Jacob M. Lambert has published with Flame Tree Publishing, Third Flatiron, and Midnight Echo Magazine. He lives in Montgomery, Alabama, where he teaches English composition and is an assistant editor for THAT Literary Review. When not writing, he enjoys time with his wife, Stephanie, and daughter, Annabelle.
The Naturally Selected
With a trembling, sweaty hand, Maynard Keaton locked the deadbolt, checked the doorknob, and halfway through returning the keys to his pocket, felt every muscle in his body seize as three loud bursts exploded in the distance—like the stuttering backfire of an old truck.
“What was that, Daddy?”
Maynard glanced at his daughter’s upward-slanted blue eyes, noticing the way they shimmered in the yellow hue of the porch light. Then he switched gears—focusing instead on his wife’s uneasy frown. She looked beautiful, even with that expression, but the thick stream of muddy black mascara rolling down her cheeks only accentuated her inner gloom: as if the face she now wore was only a façade for the battered, broken, and bleeding one behind it.
After a moment, Lizzy Keaton nodded. “They’re just fireworks, sweetie.”
“That’s right, only fireworks,” Maynard said. “And I’m sure there’ll be more before the night’s over. So just ignore them.”
“But I don’t see them anywhere.”
Lizzy, noticing the irritation on Maynard’s waxen face, interrupted: “They’re the ones that don’t shoot in the air, Destiny. That’s why.”
“Oh,” she replied, bobbing her head back and forth, dancing to inaudible music.
Again, Maynard let his eyes wander back toward Destiny. Watching her twirling around in the front yard, with the bottom of her dress puffed out like an umbrella, brought a fluttering sensation to his heart and sweat to his already drenched brow. Her lips curled into a warped smile, and her tiny ears and nose seemed to pull downward simultaneously with the gesture. And he thought: Why can’t she just float away?
“Do you really think that’s necessary--now?” Lizzy lowered her gaze. She’d been staring above, and when Maynard caught her in the act, he offered a chiding furrowing of the brows.
“Locking the door. Why’d you do it?”
Shrugging and pouting his lips, Maynard sighed. “I don’t know—to feel normal, I guess.”
In the background, echoing off the Californian, cookie-cutter streets was another round of fireworks, this time coming in five quick bursts. Maynard didn’t startle, however. And when Destiny leaped into the air, clapping her hands—celebrating (as one would do when they hear fireworks)—Lizzy’s attention reverted to her former position: the night sky.
Lilacs burdened the air, along with the humid summer heat, as Maynard joined her. “How much longer do you think? Fifty, sixty minutes?”
“If that,” she replied.
“Well, let’s find higher ground, so we can get a better view.”
Dropping her arms to her sides, where they remained hanging, Destiny frowned. “But I’m tired, Daddy. You said I could go to bed when—”
“And you will, sweetie. Okay?”
She smiled, and in that expression—in that moment—while the wind tossed her hair behind like unraveling golden threads, Maynard felt rage build in his chest, spread to his face, reddening his features, and finally squeeze at the back of his eyes. He reached into both pockets, feeling the smooth surface of paper in his right—and the cold steel in his left. The touch of the former only made his anger stronger. However, the latter somehow brought his thoughts back into perspective. But it also triggered two words, ones he’d been trying to forget over the last two weeks: genetic risk.
Now walking down the concrete path leading to the street, Maynard remembered the words of Doctor Patel—the family’s long-term physician—spoken with his soft Indian accent. I’m afraid she is a liability to the mission, Mr. Keaton. She poses a genetic risk and, for that matter, is incapable of performing the needed tasks. I’m deeply sorry, but I cannot issue her a pass. That final statement still shook him. And it had taken all of his strength, both mental and physical, not to grab one of the syringes in the tiny room’s cabinet, tear off its translucent rubber cap, and take out the man’s eyes.
“Are we almost there, Dad?” Destiny asked, holding her mother’s hand, swinging their arms forward, back, forward, and back—until Lizzy pointed to a steel pole canted to the right, with the words Watchman Street written on a rectangular green sign.
Maynard nodded to Lizzy, then said, “Almost—just a little further.”
But I cannot issue her a pass.
For the second time, he stared above, but the sight bothered him too much, hurt too much, for an extended view: the surreal quality of it enough to both draw him back—and, at the same time, oppress his wonder. He fingered the smooth paper in his pocket, hoping it would offer some sense of understanding, something resembling a real answer, but nothing came. The right, however, presented another solution. And even that solution, though capable of halting the nervous electric jolts pulsating in his brain like webbed lightning, bore him little comfort.
Somewhere off to the left, breaking his concentration—and forcing his teeth together, making an audible click: fireworks, their loud, staccato din upsetting the former semi-calm of the bustling trees, chirping crickets, and listless swaying of the grass. A pungent scent of sulfur suddenly wafted in the warm breeze, stinging Lizzy and Destiny’s nostrils.
“Where do you want us to—?”
“Over there,” he pointed in the direction of a dilapidated picnic table the color of rusted spaghetti sauce. “You two have a seat on the top, and wait for me there.”
They took a step forward, then Lizzy turned back. “Are you sure, hun?”
“Yes, and you need to wipe your face, before she starts asking why you’re crying. I’m surprised she hasn’t already.”
Tilting her head to the left, mouth half-open, as if wanting to contest Maynard’s last statement, Lizzy closed her eyes—only to moments later open them again with more tears. “Are you going to tell me when?”
“Do you want me to?” Maynard asked. “I can if you want.”
“Well, maybe it’s not a good idea: I’d rather not know,” she said, then looked off to the right at Destiny, who had already taken a seat on top of the old park table.
“Okay, my love—no problem.”
Maynard watched Lizzy approach the table, then join Destiny. There he stood—listening to their conversation, tears now spilling down his bearded face. While the wind beat against his left side, threatening to topple his shuddering frame, he removed the papers—which really resembled passports—from his right pocket. He held them close to his face because of the night’s opaque darkness, and mentally recited the words stamped to their fronts: C4 Registration. Authorized for Docking. Genetically Sound—Mr. Maynard & Mrs. Elizabeth Keaton. At the very top of this, written in bold letters: WELCOME TO NEW EARTH SERVICES: A FUTURE WITHOUT PLAGUE.
“And without us,” he whispered—letting the papers fall from his hands and scatter into the night, where they skipped across the grass in blissful nonchalance.
Once he stood behind Lizzy and Destiny, Maynard sniffled, snot backing up his sinuses. “Do you think anyone will remember us?”
She shrugged. “Maybe not us, but they will Destiny. I hope they never forget her face.”
“Who could? She is beautiful.”
Several moments passed in silence, then Lizzy said, “I love you.”
He reached into his left pocket. And as he did, for the last time, Maynard Keaton let his eyes drift above, where he watched—also for the final time—an enormous ship carrying the desirable portion of Earth’s population into space. The immensity of the craft eclipsed the moon, but only for a moment. Once it passed out of sight, zipping off into the infinite, Maynard could see the equally colossal asteroid—the size of both Texas and New Mexico—descending slowly toward them. Of course, it wasn’t moving slowly, he told himself. It only appeared that way: God’s final magic trick before undoing his creation—if there was, Maynard realized, someone actually out there that cruel and insane waving a proverbial magic wand.
“I love you too--both of you,” he said, raising the cold steel barrel—then, aiming it at the ship, he released two more fireworks into the warm summer night. After, while he continued gazing above, feeling Lizzy’s glistening eyes watching him, Maynard smiled.
She is beautiful. I can’t destroy that.
And with that smile, he released the third.