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Authors: Walter Greatshell

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BOOK: Mad Skills
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She felt strong enough to stand, but they didn’t let her: An orderly wheeled her to the curb and helped her parents load her in the car.
God, the car,
Maddy thought, looking at the old Suburban. This piston-engined monstrosity with its American flag and Support the Troops sticker—were they all insane? When she was belted in, her parents just sat there for a second. She realized that her mother was getting all worked up again.
“Let’s just go.”
“Oh, honey, it’s just such a
“I know, but can we go? Really—just go. Please!”
They drove. After a while, her dad said, “Boy, I bet it feels good to be out of there.”
“I guess. Yeah.”
“So what’s the first thing you want to do, now that you’re back among the living?”
“Go to Disneyland!”
“Daddy, I just want to go home. I feel so out of touch, like a stranger … but I think I’ll be fine if I can go home and decompress for a while. Reconnect. Go someplace familiar, surrounded by my own things. I want to lie on a bed and know it’s
bed. I want to wear my own clothes, clothes that smell like me, and walk in my own shoes. I want to hug Mr. Fuzzbutt until he squirms to get away. I want to feel the way I used to feel, like everything just feels
—the way it’s supposed to.”
“Of course you do, honey. That’s perfectly normal after being away for so long. Dr. Stevens said so.”
“But that’s what’s so weird. I don’t feel like I’ve been away for any time at all. It’s like it all happened to another person … but that her memories have somehow gotten mixed up with my own. I can’t really explain it.”
“Well, honey, Dr. Stevens said—”
“I know what she said! I
. That doesn’t make it any easier.”
Her mother said, “Honey, everything will be just the way it was, I promise. We’ve left your room exactly the way you left it. Because that’s the same thing we all want. It’s what we’ve been praying for all these months, and the reason you’re here talking to us now is because the Lord answered our prayers—and I’m sure He’s not finished yet. Just give it time, be patient. You’ll see.”
“I am. I’m trying.”
Maddy couldn’t bring herself to tell her folks that she also wanted
to be the same. To give up this stupid divorce baloney and get back to being the wonderful, omnipotent deities she had revisited in her dream, who used to laugh and dance and steal kisses in the garage. Who flirted in the kitchen and held hands across the dinner table. Most of all, who sheltered and protected
, making it possible for Maddy to trust, to hope, to live the worry-free life of a child. She needed that again.
But that was all years ago, before the fights started. Before her dad started staying away longer and longer, and finally moved out altogether. Before they sat her down one day after school and broke the terrible news to her, so that well before the accident, Maddy was already damaged, a shut-down shell of herself.
She couldn’t tell them she wanted to love them again. Trust them again the way she had in the dream. Like when they were big, and she was little. She wanted to let go of the monkey bars and let them catch her. But she couldn’t just yet … and wasn’t sure she ever would.
It was several hours getting back home, so Maddy had plenty of time to catch up on current events. Her parents talked nonstop, with the radio on, taking turns as though afraid to let loose the reins of their upbeat patter.
Had it always been like this? This terror of silence, of space? She made a great effort to act interested in Aunt Trudy’s gallbladder surgery and Grandpa Simon’s new wife (she was
!), but after a while she just had to tune it out, it was such a catalogue of trivia. Even the radio seemed unusually insipid—Maddy usually loved country music, but something was wrong with this stuff. Its mind-numbing banality depressed her. Much better to watch the country itself flow by. Nature was a relief.
Engrossed in the fractal patterns of the trees, she realized that her mother was asking her something.
“Hm? What, sorry?”
“I just asked you what you might want to do about food. It’s about time we took a little snack break, don’t you think?”
“Sure, yeah—whatever you guys want.”
“Do you have any preferences?”
“No, not really. Anything’s fine.”
They pulled up to a drive-thru and ordered. Faced with the familiar and yet oddly unappetizing choices, Maddy felt a brief twinge of anxiety, but then her subconscious kicked in and her vocal cords took over: “I’ll have the bacon cheeseburger, onion rings, and a large diet soda.” She realized as she automatically recited the words that this was not what she wanted at all but merely the same stuff she had always ordered in the past: “Maddy’s favorites.” But that was another Maddy—a stranger to her.
With this thought came an intense rush of panic, and it was all she could do to control it. She shuddered in the backseat, sweating furiously, and pressed her hands over her face until it passed. Fortunately, her folks were too busy paying, then checking the bags of food to really notice.
“Honey, are you okay? You’re white as a sheet.”
“I’m okay. Little carsick. I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Wait, let me help you—”
“No, that’s okay. Back in a sec.”
Maddy bolted from the car and made her way to the restroom. Her legs felt like rubber bands, and once inside, she collapsed against a toilet, dry-heaving her guts out. After a few minutes she climbed to her feet and tottered to the sink. Looking in the mirror, she thought,
Maybe I’m dying
Taking off her ski cap, she inspected the bandages on her head, peeling the edge back to see the stitches. Lovely.
Anne Frankenstein. Under the skin at the back of her scalp was a smoothly curved thing like a limpet, about three inches long, which she knew to be the implant. That was only the top part; the rest was sunk into her skull, with ultrafine metal roots branching deep inside her brain. Weird. At least the stubble meant that her hair was coming back—the doctors said that would soon cover everything.
With a shock, she suddenly realized that her braces had been removed! Wow. Then a lady with two kids came in, and Maddy pulled herself together, splashing water on her face. The kids gawped—
Mommy, look!
—and the mother shushed them up.
“It’s not cancer,” Maddy said, drying her face and putting her hat back on. “I’m just a freak of modern science.”
Her father was waiting outside the door.
“You okay?” he asked.
, Dad—jeez.”
“Well, you still look a little shaky. Your mother was worried. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”
“I’m not embarrassed. Everything’s just a little weird, that’s all.”
“Hey, it’s weird for us, too, you know.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Nothing for you to be sorry about, kid. Just don’t be afraid to tell us whatever we can do to make it easier for you. That’s why we’re here, okay?”
“Okay. Well, I don’t think I can eat this food.”
“That’s okay. No appetite?”
“No. Not really.”
What she hesitated to say was that everything about the place screamed bloody murder. Maddy was no vegetarian, she had eaten meat all her life without giving it a thought, but suddenly … suddenly she could
the whole process, reverse-engineered from Finish to Start. Every single thing she looked at seemed to bloom before her eyes, deconstructing, peeling back layer from layer to its fundamentals, all the pieces branching from a central truth—which, in the case of the fast-food franchise, was grim death. Institutional hell.
She could read it in the cheerfully generic architecture and packaging, in the equally generic (but less cheerful) employees and patrons. The jolly artifice was a disguise, the inviting red gloss on a poison mushroom. It was all a false front, and beneath that plastic façade of pleasant order was an appalling dungeon of suffering, filth, and darkness. It was not a restaurant but a machine, the shiny ass end of a cold, impersonal thresher that reduced living, feeling flesh to frozen cakes of slurry.
Of course, Maddy had always known that animals were killed for their meat, but the scale of the killing had been unimaginable and very remote. Now the horror was laid out right in front of her, the whole mechanism mapped out in her head like a mental PowerPoint presentation:
A burger disassembles as if by magic, its tepid gray patty flying into a heat sterilizer, then suddenly rock-hard into a freezer, where it slips into a stack of identical frozen disks, to be shipped backward by refrigerated truck to a factory, where it instantly thaws and joins a great vat of raw pulp—a combination of meat, chemical additives, and pathogen-rich fecal matter—that is sucked through a grinder and reconstitutes as red slabs of flesh on a conveyer belt. These hunks of muscle tissue are then ingeniously pieced together to assemble a dead cow

