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When the Watermelon FellBy Melanie Kallai
Published in The Dillydoun Review
Valerie drove that day. Valerie always drove. Not only because she was a control-freak, but because she had a car. She was also the only one to make decent enough money at sixteen to afford the gas to get us to Bradenton beach.
We’d just left Subway, plastic bags in hand, and piled into Valerie’s red Honda CRV. Joy took the front seat, and I sat in the back with Kevin, my on-again-off-again high school boyfriend. We rolled out of the Riverview Winn Dixie Plaza with the windows down and the radio blaring—They Might Be Giants—when we passed an old pickup truck with a boat trailer hitched to the back, parked on the side of the road. Two boys, about our age, stood on top of a rusted-out, non-seaworthy boat in cut-off jean shorts and stained up T-shirts. A make-shift farm stand that was eye-catching, if nothing else. They didn’t have much on display. A basket of squash, a half-bushel of tomatoes and two ripe watermelons.
As we passed by, one boy tripped, knocked into the side of the boat, and sent the larger watermelon sailing over the side. The entire thing seemed in slow motion. Trip—sail—splat! Hilarity ensued around me. Smashing produce was a popular comedic outlet in the 90s. It was comedy gold for Gallagher and Carrot Top. People everywhere were making homemade potato canons, and the band Smashing Pumpkins was hugely popular.
“Whoops! Lost a melon,” Val said, laughing in her infectious way. Kevin and Joy laughed right along with her, but I turned my head and stared out the window at the guys on the boat, choking back tears, hoping no one would notice.
I wanted to be angry at my friends. But they didn’t see the struggle in the boy’s eyes, didn’t notice his self-loathing for being so clumsy as to lose that watermelon. The hunger he probably felt. The trailer home he’d return to that night to sleep on a second-hand bare mattress on the floor, ashamed. A home that maybe had no A/C, with tinfoil plastered on the windows to block the Florida heat because curtains were too expensive. They didn’t see the months nurturing that melon in the hopes it would yield four or five bucks for the old coffee can by the sink—savings to turn the electricity back on. They didn’t see that the boys were barefooted, probably unable to afford shoes. They didn’t see… they didn’t see. But I did.
I did because I lived on the poor side of town, and every time I left my house, I saw people like them outside their run-down trailers that were held together with mud, duct tape, and a dash of luck. I did because my daddy was a farmer. And while my situation was much more fortunate than those boys—I lived in a decent house and had clean clothes—I knew about watching the weather because our livelihood depended too much on the whims of nature. I knew about lousy crop years and crippling scarcity. I knew about empty cabinets, bounced checks, and deciding which was most important, the phone or electricity. I knew where my mama kept the candles. I knew the back-breaking work it took to provide food. I knew the devastation of pests, tornados, and freezes. I knew the true value of a meal. My friends didn’t know, and I didn’t share it with them.
That day, my friends saw a watermelon fall, but to me and those destitute guys trying to make a buck, what fell was so much more.
By Melanie Kallai
Published on Medium
The streetlights went out, and night became real—no more passersby to offer change or a dirty look. The temperature fell like a sleeping cat from a balcony—she’d seen that more than once. Mary wrapped herself in soiled charity and moved inside. Mary wasn’t her given name, but she found it invoked more kindness from strangers than her own—the few who cared to ask. A cold moon glowed through the cracks of her shelter highlighting the lines and folds on her bony hands—a map that no one else could read. Tick-tocking paced the pavement like an old friend reminding her to move on, but where to go? Nowhere now. Her heartbeat kept pace for a while, then ran ahead.
The wind whipped and huffed, threatening her flimsy roof. Her rapid breaths echoed its intensity. She curled up tighter and adjusted her hat, so the holes didn’t expose her ears. The shift released peppery strands of unkempt hair and she used her shoulder to brush them from mouth and chin. She’d given Sam that hat on their last Christmas together, to cover the baldness. Now it belonged to her, a constant reminder of a life gone wayward. She hadn’t meant mortgage the house. She hadn’t meant to become dependent on Sam’s pills. She hadn’t meant to sell her soul to save Sam. She hadn’t meant—
Mary stopped feeling hungry and knew her safety was thin as the cardboard tent she desperately clung to with frostbitten fingertips. The wind snatched her walls like a greedy child, and the time for regret passed away. She watched them go—demented acrobats tumbling down the alley.
She stared into the face of her nemesis now, but the foe proved too great. Her fists shook before they became still. “Rest now,” January whispered.
By Melanie Kallai
We lived in broken buildings beside the sea in a fortified oasis. Our village functioned, protected, thrived, and yet I was about to leave it—possibly making the biggest mistake of my life. The comforting hum of generators sounded in the distance as I arrived at Alicia’s. Humidity hung heavy in the air, and the smell of coffee filled my nose. Alicia handed me a cup, black.
