Usually, the bitterness of caffeine could jolt my mind into action, but today was different. I needed something more to weed out the seeds of apprehension taking root. I grabbed some clothes from a rack and threw open the front door. Snug in silver nanowire, I braved the sharp, biting wind and watched the dwindling stars fold into the brightening sky. In the street, self-driving cars with passengers glued to holographic screens flashed back and forth. Above, maglev trains streaked soundlessly across the bustling metropolis I called home.
The path ahead meandered, lazily promising a destination. Below my feet, cracks blossomed in the dull gray concrete, sheltering intermittent green specks from the cold. As the pattern trickled into monotony, I reached the door of a corner store, an odd relic. On some inexplicable impulse, I dove inside.
A quaint little bell announced my arrival to a cashier still chasing off tendrils of drowsiness. Adjusting to my dim surroundings, I noticed the scarlet stamp of eviction near the entrance. The corporations nowadays couldn’t stand any competitors in the ever-heating market, even if they were small-scale stores with memories secreted away in their foundations. Unconsciously, my gaze shifted down to the drab, pockmarked linoleum that spread throughout the room. As the novelty of the unique establishment wore off, I looked up towards the walls. Adorned by crinkled posters covered with elegant figures, they seemed out of place, beams of light that pierced through the cool darkness of the store. Among them, endearingly crude sketches: newborn children nestled in blankets, a mother embracing her swollen midriff.
“You like the pictures?”
The cashier smiled brightly, the wrinkles deepening around his mouth. His mottled, leathery face seemed older than the store itself, “I guess you could call them my pièce de résistance.”
I tried to peer through this pretension, but his guileless chocolate eyes shone with only the excitement of sharing one’s achievements, “Are you an artist?”
He nodded thoughtfully, lost in the murky depths of nostalgia, “Long, long ago, I suppose I was.”
I gazed at the wall once again, “I like the sketches. Of the children.”
He chuckled, “I do, too. After all, kids are precious at that age.”
“Could mine come out that way?” I wondered out loud.
“Ah, are you having one?”
My heart skipped, “Something like that,” I mumbled.
With a knowing look on his face, he gently caressed the wall as if it were skin.
“Let me give you some advice, father to future father.”
I turned towards him, wary yet curious.
“Now, on the wall are all of your experiences, stretched across a canvas, paper, whatever. But for everyone, that wall has a gaping hole.”
“Yes, an endless abyss that can’t be filled except by one thing.”
“And what’s that?”
He smiled, and his enviably deep laugh lines became even more apparent, “Maybe your child will show you.”
The cashier excused himself and retired to the break room, humming along to an old, forgotten song. To my surprise, a much younger employee took his place behind the counter. Shaking off my exposed misgivings, I picked up a newspaper from its stand, the sharp scent of ink and paper pricking my nostrils. I grinned. Not even the fastest digital news sources could stand against paper, the crispness weighing familiarly against my hand. I took out my reading glasses and ignored the inquisitive glance of the cashier. “Protests Against Genetic Centers Have Ceased!” sprawled across the page in that classic elegant style not dissimilar to the art on the wall.
“You gonna pay for that?” The words accompanied by the occasional snap of bubble gum came from behind the counter. Rude. I ambled over to the checkout while holding out my wrist. The cashier, almost young enough to be my son, waved his palm over my arm, no doubt scanning my implanted chip with his own, glaring all the while. As I left the counter, he turned on a TV hologram and started watching the global news program, his sunken, monochrome eyes glazing over as the flickering images began to drag him into a new world.
I vaguely recall the first time we met. The sweaty plastic wrapping over the slightly expired tulips (or roses?), a crumpled collared shirt that offered no relief in the heat of the summer. Old-fashioned, but I knew her favorite color was white. The biography on my screen said so. It also said she loved dinner dates. So here I was. Maybe I could finally meet someone compatible. I eased backward into the warm bench and counted the leaves drifting in the wind. I squinted at the clouds, billowing across the sky with pastel blues, grays, and just a hint of lavender. While admiring these travelers and their permanent sense of direction, I felt a brisk tap on my shoulder.
