"Second Chance"

by

Fran Van Cleave


From the September '97 issue of ANALOG


June 16, 2003 Midnight Friday

They -- the ubiquitous they -- say that when you're pregnant, you're supposed to glow. I picture myself, Gillian Blessing, overweight, tortoise-shell glasses, the blue-tinged skin of a true redhead, glowing like a UFO as I deliver the genius fruit of the womb.

So much for fantasy. Oh, the physical description is right on, but I'm the perfect opposite of glowing, and barring random mutations, the seed of Joel Slotkin will produce considerably short of genius.

Of course it's my fault. I'd pried myself away from science- fiction for a while, on account of the fact that I'd just turned seventeen and could not find any Honest-to-God sexy romantic heroes in the whole genre, and believe me, I'd looked. To me, hard sf does not mean rivets.

Anyway, I ended up reading the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (fabulous), writing wretched poetry (not fabulous), and hanging out at Paris Blue's Madderroot Teahouse.

Blue's is right across the mall from 2001 Books, where I work four days a week shelving audiobooks. What about those funny old paperback doohickies with the English hieroglyphics? Don't ask.

So a week later I had sex with this poetical blackjeans character I met at Blue's for the whole lusty sweaty-limbed experience of it. And we got carried away -- that was the whole point, you understand -- and the "pregnancy prevention device" broke. Très unromantic.

I'm still trying to decide if it was all worth the reciprocal experience of sitting here in the bathroom with that revolting pink rug on top of the toilet tank -- Angie's idea, not mine -- staring at this hideous purple line on my EPT and trying to decide what I'm going to do about journalism school. I decided that if I had to think about it this long, it wasn't. Worth it, I mean.

I've never been able to abide being around people who can't look on the bright side of things, but this is really dumping a virus in my cheerful program. College starts in sixty-three days, and I've already been accepted. To the mutual relief of both my foster mother and me, I graduated high school early and won a scholarship -- only a thousand Newdollars, which is pathetic but still above average.

So for her next trick, the prodigy of Xavier Catholic High School goes down to the Reproductive Options and Empowerment Center with her fake IDENT and has an abortion. Lovely.

Or, I could sink to the lowest of the low, and auction off my embryo at one of those disgusting walk-in slavery shops that masquerade as a "Second Chance" for mother and child. Oh, don't get me started on those exploitive scum!

I don't believe in God -- not the Catholic version -- but in life itself, in all its mystical-pagan-terrifying beauty. Who could look at photos of the Great Nebula in Orion, with all those gorgeous baby stars, or the crystal glory of spilled Milky Ways on a summer night, and not feel a shudder of primitive awe?

Angie could, but the woman doesn't look at anything other than the mark-down section at Nieman Marcus and the TV Guide crossword puzzle. But I digress.

Look, I know I have a complex about death on account of my father killing my mother when I was ten. She wouldn't give him a divorce, and that's about all I want to say about it. My shrink, Dr. Pangloss (Montero, actually, but he's in desperate need of a personality), is certain I've got this fragile self-image as a result. I do get awfully tired of explaining that my self-image is fine, thanks -- it's just death I can't stand. I mean, I get upset when my tortie cat, Chairman Mao, leaves dead lizards on the carpet.

Herein my dilemma: I want to be a writer more than anything else in the world. I've scribbled the usual allotment of amateurish short stories; I'm objective enough to know that what small native talent I possess needs work. Writers don't make much money, and I won't sponge off Angie or government assistance; I decided that a long time ago. I have no other skills, and the thought of spending the next eighteen years of my life working at something else to pay for twenty-six minutes of passion -- give or take ten minutes -- horrifies me. Good grief, we only did it once!

But what utter self-absorption to say that proto-me must be extinguished so I can toddle off to college, become a writer and get published.

Frankly, I always suspected I was too much of a pushover. I always thought I'd welcome self-knowledge.

Out, out damn line. Doesn't have quite the same cachet as "spot," does it?

So today I splurged twelve and a half Newdollars on an autocab to go down to the Reproductive Options and Empowerment Center, otherwise known as ROE. There's a beautiful section of Camelback only a half-mile away, where you can lie to yourself that you wanted to go anyway. ROE's downtown, where Luciferheads totter along crumbling sidewalks shedding their exhausted matchsticks like dehydrated Christmas trees drop needles. Worse, there's all these flat-headed government employees scurrying off to lunch down one-way streets.

