Elizabeth Strong - A Story
by Guy A. Duperreault inspired by a short story by Wes McLeod
Elizabeth awoke. She thought it a good sign that in contrast to the sweat producing nightmares she'd been having almost every night for the past fortnight, last night's dreams had been quiet. From them remained feelings of peace and meaning despite all details of the dreams having already fled from memory.
But when she focused her eyes on the snow-like patterns in the ceiling, Elizabeth shivered with the thought of blizzards and danger. With a deep breath she pushed away these bleak thoughts, ascribed them to the changes happening in her body, and prayed that the doubts about this day had been purged during her training and constantly re-affirmed resolve.
She turned her head to look at her husband. His smooth back and shoulders looked expansive from this close range. The easy movement of his strong and well proportioned body as he breathed seemed so innocent. Like him. His small birthmark evoked in her a sense of his humanity, his vulnerability. He is, she thought, truly 'my baby.' But not for much longer! Elizabeth tried to stop the thought of the need she will have by the end of this day for Jim's forgiveness. Sentimentality will not undermine my course! she reaffirmed. Despite her will, though, there arose in her mind's eye what he must see when he looks at her: the "false" her that he thinks she is, that she has allowed and even encouraged him to see and seek.
She carefully eased out from under the covers. The cool air surprised Elizabeth. Her nakedness, unusual in the morning, took her back to last night's passion, during which their night clothes flew from under the covers like so much unwanted chaff. But the remembered sharing and togetherness of those delicious moments turned to sadness with the thought of what Jim will find when he wakes: her half of the bed empty and in the kitchen beside the coffee machine a terse, bewildering, note.
I have some business to do. On my own. I'll see you – tonight, although I'm not sure when. Supper is ready in the fridge for the microwave. Please do not panic. I will explain all tonight. And I will bring great news! Please, please be patient. I love you, Beth.
The juxtaposition of this image – that of the model wife, lover, friend and, hopefully soon, mother – with what she has surreptitiously prepared herself to do during the last several months brought tiny prickles of anxiety and shame induced sweat to the back of her neck and knees and in the crux of her elbows.
To relax and ease her mind Elizabeth stretched forward and kissed Jim on the right shoulder, just under that heart melting birthmark. "I love you," she mouthed.
Elizabeth reached down and grabbed her thick sport socks. She moved slowly, gingerly, praying for a nauseous free morning. Balancing carefully first on the one foot then the other, she eased them onto her feet, then padded out of the bedroom, past the guest room which will soon be the nursery and on downstairs, carefully stepping over the two squeaky steps and into the bathroom. Feeling embarrassed and incomplete, but for the sake of quietness, she left the toilet un-flushed.
The recently oiled hinges on the hall way closet door opened with just a whisper. From behind the winter coats Elizabeth eased out today's cloths. She had put them there several days ago while Jim was at work, in anticipation of this day – and of last night.
As she stepped into her panties and slipped on her bra she chuckled at Jim: Elizabeth knew that he was convinced that he had been the seducer, so well had she seduced him. Men, she thought, are really such simple creatures! They require only that the right part of their anatomy gets tickled at the right time. And she loved him all the more for that simplicity in him, a simplicity which continues to exist despite the air of sophistication he likes to project as a "serious" doctor and increasingly respected medical researcher.
Dressed now, except for shoes, Elizabeth padded quietly into the kitchen. She turned on the coffee maker's timer, and quietly re-confirmed that coffee was in the filter and that water was in the holder. From out of her bag she slid the note and set it next to the coffee maker. She turned to leave, then stopped, turned back and gently kissed her message.
At the door Elizabeth fished out from the closet uncharacteristic shoes sturdy plain pumps, which she put on after exchanging the sport socks for a pair of heavy nylon knee highs. They matched "her" clothes, which were comprised of a plain white blouse in thick cotton, buttoned almost to the neck, a tired green cardigan and heavy and long dark green wool skirt, also well used. At her neck was a small, but noticeable, crucifix and pinned to her sweater was a cameo. Elizabeth had bought them all from consignment and pawn shops or swap meets during the last fortnight. She had carefully constructed what she imagined to be a simple, over forty, librarian-like, non- threatening woman's persona. Elizabeth smiled at the thought of Jim's reaction to these "clothes". "I haven't married the spinster of my sixth grade, have I? So why are you dressed like her?" he'd snap with false testiness.
