Nine months. The culmination of winding turns, backtracking, endless safety measures for the sake of the deal, and I didn’t know if I could go through with it. Granted, the alternative was no better. The alternative would kill me just like my best friend, Travis. Between the sadness and rage, I managed the motivation to go forward.
I walked down the empty street, fixated on the cracked pavement moving beneath the soles of my worn out sneakers. Counting helped, giving my brain something else to do instead of wandering down the endless possibilities, the what-if demons roaming around my head. I ran a nervous hand through my unkempt shock of blonde hair, head down, collar up. Don’t mind me, just a single man walking through downtown Baltimore in the middle of the night.
A police car came around the corner ahead, its searchlight coasting across the walls, a giant eyeball of light seeking out the miscreants and undesirables. I ducked into a darkened alleyway and pressed my body against the decaying brick wall behind a mountain of trash. Had they seen me?
The light passed by and kissed the opposing wall, before moving on. Darkness engulfed me, and I let out a shuddering sigh of relief. I stood up, facing the street and wiped the sweat from my palms down the front of my jeans. “This is insane,” I whispered. “I’m not cut out for this renegade shit.”
“In the bittersweet darkness of life,” a deep, baritone voice said from behind me. Something cold and metallic pressed hard against the nape of my neck.
“You…” I closed my eyes and forced the words I’d rehearsed for the last month into proper order. “You can find the light of salvation.”
The pressure disappeared. “The money.”
I slid my hands into my pockets, trembling fingers pressing past a metal heart to curl around the rubber band-wrapped wad of cash. Without another word, I pulled it out and passed the small package to the man.
The rubber bands snapped off, followed by the quiet flipping of bills and under breath counting. He grunted. “Wait for the man offering you a room for your head. He will lead you to salvation.”
The man’s boots crunched atop the loose asphalt as he walked away. I turned around, but there was no one there, just the broken remains of the rubber bands at my feet. Doubt crept into my head, colored with more than a little trepidation. That had been the last of my personal assets, and paying for salvation was an act of treason. To be caught now would be worse in its own way, worse than death, worse than the risks. I’d be shuttled off to an internment camp as a criminal, and the stories that had filtered out spoke of torture and hard labor without advocacy or chance to be released.
What am I doing here? Was my future so perilous that this was worth the risk? In a word: yes. I’d seen too many men die in my lifetime to just become another statistic. Fear be damned.
“Sonny, you look like you could use a place to sleep tonight.” A dirty old man appeared at the alley opening, reeking of urine and decomposing trash. “Far from home? Need a room to rest your weary head?”
“A place to sleep sounds…” I swallowed hard. “Sounds good. Sounds like salvation.” This couldn’t be the guy. This nasty wretch? My heart sank. What had I gotten myself into?
“Ah, yes, salvation,” the vagrant cackled, hands raised up in the air for a moment before he disappeared around the corner. “Hurry up, boy! The offer does not stay open long.”
I hesitated, my head screaming to reconsider, but I shoved those thoughts aside and followed him. The money was gone. If I didn’t see this through, then I’d be left with nothing. Could this be a scam? Sure, I’d heard of those, government stings to catch men like me, or back alley butchers taking advantage of a bad situation. I sighed. I wouldn’t know, if I didn’t go.
The yellow glow of the streetlights flickered as we passed, casting darker shadows around us while illuminating our progress down the street. The old man crossed the street and wandered into another alley way, the snowy reflection of his hair my only guide. He slowed as we drew closer to a doorway at the end, a thin line of white drawn against the bottom. Without it, I wouldn’t have even noticed the door at all. That made sense, secret location and all.
Bright light spilled from the doorway as he pushed the graffiti-ridden door open. Without a glance, he walked in, swallowed by the light. I wrestled with my decision for a moment before I followed.
The door closed behind me with a gentle push of air, and as my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw barren walls and mismatched chairs in an empty, open room. In the distance, someone cried, low and sorrowful. A door opened to my right, and a tall, thin man wearing worn out scrubs, a surgical mask and a hair cap stepped out.
