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Oct/Nov 2012 Fiction

The General

by Penelope Gristelfink


For a person who is not supposed to exist, the general is taking a long time to die. Between him and dying is a long and not entirely unpleasant fall, a plush agony afforded by the world's most luxurious hospice, like being tossed face down a hole filled with velvet pillows.

The sunlight this morning is so bright and sharply divided by the floor-to-ceiling-length blades of the shades that being inside the room is like walking through a giant, three-dimensional bar code, and even the few, slow dust motes that float through the light are sparkling a particularly sanitary silver. Days like this, no one here can breathe, and it's not just the combination of heat and humidity outside.

The general is the least bothered by the sharpness of the light. He seems to have the private weather of a dying person, immersed in that fog of withdrawal from the world of flesh and blood. Yesterday he developed a distinctive gurgle, lymph and blood collecting in the bronchia, the small vessicles flushing their contents into the chambers of the breath like the skin on a cheesecake sweating in the heat.

There still is no pill for asphyxiation, but there are many for pain, Rina thinks, and it seems just to her that human beings should not be so entirely efficient at cheating suffering. All they can do is pump oxygen through nasal canulas, enough to get ordinary people high, while the patients try to breathe through layers of this thick interior rot.

Similarly, there is seepage on his remaining leg, where the staph infection has made it so swollen that the yellow pus has burst the natural wall of his skin. Rina imagines the leg is weeping for the other one, the one they had to cut off, and that the general still doesn't know is gone. For a leg that has been gone for weeks, it still causes him a considerable amount of pain, and Rina has been at the hospice so long that the novices are made to study her as she slips her hand beneath the sheet and massages the air beneath. She seems to be the only one that can soothe the general when he cries out that the leg is burning. Anyone looking on would assume there really were flesh under her curled knuckles, her art is that good.

"You have cool hands," he told her. "These other idiots don't know left from right."

"No, you've got it wrong," she said. "They don't know theirs from yours."

"You can say that again. "

He winked at her. She wasn't supposed to speak to him. It was in his chart. Somehow she knew he wouldn't rat, but it was a big risk. They'd all been called in to sign a new set of non-disclosure papers. The secret service this time. A whole entourage with heat sensitive signature pads they wheeled in on special carts. Black suits, black ties, all cut from a suedey sort of heavy weight silk, identical thick black sunglasses and identical haircuts. When they stood shoulder to shoulder at the front of the room, the trompe l'oeill of it made it difficult to count them, and just before the leader began to speak, they all opened their mouths. Rina pictured silver threads coming out of their mouths, like Spiderman dart-webbing his captive crooks. Then she pictured their heads spinning like bobbins in a sweatshop. The others' mouths remained open as the leader explained the particular security measures in their contracts and the class C pay rates.

They're mouthbreathers? she thought. It was a distraction. Hyperfocus, her therapist called it, her ability to zero in on trivial and arbitrary details when she was under stress. The cuticles trauma left on the brain. Especially, apparently, on the brains of child prodigies. It happened too much at work these days. Since Gabriel disappeared, the world was nothing more than a smothering curtain of detail fringed with these errant threads that begged for her mind to pull, and when pulled, yielded a painful and frustrating panoply of the same.

Rina was secretly exhilarated. She needed the class C pay rates but not the wire mandates of class D. She'd just been promoted to class D eligibility. Her new coworkers in that tier were disappointed. They'd had clearance longer and loved to wear the wire. It meant an extra §7,500 a day. Now only a few would be selected, and it would only be in-house. No one said anything, but Rina could feel their bodies shrug back at the waist into their chairs, a silent breeze pushing through a row of starched shirts.

Without the wire restriction, she could still save Gabriel. The skin around her eyes grew hot with excitement and relief. She faked a cough and covered her mouth in order to conceal it.

"I hope they don't confuse my nose tubes with my catheter. I've had enough of the smell of piss for a whole lifetime," the general went on in a voice that started off surprisingly upbeat and dovetailed with what sounded to Rina like the obvious weight of irony.

A whole lifetime. Guess you have.

