Monday. Six pm. Tension encases Beth like a static field, charged but invisible.
The countdown hits zero. ON THE AIR lights up in fire-alarm red. Beth starts speaking. “Welcome to NOVA’s Science on the Edge. With me today is anthropologist Fabio Felline from the University of Montana. Dr. Felline, tell us about your work.”
The young postdoc sits rigidly, a hand clenched on each thigh. Beth understands: he’s live, on national television. She smiles to reassure him.
The moment draws out. His lines are on the teleprompter, just off camera, but it looks like he’s too nervous to remember that. The man from the National Office of Truth in Media—part of the new president’s War on Misinformation—is starting to frown. As if that’ll help. Asshole.
The flustered postdoc’s eyes widen; he’s found his teleprompter. He clears his throat and answers. “Well, Beth, my team studies DNA to figure out how our ancestors spread around the globe.”
Beth lets the original script roll down her tongue, to stop behind the gate of her teeth. So one day, we might really know whether it’s out-of-Africa or the multiregional hypothesis? Then she swallows and unfurls the sanitized version. “So one day, we might know exactly where our ancestral Adam and Eve once lived?”
Now that her blinders are off, Beth sees how clever it is: just the right tone to pass as poetic metaphor. It isn’t fair to say people aren’t paying attention. It’s momentum. Thirty days ago, this was still a show about actual science.
The postdoc earnestly recites his next line. “Yes, but we’d need a far more complete set of modern DNA to know that. Right now we’ve only got samples from fifteen percent of the country.” That’s the hook. Beth’s next line is the sinker.
“I imagine the national DNA database will give your work a tremendous boost.”
Offscreen, the asshole from NOTM nods, satisfied. (He became an asshole on Friday. No, worse: an ogre. Before that, Beth actually liked him.)
The postdoc’s face lights up on cue. “Oh, absolutely. The president’s done a wonderful thing in creating the register. Anthropology, medicine, all kinds of science will benefit.”
If wishes were horses and pigs could fly. But the horse and the pig are both dead and the maggots have crawled in to roost and whatever the register will benefit, it won’t be wonderful. None of this shows on Beth’s face. On the surface, where NOTM and the rest of the country can see it, she’s smiling attentively at Felline’s words.
The interview ends. NOTM’s ogre is chatting in the corner and for a moment, Beth and the postdoc are unsupervised. (She’d have said “alone,” before Friday.) For the last sixteen shows, every Monday through Thursday for the past four weeks, she’s exchanged a vaguely uncomfortable look—sorry we dumbed down your research, but it’s for a good cause—with the scientist du jour. Not today. The look she gives Felline is carefully blank.
The young postdoc is babbling. He’s so honored, thank you so much, to think his research, et cetera and so forth and blah blah blah blah.
Beth doesn’t put an arm out to silence him, doesn’t whisper a quick heads-up. She just smiles and thanks him for coming.
“Have a good night,” the receptionist calls out as Beth leaves the station. She doesn’t stop to warn the receptionist, either, on this last of possible occasions. Beth’s die is cast; she’s seen what she’s made of, and it isn’t valor. It’s motherhood, and fear.
Chuck’s waiting for her at the door, six hard, squat suitcases lining the hall like bludgeons. He’s plastered them with garish stickers from the last election. “Camouflage,” he says. Tension clings to him like static. “We can scrape them off when we get to Helsinki.”
He loads the suitcases while she settles Evie in her car seat. “Ready?” he says before he locks the townhouse door. Beth runs her gaze across the violets on the porch, lingering. Across the winter jasmine. Across Evie’s tricycle.
The airport cashier is wearing an Americans for Natural Families button. Beth thanks her anyway and walks back to the boarding area. Chuck smiles when she hands him the tray, and her tension dips. It won’t vanish completely until they clear Finnish immigration. If it ever does.
Part of her hopes it won’t. Hopes she’ll never feel the word choice as an accusation, stripped of urgency’s absolving light.
“Look, it’s Mommy!” Evie points at the giant screen on the wall. Last Thursday’s interview-gone-viral.
Welcome to NOVA’s Science on the Edge. With me today is geneticist Barb Morrison from the Center for Family Studies in Atlanta, with an exclusive look at the center’s groundbreaking new research.
Chuck shifts, blocking Evie’s view. “How about one last bathroom break before we get on the plane?”
Beth picks Evie up. “What a good idea, Daddy.” Evie squirms. “Hey, squirt, what’s the first thing we’ll see when we get off the plane?”
Evie’s eyes light up. “Snow!” The monitor’s forgotten.
