The Mad Scientist’s Daughter
Many years later Cat still remembered the damp twilight on her skin and the way the dewy grass prickled and snapped beneath her bare feet as she ran up to the edge of the forest that surrounded her childhood home. Her mother had let her stay out late that night so she could catch fireflies in a jar, and she lay among the tumbling honeysuckle and ropes of wild grapevines with the jar held aloft, holding still and waiting for the fireflies to buzz through the opening so she could trap them inside.
As the night fell soft and sparkling all around her, Cat watched the fireflies climb up the sides of the glass, the glow of their abdomens transforming them into intermittent stars. Somewhere around the front of the house a car door slammed, once and then twice, but she ignored it, knowing her father to come home late from his meetings in the city. But then the light came on in the screened-in back porch. Immediately, Cat slunk down into the shadows. She was at an age where she liked to spy, where she liked to note undetected the goings-on of adults. The round, familiar silhouette of her father stepped onto the porch, followed by another figure, tall and thin and angular, a figure Cat didn’t recognize. She clutched the fireflies to her chest and crept around the perimeter of the yard to get a closer
look. Those fireflies she hadn’t caught blinked on and off in the darkness, and Cat’s jar glimmered faintly from between her hands. On the porch, behind the gauzy screen, the unfamiliar silhouette sat down. Her father leaned over it, their shadows blurring together. Cat slid across the grass. She crept up to the porch, near the steps, to the place where the screen had been ripped away from the frame a few weeks ago by the old raccoon that came around the yard sometimes. She tucked the jar under her arm and stood on her tiptoes and peered through the screen’s gap, and she saw her father’s broad, expansive back, a narrow sweat stain tracing along his spine. Of the stranger she saw nothing but a pale, slender arm, hanging motionless off the side of the plastic chair, and a foot covered in a dirty old sneaker.
Her father straightened up and took a step back. He put his hands on his hips. He said something, too soft for Cat to discern over the sounds of cicadas whining in the trees and the ceiling fan clicking rhythmically inches from her father’s head. He sighed. Then he walked across the porch to the wicker table in the corner and set down a thin metal tool that gleamed in the porch’s yellow light. There was a person sitting in the plastic chair, only he didn’t seem like a person at all. His eyes focused on Cat, and she yelped and ducked into the crawl space beneath the stairs.
“Do we have a visitor?” said Cat’s father, his voice booming out into the night. Cat huddled in the cool, moist dirt beneath the house, her jar pressed between her chest and her knees. It smelled of cut grass and old rainwater. The screen door slammed. Footsteps rattled Cat’s hiding place. Then her father’s face appeared, as white and round as the moon. “What have you got there, Kitty-Cat?” He pointed at her jar of fireflies.
“It’s my light-jar.”
“I see,” said her father. “And a lovely light-jar it is.” He reached under the stairs and plucked her out, swinging her through the cool night air and bringing her to rest on his hip. “I have someone I want you to meet.”
Cat buried her face in his soft shoulder.
He carried her into the screened-in porch. The light inside was weak and old-looking and buzzed like the cicadas outside. The man
sitting in the plastic chair looked at Cat’s father, then at Cat. His eyes moved before his head did. They were very dark, like two holes set into his face.
“Cat, this is Finn. He’s come to stay with us.”
Cat didn’t say anything, just pulled the firefly jar to her chest and wiggled out of her father’s grasp so she slid down the side of his leg. Finn nodded and then smiled at her.
“A child?” he said. Cat wanted to run back out into the darkness.
“Yes, Finn,” said Cat’s father. “That’s right. My child. My daughter.” His enormous hand ruffled Cat’s hair. He knelt down beside her, and she looked at him. “Why don’t you show Finn your light-jar?”
Cat didn’t want to show Finn anything. He unnerved her. In certain ways Finn resembled the few adults Cat had seen in her short life—his height, his long torso and limbs, the solidity of the features of his face—but otherwise he was completely different from the boisterous scientists who came over some evenings for dinner parties. His eyes loomed steadily in the buzzing light of the porch. His skin was much too fair, sallow beneath the swath of black hair that flopped across his forehead.
She decided he must be a ghost. He was an adult who died. Her father brought him here to study him. This was the only logical explanation.
Cat hugged the jar tight against her chest. Finn didn’t move, didn’t even twitch the muscles in his face.
“Don’t be rude,” her father said gently. “We need to welcome Finn into our home.” He straightened up, and Cat took a deep, shaking breath and stepped forward, feet rasping across the porch’s painted wooden floor. She held the firefly jar out at arm’s length and looked over her shoulder at the porch screen dark with nighttime. When the weight of the jar lifted out of her hands, she scurried back behind her father.
“Photuris pennsylvanicus,” said Finn. “The woods firefly.”
