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A Small, Dark Room

science fiction by Jordan Lapp

Delilah surfed through the minutes of Google Time like a diner might pluck tappas from a hotel buffet.

Sampled moments flashed by on her screen: a firefighter–a frightened woman screaming in his arms–leaping out of a building to an uncertain landing; a frantic man lying flat on his belly on cracking ice, stretching himself apart to reach his desperately paddling, half-frozen border collie; a—

“Are you coming, Delly?” asked Jack. He stood in the doorway of their suite at the all-inclusive. His posture was relaxed, but his tone was forced. “The water’s so blue it might stain.”

“Save me a seat at the bar, honey.”

She heard him pause, then close the door.

She could have told him she was working. She was labeling time streams, she might have said, much like one might index a database. She wouldn’t have been lying. Her employer was building a library of emotional moments, and who better to stock it than a librarian? Jack had helped her search old newspapers for stories of tragedy, then watched as she tapped into the awesome power of Google’s server cloud to rewind time, indexing a trillion trillion reactions between sub-atomic particles and then reversing them, rebuilding a moving picture of the past one frame at a time.

Her netbook sat before her. With a hesitant sweep of her finger, she dissolved back to her homepage.

She tapped another query into the tiny white search box–one she would never share with her employer, and the reason she was sorting timestreams instead of enjoying the Mexican Rivera. June 6, 2056-3:01am. A small, dark room formed, too fast even for Google’s servers to load on the fly. This timestream was cached on her computer.

A crib sat in one corner, a string of children’s building boxes dancing across the wall, spelling out “Johnathan”. A plastic jukebox from Fischer Price sat on a desk nearby–the music annoyed the hell out of Jack, but it was the only thing that would get Johnathan to stop crying when he was teething. The screen blurred momentarily as her eyes filled.

She waved the screen closer, and she swept inwards until her baby’s face filled the screen. It was still, peaceful. Tiny, upturned nostrils, face as soft as cotton, small eyes scrunched closed.

He’d stopped breathing by now.

As she had done a thousand times, she reversed, slowly. She needed to see his last breath. Needed to see it. His face was still, but she could tell that time was moving backward by the small rectangles of moonlight from the window nearby, creeping across his face. At 1:20am, she knew, he would hiccup, and she would have missed his last breath. That was her upper barrier. When she reached that point, she’d stop and join her husband in the bar. A handful of tequilas might help her forget that night.

She’d gone flat in a storm and had to wait by the side of the highway in the driving rain watching a steady stream of drivers ignoring her. When a cop finally arrived, instead of helping her with her tire, he’d written her a ticket for obstructing traffic. And then she’d gotten home and Jack was watching TV and the trash was stinking up the kitchen and Johnathan was crying and wet and… she’d just exploded. She’d gone surgical, every word a dagger that made Jack wince. And then, and then, and then she’d been trying to change Johnthan and he’d peed again, ruining her new silk blouse, and she’d screamed at him too.

She’d screamed at him too.

SIDS, they’d said. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Some babies just die for no apparent reason. But she remembered the words her father had spoken nearly twenty years ago, when the Fitzpatrick baby died. Delilah was just a child, sitting in an uncomfortable pew, a small casket at the front of the funeral home. She’d asked why God had taken a him when he was just a little baby and her father had told her that some babies just weren’t loved enough.

Her hand shook on the cover of the netbook. 1:20am. The hiccup. She’d missed his last breath. She closed the screen.

She gathered up her make-up–squeezing a few drops of Visine to conceal her red eyes. Jack had proposed this trip to try and put Johnathan behind them. Maybe rekindle something. Maybe try for a girl this time. But Delilah couldn’t risk that again.

She almost out the door when she heard Jack’s voice in the room. At first, it sounded like gibberish, but it was definitely him. She stepped back inside and closed the door. A moment of silence, and then… it was coming from her netbook.

She fingered the cover back up. The timestream was still running. 12:02am and Jack was in the baby’s room. His voice was gibberish because the stream was still playing in reverse. She tapped the screen to stop it and then waved it forward again, just simulated Jack backed out of the room.

He entered, knelt near the crib, and adjusted Bob the Big Brown Bear so that Johnathan could snuggle it.

“You know, sport,” he said softly, “Mummy’s had a hard day. Being a mummy is a pretty tough job, especially with a couple of big lugs like us in the house. So we can cut her some slack every once in a while, can’t we? Good. Mummy loves us, big guy. You and me. And that makes us the luckiest guys on Earth. Sleep tight.”

With that he tucked the blanket under Johnathan’s chin and left the room.

Delilah sat heavily in her chair and slowly closed the netbook. Outside, waves gently lapped the pristine beach and the sun reddened against the horizon.

After a while, she rose and walked to the door. There, she paused, looked back at the netbook, and then for the first time in a very long time, the corners of her mouth tugged upwards into a gentle smile.

Jack would be at the bar.

Copyright 2009 by Jordan Lapp

Jordan Lapp lives in British Columbia, Canada. He blogs about writing at Without Really Trying.

[Return to the July 2009 stories]

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20 Responses

  1. […] A Small, Dark Room […]

  2. Hey Jordan!

    The only other story of your’s I ever read was about a raid on a dragon. No offence to your earlier story but you have improved and grown enormously since then.

    That was such an emotional piece. just great.

    • Thanks Anton. Yeah, “Briskburner” was my first piece, written, um four years ago now. You’ve reminded me to ask them to take that off the web… it’s a little embarrassing now.

  3. Really compelling story, Jordan!

  4. Good sf, Jordan. Loved the tech.

    –dj

  5. I feel drained, Jordan. Very emotional.

  6. Wow! What great blending of a sci-fi story with every day tragedy. Love it Jordan.

  7. […] stories that I really enjoyed (in addition to Alex and Gay’s that I linked yesterday) were “A Small Dark Room” by Jordan Lapp, “The Dangers of Kafka in Cairo” by Megan Arkenberg, and “In the […]

  8. I just found the 10Flash website and this story. You hooked me with the tech right off, but the emotional impact was so much more. I’m a mother — who thankfully hasn’t gone through what Delilah did — but I still found myself feeling her pain. It was very well done.

  9. JCHicks,

    Thanks you very much for your time. I’m glad this story spoke to you!

    Jordan

  10. I loved this. You really affected me.

    Nan

  11. Just found this site (bad me) and was browsing around for genres/authors that interest me. Got a 2-for-1 here. I have had the distinct displeasure of seeing dead children (none of my own, happily) and dealing with parents grief. Even without time travel or time travel viewers, people get stuck in those moments and they are hard to break free from. All that you capture it admirably here.

    –John

    • John,

      Thank you for your thoughts. Dead children are always extremely difficult to pull off. At Clarion West, David Hartwell told me never to kill a dog or a child as it puts too many people off. With that in mind, I tried to be as delicate as possible.

      Jordan

  12. What a wonderful story. It’s very unusual for sci fi and very moving. I wouldn’t usually read a story about SIDS but I’m glad I did.

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