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“Tolerance is giving to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself.”
—Robert Green Ingersoll
Carter Crute sighed. He glared at the pickup in front of him, with its ancient Insured by Smith & Wesson bumper sticker. Sure enough, the rusted tailpipe was spewing smoke. That explained why he smelled the funk of Eau De 87 Octane quite clearly through the air vents in his mid-size rental.
A quick glance out the side window won him eye contact with the haggard woman who was waiting at the crosswalk. She looked much younger than him, hanging on to a wobble-headed baby. The thing was slung low on her left hip, and three rug-rats of varying heights trailed behind her like ducklings. All of them (the baby included) were giving him the usual clench-jawed “you’re not from around here, boy” stare.
That expression—plus a few tattered Asimov paperbacks he found at the local flea market—was what had made him work his ass off in school in the first place. No scholarship meant “no way in hell out of town,” and he just hadn’t seen himself fitting in as a part of the local un-welcoming committee.
Carter sneezed at the family. The light changed, and the truck took off, leaving a god-awful stench in its wake. Meanwhile, dog fur clung to his sweater like some alien parasite—wiry tendrils so much like his grandmother’s hair congregating in ugly clumps here, there, and everywhere. He brushed it off with a grimace. On the bright side, old Ranger sat still long enough for him to do what was needed.
His mother had been right about Grandma’s neighbor, Mrs. Martin. The pint-sized widow with the spare key and just the slightest touch of dementia had remembered his face after a bit and let him in. Mrs. Martin had assured him, over and over, how hard she had been praying for his sweet grandma Esther ever since that awful night when his mother and the ambulance came. The place was a wreck—it shocked him. Esther might have never left town, she rarely even left her home, but she had always taken exceptional pride in things.
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Something about his partner, Kyle, reminded him of his grandmother but was either one of them sweet? Not likely. While Esther’s husband had still been alive, the man claimed, in that long, drawling, tattletale way of his, that his wife had been born sharp as a tack and twice as cantankerous. He would always add, after a sufficient pause, that the condition kept getting worse over time. The fond way he mentioned it gentled the statement a bit, but the man still used it often enough that people knew he meant what he said.
As far as Carter was concerned, he’d take sharp over sweet any day. That glorious grandmotherly stubbornness of Esther’s had been the only thing capable of keeping Carter’s mother from naming him after her favorite minister from down the road. Hezekiah would have been the worst name ever for a robotics engineer; meanwhile, good old Jimmy Carter was Esther’s favorite President. The man became Carter Crute’s favorite as well, albeit as the lesser of two evils when it came to names.
He found a space at the far corner of the parking lot in front of the hospital, grabbed his messenger bag, and texted Kyle on the way in: Made it. Love you. Kyle responded with an overly optimistic: You’ve got this, babe. Love you, and they do, too.
That beautiful man would’ve come along had Carter asked, but he figured life was stressful enough, already, with the sickening news of another hate crime making the rounds like a sad-faced vulture. Another idiot had destroyed his own life and countless others because he’d been duped by mankind’s oldest hat trick: ignorance and intolerance, dressed up in the nice, shiny vestments of any old faith. Meanwhile, had he asked anyone with a heart and half a brain, they would have told him that nobody’s God had anything to do with what he was contemplating.
Carter paused before dousing his hands with sticky-sweet sanitizer just past the automated door at the front entrance. He looked down, adjusting the shoulder strap on his messenger bag. He and Kyle had talked about what he might do here, but he hadn’t told him he’d actually decided to move forward with it.
The inside of the building, just past the threshold, was rife with the overpowering smell of antiseptic and people gawking at him. He figured the latter part was due to his “man purse.” It was stupid—if he’d been a woman, no one would have cared about the bag. Seconds before he reached the elevator, a worn-looking man and woman with a screeching two-year-old stepped into it ahead of him. They held the door, but Carter veered and took the stairs.
“I’m so glad you could make it, baby. Her body’s failing. We don’t know how much longer she’s got.” His mother’s face was puffy and her eyes red-rimmed from tears as he entered the room. Carter wrapped his arms around her, making eye contact with his uncle and four cousins over her shoulder. She still smelled of the same old perfume, and his uncle still refused to wear anything other than overalls unless he was going to church. “She’s having a good day and Brother Willis just stopped by for a beautiful prayer with us. You barely missed it.”
“Yeah, umm,” Carter cleared his throat. He couldn’t remember who Brother Willis was. “Sounds … nice? I brought you the papers you asked me to pick up.”
“You could have used that prayer more than the rest of us, boy,” Uncle Forrest grumbled, picking at scab on his weathered forearm. He left off the part about how Carter was a heathen faggot with a one-way ticket to Hell because today was Esther’s day.
