Fatherless: A Novelby James Dobson, Kurt Bruner
The year is 2042, and the long-predicted tipping point has arrived. For the first time in human history, the economic pyramid has flipped: The feeble old now outnumber the vigorous young, and this untenable situation is intensifying a battle between competing cultural agendas. Reporter Julia Davidson-a formerly award-winning journalist seeking to revive a flagging career-is investigating the growing crisis, unaware that her activity makes her a pawn in an ominous conspiracy. Plagued by nightmares about her absent father, Julia finds herself drawn to the quiet strength of a man she meets at a friend's church. As the engrossing plot of FATHERLESS unfolds, Julia faces choices that pit professional success against personal survival in an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world. FATHERLESS vividly imagines a future in which present-day trends come to sinister fruition.
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Read an Excerpt
By James Dobson
FaithWordsCopyright © 2013 James Dobson
All right reserved.
August 17, 2041
I didn’t expect the person killing me to yawn in boredom.
The small print under her name, Hannah, reads transition specialist. I recognize the title from the online permission form: she’s one of the many “thoroughly trained, warm-hearted associates who provide essential services to our heroic volunteers.”
She probably exhausted her warmth earlier in the day. She said I’m the fourth volunteer since noon. I counted at least three more in the reception area nervously anticipating their final moments in this very room. Hannah will be eating a late dinner tonight.
I never met the physician. I guess that’s to be expected. Doctors don’t take temperatures or check blood pressure. They delegate routine procedures like mine. I’m just another lame horse needing a swift, painless end to my misery. No, not a horse. Horses, at least, bring value to the farm. I’ve been pure expense to Mom and Jeremy for eighteen years, dead weight at a time when humanity needed all hands on deck.
Hannah lifts a dressing gown that looks like an ugly bedsheet. “We need to get you out of those clothes and into this.” She speaks loudly, like I’m deaf. Or slow.
I sense Hannah’s apprehension. I can tell she’s never worked with someone so incapable. Most volunteers probably have a semblance of mobility. But I can’t offer any help as she struggles to remove my shirt. I feel her cheek graze mine and taste the salty aroma of nervous moisture on her face as she wrestles my lifeless arm from its sleeve. Then I feel her unfastening my belt to remove my pants and underwear. She quickly covers me with the gown. It’s too thin. The room turns cold and suddenly stark.
Hannah’s blush diminishes as she wipes my arm with alcohol. The scent stings my nostrils. On her third attempt to locate a viable vein, she sighs at the inconvenience of such gaunt limbs. At eighteen, I’m around seven decades younger than her usual client. I’m sure she expected less aggravation. I guess every job has its little annoyances.
I feel like I should make small talk.
So, tell me about yourself.
Got a partner? Kids?
What’s a good-looking girl like you doing killing a guy like me?
Laughter eases tension. But I’ve never made people laugh. I’ve always made them uneasy—like an unsightly, but harmless, bug. They instinctively back away. I suppose laughter would be out of place here anyway.
I know what Hannah’s thinking. “How could any parent put a child through so much suffering?” The inverse of my question: “Why should any mom make such a sacrifice?”
And none of it necessary.
The sleepless nights.
The condemning stares.
Precious years and a small fortune spent helping me cope in a world designed for those far more capable.
Such a waste.
Hannah glances at my chart. “So, I see you just had a birthday.” Her own attempt at small talk.
I wonder if she noticed that my birthday fell on the precise day demographers projected America would cross the tipping point toward depopulation. They were off by three, but that doesn’t matter. The date was symbolic anyway. It’s been the topic of every headline, talk show, political commentary, academic symposium, and bar stool debate this entire week. I suppose it’s fitting that my transition appointment landed on the actual day. We are now officially in the same leaky boat as the rest of the developed world.
So I’m doing my part. Since I turned eighteen on Thursday I no longer need Mom’s consent. Mothers have never liked it when their sons enlist. But I know I’m doing what’s best.
As the first drops of yellow toxin begin seeping into my bloodstream, Hannah studies the healthy habits chart hanging on the wall over my left shoulder. Though much younger, she reminds me of Mom. Not in her features…in her movements. She carries herself with a sturdy yet motherly persistence. I want Hannah to look in my eyes. She doesn’t. She can’t.
I kind of wish Mom had come with me to hold my hand or rub my arm. But she never was good at this sort of thing. I remember the time she rushed me to the emergency clinic after my big brother shattered a vase, embedding long shards of glass in my foot. She willed herself to stay by my side while the nurse removed the bundled rags Jeremy had used to slow the bleeding. Then she apologized and slipped out to stand in the hallway. The nurse told me not to cry, that I would see her in a few minutes when my stitches were done.
During our farewell dinner last night Mom said her heart ached like it did when Dad left. What else would she say? Those were hard days. That’s when Jeremy told Mom he hated God. I never understood what God had to do with it. Still don’t.
I can’t remember Dad’s face, just the scent of his aftershave. I miss his smell. Mom said she misses his playful whispers in her ear. She blushed when she said that.
I’m pretty sure Dad secretly blamed Mom for me. Like most sensible people, he wanted to stop after one child. But Mom had insisted Jeremy needed a sibling. They imagined a healthy girl. I’m neither.
They call enlisting to transition a “heroic service to the public good.” In truth, I’m doing it for Mom. She deserves to have a life. Besides, I’m tired of living on the debit side of the ledger. No one has ever called me a debit directly, but the slang fits. They instead feign sympathy while mentally tabulating the costs. The latest numbers show another significant drop in the ratio of productive workers to elderly and disabled dependents. The math no longer works. People like me divert young and healthy workers from desperately needed innovation and growth. I won’t let that continue. I know I’m worthless, but I have my pride.
The procedure should take “an average of forty-five minutes.” The clock on the wall says I have twenty-one to go. Hannah checks her watch before retrieving a transparent mask hanging on a hook beside my right leg. She unwinds a bit of slack for the attached air tube: the next step in a tired but efficient sequence. Placing the mask over my mouth and nose, she gently stretches an elastic strap over the back of my head before typing my weight into the digital regulator.
I suppose I’m a lavish coward for choosing the optional sleeping gas. I know they’ve perfected the treatment to eliminate pain. I just prefer drifting into slumber to counting down final seconds like on New Year’s eve. Besides, the extra fee was nominal.
“Just breathe normally.” Hearing Hannah’s voice brings comfort. I’m glad my transition specialist is a woman, maybe even a mom. I bet she took this job out of a maternal instinct, to create a better world for her newborn child, or perhaps a niece or cousin. She believes this is best for everyone, especially me.
I don’t notice the music until a hallway disturbance interrupts its purring melody. Hannah looks away from the chart with a twinge of concern. She listens deliberately, as if hoping an intercom voice will confirm a false alarm. But the noise increases. A door opens and slams. Another slam, this time accompanied by muffled conversation.
“Please, ma’am, you need to return to the waiting room.” A woman speaks with hushed intensity, like a church usher scolding an irreverently disruptive child.
Hannah appears alarmed. This has happened before.
“I don’t care about your idiotic policies. I want to see Antonio!”
Hannah moves toward the door and reaches for the lock. Too late. It swings inward, knocking her off balance toward my bed. I feel a slight prick from the jolted needle. No harm, just the embarrassment of a mother interrupting my first and only act of independence.
“Ms. Santos?” Hannah asks, regaining her professional composure. “I must insist that you leave. We’ve entered a delicate phase of this procedure and…”
Hannah’s voice and body freeze. Twelve inches from the tip of her nose a small, razor-thin scalpel threatens. At the other end of the knife I see Mom’s trembling, extended arm.
“Stop this right now! I’ve changed my mind.” An odd thing to say since she never consented.
I’m surprised to see Mom with a scalpel. She must have grabbed it from another transition room. I had forgotten about the organ donation process. They’ll extract my useful parts from this very bed.
Over Mom’s shoulder I see the blue shirt of the building security guard arriving on the scene, short of breath and winded from the urgent, three-story climb. The scene unfolding before me feels sluggish, like a film in slow motion. I notice the twenty on the clock become twenty-one. Nineteen minutes left.
“Please, ma’am.” The guard looks young and sounds frazzled. “Let me just…can I please walk you back?”
