Category Archives: Fiction Writing

For the Children

*Author’s Note: This is a short story I wrote several years ago. I didn’t try incredibly hard to publish it conventionally. With the recent pandemic it seems, at least as far as fiction is concerned, apropos.

Ironic that a man of Adam W. Walsh’s virility should live in such a sterile apartment. But that was the requirement of an Achromatin-contributing Fertility Assurance Specialist. Known to the public as a second man, one of the few things Adam still liked about his job was the acronym of his official title, AFAS. He’d been half-assing it for months. No, not a job. It had become his life, the purpose of his entire existence that not only informed every decision, but made them for him. Sterility of environment was mandated by legislation passed without a single dissenting vote in either house. A law now ensured by daily compliance reports and monthly inspections. Such was life for a second man employed by a government-accredited fertility assurance agency operating in The United States. Promoting their commitment to employing only disease free second men was critical not just to avoid bureaucratic inquiry, but to maintain the reputation the corporation had struggled to build in the first years after it was discovered that universal infertility had a work-around.

Just as well that he was scheduled for his bi-weekly drug screening and CBC. 

“We are the protectors of progeny.”

He smirked. The company motto used to inspire him. Now it sounded in his ears like a death knell. A vestigial phrase that meant something to those seeking the company’s services though it had become a sappy reminder of a gift stolen by necessity to become a burden of responsibility for him.

Through the long, window-lined hallway from his bedroom to the immaculate kitchen, he shuffled his bare feet along the polished marble tiles. He paused at the center of the hall and leaned his forehead against the clear pane, gazing at the waking city twenty floors below. Cars and trucks shuffled from one street to another, pausing at intersections or train tracks as electric rail-cars zipped by with their morning commuters. 

The soft hiss of the coffee maker spewing hot water to percolate through the filter drew his attention. He made his way to the kitchen and then, with a steaming mug, to the balcony. The crisp morning air refreshed him as he sipped his morning pick-me-up. He rested his elbows on the thick, concrete rail and peered at the park across the street. The slim brunette that looked so good in those athletic pants wasn’t out today as usual, jogging around the park. He scanned the perimeter of the green-space, ignoring the handful of sullen walkers and their restless dogs. Several men and women in business attire hurried along the sidewalk, a briefcase in one hand and to-go latte in the other. He raised his own mug in a silent cheers—to living—and took a slurping sip.

Oh, that was new. A man and woman, with a small child in pink pants and coat toddled between them as they crossed the grassy field toward a seldom-used swing set. They each held one of the child’s up-stretched hands and every few steps lifted her from her feet to swing the child playfully. Over the din of morning traffic, he thought he heard a squeal of delight from the girl. Despite his mood, he grinned, wondering if that child could be one for which he was responsible. It was possible but unlikely. Not since the Same City Proscription. That was, what, five years ago? This toddler was no more than three. Could have moved here from elsewhere.

Adam shrugged. Did it really matter? Life was his responsibility, not living. But was the former worth it without the latter?

He left the half-finished mug on the rail and grabbed his gym bag from the entry-way bench and slipped out he door. Rather than the elevator, he opted to take the twenty-one floor descent via the stairs. At the emergency exit on the ground floor, he hesitated, nearly giving in to the impulse to push his way out, set off the fire alarm, and make his mandated, morning cardio a jog along Denver’s streets. The impulse had become habitual just as had his response. Habit and duty always won out, and he made the turn down the final flight.

After changing into blue shorts, a Stanford t-shirt, and his running shoes, he stopped at a fountain and filled his water bottle. It took half-of-the bottle to wash down his morning regimen of vitamin supplements before he trudged to the treadmill. Several coworkers were already there, going through their regular workouts for the day. 

“Hey, Adam!” 

He turned in the direction of the voice and waved.

“Adam—THE FIRST MAN! ADAM!” His coworker, Paul, flexed obnoxiously but in that easy manner that pretended to nothing. “Here early as usual.” 

He grinned and shook his head dismissively as he scanned the other weight machines. “Where’s Ramon? He’s usually the first one here.”

Paul, short and slightly balding, always wore a friendly smile. Even if he felt lonely most of the time, Paul was one of the few coworkers Adam really did like. “He’s out today. They sent him hopping from here to K.C. to Nashville to Miami. He should be back by Saturday.”

Adam placed his water bottle in its holder on the treadmill. “Did one of the others fall through or something?”

Paul rubbed at his shoulder. “I guess. I think the scheduled second was out of D.C. or Dallas, but they came down with something. You know how some of the clients are. No matter what the science says, they still think they need the right ethnicity to make it work.”

“No kidding.” He stepped onto the treadmill and pressed the quick-start button. “I could use a vacation, to tell you the truth.”

Throwing his head back, Paul offered up a hearty laugh. “Man, we are way-too in-demand to get a vacation right now. Maybe after next year. At least that’s what Director Jeffs mentioned last week. He was just speculating, but—really? You want a break?”

Focussing on the treadmill settings, Adam feigned casual indifference. “I guess I’m feeling worn out.”

“You’re strong as a horse and look like a male super model. With your pedigree, you get twice as many requests as the next two of us combined.” 

Adam sneered as Paul shook his head. “If they could get a personality screening, the clients would choose you and Ramon a hell of a lot more often than me.”

“Nature and nurture, my friend. Some things can’t be nurtured, like your traps and IQ.” Paul patted his shoulder.  “Seriously, you won the genetic lottery at birth and after the sterilization.”

The belt of the treadmill sped up to a fast walk. “To each his own, I guess.”

The short balding man rapped his hands on the machine. “Alright, buddy. Count your blessings, that’s what I say. You could be crawling around through crawl-spaces fixing AC duct work. Believe me, that’s not pleasant in the Alabama heat.”

He smiled and plugged his earbuds in his ears as Paul trotted off to another weight station. Tuning the audio to television number two—CNNAdam settled into an easy jog. As a commercial break touted the protectors of progeny, he scanned the room, remembering the days he got to work-out in gym with men and women. He hoped those days would return. Soon.

“We’re back with the latest on President Warren’s bill proposed last week,” the nasal voice of the male co-host of the network morning show, Drew Lambert, spoke in his ears.

He trained his eyes on the screen as Megan Lynn, the network’s political analyst, chimed in. “Yes, Drew. The Freedom of Fertility Act may get its day on the house floor after all. Despite push-back from house republicans, a coalition of democrats and socially-conscientious republicans are banding together to at least give this bill a chance for debate. And they hope to get it through committee and onto the actual floor during the waning weeks of this session of congress.”

Co-host, Gennifer Carmike, gestured with an open hand. “Megan, if this bill passes congress, what would it mean?”

Megan nodded. “Genniefer, many experts on both sides already think that such a presumption is, just that, presumptuous. A spokesman for AFAShas been quoted as saying, ‘The measure won’t get through committee any easier than an embryo can implant in a womb without a viable second man.’ And that is what democrats seem to be scrambling for right now, a viable second manfor their legislation at the last hour. Some hope the President may come forward and openly support the measure. But for now, we are left with a fertility industry in this country that is almost completely in the hands of corporations—”

“That’s not true,” Glen Dawson, the ultra-conservative analyst butted-in. “There are no laws restricting the industry from entrepreneurs. There are hundreds of agencies around the country offering fertility services.”

Red-faced, Megan Lynn pointed at Glen’s chest. “Maybe there should be. Legitimate companies—those certified by the Department of Health and Human Services—are pricing their services out of reach of anyone who isn’t wealthy. Smaller companies are uncertified. We are even seeing the rise of black-market fertility and STD’s.”

“When the risk of pregnancy goes down, the incidence of STD’s are bound to rise as well. You free-lovers can’t have it both ways?” Glen threw his hands up with a smug grin. “And why should we fear competition from small business? Isn’t that another one of your special classes that need all-sorts-of government protection? A surge in entrepreneurism without bureaucratic regulation! Free-markets at their best.”

“Wait, wait,” Gennifer interjected, “this has nothing to do with free-markets or government control. This has to do with protecting the gene pool and the health of mothers and babies. This has to do with ensuring the perpetuation of the human race.”

Drew shot a scathing look at Glen. “It almost sounds as if you don’t know remember what happened not long ago. Our species survived the most destructive epidemic known in the history of man.”

Glen folded his arms. “Gennifer, why don’t you leave science to the scientists and medicine to physicians. People can decide what service they want to use.”
“That has nothing to do with it,” Megan cut in. “STD rates are higher in low-income populations then they’ve ever been.”

Glen scoffed. “And teen pregnancy rates and abortions are effectively at zero.” He held up his hand and peered down a tunnel made with his fingers and thumb. “But that has nothing to do with a decrease in sexual activity. If anything, that has skyrocketed to obscene levels.”

Megan gestured as if trying to calm Glen down. “We all agree that rampant sex is a public health problem. But when any Tom, Dieter, or Henry can advertise themselves as a second man, regardless of whether or not it’s true, couples desperate for a child and for money are getting swindled. And they are getting swindled in a very personal way.” 

