Category Archives: The Minäverse

Chapter 26: Snake-Slayers United

In which the riddle is composed of one cat, one snake, one man!

The assistant hovered in the doorway, peering into the office space with impassive eyes, under the shadow of a black top hat fringed by feathers. For quite some time, she didn’t budge. Oso’s back was to her; if he’d been facing her, he would almost certainly have asked her to leave. That was his usual reaction.

Stephanie wasn’t sure why she hung about or even wanted to. Perhaps she was simply human and didn’t want to be left out. Perhaps she felt lonely being in this house all the time with an elderly billionaire and a Minä.

Wait, what? What was she thinking? Looking at that impassive face, Stephanie was sure the icy blonde was a Minä. She had to be. Her granddad had almost said as much. But then a flicker of something else appeared on the woman’s face: jealousy? Longing? Those were complex emotions for even an intelligent Minä. And Gilly had vehemently denied that the assistant was a Minä. His tone had hinted at something else…something else entirely.

“Stephanie!”

She jumped.

“Are you ready to start? I’m not getting any younger.”

Mark, who was sitting beside her, nudged her with his elbow.

“This is what happens when women fall in love, Mark. They can’t focus on anything but their lover.”

“Is that true, Stephanie?” Mark asked.

“I’m not sure why you think I would know.” She readied her teletyper and cleared her throat. “I’m ready to start.”

“They’re also great at denial,” Oso said.

Stephanie rolled her eyes, which felt juvenile, but appropriate. True, she probably was in love with Mark at this point, but she hadn’t been thinking about him. These days, she thought of almost nothing but Granddad and Gilly. Mark was simply a welcome relief.

“Where’s Myra?” she asked to change the subject.

Her granddad honestly looked confused. “Who?”

“The woman at the…? Oh, never mind. You probably picked her up just for the game.”

“Oh, that Myra. She gave me a shave at the barber’s because my regular was on vacation. She was cute, and I asked her to be my date.”

Stephanie nodded because she didn’t know how else to respond, and glanced over at Mark to see if he was as flabbergasted as she was. He wasn’t.

Oso slammed his cane down. He growled, “This section of the story is too important for you to be daydreaming through. Do I need to ask Mark to leave?”

“I’ll leave,” Mark said, jumping up from the couch. “I’ll practice some soccer kicks with Devon. I’ve been watching videos on how to do traditional maneuvers. Not choreographed ones, but strategic ones. I can’t imagine why the world gave this up.”

Stephanie waved at his retreating back. She would no doubt find herself doing that frequently if she committed herself to him. He’d been diagnosed with ADHD as a child, and although approved prescriptions had been mandated by the school system, somehow his negligent mom had perpetually forgotten to give them to him. Without the medicine, he’d never been cured. And here he was today, barely able to sit through an interview. And yet he always managed to maintain his focus on analyzing games. Hmm.

The day they brought their first Minä to life was a hot one. Having lost his daycare provider, Adam was running through the maze of the Tomi Corp building hallways, with the secretary, Mrs. Weaver, stalwartly chasing him. Bernadette had let him know that she, too, had a business with money to be made. She could only shift her schedule around so much for a man who was…a man who was…?

They’d been seeing a lot of each other lately, and especially after Cameron left. After living with him for a few weeks, Cameron had moved herself into a tiny apartment funded by her divorce settlement with Gilly. Occasionally, she mentioned the beauty of hard work and seemed mildly interested, in an offhand theoretical way, of getting a job at a coffee shop where she could chat with customers and make a little money for herself. But that was as far as it went: that and a collection of vineyard photographs that cost her money rather than earning it for her. The days when she’d held a golden yellow plastic shovel and pretended to help her father dig the earth were long gone.

Oso had spent the previous night with Cameron, though he didn’t know why. He was lonely, and she was attractive, and she wasn’t a stranger. And Bernadette was still holding him at arm’s length.

They’d spent the evening examining Cameron’s photographs. She had very good taste. Maybe a career in art curation…? The look she gave him could have frozen lava. He had stumbled into that which we don’t talk about. That is, he gathered, she already had a career, and it involved the curation of men such as himself. But this was not a career she discussed, as one did not discuss one’s careers as an art curator with the objets d’art themselves.

Bernadette was not a curator. She was, in fact, the opposite. She developed her business as a therapist and avoided relationships with men. He didn’t want to think about Bernadette. He did think about her—he thought about her more and more since he’d moved to Albuquerque and become primary caretaker of his fourth and youngest child, whom he also couldn’t stop thinking about because he could hear the boy’s shouts every so often, echoing down the hallway.

For the purpose of bringing their first non-prototype Minä to life with the use of infrasound, they needed an atmosphere of silence, however. Oso therefore gave the secretary some money to take herself and the boy out to lunch and a park—maybe the zoo or aquarium?—for a good long while.

Their first real Minä was structured to be a man. His body and mind were created in the image of masculinity in every way but possibly the most important: he was not able to procreate. He had functioning hormone-producing glands and organs, but the ability to procreate was a complex issue on both moral and physiological grounds. Both he and Gilly had unanimously agreed (one of the few times) that they didn’t want their “children” to be purchased for the purpose of sex.

The Minä was a burly man, like Oso, with broad shoulders and powerful thighs. He wore a full beard and an attractive mane of dark, wavy hair that covered his extra-large ears. They had nicknamed him Samson because his hair and whiskers had been designed to pick up on the slightest vibrations in the air around, much like animal whiskers. He had a working brain stem that connected his mind to the rest of his body—it had been designed off the most primal reptilian brain. Surrounding this was a complex of biological material supported by interconnected nanotubes. His brain hemispheres were balanced, with extra neural connections, a dense neural network between brain hemispheres, and an extra ridge in the mid frontal lobe.

As Oso and Gilly and their intern, who was a quite unattractive—in fact dumpy—graduate student named Andrea, wheeled Samson along on a gurney from the cold storage they’d preserved him in, the Minä’s body twitched like a patient suffering through drug withdrawal tremors. He wasn’t alive, not yet, but his body was waking to a biological reality.

In their basement laboratory, they’d created a room with glowing sun bulbs rising up on the eastern wall. The room glowed with morning light, highlighting a complex array of plant life modeled after the high desert of New Mexico. There were chollas in full waxen bloom, desert willows exploding in pink flowers, prickly pears bearing fruit, clumps of small junipers; there were rabbits and swallows and mice scampering through prickly homes; there were even rattlesnakes, which meant that all scientists entering wore boots.

They wheeled the gurney into a vestibule that was a safe space to ensure the wildlife didn’t escape into the office complex. Mrs. Weaver had nearly fainted when she’d heard there were rattlesnakes living in the building somewhere, even if only in the basement. Oso had been forced to drag her along to the basement for a tour, to show her the vestibule and how it was nearly impossible for the wildlife to escape. Nearly was not the same as impossible, though, and she never quite got over her jumpiness, checking in the kitchen cupboards before she made Oso’s coffee, and below her desk before she sat down each morning.

They wheeled the gurney into the desert scape and opened Samson’s closed eyes. The morning light would enter through his retinas and begin activating essential hormones in the brain. But first, before this activity could occur, his mind had to be woken with infrasound. The intern gently brushed the bushy hair behind the Minä’s large ears, like a mother smoothing down her child’s hair. The hair would aid in Samson’s detection of infrasound before the ears tuned in.

Oso swallowed hard and took a deep breath. The room was climate adjusted to a summer morning. It wasn’t hot, but it wasn’t particularly cool, either. Rivulets of sweat ran down his back and trickled down his forehead. He was at his most intense, and he tended to sweat very heavily at such times—any other man might have been embarrassed by the social faux pas of sweat stains under his arms. Oso, however, didn’t care. After the work was done, he would simply change his shirt.

He looked over at Gilly, and their eyes met. Gilly suffered from nerves but didn’t appear nervous, wasn’t biting his nails or shuffling his feet or slouching. He stood straight up, his back rigid, he jaw set. Gilly was ready. They were all ready.

“You should start the infrasound concert,” Gilly said in a near whisper, which was completely unnecessary.

“Are you sure you want me to?” Oso asked. “I was going to suggest you do it. You were the main designer. You should bring your child to life.”

“Samson wouldn’t exist without you. You should do it.”

