The More Things Change...
The days turned into weeks. I studied hard and slowly began to feel I knew something about what was going on, only to get it thrown in my face again with the simplest things. Like the first time Dillon and I went to today's version of a shopping mall. I had been given an allowance since I got here, and had a debit card. But after picking out a new pair of shoes I liked I had absolutely no idea how to buy them at the checkout. Dillon had to walk me through it. I felt like a two year old, probably because of the puzzled looks from the young couple waiting behind us.
Dad M, I had stopped calling them Mr. M and Mrs. M., had been becoming more and more involved in local politics. The same lobbying group my brother was dealing with on the other side of the world apparently had a long reach. They had an organization in Ottawa now, and had been buying video ads.
Dangerously familiar video ads. I recognized the language. The divisiveness. The rhetoric. The subtle use of words to separate people into “us” vs. “them.” It worried me. I talked with Dad M about it at length. He agreed. That's why he was starting to involve himself directly in the next election. He was now working on the campaign for electing a candidate in our area. One that Dad M believed had the strongest support for equal rights and was against the kind of divisiveness we'd been seeing lately.
The difficult part of it was that the fertile people now were starting to outnumber the sterile people. Of course, this would only get worse as time went on, even though their own numbers were gradually diminishing. Unfortunately, some of these people were beginning to be swayed by the rhetoric. And these people voted.
Of course, it wasn't quite that simple. A wedge was also being driven between the different groups of fertile people. Those who had produced offspring with genetic problems were being ostracized as well. In fact, it seemed the 'Hope for Humanity' organization's basic strategy was to divide and conquer. To turn people against their friends and neighbours. To instill fear and distrust.
It was a pattern I recognized very well.
I still had a lot to learn about current day politics. Technically, Mexico, the U.S., and Canada were still separate countries. But realistically, they were not. Crossing the border now was like it used to be going from province to province, or state to state. Just a sign on the side of the road. They were all run by one government now, with only local affairs managed by the provinces and states. Together, it was called the North American Union, kind of like the EU of my day I guess. I didn't quite understand how it worked yet. It wasn't quite a Constitutional Monarchy, like Canada used to be in my day, but it wasn't a Constitution-based Federal Republic like the USA or Mexico used to be either. The senate of the triple country government seemed advisory only in nature, with the parliament and congress running the show. There was no Prime Minister here, or President. Just a Spokesperson. Parties like in the old days had apparently been outlawed. Though I gathered there was something kind of similar to replace them. A way groups with similar interests could form voting blocs. I didn't get it. Yet. I knew Jenna would have me up to speed sooner or later.
I became more and more interested in what Dad M was doing. My own history meant I knew what it was like to be treated like a second class citizen.
I also spent quite a bit of time, when I had it, in internet chat rooms.
Internet chat rooms were nothing like they used to be. I mean, now they served refreshments. And had comfy chairs. And you could see and touch everyone. Using the same kind of technology as my holodeck, you logged in, joined the chat, and were transported to the realistic looking room, complete with comfortable chairs, tables, and usually a refreshment cart or even a full kitchen, with all of the other participants.
The people I talked with, of course, were the other suspended animation survivors. There were somewhere around two thousand of us in total. Most of them were older than me, but there were a few my age. Of course, almost all of them were frozen after me, between when I was frozen and 2022.
We talked, about the old days, about the new days, about issues relevant to us. Especially the whole genetic thing, the need for our, well, our sperm and our eggs.
To many of us, of course, that wasn't a problem at all. In fact, believe me, some thought it was absolutely awesome. To others, for various reasons, we didn't think about it quite the same way.
Mom M had become a bit worried about how much time I was spending there, and had to put some limits on it.
Dillon and I became closer. I don't know how I could have survived the first few weeks without him. He taught me how to be a kid here. How things worked on a practical level. How to make friends, and, mostly, how to love.
It turned out that it was another thing Mom and Dad M had to put some limits on. Mom M felt we each needed our own time and space to learn and develop. To make sure we had our own interests. Just in case, she said. She never said what “just in case” meant, but we knew.
We weren't worried. We had a different idea about all that. We pushed the limits Dad and Mom M set as far as we dared, then pushed them a bit further.
September came, as it tends to do, and school loomed. I felt my nerves becoming frayed as the day approached.
Mom M had talked to me endlessly about the subject. It had helped. But I couldn't help it. The worry was still there.
Fate being a cruel mistress, I was walking, on that first day of school in early September, towards a building I knew well. The exact same high school that I had attended before. A place that held so very many memories for me. Unfortunately, I couldn't think of even one of those that was pleasant.
