The Most Precious Commodity

by Wondra Vanian

It started as a joke, with memes splashed across Facebook pages and cleverly worded hashtags on Twitter.

     What historians would later call America’s Male Supremacy Act, the rest of the world called America’s greatest failure. It was intended as a way for the wealthy, middle-aged right-wing to scrape back some of the power they had lost over the years to feminists, so-called minorities, and logic. It ended in tragedy.

     Some saw it coming. They screamed the dangers of dehumanizing half the world’s population while their friends and families shook their heads, stubbornly insisting that “no one could be that dumb.”

     Sissy didn’t know anything about laws being passed by grey men in Washington. She was still in diapers when the American dream turned into a nightmare and grew up sheltered, not knowing there had ever been a time when women had been people. A time when women had possessed rights, voices, and lives of their own. A time when women were just the other sex, not the nation’s highest valued commodity.

     Father kept Sissy hidden away, safe in the special place beneath the house as she grew from baby to toddler, toddler to child, and child to teen. Sissy had never been forced to learn the lesson that America had realized far, far too late: that no matter how valuable an object is, it is still just an object. Objects can be stolen, broken, sold–even torn apart and pieced back together by their owners or put on dusty display by avid collectors.

     Human beings were never meant to be objects.

     A lesson it took America a very long time to learn. Too long.

     By the time Americans–that is, the only type of people still considered Americans–realized the errors of their ways, it was too late to do a damned thing about it. Businessmen insisted it was simple supply and demand. Physicians said it was the price paid for removing a woman’s right and access to healthcare. Politicians did what they had done through history, they blamed one another.

     Not that it mattered.

     The damage had been done. There was no going back. America had become the world’s first male-only nation. First, and last. No government, after they saw the destruction America had brought up on itself, would ever be so foolhardy again. The fall of America served, at least, as a bad example–which was no comfort to the poor schmucks still living there. People like Pastor Geoff Hicks, his wife, Helena, and their new-born daughter, Sissy.

     Pastor Hicks was respected because of his position in the community. He was loved because he was an honest, fair, even-tempered man. Helena sometimes joked that grocery shopping wouldn’t take half as long if the townspeople liked her husband a little less. She laughingly suggested he try to be just a little more disagreeable so they might be seated at a restaurant without first being asked to counsel distraught waitstaff who “just knew Good Ole Pastor Hicks would have the answer!”

     Being a well-respected, beloved member of the community could only be a good thing. Under normal circumstances. When the worst thing a town faced was a heated debate over the necessity of a second traffic light on Main Street. When friends and neighbors joined together to raise funds so the high school band could buy new uniforms.

     When the world was sane.

     Being a well-respected, beloved member of the community was only a bad thing when the world went to hell. When all fearful eyes looked to you to lead the way; to tell them everything was going to be okay; to somehow make things right. When you were forced to watch as women who had been faithful members of your parish their entire lives slowly wasted away because they could no longer afford the premiums that would have kept them alive. When you knew it was only a matter of time until illness took your mother, or until the Procurers came for your wife.

     What, then, does a pastor tell his flock? What does a good man tell his family?

     The truth? Dear God, no. What exactly was the truth, anyway? That American society had regressed so far that women weren’t even second-class citizens anymore? That they weren’t citizens anymore? That their wives, mothers, and daughters were now more valuable than their houses, cars, and portfolios? That if you weren’t willing to sell your girlfriend for a fair price, someone would just come in the dead of night and take her at gunpoint instead?

     After he lost his beloved wife in one such raid, Pastor Hicks had learned to tell some hard lies–starting with the one he told his neighbors the next day, that both his wife and child had been murdered in an ill-fated raid. In truth, Sissy had been at her grandmother’s house that night, but it took little persuading to convince the old woman that hiding Sissy’s presence was best for all involved. Geoff’s mother died shortly after, leaving him alone with a terrible secret and one vulnerable baby girl.

     Sissy never got to know the man her father had been, back when the world was sane. She never heard him speak with the absolute certainty in human goodness that had once come to him as naturally as breathing. Never saw him without the weary lines that over a decade of lies had etched onto his face.

