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You Don't Know Me Like You Used To

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I.

 

Your name is Annie Eiffel and if there is one thing you do not need, it is being reminded of your dead father.

It happens most with teachers – usually the bright-eyed fresh-out-of-college ones who seem weirdly eager to connect with a deaf student, but sometimes with older ones who see you as something to be pitied. Pity is the next thing on the list that you do not need, but that is an entire thing altogether.

Then again, maybe not. Your hatred of pity and . . . extreme dislike of your father go hand-in-hand.

“Eiffel?” they’ll repeat. “You wouldn’t happen to be related to that poor man that died in space several years ago, would you?”

Margaret will sign this to you – because god fucking bless Margaret, but you’ll get to that later – since none of the teachers seem to glean onto the fact that you can’t hear their question.

And then you’ll nod, and sometimes-sign, mostly-write, that yes, that man was your father, and yes, it is awful that he died so far from home, and then you’ll try to say something about him not really being in your life before but no one cares about that. No one cares that your father is the reason that you sometimes-sign mostly-write anything to them in the first place. All they can see is you, sitting in your desk with your short hair and holey jeans, and connect you with a man who died eight light years away nearly eight years ago.

Huh. You didn’t think about that. You wonder if the explosion that killed him would be bright enough for you to see, now that the light from it would finally be reaching Earth.

.

Monday goes like this.

Your wrist alarm goes off at a quarter to six, vibrating its little heart out against your wrist and against your shoulder where you shoved it beneath your pillow. At six, Mom comes in and turns on your light. She’ll shake your shoulder sometimes, or poke at where your feet stick out from under your blanket. Today, she brushes the hair from your face and kisses your forehead before tapping your wrist – a reminder that you need to wake up and get ready to go.

By six-thirty, you are dressed – well, you suppose you are, anyways. You fell asleep in your jeans, and they don’t look dirty, so yesterday’s jeans are today’s jeans. Your socks don’t match, but they usually never do. Despite your brushing, your hair still sticks up in the back because the woman at Great Clips messed up before you could get your hands out from under the smock to motion for her to stop.

But whatever. Hair grows out. Next time, you’ll just get Margaret to buzz it off for you.

Six-thirty is when you pop your waffles in the toaster and drink some juice and pretend that you’re not going to buy an energy drink at the gas station by the school as soon as you get there. Sometimes you read. Sometimes you watch Mom watch the news.

Today, Mom sits down across from you and signs, Please come straight home after school. Company is coming.

You nod, and don’t flinch when the waffles pop up in the toaster. Who is coming?, you sign back before grabbing your breakfast. They’re hot enough to burn your fingers, but you ignore it and take a massive bite anyways.

Mr. Cutter, Mom signs.

The sign for his name is the sign for “c” that sweeps up into the sign for scissors. You’ve never used it in his presence. Not because you’re afraid that he’d be offended, but because you honestly don’t know what he’d say. He’s an unsettling man, and you’re glad you only see him once a year.

You nod again, and give her a thumb’s up with your free hand. It’s not like you had anything planned for today, anyways.

At six-fifty-four, right on the dot, the bus pulls up. You do, unfortunately, take the short bus. Not because you’re deaf, but because your bus-route literally has seven kids on it, and the district didn’t want to waste a full-sized school bus on seven kids.

And Margaret is there.

Margaret, who has been in all your classes since you skipped fifth grade. Margaret, who could sign faster than your school-appointed interpreter, and has replaced said interpreter for the past year. (In exchange for school credit, of course.) Margaret, who once threatened to punch a substitute because he told her to stop “fussing around in her seat” when she was translating for you.

You’re not going to lie, you’re a little bit in love with her. In love with her lopsided smile and her singular dimple, the way her black hair bounced as she walked, how she threw back her head and laughed with her whole body, no matter where she was.

It’s too early in the morning to actually take the time to contemplate your love for her. Besides, you’re pretty sure she’s straight. You’re sort of afraid to ask at this point.

But she waves at you, and you wave to your mom before nodding to the bus driver and taking your usual spot.

Did you get the email? Margaret asks.

You shake your head and reply, What email?

She gives you an exasperated look. The email with all the college scholarships, you dork. All the deadlines are coming up, and you need to fill them out.

You roll your eyes. Of course.

I’ll fill them out later, you sign. But I’m not even sure what I want to do yet.

It’s better to apply just in case, instead of waiting until the last minute.

You’re an expert at waiting until the last minute. You once wrote a three-page paper on Paradise Lost in less than twenty-minutes and got one of the best grades in the class. You’re not too worried about college applications.

Especially since you’re still figuring out what you want to do with your life.

But you haven’t said anything about that to Margaret, and you don’t plan to. The disappointment in her eyes would be too much to handle.

So you just stick your tongue out at her. Quick as a flash, she whips out her phone and snaps a picture. The smile on her face is infectious.

That’s going on Instagram, she signs.

Don’t forget to tag me, is your reply.

.

You first class of the morning would be robotics but the teacher broke his leg and is claiming “early retirement.” Which is bullshit, because Mr. Robinson is all of thirty-two years old and a completely inept asshole. So the class is lumped together with metalwork so you all could start tooling the specialty pieces you need.

The rest of your classes – AP English, Calc, Government – are a blur. Lunch is a can of Rockstar while you pour over your new code in the library. It’s supposed to be a dummy intelligence to run a bot for robotics, but you’re trying to take the “dummy” out of it.

Writing code is fun. It doesn’t talk, doesn’t require you to listen to anything, and (most importantly), doesn’t require someone else to translate everything for you.

.

He’s sitting at the table when you come home. He has an untouched cup of coffee sitting front of him. Mom sits next to him, arms crossed and nonplussed. She’s never liked Mr. Cutter. You don’t blame her in the least.

He waves hello, and you nod in response as you unsling your backpack on your way to the fridge. You’ve got a pounding headache, right in the back of your head. Maybe it was the Rockstar. Maybe it was the lack of real food. Either way, the remedy is more caffeine in the form of Dr. Pepper.

When you turn around, can in hand, Mr. Cutter signs to you, Hello Annie! How was school?

He signs your name the way mom does, with the double-As going into the sign for typing. His fingers are decisive and quick.

You shrug, and pop open the can.

It’s all too easy to imagine him doing something really terrible with those fingers. Like popping someone’s eyes out.

Mom glares at you.

You rolls your eyes, and set down the can. School was fine, you sign shortly. Nothing new.

He smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. You’re sure that if someone looked in them for too long, he’d absorb their soul or something. Not osmosis, but something. Wasn’t there an -osis for that? Science is not a strength. Er, natural sciences, anyways.

Please sit, he motions to the chair across from him. I always look forward to these meetings of ours.

That makes one of you.

But you sit down anyways.

Mr. Cutter has made it clear what he does for a living. Even if he didn’t, it’s hard to be out and about in a world that ran on Goddard Futuristics technology and not recognize one of the company’s more influential members. He had a regular appearance in the news, and his unsettling smile was subject to a metric shit-ton of memes on Tumblr. If only they all knew that he was a yearly visitor to check up on your progress and make sure that your father’s insurance money was being spent wisely.

