There are many different types of science fiction, from the classic Competent Men in their gleaming spaceships to the noir-tinged dystopic cities of cyberpunk. C C Finlay‘s “Your Life Sentence” is another type again, and maybe one of the most important and powerful – the sort that asks “what will happen if this carries on?”, but which asks it about something that’s – all too sadly – well within the boundaries of the possible.
Though I believe he started writing it before then, we received Charlie’s story not long after the announcement that the House and Senate of the State of Utah had passed a bill that would criminalise miscarriage. A dark serendipity, perhaps, but it makes “Your Life Sentence” one of the most timely stories we’ve ever published here. I hope you enjoy it.
Your Life Sentence
by C C Finlay
You sit in the bathroom, pants puddled at your ankles, and stare at the vase of orchids on the marble counter: the blossoms curl like purple teardrops.
Brandon, your husband, raps on the door. “Hey! Did you fall in?”
“Out in a second,” you answer. For added verisimilitude you rattle the toilet paper roll.
“Well, call me if you need a lifeguard.”
You hate the joke. “Sure thing,” you answer with saccharine cheer.
You live in a world that requires the bravado of false cheer. For the past several days you’ve suffered from the too-familiar cramps, but you’ve been in denial, blaming the iffy paella valenciana at the restaurant two nights ago. No more. Only the deep breathing techniques you learned in Lamaze class the first time you were pregnant ease your panic.
“Honey!” Brandon pounds at the door. “We don’t want to be late.”
No, you don’t: the weekly doctor visits are a condition of your parole, after the second pregnancy. Even you think that’s only fair.
“Almost done,” you answer. A shudder runs down your spine, like a finger dragged across a keyboard badly out of tune. You rise and pull your pants up. The bowl flushes automatically, but you refuse to look back. You tuck in your blouse, yank open the door.
Brandon stands there with a shoe in one hand and a big dumb grin on his square face. “Know what week it is?”
“No,” you lie. He leans over for a kiss and you dodge him.
“Week nine,” he says, laughing as if it’s a game. “We’ll have the doctor fill out the Certificate of Conception, then call your parole officer. Then if we have to check you into the hospital for the next thirty weeks–”
“Thirty weeks in the hospital — that’s almost like prison.” You grab your keys and purse from the dresser.
“We’ve just got to stick to the plan,” he says earnestly.
Brandon has a plan, an answer, for everything. It’s why you married him, and you liked that about him for a long time, even after you realized most of his answers don’t work for you. “I think I left my ring in the bathroom,” you say, because you left it in the bathroom. “Can you get it for me?”
As soon as he turns away, you go to the garage. You’re already driving down the street when he dashes out the front door. He hops after you on one foot, still holding the shoe, shrinking in the rearview mirror as you speed out of the cul-de-sac.
Your name is Nicole Palmer, and this is the world you wanted, one where every unborn child is safe, protected by the law from the moment he or she is conceived. You practice what you believe. Through three pregnancies, you didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, and didn’t touch coffee or chocolate or anything else with caffeine or any other possible miscarrigens. And as of this morning, you’ve had three miscarriages.
You’ve reported every conception. You turned yourself in after the first two… accidents. You’re a good person and you do everything right. That’s why the courts gave you suspended sentences on manslaughter charges and released you to the custody of your husband. And none of it makes any difference. Under California law, you’re now a three-time felon facing a mandatory life sentence.
Your cell phone rings.
You throw it out the window and watch it shatter on the road. You pound the steering wheel and scream. It’s not fair! You’ve accepted that you’ll go to prison, but it’s not fair. It’s not fair that all your babies died. It has to be somebody’s fault — the courts, your neighbors, your own mother, they all say it has to be somebody’s fault. You just don’t understand why it’s your fault. You don’t know what you did wrong.
“Oh, Barbara,” you whisper. Your mother’s name, the name you picked for the baby girl you just left behind. The word tightens like a noose around your throat.
All you’ve ever wanted is to be a mother.
You jerk the wheel toward an exit, shifting lanes without checking your blind spots.
Long before you reach the Arizona border checkpoint you expect to be stopped, but when you get there the bored troopers wave you through. Peace makes everyone relax. You speed to the outskirts of Kingman, where your older sister Stevie lives. Except for your mother’s funeral, you haven’t seen Stevie in eight years.
Stevie is a cop. She’ll talk you into turning yourself in.
