The More Things Change...
The next morning I had finished up with Jenna and was hard at work on the day's homework when Dolores knocked on the frame of my open bedroom door. I had been lying on my bed, having figured out how to get the picture from the e-text onto the ceiling, and was figuring out how the audio and motion sensors worked, waving my arms to control the thing and speaking to enter text.
“Can I talk to you for a few minutes, Jeffrey?” asked Mrs. Masterson.
I looked away from my French assignment towards her, “Sure, Mrs. Masterson. Uh, where? Your office?”
She nodded and I got up to follow. Her office was nice. Feminine, and somewhat formal. Businesslike, but somehow with a sense of humor, like the slightly out of place painting of a little boy falling off a dock into a lake. Funny, but yet it fit. The office very much matched her personality. I sat down in one of the comfortable chairs and she took a seat opposite, with a low coffee table in between us.
I had learned by this time that she worked at the hospital where I had been staying. She was some kind of mental health professional. Not like a shrink, more like a technician. I had gathered from Dillon this profession was now nicknamed, “untanglers,” because they untangled messed up neural pathways or some such thing. She wasn't like a psychologist or anything like that though. More, I gathered, like a machine operator that worked with all of the new equipment and treatments that had been developed over the past couple of decades.
I'll bet she needed considerable overtime to untangle my pathways. Like a ball of yarn after the cat was done playing with it.
Surprisingly though, she didn't want to talk about that.
“First of all,” she started, “we need to figure out what you're going to call us. Mr. and Mrs. Masterson just seem too formal. Any ideas?”
I shrugged, not expecting the question. Why was she asking me? Shouldn't she just tell me what to call them? She didn't react or say anything to my shrug so I knew the ball was still in my court. I thought for a few seconds. Mom and Dad just didn't feel right. Dolores and Donald didn't seem right either. I stalled for time and tried for a joke, “Well, how about I call each of you by your initials? You could be D.M. and Mr. Masterson could be D.M. and of course Dillon would be D.M.” I smiled.
I don't think she was amused. She just raised her eyebrows and waited.
“I dunno,” I finally said, “I guess just Mr. M and Mrs. M for now, if that's okay?”
“I suppose that will work. But you can change it if you like once you've been here a while. Now, the real reason I wanted to talk to you. Your brother will be here tomorrow afternoon.”
I didn't expect my emotional reaction.
I mean, I knew from what they said before that I was supposed to meet him, but then I'd forgotten. Now, at the mention of him, my heart rate shot up, my stomach was doing flip flops, and my hands were trembling. I really didn't know what to think.
Ricky was seven when I tried to kill myself. We weren't exactly close. He was too young to understand what I was going through, even though he definitely picked up on the anger between Mom and Dad and myself. He didn't know how to deal with it, so he flip flopped between looking to me for comfort and avoiding me. Of course, like so many little brothers, much of the rest of the time he pestered me, wanting me to do things with him and spend time with him. I don't think I was very nice to him, at least sometimes. I mean, I was never overtly cruel or anything, but I really didn't make much of an effort. I was pretty wrapped up in my own problems then.
And, of course, I had no idea what my suicide attempt and disappearance from their lives had done to them after I was gone. I had left them to deal with it. Just like that.
A new round of shame and guilt swept through me as I contemplated this. I felt so self-centered. I didn't understand why this hadn't occurred to me before.
I couldn't help wondering what Ricky would think of me now. How he felt. Did he hate me? Did he even know me? Did he even understand why I had done what I did?
And, of course, he was an old man. I didn't know him at all. He had an entire lifetime of experiences behind him and I was still a teen. He had lived through the horrible times in 2022 and afterwards. My little brother could easily be my great-grandfather. I had absolutely no idea how to talk to him. I was at a loss.
Yet, despite all of this, I still wanted to meet him.
Mrs. M was watching me. I think she realized some of what I was thinking and feeling, though she didn't say anything directly. She just quietly said, “He'll be here at two. You can have all the time you need. He'll be in town for several days.”
