Summary: In the not-so-distant future of Virginia, the Personhood Act has outlawed abortion and chemical birth control. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, though.
for Evil Dr. Em and the twitter brigade
Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? James 2:25
About fifteen percent of Merrimack, Virginia was unemployed, but by god, they had congressmen looking out for them. It was comforting, one could have thought as they sat in the dim light of the living room and flipped through the government channels to watch lawmakers burn the midnight oil and make more laws.
“In this desensitized society, there is a shortening list of things that criminals consider punishment,” droned Representative Carter, a white man from Maryville. “They’re better fed in jail than they would be out on the streets. We give them free educations, money for working. We give them health care.”
One of these aforementioned unemployed people was Penelope Gallagher, a tall thin woman with a horsey face and a nervous twitch in her eye whenever she heard the sounds of a congressional meeting on the television. There was a certain crackle in the back of the recording, like a thousand hissing cockroaches.
“If jail isn’t a deterrent, then we need punishments that will work. Punishments that are effective.”
Her husband was asleep in front of the set, supine and sprawled on the recliner. There should have been something on the TV worth watching, but that seemed so old-fashioned now. Penelope tried to remember when television was for fun. These days every time she stared at the screen, she just wanted to stab something.
“Passing Proposal 404—the Punitive Display Edict is the first step in reclaiming our streets, our state, and eventually our country.”
She stood, turned off the set with a click and listened to the sound of the house, quiet creaking, the heater blower, and her husband’s soft snore. Then she opened the front hall closet, pried up the boards in the floor under the row of galoshes and pulled out the black bag she’d hidden in there. She covered her face and hands with the black knit gloves and mask she had stashed there, shrugged on the sack, zipped up her coat and boots and was out the door.
Kayleigh Bent had a full backpack. She ran down an alley towards the park with the jungle gym, her boots barely making any noise on the concrete. Just once, she wished that she could swing from rooftop to rooftop like Batman or something. Alas, that was something she would never master.
It would have been cool, though.
Her team met in the darkness behind the closed middle school. The few floodlights back there had been strategically broken and lazily never replaced. Kayleigh had heard that P. had shot them out with a BB gun, but she’d never asked. One of the rules was that you didn’t know much about the other people, so if you got caught you couldn’t tell much.
Kayleigh hid behind a dumpster and smoked a cigarette. Her mom hadn’t figured out yet that she was sneaking out, but she had caught her stealing smokes. She was down to her last pack, and she didn’t know when she’d get any more. They only sold them to men and women who carried nonbirthing cards.
The headlights of the van cut across the parking lot when it pulled into the back of the school. Kayleigh stayed where she was until the lights flicked on and off a few times, and she knew it was her ride. She ditched the smoke, pulled on her cotton gloves and ran for the van, which only slowed enough for her to jog alongside it.
“Hey,” G. said as she rolled open the side door. P. waved in the driver’s seat. “Busy night tonight.”
Kayleigh slung her pack into the van and they trucked off into the night. Her heart started to thud in her chest like a runaway drum set. G. was laying out a suction set, just in case. P. turned out onto the street and mumbled something under her breath, probably the address of where they were going.
“How are you guys?” Kayleigh asked, kicking her backpack under the passenger seat of the van. The rest of the van aside from the driver’s seat was devoted to medical equipment and pharmaceuticals—if they were ever stopped by the police that would be the end of them all.
G. held up an IV bag of something and read the label. “Oh, you know, just another day in paradise.”
Rachel Saunders had three kids and two bedrooms. Both boys were fast asleep in the bigger one, and her oldest, Peyton, was bedded down in the other room. Rachel had given up a bedroom when Peyton had turned thirteen, and now she used the couch out in the living/dining room. Right now she sat in the kitchen window and stared out at the fire escape.
She’d gotten home about an hour ago, had a shower, checked to make sure the kids weren’t dead, and then paid a few bills. She watched about fifteen minutes of the newest report on the congressional hearing about the gallows proposal.
Rachel wasn’t sure what she thought of the gallows. It wasn’t like they didn’t already have the death penalty. And this seemed barbaric and horrible, displaying bodies for everyone to see. Wasn’t that something they used to do in the middle ages?
Senator Collux had appeared on the screen arguing for the gallows. “There’s a reason this technique has been around since time immemorial,” Senator Collux said, waving a hand. “In all of the states where it’s been initiated—Utah, Texas, South Carolina, Iowa—it’s been directly linked to a downturn in contraceptive smuggling and illegal abortion. If this is what it takes to preserve the lives of innocent Virginians who don’t have the opportunity to defend themselves, then I am all for it. And if it provides solace to the victims of other violent crimes, that’s even better.”
