By W. T. Paterson
Jeremy felt like an out-of-place monster sitting in the line of cars to pick up his twelve-year-old daughter Emilia from an all-women’s coding camp. Tech giant ByteSyze hosted an eight-week summer program for young women interested in STEM careers, the final week of which happened to coincide with the one-year anniversary of his wife Marianne’s passing. While Jeremy wanted Emilia stay home with him so that they could grieve in silence together, there he was, the quiet hum of the Prius like the glow of a laptop screen, or static of a television on mute, or the sound of muffled wailing into a pillowcase asking the unanswerable question Why?! Why?! Why?!
He watched other parents beam as their daughters trotted to the family minivans with laptop satchels dangling from their shoulders, hair pulled into tight Mickey-Mouse style buns, hot pink ByteSyze tee-shirts scattered with white hashtag text like #girlpowered and #crackingthecode.
Jeremy wanted the world for his daughter, and it this rate – she’d get it. Full scholarship to the coding camp, internships when she turned sixteen, guaranteed six-figure starting salary after a full-ride to college–likely Stanford–and limitless potential within the company. The future seemed laid out as the type of dream other parents would die for, but as a single Dad with no clue how to raise a girl, the only thing Jeremy wanted was for his quiet, shy daughter to be happy. He didn’t think she’d find it behind a computer screen.
Emilia opened the passenger side door in a hurry and sat down. She stared ahead through the windshield and buckled in, then slunk down like she was hiding. Long strands of golden-brown hair danced out from beneath a grey wool beanie toward a powder blue tee shirt that said Byte Me. She’d placed a piece of masking tape over the word Byte.
“Don’t be mad,” she said, tugging at a loose thread from the canvas laptop bag on her lap. Outside, large green palm fronds tickled its tentacle fingers against the San Francisco breeze as the five o’clock sun pounded down upon the tech giant’s campus. The sweet smell of salty air pushed through the air vents alongside the AC.
“Mad? Did something happen? How was your day?” Jeremy asked. He didn’t understand why Emilia insisted on wearing that beanie in the staunch San Francisco heat, but a part of him felt that she was making fun of the fact that Jeremy had lost his hair years ago. Even though he shaved his head every other day, it still bothered him. Either that or the sight of Marianne in her hospital bed, bald and pale from chemo, had manifested in this peculiar coping mechanism. A part of him secretly hoped that Marianne was the true cause of this pre-teen angst because otherwise, he was all zeroes.
Behind them, a car tapped its horn to move the line forward. Emilia, unaffected, shrugged.
“I just don’t want you to be mad,” she said.
“I’m not mad,” Jeremy said. “Why would I be mad?”
“Sometimes you get mad.”
“Is there a reason I should be mad?”
“You don’t want to be here,” Emilia said.
“You don’t. Other parents meet their kids at the door, but not you.”
Jeremy put his hand on the back of his daughter’s head and palmed the wool cap. Marianne’s pre-sickness hair crept out from beneath the edge, the immortal strands passed through genetics that found new life in a new body. Sometimes, it almost hurt to look at Emilia.
“I lost track of time working on the lighthouse,” he said.
“Dad,” Emilia said, and gave him the pained eyes of a child scared of losing more than she already had.
“Tomorrow, I’ll be at the door. I promise,” Jeremy said. The car behind them honked again, so Jeremy rolled down the window and waved an apology at the squid-like line while he pulled away. The car hummed like the fan of an internal processer’s cooling system. He missed his pickup truck, missed the sound of a roaring engine as it combusted gas and screamed down the near-empty Colorado highways, but those days were long gone. Instead, he pulled into the traffic-clogged California highway as Emilia popped open her laptop.
“Don’t be mad,” she said to a black screen that quickly populated with colorful lines of code.
“I’m not mad, but you know how I feel about computers in the car.”
“This car is a computer,” Emilia said. “But not that. I coughed up blood today. The counselors tried to call, but it went straight to voicemail. I told them it was fine and that it happens all the time. Please don’t be mad.”
