The More Things Change...
When I opened my eyes I saw a boy sitting in the desk chair across the room, his arms crossed loosely over his chest, he just slouched there and stared at me. He had the oddest little halfway grin on his face. His hair was blonde, long, and straight and looked so light that I'm sure it flew around his head all the time at the slightest breeze. He was tanned, but looked like he'd be pale in winter. His eyes were hazel. He looked like he was about fourteen years old, but he had one of those faces where you couldn't really tell. He could have been a bit younger, or up to a couple of years older. There was no doubt about it. The word 'cute' in the dictionary had his picture beside it as an exemplar.
He was wearing jeans and a light blue t-shirt. The clothes were both familiar and slightly strange at the same time. After looking for a few seconds I realized why. They weren't that different from what I was used to, just some cut and style differences, no different probably than how my jeans and t-shirt might look to a kid from the 1940's.
I just looked at him, my eyes going from his clothes to his hands to his face and back again.
His little grin widened and he spoke, “Hi. I'm Dillon.”
I found my tongue. “Um, hi. I'm Jeffrey. I guess you know that, though.” I waited for him to explain himself.
“Yeah, I know. I know I'm not being fair here. I know way, way more about you than you know about me. But give it a bit of time, Jeffrey. I promise everything will get explained. Be patient. And I know enough about you to know that you will be, if you have to be.” He grinned that damnable wonderful grin again.
I tried to figure out how to respond. I was pissed and enraptured at the same time. “You're right, Dillon. You're not being fair. I guess there's not much I can do about it though. I'm your prisoner. Or slave. Or something.”
His grin vanished. He looked almost afraid. He gestured violently with both hands, as if to erase what I just said, “No! No, that's not it! Not at all! Look, this was probably a real bad idea. If Mom and Dad find out I'm here I'll be grounded for a month. I was supposed to wait. I was supposed to meet you after Mom and Dad explained everything. I just couldn't though. I'm not nearly as patient as you are.” He looked sorrowful now, “Sorry, this was stupid. I'm probably fucking everything up. I'll go. I'll see you in a few days. Sorry.”
He stood up suddenly and moved towards the bedroom door.
“Wait!” I yelled. He stopped and turned back towards me. I wasn't sure quite how I felt, but I was starting to figure a few things out. I should have realized from the phone calls and a few other hints that he wasn't exactly responsible for this. He was just a kid, like me. It was the adults I'd heard in the background who were running this little zoo. “I'm not mad at you. Sorry. I just really, really hate not knowing what's going on. I like to be in control of myself, of everything to do with me. Probably too much, I think that was always one of my biggest problems, aside from my temper. And I have no idea what the hell is going on and I'm scared and worried and upset and confused and mad.”
The sorrowful looked melted into one that was a bit sad, a bit pained. I realized he was worried for me. He forced a bit of a grin back onto his cute face. “No, you're right. I should've listened to the doctor. That's probably why they said to be patient. To wait until everything was done properly. I'm not very good at patience. I'll be in so much crap if they realize I'm here.” He turned halfway towards the door. “Look, I really do have to go. I only have a minute or two before I'm caught. Just trust me, though I know you don't have any reason to, but everything will get sorted out. See you in a couple of days.”
He turned the rest of the way and walked out of the room. Then his head appeared again in the doorway. He looked at me lying there under the blanket. His eyes swept up and down my blanket covered body and his grin reappeared in its full glory. He said, “By the way, I just have to tell you, you're the absolute most adorable thing I've ever laid eyes on in my life.” He blushed hard before his head disappeared around the corner again.
I found myself blushing and grinning, despite myself. Two seconds later I was yelling, “Wait!” and jumped naked out of bed to chase him into the hallway. I searched the entire house. But Dillon had apparently disappeared.
I'll give Dillon credit. He was true to his word. It was two days later when I saw him again. I was in the living room late that morning, reading a book about the economics of medieval Scandinavia, when the doorbell rang.
