She is on the phone with him now. I try to listen through the door, but the only noise I can hear is a muffled, low-pitch grumble. My father's usual voice. I imagine how she sounds to him, probably using her official phone voice - the one she normally reserves for business calls. I know he has the monitor off so he does not have to look at her when they speak. She won't have to see him either.
When I realize my eavesdropping is fruitless, I take a walk outside. My typical walk consists of a stroll down around Ridley's Curb and back through the McCarter's sprawling yard. Adelai McCarter doesn't believe in fencing in Nature so I never encounter trouble passing through the wild flowers and brambles. Adelai McCarter doesn't believe in inhibiting Nature either. The Chess Man is seated at Ridley's Curb same as always. He has a small table in front of him with a manual chess board on top. Despite the proper pieces on the board, I have never witnessed him actually playing chess. Mostly, he stares at the cars passing by on Ridley Street. I wonder if he has ever won a game. He always notices me walking by, but I refuse to acknowledge his stare. The Chess Man wears the same overalls every single day but with varying plaid flannels underneath, even on the hottest summer day. Today I ignore the Chess Man as usual and carry on down Ridley Street. I don't feel like taking the shortcut through McCarter's yard. I can’t help but wonder why she called.
My mother left us two months ago. She blamed her departure on a lot of things but mostly my father's inattentiveness. He works day and night, but he must. As a scientist, people depend on him for life-saving treatments. I call him the mad scientist. My mother just calls him mad. Unlike her, I am proud of what he does. In fact, my father is the one who influenced me to become a doctor. I have a lot of years before I get there, but because of him I know how I want to spend my life. Thanks to my mother, I know I don't want a constant partner.
They were together for twenty years, a long time in this day and age for people to stay as partners. My mother told me that her parents were actually married, but that only lasted ten years. Her parents were one of the last divorce cases in the country. It even made the InterNews. My mother would often remark on "poor Uncle Joe." He's dead now, but back then he was a divorce lawyer and eventually had to find a new line of work.
I wish I could have heard through the door. It's been a month since they last spoke as far as I know. They were very angry. My father won't even let me mention her in the house. He turned off all of our holograms of her and even sent our cat to live with her because it was her idea to get a pet. He says he can't understand how his job has interfered any more now than before. He has always, since before my birth, been devoted to his lab work. When the Company assigned him to D-47, it was a big breakthrough for him. Disease 47 is a very old disease that only infects humans. He started working on a cure one month prior to meeting my mother. In fact, they met at a charity event for victims of D-47. My mother's organization supports a lot of causes and D-47 is still a popular one for charities. My father told me that it used to have a special name many years ago, before they began the numerical classification system. I can't imagine naming diseases like you would name a pet or even a person. It seems so personal.
I decide to go back to the house and see if my father will discuss any of their conversation. I want to know if she's ever coming home. I wonder if she wants me to live with her, maybe just for part of the year. There are schools with six-month terms in both areas that cater to separated partners and bicoastal partners with children, so there would be no problem there. I'm not sure if I'd want that, though. I like being with my father. I like watching him work in the lab. He wears the biggest head shield I have ever seen and special lotion on his skin so he can touch everything freely. I have told him that he should make an antidote out of that lotion. He always laughs but I still think it’s a sensible suggestion.
I open the door and see my father sitting at the bottom of the lift. His head is buried in his hands.
"Dad," I say tentatively.
He looks up slowly with no expression. I have seen him depressed recently but never this devoid of emotion.
"Your mother is moving back in," he states simply.
I am stunned. I wonder why he doesn't appear happier with such news.
"You don't seem overjoyed," I tell him.
"Sit down, Jamie."
I sit right next to him and put my hand on his arm.
"Are you going to be partners again?" I ask eagerly.
He shakes his head sadly.
"I have some bad news. Your mother…she’s contracted D-47. She wants me to find her a cure. The new treatment I've been working on, she wants me to test it on her."
I stare at him in disbelief. D-47? My mother?
"Is she sure?" I asked.
"Dr. Byron diagnosed it. I went to school with him. We studied the D-40's together." He pulled at his hair. "He is a very good doctor."
