Dark Hunger


Chapter 3


"They don't know yet."

"Oh, the poor baby."

"There have been about fifty doctors in here to look at her."

"Is there anything I can do?"

"I don't think so."

"Okay. Let me know."

"Okay."

"I'm not sleeping."

"Okay."

* * *

Shortly before dawn the huddled consultants announced that she either had an intestinal obstruction or a brain tumor, they couldn't decide which, and they ordered an MRI. The sky was beginning to lighten when she was finally wheeled to the imaging room. The big white machine stood in the center of the room. The nurse told me it would calm the baby if I helped her prepare her, and she took the needle out of her scalp because there couldn't be any metal during the MRI reading. Blood squirted down Amanda's face, into her eye. The nurse wiped it away.

Now Amanda was strapped onto the white board that rolled into the depths of the machine. My daughter was staring up at the MRI in terror, still screaming. The nurse told me I could wait in the next room with the technician. I went into a room with a glass window that looked in on the MRI machine.

The technician was foreign, dark. "How old is she? Is it a she?"

"Yes, she. Nine months."

"Quite a set of lungs on her."

"Yes."

"Here we go." He was fiddling at his knobs and dials, hardly looking at my daughter. Amanda was completely inside the machine. Her sobs sounded tinny over the microphone. The technician flicked a switch and the pump began to chatter; it made a lot of noise. But I could still hear my daughter screaming.

And then, abruptly, she stopped.

She was completely silent.

"Uh-oh," I said. I looked at the technician and the nurse. Their faces registered shock. We all thought the same thing, that something terrible had happened. My heart began to pound. The technician hastily shut down the pumps and we hurried back into the room. My daughter was lying there, still strapped down, breathing heavily, but apparently fine. She blinked her eyes slowly, as if dazed. Already her skin was noticeably a lighter shade of pink, with patches of normal color. The rash was fading right before our eyes. "I'll be damned," the technician said.

* * *

Back in the emergency room, they wouldn't let Amanda go home. The surgeons still thought she had a tumor or a bowel emergency, and they wanted to keep her in the hospital for observation. But the rash continued to clear steadily. Over the next hour, the pink color faded, and vanished. No one could understand what had happened, and the doctors were uneasy. The scalp vein IV was back in on the other side of her forehead. But Amanda took a bottle of formula, guzzling it down hungrily while I held her. She was staring up at me with her usual hypnotic feeding stare. She really seemed to be fine. She fell asleep in my arms.

I sat there for another hour, then began to make noises about how I had to get back to my kids, I had to get them to school. And not long afterward, the doctors announced another victory for modern medicine and sent me home with her. Amanda slept soundly all the way, and didn't wake when I got her out of her car seat. The night sky was turning gray when I carried her up the driveway and into the house.

DAY 3

6:07 A.M.

The house was silent. The kids were still asleep. I found Julia standing in the dining room, looking out the window at the backyard. The sprinklers were on, hissing and clicking. Julia held a cup of coffee and stared out the window, unmoving.

I said, "We're back."

She turned. "She's okay?"

I held out the baby to her. "Seems to be."

"Thank God," she said, "I was so worried, Jack." But she didn't approach Amanda, and didn't touch her. "I was so worried."

Her voice was strange, distant. She didn't really sound worried, she sounded formal, like someone reciting the rituals of another culture that they didn't really understand. She took a sip from her coffee mug.

"I couldn't sleep all night," she said. "I was so worried. I felt awful. God." Her eyes flicked to my face, then away. She looked guilty.

"Want to hold her?"

"I, uh ..." Julia shook her head, and nodded to the coffee cup in her hand. "Not right now," she said. "I have to check the sprinklers. They're overwatering my roses." And she walked into the backyard.

I watched her go out in the back and stand looking at the sprinklers. She glanced back at me, then made a show of checking the timer box on the wall. She opened the lid and looked inside. I didn't get it. The gardeners had adjusted the sprinkler timers just last week. Maybe they hadn't done it right.

