Category Archives: The Minäverse

Chapter 16: A Cubist Vision

In which Oso realizes he can speak with the voice of God!

 

As Oso’s premed degree worked its way into a neurology degree, his boredom with academics began to take a toll on his health, so much that he relieved his stress through nightly visits to chic LA bars, where he could pick up hot, purportedly natural chicks. Okay, he would have done that, anyway. That and fine whiskeys kept him going.

“You’re really becoming a stereotype of yourself,” Gilly told him, when Gilly finally made the trip out to LA to visit his friend.

Oso had taken Gilly out to a chic LA bar. That was after he’d dressed him in a decent set of clothes. Gilly sneered at the clothes, but wore them well on his tall lean frame. And he sneered at the women, whom he insisted were all idiots, although he wore the women on his arm rather well, too.

“When are we going to move beyond prototypes? Let’s get this business going, Gilly, old buddy.”

“Don’t call me that. And how else are we going to start a business without creating prototypes? I’m creating great artwork. What’re you doing for the business?”

“Your work is too clunky to be art. It doesn’t move, doesn’t do anything without a lot of noise and trouble.” Oso peered in the bottom of his empty tumbler. He was starting to feel drunk. “As far as your question, I’m getting funding. Making money.”

Gilly fell into silence and a malicious glare. The two had recently had a fight about a very slender bionic leg Gilly had developed for his continued work in robotics. It was pretty to look at and would certainly give speed to a human amputee who had previously used a clunkier version. However, Oso had rejected it; it could never be controlled the way Oso wanted it to be controlled, by a fluid central network. In fact, to prove his point about fluidity, he’d gotten together with a computer science grad student he’d met at UCLA, and the two had collaborated to create an internet web browser that operated in a fluid manner—a CS brain. Oso wanted it to operate very much like his own mind, to see time and space as a great tree with golden globes of fruit hanging suspended from its branches. And together the two had managed something very salable. They called it the “ItSe”.

Oso could see the jealous glint in Gilly’s eyes, despite the engineer’s attempt to cover it over. Oso would always succeed where Gilly would fail. Oso intrinsically understood this, just as he understood that Gilly had a higher IQ than he had. Gilly waited too long, worked in small incremental steps, and Oso was too impatient for that. Oso wanted achievement now—not tomorrow. Not ten or twenty years down the road. Now.

“How’s that going for you?” Gilly asked—much too late to connect the question to the previous conversation.

That was exactly like Gilly. He was always too little, too late.

“How’s the funding working out, you mean?” Oso clarified.

“What else would I mean?”

“Yes, I’m doing well on the funding front.”

Gilly harrumphed. “What? From your dad? He sell a table?”

“I told him I was inventing a browser, and he said he’d trade it for a hand-carved abacus. Oh, and I have some buyers interested in your bionic leg.”

“What? My leg? The one you didn’t want for the company?”

“No reason to let a good design go to waste.”

Gilly’s face turned a peculiar shade of purple. “How dare you? It’s my design,”—and then—“Who wants to buy it?”

“Gena Core.”

The corner of his mouth rose in a smug little smile. “Gena Core.” His face scrunched up and turned purple again. “How dare you? What if I had a buyer for it?”

“Because I know you by now.”

“Actually, I did have a buyer for it. I don’t really need you to make a living.”

Oso looked up in surprise, from the spot he’d been centering himself on. He was staring at one spot on the bar surface in order to keep his mind focused and not admit he’d drunk too much. Oso didn’t drink too much. Or at least, he never admitted to it when he did.

Was Gilly pulling his very real, not prosthetic, but slow and powerful high-jump style leg? It didn’t appear Gilly was. Gilly could be wily. Still, he was the type of engineer who was never satisfied with his designs, always taking them back to the drawing board and refining them.

Gilly, who’d kept up shot for shot with Oso, rubbed his eyes. “I can see you don’t believe me. But it’s true.”

“What company?”

“I don’t know, can’t say, I… ”

“Yeah, you don’t have a buyer.”

Gilly spluttered but said nothing.

Oso held out his hand and kept it as steady as possible while shaking Gilly’s. “Let’s buy another round to our success. First principles, my friend. Money is the first principle. And we’ve found a way to make it.”

“True. I wanted the leg for our company, though. It’s really a great design.” Gilly hung his head, which pricked Oso’s harsh exterior a little. But only a little.

“It is. But it’s not what we want. It’s not the vision.”

“What is the vision?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Oso said, and he raised his hand to signal the bartender. As he did so, he caught sight of their reflection in the mirror over the bar. And he stopped, his hand in the air, stunned.

“That’s it,” he said.

“What’s it?”

The bartender, responding to the gesture, asked them if they wanted more of the same. Since Oso was too preoccupied to answer, Gilly went ahead and affirmed they’d take the same. Oso heard Gilly order. He heard the sounds the bartender made, the clinking of glasses; he sensed all that was happening around him, but it was as if he’d been frozen in time. His mind hung from his 4d tree.

It was an effect of the mirrors. It was a glitzy bar, as that was where glitzy women were found. And there were mirrors hanging everywhere. Oso suspected this was so that someone looking for a prospect could chat one person up while watching the other pretty people in the place. He ran his hands over his face and through his hair. His spatial awareness was skewed by the alcohol and mirrors. The fruit on his geometric tree hung like a postmodern dream. His reality had become a landscape formed by cubists.

And that was when he saw her. She was a sculpted blonde, approaching the bar at a fast clip, gaggles of her reflected in the mirror to infinity, just as he was, just as Gilly was. There was nothing special about her. She had a nose that had been cut by a plastic surgeon, and a Botoxed smile. Her breasts, rising up like tanned balloons, were certainly implants. He also suspected her cheeks were fake.

If he wanted to, he could take her home with him. If he spoke, she would jump-to at the sound of his voice. Instead, as she sidled up beside him at the bar and put in her order, her eyes looking at him sidewise and begging his attention, he ignored her.

“That’s it,” he said again. “We give them life through sound, the hum of life. We speak, and they become.”

“God, you’re really drunk, aren’t you?”

“I’m not God. I am drunk. But I know how to create fluidity in our robotics. Smart, plasticine materials, triggered by sound waves, just like that dame.”

Gilly just stared in his tumbler, his last round untouched. Oso’s round was, too, to be honest. At first, Oso thought his friend was simply ignoring him, as he might ignore a raving lunatic. When Gilly looked up again, Oso realized Gilly was just as stunned as he was.

“No such technology exists.”

“Not yet,” Oso said.

“Maybe not ever.”

Oso smacked his friend on the back. Doubters needed to be smacked, as they were severely handicapped by logic and couldn’t understand anything but pain. “It will exist because we are going to create it. I know. I just saw it. It was hanging on the tree.”

“All parts of the robot will be triggered this way? Or just their skeletons? Will their skin be smart plasticine fibers? What about their minds? How will you create their minds? This is too much. We’re going to need time and money we don’t have.”

“I like that you’re thinking big, Gilly, old buddy, but time and money are never a problem. And won’t be after I start selling shares of ItSe.”

“And grad school?”

“Screw grad school.”

“But you have a research fellowship.” Gilly moaned. “You got a research fellowship. I got a one-time scholarship for my contribution to a robot that’s basically a moving computer. You are operating out of my league at this point.”

“I’m not a designer. I’m an idea man. I couldn’t do this without you.”

“I couldn’t get these babes without you, either. I almost married a frumpy civil engineer until you stopped me.”

“I didn’t stop you. You decided she wasn’t your type. I convinced you not to take the job at Sandia Labs.”

“She did have some bad habits. She rearranged things on my desk. She touched my keyboard. She left her clothes on the floor. The floor. And then she picked them up and wore them the next day. She brought her cats inside and kept them inside to shit and shed and sleep on everything. Cat hair on my computer!”

“Exactly.”

“I have standards, Oso!”

“That’s why I like you.”

“She had no boundaries. She ate ice cream from the tub and expected me to dip in with her. She walked around in her ratty underwear, her jiggly bits getting more and more jiggly, as she was forced to eat all those gallons of ice cream by herself. She gained twenty pounds the year we lived together.”

As Gilly had begun to rock back and forth on the stool, flapping his hands, Oso patted him on the back. “It’s all right, friend. It’s over now. You have your white walls, your clean apartment, and your office to yourself.”

“I don’t want to pick up chicks tonight. They might contaminate the moment.”

“Picking up chicks isn’t mandatory, but you have to admit, it wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t stay the night.”

Gilly snickered in his old, awkward, and somewhat creepy way. “Yeah, maybe we should find some dumb hussies.”

Oso blinked a few times to clear his head. “And then again, maybe we shouldn’t.” Gilly had fallen into Gilly-land and would end up making a fool of himself, if not both of them. “Maybe we should just go crash to preserve the delicate beauty of the moment.”

“It’s a moment as delicate as a virgin.”

“That’s true, and there are none of those here.”

“Right.” Gilly shook his head and pushed his glasses up his nose. “God, you are really just…God. Smart robots birthed by infrasonic sound. I think I need to sleep on this. Forever.”


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Chapter 15: Team Beñat-Herrera

In which a social engineering major threatens to socially engineer Oso’s vision!

 
At the next interview session, Oso found himself entirely amused at the confab he’d created: Devon was happily stacking a box of colored playschool blocks Oso had given him; Gilly was glowering in a chair, but still quite happy to be included, if Oso knew his friend. His granddaughter sat primly and prettily, her teletyper balanced on her lap as she sucked up the fruits and cheeses and coffee and cream his assistant had brought them. After prodding her with his cane, the woman had brought Gilly his green tea and crackers.

Ah, and then there was Mark. Mark was the son-in-law he’d always wanted. Out of all his children and children-in-law, only Adam had the creative energy of Mark. He wished he could experience a future memory of a wedding between Stephanie and Mark which he would attend as the head patriarch, but he would suspect it to be wishful thinking.

“Granddad,” Stephanie said, “before we get started, I have to ask you a very relevant question. Is she, or isn’t she?”

“I’m sorry?” he asked, pretending obtuseness. He knew what she was asking; the question had been written all over her face since the first time he’d seen her interact with his assistant.

“Your assistant. She’s not a Minä. She’s too cunning to have gone through the typical lobotomy. You and I both know it’s illegal to create intelligent humanoid AI. Out of all the people on the planet, you have the resources to create it, and who would stop you? I mean, she’s just a little too perfect and artificial. A 5’10” size zero blonde who doesn’t respond to the world as she should. Who wears hats.”

“Hats?”

“Yes, hats. Today she’s wearing a hat indoors, and the last time, she was wearing a scarf. Is that to hide her big ears?”

“First of all, if I were to create intelligent humanoid AI, nobody would ever know, would they, darlin’?”

“So what you’re saying is because I know, she can’t be AI?”

“But you don’t know, or you wouldn’t be asking. She could be AI, by your logic. But you’ll never know either way, because if I were to do such a thing, nobody would ever know. ‘Nobody’ being the operative word.”

“Granddad!”

Oso snorted. “Why don’t we get started,” he said, looking sidelong at the glowering Gilly. “You ready to start, Gilly, old buddy?”

