Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 9
Stories
The Frankenstein Diaries
by Matt Rotundo
Cassie's Story
by David B. Coe
No Viviremos Como Presos
by Bradley P. Beaulieu
Red Road
by David Barr Kirtley
Blood & Water
by Alethea Kontis
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
A Cart Full of Junk
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

The Frankenstein Diaries
    by Matthew S. Rotundo
The Frankenstein Diaries
Artwork by Kevin Wasden

Part Two
  (Part one is in issue 8.)

The guidance counselor introduced himself as "just Mike" -- a young man, barely older than the students, clean shaven, short hair, small gold triple-hoop earring for the lightest touch of cool. He stood a head taller than John. His handshake was firm, his welcoming smile easy and natural. He invited John to sit.

Across his walls ran inspirational holos of mountain climbers scaling impossibly steep pitches, runners dashing for finish lines, and the like. Interspersed among these were college and financial aid fliers, and a single army recruiting poster, tucked away in a corner.

Instead of taking a seat behind the desk, Mike sat in the chair next to John's. "I don't like putting obstacles between me and my visitors," he said.

John nodded, tapping one foot.

"Nervous?"

"A little. I've never had a meeting like this before. Paul's mother used to take care of these things."

"I understand." Mike pulled a PDA from his breast pocket and tapped a few keys. He scanned the readout for a few seconds. "How's Paul adjusting to his mother's death?"

"Yesterday he got a snake tattooed to his face."

Mike raised an eyebrow, tapped a few more keys, then stowed his PDA. "I see. Well, he has a lot to work through. The grief, the anger, the transition from living with his mother to living with you -- it'll take a while. The best thing you can do is stay alert for warning signs, and let him know you're available if he wants to talk."

"Is the tattoo a warning sign?"

Mike shrugged. "Hard to tell. He's not the first student I've seen with one. What did you say to him about it?"

"Nothing."

"He may have been trying to provoke you."

"The thought occurred to me."

"It's natural, given his situation, for him to test his limits. He needs to know how far he can go. But once you show him where the line is, he'll respect it."

"You know, I doubt that."

"Hmm. Well. Mr. Griffin, the reason I called you here today is to give you an overview of what we've been trying to do to help Paul. I worked with him all last year, and I thought that by spring he had come to trust me a little. Since his mother's death, however, he's regressed. His teachers tell me that he never participates in class, even when called upon. And he skipped his last appointment with me."

"That sounds like Paul."

A frown creased Mike the guidance counselor's forehead. "Behavioral problems are not uncommon for kids with his disorder. I'm used to that. But --"

"Is that what they call cloning these days? A disorder?"

Mike's frown deepened. "Of course not. I was referring to his dyslexia."

"His --" John shook his head. "His what?"

Mike produced his PDA again and brought up more data. "According to my files, Paul was diagnosed with developmental reading disorder when he was seven years old. Isn't that correct?"

"Seven . . ." John thought back. That would have been about a year after the divorce.

"You didn't know?"

He could only sit there dumbly, feeling the weight of Mike the guidance counselor's stare. John glanced at him, and he looked away.

"I'm sorry," Mike said. "I guess I assumed you knew. But then, as the non-custodial parent --" He waved it off. "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. I was only trying to say that Paul's behavioral problems are nothing I haven't seen before. With a great deal of patience and persistence, I was able to get him to open up a little. His mother's death has changed that. Time for grief notwithstanding, it's cause for --"

He was talking rapidly. His words faded into babble. Instead, John heard Marie's voice, weak but still accusatory, even on the brink of death: You never had time for him. In that moment, he realized just how contemptuous she must have been of him, how serious she had been about Jackie taking Paul.

And then he remembered the long-ago letter from the clinic. He stood. "I'm sorry. I have to go. Please excuse me."

"Mr. Griffin --"

That was as much as John heard. He was already out the door.

He made it to the visitors' parking lot before anger overtook him. Hands shaking, he pulled his phone from his pocket. He could not remember the number; he hadn't dialed it in years. He accessed an online directory, found a listing for the clinic, and selected it.

A receptionist answered.

John said, "I need to speak with Dr. Aiken."

"He's in a consultation, sir. May I have him --"

"Tell him it's John Griffin. Tell him it's an emergency."