I swiveled around, but her presence was overwhelming. I couldn’t bring myself to look at her eyes, so I started from the floor. First, glossy, jet-black stilettos exposed a pale, flawless complexion. A mauve dress crept up her legs, fastened at the waist with an almost obnoxiously sparkly sash. My gaze climbed upwards. Arched eyebrows, a pointed nose, and pursed lips surveyed my flowers, shirt, and sweaty brow. I hastily popped up on my feet, narrowly missing her chin. As I steadied myself, my eyes and hands flew to my buttons, searching for an excuse to not look upwards,
“What a quiet man,” she casually remarked.
I couldn’t respond.
She didn’t leave. Instead, her mouth stretched into a smile and dazzled by the light of it, I could almost believe it was real.
The lights were off in the house. She probably wasn’t awake yet. I slid across the glossy floor panels, grasping the walls for the brightness-regulator screen. Somewhere a clock was ticking, the sharp, sporadic sound slightly increasing in volume every second until it merged with the accelerated thumping inside my head. A whisper. I whipped my head around, scanning my surroundings. My eyes weren’t adjusted to the dark yet, but my instincts screamed caution. I finally found the screen and, bracing myself, flooded the room with light.
“Congratulations on the baby!”
Bright confetti exploded everywhere, the sound reverberating throughout the room. Somewhat familiar faces plastered with smiles poured into my field of vision, shaking my limp hand fervently or slapping my back with gusto. Their glassy azure irises, impossibly golden hair, and porcelain skin merged into a sea of laughter and masks. I grimaced back, fighting the uneasiness building up in the pit of my stomach.
I headed towards my well-worn wooden chair with swirling grains of mahogany only hours of careful carving could achieve. I knew from experience. Settling down, I felt sharp stares burrow deep into my skin, noting my detachment while feigning concern. My head throbbed, unraveling as their voices collided into a dissonant mess.
Finally, I glimpsed her. A radiant beacon, Evelyn glided from person to person with matchless etiquette, her cheeks aglow with spots of red. After placing food platters on the tables and rearranging furniture to accommodate the guests, she made her way to me, “Are you okay?”
“I’m not sure if I can do this.”
“Come on. We planned this for months,” she glanced around the packed room, her eyes blazing with pride; “This child will be our greatest achievement, a step forward for not only us but for humanity as a whole.” My body drooped, defeated.
Turning away from our conversation, she glided towards some new guests at the door. In a haze, I recalled the sketches of the mother, clutching her unborn child in a loving embrace. In contrast, Evelyn’s slender figure wove through the crowd effortlessly, bouncing with boundless enthusiasm and energy. Suddenly, waves of dull pain pulsed inside of my head, blurring my vision, and I stood up to find a place of quiet relief. In my haste to escape, I stumbled into someone’s body. Dimly, I noticed something wet lapping at my feet. Looking down, I watched in horror as a viscous, scarlet liquid spread from my body, eliciting numerous shocked gestures and glares. In the stillness that ensued, I mumbled more apologies and hobbled over to a side room. I quietly closed the door behind me, sliding down on the other side until I could fold into myself, shivering, finally alone.
After all of the people trickled out of the house, someone knocked on my door. I moved to open it with a heavy heart.
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s fine.” Those two words were packed with much more than their intended meaning.
“Look, I tried my best, but you know that I’ve never liked big crowds. Today was a bad reaction. I promise it won’t happen again.”
I could tell she was trying to compose herself, but the disappointment in her cerulean eyes was unmistakable.
“I just want what’s best for the baby.”
“I do, too. I swear.”
“Then try harder.” She gracefully walked out of the room, the tense muscles in her back radiating anger. I sighed, screwing my eyes shut for a few precious seconds. The ball inside of me hardened like concrete, and I followed her out.
Evelyn stepped into the building first. “Hurry up,” she called, “The doctors don’t bite.”
