Touch

I

The video game had all my attention, so I didn’t notice when my mom came into the cramped living room.

“Caleb,” she finally yelled.

I looked up at her and promptly heard the familiar music play on the screen, my lapse in attention causing my character to die. I sighed. “What?” I asked.

“I’m off to work. I love you,” Mom said. She made a hesitant step toward me, checked her wrist, and gave an infinitesimal shake of her head before waving goodbye.

I nodded and gave a wave back, making no attempt to get up from the couch to hug her. Saving her the trouble of denying me.

“I’ll be home by nine, please have your brother in bed by eight.”

I nodded again, choosing not to point out to her I always made sure he was in bed by eight.

She leaned against the staircase, one sneaker-clad foot hovering over the wood floors as she contorted her body around the sharp angle. I teased her for her lack of stylish footwear but had been told countless times her work as a masseuse meant function over fashion. “Roger, I’m leaving. Listen to your brother please, don’t give him any trouble.”

“Okay Mom, love you!” RJ called down.

She smiled at me one more time and left.

An hour, and six more deaths later, I yelled up to RJ for dinner. After opening and closing the few cabinets we had, I resigned myself that we’d be having canned veggies and hot dogs for dinner.

Again.

I wished for the millionth time I had a car. A license I got the day I turned sixteen sat useless in my wallet for almost a year. I’d probably forget how to drive pretty soon. What I wouldn’t give for a car and a few dollars to get something from the drive-through.

RJ sat across from me at the table, pushing soggy green beans around with his fork, lost in thought—the topic I could probably guess.

“So, two more days,” I said, trying to keep my voice light. What else was there to do?

“Does it hurt?” he asked, looking up for a split-second before dropping his eyes again.

I shook my head. “It’s hard to remember, but I don’t think so. The nurses are pretty quick. I mean, it’s still a needle.”

“I hate needles,” RJ interrupted.

“Well, obviously. Who doesn’t? But I don’t remember it hurting worse than any other shot I got, though my arm was a bit itchy after.”

RJ bent back over his plate, making a game effort at pretending the meal wasn’t quite as sad as it was.

Two more days.

Two more days until RJ turned ten and The Count began.

I remembered, just in bits and pieces, what life was like before. How I laid on the couch with my parents. How my mom rubbed my back and tickled me.  How my dad gave piggyback rides and bone-crushing hugs. When I used to rough house with my cousins in the backyard before they all moved away.

It felt like the memories belonged to a different person. Certainly, to a different life. RJ was lucky in some ways. He was too little then to remember. He didn’t know what he was missing.

When people first started dying, the scientists and doctors scrambled to figure it out. There were reports of entire families, towns, cities, falling ill and dying. By the time I turned eleven, a quarter of the world’s population was dead. RJ was only three, so while he knew he couldn’t go to daycare anymore and play with his friends, he didn’t really understand what was going on. But I saw the “for sale” signs litter the neighborhood. Had classmates never come back to school.

Vaccines failed. Treatments were barely effective. World leaders huddled and implemented the strongest set of restrictions ever, including the most radical rule of all.  

No touching.

The virus only affected people over the age of thirteen. To be safe, the brilliant leaders decided the restrictions applied to anyone over ten.  Can’t be too careful. What if it morphed? What if the figures were slightly off?

We were all getting a chip implanted on our sixteenth birthday anyway. It kept track of everything from location to make sure people didn’t cut work or school, to exercise, and a million other things the government secretly kept track of. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to implant a few years earlier. To put touch-based technology in them tied to the tracker watches we all wore anyway.

Some smart guy figured out it took fifteen minutes for transmission of the virus. So, they decided you could only touch for one hour a day, at no more than ten minutes at a time. Made sex-ed a lot easier to teach.

And for how annoying it all was, it seemed to work. The death rates slowed all over the world and we started getting used to this “new normal.” Don’t get me wrong, it was great I didn’t have to worry every second my parents were going to die, but I just wish “normal” was a little better.