The convenience-store phonecard trembles in your hand when you call Stevie for directions to the trailer park. When you get there, “trailer park” proves to be an euphemism for “rows of shipping containers in the desert outside town,” the cheapest temporary housing. The rooftops are covered with contact-paper photovoltaic cells and solar water heaters; the yards are filled with composting toilets and old junk. You turn at the sign Stevie told you to look for — Police Estates – although someone has painted slashes through the first E and the second S of Estates. Stevie’s place is neater than most. Only two cars out front, a jeep and something sporty, neither one on blocks.
Stevie waits in the yard, one fist planted on her hip, arm cocked like the hammer on a revolver. She wears gray camouflage combat pants and a sleeveless retro RiceBoy t-shirt, with checkered flags on chopsticks. It shows off the Airborne insignia and sergeant’s chevrons tattooed on her right arm.
You get out, legs stiff from hours in the car. Stevie’s half-smile verges on a smirk. She hesitates for a second and then embraces you. You hesitate too, then hug her back hard. “God, it’s good to see you,” blurts out of your mouth.
“You’re lucky you caught me at home,” Stevie says. “The patrol has us working so much overtime. What’s up?”
It pours out, not the way you intended at all, everything from the first day you suspected you were pregnant up to the miscarriage that morning. You’re babbling about Brandon standing in the road with one bare foot when Stevie cuts you off.
“You bring any stuff with you?”
“No, I left everything behind.” You didn’t realize, until you say it, that’s what you’ve done.
“Smart. Come with me.”
You enter the double doors, squeeze past a couple loungers and a cherry-veneer entertainment center. Muted light filters through a window made with plastic wrap and duct tape, falling on a pair of handcuffs atop a little fridge. When she stops by the fridge, you hold out your hands so she can cuff you.
She opens the door. “Want some Crank?”
Your hands twitch back. “Uh… do you have any Diet Crank?”
“Like you need the diet stuff.” But she tosses you a can, and while you stand there, feeling the cold sweat run down your palms, she stuffs a backpack with clothes, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and rolls of cash in ziploc bags.
You pop the lid and sip the soda to hide your confusion. “Are you coming with me to jail?”
“Fuck that! You aren’t going to jail.”
Hope kicks its tiny foot in your chest. “What?”
“But we’ve got to get you back on the road quick so I don’t end up going to jail for you. Here, carry this.”
You take the backpack. Stevie shoves wires and tools into her back pockets, then picks up a little machine that looks like the heart monitor in the doctor’s office. When you step outside again, the blinding sunlight startles the question out of you. “Where am I going to go?”
“I don’t know, Nikki, I don’t want to know.” Stevie walks over to the battered jeep. “Your best choices are Mexico, Canada. Maybe Massachusetts. The wall makes it hard to cross into Sonora, and baby-killing’s a capital crime there too. But it’s close and there’s no extradition right now because of the Tijuana security zone dispute. Gimme that.” She grabs the backpack and flings it into the back seat.
“I figured the other car was yours,” you say. “It’s kinda like Dad’s.”
Stevie snorts and pats the hood like a hunter stroking a favorite dog. “Yeah, he wishes. This is a turbo-charged Freon with upgraded heads — the classic American ricemobile.” Her grin curves into a frown. “But it’s got a busted suspension. The jeep belongs to Dave, but he’s working overtime today, so he took the patrol car in.” She pops the jeep’s hood.
“I don’t want to get you in trouble with anyone–”
“Shit, Dave was recon, he’ll understand. I’ll tell him I needed it. He won’t even ask.” She locates the antenna, traces the wire under the hood. “I gotta kill the tracking chip in the GPS so they can’t trace you. The first time we dropped into Seattle — did I ever tell you about that?”
“No.” All that has happened since the last time you talked.
“No shit, this is what happened. We dropped in, hit the target, and were supposed to make our way out toward Portland with the other refugees. So we stole a classic Land Rover, a beaut with the rhino package, and thought we were home free.” She works while she talks, stripping the wire, connecting the alligator clips, plugging them into the monitor. “Fucking OneStar thought we were car thieves — which, technically, we were — and dropped the local private forces on us. Man, that sucked. More for them than us, as it turned out. Okay, here we go.”
She flips a switch and the screen flickers into existence: a green line laid over a grid — spikes, like a static heartbeat, with a fork, like a choice between two roads.
“When we went back the second time,” she says, comparing lines on the screen to what she sees under the hood, “I took one of these with me, state of the art, size of a wristwatch, not like this piece of shit. But that time, we– damn. Cheapass bastards.”
