Ellen Stemple was not the kind of person to join clubs or participate in group activities. When she socialized, she preferred to be with five people or less, which was relatively easy since she had three friends, not counting Brian. Moreover, gatherings in public had been limited to twelve people, in private to twenty-one, since 2045.
Her social media life was an altogether different story. Ellen’s avatar on Twitter was a twisted helix of DNA made up of human bones. She advocated for government transparency regarding a number of important issues, notably—“The Disassembly Mandate,” and “Modes of Transmission.”
For her 33rd birthday, almost a year prior, she cranked up the radiant cool air panels in her living room floor (it was 103 degrees outside) and invited two of her friends over for an hour of dancing followed by an augmented reality trip to Underwater Miami. Afterwards, she felt psychologically and physically depleted and lost her appetite for cake. Meredith sprayed edible sanitizer on what remained, wrapped it up and took it home for her kids.
Later, in the quiet of her empty apartment, a wave of birthday wistfulness washed over Ellen. Time was starting to speed up. It seemed like just a few months ago, Meredith had twin infants in diapers and suddenly, they were both in first grade. (Gifted and Talented, first grade, of course, with enhanced IQ, musicality, and empathy). Ellen secretly wished she could save enough so she’d be immediately eligible to adopt a Simron-a7 baby. And it wouldn’t hurt if she had a little extra cash to move to The Range—cool night breezes, ice blue rivers, and Sunday afternoon dance parties.
She walked into the bathroom and gazed at her reflection.
“OK, so it’s not just the money. You need to get your head together if you want a baby.”
She only expressed her desire for an infant to Meredith who nodded sympathetically, while her eyes, hollowed with exhaustion and an oversized blouse stained with apple sauce, told a tale of single parenthood that transcended words.
Ellen found it hard to describe the unease she was feeling. One minute she was low and lonely with a touch of boredom. The next, she was agitated and annoyed, but also bored. She hoped that a baby would alleviate her loneliness
At midnight, Ellen’s doorbell buzzed. A bouquet of tight yellow rosebuds, delivered, via SirDrone, with a typed note: “You are worth watching,” rested on her doorstep. The mystery elated her at first, then she felt nauseous. She hoped it was either a prank or a secret admirer, but worried it was the beginning of something unpleasant. Something she always knew would happen eventually.
She waited for Brian to call but didn’t hear from him until late the next morning.
“Who should I vote for?” he asked.
She paused, absently, moving her index finger over the yellow buds, tender as an infant’s sole. “The election was three days ago.”
“Who should I have voted for?” he tried.
“Oh, Brian. You exist in the subjunctive tense of a hypothetical universe.” She waited, then emitted a dry groan. “Arrggg! Why do I still care if you wish me a happy birthday?”
“It’s your birthday?”
“You’re still celebrating?”
“Somebody sent me yellow roses.”
“So, it wasn’t you,” Ellen said with a laugh. “There’s a man who lives down the hall, a widower. I told him my favorite color was yellow a few weeks ago.”
“Bing-a-dingo,” Brian said.
“Yeah, maybe. His name is Marshall Ferris. He’s not even that old.”
“Is he actually a Marshall, like in the wild west?”
“I don’t know. We don’t talk to each other like that.”
“Like, ‘what do you do?’ It’s more like a ‘what’s your favorite color’ kind of vibe.”
“Like a nursery schoolteacher-pre-schooler vibe?”
“You make it sound dirty.”
Suddenly, Ellen wished she had a piece of birthday cake to eat. It was always so satisfying to have cake with coffee for breakfast.
“If he is a real Marshall, Ellen? I’d be careful.” Brian suddenly sounded serious.
‘I’m being careful. We’ve only had a few conversations.”
Ellen heard a soft meow through Brian’s phone.
“Feed your cat,” she said.
“Yeah, I will. Umm, Ellen, how are your thoughts?”
“I’m going to see Dr. Marcus.”
“So, not too good?”
“Good days, bad days, but there is always the sense that somebody is checking up on me, judging me. Then I get this note and I spiral. It’s real and it’s not real. To be very honest, I don’t feel that real myself.”