Cat’s father laughed. “Latin names,” he said. “Good to know that scholarly upgrade is working nicely.”
Finn held the jar up to eye level, but in the light, Cat noticed, the fireflies looked like ugly brown beetles.
Cat tugged on her father’s sleeve. “It’s only outside,” she whispered when he glanced down at her. “It’s only a light-jar outside.” She wondered what would happen if Finn stepped beyond the boundaries of the porch, if the yellow light made him visible, if his true nature would cause him to melt back into the shadows.
Finn ignored them, turning the jar over in his hands, gazing at it with his peculiar, dispassionate expression.
“Oh, of course!” said her father. “Finn—” Finn’s head jerked up. “Let’s go outside. Come along.”
Finn stood, his narrow body unhinging at the waist. He handed the jar to Cat and smiled, but Cat grabbed the jar and pushed through the door, out into the cool, dampening night. The fireflies glowed again. She could hear them knocking against the glass.
“How lovely,” said Cat’s father.
“Lovely,” repeated Finn, as though the meaning of the word eluded him. For a moment Cat stood in the darkness, her back to Finn and her father. She wasn’t ready yet to see what Finn had become in the darkness. The surrounding forest rustled and shimmered against the starry sky. The glass from the jar was warm beneath her hands. She wondered if fireflies could protect you from ghosts. Probably not if they were trapped in a jar. Cat bit down on her lower lip, and then she unscrewed the lid and the fireflies streamed out, leaving streaks of light in their wake. Cat dropped the jar to her side. She took a deep breath. She turned around and gasped.
Finn had blended into the darkness, just as she predicted, but his eyes, gazing levelly out at the forest, shone as silver as starlight.
* * * *
That night, Cat couldn’t sleep. Whenever she closed her eyes, she saw two flat disks of silver, and her heart pounded violently up near her throat. She pulled her reading tablet out of its drawer and turned it on. She tapped the little ghost icon to bring up all the ghost stories contained in the database of the house’s main computer, and she began to read, looking for clues as to how to protect herself from Finn.
She was beginning to grow drowsy in spite of her need to feel afraid when she heard her parents’ voices seeping through the walls of the house. She slipped the reading tablet under her pillow and climbed out of bed and padded softly into the hallway. A sliver of light arced out from beneath her parents’ door.
“A perfect tutor,” her father was saying. “You said you didn’t want to send her to that school in town—”
“This is not what I meant, Daniel. He . . . It . . . It’s unsettling.”
“He’s not an it, darling.”
Cat curled herself up beneath the empty telephone alcove and set her chin on her knees. She wondered if Finn could hear them arguing, too. She wanted to knock on the door and tell them to keep their voices down, since it was potentially dangerous for a ghost to hear any discussion of itself. And she knew Finn wasn’t far away, either: earlier her mother had set him up in the attic bedroom, where the walls slanted down at an awkward angle and the air was always warm no matter the outside temperature. Cat had helped, carrying the heavy metal fan up the creaking stairs, its cord snaking down behind her, while her mother opened the windows, stirring up clouds of golden dust.
“It’s hot up here,” Cat said, rubbing the sticky, itchy dust out of her eyes.
“Won’t matter.” Her mother sighed. “Your father insisted we bring the fan.” She turned toward Cat. “Come along, it’s past your bedtime.”
So it was entirely possible that Finn had his phantom ear pressed to the attic room’s wooden walls, listening in on everything her parents said. Assuming he hadn’t slipped out already, in the form of cold damp mist, or possibly a cockroach. Cat gnawed on the hem of her nightgown. Surely her father, who was a brilliant scientist, knew how to contain him.
Inside the bedroom, Cat’s father said, “Let’s talk about this in the morning.”
The rim of light disappeared. Cat’s eyes widened. It would be dangerous if Finn caught her unaware in the dark. She crawled out of the alcove and crept back along the hallway, making sure always to
step at the place where the floor met the wall so the boards wouldn’t squeak. When she came to her bedroom she stopped and peered down the hall, at the door leading to the attic stairs. The air-conditioning kicked on and that familiar roar gave her a sudden burst of courage. Cat skittered up to the attic door. She pressed her ear against the smooth cool wood, holding her breath in tight: but there was nothing, no sound, no movement. No light under the door.
Cat went back to bed. Exhausted, she fell asleep.
* * * *
Over the next few weeks, it became apparent that her mother had lost the fight Cat overheard that first night: Finn stayed. In the mornings he came down from the attic bedroom and sat with the family as they ate breakfast, although he ate nothing, only kept his hands folded on top of the table. Cat always watched him with caution, hoping she could find some clue as to his nighttime activities. One morning he returned her gaze with a weird smile, and she yelped and kicked her heels against the legs of the table so the whole thing wobbled.
“Cat, stop it,” said her mother, reading the news on her comm slate.
