“Bwa! Bah!” gurgled the baby.
“Right as usual, Cassie,” Peter said, pulling out a bright red knit cap. It was too small. Peter shook his head. “I know this fit yesterday.” He found another cap, a patterned alpaca wool hat with big earflaps. He pulled it down firmly over Cassie’s head. “Command: weather,” he said.
Twelve degrees, said the system voice in his left ear. Twenty percent chance of precipitation. The wind chill brings it down to 10 degrees. Peter took a second to convert the numbers into a more familiar 50 degrees Fahrenheit. After more than a decade in Vicuña, he still found the metric system confusing.
“Hat. Yes, Princess, it’s a new hat.” He grabbed his own jacket. “Let’s go for a walk, Princess. Papa hasn’t been outside all day.” Cassie drooled her agreement over his cuff. Peter barely noticed: after fostering eighteen children, he’d stopped worrying about keeping a pristine house.
The program had offered him a full-time au pair, but Peter refused. As the only adult in the compound who spoke both English and Swedish, he needed to do the language imprinting personally. Or so he told himself. The truth ran deeper—he had only six to eight months with each foster child. He didn’t think he could spare a single precious day.
The outside air chilled his face, despite his thick gray beard. Peter took a moment to zip Cassie up inside his oversized jacket, then jammed his hands in the pockets to keep them warm and support her hips. As usual, she kicked happily against his ribs, and tried to flail her arms. You could almost see her brain growing neural connections, feel the strands of fascia wrapping themselves into ligaments, tendons, and muscle. A sudden motion caught his attention. He freed a hand and pointed. “Look, Cassie! It’s a rabbit! Well, a viscacha, anyway. Close enough to a rabbit.” She wobbled her head in the general direction and squealed, “Rah! Rah!”
“That’s right, Princess. Cute rodent.”
They continued down the walking path between the cottages, passing small groups of parents, children, and the occasional au pair. Peter heard snatches of conversation: French, Spanish, Portuguese, and even German. It felt good to see so much life, a happy contrast to the bleak picture painted by the news the government censors permitted them.
Cassie sensed his mood, or some shift in his body language. She slapped his jacket with clumsy hands and sang in some language only she understood. “Bah, bah, wah, ma, ma, da!”
“Tell Papa all about it,” Peter said.
They found a bench under an oak that still retained a scattering of leaves across its crown. He unzipped his jacket and extricated the baby, who stood on wobbly legs. A leaf drifted past her
eyes, and she grabbed it. “La!”
“Leaf,” Peter corrected. “See the veins.” He traced the leaf with one finger, then did the same to his own hand. “Ådra.” His hands looked so old: like rough tree bark. Cassie had clear, unblemished skin, of course.
Cassie grabbed at his hand, which caused her to lose her balance and plop down on her diaper. She didn’t notice, engrossed with her poking and prodding at his knuckles. She pulled his fingers apart, twisted them, then pushed them back together before stuffing them into her mouth and biting down.
“Ay! No, Cassie. Inte bita!” Don’t bite. He pulled his hand back. “Blow!” Peter puffed in her face until she giggled. When she made to grab at his hand again, he pulled it back. “Are you hungry, Princess?” He pointed to his mouth. “Bottle?”
“Bah-bah!” she replied, her brown eyes bright and happy. Peter checked his pockets, but found nothing. Cassie started to squirm.
“Djävulen,” he whispered. The Devil. Then in a louder voice, “Command: assistance.”
“Dígame, por favor,” said the system.
“I need a bottle of warm formula as soon as possible, please.”
A human operator clicked in. “Right away. Do you want it brought there?
“No, the cottage is fine. We’ll be there in a few.”
“It’s no problem, Peter, really.”
“I said no,” he replied firmly. “We can wait a minute, can’t we Princess?” He returned to the cottage and grabbed the bottle from the entryway table.
