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Even Love is Sold



Wake to the misery of a hangover--hangover if I'm lucky, if I've slept enough to have the hangover, if I'm not still drunk. Try to eat something, choke it down, knowing I'll be starving halfway through the night and won't have a chance to eat then. Boyfriend walks through the door straight off another twenty-four hour shift at the clinic, just in time to start Round Two of the argument we were having the last time we saw each other. I walk out the door still blood-red-pissed at him even knowing it might be the last time I'll ever see him. Every night, that's the last thought I have as I leave: I may not come back from this.

Then it's work, and it's just another stinking night on the job. Whack a couple of working stiffs. Threaten somebody's grandmother. I don't know or care about the reasons behind it. It's my job, so I do it. At least I don't have to torture any kids tonight. I haven't been near a kid since I cut the fingers off that eight-year-old, six months ago. Afterwards I went out back and threw up, and the next day I still couldn't keep anything down, because I kept seeing Byron and Ada's faces and thinking about their little pudgy fingers holding onto mine. And so I went and saw the boss, and I told him, I don't do kids any more. And he didn't give me any for a while. He's pretty decent that way.

I get off work at six a.m. sharp--hey, the job stinks, the people stink, but the hours ain't so bad and I get full medical and dental. I walk through the door, throw my bag of tools over the back of the sofa, and find out my worthless bloody boyfriend has packed up and moved out.

Just another lousy day.

If they made a holovid out of my life, it'd be called Life: Nine Million Ways To Screw It Up.

So Imre's gone, again, probably back to make nicey-nicey with that hayseed wife of his. I'll give 'em five days. Maybe a week at most. Left the dirty dishes on the counter--lazy bastard couldn't even be bothered to stick 'em in the scrubber on his way out. Could be his final attempt to piss me off. He always did nag about my housekeeping.

All his clothes are gone. Toothbrush too. Maybe this time he's serious. It's six-fifty by the wall chrono, so I call him. Leave the visual ident off.

Woman's voice. Gaian accent you could cut with a fork. Sounds sleepy. Good, I hope I woke her up. "Hello? Freelove residence."

"I'd like to speak to Imre, please."

Hesitation. When Hayseed speaks again, her accent's so thick I almost can't understand her. "You've got a lot of nerve calling here, you two-bit homewrecking whore. If you want my husband, you can have him, but don't you dare speak to me again."

She disconnects. I call back.

"Hello?" Wary.

"I need to speak to Imre."

Disconnect.

Bitch. The thought crosses my mind that Imre might not be at home. Sometimes when he's on the outs with Greta or Girda or whatever her name is, he sleeps at the clinic. As if I even care where he is. Finally I can enjoy the privacy of my own home without having to listen to constant carping: Stop drinking, Leslie. Get a real job, Leslie. Stop killing people, Leslie. No wonder Gretel or Gretchen or whoever threw him out.

I nuke some scrambled vat protein, though I'm not hungry anymore, and I've come down off my anger high by the time I finish eating. Calling Imre's home number was a stupid move for many reasons, I suppose, not the least of them being that if he's at home, he's hardly likely to respond well to a call from his mistress. Ugh. I hate that word. I know I'm not his girlfriend, though, because I know he'll never leave Hayseed, even if he's convinced himself otherwise. I guess I'm not his anything now, but old habits die hard.

I leave my dishes with Imre's on the counter--now that he's gone, no point in washing up for another few days at least--make myself a screwdriver and wander into the living room. I should be sleepy but I'm not. Maybe the alcohol will help. Maybe the living room decor will help. The windowwalls are all tuned to some Gaian landscape, and in case you've never been to Gaia, the whole planet looks like a giant lawn. I've heard that their tallest mountain, if you can call it that, is about the size of a low building. Imre used to say that living underground made him claustrophobic.

I tell the walls to show me the street outside.

I do like working at night. Always have, always will. One thing I really like about it is watching the city wake up. You can't appreciate it until you see it as an outsider--not as one of the crowd stumbling out of bed, dropping pancakes on the floor, trying to pack the kids off to school, running off to the bedroom for a quickie with the husband if you're not too tired and he's not too late for work. From the outside, it's like watching a big organism wake up. At first it looks like it's dead, but then the head stirs, the tail stirs, and if you look away or even blink, you might miss that moment when it goes from being stiff and dead, to awake and alive.

For me, that moment is when the kids come out to wait for the school transport.

I swear, ever since Ada and Byron, I've been obsessed with kids. Like I said before, it's got to the point where I can't even do the kid jobs at work anymore. I love their little round faces, the softness of their hair, the way they don't think about what they're saying but just speak what's on their minds. I guess this makes me sound like some kind of psychotic stalker, but I'm not interested in them in a bad way. I just like to look at them. Be near them.

I thought for a while it was some kind of displacement thing, trying to transfer my feelings for Ada and Byron, or some psychobabble like that. But I first started noticing the kids back when I was pregnant with Ada. I remember standing for hours just looking at the babies in the clinic, and touching my belly every now and then, feeling her move down there. After she was born, I used to love looking at other people's babies, especially when I didn't have mine near me. Granted, it's gotten worse in the last couple of years. I think it's all part of what they used to call the healing process. I'm not trying to replace my kids, and looking at other people's kids doesn't make me miss them any less; if anything, I miss them more. But every day it gets a little better.

