My father may no longer be human. But we're still family. Kind of. Enjoy “Intestate,” a new original story by Charlie Jane Anders, winner of the 2012 Hugo Award for her Tor.com novelette “Six Months, Three Days.”
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
1. road trip
The minivan is already full of children when it pulls up to my front steps. I climb into the deepest pit facing out the back door, and plunk my rucksack in my lap. Before I even buckle up, my youngest niece Rosemary is grabbing at my jeans leg and trying to show me a doll, while her brother Sebastian is threatening to shoot me with a toy gun. The whole van smells like mildew and overripe fruit. Empty juice boxes scatter over my feet. This will be a long ride.
“Welcome aboard, Emmy. Next stop, Castle von Doom,” my youngest brother Eric says from the front seat. His brown hair is receding, and he’s grown a wispy soul patch. Next to him, his latest wife Octavia is trying to find indy folk-rock on the iPod. They both wave at me, and then we’re off. Eric drives faster than you would think a man driving a van-load of his own children would go, even on the back roads full of hairpin turns and big trees.
Eric keeps joking about how we’re going to visit Doctor Doom, his newest nickname for our father. “He’s going to bake us doomcookies,” Eric says.
“Doomcookies!” Rosemary shouts.
“Made with doomberries,” Octavia says.
“Doomberries!” we all shout, even me. I only feel a little disloyal to my father.
The hills are full of disappearing acts, like sheep meadows and barns that pop out for just a few moments. There’s almost too much color to take in, between the trees that are going red and swathes of evergreens. Rosemary asks if she can count the sheep, or if that will make her doze off. I tell her to try, and see what happens. We are driving in the middle of the road, directly over the yellow lines, when a jeep comes around the tight bend and nearly rams into us. Eric swerves back into our lane, hyperventilating a little. Next to me, Rosemary has fallen asleep.
We get lost twice, and have to stop for pee breaks and ice cream and hot dogs, but we’re still the first to arrive at the failed gated community where my dad lives. We roll off the main road into a small feeder road, which leads to a broken gate, and then a cul-de-sac with five driveways. The last one goes to a big McMansion with two gables and a huge lawn in front, and acres of forest in back. The other four driveways lead to dirt lots or to empty, collapsing houses. As we roll up the rocky driveway on grumbling tires, my dad skips out the front door. His white beard and glasses catch the sunlight. Even though it feels like the day has gone on forever, it’s only noon.
“It’s Doctor Doom,” Eric says with no sarcasm.
2. my father’s hands
When I was little, my father was a pair of hands. Later, he was a torso that I fell into like sleep. Maybe, occasionally, he was rough laughter just over my head.
The first time I could remember being aware of my father as a whole person was when he changed. He went away on a research trip, and when he came home, he’d grown a beard and gotten a pair of thick glasses. All of a sudden, this stranger was kissing my mother and moving around us kids as though he had a right. He smelled yeasty. I hadn’t been conscious of what my dad looked like before, but this was clearly some kind of home invader, who had tricked everybody. I ran and hid under my mom’s dresser.
Now, my father’s hands move almost too fast for me to make out clearly. He carves a honey-baked ham to make sandwiches for us, and he flips the carving knife around like a Benihana chef while the kids cheer. Nobody knows exactly what he’s done to upgrade his hands, under all the liver spots and calluses. We know better than to ask.
“Don’t teach the kids to play with knives, dad,” Eric says at last.
Two nights ago, my sister Joanna called me, the first time we’d talked in months. “You know you’re probably going to get the hands, Emmy,” she said randomly at one point. “You’re his favorite, even after everything. You could probably get whichever parts of him you wanted.” Joanna is the only one of us kids who inherited Dad’s genius, she got a math PhD and even helped solve some theorems and things. She wound up being a super-actuary at one of the top insurance companies, and she can rattle off the chances of anything bad happening to anyone.
My father picks up Rosemary and Sebastian in each arm, holding them up to his Santa beard and cradling them. He bounces on the balls of his feet like he’s about to start Lindy-hopping.
I turn away for a second, and see a strange tapestry on the sitting room wall, way on the other side of the house. And then I realize, it’s not a tapestry. It’s a beehive in a glass case, open to a small apiary out back.
