignment.”
“What? Why? This is sick.”
“I have to,” Peter said solemnly, “they can tell.”
Rob looked at his son. He looked down at the little people.
“Okay,” he said, “but very, very short, okay?”
Peter nodded, fetching what looked like mini jumper cables from the kit and attaching them to a big, square battery. He attached the other end to nodes sticking out of the arena’s side. Peter gave Rob a questioning look. Rob, after a moment, nodded. Peter flicked a switch.
They started screaming almost immediately. Those with insulated shoes took one off and passed them around. Some tried to stand on one with multiple people. Group Theta were writhing in agony. Group Sigma reached across the bars, those that could grasped hands. Some tried to pass over the shoes.
Rob gaped. He didn’t realize how time was passing until he felt a tug on his sleeve.
“Should I stop now, dad?” Peter asked.
Rob’s mouth hung open. “Yes,” he said, “Oh jesus god, yes.”
Peter flicked the switch again. The writhing ceased. Many lay pillowed by arms and bodies. The little people spoke in a quiet susurrus as they touched each other, almost reassuringly.
Peter swept his forearm across his eyes. “I wanna go lay down.”
Rob nodded, doubting he could speak around the lump in his throat.
“This is wrong,” he said to the other parents at pickup the next day. “We need to call a PTA meeting.”
Jacob, who had a little girl in Peter’s grade, shook his head. “This is state-approved curriculum. Besides, it’s something they need to know sooner rather than later.”
There were some noncommittal grumblings.
“Have you actually read the lesson plans?” Rob fetched out the book. “Lesson 8: starvation. Lesson 13: separation. Lesson 15 is basically the Stanford Prison experiment.”
Jacob was watching Rob with a carefully neutral look. “A lot of people had to learn this the hard way. The point isn’t to see if they can complete the experiments, it’s to show them the repercussions of their actions.”
“But that’s a fallacious argument,” Rob said weakly, looking for supporters. “just because someone else had it worse, doesn’t mean we can’t do better.”
“My Sandra is having trouble concentrating on her studies,” a blonde woman chimed in uncertainly.
“Brayden said he leaves his sociology homework to the last because of this. It used to be his favorite.”
“Maybe we can talk to the teacher about shortening the lesson plan?”
Jacob didn’t look at the other parents, only at Rob. His intense dark eyes were pouched as if perpetually deprived of sleep. He leaned against the wall beneath the portrait of a man smiling charismatically. The man in the picture sat in the oval office, hands clasped on the desk before him, his oil visage showed youth and vigor. The caption read “murderer.”
“I’m not saying they shouldn’t learn this,” Rob said uncomfortably, wishing it was only him and a few other parents, “but it doesn’t seem right, that’s all.”
Jacob leaned forward. “Rob,” he said, “my family was in Jordan.”
Rob had no answer. The other parents were silent. As their children trickled out, they collected them and left without another word.
Rob watched his son carry out his experiments, arms crossed.
“You can’t just stop?”
Peter’s trembling hand almost dropped a baby from his tweezers. “Can’t. They can tell. And I’ll have to take a test and you have to come to a meeting—”
“—and all the bells and whistles.” Rob blew a long exhale. “Bullying, that’s what it is. Good old-fashioned bullying.”
Peter arranged the nursery with his tweezers.
“Dad?’ he said suddenly.
“I don’t wanna grow up and be president,” he said.
Rob swallowed. “Of course you don’t, buddy,” he said, kneeling and putting an arm around his son’s shoulder, “but if you did, I’m sure you’d be a good one.”
Peter looked tired. And scared.
He whispered, “I don’t think so. I can’t keep them happy.”
The little people hung out of their confinement pens, sticking arms and legs from the bars in passive protest. The mothers of the babies sat on the floor, skirts pulled over their heads, facing away from Peter.
Peter looked at him. “Dad? Am I…bad?”
Rob felt his eyes well up. “Of course not, son. You’re the best.”
“That’s what his parents thought.”
“His?” Rob asked, “oh. Well, I guess it’s a parents job to believe that. But it’s true with you buddy.”
“Then why can’t I do this right?”
Rob tried to smile. “Well, usually taking care of other people is a parent’s job.”
“I thought your job was to tell me I’m best.”
“Oh no,” Rob said, looking down at the little people, “parents have lots of jobs. Lots and lots.”
Rob put the pan on the counter. It was their biggest. He would have to throw it away when all was said and done, but they rarely used it and he could always get another pan before thanksgiving.
He eased open the oven. The light clicked on. He removed one of the shelves as quietly as he could, the other one sat on the lowest rung. Rob settled the pan onto the shelf and clicked it shut again. The light went off. He hit the switch and turned the light on again. As much as he hated to, he needed to see.
He quickly turned the dial. One click that failed to ignite and then the gas hissed. Rob pulled up a chair and waited.
The little people seemed to know what was coming. They all sat in one large clump, holding on to each other. Some seemed to pray, others simply held on. The mothers rocked infants at their breasts. As Rob watched, they all slowly went completely still. He waited ten minutes and turned the oven off. He waited a further twenty to remove the pan and vent the oven.
Peter was shaking him. Rob rolled over. “It’s Saturday, buddy.”
“Dad! All my little people are gone!”
“I know, bud.” Rob scooped the pillow a little closer. “we’ll talk to your school on Monday.”
“But the thing won’t stop beeping!”
Rob opened one eye.
The pedometer-thing was beeping. The plastic facing, which had been blank when removed from the box, read AUTHORITIES ALERTED.
Rob said “shit” and dropped the box.
He looked for the book beneath the table and in the bathroom. He tore apart his son’s homework. It wasn’t on the coffee table and it wasn’t on the nightstand. Peter scrambled through the spare room as Rob dared a look out the front window. Nothing, yet. He locked the deadbolt.
The call came when he was sifting through his work bench in the basement.
“Dad! Dad! I found it!”
Rob’s relief was only temporary. “Read what it says, bud.”
“It’s got hard words!”
“Sound it out. It’s gotta be in the back, with all the legal stuff.”
Peter sat on the basement steps and read while Rob struggled to put everything back in its proper place. He scraped dirt off a recently-used spade and wiped his hand on his shirt.
“That’s not what we want, bud, after that.”
Peter nodded, mouth working as he read ahead silently.
“Biographies, we’ve been over that, bud.”
“Graphies. BUT.” Peter swallowed. “they–have–also–been–imp–lan–ted–with–mon–it–tors.”
Rob went cold all over.
“Registered,” Rob said numbly.
“–registered–under–UN–sanc–tee–on 9.352. They–are–count–ted–as–real–people–and–their–des–truck–tee-on–is–an–act–tee-on–able–of–fense. Any–mal–is–cious–treat–ment–is–sub–ject–to–full–pen–al–tee–of–law.”
There was a knock at the door.