“It’s time to fasten the men!” Geraldine shouted. She swept her arm across the table, knocking over the tea cups Tenzile had just set down. “It’s time, goddamn it!”
Geraldine was always shouting that it was time to fasten the men, so nobody paid her much attention. The tea cups were molded plastic, ugly but high-end; you could toss one out a three-story window and it wouldn’t crack.
A fourth-story window, now, that was different. Rae and Rodja (the railroad girls, Janace called them, but then Janace thought she was funny) had conducted that experiment late one afternoon after Melvina’s granddaughter had stopped by for one of her five-minute visits. The granddaughter was a lawyer, real estate or taxes or something boring like that; she talked to them like a kindergarten teacher addressing a group of slow children she was obliged to pretend were sweet. One thing about lawyer-girl, though—she never arrived empty-handed. The women figured it must give her a thrill to think she was smuggling in contraband.
“You know, you could tell her you don’t drink,” Haidee said, but Melvina just mumbled something about it being the thought that counted.
That time R&R had thrown the tea cups from the fourth-floor window of Rae’s room and busted two of them, they’d filched the bottle of Maker’s Mark right out of Melvina’s nightie drawer. They were decently ashamed afterwards, but Melvina still gave them both the silent treatment for a week.
When Geraldine knocked over the tea cups, there was no harm done. They’d been empty; the tea was still brewing. Silently, Tenzile righted them. That was just the way Geraldine was. A little volatile, more than a little obsessive—once she got a hair up her butt, there wasn’t any way to yank it out again, so the women humored her, while making sure to keep a safe distance when she jumped. Two years away from eighty, with one hip replacement under her belt, Geraldine still moved pretty good. She’d worked construction for thirty years, and had quite a bit of muscle left from those days.
Everybody kept her mouth shut and made like nothing had happened. Geraldine kicked a chair, then stalked out of the room. Once she was gone, Zyta brought the teapot over to the table, and Doris bustled up with her eternal, blessed sugar cookies, which were dry as sand and nearly always disintegrated into a cascade of crumbs at the first bite. Doris liked them, so no one complained.
“Napkins,” Haidee said. They were in her room today.
Nobody thought much about where Geraldine had gone, until they heard yelling in the courtyard. Rodja and Rae were arguing about the idiots running for governor. Tenzile had brought her backgammon set, and was gazing at the others hopefully. Melvina already had her knitting in her lap; she would use that as her excuse, as usual. It was her excuse to avoid Doris’s terrible cookies, too. Haidee and Janace, who had about as much interest in backgammon as Melvina, smiled at Tenzile, then picked up their teacups. “Nice weather today,” Haidee said.
“Certainly better than yesterday,” said Janace.
Zyta said, “Let’s go to the park. I like the park.”
“We know,” Melvina said.
“I like the ducks.”
“Those aren’t ducks, dear.”
“I like them anyway.” Zyta slipped one of Doris’s cookies off the plate, and casually eased it into the pocket of her cardigan. Everybody saw, including Doris. She laughed, and nudged the plate closer to Zyta.
“The ducks like them,” Zyta said, a bit bashfully.
Janace said, “They’re not ducks.”
“Close enough, don’t you think?”
Rae and Rodja were following this exchange now. “No,” Rodja said, with the authority of someone who had taught biology for forty years. Rae just rolled her eyes.
“If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck—”
“Zyta, they’ve got black scaly tails and teeth.”
Zyta repeated, “I like them anyway.”
“Of course you do, dear,” Melvina said.
They could all tell that Rodja was gearing up to launch into a lecture that would almost certainly have the words mutation, punctuated evolution, environmental niche, and avian die-off in it, not to mention hell in a handbasket, and goddamn chemical-industrial complex, so they stirred their tea and braced themselves. Then the commotion began in the courtyard.
“Where’s Geraldine?” Janace, Rae, Haidee, Doris, Melvina, Rodja, Tenzile, and Zyta exclaimed, in near unison.
They looked around. They looked at each other.
“Shit,” Rae said.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” said Haidee.
