by A.J. Barr

Prologue: Preconceptions

“What’s taking them so long?” Maggie said, not even trying to be quiet.

George hissed at her. “Pipe down. It’s the Government. They have to be thorough.”

“Thorough!” She sucked in air.

George bumped her with his shoulder, flicking a glance at the door.

Maggie didn’t even notice. “What are they doing to Jackie in there? Are they hurting him? He must be frightened half to death! I wouldn’t put it past them–”

“What I wouldn’t put past them,” George whispered, barely moving his lips, “is putting a camera right”–He glanced at the clock above the door–“there. They could be evaluating us right now.”

“So?” said Maggie. “If they want mothers to put up with useless bureaucratic nonsense, I’m in trouble. What does this have to do with raising children?”

“Child Proactive Services treats every family the same,” George said. “They can’t just look at you and say, ‘Fine, you pass.’ They have rules; procedures. Tests we all have to take. It’s for the children. All children. Just think about the future, honey. This is for the best.”

Maggie glared at the poster that hung on the wall by the door. “Parenthood is a Privilege,” she read aloud in a sarcastic singsong. “CPS Cares.” She squinted. “And what you just said, in fine print. Verbatim.”

George flushed. “Not everyone is fit to be a parent,” he said.

“I am,” Maggie said firmly. “How long has it been?”

“Almost an hour,” George said.

“Fifty-seven minutes,” Maggie said. “I’ll tell you one thing. If this goes our way…It’s Day 16. I just might be ovulating right now. You’d better be ready.”

It sounded like a threat. George managed the expected response: “Always.” His voice wasn’t as steady as he’d hoped.

The door swung open. Maggie jumped. George bit his tongue.

The social worker led Jackie out of the examining room. As soon as he saw Maggie, he pulled free and ran to her as fast as his short legs would go.

“He certainly seems well cared for,” the social worker said. “And well adjusted.”

Maggie dropped to her knees. Jackie leaped into her arms.

A man in a white coat strolled in. “Good news, I take it?” he asked.

“I’m recommending a full parent license, Doctor,” the social worker said crisply.

Maggie made a sound. It was the happiest sob George had ever heard.

“When…” She cleared her throat. “When can I have my tubes opened?”

“Right now, if you like,” the doctor said. “If you’ll just step through here…”

Maggie looked up at George, her arms still tight around Jackie. George was dizzy; he wanted to laugh like a loon.

“You better be ready,” she whispered. This time it was a promise.

“Soon as they’re done,” George said. “Right here on the waiting-room floor.”

Maggie laughed, while the tears rolled down her face.

Jackie licked them off, wagging his tail.

Act I: Point and Click

“Did you do your homework?” asked Mom.

“Yes,” I said, glancing at the shotgun. “I downloaded Chekhov, and I thought about it.”

“That’s it?” Mom said.

“That’s it,” I said. “All of Chekhov.”

“Lucky you,” said Mom. “When I was your age, you had to read it, and write an essay. Life is so easy now. Point, click, think. Did you do enough thinking?”

“I did a lot of thinking,” I said. The shotgun was a double-barreled twelve-gauge pump-action Remington. The kind what would do a lot more than shoot your eye out. “I’m still thinking about it.”

“You must be hungry from all this thinking. Eat some herring,” said Grandma. “You like herring.”

The shotgun was propped on the mantel over the blocked-up fireplace, against the only wall without a wallscreen. The one other thing on that wall was an old digital frame with a single pixelated picture in it: a much younger Mom, a young and bashful Dad, and my little furry brother Jackie.

Jackie loved herring.

“No thanks,” I said to Grandma. “It smells funny.”

“You could go to Florida,” said Grandpa. “Why don’t you go to Florida? Used to take hours to go to Florida. Now you just point and click. If you knew what a fascinating woman I met in Florida!”

The shotgun was Grandpa’s. It had always been there. Nobody ever touched it or talked about it or acted as if it meant anything. It was just there.

“It isn’t really Florida,” said Grandma. “There isn’t any Florida any more. It all blew away.”

“Or you could go to a brothel,” said Grandpa. “Why don’t you go to a brothel? In my day it used to be a big deal. You wouldn’t believe what some people used to say about brothels. Now…”

“Just point and click,” I said. If I stood up and walked across the room, I could take the shotgun off the wall.

“Right,” said Grandpa. “Click–brothel. Click–Florida. If you knew what a fascinating woman I met in a brothel in Florida!”

