“Who are you?” I said.
The woman smiled, and didn’t say anything.
But Nathan did. “Hi, Mom,” he said. “Aren’t you supposed to be dead right now?”
“It turns out ‘dead’ can be a state of mind as much as it is a state of being,” said the woman in the wheelchair, closing the door to her office. It was a proper office, too, not a makeshift space like the others we had passed in the bowling alley. This had been the bowling alley manager’s space, back when there was a bowling alley to manage. Now it was hers. “Can I get the two of you anything?”
“I’d like some answers, if you don’t mind,” I said. “Who are you? Why did Nathan call you ‘Mom’? Are you his mother? Where have you been? Why did you contact me?”
“Do you have grape juice?” asked Nathan.
The woman smiled. “Always.” She wheeled her way toward the fridge. As she went, she said, “To answer your last question first, Sal, I contacted you because you seemed to want to know what was going on, and I felt it was time to begin trying to tell you. I waited this long because I needed SymboGen to trust you—no, I’m not going to ask you to play spy for me, I have better-trained people who take care of the messy aspects of the business, and frankly, you don’t meet my standards. But until they trusted you enough to let you out without a detail trailing you at all times, I couldn’t risk trying to reach out. You needed to be curious enough to take steps on your own, and free enough to keep going once you’d taken them. You needed, if it’s not too cutesy to say, to go out alone.”
“And the rest of it? Your name? Do you have a name? Are you Nathan’s mother?”
“I suspected it was you as soon as I saw the note,” said Nathan. “I couldn’t think of anybody else who would think to use quotes from Don’t Go Out Alone as a code.”
“It worked, didn’t it?” She opened the fridge, pulling out a bottle of grape juice. “There are glasses in the cabinet behind you, Nathan.” She glanced my way. “We use real glass. None of the dangerous chemical outgassing you can get from reusable plastic, and none of the ethically questionable waste you can get from using disposable.”
“Mom,” said Nathan. There was a warning note in his tone. “Sal’s asking you some pretty sincere questions. Can you maybe answer them?”
“I’m trying to work my way around to it,” she said. Then she sighed and turned, wheeling her way back to me. “I’m sorry, Sal. I really am. I’ve been thinking of this day for so long that I suppose I wasn’t ready for the way that it would make me feel. I don’t mean to be rude. I just don’t have the greatest social skills in the world. I never did, but after spending ten years underground, I’ve lost a lot of the fine edges I’d managed to develop. Forgive me?”
“If you’ll tell me who you are,” I said.
She smiled a little. “Ah. The biggest question of all. Well, Sal, when I lived with Nathan and his father, my name was Surrey Kim. I had a PhD in genetic engineering and parasitology, and I worked for a small medical technology firm. We were going to do great things, assuming we could ever get space and funding. There was a man I knew from school. He was very rich. He wanted to get even richer. And he had a dream. It was a big, crazy dream, one that could lead to a way of curing the ill effects of our overpurified environment. He approached me and asked if I was willing to help. It was a fascinating proposal. It was innately flawed, and it was going to make millions for him, and for his company, which he called ‘SymboGen.’ Maybe billions.
“But there were problems. The plan would require early and aggressive human testing, and there was a good chance we could all go to jail for the rest of our lives if things went wrong. My family needed the money. I needed to do the work. It’s hard to explain that in a way that doesn’t sound crazy, but it’s true—once I heard what he was doing, I needed to be part of it. It was all my work, all my theories, wrapped up in one big, beautiful possibility. So I agreed, as long as SymboGen could guarantee my family wouldn’t be hurt by my actions.” She smiled sadly, glancing toward Nathan, who was pouring himself a glass of grape juice. “Surrey Kim died in a boating accident that same year. Her body was never recovered. I had six months with my family while they got my new identity in order, planted the publications, created the academic credits. I have to give them this much. They knew what they were doing. No one ever questioned my validity.”
I stared at her. A blonde woman who worked in parasitology and genetic engineering, talking about working with SymboGen when it was still a small company, who worried about them finding her… there was only one person she could possibly be. “Dr. Cale?” I whispered.
“At the moment, yes.” Her smile broadened. “It truly is lovely to meet you, Sal. I’ve been waiting for a very long time. And yes, I am really Nathan’s mother. Can’t you see the resemblance?”
I frowned at her. She had wavy blonde hair, blue eyes, and a roundish face, with no hard lines or sharp angles. Nathan, on the other hand, had dark hair and eyes—both inherited from his father—and strong features. They couldn’t have looked less alike. And yet, when she turned her head, I could see something of him in the way she held herself, buried in the expectant half lift of her eyebrow and the curl of her lips.
“Yes,” I admitted. “I can see it. But how…?”