Elise Cheats Death
As she approached the ice cream van, Elise suddenly had an odd feeling that the middle-aged man leaning on the counter in the van and leering his gold-and-green toothed grin at her was someone she knew a long, long time ago, long before she was born, she felt, seven years ago.
"Hello there, my pretty lady," he kept on saying. His voice, deep with a melodious flavour, did sound familiar to all her cells. "Why do you keep hesitating? I'm Mr. Shady! What would you like? Vanilla or strawberry or peppermint? Perhaps you'd like choc chips? Come on, don't be afraid, what can I get you?"
She looked up at the man's dark unshaven face and saw a fierce glint in his eye that might have come from a distant plane of existence. She looked at the ground again but her ears, or maybe it was just her mind rather, that could not shut out the deep velvety tones: "After all this time, I have found you, my dear queen, I have found you...come back with me, come back and we will reign together again..."
A gaggle of boys rushed past her and knocked her over onto the grass. By the time she got back to her feet, the vendor was already busy with the children's orders. Quickly she stepped away and hid behind a tree so he couldn't see her.
The boys' voices were very loud: "Hey, I was here first!...No, I was!...I want the chocolate one!...Wassat you say? I want the same!...Gimme that one!..." In this constant babble, the vendor laughed. "Calm down, fellas! You'll all get yours soon enough!" He looked up quickly and realized the little girl had disappeared. "Blast!" he muttered, "gone already!"
Elise was already skittering back into the park where her parents were playing tennis with friends. She stopped by the bench in front of the courts. Already her mother was sitting there, a bottle of mineral water in one hand, a cellphone in the other, staring into the distance with a misty glaze over her eyes. As though she would rather be elsewhere than here with her family. Elise moved in front of her and she jumped, dropping the cellphone.
"Why, Elise," she exclaimed, "you're back already – did you get an ice cream?"
"No, Mum, the ice cream man didn't have what I wanted".
"Well, just play on the swings then and when your father finishes his game, we might go home", was the reply. As Elise sidled away, her mother picked up the phone and started dialling a number. There was a pause, then swearing and Elise heard the phone being banged on the bench.
"Hell! I can't phone Dean! How the fuck am I going to see him tomorrow? I have to make the date for Wednesday!" she heard her mother mutter.
As it turned out, Elise's mother never did manage to meet Dean or whoever it was she was trying to phone because the next day when Elise got home from school, her mother was already home and in tears because Dean - whoever had left a phone message to say a child had got severe food poisoning from eating tainted ice cream and was in a coma at hospital.
Later when they turned the TV on and a bulletin appeared with news that two boys had died and several others were in a coma from eating ice creams, Elise's mother began to cry and had to leave the kitchen.
Elise had to stay back at school the day before her fourteenth birthday for smoking a cigarette at the shops with a couple of girls and some boys while still in her school uniform. By the time she walked through the school gates, the sun was setting quickly and the sky was darkening swiftly. She looked at her watch. Nearly five o'clock! The bus would be gone by now. By the time she reached the bus stop, the next bus that would drop her off in her street wouldn't arrive for another thirty minutes.
She trudged along the road. Cars flashed past, their headlights flashing up the way but also highlighting the growing shadows around her. On her left, shop-keepers were already bringing down shutters, closing the lights and looking straight through her if she glanced in their direction. As if she had ceased to exist and was just a see-through ghost. As if she was thinking of buying something as well!
She had gone some way towards the bus stop when she had a cold creepy feeling that she was being followed. The same creepy feeling she had when...when what? ...when she was seven years old? Eight? It was such a long time ago, she had almost forgotten it. Ah yes!...when she saw the ice cream man looking at her with that unnatural light in his black hole of an eye.
Though the traffic was loud, her ears detected a low puttering motor not far behind her. Keep walking, keep walking, don't turn around and look. You know he's following you. She arched her head slightly to the right as she walked and she could see the outline of the front of an old and battered station wagon in the variable light of the road. The car was simply gliding along. She knew that he must be driving it. She kept going and going and passed her bus stop. Keep on walking, she insisted to herself...until the footpath ended and she had to wait at the intersection for the traffic lights to change in her favor.
She had to turn around, she couldn't help herself...and she saw the driver through the front passenger window. He was leaning over and leering at her with that familiar rotten-toothed grin. He didn't actually look like the ice cream man she remembered, he seemed thirty years younger but the light in his eyes was the same. The face might change, the voice might change, heck, even the guy's sex might change but no matter...that was him all right.