“It’s all virtual,” I said. “No one goes anywhere any more.”

“Yes we do,” said Grandma. “I went to get a haircut. You need a haircut, too. Go get a haircut.”

“Go to the brothel first,” said Grandpa.

Grandma raised an eyebrow.

“On second thought,” said Grandpa. “Yes. Haircut. First, you need a haircut.”

“I just want to be alone,” I said.

Mom looked as if I’d said I wanted to open a brothel in our front parlor. “Don’t say that!”

“Why not?” I asked. I knew where the shells were. Grandpa kept them under his and Grandma’s bed. I could see it from the couch.

“We can’t afford another room,” Mom said. “I don’t know of anyone who can afford to be alone. Or anyone who isn’t an only child. Not since…”

“I was alone sometimes,” said Grandpa. “Back in the day.”

“Not since I’ve known you,” said Grandma sharply.

“I was,” said Grandpa. “Alone. Once or twice. Back in the day. Now… So many good things that we didn’t have, back in the day.”

Mom’s face shut down. When she did that, Grandma said she was crying inside. I didn’t see it, myself. That part of her died when Dad and Jackie did.

A lot of things died along about that time. Gone with the wind, so to speak. And twenty-four inches of rain in six hours.

Grandma sighed. Grandpa shifted in his seat. The shotgun stayed on the wall.

I stayed on the couch. Getting up wouldn’t change anything.

“You are right,” said Grandma. “The herring is going bad. Let’s finish it.”

Act II: Perception

“Another awkward silence,” I said.

I stared at the wallscreen. It was off. It didn’t matter. I still saw the rubble. And the faces: Mom, Grandma, Grandpa.

I couldn’t picture them buried in dust and grit and crumbled plaster. The couch, the dresser full of tchotchkes from the old country. Grandpa’s shotgun.

All gone. All fall down.

It was, literally, unimaginable. I kept reaching for the phone to call them. I got to the contact list once, before I shut it off. Sheila didn’t stop me.

That was hours ago. I didn’t know how many. I’d stopped counting.

“Not awkward,” Sheila said, responding to words I’d already forgotten I’d said, “and not really silence. We’re having a conversation. We weren’t this morning, but now we are.”

“Huh?” I said.

“Huh, what? This morning you were saying, ‘I couldn’t stand it at home any more but I don’t want to be here either, it’s all so crowded, everything’s so crowded, all those people crammed into all those tiny little boxes, why can’t everybody just leave me alone–‘”

“I was not!” I said.

“You were,” she said. “In your head, you were. So I left you alone. I flipped the wallscreen to news and Mother and I watched it, and you watched it too, but it wasn’t like we were watching it together because you weren’t up for any together. And then…when we saw…”

Sheila wasn’t the kind of girl who cried. But her voice sounded a little tight.

Mine was just fine. Not feeling anything. Just sort of existing. “Your mother must be in shock,” I said. “How long has she been in the bathroom? Should we be worried?”

“She’s perfectly all right,” Sheila said. “She’s giving us some privacy.”

“Why?” I said.

“Well,” said Sheila. “So we can have a conversation. You know, the one where you go, ‘This isn’t happening,’ and I go, ‘Good, then it isn’t hurting you,’ and you go, ‘I gotta get home,’ and I go, ‘Yeah,’ and you go, ‘I don’t have a home,’ and I go, ‘Yes you do, if you want one.'”

Sheila could make you dizzy, the way she got everything figured out and put it all out there and there it was. It was true, too. That was the thing about Sheila. Sheila knew things.

“I can’t stay here,” I said. “This place is barely big enough for one. What about your mother?”

“If she didn’t want you here, she wouldn’t still be in the bathroom.”

“People don’t just move in like this. I mean, it’s great that we hooked up online, and thank you for inviting me to visit, but–”

“Earthquakes don’t just hit Baltimore,” Sheila said. “Families don’t just get wiped out. Lots of things that don’t just happen, happen.”

Gray blank wallscreen. Gray blank mind. Nothing just happened. Nothing ever does.

“I don’t know if I miss them,” I said. “Or if I ever loved them.”

“Would you want it to be yesterday again?”

“Yes,” I said. “No. I don’t know.”

“I’ll go with ‘Yes,'” Sheila said. “That’s what you said without thinking.”

“Just like that,” I said. “You really want me to stay? It won’t be…uncomfortable?”

