Authors: Krista Van Dolzer
So that was it, the big secret? Dr. Franks really thought he could bring folks back to life? The last time I checked, only God could do that. I wanted to ask Mama what she thought of this tripe, but she just stood there staring, like she'd known all along.
The rectangular room on the other side of the window wasn't any bigger than this one. The only thing inside it was a giant red horse pill. A dark line ran down its middle, and on one side of the line, a screen winked on and off, like it was warming up.
The room certainly looked official, but it would take more than a few props to get me to change my mind. “If that's really Robby, how'd he get in there?”
Dr. Franks tilted his head. “Are you familiar with the birds and bees, Miss Higbee?”
“Who ain't familiar with birds and bees?” I replied at the same time Mama said “I beg your pardon!”
Luckily, Dr. Franks paid her no heed. “You see, Miss Higbee,” he said, “every human life begins as a single fertilized egg. That egg contains forty-six chromosomes, which tell the embryo how it should grow. Once we had an egg, which we procured from a donor, all we had to do was strip it of its chromosomesâdelete its identity, if you willâand reinsert the chromosomes we collected from your sample.”
“What sample?” I asked.
Mama made a face. “He's talkin' about Robby's blood.”
“Precisely,” he said as he nodded toward the horse pill. “Then we placed the egg in that pod and waited for it to grow.”
I didn't see what eggs or chromosomes had to do with birds or bees, but since Mama seemed to know, I decided I'd ask her later. I couldn't play detective if I looked uninformed. “So you're sayin' he'll be a baby when he comes out of that thing?”
Dr. Franks snorted. “Of course not. What use would a boy have for a baby's body? My pods are equipped with a gel that aids the growth
development of the fertilized egg. In this way, I accomplish in a matter of months what it takes Mother Nature many years to achieve.”
This might have sounded impressive, but I wasn't fooled. He'd probably made up half those words. But instead of engaging him in a big-words debate, I set my sights on the television. It said
, counting down.
“What's gonna happen when it gets to zero?” I asked.
Dr. Franks smiled like the Cheshire cat. “Why, Robert Clausen will be reborn.”
I still didn't believe a word of this nonsense, but Auntie Mildred fell for it hook, line, and sinker. The sheer force of his words seemed to knock her off balance, and she lunged for the window (or maybe the horse pill itself). Only her bony hands, which were clasped tightly in front of her, kept her from smashing into the glass.
“Careful,” Mama said. “You know, maybe you shouldn'tâ”
“Hush,” Auntie Mildred cut in. For once, she sounded like the strong one.
Mama clamped her lips shut, but the television kept going:
“The subject may need some time,” Dr. Franks said suddenly. “He probably won't remember everything all at once. I don't mean to alarm you, but the other subjects have struggledâwhich is to say that they haven't adapted as quickly as we'd like.”
“Mildred,” Mama whispered. “Are you absolutely certain that this is what you want?”
A single tear spilled down her cheek. “Yes, Anna, I'm sure.”
The line glowed, something hissed, and the horse pill split in half. Steam poured through the opening as a dim outline emerged.
I cupped my hands around my eyes and pressed my nose to the glass. As the shape took a wobbly step out of the horse pill, it resolved into a man. A man that might be Robby.
My heart sank to my toes. What if it really
Robby? What if he'd come back to life and the first face he saw was mine? It should have been Theo's or even Gracie's. Someone from his
family, not me.
Before I could retreat, the man bobbled and fell. Auntie Mildred gaspedâshe probably wanted to help himâbut before she or Dr. Franks could rush to his aid, the man managed to drag himself back to his feet. When he looked up, our eyes met, and I saw three things all at once:
First, he was a manâor at least a boyâwith arms and everything.
Second, he was naked.
And third, he wasn't Robby. He was Japanese.
Mama attempted to cover my eyes, but it was a
halfhearted move, more thought than action. When I knocked her hand away, she didn't try to resist.
