The Same Old Story
By Naomi Bloch
8 December 2008
Part 2 of 2
Sarah was in the lab slicing up a core sample of squash when David came in. Her bench was stacked with row upon row of plant samples waiting to be tested. The whole pile was barely visible in the faint light of a flexscreen stationed precariously in one corner. David changed the overhead settings to better illuminate her workspace. He'd long ago given up admonishing his wife.
"Nice!" he said, looking over her shoulder at the vibrant orange pulp on the table. "That'll be tasty, right?"
"If it doesn't kill us." She always said the same thing—her little ritual. She had a well-regarded skill for engineering seeds that could efficiently process even the smallest amounts of energy, and she had yet to develop an inedible product. Still, she felt that some of her creations had been pretty disappointing flavor-wise, a flaw she suspected was precisely due to their low resource requirements. The problem had been churning around in her brain for some time now, and possibly she was getting closer to a workable solution with this new crop.
"So do you have any clues yet about what Sean and Cindy want?" she asked. "I don't remember them ever being this anxious to see us."
"Nope. No idea. Maybe they're just hoping to get something decent to eat," he grinned.
"Good point. I haven't even asked if I can take an extra share of produce this week."
"Better get on that now. You know how some of them can get. Especially Nicole."
"Actually, I don't think she'll be a problem this time." Sarah wondered suddenly why it had taken her so long to tell him the big news. "She's looking for a big favor. Jake's finally managed to get them into the PQ race, and she's hoping Sean will give them a referral."
David watched as she fussed with her microscope. "Sounds like Jake's hard work is finally paying off," he said, aware of the risk he was taking. Sarah's hands always began to fidget when she was distracted.
"What do you think will happen to Lily, if Nicole has a child?"
"Why should anything happen to Lily? They signed a contract just like the rest of us."
"Don't be like that, David. You know how Nicole is. She'll find a way to get rid of her."
"Maybe. But there've been several very successful repurposing programs in Europe." He tried not to wince as a slide shattered into fragments between her fingers.
"That's not what I asked," Sarah regarded her husband coldly. "I asked what will happen to Lily."
"She'd still have all the gene traits they originally gave her," he said. "There's no way to get rid of those."
"Of course not. She'd never lose Nicole's beautiful eyes; she'd just lose her mind."
The scope of Sarah's moral outrage had always disturbed David a little. He never knew how to calm her. There were so many things they had no control over.
Sarah placed her ruined sample down, finally, and held her hands still in her lap. "Just how, exactly, do you think Jake managed to get them on the list?"
David sighed. "A lot of money. A lot of favors. And, you know, maybe he knows some stuff . . . about the people who matter."
"It can't just be me," she sounded uncertain. "Is this how we want to determine the future of the human race?"
"There aren't any simple solutions to this problem, Sarah. You know that better than anyone."
"But Nicole is a total mess, and Jake is a—," she stopped herself from saying the words. Those concepts weren't considered politically correct nowadays, she knew. To each his own. "What are you going to tell Sean about them?"
"It will be up to Sean and Cindy to decide. It's not our place to deprive other people of a chance at happiness." He looked at her, tried to catch her eyes. "Finding a way to be happy is not a sin, Sarah."
"In this case," she told him bluntly, "it's the original sin."
In her lap the freshly baked squash pie still felt warm, and she lifted the container of strawberries a bit to protect them from its heat. Her eyes absently followed the animated map on the opposite wall of the express train as they traveled westward. The map chimed a pleasant ping at each passing station. David sat beside her reading the news. Zach was at the other end of the compartment, also engaged in something or other on his own flexscreen. Every once in a while she could hear him chuckle.
Sarah was trying to come up with something friendly, but not empty, to say to her husband. Since the conversation in the lab they had kept their dialogue to a few safe, neutral subjects, but she didn't want their temporary estrangement to be evident to Sean or Cindy.
"Any idea what Zach's reading over there?" she asked.
David looked over at their son. "I don't think he's reading, I think he's going over the footage from last weekend's game."
