Thom flicked the cloth at Abela’s ass, making her shriek in protest. Raya clapped her chubby little hands together in delight, squirming in her seat. “Dance!” She insisted, pointing regally at Thom. Abela swung her up in her arms.
“Is Daddy being mean to Mommy? Yes he is. Yes he is!” Raya crowed in response, her eyes sparkling. Abela leaned up to kiss Thom’s cheek, then stroked it with her nut brown hand. “You should shave before you leave” she said, turning and bouncing Raya over to the fridge.
“It just grows so damn fast!” Thom groaned, heading off into their little bathroom. “And the water pressure is down again.” A slow thin stream of water dripped out of the tap. “You’d think, they can cure cancer, they could standardize the water.” He heard Raya giggle and the pop of a yogurt. “Abela you can’t keep feeding her. She has to learn a little patience with food.”
“It’s just a yogurt” she called from the front room.
“Yeah but she’ll get graded on that. We have to be more careful.”
“Who’s my pretty little girl. My beautiful girl.” Abela cooed, scraping the spoon around the yogurt loudly. Thom walked out, still with patches of soap on his face. “Abela. The gender norming. Come on.”
“Thom I’m sick of them telling me how to raise my kid. If I give her fifty crackers and dress her up in a pink toga, it shouldn’t matter to anyone but us.”
“I know.” Thom said, sitting down and pulling them both against him. “But them’s the breaks kid.”
“I’ll only be awhile” Abela said, gesturing towards the door of the bedroom. Thom lowered the screen he was reading to Raya. She squirmed in protest.
“Story!” she said, trying to lean over to grab it from him.
“That’s right. Story Raya.” Thom said. He shifted Raya’s weight so he could turn towards Abela. “Again?” She pulled her hair back and tied it up in a knot, turning to face the mirror. Ignoring him.
“Abs, again?” She continued to ignore him, reaching around behind their bookshelf to pull out a lighter. “Fine.” He said. I’m taking Raya out.”
“Thom you’re overreacting again. It’s not a big deal. I’m not doing anything wrong…”
“Look, we talked about this. You go ahead and do this if it’s so important, but I don’t want Raya around it.”
“I just need to feel…” she faltered, “I don’t know Thom. I wish you didn’t hate it so much. I’m sure other people do it, if you’d just be more open…”
“No!” Thom shouted, then recovered as Raya turned her wide eyed gaze on him, her mouth in a round “oh” of surprise. “No, don’t bring it up. Not everyone is like you. It’s not okay. This could be bad Abs.”
“You exaggerate,” she said stiffly, pushing up her sweatshirt sleeves. She glared at him, but he could see the tears threatening to brim over. “I’ll just be an hour. It’s not fair for you to keep asking me to give this up. You knew what you were getting into.” She walked briskly into the bedroom and shut the door. A few minutes later, he started to smell the sweet cloying scent of incense fog. He had no idea where she got it from. It was harder to find than sugar. When the smell hit the living room, he took Raya out for his 10,000, strapping her to his back in a blue papoose.
Raya was a pointer. She was excited to know everything. From her perch on his shoulders, she would lurch from left to right across his back, eager to reach and grab a leaf from a tree, or to ha’haw at a bird flying by. Her toes would dig into his back as she would stretch herself up and up. Always reaching.
Thom’s neighbors were standing at their doors when he came home. A few of them looked sympathetic, but old Granger, the ex-pilot, spit on his shoes. By the time he reached his door, Thom already knew that Raya was gone.
“God is dead” was spray-painted on his door in bold black letters, so fresh they were still dripping. He pushed past the smashed glasses and furniture, hoping that somehow everything was going to be alright. That he could just explain, and have it all go away. Then he heard a moan come from the bathroom. He shoved open the door to find Abela, naked and bleeding in the bathtub. Her dark hair was thick and matted with the blood that was seeping from a cut at the top of her forehead which looked like it had come from the edge of a steel-toed boot. One of her eyes was completely swollen shut, and it looked as though her arm might be broken. He scooped her up gingerly and carried her into the bedroom, placing her gently on their mat. She moaned, her breathing ragged.
He went back into the kitchen and rummaged through the cabinets until he found the healing kit. He grabbed the bottle of tea tree oil, some gauze and the needle and thread and returned to Abela. He sat down next to her cross-legged and dressed her wounds, holding back his own tears. When he was done, he curled up next to her, hoping that she would last through the night.
She woke him up weeping at 2:00 in the morning.
“They took her,” she cried, curling into him. “They took my baby.”
“I know,” he said, as they wrapped themselves around each other. “But I promise we will get her back.” Now wasn’t a time for I told you so.