No one said hello or spent energy on small talk. Alicia’s older brother Tommy was standing by the window looking out. His backpack leaned against his legs, three times the size of mine. What did he have in there that I didn’t? I’d stuck to the list. I should have at least brought more than one change of clothes and some personal hygiene products—other than toothpaste and a toothbrush. I’d never been out of the village before, so what did I know of packing for a trip. Especially one to the wastelands of Old North America.
I started to panic.
“Alicia,” I said, motioning for her to follow me into her room.
“I don’t know if I’m ready for this, Barrett,” she said before I could speak, “And why do you have that ugly yellow backpack?”
“I’m coming with you, but I need to borrow a few things.”
Alicia started to protest, but I placed my hands on her shoulders and said, “Don’t argue. My mind is made up.”
“Fine,” she said after taking a moment to scrutinize me, “but just a warning, Tia is coming, too—with Jensen. They’re in the living room. I hope that won’t be an issue for you.”
“Ugh, it’s fine,” I said, trying to be cool about it, but shifting my body to a defensive posture.
“How are you going to watch him with another girl the whole time we’re on this mission?” Alicia asked with sympathetic eyes. I shrugged my shoulders, still convinced that Jenson would bore of Tia any time now, and realize he loved me.
I combed through Alicia’s clothes, but she was the shortest, skinniest teenager in Nuevo Leben, so I only got away with a pair of ratty sweatpants that had worn-out elastic. They would give enough to fit me. Then, I pulled down two colorful scarves that were hanging in her window. Next, I ransacked her bathroom for a bar of soap and a hairbrush. Alicia came in and grabbed alcohol and bandages.
“Hey, that’s a good idea to pack first aid,” I said.
“Yeah, I think I have a full kit somewhere in the kitchen, too. I’ll get it.”
When I felt satisfied with my pilfering, I returned to the main room. I wanted to go to Jensen, put my arms around him, but Tia was on his lap with her forehead against his. Did he even notice I was here? I dropped my bag, so it would make enough noise to snap them out of their sweet little moment.
“What’s wrong with you?” Jensen asked.
Tia stood up and gave me a dirty look, then crossed her arms and popped her hip to the side. She was on to me.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just getting my mind ready for the mission.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, eyeing my backpack. “You can’t go.”
“Well, I am going.”
Jensen scowled but said nothing else about it. I’m sure the only reason he stayed quiet was because he didn’t want Tia to see us arguing. She stood between us—her back to me—blocking Jen from my view. Ugh, she was a nightmare!
“Is everybody ready?” Tommy asked and hiked his mega-pack up to his shoulders. “Say your goodbyes to civilization. I can promise, you won’t find any luxuries outside of Nuevo Leben.”
“We know, Tommy, and we can handle it,” Alicia said. She may be tiny, but she’s tough. I feared a little less for her, but only just.
Tommy and Alicia led us to the north edge of town. I had no idea where we’d meet the others, but it didn’t matter as long as Ronan was there. Ronan. Thinking his name sent shivers down my spine.
Tommy unlocked a small gate hidden in the northern wall. I crawled through with a scarf over my head in case one of the guards recognized me. I wasn’t technically supposed to leave with the Network. My recruitment had been a mistake. Once outside the village, Jensen pulled me aside.
“What are you doing? You need to go home.”
“I have to go, Jen, you don’t understand.”
“You’re acting crazy, Barrett. You’re a future Noble.”
“And I will be when we get back,” I said and ran to catch up to the group.
I needed to stop fixating on Jensen and Tia, and focus on the journey ahead of me. We walked down a rubble-covered road leading away from Nuevo Leben. I tried swallowing the lump in my throat, looking back at my village getting smaller with every step—my home.
We rounded a corner and a group came into view, hovering around two decrepit-looking flatbed trucks, packed and ready to go. Where was Ronan? A week ago, he was a complete stranger, and now I needed him as much as my blood. He was giving me a chance at seeing my mother again—a possibility I never imagined.
One Week Earlier
“Hey, Barrett, come on!” Jensen said, barreling through the doorway. “I want to get the good table by the water. Have you seen the surf today?”
“Nope!” I didn’t surf, so I didn’t pay attention to such things. “But, I’ll race you,” I said, pushing past him.
“You’re on, Girly!” Jensen winked and took off in the sand. I almost had him beat when a flash of light caught my eye, causing me to trip over a piece of driftwood. I ended up face down in the sand. I looked for the source of the distraction, but couldn’t find it though sandy vision.
“Hey, are you alright?” Jensen asked, breathless with laughter. I threw handfuls of sand at him. He picked me up, threw me over his shoulder, and spun me in circles.