What she knew of the general's former life, she knew through her contacts with the flies, who said he'd be worth §350,000 if he were still lucid and able to be moved. A wery, wery bad man, her initial contact had told her. A late spring drizzle was accelerating dusk in the soft spot left of the sky above the ball field. Her contact had taken her and Gabriel to a Marlins game, and they were sitting out a rain delay, eating hot dogs and pretzels and drinking expensive but diluted beers, all three of them. The lights set in the edges of the stands had rainbow halos because of the precipitation, and the crowd was here and there slickered with the black garbage baglike ponchos the stadium also sold. Her contact had a head cold, and he again smuggled this description through the congestion, a posy of mustard breath and an apparently Eastern European accent. A wery bad man.

At this information, Rina shrugged and scratched her leg. Because she was bored, she asked for details.

"That I cannot give you," the man said and sneezed.

"Well, then, I'm not gonna do it."

"Rina," the man said, "do you not like the Marlins?"

"How do I know you are not a wery, wery bad man?" Rina said.

Sometimes the flies were not flies at all, but hospice I.A.s. If he were I.A., she could lose her job and her nursing license and possibly go to jail. Marlins tickets went for about half of what she made in a month at the hospice, and Gabriel had been asking since he was five. Rina looked at her little brother. A little trickle of snot had run from his nose to his upper lip from the chill and the damp. The watery, clear, salty kind. She watched him wipe it away with his sleeve. When he was younger, he'd lick it away, but she'd broken him of that habit by spraying the strip of chapped skin over his upper lip with hot pepper sauce. He'd howled and spun around and spurted tears, but he stopped licking his own snot and chapping his skin until with his rimy red mouth he reminded her of a grotesquely verbal lamb. His eyes that evening were big, wet spheres under glossy lashes that only little boys with black hair seemed to have, full of the panoramic roaming of a rapt child as he took in the stadium. His breathing was shallow from the excitement and the alcohol. The players were just ambling about, cocking their hips and idly swinging bats, leaning on the rails to the dug out, but Gabriel was happy.

She hated her job, and she loved her little brother. Her little brother loved the Marlins. To Rina, the situation was still simple, hard, noncontractual math, and still in her control.

"Just because we came, doesn't mean I'll do it," Rina said. "It might even get rained out."

"If you pull it off, you can buy season tickets," the man said.

Beside her, Gabriel drew a quick breath in. His face was turned away. He was pretending not to listen, as she'd told him to do before they left for the stadium.

"You mean, if you pull it off," Rina said.

The full set of stadium lights came on with loud shudders that broke over the lulling, steady stream of pregame broadcasts like AED paddles surging over a cardiac patient's chest. Just like the AED paddles, you could hear them charging up. The old-fashioned electric bulbs gave the stadium "extra character," people said, and they loved to see this display that was glamorous somehow for being so rickety. Rina rocked back on her heels and looked up and thought of the hot frizzle of rain drops on the huge, vivid span of the lights. The advertisements on the screens were muted, and the revived crowd rose to sing the national anthem. The contact took out a photograph and slipped it between her hand and her chest. The back of it was printed to look like a prayer card. The text was a novena to St. Jude, but Rina didn't see this until it was too late, until she'd agreed to help the man get the general out of the hospice and to smuggle out copies of his directives and medical records beforehand.

The general looked much younger in the photo, but Rina was aware that the photo could have been as recent as one year ago. The general was not old, but he was a large man who, like a manatee or an elephant, loomed impassive so that his illness, grave and terminal as it was, could not diminish his proportions. Slitty gray eyes, full mouth, gash-thin Latin sideburns that bespoke a meticulous grooming regimen. He was seated at a conference table. The picture was shot from above and had the visual slipperiness and lack of composition of surveillance footage. The general wore a headset and was gesturing across documents. He did not look happy. He looked like he was letting someone have it in a heated, macho way. He looked like a flagrantly bad man who could have been any man with an important enough job, Rina thought. He looked healthy and alive in that false way that anger and authority charged people with.

