By R.G. Summers
Photo by Dawn Vogel
I knew that my family wasn’t going to make a big deal out of my eighteenth birthday. It would have been nice if they’d at least been there, but with Dad incarcerated in a Trongodian prison and Uncle Bruce doing business in Egypt, it just wasn’t going to happen.
I had modest plans to mention it in front of the girls and use my birthday as an excuse to go out for frozen yogurt later. I was–as I had been for so many years–stuck at boarding school with nothing to do but antagonize the administration. Earlier that morning, I had stolen a cow’s heart from one of the biology labs, and then hidden it in an absurd location within the English department. I had decided that was an adequate celebration of my legal adulthood, and when you thought about it, that cow’s heart was really a gift that would keep on giving. That is, as it slowly started to rot …
But, as it turned out, Bruce had made plans for my birthday. When I was called down to the school’s administrative office, I was initially worried that they had already found my cow’s heart. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Uncle Bruce was taking me home for the weekend.
“Lindy!” he exclaimed, sweeping me into a bear hug and unintentionally tickling me with his prickly red beard. “Happy birthday, kiddo!”
“Uncle Bruce!” I was just as excited to see him. “I thought you were going to be in Egypt this week!”
“I thought so too, but I got out of my last meeting yesterday and realized I had time to come home for the weekend. I fly back Monday, but I wanted to be home for your birthday.” He was grinning goofily, like only Uncle Bruce could.
The school secretary interrupted to incredulously ask, “This is your uncle?”
Bruce and I did make for a strange pair. He always stood out in a crowd–his bushy beard and bulky build distinguishing him–whereas I remained very short and very Asian. I took after my Trongodian mother, and didn’t look anything like my father’s side of the family.
Uncle Bruce presented his identification, and proceeded to sign me out for the weekend. While he did so, the office secretary glared at me. The science department may have liked me, but the rest of the staff here hated me. They knew I was responsible even more mischief than they caught me at. I should have hidden the cow’s heart in the administrative office.
After I had gone back to my dorm room to pack a weekend bag, I found Uncle Bruce waiting in the parking lot with his Lexus. I chucked my bag into the back, climbed into the passenger seat, and immediately started riffling through his CD collection.
“So how’s school going?” Bruce asked. “Still getting into trouble?”
I appreciated that he had waited until we were in the car to ask. “No,” I answered, “just causing it.” He laughed a little, but I changed the subject before he could respond. “Where are we going?”
I turned on the CD player as Uncle Bruce drove, casually giving our conversation a Death Cab for Cutie soundtrack.
“I was thinking we would go into Seattle for dinner.”
“That Italian restaurant downtown?” I suggested.
“Wherever you like–it’s your birthday.”
“Can we stop by a convenience store so I can buy my first pack of cigarettes?”
Uncle Bruce took his eyes off of the road just long enough to raise an eyebrow. “Your first pack?”
I smiled guiltily. “My first legal pack?”
“You shouldn’t be smoking,” he scolded. “It’s a terrible habit.”
“Oh, come on,” I objected. I was quite certain that the health risks were drastically over-exaggerated.
“I’m serious, Lindy,” Uncle Bruce insisted. “Your mother smoked constantly, and that makes you predisposed to tobacco addiction, too. It was practically her only vice, but was horrible for her health.”
“Oh, I better quit then,” I replied, subtly sarcastic. “I guess cigarettes took, what, like sixty years off of her life?”
Uncle Bruce just shook his head. He never talked about my mother’s death. Bruce never talked about my mother at all. I had only a few vague memories of her and the stories that my dad had told me. She had not lived long enough to see the smoking catch up with her; she had been involved in a plane crash flying from Trongodia to Seattle. Nobody ever talked about it with me. Even Dad had avoided the subject while I was growing up. I guess it was too disheartening. After all, who wanted to talk about the tragedy of a twenty-two-year-old mother passing away in a coma? Or maybe there was just too much mystery surrounding it. My mother had worked as a spy for the Trongodian Department of Intelligence. She had spent her career shutting down powerful criminal organizations within Trongodia. The cause of her plane’s crash had never been identified.
The whole ordeal left me terrified of flying. It had taken me a long time just to grow at ease with Uncle Bruce’s constant business trips. I still worried that I would someday get the news that he had crashed somewhere in the Egyptian desert. The last time I had been on a plane myself was when I was twelve years old, flying out of Trongodia with Uncle Bruce after my father’s arrest.
