Space Travel V: Waiting

Planet after planet, all more appealing yet less inviting than the previous. The turquoise and lime cut off communication. Later on, a yellow and purple planet, much unlike any I’ve ever landed on before yet welcoming all the same, invited another space craft before mine had time to land.

An internal emergency provoked a hiatus, during which finding a forever home was the last thing on my mind. Almost a year later, a crash landing on an inviting planet healing from natural disasters shed light on a perfect fit, but the landing dock disengaged my ship. Communications from the planet went silent for several months for self-preservation from a widespread virus.

When communications reopened, an invite to land was just moments away. The locals were inviting, curious, open. But the invite always felt moments away, then the moments turned into days, weeks, months. Perhaps an invite was never coming. And it left me thinking about the last home I had.

Luscious, haunted forests; clear, bottomless waters; majestic, unsettling mountains; bright, deceiving days; dark, mysterious nights. Despite starving me, it will always be one I’ll want to revisit. Not even a perfect fit can distract me from that.

June 16, 2012

The Dark

You were mid-war against the dark when I met you. Despite all the light I saw in you, I only brought out the worst. You possessed the strength and will to find the safe ground between the dark and light. I did to you what I do to everyone who gets too close.

I aimed to be good, but the light bored me. The dark was exciting and I could control it. While others were consumed by the power that came with the dark, I ignored that lust. I could because instead of walling the light inside off from myself, I only hid it from others.

Bending the dark as I wished carried its price. I didn’t let the power fuel a rage to keep me going. I had to find my own way to not slip into the black hole. I’d pull someone close and introduce them to the dark. Things only decay in the dark, and I thrived on that pain.

You were different. You already knew the dark and loved it. We had fun with that but you lost the war.

I regret all of it: you, me, what we did. You meant the world to me. I should have protected you from me. This is all my fault and now I pay the price.

March 2020

Space Travel IV: Repeating History

History seems to repeat itself. I found myself again orbiting the green and blue planet hidden by the red atmosphere. I explained to the still hidden yet communicative inhabitants that I wasn’t to blame for the quake, and we seemed to be on the same page. While exploring the planet, searching for the docking station I was told was nearby, I noticed I was taking subtle amounts of damage. Once I discovered the cause was the inhabitants, I immediately fled, expending extra fuel to fight the planet’s strong gravity.

The only way I was able escape the orbit of the green and blue planet was by entering the orbit of a planet in the far east, with turquoise waters and lime-colored forests. These planets accept a wide variety of spacecraft models, including mine. I’ve already decided I want to land before receiving the first transmission from the planet.

May 2019

Space Travel III: Natural Disasters

I almost looked past a planet with crimson lands and lavender oceans until it sent me a transmission. I entered its orbit to simply communicate, as these red and lavender planets have no docking stations for my ship model. When I got close, its gravity pulled me into its atmosphere, and I discovered the planet was a green and blue planet just hidden by a red sky.

The seemingly social inhabitants hid from view while beckoning me to land. Before I could find a docking station, the solid ground began to crack. The inhabitants were hostile and ready to attack as if I caused the quake. Without a second thought, I broke through the red atmosphere and returned to my original path through space. As I watched the planet through my rear window until it was no longer visible, I wondered if the inhabitants knew I didn’t cause the quake.

January 2019

Space Travel II: Rescue

The breathtaking eastern planet was easier to land on than expected. The quiet environment felt like a salvation after having landed on the sun. I quickly learned the planet was haunted. I attempted to help whatever lingered find peace, but the planet lacked nutrients and I starved. I lashed out at the demons as if they deceived me. The lifeless planet somehow became less inhabitable, and I began to freeze. Defeated, I crawled back to my craft, and sent an SOS to a fellow traveler. I was rescued before I could become another ghost to haunt the planet.

The two of us travelled in my already-small ship after we pooled our resources. We passed another traveler, and my new companion jumped ship. I fully restocked my reserves and set out yet again in search of a new planet to call home.

January 2019

Space Travel I: Rebuilding

From afar, the sun is impressive as it burns bright millions of miles away. I tried to land on it, but ultimately it was a giant ball of gas that burned the spacecraft. I don’t know what else I was expecting. I rebuilt my ship and set out again with limited resources, granting flight to one of two planets. I could fly to the west and land on a planet that welcomes travelers. It’s rough terrain and maybe not that interesting, but likely the safer choice. Or I could set sail for the east, in the direction of a planet that is leagues above that which lies in the west. Its atmosphere isn’t the greatest for inhabiting, but the nature is breathtaking. The docking station accepted travelers once before, but it’s unknown if currently it remains open. My navigation has set itself toward the east; I’m not sure if I should conduct a manual override or take my chances.

October 2017

A Search: Chapter 5

Chapter V

Washington, D.C. – June 2038

Dylan sits with his head in his hands in the Oval Office. Under President Graham, the room has undergone a modern, clean look. The matching sofas in the center of the room are white-and-silver-striped suede; the silk accent pillows are black with silver trim; the walls and the oval rug covering the majority of the room, marked with the presidential seal, are a cloud gray; the grand curtains that cover the three picturesque windows behind the Resolute desk are silver silk; the leather chair behind the desk is stark black.

Dylan glances yet again at the vacant office chair. Before the month is over, the Vice President will be sitting at that desk, continuing her father’s ideals to pull America out of a depression unlike any other in history, and to force it closer to the dictatorship it’s slowly becoming. Dylan hates using such a negative word, but even he has to admit it’s an accurate description of the current government. Perhaps it would seem less negative if he inserted beneficial before dictatorship. They might control most things from the White House, but no one can disagree that America is better because of it.

Leaning back against the white suede couch, Dylan laughs at how easy it was for President Graham to take advantage of people’s desperation and fear in order to give himself the power to remain in office, and at how easy that power can be taken away. Through a series of laws aimed at rectifying the country, Rob doubled not only the length of one term, but the amount of terms one president could serve. Dylan knows that if he weren’t currently lying in bed, privately dying of pancreatic cancer, the man would be signing laws to again increase those numbers.