Outside, more than one person was yelling. Sometimes kids—from the high school a couple of blocks away—took a shortcut through the courtyard. Sometimes they fought with each other. Sometimes they commandeered the benches and tables that were exclusively for the use of the residents, until Mr. Fitzhugh, the daytime security guard, inched out from behind the monitors on his desk and marched out of the lobby door—with one hand holding the door open—to plant himself six inches from the threshold and glare at them severely. This tended to cause an escalation in the noise level. Sometimes the kids threw soda cans. Or worse.
It did not sound like teenagers in the courtyard.
It sounded like Geraldine shrieking and Mr. Fitzhugh—who, while twenty years younger than Geraldine, couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred and twenty pounds with his boots on—shrieking even louder.
Tenzile was the first one to stand up and go to the window. It should have been Haidee, since that day they were meeting for tea in her room, but Haidee had never made the first move in her life.
Janace said, “Tell me she’s not chasing him around the courtyard.”
Melvina drew her bag out from under her chair and dropped her knitting inside. Rodja and Rae joined Tenzile at the window.
Zyta said, “She’s not 100 percent wrong, you know.”
“God, not again.” Doris stood up, but she did not go to the window. She stood up so she could turn her back on Zyta.
Janace said, “She’s hitting him?”
“Worse,” Rae and Rodja said.
“And these two think it’s funny,” Doris observed.
Rae said, “Sorry, Doris.”
“Mr. Fitzhugh is just trying to do his job.”
“We know, Doris.”
Janace said, “Don’t tell me she’s—?”
Tenzile answered, “She’s got him down on the ground and she’s tying him up.”
“Tying him up with what?”
“Great, we’re going to have the police here again.”
“That poor man.”
“All right,” Melvina said, standing up. “Let’s go.”
Haidee, the born follower, got to her feet as soon as Melvina rose. Rodja and Rae glanced at each other.
Zyta said, “She’s going to do it one day. She’s been planning it forever. Since she was young.”
“She should have done it when she was young,” Janace said. “When we were young. Then there might have been a chance.”
Tenzile said, “We didn’t know her then.”
Janace said, “Doesn’t matter. I’m saying, then she might have had a chance.”
“None of us knew each other when we were young.”
“We know that, Doris.”
“She showed me how to do it,” Zyta said. “In theory, I mean. Well, sort of in practice, too. We did it on a dog.”
“Oh my God,” Haidee said. She loved dogs.
Rae and Rodja glanced at each other again. Rodja began to say something, then thought better of it.
Haidee, her voice shaking, said, “You people have lost your minds.”
“Maybe we’ve just come to the conclusion that we have nothing to lose,” Zyta said.
“Geraldine isn’t all there,” Doris offered. “Come on. Do any of you think she is?”
“Absolutely not,” Haidee said.
None of the others said anything, except Janace, who muttered, “It’s just too late, that’s all.”
Melvina, her back straight and her hands folded, cleared her throat. They all turned toward her, even Zyta, even Doris. Haidee, murmuring dogs? dogs?, began to sit down again, then caught herself.
“We all need to go to the courtyard together,” Melvina said.
Tenzile exclaimed, “Oh, dear.”
“What did she do?” Zyta asked eagerly.
“She’s slung him over her shoulder. I think she’s bringing him back inside.”
“Zyta, I wish you would stop enjoying this so much. That poor man.”
“Stuff it, Doris.”
Rodja said, “Maybe we should head down to the lobby.”
“Tenzile, can you make out Mr. Fitzhugh’s condition?” Melvina’s voice remained calm and authoritative. This was the tone that pissed every single one of them off, including Haidee, but which they all put up with.
“She’s got his ankles and wrists tied, and something black around his head. Maybe tape.”
Haidee said, “Where did she get tape?”
“They do sell tape at the store, dear.”
“Around his head? You mean over his mouth?” Zyta asked.
“Yes. Over his mouth and around his head.”
“Explains why he’s not screaming anymore,” said Janace. “Is he struggling?”
“Bet she bopped him a good one.”