“Why don’t you hold hands and do it together?” the intern said with a typical eyeroll more befitting of a teenager than a twenty-something graduate student.

She was an ugly woman, both inside and out, but she was competent and did what she was told—usually. Oso patted her on the back, as he didn’t want to destroy the peaceful moment. Then he walked to the soundboard and instigated the silent concert. Infrasound affected most people on some level, even if the sounds themselves were below the audible range of the human ear. It affected the animal world, as well. There was a sudden scampering at the start of the concert.

Oso felt a little seasick as the silent environment began, little by little, to wake up the Minä. The infrasound created a sense of something, a shadow leaning over his shoulder or swirling around his form. If he believed in ghosts, he might have called the shadow a ghost, an invisible personage come to haunt his soul. Except that the haunting effect was instead on Samson, whose open staring eyes began to dart back and forth. Samson’s hands twitched, his knees bounced, his chin jerked convulsively.

A slight breeze ruffled the Minä’s hair. Startled, the Minä sat up abruptly and looked around him, fear lighting up his dark eyes. Then he jumped from the gurney and vaulted himself behind a scrubby juniper.

Oso eased the infrasound slowly to an off position, and the presence in the room instantly relaxed.

“Samson,” he called. “Come out from behind the tree.”

“I don’t think he’s going to come out on his own,” Gilly said.

The intern stood by with her clipboard, scribbling notes. She tended to use a plethora of colorful adjectives in her reports.

Oso quietly approached the Minä’s hiding place, peering behind the bush at the cowering man. He held out his hand.

“I’m your creator,” he said. “You can trust me.”

The Minä’s brain having been trained in the laboratory to recognize Oso’s voice, even before consciousness, Samson took Oso’s hand, and Oso gently guided him from the hiding place. The intern handed Samson a robe to cover his naked body, and then the three of them led the Minä to a table they’d laid out in the center of a field of blazing marigolds. They uncovered the dishes they’d prepared for him, which included a roasted pheasant, and fed the man. At first, he gagged, but the eating reflex soon kicked in, and he hungrily tore the meat from the bones and then grunted for more.

“Later. We don’t want to overload your digestion,” Gilly reassured him.

“I’m still hungry,” the man said, and they all gasped, as those were the Minä’s first words. A flash of anger crossed Samson’s brow, and he slammed his fist on the table.

“Sheesh,” Gilly said. “What a barbarian.”

“Why don’t you just give him more calories?” Oso suggested. “He’s fully formed, unlike a newborn baby. His digestion should be working at its peak right now.”

“My female prototype had constant stomach cramps when you tried to stuff steak down her gullet, and had to start eating a vegan diet.”

“She ate a vegan diet,” Oso said, “because you influenced her and turned her into a religious nutcase.”

“That just goes to show religion is for idiots. She was verifiably a low IQ version of a Minä, and I led her like I was God.”

The discussion proved useless, however, because before they could stop him, Samson had knocked the covers from the dishes and helped himself to a full plate of food, which he proceeded to shovel in his mouth.

Andrea grimaced. “The female prototype was a vegan because she had a sense of delicacy. He’s just being a typical uncivilized man. Men. Truly obnoxious, and totally obvious once you bring them to life as adults with no influence from parents.”

“I pay you to take notes, not voice your opinion,” Oso said.

Gilly glowered. “Yeah, shut up, Andrea. Your delicacy disgusts me.”

Samson grunted and looked up at Gilly, matching glower for glower. Then he wiped his greasy hands on the tablecloth, rose abruptly from his chair, and stood silently, listening. His hair seemed to be vibrating with life as the simulated morning sun lit on it. From out of nowhere, a calico cat sauntered into the marigold clearing, its coat warm with sun. It rubbed its silky body against Samson’s leg. Samson stooped down and caressed the cat.

“Where’d the cat come from?” Gilly whispered.

Oso shook his head. He knew—he’d brought in a couple of cats to keep down the rodent population, but he didn’t want to disturb the moment by saying so. As even Andrea was gawking, Oso nudged her gently to prompt her continued note-taking. Gilly, being the barbarian he was accused of being, lightly punched her on the shoulder. Hence proceeded a silent poking and glaring war between Gilly and Andrea. Oso sighed. He clearly didn’t have just one child—Samson—but three. Finally, Andrea balled her fist and took a full swing from her beefy shoulder into Gilly’s face, knocking his glasses from his nose.

Samson swung around, his feelers perceiving a threat, and took Andrea down to the desert scape floor with one deft movement, and pressed his knee into her back.

“Samson!” Oso growled. “Stand down. She’s not a threat.”

Samson let her go. His eyes narrowed as Oso reached for his wrist to count the pulse rate. Oso detected that Samson was in pure instinct mode, his breathing shallow, his pulse quickened.

“Let’s pretend for a moment that Andrea’s a threat,” Oso said quietly, his fingers lightly on the Minä’s wrist. “Gilly can take care of himself. He designed you. I created you, but he designed you. We are, in essence, your parents. Andrea is one of many interns we’ve had from the local university. Andreas come and go. We’ll probably let her go after this and find another one, but she certainly isn’t a threat.”

Andrea made a small, disgusted noise from behind Oso. Far behind. She had backed up to put Oso between her and the Minä. Oso was the only one large enough to take Samson down. He was also the only one equipped with a homemade tranquilizer gun, loaded and ready to go. Gilly had forgotten his, as he was wont to do, and Andrea was opposed to weapons on principle. They shouldn’t be creating a creature they would have to take down with a weapon, she had asserted at some point. Oso had told her to find another job, but she’d kept coming in to work, anyway.

Samson’s pulse slowed as silence regained its hold on the desert. The cat, which had mysteriously appeared, mysteriously disappeared.

“Remember, your primary goal, as wired into you by your designer, is to be a consultant for humans. You are mankind’s helper.”

Silence again. The wind soughed in the branches of a nearby desert willow. As the day warmed to its artificial environment, the cicada songs began. The silence was so profound, and the desert so overpowering that, at first, they didn’t hear the rattle. None of them was particularly scared of rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes preferred to remain hidden in any environment. The snakes didn’t, whatever the case, like humans. They lived in their holes, and they crept out to sun themselves in the early morning and late evening, and they hovered around the watering holes, where they could catch the tastiest morsels.

But this snake crept in slowly, slowly, closer to the silent group. It seemed to want to say hello to the newest arrival of life under the desert sun. And then it stopped abruptly behind Andrea, curled up, and raised its head, ready to strike if anyone approached.

Andrea shrieked. She was in an awful position. Gilly had sat back down at the table after she’d struck him; Oso was on the other side of her, protecting her from the Minä. Or protecting the Minä from her—Oso wasn’t sure. In hand-to-hand combat, she would lose, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t damage the expensive goods wrapped in expensive skin. Who would protect Andrea from the snake? Oso was not interested in a petty lawsuit.

“Andrea, please back slowly away from the snake,” Oso quietly spoke. Even though he kept his tone even, he could feel the Minä’s pulse begin racing again.

Before he could stop him—before Andrea could move from her petrified position—Samson leapt to the table, grabbed the bird-carving knife, and decapitated the snake. Then he picked up the lifeless body, complete with rattle, and draped it around Andrea’s neck as though it were jewels. He leaned down and kissed her on the forehead.

Andrea swayed as though she would faint. “I-I-I,” she stuttered. “Ha-ha-have…”

Samson, on the other hand, was vibrating. His entire body looked like it would burst from the energy of his first kill. He leaped a few times, still holding the knife.

“Put down the knife, Samson. The threat is gone,” Oso said.

“Out of the rattler, something to rattle. Out of the pretty, something to prattle,” Samson shouted, the knife raised.

Gilly hung his head and pressed his fingers to his bruised nose. “We can’t take him out in public.”

“Guess my riddle! Guess my riddle!”

“What is deadlier than a baby? Who is more foolish than a graduate student?” Gilly guessed.

“All right. Enough.” Oso put the Minä down by suddenly punching a pressure point above his elbow. Samson crumpled in surprise pain. “You did well, Samson, but you need to put the knife down.”

Samson looked up at Oso in awe and dropped the knife.

“Let’s go, now. We’ll take him to the hospital ward. Andrea, Gilly?”

Gilly stood up to follow. Andrea, however, didn’t move. There was a snake draped across her shoulders, and she didn’t seem to know what to do with it.

