Draft Notice

A short story  (Adult theme and language)

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Sayraa’s mother glides a finger over each nail, as if to check the manicure. With her hands obscuring of her face, she addresses Sayraa. “Congratulations, you’re a mother.  The miracle of life blossoms inside you.”

For a moment she sees soft hills of golden poppies, but the idyllic scene decays into bare rock and parched skeletons.  She screams.  “Mama, I was raped!”

Sayraa reaches out, but her mother’s limp arms reflect her own helplessness since this all began.

Laughing boys grabbed Sayraa, hands around her thin arms, arms around her legs, lifting her in the air. 

“Be careful of my books.” 

Strange, she thought, boys usually ignore the girls carrying books.  They carried her down the hall, past lockers, classrooms, the principal’s office.  She was unaccustomed to so much attention.

“Put me down!”

Dropped on the floor, Sayraa saw toilets, sinks, urinals!  Too late, she fought, straining every muscle.  They slapped her. “Relax bitch!” 

With her remaining strength, she forced her eyes open.  She memorized every pocked face, clumsy touch, harsh gasp, rancid kiss and foul stench. 

“I wish you died in your mother’s womb!”

She heard a man shout.  “What’s going on?”  The boys vanished. "Oh, my God, not again."

The principal knelt beside her.  "It's over."  

He brushed the hair back from her wet cheeks.  "You're going to be okay."

 Later uniformed Fertility Officers lifted her by her arms and legs into a gurney.  “Relax, if you’re pregnant, it will be better for the baby.  You’re okay now.”

There was no “okay."  There would never be "okay" again.  Not for Sayraa.

Sirens announced her arrival at the Fertility Center.

Her mother’s voice interrupted.  

“But, you’re pregnant!  Think of all those empty desks at school, those empty houses, those boys and girls who can’t have children.  Be proud!”

Her mother’s hands move towards Sayraa’s cold shoulders, but get stuck mid way. Sayraa stares at the blood-red claws.

“Sayraa baby, not knowing your father didn’t stop me from loving you.  Besides, now that you have a baby you won’t be drafted for Maternity Service.”

Sayraa’s fingers meet her mother’s, but this is not enough.  She stands up and clasps the frail body against her thumping heart, breast to breast, belly to belly, tears trickling down her cheeks. 

"Oh, mama!  What do we know about love?"  

She hiccups, taking a breath. 

"That’s why all those babies die in their mother’s womb:  no love!  Mama, we’ll never be real mothers, neither one of us.”

*  *  *

Twelve years later, Sayraa is rolling the mano back and forth grinding corn meal and singing.  A grey kitten hides behind the stone waiting to ambush the mano as it rolls by.  His oversized paw misses the mano and swats Sayraa’s hand. 

“Jealous of the mano, little Ghost?” 

When she pauses to scratch his ears, he rolls over in the flour.  She pats his nose and resumes grinding.  He smells his fur and licks his tail.

A small Chinese gong hanging from the young women’s ear interrupts this domestic meditation: chime, chime again.  At the third chime, still singing, she unconsciously brushes away her short braids and cups her ear.  Hola.”

An unexpected governmental monotone announces, “Draft notice… Maternity Service… Report to the Oakland Fertility Center.”  

She shudders. Not Maternity Service.

She drops the heavy stone mano sending a hissing ball of grey fluff to the floor with tiny claws clicking and slipping on the hardwood.  Before he gets any traction, she scoops her hand under his soft belly. 

“Slow down Ghost, it’s just a formality like after high school and college.  We’re off to Bethesda.  Open country for you, NIH post-doc for me.”

Sayraa carries Ghost around the granite kitchen island and drops into a second-hand sofa, scavenged from one of many abandoned apartments.  Ghost purrs and kneads her bare midriff.  “Ghost kitty relax, nothing’s going on in there.” 

Sayraa paces around the big room, moving the pine ladder-back chairs against the wall. One chair performs valet services for a black graduation gown with a royal-blue velvet hood ready for next Sunday, June 6, 2066.  She stops at a pine trestle table to admire her student lab complete with centrifuge, incubator, pipettors and 1536-well culture plates.  She opens the incubator and sniffs.  Rising bread?  Yeast invasion!  She dumps the contents into the biohazard trash.

She considers the remnants of her dissertation defense.  She picks up conference proceedings and bound journals and stacks them on the chairs like so many Aztec pyramids. She comforts herself thinking, Biology, smart choice, good planning; they never draft biologists.  Ghost, now the jaguar warrior, pounces on the multi-colored index cards paving the broad plaza between the pyramids.  She collapses to the sofa smiling.  I’m too important to the war on fetal mortality.  They don’t draft scientists; they defer them.  Ghost scales her leg, using his tiny claws for pitons and again kneads her belly. 

“Oh I get it, we’re hungry.”

Sayraa and Ghost check the cupboards, Cheerios, Mac-n-Cheese, corn chips, chicken soup, Cheetos, chocolate chip cookies.  Nothing to eat.  The cat food is under the sink, but they go for the freezer.  She finds more cell plates in the freezer and dumps them into the trash.  She grabs the tub of cherries-n-cream, pries off the lid and, finding a spoon waiting inside, she eats from the carton.  Ghost meows and butts until Sayraa drops a scoop on the floor.  Maternity Service fades away as Ghost chases his ice cream.  The ice cream is almost gone when the gong chimes. 

