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Prodigal Daughter

Shannon Fay is a Clarion West graduate and 2013 winner of the James White Award. She can be found online at ayearonsaturn.com and on Twitter @shannonlfay. A collection of some of her published short fiction, Clever Bits, is available.
Becks stared at me, her bright eyes meeting my angry glare. From her laptop a man's voice read out a series of numbers. His words were cut and spliced together, the auditory equivalent of a shattered mirror.
"It's called a numbers station," Becks explained. "They've been broadcasting all over the world for decades. No one knows for sure what their deal is but it has something to do with spies."
"But what does it have to do with you?" Just fifteen minutes ago all of us (me, Becks, Mom, Dad) had been tucking in for Thanksgiving dinner. I was busy telling mom and dad about how great my second year of college was going, which is probably what prompted Becks to interrupt with her own big news (she always got jealous when I started going on about school--I was always the one that brought home good grades while she brought home teachers' notes). Becks announced that it would be the last holiday all of us would spend together. She was going off to find her family, her "real," flesh and blood family, and she didn't think she'd be coming back. But thanks for everything, Ma and Pa. Could you pass the stuffing?
After that came several rounds of crying and yelling and ended with Becks and me standing in our childhood bedroom, listening to a so-called numbers station. The man had gone silent and sinister circus music was playing. Becks waited for him to start again before speaking.
"That's my father."
I couldn't help but laugh. Like many adopted kids we used to come up with crazy origin stories--we were princesses from some obscure foreign country, we were changeling aliens, we were super-powered genetically-modified children from a secret government facility. There was always the niggle that we had both ended up here from different parts of the state: I was a dumpster baby, Becks had been left at a public library when she was four. But we always found some convoluted way to ret-con our backstories so that we had always been sisters.
As I grew up I realized that the people who raised us--who threw us birthday parties, who changed the sheets when we wet the bed, who came to every goddamn t-ball game--those were our real parents. But Becks couldn't let it go. And now she wasn't even trying to include me in her fantasizes. She was cutting me loose.
"There's more," Becks said. Now a child's voice was reciting numbers. Despite the distortion the kid sounded impishly happy. "That's me."
"Becks, don't be stupid."
"I'm not, Jessie," Becks replied. "When I heard this it all came back to me. I remember so much. My family lived in a shack in the woods. I remember my father teaching me how to count. He'd record my voice and play it back afterward."
"Becks...." She had always been the selfish one, the first to cry when she didn't get her way, to pout when the attention wasn't on her. Mom and Dad had always coddled her, digging her out of hole after hole. And now she was just throwing it in their face. "Becks, you don't really remember anything. You're just making up what you want to be true."
Becks gave me a pitying look. "I know it's different for you. You don't remember your birth parents."
"And I don't want to!" I had always been a bit jealous of her bio parents. Unlike mine, they had at least cared enough to leave her in a warm, public space. But they had still left her.
Becks continued as if I hadn't spoken. "The people online who follow number stations say this one's different. They don't know where it's coming from, that it might be coming from another dimension! They're all tying themselves in knots trying to decode it, but I know what it means. It's saying 'Becka, come home.'"
I looked around our room, at the dollhouse we had designed together, at the wooden floorboards that still had nail polish stains and wax drippings from when we were make-up heavy, candle-hungry teenagers. How could she stand in this room and talk about going home? Talk as if home was somewhere else, somewhere far away from me?
She smiled. "I'm going to find the source of this broadcast, and when I do, I'll find my dad, and then..." she gestured with both hands. "I'll find me."
"Becks, don't do this. Even if it's real, don't do this." You have people right here who love you, I wanted to say. Flesh and blood people, not ghosts on a radio wave. How could she throw that away? "You're making a big mistake."
She gave me a sad smile.
"I understand why you feel that way," she said, sounding annoyingly mature. "Even if you don't understand my decision, I ask that you at least respect it."
She left our parents' house that night. No word from her over Christmas or into the New Year. We kept waiting. In the spring Mom and Dad filed a missing person's report, but when an adult disappears of her own free will, nobody's going to bust their hump over it. My parents hired a private detective to tack her down. He followed Beck's trail all the way to the other side of the country before she just vanished, all traces of her gone like fog in the sun.
One day I started looking up number stations. It took weeks but I found her. From my laptop I heard my sister's voice, not the childish recording from before but her adult voice. She recited numbers and nonsensical strings of random words. Her voice rang out loud and clear despite being obviously spliced together.
She sounded happy.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, December 26th, 2017

Sometimes people you love make choices you don't.

- Shannon Fay

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