“Put me down before I throw up.” I laughed, too.
After we claimed our spot with our notebooks and shoes, we took our lunch bags to the grills. Our school was once part of a resort, so our cafeteria is really a seaside cabana. We have class in the old conference rooms and banquet halls. It’s been that way since the Big Adjustment. That’s what they decided to call the event that led to the fall of an entire civilization—the Big Adjustment. Like it was no more than an inconvenience people had to work around.
Jensen and I shared sliced zucchini, tomatoes, and seaweed salad. Then after we ate, Jensen pulled off his shirt and headed to the board rack. Alicia turned up and joined him. They hit the waves before we had to go back to class. I stayed dry to study.
I was about to open my textbook when the shiny thing caught my eye again. I scanned the crowd. Someone was watching me—an outline against the glare of the sun. Tall. Imposing.
Goosebumps prickled through the sweat on my arms. The shadowed figure turned the shiny thing over and over in his fingers, causing me to squint. It looked like a Noble badge. I climbed on a rickety picnic table to get a better look. A gust of wind stirred up beach sand, stinging my legs. I brushed it off, blocked the sunlight with my hand, and saw clearly—Ronan Altkind. Wild blond hair, tan skin, and tattoos in places I don’t even want to mention, or so I’ve heard. What’s his deal? He hasn’t been to school in at least three years.
The hair on my neck stood on end as his eyes locked onto mine. I couldn’t look away. He wasn’t smiling, and I tensed up as he strode toward me with the shiny thing in his hand. It was gold and oblong, definitely a Noble badge. Where would Ronan Altkind get a Noble badge? I wasn’t sure he even lived inside our village walls. He was practically an outsider, definitely not a Noble.
Out of nowhere, I was showered with seawater. Jensen grinned as he shook his wet hair from side to side. I smacked him on the shoulder, happy to break up the bizarre staring session with Ronan. Alicia wrung her hair out on the sand.
“What does he want?” Jensen’s eyes cut over to Ronan. He positioned himself between us.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Nothing, I guess. He’s walking away.”
“Good. That guy is a straight-up freak.”
Alicia nodded in agreement with Jensen, then said, “Hey, I’ll catch up with you two later. I’ve got to meet my brother before class.”
“Sure,” I said. “Everything okay?”
“I guess so,” she said, jogging away. “If not, I’ll tell you.”
“That was weird,” Jensen said to me after Alicia left.
“Yeah. Why is Tommy here at school?”
I glanced back at Ronan. He was standing in the surf, looking down, hands in his pockets.
“Come on, Barrett. Let’s go.” Jensen pulled on my arm and then took off in a sprint toward the school. It wasn’t like him to be in such a hurry to get back to class. He really wanted to get my attention away from Ronan—and he did. I ran behind Jensen, admiring his tanned legs and muscled arms in his tank top and shorts. His wavy black hair brushed his shoulders. Oh, how I wanted to run my fingers through that hair.
“You going to get rations after school?” Jensen asked when I caught up.
“I have to work at the water lab. Will you get mine pretty please?” I batted my eyelashes at him, trying my best to flirt.
“Still got sand in your eye?” he asked, poking his finger at my belly to tickle me.
“No,” I said, wiggling away from him.
“Yeah, I’ll get yours, too, your Noble Highness.”
“I’m not a Noble yet,” I said.
I didn’t know why Jensen made fun of my position. His brother Nick was a Noble, one of our best doctors. Besides, he knew I’d rather join the workforce like him. Jensen was going to be a sea farmer, and I wanted to be a chef. We used to joke we’d run a café one day like people had before the Big Adjustment. I was pretty creative in the kitchen, and Jensen knew every variety of edible kelp and algae in our stretch of ocean.
“Thanks,” I said.
“For what? Making fun of you?”
I shook my head at him, wondering how he and “Academic Nick” were even related.
“For agreeing to get my rations, dummy,” I said with a stupid grin on my face. “You know I don’t trust Anna to handle rations yet, and Grandma has a hard time carrying the boxes up the stairs.”
“No problem.” He winked, and my stomach fluttered.
I looked back at the beach as we got to the doors. Dark clouds billowed in the distance, and waves crashed against the shore. Ronan had his icy blue eyes fixed on me again—a stark contrast to the approaching storm. He sat in the sand with a strange expression on his face. Was it concern? Interest? My stomach clenched, but I held his gaze.
The darkening sky was a suitable backdrop for him. Why was it so hard to look away from this guy? It’s not like we were friends. Why was he staring at me now? Maybe because I’d grown a bra size in the last three months, or maybe, as Jensen said, he’s just a freak.
