Stoner Demands Answers
Over at the Headquarters of the Blue Guard, Inspector Ward Stoner was on another rampage. “Boone!” He barked as he charged past Chalky Boone’s desk. “Come into my office.”
“Right,” she responded as she grabbed up her palm-held verbal steno recorder.
The inspector stood at the window seeing nothing. “I need as much information as you can get on Christiana Applewait.”
“Lady Applewait?” she questioned.
“Yes, Christiana Applewait. Is she so far above us all that you can’t get a dossier on her?” Stoner’s body twitched as he hiked up his pants and smoothed his shirt trying to control his seething anger.
Chalky blinked in disbelief. “Yes . . . Ward . . . she is ―”
Stoner certainly knew the law. He turned and glared at her. His valued assistant and First Lieutenant was perhaps the only person left in the city who actually knew him. “Chalky, I don’t want to hear that answer.”
“I know you don’t, but it’s the truth.” Chalky stood her ground with feet firmly planted. She was the only person who could tell the Chief Inspector, “No.”
“Boone, let’s not talk about what’s true. Let’s grind out a little of what’s necessary.”
“Ward . . . she is a Legacy Citizen. You know the laws regarding the Council of Elders and those who will rise to that position. The Law of 2031 purged every file known to Society of even the name of a Legacy Citizen. None of our e-files have a word about the Wise Ones.” Boone’s tone was calming but firm. Educated as a lawyer, she knew the law.
“What about the little wise crackers, the second and third generations?” He hissed with sarcasm.
“Then how do we know she’s Legacy? Tell me that.” His face was red and the veins on his temples bulged with anger. “Can’t anyone do their job around here but me?” he shouted.
“There is a paper file on each of the members of the Council, their ancestors, their descendants, and any pertinent information about them, including education, achievements, and their writings. But, there is nothing that we can access from our readers. It is not in the air, anywhere. It’s on paper.”
“Okay, okay, let’s sit down and brainstorm.” Stoner sat at his desk, leaned back and closed his eyes. “Applewait is her father’s name. She is Legacy by linage from her maternal grandparents, Oliver and Constance Richly.”
“Yes, that’s true, Ward, but she is also Legacy through her paternal grandparents, Abraham and Claudia Applewait. They passed into the sleep several years ago following a house fire.”
“Those wood frame houses in Oakwood should have been demolished a long time ago. They’re nothing but tinder boxes waiting to ignite,” Stoner said. “The fancy people think they are so great because they have so much space.”
“Space and ambiance. I was in one once and it seemed so warm and friendly.”
“Oh please,” Stoner drew out his words with indignation. “Those buildings take a lot more maintenance than the newer, high-rise buildings.”
“Yes Sir. There was a rumor that the senior Applewait’s house was deliberately torched,” Boone added.
“Why hadn’t I heard about that?” Stoner snapped back. “Arson is a crime you know.”
“That was about the time your wife went to sleep, Ward. You were off duty and probably weren’t informed.”
Stoner made no response. He had barely acknowledged the passing of his wife in his own frozen emotions. He was locked in a state of grief and anger and never spoke of her out loud.
“So, by linage, she is a Lady, Lady Applewait,” Boone broke the silence.
“I’m not impressed,” Stoner snapped back. “So, where are these paper files on the Legacy Citizens?”
“I . . . don’t know how to access them,” Boone said. “But, some place I ran across the addresses of a few Legacy Citizens. Those locations are stored here in my palm-reader.” She spoke into her reader, “Legacy addresses.” She selected a tab and the information was instantly available. “Christiana Applewait lives in the penthouse,” she read, “in the Indian River Apartments.”
A slight sneer crossed Stoner’s lips. “Yes, I know.”
Chalky looked up but said nothing about his comment. “Her parents live in the Lee Ridge High Rise and her grandparents, two of the twelve, live in Oakwood, at 721 Primrose Lane.”
“That’s all we have?” He growled. “That’s it?”
“Who has access to the paper files if they’re so secret?”
“The Council of Elders, Sir,” she stated flatly as if she had just completed a circle. “And those files are stored in the vault at Fort Knox, Kentucky where the gold used to be stored.”