Cat paused for a few seconds. Finn had turned away from her. He knows I know! she thought, and immediately kicked the table leg again.
“Caterina Novak! What did I tell you!”
Cat drank the last of her orange juice and then slid off the chair so that she pooled on the floor underneath the table. She considered the three pairs of feet: her father’s, in his woolly slippers, her mother’s, bare, with chipped pink polish on the toes, and Finn’s, in heavy black boots. She crawled beside her father’s chair.
“I’m going outside,” she told him.
“Oh?” He smiled down at her. “Why don’t you take Finn with you? And show him the garden?”
Cat’s heart began to race. She didn’t look over at Finn. She willed herself to stay calm. “Do I have to?”
“Don’t be rude,” her mother said without looking up.
“I would like to see the garden,” said Finn.
“See?” said Cat’s father. “I think that settles it. Show him your citrus tree.”
Cat stood up and so did Finn, pushing his chair back neatly. He smiled at her again. He seemed exceptionally polite for a ghost, although it was possible that was how ghosts tricked their victims. She clomped over to the door and stepped outside. The light was pale and hazy. “It’s this way,” she said, leading him around the side of the house. She heard his feet rustling the overgrown grass.
When the garden came into view, small and neat and boxed in by its black fence, Cat broke into a run, stopping only to unlatch the gate. The garden hadn’t yet completely unfurled itself, and most of the blossoms were only tiny fists pushing out of their stalks. The climbing roses had been pruned back a few weeks ago; the hyacinth poked unscented out of a stretch of black soil. Cat ran over to her citrus tree and leaned against it, watching as Finn stepped through the gate and stopped and looked around the garden as though he’d never been outside.
“This is remarkable.” Finn pointed at the Texas wisteria. “Wisteria frutescens. I have never seen it before.”
“It grows all over the place,” Cat said. “It grows in the woods.”
Finn turned toward her citrus tree. “Citrus limon,” he said. “Lemon tree.”
“Yeah, I guess,” said Cat. “It’s mine.” Her citrus tree was the same height as her and covered with flat waxy leaves, although no lemons yet. She had planted it with her mother last year, digging up the soil with a plastic shovel, watering it dutifully during the summer drought.
“I understand.” Finn walked over to the tree and reached up to rub one of the leaves between his thumb and forefinger. He was close enough to Cat that she could see the fibers in the fabric of his T-shirt, thin and faintly worn. It looked like the T-shirts her mother kept folded up in a drawer to wear when she worked in the garden. It didn’t look like the T-shirt of a ghost.
Cat had a sudden idea. “Hey, do you want to see the cemetery?”
Finn dropped his hand and turned toward her. “The cemetery?” His voice sounded different, higher pitched, like a child’s, like a girl’s. When he spoke again, it had returned to normal. “I’ve never seen a cemetery.”
Cat nearly clapped her hands together in her excitement. Her hypothesis was correct. (Her father had taught her about the importance of hypotheses.) Finn had forgotten that he was dead. He had forgotten the place where he was buried. Maybe he wasn’t the bad kind of ghost at all, just the lost kind. Cat ran out of the garden, back toward the house. “Come on!” she shouted. Inside, she plopped down on the kitchen’s cold tile and put on her shoes. Finn walked in, looked down at her, then back up at her parents, still sitting at the kitchen table.
“We are going to the cemetery,” he said.
Cat’s father took a long drink from his mug of coffee. “Well, that’s wonderful,” he said. “I knew you two would get along if you had the chance.”
Cat’s mother didn’t say anything.
Cat jumped to her feet and went into the living room to grab her sketch pad. Then she ran back outside, letting the screen door slam behind her. Finn followed. She led him down to the woods, still dark and fragrant with the last vestiges of night.
“You can take the road,” said Cat. “It’s quicker. But the cars go really fast. Which I guess wouldn’t be a problem for you but it would be for me.”
“I prefer the woods.”
They walked along without saying anything. Broken branches and empty pecan shells snapped beneath their feet. At one point Cat glanced up at Finn and the sunlight filtering through the tree leaves had covered him with dark, shadowy spots, like a leopard. He even had a leopard’s bright, fluorescent eyes.
Eventually, the woods opened up into the clearing that housed the cemetery. Cat climbed over the sagging, rusted metal fence. The lemony sunlight made her eyes water. It was the right time of year and the cemetery was covered with a thick blanket of wildflowers: bluebonnets and coreopsis, black-eyed Susans and phlox. She knew most of the names from picking bouquets here with her mother. That year the wildflowers were so numerous Cat could only make out the very tops of the gravestones, most of which didn’t even have names on them, only initials and dates from two centuries ago.
Cat turned around, half expecting Finn to be disappearing in a cloud of light or steam. But instead he stood at the edge of the cemetery, wildflowers rustling around his ankles.