We didn’t talk for a while, but fortunately the Death Cab for Cutie CD was still playing, and we could both pretend to be listening to it.
It wasn’t far from my eastside boarding school to downtown Seattle, but traffic was a bear on a Friday night. It took forever to find parking, too. By the time we were there, the nice cloudy day had transformed into a dark, wet, November evening. The worsening weather seemed to suck our sinking spirits right out of us though. By the time we were seated, our conversation was in full swing again. Bruce talked to me about his work in Egypt, and I told him about school. He took a lot of vicarious joy out of hearing about science experiments, robotics club, and even the mischief I’d been getting into.
“But that’s not even the best of it,” I told him, covering my mouth as I finished chewing my ravioli. “Do you remember how I told you we were doing dissections in biology? After class, while everyone was shuffling out, I grabbed one of the cow hearts and stuffed it in a ziplock bag. The professor had no idea that I was smuggling it out. I stopped by Mrs. Ripley’s classroom and dropped it in the fake potted plant by her desk!”
Bursting into jovial laughter, Uncle Bruce pounded his fist on the table. He wiped the tomato sauce from his mouth and then cleared his throat. Somberly, he said, “Lindy, as your guardian I can’t possibly condone this sort of behavior.”
“You’re not my guardian–I’m eighteen. I’m my own legal entity.” I lifted my glass, toasting my own age.
Uncle Bruce clinked his glass to mine. “Even still, I received an email from Mrs. Ripley last week. She tells me you’re getting a D in English.”
I grimaced. This had been a whimsical story until Bruce brought up my grades. “It’s not like I’m flunking.”
“No, but you’re darn close to it. What’s the matter, Lindy? It seems like every semester we have to have this conversation about English or History or French. I know you’re a bright girl. You’re still fluent in Trongodian, and a solid A science student. What is it that keeps you from excelling in your other classes?”
“They just aren’t interesting,” I insisted. “And, I mean, there’s no point to them. I don’t want to learn French, and when will I ever need to analyze rhetoric devices in real life?”
“I doubt you’ll ever need to know how to dissect a cow’s heart, but you don’t complain about that,” Uncle Bruce pointed out.
“But that’s interesting. That’s the stuff of life and the fabric of our biological existences. Of course I do well with that.”
Uncle Bruce chuckled. “You sound like your father.”
“What, didn’t Dad do well in English either?”
“Your father was a brilliant man,” he explained, “but he only put effort into what he was passionate about. He only pursued what he loved, and he lost sight of a lot of other important things in life.” Bruce paused and set his fork down. Folding his hands together, he seemed to fall into a very serious mood. “Your father believed wholeheartedly in his research, but it got to the point where it blinded him and became his only focus. It got to the point where he was willing to jeopardize his career and daughter because stealing government technology to complete his research made more sense than moving on.”
The other diners carried on, their quiet conversations like white noise in the dim Italian restaurant. I pulled at the white table cloth, playing with it nervously. Uncle Bruce often talked about Dad, but only the concrete details: Your father studied abroad in Asia to earn his Ph.D., your father was developing bionic technology to prolong the human lifespan, the funding for your father’s program was cut, your father took a job with the Trongodian military’s research and development team …
I didn’t know what to say. Dad wasn’t like Mom; I could actually remember my father. I was twelve when he was arrested by the government police in Trongodia … twelve years old when I met Uncle Bruce and was legally transferred into his custody. Dad had always been busy, traveling between America and Trongodia to further his research. His work made him a little bit crazy, but his intensity and passion was something I had loved about him.
Uncle Bruce had taken good care of me during my teenage years, but he was not my father. I was thrust into Bruce’s custody after my father’s arrest in Asia, and Bruce had provided for me to the best of his ability. He was constantly out of country on business though, and I was always stuck in expensive boarding schools.
“So what?” I asked, a little defensively. “You think flunking English is my gateway to stealing military technology?”
“No, no,” Uncle Bruce sighed, realizing that his words had come out too fast and all wrong. “I just … I just worry about you, Lindy.”
He fidgeted with his napkin some, and his bushy beard twitched. Bruce usually had such confidence in me. This was alarmingly out of character, and clearly there was something else on his mind. “Uncle Bruce, is something wrong?” I was done with my dinner, so I pushed my plate aside. He had my undivided attention. The little votive candle on our table flickered and mopey Italian music played faintly in the restaurant.
