From her bedroom, Helen could hear Saturday morning cartoons playing and the sound of spoons clinking in cereal bowls. It was a good sound. The sound of family. She rolled over and closed her eyes again only to get the feeling she was being stared at. When she opened her eyes her four-year-old son was standing by her bed looking her in the eye. “Mom . . . .”
She stared back at the boy for a moment as slumber began to dissipate and wakefulness gradually shifted to the fore. She reached out to ruffle his hair.
“Hi, there, sweetie,” she mumbled with a sleepy smile. “Who are you?”
The child ducked her outstretched hand and gave her a curious pout. “I’m Scotty, Mom.”
“Hi, Scotty. Do I know you?”
“Mo-o-m, stop kidding. Jennie is acting up again.”
“Oh, she is, is she? What’s she doing?”
“She keeps changing channels.”
“Well, you go tell her for me to play fair.”
“Mo-o-m, you tell her! She doesn’t listen to me.”
Helen sighed. “Okay, okay, I’ll be up in a minute. I just . . . need to wake . . . up . . . .” She closed her eyes again.
“Mom says you gotta play fair, Jennie!”
The strident voice of Scotty yelling at Jennie from the other room rallied Helen awake again. She smiled. Those rascals. . . . Then a puzzled frown creased the space between her eyebrows. Wait . . . wait just a minute. What the heck was going on?
She had no kids. . . .
Helen scrambled out of bed, now wide awake, and peeked through her bedroom doorway. She followed the noise of the children’s TV program down the hall to the living/dining room and saw two children squabbling over the TV remote, the four-year-old and a girl perhaps seven. They saw her and both squealed simultaneously.
Helen felt a tightness in her throat. Her eyes darted around the room. No doubt about it. This was her apartment. Was she dreaming? No, impossible. No one in their dreams ever asks themselves that question, at least not until after they’d awakened. An out-of-body experience? No, otherwise why would she still be in her own apartment. She pinched herself, just in case. Hallucinating? Was she taking some kind of medication that was causing all this?
She gaped at the two children. Are these really mine and I’ve suddenly gone insane, or are they figments of my imagination?
A third child, another girl, this one a teenager, wandered out of the kitchen sipping from a glass of orange juice in one hand while balancing a bowl of cereal in the other, which she placed on the table next to two semi-empty bowls, presumably those of the smaller kids who’d abandoned them in their quest for control of the TV set.
“Hey, Mom,” she said with a grin. “You overslept big time. A new first. Jeez, you look like hell. Are you all right? What time did you get home last night? Or was it this morning? Hey, you brats! Stop fighting and let Mom wake up and eat in peace, or I swear I’ll turn off the TV right this minute, kick you both outside and sic Wally’s dog on you. Word!” She said it mildly and with good humor, but still with authority.
The youngsters gave her long faces, glanced at Helen, then suspended their battle for the time being, returning to watch their program.
“And while you’re at it, turn down the volume a notch, okay?” This was received with rolling eyes and nods. The volume dropped.
Helen swallowed. The teenager, whose name she did not yet know, pulled back a chair for her. Helen looked at it, at the girl, and sat down.
“Coffee’s just about ready. I’ll bring you some cereal. That okay?” She didn’t wait for an answer and disappeared back into the kitchen.
Helen felt both her head and her heart throbbing. This was just too surreal. Were these really her children? It was her apartment, wasn’t it? Or was it? She surveyed the room carefully. Yes, it was definitely her living/dining room. She frowned then. No, not exactly. The paint on the walls wasn’t exactly right, just a half-tone lighter maybe. And the furniture seemed older, not to mention a couple of objects that shouldn’t have been there. The TV set was much larger than normal, and the picture far sharper than it usually was. The sofa and the love seat seemed the same old design, but with different upholstery. The book cases were definitely hers; even at this distance she could recognize some familiar titles. The carpet, however, was a totally different color.
The teenager returned with a mug of coffee and another bowl of cereal and pushed them toward Helen before sitting down across from her.
