by Leah Rhyne
The phone call came at work. She answered it, though the number was unfamiliar.
“Sunny?” The voice was also unfamiliar. Masculine.
“Yes. Can I help you?”
“I’m calling from the Clinic. She’s gone. We lost our connection with her this morning.”
“What?” Sunny choked the word.
“Records indicate she took her own life. You know your contractual obligations. But they won’t be there right away. You have about an hour. Don’t let them see you there. I’m only calling because. . . I would want to know.”
The abrupt click of the call going dead rattled in Sunny’s head. Her hands shook as she picked up her purse from the desk drawer. As she stepped her way through the gray cubicle maze of her office, no one lifted a prairie-dog head to watch her leave.
Based on the contract her mother had also signed, the one promising more years with better quality of life thanks to the Clinic’s experimental treatments, the Clinic owned everything, as soon as her mother breathed her last breath.
Based on the contract, Sunny could go to jail for trespassing at her mother’s home.
Sunny didn’t care. She drove faster.
Each breath formed tiny ice-crystal clouds in the air as Sunny slid the blade of the worn-down key into the lock at her mother’s aging condo. Her hands shook. She wasn’t used to the chill in the air, so foreign to southern Florida.
She stepped into her mother’s mauve-and-floral world, letting the door close behind her, shutting out the din of car horns and strip mall traffic.
Inside was quiet. Inside smelled of cookies baking in the oven. Even though Sunny knew the scent came from an air freshener she plugged in the week before, she let her mind wander to a time when she was very small and she and her mother baked cookies together. Stirring the thick butter-and-brown-sugar mixture exhausted Sunny’s arms, and she remembered the feel of her mother’s strong hand as it closed around her small one, helping her cut the spoon through the sticky cookie dough.
“Mother,” she called out of habit. There was no answer.
She’ll be in her bed. Of course she’ll be in her bed.
Sunny eyed the closed bedroom door, walking past it. She sighed a deep, watery breath.
What happened? Why did she do it? It seemed like it was working so well.
She sat at the computer. She needed to know.
The mouse was cool, the monitor dead. She pressed the spacebar, and the screen slowly blinked to life. With sweating palms, she double-clicked a folder on the desktop. Clinical Stimuli: Audio Memories.
In the Introductions sub-folder she clicked on a file called “Me.” Sunny slid headphones on and soon her mother’s voice, young and girlish well into her seventies, filled her ears.
–Yes, Mother, it is. See? The red light is on.—
Oh, yes, I see it now. Okay, darling. I’ll get started.
–Mother, don’t tell me you’re getting started. You just have to start talking.—
Oh, yes. I see.
Alright then. My name is Nora Bergner, and I have Alzheimer’s. My goodness, that sounds like I belong in an AA meeting, doesn’t it, dear? But, it’s true. Sad, but very, very true.
These are my memories. They tell me if I can record enough memories, scan enough photos, the chip they implanted in my brain will help me remember things, even when my brain isn’t able to remember for itself. They tell me this will help me stay me for longer. Maybe forever.
Sunny closed the file. She knew forever wasn’t an option anymore.
She clicked another sub-folder. The sheer volume of files was overwhelming.
Mother’s been busy.
Though she sought the daily journals, a file called “My Peter” caught her eye first. She chewed on the edge of her fingernail as she double-clicked.
The first time I met Peter, I wasn’t impressed. I stood a full head taller than him, though part of that was because I loved high heels. He snorted when he laughed, couldn’t grow a beard, and was a soldier just home from the War, skinny and scrawny. Malnourished.
“He’s going nowhere,” my father said at dinner that night when I mentioned Peter. His breath puffed across the table towards me, smelling of whiskey and cigarettes. I’ve always hated whiskey and cigarettes.
Of course, hearing my father say that, I picked up the phone that night and called Peter. I asked him to pick me up at seven that Friday.
