Please Come With Me . . . .
Most of his face was in shadows. All I could see, really, was his mouth, lit by the glow of the scanner screen. His mouth, and a glitter of reflected light from the frames of his wire-rim glasses.
“Jeff Christiansen, sir.”
I heard the way ‘sir’ came out as ‘suh’; the way it always does, when I’m scared, and I hated it. But I couldn’t help it.
Pause, for a few seconds.
“Full name?” he asked, with just the slightest emphasis on the ‘full’.
“Jefferson Earl Christiansen, sir.”
The mouth in the scanner-glow shifted slightly, as he read information on his screen. From my plane ticket; or my exit permit, or my implants, or all of them, I didn’t know.
I shifted a little in the hard, plastic chair; it made a squeaking sound on the linoleum floor.
“And you are sixteen years old. As of last month.”
“That’s right, sir.”
“Mmmm-hmmm,” went the mouth.
Another long pause.
I could see part of his uniform shirt, in the light from the airport security scanner screen. Light blue, with the state – not the Federal – Homeland Security patches; dark blue tie, perfectly knotted. A slender, silver crucifix on each side of his collar.
The crucifixes aren’t officially part of the uniform; but they all have them.
Rebecca – my sister – always told me; the smaller the crucifix, the more dangerous they are. Especially when it came to state and local Homeland Security; they’re much worse than the Federals.
It didn’t really matter. I didn’t think I could possibly be more scared, than I already was.
Maybe more for Peter, than for me.
I tried to keep my voice steady. “California, sir. Flying into Los Angeles. LAX.”
The head looked up at me; I could see the rectangles of the blue-lit scanner screen reflected in the lenses of his glasses, blotting out his eyes. “I can read your ticket, son. I want to know where you’re going, once you get to California. And why.”
His voice was so, so calm.
“Uhhhhh . . . . we’re going to visit my sister, sir. In Riverside County. And, well, it’s been a long time, since I’ve seen her . . . ”
It was the first outright lie I’d ever told, to Homeland Security.
Not about it being a long time, since I’d seen my sister; just about us going on to Riverside County. My sister lived in Santa Monica; but she kept an address in Riverside. For just this reason; hoping my parents and I could use it, to come visit. Or stay.
If they – the state Homeland Security – knew we were going to Santa Monica, they’d never let us leave.
The mouth in the scanner light sighed. Very, very slightly.
“Son, you know that California is one of the special-status states. To go there, you need an exit permit from our own state government – ”
“Yes, sir! If you look right there – ”
Blue rectangles in his glasses, again, as he looked at me. “Please don’t interrupt me son.” He said it mildly; but something in the way he said it, made me feel like I’d been slapped.
A long pause, while those glasses looked at me.
“I can see that you have an exit permit, right here. But it’s my duty, son – my assigned duty – to make sure you were given this exit permit for the proper reasons. Especially given your age.” He looked back down at his scanner screen. “The state government has given me the final say on approval of your exit permit; and that means I need to be satisfied that your visit isn’t going to bring any harm to you.” He paused, again, reading his screen. “Or your – friend.” Another, slightly longer, pause. “Or any other resident of this state.”
“I understand, sir.”
“Remember, son. Travel outside of this state is a privilege, not a right.”
I could feel two cold trickles of sweat dripping down my sides, from my armpits.
It hadn’t always been like this. According to my sister; and my parents.
Back before I was born, anybody could travel anywhere in the United States; no travel passes, no exit permits – they just went.
There weren’t even any border crossing checkpoints. Hard to believe, I know.
But then Congress passed the Constitution Restoration Act, which finally stopped the runaway Supreme Court from making new laws – that’s what we were taught in school – and states were finally free to restore Christianity to public life, and the Federal Communion of Christian Churches was founded, and it was incredibly successful all over the country but especially in the South, where I lived –
And so I grew up singing hymns, and praying, each morning at Assembly before school started. And the state Homeland Security department monitors the net, and all the netshows, for indecency, and it encourages all of us to have healthy spiritual lives and attend church and form truly Christian communities, and it works really hard to protect us from abortionists, and child-kidnappers and pedophiles, and homosexuals. And to go to an atheist state like California, you need to get an exit permit.
And, for the last few years at least, to get an exit permit you need a really good reason.
“Why don’t you tell me more about your sister?” said the mouth in the blue glow. “In your own words. She is – ” and his glasses glinted, again, as he looked over at another screen – “considerably older than you. I see.” He read on, for a few minutes. “Hmmmm. And your parents – they were blessed, weren’t they, having you so late in life? Perhaps they should have named you Isaac.”
“Uhhhhh . . . yes, sir.” I swallowed again, my heart pounding. This was getting – so dangerous. On so many levels. “My sister – ”
“Rebecca. Perhaps ‘Isaac’ wouldn’t have been so appropriate for you, after all.”
“Yes, sir. No, sir. Um, Rebecca, sir: she’s 12 years older than I am; and, well, she sort of helped raise me, I guess – my mother had to work – ”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“That your mother felt she had to work. It isn’t the sort of family model we like to see . . . But, we were discussing your sister.” The mouth in the glow swiveled, slightly, as he read. “Your sister Rebecca went to California quite a long time ago.”
“Yes, sir. When I was seven.” I saw him nod, a little, as if I’d just given a correct answer to a test question. “But she still comes back to visit every year. Almost . . . ”
And I stopped, and swallowed again. Because that wasn’t true, anymore. My sister hadn’t visited us in the last three years.
She was afraid she might not be allowed to leave, if she ever came back.
And I knew why.
I don’t know who I’d be; without my sister. I don’t even know if I’d still be alive.
I mean, I love my mom, and my dad; I really do, but they both work really long hours – to feed me, support me, I know; I’m not complaining – but Rebecca was always, well, there for me. To talk to me. Hug me. Care for me.
I miss her, so much.
But all that – when I was growing up – well. That was just the start.
After she moved to California, it’s like she became a kind of a lifeline to me. A window on the rest of the world. Sending books and 3vds and chips back in the mail; even magazines and newspapers, on actual paper, sometimes. I began finding out so many things I didn’t know, before; whole worlds, it seemed like, that I never knew existed.
And then, starting when I was eleven or so, when she visited, she’d bring back other books.
Special books. Books on discs, or on chips or memory sticks; never on paper. Books that nobody could ever get, here.
Stories with homosexual characters; homosexual heroes, even. Historical figures; real people, sometimes, like Alexander the Great, or Alan Turing, or Harvey Fierstein.
Sometimes – pretty often – stories with homosexual boys. Boys, like me.
She knew about me. All along. Somehow; without me telling her.
And she still loved me. I couldn’t believe it, at first; she knew about me, somehow she knew I was a homosexual, and she still loved me.