Your head swirls, barely able to follow her. “What’s wrong?”
“They’ve got the receiver and transmitter in one unit.” She rubs her hand across her buzzcut, their father’s gesture, Stevie’s legacy. “You good to go with no mapping?”
“Sure.” You have that legacy from your dad at least; you know how to follow road signs.
“Good girl.” Stevie grabs the needle nose pliers, twists something under the hood, and checks her watch. “Two minutes, twenty-seven seconds. It doesn’t count though, ’cause I stopped to talk.” She slams the hood shut. “Give me your keys. I’ll have to drive your car somewhere else before I strip it.”
You start to take the car key off the ring, then hand them all to her when you realize you are never going home again. “I can’t go to Mexico, Stevie. I don’t speak Spanish. And the north, I, I hate the cold, I–”
“Don’t tell me. Just pick a place. You’ll have to listen to the news, wait for one of the borders to open, then go for it.” She looks in your eyes. “You can do this, okay?”
“I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know.”
Stevie looks either way, reaches under her shirt and retrieves a small gun from the back of her pants. It lays in her hand like a clot of blood. Her eyebrows rise questioningly. You inhale sharply, shake your head once, then a second time. That’s not you. Will never be you.
With a simple nod, Stevie slips the gun into her waistband again. She scribbles a name and number on a slip of paper. “Here’s a guy in Fort Worth who can fix you up with a new ID. Just mention my name.” She hands it over, pauses. “I liked what you said at Mom’s funeral.”
It’s the last thing you ever expected to hear. “It’s how I felt, that’s all.”
“Mom fucked me up,” Stevie says. “Hell, she fucked us all up with her crazy religious bullshit, all that hellfire and punishment. But what you said at her funeral, it made me see the good in her.”
You bristle a little. “There was a lot of good in her. She always did what she thought was right.”
“Yeah, even when she was totally wrong.” Stevie hugs you again, releases. “You gotta hit the road, sis, or they’ll catch you. That’s my professional opinion.”
The Diet Crank is warm in your hand. You’ve barely touched it. You put it in the cup-holder, climb into the driver’s seat, and wave goodbye as you pull out of the rut that serves as a road. You steer onto the highway and reach automatically to punch in your destination, only to remember that the mapping is dead and, besides, you don’t know your destination. You see a sign for Fort Worth and turn that way.
Halfway there you hear your name on the radio.
“The search continues for California fugitive Nicole Palmer, wanted for manslaughter in the miscarriage of her third child. Husband Brandon Palmer is worried for her safety.”
Brandon’s shaky voice: “She’s crazy with grief. If I don’t find her, she could do something to hurt herself.”
Something in you hardens at the sound of him. You aren’t crazy and you’ll never hurt yourself. You don’t need his plans or his help.
The announcer’s voice continues: “Meanwhile, in Valley State Prison, Mary MacLean enters day forty of her hunger strike. MacLean, convicted three years ago of manslaughter by miscarriage, is fasting to protest the Supreme Court decision that declared all laws applicable to the preborn–“
You punch the radio off. You’ll keep running for a short while longer, just until you’re strong enough to face what you have to face. Until you’re more like your mother. Strong enough to do the right thing, no matter what.
In Fort Worth you become someone else. New name, new ID. Remembering the depression, the two summers your family spent fruit-picking when you were a kid, you drive through farm country and small towns looking for work off-the-books. When you pass the rundown carnival with its Help Wanted sign, you slow down.
The owner shakes her head, but she hires you.
Spring becomes summer becomes fall: one small town becomes another small town becomes another, until you’re somewhere in Kentucky at yet another streetfair, this one for Halloween. The air smells like leaf mold and wood smoke, and all the pumpkins on the porches wear evil grins.
Your ride’s the roller coaster box, because there’s more to running it than hitting an on/off switch. You stand by the simulator box while long lines of children wait for their turns inside. The box ceases bucking on its hydraulic pumps and you open the door. Four girls climb out, still screaming.
“How was it?” squeaks a perky friend behind the rope.
“Ohmygod! It was so scary!”
“It’s not real.”
“It is too!”
“It’s real as you let it be,” you say, and chivvy them along. The next girls rush inside. You take their ten dollars, buckle them in, and glance over the slate at the coaster ride they designed. You tweak it quickly–lowering one hill, raising another, adding an extra loop near the end, losing yourself in the little details.
