Scene 4 – October 14th
Interior Townhouse, Early Evening
I checked on the stew as soon as I got home and found that it wasn’t quite ready. It needed another hour or so, so I texted Dad to let him know that I wouldn’t be over with dinner until a little later.
In the meantime, I was already finished with most of my homework. All I had was the essay that Professor Marigold had assigned, and I wasn’t ready to start on that yet – I was still turning the question over in my head and hadn’t decided what to write. So until the stew was done, I decided to continue the years-long project of cleaning up the attic.
After mom vanished, Dad had packed away all of her stuff and left it up there. It hurt him too much to see it, he always said, and for much the same reason he rarely spoke of her. In the last few years, however, the wound had finally healed enough that the two of us would occasionally go into the attic and go through some of her things.
We had found some interesting stuff, as well as a lot of pictures and mementos that would invariably make Dad stare into the middle distance for a while before ending our cleaning for the day. Books on neurology (some of them written by Mom, others heavily annotated in pencil), pictures of the two of them on dates early in their relationship (it was interesting to look at the two of them together and catalog which of my features came from which parent – I had my fathers curly hair, wide nose, and olive skin, but my mother had given me my pale blue eyes, sharp chin, and, interestingly, her smile. We had the same crookedness to our smiles, making us seem mischievous even when we were sincere), and even a collection of fantasy novels that she had enjoyed (Dad had suggesting donating them to the library, but I had snuck them into my own room to read in my sparse free time). It was where we had found the poster of Aaron Atwick.
Tonight, it seemed, would be a somewhat boring one in that slow process. The wardrobe containing her clothes that I was looking through surely held stories, but without Dad here to share them, they were just clothes. I went about sorting them into three piles – one for clothes that had held up well enough to be donated, one for clothes that would need to be thrown out, and a small pile for intact clothes that I wanted to keep for myself.
After all, my stork of a father couldn’t wear them. I, on the other hand, was around the right size, and a single college professor’s income only stretched so far. No sense wasting perfectly good clothes, especially ones as nice as these. I couldn’t help pulling on a t-shirt that I particularly liked (both “Mr” and “Mrs” crossed out, with “Dr” circled) before continuing.
As I pulled out the lowest drawer, I resolved to head downstairs after finishing the wardrobe. I should check on the stew again soon, I thought, then stopped.
This drawer didn’t hold clothes. Instead, it was occupied by a wide, black box, with no adornment other than a white label reading ‘Psychic Augmenter Mark 4’. That wasn’t something I could just ignore.
Inside the box, I found a sheaf of papers which seemed to describe a series of experiments that had led up to the creation of the PA4. The way it worked was far above my level – I was pretty bright for a college student, and I certainly intended to go into the field of metahuman medicine, which this kind of thing probably fell under, but I was only a premed student – I wouldn’t graduate college for another few months! I hadn’t even heard of half of these terms.
I turned my attention to what lay beneath the papers, the PA4 itself. It wasn’t what I would have assumed a ‘psychic augmenter’ would look like – rather than a futuristic helmet, it looked like a relatively standard superhero costume. A dark purplish-blue fabric, almost black, which contrasted strongly with a pair of knee-high armored boots and elbow-length armored gauntlets, both in white, with a transparent, plastic-like material making up the soles and palms, respectively.
…was this what had happened to my mother? Had she been a superhero who had run afoul of something beyond her? Wouldn’t Dad have told me about something like that? He had been tight-lipped about her for years, yes, but he had opened up since we started going through the attic. And something this big…
Well, maybe he wouldn’t have told me. But on the other hand, now that I thought about it, it seemed unlikely. Mom would surely have been an incredible superhero, but she was a metahuman researcher – creating something which would augment at least certain kinds of metahuman powers would probably be right up her alley.
I started to pack up the PA4, then stopped. It was probably a bad idea, I admitted to myself, but I couldn’t help it. It was a genuine superhero costume, or at least, the closest I was likely to ever get to one. I had to try it on!
It was a little loose on me, which comes with the territory when you’re trying to wear what was a probably standardized outfit while being only 5’4” on a good day, but I found a button on the belt which seemed to bring the thing to life. My entire body tingled as it contracted to fit me perfectly – a little too perfectly, in my opinion. I wasn’t particularly body-shy, but I wasn’t eager to show off my figure in this much detail. Fortunately, the ‘fit me!’ button was inset into a dial, which I fiddled with and caused the suit to loosen slightly. Instead of showing every outline of my muscles, it was now about as form fitting as a typical piece of tight clothing. Interestingly, the transparent plastic had also lit up a bright blue, as did the buckle of the belt and the eyes of the full-face mask.
It was itchy, though. I stripped out of it as soon as I could.
Well, after taking some selfies.
Scene 5 – October 14th
Interior Hospital Room, Evening
“Your son is here to see you, Mr. Kaufman,” the nurse called to my father as she opened the door to his room. “Just remember, visiting hours are over in forty five minutes, okay?” she said to me.
I nodded politely, waiting until she had left and closed the door behind her to walk over to dad, grumbling, “One day, when I run this hospital, everyone will know what being nonbinary means.”
