Ringer

The bar is loud tonight, crowded with paunchy men in faded sports tees and flannel shirts. They’re from out of town, here for the big tool expo, but they’ve claimed ownership of the bar and driven out almost all the regulars – except me. Jenna is the only one working tonight, but she refuses to let me help, even though we both knew before seven that it would be a hectic night.

“Your license is expired, Jess,” she whispered when I offered. “You got your new job, what, six months ago?”

“So? My license lapsed, not my ability to pour a beer.”

A group of six entered and her shoulders sagged briefly. “Maybe later.”

So here I am, sipping a two-hour-old porter, waiting for Jenna to crack and accept my help.

One of the out-of-towners, his head shaved in an attempt to outflank his baldness, accidentally elbows me when he comes up for another round.

“Sorry.”

I say nothing. He forgets about me immediately. His Red Sox tee is too small for him. He and his friends have taken over the dart board right next to the bar. While he’s gone, one of his friends sticks a fresh hole in the wall. I helped repaint that wall just last year.

“Hey, sweetheart,” he calls to Jenna. “Three more?”

Jenna is down at the other end, serving another horde of outsiders.

“Hey!” Red Sox barks. Jenna looks up, two pint glasses in her hands. Red Sox taps his wrist with one finger – today, sweetheart.

I look up at him, debating intervening. He stares at Jenna – all over Jenna – as she fills his glasses and slides them across the bar.

“Better be faster next time if you expect a tip.” He raises an eyebrow as if he just benevolently imposed some wisdom on her. Jenna’s smile never fractures, but I recognize the furious tension of her eyebrows when we exchange a glance.

People say we have the same smile, but that’s where the similarities end. She’s taller, blonder, and older by eight minutes. We probably weigh the same, but hers is distributed in a way that racks up more “sweetheart” and “baby” in one night than I’ve heard in a lifetime. We both worked behind that bar for almost three years before I started at the bank.

“Hey, sweetheart!” Red Sox is pointing at a bullseye, presumably his. I glimpse gold on his finger – a wedding ring he hadn’t even bothered removing. “You got a nice prize for the winner? A kiss, maybe?”

Whooping all around the bar. Jenna’s smile becomes icy before she teasingly waves him off. If any other regulars were still here, he’d be thrown out, or at least shouted down. But it’s just me tonight, and while I can bench 150, I try not to get in bar fights with strangers anymore.

Besides, like Mom always said, violence isn’t always the answer. I got real good at darts while I worked here, and when this place isn’t overrun with entitled outsiders, the other regulars and I play at least once a week.

“I’ll take that bet,” I say, standing.

A different kind of whooping, now. Jenna winks conspiratorially – neither of us feels inclined to tell people we’re related.

Red Sox yields the floor with a smirk. The friend who put a hole in the wall is too young for the Pink Floyd shirt he’s wearing, but not too young to snicker at me with the others. They sound like chimpanzees.

But they fall silent as I rack up t15, ring, d17; d20, bull, t18. It’s over quickly.

The rest of the bar has already gone back to hollering at each other over their cheap beers, the contest forgotten. Red Sox flushes to match the faded letters on his shirt.

“Hey, Jenna,” I call. “Smoochy, smoochy.”

She rolls her eyes as I tap my cheek. I am rewarded with a kiss, an exaggerated “mwah” like our aunt used to do, and a smirk aimed over my shoulder at Red Sox.

“What is this, some kind of hustle?” he snaps.

“Just good, clean fun.” I drain the last of my lukewarm porter. “Wouldn’t want to upset your wife…”

Red Sox leaves as I reclaim my barstool. He mutters something I don’t quite hear – probably for the best – as he passes. Pink Floyd, though, bobs his head ruefully at Jenna and leaves a twenty on the bar.

Much Obliged

The moment comes when they ask you for another long week on another long project and you can’t find the shape of yes in your mouth anymore. At first, the extra assignments felt flattering – like compliments, like trust. Now they feel like links in a lengthening chain.

You know they aren’t really asking. They know you have no choice.

So you chew on your retorts and swallow the acidic no that had threatened to burst free like flame and find the agreeable yes they want.

The moment passes safely.

This was going to be my entry for yw#308 but my week got away from me. What’s up, moonshine grid?

Save

Goodnight, VerreTek

I am blinking amid the restricted servers and I don’t remember why I’m here.