Of course, she thought. To show Mark. "Like father, like son," was what she said out loud.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I mean that he's a show-off, like you." She'd meant to say this with humor, but it came across differently. "Especially around Mark."
Her husband merely shrugged. "He should be proud. He's a great pitcher."
"He's good at a lot of things."
With her free hand she reached over to brush an invisible speck of dust from David's lap. "Just like his dad," Sarah tried. She felt relief when his hand cupped hers and held it there.
Mark came alone to meet them at the station, jogging up to Zach to exchange a standard issue mutual back slap. Sarah cringed slightly at the thwacking sound that Mark's hand made upon contact with her son. When it was her turn, though, she wrapped her nephew up in a tight embrace and inhaled deeply. He smelled so different from Zach, and felt so dense and warm and real, she almost forgot to let him go.
"I can't believe you're taller than me now," she said to him as he extricated himself from her hold.
"That's exactly what you told him last time, Mom."
She'd forgotten. Now she remembered that she'd observed this on more than one occasion in the past. Her nephew was too polite to say anything. Or else he'd just chalked it up to the kind of commentary to be expected from his crazy aunt, the absent-minded scientist. She reclaimed the pie that she'd passed to David so that he, too, could greet Mark.
"What is that, anyway?" Mark asked.
"Come on," David laughed. "You've never seen a pie before?"
"Is that what that is? I thought it was a new science experiment or something."
"Well, yeah, it's that as well," said Sarah.
Her nephew shuddered in mock horror and Zach punched him. "Mom's making you the guinea pig because I'm totally useless in that department."
"You have other uses," David said. Some of the new celludroid models could process food like humans, but this was something that Sarah fundamentally opposed on conservational grounds. Nightly docking and sunlight was all they needed.
David's comment served as a segue for Zach, who pulled out his flexscreen. "Hey Mark, check this out." He grabbed his cousin by the arm and the two boys followed the adults distractedly as they made their way home.
Sarah carried her pie before her like a shield as they entered the unit and followed the long corridor to the common room. Cindy was undeterred, however, smiling a warm, welcoming smile and easily relieving Sarah of her burden while planting a kiss on each of her sister-in-law's cheeks.
"Oh, good. You remembered why we love you so much!" Cindy said, leaning forward with one arm to greet David as well. "What kind of goodies did you bring us this time?"
"We're guinea pigs," Mark told his mother. "It's supposed to be squash pie. I'm hoping to wake up with a third eye tomorrow."
"A third eye would suit you," Zach told him. "And it'd give me another eye to target next time you make fun of my mom." Playfully he charged his cousin, who, given his advantage in height and weight, barely even budged.
"Okay boys," Cindy clapped her hands. "Let's keep the roughhousing to a minimum, shall we?"
"Before someone loses an eye," added Sarah. David laughed.
"So what's Sean up to?" he asked.
"If everything's going according to plan, he should be making magic in the kitchen." The adults wandered toward the kitchen while the boys took off to Mark's bedroom. Sarah was always astounded by how much space the family of three occupied.
Catching sight of his brother, who was tasting some kind of broth from a heat-resistant ladle, David released a little yelp. Sean's brown, hairless head gleamed in the bright daylight that streamed through the kitchen skylight. They stared at each other across the counter.
"Well there's no way I'm getting rid of my hair." David reached up with both hands to verify the existence of his own thatch of tight black curls.
"I figured," said Sean. "That was part of my motivation, in fact."
"Forty-four and still trying to distinguish yourself."
"Like I need to shave my head to do that, smart ass."
Cindy yawned. "This could go on all night."
"So how much time do we have before dinner?" Sarah asked, eyeing Sean's concoction with scientific curiosity.
Sean looked at the time and then at his wife. "Enough, I think."
"So I take it your dinner invitation had some ulterior motive?" said David.
Sean raised his arms in protest. "I wouldn't put it that way. It's just something we're really excited to talk to you about, and we felt it should be discussed in person."
Cindy ushered them both to sit down at the dining table. Sean took a moment to take off his apron and give his broth another cursory check before joining them. David watched his wife's hands tracing intricate spiral patterns on the edge of the table.
"So what's up?" David asked.