He used the example of the man who had raped and killed fifteen nuns with a ball peen hammer last year. He’d confessed. When they’d found the man, he’d been wearing a wimple with the nun’s face skin still in it. If there was anyone in this universe that deserved the public’s ire, it was this man. This monster, Collux argued, deserved to be humanely executed and displayed on the gallows for everyone to see. But only for three weeks. Any longer was in danger of spreading pestilence.
Rachel shrugged and turned the television off. Then she stared at the fire escape, biting all of her cuticles into ragged bleeding tears.
She was worried because she’d taken three large white pills a day ago, and while she was clotting and cramping and the like, if she didn’t get taken care of soon, she was going to have to explain the miscarriage to the police. They would find out. She didn’t know how they did, but she was already on warning. Sally swore they had detectors in the sewer pipes, but that sounded ridiculous.
The instructions said to wait. Don’t pack a bag. Don’t tell anyone. Don’t plan for childcare. Nothing bad will happen. Just wait. Pretend nothing is amiss. We come to you.
There was more, of course. She understood that she had taken mifepristone, and that if she hadn’t yet miscarried, then she’d need the second drug. More importantly, she needed to get rid of the evidence. Terminating a fetus in any way was a crime, even if it was an accident. According to the cop she saw last time, there were no accidents, only what he called “accidents”, with finger quotes.
Rachel hadn’t been sure what he had meant by that. What she did know was that she had three kids, a bad job, and an ex-boyfriend who’d thought condoms were the devil. He’d said that once, that condoms were the devil, and when she had laughed at him, he’d smacked her one across the face. She might have been happy, or at least okay with marrying him for the added income until that had happened. Then three days later, the bruise still fresh on her face, she’d taken the test, seen the pink lines, and thanked god she hadn’t used the local clinic for the free pregnancy test. Sure it was free, but the moment it was positive, you were entered in the free natal care monitoring system.
She’d done what she’d heard whispered about at work in the diner, put a red kerchief on her window sill and closed the sash, just letting it hang there, and after about three days she’d noticed it was gone. In its place was a little flowerpot with a little violet sitting precariously on the ledge. She’d found the packet with the pills and the paper inside the dirt, under the roots, and almost wept with relief.
Now, she waited for something to happen. Maybe the cops would come. Maybe it was all a set-up. Her kids slept on. She could hear her upstairs neighbor kick on his video game machine and load some game with a lot of machine guns.
There was a knock at her door, and Rachel felt her heart almost stutter. She plodded to the door. Maybe she could just ignore it and it would all go away. She was in the process of reaching for the doorknob when she was seized with a cramp and she had to freeze, suck in a breath. No, there was no going back, not since she’d swallowed a few pills the day before.
She swung the door open and was grabbed by the arms before she could even say anything.
“This won’t take long,” someone hissed in her ear. “We love you. Every part of you belongs to you.”
Rachel felt her feet being fitted into her clogs, her coat being thrown about her shoulders. Upstairs the machine guns rattled on. Her kids slept through anything. She went a little limp, trudged between the two people wearing masks, leading her down the hallway and out the front doors of the apartment complex, towards a running van.
One of the masked people poked her in the ribs. “Just struggle a little. Make it look real.”
“The drug testing,” Rachel said as they shoved her into the van. Even though she was willing to go, they treated her as if they were taking her by force. “If I get called in, they’ll be able to tell.”
Her first abductor winked. “Don’t worry, you were kidnapped. We forced you to do this.” She, for it was a she, they were all shes, leaned into Rachel’s face, and she could see the little edges of smile through her mask. “It was horrible,” she cooed. “We are evil, wretched women, doing this to you.”
“Where did you come from?” Rachel asked. She wondered who they were. She couldn’t see their faces. They could be her friends, right? They could be her kid’s teachers, or the lady who served her coffee. They could be the minister’s wife. “How do you even do this?” The van peeled away, rocking back and forth with the sharp right turn.
“Like a thief in the night,” the masked face said, and behind the knit, Rachel could see the smile again. “Now just lie back. Gee is going to give you a sedative, and this will be over soon.” The woman ran a hand on Rachel’s forehead. “You’re being brave, and we’re going to keep you safe.”
Rachel might have said something about them being angels, but that didn’t seem right. But at the same time they were the biggest grace she could have imagined.
“We might have a new source over at public health,” P. said as they sat in the back of the van and stuffed packages by streetlight. Interior lights alerted the police to the fact that the van had people in it, and they got curious. Police really only ever had two modes, really—unnecessarily curious or inconveniently ambivalent, as far as Grace Bell was concerned.
“Yeah? Can she hack the monitoring codes?” The control of the random drug testing system enacted by the legislature two years ago was based in the computers at the department of environmental protection. It was one of those logic puzzles that led into a deeper and deeper hole—the Personhood Act prohibited birth control and classified it under the illegal drug act, but it was also illegal to just randomly test women to find out. But the release of estrogen through urine was an environmental hazard, so it was monitored by sensors attached to plumbing.
