Big Momma’s Last Hustle
Sitting in her Brooklyn kitchen, Big Momma roars into her phone, “I found our mark, ya maggot, and you’ll play the hustle my way!”
Claude just stepped off a flight from Paris and into a filthy cab at JFK, and Big Momma is already ripping out his tonsils.
Claude’s the front man in Big Momma’s scheme to swindle Ruth Rockford, a widowed art benefactor, out of millions. “Big Momma has flimflammed five big money rubes without a trace,” her collaborator back in Paris warned Claude. “She calls the tune. You dance to it.” And so it shall be. After all, Claude’s cut of this, his first big swindle, will be a cool million bucks.
Claude is the perfect grifter for Big Momma’s latest con. He works the black market, selling art the Nazis looted from Jews during World War II. But after a few close calls with the Police Nationale, he’s taken up conning rich old ladies as a second career.
He checks into a hotel on Lexington Avenue, near the Waldorf Astoria where Mrs. Rockford lives. After a light splash of cologne, Claude takes a taxi to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, he’ll meet his mark at a Monet exhibit.
His target’s signature blue hair attracts him like a beacon. “Bonsoir, madame,” Claude oozes nasally. He bows to kiss Mrs. Rockford’s powdered wrist.
Ruth lets her hand linger. She’s a pushover for dashing European gentlemen, after all, and Claude is a tall, lean and impeccably groomed specimen of his Gallic race. “Ah, you must be Monsieur Chevalier, of the House of Chevalier,” Ruth flutters. “I received several letters from the Paris art community, all recommending you highly.”
“Indeed, Mrs. Rockford.”
“Call me Ruth,” she blushes.
Handing her a glass of champagne, Claude steals Ruth away for a whirlwind tour of Monet’s art. From the water lilies of Giverny to the spires of the Rouen cathedral, Claude modulates his voice in harmony with Monet’s use of light and dark. Of course, he boned up on Monet back in Paris. Every inflection of his voice entangles Ruth, his prey, more tightly in his net.
Ruth is smitten as a schoolgirl. “Did all these Monets fly over with you from the d’Orsay?” she titters.
As Claude curates the last painting, Ruth notices the time. “Oh dear, it’s late. After ten o’clock!” she says. “Where are you staying here in New York, Mr. Chevalier?”
“The Waldorf Astoria,” he fibs.
“Heavens! I reside at the Waldorf!”
“Well then, may I offer you a ride home, madame?”
Outside the museum, Ruth and Claude settle into the limo Big Momma has waiting on 5th Avenue.
“You may know, Mr. Chevalier, about the Art Restoration Trust my late husband endowed,” Ruth says during the ride. “ART restores the works of all the great European masters, of course. But I prefer the French Impressionists.”
“And who might your favorite Impressionist be, Ruth?”
“I positively adore Renoir.”
“As do I! We simply must explore Renoir’s work together!” Claude suggests. “Would you join me tomorrow, say at ten?”
“It will be my pleasure, Mr. Chevalier,” Ruth says, as the Waldorf valet opens the limo door.
The next morning at ten, the limo returns Ruth and Claude to the Met, this time to study Renoir. Ruth insists Dance at Le Moulin is Renoir’s masterpiece, Mr. Chevalier prefers The Boat Party. Their playful debate spills over to finger sandwiches at the Russian Tea Room.
On the following morning, the ever-present limo whisks them off to the Guggenheim. And the next day? Why not crepes and tea for breakfast, and then a lazy stroll over to the Museum of Modern Art?
“You make me feel so alive again, Mr. Chevalier,” Ruth confesses on the walk back to the hotel.
Claude caresses the palm of her hand. This sucker’s mine.
“Would you like to take tea with me upstairs when we get back, Mr. Chevalier?”
Yes, of course Mr. Chevalier would like to take tea, especially upstairs.
Up in her apartment, Mrs. Rockford showcases her Park Avenue view. “I find the skyline breathtaking from here,” she says.
But Claude offers no opinion of the skyline, breathtaking or otherwise. He’s casing the apartment instead.
Ruth orders room service, and then she brings Claude into the living room. “Our tea will be here soon, Mr. Chevalier,” she says. “Allow me a few moments to change and freshen up from our walk.” She goes into the bedroom and closes the door behind her.
Claude slinks over to the mahogany writing desk and powers up the laptop he spied while Ruth was ordering tea. He inserts a thumb drive into the USB port. The drive uploads the keystroke logging malware that Big Momma coded just for this con. Now, when the money action starts, Big Momma can remotely track every keyboard entry. He pockets the drive and powers down the laptop.
When Ruth returns from the bedroom, she joins Claude, who’s now enjoying the view. “I’m sorry to say it, Ruth, but I must leave for Paris tonight,” Claude says.
“Oh dear, and so suddenly! I knew the time would come, Mr. Chevalier. I’ve had a wonderful time with you these last few days.”
“As have I with you.” Claude takes Ruth by her two hands. “Ruth, The House of Chevalier is always looking for worthy causes in the arts. I spoke to the Chevalier family board on my phone. We’d like to donate $100,000 to your Art Restoration Trust as a small philanthropic gift. Consider it a down payment.”
“Oh my! Thank you, Mr. Chevalier. The art world needs more men like you.”
The tea’s arrival interrupts their tender moment. Ruth sets the tray in the kitchen and pours two cups of tea. “Shall we take care of your generous donation while we’re together, Mr. Chevalier? My computer is right over there.” She leads Claude to the mahogany desk and powers up her laptop.
Claude logs into his bank account. On the money transfer page, he enters ‘$100,000’ in the ‘Transfer Amount’ box. “Voila!” he says. “And now for you, madame.”
Ruth enters ART’s bank routing and account numbers in the ‘Destination’ boxes. Black dots hide every keystroke, but she appreciates Claude’s added gesture of privacy when he turns his head away. “Done,” Ruth says. She returns to the kitchen to sweeten her tea.
With the account credentials captured, Claude aborts the money transfer. The malware erases the record of his browser session in the hard drive, and then it self-deletes. As an added measure, he dribbles tea onto the laptop until it sparks and grinds to a halt. With her computer toasted, Ruth won’t see Big Momma sucking her account dry until it’s too late.
Claude takes his empty teacup to the kitchen. “Finis!”
“One hundred thousand dollars! I can’t thank you enough, Mr. Chevalier.”
“A mutual feeling, you can be sure.” His work done, Claude bows, and then he makes for the door.
“Will our paths cross again, Mr. Chevalier?”
“Oh, indeed they will.”
“Mr. Chevalier, you never told me your first name.”
“All in good time, madame,” Claude says, already halfway to the elevator.
As he parades victoriously out of the Waldorf, Claude replays the sting in his mind, and his pace slows. “No goddamn password,” he mutters.
When Claude arrives at his hotel, he calls Big Momma on a burner phone. Big Momma had Claude leave his own cell phone and computer behind in his Paris apartment, so no one could track him. “The hustle went down smooth as silk,” he says, “maybe too smooth.”
‘We’re not done yet, shithead.”
“Hey, there’s one detail I can’t figure out,” Claude says. “Your malware recorded the old bag’s account number. But Rockford never had to enter her password, because she was the destination for my bogus money transfer.”
“You’ll need her password to break into her account, that’s what.”
“I’ve got her password. It’s ‘Renoir2010.’”
“Yeah, I guess that makes sense. She had ‘Renoir2010’ taped to her keyboard,” Claude says. “But how would you know that? I suppose your magic malware read it somehow?”
“Don’t crack wise, smart ass. Let me do the thinking. Your job is to look pretty.”
“What do I do now?”
“Lay low for a few days until I call you. Go nowhere. Talk to no one. I’ll drain her account into yours. We’ll meet at your hotel to split up the take.”
Big Momma’s next call is to her collaborator in Paris. “Claude smells something rotten. He picked up on the password, and Ruth acted too much a pushover,” she says. “Figure out what to do with the punk if he asks any more questions. I need four days to pull this off.”
Back at the Waldorf, Ruth Birnbaum yanks off the scratchy, blue-haired wig she’s had to endure for days. “Good riddance, Ruth Rockford. Welcome back, Ruth Birnbaum.” In the bathroom, Birnbaum scrapes off the layers of actress makeup she kept after her off-Broadway role in Golden Girls. “Up yours, Chevalier!” Birnbaum vents, as she crams the dowdy ‘Mrs. Rockford’ wardrobe into an oversized suitcase. Wearing blue jeans and a tank top, she leaves the apartment for good.
At the front desk, Ruth pays her bill. It’s a hefty number, but a prudent investment for the Birnbaum family’s twenty million dollar cause.
Ruth takes a taxi to the Brooklyn apartment where she lives with Sarah, her eighteen-year-old baby sister. Inside, she parks her suitcase in the hallway and then struts triumphantly into the kitchen. “Yes, Big Momma! This con is your absolute masterpiece!” Ruth says to Sarah. Whooping in celebration, Ruth dances around the kitchen table, high-fiving Sarah on every turn.
Sarah sweeps her long, auburn hair over the back of her wheelchair. “Call me Sarah at home, please, not Big Momma,” she says. “And besides, we still have to skin what we bagged.”
At the kitchen counter, Sarah spreads peanut butter on bread, while Ruth contritely pours milk. “Time matters here, Ruth,” Sarah instructs her elder sister. “Let’s eat while we work.” She wheels back to her computer at the kitchen table.
“See right there, Ruth? It’s the account number and password Claude keystroked for us at the Waldorf.” Sarah opens an untraceable Tor browser and clicks her way to Claude’s Swiss bank. Using the credentials she filched, Sarah breaks into his account. “Jackpot!”
Ruth watches the master skin her prey. “Wow! The prick has nearly five million dirty dollars sitting in there. I guess black marketers move a lot of cash around.”
“Yeah, and that’s why they find banks with high transfer limits,” Sarah says. “Now watch me devour the scum with his own greed.” From Claude’s account, she requests four interbank money transfers of $1,000,000 — his daily limit — into the ART account. The large transfers trigger the Swiss bank’s second-level security protocol. For verification, the bank sends Claude four unique codes via text message.
Back in Paris, Big Momma’s collaborator reads the four codes on the phone he lifted from Claude’s apartment. He emails the codes to Sarah back in Brooklyn, and she verifies the withdrawals.
“Now we wait four days for the money transfers to clean ‘im out.” To keep Claude in the dark if he gets curious, Sarah changes his challenge questions, contact info, and password. She decides on the password her collaborator always suggests: ‘BigMomma.’
Sarah’s Paris collaborator is her brother Benjamin, a legitimate art dealer. When he learned Claude was a trafficker of stolen art, Ben collared him for a Birnbaum shakedown. To hook Claude, Ben staged two phony stings in Paris that put some short money in Claude’s pocket and gained his trust. Ben’s setup work is about to pay off — if the Birnbaums can keep Claude in the dark for four more days.
After three days in boxer shorts, eating cold delivery pizza, Claude’s on edge in his hotel room. “This scam doesn’t add up,” Claude persuades himself in the mirror. “How’d Big Momma know the old coot’s password? And when the hell is Big Momma gonna call?” He sails a pizza box into the desk lamp. “We should be slicing up the goddamn pie by now!”
“Lay low, my ass!” Claude finally decides. He cleans himself up, pulls on his ‘Mr. Chevalier’ suit, and then hotfoots it over to the Waldorf. He rides the elevator up to Mrs. Rockford’s apartment and pounds his fist on the door. No one responds. Back down at the front desk, Claude huffs, “Take a message for Ruth Rockford. She lives in your apartment tower.”
“I’m sorry sir, but there is no one in residence here by that name.”
“Then who the hell’s been staying in suite 1943?”
“I’m very sorry sir, but we cannot divulge the names of our guests.”
Claude makes a beeline for the business center and powers up a computer. He tries to log into his bank account but finds his password is invalid. “Motherless Swiss bankers!” He slams the keyboard when the system locks him out.
He dials Big Momma to press for answers. “The nasty bitch answers every call!” Not this call. The nasty one ran out the minutes on her pre-paid burner phone.
Claude does reach his man in Paris, now his life support, and details his blitz through the Waldorf. “Something’s wrong, but I don’t know what,” he stammers.
“Let me make a few calls and see what I can find out, my friend. Stay right there.”
Ben video calls Sarah, who’s alone in her kitchen. “Our chump’s flailing around at the Waldorf. He’s looking for Rockford and asking the wrong questions,” Ben says.
“Oh Jesus, no! I haven’t finished him off yet!” Sarah says. “Get ‘im back to his hotel until the last million clears into our account.”
“No, that won’t work. He’s getting wise to us.”
“Then figure out some other way to ice the shit bag, before he shuts us down! I need more time, Ben.”
Ten minutes later, Ben calls Claude back. “Hello, Claude? I just learned you’re a person of interest with the FBI. That’s behind it all, I’m sure.”
“What the hell do they want?”
“They have questions about that last Cezanne you moved in New York.”
“Oh shit, I knew it! That deal didn’t feel right.” Claude’s eyes get big. “What do I do now?”
“You don’t have much time. I just booked you a flight on the redeye back to de Gaulle. It departs in two hours. Leave now.”
“Leave now? The old broad’s vanished! Big Momma’s gone radio silent! And someone might have their grimy fingers in my bank account! I’m calling Switzerland first to see if I should freeze it.”
“And then how would Big Momma shovel all that Rockford cash into your account? The last grifter who shut down a Big Momma con went swimming in Long Island Sound with cement shoes.”
Claude surveys his feet. “Fine, I’ll keep it open. But she’s pouring the entire take into my account. I need to stick around and split it up with Big Momma!”
“If the FBI nabs your ass in New York, they’ll order an immediate injunction on every cent going into that shady bank of yours. Big Momma would get nothing, and then she’d be really pissed off.”
“So how do I crawl out from under this dung heap?”
“It’s simple. Check out of your hotel and scram New York now. Settle up with Big Momma later. Keep in mind, my friend, her long arms reach all the way to Paris.”
Claude bolts out of the Waldorf. He recoils when a police siren wails, and then he ducks into a yellow cab. “Lexington at 48th,” Claude gasps, “and then JFK. Go!”
Ben video calls Sarah again. “I just chased Claude out of New York.”
“Talk to me. We’re playing with a million bucks here.”
“I bull-rushed him onto the Paris redeye. His flight goes through London tomorrow, too, with a long layover.”
”I see.” Sarah thinks it over. “Yeah, that’ll keep ‘im in the dark! The dog can’t sniff around New York anymore. And when he finally gets to Paris, he won’t figure us out until he can pry open his bank account.”
“To slow that down, I clipped his computer when I took his phone.”
“All around, Claude stays open for business as long as I need,” Sarah says.
“What if he sings once he gets wise?”
“A pirate never squawks about his missing plunder. Besides, I left him a balance he wouldn’t want to lose. That’ll keep him real quiet.”
“And what about our balance?”
“Let’s have a look.” Sarah checks the ART account on her computer. “Yup, courtesy of your fast thinking, brother, Claude’s last transfer will put the fund over twenty million. Way to go, Ben! It’s time for ART to buy some paintings.”
Sarah formed ART to honor her parents who, ten years ago, were killed in Paris while chasing two Renoirs. The paintings belonged to Sarah’s grandfather until the Nazis looted them during World War II. Now, with $20,000,000, Sarah wants ART to help buy previously looted paintings — and return them to their rightful owners.
“I’ll keep hunting for our grandfather’s Renoirs,” Ben says.
“Be careful Ben, but look hard. Last night, I dreamed about a Renoir donation ceremony at the Musée d’Orsay.”
“Then you must be ready for our next con, Big Momma!” Ben says. “I collared another rotten stooge.”
“Not me. Claude is Big Momma’s last hustle.”
“We set a goal of twenty million, remember? It’s time I go away to college.”
Last year, Sarah deferred her admission to Cornell University and launched a gap year project. That’s when she gave rise to ART and her redemptive alter ego, Big Momma. Despite its rather unorthodox funding scheme, Ruth and Benjamin realized her ART venture was the spark Sarah needed: the ninety-pound dynamo’s drive had lain dormant since her accident on the balance beam nine years ago.
Wearing the blue wig, Ruth prances out of her bedroom. She steeps tea and serves it to Sarah. “Shall we take tea in the kitchen, Monsieur Chevalier?” Ruth mugs.
Sarah flairs the wide smile that went missing so long ago. “Madame, you can return that blue hair to your theatre,” she says. “I’m a rising college freshman now.”
“Sounds like Big Momma has retired from the international con game,” Ben says. “But is it for good this time?”
“Yes, yes, it’s really for good.” Sarah takes a sip of tea. “But set up that next stooge anyway, Ben,” she says. “Just in case I change my mind.”
Waylon’s Escape Velocity
The doors to the Fort Madison Iowa State Penitentiary closed behind Griffin, locking him out. It was a nice change from two years ago when he’d been locked up for reckless driving, driving without a license, assault on a peace officer, and possession of stolen goods. The morning Midwest summer sun was warm on his face. He soaked it in, held it behind his eyes, and decided it was time to get back on the road.
The terms of Griffin’s parole didn’t allow him to cross state lines, but he had 10 storage units full of rare barnwood, market value in the low six-figures, sitting in a self-storage lot in Gresham, OR, just outside Portland. His lease had expired a while back for non-payment and could not be extended. In three days, the lot’s owner would put the units up for auction. Griffin couldn’t have that, not after he’d worked so hard to steal and stash the wood in the first place.
Amber, 2,000 miles away, who should have been there to pick him up, had the keys to the storage units. Griffin’s rig was under impound after the Wyoming incident. The stolen rig he’d used during the Iowa run had probably been, inconveniently, returned to its rightful owner, and even if it hadn’t, it was likely impounded along with Griffin’s rig. Incarcerated mechanical brothers states apart.
He had no keys, no rig, no ride, and no money, but he still had his brother Mervyn’s credit card. Figuring he could chance one purchase without drawing too much heat, he walked to the center of town and hailed a cab, wondering if the card was still good. He decided that if the card was declined, he’d jack the driver, take 61 two hours north until he hit 280, 280 to 80, dump the car at the I-80 Truckstop, and snag a ride from a fellow trucker going west.
Before the cabbie was close enough to clearly see him, Griffin bent and picked up a broken piece of curb and stowed it in his pocket. Thank goodness for lack of investment in transportation infrastructure, he thought.
The cabbie stopped. Griffin climbed in. The cabbie ran the card and paused, card in hand, looking at his payment terminal with a frown. The frown persisted for five seconds, 10 seconds. At 15 seconds, Griffin reached into his pocket and gripped the concrete knuckle. He’d hoped to avoid immediate descent into criminal activity. The 2,000 miles between Iowa and Oregon were a wide swath of land over which any minor infraction could catch him up. Make no mistake, he was going back in business, but he wanted his first official criminal act, other than breaking parole, which no ex-con counted on his recidivism tracker, to be again taking possession of stolen goods.
At 20 seconds, Griffin squeezed the concrete, pulled it out, and cocked his arm back, ready to strike. Then the cabbie’s expression changed from a frown to a flat line. “Okay,” he said, handing the card back to Griffin. “Where?”
Before the melee with the Iowa Troopers and his stay in the Iowa pen, Griffin’s CDL had been suspended after he’d purposefully jackknifed his 18-wheeler in the Laramie Pass after coming over the Rockies and through the Medicine Bow National Forest on I-80. Parking lot donuts were entirely pedestrian. You weren’t a true stunt driver until you had spun a rig with less than five feet of clearance on either side. Too bad for Griffin, the Wyoming highway patrol had been out in force.
License or no license, the salvage theft business didn’t slow down. It was especially hot in the Midwest states, Iowa in particular, with its rich history of farming and thousands of old and valuable out-buildings. Midwest real estate prices didn’t enjoy the same steady inflation as the West or East Coasts, but there were pockets of increased value for homes above $500,000. Where you looked at two homes side-by-side and couldn’t tell the difference between one at $550K and one at $750K, the difference was rare, stolen finished carpentry materials.
Next to gang murders and political scandals, salvage theft rarely made the papers, but Mervyn had been spooked after Griffin had stashed the take from the last Oregon job in the Gresham storage units. Mervyn had wanted to lie low for a few months and then contact their fence. No-go, Griffin had said, but Mervyn was being a pussy, so after the rig had been impounded and they found themselves stuck at the Sinclair in Laramie, Wyoming, big fucking green dinosaur laughing its prehistoric ass off at them, and Mervyn had stood to go take a piss, Griffin lifted Mervyn’s wallet, jacked an idling cargo van, switched out the plates as quick as he could, and, incredibly, made it as far as Des Moines, where he’d just loaded the first salvage take and was heading for a second, when the Iowa Troopers caught him.
Griffin suspected that Mervyn had been behind his capture, so he’d sent Amber, Mervyn’s wife, the third partner in the salvage theft operation, an itemized list of the charges on Mervyn’s card.
Griffin knew Mervyn, running his own sideline, was using that particular card, with occasional infusions from loan sharks, to fund his amateur porn production operation. Griffin felt confident that if Mervyn’s wife learned of his unfaithfulness, she would take down the Mosin–Nagant she had mounted on a rack above their bed and use Mervyn for close-up target practice.
The rifle had stayed on its perch, but when Amber had surveilled Mervyn and caught him not only watching live webcam girls, but filming his own productions of the girls with Mervyn as the star and Amber and Mervyn’s trailer as the setting, she’d stepped back to 50-yard range and put an arrow sporting a broadhead razor tip sticking clear through one of Mervyn’s thighs and out the other, pinning both legs together like a BBQ skewer, the camera rolling all the while.
Mervyn, a Gulf War vet, had gone to recover, work, and eventually live in the VA hospital, declaring himself done with the partnership, and Amber had flown across the country to seek solace from Griffin. The story about shooting Mervyn with the compound bow load morphed into Amber helping Griffin shoot his own load, with her as the target.
Griffin had felt bad about doing his brother’s old lady at first. Then Amber had confirmed his suspicions and told Griffin that Mervyn had not only tipped the cops to Griffin’s Iowa run but had posted Craigslist ads offering up the stolen barnwood stashed in Gresham.
Possessing neither the keys to the storage units nor the location of said units (Griffin had handled supply chain), Mervyn had been unable to deliver on the ads’ promises, but he did get a few visits from state investigators who said his ads’ descriptions were similar to salvage thefts that had occurred recently, and from salvage fences who were pissed that he’d one, offered up ghost material, and two, done so in a public forum known to have investigators sniffing around. Even underworld bosses were experts at putting pennies in vice-grips and squeezing the copper until alchemy produced gold, but why pay a bribe if you don’t have to? The fences gave Mervyn a full-contact class in salvage theft accounting theory. After that, Mervyn went back into recovery at the VA until he could make things right.
Griffin was done with his brother, but he wasn’t done with Amber. He needed those keys that were stashed under the floor in Amber’s trailer. Once he had those, he might stick around for another lesson in compound bow load release techniques, but then he was gone.
He’d told no one he was getting paroled, except Amber, so where the fuck was she? Probably pinching laptops and AV equipment from offices like a dumb bitch, he thought. Janitorial-assisted office theft could be lucrative, but it was high risk, unlike retrieving stolen goods long since forgotten, he hoped.
At the I-80 Truckstop in Walcott, Griffin called Amber’s trailer. No answer. Time was ticking. He now had two-and-a-half days to retrieve the wood. He called his Oregon fence, set up a meet for the middle-of-the-night three days out, said a prayer to the god of thieves to shine on him like he’d shone on the thief on the cross, and activated his personality in search of a long-haul ride.
* * *
The fence walked down the hall at the VA hospital in Portland and poked his head into room 1338. The occupant of the room was sitting up in bed, rubbing his legs where two identical scars, set parallel from each other, bulged from the side skin of each thigh. The occupant paused his self-massage and looked up.
“He’s coming, as you said he would,” the fence said.
The occupant nodded and went back to rubbing his legs.
“You are coming to the meet.” Not a question. “We dislike surprises.”
“Is my marker clear if I do?”
“Without a doubt.”
* * *
36 hours later, Griffin made Gresham at night and said goodbye to Dee, she of the pet séances. Dee wasn’t the strangest of rides he’d secured, the strangest being Rodger. Rodger believed his dead wife’s spirit had inhabited his prosthetic leg and thus asked Griffin to hold said leg so that Rodger could talk to his wife and keep his eyes on the road while he drove.
Everybody worships something, Griffin thought as he hopped down from Dee’s cab and walked toward a darkened ARCO station, stole four five-gallon red plastic gas containers, carried two in each hand to a nearby U-Haul lot, siphoned 20 gallons of fuel from one truck, loaded the fuel into and disabled the GPS tracker on and stole another truck, drove the truck to a loading dock next to a shuttered factory, stripped off all U-Haul markings, rendering the truck plain white, found some wire, dropped the leads into each gas container, connected them together, and ran the braided wires all the way to the truck’s battery, leaving a gap between the final connection and the power source.
* * *
The following evening, considering his truck theft a success, Griffin left the truck in its concealed spot and went to find Amber. He gave himself one hour to find her, after which he planned to go to her trailer, rip it apart until he found the keys, and proceed with retrieving the wood himself.
It'd been more than a year since Amber’s last visit to Fort Madison, and Griffin was itching to get some pussy, but if it came down to it, he wanted the money more than he wanted pussy. This mental transition to business got him thinking about logistics. The truck he’d stolen was large enough to hold all ten units’ contents, but that was going to be a bitch of a job by himself. Who could he trust on short notice? Amber’s kid? Wasn’t he 16 or 17 now? He decided not to worry about that. If help presented itself, and that help was trustworthy, he would pay said help a fair wage (or at least claim to do so) and send it on its way. If not, he’d handle the job himself.
He found Amber at the third industrial complex he visited, helped out with referrals from her co-workers. Amber, noticeably heavier up top than the last time he’d seen her, a fact she was exploiting to hide memory sticks down her blouse, immediately took a break and laid a heavy kiss on Griffin while apologizing for forgetting to pick him up. As he suspected, she’d been otherwise engaged in low-end industrial espionage. She pulled him into her burnished bronze Chevy Celebrity, wanting to do him right then and there. Griffin suggested she give him road head while he drove to her trailer where they could finish things up.
10 minutes later, one orgasm down, many more to go, Griffin and Amber entered the trailer, lost their pants, dispensing with fully undressing, and set to work on the couch.
* * *
From inside the bedroom, Waylon listened from the other side of the trailer’s thin interior walls, his ear pressed to the vent.
“In case you were wondering,” Amber said after they’d finished round two. “Mervyn’s still at the VA. We’ve got the place to ourselves.”
“What about your kid?” Griffin asked.
“Waylon? Ain’t seen him this side of six months. Think he’s staying with a friend. Says he don’t need me no more.”
“Is that a fact?”
“It is, and it’s also a fact that these aren’t real.”
Waylon heard a ripping sound and guessed that Amber (he’d never called her Mom) had torn open her shirt.
“Oh, my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” Griffin said. “They’re perfect circles. Can I touch?”
That confirmed it for Waylon.
“How many times did you fuck me at Fort Madison?” Amber asked. “Now you’re asking for permission to handle the merchandise?”
“It’s just-- They’re so nice and new.” Pause. “Mmm. Like a Jell-O mold or what’s that special mattress material that holds its shape?”
“Memory foam!” Griffin said, like he’d wagered all of his money on Final Jeopardy and hadn’t thought of the correct question to the answer until seconds before the jingle finished.
“But warmer,” he said.
“You can squeeze them into whatever shapes you like. Go on. Try.”
“Ah, yes. Not so much like memory foam, at least not full-on memory foam. Maybe half-strength memory foam.”
“You seen them commercials where the girl is bouncing on one side of the bed, and there’s a full wine glass on the other?”
“If you tried balancing that same wine glass on my tits, it’d stay put, but if you smacked the other one, it’d send that wine glass flying like when you step on a croquet ball that’s right next to another, and you hit the one you’re standing on with your mallet.”
“Fuckin’ A. Let’s try it. Got any wine glasses?”
“Fuck, Griffin. I ain’t got anything that fancy in this trailer. Besides, I can feel your hard-on, and I don’t wanna get off of you.” Amber started that turn in the conversation with irritation but had modulated to do-me. Griffin didn’t take the hint.
“Yeah, yeah. My hard-on’s good all the time. I could do porn, Baby, better than Mervyn ever could.”
“Hey, what? I’ll take care of you, but you’ve gotta indulge me first.”
“What you got that we can balance on one of them tits and send it flying?”
“I got some cigs in my back pocket.”
“Perfect. Let’s see ‘em.” Pause. “Oh, yeah. Those’ll do nicely.”
Silence from the front room for the next 30 seconds. Waylon began thinking he should escape through the window in the bedroom (the only bedroom; he had always slept on the couch, but after Amber and Griffin’s defilement of the couch, that option was out) before the cheater and her lover moved the festivities to the bedroom and found him. Then Amber cut in.
“You see. They’re so heavy, I can bounce ‘em with the pack on one of ‘em, and it stays put.”
“Dear Lord. That is a sight to behold. Can I smack the other one?”
“Damn, Amber! They must have flown 15 feet. Let’s do it again.”
“Enough,” Amber said, her voice turning serious. “I want you again. Right now. Plus, don’t you gotta clear out them storage units by tonight.”
“Shit. You’re right. Over $100,000 in rare barnwood. Already have a buyer lined up. Can’t lose that money. Otherwise, why the fuck did I come back here, right?” He laughed.