Cassie drained a liter of formula, belched like a sailor, and snuggled into the crook of his arm. When she stopped sucking at the empty bottle, Peter pulled the nipple away and pushed the tip of his index finger into her tiny mouth, where he felt tiny stalactites and stalagmites.
She was teething ahead of schedule.
Dr. Hidalgo’s genetic treatment manifested itself differently in each child, but Cassie’s growth would probably follow a steep upward curve, like the first incline of a roller coaster, before leveling off. If she followed the usual path, she and her birth group would reach final maturation between eight and ten years. Long before then, she would master at least two languages, and demonstrate additional aptitude for something else, like music or math, or even fútbol.
What had started as a desperate response to the plague had yielded something unexpected and amazing.
Peter put the bottle down, dropped into the rocker and tucked a blanket around himself and Cassie. In a few minutes she was fast asleep. He closed his own eyes and drifted off alongside her. But his memories waited in the dark, as they often did.
It had been raining, a light, cold drizzle that had started around sunset. The roof’s rusted AC housing provided some shelter, so he’d crawled in there with his backpack. He didn’t have much money left after bribing the border police, so he slept where he could.
The Carabineros of Santiago had been clearing the downtown streets of vagrants for days in preparation for the new presidente’s attendance at the national opera’s opening performance of Carmen. Esteban Sabio had come into office with an agenda to combat corruption in the government, and reboot Chile’s economy following the global economic meltdown associated with the frightening epidemics in North America and Europe. The election was marked by widespread voter fraud, intimidation, and a last-minute bombing of Sabio’s campaign headquarters.
Now, a month into Sabio’s term, the internal security forces were taking no chances, so Peter had gone to ground, relying on his twenty-year-old military training. As a norteamericano, he was particularly unwelcome. Twice, women in the marketplace had looked past his sunburn and ratty beard, crossing themselves and hissing “¡Diablo!” at his back.
For some reason, the plague had failed to establish itself south of Baja, seeming to prefer cooler, richer parts of the northern hemisphere. When Washington State proposed closing the schools early that semester, Peter had locked up his faculty office at Seattle Pacific University and filled his ancient Subaru wagon with food, water, his old army survival pack, and a few treasured books. He figured he could take Judith to Cancun and hang out in their timeshare, just in case things got worse.
His ex-wife Helena refused to let Peter take their daughter Judith out of the country. “Not that many people are sick here,” she said. “And the university hospital is better than anything you’ll find in Mexico.” He didn’t push the issue. Judith was starting to warm up to him again after the divorce, and he didn’t want to upset that with another trip to family court.
“You’re probably right,” he told her. “I’m sure things will be sorted out by fall semester.”
He was absolutely wrong.
Peter had just opened up a flask of cheap tequila when he heard the whispers: terse rapid-fire phrases. For a moment, he feared that another homeless man coveted his spot, which was far too small to share. He scrunched himself up against the cold steel cabinet, and listened. His hand crept to the ankle sheath where he carried his Ka-bar knife.
The voice was too soft and his Spanish too poor to follow the conversation, but it soon became apparent that he was eavesdropping on someone’s radio exchange. Then he heard the familiar click of an ammo magazine snapping into place.
Peter risked a quick look. In the fading light, he saw a man lying prone, the
top of his head barely clearing the edge of the roof. A sniper rifle lay under his right hand. Night vision goggles covered his eyes, but he was dressed in civilian clothes. The voices leaking from the gunman’s earpiece became agitated, before a burst of static cut the connection.
A soft chime dragged him back.
“Peter, it’s Javier. Are you awake?”
“Ja. Si. I’m here.” He automatically checked the baby, who snoozed and drooled contently. “¿Que hora es?” He whispered, knowing his earpiece would pick up his words.
“A little after 3. You’ve had a long nap,” said Javier.
“Jeez. I better get moving.” He started to straighten up.
“In a moment, Peter. We need to talk before the angelito wakes up.”
