The Same But Different

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Brunette

Chapter 01

“Hello, Dad!” my daughter said from the video monitor on my desk. Her smile was, as always, beatific and warm with grace.

I smiled back at her image on the screen. “Hello, Sweetheart. I’m just calling in to let you know that I’ll be a little late tonight. A last-minute board meeting was called and I can’t get out of being there.”

Helena’s smile faded slightly and her brow creased in concern. “Is everything okay, Dad? I saw the news today. Is it about that?”

I grimaced for a fraction of a second and gave a slight nod. “It is, yes. It’s a bloody mess and, unfortunately, we can’t put off dealing with it. That idiot in California put all of us in a bind and we have to work out a response to it. I’m really sorry, Sweetheart. I promise to make it up to you somehow. Believe me, I was looking forward to this probably more than you were.”

Helena nodded dejectedly. “I understand, Dad. It’s not the first time that work has made a mess of things. And it’s not like you had any control over it. Bad things happen when we least expect it. It’s okay.”

I inwardly heaved a sigh of relief, silently thanking whatever powers that be for her natural tendency to be far more mature than her age. I’d often asked myself how such a young woman could be so sagacious and serene. Each year on this date, her birthday, I had made a point of it to put work on hold so that we could celebrate it together. This time, however, was the most important of all her birthdays. I’d made plans for a pleasant night out on the town with my beautiful daughter- a fine restaurant, a private movie screening and I’d even managed to convince the manager of her favorite ice cream shop to stay open a few hours later than usual (for a “modest” fee, of course… but to me it was a pittance, an amount that I wouldn’t miss). It was her eighteenth birthday and I’d wanted to make it trouble-free and perfect for her.

Unfortunately, one of my company’s branch managers on the West Coast had decided to have a meltdown in his office building and took a few employees hostage. The resulting police assault had ended in his death, but not before he’d killed three hostages, wounded four others and done an incredible amount of damage to private property. As the CEO of BioBotz, Inc., I was duty-bound, along with our board of directors, to come up with a strategy for damage control to our company in the wake of the media backlash.

“I appreciate that, Sweetheart. I do. And, again, I’m really sorry about all of this,” I told her as my secretary poked her head in through my office door with a harried look on her face. I silently nodded to the young woman and held up a finger to indicate that I wouldn’t be much longer. “This is just… unavoidable.”

Helena’s features softened and she flashed me a comforting smile. “It’s okay, Dad. I really do understand. We can celebrate my birthday over the weekend, okay? I’ll be fine here until you come home. Worrying about something you can’t control won’t make it any easier to conquer.”

For a brief moment I was stunned into silence. I’d heard that phrase before, word for word, and it brought me up short. Rather than ask where she’d heard it, I smiled gently. “I love you, Helena,” I said earnestly.

“I love you, too, Daddy. Now go save your company or whatever it is that you need to do. I’ll get one of the house bots to help with dinner and whatnot. Don’t worry about me. Love you!”

And, with the finality of the screen going blank, she ended the conversation. I stared at the blank monitor for a fleeting moment and breathed through my nose while I silently fumed at the inconvenience of the situation. On top of everything else, I was planning on telling her the truth about where she came from. All she’d ever known was me, her father. She never knew her mother. Tonight I was going to come clean about everything, but now it would have to wait just one day longer.

Alice, my secretary, poked her head back in through my office door. “Mr. Salinger?” That’s me. Belasco Salinger. My friends, if I had any, would call me “Bel.” Alice, on very rare occasions and only private, does so and she’s the only person in the company allowed that extra margin of familiarity, which is a credit to her as she is, without doubt, the very best secretary any CEO could ever hope to find. Our relationship is close and, in some cases, even friendly, but strictly professional. To everyone else, I’m Mr. Salinger, Sir or, if it’s the media, Belasco (because media types simply assume that easy familiarity is perfectly all right). “They’re waiting for you, sir.”

I closed my eyes to center myself, gave a brief nod of resignation and fixed her with my normally steely gaze. “Very well,” I said as I stood up and began to make my way across the room, my hand outstretched to receive the data packet she held for me. “Everyone’s here?” I asked as she handed the small device to me. I pressed the transmit button on the device and, istanbul escort immediately, information began to flow into my mind about the West Coast operation. Names, figures, dates, status reports… every aspect of the business flooded my consciousness with prefect clarity and without interruption of my normal higher-brain functions.