Beth walks into the restroom and the sound from the interview fades. But she knows what comes next word for word.
The man from NOTM had already been there for more than three weeks, part scriptwriter, part acting coach, working with everyone at the show to enhance, he said, clarity and engagement. To draw in viewers who might feel daunted by the jargon. To make science really accessible to the average Joe. He was a young guy, easygoing, with a good feel for language and for timing and delivery. They’d all bought in. Signed off, thumbs-upped, green-lighted, retweeted, recited on national tv. And the show’s ratings had taken off. They were reaching more people than ever with science: not just the whiz kids and NASA geeks, but the average American viewer.
Thursday’s interview had felt like more of a good thing to everyone but Beth.
Dr. Morrison, tell us about your work.
What we’ve done is discover the profound role that biological kinship plays in human social and emotional development.
What does that mean, in everyday terms?
It means that children who don’t grow up with their birth parents are at a disadvantage that will hurt them for the rest of their lives.
Even accounting for problems those parents may have?
Even then, and that’s part of what’s so surprising about this research. No one predicted that.
So you’re saying children are always better off with their birth parents?
Well, Beth, the science certainly seems to be saying so.
She’d first seen the script on Wednesday, and she’d gone home trembling. Together, she and Chuck had decided she’d set aside her personal issues and do the show; she was a professional. They’d start reading up on child development; she’d make more time to be home with Evie. And this was just a first study. Maybe others would be less stark. She’d do the interview and put it behind her.
Then she woke up on Friday morning to find it had inexplicably riveted the nation.
Beth waits beside the stall while Evie pees. Someone’s scrawled a quote above the sinks. A good deal of tyranny goes by the name of protection. But Beth’s already seen the writing on the wall. Seen behind the wizard’s curtain. Seen the emperor’s bald ass. Swallowed the red pill. Crashed full frontal into a solid wall and lost every last bit of momentum.
She replays that instant when the blinders fell off and she saw what was coming for her. When she saw inside the leviathan’s maw, saw the jagged shining teeth that would rend her family alive. Her pulse quickens. The panic’s still there.
The blinders came loose at six pm on Friday, when Beth finally mustered the courage to let the outside world back in. The tv newscaster was reporting on drone strikes in the Middle East, but Beth’s eye caught an item in the crawler at the bottom of the screen: GEORGIA SENATOR PROPOSES ADOPTION BILL. The timing was just too perfect.
She looked up the Center for Family Studies, looked up Barb Morrison. Followed link after link, down an hours-long rabbit hole that exposed the “research” for what it was: privately funded dogma. God damn. Beth was just a talking head, she didn’t vet the guests, but NOTM’s fact checkers must have known the science was bogus. Hardly truth in medi—
Orchestrating a war, indeed. And the opening volley had sailed in under the radar, clear and free.
Beth had woken that morning to news of nationwide rallies and petitions, all clamoring to rescue the nation’s children from adoption. The speed and size of the outcry had upset her, but more than that, it had surprised her. Now it all clicked into place. The near-instant furore was manufactured, the well-meaning masses whipped up by professional protesters as part of a planned offensive. And its scope was no doubt immense: adoption was just a stepping stone, a way to set legal precedent. From there it would be a short step to outlawing same-sex parenting. Sperm banks. Divorce. There was nothing they couldn’t make the “science” support, once precedent was set.
Beth and Chuck spent the weekend packing, unpacking, looking up last-minute flights to Europe, putting on bright faces for Evie. Discussing in low tones how Beth would handle work on Monday. Discussing whether she’d go to work on Monday. Wondering if they were overreacting. Analyzing the pitch-perfect execution of each step in the battle so far, and knowing the answer was no.
Evie’s asleep, sprawled across her plane seat, her head heavy on Beth’s thigh; Chuck’s staring blankly at a movie. Beth’s staring blankly at nothing at all.
They’re well over the Atlantic now, cruising through international airspace. In four more hours they’ll land in Finland. Tomorrow they’ll start pulling out their savings at ATMs. She’ll find work at a broadcaster somewhere in Europe. Until then, they’ll move freely from country to country on their border-dissolving Annex II passports, living out of Airbnbs and family hostels. Back home, the landlord will eventually sell their things and toss the dead violets and relet the townhouse.
What a privilege, to just fly away from danger.
But that’s not the choice that will stick in Beth’s craw, when the adrenalin finally fades. What will haunt her is that tonight, just hours before she whisked her family to safety, she had the attention of six point eight million households still cruising on momentum, still trusting her to show them the truth.
And she chose to play along with the lie.
This story originally appeared in Curious Fictions. Licensed here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe via Unsplash.