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Matt Bourn short story

Original Fiction: ‘The Child Inside’

Culture

As part of our new Book Club of Man, which includes original publishing, here's a short story by Matt Bourn about a man trying to break down a door to reach his daughter...

The Child Inside

By Matt Bourn

 

There was no answer.

“For god’s sake, your tea’s getting ruined, you need to eat,” Pete shouted at the ceiling to his daughter’s bedroom and then muttered, “Dammit, answer me when I call you.”

He looked across the kitchen table at his younger son, Tim.  It wasn’t the first time Tim’s older sister had been late for tea recently. The boy shrugged.

“Finish your food,” Pete said, standing up, “and leave your phone alone.  You know we don’t want them at the table during meals.”

He marched upstairs, passing three black and white professional studio family photos.  The first photo from his fortieth birthday, the second captured around his wife’s fortieth three years on.  The difference between the two photos was slight, the two adults fitter looking but undeniably older, the children, gawkier with longer limbs.  The third and final photo was the most recent, Jenny’s thirteenth birthday, just two years before.  Each photo adorned the staircase wall, ‘Happy Family Life’ proof for every visitor.

He debated heading straight into Jenny’s room but his memory was raw from the last time he did that. ‘It’s my room, it’s private, my space!’  He could still feel his shock at the real anger, hatred even, which flashed across her young face.

Instead, Pete stood outside her closed door and knocked.  Their most recent battle had come about when he caught her talking on her mobile after bedtime. Against house rules, she’d smuggled her phone into her bedroom, the giveaway a faint glow from a crack in the sheets and the low murmur of her voice.

He knocked again but still no answer.

“Christ, this is ridiculous.” He pushed the door but it jammed, snagging on a pile of clothes strewn on the bedroom floor.  He was betting they were her school clothes, yet to make the wash bin.  They certainly wouldn’t be the ones she came back from town with at weekends.  She gave a stuff about those.  The ones whisked upstairs, outfits bought from her allowance with friends he wasn’t allowed to meet because she was guessing he wouldn’t approve and she was probably right.  There was a top she wore the other week that was way too sheer and he’d nearly choked over the knickers he found in the tumble dryer and their coquettish line written on the silky backside panel.

He leant his weight harder against the door and it shifted a few inches.   Through the opening, he could see Jenny’s feet laid out prone on the floor, skinny fit blue jeans hugging her calves down to those thin ankles tucked away inside thick slipper boots.  What was she doing on the floor? Why wasn’t she answering him?

He pushed the door hard and the clothes gave way.  His heart was racing fast, adrenaline pumping, a mix of anger and now fear pulsing through his body.

What the hell was wrong with his baby?

Jenny was laid out flat on her back on the bedroom carpet. Kneeling by her, he could see her eyes were wide open staring up at the ceiling but there was no focus.  He called her name, “Jenny, Jenny, Jenny!” moving over her, blocking her view to no response. He waved his hand over her face and leant in closer but she didn’t even blink.  He pulled back on to his haunches, despairing.

“Oh my god, Jenny, what’s wrong? What have you done to yourself?” he cried.

He rushed through his woeful first aid skills.  To his relief, she had a regular pulse.  No blueness around the lips, thank god, and no sign of blood.  His stomach was twisting to its lining as he fretted over the still body of his teenage daughter.

He gathered himself and reached for his mobile.

“Emergency, which service do you require? Fire, Police or Ambulance?”

“Ambulance, please.”

“Putting you through…  Hello, ambulance service, can I take your name please?”

“Webster, Pete.”

“Thank you, Mr Webster, can you describe what’s happening to me please.”

He recounted the details of his daughter’s condition, his voice rising as he exclaimed, “and she’s not moving, not moving at all”

“Is she breathing normally?”

“Yes, yes, she’s breathing fine, there are no blockages, her airways are clear.”

“Can you take a closer look at her eyes please? Is there any focus in the pupils or anything else you can see there?”

“No, nothing, no focus, hang on…”

He stared deep into her eyes.  There, in the heart of each pupil, was a tiny pinprick of low pulsing light, fading gently in and out.  Bright, then dull, then bright again.

“I can see a flashing light…”

“Can you listen to her heart please?”

He gently put his head to his daughters’ chest.

“It’s beating, but… ”

“Please describe the heart beat.”

“I can hear a faint whirring, like a motor or a fan, a cooling fan.”

“OK, thanks. There is a paramedic on their way now.  They should be with you in five minutes.”

He hung up and called his wife.  Her phone rang but there was no answer. He left a voice-mail, imploring her to come home as quickly as she could, then fired a text and email to her in quick succession.

