A train blared in the distance as I stood there in a pair of oil-stained coveralls and steel toe boots two sizes too big, trying to think up every argument in the book to keep the next five minutes from happening.
“I’m a good worker, Phil. You know I am,” I said.
“You’re one of the best,” Phil replied, leaning an elbow on his tarnished steel desk. “I wish I could keep you around, but you’re my newest climber,”
“Then give me part time. I need the cash.”
“You’re not the only one getting laid off. I gotta talk to half the other guys tomorrow.” He gestured to the small dirty window where I could see the rest of the workers in the steel yard.
I took a small step toward him. “Please, it’s my mom….” I bit my lip to stop a couple tears from falling.
“Kid, you’re ripping my heart out here.” Phil scratched the back of his head. “I’ll keep you in mind, alright? If there’s ever a way I can take you back I’ll let you know.”
I swallowed. “Alright. Got it. Thanks.” A fat load of disappointment settled on my chest. I should have paid more attention in debate class.
I shucked off my coveralls and threw them hard into a locker before slamming it shut. This hadn’t been my dream job or anything, but it was still a job and in Sandy, that’s a lot more than most people have. Unfortunately, I had just joined the ranks of ‘most people.’
My hand palmed the severance pay in my pocket as I exited the office and walked out into howling wind and snow flying in every direction. Pulling my coat in tighter, I hurried down the block to catch the bus and jammed my arm in the door just as it was closing. The driver gave an audible huff of exasperation but I pushed my way through the half-shut door and sat down behind an old woman.
The windshield wipers scraped their way across the glass as the bus puttered slowly down the street. I brushed my wet hair off of my forehead, the deep red strands looking practically purple under the cracked overhead lighting, as my eyes drifted out the window. The familiar jumble of dilapidated brick walk-ups blurred past, their patched tar roofs whistling in the wind as the storm made the loose shingles dance. And this was the nice part of town. The bus turned onto the dirt road of the residential section where the brick buildings were replaced with one-story huts in a hodgepodge of wood and tin. Every once in a while we would pass a tiny stucco cottage, but they were exceptions to the lean-to community, not the rule. My grandfather told me that this street hasn’t changed much in the eighty years since the Great Emigration led the Whitaker family to Sandy, Oregon.
“It’s all the damn Democrats’ fault. If they hadn’t stalled the bill, we’d have been able to pull a fast one on the Chinamen! Now look at us, with fewer rights than teeth.” Usually my mom would end any further comments with a loud sigh and an order for me to go to bed but I had still grown up well-aware of how bitter my grandfather was that as a seven-year-old he’d had to join the Eastern half of the country as they ran for their lives to the West Coast.
I pulled out of my thoughts to find the bus stopped in front of my house’s bare flowerbeds.
“Have a good night,” I said to the driver who showed off his snaggletooth as he mumbled the same.
As the bus pulled away, I plodded up the drive to our little house, glaring at the snow for having the nerve to stick to our walkway. I gave the front door a good shove before walking in and hanging my coat on a hook.
“Welcome home, breadwinner,” Dalhia called from the kitchen.
I stepped out of my wet boots and went to warm my hands and feet by the iron stove. Dalhia was standing on her tippy toes, leaning over a pot of soup. She put a lid on the pot and turned to look at me. “Holy- Cara what did you do to your hands?”
“It’s cold out.” My hands were chapped and red, probably a little frostbitten.
Dalhia took them into hers to help soothe them. “Why weren’t you wearing your gloves?”
“I left them at work.” Actually, I’d had to turn them in when they’d fired me.
“I’ll lend you mine for tonight. Just don’t forget to give them back,” Dalhia said turning back to the stove.
I opened up the pantry cabinet. It was empty except for the salt and pepper. I swallowed down my disappointment. “What’s tonight?”
“Really, you forgot? It’s Sienne’s 16th birthday. Troy’s picking you up in an hour.”
I had forgotten about the party. Sienne had some big announcement to make and she’d made me promise to come. There was no way I could get out of this.
“Thanks for the reminder.”
“It’s not like I’d forget, Avery’s coming over with him.”
“Be good.” I gave her side a playful pinch.
She giggled as she danced out of my grasp. “We’re always good.”
“Yeah, sure.” The muffled sound of soft clay hitting hard surface interrupted us.
“Mom’s in her studio?” I asked. Dalhia nodded.
I bit my lip and shut my eyes briefly. “What happened?”
