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Emer Martin

Baby Zero
An excerpt

 

Winter came in the refugee camp. The gulls carried it in under their wings. Evenings collapsed into wind blown puddles that swelled between the tents like a rash. Everything was mud and everyone was wearing all her or his clothes at once. Suddenly the burning hill was a good place to play. Children ran around the flames for warmth. Ishmael had become an involuntary English teacher. He read from his National Geographic in a large bare space in the center of the camp and adults and children wrote things down. Then it snowed.

The snow covered everything. Reports from Orap were bad; the neighboring country had declared war on them and there was fighting on the border. Now there were three families in Ishmaelís tent and he was losing hope. Farah was more determined than ever to get the children out. The Red Cross was building more permanent looking structures. Mobile home housing that they were told was ordered off a Canadian company that specialized in emergency housing. Ishmael did not want to move in to one of these rectangular creatures, he thought they looked too permanent. Farah stood in lines in the snow to put her name down for a move.

Leila and Zolo played with Mehrdad. Mehrdad was only thirteen but he helped out at the hospital in the camp. He invited them to a party for a 25-year-old man who was celebrating his prosthesis arriving. The new refugeeís stories were getting worse. There were mass executions at home and all the young men were being recruited for the new war. Mehrdad asked the man to tell his story to Leila and Zolo when the party was over. He asked Leila what age she was and she told him she was ten, Zolo was thirteen.

"We traveled at night only because we did not have papers. There were twenty of us and we had all paid the guide. The children were more expensive because they would have to be carried at some points. The group had to cross the mountain pass, I was the oldest in the group at 25, and the guide was 15 years old. We walked for days and nights and once slept with nomads in a tent."

Zolo was excited by the story, the young man smiled at him.

"We came by car." Zolo said glumly. "Then they took the car off of us and we walked over the same pass. We walked for four days to get here, didnít we?"

Leila nodded. "There was no snow then though."

"Still," Zolo said, "Four days. And they took our papers and passports and everything."

"Farah still has our family photos."

"Some use they are," Zolo scoffed. "All of our feet had to be painted with iodine when we got to the camp."

"Everyone was like that," Leila agreed. "We all sat around with our purple feet waiting for tents to be put up."

Mehrdad put his finger to his lips. "Let him tell his story."

"What took you four days took us two weeks because of the snow. We were not allowed talk or even smoke and we could only go at night. We had to sleep on the frozen snow."

"Why did you do that?" Leila asked.

"Why? There was no shelter. The snow buried our food, it was waist deep and we had to keep walking. Then it came up to my chest and the children had to be carried."

"Still how did it take you two weeks," Zolo was skeptical, jealous of this manís obviously superior adventure.

"We were lost. I was carrying a little girl on my back, she was four or five. Younger than you. She had no adults along with her. Just a sister who was even younger. I realized after awhile that she had frozen on my back. I left her body in the snow."

"How did you lose your legs?" Zolo asked.

"We got to a house and we stayed for awhile. Two boys died in the house. My toes had fallen off. I could see my bone."

"What did you do with your toes?" Leila asked and Zolo thumped her.

"First my little toes fell off and then my big toe. My skin fell from my ankle."

"All the children died." Mehrdad told them when they left the man with his new plastic legs at the hospital. "All of them who started out froze. Only the grown ups made it and only four of them."

"Did the guide make it?" Zolo asked.

"Yes."

"Well he was 15, thatís officially still a child," Zolo stood up straight, and wagged his finger authoritively. "So you canít say all of the children didnít make it."

"I suppose not." Mehrdad would never dare contradict Zolo.

The fatal snow on the mountains kept falling and soon the flood of new refugees became a trickle and then it stopped completely. Ishmael would stand outside their tent and stare at the mountain, wondering what was happening to the people behind it. In November they made contact with Uncle Mo. He could arrange to get Zolo and Leila out of the camp and over to America on Visas if he declared them his children. There was no hesitation.

