Thursday, June 7, 2012

E.H.U.D.: Part 1, Chapter 3

Chapter 3

“Wow,” Rachel said, “they’re so obviously lying.”
“Who?” John asked, not looking away from the landscape rushing past the train.
“You know, ‘They.’ The government, the military-industrial complex, the scary people upstairs.”
John pulled away from the window and looked at his niece. “Okay, so what are the scary people upstairs lying about?”
“The thing earlier. The explosion we felt.” She gestured to the screen in her lap.
John held out his hand and Rachel surrendered the screen.
He scanned through the brief news story. D.C. emergency crews were doing rescue work on a collapsed metro tunnel. So far, they had rescued twenty-three people, recovered sixty-eight bodies, and estimated that at least another hundred people remained buried in the rubble. The mayor’s office said that initial investigations pointed to an explosion caused by a leaky gas main somewhere inside the tunnels, itself a sign of the aging of the metro system.
Despite Rachel’s insistence on lies, it all seemed to make sense.
John returned the screen. “What makes you think they’re lying?”
“It’s only been two hours since the explosion. If it really was a gas leak, they wouldn’t know that yet, they would say they were still looking into it. An answer this fast means cover-up.”
“Well, aren’t you the little conspiracy nut. Okay, what about 9-11? They had that figured out pretty fast.”
Rachel glanced down at her shoes. “That one was different; they saw the fucking planes go in.”
“Hey,” Reggie interjected, “watch it, young lady. Let’s try to keep it PG-13 here, okay?”
“You can say ‘fuck' in a PG-13.”
“You know what I mean.”
John couldn’t help but smile. The light-hearted arguing between father and daughter was so… normal. It made him feel like he was really alive again.
Then the feeling ended as the argument began to get fierce.
“Mom never got up my ass about the way I talk.”
“That’s cause mom never got up you’re ass about anything. And maybe if she had, you’d be doing better in school and not hanging around with Wayne.”
“Maybe if you had listened to her every once in a while, you’d still be married.”
“Hey! Leave me out of this!”
“Why?! You didn’t leave me out of it!”
“She was leaving you at home and going to bars! You had to be brought into it!”
Heads began to turn in their direction, and Reggie must have noticed. “I won’t be a part of this childishness.” He stood and stalked off to another part of the train.
“Fuck you!” Rachel called after him. She collapsed back in her chair and sighed.
For a while, the sounds of the train reigned.
“Um…” John cleared his throat. “I know it’s none of my business, but is there anything you want to talk about?”
“You’re right; it’s not your business, so no.”
“Well… How’s school going?”
Rachel looked out the window. “Do you really care, or are you just making small talk?”
“Both?” John ventured.
Rachel remained silent for a moment, then shrugged. “The year’s almost over. Mostly, it sucks. I’m failing math, I’m not doing much better in science or English. French is fun but pretty useless. I like Civinomics, though; I’m doing good in that. I’m in the advanced class.”
“Yeah, I guess you wouldn’t know about that. It’s pretty new. It’s kind of a cross between economics and civics… wow, that sounds stupid. Anyway, it’s a study of governments and economic systems, and stuff like that.”
“Hmm. And are you looking into this for a career or anything?”
“Yeah. Maybe go into politics. Be an urban organizer, or a mayor or something like that.”
“But you’re failing everything else.”
Rachel stiffened and folded her arms. “So?”
“Well, if you want to get into politics, you need to get into college.”
“No, see, college, and for that matter, the crap I’m learning now is useless. I’m not going to need algebra or biology to run a city.”
“Look, I know you don’t want to trust old people like me. But when you hear what I say, remember that to me, college was just a few years ago. In my mind I’m not even thirty.”
Rachel nodded.
“Everything you’re learning now, with the exception of what will actually apply to your career, is useless crap. But, but, if you want to get a good job, you need some sort of degree. You can go drinking and partying all you like, just make sure you get that degree. Just think of it as a really expensive status symbol that makes the masses respect you. They probably won’t teach you that in Civinomics, but the voters are idiots, and if you look good they want you.”
Rachel smiled and unfolded her arms. “Wow, Uncle John, that was delightfully cynical of you. And how’d you come to your conclusion?”
