About Jake is the first science-fiction story I’ve ever published, though not the first science-fiction story I ever wrote. That story is out making rounds at the moment.
“About Jake” appeared online in Bewildering Stories No. 649.
“Our baby has slipped into a coma.”
I stared at a stain on the waiting room floor.
“Van? Van! Did you even hear me?”
At the sound of Zelda’s voice, I snapped from my reverie, glanced up. My wife stood at the entrance of the nanosurgery ward like an apparition.
“Van? Are you all right?”
I shifted in the hard plastic dreamsicle-shaded chair. “What about Jake? What have you heard?”
“Baby, I just told you. He’s gone into a coma.”
“When?” I reached up to touch my wife’s arm.
She stepped back from me and looked down the hall. Her jawline was clear and taut, and her cheeks were sunken. A muscle twitched and rolled her lip up in a sneer.
“When,” she said without looking at me. “You’re asking how long he… he…” The words got caught in her mouth. She coughed and looked at the floor.
“How?” I said.
She didn’t say anything.
Bent over in the chair, with elbows denting thighs, I clasped the back of my head like a soldier surrendering and swallowed hard to force back tears.
“It was supposed to be a simple procedure,” I said to the tiles. “It wasn’t supposed to hurt him at all.”
This wasn’t what I wanted for my son. This wasn’t what I wanted for our family when I had agreed to surgery. I wanted a moment with him, just one, with whoever was locked inside his mind.
The surgeon had told us the procedure would be simple: a pinprick behind the ear with a microlaser, and then into the cut she would inject a swarm of biomimetic nanobots. These bots would find their way to Jake’s brain to reconnect misfiring neurons, the cause, it seemed, of any number of neurological disorders, including the type of autism that afflicted him.
My wife, her cheek pressed against the wall, reached out to touch the window. Her fingers splayed over it. She held her hand there for some time before gravity pulled her arm limply to her hip.
“Except everything was supposed to be perfect afterwards. Wasn’t it?” Zelda regarded me again. There was a barely perceptible streak in the mascara on her cheek where a tear escaped.
“It was, though. For a little while,” I said.
An hour after the surgery, Jake recognized us for the first time in his life; before, he had been unable to distinguish between minds separate from his own. I thought we had everything then.
“Mommy? Daddy?” His voice was powder-soft, but he looked at each of us in turn and smiled. Zelda and I embraced him and the two of us wept while Jake chattered our names and poked us both as he repeatedly identified us.
* * *
“So, what do we do now?” My wife turned away from me again and stared through the large picture window. “Just hold onto those memories? That will make everything all right? Is that how you see it, Van? For once, for a few minutes, you get to see your son as normal. That’s what makes you happy.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“That’s what this whole thing’s been about, Van. Making you happy.” She reached up and touched the window again.
“It was to make all of us happy, Zel. All three of us. You, me, Jake. All of us.”
She had her part in this decision, too. Van, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life babysitting him, she said. I want my career back.
She had left her job as a newscaster to have Jake. Any number of times she told me she was ready to go back to work.
It made sense. Jake was difficult at times, more than a normal kid. The unassailable tantrums when you moved a toy car out of its lineup. The inability to talk beyond simple sentences and mewling at age six. The costs of speech therapists, doctors, special schools, etc.
She told me more than once she wished Jake would disappear. I get it. I really do. I went through this. I think my parents wanted me to disappear. They “fixed” me, my low-spectrum Asperger’s. Gene mods, when gene mods were medicine’s cure-all.
I have the surgery scars in my abdomen to prove it. DNA from my dad’s gut neurons to alter mood and the tics in me that made me line my Hot Wheels up in perfect parades and throw tantrums when chaos came. Just like Jake. Only I could talk. And I was cured.
Six months after surgery, I showed no signs of Asperger’s. I passed fourth grade in “normal” classes. Became an ‘A’ student. Then a four-oh GPA all the way through an MBA. Five years out of school, an executive at a financial consulting firm. Instant success.
Except for Jake. Gene mods don’t change heredity, despite expectations. With Jake, I had failed. And now my son was suffering for it.
“You think Jake’s happy now?” Zelda said.
I stood up and started toward her. “Like you give a damn.”
Without looking at me, she flinched and walked away from the window to the end of the hall, where she disappeared through the two wide doors that led into Nanosurgery.
The shadow of a cloud moved past the window over me. I stood alone in the hallway staring at the doors as they shushed closed.
* * *
Zelda and I stood in the cramped room at Jake’s bedside. A ventilator pumped him air. His brain was rejecting the new neural connections.
We stood on either side of the bed holding his hands.
“See how normal this is, Van?” Zelda said. Her voice was toneless, as it had been earlier when she came out to tell me Jake had slipped into a coma. “This is your neuroscience miracle.”
She stroked Jake’s limp fingers.
“You don’t have to say anything,” I said. “Please don’t say anything.”
She stood across from me near the window, and couldn’t see what I did: a pink mix of blood and urine rivered through our son’s catheter and emptied into a plastic box at the foot of his bed. His kidneys were failing. He was dying.
I let go of his hand to ring the nurse.
The nurse came in and I turned to him and pointed at the almost full plastic box. “He’s dying. That means he’s dying, doesn’t it?”
The nurse placed his hand on my shoulder. “Why don’t you and your wife take a break? You both need some rest.”
* * *
Zelda left the room. I wanted to follow her, but stopped. It was clear by the way she shrugged away from me that she wanted to be alone. So, I left her alone.