“It is lovely,” he said.
“That’s what my mom always says.” Cat frowned. This must not be the right cemetery. Finn took a few steps away from the fence, toward the center of the cemetery where the old oak tree twisted up against the cloudless blue sky. Cat trailed behind him. The sun reflected off his dark hair. He stopped, tilted his head toward the swaying, rippling flowers. Cat froze. Maybe he had found his grave.
But Finn just scooped something up off the ground. He turned toward Cat. He smiled. Cat decided he had a kind smile, even if he was a ghost. She took a few hesitant steps forward, and Finn uncapped his hands. There, bright against his curved palms, was an enormous black and orange butterfly. It fluttered its wings once. Cat leaned in close and saw the tiny fibers on its black antennae.
“Danaus plexippus,” said Finn. “Monarch butterfly.”
“No way,” said Cat. “My computer told me those were extinct.”
“They were only thought to be extinct,” said Finn. “However, with the stabilization of the North American ecosystem, the species has been able to recover.” The butterfly folded up its wings and then, as though it had been waiting for a lull in the conversation, shot back up into the indolent air and disappeared into the branches of the oak tree.
Cat didn’t understand. Finn turned away from her and continued exploring the overgrown paths of the cemetery. Cat decided she was glad he had not disappeared back into the afterlife: any ghost who could revive an extinct species of butterfly, extracting it from the blossoms of graveyard flowers, was the sort of ghost it might be handy to have around.
* * * *
The spring turned into summer turned into fall, the heat heavy and dry as kindling. All the plants died. The grass turned brown. The sunlight caramelized. In the afternoons Cat’s world—the woods, the yard, the exterior of the house—looked like some ancient, crumbling, amber-tinted photograph.
After the day at the graveyard, Cat adjusted quickly to the presence of Finn, especially when it became apparent that he spent most of his time in the basement laboratory with her father. Being a ghost, he never got angry or condescending with her the way her parents’ friends did, and sometimes he even watched cartoons.
Cat carried on about her business.
On one of those gilded, sweltering afternoons, Cat’s parents called her down to the dining room table. She had been up in her room playing on her computer, because in September, in the middle of the day, it was still too hot to go outside.
Her parents and Finn all sat at the table. Her parents looked more serious than usual. Finn stared straight ahead. “We need to talk about your education,” her mother said before Cat had even had a chance to climb into the tall wooden chair. Cat frowned. Education?
“We’ve put off sending you to school,” her father said. “Just figured we’d let you run around the woods, figure things out for yourself.” He leaned back in his chair and smiled. “But you’re getting to the age where you need something a little more formalized.” He glanced over at Finn and nodded. “Your mother and I have decided . . .”
Cat’s mother clenched her jaw but said nothing.
“We’ve decided that Finn should act as your tutor.”
Cat looked from her father to Finn. Finn blinked and then smiled. As much as she liked his smile, she didn’t want him to be her tutor. She didn’t want to have a tutor at all. “Why can’t I go to school?” Not that she wanted that, either.
“The school in town isn’t very good,” her mother said. “Your father and I were going to teach you ourselves, but now that Finn is here, well . . .” She rubbed her temple.
“He’ll be able to devote more time to your studies,” said Cat’s father. “Won’t you, Finn?”
“Yes, Dr. Novak.”
“Finn knows a great deal, Cat. He can tell you more about the plants in the woods than I or your mother ever could. He’ll be able to teach you arithmetic. You’ll like that, won’t you?”
Cat shook her head. She didn’t trust numbers. They never stayed still for her. Her mother sighed again. But her father just leaned conspiratorially over the table and said, “Plus, he has a huge store of stories at his disposal.”
Cat pushed forward. “Really?” Neither of her parents was fond of stories.
Finn nodded. She wondered why he’d been holding back on her. She thought he only knew the Latin names for plants.
“What kinds of stories? Could you tell me one now?”
Cat’s father laughed and leaned over to her mother. “See? They’ll be fine,” he said, as though neither Finn nor Cat were in the room.
And so, just as the heat finally, mercifully broke, Cat’s routine changed completely. She had to get out of bed every morning at six thirty whether she wanted to or not. She could no longer watch cartoons on the viewing screen her parents had installed in her room. And although Finn still let her run more or less wild through the woods, she could do so only during the time allotted—in the mornings—and all of her adventures were accompanied by not only Finn but his incessant lessons. “Allium stellatum,” he said when she showed him the wild onions she had braided together to make a wreath. “Pink wild onion.” He paused. “It once grew wild across the Northern Hemisphere, although various ecological changes in the last two hundred years have caused it to die out completely in the American Midwest and parts of Canada.”
“You’re boring,” she told him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t wish to be.”
