Authors: Krista Van Dolzer
G. P. Putnam's Sons
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright Â© 2015 by Krista Van Dolzer.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Van Dolzer, Krista.
The sound of life and everything / Krista Van Dolzer.
Summary: In 1950s California, grieving Mildred Clausen tries to have her son, who was killed in World War II, cloned, but instead, a Japanese man emerges and her niece, Ella Mae, befriends him, in spite of the town's intense prejudice and her aunt's conviction that he is her son's killer.
[1. Family lifeâCaliforniaâFiction. 2. PrejudicesâFiction. 3. JapaneseâCaliforniaâFiction. 4. CloningâFiction. 5. CaliforniaâHistoryâ20th centuryâFiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.V2737Sou 2015 [Fic]âdc23 2014015975
For Chris and Mom,
who keep me sane
Mama said it was plum foolish not to wash the
blood off Robby's dog tags. “It's like your auntie thinks that blood will keep your cousin with her, and we both know that's plum foolish.” She shook a finger in my face. “And don't you let anyone tell you any differently. Especially Auntie Mildred.”
But that was exactly what Auntie Mildred told me. “It's not plum foolishness, it's science.” She gave her broom a flick. “I saw this piece just yesterday about a scientist up north. Did you know he can regrow folks from practically nothing?”
But when I got back to the house and reported this news to Mama, she didn't take it seriously. “It was hardly a piece. Auntie Mildred cut that clipping out of yesterday's want ads. If you have a dead man's lock of hairâor a few drops of his bloodâsome fool doctor wants it for his research.” She made a show of sighing. “That ain't science, it's bunk, and if your auntie can't see that, I'm afraid she's gonna end up with a fistful of regrets and a bellyful of heartache.”
I could have kept this up, scurrying back and forth between them like a telegram service, but those two already had enough to fight about, seeing as they were sisters. In fact, when Mama answered the telephone on that sunny Saturday, I figured it was Auntie Mildred calling to resume their never-ending argument about the best way to clean soap scum.
But I was only half right.
“Settle down, Mildred,” Mama said. “I can barely understand you.”
Auntie Mildred had a habit of shouting into telephones, so I could usually eavesdrop without expending too much effort, but for once, she didn't shout. Her words came out so fast that I could barely catch the gist, and what I caught didn't make sense. Something about Robby and a doctor's appointment, but I couldn't have said how those two things were related. By the time Mama said “All right, we're on our way,” I still had no idea what the fuss was about.
“On our way where?” I asked.
Mama hung up the receiver. “That's none of your concern,” she replied as she grabbed her gloves.
I folded my arms across my chest. “Then why do I have to come?”
“Because the last time I left you home, you pulled three shelves out of the wallâ”
“Well, maybe if you hadn't hidden the snickerdoodles,” I said, “I would've been able to reach 'em.”
“âand because,” Mama went on as if I hadn't cut in, “I don't want to drive with your auntie by myself. Pasadena's an hour from here.”
I scrunched up my nose. “What's in Pasadena?”
“The California Institute of Technology.”
“Exactly,” Mama said as she steered me out the door.
We walked swiftly to the Clausens' house to pick up Auntie Mildred, Mama's sensible black pumps pounding out a sturdy rhythm on the sunbaked road. Auntie Mildred didn't drive (despite Grandpa Willy's best efforts), but we had to take her car, since the boys had taken ours to go fishing at the pier. I'd wanted to go, too, but Daddy hadn't let me. Apparently, I was too old for manly things like fishing. This morning, I'd been madder than an unmilked dairy cow, but now I thanked my lucky stars. This trip to Pasadena sounded loads more interesting.
“Where's Gracie?” I asked as we climbed into the Clausens' Chrysler. It was actually Uncle George's Chrysler (since he was the only one who drove it), but Auntie Mildred was the one who'd insisted on this model. It was round and teal, a car-shaped dollop of toothpaste.
“Not coming,” she said as she pulled on her gloves. Those gloves were so white that they could have been featured on a Rinso commercial whereas Mama's gloves were off-white at best. Mama said that was because Auntie Mildred didn't know how to get her hands dirty.
Mama's golden hair danced in the wind as we thundered up the street. None of the other ladies at our church knew how to drive, but then, Mama wasn't like any of the other ladies. She'd been raised by Grandpa Willy, who believed in teaching girls how to operate heavy machinery in case they ended up marrying men with no arms and no legs.
It was like Grandpa Willy knew that World War II was coming. He just hadn't realized it would come for his grandsons instead.
â¢Â â¢Â â¢
The hardworking sun hung an hour lower in the sky when we arrived in Pasadena. Auntie Mildred's knee bounced up and down as she gave Mama directions, but when we finally pulled into the parking lot labeled
, she only sat there staring.
Mama threw the gearshift into park. “Well, there's no sense dillydallyin'.”
Auntie Mildred looked as wilted as Mr. Whitman's week-old lettuce as she climbed out of the car. I wasn't sure whyâit was still cool enough that my legs hadn't stuck to the custom upholsteryâbut maybe her wilting had less to do with the heat. She gaped at the building, and it gaped back at her. The door was a tightly sealed mouth, and the windows were eyes.
“Pull yourself together,” Mama hissed as she dragged her sister to her feet. “If what's inside that building is really what you think it is, will he want to see his mama for the first time in seven years lookin' like the Ghost of Christmas Past?”
“You're right, Anna,” she said, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “I need to be strong. For Robby.”
“Why for Robby?” I asked. Auntie Mildred didn't make sense on most days, but today, she made even less. Robby was dead and buried, and God and everyone knew it.