Hola.”

“What’s up Sayraa?”

“Not much Rozzy, just another draft notice.”

“Oh no!  What are you going to do?”

Sayraa takes the last scoop of ice cream and lets it melt in her mouth.  “Start my NIH post-doc, of course.  My deferment’s on its way.  Let them play with some other chica; I’m a PhD biologist.  That’s all they get from me.”

“Maybe, but you know, they don’t draft newlyweds.  Have you considered marriage?”

Ghost chuffs and reaches for the carton.  Sayraa drops it on the floor.  He jumps inside and rolls it across the room, licking it clean.  “No for me, girl.  Aside from not having or wanting a boyfriend, marriage means babies.  I’ve gone to school all these years to avoid Maternity Service.  I’m not throwing all that away by getting married. No babies for me.”

“You sure?”

“Absolutely.”  Sayraa remembers the teenage boys in that high school bathroom, the Fertility Center, the miscarriage.  Surer than you can imagine.  “Besides, I’m not fertile for a week or two, my deferment will be here by then.”

“And if it’s late?  What then?  Let me help you.  You can’t always do everything on your own.”

“Calm down Rozzy.  Everything’s under control.  Besides we shouldn’t talk things like this over the net.”

“I’m at Dr. Zapata’s all day tomorrow. Bring in Ghost for a checkup.”

Mañana.”

*  *  *

Sayraa admires her cocoa complexion as she hangs crystal wind chimes from her commcell.  She wears plaid shorts and short-sleeved blue top with wide lapels, not exactly the latest fashion, but it fits her student’s budget, twenty dollars at the recycle store. With Ghost safely packed in his carrier, she grabs a sweater for the trip to San Francisco and opens the door.

“Good Morning Miss Sayraa.”

Her way is blocked by two Fertility Officers in familiar brown uniforms, white boots and helmets, armed with automatic rifles, and wearing pink and blue armbands.  She holds the carrier in front of her.  “What are you doing here?”  Ghost hisses. 

A tall woman with freckles and crooked teeth hands Sayraa a pink and blue striped envelope.  “You’ve been drafted.”

Sayraa looks at the other officer, a man with a thick neck and no visible lips.  “Yeah, I got the message, so what?”  She notices a tattoo – dancing babies – circling his neck as he reaches for Ghost’s carrier. 

“We’re here to escort you to the Oakland Fertility Center.”

Ghost hisses again.  The man steps back with a frown. 

“Excuse us Mr. Cat.”

Sayraa’s heart beats against the carrier.  “Forget it.  I’m not going anywhere.”

The man smacks the butt of his rifle on the floor.  “Who do you think you are?  You ladies all do Maternity Service.”  He points to the other FO with his rifle.  “She did it; you’ll do it, no exceptions.”

Sayraa turns to the woman.  “Explain it to him.  I’m a biologist, a PhD biologist.  I’m needed in the lab.  I’m going to NIH in Bethesda.”

The woman offers the envelope again.  “Ma’am, I’m proud of you and I understand you had plans, but you have Maternity Service now.”

Sayraa grabs the envelope.  “That’s NIH, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland!  Anyway, it’s the wrong time of the month.  Come back next week.”  After my deferment arrives.

The man takes a deep breath through his nose.  “We’ll just wait here.” 

The woman backs away with a slight bow and makes a sweeping gesture with her hand to let Sayraa pass.  “Don’t go too far.  The Fertility Corps will be watching you.”

Sayraa runs down the stairs, yanks her car door open, gently places Ghost into the front seat, pats the top of his cage, and slams the door.  Her hands shake as she drives down Telegraph into the fog.  She parks at the Berkeley ferry station.  On the ferry, she walks past the few widely spaced riders wondering how many people lived in the Bay Area when they built this enormous ship. 

Sitting in the deserted front section, she tries to forget the FOs by thinking about summers in Cabo and abuela’s cantina.  My burnt fingers rolled fresh tortillas.  My strong arms carried large pitches of cervezas and margaritas.  I ate rice and beans, while the tourists feasted on carne asada y carnitas.  Before the cantina opened, I ran to the ocean and watched the sun rise.  No fetal mortality in Mexico.  Abuela had three children.  I’ve already had one miscarriage.  What have we done to ourselves, our surroundings? 

At the Twin Peaks pier, the clearing fog reveals pastel houses like a fantasy village rising from the bay.  Sayraa climbs the hill to Dr. Zapata’s office, swinging Ghost’s carrier and sweating.  The blue Victorian with purple and green gingerbread trim has six granite steps leading up to oak double doors.  While she walks up the stairs, two brown uniforms with rifles march towards her.  The FOs are everywhere.  She slips inside before they see her and leans against the door to catch her breath.  She lifts the carrier to her face and peeks in the little window.  “Nothing to be afraid of.”

Ghost bats the window and purrs.

