Short Story – Down the Tubes
by Ross Newberry
All rights reserved.
You are old enough now to hear my story and understand. Read it and remember.
The government reported there was a mumps outbreak coming, the year they broke my womb.
The news said it was some new strain with a high mortality rate for kids and young adults, so everyone twenty-five and younger had to line up at the clinic and get vaccinated. This was just a year or so after all those anti-vaxxers in the States got taken out by the measles, so of course we all went down to the clinic for our shots and filed into an exam room, one by one.
“Name,” said the nurse. Not the normal lady, but a man in a suit. I’d never seen a nurse in a suit before. I thought that maybe the nurses in Ottawa dressed that way.
“Mare,” I answered.
“Full legal name, s’il vous plait. We need it for the records.”
“And what is your ancestry?” he asked.
I had been taught to be suspicious of this sort of question, but I was also proud. “Métis Nation,” I said, with a look that dared him to make something of it. I was shocked when he did.
“Pot metal people, eh? A mixture of the worthless leavings of purer stock, filling in the cracks. You’re tough, though, you half-breeds. We’ll need the stronger vaccine for you.” And he smiled. “Aide,” he called, “we’ll need a dose of beta here.”
I should have said something, or called for help, or just run out of there, but I was an insulted thirteen-year-old girl, with a stranger rubbing alcohol on my bare bottom, unable to speak for fear of crying. The syringe was administered, and I was dismissed. I gritted my teeth and left the room, savoring the small victory that I’d made it outside before the sobs began.
During dinner that night, my belly caught fire, deep down inside. Maman got me into the tub while Papa went to fetch Doctor Bouchard, but dawn was breaking when he returned. The doctor had been out through the night, all around Lafontaine, working on the Métis girls. He brought a black nylon bag with a portable sonogram inside. The cold goo on my belly reminded me of the nurse in the suit, and that smile as he prepped me for the injection. I started to cry again, seeing through a curtain of tears as Dr. Bouchard looked to Maman and shook his head, and Papa stalked out the door.
In school, they taught me that nothing travels faster than the speed of light, but I don’t think they’ve ever studied bad news in a small town. By noon, the whole Métis community, such as it was, had gathered in the gymnasium at the Catholic high school. All of us except for Papa and Uncle Jean. It didn’t look like the kind of Tribal Council you remember from history books. Everyone was in jeans and fleece, and the tables were littered with Tim Horton’s cups instead of water skins. Our scattered collection of native and French-descended families had a tough time keeping any kind of cohesive cultural identity. But family is much more important to most Métis than culture, and our family had just been attacked.
I had to stand up and tell the story of Suit Nurse, and the other girls all gave similar stories. Then Dr. Bouchard was brought in to give his opinion.
“The evidence is overwhelming,” he began. “In every Métis female I’ve examined, the Fallopian tubes have somehow… consumed themselves. All of the girls had the same symptoms, and the same result. None of them will ever be able to conceive a child normally. All of those examined were ‘vaccinated’ yesterday.”
The crowd rumbled like an avalanche, and my Aunt Josephine, one of the elders, raised a hand for silence. “What of the rest of the population?” she asked.
“There have been no reports of this affliction outside of the Métis community, at least in the peninsula,” the doctor answered.
“And what about oth-” began a voice behind me, but again Aunt Josephine’s raised hand commanded attention.
“We are getting to that,” she said. “Anton Beausoleil, what have you learned?”
Mr. Beaus, as we called him, worked for the newspaper. He’d had his head in his hands, and his face glistened as he stood. He had three teenage daughters. “It hasn’t hit the wire yet,” he said, “but everyone I was able to reach has pretty much the same story. Only females who claimed mixed ancestry were given the given the alternate injection.” He slumped back into his seat.
Everyone was told to keep quiet, and meet again at noon the following day. As for me, I went home, crawled into bed, and tried to cry myself to sleep. But I couldn’t even work up one tear before I was out like a light.
I woke to the slamming of the van door outside. Silently, I opened my bedroom door and crept down the hall to see Papa and Uncle Jean haul someone into the house, a t-shirt over his head. He wore a suit. They tied him to one of the kitchen chairs and removed the t-shirt. It was definitely Suit Nurse.
“Name?” Papa asked.
“Yves,” the guy said nervously.
“Full legal name, s’il vous plait. We need it.”
“For the records,” Uncle Jean snapped, a hungry look on his face.
The prisoner sighed. “Yves Lannis.”
“And what is your ancestry?” Papa asked.
“Why does that matter?”
“I’ve been told that it matters to some people,” Papa said, and his voice was incredibly calm.
