Read Childless: A Novel Online

Authors: James Dobson,Kurt Bruner

Tags: #Fiction, #Christian, #Futuristic, #Religion, #Christian Life, #Family, #Love & Marriage, #Social Issues

Childless: A Novel (9 page)

BOOK: Childless: A Novel
10.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“Any additional
questions before we move to the next proposal?”

Brent Anderson appeared eager to get Nicole Florea back to her seat. Her presentation had run ten minutes longer than allocated.

“Good,” he said before anyone could reply. “Congressman Tolbert.”

Kevin finally had the floor.

“He still looks upset,” Julia whispered to her husband.

A slight nod told her Troy agreed.

Kevin had managed to hold his tongue during the entire presentation. He had even resisted the urge to point out glaring mistakes in the projections. He must have needed the time to will himself calm. At least as calm as could be expected from a man listening to someone disparage his daughter’s existence along with eight million other “unproductive” lives.

“Thank you, Mr. Anderson,” he began after taking the kind of breath Troy recognized from their high school soccer days. His friend was determined to score. “Rather than review every detail in the briefing we just forwarded to your tablets I’ll simply state the bottom line and invite questions.”

Anderson chuckled at the jab against the long-winded Florea.

“You can review the charts on page six to see two trend lines that, on the surface, will seem counterintuitive,” Kevin continued. “But I can assure you, the data is solid.”

Two dozen hands began swiping their tablet screens to find the page.

“The first graph shows the economic trend lines we’ve all been reviewing with dismay these past few years with a deepening free fall over the past twelve months. Despite the brief flattening immediately after instituting the austerity measures approved in January, the month-to-month spiral shows no sign of slowing.

“The second chart, the one labeled ‘Bright Spots,’ shows a stark contrast. Most of the lines have been moving steadily in the other direction during the same period.”

“Bright spots?” The question came from a voice Troy didn’t recognize.

“That’s what we call the communities showing sustained growth.”

Anderson interrupted to suggest Kevin give a brief recap of the concept “for those who weren’t part of the austerity coalition.”

Troy smiled in admiration of a vintage Kevin Tolbert tactic. Keeping it short so they ask for more works better than droning on until they glance at their watches.

“If you insist,” Kevin said. “We took the concept from a case I studied back in grad school. About fifty years ago a nonprofit group was given six months to solve child malnourishment in poor Vietnamese villages. A crazy deadline, since experts had identified a complex range of systemic problems intertwining to cause the epidemic. One guy cut through the complexity that had been paralyzing the experts. He asked what the mothers of the few healthy kids were doing differently from everyone else in the village. He figured if some kids thrive despite identical poverty, then there might be hope for the other kids. To make a long process short, they discovered a few simple habits among those families that made a huge difference.”

“Give an example,” Anderson said.

“Well, the mothers of the healthy kids divided daily rations into four small meals instead of two larger meals. They also snubbed cultural norms by feeding their kids foods widely considered low-class.”

Anderson jumped in to add the punch line. “The relief agency called those families
bright spots
and used their success as a model for large-scale solutions.”

Kevin stood silently as the eyes in the room shifted toward the front. Brent Anderson appeared embarrassed by his own outburst, which betrayed enthusiasm for Kevin’s proposal.

“That’s right,” Kevin said with increased confidence. “And we did the same. We culled the data to find common characteristics among economic bright spots in this country. Every region has suffered the same downward pressures. But some seem to fare much better than others. We wanted to know what makes the difference and whether those differences can be encouraged elsewhere.”

“And?” asked another voice. All eyes were back on Kevin.

“As the detail on page eight explains, these pockets of economic stability and growth match areas with the highest rates of fertility and the lowest percentage of transition volunteers.”

“I thought we dealt with this nonsense last year,” came an objection from the woman seated to Anderson’s right.

“Please, Trisha,” Anderson said, raising a hushing hand. “I’d like us to hold reactions and questions until Mr. Tolbert has finished explaining his proposal.”

With a delegating gesture from their host Kevin picked up where he had left off.

