This was nothing new. In fact, he regularly forgot things: his wallet, the milk, he'd even forgotten their marriage license on that magical day some twelve years prior. On any other day, Angela might have laughed it off before slipping on her shoes and heading to the stores. Today it made her furious. She watched, her lips pressed into a hard, thin line as he trudged for there was no other word that could describe the slow, stoop-shouldered stride up the walkway. Leaning back against the counter, she folded her arms as he entered the house. He jerked to a stop as he surveyed the unusually spotless state of their home. It was clear to him, with the certainty that only twelve years of constant companionship can give, that he was in trouble. It was also clear to him that it was far too late to head it off.
He didn't know, as she railed at him, arms clamped tightly across her chest to keep from throwing any number of things at his head, that this wasn't about the milk. He had no idea that, while her anger was very real, it was fueled by the terror of losing him. How could he have guessed, as he let her scream herself hoarse and offered an apology they both knew he didn't mean, that the Reparation trucks had begun to move across the country, meting out the New Justice?
Angela set the glossy pamphlet down on the counter and locked her shaking fingers together. She glanced out her window, knowing that a dozen other wives were sitting in their kitchens, or couches or porches, reading the same pamphlet she had just set down. Perhaps they were seized with the same gut-churning horror that she was. Perhaps they weren't.
We wanted this, she reminded herself. We voted for this. It was true. It had seemed a godsend, salvation. The Reparation Act had saved the country from tearing itself apart with religion and politics. Everything had been simplified, explained, condensed. An entire legal code, she nearly smiled, reduced to a twelve page pamphlet. Six of them described the New Justice and the procedures for punishment. One was given over, entirely, to the contact number for a Kit. The others outlined the new laws, simple really. Common sense.
A hysterical giggle bubbled up from somewhere inside of her and she clamped her teeth shut around it. It hadn't seemed so bad on the ballot. Now, her throat tightened as she stared at the innocuous papers, it did. She felt like she was suffocating, the room too hot, but she had nowhere to go. Even if she'd been in any shape to drive, they'd downsized to one car when oil topped two hundred dollars a barrel.
She pulled her shirt away from her chest, tearing her eyes away from the beautiful, smiling man on the cover, and closed her eyes. The feeling of claustrophobia intensified exponentially, and her eyes snapped back open, falling on the small pile of dishes left from that morning, then moved to the crumbs from where he'd made his lunch, and the not-quite-full garbage can. She stood then, quickly enough to topple the chair she'd been sitting on, and ran the tap until it was as cold as it would go before filling a tall glass. She drank the glass of water off in three gulps, and though it roiled in her stomach, it steadied her. She splashed her face several times, then forced herself to take slow, deep breaths. When she was sure that she would neither vomit nor collapse, she began to clean.
Angela was calm when he got home the second time. He noticed the traces of sweat along her hairline as he put the milk away. She was wearing the pair of sneakers he'd picked for her when she claimed she wanted to take up running. She hadn't, but the treadmill in the basement still saw a fair bit of use. He didn't comment. Her mood, like everything else about her, was mercurial. He had no wish to spend the rest of the evening fighting with her. He didn't kiss her either, though her cheeks were slightly flushed and she looked more beautiful than any woman had a right to.
He'd mentioned this once, playing with a lock of her tousled hair after they'd gone for a brisk walk through the neighborhood. She'd laughed and slapped his hand away, but there had been real irritation in the look she gave him. Instead, he turned his attention to the pamphlet that she had shoved across the island, thumbing through it quickly, before setting it down again.
"Well?" Her tone was waspish.
He sighed. "We got them at work. Got to say, this is a much more efficient system. Easier for the average man to understand."
"What did you think about the section on New Justice?"
"It is what it is. We voted for this, Ang. It's not like we can turn around and say 'the price is too high, never mind.' The new system is clear. A man would have to be an idiot to misunderstand. We don't have to worry about the Justice because we know what the laws are."
She had moved closer, close enough that he could touch her. With some surprise, he held his arms open and she stepped into them, hers going around his waist tight enough to hurt. She hadn't voluntarily touched him in months. "Hey now, what's the matter?"