“Me,” Amber said, not with indignance but simply correcting, as though a grade-school child had said 9x7 was 64 instead of 63.
“Right, right,” Griffin said. Waylon could sense in Griffin’s tone that his eyes were shifting back and forth, calculating.
Waylon understood the look because he was, himself, calculating. $100,000? Waylon thought.
Amber seemed to have missed Griffin’s oh, shit tone. “Once we’ve got the wood and we’ve sold it, we’re out of here, right? We’ll have enough money so I can leave Mervyn and be with the right brother.”
Griffin spoke slowly. “The money should be enough for any number of possibilities. But enough with future business. I’m concerned with current operations. I see a couple of circular controls that are in need of preventative maintenance.”
“What about your parole?” Amber asked.
“What about it?”
They both laughed and then resumed love-making.
Amber giggled like a school-girl who’d just walked into the wrong locker room and seen the thingies for the first time. It was a grating, annoying sound that brought heat to Waylon’s face. He felt himself breathing hard, like he was trying to ramp up the courage to complete a cliff jump 10 feet across and 1,000 feet down. He realized his breathing was audible, and he forced himself to draw deeper breaths, held for five seconds, and repeated until he felt his heart slow, breathing quiet, and temperature drop.
“You’d better maintain these, Boy,” Amber said. “They cost a fortune.”
“Where’d you get the money?” Griffin asked.
“A nice gentleman at the plant where I clean decided to bring his luggage to work before heading overseas on a big trip. So of course I rifled through his stuff and swiped his Amex.”
“And then you swiped his Amex,” Griffin said.
“Yes, I did--went straight to the tittie doc, the one that advertises late at night on the network channels.”
“‘Bout time that cheapass cleaning outfit gave you a bonus.”
“You make your own luck, Griffin. Shall we make you a little more lucky before we retrieve the stash of wood? Head to the bedroom?”
Waylon’s heart kicked up again.
“Bedroom sounds good,” Griffin said, sounding distracted. “You just reminded me of a logistical problem. If I’m gonna get that wood out by midnight, I need a helper. Someone I can trust.” Amber started to protest. Griffin jumped back in. “Don’t get all excited. I need you for … certain things, but I need muscles for moving the wood.”
Waylon noted that earlier in the conversation, Griffin had been vague on where they would go post-retrieval of the stolen wood. Now here was more evidence of Griffin separating himself from people once he’d gotten what he needed. Waylon suspected that after screwing Amber, Griffin would disappear, off to raid more old and valuable farm salvage, enjoying the circular controls on another love-starved middle-aged woman who wasn’t opposed to credit card fraud and plastic surgery.
Waylon wanted to grab the Mosin–Nagant, rush out of the bedroom, haul ass to the couch, and beat the shit out of Griffin with the stock. He might even give Amber a whack or two. She had never been a great mother, but until she and Mervyn (he’d never called him Dad) had taken up with the salvage theft business, an attempt to supplement their janitorial and legitimate salvage earnings, there had at least been food in the house.
Then Mervyn had burned all his dirty cash on first paying to watch webcam girls and then paying more money, borrowed first from credit cards, then loan sharks, to produce them, gotten an arrow through his thighs for his troubles; Griffin had been shipped off to the pen, gotten to fuck Amber for his troubles; and Amber had moved to credit card fraud, gotten some nice accessories for her troubles.
What had Waylon gotten? A shitty-ass trailer that leaked when it rained, rattled like dice in a giant Yahtzee cup when the Gorge winds were raging, and threatened to broil, bake, or blast freeze him whenever the seasons changed. Amber was never there, except to occasionally sleep. If Waylon was asleep when she came in, he always woke up when she turned over her purse and dumped the winnings from her latest janitorial swindle on the kitchen table, the clicking of the cards on the veneer lessening his tolerance of the insane and prompting him to look for other living accommodations.
Waylon was as thin as sheet metal, but strong, lived on supplemental nutrition from the school and the feds, wrote for his high-school newspaper, and dreamed of a big job, such as a staff reporter for The Economist. Getting a job like that would require a great education, but he had no money. Mervyn’s experience with loan sharks had left Waylon scared of debt. Cashless and houseless (his wealthy editor buddy from the school paper with whom he’d been staying had gone on summer holiday with her family), he was forced to return to the trailer so he could prep for his SATs. A scholarship was still possible if he could finish out school with strong marks.
Then Griffin returned and had Waylon re-thinking his financing options.
As bleak as they were, the futures of the adult family members in Waylon’s life were assured. They would profit from crime, and when the chips stopped clinking down to the catch on that machine, they’d go stateside. Freedom on the outside or room and board on the inside--it didn’t matter to them; their futures were funded.
But not Waylon’s.
From the age of 12, they’d been trying to recruit him to be an accessory in their salvage theft business. He’d refused. That would not be his life. He wanted to make money based on the laws of supply and demand. He was seventeen-years-old, set to graduate early. When he wasn’t in class at the high-school, he was in the library reading the Economist, the New York Times, and books by Milton Friedman, Paul Krugman, Paul Volker, and Alan Greenspan.
$100,000, Waylon thought again. The money from the black market sale of barnwood--this was Waylon’s escape velocity. It would propel him to the university, to a real job, to a real family that he created for himself. Inertia wasn’t the factor that most weighed on lower America; it was lack of economic propulsion.
Griffin wasn’t going to do shit for the world with the wood. Whether Waylon took the money or Griffin recycled it into the business, the wood was making its way into a fancy renovation of some rich asshole’s castle, probably accenting a wall in front of which sat a grand piano that the rich asshole didn’t know how to play. Fuck that, Waylon thought.
The sounds of love-making continued, Griffin evidently dissuaded from his desire to find a helper. The sounds were getting closer. Amber, rather than sounding enraptured, Waylon thought, sounded like she was lugging garbage bags of half-finished lattes and gourmet lunches out to the dumpster. The middle-aged cheaters were running out of stamina, but their approach threatened him, so he grabbed his bag and slipped out the window.
Outside in the dark, he squatted out of view of the overhead pole lights and looked at his watch, covering its glowing face with his free hand. Just after 9pm. The weather was good, a dry and not-too-warm late-May evening. A good night for moving barnwood.
If what Griffin had said was true--that the storage units had to be claimed by midnight or else risk forfeiture--less than three hours remained before Griffin’s stolen property became the legal property of the storage company. At that point, Waylon supposed, the storage company would padlock the doors to Griffin’s units, making easy access problematic. Waylon thought the owner of the storage company was likely not so conscientious as to bar access to unpaid units in real time, counting down the seconds until he could slap a “REPOSSESSED” sticker, or whatever marker they used to indicate the unit was delinquent, and would be auctioned.
But those thoughts weren’t facts; they were rationalizations. They were excuses for inaction. When Amber and Mervyn and Griffin had wanted to use Waylon as bait to distract farmers from the true intentions of the salvage theft crew, he’d refused. He’d had good reasons.
He had no such good reasons now. 17 years of being a good citizen had returned to him no favors. He would approach the edge and control his descent into criminal activity or it would reach up from the smoky ether, the lightly glowing lava pits of the dark world of commerce, and drag him down, and once he lost his footing, once he was left with no other option but steal or starve, once he was fucking his brother’s wife in a shitty little trailer after breaking parole and scheming of ways to fuck her and then fuck her over, Waylon knew he would sink into the smoke and never rise again.
In ironic fashion, then, Waylon, still squatting, his back resting against the side of the trailer, resolved to keep his feet and to stand, just this once, with the criminal element.
He would join Griffin’s crew.
Staying in the shadows, Waylon moved silently several trailers down and slipped between the sidewalls of two single-wides. He knew the occupants of these trailers, Jules Pieper and Ayn Waterman, were elderly shut-ins and unlikely to bother him in his stakeout. He suspected both had been asleep for some time, and he took a chance that no one else would call the police on a youth who was lurking in the gap and probably up to no good. That he was up to no good crossed his mind, but he pushed it away. Bad, first; good, later.
Waylon waited. From his vantage point, he peaked around the corner and kept an eye on Amber’s trailer. The living room curtains were closed, so Waylon noticed only undulating shadows following the same looping trek. Those shadows told Waylon that the plan to acquire the barnwood was still on hold, and time was ticking down. He pulled in one deep breath after another, his eyes opening wide to both focus and release his frustration, his lips pursed and grinding down on one another like a pastry chef trying to work out a problem in the dough. He couldn’t believe these two idiots were in there screwing away their illicit assets, to say nothing about his illicit college fund. He struggled with the idea that his distaste for black money had transitioned so quickly into greediness when he stood to gain, but he was in this.
He found himself pounding the ground involuntarily, which helped relieve some of the tension that was building in his neck and shoulders--until one of his fists found a leftover surprise from either Jules’ Corgi or Ayn’s Beagle. Disgusted, he emerged from his hidey-hole and rinsed his offended hand in Jules’ birdbath, which turned out to be a mixture of 10 parts water and 90 parts bird shit and left his hands looking like he’d thrown water on a chalkboard and tried to clean up the mess with his bare hands. Chalked and be-shitted, Waylon felt his plan coming apart before it had begun. Then an idea struck him.
He searched the crumbling asphalt drive for a piece big enough to maintain true flight when thrown, launched it upward at the pole-mounted street lamp. He missed, found another piece, missed, another, and hit his target on the third try. The light shattered and Waylon sprinted down several more trailers, dropped into a drainage ditch, and ducked out of sight, waiting for the lookieloos to come out to investigate.
No one emerged. This shouldn’t have surprised him, as anything short of a gunshot wasn’t apt to motivate the trailer park residents to overcome inertia to look outside. The beat cops were a regular presence. They knew the residents by name. If someone called them, and if the complaint was anything short of I think someone is being murdered, they would likely be slow to roll.
The knocked out street lamp created a perfect dark spot in front of Jules and Ayn’s trailers, a spot in which someone, if jogging home, as was Waylon’s wont, could plausibly trip over Jules’ bird bath, go sprawling across the lawn, and adopt the descriptive state of beshittedness, thus requiring immediate attention to said person’s wounds and, Waylon hoped, diverting attention away from said person’s timely arrival, considering the criminal crew-planning dialogue to which said person had presumably not been privy.
Banking on this fool-proof rationalization, Waylon sucked in a huge breath, stretching his lungs against his rib cage, popping vertebrae, steeled himself against the coming pain, and sprinted into the darkness toward the spot where he remembered the bird bath was. He hit it dead-on, sprawled as predicted, scratched as predicted, didn’t break anything, thank God, but felt he had sprained or strained or charley-horsed a few body parts. No matter. He picked himself up and limped toward Amber’s trailer, pulled at the handle. Locked. So much the better. He pounded on the door with a closed fist in tired, slow intervals, the kind one would expect one to use if one had just had a head-on collision with a bird bath.
He heard quick movement inside. Startled movement. Movement that said I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing. Waylon smiled at the way the body’s reflexes betrayed the bravado of prepared words.
“Who is it?” Amber asked, tentative, afraid.
“Waylon.” Waylon said. “I’m hurt. Can you let me in?”
A pause, like she had to go through her mental list of all the Waylons she knew and match each up with the voice she had heard. Other than Waylon Jennings, after whom Waylon the Beshitted was named, Waylon was certain she knew no other Waylons. Probably she was doing a speed rehearsal with Griffin for how they would explain both their presence and their state of undress. Amber opted for no explanation.
The trailer went silent, vocally speaking, sounds of hurried footfalls, drawers sliding open and closed, and zippers zipping. Waylon realized the emotional intensity of the last half hour had drained him. He sat on the concrete top step leading to the trailer and rested his head on the door. After two minutes, he raised his fist again, thinking the lovers had perhaps split out the same window he had used, deciding they’d rather run away than explain things, when the door opened.
“Oh my God, Waylon!” Amber said, seeing her son in his dirty and disheveled state. Waylon had to give her credit. She sounded sincere, though that was probably due to all the Oh my Gods she had just practiced on Griffin.
“Hey,” Waylon said. “I need help.” He explained the unexpected darkness and the collision.
“My poor Baby. Let’s get you inside.” To Griffin: “Come here and help.” To Waylon: “Your uncle was just paroled and came home to visit.” Amber’s tone indicated this was a complete answer, requiring no further questions to elicit its accuracy. Griffin’s arrest in Iowa for reckless driving and salvage theft had been hotly debated locally. People speculated that Griffin, Mervyn, and Amber had been the leaders of a salvage theft operation that had plundered farms from coast to coast. The state cops speculated; the local cops speculated; but the Iowa cops had been the only ones who’d found Griffin in possession of stolen goods. He was gone for two years and suddenly appeared late a night for a visit? Made perfect sense.
While Amber used her superb medical training to apply a Budweiser can to Waylon’s swelling brow, Waylon further explained his friend’s travel plans and, thus, his own appearance at the trailer. They seemed to accept this. Waylon repurposed the Budweiser from an external to an internal analgesic, drained it, asked for two more, drained those, cleaned himself up, and wondered if his theater had been necessary. In any case, he was in and had their attention, so he steered the conversation toward money, how he didn’t have any and needed some for school. Griffin said he had just the cure, Waylon helping him out on a job, which involved moving wood (noticeably missing its adjectival modifier) out of storage units, but they had to go fast because his lease expired at midnight, no further explanation, but Waylon didn’t need one.
* * *
At the storage units, Waylon opened the rolling door on the back of the truck to find four five-gallon red plastic gasoline containers wired in a circuit.
Griffin saw Waylon looking at the cans and said, “Got a long way to go. Don’t want to run out of gas.”
Waylon nodded, suspecting the cans had another intended use, but he let it go.
Using appliance dollies, Waylon and Griffin spent the next three hours moving the wood from the storage units and into the truck. The pudgy teenage yoga baby at the front desk barely turned away from her episode of whatever Netflix had cut that week.
Approaching 2am, Griffin borrowed the storage unit’s phone and called someone, presumably the dealer, from the financial bent to the verbiage. Griffin said it was time to go meet the buyer and time for Waylon to go home. Griffin said he was short of cash and would put Waylon’s cut for the evening’s work in the mail. Waylon knew that was a crock of shit. As soon as Waylon let Griffin out of his sight, Griffin was gone.
Waylon watched Griffin pull out of the self-storage lot, wondering how he could give chase. Couldn’t let Griffin get away. Waylon had no idea how he would intervene in the illicit deal, and even less idea how he would make off with the cash bound to be (hoped to be) exchanged, but if he weren’t there, this was all moot. What to do?
He saw a single blinking headlight coming down the street. Floating a couple feet above this, a red light blinked in asynchronous rhythm. A biker was pedaling down the street, probably some granola-preaching asshole getting an early start on the day. The Portland area was full of them, and Gresham was no exception. What the hell, he thought, and charged the biker.
Waylon T-boned the biker at full speed, knocking him off and free of the seat and, Waylon hoped, unconscious. Waylon stole the bike and pedaled like mad but didn't go anywhere. One foot slipped off the pedal, which was really just a tiny nubbin, made for special biker shoes and not Waylon’s Nikes. The depressurized pedal carried its momentum around the crank, and the pedal circled and bit into Waylon’s shin, drawing blood, a sheet of it. In his heightened state of extreme cortisol levels, Waylon felt no pain.
Waylon looked down. The chain had come off. As Waylon realized this, the involuntarily disembarked biker recovered and came at Waylon, brandishing what could have been a gun, could have been a granola bar. It was impossible to tell at two-o’clock in the morning with the brightest light coming from the still-burning headlamp on the bike. But the light was facing Griffin and the truck, both of which were stuck at the light at the intersection just outside the parking lot.
Waylon reacted with the only weapon he had: the bike. He grabbed it by the handlebars, swung it around like a track and field hammer, and caught the attacking biker full on the side of his helmet. The biker went down again, struggled to get up, but slowly, and Waylon took the opportunity to reseat the chain and pedaled like an enraged hipster wanted to kill him, i.e. he obeyed reality’s call. But the blood-slicked pedals, combined with Waylon’s lack of specialized shoes made to clip onto the pedal nubbins like ski boots into ski bindings, made it impossible for Waylon to gain any traction.
He looked across the way to the light. Still red. Waylon went back to the biker, apologized audibly, kicked the biker in the head, stole his shoes, which were too big but were serviceable, popped them on his feet, connected the shoe clips with the pedal nubbins, and heard two satisfying clicks, each a half-second apart, just as Griffin’s light turned green.
Waylon nearly lost Griffin a dozen times, but managed to catch up on an industrial road a mile east of PDX. He couldn’t find the off switch for the headlamp, so he kicked it out with the hardened toes of the bike shoes. He dumped the bike in tall weeds and crept along the warehouse buildings, avoiding the minimal streetlights. This was easy until he approached the inner courtyard of the complex. City planners could take a few cues from the folks who planned industrial nighttime lighting. They could have played Friday night high-school football underneath those lights.
The deal was going down. Waylon wanted to make a move. He had no idea where the money was, if there was any money on-scene, but he had to make a move. Then he froze. No one had seen him, he thought. He’d positioned himself between stacks of pallets and dozens of table-sized spools of industrial wire. Waylon’s position was secure, but his emotions were stripped open and laid across the live wires of his exposed nervous system.
The buyer was Mervyn.
But then not Mervyn. Waylon saw an old, white-haired man sitting behind the driver’s seat in an ancient Caddie backed into the declined dock bay. The phone contact? He thought. Griffin and Mervyn began to argue. The argument turned physical with both brothers landing blows. The brothers knocked over rows of chemical tanks that looked like exceptionally tall bowling pins but did not sound like them. They sounded like the end of the world, like an exploding wind-chime factory. At least the end of the world was tonally pleasant. Then some of the caps on the tanks blew off and the tanks started flying around like hyper-energetic party balloons, adding a variety of whistling tones to the cacophonous industrial yard symphony.
Apparently not expecting this turn of events, the white-haired man emerged from his car with a gun in hand, leaving the driver’s door open, and attempted to separate the warring brothers. From Waylon’s vantage point, the car was unmanned. He broke cover and went for the car, ducking down beside the open driver’s door. He rose enough to look between the driver’s side window and the mirror to see the brothers and their elderly tag-team partner going at it.
Waylon crawled into the car and checked the glove box, under each seat, beneath the floor mats, in all the backseat pockets, above the visors--nothing.
Gunfire outside the car.
Waylon was about to beat it and cut his losses when he put his weight on the passenger side floor mat, which, when depressed and released, sounded like the thin metal bong of a four-drawer file cabinet into which an office worker had rolled a chair. Either that or a hidden compartment. Waylon guessed the latter. He pulled up the floor mat and the spiked plastic carpet underlayment, found the dictionary-sized three-dial combination safe, pulled it, and made his escape.
He was a block away when a huge explosion rocked the ground followed by dozens of other smaller pops. Waylon looked back and ducked as a flying propane tank nearly hit him center mass. He juked several times to avoid other flaming projectiles. The truck was engulfed. He thought he saw an outline of men inside the conflagration, like Nebuchadnezzar had come from the past to create a new fiery furnace from gasoline, propane, and barnwood. Only these men wouldn’t emerge unburnt. They wilted and added fuel for the hungry fire to consume. The scent of burning wood hit Waylon. Sweet at first, it was quickly ruined when sulfurous propane and burning gasoline caught up in the second wave of odors rushing away from the source of the fire.
Waylon turned and, box under his arm, stumbled along the side of one of the warehouses, trailing his fingers over the corrugated metal. When he was several blocks away, Waylon leaned his forehead against the building. The cool metal soothed his cut up and swollen face, and cleared his head. The clearing was sufficient enough for his hearing acuity to detect approaching sirens. For the second time that night, Waylon took up residence in a drainage ditch, and when the sirens were on top of him, a culvert.
The sirens passed. Waylon took out a long-term lease and stayed the night. He slept for a full 24 hours, waking only when the blood-loss deposit he’d put down drew the attention of the culvert’s feral inhabitants. He kicked the rats away, then nodded at them, one animal surviving and recognizing others’ attempts to do the same.
Waylon felt for the box, still had it. He realized he’d never opened it, had no idea if it contained rocks or cash or sand. His heart spun max RPMs in dread. He felt around, fingers closed around a piece of rebar, and used it to force open the box.
He smiled, thumb-fanned a stack, shut the box, nodded to himself, and crawled out of confining darkness into a night of freedom.
Roger got the device as a birthday gift from his son who knows all things technical. It sets on a shelf in the kitchen of his small apartment. That is where Roger spends most of his time, watching tv and tending to the needs of his cats and Bowser his cocker spaniel. The gift is a virtual digital assistant, a computer that can understand speech and is interfaced with the Internet. He can ask it anything and it will provide him with an answer, sometimes in writing but always auditorily. Most of the time it's right.
He named the device Paul and his tech-savvy son was able to get the device to begin any interaction whenever Roger says, “Hey Paul.” When not answering questions, Paul displays a series of pictures from various family folders on a cloud, again set up by Roger’s son. Scenes from Christmas and Easter gatherings, little league baseball games where his son played without distinction, and pictures of Roger at different stages of getting old appear randomly on Paul’s screen.
Roger who is tall with a beak nose can see his black hair get thinner with age whenever a series of pictures by chance appear in chronological order. The pictures of his wife before breast cancer took her away make Roger sad whenever they appear.
It is a wonderful device that was foreshadowed for him back in the 1960s. Roger’s girlfriend then was Clara Simpson. Her parents invited him to their house for dinner one night during which Clara’s father had engaged Roger in a conversation about the value of education.
“You know,” the father had said as they had their after-dinner coffee “there will come a time when people won’t have to learn all the facts schools throw at their students. Everyone will have machines that can tell them whatever they want to know.”
Roger figured the father- an insurance salesman by trade- must write science fiction in his spare time. But he was happy to engage in a conversation about what he thought was a delightfully crazy idea. So, he had asked what was the purpose of education going forward? And after some discussion, the answer was to teach people how to ask the right questions. Upon reflection, Roger thinks education today was probably not doing a good job with that.
Now he has such a machine and he loves to ask it questions. When it was first made operational, he tested it by asking questions the answers to which he already knew. “When was Kennedy killed?’ Who first walked on the moon? What prime minister ordered an invasion of the Falkland Islands?” All of these were answered correctly.
He asks, “When did the country start going to shit?”
Paul answers “I’m sorry I don’t understand.”
And as that non-answer comes forward a picture of Roger’s late wife Diane appears on Paul’s screen. It is one of his favorites from their college days. She smiles confidently at the camera her thick curly hair poking out all over from a red bandanna, a clenched fist in the air. She is wearing her Demin jacket full of buttons, Gerald Holton’s peace symbol, Chairman Mao’s deceivingly passive continence, and Che Guevara’s bearded face underneath a black beret.
The picture fades away replaced by one more current; his granddaughter who looks a lot like her grandmother. She is a teenager trying her parent’s patience, getting tattoos, and vaping. Did Paul’s programming extend to finding kinfolk who are of a similar disposition?
His thoughts, however, are still on the previous picture, and to fortify the melancholy it created he tells Paul to play Bob Dylan’s, Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan’s voice and Al Koger’s bluesy organ put Roger back in the time of the picture when he was young, and she was young, and they believed revolution was all around them. It wasn’t but to them the illusion was real.
“How does it feel? Oh, how does it feel?”
“To be on your own? Like a complete unknown.”
“It sucks” Roger answered lugubriously. It was as though he was having a sad conversation with a person named Paul and not a machine. He misses Diane. More the Diane of the past than the one that died in a hospital months ago. The Diane of the picture was wild and passionate about an illegal war, racial injustice and the government corruption brought about by the wealthy elite.
“Up the ass of the upper class! Power to the people!” She would yell as she marched along with other protesters. She never could get the crowd to chant this along with her mainly because most of the marchers were college students from upper-class families. They preferred less class-struggle oriented chants like:
“One, Two, Three, Four.”
“We don’t want your fucking war.”
Early in their relationship, Roger and Diane tripped together on acid, an experience Roger survived but never repeated. Diane, on the other hand, took the stuff with such regularity he was sure their children would be horribly deformed. While she tripped around on acid or psilocybin, her eyes would be so dilated their irises would disappear. He would keep her company and out of trouble restricting himself to no more than a couple of joints of pot. She was indeed a wild one back then.
But after marriage and childbirth, that produced a normal healthy son Diane’s wild side dissipated. She supported causes with donations not with marches and by the time the cancer struck she had, in Roger’s mind become as bougie as June Cleaver.
“Paul,” Roger calls out to his machine. “Show me pictures of my wife later in life.”
To his shock, the picture that comes up is not of Diane, but Clara Simpson. He has never seen this picture before. It is set in the 1960s and he recognizes her right away. It is black and white and grainy. He can see her long blonde hair pulled back by a wide headband, her face round and apple-cheeked.
Seeing it Roger is reminded of the feelings of guilt he felt back then. How could his son have found such a picture and why would he have scanned it into the cloud? Was this his idea of a joke? If so, it was a very cruel one. He grabs his phone and places a call.
“Where did you get the picture of Clara Simpson and why did you put it on Paul?” He asks in a voice that clearly expresses his displeasure.
“Dad, I don’t know what you are talking about.” His son responds. “The only pictures I scanned in were of members of our family from the old family albums. Who is Clara Simpson?”
Roger doesn’t answer but throws out another question.
“Can Paul be hacked?”
“I suppose. Maybe a hacker is trying to prank you. Let me check the cloud and I’ll see if I can trace the source of the picture you’re talking about. I’ll get back to you. But give me some time. We are swamped here at work.”
Roger hangs up and looks at Paul’s screen. It has moved on to a different picture. This time it's Diane’s picture also from the family album. It is recent and her face shows the effects of chemotherapy. Her curly brown hair has been replaced with a straight blonde wig. He tells Paul to play some Rolling Stones and while Mick Jagger’s voice fills the kitchen with its bluesy sounds, Roger opens a can of pumpkin pie filling and begins mixing it with cottage cheese. Food for his dog with liver issues.
Whenever he does this, he is always reminded of Clay McLeod Chapman’s The Pumpkin Pie Show that he saw once while he and Diane were in New York City. It was a powerful albeit unusual experience.
He takes boiled chicken off the stove and begins chopping it up for the cats. These are his quotidian tasks without which he has little to do.
“So that’s what you have become? A cook for animals?”
It’s a female voice coming out of Paul. A female voice he recognizes and when he looks up at Paul’s screen the picture of Clara Simpson looks back at him. It is her voice as if she in the kitchen with him. How can this be possible? He stares dumbfounded at Paul’s screen until the picture changes.
Roger’s living room is well furnished with a wrap-around couch, a small desk with a laptop on it, and walls full of shelves holding books, mementos from trips he took with Diane, and other knick-knacks. There he finds his high school yearbook and thumbs through it until he finds Clara Simpson’s senior picture. It is not the same as the one Paul displayed.
Starting at the beginning he turns each page of the yearbook looking for any other pictures of this former girlfriend. He sees himself in the group shot of the track team, dressed in a gray warm-up uniform. But there are no other pictures of Clara Simpson.
He sits down in front of the laptop and googles her name. Lots of Clara Simpsons appear but after scrolling through all of them he cannot find the one that went to high school with him.
His son calls him.
“Dad no one hacked your device. I checked into it. It can’t be done.”
“Dad I have to go. Like I said we are swamped here.” They hang up.
A whining sound from the kitchen alerts him to the fact that in his distracted condition he has left the dog food on the kitchen counter and poor Bowser accustomed to getting fed at the same time every evening is starting to get frantic. Roger moves back into the kitchen to accommodate his canine.
“Couldn’t find me, could you?” The voice he now recognizes as Clara Simpson’s says from Paul’s little speaker. It has a teasing quality about it and again it sounds as though the woman is in the kitchen with him. The same picture of Clara is back on the screen.
Roger unplugs Paul. Bowser has already finished eating so Roger grabs the dog’s leach and takes him outside for a walk.
They leave the apartment building and walk between the ball-shaped topiary flanking the building’s sidewalk. They go to a dog park where Roger can let his cocker spaniel run leach-free. While Bowser interacts playfully with some other dogs Roger sits on a bench and tries to clear his head.
What has been going on in his kitchen feels unreal, like some bad dream. His phone rings and he pulls it out of his jacket pocket hoping it is his son with some explanation. Instead fear grips him as he sees the picture of Carla Simson on his phone.
“Remember the Wilis, Roger?” Clara asks referencing the ballet Giselle. The two of them had watched it with her parents when they were dating. “I am with Queen Myrtha, and the dance is on.”
“Who are you?” Roger shouts into his phone.
But the device is silent. Angry and frustrated Roger hurls his phone across the park, and it hits Bowser. The sound of his fyce crying out in pain fills Roger with remorse and he runs to comfort him. Other dog owners in the park look at him with disgust and make remarks about his indecorous and dangerous behavior.
After comforting and apologizing to his little dog Roger puts the leash on and walks him back to the apartment. Bowser is limping and seeing that Roger feels so bad he begins to cry. It is growing dark as they walk along Roger wiping his face with the sleeve of his jacket.
Back in his apartment, he composes himself while he attends to the wound he created on his dog. It is not bad enough for a trip to the veterinarian he decides. He cuddles the little spaniel who wages his tail as if nothing had happened.
“Who am I?” calls out the voice of Clara Simpson, from the kitchen. It has the upward inflection of one surprised by a question.
Roger charges into the kitchen. Paul is still unplugged but the picture he now dreads is on the screen. Clara Simpson’s voice coming out of Paul is full of anger and revenge.