Cindy clapped her hands again and David pretended not to notice Sarah jolt in her seat. His sister-in-law had developed a new nervous tic, or perhaps they'd never seen her nervous before.
"We would like to ask you if you'd be willing to be Mark's legal guardians if anything ever happened to us," Cindy finally said.
Sean continued. "Last month the council basically laid down the law, stating that all biofamilies had to make sure they had proper backup guardians in place by the end of the year. There's a whole long list of requirements for who can be chosen. In any case, for obvious reasons, you guys are our top choice."
The sensation of holding Mark tightly in her arms popped unbidden into Sarah's head. The scent of him.
"Obvious reasons?" Certainly they hadn't been an obvious choice twenty years ago when David had first worked to get them on the list. Almost a decade of their relationship had been dedicated to that fruitless bureaucratic game, trying to convince some arbitrary panel of "experts" that their genes—their combination of genes—were worthy. Now she found herself trying to ignore her husband's presence beside her. She could feel his rising excitement. It only angered her more.
"Look, I'm sure you feel the same way we do," said Sean. "I mean, blood is thicker than water, right?" He stopped abruptly at the sound of his wife's sharp intake of breath. "Obviously I'm not talking about Zach. It's just an expression. I mean that family is important, and if anything should happen, we'd like Mark to be with his family."
David nodded. Beneath the table he clasped Sarah's hand in his. Tightly, he pressed, until he felt her reluctant squeeze in response; her hand felt cold—bloodless. "We all love Mark," he said. "And obviously you know how we feel about family."
He finally turned to look at his wife. Her face was set in a wan, impartial smile he'd never seen before. "Sarah and I . . . and Zach too—we'll need to discuss this amongst ourselves first, but basically," and he couldn't stop himself from releasing a big grin at this point, "it sounds like a great idea to me!"
Cindy let out a hoot, and as she laughed they all got up from the table to exchange hugs and handshakes. David, pulling Sarah forcefully, pointedly, against himself, was annoyed to feel her trembling in his arms. With effort he pushed the sensation down, and scrambled back up to absorb his brother's warmth.
"If you guys don't mind," said Sarah, her tone light, "I'd like it if we could keep this to ourselves until David and I have had a chance to talk things over with Zachary."
Cindy nodded her understanding. "You know, we've discussed this situation with our adviser at the consular office, and she sees no reason why it would be a problem for Mark and Zach to live together. There are a few mixed families around nowadays, as I'm sure you know. I realize that you feel strongly about conservation issues, Sarah, but heck, if Mark lived with you it'd probably be way more efficient than the lifestyle he leads here."
Laughter erupted from Sarah's lips before she could stop it.
"Of course," said Sean, "if it's really such a concern to you, you could also consider suspending Zach's development."
Silence enveloped them all.
"The celludroids are at least five times more energy efficient than an equivalent mass human being," Sarah finally responded.
Cindy, always effusive, reached over to hold Sarah's hands in hers. "Sometimes I actually envy you that you have the choice," she told her. Sarah could not believe her ears, and her expression made that clear.
"I'm serious," her sister-in-law persisted. "There are times when I think, if I could have kept Mark the way he was when he was eight years old . . . he used to say such lovely things to me. Clever things, but so sweet. And at eight he would still come crawling into my lap. We would read bedtime stories together. I mean, I could still answer his questions then—what's water made of, and how do the trains work. Now, he's just so . . . " she shrugged, "himself, I guess." She continued with the utmost seriousness. "I look at all of you with your little green children and think, if that were me, what moment in time would I freeze?"
Sarah looked down into her lap. She didn't know why, but still she kept expecting her husband to finally speak up. Neither of the brothers seemed willing to participate in this exchange. They sat like they'd been cryogenically frozen in place; even their complexions appeared to have blanched suddenly.
She shook her head as though trying to dislodge something painful. "Zachary's a real boy just like any human child," she spoke slowly, deliberately, trying to make each word resonate. "This is not some kind of fairy tale to me. I can't wait to see him grow up—to see what he'll turn into. He has all this potential. Each day I look forward to watching what he'll do with it next."
