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The Sick


by Lorna Garano


“Winsome Rehaga was a woman of great health,” Pastor Gretlin said. 

I looked up at the high ceiling, a giant vaulted canopy crisscrossed with beams from which lights dangled on long chains, like banished stars. “For all of her 104 years she never saw a day of sickness, and she died a death worthy of a woman of her health. She died a quick death; a death in her sleep; an easy death; a death that came in the night and spirited her away with dignity,” he continued. His voice was as soft as the white silk ribbons that the mourners had pinned to their chests before the service, but I could still hear him out here.

“Let us pause to honor her passing, and to acknowledge our loss,” Pastor Gretlin said. A thick silence followed, as if even the ambient noise was muting itself in deference to Mrs. Rehaga.

I pressed my back tighter against the wall, tucking in my stomach so that my spine hit the peaks of its curlicue oak molding. The discomfort would keep me more alert. I stood next to the doorway of the library, where I had brought Mrs. Rehaga her tea every morning. It was covered with a black sheet marked with a yellow bed with a slash through it. No Sick were to be within a hundred feet of this room. I'd seen this sign a million times, especially since coming to work for the Rehagas, so I couldn't pretend ignorance. If I was caught lingering so close to a Well area there would certainly be questions; with the way things were going there might even be accusations.

I hooked a section of my hair with my index finger and started twirling it, a habit from my Well days. A flurry of brown drifted down and landed across my loafer. When I was a child total strangers had told me how healthy my hair looked. “It sparkles in the light,” one of them said as I waited with my mother at the rail stop near our house. I loved the way that sounded, and so did Mother. As she always did, Mother smiled and said “Thank you,” in a tone of voice that didn't sound as surprised as she had hoped. When we sat down in the car, she leaned in so close to me that I could smell the HealthWash on her breath. Then she whispered, “It's like you've been dusted with diamonds.” Mother and her overblown compliments. Now my hair broke off at the slightest touch.

I bent my knees and carefully picked up the strands that crisscrossed my shoe. It was mid-morning, so my fingers were still flexible enough to grasp something so fine as my hair.

Pastor Gretlin started up again and my knees buckled, freezing me for a second in the squatting position I was in. “As we gather in Winsome's beloved library let us reflect on the glories of health. Let us remember the example she provided; and most of all, let us renew our pledge to spread health far and wide.” Then another long silence. I stood up and waited for the closing words.

“In the name of health, we bid farewell to our sister, the beloved, the admired, the revered Winsome Rehaga” Pastor Gretlin concluded.

The sound of overlapping condolences spilled out of the room. I stepped away from the wall and started walking quietly and quickly down the wide hallway, which was lined with paintings of Mrs. Rehaga's parents, her late husband, her children, and grandchildren—all of them except her granddaughter Mallory, who had promptly removed her portrait when she moved into the Rehaga estate last week. Painted portraits were so antiquated as to be ostentatious, she told her mother, as two maintenance men eased her likeness off the wall and I stood by with a rag to clean off any smudges it left behind. “She can have one of my holograms, if she wants,” Mallory said as she stared at the empty space.

Suddenly, it occurred to me that the pattern of the ornate wall molding that I had leaned on only seconds ago could have imprinted itself on the back of my uniform. I tugged at the skirt of my dress so hard that I could hear stitching give way.

I was dizzy, again. “Just nerves,” I used to tell myself before I became Salda, when I wouldn't have to worry about being caught lurking near a Well area. I was often nervous then, more so than my circumstances demanded. I had a comfy post as a university research assistant and I came from a solidly—one could even say a somewhat distinguished—Well family. Also, I had Damon, who was scaling up the ranks of academia with the speed of one of those big cats with the spots that I had read about in primary school. Still, I couldn't let myself be. I was always imagining the worst, launching my mind from real comfort into imagined disaster, until I could map the contours of the spectral crisis with greater detail than I could my real ease. What if I got Sick, or if Damon got Sick, or Mother, or Grandmother—on and on.

Sorayda leaned over the WellnessAde that sat in a Mason jar on the kitchen table, stirring it with a wooden spoon. I stood in the doorway watching her. She was starting to look corpulent even from the side. Her ankles didn't taper off much from her calves, so her legs looked like pylons. The cuffs on her sleeves cut into her arms, creating a puffy ring of fat around them. Her weight gain must have been caused by her sickness because I never saw her eat anything. She lifted up the hand that held the wooden spoon and wiped her brow with the back of it. Just as she plunged the spoon back into the Wellness Ade, she turned her head and saw me watching her.

“Where's Gretlin? He's supposed to bless this gunk.”

“Don't know,” I said, walking over to the cupboard to get the cut glass pitcher and cups that we only used on special days. I turned on the tap and filled the sink with hot water and dishwashing salts.  When the suds were close to the rim I submerged the cups in them. The Rehagas water was purified, unlike what we got in Sick Zone. It had no odor or color and sometimes when I was alone I held my hand under it and just watched it flow through my fingers. It was so clean it seemed to barely exist.

“That Gretlin couldn't stop talking if his health depended on it,” Sorayda said.

Sorayda was what was known as a “Swell,” among the Sick, which meant that even though she routinely badmouthed the Well to the Sick, she would report you in a minute if she though it would benefit her. I realized this after what Sybil, another servant, who, like me, had just turned thirty, yelled to her the day she was deemed Unemployable. “You fool!” she cried. “You think this will bring you back to your son?” The two police officers who had come for Sybil hoisted her up between them so the toes of her black Domestic Sector loafers scraped against the marble floor. It was almost as if she was gliding away, her screaming incongruous with the forced grace of her movement.

Sorayda put the lid on the Mason jar and shook it. I dried off the cups and washed the pitcher. Pastor Gretlin walked in and we both bent our heads for the required fourteen seconds. She picked up the Mason jar again, shook it a few more times, unscrewed the lid, and held it under Pastor Gretlin's nose. “Is this acceptable, Pastor?” He nodded. He bent over the jar and said, “In the name of all that is healthy and holy. In the name of our departed sister in health, Winsome Rehaga.” He motioned for Sorayda to pour. She filled the pitcher and glasses so high that if I had one of my dizzy spells I would spill it for sure. Just take it slow, I told myself as I walked from the kitchen to the sitting room where the family had gone after the service.

Wren, Mrs. Rehaga's daughter, sat with two of her three grown children in the sitting room. Jade, the oldest, stretched out on the chaise lounge, her body as straight as a thermometer. Her brother, Mander, sat on the sofa next to his mother. They all wore the white mourning gowns that the family of the departed were expected to don for a week after the death. I started serving the WellnessAde, first to Wren, then Jade. When I held out a glass for Mander he looked at the table next to him and nodded. 

“A hundred and four—and that's before we had HealthLink or knew anything, really,

about how to stay healthy,” Mander said.

He paused a minute, waiting for his sister or mother to respond. When they didn't he added,

“That's when people had common sense. They didn't need to be told how to stay healthy they just did it.”

“Different times, different culture,” Wren said. 

“Different, indeed,” Jade added. “And now this business about calling them compromised

instead of sick.”                                                                  

 “Well, at least we know that was caught before it circulated too far,” Wren said.

“Do we? Who really knows how many people saw it before HealthLink was scrubbed?” Mander answered.

