Friday, July 24, 2009

"Never Special," Ghoulish, pt. 8, 472 words

He sees me coming. We share a perfunctory hug, then step back from each other. After a moment, he clears his throat awkwardly and asks how I'm doing, how my job is going... if any boy – and he says it, “boy,” like I'm still in high school – has managed to catch me yet. The image of a deer getting its neck snapped by a Siberian tiger flashes across my mind.

Trying not to grimace, I mutter something about there being a guy, but he disappeared from my life rather abruptly. A pained, guilty expression flashes across my father's face, and I realize he thinks I'm referring obliquely to him. I almost want to leave him with that thought, but I'm too honest for it. I explain that I meant a guy I'd met just a few months ago, but who I hadn't heard anything from in several weeks. He looks relieved at that, though still a little guilty, and excuses himself after a few more weak attempts at small talk. I can't say I'm upset to see him go.

I turn back to see Mom heading for her car. The mourners are already starting to break up, some of them getting ready to go to an informal reception at my uncle's house. There are comments passed back and forth about getting hot dogs and baked beans and other summer food ready, but the unspoken promise is that of alcohol. Beer for most, harder liquors for others. Especially those, like Mom, who've been in the middle of all this for a lot longer than the rest. I catch up to her and kiss her cheek once more, then tell her to go on ahead – I'll catch up. I don't tell her how, just that I will, because I need a moment alone – really alone – with Gram. She understands that, at least, and goes on.

It takes nearly ten minutes for everyone else to clear out. The casket's still aboveground when they go, though, so I take my precious moment alone and kneel beside it in the grass. I put a hand on it and remember a conversation we'd had when I was just eight years old and visiting Gram and Gramp on summer vacation.

What do you want to do when you grow up, Gram had asked, as if I knew anything about college and careers and retirement plans. A little girl intoxicated on hero comics, I'd waved the latest issue of The Raptor at her and said, I wanna fly!

Slowly, with exaggerated care, I kiss my fingers and press it to the side of her casket. My voice a little shaky, my throat finally tight with real grief after that sudden memory, I say, “I wish you could've seen it, Gram. I can fly.”

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"Never Special," Ghoulish, pt. 7, 404 words

And in those pictures, taken just a couple weeks before she died, I could see the loose skin hanging on the stick-thin arms that I just knew had to have been Gram. Finally, one of the pictures showed her head-on, holding the baby to her chest. She looked horrible, wasted away almost to nothing. That image burned itself into my memory, still burns there, and the pictures of her in her youth and from just a few years ago, beside the closed casket, only remind me of how she actually looked when she died.

I stay behind, ignoring the disdainful looks I'm cast for doing so, and walk out with Mom after she takes her moment with the casket. She's holding on to my hand so tight I almost worry she'll break something.

The six pallbearers are my six male cousins, a number that came out to be an eerily perfect fit. Three are noticeably shorter than the others, which looks like it might make carrying the casket awkward, but they manage well enough. They get the bouquets and floral arrangements out first, taking them to the funeral director's station wagon and tucking them in the back, then head back into the funeral home for the casket. It goes into the hearse with little fuss, and soon everyone is piling into their cars to follow after.

Mom says nothing on the way to the cemetery. The route takes us by Gram and Gramp's house, and I wonder if anyone asked the funeral director to do that. In about ten minutes, though, we're at the cemetery.

Gram's casket is set on the contraption that will lower her into the freshly-dug grave, and my cousins spread the flowers around her once more. The reverend says a few more words, and then the group begins to break up. I turn to hug Mom, and as my arms go around her waist am suddenly shocked stiff as a board by what I see over her shoulder.

Hanging back, near the end of the whole group, is Dad.

I whisper a warning to Mom, and she stiffens up as well. Neither of us expected – wanted – to see him here. I haven't seen him since high school. I kiss Mom on the cheek and disengage... because if I don't intercept him, then Dad will try to talk to Mom, and he'll say something stupid like he always does.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Never Special," Ghoulish, pt. 6, 401 words

The event that stood out most clearly, a day or two after I last talked to him, was an explosion that destroyed a police precinct. I'd heard about it, but by that time there was nothing I could hope to do to help out, so I kind of glossed it over. Few survivors, all in bad shape. Most of the bodies unidentified, in some cases all but unidentifiable. I don't remember where he worked, if he told me – just someplace with a lab, but thanks to CSI everyone's pretty well aware that police departments have forensic labs...