Smart women on birth control peed in a jar and tossed it in public trash cans in another part of town. But there was always some woman who forgot, and all it took was one. The sensor triggered the public health department, and out they came with their pink clipboards and enzyme strips. For the greater good of the environment.
They took women away when they tested positive., They always came back, but they didn’t seem the same. And most of the time they were visibly pregnant in a few months. Grace had never managed to convince one to talk about what had happened, but that was mostly her fault, not theirs. Once someone was caught, as cruel as it sounded, all the women in the community pulled away from her. It wasn’t her fault, but it was far the greater good, really. Grace hated the phrase “greater good”, actually. Perhaps they should replace it with “lesser bad.”
“It’s a man,” P. said, stapling the instructions for the mifepristone onto the little bag and tossing it in the smaller box. The larger box was filled with bottles of birth control pills, each bottle varying in size and label so that there was no uniform design that could give them away.
“Veto,” K. said, stuffing three packets of white pills in the hem of her cargo pants. “No men.”
“They’re not all bad,” P said, and Grace had to agree with them both. “I think he’s gay.”
K. snorted. “Any gay man with any sense left the minute they reenacted the sodomy bill.”
Grace shook her head and smiled at her hands. Ah, youth. “Who vouched for him?”
P. folded a paper in threes. “F. over at Bimouac.” Bimouac was three towns over, and they had a good record for staying under the radar. Grace wanted to be able to trust them. It would have been really useful to have someone fucking up the sensors at environmental monitoring, but failing that, they would have liked someone to screw with the ones at public health. As it was, they relied on Anonymous to do a lot of their deeper hack-work, and it wasn’t always fruitful or timely. And sometimes Anonymous planted pedo-bear gifs in the site, which, while funny, didn’t help them stay incognito.
Grace stripped off her gloves and stuffed them in the bag, then replaced them with the cotton ones she used when she wasn’t providing treatment or filling pill bottles. P. and K. did the same.
“No,” she said, finally. “Even if he isn’t a plant, there’s no way to know.”
K. shrugged on her filled backpack and slapped a black cap on her blonde hair. “My point,” she said, then blew a bubble with her gum. P. looked faintly annoyed. “See ya.”
Then she dove out of the van and dashed off into the dark, three addresses burned into her mind, and three dozen more written in Wingdings on her shoes.
P. shook her head and smiled. “I wish I was her age,” she said wistfully.
Grace shrugged. “At least you remember when we didn’t have to do this.”
Keisha Thompson sat on the toilet seat and cried again. She didn’t need this.
Okay, so she hadn’t listened too carefully in sex ed, if you could call it that. They mentioned all the bad shit that came with sex, like disease and babies, but they hadn’t mentioned how to get around it, except for not having it. And when Bobby had told her that he’d heard aspirin would kill the sperm if she put it up there before they got it on, she’d figured he knew what he was talking about.
She had thought about condoms, but Bobby had said that they killed, like the spiritual symbolism of the thing, and plus the rubber hurt his pubic hair.
It had been amazing, and Keisha wasn’t sure why sex was a bad thing, well, not that sex was a bad thing. They said that sex was a bad thing if you weren’t married, because of the things that could happen. All she could think was Jesus, if it was this awesome when she wasn’t married, how great would it be once she was?
As it was, sixteen was too young to be getting married, she thought. She hadn’t even finished high school. And Bobby was nice and all, but he didn’t even have a car.
Brandie had told her once that her older sister got birth control by hanging a white shirt out her window, so that it was visible from the street. A few days later a little bottle of pills had arrived, with instructions on how to take them. When she was out, Brandie’s sister just tucked some money in the bottle and dumped it in a flower pot on her windowsill. The bottle was eventually replaced. Brandie told her that even when her sister didn’t have money to put in the bottle, they still refilled it.
She had heard, Brandie said, that if you needed something else, if it was too late for birth control, you could change the white color to red.
It had been worth a try. Keisha had stuck a red sock out on the bathroom window, wedged in between the sash and the sill, just a little visible. Then she had waited.
The first night nothing had happened. Then her mother had found the sock and given her a look. But she’d left it there.
The second night, she’d fallen asleep on the floor of the bathroom waiting for something to happen. She’d woken in the morning to her brother banging on the door shouting about needing to piss. Nothing.
Keisha didn’t know how long she had, really. She was afraid to Google pregnancy in case there was some tracer somewhere that logged that stuff. If she hadn’t been pregnant, she wouldn’t have had any problem going to the reference section in the library and looking up things in a medical book or something, but now that she was, she worried that she was being watched. Where were the cameras? Were there really sensors in the plumbing? If she threw herself down the stairs, would they know she’d done it on purpose? What if it didn’t work? What if it killed her instead?