"'In accordance with the Reparation Act, Justice is absolute and must be administered swiftly.'" She shivered against him and he tightened his hold on her. "They're not allowing appeals. They aren't even allowing trials! That wasn't part of what they told us."
"The information was there, Ang. They didn't hide it from us. What do you think the Cleansing was about?"
He shuddered this time, recalling the backlash that had arisen when they had finally begun to enforce the Reparation Act. Riots had rocked the city when they'd Cleansed the prisons and the streets. The new government's response had been swift. They granted no reprieves. Every single person involved in the rioting had been given a Kit and, under the watchful eyes of the Atonement Crews, had bowed to the New Justice. The entire thing had lasted less than three days. The scene was repeated a hundred times, a thousand, throughout the country. At the end of three months, there was no more rebellion.
"I don't like it," Angela said, pressing her cheek to his chest. "You have to be careful, James. Promise me."
He laughed, he couldn't help it. Pressing his lips to the top of her head, he muttered, "You have nothing to worry about, Ang. I know the rules as well as anybody and I'm always careful."
James was right. They settled back into the pattern of their days and nothing changed until the day the Reparation trucks came to their neighborhood.
It was an idyllic Saturday, the sun beating down on the brilliant green lawns of the neighborhood. It was the first weekend in months when there was no rain in the forecast and the residents of Apple Street were taking full advantage. The air was scented with honeysuckle and cool water coming from a dozen sprinklers. Though unplanned, an impromptu block party had formed in the front yards. Mismatched tables and chairs were brought, and several grills had been lit. The adults watched, laughing and chatting, as the children chased one another through the yards, shrieking as the icy water drenched them.
The sound of the low, growling engine cut through the other noises, bringing near instant silence. Everyone turned to watch as the large, white truck turned onto Apple and moved slowly, so slowly, down the street. Even from here, the large red symbol was clear as day. A stylized 'R' and 'A' decorated the side and the truck bore the sleek lines that spoke of government issue. As it passed the Rodriguez's home, Maria breathed a quick prayer and rose, sparing one pleading glance for Angela as she gathered her children and chivvied them home. The Thompsons were next, though neither of the neighbors spoke as they, too, hurried back towards their home. Angela gripped James' hand as the truck moved further up the street, closer and closer to their home.
And passed it.
She let out the breath she'd been holding, her knees going weak beneath her. It was only her grip on James that kept her upright. She tugged at James's hand, willing him to follow her into the house, but he stayed exactly where he was. She opened her mouth to beg him to come inside, but the look he turned on her was so full of cold fury that she closed it again, the words dying on the tip of her tongue.
The truck slowed, though it hardly seemed possible that it could, and finally pulled into a driveway. There was a low moan and Angela turned to put her arms around Therese Lewis before she was even aware that she had decided to. Unable to support the woman's weight, she sagged to the grass with her, murmuring soft, soothing sounds. Rick, her husband, was still upright.
James turned to him, his eyes wide now. "Why are th-"
Rick shook his head once, a sharp gesture, and James fell silent. He began walking, not toward where his wife lay, near senseless, on the grass, but toward the white truck. The 'Tonies, as the Atonement Crews had come to be known, were recognizable by their blue scrubs and hard faces. Therese cried out, but other than a slight stiffening of his shoulders, he seemed not to hear her.
"I told him," she moaned as he approached the tallest of the men, his chin raised. They were too far away to hear, but they watched as Rick took the clipboard he was offered and scribbled something on it. "No!"
Angela jumped, her arms letting go of Therese to cover her ears. Before either she or James could stop her, Therese had gotten to her feet and bolted towards her home. Angela watched, horror locking her joints, as Therese raised her hand and dashed it across the tallest Tony's face. James groaned, putting his arm around her and pulling her close.
The Tony's face, if possible, turned even stonier, and he pulled out a small cellphone and put it to his ear. Rick was fighting with Therese now, holding her as she screamed at the men who were unloading a large white box which contained the Kit. Even from this distance, they could hear her shrieking clearly.
