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     A car pulled up beside the apartment building, its blue and grey matte colours blending in with the cement curb. Harper, drinking a glass of water and looking out the fifth floor window, saw the car pull up.  His eyes darted to the LED display on the microwave. The clean, digital numbers showed the time: nine in the morning. The car was exactly on time. They were always exactly on time.

     “Evie!” Harper, putting down his glass, called across the apartment. He didn’t need to yell, it wasn’t a very big place, but he wanted her to hurry. “The car’s here.” He turned away from the window, heading towards the door.

     The phone in his pocket started to buzz, but Harper ignored it. He knew it was a message from the car announcing its arrival, making him anxious to get moving.  

       “Gimme a minute,” Evie called out from the bathroom. “I’m almost ready.”

     Harper sighed with frustration. In the seven years they had been together, he couldn’t remember a single time they were early for something.

     “Come on Evie,” He moaned, rubbing  his forehead. A dull headache caused by a listless sleep throbbed in the background.

     “I’m coming, I’m coming,” Evie danced in the bathroom doorway while she put on her shoe.

     With her dark hair bouncing around, Evie reached for the wall as she balanced on one leg. Harper noticed her nails as she pressed her hand against the wall; they were painted like cartoon pieces of sushi. They made him chuckle.

    “When did you paint your nails?” He asked as Evie straightened herself out.

     With her feet firmly on the ground, Evie bent her fingers, looking at the cartoon sushi.

     “These?” She raised an eyebrow. “A couple of days ago. You’re just noticing?” She shot him a playful grin.

     Harper walked into the hallway, leaving the front door open while he waited. He kept an eye out for their cat. She had a habit of bolting for the hallway whenever she got the chance. Nothing would ever happen. She’d scamper down the hall, stopping to smell the doors that led to other people’s homes. Harper didn’t hear the jangle of her bell and figured she was asleep somewhere. Maybe she was tucked between the covers on their bed or passed out in the bottom of a laundry basket. Oh, the life of a cat, Harper thought, they get to sleep all day and not worry about work and not having enough money.

     “We don’t want to be late for this.” Harper grumbled, moving back into the apartment to see what was keeping Evie.

     She had stopped in front of the second bedroom. The room they planned on painting in either soft blue or pink and putting a crib in. She had a smile on her face while the soft, morning light made her skin glow. It melted Harper’s heart. He moved back into the apartment, closing the door behind him, and stopped behind Evie. Harper wrapped his arms around her waist. She leaned into him.

     “We’re really going to do this, aren’t we?” Her voice was soft and light. It was the tone she used whenever she was being completely sincere.

     “We sure are,” Harper kissed the top of her head. “But not if we don’t get a move on.”

     “Ok, ok, ok,” Evie pushed him out the door.

     They hurried out of the apartment, but before Harper closed the door, he gave the future baby’s room one last look, imagining the future it would hold.  

     The car drove silently through the soft morning light. Traffic moved like clockwork — the cars organizing themselves. All Evie and Harper had to do was look out the windows and dwell on their anxiety.

     “What did your brother and Sophie all pick?” Evie asked, staring at the cars and buildings with wide, brown eyes.

     Harper knew they had talked about this before: they talked about it when their nephew, Kennedy, was born; they talked about it the night they decided to have a baby; they talked about it when they were bored, or when genetics came up, or when they talked about the past. Talking about Brandon and Sophie — Harper’s brother and sister-in-law — wasn’t just gossip, but a way to form their own thoughts and values. Evie needed to figure out what she wanted to do, and asking about others was her way of doing it. Harper knew it was how Evie processed decisions and never minded talking it out — no matter how many times they had the same conversation.

     “He says,” Harper reached across the seat and squeezed Evie’s hand. “That they only went with all the disease protection stuff. No cosmetic or personality.”

     “Really?” Evie reacted like it was the first time she heard that piece of information.

     “Really,” Harper said with doubt, the words slow and heavy in his mouth. “But I don’t buy it. Kennedy has green eyes. No one in our family has ever had green eyes. No one. I can’t speak for Sophie’s side, but I’m pretty sure you need genes from both parents to have green eyes.”

     “Why would they lie about it?” Evie liked Brandon and Sophie, but she had a hard time understanding them.

     “I dunno, Brandon is weird like that. He didn’t tell anyone in the family how well his business was doing until they moved into that giant house.”

     “So you think they picked other traits?” Evie’s heart sank.

     “Probably. Think about it.” Harper raised an eyebrow. “When Kennedy was a baby, did you ever hear him cry?”

