The future is ours, or not.
First published by Sweet Tree Review, Volume 2 Issue 3, Summer 2017.
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Their jeans and plaids settled in two plastic chairs, yellow and orange, and they looked around the pod. Not quite a pod, more like two dividers abutting the pale wall, open to the aisle. The words on the wall, Welcome to Mercy Hospital, transposed into a woman in business suit, dark hair cut to a pixie, a smile. She said, "Do you speak English?"
Carl ran thick fingers through brown beard into thick hair.
"Yes, ma'am," said Marion. "We sure do."
"Very good," said the woman. "Are you the prospective patient?"
"Then I'll ask you to stare straight at me without blinking."
Marion's name, date of birth, and address surfaced under the woman, followed by the last four digits of her social security number.
"Please verify," said the woman.
"That's me for sure."
The woman exhibited a frown. "There seems to be a problem, Marion. We're not showing current financial coverage for you."
"No, ma'am. When my hours got cut, it was too little to stay on their insurance. And my husband—" Marion nodded at Carl.
"Yes," said the woman. "I see Carl has been without coverage for over four years. So—"
"But I went to my internist, and she said I had to get operated on."
Carl leaned into the conversation. "Post haste, she told us. Those were the words she used. The condition—"
"Yes," said the woman. "Quite serious. On behalf of Mercy, I'd like to express our sympathy regarding the diagnosis, and the poor prognosis. However, we cannot proceed without insurance, or surety."
"How much surety?" said Carl.
"For this condition, one hundred eighty-four thousand three hundred thirty-four dollars and fifteen cents. However, I must warn you the final charges will exceed this."
"Ma'am," said Marion. "We don't have that kind of money."
"I'm sorry, then, we cannot proceed," said the woman. "Please let yourselves out the way you came in."
Two days later, Carl and Marion motored north in their faded blue Fusion with the auto-driver set for 118 Jewett Avenue in Jersey City. They had a plan. Half-baked but a plan, and the hopeful feeling it engenders at the onset.
Marion stared into the middle distance and Carl said, "What are you reading?"
"Wuthering Heights," she said. "And you? Checking the news?"
"Such as it is."
Carl's internal receiver clicked, interrupting the news feed. "Yeah," said Carl.
"Sorry for the intrusion." A pleasant baritone filled Carl's ears. "Am I speaking to Carl Murray?"
"And that's you in your vehicle going up ninety-five?"
"It is." Marion looked over and Carl switched to exterior audio. Bureau of Travel Enforcement, he mouthed.
"And who's that with you?" said the baritone.
In years past, under different circumstances, Carl would ask, is there a problem, officer? Is there something wrong with my vehicle? Do you have cause to question me? But today he stayed cool.
"That's my wife with me."
"And you know someone at 118 Jewett?"
"We do. My wife's sister lives there."
"Ah. Isabel, right?"
"How long are you staying?"
"A few days. Not sure. Might go over to Manhattan if we can get in."
"You should be able to get a day visa. An overnight might be difficult." The voice rose a pitch as in a personable exchange. "Expensive too."
"I hear you."
"Well, Carl, we apologize for the intrusion, and hope you have a good visit. There's been some problems lately and—Carl, could you do us a favor?"
"What would that be?"
"If you change your plans, give us a heads-up."
The Fusion found a parking spot near Isabel's apartment building. Carl and Marion exited and pulled backpacks from the luggage compartment.
"Nice touch telling them about Manhattan," said Marion.
"I think so," said Carl. "Now they shouldn't be giving us the third degree when we go for the visa."
Isabel had an inch of height on Marion and a more hawkish face. She opened her arms to her sister. She turned to Carl for a hug. "I wish I could do more," she said.
Carl nodded, looking around the apartment, neat, well attended, what used to be middle class, now high-end country. Carl felt like saying, maybe you can do more—a couple hundred thou would be nice. But regretted the thought. No doubt she had savings in six figures, but enough to cover surgery, chemo, radiation? It would drain her. And then what would she do for her own emergency? She might be drawing now from her savings.
Isabel said, "So you're set on this? This course of action?"
"What else?" said Carl.
Marion pulled a chair out from the dining table and sat down. "What else?" she said.
"Are you in pain, dear?"
"Some. I have meds."
"Ask Sam when you see him. He can get anything."
Except a couple hundred thou. Carl said, "You two getting along these days, then?
"Better now than when we were married. He knows when you're coming?"
"We keep in touch," said Carl. "Make it sound like a vacation visit in case anyone's listening."
Carl looked into the middle distance and found the visa site for Manhattan. He applied for an overnighter. A red triangle flashed.
"They'll only give us the day pass," said Carl.
"That's all we need," said Marion.
Carl blinked for two day passes. To Isabel, he said, "Do you know anything about the Northway tickets? I didn't want to mention it directly in our correspondence."