My dad comes up behind me, almost soundless, and touches my bare shoulder. His fingers are cool and a little sandpapery. “Looking good, Em. You’ve cut your hair in a bob, and gotten yourself a pair of glasses with baroque frames,” he says, by way of saying, “I see you.” He seems distracted. For a moment his hand stays in place and we watch the bees together, and I wonder if this means that we’ve patched things up between us. Or if we’re just pretending we’ve patched it up, and if there’s any difference. I try not to wonder if this is one of our last real moments together.
“Happy eightieth birthday, Dad,” Eric says, joining us, lite beer in hand. “I hope I look half as good when I’m your age.”
3. intellectual property
By late afternoon Friday, pretty much everyone has arrived, and my dad’s house, the embarrassingly named Thimblewick, is overrun. There are my three older brothers and one older sister, plus their fourteen children and even a few grandchildren. There are only two bedrooms inside the house, besides my dad’s, and by common consent those go to the families with babies: My nephew Derek and his twin daughters Marjorie and Isabella, and my nephew Roger and his son Gregor.
And yes, Isabella’s last name is Pinch, like almost all of us. We all call her Izzy, though “Izzy Pinch” is still kind of ludicrous. She’ll just have to own it, I guess.
The rest of us wind up putting up tents, all over the lawn and the clearing out back before the woods. Dad swears the bees are practically wintering already, and won’t bother us. Of course, everybody starts getting stung, until Dad closes some vent. We build three bonfires, including one on the front lawn, where we dig a huge pit. It hardly matters — one of the banks will take the house soon enough.
After dark, Dad produces two turkeys and a bloated turducken from a massive oven, and starts carving them on a big folding table in the back yard. He can carve two turkeys simultaneously, although after he notices people watching he starts focusing on just one at a time. He shifts his weight effortlessly as he moves around the table. My sister Joanna is watching carefully, to see how he does it. Joanna’s hair has gone mostly gray, and she’s gotten hatched-faced.
Joanna told me she expects to inherit Dad’s pelvis and hips, when he dies. She thinks he developed some sort of technology that would revolutionize hip replacements everywhere. A new self-lubricating type of acetabular, plus there’s a gel in his hip sockets that’s full of these special bacteria that Dad found in the Antarctic that absorb the impact when his feet strike the ground, and turn it into energy.
It’s undeniably creepy the way Joanna covets her father’s pelvis.
Someone has set up speakers in the backyard, playing classic Motown and Stax. The music doesn’t even begin to drown out the lamentation of the children, who have just realized that (a) they’re camping out in the cold, (b) there’s only enough hot water for a few showers at any given time of day, and (c) there’s no internet or cellphone service. I hear one of my nieces, Deedee I think, explaining very seriously that if she can’t get online for two days, she will have lost all social status. Forever.
“I figure we’ve got a day, tops, until it’s full-on Hunger Games out here,” Eric says, like he relishes the idea.
All of the adults stay up late, drinking pungent scotch and reminiscing around the biggest bonfire. At least some of the kids get their usual bedtimes revoked as well, so that there are little white blobs running around us and shrieking. Every few minutes a kid comes running up and says that a kid hit another kid, and someone has to do something.
I wind up sitting next to my father, close enough to the fire that my face and eyes get dehydrated and I’m flushed, and it is like a perfect facsimile of emotional openness. My father sits perfectly straight, his spine effortlessly creating the posture of an 18-year-old Alexander technique student. His neck is a very pale green.
“I’m surprised,” I say, “you can sit this close to the fire. Don’t you have some parts that’ll melt or something?”
My dad just laughs and cocks his head.
With the loose clothes my father is wearing, you can’t even tell what he’s replaced. Most of the legs, for sure. The hip joints. The spine. The skin on his neck, of course. Rumor has it that his whole rib cage is some kind of hydrogen-based generator now. My dad can drink whiskey and eat spicy food without being in horrible pain afterwards, because he’s upgraded his stomach and turned his appendix into some kind of backup filtration unit. He can breathe smoky air better than I can. Nobody will know for sure what he’s done, until someone cuts him up.
Neither of us has talked in a while. I get the feeling my dad is trying to say something that I need to hear. I try to make a silence that he can speak into. We both stare straight ahead, at the pillar of fire. Eventually, my middle brother Dudley comes up and says that there’s a problem with the toilets. Both of them. My dad laughs and says he’ll get his plumbing tools. I stay by the fire, hoping eventually I’ll feel sleepy.
My father told me a hundred stories that he made up on the spot when he used to tuck me in at night, but I forgot them all and he claims he did too. Intellectual property is like that, he told me once. You can write ideas down but then they get trapped in a shape they can’t grow out of. That wasn’t the reason he’d started confining his biomechanical innovations to just his own body, though — it was more because his body was the one thing his creditors couldn’t ever take away. He was in debt so deep, he had to become a limited liability corporation and then sue himself out of existence.