“Yes, we do, and no, it won’t,” she said. “We’ve an inflatable bed. Wash dishes tonight, and you’ll make both of us very happy.”

I felt the slow heat moving up along my skin. It was a weird feeling, but right, somehow. It reminded me I was alive. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll jump you in the middle of the night?”

“Aren’t you?” she shot back. “Girls have fantasies, too. There’s just one thing. Mother can’t sleep with lights on. She needs total darkness.”

“So?” I said.

“Try not to jump her by mistake.”

Act III: Deadman Switch

I was good at this. Scary good.

Sheila said I was in denial. “It beats being angry,” I said.

“Oh, you’re angry,” she said. “Staying up all night staring at drone feeds from the other side of the world, taking it out on those little blips on the wallscreen. Playing your war game that’s as real as shrinking land masses and rising seas and earthquakes that take out supposedly stable areas–except no area is stable anywhere any more. Racking up kill points as if they were just, you know, points. What’s that over there, in sector 6? An ambulance?”

“A delivery van,” I said. After a month and a half of roommates-with-benefits, I was so used to the way her mind worked, I didn’t even have to stop and fit the connections together. I zeroed in on the van and hit the zoom. “I’ve been tracking it all day. It hasn’t been near a hospital once. It’s made a lot of stops, picked up a lot of boxes.”

“It looks like an ambulance to me,” she said. “Don’t they use the blue Star of David in Israel, instead of the red cross?”

She was right. The back of my neck prickled.

Ambulances don’t drive around picking up and delivering boxes. “IEDs,” I said. “Got to be.”

“IEDs didn’t take out Baltimore,” she said.

Some days I wondered why I didn’t hate her. It must be love was all I could figure. Sheila, plain and tall–she called herself that. I called her Sheila who was perfect the way she was.

She leaned on my shoulder, pointing toward the next sector on the satellite view. “What’s that?”

“That’s old news,” I said. “Qassam site–old-fashioned steel rockets. I found it last week, called it in, got it wiped before it fired. Earned me a cool thousand kill points and a commendation from Israeli High Command.”

She huffed lightly. Her eyes had wandered back to the other sector. “Where’s your ambulance going? Is that a hospital?”

It wasn’t my ambulance, but it would stand to reason that it would end up at a hospital.

With a load of boxes that might be IEDs?

OK, I was good. Sheila didn’t even try, and she was better. I yelped and hit the alarm code.

Ten thousand points, that got me. My total score tied the all-time WikiWar record. Twelve hundred lives saved in the hospital alone. And six positive terrorhadist IDs.

“You’re right,” I said to Sheila. “I am spending too much time on the web. It’s time to get real.”

The headset crackled.

“How you doing?” said Ari’s voice.

“OK,” I answered. I was alive and awake. The deadman switch Ari’d hooked up to the throttle stopped the Teaspoon every time I fell asleep at the wheel. Which must have been more than a few, or he wouldn’t be calling.

“Want anything?” Ari said. “Coffee?”

“No coffee,” I said. I was running out of diapers. “How am I doing?”

“If you keep this up, thirty more hours.”

Thirty more hours. Ninety more rems. Give or take. Things start getting serious over two hundred rems. Give or take.

“You sure you want to do this?” Ari had asked, a lifetime ago. Or two days ago, depending.

“You got a choice?” I asked.

“We don’t. You do. I can’t order you to do the work of twenty people. Or take the exposure of twenty people, either,” Ari said.

“You don’t have twenty people,” I said. “You have me. And the sea is rising. It’s do or die.”

“It’s do and die here,” Ari said. “But usually we do first.”

“Nineteen Teaspoon operators just died.” I nodded toward the pile of radioactive rubble. “Didn’t get a chance to do anything first.”

I’d volunteered to drive for all of Yom Kippur; that’s six shifts. I was supposed to get the next week off. The sea wall would be finished by the end of it. It had to be; the sea would not wait.

All the other Teaspoon drivers were in the dormitory when the truck bomb hit. Story of my life: People in. People out. Rubble every time.

“You could die, too,” said Ari. “Radiation sickness–”

I shrugged. “Do and die, right? I’ll just have to work fast.”

“Fast,” he said. “Yes. Very fast.”

To the north, coastal cliffs stretched all the way past Tel Aviv, making the sea wall unnecessary there. The hills stretching from the coast to the Judean mountains would stop the water from flooding the heartland. If I stopped work now, only three cities would sink beneath the sea.

The headset crackled again.