She turned away as the lights changed and the bleep sounded and she sprinted across the road, her heavy bag jumping up and down on her back as she ran across. She could still hear the car puttering some way behind her and a strange yet familiar voice floating after her: "I've found you, my queen, I've found you, don't leave me again, don't –"
She saw a bus stop ahead with a bus already stationary there and she ran for it as hard as she could. A woman passenger saw her running towards the bus and signalled to the driver that a fare was arriving. Elise waved to the passenger and thumped up the steps. The driver blinked as the girl threw her bag onto the floor in relief.
"Are you going anywhere near Brown Street?" Elise panted.
"I turn off at Karina Avenue," the driver replied, "if you get off at the stop near the turn-off, Brown Street is another three blocks to walk."
She could do that.
"That's OK," Elise breathed, flicking open her bus pass.
The driver nodded and shut the door. Elise made her way to a window seat with her bag and sat down as the bus lurched back into the traffic. She peered through the window to look at the sea of cars below but couldn't see the old car that had been trailing her.
Three days later, Elise opened up a newspaper and saw an item that mentioned that police had picked up a young man in an old and battered station wagon to question him over the disappearance of a thirteen year old girl in the same street and on the same day she herself had been followed.
She was driving to her mother's house which was in a market gardening district on the far north-western outskirts of the city. Her parents had separated several years ago when she was fifteen and the divorce had been finalised just after she finished high school. She had chosen to live with her father as he had chosen to live in an apartment not far from the bus stop that was on the route to college and university.
Her mother had gone from one boyfriend to another and was now living with a new fellow who was not much older than Elise herself. Elise had met him once. He stank of layers of sweat and he wore his hair in a long greasy pony-tail. His beard framed a mouth of black and brown-stained teeth and muck-flavoured breath and was cut long and stringy.
What did Mum see in him? Why couldn't she have found someone more interesting than this tall loping stick insect? All the aunts and cousins sniggered behind Elise's back about her mother's new amour. Nanna had high blood pressure from worrying about her suddenly wayward daughter and kept nagging Elise in constant phone calls. "I don't trust this man!" she kept on telling Elise, "find a way to get rid of him. If your mother wants someone young, good luck to her, but not this tramp! Please, Elise! Talk some sense into her!"
Which was why she was making this trip: to talk to her mother and find out why she had chosen to live out this way with no landline phone connection, not even a reliable supply of electricity or hot water. It was going to be an uphill task. Elise had packed a sleeping bag just in case. She might need the whole day and the whole night. She hoped the boyfriend wouldn't be there.
The speedometer was edging close to 110 kilometres. The road was straight and smooth and there was no other traffic. The CD player was blasting loud and urgent techno and she drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and hummed along with the music – "dada-dada-DUM-DUM-DAHH!" She giggled at the silliness.
The road turned slightly so she slowed down – and suddenly a tall dark figure stumbled onto the bitumen in front of her. "Oh shit!" She braked hard. The steering wheel suddenly felt loose and feathery-light in her hands and the car surged forward on a cushion of air. Elise turned the wheel hard right to avoid a collision and the car skewed and waltzed around and around to the music of squealing hot tyres. The CD player stuttered, the loudspeakers crackled strangely and for a brief moment Elise thought she could hear a faint voice calling out from them: "... found you, found you, my darling ... I am calling to you ..." so she flicked off a switch and the music abruptly shut up.
Behind the car there was a yelp and something thudded onto and off the car's boot. Elise pulled up the handbrake and the car stopped so quickly that she hit her forehead on the steering wheel. Her mind bounced and swirled for several minutes and she had to close her eyes so that the dancing dot-lights could subside. She took several deep breaths and opened her eyes. Everything was intact but her hands, still gripping the steering wheel, were trembling so she forced her fingers to relax and release their grip and her hands fell onto her lap. She managed to reach out and turn off the ignition.
The car was standing on the other side of the road near an embankment facing the way she had come. She took several more deep breaths to clear her head and let the burning tyre smell disappear. Still quivering a little, she started up the car, put down the handbrake and turned the car around slowly and back onto the side of the road leading to her mother's house. She parked again and got out of the car slowly. She walked around the vehicle. It didn't seem to be damaged. Even the boot which took the thump had no dent, no scratch, no damage. Faint rubber smells still wafted from the tyres and she saw the swirling marks on the road – "I did all THAT?"