“ . . . and she’s a teacher, sir. She teaches eleventh and twelfth grade high school – ”
“A public high school?”
I tried not to wince. “Yes, sir.” Meaning, not a religious school.
“What subjects does she teach?” More blue light on his glasses lenses, as he looked up to me.
He had to know, already. If he didn’t, I might have lied, or told a half-truth. But he had to know.
Rebecca told me how it worked; on her last visit. They almost always know the answers, before they ask the questions; the point is to make YOU answer. See how you react; make you get into the habit of supplying the information. Every answer, she said, is aimed at making you choose how much to say, how much to reveal, how much to risk NOT saying . . .
“Biology, sir.” I looked away from him. “She teaches biology, I think, mostly.”
“I would imagine,” he said at last, “that she is acquainted with the theory of Darwinian Evolution. ‘On the Origin of Species’.”
“I wouldn’t know, sir. To be honest.”
Another small sigh, from the mouth in the blue light; and then silence, as he read from the scanner screen.
My sister was more than a high school teacher. And that was why she didn’t come home, anymore. And that was why Peter and me were going to visit her in California.
If we could. If state Homeland Security didn’t already know too much. About Rebecca; and about Peter and me.
And if they didn’t know what Peter and me were carrying.
“Son. Jefferson – may I call you Jefferson?”
“Jeff, sir. Jeff’s fine.”
I didn’t want him to pick up on the significance of my names. If he hadn’t already. My parents would never have named me like this, if they’d known.
“Jeff. May I ask you a personal question, about your sister? I will warn you, though, that you do not have to answer, if you do not want to.”
“Uhhhh . . . sir?”
The mouth sighed, again. “Jeff – son – I would like to know if your sister attends church on a regular basis; I really would.” The blue-lit lips pursed, a moment. “But as you know, we live in a freedom of conscience state; unlike some of our neighbors, our citizens have the freedom to practice the religion of their choice, or even the freedom to be unbelievers, if they so choose. We try to guide our citizens to correct choices, of course: but we do not compel anyone to worship in any particular fashion. And that is why, under our laws and traditions, I can’t force you to answer this question.”
I was confused. “But sir – I thought Church attendance is tracked . . . ?”
Those glasses came up to look at me, again. “Only in Federal Communion states, son. And California is not an F-triple-C state.” The glasses gleamed at me, silently.
Like everybody else in my state, I have two rfid chips implanted in my left hip bone, the iliac bone; one for the state, one for the FCCC. The Church, we call it; although it’s really an organization of different churches.
The state chips hold our permanent records; identity, home address, genome, blood type, school performance, security rating – everything, and they’re updated automatically at school, and always available to scanners.
And the Church chips record our denomination, and our parish, and pastor, and whether we’re confirmed or not, and they’re updated each time we attend services. The old joke is, if your hip hurts in cold weather, it’s God trying to send you a message . . .
Some of the most popular netshows are all about our implants. How children who get lost can be found through rfid tower tracking; how accident victims in comas are reunited with families, that sort of thing.
But there’s a scarier show, which is supposed to be for adults only, and it’s on later at night; I’ve seen it, my parents are really good about things like that. It shows what happens when people, mostly criminals, try to get their implants removed; because, with what’s in their permanent records, they can’t leave the state, and they can’t get jobs, or marry, or anything. Only, it’s illegal to remove your chip; so the operations are – amateur ones. And they can get botched. And the results aren’t pretty.
The worst ones are where people try to operate on themselves; sometimes under local anesthetics, sometimes not.
I saw one episode like that, once; it gave me nightmares.
A lot of homosexuals try it. After they’re arrested, and the information goes into their implants. The episode I saw – the one that gave me nightmares – was about a homosexual who had tried to cut out his own implants . . .
“I . . . I don’t really know, sir. About my sister going to church, I mean. But . . . ”
Another choice. How much to say; how much to risk.
How much did he already know?
“ . . . I do think she’s been to a Catholic church, in California. A couple of times, I think. Maybe . . . ”
I glanced up, quickly, at that mouth in the blue light; then I looked away, fast.
Going to a Catholic church – well. Catholics aren’t part of the Federal Communion. The Pope is pretty hostile to the Federal Communion, they say.
But I was thinking – maybe it was better to admit that my sister had gone to a Catholic church, than talk about my family.
My parents told me, last year: before the Constitution Reconstruction Act, we’d been Unitarians.
Definitely not part of the Federal Communion of Christian Churches. Not even Christian, according to the state.
We changed denominations pretty quickly after that, my parents said; it was obvious how things were going, people outside the Federal Communion were losing their jobs, not getting into schools, that sort of thing. And changing denominations worked; my family hadn’t had any real trouble over it, since.
But if my sister was going to a Unitarian church, in California, now – Peter and I might not get permission to go visit her. Ever.
It didn’t even occur to me that she might not be going to church at all. Everybody in my state goes to church.
“That’s all right, son. Jeff. You did the right thing by telling me.” Those glasses flashed at me, again. I could see the tiny lines of white letters, in the reflected blue screens. “And just between you and me – we may not agree with Roman Catholicism in certain areas of doctrine, in the interpretation of Scripture, and certainly not when it comes to the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope – but Catholics are, in the end, good people; people of God. They are devout. Unlike,” he went on, absently, looking down at his screens again, “some.”
And a part of me – the part that was playing the innocent, helpful, scared boy – was so, so grateful for the praise, the reassurance, and really wanted to tell him more.
And the part of me that I was holding back, the part that was watching all this – felt dirty. Like I’d really informed, or something, on my sister . . .
It’s a disgusting feeling.
He went silent again, and tapped at his keyboard, for a long time. And I tried not to hope, too much. As I sat, and sweated.
I wondered where Peter was. Next door? In another part of the airport?
I wondered if he was being asked the same questions. Or were they asking him questions about – me? About my family?
Or – about us? As in, him and me?
We’d tried to be so, so careful.
It took more than a year, from the time we sort-of got to be friends, in ninth grade, until the first time we kissed. And by that time, I already knew I loved him, and that he – well.
I knew that he loved me, too. We made it pretty obvious to each other; even though we never dared say anything out loud, before. Never dared to touch each other, before.
That first kiss changed everything.
He was sleeping over at my house, on a Saturday night; him in my bed, me in my sleeping bag, as usual. And the lights were off, and there was this really charged, intense feeling of something about to happen in the air, and I heard him slide out of bed, and move closer, and I felt the heat of him close by me, and then I felt it, his lips on mine, so impossibly warm, so soft –
We didn’t even do anything that night; sexually, I mean. We just held each other, and kissed, over and over, and whispered, and hugged –
We did the other stuff later. The sexual things; the wonderful, loving, incredible sexual things. But not very often; only when he was sleeping over with me, and only late, after my parents were already in bed.