“I am not your buddy,” Gilly said, accidentally spewing cracker crumbs from his mouth, which disgusted him.

“’You can hug ‘em, you can love ‘em, just don’t leave ‘em near the oven…’” Stephanie sang out.

“Good God, man! Do you always indulge your granddaughter this way?” Mark had, of course, already forgiven Oso and now felt comfortable addressing him in that chiding manner. They might as well have been buddies. “Make her stop singing that song.”

“I’m not a dictator,” Oso mildly said. “But—” and here he pounded his cane on his own very expensive desk— “we need to start if we’re going to get this book written. All of you need to be quiet, including Stephanie.”

“Except for you, clearly,” Gilly said. “I won’t get any say in this story.”

“The story wouldn’t exist without you, old friend.”

“No, it wouldn’t. I was always the brains behind everything. I’m the reason you have any resources.”

“Gillilander. Friend,” Oso said, his voice a low growl. The low growl always happened when he tried for soothing—nothing he could do about it. “How could I deny that? And you wouldn’t have two dimes to scrape together if not for me.”

“Sure, you know how to work the system, file for bankruptcy and start all over again. It’s the people paying the price for it that don’t have two dimes to scrape together.”

“The people who pay the price leave available resources untouched and then complain when others use them. They’re like children in nursery school who can’t see the potential of a toy until another child plays with it.”

Stephanie straightened and opened her doe eyes wide as she pulled her teletyper closer, so as not to miss a moment.

Gillilander sat, impassive, his tea cup gripped in his claw-like old hands. “At least you’re willing to admit you’re just a big child.”

In answer, Oso merely laughed. The confab was, indeed, enjoyable, even Devon who clapped his hands for no obvious reason. Above Oso’s head, the holo-tattooed saying rested like a forever etched-in-stone truism: Mr. Beñat was the best one time cowboy I was ever with. I would sleep with him again and I’m sure he would agree I look great for 70, but then I would have to permanently delete this review. Stephanie had asked him during the last session who had authored the sentiment, and then had proceeded to put on her mock indignation when he insisted he had no clue. Yes, life was good.

“We should start,” he said.

“Just a minute, Granddad. Don’t start yet,” Stephanie said. “Now that I’ve got that conversation down, I’ll need to consult my notes.”

“By all means, you be in charge.”

“I wasn’t—oh, never mind. I already asked about your assistant and you didn’t answer. Oh, I know. You said Grandma Berna was married before she met you. Can you tell me anything about her first husband?”

“Yes, but he’s irrelevant. She married a New Mexican who wanted to remain in New Mexico. He was unremarkable, except for his expensive hobby of building airplanes. He died in an airplane crash. She was pregnant by him once and had a miscarriage.”

“Poor Grandma!”

“If she’d married me in the first place, she might not have suffered.”

“Granddad!”

“It’s the truth. But none of us can change the past. Thinking about it is destructive.”

“And yet here we are, thinking about the past,” Gillilander said.

“I’m not trying to change anything. I’m giving the raw, unadulterated facts. Contributing to the historical record.”

“Sure, your side is the raw, unadulterated facts. What a load of crap, Oso. Old friend.

Stephanie cleared her throat. “If you two stop arguing for a little while, we can get started.”

“Whatever,” Gillilander muttered.

Oso jogged up and down at Socorro’s Clarke Field while waiting for Gillilander to show up. He had Bernadette on the phone; they spoke several time a month, keeping a distant but friendly relationship. Normally, he let the conversation go, as it was pleasant to have a woman around only to listen to him talk. But today, he wanted to hang up with her before she found out he was in New Mexico. He didn’t want to visit her. He didn’t want to lay eyes on her husband, the unremarkable dope she’d chosen over him.

Gilly had stayed in Socorro to study mechanical engineering at New Mexico Tech. Tech was a good school, and it made sense for Gilly to study there, as his mom worked in administration. And despite Oso’s drive to get the hell out of Socorro, he regularly drove back home from LA to visit his old friend, who didn’t do the same for him. Since Oso had moved to UCLA, Gilly had visited him precisely zero times. If nothing else, at least Oso was a loyal friend.

Bernadette, in a rare fit of chattiness, was detailing the horror of her senior year, her desire to be done already, and her appalling decision to go on for her master’s degree.

“Hey, Berna, I have to go,” he said. “I have a friend coming over.”

“You sound like you’re outside.”

“I am. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a friend coming over.”

“Oh.” She paused. “Oso, would you just be honest, okay? You don’t have to make excuses at this point. If you don’t want to talk, just say so.”

“I was being honest.”

“My best guess, you’re in Socorro for spring break visiting Gilly, and you don’t want to visit me here in Cruces.”

“Your husband doesn’t want me to.”

She sighed. “You’re right, but I’m going to be home next weekend for Easter. Going to church with my family.”

“If I were a church-goer, I might see you.”

“I love you, too, Oso. Always have.”

He snorted and didn’t bother with a goodbye before disconnecting the call. If she’d always loved him, she should have married him and not the builder of small aircraft.

To forget about her, he quickly turned his attention to gathering his surprise gifts for Gilly. These were a real leather soccer ball he’d discovered at a specialty shop in Los Angeles, and two team jerseys he’d had made up. They were emblazoned with Team Beñat-Herrera because it was time to start that team and move some revenue into his pockets. And Gilly’s, of course.

Ever since Oso had entered UCLA as a premed student who meant to go into neurology, he’d been bored. School would take him eight years or more to work his way through. He wanted to do something now. There was no time like the present and, although he could see the value in an advanced degree for those who would become surgeons and the like, he had no aspirations to such. He was in it for the research. Even that was only for…he wasn’t sure. But it had to have a practical, real world purpose, or it made him impatient.

By contrast, Gillilander had gone into a degree that led to a practical real world outlet, and yet Gilly would have spent all his time in research if he could. He couldn’t care less about immediate results. Gilly’s lack of care for real world results in fact frustrated Oso. Gilly was so smart in ways that Oso wasn’t. Oso sometimes felt like shaking him.

Today, however, he was simply happy to see his friend again. He clapped him in a big hug before Gilly pushed him away. Gilly wasn’t much for physical contact. Oso handed him the jersey.

Gilly held it up and looked at it. “Team Beñat-Herrera? Are we a team? Why am I number 00?”

“Because I will always be numero uno.”

“In your own mind maybe,” Gilly said, and sneered. He put on the shirt, though, and smoothed it out over his running shorts. It was a little big for his lanky frame. “Are we going running, or what?”

“I have something much better. A real soccer ball.”

“I don’t believe you. I haven’t seen one of those since…I don’t remember exactly. Was it sixth grade?”

Oso produced the beautiful, untouched leather orb from the trunk of his car. It was actually not untouched, as he’d practiced a little back in LA before bringing it home to Socorro. He didn’t want to appear a doofus, though trying to remember the types of kicks he’d learned before the airfoot days was a challenge.

The two dribbled the ball and passed it up and down the field for a while before Gilly volunteered to be the goalie. The problem, of course, was that Gilly had never been a goalie and certainly not with a real ball, and he appeared to have no sense of what Oso would do with the ball. If Gilly tried to block the near post, Oso would aim for the far post. It was the same for the far post. When Gilly tried to block both at once, Oso would kick the ball between his legs. Playing with Gilly was like playing with a child.

When they switched roles, Gilly got barely a ball in. As Gilly’s frustration was palpable, finally Oso stopped, threw his head back, and laughed.

“What?” Gilly glowered.

“You always give yourself away. Every time. Your body language is terrible.”

“I thought we were going to run, dipwad. Let’s go! I’ll race you to the other side of the field!”

If Gilly hadn’t tripped over a tuft of grass and nearly lost his glasses, which were strapped on as it was, he might have won. Oso gave him a hand up.

“I already know you’re faster than I am,” Oso said.

Gilly still glowered.

“Peace.”

“Whatever. Why in the world would you want to be on a team of two with me?” Gilly asked.

“Because we’re going to start a business together.”

“Nice of you to consult me before making that decision.”

“Aren’t you bored of school? I am. We’ve been in for almost four years now. I can’t do this for another four years.”

Gilly appeared to study the sky for a moment. It was spring, a bit brisk out, but the sky was clear. There wasn’t a lot to study in the sky, to be honest. Finally, he shook his head. “No, I’m not bored of school. I love it. I made a drone the other day.”

“A drone? We should build stuff and take it to market. Make some money.”

“I have some designs, but they’re not ready.”

“What kind of designs? You should show them to me.”

“No, I told you they’re not ready. They’re just more silly robots like we’ve always made. I’m working on some sensors for this skin I’ve managed to 3D print, though. If you have to know.”

Oso felt his skin prickle with excitement, as though his own body were detecting sensors. “Telehaptic memory.”

“Something like that.”

“There’s a market for that.”

“What market? For expensive robots that aren’t yet functional? How? Who’s going to buy that?”

“No, you’re not thinking big enough. Yeah, robots are big, but why wait until we develop one for the market? What about getting into assistive technology?”

“How are we going to fund a business like that?”

“Backers. That I’m going to find.”

“You do that, Oso,” Gilly said, and while it seemed Oso was momentarily daydreaming, he kicked the ball toward the unprotected goalposts.

Oso shot his leg out and nicked the ball just enough that it went off course. “You wanna go to the Cap and get a beer? I’ll buy.”

Gilly’s shrug was listless.

“We can talk more about our future business. Look, I need you. I don’t have your creative mind.”

“All right. You can buy. But I don’t want to discuss our future business because I don’t want a future business with you.”

Oso tried to hide his disappointment. Actually, Oso was never disappointed. He tried to mask his hurt. No, he was never hurt either. “Why not?”

“You’re too pushy. I don’t want you pushing me around. I was enjoying designing robots without you, like in the days before seventh grade. It’s been nice not having you here.”

Oso’s body stiffened. “I thought we were best friends.”

Gilly chewed on his fingernails, the same nasty habit he’d had for years. “We are. You’re just a little…overbearing at times. Without you around, I go on dates. With girls who look at me because you aren’t around. I’ve been dating this one girl for a while now, and I think it might be serious. But she thinks I’m going to take that job offer at Sandia Labs and settle down to a stable life. Starting a business with you isn’t stable, is it?”

“Hmm. Sounds boring. Why haven’t I met this girl?”

“Because you say things like that. She isn’t your type, so, yeah, I’m guessing you’d find her boring and unattractive.”

“I’m not going to steal her from you. Why would I do that? And I wasn’t saying your girlfriend was boring. Marry her if you want. It’s the stable job at Sandia Labs that’s the big yawner.”

“Married? We’re not that serious. We were just going to try living together up in Albuquerque after I graduate. She’s got a year left of her social engineering degree at UNM.”

“What the hell kind of degree is social engineering?”

Gilly shook his head. “Social engineering? I didn’t say that. Civil. She’s studying civil engineering.”

Oso couldn’t help it; his eyes glazed over. “Tell me you don’t find your future plans the tiniest bit stifling.”

“Yes, they’re boring. But they’re my plans and not yours. You see the difference?”

“We could make plans together. Like right now at the Cap.”

“You know, you sound like you’re proposing.”