We stared at the man, and he stared back at us. I couldn't tell how old he wasâI'd always been terrible at guessing ages at the county fairâbut he looked as old as Robby when he left for the war. The fact that he was nakedâand covered in slimeâdidn't seem to concern him. I couldn't help but be impressed.
Dr. Franks gasped. “What on earthÂ .Â .Â .Â ?”
“Is this a joke?” Mama asked.
“Of course not,” he replied, slithering backward a step.
The panic in his voiceâand the look on Mama's faceâmade my hands start to sweat. I hadn't expected Robby to come out of that pod, but I certainly hadn't expected a Japanese man to, either.
“Would you care to explain where
came from?” she asked.
“How should I know?” he replied. “That was supposed to be Robert Clausen, not some baby-faced Jap!”
Auntie Mildred was too busy staring at a spot on the wall to do much more than blink, but I swallowed, hard. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor when I was just a baby, but I knew why people hated them. Why they still called them names. The war they'd dragged us into had taken my cousin, Robby; my brother, Daniel; and at least one son or daughter from every family in St. Jude. Forgiving wasn't easy when you lost someone you loved.
Dr. Franks, who'd been backpedaling since the Japanese man had emerged, crashed into the door. “I don't understand.” He grabbed a nearby clipboard. “The DNA's never wrong.”
“What's DNA?” Mama asked.
“It's an abbreviation,” he said as he fluttered through several pages. “It stands for deoxyribonucleic acid.” He smacked the clipboard. “And it's never, ever wrong!”
“Then there must be some mistake.” Mama pried the clipboard from his hands. “You cockamamie scientists must have more of these capsule things. Robby's probably in one of them.”
His head bobbed up and down. “Well, yes, I suppose he could be. I need to check with Imogene.” And with that, he seized the clipboard and scurried out of the room.
The soft snick of the door sliding shut on his heels was enough to snap Auntie Mildred out of her trance. She covered her face with her hands, and though she didn't make a sound, her bony shoulders shook from the violence of her sobs. I tried to feel what she was feeling, but the tremors wouldn't come. We'd buried Robby a long time ago. This loss felt small compared to that one.
While Mama tried to comfort Auntie Mildred, I sneaked another peek at the Japanese man. I'd been so certain that no one would come out of that horse pill, so now that someone had, I wanted to make sure he was real. His hair was black and caked with slime, which made it stick out every which way, but since it looked like a bird's nest, I decided I liked it. His eyes were dark brown and shaped like sideways teardrops.
I slid along the window until I was even with him. I'd seen his arms and legs, but maybe he had four thumbs or flippers instead of feet. There was only one way to find out. After drawing a deep breath, I pressed my hand to the glass.
He must have known what I wanted, because he took a shaky step toward me. His legs caved underneath him, but once he regained his balance, he pressed his hand to the glass, his left against my right. His hand was bigger than mine, but it
a hand, with four tapered fingers and one crooked thumb. Our palms didn't touch, but as slime outlined our hands, I thought I could feel the heat radiating off his skin.
Worry and excitement warred inside me, battling for my attention. But before one could win, Mama barked, “What are you doin'? Take your hand down from there, and turn around this instant. If your daddy only knew what you were lookin' atÂ .Â .Â .”
Grudgingly, I dropped my hand, but I stayed where I was. The Japanese man was a mystery I intended to solve.
â¢Â â¢Â â¢
For all of his so-called intelligence, Dr. Franks had no idea where the Japanese man had come from. As far as their records indicated (and their records were
he assured us), they'd injected the donated egg with Auntie Mildred's sample. He only had one explanation for why it hadn't grown into my cousin: the DNAâthe bloodâon my cousin's dog tags must not have belonged to him.
Mama made a face. “That ain't an explanation,” she said.
“Well, it's the best one I've got. The science is still quite new. That's why we call it a test.”
