Ansonia, CT – June 2038
Inhaling deeply and slowly, Maria can feel the burn of the marijuana as it fills her lungs, and the calming effect as it rushes over her body like running water. When she can hold her breath no longer, she exhales quickly, suppressing the coughs that will give her away. After spending the past several hours staring at the wall until her mother and grandparents went to bed, she is glad to finally feel the comfort of the drug. At least, it’ll numb it for a while until she’s able to process the fact that the father she loved and adored is an imposter.
Usually Evan would join her here in her basement, but after he delivered an emergency replacement for the marijuana her mother flushed and a memory card containing an update to the blocking modification, he asked whether or not she blames Dylan and she sent him home without answering. She wants to be high and not think about Dylan, Dante, and her mother, not discuss it further; she wants everything to just fade away like the odorless smoke that she exhales. She turns her head to take a breath of fresh air before taking another hit from the glass pipe.
Instead of thinking about Dante and the identity of her biological father, Maria, sitting on a plastic bin in the corner of the dirt cellar with her back against the stone wall, thinks about the last time this beautiful drug entered her lungs and washed over her body, just a couple weeks ago. She and Evan were at an underground party with people far older than them both, and they had mentioned missing the scent of marijuana, that this variation was just not the same. Looking at the finely-sliced herb in the small baggie in her hand, Maria wonders what its scent used to be, and if it was really better and more enjoyable. According to Evan’s cousin in rural upstate New York, it smells similar to a skunk, and she doesn’t understand how anyone could classify that as good.
After placing the bag into the wooden box in her lap, she places it back in the hole in the wall. Never again will she wait even five minutes before stashing her score. She thanks her lucky stars that Evan had some left, else she might be tearing apart her room, using her pillow to batter everything on her desk and dresser. Neither her mother nor grandparents have discovered this hiding spot—a loose stone behind the stack of plastic storage bins in the cellar—and Maria prays they never do.
Once the tablet-sized rock is replaced, Maria takes a deep breath and heads upstairs, gently closing the heavy wooden door behind her, careful not to wake anyone in the house. When she hears her grandparents’ door open, she freezes, praying whoever is up is just using the bathroom. As silently as possible, she dashes around the corner into the living room. When she hears the bathroom door shut, she sighs and plops onto the couch, laughing quietly to herself. She can get so jumpy when she’s high and it amuses her.
After a while, her gaze drifts to the clock on the wall, the only thing in the room that moves, and contemplates why the minute hand, pointing to the six, is longer than the hour hand, pointing between the one and two. The hour is more important than the minute, so shouldn’t its hand be the longer of the two? When the toilet flushes and the bedroom door is shut again, Maria pulls her phone from the pocket of her shorts.
Tapping on the messaging application, Maria once again reads over the message from someone who is supposedly against her father. For the first time, she really focuses on that thought, and wonders why she would be involved in whatever is going on between people she’s never met nor has any knowledge of. Had Dante not brushed it off earlier, Maria would almost be concerned about it. Even now, she would worry about it if she didn’t feel as though someone injected happy into her face. Smiling, she lets her phone drop onto her chest, and she stares at the ceiling, her arms sprawled out.
She should have knowledge of these people, of her father and anyone against him, she decides. Picking up her phone again, she types a strongly-worded message to her father, only to delete it and let her phone drop again. No, this is the type of thing that needs to be dealt with in person. Not caring if she gets caught for being out past the nation-wide curfew, she stands and leaves her house. She has questions, and Dante will answer them.
The warm air of the summer night embraces her. Wrapping her arms around herself, she plops herself onto the distraught wooden steps outside the door and stares at the sky. In such a suburban city, very little beyond the moon and a handful of stars can be seen. Evan told her once that in the country, millions of stars can be seen. In her current state of mind, Maria can’t even begin to fathom what that would look like in the sky. “Man…” she sighs, shaking her head.
She didn’t come out here to look at stars, she realizes as she stands and hops to the ground. She knows the walk to Derby will take her around half an hour, but she doesn’t care; making her way down deserted Prospect Street, she thinks about who her real father could be.
Maybe he’s an astronaut, she thinks. Maybe he’s from another country, one not as tightly-controlled as America. She likes this last idea, imagining that she could flee this country with him and go back to their homeland. Developing the last thought further, she imagines a ruggedly good-looking man driving an impressive space ship back to his home planet where he’s king and rules with fairness and compassion. At this point, she’s laughing out loud at the ridiculous possibilities that come to her mind.
