by Avery Brown (@Brn_Avery7)
Editor: Tera Cuskaden (@TeraCus)
Adult Dystopian Thriller
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When Washington State institutes a new criminal rehabilitation program, everyone pretends not to notice that all those selected to become Wards are young, attractive, and isolated from anyone who could protect them from their wealthy sponsors. Keira Thompson, facing her third conviction in as many years, smells a rat the second she’s offered sponsorship by billionaire Mark Seisan. But she can’t turn down any chance to get out of prison and have a shot at a better life. Besides, she’s lived through plenty of terrible environments in nineteen years on this screwed-up planet, and a billionaire’s private island can’t be the worst of them.
As she suspected, Seisan wants her for one thing only—and it’s not the tax break offered by the county to take custody of her. But his moods run violent, and she’s not surprised to learn that his last Ward supposedly killed herself a year into her sentence. Nor does she harbor any illusions that she would be believed if she told the truth, so she’ll sit pretty and tell the cameras that Seisan is a wonderful sponsor. But she is surprised when one of the camera crew slips her a message from a group named Cascadia. They believe the mass suffering caused by the unchecked power of people like Mark Seisan warrant a campaign to wipe the whole class out, and they need her help to do it. Now, Keira faces a choice—go to battle against a man with more power than god, or keep her head down and hope she survives the next three years.
Keira has always been a survivor. But eventually, survival isn’t enough anymore.
Cascadia is a standalone dystopian thriller, complete at 105,000 words, with the class warfare themes of Docile and the psychological twists of The Butterfly Garden. It does contain descriptions of physical and sexual abuse. For my day job, I worked as a domestic violence victim’s advocate for low-income communities in Tacoma and I don’t come to these topics lightly.
First Five Pages
There’s an art to reading public defenders, and by now I have it down to a science.
This is my third go-round through the shit show of the Pierce County justice system, and my bludgeoned Department of Assigned Counsel attorney has appeared steadily more rundown each time. He’s lanky and pale, his face washed out by the lack of sun during the long Pacific Northwest winters and the nauseatingly bright fluorescents of the county jail. His gaze perpetually fixes on the paperwork as if he can’t meet my eyes. It’s shame, I’d guess. Shame and exhaustion. These DAC know there are no good options for their clients, and some of them genuinely care. There’s a perennial sense of apology in his face and voice every time he talks me through the deal he’s wrangled that was no doubt preordained from the second the handcuffs clicked around my wrists.
Andrew McAllister shakes my hand after the guards unchain me and says, “I have wonderful news, Keira.”
“I thought the deal was done,” I say. Three years, two for good behavior, probation after that. He told me it was downright miraculous. I hadn’t bothered to tell him I had combed through every ounce of legal reading material I could get my hands on, and it’s downright average. “They took it back?”
“Ah, no. No, this isn’t about the time itself, necessarily.” He pushes his glasses up his nose. They are thick black frames, poorly fit to his face. His waxy brown hair is pulled into a bun at the nape of his neck. Sometimes, he wears his hair down and it fascinates me. That’s one thing I’ve found about jail—it’s like a poor man’s sensory deprivation tank. I always come out hyperfocused on textures around me.
“Have you heard of the Ward Program?” He doesn’t bother waiting for me to answer, plowing on with the hurried air of a man trying to pass off baking powder as quality blow. “It’s a fantastic new opportunity the state’s put in place to allow certain nonviolent offenders to serve out their time in a…different environment. They’ll serve their sentence solely under Electronic Home Monitoring in a selected location, provided they have a sponsor from the community to take them into their home.”
“Nobody in ‘the community’ is sponsoring my ass.” As if Darlina would put a cent down to keep me out of prison after our last little screaming match. As if Kirk would show up out of the blue to pitch in all the money he’d missed in child support.
“Ah, it’s not. Um. It’s not necessarily your personal community. It’s the broader community, you see, ah. A good Samaritan, who…has actually stepped forward, to, um…”
This poor bastard couldn’t read off a plea deal he’s seen a thousand times a week without stammering. More than anything, I feel sorry for him. So hopelessly out of his depth, and so obviously aware it does not matter.
Distracted by the words coming out of his mouth, I almost miss his meaning. “Someone offered to sponsor me?” I can’t help the note of incredulity in my voice. “Who?”
“A man named…” He pages through my file. I have a strong feeling he’s stalling. “Mark Seisan. I don’t know if you know—”
“I know who the fuck Mark Seisan is.” Oh, and indeed I do. Developer of a thousand housing projects in Tacoma, the slumlord of Grit City, the bastard billionaire of Puget Sound. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Not kidding,” Andrew says. “Not kidding at all, Keira. He wants to bring you into his home for the term of your sentence, on EHM, and—”
“And did Washington state legalize sex trafficking without me hearing about it?”
“I’m sorry?” Andrew gives a hesitant laugh, as if he really wants to get the joke but he just isn’t quite there yet.
“Let’s see. Why would Mark Seisan want to bring a nineteen-year-old convict into his home? Purely out of the goodness of his heart?” I look pityingly at the DAC. “Is that what we think, Andrew?”
“Ah. Well. Ah.” He clears his throat. Runs out of filler words and realizes he will actually have to say something. “There’s absolutely nothing anywhere in the contract about sexual relations between the sponsor and the ward. I assure you, it would be incredibly inappropriate for anything of the kind to occur. Every participant of the program has had nothing but positive things to say about their time.”
