The Frankenstein Diaries
by Matthew S. Rotundo
(Part two will be in our next issue.)
Unease swelled in John Griffin as he pulled into a vacant stall at the daycare
center and powered down the car. Holos flickered over the double doors at the
building's entrance, depicting smiling children playing dodge ball, painting with
watercolors, running into the open arms of loving parents. A stab of envy pricked
him; a bitter taste flooded his mouth. He glanced away.
Paul had gotten into another fight, bad enough this time for the daycare
administrator to send an urgent message to John's handheld, requesting that he
collect his son.
He was tempted, for the briefest of moments, to pull out of the parking lot and
simply drive on, to drive away, to drive until he ran out of road and the ocean
spread before him, immense and blue and glittering. The depth of longing stirred
up by the fantasy surprised and dismayed him. His stomach roiled as he got out of
the car. The overcast sky threatened snow; even in his heavy coat, John shivered
against the frigid December air. The vision of the ocean evaporated.
Bonnie met him at the door, dressed as always in bright primary colors. A
normally smiling and vivacious woman, she stood with her shoulders stooped, her
mouth turned down. "Thanks for coming, Mr. Griffin."
"He's in my office. Come in."
She led him past the playroom, full of boisterous children and excited babble.
Envy pricked him again. He followed her down the tiled hallway to her small
It was neat and colorful, adorned with posters of animals and cartoon characters.
Child psychology books filled a small bookcase next to her desk. Paul sat in a
plastic chair in front of the desk, a scrap of a boy, looking at his shoes. Bonnie
took the remaining seat.
John squatted in front of his son. "Hey. What happened?"
Paul remained silent.
John put a hand under Paul's chin and lifted his head. His fine blonde hair was
tousled. A red scratch marked one pale cheek.
"Where did that come from, Paul?"
John glanced at Bonnie.
"He got into a fight with Phillip Seltzer, a boy about Paul's age. Phillip scratched
at his face in the tussle."
John stood and crossed his arms. "Is that so?"
"Mr. Griffin, Paul was sitting on Phillip's chest, hitting him repeatedly. Phillip
was pinned. He acted in self-defense. Paul gave him a bloody nose and a mouse
under one eye."
"Paul, is that true?"
"No." Paul stared at his shoes again.
"Then what happened?"
John looked at Bonnie. She only shrugged.
"What started it? Did the other boy provoke him?"
"He called me Frankie," Paul said. "Frankie, Frankie, Frankie. They all did."
Bonnie rolled her eyes. John resented the expression, but he couldn't really blame
her. Both of them had heard it before; it was Paul's favorite excuse. "No one
called you that, Paul," she said. "The other children all know better by now. And
Mrs. Simmons was right there when it happened."
"If she was right there," John said, "she should have been able to break up the
fight before one boy got a bloody nose and the other got a scratch on his cheek."
"It happened so quickly. She --"
"Then maybe you're a tad understaffed here."
Bonnie took a deep breath. "Mr. Griffin, this is the third incident in two months,
and the worst yet. None of the other children have this kind of trouble."
"None of the other children get called Frankie while the adults stand around and
let it happen, do they?"
Bonnie hesitated several moments before replying. "Mr. Griffin, if this behavior
continues, we may have to talk about finding a daycare better suited for Paul's
John narrowed his eyes. He thought again of the ocean. "Come on, Paul. Let's
get you home."
From the journal of John Griffin:
June 2, 2025
My son was born again today.
I suppose I shouldn't put it that way. If I wanted to be boringly technical, like Dr.
Aiken at the clinic, I would say that Paul is a genetic duplicate of Steven,
physically like him in every way, but he isn't really Steven. Dr. Aiken said I
should think of him as Steven's identical twin brother.
Sure. Just born nine years after Steven, and two years after Steven's death.
Dr. Aiken is right, I know. He's not Steven. But since I'm just beginning this
journal (and struggling with this handheld's tiny stylus, I might add) I suppose I
should establish a good habit, and avoid equivocation. It's bad form for a writer,
even one who hasn't written for two years. Besides, aren't you supposed to be
completely honest in a journal? Isn't that the one place you can entertain your
most secret fantasies? Here, if nowhere else?
Never mind. Of course he's not Steven. His name is Paul, and he is an
unqualified miracle. Paul Kenneth Griffin, eight pounds and thirteen ounces,
twenty-two inches long. Born today at 6:31 p.m., after twenty-seven hours of
labor. His hair, when it comes in, will be his mother's blonde; his eyes, when they
finish changing, will be her pale blue. His skin will be fair and will burn easily.
He'll have a smile that will charm the little girls in the neighborhood, who will
chase after him and kiss his cheek on a dare. I won't blame them. He is an angel,
and he is my son, and I thank God for him.
I flashed on the accident for a few minutes just now, but was able to push the
memory away. Today is not a day for sorrow, nor for the doubts that plagued
Marie and I about leaving the Church. It's a time for celebration. Not even the
bigots and fanatics who call cloned children "abominations" and "Frankensteins"
-- and worse -- not even they can trouble me today.
