“Raised you right in what sense, dear?” said Mother Mayhem. The scene was not yet in motion but the teacher’s face was beginning to cycle through expressions, from angry to kindly to amused to the face of a monstrous horror movie type witch, with gruesome green fire flashing in her eyes towards little Eric.
Mother Mayhem knew this was a good sign. The memory was coming to life. Finishing the emotional processing of it was within reach.
She knew that for the next part, she had to step very, very carefully.
“Hmm?” said Erik. He was staring at the back of his younger self’s head, lost in reverie. “Oh right. See, they raised me to not be ashamed of my body. That every part of it was made by God and therefore beautiful, and that if anyone tried to make me feel bad about my swimsuit area, I should tell them that God made me and that man made body shame and which one of them you think made a mistake?
Mother Mayhem chuckled softly. “I like your parents already. Were they nudists?”
Erik nodded. “Periodically. My father or my mother would get fed up with society’s artificial constraints and petty stupidities and then it would be off to the Soft Shade Inn or Rainbow Lake Camp or Pulcher Corpore or somewhere like that for two to four weeks. By the time I could walk and talk, I had seen more penises, breasts, vaginas, and anuses than most people will see in their lifetime. And at home, it wasn’t just our bodies that were exposed. My parents didn’t believe in any body shame at all. AT ALL. So I grew up watching them shit, piss, fuck, bathe, and even masturbate. And they had seen me do all the same things, except for the fucking, of course. To our family, everything we can do with and to our bodies was beautiful and natural and good. Our top floor bathroom didn’t even have a door. Everything visible to everyone all the time. ”
“Your parents sound like extraordinarily enlightened people. ” said Mother Mayhem. Teacher and child were in very slow motion now. The boy’s image flickered between being clothed and being nude, sometimes flaccid, sometime erect. The teacher’s face had settled into the witch face and she was pointing a finger at young Erik, a sickly green bolt of lightning emerging from said finger and stretching very, very slowly towards the boy’s heart.
“I suppose so, yeah. ” said Erik. “To me, they were just Mom and Dad (or Dana and Bradbury) and the way we lived was just how the world worked. ”
“All childhoods are normal. ” said Mother Mayhem sympathetically.
“Until you meet other families, yes. Now obviously they had taught me right from the start that the world outside our house was very different and how even at the various nudist resorts we visted, I had to play by the rules. ”
Mother Mayhem tsked and nodded sadly. “Unfortunately, yes. ”
“And the preschool they sent me too was a very progressive Christian facility which had assured them that they could handle children with quite diverse backgrounds, and that as long as I understood that I was only allowed to be naked in the Nudist Chldren’s Play Area, I would have no problem fitting in. ”
“And they were right… up till this day. ” said Erik.
Mother Mayhem nodded. She was encouraged by the fact that the scene was unfolding at about ten percent speed now. Now was the time to be silent and let Erik tell his story his own way, without prompting.
“See, the problem was the teacher. She was both new.. and old. She was new to the school and not used to its ways yet, and she was in her late fifties and not really a good fit for such a progressive and experimental school. ” said Erik.
“But she had passed all the ideological sniff tests, and had a very impressive CV, so the school decided to hire her as a third string substitute teacher and see whether she could live up to her bright and confident claims of being ready for anything. ” said Erik.
“Turns out, she could not. ” said Erik.
“That poor boy. ” murmured Mother Mayhem. “And what happened next, dear? ”
Erik sighed and turned away from teacher and boy, and said “It will save a lot of time if I just showed you. ”
And with that, the scene started over again from the beginning.
“What do you have there, Erik?” said Miss Guiterre.
“It’s my paper me!” said Erik. “I’ve made it EXACTLY like me, just like you said to do. ”
Miss Guiterre smiled kindly, and said “Can I see it?”.
Erik nodded happily and handed it to her.
The scene paused.
“Take a look at what I handed her. ” said Erik.
“But I already saw your paper doll, darling. ” said Mother Mayhem
Erik shook his head. “The version you saw was… edited. This one is the real thing. ”
Mother Mayhem carefully slipped the doll out of little Erik’s hand, and looked it over.
And at first, she didn’t see it. Blame that on her radically free lifestyle. At first, all she saw was a simple paper cutout doll of a boy diligently customized by Erik with heavy crayons to look just like him. She could not imagine what anyone could find objectionable about it. She found it adorable.
It was only when she had looked it over a third time that she saw it. The doll was very clearly male. It had a proportionally correct penis and testicles. They were drawn over the clothes, as if Erik had remembered that little boys were supposed to wear clothes but a ltitle unclear as to why. But they were unmistakable.
In Mother Mayhem’s part of the Astral Plane, people could be whatever age they wanted to be, from decrepit to zygote, and so the sight of a five year old boy’s penis did not stand out (so to speak) to her at first. The minds and souls at her parties were all those of adults, so what did she care how they chose to have their fun?
