Authors: Meira Pentermann
“That’s an interesting way to dispose of political dissidents.”
Leonard grasped her hands tightly. “But that doesn’t mean our house is bugged.”
“I’m not finished. I wondered about Collins the third day he didn’t show up for work. ‘Is he sick?’ I asked a nurse named Brenda.”
“Is that the Brenda you used to study with as an undergrad?”
“Yes. Anyway, Brenda told me very loudly that he had CARS and isn’t it a shame and so on and so forth. Then she knocked over a tray of surgical instruments and gestured for me to help her pick them up. We returned the tools to the metal tray with more gusto than necessary. There on the floor, amidst the clattering surgical instruments, Brenda whispered into my ear, ‘Be careful what you say, Alina. Anywhere, anytime. In the hospital, at the grocery store, even in
Take a walk if you want to talk to someone you trust, but only if you trust them very, very much. I shouldn’t even assume that I can trust you.’
“I tried to protest, reminding her how many late nights we spent at the library, but she rattled the instruments and concluded her warning. ‘By default, trust no one,’ she said. ‘Especially not your children.’”
“Your children?” Leonard said, shocked.
Alina slapped Leonard on the leg. “Lower your voice.”
“What about your husband?”
“I haven’t trusted you for years.”
“Then why are you telling me now?”
She stared at him intently for a moment. “Because, unless this is a remarkable performance, you suddenly seem like an innocent bystander in a world gone astray.”
Leonard tilted his head and raised one eyebrow slightly. “I guess I am.” He frowned. “Unless I’m the one who caused this mess.”
“You could not have caused anything, Leonard,” Alina said in desperation.
“Then how do you explain it?”
She tapped his forehead. “The time machine is in here. You’ve had some sort of memory wipe or…I don’t know.”
Leonard sighed, tired of trying to reassert his position. “Maybe it’s an alternate reality, like a parallel universe.”
“Sure, honey.” Alina stood up. “A parallel universe.” She stepped around the couch. “Would you like some chamomile tea, sweetheart?” she asked in an overtly audible tone. “This nature program is not at all relaxing.”
Lost in his thoughts, he answered absentmindedly. “Yeah…whatever you’d like.”
He continued to speculate.
Parallel universe. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Alina’s right. One man could not create this nightmare. So the question is, can I get out? If I build another time machine, can I get back?
Alina’s clamoring in the kitchen broke his concentration. He looked over his shoulder for a moment before returning to his thoughts.
It’s worth a try. Perhaps I’ll end up somewhere else, but it’s got to be better than this. Children become wards of the state? Whispering in my own home? And what the hell am I doing for an organization called the Department of Interrogation and Defense?
The music on the television ended abruptly and a nasal male voice interrupted.
“This is a public service announcement reminding all women to report to the nearest Department of Health facility after confirming a positive pregnancy test.”
A red and gold logo with the letters DOH appeared on the screen.
“Pregnancy test kits are available for free at any pharmacy. You are required by law to monitor your condition. The CARS assessment can be performed as early as two months’ gestation. Unfortunately, the incidence of CARS positive fetuses is on the rise. Be prepared for this potential outcome. Should your fetus test positive you will be required to terminate the pregnancy immediately in order to protect the health and welfare of the general population. Failure to comply is a federal crime and can lead to prison sentences of up to ten years. This is Barney Smith from the Department of Health. Enjoy the duration of your program. Coming up next: Eric Stehlen, a Man with a Vision.”
Alina returned with the tea. She grabbed the remote and turned the television off.
“We are so fortunate that the Department of Health has developed a fetal test for CARS,” she said cheerfully. Leonard gazed at her and noticed that her feigned smile was tainted with pain. Alina handed Leonard a mug, but she did not take her place beside him. “That’s my department. I draw amniotic fluid and run tests.”
“You run tests? What about surgeries and all that fancy doctor stuff?” He winked.
His joviality did not seem to brighten Alina’s spirit. She continued as if she did not hear him. “Of course, it is difficult when we find a positive. There are more and more positives these days.” She glanced away as if she could not face her husband.