“I am, Gilly, old buddy. I’m proposing we start a business together. With my brilliant business skills, and your brilliant designs. It’s a win-win.”

Gilly visibly cringed. Oso grinned. He knew his friend hated being called old buddy, but he was also pretty sure that wasn’t why he’d cringed. Gilly was going to cave, and they both knew it, and Gilly would hate Oso for it. And love him—in a purely platonic way.

“So, meet you at the cap, or what?” Oso said, and he climbed in his car and slammed the door before Gilly could respond.

“Granddad,” Stephanie said, “would you please refrain from correcting me when I interpret your story descriptions? If you were heavy inside and felt defeated, you were disappointed. If you felt like you were going to cry on the inside, you were hurt. Now my text sounds ridiculous: Oso tried to hide his disappointment. Actually, Oso was never disappointed. He tried to mask his hurt. No, he was never hurt either. What does that mean? It’s meaningless.”

“It means he admitted he has the emotional fortitude of a little girl,” Gilly said. “He always has.”

Oso shook his head. “It means that disappointments happen, and still I have hope. And working memories of the future. I knew we were going to start a business together. Maybe I was a little hurt, but not enough to stop trying.”

“That’s not what you said,” Stephanie pointed out.

Gilly took off his glasses and wiped them on his shirt. “Get used to it. He never says what he means, but he always dominates the conversation. Notice how I didn’t get any say at all.”

“On the contrary, I always say what I mean. And next time, you can have the floor.”

They all stretched and rose from their seats. It took them a minute to realize that Devon and Mark had disappeared. When they peered out the french doors off the study, they found the two drawing with chalk on the patio. It appeared Mark was trying to teach Devon to write his name.

Oso looked down at the writing like an implacable father. “It’s useless. He’ll never write because he hadn’t been trained to do it pre-lobotomy. There’s no muscle memory for him to rely on.”

“He wrote it, though.” Mark grinned, clearly pleased with himself, and pointed to a group of almost legibly formed letters done in purple chalk.

“Yes, of course, you can teach him to write it. He’ll do anything you tell him to do. He won’t remember it. You’ll have to teach it again the next time you’re here.”

Mark’s face fell. “I thought if he attached the color purple to the letters, he’d remember.”

“A kind of simulated synesthesia? It’s an interesting thought, but I don’t think it will work. He’s missing too many parts of his brain to make connections.”

“Why do you keep him?” Mark asked. “What’s in it for you?”

“Nothing. I created him. Or, my technology, plus government regulations, plus the corporation bearing my name created him. He’s my son through no fault of his own.”

“Technically, his body is my technology,” Gilly said.

Mark watched as Devon continued to write the letters of his name through copying his first try. The second copy was almost unreadable. “There are thousands more like him roaming the streets. Are they your sons, too?”

“In a sense, yes. But I can’t adopt them all. Nor can I change government policy. I’m just relieved Tomi Corp has gotten out of the business of making them. The novelty of human pets wore off long ago. No, instead, they found it more useful to create mindless, emotionless robots that would toss humans out of the workplace. Much more practical, destroying human industry like that.”

“There was a startup last year that created an app that would automatically add new legislation every time a baby cried,” Gilly said.

Oso stood solid with his cane, unamused.

“And then there was the one that created new industry through the federal reserve printing presses. Printing industry instead of useless moola. Good stuff, that. Very creative.”

“Oh, shut up, Gilly,” Oso said, almost under his breath. “Time to refocus so we can finish this blasted interview for the day.”

“Interview?” Gilly said. “Don’t you mean, you talking endlessly about yourself?”

“No, I’m talking about both of us. And now I’m going to tell Stephanie about my profound thoughts in the LA nightclub.”

Gilly spluttered. “Your…? Oh, would you just…?

 

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Chapter 14: Defying Gravity

In which men become images, and big things turn small!

 

Just as he’d offered, Oso procured tickets to the game for them. Oddly, though, the normally self-composed granddad appeared agitated as they stood in line at the stadium, a strange brunette he’d introduced as Myra balancing her stiletto-enhanced height on his arm. She was maybe ten years older than Stephanie. If that. Still, Stephanie eyed her with interest rather than any kind of ill will. Where had he found her since the last time she’d met with him? There’d been no Myra then. Or at least, not that she’d been aware of.

They stood outside the entrance gate of what once had been Arroyo del Oso park, and was now an enclosed stadium called Del Oso. The stadium still had the Arroyo del Oso’s original walking trail surrounding it, where frumpy women attempted to walk or unwittingly run off their pounds while listening to the silence, as the stadium was silent throughout much of the year.

They unwittingly ran because of the refugees from the local Minä camp. This particular Minä camp was located on the Del Oso golf course, where it had become, over time, part of the course’s level of difficulty. Golf itself was extraordinarily difficult, as it had adopted bionimals—tiny robotic animals—when balls became security risks. But bionimals were unwieldy to hit with the new and improved bamboo supported foam sticks. Del Oso golf course, fitting with its name, used hundreds of bionomic Teddy bears that liked to grab onto and cling to the bamboo sticks instead of being hit by them.

By law, these bionimals were not allowed to be wired with the traditional pain censors that Minäs had. Because they were part biological and part nanotube mesh, just as Minäs were, it was considered inhumane to cause them pain. So rather than go backwards in mankind’s evolution away from playing with inherently risky spherical objects, the golf class of bionimals were wired with pre-deadened pain censors.

Indeed, golf had become a great sporting event, with bonding between man and beast. Men would choose their favorite bionimals, and the favorites would smugly go out to play the game, while the less desirable bears were left behind. It was par for the course.

The less desirable bears often snuck out to play, however. It was difficult to contain these cute and cuddly creatures. They knew where the Minä camp was, and they’d run there, dragging broken or unused bamboo foam sticks with them, to play with their android counterparts. Inevitably, the Minäs and bears would take their sport outside the rolling green of the course and find sport in targeting the women who walked along the trail. To avoid being hit with wild swinging bears, the women would run away. The Minäs and bears, being mimics, would run after them.

The walking trail, then, was silent for much of the year, the silence punctuated with shrill screams as middle-aged women took to running to avoid being whacked. The surprise factor turned out to be good for muscle fitness, and that in itself made the trail a popular exercise spot. One local woman named Angelica had been featured in the Fitness Utopian Quotient Journal for losing nearly a hundred pounds after becoming a popular target for Minäs and bears. Although the article had meant to be emotive, discussing the plight of refugees, reject bears, and the female victims who were assaulted by them, many people suggested that Angelica had brought on her own victimhood by wearing neon shirts with targets printed on them.

She insisted it was a fashion statement and had not been intentional. She sued the Del Oso golf course and won one-point-five million dollars, which she used toward a trans-android surgery. Stephanie knew all this because she had done an expose on the woman and her struggles with being born a female human with the mind of a male Minä. She was a nice enough woman, for a money grubber—nice, but misunderstood. As part of Stephanie’s research, she had even played a round of golf and visited the Minä camp.

Those were the good old days. No, really, they were. Those were the days when she could do exposes as well as writing bylines. Now, she spent all her spare time outside of bylines with her granddad. This was a good thing, a connection with the past and all that. It was a good thing. She sighed tiredly and smiled as she felt Mark take her hand. Her heart skipped a beat.

“Granddad, what’s the matter? Why are you acting nervous?” she asked.

Before he could answer, a scream split the late afternoon air. A woman, chased by no fewer than three Minäs with bears on their shoulders and sticks in their hands, ran past. Devon, who had been absently bouncing a red ball, perked up his head and tried to run off after his fellow Minäs, but Oso grabbed his arm and held him fast.

Oso clenched his jaw. “I’m not nervous. I’m never nervous. Impatient would be a better word. If you write about this in your little book, make sure you choose your vocabulary appropriately.”

Myra laughed. Stephanie just looked at her granddad, unsure how to respond. For what she could read of human emotions, and she did believe she had a knack for it, nervous was the appropriate term.

They had arrived early to be at the top of the line when the gates were open. Stephanie soon understood why they had arrived early and why, perhaps, her granddad was nervous. As the line formed behind them, composed of the conspicuously rich, their whispering of the Beñat name became like a wave formation behind them. Oso was here. Oso Beñat, the man himself. The despised. The loved. The man who, as an octogenarian, could make young women swoon and intellectual women melt into fatuous blobs.

The rich, always displaying themselves in public as enlightened philanthropists, wanted nothing to do with Oso Beñat, while in private, they were quite happy to drink his bourbon and hint at devious world domination plots.

The modern day internet was full of world domination stories, which ranged from campaigns to destroy Oso to conspiracies about Oso’s backroom dealings with the world elite. Stephanie knew because she’d read all about it—in her private time, of course, since it wasn’t allowed for League members.

A woman with a purple beehive jostled against Oso as though it were an accident. Oso ignored her. The lanky man with Purple Beehive glared at their group, narrowing his eyes at Devon, who had resumed jumping up and down. Meanwhile, the screaming jogger was rounding the trail loop again, the Minäs still chasing her.

“What idiot brings their Minä to a game?” lanky man muttered to no one in particular.

Well, no wonder he was in a bad mood. He was a rich dupe with an unattractive wife. Stephanie was startled at her own thoughts. It was as if her granddad’s voice had entered her consciousness.

“Do you leave yours with a babysitter?” she retorted.

“Pardon?” the man coldly said, his bloodless lips pressed into a thin line.

“Do you leave your Minä with a babysitter? Because my grandfather wouldn’t do that. He treats his like a son.”

“I don’t have a Minä, young lady. The technology is inhumane.” At that point, the man’s eyes darted to Oso’s tall figure. Clearly, the man, who was no more than fifty, was nevertheless afraid of an octogenarian.

“There should be a law against them,” Purple Beehive said.

Unexpectedly, Devon threw his ball at her and whooped and jumped up and down a few times.

The woman screamed. “B-b-bomb!”

In an instant, security surrounded them, very real explosives pointed in their direction. Devon tried to fetch his ball, which had rolled under a very frightened couple’s feet. The couple appeared frozen to the pavement in shock, the look on their faces understanding that certain death was near.

“Call off your Minä!” a security officer in full military armor shouted.

“Devon,” Oso said. “I told you not to bring the ball. No, you may not fetch it. We’ll let the security officers do that.”

Devon hung his head, but mercifully remained frozen in place in mimicry of the line of people behind them. Meanwhile, several security officers circled in closer and closer to the ball, their weapons pointed at it. Stephanie, who was also standing stock still, couldn’t help but to move the muscles of her forehead into a confused wrinkle. Pretending for a moment that the ball was actually a bomb, Stephanie wondered why threatening its inanimate self with different types of explosives would be effective. But what did she know of warfare? Maybe this was the way it worked.

Eventually, one officer was close enough to use an extended robo arm to reach out from a safe distance with a materials detection reader, which he pressed lightly against the red ball. He then retracted his arm and studied the reading.

“Rubber,” he said. “Hollow. Non explosive. This may be a real ball, ladies and gentlemen. It will be immediately confiscated and the gates will proceed to open. The game will not be delayed.”