“Jessica!” says a voice that sounds like a boot scuffing gravel.
The voice calls the name a second time before you realize she means you and jump. It’s Boss, the old woman who owns the carnival. At first you thought her name was Bess. It took you a week to figure out she doesn’t have a name: she’s just Boss.
“What can I do you for, Boss?” you ask, trying to sound like the other carnies.
“You ain’t supposed to be holding up the line,” Boss says. A cigarette bobs in her tight lips, its flame a little orange buoy on a sea of smoke.
You press the slate into its slot and pass the other one to the next kids in line. The box creaks on its worn hydraulics, rears back, and starts the brief ride.
Boss stares at you for a moment, until your skin starts to twitch. You smile nervously. Finally, she says, “Come see me tonight after lock up.” The ash flies off her cigarette and falls into the dust as she walks away.
You watch her wander down to the whirlygig to talk to the Dixon brothers. The Dixons joined up a couple weeks after you, just out of prison for dealing meth. The taller one leers at you sideways, shaggy mustache flopping as he laughs.
You snap back to work. Most of your co-workers have criminal records like the Dixon brothers. Like you, you remind yourself. So you’ll go see Boss tonight and apologize for screwing up. Then you’ll work harder to fit in.
The machine stops and you yank the door open. “Next,” you growl at the girls inside. “Let’s move.”
The next kids designed a crappy ride. You slam it in the slot without changing a thing.
The simulator shudders into motion.
The stench of stale grease and fireworks fills the air after dark as you walk through the deserted rides and booths. You tap on the door of Boss’s trailer.
“It won’t open itself,” she croaks.
Inside, everything is coated with a nicotine patina. Even the plastic roses have turned from red to brown, blood to scab. Boss sits behind a built-in table, cigarette in her mouth, counting and wrapping the day’s cash. A bottle of Jim Beam whiskey rests in front of her, a revolver sits at her right hand.
“Boss, I know I’m not supposed to, well, change the rides designed by the kids,” you sputter. “But they enjoy it more when I do. And, and they come back–”
“Naw, that ain’t it, you gotta real touch with the kids,” she interrupts, never looking up as her thumb flicks through the bills. “And the parents ain’t scared a you, so that’s bonus, ninety-seven, hold on, ninety-nine, a hunderd.” She wraps it up and tosses it on the pile with others. “Why dontcha go back to him?”
You catch your breath. “Go back to who?”
She snorts so hard it blows the ash off the end of her cigarette. “Your husband, somebody else’s husband, whoever he is.”
You sort through your words carefully like pieces of fruit, trying to find the good ones amid the bad and unripe. “There isn’t anybody.”
“If you say so, honey. What I’m telling you is you think there ain’t anybody like that now but maybe there was, see what I’m saying. I been around, y’know.”
The thought of Boss getting around momentarily stymies you. You hear yourself say, “Sure, I’ll think about it.”
“Good for you, sugarcup. It’s easier to change yourself than it is to change the world. But you think about it quick — we don’t have any more contracts lined up for the season, so I’m gonna start letting folks go tomorrow.” She counts out your wages, then peels a hundred dollar bill off one of the rolls and slides it across the table. “It’s not much, but you go on and take that for luck. You earned it.”
You mumble thanks, pocket the bill, and leave. After the door closes, the weight of the darkness hits you like a truck. You don’t know where to go next.
The Dixon brothers squeeze up on either side, smelling like weed and cheap beer. You clench up so tight you can’t move. The shorter one waves a knife at your throat.
“Thinks she’s too good for us,” he says.
The one with the raggy mustache grinds his crotch on your hip. “You know those good girls — they like to get bad.”
“We know who you are, baby killer,” shorty says. “We saw you on America’s Most Hunted. Those contact lenses, the haircut, that’s bullshit. It doesn’t fool us.”
“Hey, guys.” Your voice cracks. “Don’t do this, okay.”
“Who you gonna call for help?” mustache asks. “We’ll just tell ‘em who you are.”
You’re blind with fear because you know they’re right. Nobody will help you. A little voice in your head whispers survive. They laugh at you so you laugh back, then they shove you toward your camper, and you go through the motions, saying the things they tell you to say, pretending the things they want you to pretend, until shorty puts his knife away and both of them are done. When they invite you to come over to their van for drinks, you hear yourself say that sounds like a hell of a lot of fun, you’ll be right over, and you start making other promises, any promises, until finally they go on ahead without you.