But then she remembered how the real world worked, with all of its conflicting messages and unhealthy taboos, and it was all she could do to keep the dawning horror at what was surely to come from being expressed on her face.
And she was British.
“I see. ” Mother Mayhem said in a kindly but neutral tone.
And then Erik showed her what happened next.
Miss Guiterre looked at the paper doll she’d been handed, and her face turned an angry shade of red as she dropped the doll like she’d been handed fresh dog feces.
“You dirty little boy! ” she said. “You filthy, dirty little boy! How dare you hand me something so… so obscene! Is this your sick idea of a JOKE? ”
“I don’t understand!” said Erik, tears forming in his eyes. “What did I do wrong? I drew clothing on him and everything!”.
Miss Guiterre drew herself up to her full height, and, in a voice dripping with icy primness, said “The entire point of clothing, young man, is to cover up our private areas. ”
Erik had never thought of it that way before. But a lot of things suddenly made sense to Little Erik now.
Not knowing how to respond to that, Erik fell back on what his parents had told him to say in situations like this.
“Well my parents told me that the human body was made by God and everything made by God is perfect and beautiful and that if someone thinks the bodies God made us are dirty and obscene, that just proves they have a dirty mind!” Erik said hotly.
The scene paused.
“I may have made some of that up. ” said Erik.
“You got the gist of it right, dear. ” said Mother Mayhem.
The scene resumed.
“What did you just say about me?” said Miss Guiterre, with an edge that you could use to cut diamonds.
“What? I didnt… that wasn’t… I wasn’t talking about… ” sputtered Little Erik.
“Young man, ” said Miss Guiterre, “you are a filthy and perverted little boy, and if your parents have been filling your head with that blasphemous nonsense, they must be filthy and perverted people too!”
The scene paused. Both Eriks cried. Mother Mayhem comforted both. After the worst of it had passed, Mother Mayhem hugged the boy to her, mascara running down her face from her own tears, and said “Then what happened, Erik?”.
Erik shook his head. “No. I can’t. Don’t make me. ”
“Oh, you poor pet. ” said Mother Mayhem, and hugged Erik just as she had hugged Little Erik. “You’re almost done, dear. Just this last little bit to go, and then I swear we can go do something fun for a while. ”
“Anything I want to do?” said Erik, torn between hope and suspicion.
Mother Mayhem smiled and nodded. “Absolutely anything. I am your genie in a bottle and you can have as many wishes as you like. ”
Eri smiled a little, and nodded.
“I used to think that this was the worst part of it all. That she made me an accomplice before the fact for everything that was to come after. ”
Then the scene resumed.
“To think that such… such deviants could be allowed to raise a child. What IS this world coming to? LIsten, Erik… what are your parents’ names? And where do you live?”
Erik told her.
“But that’s not the worst part at all. ” said Erik .
Mother Mayhem waited.
“The worst part…. was that I believed her. ”
The Hermit sighed. Another circuit of the planet, he thought, and another week closer to the end of my service contract.
Earlier that day, he had caught the faintest traces of a signal. It was too faint to be truly deciphered, not even with the Hermit’s top-flight crytography and enhancement suites.
He could tell from the general pattern of the data that it was mostly likely an echo of some routine chatter from the shipping lanes. At least, that was the only explanation the Hermit could think of that would explain the sheer density of what could only be direction and coordination data in the signal.
Clearly, in the world were people were alive and things mattered, something big and important was going on without him. Like a big celebration, or the opening up of a new sector for colonization. Or maybe even…
A sudden horrible thought gripped the Hermit, and within seconds he was doing the fastest, dirtiest omniband sweep that he had ever done.
And he kept on doing it for seventeen more kilocycles until he was finally satisfied that no, none of the telltale signs of war that all of his line of robots had burned into their most primary of circuits were present.
No high-energy banded static to indicate the detonation of fixed frequency munitions. No magnetic smearing to indicate the deployment of ultra high energy photonics. No suspicous organic molecule clouds to indicate organic living beings had…. had their patterns randomized by violence.
The Hermit vibrated in his casing from the energy conflicts building in his neural net. Oh, great. he thought. Now on top of everything, I’ve freaked myself out for no reason.
No wonder nobody has bothered to even talk to me in thousands of local years, he thought. I’m so defective a robot that I develop malfunctions all by myself, with nary a neutrino burst, spatial phase shift, or high energy micrometeorite in sight!
It must be because I’m a robot, the Hermit decided. If he was a human, the whole galaxy would have turned up to look for him. But he was just some lowly robot, cheaply made and even cheaper to simply abandon when the shinier new model comes along.
The hermit had hated shiny new models ever since he had stopped being one.
No matter what, he thought, one thing was for sure.
Nobody in the universe gave a damn about what happened to him.