A PIG TALE
by Guy Stewart
Damp, cool air carried the words clearly.
Rachel Sheffield said, “We’re splitting, Dad. I know you don’t like it, but…” The words seemed to hang between them as they tramped along the back road. Their heavy boots plowed through ankle-deep layers of tawny oak, golden poplar and yellow elm leaves.
“Tried working it out with…um…Ray?” her dad asked. The plaid ears of his blaze orange hunting cap were turned up, showing wisps of salt-and-pepper hair tousled beneath it. His tan hunting jacket was stained, torn, mended, and worn thin by the years. Yet it covered his long, rounded frame as it had when they’d hunted squirrel, deer, and pheasant when she was a teenager.
She didn’t say anything for a long time. Her hand went to the braid at the back of her head. She played with it for a moment, thinking that it was like the pigtails she’d worn as a child. Had she really tried to work things out with Ray? After he found out about her and her boss, Glenn Furman, he’d barely said a word. He’d spent every free moment with Jessica and Scott. He was civil when the kids were around, but he’d started coming to bed long after she was asleep. He was gone when she got up. She’d factored the equation pretty quickly and kept out of his way.
Then he’d moved out with the kids and she’d gotten the separation papers.
That was Thursday. She’d walked into Furman’s office and told him she’d be taking a leave of absence. He’d been furious. They were in the midst of clinical trials of a broad-spectrum memory reconstruction virus that she’d been instrumental in developing. The test results looked nothing short of miraculous. There was a medical ethics battle brewing regarding the use of the virus on Alzheimer’s patients.
Fanatics were not limited this time to the Religious Right. The Liberal Left was weighing in with some hefty legal fist shaking, too. Things were about to blow.
But she didn’t care. Didn’t care about Ray. Didn’t care about the kids. Didn’t care about her job. Didn’t care about Furman any more, either. He’d been a diversion. Nothing more. An attempt to stave off a haunting feeling of worthlessness. She’d walked out of the lab, gotten into her car and driven to
in seven hours. Kenyon, Minnesota
She’d caught the scent long before she reached the hog farm. Most people hated it. So did Ray, but he’d learned to suffer in silence. But to Rachel, it evoked only one memory: safe haven.
The back door had been unlocked when she pulled into the barnyard late at night. Ruthie remembered her and the car and didn’t bark. She’d crashed in the Twin’s old room and waked to the smell of coffee, fried eggs, bacon, sausage links, and peanut butter toast. She’d also waked to the sound of squealing pigs in the out buildings.
“I think I did, Dad,” she replied.
He stopped and turned to her, his shotgun angled down, draped casually over one arm. He fixed her with a long gaze.
She returned it at first, then her vision blurred and she looked away.
Her dad grunted, then started walking again. She wiped the pair of tears from her face and shuffled after him, fiddled with the pigtail again.
They moved up a hill, then stopped on the crest that overlooked the back forty. A narrow stream – only full of water after a hard rain – wound its way through the fields. The back road dipped down into the small valley it had created. Beyond, crowning a hill in the distance, was a grove of cherry trees.
She stopped beside him, looking out over the fields. The last harvest had been taken in, and the cornfields left stubbly for winter. Alternating with the stubbled fields were fields of alfalfa, still faintly green even though it was November. “When you weren’t tellin’ the truth, Rachel, you always had a guilt glint in your eyes. Like the time you took the car into town and went to that college-boy party.”
Rachel hung her head. He’d known all these years. Yet the next day she’d lied bald-faced to him that they’d had an all-girl slumber party at Shelly’s. He took her at her word and never even implied that he knew he’d been lied to.
“I see the guilt-glint then, and I seen it a second ago.” He turned to face her. “You really try everything?”
This time she lifted her head to look him in the eye and said, “I haven’t tried it all, Dad.” She let her eyes wander back to the cherry grove. “The fact is that I don’t know what I want. I thought I’d be happy. I got the job I’d always dreamed of, respect in my field, a husband I once loved, and a pair of wonderful kids. I thought this would be it.” She blew softly, a cloud of white condensing before her. “But it’s not.”