A high table divides the examination room with a desk on one side and a bench on the other.  A scale sits on the examination table.  Sayraa straightens the cat pictures on the wall.  The room smells like alcohol and citrus. She opens the carrier.  Ghost hides under his blanket.  She pulls him out of the cage.  “Don’t be a scaredy cat” 

Rozzy walks in and closes the door.  Her white lab coat almost reaches the floor.  She hugs Sayraa, whose arms hang limply at her side.  Embarrassed by the closeness, Sayraa silently stares at the top of her blond head.  After a short pause, Rozzy releases Sayraa and retreats behind the examination table.  In her best doctor voice she asks, “Ghost or Sayraa first?”

Sayraa thinks leave me out of this.  “Start with Ghost.”

The vet student puts Ghost on the scale.  “Almost two kilos.”  She palpates his fuzzy white belly and checks his grey ears and sharp teeth.  “Looks great.  He’s old enough; we could neuter him.  Does he already have a chip implanted?”

Sayraa drops to the hard bench, stainless steel, just like the examination table.  “Maybe you should just spay me.  I don’t want to think about neuters today.  No chip yet.  Tell me about chips.”

“Dr. Zapata has the best, latest military technology, small as a rice grain.  Just inject it under his skin and we can track him anywhere, and from the office I can retrieve his history: heart rate, temperature, respiration, the works.”

Sayraa understands technology.  Research biology is all about data and automation.  Long gone are days spent admiring nature under a microscope.  “Impressive.  How do they make it so small?”

Rozzy smiles.  “No batteries – powered by body heat.”

“Expensive?”

“No, free!  Like your computer, commcell, car, just register the ID code, but it’s free.”

Sayraa remembers the FOs outside her apartment.  “No, I don’t need another tracking device just now.”

Rozzy puts Ghost back in the carrier and sits next to Sayraa.  “I’ve got good news.  After graduation I’ve got an equine residency, Maryland state veterinarian’s office.  I’ll be near NIH.”

Sayraa stands up and picks up Ghost’s carrier.

Rozzy stands up too.  “What about you?”

Holding the carrier between them, she turns to Rozzy.  “Me?  I don’t know.  Can you get birth control pills?”

Rozzy starts to laugh, but stops.  “Sorry, highly illegal, easier to get heroin or even tobacco.”  Her grin remains, evidently proud of her little joke.

Sayraa is not amused.  “What do people in our contraception-free, abortion-free society do?  Do they pray for miscarriages?”

Rozzy checks outside the door and whispers, “Some people try the old potions, hellebore, black hellebore.  Maybe you can get some at the witch’s store on Telegraph.  Be very careful, it could kill you.”

Sayraa steps back from her blonde friend.

“What do you know about witches or potions?  Back in Cabo when the net warned about peyote and coca, my abuela pointed to her old jars and laughed.  Don’t worry about me.  I’m getting deferred.”       

Rozzy awkwardly reaches her arm around Sayraa’s shoulder.  “If you don’t want to get married, we could just run away.”

Sayraa turns to the door.  “Don’t be silly.  I’ve got everything under control.”

Her wind chimes interrupt.  Hola.”  A tense man’s voice replies, “Your car’s at the Berkeley docks; we’re just making sure you didn’t stray too far.  Your propagation gang’s eager to meet you.”

“Don’t worry.” 

She disconnects and looks at Rozzy.  “FOs again.”

Rozzy shoves her hands in the pockets of her coat.  “Are you ever going to let someone help you?”

Sayraa opens the door.  “Hellebore kill me?  If it comes to that, maybe I don’t care.”

“Ghost cares and I care.” 

“Okay, if anything happens, you two take care of each other.”  

*  *  *

Sayraa jumps out bed.  Ghost stretches.  Since the draft notice, she stays up late and rises early.  “Up kitty, it’s 5:30, they’ll be here soon.  We’ll sleep in after my deferment.”

 “See Cabo San Lucas” posters fill the wall between the two bedroom windows.  She opens the red and white homespun curtains, a gift from abuela.  Ghost plays in the landscape of sheets and quilts.  Dirty laundry covers the brightly colored rugs purchased one at a time at the market across from the cantina.

I’ll clean up after my deferment arrives.  Everything after my deferment arrives.

Uncertain what to do next, she looks into the living room, into the bathroom and at her network screen on the wall. 

“Music.” 

The screen lights up and El Taiko, a drum group from Baja, vibrates the windows.  No worries about the neighbors; the last ones moved out after graduation.  She picks up her a jump rope, pushes the laundry aside, and starts counting.  “1, 2, 3…”

There’s a loud knock.  The door reverberates with each blow and a tense voice shouts over the drums.  “Open up chocolate cake, we know you’re there.”

Sayraa opens the door; it’s never locked.  As usual, Jack and Jill look prepared for an armed assault on a nursery school with their pink and blue armbands.  Sayraa doesn’t know their real names.  Jack stands at attention with his rifle across his chest.  Jill walks into the bedroom.  “Let’s go, on the bed please, cervical fluid exam.  You know what to do.”

Jill performs this exam every morning.  If Sayraa doesn’t cooperate, Jack’s clumsy hands assist, so she cooperates.  Jill closes the door and puts on nitrile gloves.  Sayraa, in no hurry, navigates the maze of dirty laundry, getting lost, back tracking, getting lost again, singing, “Itsy, bitsy araña climbs up the waterspout.”  Ghost hides underneath the bed.