Ishmael and Farah packed one suitcase for the two children. They had a farewell dinner of beans and canned tomatoes. An official came to the camp in the morning with their new papers. Farah wore her channel suit and string of real pearls so they would understand that they were respectable people and not like the rest of the camp. The official barely looked at the children, swaddled as they were in layers of clothing. They got into his jeep and Ishmael told Zolo to look after Leila and never let her out of his sight.

"Tell him not to keep calling me a frog." Leila said to her father.

"Zolo." Farah looked worried and stern. "Zolo. Take care of her. Mo can beÖ"

"Frog, tell him notÖ"

"Shh," Ishmael handed the case to the official who put it into the jeep. "Weíll join you as soon as Mo gets something worked out for us."

"Zolo, Iím trusting you now. Remember boys are like diamonds and girls are like cotton."

"What does that mean?" Leila asked.

Ishmael laughed out loud. "She means if boys get dirty they can be washed clean."

"And." Zolo looked at his sister in disdain. "If you do dirty things frog, you stay dirty."

Farah hugged her two children who were no longer legally hers. The jeep pulled out.

Later Ishmael would tell Leila and Zolo in a letter that he found out that one of his estranged other brothers who had stayed on in Orap was executed with his wife. His three sons were conscripted and before they left for the front they paid a guide to get their baby sisters over the mountains and to the refugee camp. His brotherís two little girls were part of that same group that the young man had described. If one of them had been frozen on the manís back he was unable to pin point where the youngest died.

 

The two children sat in the sky, immaculate, blameless, not in control. When they touched down winter just fell away. They were as stunned as if the world had started turning the other way. Los Angeles sunshine. Pure Golden, banging off walls and sending the sky up even higher. Zolo and Leila saw their uncle Mo at the airport. They ran to him and he threw his arms about them. He took their one suitcase and led them toward his car.

"Iím setting up a clinic here. So Iím very busy. You two are old enough to entertain yourselves and get yourselves organized. What age are you now Zolo, seventeen? When I was seventeen I was already putting myself through college. My parents gave me nothing. They were still beating me with a stick and my grandmother was beating them with the same implement. They say you are gifted Zolo. You will do medicine no doubt. Follow me into my clinic. Cosmetic surgery is the way to go here, these Americans are so stupid, and the Orapians who made it over here are even dumber and richer than the Americans.

Leila was trailing behind blinking in the sunshine, very hot in all her layers of clothes. Zolo stopped in irritation to wait for her. Mo walked on ahead at a brisk pace.

"Come on Zolo," He threw the suitcase into the trunk of his Lincoln. "Youíll go to USC. University of Spoilt Children, youíll fit right in. You must get the forms and all that. I donít have time. I remember your father used to bring you into the surgery and stand you on a crate to watch the operations, ha!"

Leila was removing her coat and her sweaters. Mo appraised her for the first time.

"Sheís pretty, your sister. Weíll find her a good husband. A doctor. Bit flat chested, ha! They donít like that over here. We can fix that, canít we? You and I, Zolo."

Zolo frowned. "Iím thirteen Uncle Mo. Leila is ten."

Mo was already in the car, searching all his pockets for the key.

Leila and Zolo climbed in. Zolo was in the front seat. Mo was lost in thought then he said almost to himself. "Ten. My mother was married at ten. A mother at thirteen. Thatís natures way."

Leila was looking at her chest. Zolo shrugged.

Leila bit her lip and touched her finger to its soft moist swell. The city outside was full of blank spaces and one-story buildings. National Geographic had somehow given her the impression that the whole foreign world outside would be under water. She felt oddly betrayed to be driving and not looking at strange fish and coral.

"If your father had listened to me he wouldnít be in the mess heís in now. Heís ruined you all, running around after queens and princes. They were just a jumped up military family with no royal blood. Idiots all of them. Thugs. American and British puppets. And this new bunch will be worse no doubt. Orap has always had governments that went out of their way to kill their own people."

"Uncle Mo," Leila leaned in between the seats nervously. "When will you get Maman and Baba over?" She knew he heard her because he flexed his hands on the wheel in irritation.

