Chapter 28: Puzzle Box

In which the abominable snowman has been released!

Stephanie squirmed in her seat. She wanted to bring up the subject of Agnes in order to answer the questions Uncle Gilly had implanted in her mind, but she didn’t know how to broach the subject.

For that session, her granddad had chosen to meet with her at a refurbished Satellite Coffee across Central from the University of New Mexico’s Mandatory + education buildings. The familiar sight and sound of the end of school year protestors dismantling professors’ and administrators’ cars almost rang nostalgic in Stephanie’s ears. Sometimes, she wished she’d chosen to finish out her schooling. But most of the time, she was thankful she no longer had to focus in the midst of chaos.

One young man was standing on the back of the university’s lobo statue, shouting about oppression. He had to pay for his own anti-anxiety study aids, or some such. She didn’t quite catch it.

“This will be the muddiest recording yet,” she pointed out.

“You’ll have to type fast to keep up. Are you going to sip tea all day, or do you want to start?”

Stephanie had astonished even herself when she’d ordered a cup of smoked green tea. Her granddad wasn’t the only one influencing her taste buds, after all. “I’m ready to start whenever you are. By the way, you are going to finish your story about Agnes, aren’t you?”

“How do you know there’s more to the story?”

“Uncle Gilly brought it up.”

“Good old Gilly, always deflecting. I’ll bet he didn’t talk about the fire, did he?”

“No. Can you imagine what it must be like to have that hanging on him all his life?”

“Yes, yes, I do. Okay, if you want to hear the rest of the Agnes story, here goes. But I have to warn you, it’s not a pleasant story.”

Oso woke next to Bernadette with a bad taste in his mouth and a raging headache. Outside, the morning doves cooed in the courtyard that was tangled over with trumpet vines and swept by the branches of a small walnut tree. The shadows of the sunset-colored home smelled like a river, with the swamp color running and the tiles on the floor. His peaceful Albuquerque house should have given him the rest he needed, but instead, he felt a yawning emptiness inside.

Last night, he’d invited her over to his place for the first time—in an official way, for dinner. For discussing important subjects, such as whether they should get married. This was an important topic to him, as he now had a motherless child who’d become attached to her. She had told him he didn’t understand what discussing important subjects meant. She had accused him of bowling her over with ultimatums, just as he’d done when he was eighteen.

Samson, being that he lived with Oso at that time, had tried to intervene. He no longer took every human gesture of threat as a real threat; he’d wizened and tempered his reactions.

At one point, he’d pulled Oso aside and asked, “I don’t understand the logic. Is this fight you’re having over etiquette? How can I help?”

“It’s about human emotions, Samson. You might just want to go to bed and let us hash it out.”

“I have emotions, too, and you told me never to use them. You told me to suppress them, as my emotions caused harm. It sounds to me like your emotions are causing harm.”

“Go to bed,” Oso snapped. He wasn’t in the mood for a Minä lesson on the proper use of emotions.

“I’ll do what you say, but I would like to understand. Is this woman not the mother of my half-brother, Adam? Why is she angry when you tell her she should be what she is?”

Samson had spent the last two years primarily in Tomi Corp and Oso’s home. The man was an innocent. “She’s not Adam’s mother. I would like her to be because Adam’s mother is gone. We’ll figure it out.”

“I didn’t know. You didn’t tell me Adam’s mother was gone.” The man’s brow creased in sadness. “Adam is like me, without a mother. I will go to bed at your request. If you need a mediator, wake me.”

And then after Samson had left the room, they’d hit the alcohol and the conversation had raged into a fight, and they’d both collapsed in the black hours of morning. Like clockwork, Oso had woken at his usual five A.M. It was a big day, a work day. He should not have invited her over.

It was more than the average work day. Unbeknownst to her, he’d been regularly visiting Agnes. Actually, she knew about his visits and approved of them, as long as Agnes was mentally stable enough to cope with them. She was a psychologist, after all, and thought primarily of each person she interacted with as a patient, some with greater needs than others. Oso’s need to right past wrongs, therefore, couldn’t be allowed to upset Agnes’s far more fragile mental world.

What Bernadette didn’t know was that Oso, too, had been viewing Agnes as a patient. His PhD, which he’d eventually finished, was in the research aspects of neurology—that is, diagnoses of any kind were not his purview. Despite that, his intention was to fix Agnes in the same way he’d raised quasi human life from the dust of the earth, as it were.

So for the past few months, he’d been interviewing her and giving her puzzles to gauge her ability to store memories in the short or long term. He’d had her IQ tested multiple times, and determined that she had an above average intelligence, in the 120-130 range. That had surprised him, to be honest, as it went against his base childhood prejudice that she had a sub par intelligence.

But her high working intelligence had helped him in his proposal to the state-funded care home: he would take her on as a patient and be her caretaker. When he’d explained to her how he could he help her, she’d understood the potential for disaster as well as hope. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t remember having consented and signed the papers. The fact was she had understood in the moment when she’d signed. The state home, which had taken on Agnes as a lifelong burden—she was only in her thirties when she’d gone to live there—was only too happy to loose the burden.

