Exploring the art of prose


Question Twenty-Eight by Lisa K. Buchanan

alt text: image shows a gray bicycle with brown handlebars; title card for short story "Question Twenty-Eight," by Lisa K Buchanan

Lisa K. Buchanan’s “Question Twenty-Eight” is the first-place winner of the 2022 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, guest judged by Alan Heathcock.

Every so often a story comes along that matches the moment and catches the zeitgeist. That we live in a world in which reproductive rights are being taken away, and women are being seen not as equal citizens but as “bearers of children,” made reading “Question Twenty-Eight” all the more powerful. This story does what speculative fiction does so well, in that it exaggerates awful potentials so as to ring the alarm against very real trajectories of destruction. A high concept, with world building of this scale, takes a masterful hand to pull off in a short story. Given its inventive blocking, Burgess-like prose, and great attention to detail, this story of Pronatalists and Miscarriers and pregnancy boot camps, with a terrifying ending that made me wince and shiver, is a short story I won’t soon forget.  —Alan Heathcock



When my widowed father was the age I am now, he married a woman the age I was then. The thirty-year difference didn’t bother his friends, though some objected to his haste, claiming he had but transferred my mother’s funeral flowers to his bride’s bouquet. Still, he had been two parents to me during my mother’s long illness—making breakfast, trimming my hair—and I was glad to see him cackle, at fifty, like a teenager. He and his second wife pledged to serve their country by multiplying. And multiply they did, prompting countless christenings and birthday parties obliging me to “hang out beforehand” (decorations) or stay for “the after-party” (cleanup).

While inflating nipple-shaped balloons for the fifth baby shower, I naïvely confided in my father’s wife about a recent womb death. Shocked, she said I exhibited none of the expected traits (social frigidity, simmering hostility, a strange personal scent) of my “ilk.” When other uterus-owners began adding their sympathies and antidotes—former Miscarriers being most vehement—I allowed my silence to be interpreted as unspeakable grief.

Over time, my stepfamily came to believe that my “gift with children” (namely, my skillful extrication of cake frosting from hair and my supervision of rambunctious games of Zombie Fetus in which dead souls return to haunt) “must surely rectify any fertility defects.” I, however, came to believe that while children could be complex and astonishing, my stamina hinged on them going home with other adults, aunthood being the sweet fruit of my deciduous womb. This family-festivity internship throughout my twenties yielded both fond appreciation and an auxiliary form of contraception.

At thirty-eight, to divert my stepfamily’s attention from the perceived lateness and expected childlessness of my marriage, I raved about the bicycle my groom was assembling for me, the bikeaholic zeal with which he queried me on every detail. Multicolored spokes? The brass bell from his grandparents’ attic? On the appointed day, he whipped off its black cape with a magician’s flourish. The titanium steed didn’t transform me into an athlete on wheels, but it sped the urban commute at which my old bike had cussed and groaned. My father recused himself from these calls, seemingly wary of a man who would marry a Miscarrier.

When my paychecks began to include a note encouraging—then requiring—childless female employees to yield their bikes to families with kids, I dropped off my rusty clunker, stored my custom-built prize in our laundry room, and took the bus to work. Because the custom-made bike had no serial number or registered owner, I assumed the authorities had no record of it. But then one day, a pair of officers came knocking. We were out and the downstairs neighbor had no choice but to surrender the bike. I was stoic, but my husband howled like an elephant seal with a slaughtered pup. Was it now a melted pretzel of joints and tubing? Or, perhaps worse, had it been reassigned? Two years later, I saw my confiscated wedding present chained to a bike rack across town, its hand-cut lugs still distinctive and its colors still vibrant. Determined to retrieve at least the ancestral bell, I strode toward it—until a tween in white shorts hung her shopping bag on the handlebars and rode off.

My “generosity,” said my father’s wife, would return to me sevenfold.

The year she and I both turned forty-seven, her eldest daughter offered to be a womb surrogate and knew an obstetrician who would, for a quiet fee, put my name on the birth record. Hoping to see me spared the penalties of failing to procreate by fifty—humiliation, ostracization, steep taxation, and the loss of public benefits—my father’s wife managed to refrain from mentioning “the problem with your mother,” my zero-point-seven percent of Jewish ancestry. But by the time the Pronatalists took over, my husband and I had long embraced our unencumbered life, even securing an apartment south of the border, just in case.

