The day couldn’t be better as Helen turned into her driveway. As a schoolteacher, everything she’d worked for was tied up and waiting for her retirement. Sure, she wouldn’t be hanging up her smock for at least ten years, but for now, everything was in its place. The perfect candidate had made it into office, and her life was about to take a turn for the better. President Drummond promised to take the country back from the dismal and daunting place it had become, and that turn of events would ensure Helen’s future along with her two kids.
The garage door slid shut behind her vehicle and she peeked in the mirror at her reflection. She wasn’t sure what it was, but she almost appeared as if she’d just come home from a sauna and exfoliation. She’d never had one before, but if she could afford it, she’s certain that’s what it would look like. Happy and content.
Humming a few bars of a song she didn’t remember the words to, she unpacked her car and entered the house, setting her things on the counter. No sooner had she removed her shoes and wiggled her toes in exhilaration than her son, Hayden, came rushing in. “Mom,” he said, “Did you hear the news?”
Helen studied his face because she had heard the news, but from his expression her news was much different from his.
Her head turned slightly and her mouth turned down for a second. “Yes, the news about Drummond winning, right? As a teacher, this boost will make supporting you and Stephen a lot easier. As much as I love the work, I’m underpaid.”
“No, the part about minorities.”
The words barely escaped his lips when Stephen clicked the television on in the next room, drawing both of them in. “We’re not minorities, though.” She breathed as she folded her arms in front of the television set. The future President Drummond was speaking to a crowd of reporters with a smile on his face, which was odd. He wasn’t one to smile unless he’d just made a statement that made him giggle inside—generally sarcastic remarks.
“What’s he saying?” She turned to Hayden. The reporter came back on screen.
“That’s the latest,” the newsman announced, “but the changes won’t take place until next week when he actually moves into the White House.”
“Wow,” the other broadcaster chimed in, “it’s almost like a national overhaul, am I right?” The first newsman nodded and Hayden stepped forward turning the set off.
“Looks like our country’s about to do some serious renovating, doesn’t it?” Helen sighed, dropping her shoulders. “I guess at this point, we can at least be glad that we’re white. We won’t be affected. I sort of feel bad for the others.”
“What about Saed?” Stephen pouted. “He’s my best friend. Are they going to make him leave the country?”
For a ten-year-old, he was taking this pretty hard. But Helen remembered what it was like being a kid. Stephen would be sad at first, but he’d make new friends. Good friends. White friends. Still, she had to make him feel better for now.
“Sweetie,” Helen placed her hand on Stephen’s shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze, “He’ll be fine. He’ll be able to go back to his own country and speak his own language again. At first he’ll be sad, we all will. But in the long run, it’ll be better for everyone.”
He was stunned. Her son looked at her as if she’d slapped his face, his eyes opened wide in disbelief. “How can you say that?”
“It is what it is. Quite frankly, it’s about time we had a president daring enough to stand up and say what’s right, don’t you think?”
“Mom, do you hear yourself?” Hayden interjected. “You’re telling us to give up our closest friends because of their heritage. America is the land of the free.”
“America was founded on the right to work for what you want,” she said, “Not to come in here and take whatever you want for free. Face it, that’s what this country has become—freeloader heaven.”
The boys gaped at each other and then at their mom who stood slowly shaking her head from side to side. “The president makes the rules boys, not me.”
Hayden placed his hand around his brother’s shoulder. Stephen remained in shock as he was guided toward the staircase.
“Let’s get started on your homework, bud,” Hayden said, glancing over his shoulder at his mother. She shrugged and turned away. It was about time for her to get dinner going so she could grade papers.
Helen laughed to herself as she made her way to the bedroom. She was a teacher at the high school, and her boys were in junior high and elementary. Her eyes rolled as she imagined the hell she was in for when they moved up. Stephen, especially, had a knack for thinking outside the box, but both of them were smart. Sometimes that wasn’t such a good thing, especially when they disagreed with her and set out on the Internet to find proof. This time, the lesson would serve them well. But she had to be patient and allow them to realize it themselves.
The next few weeks were turbulent, to say the least, at the grocery store, the shopping mall, and even the post office. People were literally being turned away from service even when they had the money to pay for the items. But then Helen remembered sometimes the best changes aren’t the easiest to make. Instead of saying anything, she determined it was best to stay home until the situation simmered down a bit. In the meantime, she’d only go shopping in broad daylight on a “must have” basis.
