Hard Mother, Spider Mother, Soft Mother
By Hal Y. Zhang
“Did you see the report on the spy from Aberdeen? The game is a-foot.”
I mumbled something like “No, sounds interesting.” All I remember is my usual annoyance at her ability to pronounce hyphens where they don’t belong. We must have been in the living room, her on a rare break from gardening and me trying to divine the future with my seeing stone of a computer. Either I had non-personal coffee in my hand, or my brain decided to add that detail on a later traverse. Why does it only fixate on the useless details—the weird green vase in the corner, the ugly plastic pitcher centerpiece on the table, both overflowing with fresh bleeding roses—that have nothing to do with the plot?
Our next interaction occurred during my viewing of a video reporting the formation of a new island in the Pacific. How uncannily the uncontrollable underwater caustic flow matched my job search situation, I thought idly in the crook of my elbow. Expert in esoteric studies, puzzles, and internal monologues seeking just about any position, really. Inquire within.
“All going as planned,” she mumbled behind me.
“What?” My neck cracked as I swung my eyes towards her, but she was already back in her universe of sprawled notebooks at the other end of the long mahogany slab. I returned to unceasing dark plumes of smoke, occasional almost-faces forming and sinking between blinks.
Now I wish I could stretch my worldline until right there and sew myself back into the story to do something, anything. Because there was no spy from Aberdeen. There was an ordinary man from Aberdeen who attempted to return a fifty-eight-year-overdue library book so moldy it disintegrated into dust when he slammed it onto the library counter. To her, this was a clue, as was the new island, and the exploding whales with hidden messages scrawled on their organs, then the crater on Mars wearing a woman’s face, then full blown paranoid delusions.
On day three I pointed at the edge of an intricate pentagram peeking above her shock of oily black hair. She had one hand propping up her neck and the other furiously scrawling in what must have been her fifth notebook, and they reconfigured into claws, snatching it all away at my question, her eyes feral. I discreetly asked her doctor if he could bring her in for a mental exam, but no, it would be a violation of her rights to not let this farce run to the bitter end.
Yesterday I finally decided I would slip anti-psychotics in her tea, but she was one step ahead, as usual. She told me she was going away. Permanently. The plan was a finished gilded manuscript in her mind, her itinerary planned down to every twist of her bad foot. She was so proud, so solemn, as she gripped my hand and nodded her head a little.
“Thank you for your hospitality.”
Words froze in my throat and shattered, morning frost helpless against her long nails in my palm. Is hospitality how she would describe us? This?
Once upon a time things were simpler. I was her daughter and we were utterly unremarkable. But now she says I was abducted by the shadow international organization—yes, that one—one child of many, and she had to take me in to prove her loyalty. And something about an unpaid debt that she must now repay.
“Why do we have the same face, then?” I asked. The elfish ears and flat nose, incontrovertible facts, a bedrock in my childhood foundation of sanity. We look so alike that strangers grab us in the streets to tell us as much. They ask in jest if a man was even involved.
She waved her hand at such foolishness. It did not deserve a rebuttal. Was it pure randomness and chance in her mind, or my own desperation—perhaps we do not look more alike than any two strangers and those remarks were all planted by shadowy organization number two? Or perhaps a sorting ritual. Imagine a sea of young contestants in a crowd chosen by some faceless red evil on a stage. Arrange yourselves by face shape. The round ones fall through the floor. Then the ones with the pointy noses. Repeat until I remain.
No, she probably believes they went one step further: engineered a child who looked like her so she would be kept due to a genetic compulsion of pity. But they didn’t program me to resemble her in any other way, and that is why I am so disappointing.
In the time it took for me to think through these scenarios she gathered the last piece of her adventure garb from the hooks, waddled to the door, and shut it behind her.
I have to record what I know is true, because even the definition of truth is presently precarious.
I am Ellery Lang, twenty-seven years of age. My mother is Valerie Lang and my father is a lucky sperm in a vial of millions, or so she told me. Merely two weeks ago in uneventful April, I finished school and moved back in with my mother, who appeared to have enough money to spend most of her days in a sunhat fussing over her flowers until the madness took root.
It’s been eight hours since she disappeared in body by thoroughly invading me in mind. I’ve never spent so long thinking about a person as I would a math problem, turning her over and over in my brain and looking for invisible hinges that can be pushed and pulled to reveal some piece of her core. My conclusions are startling.
I don’t know her at all, despite spending all of my pre-adulthood with her. I know she worked for the government for many years, and that presumably she was borne of humans, but even that is an assumption. I also know that other people generally know more about their parents, both the superficial and below the epidermis, but it’s taken an embarrassingly long time for me to realize this. Children accept anything in equanimity, and my friends and I were too busy hacking and slashing the beasts that lurked in the jungle gym to talk about our parents.