So here they come, little sweet children. Hair spit-slicked back, little skirts and pants all freshly sprayed on, lunch clutched in small sweaty hands. Mothers or fathers or bigger siblings leading the little ones out by the hand. Older kids trying to look sophisticated in their striped uniforms. Some parents walk their own kids to school, rather than putting them on the transport, and I watch them setting out in twos and threes.

I'm trying not to think about the job tomorrow.

So I know I said the boss hasn't given me any kid jobs, and he hasn't until tonight. I looked him right straight in the eye when I got my assignment and I ask, what is this, don't you know I don't do kids? And he doesn't really meet my eyes, he just says, Les, we all appreciate and understand what you've been through, but all the others are tied up in long-term projects and you're the only employee we have available for this. It's just a standard snuff job. Real quick.

I tell him maybe I don't have to do the whole family, maybe we can leave the kid. I mean, that's pretty poignant, right? Little orphan and all.

He says, Sorry, Les, that's not the point; the big boss ordered the job done that way, so it's gotta be done that way. Orders from above, get it?

I get it, and furthermore, I get that they're tired of me pulling out all squeamish from the kid jobs. Leaving the dirty work to the others, is that how they see it? I ask him that.

He kinda squirms around, and says naw, he wouldn't really put it that way, but some of the guys, they're wondering if I'm getting special treatment or something because I'm a woman. That is total bullshit and I tell him so. I can cap a hundred to their ten, and I've had to prove myself over and over again. This is old, tired ground.

He says, yeah, but all that was before I had kids, and some people think it's made me go soft.

I tried to make him name names, point out who was saying these things about me, but he wouldn't, and finally I went home with a pretty good mad on. Being mad is better than thinking about what I'm going to have to do tonight.

Used to be a time when this wouldn't have bothered me at all. I mean, my job is just a job. I do what I'm paid to do, then I go home and I make dinner or make love or whatever, just like any other working stiff. Kids, grownups, grandparents, puppies, didn't used to matter. Maybe they're right, maybe I am going soft.

I'll show 'em soft.

The transport has gone by and picked up all the kids. I'm still not sleepy, so I pour myself another screwdriver (hold the orange juice this time) and re-read the handheld on the Quinlans. Not much information--just address, names, physical descriptions, identifying marks. No comments on why this particular couple is destined for the iceblock, but I can read between the lines. I've seen it plenty of times. Single mom, no money, good-for-nothing boyfriend laying around the house all day reading porn and sponging off her. She hooks on the side until she figures out that you can make a lot more money slinging Fringe or joyboxes, but doesn't know enough about it, doesn't know better than to deal on somebody else's ground.

Frankly, the world's probably better off without either Maggie Quinlan or her boyfriend. It's the kid I feel bad for. Five years old. In ten years he'd probably be as much of a waste of space as Mom--slinging Fringe himself, or mugging people, or gangrunning; have a couple of priors, maybe even killed some people. But now he's five. I know it's a rotten cliche, but it's true: he's got his whole life ahead of him. Sure he'll fuck it up, but it's kinda sad that he won't get the chance, if you know what I mean.

Kid's name is Sam. Samuel Quinlan.

Maggie Quinlan. Roy Groeck, the boyfriend. I put their names in that part of my memory that I've learned to flush after a job. Safer that way. Better. I wipe the handheld.

Still can't sleep, so I change out of my work clothes into a cliptop and slacks and a wide-brimmed hat, and head over to the part of town where the Quinlans live. It's two tunnels over from my quiet little 'burb, a similar part of town: apartments, parks, gardens. There's a few boarded-up doors and flickering strip lights, a couple guys lounging on a street corner, but all in all it's a solid working-class neighborhood.

I wander by the Quinlans' address, like I'm looking for something, then back up. There's a guy on the Quinlans' balcony, lounging on a lawn chair and reading a paper. I peg him right away for an offworlder. Only offworlders try to sunbathe under the strip lights in the streetroof.

I wave to him cheerily. "Morning!"

"Mornin'." He's wearing a faded bathrobe that gaps open to show hairy gut and stained underwear. Roy Groeck, I presume. He looks like a Roy Groeck.

Some folks wouldn't be chatting up the mark the day before doing him, but I'm not one of your fly-by-nights. I'm fully licensed and I have a contract, and I trust my bosses to make sure that the contract has gone through all the proper channels. Doesn't matter if two dozen witnesses can link me to the scene. It's not like I'm contemplating a crime or anything.

"Help you?" he says.

I back up so that I'm not peering at him through the slats of the railing. "Yes, maybe. I'm looking for a friend of mine. I think she used to live here, or around here. Donna Garber?" Donna was a hooker I once knew. Her street name was Brandy.

"Don't nobody by that name live here."

"Tall redhead, long legs--"

"I think I know who lives in my house, miss. She ain't in my house." Roy swings his feet off the lawn chair and sets them flat on the balcony. Belligerent cuss.

"I haven't seen her since we were in school. She must have moved."

"Must have." He goes back to his paper.

"Sorry to bother you, then."

He doesn't answer and I wander off, after another good look at the house.

One door. No windows, of course; the offworld custom of putting unnecessary holes in their buildings has always struck me as a little odd, but I normally check for them anyway, since some people stick a hole or two in there for tradition's sake. No telling how many weapons are inside. Roy Groeck didn't seem to be carrying a gun with him, at least he didn't reach for one when he saw me. Too dumb to be paranoid? I'd bet his girlfriend carries, if only to protect herself from Roy. Unless she's dumber than he is ... a possibility I cannot rule out.

