Sean tilted his head.
“It’s a jar of dirt.” Dylan sounded disappointed.
“That’s not dirt,” Emily added. “I’ve seen dirt. That’s not it.”
Sean and I gave our daughter a questioning look. She shrugged. “I’ve been studying different things with the microscope you bought me last year. Dirt is mostly what I’ve studied since that’s all there is around here.”
We laughed, but held the jar out for the kids to see. “The thing is, sweet pea, this wasn’t solid when we found it and put it in the jar.”
“Yeah, it was liquid. Which is why we thought it was oil.”
“How did it turn hard so fast?” she asked, reaching out a hand to touch the jar.
I pulled it out of her reach before she could even graze it with her fingertips. I shot her a warning look that made her pout. “We don’t know what it is, and now this turn of events is mysterious.”
“Sorry, Em. It’s just not safe.”
“But it’s in a jar.”
“And it seems to have changed within the jar. Who knows what could happen if you touch the container now,” I said.
“You’re touching it,” Dylan pointed out.
Sean gave him the mind-your-tongue look. “We’re grownups.”
Dylan rolled his eyes.
“Well, what if the grownups put a sample under my microscope and let me take a look?” Emily flashed her sweetest smile.
“Oh, no sweet pea, I don’t think that’s a great idea.”
“Pleeeeeaaase?” Dylan and Emily pleaded together, clasping their hands and dancing in place.
I looked to Sean for backup, but should have known right away that was useless. He merely gave me the same puppy eyes as our kids.
Georgia popped her head in from the kitchen. “Alright, you lot. Have fun with your science experiments. I’m out.”
We all waved goodbye to the kids’ grandma and heard the screen door slam behind her as she left. I listened to her car engine turn on in the driveway and the crackle of the tires over the pebbles. I’d have no backup from her.
“Maybe we could just put a little piece on a slide.”
“We handle the sample ourselves, with gloves and tweezers, slide the glass onto the microscope, and supervise her as she looks through the lens.”
Emily nodded vigorously and looked at me with wide eyes. Dylan followed suit until finally even Sean was begging for the experiment.
I let out an exasperated breath. “Okay, we’ll take a look under the microscope, but no touching, either of you.” I emphasized the point with a severe finger wagging.
They nodded in unison. Sean and I grabbed the materials while the kids went to Emily’s makeshift lab in the tool shed to prep the microscope.
“Sean, are you sure this is a good idea? What if the stuff is radioactive?”
“It would probably be glowing if it was radioactive.” His sweet smile that had first enticed me to marry him played across his face.
“Sean, I’m serious. We don’t know what this stuff is.” I held up the jar and squinted at the substance. It was still in the new solid form it had taken almost an hour before.
“Honestly, Phil,” Sean said, “I think it’ll be fine. It might just be some kind of fossil thing. Like the tar pits, but once we removed it from its environment, it solidified. Change in temperature and pressure and all that.”
I smiled. “So you’re a scientist now?”
“I’m just trying to be practical. Not let our imaginations get the best of us. Besides, we’re always encouraging the kids to be curious and discover the world.”
“I know, I know. But telling them to be curious in theory is great. Letting them do something that could be dangerous is different.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. Now let’s get out there before Em starts shrieking for us.” Sean leaned in and kissed me, pouring in every ounce of reassurance he could offer.
Out in the tool shed, the kids had cleaned the desk space, sanitized the microscope, and pulled out fresh glass slides. They both wore gloves and greeted us with big grins.
Emily reached out a hand with a slide. “Here, put a sample on this.”
Sean and I glanced at one another, having one of those moments that said oil or no oil, we have all we need right here. I opened the jar and let my partner chisel off a piece with the tweezers. It came off easier than expected, like it was a clump of dirt.
He placed the fine powder onto the slide and placed it under the microscope. Emily started to adjust the slide, but I stopped her with a stern glare. She paused and let her dad do it for her.
“Alright, Em, just the microscope and its controls,” Sean cautioned.
She nodded. Dylan stood nearby and followed his sister’s instructions when she asked for more or less light and help adjusting the lens.
“Well, what do you see?” Dylan asked eagerly.
“Definitely not dirt.” She kept her eye on the microscope lens. “It doesn’t have the same composition as what’s in our backyard.”
“What composition does it have?” I asked.
Emily looked up at us and shrugged. “Not sure. Nothing I’ve seen, but then again, I haven’t seen much.” She laughed.
Dylan nudged his sister to let him take a look. He pressed his eye to the microscope. “Whoah, cool.”
“What’s it doing?” Emily pushed her brother out of the way again to see into the lens.
But even Sean and I could see what was happening. The sample from the slide radiated a blue glow. I grabbed my partner’s hand and took a step forward to pull the kids away, but Sean stopped me.
“Relax. It’s probably a microbe thing, like the Bioluminescent Bays.”
“Fascinating,” Emily exhaled.
“What is?” Dylan peered around the microscope at an angle, trying to get a look at what his sister was seeing.
“Its composition changed. I still don’t recognize it, but it’s different than before. Almost like a kaleidoscope.”
Emily stepped back and let Dylan look again. She turned to me with bright eyes almost the same as the sample’s glow. “Papa, look.” She pointed at the jar we’d left on the desk.
The substance had changed once more to liquid, but this time almost translucent, and also glowing blue. It didn’t just glow though; it pulsated, like it was sending out a beacon.
“Okay, we’re definitely in a sci-fi flick now, Phil. This has gotta be alien.” Sean’s face was lit by the jar’s blue light, giving him almost a panicked expression.
“Enough science project for the night. We’ll find a lab to send this to in the morning.”
The kids began to protest, but I put a hand up in silence, indicating the final word.
“Your papa’s right, kids. We’ve played enough with this new thing for one day. Let’s get you both to bed now.” Sean turned to me. “Wanna lock it up in something for now?”
I nodded. While Sean escorted Emily and Dylan back to the house to get them ready for bed, I emptied out an old steel toolbox to put the jar in. With my hands still in gloves, I picked up the sample slide from the microscope and looked around, unsure of what to do with it for a moment. Before I could decide though, it began to squirm and move on its own.
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