I wasn’t born uncurious. I remember attempting to learn about things any child would be naturally curious about—grandparents or the lack thereof, sex, and all the rest. But in all things she was either coldly rational or utterly inexplicable, staring at my flapping mouth as if where’s grandma was a jumble of nonsense phonemes. Besides a clinical description of all possible permutations of intercourse between all varieties of people to a far-too-young mind, she revealed absolutely nothing else. I soon stopped asking.
Was I an unwitting youth participant of her elaborate conspiracy theories? How can I not remember so much, and not even remember that I don’t remember? Unburied memories are washing up ashore now, piece by piece. Like the sink stacked high with petri dishes of mold for months and months. She’d show the pots to me, call the green and glittery white fuzzballs our special friends, and we’d giggle together. Then the pots would disappear, scrubbed from existence, replaced by completely new ones. Rinse and repeat.
Or how about that time she took my favorite things—my stuffed lamb, my books, my markers—and threw them one by one into the trash as I watched, too confused to ask why?
It’s the house, I think. The blank walls let me reconstruct past scenes without distractions, like an old projector finding endless yards of footage hidden inside itself all along.
“You want to file a missing persons report?”
“Please. Valerie L-A-N-G pronounced like lung, age fifty-seven. Traveling alone.”
“Hair and eyes?”
“Black and black.”
“Any prominent physical traits?”
“Bad foot, right.”
“All of them, real and fake ones, too. I don’t know what she might speak. She’s…she’s not well.”
“Can you elaborate?”
“She’s under delusions. Of some sort.”
“When did you last see her?”
“Yesterday. Some time before noon.”
“Can you send us pictures and videos? Personal shopper IDs?”
“I don’t have any.”
“You don’t have any?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“We’ll send a team.”
I am four years old, and I ask my mother where I came from.
“Sprung fully formed, from my head.”
On the nature versus nurture issue I come down heavily in favor for the former, and I have enough mental material for any impromptu debate that may occur. Parents of siblings know how different they are, even when raised in the same environment. And what about the studies that show parenting style doesn’t really make much of a difference to how successful the child is in life? The outline of our life stories already come with our genes.
I should cut my tubes. Two paths going nowhere, just dangling inside. Even if I’m not her biological daughter, enough of her madness has crammed inside me, sloshing around constantly, if not in my base pairs then in the methylation of my DNA, in the light and sound of her false stories notched in my every fiber.
Here, now, in the empty and far-too-large dining room, all my films spent, I’m unraveling at the nothingness of it all. There is not a thing in here with a personal detail, no moving portraits, no assistants. We do not take photos of any dimension, moving or still. We do not hug or exchange banal sentiments or celebrate birthdays or holidays, let alone with singing wallpaper. Is this even her house?
But it is. The police come and they, too, are impressed with the spartan innards. I show them how I would sit in the second chair of eight on the dining room table while she sat at the end, always scrawling, and at the end of the day we’d retire to our separate blank rooms. The roses are drooping now, having declined rapidly after their caretaker’s leave. They find plenty of clues under the red-shot-white petals: oily prints, hairs. So many black hairs, hers and mine, loosely overlapping on the floor.
“What did you eat?”
“I’d order drone delivery and she would eat whatever I got for her. She doesn’t really care about food. Or grooming.”
“And she…wrote all day?”
“Yes, and prior to that she gardened all day. She took the notebooks with her, but they wouldn’t really help you, I don’t think.”
Their faces are well-trained, but I feel the quirk of their internal eyebrows as they comb through every meaningless inch.
The station is as different a setting as there can be. The smart table tells me to WAIT, in big glowing letters as if I don’t already know. A panoply of light field projections in neon yellow and blue, scrolling live updates of every stranger’s personal triumph and tragedy. Faces of heroes and villains and even more victims lining walls like death masks. They used to have numbers here, so I heard once. Ticks for the number of people found and lives saved, no ticks for failures or unjust deaths, but they found that people don’t respond to numbers, they respond to faces. We have a whole area in our brain for facial recognition, after all. Not that I’m any good at it. Thankfully sketch artists are not in employ now, because I would be of no use.
“How would you describe the shape of her eyes?”
“Wild and calculating?”
An officer swings by my table in a wide parabolic arc, slapping a device against his thigh in possible…pity? Not for the first time I wish I could read people like sales pamphlets—a coupon for every gesture.
“So, you knew she left yesterday in a confused state of mind, but you waited until today to file the report.”
I flex my hands helplessly. “I wasn’t sure. I thought she might come back after getting a tea. Then I would have looked quite stupid.” Not exactly the truth, but close enough. When she closed that door, an infinite necklace of possibilities scattered everywhere, like the lone piece of jewelry I found in the house once, a flail of pearls trailing off to a bouquet of loose strings in an otherwise empty chest of drawers. I wanted to believe that the strings where she came looping back through the door still existed. Filing a report would be tantamount to giving up hope. Bad enough that I let it all get out of control, let the wound fester, let it sprout little poisonous feet and walk away. It was all my fault, and I was too cowardly to admit it.
I wonder if he thinks I killed her. They know she’s not in pieces, buried in the backyard beneath her roses, at least. I may be unwise, but that’s not usually a crime.
