“So, Mathew’s dead. Where the hell does that leave us?” Brina James glanced toward the house. Ivy-covered lattice blanketed one side of the two-story stone lodge that sat tucked among the protective limbs of hundred-year-old oaks. Wind raced around the edges as the thermals from the valley below drafted upward. Brina rubbed her cold-stiff hands.
A dull green National Park Service Jeep barreled out of the drive, popping gravel out from under its tires like gunshots. She listened for the sound to switch to a low murmur against the paved road below, leaving her amid silence and the smell of crushed leaves.
She had directed her question to four-year-old Roman. Roman didn’t answer. His miniature hand clung to her pocket, where she’d hidden his chewing gum. In his usual quiet way, he shrugged and turned his face to hers, eyes questioning. That morning, she’d rolled his jeans up twice over his sneakers, but she had given up tucking in the long hem of his T-shirt. It dipped to his knees, the shoulder seams brushing his elbows. He ran the back of his hand over his nose, ignoring the goose bumps that had raised the hair on his arms.
“You wouldn’t know what comes next, would you?” she asked, combing her fingers through his brown hair. His gaze focused on hers for a moment before he abandoned his search, ran to the porch, and began scratching mutated stick figures onto the house’s frosted windowpanes.
She shuffled her new information into place, coming to the realization that Mathew’s death catapulted them to a new level of danger, and at the center of the mess stood Roman. The three-foot prodigy turned his attention to the withered leaves scattered on the steps. He pulverized the dead leafy shells and scraped them into a bare flowerbed with his foot.
Roman’s window art graced the now-late Mathew Roman’s house, a retreat folded between two peaks of theBlue Ridge Parkway. Brina crossed her arms. At least she wasn’t the only one who would have to deal with the upcoming fallout; there was still Russ and Edward.
What would be their reaction: sadness, fear, anger? She knew she should feel something. That was normal, right? Mathew had been a difficult person to like, but she owed him some thanks for giving her a job. Brina couldn’t place a name to what she felt.
This job had pulled her from the abject blankness that was her life. Losing your only child and husband stripped the ability to feel anything else as deeply. Taking care of Roman opened her eyes after what had felt like a long, dark sleep.
She’d worked for Mathew for six months. The job interview was short. Looking back, she wasn’t sure she could recall the exact words. Did it matter? Days ran through her memory as capsules of images and feelings: a child unaware of the world, unable to communicate, unable to comprehend what he was. A scientific creation ordered up by Mathew.
In truth, Mathew Roman probably deserved whatever had happened to him. He had created Roman not because he wanted a child, but to cater to a desire for a black-market commodity.
The walking, talking contraband wiped his hands on his pants, then pulled his shirt up to wipe his face. Every gene in his body was banned; who knew when his birth could be discussed without legal indictments. She thought gene tampering was wrong from the start, but her professional detachment had evaporated five minutes into the job. She was the only friend Roman had, and every now and then, he just needed to be a kid.
“Come on, Roman, let’s go in.” She tried to shake off the dread and pushed open the door. Roman scooted through, arms crossed to let her know going inside was not his first choice of activities. Her hand on his shoulder kept him from changing his mind.
Kneeling, she waved a hand to catch his attention, signed “Wait for me,” and pointed toward the kitchen. Her fingers cut the words through the air between them. “I’ll be there soon to make you a sandwich.” She finished with a thumbs up and a reassuring smile.
Roman nodded and drifted down the hallway like a moth, fingers lightly touching one wall before he bounced to the other.
He was sedated most of his early life—the time when children learned to walk, talk and play—and there was no forecast to say how long it would take him to catch up. He could barely function, even in this controlled environment.
Brina turned, crossed the foyer and descended a flight of stone slab steps to the wine cellar Mathew had converted to a lab. The house was full of surprises.
The domestic conversion happened long before she’d arrived. Mathew and Edward had shut down their research efforts inAtlantaafter a Christian fundamentalist group had spotlighted Mathew’s pharmaceutical company. The remote location cooled investigations while they cleaned up his legitimate business. Out of sight and out of mind worked.
Edward Carnes sat facing away from her at his desk, his flesh pressing at the chair’s black mesh, while he focused his concentration on a stack of papers. He glanced between them and the email on his computer screen, frowning. His pudgy fingers typed a reply.
Russ Mitchell stood in the back of the room, marking through a list of items on a clipboard. He looked up, then went back to work. A set of master keys for the house dangled in the lock of a supply cabinet, clanking on the metal door as he counted and marked off needles, pills, and odd medical gear stacked on the gray shelves. His coffee rested on top of a file cabinet, but most of it appeared to be on his lab coat, which was draped across a chair to pollute the room with its over-sweetened scent.
“Where’s Roman?” he asked.
“In the kitchen.” Brina slid onto a stool by his desk. “We have a problem.”
Edward glanced at her and then back at his work, ignoring them both. It was her job to take care of Roman’s problems, and it was Russ’ job to take care of hers.
“So what’s with Roman this time?” asked Russ, half-interested. He flipped the paper over and began working the next shelf. His knees cracked as he hunched down.