If he could, the man would outlaw cancer. Dylan laughs at the thought. Anything to stay in power.

Dylan can’t feign innocence in Rob’s rise to power, though. It was he who suggested the reformation of the cabinet, granting more power to both the Chief of Staff and Vice President while creating a new title, Secretary of Presidential Affairs. After appointing Carson as Chief of Staff and Dylan as Secretary of Presidential Affairs, Rob slowly increased the powers of those offices; the ultimate goal here was to give the President the ability to appoint a new Vice President at leisure, granted the Chief of Staff and Secretary of Presidential Affairs confirmed the change. Through this method, Ryan became the second-in-line.

As the Secretary of Presidential Affairs, Dylan used his newfound powers to enforce a second prohibition in America. His intentions were noble, he believed. He wanted to prevent all of America’s youth from going down the very path on which he was lost as an adolescent; but he had another, stronger motivation for passing this law: his daughter. When Ryan told him, almost a decade after she was born, that his daughter had died of SIDS just weeks before her first birthday, Dylan gave up on the prohibition. Although he didn’t believe Ryan cared about the idea, she continued it and the laws were in effect by the end of the year.

In the corner of the room, a grandfather clock rings twice. The hideous dark cherry feature has always felt out of place in the room, but Rob had insisted on splurging on it.

The door of the office opens, and Dylan looks over at Ryan as she enters slowly and joins him on the sofa. “What are you doing in here?” she asks.

“I think best here.”

She nods, placing a hand on his leg and leaning into him, resting her head on his chest. “The doctor says Daddy has weeks at best,” she says.

He wraps his arms around her out of politeness. Since her father’s health started to fail, Ryan’s attitude towards her father has shifted. Instead of seeing him as any Vice President would see the president, she’s reverted to calling him daddy, something she claims she’s never done before. Growing up, she and her brothers were forced to call him Sir. The man was able to raise and provide for his children, yet he still kept them at a distance; Dylan has tried not to let this bother him, but the more Ryan refers to him as her father instead of the President, the more he thinks of the daughter he lost years ago.

In his arms, Dylan can feel Ryan sob, and he tightens his grip. “Shh,” he murmurs, despite finding it hard to care. If it were anyone but her father, he would. As morbid as he thinks it is, he tries to remember the sympathy he had for her when her mother died of breast cancer years ago.

He wipes the hair from her face as it begins to stick to the tears, and wishes there were something he could say to dry her eyes. Instead, he just holds her until the clock rings three times, then four. Other than the chimes and Ryan’s crying, the room is silent. When she finally quiets down, Dylan sees that she’s fallen asleep. Sighing, he reaches for a decorative silk pillow and gently replaces his body with it as he lays her flat on the sofa.

Quietly, he leaves the office and makes his way through the many halls and corridors of the White House to the family kitchen on the second floor of the main residence. While he walks, he sets the coffee machine to pour a cup of hot water via an app on his phone.

He knows it’s unfair, but he can’t help but feel as though she has no right to mourn for her father. Half of him still blames her for never having the chance to be there for his daughter before she passed; the other half of him is thankful to not have been there to find Maria unresponsive in her crib. Still, some part of him can’t help but wonder whether it would have all turned out differently had he not abandoned his daughter and Anna-Marie.

In the recently-renovated kitchen, he grabs the mug from the stainless steel machine and a packet of licorice and peppermint tea from the cupboard and places it in the cup, dunking and lifting it several times to ensure maximum flavor. After adding a small amount of milk and half a spoonful of sugar, he brings the tea to the office and sets it on the dark cherry table in front of the sofa Ryan still sleeps on. He’s about to take his spot beside her when his phone vibrates in his pocket.

Sitting on the identical sofa across from Ryan, he pulls out the mobile device and checks the message. Dylan’s brows furrow when he sees it’s from Ryan’s power-hungry brother Blake of all people. How is she doing?

Shaking his head, he sets his phone beside him without replying. Blake cares little about both Ryan and their father; he made this quite clear after Ryan was sworn in as Vice President. After Rob began passing the laws that finally shed some light on depressed America, Blake had expressed his concern and disapproval, but it was Ryan’s swearing-in almost seven years ago that pushed him away from the family. So why the sudden interest now? Curious, Dylan picks up the phone and replies. Your father is dying. What do you think? Again, he shakes his head as he looks over at Ryan. She’s watching him.

“Have a nice nap?” he asks quietly.

Sitting up, she notices the mug sitting in front of her on the coffee table, and smiles. “You’re a doll,” she says before sipping it. “My favorite.”

As his phone vibrates again, Dylan takes a seat beside her and kisses the side of her head. He thinks of Ryan’s mother as he feigns sympathy. “I thought it might help.” At least, he hoped it would. He thinks the cry and nap might have helped more than anything. “Your brother was checking in on you.”

“Carson? I’m surprised he left Daddy’s side,” she says between sips.

He inhales sharply at daddy, but shrugs it off quickly. “Not Carson,” he says, shaking his head. He hesitates before adding, “Your youngest brother.”

Ryan looks up at him. “Did he message you?” Dylan nods, and she looks down. “Since when does he care?”

He shrugs, pulling out his phone. “I couldn’t figure that out, either,” he says as he reads the message.

Forgive me for asking.

Dylan rolls his eyes, but doesn’t reply. As he sets his phone down, he receives another. Carson invited me for dinner. I’ll be there at six.a

Groaning, Dylan thinks of the best way to tell Ryan. Looking at her sideways, he knows there is no best way. Ryan’s made it very clear over the years that she wants Blake nowhere near the White House.

“What’s the matter?” she asks, grabbing his hand and setting it in her lap. Her fingers intertwine with his.

He mulls over different ways to tell her. “How about Blake comes over for dinner?” he asks cautiously.

Her grip tightens. “How about not?” She shakes her head. “In what world would I agree to that?”

Dylan smiles and looks her in the eyes. “Ask your favorite brother. He already invited Blake.”

Ripping her hand from his, she immediately stands and nearly spills her tea. “Carson?” she asks, but turns to leave before he can respond. She is out the door in seconds, and Dylan almost fears for the man’s safety. Ryan’s been known to swing a punch when pushed far enough. Slowly, Dylan stands and follows after her. He finds them on the second floor, between the central hall and landing.