She immediately stops laughing. Her high is messing with her anger. She’s mad at her parents—no, at her mother and an imposter. On the one hand, that was the point: smoke and calm herself; on the other, she’s realized she has too many questions and she needs the answers now.
“Citizen, you are breaking curfew,” a man from across the street calls, breaking Maria from her thoughts. Her head snaps up and her heart skips a beat at the sight of the police uniform. In the dim lighting, she can’t see much of him other than the distinctive black clothing.
As he approaches her, Maria notices his thin arms, so unlike the muscular build of most other officers. She also notices his rather long, light brown hair. Like a deer caught in headlights, Maria wonders if he’s the same officer that was watching her earlier that day.
“State your full name, citizen,” he says, studying her closely.
Paranoid, Maria isn’t sure if she should respond. If he doesn’t realize she’s high yet, he will as soon as she speaks. Which would be worse, she wonders: getting caught under the influence of anything, or refusing an officer’s orders? Considering she’ll be caught for her marijuana use regardless, insubordination will only make things worse. Taking a step back and inhaling deeply, she does her best to keep her voice calm and attentive. “Maria Lee Thomas,” she says, then shuts her eyes, pressing the palms of her hands tightly against her thighs.
Her eyes snap open when he grabs her shoulder and spins her around. “Go home,” he demands, his voice lowered. “We’ll speak in the morning.”
The shift in his attitude unsettles Maria, and she shakes free of his grasp. This isn’t standard protocol. He should be hauling her to the station in handcuffs; she should have no second chances. “Wait, why were you watching me earlier?” Prolonging this conversation is stupid for reasons: she’s about to get away with being under the influence, and no one questions an officer.
Again, the officer turns her around, and this time points her in the direction she came from, the direction of her house. “Go home, citizen, or I will arrest you.”
High, Maria isn’t able to call his bluff as she usually would. Instead, paranoia causes her to comply. When he lets go of her, she continues back towards her house. She briefly looks over her shoulder at the officer, dressed in a uniform that doesn’t seem fitting of his stance.
Once she’s back in her house, her phone vibrates in her pocket. As she crawls into bed, noting for the first time the smooth but fuzzy texture of her sheets, she checks the message. She doesn’t know whether to be surprised or not that it’s from her father—that it’s from Dante.
High? And in public?
Sitting up, she props herself up with one elbow and quickly types her response. How the fuck do you know that?
The response doesn’t surprise her. Maria Lee, watch your language. Have we not taught you better?
Snickering, anger drives her to type her response faster. Oh, are you fucking kidding me? You also taught me not to fucking lie.
Maria stares at her phone for a while, but Dante doesn’t reply. She doesn’t realize she’s fallen asleep until she wakes the next morning to a message from the blocked number. You have questions, and I have answers. I said we’d speak in the morning. I’ll be by at eleven when I get off.
Staring at the phone’s screen, Maria processes what she reads. Quickly glancing at the clock displayed on the right edge of the screen, she realizes she has twenty minutes before the officer is set to arrive. Rising out of bed, she quickly changes into fresh clothes before leaving her room. As she passes the kitchen, she sees her grandfather, the last adult to leave for work, sitting at the kitchen table, coffee in one hand and tablet in the other.
“Morning, Grandpa,” she says before kissing his cheek. Setting his coffee and news down, he stands and pulls her into a hug.
“Good morning, sunshine,” he says into her hair. “How are you after a good night’s sleep?”
She shrugs. “Mamma and Pappa have lied to me my whole life, and I’ve come to realize I have yet to meet the man who really helped create me.”
Sighing, her grandfather guides her to the chair beside him as he returns to his. “You know, I never believed Dante was your birth father.” He pauses for a second, watching Maria’s reaction. She just stares at him, wondering how he couldn’t say something, but knowing it wasn’t his place.
“Your mom was dating Dylan when she was pregnant with you. We were told he was the father, right up until you were born. Then out of nowhere, Anna puts down Dante’s name. I didn’t believe it then, and I didn’t believe it while you were growing up.” He shifts in his seat before taking a sip of his coffee.
“You look like your father.”