“I’m the girl you deserted in a park, in the dark to be gang-raped by a bunch of Black Panther wannabes. I died from a broken heart. This is the dance of the Wilis.”
He is looking at the picture when she speaks. It looks like her mouth is moving. She has stirred a memory in him he had suppressed for years.
It was in a pique after she teased him about a sexual malfunction that he walked away from her in the park vowing never to see her again. He never did. He heard about the rape and her subsequent death, but his shame prevented him from attending the funeral or even expressing his condolences in person to Clara’s parents.
“Remember this song?” Clara asks as Paul begins to play My Girl by the Temptations. It was the ultimate slow dance song of their high school years.
“Dance!” Clara commands.
“This is madness!” Roger responds.
Suddenly a drawer holding knives shoots open and knives begin flying around the kitchen. One impales his cat’s tail to the wall and the cat screams and further hurts itself has it struggles to get free from the knife’s pin. Roger rushes to the cat and is badly scratched on both forearms as he removes the knife from the cat’s tail.
“Dance!” Clara commands and Roger begins to sway slowly to the music. “I know the flying knives trick is a bit cliché, but it was all I can come up with at the moment. Let’s put on some faster music.”
Paul plays the Beatles Twist and Shout. To avoid any more injuries to his pets Roger begins to dance the twist. Another fast-paced song follows and then another. Every time Roger slows down the knife draw opens. At one point the refrigerator door opens, and the pumpkin filling and cottage cheese concoction go flying around the kitchen like an orange tornado. Gobs of the gooey mess splatter about the kitchen some landing on Paul. He is becoming tired and wants to stop.
Halfway through Herman Hermit’s Henry the Eighth the music stops, and the picture of Diane appears. Diane’s voice comes out of Paul.
“If that bitch can be a Wilis, I can be Giselle. You and I will do a dance of dialog. Why did you never tell me about her?”
The sound of Diane’s voice fills Roger with excitement.
“You need to talk,” she says,” or she will be back.”
Roger tells Diane the story behind Clara Simpson and describes the guilt that made him repress his memories of her. He finds that finally telling this to Diane is cathartic and wishes he had told her when she was alive. He pauses when he is done but Diane does not immediately respond.
Suddenly and loudly the Everly Brothers come on with Bye Bye Love and Clara is back on the screen.
“Want more flying knives?” she screams over the music causing Paul’s little speaker to vibrate. Roger begins to move with the music, but it stops suddenly.
“No way bitch! Roger stop dancing and tell me you have been doing more with your life besides taking care of Bowser and the cats.” Diane’s picture is back on the screen.
“Not really,” Roger replies. He wants to tell her that his lust for life died with her, but she follows with a tongue lashing.
“Really? Did the world suddenly get better after I died? I don’t think so! The environment has gone from being just dirty to being downright dangerous. Children are being mass murdered in their schools by crazy people with incredible firepower; black kids are being murdered in the streets by cops. All brought about by the filthy greedy upper class. And all you do is feed the pets?”
It’s the Diane of college days, and her screed matches her picture on the screen. The June Cleaver persona is no more.
“Where are you?” Roger asks. “Heaven? The Underworld?”
Diane’s picture immediately disappears.
Roger tries to regain control of Paul by telling the device to show more current pictures of Diane. But Paul is unplugged to the living and Clara Simpson is back on the screen.
“Dance! Dance faster!” Clara shouts her voice becoming shriller. Fast-paced rock and roll songs follow one after the other. Roger moves about the kitchen struggling to keep up with the music. He is getting weary. The cat-inflicted wounds on his forearms sting and continue to ooze blood.
Every time Roger slows down the knife draw opens and more knives come out and fly around the room. Hours later the music stops, and Clara’s picture on Paul’s screen is again supplanted. Diane is back in control.
She begins an intense discussion on modern art and Roger sits down at the kitchen table and rests. He realizes that if he engages in these discussions with Diane she will stay on the screen. But if he asks her anything about life after death she disappears and the dreaded Clara returns.
As time grinds away it is back and forth between the two dead women. Clara’s choice of music remains locked in the era of their high school years. But there are no more slow dances. Eventually, Diane gets the upper hand as Roger responds to her discussion prompts the best he can. They talk about political theory and philosophy and quiz each other on art history like they did back in their college days. They dwell for a long time on anthropology a favorite of Diane’s. Although he is exhausted Roger recognizes this is the most alive, he has felt since his wife died. The kitchen is a warm and convivial place when Diane is on Paul’s screen.
“This is wonderful,” he says. “I could do this with you forever.”
“Unfortunately, this ends at sunrise,” Diane replies. “By then either you and I will have defeated that tormented spirit, or you will have joined us in death.”
Again, Diane chastises Roger for his lack of involvement in causes. White noise follows Diane’s last remark as Clara tries to regain control of Paul, but the dance is coming to an end and Diane has proven to be the more powerful. The pale blue light of predawn shows in Roger’s kitchen window.
“How did this happen?” Roger asks.
“I don’t know Roger. Did you drop some peyote?” Diane asks. Roger looks at her picture. He swears it looks like she is laughing.
“Let me play a song for you as I leave. I loved you, Roger, more than you will ever know.”
Her picture remains on the screen as John Denver’s song Leaving on a Jet Plane begins to play. It was the song they would sing to each other whenever they were forced to be separated during their college years.
As the song plays Roger watches the new day arrive through his window. Tears are streaming down his cheeks. When the ends Roger looks over at Paul. The picture of Diane is gone, and Paul’s screen is dark.
Roger goes to his bedroom and tries to go to sleep. In a hypnagogic state, he begins to believe it was all a dream. He returns to the kitchen not sure if he has slept or not. He looks at the clock in the kitchen. It is late morning. All the knives that were scattered about the kitchen are back in the drawer. The dog food on the walls and countertop is all gone, and unplugged Paul is dark. When Bowser limps in for his breakfast and the cat with the lacerated tail appears, Roger realizes that it was no dream.
Roger retrieves the box Paul came in and uses it to pack up the virtual digital assistant and its power cord. Without feeding his pets their breakfast he leaves and goes out to his car.
For a moment he freezes with terror when after he shifts the car into reverse the screen for the backup camera comes on. But there are no ghostly pictures, just a better view of what is behind him than he sees in the rearview mirror.
With a sense of relief, he shifts into drive, the screen goes dark and he drives off to his son’s house. Only his granddaughter is home. He presents the device to her as a gift. She takes it into her room and plugs it in.
“It will respond to you if you say, ‘Hey Paul.’” He tells her.
“Hey Paul”, the granddaughter says, “Do you want to party?”
“Yes,” the male-sounding mechanical voice answers. “Let’s party.”
“Too cool! Thanks, grandad. Hey, I got a new tat. Wanna see it?”
“Your parents …”
“Yeah they’re upset but they’ll get over it.”
She raises the sleeve of her left arm and there just below the shoulder is the tattoo of a ballerina in a peasant costume. She is on toe her left leg fully extended behind her and her arms arabesque. Underneath her toe, in script font is the name Diane.
“That’s your grandmother’s name! She never danced a lick of ballet. What made you think of this?”
“It came to me in a dream,” the granddaughter replied and then defensively continued “I loved grandma. She was a hero to me, and I miss her terribly. I’m sorry you don’t like it.”
Roger hugs his granddaughter.
“She’s a hero to me too,” he says in a voice full of emotion. “The tattoo is wonderful, and your grandmother would have loved it.”
He looks into his granddaughter’s eyes and sees Diane’s. A feeling of wellbeing comes over Roger. He looks over at Paul who is displaying cartoonish drawings of people at a party. Roger smiles, first at Paul and then at his granddaughter.
He is sure the only spirit from the other side that will ever invade Paul will be Diane, the winner of the Giselle battle. That spirit would never torment his granddaughter. Perhaps Diane will again invade Paul and teach the young girl how to ask the right questions.
Back in his apartment, Roger rummages through boxes in a closet until he finds the box his wife had held onto since their college days. There are various keepsakes, beer mugs from a memorable party, a roach clip specially designed for her by a friend in the art department, books from classes she liked, her denim jacket, and her red bandanna. He takes the bandanna out and puts it on his head.
Roger goes into the living room and turns on his computer. As the black screen begins to light up, he wonders if he will ever stop flinching when screens come to life.
As the machine begins to boot up, he pulls down the family album and extracts the picture of Diane that Paul had displayed for him the night before. He places it next to the computer that has now fully come to life.
Roger finds blacklives matter.com and joins. He finds sites for several climate activist organizations and joins them all. On a desk calendar, he writes the information about upcoming demonstrations and begins to plan for the ones he will attend. He leans back in his chair and looks at the picture of his wife. He raises his right arm with a clenched fist and says
‘Up the ass of the upper class. Power to the people!”
LOVE IN THE WAKE OF COVID-19
Benji and the Tree
“Hey, look at that jerk, he’s huggin’ a tree!” “Where? What are ya talkin’ ‘bout Tommy?”
“Over there, stupid! Follow my finger. See the little turd huggin’ that tree?”
“Oh, Tommy, that’s Benji. You know, the one with the real good lookin’ sister. He’s got mental problems. You know Barbara.”
“That’s Barbara’s brother? Nah! I don’t believe it. He’s puny!. Hey! Let’s go give him a little what for!” “Barbara won’t like that, Tommy. I thought you had the hots for her. Benji’s her twin.”
“Oh bull! She’s twice his size. And he looks like he ain't put hair over his johnson yet.”
“I didn’t say they was identical.” He’s in a special class. My mom’s an aide there. She says he’s hard to reach.”
“I’ll show you how to reach him. Follow me.”
“Oh boy, here we go.”
“Hey kid, what’s your name?”
“Didn’t ya hear me? I asked ya for yer name. What is it?”
“C’mon Tommy. You’re a big athlete. You don’t need to put this kid down. It sure won’t help you none with Barbara.”
Tommy slammed Benji’s head against the tree with the heel of his hand. “Now I got yer attention, right? Now tell me yer name!”
Tears rolled down Benji’s cheeks. Cowering, he went to the far side of the tree, using it as protection. “C’mon Tommy, let’s go play some basketball.” “Just hang on, Mandy, I need to learn this kid a thing or two. Now tell me yer screwed up name an’ why you’re huggin’ this damn tree.”
Tears worked over his cheeks as he inched his way to the opposite side of the tree. His head faced the tree roots but his eyes searched upward, hiding behind his eyebrows, focusing on Tommy. Finally, he spoke, “I don’t like you.”
“Hey, he talks! I thought he was just a fake, a little doll! But he talks! And he cries! He’s just stupid!” “I’m not stupid. I’m smart. You’re stupid!”
“That does it! Now you’re goin’ to get a good beatin’ … ya little punk. No one calls me names an’ gets away with it!”
“Tommy! Look! Here comes Barbara! Oh, boy, this ain’t good.”
“Thomas Brandos! What do you think you’re doing? Get away from my brother!”
“Hey, screw you! In fact, after I give yer retard brother here a little what for, I might just let ya have a little of me.” “You’re the retard, Thomas, You’re the one who’s stayed back twice and still can’t manage multiplication. Benji’s in a challenging class. Your challenge is to stay off cigarettes, beer, and swearing. Come on Benji, let’s go home.”
Grabbing her arm, and causing a book to fall from the two she was holding, Tommy leered at Barbara, drawing her close to him. Hey, a little kiss, a little somethin’ else, maybe a big somethin’ else, and a little promise for more later, then maybe I’ll let up on your squirt brother.”
As he pushed his body against her and tried to push her against the tree, Barbara jerked her knee up between Tommy's legs, and as he retreated, followed the knee with a sharp toe kick; then she slammed the remaining book square in his face.
“ You haven’t had a chance to learn from that book yet. You’d be surprised at the powerful message it contains.”
“Mandy, I’m surprised at you. You should stop sucking up to this jerk.”
“Come on, Benji. Let’s go home.”
“What happened to Benji? His head is all bruised.” “Well, Ma, truth be told, Benji came out of it pretty well. I think I broke Thomas Brandos’s nose.” “Oh dear! Is this something I should hear about?” “No worries, Mom. Thomas and his sycophant friend Mandy were picking on Benji. Well, it was really just Thomas. Then he grabbed me and forced himself on me; so I retaliated.”
“A knee, a foot, a book,” Benji added. “She protected me … and herself. She had to. He was doing bad things.” “The book got the nose. You don’t want to know what the knee and foot found,” Barbara clarified.
“Oh, my gracious! If only I had started teaching at Lexington Prep earlier … you both could be going there – tuition free.”
“Mom, you’re doing just fine and so are we. We’ve both been tentatively accepted in college, and Benji will get the special attention he needs there. You’ve done everything you can.”
“We visit trees at Lexington,” Benji noted. “It’s better than books.”
“What was going on with that big maple today, Benji?” “I was listening. Barbara. It’s a warm week, It could make a mistake and run its sap.”
“You see Mom, Benji’s the only one in town who listens to trees, let alone talks to them. Explaining that to someone like Thomas is like speaking Korean to him!”
“Oh, Barbara, that reminds me. The Parks are coming over for dinner. They should be here shortly. There are some family troubles back home and they need a bit of people nourishment. Something about a quarantine. Hyo joo will explain it.”
“I like Hyo-joo,” Benji asserted. “She’s friendly and smart. She’s never mean."
“I love Hyo-joo. She’s so bright and perky. Always upbeat. You’re lucky to have her as a student, Mom.” “She’s a fine young lady. I think she might go into medicine eventually. Well, it’s very early, but she has no difficulty in any of her classes and loves the sciences.” “She’s good in botany,” Benji added.
“Biology with a bit of emphasis on botany since that’s my passion. it’s a small class but she stands out.” “She loves trees.”
“Yes, Benji, she seems to have a special interest in trees just like you do.”
“Is Kim coming too? You said the Parks, Mom. Is Kim Sang-ook coming?”
“Yes Barbara, Kim is coming too. I’d better get back in the kitchen.”
“Barbara loves Kim.” Benji stated this as if everyone knew and it was almost unnecessary to add.
“Benji! Close your trap! Kim is a wonderful, extremely bright young man. He has a wonderful sense of humor; so it’s only natural that I like to be with him. He talked me into learning Taekwondo. It comes so naturally to him, I admire
… well, anyone would admire a young man like him. He’s fun. Still, he has some growing up to do.”
A slight smile grew over Benji’s face as he walked away, saying, “Barbara loves Kim."
“I’ll help you in a minute, Ma. I’ll just put things away and then I’ll put a compress on Benji’s head and some tape over his mouth.”
“I’m OK. It didn’t hurt that much.”
“It’s not over yet.”
The Park Twins
“That’s the door Benji. Can you get it?”
“Hi Kim, Hi Hyo-joo.”
“What happened to your forehead, Benji?”
“Oh, nothing. I got too close to a Maple.”
“Benji was listening for an early sap run and a bully slammed his head against the tree. Hi Hyo-joo. Just put your coats on the rack there, Kim.”
Benji added, “He went after Barbara too!”
“Oooh, that was a mistake!” Kim spoke to the wall and his coat as if they were part of the party.
"I think the bully will remember the encounter longer than Benji,” Barbara explained with a smirk.
Hyo-joo handed her coat to her brother and joined Barbara. "Did he know that you are advanced in Taekwondo?”
"I tried to illustrate a toe kick, but he didn’t receive it well.”
“And the early sap run, Benji, did you hear any evidence of it?”
“No, Hyo-joo, not yet. The trees are smart. They will wait.”
“I love your passion for trees, Benji. No one cares like you do. I’d love to take you for walks in our home area. Trees are very important to us in Korea. The pine is the tree of Korea, you know. It stays green in winter, it shows
us how to go through hardship, as we do now. You would love Nami, a tiny island just filled with special trees, Benji.” “I’d like Korea. South Korea.”
“Yes Benji, South Korea is very different, at least now. We, in South Korea try to keep the past history of our country alive. We interact with our environment and appreciate it like you do. Did you know that we have scientists in South Korea who think like you do, who appreciate trees like you do? They did a study on older women in Korea and compared them when they traveled through the cities – and then again when they walked through the forests. You know what they found?”
“The women were happier in the forests. The trees liked it too.”
“The women’s bodies were happier. Their blood pressure was lower, their arteries were more elastic, and their lungs filled better.”
“The women, their bodies, and the trees were all happier. You always make sense, Hyo-joo.”
“Oh, thank you, Benji, you are so sweet. We share so much. You continue to be an inspiration for me. You know, at our home, we have beautiful gardens and lovely trees, don’t we Kim?”
Yes, and at least our parents can look out on those while they are in quarantine.”
“Quarantine? why are they in quarantine? Is there some terrible disease going about?” Barbara asked. “Well it’s complicated, isn’t it Hyo-joo? A long story. Do we have time before dinner?”
“Ma, do we have some time before dinner?”
A voice from the kitchen replied, “Enjoy your chat. We’ll eat in a half hour.”
“Perhaps Hyo-joo can explain it better. I try to make light of it, and she gets upset. You know, Hyo-joo will let the rest of us relax. She will do the worrying for all of us, and she can direct all the serious talk.”
“He’s impossible. But he knows just as much as I do. Go ahead Kim, you tell your side. It will definitely be the lighter side.”
“All right. You must excuse my simplification. I’m not the one who wants to go into medicine and loves four syllable words.” Pausing, to throw a smug smile at his sister, he continued. “That bad bug that your sometime doctor-president says is going to go away is considered very scary in South Korea. We got our first case the same day you did. Yes, the very same day. The difference is, we had been burned before and were still smarting eight years later. You see, we learned. Eight years ago, we had just one person come to Korea from the Middle East and then we had an epidemic.”
“That was MERS. The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome,” Hyo-joo explained.
“What did I tell you? She can’t resist.”
Hyo-joo stuck her tongue out at him.
“As I was saying, this virus, this microbe, this MERS, taught our health authorities a lesson eight years ago; so they were prepared. When they found out that a new germ, a new Corona virus, much like the past MERS, was
causing trouble in China, the KCDC was ready. Then, when that first case came to South Korea, the same day it came to the United States, our pencil pushers and our medical folks got together and traced all the people that this one person contacted; and then traced the contacts of the contacts, and then the contacts of …”
“Kim, they understand. They also understand your prejudice for your country, and hopefully forgive your emphasis on that.” Hyo-joo directed her further explanation to the Sappiance twins. “Kim’s pencil pushers are our Korean Center for Disease Control, our KCDC. Evidently the contacts ran into thousands. Anyone with a significant contact was isolated, ‘voluntarily’ if you will, which means they were put into quarantine.” “It is voluntary isolation.”
“That’s what I said, Kim. Kim is not so light hearted as he appears. You see him defending his country here and not so subtly criticizing yours. He thinks you won’t notice.” “Quarantine?” Benji asked.
“Yes, Benji, quarantine, as Hyo-joo says. But it could be worse. Quarantine used to mean 40 days and 40 nights. Now, they pick a number that is different depending on the bug. So they decided on two weeks. That’s what our parents are facing. Two weeks of isolation, looking at their garden, being alone but being looked after as well. They have friends dropping off food. Everyone keeps a long lance distance from them, but friends look after them.”
“Wow, that seems excessive, Kim. Our president says this is something like a cold. It’s just going to go away. He’s not making a big deal out of it. Don’t you agree, Benji?”
“He’s not a doctor.”
“Benji and I have somewhat different political slants. I guess we are like you. Twins with different views, more like, well … Please do go on. What happened with that MERS bug, Kim? That was a Corona virus as well?”
“Yes. And that is where we were burned. We still don’t know the details. There was a lot of hush hush, a need for secrecy in the beginning. But what turned into an epidemic was evidently due to just one person. The government didn’t want to scare people so they didn’t tell them what was going on.”
“Like we do now,” Benji added.
“Benji, now, you hush! Go on Kim.’'
“It’s all right Benji. I understand. Yes, we have the same problems. Not just in government, but between twins too. This MERS came to us late. It had been around for a few years before it came to South Korea. When it came, it was bad. It spread from Sunchang to Sokcho in the north; it spread even as far south as Jeju. That’s our island off to the south. So it was everywhere from south to north; and from east coast to west coast. Of course our country is very small, but in spite of efforts to contain things, I think they had nearly 200 cases that were ‘definite,’ one hundred and eighty some odd – and two out of ten died.” “Oh my, two out of ten!” Barbara exclaimed.
“Still, South Korea did better than the global
averages. Instead of two out of ten dying, as in South Korea, the global figures usually cite three to four out of ten … and sometimes more. South Korea did well with just under a 20% mortality. MERS was a real killer. We know we can’t really depend upon exact figures. It’s like it is here. Sometimes we get only a few teaspoons of the truth out of the bowl.”
“That’s not what Samchon says. He says the virus changed as it went from place to place.”
“Samchon is our uncle. He’s a doctor and a guiding light for my dear sister.”
“He was there, in Hong Kong, for the first one!” “True. That was the first. It was the first of these three maladies. That was SARS one. We pretty much escaped that one, but Samchon, our uncle, was unfortunate enough to be in Hong Kong where it was raging at the time. He ended up being recruited to help. We have heard that story many times. It all happened around the time that we were born, but we now know it as if we lived it. That’s what uncles are for. It makes us seem, and feel, a lot older … and wiser.”
“Samchon is a wonderful and brave man, Kim! One out of six died then, in Hong Kong.”
“Samchon varies the story a bit. And the figures are probably not that dependable either. It was a serious germ and he was lucky to escape alive.”
“So," Barbara queried, “this is a bit confusing, Kim. Your uncle, your Samchon, he was there for the first one,
that was in Hong Kong. Then there was, what was it, MERS, but we have still another? These two or three microbes are all closely related, Kim?”
“Yes, all in the same bad family. They are all Corona viruses. The first one started in China, like this one. That’s the first SARS or Corona virus. That’s the one he fought in Hong Kong. Samchon has many names for it, none of them nice.”
“Sorry Benji, I should have explained. SARS stands for Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome. It’s a bad disease that makes you very, very sick.”
“SEVERE, acute, respiratory syndrome, Kim. You see, Barbara, he’s not so smart as you think he is.” “He’ll do. So the first one and this one came from China.”
“Samchon says they start in the wet markets. Excuse me for taking over dear brother. But I revere Samchon, and his explanations, more than you do. Samchon has urged Kim to go into medicine and Kim always finds an obstinate alternative. These are viruses. Samchon says they are big viruses but since they are viruses you still can’t see them.”
“Not unless you carry an electron microscope around with you.”
“Quiet, Kim! They are little tiny balls shaped like crowns, that’s why they call the family the Corona family.” “Or, it’s like having a beer in Mexico.”
“Kim! I gave you a chance. Just let me finish and defend Samchon. He says that they start in the wet markets where different animals are gathered – animals that would never be so close together in nature. Corona viruses love to live in bats, especially horseshoe bats. But they live in other animals too, like civets, and many, many other animals. The MERS virus, the one that came from the Middle East, loves camels. When they go from one animal to another, that’s when the big trouble starts. Whether it’s in a bat, a civet, a camel, a pangolin, or whatever, going from there to a human is when it really gets bad. That’s when the virus jumps.”
“Yes, Benji, jumps. It jumps from one kind of animal to another; and when it does it becomes especially virulent.” “She means that it gains strength and makes people a lot sicker.”
“Thank you, brother. I do need your help! You see, he pretends not to know anything and hopes to know everything at the same time. He is impossible. But yes, he is my twin, and I give him his fair chance, Yes Kim? You see, no answer, just a nod. If he can’t win, he doesn’t play. Now, back to Samchon. Samchon says these Corona viruses love to change and you never know what they are going to do.”
“This is the same germ, the same virus, that we have here now?”
“Yes, Barbara, or at least almost the same. It’s sort of one, two, and three. Three variations. All bad. But because
we had so much trouble with number two, that was MERS in South Korea, we were extra ready for number three.” “And that’s why your parents are in quarantine? Are they sick?”
“No, they are fine … so far. But it can take a couple of weeks for the virus to show itself as an illness. That’s why the quarantine. Samchon, our uncle stays near our parents and keeps us informed.”
“So,” Barbara concluded, “there is a family of viruses, this Corona family, and it has had three escapees that have been like plagues. This one now is the third. Your uncle was there for the first which was around the time we were all born, so the story of the viruses spans our lives; and the third one, the one that is causing your parents to be in quarantine, is the one that is unleashed now. Is that right?”
“You see how she listens to you Kim? You want to make sure you don’t make mistakes. Barbara, you have summarized things very well, but you have ascribed a little more credit to my brother than he deserves. We hope for the best.”
“As do we!” Barbara averred.
Keep them Guessing
“That was a fine meal, Mrs, Sappiance, thank you.” “It wan’t any trouble and it was a pleasure to share it with you. I’m so sorry about your family.”
“Hyo-joo and I feel especially … well, being this far from home, you know, it’s difficult. But you are like a second home. We thank you. We must be getting back to our dorm.”
“Mom has a meeting and Benji wants to come and visit with the campus trees this weekend. Perhaps we’ll run into each other, Kim.”
“I hope so, Barbara. Will I see you in Taekwondo?” “Monday afternoon! Remember how they responded when we told them we were twins?”
“Oh yes, I can’t forget that one. They thought we were twins and yet were baffled by how that might be. We raised a lot of eyebrows on that one.”
“Like in Taekwondo, keep them guessing.”
“Two sets of twins.” Mother Sappiance added. “Each individual so different. My, my, Gregor Mendel would have had a field day here.” Then she retreated to her kitchen.
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. He is the author of five books, three of which have won awards. James’ writing has appeared in over thirty journals, including a prior issue of Scarlet Leaf Review. “Armadillo Slick” is an excerpt from his latest book, The Ping-Pong Champion of Chinatown, which is now available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08R95BJF9/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i0
Armadillo Slick (a novel excerpt)
Gertie McDowell, a young woman from rural Kentucky, has suffered a host of misadventures. She went to Holywood to seek movie stardom, but wound up posing on an online foot fetish site run by an entrepruener called the Nose. After a falling out with the Nose, she returned to backwoods Kentucky, started up a dress making business, and was tricked into muling meth for an outfit known as The Suger Shack Dress Company. Unbeknownst to Gertie, the “company” sewed powdered meth into the hemlines of the dresses she was delivering throughout the state. Sentenced to Alderson Prison, where Martha Stewart served time, Gertie became close friends with an inmate named Bertha Jean, who gave away a bunch of tampons so Gertie could get her hair done in the prison beauty salon. Gertie also began an amorous correspondence with Agent Jackson, the DEA agent who arrested her. Released from Alderson Prison on a technicality, Gertie relocated to San Francisco to escape the clutches of The Sugar Shack Dress Company. While in San Francisco, she was kidnapped into white slavery, but managed to get away. She was also nabbed by a contract killer known as the Muffler Man, and was rescued by Agent Jackson whom she later married.
“Armadillo Slick” begins when Gertie, having lost Agent Jackson to liver disease, relocates to South Texas to reside with Bertha Jean who is now out of prison.
It’s me again, Gertie McDowell. It’s been a while since I told you stuff, and I apologize for that. Since Agent Jackson passed last year, I’ve been doing rather poorly. Agent Jackson had him some liver trouble and he turned as yellow as pus, and he passed away in a hospital bed while I was laying beside him. When I phoned the Nose and told him that Agent Jackson had passed, the Nose had the sand to ask me if the bottle done him in. I guess the Nose knew that Agent Jackson had a likker habit, but that got me riled cause the Nose shoulda known that you oughta respect the dead. So I told him a man like Agent Jackson would never drink himself to death. I told him what Agent Jackson died of was cirrhosis of the liver.
The time’s been crawlin’ as slow as a slug since Agent Jackson passed, but last month I managed to turn twenty-three, and Ma she wrote me a letter. She wrote, Gertie, you’re a woman now, so it’s time you were showing some sense. It’s time you stopped posing on porn sites and selling illegal drugs, and it’s time you stopped consorting with perverts and common drunks. You had best put your trust in the Lord from now on and build up some treasure in heaven. And then she went on to assure me how I been heading for hell, and how I’ll be sittin’ on blisterin’ coals if I didn’t correct my ways.
Well, that ain’t no advice to give a girl who’s lost the love of her life. If the Lord had struck me with measles, I’d have been okay with that, but when he took away Agent Jackson, He charged me too much for my sins. The way I’m starting to look at it is that I got some more sin coming.
I ain’t in Witness Protection no more—I got pulled outta that. Some clerk from the Justice Department called me and said I weren’t never a witness. He said I didn’t qualify for protection, but that didn’t bother me none. It means I don’t gotta check with the feds every time I gotta pee.
So I’m living in South Texas now on a ranch near the Rio Grande. The ranch belongs to Bertha Jean—she’s outta prison now, and, after Agent Jackson passed, she invited me to come stay with her. Well, I needed a change of scenery, so I accepted her invitation ’cause Kentucky ain’t no place to be when you’re already feeling depressed. But a change of scenery don’t do that much to ease a heart that’s still bleeding. Especially when the scenery ain’t nothin’ but cactuses and chaparral flats.
Bertha Jean and I live alone on the ranch ’cept for a few longhorn strays and some chickens. The ranch used to belong to her Pa, but her Pa ain’t with her no more. Her Pa got stuck by a mesquite thorn and his blood got poisoned bad, and he willed the ranch to Bertha Jean before he passed away. Bertha Jean wishes he’d willed her a Lexus SUV instead, she says she ain’t got no use for the ranch ’cause she don’t like doin’ chores. Bertha Jean spends her time writing stories though she ain’t published none of ’em yet.