“I’m sorry.” She heard Brian pouring the cat’s kibble. It sounded like rain hitting a rooftop. “Wish I could see you, but…”
“I know, we’re in a rising curve, and male to female…”
“Jesus! I’m late for work.”
“Bye, Brian. And, by the way, you should have voted for Joni Guero. She lost because of you, asshole.”
“Next time,” he said.
“Next time.” She hung up and searched her fridge. Meredith, maternal instincts always in gear, left Ellen a slice of cake. She devoured it with black coffee. Then she sat on the toilet and scrolled through the news. Joni Guero was narrowly defeated by Barron Trump, who campaigned as a progressive liberal and animal rights advocate. Ellen shivered with doubt. Barron, though he broke ties with this father, was always vague about his surveillance policy. That was a deal breaker for her.
In general, politics did not interest Ellen, except personal privacy issues. She leaned toward the Anti-Surveillance Party (Joni Guero was an early adopter). Ellen’s focus on privacy intensified as she began to sense she was being followed
At the beginning, she attributed that persistent thought to simple paranoia. This was a reasonable self-assessment as Ellen had been diagnosed with mild to moderate paranoia ideation and persecution complex via her gastroenterologist, Dr. Marcus, who performed a GutBio Analysis as required by her Vitasphere Counselor, Sister Ava.
“I’m going to have to report this,” Dr. Marcus said softly. “It’s in your best interest.”
“Don’t you realize that reporting will just aggravate my condition.”
“I appreciate the irony,” Dr. Marcus said. “But we have protocols that serve the public good.”
“This means I’ll have to surrender my weapon.”
He nodded and scratched his signature across the screen. In fifteen minutes, Sister Ava arrived and seized Ellen’s gun without much in the way of counseling except for a perfunctory “Everything’s going to be all right. We will be watching over you.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better!” Ellen said more loudly than she expected.
“Temper, temper,” Sister Ava said, and mock pouted. “Simron babies are extra sensitive, Ellen. Their mothers can’t be screaming all over the place.”
Ellen liked having the pistol in her tote bag, especially when she was on public transportation late at night. Her shift began at 6pm and finished at 4am. Two days after she had the gun taken away, she began to notice a woman on her Etherbus. Ellen prided herself as a highly intuitive individual. After all, wasn’t being highly intuitive just the cheery cousin of paranoid? The suspicious woman, dressed in a tan jumpsuit, sat three rows behind her theatrically gazing out the window as if the dark empty streets riveted her attention. But Ellen did not miss those moments, every 45 seconds or so, when the woman would swivel her head and focus forward.
At the beginning of the second week, Ellen approached the woman and tried her best to sound friendly. “Are you on Silk Road time as well?” Ellen evened out her voice, adding a sweet trill to the question mark.
The woman, with one silver eye and the other a tungsten prosthesis in the socket, blinked. Ellen heard the well-greased whir of gears as the woman shifted in her seat. “I care for an elderly.”
“I see,” Ellen said. “So, I suppose you have curfew status.”
“Of course. I couldn’t be outside otherwise.”
“Did Sister Ava send you?”
“I don’t know who that is,” the suspicious woman said.
“My stop is next,” Ellen said, smiling and absently reaching into her purse to search for her pistol. Instead, her fingers scraped against the sharp edges of her I.D. badge.
Ellen exited, but the woman remained seated. Perhaps the woman was just one of those leftover models that couldn’t find any other kind of work but wiping an elderly’s butt? As Ellen turned the corner, she caught a blur of beige in her peripheral vision. The suspicious woman had double backed.
“What do you want from me?” Ellen shouted. “I’m nobody. I’m broke.”
The suspicious woman leaned against the trunk of a tree, crawling with beetles, and turned toward her. “Gathering random data. Nothing personal.”
“Just ask a fucking question. I’m an open book.”
“We shouldn’t even be talking,” the suspicious woman said, and walked away. Steam rose from the sidewalk and the woman seemed to dissolve, but Ellen couldn’t be sure. At 5 a.m. with the temperature close to 97, and the weeklong threat of thunderstorms, along with Ellen’s anxiety and watery eyes, things often liquified in her field of vision.
