Ten Days’ Grace

by on Aug 4, 2014 in Short Fiction | 12 comments

3550 Words

Julia Kettan first knew her husband was dead when she looked out the window and saw a car emblazoned with the crest of the Bureau of Family Affairs pull up in the driveway. Her legs went weak, though whether from relief or fear she couldn’t tell. Robert hadn’t come home the previous evening. She’d phoned it in that morning to both the police and the Bureau, not wanting to risk a second major infraction under the Spousal Laws in case anything really had happened, despite being convinced that Robert had just drunk too much after work and decided to sleep at a friend’s. He’d done that before, and each time she’d forced herself to let the Bureau know, just in case. And now it had actually happened. Robert was gone, and a man in a suit was walking solemnly towards her door — she could see him through the kitchen window, pausing to straighten his tie, raising a hand for the buzzer — and it took all her strength not to burst out into terrified, sob–drenched laughter. At least Lily’s at school, she told herself wildly, at least she doesn’t have to be here for this, the naked, ugly part of it all.Fingers shaking, she finished programming the cleanser, and then the buzz came; it was time, it was time, and the questions were already on her lips — how did it happen? and what comes next?

The agent on the other side of the door was younger than he’d seemed through the glass: not much older than her own thirty–three years, which was some relief. The patriarchs were the ones to watch out for. Julia made herself take in his brown eyes, clean–shaven jaw and black hair with impartiality, trying to let nothing show in her face. But of course, she was an open book to him; even as he opened his mouth, she could tell he knew that she knew why he’d come, and that he was unsurprised by her knowledge.

“Mrs. Julia May Kettan, formerly Julia Mai Liu?”

“Yes.”

“I’m Agent Sora James with the Bureau of Family Affairs. May I come in?”

She waved him through: no smile, no grief. As blank as blank. “Of course.”

They sat in the lounge room, opposite one another. Agent James had a file under one arm, which he laid down on the coffee table before lacing his fingers together. Though clearly uncomfortable, he managed to meet her gaze.

“Mrs. Kettan, at seven–oh–five this morning you alerted us as to the possible disappearance of your husband, Mr. Robert Anthony Kettan. It is my unfortunate duty to inform you that your suspicions were correct; Mr. Kettan was involved in a traffic collision at approximately eleven–fifty last night, on the eastbound lane of Jury Road. His vehicle was clocked at almost double the speed limit; it seems likely that he was trying to reach home before curfew kicked in. From what we can gather, he lost control of the car at the Maven Street corner, skidded, and flipped. The accident was reported almost instantly by another motorist, but your husband was pronounced dead at the scene.” He paused. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Julia nodded. A numb feeling had started to spread through her stomach and up her throat. She’d never loved Robert, but after twelve years together, he’d become the devil she knew. Now, she’d have her pick of unfamiliar fiends. If you could call it a pick.

As Agent James reached for the file, she fixed her eyes on a distant corner of the room, unable to bear the innocuous tap of stylus on screen.

“You have one child — Lily Lian Kettan, born July 8 2048, now aged twelve years. Is that correct?”

Her voice seemed to come from far away. “It is.”

“You have no exigency partner registered with the Bureau under Spousal Law 5.14?”

“No.”

“And have you attempted to register any such person in the past two to fourteen days?”

“No.”

Agent James sighed. There was a faint click–click as he entered her responses. Routine, Julia told herself. That’s what this is. A routine.

“According to our records, Robert was not Lily’s progenitor.”

“No. He wasn’t. Her father was already married.” At Agent James’s raised eyebrow, she shook her head and corrected herself. “I’m sorry. Her progenitor. Of course, Robert was her father.”

“I see.”

Falling pregnant with Lily had been her first infraction against the Spousal Laws. Like homosexuality and abortion, single parenthood had been illegal ever since the National Family Party came to power nearly three decades ago. As soon as the cause of Julia’s sudden nausea was correctly diagnosed, she’d been brought before the Bureau and called to account for the genesis of her not–allowed–to–be–illegitimate offspring. The child’s progenitor, she told them, was her employer, Roy Sovas, a kind man some twenty years her senior whose wife had produced a single sickly daughter and a string of miscarriages. Divorce was impossible. Something had to be done.

Armed with her testimony, the Bureau took a DNA sample from Roy and used it to prove paternity, although he, to his lasting credit, had already confessed to the affair. For his part in their joint violation of the Spousal Laws, Roy received a docked salary, a black mark on his citizenship record and a formal reminder that he was forbidden from contacting either Julia or their child for the next eighteen years, until the zygote who was to become Lily had reached its majority. For her part, Julia was given a choice: either give birth and then surrender her newborn to an adoptive couple, or take a husband. There was also the matter of finding a new job and a black mark similar to Roy’s, but compared to the choice of abandoning her child or raising it with a man she didn’t love, such trifles paled into insignificance.

