by Elen Essem
Rosie's father's political career is in danger, as is their family's own safety.
The Liberty Council
Washington D.C., U.S.A, 14 April 2041
"You there, with the red tie. Come here." Adoram Nicodemus, CEO of Nicodemus Engineering of Weaponry and president of the United States, beckoned at the nearby engineer. President Nicodemus' salt-and-pepper hair was slicked back to expose a high forehead. His eyes were wideset and piercing, surveying the meeting room with precision. Members of the new Liberty Council sat around an oval glass table, watching the president intently for his next move. Summoning the head engineer, Tatsuya Claire, had been curious enough.
"I'd like to see the blueprints," Nicodemus said to the half-Japanese engineer. With a slight inclination of his head, Tatsuya presented the blueprints to the president. His hands were a blur as they moved deftly over the touchscreen pad. The Handheld Assisting Neural Device, or HAND46, summoned up a hologram of the new missile. The intricate charts revolved to face Nicodemus, their eerie blue glow reflecting on the Liberty Council's faces.
The president waved dismissively. "You know that's not why I really summoned you. Your name is...? Forgive me, I can never keep my worker's names straight."
Tatsuya blinked once, his face impassive. He wasn't tall, but he was thin and handsome and he carried himself professionally. He studied the president through his fine-framed glasses, debating how to answer him. "I'm one of the weapons engineers,"--he failed to mention he was head engineer, for that seemed conceited--"and my name is Tatsuya Claire."
"Oh?" Nicodemus feigned interest. "Your last name is American." The last sentence was a statement. It immediately registered in Tatsuya's brain that Nicodemus was running one of the various background checks on the workers. At first he had thought the interrogations were a myth, but when close coworker Fabrizio had been fired it was all too evident that his Italian background was to blame.
"Yes." Tatsuya made sure to keep his expression neutral. "My father is American and my mother is from Japan."
"So you're Japanese?" pressed Nicodemus, raising a dark eyebrow.
Tatsuya allowed his eyes to sweep over the Liberty Council. The twelve CEOs of American companies had been voted into office by the people. The Council had come into effect following Nicodemus' third election and the president had decided to reduce the government to six representatives in the House and six representatives in the Senate. The public, charmed by Nicodemus and irritated by bickering politicians, agreed to the newly-proposed plan of government. Currently, the Liberty Council stared back at Tatsuya. Some looked on with hungry eyes, others appeared bored with the prospect of the meeting.
"I prefer to call myself American," answered Tatsuya, returning his gaze to the president. "I was born here. Though I grew up living much of Japanese culture, I am still American."
"Your records say you grew up in Japan," Nicodemus said accusingly.
"I was educated in Japan, yes. But I studied at university here in the States, as well as high school and junior high. It was just my earlier school years that I was in Japan."
The president surveyed Tatsuya for what seemed an eternity. Tatsuya returned the attention calmly, refusing to cave. After a long pause, Nicodemus spoke to fill the silence.
"Your wife is Cambodian," he said slowly. "Your children are fluent in Japanese. How loyal are you to this country, really?"
"Srey was born in Cambodia, yes, but she has lived here her entire life. My children are far from fluent in Japanese as well. Who told you such a thing? Their English is barely passable, I think," added Tatsuya good-naturedly. "Especially the littlest one, he's always a handful." There were a few chuckles from around the table at that.
"Well, Mr. Han--"
"Claire," corrected Tatsuya quickly.
"--Claire," said Nicodemus impatiently, "I hear you have associations with W?adys?aw and Renata Jaworski and their son, Karol. The family of three lived in occupied Poland before moving here. Tell me, Mr. Cho, what are their affiliations with you?"
This time, Tatsuya chose not to correct the president. Choosing his words carefully, he replied, "And what business is this to you, Mr. President?"
"Every worker's business is my business, Mr. Lee!" barked Nicodemus, color rising in his face. "And since your job is at stake, I suggest you answer me!"
"And how is my job at stake?" asked Tatsuya quietly.