Then, he put down his phone and stared helplessly around the room.  He used to play here with Jenny.  There had been a poster of a princess on the wall by her bed. Now there was that boy band he was finding it hard to dislike.  Jenny’s obsession with unicorns had died and with that the ‘Rainbow Dancer’ picture had gone.  A film poster based on a book she’d made him read was there instead.  Her army of plastic ponies that had guarded the floor by her bed had lost their final battle, marched out by a set of hair straighteners and an industrial hair dryer.

The most familiar thing that remained was her smell, a presence that was everywhere in the room she had occupied since she was four. Her room had seemed so big to him back then as he recalled the sounds of the tiny child playing games by herself early of a Sunday morning but not now. Her teenage body covered half the carpeted floor-space. She was outgrowing this room.  Not just the room, he thought to himself.

“Dad!”

He raced to the top of the stairs. Tim had let in the paramedic who now stood in the porch.

“Come up, come up.”

The paramedic climbed the stairs and his heart sank, she looked barely old enough to be qualified. She was wearing dark jean-like trousers, a long-sleeve white top beneath a crisp sky-blue tee shirt and a small tablet computer swung from a silver band around her neck.

“Hello, Mr Webster.  Can you take me to your daughter please.”

He waved his arm towards his daughter’s bedroom and followed the paramedic along the landing and into the room, noting the ‘TeenCare’ logo between her shoulder blades and again on the right back pocket of her jeans.  He slumped against the frame of Jenny’s bedroom door while the paramedic tapped the screen around her neck, overhearing her say, “vital signs seem fine”, and then knelt down.

“Do you mind if I touch your daughter?”

“Of course not, do whatever you need to!”

The paramedic loosened his daughter’s blouse and then gently brushed the blond strands of hair away from Jenny’s face.

“Come here, Mr Webster, I need you to see this.”

She pointed to his daughter’s right ear and to a small square earring.

He hadn’t noticed this before.  The tiny white block of plastic in his daughter’s earlobe.

“What’s that?  There’s a shape on it?”

“It’s an apple…” she replied.

“Is that the problem?  Why would that be the problem?” He looked at the paramedic. “Should we take it out?”

“Christ, no, leave it there or we will lose her completely.”

“Lose her completely? What the hell do you mean?”

The paramedic got up again.  She took a deep breath.

“Mr Webster, your daughter is wearing one of the new i-Rings. I need to ask you a few more things.”

His head was racing.  The other day he’d given her the money to buy a new set of earrings off the market, but she had refused to show him the new pair when she got back.

“Do you know her password? Mr Webster. Do you know her password?”

“Password?”

“Yes, her password, do you know it?”

“What do you mean password?”

“There will be a word she has for security.”

“I don’t know, Christ, I don’t know!”

“Ok, ok, if you don’t know the password I can’t unlock her so we will need to reset her.  Have you registered her with us?”

“Why would I register her with you? Who are you?”

He stared irately at the young woman in front of him.  She returned his look with an even gaze.

“I work for TeenCare, we’re a newly-formed part of the NHS. We’ve been funded specifically for these types of cases.”

She continued.

“When your daughter bought this i-Ring, do you know if she registered the product?”

“I had no bloody idea she bought it!” he cried.

“Ok, well, if she hasn’t registered it and you haven’t, that makes life a bit trickier.  We can’t immediately access the device if it isn’t registered anywhere…”

The paramedic tapped her tablet computer again, absorbed by the screen for a few moments and then asked, “I’m assuming she didn’t share the Ts and Cs with you?”

He looked at the paramedic in silence.

“Mr Webster?”

“No.  No, she didn’t”, he paused, “I don’t really even know what this thing is she is wearing… she said she wanted a new pair of earrings, that was all”

The paramedic let go of her tablet computer and it swung down in front of her stomach, ‘TeenCare’ flashing on its screen.

“The i-Ring is a new wearable tech product.  It allows the wearer to sync their brain with the net.” When he didn’t respond, she said. “It’s a tiny search-enabled computer that plugs your thoughts straight in.”

“Oh.”

“I take it you didn’t know she had one?”

“No.  No, I didn’t.” This strange young woman seemed to know so much more about his Jenny than he did, it was embarrassing.

“The one your daughter’s wearing is a new version.  They’re pretty hot at the moment with the teens.  There aren’t that many on the market.”

He didn’t know what to say.

“Will you excuse me for a moment, I need to speak to my boss back at the help-desk.”

The paramedic stepped into the landing.  The image of a man appeared on her tablet and Pete strained to hear her conversation.

“Hi Tony, this bloody software update is a nightmare, we’ve got another user logged out in the Hertfordshire area.”

“I know.  There’s a major development flaw with version 2.015.”

“Ha, you’re telling me!  Bit bloody late now they’ve let people download it.”