Why are streets always one-way around government buildings? Is this some kind of existential statement?

Naturally, the clinic was overcrowded and smelled like the rear seat of a bus. Nobody talked in the waiting room. They read magazines or did barrasta, a kind of solitaire played with a round Tarot deck.

Two of the women had King-of-Light brands on their left forearms, long pseudonails like Angie's -- only she wouldn't be caught dead in that DayGlo green -- and what might charitably be described as a map of the world on their faces. Who knows, maybe the ordinary- looking ones doing barrasta were the hookers and the branded ones were the housewives.

A large, ominous-looking sign on the wall wondered, Do You Have A Sexually Transmitted Disease? There followed a list of revolting symptoms, with pictures of SCUD patients that made me regret that tuna sandwich with onions for lunch.

Telling myself not to be a coward, I walked up to the front and signed my name and the time I arrived on the clipboard in the window. I asked the clerk how long it would be. She didn't look at the appointment book or the sign-in sheet or anything, just sat there behind the fingerprint-smeared glass, chewing Betelnut gum, which I hear is a harmless habit as long as you don't mind black teeth. Finally she said, "Beats me. Sit down, we'll call your name when we get to it."

If I had a Newdollar for every time I've been told to sit down and wait for my name to be called, I'd now be investing in soybean futures. I grabbed the latest Cosmo and sat down to read the astronomy section (just kidding).

It took three hours and fifteen minutes to get in to see the doctor, a young sallow-skinned man in a dirty white coat. He had long coarse hairs on the backs of his hands, and unusually knobby fingers. I thought of him touching me with those fingers and tasted sour vomit at the back of my throat.

"You're not eighteen," he said.

"I am too eighteen. See this IDENT?"

He shrugged, indifferent to my scowl and my inadequate forgery. "I've seen hundreds of forged IDENTs. Take this form and get permission from your parents, then come back."

And that was that. I fumed all the way home. What a waste of time, I thought, though my blood pressure must've dropped twenty points the instant I set my foot out the door. The relief of not having to go through with it made me dizzy. I knew I should've got permission from Angie first.

I just didn't want to.

When I got home, Angie was lying on the sofa, listening to a self-help book. Angie doesn't read to learn anything new, she reads to have her notions confirmed, or "validated" as she would put it. "You're late for dinner again. I left it on the back of the stove."

I didn't give her any excuses, just told her I was sorry.

I should say right here that Angie's tried hard to be a mother to me, and I'm grateful for the effort she's put into it. She's never hit me, and she doesn't drink up the money she gets from the State, or spend it all on herself. She's worked at the state prison as "Chief Secretary to the Director of Rehabilitative Services," for two years. She tends to take up whatever psychoanalytical fad happens to be current at the prison, partially in an attempt to analyze why Dr. Malcolm hasn't asked her to marry him yet, and partially to deal with the discomfort I cause her.

Somehow I cause her a considerable amount, though I don't mean to. As a child, I read voluminously, not speaking for hours at a time; my immersion in science fiction, coupled with my family history, caused her to worry that I had "schizotypal personality disorder," the next best thing to schizophrenia. How else can she explain a genre she doesn't comprehend, except as a symptom of illness?

She wonders where she's gone wrong, because I didn't turn out as the slim, well-socialized extrovert with a Blassingame wardrobe she tried to make me into.

I find Angie's relentless pursuit of middle-class respectability pathetic and futile. She finds my fascination with writing dangerous -- my real mother was a writer, a good one, and she fears I'll follow in her tragic footsteps. I guess you could say Angie and I love each other, in a labor-intensive sort of way, when we're not at each other's throats.

I won't go into gory details about how our evening went. I was starving and tried to eat before I told her about it, but she kept asking me where I'd been all afternoon, so I had to tell her. Suffice it to say that I didn't get to eat dinner until practically midnight.

The last thing Angie wants is an unwed daughter with a bastard grandchild, especially with all the babble in Washington about family licensing. She dropped the marriage idea the instant I told her where I met Joel. After explaining that I was entirely too calm, that she was sure I would need her to pick up all the pieces of my shattered life, she signed her permission on the dotted line.