In the end, she’d opted for marriage. She knew of no suitable candidates, but then, if she had the affair with Roy would hardly have been necessary. Fortunately, the Bureau was well–versed in human weakness, and kept a roster of available men — and women, should the need arise, although it much less frequently did — who were willing to marry such as her. That exercise, at least, contained some element of choice, albeit a meagre one. Robert had seemed the lesser of several evils. They met twice, agreed to marry, and then it was done: Lily’s existence was legitimised by this façade of wedded parentage. Love didn’t enter into it, or competence, or care, or even genetics: every child, the National Family Party said, should have both a father and mother, come what may. And as Lily was still years from her majority, the fact of Robert’s death didn’t matter, either. Once again, the choice was Julia’s — either give her daughter away, or marry another man to ensure Lily’s proximity to an official father–figure.

She’d been silent for a long time, pretending this not–quite–conversation with Agent James was heading in a different direction. She looked at him, hoping she might somehow have slipped backwards in time, to an era when this sort of thing didn’t happen, but still the stylus stabbed inexorably downwards.

Tap. Tap.

“You understand,” said Agent James, “that the Bureau’s concern is only for Lily’s well–being. A child raised by only one gender, no matter how lovingly, cannot ever be more than a half–being.”

“I understand,” croaked Julia, although she did not, could not, never had, never would; least of all now, when Robert, whose existence should have protected her from this eventuality, was gone, and how was she to feel about that, anyway?

“You do not have to decide just yet,” said Agent James, so gently that Julia found herself hating him. “First, there is the funeral to attend to. Afterwards, however —”

“Yes,” she said bitterly, “I remember. Ten days’ grace in which to find a husband.”

“Ten days’ grace,” said Agent James, nodding his head. “Shall I bring you the list of candidates, once things are sorted?”

Fuck your candidates, Julia wanted to scream at him.

“Yes,” she said.

§

Telling Lily was hard, but not because of Robert. All the grief her daughter felt at his death was warped — subsumed, even — by fear of what came next. Who would this stranger be, this sudden, unfamiliar man whose presence would be a daily reminder of what was lost, an intrusion into matters of which he could have no possible conception? Even at the level of words, something was being imposed and taken away: in memory, Robert would become a caregiver, and father no more — that title now belonged to a foreign successor, in law if not in Lily’s heart. Julia held her girl close, putting one arm around those slender ribs, that sweet child–spine not yet straightened with the confidence of breasts nor hunched with the burden of them, and let the snot–sobs soak into her jumper. Lily knew whose biological offspring she was and wasn’t — that honesty, at least, had been dealt with years ago — but for all that Robert had been far from Julia’s ideal, he had at least cared for their daughter. Their daughter: Julia rolled the phrase through her brain, and decided it was as accurate as any; or, if there were a more suitable naming, she couldn’t think of it.

“Why can’t it just be us?’ Lily cried. “Why can’t they leave us alone?”

Julia made no answer. She had seen her daughter’s reports for the mandatory class called Civics and Virtue, even taken perverse pride in the quantity of glowing grades they earned. Lily knew why this was happening, but knowing why and feeling why are two different things: that was her current lesson.

By comparison, the funeral was easy. Closed casket — she’d asked Lily whether she wanted to see Robert again or not, a request which elicited yet more tears and a tightly shaken head — and a minimum of religion. Robert would have wanted more pomp: like many who signed up to marry the unwed mothers, he’d been a true believer. But Julia had no stomach for priests and their moralism, and forbade the single church official from saying anything more than the basic death–grace. Robert’s male relatives kept their condolences to a minimum; all except Orson, his younger brother, whose clammy hands on hers proved as slippery and unwelcome as his effusive condolences, greasing her ears like so much wax.

As for the women — well. They were older. They remembered the roaring twenties and shining tens, years before Julia’s predicament was ever etched into law. She was only a child when it happened, lacking the power to prevent the present day, but perhaps they might have changed things, if they’d tried. Perhaps, perhaps. They patted her softly, and clucked, and looked away. Lily stood like a reed, fists clenched, and did not cry. Julia felt proud of her for that. Under the weight of so much pity, tears were to have been expected. But she had already cried, at length, in private: such tender emotions were not for public display, and by law, in any case, these people were no longer her relatives.

Julia’s mother had died of cancer before Lily’s third birthday; her father was still alive, but in some ways, attending would have been more painful for him than anyone. To be bricked in by the solid, living–and–breathing proof of what the law had done to his daughter — a thing that had grieved her mother enough in life, sapping comfort from those final years — would be unendurable. She had phoned instead; they talked, though it was a conversation more composed of silences than speech, and that was enough for either of them.

As Julia hung up, she heard him weeping.