“Why the fuck would you do that?” she demands, her arms raised in anger.

Carson has his hands up in defense. “Ryan, please calm—”

“No, Car,” she cuts him off, stepping closer. “I will not fucking calm down. You invited that piece of shit into this house. Why—”

“He would like to make peace with you and Dad, Ryan!” Carson holds her gaze for a moment. “No one wants to believe that time is running down, but it is. He and Dad need to reconcile their differences, before it’s too late. As do you.”

“I’m not speaking to that power-hungry bastard,” she yells.

“Dad has agreed to it,” Carson says, his voice still at a reasonable volume.

Ryan glares at her brother for a moment, but when she speaks, her voice has gone down a level. “If Dad wants to, that’s his prerogative.” When Carson stands silently, arms crossed, Ryan turns away. Her fists are still clenched as she pushes past Dylan. “Whatever.”

“That went better than I thought,” he says to Carson when Ryan is out of sight.

Carson nods. “I anticipated her getting physical.”

“You and me both,” Dylan says before turning away. Instead of following Ryan, he decides to let her cool off on her own and heads to the television room in the southeast corner of the third floor.

He enters the room, decorated in purples and blues upon Ryan’s request, and takes a seat on the oversized suede couch. He pulls out his phone and searches for something to watch on television. Rather than watch the football game he settles on, he’s on his phone, flicking through political news.

The public has yet to learn of Rob’s illness or of his eminent death. Instead, they focus on a new bill he passed for expanding healthcare. Few people oppose it, but Dylan knows better than to believe these reviews are accurate; few people openly oppose anything the government does, and for good reason, given the power it has in controlling the flow of money throughout the entire country.

Dylan barely realizes two hours have gone by until Ryan enters the den and sits beside him. “Blake is here,” she sighs heavily. “And dinner will be served in five.”

Dylan nods, shutting off the television. He studies her for a moment. She hasn’t seen her youngest brother in almost five years, not since their mother passed. “Breathe,” he whispers in her hear as they both stand. She nods and follows him as he heads down to the first floor.

Carson stands in the entrance hall with Blake, who looks exactly as he did the last time Dylan saw him. A much younger female, with caramel-colored hair and lightly tanned skin, stands beside him. Something about her wide-eyed, curious expression and insecure demeanor seems familiar.

Together, Ryan and Dylan descend the grand staircase, lined with red and gold carpet. Ryan watches her youngest brother, just as he watches her. When Ryan finally takes notice of the girl on Blake’s arm, she freezes.

“Blake… What have you done,” she mutters, her eyes wide and face pale. She grabs Dylan’s hand and he turns towards her.

“What’s wrong?” he whispers, but she doesn’t acknowledge him. Her focus doesn’t shift from the girl. Dylan glances down at the pair; Blake has a smug expression on his face, while confusion is plain across the girl’s face. “Who is she?” Dylan asks under his breath.

Slowly turning her head towards him, something in her expression changes, almost as if she’s relieved. “I don’t know. I just…” She pauses for a moment, and then shakes her head. “I can’t believe he’d bring a date to a dinner meant to reconcile our differences,” she finishes quickly before continuing down the stairs. She slightly nods at her younger brothers before heading into the formal family dining room past the main elevator.

Dylan doesn’t believe her, but for now, he lets it go. As he walks past Blake and the girl, he hesitates, getting a closer look at her. Her eyes are an enchanting shade of green, a color that makes him nostalgic. He has to look away before his mind is brought back to a past he has worked hard to forget. As he forces himself to take a deep breath, he notices that Blake’s smile has widened. Dylan has never been fond of the man, but his distrust for him seems to grow with each visit.

Shortly after everyone is seated at a rich mahogany table beneath a crystal chandelier and the first course is served, Carson finally breaks the silence by introducing the girl, Maria, as Blake’s girlfriend.

Ryan’s head snaps up at the girl’s name, and her glare nearly pierces through her youngest brother. “Charming,” she spits, her voice more poisonous than her stare. She avoids eye contact with Maria, though. Dylan wonders if Ryan knows her. In the almost eighteen years he’s known her, though, she’s never once mentioned anyone by that name, though.

“Tell me, Blake. Why are you here?” she asks between bites of salad.

“Because, Ryan,” he starts, seemingly unaffected by his sister as he glances between her and Dylan. “I want to fix the past and ensure a better future for this country.”

Ryan crosses her hands on the table in front of her after setting her fork down. “This is between you and me. Why don’t we talk in private?”

Shaking his head, Blake chews and swallows the bite in his mouth. “On the contrary, I think it involves everyone here.” He looks Ryan straight in the eyes. “But if you want to speak alone, why don’t we go now? Take our plates to one of your other ten dining rooms. We could let Maria, Dylan, and Carson get to know each other better.”

After a quick glance at Maria then Dylan, Ryan shakes her head briskly. “No, no, I think I’m good here. No need to disrupt a dinner already in progress.” Her words are light-hearted, but her voice is bittersweet.

“She has a valid point,” Carson says, avoiding eye contact with both Blake and Ryan. Never has Dylan seen the middle child take on such a literal role, playing peacekeeper between his siblings. Though he will always support Ryan, he pities Carson and his desire to bring his family back together. He believes the rift between the two is too deep for reparations.

Ryan eyes Blake and her eyes narrow. “What do you want?”

He smiles. “I think you know what I want, Vice President.”

Dylan is certain everyone seated at the table, even newcomer Maria, knows what Blake wants: to become Vice President. Unless Ryan steps down or dies, Dylan knows Rob would never nominate his youngest son for the position. Even if he did, it would require the signatures of both Carson and Dylan. Carson might sign, but Dylan doesn’t know if he would; he wouldn’t want to go against the Rob’s wishes, but he knows how passionate Ryan is about the role. She would never back down willingly.

He looks to Ryan to gauge her reaction; her eyes are wide with fear. Blake has something on Ryan, but try as he might, Dylan can think of nothing that could be used as leverage.

