Sarah Richards




SARAH richards




In Mother and Father’s room, the walls are clean and white according to the regulations, but interrupted here and there by photos of Mother, photos of Father, photos of Mother and Father. In one picture, her usually limp brown hair and his long salt-and-pepper waves are messy and windswept; their plump bodies squeezed into bright yellow rain jackets with “Maid of the Mist” written across their chests. They huddle close like two lemons in a fruit bowl, their faces stunned, while the waves crash down all around them.

Mother and Father were granted two days in that waterfall honeymoon place, just before they got me. Before that they’d been on the Pre-Pod list, which technically means they’re In Training but everyone knows it actually means not a chance. The Pod Squad ranked their Parenthood Suitability as 4/10 because of Mother’s history of Ban Breaking. When Mother promised to enter the Rehabilitation Program, they got bumped up to Pod Pending.

Mother says getting me was a miracle. Even though everyone stopped believing in God when the Great Pandemic spread and the state took control of reproduction, she said she had to believe in something.

A glossy, black binder that I haven’t seen before sits on Mother’s side table. White curly letters in a loopy script crowd the front, forming a weird long word: CONGRATULATIONS. I run my finger over the letters. Inside is a list of measurements and characteristics. Hair: blond. Lips: O-Natur-el. Special: freckles. There’s the picture of me at five years old—harvesting age. I know it’s me because I’m the only one around here with those dots on my face. Why anyone would actually choose to spoil a face like that is a mystery to me.

Eve-4768 would’ve had the same specs on her order sheet, only “hair wave” would appear under “special” because her Father could afford it on his government salary. And she’d have Tyrian Purple for her lip color. Eve-4768 always purses those lips when she wants to piss me off, like today when she swung her Father’s transmitter in front of me in the bathroom at school. She said if I got her some Luv she’d give me a turn projecting a message with it.

Setting the binder back down on the side table, I can’t recall the last time I sat in here. Nothing looks very different. Clothes are still strewn all over Mother and Father’s bed and over the backs of chairs. The grunts and groans of machinery from the Pod Plant down the street are still loudest on this side of the house. The Pod Squad just visited Eve- 4768’s house last week and now she has three brothers instead of two.

I open the closet door and burrow under the row of Father’s hanging black uniforms, where I used to hide when I first arrived at this house. Back when I was five years old and fresh out of the Pod Plant I was a lot smaller. Now the uniforms tickle the top of my head. My elbow brushes against something. It’s a red bag that someone has tried to hide in the corner, under some dirty laundry. A brown shoe pokes out. It’s miniature, comical, with pink flowers and the word ROBEEZ written inside. I shake the bag upside down and a matching shoe spills out, along with an assortment of tattered clothing, also pink, tiny, and absurd. I finger the leather of the shoe and put it up to my nose. It smells like mold and something sweet, like the special lotion that Mother and Father put on their bodies when it’s sunny outside.

A car pulls into the driveway and there’s a low hum from the garage door rising. I imagine Mother tapping her fingers on the steering wheel in time with the music that comes out of the speakers. Her head moves back and forth and she sings when she knows the words.

An alarm beeps as she enters the house. I shove everything back into the red bag and get up so fast that I upset Father’s uniforms. A pair of pants falls to the carpet and a hanger bounces off my head and rolls across the floor. When I bend down to pick it up, I notice one of those ROBEEZ shoes has rolled into the corner of the closet. I run my fingertips over its leather one more time and then shove it in my pocket.

Downstairs, I hug Mother tight. She’s stiff, but I’m determined, my suspicions growing. When I feel the bump under her shirt, I pull away like it’s hot to the touch. I search her face for a clue, the same way I search it daily for more than a casual “hello.” But she’s just as tight-jawed as usual, a dozy look on her face like the waterfall is crashing down around her again and the noise is lulling her to sleep.

When Father gets home, we sit down to dinner. It’s canned bean salad and some meat pie again for her and Father—the second night in a row. I take pills, but Mother insists that we spend the dinner hour together at the table. She calls it “quality time,” and we’re expected to discuss the events of the day. But, lately, I simply watch them try to spear foul-smelling, colorful food items in total silence.

Father’s even more sullen than usual today. And clumsy. He spills the bowl of beans, drenching the white tablecloth. No one moves except me. “I’ll get it.”

The vinegary salad dressing drips onto Mother’s lap and she doesn’t move. “Mother. Your lap.”

Her shoulders bounce a little, but she stays seated. She says in an even tone, “Oh. Lord. What a mess.”

Father starts to dab at the spill with a paper napkin. I run to the hall closet and come back with a towel. He takes it from me and hands it to Mother. “Sharon, here.”

He picks up the bowl to dry underneath, but it’s slippery and his fingers can’t get a good grip. It falls out of his hand and lands on my foot. I make no sound, but the bowl does as it rolls off my toes and onto the wooden floor. The thudding noise jolts Mother and Father out of their stupor. “Oh my God. I’m so sorry dear!” Father yells and grabs me in a tight embrace.