The president's mouth moved soundlessly, like a fish opening and closing its mouth out of water. His face looked positively swollen and ripe as a tomato. "I--I demand you answer me!" he spluttered, split flecking the table. Some of the Liberty Council members murmured too low for Tatsuya to hear. They stirred restlessly in their chairs, no doubt exhausted from the turn of events played out in front of them.
"The Jaworskis are a peaceful family. W?adys?aw Jaworski works in your own factory's headquarters and his wife, Renata, is an accountant for a local company called Milton and Johnston." Tatsuya took a small breath before adding, "I think you would know your own workers better than I do, Mr. President, if I should put it so delicately."
One of the members cleared his throat, signifying the meeting's closing and also saving Tatsuya from a tongue lashing. There was another meeting planned soon after, consisting of only the Liberty Council and Nicodemus, and the members were impatient to wrap up yet another interrogation on someone's citizenship status.
The president sniffed loudly. "Hmm. I'll let it slide this time, Mr. Nguyen. Perhaps this will give you time to rethink your actions. I shall want to hear more to convince me, you have yet to do that, but that will be another time. For now, this meeting is dismissed. Now get out."
Tatsuya bowed deeply before realizing his mistake. To make up for his obvious Japanese appearance, he hastened to give the reluctant Nicodemus a firm handshake and hurried from the room before he could face further criticism. After all, he had a flight home to catch.
Maverick Kansas, U.S.A, 14 April 2041
Mondays were always the worst. I spent the morning herding my siblings like sheep. Being the oldest wasn't easy, and sometimes I thought it was my parent's personal test. With my violin case on one shoulder, my multi-colored backpack on the other, I yanked my youngest brother by the back of his polo shirt.
"What--is--that?" I shrilled, eyeing his backpack suspiciously.
"Nothing, Rosie!" Eli whined. His huge, wide brown eyes were just like mine--Mama's eyes. He was fourteen but looked incredibly young for his age. I wrested a whoopee cushion from his grip. "Really?" I said. "You need this for school?"
Natalie, the second youngest, giggled as she came down the stairs. "That won't impress Heather, you know," she said nonchalantly. Sweet Natalie, always calm, usually wearing a smile and a bow in her dark hair. Natalie, along with Manny, had been adopted from my mother's birth country of Cambodia. Giving birth to Eli nearly killed our mother, so our parents decided to adopt in order to have the large family they'd dreamed of. Natalie was fifteen, while Manny was sixteen. Sometimes the year difference threw people off; they could've been twins. But Manny was sullen and broody, whereas Natalie was my own personal ball of light.
Natalie flashed me a pretty smile. I'd noticed the boys at school had noticed her...I'd decided I had to do something about that. My big sister instincts kicked in whenever anyone looked at her. "I'll go wait in the car," she sang, flouncing out of the kitchen and through the door that led to the garage.
Eli tried to take advantage of the distraction, snatching his whoopee cushion back and whirling away. Unfortunately the little trickster tornado-ed right into the counter, bumping the beehive cookie jar our mother so loved. It tottered in all its yellow and bee-covered glory, but Manny swooped out of nowhere and caught it before it fell. Manny, with his black hair pushed to the side and the tall, lanky figure of a pubescent teenager, straightened to stare questioningly at me.
I sighed, breaking eye contact to watch Eli slip into the garage. "Just get in the car," I said. "Please?" I added, when Manny didn't move. He was younger than yours truly, who was seventeen and a senior in high school, but sometimes he seemed older than me.
I followed him out of the dainty floral-themed kitchen into the garage, my heart fluttering as I saw my lavender baby sitting there in the drive. Natalie had already opened the garage door, and she and Eli sat in the backseat of my car, noticeably arguing.
Manny slid into the passenger's seat, unspeaking. I stood in front of the garage, mentally calculating how much free time I'd have before school started. At this rate, none. I'd probably be late.
"Close garage door," I told the garage. Processing my voice, the garage obeyed my command and began to lower. I got into the car, still mulling over the possible time. I could meet Sara in the library, or catch Karol trying to trick the voice-automated vending machines...
"Rosie! Eli put gum in my hair!" Natalie called.