But Cat only set the wreath of wild onions on her head and ran off to find the secret fairy trails threading through the underbrush of the forest. She hadn’t seen a fairy yet, but she still wasn’t convinced they weren’t real, and she wanted to draw one in her sketch pad.
In the afternoons, Cat slumped listlessly at a desk in the spare bedroom that had been set up as her classroom. Here Finn taught her the incomprehensible patterns of arithmetic (which she hated), the systemic complexities of the study of science (which she tolerated), and literature (which she adored). He recited to her the Odyssey and
Metamorphoses and the violent versions of the fairy tales she had heretofore experienced only as sanitized cartoons, and she followed along on her electronic reading tablet, the words lighting up as he spoke them. Of bodies changed to various forms, I sing. She’d never encountered any stories as intricate or compelling as the stories he gave her, nor anything that made her sigh when she read it. She liked best the stories about people becoming other things. Stories where women became swans or echoes. In the evenings, when Finn disappeared into the mysterious recesses of the laboratory, Cat went out to the garden or down to the river and wondered what it would be like to be a stream of water, a cypress tree, a star burning a million miles away. Occasionally, Finn told her stories that were also true.
“I find history fascinating,” he said. “Do you?”
“I guess,” she said. History was certainly more interesting than math, but there were no sea monsters or witches in real life, only wars and diseases and ecological disasters, humanity nearly dying off in places with names that sounded made up. Australia. New York. Tajikistan. Paris. Resuscitated by something Finn called “ay-eye”—computers, he said, built to replace all those lost people. Cat didn’t like hearing about it because it made her depressed, because history never had anything to say about the old brick house in the middle of the forest, with a laboratory in its basement and a garden in its backyard.
But despite the stretches of languid boredom in the afternoons, Cat grew accustomed to her lessons with Finn, to his stories and the sound of his voice, steady and patient as he explained multiplication and division or the taxonomies of the plants growing in the woods. Sometimes she stopped listening and watched him, in the sleepy room where he taught her lessons, the sunlight shining across the left side of his body. He never snapped at her or asked why she didn’t understand fractions yet, the way her mother sometimes did. He always answered her questions with long and elaborate explanations that she sometimes didn’t understand—but at least he answered them, unlike her father. She wondered if all kids were lucky enough to have their own personal ghost-tutors. She suspected they were not.
* * * *
Cat’s mother was throwing a Christmas party. She had planned it for weeks, fussing over the lights Dr. Novak and Finn installed on the outside of the house, disappearing on day trips into the city and returning with bags of new dishes Cat was not allowed to look at, much less touch. She hung garlands around the banister of the stairs. She coordinated the ornaments on the Christmas tree in the living room with the decorations in the hallway so everything in the house sparkled red, white, and silver, like a frozen candy cane.
Cat hid from all this madness by sneaking down to the laboratory to watch Finn and her father work. Her daily lessons had been canceled for the time being, as her mother needed to have the spare bedroom set up to receive guests, or possibly to store empty boxes. She wasn’t clear, and Cat wasn’t sure. “You can stay down here,” her father said. “But don’t get in the way.”
“I’ll just sit under the table.”
Her father laughed, and Finn smiled at her. Cat curled up like a snail and peeked at them through the tangled knot of her hair.
Cat didn’t really understand what her father did. He talked about it at dinner sometimes, with her mother, who Cat had come to understand used to do the same sort of thing but didn’t anymore, and with Finn, who despite being dead also seemed well versed in the subject. They used unfamiliar words and elaborate abbreviations that weren’t listed in Cat’s reading tablet. Whenever she asked her father about it, he said, “I work with cybernetics, honey,” but Cat didn’t know what that meant. Finn’s explanation had sounded too much like the dinnertime conversations.
From her vantage point under the table, Cat could see only their feet moving back and forth, shuffling over the cold gray cement. They spoke softly to each other in comfortable and assured tones, and Cat heard the sound of typing, the occasional whir of a machine. At one point something clattered and then began beeping urgently. When she stuck her head out to investigate, her father shooed her back under the table.
“Don’t make me send you upstairs,” he said.
Cat leaned back against a nest of wires. They felt like hands buoying her up off the chilly floor. It was cold that day, colder than normal.
Finn rattled off a string of numbers. “Interpret,” said Cat’s father.
“All systems functioning,” said Finn.
Cat’s father shuffled closer to the table under which Cat was hiding. “Very good, very good,” he muttered, too softly to be directed at Finn. “Glad to know that’s working.” Under the table, Cat frowned.
“Daniel! Have you seen Cat?”
Cat’s mother’s feet clicked into the laboratory. They stopped directly in front of the table, and then Cat’s mother leaned down and held out her hand. “There you are,” she said. “We need to go into town.”
Her mother smiled warmly. “To buy you a dress, sweetheart. For the party.”
“Can I pick it out? Anything I want?” Cat had recently learned that she loved dresses.