Mo grabbed Zoloís nose suddenly and pulled it hard. Zolo flew forward, his arms flapping and his hands trying to peel his uncleís hairy fingers away. "This is becoming quite a konk. Iíll take the end off of it next week if Iíve time." Then he glanced at Leila. "God knows what will be appearing on her face in a few years."

Mo left them off at his rented beachfront house in Malibu. It looked like a blue wooden shack to Leila and Zolo. They walked inside in a disappointed daze. He had owned a mansion in Orap. There was only one bedroom and a living room with a kitchen counter in the middle. Zolo went onto the deck with Mo to look at the Pacific Ocean. The deck was bigger than the house. Unlike all the neighboring decks it had no table and chairs, no plants.

"Iím tired." Leila complained, lingering at the French doors, cupping her hands over her eyes to see the two floating human shapes in the intense sunlight.

"You have jet lag." Zolo was delighted to inform her.

"Will I get better?"

"No. I think itís fatal."

"Uncle, why is your house so small?"

Mo twisted about in a rage. "Small? This is fucking Malibu! Do you know how much this costs? Do you have any idea where you are?"

"No she doesnít." Zolo laughed. "Sheís just a little frog."

Leila slunk away from the doors and sat on the big black leather L-shaped couch. Mo drew his nephew into an embrace. "Zolo. You have great things ahead of you. There are opportunities here that you never dreamed of. This lousy revolution was the best thing that could ever happen to you. Mark my words."

The doorbell rang. Mo swept into the front room and opened the door. Suddenly, a woman with blond hair and a red leather jacket stood framed in the light.

"We had a zoo in our old house." Leila said resentfully to Zolo when he sprawled on the couch and nudged her hip with his foot.

"Yes but we didnít have the Pacific Ocean."

"We had a river. And that river had a river inside of it."

The woman smiled nervously at the children. Mo was opening drawers in the kitchen part of the room. In a frenzy he was throwing boxes on the counter and putting on white gloves.

"Zolo, come and observe. You can learn a thing or two." He beamed at the woman. "Rita, this is my young apprentice. When I have my surgery up and running he will be the heir to it all. We will work side by side as I did with his dear father."

Rita took off her jacket. She was very tanned and wore a tank top. She knew where to sit and what to do. Obviously, she had done it many times before. When she was sitting firmly on a stool by the counter. Mo came with a needle and injected it straight into her forehead.

"What is it?" Zolo was standing entranced by his uncle.

"Botox. A form of toxin that causes botulism. Technically itís a poison."

Leila looked over when she realized this woman was being killed. An icy feeling overtook her and a frost formed beneath her skin.

"It paralyses the facial muscles so you donít use your face and as a result you donít get wrinkles."

"You donít get old." Rita managed to say to Zolo as she clasped a cool compressor to her head.

"Oh you get old all right Rita," Mo winked. "But your forehead stays young."

"I wanted to ask you about Alloderm, Mo."

"Mo. Mo. We are passed the stage of formalities are we not? Sure. But I have earned my title and Iíd rather we stick to it."

"Whatever, Dr. Fatagagas. Alloderm, tell me about it."

"I can do that too. Itís permanent though."

"I wonít have to keep coming back every two months then?"

"Look Rita. Iíll have the surgery up and running soon. These injectibles are not the answer. You canít beat a good facelift. AlloDerm is taken from corpses and I can fold it, roll it and stack it so it fits into your face, it will even become you, become your own tissue, but five years from now when your jaw drops," He patted her jaw and slid his finger down her neck. "And your neck becomes a real turkey gobbler, then when Iím pulling your skin during the operation the filler will still be in it and it wonít be moving anywhere. You might be left with a big lump somewhere. Other doctors will do it but I have scruples, Rita. Just keep getting the Botox every two months and even after the surgery weíll use it to fill out any lines."

Then he kissed her. She smiled at him and then he touched her lips.

"I need some more bovine collagen, donít I?" Rita said eagerly.

Rita wrote a check and Mo saw her to her car. She had a red corvette that matched her jacket. Her red leather sandals had straps that wound around her legs like snakes. Zolo stared at them in wonder.

