Mr. Grey labored at the kilns nestled in the spaces of the rib cage. They were cooking at maximum heat as he attempted to create more bricks than Daisy could destroy. It was a never-ending task: Mr. Grey built; Daisy demolished. As a result, construction of the wall progressed, but slowly. The child was tireless and nothing Mr. Grey did deterred her from the mission.
As he pulled the latest batch of bricks from the ovens (one brick for each relative absent from the mother’s funeral), Daisy traipsed across the Thoracic Cavern; fragments of fossilized memories fracturing beneath her feet. She was wearing that insidious yellow dress again. The child climbed onto a stool and placed her white, woven basket atop Mr. Grey’s workbench. It was filled with vibrant, yellow flowers. She greeted him and said, “Whatcha doin?”
“Wondering if you’re going to move that rubbish so I can set these down,” he replied. “They’re hot you know.”
Daisy snatched the basket of singed flowers from the bench and sat with it in her lap. Blisters already forming on his hands, Mr. Grey lowered the tray of bricks onto the counter-top. Daisy said, “You really should wear gloves.”
“You know I can’t do that. These blisters remind me why I’m here.” He scowled at Daisy, grabbed a cloth from one of the pegs on the side of the table, and dabbed at the weeping sores on his palms. “Speaking of which, why are you here? Did you come down just to bother me?”
Daisy giggled. “Mr. Grey, why would I do that? I really like your company even if you are a mean, old grump. Besides, I have work down here, too.”
It was Mr. Grey’s turn to laugh. “Not today, lassie! I hid the hammer and chisels after I was done. You’ll not be removing any bricks in the foreseeable future.”
Daisy’s eyes welled with tears, “But Mr. Grey, you know you’re not allowed to interfere with MY WORK!”
Mr. Grey reveled in her dismay. He loved her tantrums. It was the one part of his job that he truly enjoyed. “My dear, I’m not interfering. I just thought you might like a little game of Hide-And-Seek.”
“I don’t want to play hide-AND-SEEK!” Daisy’s voice crescendoed above its normal shriek. She accentuated the point by throwing her basket at him.
Mr. Grey dodged as he had a hundred times before. She would spend hours looking for the necessary tools, but in the end, he knew she would find them. As she said, he couldn’t directly interfere with her work, although that never stopped him from trying. He had never seen Daisy so angry, though. “My, my, what has you worked up so?”
“I get to take one out that I’ve been wanting for a very long time.” Daisy’s tears evaporated and she smiled. A trap and, like a fool, he marched right into it. He cursed under his breath at the realization.
“Which one might that be?” He crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow.
Daisy launched herself from the stool and said, “Come with me. I’ll show you.”
Mr. Grey offered his arm. She might be on the opposing side, but that was no excuse to be discourteous.
“No, thank you,” she said. “I don’t want soot on my dress.”
They strode across the cavern toward the wall. Daisy stopped to retrieve the basket of flowers and nestled the handle in the crook of her elbow. Mr. Grey said, “I don’t understand why you obsess so over those frivolous trifles.”
Daisy raised the arm with the basket, placed the opposite hand on her hip, and batted her eyelashes at him. “Why, Mr. Grey, because they remind me why I’m here, of course.”
The pair stood before the wall. It loomed half the height of the Myocardial Recess and spanned the entire width of the alcove. There were holes in it where Daisy had chipped out bricks. A steady, pulsating rhythm hummed behind the wall. thrum-Thrum; thrum-Thrum. The job was to choke the cavity so there could be no entrance or exit from it, but the child made things ever so difficult. “I get that one,” she said and pointed to the brick in the center of the wall.
“No. Unacceptable.” Mr. Grey grabbed Daisy’s shoulder and shook his finger in front of her nose. “You listen to me, now. I won’t allow it. I- I worked too hard. Besides, the father is dead. How could they have possibly reconciled?”
“Oh, but it’s already been decided.”
“Liar! This is another of your childish pranks.”
“If you don’t believe me, The Observatory is that way.” Daisy motioned toward the darkness that rose above them. “Have a look for yourself.”
Mr. Grey shuddered. “You know I don’t go there. The walk, yes the walk, is so long and I’m afraid I’m not as young as I once was.”
“There’s always the Circulatory Expressway.”