Elizabeth was not sure how she would answer that. But as she looked at herself in the hall way mirror, she began to feel the clothes take hold on her: somehow she felt older, slower, less bright. It was as if she were falling under some kind of spell. That's a good sign, she said to herself. The disguise is fooling even me!
Elizabeth re-confirmed that, except for a small amount of money in an otherwise empty wallet, her purse housed only a pair of dark sunglasses and leather gloves. Then she eased out of the front door like a thief in the night. It was still thirty or so minutes before dawn.
As she moved down the walkway, her shadow cast by the cheery porch light growing taller and taller, Elizabeth thought wistfully of childhood's simple wonder at it. Elizabeth's still flat stomach fluttered with excitement and fear and excitement and possibility. She touched it with both hands, grateful for this unexpected gift.
At the sidewalk Elizabeth stopped and looked back. The safety and security of home called to her. She almost went back, frightened in knowing that she was about to cross – had in fact crossed – an ill-defined threshold from innocence into the uncertain future of open-eyed mendacity. 'Is that what maturity is?' she wondered. 'The making of dangerous choices, rather than being made tame through choices made for you?'
Elizabeth turned and walked away. She needed to buy a morning paper but did not want to be recognized by a local shop keeper, so walked many blocks in order to hide herself from her community.
It was light by the time she entered a corner store she had never seen before. Elizabeth bought only the paper and left, proceeding several more blocks before stopping at a bus stop. She flipped immediately to the "Personals" section, skimming without seeing the standard SWF's and the like. What her eyes looked for, Elizabeth almost hoped would not be there. But it was. Her course was set.
She folded the paper, tossed it into the garbage can and waited for the bus. Within half an hour the bus took her in. It spat her out again forty-five minutes later in the awakening city.
Already the streets were full of people scurrying about their business. As usual, the ebb and flow of the vehicles and pedestrians struck Elizabeth as an elaborate dance, one that writhed to a hidden music. Without being aware of it, and despite the clothes and being more than two hours early, Elizabeth became one of them and was now hurrying to her destination.
A chance sighting of the dowdy person she saw scrabbling fearfully through the crowd in a mirror-like window startled her. She stopped and looked at it intently, for it did not feel connected to her. "Its" sunken chest, the sloped shoulders, the drawn and fearful face, the plain and tired clothes: all seemed to belong to somebody else, to something else. The costume had stolen her away. With several deep breaths she straightened her spine, relaxed back her shoulders and eased the tightness out of her face. She assured herself that what she was about to do was not only important and worthwhile, but a significant step towards reclaiming from her husband responsibility for her life. The sugar coated prison she had allowed – nay, had actively made her life into – would be no more. He'll understand! she averred to herself. Her stomach tightened a bit with the excitement of being free and with fear of her husband's reaction.
She turned away from the glass and deliberately walked at a leisurely pace so as to take pleasure from the city's architecture, flora and fauna. To her surprise Elizabeth found that she was actually able to relax and enjoy herself. She watched and listened to the vibrancy and wondered why everyone but the drunks, runaways and homeless were in such a hurry.
Then she noticed the cheerful smell of coffee. As always its magical aroma lifted from Elizabeth feelings of doubt and fear while giving renewed life, the feeling of yes and raised spirits. Elizabeth always imagined that people who committed suicide were those who did not begin the day with at least the smell of coffee.
And so she followed her nose into the shop, stepping carefully around the bicycle couriers who were sprawled out, seemingly filling every corner of the small space with their long brightly spandexed and amazingly bony legs. Elizabeth took to the side bar a mixed-berry muffin and a tall herbal infusion, instead of her usual cappuccino, so as not to be burdened later by a quickly filled bladder. She climbed up onto the high stool and surveyed the space between sips and drank in the smell of freshly ground and brewed coffee.
