The Farewell Gift

“Have you been to the estates before, miss.”

Abigail tore her eyes from boarded up shop-fronts sliding past outside the darkened windows of the escort sedan. The driver, a young constable, only three kill-tags on his collar, beamed a crooked, yellow smile at her in the rear-view mirror. He clearly assumed that a seventeen year old girl in a Diktariat sedan must be someone’s rich, spoiled daughter. Someone to be treated with politeness, if not respect.

The driver tried again. “There are some real animals housed here. We’ll need to accompany you throughout the day.”

She glanced at the white-haired liaison-agent seated opposite. An infra-red visor hid his eyes, or hers. Difficult to tell in the heavy overcoats these morons wore. It’s mouth was a surprised-looking orb of bright red air filter. Looked like a bloody gimp. Red meant general particulate intolerance. Air filter and visor, and that typical pale, waxy skin – a gene-mod fuck-up trying to beat the system and be somebody. She loathed them. One more reason to hate coming back to the estates.

“You’ll wait in the car. Both of you. I’ll be five minutes.”

She glanced at the gimp again, but saw no reaction. The driver stared back at her, apparently prepared to take only so much from a seventeen year old girl.

“We signed for you, miss. We accompany you.”

She shifted her arm just enough so that her jacket opened and revealed her Diktariat Pin fastened high on her blouse lapel. Only a probationary single silver bar for now, but the driver’s eyes snapped back to the road. He wouldn’t make eye contact again. She had no idea if the gimp noticed, hated herself for even wondering. Despite her hard-won Silver, she still worried that the stench of the estates lingered on her, and always would.

She scolded herself for the hundredth time. She was a different person now.

Her old neighbourhood was rough even by outer estate standards and she’d promised herself more than once that she’d never have to see it again. But this one brief descent back into her grubby past would be worth it just to see her collected family’s slack-jawed and poisonous faces wiped clean at last. They’d shit themselves when they spotted her Diktariat Pin, and that would be enough for her.

She knew from before her pre-school gene-screening that she was meant for better. Apathetic career advisors steered her towards the usual easy options – factory apprenticeships, domestic service, feral extermination, hygiene squads – but Abigail refused to surrender the one thing that got her up in the mornings – the belief that she could be so much more.

It was that vision, that aching desire, that eventually led to her momentous appointment as the youngest Diktariat Probationary Agent in history. And now, with just that tiny strip of silver insignia she had an outer estate constable, a thug with a badge, wishing he’d never set eyes on her. And, she hoped, frantically reviewing every word he’d said to her during the long drive from the Inner Precinct.

The Inner Precinct housed the Diktariat and all it’s agents. So, so far from where she started.

Abigail’s childhood in the estates was short and brutal, even worse for her big brother Robert and her little sister Samantha, who lacked any spark of the drive, the ambition, that eventually took Abigail far from home, and from the one person most to blame for their misery.

Mother dictated her offspring’s dress, diet, friends – everything – from before they could speak. Luxuries were rare, since the bulk of mother’s subsistence benefits went straight to the local chapter of the Diktariat’s only sanctioned religious organisation, The Soul Salvation Common Church. She paid double the standard monthly offerings required to reserve an internment pod next to father in the local cemetery. Abigail asked her once why she feared cremation so much, considering she’d be too dead to experience it. Mother explained patiently how she had to go to her eternal reward whole and intact, then slapped her and made her recite all fifteen Soul Salvation Tenets, twice.

So Abigail learned the Testaments by heart and memorised The Tenets for hours every evening, while she could hear neighbouring children running around outside, chasing and fighting, muddy and bruised and laughing.

She’d long ago scratched off one small corner of her bedroom window UV film, so she could watch other kids enjoying a childhood denied to her. She watched gangs of boys hunt feral dogs, trapping and garotting them, and roasting them over open garbage fires. She watched shy young girls grow into predatory teenage women, already assessing the same disinterested boys for reliable future earners.

Meanwhile, shut away behind mother’s locked doors, Abigail learned to depend on no-one but herself. She had no-one to turn to when she started bleeding and hurting shortly before her thirteenth birthday. She endured her first two cycles in silence, until father sat her down and reassured her that she wasn’t dying. He told her what to expect and how to deal with it, and not to be ashamed of it, but even he couldn’t talk away the disgrace of that first sudden soiling of herself.

