This morning, we all got up late, which is to say 6:45a.m. The kids both slept in my bed, and it was an unusually peaceful sleep, which should have equaled writing time this morning. However, I woke up at 2a.m. and started watching a so-so B movie called Cabbage Patch Town or some shit, and an anime show Blue Exorcist. After my favorite main character, an exorcist priest was killed, I turned off the laptop in a huff and went to bed: Why kill the best character in the show? Why, idiot writers? Sadly, I couldn't produce yesterday’s miracle of writing in the morning while tending to my daughter because she kept asking for random things to eat like an avocado and popsicles and failed to take a long morning nap.
I also decided to make an elaborate rice bowl breakfast with sautéed spinach and huevos rancheros. Then, I had to make an elaborate breakfast for my husband after he returned from dropping off my son at school. All this to say that I owe the novel some time today, at least the minimum 30 minutes.
Luckily, my husband is taking my daughter to Chuck E Cheese soon, and that will help the cause, which is to finish my syllabi. Classes start next week, and I will be reassessing the writing schedule because I can never get any of it done at work. Too much is going on and too many people demand
my time. These are blessings, but they don’t lead to writing.
But enough of the tangential wah and excuses.
Today, I am drowning in poetry from The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry edited by J.D. McClatchy. Yesterday it was fiction, and I may write more about that exploration later because there were some real gems in the anthology I am teaching in my creative writing class like “Cold Little Bird” by Ben Marcus from The Best American Short Stories, edited by Junot Diaz (a literary, lower case, god. I love you Junot!). Back to the poetry.
I am selecting poems to inspire my students to write more poetry. Real ambitious, right? I love listening to the music in poetry and the juxtaposed images that are haunting. I love clean line breaks and sensory detail. However, teaching poetry and teaching love of poetry are both equally hard. My hope is that by having students read a variety of poems, they will find at least find a few they love and move on from there.
When I really started delving into creating my own work, I actually started with Barbara Anderson, an amazing poet and woman. She has been my sole poetry teacher and was fantastic. In the beginning, she kept urging me to find my voice; at the time, I had no clue what that meant. I thought she was being a little racist in suggesting that I write about my identity and the barrio, as if that is all I knew. I was young and arrogant then and thought I was going to be a scientist. How dare she assume what my knowledge base was (?). Well, she was right, ergo my collection of stories that deal with growing up in the barrio. Most of the poems I have published are about that focus. Funny, right?
That just goes to show that some of old adages are true and that your creative writing teachers are right, most of the time.
With that, I have to finish my syllabi. I got behind, probably because yesterday I was feasting on new authors and reading Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, which is a brilliant writing resource. The prose is humble and inspiring. My favorite section was “Writing a Present” that is about how Anne Lamott awrote essays and novels about and for people who were dying or had died. That section was intense and really made me reflect on why I am writing, which is not just to publish my work, something that is far easier in today’s electronic revolution. I believe that writing and creating in general makes us better human beings or has the potential to make us better human beings. Plus, I feel an intense joy when I write, even shit writing.
On that bad transition, below is a longer excerpt of my novel, The Harvest: A Novel. To date, I have gotten one really good bit of advice from my faithful friend Jeannette: I over narrate. I do that, I think, because I am afraid to under narrate. I will cross that bridge when I am done, but keep those great pieces of advice coming! They are not deterrents and make me think as I trudge to the finish line. Yes, it's technically a first draft, so if you can, give it the humane, constructive feedback you would want on your fledgling novel.
Here is to immersing yourself in words, but fighting for that time to write. And maybe if you're not a young arrogant asshole, you will create based on what you really know.
The Harvest: a Novel by a Passionate Chicana[ME1]
My mother hands me an old gallon container; this one is grey without a filter. I look out the window and see no Red Guards on the street. No Guards means no Harvest, most of the time.
“Now, Ashley,” says my mother, as if I haven’t been doing this run since I was six years old, “Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t stay out in the sun too long. If you hear the sirens, run to the old bunker. Just last week, Mrs. Lopez’s boy was harvested right before he got to his safe spot. You can’t hide here during harvest.” Her faded grey eyes are still beautiful, and I want to trace that deep indentation with my finger, but caring too much is a sign of weakness.
“Mom,” I sigh looking at her weary face. She is leaner than I remember with ever graying hair and perpetual orange stains on her hands and face from the processing plant. Her hair is a knot over her head with nothing holding it tight but a wispy strand of her own fading hair. I want to give her a biting remark, as really, I should outrank her because I am more productive now, but instead I smile and say, “Don’t worry Mom. I’m the fastest runner in my class and besides, there was just a harvest yesterday.”