“Please hurry up, I don’t have all day.”

“Yes, you do.”

Jill ignores her.  Sayraa lies down, carefully pulling her nightgown over her knees.  She clenches her fists and stares at Jill.  I dare you to do this one more time.

Jill leans her gun against the door.  At the first touch, Sayraa kicks.  “Oopsy.”  But Jill just leans out of range.  “What makes you think you’re so special?”

Sayraa crosses her legs.  “Ten years of college, for starters.”

“They say you scientists caused this, so you should be ready to do your part, just like I did, like God intended.”

“Don’t tell me about God.”

The nitrile gloves stick to her ankles, spreading her legs apart like on that bathroom floor.  No, not again, no!  Sayraa sees the acne-scarred faces and screams.  Ghost runs to hide in his litter box in the bathroom.

“Calm down.  I’m not raping you, you know.” 

After the exam, Jill smiles at Sayraa.  “Good news.”  She jumps up and shouts to Jack, “We’re done here.  Let’s take her in.”

Sayraa curls up in a ball and sobs, “No, never again, I promised myself never.  I worked hard.  I’m a scientist.  No children for me.”

Jill turns to Sayraa.  “Take it your time dear; we’ll wait in the hall.”

Jack adds, “You have an hour.”

As soon as the door closes, Sayraa chimes Rozzy.  Yo Rozzy, connect, connect.”

Hola.”

She rolls over and squeezes her pillow.  “Rozzy, they’re taking me in.”

Rozzy’s voice gets squeaky.  “I’m scared.  I’ve heard stories, bad stories, about Fertility Centers.”

 “Chill Rozzy.” Sayraa buries her head in the pillow.  Ghost jumps up on the bed and rests against her. 

Rozzy breaks the silence.  “I love you.”

When Sayraa raises her head, two wet spots stare back at her.  She also remembers stories about fertility centers and propagation gangs.  “Rozzy, don’t worry about me.  They may scare the other chicas, but not me.  I’ve been through hell in a boys’ bathroom; there’s nothing left.  Just feed Ghost. Okay?”

“I’ll take care of everything.”

“Sure doc.  Keep dreaming about your horses.”

Sayraa packs, hiding the hellebore in the torn lining of her backpack under some underwear.

*  *  *

Jack and Jill march Sayraa down the hall of a surplus high school.  She wears a pink and blue striped hospital gown, open in the back, and paper slippers.  Sayraa walks ahead.  Andale, late to class, hurry up.” 

Sayraa looks around.  They’ve brought me back.  I’m sure that’s the bathroom where it happened – absolutely sure!

Flickering fluorescent lights cast weird shadows of boys hiding behind the lockers.  Open classroom doors reveal hospital beds and cribs.  The air smells of baby powder and sweat, the foul stench of sweat.  Babies cry.  Mothers cry.  No love here.

Sayraa is back in Cabo. 

She hears laughter.  She runs with her cousins across the warm sand, but she changes her mind, the water’s too cold, she doesn’t want to go swimming.

Sayraa stops.  “Changed my mind.”  She crosses her arms.

Jack spins and his rifle hits Sayraa’s shoulder, knocking her to the floor.  “Get up cupcake!  We’re not fooling around!”

Jill offers her hand.  “You hear him?  Get up.  Please get up.”

Sayraa rolls over on the cold floor. She curls up and screams.  They grab Sayraa’s arms and legs and carry her down the hall.  “Put me down!” 

They drop her on a sofa covered with a print of blue morning glories and scarlet bougainvilleas.  She looks around the old classroom with its worn white boards and faded bulletin boards.  Across from the floral sofa, a low table holds a china tea set with the same pattern, a pot of steaming coffee, a plate of watermelon and blueberries and another with pink and blue muffins.  Candles line the tops of the empty bookcases.  The room smells of coffee, jasmine tea and sandalwood.  Sayraa straightens her gown and crosses her ankles. 

In front of her, instead of student desks, there are four men:  a muscular guy in a t-shirt with freckles, a red beard and hairy hands; a thin guy in a suit, a head taller than the rest, with closely braided hair and a broad nose.  The next guy has solid black eyes, straight black hair and narrow lips forming a big smile.  Finally, closest to the window, a short man wearing glasses nervously shakes his leg. 

Jack and Jill sit on either side of Sayraa.  Jill begins.  “I know you’re nervous.  Eat something.  It will help you relax.”

Sayraa holds her posture and pronounces each word distinctly.  “Very nice, but I’m not impressed.  You can’t sweet-talk me like some ghetto girly.  I’m a college graduate.”

“Miss Sayraa.”  Jack reads mechanically from a worn card.  “This is your propagation gang, chosen for fertility and maintaining genetic diversity in a shrinking population in accordance with Public Law 120-227, Pro-Children Act of 2028.  You may refer to them as A, B, C, and D,” he looks up, “starting with the man in the glasses.”

Sayraa looks straight ahead.  “I’d rather die.  A, B, C, D, maybe for someone else, but not for me.”