June 17, 2003 Saturday

What a beastly morning! I made three trips to the porcelain god in the hour of rosy-fingered dawn, as the Greeks used to call it. Nature is indeed a bitch. Why has the human race lasted so long if this is what we have to put up with to reproduce?

Angie basks in vindication. "Gillian, if I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, your problem is that you refuse to accept reality. Now you're finally going to have to face up to it, aren't you?"

I know the State would pay my medical bills if I had the baby and gave it up for adoption. How independant of Gillian -- poor broke taxpayers paying for her mistake. They already are paying, of course.

The other problem is, if the Family Licensing Act passes -- likely under the current Congress -- it'll make illegitimate kids count against the two you'll be legally entitled to have. Which will make it harder for me to get married, unless I find a man who wants only one kid. Not an impossible task, I guess, but I don't feel like much of a bargain this morning.

The other thing is that giving birth isn't without risk. I could die. No, it's not common, but the quality of State doctors oscillates madly now that they've lowered standards to make up for the shortage, and you're not allowed to pick and choose.

Angie would have a cardiac arrest if she knew I even contemplated going to college pregnant. As she is fond of reminding me, people just don't do that nowadays.

What kind of a job could I get that would support me -- on my own and in college -- until the baby's born? I can't think of any. Would I be sick during morning classes? Probably.

I cast about madly for an alternative, something that will show her I can face reality and fix my own problems. But what?

Finally I pull myself together and take an autocab back to ROE. When I get out, I see the religionists are demonstrating outside, Christians and Muslims by the looks of them. While inside are the Jewish doctors ... it makes me think of the Dome of the Rock, where all three religions claim the same piece of sacred ground. I wonder if the Rock is egg-shaped.

So I start to go inside, and of course the minute I head for the door, the religionists come rushing over to stop me. They don't know I didn't come down here for a Negg patch, but it doesn't matter, they're against that, too.

I do sympathize with the Christians. Their money is being used to pay for something they regard as a crime, and a destroyer of society. On the other hand, they got rid of RU-486, and they regard me as a threat, which I have a problem with. Still I can empathize with them more than the Muslim fundies, who are pushing for a law mandating female genital mutilation.

FGM means painful sex, so women won't stray from the straight and narrow, and decadent Western society will be brought to a golden age of stability and goodness. Brilliant, right, except they left the male sex drive out of the equation.

All religions are crazy on the subject of sex. Except pagans, who are crazy for it.

Anyway, this group of long-haired men and bald women in Birkie Boots comes pouring after the religionists in a wedge attack, shouting, "Escort! Escort! Every woman's entitled to one! Rifkin v Smith!"

But this wiry old gray-haired man happens to be standing in front, and he's obviously a Christian: stern gray eyes, long countrified sideburns, white leather Bible in his hands. I brace myself for the M-word. He fixes me with those eyes and says quietly, "You're going to regret this decision for the rest of your life."

"It's not my choice," I tell him. "I have no real choice."

Something strikes me about his face, in the split-second we stand there staring at each other. Condemnation, I expected that. But I see a softness lurking in those hard planes and angles. I imagine him taking his grandkids to Disneyland and maxing out his Newdollar card on Mickey Mouse hats and cotton candy.

The long-haired men shove their way past him, and do this arm- link blockade so I can walk to the clinic door. I walk surrounded by them, feeling ridiculous. The guy next to me has greasy black hair and a handlebar moustache and is wearing a pink T-shirt that says Socialists Ensure Xylophones.

I shouldn't have come here on a Saturday.

There's a struggle at the door when a fat woman with big hair tries to strangle the SEX guy with her rosary beads, but I make it inside.

The same bored-looking parasites are sitting in the same waiting-room chairs, reading the same magazines and playing barrasta. A girl in the corner smirks at me -- Forrie Hanover-Gish, an illiterate tobacco smuggler for a shag house in Donia Fells. I sign in at the desk and sit down as far away from Forrie as possible. Maybe I'll ask one of the barrasta players to tell me my fortune.

Screw it, I don't want to hear about my future right now. I'm in a funk, the worst one since Mom died.

