Chapter Five - Zombie Face
Charlotte has been sobbing for an hour. Her face is red raw from the scrubbing she gave it. Far from looking pink and healthy underneath, the dead spot is even bigger. By now the incident is all over facebook. FACEbook. What a joke! This face should never be seen in public again. She has nowhere to go. No one to talk to about it. She’s trapped here at home, her prison.
Charlotte’s fluffy slippers shuffle to the kitchen, the room where her mother, frozen in time, watches over their meals, their interactions, their laughter, their arguments.
And now Charlotte’s lonely tears.
Mum, what can I do? I’m literally falling apart! And what about Dad? What if I’m dying again? I can’t leave him all by himself. She searches the kind, pretty eyes. Help me think of something, please!
She can hear Dad’s car in the garage and sucks in a sob.
“Charlie, I’m home!” he calls out. As he enters the kitchen, he puts down his briefcase and sees her face. “Oh, Charlie.” His gentle voice breaks the dam. Charlotte runs to him, just as she did as a little girl and flings herself in his arms. He holds her gently, stroking her hair, saying nothing. She can feel his heart beating inside his warm chest and wishes she could crawl in there and hide, forever. Safe. Where no one can taunt her.
“Let me look at you,” he says gently.
“No!” she says, muffled against his shirt. “It’s disgusting!”
He pulls away and holds her by the shoulders.
“Let me look, my darling.” Though he’s trying to maintain a professional air of confident, diagnostic indifference, she can see the grief, the bright, sharp ache in his heart reflected in his eyes.
“It’s not that bad actually,” he says, turning to wash his hands in the sink. Charlotte’s fear escalates as she watches him lather soap all over his hands and rinse thoroughly. He doesn’t want to be contaminated by me! What IS this thing?
“Dad, they’ve seen it. The kids at school! Oh, it’s a nightmare!” She sinks into a dining chair. Hot tears are stinging her face.
“Charlotte, we’ll fix this together, ok?” He grabs his briefcase. “I’m taking you back to the lab. Everyone’s left by now.” He hands her a tissue. “You won’t have to face... sorry, see anyone.” Charlotte manages a sort of grin at his clumsy turn of phrase. She blows her nose, tries to keep it together, for his sake. He hasn’t called her Charlotte in many years. He really is worried.
Rows of lights flicker on. Parson’s Industries has provided a well-furnished laboratory, stark and white, with huge free standing machines, long tables dotted with microscopes, chrome furniture and small labs on either side. Charlotte is wearing a hoodie and a scarf around her face. Only her eyes peer out.
“Are you sure no one is here?”
“Yes. Just us. Now, I need to get a fresh skin sample.” He flicks a switch on the side of a large box and a whirring sound begins. “I’ve been analysing your DNA and I can’t isolate the gene that’s causing this breakdown. It’s not a general immune dysfunction.” He turns to her. “You don’t have a cold do you? Any aches and pains?”
“No,” she says, muffled by the scarf.
“You can take that off now.”
“No, I can’t.” Charlotte frowns. “I’m a freak.”
“Charlie, please. I need a skin scraping. It won’t hurt.” His fingers are hovering over her face.
“That’s because I’m already dead and it’s zombie skin.”
His eyes harden. “I will not tolerate that kind of talk. Understand?” She nods, her eyes wide. Dad never gets this firm with her.
“There.” He mounts the sample on a slide and soon it appears on a large screen. He zooms in. Dad is frowning, chewing the pen he always carries in his lab coat pocket.
“It looks... different.” He says softly. “Could be why you’ve developed this skin... irritation.” Charlotte feels ice crawling up her arms, up her back and over her scalp like a hundred hairy spiders.
“It’s not the only thing that’s changed.” She chews her lip.
“Pardon?” Dad swivels on his seat to stare at her. Charlotte realises, with a jolt that she spoke her thoughts aloud. Her mind snaps back to that scene on the road. She smells the smoke, feels her car sliding, wheels locked, brakes squealing. And the truck writhing in metal agony towards her.
“Something happened. I just don’t know how.”
Dad’s expression is intense.
“Remember how I almost had a car accident the other day? Coming home from the party?”
“You never did explain what happened.”
Charlotte takes a breath.
“A truck was on the wrong side of the road. The driver tried to control it, but it was heading straight for us. Out of control. There wasn’t time to get out of the way. My wheels were locked. The noise... oh, Dad, the noise of that metal screeching...” She puts her hands to her ears, as if to blot out the memory. Dad touches her arm.
“But you got out of the way.”
“I should be dead.”
“What do you mean?” His eyebrows knit together.
Charlotte shakes her head.
“I knew we were going to die. There just wasn’t enough time to get out the way. It was physically impossible. I knew we were dead.”
Dad sits down. His hands are shaking a little. He leans forward.
“Tell me exactly what happened.”