Papa was quick to anger, but almost never flew off the handle. I’d only seen him truly furious once, and then his voice hadn’t been angry at all. He used that voice now. “Understand, as we begin, that you are responsible for the mutilation of a generation of our daughters. This mutilation has the potential to end our family lines. For your participation in this abomination, you will not survive the night. You’re only in control of how much pain you suffer before the end. You want to tell us who’s responsible for all of this?”
“Now, preferably,” said Uncle Jean. He left the house and came back in holding a length of wood with a knob on the end. “Did he spill while I was gone?” he asked.
“What do you think?” Papa asked.
“Right, then.” Uncle Jean swung the stick hard, hitting Yves right in the middle of his left thigh with a sound like a snapping carrot.
Yves screamed, and I was afraid my little brother René would wake up and reveal my presence. As I crept back down the hall, though, Papa’s voice froze me in place.
“They’re not here, Mare. I sent your mother and René to Josephine’s for the night. You can come on out here and watch, if you want. He hurt you, after all, and you deserve to get your vengeance.”
I forced myself to shuffle to the kitchen table and sit, but behind Yves. I couldn’t look at his face. Papa and his two brothers had gone off to the war together, though only he and Uncle Jean came home. They had seen terrible things over there, things they wouldn’t talk about, but I was a stranger to this kind of terrible violence.
Papa slapped his whimpering prisoner to get his attention, and continued. “Since you’re a government man, I’d imagine you know the average number of children born to Canadian families, don’t you?”
Yves didn’t answer, and Papa nodded to Uncle Jean. He readied a swing at the other thigh, but the prisoner finally sobbed, “Two!”
“One and nine tenths, actually. Roman Catholic families average four. Know why my wife and I only have two children, Yves?” The man shrugged. “Because, ten years ago, my wife had a Caesarian section with our second bébé, and the obstetrician ‘accidentally’ destroyed her ovaries in the process. I did some research after that. Would you believe that, in ninety percent of all obstetric surgical mistakes, the patient was of aboriginal ancestry? Government-sponsored healthcare, non? Go ahead, Jean,” he said, and snap went the other thigh. Yves’ head lolled a bit, and Papa splashed a cup of water on him. René insisted on using that cup at breakfast. My stomach heaved.
Papa slapped a piece of paper on the arm of the chair and put the nub of a pencil in his hand. “I want you to write the name of the person you work for,” he said, “and hurry up. Your penmanship is going to get a lot worse in about thirty seconds.”
Still sobbing, Yves scribbled something down and dropped the pencil. Finally, he looked back over his shoulder at me. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I was only a cog in the machine that did this, but it was wrong. I hope you can forgive me.” He bowed his head and mumbled, “Please make it quick.”
Papa picked up the paper and read it, then raised his eyebrows and showed the paper to Uncle Jean. We don’t mention the name now, but she was a powerful Member of Parliament. “Is this true?” Papa asked, and Yves nodded in return, head still bowed. “Careful, sweet,” Papa said, “you’re in the splash zone. Come around to me.”
Papa had never been this bad, not even in the rumors I heard from Afghanistan. I can’t explain what drove me in that moment, whether it was my conscience, fear for Papa, or the hand of God, but I was moved in that moment to protect the guilty man. I stood myself in front of him and raised his eyes to mine. “You called us pot-metal people, and half-breeds,” I said, “but mixing pure things together isn’t always bad. Add carbon to iron and you get steel. Add chromium to steel and it won’t rust. Our heritage makes us strong. Strong enough to do this.”
I turned to Papa, copying the way Maman looked when she won an argument. “This man has hurt enough. I refuse to be a part of further punishment,” I said, and if my voice quavered a bit as I spoke, I hope you’ll understand that.
“Your uncle and I will go to prison if he leaves here alive,” Papa said, but I stood fast.
“Mr. Lannis won’t do that, because that would hurt me, and he’s done hurting me, aren’t you, Mr. Lannis?”
Yves agreed almost violently, and Papa and Uncle Jean carried him, still tied to the chair, out to the van and drove him away. I never saw him again, but the nurses at hospital remembered treating him. “The damnedest cross-country skiing accident we’ve ever seen,” they said, “and in April besides.”
Papa and Uncle Jean met with the elders the next morning, and everybody was busy making phone calls. Sending our smoke signals, they called it, with their tongues firmly in their cheeks.
The vaccination attack never made national news, and most folks outside our community still haven’t learned of it to this day. What did make the news was that a leading Member of Parliament suddenly introduced legislation providing for government-supported fertility treatments for all Canadians of aboriginal descent. Her party pushed it through with little opposition.
Those treatments are the only reason you exist. Without them, our people’s future would have gone, quite literally, down the tubes. You’re young yet, but there are harsh truths of this world that you must understand. Our people have been persecuted by newcomers for three hundred years or more, and there are still more out there who would do us harm.