My father and I never built the chummy rapport he had with his second family, and we never discussed the new question in the current census: Name any daughters, age forty-five or older, who have not produced viable offspring. Shortly before he died, he gave me the framed combat bullet he’d had extracted from his spleen. He said he was glad I’d found a husband, “But I wish you’d kept quiet about that damn bike. As a veteran, you see, I had to report it.”


Cycle One

With the whistle shriek, we drop from the trees, our boot soles hitting soft soil like the onset of rain. The orchard is fragrant, and the salty breeze lingers in our throats. Packing apples into crates, we brush leaves from time-rounded shoulders and pull twigs from our silver strands.

The National Service base, with its streams and boulders and sea-beaten cliffs, retains some of the physiognomy of the human-potential retreat that once thrived here. Gone are the soul-seekers resting sacrum on zafu, though the cypress trees keep their leaning vigil, craggy arms reaching inland toward the coastal road above.

Sergeant Pugio, as we’re to call her, has honey-colored bangs teasing the tops of her brows. Her triceps have no wiggly flabbawumph; her throat, no creases; the backs of her knees, no blue veins. Her scouty shorts, pink beret, and orator’s thunder suggest midtwenties, but her gum-snapping tweens return whenever she hooks her hair behind an ear and mutilates our names.

“Huff n’ Puff!” Pugio’s voice has the charm of a helicopter crash.

Twenty-four boots halt. Next to me, Hough’s underarms emit a stink of alarm.

“Stop with the humming!” shouts the sergeant. “You get me?”

“My asthma….”

“Permission denied. Plank, thirty!” Pugio hits the dirt with her stick. “Count it, Wimp!”

Early on, the sergeant called me “Pimple” to rhyme with my last name. When that ceased to amuse, she switched to omitting the second syllable. “Twenty-five! Twenty-four!”

As a civilian, Hough managed a children’s charity. With round glasses, gray-streaked waves, and a gap-toothed smile, she’s as gentle as she looks. Indoor ladybugs could rest assured that a ride on her fingertip would deliver outdoor freedom. And that is about the extent of her weight-lifting ability. After trembling in a plank pose for six seconds, she collapses.

“If you’re truly feeble, Huff n’ Puff, we’ll transfer you to the hospital.”

Hough fractured an ankle last year while changing a ceiling bulb for her elderly mom. She can’t run or climb, much less support her weight with her wrists. Most think she was drafted by mistake; none (including Hough) expect her to survive a pregnancy, even a singleton, at fifty.

Janner requests permission to speak. “I’ll do her plank, ma’am.”

“Now, that’s a servicewoman. Group count!”

Janner is a competitive swimmer, but still, kindness or kiss-up? One thing’s certain: Nobody comes back from the hospital.

Before receiving my draft notice at forty-nine, I enjoyed a rich life in San Francisco. My smart, affectionate, slightly cranky husband took fifty-mile bike rides, sprayed our bathroom with eucalyptus oil, and fortified us against a legion of ills with a weekly pot of garlic soup. In the block’s sole remaining Edwardian, our flat had soft rugs, oak wainscoting, and walls of old books. A retired downstairs neighbor watered the geraniums and folded anything left in the basement dryer. Sure, I knew lots of women robustly trying to populate in their late forties to avoid the Freeloader Tax. But even as my public life was increasingly restricted—no elevators, gyms, or indoor pools, as if Miscarriers were contagious—I was certain my government job would exempt me from the remote and ridiculous possibility of military conscription.

“That cashier the other day…” my husband started up again, rasping into the dark. Outside our window, the evening’s final inebriate had left the corner bar, but the morning’s first streetcar had yet to rumble. “Her sister’s in a wheelchair, struggling to eat with a spoon.”

“I was having the best dream—”

Back then, I considered my husband susceptible to conspiracy theories: our government conducts false-flag operations to justify aggression against foreign countries; our government infiltrates protest movements and funds violent provocateurs; and finally, our government conducts fertility experiments on childless, menopausal women.

“Triplets at fifty-one,” he said. “Nearly killed her.”

