The robot continues smoking his cigarette, not missing a single drag, even as Morgana emerges from behind a closed door. She is naked and cold, and, considering the circumstances, understandably confused.
“Can I ask you a question, please?” she inquires in a plaintive squeak.
“I…don’t…know…Sir!” replies the smoking robot in a metallic monotone. “Can…you?”
“Well, I guess I can! I’m looking for Rain. Do you know where I can find her? She’s new here.”
As Morgana begins to feel a little more at ease with the smoking robot, she is suddenly aware of her bare feet, numbed by the frigid, gritty floor. In a mere nanosecond, the cold wends its way into her spine as if it had been wicked up through the soles of her feet. She begins to shiver. She can only imagine what all her jiggly pooches of bare flesh must look like, but she doesn’t think the robot can see anything beyond the tip of his cigarette, if even that much.
“Let…me…check…for…you…Sir,” he drones, while he lights another cigarette and sticks it into a hole at the top of his head. The hole chokes and sputters as the lit cigarette is ejected in a sudden belch of blue smoke amidst the cacophonous accompaniment of electronic thwonks and boings. The cigarette rolls to an unceremonious stop onto the counter between them and is now burning a smoldering, black hole into the counter’s dingy grey surface.
“Well…there…is…your…answer…Sir!” replies the robot in his curt electronic voice.
“What does that mean?” demands Morgana, forgetting all about her Rubenesque jigglescape.
The robot picks up the ejected cigarette and smokes it along with his other cigarette, which is now so short it is burning his hand. Unperturbed, he fumbles with his left hand, searching for more cigarettes, as the thwonking and boinging crescendo to a deafening din.
Morgana wakes up in a cold sweat.
In the still, grey light of dawn, she remembers her three-day wait until the Initialization, and is filled with a sense of dread and excitement. The two emotions cancel each other out, which is good because she’s got other things to deal with.
Grateful that her feet and legs are still toasty warm, she plods from her bedroom down the hallway, digging her toes into the still-new, soft, shaggy Berber carpeting. Now that was one good investment, she thinks, which is exactly what comes to mind each time her bare feet make contact with it.
Without looking in the mirror, she already knows that she looks like a chubby lumberjack in her shapeless, plaid, flannel nightgown, which is why she avoids the mirror on the way to Jack’s room to check on him. He’s still sleeping, his breathing steady and rhythmic. Her heart just aches for him. She wonders what he must be thinking, what he must be feeling, or rather if he can think or feel at all. She tiptoes out of the room, closing the door silently behind her.
The hot shower feels good as it washes away both her tears and the coldness that had seeped into her consciousness from the smoking robot dream.
She looks through all the clothes in her closet, finding nothing that would make her look more attractive. She finally settles on a pair of freshly-laundered, though still stained, magenta sweat pants with a bell-shaped pink pullover sweater that’s long and wide enough to cover the lumpy terrain between her waist and the lower part of her upper thigh bulge. Hmmm…it doesn’t look that bad! The snarky killjoy inside her head, always quick to disabuse her of any comforting illusions she may be entertaining, assures her that it does look that bad. Not that it’s a big deal or anything, but she thinks her daughter, a very cutting-edge and fashion-savvy young woman, secretly pities her poor mother’s total lack of taste.
How Morgana managed to raise such a fashion-conscious daughter is totally beyond her, but in a way it makes sense since Gerri was always hyper-aware of colors, textures, patterns, lines, and balance. And true to her aesthetic sensibilities, she is a successful buyer for a cautiously-expanding chain of upscale clothing boutiques for “the discriminating woman,” called “Glamorphous” with a retro shoe subsidiary called “Shoetiquity.”
Puttering around the kitchen, Morgana peers out the window and sees dark storm clouds gathering. She is seized by a sudden sense of joy, hoping that rain is coming their way to pry loose the dead fingers of drought strangling their parched, desperate state. She remembers that “Rain” is the name she chose for her other self and that in three days, she will experience life as that other person, the one she was always meant to be. Oh, how she wishes she could share this with Gerri!
The doorbell rings. She dries her hands on the red checkered dishtowel and walks briskly to the door.
“Gerri! How’s my baby girl?” She throws her arms around her red-haired daughter, who is always cheered by her mother’s effusive show of affection.
“Hi, Ma! If you let me go for a second, I can give you these great bagels I just bought.” She wriggles free, and puts the bag on the table.
“Now it’s my turn!” she says as she turns around and gives Morgana a huge bear hug. She looks into her mother’s eyes welling with tears. The coffee maker wheezes and gurgles in the background. The warm, roasted aroma of the coffee fills the kitchen with the promise of a cozy chat tucked into a pocket of stopped time.
“How’s Pop-Poo doing?”
“The same, but Rocky seems to think there’s more hope than the doctors are letting on. I sure hope he’s right! Well, no matter! I think Daddy would love to see you, whatever the case may be!”
Gerri scrambles down the hallway into her father’s room, and Morgana hears her greet her father. Like all people who believe that even the most absurd hope is better than no hope at all, Gerri assumes that her Dad is awake because his eyes are open, but Morgana already knows that he is staring into that same, distant dimension that never admits present company. She listens to the one-sided conversation, gaily prattled by the always-sweet Gerri.
“Pop-Poo-Poo-Poo-Poo-Poo-Poo-Poo!!!” she says in her silliest voice.
The two had begun this silly ritual when Gerri was just a baby. She would sit on his lap and call him “Pop-Poo,” and he would laugh and tap the tip of her cute little nose for each syllable she uttered. Then she would laugh and try to tap him on the nose and just as she would almost tap his nose, he’d snap his head back and catch her little baby finger with his lips. Each time, she would squeal and laugh with utter surprise and delight. Gerri was always the love of his life. She never stopped calling him “Pop-Poo.”