“HealthLink caught it early and that reporter was fired. She's dead and gone,” Wren said.

“But the idea isn't dead. You can't fire an idea!” Mander shot back.

“Relax, Man, relax,” Jade said in a near-whisper.

Not for the first time, I wondered how much the Rehagas knew about me. Did they know, for example, that it could have been my grandmother who ordered the scrubbing at HealthLink, or was it true what they said in the transition camp? Did they really expunge your past to avoid favoritism in the Sick world? I saw Grandmother in one of her camel-colored suits and her blonde hair combed into an elegant pageboy signing off on the purge, the scraping of her pen against the paper the only sound in her quiet executive office

 “Got some great holos,” Mallory announced as she entered the room, her breath heavy from the exertion of walking. At her stage of pregnancy even that was an effort. She held her holocam up close to her ear. She had tied her long, oatmeal-colored hair into a knot on the top of her head.

“Holos of what?” Wren asked.

“Your daughter, the intrepid holographer—” Mander started.

“For whom nothing is sacred,” Jade interrupted.

“Oh, please,” Mallory answered. “Death is a part of life—it's not some mystical experience, we dare not mention. What's wrong with capturing it?”

She flipped on the cam and projected an image of Mrs. Rehaga in her casket surrounded by mourners against the wall.

“Mallory, please. Didn't I just see this? Do you really think we need to relive your grandmother's funeral?” Wren said.

“Mallory the Morbid,” Mander added.

She scrolled to another holo, this one of Pastor Gretlin giving Mrs. Rehaga the rite of last touch.

“Oh, Mallory, please, enough!” Wren cried and covered her eyes with her hand.  

“It's all just some art project for her,” Jade fumed and walked over to the couch. She put her arm around her mother and glared at Mallory.

Mallory rolled her eyes and flipped off the cam. She sat in one of the overstuffed chairs, her belly on her lap. I poured a glass of WellnessAde and brought it over to her.

“Thank you. I need this,” she said and smiled at me.

            I poured a refill for Jade. When I tilted the pitcher over Mander's half-full glass he waived me away. Wren placed her hand over her glass and said “You can go now.”

            “Yes, Mrs. Rehaga-Tansley,” I said and started to walk out of the room.

            “Leave the WellnesAde,” she added

            I turned around and placed the pitcher on the table in the middle of the room. Another prickle of dizziness came over me. I froze for a second at the table, pretending to examine the WellnessAde. When the wooziness lifted I walked as fast I could, without looking like I was in a hurry, to the doorway. The throbbing in my temple started. That's why it took me a minute to hear the footsteps behind me. I realized they were Mallory's when she passed by me and held the door open. Was I really moving so slow that a woman in her ninth month could breeze by me? If so, an Unemployable designation couldn't be far away. I listened for the door to close as I headed for the chapel.

The chapel was one of the few places the Rehaga Estate Sick could linger without being questioned. And they could linger in luxury. The pews were padded and foot warmers lined the floor below them. The air was purified and perfumed with HealthScents like vanilla and lavender. When I coughed afterward I could swear the phlegm I produced was a little less grey and had fewer veins of blood running through it. The dim light eased my headache a little and as I sat quietly the heaviness in my chest lightened. I tucked my feet into the plush little caves of the foot warmers and wrapped my fingers around my ankles. I felt my spine elongate and thought of Jemina, the University exercise teacher saying “Stre-e-e-e-ch out your spine and breathe” and then “Good work, everyone,” when the whoosh of the collective exhale filled the room.

Even though I was never much for religion, I had to admit that there was something comforting about sitting quietly encircled by the saints the way I was now. They were chiseled and painted with such detail that you could almost imagine them starting to talk and their benevolent, bright eyes seemed to look straight into you, without making you feel violated. St. Rita—my favorite—had an overbite and the plaits in her hair were shot through with white. She was the patron of the Unemployables, but she was turned to by anyone in despair or desperation. She had been an Unemployable once, but had cured herself with only her will and her commitment to proper nutrition, exercise, and meditation. When I was first diagnosed I tried to follow her example, but I failed. Almost all of us tried and failed.   

I had known for a long time that I lacked the discipline for health. How often I had gorged on pastry after work or opted for another hour of sleep—even on my day off—instead of going to my exercise class. Worse, I had acted without internal integrity and there was no real excuse for it. I had been born in 2065, a good decade after the HealthLink-sponsored holoboards started splashing “Internal Integrity: Build It, Keep It, Use It” all over the city. On the outside I was a feather of a person, but internally I was secretly petty, quietly mean-spirited, forever jockeying for an edge. When I learned that an assistant in another university department had been diagnosed, my first reaction was relief that it wasn't me, my second was contempt that she had let herself become sick. It was only then, after all that negativity, that a wisp of compassion tickled me and it was so fleeting I barely had time to name it. Still, it was the only feeling I shared with my coworkers. In truth, it was all I showed Damon when I came home that night. “I just feel so bad for her,” I repeated a few times, as we lay holding each other in the dark that had, at times, granted so much license for truth that in the morning we looked at each other guiltily. It was this schism, this lack of authenticity that invited sickness.

            I was staring into St. Rita's smiling coffee-colored face when I saw a smudge of white out of the corner of my eye. I turned and there was Mallory, standing at the edge of my pew and gazing into the face of St. Rita. I slipped my feet into my loafers. I was just about to get up when she sat down next to me and said “She's my favorite.”

            There were so few logical responses to this, and all of them seemed wildly inappropriate. Why would she care about what I had to say about St. Rita, or anything else? But then, she was the one who started the conversation.

            “Mine too,” I stammered.

            “I've been praying to her since my divorce,” Mallory said.

            “She's a source of solace.”

            “Yes, solace. And after moving back in with my family I need it.”

            I almost laughed.

            “I'm not used to being the daughter and the grandaught—well, I guess that's over, but it's like I'm a kid again living here. Sometimes I want to scream.”

            “That must be difficult.”

            “Oh, you have no idea.”

            “Sorry.” Mallory looked down and her cheeks turned pink. “Look at me dumping this on you—and in chapel. I'm sure you've got your own worries.”

            “We all do.”

            “I hope your work here doesn't create too many.”

            “Oh no, it's a fine post. I know how I lucky I am.”

            Gratitude. That's what keeps you Well.” Mallory put her hand over her mouth and her face flushed again. Her blue eyes grew larger.

            “It's okay.” I smiled.

            She tucked her hair behind her ears.

            “Thanks. One thing I love about the Sick is they don't take themselves so seriously. Not like the Rehagas and the other Tier One Well families. My god, my ex-husband's mother almost fainted when I told her I'd once ridden my bike through Sick Zone—as if I had taken my life in my hands.”

            Her voice had a strange gravity to it, as if she was telling me something important, something that either I needed to hear or she needed to say, and it must have been the latter, since I couldn't imagine why this should matter to me.

            “You rode your bike through Sick Zone?”

            “Yup. When I was in University. I wanted to see what it was like.”

            “That's gutsy, Miss Rehaga.”

            She waived her hand over her face as if she was brushing away a fly and said “Mallory.”

            “I've always wanted to learn more about the Sick and the Unemployables. Do you—do you know any Unemployables?”