     Before she could reply, the car pulled up to the doctor’s office. Evie got out first, the morning air warm and fresh on her skin — a perfect July morning. Standing on the curb, she waited while Harper paid for the ride. He took a moment to look at the digital display covering the dash. The cost of the ride was the only thing on the clear display — numbers in smooth, white lines, floating against an ethereal background. Harper looked at the number, running the cost against what was in their account.

     Glass doors slid apart as they walked into the waiting room. The air was cold and smelt sterile, like cleaner and disinfectant — the smell of a doctor’s office. The taste of tongue depressors and the feeling of stiff paper on the patient’s table flashed in Evie’s mind. Some things never change. A voice chimed in both of their ears as they entered the room.  

     “The doctor will see you in just a couple minutes. Please take a seat and we’ll let you know when he’s ready.” The voice was pleasant and invisible.

     “See,” Evie scolded Harper affectionately. “We weren’t going to be late. All that fuss for nothing.”

     “Well, we’re always late.” Harper rolled his eyes as he sat on one of the uncomfortable chairs in the waiting room.  

     “We’re not always late.” Evie sat beside him.

     Looking around, her eyes found the blank pile of magazines sitting on the coffee table. They all looked identical — plain white sheets of TruPaper stacked on top of each other. Evie reached for one. As she touched it, the white cover filled with digital images and icons. Her eyes scanned through them before settling on a feed and opening the cover. Pictures and words splashed across the pages — information the people she followed wanted to share. She scrolled through them, stopping on a picture of her nephew, Kennedy. She thought back to what Harper said in the car as the pages filled with memories of Kennedy. She looked through them. He really was a cute baby and was growing up into a model child. There were pictures of him playing baseball and a video of him making a home run. All the pictures and videos were about some type of physical activity. Even the family photos were mostly of them jogging. I should really take up jogging, Evie thought as she looked at the picture.

     The more she saw of Kennedy, the more she realized that his parents must have picked some options. Evie switched to Sophie’s feed, the pages filling with new information, and started to creep her in-laws. She was looking for something specific: green eyes. There were none. Harper leaned over and saw what she was looking at.

     “Thinking about Kennedy?” he asked while his arm found its way around her shoulder, pulling her closer.  

     “I think you’re right. I’m creeping Sophie’s family and no one has green eyes. I just don’t get why they would lie about it. Most people brag about the options they pick.

     Harper shrugged.

     “It doesn’t matter,” Reaching over, he closed the magazine cover. “Don’t compare yourself to Brandon and Sophie. They’re great, but we’re not them. Who cares what they did? They live in a big house and we live in an apartment; it doesn’t mean they’re better than us.”

     “I know, I know.” Evie threw the TruPaper on the table.

     “The doctor is ready for you.” the pleasant voice chimed in their ears.

     Dr. Matheson was a beautiful man: A tailored doctor’s jacket hugged his muscular frame; all his features looked they had been sculpted. He stood behind a desk covered with a flat, digital display. A wall of windows stood behind him, looking onto a golf course.  Geese floated across a picturesque pond in front of a well-manicured green. A couple of men in bright shirts with putters in their hands stood near the hole. They squinted through the morning sunlight, judging their putts.

     Harper had worked at a golf course one summer during high school. He worked in maintenance, spending every morning raking sand traps and cutting grass. The shifts were early, but that had been fine with Harper. In the early hours before the course filled up, it was cool, the sun was soft, and the course slick with morning dew. Drenched in quiet morning peace, the course had looked perfect — a perfect, nature-themed landscape. But every day was filled with effort to keep it looking that way; to make nature that perfect, it had to be tamed, groomed, and altered.

     “Good morning!” Dr. Matheson moved across the office to greet them. “I’m so happy that you stopped by today.” He flashed a toothy grin.

     “We’re glad to be here,” Evie replied,  matching his enthusiasm. “But I think we’re both a little anxious.”

     “Who wouldn’t be?” The doctor pulled out their chairs before moving behind his desk and sitting down. “You’re going to have a baby, that gets everyone a little nervous. I’m sure you’ll feel a thousand times better once we discuss everything.” His green eyes stared at them from behind clear, stylish glasses.

     “I sure hope so.” Harper looked past the doctor and towards the golfers.

     “Where do we start?” asked Evie. She was eager to get on with it, see what all the options were.

     “Well, let’s start with something simple. The most basic decision there is, boy or girl?” His smile stretched wide, revealing two rows of perfect teeth.

     Evie and Harper looked at each other.

     “Well –” Harper started.

     “We want to leave that one to fate,” Evie interrupted, finishing his sentence.