Later at the lab, while testing our drinking water for heavy metals, things got strange. Fast footsteps echoed down the halls, distracting me from the samples on my desk. Out of my dingy little window, people huddled, whispered, and then two of our high-level Nobles zoomed by. I poked my head out the door and found myself face-to-face with my supervisor, Calvin Banks.
“Go home, Barrett.”
“What’s going on, Cal?”
“I don’t know for sure, but all Noble facilities are going on lockdown. You’re not a Noble yet, so whatever the threat, you are probably safe.” Calvin shifted back and forth on his feet. “Keeping you under the radar is the best way we can protect you right now. Don’t come back to the facility until the lockdown is over.”
I didn’t know what to think. The lockdown gave me a bad feeling in my gut. I wished Calvin a safe night and packed up my stuff. This day kept getting weirder and weirder: first Alicia, then Ronan, and now this.
The rain started on my way home. I walked faster than usual, not because of the storm—I didn’t mind the rain—but because of the Noble threat. True, I wasn’t a Noble yet, but they could have at least sent me home with some protection. We were supposed to trust the Noble Council knew what they were doing, but how could I? I lost my parents on their watch. It wasn’t enough I had to step into their roles and take care of my little sister; the council decided I should fill their places in the community, too. I’d never admitted it out loud, but sometimes I wanted to hop on a boat and sail off into the unknown.
After dinner, I helped Anna with her homework, then went into the family room to sit with Grandma. We watched the rain pound on our apartment windows, and she reached over and took my hand in her own warm, delicate hands. Veins showed through her thin skin. Grandma closed her eyes and smiled.
“Nights like this remind me of your mother, you know.”
I tried not to think about Mom very much, Dad, either. After they died, I locked that place in my heart, but sometimes it was nice to hear Grandma talk about them.
“Do you know she would leave whatever she was doing to run outside in the rain? Always collecting her samples. I think she carried those little collection containers in her pockets and purse.” Grandma chuckled.
“I don’t remember that,” I said.
Grandma had tears on her cheeks but smiled. I hated seeing her cry. She’s supposed to be the tough one around here. I squeezed her hand and let it go, then walked to the window. Sheets of rain rippled in the wind under the streetlight.
“You have her same curious spirit,” Grandma said. “Always ready for adventure.”
“Me?” I laughed.
“It’s in there,” Grandma said, “even if you haven’t realized it yet. Now, what’s on your mind? You looked like you wanted to tell me something when you came in.”
I didn’t want to tell her about Ronan or scare her with the Noble security threat. It would only bring up the painful memories of Mom and Dad and make her fear for my safety. She raised her eyebrows, scrutinizing my face. She could always tell when I was hiding something.
“Are you worried about something, Little Peapod?”
“Graaan.” I wished she’d stop calling me that. I don’t even know where it came from, but I was too old to be a little peapod.
A loud clap of thunder made me jump. Gran stretched her arms out to me. I returned to the couch and rested my head on her shoulder, letting her wrap me up in her warm embrace.
“Do you think Mom and Dad knew they were in danger before their boat was attacked?”
“There’s just no way to know, but they were Nobles. They would have done their jobs, danger or not. You can always be proud of them for that. What I do know is you shouldn’t worry about the extra security around the Nobles.”
“How do you know about that?” I sat straight up.
“Jensen told me when he dropped off our rations this afternoon. Nick is on lockdown.”
Of course, Jensen’s brother would be on lockdown. If he hadn’t told her, his parents would have—since they live next door.
“I know I’m not supposed to worry, Gran. I just don’t want anything bad to happen to us. Sometimes I think being a Noble is more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Don’t think like that, Barrett. It’s an honor. Without Nobles, our home, Nuevo Leben, wouldn’t exist.”
“I know,” I said with a sigh, “but it’s dangerous, and you and Anna need me so much.”
“Now, Barrett, as much as you do for our family, Anna and I are perfectly capable women.”
“Haha. My sister, a capable woman?” Anna was only nine, and Grandma was getting so frail.
“Besides,” Grandma said, “the women in this family are survivors. It’s in our blood,”
“What do you mean in our blood?” I asked, thinking my dead mother might have a different opinion.
“Follow me. It’s time I showed you something.”
Grandma went to the safe in her closet. A few minutes later, my arms were holding eleven tattered journals. All different sizes. Some were leather-bound, some just loose paper held together with rubber bands, but all carefully preserved in plastic bags.
“What are these?” I asked. “Were these written by her?” I referred to my ancestor, Barrett Murphy. She lived over one-hundred-fifty years ago, through The Big Adjustment, and was a refugee in Nuevo Leben. Back then, it was Tucacas, Venezuela. Gran nodded. I didn’t know much about her other than we shared a name.