“Within reason. Come on, let’s get your coat.”
Cat crawled out from under the table. The lights on the computers on the counter blinked amber and blue. Cat took her mother’s hand and waved good-bye to her father and Finn. Then she clomped up the stairs two at a time in her excitement.
Cat’s mother drove into town with the heater turned on high. The air hit Cat straight in the face and dried out her eyes but her mother wouldn’t turn it down. Cat breathed against the window, traced her initials in the fog of her breath. She drew a face frowning from the cold. She waited for her mother to chide her for smearing the glass but she never said anything.
Outside, everything was gray: the sky, the road into the town, the bark on the trees.
Cat’s mother went straight to the children’s boutique near the town square, the one across the street from the pie-and-coffee shop and the old post office, the one she always said was too expensive. Multicolored lights blinked in the window, illuminating the mannequins wrapped in taffeta and silk. Cat bounced up and down in her
seat. She could hardly believe this bizarre expression of kindness. She wondered briefly if there would be a trade-off, like in the stories Finn read to her.
“Yes, I’m sure you’re thrilled,” her mother said. “Think of it as an early Christmas present.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you!” Cat hopped out of the car and ran into the shop. The dresses looked like rows of ice cream.
“Looking for a party dress?” said the woman behind the counter. Cat’s mother sighed and nodded her head, wiping away a few loose strands of hair.
“Darlin’, the whole town’s talking about that party.”
“Don’t remind me. Cat!” Her mother took hold of Cat’s arm, directed her toward the back of the store. “Why don’t you look at the ones that are on sale?” she said. “You might find something you like there.”
Cat didn’t know what it meant for something to be on sale. She went to the back of the store. “Can it be any color I want?” she asked.
“Yes.” Her mother walked back up to the front counter. “I don’t know where she gets it from,” she said to the cashier, loudly enough that Cat could hear her. “I could have cared less about dresses at her age.”
Cat looked through the sales rack, rubbing the fabric of each dress between the palms of her hands. She examined the way the dresses looked in the shop’s bright overhead lights and considered the placement of lace and bows. Her favorite color now was seafoam green, and because the sales dresses were all out of season, seafoam green was plentiful. But nothing struck her.
She moved back up to the front of the store and started looking through the stiff Christmas dresses on display there.
“And I told him, you married a cyberneticist. I didn’t sign up to plan this kind of thing. Honestly, sometimes I think we just went in the wrong direction. Never thought housewifery would come back in style.” Cat’s mother sighed and glanced at her watch. “Have you found anything yet, Cat?”
Cat shook her head and burrowed into the dress rack.
Everything smelled of starch and potpourri.
“Some important people are gonna be there, that’s what I heard,” said the woman at the counter. “There to see that . . . project of his.” The woman dropped her voice low. “Everything is going all right, I hope? I saw on the news—another attack down in the city. Totally dismantled the thing. Fundies, naturally.”
“Oh, don’t even get me started,” said Cat’s mother. “I’ve already had to chase off the preacher from that damned Pentecostal church twice this month.”
“Hope the party won’t get ’em all riled up again. I heard from Angeline that Daniel’s been the focus of a couple of sermons.”
At that moment, Cat found the dress she wanted: dark blue satin, princess cut, with a froth of tulle pushing out the skirt. A pair of tiny white gloves lay draped around the hanger. When she saw that dress, her heart swelled up the way it did when she read Finn’s stories, the way it did whenever the flowers in the garden bloomed.
“It’s beautiful,” she sighed to herself. And then, louder: “Mommy! I found it! The perfect dress!”
* * * *
The day of the party the air in the house was ionized, as though an electrical storm was brewing over the horizon. Cat put her dress on early and ran up and down the stairs, sliding in her socks across the living room’s wooden floors. Her mother was too harried to tell her to stop, and just told her to stay out of the way and out of the kitchen. Cat went to find Finn. The laboratory was empty, so she walked up to his room and knocked on the door. “Come in,” he said, and she did.
He sat at the desk in front of the tiny octagonal window that looked down over the house’s driveway. There was a suit laid out on his bed, a blue tie beside it. Cat picked up the tie and draped it around her neck like a scarf.
“Are you excited about the party?” Cat asked.
“It’s going to snow.” Finn turned around in his chair so that he faced her. Behind him, the computer monitor spun through row after row of plain gray text.
“I’ve never seen snow.” Cat sat down on his bed and kicked the wooden frame. “Daddy told me it doesn’t snow here.”
“I have never seen it, either.”
He shook his head. Then he turned back to the computer. He touched the screen, and the text stopped moving. There was a low, electronic beep.
Cat frowned, wondered briefly if something was the matter with him, and then went back downstairs.