My son was born again. And so was I.
The drive back to the house was quiet. John guided the car on manual, even
though the route was preset. He needed the distraction. He stole glances at Paul
in the rear view mirror. His son scowled the entire way, staring straight ahead
with his arms crossed. John hated that look, the way it twisted Paul's angelic
features into something unrecognizable. In such moments, Paul looked nothing
"Did the other boy really call you Frankie, Paul?"
"They all do. All the time."
For what must have been the hundredth time, John wished he had never told Paul
that he had been born of cloned cells. Paul had blurted out the fact on his first day
of daycare. "Are you sure? Mrs. Simmons said she didn't hear anything."
"She's a liar."
"Paul, we've talked about this, haven't we? You can't just keep picking fights
with the other kids."
"You never believe me."
A prolonged silence fell as John turned into their neighborhood. The streets
wound past houses bedecked with holographic flying Santas and flashing icicle
lights. Despite his best efforts, John couldn't stop thinking about Bonnie's words:
special needs. His jaw, clamped tight since he had left the daycare center, ached.
The woman had stigmatized his son -- as if the boy didn't have enough problems.
"Sometimes they don't have to say it," Paul said. "But I know they're thinking it.
All the time."
John took a long look at Paul in the mirror, wondering at his small, tense form, his
twisted scowl -- wondering how a four-year-old boy had become such an angry
person. "How about if we read a little when we get home? Would you like --"
"I hate reading."
John's temper flared; he put it down quickly. "We've talked about that, too,
remember? You haven't really given it a fair chance. You're not trying --"
"I don't want to try! I hate reading! I hate it, I hate it!"
Tears spilled from Paul's eyes. He wiped them away disgustedly.
"I hate you, too."
John slammed on the brake. His harness locked. He turned in his seat. "That's
enough, young man. You apologize right now, or you'll spend the rest of the day
in your room. No toys. Understand? Apologize."
"I hate you! I hate you!" Paul flailed, held in place by his own harness, too
consumed with rage to even think about unbuckling it.
"Paul, stop it! Stop --"
"Hate hate hate hate . . ."
Shaking, John drove the rest of the way home as quickly as he could, working to
ignore the shrieking thing in the back seat. When he finally got back to the house,
he had to carry Paul inside, kicking and thrashing all the way. John could only
imagine how it looked to the neighbors.
He deposited Paul on his bed and then carried his toy box out of the room, all the
while being treated to a litany of hatred. No sooner had John closed the door
behind him than he heard a familiar thumping and crashing. Paul was attacking
his bookcase again. Soon every volume would be scattered about his room.
John shouted through the door. "You won't be allowed out until you pick them all
up, do you understand me?"
The thumping and screaming continued unabated. John carried the toy box
downstairs and set it in his office. He closed the door to muffle the din from
August 23, 2025
Today the pediatrician diagnosed Paul as having colic. Terrific.
I think colic is a doctor's way of saying that he has no clue what the problem is.
Paul cries for hours at a time, for no reason Marie and I can fathom. It isn't
hunger, it isn't diaper rash, he isn't sick, and he's too young to be teething. Yet he
cries. Holding him helps sometimes, but it's a hit-and-miss proposition. And as
much as you may want to, you just can't hold a child continually. Simple things,
like answering the phone or heating up dinner, have become crisis situations. At
first it was puzzling, then unnerving, then alarming, and finally exhausting. Marie
handles it better than I.
Steven never had colic. He never cried like this, for hours on end, for no good
reason. He was a very good-natured baby.
I suppose I should be grateful that colic is the worst of Paul's problems,
considering how flawed his parents are. I'd been born with only one kidney;
Marie's endometriosis had only worsened after Steven's birth, making any further
natural conception impossible.
But of course Paul had been born healthy, just as Steven had been. Dr. Aiken
hadn't been kidding about the identical twin analogy. He looks exactly like
Steven had at that age. Exactly. So many times, looking at him, I've been rocked
by powerful déjà vu. Marie tells me she's felt it, too.
So why is he so different?
It's not just the colic. Steven would always relax when I held him. He would sit
peacefully on my lap for extended periods as I read to him from books of nursery
rhymes. Paul wriggles and squirms, tense as coiled wire. Every time I try reading
to him, he fusses and fidgets until I stop. Yet he'll fall asleep instantly if Marie
rocks him. Steven was his father's child; Paul belongs to his mother. I don't
understand it. Could the DNA we used -- extracted from saved clippings from
Steven's first haircut -- somehow have been contaminated or tainted?
Oh, hell. I'm making too much of this. I think I'm more nervous and protective
with Paul than I ever was with Steven. Understandable, I suppose, considering
what happened. Still, I sometimes have to wonder if Paul likes me very much.
He spent hours at his desk, staring at the monitor, unable to concentrate. He got
no work done the rest of the day.