"Sir, if this is an emergency, perhaps another doctor at the clinic can --"

"No." He worked to keep from becoming strident. It would not do to be disconnected. "No, it has to be Dr. Aiken. Tell him it's me. He'll understand. Please hurry."

"I'll try, sir."

A moment's silence, then strains of classical music came on the line. While he waited, he tempered his anger, working on what he would say.

The music cut off. "Mr. Griffin?" said a familiar voice.

"Hello, Dr. Aiken."

"What's wrong? Is something the matter with Paul?"

"Yes. He's dyslexic."

"He's -- I'm sorry; I don't think I heard --"

"Yes, you heard me correctly. He's dyslexic. Diagnosed seven years ago. I just found out."

Aiken was silent for a beat. "I was told this was an emergency."

"You never told me. You said Paul's DNA matched Steven's exactly. You said there was no difference. I still have your letter, you know. Were you hoping I'd forget?"

"Mr. Griffin, you're obviously upset about something. Perhaps you should calm down and --"

"Dyslexia is genetic, isn't it?"

"I beg your --"

"Isn't it?"

Another beat. "There's evidence to suggest that, yes. Dyslexia tends to run in families. But the specific gene has never been identified."

"And you told me that Steven and Paul were genetic duplicates."

"They are. Paul was cloned from Steven's --"

"Steven was not dyslexic! But Paul is. Do you hear me, you son of a bitch? Do you understand what I'm saying?" The more he thought about it, the more enraged he became. "You botched the cloning. And then you tried to cover it up. But it wasn't just your ass on the line, you know. Three lives have been ruined by your negligence. If you had owned up to it --"

"Mr. Griffin." His voice became stern, authoritative. "You've just gotten some distressing news. You're not thinking clearly. Perhaps that's understandable. But you need to listen to me very carefully, before you say or do anything else."

John smiled, though he knew Aiken couldn't see it. "Go ahead. This ought to be good."

Dr. Aiken cleared his throat. "Even if it were proved that dyslexia is caused by a genetic defect -- and I stress the if -- even so, that's not proof Paul's DNA was somehow damaged or altered during the cloning process. For all we know, Steven was dyslexic, too."

"That's ridiculous."

"Not at all. What you need to understand is that the signs of developmental reading disability aren't always immediately apparent. Some dyslexic patients can learn early reading and spelling skills. And the clever ones can conceal the symptoms even longer."

"Conceal them? Steven was just a child."

"Did you never help him with his reading? Did you never complete a word for him when he hesitated on it?"

John opened his mouth to retort, then hesitated, frowning. Of course he had done that; every parent did.

"Children can sometimes manipulate teachers and parents into doing the work for them. There are other tricks, too. And don't underestimate the power of brute-force memorization, when all else fails. If my guess is right, Steven likely wouldn't have been able to conceal it much longer. But children can do amazing things when they're strongly motivated. Given that Steven had a writer for a father --"

"That's enough."

"Mr. Griffin, I should never have allowed you to talk me into doing that DNA comparison. I had hoped it would put your mind at rest. Clearly, the opposite has happened. I'll say this to you one last time: the results of the comparison will stand up to the highest scrutiny. Steven and Paul are genetically identical. You'll be much better off if you accept that fact, rather than making unsupported accusations of negligence."

"I may do more than make accusations. I may do a great deal more than that. You can expect a call from my attorney."

"You --"

John disconnected. He resisted the urge to hurl the phone across the parking lot.

September 30, 2039

Too agitated to think straight, so I've pulled out my handheld and tried to make some sense of all this. I've passed the last several hours looking through old entries in this diary. God, the signs of Paul's disorder were apparent long ago. His screaming fit in the car when he was four years old stands out in my memory, as clearly as the day it happened.

All this time, all these years. Finally, the façade begins to crack. Finally, some glimmer of hope that I will be vindicated.

I've set up a meeting next week with my attorney. Between now and then, I'll have to assemble as much supporting documentation as I can. I'm sure all those DNA comparisons I've had done will work against me. But Paul's dyslexia can't be refuted, and neither can his history of antisocial behavior. And Dr. Aiken's preposterous allegation that Steven may also have been dyslexic -- clearly, he panicked. I take that as a sign he may be scared enough to offer a settlement.

Steven dyslexic? Can that possibly be true?

Nonsense. And the notion that Steven had been so desperate to please his novelist father that he would conceal a reading disability -- nothing more than a cheap shot.

I had pushed Steven to read, though -- as I had with Paul.

