The bedroom wasn’t built for a couple. The walls were lined with cabinets, a narrow, anti-bac foam mattress wedged into a bunk under a small frosted window. Books, clothes, and keepsakes overflowed storage onto the floor. Fading family photos were taped up around a warped mirror set into the door of a narrow closet. Michael sat on the mattress with his back to the wall, the blankets heaped around his waist. In the doorway, Jess stood with her arms crossed, staring at the floor. She was wearing a flimsy, blue-green sundress, one of the old comfortable ones she kept rolled up in the back of the drawer and no longer wore out. Her brown hair, tied back into a loose ponytail, was sprinkled with wiry grey. “We need to respond by the end of the week,” she said. “If we don’t, they’ll have to start the process all over again.”
“What day is it due?”
“Thursday,” she said, “Look, if you don’t want to do it, that’s fine. We can submit an objection. Either way, it needs to be in by Thursday.”
“I’ll think about it,” he said.
“Sure. Take your time.” She turned to leave. “I’m making food. You want some?”
“I’m not really hungry.”
She walked out into the suite’s narrow kitchen. The two rooms were close enough that he could hear the faint sticking of her bare feet on the plasticky flooring. He tapped the screen on his handheld, sitting face up on the pillow beside him. The time flashed back, along with a shift change notice from his supervisor. A confirmation button blinked at the bottom. He clicked on it and it collapsed out of view. In the kitchen, a cupboard opened and closed. The sink ran. A pot clattered onto the stove. There was the scrape of a chair, the window frame, the flick of a lighter, then her voice, drifting low and serious through the apartment. “Hello? Yes, I called earlier…” Michael checked the time again. Then, with a sigh, he rolled out of bed and wandered out into the kitchen.
She was sitting under the apartment’s only real window, at a fold-up kitchen table wedged into the corner by the end of the counter. The bottom pane was propped open with a shoe, the screws meant to be holding it shut piled on a magazine in front of her. She puffed on the stub of a cigarette, fanning the smoke out with a paper napkin. “…I sent it already, to the embassy downtown. The woman on the phone said… Sure, yeah…” She rubbed at her forehead with the side of her hand. “No, I’ll resend it. How much is the fee?” Picking up a pen, she jotted a number down along the edge of the magazine.
The water on the stove had started to bubble. Michael took it off the heat with a folded tea towel and poured it into a waiting mug along with a spoonful of instant coffee. He set it on the table in front of her. Picking up the spoon, Jess swirled it idly through the half-mixed coffee. Michael wiped out the pot with the clean end of a tea towel and put it back on the heat. A carton of veggie scramble sat open on the counter. He dumped half of it into the pot and gave it a mix to keep it from sticking to the bottom.
“I’ve already sent and paid for it twice now… Yes, I sent it to the address you said, it’s—Thank you. I appreciate you taking the time to look.” She stubbed out the last sliver of her cigarette into the napkin, folding it tightly inside. “Yes, I’ll check, one moment…” She glanced at her handheld. “Got it. Thank you for your help… Yes, you too.” Hanging up the call, she plucked out her earpiece and tossed it onto the table. “Useless…” She tucked the napkin into the front pocket of her work bag, sitting on the floor beside her chair. Giving her coffee a good stir, she got up from the table. She dropped the spoon into the sink and peered over his shoulder into the pan. “Thanks for starting that. You sure you don’t want something to eat?”
“My shift got moved. I work at seven now.” He gave the mixture another stir, then pulled out a plate. “I have to run out in a minute. I’ll get something on the train.”
“Shit. Again?” Closing the carton of scramble, she put it back into the fridge. “I’m going to put in a grocery order. You want anything for tomorrow?”
She closed the fridge. Taking a sip of coffee, she swiped two fingers across the large pane of cracked black glass mounted on the wall over the counter. The device flared to life. Flipping through her options, she selected the company grocery program. The display blinked bright white, then, with a dismayed buzz, it died. “Shit…” She tapped a couple times on the screen, then tried the manual power button. Nothing happened. “Why does nothing in this damn place work…” She went to fetch her handheld off the table. “Go put some pants on. I’m calling the manager.” She pressed her earpiece back into her ear as he stepped into the bedroom and closed the door. “Yeah… I know, I’m looking at it… Well it’s a problem with the screen…”
The white sides of the train were streaked with dirt. Michael stepped into the last car and walked down to the back, finding a seat by the window. It shuddered as it picked up speed, zipping down the tracks away from the towering concrete blocks of the TripNexus International employee housing complex.
A girl stood in the aisle, chewing gum, a shipping box tucked under her arm. The label across the front read “Refreshments.” She looked bored, staring blankly into her handheld. Michael raised a hand to wave and, without looking up, she walked down the aisle to his seat. “What do you want?” She tilted the box towards him. There were several open packages of candy and a box of meal replacement bars with the top ripped off, packs of cigarettes lined the outside edge, steam leaked out of an old insulated lunch bag.
He pointed to the bag. “What do you have?”
“Dumplings,” she said, “Potato or something. I don’t know. It’s six for five of ‘em.”
“I’ll take five of them. Whatever they are.”