A collective sigh of relief filled the air. However, the people near the front of the line still appeared frozen and petrified. Clearly, they weren’t sure if they should move while the ball was still in the vicinity, albeit in the security officer’s pocket.

“We’ll let it go this time,” the gate security officer said to no one in particular, as his gaze was glazed and distant. “Single file, please. Shoes off. Bags open.”

Mark and Stephanie separated, pulling off their shoes. This was the usual routine, occurring in courthouses, schools, airports, bus terminals—everywhere that could be considered public. As reporters, they were used to the treatment. Stephanie was immediately frisked and groped between the legs, as was Mark, before they were given back their shoes. Neither of them had brought bags. Oso did not remove his shoes, but walked through the gate, pulling Devon and Myra with him. Nobody attempted to stop him, as the stadium and nearby athletic fields wouldn’t exist without his patronage.

Mark’s face was redder than usual. He appeared livid. “He grabbed my junk. That man grabbed my junk and kept his hand there for thirty seconds. They never do that at the courthouse.”

“Calm down, son,” Oso said. “In the future, don’t obey. It’s as simple as that. Those that obey are pussies.”

In fact, speaking of, a woman giggled high and loud as a guard groped her.

“They have guns. Some fights are losing propositions for those of us who aren’t billionaires,” Mark said.

Oso snorted. “Those guns aren’t real. This stadium has been privately owned for ten years. They aren’t allowed to have real guns. I’d be surprised if they turned out to be paint guns. Not that paint guns wouldn’t scare the living daylights out of every woman here wearing a $5000 dress.”

“Not real?”

“Nope.”

“I took off my shoes for fake guns?”

Oso squeezed Mark’s shoulder in consolation.

“He held on,” Mark said. “I feel violated.”

“Being sports editor has its advantages. Name the guard when you write about this event. I assume you noticed the name on his tag.”

“Yes, Jordan Haught. What if he sues the paper for libel?”

“That’s precisely why I employ the best lawyer in the nation, Mark. Now lighten up. This place has the most god awful expensive champagne known to man, but I have a flask of Booker’s—two flasks, to be precise.” He pulled one flask from his hip pocket and handed it to Mark. “Take a drink and get ready for the show.”

Mark stared at the flask, admiration writ large in his eyes. “This is so beautiful,” he said, as he ran his thumb over the pewter bottle engraved with a simple bear.

“The bourbon is even more beautiful. Stop getting your fingerprints all over it and take a healthy drink.”

Mark did so. He closed his eyes. “That is not what I’m used to drinking,” he whispered.

“No, it isn’t. Myra, Devon, Stephanie? Shall we enter the stadium proper?”

Their group of five entered into what appeared to be a traditional sports stadium, as Stephanie had seen in photographs. It was enormous, with graduated seating, food stands, manicure stations, and waiters in tuxes hawking organic, ethnically sourced, Toulousain peanuts roasted in artisanal small batches. There were a number of people in classic evening wear already lingering at the food stands, holding champagne glasses and micro-hotdog sushi boxes.

“Wow, I think I should have eaten earlier. I can’t mix with these people.”

“Don’t worry, my dear. I wouldn’t want you to. I have ways and means,” Oso said.

“Yeah, I know you have money, but…”

He clapped her on the back. He had gone from nervous to jovial as soon as they’d entered through the gates. “Money that I don’t propose to waste on button sized dishes that cost $1000. I’m having my favorite chef deliver us food.”

They made their way to their seats, which were quite high up in the stadium. Stephanie swallowed. The view made her dizzy.

“Why are we up so high?” she asked. “I feel woozy.”

“Ah, sit down, darlin’. We’re up this high because I want Mark to have the aerial view. And, here, there’s no reason, a good dose of Booker’s won’t help you, too.” He handed her the flask.

“Really? By the way you handed it to Mark, I thought it was a manly ritual.”

He nudged her with his elbow. “I’m sure Mark will like you better when you’re not so uptight.”

She scowled a little and took a tiny sip. It burned her mouth.

“Come on,” her granddad urged.

She looked up at Mark, who was smiling. She tried again, took a deeper drink that made her hack. She downed one more just to prove she could. By the time the food was delivered—by her granddad’s favorite top chef—she was not merely sick at the height, but euphoric, too. She dipped into the sandwich handed to her, after spreading the sauce from its little cup all over the top of the meat.

“Yow!” she hollered, as her nose hairs were singed.

“That’s some good horseradish,” her granddad said.

Mark looked at the sauce skeptically, but eventually tried just a little on the tip of his sandwich. “What is this piece of heaven you’ve brought us?” he asked.

“That, son, is a prime rib sandwich.”

With her belly full, and her head spinning, Stephanie watched the beginnings of the game, the rules of which she only understood from what she’d learned from her granddad yesterday. However, the game wasn’t starting as they’d started it on the green. It was starting as every professional televised game started: with the players doing their signature dances. It was fascinating entertainment. In real time, the audience of purple-haired types clapped and stomped thunderously for their favorite dancers.

One man, who appeared to be stepdancing with an outer pair of Irish tiger underwear, suddenly tore off his shirt and slid to his knees, though the turf prevented the dance move’s completion. Still, the audience roared their approval, and then roared some more as various clothing items were ripped off and thrown to the crowd amid hip gyrations and leap-cross-steps. By the end of the dance ritual, the team players were left wearing nothing but sturdy sports underwear and bow ties. One team wore green bow ties, the other orange.

Stephanie wasn’t surprised exactly. Okay, maybe a little. What she saw on TV, though like in spirit, was a little more subdued. And truth be told, she’d never seen so many grown men in underwear before. For some reason, she didn’t find them attractive at all. But, again, she assumed it was her lack of understanding for sports. Mark, no doubt, understood. She glanced at him and saw his mouth hanging open in astonishment. Her granddad handed him the hip flask.

Eventually, the game commenced. The men ran to and fro, kicking at what appeared to be a spherical ball with a black and white pattern of hexagons and pentagons. From this perspective, it seemed a real ball. Stephanie was kind of surprised, especially when she considered the reactions to a much smaller rubber ball outside the stadium. Perhaps this ball was not threatening because the men were making goals in their underwear.

And speaking of goals, every time one was made, attempted, or deflected, Devon shot up from his seat and did his usual whooping and cheering. And every time he did, the people of the stadium, in their evening clothes and opera glances, turned to stare at their little group. It was odd how subdued they were now that there was a game on, rather than a lot of men ripping off their clothes and dancing.

Even Emmett the halftime clown wasn’t entertaining compared to the male strippers. Emmett the halftime clown. She was tumbling with the cheerleaders, and it wasn’t even halftime.

“Granddad, that’s Javi’s commitment ex.”

“Huh?”

“The clown. She’s Javi’s commitment ex. She’s a national star, and here she is, cheering for a game in Albuquerque.”

Mark rubbed his face. “By Javi, you mean your brother?”

“Yes, Javi my brother. I don’t know any other Javis.”

“You were holding out on me again, or what, Stephanie? How come you never told me your brother was committed to the halftime clown? I could have interviewed her a long time ago. I didn’t know it was a her. Hard to tell in those clown clothes.”

“She’s an androgyne, and I don’t really know her,” Stephanie calmly explained. Or she tried to stay calm. “Javi doesn’t like us interfering with his life.” By life, she meant, virtual reality beta sports game tester. For a few weeks, he’d lost track of what was real and what was virtually real and had thought Emmett was a virtual clown. That was the only reason he’d committed himself to her.

The next time the hip flask was pulled out—this time a leather one that emerged from the opposite hip—Stephanie grabbed it and poured some of the oh-so-smooth, yet fiery liquid down her throat. She didn’t know if she could understand what was going on if she remained sober. Just when that second shot hit her stomach, it happened. The event. Stop action. One of the players was frozen in midair, kicking the ball. And then he reversed, and he kicked it all over again and hovered in the air, his leg powerfully extended, the ball in a perfectly arced trajectory. Devon was so excited, he couldn’t contain himself. When he leapt up to shout, there was a wet spot on his pants.

“He’s defying gravity?” Stephanie said, her voice squeaky from exertion.

“Sure, darlin’, that’s what’s going on. Very good interpretation.” Her granddad patted her knee.

“Oh my God,” Mark said. “They’re all holograms. All of them.”

“At least the ones defying gravity are,” Oso said in his low, yet somehow charming growl. “They have to have some real sweat drenched men to greet their fans at the end of the game.”

Mark’s face fell. “Not just the balls, but some of the players are shams, too.”

Oso didn’t hand him a flask this time. “Why so glum, Mark? You already knew this.”

He shrugged. “I guess as sports editor, I hoped for a good game. Not a conspiracy, proved or disproved. Just a good game. I don’t know what this is, but it’s not that.”

“Stick it out to the end, and I’ll introduce you to one of the players. A real player, not a hologram.”

“Will he still be in his underwear?” Mark pitifully asked. “Because I really don’t want to interview a man wearing nothing but underwear and a bow tie.”

“Nor do I,” Stephanie added.

Oso nodded and sighed. “You two give me hope.”

Myra, silent up to that moment, suddenly piped up, “I’ll do it. I wouldn’t mind meeting one of those men in underwear. Preferably the one up in the air. He’s amazing.”

They all just eyed the poor glossy brunette. Nobody dared breathe a dumb brunette joke, which had become all too common. But Stephanie couldn’t help it. Her brain reeled off a few select ones, even if her mouth didn’t. It didn’t altogether matter that she herself was a brunette. Brunettes, as a general group, were tiresomely stupid. Two brunettes fell down a hole. One said, “It’s dark in here isn’t it?” The other replied, “I don’t know, I can’t see.”

And soon, she couldn’t see, either, as she laid her head on Mark’s shoulder and closed her eyes. Granddad’s liquor was potent, and the game had worn her out. Stepdance. Stop action. Men in underwear who defied gravity. It was too much for her poor head. Mark put his arm around her shoulders and held her tight. She woke to him shaking her and telling her it was time to interview a player named Toby Mann.

“Your granddad’s got it all set up.”

She felt like a bear that had been woken from an unseasonal hibernation caused by red meat and alcohol. A bear. God, no. Now she was thinking of herself in terms of her granddad. And grandma. The realization took her by surprise in her just-waking, theta-wave mental state. It suddenly dawned on her that Bernadette meant little bear. How was this possible? She was the descendant of a family of bears.

“Come on, sleepyhead.” Mark tugged her to a standing position and guided her up the bleacher steps.

When they reached Toby Mann, he was already being interviewed by an official reporter, that is, not a JOI belonging to the League. While on the field, he’d had his hair drawn back in a ponytail. Now it was down, flowing around his carefully made-up face. He was wearing more makeup than Stephanie, but that was to be expected, as the game had become a kind of theater.

“You defied government regulations to be yourself?” the reporter was asking him.

“Yes,” Mann said. “Yes. I knew in my heart that I’d always been a six-year-old Minä child and could be nothing else. It was the way I was wired from the time I was a little girl.”

“Mr. Mann, can you tell us honestly, did you or did you not undergo an illegal lobotomy?”

“No, much to my frustration. The few doctors who are willing to put their reputations at risk are booked up until the end of the year. My appointment is months off.”

