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Authors: Meira Pentermann

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BOOK: Nine-Tenths
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Alina gazed at him intently. After a long silence, she said, “Come with me.” She stood and offered her hand. Then, taking another paranoid glance around the perimeter of the open space, she led Leonard through the greenbelt and into the dismal gray housing development.

A sickly feeling passed through Leonard’s body as he examined their surroundings. Bland and poorly constructed, the six story buildings towered above them. Rusty railings anchored in cracking, cement steps led to doors, each labeled with a five-digit address and twelve apartment numbers. Bushes bordered every stairwell, but no trees graced the property. The sounds of laughter and arguments wafted down the streets — streets which clearly only accommodated one vehicle going in either direction. Flickering streetlamps irritated Leonard’s brain, causing him to rub his forehead vigorously. Alina led them away from the lamplight and into the shadows, but her brisk pace did not appear to have anything to do with Leonard’s acute headache. They wandered, seemingly aimlessly, but soon Leonard realized that Alina had a destination in mind. The cautious woman inspected the addresses before choosing a stairwell. She stood back, pressed her body against the bushes, and pulled Leonard toward her.

“Pretend we’re lovers trying not to get caught.”

“I could go with that.” He grinned and touched her hair lovingly.

“Do you remember what was here before they built this monstrosity?” Resting her head on his shoulder, she caressed his neck.

Leonard balked. The surrounding rattrap could not possibly have replaced the impressive homes that existed in his real world.

Alina took a step back and regarded him, frowning. “Really, Leonard, this did not happen in your
other
timeline?” A dubious expression dominated her features. “This was the Hill Creek Development.”

“Multi-acre custom houses, beautiful yards.”

“Thank you.” She tapped his head. “You remember some things. It gives me hope that we might get you back.” She lowered her voice. “That brain of yours saved us from this.” She swept her hand up the street and into the distance. Leonard took in the magnitude of the project — over a hundred buildings, possibly close to a thousand small apartments.

He faced her. “Where did the houses go?”

“Where do you think?”

Leonard did not know what to say. His mind buzzed, a series of scenarios competing for his attention.

Alina repositioned her husband into their mock lovers’ embrace. She rested her head on his shoulder and continued, a sadness resonating with her words. “When Natalia was two, we seriously considered moving to a larger home. In fact, I nagged you persistently.”

“And I didn’t budge?”

“No. The housing crisis made it difficult to get a mortgage.” A gray tabby materialized at their feet, purring and rubbing their ankles. The cat looked up at the couple expectantly as if hoping for some treats. “You had a bad feeling about the situation,” Alina explained. “You wanted to stay put, and you were very adamant about it. I was so angry with you at first.” She paused as if silencing the echoes of an old dispute. The cat slipped away into the darkness. “But you were right.” She tightened her arms around him. “Thank God you’re such a stubborn ass.”

“I was right? I was right to keep you in a house with no master bedroom?”

“The Fair Housing Act passed before Natalia turned three. I didn’t even pay attention at the time. You were all over it, but the general population was clueless. Most of us had a vague idea that it would fund government housing for the poor.” She cleared her throat as quietly as possible. “During that time, I became very restless. I considered leaving you over the stupid house issue. I thought you were clinging to your childhood. But you saw it coming.”

“Developments like this for people whose homes were foreclosed?” He winced as his eyes met the sickly yellow glare emanating from the streetlight on the corner. The hideous contraption buzzed and flickered incessantly, making Leonard feel like he was imprisoned in an interrogation room. He could not imagine leaving his beautiful home and living in an ugly, crowded housing project.

“Worse,” Alina said. She pulled away and looked into his eyes. “They kicked people out of their homes, whether they were paying the mortgage or not.”

“That doesn’t—”

“Over a period of several years people were
relocated
or forced to double and triple up with other families. Most of the fancy neighborhoods were razed and replaced with public housing. But the Feds left smaller, older neighborhoods intact.” She stopped to take a breath. “It was so awful, Leonard, watching the bulldozers tear apart the beautiful gardens, while the excavators chomped up the houses. Hearing the crack of wood and drywall as the homes caved in, many with belongings still inside. That was early on. Even then, I didn’t get it.”