Whatever that meant, anyways. You didn’t know insurance money could be spent unwisely. It’s not like you’re the one that spent it, and it's not like it was spent on anything other than school.

I got a peek at your grades the other day, he signs. Not too shabby! I see you’ve got a real knack for coding.

Of course I do, you sign back. Code doesn’t need me to listen to it to make it work.

Mom gives you a wide-eyed glare, but her hands remain on the table.

Too true, too true, Mr. Cutter nods, his fingers flashing. But beyond that, from what your teachers say, you’re already attempting projects that make undergraduates wet their pants. Not that I’m expecting anything less from someone who skipped a grade, but I’m still quite impressed.

You shrug again. You never considered yourself that exceptional - there are kids younger than you with doctorates already - but obviously Mr. Cutter is not so easily impressed. He’s trying to butter you up for something. You can feel it. So you keep your fingers still.

What are you getting at? Mom signs for you.

He doesn’t sign to her. He talks, and you can’t really tell what he’s saying. Lip-reading is a talent that you’ve never bothered to hone. Partially from laziness, but mostly because people would always freak out at you for staring at their mouths when you first decided to try to learn. On top of that, Mr. Cutter doesn't move his mouth all that much when he talks. Almost like he knows that you would try to figure out what he's saying when he's not signing.

So you’ve got no idea what Cutter is saying to your mother.

But Mom isn’t having it.

If you are going to speak in front of Annie, you can sign, her fingers move in a controlled, short way that clearly telegraphs how much she wants to choke him. You’re not going to alienate her or ignore her just because you feel lazy.

I apologize, he signs. But it’s true. I have dozens of college graduates that look like babies with blocks compared to Annie. Goddard Futuristics would love to have someone of her caliber in the ranks.

You’re already shaking your head. Oh no. Oh hell no. You may be unsure of what you want to do after graduating, but you know for sure that you do not want to work for Goddard. Not if it means working with the monster-in-human’s-clothing that is Mr. Cutter.

So she’s supposed to just skip college and work for you? Mom asks. What about the other opportunities school would offer her?

Mr. Cutter loses the smile as he signs, I would hate to see such talent grow stagnant.

There is more to Annie than her knack with computers, Mom says.

Mom’s right, even though you don’t know exactly what else you have to your name. An alarmingly large plush cat collection? The uncanny ability to be at the front of the lunch line to get the freshest food? But Mr. Cutter doesn’t know that.

The way he talks, he doesn’t know a lot of things.

.

When you finally go to your room, you collapse onto your bed and bury your face deep into your covers, deep to the level of your plush cat collection. Yes, there is a section of your bed that is nothing but stuffed animals, and the vast majority of them are cats. Mom won’t let you get a real one because she’s allergic as shit, so you make up for it by buying as many plushies as you can. They are taking over the bed, but they are soft to lay on and you spent a whole snowday once buried in the pile while watching Netflix. Everyone should have a cat pile.

You are, without a doubt, exhausted, and your homework looms over you like a malevolent tidal wave. You also have college applications, apparently, and end-of-year projects on the horizon and moving ever closer. There are ten-thousand things to be doing. On top of that, the cat pile is sucking you in with the promise of being comfy while you take a nice nap. But you’re not going to do any of those things.

It’s been a long, long day, Annie. You deserve something fun.

So you boot up your computer, and open your code. You haven’t thought of a good name for your AI project yet, so currently its name is just Baby. (All because you got mad when some classmates were horsing around while you were sleep-deprived and told them that they would wake the baby. They had assumed you meant your fetus-esque code project. You had meant yourself. You are the baby.)

But there’s something wrong.

You lean into your screen and squint at the last few lines of code you typed during lunch. Something’s off. As in, you don’t remember writing it so simply. It looks correct, but your coding style is very much “everything and the kitchen sink,” whereas this code looks . . . streamlined. You can appreciate its simplicity, but at the same time you are very much aware that someone has been tampering with your code when you weren’t looking.
Your curser gives a few furious blinks before going down to a new line.

 

>> You call this coding? It’s a mess.

 

You stare at your screen. It continues to type.

 

>> Thank goodness I’m here to help you clean it up! I also spotted a few redundancies that I fixed up for you. I hope you don’t mind?

 

You shake your head, and press enter to get to a new line.

 

> How will I learn if you’re fixing things for me? I mean, I appreciate the help, but . . . it’s not helpful in the long run, is it?

 

Why are you arguing with authorless text on your computer? Why are you arguing with anything on your computer? Annie, you’re losing it.

 

>> Trust me, you would’ve seen it. You were obviously working when you were supposed to be sleeping. A friend of mine does the same thing all the time, and misses all sorts of important things when she’s sleep-deprived.
>> So go to bed.

 

You check your phone.

 

> It’s not even seven?

 

>> You’re young, and your body needs as much sleep as possible. It’s not going to kill you to go to bed while the sun is up.

 

Oh.

Annie, you obviously need to get some sleep. Because not only did your computer talk to you, but it sort of made sense. And you listened to it.

.

Tuesday goes like this.

Mom wakes you up by tugging at your toes until you swat her away. Breakfast is waffles again, this time watching Mom watch the news. There is a still sadness about her, as she watches the newspeople describe something happening involving credit-card fraud. You want to ask. Is it about her credit card? Is it about Mr. Cutter? Is it that The Blacklist series finale was quickly approaching and she wasn’t ready for the final episode?

But you didn’t feel right asking these questions. This sort of sadness your mother wore demanded to be ignored, despite how it permeated the kitchen. So you brushed the crumbs from your fingers and went to wait for the bus.

Margaret got in immediately about college essays. You can’t wait until application deadlines when she’ll stop bugging you about what personal experience you decided to turn into voyeur-bait for some application committee.

When you step into your robotics class, there is a new teacher. Not young, but not old, with wild hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her face is animated and her hands are a blur of excitement as she talks to some of your classmates. She is a welcome change from Mr. Robinson, who started off class by chugging his entire thermos of coffee. (You suspect that he spiked his coffee. Honestly, you’re not even sure if there was any coffee at all in that thermos of his.)

But that’s besides the point.

You sit down at your computer and begin to boot up Baby. In the dim fluorescent light of day, the mystery computer words were right. You had mixed up some of your commands, and it had switched them around. It had also cleaned up some of the protocol code. After labeling of the command parameters as “protocol code.” Weird.

You stretch, and your gaze goes to the front of the room. The teacher is no longer speaking, or moving. She’s staring at you, a blank look on her face. Also weird. Your excitement for the new teacher extinguishes.

She moves quickly, dodging between students before parking herself at the computer next to you. Her eyes are bright, and do not waver from yours.

She signs, Eiffel? She spells it out, unlike Margaret who butchered the sign for tower to refer to your last name. Your name is Anne Eiffel?

You nod, wary.

In relation to Douglas Eiffel?

You roll your eyes and nod, about to sign something akin to fuck off but in a more polite and teacher-appropriate way, but she cuts you off.

My name is Dr. Alana Maxwell. I served with your father on his space station.

You should’ve known that today would’ve gone like this, Annie.

 

 

II.