The sedan passed a high, gated wall, and she recognised the front of the estate cemetery. Father rested somewhere on the fourteenth floor of the drab, grey building, cryogenically embalmed in perfect stasis for all time, or until his monthly internment-fund payments eventually dried up. He suffered a massive stroke seven months after Abigail moved to the Inner Precinct, but she was refused leave to travel home. He died confused and afraid in bed at home, with Robert and Samantha by his side, but asking repeatedly for Abigail until his last breath. She knew she could ask – or rather, order, she reminded herself – the driver to stop, but she was eager to be done with this tedious family reunion and long-overdue reckoning with mother.

She checked herself over again. Antique watch, white gold. Short-sleeves so no-one would miss it, her blouse cut low to favour the matching necklace. A black silk trouser suit, and four inch stillettos, made of genuine organic leather. Over-glamorous for a family reunion and strictly-speaking contra to Diktariat dress codes, but this day of all days she intended to make a statement. She removed her Insignia Pin from her blouse and fastened it to her jacket lapel. She wanted no-one to miss it.

She had been wearing a blouse just like this one the night that had sealed her eventual departure.

The week before her thirteenth birthday, Abigail was granted a rare dispensation from mother to attend an evening presentation on entering Diktariat Service. The event that would change her life.

Mother hoped that a daughter in Diktariat service would ensure her a comfortable retirement, although she openly doubted that any of her own under-achieving offspring could attain such a prestigious position. Abigail was just glad of a rare evening escape from home. Too fat and lazy to chaperon Abigail herself, mother ordered Tomas, the backward son of a fellow Soul Salvation worshipper to accompany her, with instructions to fend off any perverts who might make a move on mother’s property.

When she arrived at the local screening centre, she was scanned and ID’d and told she was fifteen months too young. She refused to leave the screening booth, pleaded to be tested. She was lucky – an agent with a rare glimmer of imagination saw something in her and requested sanction to test an under-age. She could see, even in the flat, passionless faces of the Diktariat agents, that they fully expected her to fail, but they humoured her.

One of them actually raised an eyebrow when she passed both the aptitude test and gene-screening by a healthy margin. She was fast-tracked and became a signed-up probationary Diktariat Agent before she left the screening centre. Now, four years on, her single, small silver bar made her untouchable, and yet still she shuddered as she recalled the hours that followed that momentous event.

Abigail returned home late that night, flushed and wild-eyed, the prospect of escape singing within her. She felt so alive that when she noticed Tomas’s eyes fastened on her blouse-front, she didn’t close her coat, but planted her hands on her hips, spread the coat wide, issued a challenge he couldn’t refuse. And so Abigail suffered her first grubby, passionate collision with a hormonal male. She pushed him away after only a few minutes, repelled by his frantic wet mouth crushing her lips, his hands clutching at her, squeezing, bruising, rummaging down where her secret shame lurked.

It was enough to confirm she hadn’t been missing anything.

Back inside the house, she took her overcoat off without thinking, and revealed the low-cut cotton blouse and hip-hugging slacks that she’d concealed earlier. Mother assumed the worst, demanded to know where she’d really been, probably terrified that her dreams of a Diktariat-funded retirement had been replaced with a stain on the family’s Soul Salvation copybook.

In mother’s furious screeching, Abigail finally found the root of her loathing for the woman. Her all-consuming self-interest, her total lack of anything like true affection. And that realisation finally severed the toxic maternal bond that she’d never even realised had been smothering her since birth.

She saw no profit in relating the evening’s events, couldn’t be bothered. So she said nothing. She simply turned and climbed the stairs to bed, and left mother rigid and scarlet with rage.

The contrast between the clinical but objective judgement of the Diktariat and mother’s fanatical adherence to arbitrary religious edicts suddenly came into sharp contrast. Abigail knew then that her future lay anywhere but in the estates, far away from mother and her pathological fixation on her hard-earned eternal heavenly reward. Even Tomas’s clumsy groping paws had carried more feeling, more honest human desire than all of mother’s pious hypocrisy.

For months after that night, she wished she had the courage to shout and scream and tear down mother’s tyranny for all their sakes, but eventually she slinked outside to a Diktariat sedan in the middle of the night and hadn’t seen mother, or Robert, or Samantha, since. Father used to scold her for backing down from a fight, and even now she could hear him tutting, see the smile in his eyes. The smile that only Abigail ever saw. The smile that even mother never managed to extinguish.

