I suppose most kids don’t like it when their parents drop an emotional bomb on them. Maybe it could have been worse. It’s not like they said they were getting divorced or anything. Then again, I won’t know just how bad it is until my twentieth birthday. In other words: tomorrow. That’s when I’m scheduled to go to my new home. At any rate, whatever shocks other kids have suffered through, I’m relatively certain none of them have experienced this one.
The bomb dropped two years ago. Fun eighteenth birthday gift that was. I never saw it coming. Although in retrospect, all the quirky little things from my childhood added up. Things that seemed silly, strange, or just off somehow. Like during the high school years whenever I talked about going to college my parents always changed the subject—often to how wonderful family life is.
Who does that?
And it didn’t make sense. After all, both my parents are very well educated, with jobs in research. Why wouldn’t they want me to do the same? Maybe I’m bragging a bit, but it’s not like I don’t have the brains for it. I sailed through high school with straight As, even in the AP classes. I’ve got a head for math, and my precalculus teacher encouraged my interest in a mathematics degree. Did I get the same support at home? No. It was always, “Ashling, you know you can always study, but nothing in life is really more fulfilling than having a family to love.”
Now I admit, growing up as an only child, I’ve often thought it would be great to have a big family someday, but my idea included a bunch of kids and one
loving husband. And all that was to happen after
earning my doctorate.
On my eighteenth birthday, Mom and Dad finally spilled the beans on why they’d raised me the way they had. And what weird beans they were.
For dinner Dad had made my favorite dish, lasagna, and I happily chowed down. That is, until I noticed the silence and that my parents weren’t eating. The two of them sat at our little table as usual. Mom had her hair pulled back in a ponytail, how she always wore it for work. You could make out a few grays mixed in with the reddish blond, if you looked closely enough. Dad sat stiffly at the opposite end. His brownish hair with red and blond natural highlights hadn’t turned at all yet. Even at age fifty-one, my friends still insist he’s a “Grade A hottie.” Creepy, I know. But even I can’t deny that my daddy is a striking man. I used to hope those great genes would be passed on to me…but that’s a different part of my story.
Every few minutes that night, the two of them would make eye contact, and then Dad would sigh and take a drink of water. Mom chewed her lips and fidgeted in her chair until I couldn’t take it anymore.
“What? What is it? You two are making me nuts. Just spill already!” I leaned back in the chair, crossing my arms.
Mom nodded and looked at Dad with pleading eyes.
After a big intake of breath, he set down his fork, squared himself to face me, and said, “Ashling, you know I’ve told you a lot of stories over the years about another place?”
“Sure, you told me a lot of fairy tales. Sometimes I’m surprised you became a scientist instead of a writer.” I smiled, thinking of some of the stuff my dad had come up with.
He spoke in a slow, deliberate tone. “Ashling, everything I told you…was true.”
“Yeah, right.” I spoke softly, wanting to laugh it off, but his expression was so serious and so intense that I turned to my mom to lighten the mood. Instead, she gave one slow nod of agreement.
“The land where there are very few women and all of them have a lot of husbands and are treated like royalty?” Skepticism filled my voice.
“Yes,” my father said.
“A place where you said you used to live?”
Things went downhill from there. Dad went on to explain that this distant land he’d spoken of wasn’t actually another place. It was another time. Approximately two thousand years into the future, in fact. If I only had to wrap my mind around the idea that my father came from the distant future, that would have been a lot to take in. I could have done it though. Mostly by forgetting and going on with my life as if the words had never been spoken. But that wasn’t even the bomb itself. No, the bomb was that on my twentieth birthday he would return to his time…and I, most likely, would go with him. My head is still spinning from that bit of info.
I let the crazy announcement soak in, mulling over all my dad had said over the years about some far-off fantasy land. A place where every woman is like a princess and also a hero for her people. A romantic notion but not realistic. Or so I thought.
“No, thanks,” I said and broke off a chunk of garlic bread to mop up some tomato sauce and ricotta on my plate. “Let’s stay here together where we’re happy, and I can go to college.”
Mom and Dad agreed that would have been their first choice as well, but sadly, they had no say in the matter. My course had been set before I was even born. If
I ended up being taken into the future—there was no way to confirm with Dad’s affiliates in that time what would happen to me—it could only mean that I was needed there. Desperately needed.
Then my mother broke down sobbing and said, “We’ve done our best. I swear we have! All the research your daddy and I have done over the years, all of it
was an attempt to change things in that future. To eliminate their need for you! But we never found the answer!”
