Savannah Weaver was sixteen years old when she first dared to broach, even tangentially, the subject with her mother. It happened over breakfast on a Sunday morning. Savannah, still wearing her pajama bottoms and tank top, was eating an omelet with broccoli and tomatoes. Catherine Weaver was immaculately dressed. It had been years since Savannah had seen her mother any other way.
Catherine was eating the same breakfast Savannah had seen her eat since Savannah was five years old: two pieces of toast, dry.
"Mom?" said Savannah. "Can I talk to you about something?"
Her mother lowered her ereader. "Of course, dear," she said. Her voice was, as ever, calm. It was a nice voice: not warm, but not too many degrees shy of it.
"I just wanted to let you know. People are talking about something."
"Which people?" said her mother pleasantly.
Stuart Miller, on the executive floor, with a man from another company. Lisa and Winnie, in the file room. Two men she didn't know in shipping. Her best friend Amanda's mother. "It doesn't matter."
"What are they talking about?"
"They say you look really young." Her mother didn't change expression. Savannah hadn't expected her to. "Some of them wonder if it's plastic surgery. Botox injections. That new nano thing." Savannah hesitated, then plunged ahead, to make sure her mother understood. "They say it's like you haven't aged a day in ten years."
"I see," said Catherine.
"They're not looking for much," said Savannah. "Maybe some wrinkles around your eyes, your mouth. A couple of gray hairs. Stuff like that." She shrugged, and took a bite of omelet onto her fork. "I always say it's good genes."
"Maybe you'll have them, too, when you grow up."
They finished breakfast. Savannah showered, dressed, and drove over to Amanda's. They picked up a couple of other girls and spent the day at the beach, where they swam and laughed and flirted with good-looking boys they didn't know. When Savannah came home, her mother was in the living room. There were small wrinkles at the corners of her mother's eyes, and Savannah saw one slender strand of gray hair.
Savannah kissed her mother's cold cheek. "You look good, Mom," she said.
By the end of the month, the wrinkles were deeper and the gray hairs numbered six.
Savannah was twenty-four when she met Peter, and twenty-six when they started dating. They met in their MBA program. Like her, Peter was an only child. His family's business was construction. He should have been an artist. He was a talented painter, and played the piano quite well. But his family had expectations, and so he was going to run their company, which was growing by leaps and bounds.
They were friends, then they dated, then they got engaged. She met Peter's family. She introduced Peter to her mother. They got along. Her mother got along, in her way, with almost everyone. They agreed that she and Peter would work together at his family's company until they had a baby, and then he would become a house husband and devote his professional attention to his art. By that time, his family would be used to Savannah, and would be comfortable with her in a position of authority. Savannah's mother had suggested the course of action, and Savannah would find that it worked remarkably well.
One day, when Savannah was twenty-nine, she met her mother on a Sunday morning. They wandered through the farmer's market, where Savannah bought some heirloom tomatoes, and then they walked down the street and sat on a bench overlooking a small playground. The playground was full of children. Savannah glanced over at her mother. Catherine was watching the children with mild interest.
"I've got some news for you, Mom," Savannah said.
Her mother did not noticeably react. "How far along?"
"Almost four months."
"It'll be the fall, then."
"Yes. It will." Savannah had known what to expect, but still -- "You're going to be a grandmother, Mom." She hesitated. "How does that make you feel?"
Her mother cocked her head slightly to one side. "How should it?"
"You should be happy. And thrilled. And looking forward to spoiling your grandchild."
"Then I am."
Savannah shook her head slightly, a little arc from side to side. "I know you are, Mom," she said, taking her mother's slightly sun-warmed hand. "I know."
When they'd found out the sex of the baby, Savannah had known better than to put her mother on the spot. She'd emailed, instead, asking for the first name of the grandmother she'd never known. The reply came two days later: Maeve.
Savannah's Maeve was born with a surprising crop of hair. She was strong and healthy, with iron lungs. Maeve insisted that the only person who held her could be Savannah. And she wanted to be held all the time. Whenever Savannah put her down, she cried. After they came home from the hospital, Maeve cried for three days. When Savannah became delirious from lack of sleep, Peter did something Savannah wouldn't have done: he called her mother.
Catherine arrived quickly. Savannah weakly handed her daughter over, and Catherine took the still-squalling Maeve into the nursery. As Peter helped Savannah to bed, Catherine closed the nursery door behind her. The crying stopped as if it had been turned off with a switch.
Savannah slept for thirteen hours. When she woke up, she smelled eggs cooking in the kitchen. A hint of vegetables, too; Peter was making an omelet for her. He always did that on Sunday morning.