“I swerved, the brakes locked and then I sort of focussed on the truck. It was like slow motion photography. I had plenty of time to see everything. Even the driver’s face. Every detail. And I just turned right, then left and got out the way. Easily. It shouldn’t have been easy. The laws of physics....”
Dad leans back and his chair squeaks.
“Yeah, I know it sounds stupid.”
Dad’s eyebrows rise.
“What do you make of it?”
“I don’t know. Dad, forget it, ok? It was nothing.” But Dad isn’t listening. He’s already engrossed in the skin sample. Charlotte seats herself near him and waits. Presently, her stomach twangs. “Got any food here?” He points at a door, without looking up. Charlotte walks to the door and sees a room with lounges, tables and chairs. There’s a huge double door fridge, plus a drinks fridge. Looks like they have their own chef here! She grabs some cold meat, salad and a cup of chocolate mousse, some cutlery and settles at a table. Pulling off the scarf she starts to eat. The food is excellent and she remembers that she skipped lunch. She looks around at the comfortably furnished room. There’s a big TV, DVD collection, stereo, magazines. Maybe I could just live here.
“Charlie!” She hears Dad calling. She rushes back into the lab, breathless with hope.
“You figured it out?”
Dad shakes his head. “Not entirely. But I think the only solution is to give you a blood transfusion. I was hoping the Infinity Gene would have kicked in by now.”
“Yes. Experimental, but I’m very hopeful.”
“Ignoring the enormous implications of you experimenting on your own daughter, may I ask what does the Infinity Gene do?”
“I designed it to help protect you, speed up your healing and reflexes. So that hopefully, you’d never be ill again.”
“Dad, you can’t play God.”
He hangs his head. “I know.” He looks up, his gaze intense. “But I have a talent for tinkering and as long as I can, I will protect those I love.” They share a smile. I need to forgive him for saving me and not Mum.
“So, a transfusion. Whose blood?”
“Mine. Your mother’s would have been a perfect match, but her’s is contaminated with cancer. Until I find a cure for cancer...” He looks away, sadly.
“Are you saying you have a store of Mum’s blood?” Charlotte’s pulse quickens.
“And if you could take the cancer out of it, you could create a clone?” Charlotte feels her body tingle with excitement. Imagine it, having Mum back! But her father’s face registers only pain. “What is it Dad?”
“Charlie.” His voice is deep, soft. “Even if I could cure the cancer and that’s a huge if, and create a clone of your mother, accelerate her growth, she wouldn’t be your mother as you knew her. She wouldn’t have any of Ellen’s memories, history, personality quirks. She wouldn’t know us. She wouldn’t remember giving birth to you or any of your growing years. She wouldn’t remember falling in love with me because she wouldn’t be the Ellen I fell in love with. She’d have no link with us at all. She’d be a stranger.” Something empty is settling inside Charlotte’s soul. Something barren and unforgiving.
“It’s because I transferred your consciousness to your new body that you are able to function as my daughter. Even so, memories were lost. You don’t remember loving ballet.”
“No!” Charlotte whispers. It’s like losing her mother, all over again. Charlotte feels her legs become wobbly. The lab floor is coming up fast. Dad grabs her and settles her into a chair.
“You all right?” He says, cradling her chin in his hand. Charlotte forces the tears back.
“Mum. Gone forever?”
He looks away, unable to speak. She’s hurt him just by asking the impossible.
“Ok,” she says, resigned. “Do the transfusion, if you think it will work.”
He turns and smiles at her. “Good. I’ll get it ready.”
“Dad, how can you keep blood for nearly ten years?”
“Cryogenics.” His eyes are shining with tears. “It’s all we have left of her.” They hug each other in a moment of shared pain. Charlotte can feel Dad’s distress, though he’s trying hard to hide it from her. I have to be strong for him. I really do. We’ve only got each other.
“There’s just one more thing,” says Dad. She looks at him, expecting him to say that it will hurt or something. “There’s no guarantee it will work.”
She points to her face. “Hey, do I look like I have lots of options?”
“I guess not. Before we go home and do this transfusion, come with me. I want to show you something.”
She follows him to a room that looks a lot bigger on the inside than she imagined. It’s full of tanks, big capsules and gizmos. There are pod-like shapes along the wall, with consoles of flashing lights and very faint beeping sounds. In the far back corner is a tall capsule marked ‘Ellen Campbell’. Charlotte gasps.
“You haven’t got Mum in here, have you?”
Dad pauses, looks away. “No. Of course not.” He opens the capsule. A light comes on, dry ice hisses. There are shallow shelves at the front. He withdraws a small case, puts it on a flat surface and clicks it open with another rush of dry ice. There are at least twenty silver vials inside.
He nods. Charlotte gazes at the vials, wishing, wishing with all her heart that he could bring her mother back. Dad gives Charlotte a sad smile, clips the case shut, returns it to the capsule and closes the door. Charlotte looks longingly at the label, ‘Ellen Campbell’ one last time, then follows Dad back to his lab.