“Which of these look most like her?“ He waves his hand and a buffet of heads constructed from the found genetic samples spreads across the table. Thousands of years of human knowledge—evolutionary biology, epigenetics, computer science, optics—distilled into a hundred faces that could be my mother. They look quite good, in fact. Some older and some thinner, but all probable. I point at one before I lose my nerve.
He plucks the face with his hand and it swoops outward, nauseatingly large. From his belt emerges a box that begins to whirr as he holds it over her blurry nose, then, “There’s a good match on surveillance near Lake and Hill.”
The dancing light coalesces into three seconds of a woman, side view, slightly limping with coat agape.
“That’s her,” I breathe out unsteadily, resisting the urge to reach out and grasp the phantom.
“Yesterday, noon,” he cuts off any hope of an easy case. “Nothing since then.”
“Don’t you have a camera on every street corner?”
“If you’re smart enough, you can evade them. Without a person of interest tracker it’s much harder for us.”
Still my fault, then.
“The other thing is…” He grinds something crunchy into his heels. “I don’t have anyone of this name and description in the records.”
I’m not surprised. “She never told me what she did. Some kind of government work. Maybe top secret.”
Here I feel the first pang of something-wrong. Which government did she work for, exactly? I don’t even know that. What if there is a spy from Aberdeen and I’m compromising her cover? No, there’s no way.
“Can you tell me more?”
My head hurts whenever I wonder if her story is true, and that is how I know my brain is trying to dissuade me from falling into the same pit she did. Do I tell them her theories?
“I’m not sure.”
The officer stares at me, hard, trying to decide if I’m already in said pit. I stare back, guileless. You can’t possibly give anything away if you don’t know anything to start with. They offered memory enhancement at the department check-in counter next to the free digi-pamphlets on watchers, but I’d rather not relive the musty ghosts.
He breaks first with half a headshake. “Well, the good news is we broadcast her DNA and appearance to the network as a person of interest. If she uses any personalized systems”—toilets, ads, digibooths—“we’ll get her signal.”
I’m not sure she would be foolish enough to get a Perfectly Personal Pan Pizza, but I smile and ingratiate as appropriate.
At Lake and Hill there is only one camera, and it does not move unless it picks up a person of interest. I walk to the same spot where my mother was last seen, turn my head the same way, and scan the line of stores for patterns. There’s MEAT!, with a row of impersonal ducks garnishing the window, the FLOWER SALON, an utter dark room, probably for something seedy, and THE GENE EMPORIUM, taking up the rest of my view, just as it had for my mother. None of it rings a bell, or makes much sense, for that matter. If she is leaving a clue for someone, it is well beyond me.
“Like what you see?”
I turn to see a digiwoman wink at me in the window of BAKE TIME because she thinks the back of my head has been blindly staring at her. If you complain to the company they’ll tell you it’s a broken eye sensor, but no one is fooled; they like to keep pushing against the envelope on what’s allowed—legally and morally—until we all get used to it.
“Not particularly, thanks.”
“You look familiar,” she tilts her head in a way likely meant to be suggestive, swirling her tongue on her lips.
Ellery Lang is unsaid, but it might as well be. They know me better than I know myself. The light in her hair blinks on when the camera starts to record because someone who makes the rules decided that was enough. If you don’t like it, just leave a quick video of your fleeing, frowning face on the records.
I leave the digiwoman without another word said and wander home blindly, taking the steps I wish she had. As I slip my shoes off at the door I notice a hole in the blank sky that wasn’t there before, and it takes me far too long to realize that she has an attic. Another place I’ve never been. I pull the cord and the ladder falls out like an emergency escape, leading the way to a sacred mausoleum of dust.
I can’t help but sneeze, probably the first sound to happen here in years. There’s nothing in this triangular space but boxes and sub-boxes of index cards, each layer perfectly fitting into the previous like a matryoshka doll. I pick one at random and turn it upside down. The reams come out all together, like bad pound cake.
Is the answer in here somewhere? Every card is filled with spidery scrawling from top to bottom, dense and bitter and nutritionless. I seem to have found the population census data of Warsaw, 1975. I nearly give up, but then I see a tiny, scalloped thumbnail stuck to the bottom of the cardstock pan, burnt sepia.
A girl in a white dress: Agatha, 2.75.
That’s me. It feels momentous, somehow, but perhaps I’m only going mad.
The more I fumble around in the attic, the more hopeless it seems. It’s like looking under a microscope. They always made me feel uneasy. Things only get more confusing as you zoom in, lost in a foreign city, new parts and structures emerging. I’d have to know her at all levels of magnification, the neuroses and neurons, then hold her whole in my mind to even have a chance of fully understanding how none of it makes sense. Some say that we’re too smart to understand how we work, and that is probably true.