“The brats have already eaten,” she said. “Well, sort of, as you can see, so it’s just you and me.”
Helen looked down at the coffee, at the cereal bowl, then back at the girl. The girl had paused to observe Helen, unkempt, still in her pajamas, and looking confused and a little seedy.
“‘You okay, Mom?”
“Uh, not exactly,” she replied slowly.
Helen paused to study the girl, who had begun shoveling cereal into her mouth. She was pretty, had nice clean features.
“Could I ask you a question?”
The girl’s eyes widened slightly in surprise, but she smiled. “Sure, Mom.”
Helen cleared her throat nervously. “This . . . this is going to sound really weird, and I don’t want to scare you, but . . . . Listen, by some chance am I on some kind of medication?”
The girl opened her eyes even wider. “Medication? You? Mom, you’re as healthy as a horse. Of course not. Why?”
Helen hesitated. “I . . . I’m . . . Well, I’m having a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode.”
“A ‘Twilight Zone’ . . . I don’t know who you are. Any of you.”
The girl’s mouth dropped open. She set her spoon down. “What?”
“I don’t know you. I gather that you think I’m your mother, but I don’t have any children. I’m not married. Never have been. I live in this apartment . . . alone.”
“Mom? Are you joking?” The girl began to show alarm.
“I’m not. Honest to God. Something is dreadfully wrong here, but I don’t have a clue what’s happened.”
“Mom!” The girl stood up, now frightened. “My God, maybe you’ve had a stroke or something. Should I call 9-1-1?”
The two younger children had turned toward them, puzzled looks on their faces.
“Is something the matter?” asked the girl, Jennie.
Helen and the teen waved their hands at the two. “No, no! We’re just having a discussion. Go back to your program.”
The teenager slowly sat down again and lowered her voice. “Should I call an ambulance?”
Helen shook her head. “No-no, at least not yet. Actually, except for the shock, I feel fine. And I have no paralysis, no speech impediments, no dizziness . . . none of the symptoms of a stroke. All body parts present and accounted for. I-it’s just you guys who don’t fit in the equation. Oh, and some of the furnishings, even though this is definitely my apartment.”
“Mom, you are definitely freaking me out now.”
“You think you’re freaked out? What about me? I go to bed single and wake up married . . . with children?”
“Divorced, Mom. Divorced . . . with children. Jeez, what’s going on here? You were fine yesterday.”
“I’m divorced? How can I be divorced if I never was married?”
“Three years divorced, Mom. You were married, trust me. Otherwise, whose kids are we?”
“I don’t know. Maybe this is all a practical joke and you were hired for the job.” Helen looked at the girl hopefully.
The girl cracked an incredulous grin. “Punked? Wow, this’d be the most awesome one ever. But . . . it’s not. No joke, Mom. We’re definitely your kids. You don’t even remember Dad?”
Helen shook her head. “I don’t. Good heavens, do you suppose I stripped a gear during the night?”
“You mean like amnesia?”
“Oh, jeez, just like in one of those cheesy TV series!”
Helen shrugged. “What else could it be?”
“Maybe somebody slipped something into your drink last night at the party you went to.”
“What? I was at a party last night?”
“Uh-huh. Which reminds me: you owe me for babysitting the brats.”
“Okay, okay. Tell me about this party.”
“You said it was a retirement party or something for somebody where you work. Old Man Wenceslao, I think you said.”
“Old Man Wenceslao? Doesn’t ring a single bell at all. Would I go to a party where they slip drugs into drinks?”
The girl shrugged. “I don’t know, but I never heard anybody doing that at a retirement party. Other parties, well. . . .”
Helen frowned. “Other parties? What kind of other parties? Wait a second! How old are you, anyhow?”
Helen concentrated, working calculations in her head. “How is that possible? I would have to have been eight years old when I had you, then.”
The girl snickered. “Nope. I was born in two thousand.”