Her dad did the same thing. Exactly. He said, “Happy. Funny word that. Happy seems to come and go. Peaceful seems a more important thing to look for in life.”
Stung, she snapped, “You don’t know what I’ve been through lately.”
He looked at her, nodded and said, “You don’t know what I been through lately, either.”
She scowled, curious despite the sting. Curiosity won. Always had. She asked, “What?”
He started walking again. Stopped for a moment at the stream, looked both ways, then stepped gingerly over it and went up the other side. She followed. He stopped again and turned to look back. Rachel did, too.
They couldn’t see the house from here, but the vent boxes on the tops of the barns seemed to float over seven acres of
behind the house. Farm sounds drifted back to
them: someone running a tractor, the conveyer belt going up into the barn loft
rattling and squeaking away, hog noises. The safe smell of pig manure drifted
on the chill autumn wind. oak
“Gonna lose the farm.”
“What?” Rachel exhaled.
“The farm. Repossessed. Can’t sell enough pork at a good enough price to keep up on the bills. PorkCo down the road’s offered to buy me out. After this winter, I’ll sell out the hogs, and your mom and I’ll move into town.”
“But, Dad, why?” Her voice pitched high – the way she’d sounded at her wheedling best in eighth grade.
“Your Mom’s not getting any younger. Me neither. Little farms can’t produce at the big corp‘s level. We can’t sell our pork that cheap and still pay the bills. So now we can’t sell our pork at all – and the bank’s after all us small-timers.”
“Can’t you do something about it? Organize? Something?”
Her dad smiled. “It’s been coming a long time, Baby Doll.” He shook his head sadly. “We expected it. We’re gettin’ on. I forget things sometimes. Things I should remember. Your mom and I figured we’d retire on our own. As it is, they’re forcing us out.”
“But how, Dad?”
He made a motion with his head to the east. “You ever seen PorkCo’s operation? They have a hundred and twenty-eight barns. Four hundred hogs in each barn. You’re the doctor, you do the math. The larger the population, the more economical it is to deal with. PorkCo can feed, water, and heat more hogs than I can. But I still need to feed, water and heat ‘em. Same equipment, same supplier, same cost – and less than half the profit when all’s said and done. The meat plant don’t want to deal with us small-timers anymore, either. So we don’t have anywhere to sell locally…” He spun away and stomped off in disgust.
Rachel stood looking at the barn vents. She turned and followed Dad. By the time we caught up with him, he was nearly to the cherry grove. When she pulled alongside of him, he said, “Besides, none of the kids want the farm, really.” He looked up suddenly. The hope in his eyes made her wince. “Do you?”
He stopped, this time at the edge of the cherry grove.
Memories rode from a mothballed past, things she hadn’t remembered for years. Adventures with her three brothers and her sister in the grove, the barns, the
. Tree houses,
treasure hunts, hide-and-seek, rope swings, and wild runs through moonlit
forests. Hansi hit by a car, litters of kittens, piglets, a visceral
understanding of Charlotte’s Web, and a crush on a handsome new
veterinarian when she was fourteen. oak forest
So much of her had remained here. The best parts of her. Then she shook her head and said, I’m not a hog farmer, Dad. And I can’t imagine Jessica and Scotty wanting to move out here…” Then she remembered that, as of yesterday, she was legally separated. “It would never work. I’ve got my job and now I don’t have much of a family left – except for the one I started with.”
Dad grunted, then put his big, heavy arm around her shoulder. They stood that way for a while, watching as a pair of crows flapped heavily into the air.
“Gonna shoot ‘em?” Rachel asked after a moment.
“Naw. Don’t shoot much of anything anymore. Gettin’ old, I guess. Don’t have much fight left in me.” After another moment, he dropped his arms and turned back toward the main buildings. “Should be gettin’ back.”
She nodded as they set off together.
They were at the foot of the hill again when he said, “Staying long?”
Rachel shrugged they stepped across the dry streambed. She stopped, studying the hard, dry rivulets. Stones lay exposed by the water that had run along here days, weeks, or months ago. She looked up at Dad. “I don’t know. I took a leave of absence when Rau had the papers served to me.”