What had convinced Agnes was the idea of hope. She lived in a world of sensation, influenced by only the moment she inhabited and a long ago past with a gaping chasm between it and her. It was possible for her to live happily and adequately in that moment, well-fed, taking part in games and activities and listening to music. Except she wasn’t happy.

She wasn’t happy because she was always confused. Her memories were composed of images from childhood. Her inability to create new memories meant she had zero imagination for the future. And that was what had clinched her signing the paperwork. In that moment, when Oso outlined the possibilities while reiterating the risks, she pushed aside the risks and imagined a future where she had hope.

Hope ultimately propelled Oso forward that morning, in which emptiness and, yes, he had to admit it, shame raged inside him. He had bowled Bernadette over. He couldn’t deny it. But he also couldn’t deny that his plan for Bernadette was mutually beneficial to them both. It was the right plan. He trusted Bernadette; he was still attracted to her, as he could see the same girl with the long legs and tiny waist in the older woman. She was still attracted to him—why wouldn’t she be?—and he would fill that one hole in her heart that was leftover from her decision to remain single after widowhood: the child-free well.

Hope pounded in his veins as he forced himself to the gym, despite the late night and headache. When he returned, Bernadette was awake and sitting at the table, slumped over, with her head in her hands. Samson was hovering over her, holding a tray of what appeared to be a glass of Oso’s vitamin-mineral powder mixed in water, a stack of toast, and two aspirins.

“No, Samson,” she said. “I don’t want anything yet.”

“According to my knowledge, you’re dehydrated. Your skin tents on your hand. Also, you asked for the aspirin.” When Samson saw Oso, he turned to him. “She’s frustrating me, Mr. Beñat. She won’t allow me to be helpful to her. Should I use force, as I feel inside that I should? I think I can force her without using harmful emotions.”

Bernadette groaned. “Just leave the tray, and I’ll do what you told me to, all right, Samson? I know your advice is sound.”

Oso kissed Bernadette on the cheek. Life would be good with her because she was a sensible woman.

“I love you,” he said, and went in the kitchen to put on the kettle. He pressed the button on the coffee grinder and filled the french press with the fresh ground beans. “Finish the coffee while I’m in the shower, will you, Bernadette?”

“You’re welcome,” was the small, quiet response he caught as he hurried past her.

Life was good; he was taking Agnes to the hospital ward of Tomi Corp that very day. Soon, he would have Bernadette, Adam, and Agnes living in his home, and he would care for them all. And next week, his other three children would fly in to Albuquerque for their summer vacation with him.

He made quick work of his shower, as it was going to be a hectic day. Too many necessaries on his mental list, not enough time. If the people surrounding him complied with his schedule, the day would go smoothly. If not, he would have to ignore the people around him.

As he dressed in his freshly pressed pants and shirt, Adam ran in his bedroom, wearing nothing but his underwear and a t-shirt. In the background, Oso could hear the kettle on the stove whistling shrilly. Adam thrust a Lego object in his face.

“Try to open it!” he shouted, his grin spreading from ear to ear.

“Not now, Adam. I’m getting dressed. Will you see where Bernadette is? Tell her to turn off the stove.”

Adam ran out of the room, leaving the Lego gadget behind for Oso to stumble over, which he did. Surprisingly, it didn’t come apart as most Lego contraptions did. Oso picked it up and carefully placed it on the bed. It was some kind of box. It looked nondescript, no particular color scheme or pattern. Still, Oso knew better than to treat an engineer’s unimpressive-looking invention with disdain. He’d worked with engineers for a very long time.

The shrillness of the kettle suddenly ceased, and the smell of coffee wafted through his open bedroom door. When Adam returned, he was dressed for school, if a pair of too-small pants added to the ensemble could be considered official school clothes.

“Samson’s making coffee for you,” Adam said. “Berna’s sitting at the table eating toast.”

“Ah, well, if Samson doesn’t mind,” Oso said. “Why don’t you tell me about your box?”

“It’s a trap box. You have to figure out how to open it.”

“A trap box? You mean, like a puzzle box?”

“No, kind of. But it’s a trap. See what’s inside.”

Oso examined the box. Finally, he shook it, and out slid a plastic rod that could be placed in another gap that pushed out another rod…Adam, antsy, grabbed the box and showed his dad how to open it by using the second rod to release the hook holding the door closed. Inside, a Lego Abominable Snowman waited.

“You let out the monster!” Adam shrieked.

“Where’d you get the idea to make a puzzle box?”

The boy jumped up and down with anticipation. “There’s this internet site with Lego machines, but you made me get off the computer, and I couldn’t watch the videos. Theirs are probably better. I want to watch the videos to get some more ideas.”

“After school. You can tell Bernadette I gave you permission.”

