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"Alone" - A Science Fiction Short Story
a short story:
Science Fiction or Soon-to-be Fact?
Their accomplishments were many, but Zach was their finest. Already David and Diana knew he was a bright child, content and bubbly as well. They had turned Diana's study into a nursery and Diana packed away her framed degrees as casually as one might pack away boxes of winter clothes. David had never known Diana to be quite this satisfied, and her fulfillment spilled over to him and was reflected in his music. The house was filled, as always, with strains of Bach and Berghofer, Mozart and Korzinowski, but there was now a new dimension to David's work.
Diana was what one might conservatively call a thorough mother. She had carefully chosen books and toys and software programs for each stage of Zach's development all were categorized with printed labels on the newly built shelves and cupboards of their 5th Avenue penthouse. Every few days when Diana's mother came to visit Zach, she would marvel at Diana's organization.
"My goodness, Love, I can't believe all this!" she'd often say with admiration, "so organized... I could never..."
Diana would put her arm around this woman who she cherished so well. "That's because your brilliant mind is a bit scattered all over the place, Mom," Diana would say. .
After her mother would leave, Diana would put Zach down for a nap do a vocal log-in as she passed the computer screen in the hallway. "Check mail," she'd pronounce clearly into the air and walk to the kitchen to listen as the mail was read to her. As she cleared away the lunch dishes, she'd command the computer to, "Switch to Beanstalk 8.0 speak loudly enough into the kitchen microphones to record some new accomplishment or anecdotes of Zach's into the program.
"Cute name, "Beanstalk," she had thought when they bought the software. The title suggested to David and Diana the magic involved in every child's growth. And Zach was magical to them. In two short years, his physical and intellectual traits seemed set and obvious. He was intense and passionate like David - logical and precise like Diana. Zach had David's sense of music, and Diana's curiosity for how things worked. He had David's liquid, almost black eyes and olive skin, Diana's curly hair and high, rounded check bones. If Diana were holding Zach on nibhgs when the German home food service brought the evening meal, the driver would comment how much Zach looked Diana. If David would be holding Zach when the Italian food service was delivered, the driver would say something like..."Ah...like-a father like-a son."
Zach was ahead of his age group on all the comparative developmental charts in Beanstalk. Diana and David tried to temper their pride with the humility that comes from being among those individuals who realize they are blessed and struck with awe at the complexity of the universe and role that either chance or fate or luck still played in scheme of things. Each week, Diana would scan new auditory and visual images of their child and then lovingly attach them to a file of screen savers that she would change on the various screens throughout the house. It was obvious to all who knew her that Diana approached motherhood with the same meticulous methodology as she had approached her biomedical engineering. She realized that the attention to detail was learned from her father and his father before him. She was not unduly proud that her grandfather had been among the original developers of the internal defibrillators in the late 80's and that her father had, in his short life time, expanded on that work. Together her grandfather and father contributed to "jump starting", as they would humbly call it, the vulnerable hearts of literally thousands of at-risk patients. Ever since she was little, they groomed Diana to follow in their footsteps. Both men immersed the little girl with science in ways a child would enjoy. They would shoot off toy rockets together; they built their own remote controlled radios for flying model airplanes and helicopters; they'd teach her the physics of sailing with small boats in the ponds in Central Park. Those were the times her father was in his manic state. When he was depressed, he was close to being catatonic and inconsolable. When Diana was 13, her father committed suicide.
"You get two chances at a happy family," Diane's mother would tell her after that, "once when you're a child and once when you have a child of own."