That was a bit strange all by itself, since I didn't even know there was a doorbell. I couldn't help wonder what the point of a doorbell was when there wasn't even a door. So I looked up from my book directly at the front door of the house that had been there all along but had somehow escaped my notice until this very second.
I laid my book down and stood up to answer the door and greet my guests.
I opened the door and looked at the two people standing on the porch. If I had been thinking maybe I would have used the opportunity of an open door to make a break for it. But this new development had me off kilter so I just stood there and looked at them. The two people were a middle aged man and woman, holding hands loosely. The man's hair was very close to the same colour as Dillon's while the woman's hair was darker. Their faces told me they were related to Dillon. Probably his parents. They were dressed formally; the man was wearing a smart looking suit and tie though the style was strange and the woman was wearing slacks and a blouse covered with some kind of feminine looking vest. I hadn't seen anything quite like it before, but I could tell it was supposed to be more formal than casual.
The couple looked at me, then at each other, communicating something silently. The man opened his mouth and spoke. “Hi Jeffrey. I'm Donald Masterson and this is my wife Dolores Masterson. I think we have some explaining to do. You must be desperate to know what's going on by now, and it's time you found out. May we come in?”
I just nodded dumbly, amazed that they even asked. It was more likely their house than it was mine. I stood aside to let them enter, which they did. We moved into the living room and I found myself playing the role of host before I even realized I was doing it. I invited them to have a seat, and asked them if they'd like any coffee or tea, or a snack.
They waved off my offer with genuine and pleased looking smiles and thanks, and then sat down beside each other on the couch. I took the chair adjacent, the big overstuffed one I had tried to throw through the window a while back.
I was nervous. I didn't know how to play this. They had all the cards and I had none. I wasn't sure what to do, if there was any approach that might be more beneficial than another, or if it even mattered. So I just looked at them with questions in my eyes.
Again the couple communicated something silently with their eyes before turning to look at me. This time it was Dolores than spoke first. She spoke softly but with a confident authority that told anybody that listened that she knew what she was about, and you had better mind what was being said. She said, “Jeffrey, first things first. You're not a prisoner. You're healthier, mentally and physically, than you have been before in your entire life. Yes, like the computer says, it's 2087. You've been, well, kind of 'frozen' for a few decades, and we're your new foster parents.”
I looked at them and felt a frown start to crease my brows. Before I could say the words forming on my lips though Dolores held up a hand to stop me from saying anything and she continued speaking herself, “I know. You have a thousand questions and more than a little anger, worry, and rightful feelings of resentment. That's to be expected. All your questions will be answered, starting now. I can't promise everything will make sense though, not right away. You still have too much to learn. A lot has changed since you attempted to end your life, and you need to gain some experience first, not to mention become a bit grounded in the here and now. I'm hoping that some time and space, and being with a regular family might help with that. Now, rather than listening to me lecture you, why don't we start with your questions.” She stopped talking and they looked at me expectantly.
I found my mouth was dry and my nerves were edgy. I had to clear my throat and swallow a couple of times before I could speak. “Um, my parents? My little brother, Ricky?”
Mr. Masterson answered, “Your parents passed away a very long time ago. Rick is still alive and doing well, though he's getting up there in years now. We have a meeting set up with him already. Believe me, he can hardly wait. It'll be a while before he can get here. He's in Australia right now.”
“Why am I here?” I asked.
Another look passed between them before Mrs. Masterson answered, “That's a bit more complicated a question than you may realize, Jeffrey. You're here because your parents, despite what you might believe, and despite some of the problems they caused, loved you. You're here because you were lucky enough to almost die in a hospital with a very new and very experimental method of keeping patients in a kind of 'suspended animation' if you will until treatment could be developed for them. You're here because we wanted you to be here. You're here because the world needs you, and others like you. You're here because you deserve to be. You're here because we think, and hope, it's the best place for you to be until you get used to all the changes since you were frozen.”
I blinked a few times, processing all of this. “So I didn't die?”