My wandering thoughts and wandering feet take me home. I still can't sleep, so I drink for a time, and read poetry. Yeah, I like poetry; I like the romantic poets, and that doesn't mean romantic in the modern sense, the sense of finding somebody to fuck and fucking them and getting tired of them and finding somebody else. No, it's a way of looking at the world, a paradigm that I don't think we have anymore. We lost it somewhere in the fiery hell of Hiroshima, in the mutations and monstrosities of the Unification Wars, in the killing fields of Secuba and the asteroid belt that was once Earth. Even the Romantics saw glimmers of reality peeking through their illusions, when they couldn't avoid the sight of children dying in workhouses and whores spreading New World diseases in the streets.

"Even love is sold," Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, six hundred years ago, in Queen Mab. No shit, Shelley, I think. We've done gone and sold it, till it doesn't have any street value anymore.

I set aside Queen Mab and read Byron for a while, my son's namesake. I fall asleep thinking about my children the last time I saw them, two years ago; and thinking about Lord Byron and Ada Lovelace and Mary and Percy Shelley, in their castles and estates, back in the days when half of all children died before their first birthday.

Wake early. Reach sleepily over to Imre's side of the bed, but it's cold; that's right, he went back to the Hayseed. For once, I'm up early enough to eat a decent breakfast, take a long shower, read a book and get ready for work in a leisurely fashion--except on this particularly evening, I'd much prefer to roll out of bed five minutes before clocking in. I don't want to think about it. I just want to do it. Get it over.

I take a two-hour shower and don't eat a thing.

At ten minutes to nineteen hundred, I call my boss from a pay terminal, let him know I'm heading over. He tells me to take my time, do whatever I need to do, and take the rest of the night off after I finish. I don't say thanks.

The lights in the streets are dimming for evening. I pass some time window-shopping on Boardwalk, then go home and read Byron until it's as dark as an underground city gets, before walking over to the Quinlans'. The nightlife is stirring and I cripple a couple of muggers on my stroll. Neither of them is armed with more than knives, which I suppose is the measure of a decent neighborhood around here.

Problem with having no windows is that you can't tell what people are doing behind them. The door to the balcony is half open, though, and curtains billow in the temp-change currents. I sit in a doorway down the street and watch the house for about an hour. It's near midnight. Something stirs behind the door and a woman steps out onto the balcony. I can't see her very well; she's got her head turned around, speaking to someone in the darkened room behind her. Long reddish hair. Looks like the pictures I've seen of Maggie Quinlan, but I wish she'd turn--there she goes. I get a good look at her face through my binocs. Maggie Quinlan, all right. The sunbather guy comes out behind her, still wearing what looks like the same ratty bathrobe. He's carrying a couple of bottles. They lean against the railing, talking and drinking. I can't hear a word they're saying, just the voices. Talk and drink, talk and drink. At one point they disagree on something and the voices raise until they're screaming at each other. I make out the words "fucking whore" and "son-of-a-bitch." I bet the neighbors love these two. Then Roy kisses her on the forehead and she goes to get them more beers.

It's going to be a long night. I curl my legs up, and let my mind flow into the waiting state. I once spent twelve days waiting outside a hotel room for a guy to come out, leaving only to use the bathroom when absolutely necessary. This is nothing, I figure four or five hours, tops. They bring out some chairs, sit and stare down into the street. Talk and drink. Drink in silence for a change of pace. They don't smoke or hit up anything, at least not while I'm watching them.

Finally Maggie stands up, swaying, and Roy puts his hand in the small of her back and grabs one of her small, high breasts. They go inside, leaving the collection of beer bottles on the deck. The balcony door is still open.

They couldn't possibly leave it open. It can't be that easy.

I wait another half hour. It's after three in the morning. They haven't come out. The balcony door is still open.

Here I go.

I stand up, shake the kinks out of my legs and walk quickly down the street, past the Quinlans', cross and come back. Don't even need to shoot a rope to the balcony. From a running start, I can jump high enough to grab it. Pull myself over and cross to the door. I check for security systems and don't find any.

These people are stupid beyond all belief. Well, they won't be stupid for too much longer.

I'm standing in a small bedroom. Wide bed, small bathroom nook with no door. It's very similar to my bedroom. The bed is rumpled but unoccupied. Plants along the walls. Nice and homey.

Outside, a short hallway. Flickering light coming from downstairs. Probably watching vids. Another door--another bedroom, also unoccupied. The whole place is set up very similar to my apartment, not surprisingly. Most of these places were cut out of the rock at the same time and are built along the same plan.

I have the dart gun in my right hand, laser in the other. I can shoot equally well with both hands, but I'm right-handed, so I tend to shoot with the right hand first. The boss wanted these two alive to the end. I don't ask questions, I just do it.

Creep down the stairs.

From the base of the stairs, I can see a holovid projector taking up the far end of the room. They're watching some kind of space thriller, lots of explosions and shuttle chases, but the sound is turned so low I can barely hear it. Small entryway and door to the left, just like my place. Couch directly ahead. I can see the top of a man's head. No other furniture in the room to speak of, so Maggie Quinlan has got to be on the couch, probably in Roy's lap. I hope she's blowing him; it'll make their reactions slower. Blowing him or sleeping. I don't hear voices.