“The gold is still there, Boone. It was never moved as they said it had been.” Stoner’s expression softened from the anger that was usually stored around his eyes. “I would be willing to bet that not even the current Council members remember what’s in those files. We could say anything we wanted to about any of them.”
“Yes, but if you spread lies about even one of them, are you willing to bet your career, maybe even your life, on getting away with it?” Chalky asked.
“Maybe not this time. For now, it may be enough to know where I can find them. As long as I know where these people are, they’re as good as captured. They’re not going anywhere. I’ll keep an eye on Oakwood myself. It might be amusing to haunt the good little citizens who never have a worry, never have a care. Maybe I can shake them up a little bit.”
“Ward, you just can’t harass them.” Chalky moved in a little closer and nearly whispered. “It’s against the law.”
“Boone, I am the law!” he shouted.
“Hold your voice down, Sir. You’re sounding out of control.”
“Don’t you dare talk to me like that,” he seethed.
“I’m the only one who can, Ward.” She refused to retreat; she did not back down.
“You listen to me Boone, I don’t plan to do anything now, just watch and wait. But, the time may come when the benefit of creating some chaos in Oakwood might far outweigh the cost. I don’t know when. Maybe years from now. But, it would be fun if it happened in my lifetime.” He spun his chair around and refocused his stare outside his office. “I have the time. Laws or no laws, power is everything. I can wait for the prize — when the golden nugget is ultimate control.”
My conversation with Marge at the library had lifted my spirits. She had revealed her knowledge of the suppressed book and other forbidden documents hidden in the back rooms. I kept the book I had slipped out of the library wrapped in the folds of my cloak. As I rode across town to the medical center, I saw Sean, the man from the sing along—the one who delivered underground newspapers. He was sitting on the P-T side bench, and this time, I wasn’t uncomfortable. He smiled but said nothing. I found that strange, since he had spoken out so freely last evening. Then, I saw that he was carrying a large bag of rolled up newspapers. I was amazed to see the papers out in the open! News sheets of any size had not been printed in years and the reality was, they had been forbidden. The Government Communications Agency, the GCA, hadn’t initially banned them, but had corrupted the print outlets to the point they were no longer credible. Columnists and reporters were regulated on the most trifling detail, to the point they were eventually forbidden to report almost anything. Finally, newspapers were banned with the excuse they were no longer relevant.
Sean is delivering newspaper around town! He must have been delivering papers each time I had seen him on the bus. Since people hadn’t seen newspapers in our lifetime, there was no danger. They didn’t know what he was carrying.
I started to walk past him without acknowledging his presence but he stopped me. He spoke in a dull tone, like everyone else on the bus that day, but his eyes conveyed another meaning.
“I found that special high-mountain coffee we were talking about last evening. Do you know, it is grown at such high elevations, the snow caps look like grandpa’s white hair,” he laughed lightly. Others looked up.
His cryptic message was not well veiled but esoteric enough to slip past those around us. “Wonderful! Could we enjoy some at the Gift-giving celebration tomorrow?” I asked.
“That would be perfect. I could come by in the afternoon, after dinner.” He smiled. We were just two causal friends talking about the little things of life.
“We will be at ―” I couldn’t mention my grandparents’ home. “Well, here’s my stop. Why don’t you call me this evening and I’ll give you the directions?”
Since grandparents no longer existed for most people in our age group, a mention of mine would have drawn curiosity. I saw my stop approaching, so I said no more.
I got off the bus near the huge medical center which housed several physicians’ practices, various specialists’ offices and labs. As I walked through the reception area toward the lift, I heard sobbing coming from the Women’s Lounge. It was so strange to be drawn to the sound of sorrow. A few days before, I wouldn’t have even heard it; or, if I had, I would have walked on past.
Cautiously, I pushed the lounge door open, not knowing what I might find. A young woman lay on the bathroom floor with her legs pulled up to her body. She was rocking back and forth, while moaning and sobbing like a wounded infant. She was gripping a partially opened pocket knife in her hand. I rushed in and knelt down.