But she didn't see fit to grace me with an answer, just let Mama lead her into the lab. They looked like Siamese twins as they half stumbled, half jogged across the crowded parking lot and through the front door. I actually had to sprint to catch up at one point. Wherever we were going, they wanted to get there on the double.
The lobby reminded me of the Alaska Territory (which Miss Fightmaster had covered in her last geography lesson). First, it was enormous. Second, it was cold. And third, except for a reception desk and a three-story portrait mounted on a distant wall, it was completely empty. I didn't recognize the man staring down from the portrait, but he had to be important, since his mug was taking up as much space as our living room.
Mama's booming footsteps made the secretary look up from the paper clips she'd been sorting. “Welcome!” she said brightly as she adjusted her glasses. “Do you have an appointment?”
Auntie Mildred tried to reply, but she just hemmed and hawed. Guess she'd already used up all her words in the car on the way here.
“Yes, ma'am,” Mama said, giving me Auntie Mildred's purse. “Ella Mae, would you please find their card?”
Grudgingly, I took the purse. I thought I'd come on this adventure to keep Mama company, not to dig through Auntie Mildred's handkerchiefs and Betty Crocker coupons. I was about to say so, too, when the secretary intervened.
“Oh, don't bother,” she said. “We never give out our cards. If you dropped it on the sidewalk, anyone might pick it up, and then where would we be?” She pulled out her appointment book. “I'll just look you up.”
Auntie Mildred's mouth moved, but no sound came out.
I pretended not to notice. No need to draw even more attention to my embarrassing kin. “Her name is Mildred Clausen.”
The secretary flipped through her appointment book. “Ah, yes, Mildred Clausen, two fifteen with Dr. Franks.” She eyed us over her glasses. “Now I just need to see ID.”
Auntie Mildred took her purse back, pulled a water bill out of the pocket, and handed it across the desk.
“Thank you, Mrs. Clausen.” She set her sights on Mama. “And what about you?”
Mama made no effort to reach for her purse, though I wasn't sure why. It seemed like a reasonable requestâSergeant Friday always asked to see ID on
âbut then, Mama was less familiar with due process than I was. She always made a point of darning socks or doing dishes while me and Daddy watched the show together.
The secretary clasped her hands over her appointment book. “I apologize for the inconvenience, but the work we do here at Ingolstadt is of a very sensitive nature.” It sounded like something she'd said at least a hundred times.
Mama held out for another moment, then reluctantly dug out her wallet and slapped her driver's license on the desk.
The secretary made a show of reading every word. “Thank you, Mrs. Higbee.”
Mama stuffed it into her wallet. “What about my daughter? Are you afraid my Ella Mae's not who she says she is?”
The secretary forced a smile. “Of course not, Mrs. Higbee.” She motioned toward a silver door at the far end of the lobby. “You can go in now.”
Mama didn't smile back as she hurried us away, black pumps thumping impatiently across the shiny tiles. A large man in a black suit was waiting by the door, and I felt my pulse quicken. If the man thought he could stop us, he was in for a surprise. Once Mama made her mind up, she didn't often change it. But he didn't try to slow us down. When the silver door slid open, he waved us right through.
On the other side of the door, we found another lobby, slightly smaller, and another secretary, this one blond-haired (though her hair didn't look quite as natural as Mama's). I assumed she'd dyed it with one of those boxes of Clairol.
“Mrs. Clausen?” she asked.
Auntie Mildred nodded.
“I'm afraid I have to ask to see your ID again.”
Mama threw her arms up. “Who do you think you are, the FBI?”
The secretary smiled ruefully. “And yours, too, Mrs. Higbee.”
After this secretary determined that Mama and Auntie Mildred hadn't somehow switched identities in the last twenty-three seconds, she motioned toward another door at the far end of this lobby. It was guarded by a slightly larger man in a slightly blacker suit.
We repeated this process another six times, until we were so lost we'd probably need a compass to find our way back out. The lobbies kept getting smaller, as if the walls themselves were closing in around us, and the secretaries kept getting softer, as if they were afraid to breathe. The last one didn't say anything, just glanced at our IDs and led us into a labyrinth of narrow, twisty halls. She left us in a small white room with a large screen and a red door.
I'd been anxious to see what the men were guarding, and now that we were here, it was hard to make myself sit still. At least we only had to wait a few minutes before the door slid open, revealing a man in a white lab coat. His mustache reminded me of Adolf Hitler's.
“Mrs. Clausen!” he said, extending his hand to Auntie Mildred. How he knew which one she was, I had no idea. “My name is Dr. Franks.”
Auntie Mildred hesitated, then gently shook his hand.
Dr. Franks set his sights on Mama. “And you areÂ .Â .Â .Â ?”
“Anna Higbee.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “But then, I'm surprised your interrogators didn't tell you.”
Dr. Franks forced a nervous chuckle. “Yes, they are quite thorough. But the work we do here at Ingolstadt is of a very sensitiveâ”
“Nature,” Mama finished. “They already mentioned that.”
“I'm sure they did,” he said, then bent down to look at me. He didn't have to bend far. “And what's your name, little missy?”
“Ella Mae,” I said, catching a whiff of his cologne. He smelled like moldy pickles, which probably explained why his ring finger was bare.
Dr. Franks straightened back up. “Regrettably,” he said to no one in particular, “I don't think our experiment is exactly appropriate for someone of Ella's ageâ”
” I cut in.
Mama stuck out her chin. “If it ain't appropriate for my daughter, it ain't appropriate for us, either.”
Dr. Franks didn't argue. “In that case,” he replied, gesturing toward the screen (which turned out to be a window), “I invite you to witness the rebirth of subject oh-one-eight, otherwise known as Robert Clausen.”