Carson lowers his head; he must realize this confrontation is his fault.

“Blake, be very careful what you do,” Ryan warns. She takes a deep breath, glancing at Dylan out of the corner of her eye. “Do not test me, little brother.”

He sits up in his seat, his brows arched. After a moment, he smirks. “I really don’t think you’re in any place to be making threats, Ryan. Think about the current situation.”

Carson raises his head to speak, but Ryan slams her fists on the table, sitting forward in her seat. “Watch what you say, Blake! You are right in saying that it’s no longer between you and me. Take others into consideration before you act or speak.” Her voice rises with each word, and she’s bordering on hysteria.

“Just as you did?” he quickly replies. “You made your bed. Now lie in it.”

“Blake!” Ryan cries as she stands and steps away from the table. Dylan quickly follows, grabbing her shoulders in an attempt to calm her. She tries to push him away, but when he pulls her closer, she wraps her arms around him. Her shoulder rise and fall with each sob. Crying in private is one thing, but for Ryan to cry in front of someone she just met is completely different. What could Blake have over her to elicit this sort of reaction?

“Whatever you two are arguing about, you choose now to bring it up?” Carson asks, his voice low.

Blake stands before answering. “Now is the only time. She brought this upon herself, Car.” There’s gentleness to his voice when speaking to Carson, evidence of either admiration or appreciation. Why he couldn’t speak that way towards Ryan, Dylan doesn’t understand. “I think my work here is done,” Blake says after Maria stands.

Wiping the tears from her eyes and leaning into Dylan, Ryan glares at Blake as Carson leads them out of the dining room. Over her shoulder, Maria studies Dylan and Ryan. She seems as confused about the situation as he is. When they are out of sight, he places a hand on either side of Ryan’s face and returns her focus back to him. “What was that about?” he demands gently.

Ryan shakes her head, resting her cheek against his left hand. She turns her head to kiss his palm. “Don’t worry about it. Please,” she whispers before reaching to kiss him. Dylan returns the embrace despite her tenderness worrying him. He’s never seen Ryan so fragile; he prays she’ll return to normal after Rob passes. Looking over her shoulder in the direction Blake left, he worries that she may break before her father dies.

October 2013

« Chapter IV

A Search: Chapter 4

Chapter IV

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.

“Why not?”

“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.”

October 2013

« Chapter III Chapter V »

A Search: Chapter 3

Chapter III

Ansonia, CT – June 2038

Maria stares at a photograph on her dresser from her first birthday, the only photo where both her parents appear together. Each time she looks at it, she thinks of the first time she asked why the three of them aren’t in the same house like a normal family. Her mother had said that it was for the best. Maria shakes her head now at how simple and naive the answer was. The two just aren’t in love the way parents should be.

Staring at this photo as she’s done so many times before, Maria can’t help but wonder what drew her parents together in the first place. Her mother, without the years of stress aging her pale face, has the kind of innocent beauty that few take notice of. Her father, on the other hand, has a face few would consider pleasing but a rich, deep skin tone to make up for it. Although she is thankful she gets most of her looks from her mother, she wishes she looked more Italian. Her heritage is one of the few things she’s proud of.

“Maria Lee Thomas, are you even listening to me?”

She looks away from the photograph to her exasperated mother. “Not really,” she says, rolling her r. When she’s home or with her father or immigrant nonni, Maria often tries to mimic their accents; anything to make her feel closer to her heritage.

Her mother’s voice raises half an octave, but Maria still doesn’t listen. This isn’t the first time she’s been caught with marijuana, and this isn’t the first lecture she’s heard. Nothing her mother says about the drug-sniffing dogs always patrolling the streets, or the fact that even one little nanogram would get the two of them, plus her grandparents, sent to prison for life is new to her. The omnipotent police force has made these laws plain and clear; they can be heard from one of the many speakers located around town.

Instead of listening to her mother’s tired rant, Maria flicks through the messages on her standard-issue phone, thankful for the hacks that block the government’s ability to tap into the device at any time. If they heard this conversation, they’d be busting down the door right this minute. Why can’t her mother see that she has everything covered? The phone modifications she and her boyfriend have programmed, the odorless variant of marijuana, the code names…

As she scrolls through the messages, she notices a new one from a blocked number. Before she can open it, her mother snatches the phone from her hands, forcing Maria to finally look at her.

“You’re becoming more and more like your father every day,” her mother says before instantly shutting her mouth.

“And what’s so wrong with Pappa?” Maria asks as she stands. This isn’t the first time some bullshit comment like that has slipped from her mother’s lips, but she still fails to see what is so wrong with her father that warrants her unable to live with him full-time. In her eyes, he cares about her far more than her mother does. “Just because you don’t love him, it doesn’t mean I don’t,” she snaps before grabbing her phone and pushing past her mother.

Anna-Marie grabs her arm. “Maria, do not leave this house.”

“Why not?” she asks as she yanks her arm free. “I’m like my father, and since he’s not here, maybe I shouldn’t be either.”

Before her mother can respond, Maria is gone. She doesn’t know where to go, so she wanders Ansonia. The heat of a summer afternoon in Connecticut embraces her, and she takes her time with each step. Every single officer of the dozens she passes watches her, but she ignores their scrutinizing eyes. In her mind, she has done nothing wrong in possessing that small bag of marijuana; she’s just surviving. If she didn’t have drugs to calm her, she believes she’d have gone on a rampage by now. When an officer walking a dog passes, however, she is thankful that there are no drugs on her person now. The dog glances in her direction, but if there’s a scent of marijuana on her, it’s too faint for the German shepherd to care.

Everywhere she looks, houses are on the verge of collapse, but she knows they’re not abandoned. What little money people have now is put towards food and clothes, not the maintenance and repair of their homes. Unemployment may be lower now with Robert Graham in office, and at least entire families don’t have to live in one crowded house anymore, but America isn’t the way they envisioned, typical of the government to not deliver on their promises. If she could, she’d do something about it.