The "busy-ness" was even here, a supposed oasis from the city. It had upon its walls frenetic prints which helped wind up patrons who demanded their morning fixes in hurried and bludgeoning voices from the frantic young coffee makers behind the counter. It was, ironically, only the bicycle couriers, whose sole existence in a short time would be speed and hurried brushes with near death and injury, who talked amongst themselves in quiet voices, their bodies and voices still, seemingly at ease and unhurried.
She watched the couriers leave. They glided out like brilliantly coloured but furless cats preparing for the hunt. They quickly mounted their chargers, their bright spandexed butts high in the air, and disappeared with quick pumps of wiry legs and flicks of thin feet.
The colourful clothes reminded Elizabeth of a small fold of paper in her pocket. She took it out and opened it to find the three distinct and brightly coloured tablets which, she had been told, were absolutely necessary – and completely safe to both her and her foetus. She wondered if they were really either all that safe or necessary. After a moment's reflection she decided they were not, and put them back into the wrapper. She gulped down the last of her "tea" and tossed the paper cup and pills into the trash. It was time to leave.
Elizabeth headed north and east, walking steadily, firmly, without the earlier feeling of haste or urgency, despite the adrenaline which had accelerated her heartbeat. The well heeled shops had long since turned first seedy then decrepit. Elizabeth stopped a few doors from her goal to extract from the purse and put on the extremely dark sunglasses and leather gloves. Then she took a deep breath and moved to the unmarked and unremarkable door, hesitated a moment, took another deep breath, reached out, pulled open the door, stepped forward and went inside.
The foyer was very dark. Involuntarily Elizabeth's left hand reached up to remove the glasses, but training stopped it: under no circumstances, they had insisted, "are you to remove these glasses until fully inside the office! And do not substitute any other pair of sun glasses for them, regardless of how dark they appeared to be or their UV ratings!" They had repeated this endlessly.
Elizabeth stopped. She smelled the faint scent of what might be mock orange and lavender, but with a subtle, almost unnoticeable hint of something harsh hiding behind them. For a minute she thought about turning back: the odour likely carried with it traces of a powerful relaxant, one which, they had said, was rendered ineffectual by the pink pill sitting in a coffee bar's trash can. Elizabeth decided to continue, ashamed at the thought of so much effort being squandered and because she did not want to appear foolish and weak.
Peeks around the glasses revealed that the surprisingly long entrance way was expensively, albeit sparsely, furnished and decorated. As they had said, the hallway ended with a wall upon which hung an expensively framed greeting. With her dark glasses Elizabeth was unable to make out the words but had been told that they formed the serenity prayer:
God grant me the Courage to change the things I can, The Strength to accept the things I cannot change, And the Wisdom to know the difference.
The trainers had been very concerned that she did not even glance at this prayer, let alone look at it. They claimed that it was a ruse behind which hid powerful iris, cornea and retina examining equipment. They did not want the patterns of her eyes to be discerned, afraid that her identity would be determinable from that information. "They must not know who you are!"
She found their fears laughable. "How could they know who I am if they did not first have an image of my eyes?" she had asked them. "You'd be amazed, aghast even, at the extent of their 'eye-database'! Using records from autopsies, and with the co- operation of many other doctors, it is immense. That, combined with their advanced skills in genetics allow them to determine the identities of almost anyone in the city, and even, perhaps, the country, from information garnered only from the patterns in the retinas and irises." She did not quite believe that, but had not been able to fully not believe it either. She left the sun glasses on.
Without a second glance at the plaque, Elizabeth turned left down a short "L." She walked the several paces towards the solid door which was almost perfectly disguised in the wall. The only evidence that a door even existed was its knob, which Elizabeth grasped with her gloved hand. With only a slight hesitation she turned it and opened the door enough to stick her head in.
The first thing she noticed was the sound of burbling water accompanied by a soft and melodious harp. Birds quietly chirped and the air was sweet with fragrant flowers and fresh water. She stepped fully inside, letting the door close behind her. Then she removed her glasses and was awed. She did not notice the sound of the door clicking shut behind her, nor the quiet secondary whisper of a bolt sliding into its locked position.
