Dad invented the search engine a month after he'd been laid off from Boeing. He hauled it in from the garage one Saturday morning and plopped it onto the kitchen counter next to the toaster. It looked as clunky and outdated as my brother Jim's old Radio Shack TRS-80.
"Go ahead," Dad said to Mom. "Ask it to find something."
Mom considered the contraption over the rim of her coffee cup. "Where are my car keys?"
The machine hummed for a moment and then displayed its answer in green block letters. "In the basket by the front door."
"That's only because I put them there," my sister Tammy said. Mom was forever losing her keys, glasses, jewelry, ATM card, and briefcase. Dad, who was twelve years older than she and never lost anything, liked to joke that when Tammy and I were little, Mom sometimes lost us, too.
"Try something harder, Mom," I said.
"Where are my diamond stud earrings?" she asked.
Dad pinched the bridge of his nose. Apparently Mom hadn't told him she'd lost his latest anniversary gift. The search engine answered, "Under the side table in the den."
Mom wagged her finger. "Wrong. I looked there."
"Let's check," Dad said.
We all went to the den, where Dad got down on his hands and knees. He moved aside a basket of old magazines and newspaper flyers, and we all saw two little diamonds twinkling like stars against the blue carpet.
"I'll never lose them again," Mom promised, and gave Dad a kiss.
Tammy wanted to try the search engine next. It found her missing Dave Matthews CD (in the car), her favorite hairbrush (in her gym bag), and Mark Feeley's phone number, which she'd written down on the back of a homework assignment and then stuck inside her history book.
"Ask it something, Samantha," Dad said.
I leaned in close. "Where's Arabella?"
Mom frowned and Dad looked unhappy, but the search engine hummed and I held my breath. Arabella was the black kitten Dad had gotten me last year for my thirteenth birthday. For two weeks she'd slept between my ankles, purred whenever I rubbed her throat, and chased any string I dragged past her. Then one day she managed to scamper out the kitchen door. Mom had helped me put posters on telephone poles and Dad ran an ad in the paper, but Arabella never turned up.
"202 West Clarendon," the search engine said, and it even gave a phone number.
I almost jumped up and down. "Someone found her!"
"I don't know," Mom said. "That's way on the other side of town."
Tammy asked, "Do you think whoever has her will give her back?"
I said, "They better. Let's call them right now."
Mom and Dad exchanged looks. "I'll do it," Dad said. "You stay here, Samantha."
He went to use the phone in the den. When Mom and Tammy started asking the search engine more questions, I slipped down the hall and put my ear to the door. I heard the faint rumble of Dad's voice but no clear words.
"Sam, you better not be eavesdropping," my mother called out.
"I'm not," I said, and went back to the kitchen. The search engine was telling Mom the address book she'd lost at Christmastime was packed away with the fake mistletoe in the attic. Dad returned to us, his arms folded over his chest.
"Is Arabella okay?" I asked. "Can we go get her?"
Dad put his hand on my shoulder and looked the way adults do when they have bad news.
"Honey, that address is the city dump."
"She's living at the dump?"
"Sam," Dad said, "it's where they take animals that get killed by cars. I'm very sorry."
I turned to Mom. "It doesn't mean she was killed, right? Maybe someone who works there took her in. They think she's just another stray."
"She had a collar," Mom reminded me.
Tammy said, "Maybe it fell off."
"We have to go look," I said.
Dad drove me over and we showed a photo of Arabella to some of the workers. None of them recognized her or had seen a black stray. I stared out at the mounds of stinking trash and thought of Arabella's little body buried under cigarette butts, baby diapers, rotting food, and a thousand other gross things people threw away without a second thought.
When we got home I said, "I hate your stupid search engine," and cried in my room for the rest of the day.
School started a month later, and on the second day of classes I lost my schedule. I called Dad, who consulted the search engine. Apparently I'd left it on the bus. That week the search engine also found Mom's notes on the Baker case (in the newspaper recycling bin), her cell phone (in the gardening shed, next to the new shears she'd bought), and Tammy's favorite pair of tweezers (beside the upstairs bathtub, where I'd used them to pluck her disgusting hair out of the drain).
When Jim came by that Sunday he laughed at the search engine. "It doesn't really work."
"It does," Tammy said. "Doesn't it, Mom?"
Mom smiled but didn't stop reading a case file. She and Jim didn't get along very well. Jim's mother was Dad's first wife, Becky, who I'd only met a couple of times and who chain-smoked even if there were little kids around. By the time I was born, Jim had already gone off to college. He was currently some VIP at a company that made hardware for the Internet.