“You are making good time,” said Ari.

“Anything new on the bombers?” I asked.

I heard Ari sigh; I almost heard him shrug. “Not yet. But whoever it is–”

“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” I said. “If they’re Arab, why would they want to drown Gaza? And if they’re Israeli, why inundate Ashdod and Ashqelon?”

“Welcome to the Middle East,” said Ari.

The Teaspoon grabbed another scoop of earth, pivoted to drop it a hundred feet inland. The berm grew ten thousand tons an hour. Only a nuke could do that: a leaky light-water job pulled from an old Russian sub.

I didn’t have a dosimeter on me. Because what it told me wouldn’t change what I did.

The Army had escorted us to the work site through silent Arab villages. Doors were shut, streets empty. The few people we saw turned their backs on us.

I hadn’t run under an open sky since Florida drowned. The simulator training sessions for the Teaspoon were the longest stretches of time I’d been alone in a room since I was born.

That part? Bliss. It actually made up for the other part. The one with the dosimeter I didn’t have, and the silent, invisible killer that was taking my blood and bones apart with every minute I spent in the Teaspoon.

Do and die. Welcome to the Middle East.

And if I lived? Between hazard pay and overtime I could buy a lot of land.

I could buy Connecticut.

Not all of it; just a part of the broad swath from Old Lyme to Hartford, still radioactive from the Yankee meltdown. Only five rems a year if I didn’t eat local food. Not completely abandoned, but real estate there cost next to nothing. And neighbors were few and far between.

Alone, I thought. At last.

“Ten hours,” Ari said.

I’d split in two by then. Part of me was building berm just past the edge of the lapping water. The rest was striding though green fields past herds of six-legged cattle, little dog bounding in ecstatic circles around my feet, shotgun cradled on my arm–same model as Grandpa’s, with a mantel back in the farmhouse to prop it on after I’d done my rounds. There wasn’t a human being anywhere in sight.

I came back fast enough, once I had to. “Ten hours? Clock says fourteen.”

“The leak is getting worse,” Ari said. “You’ll max out in nine hours, fifty-three minutes, forty-seven seconds. Forty-six. Forty–”

“I get it,” I said. “I looked it up. After Hiroshima, some survivors lived for decades. You can’t predict–”

“They weren’t sitting directly on top of the bomb,” Ari said. “You’ve got as long as you’ve got. If you don’t finish, don’t try to be a hero. Let us pull you out.”

“I’ll push as hard as I can,” I said.

“Don’t blow it up,” he said. “You’ll take out half the coast.”

That would be ironic, wouldn’t it? I shook the sweat out of my eyes. Ari had shut up, but the clock was counting down.

Minutes and hours against the relentless creep of water. Israel was dying by inches. So was I–but I’d go faster.

I grinned at the marching waves. Almost there. Almost.

“Near enough for government work,” I said.

Act IV: Lebensraum

The cattle had four legs each, but there was something weird about the horns. Tooners were holding them hostage on the island that used to be East Rock when there was still a city of New Haven. Half a dozen Coast Guard cutters circled, firing an occasional salvo from their bullhorns. “NOW HEAR THIS! NOW HEAR THIS! SURRENDER AND NO ONE WILL BE HARMED.”

The custom stem-cell treatments had worked as well as they were going to. I was starting to walk again. I was functional, more or less. And rich.

I’d made out better than I expected, back in Israel. Amazing what the gratitude of a nation will do when you’re mostly dead in a hospital bed. I was the proud owner of all that was left of Connecticut. This island here? Belonged to me. Along with a few hundred thousand acres of moderately radioactive, not too soggy land.

“Look,” said the captain of the cutter I’d come in on. “Those Pontooners are armed, and they’re pissed. They won’t listen to you just because you talk nice. At least wait for the Guard unit to get here.”

He was right, of course. But I wasn’t afraid to get hurt. Or dead, either. “Leave me at the dock,” I said. “I’ll send up a flare when I’m done.”

“What will you do if you get dead first?” the captain muttered. But he had his orders. He did what the crazy man said.

I knew that shotgun. I knew the woman who leveled it at my chest, too. Sheila, tall and only plain if you cared about those things.

“Where did you find the gun?” I asked.

She squinted at me down the length of the barrel. “Ebay,” she said.

“You did not.”

“Did so.”

“Did not.”

The squint opened wide. “You’re the evil capitalist hero?”

“Looks like it,” I said. “You’re the wild-eyed Tooner rabblerouser?”