He nodded, then looked off into the distance. She looked down at her feet again. With a long sigh, she set off. Dad walked alongside her. Gray clouds overhead made for a silvery, featureless ceiling, promising neither rain nor fair weather.
When they got into the house, it was time for the evening chores. The silvery sky had taken on a deeper, softer shade of charcoal.
Mom was standing by the stove, peeling potatoes and dropping them into a pot of boiling water after deftly slicing them into quarters. She looked at the two of them, deep lines crinkling at the corners of her eyes. “Just like when you were a kid,” she said softly. “I suppose you’ll be going out to help Dad with chores?”
Rachel looked at Dad, then at Mom, shook her head. “I think I’ll stay in here, if you don’t mind. I brought some journals I want to look at – never any time at work.” Both of them nodded, and Dad went out into the mudroom to pull on his work clothes. Mom went on making dinner as Rachel headed for the family room.
The glass doors of the fireplace were closed and there was a chill in the room. Rachel called, “Mind if I build a fire, Mom?”
Her mother cam to the door, wiping her hands on a blue gingham dishtowel, a delighted smile on her face. “That would be wonderful! We haven’t had a fire in there since – oh, I don’t even remember. But the things are all there, dear. Go right ahead. Dinner will be in about an hour and a half. After Dad gets done with chores and cleaned up.”
Rachel nodded and knelt by the fireplace and busied herself. Dozens of memories began to tumble again as the stream of happy past thawed. Christmases, Easters, Thanksgivings (she’d missed the last two), baptisms, funerals, confirmations, and weddings past bounced by her, each one glittering like wet corundum. On her fourth, a flame flickered and ate away at the dry tinder. She fed it until it was a snapping fire, almost forgetting to check that the damper was open. She rested back on her heels and closed the glass doors part way. An old, orange plaid chair sat nearby. She climbed into it and curled her feet hp, watching the flames eat away at the wood.
and white and blue. She smiled a little for the first time in weeks, the heat
of the fire warming her knees and hands, adding a smoky, piney odor to the air
already smelling of roast pork. Orange
Abruptly the kitchen door was thrown open.
“Pat! Pat! It’s Chuck!”
Rachel was on her feet and in the kitchen before the stranger had turned and run from the house.
Mom threw her a terrified look.
“I’ll go,” Rachel said. She shoved her feet into the boots still sitting by the door and ran out into the cold night air. It was dark. The yard light was on and the few windows in the big, main barn glowed yellow.
Her mother was right behind her.
The stranger – a hired hand, Rachel thought – was standing at the open barn door. “Hurry!” he shouted.
They pushed past him and a second hired hand – a blond teenage boy. Dad lay on the floor, pale, eyes closed.
“Heart attack?” Rachel asked as she knelt beside him.
“We called 911. He must have just done it when we found him. He was kicking and swinging something terrible.”
Rachel looked up at the first man. “What do you mean he was ‘kicking and swinging’?”
He glanced at Mom, his eyes round. Mom huddled closer to Rachel, grabbing the material of the flannel work shirt she’d been wearing all day.
Horrible realization swept like spring runoff over Rachel. “You’re telling me he tried to hang himself?”
The teenager looked directly at Rachel, blue eyes pleading. He nodded.
Mom gave a faint, moaning sigh and sank to the floor. The first man caught her as a wailing siren Dopplered into the barnyard. He gestured with his head and said, “Get ‘em in here.” The teenager waved the paramedics in and a moment later, there was no way to talk as the room was filled with people.
Seven hours later, Rachel sat beside Dad. He was awake, staring up at the ceiling from his hospital bed. Eyes blinking slowly. Rhythmically.
The bed was new. It monitored his vital signs without cuffs or pads or wires. All information was displayed on a screen at the floor’s monitor station.
Mom was propped up in an easy chair, the footrest up, her head lolling to one side, mouth slightly open, eyes closed, sleeping. Rachel had asked for a sedative for her about an hour ago. Rachel wanted to talk. To Dad.
“When were you and Mom going to have to leave the farm?”
He didn’t move for a long time. Finally, he licked his lips and whispered, “Monday.”