Finally, she heard a rumor that things were going to calm down in the next little while, and that put her mind at ease. She couldn’t wait to shop like she used to, exchanging pleasantries with everyone she met along the way, unafraid they may lash out at her just because of her light skin color.
The smell of the savory roast filled the air as she opened the oven to remove the pan. The spaghetti and meatballs’ steam rose in plumes from the pan. “That smells good,” Stephen licked his lips with huge eyes, “Is it almost time to eat?”
“Here’s the mail,” Hayden burst through the kitchen doorway and tossed it across Helen’s desk at the side of the room. They spilled across the bills piled up in the corner where they lingered before she paid them. “I’m not sure how you sort this stuff, so I’ll just put it all right there for you.”
“Sounds good,” she said as she gently placed the spaghetti in the middle of the table. “You two be sure and wash up before you sit down to eat, okay? Last time, Stephen had hands a monkey would turn away.”
Stephen glanced at his hands and shyly turned away, disappearing down the hall. The only part of setting the table left was pouring the drinks, and Hayden was doing that now. Helen took advantage of the time by shifting through the mail and saw an envelope with a governmental return address. “Hmm,” she said without thinking and leaned against the desk to find the letter opener. Poking it through the corner, she ripped the envelop open. “What the hell?” she said, scaring the daylights out of Hayden who nearly spilled the milk.
He quickly set the carton down and leaned over her shoulder, taking in the form that shook in her hand. “What is it?” he asked.
Her voice quivered as she spoke, “The state is saying I have to be tested. They actually say everyone is being tested to see their ancestry.”
“Yeah?” Hayden returned to the milk and replaced the cap. “But we’re of European decent right? Like German and Irish—something like that?”
“Of course, but they’re wanting to test back five generations.”
Stephen entered the room and plopped down in his chair. “Let’s eat.”
“Hold up,” Hayden instructed his younger brother by holding his hand in the air. “We are European aren’t we?”
Helen scoffs. “Of course we are.” Then her face darkened. “The bad news is that after I come back clean, they’ll want to test the two of you if your father comes back with diverse blood. Honestly, I’m not sure what country his lineage begins.”
All three of them remained silent while the only motion was the steam rising from the table. “Let’s eat,” Hayden spoke first. “Go get tested and then we’ll wait to see if dad’s blood is clean. If it is, we’re all good, right?”
“That’s right,” Helen nodded and sighed heavily. “Then everything will be fine.”
As they devoured their meal, not another word was spoken about the test or anything else. But the gears turning in their minds screeched and groaned like pieces of rusty machinery fighting to remain alive. None of them wanted to accept this may be one of the few meals they had together.
The paper’s edge had a perforated strip Helen needed to tear off and secure around her wrist when she went to work the next day. Even though it was a simple piece of paper, a strange feeling emanated from it. She even glanced at it a couple of times to see if the appearance had changed because of the heat she felt. But it always looked the same. A simple white piece of paper, about an inch thick, with the backing of a tear-away strip on a plastic bandage wrapped about her wrist.
Helen’s name had been on the form, but the tear-away wrist strip only had a 9-digit code on it with intermittent hyphens every three numbers, followed up by one final hyphen and a capitalized letter. The letter G. She didn’t know if it was a coincidence the letter was what her surname Gruber started with, or if it truly was indicative of it. She’d studied the origin of the name before and knew it was Austrian, and her maiden name was Jensen. She didn’t imagine you could be anything but white with that name. Still, she discovered the next day that everyone at the school received the same letter in the mail.
When she walked down the halls, the same crepe paper stretched across the hallway in preparation for the upcoming Junior Prom with banners and posters lining the walls. Though the atmosphere appeared the same as when she left yesterday, something loomed in the halls, hovering in the air and absorbing the scarce conversations people had. Helen could only imagine what the students might be saying as they eyed her wristband.
Although Helen worked at keeping the conversation flowing with an upbeat rhythm, the air was thick and nonmoving the majority of the morning. At lunchtime, the staff members shuffled into the library where they had it partitioned off into areas resembling a blood bank. There were no beds, only little tables with young people donned in white lab coats on one side. They resembled kids trying to pull off the mirage of responsible people. Drapes hung separating the tables, the employees took the empty chairs one at a time.