Jeremy’s insides twisted like a coiled serpent. The rushed way Emilia entered the car made sense, a quick escape to avoid an uncomfortable conversation. Jeremy pulled the phone from his pocked and tried to power it on. No such luck. Dead. He plugged it into the car’s charger and waited.
The gridlock traffic inched on. The sun beat down in an attempt to fry the commuters locked inside their metal coffins. With the amount of time people spend in them, Jeremy figured people should be buried in their cars.
“I was working on the lighthouse. I didn’t see. I’m not mad,” he said. “Do you feel better?”
“There is no such thing,” Emilia said, clacking at the keys of her laptop. “If you get off 80 at 16th, it’s a straight shot to UCSF Mission Bay. I know you want me to go to the hospital, and that’s the quickest route.”
Of course Emilia would choose that hospital, the same hospital that Marianne had spent her final days, the place where doctors delivered bad news with steel-faced affect and serial disinterest. He hated the hospital. He hated it more than the idea that his wife was in the ground, but the promise he made was to do whatever it took for his daughter’s happiness and health, and so he swallowed the boiling fear that his daughter had inherited more than her mother’s hair.
The traffic crept along like teeth grinding themselves into powder. Inch by inch, breath by breath, they moved toward the exit for 16th Street praying for a miracle that would never come. Traffic was traffic.
“The neighbor girl stopped by today. Lissy? Asked about you,” Jeremy said.
“She’s weird,” Emilia said. She closed the laptop and watched a plane overhead make its approach toward SFO. She opened and closed her hand in a rhythmic pulse, fingers fully extended or snapped shut, and silently counted the time it took for the plane to exit her line of sight mouthing the number for each passing second.
“Why is she weird?” Jeremy asked, watching his daughter process the world through her own system of codes and signals.
“She talks too much,” Emilia said. “Boys and Instagram.”
“Oh,” Jeremy said. Was that all? To him, that seemed like a typical preteen girl doing typical preteen girl things. At their age, Jeremy globbed loads of hair gel into his then-existent hair, put on his father’s best Hawaiian shirt, doubled down on cheap cologne, and headed to school dances to awkwardly bust a move on the floor in hopes of catching the attention of someone, anyone from the girls’ soccer team. Emilia had never been to a dance, had never shown an interest in sleepovers, movie nights with friends, or soccer teams. Every day, she sat behind her computer and tap-danced across the keys with her fingers until reality was the afterthought of a digital dream. Was there anything more isolating, he wondered? A young girl wandering through the emotionless, binary landscape of 1’s and 0’s?
When finally the exit ramp to 16th street approached, Jeremy changed lanes and moved away from the traffic. From there, it was a straight shot along newly paved roads with only traffic lights causing the occasional slowdown. It wasn’t long before he pulled up to the medical campus’s emergency check-in door, pulled to a stop, and waited for Emilia to get out.
“You’re not coming?” Emilia asked.
“I need to park, sweetie,” Jeremy said, as though it were a legitimate counter that a twelve-year-old girl knew how to check herself into the ER, that she was a grown, independent woman who no longer needed her Dad. Then it hit him like a shark attack rising from depths so deep that light ceased to shine: Emilia wanted her father there. She didn’t want to go through this alone.
Jeremy apologized and pulled into the nearby lot to park the Prius. Together, they walked up the slope, through the hospital sliding doors, and checked Emilia in.
The doctor—a tall woman with dark, penetrating eyes—ran a battery tests, looked at Emilia’s chart, and jotted notes. At one point, she asked if Jeremy might wait outside while she spoke with Emilia about some more personal changes likely to be occurring. Jeremy couldn’t get to the door fast enough because the thought of his little girl growing up scared him even more than the idea of a hospital.
The doctor met him there a few minutes later as an older nurse with perfectly silver hair swapped places for some follow-up questions. She pushed through Emilia’s door tapping a touchpad screen in frustration.
“Are you familiar with trichotillomania?” the doctor asked, and Jeremy felt his soul suffocate under the tentacled grip of flashbacks to a similar conversation with a similar tone of voice in a similar hall. The way the fluorescent lights created artificial sun incapable of vitamin D, the white lab coats spotless from stains as though no one bled, or pissed themselves, or coughed up phlegm, the polished floors cleaned to mask the stench of sick, it was all a game to trick people into believing that they had any control over uncontrollable situations.