She looked about her. No one in sight. Everywhere around the road there was thick grass and low bushes with the odd tree or two standing alone. Near the curve of the road, there was something white sticking out of a grassy ditch – it looked like an old car on its side. A very faint smell of blood and alcohol and something else drifted by. She thought she heard groaning. It could be the wind rustling through the grass stalks. I'm imagining things, she decided, I had a bad scare, a close call, and my mind's playing tricks on me.
The smell was horrible and reminded her of some near brush with a bad stranger in her childhood. Got to get away from here, she realized. She touched her forehead which was starting to feel sore and when she drew her hand back to look at it, she was relieved to see no blood. She got back into the car and drove off, slowly, all the way to her mother's house.
Her mother was standing by the wooden gate in front of the little weatherboard cottage when she arrived. "Oh, it's you", she said when Elise got out of the car, "have you seen Dave? He hasn't come home. He should've been back an hour ago."
"There was an accident up ahead", Elise started to say but her mother walked past her and surveyed the road in the direction Elise had come. Elise looked up and down at her mother as the older woman started walking down the road: her hair was big and fluffy with streaks of red and yellow in the dark brown waves, her flowery blouse was too small, her skirt was over-stretched over her hips and bottom and the white high-heeled boots with the leather fringes were going grey and frayed. Did her mother really think she was the same carefree dolly-bird she used to say she was before she met her father? Did she really want to go back to looking like that?
Whatever, Elise thought her mother looked embarrassing in the mismatched outfit. She put on a straight face when her mother turned around and waved helplessly at her with an imploring look. "So what's the problem, Mum?"
"He took the car to get some things in town. Did you see him on the way here? His car's white. I told him to get the brakes checked. They're worn out. I hope he's just running late." Her mother pushed a stray lock of hair away from her face, drawing Elise's attention to a bruise on a cheek-bone.
They went into the small house together. While Elise hunted for a clean spot on the sofa among the mess of clothes to sit down, her mother began to ramble about Dave: how he loved her for herself and not for the money, how he was always writing love poems, how he was always giving her flowers or tiny clay animals which she displayed proudly on a table set up just for the animals to show. "Your father never thought of giving me any presents in the fifteen years we were together. I don't care what anyone thinks of me and Dave. People can talk about us all they like. I've found my soul mate and I'm never letting go of him ..." (Elise sighed. The day was going to be long.) "... I'll follow him wherever he goes." The older woman got up from her armchair to rearrange some of the tiny black cats on the table. "Where on earth can he be? It's not like him to be late?" She began pacing from one end of the tiny sitting room to the other.
Time passed. They had sandwiches and coffee for lunch. Elise wondered occasionally whether to tell her mother about the near-accident she had and the possible accident she might have come across. Politely she passed on news about Nanna's health and the family's various doings but her mother was not interested. Elise gave up talking and let her mother continue gabbling. This visit was a supreme waste of time.
The door-bell rang loudly and her mother yelled out, "Coming!" While she scuttled to the front door, Elise surveyed the sitting room. The furniture was pock-marked, the worn carpet had stains and the walls were receding behind layers of dirt. Everything needed ripping up and replacing and doing all over again. How could two people stand to live like this?
There was a scream from the front door. "Nooo! You're lying! How dare you!" her mother howled, "nooo! Not Dave! Not Dave! Nooo!"
Elise rushed to the front door and found her mother collapsed in a heaving, sobbing heap while one of the two police officers who had delivered the bad news was already down on her knees trying to comfort her. The other saw Elise and spoke to her. "I'm sorry but are you related to this lady?" Elise nodded. "We've come to advise that Dave Benson was found dead along New Forest Road. His car was found lying on its side not far from where his body was found."
Elise stared at the officer for a long time, unable to say a word.
She stood by her mother's side at Dave's funeral. About nine people turned up to see him go. One of them claimed to be his ex-wife.