Our eyes meet. In a fraction of a second Mom and I silently converse through forming tears.
“Let me go, Mom. You deserve this.”
“I don’t want you to leave.”
“You know it’s best. I’m a burden for you, Jeremy, everyone.”
“You’re part of me. Part of us.”
“I want to go.”
The look in her eyes tells me this is more than last-minute theatrics of regret. It is an act of sturdy, motherly persistence.
Mom waves the scalpel toward the needle and the mask. “Please. Remove these now.” A tender plea from one woman to another that is also a nonnegotiable demand.
“I can’t do that,” Hannah says sternly. “A portion of the solution has already entered his system. If I cut it off now your son could suffer a slow, painful death.”
“The treatment is cumulative,” Hannah interrupts. “Even a small dose is fatal. The more he receives, the quicker the process.”
“I don’t believe you!”
“Please hear me, Ms. Santos. It’s too late. Give your son this one mercy.”
The words sting. A clear indictment. “How could any parent put a child through so much suffering?” Mom failed to screen out genetic defects. She forced me to live imprisoned in a twisted, sickly body. Must she also profane my final moments, my heroic act?
Our eyes meet again.
“Forgive me, Antonio.”
“I did what I thought was best.”
“I know. I understand. Now let me go.”
I feel woozy, struggle to keep my eyes open. A long blink before forcing them back. Sixteen minutes remain.
Sensing his opportunity, the rumpled blue shirt lurches forward, awkwardly wrapping itself around my mother from behind. The guard tries to force her arms downward and knock the scalpel loose, but the surprise causes her body to react instinctively. The knife lunges forward, grazing the lower right side of Hannah’s jaw.
Both the guard and Mom fall forward, disappearing from sight. I hear a brutal thud and feel the force of crushing skull against the metal edge of my bed. I see Mom’s convulsing body topple into view.
Is an act still heroic when it kills the person you were trying to free?
I can no longer open my eyes. I don’t want to.
I sense commotion and shouting, but the noise fades.
I submit to approaching waves of slumber.
Julia Davidson took a sip from her second glass of ice water. Pretending to study the lunch specials, she tried piecing together her transformation from rising star to plunging rock. Was it a specific story? The inevitable shift in reader tastes? Or had she lost her edge? A few years ago editors eagerly accommodated her busy schedule rather than the other way around. Now only one even returned her calls.
Paul Daugherty’s manicured hand gently squeezed Julia’s shoulder from behind. “Sorry, Jewel. Couldn’t get away. Been waiting long?” Fiftyish and impeccably groomed, Paul had a pudgy frame that reeked of freshly applied cologne, overpowering the smell of warm garlic bread and a passing pasta dish. The fragrance, like the man, seemed indiscreet.
“I just arrived myself,” she lied. “Thanks for carving out the time.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m always eager to see my favorite journalist.”
Former favorite, she thought. Just that morning Julia had read another sloppy piece by Paul’s new go-to gal, Monica Garcia.
“Don’t you mean columnist?” Julia jabbed to remind him of her diminished post.
Paul waved his index finger at the naughty comment. “Shame on you. I know dozens of great writers who would kill for the top RAP column.”
A compliment or threat? she wondered.
“And your numbers remain respectable by any network’s standards.”
“Respectable”? Is that like “a nice personality”?
“Thanks, Paul. And I appreciate all you’ve done to make that happen.” A bit of flattery, even if undeserved, seemed judicious.
“What can I say? Our target demographic loves your stuff. And you can still turn a phrase like nobody else.”
Still? Past my prime at thirty-four.
“Welcome back, sir,” the waitress interrupted. “Shall I have the chef prepare your usual?”
“That would be lovely, Debra.” Paul was more loyal to a pasta dish than he was to the woman who had propelled his career. Before acquiring Julia, Paul had sat in a cubicle suffering the mindless tedium of copyediting. Now he managed features and columns for the second-largest media company on the planet.
“Let me guess.” Paul dug deep to remember Julia’s favorite. “Salmon salad?”
“Please,” Julia said to the waitress, who retrieved her menu.
“Got a man in your life yet?” Paul’s usual question.
“Nothing steady.” She disliked small talk. “I’m meeting another one of Maria’s friends at the theater tonight.”
“Promising?” Paul prodded.
“I have low expectations.”
Both smiled as Paul turned to business. “You’ll be pleased to know that I come bearing gifts.”
“I hope they’re better than your last gift.”
“Hush,” Paul said, raising a finger to his pursed lips. “I think you’re going to like this one. It could be a big story.”
“That depends on what you find.”
“Find?” Julia swallowed back rising indignation. There was a time when Paul’s team had delivered the material she needed for a feature.
“Just listen, Jewel. We’ve contacted the plaintiff who initiated a wrongful death lawsuit against NEXT Inc.”
Nothing connected. “I don’t follow.”
“You wouldn’t yet. It was a small story that ran about seven months back. Some eighteen-year-old debit scheduled himself for a transition. His mother freaked out and attacked a clinic employee.”
Paul paused to receive his glass of diet soda. Winking a thanks while sipping from the straw, he waited for Debra’s departure before leaning into Julia. “Anyway, the woman died.”
“No, the mom. Get this. She slipped during the attack and smashed her head against her own son’s transition bed!” He leaned back, smiling at the comic irony.
“Who initiated the lawsuit?”
Paul seemed irritated at Julia’s anemic sense of humor. “That’s the really interesting part. The invalid boy had an older brother who blames the clinic for both deaths.”
“Yeah. The older brother said the appointment was made three days before the kid’s birthday. He was eighteen for the actual transition, but they accepted his online registration while he was still a minor.”
Julia took an unnecessary drink while considering the story’s potential. It was uncommon for someone that young to transition, but not unprecedented. And there were a thousand cases of distraught loved ones or religious nuts trying to interrupt transition deaths at the last minute.
“And we want the boy’s story,” Paul explained.
“I thought the boy was dead.”
“Not the debit kid, the brother.” Paul moved slightly back so the waitress could slide his hot dish onto the table. Eyeing it eagerly, he continued. “We want to portray him as a pawn of greedy lawyers.”
“Sure. Every other transition dispute has been settled out of court. This one went all the way, even demanding punitive damages. NEXT plans to appeal, of course.”
“Look, Paul, I’m not sure—”
“I know what you’re thinking, love,” Paul interrupted. “But I really think this could be interesting. And our editorial board considers it very important. There are people who will try to misuse this story. You can imagine the headlines, Youth Initiative Causes Teen Suicide or Distressed Mother Killed During Illegal Child Transition.” Paul sniffed in contempt. “We need to get ahead of this story before some crusading reporter plays it wrong.”
“So they want the brother demonized?”
“In the most fair and balanced manner possible,” Paul said wryly.
Julia took a bite of salmon to buy herself a moment to think. She doubted the story could hit big; just another seemingly frivolous lawsuit against one of the most respected nonprofit organizations in the nation. Transition clinics enjoyed a stellar reputation. Most readers would quickly scan the headline before moving on to more significant topics, the kind Paul had been assigning to Monica Garcia. But she couldn’t risk refusal.
“OK, Paul,” Julia began. “I’ll do it.”
“But on one condition.”
She breathed deeply. Here goes.
“I want the next big exclusive.”
“This is the next big—”
“Then why didn’t you assign it to Monica?”
A lingering silence shifted power to her side of the table.
“Don’t look at me like that, Jewel.” Paul reacted like a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “You know I wouldn’t hold back on you.”
Three words exposed his ruse. “Return to Guyland.”
Paul had given the story to Monica. He had pirated the title from Julia’s Pulitzer-winning feature Guylanders, the very story that had catapulted Julia and Paul to the top of RAP Media Syndicate.
“She did a good job on that piece,” he said sheepishly.
“You leveraged my reputation and my prior research to give her a big break.”
“I never…” Paul stopped short. He had lost this argument before. He owed her, plain and simple.
“Please, Paul. Don’t make me beg. You know I need this.”
“OK, Jewel. You win. Take the lawsuit story and you’ll get the next big feature.”