“Is that a blood thing?” Jeremy asked, wiping his brow with the palm of his sweaty hands. The back of his neck prickled as though it might start growing thorns.
“No,” the doctor smiled. “Though there is soft tissue damage to the larynx. Likely from shouting too hard. She doesn’t strike me as a loud child. I was hoping you could fill me in.”
Shouting into a pillow to stifle the wail of pain, Jeremy thought.
“She lost her mother last year,” he said instead. “My wife…we lost her to leukemia.”
“I’m so sorry to hear,” the doctor said.
“She only ever cried in her sleep. Not at the funeral, not at the wake, nothing.”
“I’m sorry. I heard that she coughed blood and I guess I panicked a little.”
“Understandable. You two have been under tremendous stress. Get her home, give her some ice cream, and try to open up about your feelings. Physical health and mental health are not mutually exclusive.”
The doctor opened the door to find Emilia leaning across the exam table teaching the silver-haired nurse how to clear the touchpad’s cache to make the OS run faster.
“Everything gets uploaded to the cloud,” Emilia said, “so nothing needs to live on the device itself. Clear this one and this one every week and it’ll function like new.”
“You are an angel,” the nurse said. “This whole cloud business up in the sky…it’s a different world. What else lives in The Cloud?”
Emilia looked down at the floor and let the weight of her head fold her neck.
“My mom,” she said. Her chest rippled, but she willed away the flood.
“Heavens, child. I didn’t mean to…” the nurse said. “Can I give you a hug? Would that be ok?” She looked at Jeremy, and Jeremy shrugged with a slight nod of approval. The nurse leaned in and put her arm around Emilia.
“It’s fine. The cloud isn’t actually in the sky. It’s underground,” and Emilia paused again. Another tremor rose from her sternum to throat like a creature from the sea.
The nurse pulled the girl in and held her there, rocking quietly like a ship moored to a buoy.
“You’re a strong girl, you hear? You’ve got love all around. She’s always watching, and we’ve got to make her proud, ok?”
Emilia shrugged and nodded a slight nod.
“Ok,” she said. The nurse loosened and pulled back.
“Aren’t you hot in that thing?” she asked. She reached for Emilia’s wool beanie.
“Don’t touch that!” Emilia snapped, stiffening her back and holding out a finger.
“It’s ok, child, it’s ok,” the nurse said. “I won’t touch your hat.”
“Let me show you another trick with your touchpad,” Emilia said, doing another one-eighty as though the sudden outburst was just a minor bug in the system.
The doctor looked at Jeremy and frowned. Jeremy could see that there were layers and layers beneath that surface, gale force winds both brewing and raging with no plans of slowing. A part of him felt that she needed the lighthouse more than he did, that she’d been drifting for too long unaware of the rocky shores ahead, and so he helped his daughter down and offered to take the girl to for ice cream at that place near the beach run by the brothers with the funny hair. Emilia fixed her hat, put her hands into pockets, and said,
“Ok. I know how much you like ice cream.”
They lived in a one-story cottage Jeremy had built on a seaside cliff that overlooked the Pacific. Raspberry bushes lined the inlaid stone walkway with long, thorny arms that snagged the bottom of a shirt or the leg of a pair of pants if anyone walked too close. Purple, white, and blue wildflowers grew across the green lawn blooming and dying with different seasons. Beyond the edge of the yard, the ocean rumbled against the cliff rocks like the jet engine of a passing airliner.
Inside, the calming scent of fresh-cut cedar from the exposed beams filled the rooms. An open concept floor plan, the only doors were for the bathroom, bedrooms, and outside. Everything else connected and flowed from kitchen, to living room, to stone fireplace. Every room had a view of the ocean. Jeremy had built the home in Marianne’s final year as a way to occupy the pain. He truly believed that she’d be cured, and they’d all live there together like the past was a distant dream.