Home, finally, Ellen scrolled through the news. A slow-motion emergency. Random pockets of unexplained deaths striking women her age. Information was spotty. Crossfire accusations of deliberately misinforming the public. Vitasphere Counselors summoned to investigate and then hit with gag orders “in the interest of preserving peace and conformity with the social compact H78.” Curfews were further tightened. Ellen listened with one ear. The surge of cortisol that shot through her body after being followed by the suspicious woman swelled her brain and shifted her consciousness from high alert to exhaustion. She fell asleep with her shoes on.
The next morning, Ellen called Sister Ava. “Have you sent out a spy?”
“A spy?” Sister Ava said. “That’s kind of a blunt instrument. Not part of my directive, not in the budget and not in your best interest. I’m aware of your mental status–basic biometrics. Aware of your financial situation–updated daily. I communicate with Dr. Marcus every week.”
Ellen sighed. “Any word from the facility.”
“You realize how fragile these children are?”
“Disturbed by bright lights, loud noises, weird smells, unfamiliar people, crowds, scratchy fabrics. Yes, Sister Ava, I am…I mean…I feel prepared to live a low-sensory life with a child. I’m planning to move to The Range. It’s ideal for me, and…”
Sister Ava cut her off. “Ideal for you?”
“For us, for the little family we will become.”
“How are you feeling physically?”
Ellen laid her eyes on the roses, now in late end bloom, darkening from yellow to a dry golden ochre. The truth was they were dead. “I am aware of the state of things and taking precautions.”
“It’s worse than you think,” Sister Ava said.
“Felines transmit to men, men to women, women to feinles, felines to men, and round and round it goes, one to the next. It’s not a virus. It’s a prion.”
“I know,” Ellen said.
Sister Ava continued. “One direction only and each time the cycle is completed, it mutates, upticks, rapidly reorganizes itself. So…a vaccine is worthless. We only have the vaguest idea regarding the mode of transmission. You are in the vulnerable subset because of your blood type and depleted nuclear matrix…and…”
Ellen discontinued the call. She hated being reminded that she had forfeited her DNA–that all she had left was the skeleton of her genetic material. A long-ago story. Women who had more than one abortion before age thirty were required to “disassemble.” She considered herself fortunate that she had passed the adoption application hurdles.
Ellen wanted to remind Sister Ava that the medication that Dr. Marcus prescribed for her paranoia was ramping up her libido, but she knew this would put Sister Ava on high alert.
Ellen e-Air Mist’d herself and felt refreshed. She was ready to chat with her Adoption Sponsor Evelyn and take a look at the babies. She was permitted to do this twice a month even though she was not quite ready to adopt. The screen gleamed light blue and the Sponsor appeared. “Happy to see you, Ellen. How have you been?”
“Fantastic! I can’t wait to see the little ones.”
“We have two new arrivals today.”
The screen turned to hash and cleared with a close up of a curly haired blonde male baby.
“Ha,” Evelyn said. “Cranky as hell. Hates being touched, but we hug and kiss him nonetheless.”
The doorbell rang.
“Are you expecting someone?” Evelyn asked.
“These little ones don’t like unexpected visitors. Sets them off.”
“I hardly ever have unexpected visitors. Everything is planned.”
The bell rang again, this time—shorter and louder.
The blonde baby began to cry, a pink circle of lips, q’d with a small wild tongue.
“Sorry, Ellen, she’s already noting the disturbance. Your blood pressure’s rising, the doorbell, and all that. Sensory overload for the baby….”
“Let’s end this session. I’ll see to it that it won’t count toward your two-month allowance. Take care of yourself. We’re hearing about a lot of bad things happening out there. Make sure you watch out for…how you’re interacting with men. Blessings, Ellen. I know you’ll make a good mother someday.”
The suspicious woman from the Etherbus stood at the door, silver eye patch on the left side, shoulder drooped to the right. A soft hissing sound emanated from her ears. “Ellen Stemple, I need your help,” she said, “And you need mine.”
Ellen was not inclined to let her enter. “What do you want? More random information?”
“I can be trusted. I..I’m set to expire in two weeks. I have absolutely nothing to lose.”
“Who told you to follow me? What were you trying to learn?”