Damn Aiken. Damn him to hell for sowing this doubt.

As I write this, it occurs to me that getting Paul to agree to testify would greatly bolster our chances. Somehow, I've got to get him to trust me.

Yes, it all makes sense to me now. The silence between us has gone on too long. We need to talk.

I just don't know what I'll say.

Five days later, he finally worked up the courage.

He asked Paul if he'd like dinner. To John's surprise, Paul said yes. John made spaghetti, with both marinara and alfredo sauces -- the former for Paul, the latter for him. Paul was uncharacteristically helpful, tossing salads, toasting garlic bread, setting the table. Twice, John noticed him looking in his direction. Each time, Paul quickly shifted his gaze elsewhere.

Half an hour later, they sat to eat at opposite ends of the little dining room table.

John took a deep breath. "I saw your guidance counselor the other day."

Paul paused with a forkful of spaghetti. "Yeah?"

"He tells me you skipped your last appointment."

"I guess I did." He resumed eating.

"You want to tell me why you did that?"

"He would have wanted to talk about Mom. I didn't feel like it."

The snake tattoo across Paul's face kept distracting John. "I know you miss her," he said. "You might have a hard time believing this, but I miss her, too. I wish she were here."

On another day, Paul might have made a sarcastic rejoinder. Today, he only sipped from his glass of cola.

"She knew you so much better than I do. But she's gone, and it's just the two of us now. We hardly know each other."

Paul wiped his mouth with his napkin. "Yeah. I've been thinking about that a lot lately."

John smiled, slightly amazed. "I'm glad to hear you say that. Do you have any ideas?"

"Keith says I could come live with him."

John set his fork on his plate with a clank. "Pardon me?"

"He says he's going to talk to his parents. He's sure they won't mind. And I can get a job to pay for --"

"You want to move out?"

"Well . . . yeah."

"Paul --"

"Like you said, we don't know each other. Neither one of us wanted this. You spend all day in your office. And I'm always over at Keith's."

"Your moving out isn't exactly the solution I had in mind."

He pushed his plate of food aside and sat back in his chair, arms crossed. "What, then?"

"Ah . . ." John's hopes of getting Paul to testify dissipated like smoke. "I don't know, exactly. I thought we could maybe spend more time together. Talk more often. Maybe go to a movie now and --"

"You're kidding, right?"

"Let's not get into an argument."

"Fine." He stood and picked up his plate.

John rose, too. "Where are you going?"

Wordlessly, he took his plate to the kitchen.

John followed. "Hey, we're not done talking here, are we?"

"I am." He dumped the plate, still half full of pasta, into the sink, then shouldered past John and returned to the dining room for his glass.

John stood in the entryway. "I really think we need to --"

Paul glared, and the words died in John's mouth. Paul retrieved his glass and headed back toward the kitchen. John stood his ground, blocking Paul's path.

"Get out of my way," Paul said.

John took a breath. "You're not going to bait me into a fight. This is too important."

Paul hurled the glass at him. John ducked; the glass hit the kitchen floor and shattered. Cola and ice cubes splattered across the tile. Slowly, John straightened. He looked from the mess in the kitchen to Paul, standing at the dining room table, flushed and panting.

"I don't want to be here! Don't you get that? I don't like you, and you don't like me! So why the hell would you want me to stay? Huh? Why?"

John went cold. He realized that he feared Paul -- feared his own son, and in his own home, no less. "I may not have asked for this, true. But that doesn't mean I don't like you, or that I want you to live somewhere else."

"You're lying, and I know it."

"You don't know any such thing."

"I know it. I can even prove it. You think I'm just a defective clone of your little angel boy, don't you?"

Muscles in John's chest tightened. "Did . . . did your mother say that to you? Did she tell you that?"

"She didn't have to. I know it."

"That is simply not --"

"Hey, if he was so great, how come he's dead now? Did you ever ask yourself that? Maybe he was just too stupid to know when he should have ducked."

John closed the distance between them, jabbing a finger at him. "You don't talk to me like that. Not about your dead brother. Not ever."

A smile played at the corners of Paul's mouth. "He was stupid. He deserved to die."

John couldn't stop himself; he swung.

But unlike that awful night eight years past, Paul ducked the blow easily and countered with a fist to the belly. John doubled over and fell backward, his wind gone.

Paul stood over him, sneering. "See what I mean?" He pursed his lips and spat in John's face.

