“One of these tests says ‘Cull,’” Bob-with-the-beard said, scrutinizing Aimee’s file. “Antoine’s not going to like that.”
I started to open my mouth to give Bob a piece of my mind, but Ann cut me off with a look. “It’s a known false positive effect,” she said. “Caused by a minor mitochondrial mutation. The next page shows the follow-up test that confirms a zero indication of susceptibility.”
Bob nodded and smiled. “It’s probably fine,” he said unconvincingly. “Anyways, the rest of your papers look to be in order. Health records, résumé, bank statements, letters of reference. Just a couple of quick questions before I take this back to show Antoine.”
Ann looked over at me, as though asking me permission to go on, her eyes begging me not to give it. Aimee squirmed in my arms. I nodded to Ann, she nodded to Bob.
“Okay, do you have any first aid training?”
“I’m a nurse,” Ann said, pointing at the résumé in Bob’s hand.
“Oh, right, sorry. Okay, do you know how to use a gun?”
“Yeah,” Bob smiled again. “It’s pretty easy. Point it at what you want to die.”
“Grindhouse,” I said.
Bob just blinked before addressing Ann again. “Are you willing to have more children?”
“No,” Bob said. “After. They’re our future you know. We need all the kids we can get.”
Ann looked at me again, bit her lip. For a second I thought she might cry. I’ve hardly ever seen her cry. “I guess so.”
“Good,” Bob said. The look in his eyes made me want to slug him. If I hadn’t been holding my two-year-old daughter I might have. Sizing up my wife while I was standing right there. I’m not dead yet.
Bob looked over his shoulder and called out to a little girl who was playing with some rocks by the toolshed. “Ingrid, could you help me for a minute?”
The girl bounced up and skipped over, pigtails scatterswaying behind her. “Hi!”
Ann knelt down, glowing. “Hi Ingrid, I’m Ann. How old are you?”
“I’m four! I have a brother, but he’s only two. He’s sleeping.”
“This is Aimee,” Ann said. “She’s two, too.”
“Ingrid,” Bob said. “Mrs. Lindon and her daughter are thinking about joining us on the farm. Maybe you could show them around the place a little while I talk to Mr. DuBoix?”
“Okay! Come on! I’ll show you the stables!”
I put Aimee down on the grass so that she could toddle off after Ingrid. I took Ann’s hand and gave it a squeeze as we followed behind at a slower pace. She glanced behind to make sure that Bob was out of earshot and then did her best impression. “We got a lot of Bob’s round here. Everyone calls me Bob-with-the-beard.”
I laughed, feeling the tension wash out of me. “Wait ’til you meet Big Balding Bob and Belching Bob from Bombay.”
She grinned, watching Ingrid, who had turned to wave at Aimee. Aimee waved back, said “Hi! Hi! Hi!” and broke into a spastic two-year-old run. Within five steps she tripped on a clump of dirt and went tumbling head over heels. I let go of Ann’s hand and started towards her but Ann’s hand on my shoulder stopped me. “She’s fine.”
And of course she was. She picked herself up and started running again without even looking back. She doesn’t need me. This is a mantra. She doesn’t need me. Aloud I said, “So what do you think?”
“Seems like a nice enough place to raise a child. Remote. You might not even notice if society collapsed.”
She always said “if.” I always said “when.” We each have our own ways of coping. We caught up with the girls at the entrance to the stable. The broad red door was on well-greased sliders and Ingrid opened it easily. We stepped into the musty interior and were greeted by the large round eyes of a dozen healthy horses in their stalls. The sweet smell of oats and hay drifted down from above and I found myself nostalgic for some storybook version of my childhood in the country. I reached out and patted the nearest mare on the neck. I fell into a brief trance and was only awoken by Ingrid’s voice.
“You’re going to die in The Cull?”
I hesitated for the briefest second. I always had to remind myself that talking about the End of the World was so natural for this generation. “Well,” I said. “Unless they find a cure.”
“They won’t,” Ingrid informed me.
“I suppose not,” I said. No one really held out much hope at this point. No real progress in fifteen years made the odds of a miracle in the next two seem pretty slim.
“Are you scared?”
“No.” I said, for Aimee’s sake.
“Horse!” Aimee said suddenly and we all clapped and agreed. “That’s right, horse!”
Ann cast me a meaningful look that I couldn’t entirely decode. She scooped Aimee up in her arms and said, “Let’s go outside and get some fresh air.”