Jill stands each man up.  “Listen up.  Select at least two, although three’s better.” 

Jack starts to laugh, but stops when Jill stamps her foot and stares at him.  She taps the tall one with braided hair, and spins him around.  Jack laughs loudly.  “Special today, you can have all four if you want.”

Sayraa flashes back to Cabo. 

A guitar strums and heels echo the Flamenco beat as the dancer twirls across the floor.  In the back of the cantina, Sayraa sweeps the floor.  A tourist smelling of tequila pulls her onto his lap. 

She screams, “No! Never!”  She runs for the door.

Jack catches her wrist and pulls her back.  The guy with the red beard, “D,” walks across the room and gently takes Sayraa’s hand from Jack.  “Maternity Service is just one baby.  Afterwards, you’re free.”  He gets down on one knee.  “Please Miss Sayraa, work with us.”

Maybe twelve years ago.

Sayraa pulls her hand back.  “Forget it.” 

Jill rests her rifle in Sayraa’s lap.  “Please remember you’re not a volunteer, you’re drafted.”

Jack whispers, “Let’s go momma, choose or be chosen.”

Sayraa crosses her arms and legs.  “Just couple of more days, my deferment’s coming.”  

Jill leans closer to Sayraa, “I understand you want to wait, but your cervical fluids say, ‘Today, now.’”

Sayraa kicks the table spilling hot coffee on “D.”

Jack slaps her on the shoulder.  “Sweet dreams.”

Sayraa feels something like a spider bite.  “Itsy, bitsy araña climbs up the waterspout.”  The room spins, and darkness takes over her fears.  “Down came the rain and …”

*  *  *

Sayraa wakes up aching like after the boys on that bathroom floor.  She wiggles her toes, her fingers, and opens her eyes.  A pink and blue curtain surrounds her bed. A network screen stares blankly at her.  Her swollen tongue feels like an old towel in her mouth. She strains towards a pitcher beside her bed, but it’s too far.  Also out of reach, a bowl of fruit: a crisp, red apple, a sweet, yellow banana and a juicy orange.  Her hungry belly urges her but she’s too weak. 

On the other side of the bed she sees a white chair and Jill!  A faint, raspy voice comes from her throat.  “What are you doing here?  Where am I?  What happened?  Did my deferment arrive?”

Jill pours a glass of water and puts it in her shaking hands.  “You’ve been out a while.  It’s all over.  You’re pregnant.”

Sayraa drops the water.  “What?”

Jill pours another glass.  “Drink.  You’re thirsty.  I was.”

After Sayraa drinks the water, Jill hands her the apple and she takes a big bite.

“Good girl.  Eat.  You’re eating for two.”

Jill puts her hand to her ear.  “She’s okay, awake.  Get her some lunch.  Don’t forget the cherries-n-cream.”

Sayraa exchanges the apple core for the banana and orange and flays them both, immediately consuming every skinless morsel.  Jill puts her arm around Sayraa.  Sayraa shivers.

“My first one.  Same as you.  Knocked out.  Knocked up.”  Jill looks at the empty doorway, leans closer to Sayraa and whispers, “Friends call me Colleen.  Call me Colleen.”  She hugs Sayraa’s stiff body.  

Sayraa pulls away.  “Want to be friends now?  Forget it!”

“You can’t do this on your own.  You need a friend.”

Jack walks in and slams the lunch tray down in front of Sayraa.  He turns his back to Sayraa and faces Colleen.  “Stop!  Never get attached.  Guard the door.”

Colleen salutes, picks up her rifle and marches to the door.

Jack doesn’t sit down.  “You’ll be here the first trimester.  Your backpack’s under that table.  Eat your lunch.  Leave her alone.”

“No problem.”  Sayraa roots through her backpack until she finds a small Tibetan temple bell to attach to her commcell.  Immediately, it chimes.

“Sayraa?  Been polling you.  Left messages.  You okay?”

Hola Rozzy.  Haven’t checked messages in, in…” She looks at Jack.  “How long?”

Without opening his mouth, he says, “Three days.”

“Three days, Rozzy, I’ve been out, drugged, three days.”

She stares at Jack, not saying anything; just hoping he’ll leave.  Jack just stands at attention and stares back holding the rifle across his chest.  She considers telling Rozzy about the drugs and the gang, but doesn’t want her to get more involved. “How’s Ghost?”

“I took him to my place in Woodside.  He hunts mice and scares birds.  He’s a wild cat at heart.  Of course, we both miss you.”

Sayraa thinks about the population crash. Cause uncertain, probably environmental, certainly man made.  And about Public Law 120-227.  What kind of perverts force women to be bear fatherless babies?  Tears roll down her cheeks.  “Rozzy, they did it.  No deferment.  I’m pregnant.”

Without giving Rozzy a chance to reply Sayraa ends the call.  “Rozzy, I can’t talk now.  Mañana.”

Jack points his rifle towards Colleen.  “You leave her alone.  She gets too attached.  Not good for anyone.”

“I said, okay.”

Sayraa eats her cherries-n-cream and falls asleep dreaming about Ghost hunting in the hills, killing baby mice, killing baby birds, killing babies.