Maria wanders down Main Street, looking at the various stores and restaurants. None are locally-owned, but at least there are stores inhabiting these once-empty spaces. A loudspeaker attached to a streetlamp a few yards away broadcasts a friendly reminder of the most commonly violated laws. Maria ignores the enthusiastic female voice as she sits on a bench outside a pizzeria. She inhales the scents of garlic and dough, reminding her of baking calzones with her nonna. Her nonno is said to have bragged about Maria’s culinary prowess once to relatives back in Italy.

She smiles at the thought, leaning back in her seat, resting her elbows on the back of the bench. Looking around, she notices an officer with unusually long hair, his head angled towards her. She knows he’s watching her, but the fact that he pretends he’s not is what catches her attention; officers are usually very obvious in their surveillance.

Come at me, she almost taunts, but she keeps her mouth shut. No need to be thrown into prison over nothing. To distract herself, she pulls her phone out and finally reads the message from the blocked number.

You might want to ask your mommy and daddy about the past, it reads.

Bothered by both the cryptic message and being watched by a peculiar officer, she stands. Her first reaction is to go to her father, but given the emphasis on him in the message, his name written in italics, she heads to her boyfriend’s house instead.

Knowing Evan is alone at this time of day, Maria knocks twice, casually kicks the door, then knocks once more: code to let him know it’s safe to answer regardless of his current state of mind. When he does, she quickly enters and locks the door behind her.

“Hey, you,” he says before pulling her close for a kiss. “What up?” he asks, still holding onto her.

Leaning into him and looking up at his eyes, she smiles. “Can we have a drink?” Using her American accent now, she keeps her voice down, not wanting to alert any possible officers passing outside.

“You can have anything, babe,” he says before letting go. He leads her past the living room and into the den where his bum uncle sleeps. The room, void of any sunlight or fresh air, smells of body odor and cheap candles, and the mattress in the corner has numerous stains on it. Very little disturbs Maria, but this room gets to her. She stands in the doorway as Evan digs through the closet, lifting several bottles before grabbing one in particular. As she follows him to the kitchen, bright despite the closed curtains, she sees that he chose peppermint schnapps.

After he pours two shots, she lifts her glass and brings it to her nose. Its minty scent brings a smile to her face. “I’m surprised you have this,” she says. What really surprises her is that he already knows this is her favorite drink after only a month of dating.

After they down their shots, Evan shrugs. “My uncle has his ways, I guess.”

“Bless that man,” Maria laughs as she slides herself onto the counter beside the glasses and bottle.

“Why are we day-drinking?” he asks, leaning against a chair at the table across from Maria. His tone is light-hearted, but Maria can hear sincerity in it. “Did you hear back from UConn?”

She shakes her head and forces a laugh. “Like, my grades senior year were bomb, but not so much the other three years.” She shrugs, pouring what looks close enough to half a shot for herself. “My grandpa seems to think I’ll get in because of how I turned my grades around or some shit, despite the late application.”

“I think the fact that you actually applied means you’ll get in. You and the other, like, nine applicants,” he laughs. “What would you even study there?”

“Political science.” When he laughs, she gives him a look. “What’s so funny?”

The smile not fading from his thick lips, Evan shakes his head. “I’m surprised you wouldn’t go for software engineering or development. So, what’s the occasion, then?”

Maria is silent for a moment. Her relationship with guys has always only been physical; none have cared why she did what she did. She eyes the twenty-year-old beside her with his dark eyes and skin and fuzzy black buzz cut. Even the way he looks at her screams that he’s different from the others, and she isn’t sure she likes it. Instead of answering the question, she drinks the half-shot in her glass.

An eyebrow raised, Evan watches her. “Need to talk?”

“My mamma flushed the bag I just bought,” she says as she pulls out her phone and shows him the cryptic message. “Also, this. What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” she asks.

Evan crosses his arms. “Have you asked your parents about it?” He looks up at her. There’s genuine concern in his expression.

Maria snorts, setting the phone on the counter. “They’re both so weird about the past. I’ve asked them about the day I was born and the day they met and little kid shit like that, and they’re always so vague about it.” Saying this aloud, she begins to wonder if there really is something neither of them is telling her.

Reaching for her phone, Evan looks over the message. “That’s some quality hacking,” he mutters. “‘Daddy’ is italicized.” Handing the phone back to Maria, he adds, “I’d go to him first.”

She stares at the phone in her hands. It’s been a few weeks since she’s seen him; even if she gets no answers, it’ll be worth visiting him. As she stands and slips the phone back into her pocket, Evan stands with her and wraps his arms around her. “Do you have a BlocLoz?” she asks after a kiss.

Nodding, he slips past her and disappears down the hall. While he’s gone, she rinses out her glass, fills it with water, and drinks it. As she places the empty glass back onto the counter, he returns with a small baggie containing several red cough drop-sized lozenges. She takes one of the cherry-flavored alcohol scent-blockers, kisses him once more, and leaves.

Although the walk from Ansonia to Derby is less than half an hour, Maria is impatient and heads for the bus stop around the corner from Evan’s house. Not five minutes later, she’s on the bus, paying with a tap of her phone against the receiver beside the driver and taking a seat towards the back. By the time she gets off at the Mobile beside her father’s house, she’s gone through about a thousand explanations for why her parents have been so vague. As she heads up the outside stairs of the two-family house and lets herself into the upstairs unit, she decides she’s not leaving until she gets the truth.

“Pappa,” she calls while shutting the door behind her. Barely realizing it, she’s shifted back into her faint Italian accent. Dante appears in the doorway of the living room, and she wraps her arms around him.

“Hey, kiddo,” he says, his accent thicker than hers. His voice is warm, as is his embrace. It’s different than the warmth her mother gives off; it feels less natural, but far more comforting. Maria has always attributed it to their genders. “What brings you here?”

She half-throws herself onto the couch against the wall facing the street, kicks off her flip-flops, and pulls her knees to her chest. “Can’t I just come see my pappa because I love him?” she jokes.

An uneasy look washes over Dante. “You could,” he starts, sitting beside her, “but I know you better than that.” He studies her for a moment. “What’s up?”