4. two boats
Saturday morning, my dad announces he’s taking a hike in the woods. Anyone who wants to is welcome to join him. He also claims the woods are deer tick-free, although he won’t say why. He passes out identical bright red scarves for everybody, so that we all look like carolers. Or cultists.
Everybody’s so bored by this point that we all agree to go along with him, although that means that our departure gets endlessly delayed because somebody’s baby needs to be changed, or there would be hell to pay if my nephew Stephen doesn’t have a juicebox.
“I’ve been trying to keep my kids from going off in the woods by themselves,” my brother Dudley says. “Even though when we were kids, we ran around in the woods all the time. Now, though, I keep thinking there could be snakes or raccoons. Raccoons can be vicious. I don’t want my kids getting the idea it’s okay to wander.” Dudley has gained a lot of weight lately, and it suits him.
“I thought the reason people kept their kids on a leash nowadays was because they were worried about kidnappers and pedophiles,” I said. “And you know, there’s probably none of those within a hundred miles of here. We could look it up, do a Megan’s Law thing, if we had the internet.”
I might be infertile. I might not. My ex and I tried for a few years, with no luck. But I never wanted to go get the tests because if they found something, then it would be a medical problem all of a sudden, and I’d be trapped on the conveyer belt. My dad taught me early on that sometimes the secret to happiness is figuring out which questions you’re better off not answering.
My oldest brother Robert thinks my father experimented on me in the womb and that’s why I can’t have children. But Robert would be ready to believe almost any horror story about Dad.
Finally, we’re all ready to go on the hike, and then somebody realizes that one of the children is a fake. That is, he’s not any of our kids. He doesn’t even look like a member of our family. He’s too perfect, too blond and tow-headed. Everybody always checks to make sure their own kids are all accounted for, but nobody ever checks to see if there are too many children. My brother Robert and I drag the kid, whose name is Nicky, inside the house to interrogate him, and it only takes a few minutes before he confesses: he’s an infiltrator. Nicky’s a child actor, whose main claim to fame is being a featured extra during the third season of He’s The Champ, and his talent agency has repurposed him for corporate espionage. He won’t say who his client is; it could be any of a dozen companies.
“I’ll drive him to the nearest town and drop him off,” Robert says.
“I’ll ride with you,” I say. So the two of us get in Robert’s hatchback and drive to Somerset in total silence, with Nicky in the back seat staring at us. We leave Nicky at a Friendly’s with a payphone, and we give him five bucks.
There’s no kid listening in on our conversation on the way back, but Robert and I still don’t talk to each other. Robert’s almost old enough to be my father himself, but he looks much older than that.
When Robert is parking, on the side of the driveway near the bottom, I ask him what part of Dad he thinks he’ll inherit.
Robert pauses in the middle of pulling up the parking brake. He looks at me for the first time. “The feet,” he says at last. “You notice Dad is never barefoot, and he wears those clown shoes. I think he’s got transgenic monkey feet, or something along those lines. He never loses his balance.” Then he gets out of the car and jogs up to the house, where everybody is ready to walk into the woods.
Joanna was the one who spread this idea that we would each get a piece of Dad when he passed away. She had some phone conversation with him where he said we would all be provided for, and we would all have something to remember him by. She swears he was pretty explicit about the arrangement.
My father is much taller than I remember, taller even than he was yesterday. His grandchildren cluster around his waist, asking him questions about himself. At first I think they’re actually curious about grandpa’s wartime experiences in Korea, like when he got kidnapped by pirates from Pusan who were raiding Taiwanese shipping in an old gunboat, and he drank too much homemade soju and saw some sort of “maenad” floating over the sea foam. But no. The kids are just trying to get my dad to explain how to get the internet turned on.
None of us brought a cellphone, so we have no way of keeping track of time, but it feels like an hour later when we finally come through the woods into a big clearing. A boat looms out of the tall grass and blanched dandelions. It’s an old-fashioned sailing ship, and you can glimpse a big wooden steering wheel on deck. It’s wooden, and half rotted, but the seven sails are clean and crisp and white.
Rosemary squeals and runs towards the boat, but my dad grabs her and scoops her up, putting a finger to his lips.
