In the Trump Story Project, we’re presenting a series of short stories from contemporary writers, compiled by Ben H. Winters, imagining America’s future under President Donald Trump. This series was made possible by support from Slate Plus members. Read Ben Winters’ introduction to the series.
Trump was an orange shit box, but at least he was entertaining.
That’s what Shane said when she picked me up on my first day. I was expecting some of that. It was part of the script. “She’ll say ‘orange shit box’ when she pulls up in her Honda Fit,” Michaela had told me at school the day before. “The car’s like a burnt sienna color, maybe cayenne? But yeah, it’s in pretty bad shape. And that way, you’ll know she’s your ride.”
Shane never mentioned her car, but she had the words right, so I got in. She had one hand on the steering wheel, and in the other she clutched a Slurpee. That cup had to be painfully cold on a day like this, dirty gray snow piled on the medians, black ice everywhere, but maybe 7-Eleven products were another kind of code. I knew nothing yet.
“President Mike is boring as hell,” she went on as she pulled into traffic.
“His hair never moves,” I said.
“But he’s also evil,” she said, and put her lips around the red straw. Was she pretending to drink it? I couldn’t tell. “People in places like Cambridge and San Francisco, they cheered over Trumpie resigning. But they didn’t realize Pence was gonna be worse.”
I nodded. “You old enough to vote?” I asked. I wasn’t. I’d only just turned 16.
“Next time I will be,” she said. “But will it matter?”
I didn’t say anything; I was trying not to turn into a rage ball like my mom, who had daily panic attacks over the new Supreme Court justice; no White House press conferences for over a year; the “center” for registered Muslims that was being constructed in Nebraska. Yesterday she’d had a meltdown about all the young people who no longer believed our system worked. Not that she blamed them, she said.
As I expected, Shane headed out of the city. Beyond the car window was your basic Cleveland despair: McDonald’s, Sonic, boarded-up house, gas station, boarded-up Chinese restaurant, another boarded-up house.
“Your parents suspect anything?” she asked after a moment. I had been instructed to tell everyone, including my parents, that I had chorus.
“My dad left last year.”
She sighed like she couldn’t be bothered by my family’s sad little divorce drama. I guess she wouldn’t want to hear about my dad’s pathetic farewell via text and how he lived in California now.
“OK, did you tell your mom you had chorus?” Shane asked.
This is what we wanted everyone to imagine: plain girls singing in robes heavy as living-room curtains. Virginal, boring, possibly into singing show tunes in the shower on Saturday nights. No way anyone had a clue what we were really up to.
“My mom marched on Washington,” I said.
“Not relevant. You didn’t tell her the truth did you? Because if you did, you can get out of this car right now. There’s probably a Macaroni Grill I can leave you at.”
“Of course I didn’t. But some day, when all this is over, I’ll tell her the truth, and she’ll be so fucking proud of me.”
Shane only grunted and took another sip of her Slurpee. “What do you mean, ‘When all this is over?’ As in, when the all the water is poisoned and we’re all dead?”
“Wow,” I said. “I’m feeling as empowered as Michaela said I would.”
“Michaela’s a fucking Pollyanna. I want to stuff that stupid ‘Future Is Female’ shirt into her mouth until she cries.” Another tug at the straw. “I’ll feel better after we help Martha,” she said.
I knew this much: Martha wasn’t her real name. They were all called Martha. This one, the one we were helping today, Shane explained, was Martha 21, meaning there had been 20 Marthas before her.
“No infections or complications yet,” Shane said with a grin, her first, and I understood why. Already hundreds of women had died from illegal abortions; the numbers were maybe wonky since Planned Parenthood had been defunded, but the statistics, no matter how you sliced it, were bleak. “Back alley, wire hanger stuff,” my mom had said. “They’re desperate.”
Shane, Michaela—these girls were saving lives. And now so would I.
We’d made it to the highway, whizzing past weird manmade lakes and untouched fields of snow.
“People actually believe there’s a chorus out here?” I asked.
“Sure do,” Shane said. “Because there is. Most of our members only come to sing.”
“Believe it,” she said.
I kept my eyes on her just in case she was kidding and I’d missed the joke. She was totally forgettable, which was possibly the point: a pale white girl with lank brown hair and brown eyes, lashes twiggy with mascara, puffy black coat, jeans, Uggs. I’d already forgotten her.
“You’ll have to sing,” Shane said.
She nodded as she merged off the freeway and into the suburbs, developments aplenty. “We’ve agreed to perform ‘Carol of the Bells’ at some mall in Shaker Heights. We’re the Northeast Ohio Girls Chorus, and we sing beautifully.”
“Some girls really don’t know?”
“The chorus needs to be real to make this work.”
A few minutes later, Shane pulled into a parking lot for a squat, putty-colored building. It looked like a lonely deserted office park, but as we got closer I realized it was a plastic surgery clinic of sorts. Or it used to be. There was a “for rent” sign over the sign.
“Rejuvenation?” I asked, reading the sign.