He could only watch, gasping for breath, as Paul walked out, slamming the front door behind him.

IV

The phone call from St. Joseph's came twenty-six hours later, some fifteen hours after John had notified the police that his son was missing. Bleary-eyed and befuddled from the sedative he had taken to help him sleep, he listened as an anonymous woman on the other end informed him that Paul had been brought into the ER by a friend. She couldn't give him any specifics on his condition, but she advised John to come as quickly as possible, in case he needed to authorize treatment.

He arrived at the St. Joseph's emergency room twenty-five minutes after getting the call. When he entered through the automatic doors, a uniformed policeman approached him and said, "Mr. Griffin?"

John hesitated. His heart jogged in his chest. He nodded.

"Sir, I'm Officer McPherson. The hospital called the police about your son -- standard procedure in cases like this."

"A case like what? Where's Paul? I have to see him."

Officer McPherson put up a hand. "He's been badly beaten. He was unconscious when his friend brought him in. He's being treated now. That's all anyone knows at this point."

John waited, expecting him to continue. The cop regarded him blandly.

"Beaten," John said through numb lips. "Badly beaten. How badly?"

"The report indicated contusions and stab wounds. Beyond that, I don't know."

"Somebody stabbed him? Who? Why?"

"Again, I really don't know. I'm sorry."

John glanced around, hoping to get a glimpse of a doctor or nurse. At the registration desk, a clerk took information from a middle-aged woman with disheveled hair and a sleepy little girl in her arms. Beyond the desk, a set of double doors stood shut, bearing a sign that read, Authorized Personnel ONLY. A couple walking past gave John and the policeman a wide berth, stealing surreptitious glances. Neither of them appeared to work for the hospital. He hated them for that.

"What about this friend who brought him in?" John said. "Big kid, seventeen, lizard tattoo on his face?"

McPherson nodded. "That's him. He's injured, too, though not as badly. I'll question him when the doctors allow it."

"Where are his parents?"

"No one's been able to reach them yet." He produced a notepad and pen. "Mr. Griffin, you had called the police regarding your son, is that correct?"

"Yes."

"You said he had run away. What were the circumstances?"

Speaking in a low voice, John told him about the night Paul disappeared. McPherson listened impassively, taking notes. When John finished, McPherson clapped him on the shoulder and promised him he'd find out what happened as soon as he could. He retreated to the ER entrance and stood to one side with his arms behind his back.

John took a seat and waited. First Marie, and now Paul. He had seen too much of hospitals lately.

Half an hour passed before a nurse emerged from the double doors to tell him that Paul was bleeding internally, and had been taken into surgery.

"Can you tell me how he is? Is his life in danger?"

"We're doing everything we can for him. We'll update you as soon as we know more."

She walked away, back through the double doors.

An hour later, a different nurse emerged and took Officer McPherson back to talk to Keith. McPherson came out after twenty-two minutes. John timed it.

He stood and intercepted McPherson before he could leave. "What did he tell you? What did he say?"

McPherson kept moving toward the exit as he talked. "He said they were attacked outside a warren on West Fifty-Seventh."

"A warren?"

McPherson sighed and stopped. "It's a kind of secret den, usually hidden in a basement, for crackers and phreakers. Lots of black market hardware and software is traded there. And there are plenty of secure and untraceable Net connections available, in case you want to crack a system, launch an attack on a corporate web site, or introduce a virus. All set to loud music and flashing lights, with plenty of Euphoria tabs to go around, if that's your thing."

"What were they doing there?"

"He wouldn't say. But when they left, they ran into a group of Jesus Phreaks." Before John could ask, McPherson said, "A local gang whose members carry Bibles, knives, and saps. Dedicated to ridding the world of unbelievers and other undesirables. They like to break into Jewish and Muslim sites and shut them down." McPherson paused. "They, ah, don't think highly of clones."

"Son of a bitch."

"The boys were afraid to go to the hospital, so they went to a friend's apartment. Tried to patch themselves up. When your son lost consciousness, Keith finally brought him in."

John ran a hand through his hair. "So what's next?"

"I have to go check out his story and round up some witnesses. And I'll need to talk to your son if he comes around." He handed John a business card. "If you'll excuse me, please." He edged past John and left.

John sagged against the nearest wall. The business card slipped from his hand. If he comes around, McPherson had said. If.