Rachel hung her head. “I thought you meant that you’d finish out the season, sell off the spring farrow and closed down after that.”
He moved his head slightly from side-to-side, winced. “First of December,” he whispered. There was an angry red rope burn around his neck.
She cursed silently, long, inwardly, deeply, viciously at…nothing. Dad had never approved of coarse language. He and Mom and been churchgoers all their lives. Once she left home for college, she’d never set foot in a church to worship again. It hadn’t been her and Ray’s style. They respected Mom and Dad’s beliefs without sharing them. Bitter regret threatened to sweep her away in a wash of frigid memories. She focused on Now.
To let loose with a string of invective would probably wake Mom and upset Dad. So Rachel mentally flayed officials, the economy, the bank executives and the PorkCo magnates who had made Dad’s cry for help so harsh. She patted his upper arm in the non-silence of the hospital room.
“Don’t hate me,” he whispered.
She stared at him, dumbfounded. “Hate you for what? Trying to escape and intolerable situation you’re powerless to change? For trying to maintain a lifestyle you, and generations before you created close to the land you love?” Silently she added, For acting as keepers of one of the best parts of my life? “I don’t hate you, Dad. I…” Pressure built behind her heart. Feeling penned carefully inside pressed against the walls of the pen like hogs downwind of the special hot corn mash she and her parents and brothers and sister had doled on Thanksgiving day every year for as many years as she could remember.
They broke free.
It was a long time before she lifted her head. Mom was asleep. Dad’s eyes were closed. For one horrible moment, she thought he’d died. Disoriented, she looked around frantically, her eyes finally coming to the monitor. Vital signs still normal. Breathing rhythmic and slow. Heart rate steady.
Three o’clock in the morning. She stood on weak legs. Pins and needles surged from hips to toes as circulation came back and crimped nerves straightened. Sleeping while leaning head-first against a hospital bed rail, lack of sleep the night before, rich food and her father’s attempted suicide had given her a sour mouth, queasy stomach, gritty, painful eyes and sense of temporal disorientation.
She tottered from the room leaning heavily on the doorframe, then the wall as she stepped into the carefully neutral colors of the hall carpet and walls.
Kenyon’s hospital was joined to a nursing home and served the town as well as the county and a half-dozen surrounding communities. It was warm – homey in an odd way that country hospitals have. Nothing like their big city counterparts. She wandered to the front desk, smiling blearily at the nurse working at the monitor station. He smiled back and said, “Can I help you find anything?”
“No. I’m here with my dad and my mom,” she said. Her normal, professional tone had disappeared some time between her arrival and weeping. The nurse nodded and went back to his work.
She made her way to the lobby. Overstuffed chairs were arranged in psychologically sensitive small groups. The wallscreen television was off. A massive, transparent column holding a marine aquarium grew in the center of the lobby. She went to a chair and dropped into it, facing the tank. Columns of tiny bubbles dribbled upward from the bottom. Brilliantly colored reef fish darted, swirled, hovered and back-finned over achingly white sand and muted orange, red, cream and yellow coral. Anemones and urchins fluttered and trundled as if blown by a slow-motion wind.
She drifted off to sleep a moment later, dreams of dancing sea stars studded with silvery bacteriophage T4s – heads shaped like large, connectable baby toys, a collar, tail sheath, base plate and tail fibers fluttering around her, puncturing sea stars and making them shrivel and turn to sparkling glitter as they broke up. Then she was sitting in the farrowing shed on a bale of hay, piglets nursing, the warm, moist air close and comfortable. She plucked a lemon-colored sea star from the air and tossed it to one of the sows. She swallowed it and then suddenly someone was clearing their throat right beside her. She jerked into a sitting position, swaying dizzily.
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
Rachel looked stupidly up at a young man, long hair held back in a plaited braid. “Hmmm?” she managed, her mouth and lips dry.
“Your mother is awake. She wants you to take her home.”
Rachel nodded and pulled herself to her feet. The lobby’s clock showed that it was a little after five a.m. Without really looking at him, she rasped at him, “Thanks. I’ll…uh…take her now.” She made it back down the hallway to Dad’s room. Mom was standing, staring at Dad when Rachel walked in.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
Her mom shook her head, then went to the window and pulled up the blinds. It was pitch dark outside. Winter solstice a little over a month away. “He likes looking out the window. Likes to be outside. Hates being cooped up.”
