The relief worker Tommy Seto, khaki uniform covered in sweat and grime, loaded the refugees into two U.N. trucks, for relocation to a city shelter. Would these Marovians have seceded from the Union, if they knew it meant this: abandoning their homes carrying “stuff” limited to one suitcase and backpack per person? Well he was no judge to differentiate between sticking to principles and stupidity. When he led the union strike at the factory last year, he didn’t expect to be fired and end up here, providing humanitarian aid to refugees in Marovia.
Where was the third truck? The rat-tat-tat of automatic rifles sounded louder. As he re-entered the side door into the Village Hall, his pager beeped with a message from the civilian police.
“Detain adults with children. A Leadership Party family has been reported in this area.” Talk about mission creep. Now they wanted him to act as a cop, detaining families. He looked around the twenty people still waiting for transportation.
A toddler picked up Tommy’s pager from the desk and said, “Mine” into the mouth piece. Then she put her rag doll down in its place, “You.”
Her mother beamed in pride, “You’re so smart,” and returned the pager to the young Chinese-American. “Everyone thinks she could be The Leader’s child.”
Apparently the mother hadn’t seen the latest election campaign ad from the transition national govern- meant. It claimed The Leader, charismatic head of the rebels, increased his child’s intelligence through surgery. He employed a neurologist to graft cells treated with growth factor into her brain.
“How did your daughter get that scar on her forehead?” Tommy asked. Perhaps some Marovians did practice this implant nonsense.
“After a bomb explosion in the lakeside diner, the flying glass cut her. It wasn’t even at a political meeting. What monsters hurt helpless kids?”
Must he assist the police to round up these dangerous enemies of the State for interrogation, just because their side had the bad luck to lose the civil war?
The only other candidate for detention was a high school junior, helping her grandfather hand out Leadership Party pamphlets. Tommy looked at the freckle faced teenager’s head–short red hair, no visible surgical scars, blue eyes that looked straight at you. The obese, grandfather preached from the Party slogan, “Your vote can make a difference,” with passionate sincerity. Reminded Tommy of door-to-door missionaries at home, protected by Freedom of Speech laws.
He heard the third truck arrive and led the en- tire group outside. The toddler went to the truck, turned and waved, smiling. An incoming shell hissed over their heads and exploded south of the village. Tommy swung her up into the truck and the remaining refugees scrambled in too. The U.N. driver had a bloody handkerchief tied around his arm, and his face was gray.
The police had no authority to force Tommy to detain civilian families. However, he saw no point in hanging around the empty village to argue about that. Those men grieved for dead family members, and hated their killers and anybody who supported them. He sat down next to the driver. They drove all night without any stop overs. The refugees reached the shelter housing.
The city of Maryhill had changed. Tourism brochures of tree-lined streets, blazing red and gold in the fall, no longer represented reality. City residents carried their possessions out of abandoned homes wrecked by shelling, and dug up the tree stumps to burn for fuel.
“You saved our lives,” the refugee grandfather, Kushinski, said, turning up the radio. “…last night, an assailant eviscerated The Leader with a quick upward thrust of a knife.” Kushinski showed no sign of emotion.
“What will this mean?” Tommy asked.
“My granddaughter, Isabel, and I will go into hiding until the election is held as arranged.” Isabel and her mother, Joan, came toward them. Kushinski turned off the radio. Tommy made no further comment about the stabbing.
“I have a present for you.” Isabel handed Tommy ten plain Marovian stamps and waited for a response. Tears came into her grandfather’s eyes and a muscle twitched in his cheek. The mother held her breath and glared at Tommy, daring him to ridicule the gift. As if he would.
“What a beautiful blue color, like that lake near the village where you lived,” Tommy said. Isabel nodded. “No picture stamps?”
“They can’t agree on who is a hero.”
Ten days later in an upset, voters elected the old refugee, State Representative Kushinski. “Anything I can do for you, Tommy?” the new Rep asked.