It was so dangerous.
I thought we were safe, though, I really thought we were safe, only doing it at my house, until that one day. My mom was at the stove, cooking; not looking at me.
“Jeff – darling,” she said, out of nowhere. “I just want you to know – when you and Peter are in your room, together, your father and I won’t come in without knocking, first. And we’ll wait for your permission, before opening the door. All right, dear?”
“Ummmm . . . uhhh . . . ” I so, so didn’t know what to say.
“But this is important, dear.” She turned to look at me; and I’d never seen her look that way, before; so focused, so intense. “You have to promise me, Jeff, that you’ll both be careful. Please, please be very careful outside of this house. Even hugging, or putting your arms around each other’s shoulders, is dangerous; more than you know. Even just the suspicion . . . Will you promise me to be very, very careful? And to make Peter be careful?” Her eyes were boring into mine.
“I . . . I promise,” I said, finally, really softly. And then she was hugging me, and I was hugging her back, really tight, and I managed to whisper, “thank you,” into her ear, and then we were both crying, a little . . .
“So, son.” He shifted off to one side, a little; now I couldn’t even see his glasses, in the shadows, just his Homeland Security uniform shirt, and his tie, and the silver crosses on his collar. “Do you have any idea why we took you aside, like this, today?”
Something in his tone – got cold. Colder.
“Uh – I thought it was because of our tickets? Going to California?” I tried to look innocent; inside I was terrified. If they knew what we were doing . . . trying to do . . .
“We would have questioned you about your destination, of course. Eventually. But that isn’t why we stopped you, and it’s not why you’re talking to me, right now, rather than somebody else in my organization. Somebody somewhat lower ranking, in my organization. Tell me, do you recognize this?”
A screen flared up, where I didn’t know there was a screen before; a big, high-definition 3vd monitor, just off to one side of his raised workstation.
“Oh . . . that’s us!” It came out almost as a squeak, and I was embarrassed.
It was us. Me, and Peter, and our families; two hours ago, at the airport drop-off, where ticketed passengers take the tram for the last ten miles to get to the terminal.
We were all out of the airport shuttle van, on the big sidewalk in front of the security checkpoint; I was hugging my mom, and my dad was hugging me from behind, really tight, and off to the side Peter was getting the same thing from his parents and his older brother, and we were all surrounded by crowds of other people meeting, or parting, but still, I knew, I remembered, I was crying . . . . it was hard. Really, really hard.
And I was watching it. All over again. From a weird angle, kind of from above; the camera was in the overhang in front of the security doors, I guess.
On one side of the screen, numbers in red and purple were constantly flashing and scrolling, updating faster than I could really see. A histogram crawled up the other side, bars extending and retracting like something alive.
Another slight sigh, from the shadows.
“Son, my organization is called Homeland Security because we are tasked with keeping you – and everyone else in this state – as secure as possible. And of course, we are going to have sensitive areas in our state, such as this airport, under a great deal of surveillance. Using the very best methods we have.”
He moved, in the shadows, and some audio came up. Very bad audio; hard to hear, but I swear I heard my mother’s voice, as she held me.
“Jeff – son – have you ever heard of Bayesian networks? Or Modified Hidden Markov Modeling, or the Facial Action Coding System?”
I shook my head.
“Well, then – I won’t go into detail. And it’s not too surprising; it’s still a fairly obscure field of research, if I do say so, myself. Let’s just say, for the sake of simplicity, that a great deal of work has been done in the last decade or so on building AI – Artificial Intelligence – systems which are very good at recognizing stress, and certain discrete human emotions, in human subjects; in their voices, in their postures, and especially – and hardest of all – in their facial expressions.” He touched a button, and the 3vd froze, on a slightly different frame; a still shot showing my face, eyes closed, arms around my dad, now.
“We don’t record everyone, of course; and we certainly don’t have human operators following up on all the people our systems tag for stress reactions; that would be excessive. Particularly at an airport. But when our AI systems find indications of stress which are sufficiently elevated – stress indicators which are truly out of line – those systems do alert humans. And that allows us to, shall we say, zero in on those subjects.” He moved, again, slightly; and my face enlarged, slightly fuzzier. The numbers off to the side changed again. “And this, right here, son, is the face of a person who is undergoing a fairly major stressful event. According to some very, very advanced science – based primarily on those Bayesian networks I mentioned, and to a lesser extent on Hidden Markov Modeling – according to all that, this is the face of a person who is undergoing very significant emotional distress.” He moved back to his original position, blue light on his thin mouth. “Tell me why you were so upset, Jeff,” he finished, quietly.
I stammered for a second. Seconds ticked by; the glint of light on his glasses frames.
“I . . . I . . . guess I’m just, well, nervous, maybe.” My heart was pounding so, so hard; my mouth tasted like metal. I tried to think of something to say. “It’s . . . going to be my first time in an airplane. And my first time outside this state, and . . . . ” I swallowed, and looked down. “And my first time away from my family. My parents, I mean; my mom and dad.”
“And you are going to miss them, aren’t you?” His voice was back to being – at least a little bit sympathetic. I could hear the lie in it.
“Yes, sir.” I hesitated. “But it’s only for three weeks . . . ”
It was forever. Unless they came to live in California, too.
I’m not sure when I realized that my sister was more than a teacher. And I’m not sure when I realized, my parents were more than, well, just my parents; working six days a week, coming home, making dinner, going to bed, resting on the Sabbath –
I don’t think they wanted me to know.
My sister was getting in trouble at school when I was still too small to understand; she’d come home crying, with a note from the principal, and then I’d get to spend all the next day with her, rather than go stay at Mrs. Freund’s across the street. And I was so happy spending that time with her, but I’d also feel so guilty, because whatever happened to her made her so mad, or made her cry . . .
Sometimes it was two days.
Once it was a whole week.
By the time I’d started school, though, she was in college; and she wasn’t sent home, anymore. But that was about the time that we started having more and more guests over, for dinner. Seemed like they were always new people, people I’d never met before; and I was really shy around them, at first, but they were all so interesting, and so nice to me –
And then something bad happened.
I never did find out what. I remember my parents spending a lot of time talking to each other, in the kitchen, really urgently, but never loud enough for me to hear, and it seemed like something was really, really wrong, but nobody would ever say what it was to me, and it made me feel – lonely. And scared.
And not long after that – my sister moved to California. To finish school, and then go on to teach.
Exit permits were easier to get, back then.
We – well, my parents, I mean – still had people over for dinner; fairly often, anyway. But the conversations were never the same; not the same laughter, not the same kind of talking that I didn’t understand, but loved to try to figure out, feeling the words just wash over me as I sat there, and watched, and listened. Instead, it was mostly just quiet talk, and careful, and then I’d say good night and go up to my room to do homework.