The ranch ain’t too far from the town of Laredo, which has a song named after it. When I get to feeling restless, I drive Bertha Jean’s pickup into town, and I ride this mechanical bull in a bar called Cherokee Sal’s. Bertha Jean ain’t allowed in the bar—she got a stay away-order from it—but I’m always welcome there ’cause I ride the bull real good. They call me Bronco Betsy since I hardly never get thrown, and the bar lets customers work the controls, so they can try to toss me off. There’s a sign in front of the bull that says, Unseat Bronco Betsy, and a waitress will serve a steak with trimmings to anyone who manages to throw me.
Now if a customer working the controls looks kinda down on his luck, I’ll let myself slip off the bull so he can have him a free dinner, but most of the time I stick to the bull like I been superglued to its hide. I gotta say this ’bout the bull, it’s pretty good for depression. Shucks, you can’t be dwelling on no broken heart when you’re hanging onto that bull, so there’s nights I’ll ride that bull maybe twenty or thirty times. I guess I don’t care about nothin’ as much as I do that mechanical bull.
Sometimes I sit on the veranda along with Bertha Jean, and we keep an eye out for wetbacks as we watch the sun go down. And sometimes I open the Bible to seek some comfort there, but the Bible don’t help me nearly as much as that doggone mechanical bull. Heck, the only verse that makes sense to me now is the one about Doubting Thomas. You can only read about Doubting Thomas in the Gospel According to John, ’cause Thomas he were a skeptic so he ain’t too popular. When the other disciples told Thomas that Jesus had rose from the dead, Thomas said he wouldn’t believe that unless he saw Jesus’ wounds. Well, Jesus came back a second time just to show Doubting Thomas his wounds, and Jesus weren’t happy with Thomas ’cause he didn’t have no blind faith.
Well, Doubting Thomas he had a point, and I told that to Bertha Jean. I told her I prayed my heart out when Agent Jackson was dying, but a buncha nothing is all I got for trusting in the Lord. I told her a buncha nothing weren’t helpful to me at all, and if I hadda pick between nothing and grief I’d just as soon settle for grief. Bertha Jean said the course of true love is bound to end in grief, and that’s why she weren’t allowed to go into Cherokee Sal’s. Bertha Jean said she was hoping one day to have a respectable love, but that the love of her life is a beer-serving woman in a rundown, honkytonk bar. She was talking ‘bout Brandi Fay, who is one of the waitresses there. She’s a skinny young woman who wiggles her butt, so’s to get herself bigger tips. Bertha Jean said that Brandi Fay’s father made her file that stay away order. That’s ’cause he’s too fulla religion to approve of two women in love.
“The heart wants what it wants,” said Bertha Jean and she sighed like a dog in a pound. That expression is real familiar to me—I saw it in The Hollywood Reporter. Woody Allen he said that when he married his Korean stepdaughter.
Well, we was sittin’ on the veranda and we was watchin’ the sun go down, and Bertha Jean gave me a letter to take to Brandi Fay. She didn’t put her name on the letter, she just signed it An Admirer. She said Brandi Fay’s father is as mean as a pit bull and beats Brandi Fay when she strays, and he tells her that God made Adam and Eve—He didn’t make Eve and Abby. She said if he knew that Brandi Fay was getting correspondence from her, he would probably hogtie Brandi Fay then lock her in a shed. Bertha Jean said she feels real bad about putting her lover at risk, but if bliss was their destination, it was only a sin away.
Well, I told you I got some sin comin’ to me, so I said I’d deliver the letter. ’Cause I owe a lot more to Bertha Jean than I do to the word of the Lord. Shucks, Bertha Jean she listens to me when I talk about my troubles, and she gave away tampons when we was in prison so I could get my hair done. Maybe I oughta mend my ways so’s to build up treasure in heaven, but I think I’d be a lot happier in hell if I helped out Bertha Jean.
When there weren’t no sunset left to watch, I hopped into Bertha Jean’s pickup, and I drove the truck to Laredo so’s to give Brandi Fay the letter. And when I noticed the tumbleweeds crossing the road and the buzzards soaring above me, I got to thinking ’bout that song that’s called “The Streets of Laredo.” It’s a song about a dying cowboy who keeps sayin’ that he done wrong. The cowboy is all repentant and he’s whiter ’an a sheet, and he asks that someone bang the drum slowly while he’s getting put in the ground. But the song don’t bother to mention what wrong that cowboy done. Shucks, he might have just peed on the sidewalk or shot him an egg-stealin’ dog.
Well, I parked the truck and went into the bar, and Brandi Fay she was there. She was flirting with a coupla cowhands who looked like they were drunk, and them cowhands were too dumb to realize she was buttering them up for tips. Heck, one of ’em grabbed Brandi Fay by the arm and tried to give her a kiss, and Brandi Fay she slipped out of his grip like a lizard shedding its tail. Brandi Fay ain’t that purty—she got a nose like a hawk—but she got a manner about her that’s really sociable. I never seen no one half as sociable as Brandi Fay.
Well, I handed Brandi Fay the letter and she looked at me kinda curious, like maybe I was serving her a notice to appear in court. “It’s from an admirer,” I explained and Brandi Fay she laughed. She got a laugh like a slot machine that’s spilling out silver dollars.
“Honey,” said Brandi Fay, “that doesn’t narrow it down.”
Well, I couldn’t say nothin’ more ’bout the letter, so I asked Brandi Fay a question. I asked her if Doubting Thomas had a point when he questioned the Resurrection.
“Hon,” said Brandi Fay, “I’m a waitress in a dive. If I believed in resurrections, do you think I’d be here serving drunks?”
I guess Brandi Fay had a point as well, so I asked her another question. I asked her if she knew what that cowboy done wrong in that song called “The Streets of Laredo.”
“Dunno,” said Brandi Fay with a wink. “He probably short-changed the waitress. Hey, why don’t you get your buns back on that bull and stop asking me silly questions?”
I wish everything came as easy to me as riding that mechanical bull. Ya just gotta shift your butt cheeks when you feel the bull starting to turn, and you just gotta hold out your riding hand in the opposite direction. But when you’re messing around with affairs of the heart, there ain’t no girth to hang onto, and I started feeling the way I felt when I dreamed about the Muffler Man. I felt that something real uncommon was sizing me up again, so I weren’t surprised when I saw this strange fella working the controls of the bull.
The fella he looked like nobody that I ever seen before. He looked ’bout as tall as a grandfather clock even though he was sitting down, and his face was as cracked as an ol’ red barn that had been in a hundred storms. The Stetson hat he was wearing was as wide as a barrel cactus, and his jeans were so bleached from the sun that they was practically white. The fella he hadda be sixty years old, but he looked as strong as an oak tree, and I ain’t seen no one control the bull the way that fella was doin’. He was working the dials and the joystick like he was playing a concert piano, and whenever some dude climbed onto the bull, he got thrown in less ’an three seconds.
The fella turned and looked at me as if he been waiting for me to show up, and he spoke to me real familiar like he’d known me all my life. “I had almost givin’ up waitin’ for you,” he said in this lazy drawl, and I felt the chill of winter go running down my spine.
“I hope you ain’t here to arrest me,” I said. “All I done was deliver a letter.”
The fella he rose to his feet and he smelled of tobacco and whiskey, and he gazed at me like a squirrel that had spotted itself a nut. “No need to fret, lil’ darlin’,” he said as he tipped his Stetson hat. “Everything about you is arrestin’ already, so why would I need to do that?”
He smiled at me kinda gentle like he was havin’ himself some fun, and he kept looking at me like he knowed me since I was knee-high to a duck. And the more that fella looked at me, the creepier I felt. He was acting like he had purchased me from them San Francisco slavers.
“Mister,” I said, “you don’t need to do nothin’ but tell me who you are.”
The dude stroked his jaw as if I’d asked him a question that needed real deep thought. Like maybe he had him a secret that he weren’t too inclined to share. When he finally spoke, his voice sorta flowed like water in a crik. “Darlin’,” he said, “you can call me Armadillo Slick.”
Well, there weren’t nobody mounting the bull no more, so the fella and I had a chat. He told me he was a horse trader and he had a spread north of Laredo, and it got pretty lonesome on the range, and that suited him just fine. But he said that now an’ then he got him an itch for some female company, and when he got the itch he drove into town and roped him a local filly. He said there weren’t no place better ’an Cherokee Sal’s for curing him of his itch.
Well, that fella seemed kinda knowledgeable, so I asked him about that cowboy song. I asked if he knowed what that cowboy done wrong to get himself put in the ground.
The fella he filled a shot glass with whiskey and he contemplated the question, then he said, “Ya don’t gotta do nothing wrong to get yourself put in the ground. The only thing doin’ wrong might do is hurry it up a bit.”
I said, “I’ll bet that cowboy did nothing but shoot him a thievin’ dog.”
The dude took him a sip of whiskey and swished it around in his mouth. “Say, lil’ darlin,” he said, after swallowin’ the whiskey, “how come I get the impression that you’ve been tempting fate?”
Dern, it was like that fella could see right into my soul. When I said all I done was deliver a letter, he said, “That ain’t the point. Folks are callin’ you Bronco Betsy. You’re famous in most of the county. Don’t you know sooner or later you’re gonna get thrown from that bull?”
“Shucks,” I said, “I seen Urban Cowboy six or seven times. John Travolta tempted fate much worse ’an me, and he didn’t get thrown at all. He rode out that bull in Gilley’s Bar and won himself a contest.”
The dude opened a pouch of Redman Tobacco and he tucked a chaw under his cheek, and he said, “You ain’t never rode a bull controlled by Armadillo Slick. If you can last the full eight seconds when it’s my hand on the joystick, I’ll eat a red hot pepper and take you out to dinner.”
Well, I didn’t say nothin’ more to him, I just climbed up on the bull. And the bull started twirling and jerking so fast it was like I was in a tornado. The room weren’t nothin’ but a blur, my head snapped like a whip, and the girth bit into my fingers like it had a set of teeth. But I lasted the full eight seconds and folks in the bar started clapping, and that dude hung his head like a scalded dog when he switched off the controls.
“’Darlin’,” he said, “you just got the best of Armadillo Slick. Let’s find an Outback Steakhouse because I’m takin’ you out to dine.”
I’m gonna change the subject for a moment ’cause I remember something Ma told me. She said a woman has just one true love, and it’s all downhill after that. She said the love of her life weren’t Pa even though they was wed for twenty-five years. She said the fella that captured her heart was a dude that cleaned out porta-potties. She met him at a bluegrass festival when she was only sixteen, and they had ’em a torrid affair that only lasted a week. She said the fella left her to marry his high school sweetheart, and her heart went to sleep after that and never woke up again. She said no one ever rang her chimes like that porta-potty fella.
While I was sittin’ in that Outback Steakhouse with Armadillo Slick, I remembered Ma telling me that, and my heart broke all over again. So I told him I was a widder and I weren’t in no market for sex, and I weren’t gonna love nobody ever again like I loved Agent Jackson.
Armadillo Slick he was dipping cheese fries into a cheddar and bacon dip, and he said that didn’t bother him none ’cause them cheese fries were as good as sex. And he said a blooming onion was even better ’an sex, provided that you ordered it with two cups of spicy sauce. “Anyhow,” he said, “once I’ve mounted a filly, I like to dump her fast. I ain’t sure I’m in that big a hurry to get myself shed of you.”
Well, I suppose the dude was having himself some fun at my expense. But he seemed to be kinda friendly and he weren’t too hard to talk to, and I wanted a second opinion about what I was doin’ for Bertha Jean. I told him I done time in Alderson Prison and that’s where I met Bertha Jean, and Bertha Jean gave some tampons away so I could get my hair done. I said I was beholdin’ to Bertha Jean ’cause my hair got fixed real nice, so I was helping Bertha Jean hook up with a woman she weren’t allowed to see.
Armadillo Slick told me he knew Bertha Jean since she was a teenager stealing from pharmacies, and he knew Bertha Jean been to prison for soliciting bogus donations. He said he weren’t aware that she was out of the pokey now, and he didn’t know that she’d found herself a friend as good as me. “Ain’t it amazin’,” he said, “what a handful of tampons will fetch?”
I gotta say this ‘bout Armadillo Slick—he sure could make me laugh.
Armadillo Slick kept sipping whiskey while we was eating them Outback steaks, and the likker musta primed his tongue ’cause he told me some more about him. He told me he was a fifth-generation Texan, the kind who likes open ranges, but one day he married a Kickapoo whore he met in a Dallas brothel. He said that was a damn fool thing to do ’cause he weren’t sober at the time, and women get pricklier ’an grass spurs if ya let ’em hang around. But at least that whore had the decency to run off with a veterinarian, and she left him a note that said she weren’t suited to his all his ramblin’ ways. He said that nothin’ came of that marriage but a blazing dose of the clap and a daughter he ain’t seen for thirty years ’cause she’s a church-goin’ type of person.
“Didja make her stay home and slop a hog?” I asked Armadillo Slick. “I ain’t gonna fault your daughter none if ya had her sloppin’ a hog.”
Armadillo Slick he laughed and said, “We ain’t here to talk about hogs. We’re here so I can tell you how to ride a robot bull proper.” Well, he took another a slug of whiskey and he ate the last bite of his steak, then he said, “Darlin’, when you’re ridin’ one of them bulls, you don’t wanna hang on every time. The only time you wanna stay on it is once the odds against you are high.”
He went on to explain that there’s bull ridin’ contests in bars all over Texas, and that there’s bookies laying odds as to who’s gonna win them contests. The trick, he said, is to fall off the bull when they’re having the practice rounds, and to hang onto the bull for the full eight seconds after the odds against you are set. “That’s how you bring home the bacon,” he said, “without havin’ to slop no hog.”
Well, that’s how things got started between me and Armadillo Slick. He entered me in bull riding contests in bars all over Texas, and the time it didn’t drag so much when we was on the road. We entered bull riding contests in Austin and Houston and San Antonio, and I made it a point to fall off the bull quick during the practice rounds. By the time the final round began, the odds against me were steep, ’cause the folks in them cities weren’t yet aware that I was Bronco Betsy. I won almost all the contests though the prize money weren’t that much, but Armadillos Slick made thousands of dollars by betting with bookies and customers. We split the money fifty-fifty ’cause that’s what I thought was fair. Otherwise, I think Armadillo Slick woulda let me have it all.
One time we drove all the way to Dallas where they got a bar called Gilley’s. It’s a spinoff of that bar near Houston where they filmed Urban Cowboy. I seen that movie a coupla times ’cause I really like John Travolta, but the character he played in that movie almost turned me offa him. He played this phony cowboy who was dumb as a pimpleback oyster. All the dude did was dance the two-step and knock his girlfriend around, and he couldn’t even order a hamburger without throwing it at the waitress. I suppose John Travolta was playing a fella a whole lot dumber than him, but after that movie came out, I’m surprised that he kept any fans at all.
Well, at that bull riding contest at Gilley’s, we got into a peck of trouble. After I won the contest and collected a five hundred dollar prize, a buncha rowdies approached us while we was in the parking lot. One of them rowdies asked me if I was Bronco Betsy ’cause he’d heard of this girl in Laredo who never got thrown off the bull. The dudes had lost a passel of cash to Armadillo Slick, and, since things didn’t seem on the up-and-up to ’em, they wanted their money back.
Armadillo Slick asked them to wait while he fetched his money belt, and he reached into the cab of his pickup truck and pulled out a two-barreled shotgun. He said, “How about double or nothing, boys?” and them rowdies scattered like crows. And Armadillo Slick he emptied both barrels an inch or two over their heads.
As he drove us back to Laredo, Armadillo Slick whooped like a rustler. He said we weren’t hustling Gilley’s no more ’cause he don’t like the company there, and he said he never had as much fun with his daughter as he was having with me.
I believe Doubtin’ Thomas would have plenty of doubt about me and Armadillo Slick. ’Cause I don’t suppose I was building up a speck of treasure in heaven. But treasure in heaven ain’t tempting enough when you’re hurting to get through the day. And the day didn’t weigh so heavy when I was with Armadillo Slick.
After we hustled Gilley’s and headed back to Laredo, Armadillo Slick he kept swigging from a bottle of Johnny Walker. The pickup truck started weaving like he was driving on ice, and it would only have been a couple of seconds ’til we was wrapped around a tree. So I asked him to pull over ’cause my bladder was about to burst, and, after we both had a pee, I slipped behind the steering wheel. Shucks, just ’cause my heart was broken didn’t mean I was in a hurry to leave this world. It wouldn’t have been no improvement to be sittin’ on blistering coals.
Once we got back to Webb County, I drove us to Bertha Jean’s ranch house. Armadillo Slick he needed to drink a pot of real strong coffee, and no one makes coffee stronger than Bertha Jean. It hits you like a bolt of lightning snaking outta the sky. And since we’d done enough sinning to earn us a bolt of lightning, it’d be best if it sprang from a pot of coffee and not the fist of the Lord.
There weren’t no lights on in the ranch house, but I could still make out Bertha Jean. She was sitting on the veranda, watching our truck approach, and a harvest-like moon had lit her up like she been touched by Saint Elmo’s Fire. It looked like she weren’t of this world no more and was waitin’ to tell me goodbye.
Well, I sat down on a rocker beside her and a chill kinda tickled my neck, and I heard a horned owl hoo-hooing when Bertha Jean took my hand. She didn’t say nothing at first, she just sat there holding my hand. And Armadillo Slick he stayed in the truck ’cause he weren’t fit for nothing but sleeping.
After a while, Bertha Jean started jawing ‘bout our time at Alderson Prison. She talked about how nice my hair looked after she gave them tampons away, and she talked about how I made her proud when I skunked everyone at checkers. She even talked about Warden Jordan and how he was fulla surprises, and how it was hard to know if he was speaking to you on account of his lazy eye. But it didn’t seem like Bertha Jean was sharing no memories. It was like she was reading from a book that she maybe found in a bus station. And Armadillo Slick he kept snoring ’cause he weren’t fit for nothin’ else. He sounded like a chain saw that was cutting down a tree.
After we sat on the veranda a spell, Bertha Jean changed the subject. She told me about something she said she been keeping inside her for a while. She said heaven was surely a sin away if she could run off with Brandi Fay, but if the sin was committed by Brandi Fay’s father, things weren’t gonna work out so well. She said Brandi Fay’s father had served time in Huntsville for stabbing an Austin man to death, and he had knocked off several other folks for which he had never been caught. She said that folks called him Abraham after that fella in the Bible—that’s ’cause he’s all the time quotin’ scripture and wielding a knife for the Lord. She said he visited her last Sunday and his eyes were fulla fire, and he was carrying the letter I delivered to Brandi Fay. And he told her that it weren’t proper of her not to sign the letter, ’cause the letter was her death certificate and her name oughta be on that.
When Bertha Jean told him the Bible only gave him the right to kill beasts, he said women that fornicate with each other ain’t no better ’an beasts. He said he weren’t gonna kill her on a Sunday ’cause the Sabbath belongs to the Lord, but he was gonna come back in a coupla days and put her in the ground.
Well, the moon was as bright as a headlight and that owl was as loud as a horn, and I realized how much them tampons were gonna cost me now. There weren’t no doubt in my mind about what Bertha Jean wanted me to do. ’Cause Bertha Jean she’s a felon and felons ain’t allowed to do much. They’re only allowed to get carved up by fellas that folks call Abraham.
Ya know, sin is as cheap as a dime-store ring when you’ve committed a passel of them. ’Cause untangling a pack of transgressions is harder than committing yourself one more. So I took some comfort in knowing that I was heading straight to hell, and that them coals wouldn’t burn no hotter if I bought Bertha Jean a gun.
I gotta tell ya about this dream I had after talking with Bertha Jean. I ain’t sure why I gotta call it a dream ’cause it was as real as a bellyache. But when something don’t lend itself to explaining and sorta shakes you up, people ain’t gonna be comfortable unless you call it a dream. So I’m gonna say I was dreaming ’cause I gotta finish this story.
The dream it happened in Bertha Jean’s guestroom, which weren’t fit for no visitations. There weren’t nothing in that guestroom but a cot and a broken back rocker, and my clothes were strewn all over the floor ’cause I had no place to store ’em. Well, I felt a breeze tickling my forehead when I was getting close to sleep, and when I opened my eyes, I saw Agent Jackson sitting in that broken back rocker. He was sitting there quiet as a lizard and he was reading a newspaper, and he was flipping through the pages like he was hoping the news would change.
“How are you doing, Gertie?” he said, and he kept on turning pages. He was probably real uncomfortable to be haunting so messy a room.
Well, I guess he needed to hear him a lie, so I said I was doin’ well. And when he didn’t respond, I knew that the talking was gonna be up to me. So I told him I was keeping company with a fella named Armadillo Slick, but that I weren’t gonna have no sex with him ’cause we’d rather eat blooming onions. I said I never liked onions much, but they taste real good when they’re blooming, and then I asked him how heaven was ’cause I wanted to be polite.
Agent Jackson he didn’t say nothin’ for what seemed like a real long time. He just kept reading the newspaper and glancing out the window, and I weren’t sure he had even heard me’ ’til he finally cleared his throat. “It’s sort of like San Francisco here,” he said and he turned another page. “I always liked San Francisco, Gertie. Except for the traffic and bums.”
I told him I liked San Francisco too, especially Golden Gate Park, and I liked when we sat by that big ol’ pond and watched them geese eating bugs.
“Did we?” he said, and he rattled the newspaper. “Things kind of get away from you here.”
Well, I ain’t sure why Agent Jackson had come to pay me a visit. Even when he spoke, he never looked in my direction. But that was probably for the best ’cause my face was scalded with tears, and Agent Jackson seemed troubled enough without seeing no woman’s tears.
As I looked at Agent Jackson, I remembered somethin’ Ma told me. She said folks in heaven might pay you a visit, but they weren’t gonna hang around long. ’Cause the dead got business they gotta get on with, and that business don’t include you.
But I sensed that trouble was coming my way and it felt like it was close, and I sensed that Agent Jackson knew that too, but weren’t allowed to do nothin’ about it. I don’t think that Agent Jackson was pleased that he hadda get back to heaven. I don’t think heaven was meant for a manly fella like him.
After a while, he pushed himself out of the chair and came over to where I was laying, and he stroked my head with his palm, which felt as chilled as a channel catfish. And that rocker it swayed like a pendulum while he was telling me goodbye. He told me he’d love me forever, and he kissed me on the forehead. And his breath it smelled like ashes that was cooling in a stove.
When I woke the next morning, I wondered why I hadn’t heard Bertha Jean’s rooster. She has this bantam rooster that’s been waking us up at sunrise, and she says she’d like to wring his neck, but she needs him to breed with the hens. So I got outta bed and went out on the porch, and I noticed the sun was high. And I saw this big ol’ javelina gobblin’ that rooster up.
I didn’t see Bertha Jean nowhere and her pickup truck was gone, and Armadillo Slick he was sitting on the porch all by himself. His feet was propped up on the railing and his hat was shading his eyes, and he was sipping a cup of coffee and watching that rooster get et.
When I let him know that Agent Jackson came to me in a dream, Armadillo Slick blowed on his coffee and had himself a stretch. He said he don’t put no stock in dreams ’cause there’s other things needing attention. He said one of them was for me to learn the right way to fall off a bull.
“Darlin’,” he said, “when you’re ridin’ for money ya can’t be too obvious. If folks think you’re tryin’ to fool ’em during the practice round, the odds on you will go way down and we won’t be makin’ no money. Ya gotta hang on a few seconds longer, so folks won’t start gettin’ suspicious.”
He said we was goin’ to Cherokee Sal’s so I could put in some practice time, and I told him I weren’t goin’ nowhere ’til he shot that javelina. I was real fond of that rooster, ya know—I even gave him a name. I named him Little Prince Charles ’cause he was a cocky little fella, and I weren’t gonna stand there a second longer and watch Prince Charles get et.
Armadillo Slick said he couldn’t do nothin’ about Prince Charles getting et. He said Bertha Jean told him her story about how she been tempting fate, so he gave her the loan of his shotgun so she wouldn’t get stuck with a knife. He said there’s too many crazies around with murder on their minds, and them crazies don’t oughta be given no chance to put folks in the ground.
“Now I ain’t into christenin’ roosters,” he said, “but I did give that shotgun a name. I call it the Faith of Job because it gives a soul confidence. Fate ain’t gonna be tempted so much when you’re carrying the Faith of Job.”
Well, it looked like Armadillo Slick had taken my sin off my hands. And I guess I felt beholding enough to let Prince Charles get et. So I gave him a smooch on the forehead, and we got into his truck. And we headed to Cherokee Sal’s, so I could learn how to fall off a bull.
The tumbleweeds were floating like ghosts as we headed down the road, and I never saw so many turkey vultures hanging in the sky. And I remembered Bertha Jean talking to me with that heavenly glow in her eyes, and how that glow weren’t dimmed by the thought of some fella carrying a knife. So when we parked outside of Cherokee Sal’s and I saw a police car sitting there, I figgered the Faith of Job mighta had something to do with that.
Bertha Jean was sitting in the back of the police car, and she looked like she was in a trance. And a crowd had collected around Brandi Fay who was talking to a couple of cops. And Brandi Fay was pale as a corpse and holding onto one of the cops, and she weren’t acting sociable no more—she was shaking her head like a mule.
Well, I felt like a wart on a peacock when I hopped outta the truck, ’cause I didn’t feel too compatible with what was goin’ on. Bertha Jean didn’t look as though she wanted no company, and Brandi Fay was raving like she witnessed the Resurrection. I ain’t that adaptable to folks when they’re raving about religion—not since I hadda chase them pigs out of the church.
“It had to be a miracle,” I heard Brandi Fay telling the cops. “She pointed that shotgun right at my chest and said heaven was a sin away. And then she pulled both triggers, but the shotgun didn’t go off.”
“Her shotgun needs a good cleaning,” a cop said to Brandi Fay. “A murder-suicide ain’t gonna succeed unless you use a clean gun.”
“Thank god, she’s a mess,” said Brandi Fay, and a chuckle came into her throat. “She got things outta order too. She should have shot herself first.”
Brandi Fay started telling the cop that she hardly knew Bertha Jean. She said Bertha Jean came into the bar one day and she gave Bertha Jean a smile, then she served her a free margarita ‘cause it was happy hour. And Bertha Jean said one happy hour didn’t compare with eternal bliss, and she came back to the bar every day for a month and kept trying to sneak a kiss. Brandi Fay said she put a stay-away order on her ’cause she didn’t want that much bliss.
When I felt a hand on my elbow, I thought it was the hand of the Lord, but it was only Armadillo Slick who was leading me back to his truck. He said Bertha Jean told him a mighty fine story and she oughta get credit for that, and that when she goes back to prison, she’ll have plenty of time to write herself a best seller. When I told him that Brandi Fay’s father don’t deserve to be in no book, he said Brandi Fay’s father passed ten years ago, so I don’t gotta get worked up about that. He also said I don’t gotta get worked up about witnessing no miracle, ’cause it didn’t take more than a flathead screwdriver to pull the firing pins out of that shotgun.
As we pulled out of the parking lot, he patted me on the arm, and he said we was heading to the Outback Steakhouse to share a blooming onion. He said this consternation weren’t nothin’ a blooming onion won’t fix.
I got nothing else to tell you except that I ain’t left South Texas yet. I’m hanging around with Armadillo Slick and we’re still entering bull riding contests, but folks are startin’ to recognize me so our hustle it ain’t gonna last. And I’m still staying at Bertha Jean’s ranch house ’cause her chickens have gotta be fed, but if that javelina starts lickin’ his chops, them chickens ain’t gonna last neither. But I still owe a favor to Bertha Jean ’cause she gave all them tampons away, and feeding her chickens is a million times better than helping her kill Brandi Fay.
I wrote Ma a letter and told her what happened ’cause I needed to clear my head. And Ma she wrote back and told me that I must have a guardian angel. Well, I suppose Ma got it right again, but I feel kinda riled about that. ’Cause them angels ain’t fair as to who they protect and who they let fall through the cracks. Agent Jackson deserved some protecting, but they let darkness snatch him away. And the Nose he needed to keep his muse, and they let him get robbed of his talent. Shucks, them angels have gotta be blinder than moles and without the sense God gave a turnip. But I guess fairness got nothing to do with it, and I’ll have to make do with that.
I also gotta make do with the fact that they ain’t too presentable. If one of ’em is gonna lighten my load, I’d expect him to have some wings. I’d also expect him to glow like a candle and carry himself a harp, and not to be sluggin’ down whiskey all day and watchin’ as roosters get et. Now I ain’t no expert on saviors—I got too much sin for that. But I never thought mine would be no drunk named Armadillo Slick.
Bruce Kamei is a retired US federal immigration special agent. Prior to becoming a “Fed,” he received his MFA from Wichita State University (long time ago). In his 25 years as Migra, he experienced and saw situations that most could not imagine, and how it affects both the immigrants and agents; no one escaped unscathed.
