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The Suffering of Ambivalence

I pushed away from the computer and went downstairs, farther from Wonder City, farther from the telephone and the videoscreen and the Internet. Farther from my patient, who was still in the extended process of departure. Down to the big heated swimming pool, where I stripped off my hot pink blouse and black slacks -- working clothes, family clothes -- and everything under them, tossed them on the chaise lounge I never used, and dived into the water. Being naked in the pool didn't matter -- no other human being had been down here in at least four years.

I swam along the bottom of the pool, my fingers finding enough purchase on the tiles to keep me there despite the buoyancy of my belly and behind and thighs. I let the water wash over me and carry off the flavor of my patient's chaotic thoughts and sensations. I loved my work, I loved working with the young people who needed better tools for coping with the world around them, but young energies are sticky and difficult to pry out of my head.

When I surfaced, I heard the hum of the tracks of the cleaning robot who had come to collect my discarded clothing, and glanced over at its squat, charcoal grey shape. "Hey, there, Eliot," I said.

It paused and rotated its visual turret toward me. "Good afternoon, Renata," it said in its tinny tenor voice. "Would you like me to put these in the laundry?"

"No, thanks, Eliot. Could you just put them back in my room?"

"Of course, Renata. Dario tells me that dinner is nearly ready. Should it be held until you're out of the pool?"

"Please. I'll be up in about fifteen minutes, I think."

"Of course. I'll tell Dario." Eliot rumbled off with my clothes in its little central hamper.

I swam for another ten minutes, grateful to let my mind wander across and through the water, letting go of what I could. Then I hauled myself out and, dripping, walked through the full-body warm-air blower to get the majority of the water off my skin. I watched the water pool around the drain for a moment, then grabbed a towel to turban around my head. I keep my hair very short and natural because I swim so much, and it's easier to dry when it's short. Mama keeps asking me why I don't do more with my hair -- she's been straightening her hair since I was a child, and my sister Reesy has too -- and I always ask her why I would bother. My patients don't care what I look like; their parents may, but I stopped doing video calls with the parents years ago. I don't go to parties, I don't go into an office, and very few people get video calls from me. Mostly, my family sees me, and really, there are so many other things for my family to object to about me that if they want to raise a fuss about my hair being boring, let 'em.

It took me my remaining five minutes to find what I wanted to wear for dinner -- a quilted violet silk smoking jacket Mama found for me and matching pajama trousers Lashawna sent -- and get up to the main living level.

Dario is my robot chef, designed for me by Professor Canis. He's programmed daily by one of a team of actual human chefs in Wonder City. The team works in weekly rotation, so I get a nice variety of foods. Ruth's factotum, Gloria, arranges it all. This week was, apparently, Middle Eastern food, and so I sat down to a sumptuous feast of meze dishes.

"Bendenjal mechoui," Dario said, using one of his pair of smaller, more dexterous arms to point at dishes, "which is a smoky eggplant dip. Olives with za'atar. Mergeza lamb sausage. Basturma and muhammara. The pita is warm, madame, and there is more waiting in the oven. Your beverage is a rose sherbat. There is dessert, if you should care for it."

"Thank you, Dario," I said, caught for a moment of indecision about which plate to reach for first. "I'll have to see how full I am!" I settled on reaching for the pita first -- hot and soft and fresh -- and then started putting things on my plate. It made for a colorful array, and every bite was an explosion of flavor. The muhammara and the sausage caught me by surprise by being pretty fiery, and they accounted for at least half of my sherbat intake.

I was idly mopping up muhammara with the last of the pita on the table when Dario smoothly rolled in from the kitchen. "Madame," he said in his lovely Jamaican accent, "there is a call for you. Dr. Thomas. She's asking for a video call."

Ruth never asks for a video call. Never. I got up immediately and patted myself all over, checking the arrangement of my jacket, making sure I didn't have food all down the front or on my chin or anything like that. "Thank you, Dario, please have the house put her through to my work panel." I turned for the door, then looked back. "And, Dario, my compliments to the chef -- both you and the person up in the city. Who was it?"

