"Is father in?" I ask Althea the morning after Adam's visit to the Birthing Unit. The elderly woman jumps, startled by my sudden, and unexpected arrival. Normally I wouldn't be here on a Friday, and certainly not in the morning. I'm normally performing early morning check-ups on Chloe in the morning, and spending the time in between with the other Birthmothers, playing games and chatting lazily about what a certain birthmother had said or how much they hated the caretakers (present company excluded), or what they wanted to get reassigned when they were done here. Simple mindless chatter that was starting to make me realize that there were varying levels of how much the birthmothers could feel. Some girls, like Moria and Shea, were standard citizen material. These girls only had mild heightened emotion because they had been taken off of the pill. They had vaguely grasped the concept of complex emotions, but were still unaware of the depths it could go to. They still liked to talk of meaningless things, and their bonds with the other girls were still unbelievably shallow. No doubt when they were finished producing and were put back on the pill, these friendships would melt away for them and it wouldn't be long until they had even forgotten most of the others, and perhaps of what it was like to be a birthmother.
Then there were girls like Grace and Doreen, girls that could really feel things, could really bond with people, but were scared of what that meant, and therefore buffered themselves on how deep their emotions went. Grace especially went to great lengths to keep herself from being someone any less than "normal". Her constant fretting about the rules, how she always tried to change the subject to more "acceptable" topics, how little she tried to pay attention to her product growing inside of herself. I was finding out she was trying to force herself to be what the Community expected her to be. It seemed also that now that her own time of production was drawing near, and this being her last product, she was trying harder than ever to reign in her emotions and prepare herself to readjust back to community life, where emotions were not a part of everyday life. Or at least the emotions she felt weren't.
Then, lastly, there were girls like Anna, girls that had somehow glitched (that was the only way I could describe what happened to us) even before she had been assigned Birthmother and was now experiencing the full range of complex human emotions. Anna and I and people like us were feeling things we didn't even have names for. We are the people who couldn't adjust to life on the pill, who just knew things weren't right, people who had to try, really try, to appear as unfeeling and apathetic as everyone else. I had mastered it, I'd been practicing it since I was fourteen, perhaps even sooner, I can remember feeling different as a kid and trying my hardest not to let that feeling show. Anna on the other hand seems to be having trouble. Most of the time she seem as logical and unfeeling as the rest of them, but on occasion, her feelings get the best of her and she snaps.
It makes me worry about her future.
But I won't think about this now. I'm not here to discuss how much the birthmothers can feel, my father has no time for that. I'm here to discuss Chloe. And the possibility of having her replace Althea, who desperately needed to be transferred to the House of the Old.
"Yes he is" Althea responds, shuffling some papers on her desk "But he's very busy"
I had no idea what my father did all day, he was forbidden from talking about it with anyone, even his family unit, but it sure kept him busy all the time.
"I don't care if he's busy Althea, buzz him and tell him Cael is here, and it's imperative that I see him."
Althea's eyes get wide, and her mouth fall open. I've frightened the old woman, immediately I feel bad. Althea is a kind woman, albeit an unfeeling one. I keep forgetting that just because she works with my father on a daily basis doesn't mean she has anymore heightened feeling than a typical citizen. She's probably still on the pill, though she probably no longer even gets stirrings. Citizens aren't allowed to stop the pill to they enter the House of the Old.
"I'm sorry Althea; I didn't mean to get irritable." I speak to her soothingly, using the same voice I'd use to calm down a frightened child during an examination. I see her shoulders relax a little, though she's still looking at me wearily. "I apologize for speaking irritably at you and not paying you the respect you deserve." I chant the proper apology. Immediately Althea's smile returns and she brightens.
"I accept your apology Cael" she chants back "Here let me announce you to Gowyr."
"I appreciate that"
She reaches forward and presses the button near her monitor and I hear the speaker click on. "Receiver sir?" Althea calls into the speaker. Like usual there is a short silence, probably my father trying to reach the speaker. I heard another light click and then my father's deep, reassuring voice "Yes Althea? What is it?"
"I apologize for bothering you sir" Althea says, frowning. My father cuts her off.
"No need to apologize Alethea. You never bother me."