“What happened to you? What is wrong?”
She whimpered and opened her eyes a little. “My Lady?”
“I’ll get a doctor for you. Just lie still.”
“But, you need care.”
“I just came from a doctor’s office. They can’t do anything.” I saw her slide the knife under her body as she closed her eyes again.
I sensed her horrible plan and reached for the knife she had tried to hide under her clothing.
“No, I must have it,” she gasped and grabbed at the knife as I pulled it from underneath her.
As she struggled to grab the knife from my hand, the blade popped open and slashed my arm a few inches above my wrist. I flung the knife out of her reach as she struggled to get up.
“Oh no, My Lady, no!” she pleaded when she saw my arm. She sank back to the floor.
I quickly wrapped a clean white cloth from my pocket around the slight wound and then turned back to her. “What has happened to you? Tell me, so I can get the help you need. Can you give me your name?”
“My husband and I love each other, My Lady.” She started to sit up. She breathed more freely and the gasping stopped. “We have two beautiful children. Then, I got pregnant again so my doctor said we would have to abort the baby. Then the doctor was sick and my time went on.” Her whispers bore testimony to the pain within her.
“So, your pregnancy continued?”
“Yes, there aren’t enough other doctors in his practice to cover his patients when he’s sick. I was seven and a half months along when they came for me. They terminated the pre-birth mass just this morning.” She looked up at me with grief written on her face. “My Lady . . . I saw her. She was so tiny and pink and breathing. She wasn’t a mass of anything. She was a baby—my baby.” Her voice faded to a weak whisper. “It feels like my heart has slipped into a vast abyss. I am so lost and empty.”
I felt so stunned that I couldn’t find words to sooth her grief, so I sat on the bathroom floor with her and folded her in my arms. “Where is your baby now?”
“She . . .” the little mother sobbed in my arms, “she was discarded. They said, since we already had our allotted two children, the third birth mass was unnecessary. They . . .” her words drifted off to a whisper, “just threw her away.”
“What’s the problem, Gracie?” A nurse startled us as she barged into the lounge unexpectedly.
“There’s no problem,” the new mother whispered with fear in her voice.
“You know what Doctor told you. If you can’t pull yourself together, you will have to be hospitalized and that will put a point in your chart,” the nurse said.
Gracie looked at me in terror and tried not to look at the pocket knife I had picked up and still held in my hand with the bandaged arm. She glanced quickly away. “No, I’ll be fine. I was just a little weak and this lady spoke to me.”
“We’ve called your husband. He’s waiting for you in the hall. Are you coming?”
“Yes, yes of course. Stephen is here? Good,” she smiled weakly and got up.
“Gracie, stop by the Main Library after the Holidays. We could have some coffee or something,” I said as she started to walk away.
She turned and looked at me with amazement in her tired eyes. “You would have coffee with me?”
“I want to very much,” I gave her a little side hug for reassurance. “My name is Christiana.”
“I know who you are, My Lady.” She smiled and then was gone.
When I got into the hallway, I saw Gracie disappear out the door with a young man. He had his arm around her as though he were both protecting her and guiding her unsteady feet. I stood there and watched them until they were out of sight. Grief was another emotion I was learning. And, sorrow often comes as its opposite, the joy of life. Little did I realize this was only the beginning of the horror stories I would encounter.
An Invitation and a Discovery
I had come to the medical building to see Jason O’Reilly. I looked at my time piece. The encounter with Gracie, the tragic woman in the Women’s Lounge, had happened so fast. I was still stunned when I walked into Jason’s waiting room and looked around. It was empty and quiet. Even the receptionist was absent from her station.
“Christy!” Jason walked through the door from the inner hall and nearly bumped into me. “What are you doing here?”
His surprise would have put me off but when he gathered me in his arms, his reassurance made me feel wanted again. “Well now, that is better,” I smiled.
“Oh yeah,” Jason ran his fingers across my back. “I’ll phrase it differently this time.” He cleared his throat with dramatic flair. “I am so happy to see you Christiana. To what do I owe this visit?” He bowed slightly.
