Palo Alto Weekly 16th Annual Short Story Contest
1st Place - 12-14 year olds

Predisposed

by Alia Salim

About Alia Salim

Los Altos High School sophomore Alia Salim is no stranger to the Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest.

In 1996 and 1998, she won in first and third places, respectively, for her stories "What Happened on February 29th" and "Sometimes the Dragon Wins." Not bad for a now-14-year-old who says she rarely finds the time to put pen to paper apart from her school work.

"Outside of English class, I don't have a lot of time to write," she said. "If I had more time, I really would. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of creative writing in school."

In fact, she wrote "Predisposed" two years ago as an assignment for creative writing class and never got around submitting it to any contest until this year. As an avid follower of politics, Salim wrote the story around the time when Dolly, the cloned sheep, was big in the news and the science fiction film "Gattaca" was big in theaters.

"The funny thing is, some people read my story and said I was against cloning. But it's not a reflection of anything I actually think," she asserted. "If I were Gareth, I would not have thrown the baby out the window. I would have just put myself up for adoption."

Salim says she prefers writing short stories over poetry when she does find those precious moments to write. Winning contests with her stories has merely been the icing on the cake.

"It has definitely surprised me every time. There are so many good writers out there," she said.

-- Bryan Chin

<<ERROR>>

Gareth punched the enter key again.

<<ERROR: ACCESS DENIED>>

His friend Lucas gazed anxiously out of the telephone monitor screen on the desk. "Any luck?"
"No," grunted the pale boy at the keyboard. He closed the blinds on the window and the sunshine vanished. "Off, computer," he said shortly to the screen, and with a soft mechanical sigh the light from the programming window faded away. Gareth put his head in his hands and spoke to Lucas, miles away in Ecuador. "It’s no good. I’m sorry." His voice was characteristically soft and toneless.
Lucas shrugged resignedly. "It’s all right. Quite recent though, your version. One might think…"

"Yeah." Gareth rubbed his bleary green eyes and kicked the wall, as was his habit, leaving a smudged footprint. "But not strong enough to crack the codes on a secure site like that. I’d need the latest one."
"That’s the problem with these things, you know. Buy the newest and they’ll only come out with something better."

Lucas hung up, and as the telephone screen dimmed the room went dark.

Downstairs, the doorbell rang. Mrs. Peters practically sprinted to the hall. She stretched out one slimly fingered hand on the floral-patterned wall to stop herself and caught her breath before shouting behind her, "He’s here Ron, he’s here!"

"I’m quite aware of that, dear," replied a voice from the office over the intercom. The normally languid tone had a hint of excitement in it, which pleased Mrs. Peters enormously. "Answer it, Katherine," he called.

She already had. A man in a well-fitting navy suit was hanging up a coat with one hand when Mr. Peters arrived in the hall. In the other, the visitor carried a large book, and there was salesman’s grin on his flabby face. "Mr. And Mrs. Peters, I take it. My name is Mr. Woodrow, and I’ll be guiding you through the selection process today. I understand you have completed all the necessary formalities?"
"Naturally, naturally." Mr. Peters looked as he did during important meetings, an odd combination of taciturn housecat and agitated lion. At his shoulder, his wife fidgeted with her wedding ring. The one from her third husband would have matched her necklace better, she reflected to herself briefly, but it had seemed rather inappropriate to wear any other ring, despite the fact that Ron would never notice her jewelry. She shook herself and suggested that they move into the sitting room.

The large coffee table was perfect for the enormous book, which lay open to its first section. "A", the heading said in block letters, and beneath this there followed a long list of broad subheadings ("athleticism", "aptitude", "agility") and also several columns containing words in smaller text ("ambition", "acumen", "affability"). The dizzying pillar of "A" traits continued for a good fifty pages. It was unusual for catalogs of such size to be in books, but as Mr. Woodrow was quick to point out, the feel of turning physical pages was really quite homely. Mrs. Peters agreed fervently. She was a staunch believer in the homely feeling, and had microwaved dinner by hand long after the intelligent kitchen was introduced.

The representative from the company seemed eager to get down to business. "Have either of you got any specific questions before we begin?" he asked. "I know you have a child from us already, so I imagine the process is somewhat familiar to you…"

Mrs. Peters appeared decidedly uncomfortable. She looked beseechingly at her husband from over the rim of her teacup.

"Ah, well…our son Gareth was logged a month or two before you put a finger on the nonphysical trait isolation process…" Mr. Peterson made a game effort at a noncommittal air, but fell short, face drawn tight. "We understand the basic selections perfectly, but I’m afraid you’ll have to help us through the newer chapters and choosing compatible personality traits…" He finished in an awkward, unhappy rush.

With a quiet sigh, Mr. Woodrow reached for his references. He hated these cases. They took so awfully long and the parents could be so bitter about the first product. Tough for them! he though to himself irritably. Science is like that. There’s no agenda on the technological frontier.

"That’s quite all right; I’ve worked with many couples in your situation. Let’s take a look at your preliminary choices…very good."