     She never once heard him utter God’s name.

     As far as Good Ole Pastor Hicks was concerned, God was dead. There were very few left in America who would have disagreed with him in their hearts–though plenty enough were able to twist the Bible’s words in order to claim that women had brought the tragedy upon themselves. That it was all Eve’s fault, really, and all women now payed the price for her original sin. Pastor Hicks had learned to tell many lies, for the sake of his secret daughter, but that was one lie he could never bring to his lips.

     Pastor Hicks couldn’t, wouldn’t, speak the falsehood. Wouldn’t accept that the downfall of the American woman was anything other than what it was: evil perpetrated by an elite group of aging men who knew their days in power were numbered. An evil buoyed by the most powerful man in the world, who breathed life into their misogynistic monster as a distraction for his own shortcomings. A man who, for his sins, was the first to fall when the nation needed a scapegoat–because even the end of society wasn’t enough to make the wealthy old men, with their fat wallets and shriveled dicks, take responsibility.

     Most were gone now, while the rest stayed hidden away in mansions behind walls tall enough to hide women who ghosted through halls and across lawns, the light of humanity long-since extinguished from their eyes. Geoff watched his Sissy for that look. When anxiety gripped him the worst, he would capture his daughter’s face in his hands and search her eyes for any sign that he was losing her. Without fail, Sissy would laugh before dancing out of his reach, begging him to play a game with her, and Geoff would breathe a sigh of relief so great it threatened to shake the house’s foundations.

     Though he worried endlessly about her mind and soul, Sissy’s body was easy enough to keep alive. No one suspected Pastor Hicks was up to anything other than God’s work when they spied him in the halls of the local hospital. And, if the odd syringe or antibiotic went missing… well, it must have been a thoughtless medical student. No one ever so much as considered pointing a finger at the pastor.

     And, sure, Pastor Hicks spent an unusual amount of time in the flourishing vegetable garden behind his house… but who could blame a grieving widower his little obsessions? Besides, there were always fresh loaves of zucchini bread for visitors so, if Pastor Hicks seemed to grow more than he actually needed, he must be a very generous man, indeed.

     In the dead of night, however, while his trusting flock slept, Pastor Hicks would press the button hidden away under the desk in his office, throw back the area rug hiding the panel’s seams, and descend into the stairway revealed by its opening. He’d press the code into the electronic keypad at the bottom and wait for the resulting hum to warn him the iron door hiding his little girl from the world was unlocked.

     Except, of course, Sissy wasn’t so little anymore. She had grown into a beautiful young woman, so like her mother at the same age that it made Geoff’s heart break every time he looked at her. The last time he saw his daughter, Sissy greeted him with an enthusiasm that fourteen years of solitude had somehow never dimmed.

     “Daddy!”

     Geoff staggered back a step as his daughter threw herself at him. His hands automatically rose to embrace Sissy, even as he fought the tears that pricked at his eyes.

     “Hey, baby girl,” he said, hugging her fiercely. “Did you miss me?”

     Sissy released him, darting across the room to grab something off the table in the small kitchenette he had built for her. Geoff had done everything he could to make the space beneath the two-story house on the edge of the suburbs seem less like the prison he sometimes feared it was. Drywall hid concrete walls. Carpet covered earthen floors. UV lights hung overhead, fighting off sickness and Depression.

     Where her father saw only cracks in the drywall and the threadbare sofa he’d been unable to find a way to replace, Sissy saw home. She knew enough about what the outside was like to know the bedroom, bathroom, kitchenette, and living room that made up her little world was safe–and safe was better than spacious. Sissy had her pencils, her books, and her dolls. For now, that was enough.

     It couldn’t last. Geoff knew his daughter had already outgrown the small space, even if she didn’t. She couldn’t stay hidden away forever… but what was the alternative? Rumor had it that Canada welcomed female refugees from its neighbor, if–and it was a big if–they could get past the walled border. Mexico, on the other hand, had long ago banned any travel between their countries, digging deep trenches and filling them with deterrents only slightly less horrible than the fate Americans might try to escape.