“I’m so sorry, Alina.”
“Women who come in are prepared for bad news.” She returned to the couch and perched on the edge, resembling a nervous debutante.
Leonard could not quite reconcile the incongruity of her words and her facial expressions. He also found it inconceivable that a woman would pursue childbearing if the baby would be snatched from her arms. The willingness to believe that the situation would change in less than nine months seemed naïve if not self-destructive. He did not envy Alina’s situation.
At that moment, Leonard forgot the plight of pregnant women, as he realized he would have to face his own occupation. When he originally believed the alternate timeline was a dream, the job had been an intriguing mystery. Now it was reality, a frightening unknown. Clearly, if he did not show up for work, he would be missed, and given Alina’s portrayal of the government and its plethora of regulations and punishments, he doubted they’d let him get away with a spontaneous sabbatical. He leaned over and whispered in Alina’s ear.
“Do I have to report to the DID tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow is Sunday.”
Leonard experienced a wave of relief.
“But we’ll need to find your ID and troubleshoot how you’re going to bluff your way through the day.”
“I need an ID to get in?” he asked, concerned.
“I know it’s not in your wallet. I’ve looked.” She shrugged sheepishly.
He groaned. “I probably have passwords and pass codes as well.”
Alina reached out and pulled him in for a hug, a long, loving embrace. Leonard closed his eyes and relished the moment. When she began to pull away, Leonard opened his eyes and nearly jumped. Sitting on the stairs with a pensive expression, Natalia peered through the slats of the railing. When she noticed her father staring at her, she swiftly vanished.
How long had she been there? How much did she hear?
He consoled himself with the thought that the television had been blaring most of the evening, and that they had stealthily whispered during the compromising portions of their conversation. Nevertheless, his relief was fleeting. He remembered the words Garrett shouted as he departed.
Anyone who’s thirteen or older can apply to become a ward of the state.
Natalia turned thirteen on Thursday. Was she considering the radical idea of moving out of her parents’ home and into some kind of public housing? Would he lose her before he even got to know her? He tried to comfort himself by remembering their interactions at dinner. Garrett had been hostile and disrespectful, but Natalia seemed to crave her father’s attention. In addition, they apparently had some kind of trip planned for her birthday.
All is not lost,
he told himself…
An awkward silence dominated the breakfast preparation the following morning. Natalia helped her father make pancakes but said not a word as she poured the diluted batter, standing near him like a mute assistant. Earlier, he had asked her where to find the milk and eggs. Garrett had consumed the last of the milk with his muffin. Natalia’s response had been to add a large splash of oil and a half-cup of water to the batter. Although thin, the mixture appeared substantial enough to form pancakes. One by one, Natalia poured and flipped silently.
Leonard concluded that his daughter had heard the altercation between himself and Garrett. She did not inquire about her brother’s disappearance. Clearly, she was not surprised by his absence at the breakfast table. The door to his bedroom was wide open. She couldn’t have missed that fact. Garrett was gone and Natalia had nothing to say.
Quietly, the young girl placed the pancakes on the table along with a watered-down bottle of syrup. Leonard searched the refrigerator for butter, to no avail. Not wishing to annoy anyone given the delicate situation, he ceased rummaging and joined the ladies for breakfast. Alina poured black tea in three blue mugs. Leonard considered requesting sugar, but the general air of gloom and personal loss made sugar seem like an unnecessary indulgence. The family took their places quietly. Natalia focused on her plate, gently spreading a dollop of syrup over the surface of a pancake. Unable to bear the silence any longer, Leonard acknowledged the elephant in the room.
“I’m sorry about your brother, Natalia.”
The girl did not look up.
Alina glared at Leonard.
“I hope you’re happy here with us,” he said, ignoring his wife. Completely exhausted after having stayed up all night learning about the travesties of his new world, Leonard was emotional and edgy.
Natalia gazed at her father. It appeared as if she intended to speak, but the words never emerged. Instead, she shook her head and returned her attention to the pancakes.