Marie arrived home at six o'clock. She remained silent as John told her what
happened, and stayed that way throughout dinner. She took a plateful of leftovers
up to Paul's room afterward. John was too wrung out to argue.
He waited for her in the living room, seated in the easy chair, the lighting at its
dimmest setting. The television hung dark and silent on the far wall. Above the
set, a four-portrait frame system, arranged in a simple square, displayed an ever-rotating series of smiling individual and family stills at random intervals. The
room felt oddly empty to John; he had meant to have the Christmas decorations up
by now, but hadn't gotten around to it.
Marie entered and sat in the loveseat across from him. She was still dressed for
work, in a stiff black business suit she favored when she had to give presentations
to the board at International ComSys. Her makeup -- foundation to darken her
pale flesh tone and simple black eyeliner -- appeared masklike in the soft light.
She removed her earrings and set them on an end table next to the loveseat. She
looked directly at him when she spoke. "I don't like this, John. I don't like what
that woman at the daycare said about him."
"Neither do I."
"I think we need to look at our alternatives."
"Me, too." He steeled himself for what he had to say next: "I'd like to call Dr.
She frowned. "What? Why?"
"We have to face it. Something is terribly wrong with Paul. He's emotionally
disturbed. And we need to understand why."
"I think that's a little overstated."
"You didn't see the fit he had today."
"It was a temper tantrum. You act like you've never seen one before."
"I never saw this kind of behavior from Ste --"
Marie's features hardened into a glare. He swallowed his words.
"John," she said in a tone much lower than her normal speaking voice, "I thought I
told you never to say anything like that again."
John rubbed his forehead. "Yes, you did. I'm sorry. I'm tired."
"Don't you ever let Paul hear you talk like that. He doesn't need to hear that his
father thinks he's defective."
"Now who's overstating this issue? Damn it, he's my son. I love him and I'm
concerned for him. I want to help him. We can't do that if we don't know what's
She sat back in the loveseat and crossed her arms. "You know, none of this would
be an issue if Paul could stay home instead of going to daycare."
John tensed. "I've finally started a new novel, after years of being blocked. You
know how important that is to me."
"Steven didn't require daycare. You wrote three novels with him in the house."
"Since you brought it up -- Steven didn't require constant supervision to keep him
from getting into fights. Steven never displayed violent or neurotic tendencies."
"Fine." She stood. "We'll find Paul another daycare, one that's not so crowded.
But we're not calling the clinic. That's final."
She left him alone in the living room and went upstairs. After a few minutes, the
sounds of running water and the hum of her toothbrush filtered down to him.
He pulled his handheld from his pocket and opened it. He input his password,
brought up his journal, and finally gave voice to the dark notion that had nagged at
him all afternoon:
December 3, 2029
Dear God, what if we really have created a monster?
He logged the day's events while he waited for the sounds from upstairs to
subside, for Marie to go to bed.
Paul's six-year stills arrived two weeks after he started the first grade. Following
dinner, while Marie went downstairs to put a basketful of laundry in the washing
machine, John took the disk into the living room to load it.
Paul was already there, curled up on the couch, working the controls of his
handheld. Tinny tire squeals and explosions emanated from Paul's headphones.
Disk in hand, John stood watching him and thinking of the letter that had arrived
the previous day. He still could not believe its contents. There had to be some
mistake. For the life of him, he could not decide what he should do about it.
He pushed the thought away and turned to the portrait wall. He pressed a button
recessed on the underside of the nearest frame, opening a slot. The parade of
images went dark. He pulled the disk from its sleeve, inserted it, and stepped back
to watch for error messages.
"What's Special Ed mean?"
John started at the sound of Paul's voice, so like Steven's. It was as if a ghost had
spoken. He turned to his son.
Paul had doffed his headphones and set aside his handheld. A quizzical frown
creased his forehead.
John said, "Where did you hear that? One of the other kids?"
"Mrs. Jordan said it to one of the other teachers. She said we were her Special Ed
Nothing wrong with his hearing, John noted. Mrs. Jordan would find that out
soon enough. "It just means you're in a special class that . . . that will help you
"Like I'm smarter than the other kids?"
"Not smarter. Just different."
"Like a retard?"
John winced. "Don't say that. It's not nice."
Paul pointed to the portrait wall. "Why do you keep his pictures?"
John, long used to Paul's sudden subject changes, glanced at the portraits. The
new disk had finished loading and the system had resumed normal display mode.
The first of Paul's new stills appeared at the top left, showing him in a pullover
dress shirt, his blonde hair neatly combed and flattened by gel, his teeth bared with
only a slight upturn of the mouth -- more like a grimace than a smile.
At the bottom right was a portrait of Steven -- from his fifth-year stills, if John's
memory served -- in a little blue suit and tie. Steven's face and eyes were alight
with a genuine grin, as if the photographer had just said something funny to him.
"Steven's your brother. Why wouldn't we keep his pictures?"