Savannah climbed out of bed and wrapped her bathrobe around herself. She stuffed her feet into her slippers and stumbled down the hall. The nursery door was still shut. Cautiously, Savannah opened it.
The crib was empty. The nursery was in perfect order. The only piece of furniture that had been moved was the rocking chair. It was facing out the window. There was no view; the blinds were drawn. Savannah's mother was in the chair. Her back was to the door. Savannah couldn't see her mother's face.
Savannah didn't go into the room.
"Thank you, Mom," she said.
"You're welcome," her mother said.
Savannah closed the nursery door and went downstairs to the kitchen. Peter smiled when he saw her. The omelet was nearly done; Savannah saw leftover bits of broccoli and tomato on the cutting board next to the stove.
"Hey," Peter said. "Were you just talking to yourself or something?"
Savannah said, "What's for breakfast?"
Peter became a house husband. When Maeve started school, he spent some time painting and giving piano lessons. He began teaching Maeve to play a little bit, when she grew big enough, and sometimes they'd play simple duets in the evening.
When Maeve was eight years old, Peter collapsed in the studio he'd put in above the garage. Maeve found him when she came home from school. She did exactly the right thing. She called 911, and then called her mother's cell phone.
The doctors said that he'd had an aneurysm, and it had ruptured. Peter lived long enough to be put on life support, but he was clearly brain dead and had no chances of recovery. On Sunday, Savannah signed a consent form to donate his organs. Before Peter was taken away, she had a private moment with him. Her mother took Maeve out into the hallway, and waited there for her. It felt strange to Savannah to see Peter this way, looking somehow shrunken and empty. She pressed a soft kiss on his brow and left the room.
There was a small alcove with chairs a few steps away. Catherine was sitting with Maeve on her lap. Maeve's face was streaked with tears. Catherine was speaking softly, and it took Savannah a moment to realize what she was saying. "I remember when my father died," Catherine said. "He was a tough man. We didn't get along. Even so, it took me a long time to come to terms with his passing."
"Mom," said Savannah gently, "you're not helping."
"What would help?"
Savannah propped herself up, shakily, with a hand pressed against the wall. "Hug her, Mom," she said. "Just hug her." She wiped a hand over her own face, and tried to shake the numb feeling of unreality, the feeling that this was something that happened to other people, people she pitied, not her, never her. Peter would have come up behind her now and put a hand between her shoulderblades, giving her space enough to turn to him, when she was ready, and cry. She was still waiting for that hand between her shoulderblades. She'd always be waiting for it.
Time passed. Savannah healed, little by little. Maeve didn't. She had trouble sleeping, and she didn't do her schoolwork, and she didn't play the piano any more. Savannah found a good child psychologist, and took Maeve, now nine closing on ten, once a week. It didn't seem to make a difference.
On a Sunday morning, she and her mother went for a walk in the park. Maeve stayed home. Maeve didn't like going out.
Savannah always did most of the talking on their walks. Today was a standout, even by her usual standards. The words poured out of her, and the emotions, and finally she'd gotten all of it out, leaving her feeling shockingly empty, as if she'd been vomiting. She'd expected her mother to stay silent when she'd done, so it was a surprise when Catherine spoke.
"It helped you to have a friend," her mother said.
"She's got friends. At least, she had, she doesn't talk about -- " And then Savannah realized whom her mother had meant. "You mean -- John Henry? You haven't talked about him in years."
"You never asked about him. I thought he didn't matter to you anymore."
"You thought -- " Savannah stopped. Had she really outgrown John Henry? Maybe she had. She'd grown up, and discovered boys and other signs of adult sophistication, which she'd pursued in the typically adolescent way before realizing that part of being an adult was having gotten past that. And going to see him in the basement of her mother's offices had seemed less and less important, until she hadn't gone to see him any more.
They drove by the house and collected Maeve. "Where are we going?" Maeve said sullenly.
"I want you to meet a friend of mine."
Catherine scanned them through security, and they went down the elevator to a small corridor. When they reached the door, Savannah felt a strange sense of gigantism. The doorknob had been higher, surely.
"Hello, Savannah," said John Henry as she entered.
"Hi," Savannah said. An unexpected surge of emotion caught her by surprise, and she had to raise a hand to wipe away a tear. "I'm sorry it's been so long."
"You've been very busy," said John Henry. Behind him, on the screen, images popped up: her college transcripts, her diplomas, BA and MBA, her marriage license, Maeve's birth certificate, a photo of Savannah that had run in a brief magazine article, Peter's death certificate and obituary, and then, surprisingly, the cover of CHARLOTTE'S WEB. "And even Fern grows up to go on the Ferris Wheel with Henry Fussy."
