The Bunsen burner’s blue light heated the water, boiling it, turning it to white steam. The steam rose and rose and rose up the pipe. First one gear, then another spun. Slow, slow, slow, faster, faster faster. The spinning gears spun belts which spun more gears until a large gloved hand poured Grammie a cup of warm tea.
“Mmmmm.” Grammie snuggled back in the pillows, her hands wrapped around the floral tea cup. “It’s a hug in a cup.”
Red grinned. She tugged on her hoodie and slipped her wrench back in her basket. “Well Grammie. It looks like all it needed was a bit of tightening up, some oil for the gears, and some more gas in the burner.”
“You’re so smart. I don’t know what half of that means.”
Red shook her head and gave the Official Tea Automaton 1000 one last look over. “Remember to call me on your vid next time, instead of using your headset, okay?”
“Of course, dear. I just don’t like the vid because then I have to make sure my hair’s neat.”
“Grammie.” Red leaned in over the old woman. “I love you. Your hair doesn’t have to be perfect. You’ve been sick, you know?”
“That’s no excuse.” Grammie tucked a gray curl back in her bonnet.
Red’s vid chimed. She held her wrist up to eye-level and pressed the accept button. “Hey, Mommy.
“Are you almost done helping your Grammie?” Mommy looked away from the screen, disappeared, and reappeared with Red’s baby sister, Blue, squirming in her arms.
“Yes, ma’am.” Mommy raised the dangerous eyebrow.
“Okay. I want you to head straight home. Don’t talk to strangers.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Red frowned. She knew better than to talk with strangers.
Kissing her Grannie good-bye, Red hurried out. Her basket of wrenches, nuts, and bolts banged against her knee. Crisp orange and yellow leaves blew across her path. Heavy dark clouds flew across the sky. Red tugged the ties of her hood to keep out the wind and skipped down the sidewalk. As she came around the corner of her street she saw Mr. Wolf in his top hat, stomping her way. His cane poked the ground with every other step. Poke. Poke. Poke. Red imagine the ground didn’t like to be stabbed by Mr. Wolf’s cane. Poor, poor ground.
Red stepped back behind the large old oak at the corner hopping Mr. Wolf hadn’t seen her.
“Out of my way,” Mr. Wolf snarled pointing his ugly old cane at Red, “or I might just have you for dinner.”
Red shook in her boots. She ran around to the back of the tree.
“Boo!” Mr. Wolf jumped at her.
Red screamed and ran all the way home never seeing the toothy grin on Mr. Wolf’s face, nor the angry look Joshua Woodsman gave him from behind his white picket fence.
Mommy had hot chocolate waiting when Red rushed in the back door. The warm chocolate with three white marshmallows floating in it drove scary Mr. Wolf right out of her mind. Safe in her warm home, Red forgot about the man with the cane, as little girls do.
Early the next morning, Red’s vid chirped. Wiping sleep from her eyes, she saw Grammie on the screen.
“Good morning, baby bear,” Grammie said.
Red moaned something, still trying to wake up.
“Exactly! It’s just beautiful today. I’ve made some cookies and my Tea’s not working again. Can you come fix it?” Red rolled out of bed, strapped her vid on without turning off the screen, and hurried down stairs to ask Mommy. Grammie squeezed her eyes closed, quite motion-sick. The mother and daughter and grand-daughter conferred, and with Mommy’s permission, Red was on her way.
“Don’t talk to strangers!” Mommy yelled as Red flew out the door.
A light sprinkle of rain showered down on Red. She tugged her hood up and splashed through the puddles as she raced down the street, basket of tools in hand. At the corner, by the oak, she stopped and took a deep breath. The air tasted wet and woody, with a hint of burning leaves. A thin trail of smoke rose from Joshua Woodsman’s back yard. Red peeked over his fence. The boy in camouflage, rake in hand, stood beside a pile of leaves. Small orange and yellow flames flickered here and there, accepting their offering of the tree’s once-green foliage.
“What are you doing?” Red called over to Joshua.
He glanced up at her. “Mom asked me to burn the leaves before I go hunting.”
“Is it fun?”
Joshua looked at the fire and smiled. “Of course. “
The smoke circled into the air. Red squinted. Had she caught the flash of a top hat through the smoke? Or the soft tap of a cane on the wind? Last night’s fright surfaced in her imagination with more teeth and claws than reality.