A gentle light seemed to emanate from inside the walls and ceiling. It radiated a body and soul easing warmth like that of the heat from a wood- burning stove in which bread baked. The luxuriant flora was lush and colourful, without being either ostentatious or overwhelming.
Elizabeth stepped into a world of peace and gentleness beyond anything she could have imagined. The air which delicately wafted over her face held an aroma which immediately stole from her the ability to do anything but inhale deeply. This breath paled every other breath in her life, except perhaps her first, in a way which trivialized even the most magnificent of them. It was as if until now she had been breathing turbid waters and not air at all.
This breath was an epiphany. She felt – no, more than felt – she had been transformed. Irrevocably. Vanquished were the images she had had earlier of blizzards and snow. Gone, too, were the images of people hurrying to work, gulping or sipping coffee as they walked, collecting bottles and cans, riding bicycles. Gone was the recollection of her gentle husband and how she was betraying him. Gone was why she was here. Gone was who she was. Gone were all distinctions. There remained only this breath in this moment.
What was left of Elizabeth did not care whether or not this was good or bad. She no longer knew even what the words "good" and "bad" meant. Even her body had become completely unimportant and seemed to no longer exist. She no longer felt the air on her skin – her ability to distinguish it from the world had evaporated.
She had became Peace. Almost. An infinitesimal feeling struggled to be heard from behind the back of her mind. It wasn't strong, perhaps no more than that of the feet of an undetected mosquito as it prepares to suck its fill. It could not rise above her current feelings of bliss. But if she had become aware of it, it would have been a tiny echo of the one time before that she had experienced such seemingly ecstatic loss of her Self: it was an echo of the moment between breaths when she had fallen in love with Jim.
Instead, and like the echo, she fell asleep and what little she knew of herself was no more.
"Elizabeth." The word flitted around inside Elizabeth's skull like a wild bird inside a house, calling as it tries to find its way to open skies. Elizabeth knew that that word meant something. Again, "Elizabeth." This time that word was a storm which crackled thunder as it moved into her. But it took one more "Elizabeth" before she became, with a shudder, aware that "Elizabeth" was her.
She opened her eyes. They saw nothing but a fuzzy pale green light. She was terrified. Her heart began to race and she gulped for air. She pushed against soft cushions with weak arms until she had stood up on unsteady feet and legs which were extremely weak and trembled with the effort of supporting her. "Leave me alone!" she screamed. She tried to run, but wobbled drunkenly, like a beaten fighter bracing for the finishing blow. After only a few short steps she fell to her knees, in a curious parody of prayer. She tried looking for a path by which she could run and escape but her eyes did not seem to be focusing correctly nor was she able to stand up.
She shook her head to try to clear her mind of its muzziness and her eyes their fuzziness. But this only nauseated her and she vomited. This did not make her feel any better. She wiped her mouth with a sleeve.
Then she noticed the sound of water and music, and remembered feelings of peace and contentment. Her fear abated, and her breathing calmed. As she relaxed, Elizabeth once again inhaled deeply the sweet air. Her eyes began to see with increasing clarity the beautiful plants. She heard again the birds and music. She remembered where she was, who she was. She thought that she must have drifted off to sleep for a few minutes and into a nightmare, although she could not recall anything.
With effort she got to her feet and walked to the small waterfall. She reached into the pool and scooped the cool water first to her mouth, then to her face. She felt better.
Elizabeth walked back to the couch and allowed it to envelope her. She wondered when she would see the examining doctor. Her thoughts drifted easily, like the water that surrounded her, burbling contentedly around the rocks, flowing seemingly without effort or direction, but to great purpose. The taste of her stomach acid and feelings of terror already forgotten, so soothing was the ambience of this waiting "room". She passed off her earlier dizziness and nausea to morning sickness.
At a man's gentle "Mrs. Strong," Elizabeth jumped up onto her feet. She spun around on her now steady legs to see who it was, but the sudden movement made her feel dizzy again.
"Careful," the voice cautioned gently. "You have been asleep for a quite a while. You are still weak."