Rachel nodded, then went to her mom and gently took her arm. All the lights in the room but a softly golden lamp set above Dad’s head were out. Its light made his face seem tan. Healthy. A shadow covered the noose burn. “Let’s go, Mom.”
They drove home through the steady darkness, stars shining so brightly they seemed to be holes poled through some heavy fabric, allowing the light from a white-hot fire behind it to shine through. Cold, stubbly fields slicked past silently once they left the bright, reddish lights of town behind. Rachel closed her eyes hard, then opened them, trying to squeeze out the grit. By the time they reached the farm, she was shaking from fatigue.
Mom stopped in the middle of the gravel turn around as they made their way from the garage to the house. “How are you, Rachel?”
She briefly considered lying, then thought better of it. “I came out here to get away, Mom. Ray and I have separated. He’s got the kids right now. I left
to…” abruptly she
didn’t know why she’d left the city behind. Not to bury herself – the City had
more to bury herself than the little town of Chicago . She stammered, “I…I don’t know why I
left. I don’t know for sure why I came here. And now, all this…” Kenyon
Her mother nodded, slipped her arms through Rachel’s and started moving again. Together they walked over frozen, crunching gravel. Hog song drifted from the nearby barns and the well pump came on suddenly, humming in the not-silent night. Overhead, the yard light buzzed, busily exciting mercury vapor to emit photons.
“It’s why you came back, Dear,” Mom said.
“What? To see Dad try and kill himself? To spend half the night in the hospital?”
“No, to be here. Where you started.”
“Where you’re going to end, Mom! Where Dad almost did end!” she shouted. Anger surged up past her normally rigid defenses. At work, she ignored the feelings that didn’t clearly move her closer to her goals. Her feelings for Glenn Furman had greased the wheels for special requests, made her projects magically rise to the top of the head and kept her ahead of everyone else. The anger faded. “Sorry, Mom. It’s been a long night. I don’t know what I’m saying.”
They reached the back steps, walked up and through the mudroom, into the dark kitchen. Mom slid off her coat, draped it over the back of a chair. Rachel did the same. Mom said, “Want a cup of cocoa?”
Rachel hesitated, then shook her head. In the dark family room, she could see the faint red glow of coals in the fireplace. “I’m going to get the fire going again.”
Mom nodded. “Good night, then, Rach,” she pronounced it “Raych”, like she had all of Rachel’s life. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Night, Mom,” she kissed her, then went into the family room, listening to Mom walk up the creaking steps, then cross the ceiling. Quiet shuffling, then squeaks from the bed as Mom got in. By then, Rachel had the fire blazing. She settled back in the chair, the reading lamp on, a journal in her lap. This one had an article by her and the team at ViroMax. She flipped it open. She flipped open to it, scanned it, smiled. Her work was good. Some were hailing her as the Louis Pasteur of viruses. She and her team – Furman included – had already developed a vaccine that arrested HIV-1 and HIV-2. She’d have had the Nobel last year if Jamal Harris at GeneTech in
hadn’t KO’s the most common cold virus. Next year, though – Americans were aging
and Alzheimer’s was an increasing disturbing problem. ViroMax and others had
shown that Alzheimer’s was a complex interaction between genetic factors,
certain types of viral infections and memory-related steroids in the brain. Atlanta
She scanned other articles, mostly by people she knew personally. One article by Dr. Christine Hester touched the genetic engineering of specific viruses for use in terraforming Venus. Furman had tried to hire Hester. She’d turned him down flat, laughing at his money.
Rachel started suddenly. When had she started calling him ‘Furman’? His name was Glenn. She looked at the fire and closed the magazine. She stared at the flickering orange, white and blue flames, momentarily frustrated by all that seemed to be happening. But only one thing was important now: Dad and Mom. Together. At the farms she’d been brought to as a newborn; grown up on – she smiled briefly – longed to get away from; returned to.
