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Day Two Hundred and Fifteen: Time-Lost Mom

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment

For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.

Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.

Wish me luck!

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I wrote this from a cafe last night because there was a work party where I knew the booze would be flowing. It was a very wise choice, all told. While I was able to tweet with coherence, I wouldn’t put bets on being able to write more than 140 characters at a time.

Anyway, today’s character – chosen non-randomly this time – is Emma Confrey, from day 78: Mother’s Day. A secondary character we don’t know a lot about, but that’s okay. She’s important nonetheless and I think there’s something interesting about her.

Full disclosure: the story was inspired by an Idea Book I picked up at the Mark Twain House when I was back home in Connecticut, and this is one of the few stories that I wrote while I was on vacation. That in itself is deserving of some slow clapping, I think. The book suggested the first line – The last time I saw my mother was fifteen years ago – and my imagination just went off with itself. Starting from a catchy first line is a fun way to write, so if you ever think of a really snappy opener to a story, see where it leads you.

So, Emma. Let’s see what the story tells us about her. For one, she’s a scientist, and she clearly thinks that her daughter Donna ought to be one too. She’s the kind of mother that all teachers fear – the one who is so intimately involved with her daughter’s academic life that she may as well be running it. She pushed Donna into science classes, and saw no problem with doing her science fair project for her.

At the same time, she’s a very irresponsible and distant mother. Donna (who is the POV character in the story) tells of her mother spending most of her time in the garage/lab, rarely coming out to spend time with her child. There’s no indication in the story that she actually cares about what her daughter wants or needs, and only spends time with her when she eats or when it otherwise cannot be helped. For her part, Donna would rather stay with her father, but the pro-mother bias of family court didn’t agree with her.

In this story Emma announces that she’s built a time machine in the garage. Rather than try and spend time with her stuffy teenage daughter, she announces that she’s going to jump ahead fifteen years and have a drink with her much cooler, older daughter. She grabs a couple of beers, heads out into the garage, and vanishes. The machine indicates that her destination was August 11, 2026 at 10:24 AM.

Fifteen years later, against her better judgment, Donna comes back to the house. The house is dilapidated, and the machine has long since been shut off. Donna waits until the appointed time, but her mother never shows up.

What we can say easily about Emma is that she’s a really crappy mother. Her work is her life, and anything else is peripheral to that. Her disinterest in her daughter is so pronounced that she won’t even talk to her as she is – she has to go to the future where, presumably, a “better” daughter will be. One who, it who should be pointed out, would have lived for fifteen years without her mother’s influence, something I don’t think she really thought about.

So the real question is why she had a daughter in the first place? Perhaps it was something she thought would be interesting. Perhaps she thought it would make for an interesting project or experiment. Perhaps it was an irrational biological urge. Whatever it was, it passed quickly. She returned to her science, leaving her daughter and husband to take care of each other.

For his part, her father seems like a decent guy, even though we don’t see much of him in the story. I like to think that he honestly believed he would get custody if he divorced Emma, and it broke his heart when he didn’t,

The upshot to this – if there is any – is that Donna turned out to be remarkably self-sufficient. This is something she probably wouldn’t appreciate until she was older, but not having her mother to take care of her caused Donna to draw on her own creativity and strengths. Abandoning your child to her own devices isn’t a recommended parenting technique, but if you must do it you should hope your child is strong enough to work life out on its own.

Emma did build a time machine, by the way. It worked just as she meant it to, the problem was her lack of foresight rearing its ugly head: without anyone to take care of the house, the electricity was shut off. No electricity meant no power to the time machine, which meant that she couldn’t complete the trip she’d started. If she had been a better mother, perhaps, Donna would have been able to keep the torch burning, as it were. She would have had an emotional investment in her other’s success.

But no. Emma stepped into that machine, and she was sent off on a one-way trip into the timestream. Perhaps if another character invents a time machine she can find her way back , but for now I’m assuming the same thing that Donna is assuming: her mother is dead and gone, and has been for a long time.

A happy story? Not at all. But I liked it anyway…

Day Seventy-eight: Mother’s Day

August 13, 2011 1 comment

The last time I saw my mother was fifteen years ago, thanks to that damn time machine of hers.

She made me take physics in high school, pushed and pushed me for success and high grades. When the time came for the science fair, she took over instantly. My plan to do a simple demonstration of pendulum action was shoved to the wayside in favor of a prototype of her laser refraction system, a new method of capturing photons in a supercooled gas chamber that no high school student in the world would ever think of trying. “Donna,” she said, “this will completely guarantee you an A. Promise.”

“Mom,” I said, “on what world do you think that a high school freshman could be able to put together a super laser-defrackulator thingie? No one will buy it for a second!”

