Forecast: Chapter 41
by Shya Scanlon
Forecast is being serialized semiweekly across 42 web sites. For a full list of participants and links to live chapters, please visit www.shyascanlon.com/forecast.
Over the next few days I had a lot of explaining to do, but not about Helen’s disappearance. Instead, the REMO laboratory my troops had uncovered in the carcass of Lightning Strikes!, along with several more like it scattered throughout the defunct amusement park, swallowed everyone’s imagination, and became one of the biggest public scandals in years. Helen’s disappearance interested my superiors only insofar as it was assumed to be somehow connected to the REMO experiments, which were being fueled by ET energy skimmed off by AS-Masks. One particularly astute investigator caught on to the fact that Helen’s AS-Mask had been causing unexplained hallucinations, and concluded that she may have unwittingly been part of the data set. I was repeatedly interrogated about the Professor: asked what he’d told me, how he’d gotten access to the facility after his employment had ended, and, of course, what I’d shared with him, if anything. There were critical security issues at stake, of course, not to mention the sanctity of the Citizen Surveillant code, and I did my utmost to follow every protocol and comprehensively present all I knew. Despite my feelings of victimization, I could sympathize with the perspective that I might very well have been part of the conspiracy. It was furthermore no surprise that Asseem had been involved from the beginning, whose face the Professor had of course found to be the model for the AS-Masks to begin with. At first I was hopeful that Asseem’s testimony would clear my name, but since he was, under advisement of his lawyers, pleading the fifth, this hope soon fizzled. I couldn’t help thinking it a bit ironic that my fate, in part, depended on the person I’d quite accidentally exposed while simply trying to do my job. To have all this attention suddenly on a person who’d played only a minor role in the story of someone whose life I’d been chronicling for so long was a strange and unexpected reversal. I’d never even really believed that Helen would find him. I wasn’t sure that she’d give up and return to Jack, per se, but I thought it highly likely that she distract herself along the way, and find a new adventure to pursue.
Asseem had never been the point.
In any case, I hoped that, wherever Helen was, she was seeing what had become of the guy. The way I saw it, whatever anyone thought about her decision to run away with Jack, at least she hadn’t ultimately been taken in by Asseem. That he himself was a pawn in all this was no doubt true—I couldn’t help note that his former boss, Mr. Stiles, was nowhere mentioned in the press—but what even I had initially mistaken for a keen intelligence had quite early on revealed itself as nothing more than charisma and opportunism, so I didn’t feel too bad to watch him take the fall.
That the Professor had been mixed up in it all was still the source of pain, frustration, and a great degree of sadness, but he was still missing, along with Busy, Blain and Helen’s parents, so there was no place for me to put my emotions and I just tried my best to bury them, to focus on cooperating with an investigation for which I was no longer in any way responsible. I was out of my league, and I was every day reminded of it. In this context, what had seemed most important to me for as long as I could remember amounted to little more than a few scattered details in a picture of corruption whose dimensions dwarfed my understanding.
But the odd thing was that I didn’t care. The world could have been falling apart and I would have felt the same way. I wanted to find Helen. I worried about her and I missed her. To have had her torn from my hands like that, from my eye, wasn’t easy. I felt violated somehow, as though she’d been scooped out of me, leaving me hollow. This was absurd, of course. She was no more part of me than I am of you. But it was as if the time I’d put into recording her story were time away from creating my own, and her loss meant I had to look right into that absence and come to terms with a life I’d all but left to the automatic mechanisms of living. I had no hobbies, no interests. What had I done “before?” I couldn’t even remember.
Since I’d been taken off active duty the week before, I’d been wandering the streets of Zara’s old neighborhood. Everything in the old neighborhood was changed but the names of streets. The remaining houses gave chase to the condominiums in their midst, rising into the air, story after story, until, like good books, they came to a point. The manicured hedges and grass shone under the mid-day sun, looking almost fake. Children played in the streets, looking almost safe. I made a few passes by the house Helen’s parents had still lived in until a year ago, and it was almost unrecognizable: its lawn was a lawn, and what had been the first and only floor now supported four above it. It didn’t seem happy.
I certainly wouldn’t be.
I certainly wasn’t.
Still, the walks made me feel useful. All I did was wander and look long and hard at a city I’d spent most of my time seeing on screens from a dark little room, but it was better than staying at home. I had no friends to speak of. No family. I’m not ashamed to admit that in my lonelier moments I missed even the most superficial interactions I took for granted at the office, and of course I felt naked without the particular privileges my job had made possible. Frankly, after so many years on the other side of the screen, being a citizen seemed to be nothing more than a series of small frustrations accompanied by an acute sense of longing.
