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by Kaye George


4031 words




Ivanya slipped from one shadowy doorway to the next, making her way home from her job, as usual. She had been washing dishes and bussing tables at Doyle’s Diner for three years now, since she was nine. The place was indoors, sheltered, and she was well fed, so she loved her job. It was the journey to and from work over the cracked and crumbling sidewalk every day that scared her.


Her mother, Alice, would tell her stories of how it used to be, before The Imperial Regime was established in 2017. People were named after their own families, or just named with made-up names. Children would go to school and study out of books. Her mother had one book that had escaped the roundup and burning, Goodnight, Moon. They brought it out every night, sometimes to read, sometimes to just touch. But most of the time they kept it hidden.


Ivanya was looking forward to the evening—if she could just make it home before it got dark. Cars roared by, spewing toxic fumes, some with working lights, some driving in the gathering dusk with their lights all burned out. A hot wind whipped her skirt around her legs. It was Fall, which she could tell because of how early it got dark. It was hot all year long in New York, though her mom said there used to be times when it would get cold and people would have to wear warm clothing.


She slunk to the next doorway, then peered out. No roving gangs of men, for now. Finding the coast clear to cross the street, she ran as fast as she could and made it to the door of her apartment building. She didn’t dare be out after dark. That’s when the gangs took complete control of the streets. There had been police to keep the violence down until about a year ago. They hadn’t been paid in so long, most of them had to quit and find other ways to feed themselves and their families.


Her new best friend, Melonia, was coming over for dinner. Another girl her age, Ivanda, had been her friend before she met Melonia, but Ivanda’s family had finally found a way to get to Canada and leave The Imperial Regime. She wished her mother would do that! There weren’t that many people left here, but so many of them were mean and ruthless. It was as if, in addition to the Naming Decree, the one that said everyone had to be named after a member of the Imperial Family, there was a Behavior Decree, a law that said people had to behave like them.


Ivanya ran up the stairs to the second floor and rapped her secret code on the door.


Her mother threw the door open and hugged her. “You’re home! And look, Melonia’s here.” Ivanya grabbed her friend’s hand and they disappeared into Ivanya’s room where they talked and giggled. They speculated a bit on who they would marry and what their children would be like. They always did that. It was hard to find kids their own age, but they knew a few boys. Two named Erich, one named Dinald, and one named Donard. They would name their firstborns after each other. Melonia’s would be Ivanta and Ivanya’s would be Melanta. They both knew girls with those names. There were only so many variations you could do with the allowed names, ones like the Imperial Family, but not exactly like them.


Melonia loved to hear about the very wealthy people who ate at Doyle’s Diner, so Ivanya saved up her stories about them. Sometimes she embellished a bit, but mostly she didn’t have to.


Tonight she told about clearing up after a most distinguished party that included the Young Imperial Ruler, as he was called.


“The old man one we used to call Junior.”


“Right. You remember when the Old Imperial Ruler died four years ago?”


Melonia nodded. “He died peacefully in his sleep. About a gazillion people came to see his dead body. That’s what everyone was saying. I don’t know anyone who did, though.”


Ivanya smoothed her bedspread, shaking her head. “I know that’s what they said, but I don’t think that’s what happened. Once I heard the Young Imperial Ruler—” they both giggled.


“I know we shouldn’t laugh,” Melonia said. “But it’s so funny! The ‘Young’ Ruler is at least sixty, isn’t he?”


“Maybe seventy. He’s ancient. All bent over and wrinkled, and so fat.”


“So what did the ‘Young’ (a brief stop for them to giggle again) Imperial Ruler say.”


“He used some bad words, but he said that his father got his hair tangled up and wrapped around his throat and it choked him.”


“How could it? His neck was so fat!”


“It’s that way in all the pictures, but he was in his nineties and it was skinny then.”


Melonia pondered that. “Shouldn’t the ‘Young’ (giggle stop) Ruler be getting skinny now, too?”


“I don’t see how he can. All the cookies and fat food he eats. And he never gets exercise because of his walker. He’s used that for years, ever since an elephant mangled his left foot on a safari. It doesn’t work right.”


Most of the customers tipped, some tipped well, but the Imperial Family never left a penny. Never even bought their own meals. No one expected them to. They were above paying for anything. However, a guest of the Family had slipped her a few bills that afternoon. She was about to tell Melonia about that when her mom knocked on the door. The girls both knew why, because they could smell the chocolate chip cookies.


Ivanya flew out the door and they ran to the kitchen table where all three munched the cookies with some milk.


“You’re so lucky your mom is a famous cook,” Melonia said. “My mom would love to be able to get chocolate chips.”