A tall black man in jeans and a plain white sweater — maybe sixty years old, but his back still straight and strong — was standing on the front steps of the house when we came back out. He was holding Ann and Aimee’s file in his hand.
“Antoine,” he said, shaking first Ann’s hand, then mine.
“Pleased to meet you.”
“This must be Aimee,” he said, reaching out one hand with long thin fingers. She giggled and grabbed his index finger.
“I love her hair,” he said. “So curly.”
“That’s Ann’s side of the family,” I said.
“She’s absolutely precious.” Antoine put a hand on top of Ingrid’s head. “Why don’t you run inside, chérie. I think your mama needs some help with lunch.”
As soon as Ingrid was gone, his face turned businesslike. “I’m afraid I have some bad news though.”
“This is bullshit,” I burst out immediately. “It’s a known false positive. Read the fucking literature, the people who made the test know all about it.”
“Mr. Lindon,” Antoine raised and lowered one hand in a calming gesture. “It’s not Aimee’s blood test. I’m a doctor. I’m familiar with the limitations.”
“What is it then?” Ann asked, her voice low.
“You’ve got the Sickle Cell trait.”
“What?” Ann was incredulous. “I mean, I know. So what? Aimee doesn’t. We had her tested. And tons of people have the trait. It’s harmless unless you get it from both parents. You could have it and you wouldn’t even know until you got tested.”
“Ann,” Antoine said. “I do. That’s just it.”
I was boiling over: This man was going to deny my family refuge because he wasn’t genetically compatible with my wife.
“Thank you,” Ann said coldly, before I could let it out.
“It’s not like that,” Antoine said. “My children are grown. I’m not having any more. But you will. And they will. And one sick child could be the difference between this commune thriving or dying.”
“Thank you,” Ann said again.
“I’m sorry,” Antoine said. “There are plenty of other communes.”
“And, I know you don’t want to think about this, but there’s one more thing I wanted to say.”
“If you and your husband wanted to place Aimee with us, we would be willing to do that. We have adopted a few others already.”
“No,” Ann said quickly. “I mean, no thank you.”
“I know. I understand. I just wanted to put it out there.”
I remember the day Ann got her test results. She had avoided it for so long. It had rapidly become clear in the months after The Cull was discovered that it was going to get pretty much everyone. Why would you want to know for sure?
Me, I’d stood in line to get tested the first day my town got a stock of primers. I was sixteen and thought that having a death sentence might impress Stacey Jones enough to get me to third base. It didn’t.
When I’m playing what-if, more than anything else, I wonder what if Ann had gotten tested before we ever met. What Clear in their right mind would let themselves fall in love with a Cull? I wouldn’t have gotten a first date.
It was the same day she found out she was pregnant. It was part of the standard battery of prenatal tests. The result came in a little white envelope, easy enough to throw out without opening. In theory.
“You didn’t have to read it,” I’d said when she broke the news that night.
“Yes,” she’d said. “I did. The baby.”
“I’m keeping this baby,” she’d said. “We’re keeping this baby. Don’t even think of saying we’re not.”
“We’re not,” I’d said immediately. “Are you insane? You want to bring a child into this? A world waiting around to die.”
“Everyone’s always been waiting around to die. Humanity is going to go on. I want us to be a part of it. I want you to be a part of it.”
“What if it’s a Cull?”
“They’ll do a cord blood test at 18 weeks. If it comes back Cull, we’ll talk about it then. But only if it comes back Cull.”
And that was that.
Of course, she was right. Humanity will go on. That’s the point. That’s what drove those fanatics to engineer The Cull in the first place. A ticking viral timebomb built to spread like wildfire, infect everyone, and sit there totally benign. And then, one day, it would turn on 98% of the planet at once, choosing them by semi-random characteristics in their mitochondrial DNA. Save us from ourselves, they said in the broadcast no one would ever forget. Population control.
They were captured, of course, tortured, who knows what. But crazy or no, they’d done it right. The Cull was a nut the world’s top bioengineers just couldn’t crack. It was coming.
Once the truth sunk in, the only question that remained was: What about the Clears?
Crime went up, birth rates went down, oil futures soared and then plummeted, interest rates went through the roof. But, except for a brief spate of suicides, life went on. People went to work, bought groceries, read the paper, got sick, got better, got married. Some of them even had kids.
From that day twenty years ago when I read “Cull,” I always knew I would never be a parent. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong. I just wish I knew how to cram a lifetime of fatherhood into four short years.
