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Teya grimaced as Lia inserted a needle into her arm. She watched as the small vial filled with blood. Then the needle was removed, and a patch of cotton was taped to her arm to stop the bleeding.
Teya pulled down the sleeve of her blouse and watched Lia cap the vial and affix a label with Teya’s name and ID number to it. Her eyes moved from the vial to Lia, then back to the vial. She fought the urge to take the small glass tube out of Lia’s hands and wash its contents down the drain, but such an action would be futile. All it would do was raise suspicion, and she’d eventually be forced to give another sample.
Lia turned and set the vial of blood in a tray containing thirty other samples. She brushed her auburn hair out of her eyes and picked up a clipboard from the counter. “All right,” she said. “You’re the last one. Let’s get started.”
Teya randomly selected a vial from the tray. She read out the patient’s name and ID number and inserted the vial into the top slot of the Incubus. She shut the lid and pushed a button. Exactly twenty seconds later, a buzzing sound came from the Incubus, and the red bulb next to the slot lit up. While the nurse wrote down the results, Teya dumped the blood down the drain and placed the vial in a bucket in the sink.
One down, thirty to go, she thought as she placed another sample in the machine.
While it was processing, Teya stared at her sample in the tray and thought of ways she could get Lia out of the lab for a minute. Sixty seconds was all she needed to swap the label on her vial with the label on another. She had done it for her last two tests. She could do it again.
The Incubus buzzed, and the red light lit up. Lia yawned and recorded the results. Teya removed the vial and glanced at Lia to see if she was looking. She wasn’t. Teya let the vial slip from her fingers. Glass and blood spilled across the cement floor. Lia jumped backward to avoid the mess.
“Oh, how clumsy of me,” Teya said, standing up. “Let me get something to clean it up.”
“I’ll get it,” Lia said, setting the clipboard on the counter. “I need to stretch my legs anyway.”
Once Lia walked out the door, Teya quickly moved to the tray with the vials. She picked up two vials—one with her name on it. Noting the name on the other sample, Eloise Johnston, she carefully peeled back the label. She had to work slowly or the label would tear. While she worked, she counted to sixty in her head—the time she figured it would take Lia to return.
Ten . . . eleven . . . twelve . . . thirteen . . .
Once the label was off, she placed it upside down on the counter and pulled back the label from her own vial.
Thirty-three . . . thirty-four . . . thirty-five . . .
Carefully, she switched the labels.
Fifty-five . . . fifty-six . . . fifty-seven . . .
She let out a sigh and dropped both vials back in the tray.
She jumped at the sound of her name, spinning around to see the director of the Paul Ehrlich Clinic standing in the doorway. Dr. Geoffrey Redgrave was a short man with a protruding belly and a receding hairline. He wore a ragged white lab coat that was several sizes too big, giving him the appearance of wearing flowing white robes.
Teya’s heart was racing. The way Dr. Redgrave held the doorknob made her think he’d been standing there for a while. She stood speechless under his gaze, trying to think up a natural excuse for what she had done.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” Dr. Redgrave said as he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “I just wanted to tell you I’m leaving a little early, so I’ll need you to drop off the day’s test results with the Census Bureau.”
Teya inwardly groaned. She usually looked forward to unexpected clinic-related trips to the Census Bureau. They were an excuse to get out of the small, cramped lab and outside for a couple of hours. Plus, she could stop by her sister’s office for a while and chat. But today, the Census Bureau was the last place she wanted to go.
Talking her way out of the assignment wasn’t an option, however. Due to confidentiality laws, the report had to be delivered by the head of the clinic or the head lab technician. And if Dr. Redgrave couldn’t do it, the task fell to her.
Teya took a calming breath before answering. “Not a problem. I’d be happy to.”
“Thanks,” Dr. Redgrave said.
He looked over Teya’s shoulder at the vials. Teya followed his gaze, her heart skipping a beat.
“We’ve got quite a few samples today,” Dr. Redgrave said.
“Yes, well, it’s almost the end of the month,” she answered. “Most women wait until the last possible day before getting their blood drawn.”
“That’s right. July’s almost over,” Dr. Redgrave said, shaking his head. “That means we’ll be plenty busy the rest of the week. Well, thanks in advance for running that errand.” He turned to leave, then stopped and glanced around the room. “Where’s Lia? There should be two of you in the room when you’re testing.”