We argued about it for days, a roundabout argument that didn’t end until I packed a backpack full of clothes and set out for my dad’s house, which is where I managed to put together a model that did what I wanted, but didn’t actually win anything.

I think it was about a week before she noticed I was gone and showed up at my dad’s, looking to take me home. In a perfect world I could have stayed there, but this world had a judge that believed that a mother was a better caretaker than a father no matter that the mother was far more likely to, say, blow out the power grid for an entire neighborhood on a whim.

My friends used to joke that she was a mad scientist. I didn’t find those jokes nearly as funny as they did.

The night before my junior prom was the last time I saw my mother. She had taken over the garage with her latest experiment, something that she swore up and down was a time machine. The explanation of how it worked was technical and confusing, especially since no matter how hard she pushed, I was never really interested in the science that she was doing. All I knew was that she would be in there when I got home from school, surface long enough to eat the dinner that I made, and then she’d go away again. All I would hear from her would be the hum of machinery, the occasional “WHUMP” of a small explosion.

This night, however, she emerged from the garage in a cloud of smoke and a howl of triumph. “I got it!” she yelled.

“Great,” I said, re-checking a math problem. “Don’t give it to me.”

“No, no, no, sweetie – I got it! The machine, it works!”

“Uh-huh.” I didn’t look up. “Congratulations.”

She went to the sink to wash her hands. “This will revolutionize everything,” she said. “The future is finally open to us, and pretty soon I’ll be able to get to the past, too.” She went to the fridge, grabbed a beer and popped the top off. “Here’s to the greatest advancement in science since the discovery of fire.” She took a long pull off the bottle and handed it to me. “Want some?”

I glared at her. “Seventeen, mom. Remember?”

“Nonsense,” she said. “Time is meaningless now.” She finished the beer and then snapped her fingers. “You know what? I’m going to have a beer with you.” She went back to the fridge for two more bottles.

“Mom,” I said, “I have homework to do and the prom is tomorrow. I am not getting drunk with you.”

“I didn’t say ‘get drunk,’ I said ‘have a drink.’ Big difference.” She turned around with a grin on her face and a weird light in her eyes. “And I didn’t say I was going to do it tonight, oh no. I’m going to have a drink with you when you’re older and better able to appreciate what your mother has done for you.”

“Mom…”

She held up the beer-less hand. “No, no,” she said. “I’m going to go have a beer with you fifteen years in the future. We’ll laugh, we’ll have a good time, and you’ll see!”

I watched her go to the garage door and just shrugged. There was nothing I could do to change her mind. There was never anything I could do. So I waved at her, said “Travel safely,” and went back to my homework. A few minutes later there was a grinding noise and a squeal and another “WHUMP” noise, and that was it.

My prom date called a little while later to make sure we knew when we were meeting. We chatted for a while, and then hung up. I wrapped up the math homework by nine, made something to eat and then watched a little TV. Before I went to bed, I poked my head into the garage and said, “Mom? I’m going to sleep!” She didn’t answer, but there was always a 50-50 chance there.

So I went to bed.

The next day I got up, ate, went to school. Came home, fussed over the prom dress and my hair, and my date arrived at five. Zach was adorable in his rented tux, and he told me I looked pretty, which was all I really wanted to hear. I went back to the garage before we left to tell her I was leaving, and there was still no answer. I looked in a little more.

The garage was empty. Just her twisted mass of cables and machinery that had occupied the garage for months. I rolled my eyes.

“Everything okay?” Zach asked from behind me.

“Yeah,” I said. “She’s probably out scavenging computer parts or twigs and leaves or something like that.”

He smiled and gave me a hug from behind. “Off building a sub-orbital death ray again?”

I turned around in his arms. “Are you kidding? Geosynchronous – to make sure unscrupulous boyfriends don’t get too fresh.” He smiled and kissed me and I kissed him back.

Prom was great and we stayed out all night. By the time I got home, the sun was rising and I was exhausted. I peeked into the garage, but there was still no sign of her, and my half-asleep brain resolved to do something about this before too long. I slept all day and ordered pizza for dinner. There was still no sign of mom, and that was about when I started to worry. I called the few people she might have been with, but they hadn’t seen her. I called my dad, but he didn’t know where she was.

I went into the garage to see if there was anything that might help. She’d never forbidden me to go into the garage, of course. I’d just never really been interested in taking a look around. Nothing she made was ever useful or even cool, so I pretty much just walled it off in my head as Her Space and let it be.

Now I was finally getting a look at what she’d been doing all this time. The center of the room was occupied by a circular platform, which was surrounded by cables and wires and ducts and other stuff that I couldn’t identify. There were tall racks of electronics nearby, all blinking gently in the dim light, and the place smelled of ozone and motor oil. Near the platform there was an aluminum suitcase with a small display inside. On the display it said: AUGUST 11 2026 10:24 AM.