But that didn’t happen, and the day after the funeral, Jeremy drew up plans for a lighthouse, the final work of which was on track to be finished on the one-year anniversary.
Jeremy sucked the last bits sticky mint chocolate chip from his bottom lips as he pulled the Prius into the gravel driveway. Emilia looked pristine as though she hadn’t wolfed-down a large vanilla sundae so fast that she should have been doubled over with a thunderous ice cream headache. No mess on her cheeks or mouth, no dried chocolate on her fingers.
The crunch sound of the tires on the gravel caused Lissy to poke her head out the screen side door of her house across the street.
“Em! Em! Oh my god, I have GOT to tell you about Bobby R’s response to my selfie!” she said, tiptoeing barefoot to the edge of the street, looking both ways, and then skipping across to meet them at the car. Lissy trotted and flapped her arms like a baby seagull learning to fly.
“Hear that? Bobby R!” Jeremy said. Emilia rolled her eyes, slung the laptop bag across her shoulder, practiced a smile in the mirror, and stepped out.
“You should have shoes on,” Emilia said, showcasing her practiced smile.
“Ohmygod, too excited for shoes. Look. At. This…” Lissy said. She thrust her phone in Emilia’s face as the two walked to the front door. A few steps in and Lissy had to reassess her path after getting snagged not once, not twice, but three times by the raspberry bush’s thorns on her bare legs. They disappeared to the recesses of Emilia’s room where Lissy chirped about Bobby R. and how seconds, literally seconds after she posted a picture, he commented Nice.
Jeremy cooked up a chicken breast, some rice, and a side of steamed broccoli. He set a plate aside for Emilia whenever she might be ready, but ate his own alone at the kitchen table looking out at the near-complete lighthouse, and then the water beyond. With the approaching night, the ocean thrummed like the snap of a blue work tarp in the back of a truck. Those churning depths below the surface hiding monsters and shipwrecks and treasure instilled the final remaining vestige of wonder. The seen and unseen, the known and unknown, hidden worlds just out of reach where the rays of sun pierced the dark like spears hurled at a submerged beast.
“Ok, real quick – selfie before I go?” Lissy said. The two girls walked into the main area, one of them like a whirling dervish, the other like a lost statue of Atlantis. “Can you take your hat off?”
“Hat stays on,” Emilia said.
“Totes fine. Kissy face on three!” The two put their heads together for the camera, Lissy pouting her lips, Emilia falling on her practiced smile. The camera snapped. Lissy shoulder danced, tapped a setting to post the pic, and left promising to keep everyone updated on the unfolding Bobby R. situation. The door closed behind her as she left, and the room fell into silence save for the distant rumble of crashing waves like a snoring giant.
“You’re staring again,” Emilia said, joining her father. She pulled her plate closer and stabbed at it with a fork before taking a bite. After one bite, she systemically cleared her plate of the broccoli first, then the chicken, then the rice.
“Did you know,” Jeremy began, eyes out the window toward the dark horizon. “Your mother and I met in college. A literature and history class about the sea. Symbolism, seafarers, using stars as a navigation tool, lots of interesting stuff. People used to believe the earth was flat and monsters lived at the edge. On maps, it used to say Here be Monsters.”
“But there weren’t any,” Emilia said. It came out like a statement, but Jeremy knew she meant it as a question.
“No. But there were jagged shorelines like teeth that sank many-a-ship. And great white sharks, and giant squid. You know, monsters. The ocean was a dangerous, formidable place. So, people built lighthouses.”
“Early technology,” the girl said, dabbing her mouth with a napkin. She collected both her and her father’s plates and walked them to the sink. Dashed and scrubbed with liquid soap, the plates erased their text under the hot water.
“I promised your mother that one day, we’d live in one, that we’d sleep in the smallest room of the tallest tower and guide ships to safety.”
Emilia turned off the water and looked out at the lighthouse in their backyard. Then, she looked up into the sky.
“Did you know that when scientists mapped the human brain,” she said, “it bore a striking resemblance to a cluster of stars in the universe? Striking. Sometimes I wonder if we’re the imagination of some larger creature, that we’re just neurons firing at the edge of the mind.”