The watch gave a warning when you were on your last ten minutes for the day. After that, a loud alarm sounded, sending alerts to the authorities. Three violations sent cops to your doors and possibly even jail time.

In the early days, I remember the alarms going off all the time. Police hired triple the cops to handle the increased calls. My own dad got carted away one night. If I closed my eyes, I could still hear the screams from Mom as she begged the officers to leave them alone, promising it wouldn’t happen again, offering to give up some of her time.

They didn’t care.

It didn’t take long for people to figure out how to game the system. The chips were hacked. Time was traded. A risk, for sure, but so was starvation. Poor people sold their time to the rich, to those who were impervious to rules, pandemic included.

And now, RJ was about to be thrown into the fray with them. Mom ordered me to stop roughhousing with him. No punches or pushes. We had to wean my brother off of being used to touch.

Since kids under ten didn’t have chips, they didn’t trigger time faults on those who did. So, it seemed like whenever we went out, old ladies came up and grabbed RJ into crushing hugs. They were desperate for contact and knew they could do it for “free.” Mom pried RJ away, careful not to touch the person, and not wanting their craziness to dock her.

For the last few months, any time someone got near, Mom screamed at them. “He’s ten! Don’t touch him!” And the strangers would retreat in disappointment.

“I’m not ten, yet,” RJ corrected when they were alone.

“Well, you are too old for those ladies to think they can do whatever they want. I feel bad for them, but you are not responsible for their happiness.”

Now RJ was entering the Real World. What was left of it anyway. We’d done all we could these last couple of months preparing him—letting him know when school started in two and a half months, telling him he needed to be careful how much he played with the other kids. How he needed to respect them if they said they didn’t want hugs. How he was responsible for his own time.

The whole ordeal made me feel helpless. I had to keep my mom and brother safe but knew it was futile. After what happened to my dad, I knew safety wasn’t yours to control.

It was someone else’s.

II

When RJ came out of the doctor’s office, he cradled his bandaged arm, tears streaming down his face.

The brand-new tracker with a train motif on the band was synced to display the chip information. I wanted to rip it off and smash it, but knew that wouldn’t help.

We drove home in silence. When Mom pulled down our street, RJ snapped me out of my daze by slapping my arm.

“Look,” he said.

My heart skipped a beat as I automatically glanced at my tracker. “RJ, you gotta be careful, you can’t do that.”

“No, look,” RJ said, pointing out the window, dangerously close to brushing my nose.

I sat deeper in my seat and followed RJ’s outstretched hand. There was a large, white van parked at the neighbor’s house. A team of men moved objects inside.

“Oh, it looks like that house finally sold,” Mom said.

“I wonder if they have any kids,” RJ said.

“Don’t you go over there pestering them,” Mom warned. “Let them settle in first, we can all go over there Saturday to welcome them to the neighborhood.”

At her words I perked up. “Are you off Saturday?”

She shook her head. “No, sorry, baby, but I don’t have any appointments until two, so we can have the morning to do whatever you boys want.”

She turned and smiled at us. I forced myself to return the gesture.

RJ hit my arm again, and I fought the urge to slap him back. I only had twelve minutes left, having sold a chunk of my time earlier to a rich kid down the street so I could buy RJ a birthday present.

“RJ, you gotta stop touching me.”

“Roger Snyder, Junior,” Mom said, invoking his full name. “You need to be more aware of keeping your hands to yourself. We’ve talked about this.”

“Yes, Mama,” RJ said. “Caleb, look, a girl.”

I groaned, but followed his gaze. In the driveway, a girl who looked about my age stood with her arms wrapped around herself. Two women, maybe her parents, stood on the porch, pointing and giving directions to the movers.

Mom pulled into our driveway, making requests before she’d even put the car in park.

“Caleb, I’ve gotta go to work in about thirty minutes.”

“Mom!” RJ whined. “I thought we were going to watch movies tonight.”

“I’m sorry, baby. I got a call a bit ago, and I need to go in. But just one appointment. I’ll be home in time to put you to bed.”