Sitting forward, she puts her feet on the freshly-vacuumed carpet and rubs her toes over the course fibers. With a deep breath, she pulls out her phone and shows him the message. He stares at it for a long while before shaking his head slowly, his thumb and finger pinching the bridge of his nose. “The bastard,” he mutters under his breath.

Maria sits forward in her seat, leaning slightly to get a better view of his face. “What bastard?”

He shakes his head again and stands, then faces Maria. As he looks at her, she stares into his eyes, wondering if the pain she sees there is real or just a figment of her imagination. He looks as if he’s on the verge of tears, and it makes her heart feel like lead.

“Pappa?” she pleads, unsettled by his reaction.

As she says this, he looks away, and she swears a tear falls from his eye. “Maria, you know I love you more than the world,” he says as he sits back down. His hand rests on her cheek before he pulls her into his arms again.

“Pappa, you’re scaring me,” she whispers into his chest.

He holds her at arm’s length and looks into her eyes. “Whatever happens, I want you to know I mean that, and I always will.”

Scooting away from him, she furrows her brows. “What is going on?”

Dante takes a deep breath and looks away. “There are things about your birth that your ma and I never thought you’d have to find out about.”

As he says this, Maria suddenly feels as though the air is in short supply. “Why is ‘daddy’ italicized?” Her voice is barely audible. Of all the things she imagined about what the message could mean, this is turning into the worst of them.

When he looks back at her, his eyes are red and the pain is obvious. He opens his mouth as if to speak, but no words come out.

She stands, her hands at her side. “You’re not…” she tries to say, but her voice fails before she can finish. Dante stands and reaches for her. As much as she wants to run into his arms, she takes a step away with her heart in her stomach.

“The message, the bastard,” she says after a moment, trying her hardest not to cry. “Is that my father?” She chokes on the last word, and a single tear trails down her cheek. He’s one of the few people who have seen her cry, but now, she doesn’t want to feel so vulnerable; she doesn’t want this imposter, this stranger, to see her like this.

Dante shakes his head. “It’s someone against your pa.”

This is definitely not what Maria had been expecting. She just stares at the man she once called Pappa, trying to make sense of what he just said. “Who is he, then?” She pauses a moment. “Who’s my birth father?”

“An old friend. He was sick, going from one addiction to the other.”

“So you just took over?” she interjects, anger clear in her voice.

Dante holds his hand up in defense. “Maria—”

When he says her name, something clicks in her mind. She’s not actually Italian. “What—” starts, but clears her throat before continuing, this time without the slight accent. “What, did you name me, too? Give me an Italian name, and I’ll just be half Italian?”

“Maria,” Dante repeats, his voice louder and stern. She closes her mouth immediately, but her glare doesn’t falter. “You know where your name comes from.” He pauses a moment. “Lee, though…” he adds, defeat in his voice that only grows as he continues. “Lee was his middle name too.”

Slowly looking down, Maria registers what he says. I have his middle name, she thinks, a smile slowly spreading across her lips. As she thinks of her own name, another thought comes to mind, and her smile quickly disappears. “Why are you on my birth certificate?”

“That was not my plan,” he answers quickly. “I would have been a father to you regardless of my name being on that line. Someone your pa knew just thought it would be easier for you this way.”

Maria crosses her arms. “They thought it’d be better to lie to me than to tell me the truth that my real father didn’t want me.” She chokes back a sob; saying the words aloud makes the truth hurt more. In her heart, she can’t blame the man before her; he’s more of a father than the sperm donor who gave her up. “If you loved me so much, why would you lie to me?”

Dante takes a step closer, but she turns away. “Is Mamma my real mom?” Her voice continues to rise in hysteria. She doesn’t actually doubt this; she only asks to make a point.

Dante’s shoulders drop and his brows knit together. “Of course, Maria.”

“Then why—” she starts, but tears mumble her words. Swallowing hard, she forces herself to continue before breaking down. “Why would you—why would she do that to me?” She’s on the couch, doubled-over. She can no longer hold the tears back, and the person that usually can set her world right is the one that turned it upside-down. Dante sits beside her and places a hand on her shoulder, but she immediately shies away from him.

“Maria, I’m so—” he starts, but she stands again.

“No. Don’t even,” she cries and hurries out of the apartment. Nearly tripping over herself, she runs down the stairs and out onto the street. She doesn’t stop running for the full twenty minutes until she’s at the doorstep of the small house she and her mother share with her grandparents—her only real grandparents, she realizes. Her legs and lungs burning, she stumbles up the steps and finally collapses in the foyer after slamming the door. Her body shakes as she gasps for air between sobs.

Her heart tries to tell her that it shouldn’t matter, that Dante is no less a father to her now than he was an hour ago; her mind, though, knows that her world has been shattered and she has no idea where to go or who to turn to. As she sees it, everyone in her life who was supposed to be there to support her has been lying to her. She feels stupid for believing it all. At this point, the only thing that can calm her is the marijuana her mother likely already flushed.

Just seconds after her entry, her mother and grandmother are at her side. Anna-Marie pulls her into her lap, but Maria pushes away. “How could you do this to me?” she cries, looking into her mother’s eyes. When confusion washes over her mother, Maria sits up. “Dante—you and Dante,” she gasps, unsure if she’s even comprehensible. “Both of you have lied to me my whole life!” Her sobbing shakes her body and mars her words so much that even she can’t understand what she’s saying.

Maria’s grandmother pulls her to her feet before pulling her into an embrace. Directing Maria to the living room, she glares at Anna-Marie. “Lied about what?” the woman slowly asks. She’s never been one to console Maria in anything, but Maria welcomes the comfort. The woman may be cold, but at least she’s constant, and as far as Maria can tell, she hasn’t lied.

“Mom…” Anna-Marie tries, then sighs. Brushing something off around her grandmother doesn’t happen, and Maria imagines the woman’s harsh glare as she silently demands the truth. She’s seen her mother buckle under it several times growing up.

“Dante isn’t her birth father.” Anna-Marie’s voice is small and resigned, and Maria hates her for it. She sounds as if it’s painful to admit; Maria wishes the rugs could be pulled out from under her feet instead.