“Not when we understand how simple life is. Binary code was invented by Gottfried Liebniz in the late 1600’s. He broke our entire existence down into 1’s and 0’s. And George Boole created Booleans, a series of Yes and No’s. That’s it. That’s everything.”
Jeremy rubbed the stubble on his cheeks and tried to take it all in. Was it really that simple? 1’s and 0’s? Yes’s and No’s? Life and death? Heaven and Earth?
“Are you happy?” he asked. He didn’t know how else to say it. The idea that Emilia was missing more than her mother anchored him to those depths where the light could no longer spear.
“I like what I do, and I like the camp. And I like ByteSyze, and the counselors.”
“Then I’m happy for you,” Jeremy said, and tried his best to smile. But something didn’t feel right. She wasn’t telling him the full truth. He wanted a Boolean, a yes or no, a 1 or 0, but instead got the gray matter of the great in-between.
“When you finish the lighthouse, we should have a camp-out,” the young girl said.
“I’d love that,” Jeremy replied.
“I can teach you Binary, too, and we can communicate at a distance,” Emilia said. She clicked off the light above the small circular table and fired up the flashlight on her phone. “Think of it like Morse code. Short blips are 0’s, long stretches are 1’s.”
Though Jeremy tried his best to stay interested and follow along, his daughter quickly lost him and he only retained a handful of information. Short is 0, long is 1.
After Emilia went to sleep, Jeremy went outside onto the seaside cliff underneath the neural mass of stars. Though he couldn’t be certain, he felt the presence of something in the ocean, something large, sentient, and looming. Whatever it was seemed to know Jeremy could sense it the same way a wildflower senses and follows the sun. A raspberry bush branch rustled free in the gentle breeze and waved along the edge of the cliff. If he squinted, it looked like the tentacle of a great sea beast rising against the horizon to warn passing ships not to come too close. In the distance, the ByteSyze campus lit up across the bay like a fallen constellation.
Emilia, since birth, had always been a mama’s girl. Marianne and Emilia did everything together and Jeremy figured that once she was old enough to buy a house, Emilia would move in next door. Jeremy was her father, sure, but he also felt like an outsider – the two ladies having their own secret language, a sort of code to communicate outside of his knowledge.
“Breaky pies?” Marianne used to say in the morning when sleepy Emila stumbled from her bedroom into the kitchen.
“Egg mu ju-ju,” the girl would reply, and the two would giggle, both tapped into an unspoken cosmic design. It wasn’t until Emilia turned ten, the 1 and 0, that she broke down the mother-daughter language for her outsider father.
“Breaky pies is breakfast. One time Mom coughed when she said breakfast and it sounded like breaky pies. We laughed so hard we couldn’t breathe. Egg mu ju-ju means scrambled eggs, blueberry muffin, and orange juice. I couldn’t pronounce everything at first, but mom understood. It became our thing.”
As Jeremy stood outside in the heat by the ByteSyze coding camp’s exit, he looked inside the giant glass windows and found a world where everything glistened and sparkled, where happy people bounced from station to station grabbing free snacks and drinks only to post up in a hammock or papasan chair. Large monitors relayed real-time updates with data about the day-to-day operations, a seemingly foreign language like that of binary or egg mu ju-ju.
Skinny men in skinny pants and plaid shirts pointed at the screens to laugh about a number, their black-rimmed glasses crooked and dirty. Women with bleach-blonde hair dyed with blue and pink and purple and green tips wore lanyards with ID cards around their neck.
A crowd gathered like a cluster of clouds and moved toward the door. One by one, the campers pushed outside to find their parents, many of which had gathered on the bright green lawn near the door. The girls trotted out rattling off what they’d learned as though phrases like data repository and compression bank had the weight of homerun or ice cream sundae.
When Emilia pushed open the door, she headed toward the parking lot without acknowledging Jeremy.
“No hello?” Jeremy asked, and tucked his large hands into his workman’s jeans. They moved down the wooden steps in the side of a hill and across the asphalt to their car.