Uncle Bruce took a big breath. He pulled out his wallet and left money on the table as he stood up. I realized then that he had hardly eaten any of his pasta. “If you’re done, we should go,” he told me. I picked up my coat obediently and prepared to follow him out. Uncle Bruce put his hat on as he announced, “There’s something I have to show you.”
The drizzly, wet evening had given way to a pounding rain. It had rained all day, but the expected Seattle rain had given way to an unusual storm. We left the restaurant in a hurry, trying to get to the car before we were completely soaked. Driving through the storm, it was like we were plowing through a river. It was still just as dark, but now the night had an ominous feel to it. I didn’t know where we were going. I kind of didn’t want to ask. I assumed we were heading farther downtown, but we drove right past the Fifth Avenue Theater, past Pier 70, and past Century Link Field.
“Are we heading for the International District?” I asked, watching the blurry city lights through the wet windshield.
“No,” Bruce answered.
Sure enough, we drove right past Seattle’s Asian district. We were heading for industrial Seattle, and I didn’t have any idea why. I was growing increasingly nervous. “Uncle Bruce … what’s going on?”
“Melinda, I’ve never known how to talk to you about your parents. Howard was my brother, and we were always close until your mother’s plane crash.”
Uncle Bruce never called me by my full name. In everyone’s mind, Melinda was my mother. I had been named after her, but everyone had always known me as Lindy. I was little Lindy, because Melinda Derosa the Second was a mouthful.
“It was tragedy when she slipped into that coma. We all wanted her to pull through–she had come so close to surviving that plane crash–but the doctors were adamant. She was not going to wake up. The rest of us made our peace with it. Your father couldn’t accept the fact that she was gone. He channeled a lot of his love for her into you, and some days I think you are the only reason he stayed as sane as he was.”
“What do you mean ‘as sane as he was?'”
“You were a little girl. You couldn’t see him as anything other than your father. He was obsessive, though, preoccupied … he lost his priorities after he lost your mother.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Melinda, there are some … things … that your father left behind. I’ve been putting off this moment for a long time, but now that you’re eighteen, they’re legally yours. You have, after a fashion, an inheritance that needs to be explained to you.”
We pulled into a gravel lot. Right by the railroad tracks, there were dozens of shipping containers lined up and stacked on top of each other. Our headlights illuminated them as Uncle Bruce leaned forward over the steering wheel and slowed down, looking for one in particular. The rain continued to pound down, but I felt like I was in a safe little bubble within the Lexus … a bubble which was about to pop and shoot me directly into the storm.
Uncle Bruce killed the engine beside a graffiti-tagged shipping container. The massive metal crate was a dull red, highlighted with rust. It disappeared into the darkness as soon as the car’s headlights went off.
I didn’t know what I was expecting, but I knew that I was expecting something. Bruce did nothing. He still had his hands on the wheel, tightly gripping it as if unaware that we were safely parked. I had never taken Bruce for one who would be afraid of the dark, but on this night, he certainly seemed to be. After a moment, he darkly announced, “We’re here.”
“Are we going to … ?” I could hardly formulate my question.
Bruce interrupted by reaching into the backseat and asking, “Do you need an umbrella? I think I have one back here somewhere.” He began shuffling nervously through all the junk in the backseat. I got the distinct impression he was avoiding the inevitable moment when we would actually have to get out of the car.
“No, I’m fine.” I tucked my hair into my raincoat and pulled the hood up. Poor Bruce had never been able to make sense of Seattle’s cultural aversion to umbrellas. He was no longer looking for his umbrella though. Now he was simply staring out the rear windshield. The rain continued to drive against it, running down the glassy surface and blurring our view of the darkness.
“Alright then.” He seemed to be plucking up his courage as he finally opened the car door.
Bruce didn’t even bother to lock the car when we got out of it–there was no one out here. On a dark Friday evening, who would have business at a shipping yard like this? I didn’t even know what business Bruce and I could possibly have here.