Forget everything I said. I was definitely going to be late.
By some sheer miracle, I managed to pull into the parking lot with five minutes to spare. I turned off the ignition and grabbed my keys. "Everyone, get out and go to your classes. No stopping for anything. You have no time!" I said, raising my voice to be heard. Eli and Natalie were arguing again, this time about the peanut smell of Natalie's hair. I felt a bit guilty, seeing as I'd resorted to the old-fashioned trick of peanut butter to remove the gum from Natalie's hair.
"It's fine, Natalie," I assured her. "Eli, get out. Manny, go to class." Hearing no response, I peered around and realized that Manny had already left. "Okay then. You two, just get to class," I ordered. I secretly vowed to confront Mama about today. She'd had an emergency at work and was unable to take Manny, Eli, and Natalie like she usually did. Dad always left early in the morning for his office, leaving only me capable of transporting my siblings.
The bell rang as I was headed to first hour advanced orchestra. I tripped over my violin case, even though it was on my shoulder (I honestly don't know how I did it), and ducked into the classroom.
The band teacher, Mrs. Manhattan, was taking roll call in a bored voice. "Rosemary Claire," she read, not even looking up.
"Here," I responded automatically. My best friend, Sara Wong, smiled at me. Tall and willowy, with almond-shaped eyes and a curtain of dark hair, Sara had been my friend since first grade. She waved in the back where she sat with the other flutists. I grinned back, my gaze dropping to scan the room. Someone was missing.
After practice, I walked with Sara to our next class, AP English. "I noticed a certain someone wasn't at practice," I said, clutching my HAND46 to my favorite blouse, the one with the rainbow swirls and gazillion sparkles. Sara often commented on my neon fashion taste, but I liked to think of myself as a walking prism with my golden-brown skin reflecting the colors like a mirror.
"Oh. Uh-huh." Sara wore a nonchalant fade, but I knew her too well. I saw the corners of her lips twitch up in a faint smile. I poked her in the ribs and she giggled. "Alright, alright! I don't know where he was this morning. Why don't you try giving him a call?"
I frowned. My boyfriend of two years, Karol Jaworski usually told me if he had to miss school. Karol's name was pronounced Carl and had been butchered by teachers since day one. He had moved to the U.S. from Warsaw, Poland when he was fifteen and a freshman in high school. He had an accent and whatnot, but he was pretty cool. I mean, he was my boyfriend. Anyway, he came during the middle of second quarter in the first semester. He was shy, probably because his English wasn't that great. And then he met me. We started dating our junior year and had been inseparable ever since. The rest, as they say, is history.
"I'll try giving him a call later," I said, still frowning. My mind ran at a hundred miles per hour. Maybe one of his parents had an emergency at work, and because both Mr. and Mrs. Jaworski worked long hours, Karol was needed to help them. Or maybe he'd gotten hit on the head during tennis practice by Argon Hempstead. Actually, judging by his coordination, he probably hit himself with his racket. I settled on this last prospect, satisfied with the idea that he had brought the harm onto himself instead of rushing to someone else's aid.
We walked into AP English just in time. We threw ourselves into our seats, adjacent to each other, just as the bell rang. Mr. Edwards eyed us suspiciously, debating whether or not to call us out. We were the only students allowed to sit next to each other even after we changed seats, thanks to our straight A's and flawless presentations. After a silent internal struggle, Mr. Edwards decided not to lecture us after all and returned to the large touch-screen board at the front of class.
My last class of the day was art with Mrs. Rosewood. I had to do a bit of a running leap in order to get up on my stool. Being four foot ten wasn't easy, but I managed to do it every day. My friend from debate club, Hypatia, snickered. She wore her raven hair in a ponytail, a trademark of hers, and tapped her nails on the counter. "Girl, you having some trouble?" she teased, flashing me a grin. I thought Hypatia was beautiful. She had ebony skin so dark that it shone, and her confidence during debates made her that much more stunning. Hypatia also did track and field, being athletic as she was, and math was her favorite subject. Apparently our mutual friend Everest thought she was pretty, for our red-haired friend had shyly asked her out after a debate tournament. I often caught the pair walking hand-in-hand in the halls and always gave Everest a thumbs up, to which he'd return with an awkward but content expression.
