The Same Old Story
By Naomi Bloch
1 December 2008
Part 1 of 2
It wasn't as dark as it should have been, and that's what drew her attention. A faint glow crept through the narrow crack under Zachary's door. Sliding the door open, Sarah found her son fast asleep, one leg curled to his chest, his cheek pressed awkwardly against the flexscreen he'd been reading. It was well past his bedtime. The flexscreen had turned itself off long ago.
She took a moment to stroke the soft strands of hair away from Zach's slumbering eyes. His skin was clammy and strangely cold, and she wondered, not for the first time, if this was normal. She felt he should be drier, warmer, less at odds with his environment. He was sleeping deeply, which was a good sign. He'd always been such a light sleeper; his nightmares—violent and horrifying—had kept them all awake well into the night. But she didn't remember him being so clammy before, and since his last operation she'd noticed a distinctly greenish hue around his toenails and his fingernails, particularly after long sun exposure.
David, of course, insisted that this was par for the course. She'd never gotten used to the way her husband simply dismissed these little indicators, but that was how he'd always been, ignoring her daily anxieties, refusing to acknowledge the possibility of misfortune. Whenever a train came to an abrupt halt between stations, Sarah's white-knuckled hand would grip her husband's knee, convinced it was a jumper. David would remain rock solid, unfazed, equally sure it was just an obstruction on one of the solar collectors—a bird's nest, some sort of debris. So far, he'd always been right. But she knew there would come a day when he wouldn't be.
In the room's unearthly quiet, Sarah stood, her eyes tracing the faded pattern on her mother's old quilt, momentarily engrossed by the delicate buds and leaf forms that swirled in the dim indigo light. She'd pulled the blanket out of storage months ago when Zach's symptoms had first appeared, and the stale smell of it had released a torrent of childhood memories. The intensity of it, the vividness, had astonished her.
Bending to pull the quilt up around Zach's shoulders, Sarah manually switched off the bed lamp, already calculating what changes she'd have to make to her schedule tomorrow to compensate for those extra hours of wasted energy. The light would have to be reprogrammed; it had been a fun experiment, but clearly her son couldn't handle the responsibility.
The smallest hint of sound suddenly cut the stillness of the room and Sarah looked down once again. She could sense more than see Zach's open eyes.
"I'm sorry I woke you," she said, her voice soft. "Go back to sleep."
"Are you coming tomorrow?" Half-asleep, Zach could barely form the words.
"I'll ask him." She smiled to hear the sound of Zach's lips coming together to blow a kiss at her. She planted a reply kiss on his moist forehead, then slipped back out of the bedroom.
Sarah was exhausted. And tonight, unfortunately, she still had several reports to finish up before she went to bed.
By the time she was done with her work, David was already tucked in tight. She poked her husband lightly through the covers. "That's the second time this week you've beaten me to bed."
"We're breaking old habits," he agreed.
Sarah slipped under the blankets and into David's welcoming arm. He reached over with his other hand to turn her face towards his. Gently he pressed a palm against her cheek, looking into once bright eyes, now permanently eclipsed by heavy crescent shadows. "How're you doing? You okay?"
"I'll be glad when this phase of the project is finished," she leaned back into her pillow and closed her eyes.
"I still don't understand why you won't ask Nicole to take on more of the workload."
Sarah sighed. "It's not an ego thing, it's just . . . it seems easier to handle it myself."
David maneuvered himself cautiously, trying to retrieve his trapped arm without rearranging his wife. "So you're not just trying to avoid Nicole?"
Her eyes reopened. She glared up at the ceiling. "Of course I'm trying to avoid Nicole, David. She's a nutjob." Sarah turned onto her side, away from his knowing gaze. She changed the subject. "Are you coming to Zach's game tomorrow?"
"I'll have to meet you guys there. I have a meeting in the morning."
"That's fine." Sarah let the heavy weight of her fatigue pull her down into sleep. "Zach will be happy," she murmured.
For a moment, in the last vestiges of light that remained before the apartment unit shut itself down for the night, David watched his wife. Then he, too, rolled over and fell asleep.
Sarah was on the roof, attending to the newly sprouting green beans, trying to predict what sort of harvest they would have. She couldn't quite remember what kind of yield she'd promised, but it looked as though they could expect a bumper crop. She was excited to see how well the butternut squash was doing. She hadn't been so sure it would work when she'd started synthesizing the RNA in the lab. Now she counted four, five, six gourds already—two almost full-sized. Of course, she hadn't done any testing yet. She was weeks behind with her samples.
When she caught sight of Nicole peering upwards from the landing of her unit, she briefly considered making a hasty escape down the other set of stairs. Instead, Sarah steeled herself. There was no point in being petty, and she couldn't avoid Nicole forever.
"Hey stranger," she called down.