As the sun set and the decorations outside twinkled on, and the house began to smell of all the food cooking in the kitchen, Cat’s mother scooped her up and carted her into the bathroom, where Cat’s wild hair was smoothed out and curled. Her mother wore a long silvery dress and makeup, and she smelled of rich, syrupy perfume.
“Hold still,” she said. “I’ll never get these knots out.”
Cat watched in the mirror as this beautiful version of her mother curled Cat’s hair into little mahogany-colored ringlets with a curling iron that felt uncomfortably hot next to Cat’s scalp. It took a long time. When she had finished, she told Cat to shut her eyes and then she sprayed a great cloud of something that smelled like the inside of the hair salon in town and left a sticky residue on Cat’s cheeks. Cat shook her head like a dog. Afterward, her mother took her downstairs, set her down on the couch, and strapped Cat’s feet into a pair of synthetic leather Mary Janes.
“Now,” said her mother, “the guests will be arriving soon. I want you to stand in the foyer with Finn and your father and take their coats, all right?” She smiled then, and Cat smiled back. In the light of the Christmas tree and the candles, her mother looked like a movie star. “Show off your pretty new dress.”
The doorbell chimed.
“Oh shit, they’re early. Daniel! Get down here!”
Cat was ushered into the foyer, where she stood next to Finn, who looked strange in his black suit. The guests trickled in: old men with pretty young wives, old women with old husbands. The pretty young wives were especially inclined to coo over Cat, to twirl
her around so the skirt of her dress flared out. The old people just handed her their coats and then turned their attentions to Finn. “Remarkable,” said one, an old man, his back stooped.
Another reached out with a shaking hand and pressed his palm against Finn’s cheek. “Look at that skin. Thought they only came in metal.”
Finn just looked at them. Sometimes, when Cat was staggering beneath the weight of too many coats, he excused himself and helped her carry them into the master bedroom, where they threw them in a pile on the bed.
“This party sucks,” said Cat.
“It’s not how I would prefer to spend my time, either,” said Finn.
The adults filled up the living room, laughing and drinking from frosted glass tumblers. The scent of all their different perfumes and colognes and powders stirred together in the dry, overheated air and made Cat’s head hurt. She tried to crawl under the coffee table, but her father caught her and swept her up in his arms. He seemed more cheerful than usual.
“Almost dinnertime,” he said.
Cat’s mother stepped into the living room and clapped her hands together twice. All the heads in the room turned toward her. “If you all want to come into the dining room,” she said, her voice trailing off, like she had planned only the first part of what she wanted to say. Cat’s father deposited Cat back on her feet and held her hand as they walked to the dining room table, which had been laid out with a red and silver tablecloth and pots of fresh poinsettias, in addition to those expensive new dishes her mother had bought in the city. On each of the plates was a square of folded paper with the name of a guest written on it. Cat was positioned between her father and her mother, with Finn on the other side of the table.
“Why can’t I sit next to Finn?” Cat asked, tugging on her father’s sleeve.
“Because we need to give our guests a chance to talk with him.”
“She seems awfully attached,” said one of the older ladies. “How intriguing.”
Cat glowered at her. She didn’t like all this interest in Finn. She had no idea scientists were so interested in ghosts. “Finn tutors her during the day,” her father said, sounding faintly embarrassed.
Dinner was a strange, multicourse affair, with Cat’s mother bringing in little pieces of toast covered in shrimp and cream cheese, and then a spinach salad, and then a pair of roasted turkeys. After each course she leaned against the doorway and sighed as everyone else filled up their plates. Cat poked at her food. She noticed how everyone snuck glances at Finn while they ate, as he sat watching, his hands in his lap, his place setting empty.
“Does it normally join you for dinner?” asked one of the pretty young wives.
“Finn joins us for all of our meals,” Cat’s mother answered primly. Cat could feel her looking at Cat’s father over the top of Cat’s head. She slunk down low in her chair.
“So tell me about your memory processors,” said one of the old men. He was talking to Finn, his fork poised above his plate, leaning a little over the table.
Finn recited a string of numbers and abbreviations Cat didn’t understand.
“Goddamn.” The old man turned to Cat’s father. “You responsible for that, Novak?”
Cat’s father glanced down at his lap. “Partially,” he said. “Finn’s creator had designed some incredibly elaborate personality programs—beautiful work, really—but I did some upgrades when he got here. He wasn’t designed to be a laboratory assistant, for example. I hooked him up to the lab systems so he’d have the necessary programming to help me out.”
“And you added a tutoring program, I’d presume?” It was the older woman from before. She smiled indulgently at Cat, who scowled down at her plate.
“Oh, of course. It was pretty neat. I was actually able to upload a bunch of educational software, using the connection I’d already established in the lab—”
Cat didn’t understand why they were talking about Finn as though he were a computer. It must be a scientist thing. She slid farther and
farther down in her seat, until her mother grabbed her by the arm and jerked her back up.