     “Look!”

     Dragged from his reverie, Geoff looked down at the slip of paper Sissy waved at him. It was a simple but accurate pencil drawing of himself, with an arm around her shoulders. She’d written, in her careful handwriting, underneath, “Me and Daddy.” His heart squeezed painfully.

     “Do you like it?” she asked, bouncing on the balls of her bare feet.

     Swallowing back tears, Geoff nodded. “I love it, baby.”

     She took the drawing over to the wall covered in her artwork and used a piece of tape to affix it atop the rest. If it bothered Sissy that her father couldn’t take the drawings she made for him, she gave no indication. It bothered him, though. Very much.

     Geoff wished he could keep one of Sissy’s drawings with him always, to remind himself why he did what he did; why, every day, he faced a congregation he had grown to hate; why he kept living when he just wanted to lay down and die.

     Unfortunately, staying alive for someone else isn’t always possible, no matter how much you want to. Healthcare became free to all men after the Coup of 2025 (which might have been America’s salvation if there had been enough of the left-wing remaining to lead it,) but no amount of medicine could stop the stroke that came upon Pastor Hicks as he greeted his flock that final Sunday. He fell, lifeless, from the pulpit, many long years after his faith had died.

     Sissy missed her father when he didn’t visit that night but didn’t worry. Sometimes, she knew, Daddy couldn’t come because it wasn’t safe. Being safe was best, even if it also meant being lonely sometimes. The second night, she grew uneasy. Worried, the third, and terrified the fourth. Something worse started the fifth night Daddy hadn’t returned.

     Hunger.

     She had never been hungry before–not really hungry. Daddy had always kept the small fridge and the neat little cabinet next to it fully stocked for her so Sissy could eat anytime she pleased. There had never been any need to ration food before so, when the need came, Sissy didn’t know how. The food was gone before she realized there might not be any more coming. All Sissy could do was curl up on the bed that had been built for a much smaller girl and wait for Daddy to come home.

     He never did.

 

Like most Americans, Tommy was no stranger to loss. He was five when his mother and sister were killed in a raid. His grandmother died a few weeks later. For a good many years, loss was all Tommy Hicks knew. He watched, uncomprehendingly, as his teachers died; one funeral after another were held for neighbors he had barely known; and all the little girls he’d once played chase with disappeared in the dead of night. By the time his own father died, Tommy had grown numb to loss.

     What mattered was putting his father in the ground, selling the house that had the ability to remind him of better times when he couldn’t stop his mind from wandering, and getting as far from the small town as he possibly could. Rumor had it that some countries in Africa were still willing to welcome Christian missionaries. Maybe Tommy could give that a go… he’d heard that African women still walked the streets in abundance. God, what he wouldn’t give to see a woman in real life...  

     Tommy thought about the magazine he kept hidden under his mattress. It was a fashion magazine (something that had quickly passed into obscurity as its readers thinned to non-existence) full of women modelling this dress or that purse. He tried to recall images of real women, wearing real dresses ad carrying real purses, but failed. It had been so long since Tommy had seen a woman in person that even the memory of them was hidden behind a wall of glossy-paged fiction.

     “Hey, Tommy,” a voice called from the hallway, “you wanna keep any of this?”

     His best friend, Mark, entered, carrying a box of gardening tools. Tommy thought of his father, on his knees for hours on end in the vegetable garden behind the house, digging and scraping in an almost manic haze. The man had never been the same after losing his wife and daughter. Sometimes–hell, more often than not–it felt like he’d forgotten he even had a son.

     Tommy shook his head. “Nah, man. Dump it.”

     Mark said, "Sure," and disappeared back into the hallway. Turning his attention back to the stack of papers before him on the desk, Tommy got back to the very dull business of sorting out his father’s affairs.