            “Well—um—not personally. I mean sometimes they come to Sick Zone to panhandle, but that's it.”

            Mallory moved her face closer to mine. For the first time I noticed that she wore pink lipstick. Her lips were so thin that if she wore red she'd look like she had a gash in her face. “What are they like?” she asked.

            “I-I-well, you know. They're…disheveled, I guess.” What a pathetic answer this was.

            Then she put her hand on my shoulder and said something. It was a few seconds before I understood that what she said was: “I want to shoot them. The Sick and the Unemployables.”

            Something about the combination of her touch and the imploring look in her eyes—the way she stared in at me with a mix of hope and expectation and supplication—made me feel, for a moment, that all of the fissures and fractures that my sickness had created inside of me were now mended, instantly and effortlessly sewn up.

            “I want to shoot them,” she said again.

            “I-I-I'm afraid I don't know how I can help,” I answered.

            She took her hand off my shoulder, leaned closer to me, and said “Let me walk home with you one day. After the baby's born. It will be any day now.”

            “There you are,” I heard Sorayda's voice coming from the back of the chapel. “I've been looking for you.”

            “It's okay, Sorayda. We were just chatting. You could sit down too. You know I don't play favorites,” Mallory said.

            “The guests need help with their coats,” she said, looking straight at me.

            I followed Sorayda out of the chapel, resisting my urge to look back at Mallory.

The Rehagas dispatched the household staff a little early that night. I caught the bus to the edge of Sick Zone and then walked home along the bay route. I wondered what it would be like to have Mallory with me. What could we possible talk about and what would the others think? Surely, the sight of Mallory would be enough to rouse even the sickest from their torpor.

Even at night the heat was stifling, and I had to stop every few blocks to rest. I lowered myself onto the ground and leaned against the concrete barrier around the water. The sign next to me read “Vitality Bay teems with life,” and was ringed with images of pink and green fishes. I doubted Mallory would allow even one stop. She'd probably want to plough straight through to the thick of Sick Zone.

            I tried to slow my pulse. I thought of the expanse of water lapping against the other side of the barrier. I'd once seen a picture of the real bay. It swirled around my grandmother's ankles in the photo taken just after she had won the local “Ms. Vitality” pageant. Her sash was the electric blue—a color that I suspect has grown more vivid with memory—of the water. She was tall and muscular, her teeth as white as clouds. Her prize for winning the pageant was a modeling contract. That led to a job teaching health, and, in her forties she was hired on at HealthLink, eventually becoming a director.

            I was so sleepy that for a moment I dozed off and when I woke I had a metallic taste in my mouth. I saw a rat coming toward me. It had one tumor just above its eyes and another on its side. There was a time when the sight of a diseased rat would have made me jump up, but now I could calculate how long it would take for it to reach me, and I waited until the last second before I forced myself to rise. I walked the remaining twelve blocks, my hip shooting out bolts of pain that only dissolved at my toes.

            A heap of a car was parked in front of my building and as I got closer I saw a woman with wild hair and a dirty face, clearly an Unemployable, asleep in the passenger seat. There were rumors that these types wear planted around the Zone as a warning of what we might become if weren't careful, but I never took the whisperings of the Sick all that seriously. I dismissed this as just another of the rumors that churned around the Zone. The Tier One Well families got treatments to avoid sickness. The Unemployables were really spies. The clergy poisoned people to make them sick. The conspiracy theories and conjecture never ended.

All of the apartment houses in Sick Zone had yellow walkways that led up to their main entrance. They looked like sickly tongues unrolling out from the front doors. I always thought this was a deliberate cruelty, a contrived humiliation. It wasn't as if anyone could not know that they were in Sick Zone, or mistake the graffiti-tattooed, dilapidated buildings for the homes of the Well. I walked along the plot of dirt the walkway cut through, navigating around a porcelain bathroom sink that lay on the ground, and shoved open my front door with my shoulder.

            I unlocked my apartment and the acrid odor of the beans I had made yesterday night hit me. Black streaks dribbled down the pan they had been cooked in. I was hungry, but too tired to heat them up again. It was 8:07, so I could catch most of the live version of the HealthLink program that Damon, who was now Sellien, anchored.  He had been taken off visual streams, which meant his sickness had made him unsightly. I said “HealthLink Audio Stream 18,” and got into bed. When Damon was made a Reporter after his diagnosis I wasn't surprised. No one was surprised. His Early Placement Test pegged him as an academic genius. Everyone with that kind of background was made a Reporter or Data Aggregator for HealthLink.

            “A new study shows that three ounces of breadfruit a day increases health,” Damon read in a voice that had grown steadily thinner and higher. It sounded almost feminine now. I closed my eyes. By evening my fingers were usually too stiff to hold a pen, so as I did most nights, I imagined myself writing in my journal. I saw the loopy, ornate script I had used as a kid, the kind that assumed all the time in the world. What I wrote was “Damon is dying.”

            Even now Damon and my relationship happened in the dark. It was always when we lay together at night that we felt closest. It was when we snickered at or derided something we'd heard on HealthLink. “Eat pomegranates for health. Yeah, as if we could know if what the labs make is anything like real pomegranates.” “A pomegranate isn't a pomegranate.” Or, when we were feeling more high-minded, one of us would say something like “Language is losing its meaning.” We told each other that even if one of us got Sick we would find a way to be together. We both knew that was impossible, but lying can be overlooked when your point is how much you love someone.  

            Damon's voice trailed off and music started playing. Muted bells and a dull chanting that sounded like a choir wrapped in gauze. Damon sat in one of the glass booths on the far eastern edge of the HealthLink compound. I knew this because by the time I was a teen Grandmother had taken me to work with her so often that I could find my way around the sprawling complex with my eyes closed.

            The music stopped and Damon returned. “Today, Wellness Labs began a projected fifty-year study to measure the correlation between the number of vacations taken to average rates of health,” he reported.

            I imagined myself sitting alongside him in the studio. We were so close that our arms touched. He crossed his left ankle over his right knee the way he always did, and his leg rested on mine. I loved these casual intrusions into each other's personal space, these markers to the rest of the world that we belonged to each other.

            “Another study has confirmed the health benefits of brisk walking for twenty-eight minutes a day,” Damon's voice waivered a little at the end.

            That Damon and I could have ever remained together to carry on some kind of Sick version of our life was, of course, pure fantasy. The chances of a woman like me escaping Domestic were virtually nonexistent, and the only one who refused to believe it was Grandmother. “Why didn't they make you a Reporter?” she demanded, as I lay in the church recovering from my post-diagnosis sterilization (some people objected to this practice, but I always thought it made good sense). “Why didn't those fucking bastards make you a Reporter?” she spat. My Work Assignment papers were spread out on her lap. I didn't have the energy to explain why, and it wasn't as if she didn't know.

            My Early Placement Test said my intelligence was broad, but not deep and that my attention was likely to shift from one subject to another, as I had tendencies toward impulsivity. Grandmother had ignored all that and saw only the part that said I scored above average in logic puzzles and had strong reading comprehension. The test concluded that I was suited to low-level academic work, but Grandmother, who revered academia, said “Suited for academic work” so often that even Mother, who was also inclined to believe this, got irritated. When you considered that the Sick were assigned the domestic jobs, the hard labor, and basically any work that demanded an immediate shower afterward, my report really didn't say much for my innate aptitudes.