Then she got up, smiled at me, and left the office. I sat there another few minutes, then went back up to my room to work on my homework.
By one-fifty the next afternoon I was a nervous wreck. Dillon tried and tried to calm me down. He talked to me, hugged me, we even made out for a while, but nothing helped. Then I think he realized that the best thing he could do for me was to just be there, close by. So that's what he did.
At one fifty-eight I couldn't sit still anymore. I paced back and forth across the living room, peeking out the front window every few seconds. Dillon watched with an amused but understanding grin. He was smart enough not to say anything.
A cab pulled up outside. A man got out and put his debit card in the slot by the door – I had learned cabs didn't have drivers anymore – and then pulled it out, stood up, and looked towards the house.
He looked, well, he looked like an old man. A very fit and spry old man to be sure. But an old man in his eighties.
He didn't walk like an old man. He was light on his feet, and confident. He walked like I would expect someone much younger to walk. Only his face gave him away. A face that I didn't recognize at all. He could have been anybody. My nerves just became edgier.
The doorbell rang and I jumped slightly. I debated running to my room to hide like a little boy, but stood rooted to the spot, forcing Dillon to answer the door.
Dillon invited the man into the living room where I stood. The man walked in, saw me, and stopped. He looked me over, his eyes never resting. An amazing combination of emotions were flickering across his face. I couldn't follow them, there were too many.
Finally, he seemed to make an effort of some kind and his face smoothed out. He smiled and raised his hand to shake, “Jeffy, you have no idea how good it is to see you again.”
I shook his proffered hand but didn't say anything. He was a complete stranger so far as I was concerned.
Dillon invited him to sit down and gave me a harsh look, pointing to the chair across from him. I got the message. I sat. Dillon disappeared somewhere, leaving me alone with this stranger. This old man who was supposed to be my little brother.
We looked each other over for a few seconds before he spoke again. I got the feeling he was almost as uncomfortable as I was. That he didn't know quite what to say either. “How are they treating you here, Jeffy?” he asked.
I shrugged slightly, “Good. They're nice. I have a lot to learn though.”
He nodded and smiled slightly. “Yes, I'll just bet that you do. You have no idea how much things have changed.” He looked hard at my eyes. “Or, just maybe, you do.”
I took a risk. “So, what happened? After I tried to kill myself?”
His face fell into a sad look and I wished I hadn't asked the question. “Oh, Jeffy.” He shook his head. “You have no idea what you did to us.”
He must have noticed my stricken, guilty look because he quickly backpedaled. “No. Don't feel bad. It wasn't your fault, you know. And it was a very long time ago.” His eyes narrowed slightly, “Well, I suppose not that long ago for you. No. It wasn't your fault. I may have been young, but I knew even then that what Mom and Dad were doing to you was wrong. There was just nothing I could do about it. I knew how sad you were. The pain you were feeling. I knew.” A look of profound hurt crossed his old face.
I felt a bit panicky. I hated to make people upset. “Sorry. I shouldn't have asked. You don't have to tell me. We can talk about something else,” I said desperately, hoping to erase all those strong painful feelings I seemed to be causing on this old man's face.
He smiled then. Not like the first smile, which seemed forced. A more natural smile. This one reached his eyes. “Now I know you haven't changed, Jeffy,” he said. “You always did that. You hated for anyone else to feel bad. Except yourself. You always thought you should be the one to feel bad. Except when that temper of yours got the best of you, of course. No wonder you carried around so much hurt for so long.”
I was looking at him when he said this, specifically at his eyes, and then I saw it. It's not like anything actually changed, but I saw it. First, his eyes, then, that smile. For the first time since I saw him exit that taxi, I saw my little brother behind those eyes. I felt myself release some of the tension I had been holding. It wasn't some strange old man anymore. Not quite. It was just my little brother. I felt myself smiling despite everything, “So how have you been, Squirt?” I asked, using the name I had always called him, “Put any caterpillars in anyone's bed lately?” I was smiling broadly now, remembering.