“Yup. Look, Becky, we’re in a bit of a fix, there’s a few more in a similar state.”

“OK, I’ll do what I can here. I’ll send an update when I can.”

“Sure, if we make any progress on the others, I’ll let you know.”

The paramedic turned back.

“I’m afraid there is a problem, Mr Webster, with your daughter and her i-Ring.  Put simply, she has logged out.  There’s a bug in the latest software update so what has happened is she has gone into battery save mode.”

“What?”

“It means she has shut down and is running in a minimal performance mode where she is conserving energy.  She will stay that way until she is instructed to return to normal operational mode.”

“Normal operational mode,” Pete found himself repeating. “What the hell do you mean?”

“I mean, she won’t be herself again until we find a way to reboot her from the battery save mode. Unfortunately, the product wasn’t registered so there’s no ID code to retrieve her from here.”

“What do I do?”

“Well, we need to reboot her, based on a previous version.  Do you know if she made a back-up of herself? An earlier version?”

“Christ knows… how the hell do you do that?”

“Then, we have no choice but to wait for the next upgrade.”

“When will that be?”

“Hang on, let me check the development program.”

She continued talking as she tapped the screen.

“These guys work in fast bursts so it should only be a few weeks at most before they issue a new version.  You’re not the only person experiencing this problem and I know they are working night and day to fix this. They are taking it very seriously.”

“Seriously…”

“We are logging all the user distress calls and sending them directly to the programming team.  Aah, here we are,” she paused and then, “fixes and debugging expected Q1.”

“But… that’s next year, she is going to miss her birthday. Christmas. New Year. Weeks of studies. What the hell do we do with her in the meantime?”

The paramedic powered down her screen and stood up to leave.

“I’ve done everything I can under the TeenCare contract.  I’m really sorry, but there’s no option but to wait.”

“But, you can’t just leave me here with her in that state!” Pete pleaded.

“Is there anything in your household insurance which covers electrical devices?” she asked. “We may be able to provide emergency support as a private contract.  Look, I can wait here while you check and if you’re covered, I’ll do what I can, OK?”

He left the paramedic in Jenny’s room and scoured the black folder that contained all the family’s financial paperwork. As he raced back upstairs with the home insurance details, he left another urgent message on his wife’s phone.

The paramedic scanned the small print of his contract with her tablet.  Eventually, there was a beep.

“Thank you for that, Mr Webster, yes, it looks like you are covered.

“Oh, thank god.”

“You’re now set up.”

“OK, OK, so what do I do?”

“Well, I’ve been thinking about this while you’ve been gone.  There has to be a way round this. I think we need to restart her with something personal, something to trigger the internal memory system.”

“What do you mean?”

“There will be an earlier version of her stored inside the chip she is wearing in her ear. If we can find a way to trigger a memory from that earlier version, it should reboot and we can rebuild from there.  You might lose a few recent memories but nothing major.”

“How do I do that?”

“Well, there is an approach which I haven’t tried before. It’s definitely not one they would endorse back at the help-desk but I think it’s worth a try in the circumstances…”

Pete looked at her anxiously.

“Tell me, tell me!”

“A good hug from someone close to the user might be what we need here,” the paramedic said, and suddenly she looked rather sheepish. “It sounds a bit daft but close human contact from a parental figure, particularly if they were present at birth, might trigger the reboot system.  It could remind the user who they were and bypass the log-out code.”

“A hug?”

“Yes”, she nodded, “A hug.”

“Christ, it’s just…”

“Yes, Mr Webster?”

“It’s just I haven’t been able to hug my daughter recently. She’s been so… distant.”

He was too ashamed to make eye contact with the paramedic.

“Did you hug your daughter when she was born?”

“Yes, I did, I held her in my arms during her first hours, I wore a shirt, it was open,” he paused and then, “I held her tiny head against my chest so she could hear my heart beating and know she was safe and… that she always would be.”

“OK, thank you. Mr Webster, please look at me.  You did it then, you can do it now.”

He nodded silently. With shaking fingers, he undid the buttons of his shirt and pulled it open to sit down bare-chested next to his daughter. Tears silently rolled down his cheeks.

Then he cradled his teenage daughter in his arms, held her like he did when she was a child.  He sat there recalling the times she’d asked him to carry her.  To hold her like a baby, like a princess, like a queen, like a rescued damsel over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift.  He remembered the times he did, the lightness of her body, her giggles popping like fizzy bubbles of laughter in the air.  He remembered the times he didn’t, because he was too busy, the disappointment in her eyes.  He remembered the day he tried to carry her up the stairs for her bedtime story and she was too heavy. Defeated, he had to put her down and ask her to walk. That was the moment he had accepted the child he knew was gone.

 

Follow Matt Bourn on Twitter. 

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