The gravel grated against itself as we walked over to the container’s massive double doors. As I avoided murky puddles, I tried to imagine what could lie within this monolithic metal box. I would have thought Dad’s legacy would be in the form of blueprints, documents, and digital records. I knew that the circuitry and small machines that Dad had stolen had never been recovered by the Trongodians, but Uncle Bruce wouldn’t lead me to a stash of illegally acquired technology … right? Even if Bruce did know where his brother’s contraband technology was, it couldn’t be here. Not in some abandoned, over-sized, steel crate.
Bruce had two different keys to open the industrial-grade locks. I didn’t know how well-guarded most shipping containers were, but this seemed like overkill. The locks clicked open with a jarring noise, and Uncle Bruce pried open one of the huge weather-proof doors by its metal rod handle. I dashed inside to escape the onslaught of rain. Bruce followed after. The door closed slowly as he pulled it shut, and we were left in an eerie darkness.
I pulled out my cell phone, but its glow could not combat the totality of the container’s darkness. “Uncle Bruce?” I called out.
“Just a second, I’m trying to get the flashlight working.”
I couldn’t see anything, so I held still and didn’t bother Bruce as he fiddled with the flashlight. The rain drummed against the shipping container. The sound echoed metallically all around us; it sounded like an automatic weapon. When Bruce turned the flashlight on, the bright L.E.D. beam cut through the darkness. It was easy to see then that we were standing in an empty shipping container.
“Umm, should there be …”
“This way,” Bruce instructed. Now that we were securely within the confines of the container, he seemed to be more at ease. I followed the bouncing beam of the flashlight and walked alongside my uncle. I really didn’t understand what was going on–there was nothing in the container. We walked from one end to the other without seeing anything but the corrugated metal walls and flat steel floor. Just when I was about to object, Bruce lifted the light to an electrical box and keypad. Jabbing the neglected keys, Uncle Bruce gained access to the electrical box. I watched, my attention wrapped around the single lever inside. Bruce flipped it up, and suddenly a cantankerous, mechanical squealing started. I felt the ground shift underneath me.
This was not an ordinary shipping container.
It was hard to remain oriented when I couldn’t see anything, but I was certain that I was sinking. The floor was definitely moving in a downwardly direction. I started to stumble as the lift jerkily shifted down. Bruce put his arm around me and kept me stable as we descended. I was speechless, and Uncle Bruce had nothing to say. At this point, all I really wanted was an explanation or a cigarette. Had Bruce not been here, I would have lit up and tried to calm my nerves, but I knew better than to smoke in front of him.
The elevator came to a stop in the darkness, and I realized that we must have been at least ten feet underground. Bruce panned the flashlight around our immediate area, looking for more electrical controls. “You’ll have to forgive me … it’s been a long time since I was down here.”
The room was humming, as if the electricity was already turned on and fueling machinery in the dark. When he found a second electrical control box, Bruce flipped on the switches indiscriminately. The lights came on in waves, buzzing as they did so. In a matter of seconds, the entire room was lit up. “Watch your step,” Bruce warned me. I made sure not to trip as I stepped off of the lift platform and onto the concrete floor of this secret chamber. The ceiling was high here, and the room was just as long and wide as the shipping container had been. We were directly underneath the empty container, in a concrete box underground.
I wandered around, mesmerized by what I saw. Countertops were covered in blueprints and notes. Graphs and numerical printouts were taped to the concrete walls. A whiteboard, at least twenty feet across, was covered in faded notes and half-finished equations. Familiar words bombarded me:
The numbers were less familiar though, the equations more cryptic, and the associations between all these variables eerily mysterious. I wanted to ask Uncle Bruce what this was, but I already knew. I walked to the corner where a simple cot was set up and covered haphazardly with sheets. A metal rack beside it was stacked with canned ravioli and chili, and taped to the wall was a photograph of my father, my mother, and my infant self. Mom looked, in the photo, just like I did now, only with shorter hair. She was cradling me in her arms and lifting my hand up so that I could wave at the camera. Dad, who looked just like I remembered him, had his arm around her.
This was my father’s secret laboratory. This was where he was constantly flying to while we were still living in Trongodia.
Bruce let me wander around and allowed me to process this remarkable environment on my own. I had no questions for him, until I saw the triconadapters.
There was no mistaking them. They were a rare breed of bionic technology that had been integral to the advancement of cryogenics. My father had led a team that developed them for the Trongodian government, and then he had stolen them. Sitting on a lab table, three small triconadapters–no bigger than thimbles–were the reason my father had been taken from me six years ago, the reason I had been forced to move to America.