It was going to be sold and her parents would move into town. And now with this suicide attempt, someone would suggest that they move into a ‘retirement’ home, and that would kill Dad just as surely as a noose around the neck. Yet what could she do?
She tapped the Journal of Research Virology in her lap. There were many things she could do. Engineer a virus – perhaps something insidious – and infect PorkCo’s stock with it. Maybe something that needed lots and lots of pig breath to thrive. The is would skip over family farms and only hurt corporate farmers. She scowled and stood up. She put another log on the fire, stopping at the picture window that looked out over the empty fields to the place down the road. She couldn’t see anything this early in the morning. But she knew the Duerkops were down there. Dave, Barb, Nathan, Caleb, Elise. Always had been. Always would be.
Maybe they were just like her father – a family forced out by bigger and bier corporate farms. Maybe they were packing boxes at this very moment, bone-tired from the preparations for the move. Bone-tired, but with nowhere to lay their heads because some massive conglomerate had to make a few more bucks and destroy a little bit more of the competition so they could have a little bit bigger piece of a rapidly shrinking pie…
Rachel went back to the chair and, closing her eyes, leaned back for a moment, trying to order her chaotic thoughts. She couldn’t change the world. She couldn’t even manage her own. She couldn’t save Dad and she couldn’t save the farm.
She couldn’t do anything right…
She woke with a start and the family room was bright with sunlight streaming through the picture window.
The smell of coffee hung fresh in the cool air. The fire was dead. “Mom?”
There was no response. She went into the kitchen, wrapping an orange afghan around her shoulders as she walked. There was a small square of paper on the kitchen table. She smiled, remembering the uncounted number of notes left the same way all through her childhood. She read, “Went to Hospital. Nurse said Dad was fine. Come if you want to. Mom.”
Rachel poured herself a cup of coffee from the pot on the warmer. Two dirty cups sat in the sink, half-filled with water. One had a spoon in it. She picked it up, rinsed it, and spooned sugar into her own cup, stirring as she walked back to the recliner. She sat again, looking out the window.
Abruptly, a memory surfaced. Snowmobile rides with Luke Jacob flashed back. She was fifteen and he was an older man. All of sixteen she recalled.
They’d been racing another boy and girlfriend across the filed. The other boy had lost control of his sled. His girlfriend had been thrown clear, but he’d broken his neck. She and Luke had flipped their sled turning back, but they escaped with nothing but bruises. After the look of stark terror in her parents’ faces when they’d heard the story, she’d been banned from dating Luke for the rest of her natural life and grounded for the rest of the school year. It had taken Mom and Dad years to actually forgive him. She doubted if they’d ever forgotten the incident. She hadn’t.
She caught her breath. The idea appeared complete, slamming her in the face like the hard, icy furrows had that day racing with Luke. Elegant. Stunningly complete. Simple, in fact, though experimental after a fashion and certainly not the use toward which the research had been intended. But Furman would never know, and she could easily alter a record here and say a few words there to cover any tiny tracks she made.
She stood and went to the phone after looking up the number for the nearest airport. Once she was finished, she scribbled Mom and note and drove ninety minutes to
The flight in a twin-engine Baron to Rochester
took just over an hour and a half. She slept hard even so. In a taxi, she was
at Viromax an hour later. Her clearance got her through security had no
problem, even though it was Saturday. In fact, she knew the weekend staff
almost as well as she knew the regular crew. They knew her, too. Well enough
that the college guy on duty at the check-in desk flirted with her – again. Chicago
But she wasn’t interested in teasing him today. She hurried to her own lab and logged on. After a few moments, she started manipulating the images on the screen. Clearly imaged in her mind was the configuration of the memory reconstruction virus. The results of the initial tests were spectacular, but not everything was neat and clean. It was now clear that success was determined by various factors including the time between onset of symptoms, physical health of the subject – there were even some simulations that indicated that the individuals who were rarely exposed to preservatives or certain kinds of petroleum products, or who had been careful to eat well-balanced meals through their lives stood a better chance of recovering a larger portion of their memories – and current age. The virus ViroMax had designed helped to reconstruct damaged links between memory recall and storage by stimulating growth in the nerve cells.