     “Exactly,” Harper agreed.

     The doctor nodded his head and looked towards his desk. With a couple flicks of his fingertips, a digital projection appeared beside him — a floating blank screen waiting to show miracles.

     “We can certainly do that. More and more couples are making the same decision. Some things are just better left to nature, and gender is one of them. Let’s take a look at our basic health and disease prevention package. It’s by far what most parents are interested in.”

     The floating display beside him filled with well-designed graphic icons. All of them were minimalist white images with heavy font underneath. One said, Genetic Disorder Prevention, while another said, Cancer Prevention. The other icons, about a dozen or so, all had similar titles — stiff language promising prosperity.  

     “As you can see,” continued the doctor, “we cover genetic options for a tremendous amount of disease prevention and basic health advantages.”

     “I can see that.” Harper felt overwhelmed by all the options; he didn’t even know there were that many ways to get sick.

     “It is a lot,” the doctor chuckled. “But don’t feel overwhelmed. These are all the possible option categories. We’ve already gone through both of your genes and created a custom-made option that will ensure your child is born healthy, strong, and free of disease.”

     “You have?” Evie seemed surprised. “We just sent off the data this morning.” She remembered using the cotton swab while she was getting ready. It was half the reason why she was running late.

     “Everything is very fast. Our computers have already run all the options and picked the best course of alteration for basic health advantages.”

     “What about disease prevention?” Harper asked.

     His grandmother flashed in his head. Harper hardly remembered her, just a snapshot from a childhood memory: a sick, skeletal woman with little hair lying on a bed. She died of cancer.  

     “We’ve already gone through the possible modifications for cancer prevention, but it’s part of a separate package. We provide all the statistical data — the probabilities — of your future child contracting certain diseases. Some parents don’t want to go the extra step when there’s just a small probability that their child will develop cancer and opt out.”

     “If there’s even a chance, though.” Evie didn’t like risks, especially ones regarding their future children.

     “I feel exactly the same way,” the doctor agreed, nodding sympathetically. “When it came to my son, we didn’t even want to entertain the idea. It’s all about giving them the best chance, isn’t it?”

     They both nodded their heads.

     “So you’re both set on the basic health and disease prevention packages, full-scale?” Dr. Matheson lowered his head slightly, his eyes peering over the top of his glasses.

     “Of course.” Harper nodded. He was concerned about money, but the health of his future child was worth more than anything.

     Dr. Matheson waved his hand across the display. Most of the icons disappeared, but a handful of icons grew bigger to fill the space. The titles on these were things like Mental Health Positivity and Depression and Anxiety Avoidance.

     “Now,” The doctor slowed his speech and lessened his smile. “Mental health falls under an entirely different package.”

     “That seems strange.” Harper was slightly annoyed. “Aren’t they all about basic health?”

     “Yes,” Dr. Matheson agreed. “But mental health is a bit more sensitive. It starts to get into the area of personality arrangement.”

     “What?” Evie was confused.

     “Well, for some creative types, a dash of depression can do wonders. Did you know Abraham Lincoln was prone to depression?”

     “No,” Harper replied.

     “Some people have speculated that was why he worked so hard and achieved such great things.”

     “Huh.” Harper found that interesting. He never pictured Honest Abe to be sad — stoic, but not sad.

     “Did you two want to see the personality arrangement and physical potential packages? It might be good to see those before getting into the mental health options.” Dr. Matheson asked the question pleasantly, but with a probing tone.

     “Why not?” Evie looked at Harper. “It’s not like we have to pick anything today, right?”

     Dr. Matheson nodded. The icons vanished from the display before being replaced with a new set of smaller icons and words. These ones had titles like Height, Weight and Muscle Development and Eye and Hair Color. Harper was reminded of his nephew when he saw the plain, white graphic for eye colour.

     “Now,” Dr. Matheson sat perfectly straight in his chair, his hands folded together and resting on his desk. “These options are all part of our premium package and aren’t covered by government insurance programs.”

     Harper gulped.

     “But the benefits for your family can be astronomical,” Dr. Matheson continued. “We can help provide your child with the perfect foundation for whatever you think they will be successful at.”

     “How will we know what they’ll be successful at? They’re not even conceived yet.” Evie frowned.

     “Think of your own life. Your child will be similar to both of you. Just imagine what trajectory your life could have taken if nature had given you a little more of whatever you needed.” His smile was unmoving. “You can do that for your future child.” He started to tap on the icons, making them vanish. “We have a small video on the premium package. Sometimes it’s better to see the results than to hear about them.”  

