THE DEATH OF ALISON WOOD at age four forever divided the Woods’s lives into two distinct periods: the nervous, adoring optimism of before, and the cloying desperation of after.
“It will take time,” said the grief counselor at the hospital, her fingers folded like dove feathers. “I know it seems impossible now.” But as Edwin Wood shuffled through the parking lot, blue sky nauseatingly bright, he knew nothing short of bringing his daughter back to life would again make him whole.
Alison’s life had been a great pleasure-taking, a sensory experience of tickle attacks and mismatched socks and walks in the orchard, everything infused with the color and texture of a Chagall. Her death was swift, though not swift enough. Four weeks in intensive care, hair flattened against the pillow, cheeks pale. Small body a site where tubes and wires gave and took.
Outwardly, Edwin played the optimist to Moira’s cynic. “The science is catching up,” he’d say. “They saved a boy in Florida.” But Moira had been right, the exceedingly low statistical likelihood of catching Manzanolo did not make it impossible, and from the moment she caught it, Alison’s future did not look good. Moira stared out the window, her Amazonian height diminished, saying little until the doctor’s words crashed down on them both: “Irreversible brain damage . . . organs failing . . . zero quality of life.” And then what?
And then this: Moira sitting on the driver’s side of their self-driving car, eyes closed. Traffic on the expressway, radio off. At Edwin’s feet a bag filled with Alison things, including her favorite book, Frogs of the Amazon. They had frogs in their backyard pond, and sometimes Edwin let her squat beside him on the rocks in rubber boots, counting the number of females versus males. “Four!” she’d say. “Seben!” Edwin used to dream of her becoming a herpetologist, deciding he’d be supportive even if she had to move far away to a place where frogs were going extinct. That was when you were supposed to be separated from your children, when they went off to save the world.
Moira normally insisted on staying alert, no matter how many times Edwin reminded her this was a vestige from another time: self-driving cars had cut accidents by ninety-nine percent.
“I can’t,” she muttered now, her chest rising and falling with some difficulty. Edwin noticed her gooseflesh and turned down the air conditioning.
“Traffic has changed,” said the car in its upper crust British accent. “Recalculating the fastest route home.”
It was Edwin’s forty-fourth birthday. Birthday forever ruined, not that it mattered. A month earlier, he worried about sailing swiftly into middle life with an extra ten pounds around his torso and a growing list of regrets. He shouldn’t have gotten that tiger tattoo in Amsterdam, he should have started exercising at least a decade earlier, he shouldn’t have lost touch with his colleagues after leaving his job. But the moment Alison died, the only thing that mattered was that they hadn’t moved to Canada as Moira had wanted, where it was too cold for the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
Home was a small town in Northern California. Sun like a cherry bomb, forests on fire. Wildflowers, walnut trees, switchback-road gravel spitting from your tires. Moira was a botanist for an agricultural conglomerate that Edwin and Moira agreed was not evil, despite public opinion, and incidentally paid very well. Edwin used to teach at the local high school, but when Alison was born, he took leave and never went back. Instead he designed and built a micro-home out of glass and fir, a nine-hundred-square-foot Jenga puzzle of sliding doors and solar panels. Alison’s bed popping up from the floor like one of those three-dimensional birthday cards. They loved how science could become design and design could be magic, Alison and Edwin. Sure, she was too young to articulate it in so many words, but he knew. They had an understanding, they were composed of the same material: one part logic, two parts heart. Moira was two parts logic, one part heart. A distinction that changes everything.
They’d been home from the hospital for all of ten minutes when Moira began cleaning the house. Twice Edwin went to her, tried to wrap his soft body around her tall, proud frame, but she stiffened, dust rag in hand. Alone then. He’d tell visitors to leave their casseroles at the door. Draw the blinds. Edwin sat in the study-nook in the dark, knowing Moira was unlikely to come near. He opened his computer and logged onto the support forum.
Did u get the DNA sample? Asked madscientist2001. Only a kid but a genius, monitoring the latest in human cloning. Based in South Korea, or maybe New Jersey.
Edwin’s cursor blinked. His face raw from crying.
Sorry for ur loss.
It was in his pocket, a few strands of Alison’s hair. He sent a thumbs-up emoji, then blew his nose. In the other room, Moira fired up the vacuum.
The yearning to create is human.
What’s holding u back?
The vacuum thunked and sputtered. She’d sucked up something, a coin or a pin.
Edwin fidgeted in his office chair. Unanswerable questions, he thought. Like, what if the new Alison is only a low-resolution copy of the original?
But all this love, it had to go somewhere.
I have to talk to my wife.
OK, wrote madscientist2001. Do it soon. Do it now.
In the living room, their small couch was fully dismantled, cushions and pillows upended, the vacuum gobbling crumbs from the seams. Edwin waited for Moira to look at him. She finished with the couch, brushed her hair off her face and surveyed the room.
He got ready for bed.
In the bathroom, he pulled out a piece of dental floss, put down the toilet lid and sat down. He hadn’t flossed in a week and the fact that he found it fruitful, rewarding even, was troubling. He heard footsteps and realized Moira was behind the door. “You okay?” he asked. She didn’t speak. “M?”
“Yeah,” she said. The floss limp in Edwin’s hands.
“I think we should do it,” he told her. He wiped the tears from his eyes and opened the door.
She had aged at least five years. Her forehead was taut, with fine lines like cracks in the desert, seen from a satellite. When had that happened?
She frowned, pressing her warm palm against Edwin’s cheek.
“Okay,” she said, which was, to be certain, the opposite of what he expected.
• • •
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NICOLE BAUTE is a Canadian writer living in Hong Kong. Her short stories have appeared in the Forge, Prairie Fire, carte blanche, and Wigleaf, and in 2018 she won the Pinch Literary Prize for Fiction.