Daddy comforted her and said the two of them had done everything they could. He believed that if enough of their secret research made it to the scientists in Dad’s time of origin, those men may have been able to build on it. And then maybe I would be left in this time after all.
“And you would stay here too?” I’d wondered aloud.
The answer was negative. No matter what happened with me, Dad was certain he would be returned to his home time on my twentieth birthday as originally scheduled by his future superiors. So, either I’d stay here and lose my dad forever or stay with him and lose everything else.
It’s true my parents had never promoted that happily-ever-after-ride-off-with-the-prince idea, but it still surrounded me. From movies and books to the commercials on television. Happy couples
with maybe some kids thrown in for good measure. So of course I envisioned it for myself someday. College, career, and family too—but of a very specific type. My view of reality was forever changed that night.
Confession time. I threw a tantrum or two over the following weeks. It didn’t help and just made my parents feel even worse. But as the months passed and I had several heart-to-heart talks with Dad, I started to see my situation from a different perspective. The thing is, humanity gets messed up in the future. Badly. Starting now in the twenty-first century, gender preference for males, which is already prevalent in so many societies, goes to extremes and leads to a critical shortage of women.
Since I graduated high school, my dad’s been instructing me on the finer points of future life and what I can expect. Instead of me going off to a university, Dad cut his hours at work down to a few a week so he could prepare me. I do get to take a couple of classes at the community college here in our hometown. The rest of the time I’m learning about customs, laws, and even a new language that are part of this future world. And there’s the “history” as well. Which hasn’t even happened yet but will be history by the time I get where I’m going.
Even though these lessons can be overwhelming, I enjoy the time spent with my dad. I’m closer to him than to my mother. Maybe I never fully recovered from her revelation of the second-biggest family secret. That bomb dropped back when I was fourteen years old.
Ironically, my dad was the one that held our little family together during that particularly rocky patch. Ironic because the family secret is that my dad is not actually my biological father. There had never been any clue about that. No times I could look back on and think, Ah, it all makes sense now
. Of course I don’t look like Daddy, but since I am the spitting image of my mother, I’d never thought about it. The only differences between my mom and me are my eyes and hair, which are both very dark brown. Before that revelation, Mom just said it came from another relative—my grandpa. Although I never met or saw a picture of this dark-haired grandpa. I now know that my biological father is from the same time as Daddy, but Mom refuses to tell me anything more about him.
A life at home and having children is not what I’d envisioned for myself until later in life. In this era, marriage and motherhood at a young age seems like a path for the unambitious. But in the future it’s a vital service to the world. Bringing new life into that dying society and helping to keep the human race from going extinct. It may be more important than anything I could have done in this time. Sure, it’s kind of terrifying to think of jumping into a whole new society and leaving my current life and plans behind. Then again…time travel? Helping to keep humanity from vanishing? Well, it also seems like an amazing adventure.
And now it’s the day before D-day (Departure day). My mother is pacing around nonstop, occupying herself with the most pointless things and distracting herself, I guess. She just can’t seem to sit still. With me she always smiles, but her sparkling hazel eyes give away just how much time she spends crying. I don’t want to leave her either, but it’s hard to articulate just how much I’ll miss her.
I figure there’s no point in thinking too much about something that might not
happen. So I’m trying to go about my day normally. I attended chemistry class this morning. The last one of the semester. It would have been suspicious if I’d missed my final. This way no eyebrows will be raised. Besides, I really enjoy school. If I get pulled out of this time tomorrow, then it would have been sad to miss the last class I’ll ever get to take.
Now I’m back at home, sitting in the dining room, and ready to force some lunch into my nervous gut. My stomach didn’t get the memo that today will be business as usual, and it’s kind of freaking out.
Dad comes down the stairs with a weak smile on his face. “How was class?” he asks.
“Good. How’s Mom?”
His momentary silence speaks volumes. Then he murmurs, “Needing a few minutes to herself. I’m sure she’ll be down soon. She wants to spend as much time together as we can today.” He takes a seat across the table from me and folds his hands in his serious, fatherly way. “In case we do leave tomorrow, we should review what you’ve learned.”
My sandwich is midway to my open mouth. I return it to the plate and sigh. “But we’ve gone over these things so many times. I’m pretty sure I have all the major points down.”
“Humor me,” he says. “I want to be sure I’ve prepared you as well as possible. Now, tell me again how many husbands you are expected to accept.”