Mom hesitates like she wants to tell me something, but even plant workers are not supposed to talk about their trade, and I am always suspicious of the packing plants.
“Just be careful,” she gives me an unusually long hug, “Remember-“
I clamp my hand over her mouth like I used to as a toddler and say in a robotic tone, “ ‘Be productive. Be accountable. Be safe.’” But safe doesn’t mean from the Harvest, but dangerous anti-government ideas. I take my hand off her worried face, “I got the red ribbon again this month. I will be safe.” It’s true. I have gotten the red ribbon award for being productive, accountable, and punishing those who are not true patriots. I am safe.
I step out into the harsh glaring sun wearing a large Panama hat. Panama was once a country, and that is all they tell us in school. I walk confidently because running is suspect, but I manage to walk 3.5 miles an hour like I have purpose, when my only purpose is to get clean water.
Half way down the street, my heart freezes. The sirens begin softly, like an old song you can’t forget, and then the sound rises to a near immobilizing pitch. I check to see if guards are around and run, making sure not to drop the gallon. I wonder where everyone is or if someone got an underground notice I didn’t. I crash hard into an old man. It’s the homeless man who has been avoiding harvest since I was a little girl: Old Hope, I call him. He’s too old to be processed, but I always wonder what they do with old spare meat or old people in general. I don’t ever want to find out.
For a moment, we both have the same impulse. Though I am only twelve, I am strong and lethal. I have learned fifteen ways of killing someone, two with my bare hands. I could maim him or at least stun him, so he will be left behind. But instead, we both get up and run in opposite directions. I guess we are not productive citizens after all. I head down Victory Road toward the retiree compound. She will be waiting for me, my old friend.
I look quickly to my right and see a red squad beating a young boy down. He is unusually fat for the neighborhood and is overburdened with water jugs. Water jugs! I only carry one, and although I can lift 40 pounds easily, the empty container seems to weigh more than anything. To my left a grey volunteer emerges out of nowhere and grabs for my arm, but I offer a swift punch to her throat and easily scamper away into Mrs. Jenkens’ apartment. Maybe she will get it, even though she volunteers. I despise volunteers. They are normal women who can’t afford genetic modifications, unfortunate women who couldn’t find a sponsor. Still, that doesn’t give them the right to harvest us. Especially not me.
I am a girl with high prospects.
I look for any squad member that might be lurking about. Hiding from the squads inside your own home if you are on the streets when the harvest starts is illegal; that tracking is possible because the census software at home tracks your arm-port; one must be accountable. Being hidden in others’ homes is frowned upon, but Mrs. Jenkens doesn’t care what the neighbors think. She doesn’t care if she gets sent to the processing plant. I really don’t think she cares about anything but our weekly meetings.
“Thought I was going to have to get out there with my shotgun,” chuckles the old woman.
She sits by the window, unafraid of gunfire. I know she has been waiting for me because she is holding the old history book in her hand, the one with all the pages in it. There is the familiar smell of green tea and black market biscuits. I spy them on the table and besides the adrenaline rush, I feel a strong surge of hunger. I wonder how much they cost her; in the market, non-meat products run astronomically high. Last week, I traded a whole leg of dog and two bananas for mom’s sanitary products. Mom never said where she got the leg; dogs are also rare and bananas even more so. I give Mrs. Jenkens a sincere grin, and know better than to pester her for details.
“Oh please,” I answer catching my breath, “You wouldn’t last a millisecond. Out there,” I point, “With your broken hip,” I aim at her hip.
I try not to stare at the bright orange shawl she wears that matchers her orange feline fur, “Or that ‘kill me’ flag you have on.” Only Mrs. Jenkens favors them over the military style uniform retirees wear. Today, the woman sports a knee-high pink dress which makes absolutely no sense and clashes against her intense blue eyes. Her cat like ears flicker back, although I know they are her playful ears.
“Hmmm,” I admonish with mock-disapproval, “Trying to get arrested with those clothes?”
Taking my gallon, she walks with the step of a young girl into the kitchen, despite her slight hobble “Bah, no one cares about a woman over fifty. I don’t taste good anyway.” She winks at me and swishes her tail. It is long and graceful, like the tails on our neighborhood cats that run rampant.
“Don’t you mean sixty?” I say. A loud bang makes me head for the kitchen but not too quickly. After all, we are trained to be unafraid of death.
When I enter Mrs. Jenkens has the gallon filled to the brim. I never ask how, but she always has water. Always has enough, but then, she lives alone.
“Two liters, not worth the risk,” says the woman, “You should go out on Sundays and with your escort.”