Grandmother persisted right up until the end. “Gottinger,” she whispered in my ear, just before I boarded the bus to the transition camp, “Go to HealthLink and ask for Gottinger if I'm not there.”  

The music returned, and soon I was in a deep, dreamless sleep.                        

I got up early the next morning so I could be the first in the shower on my floor. I stayed in longer than the five-minute maximum, but by the time the other Sick figured out why the hot water had run short I would be gone and they would finger each other.  

I put on a fresh uniform. I could feel the heat coming up through the floor, but at least I wasn't in too much pain yet, and my legs held up pretty well as I descended the stairs and headed out.

The battered car was still parked in front of my building, but now a man was in it too. He leaned on the woman, whose head rested against the window. For a moment I envied the two sleeping Unemployables.

I walked along the bay route again.

All three of the markets I passed had signs on their windows that read “Out of breadfruit.” A police car was parked in front of the first one and two handcuffed women stood by it while an officer talked to the store owner. One of them had a scratch across her cheek and she had to hold up her ripped shirt to keep her breasts from being exposed. The labs that made breadfruit had been attacked too, it was reasonable to assume. That's what always happened after a study like the one Damon reported last night was released. This time it was breadfruit. A few months ago it was plums and the year before Brazil nuts, tangerines, and parsnips. To write a contemporary history of our country would be to write a history of food fights. In 2087 a full-blown riot erupted over cantaloupe, and between the police shootings and the internal killings, more than a hundred people died. Eighty-seven was a year of riots and tumult on all sides. It was also when a group of protestors broke into HealthLink demanding airtime. “Malcontents,” Grandmother called them. “They shouted their nonsense conspiracy about the Well keeping themselves artificially healthy,” she told Mother, who eventually told me—even though she had been sworn to secrecy about what had happened on that day.

Because I moved with unusual ease I reached the bus stop a good twenty minutes earlier than normal. Even now, three years into my Sick life, I almost always thought of Grandmother saying “Gottinger” as I boarded a bus. Who he was and what fantasy Grandmother had harbored about what he could do for me I didn't know. I suspected he was just another of the men who longed for her and whose affection she basked in until it became a nuisance.

If there was anywhere outside the Rehaga estate where a Sick could sit for a little while I would have planted myself there for a few minutes. As it was, I tried to slow down with each step to the kitchen door at the back of the main house, but still I made it there too soon.

I pressed my thumb into the indentation in the SickScan box. Even though it was 7:12, the box recorded my arrival at 7:30, the official start time. I heard the beep that told me the door had been unlocked for four seconds and I walked in. The large honeycombed structure next to the door contained a cubbyhole for each of the Rehaga Estate Sick. I slid my Work Agenda out of mine and started reading it. There was much to do today. The library had to be cleaned, Mrs. Rehaga's bedroom furniture had to polished and put into storage, and it was laundry day again. I had just noticed that the agenda omitted the weekly drapery cleaning when Sorayda said “It's started.” She stood at the kitchen counter, her hands buried in bread dough that looked like a mound of fat. “What?” I asked and then immediately understood. “Mallory,” I said before she could answer. “Yes, Mallory,” she said, her voice shaking.

Then I heard a scream, a gut-wrenching cry from across the house that frightened me so much I yelled too.

Sorayda's shoulders shook. I walked closer to her and noticed that she didn't move her fingers in the dough. She sniffled.

Mallory yelled again.

Sorayda bent her head and whimpered.

I realize now that I should have tried to comfort her. It would have been the decent thing to do—and like I said, I realize that now. I could have lightly touched her back, or gotten her a glass of water or brought her a tissue. I could have just stood quietly by her. But as Mallory continued to scream all I could feel was the fleeting relief I had felt yesterday in the chapel with her, and that's why I left Sorayda and followed the shrieking to the east wing of the Rehaga estate.

I gauged my distance from the birthing room by the strength of Mallory's screams. When I was close enough so that they began to make my ears ache, I saw a woman I had never seen before walk out of the room. She wore the heather green habit of nuns. I froze, but she headed up the hallway in the opposite direction of me.

The sign was hung over the door. No Sick were to be near this room. As I got closer I noticed that the nun had left the door open a sliver. My heart banged frantically. I could smell my sweat, and I was dizzy, but not because of my sickness. I pressed myself against the wall just outside of the room, as I had yesterday morning. When I looked down I could see my knees shaking. I wanted to peer through the crack in the door, but then I wouldn't be able to keep watch for anyone coming toward me.

“Big push now, Mallory—just like we practiced,” a strange female voice said.

“You're doing a fine job.” It was Pastor Gretlin who said this.

A prolonged howl came from the room.

“Okay, okay, Mallory, honey, you're doing just fine,” the woman said.

“Breathe, remember to breath,” Pastor Gretlin implored. “Crowning,” he added.

“On our way now, sweetie. Another big push for me,” the woman urged.

For a few moments I couldn't make out what anyone said over the noise. I couldn't hear anything until the screaming was replaced by a mewling cry.

“He's here. Your little boy has arrived,” Pastor Gretlin announced.

I could hear panting and then a plaintive wail that ended in sobs. Finally Mallory cooed, “Ahhh, you're here. You're here and I love you.”

I realized then how foolish—how reckless—I had been. Behavior like this would be beyond suspect. If I were caught the best I could hope for would be to be deemed Unemployable. I had acted on impulse—the very behavior that my Early Placement Report said I was prone to. I would have headed back to the kitchen as fast I could walk if the baby didn't scream so loud that my legs locked up.

“Okay, okay, little guy. Hold on. Over soon,” Pastor Gretlin said.

The crying faded a bit and then started up again. He cried so frantically that he gulped for breath.

“Is this normal?” Mallory asked, her voice unsteady.

Is this normal?” she demanded when no one replied.

“Perfectly normal, dear,” Pastor Gretlin answered.

 Shh, shh, little one. We're just making you healthy. After this you'll be a strong, healthy boy for life,” Pastor Gretlin trilled.

“Try to stay calm dear. All new mommies go through this,” the woman said.

“But, but what about all that pre-birth stuff. Wasn't that enough?” Mallory asked.

“Mallory, remember dear that was just the testing. It only told us the sicknesses he's liable to get. That's all. We're giving him the genetic blockers now. Then we'll give him the general ones and the vaccines. After that this little fellow will be healthy for life. Just hang in there now. We're almost done and then he'll be all yours,” the woman replied.

The screaming cut through me.

“Almost done, little guy,” Pastor Gretlin said.

“Just the vaccines, now. Juuuust the vaccines.”

The baby yelled so loud that I had to cover my ears. I held my hands over them as I walked back down the hall, and I only let them drop when I reached the kitchen and saw Sorayda. Her face was red and puffier than normal and her eyes were bright with tears. For the first time I noticed the tiredness that was a kind of defeat in her body.

I walked to the door and headed out.

Sorayda caught the door before it closed and called “Where are you going?” When I didn't answer she yelled again, “Where are you going?”

Maybe I was going to Grandmother or Damon or Gottinger or back to the Zone to hide out, but without a doubt I was headed for Unemployment or worse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

           

 

 

 

The Sick

Lorna Garano

lornagarano@gmail.com

510-280-5397

 

“Winsome Rehaga was a woman of great health,” Pastor Gretlin said. 