“Passionate defender of human rights,” she said.

“I don’t suppose you’ll talk?” I asked.

“I’ll listen,” she said.

“You and my Grandpa’s shotgun?”

It stayed exactly where it was. “Trade you for it,” she said. “This island and everything on it, and a full legal allowance for every person living here.”

“I could just take it,” I said, “and call in the EPA. Clear you out and take what’s mine.”

“You could,” she said. “But you won’t.”

I could feel them closing in around me. Tooners, big and burly, armed with everything from a boathook to a police special.

I honestly didn’t care what they did to me. The two things I did care about were right there: the shotgun, and Sheila.

Not necessarily in that order.

“All right,” I said. “Deal.”

“Yours or mine?”

“Ours,” I said.

“You won’t get rich cutting deals like that,” she said.

It was night, with stars: piercingly clear overhead. The pontoon boat rocked under us. Somewhere onshore, one of the cattle moaned to itself.

“I’m already rich,” I said.

“Not rich enough.”

I looked into her face. Its angles were as sharp as the mind behind them. “I hope your fellow radicals never hear you say that.”

She shook her head, eyes squeezed shut. “Think of all the things you can do. You saved Israel. How would you like to save this part of the world?”

“I just want to be alone,” I said.

“I know how I would do it,” she said. Her eyes opened, staring straight through me. “I even know how you can have what you want.”

“No one person can save the whole world.”

“Maybe not. But he can do an awful lot with a few million nuEuros and a workable plan.”

It all came down to the shotgun. I’d spent years staring at it and never asking what it meant. She’d dug it out of the rubble, cleaned it up, and put it to use.

“I only saved Israel because there was no one else left to do it,” I said.

“Exactly,” she said.

Act V: Paragon

“Absolutely not,” said Sheila, her voice ringing clear and forthright through the speakers. “We are categorically opposed to violence.”

“How did you clear out the pontoon parks, then?” Morrison asked.

Morrison was as pretty as a newsreader needed to be, but he was smarter than most; smart enough to catch a lie. Not that we’d give him anything but the truth. That’s what we’d brought him here for.

“Common sense,” said Sheila. “We set up labor cooperatives, called in the EPA to help with the fishing rights and the waste disposal, got CPS to certify that the children were being brought up in a safe environment, and funded it all with grants from a wide range of sources. Everybody from the Fed to the Genius Foundation had a stake in what we did. It all came together just about the time the Macon Condominium completed the new tower.”

“Perfect timing,” said Morrison. “And as the prime contractor for Macon Metro…”

“…we completed the job on time, under budget, and got a Green Seal,” Sheila said.

“You’re paragons of social consciousness,” Morrison said, quoting one of our more popular promos–as far as I could tell, without irony.

His eyes had a tendency to wander, though they kept roving back toward Sheila. They only caught once, on the wall display behind her: an old-fashioned wooden mantelpiece with an antique shotgun propped on it, wildly out of place in that ultramodern, streamlined, minimalist room.

Sheila smiled when it was clear he wasn’t looking: a smile meant for me.

“This house is Green, too,” she said. “As are all the office buildings in Sunny Isles highrises. Upper floors alternate: office space, gardens, solar panels, solar heaters, wind turbines on the roof. Below the high-water mark, cafeterias and lounges with views much like this one.” She pointed toward the glass wall. “Deepwater coolers are at the very bottom; and of course every building has a closed water cycle. Luxury, perhaps, but socially responsible luxury.”

Sheila balanced on the edge of her desk and ran her hands through her hair. The naked sun would have struck its platinum to incandescence, but here it picked up the pale green shimmer of underwater light. Green sparks dancing in her eyes, green-washed pale skin, green highlights on her skintight suit: she looked like a mermaid drifting in the sea.

Morrison was well and truly hooked. He was no longer even trying to take in anything else.

Sheila read people better than she read reports, and she read those better than just about anyone. And she’d learned how to be beautiful. Quite recently, in fact.

Beauty, in the right context, is as effective a weapon as an ambulance full of IEDs. I still didn’t totally buy that argument, but she’d battled me to a standstill. We were building a mythos here, and this was an essential part. Beauty and the radiation-scarred, pathologically reclusive, never-seen Beast.

Morrison was a weapon, too, with his chiseled face and his anchor contract with Worldwide Rants. He was here for a reason, and he was playing the part we’d scripted for him, line for line. By the time we were done with him, he’d be completely ours, and we’d have a voice wherever we needed it most.