I swallow past a sudden lump in my throat and realize why this all feels so wrong. It feels like the body in the casket, the pictures flanking it, should belong to Nefarious. I've been thinking of him as dead for a week and a half now. Waiting for his funeral to break out around me, though God only knows how I'd actually find the right one amongst all the others going on at the same time.

I'm sorry, Gram, I think, carefully, to the casket. As if she can hear me. I'm mourning someone else at your funeral. The thought makes me sick to my stomach. I feel horrible and ghoulish, like a voyeur, or some kind of scavenger. Picking at another corpse to silence some misplaced longing.

I grimace and swallow the melodramatic thoughts. The reverend is already wrapping up, the whole ceremony taking half an hour at the most. There's still the burial, but the long part is behind us.

Non-family and the pallbearers are asked to step out of the room, so that any family who wishes to can go up to the casket and have a final moment before Gram is borne away to the hearse and then to the cemetery. I hang back, reluctant to have any “final moment” surrounded by so many other people.

The night after I arrived at Gram and Gramp's, Mom was showing me photos of my cousin's newborn child. They focused on the baby, but I could see Gram half-caught in the pictures. As long as I'd known her, she'd been a heavyset woman, but she carried it in such a way that she would've seemed... diminished, in spirit as well as body, to have been anything but. She was always that perfect exemplar of the matronly figure, in my mind.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"Never Special," Ghoulish, pt. 5, 386 words

I can't keep my mind on events. I try, but I just can't. It's too... too alien. That's the only word I can come up with. I never really tried to imagine what my grandmother's death and funeral would be like, but there's a lurking conviction somewhere deep in my gut that it shouldn't have been this way. It's hard to explain, except that I feel like I'm just going through the motions, practicing for the real funeral. Except this is the real one. I sigh quietly and keep from shaking my head at it.

I glance surreptitiously up and down the rows of seats, and realize that, like Mom and Gramp, I'm one of the only people here on my own. My aunts and uncle have their spouses sitting next to them. My older cousins have their spouses and children. My younger cousins have their siblings.

Another point of victory my aunts like to score against my mother. Almost all of my cousins who are now married, they managed it younger than me. One of my younger cousins has his girlfriend and their child there. Everyone grants their tacit approval for his child born out of wedlock, I reflect bitterly, while Mom was given all kinds of passive-aggressive bullshit for daring to not stay with Dad, treated as if I was as good as born a bastard myself. I don't begrudge the child anything, much less for being loved by its family, but I can begrudge my aunts for the double-standards at work.

No, I'm not much fond of my extended family. Is it that hard to tell?

Still, while I'm glancing over everyone there with someone else to lean on... Well, I can be a little envious without burning too much karma, I figure. But I don't know who I'd bring with me, to satisfy that envy, to sit beside me and hold my hand...

No, I do. I know precisely who I'd bring, and it's the same person that leaves me feeling I'm taking part in a dress rehearsal of a funeral, not the real thing.

It's been nearly a month now, that I haven't heard a thing. After two weeks, and him never answering his phone, I started looking into things that might've happened. News reports, police blotters, that kind of thing.

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Never Special," Ghoulish, pt. 4, 354 words

Mom's the only one of her generation of this family that's had a divorce. Along with her honest and blunt nature, with little need for dishonest niceties, that's made her something of the family whipping-girl, amongst her siblings. They use the divorce as one of a number of ways to try to score points off her all the time. It really doesn't help that, despite living the farthest away from Gram and Gramp, she always had the closest relationship with them. She'd make a point of talking to them every day, and visiting as often as her job allowed, sometimes more than family members that lived much closer by. I think that's where the rumors that Mom's going to raid everything of Gram's first come from. They see her spending so much time on Gram and Gramp that they can't believe there's no ulterior motive.

