“George, is that smoke?”
“Where?” he said, palm screening his eyes from the sun whilst a rotating air freshener hung off the rear view mirror and drew its shadow across his lap.
“Just around that corner,” she pointed, “We should go and see if everything is ok. It looks pretty black to me.”
“But Rosie, we’ve nearly used up our allocated mileage for today. I don’t want to get another summons. You know we can’t afford to keep paying these fines.” George raised his hand and gently tapped the chip woven into the side of his skull. Instantly a graphic interface appeared. Today it was an attractive young woman who introduced herself as Courtney, her shimmering boots lay almost on the tip of his nose. He spoke brusquely, asking how many pounds they were indebted to The Authority and their payment deadlines.
Rosie waved the intruder away. “You know I don’t take much stock in that infernal thing.”
“Neither do I. But we’re not the ones that matter are we?”
“Very well. Pull over and we’ll walk. Okay?”
“Sure. We could do with the exercise anyway.” His comment received a dry look of distaste which reminded George of the finger wagging discipline he used to get from his grandmother after eating too many sweets and feeling ill afterwards. They both stepped out of the car, locked it and walked towards the smouldering wreckage.
“Fire. George that van is on fire.” Rosie screamed as the couple traversed the bend in the road, gravel crunching underneath the soles of their shoes.
A white van had collided with a small hatchback. The front ends of both vehicles were lovingly intertwined in a relationship of metallic marital chaos. Glass stubble coated the tarmac. The rank odour of petrol sprang from the back of the van, its cargo being steadily assimilated into the hypnotic dance of flames that were ravishing its rear hold.
George held his arm up in front of Rosie’s chest. “Stay here,” he commanded.
She did not move, except to gently swing her arms back and forth.
George crept towards the hatchback. The driver was dead. The steering wheel had exhumed the woman’s skull just above the eyebrows, her left eye was drooping over the centre of the wheel emblem. No seat belt. He gazed at the other vehicle but would not move towards it. The driver side door was open. A dented can of lager lay morosely under the gaping entrance to the van, the logo camouflaged by droplets of blood which trailed off towards the dusty plain spreading outwards from the road.
Without warning the female hologram re-emerged, her body fitting tightly into a dull grey outfit, the kind that receptionists tend to wear. George liked receptionists.
“Good afternoon citizens of Oxfordshire. The Authority loves you all.” George sighed and backed away from the incident knowing that he couldn’t deactivate the device and he stood and waited for the info cast to finish. All the while the fire burnt and left nought but scorched metal and ash in its wake. Courtney traversed the typical state update with impeccable skill. George remembered that the weekly policy poll was due today. He had forgotten to discuss it with Rosie but was sure she would try to abstain from voting as was her temperament, but you cannot escape the thoughts you don’t even know you have. As expected Courtney demanded to know what every citizen thought on the issue of a standardised meal system. There was a sharp pain at the base of George’s neck. He always imagined it to be a metallic worm tunnelling through his cerebral cortex but it managed to pry nothing from him. He hoped. The vote was cast. The hologram exuded with appreciation and let him be, safe in the knowledge that in the near future they would receive a pre packaged, Authority approved meal plan. Delicious. Rubbing his face George spotted movement through the recess in between his fingers. His hand stopped, callouses resting on his jaw line. There was a small child in the back seat of the hatchback. A young one. Maybe one year old. Sucking its thumb. George called Rosie over. Waved to her and stood stock still.
“What is it, dear?” Rosie said grabbing hold of his trembling hand.
George couldn’t utter a single syllable.
Rosie exclaimed when she caught a glimpse of the deceased driver. George could feel her pulse rise as he gripped her wrist and attempted to usher her into looking towards the back seat. Her arm went limp and he knew. He knew she saw. He knew what she thought. He knew it would bring excruciating pain upon them both. But he couldn’t say no to her. Not this time. Not ever.
The child whined furiously as she waited for her dinner.
“Rosie, can we do anything to quieten her down?”
“Not unless you want to shove a sock in her mouth.”
George looked sullenly at the floor. They had been back two days and he had been interrogated by at least two neighbours. The young man in the flat above kept banging on the floor during the day time, shaking the long resident cobwebs from their slumber. He needed his sleep was what he said. Don’t we all. A wooden chair leg stubbornly travelled across the linoleum flooring as George got up and walked to the cabinet in the corner of their solitary room. He picked up a photograph of a young boy wearing a baseball cap and a big smile. An emotional surge developed within as he pressed the smooth glass with his thumb, it shifted slightly under his pressure. But he didn’t cry. His dad had taught him that lesson. “This won’t bring him back Rosie. Nothi-”
“I know,” she replied, bouncing the child up and down on her lap. The baby’s tuft of blonde hair glinting in the lamp light. “But I couldn’t just leave her.”
