I wish that this story could start before November 23, 2045—the day then-Governor Jenna Bush signed the Parental Deregulation Act into law—but it doesn't. Before that day I was just any other kid growing up in Abilene, a small ranching community in the hinterlands of Texas. Jenna Bush had risen to power on the idea that kids should be allowed to choose their own parental providers. Being born into a socially or economically disadvantaged family, she maintained, didn't have to ruin one's whole life. I bought into the idea too, because just two days after the PDA went into effect, I had signed up with a new family. Along with my signing came a Mercedes Land Jet, four pre-paid years at Texas A&M, and twenty-five acres outside of Houston. I was thirteen.
The PDA, however, didn't fly with the rest of the country. The United States Supreme Court, still saddled with justices from President Rodham's days, was a socialist stronghold and struck Texas's new law down overnight. Jenna Bush cried foul—she thought it hypocritical that the state had relocated kids for their own welfare for decades, but once individuals participated in the matter, it was deemed unconstitutional. The Texans walked out of the House and Senate less than thirty minutes after Jenna Bush's response to the Court's opinion. The rest of Congress debated the matter while the Lone Star State re-positioned its homegrown anti-immigrant militia from the Rio Grande to the Panhandle. A few weeks later, the great United Sates of America—hobbled by decades of liberal self-reflection—ratified an agreement to allow Texas to secede. It wasn't surprising that the rest of the states had let us go without too much resistance. The American Civil War was, by that time, seen as a huge mistake—the effort of one region to impose its morality upon another. The South had always had its own morality: it was willing to let people do what they wanted; it was willing to let the concept of liberty stretch out just like the plantations of Old Dixie. Two hundred years after the original conflict about human property had brought the United States to the edge of rupture, another had finished the task. The once-bizarre intentions of a few fundamentalists outside of Dallas had become law—and children were now free agents, able to seek the most God-loving family they could find and able to profit handsomely from the action. The sudden demand for children and the profiteering of baby-brokers combined to achieve yet another social victory for the fundamentalists—the virtual cessation of abortion within the reconstituted republic.
In the five years that followed Texas's secession, the United States approved similar agreements for the independence of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. I watched these nation-wrecking events transpire from a bedroom television in the Caldwells' sprawling Houston mansion. They were a great couple—two grown boys already, connections to big oil, and widely respected within their church, Bayou Congregation of the Christ Almighty. I must admit I was a bit frightened when I first replied to their web ad. I'd never been outside of Abilene, never mind rubbed shoulders with big-city folk. The Caldwells were very polite though, and spent considerable time addressing all my concerns: living accommodations, school options, ground rules. The man who came to negotiate the contract was nothing if not diplomatic; the deal was clear and concise. I joke that even a ninth grader could have understood it.
Houston and the Caldwells, however, did take a little getting used to. For a city so large, Houston was a bit constraining. Everyone was pretty much prim and proper—and keenly aware of social capital. I still had a lot of ranch dog in me, but the Caldwells did their best to help me fit the suburban mold. The dinner table was the site of most of my instruction. Ms. Caldwell would always bring three take-out orders home from the local restaurants. Sometimes it was BBQ, sometimes it was Cajun, and sometimes it was Thai. But always there were three orders, and if Mr. Caldwell wasn't coming home for his evening meal, then his went into the refrigerator and was served as either lunch for some other day or as an extra meal for the help. We would always unpack our meals more or less in unison. The white biodegradable plastics bags would be neatly folded and put into a large bowl at the end of the table. The plastic utensils would also be put into this bowl—we always used real silverware. And we used real plates too—big, ornate ceramic platters. Ms. Caldwell had probably gotten them from Pier One. She was always shopping at Pier One.
After we had set out our food and put all the wrapping and disposables aside, we would talk about our days. I was always first, Mr. Caldwell second, and Ms. Caldwell last. I talked about school, soccer, and girls. Mr. Caldwell talked about business, football, and politics. Ms. Caldwell always talked about sex. At first it was a little disturbing listening to Ms. Caldwell talk about whether she was pleased, or not, with Mr. Caldwell's lovemaking the night before. Occasionally, she would become quite graphic—mentioning how she preferred a vertical flicker of Mr. Caldwell's tongue over her clitoris to a horizontal brush. Mr. Caldwell responded to Ms. Caldwell's commentary like he was participating in some sort of sensitivity training. He would acknowledge whatever it was she was saying and then try to expound upon it. It might have even been some sort of church-sanctioned exercise—maybe a procedure for keeping sex within the family. I didn't dwell upon it too much. I had a lucrative deal overall, and a little bird-and-bee talk at the supper table wasn't too much of an annoyance. After the nightly sexual recap, I was still able to pick the Caldwells' brains about stuff that was important for a young bourgeoisie: tax shelters, insider trading, and how to get out of a DUI.
The Caldwells were always kind to me—until I got Candice Martinez pregnant.
Ms. Caldwell fumed because she didn't think Candice was ever going to be much of a socialite. Mr. Caldwell was aristocratically upset because his recent real estate deal with Mr. Leahy was subtlety dependent on my dating Mr. Leahy's oldest daughter, Tiffany. Nonetheless, I was intent on marrying Candice and having the baby. Candice was a sweet girl, and we were both nineteen at the time. The Caldwells, however, realizing that Candice would soon be entitled to half of everything I possessed, called breach of contract. They insisted I cast Candice aside and let her put our child up for the highest bidder. (I'm still amazed at how quickly the fervor of family fades when financial interests arise.) My lawyer got the Caldwells to settle for $1.5 million and the land that was promised me. In return, I had to forfeit any future claims of inheritance.
Candice and I built a nice little ranch on my plot. The main structure was a two-bedroom rectangular adobe. There was also a shed for miscellaneous projects—woodworking, leather tanning, and cattle-skull painting—as well as a barn for livestock. Candice maintained a small garden to the north of the house and spent most of her time cooking and canning. For an unplanned marriage, we were pretty happy together. Our son Tom was a strong, handsome boy even at a young age. He was an amazing soccer player and just the politest kid around. That's why it broke our hearts when—at the age of sixteen—he accepted an offer from my natural parents to live in Abilene and become part-owner of LekTrik, the world's largest manufacturer of cell phone replacement batteries.
That, in many languages, would be called cruel justice. But it didn't end there—at least for me and a few million other people. About a year after Tom had left us, the city of Houston was hit with a thermonuclear missile launched from a submarine in the Gulf of Mexico. A group of Muslim insurgents in the Russian Navy had taken over the vessel and sent the warhead to the sprawling city. Texas—as an independent nation—had been heavily financing Israel's efforts to defend recent settlements on the Arabian Peninsula. (The legislature of the world's first born-again democracy was convinced that the Jews would have to rule the entire Ancient World before Christ would return to earth.)
Roughly two-point-four million people were killed in the initial blast, Mr. and Ms. Caldwell included. Candice and about one million other people died from radiation poisoning afterwards. I was in Dallas that day meeting with a legal team I had assembled for getting Tom back. Candice was already dead when the radiation levels subsided enough for me to go home. She was slumped in the shower, probably trying to wash off the deadly dust. The south side of the house was a glossy black; it had first been melted and then impinged with particulate. The roof was peeled back and there were no windows.
I filled the tub with dirt and buried Candice right there. Then I fenced off the property with the debris I found virtually everywhere—car parts, fast food restaurant signs, postal boxes. And inside I gathered all the maimed and contaminated animals I could find. And they bred. And now I call my ranch Hobblescotch.