I walk up behind Roy and shoot him in the shoulder from two feet away.

Roy jumps and makes a strangled sound. Maggie is starting to sit up, bleary-eyed, with masses of curly hair falling in her eyes. I shoot her too, get her in the neck. The toxin is supposed to take effect in 3.2 to 7.5 seconds, depending on location. Maggie keels over almost immediately. Roy pulls a laser out of the waistband of his shorts and gets off a wild shot before falling on top of Maggie.

I shut off the vid and the room is suddenly, totally dark. I turn on the lights manually, since neither Roy nor Maggie can speak at the moment, and the house is not keyed to me.

They stare back at me, sprawled over the couch and floor. Maggie is naked from the waist up, and she looks terrified. Roy looks like he'd love to have me down at his feet, screaming and begging. I like the anger in his small close-set eyes. It's easier for me to kill angry people than whiny ones. Call me a wimp if you want, just not to my face.

So I give them the usual spiel about how I'm working for blah-blah-blah and they're getting bumped off by blah-blah-blah. I don't know why it matters, since it's not like they're going to learn from the experience, but the boss likes the marks to know what they did to piss his people off.

Tears well from Maggie's eyes, run helplessly down her cheeks.

"You look like you expect me to cap you both right here." I climb onto the couch, pushing aside Maggie's limp leg, to reach the fire snuffers in the ceiling and disable both of them. "Too bad. The boss wants you both alive when the fire reaches you."

Maggie's nose is running, her eyes huge. I hop down off the couch, and then realize for the first time that the kid's not in the living room.

Shit.

I look at the Bickersons. Roy is starting to drool because he's fallen with his jaw hanging open and doesn't have the muscle control to close it. It'll be morning by the time the drug wears off enough that they can tell me anything, if it doesn't kill them first by slow paralysis. I'm on my own.

After looking around the living room and kitchen, I head back upstairs and check both bedrooms, disabling snuffers as I go. Under the beds. In the closet. Where is the brat? I wonder if he went over to stay at a friend's tonight. I didn't get the feeling the Quinlans had been tipped off, or were suspicious from my slightly incautious visit earlier, but it could just be dumb luck.

I'd love to let it go, but I can't. Boss wanted the kid done too. If I don't, my employer satisfaction rating is going to plummet, and in my line of work, you don't want that to happen.

After looking around some more, I find a utility closet or something in the kitchen. It's locked, from the outside. Maybe somebody did tip them off. I tap lightly. "Sam?"

A muffled thump from inside. Yep, that's where the kid is. Unless these people routinely lock their kid in a closet, they must have figured something was up. Maybe casing so openly wasn't a good idea. I blow the lock off and the door slides back.

The first thing I smell is the stink. Smells like shit. The closet's dark and the kid is kind of crumpled in the middle of it. When the light from the door falls across him he starts trying to scramble to his feet, but he'll get halfway up and then fall down again, like his legs won't hold him. He's babbling too, and it takes me a moment to figure out what he's saying, his words are so slurred: "I'm sorry Roy, I'm sorry Roy, I'll be good, I'll be good." Over and over. Only he can't say "Roy" because he's too little; he says "Woy."

I just stare at him. Then he must have figured out that I'm not Roy Groeck, because he stops trying to stand up and sits, blinking at me. There's snot and tears all over his face, and his lips are cracked and swollen. "I want Mama," he whimpers.

"Sam Quinlan?" I manage to say at last.

He's crying, dry tortured sobs. "I want Mama," is all he can say. "Where's Mama?"

I go down to my knees, put myself more on his level. "Sam? Is your name Sam?"

"I'm sorry I fell down. I'm sorry. I tried. I tried and tried. I didn't mean to be bad." His voice is so raspy I can barely hear it.

Shooting this kid would probably be the best thing I could do for him. He's so thin his little elbows look like they're about to poke out through the skin. His hair's clean and brushed, but dry and fragile-looking, like he's suffering from some major nutritional deficiencies. And he stinks. I can see where it's coming from--there's shit down one of his legs, although his clothes are clean besides that.

What kind of parents bathe their kid and dress him in clean clothes, but don't feed him and stick him in a closet until he has to shit his pants? Sick ones, I think, and I don't regret killing Maggie Quinlan and Roy Groeck, not at all.

"Sam? Are you Sam?"

"Essem," he mumbles, which I decode eventually as 'yes, ma'am.'

"Why are you in the closet, Sam?"

"Because I was bad," he whispers.

Shoot him, shoot him, shoot him. My higher brain is telling me this. But the little kid in the dark closet speaks to a much deeper level of consciousness, and I can't believe that I'm putting my arms around him, pulling him out. He resists, tries to struggle, but there's no strength in his stick-thin body. He's hot to the touch and shuddering with helpless sobs. As I try to pick him up, his little body bends double and he starts retching. Nothing comes up but a whitish froth on his lips.

"Sam? Hey, you okay?" Doesn't matter if he's okay, you moron; he's going to be dead in a few minutes.

He whimpers and I rock him until he quiets down. He looks up at me. His eyes are big and dark, crusted with yellowish mucus at the corners. "My stomach hurts," he says, very quietly.

"It's okay, Sam. Why does your stomach hurt?"

"I think it's because of the soap I ate."

My own stomach twists and I'm glad I didn't eat before coming to work. "Why did you eat soap, Sam?"