"We want a blonde baby, this time," said Mrs. Peterson brightly to stir the atmosphere. "Fair girls are so nice, especially with the green eyes. We’re keeping the green eyes."

Mr. Peters grunted his approval. "The muscle typing is important, too. We’d like her the dancing or gymnastic sort, you know. Our son…we’ve already got a runner…albeit not a very passionate one." His small, pig-like eyes clouded.

"And that’s the beauty of the new forms!" exclaimed Mr. Woodrow abruptly, eager to halt the parents’ rambling before they got carried away. "There are no guarantees, you understand, but now you can predispose your daughter to passion, predispose her to cheerfulness or obedience! Genetech is the end to disappointment."

The couple smiled openly for the first time. "It’s so wonderful," Mrs. Peters said as she opened the book to the table of contents. "We can offer her everything we never had."

The Veronica Millicent Peters that was presented to the household a mere four months later by Genetech representatives was a rosy-cheeked cherub with the dainty feet that her mother had requested on a whim. Despite having once been given too-hot milk when the temperature gauge on her self-heating bottle malfunctioned, she had yet to shed a tear at any point in time. Mrs. Peters lived in a day-to-day state of euphoria and no longer put dinner in the microwave herself. She spent every spare second sitting with the baby as Mozart played softly in the nursery. Veronica had been predisposed to musical talent at exorbitant additional costs, much to Mr. Peters’ distaste. "All right then," he’d said crossly at the time to his groveling wife, "but I’m not about to let it go to waste." Mrs. Peters understood him well enough, and prioritized accordingly.

The morning came, however, when the devoted mother was forced to return to her post in an accounting firm to help with an orientation for new employees. Her numerous protests fell upon deaf ears. Yes, she was needed and yes, she was needed in person. Mr. Peters was in Chicago. Gareth was upstairs.
With Veronica tucked securely under her arm, Mrs. Peters climbed the stairs and knocked on the door to the bedroom on the right of the landing. The pulse of music playing from within quieted, Gareth’s angular profile appeared in the space opened between the frame and the door. Upon seeing who it was, he stepped out into the hall and stood with his back to the wall, fiddling with the drawstrings on his gray tracksuit top. How distracting, his mother thought with mild irritation. The boy seemed to radiate nervous energy any time he was at home.

"Honey, sweetheart," Mrs. Peters began finally, ignoring the offending drawstrings. "I haven’t seen you in ages – when did you come from the track last night?"

The boy flinched visibly, then gathered himself as if preparing for one of the physical hurdles he faced in the evenings at the stadium. "Late, I suppose. I’m sorry mother – he had a whole new relay team that only just formed, and my timeslot got pushed back. Whatever he said when he called isn’t true, you know. I am doing my best." His grip tightened on the white-painted doorframe and he added as a strained afterthought, "I enjoy it."

His efforts at a satisfying answer seemed to go unappreciated. "Actually, Gary, dear, I was more interested in asking you a little favor…I’ve got to go down to the office for one of those silly orientations… would you mind awfully keeping an eye on Veronica for the morning? She won’t be any trouble." Here she looked down at the perpetually grinning infant. "Will you, sweetheart?"

Her son’s expression was unreadable, and she half expected him to refuse. He was so touchy on the subject of the baby, she reflected to herself distantly. Veronica did enjoy the spotlight around the house these days, she supposed, but he had the track to keep him busy, as always, and the way he was always in his room in the evenings hardly seemed to suggest he’d enjoy the attention himself. Such a reserved child, Gareth, and such a shame they hadn’t been able to plan him out differently, fifteen years back. Veronica was predisposed to sociability.

The baby smiled and held out her hands to Gareth as if to further her own cause. The boy pushed a strand of mahogany-colored hair out of his eyes and took her in his well-muscled arms. "All right," he said finally. He turned and reached for the volume knob on the stereo with his free hand. Mrs. Peters interrupted quickly.

"Just Mozart if she’s in the room please, dear…you know how your father is about her." She offered her son a disk and a pleading smile.

"Yes, mother," he replied evenly.

"She should go to sleep quickly, darling. I’ll see you in a few hours."

The door closed, and a few moments later the sound of the high heels click-clacking on the kitchen tiles died to silence.

Gareth slotted the disc in to the machine. A soft whirring came as the song was read, and then the slow, mournful whine of a lone violin filled the room from floor to ceiling. He sat the baby on the window-seat and watched the neighbor’s cat move stealthily across the brick path in the garden below. The cat vanished behind the trees and a second violin joined the piece. A duet.

The pale boy watched his sister’s dainty feet move in time to the quickened tempo of Mozart’s two violins. Predisposed. Her smiling green eyes met his.

As the second violin dropped out of the piece again, Gareth noticed for the first time the distance from his window to the path below.

Veronica never cried.


Judge's Comments:

The story takes the reader immediately into a high-tech world. The writer takes what is known about genetic engineering, pushes it to its logical extreme, and gets it absolutely right. The ending was unexpected and very powerful.