*  *  *

Colleen brings Sayraa’s regular breakfast of yogurt, brown rice, whole wheat bread and preserves.  “Looking stronger.”

“Thanks Colleen.  No more nightmares.”

Sayraa never says anything about the babies in chains, in cages, all screaming, “Kill me.  Kill me.”  She never mentions her nightmares in high school restrooms with pocked faces, rancid gasps, and harsh kisses.  If she wakes up at night, she stifles her screams by forcing her fist between her teeth.  After a month, the nightmares, like unloving parents and horror films, become familiar, but still frightening.

Sayraa waits for her chance, watching the other girls and imitating their baby-blossom coy smiles and mindless cooing.  Her physical strength improves, no more aches.  Sayraa and Colleen go for walks through the neighborhood.  Colleen doesn’t let her pet the stray cats, but Sayraa brings them bowls of cream and leftovers.  After another month, she’s strong enough and the time is right.  “Colleen, can you get me some more toast, please?”

Colleen runs to the kitchen.  “Eating for two?  Great.”

With Colleen gone, Sayraa pours a fresh cup of hot tea remembering the witch’s advice:  “Start with just a pinch, strong poison.”  She adds a teaspoon of the black sticks to her tea.  She stirs and stirs.  The taste reminds her of root juice from an old shaman in the Cabo shantytown, an acrid taste and a burning in her stomach. 

When Colleen comes for their walk, Sayraa sobs.  “Not today, I feel awful.  Maybe the yogurt was bad or morning sickness.”  All afternoon Sayraa rushes to the bathroom even after her intestines must be completely empty.  At ten o’clock the night-duty ultrasound nurse checks in, mother and baby are fine.  A disappointed Sayraa closes her eyes, thinking about the population crash, Mother Nature’s revenge, the FOs, obscene rapists, and repeating, “No baby, even if it kills me,” over and over until she falls asleep.

The next morning a concerned FO sits at her side.  “Sayraa, are you feeling better?  Morning sickness again?”

Buena, fine, but just rice today, and maybe some sopa de pollo, chicken soup?”

When Colleen goes for the soup, Sayraa tries a tablespoon of black sticks.  This should do it.

By the time the soup arrives, Sayraa has wrapped herself in her covers.  She pants, shivers, sweats, and her heart pounds like so many castanets.  This definitely should do it.  Sayraa ignores the babies flying around the room making sudden turns and eerie whistles like bats.  She manages a couple of spoonfuls of soup before she staggers for the bathroom.  Her shouts of “Morning sickness,” echo from the toilet bowl.

A concerned Colleen hands her a glass of warm water.  “Here, rinse your mouth.”

The shakes and sweats stop in a couple of hours, but the hallucinations continue, grotesque flying babies, in colors, wailing, shouting, “Kills us.  Kill us.”

That night, mother and baby are still fine and a determined Sayraa goes to sleep repeating her mantra, “Even if it kills me.”

Sayraa’s ordeal only strengthens her resolve.  Colleen brings rice and chicken soup for breakfast, but Sayraa asks for ice cream, a glass of chocolate milk and some warm tortillas.

Three tablespoons today.  No more fooling around.  Her whole body is on fire and her heart beats so hard that the bed vibrates.  This is it.  I did it.  She holds her chest; her arms ache; her chest explodes. 

“Tell Rozzy … take care of Ghost.” 

She stays alert as long as she can.

*  *  *

A disappointed Sayraa awakens surrounded by masked doctors and nurses.  Two cold metal plates connected to white coil cables rest on her chest.  When Sayraa pushes the paddles away, Colleen yells, “She’s awake!”

After the doctors leave, and after lunch, Colleen grabs her hand.  “Let’s go, doctor’s orders.  You need exercise.  We’re going for a walk, a slow walk.”

Sayraa rocks back and forth while Colleen slips a coat on her.  Colleen puts her arm around Sayraa’s waist and guides her down the hall.  They walk under the arcade where students once waited for the bus, and over the blacktop, now pock marked by clumps of weeds, where they played basketball and soccer.  Across the street, in the park, they sit under a tall tree with peeling green and grey bark.  Sayraa breathes in the eucalyptus scent.  Almost dead.  Almost died.  No deferment.  Nothing. 

Absentmindedly, she picks up some of the long, leathery leaves and rubs them on her arms and legs.  She offers a few to Colleen.  “My abuela says eucalyptus brings good luck, buena suerte.”  Rub them on your neck and cheeks. 

Colleen smiles sadly and takes Sayraa’s hand.  “Your baby.  You lost your baby.  Miscarriage.”

“Miscarriage?  Really?”  A miscarriage?  Was the hellebore unnecessary?  I didn’t need to kill myself? 

 “Sorry.  It happens a lot, you know.  Docs always check.  Your baby had 49 chromosomes.  No chance.”

Colleen hugs her and sobs. 

Why is she crying?  What does she care? 

Colleen pats Sayraa’s belly.  “Next time will be better.”

There’ll be no “next time.”  I’m not giving them another chance.  She looks into Colleen’s blood-shot green eyes.  “I’m going to run away.  You chase me?  Shoot me?”

“No.”

Sweet Colleen.  Stupid Colleen.