“Why not? We could have called The Authority. Someone would have come to collect her.”
“I refuse to live with that on my conscience.”
“I don’t understand.”
“And you call yourself politically aware.”
He shrugged. “I am. But I’m also pragmatic. You know that, you’ve been burdened by it for the last twenty years.” George remarked, lifting his forearm upwards to scrutinise the eleven digit number he had written on there in biro.
Rosie chuckled, “That I have.” She flew another spoon of oats into the child’s mouth, pulling funny faces and cooing and smiling all the while. “Wouldn’t you grant me this last wish? We both know the child is chipped. Traceable. They will come sooner rather than later. I would relish the opportunity to be a mother again.” She stroked the baby’s cheek with her finger, wiping away some wayward porridge.
“I love you.”
He glanced at his wife and watched her eyes glisten as the spoon descended and rose in repeated patterns all on its way to its final destination. He cherished the moment, gorged on the fluttering inside him because he knew after he left he would never see his wife look that way again. “I’m going to go for a walk darling. Do you need me to run any errands? Buy anything from the store?”
“What about the new rationing legislation?”
“Won’t be enforced until next week. Bureaucracy I suppose. So shall I stock up? I could get you some crumpets, I know how much you like them.”
“No thank you. I have everything I need.”
“I know,” he said and walked out the door, all the time listening to the rain pattering against the stairway windows.
Walking past the grocery store George waved nervously at some of his neighbours who offered him uncommonly jovial greetings. The store wouldn’t shut until six’ o’clock this evening so he knew he had about twenty minutes to spare. As he continued, George dwelt upon the sagging dampness of his coat sleeve, the fabric fastening against his skin with every step. He could turn back, this he knew, but nevertheless he opened the phone booth and removed the prostitution advertising pamphlets off the screen and swiped his ID card. The display flashed and presented a photograph of himself. Pressing the panel to confirm his identity, he allowed the telephone to scan his index fingerprint. Satisfied, the device allowed him access to his personal directory. A long list of creditor warnings streamed past in red script. He ignored them and selected The Authority emblem in the upper corner.
The phone rang.
“Hello. You are through to the Oxfordshire County Council, keeping you protected and isolated for thirteen years without incident. My name is Ashley, how may I be of service to you today?”
“Could you check the records for me please?”
“What information do you wish to ascertain today?”
“I would like to know the current legal status for orphans in the county.”
“Sir, all of this information is accessible on your Insta-Link, I th-”
“I am aware of that. But…I prefer the human touch. Just to be sure.”
“I can assure you that the Insta-Link service fulfils all of your daily needs efficiently and appropriately Sir.”
“Can you check for me or not?” he replied.
“Certainly. This call is being recorded, Mr Barren.”
George did not reply.
“I have the information for you, Mr Barren. It appears that under popular democratic consensus,” Ashley paused, “Orphans were deemed surplus to requirements during a vote held on June sixteenth, Two Thousand and Thirty Three. Treaty Ratification Seventy Four. By a margin of seven per cent. Popular reasons cited were food scarcity, the cost of state sponsored care and lack of established manual labour camps.”
“But that was ten years ago. Has the issue not re-emerged for public consideration?”
“No. And it is not scheduled to in the near future according to my records. Possibly two more years before the County Committee has it under the first phase of reconsideration. Depending on the political climate.”
George stared at the digits on the touch screen, all the pixels converged into a singular blurry mass as a pair of resplendent tears punctured his stoic demeanour. “So the law is clear on the issue?”
“Have there been any reports of missing children in the area recently?”
“Then would it be possible to find the details of a child’s parents through your database?”
“Only in extreme circumstances.”
George considered for a moment if he should continue the conversation. He had probably aroused suspicion already, at least enough to be monitored. But all avenues were closed and he couldn’t turn back. “I believe I have found a missing child.” He looked at his arm and read her serial number to the machine, “three-seven-six-six-nine-zero-two-two-eight-five-five.” He placed his palm on the aluminium wall of the phone box, tracing over the miniscule bobbles on its surface with his finger. They were slippery underneath his touch, a handful of small avenues of rain dribbled down the wall, manoeuvring over the terrain with power and grace. He inscribed his wife’s name on the wall with his finger.
“The child has no official parents. Her mother was recorded as deceased recently and no father was included on the original birth data entry. However there has appeared on my screen a notice that you are not an Oxfordshire native. Could you clarify this for me, please. Maybe it is a mistake.”