     They’d been at it all day, cleaning, packing, sorting. He’d hoped to finish it all at once, so he never had to step foot in the house again, but it didn’t look like that was going to be an option. Who knew death came with so much clutter? Tommy sighed, stretching out his legs, and-

     Click.

     Confused, Tommy straightened up and looked around. What was that?

     He almost missed the small bump under the area rug that stretched across his father’s office. In fact, if Tommy hadn’t been wandering around the room, looking for the source, he might not have noticed it at all. Confused but not yet suspicious, Tommy pushed the office door shut to give himself more space as he rolled the rug back.

     Was that a… trapdoor? He didn’t know those even existed outside old movies, much less hidden away in his father’s office. Tommy pushed the wooden panel back and, for lack of a better idea, cautiously descended the dark flight of stairs.

At the bottom, he found an iron door protected by a bright keypad with glowing numbers. Some of the numbers were worn and faded. Tommy pushed those numbers in first one combination, then another, until the door gave a hum and swung open.

     17032017.

     Something about those numbers tugged on the corner of Tommy’s memory, but he couldn’t put his finger on what. He wandered into a brightly lit room, jaw dropping as he surveyed the secret he’d been living on top of.

     “What the-”

     Tommy’s gaze was drawn to a wall covered in drawings. Some were of animals like elephants and dolphins–animals that hadn’t existed outside of a book in years–but most were of the same two people. One was Tommy’s father, an unaccustomed grin on his craggy face. The other was a teenage girl, with blonde hair like his mother’s and green eyes that looked a lot like the pair Tommy saw when he looked in the mirror.

     An idea started to form in Tommy’s mind, one that was so outrageous it just couldn’t be true.

     Not 17032017. 17-03-2019.

     The year his baby sister was born.

     He hadn’t thought of Sissy in years. He remembered crying for her as a child, as he’d cried for his mother, but why would he have thought about either of them since then? It wasn’t as though there were any reminders in the house, not even a photograph. His father had destroyed them in a fit of grief fourteen years ago, the year they had died in a nighttime raid.

     Tommy remembered the tears on his father’s face when he’d returned from a sleepover the following day. He remembered the church, full of mourners. He remembered the coffins, one large and one absurdly small, as they were lowered into the ground. He didn’t remember seeing either body. The caskets had remained closed throughout the ceremony.

     A voice, so weak it was barely a squeak, interrupted Tommy’s thoughts before he could reach the conclusion he traveled toward.

     “Daddy?”

     Turning slowly, Tommy’s eyes widened in shock as they fell upon the figure curled up on a tiny bed tucked away in a corner. It was the girl from the drawings, hair knotted, clothes loose, bags under her eyes. Dear God. Had she been down here, alone, since their father died almost two weeks ago?

     “Sissy?”

     The girl tried to raise her head but didn’t seem to be able to find the energy.

     “You’re-” A tiny, gasping cough. “You’re not Daddy.”

     Tommy heard loud footsteps above and, distantly, someone calling his name. Instinctively, he held a finger to his lips, hoping the girl would understand.

     “I-” he said, “I’ll be back. Soon, I promise.” Then, he hurried from the secret room, sealing it up tight behind him.

     As he slammed the hidden panel shut and flung the rug over it, Tommy’s brain whirled. Sissy. His sister was alive. She was alive and had been under his feet, all this time.

     The office door swung open. “Hey, man,” Mark said. “We’re just about done for the day. Wanna bail?”

     Tommy swallowed hard. His father, paragon of the community, had been hiding his sister under their house for nearly fifteen years. His sister. A female. Their neighborhood hadn’t seen the presence of a female in… when had Miss Josie died? Eight years ago? Ten?

     Townsfolk had joked that Miss Josie was too damned ornery to die. The shotgun she’d carried at all times hadn’t hurt, either–until a mob of desperate men, hungry for female companionship had stormed the old farmhouse on the edge of town. Miss Josie had to have been be sixty, if a day, but that didn’t seem to have mattered. Some said those men had continued to use her body, even after her heart had given out, but Tommy didn’t like to think about that.