“Thank you, Paul.” She meant it. Her window was closing fast. If she didn’t release a major piece soon she would find herself tumbling all the way to the rocky bottom, where feature writers and columnists became story consultants and research assistants.
He pulled a card from his coat pocket and slid it across the table. A name, Jeremy Santos, along with a phone number and address. “He’s expecting you at noon tomorrow.”
“You already said I’d interview him? But I just—”
Paul flashed a scheming grin and winked. It reminded her of the old days.
Julia took another bite of her salad, this time enjoying the taste. She glanced around the restaurant, noticing the admiring gaze of a handsome young man seated at a distant table. He seemed embarrassed as he forced his eyes back onto the menu.
She felt a long overdue flicker of confidence.
“Are you serious?” Kevin Tolbert felt the pit of his stomach land somewhere between This could be big and Don’t say anything stupid. “Here? Today?”
“That’s the rumor,” Troy’s voice continued through the phone. “They say he plans to make a surprise visit to the summit this afternoon. And get this, no press allowed.”
“Franklin? No press? Wonders never cease…” Kevin’s voice trailed off as he gazed out the panoramic window overlooking natural red rock formations surrounding the Camelback Resort. He hesitated. “A reliable source?”
“Excuse me?” Troy snipped, his words followed by a low growl.
“I know. I know. You wouldn’t include it in my daily briefing unless the source was solid. Sorry.” Kevin appreciated the thousand-mile protection afforded by Troy’s decision to remain in Washington, DC, to mind the office. Troy had been taller and stronger since the two met at Littleton Middle School in 2019, giving him the perfect angle to rub Kevin’s head in a sandpaper motion whenever irritated with his “little buddy.” The routine began when Kevin accidentally spilled Troy’s carton of chocolate milk all over the prettiest girls in seventh grade. Troy avenged the girls the only way a junior high boy knows, through physical violence.
The head-rub had remained Troy’s go-to attack ever since. Their new roles as congressman and chief of staff only relegated the practice to places hidden from public eye. Neither had been willing to give up the most intimate sign of a friendship that had spanned high school, college, three successful business ventures, and their recent victory over four-term congressional incumbent Nicolas Long.
Kevin changed the subject while gently patting his own head. “What else have you got?”
“Ever hear of NEXT Inc.?”
“It rings a bell. Transition services?”
“That’s the one,” Troy said. “They got nailed in a high-profile lawsuit. Wrongful death.”
Troy paused to let the pieces assemble in Kevin’s mind. He had always admired his best friend’s ability to connect dots and anticipate the next move. Troy’s role, the years had confirmed, was to provide straw that Kevin could weave into gold: trade convention rumors, market trend analysis, financial projections on declining small businesses poised for turnaround. Once Kevin understood the landscape and opportunity, Troy’s role shifted to that of a loyal general who could protect and implement.
Nothing much had changed since the move to Washington. The same alliance that had built a successful investment enterprise now sought to influence the national debate. Troy’s role as campaign manager and then chief of staff fit like a glove. Kevin Tolbert possessed the brains and charisma needed to debate in Congress, woo donors, and charm the press. Troy Simmons had the heads-down determination and street-smart radar required to keep his little buddy on track and away from trouble. Each needed the other. Both knew it.
“How many transition lawsuits have been settled out of court?”
Troy had anticipated the question. “So far, all of them.”
“What makes this one different?”
“Two deaths, a young man and his mom.”
“A double transition?” Kevin asked.
“No. The mother tried to stop the procedure. She died from a severe blow to the head. The clinic claims it happened when she slipped and fell during an attack.”
“And the son?”
“He scheduled his appointment while a minor, a pretty clear violation of the age and non-compulsion guidelines established three years back.”
Kevin noticed several summit participants reclaiming their seats around the conference table, carrying small plates of cookies or fresh fruit.
“Looks like round two is about to start,” Kevin alerted Troy. “Give me the bottom line on this one.”
“I have a hunch the case could be important no matter which way it goes. A small chink in the armor?”
“Unlikely,” Kevin said dismissively. “Too soon, anyway. I don’t think this group will entertain further restrictions on transitions during a budget battle. We’ve already cut into the bone.”
Kevin felt a tap on his shoulder, Congresswoman Nicole Florea silently reprimanding her last straggler.
“Gotta go.” Kevin bought patience with an apologetic nod and just-one-more-second gesture.
“Kevin,” Troy scolded, “don’t forget why we’re here.”
“I know why we’re here, Troy. But we need to pick our battles. Or at least fight them in a sequence that might give us a chance. We agreed. The deficit comes first.”
“You know as well as I do that the deficit will get worse, not better.”
The room’s noisy chatter dwindled as the group quieted for the next item on the summit agenda. “I hear you, Troy,” Kevin whispered. “We’ll talk about it later.”
The call ended, freeing Kevin to attempt an inconspicuous reentry. Approaching his spot at the conference table, he winked effortlessly at anyone who happened to notice the late arrival, one of many small habits that made Kevin easy to like.
Easy for everyone but the hostess.
“Thank you for gracing us with your presence, Mr. Tolbert.” Nicole Florea of Nevada would have preferred it if Kevin had declined her reluctant invitation to the summit. For more than two decades she had been the de facto leader of the Western State Caucus, a respected fixture in the political establishment with a gift for melding the group’s diverse opinions into a generally unified front. Kevin’s youth and independence made her uneasy. So did his popularity among the nearly three dozen congressional leaders attending the summit.
A handsome thirty-six years, Kevin Tolbert carried himself with poised confidence that fell sufficiently shy of conceit. His blond hair and trim, athletic build suggested a high school letter in tennis or wrestling. It had actually been soccer, lining him up for a full-ride scholarship to the University of Colorado, where he had graduated with honors one week before marrying his high school sweetheart. “Any man who could snag Angie Greer can do anything!” Troy had said during the best-man toast. Few acquaintances were surprised to learn of Kevin Tolbert’s election as sixth district representative for the state of Colorado. Most of them had donated money and volunteered time to make it happen.
Kevin glanced at the next item on the agenda. Census briefing.
The group had tackled relatively simple topics before lunch, like taxes. Only two in the group supported Nicole Florea’s proposal to eliminate what remained of the dependent tax break, meager as it was.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” she had argued and lost.
Kevin’s persuasive opposition shifted the momentum, in part due to the cute picture of his own growing brood. “Look at these adorable faces,” he playfully pled. “Do you want to make it harder for me to create the next generation of taxpayers and politicians?” The warm laughter handed him control. It also foretold Florea’s decline.
“If I can draw your attention to the top of page three, you will see our preliminary estimates.” Kyle Journeyman appeared nervous, like a child trying to explain a report card filled with D’s and F’s to parents he had assured would see A’s and B’s. He told the group he had given the same confidential briefing to five other Washington groups in his role as a strategy consultant to fiscal conservatives. The reaction must have been less than positive. “I should emphasize that these calculations will likely change as we fine-tune the numbers.”
They had come to expect caveats and qualifiers from political consultants. Everyone knew that a string of overly optimistic projections had deepened the present crisis by blindsiding party leaders with a staggering deficit increase. Six years earlier the Western State Alliance had supported the president’s domestic spending agenda, expecting marked improvement. But they had used flawed projections. The party now found itself in damage control mode, trying to salvage what little credibility remained among angry voters fearing America could become the next economic domino to fall. The president had assured them they could avert the kind of trouble engulfing the rest of the world through courageous fiscal austerity. He had even managed to implement most of the controversial “Youth Initiative” proposals he promised would create a million jobs while reducing swelling entitlement spending. But none of it had been enough. The deficit snowball continued to grow.
Kevin reached for the bound blue notebook that had been distributed during the break.
PRELIMINARY REVISIONS FROM THE 2040 CENSUS
As he flipped past the cover and introductory remarks his eyes landed on the chart embedded in the executive summary on page three. As Journeyman braced himself for reactions, Kevin joined the others absorbing the data with periodic outbursts of disbelief.
“This can’t be right!”
“Am I reading this correctly?”
Solitary comments swelled into whispered commotion as the bewildered delegates leaned toward one another to unpack the implications of numbers more sobering than any had anticipated.