It was a five-hour drive back to Toronto from Antoine’s farm. I fumed in silence for most of the way, almost uncheered even by Aimee’s refrain, “I saw a horse. I saw a horse.”
Once we were home and Aimee was sleeping, Ann and I sat on the couch just holding each other.
“I hate those places,” she said finally. “Why do we bother? I wouldn’t be able to leave you even when the time came.”
“I love you,” I said. “But I’ll make you go. For Aimee. If you won’t leave, I will.”
“We can just stay together,” she said. “The three of us. See what happens.”
“It’s going to get me one way or another,” I said for the thousandth time, “and I won’t have you two be alone.”
“We’re going to be alone no matter what.” She burrowed into my chest. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t say that.”
I held her tighter.
“What about your father?” Ann asked. “He has that place outside Ottawa. Maybe we could just stay with him.”
“My father’s seventy-eight. He’ll be dead before the Cull even comes. There are more communes. We’ll keep looking.”
Ann was silent for a long time. I watched the wind tug at the tree branch outside our window.
“Jen sent me some information about a good commune in British Columbia. They’re looking for more medical professionals specifically.”
“What’s your sister doing looking into survival communes?” I could hear the edge in my voice. “She doesn’t think we can take care of ourselves?”
Ann sat up on the couch, putting a gulf of several inches between us. “Give her a break. Not every Cull can take it as well as you.”
I clenched my fists in my hair. “You think I’m taking this well?”
Ann put a hand on my leg and her voice softened. “I do. Oh, Paul, I do. You’re the strongest person I know. If it was me I’d be a mess. Worse than Jen. I’m sorry I made us do this.” She gestured down the hall to where Aimee lay sleeping. “All of this. It wasn’t fair to you. It was selfish.”
“Don’t ever say that,” I said, pulling her close, closer. She squeezed her eyes tight against my shoulder.
“Let’s go to B.C.,” I said. “We’ll go this weekend.”
I was at work the next day when I got the phone call. Aimee was at the police station. I could hear her screaming in the background.
I nearly caused at least three accidents on the way across town. She was still screaming when I got there. I grabbed her so tight, running my hand through her curls, kissing her forehead until she blinked through the tears long enough to say “Daddy” and then fall asleep in my arms.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I took her in with me when I went in to identify the body.
It was. In retrospect there must have been something around her head, holding in the blood and brains from where the back of her skull was missing, but I can’t remember that at all. I just remember how serene and alive she looked. Like she might wake up at any second.
I began to cry, huge wracking sobs. Aimee woke up and started crying as well. The cops rushed me out, but not before Aimee saw the body. “Mommy. Mommy come with us.”
She’d been at the bank, they told me. There was a botched robbery. The bullet that hit her was from the gun of the security guard. He was seventy years old and had never before had to draw his weapon on duty. He wanted to talk to me.
He was a mess. “I know,” I said, Aimee sleeping again in my arms. “Yes. I’m sorry. Thank you. I know. I’m sorry.”
I just wanted to get out of there. But before I could, a police psychiatrist cornered me. “Your daughter was right there when it happened,” he said. “She’s going to be in shock. I want to give you some numbers you can call.”
I laughed. I didn’t know what else to do. “The whole fucking world’s in shock,” I said on my way out the door.
“Where we going?”
Pine trees flashed by on both sides of the road. I glanced in the rearview mirror to meet Aimee’s eye in her car seat.
“We’re going to see the horses, honey.”
“Is mommy there?”
“No, honey. I’m sorry.”
“I miss her.”
The sun was just starting to touch the tops of the drumlins.
“Are we almost there?”
“Almost, honey. Just another twenty minutes or so.”
I saw brake lights up ahead. Traffic slowed to a crawl. A car accident, three vehicles. From the looks of it, a few more early culls.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said.
I glanced at the adoption paperwork on the passenger seat. It was better to do it now, I told myself over and over. I crushed the steering wheel in my hands, powerless. If she was lucky she wouldn’t even remember me to hate me. Wouldn’t remember any of this.
We reached the turn-off for Antoine’s farm. The car bumped along the gravel road, pines tight on both sides. We crested the final hill directly into the crimson sunset. Someone was just bringing the horses in from pasture.
“Look honey,” I said. “Horses.”
I looked in the rearview mirror. Aimee’s chin was flopped down on her chest, the buckles of her car seat holding her upright. She breathed a deep peaceful breath.
F. Campagna writes from Toronto, Ontario. This is his first published story.