People tell me I anthropomorphize the robots too much, but I'm fairly certain that Dario straightened up and nearly preened. "It was Jumanah Banoub, madame. I will transmit your compliments."

I said, "Thank you, Dario," and ran for my office.

"Ruth," I said when she appeared on the screen. I'm always startled by how much older she looks whenever I talk to her on video, since such conversations happen maybe once every three years. Her short hair was threaded through with silver now, and the lines around her eyes and between her eyebrows were carved more deeply. Her smile lines were thinner and shallower than the other lines. There were bags under her eyes -- I realized, with the kind of surface connection I get immediately when I see someone without a time delay, that she had not been sleeping well.

"Renata," she said, and her voice was heavy with exhaustion. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have video-called, but I'm so damn tired, I'm not sure I can tell you the story right."

"That's all right," I said, a little alarmed and starting to get a thin thread of information already. "This is about Sophie."

"Yes," Ruth said. "I'm getting desperate, Rennie."

The images flickered through: the big fight with Josh Feldstein, the leveling of part of downtown, the Fat Lady, Megan Amazon, the end in a supernatural burst of light, and then the inevitable cleanup, cleanup, cleanup. And finally, spotting a young woman named Nereid, who was carrying a familiar figure over her shoulder. I got a little dizzy from Ruth's flight perspective and intense worry as she descended and landed next to Nereid, took Sophie from her, then flew both girls to the hospital.

"She was comatose when I got there," Ruth said through her teeth, and I realized she'd been speaking the whole time I was getting the memories. "The doctors say there's nothing physically wrong with her. I've had her all over the damn world for tests and brain images and everything else."

I was the first para child Ruth ever rescued. She paid through the nose to bribe me out of the mental institution where I'd been held and drugged into some sort of submission. I'd been involuntarily committed the day I first terrified the teachers and principal at my middle school by reading their minds and telling their worst secrets out loud in adolescent revenge for... something. Mama hadn't been able to get me out, because I kept doing things to terrify the doctors and psychologists and nurses at the institution, and they kept claiming I was wildly psychotic, a danger to self and others. For years, I soaked up the crazy in the institution, and probably did my own part to exacerbate it all. I don't remember much of it until Ruth came and checked me out and took me far away from people -- I think we were in Tibet for a while, in a headquarters she had dug out under one of the Himalayan mountains. It took the drug poisons six months to cycle out of me completely, and then I could see my mother again.

Ruth had made several rescues of that sort over the years: para children who were too ethnic or too poor to be identified as para, and so were called insane or dangerous and were chemically and sometimes physically restrained for long periods of time. Most of us had family who did care about us, though, so she became more of a big sister to us after restoring us to sanity and our families.

Sophie was different -- desperately poor and abused, with no family who wanted to care for her at all. Ruth tried her with a variety of foster families, but the child had imprinted mightily on Ruth and acted out whenever she didn't see Ruth for more than a few days at a time. And her acting out really could be dangerous to herself and others, since she was given to technological pranks that none of her foster families could perceive or defend against. Ruth finally just took her in herself and weathered her parenting experience with a bitterly sarcastic para supergenius child. After all, Sophie really couldn't physically hurt Ruth, and Ruth was the only one who could get through to Sophie. I suspected it was good for both of them. Ruth had long since come to the conclusion that she'd never have a child of her own. After all, who could guarantee that the child would be invulnerable enough to survive being birthed by those amazing muscles when no Caesarian section was possible? If her adoptive parenting experience was difficult, Ruth took it in stride with all her other difficult experiences. If having the Ultimate as a parent was a difficult experience, Sophie certainly took it in stride herself.

Being unable to adopt Sophie -- the biological mother signed the papers but the father wouldn't -- was a frustration Ruth had endured with cynical tolerance. However, when Sophie turned 18 and could have signed her own adoption papers, the girl refused, claiming that she was already too much of a social burden for Ruth, and she wouldn't legally burden her as well. Ruth had called me on the phone then, and I could hear how devastated and wounded she was by the refusal. Was Sophie telling the truth about her reasons? Or did it all come down to racism in the end, and Sophie just didn't want a black mother? I'd never spoken to Sophie, and I couldn't tell Ruth anything about her thoughts, wouldn't have told her even if I did know. I don't think Ruth really wanted me to, at least consciously. She just didn't have many other people to talk to about this kind of thing.