Florea slowly rose from her chair, walking toward the podium with page three of the report still open before her wagging head. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she began, “please direct any questions to Mr. Journeyman and hold your comments for now. We have scheduled a solutions brainstorm session later this afternoon.”
“Solutions?” muttered an older congressman from Arizona on the opposite end of the room. “Moving deck chairs on the Titanic.”
“If I may?” Journeyman continued. “I’d like to draw your attention to several underlying trends that could prove useful as you explore policy options.”
“Yes, please,” Florea responded eagerly.
“We are all alarmed by the revised trend lines. New data coming out of the census office forced us to revise earlier projections. The president’s numbers were based upon 2030 data.”
“And it took two years to disclose it?” someone objected.
Of course it took two years, Kevin thought. Bad news travels slowly in Washington.
“We now know that the fertility cliff has been steeper than expected,” Journeyman was saying, “which will lower projected tax revenue starting in 2048. We also adjusted upward end-of-life management expenses as a percentage of GDP, which wipes out all of the savings gained from the severe cuts approved in 2038. Please flip to the data summarized on page nine and you’ll see that…”
Tuning out of the formal presentation, Kevin began reading through the full report. He trusted his own interpretation of the data more than a political consultant’s script.
The situation looked grim. Four years after the launch of the president’s controversial programs the aging population curve showed no sign of flattening. It now matched levels seen in Europe and Asia ten years earlier, just before their financial implosions. It appeared a century of declining birth rates had finally driven the United States past the same irreversible tipping point.
Kevin knew the data would force both political parties to finally address realities no one wanted to face. For nearly fifty years demographers had been predicting the devastating economic and social consequences of a decreasing pool of young people burdened by the needs of a rapidly aging population. Few had heeded those warnings or paid attention to what was happening in places like China. No one had noticed the erosion beneath the feet of a billion workers flexing their collective economic muscles. How quickly the tables had turned.
Japan had seen it first, offering generous tax credits for every kid born. But a few thousand yen can’t offset eighteen years of child-rearing expenses. Japan now laid claim to the oldest average citizen on the planet.
Even Russia’s signing bonuses for prospective immigrants hadn’t made much of a dent. Why invest three mandatory years working an elder-care job when America remained a land of relative prosperity and opportunity? So they came in droves, buying the United States an extra decade of growth.
Growth turned to stagnation in 2024, the year Kevin graduated from high school. Virtually every segment of the population, including the once-fertile immigrants, was reproducing at far below replacement level. The economic pyramid flipped and began to teeter and strain under a top-heavy load. By the time Kevin graduated from college the social safety net had begun to rip.
“This year the youngest of the nearly sixty million baby boomers turned seventy-eight.” Journeyman’s comment reclaimed Kevin’s attention. “The oldest, four million of them, turned ninety-six. These seniors hold most of the nation’s wealth and are twice as likely to vote as any other segment of the population. As you know, few of those votes come our way.”
“The bottom line, ladies and gentlemen, is that we are getting squeezed from both directions. The cost to care for our oldest citizens continues to rise while the pool of working, taxpaying citizens continues to shrink. These new trend lines require a downward tax revenue adjustment of about eighteen percent over the coming decade.”
“But that’s almost a trillion dollars in lost revenue annually!” objected someone seated to Kevin’s left.
“One point two trillion,” Journeyman clarified. “Keep in mind, only a fraction of those sixty million boomers generate any productive economic activity. The few who can afford it pay about ninety thousand dollars per year in medical and care expenses to remain independent. The rest rely on their kids, diverting another thirty million people from working a full-time job or building a profitable business. The combined GDP hit runs about five trillion per year.”
The door flew open. Senator Josh Franklin entered the room as if on cue, two aides trailing closely behind.
Nicole Florea leaped toward the podium like a tail-wagging puppy delighted by a master’s homecoming. She knew, along with everyone else in the room, that recent polls made Franklin the party favorite for a potential 2044 presidential run.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it appears we have the great honor—”
“Please, Nicole,” Franklin interrupted in self-effacing deference, “don’t let me disrupt the agenda. Carry on with what you were doing, we’ll just take a seat in the back and—”
“Don’t be silly, Senator Franklin,” she objected. “We can come back to this presentation later. Please, do us the honor of sharing a few words.”
Feigning reluctance, the senator bowed in assent before filling the space Kyle Journeyman had occupied moments earlier. The consultant stepped backward, timidly extending his arm to shake hands with the potential future president, the man donors had been urging to form an exploratory committee because they hoped Franklin’s popularity among young and minority voters might pull the party out of political quicksand. Few believed they could retain the White House without Franklin on top of the ticket.
“Thank you, Nicole, everyone,” the senator began. “I apologize for the intrusion. But when I heard you would receive a briefing similar to the one I received last week I wanted to join your gathering as a fly on the wall to explore how we might lead this nation back toward prosperity.” Kevin was impressed. With just two sentences Franklin had managed to lift the summit mood from gloomy despair to determined optimism. He reminded Kevin of the legendarily upbeat Ronald Reagan, who had ridden into town to rouse a disheartened people. Only this time the nation’s problems were more severe and the economic hole much deeper.
“I understand you’ve seen the dismal demographic forecast. Clearly, the days of head-in-the-sand denial are behind us. In just a few weeks this information will be released and the public will know that we face very serious challenges. But they are challenges I’m convinced we can meet.” Franklin paused, as if expecting a crowd to cheer in adoring approval.
Kevin recalled a quotation from someone. He who brings hope brings leadership.
“I stopped by today to tell you of my plan to form a task force that will partner with innovative leaders from both the private and public sectors to propose bold new strategies for tackling the deficit.” The senator looked directly at Kevin, nodding like a teacher acknowledging the presence of a favorite student. Kevin felt a knot in his gut. Troy had said Franklin planned to form a fiscal austerity coalition. He had said it would include promising young House and Senate leaders. “Mark my words, Kevin,” he had predicted. “Franklin will need someone from the Western States Alliance. He wants a dream team, a proving ground for potential cabinet appointments.”
Kevin returned the senator’s nod, hoping Nicole Florea hadn’t noticed their silent exchange. Her seething told him she had.
He then sent a quick message to Troy.
RIGHT AGAIN. FRANKLIN SPEAKING NOW.
Seconds later, Troy’s silent reply appeared on the tablet.
DOUBTING ME = ONE HEAD RUB.
Julia reached toward the jarring noise, grateful for rescue from a restless sleep. The dream had held her captive until the rattling clatter of a vintage alarm clock announced her parole. Hitting off instead of the snooze button, she pulled back the sheets, which were slightly damp from perspiration and tears, and slid out of bed. Pulling her knees against a shivering body, Julia grabbed the pen and pad sitting on the nightstand. She had been able to remember scant details of the countless earlier dreams beyond a paralyzing dread mixed with a deep, lingering sorrow. She hurriedly added to her growing list of words before the murky images could evaporate again.
She only saw his silhouette, but the man’s figure seemed what she had always imagined her father might be—tall, strong, and kind. Of course, the shadow could have just as easily been cast by a crazed killer stalking his next victim.
No. Julia somehow knew that he posed no threat.
But if he wasn’t dangerous, why so much fear? If kind, why the intense anger?
The dream’s vapor dissipated mid-thought. Her weary mind reached for more as Julia stared at the pad. Several minutes passed. Nothing came.
Exhaling deeply, she pulled her legs tighter, offering herself a comfort Jonathan might have given had he accepted her invitation to spend the night.
Oh well. It’s a start.
Julia gave herself the same pep talk on those rare days when writer’s block put her behind schedule. She hoped the same pattern of determination and optimism that had brought journalistic honors would get her past this nocturnal crisis.
Ever since her sophomore English teacher invited Julia to blog for the high school opinion journal, words had been her driving passion. They had also been her therapist, helping her sort through private pain and troubling questions. Maria called writing Julia’s defense mechanism, a harmless but secretly annoying dig at her big sister’s driven personality.
Julia and Maria shared a house on the outskirts of Denver, only a few miles from the suburban high school they had attended one grade apart. To this day they didn’t agree on who had cast the bigger shadow. Julia had graduated valedictorian and received countless scholarship offers from top universities. But Maria had received eleven invitations to the senior prom.