“I can give her some,” Alice said, patting the girl’s shoulder. “I don’t need to use them all. There are always a few left over after I bake for The Imperial Leader’s family.”


Alice used to write cookbooks, but now published recipes online, since there were no more books. After her cookies had caught the attention of the First Family, she and Ivanya hadn’t had to worry about being hungry any more. If there were groceries in the store, they had a card that entitled them to quite a few. Of course, the stores didn’t always have anything to sell.


“Do you know when you’re leaving?” Ivanya asked. She hadn’t wanted to ask right away, but she wanted to know. She dreaded losing another friend.


“Mom and Dad think it will be soon. Maybe within the week. My uncle made it out last month and knows an underground route.”


Ivanya and her mother looked at each other. Alice shook her head. “I don’t see how we could leave, darling. They would notice right away that I had stopped baking cookies for them.”


“They could go without them for a day or so.” Ivanya pouted. “They’re all so fat they could probably live for a month without eating.”


“Shush, now,” her mother whispered. “You never know who’s listening.”


Ivanya frowned. She was pretty sure no one was. At first, in the 2020s, the effort was made to track everyone and everything, but since there weren’t even enough government workers now, in the 2040s, to collect taxes, how could “they” be listening to everyone? There weren’t any history books, of course, and the history online was all false, but people talked and lore was handed down. Ivanya had a prime listening position at the Diner, where the few who kept the wealth gathered.


The girls finished their cookies, then retreated to the bedroom again.


“I have to know more about how you’re going to get out.” Ivanya took Melonia’s hands in hers. They were cold.


“I’m so scared. What if we don’t make it? What if we get caught?” Melonia shivered.


The rumors were that The Imperial Family, who were all fond of hunting, used captured escapees for target practice on their vast estates. No one knew for sure if that was true, since none had ever escaped from any of the estates after being apprehended trying to escape.


“You won’t get captured!” Ivanya squeezed her friend’s hands. “Your mom and dad are so smart. They won’t get caught. And your uncle made it.”


A dreamy look came over Melonia. “Just think. In another country, I could change my name. I could be Susie or Jane.”


“I want to be Lavender. I love that name.” She looked up at the ceiling, as if an answer were there. “I want to go with you. I want to figure out how to get me and my mom out.”


“How can you do that? She has to deliver the cookies three times a day.”


“I know, but…I’m not sure, but there has to be a way.”


“There’s also your job.”


Yes, she had to show up for her job every day. She only had the job because of her mom. Still, there had to be a way.


“I’m going to think about this. When do you leave?”


“I don’t know if I should say.”


“You can tell me, can’t you?”


Melonia took her hands back and hugged herself. “Okay, we’re leaving in three days. At midnight. I’ll ask if you and Alice can come with us. I know, you walk me home before your work tomorrow and I’ll ask then.”


Melonia sewed buttons on shirts in a factory near the Diner.


Ivanya lay awake for hours, even though she was tired from her job, as she always was. But she had to figure out how to escape. No one could be on the streets after dark. That wasn’t a law, but everyone knew it was a bad idea. She spent most of the daylight hours at work, especially now that it was autumn and the days were shorter. Her mother had to be home when the baking supplies were delivered in the morning, and had to run the cookies to the New York Mansion at ten, two, and four. Everyone but the current Imperial Wife ate them. Whoever was Wife at the moment was never allowed to. A limo picked Alice up for this and the driver grew impatient if she was the least little bit late.


So…they couldn’t get away during the day. No one was supposed to be out at night, but nothing was stopping them from doing it. People did go outside. Mostly people who were up to no good, as her mother said.


But wait. Melonia’s family was going to leave at midnight. They just had to get to her apartment building. It was three blocks away. So her family would be out at night. She had another part to her plan, too.


She had settled what to do and when. She would discuss the details with her mom. And she would hope that Melonia’s parents would let them go along.


The next day, before she left for work, she checked with Melonia on her TPad. Her friend said they hadn’t decided yet if they could take Ivanya and her mother with them. All day long at work, she dropped things, even broke two cups clearing a table. Luckily, none of the Imperial Family was in the diner. Her hands shook as she swept up the shards. Her boss asked her if she was sick.


That gave her an idea. She put on a woebegone expression and made her hands shake a bit more.


“I’m not sure. I might be coming down with something.”


“You’d better stay in the kitchen then,” her boss said. “Don’t come out to clear tables until you feel better.”


So that didn’t work. She had thought maybe he would send her home early and she could drop by Melonia’s apartment. It didn’t happen often, but she could remember wait staff being sent home a couple of times, and the cook once, for being ill. There was a lull in the afternoon when she wasn’t needed for a few minutes, so she visited the restroom and pulled out her TPad again. Melonia had answered! Her parents agreed!