Savanna couldn't stop her smile. "Does that make you Wilbur? 'Some A.I.'?"
"Regrettably, I seem to lack obligingly literate spiders. None have made it to this level, at any rate. There may be a few within the building."
"It's good to see you, John Henry."
"Who are you?" said Maeve.
"This is John Henry, honey," said Savannah. "He's an old friend of mine. John Henry, this is my daughter, Maeve."
"There's a cord in his head."
"Yes," said John Henry. "That's because I keep my brains over there." He pointed at the system. It was smaller, much smaller, than it had been when Savannah was a child -- the box was a rectangular solid, its four vertical faces about the size of a movie poster -- but it was still far too large to fit in the available space in John Henry's head.
Maeve stared at her mother. "You never told me you had a friend who was a robot."
"Technically speaking," said John Henry, "I'm a cybernetic organism. Only in the strictest sense, however; my biological components are purely aesthetic."
"What are you doing down here?" said Maeve.
"John Henry has some very important jobs," said Catherine. "Don't you?"
"I do. I don't believe you would find them interesting, though."
"I might," said Maeve.
"Are you interested in effective allocation of resources to be shared by humans and the emerging cyberkind in order to manage interaction and minimize the expected level of conflict?"
Maeve said, somewhat doubtfully, "I don't *think* so."
"Well," said Catherine. "There you are, then. Carry on, you two."
Savannah and Catherine left Maeve alone with John Henry for close to an hour. When they came back, the two were deep in conversation. John Henry looked up as they entered. "Ms. Weaver," said John Henry, "would it be possible for me to get a piano keyboard? Maeve has said that she can teach me to play some songs."
"I'm going to teach him how to play, 'Donald, Where's Your Trousers,'" said Maeve. "He can already sing it."
"Yes," said Savannah. "Yes, he can."
As they left the building, she took her mother's hand and held it all the way back to the car.
When Maeve was eleven, Savannah began to suffer from occasional attacks of vertigo. Sometimes, these were coupled with agonizing headaches. She wondered if she were beginning to get migraines. Her doctor had seemed inclined to agree with her at first, but at her second visit he became concerned and referred her to a specialist. The specialist looked very serious and ordered a battery of tests. Savannah had blood drawn and her head scanned. Then she waited, because the specialist didn't want her to leave.
When the specialist came back, he had a chaplain and a psychologist with him. He told her that the facility's median time for survival following a glioblastoforme multiforme diagnosis was seven hundred and thirteen days.
The specialist told her that he didn't think she had anywhere near that long.
Savannah went home. She reviewed her will carefully. Her mother would take care of Maeve perfectly well. She knew how to raise a child. Savannah was proof of it, wasn't she? And Maeve was doing better now. She was coming to terms, however slowly, with Peter's death. Savannah wouldn't die as suddenly. She could help Maeve get used to it.
Or, she thought with a numb chill, that would be worse for Maeve. Much worse.
Maeve was leaving for music camp this weekend. She would be gone for a week. Several of her friends were going, too. One of their mothers was driving all of them up together. It would be Maeve's first time away from home. She was looking forward to it.
Savannah hid her pain for two days. When the car full of girls came, she hugged her daughter tightly. She told Maeve she loved her very much, and kissed her goodbye. When the car drove away, she picked up the telephone and called her mother.
Savannah didn't drive to Catherine's house the next morning. The headaches were too frequent. She took a cab. It was a warm, beautiful Sunday. The clouds rolled across the sky slowly, as if they didn't have a care in the world. Savannah's mother moved through the world in much the same way, these days. Savannah had never asked why the bodyguards and extra security had disappeared one day when she was in her early teens. Now she realized that those were the things that happened when you'd won and you didn't have any enemies anymore.
It wasn't only the enemies who'd vanished. She hadn't seen Mr. Ellison for years.
Maybe he hadn't really moved away.
Savannah told her mother everything. She sat on the couch in the sparse, modernist living room, the high vaulted ceiling above, the wall of glass beside. Her mother sat in the chair opposite. Her expression didn't change.
Savannah said, "Maeve left for camp yesterday." She took a small sip of water from the glass in front of her. "I told her goodbye."
"Explain," said Catherine.
Savannah met her mother's eyes. "You know damn well what I mean," she said.
Catherine was silent for a very long time.
"I know we don't talk about this," said Savannah. "That was fine. But things are different now."
"You want answers to questions?"
Savannah had had questions. She'd always been afraid to ask them, afraid of the consequences of knowing the answers. What had happened to her father. Why the helicopter had crashed. If her real --
Savannah said, "No. I don't care."
Catherine blinked. It was one of only a few times Savannah could remember seeing her surprised.
"You know what I want you to do," said Savannah. "You've done it before."