I assured him again that my upcoming induction appointment was a formality; a clerk would see my employment status and wave me on like a bored traffic cop. Plus, the authorities knew about only two miscarriages, so I was not considered “chronic.” Most important, I had yet to meet a fellow hot-flasher who’d been threatened with a sci-fi surrogacy program.

My claims had not satisfied him on eleven thousand previous occasions and did not satisfy him then. As to those few acquaintances—friends were of the past—who’d gone missing after that significant half-century birthday, they must have had some untold story, a transgression that would make it all seem, if harsh, at least comprehensible. Besides, San Francisco was advanced and sophisticated and always preceded the mainstream, right? Yes, we had door-to-door fertility evangelists like the rest of the country. Yes, our municipal buses flaunted giant diaper fashionistas with gummy grins. But pregnancy at fifty? Even if it weren’t outlandish, I could hardly imagine our “lean” federal government spending the money.

My own worries were more commonplace. Healthcare for two on a contract salary. Professional obsolescence. Water rations.

“Love!” He wet my cheek with an airy spray.

A garbage truck exhaled beneath our window. “Hear that? One of us has to be at work in three hours.”

“Always a jab about—”

“I didn’t mean—”

“Fine, close your eyes.” He threw an exasperated arm across my middle. “Maybe you’ll wake up under a tree and the Even Darker Ages will be over.”

Most of us on the military bus stared ahead in silence. One prayed audibly. A few chattered like schoolgirls on a field trip until the driver ordered them to “hold it down back there.” My seatmate arrived at the last possible second, prompting stiletto stares. Magenta did not suit most, but the color seemed particularly misplaced next to her long, graying, ginger braid. Storing her duffle overhead, she dropped down next to me, only to jump up again in pursuit of some crucial item. Her restlessness gave me hope.

“I just refuse to be upset,” said a voice behind us. The woman smelled faintly of turpentine and had a heart-shaped face. Later, I would learn that Turpentine Heart restored antique furniture for a living. “I mean, it ain’t combat,” she continued.

Our retrofitted tech shuttle had cutting-edge infrastructure for personal devices. This fact was gleefully delivered to us in the orientation movie by a chipper young pink beret with a reminder that we were allowed no such technology, no communication with the civilian world, no media whatsoever. Chipper went on to congratulate us as special recruits for the Extended Womb Experiment, a pilot program for extending human womb functionality to age sixty. We fiftiers comprised “an elite bouquet,” and though each contribution would be appreciated, we must never forget we are “but transient blooms in a glorious field.”

Chipper further explained that our civilian clothes had been stored “for safekeeping” and our boots would be taken from us at night “for polishing.” The main highway was buried under a forty-foot mudslide. With impenetrable woods on three sides and a steep drop into the Pacific Ocean on the fourth, the base was fortified against incursions from (and excursions to) the civilian world. My seatmate had inserted her forbidden earbuds and curled up. I tried to doze, eager to awake in my bed at home from what must be—what simply had to be—a disaster dream prompted by the nightly rants for which I had accused my spouse of “catastrophizing.”

On arrival, officers passed a collection box for the surrender of any last-minute contraband we might have overlooked: unapproved medication, a reading device, my seatmate’s phone. In a panic, I fingered the lab-draw bandage on my arm where I had last hidden the laminated image charged with sustaining me for the months apart: the smooth pate fastidiously shaved to camouflage the gray or, as my husband claimed, to provide me with kissable real estate; the scalp mole he refused to get checked; the dimpled oscillation between grin and glint; his weathered face and catnip neck, gently thickened with age.

Like the rest of the Chippers in the lodge, the one at the podium sported a pink beret, one silver whistle, and two perfect legs. She snarled us a smile. “Your uterus has been fortified, and the hard work of conception has been done for you in the lab. Implant tomorrow and go home a hero in just thirty-four weeks.”


Cycle Two

“A mistake, you say?” Sergeant Pugio stared into Hough’s retinae. The rest of us kept our eyes pointed straight ahead to the flag. “Let me understand. Unlike these other Miscarriers who’ve reported for duty, you belong at home in your hammock with a spy novel and a glass of boysenberry lemonade. Is that it?” Pugio kept her hands officiously clasped behind her back. “Now, we do have alternative Miscarrier facilities, though the contracts are longer and the labor is harder. Much harder. Shall I request a transfer for you, Huff n’ Puff?”