“It wasn’t Sister Ava. My authorizations sidestep hers. My name is Lotus.” Ellen felt herself weakening. The strange thing about Ellen’s paranoia was that the worse it got, the less she feared for her bodily safety. Once something scary actually happened, once she believed she was in danger, the gnawing worry dissipated.
“Why do I need you?” Ellen asked Lotus.
“Where do I begin?”
“Am I in danger?”
Lotus’ short flat teeth shimmered with a smile. “Aren’t we all?”
On Tuesday Ellen got a liquid text from Brian with his usual complaints about work—how the job was stifling his creativity and “killing the last remaining remnants” of his soul. His current assignment was to make a clever jingle about fish food. Ellen read the text with one eye. Otherwise, she saw double. It didn’t help that Brian’s text had the earthy peppered scent of the weird cologne he loved to splash on when he became stressed. Ellen wasn’t sure how to respond. No amount of coaxing or reassurance led to him changing anything about his life. It hadn’t worked when Ellen begged Brian not to break up with her. He had claimed Ellen’s propensity to play loud music while she cooked was a deal breaker.
“I won’t do it if you don’t like it,” she had said.
“Then you’ll be thinking about the fact that I don’t like it.” Brian folded his arms.
“Please. We’re more than just this one disagreement.”
“It’s a metaphor,” Brian had said.
They fought until three in the morning, then silently watched a live feed of saprophytes colonizing on Mars. “Look at us, Brian. We both love this kind of shit. Who else do you know that would enjoy this?”
He responded with a sullen smile. “Note taken.”
With cold satisfaction, Ellen came to understand that nothing would be enough for him. His needs were vast and mysterious even to himself. Brian admitted as much when he was intoxicated, which became more frequent and intense toward the end of their relationship.
“Is it because I can’t biologically create a baby?” she had asked during the second and final round of their breakup discourse.
‘Not exactly,” Brian had said. “I mean in an obtuse way, yes, but in a more direct way, no.” Ellen folded her arms and cocked her head back.
Brian drew in a slow breath. “Look, it would be my DNA, my sperm that would be fertilizing somebody’s egg, or a vx-culture egg, so the baby would be mine, per se, 100% per se.”
“OK. So what are you getting at?”
“This is going to sound very sexist. And I know that it is essentializing you, but I believe the fact that you can’t have a baby, kind of hollows you out sometimes, personality wise…kind of makes you brittle in a way and at first, I loved that feature about you. I loved the challenge of drawing you out, getting a rise out of you, especially during sex….”
“Enough!” Ellen screamed. “Get out.”
Brian had left, taking his lazer/razor, a worn bath towel that he said was the only thing in the world he could comfortably dry his body with and his snow boots. They were the only objects he would leave in Ellen’s apartment though he spent four or five days a week there.
That was two years ago and now they were just friends. The problem was that Ellen’s expectations about the relationship had not adequately shifted. Though normally, she was not a hopeful person, Ellen held onto an optimistic outlook about she and Brian.
Brian certainly didn’t seem to take note of all the great things that had taken place in his life since they broke up, like his marriage to beautiful successful Renata Portico who ran the biggest art gallery in Quad 11, or the money he inherited from his uncle. Really? Did he even need a job? Perhaps he kept the job so he would have something to complain about. Or something to complain about to Ellen.
Ellen ran through the scenarios of what she would text back to him, typing, deleting, typing, deleting, finally putting the phone down to make oatmeal, the little of it she had left in the cupboard. There was no point in even thinking about going outside for more. The grocery stores were closed until Monday.
It had been two weeks since she saw Lotus at the front door. Since then there had been a disturbing string of communications from her.
Do not adopt the blonde curly haired baby.
Overwhelming evidence that you will find yourself in trouble if you adopt curly haired baby.
Are you aware of where some of these babies come from? Heritage, Positivity rates, Potential links.
This is important. Rampant trafficking of some Simron children. Don’t adopt out of desperation.
Two days after receiving the last message from Lotus, an acceleration of events in Ellen’s “downgrade signal” took place. The most disturbing news was assassination of Joni Guero, the candidate who lost the election and thereafter steadfastly claimed there was rampant voter fraud. Riots in Dallas, Boston, and Chicago followed. Joni was strangled by an unknown assailant in her bedroom. The news was especially distressing to Ellen because Joni had also been disassembled. Joni had given birth to one child, but he had perished in a car accident. Joni was Ellen’s hero, always steady, brave and compassionate. Completely opposed to the Disassembly Mandates.