“Because I’m a damn fine architect with a great portfolio. But every job interview I went to, they checked my degree first.”
Rachel continued to smile, and John could feel her warming to him.
“So,” John said, “Tell me more about Civinomics.”

After a short cab ride from the train station, John and his little entourage stood staring up at the great gleaming cylinder of Sky Crest Tower. It was covered completely in silvered windows, which glowed across the whole spectrum as the sun moved across the sky.
“It looks even better up close like this,” Rachel said in an awed voice.
“Mmm…” Reggie grumbled. He wasn’t paying attention to the here-and-now.
Following his fight with Rachel, Reggie had wandered through the train, sitting in various seats, locking himself in various bathrooms, always trying to find some place quiet to think. Eventually he had given up, found a seat that was at least comfortable, and thought in spite of the crowded train around him.
He quickly came to the conclusion that he was mad at Rachel. Angry, incensed, ready to hit her. But why? Nothing she had said had really hurt him. It was just a normal argument, yet something, maybe the mention of her mother, maybe her direct defiance of his will, something had tweaked him. Maybe it was transference, he thought. Maybe he was taking his deep-seated and well-deserved anger at her mother and transferring it to Rachel. He wasn’t really angry at her, he was just--
She was so much like her mother!
Once he had finally managed to calm down, Reggie made his way back to where John and Rachel were seated, ready to take the first step towards reconciliation and apologize for bringing up unpleasant memories.
But instead of finding Rachel engulfed in a deep sulk and John lost in fascination at the world outside his window, Reggie was surprised to find them engaged in conversation.
At first he was pleased. John was reengaging with the world, and Rachel seemed to be out of her funk, at least temporarily. But the more he watched, the less pleased he became. Rachel looked so happy, so alive, more so than she had since before the divorce. It was a change that Reggie had long hoped to see in his daughter… and here was John, experiencing it. John, who hadn’t been there for the past decade, who hadn’t comforted her through the court-ordered loss of a parent, who hadn’t had to clumsily lead her through a puberty he could never truly understand—
“C’mon!” John shouted, interrupting Reggie’s thoughts. “Let’s get in there!”

They stood spread-out in one of the comfortable elevator cars located around Sky Crest’s central core. Rachel stood along the back wall, performing some esoteric teenaged ritual with her palm-top. Reggie stood a few feet from her, clutching the handrail and staring at the steadily increasing floor number displayed over the door. John stood in the exact center of the car, bag of personal belongings at his feet, as he gleefully flipped through the informational packet he had been given at the front desk.
“They’ve added a theater to the mall! Full 3D, big screens, rumble seats. Plus ten percent resident discount.” Pages flapped. “Foldaway internal balconies; that’s gonna be sweet. Plus they got fireplaces!”
“How’d they get fireplaces in a place like this?” Rachel said, not looking up from whatever it was she was doing. “I mean, what’d they do with the smoke?”
John shrugged and flipped a few more pages. “I dunno. Pump it out through the CMC, I guess.”
Reggie looked down from the floor number. “The what now?”
“The central maintenance core.” John flipped to the middle of the packet and opened the centerfold. He held it out to Reggie and pointed. “See here?”
Reggie glanced over the simplified blueprints and then at the hollow running through the center of the entire tower.
“The whole building’s built around this tube. We’re right at the edge of it with the elevators. All of the pipes, wiring, everything from all the apartments is run out through here so that they can do maintenance without going into people’s houses.”
Reggie nodded. “Interesting.”
“So they’ll probably have a mass chimney out through the top?” Rachel asked.
The elevator stopped and they filed into a warm beige hall that curved away around the core.
“Okay, number five, number five…” John muttered to himself. He stared down at the blueprints and raised his arm, then swung it to the right. “This way.”
They circled half-way around the core and stopped in front of a door. “Aaaand here it is.” John pressed his thumb to a small black screen on the door jamb and a moment later the door swung open.
Inside the main area of the apartment spread out, widening as it approached the floor-to-ceiling window at the opposite end.
“This is every dream I’ve ever had come true.”
He walked quickly to the window and looked at the city below, then turned away and rushed to the bedroom. “Look at the size of this bed!”