“Mr. Robinson, I presume?” he asked in a nasal tone.
He opened the door again and gestured me in. “You understand the gravity of what we’re about to do, yes?”
“Yes.” The word fell from my lips with an ominous weight. “I understand.” I stepped through the doorway.
He followed behind me, locking the door before walking a step ahead of me. “Once you leave our facility, you’re on your own. There is no aftercare. No medication refills. No support at all. Should you come back to this location, we won’t be here. Too risky to stay in the same place for long when the government is looking for us. I’m sure you understand.”
The long hall had a dozen doors, most of them closed with numbers on the faces. Otherwise, it was as barren as the lobby. He ushered me to one of the few open rooms, and that too was bare, except for the well-worn examination table covered in paper, a single folding chair, a small wheeled tray covered in instruments and syringes, and a sink.
He must’ve seen the look on my face. “It’ll be alright,” he said, one hand patting me on the back. “I know it looks scary, but we are working with limited resources and minimal funding. I promise Doc will take good care of you.” He gestured to the gown at the foot of the table. “Please put on the gown, opening in the back and sit on the table until I get back with the doctor.”
The thin man exited the room.
I pulled off my clothing and folded them in a neat stack on chair and slipped on the gown. The ties were frayed, unusable, and as I clambered onto the table, I felt like a child, feet dangling off the precipice, feeling useless. The gown lent to a sense of vulnerability that unnerved me. It was just fabric, and I wasn’t a modest man, but something about letting a stranger look at my body… Probably just nerves.
The door opened, and the thin man entered behind a stouter, stockier man dressed in scrubs and a surgical mask and cap, hands in gloves.
“This is Doc. He’ll take care of you.” The thin man walked over to my side. “Please lay back. Would you like to be put under, or will a local suffice?”
I rested my head against the table’s faux pillow and closed my eyes. “Please put me under.”
“I’ll be right back.” I heard the door close again.
“Well, young man, let’s see what we’re working with, shall we?” Doc’s voice was deeper, almost a baritone, rich with a slight note of care that relaxed me just a little. “I’m going to lift the gown and take a look, so you’ll feel some poking and prodding. I apologize for my cold hands. The hot water was cut off yesterday.”
I nodded, as he lifted the gown. His fingers were cool, not cold, but temperature was noticeable against my scrotum. He gently squeezed the testicles and raised the sac, touching the area of my body beneath. I could hear him muttering to himself as he looked, but there was no sense of alarm.
“Ten minutes,” he proclaimed with a smile that reached his tired eyes, as he replaced the gown. “Mr. Robinson, I assure you the scarring will be invisible, so much so that their doctors will not be able to tell that you had anything done.”
“What about internal scans?”
He shook his head. “The procedure takes advantage of naturally-occurring shadows in your scrotum. There’s nothing for them to see that could tip them off.”
“Salvation,” I whispered.
“Yes,” he replied. “Salvation.”
* * *
She was beautiful with just a hint of underlying danger. Her hair slid like silk in my fingers, as her perfect rosebud of a mouth found mine again. “I want you inside me,” she moaned, pressing her pert breasts against my bare chest. “Don’t you want to be inside me, Nathan?”
“Laurel,” I gasped between kisses. “We don’t have any protection.”
My girlfriend frowned, her brown eyes narrowing as she pushed me onto the bed. “We’ve been together for two years. We don’t need a condom.” She ran her hand up the front of my boxers.
How had I let it get this far? I closed my eyes and pictured baseball, garbage trucks, math, anything to take my mind off what she was doing. “We’ve been through this. No protection, no sex. You know what happens to me, if you get pregnant.”
She wasn’t listening, intent instead on my erection. “I know you want to fuck me,” she whispered, her voice dropping to a deep, husky octave reserved for webcam girls. “I know you want to sink deep inside me.”
I was halfway across the bed before I realized I had moved. “Laurel,” I pleaded. “We can’t.”
“If you really loved me, you’d fuck me.”