When she finally backed away from the screen, she had what she thought she wanted. She typed in a command that would set an automated, elaborately protected lab to manufacturing the viruses. In twenty to forty hours, there would be sufficient product to conduct thousands of tests. In an hour, there would be enough for her purpose.
The back door was still unlocked when she pulled into the barnyard early Sunday morning. Rachel rolled into bed without a sound, gently setting her shoulder bag on Eric and Ernie’s old desk. She peeled her clothes off and slipped into an old flannel shirt Eric had passed on to her years ago. She fingered it briefly, savoring the smooth, worn material. She lifted it to her face and breathed in. The odor of hay and sweat – a scent so distinct, the recalled abruptly a day he’d worn it. He’d been sixteen, she only twelve. Not long after, she’d asked for it and he’d laughed and given it to her.
She slipped it over her head, and her mind drifting in memories, she fell asleep.
Rachel woke to a silent house. The only smell was from decades of early morning pots of coffee and fried, roasted or baked pork. Cold light edged the green plaid curtains that were closed over the bedroom window. Rachel stood and picked up the shoulder bag, carrying it into the family room. The fire was long dead, and Mom had drawn the shade over the picture window while she was gone. She tugged the drawstring down and the shade rolled up. Thick gray clouds scudded before a brisk wind. Snowflakes bled sideways across the window. Sometimes she could see all the way down to the Duerkops. Other times, she couldn’t even see the edge of the field.
She went to the kitchen. A note sat on the table. She picked it up. It read, “Dad comes home today. Between 12-3. Come if you want.”
She took a deep breath, then started setting up the equipment.
When they showed up at quarter past one, she was ready. She ran out to meet them as Mom pulled up in the old station wagon.
She opened Dad’s door. He smiled faintly up at her, then grunted as he got out of the car. She took him by the elbow, and said, “I made us some lunch.”
He grunted again and said, “It’ll be a damn sight better than that hospital garbage they served me.”
“Chuck! Watch your language,” Mom snapped.
He grunted again, but said, “Sorry, Hon. It was bad, though.”
She nodded, conceding the point as they went into the mudroom and then into kitchen.
The aroma of bread-and-butter pork roast wrapped around them, all the more rich for the cold, snowy air outside. Dad shot her a glance, then smiled. Genuinely this time. “My favorite,” he said.
Mom smiled, too when she saw that Rachel had set the dining room table rather than the kitchen table. The old china, painted with faded roses and stems, set off the faintly tarnished silver and crystal goblets she’d arranged over a maroon, tie-dyed tablecloth she’d sent them from
, long ago. Liberia
Mom said, “I’ll just get…”
“It’s all right, Mom. Just have a seat and I’ll get the sparkling juice.” Rachel ushered them into the dining room.
Mom giggled and said, “I feel like I’m in a restaurant.”
Rachel smiled as she retrieved the sparkling grape juice from the mudroom. It was cold enough to frost slightly in the damp heat of the kitchen. She set it out while her parents washed up and them pulled up to the table.
Rachel pulled the roast from the oven, deftly lifting it from the roaster and on to the china serving platter. Fragrant steam rose from the tender meat. She spooned the soft potatoes and carrots and onions from the juices in the roaster and arranged them neatly around the cut. She placed it in the open spot in the center of the table and returned to the kitchen for a loaf of bread from the town bakery. She sat down.
“I’d like to say the grace this afternoon, if you don’t mind,” Rachel said.
Her parents looked at her, then at each other – then at her again. She laughed. “Don’t be so surprised! Maybe I’m coming back to my roots now that I’m getting old and gray.”
Dad nodded and bowed his head and squeezed her hand. Mom did the same. Rachel said, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. Thank you, Lord, for bringing Dad safely home – and for bringing me back home, too. Bless us now as we eat and fellowship together, and use this food to strengthen us to serve you better. Amen.”
They repeated her, “amen”, then squeezed her hands tightly.
They ate and drank and chatted about nothing in particular. Rachel watched them closely. Toward the end of their meal, they both began to lapse into longer and longer periods of silence. Their words seemed to slur together as they appeared to lose their train of thought. Finally, both sat silent, staring vacantly into space.