The picture was recent, she decided, and it gave her confidence in her contact and in what she was about to do. Many people did not know how to read death on the obese, but she had developed a knack for it from working in the hospice. Everywhere she saw the tell tale scribbles and smudges that diabetes left on its victims, despite regimens of steroids, dialysis, and surgeries. They could work and be active right up until the kidneys cycled out a few times, and the body stopped taking transplants, and even the primo, lab-nurtured ones that rich people set aside for from their own stem cells and waited 14 years to have installed didn't take. The itty-bitty white nipples the eyelids grew, the ashy splotches on the cheeks, Rina saw these marks on people who lasted decades and yet she was amazed at how quickly a diabetic could die and how, when they did, there was no wasting away. Diabetes wasn't a wasting disease; it was a letting out disease, as if the perimeter of a person grew flaccid and enlarged in a subtle way, like a dark carpet that had flooded so that you couldn't tell until you put your foot down and felt the soggy displacement of water. She tried to memorize the general's facial features and each night nervously reckoned how much longer she and the flies had based on such minute details as how white was the spittle that collected at the corners of his mouth, how strong the flicker of pulse between his ring and pinky finger, whether or not the varicose veins on his ankle bone had sprouted another millimeter-long tributary. Then she weighed this calculation against how long Gabriel had been in custody and the charges and fines he was accumulating.

She thought the general had another 15 days when Gabriel called again. A smooth, feminine computer generated voice informed her of the identity of the caller and the length of the courtesy portion of the call: 30 seconds. Then she heard the ambient noise of a moving vehicle in the background before Gabriel had even spoken.

"Rina, they told me to call," Gabe said. Then in a very stilted tone, "They encouraged me to call. I know I'm not supposed to call, but, but..."

He sounded panicked and ashamed. He sounded how he sounded when she was at work and he had done something terrible that he needed her help to solve, like the time he and his best friend, Rafik, snuck out onto the roof and decided to play hackey sack with a bag of flaming marijuana and charcoal, which struck Rafik in the eye and singed his cornea. Gabriel had called her crying that Rafik's eye was "bleeding," but he wouldn't explain how or why. Rina declared it a personal emergency day and left early to find that Rafik's eye was not bleeding but merely puffy and red, and she couldn't tell how much of that was just due to his frantic rubbing. Rafik said he was fine. After a while, his eye looked a little bloodshot but not otherwise injured. Rafik's mother, Laura, who had had to take him to the emergency room the next day, after he'd spent all night writhing and almost wretching from the pain and irritation, had jerked it out of him. She marched Rafik in his black eyepatch over to Rina's apartment and stood behind him and slapped the back of his head with the flat of her palm and snapped the string of his eyepatch while he informed on Gabriel to Rina, who thought Laura was more pissed that the boys had destroyed a large wad of her pot than that Rafik had injured himself.

"Gabriel, are you in a car?"

"Yea. It's a bus, actually. There's a lot of kids here, and, Rina, they all played 'Big Fish Little Ocean!'"

"Where are they taking you?"

"I don't know. Rina, I really don't know. Can I please, please come home?"

"Did you tell them you wanted to call me? How long have you been in the car?"

"Not long. They told us to call you. The phones are on the back of the seat. They are all doing it. Will you get paid tomorrow? I'm sorry that I went with them. I'm sorry that I called them. I miss you, and I was just bored, but now I'm tired of watching movies and eating those gross sandwiches and I want to come home. But mostly because I miss you."

The operator interrupted to tell them that the courtesy portion of the phone call was over.

Rina exhaled a series of furious instructions. "DON'T CALL UNLESS YOU ARE THREATENED, HURT OR LOST. No snacks. No special trips. You can use the mouthwash, but don't brush your teeth. Turn your underwear inside out if it gets dirty unless it's really dirty with poop streaks, and only if it itches. Don't ask for a new pair. Don't take any medicines, not even if you have a really bad headache. Don't ask for anything. ANYTHING, Gabe! NO POPSICLES. NO INTERNET. NO GAMES. NO FOOZBALL. NO WATERPARK. NO KAYAKING. NO TATTOOS. NO FACEPAINT. NO QAT CHEW. NO MOTHBALLS. NO Q-TIPS. NO RIDES. NO CHANGING THE CHANNEL ONTHETV!!! NO COFFEE NO LETTERS NO SUNSCREEN NO BUGSPRAY!!! NONONO!!"