What did I even hope to find here? A treasure map? I’d go to the X, and there she would be? The fragile threads of our human systems, both the wired and wireless, are too weak that I cannot clap my hands, say find me my mother, and have her airdropped in the backyard. Just this once, I would like those fear-mongering dystopian editorials to come true.
When acquaintances ask I say she is ill, and has gone away to recover. Which is technically true, if we consider ill to be outside of the norm in a socially unacceptable way. Perhaps she had been taken by an invisible invasion, her brain replaced plank-by-plank à la Theseus, until she became a whole new creature, the transmogrification complete. And maybe it would not hurt so much, if she were not herself. The alternative, of course, is too frightening to contemplate extensively: that the invasion replaced everything but her brain. She pulls the strings for her arms to hug but kicks me in the face instead. Either way there is nothing to be done.
“I wish I knew when it happened,” I confide to Thom over a teacup too bitter with regret. Little light gremlins wave on his table in an attempt to cheer, but they only work on those under the age of two.
“They really can’t find her?” He looks down as I shake my head. “Even my pants are personalized.” I’ve seen those dancing disembodied fabric tube ads. The waistband changes every day to constrict you during moments of weakness, whisper encouragement when you take the stairs, and scream when you reach for the soda. The fancier ones have an assistant in the buckle. A whole, artificial person, made to regulate your waistline via the unreliable feedback loop that is your psyche. Mother, on the other hand, doesn’t even have a personal account.
“She said that the shadow of the pole star would take her to the treasure forest. Among other things. So she could be anywhere, really.”
“Didn’t she do codes? For a living?”
“Not you, too. Does every codebreaker wander off into the woods?”
“Perhaps she was consumed by it. A bit-flip error in her programming, causing positive feedback on her paranoia circuit. Or an ancient magical curse,” he raises one eyebrow.
“What do you know about curses?”
“Only that my grandfather ignored a stranger’s plea for attention and had nothing but misfortune after.”
“So he’s the beast? Your grandmother must be quite the beauty, then.” He rolls his eyes so hard I can hear his sclera scouring his eye backs.
What can I say, fairy tales are on my mind. Mostly the eternal punishments, the psychosomatic dancing and casual disfigurement and boiling in oil. I’m not afraid. I regret not putting my foot in the door when she slammed it. Maybe she’d have given me a twin to her own webbed paw, and then we’d have waddled slowly together to the end of the world.
“Don’t let me get like her.” What are friends for, if not to tell you you’re being utterly unreasonable?
“I won’t. But don’t worry so much. They’ll find her. We’re being watched all the fucking time, precisely because of this scenario. Maybe you should think about other things for a while and let the police do their job. Speaking of which, do you have a job yet?”
I laugh a little. A job is the last thing on my mind. I can’t even visualize a successful scenario:
“Tell me a little about yourself.”
“I can’t find my mother, so I’m trying to find a job.”
“What would you say is your biggest weakness?”
“Ask my mother. She’ll fill you in. Or not, she’s not in a talking mood.”
“If you had unlimited time and resources, what would you do?”
“I’d order a personal drone to fly me out of here, swoop through the crowd to find my mother, then figure out why she is the way she is.”
In my dreams I invent more impossible solutions.
Night one, a massive radio tower that broadcasts a thought pattern worldwide, in the water and on the breeze: GO HOME. GO HOME. The dementia patients walk around in eternal random loops. The birds migrate the wrong way and freeze to death. But my mother shows up at her doorstep. Mission accomplished?
Night two, the physical constants change so that everything becomes transparent to visible light except for the collection of atoms that form my mother. The buildings turn to glass. The earth reveals the stars hiding in its shadow. Alone in the darkness is my mother in her red coat, walking aimlessly. Then, even her atoms dissolve into a trillion invisible pieces in front of me. I swipe my hand and watch her stream through like mutant fireflies.
Tonight, she shows up at the foot of my bed, the seeker and not the sought, simply observing. I try to speak but I’m a block of solid lead. “Hopeless,” she says. Exeunt.
I still can’t be sure that wasn’t real. My tear traces certainly are.
Some time in the morning I’m awoken again, this time by a real sound from my real personal device. I’m so tired I don’t even flip the everpresent coin in my head to see if it lands on dead or alive.
“We found a trace. Aberdeen, Ohio.”
I speak through my shocked palm. “Is she all right?”
“She’s on foot and our trace is hot. We can’t take her in as-is.”
“I know. I’ll go to her.”
Aberdeen isn’t much. More trees than stores, which is a rare sight. Barely two thousand people. If she walked through here, I can believe none of the sensors bothered to go off, if there even are any. They’re following her every which way now, the silent drones fluttering above her head. The paramedics are hiding, ready to act. I just need to prove she’s not of sound mind and they’ll swoop in and get her.
This is the trouble with the weird cusp we’re at. A few years ago I could have called the police or psych to take her in. They would have given her one look and strapped her onto a stretcher. But the people who make the laws decided that since we are all being watched now, everyone should roam free of their own will until their psychosis hurts someone besides themselves. It is a most bizarre and senseless combination. Not that there is a perfect combination, of course—I know that. We’re all just trying to do our best, but we seem to always roll the ball of society into a pocket no one likes, where it inevitably gets stuck for a few decades too long. My mother and I, we are just unavoidable casualties in the race to good, whatever that constitutes.