“Woke up with a headache and threw up. She was sleeping when I came home for lunch,” Dalhia replied. She blew a chunk of blonde hair out of her bright blue eyes. “Did you ask Phil for the advance?”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “I didn’t get a chance today.” The lie tasted worse than the fish and turnip soup we were having for dinner.
“Well make sure to ask him tomorrow. Mom hasn’t had a treatment in almost two months and we don’t want it to matastize.”
“Me-tas-ta-size,” I corrected her. “And I’ll get the money.” I took a deep breath to push away the sting behind my eyes; I didn’t have time for tears just now.
I walked out of the kitchen and down the dark hallway to the back of our little house. Mathilda Whitaker was sitting at her pottery wheel, curly auburn hair spilling from the top of her head in all directions. She looked up and gave me a big smile but I could see exhaustion in the strained skin around her mouth.
“Hey, look who’s home. How was work today?”
I wanted to tell her what had happened. I wished I could fall into her arms and have her hug me hard and tell me not to worry, the way she always would when I was younger. But I couldn’t make the words come out. “It was fine, cold.”
“Well, Dalhia’s put the soup on so hopefully that’ll warm your bones,” she said, her tone holding a hint of motherly suspicion.
I nodded and sat down on the wooden stool beside her. “What are you making?”
“I don’t quite know yet.” She assessed the half-formed lump of clay. “I just love it when that happens.” I gave her a smile that even I knew didn’t reach my eyes.
She met my gaze. “What’s on your mind, kiddo?”
“Nothing.” Everything. I fought the urge to sigh.
“Well that’s a load of crock if I’ve ever heard any.” She bent over and began to squeeze my shoulders lightly.
My mother was more perceptive than I would like her to be.
“I’m waiting,” she said as she worked a knot out from between my shoulder blades.
There was only one thing to do in this case: throw out a distraction. “Tonight’s Sienne’s birthday.”
“That’s nice, are you doing anything special?”
I leaned my head back a little as she worked her fingers up. “Party at the coffee house.”
“Sounds like fun. Do you want a little of my makeup? It is a special occasion.”
“There’s no reason for that, save it for Dalhia,” I said.
She smiled. “The little bride-in-waiting? What are we going to do with her?”
“Let her get hitched and make a run for it with Avery?” I suggested with a nervous laugh. “I guess we’ll know for sure in a few weeks.”
“Right. Report cards.”
A moment of silence passed between us. It was hard not to be nervous when we knew what would happen if she failed the semester. Border Service. I shuddered.
“Wipe that worry off your face,” Mom said as she scratched her forehead, leaving a signature streak of clay behind. “She might not be as sharp as you but she’ll be just fine.” If only she’d take her own advice. I turned my eyes toward the ceiling.
Mom tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “I’m proud of you, you know. You take such good care of us and you never complain-”
She put her hands up in surrender. “That’s it, I’m done. I’ve said my piece. Now go have some fun.” I stood up to leave and get ready.
“Wait. Come back.” I turned around and walked back toward my mom. “Head down.” I lowered my head and she placed a kiss on it. The gesture made me smile. “Alright, now you can go.”
“Carina! Over here!” Sienne Heng, my best friend since preschool, waved to me from where she stood on a chair, her thick black curls swept back to show off her flawless dark honey skin. Troy and I walked to the back of the coffee house and I gave Sienne a hug, still needing to reach up on my tiptoes even though she had climbed down from her throne.
“Well, now that you’re both here, I can make the announcement,” Sienne exclaimed. Troy shrugged off his coat and threw it onto a pile in the corner as Sienne got back onto the chair and clapped her hands together. “Everybody? Salutations! Thanks for coming out tonight and for all the birthday wishes! All of you mean so much to me!” I smiled as I listened to her little speech. The girl was enthusiastic to a fault. “I’ve promised all of you some news, so here it is.” Her smile was wide as she paused for dramatic effect. “I will be leaving Sandy tomorrow to work abroad!”
Sienne kept talking but I wasn’t listening anymore. I drew in a breath and flicked my eyes over to Troy. He was frozen in place, staring at Sienne.
Someone turned the music up as Sienne climbed off the chair. Her eyes glanced up at us nervously. “I was afraid you’d talk me out of it,” she said with a sheepish look on her face.
“Probably because we would have,” growled Troy, his hands holding his elbows in a death grip.
“What about your family?” I asked.
“This is for my family. My dad lost his job and they were going to have to sell the house-” Sienne stopped and gave us a too bright smile. “That’s all taken care of now.” She handed Troy a folded piece of paper. He opened it, shook his head, and then passed it on to me.