Amanda snuffled in my arms. I took her into the nursery to change her, and put her back in bed. When I returned, I saw Julia in the kitchen, talking on her cell phone. This was another new habit of hers. She didn't use the house phone much anymore; she used her cell. When I had asked her about it, she'd said it was just easier because she was calling long distance a lot, and the company paid her cellular bills.

I slowed my approach, and walked on the carpet. I heard her say, "Yes, damn it, of course I do, but we have to be careful now ..."

She looked up and saw me coming. Her tone immediately changed. "Okay, uh ... look, Carol, I think we can handle that with a phone call to Frankfurt. Follow up with a fax, and let me know how he responds, all right?" And she snapped the phone shut. I came into the kitchen. "Jack, I hate to leave before the kids are up, but ..."

"You've got to go?"

"I'm afraid so. Something's come up at work."

I glanced at my watch. It was a quarter after six. "Okay."

She said, "So, will you, uh ... the kids ..."

"Sure, I'll handle everything."

"Thanks. I'll call you later."

And she was gone.

I was so tired I wasn't thinking clearly. The baby was still asleep, and with luck she'd sleep several hours more. My housekeeper, Maria, came in at six-thirty and put out the breakfast bowls. The kids ate and I drove them to school. I was trying hard to stay awake. I yawned. Eric was sitting on the front seat next to me. He yawned, too.

"Sleepy today?"

He nodded. "Those men kept waking me up," he said.

"What men?"

"The men that came in the house last night."

"What men?" I said.

"The vacuum men," he said. "They vacuumed everything. And they vacuumed up the ghost."

From the backseat, Nicole snickered. "The ghost ..."

I said, "I think you were dreaming, son." Lately Eric had been having vivid nightmares that often woke him in the night. I was pretty sure it was because Nicole let him watch horror movies with her, knowing they would upset him. Nicole was at the age where her favorite movies featured masked killers who murdered teenagers after they had had sex. It was the old formula: you have sex, you die. But it wasn't appropriate for Eric. I'd spoken to her many times about letting him see them.

"No, Dad, it wasn't a dream," Eric said, yawning again. "The men were there. A whole bunch of them."

"Uh-huh. And what was the ghost?"

"He was a ghost. All silver and shimmery, except he didn't have a face."

"Uh-huh." By now we were pulling up at the school, and Nicole was saying I had to pick her up at 4:15 instead of 3:45 because she had a chorus rehearsal after class, and Eric was saying he wasn't going to his pediatrician appointment if he had to get a shot. I repeated the timeless mantra of all parents: "We'll see."

The two kids piled out of the car, dragging their backpacks behind them. They both had backpacks that weighed about twenty pounds. I never got used to this. Kids didn't have huge backpacks when I was their age. We didn't have backpacks at all. Now it seemed all the kids had them. You saw little second-graders bent over like sherpas, dragging themselves through the school doors under the weight of their packs. Some of the kids had their packs on rollers, hauling them like luggage at the airport. I didn't understand any of this. The world was becoming digital; everything was smaller and lighter. But kids at school lugged more weight than ever. A couple of months ago, at a parents' meeting, I'd asked about it. And the principal said, "Yes, it's a big problem. We're all concerned." And then changed the subject. I didn't get that, either. If they were all concerned, why didn't they do something about it? But of course that's human nature. Nobody does anything until it's too late. We put the stoplight at the intersection after the kid is killed.

I drove home again, through sluggish morning traffic. I was thinking I might get a couple of hours of sleep. It was the only thing on my mind.

Maria woke me up around eleven, shaking my shoulder insistently. "Mr. Forman. Mr. Forman."

I was groggy. "What is it?"

"The baby."

I was immediately awake. "What about her?"

"You see the baby, Mr. Forman. She all ..." She made a gesture, rubbing her shoulder and arm.

"She's all what?"

"You see the baby, Mr. Forman."

I staggered out of bed, and went into the nursery. Amanda was standing up in her crib, holding on to the railing. She was bouncing and smiling happily. Everything seemed normal, except for the fact that her entire body was a uniform purple-blue color. Like a big bruise. "Oh, Jesus," I said.