"'Cause he's dead."
John took a moment to ensure his voice would remain even. "It's important that
we remember him."
"Why do you write books?"
"Because I enjoy it."
"I think it's stupid."
John cleared his throat. "Why is that?"
"'Cause it is."
"That's not a very nice thing to say, either. And I'd appreciate it if you'd try to be
a little more respectful of your brother." He ejected the disk and slipped it back
into its sleeve. "I have some more work to do tonight, so please try to hold the
noise down, all right?" Without waiting for a reply, he left the room on unsteady
He managed to reach his office and shut the door behind him before the trembling
fit overtook him. He put a hand to his mouth to stifle a bellow of rage.
After several moments, the trembling passed. Drained, he looked across the room
at his desk and the dark monitor atop it. Actually, he had no work to do. He had
long since proofed the novel galleys; the finished product would be out in two
weeks. Besides, he couldn't possibly work in his state of mind. But lately his
office seemed the only place he felt welcome in the house.
Somewhere on the other side of the door, glass shattered.
With a groan, John opened the door and looked out. Paul stood in the entrance to
the living room. "It fell," he said.
John pushed past him. On the carpet lay the broken remains of a frame amid
shards of glass. He glanced at the wall; the bottom right frame was gone from its
accustomed place. The remaining frames flashed data missing messages.
"It fell," Paul said from behind him.
John began breathing hard. He dimly registered that Paul was just tall enough to
reach the lower portraits, if he stood on tiptoe. John whirled. "It's in the middle
of the damned carpet. Did it jump off the wall?"
Paul stuffed his hands into his pockets and leaned against the doorjamb. "Maybe
you knocked it loose while you were over there."
The trembling came over John again. "You little shit." He reached for Paul,
grabbed him by the front of his t-shirt, and slapped him hard, getting his entire arm
into it. Paul spun from his grasp and collided with the doorjamb.
John gaped, staring at his hand as if it had acted of its own accord. As suddenly as
it had come, his rage vanished, leaving cold nausea in its wake.
Paul cringed. An angry red spot stood out just under his left eye. John reached for
him again; Paul shrieked and recoiled. He ran for the stairs, wailing all the way to
the top and down the hall. The slam of his bedroom door cut off his cries.
John sank to his knees, still gaping.
Hurried footfalls sounded on the basement stairs. Marie rushed into the room,
wide-eyed. "What's wrong? What happened?"
He shook his head slowly.
He put a hand over his mouth. He feared that if he tried to speak, he would vomit
"You bastard." She went upstairs.
April 19, 2026
The third anniversary of Steven's death, and the first since Paul was born.
Marie has gone to visit Steven's grave. I elected to stay home. Marie didn't like
that very much.
I don't understand. She's the one who keeps telling me that Steven is gone, that
the time for grieving is over, that I have to let him go.
True, I haven't been to Steven's grave since the funeral. But that was for a
different reason. I wasn't ready to accept his death then. Since I've accepted it
now, I just don't see the need to go. Cemeteries are for the dead. And I've spent
far too much of my time obsessed with about death.
Or maybe I'm just afraid of having a relapse.
At moments like this, I realize that it's still too fresh in my mind, all of it: the
thunderstorm that hit the night we drove home from Marie's parents' farm after an
Easter dinner; hydroplaning off the road and into a ditch, rolling twice before
slamming upside-down into a tree; Steven's terrified screams. Marie and I had
been scraped and bruised but had escaped serious injury. Steven had not.
He was pinned in the back seat. The 911 dispatcher I spoke with over the cell
phone assured me the ambulance could home in on my UWB signal, that we just
needed to "hang on" until it arrived.
Hang on -- as if it were that simple. One of Steven's lungs had collapsed, I
learned later, and he had massive internal hemorrhaging. Marie and I could do
nothing but wait in a weed-choked ditch by the side of the road, drenched by
torrential rains, and watch as our son died before our eyes.
Too fresh in my mind: the black depression I battled afterward, disconsolate
despite Marie's best efforts; the unshakeable numbness and apathy as my writing
career failed; the blissful, dreamy feeling of slipping away as I sat in a bathtub full
of warm water, bleeding from the wrists I had opened with a steak knife.
I've never written about it until now. The pain is still so close. Not good to dwell
on it. All that is past. I have a new life now, and new crosses to bear.
Marie took the baby with her to the cemetery. When I asked her why she wanted
to do that, she said, "At least then I won't be alone."
They've been gone for over five hours. Marie's previous visits to Steven's grave
have lasted no more than two. She must have gone to her sister's house. She does
that a lot lately.
It's so much harder this time. I don't know why. None of it is like it was before.
I keep telling myself that perhaps I'm romanticizing the past, but I'm not.
For this we left the Church. For this we went through all of our retirement savings
and took out a second mortgage on our house. Over this we agonized for weeks,
waiting for a call from Dr. Aiken to tell us whether any of the fertilizations had
succeeded. And on days like this, God help me, I wonder if we did the right thing.