The funeral, when it finally comes three days after her death, is a relief. Gramp is seated in the front row, along with his children coming after him in order of age, with their spouses: my three aunts and their husbands, then Mom alone, then my uncle and his wife. We grandchildren, all ten of us, and the spouses and children of those that have them, are put in the second row. I manage to snag a seat just behind Mom, and put a hand on her shoulder briefly in reassurance. Gram's in a fairly simple blue steel casket, rails on the side for the pallbearers. Two pictures of her flank the casket, one from just a few years ago and one from shortly after her marriage to Gramp. God, she was a beautiful woman then, and the family resemblance is so sharp that she could've been one of her own daughters' sisters.

The reverend they got to perform the service is nice enough, but has a kind of droning monotone that leaves me stifling a few yawns. He recites something that feels carefully practiced, and issues a few quotes from the Bible. I think we go through the Lord's Prayer twice, but I'm running on automatic by then.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

"Never Special," Ghoulish, pt. 3, 372 words

One of my aunts, Mom's oldest sister, whispers to another aunt that Mom's planning on sneaking off with a writing desk, one that Gram had bought and then put into storage long after Mom had moved out. I think Mom's eldest sister is the only one who even knew what had happened to the damn desk, aside from Gramp. It's pretty clear that my aunt, as the eldest, thinks it's her right to pick through everything of my grandmother's and take anything she wants without regard to her sisters and brother.

My uncle's wife spends half the time trying to direct the funeral arrangements herself, despite Gram's clearly-stated wishes for how it should go and the budget imposed by her life insurance. She never consults with anyone and acts like she personally created and owns all copies of the pictures of Gram that Mom and a cousin prepared for the funeral, and doesn't understand why anyone else might want copies too. My uncle, whom at first seemed like someone my mother could depend upon for help in all this insanity, bows to his wife's impositions without a word.

People I've never seen before, people who haven't even talked to my grandparents in five, ten years or more are coming out of the woodwork, too. They're stopping by with cookies and brownies and baked beans, and no end of other sugary things, as if it can make up for their guilt at ignoring Gram until too late. It just pisses off my mother more, that they think they can act like nothing's wrong, that all sins are exculpated by bringing by a box of donuts.

I think Mom's anger at it all distresses me the most, even compared to Gramp's quiet withdrawal. She's always been the calm and serene figure in my life, the one person who could look at any problem and handle it without fuss. I've never seen anyone else more in control of their life, nobody more charitable towards other people and their motives. And now she's losing it, reading something horrible into everything being said and done. And she's usually right, too, which doesn't make things better. It simply means everyone's just as horrible as she believes they are.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

"Never Special," Ghoulish, pt. 2, 424 words

Shame burns my cheeks even as the cold winds whip against my face. I should have gone anyways. Told her I loved her, hugged her again, just one more time.

The flight takes me about two hours. I'm not much faster than a car, but I don't have to obey the twists and turns of roads and towns. I'm over New Hampshire before too long, and a good ways up the state before I finally spot Mom's hometown. I shove my goggles up and squint, but I can't make out Gram's house from here. I know exactly where to find it, though. I descend as discreetly as possible, about a quarter mile away from the house, and walk the rest of the way. The goggles go into my bag. No need to show off my powers, not here and not now. The next week, at least, is about Gram and Gramp.

Mom answers the door, surprised that I'm here already. She's been crying, hard. She asks how I got there so fast. I shake my head and evade the question.

A man from the funeral home has taken Gram's body away already. The nursing aid hadn't even arrived yet that morning when Gram died, and they turned her away when she finally did. Mom was sitting right there when it happened.

I can't even imagine what it must be like, what must go through a person's head, sitting there right as their mother dies. Knowing it's coming, but that's about as comforting as seeing the truck you know is going to hit you, right before it does. I drop my bag and hold on to her as tightly as I dare.

The next two days are... I wish I could say they're about Gram and Gramp. My grandfather spends most of his time in a corner, trying desperately to ignore everything and everyone, reading the same page of a book over and over again. Everyone postures and argues around him, but in that quiet, indirect, polite way that families find to argue during hard times, when everyone feels they have to at least put on the appearance of standing together.

Only my mother and uncle are blunt and direct – my uncle because he always has been, and my mother because she's too frayed at the edges to care about the bullshit anymore. We've always been a fairly close-knit clan, by proximity and through Gram, but that just means that we can read each other like open books. What's written there is pretty ugly.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"Never Special," Ghoulish, pt. 1, 475 words

Set shortly after "Costume Concerns" and before much else, when Ned was in his month-long coma. Not really autobiographical at all, despite the obvious immediate parallels.