Things hadn’t changed much. Despite declining readership, Julia remained a fixture among the journalistic elite. Maria still enjoyed the company of immature guys, ensnaring Julia in several unwelcome double dates.
Happily, Jonathan seemed different from Maria’s other friends. He held a steady job, read the right books, and drank the best wine. He talked about culture and politics instead of video games, and she found herself strongly attracted to his distinguished demeanor. That’s why she’d done something out of character by inviting him to the house. Actually, Maria had made the invitation with her usual tact. “I bet Julia would love to show you her Pulitzer medal. It hangs on the wall in her bedroom.” This time, rather than laugh off the suggestion and make excuses about a pressing deadline or an early interview, Julia hesitated—hoping for a slight tug on the line. When Jonathan remained silent, she took a risk.
“What do you say? Can I interest you in a nightcap?”
Now, standing alone in front of her bathroom mirror, Julia felt foolish. She glanced at the cocktail dress and one-inch heels lying on the floor where she’d left them eight hours earlier. Maybe Maria was right.
“Why don’t you change outfits?” she had asked. “Guys don’t want pretty sophistication. They want alluring fun!”
Alluring and fun seemed to work for Maria with her endless variety of hairstyles, sassy outfits that filled two closets, and a magnetic, perky bounce that made her impossible to snub. Julia, by contrast, wore her jet-black hair at shoulder length and stylishly cut, just as in college. Her tailored wardrobe embodied knee-length elegance rather than slit-skirt seduction. Friends called her stunningly beautiful, even slightly intimidating. So she wondered why Jonathan found her so easy to resist.
By the time Julia entered the kitchen Maria was already rushing to start her day.
“You look tired. Another dream?” One sight of Julia prompted genuine concern despite the distraction of trying to scrape off the slightly charred edges of Jared’s bagel.
“Same as before.”
“Did you make an appointment with Dr. Moreland like I told you to?”
“Finally! You’ll like her.”
Jared entered the room, frantically searching for his tablet. Both sisters silently pointed him toward a table beside the living room sofa.
Maria resumed the conversation. “I think Jonathan really liked you. I bet he spent all night thinking about what might have been.” A mischievous smile.
“He had all the symptoms.”
“All guys have symptoms around you.” Julia regretted the words immediately.
Maria’s jaw dropped. “You don’t think—” She stopped herself. “You can’t blame me this time. I barely talked to him all night. I even set you up at the net for an easy spike, for heaven’s sake!”
“You could have worn something a bit less”—Julia reached for the right words—“fuel-on-the-fire.”
“Why didn’t you wear something less call-for-an-appointment?”
A brief silence told both to retreat.
“Can we please just change the subject?” asked Julia. “What do you have going today?”
Lowering both hands from her hips, Maria resumed her chaotic preparation process. “Jared’s teacher wants to meet with me after work. Something about a few missing assignments.” Maria glanced around the kitchen before her eyes landed on the stack of napkins. “I think it’s just an excuse to see me again. I don’t mind. He’s kind of cute.”
Julia rolled her eyes in mock disgust, prompting another playful grin from Maria.
“Any chance you can make sure Jared gets started on his homework tonight? I’ll need to head to the school right from work.”
“That’s fine,” Julia said while settling in at the table, placing her empty cereal bowl beside a digital pad awaiting her attention.
Julia’s eyes settled on the your messages section of her tablet.
FROM JONATHAN SOWELL: Enjoyed the show last night. Sorry I couldn’t stay over. Busy days. Let’s keep in touch.
Maria’s verdict overturned. Unlike Julia, Jonathan seemed to have slept just fine.
Pouring Fiber Crunch and fat-free milk into her bowl, Julia continued her digital ramp-up routine, scanning the next message.
FROM PAUL DAUGHERTY: Hi Jewel. Read today’s White House and Franklin clips. I have another idea brewing. I’ll call next week.
Julia waved out of her messages to review the day’s headlines.
- White House responds to census data
- Rare auto accident prompts safety study
- Home vacancy rates rise again
- Spring fashions will turn heads
- Franklin proposes further cuts
Maria and Jared were putting on their coats while juggling bagel-filled napkins by the time Julia clicked more on the first headline.
“We’re off!” came a brief interruption. “See you tonight.”
“OK. Have a good day,” Julia said, already midway through the lead story in search of the golden nuggets Paul would want to discuss. She had trained herself to quickly spot key phrases that told the larger story.
The latest US census report…an average 1.4 births per woman of childbearing years…nearly three decades since 2.1 needed to stabilize population…undermining confidence in America’s long-term fiscal health…further emboldens critics claiming the president’s signature “Youth Initiative” is too little, too late…
Julia dragged the save copy icon into her pending columns folder before scanning the other headlines. Skipping past the auto-accident and home-vacancy stories, she glanced at the pictures embedded in the fashion story. Too risqué for her. She forwarded the link to Maria before raising another spoonful of now-soggy cereal. Spotting the Franklin story, she expected nothing useful, since budget battles made big news, but boring columns.
A leading voice on Capitol Hill…Franklin gained popularity among younger voters when he sponsored an app that makes it easy to review federal program allocations and vote “Thumbs Up” or “Thumbs Down”…latest cuts could impact epigenetics research grant…widely anticipated treatment for age-related dementia…affects over 9 percent of the population…
“Another daft attack on scientific progress,” she mused while saving the link. “Mindless Neanderthal!”
Backing out of the news app, Julia noticed two new messages.
FROM MARIA DAVIDSON: Don’t forget about helping Jared tonight. Love u Sis!
FROM ANGIE TOLBERT: Hi Julia. Did Jared’s gift arrive?
She smiled at Maria’s reminder before feeling her stomach tense at the note from Angie.
I asked Jared to send Angie a thank-you text last week, she recalled. That would have ended the dialogue until his next birthday.
Instead, Julia felt obligated to send a response, which required searching her contact history to retrieve the name of Angie and Kevin’s latest baby. She remembered signing a congratulations note Maria had put in front of her several months earlier, but couldn’t recall the kid’s sex or name to save her life.
Moments later, Julia had the tidbit of information needed to draft a quick reply.
Hi Angie. The package arrived safe and sound. Jared loved it. Very thoughtful of you and Kevin! I hope little Leah is doing well. Stay in touch.
She reached for the send now button, but paused, choosing instead to schedule delivery for later in the evening. No reason to let Angie know she might be available to chat.
Noticing the time, Julia grabbed her bowl and moved toward the sink. She felt a tad light-headed. The restless nights were taking a toll. Steadying herself for a moment, she considered postponing the counseling appointment so she could lie down on the sofa. But she knew it wouldn’t help. Dreams don’t sleep.
Angie Tolbert froze in mid-stride, her body stiffening as she watched the plastic Minnie Mouse cup fly downward toward the kitchen floor. There was nothing she could do. The dancing sequence of bounces would wake the baby, who had finally fallen asleep a mere thirty minutes earlier.
She had managed to tiptoe through the breakfast routine, successfully shushing five-year-old Tommy and two-year-old Joy through their meal in hopes of settling them in front of a video while she took a much-needed nap. But then it happened. Joy stretched out her chubby little arm in an unspoken request for more apple juice. Always in tune with his sister’s needs, Tommy decided to lend a hand. Something went wrong in the handoff, launching Minnie from the side of the counter into an impressive acrobatic spin.
After the sixth noisy hop the cup decided to settle itself against the far cabinet, ushering in eight seconds of hope-filled silence. Then Angie’s heart sank as she heard the same erupting cry that had kept her awake for seven of the past nine hours.
“Sorry, Mommy.” Tommy took the rap. “It was an accident.”
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Angie said. “Thank you for trying to help your sister.”
Angie was so ready for Kevin to get home, desperate for a good night’s rest. Proud as she was of his growing influence in the Western State Alliance, she found herself resenting the additional travel required.
Kevin enjoys adult conversations over steak while I eat boxed mac and cheese with the kids. He gets a wake-up call from a friendly hotel service. I never get to sleep due to endless screaming from a fussy baby…She caught herself in mid-complaint. Nothing good would come from another pity party.