Diana was determined her second chance would not be tarnished. That's why the article she happened upon on the internet that Sunday morning at breakfast struck her as significant. She had always feared the time her father's depression might manifest itself in her, but she attempted to armor herself against the fear by reading. She read every new article that had been written on the psychological nightmare that keep nagging at her emotional happiness like a prolonged toothache. If she could just buy enough time, she reasoned, there would be a break-through. It was a bit surprising that the article that drew her attention as she and David read the news on the screen over Sunday morning coffee had not shown up on one of the several on-line professional magazines she subscribed to. It was in the Sunday World-Wide Times where title jumped out to her as it was read over her speakers:"Gene Therapy--New Hope for Manic Depression." Diana turned off the audio in order to get the more objective rendition that print provided. As she read on, she felt encouraged that after all the years of treating the disease haphazardly with lithium and the newer ele-melavil, the newer gene therapy was finally now accepted by the World Medical Association.
If the therapy was as successful as the article made it seem, it meant that neither she nor Zachary would ever had to face that fear again. Later in the day, while David and Zach went to Central Park, Diana searched the internet and found the original study that had taken place out of the Institut de Génétique Humaine in Montpellier, France. The statistics of the research looked solid and she was additionally pleased with the five-year follow-ups.
Diana’s first inclination, while David and Zach were still out, was to ring up her mother. It would be touchy to mention it to her, however. in spite of all the years that had passed since her father's death, her mother's grief at times was still raw, and Diana danced around it uncomfortably with satin toe shoes held fast with slippery ribbon that she hope would not come undone. While she was deciding whether or not to call, almost telepathically, the message interrupted her screen. "Ann Graff calling." There was no time to slip on dancing shoes, and she clicked on her mother's image without being prepared.
"Hi Honey, am I interrupting anything? You must be on-line. How's Zach?"
"He and David are at the park. Um, I was on-line, Mom. Guess what?" Diana's own excitement about the research over-rode her instinct to wait with the news. Once it was out there, Diana recognized it as one of those utterances that could have benefited from a backspace and delete button. It was too late now and she launched recklessly ahead and told her mother of study she had just been reading on the internet.
"Diana, that's ridiculous. Gene therapy! Have you lost your mind?
Diana was shocked at her mother's response. She might have expected confusion expressed in silence or reticence expressed with a subtle upward inflected "ohhh", but never a totally closed mind, not from her mother.
Diana tried to be kind. "Mom, I know it's hard for you to face, but I have to face it all the time...It could strike me anytime Mom. I mean dad's depression. We can't keep kidding ourselves. You know I have it. I know I have it. It's carried on the X gene for God's sake. I have to have it and, Mom, and there's a 50% chance that Zach will develop it too. I thought you were ready for that.
"No, you don't have to have it," responded Ann, almost mocking Diana’s sentence. It doesn't have to be that way. It's all scientific mumbo-jumbo...gene voo doo hocus pocus. Zach is a beautiful wonderful child. Nothing is wrong!" Ann was almost shouting now and Diana could on the screen that she was squinting her eyes and shaking her head with an almost Parkinson's- like jerkiness.
"What are you saying, Mom? You still can't accept that dad's depression was real? " Diana tried to override the her mother's seemingly irrational emotion with logic. She leaned closer to the camera. "Mom, we can fix it, You don't want me to have to go through what dad did. do you Mom....Mom???"
Diana saw her mother's face turn crimson on the screen before she hung up on her daughter. Her mother had never hung up on her before.
Diana didn't know whether to be hurt or angry. Although she decided not to discuss it until later when Zach was in bed, the conversation would be in her head, taking up time, buzzing in the background as David rattled on about how he and Zach ended up New York City's Children's Museum. Diana played the conversation with her mother over and over during any free mental moment until she thought she could understand it.
After Zach was tucked in that evening, Diana sat in the living room swishing the thick amaretto watching it coat the edges of her glass while she listen to David playing "Pathetique". He would never have noticed her tears except for the sniffling that caused him to turn to her.
"Poof, what's up,?" David walked over to the couch and sat down close to her, his arm reaching softly around her shoulder. Through the sniffling that held back the tears, Diana relayed the afternoon's conversation while David listened, concerned for Diana and equally puzzled by her mother's response.
"I don't care, David. I have to check this out. I'm going to see Uncle Mike... I am."