With tears of relief streaming down her cheeks, a determined Sayraa runs.  She doesn’t know where she is, or where she’s going.  She just runs to feel the wind against her face.  With each stride she flies, momentarily free.  A healing spirit moves through her body.  Maybe if I return to Mexico I can have a baby there.  Downhill, she goes faster and faster.  No!  No babies, never.  Ahead she sees a lake. Lake Merritt?  She’s not far from home.  In a few blocks, she’s running up Telegraph.

At the apartment Sayraa removes the commcell from her ear lobe and throws it under her bed.  She picks up some clothes from the floor and stuffs them in a shopping bag along with some Cheerios, corn chips and chocolate cookies.  In her rush, she knocks over a bag of kibbles.  Oh Ghost.  No time.  I have to run.  Enjoy your new life as a wild cat.  Stay with Rozzy and her horses.

In ten minutes she’s on her way to the Bart station.  As long as I go third class, no tickets, no check points, all the way to Tijuana.  After TJ, Cabo.  Nobody will find me in shantytown.

The Salinas Super glides into the station with an electric hum.  In the front, closed red curtains shield the first class cabins.  In the second-class cars, well-dressed passengers enjoy brunch on trays in front of their spacious seats.  Finally, last car, third class.  The door slides open and Sayraa pushes into the crowd searching for an empty space on the wooden benches.  The only crowds in America: poor folks.  The car jerks, dumping Sayraa to the floor, and like so many generations of poor city dwellers, they’re off to Salinas.

In Salinas, Sayraa transfers to the Golden State Express.  In LA, she buys an old serape and a scarf at the Salvation Army recycling store.  At the international pedestrian gate at Otay Mesa, she sits on a concrete bench and watches.  Going north, each person is questioned as the border patrol injects chips into their backs.  Most are turned around and refused entry.  If the population crash is such a crisis, why don’t we let more Mexicans in? 

In the other direction, the crowd marches south unobserved and unchallenged.  When three tour busses unload, Sayraa figures the time is right, covers herself with the serape and scarf, and heads for the gate.  Tired and dirty, but ready to start a new life, she hears a familiar, tense voice.  “Been expecting you cupcake.”  Jack steps out of the border patrol office.  As he puts her in cuffs, Sayraa can only cry, “How?  How?  How did you find me?”

Colleen checks that the cuffs are not too tight and whispers, “If you hadn’t run for the border, we would have waited two or three weeks to pick you up, like a vacation.”

*  *  *

 After a long ride in a hot prison bus with bars on the windows, Sayraa is back where she started.  No more propagation gangs.  This time the in-vitro-fertilization nurse rolls his cart into the room.  He stretches Sayraa’s handcuffed arms for her morning shots:  hormones in the left, blood sample out the right.  She flinches.  “I’ll never be a druggie.  I hate needles.”

The nurse pokes the blood needle through the rubber stoppers and fills three test tubes.  Next he spreads KY on over Sayraa’s belly and points to the ultrasound screen.  “See those are ovaries.  That one has ten eggs, maybe more.  This one six, no seven!”

Colleen smiles proudly.  “Good girl.”

Later, Sayraa awakes from her Valium-induced fog.  Go ahead, steal my eggs.  Don’t care, never did.  Sayraa’s bruised wrists tug on the chains sending shooting pains up her arms and across her chest.  Just finish, hurry up.  She sobs until she feels a pin prick on her hip, more Valium.  Colleen rubs her shoulder until she falls asleep.  Before dinner, the shot nurse returns.  “Congratulations!  No more hormone shots.  Egg retrieval tomorrow.”  

Sayraa collapses, silently repeating her mantra, without thinking about the words or anything except sleep. “Even if it kills me.”  

Even if it kills me, I’m already dead.  She doesn’t notice when a short doctor rolls a gurney into the room.  The doctor doesn’t look at Sayraa and Sayraa doesn’t look at her.  Colleen reads the nametag.  “Dr. Ghostly, IVF Department.  What you doing here?” 

She turns to Colleen.  “Officer, ova retrieval immediately.  Help me roll her onto the cart.”

Colleen picks up her rifle.  “No way, it’s tomorrow.”

The blond doctor raises her voice.  “Does your badge say doctor?  Come over here, look!”

Dr. Ghostly pulls up Sayraa’s gown and runs the sonogram over her belly.  “See this and this!  Floating eggs!  Lose them if we don’t hurry!”  She pushes the gurney against the bed, adjusts the height and sets the brakes.  “Unlock and roll!”

Jack looks into the room.  “Need help?”

“Hurry officer.  Help me get her to the elevator.”

Jack runs in.  Colleen puts down her rifle and unlocks the cuffs while Jack rolls the moaning Sayraa onto the gurney.  Colleen sits in her chair and shakes her head as they race out the door.  Sayraa tries to focus on this short doctor, but the Valium hasn’t worn off.  Go ahead, steal my eggs.  When the elevator opens, the gurney glides down a long hall.  Sayraa smells eucalyptus and feels a cold breeze.  The gurney bangs into the back of an ambulance and rattles as she’s loaded on board.  She concentrates on the sirens, as the gurney rocks back and forth like an unbalanced centrifuge.  She throws up and thinks, No more.  No more.