Failing myself, I turned again to Helen. For some reason, my sheer denial, I felt certain that she was still alive. I tried to picture where she could be, tried to see through her eyes as I’d done for so long. I watched Helen’s footage over and over; I reviewed and re-reviewed my notes on Zara; I consulted my dreams. I did everything by the book. But each time the story I managed to design seemed to generate just as many questions as it did answers. Each time holes formed conspiracies of their own, and created a shadow tapestry that shed its dark shadows across the surface of my assembling story line, and revealed things I couldn’t account for. When left to my own exercises, all I could picture were the scenes she’d seen last, the familiar ones of her childhood house, and recurring images of her subsequent suburban oasis.
Perhaps it was this line of thought, coupled by the strange distrust I’d always felt about good weather, that got me thinking about Jack. I’d never trusted Jack. As it was not my place to judge while acting in the capacity of Citizen Surveillant, I’d always kept my feelings to myself, and had simply watched as Helen got swept up in his cunning form of male buffoonery. Now, however, I found a change taking place in that perspective. A certain feeling of freedom. I found myself thinking not altogether nonjudgmental thoughts about the man. And his idiotic WeatherLess™ Reports. He’d been so preoccupied with his work, after all, that he’d let Helen slip right between his fingers. If he’d paid slightly more attention, that night, as she charged from the bedroom toward the front door, fumbling with her keys, she might never have gotten mixed up in whatever pernicious plans ultimately eclipsed her from view altogether. It was not difficult to rile myself up, I discovered, about this man. Yet at the same time, I realized that I might have in Jack something I seemed to share with no one else at that moment, and this was why I decided that I’d pay him a little visit.
I knew at the time my actions would be frowned upon, that they could even worsen my case, but I was desperate. All my leads, my information, had evaporated in front of my eyes. Nothing had been as it seemed, and I’d been wronged. It occurred to me that I might be able to reach out to the only other person who felt the same way. Someone who, like myself, had been left behind. I didn’t expect this to be a mission of reconnaissance, really. This was personal. As little as I wanted to admit it, I had more in common with Jack at that moment than with anyone else.
It was a day as unusual for its clear, sunny brightness as it was for its unnatural consistency; there had been no climatic variation in hours. A small number of white, unthreatening clouds roamed the sky at a leisurely pace casting small, soft shadows here and there over the unsettlingly still Seattle hills. There was no wind. There was no fog. There were no droughts or floods. It was the sort of weather that lured people out from the safety of their homes and smudged fake smiles across their faces. It was the sort of weather that made Jack’s job easy.
I hadn’t driven out of town in years, and it took much longer this time, not only because of the increased traffic, but because the city had simply grown. “Downtown” now engulfed areas I remember as being relatively free from the hard architecture of urban sprawl, and each subsequent city increment itself extended out farther and farther into the once unhurried orchards and plains for which Washington had long since ceased to be known. It was abrupt, it was extreme, and it was all happening right before my eyes. In fact, during some of the slower stretches—traffic backed up due to road work or accidents or accidental road work—I had the distinct impression that I was in some kind of race with the city limits. I’d slow down only to see the buildings to either side taking advantage of my slow motion and adding new layers and levels until the area resembled what I’d passed by miles before. It was as though the city mocked my attempt to escape it. Still, I drove on, and eventually the traffic thinned, the buildings shrank, and the crime rates fell to a few teenage school-skippers and a drunken brawl.
Fortunately evening was dawning, and with it the weather was finally returning to a normal state. Winds began to work at my car, forcing its suspension to counter to keep the vehicle steady, and various types of precipitation began to punish its dent resistant shell. Nothing too erratic at first, but it was reassuring, and by the time I got to Helen’s old Neighborhood™ it was good and crazy. I pulled up to the tall iron gates, and the Neighborhood™ security system communicated with me through my car. I was asked who I was visiting. I was asked to provide a finger print. Amazingly, I was let in. I don’t know what I’d expected, exactly, but I hadn’t thought it would be so easy. I was under investigation, after all. The gates swung slowly open and my vehicle lurched forward; apparently they’d let me in, but they wouldn’t let me drive. My car moved at a steady five miles per hour down the curving, well lit streets, breaking at each speed bump, and pausing before each turn. It was a very courteous system. When I was turned onto the street where Jack lived my heart began to beat a bit faster, and I realized I was slightly nervous. I didn’t have anything to fear from this man, of course, but the prospect of speaking face to face with a man who didn’t know me from Adam but whose every intimate moment I’d watched made me feel something approximating dread. Was it too real? Oddly, it didn’t feel real at all. I looked through the windshield as I approached Jack’s house, and it was exactly as I’d seen it countless times before, only somehow less substantial. It was smaller than it looked on screen. Cheaper. Like a set of itself.
When my car stopped I was told I had ninety seconds to get to Jack’s front door before the security system would alert the police of an entry on false premises, so I quickly walked up to the house and announced myself. After a few moments of silence I leaned in closer to the door and heard some soft knocking around, and scrambling. He was undoubtedly home. I waited. It was beginning to get dark. The wind licked my hair and my feet were sweating, and I could see a slow snow storm roaming around a couple blocks away. I leaned forward, thinking I’d try an actual knock, but before my knuckles touched the outside door, the inner one opened.