I snort, “Mom sold it. Besides, she doesn’t have the money to have me engineered, again. Not that they’ll take me,” I pause and look over my should, “I still can’t eat government protein. I tried again this morning. Doc B says it’s the enzyme, but she hasn’t reported me. She can’t run the test to figure out what is wrong with me. It costs too much money, and mom is already so in-debt from the internal mods I have.” I stare at her, longing to have fur on my skin and some day, claws, “Mrs. J, are you sure the meat doesn’t come from the harvested? Is it human meat? Tell me, honestly.” I always ask her the same questions, and she always answers the same.
“No way, that’s just a rumor to keep people more afraid. People are harvested for organs and whatever the government needs. Most people are intact and become servants., especially children.”
I give her a skeptical look, “Right, Mrs. J. Intact.” Almost everyone I have seen harvested is a bloody mess.
“Beatrice is a good woman,” she says switching the subject, “She was one of my students once, before all this—” she says, “You’re so tall.”
“What?” I ask.
“You’re so tall and smart. I’m worried someone will want to patron you, sooner than your finals” she looks out the small kitchen window, “Then, I won’t see you anymore.” That is rare; patronage starts when a girl is 16, usually, but some girls are more adept, and I have been hiding some of my skills.
I give her a knowing look, “No one will take me. You know that. It’s too expensive to feed someone who can’t eat government meat. Anyway.”
The sirens end and the announcer reports, “There will be no more gatherings for thirty six hours. Be productive. Be accountable. Be safe.”
“Liars. Liars. Liars,” I say in the same robotic voice, “This is the third harvest in two weeks. Do you think we are gong to war again?”
Mrs. Jenkins gives me a squeeze, “We’re always at war. Now, go take this to your mother and come back.” She hands me a small pouch, “Plant this in the rooftop like I taught you. Be sure no one sees.”
“Ah Mrs. J, everyone has a rooftop garden hidden under solar tarps—“
“Yeah, but not for girls. Now hurry along!” she yowls at me playfully.
I know she is right. The gardens are to grow food for boys, the lucky boys who have brave parents. My mother jokes that the extra food is to fatten them for the harvest, but she is bitter having lost two sons by the age of sixteen. I never got to meet them, so they don’t mean much to me, but she still mourns them, even though truly, she doesn’t know what became of them.
I walk nimbly, avoiding strangers. No telling who might steal my water or worse, says Mrs. J, but I am not sure what worse is, yet. I have seen young boys being raped in the alley and dead people starved or shot by regular citizens. Once, I saw a woman selling her male baby on the street corner, and I held my tears all the way home. We are not supposed to cry for boys.
“Hey,” says a raspy voice. It is Guadalupe Ramirez or as I like to call him Alan. Boys are given their mother or a matriarch’s name and father’s last name. It’s cute for most mothers to do that, but his mother hates him. That is part of the reason I call him Alan, after his father.
He is my age and in the same class. He has the most brilliant smile with strong white teeth. It’s the only thing that is strong in his body. His hair is cropped short with highlights from overexposure to the sun. Most boys in the neighborhood have dark skin and black eyes. He has unusually blue eyes, and I wonder if somewhere along the way, the gender got botched up. His smile warms me to the core, and for a moment, I forget the ugly harvest.
I wave, then think better of it and scowl, “Carry this for me, boy.”
Alan snorts and takes the jug, “Humbly, oh great one.”
We both giggle, and I pace two feet ahead of him, which isn’t hard because today he is wheezing so loud, you can probably hear him way down at the processing plant, which is three miles away. He wears an ugly shirt with some red flowers and patched up blue jeans.
“Glad you weren’t harvested,” I say pointing at his shirt.
“You and me both; mom dressed me this morning, even though I could barely breath. When the sirens went off, I hid under the old resistance bunker. ”
I am instantly furious. Even if he is sickly, she has no right. Boys, especially lowborn boys, are not allowed to wear red. That is a color of honor, one I wear often but am not partial to. Everywhere you see red: red cameras, red advertisements, red screen ads. Red sidewalks.
“Next time, lose the shirt and say some girl tore it off your back,” I urge him.
“And get sun burned? Then, I’ll wear red all the time,” he hands me a jug, bows gracefully, and continues onto his flat.
“Hey, boy?!” I ask, “Where is your shit suit?” because I just noticed he has not protection. Most Girls’ skin is genetically modified to bear the sun’s deadly rays, but not boys, at least not boys in our neighborhood.
He shrugs his shoulder, “Mom sold it to buy lard.”