"Because I was bad. I'm not a big boy. Roy made me eat it." He starts crying again. "Roy said I had to stand in the closet but I'm so tired and I've been standing all day and I don't like it when I have to eat soap. I tried to be good. I want Mama."

Maggie and Roy were drinking beer on the deck while their little boy stood in the closet, in the dark, poisoned by adults he trusted; stood until his legs collapsed under him. I would like to do more than merely burn them alive, but that's all I can do.

I know right then that I'm not going to kill this kid. I can't.

"Shh. Wait here, Sam."

I leave him on the kitchen floor and go looking for a blanket. There's a quilted throw draped over the back of the couch. When I pick it up, I bend over Maggie Quinlan and say softly to her wide-open eyes, "I know what you did to your kid. How does it feel now?"

I leave her staring after me, making helpless gargling sounds in her throat. I bundle Sam Quinlan in the blanket. He weighs almost nothing.

"Mama, Mama, I want Mama."

"Shh, Sam. It's okay."

I put a fold of the blanket over his face so he can't see his mother and her boyfriend sprawled half-naked in the living room. Maggie's tortured eyes track me toward the door, and I look back to see, written in her eyes in language only another mother can read, that no torment I could ever devise for her could possibly rival this: the sight of a hired killer bearing her son's still body away from her. I understand that she loves her son. She would not have kept him, in spite of the undoubted hardship it caused, if she did not. But she loves herself and Roy Groeck more.

I pity her, but I don't feel sorry for her. I'm not sure if that makes any sense.

I lay Sam Quinlan on the sidewalk, tell him to stay there, and walk back into the house. It's a few moments' work to lay the thermite around and set the fuse. I want to say things to Maggie Quinlan. I want to make up stories for her, about what I'm going to do to her son, so that her last seconds can be as agonizing as his last few hours or days (or years?) have been. And another part of me, the more compassionate part, the mother part, wants my last words to her to be reassuring: that I have her little boy, that he's going to be fine.

In the end I say nothing. I walk out and I do not look back. I hear the roar of the flames behind me.

Sam is waiting where I left him. I don't think he has the strength to run away from me. I can see he's been throwing up again, and though I try to be gentle when I pick him up, he cries out in pain. For the first time I realize that his arm is broken. It's swollen and crooked, and from the yellowish-green color of the bruises, I think it was broken several days ago.

I'm not looking at a kid who was yelled at and locked in a closet once. This is one sick little boy. Violent shivers wrack his body as I hold him against my chest. I wonder how near death he is. At the hands of Maggie Quinlan and her loving Roy, perhaps very near.

I walk away from the house as the first fire alert sounds in the neighborhood. Cradling Sam, who seems to have fallen asleep or passed out against my chest, I walk home. The few bleary, late-night commuters take one look at my face and move as far away from me as possible.

I think I'm angrier right now than I've ever been in my life.

Child Services and my bastard ex-husband took my kids away from me because of what I do for a living, when I loved them and would do anything for them. These sons of bitches are feeding their kid soap and nobody does anything.

Sam stirs. "Mama?" he rasps.

"Shh. It's okay." No, it's not okay.

The first thing I do is bathe him, wash off the shit and slime. His skin is dry, flaky, and crumbles in my hands. He's so weak that he lets me bend his body however I want, not even trying to resist, like a doll. The only time he moves is when I shift his swollen, bruised arm, and he starts to cry.

"Shh. Sam. It's okay." There are other marks on his body. New bruises, purple and spotty beneath his thin skin; old ones, fading to the color of spoiled bananas. Some of his hair falls out when I try to wash it.

My hands are shaking. I've never seen anything like this in my life. Every time Sam's eyes close, I'm afraid he's dead and I have to touch his chest and throat, trying to find his thready pulse.

He wakes up as I'm wrapping him in a clean blanket, and starts to cry again. He's so tired by now that it's more of a hiccup. "I want Mama."

"Shh." I don't know how to tell him that Mama is dead, that I killed her, that she deserves to be dead. "Can I get you something to eat, Sam? Some water?"

Sam's eyes, drifting shut in sleep, spring wide open. "Please, please, I would like water, please."

I fetch a foldaglass of water and hold it to his lips. Sam drinks and drinks, then immediately doubles over, vomiting water and mucus. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he sobs between spasms.

"It's okay, Sam. You don't have to be sorry." I hold him as his shivering eases. "Would you like to try again?"

He nods and I give him some small sips from the glass. I don't even know if I'm doing the right thing. I've heard that badly dehydrated people are depleted in electrolytes and salt as well as liquids, and that giving them water can deplete them further and send them into shock. But if he doesn't get water, he'll die.

"Hurts," Sam whispers, pushing the glass away.

"What hurts, Sam?"

"My throat hurts."

Seeing the sores on his lips, I have a sick suspicion about the condition of the rest of his mouth. "Can I look in your mouth, sweetie? It's okay. I won't hurt you."

I gently separate his lips with my finger, Sam cooperating as much as his fear will let him. Even expecting it, I choke when I see that the child's mouth, gums and inner lips are a mass of raw, bleeding sores. I let his lips close, and Sam sinks back against me, asleep again.

I don't know how to deal with this. I can handle all the little fevers and hurts that childhood is heir to; the upset stomachs, the scraped knees and poked eyes. This is beyond me. Sam is a sick little boy and he's getting sicker, and I don't know how to stop it, don't know how to make him well again.