"You can't do this! We're citizens and we've done nothing wrong! You can't make him do this! Get off of me, Rick! You slimy bastards!"
Angela realized, as they began to unload a second box, that she could not watch any more. She turned to James, not bothering to lower her voice. "James, please? I can't..."
She thought, for the merest breath of time, that he was going to refuse. Then his own face hardened, mirroring that of the men in scrubs, and he turned back towards their own house. When the doors shut on Therese's screaming, they knew that it was the last thing they'd ever hear from her. Without speaking, Angela gathered two glasses and every bottle of liquor they had in the house. By next morning, most of them were empty.
"I finished our Declarations." Angela was sitting at the bar, fingers wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee. "Don't forget to mail them, please."
"I won't." James threw her a smile, noting the circles beneath her eyes as he poured himself a cup. "Were you up all night?"
"Yeah. You'd think they'd simplify the tax code like they did everything else."
"They did," he said, pulling the thin stack of papers across the island. "Want me to go through them, double check everything?"
"Please. We can't be too careful." He touched the hand that was resting between them and she smiled in a vague sort of way, her mind clearly somewhere else.
Rumor had run rampant as to what had caused the Reparation to come for the Lewises, each tale growing more wild with the telling. Everyone knew what had happened to Therese, there had been witnesses. Until the short letter in a nondescript white envelope came, Rick's guilt had been a complete mystery. James could still remember every word.
As you may be aware, the Reparations Crews recently visited your neighborhood. We regret the interruption of your friendly gathering, but hope you understand the necessity or our actions.
As outlined on page three in the Reparation Act pamphlet that was delivered to your home, all taxes and dues must be rendered in full by the 15th day following the end of a Fiscal Quarter. There can be no exceptions to this rule. Failure to do so will result in immediate administration of Justice.
Again, we deeply regret the necessity of our actions.
Secretary of Reparations
There had been no funerary services for the Lewises. When the white truck had departed the following morning, it had taken all of their belongings with it. It was as if, James thought with bitterness, they had never existed. He thanked every star in the heavens that they had not had children. The State funded care centers for the orphans were little better than 'Tony training centers.
"I'll take a look as soon as I get the chance." His response was a little late, but she didn't seem to notice. In fact, she was drooping over her mug. "Go to bed. I'll take a look at these and get them in the post tonight."
"Don't forget to sign them, either!" James cringed at the note of hysteria in her voice. "They have to be mailed by tomorrow."
"I won't forget." He made a great show of placing the packet into the large envelope, then placing that into his suitcase, right on top. "I promise. Now, get some sleep. Want me to pick up something from The Wok tonight?"
"Sure," she was fading again and he smiled. "No beef and broccoli though. It tears my stomach up."
"No beef and broccoli," he repeated. "Anything else? I can help you upstairs if you'd like."
"I'm fine," she stood then, setting her mug down carefully. "Don't forget to mail the Declarations."
James remembered the packet as he was pulling into the driveway. The entire computer system had crashed and he'd spent the better part of the day reassuring the frantic workers that he would have the system back up in time to print out their Declarations forms. He did, too, though it took his entire IT team all day to do it. He ignored the filthy looks the passing neighbors were giving him as he idled in the driveway, wasting precious oil, then threw the car into reverse. If he hurried, he might make it before they closed.
The drive to the post office took an eternity. He hit nearly every red-light along the way and by the time he arrived, he was thoroughly irritated by every other person on the road. He slammed the car door, not bothering to lock it, as he hurried toward the front of the building. According to the clock in his dash, he'd arrived two minutes past closing, but he had set it that way on purpose so he was never late.
It was a close thing. A woman with wildly curly hair was standing behind the door, her key lifted to lock them. He raised the packet and mouthed 'please.' She hesitated a moment then lowered the key.
"Hurry up then," she said, pushing the door open. "It's your lucky day."
He beamed at her, tempted to throw his arms around her, but the look she was giving him made him think twice. He hurried past her and she shut the door behind him, locking it against any other latecomers.