I looked up to the glaring neon white DNA symbol above the door, its curves reminiscent of serpents striking out at their prey; “Maybe if the sign was brighter,” I mumbled, “I’d go in.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes and snatched my limp arm from its hiding place behind my back. Before I could react, she dragged me through the broad steel rectangular frame posing as a doorway.
The lobby was pristine, orderly, and white. Overwhelmingly white. Staff clad in colorless uniforms tended to chrysanthemums and lily of the valley flowers in enameled ivory vases and directed potential customers to other white rooms. Nearby, a nurse approached us, his amethyst eyes almost emotionless and flat, “Welcome to the Genetic Enhancement Center, how can I assist you today?”
Even with the disaster of the party dampening her mood, Evelyn couldn’t contain her excitement, “We’re here for a baby.”
“Excellent. First, select the desired characteristics from the hologram display,” droned the nurse; “Then, I’ll introduce you to the doctor after the baby is completed.”
I stared at the screen that emitted from the palm of his hand packed with bright icons that could change eye color, height, intelligence, all factors that were previously dictated by the unpredictability of nature. An acrid concoction of disgust and foreboding made my breathing ragged, and I almost retched, my throat raspy from a lack of moisture. Evelyn, on the other hand, seemed comfortable, meshing seamlessly into her surroundings. She tapped quickly and looked to me for approval. I could only nod in my dazed stupor. My anxiety filled the air, an almost tangible blot in the otherwise perfect room. Was I ready?
We found the doctor in her office surrounded by a chaotic jumble of test tubes, paperwork, and small white globes that I later realized were prosthetic eyes. She stood up, and her sleek platinum wave of hair caught the artificial light, forming a crystalline halo that neatly framed the back of her head. I knocked on the already open glass door. Slowly, she turned around with a quizzical expression, engrossed in the file in her hand. Without looking up, she stuck out her hand and introduced herself.
“I’m Dr. Shelley.” She motioned for us to sit in the seats next to the only organized section of the room: her desk; “I made your baby for you.” She stopped reading and winked. Eccentric. “It says here that you’ve abstained from genetic modifications. Not even intelligence.” Her gaze picked at my body, scanning for the distasteful imperfections.
I looked downwards, the eyes scattered across the floor reflecting my restlessness. Evelyn cut in, “Has the baby arrived, doctor?”
Switching her focus rapidly, the doctor put on a practiced smile and directed us to the door; “Of course. You’ll see him right away.”
Once outside of the office, trepidation began to pierce the fog of nausea as sharply as the deafening click of our shoes against the vinyl floor. Evelyn was still facing directly forward, but I could see the tendrils of doubt creep onto her face. I reached out hesitantly and squeezed her hand. As Evelyn grinned reassuringly in response, Dr. Shelley stopped in her tracks. We had reached a viewing window.
As I peered into the glass, I saw the nursery, but the room itself was eerily quiet. Not one child was crying; instead, all of their eyes were opened wide, quietly observing their surroundings. Nurses flitted wraithlike from one crib to the next, attending to the newborns’ needs. Suddenly, a wail shattered the peace. The doctor froze. Evelyn gasped.
I clung against the protective glass that separated the two different worlds, overwhelmed by a sudden feeling of wonder, “Was that…?”
Concealing the remnants of a frown, the doctor pointed to a crib, and a nurse gently picked up a bundle and glided towards the barrier. The glass rippled as if hit by a droplet of water, and a small rectangular exit formed. With trembling hands, I picked up the precious package, barely hearing the nurse murmur, “It’s a girl.” Carefully supporting her neck, I swept aside the cloth and revealed the now chortling baby. Her large inquisitive eyes still dusted with shimmering tears had the same golden flecks steeped in pools of hazel as mine. Gripping my finger with surprising strength, she sought my protection, my unconditional love, and at that moment, any trace of doubt was replaced with the strong, heady sensation of panic. I wanted nothing in the world but to reassure her, to let her know that I wholly accepted her absolute dependence on me, and I sealed this sacred promise with a hasty kiss, hoping that my message of hope would reach her quickly.