An impenetrable silence overtook the room, until Cindy finally stood up and headed into the kitchen with a dismissive hand wave. "Maybe," she said. "But my point is that you don't have to do that. You could just keep him as he is."
At first, on the train ride home, neither Sarah nor David noticed that their son was as mute as they were themselves. David urgently wanted to take the Mark discussion to the next level, well aware that this was neither the time nor place.
In her lap, Sarah now carried an avocado plant on the verge of death. Apparently, earlier in the week Nicole had dropped by to visit Cindy with this precious offering. Somehow, within the space of a few days the plant had already begun to wither. Sarah wasn't even sure how this could be possible, but there it was.
It was David who finally noticed that Zach seemed to be obsessively licking his lips, so much so that his mouth was quickly turning a verdant, almost fluorescent, shade of green. The gesture seemed especially odd given that Zach's tongue served just one purpose—to allow him to speak properly. Celludroids had never been given any sense of taste. What would have been the point?
"Zach!" said David. His son looked up. "You're going to hurt yourself. Stop licking your lips like that."
With a guilty start Sarah tuned in to her son's behavior. His bottom lip shimmered. "Zach!" she echoed.
Holding his hand up to his mouth, Zach stopped what he was doing. "Do you guys know why I taste so sweet?" he asked. Sarah and David both looked at him, confused. "Mark says that he tastes salty, and I taste sweet."
Sarah suddenly shivered. The avocado plant trembled sympathetically between her palms. Zach was a cellulose-based organism, but if his cousin had simply licked his hand or his cheek, Zach shouldn't have tasted intrinsically sweet, unless—"Did you actually let Mark chew on you?"
David moved over beside his son to take a closer look at his lip. "Did you let Mark chew your lip?" he asked. "You're bleeding, you know."
From his pocket he took out his kit and patched up Zach's face to stop the clear gel's flow.
Zach shook his head, "That was me." He held up his right hand, and they both now saw that his index finger was a pulpy mess, right down to the first knuckle. Sarah felt a rush of shame. Both the boys had been with them since dinnertime, which could only mean that this had happened beforehand. In the last three hours, not one of the adults had noticed Zach's injury. She looked at her husband, speechless. He raised his shoulders in a barely perceptible shrug.
"Your body stores your energy as starch," David explained to his son. "And starch is made up of glucose, which is sugar. Your skin is a membrane that protects the starch, but probably the enzymes in Mark's spit broke down your skin, and then the starch itself, enough that your finger started to taste sweet."
"But Zach," his mother continued, "you need that energy, so you can't let him do that again." She averted her gaze, being careful not to sound as terrified as she felt. "You can't let him . . . eat you."
Sarah wondered what this experience had felt like, physically, to Zach. Had it been a rush, some kind of high, to have Mark sucking the energy right out of him like that? She marveled that she'd never considered this possibility. Her whole life was dedicated to these kinds of problems, but when it came to her own son it was as though she'd never even thought about what made him tick. She was like everyone else, pretending that her celludroid son was the biological child she'd never had, ignoring what he actually was.
"Have you two done this before?" David suddenly thought to ask. Sarah, reflecting upon her son's recent weight loss, thought this was a very good question.
"Mark does it all the time. Once he said he ate his girlfriend's bottom lip right off! Then he had to give up a month's allowance to help pay for the nanofiber regeneration. She has big juicy lips."
David released a sort of strangled, incredulous chuckle. His hands rose up to press against his head. "Once upon a time . . . " he said.
The flat, mocking tone reached Sarah's ears just as the train came to an abrupt, lurching halt. A jumper.
She was almost happy that she could no longer see her husband's expression in the pitch black of the now dead train. Snapshots, nightmarish staccato images—a dozen odd, horrifying scenarios that could arise between the two cousins—flitted through Sarah's mind. She knew they were occurring to David as well.
"It's the same old story." Her words, this time.
Zach spoke confidently into the darkness. "It's just an obstruction on one of the collectors."
Sarah caressed the leaves of the plant she hoped to bring back to life. She blew on it with her soft, wispy breath. "Like father, like son," was what she said.