Maybe some kind of food. Soup. Salts and nutrients. I lay Sam down very gently on the couch and find a pull-tab instant soup in the kitchen. I add some cold water to cool the soup down to lukewarm, the same temperature you'd feed a baby. "Sam? Sweetheart?" I nudge him gently awake. "Are you hungry, Sam? I have some food for you."

He takes the first spoonful, shivers and tries to spit it out. "Come on, sweetie. Swallow for me."

"Hurts," he whispers.

"I know it hurts, but it'll make you feel better when it gets down. I promise."

He bravely tries to swallow, but pushes away the next spoonful. I try to force him to take it. He won't swallow. Soup dribbles down his chin. He starts to cry. "I hate you. I want Mama."

"Shh. Shh." I hold him until he calms down. When he's asleep again, I set him down and start pacing the floor. I'm still holding the soup and I eat it myself. I haven't eaten since yesterday and I'm starving.

I don't know how to get Sam Quinlan to eat. He's dying right before my eyes and I don't know how to stop it. I shouldn't have searched the house. I should have left him in the closet, let him die in the fire. It would have been painful, but the pain wouldn't have lasted very long.

I go into the kitchen to throw away the soup packet, but a thump from the living room brings me running. Sam has fallen off the couch. His head is stretched back, his body rigid, and a sheen of sweat dampens his face and limbs--more water that he can't afford to lose, I think inanely, trying to get his jaws open so he doesn't swallow his tongue. The seizure is over almost immediately and he starts that dry, hopeless crying again. I hold him on my lap and there's nothing I can do. I feel like crying myself.

I have to take him to the clinic. There's no other way. If I keep him at home with me, he'll die as surely as he would have died in Maggie Quinlan's house. I just don't know how to treat somebody who's this sick. I call the clinic.

"Kismet Clinic, can I help you?"

"I'd like to speak to Imre Freelove, please. Is he working today?"

"Just a minute. Let me check." The system could have queried itself instantaneously, but I know they allow that brief pause to give the illusion that the pretty receptionist you see on the screen is a real human being. "Dr. Freelove will be in at nine. Can I take a message for him?"

"No, thanks. Thank you very much." I disconnect and look at the wall chrono. Six forty-five.

The next two hours are among the longest of my life. Sam has two more small seizures. I get him to drink a little more water, and a little more soup. His eyes are dull. In the storage loft above the door, I find some of Byron's old clothes for Sam to wear. When I unwrap him, I find that he's shit himself again, a stringy whitish-green stuff that doesn't look healthy at all. I wash him again and dress him. He hardly responds to me at all. I wrap another blanket around him and take him out onto the street.

The clinic is waking up for the morning, brightly lit and cheerfully decorated with pastel colors and equally pastel plants. I ask the computer at the front counter if Imre Freelove is on duty.

"He's not in yet. He'll be in at nine. Would you like to wait or do you have an emergency?"

Sam lies still and heavy against my shoulder, but I can feel his breathing through the blanket. "I'll wait. Can you have him come to the lobby when he gets in, please?"

"I can leave a message for him, ma'am."

"Thank you." I find a place to sit behind a wide-leafed jungle fern. It's out of the way of traffic, at least. I adjust Sam's body, as I used to carry my children, and check to make sure he's still breathing. He wakes up a little. "Mama?"

"No, Mama's not here."

"I want Mama."

"I know." I look up to see Imre standing by the front desk. He looks good. Rested, not like the last time I saw him. Handsome. Some little, deeply-buried part of me melts, as usual.

His eyes flicker--happy to see me, not happy to see me, I can't tell. "Fleetwood," he says, sort of a greeting.

"Don't 'Fleetwood' me, Imre Freelove."

"You shouldn't have called Gitta at home."

Gitta. That's her name. "I'm sorry. You're right. I shouldn't have done that. I was mad, Imre. You shouldn't have left like that."

"I don't want an argument, Les. I'm supposed to be on ER rotation. This isn't the time or place to hash out our problems. What's in the blanket?"

"A patient for you. Come here and see him, please."

I think for a minute he's not going to, but he comes. I push back a fold of the blanket and show him Sam Quinlan, asleep. Imre looks at the kid, looks at me sharply, back at the kid. "Whose kid is this, Leslie?"

"That doesn't matter. Look at his arm, Imre."

I move the blanket to show him Sam's arm. Sam wakes at this with a faint cry. Seeing Imre, he tries to cling to me. I guess I'm the only halfway familiar thing he has in this bright, strange place.

"It's okay," Imre says to him. "It's okay. What's your name?"

"Sam."

"Looks like your arm is hurting you, Sam. Does your arm hurt?"

Sam nods, yes.

"Let me see it. I'm a doctor. I can make it better."

The idea of being made better seems to appeal to him, for he holds out his arm shyly. Imre takes it so gently that his fingers barely crease the skin.

"Oh, that's not so bad," he says to Sam, "though I'm sure it hurts quite a lot. I can fix it right up for you. Would you like to come with me?"

"I want Mama," Sam whispers, clinging to me.

Imre gives me a raised-eyebrow look.

"No, I'm not his mother. His mother's--" I almost said "dead" in front of the kid. I guess he'll have to know sooner or later, but I'd rather it not be sooner. "His mother can't be here."

"Well, if you'd prefer, Leslie can bring you," Imre says to Sam.

"Leslie is me," I add for Sam's benefit, remembering that I never told him my name.