I couldn't take another episode at the hospital, I couldn't take more white-coated doctors who didn't tell you anything, I couldn't take being scared all over again. I was still drained from the night before. The thought that there was something wrong with my daughter wrenched my stomach. I went over to Amanda, who gurgled with pleasure, smiling up at me. She stretched one hand toward me, grasping air, her signal for me to pick her up. So I picked her up. She seemed fine, immediately grabbing my hair and trying to pull off my glasses, the way she always did. I felt relieved, even though I could now see her skin better. It looked bruised-it was the color of a bruise-except it was absolutely uniform everywhere on her body. Amanda looked like she'd been dipped in dye. The evenness of the color was alarming.

I decided I had to call the doctor in the emergency room, after all. I fished in my pocket for his card, while Amanda tried to grab my glasses. I dialed one-handed. I could do pretty much everything one-handed. I got right through; he sounded surprised. "Oh," he said. "I was just about to call you. How is your daughter feeling?"

"Well, she seems to feel fine," I said, jerking my head back so Amanda couldn't get my glasses. She was giggling; it was a game, now. "She's fine," I said, "but the thing is-"

"Has she by any chance had bruising?"

"Yes," I said. "As a matter of fact, she has. That's why I was calling you."

"The bruising is all over her body? Uniformly?"

"Yes," I said. "Pretty much. Why do you ask?"

"Well," the doctor said, "all her lab work has come back, and it's all normal. Completely normal. Healthy child. The only thing we're still waiting on is the MRI report, but the MRI's broken down. They say it'll be a few days."

I couldn't keep ducking and weaving; I put Amanda back in her crib while I talked. She didn't like that, of course, and scrunched up her face, preparing to cry. I gave her her Cookie Monster toy, and she sat down and played with that. I knew Cookie Monster was good for about five minutes.

"Anyway," the doctor was saying, "I'm glad to hear she's doing well."

I said that I was glad, too.

There was a pause. The doctor coughed.

"Mr. Forman, I noticed on your hospital admissions form you said your occupation was software engineer."

"That's right."

"Does that mean you are involved with manufacturing?"

"No. I do program development."

"And where do you do that work?"

"In the Valley."

"You don't work in a factory, for example?"

"No. I work in an office."

"I see." A pause. "May I ask where?"

"Actually, at the moment, I'm unemployed."

"I see. All right. How long has that been?"

"Six months."

"I see." A short pause. "Well, okay, I just wanted to clear that up."

I said, "Why?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Why are you asking me those questions?"

"Oh. They're on the form."

"What form?" I said. "I filled out all the forms at the hospital."

"This is another form," he said. "It's an OHS inquiry. Office of Health and Safety."

I said, "What's this all about?"

"There's been another case reported," he said, "that's very similar to your daughter's."

"Where?"

"Sacramento General."

"When?"

"Five days ago. But it's a completely different situation. This case involved a forty-two-year-old naturalist sleeping out in the Sierras, some wildflower expert. There was a particular kind of flower or something. Anyway, he was hospitalized in Sacramento. And he had the same clinical course as your daughter-sudden unexplained onset, no fever, painful erythematous reaction."

"And an MRI stopped it?"

"I don't know if he had an MRI," he said. "But apparently this syndrome-whatever it is-is self-limited. Very sudden onset, and very abrupt termination."

"He's okay now? The naturalist?"

"He's fine. A couple of days of bruising, and nothing more."

"Good," I said. "I'm glad to hear it."

"I thought you'd want to know," he said. Then he said he might be calling me again, with some more questions, and would that be all right? I said he could call whenever he wanted. He asked me to call if there was any change in Amanda, and I said I would, and I hung up.

* * *

Amanda had abandoned Cookie Monster, and was standing in the crib, holding on to the railing with one hand and reaching for me with the other, her little fingers clutching air. I picked her up-and in an instant she had my glasses off. I grabbed for them as she squealed with pleasure. "Amanda ..." But too late; she threw them on the floor. I blinked.