There was a tapping sound from back in the main area. “And you got wood-floor in the kitchen.” Reggie said.
“And a damn fine couch.” There was a muffled thump in the from near the window.
John walked slowly back into the main area and looked around his new domain. “Fully furnished… Wow. I’m liking this.”
“Yeah,” Rachel agreed, lost in the folds of the couch. There was a flurry of activity and she appeared from behind a bunch of pillows. “As much as I like it though, I’ve got to go.”
Reggie rushed out of the bathroom and glared at Rachel. “What?
“Yeah, Wayne’s here, I’ve got to go.”
“I guess that’s your boyfriend.” John said.
Reggie shook his head. “No. Uh-uh. You’re not going anywhere. We have dinner with the grandparents tonight.”
“You two are; I’ve got plans with Wayne tonight.”
“Since when?”
“Since the elevator. Now if you don’t mind, Wayne’s waiting, and he doesn’t like to wait.”
“No. I’m putting my foot down. You’re coming to dinner tonight. And I don’t think you’ll be seeing Wayne again either.”
Rachel’s eyes widened. “Oh, so now you’re going to interfere with my sex life?”
“You’re damn right I’m going to—wait, sex life? You’re seventeen! You’re not supposed to have a sex life!”
Rachel folded her arms across her chest. “Well, you can just—“ She suddenly broke into a run and disappeared through the front door. Reggie rushed after her.
John stood alone in the middle of the room. He slowly walked to the couch and disappeared into its folds. Secretly, he was glad that the others were gone. It was great having his family back… but they scared him a little.
Reggie returned a few minutes later and flopped down next to John. “I almost made it. I got down to the lobby right when she was getting in his car.”
John felt a brotherly commitment to get involved in this situation, although another part of him urged him towards apathy. “You wanna talk about it?” he ventured.
“No. No, you don’t need to worry about it; you have enough on your plate now without my problems.”
John looked at Reggie.
“Okay, yes, fine. I’m worried about her, okay? I know I’m the one who used to give mom heart attacks back in the day, so I have no room to talk, but… Well, I raised her better than this! Her mom, well, her mom fairly well botched it, but I stuck with it and did the best I could! Now here she is sleeping around, flunking everything in school—“
“She seems to be doing well in Civinomics. In fact, she seems to really like it.”
Reggie snorted. “Yeah, and that’s going to get her real far in life.”
John shrugged. “Well, look, it’s a starting point at least. You can maybe get her involved in a government club or something; see if that gets her more interested in school.
“Yeah, I can see that…” Reggie shifted and sank further into the couch. “I mean, architecture got you doing better in math, right?”
“Exactly. So that’s one problem down. Now, what about Wayne?”
There were several seconds of stony silence. “Wayne.” Reggie stood and paced around the room. “Sometimes I think she only dates him to piss me off. He’s… he’s okay, I guess, but not the kind of guy who’ll make it in life. I was okay with her seeing him at first; I thought she’d give up on him in a couple of months. Now they’re sleeping together! My God. I’m not even sure if that’s legal!”
“How old is he?”
Reggie shrugged. “His twenties, I think. He’s somewhere around four years older than her.” He returned to the couch and sat down again. “Am I over-reacting here? Should I just leave her alone to live her life?”
John pulled his glasses off and examined them. “Probably. You always hated it when mom got too hands-on, right?”
Reggie nodded.
“Okay. Let her live a little.” He put his glasses back on. “But maybe set some limits with Wayne. He’s way too old for her.”
“Wow, that’s a little hypocritical of you isn’t it?”
John quirked an eyebrow.
“I mean, you were what, five years older than Lucy, right?”
The name swept by John. “Who?”
Reggie blinked. “What do you mean, who? Lucy.”
John shook his head. “Doesn’t ring any bells. I’ve got a ‘Suzanne’ floating around, if that means anything to you.”
“You seriously don’t know who Lucy is?”
A little bubble of dread worked its way through John’s body. “No, I don’t.”
“John… Lucy was your fiancée.”

Pictures floated by on the screen, a thousand personal moments shared with the whole world over the internet. In every picture was a young woman: pale, with dark hair, her face dominated by a curving, elegant nose. In most pictures, kissing the woman, hugging her, generally being happy with her… was John.