“That must be difficult for you.”

Mann let out a broken cry before tears flowed down his cheeks. “You don’t know. Until you’ve been trapped in skin that isn’t who you are inside, you couldn’t know. These doctors who bring us hope are being castigated, punished. This needs to stop.”

“They are very brave,” the reporter said. “As are you. You’re brave to continue to get up each day, knowing you aren’t the person God made you to be. But Mr. Mann—may I call you Mr.?”

“For now, yes, for that is how I’ve been known all these years.”

“And what will you be called after your lobotomy?”

“Tabitha is the name that is written in my soul. Miss Tabby Mann.”

Mark’s hand was twitching; Stephanie could feel the twitching, as it caused him to clench and unclench her hand.

“You okay?” she whispered.

“No.” He cleared his throat, pushed his way forward while dragging her with him, and interrupted the interview with a loud authoritative voice. “Maybe you want to change your identity because you feel like a fraud.”

Toby Mann was clearly startled by the interruption. “I’m sorry. Who are you?”

“I’m Mark Anderson, sports editor at the Albuquerque Daily. I had an appointment to meet with you.”

“I don’t feel like a fraud. Why would I feel like a fraud?”

“Because you play a fraudulent game of soccer.”

“Football,” Mann corrected. “I don’t play a fraudulent game. I went through a harrowing process of interviews and tryouts for this position. I made it against all odds and am here today, playing by the rules of the game. I didn’t invent the rules, Mr.—I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”

“Mark Anderson, local sports editor. You don’t argue like a little girl, let alone a Minä. You’re a fraud in more than one way.”

Mann put his hands to his face and cowered. “Mommy,” he said in a tiny voice. He clapped his hands and whooped. “Please don’t hurt me. I need a lobotomy.”

Devon clapped his hands and whooped in mimicry.

“I’m not going to…” Mark’s face fell. “Why would I hurt you?”

And then his face turned a peculiar shade of furious as he stomped off, pulling Stephanie with him. The rest of the crew followed. Oso chuckled.

Unexpectedly, Mark turned on him. “You knew that was going to happen. You knew! Why did you set that up? I’m a serious journalist, not a fraud like everybody else in this place. Why did you mock me like that? And that man. Why did you want me to mock that poor man?”

Oso stopped Mark with his cane. “For a start, I didn’t know that was going to happen. I had no idea Toby Mann was a…whatever he is. I wanted you to get the full scoop. That’s why I set it up, not to mock you or him. Don’t take your disillusionment out on me.”

“You created this mess. All of it. Society has been mentally ill since you created mankind in your own image. Like you’re God or something.”

Oso’s eyes were intense as they held Mark’s gaze. “I agree. I messed up. May God have mercy on my soul.”

The air around them went silent, as though every sound of the champagne drinking crowd had been sucked up into a vortex, except for Myra and Devon’s noise. They were, for no explainable reason, playing a hand-clapping game. Down, down baby, down by the roller coaster…

Stephanie shook her head. “That’s not true. My granddad didn’t cause this. I’ve studied history. The new sports came out when he was a child. Long before Minäs.”

“I’m not going to erase my responsibility,” Oso said.

“Fine, Granddad. Whatever. But you didn’t cause that man’s problems. I’ve been reading conspiracy theories. The government may be putting drugs in the water supply. According to some, they’ve been doing it for more than fifty years.”

While Oso looked at her kindly, the look coming from Mark was one that could only be described as disdainful.

“You don’t actually believe that, do you, Stephanie?” Mark asked.

“You, the king of sports conspiracies, have the nerve to look down on me?”

“I never wanted to believe in those conspiracies,” he spat. “I wasn’t trying to give anyone an out with them. I was just seeing things I wished I wasn’t seeing.”

“All right. Enough,” Oso said. “We should go home and relax. This has clearly been a traumatic experience for all of us.”

Stephanie looked over at Myra and Devon and watched them as they playfully laughed and clapped, and then back at her granddad, who appeared entirely unruffled. Well, it had been traumatic for some of them, anyway.


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Chapter 13: Drop the Load

In which the world turns on the spinning of a ball!

 

Stephanie left her granddad’s house in a bit of a funk. Who wouldn’t be in one after having heard that story? Her worst fears had been confirmed. Well, perhaps not her worst, as the story really turned its wretched head against her uncle Gilly, who wasn’t a real relation, rather than against her granddad. But his silence—and her grandma’s silence!—felt like complicity.

Complicity in what? Gilly hadn’t meant to burn an old man alive. Gilly, for all his genius, had done something foolish. Not well thought-out. How very strange. That, too, cast a new and sulfuric glow over Gilly. Gilly was supposed to be the long-term planner. He never did anything unless he’d thought about it for years and years. That was why he’d required her granddad in order to be successful at a young age, as her granddad didn’t need to sit for years thinking about a project before embarking on it.

And it was also why Stephanie, who generally planned extensively before doing anything, albeit, not for years like Gilly, had already embarked on this biopic. It involved her granddad, and he wouldn’t sit around waiting for her. He’d lose interest if she didn’t do it immediately.

As the car drove itself toward the winking lights of Albuquerque, she shook off her reverie. She needed to type up the day’s shorthand once home, and then go to bed. That would be her Friday night, but then, they were rarely more exciting unless Mark was involved. Speaking of the man of her heart, he’d somehow managed to twist her arm into setting up a stupid little Saturday man-date with him and her granddad.

She and Mark were going to meet Oso at one of the city’s many community tracks that wrapped around a “worker-bee robotics farm,” as Tomi Corp’s robotic factories were known. Due to the lack of work for humans created by the new world of robotics, the AHA and DHS had mandated that running and/or walking tracks be laid to loop around factories, along with green spaces for the playing of pretend, ball-less sports.

Remembering that her granddad had paid her direct deposit through her ring bling, she veered toward the Drop the Load Store, averting the downtown strip near her apartment. The downtown area had been consumed by free-roaming Minäs who had no home and no owners. Occasionally, the cops would round them up with a bullhorn, which caused them to cover their ears and cringe due to the loud noise permeating their extra-large ears, and then put them in the Minä pounding station, where they would be disengaged if nobody claimed or adopted them.

The Salvation Station had funded a grass-roots movement to integrate the Minäs into bunkhouses, with regular nutritious meals specifically designed to meet Minä needs. Some people believed Minäs could grow their missing brain parts if given enough protein and EFAs, but when biologically created humans couldn’t afford enough protein and EFAs, even the Salvation Station had to back off from its most idealistic efforts. And despite their programs, the streets, especially on Friday nights, were clogged with all manner of “Devons” who would someday be picked up by the cops.

They were all so perfect looking, too. They were perfect, all except for their gigantic ears. And, of course, being incredibly stupid. It might be nice to be that stupid. They were happy, loved or abused. Their sadness brain part had apparently gone missing when they were given their lobotomies.

After directing her car to the Drop the Load store, she manually parked the wretched beast because she didn’t want it to miscalculate yet again and try to drive through the parking meridian and into another car, as it had done in times past. It had gotten a little beat up before she’d retaken control.

Outside the store waited the usual suspects. One person rang a bell for the Minä Education Fund—a useless waste of money said every scientist everywhere. Another asked her to sign a petition to classify TransMinä as a brain identity, which was in contrast to last week’s petition, which was to classify a recent hailstorm as a real emergency so that those who were pinged on the head by the hail could get a free supply of pain meds.

Not that TransMinä hadn’t already been deemed a unique identity by law thirty years previously. This was a different slant on TransMinä. In addition to being humans who identified as Minäs since birth, these were people who were wired to believe they were Minäs who believed they were humans. Essentially, they lived as humans, albeit they were Minäs, who were clearly human, who…

Stephanie shut her eyes. She tried to figure it out, but the man/Minä/man speaking to her had confused her at some point. “No, thanks,” she said to his request that she sign.

“The police are always hurting us,” the man said, “brutalizing us. We need laws in place to give us the same basic respect as all people get.”

“Everybody gets the same respect from cops.” Everybody who’s human, she wanted to add.

The cops were trained to beat up anybody who annoyed them. And, sure, some people annoyed them more than others. That was to be expected. Now, Minäs—they were a different story. They would disengage real Minäs. Humans couldn’t be disengaged, even TransMinäs who were humans who believed they were Minäs who believed they were humans. A Minä could be disengaged and re-engaged through the reconnection of their brainstem and the playing of infrasound. A human would be disengaged and never engaged again because they would be dead at that point. Some TransMinäs had gone through disengagement as martyrs for their cause to be taken seriously as a unique identity. They were hardcore, in other words.

The man blinked. “You don’t care about us? Here, take this stat sheet to see how often we’re brutalized by cops. Numbers don’t lie.”

She snatched the sheet from him and pasted on a smile. No, she supposed numbers themselves, as the concepts hiding behind tangibles, didn’t lie. But humans did. Minäs, true ones anyway, were too stupid to lie. Sometimes, she wished she were stupid like a Minä and not just clever enough to get by in life. Intelligence was a bewildering concept, especially if one was the granddaughter of one of the most brilliant men in history.

Of course, part of lacking this brilliancy was the lack of ambition to do anything brilliant. She really didn’t care to. At the same time, she had a lack of care for possessing a unique identity like a TransMinä. She wondered if she could get a petition going that would establish the ordinary people such as herself as a legal special interest group. Sure, she had special interests…in being able to keep her job as an independent journalist and still pay her rent and bills, maybe get committed someday and have babies.

Yes. Get committed. She had done exactly as her granddad had suggested and looked up the origins of both words. A marriage was a fusion of elements, a commitment an obligation. If words made any difference at all in the ability to move independently in the world, then marriage would greatly restrict freedom.

As she wandered the aisles, going through the usual sticker shock of seeing the prices on food she desperately wanted, she found herself imagining what her and Mark’s babies would look like. She jolted out of her daydream. Babies? With Mark? She couldn’t even afford the cheapest white bread before it expired and had to be sent to the bread thrift store.

Then she remembered the money her billionaire granddad had paid her for her work so far, and her heart felt light, while her head suddenly spun. She couldn’t spend this money on food. She couldn’t. She needed savings. For the down-payment on a house. She couldn’t spend it on delicacies such as fresh bread and…her stomach turned over in desire. She wanted meat. Before she knew what she was doing, she had placed a voice call to her Grandma Gonzales and asked her if she knew how to make New Mexico traditional green chile enchiladas.

Yes, of course her grandma knew, and soon Stephanie had punched in the order button for tortillas, chile, cheese, and meat so that her cart could be filled back-room and brought out to her by a Minä, who, although not smart enough to load the order—that was done by mechanical arms without biological brains—most of the time could wheel it out to the front, where the purchaser’s name was writ large on the side. It was not perfect, of course, because the Minäs usually forgot to collect the receipt and often gave the orders to people who had purchased nothing at all.

These non purchasers were known as Drop the Load Leeches. They were officially recognized as “needy” and “deficient” by Welfare Act 10,400 and could not be prosecuted. But they were just one of many groups the cops got annoyed with, as they were belligerent in their due diligence to fight for their rights. So, thankfully, they suffered the occasional beating. For everybody else, they had to be ready to grab their order and run with it. Shopping had become a sport.