And my parents told me – over and over again – that I was never, ever to mention those guests. Not to Mrs. Freund; not to anybody. It was family business.
And ever since then, I’d known it. That quiet feeling. Being afraid; constantly being just a little afraid, just in the background, like a little dull tickle; me worrying about my parents, worrying that some day I’d come home and one of them would be gone, gone the way my sister left to California . . . or worse.
Afraid that I’d say something to make that happen. Something someone would overhear.
Afraid for myself.
And now, for Peter. Oh, especially for Peter.
Those glasses were lifted up again, flashing, as he looked at me from the shadows; not saying anything. For a long time.
Rebecca told me, once – the best thing to do, sometimes, is just stop talking. Don’t be afraid of the silence. When you try to keep talking to cover up the silence, you just get yourself in trouble.
It went on, second after second after second. The silence. For a long time.
“All right, son. Jeff. You are new to travel, after all; and this is certainly an exciting experience for you. I guess I just have to accept that.” The glasses looked down again, and I felt a surge, and tried to hide it.
“But there is one more . . . question . . . to address,” he said.
He moved in the shadows again, and the scene in the 3vd monitor changed.
“Watch this short sequence, please, and tell me what you think about it.”
It was Peter and me, past the security gates, in the walkway to the airport tram; him blond as could be, standing out in the crowd, me more brown-haired, by his side.
As the 3vd started we were frozen, facing the same way, down the walkway; then it began running, in slow motion, and Peter turned towards me, and I turned towards him – we’d just left our families behind us – and Peter’s face in the screen was so sad, but so soft, so full of love, and he reached for my hand, and I reached for his –
And pulled back. We both pulled back.
Just the sort of slip we’d almost, almost made so many times. Too many times. But we always caught ourselves.
“Peter . . . McCarthy, I see.” His voice was casual, now. Almost gentle. Still false.
“Yes, sir.” I whispered.
“Hmmmmm.” The mouth pursed in the blue light, as he read from the screen. Second, after second, after second . . . “You and he are – very good friends indeed, are you not? I see you’re on your school debating team together, and you volunteered for Youth Summer Conference together . . . his congregation, not yours; hmmmmm . . . . ”
I didn’t say anything.
“Yes, you actually have quite a record, together; over the last two years or so. Especially this last year.” The glasses came up and glinted at me again. “I would think he’s a very good friend, indeed. I suppose you could even call him, your Rock?”
I was so, so afraid, now. Terrified.
“Sir . . . that would be blasphemy, sir,” I whispered.
“Now, son. Harmless Biblical allusions are not always blasphemous. It was my poor attempt at gentle humor. Under the circumstances,” and those lips parted in a sigh again.
I could just see that he made a motion, with one hand; and as he went on reading the screen, a door opened, and another Homeland Security uniform came in, without saying a word, and stood next to the workstation with the scanners. He was wearing a heavy belt, with a gun, and a stick, and Lord knew what else.
Another pause, as the new guard stood silently, and the man with the glasses went on reading. Then the glasses came up, again.
“Jeff, I need you to take off all of your clothes, and put them on that chair next to you.” He looked back down at his screen, like it was the most ordinary thing to ask in the world.
My stomach clenched down.
“Uhhhh . . . . sir – ?”
“Yes?” He looked back up.
“Ummm . . . everything?” My voice cracked, a little.
“All of your clothes.” His voice had that tone in it, again; quiet – power, maybe. Or a kind of bored menace. “We need to do a full scan of all of your clothes, and we can’t do it while you’re wearing them. Go on.” He went back to his reading.
I froze, for a second; wondering what I could do, while the new guard watched me.
Then, I bent down, and with a feeling like I was going to throw up, I untied the laces of my shoes . . .
When Peter and I are naked with each other – in my room; only ever in my room, when he’s spending the night – it’s . . . special. Almost holy; almost like a sacrament. So warm, so human, so loving, so right . . .
This was the real blasphemy. My sweating feet cold and slippery on the linoleum floor, as I folded my jeans, set them on the plastic chair, and carefully put my shoes, with socks inside them, on top of the pile, under the guard’s eyes; naked, vulnerable, shriveled. I felt two more trickles of cold sweat running down my sides, and I brushed at them, trying not to be obvious about it.
I didn’t take off my crucifix.
I was wearing a small, gold crucifix, on a slender, gold chain, around my neck.
It was why I was going to California.
Peter had a new Bible, with a gold crucifix stamped into the front cover. It was why he was going to California.
One of the men who came to dinner had given them to us, at my parents’ house. At the dinner table, under my parents’ eyes. We were supposed to give them to my sister. Together. And put together, the two crosses held – encoded information. Encoded by quantum cryptography; almost on the molecular level. Each of us carried half the information; each half useless without the other half.
Very, very important information. Essential; we were told. To my sister; to my parents; and their friends . . .
So I sat down, slowly, on the cold plastic of the airport chair, facing the man with the glasses, heart pounding, terrified, and waited for him to say something about my gold cross . . .
He read on, ignoring me, for a long time, after the guard went away with my clothes. Me, naked and cold and miserable; him, ignoring me, like it wasn’t even worth his time to say anything.
Finally, he looked up again; those blank, blue-lit lenses, looking at me. Like he was surprised I was still there. I thought.
“With a name like Jefferson Earl, I’d hardly think you were a homosexual, son,” he said mildly. “Especially considering your first name.”
“I . . . . I don’t know what you mean,” I managed to whisper.
Oh, God, it’s over; we’re lost.
“Now, son, it’s not that bad. You were given the middle names of two Presidents; and that’s hardly something to be ashamed of. Particularly Mr. Carter’s middle name; he was a sound member of his own church, which was a very respectable church, after all. And as for Mr. Clinton . . . well, we are all sinners, in the end; we acknowledge that.”
It was a game; I could tell. He was enjoying himself.
I was too scared to hate him.
“I’m . . . I’m not a . . . homosexual sir,” I got out. My voice sounded strange, and strained, even to me. I had a horrible thought that I might start crying; and I felt stinging, around my eyes, and my mouth began to twist up.
Blue-lit lenses; looking silently at me. Unmoving.
I had to drop my head.
“Son . . . as I just said, we are all sinners, in the end. Before the eyes of the Almighty. All of us. Without exception.” He paused, a second, and I heard him sigh, me still not able to look at him.
“All of us, Jeff, are inclined to sin. All of us have tendencies which incline us to sin, to a greater or lesser degree; some of us are just more – challenged – than others. Do you understand me, son?”
“Sir . . . ” I whispered.
Silence, for a long beat, again.
“Now it may be, son, that you are not indeed inclined to homosexual acts. You are after all at an age when friendships – can be intense. Some of the best, most enduring, most intimate friendships in our lives, take place at just about your age . . . and as long as you are aware of the possible pitfalls of letting those friendships become too close, too intimate . . . of letting those friendships lead you into illegal behavior, in other words . . . then such things can be harmless. Even blessed.”