As she sits on the couch with Maria, her grandmother is silent, a first for a woman who has an opinion about everything.

Hearing the words aloud make them all the more real. Sitting up, Maria looks back into her mother’s eyes. “Who is my birth father?”

Anna-Marie sighs as she sits beside Maria. “His name is Dylan.” Her grandmother scoffs, but Anna-Marie ignores it as she continues. “He wasn’t as ready to be a father as he thought he’d be. Dante was like a brother to Dylan. It was just natural for him to act as a father for you.”

“Why is Dante’s name on my certificate, then?”

Her mother plays with the hem of her blouse. “The campaign manager Dylan was working for said it would be best for you.

“Easier for me!” Maria exclaims as she stands. “Bullshit. It was easier for you and P—Dante.” She makes her way to her room, pulling out her phone as she does so. Of course, there are two messages from Evan. The first: What happened with your dad? The second, sent about ten minutes later: Hey, Mamma Nina’s has a new pizza flavor. We should go try it!

Although it’s worded slightly different each time, Maria recognizes the code: the government has quietly sent out a security update to mobile devices. She knows she should be on the computer, updating the modification she and Evan developed to keep their phones relatively private from the government, but she has no energy left to care. Instead, she sends a message back to Evan.

Dante’s not my birth father. Does Mamma Nina’s offer delivery?

She sets her phone on the nightstand beside her bed. Not only has her world been set upside-down, but she doesn’t even know who she is. Dylan could be of French or German ancestry for all she knows, and she should have grown up eating snails and baguettes or calling her parents Mutti and Vatti. She could have grown up taking pride in looking like her father, instead of wishing she looked more like him.

She shakes her head. Even if she had grown up knowing Dante wasn’t her biological father, would she really have pushed away the only man willing to fill the role? She wonders if she would still have grown up calling him pappa and his parents Nonna and Nonno, or if she would still make a pepperoni roll her nonni would be proud of.

Maria rolls over to face the dusty rose-colored wall. If she had grown up knowing the truth, she would have accepted it. Now, she feels as though it’s too late.

Her phone goes off, but she ignores the notification for an hour. When she rolls over to grab her phone, she can’t decide if she had fallen asleep. I’ll grab a couple slices and be over in an hour. Don’t do anything stupid, the message reads.

Placing her phone back on her nightstand, Maria mulls over the second part of Evan’s message. He could be referring to the fact that the modification that protects her phone from the government’s ability to tap into it is now out-of-date; he could also be worried about the fact that she self-medicates with drugs when her emotions become too stressful.

October 2013

« Chapter II Chapter IV »

A Search: Chapter 2

Chapter II

Bridgeport & Derby, CT – October 2020

Reading the message on his phone, Dylan isn’t sure what to do. Anna-Marie has gone into labor almost a month early. Standing in the center of the campaign office, he doesn’t realize he’s not even breathing until he hears Ryan’s voice in his ear. “Breath, Dylan,” she says, her voice unusually gentle and lacking in the honey-dripping quality that he pretends to ignore. In this moment, he barely acknowledges her presence. Instead, he takes a deep breath and slowly lowers himself into a chair.

Several people around the office ask if he needs anything: a cup of water, fresh air, the schedule of trains and buses from Bridgeport to Derby, a ride directly to Griffin Hospital. Dylan ignores them all, holding his head in his hands. Half of him doesn’t believe this moment is happening, and that all he needs to do is pinch himself and he’ll wake.

His phone vibrates again, and he absent-mindedly checks the message. This one is from Dante, saying he’s in the waiting room and asking where Dylan is. “I should be there,” he mumbles.

Ryan is beside him, sitting far too close, her hand resting on his shoulder. “Sweetie, you need to be wherever you’re most comfortable.”

He shakes his head and finally looks at her.

“If you go there and pass out, what good will you be?”

After a moment, he shrugs. “I won’t pass out in the waiting room.”

She grabs his hand. “Will you pass out on the train or bus?” When he doesn’t answer, she laughs softly, patting his hand gently. “Do you want me to come with you?”

Dylan thinks this over, and even in this state of shock, he knows how horrible an idea it would be to bring Ryan to what should be an intimate moment between him and his girlfriend, the mother of his unborn child. He also knows how Anna-Marie feels about taller, curvier, older Ryan.

“I’ve never seen you act so kind,” a supporter comments as he walks by. “Usually you’re all over him,” he says.

Ryan winks then turn her focus back to Dylan. “You need to take care of yourself right now.”

Once more, his phone goes off. He doesn’t know if he wishes it were an announcement that the baby is born, or if it’s another plea from Dante. The message reads: Don’t do this to Anna. Not when she needs you the most. I’ll borrow someone’s car and come get you. I don’t care. Just be here.

Dylan shakes his head. Dante is right; he should be there for Anna-Marie. It is, after all, half his fault she’s there. If she has to go through this, he does as well. He gets up and heads to a tablet, and as he begins searching for train schedules, someone beside him offers to drive him directly to Derby.

Usually, Dylan would reject the offer, wanting to support himself, but right now he doesn’t care. The traffic at ten in the morning is minimal, and he is at the hospital within twenty silent minutes. As he enters the waiting room, Dante rushes to his side. “I thought for sure you bailed,” he says, grabbing his arm and leading him to the room.

As they get closer, Dylan can hear Anna-Marie’s screams of pre-maternal agony. Dante lets him enter alone, and he does so timidly. Once at her side, she immediately takes his hand, smiling between contractions at his presence. The only thing he can focus on as she threatens to crush his hand is the overpowering scent of isopropyl alcohol that gives the room a sickeningly clean scent.

“This is it, Anna! One more push!” the doctor finally calls from below, the area Dylan wants no part of. He saw the video in health class, but tries as best as he can to forget the image. With one final effort from Anna-Marie, Dylan hears the first cries of a tiny human he helped create. “It’s a girl!”

The past thirty-six long, strenuous weeks haven’t felt real to him as he focused on getting through each night and weekend with his step-father without the help of alcohol and marijuana. It’s been Dante helping him stay away from his demons, Ryan and her campaign giving him the outlet, and Anna-Marie giving him the reason.