"This sounds a lot like what happened to Josh Feldstein himself," I said. I'd been called into that case too. There had been nothing at all like a thought in his skull, nothing for me to trace or find. (A thread of my mother's cynicism leaked through, thinking, There never is, in those types.) I'd gotten way too much information from the wife, though, and was glad when they'd left.

"Don't say that," Ruth growled. "Rennie, please, I'm out of options."

"Of course I'll help however I can, Ruth," I said, afraid of the world-sized despair I could feel oozing over the connection. "Just... look, bring her into the work room upstairs tomorrow around noontime. Then, you know, you'll have to leave."

"I've got a meeting in Japan," Ruth said hollowly. "Will that be far enough?"

"That's fine," I said. "That's just fine. Leave her with me for a couple of hours. I'll do whatever I can."

"Thank you, Rennie," she said, with a gusty sigh. "Thank you so much."

"Girl," I said, "you never have to thank me for anything. You're family, Ruth."

"I'm a bitch of a big sister, though," she said with a grim little smile.

"You are," I said, falling into our little ritual, "but I like you better than my other big sisters."

"Love you, little sister," Ruth said.

"Love you too, Ruth," I said, and she closed the connection.


From the Author:
More arm motion every day, pretty much, and I've started physical therapy with a physical therapist who is an SF/F/manga/anime/comics fan. (Hi, Sancho, if you're reading!) Ibuprofen is still my best friend (aside from my wife, who still does more than her share around the house). But the world is a more pleasant place.

So pleasant that I'm going to steal a page from Cecilia Tan (and her mega-awesome serial, Daron's Guitar Chronicles -- are you reading it? If not, why not?): I will post twice weekly during the month of December as a [fill in holiday here] gift for you all! If you like getting WCS twice weekly, then please comment! If I get 50 comments over the course of December, I will post twice weekly all through January as well. If I get 75 comments, I'll post twice weekly through February. If, by some amazing work of you wonderful folks, I get more comments than that, I will come up with some even better reward. :)

All this is, of course, contingent on my not breaking myself again or acquiring some horrible pathogen. If something bad happens to derail me, I will figure out how to extend the gift.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! We're up in the ratings! Help us stay there!


Date: 2010-11-30 08:29 am (UTC)
ysabetwordsmith: Cartoon of me in Wordsmith persona (Default)
From: [personal profile] ysabetwordsmith
Holiday posts are sugar plums!

Yeah, having any kind of beyond-ordinary ability is a good way to get your life ruined, especially if you're female or ethnic or poor or some other category that people want not to succeed. I've done some cleaning up after nonsense like that.

Re: Yay!

Date: 2010-12-01 07:08 pm (UTC)
ysabetwordsmith: Cartoon of me in Wordsmith persona (Default)
From: [personal profile] ysabetwordsmith

Given my community affiliations -- Pagan, alternative sexualities, fannish, etc. -- I encounter a lot of folks with unsupportive or destructive backgrounds. If your abilities are outside the human ordinary, you're likely to get hassled. That tends to leave marks.

I can usually make an improvement, and I make the effort because I want to have a functioning community rather than a drama llama farm. Alas, it's rare for anyone to stick around long enough to finish the job, which is frustrating. People don't like being told that fixing what they're complaining about will take some hard work and time. But then one day, I was re-watching the Star Wars movies, and suddenly realized that not even Obi-Wan Kenobi managed to convince his student of that. So I felt less clumsy then.

Date: 2010-12-01 11:07 am (UTC)
clstal: (Default)
From: [personal profile] clstal
Thank you for writing! (This is my first experience w/ reading an internet serial -- I'm finding I enjoy it - thank you!)

Date: 2010-12-01 09:04 pm (UTC)
laturner: (Default)
From: [personal profile] laturner
Oh please do, that would be great!

Date: 2010-12-24 06:20 am (UTC)
kore: (Default)
From: [personal profile] kore
I really like the first-person here, in contrast with all the other 3P stories -- it makes a nice contrast.


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