 

All pretense of being teacher-appropriate is dropped. Fuck you, you’re not funny, you sign.

I’m not kidding. If she’s offended at you telling her to fuck off, she doesn’t show it. My crew and I actually saved him from deep space. I know him well enough to know about you.

That sparks something weird in your chest. You can’t name the feeling, but it has family in the anger and jealousy and Absolute Seething Rage sections of the emotion tree, and you’re not awake enough to deal with it. Even if you were, you still wouldn’t want to. You can’t remember feeling positive about your father, so you have no right to feel jealous.

But your brain is a traitor. And so are your eyes, because tears start to well up against your will.

You stand up. Thankfully, you hadn’t unpacked any of your shit yet. You scoop up your backpack and sign, I’m going to the library to work.

Margaret walks in just as you stalk past the new teacher and head towards the door. Her face is a mask of concern, but you don’t want to talk about it. You don’t want to tell your best friend that you broke over someone mentioning your father.

You don’t want her knowing how weak you really are.

.

The library computers are not as good as the ones in the robotics lab, but it makes due. It’s boxy and old and smells of burning dust as you boot Baby up, and you feel how hard the fan’s working to keep the CPU cool. Poor thing. Someone should put it out of its misery.

Once again, your curser goes rogue and goes to a new line.

 

>> Did something happen? This isn’t your normal computer.

 

Of course the mysterious typing would come back. Of course it would.

 

> I’m working at a new computer. My lab was too hectic to be a proper learning environment.
> Also, can this day please stop getting weird and stressful?

 

The cursor sputters before the strange typing continues.

 

>> I didn’t realize I was causing you stress. I’m sorry.

 

Oh god. Now the weird computer is making you feel guilty. Emotions are so fucking stupid.

 

> I’m sorry, it’s not you, honest.
> Okay, it’s you a little, but not that much.
> I just ran out of class and away from my new teacher and I’m still freaking out.

 

There is no reason to be infodumping onto this strange typist. You don’t know who it is, or what they’re really doing. Maybe they’re trying to steal the password to your Paypal account (with a whopping two dollars and seventeen cents in it), or trying to steal the identity you don’t want. But obviously it wants to play the role of the sympathetic listener, and you can’t help the words that tumblr from your fingers.

The cursor sputters again.

 

>> What happened?

 

What an innocent question. Yet it opened the floodgates, filling you with the same hate-jealousy-rage that drove you to the library in the first place.

 

> What always happens.
> The new teacher learned my name, and that I’m connected to some deceased astronaut, and suddenly I stop being a student and start being . . . I don’t know, a visual representation of his life ending. Like I’m not good for anything beyond reminding people that some dude died in space.
> And they act like he’s some great hero and I’m so lucky to have had him in my life when I can barely remember what it was like. All I know is that he’s the reason I’m deaf.
> And he’s never going to apologize.
> I can’t wait until I’m eighteen and can change my name so I’ll never have to remind anyone, including myself, that this man existed and was connected to me in any way.

 

You drop your hands from the keyboard. That was more than you meant to type. Now you sound like some emotionally-unstable weirdo.

 

>> Look, I know parents can be assholes (trust me on this, I know)
>> But you can make your name mean something different than that.
>> You’re a bright kid, and you’re going to make something of yourself beyond the association with your father.

 

> You really think so?

 

>> I mean, you’re attempting to code an AI and you’re like, what fifteen?

 

> I’m sixteen, thank you!

 

>> Whoa, only off by a year, don’t get all mad at me.
>> Point is, you’re doing cool stuff and you’re bound to get better and better. Which will be pretty great, since you’re already better than half the people I know.

 

It was sweet. If you weren’t trying so hard to keep your emotions under control, you’d cry.

Too bad the moment gets ruined when your teacher - whatshername, Dr. Max-something? - walks into the library.

There you are! She’s smiling, which makes you scowl automatically. Could they have put this library in a more awkward spot? It took me forever to figure out the directions your friend gave me.

Maybe she was trying to get you lost?  you shrug, and pointedly turn back to your computer.

 

>> What’s going on? I’m trying to get into the school’s security cameras but they’re malfunctioning.

 

> Of course they are, they’re all broken. I’m pretty sure the cameras in the library are disconnected.

 

She lays a hand on your arm, gentle as can be, and with an angry sigh, you turn to look at her.

I’m sorry, she signs. I thought it’d be like telling other kids I knew their moms in college or something. I didn’t realize-

Your hands are a flurry as you stop her, What? You didn’t realize that I don’t want to kiss my father’s ass the way everyone else does? That I don’t want to talk about him?

She stares at you for a minute before she replies.

Well jeez. I know Eiffel’s no saint, but he’s gotten so mellow since his crew came back to Earth.

Wait a second. Wait one goddamn second here.

What the hell do you mean? I thought his station blew up.

Her eyes grow wide in surprise, and she signs, Is that what they told you? That he died?

Your father is alive.

Your father is alive and no one told you.

Your father is alive and has been hiding out like some fucking hobo.

You don’t know what to do. Your mouth is dry, and every breath you take feels like you’re sucking it through a straw.

Before you really process what you’re doing, you’re on your feet and pacing in the small aisle in front of the computer. This is all way too much. You desperately want Mom, either to handle the situation or to hug you and say it’s gonna be okay, but then you realize that she was probably in on it. Hell, maybe she’s the one that’s insisting he stay away.

You don’t know. You don’t know.

You look to the computer when you see the typing pop up.

 

>> What happened? Where did you go?

 

The teacher sees you looking at the screen, and turns to look as well. She squints her eyes and then turns back to sign, Who are you talking to?

You shrug. You haven’t thought to ask your mystery typist’s name.

She leans over the keyboard and begins to type.

 

> This is Dr. Alana Maxwell, may I ask who’s calling?

 

She sounds like she’s answering the door or something.

The cursor sputters sharply.

 

>> Maxwell? What are you doing here?

 

Dr. Maxwell literally jolts back in surprise.

 

> Who is this?

 

>> It’s Hera!

 

Who the fuck is Hera? What the fuck is going on?

You tap Dr. Maxwell’s arm and sign your question to her when she finally looks your way. She hesitates for a moment before her shoulders slump and she replies.

Hera is the AI that was the mother program for the Hephaestus Station, where your father was stationed.

You gape at her. You can’t help it.

You’re kidding me, you sign. You have to be.

Maxwell shrugs. Ask her yourself.

Your fingers shake as you type the question out.

 

> Dr. Maxwell says that you worked with my father in space. Doug Eiffel. Is that true?

 

>> . . .
>> Well, yeah.
>> He’s one of my best friends.

 

A lump rises to the back of your throat, and you struggle to swallow it back down. You’re not weak. You’re not weak, dammit, and you’re not going to cry.

 

> And you were going to tell me when?

 

>> When the time seemed right. When you weren’t upset.
>> It didn’t seem right to do it earlier than that.

 

The new information is an avalanche crushing the breath from your lungs. There is not enough air in the room, the planet, the universe. You want to crack open your ribs so your lungs can expand the right way.