“I’m curious. Did your Leader authorize an experimental brain cells implant for his child? America won’t give aid to the new government if it experiments on children. Or should I come right out and say on Isabel, your granddaughter.”
“At this time, we do not intend to present Isabel to the public as a child of the Leader. Totally legitimate reason for her surgery. The child lacked brain dopamine hormone. Medical research has to take chances to make progress.”
Tommy hesitated, but he had to stand up for his beliefs. “Did that surgery make her a genius: an heir to the Leader, because of her superior mentality?”
“Isabel looks like an ordinary, smart teenager to me. She does have dizzy spells sometimes, and now the neurologists stick to dopamine tablets for kids, not brain surgery.” Kushinski pointed to his chest. “Voters elect Reps to make sensible decisions and work well with different groups of people. Voters don’t trust and elect geniuses.”
The explanation sounded reasonable. The rumors of an attempt to create a Superwoman were based on a misunderstanding of medical treatment. “May I speak to Isabel and her mother?”
“Joan claims they still have to hide from the vengeance of The Leader’s enemies, although they never mention his name in public. Isabel lives in Maryhill and will take her college entrance exam soon.”
Tommy kept his face without expression. Maybe The Leader needed killing, however… “Isabel doesn’t deserve the punishment of living in a potential combat zone.”
“Punishment, to suggest that Isabel remain in Marovia? Her mother daydreams about her going to America as a Cinderella maid, and marrying a millionaire prince. Won’t settle for a decent life here now the war is over.”
Tommy visited Isabel and Joan and was saddened by their apartment. They didn’t have much for others to trash or steal: a card table, four folding chairs, a few dishes. The teenager slept in a used toddler’s crib, which someone had thrown out. Joan cut away the bars at its foot, placing a chair there to hold her legs.
“At night mice run around the bare floor,” Joan said.
“I imagine them waltzing to ‘Kiss from a Rose.'” Isabel sang like Seal, holding a pretend microphone. The rooming house was noisy. People upstairs played loud music and danced.
At one time, Joan belonged here, but not now. Her street accent was almost gone, replaced by a well-modulated sound. She wore a subtle perfume, and her blonde hair coloring indicated past salon attention. Although she dressed in casual jeans and a wool sweater, they had a designer brand name. Apparently she once achieved upper middle class status and an adequate source of income, during her years as The Leader’s girl friend. Now she had fallen back down the ladder of success.
“Can’t Kushinski help you find a better place than this?” Tom asked.
“I want nothing to do with my Dad. He nags that Marovia needs intelligent young people, so we shouldn’t go to America. Yet when I find a decent job here, a co-worker or neighbor denounces us as a Leadership family,” Joan grimaced. “When our side was winning, people treated The Leader like a god. You don’t know what it feels like to be abandoned by people you thought were friends.”
He did know. Before the strike both management and co-workers praised him. “Tommy’s a leader. He knows how to talk.” After the strike, co-workers didn’t want to be seen talking to him.
“I haven’t done anything. I’m not a rebel,” Isabel said.
He felt drawn to Isabel. Yet how could he shield them from the vengeance of their enemies? If The Leader was Joan’s lover, as Kushinski suggested, that would be a tough act for an average guy, Marovian or American, to follow. “What do you want to do, Isabel? It’s your life.”
“I rank first in my class. The Inspector is coming to Maryhill Science Academy tomorrow, to give freshman applicants their admission test,” Isabel said.
“You’re staying home tomorrow. No point in taking that test when you’re going to America. If you get high grades, it would start those rumors, about lack of fairness and a brain implant to increase intelligence.”
“You don’t know that, Joan. Let her take the test,” Tom said.
A group of rich people from America drove past, on a bus tour to increase their understanding of people in Eastern Europe. Isabel went outside. Then stood with her arms folded, when they threw dollar bills out the window. She refused to join the kids fighting over the money. It was demeaning. Besides if the younger kids didn’t run home before the tour left, bigger kids and adults hit them and took away the money.