The conditions at these sweatshops kept getting worse with every warrant service, thought Takeshi. This sweatshop had three enforcers guarding the entrances. After the employees went inside, the enforcers padlocked the doors. Inside, the rows of sewing machines were arranged like a checkerboard. Beside every sewing machine was a piece work rack with three-foot high steel poles in the front and on the sides so the completed work could be stacked straight and consistently; only the rolling piece work racks could maneuver between the aisles. It created an assembly line: one worker would sew a sleeve to the body of the shirt, put it on the rack, where it would be sent to another worker to sew the other sleeve. The payment for one sleeve was usually two to three cents. If there were a fire, most would not be able to escape, thought Takeshi. The worst place was the lunch room. Picnic tables were placed in the toilet area and the stench was unbearable; five new and three experienced agents threw up. There were even ten children, ages three to five. The parents brought them to work since they couldn’t afford babysitters or were sick.
As standard operating procedure, a briefing was held prior to the warrant service. Special Agent Peter Kim was assigned the role of an Asian delivery boy to lure the enforcers to his truck, where other agents would detain them. Five agents were assigned to secure the back door so the workers couldn’t jump over the back fence and run onto the freeway. The California Highway Patrol stopped freeway traffic in both directions prior to serving the warrant. Five other agents were to climb onto the roof so people could not jump off the sides of the building.
After the warrant was served and completed, the agents gave money to buy toys and diapers at Toy R Us, and Happy Meals for the children.
“Going to be a massive fine,” said the case agent Simon Porter. “Told the owner that these people can’t be employed here.”
Just then, an Asian man drove up in a black Mercedes. “I have lawyer! I have lawyer!” he yelled, waving his arms and stomping up and down.
“These sweatshop owners need to go to jail, not just pay a fine,” said Takeshi.
“Tsukemoto!” yelled Supervisory Special Agent George Flores. “Have an easy Bag N Tag for you. Think you can handle something this easy? You identify and arrest, easy and simple. Bring Walsh with you.”
All the agents referred to George as Jack, for his big head reminded people of Jack In The Box. When Jack was not selected for promotion, he filed a racial discrimination suit and wrote a memo that he wanted to be officially referred to as Jorge. After filing the suit, he placed plaques and awards on the walls and shelves in his cubicle.
“A City of Torrance Councilman Tony Kriss sponsored a Flamenco dance troupe. They apparently walked out on him, demanded more money, and are now trying to extort him. Kriss cancelled his sponsorship and requested they be deported. I’ll have James Walsh help you. Maybe you can learn something from him,” said Jack and slid a file across the desk to Takeshi.
Later, Takeshi and Walsh looked at the working file, which only contained the predication and synopsis. The troupe’s name was Vivo Paco Casares. Paco was the troupe leader, and Enrique Gastor played the percussions. The three dancers were Sara Aranda, Carmen Baras, and Cristina Gomez. They entered the United States only three months ago to give performances as highly skilled H-1 workers.
“Let me do the routine checks on them and tomorrow we can go talk to Kriss. I’ll make the appointment,” said Takeshi.
“Why do you let Jack talk to you like that? No one has to put up with that shit.”
“You know me--I’ve never been confrontational with my bosses,” said Takeshi. “Besides, it was great pleasure to tell him I wouldn’t testify on his behalf that being a minority I was being discriminated against.”
At eleven a.m. the next day, Takeshi met Walsh at the Torrance City Hall to meet with Tony Kriss. His third story office was decorated with plaques from the Kiwanis Club, Rotary Club, Torrance City of Commerce Distinguished Citizen of the Year, and many others. There were photos of him in the Navy, and a picture of him with Governor Brown.
“Thank you for coming here today,” said Kriss. “As I told your director, I sponsored Vivo Paco Casares to give performances to further showcase this beautiful dance to our communities. After five weeks, the troupe refused to perform, and Paco demanded more money. That’s when I contacted your director. We play golf together.”
“Sir,” said Takeshi. “Did you have a disagreement with him? Like artistic or otherwise?”
“None. We got along great until he wanted more money than agreed upon.”
“Did you two have a contract?” asked Takeshi.
“May we see it?”
“I’m afraid the contract is at my lawyer’s office.”
“Sir, what were the terms of the contract, like the amount of compensation, schedule, housing costs, and others?” asked Walsh.
“My lawyer said I shouldn’t divulge that to anyone.” said Kriss.
“Sir, you realize under the conditions of the H-1 petitions, you’re responsible for providing the cost of the tickets for them to return to Spain?” asked Walsh.
“Why should I? They walked out on me?”
“But that’s what the regulations say,” said Walsh.
“I’ll just have to take up that issue with your director, now won’t I.”
“Do you know where the troupe is staying?” asked Takeshi.
“I hired a private detective to follow them. Here’s the address,” said Kriss, writing it down and handing it to Takeshi. I also wrote the address where they are performing. For the next two weeks they’ll be at the El Cid restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, as well as other places. Those places should be prosecuted for hiring illegals.”
“Sir, as per regulations, did you file a letter of withdrawal for the visas you wish cancelled?” asked Takeshi.
“That is with my lawyer also.”
“Sir, is there anything else you can tell us or provide us with other documentation pertaining to this case?” asked Takeshi.
“It’s very difficult for me to tell you this. But according to my sources, the women are performing lap dances at these restaurants after closing.”
“Lap dances?” asked Walsh, looking at the file.
“I made such a mistake petitioning them. Please let me know what happens. I will certainly call your director to thank him for your time.”
“Did you believe that guy?” Takeshi asked Walsh outside.
“I looked in the file. Why would anyone pay money for lap dances by middle aged women?” asked Walsh.
Takeshi and Walsh went to the El Cid Restaurant. The Vivo Paco Casares
dinner shows were sold out for the rest of the week, so Takeshi bought tickets for the week after; it wasn’t cheap, thought Takeshi, one hundred and fifty dollars for one person. Takeshi knew he would not get reimbursed.
“When are you going hook them up?” yelled Flores, two days later.
“Once we can get more evidence they’re here working illegally,” said Takeshi.
“What else do you need to know other than their visas have been cancelled?
It’s a simple Bag N Tag!”
“Look,” said Takeshi. “I don’t even have the original file from the regional office. The last thing you want to do is not follow standard operation procedures. If the troupe goes to court, and their lawyers find irregularities, you’ll be held responsible. Now, that wouldn’t look good for your suit,” said Takeshi.
“Good comeback,” said Walsh to Takeshi.
Flores stopped talking.
On the day Takeshi and Walsh were to go see the performance, they stopped at the INS Western Regional Office to get a copy of the visa applications. Everyone in the troupe was supposedly to be paid sixty-five thousand for one year, three thousand a month for housing, and twenty-five hundred a month for food and other expenses, plus fifteen percent of the total profit. The contract also included a vehicle for each of the performers. They were to perform five times a week, once a day. He didn’t see an application requesting the visas be cancelled.
Takeshi and Walsh went to see Dennis Perry, the adjudicator in charge of
sponsoring entertainers. Takeshi gave him the file.
“Not Kriss again!” said Dennis after he opened the file.
“You know him?” asked Takeshi.
“Last year it was the group of Russian dancers and an Irish band, and the year
before a group of Japanese singers. He tried to cancel his sponsorship just like this one. These sponsors always try to get INS to deport these people so they don’t have to pay them. It’s a civil case!”
“Can a person just say they wouldn’t be sponsoring someone just like that?”
“No, they can’t. There has to be an approved request for termination. And the withdrawal has to be legally binding, usually done by an attorney. So, it’s not a valid withdrawal. Bet this Kriss didn’t pay them?”
“Flores wants a Bag N Tag on them.”
“You mean Jack? I told him several times you can’t just go arrest these entertainers without the proper paperwork. I certainly wouldn’t hook them up unless there’s an approved withdrawal. The Japanese singers hired some big-time attorney and sued us for wrongful arrest and detention. In fact, it was the immigration judge who told the singers to sue the shit out of us.”
“Why do we let people like Kriss keep petitioning people with his record? Can’t you flag the Krisses of the world?”
“We did, but all the rights groups and the American Immigration Lawyers Association threatened a lawsuit that flagging them would only deter cultural exhibitions from being introduced to the American public—that’s their line. Then they called every politician in their pockets to cancel the flaggings.”
“Did our lawyers do anything about that?”
“You mean the jellyfishes!”
The dinner started at six o’clock. The dance started at seven o’clock. EL Cid was filled to capacity. The troupe came onstage and introduced themselves one by one. Then the dance started, slow at first but rapidly speeding up. Paco played the guitar and sang, and Enrique played the drums. The dancers started off by dancing individually, then together. It didn’t seem like an hour and a half when the performance ended.
The crowd gave a fifteen-minute standing ovation, with three curtain calls and the audience chanting, “Paco!” “Paco!” “Paco!”
After the dinner and performance, Takeshi and Walsh conducted surveillance from the parking lot across the street. Fifteen minutes after the performance, the troupe members came out. Walsh radioed the license plate and found the vehicle was registered to a Juan Talega of Burbank. Takeshi and Walsh followed the vehicle until it arrived at the address Kriss provided. All the lights in the house turned off twenty minutes later. They conducted surveillance for the next two hours, but no one came or left. The surveillance was conducted for the next two nights, with the same results.
The next morning, Takeshi and Walsh went to the Burbank address. They could hear a guitar playing. Besides the pair of handcuffs each carried, Takeshi put three more pairs in his bag. Just in case, thought Takeshi. “Hello, anyone home?” asked Takeshi. A man whom Takeshi recognized as Paco came to the door. “Does anyone speak English?”
“My name is INS Special Agent Takeshi Tsukemoto, and this is Special Agent James Walsh. May we come in to discuss a matter?” asked Takeshi, showing Paco his badge and handing Paco his and Walsh’s business cards.”
Paco looked at the cards. “We have been expecting you. Please enter.”
The others came out to the dining area. “Inmigracion,” Paco said to the others. “No te precocupes.” Do not worry Paco said to the others.
Sara and Carmen started to cry. Cristina ran into the bathroom and could be heard throwing up.
“Officers, please come sit down at the dining room table,” said Paco.
Enrique sat at the table with Takeshi and Walsh. Costumes hung on three long garments racks like the ones usually seen in factories. Three guitars against one wall, and several small drums next to them
“Sir, do you know a Tony Kriss?” asked Takeshi. “He petitioned you and the rest to perform Flamenco dances.”
“Kriss did indeed petition for us. We had a contract, but he would not adhere to all of the stipulations of that contract. “Por favor ve a buscar los documentos del contrato,” Paco said to Enrique.
Enrique came back from a room and gave Paco a one-inch thick file folder.
“Please exam it,” said Paco. “I’m sure you’ve seen this file before.”
“How would you know that?” Takeshi asked, recognizing the file as the same one he saw at the INS Regional Office.
“I was for a short time a Madrid police officer.”
“Why did you quit being an officer?” asked Takeshi.
“I started playing instruments as a child and took up Flamenco when I was ten. I was not a good dancer, but I loved Flamenco so I continued as a musician for the dance. You get paid as an officer, not as a musician. I used the money to take classes.”
“Pretty interesting background,” said Takeshi. “I wanted to be a college English professor. I respect anyone who has a passion and commitment for his art, unlike me. Now back to the situation at hand. According to Kriss, you stopped performing for him after five weeks? Can you explain why?
“Everyone here was to make sixty-five thousand a year, three thousand a month for housing, twenty-five hundred a month for food,” said Paco pointing to items in the file. “Each one of us was supposed to get a car. That never happened. He has not even paid us at all.”
“How often were you to get paid,” asked Walsh.
“Every month, along with the other payments. We were planning to get separate places, but no one has been paid”
“Have you questioned Kriss why he hasn’t paid you and the others?” asked Takeshi.
“Por favor obtenga una copia del poster,” asked Paco to Enrique.
Enrique came back with a box of 24 x 36-inch posters of the troupe, along with dates and places of the performances.
“Kriss said that if we could not fill up auditoriums and make money, we would not make money too. I believe he only sold thirty tickets for the first scheduled six shows. I informed him that we had a legal contract binding for both the United States and Spain.”
“What did he say to that?” asked Walsh.
“He told us to help with the marketing. He suggested we go to community centers to give small performances to entice people to buy tickets. I told him that he had agreed to do the marketing,” said Paco, pointing to a sheet in the file. “Then he said we should perform in parks and on major street corners to attract potential ticket buyers. I told him that we are professionals, not animals in a zoo to have people stare at us.”
“What did Kriss say when you refused? asked Walsh.
“He started yelling and screaming, waving his arms and stomping up and down.”
“I told him we might go to a lawyer and sue him.”
“How did he react?” asked Takeshi.
“He yelled that he has nullified the contract so he is no longer responsible for paying us,” said Paco. “That is when he started yelling about being golf partners with the highest-ranking immigration officer in the Los Angeles area and that he will report that we had absconded, and we will be deported.”
“How are you making ends meet now?” asked Takeshi.
“You must already know that we do performances at Spanish establishments that feature entertainment. We would have gone back to Spain already, but we needed to make money here to pay for the flight back, food, and other everyday expenses. Just the expense of moving here depleted our savings. We get more into debt every month. The Spanish business community has helped us tremendously. I know that working here without a permit is not legal. Are you going to arrest us and the business owners for giving us employment?”
Takeshi and Walsh looked at each other. “Well, as far as I’m concerned, you’re all independent contractors so they have no legal obligations to determine if you’re legal or not. As for your troupe, you still have the H-1 visas, which haven’t been revoked, so you’re okay. Besides, this is a domestic issue,” said Takeshi. “Do you know a Juan Talega?”
“This is his house. We have known each other since childhood and trained together. His troupe is highly respected in the United States and Spain. He was kind enough to provide us this place and car without payment when I told him of our situation. A kind and generous friend. What will happen to us?”
“This is a civil issue. We’re not enforcers for people who can’t get their business affairs straight. You have nothing to worry about from us. We better go now. Call me or Agent Walsh if you have any questions.”
“Vamos a ser arrestados y deportados?” asked Carmen.
“No,” replied Paco. “She asked if we were going to get arrested and deported.”
“Gracias,” said both Carmen and Sara, crying.
“No te preocupes . No tienes nada que temer de nosotros,” replied Takeshi. “If she didn’t understand my Spanish, tell her not to worry.”
“Where did you learn such good Spanish?”
“All Migras have to have a working knowledge of Spanish,” said Takeshi.
“Thank you for your kindness. We were worried since the Spanish media here tells us that all Migras here physically beat those who speak Spanish,” said Paco.
“Don’t believe any of that. Your performance at El Cid last night was incredible.”
“What the fuck is going on, not arresting them!” yelled Flores.
“It’s a civil case, a domestic issue,” said Takeshi. “I’m not going to be a strong arm for Kriss. He’s the problem, not the dancers. Kriss couldn’t sell enough tickets so he didn’t pay them. Now, Kriss is doing his ‘I’ll call INS on you’ crap.”
“I’m giving you direct order to arrest them. If you don’t, there’ll be hell to pay.”
“Jorge, you are giving an illegal order. Talked with Perry at Region. According to Dennis, you gave similar order to Hernandez, and we got the shit sued out of us. He told you that you can’t put people into removal proceedings without an official, legally binding order, and an approved request from the sponsor.”
“What does he know, he isn’t an agent.” Look at all these awards! If I didn’t know what I’m doing how could I have been given all these?”
“Is that why Perry is a fourth line supervisor, and you’re only a first line? Besides, most of yours are for administrative and community awards.” Others agents at their desks started to giggle.
“How dare you talk to me like that!” yelled Flores. “Kee, Vancio, Hernandez. Go arrest these dancers!” yelled Flores, waving his arms and stomping up and down.
“No way,” said Kee.
“I heard enough. It ain’t right,” said Vancio.
“Already been sued once, thanks to you,” said Hernandez.
“Will anyone follow my orders?” yelled Flores to the rest of the agents. “I’m going to fuck up your career, Takeshi. I’m going to write you up, suspend you, and fire you!”
Everyone at once left the room.
“Never heard you talk like that before,” said Walsh. “You’re always so calm, even when Jack talks down to you.”
The next day, INS District Director Danny Hudson came to Investigations. He was with an immigration attorney, Ellen Lee. He ignored Flores and came to Takeshi’s desk. “Let me shake your hand,” said Hudson. “Last night Entertainment Tonight aired a rather long segment on the Flamenco dancers. The troupe leader Paco talked about how he was exploited by this character Kriss and threatened them with deportation. Initially, when you and Walsh came to see him, he thought about how you and Walsh would arrest and beat them as portrayed in the media. He said you and Walsh were extremely kind, professional, and compassionate officers. Now that’s the type of image we need to portray to the public! Good job!”
“Thank you, I’m glad to you say that since Supervisor Flores wanted me to Bag N Tag them without a legal withdrawal notification.” Takeshi saw Flores’ right hand shaking. “In fact, I went to Region and Section Chief Perry said such an action was illegal.”
“Director Hudson,” said Flores. “What does Perry know, he’s an adjudicator?”
“I started off as an adjudicator! I‘ve also known him for forty years. He’s highly respected in the Service.”
Ellen was shaking her head.
“Ellen came to me this morning and told me about the segment last night on Entertainment Tonight. At eight o’clock this morning, my office was getting deluged from entertainment promoters who would be willing to sponsor them.”
“I have three other immigration attorneys, as well as myself, who will represent them pro bono,” said Lee. “Also, two law firms that handle civil cases have agreed to represent them pro bono.”
“Wow that’s great! I’ll give Paco a call to have him contact you, Ellen. They’ll be dancing all night.”
“Flores! Did you really order a Bag N Tag?” asked Director Hudson.
“What I meant was a ‘modified’ Bag N Tag.”
The other agents started booing.
“Never heard of a ‘modified’ Bag N Tag,” said Takeshi. You stood right there and ordered me to conduct a Bag N Tag. Remember, you were screaming at me.”
“What the hell is a ‘modified’ Bag N Tag?” asked Director Hudson. ‘In my office in one hour! We’ll have a conference call with Dennis Perry. Go find a box to put your stuff in. And better bring your lawyer!”
“Bye ‘Jack!’ ” Takeshi yelled, as Flores ran out of the room. Then he heard all the other agents cheering.
“Wow!” said Walsh. “Never heard you talk like that. When you get even, you’re pretty nasty.”
The next day, at three a.m., Takeshi received a call from Burbank Police Officer Lynn Rand at three in the morning. “I’m leaving my place now,” said Takeshi.
Thirty-five minutes later, Takeshi arrived at the troupe’s residence. There were six patrol cars and two unmarked cars. Three men, handcuffed behind their backs, were sitting on the sidewalk, guarded by five officers. All of the handcuffed men had on Harley Davidson t-shirts and wore military style boots. “What happened?” asked Takeshi to Rand.
“Home invasion, destruction of property, and terrorist threats. They came in and started to destroy everything. Our detectives are taking statements from the victims. They’re pretty shell shocked. We have a Spanish speaking female woman officer calming the women down.”
“How did you know to call me?”
“Paco give me your business card. He asked me to call you.”
“Are the clowns talking?”
“They’re confessing their sins and blaming a character named Kriss. They know if they talk, they’ll get a good deal. They’ve been in the same spot before,” said Officer Rand.
“What can I do?” asked Takeshi.
“Go talk to them. The detectives will present the case to the district attorney’s office. They’ll arraign these clowns and go arrest Kriss.”
Takeshi went inside. Enrique was picking up the damaged instruments. One of the guitars was broken into three pieces. The costumes on the racks were on the floor. The women were all crying on the couch, the female officer talking to them in Spanish.
“Thank you for coming,” said Paco, sitting on the kitchen table.
“The officers will be arresting these thugs and Kriss,” said Takeshi, as Walsh came inside.
“I’ll brief the officers about what’s going on with this case,” said Walsh,
“I don’t know what to tell you,” said Takeshi.
“They broke the door down, starting yelling ‘Get out of my country.’ Two of them picked up the instruments and started stomping on them and smashing them on the walls and floor. Then they took out knives and started cutting the costumes. Enrique and I tried to stop them, but they were too big. Then they started calling the ladies awful names. The one with red hair wanted Sara to perform a lap dance. Please, help Enrique and the ladies. As a former police officer, I have encountered these types before, but they haven’t and are in shock.”
Juan Talega arrived. He went to speak with Paco and hugged the ladies. “Thank you for being so kind to my friends,” Juan said to Takeshi. “Let me be here with my friends.”
Takeshi knew that intimidation was the norm in sweatshops and factories where illegals worked, but he had never experienced a situation where a sponsor would send thugs out to intimidate people whom they once sponsored. Could he not have done something to have prevented this situation? Should he have known this might happen and taken precautions?
Kriss pled not guilty, and the thugs later refused to cooperate. Their attorneys were all high-priced criminal defense lawyers. Kriss must be paying for them, thought Takeshi.
Takeshi went to Burbank one week later, for Paco wanted to talk with him.
“What!” said Takeshi. “What do mean by you’re going back?”
“Officer Tsukemoto. We can no longer perform here. All of our costumes and instruments are all gone. The ladies are still in shock.”
“Can’t you get new ones?”
“All of our costumes and instruments were handmade, custom made for us. You just can’t get them here, only in Spain by master craftsmen. We are artists, and we need the proper tools to conduct our craft. Even if we could get the tools, we don’t have enough financial resources. Those instruments and costumes represent nearly ten years of our work. It is not something that can be quickly replaced.”
“From what I understand, sponsors are waiting in line to help you. You’ll be making money. Maybe you could get help from the other troupes? And you don’t have to worry about immigration issues.”
“They have helped us enough. I can no longer impose on them.”
“If you’re gone, who’s going to testify against Kriss and his gang?”
“You and I both know getting them prosecuted could take years. I know that they have hired highly paid lawyers, and like in Spain, they can delay the process for years. Years that we cannot afford.”
“Paco, without your cooperation, they’ll be let go to do this to others,”
“That sounds like what I used to say to victims when I was an officer,” said Paco giggling. You said you wanted to be an English professor. It is like having your books and notes destroyed. Years of research take time to replace.”
Two weeks after Paco and the others left, Agent Porter came to Takeshi, now an acting supervisor replacing Flores. “I submitted a fine of sixty thousand dollars on my last sweatshop.”
“Very nice,” said Takeshi.
“Steve Butcher, the head of that unit, said the company was dissolved to they can’t be fined.”
“Butcher said the company was a corporation and now that they do not exist, they can’t be fined.”
Takeshi and Porter went to Butcher’s office. Butcher also had a lot of plaques and awards in his office.
“Why can’t you fine them?” demanded Takeshi.
Butcher swiped his hair from the side to cover a bald spot. “The company is no longer a corporation. That means they no longer exist. You can’t fine something that doesn’t exist.”
“You know they’ll just set up another entity down the street and incorporate again. Can’t they still be held to answer?”
“Technically yes, but that would take a lot of work, and we may not win in court. They also hired the Fragomen law firm, the best.”
“Can’t you even try? Isn’t that your job?” asked Takeshi.
“You’re not a lawyer, so you don’t understand.”
“Hey ‘Butch Head,’ how many times have you said that to me!” yelled Takeshi. “Why do you fine the shit out of small mom and pop businesses who can’t afford a big-time lawyer, and stick your tail up your ass at those big employers who can afford firms like Fragomen.”
“Get out!” yelled Butcher, waving his arms and stomping up and down. “Get out!”
“You’re just a fucking jellyfish. That’s what all the defense lawyers call you,” said Takeshi while Porter grabbing his arm and pulling him out of the office.
“Dude, you need to calm down. What’s with you lately?” asked Porter.
Takeshi went to the New Otani hotel two blocks away. There was a Japanese garden on the roof. He often went there to relax and calm down. It was tranquil, with cherry blossom trees, a fountain, Bonsai trees, and a Koi pond. Birds were always chirping. He sat on a stone bench. At least, the sweatshops don’t mask what they’re doing. “Raiding two sweatshops a month. Are we pursuing the real bad guys?” said Takeshi to himself.
As for the Vertex nightclub, it emitted a humid soufflé of stale cigarettes, flavored alcohol, and the perfume of excited, frustrated sweat.
The club’s thickly clad walls were stylized with graffiti, colorful slogans, tags, and three-dimensional art. From the ceiling, a three-faced rotating prism, accompanied by spinning gobos, shrouded everything in rapid psychedelic patterns.
Two DJs worked the music, keeping the dance floor happy and writhing.
The smell of cheap cologne graced my nose. A man was now occupying the seat next to me. Head lowered, defined cheekbones, trim beard coating his jawline, and a full head of thick hair. He turned toward me and said something beneath the thunderous music.
“What?” I asked.
He leaned forward and spoke in my ear, “What are you drinking?”
I lifted my glass. “Black Tonic.”
“Cool.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Does Miss Tonic have a name?”
My shoulders unconsciously rolled back. “Gage.”
He extended his hand with a mannish grin. “Dom.”
I shook it firmly, which appeared for a visible moment to surprise him. My grip wasn’t a dainty one.
From behind us, the rising pitch of an angry voice caught my attention. A man was now yelling at the bartender. He was somewhat on the taller side with hair slicked back into a Faux Hawk.
I sampled my drink. “Wonder what his problem is?”
Dom shifted in his seat to join my onlooking. “Maybe his drink not tasting right. The Serf they brought in is a total newbie. Overflowing the dispenser, shaking an old fashioned. No doubt, it’s his first night tending.”
He wasn’t wrong. The uniformed boy looked about nineteen, maybe twenty at most.
With trembling hands, the Serf wiped his bald head with the rag on his shoulder. The five-digit serial number across his temple glistened with sweat.
“What happened to the last bartender they had?” I asked Dom.
He motioned at Faux Hawk. “Made the same scene last week. Ended up smashing his glass over the Serf’s head.”
“And they let him come back?”
He shrugged, “He’s a high-roller.”
That explained Faux Hawk’s expensive-looking grey suit. He must have come from the upper floor, where all the other high-rollers were. Sitting in their heated private booths, with an endless assortment of complimentary drinks. Levitating dispensers between them that were able to suspend cocktail droplets you could lick right out of the air. Just a taste of the many culinary benefits from gambling big.
It was Serfs that kept the city in a constant state of motion. They occupied jobs not enough people wanted. Business owners could open a loan for the city to provide employees for them. The cost and expenses of server droids could be bypassed entirely.
A Serf could always be replaced, but a high-roller had to be sustained.
The club we were in was merely a small attachment to an even larger construction behind it—The Apex Den. It was one of many different facilities spread throughout the city. Behemoth structures of dancing lights and tantalizing electric displays to lure risk-takers inside. Such was the gravitation pull of Fortune City.
The club’s purpose, much like the maw of a large beast, was to grind your rationality and doubt into a malleable paste before sending you into the stomach where the slots and tables waited. Some left winners, others never left.
My attention returned to Faux Hawk. He now gave a last bit of slurred curses and muffled sentences and was given his new drink. I watched the bellowing suit as he returned to the upper floor.
I chatted with Dom for the next fifteen minutes, talking about our time in the city, what each of us did for a living, and all the other essentials for stranger conversation. As he finished off the rest of his drink, he excused himself to go to the restroom.
I decided to get another drink, maybe even two. I reached for my purse to head for the bar, but my fingers felt air. It was gone. Instinctively, I searched for it—under the table, on the floor, everywhere.
Then I saw it, nestled under the arm of a stout man who was walking away.
Anger would be the appropriate reaction to something like this, but instead, all I felt was a slight tingle.
The stout man made a beeline for the exit, arrowing his way through the shape-shifting mounds of people on the dance floor. I trailed after him, feeling my organs start to vibrate as I passed by one of the eleven-foot speaker stacks. Elbows and shoulders jostled me. I watched the man vanish through the open doors, scot-free—or so he apparently thought.
The cool of outside hit my ears, and I pulled on my hood.
Fresh snow had settled over the road but was already being melted by the grid of heat cables retrofitted throughout the city’s asphalt.
I burrowed my hands deep into my pockets.
The thief’s fresh set of footprints led around the corner. He had stopped to light a cigarette and was now talking to someone, blowing out plumes with a fat celebratory smile, like a smoke after a good lay. Probably hoping something in my purse was good enough to pawn off. If that were the case, they should have gone for the optical bracelet around my wrist.
I started my approach, and the owner of the other voice I was hearing came into view.
The man named Dom, sporting that same mannish grin he’d used to pry through my defenses.
So that was their game. An attractive wink to lower the target's guard and a quick snatch for the merchandise. And just like a naïve schoolgirl, I’d fallen for it. It wasn’t surprising. They were acting on the city’s true nature, feeding off the exploitable. People like them were everywhere.
I stepped up to them and whistled. Both turned to face me.
“Hey,” I said, with an offhand wave, “I’ll be taking that back now.”
The plump man turned to Dom and passively chuckled. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
I pulled my hood off. “You aren’t getting another warning.”
His response was to press my purse into his side with his stubby fingers. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but if you’re lost, the next red-light district is a few streets down. So, why don’t you go work one of those corners?” He concluded with a middle finger, rigid and stiff.
“Alright, then,” I said. I darted forward and clutched for the purse, trying to hook at least one finger in the strap.
A surprised, guttural sound escaped from the stout man, and a hard, calloused palm smacked my ear. Sharp, stagnant pain rang out from the already sensitive area. My fist, led by its knuckles, whipped forward and directly collided with his jaw. I felt a few teeth rattle.
He staggered back heavily, slipping on the mire of slush between us and dropping my purse at his feet. “Wha-huh?” he grunted, spitting out threads of saliva. When he finally realized the position I was taking, the look of anger transfigured into astonishment.