“See you at school,” I say. I turn back to look at him; he is walking with a limp on his left foot. I gaze upward and note how the hair on the back of his head is near white, bleached from the sun.
I hurry up to see my mother, “Mom you here, or food?”
“Not roast yet,” she jokes giving me a big hug. As a plant worker, I suspect she knows what happens when people get processed, but she has never talked about her job, and I wonder if she is conditioned not to say anything. She comes in to hug me but thinks better of it, and yanks my ear. “What have I told you? Do not consort with that boy.”
“Mom, he’s in my class, in my group,” I lie. All boys and girls are put into groups until grade nine; he is in my year, but not my group. I am glad, because after eighth grade the divisiveness starts. Boys become the focus of teachers’ scorn. They get segregated and made to be the practice targets of kicks and punches. Alan has been my best friend since we could walk; the truth is I have few friends that are girls because they are so competitive and would surely turn me in knowing about my defect. Luckily, I have always been a recluse, a sort of genius slotted to be patroned for engineering, so I can play the snob and be detached. Girls aren’t supposed to love boys anymore, but I care about him, a little.
“Too bad. You should be in a private school for girls,” my mother rubs her hands together, “Not going to school with that boy.”
“Awe, mom, it’s OK. Some day I’ll go work in the Center and buy you a new apartment where only women live.”
Mom laughs. Her parents refused to modify her, although she claims they had the money to do so, but that is a story all low class women tell.
I go into my room and hide the seeds behind the bedpost. There is a hole I carved there when I was five, where I used to hide small trinkets. I am not the only one with one of these, but people need some kind of escape, some way to feel they are not totally controlled by harvesting laws. I pull something out and hide it in an inner pocket. I look up to the ceiling. My dad inserted a panel in the below the grubby chandelier. For someone supposedly of average intelligence, he did a job even a Red Guard couldn’t see past. That is where I keep my book of short stories and gun, just in case. I run back to Mrs. Jenken’s street.
Up high on a reinforced communications poll hangs the body of someone who will never contribute again. That is the worst kind of punishment, someone who will never nourish society. I wonder what he did. He could have liberated some men or worse, killed a woman. But, that crime is rare, unless it’s harvest time. It’s not knowing, what people fear the most. No one knows what ever happens to those who are harvested. Some say it’s a gimmick to control population. Others that they are sent to war. Few that their meat is actually government protein, but I know eating human flesh has dire health consequences.
In fact, last month a woman three blocks down actually ate her little boy. It made the national news, and as her punishment she was fed to the Pit. Even though human life has little worth in the slums, cannibalism is highly frowned upon.
My arm-port lights up and there is an advertisement for a new mod I can’t afford, “Tiger Teeth,” not the most creative ad. I shiver at what those teeth could do on the playground. It would be so easy to list who was harvested with our technology, but the government doesn’t share that list. Instead, it lists the names of all the girls being patroned that month. I hit “Like” on a few; two went to my school.
On my way back to her house, I almost step into a large red pool. A long blonde hair dangles in the breeze. I suck in my breath and think of Marcia Goodwin. She is the only girl I talk to on at school, a plucky girl who always scores low on her monthly tests. I think her mother did drugs when she was pregnant because Marcia doesn’t even have the minimum internal attributes like agility and intelligence. But, then genetic engineers are not gods. I look again and imagine a volunteer or worse a Red Guard beating her down because her name has made a list of someone who holds no promise. Marcia Goodwin would never be truly productive in society, and I am not even sure that she is safe from anti-establishment ideas. One day, I spotted a book that was peeking out of her pocket, but her, I didn’t report. I think she even knew that I saw, and she could have used that information against me, but Marcia also has a weak heart.
Blonde hair is common I tell myself, knowing instantly that long hair is not. Even I sport a short brown bob, so I don’t waste water when I wash it. I turn to look at the stain one more time and run right smack into a Red Guard.
“Watch where you’re going citizen!” she barks.
I look up; it is a slender, graceful woman with expensive Siamese grey skin and flat pointed ears. Her eyes are an unusual emerald underneath her crimson visor. But I notice she is relaxed and not poised to attack.
“My apologies lieutenant,” I say confidently, “Be productive. Be accountable. Be safe.”
“Be productive. Be accountable. Be safe,” she answers with a slight smile on her face and marches on.
I can’t resist taking a look back. This guard hasn’t done the full transformation, or she can’t afford it. Her butt is perky but flat under her uniform.
What’s the point if you can’t swish your tail? I wonder.
When I walk into Mrs. Jenkens’ house, the teacup and biscuits are still there. I put my hand over the items and let the warmth seep into my hands; the tea is a rich Earl Grey, my favorite, and the biscuit is an insta-biscuit, but Mrs. Jenkins has stuffed it with butter.