The closer we got, the more nervous I became. I'm sure my teeth were chattering. Dillon was walking beside me with his arm around me, and must have noticed my increased worry.
“Look Jeffrey,” he said, “Maybe you need more time. Maybe you need to do some more work with that 'net program Mom has you using.”
“No,” I answered, gritting my teeth. “No, I'm going. The only way to do this is just to do it.” I looked over at Dillon. “Just stay kinda close to me if you can for the first while?” That last was said plaintively.
Dillon smiled, “Are you kidding? I'm not going anywhere. Let the most adorable boy around wander into that pack of wolves without me beside him? Do you think I'm stupid? I want to keep you as my boyfriend, you know.”
I smiled at him to thank him for humoring me. But he wasn't looking at me. And his face was serious.
I had met a half dozen of Dillon's friends over the summer. I still didn't really know any of them well. I was usually busy studying when Dillon spent time with his friends. When I wasn't studying Dillon seemed to prefer to have me all to himself. I did recognize a couple of faces in the group that Dillon steered us towards as we neared the school, though.
We joined the group Dillon had been heading towards, a half dozen kids talking and joking and catching up. Dillon waved and said hello, traded a couple of insults, and introduced me to the group as his new foster brother. I was grateful for that, for not going into details about who and what I was. I don't think I was quite ready for that yet.
It was like any group of kids our age anywhere. Any culture, any century, kids seem to be kids. Dillon's friends were talking too loud half the time, with lots of boasting about things they had done in the summer, trading insults with each other, and gossiping about who was doing what with who. Some things never change.
I tried to join in as best I could. Like I said, I had learned a lot. And the 'net Virtual Reality (VR) programs Mom M and my doctor had me working on did help, with my social skills, with my outlook on life, but without practical experience it was all just theory. I think I did okay. I got a few funny looks though. My slang and pop culture references were ridiculously out of date. I'm pretty sure they thought I had just moved here from somewhere far away.
So there we were, talking and laughing, waiting for school to start, when I saw something that worried me. Actually, it did far more than worry me. It made me mad. And I had no context, I had no information, I didn't have any idea what, if anything, to do about it. I knew unfairness when I saw it though. I recognized prejudice. And bigotry.
A boy walked by. He looked like an average kid, though I could see he walked with a noticeable limp, and held one arm on the same side of his body at a bit of a funny angle. He walked with his head down, his eyes on the ground. His shoulders were hunched forward and in. His clothes, though typical of the kids around me, were somehow plainer, less colourful than the clothes of the other kids. Like he had chosen them specifically for that reason.
I recognized it all immediately. The clothes, the posture, the look. He was trying very hard to be invisible. You could almost hear him thinking, 'Just a few more steps and I'll be inside. Almost there. Please, let nothing happen.'
Of course, it never used to work for me either.
Another boy, standing with two friends near our little group, saw this boy. I saw his head look up. I saw the smirk appear on his face. I knew, I just knew in a heartbeat, what was about to happen. Sure, it wasn't directed at me. But my reaction was almost the same. I felt sick, my heart rate rose, my palms were sweaty, my stomach got all queasy. I watched the drama play out in front of me, unbelieving. I had thought, and was taught by Jenna, that this kind of thing was behind us. That it didn't really happen anymore.
It seems every generation has its own blinders.
Smirking Boy said, “Oh look. A defective. Why the fuck are you here again, Defect? Didn't I make it clear last year? Don't bother showing up. Why waste a perfectly good desk with a dead end? A genetic mistake?” He laughed, along with his friends. The kind of cruel laugh I would recognize anywhere. “You know, my dad listens to that Leon Barclay guy. He says that we're wasting money on people like you. He says you're a waste.”
The little gang moved to stand in front of the boy. He moved to go around them, head still down, but of course they moved to block his path once again.
“What's the matter, Defect?” said Smirking Boy, “Why don't you just run around us? We won't stop you. Oh wait! That's right. You can't.” He and his friends seemed to think this was the ultimate in sophisticated humour.
Even more amazingly, the people watching did nothing. Or at least nothing useful. Dillon looked tense, and embarrassed, but didn't move or say anything. I could kind of tell he wanted to. He was twitching. Almost vibrating. I got the feeling that he had no idea what to do, though. Like he was completely new to this. Like they were all new to this. Maybe there was something to what Jenna had taught me after all. Most others either looked like Dillon, or ignored the whole thing. Except for a very few, who seemed to be watching with glee.
It was so very familiar. And so sickening. Didn't they see? Didn't they realize what was going on?