I’d heard that story dozens of times over the last few months. She was never home in time for bed. But there was no point in calling her out for it. She wanted to be home, and I guess that counted for something.

She worked late hours, having a special exemption from the touch limits. It increased her risk of getting sick, and I knew it freaked her out, but jobs were hard to come by. I’d applied to about two dozen without a single call back. So, she sucked it up while they siphoned off all her time. I just worried what would happen to RJ when I moved out to go to college. What happened if he needed something in the middle of the night and mom couldn’t help?

I got in the habit of saving a good chunk of time for evenings with RJ. While the minutes hadn’t counted before, I also wanted to get in the routine so it wouldn’t be so much of a shock when they did. Then I traded my leftover time to some of the neighborhood kids for stupid things. Candy, comics, used video games.

But all that was done now. It would all be for RJ.

And my mom.

III

The scream ripped me from my sleep. I scrambled from bed, dazed, and stumbled the first few steps.

Mom stood in the doorway of RJ’s room, her face translucent from fear. Automatically, I looked down at my wrist. It was 11:59 PM. Neither of us had any time left.

There was nothing we could do.

We stepped into the room, speaking in soothing voices as RJ thrashed in bed, the blankets wrapping tighter and tighter around him. I moved forward, trying to weave the tangled linens from his body, but it was too hard with limbs flying all over the place.

RJ used to get night terrors all the time last summer. Five or six nights a week. Sometimes it took twenty minutes to calm him down. Mom and I took turns holding and rocking him like he was a baby trapped in a nine-year-old’s body. I’d been grateful it was all on free time. Then one day in mid-August, the night terrors disappeared as mysteriously as they’d arrived.

I desperately hoped this was a fluke.

“Roger,” Mom whispered. She kept reaching her hands out and pulling them away, her tears glinting in the dim glow of the night light.

“It’s almost midnight,” I said over and over like a mantra, trying to keep myself sane.

The minute felt like a million. The moment I decided to take the infraction, my band lit up green. My touch-time reset for the day.

I lunged and grabbed RJ. Holding him tight, Mom was able to remove the blanket with surgical precision, careful not to slip and brush against his exposed skin with her own.

I rocked RJ back and forth, hugging him and whispering in his ear. After about eight minutes, his cries lessened. He pulled away and looked up at me.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, his voice still crusty with sleep and crying.

I breathed out a relieved laugh and let go, standing up and backing a few steps away. A clear indicator that the rest of this was going to be words only.

“You had a bad dream, baby,” Mom said.

RJ looked at her, startled to see her standing there. “A dream?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Hmm, I don’t remember.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “You’re better now. Think you can get back to bed?”

“Can I have a glass of milk?” RJ asked.

I moved, but Mom shifted to stop me. “I’ll pick some up at the store on my way home tomorrow,” she promised. “How about some water?”

RJ nodded.

I filled the glass from the bathroom sink when my mom appeared over my shoulder.

“Thank you,” she said, avoiding my gaze in the mirror.

I’d gotten taller over the last few months, but sometimes it felt more like my mom shrank than me growing—like I stole some of her height. Maybe I did.

“You’re welcome.”

“I hope it’s not a repeat of last summer.”

“I’m sure it’s not,” I lied.

She nodded, leaned forward, and kissed me on the cheek.

The gesture was so shocking I almost dropped the glass. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d done that. It seemed like such an extravagance. The timers always rounded up, so even the slightest touch cost an entire minute. Normally people wouldn’t waste it, choosing instead to hold a hand or something else that lasted.

A lump formed in my throat.

“I’m gonna bring this to him and then go back to bed,” I said, needing to escape before I cried.

She reached out. “I’ll take it.”

I carefully set the glass on the counter so she wouldn’t accidentally touch me while she picked it up. “I love you, Mom,” I said, staring right at her and willing her to take my words as a physical thing she could hold on to.