Althea looks gratified and continues, "Sir, Cael the pediatrician is here and he wishes to speak to you" she pauses uncertainly and then adds, "He says it's urgent."
"Tell him to wait outside. I will be there shortly."
"Yes sir. Thank-you for your instructions." Alethea chants, I feel it's another required response that Alethea was taught. She clicks the speaker off and starts shuffling papers again "He'll be with you shortly." She says.
I can hear him you know. I find myself thinking with a chuckle. "Thank-you Alethea."
"You're welcome" Alethea replies, pulling out a specific paper from the stack and placing it on top "Do you mind if I ask what this is about."
I can't tell her yet; I don't want to get her hopes up. There is no guarantee Father will agree to this, that he will even consider it, but I have to try. Chloe deserves better than the life of a laborer, she deserved a better life than a Birthmother. She had the dispositions and the qualities fit for a more prestigious job…. and yet…why? Why had they stuck her in an assignment so below her?
I've always had the feeling there was more going on around here than they tell us…but I never had any proof, and I wasn't going to go accusing anyone if I didn't have evidence. Good evidence that would convince the people to side with me.
Alethea is looking at me expectantly, waiting for my answer. So I smile at her "It's about a Birthmother" I tell her "I'm seeking his advice on how to handle a delicate situation."
"Oh" Alethea looks a little disappointed but shrugs and turns her attention back to her papers "I understand."
A moment later my father appears out of his room, looking even more annoyed than usual "What is it Cael?" he grumbles "This better be good. I'm in no need for pointlessness today."
"Father" I say lightly "I'm nearly an adult now. I don't think you need to worry about pointlessness with me anymore."
My father snorts "Let me be the judge of that" he snaps.
"But you were not put in the Justice department. Therefore you can not judge."
"Cael must you be so…" Father frowns, searching for the right word.
"Be so what?" I ask. Father sighs, rather loudly and shakes his head.
"Never mind." He says, waving his hand. "What is it you want to talk to me about?"
"Actually" I say, glancing over Alethea, jotting stuff down on her paper. "Can we speak in private? It's of a…. delicate matter."
Father sighs again, as if this has been nothing but a big bother to him. Finally he looks over at Alethea "Alethea, could you go check and see if the Committee needs anything?"
Alethea looks up from her papers, confused "But wouldn't they call if they needed something?" she asks.
"Not if they are busy."
"Right" Alethea nods "Right away sir. Thank you for your instructions." Shakily she gets to her feet and starts to hobble toward the door.
"Do you need help?" Father asks her, looking concerned. Alethea shakes her head.
"I'm fine" she says reassuringly. I watch as she opens the door and makes her way outside, limping. Her health was deteriorating quickly. The sooner she could retire the better.
"Father, she's to old for this assignment."
"Don't I know it" father groans "She's a sweet woman and I value her greatly, but she can hardly get things done anymore."
"That's actually what I'm here to talk to you about."
Father looks at me expectantly.
"Do you know if they are looking at anyone to replace Alethea?"
He shakes his head "No. They did for a while, but apparently there is no one with the right qualities in this group of elevens. Apparently Attendants to the Receiver candidates are almost as hard to come by as Receiver candidates."
"Well, what if I told you I think I may no someone whose perfect for the position."
"And who is that?"
"It's that birthmother I've been tell you about."
"You mean Chloe?"
I look at him, surprised "I never mentioned her by name…how did you know?"
My father chuckles "Cael, you seem to forget who I am"
"You are my Father."
"And the Receiver. I'm made aware of everything that happens here in the Community. The committee came to me on advice on what to do with Chloe. I'm very aware of her situation."
"Well I've been observing her a lot lately and….I think she would make an excellent Attendant to the Receiver."
"Is that so?" My father crosses his arms over his chest and arches his eyebrows.
"Yes sir. She's got all the right qualities. She's organized and efficient. She's intelligent, she follows directions very well, and she's patient."
"Hmm" Father scratches at his beard "Sounds to me like you just described every citizen in the community Cael."
I stare at him confused. "Except for the intelligence" father laughs, "Some people are certainly not very intelligent."