I rode the elevator down to the first-floor cafeteria. It was dark and empty, except for the brightly lit snack bar. A woman stood behind the register, staring blankly past me into the hospital’s wide open lobby. I went up and asked her where the coffee was. She nodded at the urn behind me. I poured a cup, paid for it, and looked for a place to sit where it wasn’t too dark.
Above the table where I sat, a wall-mounted TV was playing an infovid about the signs of a stroke. I tried to follow it as I sipped my coffee, but all I could get through was the first bullet point:
Numbness or weakness in your face, arm or leg, especially on one side.
Then I lost my concentration. A surgeon in scrubs came in and also bought a coffee. The TV was playing several different programs on a continuous loop, each on a different disease and how to recognize symptoms. When I looked up from my coffee again, it had looped back to the stuff on strokes and the surgeon had left. I knew I had to get back. I dumped my coffee in the bin and waved to the woman at the register.
Upstairs, Jake’s nurse met me in the hallway.
“We just tried to get you on the PA,” he said.
Reflux burned up my esophagus. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“Jake. It’s about Jake. Something I can’t explain.”
He led me to Jake’s room. My wife was there. So was the surgeon. Something dropped inside me at the sight of them. I resisted the urge to go back out into the hallway. To run. To go have another cup of weak coffee in the cafeteria and wish it all away.
I thought my wife was smiling, even though her eyes were red-rimmed from crying.
They looked at me as if they wanted to yell “Surprise!” but Jake wasn’t getting up. He was lying stiffly on the bed, the ventilator rasping as it was before. Clearly, nothing had changed.
“Never seen anything like it,” Jake’s doctor said. “Totally unexpected results.”
I stood, puzzled. “It’s OK. You can tell me. He’s going to die. I know that.”
I looked at my son lying on the bed as if a corpse already. A shimmering, creamy gray tear oozed from the corner of his eye. I turned away and looked at the doctor.
The doctor pointed at the tear. “There, look. See. It’s happening again.”
Whatever the stuff was, it was no longer a teardrop. In a matter of seconds, it had transformed into a shiny film-like death mask over my son’s face. I grabbed the doctor’s shoulder. “Make it stop. It’ll kill him.”
“I can’t make it stop,” she said. “I don’t want to make it stop. And if I make it stop… that’s what will kill your son, Mr. Hogan.”
I let go of the doctor’s shoulder. The substance crawled over Jake’s neck. I couldn’t stand watching any more and tried to focus on my wife.
Zelda stood enrapt, her cheeks shining with tears, as if this moment were an altar call. I couldn’t help but think I saw her body sway. Then I closed my eyes, knowing that was the only way I could keep from staring at my son.
But I felt compelled to look at him. This stuff… it was encapsulating him. He was disappearing. Just like Zelda wanted.
I glared at my wife, then at the doctor. “Do something,” I said to the doctor. “Now.”
“I can’t,” she said.
“They’re protecting him.” This was my wife. Her voice startled me.
I gave her a look. “They?”
“Your little robots, Van.” She glanced at the doctor. “Could you explain to my husband what’s going on? What you said to me?”
“It’s pretty amazing,” the doctor said.
“Please just tell me,” I snapped. “The last I heard, the ’bots… his brain rejected them.”
As the stuff kept growing over Jake, the doctor explained what had happened: the ’bots were rejected, but not by Jake. By a tumor.
“A tumor? How in hell do you miss a tumor?”
“Van, please.” Zelda touched my arm. Childlike, I jerked away from her.
“This stuff,” the doctor continued, “it’s sort of making a chrysalis around Jake. It’s multiplying, growing inside and out, trying to isolate this tumor that’s lodged itself on Jake’s brain with tendrils. That’s what the CT Scan showed. At the same time… Well, we don’t know what the hell’s going on. In truth, as far as I can tell, we don’t really know what the ’bots are doing.”
“Jesus,” I said. “Then what? What do we do?”
The doctor shrugged. “I don’t know, Mr. Hogan. I really don’t know.”
The room filled with a buzz like a swarm of bees. Jake was covered by a luminous mass. I shuddered.
The luminous mass swirled like a tropical storm on a radar screen. Underneath it I could make out traces of my son’s body, his face, his mouth: his lips curled into what seemed a smile.
“So, is he dead?” I asked the doctor.
“All vitals are normal,” the doctor said.
I glanced around. Zelda stood entranced by something flitting about her mouth like dust motes.
Warmth radiated up my forearm. My body tingled as if jolted by a static charge.
Then Jake’s body shimmered as if caught in a staticky gold lamé wrap. This thing had consumed him. All that remained of my son was a pattern of energy.
“I was so wrong about this,” I said. “Wrong about it all. I should have let him live as he was.”
I’m here, Daddy. The voice was powder-soft. Where, exactly, it was coming from, I didn’t know, but it was Jake’s. It seemed to sift underneath the fading bleats of his heart monitor like the soft ring of a xylophone. Come with me. We can play.
I reached out for the voice and felt as if I was suspended between stars, a ribbon of consciousness touching two worlds.
I listened to Jake’s voice, a child’s voice. It drew me to him. Zelda listened, too. I reached for her hand. She took it without looking at me.
Jake was as he should be, whole, alive, and given a voice.
The ’bots formed around us as Zelda and I walked toward Jake, this new child, this new life. We seemed happy, a family, once again, stepping from one world to something new and wondrous.