Helen entered her room and the young lady waiting at the opening, smiled and pulled the drape closed behind her. “This is really easy and won’t take long,” she said with a smile. “I need you to sign this form. It simply states that this is your blood, and then I’ll take the wristband as identification after I verify it with your driver’s license, okay?” The grin never faltered. She should have worked in a cookie factory, Helen thought.
After signing her name and removing the bracelet, she extended her forearm across the table and watched the girl remove the small packet with a device to prick her finger. As she jabbed it in, the girl squeezed the fingertip between her thumb and index finger to force a drop of blood out onto a slide. “That’s it!” The girl acted as if she were a preschool teacher and just saw her student tie a shoe for the first time. Helen half-expected her to pop a sucker out and offer it to her.
“How long before we see the results?” Helen inquired.
“Well, for this test, they say it will take between 30 and 60 days to get the results. And if you are okay, you will receive a letter stating as much. If there’s a problem, someone will come to your house and discuss options.” The girl perched up straight in her chair with her hands clasped tightly around each other, the Barbie lips never ceased curving.
“And if I’m okay, will you need to have my children tested?”
“Only if their father comes back infect—I mean with tainted blood.”
Helen whispered as an afterthought, “Tainted blood.”
“Well, you know what I mean.” Her sweet smirk seemed almost devilish for a second beneath her blond hair and pointed, upturned nose. “I’m sure you’re fine.”
The next few days were surreal as people moved about, almost in a suspicious fashion. One at a time, families would disappear in the night. No one knew where the people went. Their cell phones were disconnected and they apparently disappeared into the thin air, all varies of color and white.
Helen tried talking to her neighbors, but everyone claimed they hadn’t yet received their results. Oddly though, no officials had been to any of the homes that Helen had seen, escorting families away, which relieved her. For some reason the thought of Hitler’s reign emerged when the nurse told her that. It made her feel relief she hadn’t seen it. She was such a light sleeper she was sure if the tiniest commotion at night sounded she would awaken.
If she did wake up, it would be to see a car or truck pull from a driveway. The darkened street would temporarily fill with two steady streams of light shooting from the front of the automobile. The silhouetted heads bounced about inside as it quietly coasted down the street. They never returned.
As Helen prepared for work, she gathered her purse, snatching her sack lunch from the counter as she headed to the door. “Come on, boys!”
Hayden and Stephen grabbed their lunches also and shoved them into their backpacks before passing her to scramble to the car. The sun was out and high in the sky, not like the past few mornings. “Today is going to be perfect!” she cheered. Both boys were stunned as they exchanged glances and laughed.
The stop sign ahead signified the exit of the neighborhood, and as she pulled past it, a police car drove up behind her and silently turned its lights on. Flashing reflections of blue and red bounced on the interior of her car.
Helen frowned as her mind churned through all the things she could have done wrong, but she definitely followed the rules of the road. Unless, one of her tail lights was out. She’s supposed that was a possibility.
The officer approached her window at the side of the road. Hayden and Stephen watched from their seats with curiosity. “Would you mind stepping out of the car, ma’am?”
“What’s the problem, officer?” Something wasn’t right. “What did I do?”
“May I see your driver’s license?”
Hayden gathered her purse from the floor by his feet and handed it to her. Parting it open, she removed her wallet and took her license out, handing it to the officer, silently. She watched in the side view mirror as he moved to the back and used the radio attached to his shoulder to read the information off. After a bit of conversation, he returned to her window.
“Could you come around back for a second?”
“Nothing,” his face softened, “I need to speak with you, that’s all.”
Hayden’s jaw clenched and his eyes brightened attentively. Stephen remained transfixed and quiet. The same worried expression his father used to have when they argued and he didn’t comprehend what she was trying to say.
Helen slid from the car and closed the door, following the officer behind it. The officer handed her license back to her and placed his hands on his hips. “Ma’am, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but we need you to relocate as soon as possible. Before you do, you need to progress through the day as if nothing has happened. You can tell your boys it was a routine stop if you’d like. But the neighborhood you are currently living in is listed below par.”
“I’m sorry?” Helen squinted her eyes and tried to understand what he was saying. “My test results came back?”
