John gone, p.18
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       John Gone, p.18

           Michael Kayatta
 

  Chapter 15

  Ronika tackled John off the toilet the moment he reappeared in the America Offline bathroom at 3:14 A.M.

  “I’m so glad you’re here,” she cried from the top of him.

  John tried to speak, but his body was still in recovery from the jump.

  “I was so worried,” she said. “I tried to stay optimistic, of course, but it was almost impossible knowing that those men are out there. John?”

  John moaned and fluttered open his eyes. “Huh?”

  “Look, John!” Ronika said, picking up Mouse from the ground beside them. “It’s fixed! Everything is working! The parts came in like thirty minutes after you left. I was so angry; I missed going with you by less than an hour! Thank goodness you’re okay!”

  She leaned her head down and tickled his nose with her fox ears. He sneezed. She laughed and dismounted him.

  John slowly sat up and looked around the small room.

  “So, what happened?” Ronika asked excitedly. “Did they show up? How did you get away? Where were you? A concert? A spaceship? That would be so cool.”

  “France,” John replied. “At a family reunion.”

  “Bor-ing,” Ronika said. “Too bad I wasn’t there. I speak French.”

  “I know,” he said, slowly standing back onto his feet. He crossed his arms, placing his hands inside of his armpits for warmth.

  “Oh, I almost forgot. Look what I brought,” she said. Ronika held out her couch’s blanket to John.

  “You’re a life saver,” he said. She smiled.

  “So, did the men come?” she asked, quieting. “The Advocates?”

  “Yes.”

  Ronika’s eyes widened as her mouth puckered into a frown. “What happened?”

  “They killed most everyone there,” he explained. “I was able to escape with someone from the party. We hid in a field somewhere. The Advocates never showed up. I guess it’s harder to track someone through the grass. I don’t know.”

  “So, pretty boring, then? Minus the reunion holocaust, I mean. How was ... ” She nodded toward the watch.

  “The watch?” John asked, still slightly dazed from his reentry.

  “No,” Ronika said coyly. “I mean ... ” She did a silent, spirited impression of a tall man lecturing. John laughed.

  “Oh, fine,” John answered. “Right, Doc? We came to somewhat of an understanding, I think.” There was no response.

  “How was France, Kala? Bet you don’t even speak French,” Ronika jeered smugly. Still, he said nothing.

  “Kala?” John asked. Ronika leaned in and examined the watch. She noticed the depressed knob.

  “Crud,” she said. “I think you turned him off. When did that happen?”

  “I don’t know,” John said. “We can turn him off?”

  “Certainly makes sense,” she answered. “Pulling the knob out made him appear, so it’s definitely possible that doing the opposite would turn him off again.”

  “I’m going to turn him back on,” John said.

  “Why?” Ronika asked. “Just leave it.”

  “He can help us more than he can hurt us,” he said. Ronika raised an eyebrow.

  John carefully pulled the knob out one click. The doctor’s hologram appeared immediately.

  “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” it yelled. “I’ve been stuck down here for over thirty years and you’re just going to turn me off, just like that? You can’t do that to people. I’m in the dark down here!”

  “I thought you said you had florescent bulbs,” John said.

  “I meant figuratively, smartass! How was I to know if you were coming back?” Kala yelled. “How can I monitor what’s going on if you just arbitrarily turn me off?”

  “Wait a second,” John protested. “I didn’t mean to turn you off.”

  “You didn’t turn me off at all; it was the girl. I saw her hand go over my lens and then, wham, nothing!” he said. “How did she know about the knob? She’s working with the Advocates!”

  “What girl?” Ronika asked.

  “Amandine,” Kala said.

  “Who’s Amandine?” she asked.

  “She’s the one I told you about, the person I hid with.”

  “Seems like you two were about to do a little more than hide,” Kala said angrily.

  “What?” Ronika said.

  John pushed the knob back into the watch quickly, vanquishing Kala’s hologram instantly.

  “John, what happened out there?” Ronika asked.

  As John began to answer, a sudden wave of fatigue overcame him. His eyes closed, and he slowly crumbled to the floor asleep. Ronika leaned down over him and shook his body. He didn’t wake.

  Forty-five minutes later John opened his eyes to the sight of Ronika sitting against the wall of the bathroom, knees pointed upward to support her resting head. She was sleeping. John tried to piece together what had just happened.