"Okay," he mumbles, and then seeming to remember his manners, "Thank you please."

I follow Imre down a corridor by the nurse's station, into the ER, and following his instructions, lay Sam on an examining table. Sam starts crying until Imre tucks a woolen blanket around him.

"Looks like he's dehydrated," Imre says, touching Sam's skin, watching it spring back. He looks up to the readouts above the table. The readouts change slightly as Sam moves on the sensitive surface, falling asleep again. I hold his hand.

"I tried to give him water but he wouldn't drink."

"Probably best." Imre is setting up an IV. "Give him water or any low-solute fluid at this point and he could end up with hypotonic dehydration--not any better than the condition he's in now. I'd like to give him some fluids by mouth, to keep his digestion going, but most of the rehydration is going to be intravenous."

"Imre, I killed his parents."

Imre stops in the middle of drawing the IV.

"You what?"

"I killed his parents. It was a contract. I was supposed to kill the kid too, but I ... couldn't."

"Ah." Imre probes for a vein. "I didn't need to hear that. Les, can you move that blanket? I'd like to get a net on him."

"Imre, I--Imre, talk to me! This kid, I can't let anyone know he's alive. Imre, are you listening to me?"

"I'm listening. Did you hear me?"

"Yes, I heard you." I remove the blanket. Imre opens Sam's shirt, baring his chest. I can see that Sam has messed himself again. He stirs and Imre touches his face, calming him.

"Imre, they--I found this kid in a closet. They'd been feeding him soap."

Imre runs a hand scanner over Sam's abdomen and looks at it. "Did you say they fed him soap?"

"Yes. That's what he told me."

"For how long?"

"What do you mean, for how long? How long does anybody in their right mind feed their kid soap? Look at his mouth, Imre. It's like they--"

Imre shushes me; Sam's awake again and whimpering. Imre bends over him. "Hi, Sam. Remember me? I'm Doctor Imre."

"Hi," Sam whispers.

"Sam, is it okay if I look in your mouth? I'll be gentle, I promise. I'm a doctor, remember? We have to take a solemn oath not to hurt people. We have to promise that above all else, we will do no harm."

"Really?" Sam whispers.

"Yes, really." He opens Sam's mouth carefully with two fingers, shines a light inside. I'm glad that I'm behind Imre and can't see what Imre sees. I squeeze Sam's hand.

"Does your throat hurt, Sam?"

"Yes."

"Does your tummy hurt too?"

"Yes," Sam whispers. He looks scared. I don't blame him.

"Well, I'm going to give you something to help with that." He gets a bottle of some kind of cloudy liquid from the sink behind me and pours some out in a plasticine cup, mixes in something else from another bottle. "Sam, this is called Oralyte and it'll make you feel better. I'm putting a painkiller in it that will make your throat stop hurting. Can you drink for me, Sam? Little drinks, little itsy-bitsy drinks. That's it."

After Sam drinks, he starts to relax. His hand goes limp in mine.

"What did you give him?"

"Just what I told him. An oral rehydration formula and a painkiller. Move his leg for me? Thanks." He touched the contact points of a small life-support net to Sam's chest and abdomen.

"Does he need the net? Is he that sick?"

Imre shakes his head. "No, but it'll help him for a while, help take some of the strain off his internal organs while he's still this weak. From the readouts I'm getting, he's been given nothing but purgatives for at least two or three days. Maybe longer. No water either."

"They tried to kill their own kid?"

"No. I doubt it." Imre checks the IV bag and makes some adjustments.

"They bathed him; why? So he'd look good in the coffin?"

"I see this sort of crap every day, Les. Granted, I didn't know the folks, but some people think feeding their kid soap is a perfectly acceptable form of discipline. Kid does something wrong--wets his pants, maybe. Something toddlers do. Parents react all out of proportion to the actual wrong, if it was even a wrong at all. I've seen people who made their kid, and we're talking a four-year-old kid, march around in circles reciting the ABCs until he fell down in exhaustion. If he made a mistake, they'd beat him. Another couple--kind of like this kid's parents, I'd say--fed the their little girl oven cleaner whenever she disobeyed them. That one died. The mother brought her into the emergency room. Crying so hard she couldn't talk. Didn't understand what had happened to her daughter. The kid's mouth and esophagus were ulcerated so badly, worse than this, that she hadn't been able to eat in a month. The parents thought she was being picky and punished her for not eating her dinner."

I'm speechless. Imre just stares at me after he winds down.

"Why are you looking at me that way? I didn't do it to him!"

"No, I--" He looks suddenly tired, even old, though I know he's younger than me. "Just a long day, Les. A long day, and it hasn't even started yet... So what's the kid's name? Sam what?"

"I can't tell you, Imre. I'm sorry."

Imre says nothing. He starts spreading a cream onto Sam's dry skin.

"Imre, I can't. If you enter this kid's name in the computer, they'll know he's alive and I'll be dead. Or unemployed. Which is the same thing in the business I'm in."

Imre looks at me, dead-eyed. "What should I do, then, Les? Put him down as a John Doe? What happens when his relatives come looking?"

"I killed his mother. I don't know about his father. Imre, please. Let them think he's my child, if you want. I don't care. Just take care of him and don't get me in any more trouble than I'm already in."

"He can't be your kid, Leslie." Imre doesn't look up at me. "You've already had two kids taken away."