We’d heard the rumors: public sewer maintenance; radioactive waste cleanup; body retrieval from underground mines.

Hough shook her head and resumed looking at the flag.

A decade ago, I sold myself hard for the position at the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and then wanted out immediately. If at forty, however, I was deemed Jurassic; if the mothers who worked alongside me received higher pay; if even my sick days were “reassigned for family use,” I still needed the monthly check.

Mostly, I ate lunch at my desk, but at some point, a colleague invited me out with her group one Friday. Presumably, this mother of three was unaware of the required process for a Miscarrier: an application, an interview, a two-week wait for a humiliating denial. Joining them instead in the cafeteria on Monday, I’d spent the weekend preparing conversation topics and homemade blueberry galette to prove myself a member of our shared species. I’d sat at their table for three consecutive Mondays when midmorning on the fourth, the Ministry announced that, effective immediately, Miscarriers were to eat at the newly designated M table.

Worse even than the Inconceivables in whose fallow fields the most promising seeds could only wither, were those of us whose wombs would sprout life only to destroy it. Miscarriers were repressed, narcissistic, man-loathing, child-loathing, neurotic, selfish, parasitic, defective, and devoid of purpose. Mothers deemed us incompetent wannabes. We put in our time at lunch-hour baby showers, congratulated colleagues on their award-worthy ultrasound videos, and observed Conception Days as mandatory unpaid holidays. We nodded politely during debates about prenatal nutrition and bowed our heads during national moments of silence for “the unborn.” Most of all, we avoided arguing against our accusers: “…depleted Social Security funds (not enough young workers), stratospheric costs for elder care (no dutiful offspring), and the death of the neighborhood school (low enrollment).”

My former lunch buddies remained polite, but I once overheard two of them speaking from within the false confidentiality of their metal bathroom stalls. Like children who thought themselves invisible because they had covered their eyes, they pitied Miscarriers their superfluous breasts and empty lives. Green Heels with Synthetic Silk Daisies could not help but wonder about her daughter’s daily exposure to the school principal. Two-Tone Slingbacks agreed; might this chief of childlessness be a poor role model? I drew a breath and martialed my reply—then washed my hands and left.

Earlier, at a Monday lunch, Slingbacks had lamented not saving her mother’s childhood copy of Mary Poppins (nonparturient author). From my home collection—courtesy of the library’s recycling bin—I loaned a frayed hardcover to Slingbacks. I never asked for it back and she never offered. Whether my gesture ultimately incriminated or acquitted me, I’ll never know.

One day, under my plate at the Miscarrier table, I found a flyer announcing a banned-books club. The organizer expected five women to show; we seventeen selected Mrs. Dalloway for our first title. At work, its mention would have elicited a blank stare: A cookie brand? A floor cleaner? A bygone song about a love affair? The rare coworker might recognize the authoress as nonparturient, but most would dismiss our club as dandruff on a white sweater.

These meetings didn’t take the place of girlfriend café lunches, but they mitigated the shame of wearing an unremovable black bracelet, standing in the M line at the grocery store, waiting in the M room at the clinic, riding the M section of the streetcar, and even then, surrendering a seat to some rude procreator who, from spite or a zoo-animal curiosity, insisted on riding in the cramped area to which Miscarriers were relegated. For two hours on the third Thursday of each month, I was more bluestocking than Miscarrier—not a huge promotion, but at least more pitied than reviled.

When the club’s organizer announced her pregnancy, we applauded, certain she’d never shun us. And yet, we began to filter our conversations—a joke whispered in the kitchen instead of told to all, a comment withheld until after the meeting. Then, at the first meeting she missed, we hardly mentioned the book. One book clubber had lost the medical benefits now “reserved for citizens furthering the state’s interest in procreation.” Another was asked to leave a restaurant when her black bracelet peeked out from beneath her sleeve. Recently, in an unthinking rush, I had pushed ahead of a family dawdling at the entrance to an escalator in a crowded mall. Observing my bracelet, the mom led surrounding shoppers in a boisterous chant of “Mothers and children first! Mothers and children first!” The couple in front of me wouldn’t budge. Behind me, a father explained to his young charges that “the lady had accidentally killed her babies.” I could only stand and ascend while the mob reverberated.