“Why do you keep acting like this is funny?” Doris snapped.
“I don’t think it’s funny.”
“I can’t see them anymore,” Tenzile reported.
Everybody looked at Melvina. “All right. I assume that Geraldine, even given her agitated state, will take the elevator and not the stairs. Now, we have two problems.”
Melvina shot Janace a brief glance. “Two immediate problems. Did anybody see Geraldine fasten Mr. Fitzhugh outside, and will anybody notice her lugging him around inside? Rae, Rodja, would you two go to Geraldine’s room and wait for her there? Janaca, Zyta, I’d like you to go to the lobby and take a look around, then check out the courtyard, as well.”
“And what do we say if the cops roll up while we’re checking for witnesses?”
“Nothing at all,” Melvina said. “You are two innocent elderly ladies out for a bit of afternoon sun. You don’t know anything about a disturbance.”
“You do realize it’s cloudy.”
“You are two innocent, somewhat addled elderly ladies who don’t know anything about a disturbance.”
“You should send Doris.”
“Stop it,” Melvina said. “Tenzile, Haidee, Doris, you’re going to deal with Mr. Fitzhugh, once we get him away from Geraldine. I’m sure he’s going to be very upset—”
“Indeed. There’s about a quarter left of that bottle Rae and Rodja liberated from my bedroom. Now you go liberate it from my bedroom, and try to get as much of it down Mr. Fitzhugh’s throat as you can.” She looked around. “Do you all have your cell phones?”
The women busied themselves checking. Rodja and Rae waved their phones at Melvina, and headed for the door. Doris said, “You know I don’t like those things. Shooting microwaves through your brain. That can’t be good for you, I don’t care what anyone says.”
Tenzile, who was still at the window, said, “Billy Gant from the second floor is in the courtyard now.”
“What’s he doing?”
“Sitting on a bench with his newspaper.”
“Billy Gant’s all right,” Haidee said.
“None of them is all right,” Zyta said.
“Oh, you,” Doris exclaimed. “You’re almost as bad as—”
“We’re not having this argument now,” Melvina said.
“Again, you mean,” said Janace.
Zyta, arms folded, said softly, “You were wrong before. About its being too late. The only thing that’s stopping us, the only thing that’s ever stopped us, is our own fear.”
“I don’t believe you actually did it to a dog.”
“More than once.”
“Oh dear God,” Haidee said.
Janace shook her head. “And you’re saying it worked?”
“Yes.” Zyta paused. “I could teach you.”
“It wouldn’t do any good. Can’t you see that?”
“Each one, teach one. Each one, do one. Domino effect.”
Janace shook her head again. “Sorry to tell you, Zyta, but there just aren’t enough dominos.”
“People,” Melvina said, sharply. “This isn’t the time. Let’s move.”
Zyta said, “You gave everybody a job but yourself.”
They locked eyes. “Who do you imagine is going to be dealing with Geraldine?”
“Fine,” Zyta muttered. “Come on, Janace. We have our orders.”
Rae and Rodja had already left. Haidee and Doris began to move. Haidee looked over her shoulder at Tenzile. “We’re supposed to take care of Mr. Fitzhugh.”
“First we get the whiskey,” Doris said.
“Right. Tenny, you’re with us.”
“Something’s happening,” Tenzile said. She was standing very still. “Billy Gant just jumped up.”
“Billy Gant can’t jump,” Doris said. “He has Parkinson’s.”
“His newspaper went everywhere.” Tenzile raised her hands to her face. “Oh, my.”
“In the courtyard?” Haidee turned toward the window.
“Let’s go,” Melvina said. “Now!”
“She’s got him,” Tenzile said. “He’s on the ground. She’s fastening him.”
“Now, people! Move!”
Janace grabbed Zyta’s sleeve and tugged her to the door.
Haidee said, “The police have to be coming. Someone must have seen.”
“If she’s got Billy Gant now, what did she do with Mr. Fitzhugh?” Doris asked.
