“’s hot. Turn on da AC
It was broken. I told her.
This annoyed me. The little girl moved her sullen gaze back to the twisting highway. I sighed. It was the sort of thing Melissa would have said, and she was the last person I wanted to think about right then. The image came with ease. She would curse, a pithy file of protest against the great injury I had just done her, then turn those dull brown eyes away. She would blow a few strands of hair from her face, cross her arms, cross her legs. She would fidget, knowing that wasted motion grates me for no reason in particular. While the strategic attack was my strong suit, in a war of attrition I was at her mercy.
“Do you wanna listen to the radio?” I asked the girl to distract my thoughts from this distasteful course.
I dropped the subject. If awkward silence was what she wanted, I would gladly oblige. Not much remained to talk about those days. Plenty of chatter, but precious little substance. I preferred quiet to meaningless noise. Anyway, a conversation with this girl was probably going to be just as difficult as it had been with Melissa. My old, somewhat dangerous flame had returned three days before, smashed in more than one sense of the word. A greeting wasn’t even necessary, she simply marched in, dragging the girl by the hand, and collapsed on my sofa. When she woke up again fourteen hours later, it was in the same tortuous way I remembered from nine years past. All frizzy, misshapen hair and impolite groans and stretching and scratching. The girl was just sitting in the corner, watching her mother.
Melissa had first raided my medicine cabinet, then my resolve. She assaulted me with all the guilt saved up in our time apart, let it go with one burst of melodrama. I have trouble dealing with these floods of emotion, pent away for too long. It’s not that I don’t understand, but only with my head, not my heart. The girl quickly grew bored of the escalating frenzy, and retreated to my backyard. Melissa’s raw, raving anger and my irritated coolness climaxed in a cliché. It was merely a replay of ten thousand abortive arguments that had flashed and faded throughout our combative relationship. She stormed off, locking herself in the bathroom. She took my razors, making obvious clunking noises as she climbed into the tub. While she cut she screamed vindictive. This time she slipped.
The girl’s name was Sarah. Born just after Melissa had left me, she appeared a gangly, unpleasant looking child with sunken eyes and inappropriately delicate hands. Never smiling, you could still see the missing teeth when she spoke. Somehow it wasn’t as cute as it should have been. I tried to fill in the blanks after they took her mother’s body away with vague questions, but the long pauses and worthless answers eventually broke down any desire I had left to know.
It wasn’t difficult to find someone who wanted her. A lively black market existed for those sorts of things, even in the rural counties. So many people with fever dreams of desire, with the barest hope for even a little wretch like her. You could get a respectable sum through the right negotiations.
We flew past the outskirts of town. They didn’t enforce the speed limits too strictly anymore; most people had long stopped caring, so I drove as appropriate for the mostly deserted road. A ‘children at play’ sign brought hollow laughter to my lips without volition. As highway merged into main street I noticed the car was low on gas. I pulled it into a service station placed somewhat aggressively on the corner. Telling Sarah to stay in the car, I went into the small antiseptic minimart to pay the cashier before pumping. Credit cards had ceased working about two years back, but still a cheerful sticker on the register advertised the acceptance of Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and a dozen other smallish companies that had marketed plastic bliss during the world’s heyday. He keyed up the pump and wished me insincerely to have a nice day. It had grown difficult to wish blessings on anyone over time.
Coming out again, I noticed an old man in typical green cardigan and khaki pants pulled too high staring at Sarah through the passenger window. If the girl noticed, she didn’t show it. The man’s eyes never wavered, taking in the lines of Sarah’s immature face hungrily. I suppose anything can be beautiful to the right person. To save him from getting any ideas, I ducked my head inside the car with exaggerated motion and said something inconsequential to Sarah. The man sighed visibly, then turned and walked painfully back to his own car. While I filled the tank I took a chance to watch her myself. After a few moments I knew then what the man had seen in her. This angered me.
When the Fading began, they thought it was chemical warfare. Thousands of mothers, all carrying healthy babies to term, for no apparent reason would end their pregnancies in stillbirth. Throughout the whole process of conception and growth nothing would seem amiss, but as soon as the umbilical cord was severed, the baby died. As it became clear that this was not isolated to any one region of the country, or even the world, panic ensued. Everyone wound into a hysteria, expecting the end of the world to come at any moment. There were conspiracy theories, cults, riots, mass movements. The government nearly collapsed. But after about a year and a half, the world’s frenzy lost its potency. There’s only so long you can keep riled up. One by one each person sank into a kind of dazed denial, living life just as it had been lived before, but only half-felt. Every once and awhile a new craze would sweep through the populace, but never with the fervor of that first year. Having survived so many cataclysms through the milleniums, humanity could handle one last assault on its existence before being pulled gently into the night.
Those children born before the Fading became more precious than could ever be imaged. Desperate couples tried to snatch up every spare child available before the last generation too joined the ranks of the aging. I possessed none of this strange romanticism of parenthood. Without warning, Sarah spoke, setting the air weighted with humidity and heat aquiver.
“We’re out of time.”
I glanced over to her, puzzled, then gave the standard reply I knew all children her age were taught in rushed words.