His words were coming out, more and more, like those of a preacher; the cadences, the rise and fall of his voice – and suddenly, I knew. I knew that he was high-ranking, in Homeland Security, and why.
“And even if you are, son, inclined to – homosexual acts – well. Inclination, by itself, is not illegal. Not in our state. No; we feel it is far more appropriate, that we try to gently correct such inclinations, through proper activities. Prayer; a great deal of prayer, certainly, and the intervention of Youth Ministries, and proper instruction . . . . why, we treat young people who are in danger of falling with the greatest care. We don’t even address adult homosexual offenders with medical solutions until their third arrest and conviction. Your state cares about you, son.”
“S-sir . . . . ”
Youth Ministries was whispered about, at school; all the time.
A boy in my class, named Aidan, had been sent to Youth Ministries for selling some sort of drug to other students. Nobody could believe he would be so stupid; but – he was sent.
He came back, a year later; changed.
Damaged; I thought.
Kind of weird; like, in some important way, he wasn’t really there, anymore; his eyes were empty, and you couldn’t really just talk to him, have a normal conversation, he’d just, like, not look at you, and sometimes he said these strange things . . .
“I . . . I’m not a homosexual, sir,” I whispered, again. “And . . . Peter isn’t a homosexual either, sir. I promise.” I fought to keep my face still, to keep from breaking down and crying. “We’re just . . . friends. Friends . . . sir.”
The gleam of blue, from his lenses, again; and silence.
“I . . . . I . . . just tell me what to say, sir. Please – ?”
Looking back – that’s what did it. Saying, please; asking him for something.
I’m sure that’s what did it.
He let the silence go on, for a long time, before saying anything.
“Now, son. I think I just got through telling you, that your state cares about you. We have your interests at heart, Jeff; we are here to help.”
Later, I thought I remembered – that even through my terror, even with my eyes stinging and my nose filling up, I thought I could hear something just a little different in his tone, now.
Satisfaction; I think. Just a hint of satisfaction. Maybe.
“If you tell me that you are not inclined to – this particular kind of sin, this particular variety of human weakness – well. I have no means at my disposal to prove you wrong. No objective, technological means. In the end, son, I have to accept your word, on this.” He pressed something, and the 3vd screen showing me and Peter, freeze-frame, went dark, almost invisible. “But keep in mind, Jeff – we are here to help you, with such impulses. If you find yourself feeling – susceptible? Vulnerable? Will you promise me, son, that you’ll keep us in mind?”
“Yes, sir. I promise, sir . . . ” I whispered. Hoarsely.
He shifted, slightly, behind his scanner; and a few seconds later, the guard came out the door with my clothes, all in a big, messy bundle. My clothes wound up on a table, near the door.
“One more thing, before we let you go on to your flight, son.”
“S – sir?”
On to my flight . . .
My stomach lurched, again. It was like getting slapped; the hope coming back was almost painful.
“We’ll need to do a body cavity inspection. I know it’s unpleasant; but under the circumstances, I’m afraid it’s unavoidable. Now, if you’ll just relax, it’ll be over before you know it.”
The guard came up to me, and for the first time, I noticed he was wearing those purple hospital gloves. He took a flashlight out of his belt with one hand.
“Open your mouth,” said the guard. So I did; and tasted the latex and powder, as his fingers probed my mouth . . .
I remembered another thing my sister told me; the last, and only other time, I’d been searched like that – after Aidan at school was arrested for drugs. They’d strip-searched us all, and I came home from school, furious, humiliated, scared, almost-crying.
“It’s not that they expected to find anything,” she’d told me. “It’s just to show you that they can do that to you. It’s just to show you, they can . . . ”
“Bend over the chair,” said the guard. The man at the workstation was back to reading his screens.
It’s just to show you, they can.
After, they let me clean up in a washroom behind another door; and when I came out, my backpack was on the table, and my ticket and ID and exit permit, and they let me get dressed, and all the time the man at the workstation kept reading his screens, completely absorbed, not saying anything.
“One last thing, son,” he said, just as I was finishing buttoning my shirt, and hoping, and fearing, and wondering if they were really going to let me go . . . .
“I’m afraid we’re going to need that crucifix; the one around your neck. And the chain.” He looked up at me, briefly, then back down to his screens. “We’ll forward it on to you at your sister’s address in Riverside. If we’re done with it, in time. Otherwise, we’ll send it to your home. You have the receipt prepared?” He glanced over at the guard.
And as I unfastened the chain, and put it in the guard’s hand, and took the receipt chip, I couldn’t look at either of them, and all I could think was how badly I’d failed, how badly we’d all failed . . .
* * *
“This is a security advisory,” the recorded voice was saying through the speakers, with a strange, perky emphasis on ‘This’, and ‘advisory’. “All baggage and all carry-on items must be kept in your possession at all times . . . ”
Finding Peter at the gate – just finding him there, safe, and just looking into his face, his eyes – I choked, the feelings were so intense, I just couldn’t talk, and with all the people all around us it was like some immensely private, personal thing forcibly played out in public, and I so, so wanted to throw my arms around him, and I know he did too . . .
“You’re all right? Are you all right?” His face was white, and strained, his eyes searching my face. Then I saw his eyes go down to my open collar – where the crucifix was missing – and come back up to meet mine again, terrified, wide, helpless.
“Fine. I’m fine. You’re okay?” I couldn’t help myself; I reached out, and squeezed his shoulder.
“I guess.” I saw him start to give a look around, and stop himself. “They took it,” he whispered, his eyes still wide, and I knew he meant his bible, not my crucifix.
“I know. It’s okay.” I squeezed his shoulder, again, once. Wondering if it was true.
“Once again, all passengers for Flight 4419, nonstop service to Los Angeles, we are now boarding rows 475 to 555 through gate A, and rows 200 to 250 through gate B. Please have your boarding pass, identification and exit permit out for the gate agent.” More people shuffled to their feet, moving their bundles and bags towards the doors.
“They already called our seats,” said Peter, still white-faced. “A long time ago. We have to go.”
We hoisted our backpacks, and moved across the dingy carpet to the boarding line of milling, anonymous people trying to ignore the blue-shirted Homeland Security guards walking slowly, slowly up and down.
And looking ahead – I saw him.
The man behind the workstation, the one who questioned me.
He was scanning the line, casually, talking to another blue-uniformed figure; and the weird thing was, even here, in the harsh, overhead airport light, his glasses flared; they reflected. Not like mirrors; just – reflected. Kind of like soap bubbles.
