Billy tiptoed across the thickly-carpeted hallway, leaning one hand against the wall to maintain his balance. The stars on his pajamas glowed pale green in the pre-dawn silver shadows of the two-story home. The faux-brass chandelier hung over the first floor landing by his side. He looked through the banister pillars and front-door window at the backs of the pumpkins that sat on the front steps, electric flickers dancing on the dark concrete in front of them.
His fingers lifted from the wall as he passed the door on his right, cracked open with a shaft of pale light shining on the hallway floor. He peeked at the nightlight, a plastic kitty-cat licking its paw, stuck in the far wall and just visible through the partially open door.
He eased the ball of his foot onto the floor and leaned into his next step, but the floorboard squealed like an angry pig and he eased off.
A guttural whine squeaked from the room and Billy froze, his foot still in the air, but the whine faded into a tired little moan and subsided.
His lips crept into a mischievous smile and then he sneezed out an explosive snicker. His hand slapped across his mouth to clamp down any further outbursts. He couldn’t risk waking anyone.
He approached the door at the end of the hall. It stood fully open, and the sound of steady breathing grew louder with each creep toward it. Inhales and exhales sang through in stereo: a soft, delicate rhythm like rolling ocean waves joined by an intermittent buzz saw that zipped on and off like it had a blinking fuse.
Two figures lay on their sides, snug in the covers and soaked in the stillness of deep sleep.
He placed a hand on the door frame and leaned into the room. Grocery bags were stacked in the corner, overflowing with crinkly plastic bagfuls of miniature candies. Next to those lay another pile; thick fabrics of purple and black clumped around a nest of wild, fake hair.
Where is it?
Walk-in closet. Door closed. Squeaky top hinge.
His eyes shot to the bed, but his feet were already in motion.
He knew the trick. He’d seen his mom do it when his dad went to bed early and she didn’t want to wake him.
Grab the handle with both hands. Twist slowly. Stop. Lean into it, pull up hard and…open.
There it is!
Button-down shirts and flowing dresses hung from a rail and obscured the top half of the bulky metal backpack. A cardboard box was at its side, empty except for wads of torn packing materials.
They’ve been playing with it.
Billy felt left out that he wasn’t invited to share in the discovery of the new toy, but only for a second; he knew he’d get to play with it more throughout the day.
For now, he had a mission to accomplish; a scheme he’d been working on for months, ever since his parents mentioned their holiday plans. The thought dawned on him one morning at breakfast, when flung oatmeal splattered his face and a moment of inspiration replaced his usual frustration. He absently wiped off the sticky warm cereal, comforted by the thought of this inevitable day.
This was much larger than the backpack he wore to school, and it was made of some kind of gray metal. With a frown, he gripped a shoulder strap but was surprised at how light it actually was. His enthusiasm whipped it onto his shoulders too quickly. A cylindrical wand – shaped like a metal toilet plunger with a wider handle – thudded against the floor.
Billy stiffened with panic. He had pulled the plug from the buzz saw, silenced the ocean waves. Billy held his breath. A sweaty film coated his forehead. His PJ stars shined like lighthouse beacons.
He counted a full ten full seconds, with bananas, before daring to move again, and then the buzz saw kicked on, and the ocean waved once more.
In slow-motion, he bent over and wrapped his nimble fingers around the fallen metal tube; tucking the thick cable that connected it to the backpack under his arm as he picked it up.
The pack hung below his bottom and tapped against the back of his legs, but Billy made his way to the hall with the stealth of a determined ninja. He stepped around the squeaky floorboard and stood before the door with the kitty-cat nightlight.
He shook with nervous anticipation. His plan, the images that had been in his head for months, was finally becoming real. He had to pee.
He clenched his legs.
He took a long, deep breath. Calm poured over him. The perspiration evaporated with a soothing cool. Even the impulse to pee subsided to a background urge.
Like a firefighter running into a burning building, or a surgeon performing an emergency operation, autopilot took over.
He saw his hand push open the door. His next image was of the crib, forgetting the few steps taken to get there, and the little bundle tucked beneath the quilted covers.
He lifted the wand.
“Happy Halloween,” he whispered.
Dawn rose over crisp air, warming a delicate breeze that sent dry leaves rattling down the road. A black cat trotted down the sidewalk, destined for home after its nightly rounds.
A compact car, like an apocalyptic nomad, wandered along the street, stopping every couple houses to spew a newspaper from its open window.
One landed on Billy’s driveway, face up with the dateline, “October 31, 2075.”
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh!” his mother’s shriek popped his eyes open and tickled out an instant giggle. He yanked the covers over his head and snuggled into his makeshift fort to hide.
“What is it?” his dad had rushed into the hall. “Oh my God…” and then it came, “BILLY!”
“How do I pick it up?” he overheard his mom’s helpless confusion.
“Billy!” his dad stood at his door, but Billy stayed beneath the covers. He tried to hide, but it was too much. He wriggled and giggled so much, he almost fell off the bed.
He yelped when the covers flew. His dad leaned over, a gleam in his eye and his face brimming and about to explode. “What did you do?” stifled laughter broke the question into amused fragments.
Billy laughed. He laughed so hard. It didn’t help that his dad poked and tickled his ribs.
“I’m gonna pee!” he yelled, putting a kibosh on the antics.
“I don’t think it’s very funny,” his mom said just outside the door, and then appeared, holding a squirming slime-ball in her arms, trying not to let it slip out of her hands. “Your sister was supposed to be a bunny rabbit for Halloween, not…” she cringed at the glob of spotted, swarming tentacles, and when one slapped against her cheek with a moist splatter, it released the smile she too was trying to hide, “an octo-baby!”
So maybe a full-blown MUTATE-O-RAY is still a way off, but scientists have found a way to insert new genes into cells using lasers and optical tweezers, creating extremely precise genetic mutations (see the article, Laser Inserts DNA into Cells with a Light Touch).
Till now, the incorporation of new genes – called transfection – has only been done on large groups of cells, typically with chemical methods and with success reported as a statistical average. It’s like throwing a bunch of popcorn kernels into a popper, and then looking at the resulting bowl and saying, “Well that worked for about 95% of them.”
This new method performs transfection on a single cell. A special laser pokes a teensy-weensy hole into the cell membrane, and then optical tweezers (another kind of laser) guide the new genetic material into the cell, ultimately changing its DNA.
Scientists, for example, have inserted a fluorescence gene into a cell, and then the cell glowed.
It’s the kind of precise genetic manipulation that hasn’t been available till now.
And it basically uses ray guns to do it.
So who knows? Maybe in a few decades, you won’t have to dress up to go trick-or-treating; you’ll just set the dial on your mail-order MUTATE-O-RAY* and ZAP! instant costume.
*Adult supervision required.