Ten seconds, 12 maybe. Not enough to capture an overage charge. She almost threw the phone across the room. She didn't want to hear the little hiccup of pitched whine with which Gabriel would respond to all her prohibitions. But, as she caught her breath and flung herself sideways onto her bed, there it was, in her head, faint as the hallucination of a cell phone ringing when it wasn't ringing. Supplied by long memory and kinship and irritating because she didn't know if she'd heard it or imagined it or if it even mattered anymore. A mosquito landed on her cheek, and she slapped herself hard, more to cause the pain and the impact than to kill the bug. When she pulled her hand away, there was blood on her palm from the exploded mosquito, and she didn't know whether it was hers or someone else's, and she sobbed until she passed out. Then she got up and smoothed her hair into a new day's pony tail, wiped the smudge ring of mascara from her lower eyelids with her finger and her own spit, and went to work again. She thought it was Thursday.

It was her 14th birthday.

On the tram, she tried to think who knew. She made a list in her head and decided to challenge herself by seeing if she could get through the whole day avoiding anyone who would know and keeping it a secret from everyone who didn't. She decided to make it a secret, mental challenge to see if she could go all day without anyone saying "Happy Birthday" to her, like not stepping on the cracks of the sidewalk. She wanted to forget the birthday. She wanted her day to be as smooth and ordinary as newly poured concrete. She would count the hours between herself and 13, which had been awful, awful, awful, she thought. Three hours. Four hours. With each passing hour, she told herself, 14 was already better.

The long walk from the tram station to the hospice was more poorly lit than from the apartment to the station, but recently it had been made a bit more luminous by the scattered reflective green patterns of "hero paint" on sections of buildings that had been bombed. Hero paint was a fine dust that the FBI sprayed to detect and expose explosive dust. In the day time, after they'd just sprayed, it was bright yellow. Over time, it turned a sort of green, and when the streetlights caught it, it was a glowing white like bird shit. Rina liked that she went to work before dawn. She liked the gloomy abandonment of the suburban canyon in which the hospice was located, and she found a special comfort in being out and about before the city and its sprawling environs filled up with foot traffic and how everyone she passed had either just completed a shift at work or was, like her, on their way to work. People didn't hustle or panhandle you. They nodded respectfully as you passed, and they had a hushed, reverent air this time of day that was no time of day at all, but the quiet space between starting and finishing, and she thought of it more as a space than a time: pre-dawn, the intercostal space, defined by its unformed nature, a space to fill up before the filling up began.

On foggy mornings, the sky started out a decrepit blue-gray like the outside of an over-boiled egg yolk, and as she approached the hospice, it blushed a flagstone pink that was also the pink of muscles in her nicer anatomy books. Rina had read that monks and nuns often got up at this time of day to begin their prayers and that it was thought, even long before there were cities and lights and electric glare, that this was a special time for communicating with God. That He might be listening then. This made sense to Rina. She woke, out of habit, at 4 a.m. Even on her days off, she got up and walked around. It made her feel more peaceful to know that the majority of people, even in a city of one and a half million, still slept, for the most part, all together, when it was dark.

 

"Rina, these flowers, the bungalow, now, please."

'Trice is a bit short today, but then again, she is short every day, small sliver of a woman, tongue like a large whip. She is the executive charge nurse. Today she is stalking around in a fairy suit, glitter-spanked pegasus wings and a batiste the color of baby's cheeks. Nothing else. The occupant of the D ward is into a lot of different things. It's made 'Trice drop weight, but she looks positively clairovoyant. It's hard to tell whether she's in a good mood or a bad mood.

"Umm, 'Trice, I can't find my cover bag today," Rina mewls.

"It's in the clover field. Cue up by 04:13. Watch the chub," 'Trice says, pinching her below the navel.

'Trice is walking at a very fast clip. She'll be gaunt by nightfall tomorrow.