“No,” answered Mr. Masterson, “though you came very, very close. Just before they took you off of life support the doctor explained the new experimental suspended animation to your parents. They agreed, hoping something could be done for you in the next few months. Unfortunately, the damage was rather serious. They found you almost too late. It was only recently that the physical damage could be fully repaired.”
I shifted in my chair, wringing my cold sweaty hands together, “Why the house? Why is it like it is? Why the ruse? Why haven't I met you until now?”
They both smiled slightly at my run on questions. Mrs. Masterson answered, “The house, and its contents, and the secrecy up until now you have, I believe, already correctly surmised their purpose. They were, first, to give you a familiar environment to heal and adjust, mentally and physically, during your recuperation and to give you the opportunity and motivation to learn some of what you needed to learn before we could show you more. Your education, in the time you came from, was amazingly inadequate considering how much knowledge was out there. Even students forty or fifty years before you I think were better grounded in mathematics, history, and some of the sciences. The secrecy, and the reason you haven't met anyone until now is because your treatment needed to be finished first. The physical damage was almost completely repaired by the time you first woke up here but the mental damage that had been inflicted upon you took considerably more time. For some of that, certain mental blocks needed to be in place for a time. It wouldn't have been possible if you had met anyone sooner.”
“Mental blocks?” I asked, thinking about not noticing the door, about the workshop, about my missing-in-action sex drive, about not missing, or really even thinking much about, my brother or my parents until now.
“Yes,” continued Mrs. Masterson, who seemed to be doing most of the talking, “you should know that they have all been removed now. You are fully in control of your faculties.”
I looked at them and narrowed my eyes. I hated the thought of somebody controlling me that way. I hated it beyond words. I hated that they knew I hated it. I had to test them. Maybe I was acting like a spoiled brat, but damn it, they had no right! It was my brain. I had to test this. I thought of the can of ant-killer downstairs. I stood up and marched downstairs to retrieve it. I came back into the living room with it in my hand and unscrewed the lid while looking at them. I raised it to my lips.
Mr. Masterson spoke, “I know what you're doing. We have a teenager of our own you know. We understand. You don't quite believe we won't stop you, that the block won't kick in and you'll wake up tomorrow before you can follow through. You're angry, rightfully so I might add, that someone interfered with you like this. You want, need, to see if we're telling you the truth. I assure you, the only way we could stop you right now is the old-fashioned way. Physically. I'm not going to do that. Because, though I know this will only make you more angry, I know you won't follow through. You don't want to die anymore.”
Fuck them. He was right, dammit. I screwed the lid back on the can of ant-killer and set it down on the coffee table with disgust before plopping back down and looking at them petulantly with my arms crossed tightly like the angry teenager I was.
They had the grace not to smile at my petulance. Mr. Masterson continued, “The only reason for the blocks, and the house and the secrecy, was for your safety. For your sanity. Without them, you wouldn't be here. Or you wouldn't have had the chance to be you. I do apologize. I want you to believe that. They're controversial, even now, especially when the patient is uninformed, but it was either that or death or detachment from reality.”
I looked carefully between them, at their faces. Somehow I did believe them. They looked, well, apologetic. But resolute. I had a million more questions, but I was having trouble putting them into words. I didn't have any context. I needed questions answered before I knew enough to ask the right questions. It was frustrating. So I asked the only question I could think of at the moment, “So what now?”
“Now,” said Mr. Masterson, “you meet the rest of our family, we spend some time with you here over the next two or three days so you can learn, and then you come home with us. After that, you learn, and grow up, and make friends, and socialize, and everything else a healthy fifteen year old needs. We'll enroll you in high school next week, after we ensure your knowledge is up to par. You'll need a fair bit of extra tutoring on top of that. The tutoring will start almost immediately, even though it's summer. That way hopefully you'll be somewhat up to speed by September when school starts. You'll need the extra help. A lot has happened in the world.”