A deer comes out of the wide-open side of the boat, then looks at us. No horns, but a huge sinewy body, as tall as I am. A doe, then. Her body is dotted with clouds. She stands for a moment, then scampers into the forest. Another deer comes out of the boat, then another and another.
“It’s the deer boat,” my father says. As if he’s just proved something to us, that he’s been claiming all along.
5. metal birds
Several years ago, my father stopped talking to me. He didn’t announce he was cutting me off, and I didn’t notice for a few weeks, or maybe even longer. And then I thought it was just another one of those queasy Dad moments, like when I converted to Christianity, or when I came out as a lesbian. It took a while to know for sure: this was different. My father was making a point of not talking to me, even when I spoke directly to him, like at a family dinner or something.
My mom was still alive, and I pleaded with her to tell me what was going on, but she said she didn’t feel like playing telephone with my dad and me. Mom was tired a lot. Nobody thought it meant anything.
I went home and stalked my dad. He still walked with a limp from his Korean war injury back then, so he couldn’t get away from me. “Please,” I said, “please just tell me. Whatever it is we’ll fix it. There can’t be something so bad we can’t make it right, between us, you can build anything, and I make problems go away for a living. Please, dad. Dad. This could be the last time we see each other, are you really going to waste it shutting me out? Please just say something.” He just gazed at me like there were no words. His neck gave off a pale green bioluminescence, because it was dusk.
Weeks passed, maybe months. I was bucking for a promotion at Real Outcome Solutions, so I only thought about my dad’s latest weirdness every now and then. And then my mom was officially sick and that took precedence.
One day my father sent me an email, with just a link to a video, about a minute long. A drone aircraft, a UAV, was flying over the desert, more graceful than any airplane with people inside could ever be. The plane coasted and then dove, like it was going to buzz someone’s house in the wilderness. And then a streak of smoke came out of it, and the house burst. The next thing you saw was a crater.
The videos started coming every few days after that, beautiful instructional films and blurry cellphone footage, always showing metal birds in the desert.
After a few weeks, my father sent a link to an article, about how my company had helped secure the government contract for these UAVs with a particular contractor. I remembered sitting in on some of those meetings, but it wasn’t my baby or anything. And another article about civilian deaths. And a few days later, a third article, about how that company was suing my father and some of his friends over patents.
I never knew which pissed my father off more: that his designs were helping to kill babies, or that he was getting ripped off.
My mom’s survival chances dropped below 40 percent and we gave up on the radiation and the cyberknife. I took indefinite leave and moved back home to help take care of Mom. Eventually, Dad and I had to start talking again, because it’s hard to avoid speaking to someone when you’re each supporting one arm of a dying person.
6. the announcement
Saturday night, someone has rigged up a tire swing on a branch, which breaks and nearly kills Deedee. We need one car to go pick up groceries, and a separate van for the booze run. Everybody is looking at the tent city surrounding the house and making loud, meaningful groans. The bonfires are twice as big as the night before.
“It’s like a medieval siege.” Eric gestures at the tents ringing my dad’s fake castle. “It just needs a moat and some catapults. I’m kind of surprised my dad doesn’t have an alligator moat, actually.”
“Shark moat,” Octavia says. “Not alligator moat. A mad scientist always has a shark moat.”
“After this, we’ve done our duty, for like ever,” Dudley’s wife Ayanna is saying on the other side of the big fire. “This is the big reunion, and after this we’re golden for like a year or two. Right?”
“I sure freaking hope so,” Dudley says under his breath, but still kind of loud. Dudley grew up thinking he would always be the youngest sibling, until eventually Eric and I were born and he was just another middle kid.
“This is probably Dad’s last chance to torture all of us at the same time.” Robert has come up beside Dudley, Ayanna and me, hot dog in one hand and red plastic cup in the other. “Efficiency has always been a paramount value to him.”
A while later, Joanna claims that my father offered to make a batch of LSD for any of his grandchildren who wanted some, as long as they were over the age of fifteen.
“Is it true?” I ask my dad in the backyard, where he’s toasting marshmallows. “Did you really offer to make acid for your grandkids? Who are running around, in proximity to three large open flames?”
My dad just shrugs and says that at his age, the best you can hope for is to have good stories told about you. Then he’s swallowed by darkness.
By midnight, there is a nearly constant howling coming from all around us. Living in a city, you forget how dark the world can get. I feel like if I quit drinking vodka, I will start feeling prematurely hungover. I have had too much chocolate. Every few minutes, a child runs over my legs. I am remembering that I promised to help out with childcare this weekend, as the only childless adult here. The damp, freezing walk to the house for a bathroom break and vodka nearly breaks me.