“It’s your history and mine. These journals have been passed down through our family for generations. I was your age when I first read them. Keep them safe, and don’t tell anyone about them. I don’t want them to end up in the Noble Archive, inaccessible to me.”
“I promise I’ll take care of them.”
I kissed Grandma’s cheek and retreated to my room, which I shared with Anna. I brought a small lamp over to the chair in the corner, so I wouldn’t wake her. My eyes strained, trying to adjust to the dimness. The light wasn’t bright, and the moon was no help with rain hammering the village. The journals were numbered on the front, one to eleven. I tucked my legs underneath me in the chair and opened the first journal.
June 18, 2026
The helicopter ride was brutal. Everyone was silent as the grave. People are saying we’ll never go home again, but I don’t believe that. Not yet. My heart wants to believe I’ll return to school in a few days. Paul sat beside me on the ride down, holding my hand the whole way. I focused on the sweat between our palms and the buzz of the helicopter blades—anything to not think about what was going on. The sky was so blue. No sign of ash or smoke anywhere.
It’s coming, though, and fast. Now, three hours later, we are about to board a boat for Panama, and the sky looks yellow and gray in the west. There are a lot of government types here, like Dad, and their families. We are apparently going into an underground bomb shelter built into the mountains of Central Panama. Paul is sitting on the pier with his head in his hands. His family will probably die. I can’t believe he came with us. I wonder if I would have done the same.
Dad just came and told me the evacuation notices were given for the Eastern states above Georgia all the way to Canada. Our boat will be in the Gulf waters even before the traffic jams on the interstates. It doesn’t seem fair. Mom’s calling me to go now.
Her words gave me chills. I’d heard so many lectures and stories about what life was like just after the Big Adjustment. About how so many people suffocated from ash. How the climate changed, and food became scarce, how the years of chaos and riots brought about new wars and fueled old ones. How acid rain was detected practically everywhere for a long, long time, exacerbating the global water crisis. What must it have been like to wonder if the rain could kill you? Against the streetlight, it was a harmless silvery sheet. I reached for a blanket and looked out the window. Something moved out of the shadows across the street, and my stomach jumped. I focused on a familiar shape.
Lightning flashed, and for a split second, I saw him. Ronan Altkind. Was he stalking me? That’s ridiculous. I live in a crowded apartment building. But, after our staring session at lunch, I convinced myself he was, in fact, out there because of me. I continued to stare into the darkness, hoping for another bolt of lightning so I could catch another glimpse, but on the next strike, he was gone. I put Ronan out of my mind and plopped down on my bedroom floor. I flipped the journal open again.
June 19, 2026
We are on a large fishing vessel just south of the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve made a few stops, picking up people and supplies. We always anchor offshore, so people trying to escape the ash cloud won’t bombard us. Dad got off the boat in Venice, Florida, and fought the panicked crowds and looters to get something at a hardware store. He (and a few others) went to shore in a lifeboat and returned on a jet ski with a brown paper bag, a limp, and a swollen cheek. He looked crazed and shut himself in our cabin for hours after. I decided not to ask him about it.
Dinner was served late. Mom told us to eat as much as we could because she didn’t know when we’d get our next meal. Nobody said much. Everyone seemed to be in different stages of grief. Dad was clearly in shock. Mom had made it to depression, and Paul and I both were in a comfortable state of denial for the moment. I focused on the food in front of me, and that was it! There was a ton of shrimp, potatoes, bread, and some kind of strong-smelling fish. We guessed grouper because we were in the Gulf of Mexico. It was battered and fried, and tasted delicious. We filled ourselves to the point of stomachaches.
My stomach rumbled. “Big Adjustment Barrett’s” words should have grossed me out, but they didn’t. Eating meat was taboo. Something our ancestors did that was barbaric. I closed the journal and went to bed a little ashamed.
The next day, I got up early. I wanted to go to the beach before my classes, secretly hoping I would run into Ronan. I wanted to ask him what he was doing last night in the rain outside my apartment. I sat on a small pier near the school and let my feet dangle in the water. It seemed an inconspicuous way to stalk my stalker.
Ronan found me first.
The apparatus connects and secures fishing plugs under heavy pressure. It is comprised of a spring, tapered hook, and shaft and sliding sleeve. JV’s Spring Connect keeps fishing plugs in place by leveling tension. The force of the spring on sleeve that slides over the tapered hook and shaft locks the connector into a closed and secured position. The apparatus is scalable up or down and can be attached to any type of plug.
BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION:
 This invention relates to fishing lures, specifically to connecting lures to fishing apparatuses through a quick release spring connector.
 When trolling for Mackerel, Kingfish, Grouper, Tuna etc. it is typical to use snap swivels, which connect to the fishing hooks to hold the plug in place. However, when a fish is hooked the snap swivels bend under heavy pressure. They are also bulky and lures are often lost. When the lure is lost, the fish is also lost.