“I have come on the happy chance you have no plans for Gift-giving dinner, but I’ve just had a horrible experience.”
“What on earth happened?” It was then that he saw the wound on my arm and the knife I still clutched in my hand.
“My arm will be fine. It’s stopped bleeding. I cleaned it in the bathroom. But Jason, there was a woman.” The whole incident raced through my mind. “She was so sad. I think she would have taken her own life with this blade if I hadn’t heard her crying and found her on the bathroom floor.”
He looked at the cut on my arm. “The bathroom? Here in this building? Where is she?”
“She had a pregnancy termination but, Jason it wasn’t a cell mass at all. It was her baby they threw away.”
“That’s why I don’t have maternity patients, Christy. It’s the law. Thinning out the population has been legal, and even required, for a long time. I can’t do it.”
I looked around the room to make sure we were still alone and cleared my head of the image of Gracie and her only encounter with her beautiful baby daughter. “We’ve had the Length of Days policy for a long time, Jason. I’m hoping we can overturn it, including the section on two for two, two children for each couple. Maybe it will start a fresh reverence for life for all people. Let’s talk about something else. I can’t bear the pictures that are stuck in my mind. I have to think about something happy, something full of life.”
“I know Christy.” He hugged me again. “What would you like for a Gifting present?”
“To have a simple life again, like it was a few days ago. I haven’t told you before about this strange little man who lives in my building. He turned up again, rumpled and unkempt.”
“You have a lot going on in that building,” Jason laughed.
“So it’s turning out to be.” All of the faces of laughing, singing people flooded my mind. My thoughts were overrun, like an unexpected infestation of vermin, by the foulness that Silas Drummond had described. “Jason, the man told me what really happens to those entering the long-sleep. It was too horrible to imagine.”
“What did he say?”
“Their bodies are burned and their ground bones and ashes are used in things like building construction and fertilizer. Jason, today I saw that man being forced into a strata-car. He said that we were all in danger.”
“Did you believe him, Christy?”
“I don’t know. It all seems so ghastly, so preposterous. I don’t even want to think about any of that. I want to think about Gifting Dinner.”
“Tomorrow? Christmas dinner?”
“I’d like you to come for holiday dinner,” I smiled. “It will be our family Christmas feast. Are you busy? Can you come?”
“Actually, I have no plans at all. Usually, I make rounds in the hospital so those who are stuck there on the holiday have someone to talk to. Right now, I have no patients in the hospital. What did you have in mind?”
“We will all be at Grand-mère and Grand-père’s house. I would like for you to come to our family dinner with me.”
“I get it, you want a ride in my car,” he laughed mischievously.
“I do not need a ride, Sir. The transit will be running tomorrow.” I gave his arm a little smack and then buried my head in his chest. “Don’t make this so hard, Jason.”
He tossed his head back in fresh enjoyment. “I would love to come to Christmas dinner with you. When can I pick you up?”
“Grand-mère serves holiday dinner promptly at twelve noon.”
“Oh . . . I missed that. Dinner will be at your grandparents’ home, two of the Wise Ones. I’ll have to confess, I could feel a little intimidated around them.” He teased again.
“Don’t be. Grand-mère already knew who you were when I mentioned your name, Dr. O’Reilly.”
“She knew me or had heard of me?” Jason’s chest puffed out a little.
“She knew you. She called you by your first name.”
“Perhaps she knew my parents or grandparents,” he wondered out loud. “In that case, I would be honored to join all of you for Christmas dinner.” He kissed my forehead and lingered there, close.
“Now, here’s another thing,” I approached the new idea more carefully. “I had thought I would invite Dahlia too. She could talk to my grandparents about the spiritual awakening she is experiencing. They could give her more answers than I could. I know Society doesn’t approve of socialization between bosses and employees. Would you be uncomfortable if I invited her?”
“Christy, she would be your guest, not mine. Besides, joining someone for dinner at another person’s house is hardly fraternization.”
“Why do you think they initiated the non-mingling law in the first place?” So many laws were beginning to sound strange now that I was being detoxed and thinking with my heart as well as my head. “What could be the harm in enjoying someone’s company?”