After another pregnancy was announced, and then another, the group lost interest in nonparturient authoresses. The oldest member turned fifty and disappeared. Another returned to her hometown in the Baby Belt. Months after we disbanded, I pushed through a crowded farmer’s market, eager to congratulate a Brontë enthusiast on her protruding tummy. She glanced at my bracelet and turned away, a sober alcoholic spurning a former drinking buddy.

But these civilian memories only distract. Midcycle, I was implanted. Today, I have blood.


Cycle Three

When a servicewoman becomes a carrier, her status rises and her workload drops. No climbing or hauling or deep bending. No shoveling animal dung or digging up root vegetables. She sleeps late and eats early, barging at will into any bathroom; none have locks. Exalted as a custodian of state cargo, she is assigned a Miscarrier to do the heavy lifting. One carrier makes her Miscarrier hold the vomit bag, while another requires orgasm services. But Janner, all smiles and sweetness, begins my indenture by sitting next to me on a work bench, and effusing about the mint she planted “to discourage ground critters,” as if we’d garden-gabbed over weekly brunch for the last eight years. As if she’d never snubbed me on the bus.

“Everything is itemized for the burn pile,” she instructs, painting a black fourteen on a smuggled device. “At first, I thought you were a government mole.”

“What changed your mind?”

From under the table, Janner retrieves the broken boots I’d filched a few days ago and buried—secretly, I’d thought. “Inventory is counted and cross-checked, Wimple. Otherwise, a Miscarrier could use these to go AWOL.”

Janner speaks with a soldier’s solemnity, but hasn’t reported me.

A few years ago, when a columnist disparaged the opening of “a chic-deficient tea saloon in a San Francisco warehouse still pocky with Prohibition-era bullet spray,” Janner thanked him for the publicity. When the authorities slapped an M sticker on the saloon’s front window, her landlord threatened eviction and her pregnant wife fled. Janner furloughed her staff and worked twelve-hour days. Her customers switched to cash.

Business rocked steady, but there was one factor Janner had underestimated. This particular Mother’s Day seemed like any other spring Sunday, the four o’clock winds keening through loose boards, flirting with white sails on the bay, and carrying the faint roar of a distant stadium where families duly recreated. The saloon was closed and Janner was crunching numbers at her cellar desk when she heard glass break upstairs. The burglar alarm shrieked and the front door splintered with an angry kick. She cut her lamp and crouched behind the furnace. Boots shuffled in overhead. The mahogany grandfather clock hit the floor face-first, guts clanging in a death rattle. The player piano was switched on, then pounded mid-Gershwin with a blunt object. Glass shattered. Fabrics torn. Ceramics crunched underfoot. The hoodlums jeered lewdly at the life-sized cardboard cutout of a 1920s flapper, an indication of what they might do to a Miscarrier who’d allegedly deprived the economy of offspring. Janner wrapped her face to avoid smoke inhalation and the interior sprinklers soaked everything from the overturned cash register to the tea leaves mulch-strewn on the floor.

She owed child support. She owed her suppliers and the landlord and the cleanup company and the top-floor tenant. She also owed the fire department whose crew had idled across the street as ordered, some of them weeping. Miscarriers may not cross a border, declare bankruptcy, or take out loans. They may not work for any entity that receives public funding. Jobs go to parents less qualified. The Service was her only option.


Cycle Four

Blood again.


Cycle Five

“I don’t get you people….” Sergeant Pugio could consume a hot fudge sundae and paint her nails in a twenty-minute squat, while we, her recruits, with twice the years and half the muscle, are lucky to hold the pose for sixty seconds. “All you have to do here is carry—just carry—a fetus to term. Replace yourself with a worker body to pay into your retirement when you and your snap-happy bones become daft and feeble. You got me? No putting kids through school. No cleaning up puke or carpooling to sports. Just be an oven in an idyllic setting, and collect a pension for the rest of your life.”

“Well, it ain’t combat,” Turpentine Heart says almost daily.

We don’t usually talk during class, strengthening our pelvic floors for delivery. Today, however, Pugio sounds us. “How far, exactly, did Huff n’ Puff think she’d get?”

Janner produces a persuasive gloat. “They found her throat six feet from her body.”