I could tell by the way Angie said good-bye this morning that she'd no intention of volunteering to come along and hold my hand. It'll be good for my pathological notions of self-reliance to see how much I need her. Therapeutic, you see.

I'd rather die than go crawling back to her. Everything she offers has strings attached. What's wrong with being independent? I don't want to be like my mother, so clingy and dependent that in spite of her success as an artist, she couldn't let go of a good-looking creep with the emotional development of your average brick. Would she rather I were more like other kids: no job, doing poorly in school -- if they go -- and no ambition to do anything but get rich booting leaf, flashing Lucifer, or acting bodyguard in a shag house?

But I'm not like my mother. I'm like my father, aren't I? Selfish and self-absorbed, destroying something soft and helpless so I can be free to do as I please. I feel dark inside, like something that should never have been born.

"Blessing! This way, please...."

The nurse takes me back to the exam room, and a different doctor rolls in. I sit there staring at the jars of industrial- strength disinfectant, the steel instruments and the four-color posters of SCUD attacking the male and female reproductive systems while Dr. Janigar checks my IDENT database to make sure I've never had an abortion before ("Only one per lifetime allowed now, you know") and explains the different procedures.

Dr. Janiger's young and sleazily handsome, his black slicked- back hair unsuccessfully hiding a cowlick. He's wearing this snazzy black tie with little stethoscopes imprinted on it and a teal Mercedes tattoo on his left cheek. The whites of his eyes are yellow.

I glance away when I notice the left one twitching rhythmically, and see spots on his tie that look like dried blood.

I stand up suddenly. "I'm sorry, I can't go through with it."

Dr. Janigar, old hand that he is, isn't terribly surprised. "Yeah. Well, be sure to come back and get a free Negg patch right after the birth. That way, you won't ever have to worry about the unreliability of other methods. Now, for your mandatory SCUD test...."

"Got my home test kit, thanks." I'm out the door like a shot. Forget that stupid patch. I'm not having sex ever again, and even if I did, I wouldn't come back here for the tobacco franchise on a Tennessee Reservation Trading Post. (I don't smoke, but if I had a franchise like that I'd be rich, wouldn't I? Then I wouldn't have to worry about any of this.)

To my relief, Dr. Janiger doesn't chase after me screaming about my mandatory SCUD test. He's probably still sitting there, smiling vaguely at the wall.

I slip out the back way, avoiding the protestors. The bright afternoon sunlight hits me like a blow, and I shiver, wondering what I'm going to do, how I'll live. Then I see two cadaverous Lucys ambling down the alley toward me. With their slicked-down, shoulder- length hair they resemble some anthropomorphized cartoon of the Lucifer sticks they live to inhale.

I don't understand much about Lucy psychology. They've got a religion built around it, claiming they're all visited by the same God. There's some South American tribe, I forget the name, that uses massive doses of tobacco to see their God, too.

Lucy's are crazy as an outhouse rat when they're down, and sweet as kittens when their God is visiting. Nicotine's a poison, but somehow they manage to build up a tolerance; the Supreme Court hasn't ruled yet on whether the Substance War violates their freedom of religion.

I wonder what it would be like to sniff the smoke from freebased heroin-nicotine, burning my fingers in religious ecstasy.

Nah.

"Peace be unto you, Sister," says one of the Lucys, a reddish- haired boy with one brown and one blue eye.

"The King-of-Light brings the one true Peace," I tell him in standard Lucy parlance, implying that I'm one of them, and therefore not a proper subject for robbery.

The boy nods gravely. "Celebration tonight on South Mountain."

"Good news," I say, hiding a shiver. I mean, what if there really is a God, and He's it? Horrible thought. Lucys give me the willies -- is that a word, Lucywillies?

The second one bobs his head, his eyes fervent and happy, and they amble calmly away, thank goodness, before I start laughing. Or crying. What were these two like when they were little? I can't believe anyone ever read to them.

Thinking about Lucys, and what utter slaves they are, made me think of Second Chance. I start thinking about how wealthy they are from slave-trading, and how having a child out of wedlock is the single biggest guarantor of poverty there is.

I can't think of a bad enough word to describe them. Their stores should be taken apart brick by brick, and the ground beneath sown with salt, like Rome did to Carthage.