Nicole swept up to meet her in her dramatic fashion—long skirts swishing around her bare legs, her heavy clogs reverberating on the steps as they clapped first heel, then stair, then heel. Sarah was relieved to see a broad smile stretched across her neighbor's face; the ecstatic Nicole was always easier to stomach than the tragic Nicole.
"How's it going?"
"Good news! I just found out that Jake has managed to get us on the list for the next Progenitor Qualification round." Tears were welling in Nicole's eyes. Sarah tried hard to ignore them.
"Really. But I thought you guys had already entered this year's lottery."
Her neighbor waved an arm dismissively, "There's no law that says we can't do both."
Sarah wasn't so sure, but she knew Nicole would find a loophole if she had to. "I guess if anyone could find a way to navigate that nepotistic maze that is the PQ, it's Jake," she tried not to sound judgmental, and knew she'd probably failed. "So you're starting your first round of applications then?"
"I could really use your help, Sarah."
It was interesting, Sarah thought, Nicole's use of the first-person singular. Was it a conscious choice, her keeping Jake out of the equation? For a brief instant Sarah let her hand rest on Nicole's shoulder, but she didn't bother to ask how she could be of help. Instead she said, "How's Lily doing?"
"She's fine, of course. Always fine."
"Zach says that she totally blew everyone away at the last Quizzo match. He says she doesn't seem to have a single weak category."
"Oh yeah, she's an amazing kid. Everyone loves her."
Sarah smiled at her. "Well, she certainly shares her mother's intelligence and charm. And those incredible violet eyes—it's hard not to fall in love with those."
Nicole nodded, a bit bored. "That's how Jake ordered her, obviously."
Sarah couldn't argue the point. It was undoubtedly Jake who'd designed Lily to be Nicole's mini-doppelganger. It was hard to know whether it had been to appeal to his own interests or his wife's, but clearly he was committed to his family. It may have taken him almost a decade, but the fact that Jake had managed to get them into the progenitor race at all was a feat bordering on miraculous. Sarah didn't think they had a hope in hell, of course.
"So can you come by later, Sarah? I'm running pretty short on time—"
Sarah could sense the tide of Nicole's mood turning. "I'll have to see," she hedged. "We have Zach's baseball game this afternoon. I'm behind schedule already, actually."
Nicole would not give up so easily. "The thing is, I really wanted to ask you if you could help us to get a good referral from Dave's brother and his wife. I was going to get in touch with them anyhow, but if you could just broach the subject with them first."
"You guys have met?"
Nicole nodded eagerly. "At the surprise party for David last year, remember? And we've run into them a few times in the city since then. You know, we have a lot in common."
Sarah wisely ignored this last statement. "I'll talk to David, see what he thinks. We'll be seeing them next weekend."
"All right, dear, I know you have to run," Nicole gave Sarah a quick hug. "Let me know as soon as you can though."
Through the transparent, shielded roof of the dome, the sun looked almost cheerful. It perched high in the clear Saturday afternoon sky. Sarah watched her son's team doing their mandatory stretches from a spot near the top of the bleachers behind the batter's box. She liked to give Zach space on game days, especially when his father was attending. David could be pretty competitive, and Zach got riled up so easily—a trait her husband blamed on her, of course. He was probably right; it didn't take much for her to get bent out of shape, but she found it difficult to believe that could be pinpointed down to a specific gene. Certainly not any of the ones she'd selected.
Sarah felt a soft kiss land on the top of her head. David leaned down to take hold of the hand she raised in greeting. "You should have worn a hat," he told her. "Your head's hot enough to melt marshmallows."
She grimaced at the sticky notion. "Please don't try."
David nodded down at the field. "Are they almost done with warm-up?"
"No, they're still stretching. They haven't done any drills."
"How's Zach's arm?"
"He says it's okay. He's been practicing like crazy all week."
David scanned the kids on both teams. "Is it just me, or do the kids look bigger this year?"
Sarah nodded. "Most of them."
"All of them," he corrected her, "except for Zach."
She tried to observe the two teams objectively—not her strong suit, once she'd left the lab for the day. It was true that Zach looked quite scrawny next to his teammates. "I think he's lost weight recently," she told her husband. "I had to take in the waist of his uniform this morning."
"What's he supposed to be now, ten?"
"Well, I guess we should run some diagnostics. And maybe order some nanobuilders to catch him up to the other kids."
She shook her head. "David, you know how I feel about this. It's too hard on their systems, trying to make them human-sized."
"Look around you, Sarah. Everyone's doing it, and the kids seem fine."
"But that's not what the studies are showing. Is this really the kind of thing you want to follow the herd on?"
David snorted in exasperation.
"The main deficit seems to be in his butt," she frowned. Zach was reaching down to touch his toes. The seat of his pants hung loose like an empty sack. "Maybe we could just get a localized nanofiber regenerator."