She and Alice were to be there by 11:30 PM sharp tomorrow night. She typed in a message, asking what they should bring.


--Not very much. You have to carry what you bring.


--Something to eat?


--Yes, but not too much.


Ivanya asked how long the journey would take. Melonia answered that it should only be half a day. They would have to walk through the Holland Tunnel from New York to Newport, New Jersey. Then they would be picked up by a van and taken to Montreal. The total trip shouldn’t take more than 8 hours, Melonia said.


That didn’t sound so bad. The hardest part would be getting to the tunnel. Getting through it would be easy since no one would look for them there. It wasn’t used for vehicles anymore since the pavement was crumbling and parts of the ceiling had caved in. Her mom said it used to be very busy, filled with cars all day and night. And people worked to keep it up regularly. There weren’t many cars any more. And there were no road maintenance workers.


Melonia texted to let her know that she had to work an extra hour, so Ivanya went straight home. When she got there, she started telling her mother about the trip, talking so fast her mother couldn’t understand her.


“Slow down,” Alice said. “Let’s go into the bathroom for a moment, shall we?”


She always wanted to talk in the bathroom with the water running full blast, speaking in whispers, when they talked about taboo topics.


“I have it all figured out. I think this will work. We should wear dark clothing,” her mother said. “That way, we’ll be harder to see at night.”


Her mother’s eyes glowed as she whispered and her smile was as wide as Ivanya had ever seen it.


“Should we take something to eat?” Ivanya asked. “We might get hungry.” The water hissed and swirled down the drain, masking their voices.


“We’ll last for a day.”


“I want to take some of your cookies.”


Her mother thought for a moment. “True, I don’t know when I’ll be able to bake them again. Okay, tomorrow I’ll make as many extra as I can and we’ll bring them with us.”


Ivanya didn’t sleep much at all that night. She made a huge effort to concentrate at the diner the next day, but her boss again sent her out of the dining room to work. She left on the dot, maybe a few minutes before her shift was up. She made herself walk home, but she wanted to race the searing wind. There weren’t many trees in the city, but a few stray fallen leaves swirled around her feet. She ducked into doorways when she heard someone coming, as she always did, and kept to her normal routine. When she reached her building, though, she scrambled up the stairs as fast as she could. Her mother was waiting in the doorway.


They dressed in their darkest clothing right away, even though they weren’t leaving for hours. Ivanya put on a pair of black slacks and a navy blue shirt and her mother wore a dark brown pants outfit. Pant suits had been banned after the 2016 election, her mother had told her, but they were allowed about twenty years later and now a lot of women wore them.


Ivanya packed a few pieces of clothing, secreting Goodnight Moon between two pair of shorts. Her mother packed even less clothing and they both filled the remaining space in the satchels with cookies.


Her mom even smeared something dark on both of their faces before they left the apartment. When Ivanya gave it a lick, she discovered it was gooey syrup, probably made from chocolate chips.


At 11:00 they tiptoed down the stairs, not making a sound. Alice opened the outside door inch by inch and they crept out. The streets were quiet and dark. Very dark. Ivanya had never been out at this time of night. The noise from a car that had lost its muffler long ago startled them. It was a few blocks away, giving them plenty of warning. They huddled in a doorway until it was past. Ivanya thought their camouflage was working well. Nighttime insects hummed and flitted about her face, wanting to feed on the chocolate syrup, she was sure. She tried to ignore them.


They made it to the end of the first block, then the second one. One block to go.


Three young men shuffled up behind them before they knew they were there.


“Hey, where you sweet things goin’ this time of night?” A tall, thin young man in a black leather jacket spoke, probably their leader. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and sprinkled ashes on Alice’s shoes.


“We’re taking these to a sick friend,” Alice said, reaching into her bag. “But you can have some of them.” She handed him three cookies.


He squinted at her and took them. After the first bite, he reached into her satchel. “Yeah, I can have some. I can have all of them.” He grabbed most of them, passing them to his friends.


They left, chewing and smacking their lips with moist sounds, and leaving a trail of crumbs. Ivanya let out the breath she was holding. The next block presented no problems and they fell into the door of Melonia’s first floor apartment with relief.


Melonia hugged Ivanya, then wiped her own face. The syrup had smeared onto hers.


“What is that?” she asked putting a finger into her mouth tentatively. “Mm, it tastes good.”


They both laughed, a welcome break to the tension that hung in the bright kitchen.


“This gang stopped us and stole our cookies,” Ivanya said, frowning. “But I have more in my bag.” She reached inside and gave one to each of them—her mother, Melonia, Melonia’s mother and father, and her little brother Dinald.