“Gift?” said Mrs. Jenkens automatically holding her hand out, “And don’t tell me what you did for it, dear.”
“Nothing perverted,” I say handing her the red velvet pouch.
“Oh my,” says Mrs. Jenkens, “What a treat!” Mrs. Jenkens picks a pinch of white gold and lets the granules roll between her fingers and back into the pouch.
I beam at her, “It’s real sugar. Real sugar, not some synthetic knock off.”
“How?” asks Mrs. Jenkens, showing genuine admiration.
“I helped the Lister girl pass her midterms. She may be modified with the best, but she’s a total moron,” I smile triumphantly because that is partially true; the other truth is that I had to beat someone up at the playground who had upset her that day, “Her family is so filthy rich compared to us, and Lister kept bringing chocolate and other treats. Of course, she never shares, but just the sight of them made me think her family had to have sugar. . . I was right, but . . . how is that possible when the islands are gone?”
Mrs. Jenkens snorts, “You still believe everything you read on the vid-screen or your arm-port? Ha!”
“But there were storms and famine,” I answer.
“Sure, but man has a way.”
“Don’t you mean woman, you dissident?!” I ask in the authoritarian tone I heard earlier.
For a moment, Mrs. Jenkens looks at me uncertainly, and we both start laughing.
“Let’s drink our tea and eat our biscuit where no one will see us,” heading to the basement, she urges me to follow.
Mrs. Jenkens always makes sure all the doors are locked; she sets the wall vid-screen at a high volume with the national channel blaring. Today, they are televising the arena but not a single famous woman is fighting. No doubt, these women are just parading for show, so they won’t fight to the death, just maim each other.
I walk into the basement, which is always cold, but the old woman asserts that helps a person think and stay alert.
“Today,” announces Mrs. Jenkens, “I’m going to tell you about China. . .”
Almost every day it is the same thing. Old Mrs. Jenkens, once a respected member of the Old Guard tells me impossible stories. Families used to have more than one child and celebrated boys. People ate animals like cows. I can only imagine times what these were like and can’t conceive anything being herded but citizens or criminals. Today, she is talking about the flue, a disease that has since been eradicated but nearly wiped out all of the Chinese population.
“Was it biological warfare?” I ask habitually because it’s always biological warfare.
“Well, that is one theory,” says Mrs. Jenkens, “You tell me girl, when has there ever been a virus that only affected one area of the country? Or one part of the world?”
I think long and hard, “Never, but then why was no one else in other parts of the world infected?”
“Well, some say it was the government itself that spread it through food. Others an errant corporation that did not properly test its products.”
“But,” I ask, “Weren’t most Chinese products exported?”
“Ah, that is the mystery,” she says looking out the widow and assigns, “Try to figure it out, and we’ll continue next time.”
For the next few days, I analyze the problem. Was it the food? No, most of that was exported. Was it medicine? No, most of that was exported. Was it a virus? But, there were no reported cases elsewhere. I research the historical archives, yet there isn’t much text left, just images and a few articles that support the Red Guard.
I look at the images carefully. They are advertisements with beautiful women, at least I think they are beautiful because their skin is pale and their eyes the color of burnt earth. There is not a single modification on them. I look up at the window and see my reflection; I am tall for my age, nearly 5’ 7” and although I am skinny, my instructors tell me I am all muscle. Mrs. Jenkins says my face is sweet, the shape of a heart, but I don’t see it. My hair is honey colored, and I hate to see the day it has to be turned a deep, unnatural red, because if I am lucky, I will join the Red Guard. If I am lucky and manage to eat government meat.
No. I look at the ads and see one for make-up. I can’t imagine modifications without engineering, but people used to change their looks like a chameleon.
Make up. Definitely not.
Then I notice a magazine from 2032 and spot something interesting at the bottom of the page. It is in the August edition, and I haven’t seen that mysterious ad anywhere else. I scan through other pages. I smile contentedly.
“Well, well my little friend. Whatever could you be?”
I scan other international magazines, but find nothing.
I take a snap of the ad with my arm-port and go to see my history teacher. I mutter to myself, “I know it’s cheating.”
Ms. Loop, my history teacher is one of the few women I can talk to without feeling measured and assessed all the time. Part of the reason is that Ms. Loop is so uncharacteristically plump. She had the full genetic modifications, but she is so clumsy that no one admires her. Here light grey fur is luxurious to say the least and her amber yes, I really want a set some day. I come in quietly and see her full bottom hangs over the small government issued stool. Her tail is sticking almost straight out; sometimes I think it has a mind of its own.
