So this section of the chapter was meant to set the stage for what was to come. It was, and later scenes were, to show a number of things: that Benjamin and Matthew, while once close, aren’t as close as they once were, that they disagree on their views of their father, and that science and technology, at this time, are further along than where we are realistically currently. There’s a fair bit of dialogue in this and some of it can get a little dense, but I remember it being one of the scenes I most enjoyed writing.
“What is Matthew going to be doing?” asked Allie.
“He wouldn’t tell me.” Benjamin said, lifting himself from the chair. He picked up the place mats and silverware and laid them down on the table. “He said it was important and exciting. He sounded really excited, but he said I had to wait until he got here before he’d tell me what it was.”
“Oh. I wonder what it is?” She lifted up the lid, looked down at the pot roast, and shut it again. “What did he do before?”
“Science, mainly. Lab work, teaching, research assignments, stuff like that. He never thought any of it was all that interesting though.”
“Well,” began Allie, wiping her hands with a towel, “maybe it’s something completely different.”
Two hours later, the doorbell rang.
Benjamin wasn’t yet used to seeing his brother so often. When he was eighteen, Benjamin left for college in San Francisco, got a job in illustration there, left it for one in Portland, for one in Vancouver, before settling in Seattle. He went back home a few times, but he never saw Matthew. First it was college, then work, then family, and more work, but it wasn’t until their mother passed and he went to the funeral that Benjamin saw Matthew again. They talked a bit, heard how the other was doing, how their wives and families were doing over a drink or six, and laughed. Laughed like they did when they were children, deep and full and joyful, like they were best friends, like they were brothers, but when Benjamin left Charlotte, they spoke maybe twice. Matthew said it was busyness, with work and other things, but he wouldn’t say what it was he was doing. A few months later, Benjamin stopped trying, and they hadn’t spoken since.
“Benji!” Matthew exclaimed with outstretched arms. “You’ve lost weight. You look good.” Benjamin was always the shorter brother, the stockier brother, and when they were kids, sneaking cookies from the kitchen, Benjamin gained weight; Matthew never did.
Matthew was tall, thin, like a wire, with a mop of brown curls on top of his head. He wore thick glasses that got him made fun of in school, but were sort of cool now, in a weird sort of way, and he always wore a jacket, wooly and scratchy, with lighter colored patches on the elbow. Benjamin wished, as he was hugging his brother, that, just once, he’d have worn something else.
“Thanks. I’ve been running some, eating better. You know, stuff like that.”
“Good for you.” He was nodding, smiling, hands in his pockets. He was good at making uncomfortable silences even more uncomfortable.
“Thank you for inviting us for dinner,” Mary chimed in. “We both love having family close by.”
Mary was shorter, but not short, standing to Matthew’s shoulder who was six foot and change. She had long black hair, soft eyes and a kind smile; it was always a wonder Matthew had gotten her.
“We met at Clemson actually,” Mary replied when Benjamin asked, over dinner. “He and I were both taking a bioethics course and–” She laughed. “And Matthew was arguing with the professor about…what was it?”
Matthew coughed on a mouthful of pot roast. “The state of prosthetics.”
“Right! Prosthetics. And Matthew was– well, you tell them.”
Matthew swallowed his water, rubbed his chest, and coughed to clear his throat. “Well,” he began, scratchy and hoarse. He coughed again. “Well, until then, prosthetics had been cumbersome at best. A hand, I’m sure you guys know, could only close if you pressed a button or pulled a cable. Ben, you remember Mr. Green a few houses down when we were kids? His was like that.”
“Sure. I remember.”
“Anyway, later on they started redirecting the nerves to nearby muscles, using the electrical activity generated in that muscle to move the limb, blah blah blah, but it was basic. One way and rudimentary, until–” He paused. “They began interfacing directly with the central nervous system by way of biochips being inserted directly into the brain. I’m sure you both remember when this all started.”
“I do,” replied Allie. “I was in high school, I think, at the time. Every time I passed through the science hall, that’s all I heard about.”
“Exactly. It was a big deal back then. Still is, but we don’t think about it much anymore. It’s part of our society. Hell, nine out of ten of us have some sort of something going on, even if all we have is an HM chip. Large stuff though, like bio-mechanical augmentation for the entire body is a business in of itself and somewhat of a grey area some believe. My professor was one of them. He said that– what did he say? He said that we were dangerous enough as is, yeah that’s it, and could do enough– no, plenty of damage with what we had available.”
“I thought he was interesting,” Mary said, smiling at Matthew, “the way he talked about this stuff. You have to admit, though, he wasn’t far off, at least with the state of things now.”
“Yeah, but he didn’t know that at the time,” Matthew said, taking a bite of potato and carrots. “He was just being crotchety.”
From there they talked about their kids, their home, their neighbors, work. They told stories saved up about their trip to the grocery and all about the check engine light in their car. There was a television show they talked about, and a movie, then another; all of it the most interesting small talk they could muster.
“So,” Benjamin began, “what did you want to tell us?” Allie set a bowl of ice cream in front him. A big bowl of vanilla, one for Matthew too, where the ice cream was melted just enough to be wading in itself; Benjamin liked it that way. Mary helped Allie clean, dry, and put away dishes, talking about something on the other side of the kitchen.
“Oh thank you. Um, well–” He dropped his spoon against the bowl. “Sorry. I, uh– I have a new job that I’m really excited about.”
“Really?” Benjamin said, surprised. He pursed his lips, lowered his brow, like he was thinking. Matthew was never one to be excited about the jobs he’d taken. Benjamin always imagined his brother did science because he was good at it, not because he liked it, that his life was a series of decisions set up to settle for what came easiest. “That’s great, Matt! What is it?”
“It really is.” He smiled. Like he was surprised, like he expected a worse reaction already. Or maybe, expected the reaction that was coming. “That’s actually why we moved up here in the first place. I’ve been working with them for a while now, that’s why I’ve been busy, but Seattle is…well, it’s kind of the center of it all.”
“The center of…what, exactly?”
Matthew took a breath in, looked over at Mary, who looked back at him, wide eyed and nervous. Benjamin followed Matthew’s gaze with his own.
“What is it?”
“It’s what Dad used to do,” he sighed. “Seattle is sort of the headquarters for the research he started when we were kids.”
“Excuse me?” Benjamin’s face fell flat in the absence of emotion. His hands sat in his lap, beneath the table, fidgeting restlessly against one another.
“Ben, it’s such a great opportunity. These men, who’re old friends of Dad’s, are brilliant and the work they’re doing– you have to see it.”
Benjamin sat silent for a moment, longer than a moment, staring up at his brother, down at the place mats, feeling the gaze of everyone laid out on his face in quiet expectation.
“Benjamin,” Allie started; she stopped when he got up from the table. Benjamin took steps across the kitchen to the door that led to hallway. His steps were there, thoughtful, calm, uneasy, existing in a state of dubious tranquility.
“Come with me,” he said to no one in particular, but Matthew stood up, Matthew alone, and followed his brother out the door.