By Bruce Holland Rogers
30 October 2000
Peter had wanted a Little Brother for three Christmases in a row. His favorite TV commercials were the ones that showed just how much fun he would have teaching Little Brother to do all the things that he could already do himself. But every year, Mommy had said that Peter wasn't ready for a Little Brother. Until this year.
This year when Peter ran into the living room, there sat Little Brother among all the wrapped presents, babbling baby talk, smiling his happy smile, and patting one of the packages with his fat little hand. Peter was so excited that he ran up and gave Little Brother a big hug around the neck. That was how he found out about the button. Peter's hand pushed against something cold on Little Brother's neck, and suddenly Little Brother wasn't babbling any more, or even sitting up. Suddenly, Little Brother was limp on the floor, as lifeless as any ordinary doll.
"Peter!" Mommy said.
"I didn't mean to!"
Mommy picked up Little Brother, sat him in her lap, and pressed the black button at the back of his neck. Little Brother's face came alive, and it wrinkled up as if he were about to cry, but Mommy bounced him on her knee and told him what a good boy he was. He didn't cry after all.
"Little Brother isn't like your other toys, Peter," Mommy said. "You have to be extra careful with him, as if he were a real baby." She put Little Brother down on the floor, and he took tottering baby steps toward Peter. "Why don't you let him help open your other presents?"
So that's what Peter did. He showed Little Brother how to tear the paper and open the boxes. The other toys were a fire engine, some talking books, a wagon, and lots and lots of wooden blocks. The fire engine was the second-best present. It had lights, a siren, and hoses that blew green gas just like the real thing. There weren't as many presents as last year, Mommy explained, because Little Brother was expensive. That was okay. Little Brother was the best present ever!
Well, that's what Peter thought at first. At first, everything that Little Brother did was funny and wonderful. Peter put all the torn wrapping paper in the wagon, and Little Brother took it out again and threw it on the floor. Peter started to read a talking book, and Little Brother came and turned the pages too fast for the book to keep up.
But then, while Mommy went to the kitchen to cook breakfast, Peter tried to show Little Brother how to build a very tall tower out of blocks. Little Brother wasn't interested in seeing a really tall tower. Every time Peter had a few blocks stacked up, Little Brother swatted the tower with his hand and laughed. Peter laughed, too, for the first time, and the second. But then he said, "Now watch this time. I'm going to make it really big."
But Little Brother didn't watch. The tower was only a few blocks tall when he knocked it down.
"No!" Peter said. He grabbed hold of Little Brother's arm. "Don't!"
Little Brother's face wrinkled. He was getting ready to cry.
Peter looked toward the kitchen and let go. "Don't cry," he said. "Look, I'm building another one! Watch me build it!"
Little Brother watched. Then he knocked the tower down.
Peter had an idea.
When Mommy came into the living room again, Peter had built a tower that was taller than he was, the best tower he had ever made. "Look!" he said.
But Mommy didn't even look at the tower. "Peter!" She picked up Little Brother, put him on her lap, and pressed the button to turn him back on. As soon as he was on, Little Brother started to scream. His face turned red.
"I didn't mean to!"
"Peter, I told you! He's not like your other toys. When you turn him off, he can't move but he can still see and hear. He can still feel. And it scares him."
"He was knocking down my blocks."
"Babies do things like that," Mommy said. "That's what it's like to have a baby brother."
Little Brother howled.
"He's mine," Peter said too quietly for Mommy to hear. But when Little Brother had calmed down, Mommy put him back on the floor and Peter let him toddle over and knock down the tower.
Mommy told Peter to clean up the wrapping paper, and she went back into the kitchen. Peter had already picked up the wrapping paper once, and she hadn't said thank you. She hadn't even noticed.
Peter wadded the paper into angry balls and threw them one at a time into the wagon until it was almost full. That's when Little Brother broke the fire engine. Peter turned just in time to see him lift the engine up over his head and let it drop.
"No!" Peter shouted. The windshield cracked and popped out as the fire engine hit the floor. Broken. Peter hadn't even played with it once, and his best Christmas present was broken.
Later, when Mommy came into the living room, she didn't thank Peter for picking up all the wrapping paper. Instead, she scooped up Little Brother and turned him on again. He trembled and screeched louder than ever.
"My God! How long has he been off?" Mommy demanded.
"I don't like him!"
"Peter, it scares him! Listen to him!"
"I hate him! Take him back!"
"You are not to turn him off again. Ever!"
"He's mine!" Peter shouted. "He's mine and I can do what I want with him! He broke my fire engine!"
"He's a baby!"
"He's stupid! I hate him! Take him back!"
"You are going to learn to be nice with him."
"I'll turn him off if you don't take him back. I'll turn him off and hide him someplace where you can't find him!"
"Peter!" Mommy said, and she was angry. She was angrier than he'd ever seen her before. She put Little Brother down and took a step toward Peter. She would punish him. Peter didn't care. He was angry, too.
"I'll do it!" he yelled. "I'll turn him off and hide him someplace dark!"
"You'll do no such thing!" Mommy said. She grabbed his arm and spun him around. The spanking would come next.
But it didn't. Instead he felt her fingers searching for something at the back of his neck.
Bruce Holland Rogers lives in Eugene, Oregon, and writes genre fiction and literary fiction. His stories have won two Nebula Awards, a Bram Stoker Award, and a Pushcart Prize. Rogers recently edited an anthology, Bedtime Stories to Darken Your Dreams (IFD Publishing). He has two short story collections due out this year: Wind Over Heaven (Wildside Press) and Flaming Arrows (IFD Publishing). Bruce's previous appearance in Strange Horizons was "Estranged." For more about him, see his Web site; for more about his work, see the Panisphere site.