And then he saw me. I could tell; even though I couldn’t see his eyes, he went still, and then he made a comment to the man next to him, and began scanning the crowd again. And I looked away, and felt that terror, again, like a mouse in front of a rattlesnake, only worse, because the line was slowly, slowly creeping along to where the man with the glasses was standing.
I told myself to keep calm; keep my expression calm. Not to look at Peter; not to look at the man with the glasses. Shuffle step; shuffle step.
“Flight 4419 for Los Angeles, now boarding all passengers; all passengers for Flight 4419, please board at gate A for seats 1 through 250, please board at gate B for seats 251 through 555. Once again, Flight 4419 nonstop service to Los Angeles, now boarding all passengers . . . ”
Step, shuffle, shuffle. Bags with wheels bumping over ridges in the cheap carpet, in front of us. Peter’s feet, in scuffed track shoes, shuffling to my left.
We were so close to the gate, when it happened.
“Excuse me, sir. Please step over here.”
I looked up. A Homeland Security guard, with his hand on Peter’s shoulder; Peter’s face, whiter now, even than before, looking at me, then they were leaving the line, moving over towards a table, off to one side.
Oh, God, no.
I followed them. Not close enough to get shooed away; close enough to watch, to be there.
“Please put your bag on the table, sir, and open it.”
The guard began slowly, slowly taking out everything from Peter’s backpack; looking at each item, lingeringly, carefully, as if it came from another planet. The bottle of water, the sweatshirt, the portable 3vd player his parents had given him at Easter . . .
“Once again, all passengers for Flight 4419, nonstop service to Los Angeles, should be boarding at this time. All passengers for Flight 4419.”
Two more blue uniforms came up to the table where Peter was standing. One of them picked up the 3vd player, turned it over in his hands, peered at it closely. He was wearing purple hospital gloves, just like the guard who searched inside me.
The first guard kept his hand on Peter’s shoulder. Not to comfort him; it was custody.
“Your ID and your exit permit, please, sir,” I heard one of the new guards say, and I saw Peter’s hands shaking as he handed them over.
The three guards kept slowly, carefully looking over the things on the table; Peter’s bag. Taking their time. Making notes, in their handhelds.
Standing there, minute after minute; my left leg started shivering, shaking, from the tension.
I tried not to look over and up at the man with the glasses, just a few feet away from both of us, now. I really tried not to. But I did.
He was looking at me. Directly at me. Eyes invisible, behind the glare on his lenses. Not saying anything to the guard next to him.
I moved closer to Peter.
“All passengers, this is the final boarding call for Flight 4419, nonstop service to Los Angeles. All passengers should be on board at this time. Once again, final boarding call for Flight 4419, nonstop service to Los Angeles.”
Over at the gates, a handful of passengers were clustered, talking urgently to the agents. The rest of the floor was empty.
“What is your final destination in California, sir?” one of the guards was asking; looking down at the exit permit, where it was clearly marked.
“R-R-Riverside,” I heard Peter say, his voice quivering.
I stepped up to Peter’s side. Two of the guards slowly looked up at me, professional hardness in their faces.
I felt the man with the glasses looking at me, from an angle. I swear I felt it.
“Excuse me, sir – ”
“Sorry,” I said.
I actually approached someone from Homeland Security. I actually interrupted someone from Homeland Security. That’s how far I’d come, in three hours.
“Please step away – ”
“Sorry,” I said again. It was like interrupting a cobra; but I had to. “It’s just that the plane is leaving, and me and my friend – ”
“This may take awhile, sir,” said the guard. “I’d advise you to board.”
“G-g-go”, said Peter. Looking at me; his face drawn, and white, and tragic. His voice shaking, so. “Go on. It’s okay; I’ll get the next flight . . . ”
“Once again, final boarding call for Flight 4419, nonstop service to Los Angeles. All passengers should be on board at this time. Doors will be closing in a few minutes.”
I looked over at the man with the glasses. He was still looking directly at me. Listening to everything. Every word.
They were all looking at us, now. All of the guards. Waiting.
“Jeff, it’s okay, just go.” Peter looked at me, and his face was quivering, and it began to scrunch up. “I’ll be all right. Please,” and he tried a fake, reassuring smile, and it hurt to see, and then his face was a map of terror, and grief, and tears about to come, but so much of the fear was for me, for me, because he loved me.
They weren’t going to let him go. We all knew it.
“Please, just GO - !”, and the corners of his mouth turned down, and it came out as a sob.
And I felt –
My own horror, of course. And numbing grief, that we’d come to this. That Peter had come to this, because of me.
But mostly, surprisingly, I felt – tired. So, so tired; of being afraid, all the time; of being afraid for Peter, being afraid for my parents; tired of uniforms everywhere, tired of watching myself, all the time, every day, tired of trying not to slip, tired of trying to fit in, tired of trying not to touch Peter in front of anybody else –
Tired of this whole world. This world, that they wouldn’t let us leave.
I felt myself sinking into the warm weariness, as they all looked at us, those people in the blue uniforms, watching every word.
“Final boarding call, flight 4419 for Los Angeles. Doors are closing.”
“I’ll wait,” I found myself saying, to Peter. I didn’t even try to think, what my face was showing. “We’ll get the next flight together.”
Maybe they’d let us sit together, in the van on the way to Youth Ministries. It was a small, small hope; but it was all I had, and I held on to it.
And weirdly, oddly – it was almost a relief. I felt calm, almost; for the first time in so, so long . . .
The guard holding Peter’s exit permit looked over, at the man with the glasses; and in the corner of my eye – I saw something. A flash from his lenses; as he moved his head.
And I looked at him. At the man with the glasses.
He was looking right at me. Still. Of course.
And even though I couldn’t see his eyes, behind the lenses – I could FEEL them. Locked on mine; the way some carnivorous bug locks onto some squirming prey, before pouncing on it. Before tearing it apart, devouring it, possessing it. And standing there, next to Peter, exposed, defeated, I felt like he was already devouring me; devouring my soul.
And he held my gaze like that, for two heartbeats, three heartbeats – and then, he nodded.
To me. It was like we were the only two people in the room; the only two people in the whole airport. He nodded; twice. To me.
And then, leisurely, slowly, he turned back to the main guard, and made a little motion with his hand.
The guard stood still, for a long, long second, blinking, at the man with the glasses; then he handed the exit pass back to Peter.
“Thank you, Mr. McCarthy. You’re free to go.”
The other two guards turned to gape at him. Peter, tears running down his face, just stood there and looked at him, stunned, lost, and saying nothing.
“Go on, boys,” said the man with the glasses, speaking for the first time. In that odd, colorless, falsely-sympathetic voice. “Go ahead and board.”
I looked at him again, just for a second, as he looked at me; both of us still, his eyes unreadable. Then I pulled Peter’s hand, towards the gate.
“Don’t forget your bag, sir,” said the guard at the table. “You can’t leave it here.”