“I love you boys so much,” she said, eyes still glistening. “I know I’m not always—”

“You give us what we need. I’m off to bed. See ya in the morning.”

She smiled and moved aside.

IV

The days slipped into a monotony that made me wish for school to start again. Mom worked even longer hours, coming home each night exhausted and well after RJ went to bed.

Most nights I waited up for her, sitting at our small table with a weak cup of tea ready for her. She’d give me a lop-sided smile, ask simple questions about our day, and check her wrist one time before giving me an apologetic wave goodnight.

Not even a minute left over to give me a hug.

I tried not to take it personally. It wasn’t worth it for either of us.

I knew I should follow upstairs and go to bed. RJ woke up more nights than not. Mom didn’t even come into the room anymore. It was too hard, made the circles under her eyes deeper, made her hands shake more. I’d told her not to worry about it. I’d take care of it. Nothing was going on in the summer anyway, I assured her.

One afternoon, RJ and I went outside to toss a baseball around. The threads were a dull red, almost pink with age, and frayed in so many places it was hard to get a good spin on it. RJ wasn’t putting in much effort anyway. Lulled by the methodical throwing back and forth, I didn’t even notice as the figure came up behind me until I backed up a step and crashed right into a body.

I whirled. “What in the holy hell!” The words flew out of my mouth, angry and loud. My eyes scanned my tracker. It lit up, ticking one minute away.

I was about to throw the ball at the person when I met the terrified face of the new girl neighbor. In the days since they’d moved in, we barely saw her, much less spoke to her. We never did make it over there the Saturday after RJ’s birthday.  

“I…I…” she stammered.

“What were you thinking?” I yelled. RJ came up behind and touched my arm. I about lost it and whirled on him. “In the house!” I bellowed.

It felt good to yell. A little too good. I needed to get out of this situation before I totally lost it.

“I’m, I’m so sorry, it was an accident,” the girl said, repeating the apology over and over. Her arms were crossed, hands grasping each elbow.

I looked back down at my wrist. Two minutes gone. Coupled with the terrible dream RJ had this morning, it left me with only thirteen minutes. I wanted to throw the ball as hard as I could through her house.

I took a deep breath, steadying myself. I couldn’t lose control. I had to protect what little time I had left.

I turned and marched into the house, barking orders at RJ again as the girl yelled more “sorrys” in my wake.

V

At dinner that night I still burned from the afternoon’s events. RJ, probably sensing my anger, ate his dinner in silence.

I didn’t even know who I was more upset with.  The girl? Myself for not noticing her coming? RJ for still not getting that he can’t casually touch me anymore? My mom, for forcing me to be so damn obsessive over my time so I could take care of my brother, something she wasn’t capable of?

It didn’t matter, not really, but neither of us spoke other than a request by RJ to go to his room to read a comic book he’d gotten for his birthday. I nodded without looking at him.

I tried playing video games but couldn’t focus. I felt claustrophobic in the small house, the desire to leave overwhelming. I walked out the front door and down the three steps to the lawn. And there she was.

She stood on the cracked cement pathway that led from the sidewalk to my house. Her hands were clasped in front of her like she was praying or something for me to come out. Maybe she was.

She must have been lost in a daze because her eyes didn’t focus on me right away. She gave a bit of a start once they did.

“Have you been out here the whole time?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Not the whole time.” Her voice was small, like she was hoping to shrink away in the grass.

“Can I help you with something?” My question came out harsher than planned, but I didn’t have the energy to do anything about it.

“I am so, so sorry,” she repeated.

“You said that.”

“I was walking up behind you—it didn’t seem like you guys were throwing the ball that hard—and then all of a sudden you took that huge step back. I thought you heard me. Your brother smiled at me, which I guess distracted him, and that’s probably why he threw the ball wonky.”

I hadn’t even noticed RJ’s attention was drawn away.

“So, what do you want?” I asked.

She held out her wrist. “Here, take a minute of mine.”

I was shocked. “What?”

“It’s not fair you lost one because of me. Take one of mine,” she repeated.