I remember details – keystrokes – but I can’t remember anything beyond VerreTek’s last firewall. I’m holding a drive, though. I realize, with a jolt of pride and terror, that I was successful. The encryption did its job erasing any memory of what I read, but I got through. I have the data.

“Miss Palmer? Are you in here?”

Booted feet, a harsh voice. They know full well I’m here. There are no security warnings on my screen, so nothing I did during my hack attracted attention, but somehow, I’m suspicious.

I check the time and swear silently. I’ve been in here for 20 minutes – way longer than permitted. The encryption must have messed with my perception of time.

“Miss Palmer?”

“Yes?” I call as innocently as possible. I hide the drive in the pocket I sewed into my bra – lined with a few square inches of inordinately expensive scan-deterring fabric – and dart three rows away, where I pretend to be working on a terminal. I sabotaged it yesterday to give myself an excuse to be here.

Two security guards appear at the end of the row. “Miss Palmer, you don’t have clearance to be here unaccompanied for more than ten minutes.”

“I’m so sorry!” I gesture to the terminal, its black screen helpfully flashing a scattered assortment of green cursors. “This should’ve been a really easy fix and I totally lost track of time –”

“Would you come with us, please?”

Again, they aren’t asking.

[]

They walk me back and forth through two scanners, wave around me with three types of detector wands, and pat me down. Nothing picks up the tiny drive.

They could order a strip search, but I’m a nineteen-year-old girl with a spotless record and prodigy-level encryption skills. VerreTek isn’t really concerned about me. They just have to put in the time to make it look like they bothered.

I just have to outlast them. So, for the next few hours, I lie – sort of.

Hour one. “What were you doing in the restricted servers?”

“Fixing a broken terminal.”

“Some secure files were accessed from another terminal in the same room.”

“I never saw any secure files.” It’s not entirely true – I saw them, I just don’t remember them. But it’s enough to fool the lie detector, and that’s all that matters.

[]

Hour two. “What were you doing in the restricted servers?”

“Fixing a broken terminal.”

[]

Hour three. “Your work record indicates you should have had no problem fixing the broken terminal.”

“That thing hadn’t gotten a software update in three years. It wasn’t compatible with the new ports.”

The lie detector trembles, but the guards are tired. Just a little longer and I’ll be done with this place, and all the evil it protects, for good.

[]

Hour four. “Sorry for the inconvenience, Miss Palmer. You’re free to go.”

I’m not sure how an innocent should react. I go for indignant. “What about the secure files?”

“What about them?”

“Did they trace the hack?”

“I think that’s a little above your pay grade.”

“That’s my job – if something’s failed, I need to –”

“If something failed, you’ll just have another long day tomorrow.” He gestures at the door. “If we have more questions, we’ll find you.”

[]

I don’t even think about the drive until I’m safely back home. With the biomonitors on the bus and the constant sweep of surveillance trucks and sentry bots, just elevating my heart rate an unusual amount could get me in trouble.

I don’t even know yet if it would be worth it.

In my room, I listen for the slow grind of the surveillance sweeper. It passes, right on schedule, and I activate my camera. I hook up the drive and start to read.

It’s like recalling an old dream, or hearing a story someone swears involved you, but you can’t remember. All of VerreTek’s secrets – bribery, blackmail, weapons deals, black-bag disappearances – they’re all locked under the memory-inhibiting encryption I help improve.

Helped improve.

I read their secrets aloud for the camera, my insurance. By the time the next sweeper passes, I’m powered down again, only now I remember everything I’ve read.

I send a secure message to my contact: Have VT data. Please advise.

The response is quick: 1800 bus to LA. 

I lie awake after that. What I’ve read is hard to forget – only now I wish I could. At least tomorrow I’ll be doing something about it.

The Last Cashier

Wendy had always believed the news exaggerated. She’d run the store for nearly thirty years and didn’t see any reason to not plan an anniversary party, no matter how bleak the news was. If anything, a party would cheer them all up, take their minds off things.

In another four months, she could’ve done it.

The news had scared off the other stores: the laundromat, Suarez’s hardware store, even the big-box store. Wendy took no pride in outlasting them. The news reported lootings in the bigger cities, so she starting sleeping in the office. Just in case. She also let Mooch have free run of the place, feeding him whole cans of tuna up on the counter by the dusty backup register.