Hands up, elbows in, hips between my feet, knees slightly bent and back heel lifted. That’s right. This schoolgirl knows how to box.
“So that’s what you are.” He sneered, massaging the swollen lump of his jaw. A few veins popped out of his neck.
I found a grim comfort seeing his new expression. The red-blooded look of a man waiting to cave in his opponent’s face. Hungry for dominance.
He went for my face with a balled-up jab, but he wasn’t expecting his target to slip past and dig a right hook into his side. He bellowed incoherently and swiped again. Sloppily.
I delivered a jab between his eyes. The bridge of his nose crunched. Too many openings. Another solid hook to his gut. And then a surprise knee to his liver.
Once the damage finished processing, his body lurched forward and collapsed into the wet earth.
I brushed the grime off my purse.
“Enough,” said Dom, or whatever his actual name was. His voice was still well-pressed into a calm, collected tone. “No more hysterics, alright? Just hand it over and walk away.”
“No, thanks,” I said. I turned away to dismiss myself, but the sudden glint of a knife in his hand stopped me in my tracks.
“Maybe you didn’t hear me.” He sighed and then flicked some knob on the plastic handle. A hiss quickly sizzled into existence. Electricity coated the blade in a water-like flow of bright blue current. “Now, your final warning. Drop. It.” The smooth center was gone from his voice.
Had I known the night would have turned out like this, I would have brought the gun I kept in its safe. That would have made things a lot more convenient. But, for now, it couldn’t be helped.
I turned my back to him. Then, with an abrupt twist of motion, I threw my purse directly at his head, like a fastball pitch. As his instincts kicked in, he ducked out of the way. A few quick steps and I was already on him. I grasped his arm, holding the knife with both hands. The blade crackled and sparked. With a firm grip and a surprising lack of resistance, I slammed his wrist into the solid wall next to us.
Tremors traveled through us both. He howled, releasing his fingers daintily from the knife, which lost its blue radiance before hitting the ground. I kicked it away.
He collapsed to his knees, holding his limp wrist excruciatingly. “Bah—Broken! You broke it!” he bellowed, in short, manic gasps.
The veil had crumbled, much like his ego. By the time I looked back at him, he’d already made a slippery dash down the walkway.
The area now smelled of cigarette smoke and the astringent odor of an electric burn. Another place to stitch in my memory.
Even out here, I could still hear the club’s faint reverberating pulses. I once again retrieved the purse and rounded the corner for the entry door.
A different sound came. A continuous beep in my ears, like the rhythm of a cardiac machine.
“Shit,” I breathed, a foggy wisp between my teeth. I had to go; I had to get home.
I cut across the sloshy surface of the street and raced down the sidewalk. Idiot, my thoughts barked, Idiot-idiot-idiot. Why wait this long? How could you forget?
I made my way through the network of diode street lamps and neon signs flickering with lively animations. Thankfully, The Vertex wasn’t incredibly far from Alibi Town, where my apartment was.
The angry, brisk air coated the phlegm in my throat. My heart pounded like a pump about to short-circuit. My pant legs clung to my skin, sodden, and dripping from the puddles.
Exhaustion set in. My field of view squeezed into a tunnel. All I could focus on were the noises around me. The squelch of wet pavement. A distant car alarm screaming. A smoker’s whistle outside a bar. My short, raspy breaths. And the accelerating signal behind my head.
I had to stop to catch my breath. I hooked my fingers into the chain-link of a fenced-off alleyway. The first wave hit.
A strangeness started and grew, grabbing hold of me. The world teetered and then clenched like a body bag. My lungs tightened; my jaw hung loosely open. I swallowed the cold phlegm. Breathe, the fleeting voice in my head cried.
Lights from the frost-choked street lamps meshed together in a nexus of streaks and black dots. For a moment, I saw it: everything saturated with emotion, drowning in it, engulfed by it. Too much. I asked it to stop. Warm tears rolled down my cheeks. Fear, anger, sadness, stress, all pouring out together in a perfect storm.
My brain flooded with images: The first bar of sunlight crawling over the sidewalk until it reaches my crumpled body. My fingers curled and shriveled like pale spiders. My jaw fractured; cheeks lodged with broken teeth shrapnel. My milky eyes frozen like marbles. Several stab wounds in my abdomen, with black rings of charred flesh surrounding them. Not a drop of blood. Pre-cauterized from a knife, voltaic and beautiful. I’m dying, I gagged through my thoughts. I’m dying here, in this gutter.
I sat there for some time; a hunched silhouette lost in its inner turmoil.
When the wave finally passed, I uncurled my bloodless knuckles from the chain link and got to my feet.
The waves would only get worse from here.
I reached my complex—an older six-story structure that had probably once been considered a luxury before time and neglect reduced it to a run-down shadow off Cane Street.
I practically fell into the thankfully empty elevator. If the doors had opened for any other tenant, they’d have seen quite the calamity.
I reached my floor. Hugging the wall down the dimly-lit corridor, I reached my door and stabbed the room key into the lock. I stumbled inside, and another wave began to crawl up my throat.
I staggered to the charging station next to my bed and grabbed the hanging cable extending from its port. Lifting my hair, I fished around to access the small, egg-shaped device at the base of my skull, just above the nape, and I plugged in the jack.
The excessive pulsing ended. The blinking light on the device shifted from red to solid amber. I sank against the wall, curled there like a golem with my knuckles jammed between my teeth.
Another wave struck. This time, the light on the device flashed green and gave off two loud chimes. A familiar, sort of prickling, sensation followed, glazing my brain in what one could only describe as pins and needles.
The untethered flurry of raw emotions dispersed. I gained back control of my breathing and the strangeness sank back into the barred lower levels of my subconscious, replaced by a quiet numbness. The device behind my head had functioned as designed.
The Reaction Receptor Modifier (RRM) was a piece of Neotech intended to “free the user from the blight of negative emotions.” Fear, anxiety, anger, and sadness were all isolated and converted into a mere tingle behind the user’s neck. The purpose was to promote productivity and well-being by reshaping reality into something easier to chew. Unfortunately, as advanced as the device was, it came with its drawbacks. One of these was that, although it cut off the negative emotions, it also did so with the positives. Users would find their excitement and overall enthusiasm heavily dampened. No heaven, no hell.
Another much more serious drawback was the RRM’s battery life. More specifically, what would happen if its power ran out. The consequences presented themselves as severe episodes, waves of emotions crashing over the user all at once. It became a sort of Pandora's Box: the longer the device was kept functioning, the worse its potential repercussions. Be it weeks, months, or years, whatever the user suppressed was always waiting to find its way back home.
In my case, the insertion procedure had been painful, but nothing compared to the post-surgical pangs of my other operations. The device acted as the anchor I needed for my frenzied thoughts. Unfortunately, it also fed the monstrous debt I owed Fortune City.
For all the thrill seekers out there hungry enough for the rush of uncertainty and the fresh bursts of dopamine, the city was their sanctum. A place people could go to forget about the earth freezing over. As a tourist, you were granted a visitor’s visa, with a limited budget and a plethora of restricted uses. These visas were for the sightseers just passing through. Those who wanted to sink their teeth into the addictive marrow this place had to offer would require a Crypt-Chip: a small integrated circuit that was implanted into the ball of your palm and acted as the universal link for transactions. No physical currency necessary. Only those embedded with the chip were allowed to become residents, buy property, and gamble. The chip never declined or had any limitations, as long as you were able to cover the accruing interest.
That was the snare of the city.
The only way in and out of the city’s gates was via the Maglev Railway, stationed at Fortune City’s southern border. Propulsion coils and an array of superconducting magnets propelled the rails at inexplicably high speeds across the inhospitable wasteland of ice that surrounded the city. It was the channel that connected Fortune City to its neighboring, still habitable cities.
Anyone who amassed any unpaid debt during their stay would be denied a pass and left stranded in the city until it was paid. Trapped in paradise.
Sure, someone could try to make the trek on their own, but without a Neotech thermal suit, they’d end up an ice sculpture by dawn, vehicle or not.
The amount of debt, also called markers, accrued was directly reflected by the color of the chip embedded in the palm of the gambler. The different degrees of color indicated the tally—starting with chromatic blue for debt-free souls and gradually darkening until the glow of the chip was a colorless sable.
That was my chip, dark as the hole I’d spent years stuck in. But all that was going to change. By the day after next, I’d be aboard that train and watching the lights recede in the hazy distance.
Until then, I would crawl into bed and wait for time to put me to sleep.
I awoke to the sun settling over the Spire like a distant explosion. Its vague massive bulk jutted between the multi-story resorts and glitzy casinos. The large midsection of its waist was twisted with an elegance that made it resemble an hourglass overlooking a garden of light. It acted as the operational nerve of the city, where all matters were handled.
The wealthy could afford penthouses in its platinum interior while the rest of us lived in its shadow.
I took a shower and set out on my walk to work.
My knuckles were slightly swollen, raising the keloid scar I’d gotten in high school from a jock’s embedded tooth.
The shop in which I apprenticed occupied a sliver of space off Carmine District and was directly parallel to the Ragtag Museum of Art. Did something in the gallery speak to you? Get it inked! said the banner in our window.
On most days, I arrived at the parlor around eleven, one hour before the doors opened. During that time, I prepped the workstations, sanitized the various pieces of equipment in the autoclave, and then coated them in a plastic barrier to avoid cross-contamination, kind of like safe sex.
With innovations of technology constantly on the rise, traditional methods of tattooing were also dying. More and more parlors were adopting a new form of tech that reduced the need to hire artists. Machines that could measure contours perfectly and determine the different textures of skin to print flawless designs.
Still, Rasputin’s Studio clung to the old-fashioned traditions of the industry. My boss thoroughly believed a machine could never match the skill of an artist’s hand.
Like clockwork, as I finalized the drawing for my first appointment, my boss, Mr. Petrov, rolled through the door in his wheelchair.
At face value, he’d be described as intimidating. Long black hair hoisted into a ponytail, a scraggly out-of-control beard, the scythe-shaped scar below his eye, all decaled to a face that never smiled.
He had been born and raised in Moscow before it became the lifeless plain of frozen structures it was today. Deadly temperatures were rending major cities into eerie reminders of human life.
His inspiration for Rasputin’s Studio had drawn from his persistent mortality. He’d survived six heart attacks, two car wrecks, several complex surgeries, a house fire, and, more recently, a set of black spots on his lungs he swore could form a Mickey Mouse head.
But behind his menacing undercurrent was the tenderness of a kind soul. He’d given me a chance here, taking one look at my portfolio and then saying in a thick Russian tongue: “Da, welcome to the family.”
That was how he saw the whole staff, as a makeshift family. He even went as far as to fit a room behind the station area with a spare bed, solely for any of us to have somewhere to sleep. Not all of us wanted to go back home.
When my appointment arrived, it was time to work.
The client had asked for a cybernetic heart made of gears, cogs, and wires to be inked over his chest.
Designs had to be compatible with the size and shape of the area they would be on. Forearms, from elbow to wrist, needed long designs. Small, rounder shapes belonged on shoulders. Large, round ones on the chest or back. And oblong designs were always good for biceps and legs.
By the time I caught that first whiff of injected ink, I would already be in my client’s head, reading every curve and fold of my living canvas. Tattoos were more than just pieces of art to me. They were windows, reflections of one’s inner thoughts for the whole world to see. Something one refused to hide about oneself.
Years back, when I had realized I wanted to become a tattoo artist, I had practiced on everything from oranges and grapefruits to pigskin. The real touch and polish had come from the discarded mannequin parts I found in an alley dumpster, a boneyard of plastic body parts.
Five hours later, I put the final touches on my client’s heart tattoo. I applied the thin clear wrap over the design and sent him on his way, I couldn’t help but hope he would take care of it. Don’t scratch it. Don’t make chunks fade. Don’t take away what we both created.
Whenever anyone asked what had brought me to this profession, I would often think about my childhood.
My mother had been a vendor, often selling her variety of different gems, jewelry, and healing crystals at the flea market. My father, for the entirety of his adult life, had sought after countless high-risk, low-investment, get-rich-quick schemes. He had enjoyed his weekly hookups with the other investors, who had always managed to convince him to take on their hasty business ventures.
Ultimately, this had led to our permanent move to Fortune City. I was nine then.
Within weeks, he’d already won the pot of a high-stakes roulette game. Just like that, he was hooked. He had spent most nights at the tables, constantly grasping for that next hot streak. When he had started to fall out of it, the free perks and luxury suites had enticed him back. The winnings, along with most of our savings, were gutted. The bills had racked up. My mother had cried in her bathroom most nights. We had moved from place to place until we settled in an old apartment complex on the city’s edge.
Every night, around one or two AM, I would smell the room below mine: a chemical mix of cat urine and ammonia. Probably something being cooked up for the streets.
Eventually, my lack of friends and chronic introversion had caught my parent’s attention. My mother, being her anxious self, had complained that all I ever did was draw in my book; she hadn’t been wrong. I had preferred drawing friends more than finding them. My father, on the other hand, had taken it upon himself to sign me up for different sports, mostly kickboxing and some wrestling. When I had turned fourteen, he had taken me to the shooting range to test out his Remington 1911 pistol, just like his father had taught him. At first, I had assumed all these things were an effort to socialize me. That is, until I found out the truth of the matter. My father was indeed worried—not about my social life, but my masculinity.
Back in those days, I was still his son.
Through my school life, I never fit into the same social mold as my other male classmates. They looked for anything to remind me of that. The way I spoke, the way I walked, whatever it took to spark a new laugh. I was different, blood in the water to consume. When a laugh wasn’t enough anymore, they’d push and shove.
But, thanks to my father’s countermeasures, I knew how to defend myself.
The first tattoo that had spoken to me was one I had spotted during a school trip to the downtown aquarium—a scary, biker-looking man with hulking arms had a grey kitten inked on his bicep. I couldn’t believe how honest it was. Open for the whole world to see. Not even a trace of vulnerability.
I have five tattoos now—green carnations on my shoulder, a full moon phase down my spine, a Luna moth encased in geometric shapes on my wrist, a Venus symbol on my ankle, and a syringe on my thigh.
By the end of my shift, strong winds had brought with them another slew of heavy snowfall. I broke down my station and mentally prepped for the walk home.
Mr. Petrov was hunched over at the reception desk, two-finger tapping his antique keyboard. His sunken eyes swiveled toward me and then toward the darkened street. “You are walking in this?”
“Nothing I’m not used to. Besides, it’s not a far walk from here.”
“Hmph.” He sighed in his closed mouth. I headed for the door, but he spoke again. “Your cut this week is tomorrow. It will be your last one with us, no?”
I stopped and turned toward him. “Oh, yeah. I guess it will be.” He’d been aware for some time now of my goal to leave the city, even offering his sage financial advice to help me kill the gnawing debt from my reassignment surgery.
For the past four years, I’d been living as frugally as possible, walking myself everywhere, budgeting food on the essentials, living in a small crummy apartment, and stockpiling a particular percentage of my cuts to a secure savings account. Even my optical bracelet was highly outdated and the cheapest model money could buy here.
By tomorrow, I’d finally have enough to pay the city off and start my life elsewhere.
“Where will you go?” Mr. Petrov asked, ceasing the tiny clicks of his keyboard. “What is plan?”
I shrugged at him. “Planning as I go. Might try my luck in Babylon for a while.”
He pursed his lips, pulled out a slim piece of paper, and started writing vigorously on it. “I have friend in Babylon, a good business friend. Take this. He can provide you a place to stay for a good price. Tell him I sent you, and he will cut that price in half. A good starting point, no?”
I pocketed the note. “I may take you up on that.”
“Wherever you end up,” Mr. Petrov sighed, returning to his work, “I hope it suits what you’ve worked so hard for.”
Behind the numb, tingling cloud, I’d have probably smiled at that. Instead, all I did was nod and say, “Thanks, boss.” And traversed the snowfall.
The cold whipped at my face instantly, crawling up the openings of my sleeves, my cheeks already flushing.
The street was stained a slushy gray as the underground heating system worked its magic. I passed by the district’s fountain, still flowing with the radiant glow of virtual water—a way to maintain its aesthetic despite the pumps constantly freezing.
Eventually, I reached the frostbitten trenches of Alibi Town, one of the city’s more troubled neighborhoods.
Users came here for narcotics, sharing their needles and tainted blood. Clusters of homeless gathered in the underground drainage tunnels for warmth and shelter. Sex was cheap here and easy to find if you checked the right places.
Most stores in the area had shut down but still lingered in their dilapidated shells like ghosts. The more of them I saw, the closer I was to home. As much of a cesspool this part of town was, I didn’t hate living here. To me, it was the perfect reminder of what I would someday leave behind. The small pocket of reality hiding behind the Spire. By the time someone saw past the flashy peacock display of lights and the exciting gambling mecca, they were now one of its vices.
Welcome to the land of crime, cravings, and affordable living.
A black police van passed me, its large industrial box of a body gliding across the snow on magnetic spherical tires that morphed the flexible shape of their treads to steer smoothly across any surface. No windshield or windows meant the officer was using a holographic system from the inside. Police patrolled these streets all the time. The vehicle rounded the corner.
I reached one of my shortcuts, an alleyway between two tenement blocks. Random spots down the narrow space were still blanketed with orange light from the few lamps not yet broken. The air was thick and carried a sulfuric aftertaste. Scents trapped between the walls came in different orders, from cannabis sweat to the occasional waft of drifter urine. I stepped over a disemboweled mattress and a frozen condom popsicle.
If anyone were to try and jump me, they’d find themselves deep throating the muzzle of the pistol in my holster. After last night, I wasn’t taking any other chances. Twice every other week, I’d be practicing my dry fire at the range. Once every three weeks, my live fire. Another habit born from my father’s influence.
From one of the pipes above, a clump of snow fell next to me. A silhouette sprang blindly out of the intersecting walkway and dashed right toward me. Neither of us had time to react. Before I could so much as graze the butt of my gun, we smacked into each other.
The runner stumbled back and lost footing. A boy.
Some bald punk, I thought, but then I caught a glimpse of the five-digit numbering on his temple. A Serf? But why out here? He was shivering, nowhere near dressed for the weather in only a black short-sleeved shirt.
More snow crunched from the direction he had appeared. Somebody else was coming.
Stunned by my obstruction, the boy floundered about and then affixed his eyes on a grimy dumpster. He hopped into it and closed the lid.
A thin, bug-eyed man raced into view, gray curls of hair bouncing out from the hood of his brown coat. His skin, dark and wrinkled, suggested an age somewhere north of his sixties. Not exactly an age for sprinting. His cheek bore a discolored graft of synthetic skin.
He took quick notice of me and stopped, huffing out heavy clouds. “Where?” he barked, nostrils flaring, as though I owed an immediate response.
I jerked my thumb back behind me.
He fired past me, still wheezing.
When the coast was clear, I lightly tapped the dumpster with my foot. “You can come out. He’s gone.”
The Serf hesitantly lifted the cover like a malfunctioning jack in the box. Both of his arms were clamped over the other, his lips a pale, bloodless hue.
I took off my jacket and gestured it to him. “Take it.”
Straightaway, he pulled it over himself.
“Who was that you were running from?” I asked.
No response, just more shivering.
“Do you have someone I can call?”
That was a silly question. Abandoned Serfs, either lost or not properly stationed, would have to be retrieved by an officer. They belonged to the city.
I lightly tapped the side of the optical bracelet, which projected a transparent screen down my wrist. It blinked at me, waiting for the number to call.
I reached to start dialing, but a cold hand clasped my arm. The boy was staring at me with wide, desperate eyes. “Please,” he breathed. “He’ll find me. Please, don’t.”
Things that may have been emotions trickled down my neck.
“Alright,” I sighed, flexing my hand to close the screen, “But you’re going to freeze to death if you stay out here.” I stepped forward to walk the rest of the path and turned to look at him. He was still staring awkwardly at me. “Are you coming or not?”
He hesitated, as if still unsure what exactly make of me, but then the cold seemed to persuade him to follow.
We moved at quite a pace through the empty streets. Sharp iciness sank into my exposed arms from the bombarding wind and powdery debris, detonating goosebumps over my skin. My eyes were dry, the nerves in my face shredded. Not soon enough, the outline of my apartment surfaced out of the haze.
We made it inside and up to my floor without another stir. I was not up for any other surprises.
I kicked off my shoes and batted at the snow that clung to my ankles. “Make yourself comfy,” I told him, and I disappeared into my room for warmer clothes. My fingers rattled their senses back. I locked away the Remington in the safe below my nightstand.
I returned from my room. The Serf had not budged from the doorway. He stood cemented there like a sheepish mannequin. His bald face was still that colorless palette graced with heavy, hanging eyelids. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen.
“You do know what comfy means, right?” I asked. I adjusted the thermostat and gestured to the couch.
He faintly shrugged and then crept towards it, sinking into the cushions.
An uncomfortable silence inflated between us. Guests were not my strong suit, let alone a kid I’d found in a dumpster.
I coughed, then asked, “Do you want something to drink? Some tea or coffee?”
No response, just another shrug.
“Water it is, then.” I clicked my tongue and started filling. When I offered him the glass, he turned away and stifled a few stuffy coughs into his arm. His nose was a rosy Rudolph red. I lightly felt his forehead. No doubt, getting a fever.
“Here,” I said, draping one of my fleece blankets over his shoulders. I returned to the kitchen. “I may have a fix for that bug you’re catching,” I called back to him.
I fetched a can of chicken soup, still to this day a staple for home remedies to combat the global freeze. I always kept at least three or four in the pantry. I warmed up a bowl.
The room’s temperature grew sluggishly.
I rested the soup on the table in front of the Serf, along with some bread. “It’s far from a five-star meal, but I think it will do the trick.” I planted myself on the sofa next to him.
He observed the food with sagging, tired eyes, glanced briefly at me for clarity, and then started eating.
“I’m Gage,” I said. “What about you?”
He tapped the numbers etched in his temple: FC6666
Of course, I sighed internally. Serfs were given serial numbers for identification; names were probably considered too humanizing. “Doesn’t roll off the tongue,” I commented. “What about a nickname?”
“The others called me Six.” He took another bite of bread.
“Alright, then. That’s what I’ll call you.”
A reserved smile crept to the corner of his mouth. “Okay.”
The laborious task of my heater finally kicked in, and he slipped my jacket off. I noted the gnarled line of scarred tissue running down his wrist.
Before the silence could swell between us again, I popped another question. “That man chasing after you. Who was he?”
His shoulders rolled back. “I don’t know. We just call him the Taker.”
“The Taker? Why that?”
“Because when he shows up at the plant, it means one of us has to go with him.”
I leaned back, chewing on a piece of loose skin on my lip. “What kind of plant?”
“The Neo plant,”
“Oh, for Neotech. That is where you were stationed?”
He nodded. “Rows and rows of us on assembly lines. Ten to fifteen hours a day. We build everything from parts to new circuits, even moving heavy machinery.” His eyes shifted into an inward gaze. “We eat while we work, whatever they scrounge up for us. We don’t even have time to use the restrooms. Breaks waste time.”
It was surprising, thinking that Neotech, one of the largest and most utilized tech industries in the city, would resort to labor like that. Production demands must have been getting too high for them to have resorted to sweatshops to pick up the mass volume. My eyes returned to the vertical scar on his wrist. “Did they ever hurt you?”
He looked at the scar and then openly displayed it for me. “They took my tracer out. It’s the first thing they do for any new arrival.”
I stared ahead of me absently. If they were going as far as removing tracers, the city must not have been providing the Serfs that were working for it. Whatever this was, it was being handled in secret—somewhere the Spire couldn’t see—and potentially was even preying on the Serfs lost in the system.
The way Fortune City procured its Serfs was already a dark enough business. If parents, or even a single parent, were desperate enough, they were allowed to surrender their child to the city, clearing both slates entirely. After the paperwork, the infant, usually a year old at most, was taken in and processed. No identity. Just flesh with a serial number. They became a resource, precious fuel for the city.
That was the justification, a roundabout way to accept modern-day slavery as a social norm.
Six buried his face in his palms. “When the Taker comes, he picks one of us to go with him. Never a girl, only a boy.”
“And then you were chosen?”
He sighed heavily. “When they said it would be me, I felt a little bit happy. Like I was finally able to leave that place behind. Probably to somewhere worse, but at least different than those walls. Sometimes, I even have a dream where I explode into a swarm of birds, flying off in every direction possible, going everywhere else but here.
“An officer was there when they woke me up from my bunk. They told me to go with him and to keep quiet. He took me to this part of town where the Taker was waiting for me in some black van. When they said to get in,” his fingernails curled over his pants, “I took a chance and ran as fast as I could.”
His head sank toward the bowl, now empty except for a few strands of discarded crust. “Thank you,” he said, with a slight tremble to his voice, “for not reporting me.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, taking the dishes from him and returning to the sink.
A short “Oh” escaped from him. “You have one of those?”
I turned back to him. “Have one what?”
He signed with a few fingers to the back of his smooth head. “An RRM. We made some of those too. I never did, though.”
“Oh, yeah.” Feeling somewhat exposed, I rubbed the back of my neck and returned to washing.
He cocked his head, interest piqued. “Does it ever hurt?”
Now was my turn to shrug. “Not really. All I ever feel is a slight tingle when something tries to squeeze its way through.”
Six nodded. “Emotions, yeah. It must be nice not having to worry about those, huh?”
I reached for an answer but couldn’t find one.
“What made you get it?” he asked.
A sharp, sudden prickle rang from the device, dispersing into the void that was my state of mind. “It’s getting pretty late,” I said. “We should both get some rest. We can figure things out in the morning, okay?”
The interest drained from his face. “Okay.”
I set the couch up with some warm blankets and pillows for him. “If you need anything, knock on my door. I’m a pretty light sleeper.”
“Thank you,” he said, staring at the small nook of blankets I made. “For everything.”
“Don’t mention it.” I closed the door behind me.
Was I worried about a stranger sleeping in my apartment? Under any other circumstances, completely. But the kid wasn’t a thief; I knew that much. It wasn’t in his eyes.
I spent the next thirty minutes wetting my thoughts in the shower. Behind the numbness, my thoughts were trying to complete themselves. How would I be feeling right now? How should I be feeling right now?
Hot water trickled over my tattoos and traced the small scar above my pubic region where the surgical blood drain had been. The rest of the scars around my body, most noticeably on my chest, had faded from time and plenty of silicone sheeting. Even so, you could still somewhat see them if you looked hard enough, the little reminders of my gender detour. A system permanently altered.
“What made you need it?” The question ping-ponged inside my skull.
Something traumatic, I almost said. That was the easy answer, though I didn’t even want to share that much. That was the annoyance of having this device; it left people wondering what drove you to the point of emotional paralysis. Why did you give up on feeling? What happened to you?
Now I was forced to sit in the partially digested memories of my past, to the day I lost everything.
By my seventeenth birthday, my father, despite all his efforts, had still been severely concerned about my fleeting manhood. He had confided his worries to my Mother, who couldn’t help but absorb them like a sponge. Every conversation between us had been spoken through a small dense pocket of awkwardness.
Honestly, I had tried to play along, to be the best son I could be. But I just hadn’t able to cope with it any longer. I had become tired of playing a part, reading a script.
The unhappy seed inside of me had sprouted despite my best efforts to ignore it. The truth had to come out.
On the night that I had finally worked up the courage, I had sat them both down and spilled everything. All my convictions, the secrets I’d kept hidden, every piece of matter that was my inner self, had been dissected and splayed on the table; the most vulnerable I’d ever been and would ever allow myself to be again.
When the subject came to the surgery I’d planned, my mother couldn’t help but interject. She had said she didn’t want a daughter; she wanted her son. That was the back and forth of it. As for my father, he had said nothing the entire time, but the expression on his face had said enough. To this day, it was still embroidered somewhere in my subconscious. Not a look of anger, but one of absolute defeat. It was as though I’d spit on the life that he’d tried to build for me, spit on the body he and my mother had created.
And so, we had left it at that, locked into our separate lives. No further conversations were necessary. Our relationship with one another was left ragged and full of holes.
After a month of limited eye contact and hollowed bits of conversation, I had come home to them packing their things. Before I had even asked anything, I had seen that both of their chips were missing.
“We’ve paid the city,” my father had said in a distant, passive tone, like he was addressing this to a coworker. “Tomorrow, we’re boarding and leaving this place.”
I had never been a stranger to the financial struggles our family had, and the very thought of them possibly saving enough to buy their freedom had left me perplexed. But then it had hit me: they no longer had to worry about a third passenger.
Although I had already known the answer, I couldn’t help but murmur the question, “What about me?”
My father had huffed out his nose, “That’s up to you now. This is what you wanted, isn’t it?”
That had been the last thing he had said to me and made do for a goodbye. My mother had taken the time to hug me, but even that had felt like a vacant piece of formality.
It wouldn’t sink in for me until the next morning, when I walked into an empty home, that the rest of my journey would be walked alone. Left in my room was my father’s Remington pistol, still in its safe.
Once I had landed a job and established a feasible enough way of living, I had started taking hormones. Ordered online, self-dosed at one-hundred to two-hundred milligrams a day. After eight weeks of that, when I turned twenty-one, I had switched to estrogen.
Although my mind was made up, the idea of surgery had terrified me. The risks had felt so high, ranging in a list from infections from blood clots to cancerous tumors. As apprehensive as I was, the hormonal transition had helped me grasp a few straws of confidence. The operation didn’t define who I was but would help me create the way I wanted my body to work and feel.