When she gets to the clover field, Rina can't find her cover bag. She cues up early, tells 'Trice.

"Did you check the marshmallow vat?" 'Trice snarls.

"No, you didn't tell me to," Rina says.

When she gets to the vat, her cover bag isn't there either. She slithers around for a full 45 seconds. No cover bag. Someone's rosary and a bag of antique 1970s Delta airplane peanuts, though.

She cues up again. 'Trice is on a tear at one of the class D people.

"Cunt! I put this in his chart, but since you are a little slow this morning, I'll repeat it verbally. He likes the fugu, not the sashimi we usually serve. This means you have to taste it first because of the tetradoxin, and please, please tell me I don't have to remind you to take your epi-pen!"

'Trice dials into the class A channel and tones it down for Marina, who is still a novice.

"Now, honey, remember he thinks he's on a yacht. Tell him you're tacking, yes, tacking."

"'Trice, 'Trice," Rina says.

"Peel it back slowly... Apricots... Do not touch the zipper... Blow on the candle..."

"'Trice, please, I can't find my cover bag. I can't find it anywhere."

"Rina, I don't have time for your antics today, go without it."

Rina backtracks to her last period.

"But, umm, ummm,"

"RINA, I MEAN IT, GO WITHOUT!!! ENTER IN FORTY FIVE."

The general appears to be sleeping when Rina enters. She is grateful for it. She rustles around the room, snipping the pollen fronds off large, white, Asiatic lilies.

The general stirs.

"How are you today?"

"I like this place," the general says. "Well, I mean, it's hardly 72 virgins, but..."

"Seventy-two!" Rina stage-whispers. "You said seventy-two!"

Rina presses a tiny capsule under the zebra pelt with her toe, cuing 'Trice in.

"I'm sorry, sir," she says tightly. "How many virgins did you say?"

"Look, kid, I was just making joke, you know, la broma..."

Then he says, in Spanish"How are you feeling today?"

"Está bien."

"Verdad?"

"Si."

"I see," the general says, fondling her nipple a little-bitty bit with his pinky. It is his one uncensored finger. "I see you are maybe feeling a little irritable today? Yes? No?"

"Ummm, ummm, ummm, I," Rina zeros in on the pollen of the freesias, a part of it looks off in color. The yellow is not quite right; it's soured somehow, like fresh hero paint. "I need to attend to these flowers."

"You sound a little rattled today."

Rina flinches. She thinks of the last time Gabe played "Little Fish Big Ocean." She's dumb-founded. She's forgotten to get the foot bath tepid. Now it's cold as a spring stone, and she'll have to set the timer again.

She's thinking of the last time the police took Gabe. She came home to find the computer on, "Little Fish Big Ocean" still up, half-charged batteries rolling around on the desk, slurpy lollipops, qat buds. Gabe was supposed to be doing school. She'd subscribed him to the same R.N. program she'd had at the camp. It was a lot harder for her, of course, because if she didn't make good grades, she'd get liquidated. But, Gabe... Gabe had a choice. He had always been obsessed with fish. They'd stalk the aquarium together for hours of a Sunday afternoon. So Gabe said he wanted to subscribe to "fisherman." Rina tried to explain that there was no program for "fisherman," just a really, really expensive download for being a baitboy on a diesel schooner that scooped up opilio from pots set at the bottom of the ocean. It was deadly, dangerous work. One slip, one fall, a lot of baitboys were lost that way. It was easy enough for the crabs, who were set in holds with barriers to prevent them from sloshing up against one another and killing each other from the impact. The crabs were then escorted to the shore where they were weighed for pay.

So, instead, Rina had plugged him into the same program they had given her in camp. On the screen when she'd come home was a virtual pig. "Please slice the abdomen," the female voice cued. "Please slice, please slice..." The room was dark, it was just after midnight, and Rina had pulled a triple. An insignificant blur hovered over the little stack of phone books Gabe usually sat on.

In two months, he'd be seven, and she'd be 14, she thought. Every year, her half life. The computer went into sleep mode.

Somewhere, in the dirty, cramped room, