“If you consent and obey,
You will eat the best of the land…”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I have reorganized the story so that the journal entries and present-day events are more evenly interspersed. If it seems like some things are out of order or missing, that’s why. This post follows immediately after we leave Tristan on the bus to his French class.
Still feeling moody and misunderstood, Tristan stepped off his last bus of the evening. He had gotten to French late, the students had all glared at him, and then the professor had singled him out and demanded that Tristan explain his tardiness—in perfect French, of course. Fortunately, Tristan studied diligently and provided his explanation in passable French, earning no accolades but no scorn, either.
Walking the several blocks home, Tristan stared at the cracked sidewalk, ignoring the tree-lined neighborhood street with its lengthening evening shadows, friendly and well-kept working man’s homes, open lawns and neat flower beds. Flags hung from light poles on the street, some all but hidden by the thick, leafy trees that thrived and filled the street with shade in the summer and a blaze of radiance in the autumn.
“Hey, Tristan!” The call brought Tristan’s drooping shoulders up and he lifted his head. It was Caitlyn Small, a girl he’d grown up with. She stood up from her favorite hanging chair on the front porch, dropping a novel into the deeply-sunken cushion as she headed across the lawn to Tristan. The Small family’s aged golden retriever rousted itself enough to saunter slowly behind her, his sausage-shaped body rolling with each arthritic step.
“Hey, Caitlyn.” He stopped and shifted the backpack straps, trying to find a comfortable position for what he estimated conservatively was the one ton of textbooks filling the bag. “How’s it going?”
“Not horrible, but that Politics and Government teacher – what a witch.” Caitlyn didn’t care much for anything besides art, which she loved with a passion Tristan could never understand.
Continue reading.Tristan shrugged noncommittally. “As long as it’s not too much work, I don’t really care.” He turned towards his house, the second house down from Caitlyn’s.
“I guess. But I still have a ton of homework, and it’s only the first night.” Caitlyn walked beside him, kicking at whirligigs along the way. “I wanted to work more on my sculpture tonight, but I guess that’s out.”
Out of politeness, Tristan forced himself to ask, “Oh, so how’s the sculpture going, anyway?” When she started going on about modeling and different materials, Tristan tuned her out. Mom said it paid to be nice to normal people, so Tristan tried, and he did like Caitlyn—really, he did. Just after his French class humiliation and spending the entire day feeling like an outcast, hearing about a neighbor girl’s obsession with art didn’t top his list of enjoyable activities.
After what felt like an eternity, but could only have been less than five minutes in reality, they arrived at Tristan’s house. “Cozy,” Mom and Dad liked to call it, but Tristan and Lottie agreed that three bedrooms for four kids and two parents rated a little tighter than “cozy.” More reminiscent of sardines in a can, they commented to each other on the side. Tristan shared his room with ten-year-old Max, while Lottie and fifteen-year-old Julie slept in the same room, but shared little else. They both eagerly looked forward to Lottie’s graduation in two years.
Stirring himself from his stupor, Tristan glanced guiltily at Caitlyn, but she had happily continued chattering about her sculpture. When she paused, Tristan interjected: “That’s great. I’ll have to see the sculpture some time—”
“Oh, it’s nowhere near done. I couldn’t show it to anybody yet.” She interrupted quickly, blushing. Tristan could tell she was pleased that he wanted to see her work; even though she loved to talk about it, Caitlyn was very shy about actually showing her creations to anybody.
“—But I have to get inside for dinner.” Tristan plowed through Caitlyn’s interruption, trying to politely disengage.
“Right. What’s for dinner? Can I join you?” As younger children, Caitlyn and her sister had often joined Tristan’s family for meals, events that Mom and Dad always carefully pre-planned so as to avoid any embarrassing accidental discoveries.
“Er…” Tristan hesitated, mind racing. They had leftover brains in the fridge, he was sure, but would Mom already have planned a dinner with brains in it? He couldn’t be sure. “I, uh, I don’t think tonight would be good. Maybe another night, OK?”
Caitlyn’s shoulders drooped and her bright, open face closed up a bit. “OK, thanks anyway.” Tristan felt bad; Caitlyn’s family wasn’t like his, and he wanted to help her, but the risk of discovery was just too great.
“Hey, I’m sorry. Let’s see how the homework situation is and maybe you can come over like Friday night or something, OK?”
“Yeah, sure. Whatever.” She had already turned away, walking stiffly back to her house. Tristan saw the golden retriever sitting at the edge of the lawn, tail whapping furiously, waiting for his mistress to return. Maybe the dog’s enthusiastic welcome would help.
But probably not. Tristan knew how Caitlyn felt, and he didn’t think a dog would make him feel any better. His family didn’t keep pets; all it took was one of the family getting loose at the wrong time and a pet would certainly be a goner.