She couldn't see him. "Who are you?" The room was spinning just enough to upset her stomach again. But this time she was able to suppress the nausea. "Please, calm yourself, Mrs. Strong." The voice spoke gently, but with unquestionable authority, from behind her. Before she could turn her head to see who was speaking, Elizabeth felt hands grasp the upper part of her arms. "Here. Please. Let me help you to sit down."
She moved towards the couch immediately, without any hesitation. The hands that guided Elizabeth knew their power so well that their presence was not much more than that of the softest cashmere sweater. And yet she felt in that touch that this man had the power to snap her arms as if they were dried twigs. This power, so carefully and gently expressed, washed away her fear: in it she could not help but feel safe.
"Oh!" was all that Elizabeth voiced as the hands eased her back into the couch. He had circled behind her and the couch as he guided her.
"Mrs. Strong. Let me introduce myself," he said, as he moved out from behind her. "I am your Doctor. My name is Sanctitas." She did not recognize him. His clean shaven face was rugged and handsome. His hair was beginning to grey at the temples, with just the hint of a receding hairline. Around his eyes and mouth were fine laugh lines and firm determination and purpose. His body was well proportioned, neither too tall nor short. And he looked fit without being either gaunt or too big.
Elizabeth noticed that his suit, obviously hand-made, fit him perfectly. And, without being able to finger why, something about its cut reminded her of Jim's recently acquired, hand-made, suits.
"You are not my doctor," she countered after her inspection of him. "My doctor is...is...." She paused. She could not remember her family doctor's name or face. Her face flushed. She felt foolish.
"True, Mrs. Strong, I am neither your GP nor gynaecologist. But I am your Doctor, nevertheless. You have come to see me about your pending motherhood." He paused. Elizabeth knew that when he said 'Doctor' it was capitalized and that beside him all others who claimed to be doctors were mere actors debasing the meaning of the word.
"You have shown great insight in having come to me. My speciality is the assurance of the supreme health and genetic excellence of your child. I commend you on your wisdom and intelligence." He stepped forward, his right hand extended. Elizabeth grasped it. He covered the back of her hand with his other hand, and the power in them made the back of her knees prickle and the hairs on the nape of her neck stiffen. When he released her, Elizabeth felt less vital. Diminished in some way, weaker. She yearned to be in his hands again.
He continued, moving away, pacing a little as he spoke. "I spare no effort to see to it that each child born has the health and abilities of the best in Man. Understand, I do this not for the sake of the child! Nor do I do it for the benefit of the parent." He added softly, "Especially not that." Then, powerfully again, "I do it for the good and continued success and excellence of tomorrow's Humanity. I do it to seed the possibilities of the highest fruitions of Man's potentialities, to make the most brilliant of Man's dreams real!"
He put his fingers together in front of him, and slowly raised the joined hands to his mouth. After a moment, he released them and continued in his strong, but not loud, voice. "If more people had the will and foresight of yourself, Mrs. Strong, the world would quickly become a paradise which would awe every visionary who has spoken over the ages of what could be. It would be a world whose beauty would pale," he effused, opening his arms to the lush vitality all around them, "even this!"
Elizabeth did not doubt it. As he spoke the world was transformed. When she looked about herself what she had earlier seen as breathtaking beauty now looked dull. The birds seemed shrill and the once gentle music discordant. Elizabeth had seen the future, and did not notice the sadness she felt at all the beauty around her having turned to ash. That feeling was fleeting and was quickly squashed under the euphoria of tomorrow.
Her heart raced with excitement, knowing that she was a part of this process, had perhaps an integral part to play in making the world truly wonderful. She had forgotten that it had not been her "foresight" or "intelligence" which had brought her here. She had forgotten that she had been chosen to help destroy this clinic. She had forgotten that he should not have known her name.
Instead, she wanted to assure her place in the building of paradise. "Excuse me. I...." She did not have the courage to ask of her child, afraid of what the answer might be.