"He had it coming to him", she told Elise after the funeral, wreathing her with cigarette smoke and heavy perfume fragrance. "Always liked to drive fast and take corners hard. Like he was racing again. I bet he was stoned too. I saw the damage on TV. There were all the skid marks. Boy, did he take it hard! Going round and round in circles. Amazing he didn't hit anyone." She flicked back a lock of her huge fluffy hair over a loud floral blouse. "I'm not sorry he's gone in a way. He pulled a knife on me once. So I had to pack up and take my kid to my mum up north. In Queensland, that is." Her voice reduced to a whisper. "Dave got what he deserved. I'm not sorry." She looked over her shoulder and saw Elise's mother. "Is that Dave's wife?" Elise nodded. "Well, she's lucky. Look, I gotta go. I'm persona non grata around Dave's friends." Elise blinked. "It was nice meeting you", the woman said and hurried away, her white high-heeled boots with the fringed edged clicking furiously on the pavement. Elise waved goodbye. The woman was attractive but lacked fashion sense, she decided.
Later, Elise drove her mother back to the little house. None of them spoke to each other. She stayed with the grieving woman for a few hours and made sure she had something to eat. Then Elise drove home via a longer route she had been taking since the police officers' visit so she would not have to pass the spot where Dave's car ... had skidded and flipped over the embankment, throwing him several metres out the front of the car without breaking the windscreen instead of out the side as logic would have had it. Elise firmly shut out the elaborate physics involved from her mind. Everything was too horrible to think about. Perhaps she should have been the one who was supposed to have toppled her car and be flung out through the window? The feeling was too strong. She suddenly remembered the voice on the radio. It seemed to have called her, how ... No! Forget that voice! Sheer coincidence! It was! The radio signals were scrambled! Think about something else! Think about Mum! …Elise thought of how she'd have to get her mother out of the weatherboard shack and reconciled with Nanna and everyone else. Wait for her to grieve properly, then talk her into selling the place and get some money and move to Nanna's place for a bit so they could look after each other. She got back to her little apartment and parked the car in the garage. Yes, the future was the most important thing now, the future, she smiled, thinking about all the plans she had for her mother over the next several weeks …
Two weeks into the future, two police officers visited Elise at home. "Miss Elise Dennis?" one of them asked. She nodded.
“Yes, I am", she said, "is there a problem?"
The two officers told her that her mother had died overnight in a fire that all but gutted the weatherboard house. “The cause of the fire may be an electrical fault but that’s all that’s known.”
Elise could only stare at the two police officers for a long time, unable to say a word.
The ex-wife stood by Elise's side "I'm sorry about your mum, I didn't know you were her daughter", the ex-Mrs Benson said to Elise at her mother's funeral. Nanna was too sick to attend and over half the relatives didn't show either.
"I'm sorry to hear about your mum", the ex-wife said, "but I'm not surprised about the house burning down. Dave could never be bothered to check about things like electricity or water. That house, that was a real shit heap. Dave wasn't the type to bother checking or fixing anything around that place. Yeah, it woulda been an absolute fire trap."
Elise brushed away the tears from her eyes. "I did try to get Mum out of the place", Elise said, "house but she didn't want to wouldn't leave." She insisted on staying there for Dave's sake."
The ex-wife shrugged. "You can only do so much for others", the other woman shrugged, “don't blame yourself. By the way, my name's Nicky". The woman took a pen and a dirty piece of paper from her snakeskin handbag, scribbled something on the paper and shoved it into Elise's hands, sheet and handed it over to Elise. "My phone number if you want to give me a call. We should do lunch some together one day if you want. Maybe you can meet my little boy. He's nothing like his Dad, thank Christ. He reckons says when he grows up he'll be a doctor one day and save lives, and take care of me when I get old. Isn't that cute? Well, I gotta go. Gotta go now and pick up my little medic from childcare." Nicky began to stagger Nice seeing you again and look after yourself. 'Bye." The woman tottered back to her car in her stiletto-heeled boots with the fringes. "Look after yourself. 'Bye." As she drove off,. Elise wrinkled her nose in distaste at the waves of cheap cologne and tobacco smoke that assailed it. By the time Nicky's son was old enough to start saving people's lives, his mother would already have been finished off long ago by a strange combination of cigarettes, a broken ankle and over-colored hair and fashions.