“And the answer is to nationalize the fertility industry? Like India and Brazil have done? You want to show me how that has turned out for the better for their citizens?” Glen rolled his eyes. “And let’s not pretend that these certified companies have a perfect track record.”

“You’re not suggesting that they are fraudulent?” Drew’s mouth was agape.

“I’m suggesting that they are not perfect. They don’t have a one hundred percent success rate.” Glen smirked.

“If you are so concerned about perfect results,” Gennifer snarled, “perhaps you would like to explain your support for the appropriations bill that would have cut all funding to researchers trying to find an alternative to second men?”

“I never said I was interested in perfect results.” He scowled. “My primary interest is in protecting freedom.” 

“Is conceiving children a right?” Megan raised a firm, silencing hand as Glen tried to spew a reply. “Let me finish. We are heading toward a society where only the wealthy can propagate. Poor and low income people would not only take risks that result in early death, they might be bred out of existence because—if you can imagine it—they can’t afford to breed.”

Drew added quickly, “I agree. Fertility isn’t a scarce resource. It is limited, but why should it only be available to the rich?”

“So this bill, if passed, would effectively make the fertility industry a government-run service.” Gennifer read from notes in her hand. “Would taxes pay for the service for anyone who would qualify? Would there be qualification criteria or standards?”

Megan nodded. “Yes and no. Right now, credentialed providers are not required to service anyone with a venereal disease. President Warren’s bill would require health exams—offered for free at city, county, and state clinics—for anyone who applies as well as ensuring that they are in an emotional and financial position to provide for a child.”

Glen scoffed. “The government would get to say who can have a child and who can’t. Even fewer women would become pregnant, and only the upper class would qualify for the service anyway. After you take away all those with no STD’s, history of drug use, and with means to provide for a child, you eliminate the poor anyway. The market does that already but keeps the door open for them to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps.”

Gennifer nearly leapt over the half-moon shaped table. “That is blatant classism!”

“Blatant! You want to—”

Adam switched the channel. Anything but pundits arguing about whether or not he should become a compulsory employee of the state. It landed on coverage of the Kentucky Derby. A sports anchor was talking about last years Triple Crown winner, Speed of Sound. The heralded bay had gone on to command stud fee’s in excess of $350,000. 

He smiled despite himself. Amongst humans, he was a Triple Crown winner. Destined or doomed as a result of winning several genetic races that only one in one-hundred thousand had won.

Thirty minutes of cardio and another thirty minutes of weights were not enough to distract him. He logged his time with the attendant and trudged to the elevator, closing his eyes and taking slow deep breaths as he rode to the top floor.

He made an organic, nutritional breakfast shake as he cooled off, and took it to the round, glass table. He sipped, staring at the empty seat across from himself, straining to remember when it was last filled. Maybe Paul or Ramon? And then just for a drink and to watch a few games during March Madness? Never a girl. He hadn’t had a romantic relationship since college. Six years in this sterile prison. Discovery of his “gift” at the mercy of a compulsory government screening for viable second menthe selective service for the war of his generation. Maybe all generations. The only war that could truly end all wars.

He chuckled, remembering Ramon’s take, “The sex-lective service.”

Of course, the monetary compensation was incredible. If he invested well, his great-great-great-great grandchildren would never have to work a day of their lives, inflation notwithstanding. The irony was that as active as he was, he may still never have a kid. Each month’s mandatory recuperation week came and went. The lights of Paris, Tokyo, and Dubai. The ancient serenity of Machu Picchu, Rome, and Athens. The gardens of Babylon. The art of Vienna. The tranquility of the Himalayas, Patagonia, and Denali. In six years he’d seen the world on the company dime and done a great service to his species in the process. But he was alone.

It wasn’t as if he couldn’t get a woman. With the fear of unwanted pregnancy almost completely eliminated, some women were more aggressive than ever. And they loved him. He felt like James Bond in Monte Carlo. Money to throw around, a mandated physique that came naturally as did his sexiest-man-alive good looks. But as soon as they found out what he did, their smiles faded and their flirtations gave way to subtle excuses or sudden headaches. He was chewed gum to them. No one wanted chewed gum, did they? Especially gum chewed over and over and over by dozens each month.

He could have a relationship. Some of his coworkers were married, but most of them had started off that way. Their wives accepted their fate as the spouse of a second man. Who wouldn’t? After all, it was for the good of mankind, wasn’t it? And the income! Like a rock star who has to submit to weekly drug and disease testing. The perfect man.

But what really made a man perfect? Looks. Money. A good heart? He wasn’t perfect. He was alone. All he really wanted was someone to talk to. Someone to share his deepest thoughts. Someone where sex didn’t get in the way of the relationship but was a part of it all-the-same. Six years ago, he wouldn’t have cared. But now, he wondered if it was even possible. The way things were wasn’t just due to the conditioning by zealots, it was the reality of everyone’s life.

He focussed on the patter of warm water against the glass, shower door and the soft gurgle as it drained. The steam helped settle his mind and, after a scandalously long repose, he made his way to the fourth floor and signed in at the nurses’ station for his blood draw. He was called back immediately by Rachel, a young RN that always had a flirtatious way about her. Attractive, fun and intelligent, yet Rachel couldn’t date anyone who worked for the company. It was part of her employment contract, as it was his.

“Adam!” Her voice had a light southern drawl that drew him in. She grinned in her usual manner, touching his arm in an interested way. 

He was ashamed that she knew so well the details of what he did. She’d known it for over four years. Details he’d never tell his mother and only vaguely revealed to his company therapist. “Good morning, Rachel. Lovely as always.”

She tilted her head and offered a sideways smile, her ponytail swinging as she did so. “Oh, Adam. You know it’s just not meant to be.”

Adam nodded and plopped into the chair, setting his left elbow in the padded arm rest. “The new normal, I guess.”

Rachel tightened a latex band around his bicep, and he flexed a little. She chuckled and cleaned the soft bend in his elbow with an alcohol wipe. “You know, I know you all are supposed to work out but you have some of the best veins. They could be a wonder of the nursing world.”

“I’m glad you like them.” He clenched his fist as she prepared the needle.

“Tell me, then, where did they have you last week.” She inserted the needle and placed the first vial.

He didn’t even wince. “You know, you’re getting pretty good at this. I hardly noticed.”
“Hardley?” she responded with a hint of bruised pride. “I guess I should practice more.”
“That’s why I’m here.” 

Undoing the rubber band on his bicep, she repeated, “Now, where were you last week?”

She had the locations right there in his chart, but he knew she was trained to distract during blood draws. “I had a crazy hop into Fairbanks on Monday and on to Anchorage the next night. Two days off and a then a double in Seattle. Back on Saturday night.” 

“And this week?” She changed vials without glancing up.

“Rachel, you know all this. Why do you ask?”

She peered up at him, her flirtatious smile back. “I’m supposed to ask.”

He sighed and closed his eyes. “I know I’m starting out in Salt Lake City tomorrow. From there I’m not really sure.”

She removed the last vial, the needle, and placed a bandaid. “Here you go, Adam.” She stoppered the vials, stuck the printed labels on them, and stood. “It’ll be fifteen minutes in the lab. Do you want to wait?”

He nodded, resting his chin on his palm.

“Okay. Doctor—” She glanced at the chart, “Brookings will be here once he’s finished, it’s been a light morning. Shouldn’t be long. By the way, what does the “W” stand for?”

“Weary,” he said, wiping his mouth with his hand and smiling. Seemed sinisterly ironic that his middle name was Wood. But whichever grandfather took it as a surname couldn’t have known anymore what the future held than the parents who gave it to him at birth.

She put her hand on her hip and cocked her head to the side, furrowing her brow.

“That’s all you get from me until we go on a date.” He grinned, sharing his perfect teeth.

She blushed and bit at her bottom lip. “Fine. Mister Walsh. The doctor will be with you shortly.”

As the door closed, he peered through it to watch her ponytail bounce while she walked down the hall. He followed her with his gaze until the sealing door cut-off his view with a metallic thud. The latest copy of The New York Times caught his eye from where it sat on the table beside him. 

One headline was for an opinion piece titled, A View of the Apocalypse. Though he’d never been particularly religious, he opened to the editorial. This guest editorial came as a contribution from one Reverend Malcom Bidwell of Rogers, Arkansas.

It is in these sobering times that I feel the most appropriate salutation one can offer to their fellow men and women is the euphemistic title of Brother or Sister. Indeed, our species—the divine offspring of the great and powerful creator—has stood at the precipice of extinction and viewed our lonely, inescapable annihilation. Not through a glass darkly, but face to face with the end itself. But our Great God has seen fit to show us the way. Our Master has calmed the tempest and taken our stone hearts as he once did his Rock—by the hand—to lift us from the cresting waves where our heads had gone below.