It was unheard of, back then. A girl asking out a boy. But I did it, and we spent the evening on the beach, watching the waves roll in and out. I told him about my parents. He told me about the War. He spent the War in Africa, you know. We talked about books, music. Movies. Especially movies. We both loved movies.
He was so soft-spoken, so gentle. I fell in love with him that night, and he told me he planned to marry me.
I said yes. We set the wedding for February.
Now you know, in Florida, it’s never cold, and I wanted to be married in an orange grove. The oranges were so brilliant, so vibrant orange that time of year, but everyone said I was crazy. Who gets married in an orange grove? Get married in church and have your reception at the Elks Lodge.
But I was determined, and Peter loved me. We found a Justice of the Peace willing to marry us, and an orchard willing to lend us their land. I made a bouquet of orange blossoms. They smelled sweet, like honeybees and heaven.
The night before the wedding a cold front blew in, with rain, wind, and freezing temperatures for the first time in my memory.
That morning, southern Florida was frozen. Slick, dangerous, and the sun never warmed the air enough to nudge away its frosty bite. Nothing was going to thaw that day.
I cried. Of course I cried. Who ever heard of a frozen wedding in an orange grove? I certainly hadn’t. I wanted to call it off, to get married in a church and have the reception at the lodge, but my Peter was waiting.
The car arrived on schedule, and my mother held my hand as we slid into the back seat. Father sat up front. We drove to the orange groves. I was a pitiful sight, crying in my wedding gown and veil.
When we arrived and my mother opened the door, she gasped. I finally lifted my head.
Icicles hung from the trees, from the leaves, from the oranges themselves. A thin layer of frost coated the grove, and the sun sparkled and reflected until it looked like I stood in a glittering snow globe. The air hung heavy with the smell of frosted oranges, and it smelled like honeybees and heaven.
I cried because I couldn’t imagine a more perfect place to marry my Peter. He stood, shivering in the cold, handsome in his suit, as my father walked me down the aisle between the glittering trees. We held each other close throughout the ceremony, and then we were married.
The smell of an orange? A frosty one, straight out of a refrigerator? It will always bring me joy, and daydreams of my Peter.
Sunny closed the file and looked over to the faux-fireplace mantle, at a faded photograph of her mother and father on their wedding day. She waved.
“Hi Daddy,” she said. “I hope you were waiting for Mother today.”
She clicked the file called “Our Sunny.”
The day I learned we were expecting Sunny was a miracle. It had taken so long for us to reach that point. We tried and tried, and, of course, Peter loved the trying, but we were ready for Sunny years before she came to us.
It was a Tuesday morning. I was cooking bacon for Peter. I love bacon, but that day it smelled terrible to me. I had to leave the room to keep from gagging.
I couldn’t leave a mess just sitting there, though. I held my breath, and I set the bacon on the back burner and covered it with a lid. Then I turned my back on it.
I always kept a bowl of fresh fruit on the table, and that day it was filled with the most lovely, fragrant oranges. I’d picked them myself at a nearby grove. Something about those oranges – they called to me. I picked the biggest one, and I sliced it open.
It was like I was back in the orange grove on our wedding day. The fruit was so cool and fresh and the smell filled the kitchen, covering up the bacon. I licked the juice from my fingers. I sucked the pulp from the skin, let it dribble down my chin and coat my hands. I wanted to be inside the orange, be a part of it, have it be a part of me.
The phone rang. Peter was still upstairs, so I answered it. My hands smeared juice on the handset. My chin left orange bits on the mouthpiece that I could smell for months after.
“Hello?” I slurped the word.
“Mrs. Bergner? Is this Mrs. Bergner?”
“Yes,” I said. I dragged my tongue across the orange’s meat, savoring the flavor, trying to imprint it on my memory. I was angry at the caller for intruding, for interrupting, but then she said the words that changed my life.