The sedan whined to a stop. She was home. Too soon.

She forced herself to open her clenched fists. Reminded herself why she’d come back. She needed to set things straight today, or she never would.

The driver stared ahead. The gimp cocked his head to one side, as if daring her to get out, as if it had heard her every thought. She breathed deep, opened the door, and climbed out of the sedan.

Stale air hit her, an almost palpable stench drifting from the massive garbage dumps behind the estate. It seemed so much worse now than she remembered. She glanced to the West, hoped to catch a glimpse of The Palisade which surrounded the Inner Precinct, maybe even the gleaming towering spires and arches of the Diktariat Parliament, but she saw nothing but thick brown smog hanging in the air like a filthy city-wide shroud. She stared to the west, imagined the fresh filtered air and lush greenery and sparkling water-parks within The Palisade, then stepped away from the safety of the sedan.

She left the door open just to irritate the gimp, heard it slam shut behind her as she crossed the crumbling concrete of the street.

The remains of a dead dog lay in the gutter. Garbage bins sat un-emptied, spilling across the pavement. Every window in every property was barred, some shuttered. A saturated pollution gauge hung in tatters from a lamp-post missing it’s LED cluster. Two small children stared at her from inside a burned-out taxi cab, suspicion gleaming deep in their infant eyes.

She was pleased to see no nicotine junkies on the front door step, but she knew they’d be watching from behind the frosted grey window films.

Mother was inside, close now. It was time.

She realised only now how much of her life had been working towards this moment. After long, punishing months in Diktariat gyms, Abigail weighed half what she used to. Everything in her wardrobe was last season, but re-cut to her precise build. She’d had some minimal body-sculpting done, only Diktariat-mandated physio-tuning, and she knew she was in better shape now than the average estate-dweller could ever afford. She gazed up at the grubby window of the bedroom where she’d spent her short, brutish childhood, and quietly acknowledged how very far she’d come.

She strode up the garden path, but faltered at the step. Her stomach turned over. She recalled Tomas, all fingers and fumbles, up against this very door. For a second, she was clumsy and dirty and desperate all over again.

She swore under her breath, then smoothed down her jacket, straightened herself, and entered.

Once-familiar faces turned, and stared. Some betrayed recognition, then spotted her Pin and fastened their eyes pointedly on their drinks. She was happy to cross the hallway unmolested.

Samantha stood in the kitchen doorway, directing the catering operations. She gaped, then grinned, on finding her little sister all grown-up and glamorous, everything she’d never be. Then she too spotted the Pin and her smile faltered, but she stepped forward, hesitant hands reaching out to her.

Abigail wasted no time on pleasantries.

“Where is she ?”

Samantha flinched.

“The dining room.”

Abigail blessed her with her a brief consolation smile, squeezed her arm, then stepped past. Samantha scurried away, probably to find Robert.

Abigail braced herself for a long-overdue reckoning, vowed to keep her nerve this time. She touched her Pin briefly, drew strength from it, and entered the room.

Mother looked regal and serene in her best ivory silk and tweed, but she reeked of venom as always. And all over again, Abigail felt her long-buried sense of complete inadequacy well up inside her, choke her, remind her of what a worthless excuse for a daughter she’d always been.

She nearly walked out again. But she refused.

She studied mother’s vacant and pallid face, and decided that today, finally, after far too long, she was no longer afraid of the old bitch.

Abigail didn’t kiss her mother goodbye. She simply leaned over the open casket and whispered.

“I brought you a farewell gift, mother.”

She replaced mother’s precious Cryo-Internment wrist-band with one she’d spent a month’s salary to have forged.

It read “Mandatory cremation”, and was stamped with her personal, irreversible Diktariat gene-seal.

Father deserved peace. Abigail would join him one day, but not for a long, long time.

Back in the hallway Robert waited, Samantha huddled under one protective arm.

She thought she saw Father twinkling at her from deep in his dark and serious eyes, and she knew they’d be OK.

Abigail kissed her baby sister and her big brother, then went back out to the Diktariat sedan. Nervous faces peered from the hallway, word having spread fast in only those few minutes. She ignored them, found she had trouble caring after all.

The sedan’s engine whined into life. The gimp stared out of the window. Abigail followed it’s gaze.

Robert and Samantha had come as far as the garden gate. They waved.

With some effort, Abigail waved back.