Isabel shook her head. "Sam was over here last week and said not to worry. That's all I know."
Isabel walked to the living room window and peered into the street. "What did you do with your car?"
"I set it to park itself in that cheap lot south of here. Then Thursday night to take itself back to North Carolina."
Marion's chin lifted like she had just come awake. "What if they see nobody's in it?"
"It'll be dark. And they won't be checking us going back. And even if they do, it'll be too late."
Isabel trekked to the kitchen and returned with cups of tea. A second trip brought out cookies. Marion said, "I guess I'll take a med." She popped the lid from a small container and slipped a white tablet onto her tongue.
"How does Sam do it?" said Carl. "Stay in the city?"
"It's a little convoluted," said Isabel. "Sam can explain it when you see him."
"He still playing that bass guitar?"
"Oh yeah. But most of his work comes from waiting tables and bouncing."
"You mean like a bouncer?" said Marion.
"A bit small for that," said Carl.
"You don't need to be big," said Isabel. "He has this prong thing called a TestiTaser that works like a charm. And the crowds in New York these days, well they're not a rowdy bunch."
"I'm guessing not," said Carl.
"Oh you get some occasional riffraff in on a pass. But the regulars, they all have incomes upside of a million. Intoxication is the only real problem." Isabel took her sister's hand. "Have you thought this through?"
"Through and through," said Marion. "I've got to rest a bit."
Isabel returned from helping Marion to the bedroom and said, "Things are changing in Canada."
"I been hearing," said Carl.
"The government's setting new rules. They're putting up a fence. There's vigilantes."
Isabel turned on the Holovision and locked onto a man-in-the-street interview in Montreal, a thin man of about forty, proper, in a suit.
"His face," said Isabel. "He looks like a mad dog."
"They take our jobs," the man said through wet lips. "They rape our women."
The interviewer said, "Now, sir—"
"They don't even speak proper English."
"But sir," said the interviewer, "these people are destitute. They have nowhere—"
"They should've thought of that before, shouldn't they've? Shouldn't they've? It's not our concern."
On and on. Carl said, "They don't seem as civil as they used to."
"How can you hope to even get in?"
"Sam has a contact in the north country."
"That would be Bernard," said Isabel.
"You know him?" Carl caught Isabel's glance. "You don't like him?"
"Oh, he's fine. He's more than fine. But I don't see what he can do."
Sam wore a red poly shirt, blue pants, black hair, and an iridescent smile. Ever the dresser, always the smile, no matter the circumstances. He'd met them at Penn Station. "I've got you booked on the four oh nine to Plattsburg," he said.
"And we'll get to Plattsburgh afore they realize we're off our visa?" said Carl.
"Better," said Sam. He brought Carl and Marion into a huddle. "I know a systems guy in transport. When you're scanned on the Northway, it'll show the four oh nine for Plattsburgh, but when the scan goes to central, it'll show the five thirteen back to Jersey City."
They had exited Penn Station on Eighth Avenue. "We've got a few hours," said Sam. "Do you feel up to seeing anything?"
Carl was about to suggest finding a place to rest, but Marion said, "I'd sure like to see that sea wall that's supposed to be the newest wonder of the world?"
Sam said, "Okay, we can walk right over to the High Line. You'll get a good view of the west wall from there. Or take a cab."
"I can still walk a few blocks."
Marion proceeded at a slow but happy pace. At the High Line, she insisted on taking the stairs, one trudge at a time, resting every third step. The trio walked toward the river and looked over what used to be the West Side Highway. Its former tarmac formed the base of an inclined dike forty feet high, narrowing to ten feet and a monorail at top. Carl had read that the monorail transported a quick-reaction roboforce in case anyone got through the cameras, heat sensors, and body zappers.
"Well," said Marion, "this is something, seeing it in person."
"Nice and dry this side," said Carl. "What's it like yonder?"
"The river's up the dike about eight feet at high tide."
"I guess she'll hold for a while."
"I guess she will," said Sam.
"And the whole island's like this?" said Marion.
"Up to the highlands," said Sam.
Carl looked uptown and down. Newer skyscrapers everywhere. Skyways and skyports everywhere.
"How do you afford it, Sam?" said Carl. "If you don't mind my asking."
"It's a little tricky," said Carl. "Right now we have twelve bodies sharing a one-bedroom."
"Jesus," said Marion.
"It's not that bad. We're working all the time, all hours. When you come in, you just inflate a mattress and grab a spot."
"Don't the city or association or whatever object to all them people in one apartment?" said Carl.
"That's the tricky part," said Sam. "You get your residency permit elsewhere. It's another market."
Carl shook his head.
Sam said, "You find somebody who has an apartment but wants to live alone but needs some extra money."
"And you pay them. They list you as a resident but you never go there."