For as long as she could remember Dr. Evans was "Uncle Mike" to her. Her dad had met him in the lab upstate when Medtecnics was testing the newest tiny nickel-sized defibrillators. Dr. Evan's field was genetics, and he and her dad had collaborated on numerous studies. When each of their projects was done, they'd pack up and go off sailing on Mike's boat, up and down the Atlantic coast. Uncle Mike simply became part of the family. He had always been there for Diana, especially after her dad had passed away. Both she and David felt close to him.
"Well, Love, call Mike, first thing in the morning," David offered. "See what he has to say." Their love making that night was more sweet than sensual and Diana felt protected from the outside world.
When Diana called Uncle Mike the next morning, she was taken aback to learn that her mother had already told him of their conversation.
Dr. Evans answered the phone with, "Hi Honey, I was expecting you to call. Your Mom and I had dinner last night." He hurried on so she couldn't express her disappointment at her mother's breach of what she considered was a confidence. "Can you and David be at my office at 10:00 tomorrow morning. We've been putting this off way to long."
"Putting off what, Uncle Mike, I...I mean...there's no hurry. Why is this getting way blown out of proportion? I thought this article was fascinating, that's all. I wanted to get your perspective before we went ahead and..."
Mike stopped her. His voice was serious, "Honey, please, can you be here tomorrow...you and David...let David's mom take Zach..."
Diana had enough respect for Dr. Mike and enough alarm at his suggestion to respond without further question, leaving the worry she felt standing in the wings of her consciousness . "O.k. we'll be there, Mike, see you at 10:00.
Diana knew David could cancel rehearsal; the concert wasn't for several months, and the orchestra could use past tapes to simulate his presence.
Dr. Michael Evans...3rd Floor the sign read. David and Diana rode the elevator in silence. As Diana reached to add her coat along with David's to the clothes tree in the corner of the posh waiting room, she blinked twice as she noticed that a blue watch-plaid cape similar to her mother's was already there. Diana was even more puzzled as the receptionist led them down the hall and opened the door to the room marked "Consultation". There behind the semicircular table on the left side was her mother. |She was seated next to her Uncle Mike and someone she had never met was on his right.
Dr. Evans rose to greet Diana with a hug, "Hi, Honey." The seriousness in his voice was no less today than it had been on the phone yesterday. "David..." and he took David's hand with his right and gave David's right forearm a few pats.
Before he returned to his chair he introduced the person on the right, "Diana, David...This is Dr. Hollinger. Her field is psycho-genetic counseling and family therapy. She's teaches at Cornell and has a practice here in this building."
Before Diana sat down, she stammered, "I...I... just don't understand what this is all about." Her mother remained silent and was looking down.
"Diana, just sit down, we'll try to explain," said Mike as he started to return to his position behind the table.
"Diana, David...I apologize. I sincerely apologize. We should have had this discussion long ago. Anne and I were both remiss. I guess we deluded ourselves into thinking there may never be a need to have it. We were wrong.
Diana's body stiffened in fear as she continued to listen.
"You see, Honey," Dr. Evans leaned forward. Your father's depression, the depression you're so concerned with now, was never genetic.
Mike's voice was tentative enough that neither David nor Diana permitted themselves the sigh they wished to expel in relief.
"The cause of your father's depression, Diana, would better have been termed "situational". He appeared to be manic at the times he was able to sublimate the depression...the stark contrast made it seem manic.
"So Zach and Diana...they're not genetically disposed?" David asked.
"That's right," Mike responded his voice still inflected a bit upward on the last utterance, an inflection that made Diana know there was more.
David turned to Diana, "Hon, that's wonderful. This is great."
Diana looked straight ahead towards the table. Her mother's eyes were still lowered. "What else?" she asked. "If it wasn't genetic, what was it about, Mom? What aren't you telling me?"
It was her Uncle Mike who continued. Flicking on a screen on the wall behind him, he placed a transparency on the inlaid projector in the table.