“Ah,” says Ms. Loop with joy, as she sips a cup of something, “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
I spy a clumsy rivulet of blood trickling down her expansive face. Showing blood while you eat or drink is seen as a sign of low-class starvation. Blood must never show. Hunger must never show. Although we are always hungry.
“You have a little. . .” I inform caressing my own cheek.
“Oh!” snorts Ms. Loop, spilling more blood onto her desk, “Who cares anyway? It’s not like no one knows. Government blood is the best for optimal performance.”
Startled, I look around, but we are alone. I want to ask her if she thinks it is human blood, but that is a terrible insult.
“Would you care for some?” she says reaching for a cup, “It’s fresh. I believe this is goats blood.”
“No thank you,” I say although I am feeling treacherous hunger pangs, “Uh, I was wondering if you could tell me what this was?” I show her my arm-port.
Ms. Loop analyzes the image and smiles approvingly, “I see.”
“What year was this?” inquires Ms. Loop.
“2032, I think.” She knows no one has assigned me this work, but she never asks why I am asking questions because she is ever delighted that I do ask questions. The other girls avoid her and make fun of her behind her back. Once someone drew a lewd picture of Ms. Loop being done by a dog. Of course, I beat up that girl and erased the image; no one has drawn stupid pictures of her since.
“And what was happening in 2032?” she presses on.
I answer uncertainly, “Well, a series of earthquakes in China, tsunamis in Asia which hurt their economy, and most importantly, loss of crops with dramatic weather changes,” I add in a joke laughing, “You know people used to not believe in Global Warming? Now look at us?”
She laughs heartily, “Stupid men with too much power.” She snorts and little blood oozes out of her nose, which causes us to both laugh.
She regains her composure as most women do, instantly, “How many people died in China that year?”
“Uh, over 800,000.” I still don’t see the connection, I admit I feel really stupid.
She never judges, “And how did they die?”
“The virus. Well, one of them,” I stare at the image, “I don’t understand.”
“Saliva,” answers Ms. Loop.
She looks at the advertisement. It is a cute cuddly creature, a cross between a cat and a gerbil. The eyes are a disturbing red with hints of green.
“These were government issued companions. If you were stressed, if you were lonely, if you were poor, the government issued one of these pets. Free. They are nothing like the android companions of today, but they served the same purpose.”
I am stunned, “How many? How many were issued?”
“A little over 800,000. How did they not get out of the country?” she says guessing my next question. “They were banned from airports and honestly, they had a very short life span. Just enough to bring the population to a controllable number, and even then, well. . .” Ms. Loop.
“Could they do something like that here to control the population?” I ask.
Ms. Loop smiles, “My dear, they don’t have to. Our system is near-perfect.”
“Of course, thank you,” I say bowing respectfully, “Be accountable, be productive, be safe.”
She smiles wide and tweaks my nose, “You be safe, my dear. Important people are coming.” I want to ask more, but I leave wondering if she just threatened or warned me about our ideas.
The playground is the one place I hate to be, but we all need to be there. The boys sit on the bleachers and watch, some of them jealous of us. They can’t run as fast or do some of the flips we do. On occasion a fight breaks out between the boys and girls, but the teachers let it go just a bit, especially when potential patrons are around. Today, there are two potential patrons lurking about, so the fighting will go on longer than usual.
That stupid redhead, June Lister, gives me a smirk; I know she’s jealous of me because I outscored everyone in math, although not perfectly. Usually I do just above excellent, but never the top. That day I was just so distracted with the thought of mom and Alan’s raspy cough.
“Hey Starving Trash,” she says nastily as I walk past her.
I can’t ignore her or that would be seen as a sign of weakness, “I see you got new shoes,” I comment before she attacks me.
She shows off her shiny leather shoes.
“I guess you got tired of wearing your mom’s heels. The cheap whor—“
I don’t even finish the sentence before she strikes, but I’m ready for it. I lower my body unnaturally nearly touching the ground. She claws where my face would have been; shots to the face are not allowed. I do a back flip back and strike, get into pose 1, and strike her with my left hand across the ear. That is a sensitive spot on her since her level 3 mods; she has soft grey ears cat ears with fur that peaks over the edge. She yowls, and I grab her hair.
It’s slick, far more slick than I imagined, which must be a new mod because it feels smooth and slightly oily. She slips away and does a double back kick clipping my chin. But I have been kicked harder before. My head doesn’t even snap back, and, and I suck in and lunge forward.
I knock her to the ground and punch her repeatedly, being careful not to hit her face. I punch the side of her pointy cat ear, the one I struck before, again, and she screams trying to hold back tears. I punch her clavicle and hear something pop.