“Sure. ¿Qué pasa?”
“English, please, Peter. English,” said Javier. A little laugh. “While we all appreciate your efforts, your teaching accent is starting to creep a little south lately.”
“Oh. Perdón— Sorry.”
“Cassiopeia will have plenty of time to refine her milk tongue. For now, let’s have you focus on doing your job, yes?” There was a click of keys. “I interrupted your beauty sleep to remind you that you have appointments with the doctors today.”
“Right. Cassie’s due for an immune check.” Peter shifted in his chair, moving the baby and stretching his left leg to relieve a building cramp. “Do I need to do anything beforehand?”
“Just show up. Medical office 5.”
Cassie opened her eyes slowly, then yawned and farted. “Pa!” she cried.
“I’ll let you go.” The connection closed with a soft click.
Peter lifted the baby in both hands, bringing her level with his face. She grabbed his beard and pulled him close. “Pa pa pa!”
“That’s right, Princess. Papa. Papa Peter.”
She responded by tugging on his beard. He tolerated this for a few moments, then gently disengaged her. After replacing a typically full diaper, Peter spread out a wide, yellow alpaca wool quilt embroidered with letters and numbers in black yarn. Kneeling on the blanket with Cassie propped up between knees, Peter worked his way through the alphabet, forward and backwards, sounding out each phoneme carefully. Three of the quilt’s squares had additional letters colored in black marker: å, ä, and ü. One of his early foster children, Gabriel, had once asked Peter during a visit to the Family House, “Papa Peter, why doesn’t English have those letters? They’re so useful.”
After language, they worked on motor skills. Peter laid out a selection of brightly colored plastic balls. He picked one up and put it into Cassie’s hands. She dropped it, of course. He repeated the exercise, placing her hands around the shiny sphere and squeezing gently. On the fifth try, she managed to hold it for a moment. “Very good!” Peter said and clapped his hands. Cassie giggled and managed a fair approximation of applause.
They moved on to back exercises next. With the baby lying supine, Peter dangled a mobile of Noah’s Ark over her face, holding it just out of reach. Cassie grabbed at the parade of passing animals: antelopes to elephants, monkeys to zebras. She lunged enthusiastically, snagging a pair of goats. “Go! Go!”
“That’s right, Princess. They’re called goats.” He leaned down and whispered in her ear. “På svensk, get. Y-et.”
“Ye. Yee!” she replied and stuffed the goat into her mouth.
“Okay, I get it,” he said. “You’re hungry.” He scooped the balls into a mesh bag, hung the mobile on the wall, then unfolded a plastic gate to confine Cassie. “Back in a sec, Princess.”
He put a bottle in the warmer and located some bread and cheese for himself. Part of him desperately wanted coffee, but he was kidding himself. Even decaf triggered his acid reflux these days. He settled for some cold yerba mate in a sports bottle.
He put everything on a tray and returned to the living room. Cassie lay on her stomach, pushing herself up. “Ba, Ba!”
“Bottle,” Peter said and set the warm bottle next to her.
Cassie reached over with one hand. Her other arm trembled, and she flopped faced down.
“Good try!” He took a bite of bread and cheese, then propped Cassie up in his lap and gave her the bottle. She took three hearty gulps before pushing it away. Peter looked down. “What’s wrong, princess? Not warm enough?”
“Ba! Ba! Buh, buh, buh!” She squirmed out of his lap and rolled/crawled over the blanket. She rested her hand on the letter B. “Buh.”
Peter blinked through a sudden upwelling of tears. In that moment, Cassie had sounded exactly like Judith the first time she had read to him. “That’s my girl. Now, can we finish our snack?” He pointed at the bottle, then at his own mouth. “Dricka.”
Cassie crawled back to him and seized the bottle. She drained it, then gnawed on the nipple while Peter finished his own sandwich. He piled the dishes on the tray and pushed it to the side for the housekeeper. “Time for a bath before the doctor, I think.” He scooped her up and headed for the bathroom.