 Another disadvantage of current lure connecting systems is the large size in relation to the lure. Because they are bulky, fish under water readily see them.
SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION:
 Therefore, the primary objective of the invention is to provide a lure connector that is strong enough to withstand the pressure applied to the connector by hooked fish.
 A second objective is to provide a simple system for attaching and changing lures.
 A third objective is to provide a connector that is streamlined with the lure to be more invisible to fish.
 A feature of the invention is a spring-loaded mechanism that holds the sleeve on the connector shaft when extended to keep the lure secure, even with resistance. To change lures, push the sleeve down, slide the lure ring off the tapered hook and put on a new one.
 The sleeve covers 1/4 of the hook connector, which locks the lure in place. The spring keeps the tension on the sleeve so the lure ring cannot come loose or off. The stainless steel shaft on the connector is stronger than the wire on standard snap swivels, which prevents it from bending.
 The narrow design also provides strength, so that the connect will not bend when a fish is hooked and pulling. The stainless steel barrel reinforces the strength of the design.
 The invention is scalable in size up or down and could have applications outside of fishing.
 A patent search determined that the following patents are related to this invention:
US Patent numbers 724362, 835766, 1156152, 1713041, 1779343, 1867555, 2784519, 2796695, 2826855, 2875495, 3350753, 3388496, 5113616, 5138790, 5605004, 5680726, 8020339, 2003018284, 2007011909 and 2012003676.
Will Science Direct Human Evolution?
By Melanie Kallai
Published on Medium
In the early 1980s, I remember listening to the song “2525” by the American rock-pop duo Zager and Evans. To say the lyrics left me with the heebie-jeebies would be an understatement. I’d never heard a song with such a foreboding message about the world. The verse that stuck with me the most was about the year 6565, a distant time when people would choose their sons and daughters from the bottoms of long glass tubes. It sounded like something from an episode of the TV series, The Twilight Zone, but later I found out something eerily similar had already been done—in 1977. The first successful test tube baby was about my age, even more astounding. Mind blown!
I’m talking, of course, about in vitro fertilization, which is now a common practice, essentially to remove a woman’s eggs, fertilize them with sperm outside her body, then implant viable embryos into her uterus to continue their gestation. However, this scientific marvel created quite an ethical debate that continues today, especially in religious populations.
This practice is horrifying to those whose beliefs dictate that life starts at conception. Not only because of the artificial implantation of lab-fertilized embryos into a woman’s body but because of the backup embryos that are frozen, sold, or terminated. Others see in vitro as a beautiful scientific advancement that lets infertile couples realize the dream of having a family. Some fertility clinics offer, as an add-on, parents’ choice of their baby’s gender and eye color, an exciting yet formulated advancement. In the United States, choosing your baby’s gender or eye color is available only for couples with infertility issues, but could these choices tempt fertile couples to push for an elective in vitro, thus soliciting policy change?
The second time I remember being spooked by the entertainment industry was in 1997. I saw the movie Gattaca, and that same eeriness I’d felt as a child when I heard “2525” swept over me. The movie’s premise is that people born naturally, without genetic enhancements, are shut out of specific careers, athletic opportunities, and society. Total science fiction, but I wondered if that kind of gene manipulation would one day be possible. Turns out, it is. CRSPR-Cas9 made headlines in 2012 as a gene-editing tool, a protein that can cut DNA, remove flawed sections of the genetic code, and insert desirable genes instead. CRSPR-Cas9 has massive potential for eliminating genetic diseases, viruses, and even some cancers. There’s usually nothing unethical about curing disease, but curing illness is only the beginning of how gene-editing technology could be used in the future.
Because of CRSPR-Cas9, it is now possible to alter DNA in the human germline, that is, the genetic instructions packaged up inside every sperm, egg, and resulting embryo. This means scientists can create designer babies:
Babies with immune resistance to genetic diseases.
Babies with advanced memory abilities.
Babies with enhanced physical traits.
Babies who look just the way their parents want them to.
With germline editing, not only will the child’s DNA be altered, but their offspring will inherit the alteration, and so on, thus changing the future of human DNA. This also means that the decision to pursue germline alteration is more profound and abiding than altering DNA in somatic (non-reproductive) cells.
Not that the human germline is stagnant from one generation to the next. Our DNA constantly changes since numerous mutations occur through the natural evolutionary process. It’s how some genes become amplified or deleted over time and how certain cancers arise. However, when these changes are directed and accelerated by scientists, it opens the door to more sinister applications such as eugenics and preferential treatment for those who can afford it. Should scientists be allowed to control human evolution? The European Medical Research Council didn’t think so in 1991 when they declared germline gene therapy violated “the implied right to inherit a genetic pattern that has not been artificially changed.” And while the CRSPR-Cas9 technology is far from perfect, the potential exists to make precise and permanent alterations.