The stress of the events resulted in Ellen experiencing a slippery state of mind. Every night before she fell asleep, she smelled the sweet and yeasty fragrance of an infant’s hair. One night it was so intense that she felt her breasts engorge temporarily.
She had not been out of her apartment in three weeks, the first two weeks because of a lockdown and the second, her own choice, paralyzed by inertia. Food deliveries were sporadic. The use of Air-Cooling devices was limited to an odd-even calendar schedule. She was on odd and those always seemed to be the most suffocating days.
The following morning Ellen raised her arm to open the cabinet and noticed a purple reticular rash spreading past her elbow and was heading up her left tricep. The burning sensation was mild, but she knew the rash was a sign of disease. It was, as the journals reported, pathognomonic—the gold standard of diagnosis. The migraines had begun three weeks prior. Initially, Ellen brushed those off as stress related—losing her job as a trade negotiator for the recently completed New Silk Road was a factor. To make ends meet, she had borrowed money from Brian. She knew that if she were to ask for any more, he would start to request sex in return. The idea didn’t especially bother Ellen, but she knew it would be impossible for them to see each other even though he lived just across the bridge. At night, the lights from the bridge twinkled like a thousand sleeping fairies. The silent view in the warm darkness comforted Ellen. It reminded her of Christmas Eve as a child waiting for Santa. “You close your eyes now,” her grandfather would say. She obeyed, but the blinking green and red lights from the porch below her bedroom would flash through her lids.
“Will ma be here in the morning?” She asked him before he closed the bedroom door.
“Maybe so,” her grandfather said, like he always did, with a dry cluck.
He made sure she had a few presents.
Ellen managed to sleep about four hours a night, which seemed adequate now that she couldn’t go for her nine-mile walks. Her third symptom, appearing five days prior—an Intermittent Sense of Dread—sealed the diagnosis. “ISODR” typically lasted thirty minutes or less. The shorter the amount of time, the more intense the feeling. At first, Ellen wondered whether her sense of dread was simply an errant neurotransmitter setting off an emotional firestorm. A consortium of neurohistorians studied ISODR and were able to elicit more detailed accounts from a subset of patients via brain imaging during hypnotherapy.
“Tell me what you are seeing,” Dr. Marcus asked Ellen during a virtual check in.
Thwack. A bird slammed against her window and slid slowly down the glass to the outside pane. She ran over and noted that the bird was dead before it had even hit the glass, the chest cleanly sliced in two, one foot missing. It was the fifth time in a week that someone had thrown something—a rock, a bottle of Jack Daniels, a rat wrapped in newspaper, a remote control. That had all started when she had reached 1.4 million followers on Twitter. She knew it wasn’t a coincidence. She knew that what she was talking about infuriated the Reasonable Men who insisted all was well. It would be simple enough to delete her account. After all, that might have been how she had become infected in the first place. The estimates were that at 400,000 followers, the risk of transmission doubled. She had her doubts. Brian told her it was totally impossible and she should continue.
Dr. Marcus declined to offer a definitive diagnosis. Ellen felt like he was hedging.
“It’s a once in a lifetime chance to be in your position,” he texted. “I’m so fucking jealous, I could kill you.” She heard him cough and then a dry heave.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
“Probably just run down, stress, you know,” he said.
By this time during a usual call, Ellen would hear the cat whining, begging for attention.
“I thought I told you.”
“What?” Ellen said.
“She died about ten days ago. I found her in her bed.”
Ellen was sad to hear about Daisy, but infuriated that Brian had not told her. The cat had been their shared pet when they were together, and Ellen took pride in her ownership. Daisy was the final link between them and now she was gone. She wasn’t sure why that even mattered anymore. But it did, at least to her.
“Are you cooking ginger scallops?” Ellen asked as the aroma and taste came through to her.
“Just finished them,” he said, “but feeling a little nauseous, actually quite.”