My dendrites giving off small, dark sparks, I storm off up the narrow crooked street leading north, away from ROE Center. The street gets kinkier and the houses draw back, shaded by more and more trees. Presently it gives out onto Camelback.

Camelback is like Park Avenue used to be -- dignified, niche shops catering to the idle rich. Across the street, I can see Literati, and for the hundredth time I wish I worked there. Their science fiction section is small, but solid, and the antique section is fantastic. Audiobooks? Literati's never heard of them.

I'll never work at a place like that now. Hey, maybe if I got a job as a stripper, I could afford my own apartment, college and a kid! Tiger Gil, the stripper with stretch marks. No, thanks.

Feeling incredibly stupid and irresponsible, I blaze down the sidewalk, a blur of adoption horror stories cycling through my brain.

My blob of protoplasm will be "disadvantaged." I don't trust State Adoption to do an adequate job, and I don't have the resources to do it myself. What really grinds me? The inevitability of it all.

I suspect that the only way to be responsible is to relinquish my dream of writing and get a practical job ... say, selling TEMPEST- proof computer equipment to government hacks. The agony of this thought cannot be adequately described.

Presently I found myself looking in a curved, invisible-glass window. The sign is in prim Times Roman lettering on a narrow dark- blue ribbon. Second Chance.

There's a golf-ball sized lump in my throat. I wish I had a second chance. I'm not that practical, I can't be; I'll expend my last breath tilting at windmills. But at least I'll have the satisfaction of doing the right thing.

I peer through the glass at the photographs arranged on the navy-blue velvet. Smiling couples holding babies, six assorted and extraordinarily handsome children, and three young women in graduation caps and gowns. One looks familiar, but I can't place her. You'd never guess these people were slavers, would you?

Next to the photos is a small, discreet manila card: A. Harriman, MD.

Harriman must be a DNA specialist in designer offspring for the rich, but the three graduates puzzle me. Surrogates rarely go to college.

I push open the heavy glass door and walk inside. There's a low sofa sitting on a bare parquet floor done in four shades of gold, with a counter, a curtain, and two oil paintings on the walls. The paintings have the look of Renaissance originals, and are probably worth a fortune.

Next to the paintings is a vanishingly small sign listing services with prices.

Defect-free sperm -- either your own, or someone else's -- costs anywhere from one hundred to ten thousand Newdollars per successfull insemination. I heard somewhere that most people carry around five to ten lethal genes, so there must be a base price for engineering those out, and then they go on up from there.

They offer both in-vivo and in-vitro fertilization, the latter with the Harriman Method, which has been shown to decrease the chances of a "yield" greater than twins by 86% over conventional treatment.

They contract host-mother services, of course, as well as frozen defect-free eggs, with a differential price for frozen embryos and frozen fetuses. Monozygotic twins and clones are double and triple price. Base price includes genotypic analysis with computer imaging, no extra cost for age progression through adulthood. Listing for personality traits and behaviors which have a strong genetic component are shown with statistics from the Tokyo-Austin-London Twin Study, along with percentage of Second Chance children who exhibit them. Traits cannot be guaranteed, etc., etc., see our home environment consultant for optimizing intelligence and learning skills.

I took a look at the numbers and whistled. One-stop shopping for Superkid. My poor little non-genius blob probably wouldn't be considered good enough to shine his shoes.

A tall man appears through the peach-colored damask curtain. He has very white hair combed straight back, and a tan, outdoorsy complexion. Overall he seems quite fit, though he has to be pushing seventy. He's wearing a thin, expensive navy pullover and tweed slacks with a narrow maroon tie that must've belonged to his British great-grandfather. "Good afternoon. May I help you?"

I think of a half-dozen verbal missiles I'd like to fling at this mercenary monster, this fiend in Anglophone form. What comes out is: "I'd like to know a little about your business."

He nods. "Well, we specialize in what are popularly called designer children. Dr. Harriman has pioneered a number of useful techniques in the field. We offer personal engineering, with the emphasis on health first and traits second. We also offer cryo- storage, contracts with surrogates, all licensed and bonded, and placement contracts in certain other situations."

His accent is solidly upper-class British. In spite of my self-righteous fury, I liked his eyes -- clear, light blue, steady gaze.