“That’s enough, Leonard,” Alina said sharply. “Why don’t you focus on your mission for today?” She raised one eyebrow knowingly and Leonard remembered that he needed to find his DID pass. He tried not to groan. Alina continued cheerfully, “Natalia, will you be working on your social studies project with your friends this afternoon?”
“I don’t have any friends.”
“I already finished it anyway.”
Alina smiled. “I can always count on you. So what are your plans then?”
“I don’t know. I’ll read or something.”
Alina flinched. Leonard considered this an odd reaction. Who wouldn’t want their preteen to read on a Sunday? Then he realized that Alina was probably concerned about the content of the reading. Did it come from the school? Was it indoctrination related material?
“What are you reading?” Leonard ventured.
Natalia appeared to be momentarily shocked by the question. Her eyes flashed something akin to fear. Eventually, she responded, “A story.”
Leonard pursed his lips to one side. He considered pressing but feared putting her off. It was a disagreeable predicament. Leonard’s understanding of parental duty told him he ought to take an interest in his daughter’s activities and intervene if she made poor choices. But his intuition beseeched him not to interfere lest Natalia choose the same path as her brother. Natalia stared at her plate. Alina glared at Leonard disapprovingly from across the table. He kept his mouth shut.
“I’ll clean the dishes,” Alina offered. “You need to get busy with your project, Leonard.”
He stood. “Thank you, darling.”
Consoled by his daughter’s unexpected merriment, Leonard smiled. “What’s so funny?”
thing. I don’t know, Dad. It’s so not you.”
Alina, already making her way to the kitchen, said, “I, for one, enjoy being called
by my husband.”
“It’s gaga, Mom.”
“I still like it.”
Leonard grinned. He grabbed Natalia’s plate and touched her shoulder. “Why don’t you go read or do something fun. It sounds like you’ve had a hard week.”
Natalia’s lip trembled. “Thank you for noticing.”
“It’s my job to notice.”
She gazed up at him, her brows furrowed in bewilderment. One tear broke free.
A wave of emotions Leonard had never before experienced swept through his body, sending a chill up his spine. Suddenly his stomach ached and he felt a peculiar yearning. Before he could say anything, Natalia had slid out of her chair and dashed out of sight. He heard her footsteps on the stairs.
Leonard relished the sensation, staring after her. He did not detect Alina’s presence until she was standing directly behind him tapping him on the shoulder.
“The pass, Leonard,” she said quietly.
He jolted. The serene, precious feelings slipped away. “Right, right, right.” He paused. “Do you have any ideas?”
“Not a clue. However, it can’t be so difficult that you have to move furniture.”
“Where’s my laptop?”
She cocked her head. “Honey, laptops and personal computers were confiscated during Stehlen’s second term.”
Leonard shook his head. “
She leaned toward his ear, touching him on the shoulder to keep her balance. “As the nationalization of nearly every industry became a way of life, things got ugly. Bloggers wrote scathing commentaries. People leaked their version of the facts. The Feds were a little paranoid.”
“A little? Did they ban the Internet?”
“We can access the Internet at public libraries.”
Leonard chuckled in dismay. “This is mind boggling. How do you live like this?”
“Have you ever looked for these house bugs?” he asked.
“In all the obvious places. Nothing. But I wouldn’t disable them even if I found them. I’m assuming that would trigger an alarm. I don’t want to be on the radar.”
She squeezed his shoulder. “Focus on today’s mission. You can save the world tomorrow.”
“Focus? What’s the point?”
“The point is that you have to survive here, in our little parallel universe as you call it, and you’re going to need that pass or you won’t make it through Monday.”
“I don’t even know where to start.”
“Start with simple and clever.”
“Simple and clever,” he muttered.
“That’s the Leonard I married.” She smiled.
Leonard was again flooded with emotion, a different sensation this time, one filled with passion and romance — memories of innocent college kids and their idealistic dreams. He kissed her on the head. “I’m sorry if I’ve made you miserable in recent years. I’ll make it up to you.”