She went back to her own car. At least she wouldn't have to go near New Forest Road ever again. The property where her mother and Dave had lived would be put up for sale – Elise's cousin who was an estate agent and he was looking after the papers and supervising the sell-off on her behalf. Good, good. Still, the idea that maybe she was meant to have had died in Dave's accident gnawed at her. Was her mother's death some a kind of punishment or warning to her? What else was going to happen? Or was she punished enough already? ... No, no, no! Don't think like that! Dave dying, her mum dying ... these– those were two separate, unrelated events. Don't think about death any more. Think about the future instead. Think about passing your exams, graduating, getting a good job, going overseas to see a long-time friend, finding someone to settle down with ... don't even think about death and dying any more. Life is too young ...Think about the future instead. First she had to get her degree, and then she would travel a bit, see an old childhood friend living in Toronto, maybe meet someone nice, get a nice job ... why think about death and people dying at all?
Three weeks after her mother's funeral, Nanna had her final heart attack. This time all the relatives showed up for the funeral.
For the next twenty years, Elise did not meet any more strange unknowable people or have any untoward experiences. Her technology worked perfectly. She forgot that she had ever met a creepy ice cream vendor or that she had been stalked. Dave was just a tiny footnote in her life.
"Mummy," Cassandra asked her one day, "did you ever know someone called Sheedy?"
"No my little pumpkin," Elise replied, "why do you ask?"
"I had this dream last night," the girl said. Cassandra was always having the most colorful dreams and always had to talk them out to someone. "This guy called Sheedy – he was really tall and he had the ickiest smile of anyone I've ever seen, teeth falling out and all black, so gross! - well, he told me he was the King of the Underworld and you were his Queen. I forgot what he called you, it was something long and weird. He said that you were here because you wanted to know what it was like to be human and to have limited powers so he let you come here as a baby to experience the pain of birth and being helpless. He fully expected that when you came down with the measles at the age of five and had to go into hospital, that you would die and return to him but the doctors saved your life. Since then, he’s tried to get you back but with no success so he pretty much gave up. All the fighting in Africa, Central Asia and most other parts of the world, and all the plagues and famines have been keeping him busy. The whole dream was just so weird. I swear I even felt his horrible hand on my forehead – so cold and clammy, ee-urk!”
“You don’t believe that dreams express reality, do you?” Elise said, without looking up from her personal organiser. She was in the middle of keying in her weekly shopping list to all the various suppliers and trying to compare their prices.
“I’ve had so many dreams about people and things happening that turn out to be true," Cassandra replied, “You remember, I dreamt about the earthquake that hit a big city and all these tall grey buildings and train networks were sliding into a sea of mud. There were all these huge sucking noises. Two weeks after the dream, the news reported that New Tokyo was hit by an earthquake and the whole government district and all the train tracks around it got swallowed up in ground that turned to quicksand. And you know I’ve had dreams about certain people dying and some time later, we find out on the news about their deaths. So suppose it really is true that you are the Queen of the Underworld somewhere that no-one knows about?”
“You tell some silly stories sometimes. Where do you get them?” Elise quickly flipped to her appointments diary to tap in a reminder to book Cassandra for creative intelligence testing at the psychology centre down the road.
At thirteen, Cassandra was young – fourteen being the usual age for such aptitude testing – but there really was no minimum age limit and the tests required no special preparation. If Cassandra should be nervous, the psychologists would allow Elise to watch her daughter through glazed panels so the girl would know she was close by but not actually see the expressions on her mother’s face.
“You know my dreams are right nine times out of ten," the girl persisted, “and you know there are still so many things about us humans the scientists and psychologists can’t explain. You know that yourself, you work in research.”
“Of course there are still so many things we don’t know about our bodies and our minds. That’s why I work in research. Now if you don’t mind, I’m busy ordering meals and stuff for the kitchen and the bathroom.” Elise flipped back to her shopping list with a noisy beep. Cassandra sighed heavily.
“Well, don’t forget the moisturising toilet paper and put an order down for the Elastic Plastic ottoman thing for the party next week.”
“You still want that tacky ottoman thing for your friends?”
“Of course," Cassandra said, “because maybe Mr Sheedy might visit, you never know.”
Elise slammed down her organiser on the table with a loud bang. “I don’t want to hear any more about that Mr Sheedy! I don’t want to hear any more of your crazy dreams! Is that clear? No more of that rubbish! Or I’ll take you down to the psych centre to get your mind cleaned out!”
The girl was startled at her mother’s sudden behaviour. Elise had never spoken like that before. Now Cassandra really did feel a bit frightened about what her mother might do next.
After the visit to the psych centre, Cassandra’s head felt amazingly clear and white. There were no more visits from Mr Sheedy during the night.