The girl didn’t laugh. She selected something on her handheld and his binged cheerily in response. Allow payment to minor account, 6.15? it asked.
He approved the transaction. “I thought you said six.”
“Basically six,” she said, scooping five sticky, overcooked bundles of potato into a paper bag. Shoving a rough punched wooden fork into it, she handed it over. “You want anything else? I got these new mints…” She showed him the label on the wax paper wrapping.
“Not today. Sorry.”
“Sure…” She dropped them back into the box, lifting it up onto her hip as she walked away down the aisle.
Michael held the paper bag open in his lap to cool. Outside the window, the city streaked past, district after district of sprawling factories, company housing, and community improvement projects. Greenhouses and gardens dotted the tops of the buildings. Murals stretched across the sides, blurred by the motion of the train. At the next station, a group of Pacific Alliance volunteers piled on, talking loudly amongst themselves. One of the men pulled out a camera and snapped a series of pictures of the dumpling girl, as she lit a cigarette and blew smoke out of an open window near the front of the car.
Michael looked down at his handheld. He opened an album and tapped on the first photo. His son’s smiling face filled the screen, eyes scrunched up, syrupy shaved ice dripping over his fingers. He switched over to his messages and selected the foster father’s name from the list of recents. Is there a good time for me to stop by later today? he wrote. Working your side of the city this week.
Dropping his handheld into his jacket pocket, he picked up his fork and stabbed at a dumpling.
The build site was a fenced in mess of mud and machinery covering half a city block. From its center, the steel skeleton of a twisting skyscraper stretched up into the brilliant blue. Cranes moved slowly overhead. Workers crowded the sidewalk in the shadow of the fence near the site gate, waiting to pass security. On the other side of the street, MSE-WoA Safety had set up a folding table under a flimsy red beach umbrella. Volunteers in matching red t-shirts approached the workers with pamphlets. Michael found his place at the end of the line, pulled out his handheld, and tried to look busy.
He showed his ID at the gate and stepped into a security line, unzipping his bag and handing it over to be searched. On the other side, he found an open check-in station in a row by the washrooms. Setting his handheld down on the sensor pad, he typed in his code. His current work assignment popped up, a voluntary overtime notice blinking in a box at the bottom of the page. Early for shift, it said. One minute, thirty-two seconds. Twenty-seven hours, fifty-two minutes, and twenty seconds of voluntary overtime have been logged to your account this period. Would you like to volunteer to give up a shift? He hit decline. Picking up his handheld, he turned off its outside reception and went to work.
When he stepped back out onto the sidewalk, twelve hours later, the streetlights were just beginning to turn themselves on. His handheld reconnected slowly to the network, notifications and updates rolling in late from earlier in the day. A pay docking alert from the insurance company, a second overtime notice, and a non-payment warning from the union crowded the screen. He dismissed one at a time, sending his digital signature as confirmation. When nothing else came up, he opened his messages. There were two from Jess. Six from his company supervisor. One from the foster father. He opened the last one first. Happy to have you. Any time before 9. He checked the time, then, opening up the transit ticketing service, he credited a few more rides to his account and headed for the station. Swiping his handheld at the entrance, he caught the next train out of the city.
The car was clean and mostly empty. He found a seat and opened his messages from Jess. She had attached a Child Services form.
Jess: You just need to sign this.
Jess: Sorry. No pressure.
He typed out a response and sent it. Going to see him. See what the family has to say.
She answered right away.
Jess: He seems happy with them. If we wait, they might transfer him.
Michael: If we wait, we might get him back.
Jess: I don’t think that’s going to happen at this point
Jess: You know how CS is
Jess: Sorry. Just trying to be realistic.
Michael typed out half a response, deleted it and restarted. Another message pinged onto his screen.
Jess: Sorry. Shutting down. Starting shift in five.
Michael: See you in the morning
Jess: Tell me how it goes with family
Yeah. Sure, he replied. Remind me tomorrow.
The terminal was sleek and new. The long arch of its patterned glass ceiling scattered the last light of dusk over the floors below, as if filtered through a leafy overhead canopy. Greenery overflowed planters embedded in undulating sections of white wall. Music played softly through hidden speakers. The grand space was mostly empty, more security guards and cleaning staff than commuters. The neighborhood was lush and green, full of playgrounds, parks, and biking trails. There was no bus service, so Michael walked the thirty minutes, down winding, tree lined streets, to the foster family’s home.
The house sat on an expanse of emerald lawn, two sprawling stories of throwback modernist architecture, with romantic highlights. Michael knew that was what it was because the foster father had told him, when he had first come to see the place. They had still been decorating then, talking about custom, reclaimed-wood and resin tables and removing art works from storage. Michael climbed the steps to the front door, rang the doorbell, then stepped back to wait. Pushing his hands down in his pockets, he glanced up into the black lens of a security camera. The door opened and he forced a smile. “I hope I’m not too late.”
“No, no,” the foster mother said, brightly, ushering him into the house, “We’re in pajamas already, but there’s still time for a bedtime story or two!” She wasn’t wearing anything like pajamas. An elegant dress wrapped her body in soft forest greens, tight to below the knee. A pair of tidy gold heels clicked across the tile.