My own Crypt-Chip had funded the entire process, hemorrhaging money on all sides but covering everything I needed done.
There are things they don’t warn you about in gender-reassignment surgery. One is the extent of surface tissues that end up dying off, leaving you thinking something has gone wrong. The other is the world of pain that awaits you after the post-surgical recovery.
Getting past the procedures had been one thing, but the aftermath had bloomed an entirely new hell. The pain would fade and then come back far worse. My energy was low, and my body struggled to adapt to its geographic changes. Painkillers had helped but always twisted my dreams into nightmares.
Throughout that whole ordeal, I had been too afraid to confront the truth: that I wasn’t as strong as I thought I’d be. I had needed physical and emotional support through that crucial phase, and I was alone. No family or friends had been around to help me climb the sheer cliff of womanhood. And, to this day, I was still climbing it.
Losing hope, I had done as much research I could to try to get some help. That was how I had found the RRM in a published article. The whole concept had sounded too good to be true. A way to quarantine everything and keep my sanity intact. What other choice did I have?
The last of my thoughts washed down the drain. I turned off the water and fell asleep without drying my hair.
When I checked on Six in the morning, he was gone.
I took a cab to the Spire. From the back seat, I kept looking back at the dark colorless chip embedded in my palm. Today was the day the shackle came off.
We passed a pair of Serfs riding the back of an automated garbage truck. I thought of Six and where he’d possibly gone. The blankets I’d left had been folded tidily next to each other on the couch. Nothing out of place or stolen.
I hoped he’d keep out of trouble.
Once we reached the Spire, I stepped out and traversed up the wide set of stairs with their swirling wrought-iron railings. Despite myself, I deliberately tried to leave a scuff on the otherwise pristine alloyed steps. They led me to a large entrance that opened up into a great hall of constant movement.
I stepped through the quivering shimmer of a particle field that was spread along each of the doorways. They scanned for any weaponry or otherwise dangerous substances. Standing near its wall-mounted generators were guards in black uniforms.
The inside of the Spire was large, airy, and multi-tiered, like a platinum-encrusted beehive. Tall over-encompassing walls adorned with large rings of unique, glamorous metals. The air was laced with a manufactured white musk that added to the sense of luxury of the clientele.
Handling the first floor was a row of accountants seated behind a flowing electromagnetic barrier. Particles of light converted into a solid surface. Military grade and highly durable. It was meant to protect the employees from potential robbery, should anyone be stupid enough to try it.
It was my turn. I approached a female Serf working at her desk. She wore a tight black suit. Unlike the employees in their other windows, who each had their name tag, her name was inscribed on her temple. She cocked a pin-up smile and tilted her bald head. “Hello there. How can I help you today?”
“I’d like to make a wire transfer to my Crypt account.”
She nodded and took down the payment details I gave her, running each digit along the holographic keys on her desk. Her eyes left the monitor screen and returned to me, “And how much will that amount be?”
I cleared my throat. “Every dime. I want the balance zeroed out.”
“Alright,” she said, almost chant-like, and proceeded with the transfer. Within minutes, my chip pulsed with life in a bright blue glow.
“There we go. And will you be staying in the city or taking your leave at the station?” the woman said with that relentless cheer.
“The station, please.”
“Not a problem. What will your destination be?”
She input the data and motioned to the table. “Please place your hand here, palm up.”
I did what she asked and watched as she brought up a small white canister and sprayed a misty layer over my hand. It was a little cold, and my skin surrounding the chip prickled. After a moment of waiting, she followed with a pair of white tweezers and plucked out the blue chip. Not even a pinch.
“That wasn’t so bad, huh?” the woman teased, placing the chip inside a round metallic case. She handed me a yellow card, now printed with my information. “This pass will be automatically validated tomorrow, so give this to an attendant at the station and they will provide you an actual ticket. If, for any reason, you’d like to be fitted with a chip once more, we will have it stored here.”
I accepted the pass, taking a moment to slide my thumb across its laminated texture. “Thank you.”
For the rest of the day, I was filled with a sort of exhilaration that somehow bypassed the device, invading my system like a foreign entity. Tucked away in my pocket was the key to a new life. For the first time since my last surgery, I felt that smooth edge of control returning.
I dropped by Rasputin’s Studio one last time and exchanged goodbyes with Mr. Petrov and the other artists I’d come to know.
They all wished me luck, and I set off to spend the rest of the day packing my things. By the time I was done, the outer sky had already darkened into a grey night.
I stepped into the kitchen to pop in something to eat. Three consecutive knocks racked on the door. Two seconds later, they repeated.
I squinted my eye through the glass peephole and saw the top of a bald head. I opened the door.
Six was hunched over and coughing up spurts of exhausted breath. “I’m sorry,” he panted, like his lungs were deflating, “Nowhere else to go. I’m sorry.” Fresh wet trails dribbled down his red cheeks.
I brought him in and took him by both shoulders. “Calm down. It’s okay. What happened?”
His veiny eyes raced back to the door. “They’re coming—followed me here. I tried to lose them, I—I couldn’t.”
The sound of heavy footsteps from the hall now reached us both. I grabbed Six by his arm and brought him to the large window of my bedroom. Pushing against the glass, it opened horizontally outward to reveal the gratings of the fire escape.
From the other room, a firm knock hit the door. Six and I exchanged glances.
“I’ll keep whoever is here busy,” I said. “You just follow the stairs down and go through the alley.”
Before he even had a chance to respond, I turned and unlocked the safe in my nightstand. I peered through the peephole’s fisheye lens and saw the face of the man from last night. From that close, I could make out the bristled grey flecks on his chin and the marred patch of synthetic skin on his cheek.
He knocked again, harder this time.
I opened the door to greet him.
“Hello.” He stretched his lips into a smile that crinkled the discolored tissue on his cheek, “You’re a familiar face.” The foulness of his breath immediately hit me. It fit his spotted row of bottom teeth.
I shrugged at him. “You aren’t. Can I help you with something?”
“You have something of mine, and I’m going to need it back.” He spoke in a slow, commanding manner, with an accentuated roll of his octaves that bordered on cheeriness.
I yawned and then mustered a sigh. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Stop, stop!” he said, raising his palm in a dismissive gesture. “I know what you’re doing, and I will ask in the nicest way I can to bypass the hindrance. My employer is very keen on deadlines, and I’m in a bit of a time crunch. Where is the Serf?”
“Look,” I said, with a firm calmness in my pitch, “I’m going to call the police if you don’t leave.”
A bristled corner of his lip twitched. “Go ahead. Knock yourself out.”
I went to close the door on him, but his hand whipped out a gun. He held it just an inch from my face, my lips practically kissing the muzzle. “But if I were you,” he said, “I’d consider my next set of actions very carefully. Now, open the fucking door.”
I opened the door fully and stepped back.
The man, also known as the Taker, stepped inside, his firearm locked on me. He was followed in by a larger military-looking man wearing a green trench coat and dark cargo pants. I noted that the thuds of this man’s right foot were heavier than the left.
The Taker’s eyes momentarily slipped away from me, as he motioned his partner to search the place, starting with the nearest closet.
I tried to get a fix on the type of gun aimed at me. A rectangular blackish body, short-barreled, threaded muzzle, and judging by the pulsing green canister attached to its lower portion, the ammo was corrosive. If I were to wager a guess, it was a Carborane Carrier, better known on the streets as a Disintegrator. Usually obtained only by illegal means, the weapon broke its targets down at a cellular level. Just one pull of that trigger and I’d be reduced to a foamy, acidic puddle of myself.
Not a trace of reliable evidence.
The sound of my coffee table tipping over from the military man’s search made me jump. I mentally followed the sound of his boots as he headed to check the bathroom door.
“No chip?” the Taker asked, taking notice of my palm with narrow eyes. “You must have bought your way out then. When do you leave? Tomorrow?
I didn’t answer him.
“Hm?” His head cocked curiously to the side, with the slanted smile of a snake playing with its food. “Any idea where you’re going yet? I heard the southern temperatures were good this year.” I was not playing ball, and he sighed at my lack of conversation. “Honestly, why risk all of this for a Serf? Just make it easier for yourself and tell us where it is.”
Without warning, the sound of a muffled cough came from my room.
The Taker’s neck craned toward the source. “Bedroom,” he called out. “It's in the bed—”
The moment those eyes left me to relay the message, my pistol had already left its holster. I fired off a shot that ripped through his left leg. In an instant, the room flashed, and the Taker howled with agony. He fell backward, but not without a spasm of his trigger finger that sent a flare of green just shy of me. The impact punched a molten hole into the back wall.
Thick blood seeped out of the ragged tear in the Taker’s pants. He hit the ground, the Disintegrator slipping from his grip and clattering onto the floor.
I went for it, but a shattering force collided into me. My feet slipped, I hit the wall, and the world became vertical. A deep reservoir of pain started in my hip and rippled down the meat of my leg.
Next to me, the military man lowered his leg from the kick he’d just delivered.
I curled my fingers, only to realize the gun was out of my grasp. I’d dropped it from the sudden strike.
The military man bent over to retrieve my gun, but I managed to kick it away from him just in time.
With a wincing effort, I got back to my feet. Within seconds he was on me. The flurry of punches came fast and hard. My back was against the wall. I was pinned, only able to block what I could predict, while mentally walling off the pulsating throb in my side.
Get out of the corner; my brain riffed in my father’s voice. I distributed weight on my lead foot and waited for my chance. He threw an overexerting right that allowed me to duck and step toward his left side. Granted my new opening, I spun around and struck him a solid one in the jaw. There was little to no sign of damage, but at least I had my footing back.
The Taker, meanwhile, was still writhing on the ground, with his fingers clenched over his bleeding leg. Behind us, the corrosive substance in the hole of the wall had begun to bubble and eat its way through the plaster. Noxious odors filled the air.
The military man faced me, fists waiting. An addictive surge of adrenaline raced through my body and nulled the stabbing pangs. He came at me again, but this time I was prepared. I parried off the first few blows and opened myself a counter with a jab to his throat. As he wavered back, I went for a low kick to his outer thigh.
The bones in my foot rattled and then sang with new pain. It was like I had just kicked a steel girder.
The military man inclined his head in acknowledgment and then, with an amused look, he lifted his pant leg. An artificial limb. But not just that. One of the more advanced models designed to be versatile enough for combat situations. With its internal circuits, the prosthetic could link up to the electric signals of the bearer’s nerves to mirror the actual feeling of tissue and bone with hydraulics and metal. Another gift courtesy of Neotech.
He approached, now wearing the smug look of premature victory. That alone was enough to bring my groove back. This time, I wouldn’t let him touch me. I bobbed and weaved around his attacks. My best bet was to tire him out, while avoiding that catastrophic sweep of his prosthetic. Thanks to the RRM’s influence, I was able to hold my nerve and keep my mind steeled.
It wasn’t long before he realized my strategy. As I stepped back to avoid a roundhouse kick, I fell right into his trap. At the last second, the length of his metallic leg extended outward with a hydraulic hiss to complete the blow straight into my gut.
Everything flashed red. It was like someone had swung a sledgehammer directly against my insides. Air spewed out of me. Behind the crippling feeling of my stomach being clenched into a tiny ball was an odd cramping beneath my limbs. Had I been prepared, I would have braced my stomach muscles to minimize as much of the force as possible. But as it was, he may as well have kicked a bag of dough.
My legs gave out and left me on the floor, curled into an instinctive fetal position and gasping for more air. My neck rolled back, and my vision sloshed over. I watched the fuzzy, clenched image of the military man approaching. A jolt of my insides brought back the details of his boots. The boots waiting to stomp me into a stain on the floor.
Still, something else was inside me—a sort of voltage feeding the primal urge to come out on top, to overcome, to live.
He was getting close enough. I twisted my body around and hooked both my legs around his prosthetic. I pulled my knees in, but with his solid stance, there was no way of bringing him in. I clasped my left hand around his other ankle and repositioned my feet, one now dug firmly in his hip and the other propped behind his metal knee. Then, with a spark of strength, I pushed against hip and yanked his other foot upward.
He was unable to regain his balance. Gravity overtook his bulky frame and sent him crashing backward. Instantly, I clambered over him, pinning my knee deeply against his Adam's apple while also holding his left arm down. His right fist, however, found its way into my ribs, several times over. I slid the optical bracelet over the knuckles of my free hand and drove it into his unguarded face. Its protective carbon fiber casing, combined with the carnal force of my drive, fractured his nose and a few front teeth. Torment bubbled its way back up to remind me of its existence, but I didn’t care anymore. All that mattered was immobilization.
One final blow to the chin sent his head flopping back against the floor and rendered him unconscious. I crawled away from him and used the wall as leverage to get back to my feet. I retrieved my gun off the floor.
“Happy with yourself?” The Taker spat the words. “You’ve thrown everything away, all for the sake of a Serf. Leave the city. Go ahead. We’ll still find you. Your life is over.”
I didn’t have the energy to muster a response, and even if I had, he wouldn’t be worth any more of my time.
I opened the window to my room and saw Six clinging desperately against the fire escape railing. The blood had left his exposed hands and flushed his face red.
“Why didn’t you leave?” I asked, leaning into the pane.
His neck twisted toward me. “I didn’t want to leave you.”
I sighed at him and tried to help him inside.
The sound of heavy footsteps reached us both. Standing at the door to my room was the military man, his face swollen and bent into an angry grimace. I saw his arm come up, and all I could think of was to dive out the window. A membranous arc of green surged over my head. My back hit the steel gratings.
“STOP!” the Taker shrieked from the other room. “You’ll hurt the merchandise!”
I grabbed Six’s arm and pulled him with me down the stairs. The metal above us shuddered with a ringing thud as the military man dropped onto the platform. We reached the second flight, and I heard a sharp crack. The piece of railing I had just taken my hand away from was now melting away into globs of oozing matter that smelled like hot vomit.
The clunky stairs trembled with vibrations as we raced down them. Heavy drumming footsteps from our pursuer grew louder. Another flicker of green whizzed by my peripheral and devoured a nearby support beam.
He was still firing, showering the fire escape in corrosive hellfire that was quickly liquefying its foundation. A metallic whine emanated from the structure as it began to sway from its restraints. This death trap wasn’t going to support our weight much longer.
No time to turn and aim, I snapped off a shot toward him. The bullet nailed a section near his head and sent a burst of sparks in his face that made him grunt.
Our feet reached the ground, and we spun on our heels, erupting into full-blown sprints.
From behind us, the entire lower portion of the fire escape lurched downward and detached from the upper level. Fixings gave way and sent the molten sections of stairs and beams hurtling to the pavement. A loud thud generated a cloud of dust that wafted through the alleyway.
The shooting stopped, but I could still see the vague figure of the military man watching us flee from his still-attached platform. Most likely just out of ammo.
The energetic high of adrenaline was gone, leaving me in the suffocating fumes of my limit. My stomach felt bloated and full of rocks. Cold air battered my lungs. My limbs might as well have been rusted pieces of machinery that I had to force to keep moving. Everything hurt, but the hardest to ignore was the nova of pain that expanded in my side at every step.
We attained a safe enough distance, and I chose a brick wall to prop myself against.
Six did the same, coughing out the excess slime in his throat.
Out of curiosity, I fiddled with the dented, red-streaked body of my bracelet. No response. I wasn’t surprised.
“I’m sorry for all of this.” Six sighed and looked up at the first flakes of snow that had started to fall.
I waved a dismissive hand at him.
“What are we going to do?” He groaned. “Where are we going to go?”
Something came to me. “I think I have a place in mind.”
Rasputin’s Studio stood like a shoebox drenched in the lights of the museum across from it. We snuck around to the back of the shop and got inside with the spare key I still had from my apprenticeship. The security system started its thirty-second warning chime but I keyed in the code to silence it.
I hoped that nobody would be using Mr. Petrov’s spare room tonight. I opened the small room in the back. It was empty.
A fiery stitch throbbed in my side. As much as my body hurt, that area was the worst of it. I lifted my clothes. A fat reddish mark of a large bruise was starting to form. It was a blessing that kick hadn’t dislocated my hip completely.
I sifted through the shop's medical supplies until I found some painkillers and ointment for the swelling.
Six had taken a seat in one of the chairs and was watching the increasing snow smack the windows.
“You can have the bed,” I called to him. “I’ll probably just keep watch, anyway.”
He didn’t turn to me. “Merchandise.”
“Didn’t you hear? ‘You’ll hurt the merchandise.’ That’s what he said.” His voice wavered, as he choked something back. “That’s all I am.”
I rested a hand against his shoulder. “No, you aren’t.”
He slowly wound toward me. “That’s how it is for Serfs. We’re just things to be traded, to be used for someone else’s gain. We aren’t people. We aren’t even alive. It isn’t just him that thinks that; it’s everyone in this horrible city. We’re whatever they say we are.” He stopped, as the evident sob he had choked back returned in an endless stream. His face disappeared into his hands with congested, muffled crying.
I stood next to him, a fortress of locked up emotions. Had the numb veil not been shielding me, I’m sure I would have cried too. He was right; it wasn’t just him. Serfs were commodities we saw behind the rose-colored lens of efficiency. They had surrounded me for so long that it had become eerily natural to see them as simply part of the bedrock. Shapes in the background. People didn’t vouch for them; most didn’t even want to be involved in the matter.
I knelt to his level and lifted his tear-trailed face. The enormous puffy eyes stared through me. “Listen,” I said, “nobody can tell you who you are. Nobody can tell you what you are. Nobody but you can do that, because you are not some abstract thing we can fit into a box because it is convenient to do so. You are perfect just the way you are.”
His scrawny arms pulled me into a hug, as he buried his bald head against my aching stomach. I dropped my gaze to the small grooves of code engraved into his temple, and I ran a finger over the yellow pass in my pocket. Whatever happened next didn’t matter. All I cared about was getting him out of this place.
“Get up,” I said.
I got him back to his feet and led him to the station area.
Sniffling, he asked, “What are you doing?”
I looked at him, actually surprising myself with the convincing grin I was able to pull off. I started setting up shop.
“Giving you an out,” I said.
We went through a few sketches before nailing one down. Spontaneous as it was, Six seemed fairly sure of his choice. I cleaned the area of his head with some iodine and applied the carbon transfer paper.
Six shuffled uncomfortably in the chair. “Is this going to hurt?”
I loaded a canister of ink while the stencil dried on his skin. “It’s going to start with the machine buzzing in your ear, but you’ll honestly forget it’s there. It’s going to be a sharp, scratching pain for the first ten or so minutes. After that, your body is going to start releasing some pain-killing hormones that will dull it. The pain will spike, but then it will go down. Just breathe through it, okay?”
He nodded. “Okay.”
I checked over the stencil one more time and then readied my tracing hand. “We’ll take as many breaks as you need. We have all night anyway.”
He breathed out deeply and straightened his shoulders. “I’m ready.”
Considering that it was his first tattoo and, even more so, in a particularly sensitive area, Six’s tolerance was admirable. Despite the number of times he winced, tightened up, and instinctively started to lean away, the linework came out thin and even. We completed the tracing in a little under an hour, with just one break. Then came the shading, which was often easier for clients since they had already survived the worst of the needle.
By the ninety-minute mark, we were finished. I gave the area a small pea-sized drop of ointment and covered it with a thin plastic gauze. “Take a look.” I handed him a mirror.
He examined the reflection for a few moments. The uncomfortable silence returned.
“It’s perfect,” he finally said, with a beaming astonishment. He put the mirror down, only to pull it up and look again. “They’re gone! You can’t even see the numbers!”
It was the happiest I’d seen him since we’d met. “You’re going to want to touch it. Don’t.”
“I won’t. I won’t,” he said, tilting the mirror around his head to admire the different angles. “Hurt like hell, too.”
The reactions like these were what artists craved. When something you created sparked this kind of joy, you knew you had found your calling. Six was no longer a piece of stamped property. He was a person, nothing less. I started to break down my station and bin the equipment.
He suddenly asked, “What is that sound?”
Before it even dawned on me to ask what sound, the rhythmic cries of the device’s dying battery reached me. “Don’t worry about it,” I said, wiping down the surfaces. “There is a bed in that room over there. You should get some rest while you can.”
He approached the door and then pouted in my direction. “You should get some rest too, you know.”
I flicked my wrist at him. “I will, after I wrap up here.”
Too tired to argue, he disappeared behind the door and left me to finish cleaning things up.
By the time I finished, I could already feel the internal strangeness start to well up. It was going to be a long night. Contemplating my limited choices, I sat at our reception desk, popped in some gum Mr. Petrov had in his desk, and rode the waves.
Running the length of the Metro Stations concourse were its leaded skylights that revealed a white overcast sky with feathery grey creases. The walls were lined with marble and gilded trimmings. Ornate bronze chandeliers decorated the ceiling fixtures. We moved along the glazed hexagonal tiles, through the heavy throngs of people dispersing in every direction.
The tendons in my neck felt like a tightly strung piano wire from the sleepless maelstrom of the previous night. The tender bruise in my side had now welled up into an ugly purple fruit.
Six walked alongside me, looking a little nervous but at least not conspicuous. We didn’t seem to be attracting any attention.
We reached the ticket line and waited in the jangle of voices and shuffling bodies. I swallowed dryly, trying to regulate my chaotic heart rate. My nerves were in shambles. The RRM’s battery was completely drained, leaving me to face the emotional trenches. My mood was so raw and off its hinges that I had to bite back a hysterical sob from the cute little girl ahead of us that looked back and smiled at me. Even the slightest bit of annoyance or unconscious bump in line would have sent me into a jagged rage.
I could no longer shrink back into the nothingness inside of me. I’d been cut off for so long that every emotion was like an old piece of muscle memory I’d forgotten.
It was our turn. We approached the attendant at the booth and handed him the yellow pass.
He examined it behind big round spectacles and eyed the both of us. “Identification please.”
I handed over my information.
He examined it in seconds and handed it back. Then, looking at Six, he tilted his head and seemed to take notice of his tattoo: a flock of blackbirds making their way up his temple to an open sky. “Just the one then?”
“Yes. He’s seeing me off.” I nodded, doing my best to hide the jolt of panic that surged through me.
The man then smiled and exchanged the yellow pass for the ticket.
Walking away with the ticket in my hand filled me with a waterfall of relief. Now, all we had to do was reach the terminal.
We cut through the large open main floor, but I noticed a figure weaving between the crowds. The Taker was here, still wearing that brown coat, but with an evident limp to his step today. That also meant the military man and whoever else worked for him were here too.
I kept my head low and moved faster, with Six pinned to my side. If just one set of eyes noticed us, they’d surely alert the whole hive.
We followed the directional holograms that projected out of the walls, while doing our best to stay off the radar.
The entrance to the terminal shimmered with a particle field that cut off the hall from the platform. A grim-looking guard in a black uniform waited on standby next to it. The field was most likely designed to scan anyone for active chips, unauthenticated tickets, or—in Six’s case—tracking devices. If Neotech had not so graciously removed it for us, our passage would have ended here.
At the foot of the shimmer, I handed Six the ticket, as well as the addressed note from Mr. Petrov. “When you get to B—Babylon, find this person. Tell them that Petrov sent you.” The tears choked me and sent my voice into convulsive gasps. I took a breath. “Tell him I’ll wire whatever he wants down, that will . . . at—at least give you somewhere to start.”
He flung his arms around me and pulled me into the tightest hug of my life. I held him close, wondering if this were the sort of hug I would have liked from my mother.
After our embrace, the face he gave me was saturated with uneasiness. “Will I ever see you again?”
I let out a weak chuckle and cleared my throat. “Sure. Hopefully somewhere better than a place like this.”
I watched as he passed through the field and headed straight for the Maglev. Before vanishing into its hull, he turned to me one last time and waved. I waved back, not daring to leave that spot until the Maglev fired up and propelled forward with its precious cargo.
From above the skylights’ tempered glaze, flecks of snow started to dance. During the walk back, I thought for a moment that I felt a prickle from the device. But it was something else.
The feeling gradually rose into a rich warmth that bloomed my lips into a smile. I no longer cared about being caught or noticed. Not even about what would happen next. To kill this feeling would be to kill the very thing that had driven me to achieve this identity.
I stepped out to the snowy street, wondering how many more Serfs out there were on the run like Six was. Waiting for someone to help them.
It was strange to think how long I’d dreamt of leaving this place behind. But this time, something different was in the air. A flavored new purpose. Something that smelled rather nice.
The Real Deal
Holding a small white dog (probably not really his), trying too hard to seem like a good guy.
Wearing a backpack and a skin-tight grey athletic shirt, standing on a ridge overlooking a sprawling pine forest. She pictured herself waking up, un-showered, in a tent at 6 a.m. during her one week off.
Auburn hair, white smile, clean t-shirt. The background was blurred; maybe the photo was taken on portrait mode? She paused. In his second photo, he was standing in a windbreaker on a beach. The background was obscured by grey mist.
“Cameron, 28, Portland.”
No puns, no innuendos, no request for memes or music suggestions. The absence of information drew her in.
That evening, when she was scrubbing residual egg crust off of her least favorite frying pan, her phone buzzed. Omelets were healthier than take-out, but the clean-up was a pain. She wiped her hands on her pajama pants and checked her screen.
“This is my first time using a dating app (I swear I haven’t been saying that for the past 3 months) and I was nervous about it but I’m really excited we matched, Annie!” Cameron’s message read.
It made him sound awkward. An over-sharer. But the message felt genuine, and she appreciated that, so she opened the app and wrote back.
He invited her to meet him at a pizza parlor downtown on Friday night, which impressed her. Most guys just wanted to get drinks to lubricate their encounters. Going out for pizza sounded like a real date, and the spot had a 4.8 on Yelp.
After work on Friday, she showered and changed into a black skirt and a green blouse, choosing boots over wedges to avoid giving off an office-vibe. Brushing her hair into a ponytail, she studied the effect in her mirror and decided it was good. She looked playful and fun.
Jazzy, Annie’s roommate, arrived home as she was heading out.
“Well, look at you. You look nice,” Jazzy said with an approving nod. Jazzy had been ragging on her for months for wearing flannels or t-shirts when she met up with guys. “No one will want a second date if you don’t try at all on the first one,” Jazzy would say with a sigh.
“Do you need a ride? I can drop you off if you want,” Jazzy offered.
“It’s okay. I’ll just Uber.”
The pizza parlor stood out: a little piece of Rome in suburbia. It sat at the corner of a shopping center parking lot, but the ivy crawling up the yellow bricks and the small fountain out front didn’t feel tacky.
“Not quite as cute in real life,” she thought when she saw Cameron waiting in a booth. He was shorter than she had imagined. But when he caught sight of her, he smiled. His hazel eyes crinkled, and she felt a flutter in the pit of her stomach.
“Wow, you look amazing,” he said as he stood to hug her. “I ordered some garlic knots to start, I hope that’s okay. We could get another appetizer too if you want.”
“Garlic knots sound perfect,” she grinned, taking her seat.
At dinner, she learned that he was working at a bank doing something that involved numbers and buttons on screens. When she told him she was finishing her child development dissertation, he seemed genuinely interested. She sometimes worried that men would think she wanted a baby soon because she studied infants. She didn’t want a baby. Children weren’t even that cute when you had to placate them every day in order to get them through your experiment. They were better left in the lab than brought into the home. Cameron didn’t give her the usual “wow you must love kids” line.
“Wow, what an interesting window into human cognition,” he said, toying with his napkin. “Working with babies must be hard though. How do you get them to cooperate?”
“What? Is that legal?” his eyes bulged.
“No, I’m totally kidding. We use toys and games, try to make it fun and stuff. All we do is show them a puppet show and watch how they react,” she explained.
His eyes crinkled again. They looked sort of green, contrasting with the booth’s red-leather cover.
They ordered too much food: Two kinds of pizza (they couldn’t decide between the house veggie deluxe and the balsamic white sauce, so they ordered both), and garlic knots, which were thick and buttery. When the waiter arrived to clear their table, Annie asked him to pack up the leftovers.
“You’re keeping this?” Cameron asked, glancing over the remaining slices. “They’ll be cold tomorrow.”
“Yeah, but that’s what a microwave is for,” Annie replied. She suddenly felt embarrassed. Maybe bringing home leftovers was not cool dating behavior.
But then Cameron laughed. She felt a wave of relief. “Waste not want not I guess,” he said.
The check arrived. He reached for it.
“Let me split it with you,” she offered.
“I got it,” he said with a wave. “You can treat next time.”
So, there would be a next time.
Although Annie was happy that he paid for the food, she couldn’t help but feel the smallest twinge of guilt. It wasn’t progressive. She had a generous university stipend. Men and women should be equals. Other girls would complain about how having dates pay made them feel like sex was expected. But Annie liked feeling like there was a price on her company and that men would pay it. It made her feel appreciated. It wasn’t about the material gains.
Last year she slept with a consultant. She was annoyed when he didn’t offer to treat for sushi since she knew he could afford it. Then she had also hooked up with a poet who worked days in a coffee shop, and she was excited when he took her out to ice cream since he had to be careful with his cash.
“Can I drive you home?” Cameron asked as they left.
They parted ways with a soft kiss outside her apartment building. Annie was surprised to feel butterflies agan in her stomach. He was a good kisser. The wet, drunken kisses she got on the way to her bedroom for most Tinder dates didn’t stir up any real feelings. She felt nervous that Cameron hadn’t asked to come inside. Was he not attracted to her after all?