“What made me believe they would stay clear of our house?”

“You hoped that we would be allowed to live alone given that we are somewhat cramped already. They visited us and made an evaluation. I think it was the single full bathroom that sealed the deal.”

“Who visited?”

“People from the DHR.”

“DHR?”

“Department of Housing and Relocation. You don’t remember any of this?” She sounded desperate.

“They went door to door?”

“Yes. Several of our neighbors had to take in another couple or family. We were lucky. We signed over the deed and they left us alone.”

Leonard recoiled, leaning back to catch Alina’s eyes. “Wait a minute. We don’t own our house? My parents paid off the mortgage several years before they left for Florida.”

“Nobody owns their house.”

“We pay a mortgage to the government?”

She grabbed him by the shoulders. “There are no mortgages anymore, Leonard. My God, what has happened to you?”

Leonard was speechless. Alina rested her head on his shoulder and collected herself. Then she grabbed his hand and led him silently through the development.

“Does this place have a name?”

“The Guilder Project.”

Leonard snorted. “You’re kidding.”

“It’s the name of a senator.”

He followed her obediently, wrestling with all the information she had imparted. “This is my fault,” he said as they emerged from the Dark Age neighborhood. A little disoriented, Leonard looked around. He did not recognize the street. Somehow they had managed to cross the Guilder Project and surface on the other side.

Alina took him by the hand and led him down the sidewalk. “How could it possibly be your fault?”

“Because if I hadn’t tried to mess with the past, none of this would have happened.”

“Are you talking about the time machine again?”

He nodded absentmindedly, mulling over the potential outcomes.

Alina shook her head in disgust. She guided her husband down the sidewalk. They took several turns before Leonard recognized his surroundings. Alina led him toward the open space. He followed obediently as she dragged him back into the shelter of the large tree and sat him down. After surveying the park like an owl appraising its environment, she joined him, whispering, “How do you suppose that you not wasting your life on a time machine would create this mess?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think the time machine is all in your head.”

“Perhaps it’s something I created. Something I invented instead of inventing the time machine.”

She scrunched up her nose. “I don’t see how that could make a difference. You were working for IBM. You only joined the DID three years ago.”

“What is that, the DID?”

“The Department of Interrogation and Defense. You’re doing some top,
top
-secret project. You’ve never even given me a hint.”

“I work for an organization called the Department of Interrogation and Defense?”

She folded her arms. “They don’t have a DID where you come from either?”

“No.”

She pursed her lips to one side pensively. “That’s possible if you don’t remember anything that happened since college. Most of the government agencies got reorganized and renamed when Stehlen was a senator.” She said the name softly with disdain. “I was pregnant with Garrett when he was elected. Man, it already seems like decades ago.” She looked at the ground for awhile before continuing. “Anyway, at first the agency reorganization project seemed like a good idea. Consolidation, you know.”

“Sure. Makes sense.”

“Only when you consolidate, it’s kind of like joining forces. They all became so powerful and…” She glanced around the open space with a panicked expression. “We shouldn’t talk like this.”

“Why?”

“We just shouldn’t.”

Alina made a move to get up, but she appeared to notice something out of the corner of her eye. Before Leonard knew what was happening she had him pinned to the damp ground, and she was kissing him passionately.

“Now we’re talking,” he said flirtatiously.

She nibbled at his ear. “The bushes moved. Pretend you’re hot for me.”

“I don’t have to pretend.”

She rolled over, pulled him with her, and bit him playfully on the other ear. “I’m serious. There’s a Watcher behind those bushes.”

“A Watch—?”

She silenced him with her mouth.

Chapter Four

The Tramers returned home only after Alina was convinced the Watcher was either gone or a figment of her imagination.

As they slipped inside the front door, Leonard flipped on the light. It burst, leaving them in darkness.

“Dammit.” Alina groaned.

“I’ll change it.”

“Never mind. We don’t have any light bulbs.”