His eyes widened. He seemed to be remembering too. He laughed out loud, tears in his eyes. “Oh god, Jeffy, it's so good to see you.” He opened his arms and I got up and ran over to him and we hugged.
Yeah. He was still my little brother. Underneath the old man smell, he even had the same scent.
The next couple of hours were a blur. We talked and talked and talked. And we laughed, and remembered and cried and talked some more.
After my parents decided to put me in the experimental suspended animation, the family almost tore itself apart. Maybe it was because they couldn't even have a funeral, couldn't even say goodbye. Or maybe it would have happened anyway. Mom and Dad fought and blamed each other and yelled at Ricky and fought some more.
Ricky cried and hid and ran away, and then ran away again, this time overnight.
Maybe the prospect of losing their other son made them take notice, but after Ricky was home safe and sound things started to change. Slowly. Mom and Dad sought professional help, and some heavy duty family counseling began.
Dad, much to my amazement, apparently became a very outspoken advocate on gay rights, and worked hard to institute programs in schools to overcome teen suicide. Mom joined him in this from time to time, but she was busy. She went back to school. She became a doctor, of all things, and did research in toxicology right up until the end on new and effective treatments for poisoning.
Ricky settled down, helped out with Dad sometimes, but mostly went to school, made friends, and tried to be a normal kid. It was shortly after he graduated, in 2022, when the world ended.
It was sudden. Mom and Dad died, in each others' arms, at home, within a week of the outbreak. Ricky came home to find them a day or two later, then walled himself in the house, not being able to do anything about Mom and Dad's bodies, for the next three weeks. Hoping to avoid getting infected.
Of course, he was infected, though he didn't know that until years later. Ricky married, moved to Australia, and worked on building the new government there. He had children, and tried to move on.
Their children, of course, grew up and couldn't have children of their own due to the genetic mutation. But they were fine, and doing well. It seemed I had some nieces and nephews to meet. All, of course, much older than myself. Apparently I also had a sister-in-law to meet. How weird is that?
Medical science had come a long way. Average lifespan for most people was now well north of a hundred. That explained Ricky's health and vigor.
It took a while for me to get it out of him, but apparently he was quite the big shot now. He was well up in government, a cabinet member and an important consultant for the PM.
His cabinet post? Human rights and equality.
Ricky stayed for supper, and all five of us had an animated discussion throughout about human rights, and some of the problems that seemed to be beginning to crop up in different parts of the world. Mr. M had almost as much passion for the subject as my brother, so it was a lively meal. My new family seemed to like Ricky, and he obviously liked them. That was a relief.
Ricky was in a vicious political battle with the leader of some new lobbying group. They apparently wanted a few changes. The group thought the fertile people and their kids should be given more money for health care than the sterile people. They seemed to feel it was only just, since they were the only ones who could have kids. They were now also advocating for more and larger social programs and even educational programs for the fertile people, excluding, of course, the non-fertile people. They seemed to feel that spending money on these people was a waste of time. They were even going so far as to try and include the genetically damaged children of fertile people in the “waste of money” group.
They had some strange ideas about a few other things too.
Ricky was getting quite agitated at this point. Despite his agitation I was having a hard time not grinning. When Ricky was six years old he would do the same thing every time he got excited. While talking, he would bob his head, as if to emphasize his point. At the same time, and synchronized with the head bobs, he would jab his finger into the air, again to emphasize his point.
Seventy odd years had gone by, and he still did the exact same thing. Somehow it just seemed really funny seeing this.
The content of what Ricky was saying though pretty quickly made me forget about that. Accompanied with head bobs and finger jabs, Ricky explained, “Now that they've gained some traction, and support, they're starting to do something even worse. They're using an old strategy. Make a seemingly innocuous claim, assume that it's obviously true, and that everyone should believe it, then build a chain of questionably logical actions from there, allowing them to justify all kinds of things, supposedly for the good of humanity.”