     The presentation that followed was filled with images of people that were too good to be true. All of them were beautiful with perfect smiles and teeth.

     “Think of all the money and pain that will be saved without needing braces.” the doctor said when they got to dental images.

     He showed them videos of athletes excelling in countless sports, of  an artist producing beautiful works with a smile on her face, of business people closing deals and driving fancy cars. The doctor explained the options behind each one. How they were able to alter just the right genes to modify personalities — in subtle ways — so the upcoming generation could excel at whatever they set their mind to.

     “There’s nothing more important you’ll do,” Dr. Matheson said as he finished showing them the presentation. “For your child than the decisions that you make here.” He leaned back in his chair with a warm and confident smile — the smile of a salesman.

     The couple looked towards each other again. Their eyes spoke a shorthand that they knew well.

     “How much are we talking here for the premium packages?” Harper dreaded the answer.

     The display cleared and a number appeared in the center. Below it was a list of the alterations, each one itemized and costed. It was more than they made in years.

     “Can we have a minute?” Evie asked shyly, her voice caught in her throat.

     “Of course, of course. Take your time. Can I get you anything, coffee, tea?” The doctor rose from his chair. They both declined.

     Placing a hand on Evie’s shoulder, looking down at her and smiling, Dr. Matheson said, “Let me know when you’re ready.”

     The door closed, filling the room with an awkward silence. Not able to look at Evie, Harper stared ahead, vacantly watching the golf course outside. Two more golfers were on the green. One held the pin while the other made a long putt. The ball curved on the manicured grass, and at the last moment, the man lifted the pin, the ball disappearing into the hole. Harper looked away from the window. One of them would have to say it.

     “We can’t afford this, there’s no way.” The number glared at him from the screen.

     “I know,” Evie rubbed her forehead. “What’s it like without any of the personality and physical stuff?” She looked towards the display as it automatically adjusted the price. It was still expensive, but more reasonable. Evie sighed and looked towards her shoes.

     “We could swing that,” Harper said encouragingly. He hated seeing Evie sad — especially when it was something they were supposed to be excited about.

     “How?” Evie looked at him with tears in her eyes.

     “We could take out a loan. Or, I could always ask Brandon for help.”

     “No, we can’t do that.” She shook her head.

     “It’s not about us,” Harper said softly, placing his hand on top of Evie’s. “It’s about our baby. Let’s do the basic health stuff and go through the disease probabilities. That’s all we’ll do; we can afford that.”

     “Ya,” Evie replied, mulling over the idea. Looking at the display, she ran budgets in her head. If they were smart about it, they could do it.

     “Plus,” Evie looked at Harper as excitement returned to her eyes. “The kid is going to be a combo of me and you, they don’t need all those bells and whistles. Our kid is going to do great — better than great — all on their own.”

     “Exactly!” Harper smiled before leaning over and kissing her. “It’s decided, basic health package and our oh, so amazing genes.”

     They spoke the doctor’s name to no one, and a moment later he was walking back into the office.

     “You had a chance to talk it over?” The doctor took his place behind the desk.

     “We sure did,” Harper said, nodding his head confidently.

     “We’ll go with the basic health package and go through the disease stats,” Evie asserted, matching Harper’s confidence.

     “Are you sure?” A wave of concern washed over Dr. Matheson’s face.

     “It would be great to pull out all the stops,” Harper explained. “But we’re on a pretty tight budget, and we want there to be some mystery.” They looked at each other and nodded in unison.

     “I can relate to that.” The doctor lied, twisting his face into a sympathetic expression. “But there is a low-cost personality option that’s perfect for people on a budget.” He turned to the display, waving away the icons and pulling up a single option — a tile with a simple, round happy face; its title was Guaranteed Happiness.

     “What is it?” Evie asked cautiously.

     “It’s a more simple alteration and addition than the other packages we were looking at, but the effects are profound,” Dr. Matheson replied, his salesman smile returning.

     “Why didn’t you mention this earlier?” Harper sat forward, staring at the white graphic.

     “The option is –” He took a calculated pause. “A bit of a compromise.”

     “Can you just please explain what it is?” Evie didn’t trust his lack of directness.

     “The options I’ve been showing you are becoming increasingly popular with couples of all types, all over the world –”

     “We already said we weren’t interested,” Harper interrupted him. “Our kid will be fine with our genes.”

     “I’m sure they will be, but let me show you something.” Dr. Matheson nodded in agreement as the icon unfolded, turning into a simple graph with two competing lines. “This graph shows natural conceptions compared to altered births. As you can see, more and more people are choosing options like the ones we went through today.” The glowing light of the display twisted and distorted in the clear frames of his glasses. “The generation your child will be born into will be made up of children who have been given an incredible foundation.” He turned and looked at them — waiting for the question he knew they would ask.