“Yes, and you’re safe.”
Helen glanced behind her toward the car with her boys staring through the back window at her. “What about them? Will you need to test them, or have their father’s tests come back as well?”
For a moment, the officer’s eyes shifted to one side and then back again. “Their father is also safe. In fact, his line extends to…”
The officer nodded and his mouth bowed up. “Yep, Austria.”
“I knew it!” A wave of relief washed over her and to her surprise made her light headed. She grabbed the trunk of the car to steady herself, and the officer reached out a hand to steady her.
“You okay, ma’am?”
Heavily breathing, she opened her hand under her throat and a sense of relief washed over her face. “I’m fine,” she whispered, “quite fine.”
The officer guided her back to the car with a hand gently pressing her waist. “At approximately 2 a.m., you’re to enter the airport and give them these tickets. Now the only things you’ll be able to take is carry-on luggage. But after you get re-established, we’ll have you come back and pick up your other things, okay?”
“Okay, but where does the plane go?” Her brows furrowed. “Like, where are we moving to?”
“I’m sorry. I should have told you before. You’re going to Beverly Hills.”
Grabbing the door handle behind her, she gripped it hard. “Beverly Hills? Are you certain you don’t have me mixed up with someone else?”
His grin broadened. “I’m not saying you’ll be living there, but that’s where you’ll be going. When you land, someone in California will have a board with your name on it. You’ll follow to the limousine and travel to Beverly Hills to find out where your new home is. But I guarantee, it will be no comparison to where you are now. That you can take to the bank.”
The officer opened her door and she plopped down in the seat.
“You be safe now, ma’am,” the officer’s face soothed her now with his cheeky good-ole-boy grin.
“Oh, I will. Thank you so much.”
The officer waved with a friendly nod and headed back to his car.
“What was that all about?” Hayden queried as his mother’s door slammed shut and she turned the key in the ignition.
“Everything is fine. Trust me.”
And they continued their day. When Helen got to the school, the numbness dissipated and the kids turned back to normal. Everything was a little sweeter than usual, and even the office staff’s announcements were considerably more chipper.
At the dinner table, Helen used a large portion of her money, which she’d never normally do, on a few rib eye steaks, lobster, crispy fresh salad with artichokes, and wine. She was the only one to actually drink the chardonnay. The meal was exquisite and the best she could remember ever making. The boys hadn’t had anything other than hamburgers and hotdogs for as long as they remembered.
When Hayden got up and picked up a few dishes, Helen gently grabbed his arm and guided him back to his seat. “I have some big news, guys.” She breathed.
“What is it?” Stephen asked, setting his fork down. “Dessert?”
“Don’t be a dork,” his brother chimed in. “Can’t you tell it’s important?”
“Calm down.” Helen’s face beamed, and she felt as if her mouth got any wider, the top of her head would fall off. “Okay, I’ve been keeping to myself all day. If I don’t share it now, I’m gonna freakin’ explode!”
“Gross, at least let me clear the table first,” Hayden commented, “It’s my turn for dishes and the easier the mess to clean up, the better.”
“Oh, c’mon,” she slugged him in the arm. “We’re moving!”
“When?” Stephen asked.
Hayden did a double take between his mother and brother as if someone was playing a prank on him. “Tonight?”
“Yep, tonight.” The boys’ eyes were a mixture of confusion and disappointment, but mostly plain old confusion.
“I can’t leave without saying good-bye to my friends,” Stephen wailed.
“And what about Casey? She’ll never forgive me,” Hayden added.
“All I can say is hopefully they’ll be joining us and we can all live happily ever after. We’re the chosen ones. We deserve the best, don’t we?”
Their silence filled every pore in the paint, every fiber in the carpet, and every sliver in the wood. “Don’t you guys feel like we’re the best?”
Hayden spoke first. “I feel like everyone’s the best, Mom.”
“Me too,” his little brother agree.
“Well, that’s for our government to decide. That’s why the people voted for them, right? To make all the hard choices so we don’t have to.” Helen stood from the table. “Tonight, I want each of you to grab one of the suitcases in the basement and fill it with enough clothes for a few days. We’ll be back to get everything else later.”
“What time are we leaving?” Hayden asked.
“Our flight leaves just after 2:00 a.m., so we’ll probably need to leave around midnight, just to be sure. But you can’t tell anyone. It’s a strictly need to know basis.”