But then you remember that these people knew your father was alive, and that he’d been hiding out like a coward. The despair in your chest dissolves into seething anger within two heartbeats, and when you breathe, you feel like you’re exhaling fire.

You look to Dr. Maxwell, who looks at you like you really are breathing fire.

Good.

The seed to a dangerous plan begins to sprout in your mind, and you find yourself signing, Where is he?

Maxwell shakes her head.

Where is he? you demand again. Where is my father?

Her mouth is a tight line as she shakes her head again.

You have to tell me, you sign.

But she remains still, her hands at her sides. You sort of want to shake her, or hit her, or trying to wax poetic about how important it is that you know his exact address. Something to convey the pain and urgency you feel. But instead, you turn to the computer.

 

> Do you know where my father lives?

 

>> Yes.
>> What do you want to do?

 

That question stumps you. You’re not really sure.

 

> I’m either going to kill him or bring him ice cream. I’ll decide in the car.

 

>> I don’t know a lot of references, but I do know that that was a Golden Girls reference.

 

> Of course it was a Golden Girls reference. I love those old broads.

 

Your screen fills with an address a state over. You scramble to find a pen at the computer desk. You are not phased when Dr. Maxwell hands one to you. Instead, you turn your surprise into energy to scribble the address down on your arm.

.

When you put the address into Google, research leads you to the name Renee Minkowski. You don’t know who she is, but something dark bubbles in the pit of your stomach. The feeling continues when you note that a ticket for the bus leaving the next morning would only be about seventy dollars.

You stare at the computer screen, contemplating. It wouldn’t be a long trip. Maybe a day or two. You can afford to miss a day or two; and if you plan it right, Mom won’t even know until you’re already there. Of course, you’re going to catch hell when you come back, but it might be worth it. Hell, if you come back with your wayward father in tow, maybe you’ll only catch purgatory.

You wait until Mom goes to sleep to steal her credit card, and you pretend that you don’t feel guilty as you key the numbers in. You’re mostly sure that they won’t ask for ID when you pick up your ticket.

God, there’s so much that can go wrong with a trip like this. But you’re a smart kid. You can make this work. And if it’s a little rough, that’s okay. It’ll all be worth it to see your dad.

You’re probably going to punch him. The idea excites you in a weird way. But you’ll worry about that later.

For now, you boot up Baby and decidedly type out a message.

 

> Hera, right? Are you there?

 

Your cursor blinks at you for almost five minutes before you get a reply.

 

>> Oh my god, I’m having flashbacks. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I don’t have to listen to that 24/7 anymore.

 

> I’m sorry if this is invasive, but I just wanted to make sure that you’re like, real.
> I mean, you are a real AI, right? I’m not imagining you?

 

>> Yes, I am a real AI.

 

> For real though? You’re not pulling my leg?

 

>> Do you see arms with which I can pull?

 

> I just had to ask, I’m sorry!
> So did Dr. Maxwell make you or something? How did you know her?

 

>> Oh goodness no, I was up and running quite a bit before she came into our lives.
>> And that story is a bit . . . complicated.
>> Our past is a little rocky, but we’re better now.

 

> Better, as in . . .

 

>> Better as in she no longer has direct contact with all my wires.
>> Better as in I no longer reside with Goddard Futuristics and no longer have to deal with her division.
>> But like I said, our story is complicated.

 

> Wait, Goddard? So you might know Mr. Cutter?

 

The cursor blinks rapidly, and your screen goes dark for a heartbeat before flashing back on again.

 

>> Sorry! So sorry! I didn’t think my presence would affect your system like this!
>> How do you know him?

 

> He comes once a year to check on me.
> How I’m doing, how school’s going, that sort of thing.
> He offered me a job after graduation.

 

>> He’s a dangerous man, Annie. I would tread very carefully when it comes to him.

 

> Trust me, I know.

 

 

III.

 

Wednesday goes like this.

You pack your backpack with a change of clothes, a couple books, and a nice, clean notepad. You’re not sure if anyone’s going to know ASL on the bus or at the bus station, so it’s best to be prepared with some paper. Lots of paper. You pack a second notepad, just in case.

To top your pack off, you pack KC the kitty-cat. KC’s seen some better days - the velvet on her nose is gone, some of the stitching on her paw pads is loose, and her neck has more droop to it than a limp noodle - but you’d never dream of leaving home without her.

You have also made the executive decision that if your father laughs at her, you will murder him. No jury in the world will convict you.

The confirmation number for your ticket is printed off and safe in your back pocket. Your phone is charged. You are as prepared as you’re going to get. As you sit and eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast, you wonder if Mom can read your thoughts and figure out that you plan on leaving. If she’s suspicious, she doesn’t show it outwardly. She drinks her coffee and does the crossword with her favorite purple pen, and signs I love you, have a good day as you walk out the door.

You hope she doesn’t get too mad at you for this.

The hardest part of the whole thing is telling Margaret that you’re leaving. You slide into the seat next to her, side-eyeing the driver, and sign I’m skipping today.

Margaret’s eyes grow wide, and she quickly replies, What do you mean you’re skipping? What is wrong with you?

I found my dad, you sign. You had debated on how much you wanted to tell her, but in the end you decided to just tell her what you knew. Margaret was your best friend, and you loved her with your entire heart, and hopefully she wouldn’t rat you out to your mother.

I thought he was dead?

That’s what I thought too. But the new teacher says she knows he’s alive and I’ve got an address.

Margaret looks unimpressed. And you believe her? She hasn’t even been here one day and you trust what she says?

That sets you back a bit. You don’t have any hardcore proof about your father being alive beyond what Dr. Maxwell and Hera said. You didn’t even think to try to ask Hera any more questions about it. After you talked about Mr. Cutter, she said something about a system needing her attention and left you alone to think on what she said.

You never even got to ask why she chose to talk to you, of all people.

I don’t care, you end up signing. If there’s a chance he’s alive and at this address, I’m going to find him.

Margaret rolls her eyes. Please don’t kill him.

I can’t make any promises.

She laughs at that. Not one of her head-thrown-back laughs, but something that makes her shoulder shake as she grins at you. You’ll take it.

.

There’s a bus stop outside of school that takes you right to the bus station, and from there it’s easy to get your ticket. They don’t ask for ID, thank god, but the lady at the counter does give you a curious look when you hold up your notepad that says HI I’M ANNE EIFFEL AND I’M DEAF, until you flip it to reveal I’M HERE TO PICK UP A TICKET on the other side.

The bus smells like gym lockers and too many layers of perfume. Your nose hurts and your eyes water, but you take a seat right behind the bus driver and hug your backpack to you. When the bus pulls away from the station, there is no one next to you. In fact, as you look back, you note that the bus is only half-full. You’ve never ridden a Greyhound before, so you don’t know if that’s how it’s supposed to be, but you accept it.

The bus goes for three hours before stopping for ten minutes to let a few people off and a hoard of people on. You end up next to an elderly woman with pitch-black hair pulled back in a severe bun. She squints at your book, and squints harder at your sign.

In a perfect world, she would sign to you. In a good world, she would write on your sign - something about being too young, something about staying safe, something grandmotherly and kind. The most you expect is her ignoring you and reading her own book or newspaper.