Peter turned back, and, still crying, began stuffing everything back into his backpack. I watched as one of the gate doors closed.
“It’s okay,” I whispered, holding his arm as we hurried to the last gate. “It’s okay, it’s okay . . . ”
“Exit permits - ?” the woman at the gate began; and then I saw her look up, over my shoulder, to where the man with the glasses was standing; and her face changed, and she took our boarding passes, and without looking at us, she ran them through the machine, and let us by, to run down the ramp and through the hatch, into the plane . . .
* * *
It was the next day before we really talked to Rebecca. Really talked.
They came to get us – my sister and her boyfriend Hugo – at the airport; but when I tried to tell her about my crucifix, and Peter’s bible, they just hushed us both up, and talked about my parents, and Mrs. Freund, and the neighbors, instead.
We went to someplace where Hugo works, and we had to give up all of our clothes, and our bags, and everything; but it was okay because Rebecca had new clothes for us, and they were strange, but they fit in better with being in California.
But first we had to take special showers. And get scanned, by special machines. And they told us, after, that we had been pretty well infested with rfid surveillance chips, in our hair, in our old clothes, on our skin, when we got off the plane. Homeland Security chips, mostly. But it was still all right, because everyone was so, so NICE to us. Sympathetic, and warm; like real people; nice, open, concerned for us, friendly.
So totally not like home. And so totally not like the airport, back home.
And finally, finally, next day, after breakfast, we talked.
It was Peter, and me; and Rebecca, and Hugo, and one other man we didn’t know. In the breakfast nook; at Rebecca and Hugo’s.
“ . . . oh, honey, I am so, so sorry you had to go through all that! I am so sorry!”
She was so much older, than I remembered; somehow, she sort of looked like a cross between the Rebecca I grew up with and my mom, but still so, so, beautiful to me, and I loved her so much and I was so glad to see her – and right now, her face was all serious, and there were tears in her eyes, as she held my hands across the table. The sunlight gleamed on our hands, on her engagement ring.
“I . . . I don’t understand. You mean – it wasn’t real? What was in the crosses?”
The man who wasn’t Hugo – he was older; but he dressed younger than I expected, he wasn’t even wearing a tie – cleared his throat.
“The data you carried was real. Is real. Fairly mundane, but useful; payroll records, valid payroll records which we obtained, which clearly demonstrate that quite a few of your state Homeland Security officers are also being paid by the church. By Federal Communion Security.” The older man smiled, but without much humor. “Completely predictable, of course. Whenever a country – or a piece of a country – sets up secret security organizations, one of the first things that happens is that those organizations try to infiltrate each other.”
My stomach lurched, a little. “It – our information – it won’t get anybody hurt, will it? Sir?” I didn’t want to have anything to do with causing somebody else to be interrogated like I’d been. Going through what we’d been through. Or worse.
The older man smiled. “Not at all. Some people will be fired from their second jobs; or perhaps just watched, a little more closely. But no, nobody will get hurt. We’re still a long ways from having gulags and firing squads, in this country.”
I remembered the man with the glasses; the way he looked at me. I remembered that power, that quiet menace. I wasn’t so sure.
“We had to do it, honey,” said my sister, still squeezing my hands. “We had to give them something to find; or they wouldn’t have let you go. They know who you are – they know about me, and Mom and Dad – and they would have kept you there, looking and looking, for weeks and weeks. Or longer.”
“Mom and Dad – ?” Weakly; from me.
A long, drawn-in breath from my sister, and she glanced up at Hugo; then back to me.
“Honey – do you know what Mom and Dad do? What their work is, I mean?”
“Um – sure. Mom’s a hospital administrator, and Dad – ?”
Rebecca shook her head, smiling, sadly. “That’s what they do now. Do you know what they used to do? A long time ago, before – well, before you were born?”
I shook my head.
“Mom is – was – one of the most highly respected geneticists in the country. In the world, really. And Dad was a molecular biologist.”
I thought Dad just worked in a chemical company. And Mom . . .
“Honey – ” Rebecca’s face got serious; and she squeezed my hands, tighter. “You know that you came along . . . quite awhile after me. Of course. ”
“Yeah . . . ”
“Do you know why?”
Another pause, as she looked up at Hugo.
Of course, I’d – well, wondered – why my parents had me, so late. In their forties, already. But I’d always secretly figured, probably I was kind of an accident . . .
“Jeff. Honey. When Mom and Dad said you had important, vital information to bring out to us . . . they weren’t talking about your crosses. Honey – that information . . . is you. Part of you; part of who you are.”
I didn’t say anything; I just looked.
Peter reached over, and took one of my hands; in front of them, in front of everybody, and that alone made me flush red, it was almost as shocking as what we were hearing. Almost; but not quite.
Rebecca looked up at Hugo; he turned his dark, dark brown eyes on me.
“Jeff – Peter – there is a whole, new, very well-funded, very fast-growing field in human genetics involving research into the underlying biology of gay orientations. Primarily the genetic factors involved; but also the endocrinological influences in pregnancy which can help lead to homosexual – gay or lesbian – tendencies in later life. For the right candidates.”
It was still odd, hearing the word “gay”, rather than “homosexual”. I wondered if I’d get used to it.
The rest of me just – listened. I had no idea where this was going.
“Most of that research, for the last few decades, is unpublished. Unpublished research,” he said, shaking his head, in amazement, like it was a white black, or a dry water. “Unpublished . . . but quietly peer-reviewed; outside of the FCCC states, at any rate.
“It’s unpublished for a very good reason. There are enormous ethical questions involved, in working on pinpointing the biological mechanisms which contribute to a gay orientation. Primarily, there’s a fear that – well, states like yours – will develop a capacity to test, for sexual orientation. Maybe in the womb, by amniocentesis.”
The older man spoke up, again, after looking at Hugo. “We’re not so much afraid of an outbreak of mass terminations of gay and lesbian pregnancies. At least not in Federal Communion states; abortion is a capital crime in most of those states, after all. But,” he went on, his face serious, “we are afraid for the children. What will happen to them – in the wrong parts of the country. Of the world. Will they face – well, experimental treatments? Intense behavior therapy?” His face grimaced. “Or will they just be segregated, from the rest of the population, somehow?”
We were all quiet, for a moment.
I tried to imagine what life would have been like, at home; if they’d known about Peter and me. Known for sure; from birth . . .
“Mom and Dad – they were working on this? Before I was born – ?” I was confused.
Peter squeezed my hand.
“Honey – ” Rebecca leaned across the table, looking so, so close into my eyes. “Honey – Mom and Dad really wanted another baby; they always promised me a younger brother or sister to play with, as I was growing up. But – well, they couldn’t. Very easily.” She looked down, for a second, than back up at me. “But right about the time things changed at home – before you were born – well, Mom was a big part of the research in this field. At the University. I’ll have to show you all of her publications . . . ”
“Oh, I’d like that!”