My heart trips over its own rhythm when I see a ragged patch of red among the trees of the one long street. I blink rapidly, because my eyes have unfocused and won’t come back to the scene. I need to know. I don’t want to know. My legs move until they meet something that gives and I nearly fall. Just bushes. Just my mother’s coat, with my mother inside. “Mom.” She looks lost, in all senses of the word, so small in lacquered tatters I can smell from here. “Ellery.” Not a trace of surprise in her voice.
I want to be careful. Now is not the time for cruelty. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
She sways a little on her feet. “That’s none of your business.”
“Why did you let yourself be found, then?” They said she stared at an ad for a nouveau meat pie a bit too long and activated the personal tracking. Hardly the work of an expert spy. I’m a little disappointed, to be honest. In my mind I had built her up to be an infallible titanium idol, destroyer of dreams.
She does not answer.
“Why don’t you come home?”
“I’m not done yet.”
“What’s left to do? I can help you.”
She waves me off and I can feel my windpipe collapse into two dimensions. I am six years old again, home alone for weeks until my mother shows up in the kitchen, making stir-fry, as if she never left.
“What about Agatha?” I hold up my evidence, encased in clear, hard plastic.
“Your grandmother,” she coughs.
Oh. The last drop of air clinging to its stalactite drips out of me. She looks so much like me that I conjured a secret from nothing. There goes my collateral.
She starts to walk away, but sways more than usual.
Keep talking, the paramedics whisper in my ear.
“You don’t look good.”
“I’ve been poisoned,” she says without turning, grim as the reaper.
“How about the hospital? Let’s both get checked up.”
She doesn’t even pretend to acknowledge that. Is my mouth still working? But why would an artillery shell deign to respond to dangled breadcrumbs, anyways? I am eight years old, and she cuts every strand of my hair to the length of her middle finger for no reason at all.
Something caresses my head and I nearly shriek. My fingers fish out an oblong shape in my wind-wild hair. A leaf. Just a leaf. Varicose veins, dry and broken.
“Look at us,” I laugh helplessly. “We’re trapped in the forest now. It’s what you’ve always wanted, isn’t it? I’ve been jumping at shadows ever since you left. Oh, I’m sorry, I forget that you don’t care for me at all.”
She turns back, eyes glaze over like her favorite donut from the cash-only corner store.
“Who are you?”
Loss of cogency is enough. I press the hidden button they stuck on my wrist and two paramedics come out of nowhere to punch something into her arm. She slumps onto the full-sized stretcher that unfolds from thin air.
“You’d better come, too.” One of them waves me into the tiny box and we take off. I pat myself down over and over—money? phone? money?—until I realize that what I lost back there was nothing tangible.
“Fungal meningitis. Pretty advanced. We’ve got her on antifungals now.” The doctor peers into my eyes. “Maybe you should take some too.”
I swallow the pills but decline the needle in my spine.
They tell me it was from her garden. Finally in retirement, she was bored enough to dig up her bed, and therein was the mistake—poisonous spores lying in wait for years, suddenly activated by her spade, flying into her nose. An extremely rare strain, breaching her healthy immune system like a water jet through paper. They’re going to set up personal sensors that will prevent this from happening again. All will be well.
She’s unconscious in her room, a multitude of tubes sticking out.
“No wonder you were rubbing your neck all the time.” I spent all of five minutes researching the symptoms, and it made complete sense. The outer membranes of her brain—the dura mater, arachnoid mater, and pia mater—had become inflamed with the infection, causing cascades of neuron misfires, headaches and hallucinations. The brain itself does not sense pain, ironic for the central nexus and archive of our feelings. If our creator ever releases the next update I would very much like this to be fixed, but perhaps it never evolved because it would be pointless. There are other ways to tell, and it is in all likeliness too late if your brain hurts—at least it would have been, without wheels and needles and the modern world.
A normal person would have gone to the doctor. Or at least complain about their head. My mother? She makes up a whole backstory and goes on a quest. I pat her hand. She wouldn’t be herself otherwise.
“Well, at least now we know how disease manifests in you, huh?” I say to the room, again. She sleeps on. I want to laugh and cry at the same time, and the tears win. They have no idea how she managed to get so far on an unsound mind and foot. We’ll probably be an endnote in some new report advocating for more surveillance, and that will be my greatest contribution to the world.
They found her identity, too. No interesting cause, just a case of fucked up electronic records that caused her to disappear from the system after the switchover ten years ago.
“What’s this?” I ask the officer who dumps a cube in my lap.
“She authorized handing over her whole history to her medical proxy in case of incapacitation.”
She must have known it was me, with her parents dead and no spouse. The question, I suppose, is why she would allow every document, every drone footage timestamped, every personalized choice in front of the dancing windows to tumble into my hands instead of an industrial grinder.