The ambulance turns and bounces.  As the gurney jerks and rolls, Sayraa turns to her stomach and presses her hands and feet against the walls.  With a crash, the ambulance comes to a stop, throwing her to the floor.  Now she’s wide-awake and alert.  The door opens. 

“Rozzy!  Rozzy?  What are you doing here?”

Rozzy pulls her out of the ambulance and hugs her.  “Sorry, it took so long to find you.”

She stares over her blond head at the ambulance buried into the side of a brick tenement.  Marsh plants and brackish water surround everything.  Black mud covers the wheels.  The air buzzes with huge, black flies and smells of rotting timbers and salt spray. “What are we doing here?”

Rozzy squeezes her.  “Sorry it took so long to find you.”  Her hands move up and down Sayraa’s back, palpating her like a big cat.  She lets go.  “You’re okay now.  Let’s get moving.”

Sayraa repeats, “What are you doing?”

Rozzy stuffs Sayraa into her beat-up Honda.  “Helping you.”

Sayraa leans her head out the passenger window; the glass is gone, and the cool air clears her head.  A hole in the dash remains where someone removed the electronics package.  As Rozzy drives past the slowly sinking ambulance, she tosses her commcell out the window.  Sayraa watches it splash into the mud and squints at Rozzy.  She replies, “I’m not coming back.”

“But, but, what about Maryland Horse Country, your dreams?”

“Just rest.  I have a new dream.”

“You can’t … be serious …”

Meow.

“Ghost!”

Ghost crawls into the front seat and sits between Rozzy and Sayraa.  The sun shines in Sayraa’s window and she falls asleep petting Ghost.  My Jaguar warrior, do you like Rozzy? 

At Firebaugh, Rozzy pulls off the road.  The full moon lights up the broad central valley.  Sayraa stares at the silver hills.  She remembers her last race south and cries, “Not again.  They’ll just find me.  I give up.  Just take me back.” 

Rozzy takes out a syringe.  “Roll over.  One last shot.  I promise it’s the last one.”

“No!  Big needle!  Hate needles,” she sobs as Rozzy sticks the needle into her back.  She twists it around.  “Hey, that hurts!”  Sayraa has never had a shot in the middle of her back.  She wonders, Why in the back?  Why not? But her exhausted body quickly falls asleep.

When Ghost yowls, she awakens.  She looks around; Rozzy and Ghost are looking at the stars. Rozzy turns to her.  “Nothing, it’s nothing.  Just go back to sleep.” 

The next day, she can’t stop talking.  “Last time, Otay Mesa, they were there, waiting for me.  They were there.  Can’t escape, just take me back.”

“Everything’s okay.  Just Relax.”

Sayraa’s too tired to argue. “There is no okay, not for me.”  She watches Rozzy driving down I-5.  Her graceful hands turn the wheel, smoothly passing trucks.  Sayraa inhales the clean valley scents of freshly plowed fields as Rozzy calm pulse beats on her white temples.  Let the car crash.  Let me die like this.

“Don’t worry; we’ll be in TJ in two days.” 

Exhausted and confused, Sayraa just wants to sleep.  “Sure doc.”

Cat food, water bottles, fresh fruit and granola fill the trunk.  They have a picnic in San Diego, apples and granola, in Balboa Park.  As they sit under the eucalyptus trees, a very vocal orange cat joins them.  At first Ghost ignores her, content to be in Sayraa’s lap, but eventually her yowling and rubbing gets his attention.  They spit and hiss and wrestle.  When it’s time to go, Rozzy and Sayraa search everywhere, but Ghost can’t be found. 

Rozzy takes Sayraa’s hand.  “We have to go.  Please get in the car.  Let me help you start over.”

Sayraa shouts, “I can’t lose Ghost!”  She dashes around the park asking families if they’ve seen any cats.  She jumps down the ravine, only to return wet and muddy.  She curls into a ball.  “I’m not leaving.”

Rozzy picks her up and leads her to the car.  “Let me help you.  Trust me.  If you want, we’ll come back in a couple of hours to look some more.”  She gently places Sayraa’s exhausted body in the back seat. They arrive at Otay Mesa at the end of the noontime rush.  Why do I trust her?  They’re going catch me at the border again.  They creep forward in stop-and-go traffic.  Sayraa sees Colleen and Jack in the border patrol office. “No, no, there they are.  I told you!”

As the car approaches the gate, Colleen and Jack ignore the traffic; they just stare at a big electronic map of San Diego.  In the middle of Balboa Park a red light flashes.

Rozzy smiles.  “There you are.  They’re waiting for you.  You had a chip in your back, but at Firebaugh I transferred it to Ghost.  Now they’re tracking Ghost.”

The traffic stops just as they cross the line.  Sayraa sees Colleen look out the window.  Their eyes meet.  Colleen looks back and forth between the red dot and the beat-up Honda.  While Jack stares at the red dot, Colleen watches the car drive south and smiles.

Sayraa looks back and forth between the red dot and Rozzy.  She picks up a napkin and wipes the sweat from her white forehead before it drips into her eyes.  She smiles.  One last time Sayraa looks at the red dot, “Good bye Ghost.”