It was then that Ellen realized that Brian was the source of transmission to her via the liquid text. First the cat, then him, then Ellen, just as Sister Ava had described, but with one part missing. The prion, she realized, could travel electronically. Almost no one thought that was possible, except for a few leaders including Joni Guero. The technology companies that developed all-sensory text claimed they were safe.
Ellen closed the call and tweeted that she had become infected with the prion, explaining her theory of transmission. Within ten minutes her account was deactivated. She tried calling Dr. Marcus, Sister Ava, then Meredith, but the phone emitted a buzz so loud it hurt her ears.
Ellen’s headache subsided along with the sense of dread. She knew that the decrease in symptoms was not reason to be optimistic. The condition was known to wax and wane except for the rash, which was still coloring her arm and shoulder. She sat on the floor in child’s pose, a position that often led to the solution of thorny problems. She dozed uneasily, exhausted, her nerves on edge.
A buzz at the door startled her. Lotus, looking ten years older, rusty, obsolete, held a large basket with a green blanket over it. To her left a boy about five years old stood looking tired, but otherwise calm. The blanket moved and, without a word, Lotus motioned to Ellen to let her in.
“I used every last joule of power I had left to get through the barricades. My All-pass expires in two days.” She gently removed the blanket
The baby inside the basket screwed her face, winding up for a cry. Lotus picked her up and handed her to Ellen. “The one you wanted. The one I told you to be careful about. Evelyn called and told me there was an outbreak at the Adoption Depository. I got there as fast as I could, tested the baby, and luckily, she was negative, so I ran. Breached the protocol, I am aware.”
“What’s her name?” Ellen said, entranced by baby’s the pale green eyes.
“She’s yours. You name her.”
“Dove,” Ellen said.
“Fine. Fine. Just keep in mind that Dove’s chances of surviving in this atmosphere,” and with this Lotus waved her hand toward the window. “Her chances are low unless you can get to The Range.”
“And who is this boy?” Ellen asked.
“I’m Henry Guero,” he said.
“Joni’s son?” Ellen asked Lotus. “but I thought…”
“The car accident? Manufactured. It was a ploy to keep him from…” Lotus hesitated. “Let’s find him something to eat and let him watch some safe animation.”
Dove fussed and Lotus produced a bottle of yellow liquid. The baby latched onto the bottle and settled down.
“You probably already know this, but…I’ve been infected electronically with the prion,” Ellen said. “The rash won’t go away.”
“I’m aware,” Lotus said. “Those bastards keep telling us it wasn’t possible for transmission to happen that way. But it is, and the load on your system is much worse that way.” Lotus looked around and her eyes landed on a table behind Ellen. “Eat the roses.”
“You suspected they came from Marshall and you were right. He’s been cultivating them at The Range. Very few varieties left but he smuggled them in from up north.”
“How do you know Marshall, he’s just some old guy who lives in the building?”
“Lived? Did he move?”
Lotus shook her head and a particle of rust fluttered from her neck.
“He knew he was living on borrowed time. He sent roses to all the eligible adopters like you, especially you. He knew how much you wanted…Dove. He knew how she would heal you. He knew how The Range would be the only way to survive within the next five years. That’s where we have to go.”
She whispered, “And Henry?”
“He’s young enough to adapt. We can’t let anyone know who he is, who he was, who his mother was. In time, he’ll rise like she did. But for now, we’ll call him Eli.”
Ellen made a tea with two of the rose petals, and in six hours, the rash faded. By seven hours, Lotus deactivated, but not before leaving Ellen with specific instructions on how to travel to The Range. She warned Ellen that the journey would be treacherous, but it was the only way Dove would survive and the only way Eli would be safe from harm. For the first time in many months, Ellen felt calm. She did think about calling Brian and ask him to join her on the journey even though she knew that doing so could risk a relapse. “Stupid girl,” she scolded herself with a laugh.
Dove needed changing, Eli was hungry. There was so much to do and so much she wanted to say. Nothing was going to stop her.
Patricia Kenet is a mature, emerging writer residing in New York City, and a native of Philadelphia. Her fiction has appeared in The Fiction Pool and her humor has appeared in McSweeney’s. She likes dark comedy, and all things ironic. You can see more of her work at patricialawlerkenet.com.