George hung up the receiver and the screen shut down. He remained in the booth for a moment, listening to the dull moan of thunder rumble across the dark night sky. The date began to flash repeatedly on the telephone screen, searing red digits against a black background. 27/05/2044. It blinked on and off. He didn’t know it at the time but George would not live to see out the twenty eighth. Not really anyway.
The two girls were both asleep as the sun rose, the morning light stroking the distant horizon like a mother would do a sick child. George sat on the bonnet of his car, trousers growing dark with yesterday’s rainwater as he smoked a cigarette. He drew on the butt and tossed it into a bunch of stinging nettles, a sodden stick snapped softly as he trod on it going around the vehicle. He opened the door and slouched into the driver’s seat. Didcot was not far off, as he understood it. But he doubted they could dwell there, he didn’t believe that when the time came they could traverse the border either. The Authority would probably have this car linked to his serial number. George clamped onto the steering wheel, his limbs were all trembling. He gently head butted the back of his hands, accidently blaring the horn. This woke the child and her foster mother.
“What are you doing?” Rosie mumbled, rubbing the creases from her face and the dribble from off of her palm.
“We have to go back.”
“Why?” she said, trying to settle the girl.
“This is no way to raise a child. Especially one that isn’t even our own.”
“You keep pointing that out.”
“Because it’s true.”
“Is that so?”
Rosie slipped her hand into her blouse and began to rub her left breast vigorously.
George’s mouth dropped slightly and he felt a gentle throbbing in his manhood which he couldn’t help but touch a little, even if it was through clothing.
“What are you doing?”
“I can feel myself beginning to make some mother’s milk. My body knows it has a duty to uphold.”
He reached over the seat, the fabric burning his forearm as he grabbed her by the elbow, “You’re being ridiculous. We don’t even have any spare children’s clothing. Her babygro has a dried shit stain down her left leg, for crying out loud. How do you think we could even get her out of the car looking like that?”
Rosie ignored him and continued to knead her teat, making short gasping noises as she did.
She took the child under her arms and wove her fingers through her hair. Smiling, Rosie liberated her breast and gently induced it in between the child’s growing tooth stubs.
George swung himself around, crossing his arms and staring out the window at the smudge of light that chastened the desires of the dark night. The air freshener twirled around, dancing on the waft of his indignation. Lighting up another cigarette he glanced into the rear view mirror and took a long drag as he followed the thin trail of blood dripping from Rosie’s breast as the child continued to suckle on an empty breast. She never stopped smiling.
George left the vehicle.
The car grunted vigorously as it wove between the four lanes of rapid traffic. The child was laughing and waving her arms and slobbering in every direction. “They’re going to catch us sooner rather than later.”
“I know. Head for county lines.”
“What use will that do?”
“It’s the best idea I have.”
George swerved to avoid an oncoming people carrier. He gasped as his wing mirror dashed across his windscreen and clattered into the side of a passing truck. He looked back at her momentarily, “I can’t keep this up. We’re going to get killed.”
Rosie tilted her head and smiled, her lips gently raising her cheeks into small mounds.
George only pushed the accelerator a little harder. But he knew that the petrol gauge was hovering on the empty line and that they would be fortunate if the car lasted another five minutes. If he could avoid an accident, that is. He swivelled with enough speed to catch a glimpse of the slither of silver slinking across the surface of the road. The Authority had convened a road block and they were trapped.
Rosie began to giggle.
The car tyres squealed.
George battled the wheel for control.
The car spun and they faced The Authority side on. Their flashing lights and weapons showing no indication of abating. George turned and shook his wife by the shoulders, “Get out slowly. Hold the child and they won’t shoot. I think.” He undid the car seat the girl was in, she ducked her head and nibbled on his knuckles tenderly. George smiled reluctantly.
Rosie cradled her under the armpits whilst George tried to open the door. “I would have named her Dale, you know. We could have had our baby back.”
“I know darling,” he said, rubbing her arm as she ducked underneath the rim of the car. Getting out, George had to squint against the flashing lights of their vehicles.
“Come out and approach peacefully. We will not harm you.”
“Rosie,” George shouted, “do as he says. Okay.”
“Under Treaty Ratification Seventy Four and the stewardship of The Authority, orphans are considered to be an unnecessary expense for the taxpayer and are therefore deemed expendable. Please hand over the child now and it will be disposed of.”
Knowing that there was no possibility of Rosie heeding this request he slowly began to sidle his way over to her. To support her. To help her. To save her.
“Sir, please stop or we will be forced to delete you immediately.”
He looked the officer in the eye and gently shook his head. The smooth tarmac gave no opposition to his progress. They shot him in the leg with a taser. He felt his leg buckle and his knee scrape the concrete but George continued to crawl towards Rosie. His eyes blinkered.