Some would say—indeed have said—that this is the just punishment of a just God upon a wicked and fallen generation that has chosen in the face of all His gracious blessings, to call good “evil” and evil “good”. An age of the world where those with itching ears and stiff necks incline their praise not to the good grace of God but to the power of the arm of flesh. Indeed, we have put darkness for light and light for darkness. The wicked prosper and the voices of the righteous are lost to the clamor of unbridled and unchecked relativism.

Others have said that our current situation is the result of God showing us that his foolishness is greater than the wisdom of men. We are being given a lesser law to prepare us for the goodness and greatness that is to come in His due time.

Cults are crying out in a loud voice with their forked tongues that their revelations and their revelators set the example of polyandry over two-hundred years ago. Those among us most dedicated to the good, and pure, and only Word of God have seen fit to declare the rapture is complete and we are suffering the burnings of our final days with the burden of choosing between an unchanging God’s commands and the adulterous act that we find necessary to perpetuate our species. But we are no menial animalia, we are the offspring of God! And if children, then heirs of God if so be that we suffer with Him.

If the apocalypse is upon us, we can see God’s hand in it, and His wisdom in declaring to us that the wicked will be destroyed by fire. Perhaps the gates of hell will open to receive the wicked in this time as fire falls from the sky and surges from the growing pressure beneath. But, as I see it, the true disciple will keep all of God’s commandments with faith, for his word is sure and his course everlasting. The follower of Jesus Christ will live as long as he or she may in obedience, holding out for the grace of God that is in Christ, Jesus, our Lord. 

The fires of hell do not burn about us, above us, or below us. They burn within us. They burn for the man or woman who gives up faith that the fire of lust and the flame of fearful iniquity lead us to do that which has been forbidden for the followers of God since the beginning. And, I know that the jealously of a good husband and the shame of an innocent wife burn all the hotter when we listen to man’s counsel. 

Those who, with good intentions, seek out these so-called second men have shown their indifference to God. I do not apologize for the innuendo in saying that such souls have indeed put their trust in the arm of flesh.

“Good morning, Adam,” Doctor Brookings ambled into the room, his white lab coat swaying as he walked. “How are you feeling?”

“Decent,” Adam placed the newspaper on the table beside him.

Doctor Brookings glanced over his wire-rimmed glasses and pointed toward the newspaper. “I read that, too. I remember a day when the New York Times would never have run an editorial like that.”

Adam nodded. “What did you think about it?”
“Not much.” He scanned the papers he held. “I’ll tell you what I do know. This fifth generation Zika virus was no act of God or men. Nature had its day. One-hundred percent infectivity of the world within three years. Death rate less than one percent. Complete infertility as we knew it.”

He’d heard it all before, but somehow it still felt like a dream. Hearing it from his physician somehow settled him into reality.

Brookings cleared his throat. “Your labs look great. The model of health.” 

Adam lifted his shirt as the doctor inserted the buds of a stethoscope into his ears. Brooking spoke between listening to his breathing with the cold instrument on his back and chest. “My wife and I finally got past it and hired a second man.” 

Quiet pause.

“Of course, the company provides one for us. No waiting list, no nothing.”

Pause.

“She picked a guy, a lot like you, out of the Miami center.”

Pause. He removed the stethoscope from his ears and tossed it casually over his neck. “He was a really great fellow. Very professional. I think the board has done a great job securing the best seconds out there and getting them under one roof. Present company included.”

Adam found a tongue depressor in his mouth and penlight waving from his mouth to nose to eyes. “We still don’t know why it takes copulation to make it work. All those samples you boys provide on your off-weeks? Those go straight to Philly for that research.”

He stood, pushing the small, rolling stool back with his calves as he came to his feet. “I know some of you would hate to be out of a job. This is a pretty good gig for the one in a hundred-thousand that can do it.”

“Is the ratio that low?” Adam tugged his shirt down.

“It’s actually one in ten-thousand but only one in a hundred qualify under the government guidelines and fewer meet our own strict protocols.” He checked some boxes on the notes. “I don’t see you’re due for any vitamin injections. You eat pretty healthy anyway, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir. Always have.”

“Athlete?”

“Volleyball, in college. Almost made the olympic team before the outbreak.”

Brookings removed his glasses and peered at Adam. “No kidding? That’s a shame. Well, being a second man is no bad gig.”

Sure. Being a perpetual runner-up. Always coming in second. “Thanks, Doc. I’ll see you in a week.”

“Sure thing, Adam.” Brookings whistled as he disappeared down the hall.

*   *   *   *   *

“Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam——shame!”

Yup, it was Leonard. Why did it have to be Leonard.

A hand clapped him hard on the shoulder. “How are they hangin’ my second brother?”

He closed his eyes, subduing a full-body wince. “Just getting some grub before I board. Airport food does a body good.”

A leather bag plopped to the floor and a coworker that looked oddly like Napolean Dynamite in a button up Hawaiian shirt collapsed in the seat across from him. Well, a Napoleon Dynamite that had found a professional stylist to help his image. “Where you off to this week?”

“Salt Lake City tomorrow and the rest of my itinerary is still on its way. Who knows,” he grinned mischievously, “Maybe just one hop this week.”

“OoooooOOOO oo! Be careful in Utah, my friend. I had a husband watch there once.” He nodded, an incredulous look in his eye. “Sat there beside the bed for the whole thing. He insisted on it. Garret and Blake had the same thing happen. Guess where? Utah and Idaho—but close enough you could spit into Utah if you wanted to.”

Adam shrugged. “So what. You love a woman and committed your life to her? As hard as it may be to see that, I’d imagine even y—most decent husbands would consider doing the same.”

“Maybe.” He trailed off, scratching his head and pushing his glasses back up his nose. A grin flashed on his face and he leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “You ever get to go on an international call?”

Chewing his salad as he nodded, took a long drink of water, and wiped his mouth. “Every couple of months. Canada. England. France. Germany. These days, they’ll only let us go to Canada, Australia, and Europe anyway.”

Leonard’s grin melted to a frown. “I thought South Africa was still open?”

“Nope, closed it a year ago. Malaria and a couple of other things.”
“There’s immunizations for that.”

“Too risky. Mutations in the virus, I think. Rachel was explaining it to me a few months ago.” He smiled to himself.

“Whoa. Whoa, buddy. Back up the cart! You and her?” Leonard wore a disgusted sneer.

“Me and her? Of course not. Like you, I happen to see her every week because of my job.”

“And you talk to her?” He wiped casually at his nose with the back of his arm and gave an anemic snort. “Man, she is way too intimidating.”

“You don’t talk with her?”

Leonard scoffed. “I don’t talk to anyone, let alone pretty girls. But,” he gestured up and down at Adam with an open hand, “look at you. Girls were never a problem for you.”

“Oh? Okay.” Forget about it. 

Leonard’s wide eyes bored into him. “Why do I get the feeling you don’t like this job?”

Adam set down his fork and shrugged. “It’s your feeling. You tell me?”

The lanky man sagged back in his chair, arms thrown wide in frustration. “Dude, it’s totally obvious. You won the friggin’ lottery and you act like you’re getting shipped off to Auschwitz!”

Adam set his eyes on Leonard in a scathing rebuke. “That’s not funny.”  

The peevish man held his hands up defensively. “Lighten up and enjoy yourself.” He leaned forward, wagging a slender finger at Adam. “One of these days, those guys in Philly are gonna figure it out and you and me are gonna be out of a job.”

Rolling a straw on the table with his fingers, he sucked at his bottom lip. “So what? We’re rich as rock stars.” He folded his arms over his chest. “Can’t come soon enough, if you ask me.”

Leonard stepped his glasses up the bridge of his nose with several short, rabbit-like wrinkling movements. “I agree it’s odd in this day and age, with all the medical and biotech in the world, that they haven’t figured out how to put us out of a job. The one’s I meet, I’m sure they’d prefer a doctor’s hand over our services any day.”

“When that day comes, I think I’ll be happy for a chance at a normal relationship.”

“You’re one of the good looking ones. You don’t know how hard it was for some of us?” He sat tall, a smug look on his face. “I know you wouldn’t believe it, but back in high school, I was a total nerd.”

Adam suppressed a smile and, instead forced a feigned expression of shock.

“Yeah, yeah. I know! Dungeons and Dragons and RPG’s, the whole nerd thing, man.” He jabbed a thumb into his own chest. “Now, I get paid. I’m helping myself, and I’m helping humanity. God! We’re like fireman! Saving the world!”

“Seems to me we’re like chemotherapy. A repulsive and degrading treatment. Keeps life going but at a huge cost.” 

Leonard scoffed. “Why do you do it then? Can’t you just quit. Go into hiding somewhere?”

Returning a scoff, Adam sighed. “I feel some sense of duty, too. I hope what I’m doing is good. We do offer hope to people. And there are so few of us—one in a hundred thousand are suitable candidates. That’s three-thousand men at most in this country.”