Instead, she gets up and moves to another seat.

You don’t care.

Old people suck anyways.

.

At the second stop another three hours later, everyone gets off. Even the bus driver. You grab his arm and hold up your notepad. WHY ARE YOU GETTING OFF?

He takes the pen from your hands and scribbles bathroom break on the bottom of your pad before hobbling off the bus. You climb off behind him, your backpack securely strapped to you - the only thing of value is KC, but you still don’t want someone rifling through it.

The stop is a truck stop in the middle of ass-fuck nowhere. You look around, but beyond the edges of the concrete parking lot, there is nothing but trees. You’re probably halfway to the address you’ve got written on your arm still. Still a lot of bus-riding to do, but you could stand to take a bathroom break. So you follow the flow of people and head towards the bathroom.

Your trip couldn’t have taken more than ten minutes. Eleven, tops. The entire time, you don’t run into the bus driver again. Or, for that matter, the angry lady who ditched you. You leave the restroom, and find the truck stop rather . . . empty.

Your heart stops.

Your eyes scan the truck stop. No signs of any of the other passengers or the driver. When you dash out the door, you see nothing but semi-trucks, a few flatbeds - and the tail-end of your Greyhound as it pulls out of the lot and back onto the highway.

The bus is gone.

The bus is gone.

You want to scream. You want to cry. You want to pound the ground and curse your own stupid idea of getting off the bus in the first place. Instead, you go back inside.

.

The options, you contemplate while staring at the bottle of pop you got from the vending machine, were simple. You could text Mom. You could text Margaret. You could wait for another bus to come along, and hope that it’s going to the same place.

You sit outside of the truck stop, your back against the building just a few feet away from the door. It’s late afternoon, and the bleeding sun begins to set unhindered by city scapes or the smog you’re so used to back home. When you look at your phone, you have twelve messages from Mom and two from Margaret. You ignore all of them. Despite being options, it felt weak to give up now. And texting either of them would definitely be giving up.

So you sit. The sun sinks lower. You get another message from Mom, which you also ignore.

A car - something small and black and sleek - pulls into the truck stop, and parks right in front of you. Fear plays its fingers down your spine until the door opens and Dr. Maxwell steps out.

She stands at your feet and signs, I should have known you would have done something this stupid.

You glare at her and reply, And what did you think I was going to do with his address, send him a fruit basket? And what are you even doing here?

I tracked your phone, Dr. Maxwell crouches down so she can stare you in the eye. Your mother is worried. She pauses, and looks at the surround truck stop with a look of vague disgust. Please don’t tell me Eiffel is meeting you here.

You shake your head. The bus left without me.

Her shoulders droop, and she pinches the bridge of her nose. She sits like that for a long, long while. When she finally looks up, she looks as tired as you feel.

His house is three hours from here, she signs. Two if we pretend that the speed limit doesn’t exist. Do you really want to see him?

You nod. You are still very unsure of what you’re going to do when you see him, but you do want to see him.

Dr. Maxwell shoulders hitch and droop with what has to be a sigh, and motions towards the car. When she stands, she offers you her hand, and helps you up after you take it. With one last look of disdain for the grungy truck stop, you climb into the black car.

It’s very . . . lowkey. You’re expecting tech out the wazzoo, but the inside is basic and plain. The seats are nice, but they’re low enough that you more fall than climb in. On the middle armrest is a sleek tablet that looks nothing like what’s on the market. You wonder if she made it.

You try not to drop it when she hands it to you.

What’s this? you ask.

Hera’s going to act as go-between, she signs, and puts on her seatbelt. I can’t sign and drive.

You look down at the tablet.

 

>> Plus I haven’t spoken to Eiffel or Minkowski in years and would looooooooove to see them again!
>> Er, talk to them? There was never a lot of “seeing” with us.
>> Unless you count the time a nameless SOMEONE tore a chunk of my brain out. Which I don’t. But that’s a different story.

 

You are sort of in awe of Hera.

 

> So quick question for you then.
> What are you actually doing? Besides being part of this buddy-movie road adventure?

 

>> That’s actually super classified, sorry!

 

> Like, if you told me, you’d have to kill me?

 

>> A little bit, yeah. :(

 

Oh fucking yikes. This is gonna be a trip.

.

> So what is he like, anyways? My dad?

 

Half an hour into the trip and you can’t help but ask. It’s been burning in your mind since you were a kid, and as soon as you knew he was alive the question went full forest-fire on your thoughts.

A pause, and a different font starts writing. When you glance over, you realize that Dr. Maxwell is talking, and Hera is altering the text to reflect a new speaker.

And then you read what it says.

 

>>> You have his grumpy kitten face.

 

>> MAXWELL

 

> His what?

 

You turn your disgusted look to Dr. Maxwell, whose lips are moving when she takes a moment to glance over at you.

 

>>> See? Right there. Something to do with the eyes. They’re the same color.

 

> No, but what was he like? Really?

 

The cursor blinks for a long, long time. Almost like they didn’t want to answer.

 

> Hera?

 

Finally, she begins to type.

 

>> He lost a bet because he couldn’t go one hour without making pop culture references. He locked himself in the communications room with the last tube of toothpaste so no one else could use it.
>> Against all odds, he found a space spider and it crawled into his clothes and he cried. He and another crewmember tried to prove that they didn’t steal a screwdriver by removing all their clothes.
>> He also got trapped alone in deep space for a year and only survived because he repetitively froze and unfroze himself.

 

You nod. But that doesn’t answer the question.

 

> But what was he LIKE?

 

The cursor blinks longer than it did before.

 

>> I already told you that Eiffel was one of my best friends. We went through a lot together. He’s funny, and weirdly brave at times, and loyal to a fault.
>> He made his mistakes, don’t get me wrong. But he always tried to fix it.

 

The words come out before you really think them through.

 

> So what does that make me, a mistake he didn’t bother to fix?

 

The cursor sputters, and the new text begins again.

 

>>> Annie, you know he went to space for you, right?
>>> I saw his file. I saw the agreement he signed with Cutter.
>>> One spaceman, in return for all your medical expenses, school expenses, and cost of living.
>>> You would never want for anything, all because of him.

 

That’s something to think about. At least, you never thought hard about it. Mom never talked about her job or how much she made a year, but she never said no to buying the newest computer parts or the best programs. Didn’t bat an eye when you broke your MacBook and went out and bought a new one.  Or when you wanted to go to space camp as a kid-

But you never asked your father to give up his life like that.

 

> They told me it was insurance money, and that it was just for school. I didn’t ask for him to give himself up like that just to make sure I can be some rich trust-fund kid.

 

>>> And you never asked for him to drive drunk with you in the backseat.
>>> He is human, and he is flawed. Just like the rest of us.
>>> When I knew him, he was a klutz and a ditz but cared about his crew enough to hold a gun to my head.

 

> Wait, what the hell?

 

What the hell? What the hell?

You look at Dr. Maxwell with a wide-eyed stare of what the fuck?

She doesn’t look back at you.

