By Lucille Gang Shulklapper.
“In the year 2052, the second civil war, fought between the wealthy and the poor, divided The United States,” Jeremy Shader told his students.
“Where were you?” asked Harley Whitehead, scratching a patch of baldness on his close-shaved scalp. The teenagers settled themselves in their rotating seats. Some wore shoes this morning as the cold started to settle through the rotting window frames. The newest fad was to wear shoes that had cut out holes in the toes. The bigger the hole, the stronger you were. The toe had become a symbol of power.
“I was living in what used to be known as the inner city in New York State. Before New York and the other states became separate countries. I made a map last night to show you what the United States looked like thirty years ago.”
“My father said you’re cool for an old man, Mr. Shader. Iced. He said you were in your twenties and you fought for the poor people even though you were rich. That true?”
Jeremy stared at the dying branches of an apple tree from the windowed wall and continued the lesson. Later, as he picked his way up six flights of stairs to his studio apartment, he watched the slanted light fall upon the children playing on the stairs. He could smell urine, and he took a deep breath when he reached the fourth landing, hoping to inhale the cooking odors from behind Mavis Smith’s closed door.
He sensed her waiting, could almost see her full-hipped body tense in the narrow kitchen. The door opened. Inside, the pungent odor of the stew and cloves of peeled garlic assailed his nostrils. “Looks and smells like the galley of my father’s yacht,” he told her, and she laughed.
“Well, I’m much too young to remember anything like that.” She moved between the counters, sliding the drawers open, rummaging through mismatched cooking utensils until at last she held up the slotted spoon she used to stir the vegetable stew. They both sensed the moment when he could see the rounded outline of her breasts push against her red sweater, as she raised her arm and waved the spoon in the air.
She undressed quickly and pulled him toward her. “I’m sterile,” she told him. “I can never marry. Have you fathered a child?”
“Yes. He would have been a few years older than you.”
“Yes. The government decreed limited breeding powers to survivors. ”
She paused and searched his eyes. Then she reached up and pointed the camera toward the wall and Jeremy forgot about the technicians who listened to sound waves when voices were inaudible. He lost himself in her flesh, heard her moan, and felt remembered joy.
The red light on the camera blinked and three short bells rang in their ears.
Covering themselves with bed sheets, Jeremy and Mavis aimed the camera toward themselves and punched separate codes into the transformer. “Permission granted,” boomed a voice from the overhead speakers and those located in the flooring. “Your merger will be approved.”
Mavis was one of fifty queens cloned with sterile eggs. Despite their differences in age and race, the government approved and proclaimed their marriage over loudspeakers through the streets. No longer forbidden to marry, Mavis promised the government full disclosure of her new life in exchange. “Merger of War Hero with Queen,” traveled by sound waves into the lake and forest regions of the domed country.
“Congrats,” Harley later said, slapping Jeremy on the back. “Can I have your apartment?” Which meant that Harley was his official watchdog.
Mavis kept all of her computer chips in the right places. She came from a long line of genetic food engineers. There was her photograph on the interspace; the toothy smile, the yellow-streaked green hair falling into her round hazel eyes. The cutting board loaded with diced hothouse vegetables, pureed melons, and exotic tea leaves.
Jeremy had fallen hard. Wanting Mavis consumed him. The microphone in his brain chip echoed in his body. The government followed his brain waves and allowed him pleasure.
Only at night, the demons awakened him from sleep, speaking in the foreign English language of his past. “What’s wrong?” Mavis inquired, and then covered her mouth, knowing that Harley and all the technicians could listen if they chose. And he thrust himself upon her, leaving the camera turned toward them, hoping they preferred to watch, than listen. He whispered in Old English, and as he did, she opened herself and took him in.
The next day, Harley demanded to know what Jeremy whispered to Mavis. His monitor had recorded nothing. “Of course, I’ll tell you,” Jeremy replied. “I’m not certain if Mavis is a true clone or if she has flaws and will turn against me to further her needs. She weakens me at night, as you well may know.”
Harley’s slitted eyed narrowed as they traveled over Jeremy’s tall, slim-waisted frame. He stuck his big toe in Jeremy’s face. “Tell me what she wants from you and I’ll look after it,” he declared.