Once they’re gone, you unhook the jeep, set the camper on fire, and smash the valve on the propane tank. You do it fast enough that you know Stevie would be impressed, even though you know she’d never let them do what they did, and she’d never run.
As you speed toward the nearest highway, you keep looking back over your shoulder. The propane tank explodes when you’re just over the horizon, ripping a pumpkin-colored wound across the black sky.
By the middle of the night you’re passing through the rolling hills outside Lexington. The white lines in the road blur together with the miles of white rail fence. Horses run behind those fences. Just like you, no matter how fast or far they run they’re never free.
You circle through the same few states for several weeks, sleeping in the car, not knowing whether you should be afraid that you’re pregnant or hope that you are. You realize you’ve let go of everything except that dream of being a mother. A dozen times you enter a drugstore, pick up a pregnancy test, put it down, and walk away.
In a bathroom in a McDonald’s outside South Bend, Indiana, you finally start to bleed. You squat in the stall so long one of the workers comes in to ask if everything is okay.
“No,” you snap, choking on the words. “No, it’s not.”
The girl returns a few minutes later with her manager, who tells you that they’ll call the police if you don’t leave immediately. You leave.
The gyre of your travels widens, falls apart.
When the painful burning doesn’t stop, you find a doctor’s sign outside a flea market at an old mall in Milwaukee. One of the anchor stores, looming as large as your conscience, has been converted to a Missionary Reform Church just like the one your mother attended. Inflatable pilgrims, decorations for the holiday, flank the entrance. You run between them.
Inside the mall, a narrow storefront is crowded with the other uninsured sick. The doctor — an elderly, gray-haired black woman in a trim, clean suit — walks among them, keying their complaints into an old-style PDA before she sends them to various rooms in back. When she comes to you, you describe your symptoms. You’re too ashamed to mention the rape. The doctor grumbles, then sends you to the very rear, past two women asleep on air mattresses while they receive IV meds. Their breast implants protrude lush and grotesque from emaciated, sore-covered bodies. You guess it’s one of the mutated forms of AIDS. The doctor follows you, has you drop your pants, and takes a quick swab.
You dress again and wait on one of the plastic lawn chairs. A poster on the wall reads “Miscarriage of Justice” and shows a picture of the hunger striker, Mary MacLean, as emaciated as the two women at your feet, just before she died.
The doctor sees you staring at it. “You know,” she says, “Change isn’t always change for the better. Sometimes we take one step forward then two steps back.” She holds the sniffer with the swab up to the light to read it. “You have chlamydia. You’re lucky this time,” she says, tilting her head at the two women with IVs. “It could be a lot worse. Have you ever heard of using condoms?”
“Well, next time listen. Do you know anything about Civil War history?”
“After the Civil War all the slaves were set free, and black people had opportunities they never had before. They could get an education, vote and get elected to office, be full citizens.” While she talks, she rummages through a box of plastic bottles, examining several in turn. “Then white folks started passing Jim Crow laws. They took away the vote. Black people had to use separate schools, separate bathrooms, even separate drinking fountains. Separate and not equal. It took another sixty years of fighting to get back the rights we lost. Well, when I was your age, things looked better for women. Now it’s two steps backwards. A bunch of angry old men stuffed the Constitution in a paper shredder and now an eight-celled blastocyst is a person and has rights but you and I don’t own our own bodies.” She nods toward the poster of Mary McLean, the one you have been deliberately ignoring. “Is something the matter?”
You swallow. “But babies are people — if something happens to a baby before it’s born, then someone has to pay. Women have to be strong because babies aren’t.”
The doctor glances at you, as if she just noticed you, then makes some notes on your chart. You feel more naked than when you were naked.
“A woman can be many different kinds of strong,” she says finally. “Guess you have to decide what kind of strong you want to be.” She scribbles a note on the bottle. “Ignore that expiration date. Just take them all like it says right there, and come back if it doesn’t clear up.”
“I will,” you promise, but you flee her office after you pay, knowing you’ll never come back. You choose the exit farthest from the church and its watchful Pilgrims. The doctor’s visit cost almost the last of your cash. All you have left is the hundred dollar bill Boss gave you for luck. You spend it on fuel and head for the plains.
The jeep dies in Iowa, right after you pass the last town and a few minutes before you could find a tree or rock or wall to crash into. You sit shivering in the cold, waiting for the inevitable trooper to come by so you can turn yourself in. You’ve run out of gas inside too.