“Oh, I’m sure about that.”
And then something changes about Andrew’s face. The sympathy and the brightness and the optimism drains away, like the last parched inches of water left in a precious ecosystem, leaving nothing but the barren, dry land below. “Listen, Thompson.” Oh, he’s on my last name now—things are serious. “I’m not an idiot, and neither are you. But we both know what Geo Harbor is like. I’ll be honest with you; I don’t visit my clients there. I should, definitely, but their fucking faces… I can’t do it. I really can’t. And even if you survive three years there—which, let me tell you, is not guaranteed—what happens when you get out? Half the state is out of work. You excited at the prospect of fighting four million other people for a job with a big fat FELON stamped across your resume and absolutely nothing else?”
“I had a job,” I say, a bit sullenly.
“Your job doesn’t exist anymore,” Andrew says. “And I’m sorry, but it’s time you accepted that. Do you know what other Wards have gotten at the end of their sentence? Placements at jobs they could never have dreamed of, connections to people so far above them they might as well have been on another planet, college degrees from universities that they would never have even set foot otherwise. And, yes, that’s not really fair. He picked you because you’re young and you’re reasonably attractive. But you have a chance, which is not something that most people who go through this room get. Prison is prison, and you’re going there one way or another. You get the rare good fortune of choosing whether you’re going to spend it in a cell at Geo Harbor that they keep at fifty-five degrees to save the shareholders money, or luxuriating in a forty-five-million-dollar mansion on Allan Island. Your choice, kid.”
It is, obviously, not a choice at all. I glare at him. “I’d like to register for the record that this is insanely fucked up.”
“No shit, Thompson,” Andrew shoots back. “Welcome to the fucking world.”
I pay no attention during the hearing to authorize my participation in the Ward program. The Honorable Terrence Arthurs tells me that I should be honored at the opportunity offered to me and implies, strongly, that I do not deserve it. On that, we agree. He reads out my conditions of release. No alcohol, no drugs, no guns, no leaving the house. From what I understand, Allan Island has no way on or off without a boat, so I doubt they’re particularly concerned at that last one. It’s stressed to me that I will be a guest in Seisan’s home, and I stay purely at his pleasure. If he decides he doesn’t want me there, I’ll be packed off to Geo Harbor immediately, with time added on to my sentence for failing out of a rehabilitative program.
I understand what they’re telling me. It is now my job to make Mark Seisan happy.
Seisan isn’t at the hearing, of course, but his lawyer is. Matthias Poisson is a dour, balding white man with wire-rimmed glasses who looks me up and down in the most obvious once-over I’ve ever seen take place in a courtroom. I give him an exaggerated curtsy, flourishing my hands as if to display the body now hidden by an orange jumpsuit. Take a look, gentlemen. Five foot five, a hundred and fifteen pounds, generously described as coltish, white as whipped cream, disheveled dark hair and these big, brown, doe eyes that could be yours for the low, low price of a hundred-thousand-dollar tax break. The fluorescents of the courthouse flash off his lenses. Everywhere I go, it’s all harsh light. Visual aesthetic is a privilege of the few.
The courtroom is packed with other perpetrators of the crime epidemic sweeping the nation. We are led in all chained together, wrist to wrist, and when I am removed to stand next to Andrew, my compatriots give me a cold look of jealousy. A Black woman with no teeth and a vicious bruise across her cheek scowls at me. Either a victim of the guards or the other prisoners. What she wouldn’t give to be a kept pet for three years, instead of having to claw for every tiny crumb of safety in county jail. I set my teeth and keep my eyes on the dull gray carpet beneath my feet.
The hearing ends, and I’m taken by the bailiffs to a sterile medical room. One of the female guards remains there while the doctor makes me strip down to my underwear, taking my vitals and giving me a full physical. I am apparently in decent health, a bit malnourished and with abnormally low blood pressure. As the exam wraps up, Dr. Franklin offers me a choice between the shot and the implant for birth control.
“And why would I need birth control?” I ask.
“The CDC recommends that any female above the age of seventeen who is not interested in having children have access to a chosen method of birth control,” she says.
I smile sweetly at her. “Not to worry. I’ve chosen abstinence. I hear it’s 100 percent effective.”
The handouts of side effects and recommendations for each method droop in her hands as she stares at me, tiredly. She clearly has no energy to argue with obnoxious teenagers, and fortunately, she has a script ready made to avoid that. “The Ward Program requires participants to be on birth control. If you wish to speak to your lawyer about—”
“I’d like to see where that’s written in the law.”
A flash of irritation crosses her face with no pretense of covering it up. “Ms. Thompson, I’m just trying to do my job here.”
I take the shot.
The guard gives me back the clothes I wore when I was arrested, layers and layers of donated scraps I’d scrounged from the basement of a women’s shelter and still weren’t enough to keep out the cold. If they had been, maybe I wouldn't have been stupid enough to break into the house in Brown’s Point that I should have known had better security than the rest of them. Or maybe if Dalton hadn’t walked out on me, I wouldn’t have ended up on the street in the first place.
On the other hand, I can keep going like that for quite a while, tracing back all the shitty things that ever happened to me and blaming them for where I am now. I’ve spent plenty of time sorting through all the dumb choices I’ve made, trying to find the one that warranted this fate. Jail is, after all, the place for solemn reflection and self-improvement. There were plenty I wasn’t thrilled to revisit, but I still haven’t located The One.