Maria’s eyes light up. Resting her heels on the edge of her seat, she rests her chin on her knees. “I look like Dylan?” she asks, her voice small.
“Your grandmother’ll never admit it, but I see it.”
“Grandma didn’t like Dylan?”
“Neither of us did. Now Dante, he’s always been a stand-up guy, the right kind of father for you. Your grandma was too quick to believe him and your mom. I, on the other hand, knew Dylan wasn’t the kind of guy to stay with a girl knowing she was pregnant with his best friend’s kid.”
“Best friend,” Maria quietly repeats, looking at a spot on the white tiled table, then looks at her grandfather. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
He scoffs. “I did, to your mom. She just said nothing.” He looks at her for a moment. “Of course I wouldn’t say anything to you. You think I ever wanted to put you through this?”
Maria gently shakes her head. “Why did they do it?”
“That’s something I’ve never understood.”
Of course not, she thinks. She’s convinced there is no logical reasoning behind this. “Do you know where he is now?”
“Dylan?” He shrugs. “Not a clue. Took off, never to be seen again.”
Looking away, she focuses on that spot on the table. If the officer doesn’t have the answer, she’ll never know. She wakes her phone and checks the time—still ten minutes before he arrives.
Her grandfather leans forward to meet her gaze, and holds it a moment before speaking. “He might have lied about being your birth father, but he hasn’t lied about loving you for the past seventeen years, Maria.” She looks away, not wanting to hear this. In her heart, she knows this, and she wants to forget the lies. But she can’t.
Standing, her grandfather finishes his coffee and places the mug in the sink. “You can be curious about your birth father. I think anyone would be,” he says before giving her a one-armed hug. “I’ll see you after work, sunshine.” He kisses the top of her head, and as he walks away, he adds, “But don’t hate your mom or push Dante away. He’s still your dad.”
Blinking back tears, Maria nods. “I know.” She rests her feet on the floor, and her head on the cool tile of the table. She knows Dante is still her father; he’s still the one who changed her diaper as a baby, who taught her how to throw a ball and a punch, who gave her her first taste of alcohol at Thanksgiving, who told her she’s a beautiful girl who deserves better than scumbag.
What she fails to comprehend is why they had to lie about it instead of Dante being that cool uncle that filled in for his best friend when he went AWOL.
Her head is still on the table when she hears the doorbell. Startled at first, she flies out of her chair and down the hall to the front door. Swinging it open, she’s more than happy to see the officer. She stands to the side and shuts the door behind him. Sliding her hands in the back pockets of her shorts, she faces him. He’s dressed in jeans and a tee, but he appears tense as if still in uniform. In the daylight, with his brown hair brushed away from his face, Maria can tell he’s closer to her mother’s age than her own. His round face and long nose aren’t attractive in the slightest bit, but he has a sort of confidence that almost compensates for it. “Who are you and how do you know about all this?”
He stands in the foyer with his arms crossed and legs slightly apart. “Officer Blake Graham. How much of the story do you know?”
Shifting her weight to one leg, Maria studies him before answering. “Dylan and my mamma got pregnant as teenagers. Dylan, I guess, struggled with addictions, and when I was born, he disappeared and Dante stepped in, putting his name on my birth certificate.”
Blake scoffs. “Dante said he wanted to tell you the truth before I did,” he says, shaking his head, “but he left out so many details. Your father was into drugs and alcohol when you were conceived.”
As he says this, Maria’s eyes widen. You’re becoming more and more like your father every day. Suddenly, her mother’s words make perfect sense, but she isn’t sure how she feels about it.
“Trying to better himself for Anna,” Blake continues, “he focused his addiction towards politics, and worked as field manager for Robert Graham. After you were born, Dylan realized he couldn’t be the father you needed or deserved, so he did the best thing he could do: step aside and let a real man take over.”
“But why is Dante’s name on my birth certificate and not Dylan’s?” Maria interjects.
“Robert Graham had plans for Dylan, and it didn’t involve being tied down to a baby mama and a child. He was advised to cut all connections with you.” Maria opens her mouth, but he holds out his hand. “Rob paid Dante and Anna to get them to put his name on there instead of Dylan’s.”