Keisha’s mom was at work, and her brother had passed out in front of the TV at midnight, so there was no reason she couldn’t just sit there on the toilet seat and wait for something to happen. Would they leave her something if she was right there? What was that saying about pots and boiling? When Keisha was a kid, she’d sat up waiting for Santa, but he’d never seemed to come until she fell asleep. Of course, Santa was really her mom, so that wasn’t going to work here; she was a hundred percent sure the abortion fairy was not her mother.
Keisha didn’t have any more tears. Her face felt hot and blotchy, and she’d used almost half a roll of toilet paper. She poured herself a glass of water from the spigot and slumped on the floor under the window. Maybe if they didn’t see her in there they might leave her something. Maybe she was scaring them away. She covered her cold feet with a towel and turned out the lights.
It was still dark when she heard a sort of bonking at the window. Keisha woke from a sound sleep at the kerthonk of something hitting the glass, and she froze, not daring to move. If she moved too quickly, they’d run, like deer and take whatever they had with them.
Someone jumped down from the stone fence and into the gravel driveway. The pebbles crunched under their feet, and then went silent when they hit the sidewalk.
She gave that person a few more seconds, and then scrambled up to see what was on the windowsill.
Brandie had said that her sister used a flower pot, but there was nothing like that there. Instead, her sock was rolled into a ball and set on the sill. Keisha lifted the sash and blinked at it. Her heart felt like it was going so fast, her breath couldn’t keep up with it. Her head was hollow, and her stomach fluttered. She snatched the sock from the sill and slammed the window shut, then she unrolled it and let the contents fall into her hand.
“Oh my god,” she whispered as she stared at the little bag with the three white pills and a folded paper of instructions in it. Stapled to the bag was a pink paper heart with typed information:
HELLO THERE. WE HEARD U NEED THIS.
DON’T WORRY, WE LOVE YOU.
EVERY PART OF YOU BELONGS TO YOU.
Keisha glanced out the window, and down the block she saw a flash of something move. It could have been a person in black. It could have been a dog.
“Oh my god,” she breathed, the package already sweaty in her clenched fist. “Thank you.”
“Mom, have you seen my shoes?” Kayleigh called from her bedroom. “The ones with the marker?”
There was a noncommittal reply from the kitchen, and Kayleigh flipped up her dust ruffle again, peering into the masses of crumpled papers and old chip bags. They couldn’t be back there.
It wasn’t like she couldn’t make her collections without them. She had backup copies of her route on a skillet in the basement, and in a glass jar stuffed into the dirt in the corner of the unused sandbox in the park. It was that the shoes were so convenient. And lucky. Since she’d started using them, she hadn’t gotten caught once.
In reality, she mused as she laced on her boots and frowned at how wrong they felt on her feet, it was a miracle they hadn’t been rounded up yet. It was probably a matter of time, but until then, Kayleigh was going to keep on keeping on.
Besides, no one ever said anything. No woman who wanted an abortion ever told anyone else what happened in the night. It was a mystery spoken about in whispers, scrawled on the stalls of women’s restrooms. It was word of mouth, it was a Bat signal in the sky, a red sock hung outside a window. Kayleigh liked the red thing. She’d gotten the idea from a Bible story.
Even when no one knew anyone else’s business, women could recognize each other in the sparks that filled their eyes when they passed one another, a shadow that slid across their faces and said, I know, I know, too. Men and the women who agreed with them thought all those looks meant the normal things: I need chocolate, or My husband doesn’t take out the trash, or Today is a good day for shoe shopping. And often it was a good day for shoe shopping or chocolate, and any time was a good time for shared spousal duties, but that wasn’t all it meant.
All this unity didn’t mean that there weren’t what Kayleigh called “fuck ups”. Messages went to the wrong place. Women took the pill and failed the drug test. The abduction didn’t go well and something bad happened. Once they’d lost a woman in the back of the van, having a stroke right there in S’s arms.
Before, you know, S. was taken away. Sometimes Kayleigh missed her the most, S. with her low voice and cigarettes, her burning hatred and quick fingers. S. had taken the blame for all of them, and Kayleigh had resolved to never be suckered in by a man again.
Very occasionally, they miscalculated the woman. More than once a woman had turned in the pills to her husband. Maybe she got cold feet, maybe she was a set up, it was hard to tell. People were hauled in, threatened, sometimes beaten, but it was easy to get out of the more physical stuff if you just said that you might be pregnant. No man wanted to be brought up on charges because he’d deleted a personhood in utero. Kayleigh used it every time she got hauled in, even though it was pretty obvious from the first urine test that she wasn’t. She did it to make them waste time and money. They deserved all the wasting they got, actually.