“We can do this,” Melonia’s dad said. “My brother has a fail-safe route after we get through the tunnel. He made it there, and we can, too.”


“Can we leave now?” Melonia’s little brother asked.


“No,” her father said. “We can’t get to the rendezvous too early. We need to get there just as the van does. None of us can afford to stand around. Alice and Ivanya, your clothing is perfect.”


His whole family was dressed in dark clothing also.


“We’re going to use shoe polish on our faces. Would you like to touch yours up?”


Melonia’s family had dark skin, but it would be good to make it even darker, Ivanya thought.


“Where on earth did you get shoe polish?” Alice asked. “I haven’t seen that for years.”


He snorted. “I just got a job last week. Polishing shoes for the Imperial Family’s servants. Since today was my last day, I helped myself to a can of it.”


Alice laughed and Ivanya was thrilled to see that.


At 11:45, they all left as quietly as was humanly possible. It was about ten blocks to the Holland Tunnel. Ivanya realized she was once again holding her breath. They walked briskly over the disintegrating pavement, but not too fast, the constant scorching wind pushing them on their way from behind. Ivanya wanted to run, but knew she didn’t dare. Someone might notice a person running through the night. Moving more slowly was less likely to attract attention. At least that’s what Melonia’s dad had said before they left.


They had only half a block to go when a rusty pickup truck stopped beside them. Two skinny guys climbed out and ambled toward them up the broken sidewalk. The one in front held a knife that glinted in the truck’s headlights. Melonia’s father stepped forward and stood between the rest of them and the hoodlums, a fierce look on his face.


Just before the pair reached the small group, a shiny BMW pulled up behind the truck. The two men jumped back in and roared off.


When Ivanya saw who got out of the passenger door of the car, she froze inside. It was the Young Imperial Ruler. His hair, dyed bright orange, glowed in the car’s dome lights. An aide scrambled out of the back seat and handed him his walker.


“Where are you folks going this nice night? Out for a stroll?”


Ivanya pushed in front of Melonia’s father.


“We were on the way to bring you these. When my mother saw how many we had left over, she wanted to bring them to you. These friends came with us to make sure we would be safe. We all dressed so that maybe the gangs wouldn’t find us.”


The Young Imperial Ruler frowned, thinking hard. “You’re not going the right direction.”


Ivanya looked around. “Oh dear, I think you’re right. It’s so dark out, we must have gotten confused.” She dipped into her satchel. “Here, take these.” She handed some cookies to his aide, but the Imperial Ruler grabbed one.


“I’m so glad we ran into you,” Ivanya said. “Now we can go back home.”


The Young Imperial Ruler didn’t say another word. He stuffed half a dozen cookies into his mouth, shoved the walker at the aide, and got back into the car chewing as noisily as the gangsters had.


After the sleek car drove off, the group ran the rest of the way to the tunnel.




Six months later, Alice sat in her new kitchen in Ottawa and fanned herself. It was hot, even in Canada. She had just baked a week’s worth of cookies. These were not all chocolate chip. Some were peanut butter, some snickerdoodles, and oatmeal raisin.


Lavender was glad her mother could bake whatever she wished to now. The bakery a block away sold enough of Alice’s cookies for them to live comfortably. Lavender sat in the front room, gazing out the window at the pleasant front yard, full of the flowers her mother had planted. Beyond the sidewalk, a car would come by every few minutes. Nice, quiet, well-kept cars, driving on the smooth pavement.


Lavender’s friend Susie came up the sidewalk, stooping to pick a daisy to bring inside. Lavender ran to the door to let her in. Susie’s family lived two blocks away in another neat, tidy house, similar to hers.


They hugged and went into Lavender’s room. After they had eaten a few cookies, Susie wanted to talk about who they would marry and how many children they would have. They had their pick of many boys now that they were in school. Their class had twelve boys and ten girls.


“I might not get married,” Lavender said.


“Why not? Don’t you want a husband to take care of you?”


“Mom says you don’t have to have one. She doesn’t.”


Susie thought about that for a moment. “Did you ever have a dad?”


“I did when I was really little. But he died in the war with Mexico.”


“My dad hated that war, he says. It was stupid to fight over who paid for a wall that nobody ever built.”


“What do you mean?”


“I don’t know. Dad says it all happened a long time ago and everyone should just forget about it. He went to that war, too, but he came home.”


“I’m glad about that.” She was, too. Without Susie’s dad knowing her uncle’s route, they might never have made it out of the Imperial Nation.


“So,” Susie said, sprawling on Lavender’s bed and finishing her cookie, “what do you want to do if you don’t get married?”


“I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I even talked to my teacher about it. I think I want to be the President of the United States.”


“What’s that?”


“It’s something they used to have a long time ago.”



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