Dad smiled up at me from the bed where he lay. “You’ll change the world for sure, kiddo,” he agreed. “But in the meantime, you just have to struggle through. It’s not worth it to fight every little battle, not with people you’ll never see again.”
“I know, I know.”
“So…” he glanced around and lowered his voice as though about to discuss something illicit. “You got the goods?”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, I got the goods.” I produced a container of stew and handed it to him along with a spoon. “I don’t know why you always have me smuggle this in. I mean, surely you’re used to hospital food by now, right?”
“It’s the principal of the thing,” he declared, popping it open. “Like the man says, ‘Tell me not, in mournful numbers, / Life is but an empty dream!— / For the soul is dead that slumbers, / And things are not what they seem.’ In other words,” he explained, taking a sip, “you have to take pleasure in the little things. Like good food, even when you’re in the hospital. And on that note, yum! How much garlic did you use?”
“I just threw in all the cloves I could find in the cupboard,” I joked.
He frowned at me. “You didn’t buy extra? I know I’ve taught you better than that.”
“I thought about it,” I explained, “but any more wouldn’t have fit in the pot.”
“That’s no excuse,” he scolded, “we have a bathtub.”
“But the bathtub is full of eels.”
“Why is the bathtub full of eels?”
“Couldn’t fit any more in the hovercraft.”
Dad broke down at that point, and that set me off. It was an occasional game of ours – to respond with more and more ridiculous statements until we couldn’t handle it anymore.
Eventually the laughter died down and we just grinned at each other for a moment. “Which man was that, anyway?” I asked after the moment past, scratching at the back of the neck.
“The poem you quoted.”
“Ah. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He wrote Paul Revere’s Ride, among other things,” Dad told me when I didn’t immediately recognize the name. He taught poetry at the University of New Venice, and was a world-renowned scholar in poetic circles. “That was the opening stanza of A Psalm of Life. You ought to recognize it – or at least the line ‘footprints on the sands of time’.”
“A good line,” I agreed.
I scratched at my wrist as I began telling Dad about my day. Whatever had made the suit so itchy had been left behind after I took it off, and I couldn’t wait to take a shower later tonight.
“You okay, kiddo?” Dad asked a few minutes later. “You’ve been scratching a lot. Do you have a rash? I could call the nurse back…”
“I’m fine,” I assured him. “It’s from… well…” I paused. “I was going through some of the attic stuff earlier, and I found something in the wardrobe while I was sorting through clothes.”
“Yeah, it was this weird thing that Mom made. A suit – like, a superhero suit.”
Dad went still. “Was it labeled?” he asked after a moment. “Psychic Augmenter?”
“Mark 4, yeah.” I told him.
He sighed. “That was a project which consumed your mother’s life for three years,” he told me. “You know Laura was trying to research cosmic-powered metahumans, right?”
“She had a theory that a commonality between a lot of cosmic-powered heroes was that their powers were psychic,” Dad explained. “Some kind of difference in the their nerves and brain tissue that broke the laws of physics in a different way than magically-powered heroes. She wanted to find a way to grant that to everyone – ‘to awaken the latent psychic powers in all of us’.”
“Sounds like a cool idea. What went wrong?” I asked. After all, if it had worked, the thing wouldn’t have been packed away in our attic – it would have revolutionized the world. “Funding dry up?”
He nodded. “The first version didn’t do much to the rats it was being tested on. The second seemed to do something, but it wasn’t clear what, so the third version was made for people. As I recall, results suggested that the nerves were being enhanced – faster reaction times and the like while wearing it – but people got incredible migraines after only a few minutes, and the results wore off. Laura was certain that the fourth model worked, and that it would awaken dormant powers, but…” He sighed. “Turns out that people don’t actually have dormant psychic powers. The migraines of the third model were precursors to people’s neural systems melting, which happened in only a minute or so with the fourth. Funding failed pretty quickly after that,” he said, dryly. “…you didn’t wear it, did you?”
I met his worried eyes. “Um…” He began to look panicked. “Just for a few minutes!” I tried to defend myself. “And I’m fine! Just itchy from whatever the thing was made of!”
“Itchy!” he demanded. “Quinn, you could be hurt! What if the itching is a sign of nerve damage!?”
“I don’t think that’s how nerve damage works,” I said, trying to placate him.
“You may be a med student, but I was married to a neurologist for eleven years,” He insisted, pressing a button on the side of his hospital bed to call a nurse. “I’m getting you an MRI.”
“We can’t afford that, Dad!” I protested.
He glared at me. “We’ll find a way. I need to know you’re okay, kid.”
“Is something wrong?” asked a nurse – not the same one who had led me here – opening the door to see me and my father glaring at each other.
“My idiot child exposed themself to a substance that may have damaged their nerves or brain,” he told her, still glaring at me. “I’d like them to get an MRI.”
“I’m fine!” I said again. “I’m fine,” I told the nurse.
“Sure,” he said placatingly. “I’ll just get a doctor about those tests for your daughter, alright Mr. Kaufman?” he told my dad, then left before I could protest that I wasn’t his daughter any more than I was his son.
“Let it go, Quinn,” Dad told me as I sank into a seat. “And you’re getting that scan.”