The handheld clipped to his belt started beeping.

He pulled it out and opened it. The display indicated an urgent text from Eric. John frowned, wondering why in the world Eric would be awake at such an ungodly hour. It had to be after one in the morning.

He opened the message. It read, John, have you heard anything about this? Call me as soon as you can. Eric.

Beneath the message was a link labeled Frankenstein Diaries.

Maybe you've heard of big-shot, best-selling author John Griffin. Maybe you've even read some of his books. Maybe you think he's terrific. But none of you know him. None of you know what a bastard he really is. Well, that ends today. Now you can read from the diary he's kept for the last fourteen years. Check it out. Click on any of the entries below. Take a look at the way he treated his own wife (April 19, 2026). Find out how he really feels about his cloned son (December 3, 2029). See what he thinks of his agent and his editor (February 8, 2039). And there's lots more.

See for yourself. Then pass on this link to anyone who might be interested. Have fun!

John had once thought that Steven's death would be forever marked in his mind as the single worst day in his life. As he sat in the emergency room, living every parent's worst nightmare for the second time in his life, scrolling through screen after screen full of dated entries, he concluded that he may have been premature in that judgment.

The entries were all genuine, copied verbatim from his diary.

His journal had been password-protected since the day he had bought it. He changed the password every sixty days, and always made sure to use random letters and numbers, not recognizable words. He didn't write the password anywhere; he used mnemonics to memorize it.

None of which had posed much of an obstacle to Paul, it seemed.

The latest entry was from September thirtieth, only a week previous. Paul must have copied the files sometime before their argument -- a little ace in the hole for him, in case John didn't agree to let him move out.

I can even prove it, Paul had said that night.

The emergency room, tomb-quiet at that hour, faded to insignificance. John looked through the entries -- and at the hate-filled diatribe that introduced them -- with a kind of detached fascination. He would have to call Eric soon, to find out what kind of damage had been done. Just as soon as he worked up the energy to explain all that had happened.

As if from a great distance, John heard the opening of the double doors and looked up. A doctor in scrubs had emerged. She called his name and asked him to follow her.

The surgeon's name was Dr. Stramm. She showed him to an office -- wood-grain desk, two chairs, and a small couch upholstered in leather. Stramm ushered him in and shut the door behind him. She closed the window blinds as he sat. He wondered vaguely how many times he had sat in various offices through the years, listening as some functionary or another told him what was wrong with his son.

He became aware that he was holding his breath. His mouth had gone dry.

The surgeon -- stocky, middle-aged, dark hair shot with gray -- sat on the arm of the leather couch. She inhaled deeply and said, "Mr. Griffin, Paul has suffered very serious injuries, but I believe he will recover."

He exhaled in a long, shuddery breath. A fit of trembling seized him. All thought of his pirated diaries fled his mind. He could only think of Marie. At that moment, he realized how terrified he had been of letting her down, of betraying her trust . . . of validating her doubt of him.

"However, I need to make clear that we're not out of the woods yet," Dr. Stramm said. "The surgery to repair his internal injuries was as successful as I could hope, but he's lost a great deal of blood. He's still unconscious, and in critical condition. We've moved him to intensive care, and we'll keep a close watch on him, but we've done everything we can. Now it's up to Paul. In twenty-four hours, we'll know more."

She cleared her throat. "Paul's gravest injury was to his kidneys. He took stab wounds in both of them. He has suffered a complete loss of kidney function -- acute renal failure, to put it in medical terms. In Paul's case, I'm afraid, the damage cannot be repaired."

John stopped nodding. "Cannot be . . . but . . . how --"

"He's on dialysis. That will hold him for as long as necessary."

"Dialysis." He stared past her.

"Ideally, that will only be a temporary solution. He needs a kidney transplant."

"Do you have a donor?"

"Not yet, no. To minimize the chances of tissue rejection, a close relative would be best." She stopped, fixing her gaze on him.

His shell-shocked mind took several moments to catch her meaning. "I'm the closest relative he has."

"Mr. Griffin, the risk to you would be minimal. You can lead a normal life with --"

"I only have one kidney. I was born that way."

Her mouth tightened. "I see."

He slumped, shaking his head. "God, I can remember being so worried when Steven was born, that he might be the same way. My wife and I were so relieved that he was normal."

"You have another son?"

"He died many years ago. Paul was cloned from his cells."