Joan and Tommy were arguing when she returned to the apartment. “If you really cared, you would help us to get to America,” Joan said.
“I’m not as powerful as your former mentor,” Tommy said. “I can’t sponsor Isabel myself, because America doesn’t admit former members of the Leadership Party. I’m trying to help.”
“Forget trying. Do it.”
Isabel joined in. “What’s better — to become a maid for spoiled people or a scientist?”
“Marie, who lived down the road, started as a maid and married well.”
“She was gorgeous. Look at me,” Isabel said.
“You need a personality implant,” Joan said.
During the night, Isabel left the house carrying her book bag and walked to the Academy. Her mother contacted Tommy and Kushinski, “Isabel ran away.” By the time, her mother, grandfather, and Tommy reached the Academy to search for her, Isabel was in the exam room.
The Inspector resembled a Biblical prophet, with his cotton wool beard. As he began to hand out the standard tests, Isabel raised her hand. “I don’t want a Trade school. Give me the test for application to Science Academy Cadet training.”
“Show off.” He smiled and gave her a different test.
What had she done? Isabel expected that after a tough childhood, she paid her dues and everything should go well for her. She collided with the reality of a difficult test using advanced math and chemistry. The other students watched her leaf through the pages without answering any questions. The last page consisted of a funnel shaped group of hieroglyphics.
Her face flushed bright red. The coded stimulus caused a strong contraction of the implant, releasing growth factor to her brain cells. They sat up and waved their antennas in a long awaited salute.
The Inspector walked up to her. “Are you ill?”
Isabel’s survival skills, honed in the Maryhill slum, carried her through. “I’m fine.” She changed her seat, to one in the back row near an open window and at- tacked the test. Tommy and Kushinski observing through the glass doors, physically restrained Joan from bursting into the exam room.
“The Leader used Isabel’s hormone deficiency as an excuse to test an implant,” Tommy said, grabbing Kushinski by the vest. “What was on the last page?”
“You can’t make that accusation,” Joan said, “and insult The Leader’s memory.”
“OK,” Kushinski said. “I found this piece of paper containing a coded message in a red folder in his desk. I asked the Inspector to add a copy to the Cadet test.” Tommy looked at the hieroglyphics, but couldn’t see any meaning or pattern. Guess you needed the implant to decode the message.
“Perfect score,” Isabel announced, as she entered the waiting room. They hugged her. Joan showed less enthusiasm than the others.
“We rushed here without breakfast. Let’s go out to lunch to celebrate,” Kushinski said. Joan had to go to work. Tommy touched the stubble on his chin. His cheeks were sunken because of dehydration from the flu. “Come on, it’s just a neighborhood place,” Kushinski said.
The people lined up to wait for a seat, noticed their group and waved them ahead to the front. “Have you ever felt important?” Kushinski asked.
So he brought us here to show he has admirers. “Yes,” Tommy answered. At the state cross country meet, the other students and spectators fell back and whispered, “It’s them.” The Long Green Line from Manoa strode toward the stadium. You never forget respect.
The short emotional restaurant owner embraced the Rep, and swept them over to a table. The waiters took turns in serving them dishes.
“If you agree, your organization has approved for you to work closely with the Marovian government’s peace effort, during your stay here,” Kushinski said. The waiter blocked a woman from approaching their table for an autograph.
Isabel’s blue eyes linked Tommy’s in an affectionate glance. “We all work as a team. Don’t try any of that ‘baby sister’ garbage on me. “
“Remember, work as a team,” the coach said. The runners lined up and ran together as a pack. Then one pulled ahead.
The crowd chanted with one voice, “Come on, Tommy! ” as he approached the chute to the finish line and broke the meet record. A leader gives 100 per cent. Time for Tommy to quit moping over being fired from the factory and acquire leadership skills for the future.
“Tell me more about what you have in mind. How can I help Marovia?”