I think of Doreen, who lacked intelligence, or at least what we considered intelligence. The girl wasn't to smart when it came to vocabulary or science or mathematics, but I can't help but think that there was something about Doreen. Something about the way she could seemingly understand what everyone was feeling, the way she got along with people, knew how to make someone feel accepted and wanted, that told me she wasn't as lacking in brains as we joked that she was. Maybe she was intelligent, just not how people thought of intelligence.
"Father" I say, "I know, just know, that Chloe would do this job well. Just give her a chance."
My father is silent for a long time. He's looking at me oddly, differently actually, than he ever has before. His pale somewhat intimidating eyes are scrutinizing me, but not in a bad way. It's like he's starting to see that there is more to me than he thought. He cocks his head to one side and than to the other. He scratches his beard. I can practically hear my heart in my chest. I HAVE to have my father's support. My father has to approve of this, has to want Chloe. Without him I have no chance of getting Chloe this assignment. I might be able to get a variance for her, get her assigned Fish Hatchery Attendant, Bicycle Repair, something like that. But I don't want that for her. I want this for her. I want her here with my father.
If only father would say yes.
"She is a birthmother" Father says at last. I nod. "Won't she just be given some laborious assignment? The Committee is talking about assigning her food production."
I wrinkle my nose "She'd hate that." I say, "She'd apply for an appeal."
"Doesn't matter." Father replies, "They'd just stick her somewhere else."
"But father. Surely you know about the toll this production has taken on her body. She's not strong anymore; she's not made for the life of a laborer. Mekhi even told me that we are going to have to ask for variance, if she lives through the birth, and get her assigned as something else."
"And you think she is suited for this one?" he gestures to Alethea's desk. I nod.
"I really do father. And it will help Alethea too. She won't have to wait much longer for a replacement. Chloe's due in a month and they will give her a couple of weeks to recover and then decertify her."
My father is quiet again. Staring at me. I meet his gaze evenly, trying to convey to him how much I wanted this.
Finally my father sighs, "You are an odd one Cael. And one I'll never understand. All right, fine, I'll go talk to this Chloe. See if I think she has the right qualities."
I grin "Thank-you Father. This means a lot to me."
"No promises though" my father adds.
I'm practically bouncing on my toes I'm so excited. "Right" I say "No promises."
My father tells me that he will go to the Birthing Unit after mid-day meal. I pedal quickly to the Birthing Unit, park my bike in it's proper port, rush up the stairs and all but run to the High Risk Pregnancies Wing. I throw open the door to Chloe's room excited to share my news.
Chloe is asleep still, propped up by pillows to keep her from turning in her sleep and possibly crushing the products.
Chloe gets so little sleep nowadays. Her products keep her up at all hours of the night with their squirming, and even when they were still, the pain and discomfort she was always in kept her from getting any real rest. Moments like these, when she finally did drift off, were so rare that to wake her up now would be cruel.
I start to close the door, stop, and look once more at my friend. Her mouth is open slightly, and her breathing is slow and even against the pillow. Strands of her hair have escaped their ponytail and hang limply in her face. As I watch her mouth closes, and her lips twitch slightly upward into a small smile. She makes a small noise of contentment and shifts lightly, but doesn't wake up.
My heart does something weird. Something it's never done before. It starts to beat erratically, quickening its pace. My stomach tightens a little and my head feels funny. I frown. What was this? Was I getting sick? That didn't seem right. And I wasn't nervous or scared either. Actually I feel kind of…happy.
What was happening to me?
"Cael?" I soft voice speaks from behind me. I turn and find Yoshiko standing there, looking at me curiously. "Is she alright in there?" she glances behind me at Chloe. I nod, stepping out and closing the door.
"She's asleep now" I tell her "Best let her be."
"Right" Yoshiko chuckles "Birthmothers in their third trimester don't get nearly enough sleep. It most certainly is not healthy for them."
"No it probably isn't." I agree, making my voice light and unconcerned "Yoshiko can I ask for your medical opinion?"
"Of course" laughs Yoshiko "I'd be more than glad to assist a medical assistant."
"Well…umm. What would you say a person who has erratic heartbeat, tightening stomach and a light head is suffering from?"
The woman purses her lips and furrows her brow, thinking. "That is odd…. does this person feel sick?"
"No" I shake my head "quite the opposite actually. They feel nice."