"Awww, shut up, would you?" I made a face, reaching for my backpack to retrieve my portfolio. Unfortunately I couldn't reach it so high up, and I had to hop back down. Hypatia cackled.
While I grabbed my portfolio, I spotted something black and white in the corner of my eye. I blinked and did a double-take. Yes, those were indeed a pair of rather large converse shoes. Scuffed on the ends, an outdated shoe you could easily identify a foreigner by, the shoes stared up at me innocently. My gaze traveled upwards, up past the faded blue jeans that also screamed foreigner, past the plain but fitted half-zip sweater, until my eyes finally locked with soft but piercing blue eyes. Karol Jaworski's eyes.
"How's the weather down there, Rosie?" Karol asked. The sight of him, plus his Polish accent, was as familiar to me as the back of my own hand. He stuffed his hands in the pockets of his sweater. I noted how the blond shone through the brown in his hair, like scattered light. Friendly sky-blue eyes regarded me as he smiled a bright open smile.
I straightened quickly and whacked my head on the underside of the table.
"Ouch! Karol!" I squealed almost simultaneously.
Karol caught me as I rushed into his arms. His fair features were strained, which surprised me, and there were dark circles under his eyes. "Moi drodzy, are you okay?" he asked, feeling my head for any bumps. "You hit your head pretty hard, I think."
"I'm fine," I lied, already feeling the egg forming on top of my head. I moved his hand away from it, not wanting him to detect it and worry. But Karol, all too aware of my plan, narrowed his eyes. In a flash, he instantly located the bump on my head with his hand. He let his hand fall away, chuckling.
"I have something to show you," he said, touching my lips with his finger. "After school, a surprise."
"Okay!" I said. In my excitement I dropped my portfolio.
Karol caught it before I had to jump off my stool after it, chuckling again. He loved me unconditionally, imperfections and all.
Hypatia averted her eyes carefully, as she had ever since Karol's appearance. Like most other kids our age, she didn't care for foreigners. Anyone outside continental America was regarded as freaks, as the lowliest species on the planet. She didn't like Karol, and it wasn't because of his personality or anything. She hated that he was an immigrant.
Even Mrs. Rosewood, the sweet-tempered art teacher, cared little for my boyfriend. As she took roll call, her friendly persona faltered for a moment. "Jaworski, Karol," she called, stumbling over his name as usual. No one attempted to get it right. She pronounced the 'j' as an actual j, failing to use the 'y' sound that was common in eastern European languages. She also said "Carol," as in the girl's name Carol.
Karol didn't hesitate as he replied, "Here." I noticed he tried extra hard to use an American accent, and it broke my heart.
Mrs. Rosewood nodded curtly. I saw the smile freeze on Karol's face, saw the smug look Hypatia shot in his direction. But it went unseen by Karol. My boyfriend's smile remained long after roll call was over, displaying his perfect front teeth, and the crooked ones. Anybody who was anybody got braces, or at least underwent surgery to have their teeth straightened and whitened. Crooked teeth were blaring signs of an immigrant, as well as yellow teeth. Karol's teeth weren't yellow by any means, but they weren't as white or straight as my own.
Class today was just review of what we'd done on Friday. Still portraits of a classmate. Hypatia was my assigned partner, and I'd done my best to portray her beauty in a colored pencil sketch. Karol had been paired with Argon Hempstead ironically, who hated him no less than the rest of the school. Karol surpassed Argon in tennis with little effort, which probably frustrated Argon because his private tennis lessons since two seemed to do nothing against Karol's raw talent.
I pulled up my picture of Hypatia. "How does it look?" I asked. Somehow Eli had managed to stain it with blueberry juice, and so I'd spent the remaining five hours of the weekend recoloring Hypatia's skin, which had been dyed a very suspicious purple.
Hypatia started laughing so hard she had to cover her mouth to stifle it. I saw Karol shoot us a worried glance. I noticed that his oil and pastel portrait of Argon was flawless, so realistic it looked like a high quality photograph.