“It’s Mathew this time.” She said it plainly, and it was enough to get their attention.
Edward sighed and swiveled his chair to face her. “What’s the problem?”
In the time it took for her to come down the stairs, she’d decided that Mathew didn’t deserve sentimentality. She decided the emotion she felt most was ever-present tension.
“The guy at the door was a park ranger. He found Mathew’s car off the road. He’s dead.”
“A park ranger?” Edward repeated, as though he didn’t quite believe her. He frowned, not looking at either her or Russ.
Russ put his clipboard down with a slap. “When?” he asked.
“TheLincolnwas found an hour ago, about five miles down the service road.” The whirring of the computer fans crowded the silence while she waited for Edward and Russ to comment.
“Why would he be there instead of the parkway?” Russ finally asked. The service road ran from Mathew’s property to a state road below. During the winter, when the parkway was closed, it was the only way back to civilization, but for now, the parkway was still open.
“I’d like to know just exactly what the park ranger found,” said Edward.
Brina was more concerned about Roman and where this left him.
“Did he show you any ID?” Edward’s expression was his standard: remote, unreadable, unnerving.
“Of course; he had a badge. He was also driving a park service Jeep. He didn’t have any information, so he said he’d come back later. I guess he thought we were the next of kin. He really didn’t ask much about who I was.”
She returned Edward’s stare. “I didn’t volunteer anything, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Edward’s stare continued. “Do you think Mathew had something with him . . . something about Roman?”
Edward rocked back in his chair, looking around the lab and then at the stack of papers on his desk. Finally, he answered, “Someone will be back.”
Russ paced, his thoughts refelected on his face as he connected Mathew to Roman to the police and back to them. “What’s the law here?” he asked. “Can they make us leave since we’re not related?”
“Probably, but Mathew doesn’t have any family that I know of, so who else would they contact? We’re residents here, so that gives us some rights . . .” Edward’s voice was low and trailing as he thought aloud to himself. “We can’t afford to have anyone asking questions.”
Brina tucked her hands between her knees and leaned forward. “Can we omit some of the facts and disappear?”
“It’ll look strange if we just leave,” Russ answered. “I take it the park ranger got a good look at Roman?”
She nodded, wondering why she hadn’t thought to keep him inside.
“Then he’ll expect the two of you to still be here when he gets back. Edward?” Russ sat on the edge of his desk and gestured his hand about the room. “There’s a lot of information in here—or evidence, depending on how you look at it.” His shoulders pulled inward as he crossed his arms.
Edward surveyed Roman’s life, piled in the multicolored files around him. Blue-gray molded steel equipment lined the shelves corralling their desks. “We’ll have to make sure no one finds it.”
Brina blinked, thinking the same thing she saw in Russ’ expression. He pitched an eyebrow and left to her to speak.
“How do you hide all this?” she said. “The house is huge, but this amount of paper and hardware would be noticeable no matter where you put it.”
Edward’s reply was quick. “The lab seals from the hallway without a trace, but, to be safe, the more sensitive stuff should be moved elsewhere.”
Brina watched a thought cross his expression like a cloud scuttling ahead of a storm. But, instead of saying what was on his mind, Edward clamped his lips shut and rubbed a hand over his eyes.
“How long does this go on?” she asked.
“Long enough to settle whatever it is this park ranger wants from us,” he replied.
Russ tapped a pen on his desk, staring off at the wall. “So that’s your answer? This is the backup plan you came up with?”
“Unless you have a better plan?” snapped Edward.
Russ stood, letting the pen drop loudly to the desk. With a screech of metal on tile, Brina pushed her stool under the counter.
“One of us should call his lawyer.” Russ glared at the floor with his head down.
Edward finally said, “I’ll make the call.”
Roman was waiting for her in the kitchen, right where he should be. It was nice to know at least one person in the house behaved exactly as expected. Coloring books covered the table surface, shoes were ditched under the chair. Roman held an orange crayon in a clawed fist and made jabbing attacks on the paper. The wax crumbs clung to his pale hands.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
He looked up, letting his crayon roll to the edge of the table where it dropped to the floor. He picked another from the box and turned the page. Humming singsong under his breath, he changed drawing styles, choosing to loop spiraling circles over the new page. He gave no other indication that he understood her.
As Mathew, Edward, and Russ had explained it, Roman was better than perfect. He was a perfected copy of Mathew. At first, their reasons for creating Roman had sounded altruistic. Their goal, as they told it, was to cure diseases before they even developed—at the gene pair inherited from the parents. It took her a few weeks to realize that Mathew was the sole reason Roman existed. Mathew was obsessed. She wondered at what point in Mathew’s life he decided that having more of himself was a good idea.
She sliced Roman’s sandwich into four squares and set it on the table with a glass of milk.
“Put your things away. It’s time to eat.”
He paused, taking in the sandwich, glass, and coloring book. Comprehension washed over his face, and he slid the book away until his fingertips could only brush the edges.
Brina smiled and planted a kiss on his forehead. He was learning. “Enjoy.” Roman bit into the soft gooeyness and gave her a smile to show he liked it.