"What are placement contracts?"

His mouth curves in a smile of genuine pleasure. "They're our top-of-the-line adoptions. They are quite expensive, and we don't do a large number, but customer satisfaction is substantial -- significantly higher than modified sperm, which is our biggest seller."

"'Placement contracts' sounds so much nicer than slave- trading."

The smile disappears, and in its place is a look of frosty dignity. "If you wish to buy a ... person, I'm afraid I can't help you."

"I don't wish to do any such thing, and I believe you know that." My glare could melt his frost at a hundred paces. "People like you have the intelligence and the resources that could be put toward real adoptions for poor children, but instead you've found this loophole in the law so you can traffic in human flesh. Improved human flesh, no less. You've made eugenics profitable and reinstituted slavery. You're about as vile as a person can get, and I'm here to tell you I'm going to put you out of business. I don't know how, but I will do it."

The blue eyes meet mine squarely. "I see. Do I take it that you wish your children to be better off than yourself?"

I give him a fractional nod. "A foreign concept to you, no doubt. I've read George Orwell -- 'Freedom is slavery, slavery is freedom.' You should stamp that on your credit cards."

The door opens and a young woman comes in. She's beautiful in an elegant, understated sort of way, and she's wearing the lovely but careless silks now so popular in Net culture. "Gil! I never expected to see you here!"

"Sally? Sally Jastrow?" It takes me a second to recognize her, and then I realize that's her picture in the window. The last time I saw her was just before she got busted for peddling home-grown cigars. What a mess -- she'd gotten off with a plea and rehab, and then she'd disappeared.

"In the flesh," she says with a light laugh. "I got a job as a software engineer for Howard Systems."

My opinion of her circumstances revises upward logarithmically. "That's madder!" She's three years older than me -- in grade school, she was the only friend I could talk to like I talk to my journal, the one who never made me feel like a nerd. "How did you....?"

Sally grins. "You mean, how did someone headed for the gutter manage to get a job at the most competitive software firm in the country? Just ask Jamie."

"Jamie who?"

"Him. Mr. Jameson. Hasn't he gone over the contract with you yet?"

"Which contract?"

"The Biological Parent-Child Rights, Responsibilities, and Reimbursement Contract. You're pregnant, right?" Sally glances at the proprietor, who'd retreated behind the counter. "Really Jamie, I thought you'd show it to her immediately."

Jamie clears his throat delicately. "Er, Miss Jastrow, we haven't discussed--"

"I don't believe it." I give her a look that would crash a disk drive. "You got pregnant, and you sold your kid into slavery. That's how you got through school!"

Sally sighs. "Really, Gil. I expected a more intelligent response."

"Oh. Well, pardon me for being dumb enough to think pregnancy shouldn't be profitable."

"It shouldn't be anything else if you do it right," says Jamie, holding up a perfectly manicured hand. "If you will permit me to explain...."

"Go ahead, knock yourself out." I smile. "It should prove an interesting exercise in rationalization."

"If a woman is going to have a healthy child which she cannot afford, and is considering abortion because the father does not want it, I will contract with her to pay for birth expenses. I then broker the baby to a good home for a high price, of which she gets sixty percent. That money is an incentive for her to take good care of her investment."

"What a calculating word investment is. Surrogates get reimbursed, too, but anything beyond expenses makes it slavery."

Jamie seems unimpressed. "Whether animal, vegetable or mineral, resources poured into something for long-term benefit are investments. Should you not be compensated for the length of time it takes to produce this person, as well as the risk to your life from carrying the baby to term? And the morning sickness, the weight gain, the probability of stretch marks, the inconvenience and general upheaval of your life?"

I feel queasy just listening to him. "Well, sure. That part makes sense. But you're still paying someone to produce a human being, which you then sell to the highest bidder."

He gazes at me with those clear blue eyes. "I believe it is slavery to be forced to risk your life, your body and your time for nothing. I also believe that a child is most people's biggest investment in the future, and that it pays dividends not countable in Newdollars. Tell me, do you wish your child to be better than you yourself -- smarter, taller, better-looking?"