     He’d always liked the old woman. She had given him hard candy, warm from her pocket, when he’d passed her in the street. Tommy hadn’t been old enough to understand what had driven those men to act as they had. Not then. He understood now.

     “Naw,” Tommy told his friend. “You know what? Maybe it ain’t so bad here, after all.”

     Mark frowned. Tommy knew what his friend must be thinking; he’d done nothing but complain about wanting to get out since they were old enough to know getting out was possible.

     “You’re joking,” Mark said, giving him a hard, assessing look.

     Tommy just shrugged. “It’s a house, right? Better than some shithole apartment in the city.”

     Mark opened his mouth and shut it again. Tommy wondered if the other man was deciding that his friend had lost his mind. Who knew? Maybe he had.

     “Yeah, okay,” Mark said. “Maybe I should crash here tonight, just in case-”

     “No!”

     Tommy didn’t realize the vehemence the words held until Mark raised his eyebrows. “I’m cool, honest,” he promised. Trying to feign indifference, he stretched his legs out, careful not to hit the hidden switch with his feet. “I’m just gonna, ya know, process and stuff.”

     Mark, clearly not convinced, nodded slowly. “Sure, man. Process. I’ll… uh, see you tomorrow at the funeral, yeah?”

Tommy nodded, eager to get his friend out of the house. “’Course. See ya then.”

     He waited until Mark let himself out, then ran to lock the door behind him. Tommy locked all the doors and drew all the blinds before he pushed the rug back and returned to the secret room under the house.

     The girl–Sissy, he reminded himself–had dragged herself off the bed but hadn’t gotten far. She lay in an inert heap on the floor. Kneeling beside her, Tommy lifted her head to his lap and pressed the bottle of water he’d hastily grabbed to her lips. After a couple messy gulps, she opened her eyes to blink up at him.

     Tommy was struck by several things at once–at least one or two he wasn’t proud of. He was struck by how similar their eyes were, how her nose was just like their father’s, and the fact that she existed at all. He was also amazed by how her pale lashes clung together and the way her small chest heaved under the too-large tee she wore. He couldn’t believe he was holding a living, breathing woman. Not one of those freakish things on the television that had been subjected to so many surgeries to keep them young-looking and fresh that made them more plastic than human, but a real (and, wow, really beautiful) woman.

     He tried to picture those African women, black skin glistening under the desert sun, but couldn’t even summon a half-formed image. He couldn’t remember what a single one of those well-dressed women in his fashion magazine looked like. The slight, sickly woman in his arms eclipsed all of that. The feel of her body against his body, her flesh against his flesh, did things to      Tommy that he couldn’t ignore.

     This is your sister, Tommy’s brain screamed at him.

     My sister is dead, his desperation threw back.

     “Who are you?” Sissy asked, voice hoarse.

     “I’m…” He had a decision to make, one that should have been easy but wasn’t. Sissy was his sister–but that word hadn’t meant anything in a long time. More than his sister, she was a beautiful female in the prime of her life. Jesus, she was probably the only one within five hundred miles. Tommy could name any price for her; he knew that with absolutely certainty.

     He also knew no other man would ever touch her.

     Tommy felt the possessiveness of a brother toward his sister. He also felt something else. Something… hungrier. He felt the possessiveness of a man holding the nation’s most precious commodity. His arms tightened around her.

     “I’m sorry, but your father is dead,” he told Sissy, stroking her hair as she began to sob.

     “Hush now,” Tommy said comfortingly. “It’s okay. I’m here to take care of you.”

     When the tears eased, Sissy looked up at Tommy with red-rimmed eyes.

     “Who are you?” she asked again.

     “I’m…” Tommy swallowed hard, pushing the image of his parents’ faces as far to the back of his mind as possible. “I’m your daddy’s friend,” he told Sissy. “I promised I would take care of you.”

     And Sissy, with no reason not to trust him, climbed into her brother’s lap and wrapped her arms around his neck, blissfully unaware of what the weight pressing against her thigh meant for her future.

© 2018-2019 Wondra Vanian

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