Tammy prodded Jim to give the search engine a chance, so Jim asked, "Where are my favorite socks?"
"Under your bed," it said.
"It's just guessing," Jim scoffed. "Or Dad built in a random answer generator. I could do just as well with a Magic 8 Ball."
"It's always right," Tammy insisted.
"He probably programmed it with the most likely responses to things people lose all the time." Jim snagged a cookie and headed for the den. "Don't fall for it."
That Jim didn't believe in Dad's invention was okay with me, because I liked having it as our little family secret. One night, long after bedtime, I overheard Mom asking Dad why he didn't start his own company and sell search engines to everyone. I pressed my ear closer to their bedroom door to hear his answer.
"What kind of life is that?" Dad asked. "Working eighty hours a week to get the company started, kowtowing to investors, having to hire and fire people, obsessing over the bottom line while competitors churn out cheap imitations -- no thank you. Besides, I'd never have time for you or the girls or to putter in the garage. I'd wind up with the biggest ulcer known to mankind."
"You could just sell the patent to someone else."
"Oh, Catherine," he said, and I heard a rustle of sheets. "Isn't searching for something half the fun of finding it?"
Mom giggled. More sheets rustled. I had a feeling I didn't want to hear any more. As I started to creep away, a floorboard squeaked.
"Samantha," Mom warned, "that better not be you."
"I'm just going to the bathroom," I said.
Boeing called Dad back to work a few months later, which made him pretty happy. The search engine remained on the kitchen counter. When visiting friends asked what it did, we said it was just an old recipe database Dad had thrown together that had never worked right. It worked perfectly well, of course, even when the answer wasn't one we wanted to hear.
"Where's Mark?" Tammy asked on the night her boyfriend was late picking her up for the movies.
"At Janice Gilbert's house," the search engine said. When he finally showed up a half-hour later, Tammy accused him of cheating on her with the school's head cheerleader. He admitted it and they broke up that very night.
"I hate men," Tammy said. She told Mom and Dad that she would never love again. She played hooky from school, would barely eat anything at dinner, and listened to dark, depressing music in her room for hours on end. After a week of her moping around I said, "Why don't you just ask the search engine where your true love is, and then you can go find him?"
She did, and the answer came back as "1718 Clark Avenue."
Neither of us recognized the address, but Clark Avenue was only a few blocks away. Twilight was falling and it was bitterly cold out, but we pulled on our boots and trudged over there anyway. Tammy's cheeks glowed rosy red and she kept clapping her hands together for warmth.
"I bet it's Dave Parker's house," she said. "He's the captain of the swim team. Did you know that swimmers shave all the hair off their bodies to make them go faster? He's probably smooth all over."
"Yuck," I said.
She smiled wider. "Maybe it's Peter Allen. I thought he was hanging around my locker a lot last week."
While she rambled on I wondered if everybody's true love lived so close to where they grew up. What about the people who move away from their home towns? Maybe they never find their true loves. And if someone is your true love, does that automatically mean you're happy together for the rest of your life? Maybe true love wears off.
1718 Clark Avenue was a two-story white Colonial with blue shutters. A BMW was parked in the driveway. Light from the family room lured us around the snow-dusted hedges and we peeked inside.
"All I see is some kid," Tammy complained.
I leaned past her shoulder to watch a boy playing video games on a wide-screen TV. He had scrawny arms and legs and zits all over his face. On the table beside him was a two-liter bottle of Pepsi, a half-eaten pizza from Domino's, and a big bag of sour cream potato chips.
"That's Bobby Harrison," I whispered. "He's in seventh grade."
Tammy stayed dead silent for a full minute. When she spoke, her voice sounded strangled. "He must have an older brother."
I shook my head.
Mrs. Harrison came into the room wearing a skimpy dress and a lot of gold jewelry. She chatted on her cell phone as she kissed Bobby's forehead. Bobby ignored her and yanked his joystick to one side.
"His dad might be cute," Tammy said, perhaps thinking that the Harrisons would one day divorce and she could be to Mr. Harrison what Mom was to Dad -- the younger, prettier second wife.
"His dad died last year," I said. "Cancer."
Mrs. Harrison left the room. Tammy stared at Bobby as if her life could not possibly get any worse. The front door clicked and I grabbed her arm.
"She's coming, Tammy. Let's go."
Tammy said nothing all the way home. When Mom asked where we'd been I said, "Nowhere," and Tammy said, "At the store," and then Tammy said, "I've decided I want to be a nun."