“Andrea,” Samson said. He took her hand—apparently, the evolution from woman as threat to woman as mate had occurred within a few moments of life—and began to lead her out of the desert.

Andrea looked back at Oso, clearly horrified that she was both wrapped in a dead snake and being led by a man who had knocked her down to the ground only moments before.

“Mr. B-B-Beñat?”

“I’ve got your back, Andrea.” Oso snorted and followed the couple.

“Never trust anyone who says they’ve got your back,” Gilly said. “They might have a knife.”

Andrea looked back one more time to see that Gilly was now carrying the bloody snake-slaying knife. The horror on her face was so complete that Oso guessed he wouldn’t have to fire her. She would quit, and then find a safe place to experience her PTSD. Just in case, he would have a meeting with his lawyer about the incident, but he didn’t perceive that she would be a problem child as long as she knew Samson existed in the world.

Several hours had passed in the desert world, which meant that several hours had passed in the cold exterior world of the corporate building. After all, there was no time glitch in the simulated environment. Scientists, engineers, and their assistants and secretaries, who had been waiting impatiently for the quartet to exit the desert, peered out of their offices as they passed. Just in case, Oso kept his hand at his tranquilizer gun. He was afraid Samson might become spooked in the “real” world. However, Samson seemed to have found his purpose in life as he clung tightly to Andrea’s plump white hand. For her part, Andrea had probably never had so much male attention in her life.

Oso tried to direct the Minä straight to the hospital wing, where he’d be living for the next few days, while doctors observed him. It wasn’t a prison—okay, it was a prison, albeit a temporary one meant to ensure that Samson would become a safe, healthy, and helpful consultant to the human race. But, although Oso barked orders at Samson, the Minä was intent on continuing the parade. He took the longest route possible, passing through every portion of the building with his prize, won in warfare with a snake, walking by his side.

“Force him to the hospital ward,” Gilly spat. “We don’t know what he’s capable of.”

“Just let it go for now. I don’t want to get his flight or fight instinct going again.”

“Two words: tranquilize him.”

“Last resort,” Oso said. “For now, we humor him.”

When they arrived in the lobby with its plant box greenery, skylights, and pretty baristas in the cafe, Oso commanded that they halt. He didn’t want Samson walking out the front doors and into the broad world. Thankfully, Samson obeyed. Unfortunately, it was at that moment that Mrs. Weaver walked through one of the turnstiles with Adam. Adam was carrying a very large stuffed elephant and sucking on a lollipop.

Mrs. Weaver looked at the group, confusion etching her face. Of course, she’d seen the inert Samson and knew what he looked like. But she seemed not able to process the visual information in front of her.

“Mr. Beñat?” she said.

“Samson, meet Mrs. Weaver and my son, Adam. Adam is…your brother.”

“My brother?” Samson stooped down, pulling Andrea with him. “Hello, Adam. I’m Samson.”

Adam stared, the lollipop stuck in his mouth.

“I have slain the snake, Adam, and collected my bride. Someday, you will too, little brother. I’ll teach you.”

Adam nodded and squeezed the elephant tighter. Samson ruffled the boy’s hair, a smile widening on his face.

“I’m hungry,” Samson declared yet again. “Would you like to find a bird to tear with me?”

“The boy just ate,” Mrs. Weaver firmly declared.

“Are you our mother?” Samson asked the old secretary.

Mrs. Weaver’s worried face remained. She looked to Oso for support. As he didn’t give it, she said, “No, I’m just a friend. The two men who created you are behind you.”

Samson seemed to be considering this information, as he looked back and forth between Adam and Mrs. Weaver and Gilly and Oso—and even at the frumpy woman by his side. He had existed in a delta wave somnolence for some time, as his mind grew into shape, developed by information and memories that they had fed him. In essence, his brain was fully formed with the nature of being as much as any highly sentient person was informed by being. Hence, he understood the nature of male and female coming together to create life.

“I have two…fathers?” he asked. He seemed to recognize something in this, and he nodded. He understood the nature of male and female, but he also understood that he was a first order of created being—that he was a progenitor of a kind, and was therefore unique. “No, I have a creator and a designer, but I have no parents. I am a special man.”

“Yes,” Oso said. “You are special, Samson, by the very definition of the word. You are a new kind of species of man.”

“You are a snowflake,” Mrs. Weaver added.

“But I’m not a progenitor. I have heard my mind tell me this, but I can’t be a progenitor by the very definition of the word. I can’t have children.” He abruptly dropped Andrea’s hand.

For her part, Andrea looked mildly disappointed.

“I’m tired,” Samson said.

“You are a snowflake,” Mrs. Weaver reiterated.

“I am a snowflake,” Samson said.

And he kept repeating the phrase like a mantra as Oso and Gilly redirected him toward the hospital ward, where he could rest and eat. Andrea trotted along after them. Although they expected her to quit after the events of the day, she didn’t. She, in fact, kept the rattlesnake as a trophy, but being that it had no head, it made for a poor taxidermy project, and she eventually settled for keeping only the skin and the rattle on top of the bookshelf in her Tomi Corp office.

If she hoped Samson might make more overtures to her as his bride, she was in for disappointment. After he’d meshed the ideas of being nonreproductive with the integral ideas of male and female, he set about to do what he’d been created for: to aid humans with their work, dull as that work might be. As the first of his kind, he became Oso’s helper, as well as the face of Tomi Corp.


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Chapter 25: On a Lark

The title says it all!

Stephanie held her breath and input the number her mother had given her. She wasn’t scared of her Uncle Adam, just a little shy. Their families had become distant over the years, as his family had grown increasingly upward-mobile, and hers was trapped in the rut of squandered wealth and overspending on nonessentials. In short, even though Uncle Adam still seemed to care for his sister, his sister’s family was an embarrassment.

Her aunt Judy answered the phone.

“Aunt Judy? It’s Stephanie Gonzalez.”

“Stephanie, sweetie, how are you?”

“I’m doing well. Is Uncle Adam available to talk?”

“Hold on. He was cleaning the filter on the swimming pool. Let me go see if he’s in a spot where he can talk to you.”

A few moments later, the deep jovial voice of her Uncle Adam greeted her. The sound brought tears to her eyes. She’d always liked her uncle.

“What do I owe this pleasure?” he asked.

What was so peculiar about his voice was its innate ability to sound genuine. Her phone call did bring him pleasure. That was what the tone said. “You know I’m a journalist for the Albuquerque Daily.”

“Yes, ma’am. I hear from your mom you’re doing very well for yourself.”

“Granddad asked me to write his story for him. As it is, I’ve been interviewing both him and Uncle Gilly. I thought you might want to have a say about the story, as you lived it, too. You lived with a workaholic father who became famous.”

“You want to interview me?”

“Yes.”

“Have at. I’m a busy man, and I doubt you’re going to fly across the country to conduct this interview. Get your questions out while the getting’s good.”

She should’ve known this would be her uncle’s response. She wasn’t prepared. She had hoped to make an appointment or several appointments. But she was a journalist. She was always prepared, right?

“In our interview sessions, Granddad has touched on when he became the full custodial parent. Do you have any comments on that?”

“You mean, how do I feel about my mother abandoning me?”

“That’s a good place to start.”

“To be honest, Stephie, I don’t remember it much. I never saw my mom again until I was an adult. Your Grandma Bernadette became my mom. She was a good mom to me. I don’t think I suffered.”

“What was it like growing up with Granddad for a dad?”

“It was all I knew. Your mom and I used to fight like cats and dogs. Dad wasn’t always a workaholic. During the summers, Tom, Janie, and Steven would visit us, and we were a full house. We used to stay in a cabin in the mountains. Dad always took off a couple of weeks to have a vacation with us.”

Tom, Janie, and Steven were Stephanie’s even more distant two uncles and aunt. “But what about your day-to-day life? What was that like?”

“You could ask your mom.”

“I already have asked my mom. She’s noncommittal. She doesn’t want to contribute to the project because she’s still mad at Granddad for the last time he made my dad look like a fool. Are you going to be noncommittal, too?”

“That’s a sizable word right there—noncommittal. Stephie, I have happy memories from my childhood. I doubt that would’ve been the case if I’d grown up with my mom. Dad made us go to church after he had his epiphany. I grew up Catholic in a loving household, and then I raised my family in the same way.”