I stared at it for a moment, and said, “No. Not a chance.” There was no way in hell that my mother had actually built a working time machine. I mean, she was good – she came up with some weird ideas that almost worked all the time, but this? A time machine was more than I was willing to believe.

She didn’t come home, though. Not that night or the next one or the one after that. No phone calls or emails, either. She had her flaky moments, yes, but not like this. After a few days, I had to call the police. They asked all the standard questions – what was she wearing, where did you last see her, all that. My father came over to help with the formalities, and I showed them the garage with the “time machine” in it. The police took notes and said they’d be in touch. I moved in with my father, and that was pretty much it. Mom never came back. The house was foreclosed on, since no one was paying its mortgage anymore. No one would buy it because the place was riddled with mom’s “improvements,” and they couldn’t demolish it because no one had any idea what kind of chemicals and toxins and whatnots would be released if they did. So it languished in the town bureaucracy for ages, gathering dust.

I graduated from high school with honors and went on to college, majoring in anthropology. Zach and I broke up because he wanted to study astrophysics in Colorado, and there was no way I was moving out there. I traveled around the world, observing various non-technological peoples in other countries, and on occasion I wished that my mother’s time machine really had worked. It would be the anthropologist’s dream to go back in time and see how early humans lived, document their evolution over the millennia.

Mom missed out on all the fun of my early twenties. My father loved every minute of it, of course, watching me figure out what to do with my life, making mistakes and becoming a better person, all those things. But he never mentioned my mother. And neither did I. She was gone and, well, that was that.

On that date – August 11, 2026, I went back to the house. It was a horrible-looking place, hidden behind some hedges and trees that people in the neighborhood had planted to make it seem like less of a blight. If they couldn’t get rid of it, they could at least hide it from view. I popped open the door, scaring off some small animals that had nested in the front hall, and picked through the decaying, graffiti’d downstairs to the garage.

Most of the electronics had been stolen years ago. The rest were cold and covered with dust, or smashed and lying on the ground. Local teenagers maybe, or transients. It didn’t matter. The machine was a long time dead, dusty and defaced.

I checked my watch. 10:20 AM. Only a few minutes to go. I thought about what I would say or do if she appeared in front of me. Cry? Scream? Hug her? Punch her? Maybe she didn’t know what would happen when she took her little jaunt into the future. Maybe it never occurred to her what the ramifications would be. Or maybe it did, and she really didn’t care. I dusted off a crate and sat down.

It was hard not to look at my watch while I waited for the moment to come. It was harder still not to berate myself for thinking that she would actually show up, maybe in a flash of light and sound, or that she’d just be there, grinning madly and holding a couple of cold bottles of beer.

When I finally relented and looked down at my watch, it was 10:25. Past time, and she wasn’t there.

Against my will, my heart sank. Part of me had hoped she would be there, even though I was absolutely sure she wouldn’t be. I stood up, dusted off my pants, and took a deep breath. “Thanks, mom,” I said into the empty room, and then I turned and left.

Mom was gone. Wherever she was, I hoped she was happy. I left the decomposing house and went back to my life. Back to my future, which was now well and truly my own.

Day Thirty-three: Monsters

June 23, 2011 4 comments

It was only twenty seconds after Paul Alexander Barbeau was born that the first murderer appeared.

His mother, Alyssa, had just taken him to her breast. His father, Ollie, was still filming, and babbling with great happiness over the birth of his first child. The doctor was just about to say something about ten fingers and ten toes when a man burst into the room. He was wearing a smoking leather jacket with a blue ideogram embossed on the back, and was waving what was unmistakably a gun.

“NEVER AGAIN!” he bellowed, and leveled the gun at the newborn. He was only stopped because one of the maternity nurses had done a tour of duty in Afghanistan and was quick on her feet.

The man was arrested and brought to trial for attempted murder under the name of John Doe, as he refused to give his name. He had no records, of course, although his fingerprints seemed to match those of Matthew Dixon, a six year-old from Milwaukee whose parents had helpfully enrolled him in a police database in the event that he was ever abducted. The coincidence was dismissed as such, and John Doe was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Paul Alexander Barbeau slept through the whole incident, completely undisturbed.

When interviewed by the police, his parents were understandably shaken and upset. Nothing like this had ever happened to them before, they said. Oliver Barbeau was a junior high school math teacher, and Alyssa had quit her job as a medical secretary to become a stay at home mother. They had never had trouble with the law, never been in a fight, and they had no idea why someone would want to kill their beautiful baby boy.