Like now, when she skipped out of the house, bag empty on her back, and they came screaming mimi around the corner, lights flashing. One officer opened his door and aimed a pistol at her. Kayleigh knew the drill. She threw her hands up and smiled. She was clean; none of them took birth control just in case they were picked up. It was an unspoken agreement.
“Hey officers, where’s the fire?”
The police officer, a young, fresh-faced dude with razor burn on his neck, put his gun up. “Kayleigh Bent, you’re wanted for questioning for contraband trafficking and violation of the Personhood Act.”
Kayleigh rolled her eyes and held her wrists out. “Again? You boys are in a tizzy.”
The back door to the cruiser opened and Detective Becking stepped out. He’d been on her ass for six months, ever since she’d turned eighteen. He held up a plastic bag filled with bottles in one hand, and a pair of shoes in another. “Forget something?”
Kayleigh cocked her head. “What are you talking about?”
Detective Becking shook his head, tossing the cuffs to the officer. “You’re not the only one who can read Wingdings, you know. I made your collections for you.”
Kayleigh shrugged as the young officer snapped the cuffs on her wrists. She tried to keep her face nonchalant, but her insides twisted. And if she wasn’t careful, they’d see that the rest of her would, too. Maybe they already had.
Three days later, Grace sat in a little diner on the corner of Main Street and President Avenue and sipped a cup of coffee. She was wondering about what she should do with the body in her van. She couldn’t keep it there forever, and she didn’t have the knowledge of security cameras that she should have. With her luck she’d pick a spot to dump the body that would be the most highly-monitored spot in the entire state, and fifteen cameras and satellites would get high-definition shots of her face.
But the fact remained that she had to do something with it. P. hadn’t shown up the night before last, and K. hadn’t made her money drop today. Their runner from Maryland had sent Grace an angry text: this shit isn’t free, bitch. Too true. And yet.
The waitress refilled Grace’s coffee and sighed at the television. They were the only people in the diner; it was one in the morning, and everyone was home by now. Bars had been on a midnight close for three years.
“Ms. Bent, with an arrest record for previous acts of personhood violation, tested positive for chemical birth control during interrogation,” the voice-over droned. “Police are investigating her connection to the abortion ring that has been operating in the area, distributing contraband drugs and performing the illegal operations from a mobile unit. Anyone with any information to the movements of this group is strongly urged to contact police.”
Grace stared at the screen, at the image of the blonde teenager glaring sullenly at the camera. There was makeup over her eye; it was easy to see. They had roughed her up before they even bothered to take the mug shot. Grace wondered what she had told them, if she had told them anything. They already had all of the women on Kayleigh’s birth control route. The only women who were actually safe in all of this were the ones who’d had abortions—at least they had the relatively flimsy excuse of being “abducted”. Though she had heard that a woman over Maryville had accused a co-worker of slipping birth control in her coffee—a charge that couldn’t be substantiated. That was one way to do it.
Of course, none of the planning in the universe could help her come up with a thing to do with the dead body in the back of the van. It was the first time she’d actually had one in the back of her van. When she worked at the hospitals and they had a dead body, there were people who took it away. Now it was just her and P. and P. had disappeared, sort of.
Grace knew where P lived—she’d followed her home one night. She’d sent her a few texts on the disposable phone, but only received one short inexplicable reply: cant talk-sewing.
What did that even mean? Grace drained her coffee and stared at the sediment in the bottom of her mug.
On the television, the voice-over continued with the history of the gallows in the United States, from its abolition in the past to the new resurgence of corpse display popping up all over the country. It showed the mass protests in Nevada and Kansas, the ones that had ended in gunfire and tear gassing. Also shown were the Portland migrations and the New York Sequestering, when the city had setup the road blocks and guard houses. If someone had told Grace twenty years ago that New York City would elect to pull out of the state government and the United States would let them, she would have called them insane.
“New York City-State, which still allows abortion and the free distribution of birth control, is in negotiations with the outer New York State for the management of waste water. Mayor Brady demands that waste water be processed outside the city walls, but the outer state continues to insist that they are not equipped to filter out the hormones carried in the water.” The voice-over ended and the screen cut back to the anchor, Jaclyn Pernassis. “New York City-State remains the largest non-personhood compliant state.”
“Gibbeting,” the waitress said, facing away from her, pot in one hand, transfixed by the television screen in the corner. “That poor girl’s gonna be put up there for everyone to see.”
Grace shook her head. She didn’t know if she should agree, or look shocked, or if the waitress was displaying actual pity for Kayleigh Bent. Then when she turned to Grace, her face was resigned and sad. “I always remember that word because I used to confuse it with giblets.”