While placing the cup in the sink Angie noticed that both Tommy and Joy had climbed down from their counter stools. Joy trailed her brother as they ascended the staircase on a quest to rescue their baby sister from solitary confinement.
As Joy reached the tenth step she giggled at the sound of Angie’s approach from behind. Both knew what would happen next.
“I’m gonna get you!” came Mommy’s threatening promise. “You better hurry!”
As usual, Joy did the opposite. She held still, eagerly anticipating Angie’s scooping her up and burying her face in the space between Joy’s pudgy cheek and lower neck.
Joy squealed with delight at each nibbling attack. Angie let herself enjoy a somewhat delirious laugh.
As they approached the nursery, Angie noticed the baby’s cry calming into a whimper, then a contented coo. Mysteriously, Tommy’s presence had soothed little Leah’s bouncing-cup-induced trauma. She stood in the doorway and quietly watched as big brother gently caressed baby sister’s cheek with the back of his hand, while baby sister curled her tiny fist around big brother’s index finger.
The phone rang.
“I only know one person who would call us at nine thirty in the morning!” Angie exclaimed. “I bet it’s your daddy!”
Midway down the stairs Angie realized her mistake as she heard the digital butler announce, “Call from Dr. Martha Chapman, pediatrician.”
Between the chaos of life without Kevin and the exhaustion of sleepless nights, Angie had completely forgotten about the nine a.m. appointment. Not good, considering the doctor’s long scheduling backlog.
“Ms. Tolbert?” came the office assistant’s voice.
“I’m so sorry,” Angie began. “I bet you called to say I missed Leah’s appointment.”
“No, ma’am. Your appointment is tomorrow.”
Angie sighed in relief.
“I was actually calling to confirm whether you and Mr. Tolbert can attend together.”
Angie felt a rush of fear. No pediatrician had ever asked whether Kevin could join a child’s appointment before.
“My husband will be out of town tomorrow. But I’ll be—”
“Ms. Tolbert,” the nameless voice interrupted. “Dr. Chapman thinks it would be best if you both attend.”
“Is something wrong with Leah?”
“I can’t discuss particulars over the phone, Ms. Tolbert.”
“Mrs. Tolbert,” Angie corrected.
“Yes, ma’am. Dr. Chapman just wants to walk you through the results of the baby’s genome sequencing.”
“We received summaries for both Tommy and Joy in our message box. Why can’t you do the same with Leah’s results?”
“When parents opt out of prescreening the doctor is required—”
“I know what the law requires.” Angie surprised herself with her intensity. “We’ve expected a genetic sequence overview. But why do we need a face-to-face appointment? Is something wrong with our daughter?”
Several possibilities raced through her mind.
“Please, can you tell me anything?” Angie pleaded.
“Mrs. Tolbert, when is the soonest the doctor can meet with you and Mr. Tolbert together?”
The office looked not at all as Julia had imagined. The desk held no stack of confidential patient files. Beautiful paintings hung where she had envisioned tacky posters of cats playfully depicting overused feel-good sentiments. The window blinds were open to invite sunlit warmth rather than closed to conceal embarrassing confessions. Even Dr. Linda Moreland fell short of the stereotype, comfortably crossing her legs while stealing a sip of Earl Grey tea, her eyes fixed on Julia rather than staring at a notepad in detached scrutiny.
Julia had convinced herself to schedule one appointment with Maria’s therapist as a favor to her sister. I don’t need some mushy-headed psychologist probing my mind for clues explaining insomnia. To her surprise, Dr. Moreland neither looked nor sounded mushy. She seemed formidable, like a dear friend who cared too much to cut her any slack.
“So you’ve had this same dream for seven months,” the invasion began. “Every night?”
“Only recently. When they started in the summer they came once every few weeks. But they gradually became more frequent.”
“Anything unique about that time frame?”
“Not that I remember.” Julia paused, reluctant to lower her guard any further. “I was hoping you could prescribe something to relax my mind at night. I’m sure this is all stress-induced.”
“What kind of stress?”
“Mostly work, I suppose. I’m in a bit of a decline.” Julia felt exposed voicing aloud what she had been feeling.
“Is it causing financial problems?”
“Oh no,” Julia said too quickly. “I make a very good living.”
“Then what kind of decline?”
Julia paused to consider her answer. She had felt herself spiraling downward in more than her career. Jonathan’s rejection had not been the first. But she decided to stick to the script. One humiliation at a time.
“I guess the best way to describe it would be a loss in stature.” Hearing her own words made her feel trifling. “That’s not what I mean. How can I describe it? It’s just that for the first time in my life I sense myself sliding down instead of climbing up. Yesterday’s news.”
“I understand,” Linda sympathized.
Did she? Julia wondered. An elegant fifty, Dr. Moreland carried herself with a grace that evoked calm confidence. A visual tour of the office suggested Linda’s practice had been thriving for many years. No sign of any downward plunges.
“I did get a new assignment earlier this week,” Julia continued. “Probably nothing like I’ve done in the past, but it could open more doors and put me back on track.”
“Let’s hope so.” Linda’s soft smile failed to conceal her skepticism.
As nine ticks of the clock bellowed over the silence, Julia wondered what Linda was thinking. Dr. Moreland had no doubt heard far more serious problems. She probably thinks I’m a prima donna with a bruised ego.
Julia wanted the session to end.
“What can you tell me about your father?”
“My father?” The question surprised Julia.
“Yes. You said the man in the dream made you think of your father.”
Julia relaxed some. “Right. He did. Well, at least how I’ve imagined him.”
“In his face?”
“No. I can’t see his face, only his shadow. Never his face.”
“How then?” Linda probed.
“I guess in his presence. He seems strong and kind.”
“But you wake up frightened?”
“More frightened than I’ve ever felt before,” Julia continued. “But I don’t think I’m afraid of the man as much as what’s happening, like we’re both caught up in something dreadful.”
“What can you tell me about your father?” Linda asked.
“Just what my mom told my sister and me. There was an affair. He left when I was little.”
“Has either of you ever tried to contact him?”
“Never had the chance. He died when we were five and four. End of story.”
“And you can’t recall any other details from the dream?”
“None. It almost feels like entering the most intense scene of a long movie. I know something bigger is happening, but I’ve walked into the theater just when the conflict peaks. I sense the danger, but I have no idea what’s going on.”
Julia stopped. She had never attempted to describe her dream to anyone before, keeping it buried beneath a solitary facade. Linda’s attention, like a reader’s subscription, had given the experience validation. Perhaps even purpose.
“Anyway,” she said, hoping to retake the reins. “Do you think you can prescribe something to help me sleep better?”
Dr. Moreland grinned, revealing a gentle patience likely acquired working with clients far more high-strung than Julia. “I’m afraid I don’t make a habit of writing prescriptions during the first thirty minutes of meeting a new patient.”
“Of course. I’m sorry.”
Still in command, Linda launched the second wave of her invasion. “Tell me about your love life. Are you in a relationship?”
“Nothing steady. But I date.” The question triggered defensive feelings in Julia similar to those felt during college dorm life. Girls sized one another up based upon their latest sexual conquests. She’d hated the demeaning game, even when winning.
“So there has been no breakup?”
If only my relationships lasted long enough to break, Julia thought. “Not since college.”
“I’m thirty-four. Let’s just say I don’t get as many invitations as in the past. But men still find me attractive.”
Distant, but attractive.
“I have no question about that. You’re a lovely woman.”
Julia smiled uneasily.
Linda’s eyes moved away for a peek at the clock. “I’m so sorry, Julia,” she said, “but I need to wrap up our conversation to prepare for my next appointment.”
“Yes. I understand. Thank you for squeezing me in on such short notice.”
“Perhaps next time we can schedule a full hour. That would give me more time to unpack your experience.”
“I’d like that,” Julia lied, eager to check Tried therapy off her list.
“I can say this much, Julia. I’m fairly confident medication won’t solve the problem. I’m not even convinced the dreams are a problem.”
Of course they’re a problem, Julia thought. I need rest.
“I’m not a dream specialist,” Linda continued. “But I think your subconscious may be urging you toward something important.”
“Something important? Like what?”
“I don’t know,” Linda confessed. “But I imagine it has something to do with your dad.”