Her concern didn’t last long. By the time she reached the sixth floor, taking the stairs in a last-ditch effort to make up the number of garlic rolls she had eaten with dinner, he had texted her.
“Tonight was fun! Are you free later this weekend?”
“I could be. What did you have in mind?” she texted back.
“Want to go to the beach on Sunday? I can pick you up.”
“The beach? lol it’s December.”
“It’s still nice to walk on the shore even if it's too cold to swim. No worries if you’re not into the beach though we could see a movie?”
“No no the beach sounds nice, what time?”
“Great see you soon! Really excited!”
Annie put down her phone with a grin. The butterflies were back. It had been a while since she had gone on anything like a beach date. She hadn’t had a real boyfriend since high school and that hardly even counted.
Sunday was grey. Annie woke up to the pitter-patter of rain and groaned. So much for the beach. She pulled herself out of bed and made her way to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee.
Her phone dinged and she assumed it was Cameron making alternative plans.
“Are we still on for 10?”
She was confused. Had he not looked out the window?
“I’m up but not sure it’s a great day to go to the beach....”
“Because of the rain? Don’t worry about that. The beach is beautiful when it’s stormy.”
Annie wasn’t sure she agreed but she was intrigued. What was she going to do if she backed out? Sit around her apartment and study? Why not take part in the adventure that was being offered to her?
She finished her coffee and went and got dressed in a purple flannel shirt, black yoga pants and yellow rain boots. Pigtails would look cute with her yellow knit hat. It was a younger look but one that men, for better or worse, generally seemed to like.
The last thing she did before leaving the apartment was shoot Jazzy a text with her plans. Just in case.
It was a two-hour drive to the beach Cameron had chosen. Normally Annie hated being stuck in cars but she and Cameron had fun singing along to classic folk tunes. She actually enjoyed the trip. They passed towering pine forests and churning rivers along the way.
Cameron parked at one of the many small towns dotting the coast. The rain had picked up making the short walk to the water seem like quite the trek.
“It should settle down in a few hours,” said Cameron. “Wanna check the town out first?”
“Sure,” said Annie and took his hand.
It was a tourist trap, Annie decided, but a cute one. Most of the tiny wooden stores, which boasted souvenirs like mother of pearl shells and lavender soap, were closed for the season, but one cafe was still open. Bells chimed as Annie and Cameron stepped into a cloud of warmth and cinnamon.
Cameron ordered two steaming lattes and a danish from the lanky teenager behind the counter. Snuggled together at a wooden bench, the pair took turns taking buttery bites out of the pastry.
“So how long have you been in Oregon?” asked Cameron.
“I grew up here actually,” said Annie. “In a small town outside of Eugene.”
“Huh so I guess this isn’t your first beach trip,” said Cameron.
“Not my first but I didn’t spend that much time at the coast growing up. My mom isn’t really into taking trips, even short ones. Plus I got car sick as a kid so we mostly just stayed in town.”
“Do you like taking trips?”
“Sure,” said Annie. “I like adventures, new experiences. In college I spent a semester in Paris.”
“Does France count as an adventure?”
“I mean, I think so. It was my first time out of the country so that was exciting. I’d never spent more than a couple hours on a plane before.”
Annie suddenly felt embarrassed. She had wanted to sound worldly, but it was coming out like she was a small-town loser.
“Have you been anywhere really fun?” she asked.
“Not as many places as I want to go,” he said. “My parents took us to Hawaii, Mexico and Canada but that was about it.”
Ah ha. France seemed cool after all.
“During my semester abroad a friend and I went to Germany and Italy,” she said, trying to secure her upper hand. “We took trains and these cheap green busses that are all over Germany. They’re nice, they even have wifi.”
“I didn’t take you for a public transit enthusiast,” he said.
“I mean, they weren’t public busses, but I do like public transit. Better for the environment and less stressful than having a car. But it is hard to get around in Oregon without your own ride. ”
Not cool, she was straying hard into nerd territory.
“Well, I have an idea of where we could go to have another adventure tonight,” he said.
“Mm?” Annie asked. She was trying to look coy. She hoped she knew what he was about to suggest.
“My house might not be quite as fun as Paris but you don’t have to get on a plane to get there.”
Annie wanted to call him out on his corny pickup line but she was worried it would ruin the mood. Instead, she smiled.
“Like I said, I’m into adventures.”
His house was in a wealthy neighborhood across town from her apartment complex. It wasn’t as big as some of the surrounding homes but had high windows. The rooms had white walls; few possessions made the inside feel roomy and a bit cold. He poured bourbon for them and they hooked up on his black couch. The couch’s draping was rough on Annie’s back and she was amused to find a rug burn on herself when she got home. A love wound.
She hooked up with him again on Tuesday night and then on Thursday, this time in her bed.
When she wasn’t with Cameron, he was texting her.
“What’s for breakfast today, Annie?”
“How was the lab? Kids behaving?”
“Saw a Garfield poster today and thought of you, so cute that you collected those comics as a kid.”
“Missing you, hope to see you soon.”
It was hard to respond to all of his messages, especially when she was at work, but she did her best. Knowing someone besides Jazzy and her mom was thinking about her was nice. She found herself smiling randomly throughout the day when she thought about his lame jokes or compliments.
By the time the next weekend rolled around she had started turning down other Tinder offers. She still used the app. It was exciting to get matches and messages from men she knew she would never want to see.
On Sunday morning, Cameron picked her up in his Prius. He had texted ahead that he had a surprise.
“Where are we headed?”
“My favorite brunch spot,” he said. “You’ll like it.”
“I love brunch,” she said.
Annie’s Instagram was littered with photos of eggs smothered in melted cheese and stacks of fresh toast covered in too much syrup.
As Cameron exited the highway off Route 26, soft rock blaring from his radio, Annie suspected she knew where they were headed.
Sure enough, he turned onto High Ave. and parked on the Street across from Sal’s Bakery.
“No way,” said Annie. “Sal’s? Sal’s is my favorite place! My roommate and I used to come here all the time, but we stopped since she quit her job to go back to school.”
Getting a Master’s degree made Jazzy happy, but it didn’t make much money.
“Wow, that’s wild, that you like it too” grinned Cameron. “It’s such a great place, so that makes sense.”
They settled into a blue-leather booth and ordered a plate of French toast. It arrived dripping with butter. Cameron cut a large piece, forked it, splashed syrup over it and held it out to Annie. She ate it in one bite.
“Was that a test? She asked after she finished chewing. “Bet you like a girl who can fit a lot in her mouth, huh?”
“Look at the pervert over here,” teased Cameron. “I’m just trying to have a nice brunch and you can’t keep your mind out of the gutter.”
Annie giggled. He raised his hand.
“Waitress? I need a new table. This woman is harassing me.”
“Cameron cut it out, people are starting to stare!”
Their waitress seemed to be in the kitchen, Annie didn’t see her anywhere nearby, but other customers had shot them uncomfortable glances during Cameron’s outburst.
He shrugged. “Fine I’ll stay but you better behave.”
Annie giggled again and dug in for another bite.
When the food was gone Cameron reached across the table to take her left hand. She was sipping the last of her coffee with her right and trying to decide whether to get another refill.
“Annie, I know this is fast but why don’t you move in with me?”
“Whoa, hang on there.” She placed her coffee cup on the wooden table and gaped at him. “Move in together?”
“I feel like we have a special connection. This way we wouldn’t have to drive across town after work to see each other. Besides, it would be great for you. I’ve seen your building and no offense but it’s a bit run down. My house is nice and I wouldn’t charge you rent until you’re sure you’re happy with the decision.”
Annie didn’t know what to say. She was flattered. The idea that he had fallen hard for her was romantic. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings but she knew it wasn’t a good idea.
“Cameron, I mean, that’s a little crazy. It’s so fast.”
“Who says it's too fast? Who makes the rules about how soon you can move in?”
She almost said “I get to decide” but then she stopped. It was true there wasn’t a perfect time to move in. Some women dated men for years and couldn’t get them to commit to a shared space.
“I just want to see more of you,” he said. “I want to wake up next to you. It’ll be an adventure!”
“Well, I’m not going to terminate my lease but I guess I could start sleeping over if that’s what you want.”
Cameron leaned over to kiss her and she hoped his shirt wouldn’t get in the remnants of their brunch
“He asked you to what?” asked Jazzy that evening. “Annie that’s nuts!”
“I’m not really moving in, I'm just going to start staying over there more.”
They were seated at the kitchen table sharing a bowl of boxed Mac and Cheese. Annie knew she would miss eating dinner with Jazzy in the little yellow kitchen where they had spent hours baking and eating breakfast and gossiping over beers. But she was also excited to use Cameron’s sleek new kitchen with a granite island, four burners, and air conditioning. Come summer, if things worked out, she wouldn’t have to open the window to avoid suffocating over a hot stove.
“Well then why didn’t he just ask you to sleep over?” said Jazzy.
“He’s just… a little dramatic. Trying to be romantic and adventurous and stuff.”
“That’s bizarre. Has he never dated anyone? He might not have ever dated anyone. You don’t really know anything about him.”
“Sure I do,” said Annie. “He told me all about his family back in Michigan and the company he works for here and his friends in the city.”
“Yeah, he grew up there and moved to Portland for college and stuck around after. What’s wrong with Michigan?”
“It’s just a milquetoast state. It seems like the kind of state you would throw out if you didn’t want to talk about your past.”
“C’mon Jazzy don’t be a nut. I’ve internet stalked him and it all checks out. His Facebook and LinkedIn and college research page. He’s not lying about his life.”
“The whole thing seems super strange to me.”
“People fall in love in different ways. Let me have this okay?”
“Well, you’re not getting out of your lease. I’ll sue. And you better come back and hang out with me or I’ll sue you for emotional neglect.”
“Not sure that’s a thing.”
“I’ll make it a thing,” said Jazzy.
At least she was grinning, thought Annie.
She packed up her toiletries, books and papers the next day. She took her work clothes and gym outfits and two nice outfits but left her weekend-chill clothes behind. No need for unflattering sweaters and jeans. She also left her knickknacks including the photo album her high school bff had made her when she left for college and the stuffed bunny her mom had bought her when she was a child. No need to put them at risk in the off chance that Cameron was a weirdo and decided to steal or burn her things if they had a fight. Okay Annie, no need to be paranoid she chided herself.
The last thing Annie did before leaving was delete the dating apps off her phone.
Seated at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, Jazzy watched as Annie carried her suitcase out the door of their apartment.
"I’m not helping you because I don’t approve of this,” she said and turned back to her newspaper.
“Love you too,” said Annie. She closed the door and took the elevator down to the ground floor and Cameron's waiting car.
When they got to his house he took her bag out of the trunk and carried it inside.
“Sorry I didn’t help more when I picked you up, I thought you might want to say good-bye to Jazzy one-on-one,” he said.
“I’ll see her again this weekend. We aren’t that codependent, it’s not like I can’t go a few days without her.”
“The house smells nice,” she said as she stepped through the doorway. “Did you get a new air- freshener?”
“Check the kitchen,” said Cameron. He hoisted her bag onto his shoulder and carried it upstairs.
There was a bouquet of white roses and honeysuckles in a crystal vase on the kitchen table. Annie leaned into the flowers and took a deep breath, savoring the sweet, light scent.
“I thought the honeysuckles might remind you of your grandma’s house because you got them off her fence there,” said Cameron, wrapping his arms around her from behind. “Not sure whether you can suck on these ones though.”
Annie turned around in his arms and kissed him.
“They’re beautiful,” she said. “This is so sweet.”
Cameron grinned, lifted her off her feet and carried her upstairs. It was nice, falling asleep next to him and knowing he would be there when she woke up.
The third day Annie realized she had forgotten her sneakers at home but when she told Cameron he picked up a new pair for her so she wouldn’t have to drive back across town. Better to spend the time finishing her new paper, he said.
“Size seven right?” he said when he presented them. “You’re supposed to get new running shoes every six months anyway. Otherwise, you might injure your feet.”
“I think that applies to serious runners, not people who go to the gym once a week to jog a mile on the treadmill or take Pilates,” said Annie.
“You’re welcome,” said Cameron.
“Thanks, that was really thoughtful.”
She didn’t actually see Jazzy again for three weeks. Annie kept meaning to go back to the apartment but between work and Cameron she just didn’t have time.
“This is exactly why moving in together was a good idea,” said Cameron when she mentioned that she hadn’t seen Jazzy in a while. They were watching TV on the same black couch that had attacked her back. “If I hadn’t gotten you here, I would be the one who hadn’t seen you for three weeks.”
When she finally did meet up with Jazzy, to see a movie, Jazzy wasn’t happy. She was waiting outside the movie hall in a black peacoat, slacks and heels. Her dark hair was pulled up in a bun and her lips were bright red. Her sapphire earrings matched her eyes. Leave it to Jazzy to look more put together on a girl’s date than Annie did on her real dates.
“Three weeks? Annie come on,” she said as Annie went in for a hug. “Sue me.”
“Are you mad at me for not being more excited about Cameron? These days, it takes you forever to respond to my texts.”
“No, of course not! I’m sorry. It’s just that I can’t be on my phone in the lab, and Cameron doesn’t like me texting at home around him. He says it’s rude and we should be enjoying each other’s company.”
Jazzy didn’t say anything more but she pursed her lips together. They bought their tickets and headed into the theater.
The next day she picked up fairy lights and little potted plants from Home Depot. She put the lights up in the living room and spaced the plants around the house before Cameron got back from work.
“Hey now, what’s this?” he said when he got in.
“I picked up some home decor,” she said. “I figured if I’m going to stick around, I should make the space more my own.”
“Well I’m glad that’s the plan but don’t you think fairy lights are more appropriate for the kids in your lab than our house?” he said.
“No, I think they’re pretty,” she said.
He saw her face starting to droop and wrapped his arms around her.
“Well I think you’re pretty and I am thrilled that you’re settling in.”
They stopped going out as much, which Annie figured was normal for serious couples. Everyone knew you stopped “dating” once you were living together. Their timeline was just sped up.
Not going out was fine. Annie preferred eating at home in pajamas anyway. The problem was Cameron never seemed to like what Annie made. She had started cooking most of their meals because she still wasn’t paying him rent and she felt bad. She didn’t have enough on her stipend to pay him without screwing over Jazzy on their lease.
Cameron would always eat what she made, but he always pointed out what was wrong with the dish. He said that her cooking was “mediocre,” not “great.”
“Cameron, I’m not going to make you dinner if you sit there and criticize it,” she snapped after he told her that the Brussel sprouts were overcooked. “I know you work later than me but I have a job too.”
“Annie, don’t get like that. If you don’t want my feedback I’ll stop. I thought you wanted to keep getting better.”
The next night he texted her that he was going to pick dinner up. She was annoyed at what seemed like another insult. She considered filling up on cereal and going to bed before he got in but decided to wait for him. Not worth the fight.
Cameron arrived with sushi from her favorite restaurant. He would have had to drive 20 minutes out of the way to get it.
“I can’t cook nearly as well as you,” he said when he set the plastic take-out bag on the table. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings last night and I’m sorry. I hope you decide to cook for me again even though I was a jerk.”
“Of course I will,” Annie said. “I’m sorry I was so snappy.
“I get it,” said Cameron. “Your job is stressful. You really need to sleep more.”
“Who sleeps in grad school?” Annie joked. She opened the first plastic container and used a pair of wooden chopsticks to pull out a salmon and avocado roll.
The sex was great. At least for the first couple months. Each time she tried something she never would have considered before, Cameron was ready with a new idea.
“How do you know you won’t like it if you don’t try?” he would ask her. “It’s up to you, of course. If you don’t like it we can always stop.”
“I don’t think I want to” would be met with an eye roll or a sigh or a shrug and she would feel uncool and unsexy.
She wanted to complain to Jazzy but she was worried that it would be met with “I told you so” and she didn’t want Jazzy to think she was winning. Every couple has their differences, she thought. Cameron is still a great guy.
“Is your Instagram on private?” Cameron asked one morning after they had been living together for four months.
“Huh? Oh yeah. How did you know? I thought you didn’t have Insta.”
“I mean I don’t but sometimes I look at yours when I miss you at work,” he said. “How am I supposed to see your cute face now?”
“I’ll print out a photo and you can put it in an old-fashioned frame,” she said.
“Seriously why did you go private?” he asked.
“Well I need to start applying for jobs soon. I don’t really want hiring committees looking at my beach pics. Besides, do you want other men having total access to my bikini shots?”
“I guess I’ll just have to make an Instagram,” he said.
“Guess so,” she said.
It wasn’t until that night that a paranoid, uncomfortable thought hit her.
“How did you find Sal’s?” she asked him in bed.
“No seriously how did you hear about it?”
“Oh some buddies and I found it on Yelp in college, good place,” he said.
Sal’s didn’t have that many Yelp reviews and it was a good hour away from his college campus. Would it really have seemed worth the trip to a group of college bros?
“Ah, Yelp, typical,” she said.
As Cameron closed his eyes, Annie thought about the pictures on her Instagram feed. A sickly feeling bloomed in the pit of her stomach. There were multiple photos of her and Jazzy sitting at Sal’s, eating pastries and laughing as they split Belgian waffles and buttered French toast. But she told herself to stop being paranoid
“Of course he found it on Yelp. Like the coast, he’s the sort to go out of his way for fun,” she thought. “That’s why we’re a great match.”
They had their first fight a week later. Annie wasn’t really sure if it was even a fight because there wasn’t any screaming or shouting. It was something though. It started when she got home late from lab. She texted Cameron to tell him she wouldn’t be making dinner but hadn’t had time to call.
“Why were you out so late?” he asked when she got in. He was sitting at the table with a book.
“Missed you too,” she said, coming over to kiss him.
“Why were you out so late?” he demanded sharply, jerking away from her.
“Jeez Cameron I got drinks with my lab group,” she said. “One of the other grad students just got a paper accepted in a prestigious journal.”
“No which student.”
“Oh, Greg. He’s a sixth year too.”
“So you blew off our dinner to get drinks with Greg?”
“Cameron, what?” How cold his eyes looked startled her. His words were sharp, incisive.
“Annie if you’re getting tired of this, of us, you can say something,” he said.
“Cameron that’s not what’s happening at all,” she found herself pleading.
“Whatever, I’m going to sleep,” he said. Without another word, he went upstairs.
When Annie tried the door to the bedroom she found it locked. She was afraid that if she knocked he would get mad at her for waking him up, but she was also afraid that if she didn’t, he would be mad at her for not trying to reconcile with him. Annie spent the night in the guest bedroom. She left her teeth unbrushed.
The next morning he was calmly eating a bowl of cereal when she got downstairs. “Cameron about last night...”
“It’s fine,” he said, flashing her a smile. His eyes still looked cold. “Nothing you can’t make up to me tonight.”
He swatted her pajamaed behind, picked up his briefcase and left for work.
Annie felt butterflies exploding in her stomach but they didn’t feel right. Whatever was fluttering around in there didn’t go away all day. Instead it gnawed at her insides as she tried to work. She couldn’t focus.
“Babe you sure we’re good?” She finally texted him. “You seemed pretty mad last night.”
She opened and closed her phone over and over for the next thirty minutes hoping for a text until he finally responded.
“Of course. Sorry about last night, I had a bad day at work. My bad too. Love you”
Relief rushed over Annie.
A month later she told Cameron she was heading for a girl’s weekend with Jazzy. The two hardly ever got together and they were planning on spending two nights at a little bed and breakfast in a town a few hours away. There was a vineyard where they would do a wine tasting and a family-run organic farm that was supposed to serve excellent wood-fired pizza.
“Are you serious?” Cameron asked her. “You took off a whole weekend for Jazzy but when I want to hang out its always ‘papers this’ and ‘research that?’”
“I know. I know,” Annie said. “You’re right, we should take a weekend trip too.”
“Great, let’s go next weekend,” he said.
“No. Cameron, Jazzy, and I already booked the bed and breakfast.”
“Fuck me,” he said. “It’s always like this isn’t it? Are you going to fuck her in that bed and breakfast too? Sure seems like you like her more than me.”
Annie’s eyes bugged and her jaw went slack as Cameron turned and walked up the stairs. She gasped. Her face felt hot and tears came to her eyes.
Cameron paused halfway up the stairs.
“Annie, she’s never liked me. You know that. I love you but I can’t live like this, with the two of you sneaking around.”
Without thinking, Annie turned around and walked out of the house. She didn’t know what to do besides take a walk.
The air was still chilly but tiny flowers were beginning to pop up in the un-regimented spaces between people’s lawns. Even the regimented grass sprouting orderly on the lawns looked hopeful.
Annie felt embarrassed. Not so much by Cameron’s crazy accusations as the thought of having to tell anyone else about them. Jazzy would flip out. Annie’s mom had been so excited when she told her she had moved in with a great guy. If they broke up over this what was she supposed to say? She told herself it didn’t matter. She had moved in with Cameron as an adventure. A life partner was never the goal. She didn’t need to put up with his cruelty.
“I’m moving out,” Annie announced when she got back. Cameron was seated at the kitchen table, eating a sandwich. He hadn’t bothered to make her a sandwich, but she figured that was beside the point.
“What do you mean?”
“Exactly what it sounds like, I’m leaving,” she said. “We fight all the time lately and I’ve had enough, I’m sorry.”
“I let you live in my house and now you’re leaving as soon as we hit a rough patch? As soon as things aren’t fun 24/7?”
“It’s not about fun,” she said.
The butterflies rode back in on a flood of doubt. Was it about fun? Was it shallow to leave because the adventure wasn’t going as planned? Every couple has their ups and downs, Annie had heard that a million times. Was she too flaky to stay through rough patches? Was she about to lose a good thing?
She felt less sure of what she was doing.
“Then what is it?” he asked. “Look I’m sorry about what I said about Jazzy. That was uncalled for. Rude and homophobic and I’m sorry. I just get jealous sometimes. I feel like I give this my all but you still care more about her than me.”
He fixed his eyes on her. They were red like he had been crying. He looked hurt and vulnerable. She felt jittery. She wanted to hug him.
“I mean, I love you Cameron but she’s been my best friend for years, since I started college.”
“You’re right,” he said. “She’s your best friend and you’ll probably want her as the bridesmaid at our wedding. We’ll learn to get along.”
Cameron had never mentioned getting married before. Marriage had never been a part of Annie’s plan at all. But it meant he really wanted her. If she left now it would hurt him a lot. He deserved another chance.
Two days before she was supposed to leave with Jazzy, Annie got violently ill. The symptoms started after breakfast. She was almost out the door when a wave of nausea sent her running to the bathroom. She vomited up the scrambled eggs and toast Cameron had made her. He was already gone so she dragged herself back to bed and texted her PI to let him know she wouldn’t make it to the lab.
Annie napped for most of the day and by the evening she had started to feel better. When Cameron got home she was going over newly published papers on the couch.
“Annie?” he said. “Why are you already in pajamas? Did you make dinner?”
“Oh shit,” she said. “Sorry I should have told you to pick something up. I got sick today.”
“Oh no.” He sat on the couch and pulled her into his arms. “If you had let me know I would have bought medicine. Do you want me to go to the drugstore?”
“No that’s fine, but thanks. I’m already feeling better so, hopefully, it was just a 24-hour bug.”
Cameron made himself boxed pasta. Annie wanted to keep her stomach empty but Cameron insisted she have some canned soup.
“We need to get some electrolytes and protein in you,” he said.
“Does soup have electrolytes? I thought that was like a coconut water thing.”
Cameron laughed and set a full bowl down at the table.
As soon as she finished dinner the nausea swelled up again. The soup came right back up and into the toilet.
“Poor Annie,” said Cameron. He walked into the bathroom behind her and put a hand on her head. “I guess you were right about keeping your stomach empty.”
Lying in bed that night the same horrible feeling she had had when she asked Cameron about Sal’s came creeping back. Was it a coincidence that she had gotten sick both times after Cameron fed her? Was it a coincidence that this was happening right before her trip?
“Annie you absolute nutter,” she thought. “This is lunacy. No more thriller movies.”
Even though she told herself she was being crazy, she couldn’t sleep. Finally, she decided she might as well check the medicine cabinet. She would see that nothing was there and that would be the end of it. Annie went into the bathroom and locked the door. She flushed the toilet in case Cameron had woken up when she got up, and ran the water as she checked the cabinet. Nothing suspicious. She let out a long sigh and returned to bed.
The next day she refused Cameron’s offer to make her oatmeal and he shrugged. She sat with him at the kitchen table, sipping tea while he ate.
“Annie you might want to cancel your trip this weekend,” he said. “I know it’s a sore subject so I feel bad bringing it up but you don’t want to get Jazzy sick.”
“Mm,” said Annie.
“Are you going into work today?”
“No, I want to rest more.”
“Sounds like a good choice. Love you.” He kissed her on her head and left.
After he was gone she looked inside the spice cabinet too but there was nothing amiss there either. Chastising herself for her paranoia, she popped a slice of bread in the toaster and then ate it plain. The toast stayed down. She decided not to tell Jazzy. The bug must not be that contagious if Cameron was fine.
She went upstairs around 5 p.m. to finish packing. As she folded her underwear and blouses into a backpack, she was surprised to hear noise downstairs.
“Cameron? Are you home already?”
He was stirring rice over the stove when she entered the kitchen.
“Yeah, I got off early today. I wanted to have dinner with you since you’re leaving early tomorrow. Besides since you’re feeling sick I didn’t want to leave you alone any longer.”
“Aww, sweet,” she said, coming over to hug him. She felt uneasy and guilty for feeling uneasy.
“What’re you making?”
“Chili for myself but you might just want to stick to rice,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said. “I can take over if you want.”
“No no, have a seat, I insist,” he said. He turned her shoulders away and sat her at the table.
She craned her neck to try and watch him but it was impossible to see exactly what he was doing.
He brought the food to the table and they ate together as he complained about one of his co-workers who had given him attitude when he left early.
“But I did it anyway because I love you and I think it’s important that we both commit time to each other,” he said.
Like clockwork, the sickness hit.
Annie rushed to the bathroom again.
“Oh babe, I’m so sorry,” said Cameron. He came into the bathroom and scooped up her hair.
“Get away from me!” Annie screamed. She got up from the toilet and shoved him as she gagged and tried to stop the bile from spilling out of her mouth.
“Annie, what the hell?”
“I know what you’re doing,” Annie yelled. She started to cry as a wave of sickness overpowered her. She sank to her knees and threw up.
“What am I doing?” Cameron asked coldly.
“You didn’t want me to leave with Jazzy so you poisoned me,” Annie said when the vomit subsided.
“You put drugs... I don’t know, something in the rice...” Annie’s words were cut short by another wave of bile.
“Annie listen to yourself; you sound like a lunatic. Drugs in the rice? I took off of work early to take care of you, and this is how you thank me? Make your own fucking food then.”
He turned and slammed the bathroom door on his way out.
Annie sighed over the toilet then started to weep. She wasn’t sure how to prove whether Cameron had poisoned her. If he hadn’t there was no way he would forgive her for the accusation. If he had she certainly wasn’t safe living with him.
Cameron was in the living room watching football when she exited the bathrooms so she went back up to the bedroom. Instead of weekend clothes, she packed up everything.
“So you’re leaving?” Cameron asked when she came down with her suitcase. “Because I drugged you? Like some comic book villain?”
Annie’s hands shook as she ordered an Uber.
“Unbelievable.” He shook his hands in frustration. “I’m not apologizing for something I didn’t do. I’m always the one who apologizes after our fights, every time. This time you need to apologize for accusing me of something crazy and criminal.”
“You’re fucking serious? Fuck you Annie. I really thought you were the one but now, well, I guess I didn’t really know you.”
She looked up from her phone. His eyes looked yellow as they reflected the fairy lights she had been so proud of.
“You’re going to start puking tomorrow morning and realize what a mistake you’ve made,” he continued coldly. “I’m not sure I’ll want to hear your apology though.”
Annie shrugged. Part of her wanted Cameron to cry and beg her to stay, to give her permission to put the whole incident behind them. At the same time she was afraid he was about to completely snap. What would she do if he tried to stop her?
“If you walk out that door you will regret it,” he said.
A shiver went down her spine. Her phone buzzed and she went out to meet the Uber.
Jazzy didn’t say much when Annie showed up; she just hugged her and helped her put away her things.
“Are we still going tomorrow?” asked Jazzy.
Annie was lying on her small bed while Jazzy sat on the end.
“I don’t know,” said Annie. “I’ve been sick and I’m not sure I’m up for a trip.”
“No worries,” said Jazzy. She got up. “I’ll see if I can get us a refund.”
After Jazzy shut the door Annie opened her phone. Nothing from Cameron. She re-downloaded her dating apps and felt a rush of relief as she started swiping. Annie fell asleep still holding her phone, feeling it vibrate with new matches and messages.
She didn’t vomit again, not even after eating an entire frozen pizza when she woke up.
Her second night back, she matched with a guy wearing a baseball cap and dangling some poor dead fish on a line. They met at a bar a block away. She kicked the baseball cap guy out at 2 a.m. and slept until noon. When her phone buzzed the next day, she ignored it.
ABDULLAH "A.H." ERAKAT
ANITA G. GORMAN
DEBRA J. WHITE
DR. BLAKE DANIEL PRESCOTT
MR. S. SUNDAR RAJAN
S. MUBASHIR NOOR