He managed to bathe the baby and change her into a new outfit before they had to leave. As he snuggled her into the carrier, he patted down his pockets in an old, useless habit. He no longer carried money, or identification, or even keys. The biochip chip in his wrist took care of all that. He did remember to tuck a spare bottle in his pocket.
As he walked, he recalled the first time he’d asked one of the pediatricians for a pacifier. They turned him down. Did it have something to do with the children’s rapid tooth growth, he asked?
Babies cry, the doctor said. That’s what they do.
Fortunately, Cassie loved to have her forehead stroked, and the massage usually calmed her. She wasn’t a fussy baby, unlike Judith, who had suffered from inexplicable meltdowns around him well into her third year. Peter had always dreaded his wife’s frequent business trips. Helen worked as a corporate trainer, and often flew to the New York to meet with clients. Every month, Peter stocked up on extra toys, books, and other distractions. He even worked with a hypnotherapist to deal with his own anxiety.
It had been a hard few years.
The shadows were growing longer by the time they reached the medical buildings. Peter checked in at the front desk, which was only a formality since his biochip had already synced with the appointment computer.
He set Cassie down on the floor to crawl about for the few minutes they had to wait. Then a nurse appeared in the door. “Peter?” he said. “We’re in here today.” Peter took Cassie a few doors down the hall into a warm, comfortable room. Smells of mild disinfectant and baby powder lingered in the air. The nurse stripped Cassie to the buff, weighed and measured her, and checked her eyes and ears. “Is her appetite still good?”
“Better than mine,” Peter said.
“I should hope so,” the nurse said. “We have to run some deeper scans this time, so you’ll have time to see the doctor yourself. End of the hall, on your right.”
Peter took a step toward the door. “Um, should I —”
“Go see Dr. Sandoval, Peter. She’s very busy, you know. Don’t worry about Cassie—we do this all the time.” The nurse picked Cassie up and went to another room, singing the first verse of “Happy Little Llama Goes to School.”
Peter found the doctor’s office small but neat, reminding him of his former faculty space. The usual framed medical degree and family photos covered the walls, and one bookcase was dedicated to an impressive array of plants bathing under full-spectrum LEDs. The doctor put down her datapad and offered her hand. There were dark circles under her eyes and her lab coat needed washing. “Good afternoon, Peter. Please, sit down.”
He selected the chair opposite her, sinking into the soft cushions. He felt the lumbar support gently push him forward and the padded arms warm to match his body temperature. “Nice,” he said.
“One of perks of government service,” Sandoval said. “That and a steady paycheck.” She glanced at her datapad. “How are things going?”
“Not bad. My knees are getting creaky, but I can’t complain.”
“But you just did, yes?” She laughed. “You’re due for a physical yourself, and we’ll get to that in a few minutes.” When she saw the look on Peter’s face, she added, “Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle.”
“It’s not that. I’m just used to being in the room with Cassie when she gets her exams.”
“Ah, I see. Well, I’m sure she’s doing fine. Aunt Adoncia is helping out today.”
Peter felt his shoulders drop. Adoncia had raised nine of her own children, in addition to fostering dozens here at the center. She’d been there since the beginning, and had shown Peter the ropes in his early days. He trusted her completely.
“Besides,” Sandoval continued, “You’ll need to start transitioning little Cassiopeia in any event. She’ll be moving into the Family House.”
“So soon?” Peter felt a familiar knot forming in his stomach. “That’s ahead of schedule, isn’t it?”
“Somewhat,” the doctor said. “Please don’t think it’s any reflection on you, Peter.” She glanced over at her data pad, furrowing her brow. “There have been some… changes at the Ministry of Health.”
Her tone reminded Peter of his annual review with the English department chair. “Someone cut your budget,” he guessed.
