The Generations (Chapter One)

Hello friends! This is a young adult novel that I began writing a few years ago. I lost some steam when I got into the middle bit of the book, and put it down. Now, I’m hoping that publishing chapters here little by little I’ll find some of that steam once again.

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The Generations

What does it feel like to predict the future? Not like you think probably. You can’t look at it straight on. It’s like the moment before sunrise, when the sun is turning the mountains a blue grey color and everything looks lovely but two dimensional until the sun finally breaks the horizon and you have to look away. Like trying to remember yesterday’s dream.

You rarely get specifics. You rarely get anything important at all. Fleeting snippets of someone else’s day to day. Some have it stronger than others, they say. Some have developed their skill, practiced, trained it, gotten better and more powerful and more dangerous and more useful. Most died without ever knowing what they had.

On a planet of nine billion people, every generation there is one.

Chapter One

Claire had never been inside a university lab before. She didn’t even really know what to expect. She pictured an eccentric scientist, weird books, maybe some brains in jars lining a wall. She got none of those things. Dr. Jackson was a normal looking, middle aged man distressingly like her dad. The lab was messy but not messy enough to be interesting. Just regular messy. There were microscopes along one wall. Mostly there were desks and computers. The only poster was about proper eye washing technique. Dr. Jackson shook her hand — a skill she had still not mastered so really he waggled her limp forearm up and down a few times. Nobody teaches high-school students how to shake hands.

Dr. Jackson handed her a waiver to sign, the standard one that says that even if he shot you, set you on fire, and locked you inside the lab to die the university was not liable for any of it.

“You know these aren’t legally enforceable” she said, while signing. She handed the form back to him. Dr. Jackson just looked back at her blankly. Claire had been hoping for a more interesting reaction.

“I just think arbitrary bureaucracy is a waste of everybody’s time. And paper,” she said. Dr. Jackson gave her another blank look.

“Well then you’re really going to hate science,” he said, and put the paper onto his desk, likely to be filed away and never seen again. “Shall we tour the lab or do you want to skip that arbitrary step as well?”

“Not everything boring is arbitrary,” she shot back.

Dr. Jackson finally smiled. “Okay then, this is our main office,” he said, sweeping his arm to the right. “There are four graduate students in this lab, and they each have their own desk. This is my desk. It’s summer break right now, as you obviously know, so nobody is here but it can get pretty cramped.” He turned towards the back door. “This way is the rest of the lab.”

He led Claire through a series for rooms and hallways, pointing out various doors and closets and storage rooms. They saw fume hoods, a room full of mice that smelled like fear and death and shit, and some machines with acronym names that she promptly forgot. None of the rooms had windows.

As they wound deeper into the bowels of the building, time seemed to stop. It felt like you could enter on a sunny spring day and by the time you reemerged it could be dead winter. The HVAC system pumping air through the building provided a constant hum, just noticeable enough to fill your brain, slowly expanding to touch every corner. Everything was grey and white and brown. All the doors had vacuum seals, that sounded like a spaceship when Dr. Jackson pressed his body into them to force them open. As soon as you entered, the lights flickered on, motion activated. Everything required a keycard, a little tap, a green light. He would get her one tomorrow, he said. “But you won’t need access to most of this stuff. The project we need you on is actually back here.” Claire couldn’t believe there was even a “back here” to be had. From the outside, the building did not seem this big.

Two more corners, and they arrived at a strange little kink in the floor plan. It looked like two separate buildings had been glued to one another in an awkward way, and this was one of the gaps created by a hasty union between two incompatible shapes. The door they had come through was that same grey industrial slab, with the narrow safety window just above the doorknob. The door they were looking at was anything but — tall, skinny, and very clearly old. The wood was well worn, particularly around the round, brass doorknob. A big, leaded glass window anchored the top, with a name in gold letters painted on it. “Dr. Piper.” Claire’s heart raced and sank at the same time. Certainly there was no cutting edge science happening behind this door. But perhaps there was something else.

