A dirty green four-door screeched into the restaurant parking lot and lurched to a stop at the door. The driver, a young man in a dirty baseball cap, cigarette dangling from his lips, paused, and a young woman got out of the passenger seat. Without a word, the driver pulled the car away and onto the street. The young woman straightened her clothes, entered the restaurant, looked around, and then saw her mother, already seated at a booth. She slid in across from her. “Hello, Mother.”
“Hi, honey.” She was immediately aware of her daughter’s too-short skirt and revealing top, and the tattoo across the top of her bare shoulder and she struggled not to frown.
“He couldn’t find his car keys, that’s why I’m late,” the daughter said as she opened the menu. “You’re buying today, right?”
“Mother,” she said in that plaintive way she had of speaking lately. “He’s got a good job. We’ve got enough money.”
“Are you saving anything?” Cyndi pretended not to hear the question. “Working as a mechanic in his father’s garage is not a good job.”
“He’s going to school too. And when he’s done, then I’ll go.”
Her mother rolled her eyes. “Three years in a community college and he’s still a year away from graduating? With a two year degree? Something’s not right there.” The girl pursed her lips, pouting. “I know you’re an adult now, but I don’t like you spending the night over there. If you get pregnant, I’m not bailing you out.”
“I’m not going to get pregnant.”
“You’re sleeping with him. You could get pregnant.”
“I’m not sitting here any longer.” The younger woman stood up and yanked her purse to her shoulder. She pulled the cellphone out, pressed a button, and brought it to her ear as she stepped toward the door.
“Honey, don’t—“” her mother said, but then Cyndi was gone. She watched her daughter walk disappear through the restaurant door.
Outside, Cyndi held the phone to her ear, waiting for Bobby’s voicemail greeting to end, when there was the briefest of flashes of white light from the sky, engulfing her, and then she was gone.
Time had passed—Cyndi knew that much, the way you know after a deep sleep. She found herself in unfamiliar and unexpected surroundings. She was sitting on a dark bench along the side of a small chamber. A moment later, she became aware that she was on a vehicle of some sort, and that there was a man standing before her. She started to stand up. “No, don’t get up,” the man said in oddly accented English.
She stood, then a wave of dizziness washed over her, and she half-sat, half-fell back onto the bench. “Where am I?”
“You’re safe,” the man said, handing her a small towel; she had suddenly started sweating. “Please just relax for a moment. My name is Melvin.”
She took the towel and mopped her brow with it. Nausea washed over her, and for a moment, she had a horrific thought—Could I be pregnant?—but the moment passed. “Who are you?”
“I’m Melvin,” the man repeated, smiling. He appeared to be about 50; Cyndi noticed that he was dressed strangely, a rubbery-looking pair of jodhpurs that included shoes at the bottoms like footies on pajamas, and a shiny vest-like garment with one long sleeve, the left, that extended past the wrist and over the back of the hand, with a loop around the middle finger. He sat down next to her.
Cyndi was rapidly regaining her wits. “What am I doing here?”
“Please, I’ll explain everything to you.” He paused, and then he gestured toward the floor. “Look.” The textured surface of the floor between the bench and the other side of the small chamber glistened for a moment, and then a large portion of it just in front of her feet became transparent—she drew her feet back instinctively and leaned forward. She was looking down at an aerial view of the restaurant and the front entrance, where she had been standing only a moment before. Despite the odd perspective, she recognized herself, and, seeing it again, she also recognized the family that had been coming in when she was going out. They were still, like a videotape on pause.
While she took in the scene, Melvin rose and crossed the small distance to a podium on the other side of the ship. “Now, if you’ll please just watch for a moment. . . .” He manipulated controls and the scene on the floor jumped to life. The family that had been on their way in when she went out stepped backward away from the front door while the image of Cyndi stepped backward towards it. The view moved to keep the top of Cyndi’s head in the center. As she moved into the building—backward—the building’s roof became transparent and she could see herself moving backwards along the path she had followed when she left the table. The scene slowed down for a few seconds and then stopped at the point where Cyndi had jerked her purse off the seat across from her mother.
“What’s this all about?”
He looked up from the podium. “I—that is, we—we help people make decisions. Sometimes we help people remake them.” He stepped over to the screen, standing at its perimeter and looking down into it. “Your mother and you have been arguing a lot lately,” he said.