Rachel sagged back in her chair. For a moment, she could feel her head throbbing. Though she’d thought this through a dozen times, she still had doubts about it. Ethical qualms. Moral instability.
She took a sheet of paper from her back pocket. She looked at Dad. Degraded brain cells were experiencing rapid growth, reconnecting areas that had long been disconnected. He would be remembering incidents, scents, sounds, sights, tastes and touches he didn’t even know he’d forgotten.
She started to read aloud. It was a simple story, really. As the cells regrew and were hyperstimulated, audio input would theoretically create accompanying multisensory input to match the words. Whatever they heard would become a complete memory – whether it had happened or not. It if worked the way they thought it would, an Alzheimer’s patient would need to be in isolation for the period of regrowth or risk introducing memories that had never really happened. Memories that would be indistinguishable from events that had actually occurred.
Furman had called it the miracle drug of the Twenties. The Right and Left jointly denounced it as the ideal brainwashing drug.
Her story was finished before her other thoughts were.
She sat in silence with her parents. After an hour or so, they started talking again.
Dad said, “I got a sore throat. How about a cup of honey-lemon tea, Hon?”
Mom stood up, blinking as if she’d just awakened. But she worked slowly and by the time she presented the cup of tea to Dad, she was merely blinking as if she’d been dazzled by a bright light.
“So, when are you and Mom moving out?” Rachel asked, her pulse roaring in her ears.
“Well dear, the movers will be here Monday. Dad and I will be going to spend a few days with your Auntie June in
She shrugged. “When we get back to town, everything will have been moved to the
new condo.” She frowned slightly as she sat down with a cup of tea for herself.
“We showed you the place, didn’t we, Rach?” Rochester
Rachel nodded, watching Dad drink the tea. He rubbed his neck once and her heart froze. But he didn’t say anything else. They sat wrapped in a quiet, warm quilt of golden light over the remains of dinner.
In the family room, she’d built a fire and her magazine lay waiting for her. Instead, she said, “Why don’t you let me get the dishes, Mom, while Dad goes out to the barn?”
Her mom smiled and waved at her. “Nonsense, Rach. You cooked, I’ll clean up. You just scoot to your chair by the fire. I’ll take care of this.”
Dad stood and headed for the mudroom, just like he had for all the years Rachel could ever remember. He’d always looked forward to retirement. And now he was moving Monday because he and his wife were tired and wanted to spend the last years of their lives dancing, seeing movies, traveling, and enjoying one another. There was no bitterness. He wasn’t being forced out of his home. He had never tried to hang himself in the barn. Rachel shuddered at the memory of that night.
She padded in stockinged feet into the family room and sat down slowly, pulling the multi-colored afghan over her lap. She stared at the crackling fire. Without thinking, she reached back and played with her braid – a single pigtail, really. She tugged at it, then absently put the tip of it into her mouth. A moment later, she pulled it free, staring at it. She thought she’d broken that habit ages ago. She smiled faintly and settled back into the chair. She read until late, Dad first, then Mom stopping briefly to say their goodnights.
By the time her eyes were tired, it was after one. She clicked off the lamp, then sat and stared at the glowing embers of the fire, listening to the wind blow snow against the window. Beside her sat the case she’d brought form
. Inside, a second
dose of the memory reconstruction virus nested beside its empty twin. In her
pocket, a long, involved letter she’d written for herself. She pulled it out
and smoothed it on the afghan. It began, “You are a lab tech in a big city. A
perpetrator of alcoholic-type behavior, you lost your husband and your
children. You are jobless. Destitute. Your behavior has been successfully
treated. Your parents gave you a plane ticket to Chicago in order to reconcile your marriage.
You have always loved your husband – you still love him. He will completely
satisfy you…” Chicago
When the words grew blurry, she stopped and folded the sheet of paper in thirds, swallowed hard against the urge to cry.
She stood up and headed for bed, leaving the case by the chair in the dim light of a quarter moon shining through the window. In the morning, she would be ready to begin again. Forever.
*First appeared in ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION AND FACT, June 2000