Oh, that hurts, Imre. That hurts beyond belief. "Fuck that! So he's my--my sister's kid, and she died and I'm taking care of him. I don't care. He can't be Sam Quinlan anymore, Imre. Sam Quinlan is dead."

"Quinlan? That's his name?"

Shit. "Yeah."

"Tall woman? Long curly hair?"

"You know her?"

"They've been in here." Imre closes his eyes, trying to remember. "Brought their kid in ... it was ... something similar, I think. That's right. Four or five months ago. He'd stopped breathing. He was in here for three days, I think, and then they took him home."

"Didn't you call somebody? Child Services?"

"I wasn't his doctor. Darn it, Les, it's up to the attending physician and there's nothing I can do."

"That's a cop-out and you know it. You're a selfish bastard, Imre. Poor baby." I touch Sam's forehead. "Sam Quinlan is dead, Imre. This is a John Doe baby I found on the street. But they'll be looking for John Does, too. People will find him. People I don't want to find him. Let's make him mine."

"Your bosses have got to know you don't have a child."

"But I did have a sister. Mary went offworld, years ago. I haven't heard from her in ages. Let's say this is her child. If it's in the computer, they won't think twice about it. Please, Imre. You know what they'll do to me."

"For an act of compassion," Imre sighs. "You realize that I'm putting more than just my job on the line if I go in on this with you. It's my life too, Leslie. And Gitta's."

"I know. But Imre ... I have to. I don't have a choice about this. Don't you see?"

"No. I don't see. You're not thinking, Les. What about his genoprint? What do you want me to do, falsify records?"

"To save a child's life? What happened to that Hippocratic Oath of yours, Imre?"

Imre glares at me. We stand head-to-head over Sam Quinlan's sleeping body. Finally Imre goes to the manual terminal in the corner. He types something. Types some more.

"You're right," he says without turning around. "Sam Quinlan's been declared dead. This morning. As well as his mother, Maggie. House fire. His genoprint's in the inactive database."

"Help him stay dead, Imre."

Imre runs his fingers through his hair. He types in short fast strokes. "Your sister's kid. Admitted at nine thirty. What's his name, Les? Not Sam Quinlan, obviously."

"Well, if he's my sister's kid, then his last name would be the same as mine."

"Sam Fleetwood?"

"It shouldn't be Sam." I gaze at the kid's soft features. "But it needs to sound a little like Sam, so he's not too confused."

We look at the kid, so small that he barely makes a bump in the sheet.

"You're going to name him after a poet, aren't you?"

"I think so. I even know which one."

"So let's hear it."

"Shelley, mm, Shelley Lovelace." I would have called him Percy, but I hate the name Percy.

Even love is sold ...

"Lovelace?"

"Ada Lovelace. Lord Byron's daughter."

"Shelley Lovelace Fleetwood. Poor kid. With a name like that, he's got an uphill battle already." Imre lifts the child's arm and wipes a swab across its underside, lays it in a sampler. "With Sam Quinlan dead, his genoprint won't be matched against Shelley's unless somebody does it intentionally. It's up to you to make sure that doesn't happen."

"I know," I breathe. "Thank you, Imre."

"He'll know you're not his aunt, Les. He knows his name is Sam, not Shelley. He's not that young."

"We can make believe. Kids understand make believe."

"What will you tell him about his parents?"

"I'll think of something."

Imre pauses with his finger over the button of the sampler. "It's not too late yet, Les. I can enter him as a John Doe. Take him to the orphanage. It might be the best thing you can do for him."

"What's the first thing they do with John Does, Imre? Even I know that much. They'll match him to Sam Quinlan in a heartbeat."

"So it's better for the kid, then, to make him substitute for the children you lost? That's not his cross to bear, Leslie. What will you do when they come to take this one away? Kill somebody?"

I find myself near tears, and hotly angry. "That's not fair, Imre! I'm not a bad mother. I'm not. They took Ada and Byron because of my job--"

"They took Ada and Byron because you'd leave them alone for thirty-six hours at a time. Because your ex-husband came over and found that they hadn't been fed or had their diapers changed for two days because you were drunk. You'd beat them ... I've seen the files on those kids, Les. They were in here more than once. Hell, if I'd been here then, I would've been treating them."

"You looked up my--" I want to scream, throw things, control myself only because of Sam, because I don't dare be discovered in this room with a John Doe child. "I'm not Maggie Quinlan!"

"I never said you were. I'm not convinced it's in the--Les, I'm sorry, but the best interests of the kid might not be served by keeping him with you."

Anger gives way to desperation. "I'm a good mother, Imre. Please let me try. Sam doesn't have any other chance. What would you rather do, take him home with you?"

"I can't." Imre stares at his hands, and then hits the sampler button, and starts typing. "So help me, Les, if that kid comes in here again--if you lay a hand on him--"

"I'm not Maggie Quinlan!" I can't believe he'd suggest such a thing. I never hit my kids. Not hard enough to hurt them. Not like this.

"He has to know the truth, Leslie. About who he is. Don't try to convince him that the lie is real. I won't go along with that."

"He'll know. Like you said, he knows his name is Sam. Was Sam."

"I need some medical information from you."

I tell Imre what he needs in order to fill out the form. I feel like I'm floating. Walking on clouds. I lost my babies and I'm not allowed to see them, but now I have a baby again. I hold Sam's hand--no, Shelley's hand, his perfect little hand. I feel like I've been given a second chance and I won't let this one go.

I won't lose this one.







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