"My nose looks like Russia! Girl, that nose is huge!" Hypatia choked.
I felt a little hurt, but after glancing at the picture I decided she was right. I didn't admit it though.
Karol heard her comment and made a face. Hypatia didn't know, but Karol and his parents had fled Poland after Russia invaded. Russia wanted Poland, claiming the country was theirs, as well as several other eastern European countries. There was a lot of violence and bloodshed, but his family had escaped to Germany and from there made it to the U.S. I didn't know too many details, but I knew that Hypatia's words offended Karol. Russia was huge, and Karol knew the power and terror that instilled in their "enemies." Mother Russia didn't need to be any larger, she was fine the way she was.
I never got a chance to ask Karol why he wasn't at symphony practice. Hypatia was too busy criticizing my portrait to get any words in. Eventually she showed me hers, and rather grudgingly at that. I could understand why. I was a decent artist, though not near as good as Karol. However her portrayal of me depicted what I figured to be female, except that its skin was so yellow that it looked like a pineapple blob with black hair.
"Hey now," I said jokingly, "something don't look right." My golden-brown skin was rare in America, but it wasn't that hard to depict in a drawing. I knew my mother would have been mortified at seeing Hypatia's drawing, so I took mental note not to show it to her.
At the end of class, we exchanged portraits. Hypatia tucked mine carefully in her bag. Even though she'd spent so long trashing it, I think she was secretly pleased. It wasn't worth getting mad over it, so I gave her a hug before she left.
Karol came over to me, probably hoping he'd get a ride from me. He usually did, and it was a better alternative than the bus. I sighed. "Sorry sweetie, I'm the chaperone for the kiddos tonight," I said. "Unless you want to ride with Manny and Eli?" Both Manny and Eli, playing the role of protective younger brothers, disliked Karol and had no problem letting him know. In fact, Karol was their number one prank victim.
He pretended to consider. "Hmm, tempting," he said, winking at me. I laughed.
Karol did agree to come with me, if I promised to drop my siblings off first. Then we would go to his house and he'd show me my surprise. It was a done deal.
The ride home was not enjoyable. I had Manny, Eli, and Natalie squished together like human sardines in the back, while Karol rode up front with me. Of course Manny and Eli had protested at once, howling up a storm until I threatened to tell our parents. They shut up, shooting me dark glances every five minutes. Fortunately, I kept my eyes on the road and was able to ignore them. Natalie hummed a new song she had learned in choir and Karol chatted my ear off about his favorite pastime--food.
"And then there's go??bki," said Karol excitedly. His voice always rose two octaves when he was excited about something, and I found it so adorable. "It's stuffed cabbage," he explained. "Go??bki means 'little pigeons' in Polish, but there're no pigeons involved!" he added hastily seeing my expression. "The cabbage is fixed in parcels, stuffed with mushrooms and meat."
"Sounds delicious! Maybe I can cook you something, um, healthy soon," I said, discreetly eyeing his stomach. Karol wasn't exactly fat, but he did have a little bit of a belly. Since he talked about cabbage so much, I figured I could fix him one of my mom's famous lettuce wraps. Then again, I loved his belly very much. Maybe I didn't need to worry about his health so much.
"Say, did you manage to whack yourself in the head with your tennis racket?" I asked. "Is that why you weren't at symphony practice?"
Manny and Eli sniggered in the back seats.
Karol flushed pink, but he shook his head. "No, not this time!" he said half-jokingly.
"Oh." I tried to think of something else. "Did you hit Argon with your tennis racket?"
Karol laughed a hearty laugh. "No!"
"Did you accidentally score by running into the net? Was that it?" I demanded.
Karol rolled his eyes. "Rosie," he said patiently, "you don't score in tennis by hitting the ball into the net. Though we both know you think you score every time you do."
I swatted at him playfully.
After dropping Manny, Eli, and Natalie off at home I backed out of the driveway once again, this time headed with Karol to his house.
