Authors: Meira Pentermann
“I’m not changing my mind, bitch.”
Leonard threw a punch, which landed square on Garrett’s jaw. The teen paused for a moment, an expression of total shock on his face. He felt his chin and looked at his hand. It was damp with blood. Then, with a growl of rage, he slammed the top of his head into Leonard’s chest.
stop, boys, stop,
over and over again but her words fell on deaf ears. The Tramer males wrestled on the ground for nearly five minutes before Leonard got a good hold of his son and pinned him to the floor.
“My pleasure,” the teen retorted. He spat in his father’s face.
Leonard jolted back and wiped his face on the back of his sleeve, giving Garrett the opportunity to struggle free. The teen grabbed his backpack, shoved the government paperwork into the front pocket, and slung the pack over one shoulder.
“You’re going to be so sorry,” he snarled before dashing down the hallway. He fumbled with his shoes, cursing under his breath. As he stepped out the door, he shouted so that his voice carried to the rooms upstairs. “Anyone who’s thirteen or older can apply to become a ward of the state.”
The slamming of the door echoed throughout the household. Glasses rattled on the kitchen counter.
Alina put her head in her hands and began to sob uncontrollably. Leonard touched her back and led her to the couch, gently sitting her down and settling in beside her. She shook his arm away violently.
“Why did you tell him to leave?” she demanded.
“We could have worked something out. Maybe he would have changed his mind.” She began rocking back and forth.
“He was being an asshole.”
“So? He’s my son.”
“Just because you don’t remember raising him, doesn’t mean he isn’t your son. That was easy for you, wasn’t it? It was like kicking an unwelcome stranger out of the house.”
“Sure it was, because you don’t remember.”
He gazed at the floor. She was right. It had been easy. To him, Garrett was an impudent little brat who needed a kick in the ass. If Leonard could remember holding his son’s small body in his arms, taking him to the playground or teaching him to catch a ball, he might have responded differently. In his selfish desire for that perfect life he denied himself during decades of obsessive work and cheap relationships, he wanted to remove anything that came between himself and marital bliss. All he wanted was to be with Alina. And Natalia also seemed nice. Garrett was simply a nuisance, something to put out with the trash. What bothered Leonard most at that very moment was that, in spite of Alina’s obvious pain, all he really felt was
In an effort to still his guilt, he redirected the conversation. “How does a child become a ward of the state? Isn’t that something Child Services should handle?”
“Child Protection Emancipation and Reeducation Services, affectionately known as CAPERS. CAPERS is a subdivision of the Department of Education.” She spoke barely above a whisper, her voice trembling.
“Why are we whispering?”
Alina got up and turned on the television. She cranked up the volume and spoke loudly with exaggerated articulation. “Let’s just watch television and forget about all this. Garrett will return sometime to get his things. And who knows? Perhaps he will be happier living with children his own age.” Then, overcome with grief, she mumbled, “Give me a minute,” and she ran from the room.
The voices on the television bellowed, irritating Leonard’s already fragile nerves.
“November First will mark the fifth anniversary of the first CARS incident,”
a brunette woman announced.
“Sometimes it feels like just yesterday,”
her companion, a chubby middle-aged man, replied.
Footage of a brick building popped up. A crowd of people, ambulances, and police cars surrounded the structure.
“Here is DEPS 000159, where the horrible massacre occurred.”
Images of elementary school children flashed across the screen, one morphing into another.
“CARS brought so much pain to so many families,”
the male anchor said.
The woman’s voice quavered slightly.
“It’s hard to imagine. The country might have collapsed into chaos if we hadn’t—”
Alina appeared and switched the station defiantly.
Gentle scenes of antelopes running across a field filled the screen. Classical music ebbed and flowed with the movement of the herd.
“Alina,” Leonard yelled, trying to drown out the loud music. “Why are you acting like this?”