“Man.” He scanned him up and down as if seeing him for the first time. “I’m the nerd here but you! You must be like a stiff board for those women!”

“You’re an ass, Leonard.” He stood, gathering the remains of his dinner. “We have a job to do for desperate people. You think those women and couples that call us like the fact that they need us have a baby? They ever invite you out for dinner afterward? You get Christmas cards from anybody?”

“Simmer down, Adam. Let a man like his job!” He brushed at his hair and exhaled through his lips like a horse. “Gosh, I thought jocks were all balls and no brain.”

“That’s why you’ve got the worst reviews of anybody still employed, Leonard. You’re lucky they don’t publish those in the brochure or NO ONE would request you. That’s why your rate will never get above the minumum. You’re a selfish, inconsiderate prick.”

“God! Shut the hell up! I follow the script just like everyone else!” Leonard was halfway to a fetal position. “You think we’re seconds, but we aren’t. We’re not runners-up. They depend on us! We make it happen. We’re really the primary, even if we are not the first.”

“In twenty years, we won’t be needed anyway.” Adam shouldered his carry-on and trudged toward his gate, offering a one-finger salute over his shoulder to Leonard. 

He boarded the ERJ-175 with the first class passengers though this short flight really had no first-class cabin. The hop was barely an hour from gate to gate but, just like most outbound flights in the last couple of years, he removed a leather portfolio from his carry-on and opened it. 

A faded picture, its corners worn, hung inside the front cover. The pages were smooth, plastic sleeves. He thumbed through the handwritten messages the sleeves protected. 

Cards. 

Paper in blue, pink, and yellow. Some bore blotched ink and stained paper where tears had fallen. Some also had pictures. Photos of infants, of families. He grinned at the black and gold card with a photo of twins in matching blue onesies that each said Daddy’s Soccer Star.

Few clients sent letters. He understood. His father had been a dentist and a damn good one. He heard from someone nearly every week growing up about how much they appreciated and respected his father, but in forty years, the old man had only gotten a handful of written letters to say thank you. And he cherished every one of them. Professionals don’t work for compliments even if they try to earn them. 

Some of Adam’s clients had sent more than one. The subsequent cards usually provided updates on the child’s birthdays. They were consistently expressions of gratitude and they were always awkward. But in that awkwardness, he sensed the genuineness of the gesture. These clients sensed how difficult the process was not just for themselves, but for him. 

As usual, he thumbed to the end. The purple card with the cherubic face of a newborn, eyes closed tight against the harsh newness of light. He brushed his fingertips lightly over the plastic protection and took a deep breath.

God gave us Hope when he sent you to us.

And though we held her and loved her for but a few hours

God needed her home, a rose amongst His flowers.

We cannot measure, nor dare we guess

How her moment in our arms o’ercomes all the grief.

Thanks to you, we have Hope forever, be the memory brief.

*    *   *   *   *

Adam glanced at his vibrating phone and slid the red icon across the screen, “Hi, Mom.”

“Hi, honey,” she said in her perpetually hoarse voice.

“Asthma still a problem?” He said, glancing upward at the tall glass building. The buildings of AFAS remained unmarked after several religious groups threatened violent reprisals against them and one bomb was unsuccessfully deployed near their Chicago office. 

“Oh, you know doctors. They can’t seem to figure anything out these days.”

He rolled his eyes, dismissing the quip about the medical professions failure to remedy the current infertility epidemic. “Yeah.”

“Where are you this week?” the question seemed to linger like air freshener in a recently and desperately used lavatory. He knew what ruminated beneath her words.

Kicking at the side of the building, he shrugged. “Nowhere, Mom.”

“They don’t have you out somewhere dishonoring your family, faith, and morality?”

He twisted the mic on his phone up, away from his mouth and nose, and took a deep breath. After a weary exhale, he dropped the mic back to his lips. “Is this why you called?”

“You didn’t have to answer.” He sensed she wanted to say more, and remained silent through her pause. “Maybe that’s why you answered. You don’t always.”

Forcing his voice to stay calm, he said, “If I’m near my phone I always answer when you call.” He felt himself half-frown thinking about Rachel. You are the only woman I have, Mom.

“Is that right?”

“Because of you and dad, Toby never calls. Samantha’s husband won’t let her have contact with me. You all disowned Cameron, and he won’t answer any of my calls or letters. Dad’s gone. Who am I supposed to talk to?”

A sniff, he was quite sure was not the result of her asthma, scratched though the earpiece. “We can love you without loving what you do.”

“Tell that to Toby. Convince Jarod so he’ll let my sister call me. Reach out to Cam and tell him you love him.”

“Well—” her voice trailed off.

“Then at least tell him I had nothing to do with it all. I have no one—”

She cut him off. “And don’t thin—”

He returned the favor, “and I’m under no delusion that these kids will fill in that space, Mom! I don’t expect them to! They aren’t mine!”

Feet scuffing on the concrete beside him drew his attention and an embarrassed blush. He mouthed, “sorry,” and turned back to face the glass paned building. 

“Honey, it’s just—”

“I’ll talk to you later, Mom.” His voice cracked. “I love you.”

He pressed the “end call” button a bit more forcefully than he would have liked. Fighting back stinging tears, he licked his teeth beneath his lip and rolled the phone over and over in his hand. Taking two deep breaths, he stood tall and stepped to the door. 

Rummaging in his pocket, he removed a photo key card and dangled it by the lanyard beside the black, key box. A green light flashed on the box. An audible click. And the door slowly slid open.

“Good evening, Adam,” the receptionist at their Salt Lake City bureau said with a smile. She was cute, with wire-rimmed glasses that refused to stay up on the bridge of her nose. Blonde hair fell in wide curls over her gray suit coat.

“Hi, Amina.” He raised his hand in a casual wave as the glass door clicked closed behind him.

She offered an empathetic pursing of her lips and pained squint, “Rough phone call?”

He hefted the phone, still in his hand, and shrugged. “Mom.”

Amina tried to stifle a disgusted expression. “Sorry.”

He shrugged again.

“And,” she started slowly, a hint of regret in her tone, “your clients’ flight was delayed. They won’t be here until midnight.”

Relief flowed over him like cool water on a scorching summer day. “Just as well, I suppose.”

“Good thing your schedule is open.”

He tapped his phone and glanced at the screen then back to Amina. “What time do you get off?”

“Without them showing up,” she said, glancing up and to the left with a contemplative brow raise, “five.”

He wagged his phone as if she could read it. “That’s fifteen minutes. Want to get some dinner with me?”

Amina adopted a conspiratorial smile and bit at her lower lip—just like Rachel. “Well,” she drew out the word.

“My treat.” She smiled again. “You show me the place, I’ll pay. Any price, as long as we can walk there.”

She leaned forward, her white blouse with the top two buttons undone billowed downward, revealing a bit more than he wanted to see. “Business related, of course.

Wow. This one went from zero to sixty fast. He forced his own voice to remain coy, not wanting to deceive her at all. “Just two friends from work.”

She nodded, her curls sliding over her shoulder to bounce around her flawless face as if framing her portrait in a glistening, blonde frame.

He hefted his bag. “Let me drop this in my suite, and I’ll meet you down here at five?”

She nodded again, and he made his way to the elevator in a corridor behind the reception desk. Was this a bad idea? He chuckled aloud and though he heard her chair creek. His whole life was a bad idea.

As the doors to the elevator slid shut, he thought he heard a whisper from Amina’s direction. “Yeah, the really handsome one! He asked me to dinner. I know its—”

The sealing doors cut her off. He almost smiled, but his sinking stomach took away the pleasure of flirtation. They were coworkers, after all. 

*   *   *   *   *

When he returned to the reception desk, Amina leaned back against the desk with her feet crossed. Her heels accentuated the curves of her slender legs that disappeared at the knee under a dark-blue, pencil skirt. Her white, silk blouse, no longer hidden beneath the gray blazer, hung gratifyingly over her young, full breasts which she seemed determined to show off with her back subtly arched and her hair pulled back in a messy but undeniably sexy bun. 

He refrained from rolling his eyes, glad to have feminine company for an evening, and offered a genuine smile. Sliding his hands into his jeans pockets, he gestured with his head to the exit. “Where did you decide to go?”

With sultry, cat-like grace, she pushed up from the desk and glided to him, taking his arm with her hand. “Oh, I don’t want to go anywhere fancy. There’s a Brazilian place just a couple of blocks from here.” She raised her heel from the ground and glanced over her shoulder. “And walking anywhere in these isn’t much fun.”

He pulled his gaze from her exposed leg, and smiled. “Sounds good to me.”

As they made their way down the busy sidewalk, bustling with workers headed home from work, Amina squeezed his arm. “So, you’re from Denver?”

Oh, I wish she was that receptionist from Albuquerque. Just a nice smile and good conversation and not trying for anything. “That’s where I’m based out of, sure. But I was born and raised in Oregon.”

