Discover more from Gary Paul Varner
THE TEMPLE OF MAGGIE STONE
Chapter 4: Dinner
The aroma of her kitchen reminded Maggie of a symphony. The competing flavors melded together to form a perfect harmony like a classic opera. It was an appropriate metaphor considering Ray had Mozart playing in the background as he sat at the table, reading a newspaper. Their house was small, but the kitchen was, at least, large enough to hold a family get-together on Sundays. Today happened to be Sunday, so there was a marvelous symmetry in that as well. Both Ashley and Robert opened the screen door around seven, holding each other with tears in their eyes, no doubt expecting to hear that their mother had passed away.
Maggie had been able to keep her nerves at bay while she’d been cooking, but when her two children walked through the door and she heard their soft sniffles and condolences, the nerves finally won the battle. She bowed her head and cried silently to herself as she mindlessly stirred a pot of boiling water. They were playing with their children’s emotions, and if they weren’t convinced that she was really their mother, all their anger would fall on Ray who loved his children more than life. Maggie turned for a moment and stole a look at the photo album sitting on the dark wooden table across from Ray and instantly regretted laying it out. The book would only serve as a validation of their suspicions. It would have been better to have taken it out later after they started asking questions, too late now.
Her eyes moved to Ray who looked up from the newspaper and smiled. He even risked a wink. This didn’t help her nerves, but she did her best to smile back and turned her attention to the homemade mac and cheese. It was the last item. She continued to stir the boiling water as her two kids entered the kitchen to greet their father.
“Hey, Dad,” Ashley said, fighting back tears. She sounded much older than she should have. Even though her daughter was in her fifties, she sounded almost as old as Maggie before the events of the last twenty-four hours; hearing that age and pain in her daughter’s voice hurt somewhere deep. She kept stirring the water.
She heard her daughter kiss the old man on his bald head, then Ray patted her arm and said hello.
“How are you holding up?” Robert asked. Maggie heard her son’s coat land on the rocking chair at the far end of the kitchen. It creaked several times as it rocked slowly back and forth. Robert was the eldest, fifty-five last March, but he moved and acted like a man in his twenties, and even sported a thin, spotty beard like a twenty-year old trying to convince himself he’d finally become a man. It must have worked because nobody was able to guess his true age. Too bad he’d never applied that spry energy to his dating life. She listened to his dress shoes hitting the white linoleum floor.
“I’m holding up well,” Ray said. Maggie could hear his smile. “I’m doing good actually, more than good.” Maggie knew this was only half-true. He was happy to have his wife back, no question, but the worry had yet to leave his expression. The car ride home had been an awkward one. Ray might’ve been ninety-one, but he was still as alert as ever and drove their rental like he was twenty. Maggie had tried several times to challenge his decision not to have the operation. She wished she could put his old brain in her new body just for a moment, so he could remember the joy of youth. He’d be able to appreciate it like she appreciated it now. He’d remember what it was like and realize how much he missed it, was starved for it. But Ray had raised his hand and refused to talk about it. When they were in the grocery store buying the various items needed for the dinner, she had tried to walk briskly in front of him. She had even dropped various items on the floor just so she could show how easy it was to pick them up. She did everything she could think of to show off the new body, but the whole thing was painfully obvious to Ray, and after a while, he told her to stop trying so hard. She’d stopped trying as hard, but that was it.
There was silence in the kitchen, and Maggie could almost see her two children exchanging confused glances just as they’d done ever since they were toddlers.
“Who’s she?” Ashley asked. Maggie almost turned around but thought better of it.
“We’ll get to her in a minute,” Ray said absently. “Come, sit down. Dinner is almost ready.”
Maggie listened to the two children sit. She studied the macaroni. She didn’t remember pouring the noodles into the pot of boiling water, but she must have done so because the noodles were finished. She drained the water, grabbed the cheese and began mixing it with the noodles. As she stirred the dish, Maggie glanced over her shoulder and saw Ashley grab the photo album off the table. Maggie watched her daughter fight the urge to cry.
“You were reminiscing?” she asked.
“We both were,” Ray said, still regarding his paper.
Maggie turned back around just as Robert looked up at her. “What, you mean? You mean, you and her?”
Maggie didn’t hear Ray say anything, but she imagined him nodding, never removing his eyes from the newspaper. The cheese had melted. It was time to turn around.
“I told you, we’ll get to her in a minute. Be patient,” Ray said. He said these last two words the same way he would when the kids were excited over some present on their birthdays or Christmas.
“This is it,” Maggie said, turning around, trying to sound as much like her old self as possible, but failing. She sounded like a young girl in her twenties. There was no way around it. Still, Robert and Ashley regarded her. Maggie thought she saw a hint of recognition in their eyes. They both looked away. Ashley started flipping through the photo album again, and Robert began watching his father. She sat the macaroni and cheese on the brown, oak table. Then she brought the other dishes over one by one. Each item was a personal favorite of her children. Lastly, she brought over her casserole, the one that only she could make…supposedly.
Ashley hardly noticed. Tears ran down her daughter’s cheeks, as she stared at the pictures. Ashley seemed to have no idea she was crying.