The call comes in. It's early Sunday morning. Just after eight o'clock. Mom, her voice tight and scarcely controlled, gives me the news. I promise to be out there as soon as I can, and hurry to call my boss after hanging up with Mom. I can't make it into work, I explain, that I'll likely be gone the whole week, and can she do without me? She doesn't sound enthused about having to juggle the other girls' schedules, but she tells me that she'll take care of it. Go, she says, just go. My jujitsu instructor says the same thing when I tell her that I'll be missing class.

I throw everything I think I might need into an overnight bag and pull on my flight goggles. I leave through the window, barely remembering to close it again behind me. I live on the fourth floor, so I'm comfortable leaving it unlocked – little worry of burglars getting in that way. Not that I have much worth stealing.

My grandmother has just died.

I arrow almost perfectly northward, straining every muscle as if it would help me fly faster. I don't even have to work any particular muscle to fly, it just happens... but I try anyway. I know precisely where I'm going, and barely have to look down to take my bearings. The course to Gram's house is as indelibly written in my heart and mind as the way back to my mother's home. I could find my way there from the middle of China, if I had to.

The news isn't really much of a surprise. Gram's been in a bad way for a long while now, but really bad over the past few months. Cancer nearly took her twice, ten years ago. This, though, isn't anything as definite and fightable as cancer. Her body's just been failing her, slowly and steadily, bit by bit.

The last time I visited her was about half a year ago, just before the accident that gave me powers. She wasn't moving around much by then, but she was still the same woman I'd known for pretty much my whole life: white-haired and wrinkly, short and fat, her face full of laugh-lines, and all-around perfect for a warm embrace that reminds you what it's like to be four years old again. I felt guilty for not visiting her again since then, but at the same time she and Gramp had finally started needing a nursing aid to help around the home, and Gram couldn't even move to carry herself to the bathroom. Her appetite disappeared, and she started wasting away. Asked us grandkids not to come by because she hated how weak she looked and felt, didn't want us to remember her that way, full of frustration and embarrassment and tears at her body's cruel betrayal.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Hiatus: Death in the family

Taking a short break. Not sure how long, but several days at least. Grandmother finally died after several weeks on hospice care, and the funeral's going to be in a place that's about a four hour drive away. Don't know for certain when we're going to be returning home afterwards, either, though I bet not more than a day. Still, it might be a bit longer yet than that because there's been talk of my grandfather coming home with us afterwards, at least for a while, so he's not alone. There's other family that lives closer, but visitors aren't quite the same as living in a home with others.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

"Garden," Junk, pt. 3, 388 words

The other was a sample of Rhea life, sharing the blue and red tagged guanine and cytosine nucleotides, while four new ones as yet unnamed had been marked with yellow, orange, brown, and black. Yellow only paired with brown, while orange only paired with black, bridging the double helices together.

“What are those,” Halsey asked, leaning in closer to look.

Rosenberg pointed to the Earth sample on the left, and then the Rhea sample on the right. “This one's a regular white lab mouse,” she said, “while this is one of your Rhea-voles. Structurally, as closely analogous to the mouse as I could pick out from your research results.”

“Okay. What of it?”

Rosenberg tapped a button on the keypad a few times, and the screen zoomed out from the data and images. Long strings of information shrank repeatedly, revealing more and more, until suddenly the Rhea-vole's sample cut off. The lab mouse's sample kept going, more than twice as long as the vole's.

Halsey gaped. “What the hell... That can't be right.” The look on her face warred between exhilarated and frightened.

“It is,” Rosenberg said. “And I'm seeing similar results for every other form of Rhea-life, as they come out of the sequencers. There isn't a single piece of Rhea-life that has any junk--” she caught herself on the outdated term, and corrected, “--any non-coding DNA. I checked. Every bit of genetic material here codes for either a protein or a regulatory non-coding RNA sequence, or acts as a buffer between genes for proper enzyme formation. There's literally nothing wasted. In fact...” She entered another command, and hundreds of sections on the vole's DNA sequence were suddenly highlighted. “See all that highlighted stuff? I didn't do anything fancy, just entered a find command for a sequence I'd designated before you came in. Those are buffer sequences. They're all identical, every last one.”