"Ah. I noticed the tattoo."

They sat in silence for long moments.

Dr. Stramm said, "We can put Paul on a waiting list, if we must. Those lists tend to be long, though. He could be waiting for years."

"What about stem cells? Can't you grow him a new kidney?"

"That's an option, yes, but you would need donor eggs. Those are harder to come by than kidneys. Many people have a moral objection to them. The waiting list for stem cells is even longer than for organs. Paul will have to remain on dialysis until a donation becomes available. We have kits -- expensive ones, mind you -- that would enable him to do it at home. Three times a week. The process usually takes three to four hours."

"My God."

"It can be hard. But there are many good support groups available for dialysis patients."

John wondered how long Paul would last in a support group. About five minutes, maybe.

"But we're getting ahead of ourselves," Dr. Stramm said. "First, we have to get through the next twenty-four hours. We can worry about finding a donor later." She leaned over to place one hand over his. "When was the last time you slept?"

"I don't remember."

"You should go home, get some rest."

"I want to stay here. Just in case. Is that all right?"

"Hospital policy is --" She waved off the demurral. "Sure," she said, and stood. "I'll show you to the ICU waiting room. And I'll have an orderly get you a pillow and blanket."

"May I . . . see Paul?"

"He's still out from the anesthesia. He'll probably sleep through the night. But you can stop by for a few minutes, if you like."

She took him to ICU. Paul's bed stood in the center of an imposing hodgepodge of EEG and EKG monitors, IV stands, a tangle of equipment he didn't recognize -- the hemodialysis machine, he guessed. He had to turn sideways to edge up to the bed.

The sheets covered most of the damage, but Paul's face was horribly visible. The skin around both eyes was purplish-black and swollen. Multiple contusions marred his cheeks. Tubes ran from his nose and mouth.

John preferred the tattoo.

He stared at Paul's unconscious form for several minutes. He thought he should probably be crying, but it seemed the place inside him that housed his sorrow had gone empty, drained. After a while, he left the ICU and went to the waiting room. The promised pillow and blanket lay on a couch.

A wall clock displayed the time -- just after four a.m. The after-hours hospital quiet unnerved him. Most of the overhead lights had been darkened. A passing nurse stopped in and asked him if he wouldn't rather go home. He would have, actually, but he couldn't. Marie wouldn't have.

He managed about four hours of fitful sleep on the waiting room couch, and awoke sore and scratchy-eyed. Activity on the floor had picked up, many comings and goings in the ICU. A nurse at the station desk told him that Paul's condition had not changed.

He was heading back to the waiting room when he saw Keith, wheelchair bound, guiding himself down the corridor. Keith stopped when he saw John and glanced to either side, as if debating whether he should turn around or not. He held his ground as John approached.

Bandaged from the eyebrows up, Keith bore bruises and contusions similar to Paul's, though less severe. A long red slash, stitched shut, marked his jaw line and cut through the tail of his lizard tattoo. He wore a gray hospital gown.

He said, "I, ah, was coming to see Paul."

"He's doing all right for now, they tell me. But he hasn't woken up yet."

"Oh."

They faced each other in the middle of the corridor. Passersby flowed around them.

"That's a nasty scar," John said.

"One of them got me with a switchblade. And my head hurts. Concussion." He tapped the arms of his wheelchair. "They want me to use this, in case I get dizzy or something."

"Did the doctors say when you can go home?"

"Around noon. I wanted to check on Paul before I left."

"You can wait for him, if you like." John extended a hand in the direction of the waiting room.

"Ah . . ." Keith's brow wrinkled. "I can maybe check back in a few hours."

"All right." John stepped past him.

Keith reached out to touch his arm. "Mr. Griffin, it wasn't my idea to go there. It was Paul's. And like I told that cop, I don't know what he uploaded. He wouldn't say."

Still bleary, John had forgotten all about Paul's little stunt. Eric was no doubt waiting for a phone call. "All right, Keith. I understand."

"Listen, if you talk to him . . . tell him I said thanks."

"For what?"

"When those Jesus Phreaks jumped us, it was mostly me they were after. I've tangled with some of them before. They tried to shove Paul away, but he kept coming at them. He just went nuts, like he had a death wish or something."

John grimaced.

Keith went on, heedless: "If it hadn't been for him, they might have killed me. I think he saved my life." His voice cracked as he spoke; he looked away.