Dr. Jackson pulled a key out of his pocket. A real key, brass, with bumps and a thick round base. He fiddled with the lock for a while, muttering under his breath about how annoying and inefficient pin lock systems were. Eventually the teeth clicked into place, the knob turned, and the door opened. Dr. Jackson reached an arm around the doorframe, windshield wiping his hand up and down searching for the switch in the dark. Eventually he made contact, and the room lit up a warm yellow. Even the lightbulbs in this room were old. Dr. Jackson walked in, and Claire followed.

It was hard to know where to look at first. Every surface was covered in books, papers, folders, bags of stuff, photographs, boxes. Claire spotted what looked like a wig on a far surface. There was a glass ashtray full of bobby pins, some strange vials of yellow liquid, and several grocery store bags stuffed full of what looked like receipts. There were at least two lumpy, fleshy objects in jars on the far bookshelf. The filing cabinets were at least three rows deep.

Dr. Jackson looked annoyed to even be inside this room. Claire’s mouth hung open involuntarily. In some ways this was more in line with what she had been expecting a scientists office to look like — a bit of a tornado with a sprinkling of creepy artifacts. A narrow path made an L shape from the door, through the mess, turning right at a giant wooden crate piled high with binders balancing precariously on top of on another — the old kind, that were mysteriously upholstered with fabric that was now fraying in every direction. At the crook of the L was what seemed like a desk. You could tell because there was a chair in front of it, although the chair was also piled high, cradling eight plastic pelican cases faded and cracked.

There was a computer on the desk, but it certainly didn’t look operational — one of those 1990’s colorful iMacs with the fat, bulbous backside. Claire had only seen them in jokey posts about the evolution of computers. Her grandma said she had one in college. The keyboard was swallowed up by stacks of loose yellow paper covered in scrawling handwriting.

“So…” Dr. Jackson broke the awed silence. “This is Dr. Piper’s office.”

“Wow,” Claire replied, really the only response she could muster.

“Wow indeed,” Dr. Jackson sighed. “Dr. Piper worked here for 45 years, in this same office.” He fanned his arm out motioning to the room, a motion that was not only unnecessary, but also sent his hand into a pile of spiral bound notebooks balanced delicately on the edge of a nearby table, which came tumbling down. Dr. Jackson made a feeble attempt to catch them and Claire lurched forward to help. It felt like disturbing a pile the wrong way could send the entire room into complete chaos.

“We have finally received permission from the University to… consolidate… the office and us it for a few new graduate students coming in in the fall,” Dr. Jackson said as he re-piled the notebooks, clearly picking his words carefully. “And as much as I would like to simply throw all this away, there is, unfortunately, valuable historical data in here… somewhere.” He took his hands gently away from the pile, willing the notebooks to stay put. “Which is where you come in.”

Claire’s heart sank.

“We need you to make an inventory of what’s in here, and organize things into categories so one of us can decide what to keep and what to get rid of.”

He handed her a tablet.

“I’ve made a spreadsheet for you with likely categories,” he flicked his finger, showing the various possible options: Lab Notebooks, Receipts, Physical Samples, Data, Personal Effects, Other.

“Obviously we’re most interested in the Lab Notebooks, Data and Physical Samples, since those might be useful to us. But we should tag everything, just in case.”

Dr. Jackson pulled out a packet of small, round stickers of various colors.

“You can use these stickers to help tag things with the corresponding color in the spreadsheets. Each entry will get a number, and you can write that number onto the colored sticker, so we can cross reference. Try to keep things together with whatever they’re already with — especially if you notice that there are any dates on any of these files, try to keep things from the same year together if you can.”

Dr. Jackson looked around the room again.

“You can… start anywhere I guess. And I suspect that you might have questions once you get going, so, if you need me, I’ll be at my desk.” He motioned back towards the door, and Claire nodded even though she knew she had no idea how to get back to his desk.

Dr. Jackson was slowly backing towards the door as he spoke now.

“Oh, and you might find that some of these filing cabinets are locked. If you get to one of those, just leave it, we’re… working on that.”

He paused one more time to look around.