“I’m right here, Dr. Redgrave,” Lia said as she scooted around him with a rag, broom, and dustpan in her hands. She knelt down and began picking up pieces of glass with her fingers and tossing them in the garbage can.
Dr. Redgrave looked at the mess on the floor as if seeing it for the first time. “You did test that before it broke, right?” he asked.
Teya nodded. “Yep. Another negative.”
Dr. Redgrave massaged his forehead with his fingers. “Good. Getting women back in here to have their blood drawn again is a headache.” He turned without another word, leaving the door to the laboratory ajar.
While Lia soaked up the blood with a rag, Teya looked out in the hall. It was empty. Quietly closing the door, she leaned against it and fought back tears of relief.
She’d be more careful next time—if there was a next time. Her pregnancy was a week or so away from entering the second trimester. She couldn’t hide it forever, especially where she worked. Twice a year, everyone at the clinic received training on how to tell if a woman was concealing a pregnancy. She had been careful not to wear larger or baggy clothes, even though her clothes felt tighter around her waist. And she felt sure Dr. Redgrave or someone at the clinic would have noticed her breasts enlarging. But no one had said anything.
Teya returned to her stool, fighting the temptation to put her hand on her stomach by reminding herself that such an action was the number one sign that a woman was pregnant. She noticed that the needle Lia had used to draw her blood was still on the counter. She tossed it in the sink with the bucketful of others that needed to be cleaned.
She let her body relax as Lia swept up the last of the glass, dumped it in the garbage can, rinsed the blood from the rag, and washed her hands thoroughly. She was glad she had enough seniority that she didn’t have to clean up the mess. Washing the blood-stained vials and used needles was bad enough. She always worried about getting poked and contracting some horrid disease. Sometimes she wished they used the throwaway supplies some of the older doctors wistfully talked about when the topic arose. It would be more convenient and sanitary, they would say, to throw away used medical supplies instead of washing and reusing them. Even if the doctors were right, using disposables was impossible since there were no landfills or incinerators in which to put the waste. And even if there were, the clinic didn’t have enough money to buy large amounts of medical supplies—let alone pay the carbon taxes that would be required to ship them from Texas or wherever they were made. Unless the laws were changed or someone came up with a better solution, they were stuck with the status quo.
When Lia was done, she picked up the clipboard. “Ready?” she asked.
Teya gave her a weak smile, then looked at her sample—the one with Eloise’s name on it. She couldn’t bring herself to test it, at least, not right away. Instead, she picked up a vial on the other end of the tray and placed it inside the Incubus. She shut the lid and pushed the button.
While it was processing, she picked up her sample and held it between her fingers. The vial was warm from the fresh blood inside. She held it up to the light bulb that hung by a single, frayed wire from the ceiling. Tipping the vial back and forth, she watched the red liquid move from one end to the other. She wondered how Eloise would react once she received a call asking her to return for a second test.
Teya had made that call often enough that she knew it didn’t matter how many times the person on the other end was told that the Incubi weren’t perfect and occasionally came back with false positives. All the patient would hear was that the clinic wanted to run another test. It was like telling someone they had cancer. It didn’t matter how curable it was or if the doctor had caught it early enough to be treated. At the word retest, everything else became white noise.
The Incubus buzzed, bringing Teya out of her thoughts. The red light was on, another negative result. She removed the vial from the machine as Lia scribbled the information on the form. Then, taking a long, hard look at the vial that bore Eloise’s name, she placed it into the Incubus and pushed the button.
After what seemed like an eternity, the Incubus buzzed. She lifted her head and saw that the green light was on.
Lia gasped. “A positive! We haven’t had one of those in a week.”
Teya didn’t reply as Lia checked the extra boxes on the form. She couldn’t open her mouth without confessing what she had just done. She quickly removed the vial and put it in the small container on the counter so it could be tested again.
I’m so sorry, Eloise. I promise to make your next visit here as short as possible, Teya thought as she loaded the next sample.