Alina covered his mouth and her mouth simultaneously and held his gaze as she slowly sat down beside him. When she was convinced he understood and wasn’t going to speak, she removed her hand.
“Because most homes are bugged,” she said quietly. “I don’t know if our house is more likely to be bugged or less, given that you work for the DID. I’m guessing more, because they have more to lose if you turn.”
Leonard glanced around the living room apprehensively. “Bugged? People are listening?”
“I highly doubt that people are actively listening all the time, but I would bet my life it’s all being digitally recorded. And maybe specific, mistrusted individuals are being followed closely.”
“Since I don’t know exactly what it is you do, I have a hard time gauging where we fall on the spying hierarchy.”
“Are you sure you aren’t being paranoid?”
Alina puffed up her cheeks and made a soft popping sound. “About two years ago, I noticed that several high clearance administrative personnel always whispered in the staff room. They would punctuate their conversations with random, audible statements about the weather or some television show.”
“But that’s in a public room.”
Alina held up her hand, hushing him. The music on the television became loud and dramatic as a mountain lion captured an antelope. “It got really scary when one of the administrators spouted off spontaneous comments praising president Stehlen.”
“A sycophant.” Leonard chuckled.
Alina’s eyes ablaze, she hit her husband on the shoulder. “It’s not funny, Leonard. He disappeared.”
Alina groaned. “The administrator. His name was Collins. It was like Collins knew they were onto him, and he was trying to make cover. But he was too obvious about it. The man was a terrible actor.”
“I don’t understand.”
“People don’t criticize the president.”
Leonard cast her a dubious expression. “In America? All people
is criticize the president.”
“Now you’re giving me the creeps. You’re saying that this Stalin—”
“SHTAY-lynn,” she corrected, lowering her voice even more.
“This Stehlen is like a suspicious dictator?”
She grabbed her husband by the shoulders and whispered in his ear, “Don’t
let someone hear you say that. Ever.”
“Okay, I get it.” Leonard glanced around, suddenly infected with his wife’s paranoia.
“One day they relocated Collins to an infirmary. Overnight. He had no CARS symptoms. He was just gone overnight and nobody ever saw him again.”
“What is this CARS?”
Alina took a deep breath and let it out slowly. An expression of exasperation crossed her face. In her eyes, Leonard saw doubt and confusion. Nevertheless, after a moment, she explained patiently. “Chronic Aggressive Reactive Syndrome. It is an incurable disease that affects the nervous system. Soon after contracting CARS, the infected person will exhibit irrational, violent behavior. These individuals are immediately transferred to high security infirmaries. It’s not an airborne virus, but it is contagious enough to require quarantine.”
Leonard frowned, digesting her words.
She pressed on. “The disease is entirely unresponsive to any medication we’ve tried to date.”
“What about a vaccine?”
“The DOH research team developed a couple but the vaccines merely exacerbated the problem, like a virus on steroids. Many people died during the testing phase.”
“And then CAPERS…” She paused, momentarily speechless.
“The social services?”
In a lifeless voice, she said, “New babies become wards of the state within hours of their birth.”
“You can’t be serious.”
Alina’s eyes grew cold. “Their parents can visit them in the Day Care Facility but, in effect, CAPERS is rearing the next generation. A lot of people simply detach and stop visiting the DCF. During the first couple of years of the new program, there were an unparalleled number of suicides among new parents.”
An unpleasant taste burned in Leonard’s throat. “How can they possibly get away with that? Baby snatching. I can’t believe no one protested this madness. Who would turn over their child?”
“They have no choice.”
“People are afraid.”
“Of all of them.”
Leonard’s head began to throb.
“The whole thing’s been brewing for a decade,” Alina explained. “CAPERS began by opening refuges for abandoned children and foster children. They called them Day Care Facilities even though they operated more like orphanages. CAPERS was very aggressive, taking over private orphanages and eliminating all foster parent programs within a couple of years.”
