Ellen Topitzer
Collection

How long? I asked.

The man I once called father leaned against the kitchen window as he lit his last cigarette. He was not a young man by far. His beard was more salt than pepper and what had once been hair had become a shiny, barren scalp.

He took a moment to inhale, glancing at me as two streams of smoke snaked out from his nostrils.

Not long. He replied as he brought the cigarette back to his chapped lips. He took another moment before adding, Whenever the mood strikes them, I suppose, as he turned to face the blackened window.

I stared at him.

So that’s it then? I asked, my voice rising slightly. I already knew the answer, but I needed to hear it from him.

The fat man glanced back at me, and I noticed a slight quiver in his cigarette.

Yeah, sweetheart, he said. That’s it.

My hands fisted into the sides of my dress and I looked away.

I’ll go prepare then.

His only reply was the swirl of smoke that followed me as I left the room.

 
I didn’t resist when the guards came to collect me. I knew there was no point in trying to escape. I had watched them round up and arrest the people in this neighborhood my whole life; I knew their routine by heart.

It took the guards little under a minute to break down our front door. I winced as their heavy steel boots crunched over the splintered remains. They gave no warning, no knock, shout or command. Government guards don’t operate that way. When following orders, there is no communication. To a guard there is only execution. Dressed in shiny black armor, faces obscured, they resembled insects gathering for an infestation.

My father stood ready for them, paperwork in hand, fingers smeared in ink and sweat. His large frame seemed to fill the entire threshold, like a rock against a torrent. In my mind I imagined that our home had become a bottle of wine; my father was the cork, the guards the liquid, and our apartment the fragile glass containing it all. As long my father stood there, the guards couldn’t reach me. Their weapons, warmed and buzzing in anticipation, couldn’t touch me. I looked over to my father, whose face was rigid with dark circles lining his eyes. For a brief moment those eyes met mine and time seemed to pause; his bulk protected me from the guards who were caught between the fresh wreckage of our doorway and an overweight, middle-aged man.

But then he looked away. The moment shattered. As he stepped aside to let the guards through, the sound of rushing water filled the hall. The bottle had been uncorked and I was left to drown.

Major William Kilder? a guard shouted through the noise.

My father raised his arm. Yeah, that’s me, he said with a grunt, wiping his nose on the back of his sleeve. The guard who had spoken approached him, as the others swarmed our home.

By order of the government, you have entered into the accordance of the Adam’s Act. Do you comply? the guard asked. I thought it was a funny thing to ask someone who had a gun pointed at his gut. My father nodded, and handed over his fistful of crumpled paperwork.

Here, was all he said.

 
No other words were exchanged as the man who raised me signed my life away. I guess you could justify it by saying that he had the right to; after all, he spent sixteen years providing for me. It was only fair I returned the favor. After the paperwork was finished my father was led into the other room. I didn’t bother to watch him go

A guard handed me a plastic bag filled with clothes while the others descended upon my home. Walls were torn out, furniture toppled over. Anything that appeared remotely valuable was confiscated. The cracked mirror in the bathroom, the radio, a few porcelain dishes from the kitchen, my clothes, my mother’s books, all disappeared, swallowed up by the government’s greed. In the span of ten minutes the place I had grown up in had been raped and ruined.

Then it was my turn. They stripped me down until I stood practically naked, huddled and shivering in the middle of my kitchen floor. An older guard searched to make sure I wasn’t hiding any weapons. I thought I had prepared myself for this part, but as I stood there exposed and alone, I realized there was no preparation for something like this. Perhaps that’s what caused the blinding panic that suddenly consumed me. Without warning my chest had become too small to contain my lungs. My heart was unable to pump the blood through my veins fast enough. I felt nauseous. The feeling you get just after you’ve been punched in the gut. You’re shocked from the pain, winded, head reeling, but you can’t pass out. You’re still waiting for the next blow to come.

After that I didn’t think, I didn’t move as the guard’s hands roamed my stomach, breasts, arms, and legs. I swallowed hard and tried to ignore how cold his armored hands felt on my flesh. Once the guard was satisfied he let me change into a grey dress and worn shoes. The shoes were too big for me, and the material of the dress smelled of sour milk. I vaguely wondered if there would be time enough for me to get used to it.

As I secured the buttons on my new dress, the guard quietly leaned in closer to me. On instinct, I froze.

Don’t worry sweetheart, with your looks you’ll get a pretty price for sure, he murmured under his breath.

I looked up at the faceless sentry, whose armor gleamed in the dim light. Some people found their uniforms to be attractive, but not me. I would always associate their black armor with the ripe, fresh stench of fear. I knew his words were meant to be reassuring, but they had the opposite effect. Think of it as being told you’re going to taste good before you’re chopped up and thrown into a stew.

That’s when I heard a roar from the other room.

No, stop! my father’s voice thundered. This wasn’t part of the deal!

I looked up to see the same guard from before overseeing two of his men remove my father’s safe. The guard turned to my father, yawning slightly as he waved a familiar piece of paper in his direction.

Read the fine print, Mr. Kilder. Even with the girl your total payment does not settle your debt.

It was funny how human his voice sounded behind his mask. I glanced at my father, whose face was red.

You’ve taken almost everything! I have paid my dues, he said, his large chest moving up and down in rapid succession.

The guard took a step towards my father. His tone was even, but when he spoke his voice brought the room to a standstill.

Trust me. There is much more we could take.

A silence seeped into the air, as the guard’s words settled over my father, whose anger all at once seemed to drain away. The flush vanished from his cheeks, and without the color his face seemed sickly and pale. I had never seen him look so weak.

Perhaps we can settle this another way, the guard offered as he ran a finger along my father’s safe. You don’t happen to have a wife, do you?

That’s when I spoke up.

No. He sold her the last time.