* * *
On her way out the door, Teya gave Eloise’s contact information to Nevaeh. The red-headed receptionist smiled in return. Of the two girls who took turns working the desk, scheduling appointments, and passing out birth control, Teya thought Nevaeh was the most sensitive. She was the best at telling women they needed to return to the clinic. She had a soft voice and kept a steady, unemotional tone when she talked on the phone. It was the kind of reassuring voice women needed on the other end of the line, even if they didn’t hear most of what she said.
“One call today?” Nevaeh asked.
“Be nice to her, okay? If she gets concerned, tell her the Incubus is having problems.”
Nevaeh smiled. “I’ll do my best.”
“I’m out for the rest of the day,” Teya said as she headed toward the door, the report in her hand and her purse over her shoulder.
Outside, the temperature was pushing one hundred degrees. Teya headed straight for the tram stop a block away. Halfway there, she saw the tram pull up. She debated whether or not to run to catch it but decided that sprinting for a tram wouldn’t be good for the baby. Another train would be along in about fifteen or twenty minutes. She could wait. Since she’d left work early, she might as well enjoy the time off.
A man sprinted past her. She watched him wave to the conductor to hold the doors. The conductor smiled then shut the doors just as the man made it to the platform. The man banged on one of the widows, startling the handful of passengers inside, but the tram picked up speed and was gone. He shook his fist before wandering over to one of the benches, where he sat down and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
Teya arrived at the platform a few minutes later. A paper carrier brushed by and hurried to the news board. Teya took her to be about sixteen. The girl wore a faded black baseball cap with the logo of the local paper on it and carried a bucket under one arm and a metal tube under the other. Teya watched the paper carrier set both items on the ground before removing the lid from the bucket and tearing down the morning’s newspaper from the news board. She swung a backpack off her back and placed the discarded paper inside. Then she took a brush from her back pocket and dipped it into the bucket to spread glue in a z-like pattern over the news board. Finally, she pulled a large sheet of newsprint from the metal tube and pressed it against the board.
“It’s the evening edition,” the girl said to Teya as she hurried away.
Teya took a minute to skim through the paper. There was a story of the city council’s debate over whether or not to reduce the meat and milk rations this winter, how the triple-digit temperatures and water usage were affecting the city’s wells, and the latest updates on Sunday’s New Earth Day celebration. Then a headline in the left corner of the paper caught her attention.
Alleged Pregnant Woman Sought by Census Bureau
Woman thought to be pregnant with fourth. Family also missing.
Teya looked around the platform before continuing to read. The man who had missed the tram was still sitting on the bench, resting his chin on one of his hands. Three others stood on the far end of the platform in the sliver of shade offered by a community message board.
Satisfied that no one was paying attention to her, she bent down to read the article.
A woman believed to be pregnant with her fourth child is missing, along with her husband and three children.
According to Census Bureau reports, Amber River, 34, failed to appear for a mandatory pregnancy retest at the Rachel Carson Women’s Clinic yesterday morning. After repeated attempts by the clinic to contact her, Census Bureau Sentinels were dispatched to her apartment and found it uninhabited.
River had received a first positive test two days earlier.
Census Bureau spokesperson Thomas Ramirez declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation when asked whether or not River or her family might have fled with a terrorist organization. He did, however, mention that steps were being taken to ramp up border enforcement to make sure River and her family couldn’t leave the city.
According to Census Bureau records, Matthew and Amber River are the parents of three children, Hope, Robert, and Adela, who range in age from two to six. The records show the River’s bought a credit for their third child from Amber’s sister almost three years ago. No other credits were listed in their name.
According to Mary LaFeur, a counselor who specializes in mental health assessments for women who want more than two children, women faced with an unplanned pregnancy often find themselves in an emotionally vulnerable state.
“They’re often confused about what they should do. Those who want another child may not be able to obtain a credit for it,” LaFeur said. “Sometimes it causes them to make irrational decisions.”
Last year, 157 people were arrested for population crimes. Nearly three-fourths of them were women pregnant with children for whom they didn’t have credits. The others were husbands or boyfriends who aided the women in concealing their pregnancies.
If anyone knows the whereabouts of Matthew or Amber River, or their children, they are encouraged to contact the Census Bureau immediately.
The article was accompanied by a black-and-white photo of Amber. She had wide, innocent eyes and a large smile. Her dark hair fell just past her shoulders. Teya knew it was the kind of face that would make most men stop and turn if they were to pass her on the street.