“It’s okay. I like the dark.” Touching her hair, he said, “I kind of wish your Watcher had stayed a little longer. I would have liked to finish what we started.”

“Shh,” Alina said sharply. She put her arm out to prevent him from stepping forward. “The kitchen light is on.” She grabbed an umbrella by the door and tiptoed slowly and purposefully toward the kitchen. She continued to hold one arm out to protect Leonard, which had the effect of making him feel emasculated. Irritated, he snatched the umbrella out of her hand just before they reached the kitchen.

“Garrett,” Alina cried, sounding both relieved and concerned.

Leonard leaned the umbrella in the corner.

The teenager stood over the sink, a muffin in one hand and a carton of milk in the other. He was still wearing the tattered jeans, his feet hidden beneath an abundance of denim.

He spoke without looking at them. “Kind of an odd time for a walk.”

“Kind of an odd time for a muffin,” Leonard said.

“I’m hungry,” he mumbled, his mouth full.

“Where did you get that muffin?” Alina asked.

“None of your business.” He tossed back a swig of milk directly from the carton.

“Don’t talk to your mother like that.”

Garrett slammed the carton of milk on the counter. “Shut up, old man.”

Leonard rushed at the insolent teenager. Alina grabbed his arm, trying to hold him back to no avail. Inches from Garrett’s face he snarled, “Show some respect, young man, or I’m going to kick your ass.”

Garrett shoved his father hard, causing him to stumble backward, knocking Alina on the floor. The teen’s laughter filled the kitchen. Addressing his father, he said, “You pathetic piece of shit. Don’t tell me what to do.”

Leonard regained his balance and helped Alina to her feet. “I’m your father. I most certainly
will
tell you what to do as long as you live under my roof.”

“Well, thank God,” Garrett shouted, “because I won’t be living in this fucking house for very much longer.”

“What are you talking about, Garrett?” Alina asked softly, in a tone that seemed to imply she already knew and was afraid to ask.

The teen responded by leaving the room, retrieving his backpack, and producing an envelope from the front zip pocket. He shoved the envelope in his mother’s face.

The healthy glow Alina had acquired in the crisp early September air drained swiftly, leaving the caramel-skinned woman looking almost ashen gray. She opened the envelope slowly and pulled out a wad of paperwork. Garrett leaned against the counter, a repugnant sneer pasted on his face. He picked up the milk carton and took another swig. Alina smoothed out the papers on the counter. A moment later she gasped. Garrett laughed, slapped his hand on his knee, and made a sizzling sound of victory.

“A ward of the state?” Alina whispered in disbelief.

Leonard snatched the paperwork out of her hands and began to read.

“I’m just waiting for a housing placement,” Garrett said, still grinning in triumph.

Leonard grimaced and gazed at his son. “Who would want to become a ward of the state by choice?”

“Oh, just about everyone these days,
Father.
” He said the word
father
as if it were something depraved. “The family is an abhorrent, outdated institution. In another decade, it will be outlawed altogether.”

Leonard scoffed. “Right.”

“You know
nothing,
old man. You are obsolete. We will purge the country of your kind and your depraved values.”

Stunned, Leonard said nothing.

Garrett continued to shout. “I wish I was born four years ago. Then I would’ve never had to even
know
you. The CAPERS kids are so lucky.” His voice cracked. “Growing up in the DCFs…not poisoned by the obscenity of
family
.”

Unsuccessfully attempting to hold back her tears, Alina whispered, “Where are you learning all of these ideas, Garrett?”

“They aren’t ideas,
Mother,
they are
facts.

“Did you join the Youth Brigade?”

Garrett did not respond.

“Answer your mother.”

“I don’t have to answer any of your fucking questions.”

Leonard glowered. “If you are ready to leave, then get out of our home.”

The teenager folded his arms and spoke coldly. “No. I don’t have a housing assignment yet.”

“I don’t care,” Leonard shouted. “If you don’t want to be a part of a family then leave.”

“No, Leonard, no,” Alina cried. “He doesn’t have to leave. Maybe he’ll change his mind.”

BOOK: Nine-Tenths
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