“Is this for real?” Stephen questioned.
“It’s for real. We’re real Americans, baby.” She ruffled his hair with her hand and then swatted his butt as he zipped to the hall. “Let’s get this cleaned up,” she directed Hayden. “When we come back for the rest of our things, it should be orderly.”
They finished cleaning up and then went to their rooms to pack.
The airport bustled a little, but not nearly as much as during the day. The trio moved easily up and down the corridors to their terminal. About half the seats remained vacant with the backdrop of glass separating the travelers from the blinking red and white lights of the jets and the rapidly flashing amber lights from the luggage buggies. The rest of the unoccupied space flooded with blackness.
“Flight 351 to LAX is now boarding. We now invite those with passes to board at Gate 12 A at this time. Please have your passes out and ready. Thank you.”
The three exchanged glances, Helen’s lips stretched upwards across her face, as the boys followed her to the gate. All the people surrounding them seemed just as intrigued to get on. Helen stole a glance behind her and wondered for a moment which of the others would be spared. But the thought was quickly dismissed and she turned to deliver her ticket. “Enjoy your flight,” the attendant gleamed.
The seats were comfortable, but the plane’s occupants were plentiful. The excited chatter filled the air. Conversations included making plans for the future, the new marital partners people planned on meeting, as well as the new positions they’d be able to work. They seemed eager to gain appreciation for their skills.
Lifting their carry-ons one at a time to the compartments overhead, Helen secured them and strapped into her seat. “You guys ready?” she asked the kids.
Both of them nodded, although neither anticipated the ride as enthusiastically as she did. Settling back in her seat, she closed her eyes and tried to imagine where she’d be in 12 hours and what she’d be doing. It was nearly too much to fathom. The possibilities were endless.
The plane’s engines grumbled and the gravity tugged at her flesh as they rose into the air, leaving the tarmac beneath them. The talking increased and disrupted her train of thought, but when the baby wailed, she couldn’t take it. Turning in her seat, she strained to see down the aisle, hoping to see whose baby it was, but a flight attendant was in the way.
“Did you need something?” she asked.
“Yes,” Helen answered, “Could you show me where the headphones are located, please?”
“I understand,” the attendant said and pointed to a compartment above her seat. “Is there anything else?”
Helen shook her head and pulled the headset down from the compartment placing them over her ears. The sweet music she found soothed her. Soon she was halfway to sanity, finally calming herself with the persistence she used to use to quiet her boys Christmas Eve. She’d walk them through a visionary landscape to calm them, and that’s what worked for her now.
Taking a deep breath and slowly releasing it, someone bumped into her arm. Clumsy people could be so rude, she thought. But then a hand grasped her by the shoulder and gave her a firm shake, in which there was no mistaking intention.
Helen’s eyes popped open.
A man’s mouth inches from her face, displayed gritted teeth. “You must rise now,” he said as he gave her a final heartless jolt. That was when she noticed his attire matched the other three men standing. Military uniforms coated them all.
“Why? We aren’t there already.”
“Yes, we are at your destination,” he insisted, grabbing her by the arm and yanking her to her feet. The rest of the passengers were already gathering their suitcases and lining up at the door. Helen’s sons waited patiently behind her to open the hatch and remove their suitcases. As the people shuffled toward the exit, Helen tried to get a good look out the windows but could only discern they were at a sort of makeshift runway. She couldn’t tell where they were except it was a desert. The people ahead of her slid down the inflatable slide one at a time.
As she neared the doorway, she turned to Hayden and whispered, “Which airport is this? This is not LAX. Did we have flight issues?”
Hayden always had a special interest in aircraft, so she figured if anyone knew, it would be her son. But he shrugged. He had no clue.
At the bottom, where all the passengers gathered, they stood facing a row of what appeared to be United States military, although there were no signs of which branch. No emblems or hints to where they were from, but their posture, haircuts, and facial expressions led her to believe they were serious. The guns didn’t help.
The people with her, young and old, large and small, all of them white, had the same basic expressions—a mix of fear and regret.
“Let me first ask you,” the leader shouted, “by a raise of hands, who voted for President Drummond?”
A lot of the people, including Helen, dubiously raised their hands. Some were a bit slower than others, or didn’t raise them quite as high. The others looked back and forth amongst themselves. Helen faced the front.