Teya’s stomach growled, bringing her out of her thoughts. She walked to the edge of the platform and looked for a tram. The next tram appeared to be three stops down—at least another ten minutes away.
She sat on one of the empty cement benches, but the heat burned the backs of her legs even through her slacks. She moved to the partial shade offered by the news board. Inside her purse were a few salt crackers she had wrapped in a napkin for times like this. Chewing slowly, she looked around.
Across the street, a donkey cart stopped in front of the grocery store. The driver grabbed a few bags from the cart and headed inside. Teya made a mental note to stop at the store on her way back in case there was some fresh food they could have with dinner. She wiped a bead of sweat from her brow and wondered if the baby inside could feel the summer heat.
Teya knew she was running out of time. She thought about the conversation she desperately needed to have with Ransom. Although he loved the two boys they already had, he wasn’t going to be happy when she told him about the pregnancy because it would put their family and jobs in danger. They’d always had an open, trusting relationship, so when he learned she had kept this information from him for nearly three months, he was going to be even more upset. She thought of different ways to tell him about the pregnancy, changing what she’d say and trying to guess how he’d react. She just hoped that when she finally had the courage to tell him, instead of becoming angry, Ransom would hold her in his arms and tell her that everything would work out.
The tram pulled up to the platform. It wasn’t any cooler inside. She looked around the car and took a seat near the door. There were only a dozen or so people on board. Most of them were fanning themselves with pieces of cardboard or folded-up paper. Teya looked inside her purse but didn’t have anything she could use. She’d just have to deal with the heat.
Twenty minutes later, the tram stopped in front of the Census Bureau. Teya exited and stared at the five-story, black glass structure. She hesitated before entering the building.
Get in, then get out, she thought. You’ll be inside less than five minutes.
As Teya walked through the revolving doors, she was met with a blast of cold air. She stopped just inside and closed her eyes, taking in the welcome change in temperature. The Census Bureau was the only building in the city with an air-conditioning waiver from the Sustainably Agency. During the summer, the inside of the Census Bureau was kept at a constant seventy-five degrees.
She took a long drink at a water fountain near the door and headed toward the bank of teller windows on the left wall.
Teya had always thought the main floor of the Census Bureau to be a little over-grand. The large lobby extended one hundred feet from the door. On either side were ten teller windows, and between them were rows of wooden benches where people sat waiting for their number to be called. It seemed especially silly to have so many windows when only half were regularly occupied. A third of the benches were filled with bored-looking people holding numbers in their hands.
Fortunately for Teya, she didn’t have to take a number. Instead, she walked straight to the window with the word statistics over it. She pulled the clinic’s test results from her purse and slid the paper to a middle-aged clerk with black hair and a yellowed collar. The woman quickly looked over the paperwork and, when satisfied everything had been filled out correctly, handed Teya a receipt to sign.
Teya signed the paper and slid it back to the clerk. The clerk tore a yellow copy from the back of the receipt and handed it to Teya, who put it in her purse. She turned to leave and saw a sentinel standing directly behind her.
Teya froze. The sentinel was at least a foot taller than she was.
“Are you Teya Lawe?” he asked.
“I need you to come with me.”
“I’m sorry, what is this about?”
“Everything will be explained shortly,” he said. “If you would, please head to the elevator.”
He motioned to a lone door along the far wall behind the security checkpoint.
Suddenly Teya felt hot. Maybe Dr. Redgrave had seen her switch the tests, realized she was pregnant, and used his excuse of leaving to get her to the Census Bureau. Maybe he called ahead and told them to arrest her.
She glanced over at the main doors and thought about running but decided against it. Running wouldn’t solve anything. She took a long look at the guard then headed for the elevators—well aware that every eye in the lobby was following her.
She passed through a metal detector, and a sentinel patted her down. Afterward, he handed her a safety pin and a yellow pass with the word guest printed in big, black letters. This wasn’t what she had expected.
“Put this on your blouse. Make sure it’s visible at all times,” he said in a bored monotone.
Teya’s head was buzzing. She clipped the pass to her breast pocket and followed the sentinel past the security checkpoint to the elevator. The sentinel held the elevator’s door open for her. She stepped inside, and he shut the door behind them.
Teya’s heart pounded in her chest all the way to the fifth floor.
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