My h[ME2] omeroom teacher, Mrs. Aspen blows her whistle and slowly pulls me off with one arm.
“Ashley! You are not supposed to fight with level 3 mods. You are at a severe disadvantage,” she says angrily.
“Clearly,” says Ms. Loop laughing heartily.
This infuriates June, and she strikes my face. I know she has cut me deeply with her claws, her absurd level 3 mod claws that are not necessary in our age group. The blood is streaming down, and I have to close my left eye, so it doesn’t get drenched.
“Now girls,” says Mrs. Aspen, “The fight is over.” There are rules to engagement, and June Lister has done the unthinkable: She has acted like an animal. It takes a moment for her to realize what she has done, and she tries to strike one more time despite the coming punishment.
Reflexively Mrs. Aspen grips her in a headlock and takes her away like a rag doll, while she whines about her broken clavicle.
Ms. Loop escorts me to the nurse, “Come now. I have Med Creds, just enough to fix up that wound. Put some pressure on it before everyone wants to lick your face.”
The thought is repulsive to me, but I see a fourth grader staring at me intently.
I look at her and the rest of the kids. Some of them are giving me smiles of approval. They love it when a level 3 modified girl gets shown up, especially by a lowly level 2. I look at my feet, then, at Ms. Loop, “I think your wrong.”
“What?” she asks fumbling wither her account module on her arm-port.
“I think you’re wrong about animals being at fault for the flue,” I say sighing heavily, “It’s always people that do the worst thing. Always.”
Ms. Loop gives me a warm look and escorts me to the medical wing.
There must be some important women there today because a girl four grades above me has two of her fingers severed. They will be repaired if she has enough credits.
“Wow,” I say to myself, “She must really need the money.”
Ms. Loop snorts, “Or she got what she deserved.”
I look at Ms. Loop. Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, let alone students they don’t like. All girls are equal and honored in our society, at least that is what they tell us. Still, teachers tend to favor their wealthier students; though, no one would admit to favoritism. She smiles at me, “You should have gone to a privates school.”
I smile at her weakly as the pain in my head grows stronger, “People tell me that.”
The nurse is in a cranky mood, “Shit. I’m running out of supplies. Three sponsors are here! Imagine.” She grabs my face and looks at the cut. The scanner checks for a concussion and for good measure she scans the rest of my body.
“You need to eat more meat,” she says, “You’re borderline anemic. No sponsor wants that. Hmmm, no menstrual cycle at all, yet?”
I shake my head and try to divert the conversation, “Why sponsor then? They’re supposed to help needy girls like me.” Ms. Loop chuckles.
“Cheeky girl,” says the nurse. With one sweep, she takes her silver machine. I smell burning flesh, and it burns cold. In seconds, the cut is gone. I touch for a scar and there is none.
“Good as new!” says Ms. Loop cheerily, and escorts me back to class. By then everyone has been talking, and Alan gives an imperceptible thumbs up. I go to the front of the class where all the girls are seated. The boys sit in the back and usually just tune out when the teacher talks. The teacher is overly enthusiastic and almost bouncing, and then I see her.
She wears an uncharacteristic silver outfit, tight around her body. I look carefully and realize it’s the Red Guard I ran into before. She smiles at me, and I stare at my desk. Could she be looking for me? Sometimes the selection is so arbitrary. Sometimes it’s premeditated, and no one ever knows what happens to the girls until much later when they are unrecognizable. The teacher asks questions, and I answer well, but not exceptionally because I can’t afford to be sponsored. Productive citizens must consume, especially the government issued rations and that means eating government meat.
On my way home, I think about China for a long time. When I reach Mrs. Jenkens, I feel more confident about the answer.
“Well, did you figure it out?” she watches me closely.
“No,” I answer, “I thought at first it was these . . .” I show her the image of the government companions. “But, that didn’t make sense because not just the poor got these pets; the president’s daughter also died; that’s why China issued its first modifications of girls. Resistance to this disease. I think the pets got infected first somehow, and then the people.”
“Good work,” says the old woman, “Most people thought it was these animals, but the so-called experts were wrong. Those men.”
“Well,” I say waiting for an answer I know I won’t get by just asking, “What was it?”
Mrs. Jenkens clucks her tongue, “You haven’t figured it out yet?” She pulls out another ad.
There is only one full-page ad, Nutri Pills, Your Pathway to Top Health.
“Nutri pills?” I don’t believe it.
“The first ones,” answers Mrs. Jenkens.
“But, they weren’t starving in 2032. What was in them?” I ask staring at the ad.