“’Will’ is a weird word,” says Eric, who used to be a novelist and also a teacher, among many other things. “I mean, it’s the most future-looking word in the English language. We talk about what ’will’ happen. But when you actually will something to happen, we use the word ’shall,’ not ’will.’ And we reserve the verb ’will’ for things that are going to happen, whether you will them to or not. And when someone dies, their final message to the future is their will and testament. Testament, of course, being a word that only has to do with the past, because you testify about what’s already happened. So ’will and testament’ is like the future and the past in one document, except that it’s just a pointless list of material objects.”
We’ve all been avoiding mentioning the question of dad’s will, at least overtly, but Eric is an asshole. Eric already mentioned that he wants dad’s spine, he thinks it has some kind of carbon fiber nanotube thing.
The sun comes up, with its usual memory-erasing properties. The moment sunlight hits my retinas, the previous seven hours become an indistinct dream. My father and I are the last two people standing, near the ugly smouldering pit in the front yard. I am wearing two coats, and still feel colder than I can ever remember feeling. Dad’s glasses are misted up. He does tai-chi.
“Happy birthday,” I tell him.
There’s another big silence, and then I try to tell Dad that I’m sorry about the UAV thing. I know it was wrong. And as far as I’m concerned, he and I are good. I hope he thinks we’re good too. Whatever happens going forward, I hope we’ve found forgiveness for each other. And so on.
He puts his left hand on my shoulder. “We’re family, Em,” he says in my ear. Is it my imagination, or is there a clickety-clack vibration coming from his palm? “We never forgive each other. That’s what separates families from just any random assortment of people.”
Then he walks away, faster than I could hope to keep pace with, because he has a thousand waffles worth of batter to pour.
I sit down on the very edge of the pit and stare into the ashes. The ground is dew-soaked. The tents start jostling as people wake up from almost no sleep. The grown-ups cry out for coffee, the children start asking how soon they can go home. Eric is convinced he’s lost one of his children, until we find her sleeping in the linen closet. I keep staring ahead and downward. My eyes are full of floaters.
“Hey,” says my teenage nephew Terence. “They told me to come tell you that there are waffles. Plus Grandpa Mervyn has an announcement or something.”
We all crowd inside the kitchen/living room, two dozen of us perched on whatever furniture didn’t go in the bonfire. My father stands at a table piled with waffles, pinging a mimosa glass with a tea spoon. “If I could have your attention,” he says.
Joanna nudges me, like this is it. Robert and I catch each other’s eye for a second, and he shrugs with his hands up. Eric leans forward in his chair, nearly knocking Sebastian and Rosemary off his lap.
My father pauses, milking the suspense. He sips his mimosa and says, “I’m sorry to have to tell you all, I have cancer. It’s already metastasized. I waited too long to get rid of the other lung. Stupid mistake. Most of you will probably never see me alive after today.” He starts passing out waffles, asking people if they want a pat of butter on top, so that nobody has a chance to ask him any questions.
Halfway through the waffle breakfast, we notice that my father has vanished. The metal door leading to his basement laboratory is locked. And there’s a laminated sign saying not to enter, because the air down there is not breathable to normal humans. I make a half-hearted attempt to pound on the door. Joanna tries to talk Dad out of there, but he doesn’t talk back.
An hour later, I’m back in the minivan. Eric is driving twice as fast as before, on almost no sleep. As we crest a giant hill and a dozen windmills appear, Eric says randomly, “I guess we’ll have to wait to find out who gets which part of Dad, until we hear the reading of the will. I’m kind of glad nobody gets to call dibs on anything.” I get a spasm in my shoulder from twisting around to see where we’re going, so I give up and settle for a view of the lengthening road behind us.
My father has never told us much about the weird vision he saw as a young man at sea, except that he called it a maenad and it seemed holy. Although he mentioned once, when I got my first training bra, that the maenad had a dozen breasts, each shaped like a perfect tidal wave. The maenad rose out of the sea spray, almost translucent, and its gaze seemed to encompass the whole of the rusty gunship before narrowing down to my father. The maenad appeared to smile at Dad. That’s how he knew it was time to go home.
Thanks to Terry Johnson, Nurith Amitai and Dave Goldberg for scientific advice.
Copyright © 2012 by Charlie Jane Anders
Art copyright © 2012 by Lou Beach