Mother stands up, smelly bean salad juice trickling down her leg. She puts a hand on Father’s arm, coaxing it away from me. “She can’t, Jonathan. She can’t.” Then they both look at me like they’re scared of me.

I feel an urge to cradle my foot and grimace, the way I’ve seen Father do when he stubs his toe on the coffee table. There’s a strange sensation in my chest. The way I might feel if I were crushed by a bookshelf or hit by car. We’re programmed not to feel pain, but occasionally there’s a kind of vibration in my body when I picture how Mother and Father would experience the pain.

When I begin rubbing my foot, Father says quickly, “Are you hurt?” Mother’s eyes meet mine for a brief moment.

“No,” I say. She looks away.

At school, my teacher takes me aside and warns me to practice “willful restraint.” It has come up a few times in class, my “propensity to emote.” I shouldn’t contemplate reactions or feelings, but merely deal with the consequences as they unfold. I haven’t mentioned my mother’s pregnancy, but my teacher says I have a “faraway look.” All Pod children, he explains, should react to a set of variables in equal measure. When I say, “What about the Older Generations?” he shakes his head and tells me that such a question should never be asked. If I continue to have such thoughts “about OGs and life in general,” he says, then I should squeeze them out when I sleep. He uses some words I’d never heard of, like “treason” and “faulty wiring.”

Eve-4768 pulls the transmitter out from under her pink canopy bed. Before she slides it across the flowery bedspread to me, she makes me pinky swear I’ve got the Luv.

Gripping the plastic box, I stare at the glass screen as it blinks impatiently.

Two words form in my mind and they pop up on the screen in little bursts—“your”—“secret”—but my heart’s beating so hard, my knees begin to shake. I pull the device away from my body to disconnect.

“Are you sure this thing can’t be traced?” I say.

“Hello?! That’s the whole point of it. Have you forgotten what my dad does? Anyways, hurry it up, he’s gonna be home soon.”

I hug the transmitter like I’ve seen Mother hug a pillow when she watches an old movie. The machine is bigger and clunkier than I expected. Eve-4768’s dad does contract work for the state, but since he’s an OG they probably gave him an outdated model.

“Your secret…” I stop again. I focus my mental energy on devising the perfect message. Short, snappy, serious.

It comes to me. “Your secret isn’t safe.”

I blink twice to disconnect.

It’s over in just four words. I scan to make sure my name doesn’t appear anywhere on the screen. Eve-4768 snatches the transmitter back, her long purple nails dig into its plastic grooves. I don’t even have a chance to delete the message before she’s read it and scowled.

“What secret?”

I grab for the transmitter, but she shoves it in her back pocket.

“What’s going on? What’s who hiding?” she demands.

“We had a deal.”

Eve-4768 is momentarily distracted. “Yeah, so hand it over.”

Rooting through my backpack, I dig out the half package of laboratory-grade Luv.

She would do just about anything for a breath of it. When she rips it away from me, she grasps it with two hands and presses her nose against the plastic baggy, her eyes following the white swirly vapors swimming around inside. Her lips tremble with anticipation. She fingers the mouthpiece, where she’ll suck her brains out later.

On the way to her front door, she says, “I’ll find out. There are no secrets.”

From her porch stairs, I turn to wave at Eve-4768 and it’s like I’m saying goodbye to a mirror. She doesn’t wave back. Her regular-sized eyebrows have collapsed into a frown, her medium eyes, perfectly symmetrical, have pinched closed to a glare.

I told her no questions and now it looks like I’ll need to get my hands on some more Luv to keep her quiet. Luckily Father sells the stuff to the OGs for a living. But if they knew a Pod kid was breathing part of his stash, he’d get fired and lose his pension.

My mind goes back to the message. Mother’s tired eyes will read it and then close. She’ll run her stubby fingers through her hair, the way she does when Father tells us about losing another client. And then her face will get all blotchy because the OGs suffer from all sorts of problems with their complexion. And obesity. I can just see her flabby cheeks and double chin trembling under the weight of yet more bad news.

Walking down Eve-4768’s street, I try not to notice how her house stands out against the others because of its two-car garage. And how their new top floor peeks out over the lawns and swimming pools and expensive cars of the neighborhood, with views of those shiny buildings downtown. But how can I not, when in my neighborhood houses don’t exactly soar upwards, but struggle not to fall over and the pavement is cracked and garbage clogs the gutters. Perhaps Pod children in my neighborhood are preset to notice different aspects of house and road construction. Why else would I make these observations?

The houses, although similar in appearance—vinyl-sided, pastel-colored, sharp-edged, box-shaped—get smaller as I approach my neighborhood. As I turn onto my street and get to my yard, I see that Mother’s broken the Bans again. She hasn’t shut her bedroom curtain and the naked window peers out like an open eye, watching me.