“Don’t let them fool you,” a familiar voice rasped from the hospital bed by the window. “It was just Brother Willis. The way they go on about him, you’d think he was Jesus or John the Baptist, instead.”
Carter walked over to the fragile body in between the lowered support rails—his grandmother had lost a lot of weight, and there were tubes and machines everywhere. He took her hand. It had been too many years since he’d last seen her. Why had he ever let his fear of this place get in the way?
“Hay is for horses, boy—wipe that frown off your face and give your old granny a hug.”
Her mind was still sharp as ever. Carter leaned down and wrapped his arms around her shoulders gently, minding all the tubes and bones.
“It’s so good to see you.”
“Same here, Carter.” Her eyes twinkled back at him for a moment before she raised her voice and said, “I’m grateful to God you’ve never been as fatheaded as the rest of these people. I swear, sometimes, they make me madder than a wet hen. Don’t you ever let them talk you into feeling guilty for living your life, either—you hear me?”
“Good! Now, how’re those robots coming?”
“Just great,” he smiled, sliding into the seat beside her. “I’ve picked up a special project, mapping viable brain waves for Artificial Intelligence. It’s a first attempt at placing another consciousness into a machine—you never know, it just might outlive all of us and go on to see the Universe someday.”
“That’s not right, boy—you’re always going against nature,” Carter’s eavesdropping uncle interjected. “Jesus doesn’t want you…”
“Forrest.” Gran stopped him mid-sentence. “My grandson has come a long way to see his dying grandmother. Jesus wants you to shut up now so I can hear the boy talking to me.”
Uncle Forrest and the gaggle of cousins all left in a huff. Carter’s mother turned and ran after them, leaving Carter and Gran alone in the room.
Gran coughed for a moment, the movement rattling the bones in her chest before she asked, “So, how’s the personal life these days? You lonely?”
“No.” He hesitated. “I found somebody who loves me.”
She patted his hand. “Good. What’s her name, dear?”
There was another pause.
“His name is Kyle.”
Esther didn’t skip a beat. “Well, now, that’s a good name—Scottish, I think. Can I assume this Kyle is a handsome fellow?”
“Come on,” she said, “you’re a good-looking boy yourself. So, don’t tell me my grandson settled.”
“No,” he laughed in spite of himself. “If anyone settled, it’s Kyle.”
“A shame you couldn’t bring him.”
“I’ve got a picture on my iPhone if you’d like to see him.” Carter pulled out his phone, searching for his favorite photo of the two of them.
“Just you try and stop me from looking at it,” she chuckled, peering at a picture of the two of them—Carter, with his mop of blond hair, and Kyle, slightly taller with his dark skin and bubbly coffee-colored eyes, standing arm-in-arm in front of The Museum of Flight. “That’s got to be the happiest I’ve ever seen you.”
“It is,” Carter answered, stretching for his messenger bag. He reached in and pulled out the second portable scanner he’d taken from the lab. “You know, there’s a way you can still meet him if you’re interested.”
Esther regarded him with those wise, old eyes for several heartbeats. “I suppose it involves this project of yours, the one Jesus wouldn’t like?”
Carter shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know about Jesus, Grandma—just Uncle Forrest.”
“That man’s far from Jesus, despite all his ideas to the contrary. He’s never cared to see more than one thing in you, and his mind’s too small to accept that love is love and you’re exactly as God intended.”
“It’s okay,” Carter answered. “Well, no, it’s not okay, but that’s not why I came.”
“I see you got some fur on you, boy—did you stop by and see Ranger?”
“How’s he doing?” Gran asked.
“Nice of you to visit him,” she nodded.
“I can’t imagine a world without that dog.”
“Me neither.” Esther took a shallow breath. It rattled her chest, and she winced in pain as the monitors around her stuttered. “Although, I doubt I’ll be in it much longer—you should get to doing what you came to do.”
“I love you, Gran.”
“I know you do—and you know how much I love you.”
Carter leaned forward and kissed her forehead. The skin was dry and paper-thin beneath what was left of her hair. He attached the leads to her scalp carefully, initiating the readings, the same way he’d done with Ranger, while they chatted about more pleasant days.
“Carter?” she asked him.
“Yes?” he responded.
“Ranger and I, do you think we might make it to the moon? I’ve always wanted to walk where Neil Armstrong did. ”
“I think you’ll go any damned where you please, Gran. The whole Universe is going to be your playground.”
“Just how big is it supposed to be, anyway?”
“The Universe?” Carter frowned, thinking back to an article he’d read. “It keeps expanding, but, the last I heard, the measurable distance was something like forty-six billion light years.”
“That’s mighty large, boy.”
“No.” Carter didn’t think so, not with the way the the world still was—especially not when he factored in the thought of losing Gran. “It’s small,” he said, “with just room enough for love.”