John settled a hand on his shoulder, squeezed. "I'll tell him."

Keith muttered his thanks and wheeled himself back the way he came. Halfway down the hall, he stopped and turned to John. "Did you know he designed that tattoo himself?"

"The snake, you mean?"

"Yeah. He drew it and brought it with him to the tattoo parlor. He draws a lot."

"No, I didn't know that."

Keith gave a strained smile and wheeled away.

John returned to the waiting room, powered up his handheld for video, and dialed Eric's number. He guessed that he looked a fright -- unwashed, unshaven, short of sleep -- but he needed the face-to-face contact.

The connection took only seconds. Eric must have been waiting for the call. The image coalesced; his ever-youthful face looked haggard and drained of color.

"John," he said. "Where are you? At home?"

"I'm at the hospital." He spent the next few minutes giving Eric a précis of the last forty-eight hours. Eric listened without interrupting, impassive, nodding slowly.

When John finished, Eric said, "Paul. I should have figured. Kelso was worried it had been someone who worked for him. He's had the police in his office, conducting interrogations of his entire editorial staff."

"Not taking it well, is he?"

"Given the circumstances, who would?"

"How bad is it?"

Eric cocked his head. "Oh. I guess you've been out of touch."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"We should probably talk about this later. Your son's in the hospital."

"Eric, what's going on? Talk to me."

"I don't know how. It seems you have a new best seller on your hands."

John glanced around the waiting room to make sure he was still alone. "Would you care to repeat that, please?"

"'Best seller' is actually the wrong way to put it, since nobody's selling anything. But The Frankenstein Diaries have hit every major server, search engine, and ISP on the Net. It's causing congestion and network overloads in New York, L.A., London, Tokyo -- everywhere. Now the news services are involved. This thing has become a phenomenon."

"What can be done about it?"

"The lawyers at Fidelis advise --"

"The lawyers are involved? Already?"

"They tell us we can get an injunction. But that'll take another day or so. By then --" Eric shrugged.

"By then, there'll be no stopping it, injunction or not."

"Basically. I've tried getting Kelso to look at the bright side. I told him there's no such thing as bad publicity. But you know Fidelis. It's a very conservative house. They have a lot of pride in their reputation as a literary publisher."

A family of four -- a young couple and two small, fussy children -- came into the waiting room, the first visitors of the day. The parents held hands as they tried to quiet their bickering kids.

John pulled the earpiece from the handheld's casing, plugged it in, and set the receiver in his ear as he removed himself to a far corner. "What are you telling me?"

"Kelso's in an emergency board meeting right now. My guess is that they're deciding whether or not to continue our contract negotiations."

"They want to drop me?"

"They're considering it."

"Can you stop them?"

"They won't talk to me. That doesn't bode well. It didn't help matters that I couldn't reach you until now."

"Eric, Paul's in the damned ICU, waiting for a new kidney! What the hell --" He caught a glimpse of the young couple staring at him and lowered his voice. "I can't fly to New York right now. You have to take care of this for me."

"I've done all I can."

Never before in their relationship had Eric sounded so final, so negative -- cold, even. John peered at the monitor, and thought he saw anger in the furrow of his brow and the hard set of his jaw. And he thought he knew why. "Have you . . . have you read the diaries?"

"I looked through some of the entries, yes. I had to know what we were dealing with."

John flushed, feeling violated and ashamed, as if he'd been caught masturbating. "Whatever you've read, you have to know that I think you're a damned fine agent. I owe a great deal of my success to you. If I haven't said that often enough, I'm sorry. I just --"

"John, you may be overly envious of the fact that I'm younger than you, but that's not really the problem."

"Then what is?"

He glanced away. "Have you ever read Frankenstein? The original novel, I mean?"

"Once, when I was a kid."

"Do you remember the story?"

"Victor Frankenstein made a monster. Of course I remember it. I think I even referenced it in my diary."

"Yes, you did. But I think your recall of the plot is a little faulty."

"Maybe. What's your point?"

Eric looked into the monitor again. "It always seemed to me that Victor Frankenstein didn't create a monster. Frankenstein was the monster."

"I don't understand."

"The thing he made -- it wasn't what he'd hoped it would be. So he abandoned it. He refused to live up to his responsibility for the life he had created. I've always thought he got what he had coming to him."

He stopped, but kept his gaze steady.

John stared back, nonplussed.