“Oh, I love Denver! I’ve thought about moving there a few times. I have friends in Boulder.”

This time, he did roll his eyes. Everyone had friends in Boulder. “What about you?”

“From here. All my life.”

He nodded, and she pulled him around a corner. “This place won’t be busy on Monday night. We’ll get a seat right away.”

“That’s nice. My last meal was an airport salad in Denver.”

“Eww!” She cringed, but her voice sounded a bit too much like a character from The Californiansin a Saturday Night Live sketch from years ago. 

He wanted to take her attention off of himself. Holding the door to the restaurant open, he said, “So, you must see a lot of guys come through from all over the place.”

“At least forty a week. In the winter and spring, I’ve seen a week with over two hundred.” 

“Wow,” he said with mock amazement. He knew the larger bureaus in New York and Houston averaged over three-hundred each week.

“Well, we’re nothing like the big cities.” She admitted, holding up two fingers to the hostess. 

Kari, the hostess’ name tag read, grabbed two menus, napkins, and utensils before leading them to a booth near the rear of the dining area. “What would you like to drink?”

“Water,” Adam answered on reflex.

Amina gave him a surprised, disappointed expression. “Just water?”

He glanced down at his menu and tried to speak with an indifferent tone. “For now.”

“I’ll start with a mojito.” Her expression remained conspiratorial. “And a water.”

Kari nodded and held up two fingers. “Two waters and a mojito?”

Amina’s glance practically begged him to order something stronger. He smiled at the hostess and handed her his menu. “That’s right. And I’m just going to do the works.”

“Me, too,” Amina said.

Kari smiled at Adam, and he suddenly wished he were at dinner with her instead. Frankly, he was afraid of what Amina might be like after her second cocktail.

Smiling warmly, he said, “Well, I feel like I haven’t had a real meal in ages.”

She seemed to flush at the comment, biting her bottom lip again. “I know what you mean.”

He was talking about food but might as well have been talking about something else—something Amina was thinking of. Trying to remain friendly, he stood and tapped the table. “Shall we?”

After filling the plates at the extensive salad bar, they returned to their table together and sat looking at their food. When a long moment passed, he picked up his fork. “I don’t say ‘grace’ or anything like that, but if you want to, I don’t mind.”

Amina shrugged to one side. “My family always did. I guess I do sometimes, but usually not in public.”

“Why would you change what you do in public?” He asked, setting down his fork.

“Oh, I don’t want to make others uncomfortable,” she said, her tone lacking confidence.

“If someone’s offended by you saying a prayer, that’s their problem, not yours.”

With her head slightly bowed, she rolled her eyes upward, peering at him from under her eyebrows. She smiled though he could barely see it. “Thanks…Dad.”

He snorted and she giggled in response. He held out his hands as if offering the table to her. “Please, the table is yours.”

Tipping her head side-to-side, she bowed it and softly mumbled something he could barely hear before raising her eyes to meet his own again. 

“Do you feel better?” he asked.

“Not really,” she said. 

The first unaffected thing she’d said to him since saying “hi” at his arrival. It seemed they may have passed through a wall and could simply talk. At least, he hoped they might.

“Well,” he mused, picking up his fork, “I do.”

She laughed aloud and he joined her in chuckling through a bolus of salad in his cheek, drawing a few curious and even irritated glances from around the room.

“Why do you think this bureau has so few calls compared to others?” He asked, mulling some Persian-inspired chickpea salad. “Other branches in similar cities like Portland and Tulsa are far busier.”

Taking a deep breath, Amina sighed. “I don’t know. My Dad thinks it’s a good thing, shows that people’s morals haven’t ‘gone to hell’ in this place. But he doesn’t say hell.” She almost choked on a cucumber as she laughed. When she recovered, holding a hand in-front-of her mouth to keep from spitting her food, she added, “He says ‘heck’.”

After along silence of eating, she asked, “What do you think will happen?”

“What do you mean?”

“To us?”

He raised his brow in question.

“Humans. Our species. What will happen to us?”

Wiping his lips, he took a sip of water and sat back to finish chewing whatever meat the server had just cut onto his plate. He swallowed. “Who’s to say?”

“Well, won’t our jobs become obsolete in a few years, when all the new babies being born are able to start having kids of their own without our services?”

“Maybe. We still don’t know if the virus’ affects will reach the next generation or not. And the virus is still out there. It didn’t go anywhere. We haven’t figured out an immunization for it yet. But even if the babies being born today can reproduce like we used to, it will be twenty more years before we could hope to be past this awful reality.”

“Awful?” her voice rose in genuine curiosity. “I mean, it’s kind of silly and maybe unpleasant but—well—you think this is awful?”

He shook his head subtly, unprepared for such a question. “What do you mean? You don’t?”

Her gaze travelled up and down as though she could also see through the table. “This must be a dream come true for you guys.”

“Why would you say that?” She was being genuine, but he was tired of this line of questioning. Maybe because he had the conversation with himself nearly every day.

“You get to—you know—” She stammered with a subdued pumping gesture of her fist. “All the time.”

“That sounds appealing to you?”

“Well, the culture I was raised in thinks that every man will have many wives in heaven and get to populate worlds. Men spend their whole lives doing what God wants so they can get this eternal sex life. Having babies forever is all that matters to them. If they don’t get that, it means they weren’t good enough people.”

“Your culture sounds like a sex cult.” He tried to give an apologetic, empathetic look with his eyes. “My job sounds like a sex cult.”

Her disgusted expression faded to a weary smile. “They both certainly do.”

Adam took a bite of grilled pineapple. “Do you flirt like this with all the seconds that come through here?”

Her head bowed with a shameful, shoulder shrug to mask her blushing cheeks. “Just the cute ones.”

“That’s a relief, I guess.” He sipped his water. “Maybe I should get a drink.”

She looked up carefully.

With the waiter passing by, he asked for a dirty martini then met her gaze. “I haven’t had a drink in months.”

She tossed her head a bit and raised her second mojito. “Is that so.”

“Who else?” He asked, finding himself suddenly enjoying the playful banter even if that’s all that it could be.

“Well,” she mused, “there’s you. Everyone knows about you.”

He nodded and rapped his fingers on the table.

“There’s a funny guy named Ramon, but I think he’s married.”

“Know him,” Adam added quickly. “He is. And his wife is amazing. She makes the best guacamole you’ve ever had.”

Amina’s face contorted in a disgusted, tongue-thrusting wretch. “I hate avacados.” When he didn’t answer, she added, “And there’s a spaniard, Emilio. All the ladies talk about him. From some town on the Mediterranean.”

Nodding, Adam said, “I know Emilio. Great guy! Always smiling. He’s from Murcia, actually, but his parents have a place on the Med. Been there twice. Quite the artist—sculptor—if you ever see him again ask him about his sculpture of a full set of teeth. Pretty incredible. And, he’s engaged to a really sweet señorita from Barcelona.”

She bit her lip—in disappointment this time. They went back to eating in silence for a few minutes. A child across the dining room caught his eye and he thought me recognized the parents, but those false-positives happened to him a lot these days. The child couldn’t have been more than eighteen months. Happy, giggling, and with a mess of processed food covering his chin, cheeks, and rolling down his bib.

Amina set her fingertips lightly on the back of his hand. “What are you thinking about?”

Only then did he realize he was staring. “I need a second man to have a baby, too, you know.”

Of course she knew, but suddenly, the flirtatious little girl gave way to a mature, empathic woman. “Do you know why?”

“They think competition or the threat of it is what motivates the embryo to finally implant. In vitro is usually ineffective without a second man, too. So I can fertilize an egg, but I still need that competition to make the embryo implant.”

“Is that hard?” Her tone was sweet, gentle, and kind.

“Of course not. It’s the way for everyone else, why not for me?” But there was resignation in his tone, not acceptance. “Simulation of a second man isn’t totally useless. Three to five percent of women will have successful gestations. But they find more spontaneous terminations of the fetus from it than are worth the risk.”

Amina stirred her potatoes about the plate. “It’s standard questioning now to ask if they’ve tried any simulated, secondary copulations in the last two weeks. They have to sign an affidavit that they have not and that we can’t be held liable for any failures due to their providing misinformation.”

“I hadn’t seen that.” Adam said.

She grinned and sat tall. “You don’t ask those questions. I do.”

“I passed a scraggly old man on my way to the Centre. He was holding a sign on the street that said,” he held up his hands as if unfailing a marque, “‘The Government Sanctions Adultery and calls it Good.’” He dropped his hands to his lap. “His other sign quoted the Bible, ‘In the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be Without natural affection, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. For of this sort are they which lead captive silly women with divers lusts, never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.’”

Amina reached out again and touched his hand. “Do you like what you do?”

He tipped his head side to side as he thought about what to say. “I used to. Thought I was the luckiest man alive.”

“What about now?”

He nodded toward the window where the infant sat in his high chair, trying to pick up a cooked carrot. “That’s what I like about it. But none of them are mine.”