Dr. Sandoval picked up a tiny worry doll from her desk and rolled it between her thumb and forefinger. “It’s more complicated than that, especially given the current political situation.” She stood up and dropped the worry doll into a pocket. “Come on now, let’s have a look at you.”
Peter loosened his shirt and sat quietly while she listened to his lungs, tested his reflexes, and took blood and saliva samples. “How are you sleeping?”
“Well enough, I suppose,” Peter said. “It helps that I’m chasing Cassie around all day.”
“How are your dreams?” she asked while putting together a lab bag.
“Could be better. They are better,” he amended.
“We have some very good therapists here, Peter. Some of them were in the army themselves. They know what it’s like.”
“Yeah, I guess,” he said. Then, to change the subject, he said, “So what is the current political situation?”
She hesitated a moment. “President Sabio announced his retirement. Cassie’s birth group will be the last children in the program.”
Peter breathed deeply against a wave of nausea. “And you?” he said.
She gave him a wry smile. “It takes more than a special election to fire senior civil servants,” she said. “No, I’ll get a new assignment and monitor the children, but quietly. We’re putting together an anonymous network with some people in Costa Rica.” She sighed and looked around the room. “It was a lot of work, but I’m going to miss this place. We accomplished incredible things here.”
“I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished very much,” Peter said, buttoning his shirt.
“You’ve given a lot of children a wonderful start.” She plopped into her chair. “Be proud of that, Peter.” She looked at her datapad. “You’re healthy enough for a gringo. If you increase your exercise and eat more vegetables, you’ll live to be a hundred.” She stood and offered her hand.
“Things change,” she said. “Only the bureaucracy remains.”
“True enough,” he said, gripping her hand.
“Speaking of bureaucracy, Colonel Ortega mentioned he needed to see you when he comes to town. Now let’s go check if they’re done with Cassie.”
They walked to another part of the building, and he heard a familiar laugh. A door opened in front of him and there stood Adoncia, with Cassie clinging to her leg. The baby was trying very hard to haul herself upright.
“Hola, Peter. It’s good to see you again,” Adoncia said. She was a handsome woman his age, with broad shoulders and frizzy gray hair that fell past her shoulders. Laugh lines framed her mouth and eyes.
“You, too,” replied Peter. He leaned forward and kissed her on both cheeks, lingering a moment before kneeling down to gather up Cassie. The little girl hugged him with fierce strength.
“She’s a feisty one, little Cassie,” said Adoncia. “It must be her Mapuche blood.”
Mindful of his knees, Peter stood up, still holding Cassie. “You think so?” He grinned. “I thought it was because of the clever genetic engineers down in Santiago.”
Adoncia sniffed. Then, looking at the doctor, she said. “I wasn’t born yesterday, you know, not like these niños. I know good family when I see it.” She poked Cassie in the stomach, who laughed and kicked Peter so hard that he almost dropped her. “When I met Cassie’s mother, I could tell right away she was Mapuche. Very pure.” She looked at Peter. “Her ancestors kept the Spanish awake at night for almost 300 years, you know.”
“She’s keeping up tradition, I assure you,” Peter said.
“¡Excelente! Sleep when you’re dead, I always say.” Adoncia turned to the doctor. “Everyone is healthy, then? Ready to go home?”
“Everyone is fine.” Dr. Sandoval clapped Peter on the back. “You take care. Eat some vegetables.”
Adoncia insisted on walking Peter back to his cottage. When she opened the door, she took one look around, and shook her head. “This is terrible! Who’s your housekeeper, some Peruvian girl who doesn’t know how to hold a brush?”
Peter glanced at the piles of toys. “It’s not her fault. I just don’t want to be disturbed.”
“Madre de Dios,” Adoncia said. “You look after Cassie. I’m going to check the kitchen.” She stepped into the other room, and Peter heard a muted curse. Then he heard cabinets opening and the clatter of pots and pans. “I’m ordering you some decent food, and then I’m going to make you dinner. Varones!”