I settle in to go over the information that has already been thoroughly beaten into my head. “Seven,” I respond. “Or at least it was seven when you left. However, that was two decades ago. Things could have changed. But seven is the minimum and I’ll have three years to acquire that many.” I like to use words like “acquire” to make it seem more businesslike and practical instead of so…ew
. I suppose it won’t be bad once I actually meet them, but it’s weird to discuss with Dad the multiple men that I’ll be having sex with. Especially at this point, when those men are no more than faceless strangers.
“But?” my father asks.
“But ten husbands are not uncommon, and there are government incentives offered for taking on any number over seven.” The eye roll I’m doing in my mind from saying this for the hundredth time is probably clear in my voice.
“Correct. Now, what will your household be like?”
“One flippin’ big house. I get the upstairs suite because it’s the safest location.” That word always trips me up. Safest
. Apparently when there aren’t many women around, they become even more valuable than…I don’t know, anything else people like to steal. In fact, part of the future-history is that countries fought several wars over getting more women when they couldn’t buy them. I mean, if your nation is dwindling because there are so few women, then there’s really not anything that would convince a country to give them up. Hence the wars.
In part the shortage was a result of a genetic disorder—seemingly caused by environmental issues. But what really gets the shortage going is some genius who comes up with an inoculation to guarantee more male births. It will be highly desired in all those countries who think we woman aren’t worth much. Future societies all across the globe are destined to pay for using that shot. Big time.
“Yes,” Dad says. “You will have a very nice suite on the top floor. There should be a house all set up for you when we arrive. But if you want anything changed, that shouldn’t be a problem. Do you remember why?”
“Because boys are trained in the ways of respect and accommodation of their future wife and are expected to give her every comfort.”
“Yes,” my father agrees. “That is, if they are lucky enough to get a wife at all. As you know, the majority of men in that time do not. So…?” And this is the part Daddy drills me on more than any other.
“So, I will be very selective of which men I accept.” There will be many to choose from, I’ve learned, men eager to become part of my family, and I can have my pick of basically anyone I meet. Something about that idea gives me tingling sensations in a certain
part of my body. So I put it out of my mind when I’m having conversations with my parents.
“Good girl,” my father answers with a look of…well, I don’t know what it is. Relief? Or maybe it’s concern that I’ll choose poorly.
“Can we please be done, Dad?” I whine. “If I haven’t learned something by now, it’s probably too late to bother. Besides, I’d like to spend today trying to pretend my life is normal.”
He concedes, and heads back upstairs a few minutes later, taking a cup of tea for Mom.
It’s kind of hard to talk about this stuff to my mother, but since she actually was a Wikomsette
—as they call it—when she met my dad, she could give me a better idea of what it will be like for me. There really isn’t a word for Wikomsette in this time.
It’s like “wife” but not exactly. More specifically, it means the wife of a tribe and head of a household. It’s a title as well, showing that a woman holds a position of honor. So that’s what my mom was and what I’m supposed to become, but it’s still awkward to ask her about it.
She’s not bad, my mom. A bit smothering maybe, and we had a tumultuous relationship for most of my teen years. Now that I may be leaving tomorrow, I want to be sure things are smoothed over between us. I mean, it’s fine to think your mom is super annoying. That she should have told you more about the weird circumstances of your life sooner than she did. To ignore her as much as possible. But that’s when you think you are going to have her around for the majority of your life. My less than pleasant teen attitude changed when I learned that our time together might end on my twentieth birthday. Still, my resentments over the secrets about my bio dad lingered. Trying to close the gap between Mom and me has been a challenge.
I finish my lunch and think about calling some old high school friends. These past two years I’ve been distancing myself on the advice of my parents. It wasn’t too hard, since I only had a couple of close friends anyway, and they both moved away for college. There won’t be many people to notice when I literally vanish from the Earth—the present-day Earth, that is. Bad idea to call old friends now, just to hear their voices one more time. Fortunately, the temptation passes by the time I get upstairs and walk into my room.
My mother sits on the bed, holding my bathrobe.
“Mom, are you okay?”
She pulls her face up from the robe, which I’m pretty sure she’s just been smelling. She quickly wipes tears from her cheeks, nodding and reaching for me. Usually I would sit down a couple of feet away. This time I plop down close enough that our sides are touching. She puts her arm around me. There may be few times remaining to feel my mom’s thin arms holding me. My throat tightens, and my eyes sting.
“Are you scared for me?” I ask because, though I’m trying to be brave and proud to accept my duty to the planet, I’m still kind of scared.