“As these charts show, I propose that we find ways to incentivize growth. Look closely at the breakout on page seven labeled ‘Dark Zones’ and you’ll see why expanding the Youth Initiative as Congresswoman Florea recommends would add to the long-term problem. Any short-term savings we might glean will only intensify the downward spiral. Ask any first-year MBA student worth his salt and he’ll say a business can’t just cut its way into prosperity. It must drive new innovation and reach new markets. The same is true on a national scale. Our nation can’t transition…no,
its way into health.”

Nicole Florea shot to the edge of her seat, clearly aghast at Kevin’s unnuanced word selection. But she said nothing. She just leered quietly while Kevin summarized his proposal three minutes ahead of schedule.

“In short,” he said, “our economic woes stem from these dark zones. That’s why we need more bright spots like those shown in the first graph. We need to make it easier for young people to marry and raise children and foster a society that welcomes the wisdom and support of our elderly rather than pressures them toward the grave. Take a long, hard look at the numbers, ladies and gentlemen. Our problem is not that we have too many old and disabled. Our problem is that we have too few young and healthy.”

The room fell silent. Troy’s eyes raced from one face to the next, trying to gauge reactions. He guessed a third might be modestly warm to Kevin’s rationale. The rest looked like cougars frozen in position, awaiting Anderson’s permission to pounce.

Which they did.

The next fifteen minutes brought a barrage of thrashing claws in Kevin’s direction, each masked as appeals for more realistic, sensible strategies than the one presented by the young congressman from Colorado.

How would the Treasury Department absorb the massive hit if, as Kevin seemed to suggest, Congress made it harder for people to transition? The Youth Initiative had generated a trillion dollars in entitlement spending savings to date. The present budget assumed another two trillion over ten years. Where would those savings go if Grandma and Grandpa Citizen suddenly decided to stick around for another decade?

And even if committee members trusted the bright spots data, which few did, how could they advocate the notion of the federal government calling parenthood preferable to childlessness? That was a lead balloon that couldn’t possibly pass Congress or be sold to the public. Dead on arrival.

But the cruelest swipe of all, the one that made all others seem tame, came from Trisha Sayers, when she asked a question so ugly it was hard to believe it had come from such a lovely mouth. The supermodel-turned-fashion-industry-tycoon might have retained her glamorous beauty despite the dog-eat-dog battles of business and politics, but she had apparently lost all tact.

“Excuse me?” Kevin asked across the table.

“I asked whether this isn’t some sort of personal therapy,” Trisha repeated, this time with less humor in her voice.

“Ms. Sayers,” Brent Anderson said in an effort to intercept the confrontation. “There’s no need to—”

“It’s all right,” Kevin said. “I’d like to answer the question if I may.”

The tone of his friend’s voice brought Troy back to ninth grade at Littleton High School. Kevin had confronted a kid named Eric who had been poking fun at an autistic eleventh grader named Edward. Eric had labeled him Ed the Sped.

Anderson paused momentarily. Then he nodded.

Kevin leaned down and swiped his tablet screen to find and open a different file. He looked toward Troy, who shook his head slowly from side to side, hoping to dissuade his friend from saying something he might regret, then relaxed at Kevin’s wink.

“I’m sending a photograph to your tablets now,” Kevin began. “For those of you who don’t know my family, I’d like to give you a bit of context for Ms. Sayers’s question.”

Trisha’s mocking sneer softened to an embarrassed blush.

“This is my daughter Leah,” he continued. “She’ll turn two years old in a few months.”

Several female attendees sighed in reaction to the child’s toothy grin.

“Leah is what Ms. Sayers might call a debit.”

“I never—” Trisha began.

“I know you wouldn’t use the slang, Ms. Sayers. Nor would Congresswoman Florea. Nor would any of us in this room. But Leah has something called fragile X syndrome. I won’t bother you with the details of her prognosis other than to say she will likely have severe intellectual disabilities her entire life. She may never be capable of living on the credit side of the ledger. So I guess that makes her a debit.”

“Mr. Tolbert, there’s no need to—”

“Please, Mr. Anderson, this will only take what remains of the time you’ve allotted my presentation.”