I looked up at the high ceiling, a giant vaulted canopy crisscrossed with beams from which lights dangled on long chains, like banished stars. “For all of her 104 years she never saw a day of sickness, and she died a death worthy of a woman of her health. She died a quick death; a death in her sleep; an easy death; a death that came in the night and spirited her away with dignity,” he continued. His voice was as soft as the white silk ribbons that the mourners had pinned to their chests before the service, but I could still hear him out here.

“Let us pause to honor her passing, and to acknowledge our loss,” Pastor Gretlin said. A thick silence followed, as if even the ambient noise was muting itself in deference to Mrs. Rehaga.

I pressed my back tighter against the wall, tucking in my stomach so that my spine hit the peaks of its curlicue oak molding. The discomfort would keep me more alert. I stood next to the doorway of the library, where I had brought Mrs. Rehaga her tea every morning. It was covered with a black sheet marked with a yellow bed with a slash through it. No Sick were to be within a hundred feet of this room. I'd seen this sign a million times, especially since coming to work for the Rehagas, so I couldn't pretend ignorance. If I was caught lingering so close to a Well area there would certainly be questions; with the way things were going there might even be accusations.

I hooked a section of my hair with my index finger and started twirling it, a habit from my Well days. A flurry of brown drifted down and landed across my loafer. When I was a child total strangers had told me how healthy my hair looked. “It sparkles in the light,” one of them said as I waited with my mother at the rail stop near our house. I loved the way that sounded, and so did Mother. As she always did, Mother smiled and said “Thank you,” in a tone of voice that didn't sound as surprised as she had hoped. When we sat down in the car, she leaned in so close to me that I could smell the HealthWash on her breath. Then she whispered, “It's like you've been dusted with diamonds.” Mother and her overblown compliments. Now my hair broke off at the slightest touch.

I bent my knees and carefully picked up the strands that crisscrossed my shoe. It was mid-morning, so my fingers were still flexible enough to grasp something so fine as my hair.

Pastor Gretlin started up again and my knees buckled, freezing me for a second in the squatting position I was in. “As we gather in Winsome's beloved library let us reflect on the glories of health. Let us remember the example she provided; and most of all, let us renew our pledge to spread health far and wide.” Then another long silence. I stood up and waited for the closing words.

“In the name of health, we bid farewell to our sister, the beloved, the admired, the revered Winsome Rehaga” Pastor Gretlin concluded.

The sound of overlapping condolences spilled out of the room. I stepped away from the wall and started walking quietly and quickly down the wide hallway, which was lined with paintings of Mrs. Rehaga's parents, her late husband, her children, and grandchildren—all of them except her granddaughter Mallory, who had promptly removed her portrait when she moved into the Rehaga estate last week. Painted portraits were so antiquated as to be ostentatious, she told her mother, as two maintenance men eased her likeness off the wall and I stood by with a rag to clean off any smudges it left behind. “She can have one of my holograms, if she wants,” Mallory said as she stared at the empty space.

Suddenly, it occurred to me that the pattern of the ornate wall molding that I had leaned on only seconds ago could have imprinted itself on the back of my uniform. I tugged at the skirt of my dress so hard that I could hear stitching give way.

I was dizzy, again. “Just nerves,” I used to tell myself before I became Salda, when I wouldn't have to worry about being caught lurking near a Well area. I was often nervous then, more so than my circumstances demanded. I had a comfy post as a university research assistant and I came from a solidly—one could even say a somewhat distinguished—Well family. Also, I had Damon, who was scaling up the ranks of academia with the speed of one of those big cats with the spots that I had read about in primary school. Still, I couldn't let myself be. I was always imagining the worst, launching my mind from real comfort into imagined disaster, until I could map the contours of the spectral crisis with greater detail than I could my real ease. What if I got Sick, or if Damon got Sick, or Mother, or Grandmother—on and on.

Sorayda leaned over the WellnessAde that sat in a Mason jar on the kitchen table, stirring it with a wooden spoon. I stood in the doorway watching her. She was starting to look corpulent even from the side. Her ankles didn't taper off much from her calves, so her legs looked like pylons. The cuffs on her sleeves cut into her arms, creating a puffy ring of fat around them. Her weight gain must have been caused by her sickness because I never saw her eat anything. She lifted up the hand that held the wooden spoon and wiped her brow with the back of it. Just as she plunged the spoon back into the Wellness Ade, she turned her head and saw me watching her.

“Where's Gretlin? He's supposed to bless this gunk.”

“Don't know,” I said, walking over to the cupboard to get the cut glass pitcher and cups that we only used on special days. I turned on the tap and filled the sink with hot water and dishwashing salts.  When the suds were close to the rim I submerged the cups in them. The Rehagas water was purified, unlike what we got in Sick Zone. It had no odor or color and sometimes when I was alone I held my hand under it and just watched it flow through my fingers. It was so clean it seemed to barely exist.

“That Gretlin couldn't stop talking if his health depended on it,” Sorayda said.

Sorayda was what was known as a “Swell,” among the Sick, which meant that even though she routinely badmouthed the Well to the Sick, she would report you in a minute if she though it would benefit her. I realized this after what Sybil, another servant, who, like me, had just turned thirty, yelled to her the day she was deemed Unemployable. “You fool!” she cried. “You think this will bring you back to your son?” The two police officers who had come for Sybil hoisted her up between them so the toes of her black Domestic Sector loafers scraped against the marble floor. It was almost as if she was gliding away, her screaming incongruous with the forced grace of her movement.

Sorayda put the lid on the Mason jar and shook it. I dried off the cups and washed the pitcher. Pastor Gretlin walked in and we both bent our heads for the required fourteen seconds. She picked up the Mason jar again, shook it a few more times, unscrewed the lid, and held it under Pastor Gretlin's nose. “Is this acceptable, Pastor?” He nodded. He bent over the jar and said, “In the name of all that is healthy and holy. In the name of our departed sister in health, Winsome Rehaga.” He motioned for Sorayda to pour. She filled the pitcher and glasses so high that if I had one of my dizzy spells I would spill it for sure. Just take it slow, I told myself as I walked from the kitchen to the sitting room where the family had gone after the service.

Wren, Mrs. Rehaga's daughter, sat with two of her three grown children in the sitting room. Jade, the oldest, stretched out on the chaise lounge, her body as straight as a thermometer. Her brother, Mander, sat on the sofa next to his mother. They all wore the white mourning gowns that the family of the departed were expected to don for a week after the death. I started serving the WellnessAde, first to Wren, then Jade. When I held out a glass for Mander he looked at the table next to him and nodded. 

“A hundred and four—and that's before we had HealthLink or knew anything, really,

about how to stay healthy,” Mander said.

He paused a minute, waiting for his sister or mother to respond. When they didn't he added,

“That's when people had common sense. They didn't need to be told how to stay healthy they just did it.”

“Different times, different culture,” Wren said. 

“Different, indeed,” Jade added. “And now this business about calling them compromised

instead of sick.”                                                                  

 “Well, at least we know that was caught before it circulated too far,” Wren said.

“Do we? Who really knows how many people saw it before HealthLink was scrubbed?” Mander answered.