I had seen it happening on the videos ads, more and more the last few weeks as the election neared. First it was the “Steriles,” then it was their surviving parents, the ones infected with the lesser strain so long ago. Now, lately, it was the people unfortunate enough to be born with the increasing genetic problems. And their parents.
The ads never directly insulted anyone, of course. They never did. They walked the line, ever so close, but knew when to stop. They created divisiveness, separation. They created prejudice and bigotry, all the while pretending to do the opposite. Pretending to be looking out for people. Fair distribution of funds. Of resources. Looking out for the future.
I was watching firsthand the effects of that kind of shit on young, impressionable minds.
Like I said. Some things just never seem to change.
So, I did what I never ever did. What I couldn't ever do. What I didn't know how to do. Maybe those VR programs were having an effect after all. Or the untangling I had received during the mental blocks back in my holodeck. I sure surprised myself though.
I walked over to them. I was seeing red. I was pissed. Real pissed. This wasn't supposed to happen. At least not to anybody else. It hurt too much. I knew. Oh boy, did I know. I felt that evil temper of mine start to boil, start to try and take control.
I saw Dillon's surprised look as I moved towards them. I stood in between the boy and the three bullies, facing them. I stood, looking at them hard. My stance wide, my arms crossed. I didn't say anything. Just stood there.
To my relief, Dillon was beside me a half second later, looking much the same. It gave me enough courage to say what I did.
“What. The Fuck. Is your Problem?” I said, rather slowly and emphatically. I couldn't believe it. My voice was steady. Strong. It sounded kind of tough. Even to me.
Smirking Boy surprised me. He looked puzzled. He looked to his friends, then back to me and Dillon. He said, “Who are you? And why do you care?” It wasn't spoken very strongly, or very menacingly. That surprised me. It was almost like he hadn't had much practice bullying.
That made me think. Once again, maybe there was some truth to what I had learned from Jenna.
“Because you're being an asshole, you stupid fuckface,” I said. I didn't think it was all that strong. Or all that original. I knew there would be retaliation, but I was so angry at that moment I didn't really care. But from the reactions around me, you'd think I just pulled a knife or something. People were shocked. Amazed. Appalled.
More to think about.
They backed down fast. Smirking Boy's friends just went pale, then walked away. Smirking Boy, now looking abashed, of all things, stammered out an apology. An actual apology. To me. I pointed behind me, and he got the idea. He apologized to the other kid quickly, then walked away.
I swear, I didn't get it. It was about the level of bullying I remembered from Grade One. It hurt the victim the same, but it was too easy to stop. I was sure I was being set up. I stood there watching them walk away. Waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Instead, what I got was Dillon hugging me. And his other friends congratulating me. Like I was a hero. Like I actually did something.
If I was out of my element before, now I was really floundering. I didn't know what to do with this.
Dillon said, “Holy shit, Jeff, that was totally bad ass. Totally freak. I don't believe you did that!” and he kissed my cheek.
The other kids were slapping my back or saying similar things.
I turned to the victim and held out my hand. I wondered how he was going to react to all of this.
“Hi. I'm Jeffrey,” I said.
Well, at least there were no surprises there. He reacted like I would have, before. He kept looking down, except for quick glances at my face. Then slowly, tentatively, as if waiting for me to take over the bullying, raised his own hand. He limply shook mine. His palm was cold and wet. “Um, hi.” He paused, then almost as if he just remembered, he added, “I'm Michael.”
He looked like he wanted to ask me something, and from the look on his face had just about gathered enough courage to do so, when the bell rang.
Shit. Seventy some odd years and they still hadn't replaced that thing? It was as jarring as ever.
Dillon said, “Let's go,” and began walking.
The three of us, Dillon, Michael, and myself, walked into the school. My nerves, surprisingly, were calm and steady.
Not surprisingly, we were in the same homeroom. All three of us. After all, there weren't too many kids here anymore. One whole section of the school was closed. There were only two or three homerooms for each grade.
Michael, though he hadn't said another word, stuck close to me. He sat down beside me. Dillon was on the other side. We didn't have a chance to talk. The teacher closed the door, walked up to the front and did what teachers do.
The only difference from my last homeroom that I could discern was the furniture, lighting, and the blackboard. Or the absence of one. One of those seamless interactive video screens covered the front wall instead.
Otherwise, yeah, it was school.
I had math first, which, thanks to Jenna's tutoring, wasn't quite as bad as I thought it would be. I wasn't in the same math class as Dillon. He was in the advanced class, but I was in a remedial class.