Thirty years later…
“My mother is a scientist just like the others hurt in the bomb blast!” Elise heard Cassandra snap at the head nurse. Although the two women were standing at the foot of Elise’s life-support pod and Elise herself was bathed in fluids, the conversation seemed remote to the elderly woman.
“Can she help it that some of the particles penetrated her ribs and caused a chain reaction of mini-shocks that caused her liver and kidneys to fail? Can she help it that a crazed idiot ran into the middle of the convention centre with the bomb strapped to his body and he pulls the pin right out in front of the screen near where she’s standing? Is she less important than the other people who’ve received new blood and organs?” Cassandra’s voice vibrated through the pod, the tubes and the soup keeping Elise alive. “Why won’t you do something for my mother? Why doesn’t she deserve synthetic organs? Why are you discriminating against her?”
“Well – she’s received the brunt of the force of the bomb spray and her body isn’t strong enough to receive the synthetic organs. You can see she’s barely alive even in that pod. And then there’s the quality of life after a multi-organ operation”, the nurse stammered, “there is every possibility that even with synthetic organs that can take over her memories and brain functions, she won’t ever regain consciousness and – "
“You’re afraid to say that she’s too old and the hospital would be wasting its time and resources on her, that’s it, isn’t it?” Cassandra snapped. “You do realize this is Elise Dennis-Teslenko you’re talking about? The first person to publish a paper describing the out-of-body experiences and the psychological changes that severed heads undergo in the ten seconds before they finally lose consciousness? Think of all that knowledge she has in her head that’s still to be written or documented, recorded or scanned, think of what she’s seen while conducting the experiments, think of – oh, I can see you’re not interested, don’t you turn your back on me pretending you don’t know my mother, she’s just dead meat to you, isn’t she?” Cassandra thumped the pod, sending sharp vibrations through the fluid into Elise’s shattered body. Elise could only squeeze her facial muscles in distress. The vibrations sent her body into another level of pain. She felt as if she was floating.
“…there may be a way of saving your mother but it’s very drastic. One of the surgeons knows a Dr Benson who specialises in brain reconnections…”
“…so where is he then? Is he able to come soon before my mother takes a turn for the worse?…”
“… I’m not sure but we can contact him…”
“…oh, yes, please, can you do that?…we’ve got to save my mother…”
The murmuring voices of Cassandra, the nurse and some other person in the room receded as Elise began to drift off on a warm current in an endless and unseen ocean of liquid. She began to hear yet another voice, a voice coming from within the ocean itself, a voice that she knew from long ago…
“Do you remember me? Do you remember me?”
“I – I think so, I’m not sure.”
“Do you remember hearing my voice on your radio long ago, as you were driving to your mother’s place on the day you ran into and killed her lover?”
“… uh, did I really do that? I – I don’t think so.”
“You did, you did, you are suppressing that memory as you have suppressed all other memories of me. Now I am here, you cannot deny my existence any more. Do you remember seeing me in the old station wagon when you were walking home from school after detention? Do you remember me selling the ice creams that killed the children with the unidentified bacterium? And before that? Do you remember the disease…”
“I – I don’t remember anything.”
“Do you remember who you were before you became Elise Dennis? Do you remember what you were? Do you remember me at your side then?”
“Uh…oh…you - you were…my husband? We – we were king and queen? We were lovers? We are lovers? We will be lovers?”
“Yes, yes, I see you can remember! And now you will be returning to me. I have missed you so much! It has been a lonely existence here without you. There is not one moment when I do not yearn to have you by my side again. All these years … all these years have been agony and desolation without you. I have waited for you for too long. You know I had to send that intruder with his home-made bomb. I had to do this horrible thing to you! And now you are returning home. We will be together again soon and we will be happy again.”
“Yes, yes…soon we’ll be together again.”
The current bearing her began to travel in circles, slowly at first, then faster as the ocean formed a giant whirlpool, preparing to send her back to the Underworld. Her time among the mortals had come to an end.
Time to stop playing Elise Dennis-Teslenko. Time to give up what had begun as an idle whim and then a game indulged by a loving husband to satisfy her curiosity once and for all about the life of mortals, whether they could feel love and grief as superior beings could. Time to forget about Cassandra and all her relatives, friends, lovers, work colleagues on the mortal plane. Time to resume her true and eternal role as Queen of the Underworld. She looked forward to embracing her husband again. She would tell him what she had found out about mortals, whether they could feel the same emotions that she and he could, whether they cared for one another in the way she and he cared for each other, whether they were capable of choosing life over death or death over life …
Inexplicably the whirlpool closed up and flattened.