“HealthLink caught it early and that reporter was fired. She's dead and gone,” Wren said.

“But the idea isn't dead. You can't fire an idea!” Mander shot back.

“Relax, Man, relax,” Jade said in a near-whisper.

Not for the first time, I wondered how much the Rehagas knew about me. Did they know, for example, that it could have been my grandmother who ordered the scrubbing at HealthLink, or was it true what they said in the transition camp? Did they really expunge your past to avoid favoritism in the Sick world? I saw Grandmother in one of her camel-colored suits and her blonde hair combed into an elegant pageboy signing off on the purge, the scraping of her pen against the paper the only sound in her quiet executive office

 “Got some great holos,” Mallory announced as she entered the room, her breath heavy from the exertion of walking. At her stage of pregnancy even that was an effort. She held her holocam up close to her ear. She had tied her long, oatmeal-colored hair into a knot on the top of her head.

“Holos of what?” Wren asked.

“Your daughter, the intrepid holographer—” Mander started.

“For whom nothing is sacred,” Jade interrupted.

“Oh, please,” Mallory answered. “Death is a part of life—it's not some mystical experience, we dare not mention. What's wrong with capturing it?”

She flipped on the cam and projected an image of Mrs. Rehaga in her casket surrounded by mourners against the wall.

“Mallory, please. Didn't I just see this? Do you really think we need to relive your grandmother's funeral?” Wren said.

“Mallory the Morbid,” Mander added.

She scrolled to another holo, this one of Pastor Gretlin giving Mrs. Rehaga the rite of last touch.

“Oh, Mallory, please, enough!” Wren cried and covered her eyes with her hand.  

“It's all just some art project for her,” Jade fumed and walked over to the couch. She put her arm around her mother and glared at Mallory.

Mallory rolled her eyes and flipped off the cam. She sat in one of the overstuffed chairs, her belly on her lap. I poured a glass of WellnessAde and brought it over to her.

“Thank you. I need this,” she said and smiled at me.

            I poured a refill for Jade. When I tilted the pitcher over Mander's half-full glass he waived me away. Wren placed her hand over her glass and said “You can go now.”

            “Yes, Mrs. Rehaga-Tansley,” I said and started to walk out of the room.

            “Leave the WellnesAde,” she added

            I turned around and placed the pitcher on the table in the middle of the room. Another prickle of dizziness came over me. I froze for a second at the table, pretending to examine the WellnessAde. When the wooziness lifted I walked as fast I could, without looking like I was in a hurry, to the doorway. The throbbing in my temple started. That's why it took me a minute to hear the footsteps behind me. I realized they were Mallory's when she passed by me and held the door open. Was I really moving so slow that a woman in her ninth month could breeze by me? If so, an Unemployable designation couldn't be far away. I listened for the door to close as I headed for the chapel.

The chapel was one of the few places the Rehaga Estate Sick could linger without being questioned. And they could linger in luxury. The pews were padded and foot warmers lined the floor below them. The air was purified and perfumed with HealthScents like vanilla and lavender. When I coughed afterward I could swear the phlegm I produced was a little less grey and had fewer veins of blood running through it. The dim light eased my headache a little and as I sat quietly the heaviness in my chest lightened. I tucked my feet into the plush little caves of the foot warmers and wrapped my fingers around my ankles. I felt my spine elongate and thought of Jemina, the University exercise teacher saying “Stre-e-e-e-ch out your spine and breathe” and then “Good work, everyone,” when the whoosh of the collective exhale filled the room.

Even though I was never much for religion, I had to admit that there was something comforting about sitting quietly encircled by the saints the way I was now. They were chiseled and painted with such detail that you could almost imagine them starting to talk and their benevolent, bright eyes seemed to look straight into you, without making you feel violated. St. Rita—my favorite—had an overbite and the plaits in her hair were shot through with white. She was the patron of the Unemployables, but she was turned to by anyone in despair or desperation. She had been an Unemployable once, but had cured herself with only her will and her commitment to proper nutrition, exercise, and meditation. When I was first diagnosed I tried to follow her example, but I failed. Almost all of us tried and failed.   

I had known for a long time that I lacked the discipline for health. How often I had gorged on pastry after work or opted for another hour of sleep—even on my day off—instead of going to my exercise class. Worse, I had acted without internal integrity and there was no real excuse for it. I had been born in 2065, a good decade after the HealthLink-sponsored holoboards started splashing “Internal Integrity: Build It, Keep It, Use It” all over the city. On the outside I was a feather of a person, but internally I was secretly petty, quietly mean-spirited, forever jockeying for an edge. When I learned that an assistant in another university department had been diagnosed, my first reaction was relief that it wasn't me, my second was contempt that she had let herself become sick. It was only then, after all that negativity, that a wisp of compassion tickled me and it was so fleeting I barely had time to name it. Still, it was the only feeling I shared with my coworkers. In truth, it was all I showed Damon when I came home that night. “I just feel so bad for her,” I repeated a few times, as we lay holding each other in the dark that had, at times, granted so much license for truth that in the morning we looked at each other guiltily. It was this schism, this lack of authenticity that invited sickness.

            I was staring into St. Rita's smiling coffee-colored face when I saw a smudge of white out of the corner of my eye. I turned and there was Mallory, standing at the edge of my pew and gazing into the face of St. Rita. I slipped my feet into my loafers. I was just about to get up when she sat down next to me and said “She's my favorite.”

            There were so few logical responses to this, and all of them seemed wildly inappropriate. Why would she care about what I had to say about St. Rita, or anything else? But then, she was the one who started the conversation.

            “Mine too,” I stammered.

            “I've been praying to her since my divorce,” Mallory said.

            “She's a source of solace.”

            “Yes, solace. And after moving back in with my family I need it.”

            I almost laughed.

            “I'm not used to being the daughter and the grandaught—well, I guess that's over, but it's like I'm a kid again living here. Sometimes I want to scream.”

            “That must be difficult.”

            “Oh, you have no idea.”

            “Sorry.” Mallory looked down and her cheeks turned pink. “Look at me dumping this on you—and in chapel. I'm sure you've got your own worries.”

            “We all do.”

            “I hope your work here doesn't create too many.”

            “Oh no, it's a fine post. I know how I lucky I am.”

            “Gratitude. That's what keeps you Well.” Mallory put her hand over her mouth and her face flushed again. Her blue eyes grew larger.

            “It's okay.” I smiled.

            She tucked her hair behind her ears.

            “Thanks. One thing I love about the Sick is they don't take themselves so seriously. Not like the Rehagas and the other Tier One Well families. My god, my ex-husband's mother almost fainted when I told her I'd once ridden my bike through Sick Zone—as if I had taken my life in my hands.”

            Her voice had a strange gravity to it, as if she was telling me something important, something that either I needed to hear or she needed to say, and it must have been the latter, since I couldn't imagine why this should matter to me.

            “You rode your bike through Sick Zone?”

            “Yup. When I was in University. I wanted to see what it was like.”

            “That's gutsy, Miss Rehaga.”

            She waived her hand over her face as if she was brushing away a fly and said “Mallory.”

            “I've always wanted to learn more about the Sick and the Unemployables. Do you—do you know any Unemployables?”