The dogs. Gargoyles lining the Old Highway ridge at dusk, these are the progeny of the Dobermans and German Shepherds that went feral after the fire seasons consumed their human homes. They’re hungry and mean, and they roam the woods in packs. Pugio says the dogs are there to keep mountain lions out—and, she did not say, to keep us in.

“Wimp! You’re awfully quiet today. What possessed Huff n’ Puff to go AWOL?”

I’m feet together and knees apart, face on floor. Why would she not?

“Wimple has her nose in her mat at the moment.” Janner saves me from Pugio, but nothing can spare me my telltale cramps and clotty flow.

“Hough is with God now,” says Sister, so nicknamed for initiating grace before meals. She once told us that when her baby boy died inside her, the church’s old pastor brought flowers. The new pastor, however, responded to a subsequent miscarriage—significantly, her third—by expelling her from the choir.


Cycle Six

A dining room wall features animated photos of Springhaven’s early days, my grandmothers’ generation eating and laughing at long wooden tables. The women were young and braided, with embroidered mushrooms on the back pockets of ripped jeans. They drank tea from the ceramic mugs they had thrown and glazed. Models of contentment and congeniality, these patchouli-scented gal pals had arrived hopeful about the future, about granddaughters not yet born, about granddaughters whose paths would be paved with golden, gleaming, artfully staggered bricks. About granddaughters like me.

In contrast, our metal tables are bolted to the dining room floor. The laughter is malevolent and the fallow are attacked by the fertile.

“Your taxes at work,” says one carrier, nodding toward an uninhabited womb.

“And The Jewess?” snaps another, staring at me. “How many unborns are to be wasted?”

“Wimple!” When Janner speaks my name in the company of others, it’s a stripe on a naked back. “Forty laps. Get going.”

“I did forty this morning.”

“Forty more, Wimp. You got me?” She’s channeling Pugio for show.

I remind myself that Janner and I are a secret team, that’s she’s releasing me from a toxic exchange, that the pool is not only a training site, but also a refuge where eyes weep freely and a closed mouth can scream.


Cycle Seven

The night is mild and moonless, the breeze gently slapping our cheeks, bodies cloaked in dark blankets for the slow descent down the trail we’ve cut through the bramble. The sea lions are silent. The birds are silent. We, too, are silent, dropping onto the sand. Janner gets her tall wetsuit from a crevice and pulls it on. I reach for my shorter one and find—only remnants, the animal hide and kitchen twine torn apart, no doubt, by the gulls that had shrieked through the compound at dusk.

Four weeks will pass before the unillumined sky and southbound cargo ship next coincide. By then, Janner would be transferred to the advanced-gestation facility; I, to a place I refuse to imagine. She hugs her round belly into my flatness. I stuff her ears with beeswax, turn her by the shoulders, and recede into the shadows. She pushes off, hair becoming seaweed; her hide, slick; feet, caudal.

Meanwhile, two thousand miles away, church bells clang on the hour. My husband drinks horchata from a cart in the zocalo. He leans back on a bench, long legs stretched, his sneakered left foot turned out at an angle of forty-five degrees. Tan from his weeks of waiting, he has his aluminum bike at his side where other people keep their kerchiefed dogs. In one version, I sidle up and coyly ask to share his bench. In another, I throw myself into him, sobbing. In all of my prophecies, our Guanajuato contingency plan succeeds.

By sunrise, the pink berets are blowing coffee steam about the great capture: Janner’s feet caught in an underwater net, her hypothermia, her hydroplane to the hospital. In true Janner fashion, I muss my hair, pant profusely, and report her missing—as if I hadn’t heard the news while searching through the brambles that cling to my uniform.


Cycle Eight

Sister was carrying twins until she collapsed in the laundry room and bled. And bled. And bled.


Cycle Seventeen

You, my love, are fragments: the tree-circle lines smiling back from your mouth, the mole behind your ear, the abdominal artery that used to pulse under my finger. I still ache to kiss the cashew salt from your lips. I still dream of you on a bench next to your bike, still seek one of your naked legs with one of mine in the night, only to chill my calf on a loveless sheet.

Wednesday after breakfast, I’m to be transferred to the hospital.