“Maybe enjoyment of anything was considered taboo. My parents had told me that marital relationships and loyalty to one’s spouse had totally broken down in the past, threatening the emotional safety of nearly all of the country’s children. Keeping people apart was a way of making sure that new alliances were not begun with people outside the family unit.”
The image of Gracie and her supportive husband flashed before my eyes with the agonizing pain and desperate emptiness over the loss of her baby. I shuddered and wanted to crawl closer into Jason’s arms.
He gave me a reassuring hug that let me know he was there. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes, of course. I just want to have a beautiful Christmas. I need only lovely thoughts right now.”
“Okay, a wonderful Christmas has been ordered for you and if you want to invite Dahlia, that would be fine with me too.”
“Do you think she would come?”
“She came in for a few minutes today. Let’s go ask her.”
I looked around the room again and added, “Wait Jason, I want to show you something first.” I pulled the book from under my cloak. I was trembling with excitement and fear. “It’s all right here.”
Jason pushed the book away, pulled my cloak over it and said nothing. He checked the door to the inner hallway and led me quickly through the complex and back to his private office. Then he turned around and closed the door carefully so as not to make a sound. “We have to be careful with any book in our possession, Christy.” He threw his arms around me and drew me close. “Okay, what did you find?”
I placed the book on his desk and it fell open to the page I had marked. I turned the book around for him to read. “Jason, the law regarding our Length of Days can be changed.” My voice shook and cracked as I forced out the words in an excited whisper. “A referendum can be scheduled.”
“But Christy, how long would that take?” Jason sighed.
I felt my hope plummet again. “I cannot think about that now. The referendum will be in time. It has to be.”
Jason looked toward the door. There was no sound, no movement. Then he began to quietly read. “A referendum in our government is usually in the form of a direct vote which is initiated by the legislature, the government itself. There is a second type of referendum, initiated by the citizens. The second type is an initiative, ballot measure, or proposition. This last form of vote is originated by the citizens as a petition. A binding referendum requires only a simple majority of the voters for it to carry. With enough signatures, the measure is brought to a vote by a citizens’ referendum. If passed, it is binding.”
“Don’t you see, Jason?” I begged. “If we can get a majority of the citizens, right here in Capitol City, to sign the petition, perhaps the government will see the need to change the policy for the entire land.” I held my breath as I waited for him to answer. He had to agree with me.
“Christy, I think you may have found the solution,” he whispered. Then he paused. “There is a small hitch. There is a cover letter that must accompany the petition. If that official document is not with the petition, it won’t be valid.”
“An official cover letter? Where would we get that?”
“It says that one can be secured from the Office of Government Regulation.”
“They won’t be open until next Monday, due to the holidays.” Again, my emotions plummeted. “There is so little time.”
“Maybe we can intrude on a Constitutional Court judge this evening or even tomorrow. You’re a Legacy Citizen. They will have to take your call.”
I smiled. “I find it interesting how you can distance yourself from your own legacy, Jason. You are one of us.”
“I know, I know,” He admitted. “We can ask the judge together. Now . . . the next step is the petition. We have to find out how we can get a petition signed by a majority of the voting citizens without raising suspicion from the Blue Guard. I know they would stop us,” Jason said.
“There will be a way. I know there will.” It was done. “Now, Jason, may I see Dahlia?”
Jason took my hand and led me down the hall to a supply room and small pharmacy. Dahlia, a dark beauty, had her back to us when we entered.
“Dahlia?” Jason’s voice was full of disappointment and surprise. “What are you doing?”
Dahlia was stuffing paper packets of the tiny white pills into her pockets. She turned, startled, when she heard her name.
“Dr. O’Reilly!” Dahlia jumped and staggered. Jason eased her onto a chair in the corner.
“Dahlia,” I whispered and knelt down in front of her, “you are the one who has been giving the detox pills to the people in town, aren’t you?”
“But, you reported the missing pills to me in the first place,” Jason seemed confused and hurt.