When the trooper comes, he zips past at a hundred and twenty miles an hour, his lights flashing. Trouble up ahead, you guess. But then there’s always trouble up ahead.
A silver Airstream glides by on the other side of the divide, speeding the opposite direction, but a few minutes later it’s pulling off the road behind you. They saw you and did a U-turn. An older couple steps out, husband and wife, the type of people who’ve been together so long they’ve started to look like each other — thick in the waist, the same short white hair, matching purple sweatsuits.
“What’s the problem?” the husband asks.
“Battery dead and out of gas,” you say, getting out to greet them. “But I don’t have any money to buy more.”
“That’s okay, we don’t have any to sell,” he says with a laugh.
And his laughter is so genuine and warm, that you laugh too. It’s all so stupid. The wife leans forward, asks, “Where are you going?”
“I don’t know,” you say honestly.
The wife smiles. “Neither do we. Modern day gypsies, that’s what we are.”
Everybody laughs again, and afterward a sigh bubbles out of you. “Thanks so much for stopping. It’s very kind of you. I don’t have a phone, so if you could call the state police–”
“Why don’t I just hitch your jeep up and we’ll tow it behind us?” the husband offers. He glances at his wife. “Just into the next town.”
“That’s a great idea,” she says. Then to you, “If that’s okay?”
You’re tired of making decisions. You don’t even ask where the next town is. “If you really don’t mind.”
“No, we don’t mind,” the couple says together, voices matching like their jackets.
“On Thanksgiving it’s the least we can do,” the wife adds, all rosy cheeks and smiles.
Winter, and after winter, spring.
The couple’s names are Jake and Emily. They’re retired, but they don’t say from what. You don’t talk about yourself much either. But you all talk, all the time, about nothing in particular, and you laugh at everything. At night you play video games together, online or console. The roads roll away beneath you, through Utah to the Moab valley, to New Mexico and Santa Fe, then back north again chasing the flowers as they bloom.
Jake and Emily are nomads. The roads are filled with nomads just like them: from little campers like the one you’d burned, to the sleek old Airstreams, to the massive land yachts, to dirty pillows and wadded blankets in the back of rusty minivans. The nomads are people living without fixed addresses even though they have some fixed ideas. Because they despise the government and the way it wants to keep track of them, they take it for granted that you want no part of the law and never ask you why. The nomads all know each other too, like residents of some sprawling, mobile small town. Someone at every campground recognizes Jake and Emily, or knows someone who knows Jake and Emily.
You become a nomad without even trying. Jake and Emily miss their children and adopt you as an unofficial, honorary daughter. On their word alone, you’re accepted everywhere they go. The phrase “Jake and Emily’s girl” becomes your new passport. You never know why they trust you, and you don’t ask, because you don’t want to jinx it, but you work hard to be worthy of their trust. You sell the jeep to a campground owner in Oklahoma and offer to pay your own way. Jake and Emily let you treat them to one dinner, although they hardly order anything and Jake insists on leaving the tip.
In June you’re passing through Lincoln, Nebraska. Just another town, until you see the streets downtown blocked by crowds of protesters. Helicopters fill the air, film crews and gunships both.
“What’s going on?” you ask.
Jake taps the internet screen on the dashboard. “It’s the anniversary of that Supreme Court decision for the rights of the preborn, the one, uh,” — he hunches forward to read the tiny print — “Nebraska vs. MacClean.”
Emily points at three effigies nailed to crosses, carried by the marchers toward the statehouse. “They shouldn’t be allowed to do that. Why are they doing that?”
“It’s for those three women that starved themselves to death in protest,” Jake says, glancing back and forth from the pictures on the screen to the scene in front of them.
Emily’s mouth curves down like a sickle. “Baby killers who got what they deserved, if you ask me. I had six children and I took care of my body every time. You didn’t see any of my babies dying before they could be born, did you?”
“Nope,” Jake says. He never disagrees with Emily when she rants.
They remind you of your mom and dad during their better days, a memory more sweet than bitter for once. That’s when Brandon’s face appears on the screen. You jab the off button before the reporter can interview him. Emily doesn’t seem to notice, but Jake regards you with a suddenly neutral expression.
One of the government hovercams floats along the road, turning its lens toward the Airstream. You feel exposed, like a rabbit when the shadow of a hawk passes over. Like the rabbit, you stay very, very still.
As soon as the hovercam swivels away, Jake raises his hands like he’s aiming a rifle. “Ought to get my NorCal Nighthawk out and,” he squeezes the mock trigger, “pow!”