“It’ll never pass,” Grace told the waitress, whose name tag read Florence.
Florence stared at her for a second, as if she was thinking of something to say. Then she just shook her head and walked back behind the counter to take down the menu board, wiping it down with a rag before uncapping a marker and going to work on it.
Grace wondered what they would do to Kayleigh. Until now women in the movement, if she could even call it that, sort of disappeared. If they reappeared later, they were scared, and, of course, they were cut off. She’d never talk to Kayleigh again, even if they let her out tomorrow. Some women were still in jail. Grace’s mentor, Xenia, was still in there, supposedly. You couldn’t talk to them in jail either. It was too easy to be tagged in the system for extra monitoring.
Grace had been printed when she had had her hospital ID issued. So far that hadn’t worked against her. She didn’t have the kind of tag that logged her movements, not like the pharmacy workers did, or the morgue attendants. It made her mobility pretty free.
Free to do things like dump the body in her van (because hey yeah, back to that, right?). Grace felt horrible about the body–the woman; Dana Landry had developed sepsis after her procedure. Grace had tried to do what she could, but she didn’t have access to the antibiotics that she needed to treat it. It happened rarely, but it did happen. Most of the time she could anonymously drop the woman off at an emergency room and be on her way, knowing that the woman would be well taken care of, if shaken up. But this time, Dana had clutched her jacket and screeched, “NO HOSPITAL. NO HOSPITAL.” Sometimes they were like this—terrified of anyone finding out what they’d done.
Grace had given her a painkiller and then considered her options, and while she had been sitting there next to Dana, the woman had just stopped moving, breathing, everything. CPR didn’t do anything. By the time she had gotten to a hospital, she had known that it was a lost cause. And the hospitals were all on alert, had been since Kayleigh’s arrest.
Grace’s eyes burned, but no tears came. She wasn’t sad. She was angry. Very very angry. The kind of angry that actually made her chest hurt. The kind of angry that made men stab things.
Florence set up the menu wipe board again, the specials drawn out in a swirling green marker:
Strange Fruit Special: soft boiled eggs, white toast, your choice of meat. $5.99.
Grace left her twenty bucks, then hustled out into the dark night.
Rashida Covington, Channel Seven Action News was on hand when Senator Collux arrived at his offices one morning. She was there to get a statement on the Kayleigh Bent case from the senator before he got to his office and had a chance to prepare some straight-laced rhetoric. The senator sounded at his craziest when he was shooting from the cuff, and as much as she was supposed to be impartial, Rashida wanted him to sound crazy. It made up for all the smoothing out he did later. And if she was supposed to be revealing the truth, then that was what she needed—the crazy. Because that’s what he was—crazy.
Better to think him crazy than evil, though the latter was slowly gaining in Rashida’s personal opinion.
The senator was mounting the steps to his constituency office by the time she caught up with him. He had a cup of Starbucks in one hand and an iPad in the other. Rashida glanced at her cameraman to make sure he was behind her, and then she sprinted for it, dodging two aides bogged down with briefcases and laptop bags. They’d just gotten in from the capitol the night before. Now was a great time for a comment.
“Senator,” she called, “Senator, just a moment of your time. I’m Rashida Covington, from Merrimack Channel Seven Action News.”
The senator about-faced on hearing the name of a television news station, and plastered his smile on. She wondered if he knew what she was going to ask about. She was a woman, so he had to suspect it. “Miss Covington, it’s always a pleasure.” Rashida would have been offended if she hadn’t heard it from him about five times before.
“Senator, there’s a growing concern among the female demographic, that the gallows pole will be used in the case of Kayleigh Bent, the eighteen-year-old on trial for the violation of the Personhood Act. What are your thoughts on the matter?”
If Rashida had expected him to be taken aback by her question, she would have been disappointed. Sure it was early, and he could still go off message, but his staff had probably been coaching him all the way over in the car. He was up for re-election next year—he couldn’t afford to have a hair or quote out of place.
“Kayleigh Bent is just one in a nest of vicious criminals who are abducting women and aborting their children,” the senator said, looking at the camera and not at her. Only politicians did that—looked at the camera instead of the interviewer. It made Rashida hate him more.
“So you don’t feel the execution and display of a teenager’s body in the city is, some might say, a grotesque use of excessive governmental force?” Inside Rashida wondered if she’d just put herself on a list somewhere. Was there a list? She didn’t want to ever find out.
The senator had resumed his brisk walk inside, leaving Rashida and the cameraman and the rest of his aides to scramble after him. He was, after all, as he liked to remind people often, a very tall man, much like Abraham Lincoln.
“This is why the gallows pole will be instituted,” the senator said confidently over his shoulder.. “These people sow violence. They don’t regret that violence. The only thing they might understand is a body. So we’ll give them one.”