“Maybe she finished with him,” Zyta said, from the door. Janace tugged her again, and Zyta pushed her off. “It doesn’t take long, really. So if it’s started—”
“He’s probably in her room,” Melvina said. “Rae and Rodja went there. They’ll—”
“She’s carrying Billy Gant inside,” Tenzile said. Her voice had been quiet from the first. It was still quiet. Haidee frowned at her back, then glanced at Doris.
“It’s started,” Zyta said. “Rodja and Rae can’t undo what Geraldine’s done.”
“We can stop her from doing it to Billy Gant,” Janace snapped.
“We don’t know that she did anything.” Melvina’s gaze darted from one of them to the next, resting on no one. “We don’t know anything for sure. We need to—”
“You wouldn’t even look out the window,” Zyta said. “Why is that?”
“We need to move,” Melvina said.
“Do you still want us to go to the courtyard?” Janace asked.
“No. No. To Geraldine’s room. Everybody—together.” Melvina swept her arms up, in a shooing gesture. Her lip trembled.
“Everybody together,” Zyta said. The way she said it was very different.
“What did Billy Gant ever do to you?” Doris said to Zyta.
“Or Mr. Fitzhugh,” Haidee said. “Mr. Fitzhugh was a nice man. He liked to do crossword puzzles.”
Zyta shook her head. “You people. Why do you keep thinking it’s some kind of punishment, some sort of revenge? That’s not it. It’s not like that at all. Melvina. You know better. You do.”
“So do I,” Tenzile said. “But Zyta. . . I need more. Like Janace said, people aren’t dominoes. Mr. Fitzhugh, Billy Gant—two men. Convince me we wouldn’t be throwing everything away on a symbolic gesture.”
“It’s not a gesture, and it’s not symbolic. It’s a beginning. And what’s begun doesn’t have to stop. It doesn’t have to stop, Tenzile. Besides, exactly what the hell are we throwing away?”
Janace grabbed Zyta, not gently. “Shut up and let’s go.”
Melvina herded Doris and Haidee in front of her toward the door. After a moment, Tenzile left her post at the window and followed them.
Geraldine’s room was on the second floor. Without consulting any of them, without even looking around, Janace headed straight for the stairs, bypassing the elevators, her hand still clamped around Zyta’s wrist.
“What about the whiskey?” Doris asked.
“Wait! I didn’t lock my door!” Haidee said.
There was no one else in the hallway. There was no one on the stairs. There should have been. Residents used the elevators, but aides, attendants, and the building’s service people were encouraged to take the stairs. Melvina’s eyes narrowed.
“Where is everybody?” Doris asked Tenzile. “Do you think they’re hiding?”
“The men are, if they’ve got any brains,” Janace said.
“I didn’t lock my door.”
“Haidee, I think your collection of nineteenth-century knickknacks is safe for the moment.”
“Eighteenth century. And anyway I was thinking about my laptop.”
Melvina was the last to reach the bottom of the stairs. The others waited for her, Janace breathing a little hard, Doris still holding on to the handrail. Janace ruefully said, “You know Geraldine could kick all our asses.”
“She’s not going to do that,” Zyta said.
“Right. The spirit of sisterhood will protect us.”
Melvina, breathing harder than Janace, said, “We’re her friends. She knows that.”
“She was yelling, before,” Haidee said. “And she kicked over a chair. But she’s always yelling and throwing things. Why did she go and do that to Mr. Fitzhugh and Billy Gant today? Do you think something happened to her?”
“A lifetime happened,” Zyta said.
The second floor hallway was empty, as well.
“Does this feel like a lockdown to you?” Janace asked. “Maybe there was an announcement and we missed it?”
“There wasn’t any announcement,” Melvina said. Geraldine’s room was number 216, on the right at the far end of the hall. Melvina took the lead now as they advanced down the corridor. Janace wasn’t gripping Zyta’s wrist anymore. At the bottom of the stairs, she’d let go, and somehow, a moment later, they’d wound up holding hands. Doris and Haidee clasped hands as well. Tenzile, like Melvina, walked alone.
“Where are Rodja and Rae?” Doris sounded frightened. “They were supposed to be here, waiting.”