The next morning, John sat at the kitchen table with a bowl of soggy cereal in
front of him. He had no memory of filling the bowl; he'd done it on autopilot.
And he wasn't even hungry.
Marie entered the kitchen, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans instead of being dressed
for work. Dark circles marked her eyes. She'd put her hair up, but had missed a
few strands, the way she sometimes did when hurried or distracted.
Paul was still asleep in his room. When John blinked, he saw himself hitting his
son, saw Paul slamming into the doorjamb. The image seemed burned on John's
Marie leaned against the counter near the sink, blocking the sunlight slanting in
through the kitchen window. "We need to talk."
"John, I don't love you anymore. Under the circumstances, I don't think we
should remain married."
"I'm sorry I slapped him. I hate myself for that."
"It's not about that." She brushed a strand of hair away from her face. "Well,
that's a part of it. But this has been a long time coming. You knew that, didn't
"We've been under a lot of stress. All of us. But we can make it through this. I
know we can." The words came automatically. Years of practice.
"Yes, we can make it through this. But not together. You've changed. You're not
the man I married."
"I want nothing but the best for you and Paul."
"A divorce is best. For all of us."
He pushed away the bowl of soggy cereal. "I can't believe you're doing this now,
of all times. The novel will be out in two weeks -- my first since Steven's death.
Don't you see the significance of that? Eric even thinks it could be bestseller
"Eric's your agent. He gets paid to talk like that. You've said so yourself."
"All right, yes, I have. The point is that I'm working steadily, and I'm turning out
quality stuff. It's been therapeutic for me."
"You call hiding in your office all day therapeutic? Do you think beating a child
is a sign of improved mental health?"
"I've hit him only once in six years. I don't think I qualify as an abuser."
"Spankings don't count as hitting?"
He gritted his teeth and swallowed a reply.
"Never mind," Marie said. "I've done all I could to keep this marriage working.
But I can't do it alone -- and I don't want to try anymore. I'm tapped."
"Marie, listen to me. Please don't do this. Raising a child with special needs is
unbelievably hard, much harder than the parenting magazines want you to believe.
But we can't let it destroy our relationship. We can't let it kill something good
She glared. "You son of a bitch. Even after last night, you still blame Paul."
"No, that's not --"
"Yes, you do. Here." She dug in a jeans pocket and removed a folded piece of
paper. She opened it, brought it to the table, and dropped it in front of him.
"Thought you might want to have this back."
He recognized the clinic's letterhead. It was the cover sheet of the correspondence
he'd received the other day -- the results of the DNA testing.
"I found it in your pants last night, while I was doing the laundry," she said.
"This isn't what you think it is."
"How long have you been talking to Dr. Aiken behind my back? How long did it
take you to talk him into doing the comparison?"
He sighed. "About a year and a half. But --"
"You're convinced that Paul's damaged. That the cloning process somehow
altered his DNA. That the doctors mutated him. Isn't that right?"
"I was only trying to eliminate certain genetic --"
She slammed her hand on the table surface. "You think he's a freak! You think
he's a monster! Isn't that right?"
"No! I --"
She slapped him. His cheek stung from the blow.
They stood in tableau for long moments.
John said, "I love you, Marie. I love what we have. I've never loved anyone or
She dropped her gaze. "You love what we had. But it's gone. It's over. You're
only making this harder."
"Where will you go?"
"To my sister's. I've already packed a suitcase for Paul and me. I just have to
wake him up, and then we'll leave. I'll come back later this week for the rest of
our things. It would be best if you weren't here then. Can you arrange to be away
from the house Wednesday?"
Whispering, he said, "Sure."
She walked out of the kitchen. Sounds filtered back to him: her tread on the
steps, the creaking of the upstairs floorboards. Within ten minutes, she descended,
speaking in a low voice. Paul answered, his voice sleepy and querulous, asking
her where they were going. The front door opened and closed.
A dreamlike shock settled over him as he sat at the table, staring at the letter from
the clinic. He stayed that way for half an hour.
He glanced at the clock over the sink and shook himself, blinking. Out of habit,
he pulled his handheld from a pocket and made an entry in his journal:
September 14, 2031
All for nothing. The letter says there is no difference between Steven's and Paul's
DNA. My son looks at me with Steven's eyes, but he's a stranger who hates me.
My wife tells me she doesn't love me anymore. My life is shattered. And Dr.
Aiken says no difference. It was all for nothing.
His hands shook as he wrote. Tears threatened. He fought them down.
Lab tests aren't infallible. The samples could have been mislabeled. Or maybe
the equipment isn't sensitive enough to detect some subtle difference. Or maybe
he just lied to me to avoid a malpractice lawsuit. If so, he's going to regret it. I'll
have the tests run again by someone else. I can --
He got no further. Blinding tears flooded his eyes. He buried his face in his hands
as racking sobs consumed him.