“You know I love you.” I tore my eyes away and stared at the wall behind her. “But if you loved me, you wouldn’t be pressuring me. You’d wait until I was ready. You’d make sure we had protection. You’d understand what you’re asking me to sacrifice.”
Laurel pouted and kicked me off the bed. “You’re a weak-ass momma’s boy, Nathan. If you won’t fuck me, I’ll find someone who will.” She hopped off the mattress and grabbed her clothes on her way out of the room.
My erection fell flaccid against my thigh.
So much for love.
* * *
“Mr. Robinson?” I opened my eyes.
The thin man was back. “I’m also your anesthesiologist, and I’m going to put you under now.” He stepped forward and placed a plastic mask over my mouth and nose. “I want you to count down from ten.”
I nodded, and he tightened the side straps. “Ten,” I said, my voice muffled behind the plastic. “Nine, eight, seven, six…”
* * *
“…five, four, three, two, one! Ready or not, here I come!” My mother popped her head over the top of the couch, eyes wide as I scurried away in my futile attempts to hide. Even at six, I’d never managed to find a hiding space she couldn’t find.
Laughter pealed from my lips when she scooped me up in her arms and swung me around the room, and it felt like flying. We collapsed into a small heap on the living room rug, both panting, faces glowing with exertion and happiness.
The silver locket around her neck caught my attention. She’d shown me before, the picture inside, a man with my eyes. My father, she’d told me, but I had never met the man. And as the gears in my head turned, I realized none of my friends had fathers either.
“When I grow up, I’m going to play hide and seek with my kid,” I announced, pushing myself upright, hands reaching for the locket. “Momma?”
“Oh, no, Nathan,” she whispered, one hand clasping the metal heart. My words drained the happy glow out of her face and brought tears to her eyes. “I don’t want you to have babies. I don’t want you to have kids at all.” She reached out to me, and I fell into her embraced, confused.
“But, Momma, if I don’t make babies, then how will you ever be a grandma?”
She made a strange sound in my hair, and when I forced her to let me lift my head, I saw tears running down her cheeks. “Nate, please,” Her words were thick with emotion. “Please don’t. No babies. I’ll never be ready to be a granny.”
I wiggled out of her lap, my hands on my hips and pouted. “But my teacher says babies are important to the ‘edvolition’ of humans. Don’t you want me to help ‘edvolize’ humans?”
“Your teacher is an idiot.” She sighed. She shook her head when I opened my mouth. “I’m sorry, baby. Ms. Edison is not an idiot. She’s just wrong. You remember what she told you about little boys that make babies?”
I scrunched up my face, trying hard to remember. “She said that little boys who helped make babies didn’t have to change diapers.”
“Do you remember why?”
I shook my head. “No.”
She sighed again and wiped her tears away. “Never mind. Who wants lunch?” she asked with a fake smile. I took my mother’s hand and followed her into the kitchen, wanting to ask her what I’d forgotten, but I never did.
* * *
My eyelids were heavy, but I forced them open to see the thin guy peering at me with a bright penlight. I groaned and tried to turn away, but someone held my head down as he used his fingers to keep my eyes open.
“Dilation good,” he said to the man at my head.
My mouth was dry, cottony. “I don’t… I don’t feel anything.”
He patted me on the shoulder. “Not all the anesthesia has worn off. You’re going to be taken to recovery, and you should feel everything in a couple of hours. Rest, Mr. Robinson, you’ll need it.”
I wanted to say something more, but my head was heavier than eyelids, like a thick wadding of cotton between my ears. I watched him leave, my eyes closing a little with his every retreating step, until I could see no more. I took his advice and slept.
* * *
“This is bullshit!” Travis threw the summons on the coffee table as he paced the length of our tiny apartment. “You can’t get a girl pregnant the first time you have sex with her!”
I looked up from the coffee table. “Didn’t you pay attention in health class?”
He stopped pacing. “What?”
“All it takes is one little sperm to swim his happy, microscopic ass to her little, equally-microscopic egg, Travis. Do you think you get a free pass the first time? Like your swimmers need to test the water temperature before they decide to travel upstream?”