When the Reparation Truck came, it did not drive slowly past their home. Angela watched as they slowed and pulled into their drive. White faces peered from behind curtains across the street, then vanished. They all knew what it meant. Men in blue scrubs were climbing out of the truck, a sea of cold, hard faces.
"James?" Her voice had no volume, if she hadn't felt her throat move, she wouldn't have even been sure she'd spoken. She swallowed against the pressure in her throat and yelled. "James!"
A man, tall, stony faced, was already coming up the driveway before James finally came into the room. "What?"
She pointed, mutely, and he froze. They both turned to look at the door, waiting for the knock, cringing when it came. She had watched as the other Tonies moved, almost seeming to wander, to the other windows and doors. It was Angela, legs shaking so badly that she thought she might not be able to move, who finally moved to answer the knock.
"My name is Patrick Cote and I represent the Reparation Committee. May I please speak to Mr. James Anderson?"
The words were polite enough, but the tone lacked any inflection at all. There was a large, half-healed bruise maring one side of the man's face. She tore her eyes away from it and glanced over her shoulder, expecting to see James still standing in the kitchen, but he had crossed the floor while the man spoke.
"I am James Anderson." She heard the tremor in his voice, but doubted the man standing at their door did. "How can I help you?"
"Please place your thumb against the scanner so we can confirm your identity."
The man held out a small device with a small black square and a wire that ran to a screen at the top of his clipboard. There was a faint beep and the man nodded.
"It is my regretful duty to inform you," Patrick Cote, glanced up at James then turned back to his clipboard, "That there was an error in your Declarations. Such errors cannot be tolerated and, as outlined on page seven of the Reparation pamphlet that was sent to your home, you must submit yourself to Justice immediately."
Angela felt as though she'd been plunged into ice water. "But-"
"Be quiet," James hissed, not looking at her. He cleared his throat and asked, loud enough for the man to hear, "May I ask what sort of error?"
The man's chest expanded, as though he were about to heave a sigh, then pressed a button which brought an image up to the board he held. "It seems as though the Declarations were sent without proper signatures. As the proper procedure for filling out and submitting Declarations was issued some weeks before the deadline, there can be no excuse for such a lapse."
"A signature?" James's voice raced up three octaves and Patrick Cote tensed. "You're here because I forgot to sign the papers?"
"Well then, where are they? I'll sign them now and no harm done."
"I'm afraid, Sir, that that is no longer an option. The law has been broken and you must submit yourself to Justice immediately."
"Justice," Angela, tearing her eyes away from the white box that was being unloaded from the truck, spat. "This is not Justice."
James's hand tightened painfully on her arm and she fell silent. "And if I don't?"
"Your entire family will be Cleansed." The man's voice cracked and he glanced at them again, the masklike quality of his face gone. The stab of pity Angela felt for the man left her quite unable to speak. "It is easier this way."
"Not here," James said, staring at a point beyond the man. "I will come with you, but I won't do it here."
The man nodded and turned to the crew. He said nothing, but they seemed to understand, for the box was lifted and they began to make their way back to the truck. He handed the board to James, who took it and signed his name.
"May I have a moment with my wife?" He turned away from the man without waiting for an answer, and gripped Angela's shoulders tightly. His voice was urgent now. "Be safe, Angela."
He pressed his lips to hers and she felt a terrible heat beginning to build in her gut. It was as though her insides had been hollowed out and replaced by fire. "Don't go, James. Please, make them go all the way. This isn't right, you know it isn't, don't make this easy on them."
"Shh," he pressed his lips to hers again. "I can't do that, Ang. You know I can't."
"You were right," he said, managing a half smile that made the fire in her gut flare. "I should have been more careful. I love you, Angela Anderson."
He didn't wait for her response. She stood there, chin raised, and watched him go. It wasn't until the truck, moving more swiftly now that its business was finished, had turned the corner that the first of the tears slipped down her cheeks. She shut the door before her knees gave way. Knowing he couldn't see her now, she gave herself over to the intense grief that was consuming her.
She wished, as the sobs tore through her, that she could have been brave like Therese.