It isn’t until this moment as the baby’s cries fill his ears that reality hits him. The newborn is handed off to her mother. Anna-Marie glows, and Dylan wishes he felt the same. She hands the baby to him, and he gently cradles the wailing infant in his arms.

The excited voices of the others around him fade away. The overbearingly-clean scent of the room fades away. Ryan and Anna-Marie fade. He only sees this little human, and for a moment, nothing else matters. Her pink body is warm, and she stares at him with squinted blue eyes. Her cries have calmed as if comforted by being in his arms. In this moment, he feels comfortable with her. As he cradles this little girl, he knows he and Anna-Marie made the right decision. He will give anything he can to protect her, give her everything she deserves.

Dylan gives the infant his finger, and she suckles it gently. Her gums are soft and her mouth is warmer than her body. He wonders if her eyes will stay blue like his, or shift to an enchanting shade of green like her mother’s; if the girl’s hair will be dark like his, or light like her mother’s; if she’ll grow up good, loving and mature, or a lost, addicted deadbeat.

Her father. He is her father, and this infant human is his own flesh and blood, his daughter.

Anna-Marie is talking, but Dylan doesn’t hear it; his head is swooning. Something about names. Before he loses control of himself and collapses, he hands the baby to Mrs. Thomas beside him. He mutters something apologetic about having to go, but the words don’t register in his brain as he speaks. The only thing on his mind as he rushes out of the room, barely able to take each step, is being only a couple months away from sixteen and the father of a newborn baby girl.

Dylan lets himself fall into a chair in a waiting room in some other part of the hospital, head in his hands. The moment feels less and less real the more he tries to process it. When he looks up, he notices a banner above a check-in station reads Trick-or-Treat. He wonders which of the two this moment would be.

He stares at the man behind the desk. In the back of his mind, he knows he’ll have to get a job to help support this child. He imagines himself sitting behind a desk, moving papers around, drinking coffee; chatting idly at the water cooler, pretending to care about some guy’s kid’s soccer game; getting a meager paycheck that hardly covers the bills; sitting through hours of traffic before finally coming home to Anna-Marie and a crying poop-machine.

The thought of this mundane routine nearly makes Dylan nauseous, and he leans forward in his chair. He knows that’s not the life for him, but with a child, he’ll have no time for Graham’s campaign, for Ryan. Resting his head in his hands, he looks around and forces himself to focus on something else, anything other than Ryan and her bright blue eyes.

A man walks in, a child in his arms. She’s probably no more than two years old, but she has a full head of caramel-brown hair. Both father and daughter wear identical smiles as his hand transforms into a claw that attacks her with tickles, causing her to burst into a fit of giggles.

Dylan leaves. He can’t stand to look at the scene for another minute. That will never be him and his own daughter; they will never be that happy together. He hears Dante’s deep voice behind him, but pays little attention to it as he walks out the main entrance of Griffin Hospital.

The air outside is chilly, but Dylan doesn’t feel it on his bare arms. He just walks with no set destination, his mind blocking out the scenery decorated with cobwebs and pumpkins and ghostly figures. The leaves crunch under his feet as he makes his way around the block, and a church bell rings noon a few streets over, but these sounds don’t settle in Dylan’s mind. The wailing cry of his newborn is the only thing he hears.

About an hour later, he’s at a space more welcoming than his own, a space that has become more familiar than Dante’s house, his previous safe haven. He barely remembers boarding and exiting the bus, paying the fare, taking a seat, or watching the various buildings and houses as he traveled from Derby to downtown Bridgeport. As he enters the campaign office, Ryan is immediately at his side. She says something to him, but he doesn’t hear it. Instead, he lets her lead him to her office, to her couch where she sits beside him and rests his head on her chest. The beating of her heart finally dulls the infantile cries in his head.

“It’s a girl,” he states solemnly after a long while of staring at the white-painted brick wall. Catching his breath, he quietly adds, “I can’t be a father.” His voice is strained, as if he’d been crying for hours, though his eyes remain dry. He wants to give that little girl everything, but he knows he has nothing to give. A hand runs through his hair, and he looks up at Ryan, his head still on her chest. The look in her eyes both comforts and unsettles him.

“You don’t have to be,” she murmurs back, then looks away. “If you don’t think you can do it, you shouldn’t.” There’s the slightest hint of pain in her voice, something Dylan doesn’t quite understand. “Let someone who can step in, someone trust-worthy, someone who wants the best for the baby.”

Dylan scoffs, looking away. “Someone like Dante.” He’s the kind of person Dylan wishes he could be. He may be into a few bad things, but Dylan knows Dante has the heart and emotional capacity to be that kind of man. “Maybe he’ll stick around, be the father figure she needs.”

“Let her believe he is the father,” she quietly suggests, her voice timid as if testing how he’d react.

His brows furrow as he slowly sits up. “And how—”

“If his name is on the certificate…” she starts, her voice trailing off at the end. Dylan gives her a confused look, and she continues, her voice taking on its usual bold edge. “With a newborn, Mommy and Daddy will need money.” Ryan pauses, an eyebrow raised.

Dylan shifts away from her. “You want to pay Anna-Marie and Dante off?” he asks, his voice high with disbelief. He just stares at Ryan, the idea settling into his mind. He knows what growing up without a real father does to a child. He refuses to even humor the thought of his little girl becoming screwed up like him. Looking away, he sighs.

“The baby was born, what, an hour or two ago? We need to hurry,” she urges. Silently, Dylan nods, and almost instantly, Ryan stands and is at her desk. Staring at her, watching her at her computer, Dylan processes what he just agreed to. The little girl will never know him, not even by name. She’ll grow up believing Dante helped to put her on this earth, that she’s half him, that she has the genes of two respectable humans. She’ll be raised by two people who can and will love her and give her the all the support she’ll both want and need. He knows this is the best for her, that if there’s anything he can give her as her biological sperm donor, it’s a real father. As he closes his eyes and leans his back against the couch, he hopes Anna-Marie and Dante will see that, and he hopes he’s not letting Ryan talk him into making a mistake he’ll regret for life.

October 2013

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