They shot her in the leg too. She crumpled. The child landed on her chest.
George managed to raise one hand in the air, hailing The Authority. His fingers tingled and his lips felt swollen but he had to speak. An officer approached him and knelt on top of him, his knee burrowing into his ribs.
“What do you want?”
“Please-” George sputtered. He felt the saliva welling up behind his lower lip and gently pooling on the concrete. “My fault, it was. Please do not hurt my wife.”
The man called his commanding officer over and relayed George’s confession. They took the child from Rosie who was convulsing rapidly, and brought her next to George. They lay together on the barren concrete admiring a flock of birds darting across the sky. The child grabbed his finger and cooed. A female officer came over. Bending over she told him she thought he was brave and that he was right. “I will make it quick,” she said. The lady opened a bag and withdrew a transparent and cylindrical device. George could feel her gently slide her sweaty palms up his neck until she had located his identity chip.
“No,” Her commanding ordered, “Officer Snow, the child is our priority. She has to be done first. Let them watch.”
The female officer froze momentarily. Her eyes appeared to darken in colour and her chin wavered but she regained composure almost immediately. “Yes, Sir.”
Releasing George’s neck, Officer Snow performed the same procedure on the child, putting her arm underneath her neck and laying delicate kisses on her brow the entire time. Whispering to her, telling her that it would be all right. Telling her she is off to a better place. The cylindrical device had to be adjusted to accommodate the child’s small frame but it was swiftly attached to her neck as four small claws made deft incisions into the soft flesh. Dribbles of blood coiled around her neck, waltzing almost serenely as the liquid ran down on to the tarmac. George could barely see the tiny droplets falling the darkened surface. Car horns rang off faintly and a helicopter hovered over the scene, a camera rotating underneath its belly so as to capture every minute detail. The child’s grip on his finger tightened as the device began to purr softly. She quivered slightly as if she had just sneezed.
Officer Snow began to cry, her mascara morphing into a waterfall of twilight tones.
The child began to wail as her identity chip was wrenched from the base of her neck, blood and tissue ruptured outwards spoiling the interior surface of their torturous device. A small coil of electrical wiring followed after it, fully attached to her fledgling brain stem.
“Sorry, my darling.” She dropped the device to the concrete and used her now released hand to sweep the road clean of debris and deftly lay the child down on the unforgiving hardness of the black top.
“Job well done, Officer. It gets easier with each one, trust me.”
She stared absently at the lifeless frame before her and said nothing.
“The target has been eliminated. We have orders to clean up the scene and transport the deceased back to the morgue for storage.”
“Wait,” George said, his voice hoarse and dry. “Will she be buried with her mother? It’s only right.”
“Only The Authority decides what is right. She has been deleted and for all intents and purposes never existed. A similar fate awaits you and your wife as well. Tumours must be cleansed from the system. “
The light was strong. George sat up and the springs in his bed groaned in discomfort. There was an empty chair next to his bed. An empty fruit bowl on the fold away table. The TV was on but there was no sound. A nurse walked in and fluffed his pillow. A cleaner followed shortly after. She said the man on the news looked just like him and asked if he had a brother. George surveyed the scene. It looked like a traffic accident of some kind. Police in the road. Lots of flashing lights. And a small child. But he did not remember having a brother. Or even a mother for that matter. He just shrugged and went back to sleep, not even noticing the pale rim of skin where his wedding ring had sat for two decades.
Two weeks later he was prepared to leave. Waiting in line to be booked out he spoke to a pretty woman. About his age. She said her name was Rosie and that she was hoping to be put in a home somewhere in the countryside because she had recently discovered that she liked knitting and that required peace and quiet. She told him she was going to piece together woollen dolls of small children, maybe for the Friday market if they were good enough. She asked him if he would like to visit.
He said he would like to.
She gave him her soon to be address on a piece of paper.
The receptionist, which George could not stop looking at, stamped their paperwork and confirmed their departures. The pair were wheeled out to their respective vehicles. He watched her leave. A nurse assisted him into the transport van, and as she did so, a small piece of paper slipped from George’s pocket and fluttered underneath the body of the vehicle. She shut the door and waved at him. He waved back thinking she would look good in a receptionist’s outfit. That reminded him to check his pocket for the address of that pretty vixen he had met in the queue.
It was empty.
In despair he stared longingly at the hospital as he left. The farewell sign had The Authority insignia emblazoned on it.
George felt an almost overwhelming sense of hatred.
But he couldn’t remember why.
So he sat in the back seat and stared at the air freshener hanging off the rear view mirror.
Shaun Flanagan asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work