David laughed. "We could have saved ourselves the hassle if we'd thought to give him your ass traits." He reached over to give his wife an appreciative squeeze. Sarah checked over her shoulder and lightly smacked his hand away. Her husband's pleased grin dissolved, melting into a bland, inscrutable pool.
She concentrated her attention back on the field, where Zach and his teammates were huddling around one of their players. The boy was bent over, gripping his stomach, apparently in some pain. Number thirty-seven jersey—that would be Mattie. She tried to catch her son's eye, though there was no reason that he would think to look up. She just wanted to see Zach's face, gauge his expression. For a second he turned his head to say something to one of his friends, and Sarah thought she saw a hint of a smile on his face. Instantly she felt nauseous.
David shifted his gaze to the action below. "What's up?"
"It's Mattie. Something's happened."
"What, again? Didn't we just go through this at the last game?"
"It's the same old story," David said, not for the first time. "The biological kids should have their own team, if not their own league."
Sarah said nothing. She didn't even have the energy to raise her usual objection to his use of the term "biological." At the previous game everything had been fine until the last inning. Mattie was at bat, and the opposing team's pitcher had hurled a fastball at him. Naturally, he'd closed his eyes—just for a second, but it was the wrong second. The boy was only ten, after all, and instinct had simply kicked in. The problem was that his team had been down two runs, with two outs and bases loaded. And there wasn't a single human kid on the other team.
With relief she noted that Mattie was now giving his parents the A-OK hand salute, though he was walking off the field rather gingerly. The umpires were milling about. She settled back to watch the game.
As they made their way to the train Zach hopped along beside his parents, still giddy with the thrill of victory. David was equally ecstatic to have witnessed Zach's pitching, which had effectively won his team the game. He swept behind his son to envelop him in a huge bear hug.
"You were awesome today, Zach." David watched with pleasure as Zach absorbed the compliment.
"I can't believe you were here to see me do that."
"I was worried that maybe you wouldn't have the energy today. Shows what I know, right?"
Zach nodded happily. "I'm totally fine. Anyhow, the sun was out all day. You guys shouldn't worry so much." His parents exchanged uncomfortable glances.
"So what happened down there with Mattie," Sarah asked, "before the game?"
He rolled his eyes. "I knew you were going to bug me about that."
"Well," she pressed him. "Were you involved?"
"Of course not, Mom. You know I like Mattie. It's just that the team gets a little hyped up sometimes. And his bones actually crack! It's gross."
"C'mon, you know his bones aren't really cracking." She did think it odd that such a young boy should already be popping his joints. Surely his parents could do something about that.
They followed the rest of the crowd into the station. "So did you invite Mattie over for some batting practice like I suggested last week?" David asked.
"I guess I forgot," said Zach, veering off into the celludroid lineup as they approached the portals.
They waited for him on the platform. With all the kids on their way home from the game, it took a minute longer than usual. A general buzz of excitement permeated the air, and Sarah reached for David's hand as they watched their son approach. He definitely looked greener now, after the game. She resisted the temptation to gather him up in her arms and invigorate him with her breath. The effect was so short-lived anyhow; it was more for her than for him.
But she couldn't resist her urge to pose the question that had been gnawing away at her. "So what were you smiling about, when Mattie was hurt?"
The train slid silently into the station and stopped. The doors released with a low hiss, and they shuffled on board with the crowd. Zach looked puzzled, as did her husband.
"Before the game. Mattie was doubled over, and you were smiling," she said.
"Yeah," he nodded. "Ethan wanted to kick Mattie in the nuts."
In an instant David's large hand was gripping Zach's elbow, shaking it. His eyes flashed darkly.
"Ethan kicked Mattie in the nuts and you thought that was funny?"
"I didn't! I told him not to . . . it . . . it wasn't like that." Shrinking away from his father's escalating fury, Zach shook his head adamantly. "He kind of punched him in the stomach, I guess. That's not what I meant, Dad. That's not what I was smiling at, I swear."
He turned to Sarah. His eyes begged for her understanding. "Mattie said he couldn't help it that he was different from us, and Ethan told him that if he wanted to be like us that could be arranged. 'We could turn you into a nutless wonder too,' he told him. And it was kind of funny because last week Mattie's dad said that to us, remember? How we were all a bunch of nutless wonders?"
Sarah could feel her stomach physically lurch. She hadn't heard the comment, but it didn't surprise her. Her husband hadn't released his hold on Zach's elbow; he seemed paralyzed.
Zach's plaintive voice was now so small it was barely audible above the dim hum of the train flitting between stations. "We didn't kick him in the nuts, Dad, I swear . . ."
But David didn't have it in him to acknowledge his son's words.