Her cart was quite a bit fuller than usual. She could see the leeches salivating and moving forward en masse, until they noticed she had no health code junk food, no alcohol, no vitamin soda, and no wacky cigarettes. Another bout of dizziness caused her to see black spots when she filled the trunk of her car. This was the down payment on her house, and it would all be consumed within a few days. For unknown reasons, she had not stopped at the enchilada ingredients, but had gone on to purchase the type of coffee and cream that her grandfather’s assistant had served to her earlier that day.

It would be okay, she reassured herself. Her granddad would continue to pay her, and then she could get a book contract because she was writing the biography of a celebrity who normally didn’t give journalists the time of day. She swallowed the lump in her throat. The future would be okay, and she would eat well in the interim.

It was too bad she didn’t know what to do with some of the ingredients, such as dried pinto beans. Ah, well, she would have to call her grandma Gonzales once again and ask for advice. Her mouth felt dry, and so she unscrewed the top off the new bottle of orange juice. Orange juice?! Was she insane? Had she really punched in the button for this delicacy?

She sipped a very, very small portion and sat down to work.

Mark picked her up at precisely 2 P.M. Due to it being mid spring, her granddad insisted on meeting at the track in the afternoon—less chance of being hit with a biting cold wind. At first, he’d suggested 5 A.M., before the wind had picked up at all, but even Mark, who worshiped Oso Beñat, had balked at the idea. He was going out drinking with his buddies and didn’t want to show up still drunk.

Buddies. That was the archaic term Mark used for his friends. Nobody who cared about microaggressions used that word for anybody but Minäs in this day and age, as the original Tomi Corp ad name for their creations was buddy. The coinage pet was also considered derogatory; however, the names window-licker and retard were nearly terms of affection, as they had no context in the modern-day environment. Screen-licker, on the other hand, was a derogatory term for old-school geeks who preferred old-fashioned computers. Oh, and for grass-roots journalists and newspaper editors who couldn’t afford to do anything better than sift through silicon wastelands and scrap together old hard drives, screens, and computer boxes.

Mark was looking a little yellow in the face, as he always did when he spent all night drinking cheap beer. Stephanie had tried, using her investigative skills, to find out what was in the piss-bitter stuff, and had not yet been successful. The beer corporations, which had taken their names from last century’s microbrew craze—Bluebird Ale; Purple Mountain Stout; Green Orphan Amber; etc—were clinging tightly to their proprietary recipes and filtration systems.

“Did you have fun with your buddies?” she asked, after he laid his head back and told his car rather viciously to drive, you mother flipper.

He snarled at her. His bad mood combined with her good one inspired her to sing the Minä theme song from the old ads calling them buddies: You can hug ‘em, give ‘em lovin’, just don’t leave ‘em near the oven. And: You can bug ‘em, give ‘em shovin’s, just don’t force ‘em in the oven.

“For the love of God, stop,” he told her.

She couldn’t help it; she was in a good mood. Good food did make a difference. Her granddad had advised her well. “You’re just dehydrated, that’s all,” she said. “Do you want to know what I drank for breakfast? Orange juice.”

He groaned.

She whistled. Or tried to. She had never really learned.

The car pulled up to the chosen track. This one formed a figure eight, with the bottom half circling around a factory, and the top half around a field, where a group of boys were practicing airfoot.

“Airfoot!” Mark said, as though it were a curse.

“They do look a little silly, but only marginally more than the sports you watch.”

“It’s all fake. All of it. I really wish this aspirin would kick in. I want to leave a good impression on your grandfather. This is not good, really not good. I think I’m going to throw up.” He promptly bailed from the car and vomited in the garbage bin.

“How much did you drink, anyway? I set up this date because you asked for it.”

“James is getting committed. He and Lola are engaged. Do you hear that, Stephanie? Some people in the world are still getting committed.”

She was silent a beat. James was his best friend from high school. “You drank yourself into oblivion because you were happy for James?”

“Yes, toasted him. Over and over and over. Wish it had been me we were toasting.”

She was about to say, You’d prefer to vomit over your own engagement?, but didn’t have a chance to, as her granddad’s classic electric Roadster rolled into the parking lot.

Mark’s head perked up. “Wow, what a car,” he moaned, as if the envy made him as sick as the bad beer. “I love those early electrics. So much style. If I were a billionaire, I’d drive one, too.”

“If I had a decent income, I’d just buy an economy car that could get me from one place to the next.”

“Some of us have style.”

She shrugged at that, as she didn’t know what to say. He’d chosen the least stylish of all the young females at the Albuquerque Daily—that is, herself. Perhaps “having style” was subjective. Oso’s style was objective, however, as he stepped from his shiny white vehicle and stood to his full height. He was impeccably dressed in walking clothes and expensive athletic shoes. Even Devon, following behind his owner, was impeccably dressed in walking clothes and expensive athletic shoes.

“If you have even a pinch of style now, you should stop hanging your head. And try to look less yellow,” she advised.

Her granddad immediately grasped Mark’s hand in a firm handshake. “Mark, my man. I’m happy to meet the writer who entertains me every morning of the week.”

Mark’s mouth twitched into a smile. “Thank you, sir. And you. It’s astounding to meet you.”

“You’re pastier than I expected,” Oso said. “What did I expect? You’re a writer, not a real sportsman. There aren’t any more of those.”

Mark groaned and put his hands to his temples.

“Hungover, are you?”

Mark just groaned again.

“It’s that poison you young ‘uns call alcohol these days. Stephanie, wait here. I’m taking young Mark with me for a trip around the block.”

“I, uh…” But her granddad had already whisked Mark away in his shiny car, leaving Devon in her care. “Hmm. I guess I’ll just watch the boys play airfoot,” she said.

“Me too,” said Devon

An hour later—after she had given up on understanding the game the boys were playing and had begun to walk the track with Devon—the Roadster reappeared, and soon the men were out of the car, running into the half field the boys weren’t using, with what appeared to be a ball. When Devon spotted Oso, he took off like a shot to catch up with him. Minäs could run, if nothing else.

But Mark, who was vomiting an hour ago, was now running. And how could an old man run like that—an old man who used a cane? Not to mention that he was now kicking the ball. Stephanie was confused.

She veered into the field and jogged over to them, where they were all three bunting the ball back and forth with their feet. Mark’s face had been re-spirited with its usual glow.

“Look at this, Steph! I’m kicking a ball! A real ball! The sports stars can’t even do this.”

She shook her head. “What happened to you in the last hour?”

“Mr. Beñat took me to this club. It was hidden in the basement of a shop in Nob Hill. I’m not allowed to say which one.”

“Why not?” she asked. “Wait, there are basements in Nob Hill stores? Since when?”

“It’s a secret men’s club. And you don’t even know. There’s a basement system linking together…oh, wait. I’m not supposed to tell.”

“Good, well, I’ll never tell you where my secret knitting circle is, then.”

His eyes bugged out in surprise. “You have a secret knitting circle?”

“No.”

“Ah, you were trying to be funny. It’s not funny. This club’s the real deal, legit. The bartender made me a hangover cure called the Silver Fizz. What was that recipe again, Sir, Mr. Beñat?”

“The first part is never drinking that trash you call beer. The rest is simple: egg white, dry gin, lemon juice, sugar, and club soda.”

Stephanie didn’t want to consider how much that beverage would cost at a club. “Yeah, because Mark is going to stock those ingredients on his salary. Good thing you gave him the recipe.”

“That’s why,” her granddad coldly replied, “the first part is never drinking that trash again. Now, would you, darlin’, like to learn how to play soccer with us?”

“Sure, I guess.”

“Pass!” Mark shouted as he suddenly kicked the ball in her direction.

Being that she wasn’t prepared for it, it hit her in the shin. In return, she picked it up and hurled it at his head. Unfortunately, he dodged it.

“No, no, no!” her granddad shouted. “That’s not how to play the game. We’re going to go over the rules first.”

Stephanie giggled. She felt like a child. “All right, Granddad, Sir, Mr. Beñat!”

And for the first time in months—years, perhaps—she gave up her day and had fun. That wasn’t to say she didn’t trip over the ball multiple times. She did. She was clearly not meant to be a soccer player, but Mark picked it up rather well. Devon never really understood the rules, but he did manage to ape Mark’s every move. Her granddad, too—how could he kick the ball that way? It was incredible to watch him. How many octogenarians could do that? How many people of any age could? Nobody had balls any longer. As far as she knew, they weren’t sold in stores.

As they passed the ball to each other up and down the field, Stephanie realized the boys’ team was no longer playing airfoot. No, they were watching the strange phenomenon of ball-kicking, something they’d only seen on TV, and which some people, such as the local sports editor, insisted was faked.

Well, right before them, it was real. They stared, their jaws slack, their eyes wide in shock. To the side, somebody’s buddy Minä was jumping up and down, flapping his arms, and whoop-whooping. Stephanie couldn’t help it; she was so overjoyed by the moment that she collapsed in the grass and stared up at the sky.

“Stephanie, lying in the grass is not what a team player does,” her granddad shouted.

She didn’t care, though, at least not until her infamous grandfather invited all the boys to play with them, and she was in danger of being trampled to death by a bunch of little, obnoxious feet that were apparently aching to kick a real ball.

When Oso finally called it a game, as nobody was keeping score, the adults stood talking in the parking lot. Mark’s cheeks were flushed from exercise and excitement.

“Now this is real sport, something real to write about,” Mark said. “I wish the Daily would pay me to go to professional games rather than reporting what I see on screen. That might be some real sports reporting, too. I could find out if they use physical balls or not. I mean, only the elite can afford those games, so they’re the only ones who know what’s really going on. And then, the elites usually have shares in the players.”

Oso smiled. “I could get us into a game if you’d like. There’s one tomorrow.”

“Do you often go to games?”

“I’ve been to a handful. It’s a waste of money I try to avoid.”

“As if you have to worry about money,” Mark said.

“I’m not one of the richest men in the world because I spend money on frivolities. If I did spend money on entertainment, I’d expect it to be entertaining. Which the games aren’t.”

Mark leaned forward in eager anticipation. “Because they’re using holograph balls?”

“They make spectators sign a nondisclosure contract before buying tickets,” Oso said. “But if you wanted to do an expose, you could take one for the team. The journalism team, that is.”

Mark’s eyes were wild with anticipation. “I would seriously love, sir, to take one for the team. What do you think, Stephanie, you wanna come too?”

Stephanie thought about it. She was a cautious team player, but still, she didn’t see how Mark’s actions would affect her career. After all, there was no such thing as guilt by association. That was wishful thinking on her part, especially if she conceded to become committed to him. Guilt by association was more often than not assumed by the public. She knew this from interviewing people.

“Do they still serve hotdogs at games?” She’d always wanted to eat a hotdog, which was a food popular at games in the last century. Hotdogs looked tasty in pictures.

“Yes, they sell organic, ethnically sourced, two-inch micro dogs on crusted German-import mini-loaves with Hollandaise and Havarti. Does that sound good to you, m’dear?”