“Since we finally had a patient who needed them, I thought it would soon be obvious that some were missing. I was afraid you would call for an audit of the pharmacy.” Dahlia didn’t say more. She merely nodded in admission. She swallowed hard then spoke with fear in her voice. “Yes, Christiana, I have started to pass them out too. I couldn’t keep feelings of love and other emotions from my friends. Even if I would get caught, the gift of life was too precious to withhold.”
“Dahlia, I understand.” Not completely out of Jason’s hearing, I whispered in Dahlia’s ear, “The music stops when you don’t have the pills, doesn’t it?”
“Christiana, you know? You have heard the music already?” She wiped her eyes on the corner of her cotton office jacket.
“Yes, Dahlia, I’ve heard it. I wouldn’t give it up for anything either.” I gave her a hug. “Now, for the reason I came to talk to you. I’ve just invited Dr. O’Reilly to share Christmas dinner with me and my family. I want you to come too.”
“Oh, My Lady . . . I am not worthy,” she whispered.
“None of us are, Dahlia. I have contributed nothing to earn my place in society. I was born into it. I did not earn it. Please say you’ll come.”
“Yes,” her voice was faint, and I could sense apprehension beneath the surface of her words. She looked at Jason.
Then I realized that Jason held the key to Dahlia’s future at that point. I wondered what her fate would be in his hands. I was learning that he was a fair man, a man of integrity, but he also expected the same in return.
He took the pills from her pockets and placed them back in the cabinet. “We’ll find another way to detox the people, Dahlia. It will be necessary to do it a little at a time in order to make sure they have no adverse effects.” He helped her to her feet. “The chemical additives in our water supply have made illegal drug use a thing of the past. Drawing the police or Blue Guard into this would only raise alarm. No one else needs to know about this. We have to keep our circle small, but I will have to take the key to the pharmacy from you.”
Dahlia handed it over with relief.
“For now, why don’t you go on home and enjoy the rest of the day. Tomorrow, I’m going to pick up Christiana about fifteen ‘til twelve. If you can be ready then, we’ll all go together.”
“Dr. O’Reilly,” she sobbed, “how can I thank you?”
“By being the loving, caring person that you are,” Jason said, “and the best healthcare professional I know. No one has been hurt. The pills weren’t narcotics. They were neutralizing agents. The patients who became suicidal had abused the tablets you passed on to them. They detoxed too fast. Taken properly, they would have been fine.” He took a tissue from the box on the table and smiled. He dabbed at her eyes and added, “You will have to blow your own nose.”
Outside the Health Center, Ward Stoner waited in his car for his target to emerge. Her ID tag had told him she was there. He crouched in his vehicle like a thief, waiting to catch his next victim in a weakened state. He had always been able to dominate a situation, to use his mind and the weight of his office, to force his will on others. He could have had any of his Blue Guardsmen follow a young woman around town. But, he knew in his gut that this case was different.
A transit car streamed by overhead and he thought again about the ghost who had brought him into the hazy vapor of mystery in which he found himself. It was either one of the biggest cases of his career or someone was making a colossal fool out of him. It had better not be the latter. He tried to look at both sides of the paradox he called his life.
He inspected the old-fashioned timepiece he wore on his wrist. It had been his great-grandfather’s, and for some reason he enjoyed wearing it. It had a tiny knob on the side of the case that he faithfully wound each night when he took it off. There was no one who would have dared to call him sentimental, any more than they would have called him Inspector Tombstone to his face. Besides, sentimentalism had lost all of it meaning.
Sentiment required emotions and most people had none. But, the watch brought a strange sense of continuity, a feeling of family. The hands on the face marched slowly on into the day. He looked again at the doors leading into the medical office building.
He wanted to leave but the whole thing mesmerized him. As he pressed on, in an effort to find answers to the puzzle he had started calling the Princess Case, he felt a strong force pushing back the more he pursued. He had to admit that the challenge made him angry. But, in the greater game he found himself in, he had finally met his match, an equal force to push against. Or was it equal? Still, the watcher watched.