The abandoned storm drain is rank with rot, cracked with tree roots. Heaving myself forward by the elbows, I push into the dark, my throat burning from the treacherous air, scraping chin and belly on parched vegetation. Gossamer webs cling to my face. Rusty protrusions shred my uniform in front, my scalp in back. The smell is noxious. Shapes and shadows collect and disperse before me whether my eyes are open or closed. Small, quick things crawl over me, between me. I undulate, then rest. Forward. Rest. Forward. Above ground, it was the roar and breeze of the ocean that kept me from madly screaming, and yet, I’m safer without that comfort in this silent, suffocating stench below. Am I yet discovered missing? Surely, someone needs the points. If they knew about this tight tunnel, they would’ve sealed it. Or they’re sealing it now. Both ends, forever. Don’t think. Canines. Vermin. Don’t think. Fire. Mudslides. Don’t think. No, actually, think husband, think chilaquiles on a tiled table, think black bracelet destroyed. Time loiters. Hours? Days? Rest. Forward. Forward. Then, finally, light. Not light. Daylight. A pinhole expands into a dime, a quarter, a tarnished half-dollar from my grandfather’s pocket. Nothing hurts anymore. I push through the weedy canal toward cheering voices and a kaleidoscope of open palms, no doubt, my fellow fugitives, eager to pull me to safety, wondering what took me so long. Jaaaaanner! Janner is laughing. And Hough—Hough!—is calling my name. Of the thousand and one stories I’ve been telling myself, this, this, this is the one that must be true. Contrary to the official announcements, Janner and Hough had survived their escapes and become conductors of the underground railroad that I, too, am to board. How could I possibly have doubted? And then, my name becomes a whistle shriek. There is no Janner. There is no Hough. There is only the sergeant with her angry jaws and muddy knees amid a blur of pink berets, crouched around the opening, reaching, one and all, to clamp my slippery, slime-covered head with their pitiless fingers.


Writings by LISA K. BUCHANAN have been shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize, and have appeared in The Lascaux Review, The Missouri Review, Narrative, and The Rumpus. She likes The Charleston, black rice with butternut squash, Downward-Facing Dog, and, as you may have guessed, breaking the Rule of Three. She lives in San Francisco. Find her on Twitter @lisakbuchanan.


Featured image by Pietro De Grandi courtesy of Unsplash


Author’s Note

In a tight, small-school community, my stepdaughter was the only second-grader who explicitly had a stepparent. As an oddity, I received much unsolicited advice from her classmates’ parents as to the benefits a younger sibling would provide. No doubt, these well-meaning fertility evangelists intended to be inclusive, but I was struck by their zeal for procreation as an act surpassing the merely personal, and edging toward the ideological. Inspired by Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” I wrote a story about group instinct and the (human) harvest, and then moved on. Somewhat.

My earliest file on “Question Twenty-Eight” includes notes on a story from the book of Genesis about an infertile couple, a surrogate mother, and a baby born to parents aged ninety and one hundred. My reading also included out-group narratives, namely, by and about Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and Japanese-American survivors of the West Coast internment. Meghan Daum’s 2015 anthology (Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids) was engaging and enriching. My imagined society is further informed by various governments’ attempts to enact reproductive policy and assert authority, dating back at least as far as Augustus of Rome and continuing through our own country’s increasing criminalization of abortion and yes, miscarriage.

“Question Twenty-Eight” was initially a novella. Excerpts received positive recognition, but the story’s arc struggled in that form. I had set it aside and was traveling in Ireland when a bookseller mentioned a bestselling novel that really should have been a short story. The recognition was immediate (my feet sizzled), and I knew what to do.

My story has had a gestation of twenty-plus years, so I guess that is an extended womb experiment of sorts. Like most of my pieces, this one demanded an oscillation of attention and reprieve, feverish writing and patience. I could not have written it back when I had vowed never to procreate or when I found myself striving to do so. I’m happy to send it forth now with no epidural and minimal screaming.


Writings by LISA K. BUCHANAN have been shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize, and have appeared in The Lascaux Review, The Missouri Review, Narrative, and The Rumpus. She likes The Charleston, black rice with butternut squash, Downward-Facing Dog, and, as you may have guessed, breaking the Rule of Three. She lives in San Francisco. Find her on Twitter @lisakbuchanan.