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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Universal Love


Alexander Weinstein





Nin found Dad frozen in the backyard. He wasn’t trimming the hedges, just standing with his clippers in hand, staring at the bushes, she told me. Who knew how long he’d been like that, his body shivering. She’d put her hand on his back and guided him inside, where she made him a cup of tea.

“You need to come home, Leah,” she said. So I asked for another week off, got a reluctant yes, and headed back to Ohio.

Our parents had done everything together, from puttering around the house to working in the garden. Dad would rake leaves, Mom would prepare lunch, and they’d sit in the living room in the late afternoon, reading ebooks together. At night they’d stream a movie or go into town for dinner. They were that rare and beautiful couple, almost nonexistent nowadays, lifelong companions and best friends. Then, suddenly, there was only Dad: calling to tell us Mom was gone, making funeral arrangements without us, stern-faced through the service, telling everyone he was fine, just fine.

I’d tried to help during the funeral—I cooked, cleaned the house, washed dishes, had planned to stay an extra week—but Dad pushed Nin and me away. Everything was fine, he told us, we girls should head home, no use staying at the house when we had our own lives to live. And after two days, he said we needed to go. What could we do? Nin left, driving the three hours back to her apartment in Toledo, and I flew back to Boulder, where Theo and the kids were waiting. Two weeks later, Nin called to tell me about finding Dad by the bushes.

Nin picked me up from the airport. Besides the funeral, the last time we’d been home together was when I was finishing my grad degree and she was completing her freshman year as an undergrad. We’d argued about something dumb—an anthropology course she hated—I’d called her narrow-minded, and she’d called me a patronizing bitch. After that we hadn’t spoken for years. I was hoping grief might help us mend the distance, but when she picked me up she was being her annoying self, asking me about my flight while simultaneously flicking her eyes to send texts in her contacts as she drove.

“Uh-huh,” she commented when I told her how the kids were doing, and laughed suddenly at a video in the corner of her eye. So, instead of continuing, I sat in the passenger seat hating how ADHD her generation was.

“If Dad’s got dementia,” she said, “you’re going to have to move home. I can’t handle this alone.”

“He’s just grieving,” I said. I couldn’t imagine uprooting everything and moving back to the Midwest. We had our jobs, the kids’ school, never mind living in suburban Ohio, a place Nin might be able to survive but not a place I wanted to return to.

The house was a mess. Dad had let dishes pile up over the past weeks on tables, countertops, and bookshelves. Piles of laundry lay wherever he’d decided to get undressed. I ran the washing machine, scrubbed dishes, and mopped the floors while Dad told us he didn’t need our help. Later that evening, we found him in the basement, standing by the water heater for some reason only he understood. I led him back upstairs and got him in bed while Nin mixed us drinks from a bottle of gin she’d found in the pantry. We sat at the kitchen table, exhausted. I scrolled through my eye-screens looking for advice about Dad while Nin played a dumb game on her retinas.

“What about Nostalgia?” I asked.

“That app came and went in the twenties,” Nin said.

“Not according to this.”

I blinked the article to her and she scanned it without stopping her game. “Whoa,” she mumbled. “I had no clue old people were using it.” She blinked me a hyperlink from the comment section, and soon my eyes were opening other related posts.

Like most people, I’d briefly subscribed to Nostalgia to get over a breakup. I’d uploaded videos of Sam, and there was his hologram making goofy jokes that made my heart leap. When I doubted my decision to dump him, I accessed the app’s shadow side and suddenly his hologram was being his snarky old self, a dark cloud that confirmed how much better off I was without him. Nostalgia helped me get over Sam, but it also left me feeling clingy and pathetic, particularly on nights when I’d use a sex clip to get myself off to his ghost. Nin was more familiar with Nostalgia’s reboot. She’d uploaded holograms of old friends to her contacts as a way to remember her high school days, before she grew bored and deleted the app.

But Nostalgia had changed since then, and we skimmed article after article, clicked on suggested posts, and finally went to bed long after midnight, appearing red-eyed the next morning at the breakfast table.

“Dad,” we said, “we think we have a way to bring Mom back.”

* * *

We found Dad’s contacts in a dusty case at the bottom of his dresser drawer. There were no daily videos on his feeds, no photos blinked from vacations, no live-memories of him and Mom gardening together. He’d only accessed his contacts for video calls, and had never explored the apps or used them for anything more complicated than a remedial form of Skype.

“Why would I want the world watching Mom gardening?” he asked.

“Maybe so we could have the memories,” Nin said.

“You never took any photos?” I asked.

“Sure, plenty. On my phone.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

But it was true. Dad had used his old iPhone to snap pictures. We scrolled through the storehouse of megapixel selfies of him and Mom, the two of them posing like people did back at the start of the millennium. There were a few inexplicable portraits of them taken at such a far distance that there was no way it’d been a selfie stick.

“How’d you even get a shot like this?” Nin asked.

“We asked someone to take it.”

I shrugged. “I guess people were more trusting back then.”

Nostalgia was going to be a lot harder to use. There were drop-boxes to upload Dad’s old pics to, user agreements, and clickable acknowledgments of less-than-perfect verisimilitude. It’d take twenty-four hours, which seemed forever, but it would be possible to re-create Mom from the photos.

To pass the time, Nin and I did the yard work that’d been neglected. We raked leaves in the autumn light, the trees an explosion of yellows and reds all around us. I tried to find a way to break the silence, but Nin was watching videos in her eyes and listening to music. She created small piles in the expanse of our backyard, then paused and stood there with her shoulders slumped. I went over and put my hand on her back.

“You okay?”

She closed her eyes. “Are you going to let her into your feed, too?”

I hadn’t thought about it. “I guess I’ll have to, right? Just to make sure it looks like Mom?”

“I think we both have to,” she said. “That’s going to be weird.”

I pictured Mom again, her joy when we’d come home for the holidays. I didn’t know how I’d respond to seeing her. Nin looked like she was about to cry, and I wanted to give her a hug, but she took her rake and walked across the yard to start on a corner we hadn’t done yet, leaving us both to cope with our grief alone.

Copyright © 2020 by Alexander Weinstein