They both received monetary compensation to lie to her. Running her hands though her hair, Maria crouches, resting her back against the door. Dante had said that he’d have been there for her whether his name was on paper or not, but of course that’s easy to say when he’s been paid. She looks at Blake. There’s a plea in her eyes as she shakes her head, silently begging for him to be lying. “My fucking mother was paid to lie to me about something so…” Her voice trails off, and she slams her fist against the wall to keep the tears at bay.
Blake’s head tilts to the side. “I don’t know. If he was my dad, I’d want my mom to lie about it, too.” He shrugs, taking a step back. “At least, back then. But maybe you should get her side of the story before you go on hating her.”
“No,” she says. “I always got the feeling she resented me. If she hated him so much she wanted to erase him from her life…” She looks up at Blake. “I’m a constant reminder that he exists. Maybe she wanted Dante to be my father, and the money was just incentive.” She’s trying to make sense of it out loud, but it doesn’t help her understand. Eventually, she gives up trying, and returns to her initial question. “How do you know all this?” She shakes her head. “And why are you telling me all this?”
Inhaling, he looks away. “Because Robert Graham is my father.”
Maria stands, then takes a seat on the couch in the living room. “Wait. Dylan abandoned me and Mamma for politics?”
Following Maria, Blake sits in the armchair across from her. “I’d say politics abducted him from you and your mom.” Sitting forward in his seat with his legs wide, he rests an elbow on each knee. “But that’s not the point. The point is my sister has weaseled her way into being vice president and plans to take our father’s place as president and continue his bullshit.” Blake shakes his head. “She can’t do that. Not only should it have been illegal that she become vice president, but my dad shouldn’t still be in power in the first place.” He pauses a moment and looks into Maria’s eyes. “They’re slowly morphing our country into a dictatorship.”
Maria leans into the couch, waiting expectantly. “And what does that have to do with fucking up my life now?”
Blake eyes her for a moment. “You’ve hacked your phone, preventing the servers from connecting to it properly, have you not?” Maria looks away and remains silent, so Blake continues. “Hacking the encrypted software on mobile devices requires a skill level we’re in need of.”
This interests her. “Who’s we?”
“A counter-revolution. Help me, and I’ll help you.” He pauses for a moment. “You want to meet your father, and I know where to find him. It’s a win-win situation.”
Maria sits up and resting her hands on the cushions on either side of her. Joining this covert operation would mean eventually meeting her true father.
If she faced him, what would she actually say? Would the child inside her, the child questioning why she was abandoned and lied to, beg for answers; or would the jaded adult she’s quickly become tell him to fuck off? Thinking about this brings her to a question she’s not yet asked before, but one she now fears the answer to: how will he receive her?
Catching her breath, she realizes Blake’s been speaking and she’s heard none of it. Returning her focus to him, she does her best to clear the thoughts from her mind. She doesn’t know why she cares so much about a man who should mean nothing to her when she has a father that already means everything.
“The President’s dying,” he says quietly. “He has days, maybe weeks, left. If we plan to do something, we need to do so before my sister takes office.” When she just blankly stares at him, he scoffs. “We need to leave now.”
“Now?” Maria asks, her voice rising. “Leave now, for where?”
“We’re based in Virginia, near the Washington boarder.” He stands, slipping his hands into his pockets. “Do you want answers from Dylan or not?”
Maria nods. More than anything she wants answers. “Let me grab some clothes,” she says as she heads down the hall to her room. The first thing she does as she sits on her bed is pull out her phone and send a message to Evan. No time to explain. Pack a bag and meet me at my house in five minutes. After tapping send, she falls onto her back and stares at her ceiling.
She’s going to meet the man that helped create her. Dante may be her father, but she is Dylan’s flesh and blood. She isn’t sure what she wants from him, exactly, or what she plans to accomplish by going. Aside from getting answers, of course. Does she expect more? This leads her to wonder what exactly Blake expects from her. Hacking a phone is one thing; hacking the president’s office is another.
Her phone vibrates in her hand, pulling her from her thoughts. Unsurprisingly, Evan is worried. I’m fine. I’ll fill you in when you get here, she replies, then digs through her closet for a duffel bag. Taking her time, she fills it with enough clothes for a week.
By the time she’s back in the living room, Evan is knocking on the door. Blake, standing in the foyer now, eyes her suspiciously as she answers it and is greeted with a kiss.
“This isn’t some high school field trip,” Blake says, annoyed.