"How much is that?"
"Two a month. And four a month for the place you're actually staying in."
Marion drifted to a bench and sat down. A breeze off the Hudson ruffled her hair.
Sam lowered his voice. "It bothers me that I can't help you more."
"You're helping all you can."
"I can get an internist, but I can't get the big stuff on trade."
"You done all you can." They stood silent a minute. "What about our contact up north? Bernard is it?"
Sam said, "You'll like him. Look for an old pickup, a Tacoma, one you have drive yourself. Look for a skinny guy a little older than us. T-shirt probably, baseball cap."
The Tacoma had an extended cab with jump seats behind the front seats. Carl helped Marion into the passenger seat and clambered behind her. Bernard started the gasoline motor and moved the truck onto an old state highway of buckled tar.
"You like doing your own driving," said Carl.
"I don't want any connections," said Bernard, pointing skyward, "in or out."
"They can still track you with cameras and radar."
"Not if they're shot out," said Bernard. "By the way, you got your signals shut off?"
"My privacy settings don't allow tracking."
"Not good enough. Turn 'em off."
Bernard crossed to the opposing lane to avoid a large buckle in the road. He crossed back.
"The news is not good," he said. "Things have been changing."
"We been hearing that," said Carl.
"Up to a few months ago," said Bernard, "I could set you this side of the border. You could walk across and a samaritan on the other side would take you in. Just a matter of logistics."
"And the samaritans, they're gone?"
"The first problem," said Bernard. "The land border's been defoliated and mined."
"Mined?" said Marion.
"Set off by motion detection. Next, it used to be you could get into their health system if you had a sponsor, or just walked into a hospital. Now you get deported. Third—"
Was there need for a third?
"The mood's changed. It's dangerous to be a samaritan or sponsor."
"Then what are we doing?" said Carl.
The truck sidled onto a side road and stopped. Bernard pushed open his door and slipped to the ground. Carl heard a grinding noise as Bernard pulled at a metal object from under the front seat. A rifle with a scope emerged.
"I'll be right back." Carl walked fifty feet along the road then dropped into the woods.
Marion turned a quarter in her seat. "I'm getting to be too much a drag on everyone. Especially you."
Carl took her hand. "Don't want to hear that."
A few hundred feet ahead, the rifle popped.
"I'm just saying," said Marion. "Nobody lives forever."
The rifle popped twice more.
"Don't want to hear it."
Bernard reappeared. He stowed the rifle and started the truck.
"I'm taking you to our so-called underground clinic," he said. "Doctor Rodriguez."
"What can they do for me?" said Marion.
"I don't know but I wanted to try that first."
The clinic looked like an old middle school with a flat, open design. Marion and Carl waited in one of the former classrooms along with fifty other patients, separated from the others by a hospital curtain. Carl sat on a plastic chair while Marion leaned back at forty-five degrees on a gurney. She dozed. Three hours after arriving, Doctor Rodriguez dropped behind the curtain with a female technician.
"Sorry for the wait," she said. "Take that gown off, Marion."
The technician ran a wand over Marion's body while Rodriguez looked in the middle distance. The doctor glanced over and the technician left.
As Marion dressed, Rodriguez sat on the edge of the gurney. "We can give you some heavy duty medication for the pain."
"Is that it?"
Rodriguez stood and hooked a finger. "Carl, you want to come with me." Carl followed the doctor to to an alcove where she unlocked an overhead cabinet and removed two vials of tablets.
Rodriguez said, "We send the occasional cancer patient down to Cornell but our resources only allow one in eighty. How do you triage that?"
"If you could leave a donation up front, whatever you can."
"Listen to me, Carl. I'm giving you two hundred tablets. One every six hours as needed." She paused. "If you take more than that, they're lethal. Three will probably kill you. Five for sure. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"Three probably, five for sure," said Carl.
Rodriguez put a hand on Carl's arm, dropped it, and disappeared.
Carl had imagined Bernard a recluse in a storage container at the edge of civilization, but he lived in a normal-looking townhouse with a normal-looking wife and a half normal-looking grown-up son. Carl scraped his kitchen chair alongside Bernard's. An overhead light illuminated a large-scale paper map open on the kitchen table. Across the breakfast counter, the darkened living room flickered from an ancient flat-screen monitor. Bernard's son and wife sat on a couch watching it. Marion lay asleep in a recliner. Carl started to get up as she wriggled and moaned, but she fell back into her sleep, and Carl turned his attention to the map.
"Here we are," said Bernard, placing a forefinger. He dragged it westward. "And here the border runs into the river." Bernard looked up. "But the north shore is mined and guarded these days."
Bernard's finger pushed down and to the left—upriver—into Lake Erie. "Best bet is the lake. Come ashore north side, here, just past this jutting-out part."