“Sit up straight,” she said, smiling strangely, her teeth showing. Cat ate another bite of turkey. It was too dry. Then she realized she was hearing something strange, a sort of musical plinking against the glass of the dining room windows. She twisted around in her chair and pulled aside the gauzy cream-colored curtains. She saw the reflection of the table in the glass: the poinsettias, the half-eaten turkeys, the guests, her own pale face. But over all of that was a flurry of white powder that struck the window and melted on contact.
“It’s snowing!” she shrieked.
Everyone stopped talking and looked at her, at the windows. Cat turned to her father. “Can I go outside?”
“Honey, we’re in the middle of dinner,” said her mother.
“So? I’m finished. And Finn can take me. Can’t you, Finn? He’s never seen snow, either.”
“It is true, I have not,” he said when everyone looked at him.
“Will you take me outside, Finn?”
Cat dropped off the edge of her chair and ran over to where Finn sat. Some of the guests tittered uncomfortably. Cat slipped her hand in Finn’s, and then her father said, “Be sure to put on your coat, Kitty-Cat.”
“I’ll make sure she is appropriately dressed,” said Finn.
“That’s amazing,” one of the guests said. “I’d never have thought they could be so—”
Cat dragged Finn out of the dining room into the foyer. He helped her put on her coat and then he wound one of her father’s old scarves around her neck. Finn didn’t put on a coat. Ghosts don’t feel the cold.
Cat ran out the front door. The air was filled with swirls of white, and some of the snow had already stuck to the dark ground in patches, like sugar dusted across the top of a chocolate cake. The cars parked along the drive were fringed with ice, and whenever Cat breathed out she could see her breath like a miniature cloud.
She tilted her head back and felt a cold stinging thrill as the snowflakes melted on her tongue.
Finn walked into the middle of the yard, his hands held out in front of him. The snow piled up along the ridge of his fingers. Cat scooped up a tiny handful of snow and mud. The fabric of her neat little white gloves stuck uncomfortably to her skin, but she shaped the snow into a ball and threw it at Finn. He jumped when it disintegrated across his back, then turned around.
When Cat laughed, he smiled.
“Do you think any of those old people are going to come out here?” she asked. “I hope not. I don’t like them.”
“I believe they wished to finish their meal.”
“They just wanted to keep on talking about you when you weren’t there.” Cat formed another snowball, not caring that her embroidered gloves were getting wet and dirty. She threw this one at a red car parked in the yard. “They’re weird.”
“Do you know how snow is formed?”
“No, but I bet you do.”
And of course he did. He began to explain the necessary conditions for the existence of snow: the amount of moisture needed in the air, the highest possible temperature. Cat didn’t listen to him, just ran through the yard pretending she had transformed into a snowflake that refused to hit the ground and melt. She jumped and pirouetted and flapped her arms until she was out of breath. She ran back up to Finn.
“Why were they talking about you like you were a computer?” she asked.
“Because I am a computer,” said Finn. “I’m a machine.” Cat stared at him. She was cold, too cold to enjoy the snow, which had completely enveloped the yard and the spindly gray trees and the frozen, empty garden. The forest was silent and still. She and Finn were the only movable things in the entire world.
“You don’t look like a computer,” she said.
“I know,” he said.
Cat considered this. A computer and a ghost had similar characteristics. Neither required food or air or scarves to keep them
warm in the snow. And if he was a computer, it would explain why he didn’t disappear that day in the cemetery, why animals were not afraid of him.
“You’re not like the other computers in the house, though,” she said. “Or the ones you told me about, that helped build the cities. You look like a person.”
“I believe I’m one of a kind,” he said.
Cat shivered then, from the cold and nothing else. Snow dusted across Finn’s black hair, turning it gray. It clung to the fabric of his suit.
“I thought you were a ghost.”
“Ghosts are not real.”
Cat frowned. She didn’t believe that, but she did decide she liked knowing her favorite person in the world wasn’t dead.
“I don’t mind that you’re a computer.” She ran up to him and wrapped her arms around his legs, leaning her head against his hip. He put his hand on her shoulder, and the weight of it seemed to sink straight through her.
“I’m glad,” he said.
They stayed out for a little longer, as the snow fell thicker and thicker around their feet. Finn helped Cat build a tiny, two-foot snowman. Cat didn’t want to go back inside, even though she was shaking and shivering in the cold, even though the light in the windows was golden and warm. She found two thin black sticks and stuck them in the snowman’s side and drew a crooked smile on his face. The hem of her dress was soaked. The cold seeped through the bottom of her shoes and burned her feet. But she still didn’t want to go in. She didn’t trust the grown-ups waiting in the house, the people who knew Finn for what he was the minute they laid eyes on him, the people who called him it.