“She got them, too,” Haidee whispered.
“That’s not how it works,” Zyta said.
“Right,” Janace said.
“It’s not. I told you. I’ve done it.”
“They might be inside,” Tenzile said. She moved up next to Melvina, and said something to her under her breath. Melvina jerked her head away.
“Come on. What the hell are we throwing away, Zyta said. She was right.” More loudly, Tenzile continued, “What can we lose? Old women, drinking tea, playing cards, waiting for doctor’s appointments, waiting for the heart attack, waiting for the stroke, waiting for the fall in the bathtub.”
“I’ve got a granddaughter.”
“So do I. So does Geraldine.”
“Geraldine has three,” said Haidee.
“We are free,” Tenzile said. “We are some of the freest women on the planet.”
Zyta said, “True. Funny how that works, isn’t it?”
“We’re going to lose what we have left,” Melvina said. “All because of two old men who can’t possibly make any difference.”
Slowly, Tenzile said, “A blizzard starts with a couple of snowflakes.”
“First dominoes, now blizzards?”
They were outside room 216. For a moment, no one said anything. In the hallway, there was no sound other than their own breathing.
Doris said, softly, “Are we going to knock?”
Janace said, “Wait. We still don’t know what we’re going to do.”
“We still don’t know if we have to do anything,” Melvina said. “Except sit on Geraldine until the cops get here.”
“It’s much too late for that,” Zyta said. “We can either move things along, or get out of the way.”
Janace jerked at Zyta’s hand. “You want to go gather snowflakes?”
“It’s not like they’d be very hard to find.”
“You’re a fanatic.”
“I’m just ready.” Zyta’s voice was pensive. “I’m ready now.”
“We should knock,” Haidee said. “Rae and Rodja are probably in there, hiding like everybody else. We should let them know we’re here.”
“They’re not hiding,” Zyta said.
“They might be scared.”
Even Melvina’s lips twitched into an almost-smile at that.
“Somebody’s in there,” Janace said. “Maybe Rae and Rodja, maybe Geraldine, probably Mr. Fitzhugh and Billy Gant. Geraldine had to put the men somewhere. So.” She let go of Zyta’s hand.
“So you’ve decided what you’re going to do?” Zyta asked.
“I’ve decided to see what we’re up against.”
“We’re up against the future.”
“More like the past,” Tenzile said. She leaned forward, until her head was nearly touching the door.
Doris asked, “Do you hear something?”
“Yes.” Tenzile looked at Melvina. “Can you hear it?”
“I’m not sure. Oh, damn it. Yes. Yes, I hear it.”
“What?” Haidee asked. “What is it?”
“The snowflakes,” Tenzile said. “The dominoes.”
Janace said, “But Geraldine only fastened two. And then we came down here. She hasn’t had time—”
“You’re forgetting Rodja and Rae,” said Tenzile.
Doris said, “They didn’t go out. We would’ve seen them.”
“No, they’ve been hunting in the building.”
“You don’t know that,” Melvina said.
“You’re right.” Tenzile took hold of the doorknob. “What I do know is that it’s time to take sides.”
“Wait, I hear something, too,” Haidee said. “Like crying.”
“Not so strange that they’d be crying,” Zyta said, coming to stand next to Tenzile. “Considering.”
“You didn’t really do this to dogs, Zyta, did you?”
“And they cried too?”
“Puppies cry, don’t they?”
Janace said, “You’re seriously telling me you made female puppies?”
“Yep.” Zyta glanced at her, briefly. “Like I said, it’s not hard. Geraldine showed me. I could show you. You could show your sister in Tucson and your niece in Santa Fe. And they—”
“Stop it,” Doris said. “Please, I know Geraldine talks about it all the time, but that’s because she’s losing her marbles. Now she’s gone and hurt some people, and we have to try to help them.”
“That isn’t why we’re here.”
“That isn’t why you’re here, you mean.”
Zyta looked away, then nodded. “Like Tenzile said, time to take sides.”
“There aren’t any sides,” Doris said. “There’s crazy, and there’s not crazy.”