Many Had No Joy
As I gathered up my things to leave Jason’s office, he wrapped me in his arms. “I’ll meet you at the Demitasse in an hour? We could have some lunch.” He gently touched my back, a gallant gesture of ushering someone along.
“Lunch would be fine,” I agreed.
I soon walked back out into the wintery day and across the street to the shops I enjoyed so much. The library book was tucked neatly in the fold of my cloak.
The little shopping village was like something out of a Dickens novel, even if most people didn’t know who Dickens was. I loved the little cluster of fancy shops and felt at home there.
Since I had an hour before I would meet Jason, I decided to spend my time shopping, something I rarely did. I passed the coffee shop and drifted into the boutique a few doors down. I hadn’t bought new clothes in a long time. Clothes never seemed important before. I wandered over to the sale rack and shuffled through the hangers. Legacy Citizens have no need to shop from the reduced section since our personal fortunes and our annual stipend, allow us to live very comfortably, but I enjoyed saving money.
“Good morning My Lady,” the sales clerk smiled lightly but her eyes were dull and unresponsive.
“Good morning,” I replied then realized the woman was a classmate from secondary school. “Valley? Is that you? I haven’t seen you in several years.”
“Yes, Ma’am, it’s been a long time. I didn’t think you would remember me.” Her eyes were looking away but there seemed to be a spark, a new measure of pleasure on her face.
“Of course I remember you. We managed to survive Mr. Funderman’s advanced mathematics class together.” I walked through life respected but alone when classmates no longer acknowledged my existence.
“Thank you for remembering,” she added. “Is there anything I can help you with? We have a nice selection of holiday green caftogs over here. That color would look beautiful on you with your coloring.”
Caftogs were long garments that took their design from a combination of the caftan and toga styles. They had a top with full caftan sleeves, under a wound skirt that then came around and draped up and over the shoulder. The display of fine silk garments, woven with threads that prevented the usual wrinkling, enticed me.
“Yes, Valley, they are beautiful.” I ran my fingers over the delicate fabric and down the sleeve to the price tag. It was expensive but certainly not out of my budget. Ordinarily, I would not have considered such an extravagance. I was perfectly satisfied with more modestly priced garments but then I saw Valley’s face and understood. She must have worked on commission and a sale of that magnitude, the day before Gift-giving Day, could have made her family’s holiday more joyous.
“It is very lovely.”
Valley didn’t pressure me as it wasn’t appropriate to push a sale on a Legacy Citizen.
“I’ll take it,” I smiled and took the garment without trying it on. “I’ll wear it to my grandparents’ Gifting Day party.” It was bound to fit. The government established a uniform sizing system for all clothing many years ago. If you wore a size six, every six fit exactly the same way.
I casually slipped the library book into my clothing package and started to leave. To continue the comfortable contact I had with Valley, I asked, “Do you have plans for the holidays?” I waited for a response from my old friend.
“Plans?” she questioned with an emotionless expression except for an artificial, painted on pleasantness.
“You know . . . are you going to be with your parents for holiday dinner?”
“We always had gotten together but . . .” She paused as if she were searching her memory for a happy holiday with her family. “It’s been so long since my grandmother was alive. She made the best date pudding.”
“I always found the term, date pudding, a strange name for a cake.” I hoped to get a real smile out of Valley, a brief reprieve from her dull life.
“What?” Valley blinked and stared. She was no longer with me but had drifted off to a gray existence among the colorless memories of her life.
I took my shopping bag with the book and package tucked inside and wished Valley a joyous Gift-giving Day. Outside, I saw the town clock and knew I was nearing my time with Jason and I smiled. A Blue Shirted Inspector looked at me sharply so I quickly wiped the smile from my face. He darted into the bank on the other side of the boutique and was quickly gone. I thought he looked familiar but dismissed him from my mind and smiled again. I had discovered that my face felt more relaxed when I smiled. And, the annoying pain between my eyes, I used to frequently experience, vanished when the corners of my mouth tuned up. Wow! Life was vibrant and new. But, when would the happiness stop? If I couldn’t end the Length of Days terrible policy, my joy, like Valley’s, might be gone forever.