“I know you’d rather drive a truck. Mom made you buy the Prius and I know you hate it,” Emilia said.
“I worked on the lighthouse some more,” Jeremy said, pivoting. “Electric is up and running. Might be able to camp out there Friday. Suiting, don’t you think?”
“It’s always about you!” Emilia said. She pulled the door handle with such ferocity that Jeremy thought it might snap off in her palm. “Friday is mom’s…and the last day of camp…and I hate our stupid house. I miss the old house, and I hate this stupid heat!”
Jeremy pressed the unlock button on the fob and stared at his daughter. There she stood: a foreigner coursing with his blood. Emilia opened the passenger door, slumped down into the seat.
“I know things are hard,” Jeremy said as he got in through the driver’s side. “I’m hurting too. I don’t understand what you’re doing the camp. It’s a different world and I don’t feel like I’m a part of it.”
Jeremy noticed a piece of paper sticking out of Emilia’s laptop bag, the white corner caught in the teeth of the zipper. He put the car into reverse, then drive, and headed toward the highway home. Stuck in the grinding, slow California coastal traffic, the paper taunted his line of sight.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Permission slip,” Emilia said without moving her lips. “Sleepover on Friday, and they’re letting us bring someone. But I can’t go because you want me to stay in your stupid lighthouse.”
Jeremy let the information sink in and felt the presence of a small tidal shift. Emilia might want to bring him into her world after all, show her father what she’s been building while also spending time with him on the first anniversary of Marianne’s passing, a win/win.
“I think the sleepover is a great idea,” Jeremy said, imagining this as a watershed moment with his daughter. “We can go to the sleepover Friday, then camp Saturday night in the lighthouse.”
“We?” Emilia asked. “I’d bring Lissy…”
The ruminating feelings of abandonment and loss crashed against the rocky shore of his broken heart like white-capped storm waves.
“You’re right,” Jeremy said, letting his hurt get the better of him. “You can’t go. I picked you up at the door, so you’re stay with me in the lighthouse. Fair is fair.”
“I knew it!” Emilia cried. “The only reason you want to sleep in that tower is because it’s in the sky and you’re scared of sleeping in the ground like Mom!”
“Enough,” Jeremy said, his voice roaring like a jet during takeoff. “I want you to be happy. I want you to have a childhood. I want you to want to spend time with me. You’re being groomed by that company to be a little minion, a little worker doing their bidding. Forgive me if I don’t want my daughter to be another cog in the machine, a small piece of data to make the company money that you’ll never see. And would you take off that hat?!”
He snatched the wool cap from Emilia’s head as his daughter’s face lit up in horror. Bald spots, places where she had pulled her own hair out, pocked her scalp. 0’s in places where there should have been long, wavy 1’s.
“Dad!” Emilia screamed. She ripped her hat back and pulled it over her hair silently seething as the coastline passed slower than a cloud. She slunk down in her seat as though trying to disappear altogether from a moment that would not pass.
Jeremy didn’t know what to do. His daughter’s pain manifested in an outward way resembling something between his own head, and Marianne’s during her final days. Instead of talking about it, he said nothing at all which, even in the moment, felt wrong. But what magic phrase could course correct their wayward ship?
At home, the young girl stormed to her room and slammed the door like she was running from the grasp of a giant tentacle in hot pursuit. Jeremy figured he’d let the tension dissolve, that once she got hungry, Emilia would breach the surface and they’d sit together at the kitchen table.
But Emelia stayed in her room, her safe haven from the stalking creature outside.
The next morning, the two didn’t speak on the way to camp. They sat side by side in the car shoving the blow-up into the suppressed depths of their memory. Glassy waves rolled in along the shoreline, the calm surface deceptively hiding the dangerous world beneath.
Once back at home, Jeremy worked on the lighthouse. The stone foundation had been set and painted white with navy blue ribbons around the base, the interior stairs from the small living room landing curving and secured against the concrete wall to the second story bedroom. Sanding the corners of the flooring behind the ladder that led to the lookout, Jeremy thought about the crane that came in and placed the enormous beacon light on the very top, how the surveyors and city engineers seemed impressed by the solid design and application of good, old-fashioned handiwork.