The exercise had made her even hungrier than usual. “Um, I’m not really sure I like the sound of micro dogs.”

Oso snorted. “Well, they also offer kale chips, seaweed strips, sushi, and caviar. Sometimes lobster, if it’s the right season.”

“All right, I’ll go with you guys,” she conceded, as if she wouldn’t jump at the opportunity. Not because of the food, though—the food sounded bizarre, like nothing she’d ever tasted. Or even the sport. As a Journalist of Integrity, she had a curiosity that was rarely sated, the same as Mark.


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Chapter 12: Playing With Fire

In which playing with fire will melt down their world!

 

Oso didn’t have a plan for how he was going to get his bicycle back from Agnes. All he knew was that he wanted it back because it spelled freedom to him. He wanted the freedom to be anywhere but his home. He could go to Gilly’s without needing transportation. But that wasn’t the point. It was also a matter of principle. His muscles tensed up from frustration.

The next morning, as he stirred a big pot of oatmeal for his siblings, he felt a now familiar tingle of memory that threatened to override his tense, frustrated muscles. The tingling sensation moved up his arms as though he’d been bitten by a spider, and the venom was spreading itself at a fast clip throughout his circulatory system. His arms grew warmer and warmer, until he howled and threw down the oatmeal spoon.

Then his mind perceived a place: it was burning—a dark, small, even space, and there was a woman howling in pain. Hearing the howls, his breath quickened, his mouth went dry, his heart beat with dangerous rapidity. His eyes dilated to take in the dim light. He had to gather the woman in his arms, he had to listen to her, gather her, rescue her; there was something important she was trying to tell him, and he couldn’t hear her. He had to move in closer…

The back door slammed. The youngest and fattest child, Barnaby, slammed into Oso, causing him to knock into a pan of boiling coffee grounds and eggshells, which sloshed all over his arm and down his pants. This burn was real, and his memory faded. There was no such thing as memory in a home filled with chaos.

As he ran his scalded arm under the tap water, his eyes smarted. He wanted to ride away from this place, maybe all the way to the river, where he and Gilly could swim in the muddy rivulets left from the drought, and cool off. He had to get his bike back, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Later that day, he consulted Gilly, which turned out to be a bad idea. Even at twelve-going-on-thirteen, Oso’s ideal for justice was storming the castle. Gilly, on the contrary, didn’t understand what storming a castle meant. Long about sunset, Gilly’s planning started bugging Oso, and he recklessly trespassed on Agnes’ property just as she had done to his. Gilly tried to stop him, but to no avail. The Oldsmobile wasn’t in the yard, which meant the man was gone. It was a good time for a heist.

Unfortunately, the bicycle was nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t in the front or the backyard, not in the unlocked shed behind the trailer, which was a storage center for all manner of unused yard tools. The yard was a patch of dirt covered in weeds. The old man she lived with obviously wasn’t into doing yard work.

Oso walked up the porch steps and balanced on the rickety porch railing so he could peer through the blinds. The blinds were closed, and this was unsurprising, but as usually happened with plastic slats in New Mexico, these had warped in the sun and left a yawning gap big enough for him to spot his bicycle in the middle of the living room. A small TV flashed to a clean and tidy space sans visible inhabitants. How could her home be clean with the crazy people who lived inside it? It was cleaner than Oso’s home, though that was no great feat. Most people didn’t have as many toddlers running around their homes.

Out of nowhere, a girl’s voice demanded, “What are you doing?”

Oso about jumped out of his skin, but managed to immediately hide his fear. When he turned around, there stood Bernadette.

“We’re doing a B and E to get my bike back,” Oso whispered. “It’s right there in the living room.”

Gilly tugged on Oso’s sleeve to pull him back from the window. Oso didn’t oblige him.

Bernadette put her hands on her hips and cocked them out in that way girls did when they were mocking others. “You can’t just break in. She may be stupid, but she’s not stupid enough not to call the cops on us.”

“Oh, yeah, like I’d get caught. Or if I did, I’d make sure she didn’t tell. It’s not a crime to steal my own bike she stole from me. I’d get her put in jail. And for real, there is no ‘us’. You weren’t invited to this party, Bernadette.”

“Yeah, right. Who’d believe you?” she said. “And what is this, a real-men-do-crime party?”

Oso decided to ignore her until she went away. So far, that method had worked. “The only problem is I don’t know where she is. The TV’s on, but nobody’s watching it. What do you think that means?”

“That she’s making herself a frozen pizza?” Gilly said. “How should I know? Get down from there and we can plan this a little more. You’re going to walk in and get us in trouble like the dumbshit you are. Bernadette’s right.”

Oso reached back and smacked Gilly on the forehead. “Shut up. Your plans are always stupid. The best way is to just walk in there like we belong and take my bike back. What right does she have to keep my bike in her living room?”

He jumped down from the railing and grimaced as the porch boards creaked under his weight. There was one board split in half by the front door, he noted, and he wondered if it was a kind of trap door for mice or desert rats. The screen door hung slightly open, as the latch was broken. The screen itself fell forward in a lazy arc. Oso tried the door. It was locked, but locks like this were easy. At least traditional handle locks were. The deadbolt wouldn’t be as simple.

He jumped from the porch, not bothering to pretend this was a hush-hush mission. What did he care? In this case, he was in the right. Maybe he hadn’t been in the past. Maybe he’d shot BBs at her and thrown apples at her, but that was all teasing and/or redirection. Teasing didn’t make him a bad person. It was too easy to tease people weaker than he was. Now he knew she wasn’t as weak as he’d assumed. I mean, what kind of weak adult female marches directly in his yard in midday, steals his bicycle, and gets away with it?

“We should see if there’s a back door,” Oso said.

The three disappeared around to the back of the house. There was a back door, but it, too, was secured with a door lock. Oso could have jimmied this one, but he wasn’t sure he liked the idea of sneaking in through the back when the most direct route to his bicycle was entering through the front.

“I should just go and knock on the door and tell her I’m taking my bike back.”

“That’s your plan?” Gilly said.

“That’s a good plan,” said Bernadette. “I like it.”

“I told you, I don’t need to waste time on plans. I just need to walk in and get my bike.”

Gilly chewed on his fingernails, bit off an end, and spit it out. “I think we should wait until she goes to sleep. Then you can jimmy this back door and not scare the wits out of her. Then it’s just gone and she’ll think it was spirited away. Heck, she might not even remember she took it.”

Oso knew what he meant. The woman walked around the neighborhood as though she existed in a dream world. The weakness in Gilly’s plan was the old man. Surely, he would return soon, as it was now dusk. Not that Oso was afraid of him. Still, he might have weapons.

“She might not remember me if I walk in and wheel the bike out when she’s there watching.”

“Yeah, but she might remember your face. Her stepdad, husband, or whatever might come after you.”

“That’s exactly why we should take it now, before he comes back.”

“It’s her stepdad, not her husband,” Bernadette corrected, and then she grabbed at Oso’s arm. “Quick, duck, he’s coming.”

All three ducked down in the weeds at the end of the trailer.

“I don’t hear a car,” Oso whispered.

Bernadette pointed toward the alleyway. “Not her stepdad, my cousin,” she whispered back. “He’s been staying at my house. He’s gross. He’s like twenty-six and makes passes at all us girl cousins. That’s why I came over here when I saw you. I was tired of him rubbing my thighs at the dinner table.”

A curious rage settled in Oso’s stomach. “Do you want me to kill him for you?”

“Yeah, I don’t think that would be helpful.”

The shadowy figure of a tall thin man slowly walked their way and then stopped about five feet from them. They stooped down lower in the weeds. They could smell cigarette smoke. The man moved on, and then walked back. He was pacing up and down the alley, smoking. Then, finally, he tossed the cigarette their direction and wandered back to Bernadette’s house.

“What a dumbass. Do you want to stay at my place tonight?” Oso asked Bernadette. “Or maybe we could all sleep in Gilly’s robot shop. We have sleeping bags there.”

“We won’t rub your thighs, I promise,” Gilly said, and chortled.

Bernadette reached over and squeezed Oso’s hand. Maybe she wanted him to rub her thighs. Maybe not. Hand-holding was in a different class. “Thanks, but I’ll be all right. I think he’s harmless. He just likes to cop feels.”

“This whole situation makes me want a cigarette.” Gilly pulled a lighter from his pants pocket and fiddled with it. “You want one while we’re waiting? I stole a pack from my mom earlier.”

“Did you deeply plan that out, too, or did you just take it?”

“Who needs to plan when it comes to my mom? She buys them by the case. She’ll never know if one pack is gone.”

He lit a cigarette, breathed in, and coughed a little. “Ooh, tingles,” he said.

“Seriously? If you want tingles, go raid my dad’s shed. He has the real devil’s lettuce.”

“Later, dude. Here, try one. It’s not that bad. Berna?”

Bernadette shook her head. “No, the smell reminds me of my creepy cousin.”

Oso did try one, and wasn’t impressed. He puffed it a few times before crushing it with the old, scrappy tennis shoe he saved for dirty jobs.

“What a waste.”

Gilly, clearly bored by the cigarette and the conversation, turned his sights on plucking the dry weeds around the trailer and burning them.

“Mmm,” he said. “Smells weedy.”

Bernadette looked horrified. “Stop it, Gilly. Didn’t your mom ever tell you not to play with fire?”

“Yeah, right. My mom plays with fire all the time. She smokes herself to sleep. She lights all these candles to saints and shit and burns them all night. She has one for winning the lottery.”

Oso snorted. “The only one winning that lottery is the candle maker.”

Gilly rolled his eyes. “God, Oso, that was the stupidest comeback ever. Just not as stupid as people who burn candles to saints.”

“You’d be surprised at what happens when you have faith,” Bernadette said. “I don’t think you two know anything about religious beliefs because you don’t go to church.”

“My mom watches televangelists. And Oso’s mom burns incense to the goddesses. Trust me. We know.”

“Your mom’s not Catholic,” Bernadette said. “She doesn’t even go to church, and she burns things to saints. If she truly believed, it would work.”

“Bullshit,” Oso said.

Bernadette sat with her legs outstretched, her toes pointed like a dancer’s. “How would you know?”

“Actually,” Gilly said, as he pushed up his glasses. “It’s up to you to prove it. You’re the one who says it’s true without any evidence.”

She smiled knowingly, smugly. “My family has been Catholic forever. One time, my cousin drove out to the Chimayo church and got some of the dirt and he left it in his car for like a year. Once, when he was on his way back from Chimayo the same time next year, he got in a car accident. His car rolled, Gilly, and he was fine because of the dirt.”

“Yeah, I doubt it was the dirt that saved him.”

Oso snorted again. “Maybe it padded his fall.”

Gilly picked up a piece of trash, lit it, and watched it burn into nothing, or at least what looked like little black birds floating away on the breeze. “How much dirt was this? Did it weigh down his car, too? Because dirt weighs a lot.”

“It was in a sandwich bag. You don’t know the whole story. His mom had a bad heart, that’s why he was getting her some dirt. It was Easter. If he hadn’t been delayed by the accident, he wouldn’t have gotten to the home at exactly the same time as his mom had a heart attack. And then his mom was fine.”

