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Chapter no 21

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman, #1)

I had set the GPS to take me to the nursing home, where I introduced myself as a family friend.

“I’m afraid she won’t know you,” said the nurse. is was the assumption I had made, although I was prepared with a plausible story if necessary. e nurse took me to a single room with its own bathroom. Mrs. Case was asleep.

“Shall I wake her?” asked the nurse. “No, I’ll just sit here.”

“I’ll leave you to it. Call if you need anything.”

I thought it would look odd if I left too quickly, so I sat beside the bed for a while. I guessed Margaret Case was about eighty, much the same age as Daphne had been when she moved to the nursing home. Given the story Rosie had told me, it was very possible that I was looking at her grandmother.

As Margaret Case remained still and silent in her single bed, I thought about the Father Project. It was only possible because of technology. For all but the last few years of human existence, the secret would have died with Rosie’s mother.

I believe it is the duty of science, of humanity, to discover as much as we can. But I am a physical scientist, not a psychologist.

e woman in front of me was not a fifty-four-year-old male medical practitioner who might have run from his parental responsibilities. She was totally helpless. It would be easy to take a hair sample, or to swab her toothbrush, but it felt wrong.

For these reasons, and for others that I did not fully grasp at the time, I decided not to collect a sample.

en Margaret Case woke up. She opened her eyes and looked directly at me.

“Georey?” she said, quietly but very clearly. Was she asking for her husband or for her long-dead son? ere was a time when I would have replied without thinking, “ey’re dead,” not out of malice but because I am wired to respond to the facts before others’ feelings. But something had changed in me, and I managed to suppress the statement.

She must have realized that I was not the person she had hoped to see, and began crying. She was not making any noise, but there were tears on her cheeks. Automatically, because I had experienced this situation with Daphne, I pulled out my handkerchief and wiped away the tears. She closed her eyes again. But fate had delivered me my sample.

I was exhausted, and by the time I walked out of the nursing home, there were tears in my own eyes from lack of sleep. It was early autumn, and this far north the day was already warm. I lay under a tree and fell asleep.

I woke to see a male doctor in a white coat standing over me, and for a frightening moment I was taken back to the bad times of twenty years ago. It was only momentary; I quickly remembered where I was, and he was only checking to see that I was not ill or dead. I was not breaking any rules. It was four hours and eight minutes since I had left Margaret Case’s room.

e incident was a timely reminder of the dangers of fatigue, and I planned the return trip more carefully. I scheduled a five-minute break every hour, and at 7:06 p.m. I stopped at a motel, ate an overcooked steak, and went to bed. e early night enabled a 5:00 a.m. start on the Sunday.

e highway bypasses Shepparton, but I took the turnoff and went to the city center. I decided not to visit my parents. e extra sixteen kilometers involved in driving the full distance to their house and back to the highway would add a dangerous unplanned increment to what was already a demanding journey, but I did want to see the town.

I drove past Tillman Hardware. It was closed on Sunday, and my father and brother would be at home with my mother. My father was probably straightening pictures, and my mother asking my brother to clear his construction project from the dining table so she could set it for Sunday dinner. I had not been back since my sister’s funeral.

e gas station was open. so I was able to fill the tank. A man of about forty-five, BMI about thirty, was behind the counter. As I approached, I recognized him and revised his age to thirty-nine. He had lost hair, grown a

beard, and gained weight, but he was obviously Gary Parkinson, who had been at high school with me. He had wanted to join the army and travel. He had apparently not realized this ambition. I was reminded how lucky I was to have been able to leave and reinvent my life.

“Hey, Don,” he said, obviously also recognizing me. “Greetings, GP.”

He laughed. “You haven’t changed.”

• • •

It was getting dark on Sunday evening when I arrived back in Melbourne and returned the rental car. I left the Jackson Browne CD in the player.

Two thousand, four hundred and seventy-two kilometers, according to the GPS. e handkerchief was safe in a ziplock bag, but its existence did not change my decision not to test Margaret Case.

We would still have to go to New York.

• • •

I met Rosie at the airport. She remained uncomfortable about my purchasing her ticket, so I told her she could pay me back by selecting some Wife Project applicants for me to date.

“Fuck you,” she said.

It seemed we were friends again.

