The Real Thing

Margo wasn’t surprised to see the visitor hunched on a stool at the card table, breathing deeply, his large hands curled around a chipped mug of coffee. She hadn’t asked his name, and he hadn’t asked hers. She wanted to think he had kind eyes, but actions, not eyes, were what counted these days. Besides, the vote had been taken: the visitor had to move on.

“This is great,” he said, raising his mug. “I haven’t had real coffee in ages.”

“It’s not real.” Margo realized she was scratching her head – she was embarrassed, and pleased. It felt good to have someone compliment something she’d made. They were all so used to flavorless rations that compliments were rendered artificial, so no one bothered to make them.

“It’s just the powdered substitute,” she explained. “They used to give it to the soldiers, to keep them awake longer.”

“Wouldn’t that cause psychosis?”

“Oh, it did. But I don’t drink that much.”

He chuckled and one corner of his mouth lifted. Margo tried to ignore the way her heart fluttered. Nice to know it was still possible, she decided, though it could have picked a better time.

“I drink it, too, when I can find it,” he said. “Guess it tastes better because I didn’t have to make it.”

“Like breakfast in bed.”

“Like breakfast.” He laughed, and Margo did, too, watching the way his smile cut like a sunbreak through his black beard, how his breath made the rising steam dance.

She poured her own mug and sat across from him. The rain had let up; aside from the acidic puddles and maybe a couple mudsnakes, he’d be safe to move on, wherever he was headed. She didn’t ask that, either.

She wished he could stay one more night, now that she was more certain of him. The hidden cameras could capture his smile, his expressions, his words, but not him, the way he radiated help and ease and comfort. If they had – if the others had seen what Margo saw – they’d never have voted him out.

For a moment, she entertained a vision of herself unlocking the door to the basement, throwing open the hatch, and having him meet everyone. They’d like him. It wouldn’t be like last time, when Elle thought that woman seemed sweet and matronly, and then she tried to steal their solar panels. She hadn’t gotten far.

“Well,” he said, and reality asserted itself. “Guess I should get out of your hair.”

“Yeah, I need to…” The usual excuses wouldn’t come to mind. She kept hoping Cooper or Elle would burst through the locked door, announcing he’d been cleared, that he’d been voted in after all. “I should check the roof for rain damage.”

“Need a hand?”

“No, I…I’ve got it. Thank you, though.”

He hesitated only slightly before smiling amenably. In the front hall narrowed by stacks of crates, he pulled on his patched jacket and shouldered his road-stained pack. A blue enamel mug hung from one of the straps. It gave Margo an idea.

She ran back to the kitchen and returned with a tiny tube – a film canister, an antique even before the bombs fell – and held it out to him.

“What’s this?”

“You’ll have to make it yourself next time.”

He popped the lid and breathed deeply. “Sure smells like the real thing.”

“I wish it was.”

“You’d still have given me some?”

“I would.”

He tucked the coffee into the breast pocket of his shirt. She watched his eyes: sea-green and surprising, the contrast even more breathtaking in shadow. He stretched out a hand to shake hers.

“Thanks,” he said, that smile peeking through.

She took his hand and pulled him into an embrace. The pack strap dug into her cheek, but she didn’t care: his back was warm under her hands, and she could feel his, broad and comforting, around her shoulders.

Margo pulled away and opened the door.

#

Cooper was waiting at the bottom of the ladder, shotgun over his shoulder.

“He’s gone?”

“Yep.”

“Never tried anything?”

“Nope. Just needed a dry place to sleep.”

“Wasn’t scoping the joint?”

“No, Cooper.”

“Just checking.” They went down the tunnel, Cooper’s flashlight beam leading the way. “Too bad. He seemed nice.”

“Yeah.” She pictured him down the road, alone, popping the lid off the canister to breathe in the smell and maybe think of her. “I think he was.”

Save

Spring, keeping her head down

Spring, like me, dragged herself out of bed this morning
We each went about our days, her with half-done flowers,
me with yesterday’s eyeliner and day-two
hair that, like the gray branches finally tinged green
and the winter-weary trio of pines beyond the fence,
looks better windswept. Spring obliges
Sighs gusts down the street that
carry off our garbage cans and shred
the maple blossoms
new and lacy
from their twigs.
How much sun did they get to see?
The magnolias hold out,
holed up in pink fists clenched
against the overstayed chill
lesson learned from the daffodils, their uprising
too soon, once-proud petals
slowly going ragged. I see their wilted crowns
bruised to sepia shadows, penitents’ cloaks
framing still-hopeful faces
when I, ragged too, return home in the silver evening.

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