Fifteen minutes later, there was a knock at the door. Peter left Cassie in her bouncy swing and opened the door to admit a teenage boy struggling under the weight of four large shopping bags. “¿Cocina?” he said. Peter pointed.
Adoncia pounced on the delivery boy like a hawk. “¿Dónde está el pollo?”
The young man offered up one of his bags, which Adoncia snatched away. She came back for the others a moment later and dismissed the boy with a gentle shove between the shoulders.
Peter perched on a stool in a corner of the kitchen, balancing the baby on his lap. Cassie watched with wide eyes as Adoncia transformed tomatoes, peppers, garlic, onions, rice, and chicken into the best dinner Peter had eaten in a long time.
Cassie was the center of attention, of course, and Adoncia tried to feed the baby bits of soft vegetables and rice. About half made it past her mouth. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” said Peter. “She’s not scheduled for solid food yet.”
“The girl wants to eat,” replied Adoncia, weaving her spoon toward Cassie’s tomato-stained mouth. “Let her eat. Don’t worry, I’ll clean her up.”
After dinner, Peter cleared the table while Adoncia changed Cassie into a nightgown and rocked her in the big chair. He felt a stab of jealousy, then dismissed it, and headed to the kitchen to wash up. If the tia wanted some time with the baby, who was he to say no?
“Our little Mapuche is asleep,” whispered Adoncia as she walked into the kitchen. “Busy day for her, yes?”
“Busy day for everyone,” Peter said, hanging up a dish towel. “Thanks for dinner. I really needed company today.”
“Ah, so you heard,” Adoncia said. “I learned about it myself only yesterday. No more niños.”
Peter sighed, then yawned loudly. “Sorry. All that good food made me sleepy.” He rubbed his eyes. “Better send you home.” He walked Adoncia to the door and gave her a hug. “What’s going to happen to them?”
She patted him on the cheek. “Don’t worry, Peter. Angels are watching over them.”
They let Peter keep Cassie him for another two precious weeks, and then the morning arrived when he reluctantly handed her over to Adoncia, who looked at his red eyes and whispered, “Be strong! It’s not good to cry in front of the other varones.” She tilted her head to indicate the movers who were loading up a military transport with blankets, bottles, and toys.
Peter nodded and rubbed his eyes.
“Now give Cassie a kiss so we can leave.”
He leaned in and kissed the baby’s forehead. “Goodbye, Princess.” He stood there for a long time after they drove away.
There had been other transitions, of course, brief periods between assignments when Peter had a few days or a week to himself, before the next baby arrived. They gave him a chance to get in some walking, read, and sleep, but there was always the next child to think about.
This time was different. He rattled around the cottage for two days. The walking paths were nearly empty, and he guessed that most of the other foster parents had already moved on. The quiet weighed on him, bring up memories of all the miles he trudged through Baja after armed men took his car.
Fortunately for Peter, the men at the roadblock had been more interested in his surplus Baretta M9 than his food and water. While they squabbled over the weapon, he fled into the brush with his pack.
It could have been much worse, he told himself. If Judith had been with him, he would have fought them to protect her. Maybe got them both killed.
Not that it was likely she survived the plague. Not long after he arrived in Santiago, he’d picked up a newspaper with a photo of a hospital parking lot overflowing with cots. The caption read, “Military medics distribute water and suicide kits in Seattle.”
When the knock came after dinner, Peter jumped to the door. He opened it to find Colonel Miguel Ortega, dressed in pressed fatigues, balancing a shopping bag and a large cardboard box.
“Some help, amigo? I’m about to drop the scotch!”
Peter grabbed the bag, then stood aside as Ortega pushed past him and plopped onto the couch.
“I’ll get some glasses,” Peter said, and went into the kitchen. When he returned, he found Ortega sitting up straight, looking around the room. The box rested on the floor.