“It’s ok. Scientists are working on it, they’re coming very close to finding an answer. There will be new children soon.”
Sarah sighed in a distinctly irritated way and murmured, “That’s not what I meant.”
This left me disquieted, but I could think of nothing further to say. The words wilted in staid air. The truth was that assured I was incapable of raising a child, the choice had been easy. No mess. No fuss. I doubted it mattered to her in any case. She was worth more appreciation than I could give.
We arrived at the designated meeting spot just after noon. I brought her briefly with me into a small family-run diner named the ‘Koffee Kup’ and bought us both sandwiches. We sat down on the front steps, sweating in the sun, and ate our lunches in silence. The way she attacked her sandwich saddened me, as if she was afraid it might suddenly flee her grasp. It wasn’t hard to imagine how Melissa had probably treated her. When we finished, I led her across the street to a park. While I leaned against a picnic bench overlooking the river, its lazy bluish-brown waters carving their inevitable way South, she played joylessly on the swing set. The expression of her face, the way she kicked her legs harder than necessary, leaning her whole small weight forwards and backwards with each swing, gave the impression that it was more a chore than anything else. Something mildly unpleasant to do out of obligation. Something to endure. Once or twice I was tempted to walk over and ask if she wanted a push, but thought better of it. Behind her, someone had scrawled on the building wall facing the park in black graffiti, “Viðrar vel til loftárása.” I didn’t understand.
He arrived at one. The negotiator was a young man, with blond receding hair and a forgettably pleasant smile. We shook hands out of custom, then sat down to the table and made idle comments about the pervading heat. After a pause, he turned the conversation to Sarah. I gave him what details he asked for, doing my best to keep it all objective. This was a trade, an exchange of goods, nothing more. Although it had been difficult the last few days, I prided myself on keeping the focus of my thoughts. She was an orphan who needed a home. I was a temporary caretaker.
After writing some things down into an old battered PDA, the negotiator named the price he was willing to pay. It was substantial. I knew it would have been wise to haggle, he surely was authorized to pay more since letting a child slip away when they were so rare those days would have been unthinkable, but I became suddenly possessed with a horrible weariness of the whole affair. I wanted to return home, to return to my work. This disaster had dragged on far longer than it should have. I accepted his offer within a moment’s consideration. I could catch a flash of surprise across his face, but he subdued it quickly. There were no papers to sign, as this was technically all very, very illegal. It gave me a little solace, for I didn’t feel I would have had the energy to even scribble my name to a dotted line.
I rose from my seat and called the child over. She ground her feet into the pebbles, letting the swing still more than really necessary before finally getting up. Sarah walked in a way that seemed entirely aimless, as if to move only for the sake of moving. There was no history of origin and no intention of arrival. When she finally reached the picnic table, it was merely by coincidence.
“Sarah, say hello to Mr. Galagher. He’ll be taking you to see your new family.”
She looked between us, distractingly unremarkable brown eyes sweeping slowly from my face to his and back again. They seemed to know exactly what this was about, all his motivations and all my justifications. She neither judged nor condemned. No matter whom or what her eyes looked upon, Sarah just didn’t seem to care. I found myself averting my gaze, filled with useless frustration at being unable to stand the eye-contact of a mere child.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Sarah. Your father is very kind to do this. I will bring you to a family that can care much better for you than your mother had. They will love you for the dear little girl you are. Do you understand?”
It sounded like this was something he had said many times. I was disgusted with its rehearsed cheerfulness. He handed me his black briefcase to cinch the deal. Not even bothering to check its contents, I wordlessly turned and walked back toward the car with no other desire than to drive as quickly away from this unwanted complication of my life as possible. Sarah had nothing further to say either.
I made it as far as the kitchen. Until that moment my mind had been empty. No single thought, no memory, no feeling crossed its barren desert through the whole drive back. I reveled in the zenlike detachment from my own head. But the glass on the counter did me in. It was set unobtrusively beside the sink, with a centimeter of two of water remaining. It had been the only thing I offered Sarah that she accepted. She had drained it, then stalked without further ado back to the spare room set up for her. The lack of appreciation had annoyed me, yet in her absence I clutched at the vivid memory feverishly. Then I was sobbing, shuddering violently under the weight of irrational, uncontrollable regret. It was a sledgehammer to the head. I grabbed the glass and flung it at the opposite wall with an animal cry, shattering it into a hundred glittering shards that tumbled and scattered across the floor. I sank there as well, hugging myself and rocking with relentless waves of grief.
In time a hand rested on my shoulder and stroked it comfortingly. I raised my face from my hands to see her, Melissa, looking as I best remembered her. The woman could be nothing but the purest form of sex and affection bespoke at times. She raised a finger to her lips and smiled, hissing gently to quiet my sobs.
“H..how?” I barely managed to squeek out.
“Just a pattern, sweety. A pattern that can no longer change. We’re a little stronger now with the Fading, but it is still difficult to see us unless you wish it.”
There was no forgiveness in her eyes, but pity. Somehow that was all I needed. Gathering my breath, I asked, “Will this end?”
“Oh honeybun.. it already has. We’re out of time. There are only two paths left.”
And I understood.
“I want to change.”
“That is the first step to salvation.”