"I think it's really cool that you like to drive," said Karol, peering out the window. He rolled down the window to let in the early spring air. It was a little chilly and naturally I had to be sensitive to the cold, as well as loud noises. I didn't complain, though. Karol loved the cold.
"Of course," I said, surprised. "My dad wanted me to know how to drive. He taught my mom after they married. Or well, he re-taught her. Her driving wasn't too good to begin with."
Karol nodded thoughtfully. I knew what he was thinking. People liked to plug their coordinates into a GPS system, and then the car would drive itself to the location. Technology had advanced enough that we didn't really need to drive, but I liked the feel of being in control.
I turned left on Ruby Autumn Drive. Here, the houses paled in comparison to the nicer homes we'd driven by earlier. We passed lawns with grass still brown from winter, as well as hoses with holes, rusty cars, and hail damage from last year's unsuspected tornado warning. Fortunately there had never been a tornado, and our house had been saved by the numerous tall trees that sheltered us. But the duplexes had gaping, jagged holes that were unevenly spaced on the outside, butchering already mediocre paint jobs.
We pulled into a driveway that led to a small split-level house. Despite the house's peeling white paint, its sills were adorned with boxes of bright flowers. I liked that about Karol's mom--she took the time to plant the flowers, and she did it herself. No one did that anymore. Most people just dumped pretty glass stones in place of the flowers. My mom had a small flowerbed herself, but she could only spend so much time gardening until she had a panic attack over a spider.
We got out and made our way to the door. I poked the built-in computer on the porch wall. While we waited, I studied the flowerbed in miniature that lined the walkway.
Please state your name, the computer said at last.
"Karol and Rosie," I replied.
Please state your first and last names, the computer said picking up on the fact that there were two people instead of one.
"For goodness sake, I'm standing with someone who lives here!" I cried, exasperated.
I'm sorry. That is not a valid answer, said the computer.
In response, I punched it. Or, well, attempted to punch it. Pain radiated through my wrist, and I gritted my teeth and clutched it. I nursed my wrist as Karol took over calmly. He said something in Polish, so low I couldn't have understood it even if I could speak Polish. The door swung open to a small, cramped house lined with maps of Poland and the red-and-white Polish flag. The national anthem, Mazurek D?browskiego, was delicately stitched onto a white background. Mrs. Jaworski's hobby of embroidery was evident, for there was more framed artwork of hers throughout of the house. Karol must have inherited his artistic talents from her.
There was no entryway and I had to jump over the stairs as I followed Karol to the spare room, the one he called his 'studio.' The room reeked of paints and new canvas, but it was a comforting smell. A desk was positioned by a single window. I had seen its surface light up as he traced his own drawings. The desk was specially-programmed to respond automatically to the artist's desires. However, it had cost the Jaworski family a fortune. "Eet's for our son's future," Karol's mom had insisted. "His life ez more zan ours."
Karol shifted through the drawing pad. I glimpsed several black-and-white sketches of objects in motion. He was experimenting with motion a lot these days, tired of the usual still art.
"Here." He flipped a sheet and my eyes came to rest on the next one.
It was a picture of me, my own still portrait. No doubt Karol wanted to be my partner in art, instead of Argon's, and so he'd given himself his own personal assignment: drawing me, Rosemary Claire. In the oil and pastel Karol had captured my appearance, my character, just perfect. My hair, which I had allowed to grow out, was bushy as a hedgehog and down to my waist. No matter how much I tried to straighten it, it still looked bulky.
"Ugh. That is the most unflattering picture of me," I joked. "This can't be my surprise, can it?"
He took my hand and kissed it. "You are beautiful to me, Rosie."
I studied the drawing version of me. "Wow. It looks just like me. I think." Personally, I think he beautified me a bit.
"It's how I see you," Karol insisted.
A deep, warm feeling started at the back of my stomach, inching its way towards my heart. I grinned. "I like it. Keep it. I don't need a picture of myself. That would be narcissistic."
"Oh, I will," he said. "I'll transfer it onto canvas. It will be a finished product."
I kissed him on the cheek. "You're a diamond, Karol Jaworski."