"That would be complicated."
"It would. But Maeve's away for a week. That gives you time to do everything you need to do. And it makes things simpler for you, in a way."
"How is that?" said Catherine.
Savannah smiled. It was a weak, wobbling smile, and she had to work to keep the sobs from bubbling out. "Because people don't live forever," she said, and began to cry.
She cried hard, and for a long time. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed, occasionally keening in a voice that she couldn't recognize as her own, or even human. Her palms grew slick with tears, and the cuffs of her blouse were wet, and she felt the warm thickness of her running nose. Faintly, as if it were happening far away, she heard her mother get up and go away. When she heard footsteps again, Catherine was beside her. She put a hand on Savannah's back, between her shoulderblades, and held out a box of tissues. She didn't say anything while Savannah went through several of them. When Savannah turned toward her, Catherine sat down beside her and awkwardly put an arm around her. Catherine didn't say anything. She let Savannah cry herself out on Catherine's shoulder, and let Savannah blow her nose another dozen times, and wipe away the last of the tears. When Savannah was done, she turned to her mother, the question on her face. Catherine nodded, once.
A small sob of relief came from Savannah's chest. She caught it before it turned into another flood of tears. She dipped a fresh tissue into her water glass, and used it to wipe her face clean.
"Could we go outside?" Savannah said. "It's such a pretty day."
They walked over the carefully landscaped grass to the tree Savannah had always liked to sit under. It was a lovely spot. Savannah held her mother's hand along the way. Once, a headache came, turning the world white, and she clutched Catherine's fingers tightly and did everything in her power to keep from slumping to the ground. When she came back to herself, Catherine's arm was around her shoulders. They walked more slowly the rest of the way. When they were there, Savannah looked at her tree. The grass, the house. Her mother's face.
"You really did love me," Savannah said. "Didn't you?"
"I love you as much as I'm capable of it," her mother said.
Savannah said, "Me too."
Her mother smiled faintly. Savannah had dim memories of a different smile, a broader one, but they were the sort of memories that she wasn't sure whether they were real or merely misremembered dreams. She closed her eyes, swallowed, nodded to herself, twice. "All right," she said. "I'm ready."
Catherine stepped forward.
Savannah held up a hand. "Wait," she said. "Could I -- could I see what you really look like?"
"Do you want to?"
Savannah nodded. "I do." She felt the corner of her mouth twist upwards. "Don't we owe each other that?"
Her mother disappeared.
The nose flowed back into the face. The eyes receded, sealed shut. The ears went, too, and the hair, and cheekbones. The mouth compressed to a lipless slit, then vanished altogether. Below, the clothes melted away, turning metallic and reflective, like the rest of the skin, then vanishing into it. The body changed, becoming sexless: no breasts, no genitals, nothing, like a doll. Then the limbs sealed to the trunk and vanished. Savannah's mother was gone. In her place, an utterly alien form: no feet, no legs, no real body, nothing human or recognizable, just flowing liquid steel, like a metal wave, narrowing to a neck at the crest, a faceless head perched atop it.
The head of the entity that had been Catherine Weaver turned to better regard Savannah, looking for her reaction.
Savannah stepped forward. She pressed a hand against the gleaming cheek. It was cold, as her mother had always been. She'd always looked like her mother, so it was only a little different for Savannah to look up and see herself reflected in that smooth and empty face.
"You're beautiful," Savannah said.
She closed her eyes and stepped into her mother's cool embrace.
"I'm home, Mom!" said Maeve.
"So you are," said Savannah. She stepped forward and hugged Maeve tightly. "Did you have a good time?"
"I learned some neat things! When you play scales, instead of putting your thumb under your palm, you can sort of roll your whole hand, like this, to get your thumb to where it's supposed to be. Did Daddy know that?"
"I'm sure he did."
"Mrs. Kendall says she's sorry we're so late. The car had a flat tire."
"I know. She called. She said you've had dinner. It's been a long day, and you're probably tired. You can tell me all about camp in the morning."
Maeve's brow furrowed. "You kind of sound like Grandma," Maeve said.
"Yes," said Savannah. "I suppose I do." She kissed Maeve on the forehead. "Go to bed now, dear."
"Okay, Mom," said Maeve. She kissed Savannah's cheek. "I'll see you in the morning."
In the morning, it would be Sunday. In the morning, the phone call would come indicating that Catherine Weaver's private plane had crashed in the mountains. In the morning, Savannah would comfort her daughter, and grieve privately. In the morning, Savannah would eat an omelet for breakfast, with broccoli and tomatoes.
"Your skin's cold, Mom," said Maeve.
"Yes, sweetheart," said Savannah. "I know."