A reluctant nod.

“I take it from Ms. Sayers’s question that she thinks I have been advocating the bright spots idea out of some kind of guilt complex.”

Trisha said nothing but gave a half nod of consent.

“You see, Ms. Sayers knows that my wife and I skipped the genetic screening process when we conceived Leah, just as we did with our three healthy kids. And despite her disability, we love and accept her as a gift. I suppose we should view her as defective. But we don’t. And yes, we know we will be responsible for her the rest of our lives. We know that one or more of her siblings will accept responsibility for her after we’re gone.”

Kevin paused to take a sip from the glass of water sweating on the coaster in front of his place at the table. Three others followed suit in nervous solidarity with the successful congressman turned loving dad.

“I can assure you, Ms. Sayers, that I do not bring forward these ideas out of any sort of guilt. Nor do I advocate parenthood because I have more than the sensible one or two kids.”

Several joined him in a self-deprecating laugh.

“And I don’t show you Leah’s picture to gain sympathy for my proposal. If the numbers make sense, vote with me. If they don’t, move on.”

Julia reached for and took Troy’s hand as if anticipating Kevin’s next words.

“I show you this picture to illustrate why I believe advocating bright spots will bring light to our darkening situation. With all due respect to Ms. Sayers and the honorable congresswoman from Nevada, those of you who have kids know what I mean when I say parenthood compels different choices than you would otherwise make.”

Half of the room, including Brent Anderson, nodded in unison.

“Dads take extra shifts and second jobs. Moms cut coupons and launch home-based businesses. Grandparents buy birthday presents and watch grandkids, providing cheaper and better childcare while giving them something better to do than rot away in retirement villages.

“Take my family as a case in point. How much more do you think my wife and I save now that we have Leah?”

“Don’t you mean spend?” asked Anderson.

“I mean save,” Kevin explained. “We spend less on the things we would like to do for ourselves in order to invest in a long-term care fund for Leah. My colleague and I are in the process of buying another business I hope will create an income stream to cover my daughter’s long-term needs.”

Troy felt Julia look in his direction.

“Believe me. My love for Leah will motivate me to do everything I can to grow that business. And if the business grows, it will hire more workers. And if we hire more workers…well…you know the rest.

“Ladies and gentlemen, when we encourage bright spots we tap the most powerful natural resource on the planet. Families, not governments or businesses, motivate hard work and innovation, frugality and investment. They also provide the social safety net government can no longer afford.”

“Trying to buy another business?” Troy heard Julia whisper. “Is that why you’ve been feeling so stressed?”

Troy raised a single finger to his lips as he strained to hear Kevin’s final comment.

“But I’ve said enough. You can review the numbers for yourselves. All I ask you to do is open your minds to positive strategies that will spur growth rather than settling for defensive measures you think will diminish losses. Thank you for listening.”

*  *  *

Brent Anderson appeared relieved as he received the handoff to regain control of the meeting. He also seemed pleased, as if he had secretly hoped Kevin would win the day.

Troy leaned forward as Kevin retook his seat. He pretended to pass a note as an excuse to offer his friend an affirming squeeze on the shoulder.

“You made us proud, Mr. Congressman,” he whispered.

Kevin’s nod seemed appreciative, if unconvinced.

The next agenda item burned about ten minutes in reviewing the impact of a slight decline in transition volunteers. The wrongful death decision against NEXT, Paul Journeyman explained, had prompted extreme caution in the industry. Every transition provider in the country had suddenly started requesting what no law required, co-approval by a neutral party. The seemingly commonsense safeguard added one more hurdle for nervous volunteers to overcome. So the past year had seen fewer volunteers enroll than any year since the Youth Initiative began in 2036. As a result, higher-than-anticipated senior-care expenses would further drain public coffers while lower-than-projected inheritance capital would flow in the private sector.

“In short,” Journeyman summarized, “the uncertainty created by the NEXT case has added tremendous downward pressure.”

There were no questions beyond those swirling around Troy’s head about faulty assumptions beneath the analysis. He decided he would review the data more closely later.

BOOK: Childless: A Novel
10.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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