At that moment there was a scream, and an aide ran from the interior of the senator’s office, hands in front of her face. She tripped over a dip in the worn marble flooring and sprawled, face-down.
Rashida motioned the cameraman to keep rolling, but that was pointless, because he was a professional. He wasn’t going to stop until the senator was out of sight.
Two of the man with Collux ran forward to help the woman to her feet, but all she could do was scream. They lowered her to the steps that led up to the second floor and one of them flipped open his cell, ready to call for assistance.
The other two aides ran for the office, for obviously there was something wrong in there, Rashida took advantage of the general chaos to follow them and the senator into the reception area, and then back to his office.
“Oh my god,” mumbled the aide in front of Rashida, almost blocking her way, but then he stumbled and had to sit down on a chair arm, and she could see the senator’s desk, a large expansive slab of mahogany on brass legs. More of a table, really. There were no desk drawers. A man like Collux probably didn’t have to keep anything in drawers.
Seated in the desk chair was a woman. She was posed, actually, in an upright position, wrapped in the state flag. One of her hands was laid flat on the desk surface. The other settled over her breasts, palm over her heart. Her eyes stared straight at Rashida, and it took a moment for her to understand that they were dead eyes.
Just above her, scrawled across the wall in foot high letters, someone had painted a message in red, possibly the woman’s blood:
I WAS TOO AFRAID OF THE LAW TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL.
“Jesus Christ!” the senator shouted, obviously not thinking that he was going out to hundreds upon thousands of homes over the airwaves. “Someone call security.”
Rashida stared at the woman in the chair. There was no indication of what had happened to her—no stab wounds or gunshot holes. The sign made it painfully clear that she’d died in one of the abortion mobiles. Rashida herself didn’t use them, didn’t even use birth control (the station tested them all for drugs every month), but it wasn’t because she didn’t want to. She was on her last packet of condoms, and once they were gone, she wasn’t sure what she would do. Not have sex, she guessed.
Like that would ever work.
One of Collux’s less squeamish aides seemed to realize that there was a running camera there, and he herded them out, his arms wide. “Come on, folks, let’s give the woman some dignity.”
Rashida turned to her cameraman, Larry. “Did you get that?”
Larry patted the digital camera. “Everything, even the rigor mortis.” He frowned. “But we won’t be able to show it.”
Rashida wondered if they would ever learn the woman’s name. Probably not. An aide was heading towards them as they walked to the front doors of the building, but Larry had already palmed the flash card from the camera, and when the aid confiscated the card now in place, he’d just get a blank chip. Larry was a good man.
“No,” she agreed. “We won’t.”
But that didn’t mean that she wasn’t going to leak it anyway.
The red and white armbands arrived in the mail. Every woman in the state of Virginia received one. It must have cost a fortune to send them all, but there they were on every doorstep, as if they appeared in synchronization. The postal workers who carried them to each and every door trembled with excitement as they laid them out. Sooner or later someone would be home when they delivered, and they’d get to see one opened.
It hadn’t escaped anyone’s notice that all of the packages were addressed to women. They’d been x-rayed at the postal office, to make sure that they weren’t carrying contraband (in the early days before the mandatory drug testing, women had tried to get their friends to mail them pills from out-of-state).
Mei-Yun Cheng unwrapped the parcel with bated breath. Her friend Kay had gotten hers yesterday, and she had wanted to see it for herself.
Her birth control delivery was due next week, but she was pretty sure that she wasn’t going to receive it. No one had gotten pills in two weeks, if the sauna gossip was to be believed, not since the body had been discovered at the senator’s office. Mei-Yun had seen the video on you-tube before it had been pulled by the state.
Melanie Stern had been kidnapped and had a pregnancy terminated “against her will” the other day, so that was still going on, Mei-Yun thought with some relief. But as she stared at the package in her hands, and then unfocused her eyes to look beyond them, to the televisions screen and the picture of Kayleigh Bent’s corpse hanging from the gallows pole, she wondered how long it would last. People were still elected, right? They could change things through the power of voting. These things went in cycles, and eventually people would have enough and start to make changes. She just wondered if she could hang on long enough for her son to get a good education before they moved somewhere else. Maybe back to China.
She had thought that the second they’d dropped Kayleigh Bent’s corpse down on the rope and it had bounced there before stilling in the windless morning, the public outcry would force them to cut it down. But no one had said anything. For the last three days, the corpse had been shown on the television in thirty second clips once every two hours. It was impossible to get around. She’d gotten to the point where she didn’t even bother to shield Tian’s eyes when he was watching television. He was three now, but by the time he understood what he was seeing, it would probably be worse all around.