“She wants a baby,” Jeremy said.
The technicians came and took Mavis to Center while Jeremy was at school. Waves of music surged through Jeremy’s head. Mavis had been altered.
“My brain waves have been reset,” she told Jeremy. “I endured the pain because I want to stay with you.”
Jeremy knew about Center. Could still hear his son Blake’s dying screams. And those of his wife, Kendra, who tried to protect Blake. He recalled the vaporized faces of family and friends, marked x for enemy on their foreheads, whenever a low moaning sound filled his head. Mind chatter, the government called it.
The demons shrilled in his ears until one night an iron arm glided out from the wall and operated on him. He now found relief by rubbing the patch of skin on his forehead where a computer chip had been embedded.
Mavis had a collection of knives for cooking. Her cleaver, a paring knife, and bread knife, with serrated or sharp pointed edges were always on hand. “Let me help you,” Jeremy insisted. “Of course,” Mavis complied, gazing into the camera.
“Now you can teach us to prepare our own food,” Harley said, biting into a luscious pear that Mavis had peeled, solar-baked, and covered with raspberry sauce. I want to try this myself tonight.”
Harley asked if he could borrow the paring knife, and Mavis sent it through a tube that expanded and contracted in every apartment.
“Where’s the paring knife?” Jeremy asked later that night.
Mavis patted her greasy face and stuffed some grapes into her mouth. “Harley has it. I’ll go see how he’s getting along.”
In the morning, Jeremy reached for Mavis. “Why are you crying?” he asked, aching to comfort her without a glance toward the camera over their bed. He had become inured to Harley, who witnessed their lovemaking and made the requisite reports to the authorities.
A limited amount of fear intruded into Jeremy’s libido-stroking chip. Mavis was not lying next to him. The crying came from the hallway. Jeremy followed the sound down the iron stairway until he saw the baby, an interbred with Harley’s Humanoid, and Mavis’ Clone features.
Harley was right behind him, holding Mavis’ paring knife between his rotting teeth.
“Where’s Mavis?” Jeremy cried.
“At Station…she has to be purified…inspected.”
“ Jeremy took a deep breath, held it, slowly released it. “ Why?” He asked, “How did this…?”
“The government granted Mavis her wish and I got mine. Got my share of the riches! Private breeding room, chemical-permeation mattress, hothouse fruit… And Mavis.”
“Merger of War Hero with Queen Annulled.” The speaker in the camera boomed.
“Merger of Harley Whitehead and Mavis Smith Shader Approved.”
Mavis opened the front door. It swung back and forth. She picked up the baby, breast-fed him from her cream patch, then, handed him to Harley. “I reported Blake’s birth. We’ve been approved to make another child.”
“Has Station properly restored you?” Harley asked.
“Yes.” Mavis replied. “My reproductive papers are stamped. I’ll run upstairs and pack my suprasack.”
“You lied to me.” Jeremy cried. “You said you endured the pain because you wanted to stay with me. And I believed…”
“Careful.” Mavis whispered in Old English. “I believed you, too.” The cameras whirred. Jeremy paused. Furiously, he rubbed the patch of skin on his forehead until he composed himself. Slowly, he turned around and faced the swinging door, stopping when a sudden sharp pain penetrated his mind chip. History, he thought. Something about history. In a sudden burst of a memoblast, it was gone.
Outside, rain began to fall on the stunted trees. Jeremy closed the door with his big toe, watching it grow to an enormous size. As big as Harley’s, he thought. As big as Harley’s, he repeated. He would have to enlarge the hole in his work shoes.
LUCILLE GANG SHULKLAPPER is a widely published poet and fiction writer with work appearing in journals such as Slant, Prose-Poem Project, Red Booth Review, Consequence, and New Verse News among others, as well as in five poetry chapbooks, the most recent titled Gloss (Flarestack Poets, 2015). She has led poetry workshops for The Florida Center for the Book and those facilitated through the Palm Beach Poetry Festival community outreach program. Her first picture book, Stuck in Bed, Fred, was also published this year. Having taught reading K-college, made recordings for the blind, and raised a family, she is presently, a volunteer with Caregiver Youth of America. She was thrilled to have been featured in a New York Times article , “Finding Success , Well Past the Age of Wunderkind.”