Mom raised her eyebrows. "We're not Catholic."
"I'll convert," she said.
A week later Tammy got a new boyfriend. I guess she thought that being with your not-true-love was better than being with a zit-faced twelve-year-old and way better then being a nun. I thought being a nun sounded interesting and one Saturday afternoon, when I was all alone in the house, I asked the search engine, "Where is God?"
The machine started humming. It kept humming while I poured and spilled some chocolate milk and was still humming when I came back from cleaning myself up in the bathroom. It hummed as I went upstairs to get my homework and hadn't stopped when I returned. It kept humming and humming and humming, and I just knew everyone would blame me for breaking it when they got home from their errands and shopping. After about an hour it stopped, though, and the answer to God's whereabouts appeared on the screen.
The search engine didn't do well with other tough questions, either. When Tammy didn't get accepted to the college of her dreams despite her high grades, she asked, "Where's the fairness in that?" and it gave her only a blank screen. When my grandmother started forgetting her own name and how to button her blouse, we asked where her mind was and got "Going away." When Mom got sick we asked, "Where's Catherine's cancer?" and it scrolled the same answer over and over again:
"All inside. All inside. All inside."
That was the only time I ever saw Dad unplug the machine.
"Who cares what it thinks?" Mom asked, and kissed Dad's cheek. Just to be stubborn about it she went through a hysterectomy and twelve rounds of chemo and pummeled those malignant cells into submission. On the day Tammy came home from college on spring break, she and I screwed up enough courage to ask the search engine, "Where's Catherine's cancer?"
"Gone," it replied, and our whoops of joy brought Mom and Dad running from the living room.
Soon enough I went away to college, too. On a lovely spring night in my junior year I was kissing the boy I hoped was my true love when the phone rang. My brother Jim could barely speak. I flew home, took a cab straight to the hospital and found Mom and Tammy weeping in the waiting room. Dad hadn't waited for me. His heart damaged beyond any chance of repair, his brain dead from lack of oxygen, his poor body hooked to machines that could not sustain his life, he'd died just about the same time my plane was landing. With him went his generosity and curiosity, his appreciation of life, and his solid and steady love of us, the family who loved him back with all our hearts.
I didn't return to college. For the next three months I slept twelve or fourteen hours a day and rarely went outside. Mom was a sallow ghost of her former self. The two of us drifted through the house as if it belonged to other people and we were just lost, bewildered visitors. Tammy, who'd moved to her own apartment over in Seattle, came by twice a week to make sure we had food in the refrigerator. Jim called but couldn't bring himself to visit.
One morning, with the sun barely peeking over the horizon, I followed the smell of coffee to the kitchen and found my mother standing in front of the search engine with her hands over her face.
"I'm too afraid to ask," she said.
"I'll do it." I gripped her hand for strength and faced the screen. "Where is my father's soul?"
The search engine hummed and hummed. It hummed as the sun came up and filtered through the maple trees in the back yard. It hummed while a bluebird alighted on the windowsill and sang a little song. After several minutes it gave us one little word.
Both of our hearts began to mend after that. Mom even persuaded me to return to UCLA for my final year. The night before I left, I went to the search engine and asked it the one question that still weighed on my mind.
"Where is Heaven?"
The machine began to hum. It hummed while I made myself tea, and hummed while I watched it from the kitchen table, and hummed as I pillowed my head on my arms and fell asleep. When I woke, the full moon was low and luminous in the western sky. The search engine had finally replied, but the answer to Heaven's whereabouts only stayed on the screen for a moment before the machine shut itself off and left me barefoot and awed in the moonlight.
"Samantha?" Mom asked when I climbed into her bed and kissed her forehead. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." I settled into Dad's side of the bed with a silly grin on my face. "Everything's fine."
The search engine never worked again. Not even Jim could get it to power up. After Mom passed away, Tammy and her husband Bob Harrison (quite handsome now, with a great sense of humor) found it in the garage. They shipped it to me, where it sits in the corner of my office as a reminder of treasures lost and treasures recovered. Sometimes I look at it and think of my parents, of their love for each other and us, and of the magic that came from one man's tinkering in a garage.
Perhaps Jim was right and Dad preprogrammed an answer, but whenever I remember the green glowing words of that long-ago night I prefer to think otherwise.
"Heaven is Everywhere and Nowhere, Samantha.
Copyright © 2003 Sandra McDonald
Sandra McDonald is a former naval officer and current public servant. She has stories forthcoming in Realms of Fantasy, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Space & Time. For more about her and her work, see her website. To contact her, send her email at email@example.com.