She closed his books and began sliding the crayons back into their box. Russ would be helping Edward, but she wasn’t sure what she needed to do. It wasn’t as if she could teach Roman to behave like a normal four-year-old by the end of the day. If the park ranger asked what Roman’s problem was, she’d better have an answer.
Roman smiled at her, his dimples painted with lines of peanut butter.
“Since Edward is closing the lab, I’ll get your things moved to a bedroom.” Roman normally slept in the lab’s alcove, sedated and monitored. She didn’t like it, but Edward insisted it was for his safety. She thought perhaps it was something more. He was fanatical about Roman’s access to the house.
That was only one of the things she and Edward butted heads on. No matter how many times they argued, she couldn’t convince him that Roman was just a child, not a science experiment gone awry.
She stacked three new picture books on the table and waited for him to finish. Roman munched through his food, working along the crusts before moving in on the peanut butter center. Jelly squished out the bottom, which he licked, tucking the larger blobs back into the sandwich.
“Roman.” She tapped the table and waited until she had eye contact. “Stay here and look at your books. I won’t be long.” She slid him a paper towel and then crept out while he was busy lining the books up in front of his plate.
Roman’s alcove contained a bed, which was little more than a cot mattress on a gurney, and a portable rack. Someone had already stripped the equipment from the rack and cleared the shelf that usually held his medication. Tucked under the sheet was the stuffed yellow dog that she gave to him the first week she was here. Even with his senses dulled from deprivation, Roman had intuitively explored the plastic eyes and nose, running his hands through the synthetic fur coat.
She dropped the toy into a plastic bag and grabbed his clothes from the top of the rack. She looked around, realizing that his entire existence fit inside a single grocery bag. The dog stared out at her from the crinkled folds; she pulled it out and rubbed a fingertip over the hard, bumpy nose.
“It’s just wrong,” she whispered, and pictured every night she had tucked the toy under Roman’s anxious arm.
“What’s just wrong?” She turned to find Russ standing behind her elbow, his usual college boy appearance marred by dust that layered his shirt. His hands were smeared with sweat and dirt. She looked away.
“Roman. He’s the one who gets hurt. We all have lives we can blend back into. What’s going to happen to him?”
“You can’t let yourself get attached,” Russ said, sagging against the doorframe. His shoulders blocked her view of the rest of the lab. “You were told that in the beginning.”
“Why, because he started out differently than we did?” Her voice sounded weak. “He needs the same things we need. He’s just a little boy.”
“We’ve gone over this before.” Russ took the dog from her hand and crammed it into the bag. “Mathew and Edward had plans for Roman, and that doesn’t change just because Mathew is dead.”
“Plans? Did they have one in case one of us ended up dead?” She pushed past him, trying to regain a casual tone. “Has Edward ever told you what happens a year from now? Five years? What if the genetics ban isn’t overturned? Roman will always be at risk. Someone will always be looking into Mathew Roman’s business because that’s the kind of man he was.”
“I don’t know what they planned, and it’s not our business.” Russ took her by the shoulders, forcing her to look him in the face. “I wish I could tell you something that would make you not worry, but that’s not the reality that we’re dealing with here. You knew what kind of man Mathew was before you got here. He didn’t suddenly become a model citizen because he had a kid. Roman never meant anything more to him than a future bankroll.”
Brina felt an itch at the back of her throat and took a breath to ward off the tears she knew were coming. She broke Russ’s grip and stepped back. “Are you as professionally removed as you sound?”
He looked stunned. “Before you question my morals, or anyone else’s, question your own. You’re in the middle of this, too.”
“I have questioned my morals. That’s why I’m still here—to take care of Roman.”
He turned and walked out of the alcove, pulling an armload of files from the cabinet and dumping them into a box.
“I just came down to get this stuff. Edward wants it in the attic.”
His motion had a familiar ease, as though this was any other task on any other day since they had been here. She followed Russ around the room, stepping in and out of his way as he filled another box. “Why did you take the job?”
Russ stopped with the files and scratched a knuckle across the underside of his chin. He spoke without looking at her. “Same reason anyone takes a job: I need money.”
“You could have done a lot of things.”
“So could we all,” he snapped. He dropped the box on the counter, stared down a beat, then turned to face Brina. “Listen, it’s not too late for you to get out.” His tone softened. “I could talk to Edward—you haven’t been here that long, maybe he’ll agree to let you out of this. We can come up with a lie for the park ranger as to why you’re not here.”
“I can’t leave Roman.”
Russ sighed. “The game has changed, Brina. I didn’t see this coming, and I sure as hell know Mathew didn’t. If you want to ride it out, just know what you’re getting into.”
“How serious would it be if the world knew about Roman?”
“For you and me?” Russ thought for a moment. “Edward has a way of disappearing when he needs to. Us—we’d take the fall for all of it.”
“The doorway out of here is getting smaller by the minute,” she said. “It doesn’t leave us many options.”
“Just do whatever Edward wants, and you and I will be okay.” Russ clumped up the stairs, leaving the question about Roman still hanging.