Helen blinked. “What do you mean, two thousand?”
“The year two thousand.”
“Wait. Wait, wait! What’s the date now?”
“The date? Saturday, September twentieth.”
“No, I mean the year. What’s the year?”
“Twenty fourteen! As in two thousand fourteen?”
“Uh-huh. What did you think?”
“Nineteen ninety-eight? No way!”
The two younger children glanced up from their program at their sister’s shout.
“What’s no way?” asked the girl whose name Helen recalled was Jennie.
“Never mind,” said the teenager. She pointed a threatening finger at the TV. They refocused on cartoons. She turned back to Helen. “You really thought that this was nineteen ninety-eight?”
Helen, thunderstruck, barely nodded. She put her fingers to her face. “This can’t be happening.”
The girl looked on with growing enthusiasm. “What do you last remember? I mean, this is like a totally gonzo mystery.”
Helen thought. “Hunh. Oddly enough, I was at a party. But the party was right here in this apartment. My twentieth birthday. Mom and Dad and my brother and sister and several of my college friends came over to celebrate.”
“You owned this apartment when you were twenty?”
Helen nodded. “Actually, I’ve lived here a year and a half. I mean, I mean the last I recall I’d lived here a year and a half. Technically I don’t . . . didn’t own it . . . yet. My folks do . . . did? Do they still own it, or do I?”
“You own it, Mom.”
“Ah, okay, then. Anyhow, they’d bought it originally as an investment, but then when I entered college and the apartment was within walking distance, they proposed I rent it from them towards later buying it if after college I was interested in keeping it. I’m working . . . was working — damn it, this is confusing! Oh, sorry for swearing . . . . I-I just can’t believe this is twenty fourteen.”
“You need to see a doctor, Mom.”
“I do, don’t I?” Helen looked at the girl. “By the way, what’s your name?”
“Seriously. I already learned that your brother’s name is Scotty and your sister is Jennie.”
“It’s Charlene, Mom.”
“Charlene . . . Oh, that’s a nice name.”
The girl smirked, but looked happy.
“Oh, my God!”
The younger children raised their heads again. Charlene threw up a hand of warning and her best death stare. Two heads jerked back to the TV.
“It’s twenty fourteen!”
“Yeah, we already agreed on that.”
“But my head is still wrapped around nineteen ninety-eight, don’t you see?”
“No-o. . . .”
“I-I . . . th-that means I’m not twenty years old. It means I must be thirty-six now!”
“You are, Mom.”
Helen glanced at Jennie and Scotty, then reached across the table and grabbed Charlene by the forearm. “It means I’ve lost sixteen years of my life,” she hissed, “that’s what it means! Sixteen years!”
“Okay, Mom, calm down. I’m sure you’ll get them all back once you’ve seen a doctor.”
Helen stood up then, a horrified look on her face. “Come with me. Now!”
She grabbed Charlene again and dragged her to the bathroom. Helen stared at herself in the mirror and let out a shriek.
“Oh, my God! I look like my mother!”
“No, you look like mine.”
Helen turned to Charlene. “My mom and dad . . . where are they? Th-they’re not dead, are they?”
“No, of course not. I suppose they’re home. Oh, right . . . They live in Denver.”
“Denver! When did they move to Denver?”
“I don’t know. Years ago, I guess.”
“But they’re both okay, right?”
“Sure they are. Listen, Mom, I think the sooner we get you to a doctor, the better. You do sound like you’ve stripped a gear all right, even if maybe it isn’t a stroke.”
Helen looked at herself in the mirror again and shook her head. “Definitely. But why did this happen? How?”
Charlene shrugged. “Listen, ‘you want me to call Dad? He and Yvonne — that’s his wife — live here in town. We can stay with them if you have to go to the hospital.”
“Your dad? Yes, sure, if it comes to that. By the way, why are we divorced?”
“You don’t remember? No, I guess not.”
“No, nothing. I don’t even remember who he is! So, what was it?”