“I told you, my dad was never part of my life. Besides, he’s dead and gone.”
Thirty minutes later Julia stood in a dimly lit hallway opposite a peephole through which Jeremy Santos could peer to check the identity of his guest.
She continued probing the assignment Dr. Moreland had given. Talk to someone who can help fill in your father’s face.
What did she mean? Her father’s absence had never caused strange dreams before. Why should it be causing them now? Julia hated the idea of wasting time and energy coddling silly insecurities. What she needed was the welcome distraction of hard work on an important assignment.
As the door opened, Julia smiled at the skinny, pale young man who seemed surprised by her appearance. “Mr. Santos? I’m Julia Davidson. Paul Daugherty arranged for us to meet. Is this still a good time?”
“Yes. Welcome. Please come in.”
The small apartment felt more cramped than its size required. It contained typical signs of bachelorhood: piles of empty pizza boxes, unwashed dishes stacked in the sink, and the slight musty smell of fermenting laundry. Her eyes landed on an assortment of mechanical devices gathering dust in the space traditionally occupied by a sofa and end table. At first glance they looked like neglected exercise equipment. Closer scrutiny, however, offered a heartrending image of how difficult life for Jeremy’s younger brother Antonio must have been.
“Won’t you sit down?”
Approaching a chair beside the kitchen table, Julia noticed other signs of life before Antonio’s transition: a lift harness visible through the open bedroom door, the corner desk surface higher than normal to enable wheelchair access, and a high-end blender well suited for turning solid foods into soft puree.
Retrieving a portable digital recorder and touch-screen notepad from her purse, Julia asked if he would allow her to record the conversation.
“Of course,” he agreed.
Hitting the record button, Julia felt a tiny rush of adrenaline, a sensation she had missed. The rewards of writing opinion columns paled in comparison to the thrill of investigative reporting. Each story was a new puzzle to solve, problem to decipher, or secret to expose. You never knew what you might uncover while asking questions, following leads, chasing obscure details. And then the best part: selecting the perfect ingredients to prepare a delicious entrée of journalistic prose.
“First,” Julia began, “I want to extend my condolences on the loss of your mother and Antonio.”
“Oh. Yes. Thank you.” Jeremy seemed genuinely surprised by the sentiment. Months of litigation had probably demanded an unnatural detachment. Lawyers needed facts, not feelings.
“I hope telling your story can help others avoid what you’ve endured.” It was the right thing to say, even if only half true. “Can you start by describing what happened last August and why you initiated the suit against NEXT Transition Services?”
The look in his eyes told her she had been too abrupt.
“I’ll do that,” he said. “But I want to show you something first.”
Two pictures. The first contained a man who looked remarkably like Jeremy holding a three-year-old boy laughing in delight. Beside them a lovely young woman knelt beside a stroller carrying a toddler. Jeremy’s intact family.
“This was us in 2025. As you can probably tell, my dad and mom were crazy about each other.”
“They seem to be a lovely couple.”
Julia braced herself for the second picture.
“This is us last August at Antonio’s farewell dinner.”
The image contained three people rather than four. Jeremy wore a staged grin, an emotional hostage turned reluctant accessory. His mother’s face showed wearied relief mixed with guilt and indignation. Only Antonio beamed in self-congratulating pride, his twisted body restraining bold resolution while his eyes provided the smile weak facial muscles could no longer raise.
“Your father?” Julia asked.
“He left shortly after Antonio’s diagnosis. Longer than most would stay I suppose.” Jeremy’s resentment remained palpable. “He said he would visit, send money. You know how that story ends.”
Julia felt anger welling up inside. Against her own social politics, she could not escape the expectation fathers should protect and provide. Her hand instinctively reached toward Jeremy’s arm.
He pulled back. “I didn’t show you the pictures for pity.”
“Of course. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“I wanted you to see them so that you’ll remember that this story is not about a lawsuit. It’s about real people. Lots of them.”
“I understand that.”
Neither spoke for a moment. Jeremy examined Julia’s face, trying to find her soul. Against journalistic protocol and personal impulse, she let him look deeply. Fifteen seconds passed. He decided to trust her.
“I’ll send you a set of the pictures, along with these.” He tapped the digital pad to open a new folder before sliding the pad in front of Julia.
A list of documents. She opened the first, dated August 19, 2023. Her eyes widened, and then softened. “Your mother’s journal?”
“Parts of it. I copied the sections where she writes about Antonio.” He paused. “She did the same for me. I didn’t know about it until we retrieved her digital library after the cremation. I’m keeping those entries private. You understand.”
“Other entries came from Antonio. At first he used a voice transcription application. It got harder for him the last few years when his speech became weaker and more distorted. The most recent entries were typed one pinky finger movement at a time. A single sentence could take him an hour to complete. He was a persistent guy,” Jeremy said with a warmhearted laugh. “A lot stronger than I’ll ever be.”
“I can tell you loved them both very much.”
“She never did anything for herself,” he reminisced. “She deserved better.”
“I look forward to reading her journal, getting to know her. And your brother.”
He didn’t hear her. “His disease was similar to the one that famous physicist had. What was his name?”
“Hawking?” she offered.
“That’s it. Stephen Hawking.”
Julia remembered seeing pictures of the brilliant cosmologist from Oxford, his distorted body held captive in a mobilized wheelchair. She looked again at the unused equipment in the adjoining room.
Jeremy proceeded to describe the events surrounding his brother’s transition day: an unexpected visit from a police officer delivering very bad news, the drive to the clinic to formally identify his mother’s lifeless body, Antonio’s cold corpse lying beside a visibly shaken woman wearing a fresh bandage across the side of her face and the dark redness of coagulated blood on her blouse.
“They told you your mother slipped and fell while attacking the nurse?”
“Transition specialist,” he corrected. “Yeah, they said Mom fell during a violent episode trying to stop Antonio’s procedure.”
“But you don’t believe that?” Julia asked.
“I believe it.”
Julia looked up from her list of prepared questions.
“I never thought anyone intentionally killed my mother. Why would they do that?”
“Then what prompted the lawsuit?” she asked.
“NEXT will say I’m just after money.”
Julia remembered Paul’s marching orders. Portray the kid as a pawn of greedy lawyers. “Are you?” she asked.
“Listen, if I just wanted money I would have accepted their third offer to settle the case.”
“You’ve had three settlement offers?” Julia’s eyebrows lifted in surprise.
“My lawyer says I can’t tell anyone the amount. But he said it was more than we’re likely to net pushing this boulder all the way up the judicial mountain.”
She looked into Jeremy’s weary eyes. He seemed ready to move on with his life and be done with the whole mess.
“Did you know that my brother scheduled his appointment as a minor?” Jeremy asked. “I didn’t realize it until my lawyer showed me a copy of Antonio’s application. He applied a few days before his birthday. Mom never approved it.”
“Do you think that’s why they offered to settle?”
Julia had expected the answer. Paul had explained that out of nearly three hundred thousand transitions involving minors, only fifteen had failed to obtain parental permission. Each of those incidents had led to a mere slap on the wrist, a small fine for inadequate procedural oversight, and modest compensation to the families. Nothing significant enough to motivate such large settlement offers to Jeremy.
“Help me understand, Mr. Santos. You knew NEXT wasn’t worried about your case due to Antonio’s age?”
“Yep,” he replied.
“And you believe your mom’s death was an accident?”
“And you’ve turned down large financial offers?”
“Then what motivated this lawsuit?”
Julia had no recollection of anyone by that name associated with the case. “Who’s Hannah?”
“Hannah Walker, Antonio’s transition specialist,” he explained. “She called me a few months after the incident. Told me she had quit her job and wanted to meet me for coffee.”
Stumbling onto an odd-shaped puzzle piece, Julia felt another surge of adrenaline.
“Earth to Kevin. Are you with us, boss?” Troy asked as a congressional intern shifted nervously in the chair beside him.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” the congressman replied. “Sorry, Troy. The largest donation ever received. Got it.”
“I guess I expected a bit more enthusiasm. You do remember that it will take money to run another campaign?”