Mrs. Jenkens shrugs, “Who knows? Political prisoners? Herded people?” she chuckles mocking my humans are food theory, “The product was patented, and only top scientists knew what was in them, but I suspect they were compliance pills. Once the Chinese project failed, not much else was heard about Nutri Pills until fifteen years ago, when we developed our own.”
“Wait!?” she asks, “How do you know it was the Nutri Pills?”
“Because my father helped re-issue them,” she answers. I can’t tell if she’s sad or just pensive, “He was a great doctor, just like me. Just like me. And that is all for the day.”
I stare at the clock, we have an hour left, but I walk home anyway. I think about my father who was a no one. I often wondered if he killed himself, because he was ever so clever and was too smart to get herded. Some men just do that; they kill themselves. One day two years ago, he never came home. No government papers came to report that he was processed or imprisoned anywhere. In fact, for months, Mom would search the streets and ask around the black markets. He looked for cannibalized parts there, too. An eyeball on a disfigured face or his unusually thick black hair. But, it happened that way sometimes; people would just vanish. My fear was that someone we knew just harvested him in some basement, processing unit and actually consumed him, selfishly with no accountability whatsoever. Though illegal, some basement processors existed, but the penalty was worse than death. At least that is what Mrs. Jenkens tells me, and I am not sure what is worse than death.
“Hey your majesty,” says a familiar voice. Alan is sitting at the doorsteps looking depressed and weaker than before.
I sit next to him and take out my homework pad pretending I am showing him how to solve a complicated math problem. We are better off than boys, but girls shouldn’t always be cruel.
“What’s the matter?” I ask.
“Mom says I have to go outside and play for three hours,” he answers bitterly.
“That bitch,” I glare back towards his house, “I should report her.”
“Who would care? They only care if girls are mistreated,” He nudges me with his foot. It’s his way of warning me or questioning my judgment, “What you got there?”
I show him the picture of the government companion, “They were issued in China. You would most definitely get one.” I laugh, but he doesn’t get the joke, so I tell him, “I mean you’ve got such bad luck. You’d get an infected one. They spread the First Flue in China.” That only makes him unhappier.
“Want to go rat hunting?” I say cheerfully. He goes to grab his stick, and we head down to the water channel. The water channel is not off limits, but if you are caught there, there is nowhere to hide. Only the rats are big enough to go into the small openings. But they are starving too and roam the channel. If you’re quick enough, like I am, you can bash a few over the head. Rat hunting happens to be one of my specialties, and it’s one of the few types of meat I can eat.
Today, I fake being dead. I have this talent for being still for a long time, and my heart rate drops to a near coma. I always wonder if the doctor messed up my engineering, but it helps out. I lie still, and when the rats get close to my eyes, I grab one by the body and second by the tail. Before they can wiggle off I bash them in the head against the concrete.
“Two down,” I say triumphantly. Now, I run after the scampering rats and grab for one, but miss.
“Hmmmm,” says Alan, “Guess you must be tired today.
I grin at him, “I’d like to see you get at least one.”
He chuckles a false chuckle, “Thank you for dinner.” We walk back together. Alan is always nervous. Thus far this year, he has been out during four harvests, but he has managed to survive them all. He is lucky.
“Don’t worry, if the sirens go off, I’ll protect you,” I say.
“I know,” he says blushing, “I would always protect you.” He blushes near purple, and I try not to make a big deal about it.
I start to laugh but bite my tongue. I pat him on the back, “Alan, I wouldn’t want anyone else fighting by my side. . .Except for Mrs. Jenkens. Maybe my mom, with a large gun.”
We both laugh, but we disengage as soon as we near other people.
“I hate this,” I say under my breath. When I was five, I was a scrawny little thing. I could run, but Alan was always faster, stronger. One day a hungry Rottweiler started chasing after me. He was a ways away, but I knew he was after me. I tried running into my unit, but I forgot the code in a panic. I saw it running closer, and I thought it was the end. Alan came running out with something long and heavy, too big for a boy his age to handle. He bashed that Rottweiler over the head, over and over. By the time the Red Guard showed up, the dog was dead. We had roasted dog for four days.
Now, Alan wheezes as soon as he takes a step outside. His skin is overtanned and his whole head turning blonde in odd patches. He looks forward and pretends not to hear me, “I’m sure you’re not the only one.” Alan winks at me before he goes into his flat.
I want to say more, but what is there to say?
[ME1]Running notes: Have a scene where the boys are fighting each other pathetically.
Putting the cannibalism back in, for the people living in the margins.
[ME2]Introduce this teacher earlier.