I could not believe how much baggage Rosie had brought. I had told her to pack as lightly as possible, but she exceeded the seven-kilogram limit for carry-on luggage. Fortunately I was able to transfer some of her excess equipment to my bag. I had packed my ultralight PC, toothbrush, razor, spare shirt, gym shorts, change of underwear, and (annoyingly) bulky parting gifts from Gene and Claudia. I had only been allowed a week’s leave, and even then, the Dean had made it dicult. It was increasingly obvious that she was looking for a reason to get rid of me.

Rosie had never been to the United States but was familiar with international airport procedures. She was highly impressed by the special treatment that I received. We checked in at the service desk, where there was no line, and were accompanied through security to the business-class lounge, despite traveling in economy class.

As we drank champagne in the lounge, I explained that I had earned special privileges by being particularly vigilant and observant of rules and

procedures on previous flights, and by making a substantial number of helpful suggestions regarding check-in procedures, flight scheduling, pilot training, and ways in which security systems might be subverted. I was no longer expected to oer advice, having contributed “enough for a lifetime of flying.”

“Here’s to being special,” said Rosie. “So, what’s the plan?”

Organization is obviously critical when traveling, and I had an hour-by-hour plan (with hours subdivided as necessary) replacing my usual weekly schedule. It incorporated the appointments that Rosie had made to meet the two father candidates—Esler the psychiatrist and Freyberg the cosmetic surgeon. Amazingly, she had made no other plans beyond arriving at the airport to meet me. At least it meant that there were no incompatible schedules to reconcile.

I opened the schedule on my laptop and began outlining it to Rosie. I had not even completed my list of activities for the flight when she interrupted.

“Fast forward, Don. What are we doing in New York? Between Saturday dinner at the Eslers and Freyberg on Wednesday—which is evening, right? We have four whole days of New York City in between.”

“Saturday, after dinner, walk to the Marcy Avenue subway station and take the J, M, or Z train to Delancey Street, change to the F train—”

“Overview, overview. Sunday to Wednesday. One sentence per day.

Leave out eating, sleeping, and travel.”

at made it easy. “Sunday, Museum of Natural History; Monday, Museum of Natural History; Tuesday, Museum of Natural History; Wednesday—”

“Stop, wait! Don’t tell me Wednesday. Keep it as a surprise.” “You’ll probably guess.”

“Probably,” said Rosie. “How many times have you been to New York?” “is is my third.”

“And I’m guessing this is not going to be your first visit to the museum.” “No.”

“What did you think I was going to do while you were at the museum?” “I hadn’t considered it. I presume you’ve made independent plans for

your time in New York.”

“You presume wrong,” said Rosie. “We are going to see New York. Sunday and Monday, I’m in charge. Tuesday and Wednesday it’s your turn.

If you want me to spend two days at the museum, I’ll spend two days at the museum. With you. But Sunday and Monday, I’m the tour guide.”

“But you don’t know New York.”

“Nor do you.” Rosie took our champagne glasses to the bar to top them up. It was only 9:42 a.m. in Melbourne, but I was already on New York time. While she was gone, I flipped open my computer again and connected to the Museum of Natural History site. I would have to replan my visits.

Rosie returned and immediately invaded my personal space. She shut the lid of the computer! Incredible. If I had done that to a student playing Angry Birds, I would have been in the Dean’s oce the next day. In the university hierarchy, I am an associate professor and Rosie is a PhD student. I was entitled to some respect.

“Talk to me,” she said. “We’ve had no time to talk about anything except DNA. Now we’ve got a week, and I want to know who you are. And if you’re going to be the guy who tells me who my father is, you should know who I am.”

In less than fifteen minutes, my entire schedule had been torn apart, shattered, rendered redundant. Rosie had taken over.

An escort from the lounge took us to the plane for the fourteen-and-a-half-hour flight to Los Angeles. As a result of my special status, Rosie and I had two seats in a row of three. I am only placed next to other passengers when flights are full.

“Start with your childhood,” said Rosie.

All it needed was for her to turn on the overhead light for the scenario of interrogation to be complete. I was a prisoner, so I negotiated—and made escape plans.

“We have to get some sleep. It’s evening in New York.”

“It’s seven o’clock. Who goes to bed at seven? Anyway, I won’t be able to sleep.”

“I’ve brought sleeping pills.”

Rosie was amazed that I would use sleeping pills. She thought I would have some objection to chemicals. She was right about not knowing much about me. We agreed that I would summarize my childhood experiences— which, given her background in psychology, she would doubtless consider hugely significant—eat dinner, take the sleeping pills, and sleep. On the

pretext of visiting the bathroom, I asked the cabin manager to bring our dinner as quickly as possible.

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