I shuddered involuntarily. School. Other kids. My personal hell. The one place where the torture and pain became so intense as to render me, finally, suicidal. And now I had to face it again.
My shudder garnered a reaction from both the Mastersons. They looked slightly alarmed and Mr. Masterson leaned towards me, while Mrs. Masterson rubbed her chin thoughtfully. She spoke, “Obviously there's still some mental and emotional pathways there that need to be looked at.” She appeared to be thinking something over. “We'll do it old school. No more blocks. This will be done with self-reflection, examination, and education. Like they did in your day.” She smiled, almost to herself. “Don't worry, you'll have support. Maybe more than you realize.” She chuckled slightly, as if at a private joke, “Maybe too much support sometimes.”
“Okay. I guess,” I said. “I don't know what else to say. Or to ask. Except for one thing.” Something that was niggling at me came to the forefront. “You said, earlier, that you needed me. All of us. What exactly did you mean?”
For the first time, they looked uncomfortable. Maybe a bit embarrassed. “I think that is one of those questions that might just have to wait a while. I'm not being evasive. Well, actually I guess maybe I am in a way, but you need more knowledge first. Can you be a bit patient?” said Mrs. Masterson.
I nodded reluctantly.
“Now, how about you meet our son?” Mr. Masterson pulled out a small device from his inside jacket pocket. Maybe a cell phone? He pressed a button or something and spoke into it, “Dillon, you can come in now.” He put the phone or whatever it was away.
Less than a minute later, Dillon walked in the front door. He looked at me, and I looked at him. We both tried to keep straight faces, but we both failed. We grinned at each other. Widely. His parents noticed. Oh boy, did they notice. Dolores frowned mightily at her son, she couldn't help noticing our looks at each other, and the obvious conclusion.
“Dillon Franklin Masterson! Don't think you don't have some explaining to do, mister! We will be having a very long discussion about this when we get home. Believe me! Right after you completely clean up the basement, vacuum the pool, mow the lawn, and wash all of the windows. By hand!”
I couldn't help it. Some things, at least, never ever changed at all. I chuckled slightly, trying to hide it behind my hand.
That got me a glare from Dolores, “I know you're not responsible for this Jeffrey Chamberlain, but any more laughing and when you get home you'll be helping him with those chores and more.”
I shut up.
It was the day after next when I learned about the Depopulation.
True to their word, they spent much of the next two days with me in the retro house. I asked a lot of questions and they answered them. Dillon was there too, part of the process of getting to know all of them and for me to get acclimatized I guess. If it weren't for that I was sure he would be at home, grounded.
That's when Mr. Masterson told me about the Depopulation. It wasn't a pleasant afternoon.
Sometime a decade or so after I tried to kill myself, things were getting very, very bad. I mean everywhere. Bad, like floods, droughts, famines, massive storms, insect infestations, and all that kind of thing due to increased global warming. Bad like more and bigger wars, fighting over fresh water, oil, metal, minerals, religious beliefs, all of the usual culprits, except they seemed to be getting bloodier and more brutal. Bad like a massive and pronounced political shift in most of the developed world to the right. A fundamentalist, religious, controlling, intolerant right. Not the fiscally responsible, people should be able to choose for themselves kind of right.
Bad like massive riots and looting and burning in every major, and not so major, city in the developed world.
This led, inevitably, to more war, more loss of basic freedoms and rights, and a continuing spiral downwards in the standard of living.
Just when it seemed like the whole world would burn itself up in a great fury of anger, spite, and intolerance, in 2022, a new, highly infectious, and brutally fatal disease hit.
It was a mutated form of influenza. Just the flu. But a flu like none the world had ever seen. It was very infectious, like the flu always is, but had mutated enough that virtually nobody had any immunity to it. It wasn't predicted by any of the disease centres of the world, there was no time to develop a vaccine, and it had a fatality rate north of 80%.
It was devastating.
No more wars were being fought. Anywhere. There were no soldiers left to fight them. People hunkered down and did their best to survive in the month or so that it took to sweep through, and kill, most of the globe's population.