“You can’t get a girl pregnant the first time you fuck her,” he repeated, his tone defeated. He slid into an armchair.
I diverted my eyes to the open book in my lap, but he started to cry. “First notice, right?” A knot grew in my stomach. He could fight a first notice, claim entrapment or something.
“No.” The word was so small.
My stomach dropped. “No?” I saw the book down and stared at the unfolded piece of paper on the table between us. “Second notice?”
Second notice, second trimester, less chance of getting out of the deal since the courts pretty much stuck with the DNA evidence, but a few guys had managed to wrangle out of the commitment.
He bent forward, his head in his hands, and his sobs intensified.
“Travis?” He didn’t answer, but he didn’t have to. I slipped the notice across the table. I licked my suddenly-chapped lips, as I smoothed the page across my thighs.
Dear Mr. Travis Martin,
We are pleased to announce the birth of your daughter today at 4:45pm at St. Louisa’s Holy Cross. She weighed in at eight pounds zero ounces and measured twenty-two inches in length. As per the Family Care Act, Article two, Section B, subsection one, your termination has been scheduled for September 22nd.
Please inform any family members you wish to be present on this historic date, and contact the Resource Department for appropriate tickets and parking passes. Thank you for your contribution to mankind.
Amanda E. Gonzalez
United States Department of Family Reformation
“Two weeks,” I whispered. “Oh, God, Travis, what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
I shook my head and tossed the notice back on the table. “There are options, smugglers, the camp, etc.”
“Smugglers are going to take longer than two weeks. And the camp only takes in pre-birth fathers. It’s supposed to be a sign of obedience and compliance. Waiting until the end is a sign of weakness. It’s too late for me now, but you can save yourself.”
I shrugged. “I’m still a virgin. I’m not even dating.”
“That only protects you until you’re twenty-five, so that gives you, what, a year?” He blew his nose and threw it at the paper. “Then they will send you to a sex therapist, who will fuck you by the end of the week. Once they decide you’re not gay, then you’ll be on their donor list until someone gets knocked up.”
“Fucking FCA,” I growled.
He sighed. “The law wasn’t written for us. Remember that, Nate. The law was written for them, for women, by women. Our forefathers were shitty dads, abandoned their families, didn’t pay child support, neglected their kids, so we fucking paying for it.” He slammed his fist against the table. “Don’t let them get you, Nathan. You have time. You’ve got to find a way around this shit.”
Travis wiped the blood from his knuckles. “And I might just know how to get you started.”
* * *
I yawned as I opened my eyes. “How long have I been out?”
Doc lowered his face mask. “Just over an hour, but we need to get you moving here soon, so we can get moving soon. Someone’s bound to notice you’re missing, right?”
I thought of Laurel and nodded. “Girlfriend.”
He gave me a wry grin. “How do you feel?”
“Fine, I guess.” I sat upright. “A little achy, but… wait, I don’t feel any pain, you know, down there? Is that normal?”
He smiled and patted my thigh. “Just waiting for the last of the anesthesia to wear off, and trust me, you’ll feel it soon enough. Oh, and here’s directions to our pharmacist. He’s expecting you, so there won’t be any red flags attached to your name. Can’t have you limping around.
“And try not to draw attention to yourself for a few days. Tell her you’re sick, that you caught the Tokyo flu from one of the guys down at the pub. Nasty thing, that version of the flu, and all over the news. Contagious as hell. But make sure you masturbate often to get rid of the swimmers. I’d tell you to get your count checked in a few weeks, but you know…”
I nodded. “Red flags.” A dull ache formed under me. “Now what? I mean after the meds, after the pain, after it’s been a while.”
“I’ll tell you what I tell all the men who pass through these doors. Continue on with your life. Have all the sex they want without all the babies. You’ll have done your duty to the country. What more can they ask? Fuck ‘em like they’ve been fucking us all these years.”
He started to walk away and paused. “And Mr. Robinson?”
“Enjoy your vasectomy.”