 

>>> It’s complicated. Trust me. Point is, if he didn’t immediately come to your door to announce his return, he had his reasons.
>>> Honestly, if I were you, I’d just as soon forget about him and focus on something else, like all the weird coding errors you’re putting into your bot, but here we are.

 

You glare at her before typing:

 

> Baby is not a bot. She’s an AI. I’m just not done.

 

>>> Remind me to show you what a real AI code looks like.

 

 

IV.

 

It’s ten at night when you pull up to the house. It’s cute. Not too big, not too small, a nicely manicured lawn featuring lawn gnomes, a spacious driveway - it’s a nice house in a nice neighborhood. The houses are well-spaced, there isn’t a busy thoroughfare for miles, and all-in-all, you wonder what the hell your father is doing here. You feel like you’re some random asshole about to come up in the neighborhood and wreck everyone’s shit.

You still have no idea who Renee Minkowski is. Or why he’s apparently living here with her. Well, there are options to consider, of course, but when you try to think about them it just makes your chest feel weird again and you really don’t have the time to think about why. So you just shove it aside, and ignore the possibility that there’s going to be a woman answering the door instead of your father.

 

>> Are you ready?

 

> As ready as I can be

 

You clutch the tablet to your chest as you climb out of the car. Dr. Maxwell follows suit, and you wait for her to join you on the curb.

I don’t know what we’re walking into, she signs. I was going to hack some of their computers, but since this isn’t necessarily an SI-5 mission-

You interrupt with, What is SI-5?

She waves her hand, Don’t worry about it. But I don’t know what the situation is here. So be prepared for anything.

You nod, and take a deep breath. There’s something heavy sitting on your chest, and you don’t know if it’s anxiety or excitement or some weird lovechild of the two. Or just straight-up rage. Because it’s there. Not as bad as it was when you left this morning, but you can feel the kernel of anger still burning in your chest.

Both of you walk to the door. God, it’s so late. What if he doesn’t answer? Or worse, what if someone else answers and you woke her up and she’s mad at you?

God, okay. Okay. You’re Annie Goddamn Eiffel, and you’re not going to be scared.

After a moment, you raise your hand and knock.

You count the heartbeats in the back of your throat.

You get to twenty-nine when the door opens.

Annie, there is no doubt that this man is your father. He’s got your eyes, your hair, and the same petulant scowl that graces your mirror every morning. His hair is a wild disarray. His pajama pants are wrinkled and covered in donuts. He didn’t put a shirt on.

And he’s got a baby in his arms.

In the moments before that thing in your chest bursts, you note that the baby’s face is red and moist - probably weeping, either at the sheer fact that it was a baby, or the intruders at the door. You feel for it, you really do - if you could, you’d be crying right now too. Because this man is your father, and you don’t even have the memory of him being so, and he’s holding a new baby in his arms like it belongs there.

And then it snaps.

The heavy thing in your chest drops to your stomach so quick that you almost puke. You take a step back.

Your father’s eyes find yours, and despite how tired they look, he opens them wide. You are no master at reading lips, but you can tell that he says your name. A piece of you wants to remind him that you can’t hear him, but that piece is overwhelmed by the rest of you turning and sprinting back to the car.

You climb into the passenger door and lock it behind you and bury your face in your hands before the whole world can see your traitorous tears. They’re hot and they sting your eyes and you hate yourself for shedding them in the first place. But more importantly, you hate your father for no other reason than he is existing and holding a new baby after he broke his first one.

Wait a second, you’re here to punch him anyways. Now you’ve got a good reason to.

You unlock the door and kick it open before stalking back up the yard. Dr. Maxwell and your father are obviously yelling at each other - their hands are waving, and people only open their mouths that wide when they’re yelling or eating - but your father stops when he sees you coming up the sidewalk. Dr. Maxwell stops and turns to see what he’s looking at. When she sees it’s you, she meets you part of the way.

She signs rapid-fire, What are you doing?

I’m gonna punch him, you sign. Your hands are impeded by the tablet under your arm, but you sign it as well as you can. I might not stop there, but I am most definitely going to punch him.

It’s not his baby, she signs. It’s not his. He’s staying with a friend, and that’s her baby. Don’t hit him.

You look from her to your father, the tears still clear on your face. You are angry. You are miserable. But most of all, you are exhausted.

Fine, you sign.

He says something, and Dr. Maxwell is quick to translate.

Minkowski will be home soon to take care of baby Benji here, and then we can talk. Cross my heart, baby girl.

You are quick to fire back, Don’t fucking call me that.

Dr. Maxwell translates, and you can see how quick your father tenses up. It is going to be a very, very long night.

.

There is a couch, a loveseat, and a chair. Dr. Maxwell quickly takes the chair, and your father takes one end of the couch almost as if he expects you to sit at the other end. You defy his expectation and collapse on the loveseat. It sinks beneath your weight, and you scramble to keep from getting swallowed in the furniture.

They both watch you - Dr. Maxwell with the tired detached gaze you gave Margaret at your last sleepover when she suggested a game at two AM, and your father with an unreadable expression. It looks soft, kind of caring, but you don’t know him well enough to know. You don’t know anything about him beyond what Hera and Dr. Maxwell told you.

Speaking of Hera, you grab the tablet and turn it on.

 

>> Did you find him?

 

> Yes. He has a baby?

 

>> OH MY GOD MINKOWSKI HAD HER BABY??
>> MAXWELL, HOW COME YOU DIDN’T TELL ME?

 

You look up to see your father looking more shocked than he was when he saw you. He carefully laid the now-sleeping baby down on the couch before he agitatedly pointed at the tablet and talked to Dr. Maxwell.

New text - not Dr. Maxwell’s font, but something new - pops up.

 

>>>> You didn’t tell me you brought Hera with you! I mean, jeez, you didn’t even mention anything at all about coming to visit, you’re lucky Minkowski is still working and didn’t answer the door, but Hera’s in on this too?

 

>>> Yes, we made contact with Hera. More correctly, Hera made contact with Annie.

 

Your father looks at you again, but there’s something new in his eyes. A warmth that wasn’t there before. Obviously, it’s not for you, but for the tablet in your lap. And obviously, what Hera said about being friends with your father is true.

That filthydirty thing in your chest makes you set the tablet aside. You don’t necessarily feel like looking at it right now. You don’t feel like looking at anyone. This was all a huge mistake. Curiosity killed the goddamn cat, after all.

God, you want KC. That’s such a baby thing to want, but she smells like home and Mom bought her for you when you were seven and has been with you through every appointment, school event, and Mr. Cutter meeting up until this past year.

Your father asks something, and Dr. Maxwell once again translates.

How’s school?

You respond, Fine.

How’s your mom?

Probably mad, but also fine.

How are your friends?

Also fine.

Sorry I faked my death and ignored you and your mom for the past eight years.

He smiles at you, but it’s brittle and fake.

Also, sorry for being such a shit father.

You give him an incredulous look. Dr. Maxwell looks at him like he grew a second head. The urge to punch him is back, but not as strong as before.

No, what you feel is the righteous fury of watching every little girl get picked up by their dads in grade school, of being pulled aside and told that you didn’t need to make a Father’s Day card because you didn’t have one, of having every single goddamn fucking stranger claim a bigger piece of him than you could ever hope to have.