“How do you know that?”
Melvin ignored her question. “We’d like to, ah” –he seemed to be having trouble deciding what he wanted to say—“we’d like to ask you to have a look at a few things, and then reconsider.”
“Reconsider what?” she asked, her outrage beginning to overcome the strangeness of the situation.
“Reconsider whatever you might need to,” he said. “Look.” The scene moved forward now, past the point at which she had been abducted, and with growing fascination, she watched herself on fast forward, moving back and forth, the cellphone to her head, then her arm came down and she moved back and forth some more, then a woman—her mother—came into the scene and moved over to her. “Your mother comes out of the restaurant and tries to take you home, but you refuse,” he said, peering down. “Finally, she drives away, as you can see here.” The top of her mother’s head moved crazily to her car, which Cyndi recognized. She got in, backed up, and drove away. “About this time, Bobby answers your call and says he’ll come get you, but he doesn’t for a while,” Melvin said as Cyndi watched herself.
“How can you have this?” she asked. “That didn’t happen.”
“Actually, it did happen,” Melvin said. “You just didn’t get to it yet. It’s hard to explain. But let me show you something else.” Melvin waved his hands in an odd way and the view glimmered and changed. The perspective was still directly top down, and it took a moment for Cyndi to recognize that what she was seeing was herself, standing in front of the open refrigerator door in her mother’s kitchen. She immediately remembered the incident that was about to be replayed on the screen—another argument about Bobby. “For this one,” Melvin said, “the conversation is important.”
The sound came on, and she heard herself yell “Mother! Is there any yogurt?!” Cyndi cringed at the sound of her own voice—insistent bordering on whiny, almost a bleat. Her mother came into the scene, the top of her head coming right to Cyndi’s. Her hand reached inside the open door and came out with a container, which she then set on the counter. Cyndi closed the door, flipped open the container with one hand, yanked a drawer open with the other, and then she was spooning the yogurt into her mouth.
“Honey, I keep getting calls from Sears,” her mother said.
“Mother,” Cyndi’s voice worked around the spoon. “Bobby took care of that already.”
“They called me this morning, Cyndi,” she said. “They have not gotten paid. Did he tell you he paid them?”
“Yes, Mother,” she said. It was the same plaintive voice she had used a few minutes ago in the restaurant. Cyndi realized all at once that it was the voice of a child—a voice that was peculiar in the mouth of a 22-year-old woman.
“Honey, if you don’t pay them, it’s going to go against your credit,” her mother was saying. “I’ll pay it this time, but you’ve got to get Bobby clear on his priorities. You give him your paycheck, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Cyndi heard herself saying. “Bobby knows what he’s doing, Mother,” she said. She remembered at the time that she had not believed her own words, but she hadn’t realized until she heard herself saying the words how hollow they sounded.
“He doesn’t know a damn thing, Cyndi.”
“Your talking about the man I love!” she responded angrily, and again, she was suddenly aware of how hollow they words sounded. “He’s going to be the father of my children!” Hearing it this way, she cringed.
“Your mother paid that bill, didn’t she?” Melvin asked, his eyes on the screen. “Yeah,” Cyndi said thoughtfully.
“Let me show you something else,” he said. Again he waved his hands, and the screen changed to a top-down view of a room that she didn’t recognize. Black and white tiles formed a floor of a room; there were chairs around the circumference, and a back-to-back row of chairs in the middle of the room. Many of the chairs were occupied—she could only see the tops of their heads. While she watched, an old-fashioned gurney came into view. It was being pushed from one side of the room to the other, one person behind it, pushing, another walking alongside, holding something above. The figure on the gurney was unidentifiable as anything other than a human figure, but the figure’s aituation was recognizable to her—it was a thin young woman, heavily pregnant, her belly distended and poking up under a white sheet. The view focused on the woman on the gurney, and as Cyndi watched, fascinated, she saw the gurney pushed through a hallway and into a small, mostly empty room. The figures who had pushed the gurney into the room were replaced by other figures. One of them whisked the sheet off the woman in one smooth motion; the other moved to the end of the gurney and lifted the woman’s legs onto supports which she fastened into place.
Cyndi suddenly realized what she was looking at and she knew the answer to her question before she asked it. “Oh my God,” she said. “That’s not my mother, is it?”