I wrestle with the decision for all of two seconds before I press the button in its hollow. Who is she, really?
Documents of light fan out in front of me. Her name is Valerie Lang. Her parents are Agatha and Wenjie Lang. There’s not much of her early life in here, before the eyes went up everywhere. Math competitions. Graduation ceremonies. A job offer letter to be a code designer for the American government. Travel documents to everywhere in the world—Eastern Europe, up and down the Gulf of Guinea, St. Kitts and Nevis. Unknown reasons, possibly classified.
A clip of writing:
Today I walked into the ocean clasping my belly. Ellery, the mystery solver. This was her baptism, waves lapping up to my chest. Were I Thetis and the Pacific Styx, I would have fixed the error of Achilles, for she was fully submerged in two water shells of immortality, in mine and again the amniotic fluid of the earth mother.
I hereby vow to not make the same mistakes as my parents, beginning by doing it alone. Ellery is her own person. She is my equal, and I will treat her as such as soon as she is ready for the mantle.
Her lone diary entry, jotted on some non-privacy-compliant application. Even the most careful person slips up in the personal world. That’s why she prefers her pen and paper, maybe one of the last people on Earth to do so. Or maybe she kept this, knowing I would see it at an opportune moment. I don’t know. I’m tired of games.
The next entry is a hospital video. She pushes on the bed for many hours and I crown in bloody glory. So, she is capable of crying.
My birth certificate. The father line is blank.
The first secret footage: she looks at something with brows knitted shut. The caption says it is the ad ‘PEPPERONI_01’. Her foot is already bad then. These become more frequent, usually starting with tiny me staring at the ad, then her quickly yanking me out of view.
By this time most families would have begun personalizing their homes, but not her, of course—with one exception. She looks at a particular window for a very long time, then bank records indicate that she buys the first generation watcher service. It surrounds your house with a fleet of winged monitors without ever setting foot inside, using laser imaging through the walls and high gain microphones pressed against the leakiest seams of the house. Contacts the police if anything goes wrong. Gathers and disperses at your beck and call, as private as you’d like.
The watcher footage is in here too, because children under ten are filed with their parents. From the timestamps of movement, she leaves three-year-old me alone for half a day at first, then for longer and longer. I see a shadow of myself at six during those two weeks, very carefully moving the chair to the fridge to reach the ice cream in the freezer. I hate it, but I can almost understand. Because Ellery is not a wild child. She listens and stays put like a good dog and reads books quietly and talks to herself and Lambie while coloring the walls of the house she likes so much.
If I were more troublesome, would she have stayed? I don’t want to know. The good things I remember—singing and dancing, playing hide and seek, working quietly at our respective challenging mathematics—aren’t in the footage because she turned the watcher off. Neither are the bad things, like when she walks in the door with a large stuffed chameleon the day after she throws away Lambie, no explanation. I had no specific feelings for chameleons.
Now I’m at a window again, staring at ‘HAIR_RAINBOW01’ with my hair newly shorn. Young me starts crying silently. I don’t remember this part at all. She pulls me out of view.
Old me can’t watch any more. What did I expect? A reason for me to forgive her? Is that it? Now I know why she let me see this. Because it’s useless.
My hands shake and the cube misinterprets it as go to the end. The years of life fly apart and it’s way too fast. Seventeen years pass in a second, and after I get old enough most of the footage is of her, alone again, a constant shuffling presence amidst a sea of changing adverts, never looking up.
It abruptly brakes at the last footage and I swallow against the sudden nausea. Through my blurry view she totters over to the ‘MEATPIE_4D’ advert, and something about it upsets her because she begins to scream, her eyes empty and terrified. That’s how they got her. I quickly swipe back with my hand because it’s too awful, and then there I was, my story told through the pupils watching everyone at the graduation ceremony: she tells me how proud she is and pulls me in close.
“What are you doing next?” she says.
“I’m not sure.”
“Why don’t you stay with me until you figure it out? The house is lonely, just me and my plants.”
I say yes.
“How do you feel?”
“I want to go home.”
“I know, Ma. We will.”
“How are the flowers?”
“Well…there’s a funny story there. They dug them up.”
“You’re kidding. I spent all spring on them. What for?”
“I’ll tell you later. And we’ll get new flowers. Maybe from the Flower Salon.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“You’re acting ever-so-funny. Or is it the drugs?”
“Oh, you’re the comedian, Ma.”
I decide to count to five in my head before I blow up the cordial silence we’re in. One. She’s tweaking her IV lines and humming to herself, and I nearly lose my nerve. Two. Three. I take a last deep breath. Four.
“Pesky things, aren’t these?” Five.
“Why did you throw away Lambie?”
“You know, my stuffed lamb. When I was six or so.”
“Huh.” She raises one eyebrow as if I just told her a fun fact about the weather. Did you know that algebraic topology dictates that there must always be a storm somewhere on Earth? “I don’t remember that at all.”