I don't see well without my glasses. These were wire-frames, hard to see now. I got down on my hands and knees, still holding the baby, and swept my hand across the floor in circles, hoping to touch glass. I didn't. I squinted, edged forward, swept my hand again. Still nothing. Then I saw a glint of light underneath the crib. I set the baby down and crawled under the crib, retrieved the glasses, and put them on. In the process I banged my head on the crib, dropped down low again.

And I found myself staring at the electrical outlet on the wall underneath the crib. A small plastic box was plugged into the outlet. I pulled it out and looked at it. It was a two-inch cube, a surge suppressor by the look of it, an ordinary commercial product, made in Thailand. The input/output voltages were molded into the plastic. A white label ran across the bottom, reading PROP. SSVT, with a bar code. It was one of those stickers that companies put on their inventory. I turned the cube over in my hand. Where had this come from? I'd been in charge of the house for the last six months. I knew what was where. And certainly Amanda didn't need a surge suppressor in her room. You only needed that for sensitive electronic equipment, like computers.

I got to my feet, and looked around the room to see what else was different. To my surprise, I realized that everything was different-but just slightly different. Amanda's night-light had Winnie-the-Pooh characters printed on the shade. I always kept Tigger facing toward her crib, because Tigger was her favorite. Now, Eeyore faced the crib. Amanda's changing pad was stained in one corner; I always kept the stain bottom left. Now it was top right. I kept her diaper-rash ointments on the counter to the left, just out of her reach. Now they were too close; she could grab them. And there was more-

The maid came in behind me. "Maria," I said, "did you clean this room?"

"No, Mr. Forman."

"But the room is different," I said.

She looked around, and shrugged. "No, Mr. Forman. The same."

"No, no," I insisted. "It's different. Look." I pointed to the lampshade, the changing cloth. "Different."

She shrugged again. "Okay, Mr. Forman." I read confusion in her face. Either she didn't follow what I was saying, or she thought I was crazy. And I probably did look a little crazy, a grown man obsessing about a Winnie-the-Pooh lampshade.

I showed her the cube in my hand. "Have you seen this before?"

She shook her head. "No."

"It was under the crib."

"I don't know, Mr. Forman." She inspected it, turning it in her hand. She shrugged, and gave it back to me. She acted casual, but her eyes were watchful. I began to feel uncomfortable. "Okay, Maria," I said. "Never mind."

She bent over to scoop up the baby. "I feed her now."

"Yes, okay."

I left the room, feeling odd.

Just for the hell of it, I looked up "SSVT" on the Net. I got links to the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple, the Waffen-SS Training School at Konitz, Nazi Regalia for sale, Subsystems Sample Display Technology, South Shore Vocational-Technical School, Optical VariTemp Cryostat Systems, Solid Surfacing Veneer Tiles for home floors, a band called SlingshotVenus, the Swiss Shooting Federation-and it went downhill from there.

I turned away from the computer.

I stared out the window.

Maria had given me a shopping list, the items scrawled in her difficult hand. I really should get the shopping done before I picked up the kids. But I didn't move. There were times when the relentless pace of life at home seemed to defeat me, to leave me feeling washed out and hollow. At those times I just had to sit for a few hours.

I didn't want to move. Not right now.

I wondered if Julia was going to call me tonight, and I wondered if she would have a different excuse. I wondered what I would do if she walked in one of these days, and announced she was in love with someone else. I wondered what I would do if I still didn't have a job by then. I wondered when I would get a job again. I turned the little surge suppressor over in my hand idly, as my mind drifted.

Right outside my window was a large coral tree, with thick leaves and a green trunk. We had planted it as a much smaller tree not long after we moved into the house. Of course the tree guys did it, but we were all out there. Nicole had her plastic shovel and bucket. Eric was crawling around on the lawn in his diapers. Julia had charmed the workmen into staying late to finish the job. After they had all gone I kissed her, and brushed dirt from her nose. She said, "One day it'll cover our whole house."