  Unable to reach an answer, he crawled across the floor and tugged on her pajama pant leg.

  “Hey,” he said lightly.

  Ronika slowly opened her eyes and lifted her head.

  “You’re awake,” she said.

  “Did we pass out?” he asked. “I’m not sure what just happened.”

  She yawned. “You passed out. I couldn’t wake you up, but you were breathing, so I figured you were alright. I just meant to sit down for a moment, but I must have dozed off. You were really tired, huh? I thought you were faking or something at first, but you really wouldn’t wake up.”

  “Yeah,” John said, sitting up from the ground. “I don’t know. Did you turn Kala back on?”

  “No,” Ronika said bluntly.

  “I’m going to turn him back on now, okay?” he said. “I feel bad. Like he loves to remind us, the guy’s had no human contact in over thirty years. I don’t want to leave him in the dark.”

  Ronika nodded in agreement, but the disapproving scowl hadn’t left her face. John pulled the knob out from the watch’s side. Kala appeared in a seated position.

  “I’m sorry I got heated,” the doctor said immediately. “Obviously, when the girl turned me off, it was an accident.”

  “It was,” John said.

  “It was not an accident, however, when you did so again, almost an hour ago,” Kala said calmly.

  “True,” John replied, “but I only meant to for a moment. I actually, well, seem to have fallen asleep, or passed out, or something. I don’t know what happened.”

  Kala nodded grimly. “Yes, it’s the same thing that happened at Molly’s,” he said.

  “I was just tired.”

  “Yes, but you have less control over that than you think.”

  “What are you talking about, Claw?” Ronika asked.

  “It’s ‘Ka-La’, thank you,” he said. “Now, Mr. Popielarski, think about your body like a rechargeable battery. You have a portable phone, yes?”

  “Not with me,” John answered.

  “Right, but you understand the way its battery works, I imagine,” he replied. “When you first got that phone, I’m sure its life was long and impressive. Those are the numbers they probably used in the advertisements. But manufacturers aren’t exactly forthcoming about what happens to a battery after even the first time you recharge it. Slowly, over time, its maximum life will get shorter and shorter until the time eventually comes that it doesn’t work at all. It’s that same process that’s happening to you now. I can remotely adjust the power the watch pulls while in standby, but doing that won’t affect how much energy the watch uses during quantum events.”

  “I need to ... wait, what?” John asked.

  “The farther you jump, the more of your body’s energy it uses,” Kala explained. “And to keep you ticking, your body has to recuperate that energy quickly. Like the phone, however, the more times you do that, the worse your ‘battery’ becomes. That’s why you’re passing out. When you’re low on energy you can sleep and recharge, or you can ignore it and you
ll pass out. The number of jumps you’ve been experiencing recently is difficult on that process, and it will only get worse.”

  “What can I do about it?” John asked.

  “I would answer ‘come to my lab and let me take it off to save your life,’ but you don’t want to hear that, right?” Kala said.

  John stood silent.

  “It’s also how you die, by the way,” he added.

  “What do you mean?” John asked quietly.

  “You drain, like you just did. But when it happens that time, you won’t be asleep. Your body will just be lifeless, so taxed that regeneration will be impossible for at least an hour. Within that hour, everything in your body shuts down. Your brain goes first, then the other organs. I suppose the good news is that it will feel like going to sleep. Much like what you felt about an hour ago, I’d imagine. Yes, much like that.”

  The grim nature of Kala’s explanation hung in the air for a few moments before someone decided to speak again.

  “I, of course, don’t want you to die, Mr. Popielarski,” Kala said.

  “I know.”

  Ronika put her arm around John and walked with him out of the warehouse toward the scooter parked in the lot. John stopped before mounting it and looked above him. The sky outside was black and lightless. Thin clouds blanketed the stars and moon, obscuring any light they’d hoped to produce.

  The sun will be out in about an hour, John thought. That will be nice. He didn’t know why the thought passed through his mind.

  “Don’t be upset,” Ronika said to him. “He’s just trying to push your buttons.”

  “I can hear you,” Kala noted.

  “I’m not upset,” John said. “We knew that anyway. Maybe not the specifics, but we knew. We’re getting closer, you know.”

  “Closer?” Ronika asked.

  “To whatever comes from all this.”