I remember a line from my favorite poem of Joel's, "quasar, quasar, warm my interstellar bone, galactic brazier to the far-flung alone...." Quasar and brazier don't exactly rhyme, but it was certainly creative, wasn't it? "I don't care about looks, but I would like my kid to be smarter than I am."

"Then you believe in eugenics. If you don't like artificial selection methods, that's a matter of personal preference. Now, have you ever owned a cat?"

"Sure. Her name's Chairman Mao -- Mao is Chinese for cat."

"Did she ever have kittens?"

"Twice, and then I had her fixed. I was lucky to be able to give them all away. Except two of the ones I gave away died a few weeks afterwards."

"Mm. Do you suppose if you'd been able to sell those kittens, they might've gone to better homes? Ones where they might've received better care?"

He had a lot of nerve, lecturing me on how to find good homes for kittens. "I did the best I could."

"I'm sure you did. Home evaluations are difficult and complex. Whom do you think would provide a better home: the person who got a free kitten, or the one who paid a high price?"

"Well ... the latter. Except sometimes the rich are bastards, too."

He doesn't turn a hair. "Indeed. Auxiliary screening is vital. Now, suppose I gave you...." He names a sum that makes my ears burn. "... for a healthy infant. Or embryo, if you'd rather do that at half-price. I guarantee it a good home, and you take that money and go to college, or whatever it is you wish to do. Would you consider it?"

"No!"

"Why? Does the father want it? Or would you rather be on welfare?"

I clench my fists so hard, my nails dig into my palms. If Jameson knew anything about welfare, he wouldn't ask that question. As for Joel's wants, I couldn't imagine him looking beyond his next poetry anthology. "One, I don't believe so, and two, definitely not. A good bribe doesn't make it right. What kinds of mothers would sell their children? The babies would probably all be withdrawing from drugs...."

Sally shakes her head. "How do you think I motivated myself to quit smoking? The incentive of a big bonus for a healthy child, and nothing at all for a sickly one, had a lot to do with it."

"Maybe Mr. Jameson can't tell the difference."

"I can tell," says Jameson flatly. "Sally quit smoking two months before she got pregnant. A child born under one of these contracts has more explicitly defined rights than one born under more conventional circumstances; a large part center around being free of alcohol, tobacco, and other harmful drugs. I believe it's the most important part of the contract. Our policy is modeled on the Chinese approach to medicine -- you pay the doctor when you're healthy, and you don't pay him when you're sick."

It takes me a while to mull that one over. A rebellious part of my brain notes that neither choice is without cost: destroy the little blob with other people's money, or sell it to someone who'd pay top dollar. In which case does priceless equal worthless?

"The Adoptive Parents Association lobbied for this," Sally said.

"Then why don't they offer it at ROE Center?"

Sally shrugs. "They offer one kind of deal based on what they think people want, and Jamie another. How much luck would he have with any responsibilities contracts downtown?"

Jamie returns with a disk and a viewer big enough for two people to look through. Sally pops the disk in, and she and I go through the pictures of her kid.

"She looks smart," I say after a moment, and not just because that's what you're supposed to tell people. The kid has the same bright eyes and go-to-hell grin that Sally has. (I've been told mine is similar. Wouldn't it be nice if we were related? But we all are, if we go back far enough.)

"She'll be nineteen months on September 8th," Sally replies proudly. "Best of all, she lives with two people who love her and provide for her. Meanwhile, I know I've done the right thing for her, and I get to make something of my life. It's a tough contract, Gil, but I bet you could do it. Good grief, you don't even have to quit smoking!"

I lift an eyebrow at her and Jamie, a gesture which Sally always said reminded her of Mr. Spock.

"I think you'd better show me that contract."

Jan. 30, 2017

Dear Danielle:

Thank you for the kind comments about Dark Matter Angel. It's my first hardback, and I'm so proud of it, I still have occasional dizzy spells.

And speaking of which, I'm thrilled to hear you made the Dean's List for the second time at Ansonia Prep. I must say, I admire your dedication and hard work. You're much more focused than I was at your age.

Your mother and father have decided you're mature enough to handle the specific information about your birth you requested, so here it is.

Thank you for giving me my life, and for helping me grow up. Most of all, thank you for being the wonderful kid you are.

Love, Aunt Gil

THE END


© 1997 by Frances H. Van Cleave



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