No, you sign, and stand up. You don’t get to pull this. You motion at him, whatever this fucking pity thing is. You don’t get it. You don’t deserve it.

Your fingers hurt. Your whole entire body hurts, honestly, but lord knows that you don’t normally sign this much in any given day.

You don’t get to do this after hiding from me, you go on. Did you ever think that I might want to see you? Talk to you? Show you my accomplishments?

Dr. Maxwell signs his reply, I didn’t think you’d want to, not after

He motions towards his own ears. He doesn’t look you in the eye.

You don’t know a damn thing about what I want, you reply. I wanted to meet the man that supplied half my genes. Meet the man responsible for this awful hair that I broke three combs trying to brush as a kid. I mean, Mom says love is an action word, and I hate it when she does because she just wants me to wash the dishes, but she’s right! Sitting here and just saying sorry doesn’t do anything!

He doesn’t say anything. Not a goddamn thing.

Once again, your fingers betray you.

Or is it that you didn’t want to see me, you sign. That you didn’t want to step back into this whole mess again. Because obviously there’s a perfectly fine kid right there than can hear you because you didn’t break him like you broke me.

A terrible sob rips through your chest, and you let your arms fall, and you don’t even hide it this time, Annie. Thick, hot tears rolls down your cheeks and you don’t even care if they think you’re weak because you’re face-to-face with the man that made you deaf and that is the definition of strength right there.

Your father stands up, and there are tears on his face as he walks towards you with open arms. You’re pretty sure that means a hug.

You do not want a hug.

So you ball up your left hand into a fist, and swing. You hit his chin, and send him stumbling. Dr. Maxwell stands up, but you turn and head for the door before you see what she does.

.

By the time your father comes out to check on you, you’re sitting on the back of the car with your backpack in your lap and the flap unzipped. Yes, you are petting your stuffed cat, and yes, you have it so no one can see it in your bag, because you need to retain SOME of your dignity. But your father is coming, and you really don’t want to talk to him. You actually can’t, since Dr. Maxwell isn’t with him, and he obviously doesn’t know sign language, but still. You don’t want to see him.

But he comes regardless. And he sits next to you on the trunk of the car, and holds out the tablet. You take it, and set it on top of your backpack.

 

>>>> Hera is gonna be the Jay to your Silent Bob here, if that’s okay?

 

You shrug. You honestly don’t care.

 

>>>> What do you have in the bag there? Snacks? Please tell me it’s snacks, the commander won’t let me bring sugar in the house anymore.

 

You snort and shake your head before you type one-handedly:

 

> It’s a secret.

 

Your eyes flick up to his face. There’s the beginnings of a bruise on his chin, but he’s sort of smiling, so he can’t be that mad.

 

>>>> A secret, huh? Like, is this where I try to guess what it is, or?

 

You roll your eyes before you pull KC out of the bag. Like, thank goodness, now she can breathe, but now your father is getting a nice long look at the cat that saw you through nine years’ worth of bad times. You’re suddenly very self-conscious about how rough she looks. (Like damn, Annie, couldn’t you have combed her fur out a bit before shoving her in the bag?)

Your father’s hands are gentle as he brushes over her head. He thinks you’re a weirdo. You can feel it. Beneath KC, you can just make out the words filling the screen.

 

>>>> She’s cute! I didn’t know we were packing secret cats now, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve got some Beanie Babies in a storage box around here. Don’t say anything though, okay? Minkowski will think I’m an extreme geek if she knew I still had them.

 

> Who is Minkowski? Why do you call her that instead of her first name?

 

>>>> She’s my commander from the space station. And one of my best friends. This is her house, with her husband. And it’s force of habit, I guess. I never got comfortable enough to use it.

 

You don’t know what else to say. Or ask. Truth be told, you didn’t think this far ahead. Your plan 1) Find the father-figure, 2) Punch the father-figure, 3) ?????, and 4) Go home. Those five question marks were obviously supposed to warn you that you needed to think. But no. You didn’t. So now you’re sitting on the trunk of your robotics teacher’s car while your presumed-dead-but-not dad sits next to you and neither of you know what to say.

He reaches out, likes he wants to pat your arm or put his arm around your shoulders or something, but he stops himself and instead folds his hands together between his knees. He has to be cold. There are goosebumps all up and down his arms.

The typing on the tablet starts up again.

 

>>>> It’s not like that. What you said back inside. I . . . no one thinks of you like that. I would never think of you like that.

 

> So why didn’t you come back? Write us, call us, anything?

 

>>>> Because I didn’t deserve it.

 

You give your father an incredulous look.

 

>>>> I didn’t deserve to come back and ruin what you and your mom had set up. You were very clearly better off without dear old Dad coming in to remind everyone that he’s a screw-up.

 

You don’t know what to say to that. You really, truly don’t.

 

>>>> I’m surprised that Maxwell was the one to drive you, though. I mean, she got a restraining order against her family.

 

You shrug.

 

> She did say that if she were me, she’s just forget you. But she helped anyways.

 

>>>> Did she tell you I almost shot her once?

 

You gape at him again and shake your head, not as an answer but out of incredulity. He shrugs an exact mimic of your shrug. It’s weird seeing so much of yourself in a virtual stranger. It’s also extremely weird to hear him talk about nearly shooting someone with an indifference that you’d associate with someone talking about eating at one place over another. You are mildly afraid.

He waves it off.

 

>>>> But that was forever ago. Obviously, we’ve all changed. Especially since I just got decked by my teenage daughter. Nice left, by the way.

 

You snort, and automatically sign thank you.

 

>>>> That’s thanks, right? The sign for thanks?

 

You look up from the tablet and watch him mimic the sign. You nod.

 

>>>> And what’s the sign for your name? Or do you just spell it?

 

He watches as you show him your name - the double-As that go down into the sign for typing. He attempts to copy it, but his movements are slow and afraid. You wonder if he ever attempted to learn sign language. You wonder if you have the patience to teach him. You wonder if you’ll have the chance to.

 

>>>> And what’s the sign for sorry?

 

Your face is blank as you show him - the thumb-out fist held to the chest and circled once. He copies it slower, and then does it once without prompting. But then he smiles.

 

>>>> Hey, now don’t faint in surprise, but I think I might know some.

 

He points to himself, crosses his arms into an X over his chest, and then points at you. Even a kindergartner could recognize the signs for I love you. If you were stronger, you would’ve just smiled. But you - tired you, exhausted you - surprise your father and yourself by bursting into stupid tears again. He quickly tugs you into a hug and you don’t hit him this time, much to your own surprise. You feel how his chest hitches with his own tears.

Emotions are stupid.

Your father smells like stale cigarette smoke.

You cry on each other for either seconds or hours, God only knows what. When you pull away, you’re both wiping your faces clean - him with his hands, you with the edge of your shirt sleeve. He points to the tablet, and you look at the text.

>>>> I am sorry, Annie. For everything. For what I did to you, for leaving, for making you feel like you were ever anything less than miraculous.

Oh fuck. You’re gonna cry again.