A month later the population of planet Earth had shrunk from seven billion people or so to something less than one billion.
Economies disappeared. Global trade stopped dead. Travel stopped dead. Cities were virtually empty.
Rural people were somewhat less affected, due to the lower initial population and lower level of contact between people. But everywhere, everything stopped.
Civilization pretty much ground to a sudden and shuddering halt overnight.
The people that were left, scattered everywhere across the world, did what people have always done in times of strife and hardship. They hunkered down. They worked to survive. They stuck together as families and managed as best they could.
Planet Earth and all of its ecosystems and what diversity of species remained breathed a great sigh of relief at the sudden cessation of humanity raping the world, and began to do what nature has always done since life began. Repopulate, regrow, re-diversify. The climate stabilized, albeit at a higher global temperature than it had seen since dinosaurs walked the earth.
Gradually, over the next decade, civilization started to pull itself together. We were lucky in a way, said Mr. Masterson, because all of the tools, infrastructure, and means were still there, sitting dormant. Many of the rural folk, farmers and ranchers, knowledgeable and vitally important people, were still around and still working their land. That meant enough food. Despite the sudden lack of industrial fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides, crops still grew. With so many fewer people around, feeding them with the diminished crop yields wasn't even a challenge.
There were still plenty of people, despite everything. Close to a billion is a lot. Civilization existed just fine in 1800 or so, the last time there were this many people. And the earth didn't suffer nearly as much. There were still lots of educated, knowledgeable people in almost every field. Mr. Masterson said that's probably what saved us.
People had learned though. Finally, inevitably, despite everything, people had learned. New technologies, just in their infancy before the Depopulation, were developed. Cleaner energy based on the sun and wind and tides and thermal energy. Energy that wasn't concentrated in certain areas of the world, causing geopolitical upheaval and maneuvering.
Treaties were signed. Countries joined together. Trade and economies started to grind back into motion, based on stability this time, not a fairy tale of impossible infinite growth. People started to attend school again, and work, and travel.
Governments changed. Initially at least, representatives listened to their constituents and voted based on real factual information and genuine concern rather than greed and corporate lobbying. Unfortunately, said Mr. Masterson, as power bases solidified there were now signs of this starting to drift back to the way it used to be.
But there wasn't a soul alive who hadn't suffered. There wasn't a person anywhere who hadn't lost some, or more likely most, of their friends and family. It took time. People needed to find stability, to meet others again, to develop relationships, and, finally, to form families again.
I learned my parents died, that horrible month in 2022. I honestly wasn't sure how I felt about that. I would later find out something that would change my viewpoint on the issue.
It was a difficult day, when Mr. Masterson told me all of this. Around five in the afternoon I found myself sitting on the couch, with Mr. Masterson in the armchair across from me winding up all of this lengthy explanation. Dillon was sitting beside me. I wasn't sure how long he had been there. Or how long I had been holding his hand.
I don't think I could have listened to it all if he hadn't been.
Mr. Masterson closed his eyes and sighed. I figured he was finished. I knew I was. I wasn't sure how much more depressed I could get. But then he continued. “Jeffrey, you need to hear this now. It's time. We promised that you would know as soon as you had the context. I won't insult you by delaying any longer, despite how difficult this is.”
Mrs. Masterson sat down on the other side of Dillon and turned to look at me. Dillon's hand squeezed tighter. I felt a sense of foreboding.
Donald started speaking again, “We thought we were out of the woods. That the worst was over. That we could all get on with our lives.
“We were wrong.
“What we didn't know, what we couldn't have known, was the long term genetic effect of that epidemic. You see, Jeffrey, nobody escaped. Or at least almost nobody. Those who we thought remained uninfected actually were infected, with a slightly less virulent strain. The survivors of the more virulent strain, and the rest of us, thought it was over. We rebuilt, and had families, and kids, and tried to move on.”