But as it turned out, it didn't. One of the branches had broken off in a storm, so it grew a little lopsided. Coral is soft wood; the branches break easily. It never grew to cover the house. But my memory was vivid; staring out the window, I saw all of us again, out on the lawn. But it was just a memory. And I was very afraid it didn't fit anymore. After working for years with multi-agent systems, you begin to see life in terms of those programs.

Basically, you can think of a multi-agent environment as something like a chessboard, and the agents like chess pieces. The agents interact on the board to attain a goal, just the way the chess pieces move to win a game. The difference is that nobody is moving the agents. They interact on their own to produce the outcome.

If you design the agents to have memory, they can know things about their environment. They remember where they've been on the board, and what happened there. They can go back to certain places, with certain expectations. Eventually, programmers say the agents have beliefs about their environment, and that they are acting on those beliefs. That's not literally true, of course, but it might as well be true. It looks that way.

But what's interesting is that over time, some agents develop mistaken beliefs. Whether from a motivation conflict, or some other reason, they start acting inappropriately. The environment has changed but they don't seem to know it. They repeat outmoded patterns. Their behavior no longer reflects the reality of the chessboard. It's as if they're stuck in the past. In evolutionary programs, those agents get killed off. They have no children. In other multi-agent programs, they just get bypassed, pushed to the periphery while the main thrust of agents moves on. Some programs have a "grim reaper" module that sifts them out from time to time, and pulls them off the board.

But the point is, they're stuck in their own past. Sometimes they pull themselves together, and get back on track. Sometimes they don't.

Thoughts like these made me very uneasy. I shifted in my chair, glanced at the clock. With a sense of relief, I saw it was time to go pick up the kids.

Eric did his homework in the car while we waited for Nicole to finish her play rehearsal. She came out in a bad mood; she had thought she was in line for a lead role, but instead the drama teacher had cast her in the chorus. "Only two lines!" she said, slamming the car door. "You want to know what I say? I say, 'Look, here comes John now.' And in the second act, I say, 'That sounds pretty serious.' Two lines!" She sat back and closed her eyes. "I don't understand what Mr. Blakey's problem is!"

"Maybe he thinks you suck," Eric said.

"Rat turd!" She smacked him on the head. "Monkey butt!"

"That's enough," I said, as I started the car. "Seat belts."

"Little stink-brain dimrod, he doesn't know anything," Nicole said, buckling her belt.

"I said, that's enough."

"I know that you stink," Eric said. "Pee-yew."

"That's enough, Eric."

"Yeah, Eric, listen to your father, and shut up."

"Nicole ..." I shot her a glance in the rearview mirror.

"Sor-ry."

She looked on the verge of tears. I said to her, "Honey, I'm really sorry you didn't get the part you wanted. I know you wanted it badly, and it must be very disappointing."

"No. I don't care."

"Well, I'm sorry."

"Really, Dad, I don't care. It's in the past. I'm moving on." And then a moment later, "You know who got it? That little suckup Katie Richards! Mr. Blakey is just a dick!" And before I could say anything, she burst into tears, sobbing loudly and histrionically. Eric looked over at me, and rolled his eyes.

I drove home, making a mental note to speak to Nicole about her language after dinner, when she had calmed down.

I was chopping green beans so they would fit in the steamer when Eric came and stood in the kitchen doorway. "Hey Dad, where's my MP3?"

"I have no idea." I could never get used to the idea that I was supposed to know where every one of their personal possessions was. Eric's Game Boy, his baseball glove, Nicole's tank tops, her bracelet ...

"Well, I can't find it." Eric remained standing in the doorway, not coming any closer, in case I made him help set the table.

"Have you looked?"

"Everywhere, Dad."

"Uh-huh. You looked in your room?"

"All over."

"Family room?"

"Everywhere."

"In the car? Maybe you left it in the car."

"I didn't, Dad."

"You leave it in your locker at school?"

"We don't have lockers, we have cubbies."

"You look in the pockets of your jacket?"

"Dad. Come on. I did all that. I need it."

"Since you've already looked everywhere, I won't be able to find it either, will I?"

"Dad. Would you please just help me?"