We matched stride as we walked down the hallway towards the big meeting room where more than sixty individuals waited for me. “Everyone but Mr. Carter,” Alice replied efficiently. “His flight’s been delayed by a random terrorist threat in Atlanta. No flights are allowed in or out until the threat’s been neutralized. He’s on his plane now, even though it’s grounded, and he’s teleconferencing into the meeting.”

I nodded soberly. Most of those “terrorist threats” ended up being hoaxes, but Homeland Security took every single one of them seriously and left nothing to chance these days. Not since the airport bombing in LA back in 2023. “And everyone’s got the same data packet that you just gave me, right? No surprises?”

Alice shook her head. “Unless they have personal knowledge that wasn’t in the database, everyone should be on the same page, sir.” She pulled the door open for me and I could hear the voices within the great room fall silent. She gave me a wan smile and quietly said, “And, one minor thing: I took the liberty of asking Security to raise the coverage over your house and Miss Salinger.”

I paused for a short second to stare at my secretary with unhidden surprise. “Thank you for that, Alice.”

She smiled warmly. “No trouble, sir. I figure that it’s going to be a late night. Good luck, sir.”

I got home early the next morning exhausted and ready to put everything behind me. The trouble at work had been put to rest as much as possible. There were still some minor things to do, but I trusted my team of lawyers and media liaisons to deal with those details. We had a plan now and it would be taken care of. In a few days I would be expected to have a press conference, but until then I didn’t need to worry about anything else. For now, the time ahead of me was my own and I would be able to focus on Helena.

I checked in on her. She was still asleep in her room, her soft brown hair the only thing visible on her pillow, the rest of her body swallowed up in her bed. The sun had only just crested into dawn. I wouldn’t wake her up just yet.

As tired as I was, my mind was still blazing along as I quietly went to my own bedroom. While I loosened my tie and put my overnight bag at the foot of my bed, the room sensed my presence and turned the lights on at my bedside table. “Bedroom lights at twenty percent,” I grumbled tiredly as I sat down on my bed, bent down to untie my shoes and started to undress for bed. The lights instantly dimmed, but the sun’s morning rays were finding their way through the windows. I squinted at them in annoyance and added, “Darken blinds and windows in the bedroom, please.” A few seconds later, the room got considerably darker.

While I sat there in my darkened bedroom and continued to disrobe, I let my mind wander. Part of me was still ruminating about the situation in New York, some three hundred miles away from my home. It took a force of will to banish those thoughts. Whatever happened with that, it was now out of my hands. I had more important things to worry about. Namely, my daughter.

How would she take the news? I wondered if, maybe, it would be better to just leave things alone and say nothing. I’d kept my secret safe from her all these years. She was happy now. Would telling her the truth really change anything? I stood to drop my pants and then sat back down heavily on the bed, considering my troubled thoughts. Yes, I decided. It would change things. It’d change everything. And, to be perfectly honest, it was all part of my original plan to begin with. She deserved to know the truth.

I laid back in bed, pulled the covers over myself and sighed deeply. I was just so damned tired that I couldn’t think clearly anymore. I needed to get some rest. When I woke up refreshed I’d be able to focus on this with more clarity. The truth would come out eventually, no matter what. Helena wasn’t stupid by any stretch of the imagination. Someday, sooner rather than later, she’d get curious and go poking around. She’d find the truth on her own, regardless. Or maybe some hack journalist would start getting nosy and print an exposé. If it didn’t come directly from me, that would quite likely make things worse for both of us. I let the thoughts go and allowed a much-needed sleep to overtake my active mind. Later, was my last coherent thought. I’d deal with it later, when I woke up. All I needed was a few hours of good, solid sleep.

Chapter 02

It was about noon when I stirred from my slumber to the soft tapping on my bedroom door. When had I closed it? I couldn’t remember. Helena’s soft voice came from istanbul escort bayan the other side, “Dad? Are you awake?”