Oso unhooked his hand from hers and shoved her lightly on the shoulder. “You don’t believe that, do you? You aren’t that gullible?”

“Berna’s not gullible.” Gilly laughed. “Nope. Why shouldn’t she believe that someone’s mom survived a heart attack because her son got in a car accident?”

“No,” she said, her voice rising with indignation, “he had brought back a second bag of dirt for his mom, and he found her exactly at the right moment and gave it to her. I’m not making it up. That’s what happened. At least I’m open to something outside my small, stupid mind.”

Gilly glowered. Even in the dark, his glower was obvious.

“Some people need superstitions,” Oso said, as though his words were somehow soothing. “That’s okay. My dad doesn’t. I don’t either. Superstitions don’t make the vegetables grow.”

“Not having them doesn’t keep your mom home, either, does it?” Bernadette paused for effect. “Maybe if your dad had a few more, she wouldn’t run off all the time and leave you guys.”

“Shut the hell up, Bernadette. You don’t know anything. Don’t talk about my family like that.”

Bernadette smiled. “I’m telling you, these things work. I’ll light a candle for your mom to stop running off like a whore, and she’ll stay. I promise.”

“Ha! I’ll tell my mom to do it, too,” Gilly said. “She’s always very concerned when she’s sees your mom’s pregnant again. Not that it will work, but sometimes it’s the thought that counts.”

Oso felt the heat rise to his cheeks and his fists clench. He didn’t need to fight. Fighting was the way of cowards. But he sorely wanted to pound Gilly’s head into the dirt and smash in his nose. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do to Bernadette. She was pretty. And she had a mean side. He’d known that for a long time. He really just wanted her to go away, but not back to a place where a twenty-six-year-old would feel her up.

“Any of those candles keep your dad from abandoning you, Gilly?” he said instead.

“No because my dad is a scientist and doesn’t believe in that garbage.”

“Hmm. That’s good to know.” He looked pointedly at Bernadette.

Bernadette looked pointedly back. “Yeah, it’s good to know that a lack of faith has prevented miracles from happening.”

“Are you saying that your God is forced to do things if you have faith?”

“No, it’s not like that, it’s…”

Oso snorted one last time, as her protestation trailed off. She clearly didn’t know how to conclude.

Gilly lay back in the dirt and stared up at the summer night sky. “Smells like cat shit down here. I’ll bet there’s cats living under the trailer.”

“Or it could just be you.”

“You don’t get the way these candles work. That’s your problem,” she finally said. “It’s how much faith you have in them. God wants to see people be faithful, so he gives rewards for faith. My uncle abandoned my aunt, just like Gilly’s dad did. But now that my aunt has more faith and has been lighting candles, he’s been paying child support.”

“That’s nice,” Gilly said, with a sneer. “It hasn’t helped my mom get child support. Maybe it’s the state that went after your uncle and made him pay. My dad left New Mexico, and nobody knows where he’s at. The candles are meaningless.”

“You know—you’re right. The candles are meaningless. I already said that. It’s faith.” She pointed up at the night sky. “See? Oso’s constellation is shining tonight. That means it’s his night.”

“My constellation?”

“The big dipper. That’s the big bear. Unless you consider yourself the little bear. Does your mom call you that, Osito?”

“She wouldn’t dare.”

“You know what this is?” Gilly asked as he plucked a handful of weeds and began braiding them together into the shape of a Teddy bear. “This is going to be your lucky effigy.”

The weeds were obviously not dry enough and the flame kept snuffing out. Gilly added a few pieces of dried circulars that had blown and caught in the weeds at the base of the trailer. He wound them around, crafting them into what appeared to be a strange doll. Then he lit it on fire. It caught fire so quickly it whooshed up to his hand, and he dropped it in the weeds with a yelp. The dry weeds went up in flames faster than any of them could respond. They jumped up and backed away.

But Oso stopped. He knew he couldn’t back away. This was what he’d remembered, and his mouth went dry at the thought. What if Agnes was in that back bedroom? What if she was the woman who was trying to speak to him? He had to help her. He tried to stomp the fire out, but it had grown too big.

He shoved Bernadette. “Go to your house and call 911. Gilly, you’re such an asshole. I can’t believe you did this.”

“What’re you going to do?” Bernadette asked, her voice shaking. “Keep stomping on it?”

“No, get Agnes out,” he shouted as he ran around to the front of the house. “Gilly, go find a hose!”

Oso smashed out the window near the front porch and crawled in with the help of the rickety railing.

“Agnes!” he shouted.

Then he saw her, asleep in an armchair that faced the TV. It had not been visible from the vantage point of the window, and Oso experienced a sudden rage. He could have broken in the back door, after all, and walked out with his bike. It was clear not even smashing the window could wake this woman.

He shook her, and her eyes rolled open and shut again.

“We have to get out of here,” he shouted at her. “Your trailer is going to be toast in like ten minutes.”

She murmured like a young child, but didn’t respond as he expected a normal human being might. So he dragged her upright, and pulled her to a standing position with one of her arms around his shoulder. She didn’t have her leg on—he didn’t know where it was. But he didn’t have time to look for it. He dragged her toward the front door while she jumped along with one leg, trying to keep up.

“Where, where are we going?” she whimpered.

“Your trailer’s going to be toast. It’s on fire.”

“The c-c-candle Papa lit so he could see?”

“Or whatever.” He’d had enough of candle talk for one day.

He snapped the deadbolt free and dragged her outside, though she resisted and gestured with her hand to the back of the house. Gilly was waiting on the porch, his face blanched.

“I couldn’t find a hose,” he choked out, his voice hoarse.

“Papa,” she whimpered.

“He’s not here.” And then Oso stopped cold. The man could be home. What if the car was in the shop? What if she’d bought a secondhand bicycle because the car was a piece of crap?

She whimpered like an animal and tried to tear herself from Oso’s grip. He held on tighter and dragged her to the dirt. She clawed at his neck, and he yelped and let her go.

Without bothering to think it through, he ran back inside the trailer to check for “Papa.”

“Oso,” Gilly screamed. “What are you doing, you stupid idiot?”

The heat was so intense he thought he would die. And then his foot fell through the floor. He’d seen the videos at school, what to do and what not to do in case of fire. He’d done exactly what he shouldn’t have. The smoke would kill him if the fire didn’t first.

Then he saw Gilly crawling on his hands and knees toward him. He pulled Oso out, and both boys crawled back out and collapsed in the dirt near Agnes, who was convulsing and sobbing. Their parents were there, as they’d seen the flames. Gilly swatted away his mom as she tried to hug him; he was convulsing and sobbing just like Agnes.

“Son?” Oso’s dad said, stooping down in the dirt by his side. “What happened here?”

Oso’s mother didn’t bother questioning or attempting hugs. She put her hand on his shoulder and then quickly removed it. For once, Oso was grateful for her lack of nurturing spirit. He didn’t bother responding to his dad. Instead, he stared mutely at the trailer until a fire truck showed up, its sirens blaring.

Agnes had stopped convulsing by that time, but she wouldn’t stop whimpering and pointing back at the engulfed back end of the trailer, with her litany of Papa, Papa, which developed into an unnatural ghostly keening, punctuated by an incoherent rant about starting the fire and killing him.

“I didn’t mean to kill him!” she wailed. “I just wanted him to leave the little girl alone!”

What little girl was she talking about? He’d never seen any kids living there. But of greater significance, Agnes thought it was her fault. That was what she was screeching about. Oso knew he couldn’t let her believe that, but he also knew nobody could know about Gilly starting the fire. What would happen to Gilly? Would he end up in juvenile detention? Would Oso be partly responsible?

The local firemen entered the as-yet non-engulfed area of the trailer to try to rescue this “Papa.” But it was too late. That part of the trailer was toast, and they couldn’t rescue him. He was dead, burnt alive in his bed. Gilly vomited; Bernadette burst into tears in her mother’s arms. Oso stared straight ahead, his mouth open, his body trembling from head to toe. His breath came out in pants, as though he were asthmatic.

A while later, another fire engine, a cop car, and an ambulance showed up. A fireman put Oso on oxygen, and his breathing slowed. Agnes’ keening silenced as she, too, was put on oxygen. When it was clear there were no serious injuries, the police separated the kids to take their statements individually.

Oso’s heart hammered. He wasn’t a bad person. He hadn’t bullied her. He’d teased her. And he hadn’t burnt anything. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t his fault. And they hadn’t worked out a story. What could Oso say? He told the cop they were looking for his bike and smelled smoke.

“How do you lose a bike?” the cop asked him.

Oso swallowed and spoke the truth. He told the cop the entire story of distracting Agnes so that she crashed on her bike and how the woman had stolen his. He thought he could take it back from her, but couldn’t find it in the yard.

The cop didn’t give him an idea of what might happen. He talked to Oso’s parents, instead, informing him that Oso might be wanted for further questioning after the fire martial’s investigation. Oso’s stomach churned. He didn’t know much about how fires were investigated. Surely, they would see that the fire had started outside, not inside the trailer.

His dad didn’t grill him that night. Gilly didn’t have a dad, and his mom would believe anything her genius son told her. By comparison, Oso’s passive, peace-loving dad was a drill sergeant. Oso wasn’t sure about Bernadette and her happy, intact family. She might spill the truth to all of them, or to the cops. She might.

“You look like you’ve been through hell. Is it true you rescued the lady from her trailer?” his dad asked him.

It didn’t make much difference at that point, did it? Oso had let another person die, and he would never be okay with himself again. Therefore, he couldn’t bring himself to answer in the affirmative or the negative.

His dad handed him a watered down half shot of his homemade peach brandy. “Go to bed. We’ll speak more about it in the morning.”

But in the morning, the local paper, as well as the big-city paper from Albuquerque, had declared all three of them heroes. And Bernadette didn’t tell, or at least she hadn’t yet. She came to him in tears the next day and told him she didn’t want to be a hero. All she’d done was call 911.

“We killed a man,” she kept saying, over and over. “We have to tell.”

“You didn’t,” he said. “Gilly and I were responsible. Stop it. Just stop crying. There’s no point.”

“I can’t stop. I’m the one who made you hide there. It’s my fault. We should have followed your plan from the beginning.”

“So what? Just shut up about it, okay?”

“I won’t ever speak of it ever,” she solemnly said. “It will be our secret. I swear.”

He’d only meant for her to stop blubbering and blaming herself, but if she didn’t tell anyone Gilly had started the fire, so much the better.

When it came time for the fire martial to investigate, the job was shoddily done and the fire declared an accident. Well, of course it was an accident. An accident caused by stupidity. Somewhere inside Oso, he desperately wanted to be put away forever for what had happened. And it didn’t help that girls now looked at him adoringly. Older girls. High school girls. He turned thirteen and was as tall as a full-grown adult, but he felt small inside, like a kid hidden in a man, like a scared kid who didn’t know himself any more.

Yes, he felt very small, indeed. And because he so thoroughly blocked the image of a charred man from his mind, all he could think about—have nightmares about—was Bernadette’s missing leg that had melted down with the house. Maybe she would be without a leg forever.


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