Tomorrow is our Greatest Opportunity! Join the Labor Program Today!
It looked like bogus fliers I’d seen circling around town, advertising positions for “young workers.” I would have dismissed it as another scam if not for the Uesay government crest at the top of the paper.
“And what exactly are you going to be doing?” I probed.
Sienne pulled on one of her ringlets. “There’s new farmland down south. They need young people who are used to scraping by to do the plantings, set up the irrigation systems, that kind of thing.”
I raised my eyebrows. “If there was land to farm that didn’t give people radiation poisoning, don’t you think they would have found it by now?”
“Maybe Border Service is actually working,” Sienne suggested.
“It is working. It’s clearly kept the population under control,” Troy snorted. Sienne hit him lightly in the chest and I rolled my eyes.
“When will you be back?” I asked.
“I can’t say for sure,” Sienne replied. She was pulling harder on her hair now. “I go where they need me to go. But the program will take care of my family’s medical and monetary needs. It’s an amazing opportunity.” She sounded like she was trying to convince herself as much as she was trying to reassure us.
I had so many things I needed to tell her but I didn’t think she wanted to hear any of them. “We’re going to miss you,” I said softly before slipping the flier into my pocket and folding Sienne into a hug.
“Carina!” I shot out of bed at Dalhia’s cry, banging my way into the main room where I saw Mom on the floor, her eyes rolled into the back of her head and foam coming out of her mouth. “One minute she had a headache, then-” Dalhia trailed off, her hands outstretched.
My heart started pounding so hard it hurt. “Dalhia, go get help!”
I heard the front door slam as I moved quickly to the floor, watching helplessly as my mother’s arms and legs shook for what felt like an hour, though the clock over the stove confirmed it had been no more than a minute.
I let out a sigh of relief as she slowly opened her eyes. Her face was as pale as paper and she began to gag. I turned her onto her side to get rid of the extra fluid in her mouth.
The front door opened and Troy and Matt ran in with Dalhia right behind them.
“Medics are on the way,” said Troy.
Dalhia rushed to my side. “How is she?”
“I’m…alright.” Mom’s voice was so soft I had to strain to hear her.
“Let’s get her into bed.” I looked up at Troy but he had already walked over and was leaning down to pick her up.
“Don’t mind me, Mrs. W.” When he had her secured in his arms, he carried her into her bedroom.
“Thanks for the ride, Detroit,” Mom said to Troy, trying valiantly to lighten the mood as she was lowered onto her mattress.
“Glad to be of service.” He gave her a Prince Charming smile.
By the time we had her all tucked in she was already asleep.
I turned to Troy and took a step toward him. “Thanks for your help. That hasn’t happened since she started her treatments.”
“Anytime. Your family is my family.” He gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze.
We quietly returned to the main room where Avery had an arm around Dalhia, her cries muffled against his shirt. Dalhia wiped her eyes as she walked over to me. “Carina, it’s almost eight you need to get to work.”
I tensed. “No, Dalhia, it’s alright. I’ll stay with-”
“No, you can’t afford to be late.”
“But you can’t risk missing school.”
She huffed “Forget school, the report cards are already in the mail.”
“Dalhia, you can’t-” A sharp knock broke my sentence. Troy answered the door and showed the medics down the hall to my mother’s room. We watched them disappear from view before Dalhia turned back to me.
“The Fates have already decided. If we want Mom to get better then we need the money today and only you can get that for us.” Her head was tilted to the side, daring me to contradict her. But I couldn’t.
“You’re right.” And she was.
I got dressed quickly and left the house, promising myself that I would not come home empty-handed. The first place I tried was the corner market.
“You tellin’ me that you want a job stocking when there ain’t no groceries to stock?”
Then I tried the gas station.
“Whitaker, Spirits know I love you, but Mickey’s graduating next month. I’ve got to protect my kin.”
After exhausting every other business in town, I went to the bus station. The pay was awful and the attendants always smelled like vomit but this was my last chance to get a job in Sandy.
“Please, Charlene. I can clean the buses, collect tickets, I can even do routine maintenance.”
“Two words. Budget Cuts.” Her lips over-enunciated, displaying her blackened teeth.
My eyes glazed over as they searched my brain desperately for another angle. “What if by hiring me I can save you money? I’ll be the onsite mechanic. I can change the oil, tires. I take half of everything I save you as payment, nothing has to change, you don’t even have to put me on the payroll!” I pleaded with complete desperation.