“So, you’re not like some of them—a sailor, with a girl-in-every-port attitude about it?”

“You think these women like it? Their spouses and boyfriends don’t. Some women need a man they are attracted to, since they know it’s only physical. Some men can’t stand it to have a good-looking guy in my position.” He took another sip of his martini. “Besides, I can’t have a significant other.”

“Can’t you get married?” 

“Even if the company allowed new marriages, how could I date someone long enough to get that far? Women run away when they find out what I do. And I can’t lie about it.”

“I’m sorry, Adam.” Her concern was genuine. “I didn’t realize—”

“It’s not your fault, Amina.” They sat silently, trying to avoid eye contact. “Thanks for coming to dinner with me.”

“What would you change,” she started, “if you could.”

“I don’t know. I’m scared of some dick-congressmen in D.C. declaring me a slave of the state. My family all think that I’m the spawn of Satan. And I can’t have a girlfriend.”

“So, you want a girlfriend then?” She said with a teasing glint in her eye.

“I would.”

As if held back for hours, her breath rushed out in a giggling deluge. “That’s a relief.”

“What do you mean?” he let the derision ooze from his voice.

“Well, you’re cute and smart and fit. Some of the other ladies wondered if you are gay.”

Is that why you’re trying to seduce me? To win a bet or something?” He slid his chair back as if preparing to get up and leave.

Her hands flew out to stop him, “No! No, no, no, no, no. I am sosorry.”

“You know,” he said, chuckling in a sickly fashion, “Ten percent of seconds are homosexuals by nature. They’re great guys. Most of them a lot easier to be around than others.” He thought of Napoleon and sneered. 

Amina’s head hung shamefully and she twiddled her thumbs at the edge of the table.

“I always wanted to really understand my brother. He’s a gay man and a very good man. He is an addiction recovery counselor, works with homeless people not far from me. Does great things. I haven’t heard from him in years because of how my mother and brother treated him when he came out to them. He won’t return my calls, and I hardly blame him. He was told to live his life without acting on his natural affections. He was supposed to live alone, craving something he could never have so that his actions wouldn’t harm impressionable children. ‘You have to deny yourself for the sake of the children.’ Well, he found a great guy, I’ve actually spoken to him. But, until things change, I’ll never have what my brother has. And I am truly happy for Cam. But I’ll have to try to enjoy a counterfeit experience for real, emotional and physical companionship. All for the good of humanity. For the children.”

“I’m sorry.”

He took a deep breath and exhaled before speaking softly, “I can barely get it up these days.”

“We have meds for that.” He saw her cringe as she said it.

“Oh, I know. And I use them.”

“Adam, I don’t think this job sounds good for you. Why not get out?”

He shrugged pathetically. “I tried last year but they offered me a pretty big increase in salary. I had plenty of money, don’t know why I ever took it in the first place. Now, I have a contract through nextyear.”

“You can’t keep this up. Haven’t they caught this depression in a psych evaluation?”

“They’re not worried about me as long as I don’t hurt anyone else. They have enough to worry about with fundamentalist groups trying to sneak their people inside and video-taping the beheading of second men.”

Amina’s hand flew to her mouth. “My gosh!”

Gosh? 

“You didn’t know? We had a huge training on it. Happened in the Paris center. Apparently this is a new, radicalized-sanctioned form of jihad. The culture that results in Islamic countries is so opposed to this necessity, they want to wage an all-out war with their more liberal, fellow-believers and any others that are embracing such a wicked practice as ensuring the survival of the species. If they knew the names of any second men, there would be specific fatwahs declared against individuals.”

“That must be frightening.” She hadn’t touched her drink in a while.

He shrugged. “We don’t travel overseas like we used to. But we have plenty of hate from fundamentalist Christians in our own borders anyway so, what’s the difference?”

“Can I do anything?”

As her fingers settled on the back of his hand again, he felt a surge below his waist—no pill involved. She was practically begging him to spend the night with her, but he had to work tomorrow. Even if it were allowed, it wasn’t right. Besides, it couldn’t mean anything? She knew some of the real him, not the alias to which he must pretend with a client. 

He let go of her fingers and sat tall. As kindly as he could, he smiled. “Thanks for listening, Amina.”

She nodded, her brow furrowed slightly.

He met her gaze, the pressure within him dissipating and the dull, numbness returning. It could never work between he and anyone. Not right now. It wasn’t fair to the clients tomorrow. It wasn’t fair to Amina. His whole life wasn’t fair. He let her hand go with a wan smile, the smiling face of Rachel popping into his mind.

“I’m going to go for a walk.” He pushed his chair out and, with that same smile, tried to tell her that he was sorry and that this wasn’t her fault. “You’re very sweet. Don’t waste yourself for whatever you think we could be.”

“What about you?” she asked with a breathy voice.

“For now, it’s too late for me.” With a nod, he gestured to the family in the corner where the infant clumsily reached for a vegetable. “But, for now, I’ll be okay.”

Prisoners of Our Own Echo-Chambers

Have you ever watched a film or television show with a staunch Christian? I’ve watched many. Even the suggestion of sex produces tightly closed eyes, a turn of the head, and a comment like, “fast forward this!” Or, “let’s watch something else.” My favorite reaction is from an individual with whom I am well-acquainted. She is cautious regarding all topics that involve the perineum or breasts. Scandalous conversations such as the particulars of discomfort with wearing Mormon underwear or a nursing baby making a slurping sound. This woman, who neglected to even discuss menstral cycles or the birds and the bees with her daughters, can’t abide a mature discussion surrounding body image or marital intimacy. Her classic response is and always has been the passive-aggressive, “Can we talk about something else?”

So, consider television shows that depict the happenings of the Branch Davidians, news programs that expose Fundamentalist Mormons that continue to practice polygamy, or simply a fictional film depicting to loving adults sharing a kiss while lying on a couch? The Mormon mind is programmed to turn off, not allow itself to think and especially not to feel anything from these depictions or descriptions. Not only are Mormons under an injunction to “let virtue garnish [their] thoughts unceasingly” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:45) they have the condemnation from their merciful, forgiving Jesus in Matthew 5 that “that whoeverlooks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

They have countless sermons that extol the necessity of controlling their thoughts to the point that they subdue even the slightest infatuation. Those that entertain such thoughts are on the path to adultery, STD’s, unplanned pregnancy and, worst of all, hell itself. Such an addiction are the actions that come from sexual urges, that they are to be completely and utterly quelled. In marriage, it seems, there is license to pursue them with the spouse. A little software programming can be altered at will, but when the firmware is designed and programmed to shame and disgust at anything sexual, the resources to reprogram it are not to be had in Mormonism. 

Ultimately, this prevents the devout from confronting unfavorable realities. They don’t refuse to see the parallels of disgusting cult leaders on television and their own, revered leaders, they simply can’t. Their brain shuts off to avoid lustful thoughts, and their hearts seal out all natural feelings a typical human primate capable of empathy has to child rape or sexual coercion of one’s acolytes.   

I’m not suggesting that Mormon leaders program their adherents in this way to prevent members from contemplating the ironies that coincide with their own sordid history. The rational conclusion would be that they are simply continuing the puritanical ideals in which the church began. However, that does not defeat the fact that such training in children and childish adults works to keep them from feeling and understanding the reality of what Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other early church leaders did to their followers. 

If you won’t let yourself consider the plight of child brides amongst Fundamentalist Mormons in your own day, empathy for Helen Mar Kimball, fourteen-year-old bride to Joseph Smith. She only agreed after the Prophet promised that her marriage to him would ensure both she and her family eternal salvation. Others received similar promises and some threats of damnation if they did not. The same mind-forged manacle will not let them hear David Koresh convince his followers that he is to take the burden of sex for all the men to allow them to be celibate. 

Christopher Hitchens summarized a portion of Thomas Paine’s commentary on John Milton’s, Areopagitica, in a debate defending free speech. He said, “One of the vice’s of those who would repress the opinions of others is that they make themselves the prisoners of their own opinions because they deny themselves the right and the means of changing them.”

When we suppress speech or ideas that make us uncomfortable because they challenge our preconceptions and ardently-held beliefs, we make ourselves a prisoner of those beliefs. Such ideals are often indoctrinations we received as a child. And the means to changing or, at least, challenging them, is not to be found in a carefully constructed echo-chamber. 

Trial of Faith or Trial of Our Humanity

Before I stopped believing in Mormonism, I stopped believing in God–at least in the way Mormons claim Him to be. Fortunately, he seems to be essentially the same character in all monotheistic religions. Why not? They all find their roots in the Old Testament. I could see that trying to find a version of a truly loving and benevolent and omnipotent deity became a catch-22. I was dependent upon the ancient texts and their revelations of God’s character. Are we not taught–indeed preached to–that they are gods complete and final word on everything including himself?