"Is she going to die?" I study his face for a response. I do not want him to lie.
"Not if I can help it."
Without another word, I go to my room to digest this information. Happy as I am to have my mother returning to the house, I know this will be very painful for my father. They no longer have a good relationship, but my father is under such pressure. Testing on humans is illegal, not to mention highly dangerous. My mother must be very desperate, especially to call my father. Another thought occurs to me. What if she contracted the disease from living here? What if my father and I are next? After all, it is a disease. It only discriminates in that it affects humans only. I think so much that I feel myself falling asleep. I do not fight it.
When I awaken, my mother is sitting on the chair beside my bed. Our cat, Simba, sleeps on her lap. My mother reaches over and smoothes my matted hair.
"Hello, precious," she greets me.
She already looks sickly. Her eyes are swollen but probably more from crying than disease. She wears no second skin and I can see her real age etched in the lines of her face more clearly than ever before. I squeeze her hand gently and sit up.
"When did you get here?" I ask groggily.
"Just a bit ago. The lightening rail actually came on time today."
"Did you bring a lot of stuff?"
"Not today, but I'll get the rest soon enough. I just wanted to get here as quickly as possible."
She sounds so weak. I want to hug her and keeping hugging her until all the illness has been drained from her body. I have never thought of my mother as weak before.
"I'm sorry, Mom," I tell her and she understands.
We hug for a long time but not long enough. When I let go, she still looks sick but at least she is smiling. Simba meows.
"I am so happy to see you again, Jamie," she says brightly. "I've missed you."
"I've missed you, too. It gets lonely when Dad is in his lab all day."
"Your father...yes," she pauses thoughtfully. "It does get rather lonely. I hadn't really thought what it might be like for you."
She leans back in her chair and starts to cry.
"I've been incredibly selfish, Jamie. Can you ever forgive me?"
I tell her that she has never acted selfishly and I don't blame her for a thing. Loneliness isn't always a bad thing. I get to think a lot.
My father knocks hesitantly and opens the door.
"Marie, I need to see you in the lab when you get settled," he informs her, like she is a patient in his waiting room.
My mother nods and turns to me.
"I was going to make food tonight. Is there anything special you would like?" she asks me.
I take in the dark circles under her eyes, the excess skin hanging from her delicate frame.
"Saturday is usually our food day and I make it," I say. "What would you like?"
My father shakes his head at me.
"You and I will be eating tonight, Jamie. Your mother will have a special schedule. That's why I need to see her in the lab - to set up a nutrient and urine schedule."
My mother follows him out of my room and I head to the first floor to decide what my father would like best for dinner. He eats a lot of seafood. He grew up in the Northeast and I think he grew accustomed to catching for himself what he ate. It made him feel close to Nature, he told me once. My father never seemed the outdoorsy type to me. I only ever picture him in a lab suit with beakers and tubes around him. I suppose that is the only way I ever really see him.
I wonder how my mother could ever tell whether or not he was physically attractive. The lab suit is three sizes too big and the head shield makes his eyeballs appear huge. He must have looked really nice at that charity event. Probably wore formal attire. After surfing through Intermenu for a good Saturday meal, I sneak down to the lab door and listen.
"Three times a day, John?" my mother is asking him.
"That's what I said, Marie."
I can tell my father is trying to remain calm. My mother gets under his skin like no other. He has always loved her, though. He still loves her. I wish she loved him too.
I peer through the crack in the door and see that he is laser-injecting her with a fluid.
My mother swears. I have heard her swear before but not often. Manners are very important to her.
"How long did Dr. Byron tell you?" my father mumbles.
My mother sucks in her breath. "He wasn't sure. Anytime. That's why I had no choice but to call you."
I can see that this comment hurts my father. He doesn’t want to be thought of as a last resort to the woman he loves. She notices his expression and smiles sympathetically.
"I knew if anyone could save me, John, it would be you. All your time spent here should result in some good."
She smiles at him differently now, probably remembering all the times she fought with him over his time spent in the lab. I wonder if she regrets yelling at him. He really is her only hope. He does not seem to be remembering anything except what he should do next. He sits at the computer and enters data. My mother turns and sees me in the doorway.