“Foster children, fine. I still don’t see how they justified the rest of it.”
Alina sighed, clearly frustrated. When she resumed, she spoke as if explaining the basics to a young child. “Stehlen called a National Emergency nearly five years ago to deal with the CARS epidemic. A series of absurd laws were drawn up and put into effect immediately. Life as we knew it changed suddenly —
— almost overnight. Every person had to be tested and registered in a national database. All newborns were taken and assigned to a DCF, and CAPERS has taken every newborn since.”
“That’s incredible. I don’t believe it.”
“The excuse is that they need to be monitored for symptoms day and night. But it’s bullshit.”
for God’s sake. Don’t give them any children. How could a woman possibly want to get pregnant if she will have to surrender her baby?”
“A lot of women believe that any day now the whole CAPERS program will be abolished. That’s what they tell themselves anyway.”
“What do you think?”
Alina shrugged listlessly. “The Day Care Facilities aren’t going anywhere. The DOE has poured billions of dollars into the program. The projected plan is for children to live in DCFs until they are thirteen. At that time, CAPERS will transfer them to public housing where they will room with other teenagers. Some teenage housing developments are already in operation for those who—” Alina stopped midsentence. Tears rushed down her face.
“The housing assignment Garrett referred to.”
“For those who
What kind of mother am I that my son would choose to live in one of those places?”
“That was the indoctrination talking, not your son.”
Alina closed her eyes. She wiped her face and took a minute to compose herself. Leonard waited, caressing her shoulder. Finally, she nodded. “You’re right. The newer generation seems to already accept this baby swiping atrocity as the proper order of things. Maybe that’s why I rarely see pregnant adults at the hospital. Mostly teenagers.” She grimaced and looked away, almost with shame. “They’ve been brainwashed. You heard Garrett’s disdain for the concept of
“He also used the words
with utter disgust.”
“Can you imagine then, how the woman who raised him feels when her child disowns her?”
Leonard kissed his wife on the forehead and stroked her hair. “It’s not fair, and it’s not your fault.” Alina rocked subtly as if bracing for a windstorm. Leonard looked at the floor, unable to spin any further words of comfort. They sat quietly for some time.
Eventually Leonard broke the silence. “How likely is it that one of us will catch CARS?”
Alina merely stared, her eyes opaque and lifeless. When she stirred, she mumbled lethargically, “The disease is almost entirely contained now. The Feds built infirmaries as fast as possible. They went up so quickly, it was as if the blueprints were drawn up in advance. People don’t fear catching it the way they used to. There was mass hysteria in the beginning.”
“I can only imagine.”
“We’re doing a lot of retesting at the hospital, but most people go about their business and don’t worry about CARS…Except…” The word caught in her throat. She took a moment to calm herself. “…except many babies of uninfected parents develop the disease in utero.”
“That’s odd. And scary.” He crinkled his nose. “Does the mother contract it then?”
“So how can a fetus become infected? It doesn’t make sense.”
Alina did not respond. She spoke almost as if she were reading a health bulletin. “Anyone who shows the slightest sign of unusual behavior is removed from the general population and retested.”
Leonard frowned, mildly puzzled. Her response had nothing to do with his question.
She continued, “But Collins exhibited no symptoms.”
“The administrator. From the hospital.”
“It was highly suspicious,” Alina whispered in spite of the overbearing narrator on the nature program. Leonard had to lean in to hear her over the noise. “Everyone had been tested already. Everyone.” She paused for a moment, searching for the words. “What drove someone to test him again?”
“The virus is likely to crop up here and there. You can’t have entirely eradicated it.”
“I know, but why spontaneously retest
specifically? At that time, there were very few retests. But not long after Collins, retest requests rose dramatically.”
“I don’t understand the—”
“It’s an excuse to
people who…” Alina stared at the ground in shame, as if she were somehow responsible for the conspiracy. “…who are not enamored with the administration.”