  “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” she said. She wrapped both of her arms around one of his and hugged it tightly. “What really happened out there?” she asked. “Who’s Amandine?”

  “Just a girl,” John said. “In a way, she made me feel better about certain things. Her whole family died in front of her, and she seemed completely okay afterward. At first I thought it was weird--well, I still think it’s weird--but at the same time, it made me realize that no matter how many awful things come from all this, life will keep moving. Just as stupid and as funny as it ever did.”

  Ronika released his arm and turned from him, taking a few steps away. “I’m sorry I didn’t make Mouse strong enough to stay together. If I’d done a better job, I would have been there with you.”

  John brought his eyes from the stars to Ronika, whose head was turned away from him and angled at the pavement.

  “So, hey,” John said, touching her shoulder. “Do you remember how I told you I want to spend more time with the people I care about?”

  “Yes,” she said quietly.

  “I still need to do that. I have to go see my mom,” he said.

  “I understand,” Ronika replied.

  “But,” John said, “I was wondering if you’d maybe come with me.”

  “Are you sure?” she asked, turning to face him.

  “Yeah,” John said. “I am.”

  Ronika beamed. “Well, of course, then, yes. Okay. Let’s go. Right?” She smiled her head-cocked smile and took the keys from her pocket to offer John.

  “You should drive from now on,” he said, “I don’t want to risk falling asleep at the wheel.”

  “Good point.”

  Ronika lifted a leg over the scooter’s seat and leaned her slender body forward as John mounted the vehicle behind her. He put his arms around her torso and leaned his head against her back between her shoulders.

  “Still tired?” she asked.

  “I’m alright,” John answered.

  Ronika placed her left hand on John’s arm across her belly. With her other hand she put the small key into the ignition and started the scooter. Her touch reminded him of Amandine’s, and he thought back to their night in the vineyard.

  “Do you know what terroir is?” John asked.

  “No idea,” Ronika answered, removing her hand from his arm to place it on the handle of the scooter.

  They drove down the road and arrived at John’s mother’s short blue house just six minutes later. Her car was parked in the driveway. Ronika slowed and stopped the scooter next to the sedan. She and John dismounted and walked to the front door.

  John tried the handle, but found it locked. He didn’t know if this was normal or not; he’d never tried entering his own house at this hour. He tried the doorbell next.

  “She’s going to freak,” John said.

  “Probably,” Ronika replied.

  “I’m inclined to agree,” Kala added.

  “She’s not going to answer,” John said only a moment later.

  There was a back-to-back marathon of Starship Love Affair playing, and though it was her favorite show on television, its frequent plot twists and intrigues could do little to excite John’s mother. Even while watching her characters fall in love or murder each other, she was stuck in delirium, caught within that limbo between dreams and reality. She hadn’t slept more than a few short hours since last she’d heard from her son, and the caffeinated tea she brewed hourly was becoming less effective with each cup.

  A doorbell rang. She examined the set of the spaceship on her television. There are no doorbells in space, she thought. The doorbell rang again. The second noise forced her slightly more awake. She sat up and swiveled her legs in front of her. Oh, that must be my door, she concluded. It’s probably the police again. Maybe they re-opened the case.

  She stood from the couch and shook her face left and right, trying to wake herself enough to hold a semi-lucid conversation. Leaving her mug on the table, her feet dragged as she crossed her living room to the front door. Bleary-eyed, she opened it and looked at what stood waiting for her on the other side.

  She closed her red eyes tightly, as tightly as she could, and opened them again at John. After making his shape from the blur, she gasped. Choking back a torrent of nascent tears, she stepped forward and embraced him. He hugged her back with equal strength. They stood in the doorway in each other’s arms for a full minute before John spoke.

  “Hi, Mom,” he said, his face crushed into her shoulder.

  Reinvigorated and alert, she released her son and looked him over. He was wearing the same clothes he’d been wearing the night of his disappearance. She turned her head left to Ronika, recognizing her immediately from their sole introduction years ago. She noticed the small, black humanoid robot in the girl’s left hand.

  Her eyes travelled back to John again, this time seeing the small tears in his clothing that surrounded dried bloodstains and an assortment of bruises living across his body. Then, she noticed the same strange-looking watch on his wrist that he’d found on the beach behind their porch.

  “Let me make some tea,” she said suddenly, turning sharply back into the house.

 
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