"Jamie, come in here," she beckons to me.
I do not particularly want to go in. I would rather watch from the door. She waits expectantly so I enter.
"Jamie," my father says from his desk, "I don't think it's a good idea for you to witness all of this." He stops typing for a moment. "Some of it may be painful to watch."
My mother shoots my father an annoyed look. I shrug and say okay. I don't want to sit in there anyway. I don’t want to be part of it.
I take a walk outside and notice our lawnmower sitting by the driveway. My father let me ride it with him when I was younger. I feel like riding on it now, so I start the engine and go for a spin around the yard. The only problem is that it cuts the grass as I go, so I leave short patches of already freshly cut grass behind me. I notice that Adelai McCarter's hybrid is nowhere in sight. I drive up to his backyard jungle and plow right through. I keep driving around and around in circles. He should never let his yard get this overgrown. There are probably animals living beneath my feet and I cannot see them. I keep driving until I cut every wildflower and bramble down to the earth. I have never seen it look so neat and trim. I park the mower where I found it and walk around Ridley's Curb. The Chess Man is out in his red flannel. That is my favorite one of his shirts. The blue one doesn't match his baseball hat. He stares at me. I keep walking, looking straight ahead. I wonder why the Chess Man is so odd. Ridley Street is pretty empty now so I return to the house.
A few weeks pass. My parents spend nearly every waking second together. They sleep separately. They never fight, but neither one of them ever looks happy. The lab has become their home. My father accepts no calls. I notice he has turned the holograms back on after she mentioned their absence one evening. I don't know why she expected him to keep them on. She is very bruised with her broken veins and thin skin. I hardly recognize her. She answered the door when Adelai McCarter came looking for me last week. He heard I had been spotted on the black death machine in his yard. After seeing my mother, however, Adelai dared not speak another unkind word. I am still surprised she would answer the door like that. She has always been concerned about her appearance.
I enter my father's bedroom late tonight. I have not spoken with him much since she returned. He is not sleeping but sitting up in his bed staring. I sit beside him and scratch his beard. When I was much younger, he would laugh loudly when I scratched and then stop the moment I took my hand away. He does not laugh tonight. Then again, I am not so young anymore. He looks worried. I want to scratch his beard as hard as I can so that he will laugh as hard as he can. Instead, I lie down beside him and fall asleep.
She is dead. Only six weeks after the diagnosis, the disease has triumphed. My father is, as he has been for more than twenty years, defeated. I know how much he wanted to save her, to find a cure. She was already too far along, Dr. Byron told my father. D-47 was undiagnosed for too long and it ravaged her completely. She never had a chance. My father thought she did. He is sitting beside me in the house. There are many people here to console us. My mother's new partner is here. We didn’t find out about him until after she died. He is not a welcome presence. In fact, I detest him for coming. He doesn’t sense this because he corners me in the kitchen.
"I'm sorry about your mother, Jamie," he says sincerely. "I wish I knew her longer."
"I don't," I reply and head for the door. I pass my father still sitting in the same chair. His head is in his hands. I cannot just walk by him.
Softly he mumbles, "I should have been able to save her."
"You couldn't help it, Dad," I tell him. "You've been working on this for twenty years and haven't found a cure. Why would you find one in six weeks?"
He looks at me hard.
"What has my life been for? I haven't saved a damn thing! She was right and she proved it herself. My work is useless."
"That's not true!" I yell. "Your work is going to save millions of people's lives..."
"No," he protests, "it will only prolong their lives. There is no such thing as saving a life. Everyone must die."
"You did everything you could, Dad. She knew that."
"She didn't love me anymore."
I hesitate. What can I say?
My father shakes his head and I need to escape the house. I cannot breathe. I head through McCarter's yard where the wildflowers and brambles have already started to reemerge. I cut myself on a few thorns. Although it doesn't hurt, I cry anyway. As I pass by Ridley Curb, the Chess Man sits in his throne. He wears my favorite flannel. I stand for a moment and study him as the tears flow freely down my cheeks. He stares off into the distance as the chess pieces linger before him. Hybrids zoom by. I wave, but the Chess Man doesn't see me. He reaches down, picks up the pawn, and moves it to another square.