The machine runs my fingerprints, the front door clicks open, and my feet take me upstairs as fast as possible to the curtains. We’re not likely to be spot-visited, but being so close to the Pod Plant means a certain amount of traffic passes down this street. The last thing we need right now is to attract attention. Mother and Father haven’t had an inspection in years because they haven’t requested any more Pod children. Since they ignore housework and maintenance, our old house ages more rapidly than any of my friend’s houses.

As I lower the blinds in Mother and Father’s bedroom, I notice through the window that they’ve pruned the rose bushes a bit to comply with the regulations. And they manage to mow the lawn frequently enough to quash the troops of invading buttercups that defile the purity of the green grass. Mother always says, “What’s the point? We all know they’re under there and aren’t they pretty anyways?” But efficiency beats out beauty, and all we can do is hope that one day the buttercups can be cut out from beneath the skin of the earth, just like the baby in Mother’s stomach.

“Your secret isn’t safe.”

I replay the message in my head. I go over and over what I’ve done; what it’s up to Mother to do now.

A picture hangs in Mother and Father’s en suite bathroom. Mother picked it up at the table in the flea market, back in the days when old things were still around. She grabbed the photo, chipped wooden frame and all, and went to that faraway place; the same place she’s been for the past few months. Now I look at the little people in the picture with their rolls and wrinkles, ugly expressions on their faces, all huddled in clay flowerpots. The name ANNE GEDDES is written below in perfectly spaced block letters. I sound it out. A-nee. Ged-dees. The words astonish me as they claw their way out of my mouth and my cheeks grow warm. Along with “willful restraint,” my teacher also warned me to “quell curiosity.”

At the flea market, Mother tried to explain about babies, but she started to cry. It wasn’t a big outpouring of emotion, like you see in those old movies, but a slow, rhythmic shaking that stopped suddenly when she caught me staring.

She wasn’t crying last night when I heard her and Father whispering in the kitchen. Hushed, excited voices.

“How is this possible? You were sterilized with everyone,” Father said.

“It’s a miracle,” she said in an eager voice.

“How can you even deliver a baby?”

“They still have doctors.”

“But where?”

“There’s a house.”

Now that she’s received my warning today, she’ll have to think twice. Eve-4768 told me about a couple in her neighborhood that got a hold of a natural baby. They thought they could hide it because they were rich. She didn’t know where the baby came from and I’m not sure if she even saw it, or if anyone has actually seen a real baby aside from ANNE GEDDES. Eve-4768 said that one day the entire family just vanished. The house, too, was torn down and rebuilt, foundations and everything. It was as if the ground were contaminated and the infection had to be cut out of the earth like the buttercups.

I wake in the dead of night to scuffling noises, like the sound of furniture or luggage moving. Or Mother going on a journey and the authorities taking care of her problem. I fall back asleep easily.

In the morning, down for breakfast, I expect a nervous Father explaining away Mother’s short vacation. Thoughts swirl through my head. I bet he’ll use old sick Aunt Hilda as an excuse. Instead I see blotchy red skin and tired, shriveled eyes. He looks the way he did when he told us he’d been demoted to sales manager at Pharmaceuticals.

Turning around, I run up the stairs, taking two at a time. In Mother’s room, a duffel bag sits motionless on the bed.

Father is behind me, out of breath. “We need to talk.” He wheezes.

“Where is Mother?”

The phone in my pocket beeps. The screen says, “Eve-4768 incoming,” but there’s no message to follow, just her name. I’m surprised she got that far.

Father crumples into a chair. I can’t take my eyes off the duffel bag, like it will somehow bring her back. Like it can go back in time and erase that transmitter message. I notice that her side table is empty. The black binder is gone. I go to the bed and unzip the duffel bag and feel for it inside. The strange word CONGRATULATIONS emerges from within the folds of canvas.

When I pull the binder out, my order sheet falls out and onto the floor and my perfect five-year-old face stares up at me. The bag sits on the bed limp and hollow: the binder was the only thing she packed.

The Geddes babies watch me from the en suite bathroom, their revolting faces seem different from this angle. In the bathroom I feel the softness of the shower mat beneath my feet. Staring at those little pot babies, I chant the name ANNE GEDDES over and over again. A-nee. Ged-dees. A-nee. Ged-dees. Then I grab the picture and smash it on the floor, stomping on the glass with my bare foot. Blood smears the flowers, the terra cotta planters, and the chubby cheeks. I don’t feel any physical discomfort, save for the urgency to clean up this blood and broken glass. But I don’t.

Instead I take the whole mess to the closet, leaving a trail of red blood behind me on the carpet. I drop the frame, the babies, and the glass shards onto the floor next to the red bag. Then I sit down under Father’s uniforms and wait. Uw


Sarah Richards_bio_photo

Sarah Richards has been a professional writer for over a decade—everything from ghostwriting to blog writing and travel writing to technical writing. For the past five years, she has explored publishing from the other side of the table, as a professional editor and freelance project manager. She reads manuscripts as a member of the PRISM International editorial board, and is working on her first novel while pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Her list of publications is available at


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