By K.G. Anderson
It wasn’t that people deliberately ignored me. They just didn’t notice me. Or half the time they thought I was somebody else.
“Why did you guys make me so…average?”
My parents exchanged glances. Mom flushed, licked her lips, looked again at my father.
No way would I tell them what had happened. How Maia Dangerfield — tall, muscular, flame-haired Maia — had almost asked me to the dance. The key word here was “almost.”
Maia had made the suggestion in the hallway between classes. Before I could answer, the bell rang and traffic swept us apart. I’d fidgeted through math class and rushed to pick up my communicator from my locker as soon as the bell rang. But when I texted Maia “sure I’ll go,” their answer came back “huh? who? where?”
Turned out Maia had confused me with another classmate, or confused another classmate with me, and, anyway, the other one who looked and sounded just like me was in Maia’s language arts class and had accepted the dance invitation 10 minutes earlier.
Burning with embarrassment over my stupid text, I ran to the skyway and rode home. It was awful, but it was true: On every possible measure, from intelligence to looks to artistic and physical abilities, I was completely undistinguished.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Mom said. She looked across the dinner table at Dad for help. He was working as usual, scrolling on his tablet. “Roger?”
He finally looked over at me and sighed.
“Your mother and I were ignorant,” he said. Wow. For once, Dad was actually admitting fault. He explained that, like most prospective parents, they’d met with a counselor and had their embryo’s genetic material improved using robust DNA selected from the databanks. “We thought we were making the best choice by giving you popular, well-tested genes. We wanted you to be healthy and happy. We just wanted you to fit in.”
I put my elbows on the table, and buried my face in my hands. “I can’t stand it. You made me nobody.”
“Cait, we were immigrants!” My mom leaned forward, elbows on the table, her dinner forgotten. “We’d been on a waiting list to get out of Mardour for years. We knew that if we were accepted for immigration to Savania we’d have only one child license. That meant only one child. So we wanted you to be perfect.”
“But not to stand out,” Dad cut in. He rationalized, “We made you pretty, and healthy, and smart.”
“But not so pretty, or healthy, or smart that the Savanians would be envious.” Mom’s voice rose, trembling. “We didn’t want…trouble.”
“We didn’t know.” Dad took Mom’s hand and squeezed — probably half to comfort her and half to get her to stop babbling. “It didn’t occur to us that you would want to be, in some way, ‘distinctive.'”
“So I look like five other kids in school. I even have the same voice as 40 of them!”
I’d tried writing, singing, and artwork. But, no surprise, my so-carefully-selected genes made sure that I had no particular talents in any of these areas.
“I don’t want to be nice! I don’t want to be average!” My voice rose into a scream, and my Dad, ever the meek immigrant, looked with concern at the door of the apartment, worried that neighbors might be listening. Hey, at least I wasn’t speaking Mardourian. Maybe that was why they’d never taught it to me.
“We could buy you more interesting clothes,” Mom said, her tone conciliatory. “You could get more tattoos. Or dye your hair.”
“Mom, everyone has tattoos. Everyone dyes their hair,” I grumbled. I shook my head at their cluelessness, but I’d stopped shouting.
Dad went back to his tablet and Mom gave me a brave smile. “Sweetheart,” she said. “We love you. We love you just the way you are.”
We ate dessert, a Savanian pechta torte — because Sens forbid we should eat Mardourian food — in silence. I cleared the table and Dad did the dishes.
“I want cosmetic surgery,” I told them a few days later, on my way to the curtained hallway nook that served as my bedroom. I looked straight at Dad, keeping my voice modulated and my tone reasonable. “You owe it to me. I’m Mardourian. I want a Mardourian nose. And someday I’ll get contacts so I can have green eyes. And a treatment to have curly hair.”
“But, honey, your hair is so nice,” Mom began, starting as usual with the most trivial issue.
“Lily,” Dad cautioned her. He and Mom gave each other the look parents exchange when their child brings up a topic on which they have long-held and differing opinions. She furrowed her eyebrows. He arched his. She pursed her lips. He tilted his head inquisitively. Mom raised her eyebrows, and he furrowed his. Then they both shook their heads, and Dad sighed.
“Cait,” he said. “We need to explain.”
“Yeah. You did that already.”
“No,” Mom shouted, tugging Dad’s arm. “Cait’s not ready.”
Dad stepped away from her and crossed his arms over his chest. “I think Cait is. I think we all are.”
Wait a minute. This was supposed to be about me, about my miserable, average, life in school. But suddenly, in a moment, it changed. I’d never seen my father so serious.
“We didn’t want you to look like us, to look like Mardourians,” he said. “Countries were closing their ports to Mardourian refugees, accusing us of war crimes. We had to bribe the peacekeepers to even get on the resettlement list for Savania.”
“It was the right decision,” Mom said. “Your father and I have suffered terrible discrimination, even here in Savania. Even after changing our names to Savanian names.”
“There’s still political unrest, even though you might not hear much about it,” Dad dropped his voice to a whisper. “Think about it, Cait. Do you have any Mardourian friends in school?”
“Sure,” I started. Dem Baxter, but, wait, they were adopted by a Savanian family. Maryanne Thompson — but her dad was Savanian. I tried to think. There was a guy in my electronics class…
“Special cases, all of them,” Dad said, even though I hadn’t answered his question. “Most Mardourian families have been settled in rural…areas. And now access to those areas has been restricted. Your mother and I have friends we haven’t been able to contact for several months, except by printed messages that must be sent through the government security office.”
Dad’s face was twisted in a weak smile. “For the time being, we’re safe. And what’s most important to us is that you’re safe. Always.”
At the hastily called school assembly three weeks later, the government agents passed me by. They picked out Dem Baxter and two classmates I didn’t know. Asked for their papers. Then the agents took them by the arm and led them out up the aisle of the hushed auditorium. I’ll never forget Dem looking back, searching the crowd.
Almost without thinking, I threw up my hand and called out, “I—”
An arm yanked me down into my seat. It was Maia. They held me tightly and hissed in my ear, “Shut up.”
After the Security Forces van left, the teachers sent everyone back to class. As if nothing had happened. We had a quiz in math, and I couldn’t write a single answer.
Maia and Maryanne were waiting for me after school and said they wanted to go for kaffe, to talk about what happened. For some reason I couldn’t reach Mom on the communicator, so they rode home with me on the skyway. They insisted on coming up with me to our fourth-floor apartment.
Embarrassed about my family’s tiny unit, I suggested that I just drop off my backpack, check in with Mom, and then we could all go to the keffehaus on the next block.
“Sure,” Maia said, looking over my head at Maryanne. We rode up in the dingy elevator and stepped out into the dim hallway. At the end of the corridor, the door to my family’s unit stood open, and not in an inviting way. My friends followed me into the empty apartment.
My mother was gone. Her coat, and a suitcase, were missing.
“Look for a note,” Maryanne said. She was sympathetic but her tone held no surprise. Under my pillow we found it, hastily scrawled, with the number of an attorney.
“Call Mr. Lampkin — he knows what to do. We made provisions for you. We love you.”
We love you, I read. And I heard Mom’s voice adding just the way you are.