It’s no wonder the scientific community is wrestling with the ethical and moral boundaries of CRSPR-Cas9, and in March 2019, declared a five-year moratorium on pursuing germline editing. Dr. J. Craig Venter, biochemist-geneticist and a primary force behind the human genome project, told Forbes magazine, “I think editing human embryos with CRSPR should be a long way off.” But by then, human germline editing had already been performed—illegally, but nevertheless done by Chinese Biophysicist Jiankui He.
He’s lab recruited volunteers, eight couples seeking fertility treatments. The couples he chose for his study had something in common: the husbands were HIV positive, their infections under control with antiviral drugs. He edited their sperm cells to be HIV-resistant, then proceeded with regular IVF treatment. In 2018, one of the couples successfully gave birth to twin girls. As for He, he was arrested for violating the ban on germline editing. Since He’s lab altered the father’s germline cells, the twins and their future offspring should be HIV-immune. However, the twins’ health is currently unknown—at least to the public.
He’s experiment violates the conditions of the ban on germline editing, but it is also problematic because of unknown side effects. The human genome is complex, and making cuts to DNA, pasting new information, or eliminating sections can be dangerous. For example, turning off one gene can unintendedly turn on another. This happened in a 2002 gene therapy study in Paris, where two young boys underwent gene therapy for X-SCID, a devastating, heritable immunodeficiency disorder. The boys later developed Leukemia, a harsh side effect even though gene therapy differs from gene editing in that the unhealthy gene is not altered or removed. Instead, a healthy version of the gene is inserted into the genome to offset the mutated, disease-related gene’s effects. Even so, the scientists involved in the X-SCID study unknowingly activated a gene that promoted cell growth, which unfortunately caused cancer.
Informing the Public
The countries agreeing to the five-year moratorium on germline research were entrusted with discussing the future of this technology within broader society. It’s a conversation that, I believe, is worth having because it’s possible germline editing will one day be mainstream. But who should determine when and if scientists are allowed to continue this work? Scientists? Politicians? Moms? Or should the development of germline editing technology be on voting ballots in democratic nations?
Surveys have been conducted in several countries to gauge the general population’s feelings about the morality of germline editing, often with some version of the all-important question, “Do you understand this technology?” It’s a difficult question for people who have never heard of CRSPR-Cas9. The journal of human genetics at Nature.com reports that surveys conducted in Japan show that most of the general population is agreeable to developing germline genome editing for eliminating disease but are wary of risks.
In the United States, during two surveys conducted in 2014 and 2016, the Pew Research Center found that religiosity plays a significant role in how people view gene editing. People with high religiosity tended to have more negative feelings toward developing gene-editing technology. The survey also highlighted a gender gap in views about gene editing, with women less accepting of it than men. People with higher scientific knowledge and greater familiarity with gene editing tend to be more accepting of it. A later survey asked Americans how they felt about testing gene editing on human embryos—to learn about risks—a necessary action to progress the science, and 65% were opposed, believing that it crossed a moral line.
Regulating the Research
Despite the publicity given to the 2019 moratorium, bans on germline editing are not new. UNESCO, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, reports a study published in 2014 by Hokkaido University, Japan, showed that 29 of the 39 countries reviewed already had a ban on human germline editing. The ban was legally binding in 25 countries. The other four had guidelines, yet the remaining ten had rules that were described as ambiguous. Regarding the moratorium, in which some but not all countries are involved, two questions come to mind: How are the regulations enforced, and what’s to stop other countries from developing germline editing technology?
Historically, ethical agreements have been established with international collaboration, some as a response to unethical research on human subjects or harmful drugs that made it to market. The Nuremberg Code, an agreement to make human experimentation without consent illegal, was established in 1948 after German scientists conducted horrific experiments on unwilling human subjects during WWII. In 1962, the United States added the Kefauver Amendments to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics act after the drug Thalidomide, prescribed to pregnant women in the 1950s, caused deformities and congenital disabilities in 12,000 babies worldwide. Then in 1964, the World Medical Association established the Declaration of Helsinki, an ethical guide for doctors who conduct behavioral and biomedical research with human participants. One principle of the declaration states, “Physicians must consider the ethical, legal and regulatory norms and standards for research involving human subjects in their own countries as well as applicable international norms and standards.” The guidelines from the Declaration of Helsinki are still used today. However, a 2006 paper written by doctor/philosopher Soren Holm and bioethicist Bryn Williams-Jones, concluded that “exploratory studies support the position that there is no unified global field of bioethics.”