The pot roast had another half hour to go. I put down the knife and went into Eric's room. I looked in all the usual places, the back of his closet where clothes were kicked into a heap (I would have to talk to Maria about that), under the bed, behind the bed table, in the bottom drawer in the bathroom, and under the piles of stuff on his desk. Eric was right. It wasn't in his room. We headed toward the family room. I glanced in at the baby's room as I passed by. And I saw it immediately. It was on the shelf beside the changing table, right alongside the tubes of baby ointment. Eric grabbed it. "Hey, thanks Dad!" And he scampered off. There was no point in asking why it was in the baby's room. I went back to the kitchen and resumed chopping my green beans. Almost immediately:

"Daa-ad!"

"What?" I called.

"It doesn't work!"

"Don't shout."

He came back to the kitchen, looking sulky. "She broke it."

"Who broke it?"

"Amanda. She drooled on it or something, and she broke it. It's not fair."

"You check the battery?"

He gave me a pitying look. " 'Course, Dad. I told you, she broke it! It's not fair!"

I doubted his MP3 player was broken. These things were solid-state devices, no moving parts. And it was too large for the baby to handle. I dumped the green beans on the steamer tray, and held out my hand. "Give it to me."

We went into the garage and I got out my toolbox. Eric watched my every move. I had a full set of the small tools you need for computers and electronic devices. I worked quickly. Four Phillips head screws, and the back cover came off in my hand. I found myself staring at the green circuit board. It was covered by a fine layer of grayish dust, like lint from a clothes dryer, that obscured all the electronic components. I suspected that Eric had slid into home plate with this thing in his pocket. That was probably why it didn't work. But I looked along the edge of the plastic and saw a rubber gasket where the back fitted against the device. They'd made this thing airtight ... as they should.

I blew the dust away, so I could see better. I was hoping to see a loose battery connection, or a memory chip that had popped up from heat, anyway something that would be easy to fix. I squinted at the chips, trying to read the writing. The writing on one chip was obscured, because there seemed to be some kind of-

I paused.

"What is it?" Eric said, watching me.

"Hand me that magnifying glass."

Eric gave me a big glass, and I swung my high-intensity lamp low, and bent over the chip, examining it closely. The reason I couldn't read the writing was that the surface of the chip had been corroded. The whole chip was etched in rivulets, a miniature river delta. I understood now where the dust had come from. It was the disintegrated remains of the chip. "Can you fix it, Dad?" Eric said. "Can you?"

What could have caused this? The rest of the motherboard seemed fine. The controller chip was untouched. Only the memory chip was damaged. I wasn't a hardware guy, but I knew enough to do basic computer repairs. I could install hard drives, add memory, things like that. I'd handled memory chips before, and I'd never seen anything like this. All I could think was that it was a faulty chip. These MP3 players were probably built with the cheapest components available.

"Dad? Can you fix it?"

"No," I said. "It needs another chip. I'll get you one tomorrow."

" 'Cause she slimed it, right?"

"No. I think it's just a faulty chip."

"Dad. It was fine for a whole year. She slimed it. It's not fair!" As if on cue, the baby started crying. I left the MP3 player on the garage table, and went back inside the house. I looked at my watch. I would just have time to change Amanda's diaper, and mix her cereal for dinner, before the pot roast came out.

By nine, the younger kids were asleep, and the house was quiet except for Nicole's voice, saying, "That sounds pretty serious. That sounds pretty serious. That sounds ... pretty serious." She was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, staring at herself and reciting her lines.

I'd gotten voice mail from Julia saying she'd be back by eight, but she hadn't made it. I wasn't about to call and check up on her. Anyway, I was tired, too tired to work up the energy to worry about her. I'd picked up a lot of tricks in the last months-mostly involving liberal use of tinfoil so I didn't have to clean so much-but even so, after I did the cooking, set the table, fed the kids, played airplane to get the baby to eat her cereal, cleared the table, wiped down the high chair, put the baby to bed, and then cleaned up the kitchen, I was tired. Especially since the baby kept spitting out the cereal, and Eric kept insisting all through dinner that it wasn't fair, he wanted chicken fingers instead of the roast.

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