“And your partner?” he asked after a pause. “What part does he play in all of this? Is he just the bankroll? Or…?”

“He is the heart and soul of this enterprise,” Sheila said. “We couldn’t have begun to do it without him. It’s in his very genes. One of the first generation of licensed births, born and raised in the Baltimore Condo…”

“…self-taught, self-effacing–do you know what they call him?” Morrison asked. “The Man Without a Face. Burned off on the beaches of Israel, it’s said; no grafts would ever take, and no transplants would hold. But I’ve done a little digging. I know it’s not his face that got burned off. Wouldn’t you let me see him, talk to him? I promise I won’t make anything public without your full consent.”

“No,” Sheila said. Flat; final.

Morrison sighed with studied pathos. “But I came all this way, in person. Nobody does anything in person. Surely that’s worth–”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for me,” Sheila said. Her tone had a distinct and beautifully honed edge.

I wondered if he knew how effectively she’d played him. “I most definitely would not call it settling,” he said. “Tell me–what exactly is your role in this organization? Are you his partner? Co-owner? Princess consort?”

He flashed a dimple at that, as studied a reflex as the lift of the chin with which she laid him flat. “We don’t believe in titles,” Sheila said, “or job descriptions. It’s been our philosophy from the beginning: If something needs doing, find someone who’d do it for free, and then overpay them. And respect them. Always respect.”

“And right now, you are doing what you want to do?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “I am.”

She’d studied acting, singing, dance. She’d learned to walk, to sit, to talk, with perfect and studied control. But the smile was all her own.

It started in the eyes, a slow light that swelled to fill the whole of her face. The lips were always last, but you never noticed that; you just felt warmed right through. You’d do anything then to keep from losing that marvelous warmth.

Morrison couldn’t have resisted even if he’d known how to.

“I hope you don’t feel you’ve made the trip for nothing,” she said.

“No,” Morrison said. “Oh, no. To be here, surrounded by such beauty…”

He spread his arms to take it all in: the woman, the sea, the curved walls of glass that kept the two apart.

I turned away from the wallscreen to stare through my own glass wall. A grouper stared back at me. Another poked at coral-encrusted vehicles lined up along what used to be Ocean Drive. Smaller fish darted in and out of cars and ruined buildings, then swirled together in iridescent clouds.

My wall faces west; I’m not a morning person. Sheila’s faces east, because she is.

I turned back to the screen. It had taken Sheila a scant second to step into Morrison’s arms.

The waves on the water’s surface made ripples in the filtered and refracted beams of sunlight. Morrison and Sheila seemed to shiver as they kissed. I felt that shiver in my damaged body, in my crumbling bones.

I zoomed in on their faces. Sheila’s was slack with pleasure, but her eyes were wide and sharply focused. She knew exactly what she was doing, and why, and what it would gain us.

I have videos of her in that same room with a number of different people. And videos of her watching these videos, and several of the two of us, watching these other videos together.

“But…” Morrison breathed in her ear, right above the mic implant. “I thought…you and he…”

“Beauty and the Beast?” She laughed in her throat. “Oh, but which of us is which?”

Morrison hesitated, drawing back to stare, to ask–who knew? Who cared?

“I told you,” she said. “We don’t believe in titles, or in job descriptions.”

“Are you sure…” Morrison whispered hoarsely, “…this won’t make…trouble for you?”

She loves the videos. She’ll still be beautiful on the screen, she says, long after even the most carefully constructed beauty has fallen into rubble.

“Of course not,” she replied. “We like…to see our people…enjoy themselves.”

Coda: Inconceivable

Sheila disappeared one morning. Signed out a corporate jet, took off. No note, no explanation. Nothing. Just gone.

After anger comes depression. Then you accept what you can’t change.

Until it did.

I got a ping.

“Where are you?” I asked–just a little breathless.

“Israel,” she answered. Cool, calm. Collected.

“What’s in Israel?”

“Your stem cells,” she said.

“That’s thoughtful of you,” I said. “But I don’t need any more–”

“If you throw hormones at them,” she said, “they turn into spermatozoa.”

“Oh,” I said. And: “Oh!

“It’s a girl,” she said.

___
Copyright 2012 A.J. Barr

“A. J. Barr” is a paradox (a Ph.D. and an M.D. collaborating). Both are located in North America, and both deal with obstinate juveniles by day and obstreperous plot lines by night.