As the years passed, the Barbeaus began to realize that their son was special. All parents think their child is perfect and brilliant and absolutely better than everyone else’s children. In the Barbeaus’ case, they had reason to be proud. He was speaking in full sentences by the time he was two, was already well on his way to learning his multiplication tables, and only a week before his third birthday party had managed to take apart the television remote. He wasn’t able to put it back together, of course, but he said he did it “to see how it worked.” The Barbeaus were looking into a gifted program for Paul as soon as he was old enough to enter one.

The team that assaulted the birthday party was better prepared than the man who had broken into the delivery room. Three people – two men and a woman – crashed through the front door right before the candles were lit. They held the party hostage for the better part of four hours before the police were able to get a team in to end the standoff. The local evening news led with the story, running the videotape that had been couriered to them only an hour before the standoff began.

On the video, the three – who were dressed in paramilitary outfits, all wearing a blue insignia on an armband – proclaimed that they were saving the world from the future. “As a result of our actions,” the woman said to the camera, “we will appear to be monsters. The terror we lived through, the terror spawned by Paul Barbeau, will never come to pass. We are willing to accept our fate, that we should become monsters, for the good of the world.”

All three were killed during the police assault. Like the man three years earlier, their prints were either not on record or matched children elsewhere, prompting a call for better police computer systems across the state. When interviewed by the police, the Barbeaus said that they didn’t know any of the assailants, though Mr. Barbeau did recognize the insignia they had on their armbands.

“When I was in college,” he said, “a guy tried to mug me on my way to my first date with Alyssa. He jumped out of the bushes in broad daylight, yelling incoherently – and I remember he had the same thing on his arm. Kind of a blue eye-thing, I think. I tried wrestling him to the ground, but he had a knife.” Here, Barbeau lifted his sleeve to show a thin white scar that ran up the inside of his arm. “You know, I was lucky that campus security happened to be nearby, or I would have been killed.”

Unfortunately, this kind of incident became almost commonplace during Paul’s eventful childhood. By the time he was ten, he traveled in an armored car with a security detail whenever he went to the Max Planck Magnet School for Gifted Youth. His parents were among the first to take part in a specialized security service offered by Cerbecorp Security Enterprises, which donated officers, vehicles and body armor to the Barbeaus and their associates.

“It’s nothing new for me, of course,” his mother said after another failed attempt on Paul’s life at a local summer camp – the second in three months. “I’ve been dealing with this since I was a little girl. These crazy Blue-Arms have had it in for me and Ollie since we were both kids in foster care. I mean, I’ve never known why they want to kill us, and it was disturbing at first, but after a while you get used to it. It just becomes part of your life.”

The closest Paul Alexander Barbeau came to death was during the science fair in his senior year of high school, when he was twelve. Adeline Kramer, a biology teacher of fifteen years, allegedly slipped a toxic substance into Paul’s drink. While giving a presentation to a standing room only crowd at the National High School Science Competition on his work in the field of nanocybernetics, Paul collapsed mid-sentence. As his team of bodyguards rushed to his side, Kramer began shouting, “It’s all over! The beast is dead!” At this point, she drew a handgun and fired two shots at Paul.

Two other science competition participants – Treva Vanderburg and Julianne Goodlet – were seriously injured in the shooting. Ms. Kramer died when her neck was broken as she was tackled to the ground by Lee Wrackman, a member of Paul’s security team, in a moment that echoed Wrackman’s first rescue of Paul only moments after the boy was born. Paul was rushed to the hospital where doctors were able to save his life.

In a press conference, Paul Barbeau, with the family lawyers and security standing by, said that he bore no ill-will towards the woman, or towards any of the people who had threatened the lives of himself and his family since before he was born. “There are those who do not see the world as I do. They do not see the future that I see. With my work, I will be able to one day rid the world of the plagues of mankind. I will make a brilliant future for humanity, one which will allow us to become what we always wished we could be.”

The press conference was quickly evacuated when one of the reporters accidentally discovered a large satchel bomb under the stage. The bomb was successfully disarmed by the police, and no one was injured.

The Barbeau family soon left for an unknown destination. For five years, no word could be had of the whereabouts of Paul Barbeau or his family, until his announcement that he had developed a neurocybernetic viral analogue that would safely cure nearly all forms of human disease.

In a remote video feed, he explained the basics of the technology – a hardy, self-replicating nanovirus that could be spread through the air – in a presentation that ended with Paul Barbeau injecting himself with a fluid that allegedly contained his “miracle cure.”

“Starting with me,” he said, “the world will enter a whole new era, unlike any that it has seen before.” His image was replaced with a 3-D rendering of the blue Barbeau Pharmaceuticals logo, with the words, “A New Tomorrow” superimposed underneath.

“Come with me,” Barbeau said in the voiceover. “Together we will make a new world.”