“You made contact with your mom later, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, when I was younger and doing my soul-searching, I looked her up.”

“And?”

“We had lunch. It was fine. She was an unhappy woman with a stiff face. Botox, I guess. She was married to a lawyer. I didn’t pursue the relationship after that.”

“Why not?”

“We didn’t have anything in common. There wasn’t much to go off of except that she was my biological mom. We were both wealthy, but that was it. We could both afford to pay for a high-class lunch. Our lives were so different. My life was family-oriented. We went to mass on Sundays. We went hiking on Saturdays and camping in the summers. My dad and Bernadette loved each other. There was nothing artificial in our lives, no Botox, in other words.”

“You lived a no-Botox life, then? That would sum it up?”

“Yes, that sums it up.”

“Thanks, Uncle Adam. Can I call you if I have any more questions?”

“Sure, of course you can, Stephie. That’s what family’s for. I know your dad has problems with your mom’s family, but it’s nothing. Really. It doesn’t come between us. Got that, girl?”

“Yes.”

“And what about you?”

“What about me?”

“Any boyfriends?”

“Yes, one. He’s the sports editor at my paper.”

“Great. Make sure to invite me to your commitment ceremony.”

Stephanie laughed. “If there’s ever a commitment ceremony, you’ll be invited. Granddad won’t be very happy about it, though.”

“Why not? He doesn’t like your sports editor?”

“No, Granddad’s practically in love with my sports editor. He disapproves of commitment ceremonies. He thinks marriage is a better term.”

Uncle Adam laughed, deeply, jovially, and Stephanie suddenly recognized that her mom’s carried the same tonal quality. She liked that. “He thinks that because it’s true.”

“How? How can it be true? Commitment ceremonies were your generation’s reaction to their own inability to commit to anything due to their parents’ generation’s inability to keep commitments and stay married.”

“Well, it’s just obvious which is better, isn’t it? I got married, and here I am, happy as a lark twenty-five years later.”

“Really? You’re happy as a lark? How happy are larks?”

“Yes. And very.”

Stephanie’s only response was that her elders didn’t make any sense, although she decided not to say it. Why destroy her uncle’s nonsensical ideals of happy larks? Larks were songbirds. Stephanie couldn’t carry a tune to save her life.


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Chapter 24: Actualization

A swirling cloud of omniscience: oh, my!

Gilly was happy to see Stephanie go—happier still when she returned with his food and then left again. He was happiest when left alone. The silence was like a shroud that hovered over him. It weighed on his shoulders. All those marriages? Not worth it.

All those sons? He rarely saw them or their progeny or their progeny’s progeny. He missed his sons. He tried to raise them in his lab, but the efforts had proven futile. They weren’t interested. One lived off the grid, no technology to speak of. Another was in finance, that ambiguous career Oso’s sister Alex had been part of before she’d packed it all in and bought a little bookstore in Truth or Consequences, where she barely eked out a living and allowed the local crazies to give aura readings and such.

His third son had become a pastor. A pastor. He’d been born again, just as Oso had been. Yes, just as Oso had been, despite his thesis that women were inclined toward religiosity. Being born again was like an infectious disease. Once it touched one person he knew, it inevitably touched another.

Being born again involved speaking to a deity, of course. It was superstitious to believe in a voice in one’s own head. No, listening to a voice in one’s head was fine, as long as one understood the voice was one’s own. He had listened to his, hence his success as an engineer.

The shroud turned into darkness as the night wore on. After disposing of the evidence of his green chile cheeseburgers, two of them, no fries, no soda, he washed his hands three times to erase the smell of the food from his hands. Then he washed a fourth time and slathered an unscented lotion into his skin. Then he stood in the midst of his kitchen and felt the numbness spreading.

He’d been experiencing the numbness for a while now, though he didn’t trust the average doctor and wouldn’t visit one for such an ambiguous symptom, in any case. It seemed to be related to aging, the onset of death. One foot numb meant one foot in the grave. The darkness of the air swirled around him. One clouded eye meant one eye in the grave. Perhaps half his brain was there, too.

Why did you insist she leave? The question popped unbidden in his mind. She had to go, as she had a date with her grandfather and significant other. No, why did you insist she leave? His stomach, full of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, roiled around. What did the question mean? He’d long gotten over the dissolution of his last marriage, in which his wife had challenged him to spend more time with her and less with his books, and he had told her if she didn’t like the way he spent his life, then she should leave.

He’d never really missed her. In fact, having her gone meant not having to worry about lifting his head from his work and acknowledging another human’s existence. Life was better without her.

And then she had died. She’d known all along she had cervical cancer, had chosen not to treat it or tell him about it until it was too late. But he still hadn’t missed her. Sure, he mourned for her at the funeral. He almost cried, as he remembered she was the mother of his children, who had once been a frail slender blonde. Emotions made him uncomfortable, and so he checked his tears. Yes, they made him uncomfortable, but he still felt them deeply, in that correlation between IQ and feelings. She had never witnessed him crying. And why should he cry at her funeral for her family to witness? He’d been separated from her for months. Never officially divorced, except through death.

Gilly shuffled from his kitchen, feeling old and worn out. He’d never minded the thought of death—had, in fact, fantasized about being done with his body, of dematerializing, as if such was an option. He desired to become a cloud of ether, very much like what his one clouded eye saw swirling in the shadowy nature of his house. A swirling cloud of omniscience. Wouldn’t that be beautiful?

He had stacks of books and papers in every corner. Careful little stacks of knowledge and supposition. Where had he hidden the hideous female face? Perhaps his mind had wanted to know why he’d insisted the face leave his presence. He hadn’t disengaged her; he’d lied to his fake niece about that. It was impossible to disengage a head without a body. Of course, it was impossible that the face was actually alive, apart from his electrically stimulating her.

He found her in an empty terrarium in his lab. He had to lift three stacks of self-published books off it in order to get at her, as he’d returned from the expo and disposed of it all in and on top of the terrarium because it was a quick, available storage space. Disappointment had weighed heavily on his heart. Nobody cared any longer. Nobody cared about his books, his research, his life achievements. Technology was a sham of copycats and useless novelties. And so he’d stowed it all away, quickly, to be rid of it.

And then she’d begun visiting—Stephanie—and his loneliness, which he preferred, abated, and he forgot about Dr. Helen Freud.

He pulled the head delicately from the terrarium and rested her in the chair normally reserved for full bodies, as most chairs were—where he could easily attach the electrodes to the bald spots on her scalp. He did this gently, as it was a gentle process: the electrodes soaked in salt water, pressed to the scalp, and then tuned to a low constant current until the eyelids fluttered and the lips parted for cash.

Finally, with a sad ironic smile on his face, he pressed a counterfeit bill to her mouth. She sucked it up and opened her mouth for more. He dutifully gave her more.

“Hello, Soothsayer,” he said.

“You sound like you’re in need of therapy. How long has it been since our last visit?”

“Too long.”

“What brings you here today?”

“I’m all washed up. My successes are meaningless. And I’m alone.”

“We need to tackle one problem at a time. By washed up, I presume you don’t mean you showered today.”

“I didn’t shower today. Thanks for asking. It dries my skin out.”

“We’ll tackle your hygiene issues at another time. What does the word meaningless mean to you?”

Sometimes, even Gilly was surprised by the face. Where had that profound question come from? “I mean that life itself is meaningless. We’re born, we procreate, we die. If we’re lucky, we’ll invent something that others will enjoy after we’re gone. I don’t believe in an afterlife, in other words.”

“What about rebirth? Do you believe in rebirth?”

This time, he jolted just a little. He’d just been thinking about his born again friends and family. “No.” His voice was a little sharp.

“What about sleeping and waking in cycles?”

“I sleep at least a few hours every day,” he said. “And then I wake up again.”

“I don’t mean that kind of sleep. I mean the kind I’ve been programmed to do. It’s part of my programming to fall asleep and wake up again. It’s a concept similar to rebirth.”

“Birth is a trip through a woman’s vagina. I’ve only found one way back in, and I haven’t used that entrance for a long time, my grotesque little sweetheart.”

Her eyes darted back and forth. She grimaced. “Does it give you pleasure to invade a woman’s body?”