February 8, 2039
The latest round of experts have looked at the DNA samples and come to the same
conclusion: they're identical. That makes four confirmations in just over eight
I suppose I should be upset, but I'm philosophical. I've come to expect it. I don't
know why I keep trying anymore. Marie and Paul certainly wouldn't care; they
don't even know I'm doing it. And none of these doctors will contravene Aiken's
findings; in a field that's still viewed with so much suspicion and antipathy, they
all stick together. The tests have become a hobby of mine, for lack of a better
word. Every time I get another team of scientists to do the comparison, I have
fresh hope that some technological advance will lead to a breakthrough, that some
idealistic young clinician will have the courage to stand up to his or her peers, that
I'll finally get an answer, and some closure.
I need to put it aside for now. I have Paul this weekend, and Sunday night, I have
a business dinner with Eric. He's flying in for the occasion. He says he wants to
discuss my career. It seems somehow wrong that some hotshot agent fifteen years
my junior gets to give me career advice. Still, I have to admit he's done all right
by me thus far, so I suppose I'll put that aside, too.
I'm hoping for some good news. I could use it.
He met Eric Kramer for dinner at Ferlinghetti's, in the downtown market district.
Eric had already been seated by the time John arrived. The hostess escorted him to
a table in a darkened corner of the dining room.
Eric sat sipping at his customary Scotch. Instead of his usual power suit, he wore
a white button-down shirt, open at the collar, and dark slacks. His thick head of
curly hair and mustache, so completely devoid of gray, always reminded John of
the way his own hair got more snowy every day. He had confessed this nowhere
but in his diary.
Grinning, Eric stood and shook John's hand. "Running a little late?"
"Had to drop Paul off at his mother's."
"Oh." Eric's grin tactfully downshifted. "Everything all right?"
They sat. A waiter approached the table and handed John a menu. He ordered a
martini, and the waiter departed.
"More or less," John said. "We got into an argument when I kicked him off the
computer so I could work. He sulked the rest of the weekend. And Marie seemed
a little irritated that I brought him home a day early." In truth, she'd looked very
tired, her face pale and deeply lined.
"He has an interest in computers now? That's encouraging."
"He's already tried cracking the school network with a handheld. Somehow he got
hold of encryption-breaking software. Wanted to wipe the network with a virus, I
understand. Marie had to take his handheld away from him."
Eric's smile faded. "Sorry, John."
The martini arrived. The two of them ordered their dinners. After the waiter
departed, John took a bracing swallow of his drink. "It's all right. At least when
he's hacking, he's not getting into fights." From a breast pocket, he produced a
golden optical disk. "Here. Finished the draft yesterday."
He could have just transmitted it, but he enjoyed the way Eric's eyes lit, so like a
child's, when he handed him a new novel.
Eric's grin resurfaced. "You finished it, eh? That's terrific. I'll transmit it to
Kelso tomorrow morning."
"See if you can get him to ease up a little this time, will you? He was awfully
heavy-handed editing the last one. Proofing the galleys was a nightmare."
Eric took the disk from him. "I'll take care of it. No problem."
"You know, you always say that. How do you stay so positive, working in this
"Simple. I have one of the best writers in the country as my client."
"I'll bet you say that to all your clients."
Still grinning, he put the disk in his briefcase. "Keeping writers happy is my job."
He returned the briefcase to the floor. "Let's talk about the future. How do you
like working with Fidelis Media?"
"Aside from Kelso's overactive blue pencil, you mean?"
"Your overall impression."
"Their advances have been a little stingy. But it's a good house with a good
reputation. I don't have any complaints about distribution or royalty payments."
"I'm glad to hear you say that." Eric nodded toward his briefcase on the floor.
"This is the last book under the current contract. You're right; Fidelis has been a
bit stingy. But that's only because at the time we hammered out that deal, you
were just getting back into the business after a long layoff. You didn't have a
recent track record. So Fidelis hedged their bets. I knew it then, and I advised you
to sign, anyway. As you said, Fidelis is a solid house." He leaned forward. "But
the situation's different now. The last two novels have been bestsellers. If this
new book sells like I think it will, we'll have all the muscle we need to push
Fidelis for a deal that will guarantee your security."
John inhaled deeply and took another drink. "What does that mean?"
"It means going for a six-book deal. Somewhere in the eight-figure range."
John set his martini down hard enough to slop some of it onto the table. "What
did you say?"
"The negotiations will take several months, maybe as much as a year. Fidelis will
drag their feet, stall, try to sweat us out. But in the end, I think they'll give us
what we want."
John only stared at him.
"Or we could go wide. You could undoubtedly lock up a quicker deal elsewhere
-- possibly a very good one, maybe seven figures -- but no other house has the
resources Fidelis has, or as much willingness to invest for the long term. Fidelis is
my recommendation, but it's your choice."
A strange numbness suffused John, as if he'd been detached from his senses. In
the ensuing silence, the waiter brought them their salads. The bowls of greens sat
John said, "Have you ever negotiated that kind of deal before?"
