What Used To Be Mom
by Martin Lochman
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
I am waiting in a queue at the gate when the guy in front of me turns into a bean. There is no forewarning: one second he is the epitome of a middle-aged businessman in a thousand-Euro suit, impatiently checking his thousand-Euro watch and loudly expressing his discontent with the current delay of our flight; the next, there is a dark-brown object that best resembles an oversized peanut standing in his place. He doesn’t scream or even yelp out in surprise — they apparently never do — the only sound that can be heard is the tearing of the suit’s fabric as the man’s body rapidly expands. The strap of his expensive watch snaps like a dry twig, and the device itself is flung underneath the nearest seat.
This isn’t the first time I have witnessed the transformation as it happens, but it’s definitely more up close and personal than in any of the previous instances; so much so, in fact, that I end up involuntarily cursing and jumping aside.
I am not the only one: those standing closest to the unlucky passenger react in a very similar manner. However, the rest of the people waiting at the gate, barely even respond and, although there are a few quiet oohs and ahhs and comments, the majority shoot the newly formed bean a quick look before promptly returning to whatever they were preoccupied with before.
There were times when I would have considered such reaction — or lack thereof — to be disturbingly inadequate, if not downright surreal but, I guess, living in a world where people pop like popcorn on a daily basis alters your perspective. You desensitize yourself, accepting the new reality for what it is and focusing on things that matter rather than wasting your energy on what has proven to be unchangeable. And the truth is that, for now, transforming into a bean falls exactly into that category.
The airport security comes rushing in record time. I barely manage to get my head back on straight and step aside, before a quartet of uniformed officials, accompanied by two members of the military police sporting FN SCAR assault rifles, make their way to the former businessman. They promptly pick him — it — up, put it on a stretcher and just as quickly take it away, no comments, no questions.
Less than three minutes after the transformation, the queue is restored, with a handful of particularly eager individuals having taken advantage of the opportunity to skip a few places ahead as if that somehow improved their seating arrangements on the plane. Gotta give it to the people for retaining the petty opportunistic mentality under any circumstances.
With a half-hour delay, boarding finally commences. When I hand my boarding pass and ID to the employee at the counter, I catch my mind going back to when this whole mess started, when the world as I knew it turned upside down. It was less than two years ago when the first beans were reported somewhere in Africa. In retrospect, I find it fitting — or even poetic — that it would begin where modern humanity originated.
Given the location, the rest of the world — with the exception of the good folks from WHO, Red Cross, and a handful of NGOs operating in the area — naturally didn’t pay these occurrences much attention initially, with the majority of general public dismissing it as yet another “third-world problem” with no real impact in the West. It was only after a prominent BBC reporter transformed on live television, right in the middle of a heated debate with a Hungarian minister for foreign affairs concerning the migration crisis in Europe, that everyone collectively understood the gravity of the situation. The global bean population was already totaling a couple of hundred thousand by the time the powers that be came up with an action plan, which ultimately failed miserably.
It wasn’t that the plan itself was bad; on the contrary, had this been a bacteriological or viral outbreak, it would have probably worked splendidly. The problem was that neither WHO, CDC, nor any other public or private health organization possessed guidelines for dealing with “human beings spontaneously transforming into unidentified organic objects,” so their attempts at treating it as a disease yielded zero success, despite continuous efforts to quarantine the areas of occurrence.
It didn’t matter how many resources and how much force — often on the excessive side — were used; the beans kept sprouting up like mushrooms after a spring rain. The phenomenon, for lack of better word, was completely indiscriminate, random, and had a potential to happen to everyone equally, regardless of their location, sex, age, ethnicity, or any other factors you can think of.
In light of this unfortunate realization, the authorities decided to switch gears. Instead of setting up quarantine zones wherever the beans popped up, they started rounding them all up and storing them in secluded facilities where no harm could come to them and where they also couldn’t pose any potential danger. That, at least, was the strategy employed by the majority of the world’s governments.
The less developed countries often found less humane ways to deal with the problem. An extreme example of this, showcased and condemned by the media and the UN, would be a couple of smaller countries boasting fundamentalist authoritarian regimes that simply and mercilessly burned the beans en masse. This particular tactic, of course, had a lot more to do with backward religious beliefs than anything practical.
Meanwhile, the scientists and researchers across numerous fields threw themselves at figuring the transformations out and finding a way to stop and possibly reverse them.
Twenty months later, they are still at it. The result? A pile of theories, speculations, and hypotheses next to a handful of confirmed facts, and a big fat nothing when it comes to a practical solution. The world keeps on spinning, the beans continue appearing at a horrifyingly steady rate, and everyone remains slightly on edge because you never know if your time is up today, tomorrow, or a month or a year from now.
“I think they are cocoons,” Melanie, my ex-wife, said one late summer evening as we were sitting on a small terrace of our rented two-bedroom apartment in the heart of Brussels, eating dinner and watching the sun go down in a burning red glaze.
It was a little over a year ago, back when we were still together; back before our differences and long drawn-out problems inevitably sent us on our own ways. Ever since the hysteria surrounding the beans hit Europe, we would often find ourselves spending hours discussing them, comparing what we heard in the news or read on the Internet, making up our own theories as to what they really were and what they represented, because all of it was simply easier than confronting what bothered us about each other.
“Cocoons?” I repeated hesitantly. “How do you figure that?”
I was honestly surprised by her idea, especially considering the fact that the internal biology of the beans was among the first things the researchers had analyzed. The change occurred on a molecular level and the resulting body was entirely, through and through, composed of a new type of cell which meant no bones, no muscles, no organs, no skin... nothing that used to make a human human remained. You basically became one big, homogeneous piece of something — I even heard someone had compared it to fungi on account of the apparent lack of bodily fluids and the uniformity. Interestingly enough, the transformees retained their original body weight, although the change in density caused them to swell to unprecedented dimensions.