            “Well—um—not personally. I mean sometimes they come to Sick Zone to panhandle, but that's it.”

            Mallory moved her face closer to mine. For the first time I noticed that she wore pink lipstick. Her lips were so thin that if she wore red she'd look like she had a gash in her face. “What are they like?” she asked.

            “I-I-well, you know. They're…disheveled, I guess.” What a pathetic answer this was.

            Then she put her hand on my shoulder and said something. It was a few seconds before I understood that what she said was: “I want to shoot them. The Sick and the Unemployables.”

            Something about the combination of her touch and the imploring look in her eyes—the way she stared in at me with a mix of hope and expectation and supplication—made me feel, for a moment, that all of the fissures and fractures that my sickness had created inside of me were now mended, instantly and effortlessly sewn up.

            “I want to shoot them,” she said again.

            “I-I-I'm afraid I don't know how I can help,” I answered.

            She took her hand off my shoulder, leaned closer to me, and said “Let me walk home with you one day. After the baby's born. It will be any day now.”

            “There you are,” I heard Sorayda's voice coming from the back of the chapel. “I've been looking for you.”

            “It's okay, Sorayda. We were just chatting. You could sit down too. You know I don't play favorites,” Mallory said.

            “The guests need help with their coats,” she said, looking straight at me.

            I followed Sorayda out of the chapel, resisting my urge to look back at Mallory.

The Rehagas dispatched the household staff a little early that night. I caught the bus to the edge of Sick Zone and then walked home along the bay route. I wondered what it would be like to have Mallory with me. What could we possible talk about and what would the others think? Surely, the sight of Mallory would be enough to rouse even the sickest from their torpor.

Even at night the heat was stifling, and I had to stop every few blocks to rest. I lowered myself onto the ground and leaned against the concrete barrier around the water. The sign next to me read “Vitality Bay teems with life,” and was ringed with images of pink and green fishes. I doubted Mallory would allow even one stop. She'd probably want to plough straight through to the thick of Sick Zone.

            I tried to slow my pulse. I thought of the expanse of water lapping against the other side of the barrier. I'd once seen a picture of the real bay. It swirled around my grandmother's ankles in the photo taken just after she had won the local “Ms. Vitality” pageant. Her sash was the electric blue—a color that I suspect has grown more vivid with memory—of the water. She was tall and muscular, her teeth as white as clouds. Her prize for winning the pageant was a modeling contract. That led to a job teaching health, and, in her forties she was hired on at HealthLink, eventually becoming a director.

            I was so sleepy that for a moment I dozed off and when I woke I had a metallic taste in my mouth. I saw a rat coming toward me. It had one tumor just above its eyes and another on its side. There was a time when the sight of a diseased rat would have made me jump up, but now I could calculate how long it would take for it to reach me, and I waited until the last second before I forced myself to rise. I walked the remaining twelve blocks, my hip shooting out bolts of pain that only dissolved at my toes.

            A heap of a car was parked in front of my building and as I got closer I saw a woman with wild hair and a dirty face, clearly an Unemployable, asleep in the passenger seat. There were rumors that these types wear planted around the Zone as a warning of what we might become if weren't careful, but I never took the whisperings of the Sick all that seriously. I dismissed this as just another of the rumors that churned around the Zone. The Tier One Well families got treatments to avoid sickness. The Unemployables were really spies. The clergy poisoned people to make them sick. The conspiracy theories and conjecture never ended.

All of the apartment houses in Sick Zone had yellow walkways that led up to their main entrance. They looked like sickly tongues unrolling out from the front doors. I always thought this was a deliberate cruelty, a contrived humiliation. It wasn't as if anyone could not know that they were in Sick Zone, or mistake the graffiti-tattooed, dilapidated buildings for the homes of the Well. I walked along the plot of dirt the walkway cut through, navigating around a porcelain bathroom sink that lay on the ground, and shoved open my front door with my shoulder.

            I unlocked my apartment and the acrid odor of the beans I had made yesterday night hit me. Black streaks dribbled down the pan they had been cooked in. I was hungry, but too tired to heat them up again. It was 8:07, so I could catch most of the live version of the HealthLink program that Damon, who was now Sellien, anchored.  He had been taken off visual streams, which meant his sickness had made him unsightly. I said “HealthLink Audio Stream 18,” and got into bed. When Damon was made a Reporter after his diagnosis I wasn't surprised. No one was surprised. His Early Placement Test pegged him as an academic genius. Everyone with that kind of background was made a Reporter or Data Aggregator for HealthLink.

            “A new study shows that three ounces of breadfruit a day increases health,” Damon read in a voice that had grown steadily thinner and higher. It sounded almost feminine now. I closed my eyes. By evening my fingers were usually too stiff to hold a pen, so as I did most nights, I imagined myself writing in my journal. I saw the loopy, ornate script I had used as a kid, the kind that assumed all the time in the world. What I wrote was “Damon is dying.”

            Even now Damon and my relationship happened in the dark. It was always when we lay together at night that we felt closest. It was when we snickered at or derided something we'd heard on HealthLink. “Eat pomegranates for health. Yeah, as if we could know if what the labs make is anything like real pomegranates.” “A pomegranate isn't a pomegranate.” Or, when we were feeling more high-minded, one of us would say something like “Language is losing its meaning.” We told each other that even if one of us got Sick we would find a way to be together. We both knew that was impossible, but lying can be overlooked when your point is how much you love someone.  

            Damon's voice trailed off and music started playing. Muted bells and a dull chanting that sounded like a choir wrapped in gauze. Damon sat in one of the glass booths on the far eastern edge of the HealthLink compound. I knew this because by the time I was a teen Grandmother had taken me to work with her so often that I could find my way around the sprawling complex with my eyes closed.

            The music stopped and Damon returned. “Today, Wellness Labs began a projected fifty-year study to measure the correlation between the number of vacations taken to average rates of health,” he reported.

            I imagined myself sitting alongside him in the studio. We were so close that our arms touched. He crossed his left ankle over his right knee the way he always did, and his leg rested on mine. I loved these casual intrusions into each other's personal space, these markers to the rest of the world that we belonged to each other.

            “Another study has confirmed the health benefits of brisk walking for twenty-eight minutes a day,” Damon's voice waivered a little at the end.

            That Damon and I could have ever remained together to carry on some kind of Sick version of our life was, of course, pure fantasy. The chances of a woman like me escaping Domestic were virtually nonexistent, and the only one who refused to believe it was Grandmother. “Why didn't they make you a Reporter?” she demanded, as I lay in the church recovering from my post-diagnosis sterilization (some people objected to this practice, but I always thought it made good sense). “Why didn't those fucking bastards make you a Reporter?” she spat. My Work Assignment papers were spread out on her lap. I didn't have the energy to explain why, and it wasn't as if she didn't know.

            My Early Placement Test said my intelligence was broad, but not deep and that my attention was likely to shift from one subject to another, as I had tendencies toward impulsivity. Grandmother had ignored all that and saw only the part that said I scored above average in logic puzzles and had strong reading comprehension. The test concluded that I was suited to low-level academic work, but Grandmother, who revered academia, said “Suited for academic work” so often that even Mother, who was also inclined to believe this, got irritated. When you considered that the Sick were assigned the domestic jobs, the hard labor, and basically any work that demanded an immediate shower afterward, my report really didn't say much for my innate aptitudes.