Mom looked down the table towards Dad. “How was your day?” The kids, seated two to each side of the table, ate the simple pasta and salad with gusto. No brains in sight; Tristan wished he had invited lonely Caitlyn in after all. Oh well. He couldn’t be responsible for helping deal with somebody else’s misery; he didn’t even know how to deal with his own dark emotions these days.
“Not bad. No exciting breakthroughs or miracle cures yet, but we found an interesting antibody that seems to have some kind of inhibitory effect…”
Tuning his father’s enthusiastic discourse out, Tristan chewed his ever-so-slightly-underdone pasta and thought about his family. Tristan had to admit that excluding the whole long-held, deep, dark secret, his family could have been a lot worse. Melanie Killigan had quit her lucrative job at the bank when Tristan and Lottie were born and now served as what her children termed the family’s Normal Nazi. She made sure they really looked and acted like everybody else, and so far none of the neighbors had cottoned on to their strange behavior, except to remark that their family was unusually sickly as a whole, frequently having to stay home and quarantine themselves. Mom made up plausible excuses for school so Tristan, Lottie, Julie, and Max could miss a few days every month without penalty. It wasn’t easy, but she came up with some obscure but legitimate diseases that school administrators couldn’t penalize the children for. All the kids worked extra-hard to keep up with their classes, and generally did well enough to fall on the high end of the bell curve. So Mom was OK, even if she didn’t give Tristan and Lottie any credit.
Dad was a researcher and assistant professor at the state university in nearby town and had spent most of his career studying the virus that had afflicted his family since the 1800s. It was James Killigan who had discovered their affliction was an HIV-like virus, transmitted through any bodily fluid, extremely virulent, with an approximately 30-day growth cycle. When the new crop
of viruses emerged from their cells, the members of their family experienced their greatest difficulty in controlling their urges for brains. The rest of the time, they were able to maintain a reasonable pretence of being a normal, everyday family. Dad’s favorite game, aside from chess, was Cranium. He loved the paradox
“…and I’m wondering if some of the more effective HIV treatments might help keep our symptoms in check, at least.” Dad was willing to give almost anything a try to find a cure for his family. The university thought he was working on a novel HIV cure, and Dad hoped that perhaps a cure for their disease would work on other similar viruses, too.
“Do you think you’ll actually find a cure? Like to make us totally normal?” Lottie asked. She and Tristan ached to stop hiding their true selves, to be able to honestly share everything with their friends. Only a complete cure could make that desire a reality.
“I hope so,” Dad said, spearing a leaf of lettuce, “but who knows? Viruses are notoriously difficult to kill, since there’s some debate about whether they’re even alive in the first place. Some of them you can denature entirely and they just spring back into shape when they cool again. Still, I haven’t given up hope yet.”
After dinner, Dad and Tristan waited to pull out their chess board until the younger family members had cleared the table and, with Mom’s supervision, had started hand-washing the dishes. A dish washer was a luxury Mom and Dad deemed unnecessary, given all the free labor sitting around the house; and besides, the kitchen could hardly have accommodated such a large appliance. Even the small refrigerator situated at the end of the narrow galley kitchen strained the confines of the room. A double-sided sink occupied one end of the counter, which terminated at the other end of the kitchen. Shelves above and below the counter bulged with dishes and food for the entire family, all of whom attempted to squeeze together into the narrow space on a fairly regular basis as lunches were prepared and breakfast dishes washed.
Chess with Dad, a tradition begun even before Tristan could reason logically, served as an evening mainstay for both, a quick timed game that engaged their brains but helped them relax. Tristan had started recently to doubt the value of the games, though; he was pretty sure his normal classmates probably didn’t play chess with their fathers. Probably the dads sat and watched football and left their kids alone. With a sigh of resignation, Tristan picked up a white pawn and a black pawn, hiding his hands behind his back and switching the pawns from hand to hand. While Tristan randomized the pawns, Dad (who, Tristan had to admit, had some brains of his own) said, “How ’bout we make this more interesting? The winner takes brains.”
Tristan raised his eyebrows in interest. “I get to eat your brains if I win? Sounds pretty tasty. I’m sure your brains are full-bodied and delicious, all that smart stuff you’re doing.” He smiled evilly and licked his lips, although in truth he had never eaten human brains. Their family was strictly vegetarian, limiting themselves entirely to animal brains.
Dad smirked. “Ha. No. The winner gets the loser’s next share of brains for breakfast tomorrow.” Breakfast brains were a special treat, and two days in a row sounded like sheer decadence to Tristan.
With renewed interest, Tristan held out his clenched fists, pawns concealed thoroughly within. His father drew white and opened with his usual move, king’s pawn to E3. The game for brains was on.