“That’s my Helen. Back on track.”

“Have you ever considered that she is hijacking you, sucking you in, holding you captive, rather than the other way around?”

He shuddered. “Yes.”

“Do you know what it’s like to be viewed in that manner?”

“Huh?”

“Do you understand the double standard that you have applied to women?”

If there was one activity anything feminine loved to do, it was to wear a man down. Gilly found a chair and drew it close to the Helen head. “I don’t apply a double standard,” he said, though his voice was tired and carried no convictions. “I’ve always appreciated a good slut. At least I did when I was younger.”

His mind circled back to its earlier question. Why did he insist she leave? Furthermore, why did he let her leave? His last wife, his last love—she never was much of a slut.

“Don’t use female pejoratives around me. That includes bitch, slut, whore…”

“Do you have any bad advice for me today?” he found himself asking, despite that his mind was revolving elsewhere. Half his mind was in the grave.

“Yes, stop objectifying women,” Helen retorted, and then added, “and ditch your ego. It’s preventing you from actualization.”

“Preventing me from…” Gilly couldn’t help it. He chuckled. He tried not to when having a session with the worst psychoanalyst known to man, but this time he couldn’t help it. He hadn’t heard the word self-actualization since he’d dated an exotically attractive new age slut fifty or so years ago.

“Your ego has prevented you from realizing your full potential. Your disdainful laughter aimed at me exemplifies your relationship with women.”

He couldn’t bring himself to tell her he’d created her to be disdained. He rose shakily to his feet. So much for alleviating loneliness. Oso never suffered from loneliness. Oso’s ego made him eternally happy and fulfilled. Why couldn’t the same be true for Gilly?

Maybe he should choose an early bedtime with a book—maybe record a session for his old-fashioned radio show, on the old-fashioned AM. Then he would have accomplished something, as accomplishment was what it was all about.

His ego had nothing to do with it. But for some reason, as he shut his house down systematically for the night and settled into his bed with a cognac nightcap, he continued to dwell on another man’s ego. To be honest, he couldn’t stop imagining Oso at his dinner date with a new woman—Oso would never allow himself to be a third wheel.

Oso was always making new friends, but at one time, Gilly had been the primary friend. Gilly couldn’t remember what had happened, exactly. He couldn’t quite pinpoint the moment when his world had diminished to a subject of one: himself.


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Chapter 23: The Amnesiac Mind

“Memories, you’re talking about memories!”

Uncle Gilly scowled at his fake niece. Why was she in such a good mood? He didn’t particularly like the sunny demeanor that had entered into his shady home. He wanted to squash the warmth that radiated from her being. Therefore, he launched right into his narrative without ado. Unfortunately, his ploy didn’t work. She went with it, following him with grace right into the story, a most pertinent one about Agnes.

Her body twitched as he began. Gilly almost detected feelers on her little journalist insect head, feelers that vibrated from recognizing an important story.

“Are you an alien?” he asked her.

“Huh?”

“Never mind.” He’d written the definitive text on Aliens Among Us. As of that day, he still hadn’t figured out if it was comedy or truth, or a little of both. He studied Stephanie’s head, hoping to see actual antennae sprout. They didn’t.

He cleared his throat and changed the subject back to its original. “As soon as we moved operations to Albuquerque, I started visiting Agnes,” he said. “She didn’t remember me.”

“You said she’d had a lobotomy,” Stephanie said.

“Yes, it wasn’t a usual lobotomy, but one meant to decrease the severity of her epileptic seizures. Most of her hippocampi, plus some related brain structures. It gave her amnesia. There was a famous case very similar to hers.”

“A person known only by the initials JM.”

“Yes. How…?”

“I read about it at the library. For an article I was doing on Minä lobotomies.”

“You aren’t as ignorant as I thought. But you know those are a different kind of lobotomy altogether.”

“I know. I also know that Minä lobotomies started out as the traditional frontal type before they started using drugs to destroy parts of their brains. What I don’t understand is why you had to make their minds so complex to begin with. If the brain weren’t so complex, nobody would’ve had to go to such great lengths to meet government regulations.”

“The human mind is complex,” he shouted, suddenly feeling very agitated. “Our initial method was to allow the cellular structure to grow and develop naturally around carbon fibers. Nobody’s ever discovered a better way.”

“Who chose not to give Oso’s assistant the lobotomy drugs?”

Gilly felt even more agitated. He ran his hands over his face. Stall, he told himself. Stall. “What?”

“Oso’s assistant. She’s a Minä, isn’t she? And she’s intelligent.”

“No, no, no.” He shook his head. “She’s not a Minä. Definitely not a Minä. She doesn’t have big ears, does she?”

“No. I don’t know. She wears hats. And weird headscarves. Indoors.” She stopped speaking and looked puzzled. “I just know there’s something off about her. Is it possible for a Minä to have an ear-reduction surgery?”

“That’s the most absurd idea I’ve heard all day.”

“Why is your voice shaking? Are you okay, Uncle Gilly?”

“I’m fine. And would you mind getting back to the subject? Agnes.” He sank low in his old brown plush armchair and closed his eyes, listening to the tick-tock of the traditional grandfather clock on the wall. At least the sunny inquisitive female had ceased being inquisitive for a few beats of the clock. “We used to do the crossword together,” he added.

“She could do a crossword puzzle?”

“She had knowledge stored in her brain from before the lobotomy. She knew those answers. I helped her with the rest.”

“Why did your eyes just narrow? Are you angry at something?”

Funny, he hadn’t noticed. Most of his anger, however, came back to rest on Oso. Always Oso. His best friend. His worst enemy. Why did Stephanie have to keep reminding him? It couldn’t be helped, not if Gilly had any say in this story. But Oso’s assistant didn’t have to be a point of discussion. She could be avoided for time immemorial. Or so he wished.

“I have the file.”

“File?”

“Agnes’ file. Oso was educated as a neurologist, you know. He did some extensive interviews with Agnes, after coordinating with the doctor who’d performed her original lobotomy.”

“Was he still practicing? I mean, he’d have been pretty old, right?”

“Yes. He died soon after Oso entered his life.”

She was silent for a moment. “What are you saying?”

“Oso probably gave the old man a heart attack, bringing up a case like Agnes’. She lost her father in a car accident, and with the lobotomy coming so close on its heels, she was prevented from going through a normal grieving process. She was left in periods of permanent peace punctuated by periods of extreme grief. You’ll find all those research notes in the file. After her mother died, she was in the constant care of her stepfather, who, by the way, was the psychiatrist who treated Agnes after the car accident.”

“And she was afraid of him.”

“Yes, but nobody knows why. It could have been simply an attachment to the grief that never resolved itself.”

“Why do you have the file?”

“I stole it when Tomi Corp went bankrupt that first time—you know, after all our expensive products became useless post government regulation, until the world decided it needed human pets. Oso had begun showing signs of mental illness long before that, and I didn’t want the research lost if he had another fit.”

Stephanie screwed up her face in disbelief. “Mental illness? What do you mean?”

Gillilander lowered his voice to a whisper, though there was no real reason to do so. “He suffered from delusions. He insisted he had visions of the future.”

“He doesn’t have ‘visions,’” Stephanie corrected him. “He has memories of the future. That’s what he says. And he says they started when he was twelve.”

“Physics says that’s impossible. What he experiences is schizophrenia. At least, that’s what Bernadette would have diagnosed him with, if she hadn’t joined him on the dark side. She was never weak except when it came to him.”

Stephanie shuffled around in her chair as though uncomfortable.

“Am I making you uncomfortable, sweetie-pie?”

“Uncle Gilly, stop. Will you just let me see the file?”

“That is why I brought it up.” He used his cane to push himself up. “Stephanie, I shouldn’t have to tell you this file is priceless. It can’t be replaced.”

“Well, I mean, why would you be able to replace it? Isn’t the research subject dead?”

He didn’t bother to respond, but went to his office to fetch the file from the cabinet there, on which it might have appeared he was performing a magic trick to the ignorant observer. He’d hidden his best inventions, as well as any secrets, in a steel file cabinet he’d built as a puzzle box.

Upon returning to the living room area, he handed her the file folder ceremoniously. There were proper and improper methods to passing along information. He locked eyes with her and held on to his side of the folder as she reached for it. She didn’t look away, and she didn’t yank. Good. He let her take the file and watched her as she read through the pages he’d read more times than he could count, looking for absolution or answers.