"You look terrible, John. You should go home. Try to get some sleep. I'll notify you if I hear anything."

He disconnected. The screen went dark.

October 10, 2039

Dear Paul,

Dr. Stramm says you refuse to see me, so I'm writing you this letter. I'll have a nurse pass the handheld to you. I've disabled the password feature, so you'll have no trouble opening the file. After all that's happened, the security of my diary is no longer an issue, anyway. It seems rather fitting that this should be the last entry.

I beg you to read all of this. I know you won't want to. But please hear me out -- if not for my sake, then out of respect for your mother's memory.

I can't begin to express how glad I am that you have regained consciousness and are recovering. When Dr. Stramm told me the news, a surge of joy, stronger than anything I'd ever experienced, swept me. My relief could not have been greater if it had been my life that had been spared. For the first time in years, I prayed, thanking God for bringing you through.

And then I came here.

I'm at the cemetery now, writing this while seated on a bench across from your brother's grave. It's the first time I've been here since his funeral. I didn't think I'd ever see this place again. The grave site is prettier than I remembered. An old maple tree shades the area. The leaves have turned crimson and yellow, and are just starting to fall. But even this late in the year, the grass is still thick and green. A neat gravel path winds through the graves.

The stone is square and simply engraved:

Steven Timothy Griffin

Beloved Son

January 4, 2016 - April 19, 2023

So simple. So final. So immutable. I didn't think I'd ever have the courage to face it again.

I've spent the past hour weeping -- for Steven, for your mother, and for you. But mostly, I've wept for all the time I've wasted, the damage I've done.

All this time, I've been deluding myself into thinking that I was over Steven's death. I've congratulated myself on the way I rebuilt my life after such a shattering catastrophe. I've prided myself on having the strength to heal. The grief I feel today tells me what a fool I've been.

You and your mother were right, Paul. I wanted you to be Steven reborn. I never accepted you for being different, for being yourself. I spent years casting about for an explanation, certain there had to be something wrong with you. As it turned out, the problem was with me all along.

I'm not telling you any news, I'm sure. I understand now why you hate me so much, why you stole my diary in the first place. I'm sorry I took so long to figure it out. I offer no rationalizations for my stupidity, no excuses but this: living with constant heartache does strange things to your mind.

Since I mentioned the diary, I might as well tell you that Fidelis has decided against a new contract. I'm out. Yes, there will be other publishers down the line, but I'll be starting over. Again. I expect you think I hate you for what you've done. Maybe that's what you wanted.

But I don't hate you. I love you now more than I ever did, if for no other reason than for helping to realize a truth I've been dodging for nearly fifteen years.

Worst of all is the knowledge that nothing I can do will bring back that time. Every parent wishes he or she had done things differently, but I have a hell of a lot more to answer for than most. And nothing I do now can make it right.

But maybe --

I picture you lying in that hospital bed, and my eyes tear up again. The thought of you having to spend so much of your future hooked to that damned dialysis machine, hoping for a donor, is more than I can bear. You've had enough pain. If I can do anything to stop it, by God, I will. So I've come to a decision.

I have only one kidney, Paul. But it's yours, if you want it.

Dr. Stramm will object strenuously. I don't care. If anyone has to go on dialysis, if anyone has to spend years on a waiting list, if anyone has to make adjustments and learn to cope, let it be me. I can take it.

Maybe you think I want something in return. Not so. It's a gift, completely free of obligation -- the best gift I can think to give.

Or maybe you think I'm doing this to save my reputation. But I won't have this publicized. The only people who need to know are you, me, and the surgical team that does the work.

Or maybe you think I'm trying to atone for what I've done. You and I both know better: there is no atoning. One kidney can't make up for fourteen years.

If anything, Paul, it's a new beginning.

I'm not asking your forgiveness. I don't have the right. But I am hoping for another chance. I offer you my kidney as a token of goodwill. Please take it, no matter what you decide about me.

And then what?

I honestly don't know. If nothing else, I'll get to see you become a man. I look forward to that, even if you never speak to me again. But first, you have to get well and get home from the hospital. Let me help you with that. Please, Paul. It's the best I can do.

I'm heading back to the hospital now. I'll find a nurse to give you this journal. By the time you read this, I'll be in the waiting room just outside ICU. I'll be there for however long it takes, waiting -- and hoping, and praying -- for your answer.

I love you, son.

Always,

Dad


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