The Forever Engine – Snippet 46


After a while I stopped dreaming altogether, or at least stopped remembering my dreams.

Some people think dreams are a window to your future. If so, I didn’t have a future. Either that or the window was closed pretty damned tight. Personally, I don’t think dreams mean anything, which is probably why I don’t remember them.

Gabrielle and I woke in the predawn twilight. The fire was lower, but the sentries had fed it during the night, kept it alive. I don’t know which of us woke first, but both knew by the change in breathing of the other that we were awake. Gabrielle rolled over and faced me, eyes only inches from mine. Her face was streaked with dirt and wood smoke, her hair loose and tangled, and she frowned slightly in concentration, searching my eyes for something, I don’t know what. I’m not sure she knew.

“Are you thinking about your daughter?” she asked after a while.

“No. I was thinking about a different little girl.”

“Tell me about her.”

“She was an orphan. She was physically awkward when she was young, not very good at sports or games, and the other girls always chose her last for teams. She felt like an outsider — unloved and unneeded. She wanted friends but did not make them easily, didn’t ever really understand the ease the other girls felt with each other. It was as if everyone else had been told a secret withheld from her. Or perhaps she hadn’t been paying attention at the right time, when everyone else learned it.

“Her best friend was a doll, or maybe a stuffed animal, I’m not sure which.”

“A doll,” she said quietly.

“She found it much easier to bond with the doll than with other children. She could imagine the doll loving and understanding her, while the other children did not.

“The other girls resented the order and discipline of the convent, but she liked it. She liked its predictable, unchanging routine. She thought the nuns would value her more for that.”

“They did not,” she whispered.

“No. Maybe that’s why she left. Leaving the orderly routine of the convent must have been unimaginably hard, the hardest thing she ever did, but she did it. She had determination and courage. She grew into a beautiful, intelligent young woman, and as she did, her physical awkwardness disappeared. But she never felt as if she belonged. Even in the company of others, she was always alone.”

Tears welled up in her eyes, but I saw no other sign of emotion in her face. She wiped her eyes and sniffed.

“I have never told you this. I have never told anyone this. How do you know these things about me?”

“You think the world is divided into you and then everyone else, but it isn’t. There are lots of people who have gone through exactly what you have. It’s a mental condition. No, that makes it sound like a sickness, and it isn’t. There’s nothing wrong with you, Gabi, not one goddamned thing. You’re as close to perfect as God makes us. It’s just a slightly different way the brain is organized in some highly intelligent people.

“Napoleon had the condition. So did a lot of great people in history, and some pretty amazing people in my own time. There was a guy named Albert Einstein, he went on — will go on — to become the greatest scientific mind of the twentieth century. He had it. It’s called Asperger’s syndrome.”

“Asperger’s syndrome?” she asked. “What does it mean? Why has no one told me this before?”

“Nobody figured it out until the 1940s, and even then a lot of people weren’t convinced until decades later. But it’s real. I mentored three doctoral students with the condition, all of them unique individuals. They shared some traits, though, and their childhoods were remarkably similar. The physical awkwardness in youth, the social awkwardness throughout life, the difficulty empathizing, sometimes hypersensitivity to noise, fascination with order and routine, sometimes liking to collect things or study things in minute detail –”

“When I research a subject,” she broke in, interest growing in her voice, “I find out every detail I can. I fill notebooks, carefully organize them. I have a system I use to label them.”

“Sounds right to me.”

“Napoleon had this condition? You are certain?”

“Well, judging from what we know about his life and behavior, it’s a pretty good bet.”

“He was very lonely as a boy, was he not?”

I brushed a lock of hair from her forehead and touched her cheek.

“Yes, he was.”

“It is real, this thing?”

Is it real? My thoughts went back to a cocktail party, one of those joint things designed to bring all the humanities faculty together. Schwartz from the psych department had me backed into a corner, berating me about how there was no such thing as Asperger’s. Patel, also from psych, wandered over, his drink crowned with a small paper umbrella. The caterers did not provide those but Patel always brought his own.

“Is Schwartz on about Asperger’s again?” he asked. “One more drink and he will start in on how there is no such thing as post traumatic stress disorder.”

Schwartz turned on him. “It’s a fucking symptom cluster!” he shouted, jabbing with his index finger for emphasis, sloshing scotch from his glass. “It’s not a fucking disease!”

“Ho-ho!” Patel said, rocking back on his heels, pleased at the reaction he had provoked. “Ho-ho!”

I wasn’t a psychologist; I was an historian. What did I know about what was and wasn’t real? I knew that if only one person did something a thousand years ago, it never happened, but if ten million people did it, it was a historic trend. What was and wasn’t real depended on what we noticed, and then what we decided to call it.

Symptom cluster? What did Schwartz know? Hell, life was a symptom cluster.

“It’s as real as anything else I know,” I told Gabi.

She was quiet for a while, absorbing it all.

“There is a cure for this?” she asked finally, a tiny sliver of hope showing like a line of light under the tightly closed door of her inner sanctuary.

“Gabi, it’s not a disease.”

Her eyes wandered past my shoulder, her mind somewhere out in the glowing purple of the morning sky on the eastern horizon. Maybe even farther than that.

“I see.”