“I don’t mean literal cocoons; I know there is nothing inside,” she explained, leaning back in her chair. The sun had just disappeared behind the surrounding buildings, and I felt the air get perceptibly cooler. “More like a transitional phase before the next evolutionary stage of our species.”
It wasn’t by far the craziest theory I’d heard but, to me, it still sounded too far-fetched, too implausible.
“Think about it,” Melanie continued, noticing my skeptical expression. “They have ruled out, with a hundred percent certainty, that it is caused by bacteria, virus, or a parasite. So, as far as we can tell, there are no visible external causes to it. The beans are alive, their condition doesn’t change or deteriorate; it’s as if they are waiting for something, right? Plus, it isn’t happening to any other organism on Earth.”
“But that’s exactly the problem. It doesn’t resemble any process found in nature. And I am not talking only about our evolution which, by the way, has always been gradual. Even the metamorphosis from a caterpillar to a butterfly isn’t that sudden, and that’s just a part of their life cycle, not evolution, mind you. Not to mention that the underlying changes are continuous; they don’t simply cease.”
“I am not saying it’s precisely like that; after all, we aren’t insects,” she grabbed her cardigan from the chair next to hers and put it around her shoulders. She’s always been more susceptible to cold than I am but, on the other hand, she had no problem enjoying weather that I would describe only as disgustingly hot.
“Maybe the changes are there; we simply can’t see them... There is still so much we don’t know about the world. You hear it all the time: someone discovering a new plant or an animal, or a new gene which is responsible for something or other. This is a prime example of that.”
“Yeah, but if it really is the next step in our evolution, something that is hardwired in our DNA, what makes you think it’s not the last one? What if it doesn’t continue anywhere from here?”
Realizing what I’d just said, I felt a shiver run down my spine. It was a disturbing thought — the entire human race eventually turning into beans and simply remaining in that form, perpetually alive and not alive at the same time — but it wasn’t one that wouldn’t cross minds of other people, especially as months went by and the transformations around the world didn’t show any signs of stopping.
It wasn’t long after our summer evening conversation on the terrace that calculations on how long it would take before every last human being on Earth underwent the change took the Internet and media by storm. While some of them were pretty off, putting the proverbial end of the world either mere decades or, on the contrary, tens of thousands of years into the future, the vast majority agreed on a rounded three-digit figure: two hundred and fifty.
A quarter of a millennium until the civilization as we know it is no more. A quarter of a millennium until our self-proclaimed most powerful species joins the woolly mammoth, dodo, Tasmanian tiger, Western black rhinoceros...
It was admittedly a much scarier apocalyptic scenario than any other, not because of its technical particularities, but because of the apparent totality. Some people, albeit a small number, could survive an all-out nuclear conflict, and continue the existence of the humankind. Similarly, there was a chance of living through an environmental collapse, ice age, zombie virus, alien invasion — you name it.
But this? You couldn’t run from it, hide from it, fight it. All you could do was wait.
One thing remained constant during the entire time Melanie and I were together and even after that: the problem never affected us directly. Sure, we had acquaintances and colleagues whose acquaintances and colleagues — and, in a small number of cases, relatives — transformed, but that always felt somewhat distant, theoretical, like something the severity of which you can’t fully appreciate until you experience it yourself.
That paradigm changed the moment my own mother turned into a bean — hence why I am currently on board of an Airbus A320, en route to Prague.
* * *
My younger brother Radim is waiting for me in the arrivals hall. I almost don’t recognize him as I emerge from the transit area — he has shaved his head and grown a goatee since I last saw him — but he spots me instantly. We greet each other quickly and then head out, making our way to his car, going around the fleet of cabs parked conveniently between the terminal and the bus stop.
We are quiet for most of the short drive to the small satellite town where we grew up and where Radim and his family now live. Talking about anything but Mom seems kind of inconsiderate, inappropriate, but I find it difficult to delve into that topic and, apparently, he feels the same way. Still, he eventually breaks the silence: “I’m glad you’re here.”
He sounds much calmer than three days ago, when he called me early in the morning and said — his voice a mixture of disbelief, shock and maybe a little bit of panic — that Mom had transformed. It had apparently happened when she was at home alone (our father had passed away five years ago), so the duty to alert the appropriate authorities fell to him. The law requires this to be done immediately, but we agreed that it would be best if we dealt with it together, so I made some arrangements at work, booked the nearest available flight and, now, here I am.
I nod, appreciating the sentiment, and ask: “How is Kuba dealing with it?”
Kuba, Radim’s six-year old son and, so far, only child, has always adored his grandma. She used to babysit him after his mother, Jolana, chose to return to work after maternity leave and, since he started first grade, Grandma was the one he turned to for help with his homework, often spending entire afternoons with her. I can’t imagine how devastating this must be for him.
“We haven’t told him yet. As far as he’s concerned, she’s very ill and that’s why he cannot visit her now.”
I want to point out that lying to him like this might not be the best course of action but decide against it. Kuba is his kid. Far be it from me to criticize Radim’s parenting methods, especially since I don’t have any children of my own. My brother would also most likely take my comment as a personal attack, and this is literally the worst time to be starting a fight.
“I see,” I say instead. “And the others?”
“Nobody knows, apart from you, me, and Jolana. You haven’t told anyone in Brussels?”
His question catches me off guard. Even though he delivers it in a calm, almost nonchalant manner, there is a discernible sense of urgency in it.
“No, I just took a couple of days of emergency leave. Didn’t really go into detail.” I hesitate. “Why are you asking?”
He doesn’t answer. I look at him — he is staring through the windshield at the road ahead.
Copyright © 2020 by Martin Lochman