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Digital Winter

Stanley Elton

January 20, 2014

Shadow, shadow on my right,
Shadow, shadow on my left,
Shadow, shadow everywhere,
Shadow has all the might.

Stanley Eltonemerged from the bedroom at precisely 7:10 a.m., his favorite mug in his hand containing his favorite African blend of coffee. Truth was, he had seven favorite mugs, one for each day of the week. He had seven favorite blends of coffee as well, seven favorite dress shirts, seven chosen suits of varying shades of gray, and seven power ties.

T he morning sunlight had already pushed back some of the thick clouds that covered the parts of San Diego closest to the Pacific. His part of San Diego was called Coronado Island, although it wasn’t a true island. Situated on a stretch of land called the Strand, the small community rested on a jut of property that looked from the air like an arthritic thumb sticking into the blue waters.

Founded in 1860, the city of Coronado was home to the elite. North Island Naval Air Station took much of the prime real estate, but there was still plenty of room for retired admirals, CEOs, and entrepreneurs who made sudden wealth in the digital age. A stroll through the city streets sometimes allowed tourists a glimpse of a celebrity.

Stanley Elton was no celebrity or entrepreneur; he wasn’t a retired admiral or a man of old money. He was, however, the CEO of San Diego’s largest CPA firm, a company whose client list included scores of the top companies in the country. He was on a first-name basis with people often mentioned in the Wall Street Journal. For thirty years he worked for OPM Accounting. Most people assumed OPM stood for the founders of the firm, people who died a generation ago. It didn’t. Insiders knew OPM stood for Other People’s Money. A bit tongue in cheek, but it drew hearty laughs for the few who knew the joke.

“Nice day.” Stanley moved to the open kitchen and kissed his wife on the top of the ear.

“You know that gives me the shivers.” Royce Elton pulled away and tried to rub her ear on her shoulder, her hands busy flipping eggs and turning bacon. A pot next to the frying pan cooked down some oatmeal. Instant oatmeal wasn’t good enough for her son, Donny. At least he ate something close to healthy.

“My presence has always made you shiver.” Elton slurped his coffee.

“Shudder is more like it.” Her tone was playful.

“Shiver, shudder; potato, patahto.” He moved from the kitchen and took his usual spot at the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the rolling Pacific. T he $3.5 million condo was on the top floor of one of the fifteen ten-story structures on the Strand. Built in the 1960s, the luxury buildings caused such a stir that a city ordinance was passed forbidding similar towering structures in Coronado. Too late and too little.

From the wide living room, Stanley could look to the left and see the Pacific Ocean or look right and see the calm waters of Glorietta Bay. “Water everywhere and not a drop to drink.”

“Good thing we have plumbing and coffee.” Royce dropped two pieces of bacon (well done) and two eggs (over hard) onto a scalloped-edged green plate. A moment later, she added two pieces of rye toast.

He stepped to the dining table. “Dining room” would be inaccurate. T he only real rooms in the open floor plan were the bathrooms and bedrooms. Royce set the plate on the glass top. She sat next to him, sipping a chocolate diet shake.

“Eating real food while watching you suck on that stuff fills me with guilt.” He stuck a piece of bacon in his mouth.

“You’re a man. You’re supposed to feel guilty. It goes with the Y chromosome.”

“T his is what I get for marrying a geneticist.”

“Brains are sexy.”

“Really? I hadn’t heard.”

Royce raised an eyebrow. “You know, I can poison your breakfast.”

“T hat’s why we have Rosa cook our other meals. Cuts down on your opportunity to cash in on the life insurance.” He cut one egg in half and scooped it into his mouth. Stanley didn’t like wasting time on trivial things like breakfast. “Busy day?”

“Usual classes at the university, and then I have about four hours in the lab. I’ll be late. I have to grade test papers after that. Rosa has something planned for you and Donny.”

“She’s as good a cook as she is a nurse.” Down went the second half of the egg.

“She’s a jewel. We should pay her more.”

It was Stanley’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Really? She makes good money now.”

“I’m not sure it covers all she does. Dealing with Donny isn’t easy.”

Stanley contemplated the comment while gnawing on the bacon. “What do you mean? He sits in his room and doesn’t cause any trouble. He’s as passive as someone with his condition can be.”

Royce frowned. She hated it when Stanley referred to Donny’s challenges as his condition.

“Sorry,” he said. “You know what I mean. Other people like him can be high maintenance.”

Another frown. “He requires a lot of care, Stan. You know that.”

“Of course. I do my share.”

She touched his arm. “I know, dear. I didn’t mean that. You do more than any other father would. You provide an income that allows us to get all the help we need. My professor’s salary wouldn’t pay for one room in this place. I’m just saying we should reward Rosa. She’s been with us since Donny was ten. T hat’s twelve years.”

