Who Took the Chip?
Tommy: Mama, I want a tiger someday.
Mama: That's a lion, Tommy. See the long hair about its head? That's called a mane.
Tommy: I want a lion like that. Can I have one for Christmas? Can I Mama?
Mama: (laughing) I don't think so, dear.
Tommy: But you said I could have another pet when Caesar knocked off, and he's about to knock off, isn't he, Mama?
Mama: Well, he is very old and sick, Tommy, but I don't think we'll get a lion to replace him.
Tommy: Why not, Mama? He looks like a big kitten, doesn't he, Mama? But his meow is a LOT louder. (Tommy cups his hands near his mouth and lets out a silent roar.)
Mama: Lions aren't big cats, Tommy. They're very dangerous, you know. They like to kill people and eat them.
Tommy: But the man isn't being eaten, Mama. He's just standing there with his hand on the lion's hair.
Mama: That's because the lion has been trained by the man. It takes many years to learn to do that, and the man has to know what he's doing. It's still dangerous. The lion could get mad and decide to eat him after all.
Tommy: (First, a pause, then …) Maybe I don't want a lion anymore, Mama.
Mama: That's my boy. You keep on using your head and you'll be fine.
[Twenty Years Later]
"Honey, can you pick up a few things on the way home? I've got a list." Selena poked her head out of the bathroom door and waited for an answer.
"Sure. Where's the list?" Tom asked.
"On the table, next to my purse. And please make sure the soup is the brand I've got listed; the other stuff has MSG in it, and you know what MSG does to me."
"Do I ever," Tom said. "I pity the person who has to deal with you when you're MSG-ed up, which in this case would be me."
Selena laughed a full melodious laugh that sounded through their tiny apartment and spilled out through the open window to the street below. Ethan Hathaway, who happened to be passing by on the sidewalk, heard it and smiled. He always loved it when Selena laughed, and though he was only fourteen, he'd dreamt of her more often than he was ever likely to admit. He'd never let Tom know that, of course; Tom was like a big brother to him. But now he was late for school, so Ethan broke into a jog, rounded the corner, and sped out of sight.
Tom was assistant handler at Iowa's first-ever Wild Animal Sanctuary, a job he had always wanted but didn't know existed until a friend of a friend at the DNR showed him the internet listing. When he started there fresh out of college, his mother was furious. If the truth be known, she was more scared than angry. She used every possible means she could think of to discourage him, from talking about "low wages" to "what, you're going to tell people you rake up lion crap all day?" to the too-obvious "lions are dangerous creatures, dear."
But that was then, when he was a mere groundskeeper. He had steadily moved up the ranks for the past five years and was now second from the top, a mere step below the Board of Directors that, in this case, functioned as a single entity. Now here he was, twenty-seven with a lovely wife of two years and a decent salary to boot. Almost as important was that he loved his job. His mother was still skeptical. The Iowa Wild Animal Sanctuary t-shirt Tom gave her every Christmas didn't help.
"Tatiana's been restless today," Ben said when Tom came in. "She's not eating well. Maybe we should get Doc over here to check her out."
"Can you call him, Ben? She's been a little down the last few days, but I wanted to wait it out. Sometimes she gets moody like that."
"You think lionesses get PMS?" Ben asked.
Laughter. "Could be," Tom said. "I wouldn't put it past any of the female species. Have him check on the new ape too. What's his name? Chester or something?"
"What kind of a name is that for a big old ugly ape?" Tom said grimacing.
"It's a big old ugly name for a big old ugly ape."
Chevalier had come from a private circus act six months before because, according to the owner, he had become too unpredictable. Part of the volunteer-supported Iowa Wild Animal Sanctuary's mission was to take otherwise "unusable" animals and allow visitors to view them from a distance, for a small fee. It was a favorite of school and civic groups, and on the two days a week they opened to the public, the place was packed. This was an off day.
"How was work? And hey, thanks for getting the stuff." Selena kissed Tom and meant it, but she could tell he was tired. "Rough one, huh?"
"To say the least. Seems I never catch up, always something that doesn't get done."
"Then let's have supper. I have your favorite dessert waiting too."
It wasn't a school assignment; Ethan was just curious. The webpage said:
In a stunning development just revealed, scientists in the UK have developed chip implants that can now control the entirety of brain function, induce and map dreams, and most importantly, imprint the subject with the data necessary to produce a secondary personality. Tests on volunteer subjects have shown that implants can allow the deaf to dream in spoken English, previously anti-socials can become prominent speakers, and the criminally institutionalized can often be returned to useful society.
Further, a current survey in France revealed that 25-30 percent of the population claims to hear voices inside their head on a regular basis. A psychiatrist said that such numbers suggest a highly implanted populace. On a side note, the crime rate in France has seen a 30% drop in the past two years, leading many to wonder how long this technology has been in place.
Next, Ethan typed in chip implants available in the United States.
Five months, two weeks, and three days later, after contacting the police, hiring a private detective, and plastering posters all over town, Selena came up empty. Tom was still missing. Left for work one bright Tuesday morning and didn't return. Day after day, she grieved, wondered, and fretted. What had happened to her beloved Tom?
Tom's mother was sure a lion had eaten him, but no remains had been found. Then she began to suspect Ethan. Ethan. The now-15-year-old boy bereft of a "big brother." The same 15-year-old boy she saw researching chip implants on Tom's computer one day while visiting them. The way he looked at Selena.
Tom's mom: Ethan, I know it was you. You're smart, I'll give you that, but I'm going to the police with my suspicions. They'll find the truth. She hit SEND, and the email flew through the ether.
Ethan: M'am, I have never done anything to purposely hurt your son. And if I did something, it was out of a desire to help. I wanted to help Tom be the most famous old-lion trainer in the world. Maybe then he'd have the money to adopt me like he was always saying he wanted to do. I really didn't do it for any other reason.
Tom's mom: Well, that's an admission if I ever heard one. But what's juvenile detention when you deserve so much worse? So here's what I want you to do. I want you to finish school, go to college, then get a job at the sanctuary because chips will be widely available by then, and LEGAL. If you can agree to that, I'll hold off for now. But in the meantime, you will intern there for the summer. You killed my son, Ethan. You. I can't absolutely prove it other than these emails, and I doubt if a court would convict you on that, but anything they'd do to you would be too lenient anyway, so agree to these terms or, believe me, I'll find a way to make you pay.
It was too easy. Ethan would gladly agree to the terms, but only after Tom's mom agreed to meet with him. He prepared his tiny drone bot, microscopically inserting another chip into its equally tiny stinger. This, too, was too easy.
But in his heart of hearts, he was dreaming of Selena.
About the Author
Chila Woychik is originally from the beautiful land of Bavaria and is of German/French heritage. She has been published in numerous journals, including Cimarron Review and Passages North, and has released an essay collection, Singing the Land: A Rural Chronology (Shanti Arts, 2020). She won Storm Cellar's 2019 Flash Majeure Contest and Emry's 2016 Linda Julian Creative Nonfiction Award. These days, she tends sheep, chickens, and two aging barn cats and roams the Iowan outback. She also edits the Eastern Iowa Review. www.chilawoychik.com.