Charlene gave her an uncomfortable look. “Uh, let’s just call it irreconcilable differences.”
Helen observed her daughter, saw the pain. “Unh . . . Okay. We’ll call it that.” She paused, then asked softly, “I . . . I’m not a meanie, am I?”
Charlene gazed at her mother’s eyes, then rushed and gave her a hug. “Oh, no, Mom! Never a meanie!”
Helen was surprised by Charlene’s embrace, but she felt both relieved and somehow moved by the girl’s vehemence.
The two returned to the living/dining room. The TV set was still going, but Jennie and Scotty were on the floor, playing a game on a computer tablet.
“What’s that? An Etch-a-Sketch?”
“An Etch-a-Sketch? Oh, that? No, it’s an iPad.” Charlene then noted her mother’s incomprehension. “It’s a kind of portable computer. There’ve been a lot of innovations since nineteen ninety-eight, believe me.”
“Mom, we didn’t finish breakfast. Actually, we hardly even started. The cereal looks a bit on the soggy side now. Want some fresh stuff?”
Five minutes later they were eating at the table again.
“What do I do for a living?”
“You don’t know what you do?”
“I do not. Last I remember, I was working part time at J.C. Penney’s. Does Penney’s still exist today?”
Charlene nodded. “Yep, still going.”
“So, what do I do now? If I’m a single mom, raising three kids, surely I must be making more money than I did before.”
Charlene grinned, then laughed out loud. “This is so cool!”
“You not knowing.”
“Okay, so enlighten me.”
“Mom you’re a movie star.”
“Yep. And last year you won an Oscar for best supporting actress in ‘The Oxford Comma’. You were awesome.”
“You are so lying! I couldn’t act a line if it jumped out and bit me.”
“Okay, okay, just kidding. You’re the CEO of Google.”
“The CEO of what?”
“Oh, that’s right. You wouldn’t know what Google is. Well, it’s a multibillion-dollar Internet information service.”
“Oh, I see . . . And here we are, billionaires and still living in this dump, huh? You’re having fun, aren’t you?”
Charlene grinned. “Oh, yeah.”
Helen snickered along with her, then sighed. “Okay, what’s the real story? Knowing me, it can’t possibly be as dramatic.”
“Oh, you’re not doing so bad, Mom. You’re a mechanical engineer at C.F. Brigmire and Company.”
“Uh-huh. I don’t know anything about mechanical engineering, but I’ve heard that you’re pretty good at it.”
Helen expressed pleasant surprise. “Well, I’ll be darned. Mechanical engineering? That’s what I was studying in college. Following in my daddy’s footsteps, as a matter of fact.” She paused. “Hey, who takes care of the little ones while I’m at work? Oh, my God, you aren’t a bunch of latchkey kids, are you?”
Charlene shook her head. “No. Scotty is in preschool and Jennie in second grade. There’s a day care center they go to after school. I pick them up later, or you do after work, if I can’t. It works out. And occasionally Yvonne, Daddy’s wife, will look after them. Oh, by the way, Yvonne’s a nice lady. You actually like her. And so you know, you and Daddy have worked it out so we can visit him every other weekend, some holidays, school breaks, and part of summers.”
Helen, though having no notion of the details of her separation from her husband, still felt herself blushing with shame. “This kind of sucks for you kids, doesn’t it?”
“I’m so sorry. I was lucky. My mom and dad were always there together for me.”
Charlene put her hand on her mother’s arm and squeezed it. “Mom, it’s okay. It hasn’t been easy for you either. It’s not so fun, true, but we’re kind of used to it now. Well, at least for Jennie and me. Scotty thinks it’s normal as apple pie, because he was too tiny to know anything different. But Mom, please, let’s get you over to the hospital now and checked out. We don’t know what’s happened to you. It could be something temporary and harmless. But it could also be something really serious, even if you feel okay now. It certainly can’t be normal. And . . . and I’m kinda scared, you know? Mom? Like freaked out? Can we call Daddy? Please?”