Her own register accumulated dust, too. The Benson boys occasionally bought a candy bar to share while they smoked outside Suarez’s boarded-up shop. She didn’t know where they got cigarettes – certainly not from her – but she never asked. Their mother, a real smart cookie, had qualified a few months back, but refused to go up to the space station without her family. The suits ended up dragging her away, from what Cassie said. She’d heard the boys screaming from across the street.

Wendy knew she’d never qualify. She didn’t mind – what would Mooch have done without her?

He was out patrolling the alley when the missiles finally launched. Wendy stopped and stared at the BREAKING NEWS and the white trails she’d been bracing herself to see for months.

Maybe she’d overprepared and actually numbed herself, because at first it didn’t seem to register. Mostly she was upset she couldn’t throw her anniversary party.

Time to go, she reminded herself. Hopefully the back roads stayed clear. That’d be the ticket.

Time to go.

She pulled on her denim jacket, dug her keys from her purse, and, with shaking fingers, unpinned her nametag for the final time.

Then Cassie and her daughter came in.

It made Wendy’s heart seize up, seeing little Shay holding her mama’s hand. Five states away, Wendy’s daughter was probably just picking up Brayden, and Wendy knew she’d never let him go because if Wendy’s daughter was still that age – hell, if she was here now – Wendy wouldn’t let go, either.

Cassie came to the register with a bottle of wine and a box of ice cream sandwiches. Wendy glanced back at the TV, hoping for some kind of map revealing how widespread the madness was, but it just showed blue sky and tangled white stripes, like an airshow from hell. A countdown appeared: twenty-five minutes.

Barely enough time. Getting Mooch in his crate would take at least five minutes…

Cassie was still standing by the register. What was she waiting for? Wasn’t she in a hurry, too? She had a child to pack up, and that took way more time than a cat.

Belatedly, Wendy realized she wanted to pay. Shay was staring up at her, waiting for her ice cream. Wendy remembered, as a child, knowing when things were wrong and how frustrating it was when no one would explain what was wrong. She also remembered how badly she wanted to protect her own children from such truths, just for a little longer. What a blessing, that Shay was still too young to realize.

So Wendy did her job. Cassie kept playing her role, handing over money: a twenty.

Precious seconds were slipping away. “What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Please?” Cassie’s daughter was starting to fidget, so Wendy quickly counted out change, fingers still trembling.

They left. Shay was smiling, oblivious.

Wendy looked up at the screen. It was impossible to tell which trails were missiles and which were shuttles, bearing a few hundred of the best and brightest into their future.

The countdown suddenly dropped. Now there were only ten minutes, twenty seconds. Not even enough time to escape the neighborhood. A map finally appeared, showing red blast zones spanning countries. Her entire state was smothered in it.

Wendy only realized her fingers had been moving when they stopped. She looked down and saw the twenty shredded into little squares sprinkled across her clogs. Was that a felony? It felt kinda nice. Eight minutes, fifty-one seconds.

Wendy fetched a bottle of whatever Cassie had bought and popped a can of tuna. Mooch trotted in and she sat down next to him, scratching his arched back as he ate.

She raised the bottle to her ceiling. “To thirty years.”

Hope: A Practicum

I know we’ve seen worse and I know
practice makes perfect
but I’m all for not repeating past mistakes
just because we know that dance
we have those steps memorized
and the barren road away from rote is paved with
what you intended

It feels false to write about hope in times like these
but if there isn’t hope, there’s nothing, and we can’t
have nothing.
we won’t.

I know women whose blood rushes steel
from heart to brain and back, whose mouths sing love defiant, who wear
their signs through the streets or who protest
every day
along those same streets
simply by
walking

I have friends full of fire
Sure some burn lower than others
but we each flare bright, in our way,
and I dare you
to put us under a basket

we’ll sear right through

and they might say
they couldn’t see us
or maybe they didn’t intend
our upset

Still

we can break old habits
pave new roads
because we know love, not fear, by rote
and I expect they’ll know us
soon.

Save

photo courtesy Gratisography

Farewell from the Undercity

“You have everything you need?”

I zipped up my backpack and closed the trunk. It was raining – a good excuse to have my hood up. “I hope so. Who knows?”