She pats my hand. “I’m sorry if you’re hurt by it. I assume I had a good reason. Maybe it got dirty. Maybe it was secretly personal. Did I get you a replacement?”
“Yes, but that’s not the point.” I’ve thought about this moment a lot over the last two weeks. This is not how I thought it would go.
“I’m sorry.” She looks and sounds genuinely contrite. “What other terrible things have I done that I don’t remember?”
“You left me alone.” My voice breaks a little and I fix my gaze on the fake daisies by her bedside. They’re projecting light messages of encouragement and her blood pressure, 128 over 87.
“That I do remember. Again, I’m sorry. Emergency trips. No place for a child, even one as well-behaved as you.”
“But you could have gotten a nanny, or—”
“A woman walked up to me at the coffee store. Very friendly. Too friendly. Something was off with her. She wanted to swap stories of our children.”
I blow out a long breath of incredulity so I can reply with some calmness. “You think the nannies were evil plants.”
“Maybe I was too paranoid. But the watcher did a better job than a nanny would have, even one without ulterior motives. You were such a good child, such a blessing. So self-contained, reliable…” She grabs my hand before I can fully recoil. “You never asked. I thought we had an understanding. ”
I mumble something and dash out.
The hospital cafeteria has more light people than flesh people. Besides the ubiquitous meat pies dancing at every table are the blue transparent ghoul, showing you what you can become if you take advantage of their array of services for the mind and body and heart. Muscle exerciser. Muscle relaxer. Memory strengthening. Memory weakening. Memory distancing.
It’s the last one I keep looking at. A generic human clutching their head in generic pain flops into a tunnel where the scarily accurate magnetic field peppers his brain with tracer rounds. They come out smiling.
I can almost understand why someone would do this, scrub their memories of emotions. I’d loosen the strings in my head that play those early mournful chords. I would still remember things, but logically, from afar. A quiet bystander to my own story. I bet she’d like that.
The usual counterarguments apply, of course. Who am I, if not a loose collection of half-remembered half-truths? Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. What about those who don’t weep at the past?
Thom would disapprove, as would my other friends. They don’t know what it’s like. To have something slip under your skin and moor in you so entirely that you don’t know where you start and end. The choice is mine alone, and if I were to do it I would also tell the technicians to make me care less about what others think. The whole package—why not? I’m so tired of feeling this way, dangling at the precipice of unwanted emotions, the smallest breeze setting me off on a chaotic orbit. And my mother and I, we can start over from square one as equals, if that means anything.
“How is she? I saw the hospital alert.” Speaking of the devil, Thom comes through my ear, tinny but clear. He’s been trying to contact me nonstop since I’ve been on the chase, but how do I even begin to respond?
“You’re letting her walk all over you,” he guesses from the quality of my silence. A good friend indeed.
“Am I?” I am, but I don’t want to hear it from an outsider. Not from him. Our song and dance over hot coals is for the two of us alone.
“Everyone thinks they’re the exception. But they’re not and you’re not. Get out of there and get some help.”
It’s so absurd I could laugh. How can you untangle an impossible knot by ripping out all the strings attaching it to me? The knot will still be there. And that is why I can’t just change my memory, because it still happened—even if no one else, human or cube, knows the truth.
I am eleven years old, and we’re sitting at the summit after a good day’s hike, bathed in glorious red light atop a green canyon.
“Look at this sunset. Do you see the gray clouds dappled over the background? See the little faces in them, fish and sheep?”
I see different faces, a man in a half-moon and ducks on trains, but I know by then our eyes aren’t quite the same so I nod anyway.
She holds out her hand and I put my smuggled image stick in her hand. I know why she doesn’t need devices—she already sees straight through me. She takes a picture.
“That’s not what the photos see.” She shakes it and a bauble of light shines from the end. “Does that look the same to you? Feel the same?”
I shake my head. The colors are a pale imitation, almost insulting. The faces are absent.
“What we see can never be captured. It’s better to not have anything than to have something wrong.”
She snaps the stick in half.
“Make up your own mind. Don’t let anything or anyone think for you. Or remember for you.”
“She’s fine now. We’ll discharge her tomorrow.”
“What if…what if it happens again?”
The doctor peers at me with some kind of strange sorrow.
“We’ll keep a patch on her and watch the whole house. And we’re actively monitoring the fungal strain throughout the city.”
That answers my questions, except it doesn’t. I thought it all ended days ago, when I delivered her into the arms of healing. Why is it not over?
I force my legs to walk into her room. She is sitting upright now, all tubes gone, smiling at me with a weird hesitance.
“You can leave, you know.”
“Who’s going to make sure you stay out of trouble?”
She waves her hands. “They’ll be monitoring my every activity at home. All my shits, even.”
Oh, she’ll hate that, the compulsory fake daisies and cheerful songs.
“Do you want me to go?”
She sighs. “I want you to be happy.”
I never thought a greeting card sentiment would pop out of her mouth, but I suppose almost dying can change your perspective on a lot of things.