“So you’ve heard, si?”
“Ja.” Peter pulled over a stool and set out the glasses and the scotch.
Ortega nodded. “The conservative Alianza has been gaining support, and the rumors about this place haven’t helped.” He sighed, and Peter saw a tiny slump in the soldier’s posture. “Sabio made a difficult decision, and I’ll support him.”
“So he’s abandoning Hidalgo and the children,” Peter said.
“Not really. Hidalgo is already on his way to Argentina. They’re doing interesting things with cancer research there. The younger children are being sent to special adoption centers, and many of our ‘graduates’ are already living in Santiago and Puente Alto.”
“You sound on top of things,” said Peter.
“After the assassination attempt, I learned to plan better.” He poured a couple of fingers of scotch into each glass. He handed one to Peter. “For that I thank you.”
“I wasn’t trying to save the president,” Peter said, accepting the glass. “I figured the sniper wouldn’t hesitate to kill a witness.” He offered a crooked smile. “Fortunately for me, he didn’t see the knife until I got close.”
“Spoken like a humble draftee,” Ortega said, raising his glass.
“Actually, I volunteered. I needed the money for graduate school.” He lifted his glass. “Just my luck we got into it with Iran during my tour. Skål.”
“Cheers.” Ortega threw back his scotch. He closed his eyes for moment, then set his glass down. He looked directly at Peter. “Now you have to make a choice.”
Peter glanced at Ortega’s hip, and the pistol holstered there. “I don’t understand, Miguel.”
Ortega leaned back. “Do you want to go back?”
He meant go back to America. Peter finished his drink to buy himself some time. He had turned that question over in his over mind a lot since they took Cassie away. “I don’t know if I have anything to go back to,” he finally said. “Do I?”
“There wasn’t a functioning government for almost ten months, but the Red Cross was helpful. Your wife and daughter passed away at home, well before the riots burned Seattle.” Ortega placed a hand on Peter’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, my friend.”
Peter nodded. Despite the sudden upwelling of grief, he held on to the image of Judith, surrounded by her favorite stuffed animals and anime posters. “Thank you for letting me know.”
“Now, if you still want to return, I can get you to our consulate in Mexico. The American border is a mess, and—”
“No.” Peter shook his head. “I can’t imagine making that trek just to visit some mass grave.” He toyed with his empty glass. “There’s nothing for me there now.”
“Then if you’d care to stay, we have a place for you.” He opened the box and removed a datapad with a cable that ended in a padded cuff. “Give me your arm, please.”
Peter leaned forward. Ortega slipped the cuff over the other man’s arm and touched a few keys on the datapad. The screen lit up with a photo of Peter, taken from his first day at Vicuña. “Meet Pedro Adrian, Ph.D.”
“He looks familiar,” Peter remarked. “Younger.”
“It’s an old picture. Since you entered the country without a visa, there aren’t official records of you. Fortunately, I still have friends in the national security office.” He pressed his thumb to the datapad, which beeped. “There. Your biochip now says you are the only child of an American father and Swedish mother, raised on a farm near, ah, how do you say this?” He pointed at the display.
“A lovely place, I’m sure. However, you visited here about ten years ago and fell in love with our beautiful, warm country. And you remained.”
“So you’re going to stick me in a retirement villa on the beach somewhere?”
“You should be so fortunate!” Ortega gave a sharp laugh. “No, my friend. You’re going to have to earn a living like the rest of us. I’ve secured you a job teaching English literature to some advanced students. And found you a place to live.” Ortega said.
“You must have called in a lot of favors.”
Ortega shook his head. “Some. But you earned it, Pedro.”
Peter pursed his lips. “I’ll have to get used to that.”
Ortega slipped the cuff off the Peter’s wrist. “All finished, Professor. Someone will come by late tomorrow morning to drive you to the bus station.” He removed a cheap suitcase from the box and handed it to Peter. “There’s a little money in there to get you started.”