“She’s a trooper. Did you have something in mind?”

“I thought of a paid vacation, but I don’t think she’d leave Donny for more than a few days. She’s so devoted to him. I know that her car is getting a little long in the tooth. She had to take it into the shop. Cost her a pretty bundle to get the transmission fixed.”

“You want to pay for the repairs?”

“No, I want to buy her a car.”

Stanley lowered his fork. “You’re kidding, right?” He could see she wasn’t. “You mean like a Porsche or Ferrari or—”

“Of course not. I was thinking of a Prius or some other hybrid. It would save her some gas money.”

Stanley furrowed his brow, narrowed his eyes, and clinched his jaw, but he couldn’t maintain the pretense. He had never been angry at his wife and couldn’t imagine starting now. T he forced frown gave way to the upward pressure of a smile.

“You’re working me, aren’t you?”


“Okay, but it’s going to cost you another cup of coffee. I’ll let you make the arrangements. Take the money from the house account.” He paused. “We are talking just one car, right?”

“For now.” She rose, kissed him on the forehead, and took his cup to refill it. “Speaking of Rosa, she said something yesterday that seemed…”


“I don’t know what word to use. Unexpected.” She filled the cup and returned to the table. “She said Donny spoke.”

“Spoke? You mean more than one word?”

“She meant sentences.”

“You’re kidding. I’ve never heard him link words together. I thought it was beyond his ability.”

“We don’t know that.” Royce the geneticist was talking now. “His condition is a mystery. T here are only a handful of savants in the world. We don’t know what goes on in his brain.”

“What did he say?”

“She told me she couldn’t make out all the words. He stopped when she entered the room. Something about shadows.”

“Maybe she was hearing something from one of his computers.”

“Maybe, but she didn’t think so.”

Stanley checked his watch. “Why didn’t you tell me this last night?”

“Um, because you didn’t come home until nearly midnight and you were half asleep.”

“Oh, yeah.” He rose. “T hanks for breakfast. Good as Rosa is, food cooked by my wife always tastes better.”

“I manipulate the alleles in the eggs.”

“T hat’s more science talk, isn’t it?”

“You going to say goodbye to him?”

“Just like every day for twenty-two years.”

“T hanks.”

Stanley started the most difficult task of his day. He loved his son, but he would rather face off against a bunch of IRS attorneys than turn the doorknob to his boy’s bedroom.

As his hand touched the brass knob, he heard a voice from the other side of the door:

Shadow, shadow on my right,
Shadow, shadow on my left,
Shadow, shadow everywhere,
Shadow has all the might.


Donny Elton sat in his chair as he did every hour he wasn’t sleeping. T he chair was an expensive, well-padded iBOT designed by inventor Dean Kamen. It was powered and could raise Donny to the eye level of any adult not playing in the NBA. A series of gyros and a robust computer program enabled it to climb stairs without tipping. T he invention had been a boon to wheelchair-bound consumers.

But Donny wasn’t bound to the wheelchair. He could walk if he wanted, jump if he desired, and even sprint if he had a mind to, but he never did. At least that was what the doctors said. Under heavy sedation, Donny had endured MRIs, CAT scans, X-rays, muscle conductivity studies, and other medical tests. All came back negative.

“T he problem isn’t with this body,” the doctors said. “T he problem is in his mind. He doesn’t want to walk.” T hat had been the end of their assessment. No one could offer any ideas of how to make a healthy twenty-two-year-old who was monosyllabic on his best day and mute on his worst and who possessed an IQ above 200 do what he didn’t want to do. “You simply cannot make a man walk if he doesn’t want to.” T hey had been united in that assessment.

Stanley, in the few quiet moments he allowed himself, wondered why his son refused to walk or engage with humanity. Yes, his savant condition was probably due to autism, but research had yet to come to a consensus on that.

Stanley stood in the open door with a bowl of hot oatmeal in one hand and wondered if he had heard what he thought he heard.

“Hey, buddy. Mom whipped up some oatmeal for you.” He moved to the long desk that took up all of one wall in the place they called Stanley’s bedroom. It looked more like a NASA control center than a place to sleep. A series of four 27-inch monitors lined the table, and two computer towers sat nearby. T hey were never turned off. More than once, Stanley had awakened in the night to hear Donny’s fingers tapping on the keyboard.

“Oatmeal. Food. Oatmeal. Good.”

Stanley set the bowl and spoon on an unoccupied spot of the table. “Whatcha working on, pal?”

“Oatmeal. Good.”

Stanley was thankful Donny could feed himself. He needed help dressing and using the bathroom, but at least he could manage to put a spoon in his mouth or hold a sandwich. Small blessings.