“Why, good morning dear children.” Mr. Wolf appeared from around the corner, unusually cheerful. “Where are you going, Red, on this wet morning?”
“Grammie’s Official Tea Automaton 1000 broke again.” Red shifted from one foot to the other. Why had he stopped to talk with them?
Mr. Wolf raised a sharp eyebrow. “Again?”
“Yesterday it kept making cold tea.” Red saw Joshua frown at Mr. Wolf out of the corner of her eye.
“It spit cold water in Grammie’s face.”
Mr. Wolf laughed. “She may need to invest in the Tea 1000.1.”
“Isn’t that the one you invented, sir?” The way Joshua said ‘sir’ made it sound impolite.
“I keep telling her that,” Red said quickly before Mr. Wolf could snarl at Joshua. “Gotta go.”
“You know my dear,” Mr. Wolf leaned down, now eye to eye with Red. “There are some beautiful yellow and orange flowers over in the park, just down the road. Why don’t you pick some for your lovely Grammie before you go fix her Tea 1000. Old ladies love flowers.”
Mr. Wolf grinned, his teeth white and gleaming.
“Than-thank you, Mr. Wolf. I’m sure she’d like that.” Red dodged around him and ran up the road towards the park. Grammie would like some flowers, and, more than that, it got her away from Mr. Wolf. Red ran faster.
The damp park, dripping with the silver rain, boasted a plethora of fall wild flowers. Red forgot creepy Mr. Wolf again as she rushed here and there selecting the best offerings of the wide field. Soon her tools lay buried under handfuls of yellow, orange, and burgundy buds and a few spectacular leaves. Red paused and checked her vid.
“Oh!” She realized she was quite late. If she didn’t hurry Grammie would vid Mommy and Mommy would vid Red and Red would be in trouble for not going straight to Grammie’s house. For the second time that morning, Red ran. She ran back up the street, back to the corner with the oak, down the road, into the forest and the little path that led to Grammie’s house. There it was! No vid yet. Maybe Red wasn’t in trouble today.
Warm light gleamed from Grammie’s cottage windows. Steam billowed out the side chimney, white and welcoming and promising cookies.
“I’m here Grammie, and I brought you flowers,” Red proclaimed as she hurried in the front door without knocking.
“Oh, what a good little Granddaughter you are, Red,” Grammie, sounding hoarse, said from her room.
Confused, Red stepped into the dim bedroom. Grammie laid back on her pillows, hidden in shadows.
“Are you sick again, Grammie? You sounded fine this morning.”
“Come closer, little Red, so I can see you. My eyes are weak.”
Red moved to the side of the bed and started. “Grammie, why do you have whiskers on your chin?”
Grammie pulled back. “All old ladies have whiskers.”
“Grammie? Why are you wearing a top hat?” Red’s heart hammered in her chest. “You’re not my Grammie!”
Mr. Wolf sprang out of the bed, grabbing for Red.
Red stumbled back tripping over his cane, spilling her basket of tools and flowers. He lunged for her. Red hit him with her favorite wrench and bolted into the kitchen. Mr. Wolf caught her hood and yanked. Red smashed her fist down on the Tea 1000’s lever. The automaton spit cold water in Mr. Wolf’s face. He sputtered and Red broke free. She darted for the front door just as it opened.
Joshua Woodsman raised his rifle and shot Mr. Wolf dead.
A muffled thump sounded from Grammie’s bedroom.
Red and Joshua shared a glance and hurried to check the noise. They found Grammie stuffed in her own closet with her own sock stuck in her mouth. She gathered both children close and covered them with embarrassing kisses. Using Red’s vid, they called the police and both their mothers.
Soon the house was in a flurry. The Tea 1000 spit cold water on everyone. Flowers and tools littered the floor. Mommys hugged and hugged and admonished and hugged again. Red and Joshua were bundled up, they must be in shock, and given cup after cup of hot chocolate. After answering all the mustached policeman’s questions, they were sent home.
Poor Grammie had to endure another day of the Tea 1000’s bad manners until Joshua walked Red to her house the next day and Red, armed with a wrench, fixed him. Grammie wasn’t too upset. The Tea 1000 had spit in the evil Mr. Wolf’s face, after all.