Five minutes later, Gerri saunters back into the kitchen and slides into her favorite chair at the side of the window as Morgana is putting their toasted bagels on green glass plates on the table.
“So, Ma, I have some good news about Mitzi, but unfortunately, it’s nothing that can help you locate Jerinda.”
Morgana looks up from pouring the coffee. “Really?”
“Yeah, I finally got ahold of her boyfriend, Atif, who told me that they broke up a couple of weeks ago—nothing awful, thank goodness! It’s just that their educational plans were driving them in different directions.”
“Oh, that’s too bad—Jerinda really liked him. Sorry to interrupt! Go on…”
“So, anyway, Atif told me that in order to complete her master’s degree in less time, she made a commitment to do a six-month independent study project in some remote place in the Central African Republic—ever hear of that?”
“No, I can’t say I have, but Africa’s never really been on my radar anyway. What do you know about it?”
“Not much, except that I looked it up and found out that it’s one of the least-developed nations in the whole world. It got its independence from France in 1960, and since then, things have gone from bad to worse. There are child soldiers, militias throwing young men to the crocodiles, burning down villages, you name it.”
“Oh my God, that’s awful!”
“Well, luckily, she’s far away from that kind of danger. She’s in a place called…wait!” She pulls her cellphone out of her back pocket, types with her thumb, and says, “…the Dzanga-Sangha Reserve, which is a rain forest reserve frequented by hard-core adventure seekers, of which, as you can probably imagine, there aren’t many. She is with a team of researchers who track gorillas, who live at an extremely isolated base camp called ‘Bai Hokou.’ There’s no mail service, no phone service, no internet, no nothing. So…that’s where she is!”
“Mitzi has always had a knack for doing everything the hard way, hasn’t she? Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it dangerous to track gorillas?”
“Well, yeah! Not everyone has the gorilla-whispering skills of Dian Fossey.”
Morgana picks up her bagel and pauses, momentarily scanning her memory. “Come to think of it, I do remember Jerinda saying that Mitzi was getting antsy in the graduate program, because it was too theoretical and that Mitzi really wanted something more ‘hands-on.’ But I wonder why Mitzi didn’t tell Jerinda where she was going.”
“Atif told me that she had shared the information with her mother, but she didn’t know exactly when she would leave, only that when she did leave, she wouldn’t have time to do much besides pack and get herself to the airport. The American Embassy there knows where she is, but other than that, there’s no contact possible.”
“So there’s no way that Mitzi knows what happened to Jerinda, right?”
“Right! I totally doubt that she knew or suspected anything about it. She never would have gone, knowing that her mother was at death’s door. And listen to this: Atif told me that Mitzi left two weeks ago, Monday before last! Does that ring a bell?”
“Huh! That’s the same day Jerinda was attacked!”
“Yep!” Gerri stirs some sugar into her coffee and puts a dab of cream cheese on her bagel. “I’m thinking that, at the very least, she must have texted her mother a quick message or sent an e-mail on her way to the airport. Who knows? But given the fact that the two talk to each other a few times a week, it’s more likely that Mitzi called Jerinda to tell her the exciting news.”
“It’s curious that she didn’t mention Mitzi’s last-minute trip to Africa to me!”
“Probably because she didn’t know about it yet! Mitzi might have spoken with Jerinda at just about the same time she was walking alone around the lake, during that fifteen-minutes from the moment you left her to go to the dentist until a few minutes before her ‘accident.’ What do you think?”
Morgana takes a deep breath and exhales. “I think you’re right about the sequence of events. I’m so glad to know, or at least think I know, that Mitzi hasn’t just vanished off the face of the earth! I was starting to worry that something had happened to her. Did you contact the American Embassy?”
“No, because I wanted to talk to you first about that. What do you think Jerinda would want you to do?”
She would want me to be logical and practical. Since Mitzi can’t do anything to help Jerinda anyway, she might as well stay where she is and complete her project. Mitzi would be a nervous wreck if she were to find out and, as a mother myself, the last thing I would want to do would be to torment my children with a problem that has no solution.”
“I was thinking the same thing. I just hope Mitzi doesn’t hold this against us one day.”
“I hope not either, but look at it this way—we don’t know much, ourselves—do we? If and when we should find out more, then we might try to contact her through the Embassy, which is iffy at best, if what you told me about the place is true.”
“Oh, it’s true, alright!” Gerri reaches for some more cream cheese, and looks up suddenly. “Look, Ma! It’s raining! At last!”
Morgana stares into the rain, reflecting on her first California drought when she and Jack had first moved here. It didn’t rain and it didn’t rain. Morgana was feeling more desperate as each passing month evaporated, leaving the dust to swirl itself into madness. She felt as if the world were dying. One night, she was roused from a deep sleep by the tantalizing sound of a steady, driving rain, that beautiful, triumphant, wet applause of billions of big, fat, heavy drops of water slapping the ground. Overwhelmed by relief and gratitude, she opened her eyes, only to realize that she was listening to the neighbor’s shower through her open window.
“By the way, Gerri—Who the hell is Dian Fossey?”
To Be Continued in Chapter 8: The Advice Lady
Photo Credit: “Cyberman Smoke Break”
“This is from the filming of Revenge of the Cybermen, December 1974. The actor here might be a guy named Melville Jones. Or it could be any number of other stunt performers. Revenge of the Cybermen mostly sucks, but it does have this classic Tom Baker moment.” (www.reddit.com/r/OldSchoolCool/comments)