The Best Laid Plans

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     Mary Ann clung tightly to her husband’s hand as they entered the clinic. The walls around them felt sterile and medicated, no place for children. Even the waiting room was tailored to be just the slightest bit uncomfortable, as though making customers want to leave faster would greatly increase efficiency. Actually, she was quite sure this was true. These people are nothing if not efficient. Behind the front desk a secretary flicked her eyes frenetically, the motions presumably read on the screen in front of her. Occasionally, she would turn to a second monitor and the loudspeaker would announce a name. Each time the secretary did this, Mary Ann could feel her husband shift uncomfortably next to her. Perhaps he, too, was worried.
    Without warning, the name Johnson rang out in the enclosed room. Funny, Mary Ann could have sworn speakers used to make noise when they came on. It had sounded like the crinkling of paper, not that she saw much of that anymore either. At the cold, robotic beckoning of the speaker, Bryan stood. She studied his face for any sign of the nervousness she herself was drowning in. Of course, she found nothing. Why should she have expected otherwise? Bryan was from here, he had nothing to fear.
    With his wife’s hesitation entirely unnoticed, Bryan had proceeded through the doorway and into the back hall. Mary Ann followed him, wondering only briefly how he knew exactly where to go. The couple reached an examining office containing three chairs and a wallscreen. Mary Ann sighed. The physician was not there yet which meant more waiting. Her husband took the seat nearest the physician’s chair which was fine with her. If she could navigate this whole procedure without speaking a word that would be fine with her, too.
    The screen on the wall was deactivated, its surface black and lifeless. Mary Ann occupied herself by tracing the edge with her gaze. In her mind, she tiptoed along the line between the black and the white. She did not know how Bryan directed his thoughts, but they did not speak to one another. It seemed as though, even without a word, she had already created a terrible tension between them.
    A sharp rap on the doorframe denoted the physician’s arrival. Bryan offered the man his hand and the two chatted a while like high school buddies. For her part, Mary Ann sat up a bit straighter. The physician’s name was Dr. Callum, but he said they should call him Daniel.
    “After all, we’re going to be seeing a rather lot of each other aren’t we?”
    No, Mary Ann thought, but did not say.
    “Of course,” Bryan replied. She noticed he was wearing the expression he reserved for business negotiations. Everything about this process would be impersonal, she realized.
    “Well,” Dr. Callum began, “the planning starts today. Aren’t you excited? Most people are when they come in here.”
    Mary Ann imagined he threw a glance her way at this statement. She leaned forward as though ready to listen and tried to appear pleased. Dr. Callum continued to ramble on about how very exciting this day should be, but Mary Ann did not bother to take in his words. Instead, she considered the tone of his voice. He had an accent she could not place; not many people had them anymore.
    “We’ll make sure and send you home with plenty of paperwork, don’t you worry. Lots of decisions to make now. There’s so many more options these days, you know. When my wife and I got ours it was much simpler. She’s only a bit younger than you two, in fact. Nothing makes you feel older than young people, right?” Dr. Callum laughed boisterously at his own wit, and Bryan chuckled good-naturedly. Mary Ann did not laugh; she was frozen. When my wife and I got ours, she thought.
    “You alright, dearie?” the physician asked, “You look a little pale.”
    Mary Ann carefully unfroze her features into an expression she hoped was meek and polite, “Yes, Doctor. I’m all right, I just… I need some air. I’ll meet you outside.” This last statement was directed at her husband who looked utterly embarrassed.
    As she hurried back the way they had come, Bryan’s voice trailed after her, “I’m sorry about my wife, I’ve no idea what’s gotten into her…”
    The secretary at the front desk glanced up at Mary Ann with a bewildered expression. It was probably unusual to see one half of a couple fleeing the Child Planning Clinic. Mary Ann did not care about the secretary, or the other couples waiting, or the husband she had left behind. She could not have stayed there another moment, listening to that lunatic describe children as something to be designed. Something to be got, as he had said. Even if they went through with this, Mary Ann knew she would never call him Daniel.
    An hour later, Bryan emerged from the clinic. Together they proceeded along the crowded sidewalk to the subway. There was at least a foot of space between them and from a distance they would probably not be recognizable as a couple. Mary Ann twisted her wedding ring anxiously on her finger as they walked. It was Bryan who finally broke the silence.
    “Are you feeling better? Did you get enough air?” she could hear the bite in his second remark. She deserved it, too, for leaving him alone in there.
    “I’m sorry,” she said as they boarded the first train, but could not help thinking he did not know why she had left and that she could not fathom a way to tell him.