Helen smiled then, patted the girl’s hand, and nodded. “Excellent idea.”
Two weeks later Helen was back home. Her former husband — an amiable fellow, as it turned out, by the name of Hank — who with his second wife had taken care of the children at their home during that time, dropped them off at the apartment earlier, telling them that he was going to the hospital to pick their mother up and bring her back to them, and suggesting in the meantime that they neaten up the apartment for her arrival.
“Dearies,” she announced to her three children, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.”
Their eyes grew large with both anticipation and alarm.
“The good news is that I’m fit as a fiddle.”
“Mom, what’s a fiddle?” asked Scotty.
“Uh, it’s a violin, but I just meant that health-wise, the doctors say I’m fine. No worries. You aren’t going to become orphans anytime soon, okay?”
The three cheered again.
“Also the good news is that my condition isn’t psychological.”
The three cheered.
“Mom, what’s cyclelogical?” asked Scotty. Jennie nodded as well.
“Um, psychological means mental or emotional. In other words, I won’t be jabbering like a chimpanzee in the middle of the night and scaring the neighbors and their dogs.”
The children groaned, then laughed.
“Okay. Here’s the bad news: My memory is still gone, and so far the doctors can’t find it. They did manage to give it a fancy medical name, however, though for the life of me I can’t even pronounce it. It’s somewhere in these papers they gave me. For want of an easier word, let’s just call it amnesia for the time being.”
“Mom, what’s amneesha?” asked Scotty.
Helen gave him a hug. “Amnesia means there’s a lot of stuff I can’t remember anymore. The doctors don’t know yet what’s caused mine, but they are confident that I’ll eventually get my memory back, only they don’t seem to know when that will be exactly. For a while, I’ll have to go back for further tests and some kind of therapy, maybe once a week, or every other week, but it will only be for a few hours at a time, so we’ll be together again.”
The three raised another cheer.
“More good news, at least I think it is: I’ve got a semi-leave of absence from my job for the next six months. I say semi because I still have to go to work, but I’m going to be receiving a kind of rehab training to get my working skills back to normal. Right now I can’t remember what I was doing at my job, but there’s the belief that with retraining I’ll quickly regain my proficiency.”
This time there was no applause. Helen regarded them with a grin.
“What this means, kids, is that I’ll still be receiving a salary, and I won’t have to sell any of you for food.”
Three cheers and a few whews.
“Okay, then. Here’s the really bad news . . .”
The children held their breath.
“You’ve got a big job ahead of you.”
“What do you mean, Mom?”
“I mean, it’s pay-back time, kids. Because I lost my memory, you guys are going to have to help be my memory until I get it all back, or as much as I can. I’ve got sixteen years to catch up on. Each of you has memories about me that you can give me back. Scotty here has the least to give . . . maybe a year’s worth . . . because he’s the youngest. Jennie, you’re seven, so I’ll bet you can remember back about three years, huh? And Charlene, the oldest, you’ve probably got nine or ten years tucked away that you can hand back to me. So, you guys are valuable commodities for my recovery. I’m not asking for total recall, because that’s impossible, but what you can remember.”
The children’s eyes grew wide.
“Hey, you guys look like frogs! Ha-ha! But I’ve always liked frogs, so I know you’ll do a great job. Okay, then, let’s get cracking!”
“Okay, Mom. We’ll do it!”
Helen gazed then at these three virtual strangers who were her children, and suddenly an intense, almost overwhelming feeling of love, affection, and gratitude seized her.
“Mom! Why are you crying?”
Helen brushed at her tears. “Nothing . . . everything. But even if I don’t know who you are yet, I still find, way . . . way down deep inside my heart, that I do know who each of you are and that I simply adore you kids to pieces, that you are my life.”
There was an instant of stunned silence, then, “Mom!” they all shouted in unison and threw themselves at her.
It was the first day of her life. And it was a pretty damn good first day at that.