“If you think I’m going to go all the way to Virginia with some guy I just met, you’re fucking crazy,” she says, searching the desk in the living room for a piece of paper and a writing utensil, a task that is far more difficult than it should be.
“Virginia?” Evan asks, setting his back onto the couch.
“I’m going to meet Dylan, and we’re going to hack the President.”
Evan crosses his arms, his eyes narrowing. He turns to Blake. “What the fuck?”
“I’m assuming the phone modification is a joint coding effort,” Blake says. “The President has, at best, weeks to live, and I need my sister, the Vice President, out of the office before he is gone. In order for that to happen, there are files on their server that I need access to. With your coding skills—”
“Why not hire professionals?” Evan interjects.
Blake eyes Evan a minute before speaking. “Because Maria wants to know who her biological father is, and I know where to find him. Win-win.”
Before Evan can respond, Maria holds up an old take-out menu and an almost-dried-out marker she’s found. “‘Leaving with Evan for Virginia. Sick cousin.'” She looks at Blake and Evan. “How does that sound?”
“Like it’ll freak your mother out and piss off your dad,” Evan says.
“Dante,” Maria says, correcting him. Until she decides how she feels about both Dante and Dylan, she will call neither her father.
“It sounds great. Let’s go,” Blake mutters as he leaves the house.
Hanging the note on the refrigerator, Maria grabs her duffel and follows him, Evan in tow. She locks the door behind her, and when she turns around, it becomes quite obvious how they’ll be getting to Virginia. Of the very few cars that line Prospect Street, one in particular stands out with its ultra-sleek body and chrome color. Both of the car’s door lift open, a feature Maria hasn’t personally seen in a car before, and Blake slides into the driver’s swivel seat while Maria and Evan take the seats on the passenger’s side. As expected, the front dash is full of lights surrounding a large holo-projection screen. Using his phone, he programs the address into the car’s navigation system and before Maria can open her mouth to question if the car will drive itself, it pulls away from the curb without Blake pressing a pedal.
“Of course,” she mutters to herself, quickly pulling the seat belt across her chest and gripping the arm rests tightly. She swivels her seat to face Evan behind her, not wanting to watch the road through the dark-tinted windows.
“It’s safe,” Blake says, watching her reaction. Leaning back in his seat, he slides his hands into his pockets.
Maria, still gripping the arm rests, shakes her head. Evan, seemingly at ease in the self-driving car, laughs at her, but she ignores it. By the time the car is pulling on to the Route 8 on-ramp in Derby, Maria has allowed herself to look out the window. As expected, everything outside blurs past and she has to take deep breaths to keep from becoming nauseous. Through the glass which she assumes is missile-proof, she watches as buildings, trees, and the occasional car pass by. Those in other vehicles watch Blake’s car in awe. None of them, like Maria, have seen something so impressive and modern, despite living in this modern world. The great technological advancements are rarely seen by the common person except through a screen; they’re saved for the elites of big cities like New York and Los Angeles, the top quarter-of-a-percent that must be above the law.
“Do you have a picture of him?” Maria quietly asks after a long silence. Her voice is small, almost as if she’s afraid to ask. This is her birth father; she has a right to be curious about him, doesn’t she?
Blake shakes his head. “Sorry.” After another long moment of silence, he shifts in his seat, swiveling his seat towards Maria. “UConn’s accepted you.”
Evan’s face lights up at the news, but Maria doesn’t share a similar reaction. Instead, she wonders how he could know. She opens her mouth to ask, but Blake speaks first.
“I had access to things.” He’s quiet for a moment. “I’ve seen your grades. Why did you apply?” He is prying, and Maria doesn’t like it. Evan watches her, and she can tell by the expression on his face that he’s curious about the same thing.
“I’m interested in political science.”
“You know how this democracy used to work, before Rob started fucking with it?”
Maria nods. It was a conversation with her economics and government teacher in the beginning of senior year that inspired her to want to change the government back to the way it was. He had told her that the only way to do that was to be educated. Her grandmother might think that Maria’s applying to UConn was only a joke, but she does actually have aspirations, even if she herself doesn’t believe she can attain them.
“I hope to someday restore that,” she says quietly, staring out the window. Everything moves so fast; the only things she can really focus on are the other cars, moving at comparable speeds. Now that they are on I-95, there are several more cars.
Evan eyes her, but she ignores it. “You never cease to surprise me, Maria Lee.”