Grandmother persisted right up until the end. “Gottinger,” she whispered in my ear, just before I boarded the bus to the transition camp, “Go to HealthLink and ask for Gottinger if I'm not there.”  

The music returned, and soon I was in a deep, dreamless sleep.                        

I got up early the next morning so I could be the first in the shower on my floor. I stayed in longer than the five-minute maximum, but by the time the other Sick figured out why the hot water had run short I would be gone and they would finger each other.  

I put on a fresh uniform. I could feel the heat coming up through the floor, but at least I wasn't in too much pain yet, and my legs held up pretty well as I descended the stairs and headed out.

The battered car was still parked in front of my building, but now a man was in it too. He leaned on the woman, whose head rested against the window. For a moment I envied the two sleeping Unemployables.

I walked along the bay route again.

All three of the markets I passed had signs on their windows that read “Out of breadfruit.” A police car was parked in front of the first one and two handcuffed women stood by it while an officer talked to the store owner. One of them had a scratch across her cheek and she had to hold up her ripped shirt to keep her breasts from being exposed. The labs that made breadfruit had been attacked too, it was reasonable to assume. That's what always happened after a study like the one Damon reported last night was released. This time it was breadfruit. A few months ago it was plums and the year before Brazil nuts, tangerines, and parsnips. To write a contemporary history of our country would be to write a history of food fights. In 2087 a full-blown riot erupted over cantaloupe, and between the police shootings and the internal killings, more than a hundred people died. Eighty-seven was a year of riots and tumult on all sides. It was also when a group of protestors broke into HealthLink demanding airtime. “Malcontents,” Grandmother called them. “They shouted their nonsense conspiracy about the Well keeping themselves artificially healthy,” she told Mother, who eventually told me—even though she had been sworn to secrecy about what had happened on that day.

Because I moved with unusual ease I reached the bus stop a good twenty minutes earlier than normal. Even now, three years into my Sick life, I almost always thought of Grandmother saying “Gottinger” as I boarded a bus. Who he was and what fantasy Grandmother had harbored about what he could do for me I didn't know. I suspected he was just another of the men who longed for her and whose affection she basked in until it became a nuisance.

If there was anywhere outside the Rehaga estate where a Sick could sit for a little while I would have planted myself there for a few minutes. As it was, I tried to slow down with each step to the kitchen door at the back of the main house, but still I made it there too soon.

I pressed my thumb into the indentation in the SickScan box. Even though it was 7:12, the box recorded my arrival at 7:30, the official start time. I heard the beep that told me the door had been unlocked for four seconds and I walked in. The large honeycombed structure next to the door contained a cubbyhole for each of the Rehaga Estate Sick. I slid my Work Agenda out of mine and started reading it. There was much to do today. The library had to be cleaned, Mrs. Rehaga's bedroom furniture had to polished and put into storage, and it was laundry day again. I had just noticed that the agenda omitted the weekly drapery cleaning when Sorayda said “It's started.” She stood at the kitchen counter, her hands buried in bread dough that looked like a mound of fat. “What?” I asked and then immediately understood. “Mallory,” I said before she could answer. “Yes, Mallory,” she said, her voice shaking.

Then I heard a scream, a gut-wrenching cry from across the house that frightened me so much I yelled too.

Sorayda's shoulders shook. I walked closer to her and noticed that she didn't move her fingers in the dough. She sniffled.

Mallory yelled again.

Sorayda bent her head and whimpered.

I realize now that I should have tried to comfort her. It would have been the decent thing to do—and like I said, I realize that now. I could have lightly touched her back, or gotten her a glass of water or brought her a tissue. I could have just stood quietly by her. But as Mallory continued to scream all I could feel was the fleeting relief I had felt yesterday in the chapel with her, and that's why I left Sorayda and followed the shrieking to the east wing of the Rehaga estate.

I gauged my distance from the birthing room by the strength of Mallory's screams. When I was close enough so that they began to make my ears ache, I saw a woman I had never seen before walk out of the room. She wore the heather green habit of nuns. I froze, but she headed up the hallway in the opposite direction of me.

The sign was hung over the door. No Sick were to be near this room. As I got closer I noticed that the nun had left the door open a sliver. My heart banged frantically. I could smell my sweat, and I was dizzy, but not because of my sickness. I pressed myself against the wall just outside of the room, as I had yesterday morning. When I looked down I could see my knees shaking. I wanted to peer through the crack in the door, but then I wouldn't be able to keep watch for anyone coming toward me.

“Big push now, Mallory—just like we practiced,” a strange female voice said.

“You're doing a fine job.” It was Pastor Gretlin who said this.

A prolonged howl came from the room.

“Okay, okay, Mallory, honey, you're doing just fine,” the woman said.

“Breathe, remember to breath,” Pastor Gretlin implored. “Crowning,” he added.

“On our way now, sweetie. Another big push for me,” the woman urged.

For a few moments I couldn't make out what anyone said over the noise. I couldn't hear anything until the screaming was replaced by a mewling cry.

“He's here. Your little boy has arrived,” Pastor Gretlin announced.

I could hear panting and then a plaintive wail that ended in sobs. Finally Mallory cooed, “Ahhh, you're here. You're here and I love you.”

I realized then how foolish—how reckless—I had been. Behavior like this would be beyond suspect. If I were caught the best I could hope for would be to be deemed Unemployable. I had acted on impulse—the very behavior that my Early Placement Report said I was prone to. I would have headed back to the kitchen as fast I could walk if the baby didn't scream so loud that my legs locked up.

“Okay, okay, little guy. Hold on. Over soon,” Pastor Gretlin said.

The crying faded a bit and then started up again. He cried so frantically that he gulped for breath.

“Is this normal?” Mallory asked, her voice unsteady.

Is this normal?” she demanded when no one replied.

“Perfectly normal, dear,” Pastor Gretlin answered.

 “Shh, shh, little one. We're just making you healthy. After this you'll be a strong, healthy boy for life,” Pastor Gretlin trilled.

“Try to stay calm dear. All new mommies go through this,” the woman said.

“But, but what about all that pre-birth stuff. Wasn't that enough?” Mallory asked.

“Mallory, remember dear that was just the testing. It only told us the sicknesses he's liable to get. That's all. We're giving him the genetic blockers now. Then we'll give him the general ones and the vaccines. After that this little fellow will be healthy for life. Just hang in there now. We're almost done and then he'll be all yours,” the woman replied.

The screaming cut through me.

“Almost done, little guy,” Pastor Gretlin said.

“Just the vaccines, now. Juuuust the vaccines.”

The baby yelled so loud that I had to cover my ears. I held my hands over them as I walked back down the hall, and I only let them drop when I reached the kitchen and saw Sorayda. Her face was red and puffier than normal and her eyes were bright with tears. For the first time I noticed the tiredness that was a kind of defeat in her body.

I walked to the door and headed out.

Sorayda caught the door before it closed and called “Where are you going?” When I didn't answer she yelled again, “Where are you going?”

Maybe I was going to Grandmother or Damon or Gottinger or back to the Zone to hide out, but without a doubt I was headed for Unemployment or worse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

           

 

 

 

 

 

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