“That's impossible, to develop naturally,” Halsey said. She was dancing around it, didn't want to be the one to come out and say what they were both thinking.

“Exactly what I concluded,” Rosenberg said, her voice low. “On an evolutionary time scale, this kind of... construction had to happen, oh, earlier this morning.

“We're playing in someone else's garden.”

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

"Garden," Junk, pt. 2, 360 words

“Yes,” Rosenberg said, slowly, recalling that initial discovery. Not that it had taken much effort to determine. But the popular theory was that the DNA of any mammal-like life found on the planet below would be wildly different from that of Earth mammals, perhaps haploid or even triploid in construction. Rosenberg had just taken it as given that, if the Rhea-life DNA was structured in a ploidal model, then the animal life would be diploid.

The bigger discovery was that Rhea-DNA exhibited ploidy at all, in her mind. Haploid DNA would be too simple for anything of higher order than eusocial, hive-based insect-analogues that reproduced sexually, and triploid DNA implied three biological parents in sexual reproduction (or that one sex provided two sets of chromosomes), which was too complicated. Evolution on Earth had followed a path of least resistance, when it came to adapting to selection pressures and the development of higher-order life. Why would it be any different elsewhere, even on another planet?

But this... She glanced at the screen, which had flickered into a low-power hibernation while she'd waited for Halsey. This blew the question of how many helices were in Rhea-DNA out of the water.

“I want you to look at something,” Rosenberg said. She turned back to the computer and ran a finger along the trackpad to pull it out of hibernation. The screen flickered back to life, and Rosenberg brought the focus onto the sequencer program. It was an inelegant piece of code, designed for the brute work of isolating and scanning the DNA of a tissue sample, and it chewed up a computer's processing power. Compared to the time it took to sequence a DNA sample just two hundred years ago, though, when molecular genetics was coming into its own as a field, the modern sequencer program flew like an eagle sweeping down onto its prey.

Two long strings of data, and the images of spinning DNA helices that summed up the text, were crammed together on the screen. One was clearly a sample of Earth life, with adenine tagged in green, thymine in violet, cytosine in red, and guanine in blue.

Monday, July 06, 2009

"Garden," Junk, pt. 1, 402 words

“You wanted to see me?” Susannah Halsey poked her head into the lab door, spotting Marley Rosenberg hunched over a computer display. The lab head was frowning in concentration, and didn't look up at first. Halsey coughed lightly, then cleared her throat when that didn't work. “Marley,” she finally repeated.

Rosenberg looked up with a blink of surprise. She looked around and spotted Halsey, then said, “Oh, Annah. Yes, come in.” She gestured to a second chair.

Halsey nodded slowly and spun the chair about to cross her arms on its back as she sat. “What's up?”

With a wave to the display, Rosenberg said, “I've been running the sequencer on all the samples of higher-order flora and fauna from planetside--”

“You'd have to tie up all the computers for that. Is that why you've given us all a few days off,” Halsey asked.

“Um, yeah.”

“What's the rush?”

“No real rush, as such,” Rosenberg admitted. “But I wanted to verify something... interesting.”

Halsey frowned. “There's something interesting about Rhea's plant life?”

Rosenberg shook her head reproachfully. “I don't know how you got into exobiology,” she said, “if you take that attitude towards alien li-- what is that on your arm? Take it off!”

A guilty look passed over Halsey's face as she glanced down to the green band around her left bicep. A tiny patch in the design of a stylized Earth had been stitched onto the band. “Sorry,” she said, not sounding the least bit contrite. “You pulled me out of a Gaea meeting.”

“Well take it off,” Rosenberg snapped. “I don't want politics in my lab. When you're here, your job is your only concern.”

“All right, all right,” Halsey said, tugging the armband down her sleeve. She folded it up and stuck it into a pocket. “What'd you call me here for, anyway?”

“It's about the samples' genetics...”

“Well, obviously.”

Sighing at the interruption, Rosenberg said, “Yes, well. Have you looked at anything about the genetics results yourself?”

Halsey shook her head. “I've been focusing on organ structure and function, which is kind of boring when the biggest Rhea-mammal is the size of a vole. I haven't really heard anything since the big brouhaha early on when Rhea-life genes were found to be diploid.”