He sat in front of the screen next to the fireplace, lazily swirling his fingers to advance to the next image. Lucy and John: they looked so happy together. But John didn’t remember any of it.
His parents had been surprised when they heard this. John had begged Reggie not to tell anyone about his little memory lapse, but Reggie felt that it was his duty to do so.
Mother was concerned, of course. She insisted that John catch the next train down to Washington and demand an evaluation with his so-called doctors.
Father, on the other hand, took a more investigative approach. Did John remember anything about Lucy? Did he suspect he might have other missing memories? And, most importantly, did he care that he didn’t remember Lucy? Maybe he would be happier not remembering a lost love, another piece of life that had been taken by his accident.
Surprisingly enough, mother seemed to agree with father’s suggestion. “Move on,” she said, “you’ve already forgotten her. Why go back?”
Mother’s sudden change in tack, from insisting on medical help to insisting on accepting fate, caused John to question her motives. She tried to dodge the question, of course, but that just raised other question.
“You knew, didn’t you? All this time you knew about Lucy and you didn’t bring it up the whole time I was in the hospital.”
“Weelll… You didn’t bring it up, and if you didn’t, then I didn’t feel it was really necessary to bring her up…”
“She was going to be my wife! My whole life was probably planned around her!”
Father cleared his throat. “Let me get something straight here. Not only do you not remember her, you also don’t remember anything to do with her? Like every memory associated with her has been erased?”
“Yes, she’s totally gone; what does that have to do with my question?”
Father shrugged. “Just wanted to know.”
“So back to you mom; what’s up?”
Mother chewed her lip for a moment, then glared at John. “Okay, yes; I didn’t bring her up. I never liked her; I didn’t make that a secret. She and I just never got along. When you didn’t talk about her, I figured you had—I don’t want to say forgotten her, and I certainly didn’t want to bring her back into my life.”
John sat back in his chair and looked at his little family. Two months with them, and none of them had brought up this part of his life. He felt betrayed.
He got up from the table and walked to the door.
“John!” mother called. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going home. I’ll find a bus or something.”
They had all argued, had all tried to keep him for the rest of the dinner, to apologize for their lapse in judgment.
Nothing they could say would keep John in his parent’s house any longer than he needed to be.
When he had made it back to his apartment, he had searched for Lucy, based on information that Reggie had given him on their drive to dinner. The screen showed a dark-haired young woman, Lucille Dawkins, age thirty-three, unmarried.
John had found other pictures, her personal on-line photostream, and there he had found himself.
But that wasn’t enough. He didn’t know Lucy, couldn’t miss her. Yet now that he knew about her, there was a void. He felt connected to her, like she had a hold on him. He had a commitment to her, and wondered if she still expected him to honor it.
He gestured for the photostream to minimize, then selected the screen’s phone icon.
Doubts arose just before John connected the call. Should he really try to dredge up the past like this? As far as Lucy knew, John was dead. As far as John knew, Lucy didn’t even exist.
Except now he knew. He didn’t remember, but he knew. It was like a nervous habit someone had pointed out: he wasn’t aware that he did it, but he would now be constantly self-conscious of it. If he didn’t call, the thought of Lucy would gnaw at the back of his mind, and he would always wonder what they might have had together, did have together.
Before he could consider it further, he connected the call.
Four rings and then: “Hello?”
“Lucy?” Despite his best efforts, his voice squeaked.
“This is she. Who’s calling?”
Everything in John told him to disconnect; he was trespassing in places he no longer belonged. “This is John.”
“John who?” She sounded distracted.
John’s throat tightened.
“Um… This—This is John Don… Donal—“
“I’m sorry, but I’m really busy right now. If you could call back later—“
“This is John Donalson!” he almost yelled, trying to get his name out.
There was silence on the other end.
“Hello?” John ventured.
There was another long silence. “Is this really John Donalson?”
She seemed to be coming around; good. “Yeah, I’m really John.”
“Listen, you fucker,” she hissed, “you might think this is funny, but I don’t. And I don’t need to call the police over this, because my boyfriend’s here, and he’s a cop, but I guess you already know that if you’ve gone through the trouble of—“
“Lucy, please, it’s really me! I’m not dead; I swear to God, I’m not dead! Just listen to me, please!”