“Yes, it is.”
Cyndi knew the story. Her mother—her real mother—had been found lying in the emergency room parking lot early one Sunday morning. She had been emaciated, unresponsive, high on drugs—and in labor. She gave birth and then she died. Ellen Rowlins worked in the ER as a nurse in those days. Ellen had taken care of the small, still baby, had fed her, changed her, monitored her in the incubator, and when no one claimed her, Ellen had taken her home, formally adopting her on the day she turned six weeks old. But it was different, watching it this way. Then suddenly the sound was back, and she heard her mother’s voice, strangely young and energetic. “Eighty-eight over thirty-eight, Doctor,” The head at the foot of the gurney uh-huhmed, and then Cyndi could see a dark red substance run into the bottom of the pan under where his hands were working. Blood. Again, her mother’s voice, more urgent this time: “Eighty-five over thirty-two.”
“Hold on, honey,” the doctor said, and in a moment, he pulled something away from the woman’s spread legs, rotated, and placed it on a silver pan. For a moment—after the doctor let go and turned away, but before the nurse bent over it—she saw the impossibly tiny still little human baby on the tray. The umbilical cord was still attached; at the other end of the cord, an angry-looking red mass oozed dark red blood across the surface of the tray.
The tiny form at the other end of the cord was blue, flaccid, quiet, and covered with vellum. It looked like the runt kitten in a too-large litter, but Cyndi knew exactly what it was.
Then the nurse who had been calling numbers—the woman she argued with in restaurants—was wiping the form, squeezing the tiny arms and legs. “Come on, baby,” she heard her mother say quietly. She watched her mother move efficiently, lifting this instrument and that. Cyndi saw her mother slip a pair of clamps onto a milky-looking cord and deftly snip it in two between the clamps. Then she wrapped the baby in a small square blanket and moved over to a rocking chair, the view maintaining her small form in the center. She sat down, cradling the baby in her arm while the other one reached over and grasped an eyedropper, manipulated it, and then brought it over to the cloth bundle. “What is she doing?” Cyndi asked.
“She’s feeding you.” There was a pause as Cyndi watched, fascinated. “You were so dehydrated, they didn’t want to waste time trying to get a line into you, so your mother dropped Ringer’s solution into your mouth and massaged it down,” he said. “You were too small to swallow.”
Her eyes were suddenly full of tears.
Melvin moved his hands and the pace picked up again, moving into fast forward, Nurse Ellen’s arm moving impossibly fast, back and forth. Another head popped into view, dropped a container on the tray. “Wait, I want you to hear this part.”
The scene slowed down, and a voice—not her mother’s—was speaking. –“child isn’t going to make it, Ellen,” the voice said. “Don’t you go getting attached to it,”
“Her.” Her mother’s voice.
“Ellen,” the other woman said more harshly. But she departed, and her mother continued with the eyedroppering, now from the fresh container, back and forth.
“She fed you for about five hours that morning,” Melvin said. “Then you were hydrated enough for them to get an intravenous line into you.” The screen glimmered again, and then she was looking top-down at a view of herself, visibly bigger, in a plastic box. “This is the incubator in the neonatal room,” Melvin informed her. “You spent 17 days here.” The view pulled back a little, and then she could see an old wooden rocking chair next to the incubator, and a form in it. Her mother. “The time here is 2:23 am local time. Okay, watch right here,” Melvin said, pointing. The baby in the box kicked against the side of the plastic, and the form in the chair jerked out of sleep, turned and looked.”
“She slept in the room.” Cyndi said.
“Yes, she did. Agatha—that was the nurse who brought more Ringer’s earlier—sometimes stayed in there while your mother showered, but she spent most of her time in there.”
Again, her eyes were full of tears. “Why are you showing me all this?” she said, staring at her mother as she settled back into the rocking chair.
“We show people things sometimes, when it’s important,” he responded. “I can’t really say any more than that.”
“But if you—”
“No,” Melvin interrupted. “Only, if you want to make some changes, well, that’s up to you.”
“You can show me things. Show me Bobby.”
“I’m not supposed to.”
“Show me,” she repeated.
Melvin frowned, then his hands move to manipulate controls on the panel, and the screen flickered, changed, and settled on a view of a dismal-looking living room.