Abela pressed her lips to Thom’s temple. She could feel his heightened pulse and forcibly slowed breathing. His eyes were far away, shutting her out. She concentrated instead on the feel of cold metal in her hands, lightly running her fingers over the barrel. They had been waiting below the facility in the dark for three days while their contact Niv ran the mission.
“Thom when is he coming?” she whispered into the darkness.
“I don’t know sweetheart. He said maybe three, four days. He has to be careful, he was off the grid so long this last time. He has to make it work so that he’s safe the next time.”
His words agitated her. “I don’t give a shit about his next time. This is our chance. We finally found her Thom and I can’t just keep sitting here while Niv dicks around up there. You’re so fucking calm it’s driving me crazy.”
“Calm Abs?” Thom whispered fiercly, “You think I’m fucking calm! That is my daughter that those shitheads have up there and all I want to do is run in and tear them all in half. It’s killing me too.” He started to say something else, then faltered.
“Just say it Thom.”
She could feel his eyes on her in the dark. He half moaned. “You just kept pushing. With everything. You didn’t care if she got fat, or we got our 10k a day. You thought you were above it. Above the rules. All I had to do was stop you. Take your stupid beads away. I knew it was wrong, I knew that it put us all at risk but I didn’t because I trusted you.” Thom’s voice rose in pitch and broke. He leaned away from her, shaking.
“Stop me?” Abela said, staring into the black. “Because what I feel, who I am, is wrong? It’s not wrong to tear someone’s child out of her arms, but it’s wrong to hope, to pray that something out there is guiding us? Is bigger than us? I’m not in the wrong here. This country…” Thom cut her off.
“This country,” he spit “found a better way to live than allowing some omniscient fucktard in the sky to dictate their rights. This country, Abela, which you hate so much, has done more to keep the peace around the world than any other in history.”
“By getting rid of differences!”
“By getting rid of bullshit.” Thom clenched his fists, pulling back from her again.
Abela glared at him. “If that’s how you feel maybe I’ll just take her myself.”
“Don’t you dare,” Thom hissed. “I love you Abela, but so help me, if you mess this up for us again, I won’t be held responsible…”
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Abela whispered, her voice hoarse. “People used to be able to live how they wanted…”
“And look how much they fucked it up,” Thom said harshly. “We’re better off.”
“I’ll never believe that,” Abela said. “And besides what does it matter now? If we do this, if we take her, we’ll be running for the rest of our lives.” Thom was about to respond when they heard footsteps coming towards them down the tunnel.
“It’s Niv,” came their guide’s disembodied voice in the dark. “I’ve got her.”
“Let me see her,” Abela begged, reaching out into the darkness.
“She’s drugged right now,” Niv said. “I had to get her out without making any noise. The pickup is three miles down, so we have to get moving quickly.” He tapped Thom on the shoulder and handed over his cargo. Thom was immediately hit with the scent of powder and vanilla, the scent that was uniquely his daughters. Tears welled in his eyes and he squeezed her, feeling the precious weight of her in his arms.
“Come on,” Niv said. They pressed forward in the dark. Thom was careful to find his footing, afraid to stumble with his daughter in his arms. Abela followed close behind him, her hand lightly touching his back. They dared not turn on a light.
Despite the short distance, it was nearly an hour before they reached the feeder to the river, and Thom’s arms were beginning to burn from carrying his daughter’s dead weight. A dull glow crept through the exit from the night sky above.
“Wish it had been moonless tonight,” Niv said, running his hand through his hair. He pulled out a little button and tapped off a short message.
“Does it matter with the heat-seekers?” Thom asked. He shifted Raya again in his arms.
“Is this point watched?” Abela asked anxiously, reaching up and taking Raya from Thom. Thom’s arms tingled at their freedom.
Niv shrugged at her. “We’re going to hope not. The sub’ll only surface for a minute, pick you up, take you 20 miles upriver and then we can put you in a land craft to your next stop.”
“Thank you so much,” Abela said. Thom nodded.
“My advice to you both?” Niv said. “Go west. There are still colonies out that way that are untouched. I’ve seen them. They’re not as clean as the city, but they’ll be more… accepting.” A second later, Thom saw something break through the black surface of the water soundlessly. Niv nodded to him, and together they stepped out onto the shore. A chute opened on the top of the ship and Niv pointed at it.
“Drop your wife and kid through first. Then you.” Thom helped Abela step onto the ship and then passed Raya to her. Within seconds, they had disappeared.
“Thank you.” Thom said to Niv again.
“It’s not going to be easy.” NIv said. “If I were you, I’d walk away from them both. You could be a free man. They’ve both been identified. It’s not a fun life. I wish my parents hadn’t chosen it for me.” Thom nodded.
“It’s not a choice I can make,” he said, reaching out to shake Niv’s hand. Niv shook it.
“Well, God speed then,” Niv said ironically. Thom turned and stepped onto the ship, ready to face whatever came next.