Tenzile said, “Janace is with us. She just needs to see it with her own eyes.”
“Don’t speak for me,” Janace said. “Don’t.”
“Melvina?” Zyta asked, softly.
Melvina made an attempt to step back, but Haidee and Doris were right behind her. Except for Tenzile and Zyta, they were all trying to shelter behind each other. “I wish we could do it to ourselves.”
“That’s not how it works,” Tenzile said.
Haidee said, “It can’t be Billy Gant and Mr. Fitzhugh crying like that.”
“There are more than two in there,” Zyta said.
“That’s not what I meant. I mean it sounds like—”
“Tenzile,” Zyta said. “Open the door.”
Tenzile let go of the doorknob, raised her hand, and knocked twice.
Doris and Haidee, who’d managed to keep behind the rest, stepped back. Janace and Melvina stayed where they were. They looked at each other. Zyta looked at both of them. Tenzile faced forward.
When the door opened, it was Rae who gazed out at them. She didn’t speak.
“How many?” Tenzile asked.
“A few,” Rae answered. A smile glimmered in her eyes, then vanished.
Rae hesitated, then nodded.
“I’m with you,” Zyta said.
“And me,” said Tenzile.
Rae looked past them to the others.
Doris and Haidee took another step back.
“At least come in with us and see for yourselves,” Zyta said.
Melvina, now that Haidee and Doris were no longer crowding her, moved back a pace. “What do you think you’re going to accomplish? What do you imagine you can change?”
“The tipping point,” Rae answered.
“Critical mass,” said Zyta. “We’re 51 percent, more or less. That’s not enough. Maybe sixty percent will be enough. Maybe seventy.”
“We’ll never know,” Melvina said. “We can’t.”
“You’re right, because we won’t see the end of what’s been started here. We can only help with the beginning.”
“Oh, I’m pretty sure I know how this is going to end,” Janace said, with strained bitterness.
Rae opened the door of Geraldine’s room wider. “Come on, if you’re coming.”
“Mr. Fitzhugh was nice,” Haidee said. “And Billy Gant never did anything to you.”
“Really?” Rae replied.
“Well, he never did anything to me.”
“Why aren’t the police here?” Melvina asked. “How did you get everybody to stay in their rooms?”
“What makes you think everybody is in her room?” Rae’s smile grew, slowly, into a grin. “Rodja and Geraldine aren’t the only ones hunting.”
“The whole building?” Zyta exclaimed, softly.
“Pretty much. We outnumber them more than three to one in this place.”
“I didn’t know Geraldine had gotten others on board.”
Rae nodded. “Rodja used to think she was nuts. Hell, I used to think she was nuts. But you gotta give her points for persistence. And then, you know, she showed us, and that persuaded most people.”
“What about the ones like them?” Tenzile jerked her head at Doris and Haidee.
“Fewer than you might think.” Rae paused. “There are some. We’re hoping to bring them over.”
“We’ll never get everybody,” Tenzile said.
Zyta said, “We don’t need everybody. We just need enough.”
Suddenly Melvina said, “Mr. Fitzhugh wasn’t the first. The whole building? You couldn’t have done that in an hour.”
“Come in,” Rae said. “Come and see what we’ve done.”
“When did you start?” Tenzile asked, quietly.
“So all the time at Haidee’s—”
“Yeah.” Rae grinned at Zyta. “Geraldine lost it a little. She was supposed to take you and Tenny and Janace aside. She’s been pretty wired, though.”
“What else is new,” Janace muttered. “Your leader is a fruitcake.”
“Our teacher, not our leader. Come on.”
One by one, the women went inside. Doris and Haidee were the last to enter, but they were the first to sit down on the stools at the head of each row of cribs. After a moment, Haidee put her hand in the nearest crib and touched the infant there. Then Doris touched the one closest to her.
The rest of them stared, trying to take it in.
“Geraldine put all these together herself,” Rae said.
“Just how long have you been planning this?” Janace asked. She spoke quietly, because of the babies.