He didn’t know what answers he’d expected, except the usual ones. Reading about Agnes was like constantly picking off a scab such that the wound never healed.

The session started in the usual way. The patient was brought to the dayroom by the on-duty nurse. I reintroduced myself to the patient. She didn’t cognizantly recognize me. There was a faint glimmer of emotional memory that caused her to relax. Although the patient had lost much of her amygdala during the lobotomy performed to treat the seizures, she was capable of intense emotion. Her limbic system was still intact.

This relaxed state didn’t last for the duration of the hour-length interview, as had been the norm in previous sessions. Three minutes after beginning, the patient’s hands and arms were visibly trembling. It was likely an enhanced physiologic tremor, possibly induced by a medication administered at the care home.

She pointed to my face and then the brown suit jacket I was wearing. She did this several times. Then she grasped the lapel of the suit jacket.

“Papa, where’s my papa? He’s dead, isn’t he?”

Because she had no memory of her stepfather’s death, it wasn’t unusual for her to “suddenly” fall into a bout of incertitude and subsequent grief. I instinctively took her hand, hoping the action would relax the tremors. She slapped the proffered hand away. She displayed other signs of extreme emotional distress: rapid breathing, flushing red in the face, etc.

The patient shook her head and repeated, “No, no, no, no.”

The nurse who had escorted Agnes to the day room requested that I come back another time because Agnes had already had several emotional episodes that day and was fatigued. I deferred to the nurse’s expertise and left.

The following day, Agnes was not brought to me in the dayroom. I was instead escorted to her “work station.” For many years, Agnes had worked for a charity, sorting and bagging items of like kind to package for needy families. This kind of sorting was at the grade school level and well below Agnes’ working intelligence. However, the inability to store memories precluded the patient from performing more complicated work tasks. The work itself was meant as an occupation, which fulfilled a basic need for purpose.

Although she no longer worked in the charity due to anxiety issues, the care home continued to give her similar sorting tasks to fill the day: on that day, sorting plastic Easter eggs. The reason for sorting eggs was unclear; it was January. Focusing on the work was likely meant to prevent disorientation.

The people who ran the home didn’t understand the capability for complex thought in a brain-damaged patient. When Agnes had worked for the charity, she had engaged in a concrete occupation. She needed only to be reminded of the occupation’s purpose. By comparison, the Easter egg sorting didn’t have a concrete purpose.

When I arrived, signs of emotional distress were already evident. The staff weren’t trained to cope with a patient like Agnes, despite her twenty-four year residence. One moment, she was sorting the eggs, the next, she had scattered them to the floor.

“I don’t want to do this!” she shouted. “Why am I doing this?”

The patient then began pacing and shouting, while striking at the staff who attempted to maintain order and administer a sedative. Agnes paced and shouted for a good five minutes before banging her head repeatedly on the wall.

As I’m a researcher and not a medical doctor, I didn’t interfere until I had to. I pulled her away from the wall. When there is a problem, I fix it. I held her shoulders and looked into her eyes and told her to calm down. She obeyed.

“I want to go to bed,” she said. “It’s too difficult being awake and not knowing if I’ve done something wrong. I can’t remember anything. How am I supposed to know if I did something wrong? What if I hurt my papa?”

“You didn’t hurt your papa,” I told her.

“How do you know?” Her voice had risen to a shriek.

“I was there. He died in a fire.”

“I started the fire, didn’t I?” Her head shook in a rapid succession of denials. “I hated him. I wanted him to die.”

“No, it was an accident, caused by some kids. It wasn’t your fault.”

“I wanted him to die,” she wailed.

“But you didn’t kill him.”

“I don’t know if I can trust you. What if everybody’s lying to me? How am I supposed to know?”

The patient was trembling, and it was my sense that she was building up to another episode. Owing to this likelihood, I gestured to the nurse who had been summoned and told her to administer the sedative while the patient was still calm. Agnes was compliant this time and didn’t strike out. In previous interviews, I judged that the patient was an affable person in general, and that any signs of violent or extreme emotional episodes were brought on by her disorientation.

“I’m going to escort Agnes back to her room,” I said.

Today’s staff was comprised of female assistants and a female head nurse. There were no doctors regularly at the facility. Because I was both a man and a doctor, the staff listened to me. Despite the patient’s slight stature, when she was agitated, she could be difficult to control. More often than not, I deferred to the authority of the head nurse on charge. However, when I chose not to, the head nurse and staff were more than willing to follow my lead.

The fastest route back to Agnes’ room was past the all-inclusive religious chapel. When there was a religious leader of some variety in the chapel, the doors were propped open. More often than not, Agnes would insist on entering the chapel. It was easier to allow her to enter the chapel than to force her to her room, no matter how agitated a state she was in.

Today was no different. As she’d been administered a sedative, I determined that the service in the chapel would not agitate her further.

“Good afternoon, Agnes,” the chaplain said. “We’re just about to begin.”

“Good afternoon,” she said with a smile.

Normally, Agnes was disoriented in social situations due to her inability to know whether she’d met another person. However, the more emotion she attached to an event, the more likely she was to remember it. In the case of the chaplain, she recognized him, if not in the full manner a fully cognizant person would, as a positive element in her life.

I sat on a back pew, waiting for the inevitable to occur.

“You’re always welcome at the front, Mr. Beñat,” the chaplain said.

“I’m here in a research capacity, Reverend,” I said. “But I appreciate your offer.”

On previous visits, I had engaged in lengthy conversations with the chaplain. One area of cognitive study I have never fully explored is the propensity for female attachment to religiosity, as well as feminine affinity for religious leaders. Experientially, this is true, but statistics also bear it out.

Around Reverend Rod Brady, Agnes’ demeanor changed. If I’m allowed for a moment, I’ll be less than scientific in my observations: her eyes lit up, her cheeks glowed, etc. I could not deny that she was generally a content woman, but contentedness is not the same as living life to its fullest. To each his own. In my own life, practicing religion was opposite to living to the fullest.

The service followed its usual pattern of liturgy, communion, and communal prayer, albeit we were the only two in attendance aside from the reverend. There was nothing especially spiritual about the chapel, as it was a dressed-up care home room. It had pews, dust motes, a shabby lectern, flat red carpeting, mauve drapes, and no insignia of any kind that would mark it as belonging to a specific religion. The reverend himself wore a robe with a green sash punctuated on either side by Maltese crosses.

Despite the lack of “church aesthetic,” Agnes threw herself into the process of the liturgy. It has occurred to me that her family may have been religious in her pre-lobotomy childhood. However, when asked about her childhood religious observances, the patient’s eyes glazed over and she refused to answer.

I’ll be honest; I swallowed back yawns during the short homily on failure, shame, and the human attempt to hide these aforementioned from “God.” To interject further, failure has never been something I’ve hidden from anyone. Failure is part of the success of the human actor. That would not be the point of the pastor’s message; moments later, the pastor confirmed my expectation by explaining that humans needed to bring their failures to God, who would then clean and polish them. The acting was squarely placed on God.

The open doorway of the chapel couldn’t block the smell of strange meat coming from the cafeteria. It smelled terrible, but reminded me that I had a dinner date with my son and, furthermore, I was hungry. It was my inclination to hurry the Reverend Rod through the rest of his sermon. The ending was Agnes’ favorite. Finally, Rod pressed a button on an old-fashioned boom box, and canned guitars and violins filled the air space. A man with a soulful voice sang out, “We Fall Down.”

Music stimulates regions across the brain and releases dopamine. It has a powerful affect on the human mind. Agnes’ reaction to the release of dopamine caused by the music was routine. Her shoulders slumped forward and jittered up and down from the force of emotion, and although I couldn’t see her face, I knew from past experience that she had begun crying. A moment later, she was on her feet, walking down the aisle with her peculiar shuffling gait caused by a rigid prosthetic.

Again, I swallowed my yawns and willed the reverend to not belabor the sinner’s prayer he would guide her through.

“I want my shame to go away,” she told the Reverend Rod, her voice breaking with heavy sobs. “Will Jesus make my shame go away?”

“What are you ashamed of? Confess it before the Lord.”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember. That makes me more ashamed.”