I resisted the urge to look up when a siren wailed by overhead – probably just someone speeding, or weaving between buildings off the approved flight paths. No one knew what I’d done, or what I was planning, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be looking for me among the ground transportation. I said a silent farewell to my beautiful black skycar – Hedy, I’d named her – parked back at home. I’d entrusted it, like most of my things, to Matt.

He looked up, but only briefly. The siren flew past, as I’d expected. Matt’s fingers tapped anxiously on the worn steering wheel. Whether it was impatience to get back to flying Hedy around, or concern for my safety, I couldn’t tell. “Someone’s picking you up there?”

Safety, then. Baby brother did care. “Yes.” I couldn’t say who – I knew her name and face, but that was all, and that was secret. She knew much more about me: when I was arriving, who my contacts were, what I offered.

Matt knew I couldn’t say more. He stuck his hand out the window.

“A handshake? That’s it?”

He made a face, the pinched smirk he always got when he knew he’d said something dumb, or gotten caught skipping chores. But he put the old sedan in park, jumped out, and hugged me tight.

“Be safe, Sara.”

“Kinda late for that.” I default to sarcasm when I’m frightened. Matt was not amused, so I squeezed his arm. He’d finally be taller than me if I – next time I saw him. “You, too.”

Headlights rounded the corner and I had to rush down the block. The bus was here. I had my backpack and three flash drives of stolen data and a burner phone and no more credit cards. A lone patrol bot trundled across the intersection and I forced myself not to freeze and stare at it. It kept rolling – it hadn’t even registered my presence. I was sweating, my heart racing, my hands trembling. I was terrible at this.

But this was who I was now.

I didn’t look back until I was safe on the bus, ticket taken, bribe paid to “lose” said ticket and scrub my face from the bus’s cameras. The bus was mostly empty; no one took ground buses anymore unless they had to, not if they could afford to make the trip by air. The other occupants avoided looking at each other. I wondered where they were all going, if their small bags were full of secrets like mine.

Matt was still sitting in the shadows, engine running, one yellow headlight glaring down the litter-strewn road. I couldn’t see through the neon gleaming on his windshield and I wished suddenly for one last look at him. He still had one more year of high school. He’d shown rare, earnest love and I’d teased him for it and those would be our last words.

I stared into that headlight until the bus lurched away, ancient engine growling. Matt’s face was still hidden. Not even the dread of punishment that kept me up some nights gnawed at me the way this regret did.

So I did what I knew I shouldn’t: I faced the window, letting the neon undercity lights and the amber street lamps expose me, and I waved. It was barely movement, just a showing of my fingers above the edge of the rain-streaked window, but I hoped he saw. I hoped I’d see him again.

Then he was gone – and so, I realized, was Sara. I draped my rain jacket over my front like a blanket and watched the patrol bots and the burned-out chassis and the blue-lit diners go by. Sara had left home burdened by fear and regret. Whoever disembarked, she might still be afraid, but she’d have left the regret behind. There wouldn’t be room for it in her bag.

#WhyIMarch, In No Particular Order

I am marching tomorrow.

I am marching for more than I am marching against. I am marching against hatred and apathy; I am marching for equality, for well-being, for justice, for love, for the forgotten, for the unwanted, for the ignored, for myself.

I am marching because they still aren’t listening. I am marching because so many have spent so long pleading for recognition, for freedom, for their lives, and been told to wait until it’s more convenient. It is never convenient. Instead, it gets more dangerous.

I am marching because we are each the breathed-in beloved creations of God and staying silent in the face of bigotry and hatred is acquiescing to it.

I am marching because, of the white women who voted, 53% of them voted for T*ump. The absolute least I can do, after that, is march.

I am marching because my country’s incoming government keeps coming up with new and astounding ways to give power to the unqualified and to belittle, endanger, or discredit its citizens. I am marching for free speech, for a free press. I am marching to dismantle racist socioeconomic systems. I am marching for the humanity of every body. I am marching because we must be more active if we’re to get through this, and to prevent it happening again. We must pay more attention.

(I am marching because there are thousands of Americans who have been active, who have paid attention, and we failed them when it counted most. These marches follow in their footsteps, and we’d do well to respect the work they’ve done.)

I am marching for those who can’t, either because they physically can’t, they live too far from a march, or because they’re afraid for their safety or their children’s safety.

I am marching because walking a couple miles is the least I can do. And it’s the least I will do: I will listen and I will act. I will call and write and call and write and vote.

But first, I will march. I hope you’ll be there, too.