I glanced at my phone, which I didn’t remember placing in its recharging dock on my bedside table, and saw the time. Even with the blinds and windows darkened, the midday sun was trying its best to bleed into my room. Helena hailed me again and I replied groggily. “Come in, Sweetheart.”

The door slowly swung open and my daughter peeked in uncertainly. “I saw your car outside,” she said warily.

I sat up in bed and beckoned for her to step inside the room. “I got in early this morning,” I told her. “Didn’t want to wake you up.”

She smiled sweetly at me. My daughter was dressed in an ankle-length summer skirt, no shoes on. She looked as relaxed as one could possibly be, not a care in the world. Her skin was radiant, as usual, and her long brown hair seemed to bounce gently with each step as she approached my bed. She sat down at the foot of my bed side-straddle. “I made you breakfast,” she said. “But I can put it in the fridge if you still need some rest.”

I wiped the sleep out of my eyes and shook my head. “No, it’s all right,” I said. “All I needed was a few hours. I’m good. You go on down to the kitchen while I get up and get dressed. I’ll be down in a few.”

Her smile brightened as she stood up. “Sounds like a plan,” she said cheerily. “I’ll see you down there.” Before flouncing off, she leaned down to give me a quick, chaste peck on the lips. “Morning, Daddy!” she breathed and then scampered out of my room.

Several minutes later, I came down to join her in the kitchen. I’d dressed myself in jeans and a t-shirt, attire that was almost a luxury these days. As the CEO and owner of a large corporation, I was more often dressed in suits. They were all tailored to be as comfortable as possible, but I’d always preferred dressing in casual clothing. I kept telling myself that, one day, I’d change the dress code at work to allow for more relaxed attire. I never got around to doing it, of course, but I kept telling myself that I would.

Helena, still fiddling with something at the stove, heard me come into the kitchen and turned around to beam a smile at me. She held up a frying pan filled with sausage patties. “Breakfast is served!” she announced jubilantly. “Our favorite: scrambled eggs, sausage, biscuits, gravy and,” she nodded at the small dinner table next to me. “I have some diced fruit there.”

I took it all in. She’d put out quite the spread for just two people. It was probably more than either of us could consume, but after the last 24 hours, I was ready to give it a shot. I flashed a happy smile back at her. “You did this all by yourself?” I asked.

She scowled at me. “I’ll have you know,” she said with an air of haughtiness, “that I am a fantastic cook. Now sit and dig in,” she added as she transferred the sausage patties onto a paper-towel-covered plate. While I took my seat, she brought the breakfast meat over and set it down at the center of the table. As she took her own seat beside me, she looked me over carefully. “Are you sure you got enough rest?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Probably,” I said, grabbing a napkin and placing it in my lap. “If not, I can always take a nap later.” I glanced up at her with a smile. “This weekend is all ours,” I told her. “No meetings, no press conferences, no paperwork. I’ve told my secretary to find herself a new job if she so much as thinks about calling me for the next two days.”

Helena gave me a serious look. “Dad, you would not fire Alice even if she did interrupt us, and you know it. What a horrible thing to threaten her with!”

I picked up the silverware my daughter had set out. “Oh, I meant every word of it,” I said. “And I made it absolutely clear that it was a promise, not a threat.” Then I gave her a small smile and winked. “I think, this time, she actually believed me.”

Helena flashed her teeth at me with a grin. “Well, I hope not. But, still, I guess I should be flattered that you’d levy such a threat just for little old me.”

I reached out to touch her hand. “I’m sorry I missed your birthday, Sweetheart.”

She paused without looking at me, took a deep breath and nodded. “I know,” she said. “And I meant it when I said that I understood,” then she looked up at me, “but I’m not gonna pretend that it didn’t bother me.”

I cast my eyes downward at the empty plate in front of me. “Somehow I’ll make it up to you,” I said. Then I tried to brush the discomfort off and started to fill my plate with food. “So… what did you do with yourself since I couldn’t be here to celebrate with you?”

“Nothing major,” she said as she followed my example. I froze in mid-reach for a biscuit when she said that and fixed her with a surprise gaze. She noticed it and shrugged. “Birthdays are our days,” she said. “A few friends called and tried to get me to go escort istanbul out, but I begged off. I’d rather be alone on my birthday if I can’t spend it with you.”