Robert picked up his knife and fork as if sliding into an old routine. He stopped and looked at the various dishes prepared for them. “Um,” he stuttered. He looked up at Maggie, confused. Maggie wanted nothing more than to scream that it was her. That she loved him more than anything, and it looked like she would be around to see him get married and have children after all, but by some miracle, she was able to keep quiet and even managed a sheepish smile. Robert looked over at his father then back at Maggie. “These are all things mom used to make. Hell, there our favorites, and even this casserole…” he trailed off. A single tear ran down his cheek. “Dad, is mom…gone?”
“No,” Ray said. “Not yet. Not for a while.” His eyes did not lift from the paper.
“Then what’s with the dinner?” Robert asked.
“This young lady worked very hard preparing this meal. She made it just the way you like it. She did all of this for you, so show some gratitude. Shut up and eat it.”
It wasn’t just a normal rebuke. Ray had said those words to Robert almost every day when he was between the ages of six and ten, during his refusal to eat vegetables phase. The words had become a catch phrase in their home. Robert stared stupidly at his dad, mouth open. Ashley looked up from the photo album, but Ray refused to acknowledge her. Maggie could see a crooked grin on his lips. He was enjoying this.
“Dad, what’s going on?” Ashley asked.
“Your mother is fine,” Ray said from behind his paper wall. “Enjoy your meal.”
Robert looked from Ray to Maggie. “You can sit down,” he said curtly. Maggie sat down in the chair across from Ray just as she’d done for the last sixty plus years. Robert cut a large piece of casserole and sat it on his plate. Next, he scooped out a large spoonful of the macaroni and the potatoes. Ashley began serving herself as well. No one spoke. Ray continued to read his paper.
When their plates were full, Ashley asked, “Aren’t you going to eat, Dad?”
“I already know what it tastes like,” Ray said.
“Well, aren’t you going to pray?” Robert asked. “Since that’s a thing you do now.”
“I’ve already prayed,” Ray said. “I’ve done a lot of praying. I think I’ve asked God for enough…at least, for a while.”
“Okay, play your little game,” Ashley said. She and Robert took their firsts bites at the same time. They looked at each other, then took another bite from a different item. Then they took a third bite, and both of them stared at Maggie. Maggie looked down and started twirling her hair between her fingers. It was a nervous habit she’d had ever since she was eleven. When she glanced back up at them, they looked horrified.
“I don’t hear chomping and munching,” Ray said, again mimicking the rebukes he used to give them when they were kids. “Is there something wrong with the food? You’ve had it the same way for years.”
“Ray,” Maggie snapped.
Ashley sprang from her chair. “Okay, enough!” she shouted at her father. “What’s going on? What is this?”
Ray slowly lowered his paper and stared at his daughter. “What do you think?”
“I…No, don’t start asking me questions. Just tell me. I’m too tired to play with you. Just say it.”
“If I say it, you won’t believe me,” Ray said. “I’m sorry, but that’s truth. I need you to figure it out on your own, both of you.”
Ashley stared at Maggie, as did Robert. Neither spoke for a long time. It was Ashley who ventured the first guess. “During your affair twenty years ago, the other woman must have gotten pregnant. This is your daughter.”
“Is there any part of her that reminds you of me?” Ray asked.
Ashley again stared at Maggie. Maggie waited, breathless. Her daughter’s face grew pale. “No,” she said. “Is she…mom’s daughter?” Ray shook his head. “I…I don’t know, Dad.”
“Robert?” Ray asked.
Robert was silent. He was thinking, really trying to puzzle it out rather than throwing an angry guess. “Dad, you’ve spent every day with Mom ever since she was moved to the hospital. Now, you’re here, and visiting hours don’t end till nine. Yet, you say that Mom is alive. When you say alive, you mean, literally alive, right?” Ray nodded, happy to see his son truly engaging. “So, is it safe to ask whether or not she’s been moved someplace? That’s the only reason I can imagine you’d be here. And if you’re here…that would mean…” Robert sprang from his chair as well. He turned to run into the living room.
“That won’t be necessary. She’s not hiding,” Ray said. Robert ran out of the kitchen anyway.
“Is she here?” Ashley asked.
Ray looked at Maggie, and without thinking, Maggie took the photo album from the table. “Ash, please listen,” Maggie said, throwing the photo album open. She pointed to the first photo, a picture of her, Ray and the two kids at the beach. They all sat, building a sandcastle, the quintessential family vacation. Maggie began to recall the events of that day, every single detail she could remember. Then she moved on to the next photo then the next. Maggie had made it through six pictures when Ashley threw up her hands.
“NO!” she screamed. She turned to leave the kitchen.
“Ashley,” Ray said. “It was the same tone he used during her formidable teenage years when every night was a fight.
Ashley turned around and looked at her father, the tears dripping from her chin. Maggie, almost without realizing it, began telling the story of the play the two children had been in when they were kids. Robert returned to the kitchen as she spoke, the color draining from his face. “It was a play about Robin Hood. You were the nurse, and your brother was Prince John. It didn’t go very well. Your brother kept forgetting his lines, and you tripped on your dress and fell on the kid who was playing the sheriff. Then he bumped into a pillar and knocked the whole set down.” She smiled a little as she recalled the memory. “You and your brother were so humiliated, and you made me swear to not tell your father. We told him the play went fine and that the two of you were the best actors in the whole show. We never told him the truth.”