"What we have here, David...(Diana, you may recognize this is a picture of the cerebral cortex) is the beginning stages of Zimmerman's disease."
"I vaguely recall studying this," Diana felt on more comfortable ground with the science before her.
"It's rare, very rare... one in every 2 million, I would guess...We can only extrapolate the number world wide. It's degenerative disease as you can see...Normally it's not even diagnosed until, and we're guessing here...10 to 15 years after onset. It progresses during that time, killing cells in the outer cerebral cortex, lobe by lobe, layer by layer. First vision is affected, then hearing, then language processing, synthesis and analysis skills. In your dad's case, Diana, we found it quite by accident when working on the Medtecnics project upstate before you were born."
"My dad's case? What are you saying...my dad had this?"
"Yes, Diana, and he knew. God, I wish he hadn't...I wish I hadn't.. It was a fluke that we found out. He had created several new designs..you see...We couldn't use human subjects. We started testing the devises on a group of sheep we had engineered to have identical cardiac anomalies. He was fascinated with my genetic research. They were the perfect control group...all identical. You're dad had never really analyzed his only DNA strands, before and...of course, he knew that he and your mother wanted children some day...and...
"and he found..." Diana stopped in mid-sentence...he found it on one of the helix strands. Oh, my God, Oh my God" Diana...held her hand over her mouth.
David looked back and forth between Diana and Mike. "What? he almost shouted. "What?"
"It's genetic. Dad had Zimmerman's and it progressed until he couldn't let it progress farther. For God sake...is it passed on the "x" chromosome...the "y"...God, tell me...both? I can’t remember.”
Dr. Evans could hardly bear her pain and rushed on with, “No, Diana, no. Here. Let me show you.” He replaced the transparency and on the screen before her, Diana and David now saw a braided strand. Printed on top of the screen was Diana’s maiden name.
“See here,” Dr. Evans pointed with a pen on the inlaid glass and Diana watched it touch on the screen overhead, about three-quarters down the DNA helix. “See, there’s no anomaly here, Diana. Nothing. No gene for Zimmerman’s.
“Oh my God, then it’s Zach” Dr.. Evans quickly removed Diana’s chart and replaced it with Zach’s. He spoke fast now and appeasing now like a father trying to pacify a child terrified by the boom of far off fireworks.
“No, see, Diana, nothing...see..it’s ok...nothing.”
Her emotions were climbing once again up the rails of the roller coaster and she started to sigh in relief. Still there was confusion.
“But, Uncle Mike, I thought...I mean I distinctly remember something about the genetic pattern of Zimmerman's. I was sure it was passed on both the x and y chromosome.” She laughed inside at her ignorance. “I must have been wrong.”
There was a long deafening silence before Dr. Evans answered slowly, with eyes downward...”No, Diana, you weren’t wrong.”
She smiled, “But that’s impossible...You just showed me...I mean...I don’t have it ...Zach doesn’t...What other...” From the top of the peak, once again the car plunged downward. “Oh, Lord, it was you Mike.. I have your genes...Yours and mom's...how could you all do that?” Her question was addressed to Ann.
“Honey, no, you don’t understand...Your dad and I were so much in love...when dad found out...
“You mean Uncle Mike donated his sperm... “ The dip of the roller coaster didn’t seem all that far.
“No, Diana,” Dr. Evans answered, “not exactly.”
It was David who jumped in now. “What do you mean not exactly?’
“It was some stranger ?” Diana didn’t know whether to be indignant or pacified.
“Honey,” Mike took in deep breath that came out filling his cheeks before it escaped through his lips in a soft explosion. He reached for another transparency and placed it on top of Diana’s. The match was perfect. They were identical. The name on the top was “Anne Graf.”
Diana’s squinted. She looked again and then once more before her face sunk into her cupped hands. She was silent except for her shallow rapid breathing.
David was the only voice in the room that could be heard. He implored, “What? What? For God’s sake...What? What does this mean?"