It's funny how things work. Out of everything about being in school again, that's what I found most embarrassing. I wasn't supposed to be in remedial classes dammit!
We had a short break mid-morning to allow the students to have a snack and to take care of things like talking to teachers, organizing stuff, and the like. I found myself drawn to the library.
Before I killed myself – tried to kill myself – I had spent a lot of time here. It was my sanctuary. It was usually quiet. It had books. And mostly, the worst of my tormentors rarely came near it.
Before I really realized what I was doing, I was sitting at one of the heavy built in tables in the back corner, my fingers drawn underneath the edge of the table, feeling for the carving I only half expected to find.
I felt my fingers trace over the letters. Letters carved there by me. Some seventy years ago. A layer of varnish, probably more than one layer, had been painted over the table since then, but it wasn't enough to completely erase them.
The letters spelled out one of the last things I had written before I had taken those pills. I had never left a suicide note.
I had carved them, in fact, only three days prior to that fateful day.
The details of that day came back vividly to my mind.
I had arrived at school that morning in a slightly better mood than was usual for me for the past few weeks. Slightly better because Dad had left for work early that morning, so I hadn't had to face his disapproving stares. But mostly because of a text I had received from my former best friend, Phillip Glenn.
He hadn't been talking to me lately, not for months, not since my very own dad had told him I was gay and told him to watch out that I didn't “try something on you.”
The text just said that he wanted to talk to me.
So I met Phil in the spot we always used to meet just before school, at least when the weather was nice. On the northwest corner under the big trees.
He wasn't alone though. He and two other kids from a grade higher were lounging around talking and laughing when they saw me. I was immediately worried, but before I could turn and walk away, they saw me. Phil motioned me over, “Get over here Jeff. Geez, you look like we're going to attack you or something.” But his laugh at the other two after saying that made me think that maybe that was exactly what they had in mind.
I found myself moving towards them, in spite of myself. I looked at Phil, then over at the other two older boys, then back at Phil.
I didn't say anything. I wasn't sure what I should say. I hadn't quite known what to expect when Phil said he wanted to talk to me, but I knew it wasn't this.
Phil just looked at me for a few seconds. “You still gay?” he asked.
I stared back at him. That didn't deserve an answer. And I was decidedly uncomfortable.
He looked at his two friends, and then back at me. “You fucking tricked me Jeff.”
I still didn't say anything, but I think I must have looked a bit puzzled.
Phil said, “Don't just stand there. Admit it. You tricked me. I can't believe I was so stupid. My dad explained it to me. You pretending to be my friend, build trust, get me to like you. All so you can try something gay. Try to turn me gay. Even your own dad thinks so. He told me.”
I stared at Phil, my jaw dropping open. I had absolutely no idea how to respond to this.
“Dad thinks I should ignore you, but Gabe thinks different. He thinks you need a good lesson. To keep you away from me. And our family.”
Gabe was Phil's older brother. A bit narrow minded, but I had always thought he was an okay guy.
I couldn't figure out how I could have read him so wrong. Or Phil. Or my dad.
There was really only one conclusion I could make. One that was obvious. It couldn't possibly be all of them. So it had to be me that was the problem.
I still just stared at Phil. Again, there was nothing to say. I didn't think anything would help. And to be honest, I wasn't even sure if I cared anymore anyway.
Phil indicated the two guys he was with, “These are Gabe's friends. They came with me to make sure you didn't try anything today. So I could tell you this.”
He seemed to be struggling for a minute but then continued, looking directly at me. “If you ever come near me again, or talk to me, or even look at me, or anybody in my family, I, and Gabe, and everyone else I know, will make sure you regret it for the rest of your useless life.”
He turned and walked away, leaving me staring at the spot he used to occupy, stunned.
One of the two cronies he was with walked up to me, looked in my face from an inch away, and then unceremoniously punched me, hard, in the stomach.
I was lying in the dirt, trying desperately to catch my wind, as I watched them walk away.
My suicide plans were made before I even got on my feet again.
It was that afternoon that I was sitting in the library, and I carved my little message.
As I remembered all of this, my fingers traced over the words. The message said, simply, “No more pain. Never again. Jeff C.”
Three days later, after going to the bank and transferring all my money to Ricky's account and putting my favorite books in his room, I overdosed.
But my fingers now felt something else.
Another carved message. Just below mine. One I knew wasn't there seventy years ago.
I knew it probably had nothing to do with mine, but I couldn't help it. Not being able to decipher it with my fingers, I got out of my chair and kneeled down to look underneath the edge of the table.
Directly underneath my carving were the words, “I'll miss you Jeff. Now you'll never know. T.C.”