“You think I would be happier if we go our separate ways?”
“If that’s what you want.”
This biteless, barkless version of her is even worse. The night bogey settles down on my chest again, pressing the words out of me. “No. I can’t go now because we’re all tangled up. You can’t just make me lose my mind over you then tell me to go, as if that would fix anything.”
She nods with a real smile, as if she’s been waiting for me to figure this out. “I knew you’d say that.”
“Did you really?”
She takes a sip of the hospital juice and pats the space next to her on the bed. “Yes. Why don’t you ask all your questions, then? Start from the beginning and I’ll tell you everything I know. I owe you that much.”
Slowly, I close my gaping mouth, full of slippery questions. Where to begin? I want to ask her why this change of mind, why be inscrutable your whole life to suddenly lift up the mask now. Is there just another mask underneath?
I roll the cube around in my fingers. It’s a puzzle missing a piece of itself, a recessed corner in which the activation button sits. From different angles it could be whole or broken, like those 3D ambigrams my mother loves so much.
I slip my finger in the cavity. Her birth certificate glows to life between us.
“What were your parents like?”
“Mean, buzzy, always hovering.”
“Did they ever hit you?”
“Oh, plenty of times.”
“Did they ever meet me?”
“Did they want to?”
“Of course. I refused.”
“How did they die?”
“How many relationships did you have?”
“None. I’m not interested.”
“But you wanted a child.”
“To undo your parent’s mistakes? To mold me into something you want?”
She flinches a little and doesn’t reply for a while. I hold my breath.
“…You’re right. On both parts.”
“Wait. Look what I got from the gift store.”
“Your own journal. Goodness, is that a personal pen?”
“Yes. It’ll help me practice handwriting before I forget. Now, back to your parents.”
“All right.” She drains the juice.
Nothing is ever perfect, and thus nothing is ever irrevocably broken by the same argument. I jot down THERAPY WITH MY MOTHER: MEMORY RECONCILIATION in big sloppy letters and the pen’s already jumping in dismay.
It’s a start.
By Tiny Connolly
About this story, Hal Y. Zhang says: “In many ways my childhood can be considered unusual, partly due to the Chinese-American immigrant experience and partly due to idiosyncrasies of my parents. There are things I remember vividly from my past that my parents don’t remember at all, and the two most reasonable explanations—either my brain made the memories up, or that parents can leave indelible marks on their children without registering them—both frightened me enough to write this.”
And about this story I say: I loved the liminality of this story, the improbable slipping between elusive fact and slippery truth. Our narrator, Ellery – even her name has nods to a mystery – is trying to figure out her mother, pin her down. Meanwhile we too are trying to figure out the same. Even though we get to see in Ellery’s head, the facts still have an elusive, shifting landscape to them. The opening of the story has plenty of striking images in quick succession that we (or at any rate I) tried to pin down, to solve the mystery of the sort of the world we’re in. Lines like: “My seeing-stone of a computer.” “Non-personal coffee.” “Fresh bleeding roses.” And all this, our protagonist tells us, has nothing to do with the plot. Ellery’s quest to understand her mom’s situation is then mirrored by our quest to understand Ellery’s.
Once we do have a handle on the tech of the world we live in, it too has interesting chewy layers and built-in mysteries. The files the police have that they can use to solve things are moments that people have stared too long at an ad, perhaps. And then we see these, and try to backfill information out of them. The truly big life questions, the relationship questions (why did mother throw Lambie away, for example) cannot be answered. Other ones are unsatisfactory. I left you home alone because a woman was too friendly. I thought we had an unspoken understanding. The digging into these unknowable fractures between parent and child reminded me of Ted Chiang’s novelette “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.” Relationships are built around flawed memories, and truth can only get you so far in mending them.
Escape Pod is a production of Escape Artists Inc, and is brought to you with a creative commons attribution non commercial no derivatives license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Please, go forth and share it.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from Iris Murdoch in The Sea, The Sea (which I have not read, but now from this quote I am interested to.) “Even if readers claim that they ‘take it all with a grain of salt’, they do not really. They yearn to believe, and they believe, because believing is easier than disbelieving, and because anything which is written down is likely to be ‘true in a way’.”
Thanks for listening! And have fun.
About the Author
Hal Y. Zhang is a lapsed physicist who splits her time between the east coast of the United States and the Internet, where she writes at halyzhang.com. Her speculative fiction and poetry is in Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Fireside, and Future Tense. Her women-with-sharp-things collection Goddess Bandit of the Thousand Arms was published by Aqueduct Press.
About the Narrator
S. Kay Nash is a writer, editor, and occasional narrator. Raised by a cabal of university professors, anthropologists, and irritated librarians, she holds two degrees as magical wards to protect her from being hauled back into the ivory tower. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies including Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas writers, volume 2.
She lives in Texas with a Mad Scientist and a peaceful contingent of cats and dogs. You can find her on Twitter @Gnashchick.