     “I’m sorry,” Evie stared at the graph. “Are you trying to say that our kid will be a freak or something?”

     “No, not at all.” His voice was charming and sincere. “Of course not. But there is a reality here I think we all need to address: the competition surrounding your child will be extreme. It will be difficult — economically and professionally — for them to compete with their peers.” A look of dire concern spread across his face.  

     “Can’t we pick a handful of options then?” Harper glared. “Give them a bit of an edge?”

     “We could.” Dr. Matheson shook his head. “But I’m afraid that would be the most tragic option of all. They would have some natural talent, but not enough complementary traits to really compete and excel. I hate to say it, but all you’d be giving your child is false hope.”

     “False hope?” Evie’s voice was heartbroken. “That’s an awful thing to say!”

     “I wish it wasn’t true.” The doctor leaned back, folding his hands together. “But we all just want what’s best for our kids, and sometimes that’s hearing the hard truth.”

     “Fine,” resigned Harper. “What are you trying to sell us on here?” He crossed his arms and glared at the display. The graph transformed back into the smiling Guaranteed Happiness icon.

     “The Guaranteed Happiness option,” Dr. Matheson explained, “is a simple way to ensure a lifetime of happiness for your child. What we do is make some subtle genetic tweaks and additions to their personality — surface level adjustments, really. The result is a personality where their happiness levels are more manageable.”

     “More manageable?”  Evie didn’t like where this was going.

     “Let’s face it, it will be impossible for your child to compete with their peers. If they try to find happiness through achievement, well, they’ll just be in for a life of disappointment. What we offer is a personality adjustment where your child will be happy, no matter what circumstances life hands them.” He leaned back, smiling his salesman smile.

 

     The car ride back felt tenser than the one to the office. Neither of them spoke, but they knew they were going to have a fight. Evie and Harper didn’t fight very often, but when they did it was a practiced routine: Harper would get pouty, quiet, and hide away somewhere waiting for Evie’s attention; Evie would get sad and want to move past it, willing to compromise if she couldn’t convince Harper to her side. This was different; it wasn’t about their feelings; it was about the future of their yet-to-be baby. It wasn’t until half-way back that Evie decided to give in and break the silence.

     “It’s a terrible idea, Harper.” She said the blunt words softly. “We can’t do that to them.”

     He looked up at her with tightly drawn lips. “You think throwing them into a race with a scooter when everyone else has motorbikes is fair?” Harper, despite the negative atmosphere, felt clever for coming up with the metaphor.

     “We don’t know what the future is going to be like,” Evie argued as the car stopped outside their apartment building. “We turned out fine, didn’t we?” She asked, slamming the car door behind her.

     Harper didn’t reply until they were walking towards the entrance, “Did we?” He shoved the outdated, metal key into the lock. “Maybe we shouldn’t have a kid at all.” He opened the building door, turning his back on Evie.

     “Don’t say that!”

     “Why not?” His tone was angry, defeated. “What can we really offer them? How are they going to feel when they see their cousin?”

     They rode the elevator in silence, both of them looking away from each other — no flirty glances or excited daydreams. The elevator stopped. In a huff, Harper stormed down the hall and threw open the apartment door. With a meow and a dash, their cat jolted through the open door. Harper didn’t even give her a glance as she raced past him. Evie chased her down the hall and picked her up.

     “You’re happy, aren’t you?” She asked, kissing the top of the cat’s head.

     Sure she is, thought Evie. She remembered watching something about cats and how they became domesticated. The video explained how cats domesticated themselves. Once people started storing wheat — way back in the ancient past — it attracted mice and vermin. The cats made themselves at home, and the ones who got along with people — the happy ones — got to reproduce. Walking into the apartment, Evie put the cat down and closed the door.

     Fine, Evie thought as she walked towards the empty baby’s room, be pouty. Their bedroom door was closed and she assumed Harper was stewing behind it. Lingering in the doorframe, she looked over the room. Had scientists figured out the key to happiness? It couldn’t be that simple, she thought. Evie sighed as the cat rubbed up against her leg.

     “What do you think we should do?” She looked at the tiny, black cat with a tired smile.

     The cat looked up at Evie with bright green eyes and meowed.

Want more stories? You’re in luck, we got lots more over here.

 

Written by I.B.
Taken from Future Fables and Strange Stories published 2018
Copyright © Stray Books Ltd.