"Hmm. Sounds to me like that person is probably suffering from heightened stirrings. If I were them I'd up my pill dosage."
Stirrings? For Chloe? Was it possible? She had given them to me before. But we had been children then. I'd thought that those feelings were behind me.
"Alright then. Thank you Yoshiko"
The woman laughs again "It was my pleasure Cael. See you around."
"Yeah. See you" I say, watching her as she makes her way to the desk of the High Risk Pregnancies Unit, touches the monitor a few times, no doubt checking schedules, and then turns and leaves. Yoshiko was a regular doctor here; it was her job to take care of these birthmothers. We had talked a handful of times, mostly about Chloe's health. Yoshiko was different. Not as different as Anna or Chloe or I. She took her pill diligently and was living the shallow life that most citizens did. Yet there was something about her that was different. Something that was off, she still didn't quite fit in. I had noticed yesterday that Adam was the same way.
I wish I could figure out what it was.
But no sooner does Yoshiko take her leave than Anna slips in, alone this time, without her usual comrades. She smiles at me, and I return the gesture than put my finger to my lips. She looks at me strangely.
"Chloe's asleep" I tell her.
"Oh? That's good. She needs sleep."
"Hey Cael, where were you this morning? I haven't seen you at all today."
"I went to go take care of some things." I tell her.
She frowns, upset that I won't divulge more information to her. "Chloe was asking for you this morning."
"Yeah. She was all 'Anna where's Cael?' 'Why haven't I seen Cael yet?' 'He didn't get reassigned did he?'"
"No, just running errands."
"Well you gave her a little bit of a fright. If I were you I'd make sure to go in there first chance and let her know you're here."
There it is again. The off-kilter heartbeat, the stomach spasms, I'm rushed with a warm happy feeling. I get a strange sense of joy out of knowing Chloe wanted me around.
"You alright?" Anna's asking, snapping her fingers in my face. I laugh and bat them away. "Yeah, I'm fine. I apologize for hitting you."
Anna shrugs "I accept your apology."
"What do Stirrings feel like for you?"
My friend's cheeks darken a little, and her eyes get wide "What?"
"Am I being rude again?"
"Well…I…no not rude…it's just…unexpected?"
"Would it be uncomfortable for you to answer that question?"
"I apologize for asking questions that make you feel uncomfortable."
"I accept your apology." She shifts from one foot to the other. Her stomach is huge now, it's a wonder she can stay on her feet this long. "Why do you want to know?"
Now I can feel heat on my cheeks and I glance down "Well I uhh.."
"You think you might be getting stirrings?"
"I'm not sure" I admit "Yoshiko told me that it sounds like heightened stirrings. But I've never experienced stirrings like this before."
"What does it feel like?"
I describe my symptoms again. She listens carefully, nodding along. Finally she says, "Sounds like stirrings to me."
"Yup. There are two kinds of stirrings Cael. The first kind is the wanting and the longing that we all feel as children. The kind that usually manifests itself in dreams that we report to our parents who put us on the pill."
"And the other kind?"
"Well the other kind is more directed toward a certain person. It's hard to explain, but…. you start to prefer that person's company, but you get all…. oh I don't know…nervous around that person? You think about them a lot too, and more affectionately than before too. It's not like is it with you friends or your family, it's a different kind of affection. Normally it accompanies the wanting and the longing. Your body reacts to the emotions you feel, so those symptoms are nothing more than reactions to the emotions you feel for a certain person."
"So you're saying this is happening because I'm getting new emotions for Chloe?"
Anna's smile disappears for a moment. Her shoulders droop, she kind of looks disappointed. "Chloe?" she asks, "You get these feelings for Chloe?"
I nod "Yeah, strange huh?"
"I'll say" Anna grumbles, "You know she feels the same way about Adam right?"
"And that she has never got stirrings for you."
She gives an exasperated sigh "I see."
"Nothing" Anna shakes her head "I should go. Grace will be wondering where I am."
She's upset; I can see it in her eyes. Something I've said has upset her. But I don't know what it was. All I said was that I got strange feelings for Chloe. What was so offending about that?
As she walking away she calls over shoulder "Maybe you should up your pill dosage Cael."
Her voice sounds oddly…cold.