"How do we do that?"
"You'll be getting a skiff with a small motor. You'll be starting at this point on the east shore."
Carl sat up. He was no sailor, and this looked like a large body of water. Bernard didn't seem to appreciate his concern. "You can't turn on a GPS," he said. "But dead reckoning won't be hard."
Carl leaned over the map again. Bernard said, "All you have to do is keep a heading of due east for eight hours at three-quarter speed." He looked up. Carl nodded, knowing that much. "Then change your heading to due north. Look for a tall building with a soft blue light atop. You might not be able to make out the building, but you'll see the light."
"What about mines and guards?"
"It's a populated area with docks and waterfront properties and whatnot. Just put in wherever it looks safe."
"Another reason to send you west into Ontario is I don't think the panic's taken hold there yet. You're more likely to get a friendly reception."
Carl leaned back in the kitchen chair. What had seemed hopeful at the onset had dimmed as distance diminished.
Bernard placed a beat-up rectangle of red-framed plastic on the table. "Do you know how to read a magnetic compass? The declination is eleven degrees west."
"That means you have to set it so three-fifty is north."
"No signals in or out. Internal or otherwise."
Carl nodded a third time.
"You can hole up here," said Bernard, "until we get a good night."
"Still," said Bernard. "We want the water to be perfectly still, or you'll get lost or worse."
In the living room, Marion's eyelashes flickered in synchronicity with the flat-screen. She moaned. Carl reached in his jeans for the medication.
Carl lay on his stomach on the dock and placed a foot-long boat on the surface of Lake Erie—not much more than a hull and a motor. Alongside him, Bernard reached down and touched a switch. The boat accelerated toward the gathering sunset, trailing by ten-minute intervals two mates. Bernard stood and Carl followed his lead.
"Okay," said Bernard, "let's bring down your transport."
Carl tossed his head toward the lake. "Do those dummy boats do any good."
"Their coast guard gets tired of checking every blob."
Bernard and Carl walked inland twenty feet to a run-down cottage and grabbed a rope snaking out from its under-storage. As they heaved, Carl looked into the passenger seat of Bernard's pickup at Marion slumped with her eyes closed. The boat they dragged was a fourteen-foot fiberglass skiff with a small inboard motor and extra batteries. They lowered it from the dock and Bernard looped the rope over the tie-off pile. A trip to the truck brought down backpacks, water, and sandwiches.
"You got your compass?" said Bernard.
Carl lifted it from his shirt pocket.
"Keep that string around your neck. Now if you have to abort," said Bernard, "for any reason." He looked west across the lake and swept his left arm, "Head due south until you hit land. Let me show you something else." Bernard leaned into the boat and opened the motor housing. "See that switch. That's the scuttle switch. Get out of the boat, giver her a heading, and throw that switch."
"And twenty minutes later she'll take herself to the bottom."
Carl tried to form a question regarding the circumstances of scuttling. But maybe he knew enough. He walked to the truck and opened the passenger door. Marion opened her eyes.
"I hate to be a baby," she said, "but I'm needing more of those meds."
Carl pulled the vial from his jeans and tipped two tablets into his left hand. Marion took them followed by gulps of bottled water. She swung her body and dropped her feet. Bernard had come up and the two men supported her as she swayed to the dock.
In the wee hours, the blue light on the north shore appeared like a low-lying star. Another hour, Carl figured, and he'd change their heading from west to north. Marion snoozed.
A ripple floated across the surface of the lake and lapped the boat. Carl cut the motor. He prayed for Marion to remain asleep.
The tick-tock of a diesel motor ran north of and parallel to their boat. The sound changed in pitch and grew louder. Soon the skiff bobbed on waves emanating from a larger boat. The diesel motor dropped to half throttle, then quarter, then idle, and the hull of a sixty-foot vessel emerged from the cast of night. A soft white light poked along the top of the water and landed on Carl and Marion.
A stiff voice hailed them. "Ahoy."
"Ahoy yourself," said Carl.
"Canadian Coast Guard. Are you adrift?"
Carl gave no answer.
"Do you have power?"
What to say?
"Look," said the Canadian, "you've got to turn south. It would be better to do it under your own power."
"My wife's sick. Real sick."
Carl thought he could make out a railing and a figure, but for the most part, the voice hovered. "Quite sorry to hear that," it said. "But you can't proceed."
The boat shifted to port as Marion's body twisted from back to side. She lifted her head.
Above the superstructure of the coast guard vessel, the blue light continued its faint glow. Carl raised his eyes and located the little dipper, and on its tail the north star.
"I say, do you have power?"
"Yes," said Carl, "I have power."
Carl switched on the motor and twisted the rudder. He put the north star behind and checked the compass hanging from his neck.
"Carl, honey," said Marion, "the pain is awful."
Carl reached in his pocket.