“Look, I wish I could hire you, I do, but I can’t. There’s just no money.” She glanced both ways before she used her pointer finger to move a red bus ticket across the counter. “Sometimes the fancy houses in Portland need maids. Maybe Fate will smile at you.”
My father once took me to the shipyard on the outskirts of Portland when he went to cast his vote in the national council elections. That was before he died, of course. The place had reeked of rotten fish and muddy water but it was the closest ballot station to Sandy and Sandy was terribly underrepresented; most people couldn’t afford to take the day off of work, let alone pay the bus ticket.
“I know it’s a pain nugget, but our voices need to be heard if there’s ever going to be any improvements around here.”
Things had yet to get better.
I stood on the pavement by the bus stop and looked around. This Portland was not the fishermen’s docks that I remembered. Actually, this Portland was unlike any place I had ever been. The Uesay I knew was nothing more than a grouping of dirt roads and dirtier people but in this unfamiliar wealthy part of Uesay, the cracked asphalt changed into smooth concrete and shops with beautifully lit displays and paper-thin monitors stood next to pristine lines of buildings with manicured gardens that would never dare grow a weed.
I took a deep breath and walked towards the first shop that had a Help Wanted notice in the window. My hand had barely touched the door when the Open sign switched to Closed. Cupping my hands over my eyes, I saw the shop lady’s pinched face glare at me as she shook her head. I continued down the street to the other stores but as soon as I walked into their peripheral vision I watched the Open signs on the shop doors flip to Closed, like the synchronized moves of a dance. I looked down at my faded jeans and tugged on the stained sleeves of my too-small winter coat. With my head bent and my eyes down, I sent up a silent prayer.
I need a signal, a push in the right direction. Anything would help right about now.
The wind picked up and I shoved my hands down into my pockets. My fingers brushed over a folded piece of paper and I pulled out the ad Sienne had shown me last night, my eyes catching on the address.
22 Fort Washington
I looked up towards the sky, gave a small nod, and then started to walk.
The waiting room was small with light blue flowered wallpaper and a few black chairs that looked fancier than they did comfortable. A few of these chairs were already occupied by a couple of girls and a boy reading glossy pamphlets with the words ‘My New Home on the Range!’ printed atop a photo of a smiling, pig-tailed girl, her arms filled with big ears of corn.
“Do you have an appointment?” I looked over at the small open window where a woman sat holding a clipboard. She wore a white button-down shirt embroidered with the Uesay Crest.
“Not yet.” I walked over to her and handed her the flier. She scanned it quickly with her lips pushed together.
“Fine, fill these out.” She handed me the clipboard with a stack of papers on top. I looked around the room and took a seat in the closest empty chair.
I wrote down my name, address, birthday, age, weight, and year of graduation quickly without focusing on what I was doing.
Are you able to lift heavy objects? Yes.
Are you pregnant or nursing? No.
Are you able to follow detailed directions? Yes.
Are you able to adapt easily? Maybe? Yes.
Would you consider yourself resourceful? Yes.
The questions went on for a good ten pages, front and back. I finished the paperwork and tried to relax, my fingers curling and uncurling against my thigh as I waited.
“I hope to heaven they pick me,” I heard one of the girls say to the boy.
“I know,” he replied while tapping his foot with barely contained excitement. “My neighbor’s sister signed up two months ago and she has already sent letters back about how happy she is abroad. And get this, she’s been assigned to an orchard and was able to send home a dozen apples with her letter!”
The second girl shook her head in wonder. “Seriously amazing. And apparently they just tell you that it’s five years so you understand it’s a commitment, but most people get back in a year or two, and you still get medical benefits when you return.”
I watched as the trio squeezed each others’ hands in anticipation.
“Carina Whitaker?” A woman in a white doctor’s coat and a sleek ponytail was standing in the doorway leading to the back offices. I nodded and got up from my seat. “Follow me.” She gave me a reassuring smile and I rubbed my hand over my chest hoping it would slow my heartbeat. She led me into a room with a desk, a couple of cozy looking chairs, and a computer. This had to be a legitimate government office as they were the only ones who had access to computers.
“Have a seat,” she said as she closed the door. “There’s no reason to look so nervous. I just need to ask you a few questions about your form.” I handed her the clipboard and she flipped through the sheets of paper, nodding every once in a while at something I’d written. Then she frowned. “Carina. You have to be honest on your form, otherwise we won’t be able to accept you.”
My mouth went dry. “I filled out everything truthfully.”
The woman raised her eyebrows. “So you’ve honestly never been sexually active?”
My cheeks flamed. “I…haven’t.”