“Of course.” He forced his thoughts away from Angie’s anxious face and the baby-powder scent of little Leah. He had gently squeezed them both before heading to the office. “I just have a lot on my mind.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” Troy asked. The intern made a slight move toward the door, but Kevin waved him back to his seat.
“No. I’m fine.” He saw no reason to discuss Leah’s situation until they knew something concrete. It could be nothing. Stay positive. He was struggling to heed the advice he had given Angie.
“OK. As I was saying, he’s a first-time donor. We checked the database and then I asked everyone on the team. No one has record of any prior communications or meetings.”
“Name?” Kevin asked.
“Dimitri. Evan Dimitri.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell with me either. What do you know about him?”
“He owns a majority share in an equity investment company. I asked around and learned he has donated to other campaigns, mostly on the right. Still, he may be trying to cover bases on something. That’s all I know at the moment.”
“So there’s no cause for concern?”
Excerpted from Fatherless by James Dobson Copyright © 2013 by James Dobson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Dr. James Dobson is the Founder and President of Family Talk, a nonprofit organization that produces his radio program, "Family Talk with Dr. James Dobson." He is the author of more than 30 books dedicated to the preservation of the family. He has been active in governmental affairs and has advised three U.S. presidents on family matters. Dr. Dobson is married to Shirley and they have two grown children, Danae and Ryan, and two grandchildren. The Dobsons reside in Colorado Springs, CO. Kurt Bruner serves as Pastor of Spiritual Formation at Lake Pointe Church and on the adjunct faculty of Dallas Theological Seminary. A graduate of Talbot Seminary and former Vice President with Focus on the Family, Kurt led the teams creating films, magazines, books, and radio drama. As President of HomePointe Inc., he helps local church leaders create an ongoing culture of intentional families. Kurt is the best-selling author of more than a dozen books. Kurt and his wife, Olivia, live in Rockwall, Texas.
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My Review: Life changing. Wow. Every now and then a book comes along that is entertaining and at the same time so close to the truth that it makes you wonder how soon we will wait to see this very thing happen in America. FATHERLESS by Dr. James Dobson and Kurt Bruner is that book. It is the story of America gone to extreme in that the old, disabled and children are no longer the norm. It is about a country that is an "all about me" world were men are no longer men and women are no longer women as God created them. This book gives the reader much to consider. I look forward the the other books in this series, which are CHILDLESS and GODLESS, which will be released later this year. I received this book from Net Galley and FaithWords for my honest review.
I love dystopian novels snd this reveals a very plausible future.
Dr. James Dobson and Kurt Bruner in their new book, “Fatherless” Book One in the Fatherless series published by FaithWords brings us into the lives of Kevin Tolbert and Julia Davidson. From the back cover: The year is 2042, and the long-predicted tipping point has arrived. For the first time in human history, the economic pyramid has flipped: The feeble old now outnumber the vigorous young, and this untenable situation is intensifying a battle between competing cultural agendas. Reporter Julia Davidson-a formerly award-winning journalist seeking to revive a flagging career-is investigating the growing crisis, unaware that her activity makes her a pawn in an ominous conspiracy. Plagued by nightmares about her absent father, Julia finds herself drawn to the quiet strength of a man she meets at a friend’s church. As the engrossing plot of FATHERLESS unfolds, Julia faces choices that pit professional success against personal survival in an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world. FATHERLESS vividly imagines a future in which present-day trends come to sinister fruition. Welcome to the future and a horrific future is what is has turned into. There are not enough young people to sustain the overabundance of elderly and this is causing a great drain on the economy. To combat this the government offers the elderly a chance to voluntarily commit suicide and pass their inheritance over to the young. Tolbert is the senator that wants to change things, Julia is the reporter assigned to help bring him down. The authors are exploring what the trend is to the view of the elderly and their needs and it is, indeed, frightening. They also explore the impact on society when the father is absent from the home. Add to this disturbing view is the role of government on society. This is social commentary all wrapped up in a fiction thriller. Make no doubt about this the lives of practically everyone are in very great danger and it gets progressively worse as the story unfolds. Danger, action and adventure are all rolled up in a very exciting read. These are wonderful characters that live and breathe on the pages and you care deeply for them. This book does not disappoint at all. I enjoyed it and I am so looking forward to the next book in this series. Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from FaithWords. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Free To Thrive By Julia Davidson (RAP Syndicate) A friend of mine recently informed me she wants to have a child. She's not religious, but her parents are devout Catholics. They have an opinion on the matter. Actually, two opinions. First, they want their daughter to find a partner (husband to use their word) before becoming a mom - something less than 25% of women do for good reasons I've covered in earlier columns. (Why do religious fundamentalists criticize our generation for avoiding parenthood yet complain when single women choose motherhood?) Second, my friend's parents disapprove of a practice that has become standard medical procedure, even among heterosexual domestic partners. In vitro selection (IVS) brings enormous benefits to parents, children and society. But they've cautioned their daughter against 'engineering her child" by vetting common genetic imperfections. They believe IVS puts humans in place of God and fear we have become "picky shoppers" rather than "grateful recipients" when it comes to the "gift of life." Caving to parental pressure, my friend postponed her selection appointment. I suppose I should celebrate the decision. One fewer carbon footprint polluting the planet. But I hate to see her give up something she wants just because her parents view technology as a moral bogeyman. These are the facts. Eight out of ten women who wish to have a child use in vitro selection, otherwise known as common sense. In our day and age, why would anyone risk giving birth to children with costly health challenges? Women no longer have to fear receiving bad news after the birth of a child due to unforeseen disabilities and complications. Only children born to parents who opt out of the genetic vetting process risk the heartache, burden and expenses associated with the most common disabilities and age-related illness. Those expenses, by the way, will end up hitting federal and state budgets as "faith children" survive their well-intentioned but misguided parents. You and I will inherit costly care and medical obligations associated with our aging parents and grandparents. If my friend decides to have a child, I hope she will give the baby the freedom to thrive by eliminating the risk of unnecessary disease and disability. I only wish we could give the same freedom to those of us already burdened by both." (excerpt pg 81-82.) It's the year 2042 and while the world struggles to come to terms with a failing economy in every country, they notice that this is the first time the scale are tipping downward. This is the first time that senior citizens outnumber the younger generation. This places a burden on not having enough productive hands necessary to maintain the standards of productivity while the high cost of caring for seniors is skyrocketing. The only solution is to provide transition services to those who have become more of a debit than an asset to their families and society. They can opt out of life through volunteering to transition and leave their wealth behind to their families. But surely something like this is only for fictional novels right? Or is it? Best selling author and speaker of Family Talk, Dr. James Dobson has teamed up with Kurt Bruner to write the novel Fatherless, which was inspired by the foretelling of the ominous trends discussed in this novel by the late Chuck Colson. They use this information to write a very chilling story of what could happen when the very old outnumber the very young. With a decline in marriage and parenthood fueling an unprecedented drop in fertility, then the growth in global population will soon end, then reverse. We are already seeing this happen in places like Japan and Russia. Just what importance is there in a world where growing up with the protective love of a father becomes the exception rather than the norm? I think these two brilliant authors have given us a taste of what may lie ahead of us in the future if we continue this pattern. I received Fatherless by Dr. James Dobson and Kurt Bruner compliments of Faith Words, a division of Hachette Book Groups for my honest review. I did not receive any monetary compensation for a favorable review and the opinions expressed here are my own unless otherwise noted. While this is a fictional based novel, we are seeing more approval for physician assisted suicides among the terminally ill or aging that simply want a way out rather than liquidating all their financial assets. What happens then when people stop having children or opt to avoid getting married when they can have a baby in a lab and thus move on with life without the benefits of the family unit. Through a variety of characters this is the premise of Fatherless. This is the first book in the series with Childless and Godless being added to the series. Just the opening and closing stories alone are chilling in their future implications. I easily give this a 5 out of 5 stars for every single person to read, especially believers who know the truth that comes when light is revealed in dark places.
This book is very thought provoking while being entertaining at the same time. The way our country is moving this book is not too hard to imagine this happening in the near future.
Riveting story that you can see the foundation for in today's political and university circles. Chilling!
I was looking forward to this but it was so poorly written and no character development. I would not recommend. It was imho not credible.