Ashley looked horrified, sickened, and worst of all, angry. She looked accusingly at her father. “Why are you doing this?” she said. She began wailing, burying her face in her hands.
“I think the better question is how could I have done it,” Ray said. Ashley looked up. Ray went on. “I don’t drive much these days,” he reminded her. “Today, was the first day I’ve drove in a long time. Before then, you dropped me off at the hospital of the morning and brought me back here late at night. Tell me, when would I have had the time to hire a young woman, teach her how to cook your mother’s recipes, something I can’t do myself, and have her memorize every memory from the photo album and tell her to recite a story that I didn’t know myself? I’m sorry the play didn’t go well by the way.” He smiled gently at his daughter. “That doesn’t seem likely, does it?”
Maggie looked at Ray. “You haven’t been driving? But you did such a good job today.”
Ray shrugged. “I was showing off.”
Something about this interaction disturbed the children even more. “No,” Robert muttered.
“Then explain to me how I could have taught a young woman of twenty-five or so every nuance and facial expression your mother uses. Look at the worry in her eyes. Does that look like anyone else you know, besides your mother?”
“No,” Ashley whispered.
“How is this possible?” Robert asked.
“Look into her eyes,” Ray said.
“I see the worry,” Ashley snapped.
“No, literally look into her eyes,” Ray snapped back.
Both Ashley and Robert approached Maggie slowly. They stared into their mother’s eyes. Ray said nothing.
“They’re green!” Ashley shouted. “Not hazel, but like…emeralds!”
“She’s not wearing contacts,” Ray said. “Those are her real eyes.”
“Mom?” Ashley asked.
“Yes!” She embraced her daughter and was thrilled and overwhelmed when her daughter hugged her back. “Yes! Yes! Yes! It’s me, Dear! Yes!”
Robert looked at his father. Ray shrugged. “The government “offered” to give your mother some kind of experimental body. Then they drugged us and took us to a facility downtown. A doctor met us there and said there’d been some screw up, but she convinced your mother to go through the operation anyway and it worked. Afterward, they took us back to the hospital, and we drove home in a rental, but you can be sure we haven’t seen the last of them. They want to observe her for the next year to make sure there are no adverse side effects.”
“What happens after a year,” Ashley asked, letting go of Maggie and stepping back to collect herself.
“Well, they said they planned to go public with these bodies. They want to sell them. But, I suppose, it doesn’t matter. Your mother is going to be with us a while longer. Probably, a long time after I’m gone which is why we decided to tell you.”
“Did they not offer you one of these bodies?” Robert asked. Maggie didn’t like his tone.
Ray either didn’t notice or chose to ignore it. He shook his head. “I have my reasons, but no, I don’t intend to have the operation myself.”
“I’ll wear him down,” Maggie said, trying to make it sound like a joke. “We have time.”
“How do you know it’s really Mom in there?” Robert asked.
“Talk to her yourself, Robert,” Ray said. “She may not look like a duck, but she talks and quacks like one.” He smiled at her. Maggie smiled back at him. Humor was never his strong suit. The old man meant well.
“So, what about her old…you know…the old her?” Ashley asked.
“That’s another reason we decided to tell you,” Ray said. “We told the fellas at the lab that we’re going to talk with our children before we make any plans, but there’s really only one thing that can happen.”
“We’ve got to have the funeral,” Ashley said.
Ray nodded. “We have to act as if your mother really died. Your mother and I will call the lab tonight, and by tomorrow, she will be pronounced dead. The two of you will have to make preparations, receive the items left to you in her will and so on. Also, whether you like it or not, you’ll have to start spending more time with your mother. Neither one of us knows anything about the modern world. I got my first smart phone when Maggie was diagnosed with cancer, but we don’t have a computer, and our eyes glaze over when you mention Facebook or anything like that. You Mom is going to have to live in this world, so she needs to understand it.”
Maggie looked at her two children, and was relieved to see Ashley nodding; however, Robert stood with his arms crossed, glaring, first at her then at his father. She didn’t like his look at all. He didn’t just seem angry or skeptical. He seemed cold. “Rob,” she said. “If you don’t believe us, you can say so.”
Robert scratched his thin, untrimmed, beard. He looked more like his father in that moment than at any other time Maggie could remember. “I believe something happened. Those eyes are unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and now that I look at her skin, it’s not normal either. You have to look closely, sure, but something’s off. However, I don’t believe Mom is really in there.” His eyes refused to meet Maggie’s. “Dad, I understand why you’d want to believe Mom is in that thing, and maybe in a certain sense, she is. Maybe, that thing has her memories, her mannerisms, her personality, but the real Mom is gone.”
“Son…” Ray began.
“I believe the government killed my mom.” He turned and marched out of the house, slamming the screen door behind him. The three who remained listened to him peel out in the driveway.