Mama didn't try to reason with Dr. Franks, just grabbed her sister's arm. “Let's go,” she mumbled.
Dr. Franks lowered his clipboard. “But aren't you going to take him?” He motioned toward the window.
?” Mama asked.
Dr. Franks blinked. “Home, of course.”
Auntie Mildred's eyes fluttered, which was what they always did when she started to swoon. We had to do something, and fast. Mama smacked her cheek while I kicked her in the shins. The kicking was usually Gracie's job, but I'd seen her do it plenty of times.
Auntie Mildred straightened back up. “Thank you,” she peeped.
“My pleasure,” I said.
Mama returned her attention to Dr. Franks. “Did you really think we would just take him home?”
“Well, yes,” he replied. “Ingolstadt's not equipped to house our subjects on a long-term basis. This is a laboratory, not the Biltmore.”
I wished it
the Biltmore. Then it would have had room serviceânot to mention a poolâinstead of these tiny rooms and the lingering aroma of Dr. Franks's cologne.
Mama tried a new tack. “What about your research?”
“Oh, well, you'll bring him back every week for the next couple of months.”
Mama snorted. “Not likely.”
Dr. Franks sputtered. “But Mrs. Clausen signed a contract! She agreed to take custody.”
“No,” Mama said, “she agreed to take Robby.”
Mama rushed us away without a backward glance. I dragged my feet, wanting to catch one last glimpse of the Japanese man, but Mama's grip was as tight as Uncle George's bear traps. Dr. Franks pursued us, but Mama ignored his fervent pleas, her mouth set in a grim line.
We took several wrong turns, but Mama never wavered. When we finally emerged into the lobby with the three-story portrait, it was by the sheer force of her will. The secretary refused to meet our eyes as we skittered out the mouth door, which zoomed shut on our heels like it was spitting us out.
It wasn't until the afternoon sun started to thaw out my arms that I realized how cold I was, and suddenly, I felt a little sorry for the Japanese man. Would he ever know the feeling of sunshine on prickly goose bumps, or of fresh air in cooped-up lungs?
Auntie Mildred shook her head as we climbed into the car. “I can't take him. I won't. I told them I'd take Robby, not thisÂ .Â .Â . this
Mama jerked the gearshift into reverse. “Didn't I say that ad was trouble?”
“I just wanted Robby back.” Auntie Mildred's shoulders slumped. “Dr. Franks said they'd discovered the secret of life.”
Mama's nose wrinkled. “He ain't God Himself.”
“He sounded smart,” she went on. “He knew stuff we didn't.”
“Lots of folks know stuff we don't, but that doesn't make 'em smart.”
Mama and Auntie Mildred didn't say another word for the rest of the ride, though I would have welcomed the entertainment. The drive was as dull as Mama's silver, nothing but rolling hills and clumps of sage for as far as the eye could see. Or maybe it wasn't the drive that was really the problem. My thoughts were tangled knots that I couldn't untie, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to. The others seemed to think that the Japanese man was a criminal, but how could you decide if a man was good or bad just by looking at his face?
I was still trying to decide when we turned off the old highway, but before I could ask, Auntie Mildred finally cracked.
“I've been thinking,” she said. “There's only one way that blood could have ended up on those dog tags.”
Auntie Mildred gave us a chance to work it out on our own, but me and Mama were less thinkers, more doers. We didn't work anything out before her patience ran dry.
“There must have been some sort of scuffle.” Auntie Mildred hissed the words as she leaned across the seat. “Then he must have killed my son.”
I might not have had the brains to come up with the answer on my own, but I could spot the truth when someone pointed me in its direction. Worry rumbled in my stomach like a pack of restless squirrels. If the Japanese man had killed Robby, would he kill us, too? I glanced at Mama to see if she'd had the same thought, but her face in the rearview was a blank mask.
“That's quite an accusation,” she said.
Auntie Mildred sniffed. “It'll turn out to be true. You just wait and see.”