“Me? None of it. Geraldine woke me and Rodja up before six. That’s when we found out she’d started. And when we found out she could really do it. But I think Geraldine’s been planning this most of her life.”
“I guess it’s time to buy stock in diaper companies.”
“Look at them,” Haidee said, leaning forward. “Just look at them.”
Doris stroked the head of the baby in the crib nearest her.
“Twelve,” Melvina said. “You’ve got twelve.” She sounded like she was about to cry.
“In this room, yeah,” Rae said.
“They’re going to catch you,” Janace said. “There’s no way in hell some of these men won’t be missed. The aides? The cleaning staff?”
“Which is why we have to teach as many women as we can how to do it. And they have to teach others.”
“Yes,” Zyta said. “That’s what I told them.”
Doris said, “They’re lovely. Aren’t they lovely?”
Tenzile said, “Doris. Haidee. You understand who these babies are? Who they were?”
Haidee said, “Just because we think you’re wrong doesn’t mean we’re stupid.”
“You can’t change them back, can you?” Doris said.
“No,” Zyta said.
“That’s what I figured. So now someone has to take care of them. I hope you all considered that. And don’t tell me Geraldine put the cribs together, and stocked up on baby formula. That’s not what I mean.”
“We know what you mean,” Rae said. “So I guess you and Haidee are okay about helping us out on that end?”
Doris and Haidee looked at each other. “Well, somebody has to do it,” Haidee said.
Rae’s grin got wider. “Rodja owes me ten bucks. I bet her that’s exactly what you’d say. Now, how about the rest of you?”
“My butt-wiping days are long past,” Janace said.
“How about your bomb-throwing days?”
“I was never part of that.” Janace shook her head. “I kept my head down, I focused on practical things. And you know what happened to most of those guys.”
“But this is a different sort of bomb,” Zyta said. “The explosions are silent, and the impact much more dramatic.”
“It’s still killing people.”
“Change is not death. Change is change.”
“Tell that to Billy Gant. Which one of these baby girls used to be him? Which one was Mr. Fitzhugh? They’re gone, and they’re never coming back.”
“They’ve been given a second life, Janace.”
“But not as themselves. And they were certainly not given a choice.”
“How much choice did we ever have?” Tenzile countered. “Any of us. All of us. For hundreds of years, thousands—”
“Not a lot,” Melvina said. “For most, none at all. So what’s next? What do you want us to do?”
“You’re in, then?” Zyta asked.
“We’re here now. We’re in it.”
“You can walk away,” Rae said. “You do have a choice.”
“I’m not walking away.”
“I am,” Janace said. She didn’t look at the women in the room, or the babies. At the door, she paused. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell. But I can’t go along with this. Sorry.”
When she was gone, Tenzile said, “She’ll tell.”
Rae said, “It doesn’t matter. If Janace doesn’t, someone else will. Meanwhile, we do our work. Zyta.”
“You’re going to take over here. When Geraldine and Rodja get back, me and Rodja are heading—um, somewhere else. You teach Tenny and Melvina, and supervise their first few times. Then you get someone else in here, and watch Tenny and Melvina teach them.”
“I got it.”
“And then,” Rae continued, “all three of you get out of here. Out of town. Don’t tell anybody where, not even each other. Keep on teaching, and making sure those you teach teach others, for as long as you can. Everybody follow?”
The women nodded. A baby whimpered; another let out a wail. Doris and Haidee rose to tend to the infants. Nobody smiled; every expression was somber.
“Have a seat,” Rae said to the others. “Rodja and Geraldine will be back soon, and then you can start.”
Zyta, Tenzile, and Melvina glanced around, then together, silently, moved to the sofa that had been shoved against the wall. They sat down. Zyta took Tenzile’s hand, and Tenzile took Melvina’s. They waited, quietly, for the soft knock on the door, and the fastened men Geraldine and Rodja would be bringing for them.
Patricia Russo has had stories at Fantasy, Chizine, Daily SF, and in many other fine publications, both online and off. Her first collection, Shiny Thing, has recently been published by Papaveria Press.