    “You’re going to be her mother, Mary Ann. Her mother. I’m not doing this on my own.”
    “Her?” Mary Ann thought and said simultaneously, “When did you decide this?”
    “Well, Daniel said there’s a girl shortage now. You know boys have been in style lately, so girls are worth a bonus. But if you want a boy we can discuss it, of course.”
    “What I want is to know when Daniel became a part of this marriage? You’re right, I’m going to be the baby’s mother, but he is nothing,” Mary Ann could feel her voice rising, but she did not stop it.
    “Why are you getting angry with me?” Bryan asked, the hurt plainer on his face than anything she had seen in years. For a moment, he resembled the boy she had fallen in love with and something inside her came undone. She felt tears slip down her cheeks and rushed to hide her face in her hair. Mary Ann felt she could not trust her voice not to break and did not speak again for the rest of the ride.
    That night, their apartment echoed with the silence between them. Mary Ann found herself curiously without anything to do. She had not been aware of how much was done for her in the city; the table set itself and the food required no cooking. Bryan confined himself to his study and left Mary Ann to sit alone on the bed they shared and consider what to do. She sat for hours listing options in her head and crossing them off just as quickly. When Bryan joined her, it was late into the night and she found herself left with only one option. She would tell him the truth.
    He crossed the dark room to the bed and whispered, “Mary Ann? Honey, are you awake?”
    “I am,” she replied so softly he might not have heard her. Even in the night she could see the smooth perfection of his skin, the balance of his bones. He was designed, Mary Ann thought, but it was she who was less human.
    “Bryan, I – “
    “Mary Ann, I need to tell you something,” she looked at him with wide eyes and nodded. It appeared he had been thinking, too.
    “Now, I don’t know what made you run out of that office today, and I’m not going to make you tell me either. But I love you and I want us to raise a child together. If you still want that too, I’m going to need to tell you a story. Do you… should I tell it?” he asked in a voice barely above a whisper. She did not nod or shake her head to give any sort of answer, but something in her owl eyes begged him to tell her.
    “The clinic where we were today is the same one I came from. However, that isn’t the only time I’ve ever been there,” Bryan hesitated, “I wasn’t an only child like I’ve always told you. I had a sister. When she was born, I was six years old.”
    Mary Ann c***ed her head at him, wondering why he would hide this. It was illegal to have multiple kids in the city because of the population, but it was not unheard of for a rich man to buy his way above the law. Bryan’s father surely had enough wealth to cover it.
    “She was a Natural,” he said. At first, Mary Ann was unsure she had heard him right. It seemed so impossible. Most city-dwellers had never met a Natural in their lives and believed them to be dirty, inhuman creatures of the outskirts.
    “She was...? Do you mean it?” Mary Ann struggled not to cry out for joy. A Natural! She turned to face her husband, to divulge the secret she had kept so long, but Bryan’s features were crumpled in a mask of grief. Mary Ann realized her mistake.
    “Bryan, what happened to her?”
    “Her name was Elizabeth; she was four when she died. There was something wrong, hidden deep inside her brain where we couldn’t see it. And the doctors tried to save her, but they don’t treat that sort of illness anymore. I...I watched her die,” Bryan’s voice trailed off a moment as he tried to pull himself back together, “I promised myself that I would do everything in my power to prevent that from happening to my child. That’s why I have been so tense; I’m terrified. And I can’t do this without you.”
    “Bryan, you won’t. I never wanted to leave you, I just hate doctor’s offices. I’m…” Mary Ann took a deep breath. She had never admitted this to anyone before. In fact, she had sworn many years ago that she never would. Her mother had begged her to stay until the very day she left and when she refused, Mary Ann had been made to promise to keep her own deadly secret. Even as she walked away, Mary Ann remembered how those pleading eyes had bore into her. However, her mother had never met Bryan. She knew nothing of the life Mary Ann had found here and perhaps if she did, she would understand why her daughter was about to break that promise. “I’m not from the city. I’m a Natural from the west. I never told you because I was afraid you wouldn’t love me if you knew, but I just realized I’m not scared anymore.”
“Mary, I’ve never loved anyone like you. I want my kid to be like you. I don’t care if we have a girl or a boy, how the baby looks, or anything else. I just want our child to be healthy and happy. That’s all I ever wanted,” Bryan said.
    Suddenly, all  the anger and fear between them dissolved and Mary Ann embraced her husband. They were going to do this together. The two of them had spent so long hiding their pasts that neither remembered what it felt like to be free until then. It felt like coming home.
   






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