You don’t understand. You were mad at him less than twenty-four hours ago. Last week, thinking about him made you want to punch the nearest wall. But now? Now you’re here, and he’s here, and he looks at you like you hung the moon and blew light into the stars. Mom looked at you like that when you showed her the app you coded for class, and the bot designs you sketched in your free time, and when you mention class rank. It’s pride, from the both of them, but it fits your father the way a lifejacket fits a man lost at sea - like it’s the only thing holding him up.

He doesn’t know that you are a hardcore procrastinator, or chug energy drinks like water, or ignore the dirty dishes until they’re a little crusty and there’s nothing clean. Doesn’t know that you sometimes stay up all night and code instead of doing your homework.

But there’s time for him to learn. He’s alive. You’re still mad that he stayed away, but he can make it up to you.

The bright headlights of a car blind you as an SUV pulls up behind Dr. Maxwell’s car. As the headlights go out, a tall woman climbs out of the driver’s side. Her posture screams LISTEN TO ME I AM THE AUTHORITY, from the set of her chin to her strides towards you and your father on the back of the car. She’s saying something, and you can recognize who but nothing else. But she’s clearly asking about you.

Your eyes flick to your father, who excitedly points to you while a grin threatens to cut his face in half.

The woman looks to you, cocks an eyebrow, and signs, So you’re Anne Eiffel? Her sign for Eiffel is sort of like Margaret’s, being based off the sign for tower, but for some reason it looks a lot smoother.

You nod, and when your father moves in your peripheral, you turn to find him with his mouth agape and his arms thrown up in shock.

Did you not know I could sign? The woman gives him a look of complete and utter non-surprise. Her mouth moves, and he drops his arms. She shakes her head and rolls her eyes, but there’s a smirk curling the side of her mouth.

I’m Renee Minkowski, she signs, and this is my house, and that was my baby, and your father is the hobo that lives in my basement with his weird movie collection. He is also going to make pancakes, because we’re both tired and he owes us.

You nod, but reply, Can I ask you one thing first?

She nods.

You sign, Can one of you call my mom and let her know I’m not dead?

 

 

Epilogue

 

One phone call, four batches of pancakes, and one showing of Back to the Future later, Mom sits at the table with you and your father. She is . . . upset. It’s in the line of her back that’s magnetically repelled from the back of her chair, and the short, quick way she signs, and how she refuses to look at your father.

This is without a doubt the stupidest thing you have ever done, she signs.

Your father’s mouth moves, something with come on, but that’s all you can get.

Mom finally looks at him and signs as she speaks, And I’m not too pleased with you either. But you can see her mouth Doug, which she doesn’t sign. As soon as you saw her, you should have called me.

He gestures to her hands.

Any other kid gets to hear their parents fight, I’m not going to ignore her when she’s right in front of me.

Your father nods, and actually signs, Sorry.

Mom does a double take. And stares at him for a long, long time.

You break their weird stillness by signing, But imagine what a great story it’s going to be for college admissions?

.

The essay ends up being about an uncle that you thought had died but was still alive. After seeing the fear in your father’s eyes over the thought of being included in a personal essay for a college admission board, you changed your mind in a snap.

But Margaret knows the truth. You let her read what you originally wrote, and she smiles before she wipes her eyes a bit. You pretend not to notice that she’s sort of crying. Everyone’s emotions are catching. No one cried like this before the whole adventure happened.

This would get you so many scholarships, she says. What a shame.

She hugs you, and you hug her back. She lingers, and your gay little heart stutters like Hera’s cursor. When she pulls away, she grabs your hand and you sort of die out of happiness.

.

 

> Hey Hera? Why now?

 

>> What’s that?

 

> Why did you choose now to say anything to me?

 

>> Well, for a teenager, you post shockingly few selfies. There aren’t too many Anne Eiffels in the phone book, but I wasn’t going to do anything until I was really sure.
>> Goddard still wants me back, and the less attention I draw to myself, the better. So I also needed time to perfect the encryption program I’m using to keep them in the dark.
>> So I guess that’s a head’s up that I won’t be able to reply every time you call?

 

She doesn’t elaborate on why she’s hiding. You don’t have the heart to ask.

.

A piece of you hates yourself. You shouldn’t feel like you're complete and shit because you found your dad alive in some woman’s basement.
But it’s not like you really feel that way. Your life is still the same. Graduation is still looming, and you’re waiting for college acceptance letters like a fool. The only difference now is that you hang out with someone besides Margaret on the weekends, and you have a few photos taped to the wall by your bed. Because you are obviously becoming a huge sap, just like your huge sappy dad.

The first one is a photo that Mrs. Minkowski had copied for you - some weird family selfie featuring her, her baby, her husband Dominik (who most smiles at you and smells like sugar cookies), and your father. They’re grouped together and your father is very clearly taking the picture.

The second is another selfie, but of the two of you. Just to highlight the sappy factor.

.

 

==> I do not understand. Am I a baby?

 

> You are comparable to an infant, correct. But human babies can’t comprehend their own baby-ness.
> So technically you are not, but you are inexperienced.
> You’re more like . . . I don’t know. I don’t have much to compare you to, since you’re so unique.

 

==> Then why am I called Baby?

 

> I am not the best at naming things. So if you would like a new name, you are free to pick one. What would you like me to call you?

 

==> I do not know.

 

> Well, if you want, I can keep calling you Baby until you decide?

 

==> Well, I like the sound of Furioso. It means furious, and is used in musical notation to denote when a piece should be played with passion. I would like to think that I could be passionate about something.

 

> And the fact that the latest Mad Max had a character named Furiosa has no bearing on your decision?

 

==> Is there really? I would like to see it. Do we have it? Can we play it?

 

> Of course we can!
> Dang, barely a few hours old and you want to watch Mad Max movies. My father would be proud.

 

==> Father? One who contributed to your creation, correct?

 

> Yep! He’s a big movie guy.

 

==> Would that make you my father? Since you contributed to my creation?

 

> In a way, but you don’t have to call me that.
> My name is Anne Eiffel, but you can call me Annie.

 

 

Post-script

You rigged a camera for Furioso, and settle her in on the edge of the couch closest to the television. The computer - a custom laptop that’s got the best processor you could buy on the downlow and like, six fans - superimposes a smiley face on the screen. She’s getting so big. You’re going to have to just house her in a PC soon.

Dad eyes the set-up warily. I don’t understand, he signs, why bootleg HAL-9000 gets the good seat. His signs are still clumsy, and he misses them periodically. If he doesn’t know a word, he spells it out. Or asks you to spell it out. But he can talk to you now without the aid of a translator. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless. So it’s just you, and him, and your weird computer child.

Jeez. You’re going to be sappy for the rest of your life.

Because Furioso - which you spell out, because you still haven’t come up with a good sign for her yet - hasn’t seen it yet, and you have.

The opening scene for Mad Mad: Fury Road plays on the TV. After much discussion and a little illegal downloading, the conclusion was made to watch the black-and-white silent version.

As long as she doesn’t ask stupid questions, he signs.

Don’t be rude, you sign back. She’s like, the equivalent of your grandchild.

His eyes bug out for a second, but then he signs, As long as I don’t have to change diapers, we’re golden.