45. The Truth at Last
Lionel and Loretta Amity are sitting stiffly in the living room of their cabin, side-by-side on the hard molded couch. They couldn’t leave if they wanted to, and they certainly do want to. Outside the door is a group of who-knows-how-many Uniters taking up a rotating vigil, and there inside the room with the elderly couple are no less than four imps: Les, Ema, Lai, and Alec. Originally, it was only supposed to be the three leaders who did the questioning, but at the last minute Lai asked Alec to come with her. She wants him to be there when their theory is either proven or disproven, and though she’d never admit it, she also feels in need of moral support. Her face remains set in its typical unaffected expression, but internally she is trembling with a combination of anticipation and terror.
“Our daughter was defected from birth,” begins Lionel, his eyes dropping. “There was no forewarning at all. Those kinds of things were so rare even back then, we never imagined that it would happen to us.”
“They don’t know what caused it,” added Loretta. “They couldn’t even place a name to it. Lionel and I had sat down and talked about every aspect of her design before we ever went to GeneLab, and they followed our instructions. Pandora should have been perfect. But instead…”
“What exactly was wrong with her?” asks Les.
“A number of things,” answers Lionel with a sigh. “Stunted physical development, for one. But worse than that, she was more or less brain dead. Oh, she could perform a few simple tasks on her own, of course. She didn’t need help eating, she could walk just fine…sometimes when she was a little girl, we’d walk in on her and see her playing with her toys, but the biggest thing was that she never spoke. As a baby, she didn’t babble or make noises. She hardly even cried. And we never got the slightest sense that she understood a word that was being spoken to her.”
“What about nonverbal communication?” asks Ema. “Did she ever make hand gestures or emote to different situations, or show any signs of understanding other peoples’ nonverbal cues?”
Loretta shakes her head. “No. She would just…stare at things, sometimes, without any emotion. It didn’t get any better as she got older. She probably couldn’t feel anything at all.”
“I highly doubt that, Mrs. Amity,” responds Ema, drawing herself upwards and speaking in a professional tone of voice. “She just lacked all communication skills. That’s what it sounds like to me, anyway. It seems like she may have been severely autistic, but to an extent that hasn’t been seen in decades…autism combined with something else, maybe. Well, no matter. What did you do in order to treat her?”
“We tried all sorts of things,” replies Lionel. “Therapy, medications, even some pseudoscience cures. Nothing helped.”
“We took very good care of her,” contributes Loretta. “We were both very busy, since we had full-time jobs, but we hired a lot of imps to take care of her.” At this, Lai shifts uncomfortably on her feet, but no one else seems to notice. “We were so very, very distraught. We wanted her to have a normal life – no half-decent parents would simply accept a poor, crippled daughter, would they? But there was simply nothing we could do.”
Lionel sucks in a deep breath. “And then we got into contact with the Institute.”
“The Institute for the Betterment of Humans Genetically Improved and Otherwise, you mean,” says Les.
Lionel nods. “We were wary at first. But we did some research and dug up as much information as we could possibly find, and we discovered that they were legitimate. They sincerely wanted to help people, and they did it by dabbling in experimental procedures. They thought that they could help our daughter. They said they’d make her…normal.”
“And did they?” inquires Lai, in a manner that sounds almost accusing.
He exhales, kneading fingerprints into the surface of the couch. He is avoiding the uncomfortable truth for as long as he possibly can, although he knows that his procrastination will come to a head sooner rather than later. “They almost did. A week after her eighteenth birthday, we slipped her a sleeping pill at dinner, then drove her down to the Institute’s headquarters. She was in surgery for hours. Loretta and I were in the waiting room, and then a doctor came to get us, saying that the operation had been a complete success. They brought us into the room where she was just starting to wake up. And…that’s when we found out that there had been complications.”
“What complications?” inquires Ema eagerly.
“She lost her memory,” Lionel and Loretta chant softly in unison.
“The whole procedure was done with improved genes and things like that,” Loretta starts to explain. “It was based off of the principles that had created imps in the first place. It turned Pandora into what you people call a ‘nimp.’”
“One of the main parts of the surgery was fixing her brain so that she was able to communicate,” continues Lionel. “And when they did…somethinghappened. When she woke up after the operation, she could talk. She could look around and acknowledge things around her. But she didn’t recognize us at all. She didn’t remember being a human – she thought that she was a brand-new imp, fresh out of the factory.”
Alec starts to ask what they did with her after that, but just then Lai steps forward, her eyes oddly intense. “Do you have a picture of her?” she demands.
“Not one that we can send to you,” murmurs Loretta.
“But you have at least one paper picture of her, don’t you? When we went in your division, we saw a whole bunch of empty picture frames. You must have brought at least one photo up here with you when you left.”
A throbbing numbness spreads through Lionel’s body. “W-we do have one. But I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to – ”
“I want to see it.”
“That’s probably not – ”
“I want to see it!” Lai’s voice rises sharply, and he cringes, as if sliced by the razor edges of her words. “Bring it over here,now.”
“Lai, don’t be rude!” hisses Ema, but Lionel is already crossing into the bedroom so that he can pry the flimsy piece of paper from its secret spot in the bottom drawer of the nightstand, his movements deliberate and robotic. Loretta’s skin has gone very pale, and her hands are shaking even as they lay squeezing each other in her lap.
Lionel returns with the photo, holding it so that only the blank white side is visible. Lai strides over to him briskly. “Here,” he says shakily. “Here it is. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
The other three imps exchange a puzzled glance. What does he mean when he says that he “warned” her? He makes it sound as if gazing upon the face of Pandora is lethal!
Lai snatches the picture from his hand and holds it up to her face. She freezes.
She sees the image, and yet somehow doesn’t see it.
Her brain processes its visual input slowly and arrives at a sure, unshakable conclusion…a conclusion that the rest of her can’t possibly handle.
She opens her mouth to scream, but she is no longer in control of herself. A ringing silence roars up and envelopes her ears. She faintly catches a glimpse, from the corner of her eye, of Alec and Ema and Les as their brows crease with concern, lips pursing to ask her what’s happened, if she is all right.
Lai is not all right. Her legs can no longer support her, and the floor slides away from beneath her feet. Before she even reaches the ground, the truth soars up to devour her with an open maw, and it is hungry and black and dark.
And then, for a while, there is nothing.