The men in uniform broke out in an incontrollable laughter. A few of the men exposed their pleasure with crimson cheeks they guffawed so hard. “Step forward.”
Helen and her kids took a few strides forward, as did the others with their hands raised. “Now, I urge you not to look behind you unnecessarily during the next portion, or the mayhem may dissuade you to trust us, but it’s for your own good.
The men swung their guns around in front and aimed them in between the Drummond voters. “You who are about to die, you can thank the people in front of you. They are the ones who voted for what’s about to happen.”
A woman, engulfed in rage, screamed and ranted from behind, and then the guns went off. A baby could be heard wailing. It was the same baby’s voice who’d been crying earlier on the plane, but now the squeal was more frantic and panicked.
The man standing in front, ahead to the right, took careful aim and fired three rounds. The noise halted. The silence was so awful Helen wished she could hear something, anything, even a high school hallway after a game they’d lost.
“Why are we here?” Helen’s voice rang out above the now silent air whisking over them. “Surely there are others in the states who voted for him. Right?”
“Of course,” the commander’s face scrunched down a bit, “A lot of people voted for Drummond. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have won.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your tests,” he smirked, “Grant you the privilege of a lifetime—a trip to where most people never get to see. See that plane over there?” He pointed behind him. In the distance, she’d never noticed because of the heat and the movement of the sand spinning through the air, was a plane. The plane was white and much smaller than the one behind them that the flight crew was working on repackaging.
“You’re to make your way to that plane and board it. The plane will take you to your new home.” His teeth beamed as his cheeks pulled up. “Cheers!”
The commander and the team members strolled to where a ladder with wheels perched against the plane waited, and mounted the stairs. Helen’s eyes sank to the ground below the plane. Old, young, children, and babies lay in a haphazard fashion, sprawled out on the pavement within dark maroon spreading puddles.
“Oh my God!” the survivors seemed to blurt out in different words, all at the same time. But the large plane closed its door. It moved in the direction it had arrived and slowly picked up speed. Eventually, its body lifted and disappeared.
Helen’s eyes drifted to the scene below as she recalled them passing in boarding the plane. The happiness nearly suffocating them as they made their way to their assigned seats. “At least their last thoughts were good ones, right Mom?” Hayden breathed.
Stephen grabbed his mother’s hand for reassurance. She squeezed it. “Yes.” And then she said, “Yin and Yang. For every sweetness there must be a bitter.”
“Let’s go to our future then,” someone else yelled, and they all ran toward the other plane in the distance.
By the time they arrived, they were all saturated in perspiration in sweat-soaked clothing. The people eagerly mounted the stairs, hoping they had water to drink on board. Sure enough, the attendant onboard satisfied their thirst with ice water as they settled into their seats.
This plane was much smaller and not nearly as lavish as the commercial plane from where they’d come. Still, the trip wasn’t going to be much longer.
The door closed. The engine started, and the plane’s wheels churned beneath against the dry, hard, asphalt.
“We’re on our way!” a young child squealed half-delirious.
“Yes,” the attendant agreed. “On your way.”
Something wasn’t right, Helen’s brain told her. Helen touched the attendant’s sleeve lightly as she strolled past. “Yes?” the attendant greeted her, “Did you need a pillow?”
“No,” Helen chuckled, “I don’t think I’ll sleep on this flight. Tell me, how long until we’re there though?”
The attendant tilted her pretty porcelain face toward the roof of the plane in thought. “I believe it’s approximately 14,000 kilometers.”
“That sounds pretty far. What is that in miles?”
“Well, in flight hours, it will be a little under eighteen.”
Helen’s brain churned the numbers. “We’re not going to California then?”
“We’re not going to California,” the woman snickered as if Helen had just fallen for the oldest trick in the book. “You are part of a group with impurities. Someone in your immediate history isn’t white. Most likely, either a black, Mexican, or Middle Eastern took a swim in your genetic pool, I imagine. We do go back five generations, remember?”
A silence fell over the plane’s interior as the glee drained from the celebrating people. One of the mothers clutched a child against her. “Where are we headed?”
The words, “Yin and Yang” played through Helen’s head for the remainder of her life, and she wondered who’s living a normal American life at the cost of her own.