“Thank you for having me at such short notice.”
“Anytime! Can I get you a drink?”
“Water would be great, actually.”
“Tap water is fine, thank you.”
“I don’t remember if you already said, I’m sure you did, but were you also thinking of moving? Or was it just Jess?” She filled a swirl patterned blue glass from a tap on the kitchen’s center island.
“I’d rather stay close, if possible.”
“I think it’s such a pity, the whole thing. I told her, if she ever needs anything, she has my number, and Jason’s. She shouldn’t hesitate to call us. You know, it’s so important to use the resources you have, especially in a situation like hers…” She passed him the glass. “I think it’s so brave, what she’s doing. I just can’t imagine what it would be like to make a decision like that…”
Michael took a polite sip of water. “Yes, it’s been a hard year for both of us. But we’re getting through it. Do you know where he is?”
“Oh, yes, of course! Don’t let me keep you. They’re just in the upstairs playroom.”
The hallways were decorated with framed family photos — weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries, parents and grandparents, group portraits of six tidy children and two beaming adults, arms around each other at the center of the frame. Michael found his son busy at play with three of the family’s own children, close in age. They were dressed in cookie-cutter matching, blue pajama sets, printed with rows of tiny white snowflakes and Christmas trees. Michael cleared a few stray blocks from a patch of floor and sat carefully down next to his son. “Hey… How was school?”
The boy shrugged. “Fine. I don’t know.”
Michael ruffled his hair lightly. “You do anything fun?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“What did you do that was fun?”
After the children had been tucked into bed for the night, Michael found himself standing out on the back porch with the foster father, a glass of something that tasted like liquor, but apparently wasn’t, in his hand. The foster father offered a cigar. Michael politely refused, “I don’t smoke.”
“You should try one of these sometime. It’s a totally different experience. Nothing like a cigarette,” he said, lighting one for himself, “And not nearly as bad for you.”
“I hadn’t heard that,” Michael said.
The yard was full of billowing flower bushes. A fountain bubbled across a slab of rock in the center of a manicured lawn. There was a playhouse in the back corner, a reproduction of the main house in miniature.
“Look…” the foster father said, after a while, “I don’t want to put any pressure on you, because I understand how difficult this must be. But I want you to know, whatever you decide, you will always be welcome in our home. We don’t want you to see this as a change. It’s all about fostering stability…” He paused to attend to his cigar. “You know, that’s what the therapist told us, last time we were in, that stability is the key factor for children around that age, and we’ve been able to see that in our own children, keeping their days consistent, in the same schools, with the same friends… it makes a world of difference.”
Michael took a small sip of the drink, which tasted like a grassy sort of whisky. “Thank you,” he said, “that means a lot.”
Golden light poured from the back windows, fading out across the lawn. Wind rustled through the trees at the back of the yard. The foster father puffed on his cigar, smoke curling up into a night sky just beginning to fill with stars.
Michael used his guest pass to get back into the housing complex. It was late and the elevators were empty, the hallway lights dimmed. He unlocked the door to the apartment. Inside, it smelled of cigarette smoke, sweat, and stale coffee. Michael turned on the stove’s overhead fan, propped open the window, tipped out the last of the coffee. One of Jess’s old foreign magazines lay open on the table. She was halfway through translating an article, her penmanship packed and precise between the lines. Definitions and notes filled the margins. He closed it, pen tucked between the pages to hold her place, and set it back on the stack beneath the window.
Lying in bed, his face cast pale in the glow of his handheld, he flipped through his photos, lingering on each close up shot of his son’s face. Time moved backwards, through bike rides, birthdays and Christmases, to the very first. Jess stood in the hallway of their old apartment, looking away from the camera at a mirror, the curve of her belly just beginning to show beneath her shirt. He flipped over to his messages and scrolled back through their conversation to find a link to the form. Opening it, he paged through to find her signature. It was the same as it had always been in the time he had known her, the same as her hand written signature, on the rare occasions when she used it. It was dated to the previous week. He skipped back through several blocks of dense legal text, then closed it. He turned off his handheld and set it down on the shelf beside the bunk. Rolling over, he pulled the blankets up to his chin and closed his eyes.
The fabric smelled faintly of cigarettes and shampoo. He could hear the fan, humming away in an empty kitchen, the rustle of the papers stacked up under the open window, a train whooshing down the high-speed track outside. Somewhere, someone was playing music. Far off down a distant hallway, a door slammed shut, the sound echoing through the concrete bones of the building.
Pushing down the blankets, Michael rolled back over and reached for his handheld. He opened the form again, found the signature prompt, and clicked on it. The options were Sign and Exit. He selected sign. Please note that once certified and sent, all contracts are binding and final. If you wish to contact a lawyer, click here, and we will send your request on to one of our charitable contacts. Would you like to continue without the help of a lawyer? He selected Yes and a box appeared, waiting. His finger hovered over the screen.
Tap, his signature filled the empty space.
Confirm. Confirm. Initial. Confirm. Submit.
The form disappeared, replaced by a bright blue notification box containing a single line of white text.
Form submitted. Return to inbox?