Emily frowns. “Can’t you find some quick way out of this mess?”
He points to a spot on the map. “No. Once we started down this road, this is the only place we could end up. We’ll have to just work through it.”
You watch the skies, waiting for the shadow to return.
On July fourth, Independence Day, the nomads gather in the Black Hills of South Dakota to shoot off fireworks and celebrate their freedom. You help Emily sell tee-shirts, and one couple mistakes you for Emily’s daughter. When you start to correct them, Emily shushes you. Other customers know just the right fellow for you. There’s lots of talk about marriage, but there always is around married folks.
“What’s wrong?” Emily asks, sitting in the lawn chair and sipping iced tea as the night falls. The air is so clear out here, it feels like your head is clear for the first time too. The way the stars glitter, it makes you think of souls on their way to heaven.
“I’m kinda tired,” you say.
“Tomorrow morning, some folks are thinking about driving up to see the Crazy Horse statue,” Jake says. “You interested?” As if doing something will help you rest.
“I don’t know,” you answer, still playing the role of the compliant daughter. “Do you two want to go?”
“It’s been years since I saw it,” Emily says. “That was back before those terrorists blew up Mount Rushmore, because we went there too. Remember that, Jakey?”
“Been a long time,” he answers. Then to you, “It’s worth seeing, if you’ve never been there before. Have you ever been there before?”
“No,” you admit.
“That settles it,” Emily says. “That’s what we’ll all do then.”
That night you lay in your fold-out bed, springs prodding your back, listening to Jake and Emily cuddle. They whisper to each other for a long time before they fall asleep. You can’t make out their words, but you know they’re talking about you. You wish you knew what they really think. You’re sure Jake has figured out who you are. He’s no dummy.
The next morning you make the instant coffee and tell them how happy you are to go see Crazy Horse. At the park gate, you meet a whole crowd of nomads. While Jake and some of the other men negotiate a group rate, people have their pictures taken with the Homeland Guards. The nomads like soldiers as a rule, saving their disdain for laws and politicians.
You hang back from the crowd, trying to shrink out of view when you notice two soldiers staring at you. They shift the rifles on their shoulders and walk over to Emily, who glances at you, and then shakes her head vigorously. When she sees you watching, she turns her face away and holds her hand to her mouth to hide what she says to them. One guardsman speaks into his headset, and then they walk over to you with grim expressions on their faces.
“You’ll have to come with us, ma’am,” the first one says. “We’re afraid you’re under arrest.”
You can’t quite find any air to breathe, but in a way you’re glad it’s over. “Oh?” you whisper.
The second one’s stern expression cracks into a grin. “Yes, ma’am. It’s against the law to be as pretty as you are and single.”
They stand on either side of you while Emily takes some snapshots and introduces them as Ian and Javier. You blush, wishing you were dead or very far away. Jake comes back to say the group rates are settled. The bored soldiers tell you goodbye and go back to circulating among the other visitors.
Inside the park, while everyone else browses in the gift shop, you slip out and head for one of the hiking trails. Your legs still feel like jello from your first reaction to the soldiers, so you’re panting by the time you reach the first overlook. You sit on the bench to rest.
The doomed Lakota leader points his massive stone arm out over the arid hills. His enemies had superior numbers and better technology, but he still fought against them. You aren’t sure, but you guess he must have won some battles before the end or else no one would tell stories about him.
You’re thinking that you’re not a hero. You can’t do all the scary stuff your sister Stevie does, you don’t know how to run things like Boss, you don’t even have the education or the strong opinions that doctor in Milwaukee had. You could never do what those hunger strikers did, and starve to death to protest the law. You just want to be with people who love you, with your family. You want to have a family. You’re not brave, and you never have been.
Someone vaguely familiar saunters along, one of the men from the nomad party the night before. You cringe, expecting another game of matchmaker. Your flight instinct kicks in for a second and then evaporates like a drop of water. You didn’t run away from the soldiers, so you’re not going to run away from this. Maybe you’re done running away.
The man hesitates when he sees you notice him. His face has a worn look to it, like his denim jacket. His fingers are stuck in the front pockets of his jeans, and his shoulders kind of fold forward, like wings he’s trying to wrap around himself. He scuffs his cowboy boots in the dirt. You don’t remember his name.
“Uh, hey,” he says. He shuffles forward a step, stares off at the mountain. “I mean, I was just wondering if you, uh, would mind if I, you know, sit down?”
