“There is only one family: The National Family.”
I read the poster as I sat on the bus on the way to work in downtown LA. I wasn’t such a big fan of Proposition 1203 and all the anti-nepotism and adoption laws, but it was so long since any mother had actually kept her own child that I’d got used to it by now. I didn’t see the problem with mothers and fathers raising their own children – what could be more natural than that? – but it was too dangerous even to think those thoughts these days.
It had all started with Andrews v Clyde, that case back in the Fifties. We’d learned about it at school. Some 18-year-old kid had objected when he’d lost an internship with a US Senator. Apparently, the senator had taken on his own son instead. It took years, and it ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court. It was discrimination, it was nepotism, it was class privilege… Anyway, it wasn’t long afterwards that more and more people started objecting, and one thing led to another until, finally, every mother and father had to give up their child at birth! It was crazy.
Nowadays, you couldn’t even admit that you thought about your ‘real’ parents. It was a crime to try and contact them, and a few people had been sent to jail, but the really crazy thing was that people seemed to accept it – no, they actually wanted it! They thought that mothers and fathers were ‘wrong’ to want the best for their children. It was like a re-run of the battles against apartheid and sex discrimination that happened way back in the 20th Century. As I say, crazy…
One thing I couldn’t help doing on my way to work was casting the odd glance at a rather pretty girl who always took the same bus as I did. She was in her twenties and had long, black hair and green eyes. She looked just like a model or an actress – although I had no idea why she’d be taking the bus to the studio! She was always fashionably dressed in a way that put me to shame, so I didn’t say anything. I sometimes smiled at her, but I didn’t get much back. Out of my league. But why did she always take the bus? She seemed to know the driver. She always whispered something to him when she got on and off, and she always sat up front. Maybe that was it. But still… He was about 30 years older than she was. Weird. It was almost like they shared some guilty secret.
“Ding!” A man rang the bell, walked over to the door and waited to get off. A few other people joined him. My stop wasn’t for another few minutes, so I stayed in my seat, looking out of the window. Strangely, though, the bus didn’t slow down. It even started to speed up a bit! We passed the sign for the bus stop. What was going on?
“Hey! That’s my stop!” somebody shouted.
“Let us out!” shouted another guy.
I looked at the driver from my seat a couple of rows back. He was looking in the mirror with a rather frantic expression on his face. What was happening? I looked out of the window and craned my neck to try and see what was behind us. There was nothing apart from a police car flashing its lights. Why didn’t it pass us by? It was obviously chasing someone. Then it started its siren, and the bus speeded up again.
The rest of the passengers were still shouting at the driver, but we must have been going faster than 70mph now, so most people decided to sit down and hang on. This guy was crazy. The bus went faster and faster, and the cop car was still behind us. Surely it wasn’t following us? Why would it do that? But still the lights flashed and the siren sounded, and the driver still looked anxiously in his mirrors.
We were coming up to a junction. Surely he had to stop. The lights changed from green…to yellow…to red just as we crossed the stop line! The driver mashed his foot on the gas and accelerated through the junction. Cars and trucks bellowed at him with their horns, but he paid no attention. Behind us, the police car kept coming.
“This is the LAPD. Stop the vehicle!” One of the cops was using his loud hailer to get the bus driver to stop, but it wasn’t working. I decided to find out what was going on myself. I carefully stepped up to the driver’s glass booth, hanging on to the straps as I went, and looked round at the driver, who was a big man in his fifties, dressed in the bus company’s blue and grey uniform and sweating under his peaked cap.
“Hey!” I said. “What’s going on? Why aren’t you stopping?”
“Sit down!” he shouted. “Sit down!”
“What are you doing? You’re going to get us all killed! Are you on the run or something?”
He looked at me suddenly.
“Just sit down,” he said and continued racing through the streets of downtown.
“This is the LAPD. Stop the vehicle!” repeated the cop behind us.
I looked across the aisle and saw the dark-haired girl looking worriedly at the driver.
“I say,” I tried, “can you do something? You seem to know the guy.”
She looked at me and then looked at the driver.
“No, I…well…” she stumbled.
“What is it? What’s going on?”
“Leave her alone!” shouted the driver. “It’s nothing to do with her.”
“Then tell me what’s going on! You can’t keep going like this. You’re going to crash!”
He ignored me and took the exit for the freeway. Oh, no… This wasn’t the normal route. The driver really must be making a break for it. The other passengers noticed, too.
“Hey! Where are you going?!”
“What are you doing? I’ve got to get to work?”
“Come off it, pal! I’m late already!”
I tried again with the girl, this time in a softer voice.
“What is it?” I said. “What’s going on?”
“It’s nothing,” she answered, but she stared at the driver with what looked like tears in her eyes.
“It’s all right,” I said. “We’ll be okay, but you have to help me. Just talk to this guy. Tell him to slow down.”
And then she said the word I’d never heard before.
The driver looked round and stared at the girl, who stared right back with a pleading expression on her face. I couldn’t believe it. Was she really his daughter? I mean, his real, biological daughter. That wasn’t possible, surely? One or two of the other passengers heard her, too, and started throwing insults.
“You’re her father?! You criminal!”
“I’m calling the cops!”
“You should be ashamed of yourself!”
“No wonder you give her a ride to work every day!”
This was turning ugly. I could see one pretty mean-looking guy making his way up from the back. If he reached the driver and kicked the glass shield hard enough, it might break, and then what would happen? Nothing good.
“Are they after you?” I asked the girl. “Is he really your father?”
“Yes,” she mumbled.
“Don’t say a word, Lara!” said the driver. “I mean it!”
“Look!” he said, pointing in the mirror. We both looked back. There must have been five police cars following us now. They weren’t trying to overtake, just keeping pace with the bus.
“Listen,” I said. “This is never going to work out. The obviously know who you are, and they’ve probably radioed ahead to set up some kind of roadblock. We’re all right for now, but what happens then?”
“I have to protect my daughter,” the driver said.
“Well, you’re not doing a very good job of it so far, are you? I’m sorry, but you need to stop this bus.”
“I can’t,” he replied. “I just can’t…”
“But Dad, please!” said Lara. “Don’t do this. I’ll be all right. We can sort something out. You can do a deal or something…”
“I’m sorry, honey. I never wanted this to happen,” he sobbed. “I don’t know how they found us. I tried to be careful. I thought we were safe.”
“Dad, Dad, I love you, but you need to stop the bus! Please!”
“I love you, too, honey. I’m sorry.”
And at that moment, I saw what was coming. Up ahead was a roadblock with four police cars and an armoured car with SWAT written on it in giant white letters. We’d never get past that.
“Hey, buddy. Let me past,” said the guy who’d been making his way along the bus.
“Just give me a minute.”
“We don’t have a minute!” he shouted. “Look at that roadblock! That crazy asshole is going to get us all killed!”
I turned back to the driver.
“Please,” I said. “If you love your daughter, stop the bus.”
He looked at Lara with tears in his eyes.
“I can’t, I just can’t.”
“Dad!” Lara screamed.
And at that moment, as we hurtled towards the roadblock, I thought of the poster we’d passed just a few minutes before.
“There is only one family: The National Family.”