Evelyn jostled me aside, “Is he all right? What happened?”
The unmistakable gleam of curiosity and ambition flickered in the doctor’s eyes; “Interesting.”
She took a clipboard hovering near the window and motioned for a nearby nurse, “Has it been crying this whole time?”
“Yes, ma’am. We’ve triple-checked the genome manipulation,” he looked around nervously, “And it seems that several side effects were unaccounted for. What should we do?”
“I have some…anachronistic…equipment in my office. Perhaps that will suffice.”
Evelyn grabbed Dr. Shelley’s shoulder in a vice grip, jerking her away from the nurse: “What’s wrong?”
The doctor’s crystalline eyes became even more rigid, “She’s an anomaly.”
I tried to ignore her, “Evelyn, look…” My voice died upon her expression: eyes frigid, sharper than flint.
“Why is the baby not a boy?” she asked quietly; “Where are his blue eyes?”
The doctor responded slowly, clearly as confused as Evelyn: “I can’t say for certain, but if we run more tests, we could determine the factors that led to this… error.”
Everything slowed to a standstill, the air becoming as thick as quicksand; “So everything’s not perfect,” Evelyn said flatly.
“No, none of the changes you made are in the baby. I am terribly sorry.”
Evelyn hesitated, taken aback by the sudden apology. For a fleeting moment, I considered looking deep into her eyes, squeezing her hand, and leaving the hospital together with the newborn baby. I opened my mouth, and nothing came out. Chewing on her lip, Evelyn sighed, “I don’t think we can afford another one.”
Smiling, the doctor declared, “All of our consumers must have perfect products. We’ll refund your purchase right away.”
Evelyn rose from her slump, her cheeks flushed with relief, “That sounds great. When can we start the process?”
“The nurses can assist you whenever you are ready.”
I shook my head, “Is this a joke?” I surveyed my surroundings for an answer. Evelyn looked at me with concern, a puzzled expression plastered across her face.
“Evelyn, honey, I think we should talk about this—”
“If the mother agrees,” interjected the doctor, “Then I believe it will be beneficial for both parties if we take the baby.”
“This is a human life, not an experiment.” Fury bolted through my veins.
“Yes, it is human. But let’s look at the bigger picture. Your family, friends, and neighbors shouldn’t have to tolerate such a failure in their midst. The best thing for you—and everyone—is to get rid of it.”
All the day’s apprehension boiled over, and I struck the doctor. For a brief moment, the delicious crunch of my fist dislocating her jaw and the shock that shone through her widened eyes gave me the spark of clarity that I so clearly needed. Then, the rush of adrenaline gave way to unadulterated guilt. My vision swam, and I could barely see the body draped across the floor, the stunning scarlet pool spreading across the pure white floor. I looked to the side, and Evelyn’s usually confident face was filled with alarm. “Good,” the savage voice inside my head whispered.
The girl wasn’t a mistake. She was alive. Breathing. Thinking. Dreaming. No one deserved to take the gift of life away from her. Seeing no other option, I lunged wildly at the nurse holding my child. While my outstretched hand rushed to protect her, a strange heat spread from my head, enveloping my body in agonizing throbs. I tried to turn around, but my muscles seemed to be lagging behind my mind. Soon, multiple pairs of harsh, unforgiving hands forced me down to the ground. As I struggled to look upwards at the baby now clutched in the doctor’s bloodied arms, I saw Evelyn. Unlike the pitiless aura that radiated from the doctor, her confused eyes urged me to reconsider. Before I could lash out again at this sick image, a veil of pitch-black drew me into a suffocating embrace and dragged me away from my child, leaving the void of an unfulfilled promise behind.
Ryan Suh is a 17-year-old junior attending the Cate School in Carpinteria, California. He is currently the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the interdisciplinary journal, Humanities Plus.