I couldn't breathe. My fingers played across the letters again, as if to try and make them come alive, to explain themselves.
But the damn things wouldn't.
I felt hot tears in my eyes.
Nobody in that school had even remotely liked me, after everything went down with Phil the first time, several months before.
They either didn't know me. Or they hated me.
Now, I was staring at evidence to the contrary.
Could I have been so wrong?
I couldn't help it. Before I realized I was doing it, I was opening the video screen on the desktop, and frantically brought up the yearbook for my last year in the school.
I looked through the photos carefully, matching names to initials. Who the hell was T.C.?
The experience of looking through the old yearbook was one I wasn't prepared for. The yearbook had been published, of course, near the end of the school year, the year I attempted suicide.
The photos and stories drew me back seventy years, to a more familiar time. The words, the slang, the candid shots of various people and clubs and sports, had me slowly paging through the yearbook.
I'm not quite sure why I was reacting to it at all. After all, I was sure that I wasn't connected at all with these people, these activities.
Yet, there it was. I was reacting. In spite of myself.
In my slow leafing through the yearbook I had forgotten about trying to match names with the initials I had found carved below my own message.
Then I came upon something that really caught me up short.
I turned the page, and saw a full page picture of me.
I had been laughing in the picture. As I studied it I eventually remembered when it must have been taken, although I hadn't realized a camera had been on me at the time.
It was in the library, which wasn't surprising. My home away from home while at school. It had been in early September, before things had become really bad at school. I had been sitting with a couple of other kids, and we were working on a joint project for history. This was before pretty much the whole school had been warned away from me, thanks to the actions of my father. We had been talking about the project, and about our history teacher. Someone had mentioned that it would probably have been easier to just ask the history teacher directly what had happened during the war of 1812, since she was old enough that she was probably there when it happened. We had all laughed, and someone on the yearbook committee had snapped a pretty good candid shot of the scene. The picture though had been cropped, so the other kids were pretty much out of frame, and the part with me in it was centered and enlarged.
The caption below the picture, in large font, had my name and the year I was born and the year I had supposedly died. Below that was, “You Will Be Missed” followed below that, in a different font, with the message, “Some lessons in school come with a tragic price.”
The facing page had a brief explanation that indirectly stated I had taken my own life. Following that were quotes from kids, talking about how they had failed the school, the community, themselves, and me.
Below that was some information on suicide hotlines and warning signs of suicide, along with some information about the counseling that had apparently been available to kids in the school afterwards, and how it was still available until the end of summer of that year, free of charge, and completely confidential, for anyone who wanted it.
The final bit of information on the page, separated from the rest with some whitespace, was another quote from a student. This one caught me up short.
It read, “He was my friend since the first day of kindergarten. He taught me the love of books, and that a walk in the woods was a better adventure than any video game could ever be. He taught me honesty, trust, and friendship. I threw that away. Worse, I ignored all those lessons and became something else, something I hated. For what I did, he can now never forgive me, and for that, I don't know if I can ever forgive myself – Phillip Glenn”
I found myself reading and re-reading the quote again and again. My fingers tracing the letters on the video screen from the scanned yearbook page.
I just sat and stared.
The ringing school bell startled me, and I had to close the screen and leave the library. I never did find the owner of the initials from the carving.
I wasn't at all sure I would be following up my search. I don't know if I really wanted to know who T.C. was. Or if it even mattered anymore.
My next class was the mysteriously named Socio-economic-psychology. Or just Soc-ec for short. Aside from the hints in the name itself, I really didn't have a good idea what this was all about.
As I walked towards the classroom I was feeling distinctly guilty for being so self-centered back then. So locked into my own little world that I didn't notice that there actually were people around me that cared. At the same time, I was oddly aware that if I had added this guilt to everything else I had been going through before my suicide attempt, it wouldn't have helped. In fact, it would have made things worse.
The irony was difficult for me to reconcile.
But I had a few other thoughts bouncing around in my head too. I thought about what happened to that boy Michael this morning, and my own feelings under the same circumstances. About Phil's confrontation with me, three days prior to my suicide attempt, and the quote in the yearbook.
Mostly how everything came together to blind me, to insulate me from the support that I did have. From the people around me who actually did care.
I resolved that I needed to make sure that didn't happen again. At least as far as I was able, I wanted to try and protect me, and protect other people, from the kind of hate, bigotry, and divisiveness that leads people to feel so much pain that they cannot see anything else beyond it.
The thing is, I was seeing signs of this happening again, here and now. Before, that would have scared me. Now, it was more like disappointment. And anger.