Lucy took several deep breaths. “You have five minutes, asshole, and then I sic my cop on you.”
The urge to disconnect returned with a vengeance. John fought it down and quickly tried to explain his situation. He knew it was unbelievable, especially when he explained that he didn’t remember her, but when he was finished, she was silent. She didn’t rage, didn’t disconnect. Just remained silent.
“So,” she said, “I guess I missed the write up.”
That was one response John didn’t expect. “What?”
“The news story. I mean, man stuck in coma, believed dead due to government error, then comes back. This writes itself.”
Something twisted in John’s gut. There was something in what she said… “No, there wasn’t anything in the news. I don’t know why, but… I guess the army didn’t want it out.”
Lucy snorted. “Last time I checked, the government doesn’t control the media.”
“Last time I checked, the top news channel is called the AmeriNews Network.”
“Point.” Lucy suddenly gasped. “My God; that sounded just like one of our old conversations.”
John sighed. “I wouldn’t know.”
“John… can I see you?”
“I don’t have a car—“
“Mmmm, no. Do you have video on your phone?”
“Uh, just a second.” John stood up and looked at the screen. Near the top was a small black bubble. He gestured to the screen, and saw a stylized image of a camera appear. He gestured again, then returned to his seat opposite the screen. “Okay, I’ve got video.”
A moment later another window appeared on the screen. And there she was, smiling down at him at a strange angle.
“I think you need to move your phone a little,” he said.
Her smile faded. “You don’t look the same.” Her eyes narrowed, and she glanced away from the phone several times.
He had forgotten, of course. He was so used to his current face that he had forgotten that he had once looked different. “It’s really me. I got some surgery done after… after.”
The fear and anger left Lucy’s face, but the smile didn’t return. “Oh.”
“So,” John said, after another awkward silence. “Now you know what’s going on. The, um, the reason I called you was to find out about you, who you are. You were obviously a big part of my life, but… well, I feel kind of like dead weight here. And… and I’m sorry, but I shouldn’t have called. I just felt I had to, you know? I have a decade of my life missing, and now I find out I’m missing more and I just… I lost you. I don’t know what I’ve lost, but it’s gone. And I’m sorry that I left you.” He fell silent.
“John.” Lucy covered her mouth, and coughed a few times. “When you died, it tore me up. You were gone; your family cut me off. And you know what? I got over it. I’ve lived it off. And you—well; you’ve got a fresh start on life by the looks of it. And you don’t have me as baggage. I think if you’d remembered me, we might be able to try to get back to where we were, but I don’t think it would have worked. As it is, though… I think we’re free. We’ve got a clean break, and we can go on without each other.”
Something inside John unclenched, and he felt a strange peace. “I think that’s why I called, to hear you say that. The past doesn’t hold me, and I can live life.”
Lucy smiled. “Yeah.”
“Just one question before I disconnect, though. I know you don’t know the answer, but why do you think I don’t remember you?”
Lucy shrugged. “Hey, don’t look a gift amnesia in the mouth.”
“Yeah.” John laughed. “You’re right. So I guess this is goodbye, then. We go our separate ways now.”
They both reached out to disconnect the call, and then she was gone.
John relaxed into the couch and sighed. She had given him permission to move on; he was free. And he felt… nothing. He still didn’t know who this woman was, and now he didn’t need to.
Maybe he should call mom and allay her fears: Lucy wouldn’t be returning any time soon. He was just about to when a ringing tone announced an incoming call. It was from Lucy.
“Hello, Lucy,” John said, reconnecting the video.
It wasn’t Lucy; a young man stared back at him. He was tan, with close cropped hair. He was also painfully thin, his skull bulging against the confines of his face.
“Who the fuck are you?” the man growled.
John wondered briefly if this was the boyfriend Lucy mentioned. “Um, John Don—“
“I don’t give a shit. I don’t care if you miss her; you’ve never had her, you can’t have her. Just stay the fuck away and don’t call back!” The call disconnected.
So, Lucy didn’t take it as well as he had thought. She had sicced her cop on him after all.
John relaxed into the couch and sighed.

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