“It’s a long hike up, help yourself.” You slide to the far edge of the bench to make more room.
He sits on the opposite end, leaving a person-sized gap between you. His long legs are half-crooked, like he’s ready to run. “You’re Jake and Emily’s girl, aren’t you?” he says. “Cassandra.”
“Yeah,” you answer, remembering him now. “It’s Lyle, right? You’re a friend of Mike and Ruth, just came up from the Sun Dance.”
Neither of you say anything for a long time. A young couple comes along the trail, pausing long enough to film their three kids against the backdrop of the mountain. The children run ahead, pretending to shoot each other with imaginary bows and arrows.
“Which way do you think he’s pointing?” you ask, tilting your head at the statue.
“Oh, I don’t know. Canada, I reckon. Land of the free, home of his braves.” He has a wry little laugh that you find attractive. “Why’re you asking?”
You shrug. “Just asking.”
“I heard there’s good jobs up in Regina. It’s a boomtown.”
“Is that so?”
“Been thinking about heading that way later if they open up the border again. Maybe even if they don’t. Was just talking to Jake about it. He thought you might be going that way too.” Lyle stares into the far distance, as if he’s trying to see something over the rim of the horizon. His hands stay folded on his lap. “Jake and Emily,” he says, after working up his courage, “they’re good people.”
“The best, both of them.” You mean it too. They probably saved your life. “Mike and Ruth, they’re salt of the earth.”
He nods. “Oh yeah, that they are.”
The silence after is a comfort that you share. The hills are covered with wildflowers, ragged things with rough edges and washed-out colors in thick clusters. Beyond the hills and the statue, a dry wind chases pristine clouds across the vast blue sky, making it appear that Crazy Horse is running. With his hand outstretched, his finger pointing, you realized he is running toward someplace and not away.
And you understand for the first time, that you can be like your mother and do the right thing without doing the thing your mother would have considered right.
It is the last week of December. You grip the door of the ancient pick-up truck as it four-wheels across the plains that bridge the northern states and southern provinces. Without a road in sight, you and Lyle make your way through a swirling snowstorm that keeps the military planes out of the air and covers up your tracks behind you as you go.
The faint smell of gasoline churns your stomach. Several milk jugs of it are stored under the cab in back, along with your sleeping bags, which is pretty much everything that both of you own in the world. You play with the radio dial, but only static comes from the tinny speakers, the sound equivalent of the snow outside.
Lyle clutches the steering wheel with both hands, leaning forward to look through the windshield. He can be so gentle and clumsy at the same time, full of old hurts, still searching for himself and looking everywhere but in his own heart. You won’t say that you love him, but he’s a good man.
“You feeling better now?” he asks. He reaches for your leg and you flinch. He pretends not to notice, rests his hand on the seat between you instead.
You spread your fingers on your stomach. It’s been twelve weeks and your morning sickness is getting worse. You can barely keep down your peanut butter sandwich. “Much better.”
The truck jolts up and down, struggles out of a ditch, and climbs the next long, low hill. You glance over at the side mirror to see how far you’ve gone but it’s turned so you can’t see the reflection.
“Shit,” Lyle says. Worry strains his voice. “We’re in deep trouble if we get stuck out here, Cassie. I’m sorry for getting you into this. I’d understand if you hated me–”
“No.” You rest one hand on top of his. Summertime and butterflies stir in your stomach. “We’re going to be fine.”
You can tell he doesn’t believe you.
That’s when you have a sudden vision of a sunny morning five, ten, fifteen years down the road: you’ll be standing in the kitchen beside the pictures on the refrigerator, breathing in the scent of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, when there’s a knock on the door. It’ll be men with guns and warrants. You’ll ignore the cams hovering over their shoulders and ask if you can call Lyle to have him pick up the kids from school, and then you’ll go off in handcuffs with your head held high. Maybe you can’t be a hero, maybe you can’t change the world, but you’ll have changed your own life. Lyle and the kids will cry and be numb for a time, but they’ll find some way to cope while you go off to prison.
You squeeze his rough hand.
“It won’t be easy,” you promise. This is your life sentence. “It won’t be easy, but everything will turn out fine.”
C.C. Finlay is the author of four novels and a short story collection. His work has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Sidewise, and Sturgeon awards and he was a John W. Campbell Award finalist in 2003. He lives with his wife, novelist Rae Carson, and two sons.