“You lost one, too,” I said.

She gave a half-shrug. “Please.”

I considered sticking out my arm so she could make the transfer. I desperately wanted the sixty-seconds she offered but shook my head.  It was an accident. I was angry but could see that much. It wasn’t right to keep punishing her for it.

“Thank you but no, it’s okay.”

“Well, if you change your mind, I’m right next door,” she said and turned to leave.

“Wait,” I called after her, not sure why. As she faced me again, I realized I had nothing to say to her. “I’m Caleb.”

She smiled. It changed the whole look of her face. “Gwen,” she said, giving a small wave.

“You wanna sit?” I asked, gesturing to the steps behind me.

She shook her head. “I mean, I do, but I need to get home. You see, I take care of my grandmom. She lives with us.” The words spilled out of her mouth. “Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow.”

VI

Gwen started hanging around more. Every night after dinner, RJ and I went outside and waited for her to come over with her little dog, Skipper.

RJ couldn’t believe his good fortune. Since pets didn’t trigger the virus and were exempt from time constraints, most people had them, but our mom was terribly allergic—even to the creepy naked-looking cats and dogs—so we were never able to have more than a fish.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune that Gwen was the one to move next door.

I’d never had a friend who was a girl before, and at first, wasn’t sure exactly what to talk about, but she put me right at ease. She launched into her background and pulled information out of me before I knew what she was doing. She was just so open with her thoughts, with her emotions, it was like she was able to effortlessly trade physical contact with emotional. If she couldn’t hold hands with someone, well, at least she’d show them everything inside her brain and heart.

I wanted to hold her hand so badly it consumed my thoughts.

One night, my mom unexpectedly came home early. Her client canceled at the last minute, which allowed her to keep half the time payment as penalty. She walked right up to me and held me in an embrace in our front yard so long, I almost started crying. To have her arms around me, to smell her perfume, I wanted it to last forever. If it was in front of anyone other than Gwen, I might have been embarrassed, but I was too happy to feel any other emotion.

She said she’d put RJ to bed that night and the pair bounded up the stairs, leaving me and Gwen behind to pluck blades of grass from the lawn and shred them into our laps as Skipper chased grasshoppers.

“You’re lucky,” Gwen finally said.

“Yeah, how’s that?”

“I can’t tell you the last time I got a hug.” Her tone darkened.

We sat in silence, the sounds of the evening crickets emerging from their daytime hiding places, giving us a soundtrack to our evening.

“Well, I can’t tell you either,” I said, perturbed at her accusing tone.

“Oh please. Look, I know I’m new to this town, but I’ve met a few other people.”

I sat up a little straighter. “’What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I know your mom is a masseuse to like, celebrities or whatever. I know she basically gets unlimited time,” she said. It was clear she was trying to keep her voice light, like she didn’t care, but her hunched expression made it evident she was put off by it. She hugged her legs tightly into her body and rocked a little.

I breathed out a laugh. “Is that seriously what people think? That I live some privileged life?” I got up before she could answer and headed home.

“Look, I’m sorry. It just, it threw me off. I haven’t seen…that.” She paused. “I haven’t seen someone hugging like that since, well, since before.”

“You remember before?”

She nodded. “Pieces of it, at least. Though, I’m not sure how much I’ve made up in my head, filled in with movies or whatever.”

“My mom doesn’t get unlimited time,” I said.

She shrugged. “Well, practically.”

“No, not practically.” I found myself getting defensive for her. “She gets just as much time as she is booked for. And because most of these people are assholes and expect more, she usually ends up having to dip into her own time, too. Sometimes they will tip her, which she then turns around to get us extra groceries or makes sure the electric bill is paid, because after—” I paused, trembling. “After my father was killed, she was determined for us to stay in this house. Even if that means we eat hot dogs three times a day.”