"I've nailed a couple of big ones, but this would be the biggest by far."
"You seem very confident."
"Writing is what you do, John, and you do it very well." He cocked a thumb at
himself. "Negotiating is what I do, and I'm telling you that the time for this move
is now. Give me your go-ahead to start laying the groundwork."
John thought of Marie and Paul, of the emotional roller coaster he had ridden
during the divorce, of the way he had almost given up writing for the second time
in the dark months after they had left. It all felt like a different life, one led by
another man. The feeling somehow comforted him.
He raised the remains of his martini. "Make me proud, Eric."
They clinked glasses and drank, then dug into their salads.
May 12, 2039
No. Please, no.
John emerged from the shower that morning to find the message light blinking on
his phone. Still dripping, a towel wrapped around his waist, he played the
message back -- a voice mail from Jackie, Marie's sister. Hearing her voice gave
John a turn; he hadn't spoken to Jackie since the divorce.
"John, Marie's been in the hospital since last night. Paul is with her. She wants to
see you. You should probably get there today. She's at Saint Joseph's, room
John throat closed. Marie hadn't looked at all well the last time he'd seen her.
He called Eric to let him know he had to cancel the trip to New York, then hastily
dressed and headed for Saint Joseph's. He got to the hospital around 9:30. The
fourteenth floor, he discovered, housed the oncology unit.
He found Paul in a waiting room, seated alone in a corner, watching a television
running old cartoons. Jackie was there, too. She had gained a lot of weight since
he'd last seen her; she looked to be well over 250. But then, she'd had four
children. Two of them were with her -- one a toddler and the other perhaps five
years old. They made a lot of noise fighting over toys in the play area. Jackie wasbusy trying to quiet them, and could only glance at John when he entered. The
older two were in school, he guessed.
As usual, Paul was dressed all in black. A cluster of acne marked one temple.
He'd gotten so tall lately; his long legs stuck out awkwardly. As John sat next to
him, he stiffened, scowling, his mouth drawn tight.
"Paul? How are you doing? Are you all right?"
He crossed his arms, glowering at the television. "What are you doing here?"
"Your aunt told me your mom was here."
"So? What do you care?"
"I care a great deal if your mom's sick. How is she?"
"She's fine. She'll be out of here tomorrow. You can go home."
Jackie had corralled the toddler -- Amy, her name was, if John's memory served
-- and told the older one in a stern voice to settle down.
"I don't think they'd put your mother in the oncology unit if she were fine. Talk to
Paul scowled in silence.
John touched his arm. "Paul, please."
Paul shook the hand away and for the first time turned to him. His features
twisted; his eyes shone. "She's dying. She has breast cancer. All right? Happy
John's breath stopped for several seconds. Jackie's five-year-old complained that
he was bored, when could they go home?
"Cancer?" He could think of nothing else to say.
"She's had it for the past two years. It got into her -- what do you call 'em --
lymph nodes. The frigging doctors are telling us she won't last the week. They
got her doped up on morphine. She sleeps a lot."
John covered his eyes with one hand.
He heard Paul stand. "I'm gonna get a soda," he said. Then he was gone.
John remained seated with his eyes covered for an unknown time. Commercial
jingles emanated from the television.
A hand touched his shoulder. He looked up.
Jackie stood over him, her round face grave, her eyes bloodshot. She still held her
wriggling toddler in one arm. "Thanks for coming so fast."
"She never told me, Jackie. Two years and she never told me. Why?"
"I kept telling her that she should, but she never listened. Now, of all times, she's
changed her mind."
"How is she?"
"She's heavily medicated for the pain. She fades in and out. But she keeps
fighting it. When she's awake, she's lucid."
"What . . . what can I do?"
"If you'll keep an eye on the kids for a few minutes, I'll check on her. See if she's
"Sure." He held out his hands for little Amy. She shook her head and clung to her
mother. Jackie peeled her off and set her in John's lap. Amy promptly climbed
down and headed toward her brother in the play area. Jackie favored John with a
tight smile and exited the waiting room.
The children took an interest in large colored blocks from a toy box. The five-year-old -- Isaac, was it? -- attempted to build towers, while Amy just banged
them against the carpet and each other.
Shock settled into John's bones. His mind blanked.
Paul returned, a bottle of cola in one hand. When she saw him, Amy promptly
raised her arms to be held, but Paul shook his head and took his seat, turned
pointedly away from John.
Normally, he wouldn't try to engage Paul, but he needed to talk. He voiced the
first inanity that came to mind. "How's school?"
"We're doing Frankenstein in English class."
"What do you think of it?"
John shifted in his seat. "How's your girlfriend?"
Paul rolled his eyes. "I broke up with her two months ago."
"Paul, I'm not quite at my best right now. Your mother -- she never told me
"Why should she? You couldn't have done anything about it. And you were busy
being a best-selling writer, anyway."