I found one of the first books I chose to read after accepting my doubts regarding god quite by accident. In The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, he offers one of the most concise definitions of God yet given. It is a pleasing irony that the definition should come from an avowed atheist. And, in contrast to the faithful avowals of believers, is the only definition that seems entirely consistent with the sacred texts. Dawkins asserts, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

Perhaps the only point at which a believer could argue against this definition without coming across as ignorant of their own scripture, is Dawkins’ categorization of the Bible as “fiction.” A skeptic can no more prove it is a work of fiction than a believer can prove that it is. Though the evidence does not seem to tip in favor of believers, when they attempt to stand upon the claim that it is factual in content and factually God’s revealed word, they become hopelessly bound to the remainder of Dawkins definition with little recourse to changing a skeptical mind from the reality of it.

Rationality and integrity left me with only one viable option for belief–leave faith at the door if it comes to me unwilling or unable to show its credentials. 

I don’t know where I first heard this, though I’ve heard it from catholic, protestant, and mormon alike:  God put fossils in the ground to test our faith.

I don’t mind this type of imaginative apologetics. It’s creative and interesting. It may even be true.  When you tie your hands to an Earth that is roughly six-thousand years old, something has to give. Worse, when you tie your hands to the idea that god might command you to kill your own son to show your faith, this is a trivial, whimsical postulate. It’s not going to be faith, so let it be reason and Occam’s razor. Though this line of thinking doesn’t make sense, it fits in well with Dawkin’s definition of him for such a being seems as if they would, like a cat, enjoy toying with the mouse over which it has ultimate power.

My sister and I were discussing the idea of god recently. We agreed that, even if it were true, would we want to worship such a God as portrayed int the Bible or Quran? We spent a good deal of our lives attempting to be worthy of his blessings and his approbation. Worthiness is a big deal for mormons and you get it by following the rules. You have interviews with a lay-clergyman at least twice a year as a teenager in which they evaluate your worthiness. To enter the temple, the most sacred place on Earth in which the most sacred covenants are made, requires passing a worthiness interview with the same lay-clergyman. You must be worthy to the end of your life to be with your family after death. They sing a hymn that states, “Then, when we have proven worthy of thy sacrifice divine, Lord, let us regain thy presence.”

As sister and I discussed the idea of God, she presented and idea about which I–an I assume many–have often considered. What if God has indeed given us–or allowed the publication of–such horrible texts as the Bible, Quran, and Book of Mormon to test our integrity, empathy, and humanity? An apologist can so easily accept that the deity they defend as infinitely-loving/benevolent and that respects not persons would deliberately place fossils in the rock or any other doubt-inducing idea/object/knowledge to test our faith. But if their god were truly as loving and knowing and eternal as they claim him or her to be, would this god actually have sanctioned slavery, genocide, and sexism? Would he, being all-powerful, have designed a plan that required the barbarism of a human sacrifice to save us from sins–many of them so petty as to be laughable–that he so graciously gave us?

If there is a god like religions claim him to be, it would seem more likely that he allowed the horrible Bible, self-proclaimed prophets, and divisive dogmas and racist, sexist practices simply to see if we can use the intellect and empathy inherent in our nature to overcome such blind faith? Maybe he wants to see if we will trust our own goodness and intuition more than we will trust the word of others. Maybe he wants to see if we will have the moral courage to break man-made conventions rather than assimilate them.

I don’t believe in God. But if I did, that might be one I could believe in. Nietzsche wrote, “We outgrew Christianity, not because we lived too far from it, rather because we lived too close, even more because we grew out of it.” Reconciling our belief in this perfect god–created in our own image–with the God revealed in the holy texts, is a devastating experiencing. Perhaps it is a necessary experience to transcend bronze-age dogmas and move forward into an exponentially expanding enlightenment held back, if anything by the poorly represented but militantly defended God of revealed monotheism.

Feces and Beards and Fan Clubs to the Rescue!

I hope that one day I will such a level of popularity that I also enjoy the corresponding dislike of large groups of people. Before I earn such distinction, I would do well to grow a thicker skin. Should I achieve such a level of popularity, I hope it will be as a result of my writing and my novels in particular. Amongst literary fan clubs, it seems there are two types of fans that align with their corresponding peers. For simplicity I will call one group those who enjoy escapist fiction which consists of cheap or trite plot lines and characters and who’s novels command a wide distribution. These works are often immensely popular and will remain at eye level on store shelves for a few years until the next fad novel comes along. The other category I refer to as literary fiction. This latter category may not sell as feverishly as the former but the influence of the books will often be felt in future generations. Though they may not receive bestseller placement, large book retailers will keep these books on their shelves for many decades and school’s will incorporate them into the curriculum well past their expiration date.

I used to gravitate toward escapist fiction. As a typical American caught in the trap of a semi-fulfilling career, I needed the escape from the monotony of making a living. As Orwell said in Coming Up For Air, “like everyone else I was fighting for a job, and then I’d got a job and the job had got me.”My heart wasn’t in my job and, rather than find a place for both to coexist, I escaped from real life in exciting but forgettable novels. The escape was valuable, in its way, but it had its a sinister side: this kind of writing gave me only the tool to escape real life while I engaged with the text. What it did not offer was inspiration. Nothing in the narrative or dialogue elevated my internal dialogue nor did it challenge me to re-engage with my own life’s trajectory having some momentum of my own to alter it. Having limited experience with drugs, even with alcohol, I imagine the escape as I might the effects of an intoxicant in that I began to need it to cope with life. There was nothing in escapist reading that improved my life, rather it only provided a brief reprieve from it.   

In 2014, when my life-long faith crumbled before me, I needed to rebuild everything in my paradigm regarding the world and my place within it. Suddenly—almost overnight—escapist fiction lost its savor. I was primarily a fan of epic fantasy fiction up to this point. Since my faith transition, I would and still do pick up recommended titles in the genre with some excitement. Rarely will the writing entice me beyond the first chapter. If it does, I almost always find my interest fizzle by the third chapter. Those which I have completed are largely forgettable, and I have always had an uncanny knack for remembering what I read.

One of the first fictional works that I read after my loss of faith was George Orwell’s 1984. I have wondered if reading a master work like 1984 could be to blame for my dissatisfaction with fiction since. However, having known many people who have read Orwell’s seminal novel and largely forgotten it (and seem utterly unaffected by it) I am reasonably confident that the change that occurred within me is the culprit. Other works of literary fiction I have since enjoyed include: 

The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger by Albert Camus; 

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse; 

Coming Up for Air and Burmese Days by George Orwell;

Silence by Shūsaku Endō;  

and, East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. 

This doesn’t mean I haven’t read any escapist fiction in seven years. As I peruse my Goodreads bookshelf, I can see that I have read quite a few. Such as it is, and to my point, I don’t remember many of them. And I have read what many consider to be contemporary classics that I am neither fond of nor do I remember much about them. As an example, The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. I remember almost nothing about that book. While Andy Weirs, The Martian, remains one of my favorite reads of the last decade. Bestsellers, Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky and 11/22/63 by Stephen King were not only entertaining but poignant for me. (King’s, The Gunslinger, absolutely crossed the lines between page-turning escapsim and literature for me.)I can remember my excitement reading Dark Matter by Blake Crouch and The Black Widow by Daniel Silva. What I can’t remember is anything else about them. Each author, whether I remember it or not, created an exciting narrative and compelling plot. They wrote well and I have no regret in reading their work (except The Alchemist—that’s a few hours I’ll never get back). But too many of them are entirely forgettable to me.  

A few years ago I came across a sub-Reddit for my favorite non-Tolkien fantasy author, Patrick Rothfuss. Posts often involved redditors postulating their theories and attempting to second-guess the content of the long-awaited third installment in the Kingkiller Chronicle. Many asked for clarification of some plot-line they found confusing. Others tried to point out plot holes or inconsistencies (as if that redditor was capable of holding together a fictional narrative without mistake for over six-hundred-thousand words). A few complained about the author’s delay in releasing book three with many angrily vowing to abandon the series completely. Somehow, they were personally wronged by the author for having to wait. Escapist fiction is a hell-of-a-drug!

I see that I am not nearly the fan that so many others are. I made one post in the sub-Reddit simply to offer a chuckle to other redditors. A news article regarding the presence of fecal bacteria being often present in beards seemed apropos to the sub, considering Rothfuss’s famously expansive, wizard-like beard. I believe I titled the post, “Oh No, Pat! Say it Ain’t So!” I admit that the entire post was silly and, aside from evoking a chuckle here and there, entirely without merit. Not expecting to procure a great deal of karma, when I went back to Reddit the following day, I wasn’t surprised not to find much. What I did find amongst the few comments, were a small but very vocal constituency of fans who were offended by the jest. While they may simply have been socially inept with the corresponding lack of a sense of humor, they expressed their offense on behalf of Mr. Rothfuss that anyone would suggest something so vile.