She blinked a couple times and cleared her throat. “Alright, my mistake then.” She put the clipboard aside. “So Carina, why don’t I tell you a little about the Uesay Life Labor Program. We are a non-profit organization striving to find the best candidates to grow the food that will sustain our community of tomorrow. Our recruits work on a variety of tasks and are afforded a well-rounded experience. We also offer incentives, like family insurance plans and monthly stipends, to help you feel secure in your family’s well-being during your absence.”
“Well, my mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor last May and her treatments are really expensive. If I signed up for the program, her medical procedures would be covered, right?”
“Also, my sister hasn’t been doing well in school and I’m worried she may have failed her final tests. Could my going abroad help her stay local when it comes to job placement?”
She flicked her wrist as if the answer was an easy one. “We could definitely help make sure your sister gets placed in a more…desirable position.”
The stipend was little more than what Phil used to pay me but the other benefits made the deal incredibly tempting. I could never afford healthcare for my mom on my own. And how could I put a price on keeping Dalhia safe from Border Service?
I took in a shaky breath. “Will I get to come home to visit?”
“This is a long-term commitment,” she replied, her palms open and facing upward. “You will be away five years or until you complete your project, whichever comes first.”
I closed my eyes briefly before I looked back at her. “When would the benefits start?”
“You and your family would be covered within twenty four hours of your departure.” She folded her fingers together on the desk as she waited for more questions. When they didn’t come she said, “Carina, I am very impressed by your application and if you are still interested in joining the program, we would be thrilled to have you. We can schedule you to leave in three months.”
“Three months?” I didn’t have three months. I needed to get my mom into treatment yesterday. Besides, report cards would be arriving any day now and if Dalhia had failed, there’d be nothing I could do for her in three months. “Do you have anything sooner? This month, maybe?”
“Well, we have a bus leaving today, but it leaves in just a few hours.”
“Tonight? No, I can’t, I-” The thought of not saying goodbye to my family made my chest ache. “And benefits kick in once I leave?”
“The very next day,” she replied.
The room was silent as I weighed my options. It wasn’t really a choice but it still felt like an impossible decision.
“Would you like to make a call?”
I couldn’t meet her eyes. “I don’t have a phone.”
“You’re welcome to borrow ours.” She gave me a small smile.
“I mean my family doesn’t have a phone.” I chewed on my bottom lip. “Can I write a letter?”
She gave me a slight shrug. “I don’t see why not.” She pulled a blank page out of the desk drawer and gave it to me along with her pen. I filled the paper with as much of an explanation as I could muster, punctuated by a couple fallen tears. When I finished, I folded up the letter and put my address on the front. My hand shook slightly as I gave it to her.
“Great. Now if you’ll sign and initial this, I’ll go and get your letter posted,” she said, handing over a twenty-page contract. I nodded and began to thumb through the contract as she left the room with the letter. Incoming tears blurred the pages making it difficult to scrawl my signature in the right place, let alone read the words. I finished signing the last page as the door opened and the woman stepped back into the room holding a glass of milk and a tray of cookies shaped like the pigtail girl from the magazine.
“These are our ‘Welcome to the Life Labor Program’ cookies,” she said with a warm smile as she gestured toward the tray.
“Thank you.” Hungry as usual, my hand hovered over the plate for only a second before I picked one up and took a bite out of her face. I gulped down some milk and quickly finished the cookie, already reaching for another.
The woman took the contract off the desk and flipped through it page by page as I ate the second cookie.
“It looks like we are all set.” She got up and opened a different door than the one I had come through. “If you’ll follow me.”
When her back was turned I grabbed two more cookies and stuck them in my pocket--leaving food on the table went against everything I’d ever been taught. I quickened my pace so that I was directly behind her. She opened another door and gestured for me to go ahead into a room that looked like a loading dock for supplies. Cardboard boxes were stacked next to a temporary seating area and a big garage door took up the far side of the space.
“Have a seat and relax. Someone will be with you shortly.” I sat down in a folding chair and watched her shut the door behind her. Exhaustion was quickly taking over even though it couldn’t have been past noon. My arms and legs felt heavy as I relaxed further into the chair and shut my eyes. I was almost asleep when I heard the garage door open. Workers entered carrying a box that they put on the floor by my feet. It looked like a coffin. I tried to speak but my mouth was having a hard time forming words. One of the workers picked me up and lay me in the coffin.
A face appeared above my head. It took me a second to place her but when I did it hit me like a bullet to the chest; it was one of the girls from the waiting room.
“Sleep tight, sucker,” she said and closed the lid.