“Caleb,” she said, her eyes wide and cheeks reddening. “I didn’t know, I shouldn’t have—”

“No, you shouldn’t have. People think because my mom has a good job with powerful people, she is powerful, too. It’s not true. And because she doesn’t have any time left, and my brother gets night terrors or whatever, I have to save all my time for him because not only does she not have any left at the end of the day, she can’t risk going to jail since we don’t have anyone else.”

“I guess you never really know what people are going through, do you?” she asked after a moment, getting up and taking a step toward me.

I wiped at my eyes. “No, I guess you don’t.”

“My moms are both doctors, so people also assume they get a bunch of time, but they’re on-call so much, they never know when they’re going to have to use it. Plus, I think they save any left over for each other, not me.” Her face turned crimson at this.

It was too much. I moved closer to her. All I wanted to do was kiss her. She was in so much pain, and I was in so much pain, and I needed an escape. A one-minute reprieve from it all. Mom would take care of RJ tonight. I could be extravagant for once.

She was so close I could smell the strawberry shampoo from her damp hair. Neither of us made a move. My heart felt like it was going to break through my ribs.

“My grandmom,” Gwen reminded me— both of us—and took a step back.

I nodded, snapping out of whatever psychosis made me throw caution to the wind.

“I think I should go home,” she said.

I nodded again.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Funny.”

“What?” she asked, her brows knitted.

I held up my wrist. “How many years we’ve been doing this, and sometimes I still forget.”

“Me too. Me too.”

VII

I never let myself get that close to losing control again, but Gwen became a constant figure around our house. When she wasn’t spending time with her grandmother, she and Skipper wandered over.

As the days passed, we stayed up late into the evening talking. Sometimes we’d be at her house and her grandmom would be outside, too, though she never spoke. I wasn’t sure how to bring it up, or if I should. Gwen talked about so much, but for some reason not her Grandmom. I took the hint the topic was off-limits.

Gwen told me about living in the city. How fights broke out all the time, people accusing each other of trying to steal their time, or actually stealing their time.

“People got jumped a lot,” Gwen said. “That’s one of the big reasons my moms wanted to move away. It got too dangerous, especially for Gram. Folks think old people don’t need all the time they have, but they forget how much they need to be touched. They have to go to doctors, plus need help getting dressed and stuff. She pretty much uses her allotment every day, which then uses my allotment.”

We both looked over at her grandmom rocking back and forth on the porch swing, a small smile on her face.

“So,” Gwen gave a nervous laugh. “What’s your deepest darkest secret?”

I knew it was a joke, a way to break the tension, but the words were out of my mouth without thinking.

“I resent my brother’s nightmares.” A tightness in my chest grew before relaxing the smallest amount. “Why does he get to suck all my time? I’ve actually lived the terrible. The Transition. Losing my father. Seeing my mom fall apart. Having to step up to handle it all. It just doesn’t seem right…”

“For who?”

I didn’t answer.

“Caleb, what happened to your dad?”

“People got jumped for their time in the suburbs, too. Fifteen minutes. They killed him for a measly fifteen minutes.”

She reached her hand out to me, hovering over mine, when the noise of two cars slowing and pulling into my driveway snapped us back. My mom exited her ancient vehicle, but I didn’t recognize the shiny new one behind it. A man in a dark suit holding a briefcase got out and followed her up the stairs and into our house.

“What’s that about?” Gwen asked in a soft voice.

I shrugged, wiping the tears from my cheeks.  “I gotta go.”

I bounded away and up my steps in a leap, entering the kitchen just as Mom came down the stairs holding a groggy RJ.

Holding.

I felt the breath whoosh out of my lungs like I’d been punched in the gut.

“What’s wrong?” I managed.

My mom beamed. Beamed. “Nothing, baby, come here. Come sit down, I want you boys to meet someone.”

None of this made any sense. My mom didn’t have time to date, right? She went to work and came directly home to us, didn’t she?

I thought back to an early conversation with Gwen when she said her moms saved their time for each other, not for her. But no, not my mom. She wouldn’t do that.

Would she?