She pulls back to look at my face and seems surprised. “Oh, no, honey! I’m not scared, and please don’t you be.”
Right. Like that’s easy. I try not to get annoyed, but come on!
The tiny lines around her eyes deepen as her brows pull together. “It’s just… Of course you’ve heard this before, but I wanted a child for so long before you came. I try to be thankful for all the time we’ve had together, but you leaving…it’s hard. I keep telling myself that maybe you won’t go after all, and that makes things easier to bear. We can’t know for certain until, well, maybe a few days from now. If you’re still here, then it’s pretty safe to assume you aren’t going.” The hopeful note in her voice is also sad. As hard as she’s trying to talk herself into the possibility of me staying, I don’t think she believes it.
“Can you tell me more about what it was like for you?” I know so little about when she met my father. Only that it happened in the Amazon in the 1500s. She traveled back there from this time, and he traveled there from approximately two thousand years in the future as part of a small group of scientists. Their team searched for cures to the gender imbalance problem. My mother was their Wikomsette. I don’t know much beyond that.
“Well, you know I had six husbands.”
“I thought there were seven all together, including Daddy.”
“Yes, but one was homosexual. He and I were just friends.”
“But you couldn’t have loved all of them. Was it awful?” Another thing I know is that my mother did not schedule that little trip through time for herself. It was a rather rude surprise. At least I’ve gotten a warning. Time to prepare myself.
Her expression is funny. It’s a concentrating look but with a smile that twitches up the corner of her mouth. “You might not think it’s possible until you’re in that situation or until you get used to the idea that that kind of life is normal for those men. But the truth is there was only one I didn’t care for at all, and I don’t even count him among my husbands.” A dark look briefly sweeps her face when she tells me that. “But the others? They were each so special in their own way. Every relationship is unique, Ashling. No two people are alike, and so no two relationships are either. I loved each and every one of the others. I even loved Rayne, though just as a friend.” She gives my hand a little squeeze. “Of course your father—”
“Daddy, you mean?” I shouldn’t have interrupted. If she was about to tell me something about my biological father, I’d like to hear it. Or maybe I don’t.
“Yes,” she smiles. “Brannon and I had something, have
something that poets write about. I still miss the others very much, actually. But in this world and in this time, when a woman only has one husband…well, he’s The One
“Mom, I’m still really nervous.” It’s hard for me to admit this to her. I don’t know why, especially since she is literally the only woman on the planet right now that understands at all what I’m about to go through.
“Baby, when you go to this new life”—I notice she says when
, not if
—“you are going to have your pick of the bachelors. You don’t have to take anyone you don’t want.” She finishes that phrase with a hint of hardness in her voice. “They will treat you like a queen. You won’t want for anything. Just choose carefully and I know
you’ll be very happy.” I’m not sure if that last bit is to convince me or her, but I can hope it’s true, anyway.
I glance around at my bedroom. It hasn’t changed much over the years. Modest size, simple furnishings, some jewelry and knickknacks on the dresser, photos stuck into the edges of the mirror, and a couple of stuffed animals on a chair. Another thing I know is that I can’t take anything at all with me, not even the clothes on my back, but I really
try not to dwell on how that’s going to play out. Nothing can travel to the future that didn’t come from the future. And that’s the whole question with me. Can those future scientists take me forward because I am the offspring of someone from that time? We’ll know in a matter of days. It’s also the reason my mother isn’t coming. Can’t come.
“What will you do with all my stuff…if I go?” I don’t look at her because I can feel my eyes getting moist, and I don’t want to cry and make her even sadder.
She sighs. “Well, I thought I might just leave your room as it is. Unless you’d like me to do something in particular with it?”
My heart hurts, thinking about my mom coming to this room after I’m gone and crying and dwelling on everything. Picturing that makes it seem like I’m going to be dead or something. I guess to her it won’t be any different.
“You do what you want,” I murmur. “But it seems like you might want to donate anything that someone else might find useful.”
She hugs me tighter, kisses the top of my head, and then strokes my hair. It’s the first time in a very long time that I just sit and let her. The tears won’t hold back anymore, because I’m really feeling for the first time what this loss is going to be for her. Losing me and my dad, and us losing her.
This may be our last day together. I’m so nervous about possibly getting sucked into the future tomorrow that I feel like puking. The one thing that makes it less scary is that if I do go, at least I’ll have Dad with me. Well, it’s a bright spot for me. For Mom…not so much.