Jackie came back into the waiting room. "She's awake. She wants to see you.
Paul glanced in John's direction.
John stood. "All right."
"I'll show you the way."
She led him down a hall, past a nurses' station, and around a corner. She stopped
at the door to room 1430 and opened it for him. They exchanged strained smiles
as he entered. She closed the door behind him.
It was a semi-private room, one bed mercifully empty. The curtains were closed,
casting a pall.
Marie turned to him. Hooked to an IV, she lay under a single hospital sheet that
accentuated the bony outlines of a body gone shrunken and frail. Her once blonde
hair had thinned and grayed. Her face had become so gaunt and wizened as to
make her appear ninety years old. It had been only two months since he'd last
He flashed on the last time he had seen her in a hospital bed -- just after Paul's
birth, almost fourteen years ago. The difference between that exhausted but
radiant woman and the cruelly wasted one before him --
He looked away, unable to bear the sight.
"John." Her voice was hoarse. "Thank you for coming."
He approached the bed, still averting his eyes.
She extended a skeletal hand from under her bed sheet. He took it gently, forced
himself to look at her. "Marie, why --"
"Why didn't I tell you?" She paused to take a rattling breath. "Not sure. I guess I
thought I'd wait until you noticed something was wrong. Until you asked. But
you never did, John. You never did. That made me angry."
"I'm so sorry. I --" But he could think of no way to complete the thought. In a
choked voice, he said, "Are you in much pain?"
"Some. I can medicate whenever I want." She nodded toward the IV. "But for
now, I'd rather have the pain. I need my mind clear."
"Are you sure --" He cleared his throat. "Are the doctors sure nothing can be
done? We can get a second opinion. I can bring in specialists to --"
"No. That time is long past. I'll hold out as long as I can. For Paul, you
understand. But I can't hold out forever. That's why you need to listen right
"What can I do? I'll do anything."
"I'm glad to hear you say that." She took another raspy breath. "When I was first
diagnosed, Jackie and I had long talks about Paul. She agreed to take care of him
should anything happen."
"Jackie? What about me?"
She leveled a stare at him, blinking once, slowly. "I didn't think that would be a
He released her hand. "I'm his father. Haven't I always made sure he was taken
care of? Have I ever missed a child support payment? And his college tuition is
already in the bank, if he wants it."
"You were never tight with money. That much I'll give you. Time, on the other
"My career --"
"Enough. I don't have the strength to argue right now."
He fell silent, ashamed.
She coughed, and slowly wiped spittle from her chin. "What I need to say to you
is this: when I'm not doped up on morphine, when I have time to think -- as best
I can through the pain -- I realize Jackie is kidding herself. She has four children;
she's already stretched too thin. Raising Paul would be too much for her."
The shock that had so recently worn off settled in again. "So you want me to take
him, after all."
"There's no one else. You're my best option. Which goes to show you how rotten
my options are at this point." Her mouth twitched in a grim smile. "Paul needs
more than money. He needs time, lots of it. I know that will be hard for you. You
never had time for him. You've never forgiven him for not being Steven."
"That's not --"
"Spare me the righteous indignation. It's true, and you know it." She closed her
eyes and took several deep breaths. "Anyway, I'm offering you a chance to prove
me wrong. Will you take him or not?"
He considered, or tried to. He found he could focus coherently on only one
thought -- that Marie's first inclination been to leave Paul with Jackie instead of
him. That rankled. It hurt.
"I'll take him. If he'll have me."
She opened her eyes. "He will."
"Are you sure?"
"He'll do it if I ask him. Bring him in here."
John brought him in. Marie was right. When she told Paul, he nodded.
September 29, 2039
Sometimes, the adjustments are subtle, minute, even easy. Sometimes, you
actually think you're getting a handle on your new circumstances. And other
times . . .
Paul came home today with a snake tattoo on his face. It winds its scaly way
across his forehead, between his eyes, beside his nose, across his upper lip, around
his mouth, and terminates somewhere under his chin.
Apparently, it's something of a fad among kids born of cloned cells; God knows
why. They wear them like badges of honor.
Paul got the idea from his buddy Keith, of course. Keith has a large lizard on his
left cheek. Bad enough that he's a hulking delinquent three years older than Paul.
He seems to be Paul's only real friend, and the influence he exerts scares me.
Sure, they're both clone-conceived, but why can't this kid hang out with others his
own age? On days like this, I wish Paul was the only clone at his school, that he
had no friends at all.
A snake. Perfect. I can only imagine how well that will go over during job
Naturally, I was livid. Paul just nodded when I asked him if it was permanent.
I'm sure he was expecting me to explode. God knows I wanted to scream, but his
mother's last request hangs uneasily over me, over both of us. We say very little
to each other.
I wonder if Steven would have been so defiant, had he lived to become a teenager.
Would he have turned against me, too?
Tomorrow I have my first appointment with Paul's junior high guidance
counselor. Maybe he can help.
. . .to be continued in issue 9 . . .