“We’ll do it. Anyway; she and Dad were already scheduled for in vitro fertilization when, well, the state constitution got amended . . . and the clinic they were going to was shut down, and the State Police and Homeland Security were everywhere, and everything was changing all at once, and oh, honey, it was such a scary time – I remember it, so well . . . so they went to her lab instead. And her own staff – helped . . . ”
The older man cleared his throat. “And – she, and they, and your father, applied some of her research,” he said, very, very gently. Watching me; close. Like he was afraid of my reaction. “Under the circumstances, there was no opportunity for a review by an ethics panel. Obviously . . . ”
Hand squeezes, from my sister, and from Peter. Everybody looking at me, for a second; me looking down at the table.
“They . . . they wanted me?” I whispered. “And . . . they wanted me to be – homosexual? I mean, gay?”
“Oh, honey,” went my sister, and her face was all screwed up again, with concern. Her eyes were shining with a rim of tears. “They really did, so, so want you. And for the rest – ?” She glanced up at the older man.
“Your mother was doing research in the field for defensive reasons,” went the older man, gently. “Her strong ethical position was to PREVENT prenatal testing, or genetic screening, or any other discrimination against lesbians or gays; but she knew it was only a matter of time before such things became possible. So she became an important researcher in the field – and one of the leading advocates for ethical restrictions on the misapplication of such research.”
More hand squeezing, from my sister. And Peter.
“They didn’t know for a fact you’d be gay,” the older man went on. “We’re far from that sort of precision. But they knew there was a significant chance – a better than even chance – you would be. And that by proving the techniques – and locking down very restrictive, not-for-profit patents on them – she, and your father, and I, could help prevent the kind of intrusive testing we’re still afraid is coming.” He smiled a kind of unhappy smile. “And even before she knew she was carrying you, your mother sent me all of her notes, all of her data, all of her accumulated work, and then she destroyed everything on her end. Physically destroyed it; scrubbed it all, very thoroughly. Burned her data chips in an incinerator. And her lab was shut down by the state inside of a week.”
“Doctor Mowbray was Mom’s dissertation advisor, and then her collaborator,” Rebecca told me, still holding my hand, still squeezing, firmly.
“And friend. Much more importantly,” the older man said. “Her very close friend.”
“So you see why we had to get you here, honey?” asked my sister; so seriously. “Do you see? For your own sake; we couldn’t just leave you there, it would be so – horrible for you. And for Peter. Inhuman. But also; if Homeland Security, or the Federal Communion found out about you – if they used you, tried to do research on you . . . . ”
“You are the key,” went the older man, softly. “To your mother’s work; to the restrictive patents; and so, maybe – to the lives, and freedom, and dignity, of thousands and thousands of other gay people like you.”
More silence, now, as they all looked at me; I could feel their eyes on me.
I figured out later, they were afraid; afraid of how I’d react. Afraid I’d think of myself as some sort of science experiment, maybe, rather than a teenage boy. Afraid, maybe, I’d somehow blame my parents – maybe blame all of them, except for Peter – for me being gay. As if I ever would do a thing like that.
They were so wrong.
I know my mom and dad. I mean, I KNOW them, where it matters; maybe not their pasts, but I know they love me. But now I knew, they WANTED me. Went to so much trouble, just to have me.
And they loved me, they wanted me, even if I was homosexual. Gay, I mean. They wanted me, like I was.
And all of a sudden, I missed mom and dad so much, and I loved them so much, and just the image of both of them doing dishes together at the sink, me next to them, drying and stacking the plates – I couldn’t help it; the tears just came.
“Will we ever see them again?” I asked my sister, looking at her; and I felt the tears running down my face, and then she was leaning over the table, hugging me to her, awkwardly.
“I hope so, honey. I really hope so. We won’t stop trying . . . ”
* * *
We’ve been two months in California, now.
Some days I think I’ll never get used to it; the air so dry, the light so different . . . and the people, and the netshows, and the traffic, and it’s all SO different –
Some days, I have trouble remembering home. I try to remember our kitchen, my room at home, our school – and it’s hard. The memories seem sort of unreal. And that bothers me.
But we’re not scared, anymore.
We’ve never been scared, since; not once.
Peter and I live with my sister, now, in Santa Monica. We have our own room!
And we share a bed.
And – in spite of everything, in spite of all we went through, I admit, I didn’t really know what to expect, when we escaped to California. I mean – we were taught, California is an atheist state, a capital of abortion, and sin – but mostly, atheist. A state without an established Church. A place for lost souls.
But I’m not an atheist. I haven’t become an atheist. When I hold Peter’s hand, on the beach, and see the love in his smile, or when I feel his bare skin, warm against mine, at night – when I catch the smell of him, the scent of his breath on the pillows we share, when I wake up in the morning – I know there is a God, and he or she is merciful.
Still – sometimes, in bed, at night, I wonder. Even with Peter breathing softly in my arms, or me snuggling safe and warm and loved, in his – I lie awake sometimes, and think.
Why did he let us go? The man with the glasses, I mean.
Could it be, just, lack of proof? Did even the man with the glasses need some sort of physical proof, some tangible evidence, before throwing Peter and me into Youth Ministries? And maybe, just maybe, we didn’t – quite – give him enough proof, to get sent away?
Or maybe – could it be – he knew in advance, the information we carried? Those payroll records, that implicated the Federal Communion people who infiltrated Homeland Security. Was letting us go a sort of, thank you, for the favor – ?
Or – and this was a wild thought – maybe the man with the glasses DID know about us. For sure. Maybe he knew everything – and he was secretly on our side. To some extent; somehow. Maybe he had a homosexual son or daughter of his own, somewhere . . .
I don’t know; still. To this day.
But one, other, last thought is the most chilling of all.
I think back to the questioning, and the sick terror I felt, and I see his glasses, reflecting the blue and white screen light in the gloom –
Maybe it was deliberate. Maybe he let us go, for a reason.
Maybe – just maybe – he let us go, let ME go – to sort of infect me. To infect my brain, with the image of him, standing there, skewering me with his words; to infect me with the memory of his false sympathy, the memory of his power over me, and the memory of the freezing fear he made me feel –
Maybe he let me go, so that I’d keep that image of him, those memories of him, alive, for the rest of my life; wondering, wondering, long after he died, long after he passed away; remembering him, and wondering why he let us go . . . .
Him, alive in my mind, long after he was dead and buried.
I wish I hadn’t thought of that possibility. I really do.
But I wish I knew.
I really wish I knew.
Most short stories don’t come with bibliographies, I know. This one does. A reading list, anyway.
I won’t post it here. But, if you’d like a copy, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.