“You are a special person, Miss Agnes. God, who sees our hearts, knows and understands. He has already forgiven you.” The reverend fingered a cross around Agnes’ neck. He’d given it to her in the hope she would remember her salvation. “Remember the cross, Agnes, and you will remember Jesus has already wiped away your shame. Now he wants to perfect you as his child, as you come back for regular communion and prayer.”

A sobbing Agnes reached up and hugged the man. “I feel so lost.”

“Touch the cross and God will reassure you.”

That was my cue. I thanked the reverend, and then guided Agnes from the chapel. The cross pendant she wore didn’t help her remember anything. As to whether it gave her reassurance, I can’t say. Judging by her insistence on being “saved” repeatedly, I’d say there was no reassurance either.

“Now that you know what it’s like to be inside an amnesiac’s mind, let’s move on.”

“Don’t you mean, what it’s like to be inside Granddad’s mind? He sounds cold.”

“That’s because on the feelings side, I win hands down. He doesn’t know what it means to feel deeply. Depth of feeling is directionally proportional to IQ.”

“Oh, really? I didn’t know that.” She sounded skeptical.

Gilly sniffed and decided it was time to change the subject. “I used to visit her regularly, too, just as I said. She had an inkling of remembrance for Oso, but not for me. If I can’t leave an impression on a woman with a memory, I don’t know why I’d leave an impression on one without a memory.”

“You sound bitter,” Stephanie said.

“Bitterness or honesty. You decide. Would you like some tea and crackers?”

“Um, sure. Weren’t you going to tell me about your visits with Agnes?”

“After tea.” And he rose once again, but this time to put on the kettle. Stephanie, clearly antsy, followed him.

“My visits aren’t very memorable. Or they weren’t for her. That’s what the anterograde amnesia accomplished.”

She stared at the tea kettle as it sat on the gas ring. “Anterograde?”

“A watched pot never boils.”

“You know that’s not actually true, Uncle Gilly.”

“How do you know? Have you scientifically tested the idea?”

“I am right now.” She laughed.

Gilly wasn’t fond of her being in his kitchen. He needed to gather his thoughts, not think about her tarnishing the space. For a start, he never wore outdoor shoes in the kitchen. And here she was, her outdoor shoes on. To give himself time, he pulled one of his bisque plates from the cupboard and arranged a spiral of saltines on it, carefully, picking up each crumb that fell on the counter.

Stephanie turned her head from the kettle and watched him, her eyes wide with interest. Afterward, he tied up the cracker sleeve with the red twist tie and placed it delicately back in the box, which he placed back in the cupboard, next to the tea fixings. If the crackers weren’t put back properly, they would become stale. His last wife had never done it properly.

Once the kettle, now unwatched, decided to whistle, he made the tea with the same care he’d set out the crackers. They carried the goods back in the living room, where Gilly resumed his story.

“Anterograde amnesia: this means Agnes remembered her earliest memories, but those memories were more and more spotty the closer they approached the surgery. After the surgery, she wasn’t able to store new memories properly. But her muscle memory remained intact, and she didn’t have to relearn to do basic tasks every day. She could remember how to make her bed and tie her shoes, um, shoe, because she did it every morning without thinking about it, just as she took a nap every afternoon and couldn’t possibly forget how to eat or walk. Her body recognized these activities. On the other hand, she could never remember if she’d already eaten, and would wander to the dining room for second dinners and desserts. The staff usually allowed her to have fruit or a little pudding.

“If she was hungry because she’d forgotten she’d eaten, why not give her a snack to keep her happy? In general, Agnes was happy. So the big question is this, Stephanie: Why did Oso want to mess with an old woman’s mind?”

“That’s what I’m here to find out. I had no idea he had messed with an old woman’s mind until you brought it up.”

“Funny he hasn’t brought it up yet. Maybe he’s shying away from uncomfortable conversations.”

“Does he do that?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him about it the next time you two have an interview.”

Stephanie popped half a cracker in her mouth, and he cringed a little as he could see the cracker crumbs fall on her lap. As soon as she stood up, they’d fall on the floor. She would probably go so far as to brush off her pants. “Mark and I are going out to dinner with him tonight. I’m not interviewing him for a few days. I need a break. You were going to tell me about your visits with her.”

“He’s a slave driver, always has been.” To which, Stephanie nodded. “There isn’t much to tell. I wrote up my first visit with her. You know I’m a writer. Anytime you need help, I’m here. I think it’s very poetic.” He felt almost abashed as he handed her the sheet of paper.

It wasn’t visiting hour, yet, but Agnes was in the dining room diligently solving her daily crossword puzzle. Today, it was an “Opposite Day” puzzle. That is, if a clue were given as “a person who commits murder,” the answer wouldn’t be “murderer” but “victim” or “protected class,” depending on available spaces. If only all answers were that obvious!

I sat there watching her, and thinking.

Memories. What would it like to be without them?

Science fiction writers called them padding when they were programmed into artificial intelligence created to be human. Agnes was human, and her lack of recall was caused by a combination of the resection of the anterior parts of her hippocampi, parahippocampal cortices, entorhinal cortices, piriform cortices, and amygdalae, and her PTSD. Before the PTSD, her ability to remember was haphazard. She also frequently lost control of her emotions, not to mention her bladder, which had inspired the neighborhood bullies to torment her.

“Did she really lose control of her bladder?” Stephanie lowered the paper and looked quizzically at Gilly. “I don’t remember anyone saying she had that problem.”

“Poetic license!” he shouted. “It was meant to be a nice zeugma.”

“Isn’t that a type of squash?”

“What? No! Would you just…” He gestured to the paper she was holding.

“Okay, sorry, Uncle Gilly. I just want to get all the facts straight.”

By neighborhood bullies, I mean myself and Oso. I should have worked this out a long time ago. Oso always possessed his own goals. He acknowledged no agenda but his own. As I sat there that day, by Agnes’ side, I didn’t know what my agenda was any longer. Making small talk with an old woman I’d tormented as a child was not part of it, anywise.

“’An animal, person, or group that preys on weaker entities,’” Agnes said aloud. “That’s my last one. Eleven spaces. What could it be?”

The answer came to me in a flash. “Graminivore!” I shouted. “Does that fit?”

Agnes squealed with delight. “It fits! I did it, I finished the crossword!”

The attendant who had obligingly brought me in for a few minutes asked me to check out in the front before leaving. She would be guiding Agnes in an after-lunch walk.

For once, I did as I was told. What did it matter whether I left my name on the check-in and check-out form? I had grown so used to my secret life I had become paranoid. As hideous as the truth was, Oso wouldn’t suspect me of bad behavior. It all went back to the agenda Oso couldn’t see outside of. The man viewed his own agenda as the one big picture, the one great mural to humanity.

Thinking of lobotomies, doctors were unorthodox in Agnes’ days. If Oso was pushed hard enough, wouldn’t he become a lone, uncontrollable rebel, too? Wouldn’t he try out his technology on an unwitting audience who couldn’t get any worse than she was? Where would his honor code lead him: to the den of the black-hat wearing cowboy, or the path of the hero?

“It is poetic,” she acknowledged. “What was this secret life you were leading?”

“My favorite part is ‘her lack of recall was caused by a combination of the resection of the anterior parts of her hippocampi, parahippocampal cortices, entorhinal cortices, piriform cortices, and amygdalae.’ I worked for hours on that line.”

She pinched her lips together, but not in the way of disapproval that other women gave him. Stephanie couldn’t make sense of him, as she hadn’t been prepared for his many talents, the least of which was poetry. “About that secret life you were leading. What were you doing?”

“Oh, I was selling some of our secrets to the competition. Nothing major.” By the look on her stoic, unsurprised face, he guessed she’d already heard Oso’s side of the story.

Without a beat, she said, “Did Granddad find out?”

“Eventually.”

“What did he do?”

“Stole Cameron.”

“He mentioned that the other day. But you told me your divorce with her was amicable. You said…”

“I know what I said. It was amicable. They both got what they deserved. And I came to despise her. Sometimes amicable means good riddance.”

She scratched her head, causing her hair to spill from its twist. She looked flustered. “All right. I don’t know what to do with this, Uncle Gilly. It’s one thing to use relevant documents as images in the book, but it’s another to use your story verbatim. You aren’t the coauthor.”