The wake passed in a blur. She moved through her house, touching what was hers, as though trying to draw strength from it, and watching as Robert’s relatives took away those things which had belonged to him alone. Her new husband would not want them, she assumed; certainly, she did not. Throughout it all, she drew herself up and moved, clean–limbed and steady, like the most perfect clockwork woman ever built, like a computer simulation of herself, like a ghost whose feet did not quite touch the ground. And then, just as suddenly as it had filled, her house was empty again, the sudden absence of Robert’s things balanced out by a newfound profusion of salad–bearing Tupperware containers, crockery smeared with pie–rind, plates covered with uneaten meat, and a litter of plastic cups. Lily went upstairs to weep again in private, but it wasn’t until Julia heard her daughter’s door slam shut that she let herself drop, spraddle–kneed on the carpet, and cry with the silent experience of a mother who cannot — must not — be overheard.

§

Agent James returned the following day. Had she in any way wanted to see him, Julia might have called it a courtesy visit. He needn’t have bothered; the candidate files were digital, after all. Her first instinct was to stop him at the threshold, but the habit of hospitality was too deeply ingrained to ignore. Instead, she invited him in and made tea, which they both drank, before stylus–clicking her way through the list of available men. Agent James sat opposite and watched her, silent as still water.

“There’s a reason I’ve come in person,” he said finally, when she was done pretending to form meaningful opinions about a group of strangers.

“Oh?”

“A Mr. Orson Wallace Kettan has petitioned for consideration as your husband.”

Julia felt her blood run cold. “He wants to marry me?”

“He was your husband’s brother. That holds a lot of weight with the Bureau.”

“Weight,” echoed Julia.

Agent James closed his eyes, recalling words from memory. “‘When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.’” His eyes snapped open, brown as wet earth. “Deuteronomy 25:5. A favourite verse, for some. I am instructed to inform you that, should none of our candidates rouse in you any strong preference, Mr. Orson Kettan would be looked on as a more than favourable alternative. In point of fact, were you desirous of removing the black mark from your citizenship record — and, by extension, from Lily’s — such a match would, I’m told, hold great sway with our records division.”

For a long moment, Julia stared at Agent James, sifting through the balance of his words, looking for some sign or other that the sarcasm she would swear to having heard was genuine, and not just a product of her own shock. Sure enough, one corner of his mouth was twisted upwards like the tail of an italicised serif. Julia sucked in a breath.

“And why the fuck should I care about your records division?”

 Agent James grinned. “You shouldn’t. I certainly don’t.” One hand reached inside his jacket. “Mind if I smoke?”

“Please,” said Julia, too startled by her own boldness and the reaction it had generated to form the usual protests. She watched as Agent James withdrew a polished cigarette case and a matching silver lighter from his pocket. He set these accoutrements down beside the file as though they were not completely incongruous in the context — or anachronistic, even, especially the case, from which he extracted not one, but two slim cigarettes, wrapped in white and gold paper. Julia had never smoked before in her life, but now she took the proffered tobacco in hand, pressing one end softly to her lips as the lighter sparked up. She inhaled, watching as the fire took, and felt her lungs seize with smoke. She coughed and coughed, which Agent James ignored. He lit his own cigarette and sucked on it, the slender cylinder strangely effeminate between his long, square–nailed fingers.

There was no ashtray, and Julia felt too rooted to the spot to fetch one. Instead, she tapped the grey leavings of this unfamiliar vice onto the tabletop, a sign for her guest to do likewise.

“What do you want?” she whispered.

By way of answer, Agent James tossed her the lighter. Julia barely managed to catch it without dropping her cigarette. Confused, she looked to him for explanation, but none was forthcoming. She stroked the lighter with her thumb. It was filigreed rather than flat, embossed with subtle designs. Daring another suck of tobacco — it burned her throat and lungs, but the motion was soothing — she held up the object and stared at it, looking for clues.

She didn’t have to look hard. Though some of the detail had been worn away with use, the filigreed images were still visible: a series of pairs of naked men, twined and grasping as they fucked one another. Not contraband all by itself, but if the vice pages could be believed, people had been arrested for less, or for as much. Julia shoved the lighter back on the table and stared at the man across from her: Agent Sora James, of the Bureau of Family Affairs, who had as good as admitted to the crime of being homosexual.

“There are more of us than you’d think,” he said softly, taking another long breath of his cigarette. “In government, that is. Even the Bureau admits its working hours are inimical to the maintenance of a healthy family life. Of course, they’ll still refuse promotion past a certain point if you don’t exhibit your normalcy through wedded bliss, the idea being that, above a certain salary range, the problem takes care of itself. But we’re still there. Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

He looked at her, long and steady. “I hate the logic of what we do. I want to change it. But so long as I’m single, they’ll never let me near enough the law to matter.”

It wasn’t quite a proposal. Even so, the question hung in the air.