Zolo whispered to Leila, "He doesnít have a clinic. The old bastard."

Mo showed Zolo how to clear the counter. He then took some pasta from a plastic take out container and microwaved it. There was a Tupperware box with a white sticker that read, "Larks Tongues." He shook some onto the pasta. He ate it by himself while talking in a stream of consciousness to Zolo. He was unused to eating in company, he never thought to offer any.

"Rita is addicted to this stuff. I charge only $300. Till I get my surgery, word of mouth, I do it here. Easy money Zolo. I might marry Rita. I need an American passport. You have to find a born again Christian. Thatís what she is. Theyíre the most stupid. LA is the good life Zolo; youíll like it here. 80 year olds on bicycles and roller blades. The Americans donít believe they can die. They donít even like to think they use the toilet. They call it, Restroom, Bathroom, powder room. Itís best to stick to the edges of this county. As a foreigner it is wise not to go too far into the middle. Deep inside the country is a place called the Midwest and the real piggy Americans come from there. They actually have faces like pigs. Their bodies are pink and hairy."

Mo went to the bathroom. He stayed in there a long time and left the apartment in a cloud of after-shave. Zolo and Leila were not sure where to sleep. They were too afraid to go into the bedroom and use his bed. Zolo tested it out. He fell into it and rolled around.

"Water. This bed is water."

Leila dive-bombed the bed and she and Zolo rolled about wrestling. Zolo easily overpowered his sister. He pinned her to the bed, his eyes glinting with inevitable and easy triumph. They lay beside each other panting.

"We can sleep outside. We used to sleep on the roof at home."

"Only when it was too hot," Zolo said. "They have air conditioning here."

Leila yawned and was afraid that she was going to fall asleep on his bed and Mo would come home and find her and inject her with all sorts of stuff. She went out to the deck and took a bundle of clothes with her. She placed her coat down on the wood and lay on top of it, covering herself with sweaters and leggings and shirts. Zolo followed her example. There was a sunset such as they had never seen before. A giant red ball gliding down a hazy sky, the sea glowed like the burning hill. As darkness pulled over them, the tide came right in under the deck. They rolled over on their stomachs and pressed their noses between the wooden planks. The bottom of their world was fluid running back and forth in a silky rhythm.

"This is better than a stupid river. Even if it had a river inside of it." Zoloís voice was muffled between the boards. They tensed as they heard a car pull up outside. The front door opened and Mo came in. They heard voices, glasses clinking. Then the bedroom door slammed and no more noise. Zolo crept over and peered in the French windows to Moís bedroom.

"Heís alone," Zolo giggled, "must have been talking to himself,"

"I want to go back to the camp, Zolo."

"Weíre not going back. There was a war going on there, remember? It might spill over and then the soldiers would come to the camp."

"What would they do?"

"Undoubtedly kill everyone."

"What about Maman and Baba? Will they come tomorrow?"

"Theyíre gonners."

"I miss Twinkle."

"Sheís just a dog."

Leilaís eyes welled with tears. Zolo sighed. "Will I tell you a bed time story?"

"Like Baba does?"

"While we were in the camp for all those months the sheep got hungry and ate the tortoise. Then the snake ate the goose and the hawk ate the sheep and the snake ate the hawk. Then twinkle ate the snake after a massive struggle which she outwitted him with her poodle savoir-faire."

"So she wouldnít be hungry?"

"No. Because the revolutionary guards would have eaten her anyway when they came to our house."

"Why would they eat her?"

"Because dogs are considered unclean and only decadent western leaning degenerates own dogs."

Leila contemplated all this information. Zolo closed his eyes. He was smiling.

"Zolo?"

"Yeso?"

"Are there people like pigs in the middle of this country?"

"Yes."

"We should stick to the edge then."

"Yes."

"We should never lose sight of the Specific Ocean."

"Shut up, Frog. Go to sleep."

Leila closed her eyes and dreamed that the sea was on fire and all the fish beneath were scrambling to lower depths away from the heat.


Emer Martin is the author of Breakfast in Babylon and More Bread or Iíll Appear. She lives mostly in Ireland.

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