which, dangling from a hook, abruptly starts gathering blood and offal into itself, filling up its body cavity like the bag of a vacuum cleaner and zipping shut, to be neatly upholstered with new cowhide. Suddenly, it starts to twitch—it’s alive! Dropping to the floor, the cow jerks to its feet and flinches as its fractured skull abruptly claps solid. It ambles backward into daylight, joining a line of other cows.
That was the process in a nutshell: millions upon millions of domesticated cows, pigs, and chickens raised in sheds, pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, crammed into trucks, bludgeoned to death, ripped apart and churned up with their own spilled offal, then simply heated sufficiently to sterilize the germs. Sold.
It wasn’t just livestock that died of stupidity: People were part of the chain, too. So eager, they were lining up for the pleasure, compliant bovines herding themselves. Oblivious to the killing, absolutely disconnected from the sources of their food. Absolved of any complicity. That was the trouble, that willful, insatiable innocence. No less credulous than the cattle, they came drawn by the addictive chemical allure of fat, salt, caffeine, and high-fructose corn syrup, driving up in droves to pay bottom dollar for the bargain of obesity, constricted arteries, and diabetic shock. Ironic that it was called a chain restaurant—all that was lacking to complete the cycle was that they didn’t then feed the human remains back to the animals.
That’s a waste,
Maddy thought.
No doubt someone is working on that.
They returned to the car. Her mother was worried about her lack of appetite, but her father signaled her to play it cool, let it go. To Maddy’s relief, she went along—that was a first. Trying to be equally accommodating, Maddy nibbled some onion rings.
As they neared the outskirts of their hometown, she became fraught with more conflicted feelings, more things she had never thought of before. She couldn’t understand it: She had always taken her life for granted as the best of all possible worlds … or perhaps the
of all possible worlds:
What of consequence could possibly lie beyond these perfect houses, this pleasant sea of lawns? TV and radio gave no plausible clue, nor did anything else in this carefully cultivated mindscape. It wasn’t just the grass being weeded and raked around here. It scared Maddy to realize that all her life she had been living such a shallow existence, a big fat lie, its limitations made bearable only by certain childish assumptions, the first of which was never to question its rightness. Even her parents’ divorce—a commonplace event among her peers—had not undermined Maddy’s faith in the essential concepts:
. Why should it be any different now? And yet somehow, home no longer felt like home.
She kept pushing these alien feelings down. Focus on the positive! And there was a hopeful tingle of anticipation, certainly, but it was curdled by the same kind of nauseating total awareness that had spoiled her lunch.
The houses all looked the same. Generic. Impersonal. Mindlessly repetitious. Street after street, subdivision after subdivision, orderly as an immense circuit board, her once-beloved neighborhood sprawled across the countryside, reducing the life cycles of its inhabitants to impersonal blips in a computer. The machine again—the same machine. Was that what it was all about?
Farming us, fattening us like cattle

No! This time Maddy was determined not to give in to it. Talk it out—that was what she had always done in the past. She needed to get over herself and trust her parents like she used to. Before the divorce. Love them like she did in her dream. Why should that be so hard?
“Could I ask you guys something?”
“Of course, honey.”
“Why do we live all the way out here?”
“What do you mean?”
BOOK: Mad Skills
2.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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