“Why me?” asked Julia.

“You have a black mark on your file,” said Agent Sora James. “You’ve disobeyed before. And you’re not a believer. That might make you less… inimical, to someone like me. You have a daughter, which works out for both of us. Fatherhood is valuable. And having met you, I don’t believe you want to choose between that —” he stabbed his cigarette towards the file, “— and the devout brother Orson. Consider me a third alternative.”

If one argument in particular could be said to have blighted Julia and Robert’s relationship, it was his constant desire to impregnate her with a child of his own blood: to be progenitor and father both. Julia had never said as much, but her suspicion had always been that, had she acquiesced, Lily would not have received nearly half so much love from Robert as she had. Why waste energy on a child that wasn’t his, whose status was already tainted by her mother’s decision to sleep with a married man? Robert had argued with her — pleaded, even — but though she bent towards him in all other ways, on this one thing Julia had remained firm. She would not produce a child that further tied her to a man she didn’t love, when their marriage had only ever been a legal convenience. But there had still been sex: awkward at first, then more a matter of habit, but always unpleasant when compared to her memories of Lily’s conception.

“You have… lovers?” She faltered on the question, unsure of the right terminology.

“Yes,” said Sora James, who had suddenly stopped being Agent in her thoughts. “I take lovers. My interests do not run to women, and never have. On that count, I will not bother you.”

“Could I —” She stopped, unable to get the question out. How did one ask permission for infidelity? Still he grinned, despite her hesitance.

“You may.”

A great rush of breath escaped her. Julia stared at the cigarette in her hand, which was mostly ash by now, and let it fall on the table. There were worse alternatives, and within her allotted ten days’ grace, the notion of finding a more meaningful offer was absurd. At least she’d met this man; at least he, too, was taking a risk. She picked up the lighter from where it had sat on the table, forced herself to contemplate its images anew. Then she gripped it, brief and tight, and threw the silver box to Sora, who caught it skilfully.

“Call it in,” she said.

image003Foz Meadows is a bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality, and the author of two YA urban fantasy novels, Solace and Grief and The Key to Starveldt. As well as keeping her own blog, Shattersnipe, she is also a contributing writer for The Huffington Post and Black Gate, and a contributing reviewer for Strange Horizons and A Dribble of Ink. Her poetry has appeared in Goblin Fruit, and her writing has been included inSpeculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary, edited by Justin Landon and Jared Shurin. Foz likes cheese, sleep, and geekery, but not necessarily in that order. An Australian expat, she now lives in Scotland with not enough books, her very own philosopher, and a Smallrus. Surprisingly, this is a good thing.

12 Comments

  1. I love this. Please tell me it’s the first chapter of an entire book!

  2. I really loved this story. Is there any chance you’ll be writing a sequel to it or expanding it into a full-length novel?

    • Thank you! I hadn’t planned on expanding the story, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind for the future 🙂

      • I’m glad to hear it!

  3. This sounds like the beginning of a wonderful movie! What an original story! I agree with the commentor above, this is a plot that begs to be continued, and I heartily hope you will!

  4. Thank you for this, it’s good.

  5. This was fantastic! I will have to buy your other books. (And I would love to read a full length novel of this story!)

  6. This was seriously, seriously creepy.
    Best story ever. Also: Eeew.

    Minor note on the ‘marry your brother-in-law’ law:
    If a woman loved her husband and didn’t have his child, and wanted a child to remember him, and married her brother in law to carry on the beloved husband’s name, the law seems lot less squicky.

    Marrying the brother of someone you didn’t want in the first place – ick ick ick.

  7. Creepy and good! I too would like to see more about these characters and also the society they live in. In particular I’m curious about birth control rules. How did Julia manage to get unintentionally ‘illegally’ pregnant (or was it unintentional?), yet manage to not conceive an undesired child with Robert?

    • Pangolin makes a good point. The recent Hobby Lobby ruling shows people are more than willing to dictate to others if/how/what kind of birth control they’re allowed to use. Surely that could be a factor in a story expansion.

      • I’ve read up on infertility. When a couple tries to have a baby and the woman doesn’t conceive, the three possible reasons are

        1) The man is sub- or infertile
        2) The woman is sub- or infertile
        3) They are both fertile but not with one another.

        The third reason may apply here. Or something may have happened at Lily’s birth, which wasn’t shown in the story.

        In any case, I strongly second the wish for more of this story!

  8. An aspect of this relationship that really interests me is the question of whether this couple married for purely practical reasons might grow to have real feelings of respect, even love between them, and how that would play out when one of them is homosexual. Would either become jealous of the other’s lover/s? What if they both wanted the SAME lover? What if that lover was bisexual? Could they make a triangle work? Would James and Julia ever side together against that lover, favoring marriage over sexuality, if there ever came a reason to take sides?

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