Donald stood up, went to the kitchen and came back with a large drink of water, which he drank a quarter down before he continued. “There were two problems. Combined, that created a third, much larger problem.
“The people that survived, it turned out that there was little genetic diversity in them. At least at one particular point in their genome. The epidemic seemed to be more dangerous to everyone except these people. They all shared a particular genetic similarity on one specific gene.
“Genetic problems started to crop up when these people got together and had kids. Due to the genetic similarity, and certain dangerous recessive traits being reinforced. Not all the time, and not everyone. But enough. More than enough.
“Now the second problem. The other people, the ones we thought weren't infected. Like I said, they were, with a different strain. They, too, got on with their lives, formed families, and had kids.
“But, unfortunately, those kids are sterile. All of them. So far no exceptions found.
“So you see, we have two big problems. The people who are fertile are dangerously close genetically, at least in certain areas, to anyone else who is fertile. As a result the children they are having are being born with some very serious medical problems. The people who have genetic diversity are not able to have children. They're sterile, due to a mutation caused by their parents' infection.
“What I'm trying to say, Jeffrey, is that we're dying.
“The population, instead of being stable, or growing in the past decade, is diminishing. Despite our best efforts. Despite huge improvements in medical science and increased lifespans.
“As it does so, the remaining fertile people seem to be more and more likely to carry certain dominant genetic traits that can lead to all kinds of problems and diseases in their offspring. Our doctors are dealing with more and more medical problems with today's children. And, believe me, it's taxing our medical system to the limit.
“Jeffrey. The human race is dying. We will be extinct within a few short generations. Four, maybe five. Unless we can inject more healthy genetic diversity into the population.”
I stared at the three of them. Looked down at my lap, then at all three of them again. “That's what you meant,” I said. “When you said you needed me. All of us. The few hundred or thousand people who were frozen like me.”
Dolores nodded. Barely. I think she knew me enough to know what was coming.
I felt my emotions build. That temper of mine again. I let go of Dillon's hand quickly, ignoring the hurt look on his face. I stared at them, feeling my anger grow.
I hated not being in control of myself, of my choices. I hated it. I really, really hated it. With a passion.
I felt used. For the first time since I've been here, I felt dirty again. I felt like everything they had told me in the past two days was a lie. I wasn't here to rekindle my life. I wasn't here to learn, and to grow. To make relationships and build a future.
I was just here to use as some kind of sperm donor.
I stood up suddenly. “You know, you folks really had me going there for a while. You're good, I'll give you that. You know how to string people along, to build trust.” I felt my voice rising, along with the heat in my face, A small part of me already was regretting what I felt coming. But not enough to stop myself. “Well, I'm really sorry to disappoint you, you selfish, unfeeling pricks,” I was shouting now, “but fuck you! Fuck you! I'm not a fucking science experiment! I'm not a goddamn chemistry set or a test tube! I'm not a laboratory rat! And I most definitely am not a sperm donor for some desperate sex starved slut!”
I knew I was being horrible. I knew this wasn't at all fair, was way, way over the top. But somehow I couldn't stop. All the frustration, all the anger, all the resentment of finding out that everything familiar was gone, was just pouring out of me.
“You goddamn, pathetic, stupid fucks! I don't think I could even get a girl pregnant if I tried! Haven't you even figured out that I'm gay?!?”
I ran to the bedroom, slammed the door hard, and dove onto the bed, hiding my head under the pillow. I was crying desperately. Tears and snot pouring out of me. I was wailing loudly and hiccuping and sniffing and then wailing again. I didn't even know why. I knew it was out of proportion. I knew I had been nasty, horrible, wrong.
I felt angry and resentful and confused and scared and alone and lost and hurt and used, and, and worst of all, dirty.
It was hours later, I think around eleven P.M., when I ventured out of the bedroom. The house was quiet, dark. Nobody was there. I made myself a sandwich and drank a glass of milk, then went back to my bed without even using the bathroom or brushing my teeth.