I recognized the devices, but I was still compelled to ask, “Are these them?”
Uncle Bruce nodded and walked over. “Yes, those are the triconadapters.”
“You’ve known they were here all along?” I couldn’t believe it. “Millions of dollars in internationally stolen technology, and they’ve just been sitting here?”
“I didn’t see what alternative there was. I couldn’t very well ship them back without jeopardizing myself.”
I could see why Bruce had waited all these years to show this to me. If anyone knew that we were technically in the possession of these devices, we could be extradited to Trongodia to stand trial as accomplices to Dad’s theft. I was still staring at the triconadapters. I could appreciate the intricacies of the technology, but I felt a deep sadness sink into me as I looked at these stupid little devices. This was the reason I didn’t have a father, and I didn’t understand. He’d known the criminal risk he’d been taking and the implications it would have on our diminished family. Standing there, I finally asked the question that I had been avoiding for years. “Why did he take them?”
Bruce’s eyes reflexively darted to the end of the laboratory. I had not yet taken the time to think about the chamber at the far end of the laboratory. It was a silvery, chrome container nearly ten feet tall. Given the nature of Dad’s research, I knew it had to be some kind of freezer. I don’t think Bruce meant to draw my attention to it, but he unintentionally did so, and I was transfixed. What had my father been working on? All these years, I had never really questioned it, but what had he been developing that had led him to risk–and lose–everything for his research?
“Lindy,” Bruce spoke my name in a cautioning tone as I took a few curious steps toward the container. “Lindy, you’d better sit down. This is going to be hard for you to hear.”
I looked back at him. He did not want me investigating that chrome case, but that only piqued my interest. “Why?” I asked. “What’s in the freezer?”
“Lindy, sit down,” Bruce ordered, gesturing to a chair by Dad’s old work desk.
I didn’t want more secrecy or mystery; I wanted to see with my own eyes what my father had ruined our lives for. Whatever was in that freezer had been more important to him than me, and I deserved to know what that was.
Despite Bruce’s objections, I dashed across the room to the metallic freezer. Uncle Bruce followed, but I was already at the control panel. On the floor on either side of the freezer were two massive generators. I could tell that their wiring ran back up to surface level. This thing had been running for years, completely automated and prepared for power outages, power surges, and power deficiencies. The switches on the freezer’s exterior control panel were labeled in sharpie with my father’s handwriting. Before the impulse could leave me, I pressed hard on the glowing green button that was marked OPEN DISPLAY.
Uncle Bruce didn’t attempt to stop me. He knew me too well to try. There was no stopping Melinda Derosa the Second when she had her mind made up to do something. He was behind me, though, and took a paternal hold of my shoulders. The mechanized silver doors glided apart slowly, and a wave of frosty air blew out from between the parting doors. He spoke quickly, trying to brace me for what I was about to see. “Lindy, your mother was a terminal case after her plane crash. Her body was recovered in a comatose state. There was no chance of her regaining consciousness. The doctors simply did not have the technology or medical understanding to revive her.”
As the freezer opened up, I heard the hum of the refrigeration process within it. The doors parted, and I felt my knees go weak as I saw what rested within.
It was me.
No, it was my mother. She only looked like me, with her small nose, round face, and long neck. She appeared to be standing in the freezer, but she was propped up on a gurney … strapped in and slightly reclined. Her eyes were closed, and minute quantities of frost had accumulated on her cheeks and in her short, dark hair. She was so young! She hardly looked older than me, frozen indefinitely as a twenty-two-year-old woman in a pale blue medical gown.
“Mom,” I whispered.
R.G. Summers writes primarily science-fiction, but has published stories and poetry of all natures. Summers lives in Seattle, more or less, and has great hopes for the future, including being able to pay the rent by writing, and someday owning a crock-pot. She’s also training to be a circus performer, just in case this whole “writing” thing doesn’t work out. You can find her little corner of the internet at https://sites.google.com/site/herpuckishness/
Dawn Vogel has been published as a short fiction author and an editor of both fiction and non-fiction. Although art is not her strongest suit, she’s happy to contribute occasional art to Mad Scientist Journal. By day, she edits reports for and manages an office of historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business and tries to find time for writing. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats. For more of Dawn’s work visit http://historythatneverwas.com/Follow us online: