In the first few months after Dad married Rachel, Fay got along with her by avoiding her. Rachel spent most of her time with Dad and the slaves, and let Unharry keep taking care of us. In private conversations with me, Fay would never refer to our stepmother by name — she usually called her “The Bimbo.” When I told her she was being unfair, she sulked until I gave up arguing with her.
Rachel was applying to the art schools in the area — she was over thirty, but she’d been so busy taking care of her mother that she hadn’t gone to college. (Fay considered this another reason to look down on her.) She showed me her portfolio, photography of women in fancy clothes, and said it was OK if I wasn’t impressed, I wasn’t old enough to understand these things.
Almost every weekend that summer, we went to a memorial service for a kid in our class. Other friends of mine would stop talking to me that day after they got wet dreams — instead, they would sit on the other side of the lunchroom, along with all the other kids in puberty. As I watched the kids on that side of the room, the boys swaggering, the girls preening, I wondered how anybody would not want to be enslaved.
Dad wrote a paper to be delivered at a servopsychology conference in Vienna, in October. Through September, the slaves spent more time than usual with Dad — they leaned closer to him at the dinner table, dragged out conversations with him on every topic you could imagine, and rushed through the sessions where they helped Fay and me with our homework.
Someone pasted up advertisements for a new movie all over town, including the bus shelter a few blocks away from our school. Each poster had a sneering bald man’s face on a black background. The caption, in bold white letters, read:
COMING OCTOBER 10
TO A THEATER NEAR YOU
The morning after Dad left for Europe, after I got up and dressed for school, I noticed that Fay still wasn’t out of bed. When I shook her, she didn’t move, or even mumble in her sleep. Her pulse and breathing seemed faster than normal. In the kitchen, pots rattled. When I put my finger in her palm, her finger closed around it. Dad’s servopsychology textbook had another test, but it involved shining a flashlight into the eyes, and we didn’t have a flashlight in our room.
As I took the plastic bag and rubber band out of Fay’s desk, I wished she had chosen a bag made from quieter plastic. The mouth of the bag was wide enough that I could put it over her head and then fasten the band around both her neck and hair. It still looked like a lot of air could get in around the mouth. I wiped my palms on the shoulders of Fay’s pajama top.
The smell of French toast came from downstairs.
I tried to figure out how long it would take for Fay to suffocate. The world record for breath-holding is around twenty minutes, but maybe re-breathing the same air over and over is different than just holding your breath. One of Dad’s textbook had said that concussions could put people in a coma. Would that look like pre-slavery coma? Could Fay have rolled over in her sleep and hit something that gave her a concussion? I reached out to feel her head, but my hand froze halfway there.
Fay’s breathing sped up, as if an engine in her lungs had up-shifted.
Unharry called up, “Fay! Will! Breakfast time!”
There were whole sections in Dad’s textbooks about diseases that looked sort of like pre-slavery coma, but weren’t. And other diseases, even rarer, where somebody was partly a slave and partly in puberty. There had to be tests for those–
I shouted “Just a minute!” so Unharry wouldn’t come upstairs to get us.
— There had to be tests, but I didn’t know any of them, and they probably required a whole doctor’s bag of flashlights and magnifying glasses and rubber hammers and maybe even fancier lab equipment. It really wasn’t fair for my sister to make me promise to do something without me knowing how to do it right.
I tore the bag open like gift-wrapping, exposing Fay’s blue face. As the rubber band broke, it stung my finger.
“Fay!” called Unharry. “Will!”
When all the pieces of the rubber band and the plastic bag were safely churned into the bottom of the wastebasket, I called out again. “Something’s wrong with Fay! She won’t wake up!” I wished I could find Fay’s will and throw that out too, but I didn’t have time.
Rachael held my chair steady as Unharry stood on it. Rachael wore a tight denim skirt, a black blazer, and matte red lipstick. Unharry, in uniform, inspected Fay’s body on the top bunk. He had a bag of equipment and did all the tests I wish I’d done, starting with shining a flashlight in Fay’s eye.
“She’s in coma.” Unharry climbed down from my chair. “You’ll probably imprint her by tomorrow morning.”
Rachael rolled the chair away from the bed and sat on it.
“You should wash off that perfume,” Unharry went on. “It helps you imprint if –”
“I know how to imprint a slave, boy.”
Unharry bowed, shallowly, at the waist. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”
Fay’s hand was limp and greasy, scarred around the palm, and gripping my own hand. “I’m not leaving.”
“What’s the matter?” Unharry asked.
“I want Dad to enslave her.”
“Will,” said Rachel, “he’s in Europe. The conference is two whole weeks.”
“Call him back. When I was seven and I got hit by a car, he quit a conference so he could come see me in the hospital.”
“But Fay’s not sick. This is a perfectly natural process.”
“Milord left instructions about how to handle problems while he was away,” Unharry said. “He said nothing about getting called back for either of you going into coma. I can leave a message with his hotel, and he’ll get it tonight.”
“It’s not fair that Rachael gets to enslave Fay. Fay hated her.”
“That doesn’t matter now. Unfay will love Rachael, and Rachael will take good care of her.”
“Fay did not hate me.” Rachel sat with her hands on her knees. Tendons bloomed under the skin. “She just had a few… issues.” She pointed a cardinal-red fingernail at Fay’s body. “I have a right to this slave. If both of us are here when she wakes up, she will not imprint, and she will become very sick. You must leave the room.”
I held Fay’s hand tighter.
“Will,” Unharry said. “Before milord left, he deputized Rachael. I have to do whatever she asks me to do.” He didn’t actually say force you to leave, but he knew I would get the hint.
If Fay had woken up, and I had the coma, she might have sauntered out of our room, turned around at the last moment, and cursed Rachael in a thousand original ways. She might have stood by me, holding my hand, until Harry pried her hand away from mine and dragged her out. She might have killed me.
Michelle Proudhon, Unharry, and Unlouise waited for me to come home from school. They sat together on the porch swing. Michelle had draped her purple raincoat on the back of the swing. Smoke drifted away from her cigarette and through the porch’s screen window.
Keeping myself six feet away from the cigarette, I shrugged off my backpack and raincoat. “You said you quit smoking,” I said. She ought to know better.
Michelle chuckled with embarrassment. “Yeah, I unquit. Sorry, chief.”
Unlouise wore a navy-blue sweatshirt and jeans. On her collar, she wore a small pin, shaped like a three-bladed fan. A book lay face-down against her belly; the title was Counseling Slaves with Special Needs and Their Masters. When Unlouise saw I was reading the title, she closed the book; Unharry took it from her and put it to one side. They knew each other so well, like Fay and I had known each other.
Unharry rose from the swing. He looked uncomfortable in the suit. “Unfay is still in the coma. But she’s doing fine.”
I nodded and stared at the robin-egg’s blue floor.
“How are you feeling?” Michelle asked.
Unharry knelt in front of me. His breath smelled of peppermint. “It’s OK to feel unhappy about this.”
“Will I be enslaved too? Have they found a test yet?”
“We don’t know exactly where the genes are,” said Unharry. “There’s a cell structure in the hypothalamus that’s slightly different in kids about to enter puberty. But we can’t analyze your hypothalamus without killing you and dissecting your brain.”
“Either way,” said Michelle, “it probably won’t happen for another year or so. Girls mature faster than boys.”
Lightning flashed around the porch. I counted the seconds until the thunder, so I wouldn’t have to think about anything else.
That night, I slept in the slave’s room, on Unharry’s bunk, and Unharry slept on the living room couch. The slave’s room was in the basement; it was small and unpainted, with a workbench and shelves full of cleaning fluids. It smelled of dust, wood, and ammonia.
When I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, I thought for a moment that I’d been enslaved, that Rachael would be coming downstairs any moment to give me orders. I felt relieved that I would be on a team with Fay again. Then I came to my senses, and started crying.
“Thanks for not killing me,” said Unfay.
We were sitting on Fay’s bunk, dangling our legs, waiting for Unharry to call us to dinner.
“You’re welcome.” That was a stupid thing for me to say; I scolded myself. “What’s it like, being a slave?” That was even stupider.
Unfay shrugged. “It’s OK. I haven’t changed much.” She put her arm around me. “I still love my Good Twin Brother.”
“Do you love Rachael?”
“Now that I understand her, yeah.” Unfay brushed her hand through her hair. “It’s like, yeah, OK, she’s a bimbo. But deep down, nobody wants to be such a bimbo. Her family and friends and all those dippy TV shows must have brainwashed her or something. Now she doesn’t have to deal with that any more. I can help her concentrate on… you know, real things.”
“Like science. Dad and I could help her do servopsychology research, like Unlouise is doing. Or maybe something else useful, like finding a cure for cancer. Do you think she’d want that?”
I thought of the strange pictures Rachael had shown me, which didn’t seem to have anything to do with science. But I said, “Who wouldn’t?”
“How was your day at school, Will?” Rachael asked, as Unharry gave her some kind of health-food shake.
I shrugged and drank my chicken soup. “Okay.”
“What happened at school today?”
She turned to Unfay. “How was your day?”
“I cleaned the whole house just like you asked, even Will’s room.” The words came out in a rush, the way Fay used to talk about a book she had stayed up all night reading. “Unharry told me what detergents to use. And I ironed everyone’s clothes.” She looked at Rachael and sighed. “You have beautiful dresses.”
“What’s so funny?” Unfay asked.
“You sound just like a commercial. ‘You have beautiful dresses.’ Yes, and I got them for 40 percent less at–”
Rachael cleared her throat and made an angry face.
“I’m sorry, milady,” said Unfay.
(part four will conclude this story in two weeks.)
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