"You can be assured, Mrs. Strong, that my thorough examination has revealed that you have a truly magnificent child! At least on par with the finest example I have seen, if not the best!" Elizabeth's stomach jumped with excitement. "The high quality of his genes gives me the highest optimism with regards to his future and his place in the construction of a new world." He smiled at her, and it engulfed her. She had a son! A strong and healthy boy growing inside her body! "Is he...." She stopped. "Is he intelligent?" She nodded. "Yes, Mrs. Strong, your child will have an intelligence in the top one percentile, perhaps even higher. He will be, undoubtedly, brilliant." "And physically?" she asked. "What will he look like?" "He will be six feet tall. He will have blue eyes and perfect vision. His hair will be dark. In fact, he will look very much like an handsome version of yourself, Mrs. Strong." Elizabeth could not stop her smile from expanding across her face.
The Doctor continued. "Furthermore, he will be an exceptional athlete, perhaps even setting records in whatever sport he chooses to concentrate on. And, most importantly, he will be a born leader. Yes, an exemplar indeed." He paused, then stepped forward as he spoke. "Congratulations, you have done well. Surprisingly well! In fact, I might not be overstating it if I said that you having such a child is nearly miraculous!" Again, he shook her hand.
Elizabeth had never felt happier in her life, had never felt such sense of place or purpose. She now knew what it meant to feel blessed, for this was indeed what she had become: she had at last come into her destiny.
With her hand still in his, she looked at his face, looked to his eyes. For the first time he focused them on hers. They pierced her, uncomfortably, as if he was looking into her soul – beyond her soul – into the nether regions of meaning and identity. She looked away, but too late. He had frightened her. The elation she had felt turned heavy. The prickles of excitement became the sweat of apprehension.
She involuntarily pulled her hand away. Too abruptly, she knew, afraid that she would alarm him. Something in his eyes, in the way he had looked through her, had sparked the recall of her purpose in being here. What she had been training for had been real, after all. And she now knew that she was well into the trap. She thought of the pills she had foolishly thrown away, and knew that much of the feelings of euphoria she had been feeling were drug induced and that her thinking was muddled and weak.
She moved, tried to rise from the soft, cloying, couch. But her arms and leg had once again become heavy and flaccid. She moved forward slightly, but was unable to get to her feet. She felt panic.
"Relax, Mrs. Strong. I am sure you want what is best for your child." His smile chilled her. "Relaxation, Mrs. Strong. That is very important. We do not want to put any unnecessary stresses on the life growing inside you. Trust me, I know what is best for the child. I will look after you."
"I don't need you to look after me," she said, with unnatural shrillness. "My husband and I are perfectly capable of caring for me and my child!"
"Here I disagree with you, Mrs. Strong," he said gently. "True, James is by far one of the most capable people I know. And you have shown great intelligence and ability to have come here. Under normal circumstances I would have agreed with you. But these are not, by any stretch of the imagination, normal circumstances," he shook his head sadly. "No, they most certainly are not." "What do you mean, 'normal'?" Elizabeth found that it was becoming difficult to speak.
"You see, Mrs. Strong. You have inside you a perfect example of Man. His genes have not one failing. I have only seen that twice before since opening this clinic two years ago and wading through many thousands of DNA samples." He paused. "You, on the other hand... well, let me just say that your genes are marginal at best. In fact, if I had not examined you and your foetus myself, I would not have believed it possible that you could have mothered such a child!" He crinkled his brow in thought.
"What do you mean my genes are 'marginal'?" Elizabeth asked, despite knowing what he meant.
"What I mean, Mrs. Strong, is that you carry with you an example of what must be expunged from the genetic pool of Man if humanity is to have the future it is capable of creating!" He paused, paced the length of the couch and back. "This puts me in an unusual position. I cannot allow you to spread your genes willynilly, and at the same time I must see that you bring your child to term."
"What are you going to do with me?" Her voice sounded slurred and Elizabeth struggled to think. She realized that he must have drugged her. But how? she wondered. She looked at her hands, and noticed that they were no longer gloved. Had he applied some sort of topical drug when he shook her hands?
"You will remain as our guest until your child is born. After that, we will see to it that you are not capable of contaminating the gene pool. I assure you, it is not personal. I am sure that you understand that this is indeed for the best. I know that James does." Elizabeth fell into unconsciousness.
END OF PART I
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