“Hello?” A voice called from the entrance.
“Yes?” Jeremy answered, and turned off the sander. He peeked down the stairs to find Lissy and her cellphone staring up to him.
“Emilia let me know that the sleepover is off, which is a bummer, but I get it,” Lissy said. “It’s funny that you two are building similar things. You’re both, like, total geniuses. Geniusi? Like octopi? Anyways…”
Jeremy realized he had no idea what his daughter had been working on all summer, that he’d never bothered to find out.
“What did she build?” he asked.
“She calls it the HALO, a high-altitude light organizer that communicates in binary to passing aircrafts. Or something. She engineered the receptor, too. It gives updates on air traffic, weather conditions, turbulence, all of that. So cool, right? Anyway, can I get a selfie from the lookout?”
Jeremy’s stomach felt like a sinking ship caught in the clutches of a squall. Emilia had already been robbed of a mother. Would he really be the monster that robbed her of a childhood too?
“Of course, come on up. It’s an amazing view,” Jeremy said. Lissy did a small leap of excitement and scrambled up the steps, then up the ladder to the beacon. She looked out over the horizon momentarily stunned by the natural beauty of the California coastline. Then she popped her hip, made a peace-sign kissy face, and snapped a selfie.
“You know what? Sleepover is back on. Look after my little girl and make sure she has the most fun possible,” Jeremy said. Lissy did another bounce of excitement and furiously texted Emilia with the good news. Jeremy looked outside from the tall tower as wind blew across the grass below creating tidal currents of green. Each blade bent helplessly in the gust, formless until challenged, finally bowing to that which they could not change.
After double checking that Emilia had packed her toothbrush, hairbrush, a change of clothes, phone charger, laptop charger, and spare set of glasses, Jeremy dropped his daughter and Lissy off to the ByteSyze campus on Friday evening. Seconds out of the car, giggling, euphoretic preteens enveloped the girls in a group hug. Emilia let herself be swallowed by this love-pored, multi-armed creature before emerging as an absorbed appendage.
Driving along the coast at twilight, Jeremy’s car managed the winding California highway as the Ocean’s surface smoothed into mercurial shades of orange and purple. The lonely night like the depths of the ocean awaited Jeremy’s return. No one stirring in another room, no click-clack of a keyboard writing code, no beep of a machine tracking heartrate and O2 levels and vitals. Though small, the house felt vast and cavernous like an unexplored crevice tucked miles beneath the ocean’s surface.
Jeremy went to the tower and sat along the edge of the second story bed next to his workman’s journal. There was a pencil tucked between the pages. He smoothed the comforter and looked at the cot on the opposite wall where a purple sleeping bag should have been. A wall outlet with a power-strip dangled beneath the metal frame like a sea anemone as a means to goad Emilia into spending time together.
Outside, the vibrations of crashing waves blended with the thick rumble of distant thunder. Jeremy stood and traversed the set of winding stairs to the lookout and noticed dark, gathering clouds along the horizon. They pulsed with lightning, a sort of natural binary. Above him, the stars shone unbothered by the approaching storm. Across the bay, the ByteSyze campus shimmered.
Jeremy thought of Marianne in the days before she passed, the days when IV’s and finger monitors and EKG pads acted as digital veins to make sure the body did what it needed to do. He remembered taking his wife’s dry and fragile hand inside of his and looking at her scalp gone bald from the treatments, her scared eyes pale and blue from all of the life she’d never get to live, the woman she’d once been already gone and ravaged by a horrible disease. It became clear to him then that everything they wanted, all they would ever be, every dream that they’d shared had already come to pass. They were instead living in the postscript of a letter detailing a once happy family.
“Keep her safe,” Marianne had whispered. “Keep her close.”
“Don’t do this,” Jeremy whispered back, but there was no stopping the monster that had come to collect.
The unlit beacon creaked with the changing atmospheric pressure. It snapped Jeremy from his daydream, and he felt the loneliness spill into his already-drowning lungs. He needed his daughter. He needed her so badly that he felt he could not survive without her, that he was drowning in everything he could not change, and she was his oxygen. Whatever anger Emilia felt would pass and so he made the choice to drive back the campus to pick her up. One day, she’d come to understand.