“Maybe,” said Gilly, “I’ll add it to my own book. It isn’t as if I haven’t written any. You are a novice compared to me.”

“I never considered myself anything but a novice, barely able to stand up in your shadow.” It sounded silly enough, but a careful inspection of her features assured him she wasn’t mocking him. “You’re one of the most intelligent men alive.”

The irritation Gilly felt at being called one of the most intelligent men alive he hid in a casual shrug. She should have been able to place him as one of the most intelligent men to have ever lived, but never mind. She was average. She was, perhaps, as Oso’s granddaughter, above-average. But not by much.

“Be that as it may, sometimes the best and brightest are just as petty as the rest of you ordinary folk. Remember that. Like Oso stealing Cameron. In any case, my selling company secrets, which were my ideas, anyway, ended up helping us because it sent them down rabbit trails.”

“So, are you saying you did it on purpose to help Tomi Corp?”

“Let’s get one thing straight right now. Everything I do is for myself. Oso believes in teams. I believe in a team of one—me.”

“Okay.”

“Which means I kept the best secrets from the competition because that would benefit me more in the long run. Nobody else knew we were on the cusp of creating meshes, part human, part android. Beautiful, intelligent creatures who could envision the future and still be controlled in their instinctual behavior through infrasound.”

“Like the blue whales in those old Minä ads.”

Gilly wanted to growl out his frustration. He remembered those ridiculous ads, during an era when “instinctual” Minäs were being marketed to the public. They were shown riding on the backs of blue whales, smiling and chanting some nonsense in bastardized Hindi. “No, those instinctual Minäs were not like blue whales. They were never capable of making infrasound. They simply heeded the calls of the sounds. They were like intelligent pigeons wired with infrasound sensitive neural fibers.”

“Were the instinctual Minäs different? I thought all Minäs were built the same way.”

“Grown. They’re not built; they’re grown on scaffolding. And, yes, every generation had the ability to pick up on infrasound. But the company had to find a way to make them useful again, and some dumb ass engineer from floor three designed a special line of spiritual adviser androids, with hyper ventromedial prefrontal cortexes. Stupidest idea ever. Poor creatures. The combination of their big ears and their heightened intuition made them constantly panicked. They intuited aliens and ghosts everywhere.”

“Where are they now?”

“They had to be put down. Disengaged, in other words.”

History was a strange mess of events. Wistfulness filled Gilly’s core. In a way, he supposed, the world had simply righted itself and discovered a natural pattern to live with the Minäs who were still among them. But it had become so dull. Nobody cared any longer. Minäs were reflections; that was all. They had become the ultimate humans. More human than the humans. Greater stupidity; greater ability to mime; loyal to a fault; listless and degenerate when on their own. And Tomi Corp, having learned its lesson, now only produced mindless robots programmed to do the grunt work humans did, which had destroyed the economy as men had once known it.

He scrutinized the eager face opposite to him. She was a lovely girl, big eyes that shone with anticipation. She made him tired. “I’m done,” he informed her. “I had my say.”

Her eyes opened wide—would they tremble; would they cry? Not today. “For good?”

“I don’t know. I’ll think about it. Meanwhile—” He rummaged through his cardigan and pants pockets and pulled out a wad of money. “Go buy me a green chile cheeseburger from Lotaburger. Buy whatever you want for yourself, but take your food and go. I’m done.”

“Sure, Uncle Gilly. As I said, I’m going out with Granddad and Mark tonight. I’ll wait to eat with them.”

“A dinner date,” he said, and could not keep the snide tone out of his voice.

“Granddad promised us a dinner with the chef who made our food at the game.”

“The game?”

“We went to a professional game with Granddad at Del Oso.”

“Ah, of course you did. How nice for you.”


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Chapter 22: Interlude

In which love happens to the best and the worst of us…

The interview over, Stephanie told her car to drive, and it did. The car drove back down into the valley. For a few moments, she thought she might sleep. With her head back against the seat, her mind drifted. She couldn’t explain why, but she felt like sobbing.

Perhaps her work hours had caused it. She had her usual work day, which mainly consisted of creating bylines for other reporters and correcting their errors. She spent hours every day doing that before she could ever meet her granddad or her fake uncle for an interview. She didn’t have a day off; she spent her days off interviewing or typing up her notes. When she’d ventured into this project, she hadn’t conceived of its magnitude.

They were great men, and they wanted to tell her everything. Everything—even what was mundane. It would be difficult to determine what to retain in the final version. She could do this. She had editorial skills. She was a byline writer. She simply had to extend her skills to a giant mess of notes.

Even with a mess of notes, she still had so many questions, some of which her granddad could answer and indeed had, such as whether he approved or disapproved of men’s clubs. His scorn had been quite evident regarding the Analgest, which was no longer in business.

Of course men’s clubs were right and necessary, he told her.

“Right and necessary? How so?”

“If you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.”

The network of underground clubs in Nob Hill—he’d provided the funding for the first one to open, which spawned many more to open, linked from cellar to cellar in a labyrinthine manner. Some businesses dug out cellars where there previously had been none so that they could be linked to the labyrinth.

She also wanted to know how long his relationship with Cameron had lasted. Surely, not very long, as he had married Grandma Bernadette soon after. Or she hoped not. However, her granddad failed to answer that question. His eyes darkened, his mouth closed, until she changed the subject and asked him why he had remained friends with Gilly all these years.

“He’s my best friend.”

“Isn’t there a point where somebody crosses the line and is no longer a friend, or are you trying to convince me you’re loyal to a fault? I mean, I appreciate loyalty and all, but there’s got to be a limit. Right?”

“Oh, sure, there are limits. When I’ve reached it, I never look back. I’ve never reached it with Gilly.”

She was a little incredulous at that. She couldn’t imagine too many reaching the level of treachery Gilly had. “You’ve had people do worse things to you?”

“It isn’t a simple equation, Stephanie. If I’ve invested years in a relationship, the limits are going to be broader. Surely you understand that.”

Yes, she understood it. She’d created an entire network of friends and relations around her. Some dated from childhood, and to those people she gave more leeway. A sharp pain of anxiety hit her in the abdomen. Her life had greatly diminished since she’d taken on this project. Who was in her network, now? Granddad, Gilly, and the occasional Mark.

She was overwhelmed. Perhaps she needed more than the occasional Mark. She raised her head and spoke to the car. “Call Mark,” she said.

“Calling Mark,” the car said.

She was worried he wouldn’t answer, that he might be covering an event. As the phone rang and rang, she racked her brain, trying to remember what his schedule of events was. She had lost touch with reality—that was why she wanted to sob. She was living in her granddad’s reality.

Just as she thought it would go to his voicemail, he answered in a long drawl, “Hey, babe.”

“Mark!” Her voice broke into a sob, and a few tears strayed down her cheeks.

“What’s going on? Where you at?”

“I’m on my way from Granddad’s. Hey, do you wanna hang out? I need a serious break. With you and no one else.”

“I like the way this sounds,” he said.

“However it sounds, I need you right now. Where do you want to meet?”

“I’m at home.”

“Okay. Should I…?” She’d never hung out at his place; she’d avoided that misstep like the plague.

“Yes, you should.”

“All right.”

“All right.” He paused. “I guess I should, uh, get off the phone and clean up a little.”

“See you in a few.”

Exhaustion made for foolish decision making. But something in her said it wasn’t foolish to love Mark. Something in her wanted to get committed, to have something better than what her parents had, or her granddad, for that matter, before Grandma Berna.

Before Grandma Berna, he’d made a lot of mistakes. Mistakes that had affected his children. She didn’t want that. She had two uncles and an aunt she didn’t know all that well. And then there was Uncle Adam, who turned out all right, but only after he was abandoned by his mother.

He’d turned out all right because of Grandma Berna.

Stephanie groaned. Now she was lost in the story again. She needed to forget it for the evening. And so she put it away—it wasn’t easy—and she stopped at the store and purchased expensive beer for Mark and a few snacks that would have been too costly to consider not that long ago, such as blue corn chips and guacamole.

Tomorrow was Saturday: tomorrow she would visit Gilly again and type up the latest notes into a cohesive structure. Tomorrow. Her stomach turned over a little. She didn’t know what tomorrow would bring because she didn’t know what tonight would bring.


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