The international moratorium on germline editing comes to an end in four years. Scientists working with CRSPR-Cas9 are taking that time to determine how to proceed responsibly and ethically, possibly on a case-by-case basis. This will inevitably vary by country. Will the rewards outweigh the risks of their work? Will there be a public consensus? How will culture and religion define the parameters for each country moving forward?
Will opting out of germline gene-editing be the unethical thing to do in the future? When considering the disease resistance and elimination of genetic disorders, it’s not hard to imagine judgment on those who refuse to partake. Why would anyone not want the absolute healthiest, strongest, smartest baby they can conceive? Just look at how far somatic gene therapy has come. Gene therapy for X-SCID has all but been perfected since the Paris Leukemia incident. In 2019, the National Institute of Health said infants diagnosed with X-SCID can now safely correct their immune systems with gene therapy treatment—a remarkable advancement. Gene therapy has also successfully treated hemophilia and blindness from retinitis pigmentosa.
For anyone struggling with Alzheimer’s, X-SCID, or Sickle Cell Anemia, CRSPR-Cas9 gene editing offers real hope. Of course, this therapy does not affect the offspring of the patients one way or another. Germline editing, on the other hand, can potentially eliminate these conditions from the population altogether. Can you imagine a future in which no child suffers from Cystic Fibrosis? Imagine a future where the fear of Alzheimer’s doesn’t even exist. Think of what a more intelligent, healthier human race could accomplish. Sound bright? Will the benefits outweigh the risks? Time will tell, but for now, I’m off to read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
By Melanie Kallai
(Excerpt from my current WIP)
Detective Whittaker absent-mindedly shuffled papers around his desk when Sandy entered. Psychics, he thought, fucking weirdos. She glided as if on ice, but her maroon ruffled skirt didn’t swish the right way. The cloth seemed unaffected by her movements. “I’ll need something from the crime scene,” she said without a hello. “And a down payment.” She put her palms together in front of her stomach, clicking the tips of her purple nails, and swaying side to side. A shiver snaked down Whittaker’s back, and he shook his head like he was ridding his hair of a bee.
“Please sit down, Sandy.”
“No. I’ll stand. The energy in this room is repugnant. I won’t be staying long.”
Detective Whittaker felt it too, but only since Sandy arrived. He hated resorting to mystical hooey, but there had been three murders, and the only patterns he could determine were the time of occurrence—every month during the waxing moon—and unexplained markings on the back of the victims’ necks. Sandy was a known occult expert, and her track record for solving murders was impressive enough to almost make him a believer, though he’d never used her before.
“Suit yourself,” he said, pulling a zippered bag from his desk drawer. “I don’t have much, a few articles of clothing and some stones lying beside the body. But I really need you to look at the markings on the victims’ necks.” He pushed a folder toward her before unzipping the evidence bag.
Sandy thumbed through the photos of the victims, stopping to study the close-ups of the neck markings. “Yes, I see, she said, “strange indeed.”
“Do you know what they mean?” Whittaker asked.
“Perhaps. I’m getting a familiar vibration. Show me what’s in the bag.”
He refrained from rolling his eyes and spilled the contents into a bin on his desk. “We’ve already pulled DNA from this stuff, so don’t worry about touching it.”
Sandy’s eyes flashed orange. He was almost sure of it. “You found this beside the body?” She picked up a greenish stone, larger than the others but otherwise unremarkable, and shoved it in her pocket.
Then, in a whirl, she was gone.
Whittaker jumped up and leaned against his desk, his eyes trying to comprehend the bizarre departure.
“Don’t you want your money?” he yelled.
Madeleine and Filip lived and loved in a valley nestled at the base of three immense mountains. It is said that magic was sprinkled in those mountains, leftover from a battle of the great gods. Finding the magic was a quest for many, a blessing to some, but for others, an unimaginable curse.
For Madeleine and Filip, the magic meant nothing. Their farm was abundant, their hearth cozy, and they frequently made love in the meadow under glowing green currents in star-filled skies.
A crystal blue stream flowed from the northernmost mountain through their meadow and out to a small fjord and on to the sea. The waters provided perch, pike, and trout that they’d smoke over their crackling outdoor hearth fire, and in the spring, they’d walk hand in hand up a secret trail to a cliff overlooking the fjord to watch the bright-beaked lunda nest and listen to whale songs. In the winter, they’d huddle close to a fire, naked under a sheepskin sharing potent honey plum mead and giggling like children.
Their lives were perfectly blissful in every way. Well, every way except one. They longed for a child with Madeleine’s bouncing black curls, full crimson lips, and inimitable kindness, and Filip’s strength, playfulness, and intuitive eyes the color of a midsummer fjord; tiny plump hands to wrap around their fingers, and a little face to look up at them in pure love.