I tried to calm my breathing when RJ stirred, half-asleep and reflexively hugging Mom tighter.

“You’re gonna waste all his time,” I reminded her, as if I needed to be the parent in this moment—remind her what her place was. Anger bubbled in me. Had I been duped into meticulously saving my time for RJ just so my mom could date?

“Who is this?” I demanded, staring at the man.

Mom acted like she hadn’t even heard me. She was too busy rubbing RJ’s back and whispering for him to wake up, gently kissing his head.

What the hell was going on?

“Boys, I want you to meet Dr. Roanowski,” she finally said, as if the introduction was supposed to spark some recognition in both of us.

“Mama,” RJ said, his speech slurred with sleepiness.

Dr. Roanowski gave a small wave and sat at the table, opening his bag and bringing out a small vial and two syringes.

“What the hell is going on?” I asked, out loud this time.

“Mama…” The sight of the needles snapped RJ from his grogginess. He wiggled and tried to jump out of her lap.

“Shh, shh. Boys, just listen, this is very important. RJ, just listen.”

The doctor held up the small vial, his eyes somehow brighter than when they’d first sat down, as if joy could be reflected in them.

“What is that?” I asked, unable to help myself.

“The cure,” the doctor said simply, a huge smile spreading on his face.

“What?” RJ asked.

“It’s true,” Mom said. “Oh, I feel so terrible for keeping this to myself, but I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up just in case it wasn’t successful. Dr. Roanowski is a client of mine, has been for years.”

Dr. Roanowski laughed. “For as long as I can remember. Your mom keeps me on top of my game. She’s the best.”

“His team’s been working on a vaccine for years,” Mom said. “I mean, everyone has been, but this one works. I was given it a few weeks ago. I then went through some tests, some experiments, along with a bunch of other people. I felt terrible using my leftover time, but it seemed important. How could I not try it? It was all very safe,” she rushed to add. Evidently, the horror I felt was clear on my face.

“What are you saying?” I asked. The words didn’t compute.

She held up her wrist. No tracker watch.

“It stings a bit, okay?” the doctor said. “But no long-term effects other than a dry mouth for a day or two. For all your mom does for me, I was able to secure two doses. Rolling inoculations are already beginning, but I wanted to vaccinate you both right away. The best part is that it takes effect immediately. Just roll up your sleeves. I’ll send the paperwork up tomorrow to get the touch sensors turned off on your implants, too. Up to you if you want to keep your tracker just as a watch.” Roanowski chuckled, which Mom joined in on.

And just like that. Just like that, my life was set to change. A one-eighty. The world could go back to normal, like none of this ever happened. Something my future kids would cover in school. Those crazy ten years.

It could all be over.

I held out my arm.

 A few minutes later, after lots of tears from RJ and hugs all around, the doctor left our house as quietly as he arrived.

I looked at my mom, cradling the sniffling RJ in her arms. I made an automatic reach for him, but then realized I didn’t have to. She had this. It was all so surreal.

“I’ll be right back,” I said. She nodded and squeezed my hand without taking her eyes off RJ.

I bolted from the house. The evening darkened while we were inside, lightning bugs twinkled like ground-covering starlight.

Gwen was still on the porch, eyes fixed in my direction with her arms crossed. I strode right up to her and kissed her. She didn’t hesitate, didn’t pull away, but kissed me right back. I felt her arms wrap around me.

The buzz on my wrist made me pause, but I immediately ripped the band off and tossed it to the ground.

Gwen pulled away, looking at my vanquished tracker. “What…”

I couldn’t stop smiling. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. Scream my relief and happiness. Cars honked down the road. Shouts began around us.

“What is happening?” Gwen asked, taking a step toward me, trying to scan the dusk-laden street.

“It’s over,” I whispered. The sweetest words I’d ever spoken.

I drank in the sight of her, filed it away in my mind, knowing this was a moment I’d be asked to recall the entire rest of my life.

Where were you when…

And the answer: right here. Right where I wanted to be. I kissed her again.

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