Diana lifted her face from her hands, grabbed the wooden arms of the upholstered chair and slowly rose. It was as if she had been transformed into some evil, vile creature who turned and looked at David with a smile so sinister he could feel it cut into his chest. Diana’s speech was slow and low and methodical and her voice eerie..like some mad Frankenstein creature. “It means my dear that I’m a...” for an instant she came back to herself and was about to cry. “I’m a clo..........
David sat there looking up at her, his mouth frozen open. "A...a...a clone?" David could hardly spit the word out of his trembling lips.
Her mother and Mike started to rush over. Diana instantly stretched out stiffened arms. “Don’t you touch me." With searing eyes, she looked straight at her mother. "Don’t you dare come near me.”
For the first time, Dr. Hollinger spoke. “Diana, listen...this is normal reaction...David, don’t be alarmed...this is normal."
“Normal?” Diana screamed as she reached for the door. “This is normal? What the hell do you people know about normal?” Diana stopped. The room was silent. Even the walls seemed to wait for her next response.
“I’d like to be alone now.” She turned to David like a machine. “David take care of Zach.”
Diana slammed the door behind her.
Dr. Hollinger spoke over them. “Let her go. She needs to be alone. Let her go.”
“I can’t. I never saw her like this, responded David. “
“She’ll sort it out in her own time, David.”
David’s questions rose in a building crescendo. “In her own time? We're all going to sort it out in time? And what if that time is never? Tell me, what if it’s never?”
Neither Mike nor Ann felt they could look at David.
Dr. Hollinger answered, “Go home, David. Be with Zach. He’ll need you strong right now.”
David could respond to that directive...to Zach’s needs... “I’ll go home...I’ll get Zach...I’ll take him home." The thought occurred to him that the escape would be welcome. By the time he left the consultation room and walked into the reception area, Diana’s coat was gone. He took his leather jacket and walked out of the Dr. Michael Evans office as if his mind was somewhere outside of his body and all his actions were being controlled by the auto pilot function deep in his brain stem. He knew Diana would be walking and he looked up and down 103rd St. to see if she was there. She had disappeared.
Like some wounded animal, Diana became cunning now as she walked the streets of New York. She took to an alley as the path that would lead her to some unknown den of refuge where she could die alone, in peace.
As she brushed past a staggering soul with a half-filled bottle of Muscatel, she uttered words slowly in some mechanical robotic voice with the wrong inflection, “I.. am... so... sorry... Excuse... me.”
As Diana walked and the day wore into afternoon, the effects of the shock to her nervous system were lessening and she started to become more aware of her surroundings. She began to feel less comfortable in the alleys now and headed out onto Broadway. The traffic and people seemed to mask the pain and she continued walking. As she passed the Lincoln Center sense memories filled her mind...memories of David playing Beethoven with the New York Philharmonic..memories of bringing Zach at only two at Christmas time, sitting in the back row, she and David listening to Handl’s Messiah. He was such a good little boy that day, she thought with tears in her heart. She walked further down Broadway. There was the theatre they had just seen the re-staging of the Lion King from back in the 90s. Zach squealed in delight at the huge puppets and rocked on her lap with the African rhythms. It felt like she would be missing all that from now on.
By twilight she was in Washington Square Park. It was easy to get lost amid the pretzel carts and jugglers and jet bladers. She had successfully dodged police cars all day. Each one that slowed down felt as if they were looking for her.
Diana keep walking all through the night. Up and down streets in Manhattan she had never seen before. Finally the city went to sleep around 4:00 a.m. and only the garbage trucks were there to make her feel connected to the universe. The evening damp was settling on nothing green, and still Diana walked on.
It was drizzling now and she was cold. She had only stopped once for a cup of coffee in Greenich Village. Her stomach was too filled with emotion to allow food inside. Each emotion was like a string on a guitar and came with a uncountable number of harmonics.