Jeremy put on a sweatshirt and hopped into his Prius as the first bits of rain hit the windshield. They looked like miniature 1’s in the air, and 0’s upon collision. The entire world made up of 1’s and 0’s, of yes’s and no’s, of life and death as though there could only ever be one or the other. The distant clouds rumbled as flashes of white light gave a silhouetted form to the thick approaching clouds.
Windshield wipers on max, the Prius slushing through the damp highway, another flash of lightning made an oil field of the ocean, the black depths breaking with whitewater that devoured the shoreline. Everything came bubbling to the surface and Jeremy did his best to push forward.
Something caught Jeremy’s eye, something so startling that he pulled over to the shoulder, exited the car, and stared at the beach in disbelief. Rain sliced across his skin. Lightning again, this time illuminating a long tentacle rising from the water that slapped against the sandy shore. And then another. The long, tendril arms like the stems of raspberry bushes searched, grasped the rocky jetty. A massive head rose from the water hairless and bald as sad, sunken eyes adjusted to the air. It shrieked with the piercing wails of the grieving.
Jeremy wiped his eyes and fell to his knees finally understanding everything that existed beneath the surface, everything that he had become.
“No!” Jeremy shouted, waving his arms and pointing at the rocks where the tentacles had gripped. “Let go! Stop holding on!”
The creature halted. It turned its slick and massive head as though listening, as though it understood, as though it had been waiting for Jeremy’s command. The depths it had been born into, the dark waters it had traversed, it was not a world for a creature like this to thrive. With every moment the head stayed revealed, hypoxia sent signals of panic through its body.
The creature looked up into the sky studying the clouds. In one swift, coordinated motion the thorny tentacles unlatched from the rocks. The head submerged. In the next minute, it was gone.
Jeremy sat back into his car breathing long breaths to slow his heart, pulled a U-turn, and then drove back home.
After changing into dry clothes, Jeremy went up to the lighthouse and climbed the lookout. At the ByteSyze campus, he noticed a singular flashing light pulse with repeating patterns. Emilia, he realized, and her HALO. Grabbing his workman’s journal, he jotted down the sequence. Short blips for 0’s, long blips for 1’s. Binary. 01001001 00100111 01101101 00100000 01101111 01101011. He typed the pattern into a search engine on his mobile phone and sat down when the results turned up the phrase: I’m ok.
His daughter was communicating with him. They were together, even if they were not, beaming the message up into the heavens for anyone able to receive it.
Jeremy typed a message into the English to Binary translator and looked at the results. He jotted down in his notebook the series of long and short blips and then stood next to the beacon’s switch. As the halogen light flashed on and off, he sent out 01000010 01110010 01100101 01100001 01101011 01111001 00100000 01110000 01101001 01100101 01110011.
The light from the campus ceased momentarily. He could feel his daughter there in that moment, could see every way that she was stronger than him. It made him proud to be a father, and that feeling of hope shred any doubt of his monstrous self-image. A moment later, the light along the distant shore flashed 01100101 01100111 01100111 00100000 01101101 01110101 00100000 01101010 01110101 01101010 01110101.
Finally, Jeremy thought as the weightlessness of post-grief coalesced into the collective strength of every single parent who had ever persevered, we’re speaking the same language.
He climbed down from the lookout and left the lighthouse for the kitchen to make sure breakfast would be ready for when his daughter returned the next morning. Sure enough the ingredients were there, and he understood the necessary time it would take to put it all together into a singular, familiar meal.
W. T. Paterson is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of New Hampshire, and is a graduate of Second City Chicago. His work has appeared in over 90 publications worldwide including The Saturday Evening Post, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Dalhousie Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Fresh Ink. A semi-finalist in the Aura Estra short story contest, his work has also received notable accolades from Lycan Valley, North 2 South Press, and Lumberloft. He spends most nights yelling for his cat to “Get down from there!” Visit his website at www.wtpaterson.com.