She listened to her heart thudding in her chest while she opened the inner wrapper, a bit of pink tissue paper, it didn’t matter. She wondered about the person who had sent all these, how they had sent them all, if they had made them all. It was obvious that they had been handmade, or at least not factory made.
There it was, this little band of red and white, meant to be fitted over a shirt, a jacket, a coat, whatever she was wearing. In a time before this, such an armband would have meant that someone had it in for her, and they wanted everyone to know it.
Finally, wrapped in that circle of cloth, a pink paper heart with typeset words on it, reading:
HELLO THERE. WE HEARD U NEED THIS.
DON’T WORRY, WE LOVE YOU.
EVERY PART OF YOU BELONGS TO YOU.
“What the hell is that?” Qiáng said, looking over her shoulder. Mei-Yun crushed the card in her hand, but the letters seemed to burn through and touch her skin. She took the arm band and tucked it into her pocket, where it would wait, until she knew if she was ready for what it wanted her to do.
“Where’s your armband?” Carla asked her friend when she saw her in the grocery store.
Sharon stared at Carla’s red and white armband. “Birth control is illegal,” she said matter-of-factly.
“No one’s making you take any,” Carla said, her face making an expression that looked like this:.
They stood there like that for a while, Sharon looking uncomfortable, and Carla looking like an emoticon. Then Sharon shrugged and glanced at the display of douches. She wanted to buy one, but she didn’t think she should in front of Carla. “Well,” she said. “Um.”
Carla shook her head and shrugged her shoulders, and then waved a little before pushing her cart away, down the aisle. Sharon watched her pass the other cart and its user, Penelope Gallagher, whom Sharon knew from church but didn’t know very well. She did see Penelope had on an armband. It was as if they had sprung out of nowhere overnight. Now Sharon felt like she was the only one not wearing one. Well, the only woman. By this time, though, even some men were wearing them. They were mostly younger men.
But it was a silly thing to do, this protest that just made them all out to be whiners and manipulators (as if this whole celibacy thing would last long), and Sharon didn’t believe in either of those, either. Though last night, the news had reported that even the streetwalkers were staying in.
There were plenty of reasons these things were outlawed—look at the estrogen in the water, for god’s sake—and they lived in a republic where people elected the officials who made these laws. That was the way the world was.
If they didn’t like it, then maybe they should all move to Canada, or Finland or something, she thought bitterly as she stared at the armband of the woman scanning her groceries. The woman, whose name tag read “Sissy,” didn’t say anything to her, but every once in a while her eyes cut to Sharon’s left bicep, where her armband would be, or, as it was obvious to Sissy, should be.
Sissy watched her slide her card and submit to the retinal scan, then handed her the receipt. “Have a nice day,” she said, but it sounded like this: “Hahaveevevnaanbitch.” Then she dissolved into a series of hacking coughs and had to grab for a tissue to cover her mouth, so Sharon wasn’t sure if she had heard the woman correctly or not.
No matter. You turn the other cheek. You can’t let the little things bother you. You are not responsible for other people’s reactions, Sharon Graham, she told herself, pushing her cart out to her car.
It didn’t make her happy to not be on the wagon train like all her girlfriends, but the whole armband thing made her uneasy. She felt more uneasy when she passed the display gallows on her way home. Kayleigh Bent’s body still hung from the pole like a drenched flag, arm bands tied all over her legs. They had appeared there over time, the news said, along with flowers and cards and signs. Someone had spray painted on the wall behind her head, Keep on keeping on. Now there was a guard on the body so that they could make sure that it wasn’t tampered with.
No one could link the arm band to any crime, and just wearing the arm band wasn’t a sign of guilt, really. This was a free country after all, and if they let Jews wear those yarmulkes or Muslim women wear headscarves, then women were allowed to wear the armbands. As long as they didn’t do anything.
Kayleigh’s feet clacked together in a strong gust of wind.
Sharon forgot all about her when she thought about dinner for that evening. A nice roast. Yes, a nice roast was the thing for today. And after that, she’d sit down and work. She had five houses on the market, and they wouldn’t sell themselves, and most certainly not in this economy.
She sat at a red light and contemplated the graffiti sprayed on the wall of the pharmacy on the corner:
ETA: Hello there! I am glad that this story is getting some play! I’m starting to reach the max cap for responding to comments, so if don’t get to you, I am sorry. (SADFAYCE). But if you want to link to this story or tweet it or FB it or [insert social media platform] it, feel free. I guess when I pubbed it, I lost control of who sees it, and that’s okay with me.
INSERT OBLIGATORY PSA HERE! For more information or to see how you can help in the fight for women’s reproductive rights in the US:
I am sure there are other places too, but those were the ones I liked when I went a’looking.
ETA 2: You can now buy the shirt! All proceeds go to Planned Parenthood. Thanks for your support!