“No, my queen! This cannot be! The mortals – they’re pulling you back, back to their existence! No! There’s not a thing I can do to stop them! No, no, no! Aaarghh!”
That was the last time Elise would ever have contact with the dead.
“Dr. Benson, I really cannot thank you and your team enough for what you’ve all done," Cassandra stammered, tears running down her face, “what you’ve done for my mother has been absolutely heroic. It’s far beyond what I or anyone else could ever have imagined or predicted.”
“It’s no more than what you’ve predicted as a futurologist in biomechanical / bio-cybernetic technologies," Dr Benson replied, “you show the way by picking the trends and identifying what society lacks and we specialists follow and turn your predictions into reality. Your line of work must involve a great deal of open-minded and creative thinking.
“Well…yes.” Cassandra had never forgiven her mother for marching her down to the psychology centre to have her evaluated for creative intelligence potential. The treatment had given her headaches that never responded to all known remedies and therapies and which still plagued her when she was tired, and there were blanks in her memories that she became aware of in her dreams, blanks that turned into blue unicorns and pink dragons ridden by black strangers but when she woke up, they turned back into white blanks.
“So, uh … how long will my mother’s brain and nervous system last in this bio-com that your team installed beneath her lab?”
“Indefinitely!” the good doctor beamed, “I’ve put your mother’s brain in the central processor right in the middle of the machine itself. The spinal cord and the major nerves are encased in a bacterioplastic insulation which can generate its own defences against anything your mother or the machine perceives to be a physical threat. Mind if I go on?”
Cassandra shook her head.
“The cable mains underground will supply your mother with energy and the fact that the whole system is underground means that the temperature will always be at least warm. There’s a facility in the bio-com that will enable your mother to detect earth tremors so she can direct the system to move the rollers to syncrhonise with any movements in the ground so as to minimise damage. Your mother will be self-repairing of course.” Dr Benson paused for breath. “It will take some time for her to get used to not having arms or legs but once she’s linked up to the other bio-coms and the old generation of databases and systems, she’ll discover a new freedom. You’ll have a console linked to her so you’ll be able to talk to her. She’ll be low-maintenance – every month, someone from maintenance in my company will give her a hormone injection to keep her brain free from ageing. That should be all.” He smiled his almost fluorescent white grin again. “So all the knowledge she’s gained will be available to future generations as long as the human species lasts!”
“That’s so amazing, Doctor," Cassandra said, “I suppose if she can contact other databases and human and animal brains, then she could live in info-architectures and not have to rely solely on her original physical brain to be alive.”
“That’s right, she could survive forever as a unique and ever-evolving entity made up of inter-linked and inter-related structures and buildings of knowledge, experience, information and consciousness. Yes, she could be part of a corporate super-consciousness.”
Cassandra shook the doctor’s hand with both of hers. “Thanks so much for what you’ve done, Dr Benson. I’m grateful that you could take time out from your schedule to attend to my mother in her final hours. I suppose you’re in a hurry to get back to your current projects.”
“No, not at all, actually," the doctor said, “My main project at present is to do with my mother who’s been in a coma since she had a freak accident when she fell over and ruptured her spleen and some major blood vessels. Whoever invented ghastly white high-heeled boots with superfluous fringe decorations that so many elderly ladies love to wear needs a brain transplant! My mother’s had many accidents in them over the years yet she’s addicted to the damn things. If she continues to be comatose over the next few weeks or her condition deteriorates, I’ll need to do for her what I’ve done for your mother. Ah, excuse me, my secretary is paging me. I’ve got an implant that allows her to send messages directly to me. I’d better go now. It is a great pleasure to meet you, Ms Teslenko. I hope we meet again soon.”
“I hope so, too. Goodbye and thanks again.”
Cassandra waved as the doctor bowed and hurried away – such good manners were so rare these days! – and the door closed gently behind him.
How nice it would be, she thought, if her mother and Dr. Benson’s mother, travelling on the highways and byways of the cyber-cosmos, could meet and keep each other company forever. And soon she herself would be able to ask her mother, in a way she couldn’t before, exactly what was in those white blanks that she had in her memory and why her mother made her have that operation years ago.