There was disgust and its variations. It was the kind of disgust a young person has when they first realize their parents make love or when someone tells them, “You sound just like your mother.” It isn’t that you don’t love them, it’s just that the realization of the similarity dashes all youthful hope of attaining perfection. Every flaw of her mother’s now was irrevocably inevitable in her, she thought. She was fated to handle joy with the same unworthiness of her mother...fated to handle sorrow to the same seemingly bottomless pit of despair. “After all I am my mother,” she shouted inside of her head and the thought made her aware of every cell of her body...all her mother’s...and she was desperate to crawl out of the encasement.
There was confusion and all it’s variations and harmonics...Who am I .... What am I .... What am I to Zach? And as her mind let her further down that road, she screamed out loud on the street as she thought, I’m not even Zach’s mother!
The most poignantly obvious of all the emotions was sadness. There were no variations - no harmonics here, only one predominant tone so deep and loud that only its vibration reverberated inside the walls of her heart, and she hoped she might die from the resonance.
It was with this emotion that she boarded the almost empty Staten Island Ferry. It was still only shortly past 4:00 am. As the seemingly ancient cemented monstrosity steamed away from the shore, Diana stood at the railing watching the distance shrink between the boat and the ever undaunted Statue in the harbor. The ferry lumbered past Ellis Island and Diane thought of the dashed hopes of the hundreds who were turned back or those who came and found the unexpected. Despair wrapped around her being and slithered into each pore of her body until it was deep inside. The dark, cold water now invited her. Still she struggled against the longing for release and as she held onto the railing, she threw her head back and scanned the heavens, grasping for some buoy of a thought that she could hold unto. The stars, for one brief moment triggered some thread that she reached for. “We are the stuff stars are made of...we are the same atoms and molecules of the universe..” She remembered hearing some astronomer in a corduroy blazer and turtleneck sweater on some old video her father made her watch as a child... Yes, that’s it, she thought, it doesn’t really matter. I am one with it all. For a second she felt intimately connected to the stars, to all the atoms and molecules in the universe, to David, to Zach...to her mother.
Then the thread broke. Her oneness with the cosmos was no comfort, it was her individuality, her own identity that she struggled now to find within her consciousness. But it was useless. She looked at the water; It was all that could rescue now and, alone in her sorrow, she began to allow it to pull her closer. Alone, she thought as she leaned farther over the cold, harsh metal railing. I am utterly and miserbly alone in this.There is not one human on earth experiencing this at this moment. She allowed her thoughts to slap into the water while the aloneness sunk into her soul. Gravity was helping her lean over farther. Blood rushed to her brain. Her head sank lower, lower. All pain ceased. Minutes passed. And then, suddenly in an instant, as if brought forth by some wizard's wand, the enormnity of her isolation transformed into revelation. And there it was; so obvious: I am alone, for God’s sake, I'm alone! Iam the only person experiencing this exact experience now..only me.... Not my mother...not David...not Mike.. not another soul in this universe. The water's beconing ceased and it's hold was gone. She heard the ferry’s engine. She felt the rain. She felt it dripping down her face...soaking her coat...She felt the cold brass railing beneath her hands. She uttered a loud audible sigh into the Hudson. Despair had fled her body like a demon fleeing the light of the silver cross. Diana filled Diana...and in her own uniqueness of being, she wept.
The Staten Island ferry turned around shortly after it docked. It picked up the first of the morning workers and chugged then back towards Manhattan. Diana went to the washroom below deck and fixed her hair. She ordered a hot cup of coffee and bagel and sat on the benches inside the ferry until it reached shore. The taxis were already running and she was able to hail one immediately. Everything in the city seemed bathed in brilliant morning light. When she arrived at their apartment building, she brushed back her hair with her hands once again before entering the hallway. She had no key and rang to be let in.
David’s voice was anxious. He couldn’t see her image on the screen. “Yes..Who is it? Diana...is this you?
Diana moved to the cameras view. There were tears in her eyes. Her fingertips touched her mouth as she whispered, “Yes, David, it’s me. It's me.”