Shane smiled wickedly. “Rejuvenation, as in vaginal. Plus Botox and all that jazz.” She put the Slurpee in the cup holder and turned off the car. “Dr. Shannon Wyatt is a licensed plastic surgeon. Her old business partner, a guy named Dennis, is a derm. Not that he’s involved.” She paused. “The light’s on,” she said, and nodded at a security light above the entrance. “That means Martha texted to confirm her appointment and she’s on her way.”
“What if the light’s off?”
“Then she’s supposed to come in and pretend she actually wants the re-joov, and she and the doc go through the motions while one of our girls leaves chorus because she says she has real bad cramps. Then she destroys all our burners.”
“If we get caught with the those … ” I wasn’t sure how to finish the sentence.
She turned to me. “Look, you know this is risky. It’s illegal. And I’m fucking it up constantly, saying whatever I want, refusing to play Michaela’s little CIA games. But this place is safe for Martha because it was meant for surgery. It’s sterile.” She took off her seatbelt. “Let’s go sing.”
* * *
In the building’s dusty and stale waiting room, random shit was piled on top of other shit, like the cat tower in the corner, covered in coffee mugs and file folders, and a box of latex gloves on a sagging chair. But Shane led me past all that and into a hallway. Before she opened the first door on her left, she said, “This is where they used to host the spa parties. But now it’s our rehearsal space. Acoustics are pretty decent, actually.”
“Spa parties,” I repeated.
“You know, like a bunch of women come for Botox and facials. And they can drink Champagne and shop for jewelry while they’re doing it. You know, Real Housewives–style.”
She opened the door to reveal a large, pastel-colored space with shabby chic couches and reading chairs, a massage table against one wall, and against the other, an old piano—which the chorus must have gotten in here. The skylight above bathed everything in a soothing light of winter. It was pretty nice, actually.
There were two girls facing each other on a couch, giggling about something, a package of Oreos between them. No way they were in on this.
Michaela came through a back door with what looked like sheet music in her arms.
“Meg! Shane!” she said and put the papers on the piano.
“I’m really excited about singing,” I said.
Shane nodded to the girls on the couch. “Don’t worry, Tess and Dee know what’s going on here. Right, ladies?”
They turned to Shane, and one of them said, “You mean we know you’re a total killjoy?” This girl was licking the white lard from her cookie.
“Yes, that too,” Shane said. She turned to Michaela. “When are the others coming? The Iggies will be so excited to meet Meg.”
“Noon,” Michaela said. To me she said, “Iggies, as in ignorant. They’re not clued in like you. They just love to sing.”
The Oreo-licker said, “I love to sing, too!”
Shane rolled her eyes, and Michaela slapped her shoulder. “The singing actually does help.”
I put my bag down and handed Michaela my burner, as she had instructed me to do. She plopped it into a tote bag in the corner.
“Where do the Marthas come from?” I asked.
“All over,” the other girl on the couch said. “They get in touch. There are eight of us total—nine, now that you’re here.”
“How do they know who to call?”
“They don’t call; they text,” Michaela said.
“But you? Why?”
She smiled. “We’re a network. We’re known, by some. Certain doctors. A few women who know other women. Get confided in, that sort of thing. Martha texts us, we give them Shannon’s—the doctor’s—number.”
Shane said, “They’re supposed to call her and say they need their pussies fixed.”
Michaela blushed. “Not in those words. They say they need a rejuvenation.”
“What if you’re helping a teenage girl or something?” I asked. “Doesn’t seem believable that they’d want that, um, procedure.”
Shane said, “You’re right, it isn’t. They’re shit out of luck.”
“But what do they do?” I asked. “They’re probably more desperate than some older lady.”
“Exactly!” Michaela said to Shane. Clearly they had discussed this before.
“Look,” Shane said. “We can send them to our contacts in Pennsylvania—crossing state lines, like they used to do.”
“But the state border searches,” Michaela began. “President Mike said he’ll start those—”
Shane held up her hand. “If we bring them here, we’re fucked.”
The other girl on the couch said, “If one of us needs an abortion, Shannon would help.”
Shane snarled. “No, Dee, she wouldn’t. We can’t let this get out of control or the whole thing will be shut down. It just takes one mouthy teenager.”
“Shane, we’re all teenagers,” Michaela said.
“And you’re all virgins. The only one fucking you is this administration.”
“Shane,” Michaela said sternly.
“But won’t this get shut down?” I asked. “I mean, it’s not a working clinic anymore, right? Even a legal surgery has to be illegal if the place isn’t officially up and running.”
Shane nodded. “Dr. Wyatt just agrees to a consultation while she still has the space leased, and then when Martha’s here she does the procedure. The guy who owns the property is letting her rent it at some crazy low rate until they find someone to take over the building for real. His daughter is an Iggie. Voice like an angel.”
Oreo-licker—she had to be Tess—said, “No one’s going to rent this place, not with the water like it’s been.”
“My dad went to California,” I said.
Dee said, “Ah, the old, ‘I just gotta go find some drinkable tap water’ line?”
I laughed. “Something like that.”
“Your mom OK?” Michaela asked.
I nodded. “She’s hated him for a while.”
Shane grunted. “She must, if she refused to move you guys to California.”
“She says we need to stay in a swing state. Fight President Mike.”