T he large window of the bedroom overlooked the Pacific side of the Strand. T he thinning cloud cover allowed the morning sun to paint sparkles on the gentle swells and surf. A short distance from the shore, surfers waited for the ocean to offer more waves. Although Stanley couldn’t see them from this window, he knew that new Navy SEALs were training there. Such was Coronado: home to the wealthy, a mecca for sun worshippers, a training ground for the Navy, and a magnet for tourists.

Donny knew none of this. Stanley doubted his son had ever noticed the beauty outside his window, the kind of view that made the 1700-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bath condo worth $3.5 million. T he only things Donny seemed to notice were on the computer monitors. Stanley doubted the young man even knew him. T he last thought brought pain, as it did a dozen times every day.

Line upon line of code filled the monitors. For a few moments, Stanley considered having a programmer look at it, but he dismissed the idea. What difference would it make?

“I’m headed to work, son. I’ll be home late again, but I’ll look in on you. Mom will be here until Rosa arrives.”

“Rosa. Oatmeal. Good.” Donny took a bite of the pasty meal.

Stanley ran his fingers through his son’s hair. He loved the boy even if he had never caught a baseball or watched a football game. “Take it easy, champ.”

“Bye. Later. Oatmeal.”

Stanley turned when something appeared in the corner of his eye—something dark, indistinct. He snapped his head around but saw nothing.

Closing the door, Stanley paused and tried to push back the gloom that draped his mind. T hen he heard Donny’s voice again.

Shadow, shadow on my right,
Shadow, shadow on my left,
Shadow, shadow everywhere,
Shadow has all the might.



“There he is—tall, dark, and yummy.”

Roni Matisse gazed down the first-floor hall of Harris Memorial Hospital. Like hospital halls everywhere, this one was wide with a floor as glossy as a sheet of water. A man, six feet two and trim from regular exercise, walked their direction.

“Square of jaw, broad of shoulder, brown of hair—”

Roni cut the head surgical nurse off. “You know that’s my husband you’re talking about.”

Loren Grimm kept her eyes fixed on the approaching man. “Oh, yeah. I forgot.”

“You’d better not forget, girl. I’m really handy with a scalpel.”

“It’s not my fault, it’s his.”

“How do you figure that?”

“T hat uniform. It’s unfair. A good looking man and a military uniform. No court would convict me.”

“He does look pretty good, doesn’t he?” Roni started for the man walking their way. Loren started to follow. “Stay, girl. Stay.”

“Don’t make me bite you.” Loren hung back.

Roni harbored no worries about Loren. She was quick with a joke, an excellent nurse, and happily married to her husband of twenty years.

A few steps later Roni stood before the tall man. “Colonel Matisse.”

“Dr. Matisse.”

T hey hugged for a moment before she pulled back. “T his is a surprise. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Do I need a reason to see my wife?”

“Nope. But what if I had been in surgery?”

“I would have barged in, taken you in my arms, and embarrassed the surgical team.”

“T hat might break our sterile environment.”

“I’m not scared.” He grinned.

“I was thinking of the patient.”

“Oh, yeah. T hat could be a problem. Anyway, I shortened my jog, and that left me enough time to swing by and have a cup of coffee with you before I head to Maryland.”

“Okay, what’s happened?”

“I told you.”

“We had coffee together this morning, and you never cut your jog short.”

“What? A man can’t have another cup of coffee…Oh, all right. I’m going to have to spend the weekend.”

Roni clenched her jaw. “I was looking forward to our trip to New York.”

“Me too. I’m not happy about it, but you know the military. T hey tend to give orders, not make requests.”

“Is there a problem?” A wave of worry rolled through her. Jeremy worked in the little-known USCYBERCOM in Fort Meade. While other soldiers wielded guns and bombs and drove tanks, Jeremy drove a computer. His only overseas duty had been to train cyber security officers.

“No. Well, yes, in a way. I have a bunch of Army shavetails coming in. T hey like nothing better than having an Air Force bird colonel briefing Army personnel.”

“I think you’re the one who enjoys it.”

“You wound me. You’re right, but you wound me. It’s a privilege that comes with being the general’s favorite officer.”

“So much for Christian humility.” Roni regretted the dig. She meant it in good humor, and his expression said he took it that way. Faith was the one area they differed: He had it, but she didn’t want it.

“T hat’s not pride talking, just me relating a few facts.”

“I already knew about the briefing, but why do you have to stay over the weekend?”

“Unexpected congressional tour. Some politician wants to make sure we’re not playing video games instead of protecting the country.”

“On the weekend?”

“T he Senate Armed Services Committee carries a lot of weight.”

“I understand. You want me to get the date changed on the theater tickets?”

“If you would. I’m going to be out of commission for a while.”

“I can keep myself busy here.”

“Tell me about it over coffee. I only have about twenty minutes before I hit the road.”