He packed up his datapad. “Oh, one more thing.” He rummaged around the box and brought out a paper-wrapped parcel. “Something for the trip.” He handed the parcel to Peter, who set aside the suitcase and tore open the paper. Inside lay a much-thumbed copy of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Tenth Edition. “I hope you find it useful.”
He rested his hand on the cover. “Thank you, mi amigo. It’s perfect.”
Ortega packed up his datapad and stood. “Then I will say my farewells, Professor. Enjoy the scotch.”
“I will.” Peter stood and offered his hand.
Ortega grasped Peter’s hand with a firm grip. “You know, we have a saying: ‘A father raises one generation, but a teacher raises many.’ Goodnight, Pedro.”
Later that night, after several more glasses of whiskey, Peter took a long look in the mirror and decided that Pedro needed a shave. If he was going to start a new life, he might as well go the whole nine yards. He cut himself a few times, but found he liked his face better. Then he crawled into bed and searched the Norton Anthology for a favorite Henry Vaughan poem, “They Are all Gone into the World of Light.”
They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit lingering here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.
He drifted off to sleep, dreaming of a laughing child named Cassie, flying into the world on fairy wings.
The next morning, Pedro moved slowly in deference to his hangover as he prepared for his journey. It didn’t take long to pack: he owned only a few changes of clothing, an old datapad, a toilet kit, and his Norton Anthology. It didn’t add up to much, he thought, not for a decade and eighteen foster children. He wished they’d let him keep his pictures.
He sat on the couch and waited for his ride.
“Buenos días,” said Pedro, addressing his classroom. “Soy profesor Adrian. Bienvenidos al curso especial de Literatura Inglesa .” He switched on his datapad and began typing. His name appeared on the large, scratched datawall behind him. “That will probably be the extent of my Spanish for today.”
There was some polite laughter, plus a serious guffaw in the back of the classroom. Automatically, Pedro looked up to see who his class clown might be for the semester. It was a young man with bright brown eyes and the beginnings of a mustache. Pedro rubbed his own lip, which felt naked after all these years.
“Why don’t we start with names?” He opened the class roster on his datapad and pointed at the young man. “You are?”
Pedro found Gutierrez, V. “And you, young lady?”
“Madeline Sanchez, Professor.”
“Keep going, please, down the row.” He checked off the others: Isabella Vargas, Sophia Torres, Diego Muñoz, Julian Rios, Gabriel Vega, Jose Castillo, Maria Flores, Catherine de Guzman, Jennifer Sanchez, and Angelina Peña. He listened to their accents, mentally filing away the pronunciation. They were new names, but familiar all the same—
Angelina. Pedro looked up at the young woman who had just spoken. She was dressed in new school sweats and sandals, her black hair tied back in ponytail. She had intense brown eyes, a small nose and long, delicate fingers. Pedro was suddenly struck by the strongest sense of déjà vu. He glanced at her ankles and saw two red patches, like butterfly wings.
“Is something wrong, Professor?”
He realized he was staring. “Forgive me. Your tattoo reminded me of someone.”
“It’s not a tattoo, Professor. It’s a birthmark.”
“I see.” Pedro felt his breath catch. It was Angelina, who loved bananas. And Gabriel, who hated the bathtub. And Cathy, and Maria. His own, special children. Part of him wanted to push back his chair and step forward, gather these beautiful people in his arms. But he knew he couldn’t do that. Even with their extraordinary minds, they might not remember him.
But he knew them. These precious children he had started on their journeys had come back, sent as a final gift from one soldier to another. He recalled another stanza from Vaughn’s poem:
He that hath found some fledg’d bird’s nest, may know
At first sight, if the bird be flown;
But what fair well or grove he sings in now,
That is to him unknown.
“Well, I’m looking forward to working with you. With all of you.” He smiled a genuine smile, for now he knew where some of his birds were singing.