“Mrs. Bergner, this is the nurse from Dr. Abernethy’s office. I’m pleased to inform you that the test came back positive. You and your husband are finally expecting a baby . . . ”
I set the phone down and buried my face in my hands, and the orange covered my eyes and forehead and cheeks and nose, and I’ve never been able to smell an orange without remembering this moment and weeping with joy.
My sweet Sunny. Sweet and sunny like an orange. The sunshine of my life.
Sunny passed a hand over her eyes and then checked her watch. It had been forty-five minutes since the phone call. She was running out of time.
She closed Introductions and found Daily journals.
She opened the second-to-last journal.
Her mother’s voice was no longer young. No longer girlish. It was tired and coarse.
How long has she sounded like this? How could I have missed it?
Sunny came over today. She let herself in, like always. She called out to let me know she was here, like always.
But I didn’t recognize her, not immediately. I was terrified. I almost screamed. A stranger in my house? Of course I almost screamed.
Then the chip started working. It burns me, have I mentioned that before? It burns my brain from the inside out, hotter and hotter as it processes information.
Information my brain used to know on its own.
It gave me the data I needed, a picture of Sunny and me at her high school graduation.
She looks the same as she did when she graduated high school. She doesn’t age.
But I am old, I have aged, and I need a computer chip to tell me who my daughter is.
This is wrong. It is so very wrong.
She might have wondered why I was so quiet today. If she did, she didn’t tell me. But I sat and stared at her, at the curve of her cheek, the softness of her hair. She was once a part of me, and today I didn’t remember.
After she left, I dreamed of my Peter. His hands. His face. I recognized him in my dream.
But the truth is I don’t know if the dream came from me or the computer.
She double-clicked the last file.
I sat on the patio outside my bedroom, drinking the coffee I once loved, which now tastes bitter on my tongue. I drink it anyway because the computer in my brain tells to.
The breeze blew in across the groves. It carried the sweet, spicy scent of frozen oranges. Like honeybees and heaven. It was strong, powerful, and it blew my hair back from my face and I breathed it in. I felt…nothing.
Then the chip in my brain got started. It burned.
“Be happy,” it said. “This is orange. You love this smell.”
It showed me a picture of Peter, of our frozen wedding. It showed me Sunny’s baby pictures. It told me to feel good. To smile. To laugh.
I did those things,because it told me to, but I felt nothing.
I am not me anymore. The chip holds my memories. It helps me think.
But I cannot feel anymore.
I can only process data.
I have to end this. I can’t let my Sunny see me this way.
Sadness ached inside her bones.
It was time to see her mother, before she became a statistic, a notch in the “failed” column of a spreadsheet at the Clinic.
She walked to the bedroom door, rested her hand on the knob.
The front door cracked open, and masculine voices filled the room. The Extractors from the Clinic had arrived.
She slipped into the bedroom. There lay her mother, sleeping peacefully on the bed. But she wasn’t sleeping. She was dead, empty bottles of pills and Jack Daniels beside her on the nightstand.
Mother hates whiskey.
She walked to the bed, smelling the sweet-sour scent of death and alcohol. Trailing her fingers down the curve of her mother’s bare calf, the ball of her foot, her big toe, Sunny reached the back porch doors. She threw them open and let in the breeze.
It carried on its back the scent of oranges, and Sunny sat down and let it wash over her. She slid to the ground in the corner, hidden by a rose-pink drape as men entered the room and began the process of collecting her mother’s body.
Sunny breathed in the scent of frozen oranges, and she wept.
Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who’s lived in the South so long she’s lost her accent…but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Alien(s), and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King’s The Shining or It, Leah now writes tales of horror and science fiction.
Her first novel, Undead America Volume 1: Zombie Days, Campfire Nights, released in the fall of 2012, and its sequel, No Angels, released in the fall of 2013. She writes for LitReactor.com, The Charleston City Paper, and for herself at www.leahrhyne.com.
She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets. In her barely-there spare time, she loves running and yoga.