When those enemies come, you must confront them, and defeat them, but have pity on them as well. They lack our strength.
This was my submission for Round 2 of the NYCMidnight.com Short Story Challenge 2015. Contestants were given 3 days to produce a 2000 word story, and those in my heat had to follow these prompts:
- Genre – Drama
- Subject – Overbearing
- Character – A 13-year-old girl
My first thought when I saw these prompts was to do something about the U.S. government detaining and interrogating a girl due to her friendship with the daughter of a suspected terrorist, but I usually try to disregard the very first idea that comes to me in these situations, because it’s often too tropey, or too obvious. Even though I only had three days to produce in this round, I decided to sleep on it and see what my brain kicked out at me the next morning.
I’m glad that I did. I remembered reading at some point about the (very non-fictional) compulsory sterilization programs targeting aboriginal people that took place in certain provinces in Canada as late as the 1970s. That certainly fits the theme of an overbearing government! I have a Canadian friend of mixed native and French ancestry, and decided to approach her for some background info to see if I could take that kind of story anywhere.
Fortunately, she’s awesome and gave me a ton of information, as well as course corrections as I went along, so what I ended up with is 1,978 words of, well, it’s drama, but I’d more accurately call it historical drama about events of the near future, told from a point of view 15 years in the future of that. A cultural cautionary tale, if you will. I also managed to Tuckerize her into the story as the hapless Suit Nurse.
My eternal thanks to Alice, Leslie, Manda, and Melody (alphabetical order for fairness) for helping to shape the first draft into something much, much better. If this story makes the cut to get me into the final round, it’s going to be because of the changes you helped make.
As I mentioned before, I had to be corrected about a number of cultural issues and wordings I used in the story, but I also got feedback in several places about how on-point I was, which made me feel like I’d been successful in putting myself into Mare’s mindset.
I was originally going to have Suit Nurse end up dead, in the grand tradition of many Tuckerized characters, but made the decision that having Mare be the bigger person and stand up for him showed much more personality and agency. I’m much happier with the direction I ended up going.
I was worried, after finishing the first draft, that there wasn’t enough dramatic tension present, but my advance reading crew didn’t have any issues with that.
Someone who’s been reading my stuff for a while pointed out that the flow of my stories is improving over time. External affirmation of the work I’m putting into this makes me feel good!
There are still a few clunky bits here and there in the story that I just didn’t have the time to iron out. I’m not the kind of author to just churn words onto the page. I have a mental block at this point over just blasting stuff out and editing it later, so short deadlines are not my friend.
Pretty much nobody had any idea where I was going with the pot metal metaphor. I hadn’t thought about how somewhat esoteric that term would be, and had to go back and sprinkle in some explanation.
This story won first place in its heat! I’m incredibly honored that the contest judges liked it so much.
What the judge(s) liked about your story
- Fascinating (and horrifying) premise. Scenes are well-rendered.
- A dystopian story of survival with grace. Well conceived and based on historical wrongs done to women around the world. The ending was a surprise.
- Such an important topic in this day and age when Harper is still implementing racist measures against Canada’s First Nations. You mange to get some statistics into this tale without sounding at all pedantic. Glad that you temper matters with some wit too, such as that delightful quip about the speed of gossip in a small town, and phone calls equaling smoke signals. Very good, distinctive dialogue on the part of the father and uncle: revelatory of their tough life experiences. VERY wonderful that Mare was inspired by her mother, even in absentia, to stand up to the men before their brutality became homicidal. Private * Island Justice* always affords a great deal of satisfaction, esp when those in the public authority are too corrupt to dispense legal justice. It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s statement, “Beware the weapons of the weak; the strong have no defence against them.” Except for this!
What the judge(s) feel needs work
- Why target this particular aboriginal nation? Are other people of color also being targeted through this campaign? We might need a bit more context about these specific cultural tensions to give the story the impact it deserves.
- This piece functions more as science fiction than drama as it appears to take place in the near future. Further, it relies on both a virulent form of racism and political cowardice that, in combination, seem unrealistic.
- “broke my womb” doesn’t work for me, as a womb is a fleshy, muscular organ, not something tinny or glassy: given to breaking. Some phrase like “poisoned the promise of my womb” works better for me. You book-end the piece with addressing someone on the whole topic, teaching them, and it would visually work better for the reader if these two paragraphs were separated more from the main body of the tale. I really have no major issues with your story ~ I love it and thinks it’s important to have it circulate in the world ~ I recommend you write it up as, say, an hour-long play and put it into competition for production.
I can definitely understand where the first two points are coming from, but I’m left with a very positive feeling, as the third judge’s criticism ends with the suggestion that I get it published/turn it into a play!
Final round, here I come!