Oso whistled as he wandered toward the smell of coffee.

“I’m glad you’re in such a good mood this morning,” Bernadette said.

“That didn’t sound as sarcastic as I’m sure you meant it.”

Bernadette shook her head and gave him a small smile. “I didn’t mean to be sarcastic. I’m glad you’re in a good mood because it’s good for all of us. Don’t you agree? It’s a lot better than you screaming at me at midnight and threatening to wake up Adam.”

“Adam sleeps like the dead. And let me remind you, you screamed right back.” He poured himself a cup from the french press. “I need to keep the good energy flowing all day. Today’s the day I bring Agnes to Tomi Corp.”

Bernadette looked up sharply from her own cup of coffee, which, apparently, Samson had poured for her. “Why are you taking her there?”

“We’re going to regrow her brain,” he said matter-of-factly, as if it was that simple.

“You’re…what? Repeat that, please.”

“You know we’ve been trying to fund human trials. We’ve been successful with several generations of mice, and now it’s time to move on to humans.”

“Agnes is not a mouse. Do you really think that’s okay, experimenting on an old woman whose life you—we—already destroyed? A woman who can’t remember anything from one moment to the next?”

“Yes. She consented to it. I’ll also be her caretaker once she’s recovered.”

“And you’ve been planning this for how long now, without consulting me?”

“Do you consult me regarding the work you do with your patients?” he coldly asked. He could hear the coldness creep into his voice, and he didn’t like it. And he also couldn’t stop it.

“No, of course I don’t. You know it’s not the same. You know it’s not. And her caretaker? Just last night, you wanted us to get married. There’s no way I’m marrying a man who does whatever he wants and doesn’t even consult me when about to make huge life changes that will affect me. I mean, when were you going to tell me that I’d be living with an old woman—that is, if she lives through your experiments on her?”

“Don’t start shouting at me again, Bernadette. I don’t have to ask your permission to do anything. And besides, it’s already done. I’m now her legal caretaker.”

“You’re a fucking maverick, Oso. You can’t do this to an old woman. I suppose Gilly knows about what you’ve been planning?”

“Gillilander and I are business partners. Why wouldn’t he know?”

Bernadette pursed her lips. “I should’ve guessed that’s why you were visiting her. You can never leave things alone. You aren’t God, Oso. Why do you think it’s acceptable to experiment on a woman who isn’t mentally able to understand what she’s getting herself into?”

“First explain to me why it was acceptable for her childhood doctor to perform an experimental lobotomy on her.”

“I don’t have access to those files. How could I possibly know that?”

“He did it to stop her grand mal seizures. I contacted the doctor. Doctors take risks all the time with the consent of the patient or the patient’s legal guardian. In this case, it greatly reduced the frequency of her seizures, but destroyed her brain’s ability to store memories.”

“What’s your point?”

“You asked me why it was acceptable. Experimentation is necessary for the advancement of medicine. I won’t provide you with any further explanations. Why should I? I will, however, be grateful for your assistance in watching over her mental health.” He cleared his throat and tried to infuse warmth in the creeping cold he felt inside, the undeniable emptiness that continuous action couldn’t stop. “Your skills are beneficial to me in more than one way,” he quietly added.

Conversely, she raised her voice. “How dare you use me like this!” She rose and began to forcefully clear the table of dishes, clattering them noisily in the sink. “I will not be used. Good luck finding a more compliant woman to fix your problems. Because I’m not going to do it, and I can’t imagine why any woman would.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Bernadette. The world is full of compliant women.”

“Scrupulous, money-grubbing, amoral women. Sure. Have fun raising your son and caring for a vulnerable geriatric with one by your side. Oh, but I forgot. You’re amoral, too. In my professional opinion, you’re a sociopath. Let that be a warning to you. A serious warning, Oso. You need help.”

“On the contrary,” he said, and then stopped talking to hustle Adam away from the Legos and into the bathroom to brush his teeth. “On the contrary,” he repeated as he picked up his briefcase and keys. “I live by a very strict moral code. Don’t forget to lock up when you leave. I assume you’ll watch Adam after school until I can engage a nanny to replace you. Being that you aren’t amoral.”

“Is it time to go to work, Mr. Beñat?” Samson asked.

“Yes, it is, Samson.”

“I feel that Bernadette is behaving emotionally right now. I have never seen her this emotional. Will she cause harm?”

He really needed to take Samson out into the world more often so he didn’t have to explain these things. After all, Samson had been “born” two years ago. How could he still be this naïve? “Don’t worry about it, Samson. It’s just the state of women to be emotional.”

“And it doesn’t cause them harm as it does for men?” Samson studied Oso, and then Bernadette, and then Oso again. “I’m not sure I understand emotion. From my observation, you are the one in a constantly agitated state. This behavior is unusual for the woman you’ve chosen to be your son’s mother.”

“Don’t try to understand,” Bernadette said, the sarcasm fully present this time. “Just do as your master bids.”


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