“That’s just what I need. Another run-in with The Macrophages. Those vigilantes and their leukocycles will be the death of me. Everything would be so easy for you then.”
Daisy winked at him. “So you’re just gonna give this one to me?”
The old man stroked his beard and looked from Daisy to the darkness above. He threw his hands up in defeat. “I guess I’ll take the staircase. I’ll still be back before you find those chisels.”
The Esophageal Staircase was a massive, spiraling structure that climbed from the Thoracic Cavern to the Bocal Landing. Once Mr. Grey reached the Landing, it would be necessary to traverse the Cervical Bridge to the Cranial Gateway. If he made it through the gateway, which was never a certainty thanks to the Principal Reinforcers of Ideas in Defense of the Ego (or PRIDE as they liked to be called), his path to the Orbital Observatory would be problem-free. If he was denied access, Mr. Grey knew he’d have to take his chances in the Carotid Canal. He hadn’t been through the canal in years and didn’t relish the thought of the possible snares The Macrophages and PRIDE might have set for him.
A herd of GLUTTONS passed Mr. Grey on their way to the Gastric Abyss. He welcomed them; knowing they must be new recruits. GLUTTONS rarely traveled that far north unless they were on a recruiting mission and the recruiters used the Expressway. They disguised themselves as glucose molecules so as not to attract the attention of The Macrophages. Mr. Grey thought the GLUTTONS repulsive, but he appreciated the positive effect they had on his work. The wall would have been complete years ago if it hadn’t been for Daisy and her collusion with the Agents of PRIDE.
As Mr. Grey stepped onto the Cervical Bridge, a voice rang out. “Halt! Who goes there?”
Mr. Grey spun where he stood, but saw no one. “It is I, Mr. Grey, and whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”
A soldier stepped from out of the shadows. “At ease, Grey. It’s just me, Ness.”
Major Ness was the one agent of PRIDE that Mr. Grey tolerated. While Ness was a strong force for PRIDE, his quick temper and even quicker mouth often aided Mr. Grey’s interests as well. At the end of the day, Ness was the closest thing to a friend that Mr. Grey had.
Grey clapped Ness on the shoulder. “Good to see you, Stubb. What brings you this far south?”
Ness shrugged the hand away. “The General has me out on mission. He wants all travelers screened and profiled before they make the Gateway. He says it will ease the burden on the front lines. Unfortunately for me, I drew the short whisker.”
“Ah yes, well, we all know the ball can’t roll our way every time. Daisy sent me up here to verify her latest activities.”
“I’m afraid I can’t let you pass, Grey. The General expressed that under no circumstances am I to let you through. He says he’s tired of your tricks.”
“Tricks? What tricks? I have as much a right to pass as anyone. Daisy can’t begin until I give final approval.”
“Sorry, Grey. Orders are orders.”
Mr. Grey wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “What would The General say if he knew you were impeding the progress of Daisy’s mission?”
Ness placed his hand on his service revolver. “I’m warning you, Grey. I’ll enforce the General’s orders or die trying.”
Mr. Grey threw his hands in the air. “Have it your way, but when General Fidence throws you in the brig for undermining the mission, don’t complain to me about it,” he said and turned for the Bocal Landing.
Mr. Grey smiled and turned to face Ness. “I thought you’d see it my way.”
“If I’m reprimanded for this, I myself will hunt you down and terminate your mission. State your name.”
“Is this really necessary?”
“It’s protocol. State your name.”
“Mr. Grey. May I go now?”
Ness replied, “State your purpose.”
Mr. Grey shook his head. “I already told you. I really don’t have time for this.”
“Protocol. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it by the book. State your purpose.”
It became clear to Mr. Grey why The General had chosen Ness for this mission. “Information gathering. Anything else?”
“I need an ETA of when you’ll be departing The Cranium.”
Mr. Grey said, “I’ll be there as long as it takes,” and started for The Gateway.
“Not so fast,” replied Ness as he placed a hand on Mr. Grey’s chest to detain him. “You know as well as I do that answer is inappropriate.”
Mr. Grey sighed. “It will take no more than a couple hours.”
Ness stood aside. “Very well. Carry on, then.”