“Oh and absolutely no photographs. Dr. Piper is very private.”

Now he was at the door, hands on either side of the doorframe. He smiled, weekly, and gave Claire a little bit of a defeated shrug.

“Good luck!”

The door closed behind him with a loud click. Claire took a deep breath and turned to the chaos before her. Stickers in one hand, tablet in the other, she had no idea where to begin. Claire picked up a plastic grocery bag covered in little red smiley faces and stuffed with receipts, which seemed like as fine a place to start as any other. There wasn’t a chair to sit on — so she sank to the floor and started slowly extracting receipts one by one.

Many were faded to oblivion, no dates or items decipherable on that thin, slightly waxy paper. But the receipts that did have dates made no sense to her — they ranged over a ten year period, from stores all across the United States and Canada. There were receipts for McDonalds and pet supplies and groceries and taxis and haircuts. Why were ten years of receipts in one bag? She looked across the room, and even from her vantage point on the floor she could see two other plastic bags, similarly stuffed. Perhaps it was random. She scrambled up from the floor and went to get the other two bags — might as well do all the receipts at once, she thought.

She was careful not to mix up the groups, even though that kind of care seemed absurd given the fact that she was handling plastic bags full of crumpled receipts. But inside one bag, at least, she found a clue. An organizing principle, perhaps. At the top of a few of the receipts, a scribbled name: Sam. Claire returned to the first bag, now hunting for a name. This was clearly the oldest set, most of the receipts were faded and some felt like they might evaporate into a fine powder if you handled them too much, but eventually she found what she was looking for. At the top of a few slips, protected from the sun by being buried beneath layers and layers of others, another name: Sana. A few minutes of excavating into the third bag rewarded Claire with a third name: Amina.

Sam liked McDonalds. Sana’s bag was full of toy shop and craft store receipts. Amina’s was the only one that included wire transfers. Claire tried to match the credit card numbers on the various receipts, but to no avail. She looked down at her watch and realized it had been over an hour and she had tagged exactly nothing. She grabbed the tablet and entered her first three times: Other. Bags of receipts, Sam, Sana, Amina, green stickers.

Four hours later Claire pulled herself up from the ground. Her ankle popped, unhappy at the strange positions she’d been sitting in on the hard concrete floor. She looked around and realized just how little she had actually done. The room was tiny, but the stuff seemed to go on forever. This was not what she thought an internship in a neuroscience lab would be like.

Claire closed Dr. Piper’s office door behind her, locked it with the key Dr. Jackson had left with her, and wandered the hallways for a while before finally coming across Dr. Jackson’s office again — mostly by chance. He looked up from his desk and forced a smile. “How did it go?”

“Slowly,” Claire said, handing him the tablet and key back. “There’s … a lot of stuff.”

Dr. Jackson scrunched up his nose and nodded. “Yes. But you’ll get into a rhythm, I’m sure.”

Claire didn’t reply. Nothing about Dr. Piper’s office suggested that a rhythm could be found. But this would look good on her college applications. They wouldn’t know that she had spent her time digging around in bags of old receipts, rather than brains.

“So what’s your schedule again?” Dr. Jackson asked, shuffling through some papers on his desk, looking for the folder Claire had brought with her describing the official details of the Wolverine Hill High School Internship Program.

“Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 4:45 to 7:45,” Claire said.

“Excellent, great, great, so I’ll see you on Friday then. I’m going to try and get a copy of this key made,” Dr. Jackson wagged the old skeleton key in his fingers, “but I might not be able to, so you might have to come by my desk and pick it up. If I’m not here, it’s in this drawer,” he said, dropping the key into a little well in the top drawer of his desk, next to a granola bar and some paper clips.

“Okay,” Claire said.

Dr. Jackson turned back to his computer. “Great, see you then.”

Claire wound her way in a few circles, looking for the exit to the lab, and eventually found it. When she reached it she was surprised to see that it was that bluish dusky light, just before it gets properly dark. The bus stop was a few blocks away, and she rode home trying to figure out how to describe her first day at her internship to her parents.

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