The girls didn’t reply. I could tell by how they looked away that they admired my mom. And pitied me. Then Shane said what they were all thinking, “And here I was, sad that my parents are Trumpies.”
* * *
I didn’t see the doctor or Martha come in because by then chorus had begun. I didn’t yet know who was an Iggie and who was part of the network, and as the girls filed through the door, shivering from the cold, with their phones in their hands, their random snack-size bags of Funyons and Doritos tucked under their arms, their lips all glossy, a couple doing voice exercises, a pit in my stomach began to maw open. How could nine teenage girls keep this running? Shane was right, as a tribe we were mouthy, not to mention vindictive, and our loyalties were shaky. What was to keep one of the network girls from telling an Iggie about what we were really up to? Or what if a traitor was mistakenly recruited? Michaela herself hadn’t vetted me much—she said she liked my op-ed in the school paper about feminism and asked me to run with her in P.E. a few times. We hung out at her house only once before she laid out the whole operation (“Ricki’s mom is a doctor, so we’re getting a lot of the medical supplies from her. Not that she knows. Yet. Her office manager is addicted to painkillers, so it’s gonna be a while before anyone figures it out, thank goodness.”) Then she’d handed me the burner. “You’ll get a new one in three weeks,” she said.
Had she done covert research on me? Shane had mentioned her CIA-type skills, but come on, we were all in high school, public high school, and Michaela didn’t even know the difference between it’s and its. I felt sad for Martha, all 21 of them, forced to go through this very private process with nearly 10 high school girls and a handful of adults. They had to accept silly pretend-but-real tradecraft and our charity in order to save their own lives. It wasn’t fair. But, then again, fairness had left the building a long time ago.
Once everyone was settled, Dee told me to stand in the back left row. Becky, the Iggie whose father owned the building, handed me a bottle of water and welcomed me to the group. “We so needed another alto!” she said, and I smiled and hoped I could sing as low as required.
Michaela hit a piano key, a high note, plink, plink, plink, and my hands began to go numb, disappear, like they always did when I was nervous. And despairing. When Trump won, my mom was so freaked out she had to go for a walk, her hands jammed into her coat pockets as she passed our living room window. And six months later, when the water news broke and nobody showered for a week. And then when my dad’s text came in—Going to Santa Cruz where it’s safer. Tell Mom you can come—and my hands were so useless I dropped the phone and shattered the screen. And last week, watching my mom sneak a glass of water from the faucet even though we had plenty of Polish Spring on hand, even though there’s lead in there that can poison her. Thinking she must want to die and leave me in hell.
Girls were passing out sheet music, and the sound of paper rustling filled the room. I imagined Martha already in the surgery room. Was there a nurse? Did Martha wear a paper smock? I still knew so little.
The music sheet said “Carol of the Bells” at the top, and in my mind I whispered a little prayer to Martha, that she would be OK. So many women had died already.
Someone else, not Michaela, was running through some scales on the piano. The girls around me were singing along, just nonsense sounds, warming up their voices. I looked down at the sheet music.
Hark how the bells,
Sweet silver bells,
All seem to say,
Throw cares away
The door to the hallway was open a foot or so, to let in a few stragglers, and that’s when I saw Dr. Wyatt—had to be, she was a tall black woman in a white medical coat. She paused for a moment and opened the door a little wider, peeking her head in. She looked relaxed, like she wasn’t about to do anything illegal.
“It’s just the chorus,” I heard her say, I assumed to Martha, who must’ve been behind her.
Oh how they pound,
Raising the sound,
O'er hill and dale,
Telling their tale.
I tried to smile at the doctor, like I was just a chorus girl who loved to sing.
And then there she was, trailing the doctor. My mom.
She wore a gray sweatshirt I didn’t recognize, and the maroon pea coat I’d know anywhere was draped over her arm. Her hair brushed neatly, like you’d brush it before surgery.
I clutched the sheet music. My mother’s eyes, Martha’s eyes, darted across the room. I could tell she was amazed. To an Iggie, my mother's expression would look like your typical admiration for girls with wholesome extracurriculars. But to me, to the network, she was clearly in awe of what we’d done, how we’d carried her here with our cunning and ingenuity. We had found her and helped her.
If this were a church pamphlet or a story in a political speech calling for the end of baby murders, something like sadness or anger would strike me: seeing my mom here, come to get an abortion. Like, Oh no, the sanctity of life, how could you, Mom? Not this! In that story, there would be grief.
But we’d already grieved, these last two years. We had suffered. We were suffering.
That wasn’t what I felt now. I didn’t feel sad, or angry. I felt certain.
Martha 21 would be safe. She would go on.
I kept my eyes on my mom, willing her to see me. It took a moment, but she met my eyes, and when she realized it was me, she gave a tiny start. I nodded once, barely. I knew she was proud.
The song began with the sopranos: their eerie horror-movie little-girl voices, the words too fast to follow. Dr. Wyatt gave a thumbs up and moved away from the door. My mom followed her. In a second she was out of sight, but I knew she was listening.
I waited for my cue from the piano girl, and when it came I opened my mouth.
I began to sing.