Ricky took a breath and a bite of his dessert, then continued, “The claim they're making is that the future of humanity should be paramount, should be the most important basis of all decisions. Now, by itself, that sounds reasonable, but then they're taking it further. They're saying, because of this, and because of the limited supply of good genetic material,” Ricky paused at this point and looked over at me before continuing, “those people have an obligation to humanity that supersedes personal freedom and rights.” Again Ricky looked over at me. “They argue that, at the very least, these individuals must be obligated to donate their eggs and sperm to the full ability, and that governments should enforce and regulate this.”
Mrs. M replied, “Surely they're not gaining any support? I mean, from what I understand, this isn't even an issue. Almost everyone that can help is already willing to help. What good would it do to take away their rights? To try and force them?”
Ricky nodded, “I know. Yet their talking points include all kinds of questionable statements and facts that are getting people who don't know any better to believe the opposite. They're building support, and a lot of it. They're using fear to make people willing to give up freedom and rights.”
I mumbled under my breath, “Where have I heard that before?” I guess it wasn't as quiet as I thought, because all of them stopped talking for a few seconds and were looking at me. Dillon looked puzzled, Mr. and Mrs. M looked thoughtful, and Ricky, well, I couldn't figure out the look on his face, but his eyes were staring hard at me.
Ricky started with the head bobs again, “They're calling themselves the 'Hope for Humanity' Institute. Besides Canberra, they now have organized branches in Shanghai, Tehran, London, Berlin, and Washington. They're close to setting up in at least two dozen more cities.”
Mr. M. said, “What you're saying doesn't even make sense. It sounds like something out of the dark ages, like something from the turn of the twenty-first century.” He looked a bit embarrassed and turned to me. “Sorry Jeff. Nothing personal of course.”
I smiled, “No, believe me, in a lot of ways I agree.”
Ricky said, “It gets worse I'm afraid. You're right, Don, it doesn't make sense. Especially since they seem to be very well funded. With the public support they're gaining among fertile people and among the less educated they are now beginning to publicly endorse candidates in various elections, not to mention financially support their campaigns.
“The leader of this movement is a man by the name of Leon Barclay. He is, unfortunately, very wealthy, very charismatic, and very connected. He built his business in genetic research, though up until five years ago he kept politics strictly out of it. Obviously, that's changed.
“Needless to say, what this man is doing is simply a travesty. He's pushing all of the social gains we've made since the Depopulation back by fifty years.”
This last was delivered with several particularly emphatic head bobs and finger jabs. I chuckled, and said, “Well, Squirt, this guy, Leon, sounds like a jerk. I'm your big brother, and he's giving you a hard time. You want me to beat him up for you?” I tried to keep my face dead serious.
Ricky just looked at me for a second. Then he began laughing, the kind of laugh I remembered from the miniature version of my little brother. He laughed until he had to wipe tears from his eyes.
Dillon, not to be outdone, offered to help me. He even went so far as to get up from the table and dance around showing some rather comical and obviously fake martial arts moves. Until Mrs. M told him to cool it.
After that, we changed the subject and the rest of the meal became somewhat quieter, though still lively. I tried calling him Rick a couple of times, but he would have none of it. It had to be Ricky, he said. Or Squirt. It just didn't seem right otherwise. Just as he called me Jeffy, though nobody else did.
He left later that evening with plans for us to get together again tomorrow. On his way out the door he looked back at me and Dillon, standing there holding hands. He grinned and said to me, “Nice catch, big bro. Maybe you can give me some dating advice sometime. When I'm old enough.” Then he stepped into his cab laughing uproariously, and drove away.
I watched the cab turn the corner at the end of the street, then turned and kissed Dillon long and hard. “He's pretty smart for a little Squirt, isn't he? You most definitely are a nice catch.”
Dillon laughed in the middle of the kiss. Which caused me to do the same.
I was exhausted. The day had taken an emotional toll. And I still had homework to do. And Dillon kept giving me the eye. I think he wanted my attention later. I told him he had to help me with my homework first. It turned out to be a good strategy.