My gaze softened. “Helena, you should never put your life on hold for your old man, birthday or not. You’re eighteen now. You should have gotten out there with your friends. Hearing that you spent your birthday alone,” I sighed, “that makes me feel ten times worse.”

“Don’t feel bad, Daddy,” she told me in no uncertain terms. “I was fine with it. Trust me. I wasn’t missing anything. Except you, of course.” She shrugged. “Besides, it gave me some extra time to think about my future.”

We set about to eating, but continued our conversation between bites. “Your future, eh?” I asked with a cocked eyebrow. “Care to fill me in?”

She chewed while giving me a playful smile. “Maybe later. We need to talk first, though.”

“I should think that talking would include discussing your future,” I said reasonably.

She put her knife and fork down on her plate and then said, “Normally, yes. But we need to talk about Mom first.” She stared expectantly at me as I froze for a moment and then followed her example, placing the silverware on my own plate.

The subject of her mother was a complicated one. All her life I’d told her that her mother had died in a car accident shortly after she’d gotten pregnant and that the fetus, Helena, had been transferred to a growing chamber in order to save her life. That explained Helena’s lack of a belly-button. As far as she knew, I came into the picture as an adoptive father.

When our eyes met, she simply stated, “I know, Dad. I know everything.” My mind began to buzz with how I should respond, and she saw the wheels turning. Before I could say anything, however, she picked her silverware back up and resumed eating. “Finish eating first,” she said seriously. “Then we’ll talk.” She paused before stuffing another bite into her mouth. “A talk like this shouldn’t happen on an empty stomach.”

Chapter 03

After breakfast and cleaning up the kitchen, we adjourned, at my daughter’s request, to my in-home office. This time, however, she took the seat at my desk and began to wake up my computer. As she casually began to work its holographic controls, she said, “I’ve been doing some digging over the last few weeks.” She fixed me with a steady gaze as I took a seat in the guest’s chair. “A lot of digging,” she added.

“On my personal computer?” I asked warily.

She focused her attention back on the holoscreen, her face an unreadable mask. “I am my mother’s daughter,” she said by way of explanation. Truer words were never spoken.

“What’d you find out?” I asked nervously. A small part of me knew that I should be outraged at her breach, but the bigger, more intellectual part of me was numbly curious to learn what, exactly, she’d turned up.

“A few weeks ago I got the idea to create a collage. I was going to make it part of our birthday celebration. Pictures of you and me over the years, y’know? It was all very innocent, my undertaking to figure out how to hack into your system. I didn’t figure that you’d be too upset if my intentions were pure. But then I found this when I was looking for pictures.” She pulled up a picture and displayed it for me. It was an image of me and her mother. In it, we were both leaning over a table, one that you’d find in almost any laboratory. We were smiling at the camera. I remember the day that picture was taken by one of our lab techs. It was the day we’d unlocked a crucial part of our research.

“You’d cleverly changed the name to something no one would think of as interesting, but you kept the file extension. I’d done a search for any and all images. This came up among them. I remember the story you told me, about how you came to adopt me and what happened to her. It didn’t match what I saw in this picture. If she was a stranger to you when she’d died, how come there was a picture of the two of you together, before I’d even been conceived? Of course I recognized her,” Helena continued. “How could I not? She looked exactly like me. A little older, maybe, but I’d recognize my own face anywhere. Who wouldn’t? At first I thought it was just an uncanny resemblance that any mother and daughter would share, but then I noticed this.” She pointed her finger at the mole just below her left eye. It was a tiny, dark thing, little more than a beauty mark. She then pointed at the identical mark on the image. “And that’s when I started paying closer attention, when I started digging.” She focused on the computer screen for a few seconds, closed the picture and opened up several documents, many of them datasheets and reports. “The story you told me… that was just a cover, a lie to protect you. What you did was illegal back then. It still is, isn’t it?”

I swallowed as I glanced at the documents. I knew what they all said. I’d authored some of them. Some of that research had been the basis for my business enterprise, BioBotz, Inc. Microscopic robots capable of altering a person’s genome to repair or enhance characteristics. But that had simply been an offshoot of our overall project. I gave her a small, guarded nod as an answer but said nothing.

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