The Cranial Gateway loomed before him. It was a giant structure made of bone held together with a web of cartilage and collagen. Mr. Grey was only halfway across the bridge when he noticed it was manned. He hoped General Fidence was present. He could hardly suffer anyone else wasting his time and he knew The General would allow him to pass with little argument. It was in the contract.
Two soldiers stood in front of the gate with their rifles crossed. Mr. Grey recognized them as the Awareness Twins. “State your name,” one of them said. He thought it was Self, but it may have been Social. He really couldn’t tell the fools apart, nor did he much care to.
Mr. Grey waved them off. “Don’t be ridiculous. You know who I am. Go get The General.”
The other one stated, “He isn’t here.”
Mr. Grey rolled his eyes. “Do you take me for an idiot, lad? Con wouldn’t leave you imbeciles here alone to guard the gate.”
“Why are you here, Grey?” A voice came from off to the side. The General looked as if he were made from stone—chiseled features, stoic demeanor. Mr. Grey wasn’t fond of The General, but The General was a stickler for rules and that often worked in his favor. There would be no more wasted time.
“There’s something Daisy asked me to check into.”
The General rubbed the back of his neck. “Ah, yes. I’ve been briefed of the situation and I don’t think you’ll like what you’ll find. Nothing pleases me more. Boys, let him through.”
The twins opened the gate, and Mr. Grey proceeded through it. Too easy. He knew Con would expedite the process, but he never made things that simple. The situation must indeed be dire for The General to be so inviting. Mr. Grey saw the sign denoting the Observatory. Almost there.
He stood before the External Window and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The boy was sitting at a table with a multitude of letters strewn before him. Mr. Grey made a conservative estimate of two hundred. The boy had one open. It read:
It looks like I won’t get to see you much from now on. I don’t blame your mom for wanting me to leave. Take care of her. She needs you most now. I have some things I need to take care of and I hope you’ll understand when you’re older. I just want you to know that my leaving isn’t because of anything you did. I just can’t be the father or role-model that you need right now. I hope in time you’ll understand. Once I set things right, I’ll be back. I love you. Please don’t forget me.
Were all those other letters from the boy’s father, too? Mr. Grey scanned what he could of the envelopes on the table and it appeared so. All these years and he thought the father had walked out on them. Mr. Grey noticed the empty shoebox lying on the floor. The mother must have withheld the letters from the boy. This complicated matters.
When Mr. Grey returned to the Thoracic Cavern, he found Daisy asleep at the base of the wall. There was a hole in the center of the structure where the brick labeled “DAD” had been. The hammer and chisels were hidden in his coat; therefore, he could only wonder how the kid had accomplished her task in his absence. She was growing more resourceful every day.
He sat down next to her and watched her sleep. Someday she would leave him like all the children before her. None of them were his, but he raised them just the same. In the end, they despised him for the role he played in their rearing, but he took solace knowing that he did his job to its fullest. Daisy would be the same. Although he never told any of them, he loved each one in his own way. Daisy was his favorite, though. That’s why he pushed her so hard. That’s why he challenged Daisy to the extent of his own ability. She showed the most promise. He knew she couldn’t win, but he hoped the battle would be a long, drawn out affair. Unlike the others, the thought of her leaving saddened him. He thought about Josh’s father writing letters to a son that would never see them until it was too late. What must it be like to have a child taken away from you when you’re just getting to know each other? In a way, he envied the boy’s father. The man never had to deal with the questioning, the rebellion, or the rage. Daisy hadn’t reached any of those stages yet, but it was only a matter of time. Mr. Grey didn’t know if he could bear it. He reached out and ran his fingers through her soft, blonde hair. Then, he wept.
Daisy stirred, but he didn’t notice. She lay there for a few moments watching him through half-shuttered eyes. “Mr. Grey?”
Mr. Grey stole his hand back and leapt to his feet. He brushed the dust off and smoothed his coat. “My dear child, I must have dozed off. One can’t be blamed after such a long journey.”
Daisy sat up with her hands in her lap. “Why were you crying, Mr. Grey?”
“Was I?” He wiped at his face. “Oh my, yes. That. Tears of joy, my dear. Tears of joy. You see, I’ve made the most amazing discovery and can’t wait to fire up the kilns and get back to work. This next brick is going to be my masterpiece. I’m going to call it MOTHER.”