Just as Roni started to speak, she heard her name called over the hospital public-address system. “Hang on.” She went to a phone on the wall, punched in a three-digit number, identified herself, and then listened.

She hung up and stared at the blank wall for a moment. Jeremy stepped to her side.

“Something wrong?”

She looked at him, forcing herself to breathe. “Commuter train derailed. T he injured are being divided among the hospitals. We have at least fifteen patients headed to ER, and some have serious injuries. I have a feeling it’s going to be a long day.”

His face lost a shade of color. “T hat’s horrible. At least they have the best trauma surgeon in the country waiting for them.”

“I’m not the best in the country—just the East Coast.” She forced a smile but doubted its believability.

“I’ll pray for you, babe.”

T he smile felt more genuine. “I’ve got to go assemble the surgical teams and call in off-duty doctors. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. You make me proud. We’ll talk soon.” He took her in his arms, and she wished he would never let go.

“Be careful.”

“I always am.”


Rosa caught a glimpse of herself in the reflection of one of the windows and hated it. She always had—face too round, hair too thin, skin too pockmarked, eyes too dark, body too heavy, worry lines too deep.

She looked through the reflection to gaze at the ocean. T here were easier jobs, but none that paid so well or provided such a view. Her work would never make her famous, never fill her bank account with cash. She was a care-at-home nurse, caring for a person who barely acknowledged her existence. Still, she had grown fonder of Donny than she had any of her past patients. She had become attached to him, something a nurse shouldn’t do.

Maybe she was getting too old for this work. Fifty-two wasn’t old, but old was closing in fast. At times she looked forward to retirement, to spending the day with her truck-driving husband and spoiling her grandkids, but reality always set in. She doubted she would be able to retire at an age where she could enjoy free time. Barney made a trucker’s salary. She made decent money but not enough to create a nest egg. Like so many people of her class, she would depend on Social Security for retirement income, and that wouldn’t be much.

Too old? Maybe. Donny was a fully-grown man who, for whatever reason, refused to walk. At times she could get him to stand, but that was only to move him from the powered wheelchair to the toilet. Even then she had to add her strength to his to make the transition.

Rosa’s primary job was to care for Donny during the day, when his parents were away. Often their schedules meant she had to stay late into the night. T hey always gave her a bonus for those times.

She had been doing this work for two decades. T he nurse before her had taken to stealing jewelry from Mrs. Elton’s case. When they hired Rosa, they made it clear that they would prosecute any theft. Rosa had no problem with that. She cared nothing for jewelry, fine clothing, or artwork. She loved her family and her work, and that summed up her existence.

Her biggest challenge was dealing with the boredom. Although Donny couldn’t be left alone, he was not demanding. If his food was delivered on time and she was available when he needed to go to the bathroom, he was happy staring at all those computer monitors by the hour.

To pass the time, Rosa cleaned the condo. It wasn’t part of her duties, but it gave her something to do, and it was another way to say thank you to the people who paid her generous salary.

After cleaning up the breakfast dishes and chatting with Donny, who never responded, she straightened the magazines on the rosewood coffee table in front of the tan leather sofa. It was an eclectic gathering of reading material: Time, Newsweek, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and other business periodicals for Mr. Elton; Science Review, Journal of Genetic Studies, and Nature for Mrs. Elton. Smart people.

Next she moved to a small cabinet of cleaning supplies, gathered up a bottle of Windex and a soft cloth, and began touching up the windows. She tried to focus on the smudges and spots but allowed herself moments of wistful ocean gazing. She tried her best to avoid her own reflection.

A breeze had picked up over the ocean, decorating the surface with tiny whitecaps. California gulls, white as milk with long, yellow beaks, soared high and then turned into the wind, hovering as if filled with helium. Cormorants did aerobatic dive-bombing runs, dropping from the sky like spears, disappearing beneath the waves, and reappearing moments later. In the distance, a cruise ship plied the waters, headed to the Mexican Riviera.

What a wonderful world.

A motion caught her attention. Something in the window, a reflection of something behind her.

Not something. Someone.

Dark. Tall. Faceless.

Rosa’s heart stuttered like a car engine deprived of fuel.

No eyes. No mouth. No face.

She released a tiny scream and spun, pointing the bottle of Windex as if it were a weapon, as if the intruder could be killed by glass cleaner.


No shape. Nor form. No dark being. Nothing.

She looked back at the window. T he reflection was gone.

From behind her came the muted voice of Donny in his room, closed off from the world.

Shadow, shadow on my right,
Shadow, shadow on my left,
Shadow, shadow everywhere,
Shadow has all the might.

“Donny!” She sprinted to his door and flung it open.

Donny was alone.

Digital Winter
by by Mark Hitchcock and Alton Gansky