I’m not a member of that sub-Reddit any longer. While I enjoy diving into the books, I can no longer see the point in devoting so much of my mental acuity to the nuances of a fictional world. Outliers notwithstanding, many fans of elaborate fictional worlds seem to know even the most minute of details in the lives of minor characters, the book’s great wars, and the world’s strange magics. But could these same acolytes tell you the first thing about the elected leader of their country, wars past and present, or how the economy works in the actual world they inhabit?For the majority, I think it unlikely. I would still take the over under on a person who reads being better informed about those things than a typical Nascar or NBA fan. But they are symptoms of a similar drug addiction. Avoidance of the painful and ever-present real world.

The difference between fans of escapist and literary fiction seem to me to be that literature forces us to confront the absurdity of the real world. It challenges us to confront our social and cultural norms. Though one could read East of Eden without reconsidering their concept of what morality is, it requires a magical capacity for mental and emotional lethargy to do so. This is why literary novels—though each has its ardent naysayers—more often inspires conversation over hero worship. Perhaps it is because many of the authors are dead already. Or, maybe it is precisely because the readers of it are thoughtful and trying to confront the real world rather than simply endure it. 

There exists a latent and even blatant nihilism in fantasy. The worlds are make-believe and, even if they offer some metaphorical parallel to real life, the problems created and problems solved involve magical intervention. 

Some works of fantasy fiction have transcended my seemingly strident definition of literature. And they are books that I love. The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter. The Chronicles of Narnia. T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. While Chronicles is a blatant allegory of Judeo-Christian mythology, it borrows that mythology from even more ancient tropes of Egyptian and Greek mythology. Tolkien famously decried the author’s oppressive tendency to apply allegory to his work, believing that it claimed too much influence over the reader. He preferred, “application,” which left power in the hands of the reader. We may argue whether or not Tolkien succeeded in maintaining an indifference to the mythologies and religious traditions with which he was raised and educated. Within Tolkien’s magical and whimsical world, any reader may step in and ask what they would do if faced with similar odds.

One of my favorite series of fantasy is Robin Hobb’s, The Farseer Trilogy. For me, the tale of FitzChivalry was utterly enjoyable. Hobb managed to craft a lengthy, first-person narrative better than anyone I had read before and, perhaps, since. Two decades later, I still remember many of the high and low points. Yet, I never remember wondering how I would behave if I were in the shoes of any character. How I interact with my own world and my conceptualization of morality, good and evil, remained unaffected. I was supremely entertained, but I was not inspired.

Fantasy’s less verbosely obese cousin, science fiction, is, by nature, far more prescient. It takes place in a world the author envisions growing out of our own. How could it not have direct implications for society? I read far less of this genre. But what I have read, in addition to being escapist, tends to stick with me on a deeper level than most fantasy. (Why don’t I read more of it?) In sophomore english class, my teacher elected to expose us to the books approved by the school board as acceptable alternatives to Lord of the Flies and The Heart of Darkness. Instead, we read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451. I remember them well. I was and continue to be effected by their literary gravitas. Even modern sci-fi that I have read, for example, Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovksy has haunted me in profound and lasting ways.

I wish I could say the same about modern fantasy. I really do. Some well-written books just lose their appeal by chapter three. Anything by Brandon Sanderson, unfortunately. Joe Abercrombie’s highly recommend, The Blade Itself, had one of the most gripping opening scenes I’ve read in a book. I lost interest, I’m sorry to say. That doesn’t mean these books are not worth reading and if I had made it through, perhaps I would have included their works in the successful transcendent works with The Gunslinger. I hope many readers buy them and continue to buy them. Authors put an obscene amount of time into crafting their works. Perhaps the most important thing to consider is that there is an author for everyone, but no author is for everyone. I write what I would enjoy reading and one day I hope to have an audience. No doubt some blogger or Redditor will mention trying to read me and discovering how irreparably boring my writing is and that by chapter three they gave up.

What I don’t want is write something exciting and forgettable. Like lightening striking close: a flash of light, an ear-splitting crack, and a charge in the air that makes your hair stand on end. But then it is gone. Your light-bleached retinas return to normal; the ringing in your ears subsides; and your hair, once again, lies flat. Many an exciting, page-turner, has left me with far less. If the ending was exciting, I couldn’t tell you for what reason or why.

Fantasy gives me the chance to write what I like to read. The audience tends to appreciate what I call a slow burn. They aren’t typically in the mood for a quickie when they pick up a book with over 150,000 words. If they are like me, they want to be teased. They want you to help them explore each of their senses, building intensity then pulling back and letting them breath while they wonder what is next. They enjoy the build-up so much they don’t want it to end and, when it does, it is heavy and intense. Then, as the expected lightening flash fades, they bask in a serene and satisfying afterglow.

What I have just explained is, of course, possible in escapist and literary fiction. Patrick Rothfuss, a master of the slow burn, is a benchmark for my prose style. And though I remember much of his story, I’ve never felt the stakes were high enough or the conflict close enough to my heart to influence me as an individual. The relationship his protagonist, Kvothe, has with a strange and mysterious girl who lives in the catacombs under the University, Aurie, probably comes closest to achieving this level of impact. Nevertheless, I will continue to reread this series from time-to-time as I await the third installment—Rothfuss’s feces-soiled beard notwithstanding.

I recall being warned by zealous, religious parents that there was a danger in literature. A danger to my faith and the fictional narrative Christianity and Mormonism had reinforced in my head and heart for—go ahead and laugh or scoff, I have—thirty-four years before I realized that Mormonism was little more than escapist fan fiction that tried to advance and amend Christianity’s own mythology. It didn’t give me tools to comprehend or deal with the problems of the world in which I lived since it had created its own world and enticed me, on pain of eternal torture or eternal bliss, to buy into it, heart, body, and soul. It was a daily, hourly, by-the-minute escape into a fantasy realm where the stakes could not be higher. Everything outside the carefully crafted dogmas were simply nihilism. 

I think I finally understood the fear of my parents with clarity when I recently read Orwell’s, Burmese Days. (Spoiler Alert). In the end, the protagonist kills himself. My conditioning from my upbringing set off the alarm bells. “This is why we don’t want you to read this stuff. It just shows that life isn’t worth living.”

Able to read it with the clear lens of a mature, skeptical mind, I can see how superficial such a reading of Burmese Days actually is. It is not about how life is not worth living. Such a conclusion is simply lazy. While some philosophers and writers have, no doubt, approached their writing with a sense of or dedication to nihilism, I have found the greatest peddler of nihilism to be found in the monotheistic faith traditions. One of my favorite authors who, though he read an overwhelming amount of fictional literature, never wrote a word of fiction himself, Christopher Hitchens, had a lot to say about the nihilism of monotheists. Here we have a world full of individuals dedicated to and eagerly awaiting armageddon and a wrathful judgment by a vengeful god. They cannot wait for death and destruction to overtake the earth and the daunting business of learning, understanding, and working to improve this life—the only one we can be certain actually exists. But let’s forget that! Burn it to the ground and end all life for the hope of a fantasy heaven to come on the other side of death. A side NO ONE can possibly claim to know exists for anyone else.

This is why fantasy and fiction, in general, has largely lost its appeal for me. I spent thirty-four years escaping real life into the fantasy world of Mormonism. Many lessons learned there are valuable, and I do carry them with me. But, at the core, the foundations and conclusion and many of the morals required to reach a level of purity to be saved are at best unverifiable and, at worst, admitted fraud by a convicted con man. To pretend or accept that those things don’t matter is nihilism to me and I won’t spend another minute of my life escaping into a similar world that claims to explain this one.

For literary fiction, the genius comes from the author’s ability to utilize the simple and profound power of, as Orwell put it, facing unpleasant facts. This may appear like nihilism to the superficial and suspicious and lazy reader, but it is what makes The Brother’s Karamazov, Les Miserables, Burmese Days, East of Eden, The Stranger, Lolita, Silas Marner, and any other work of literary greatness so powerful. Their impact is not in helping one escape, but in helping one navigate the absurdity of life in increasing their capacity to face unpleasant facts.

Who wouldn’t appreciate a fan club that debates and comes to my defense over fecal bacteria in my facial hair? (For the record, I typically go clean-shaven.) Who wouldn’t like a fan club that is so invested in your work that they learn the made-up languages you created and understand the mythology of your world better than they do their own?

Me.

I don’t want that fan club.

Far more do I want my work to make people engage in the real world. I would like for them to read it, tell their friends about it, and engage with reality. Make this world a better place or learn more about a different culture than argue about whether or not the Elf Witch could have defeated the Dark Lord one-on-one. The worst result would be to become something like a prophet or a yogi who’s work, intentionally or inadvertently, becomes simply a portrait of themselves. A work of self-adoration that increases their celebrity. 

My goal is to be a window to direct a reader’s eye to the world outside or a mirror to reflect their view back upon themselves. Facts may be unpleasant but we can and we must face them—with a sense of irony and a commitment to our shared, inherently magical, and singular world.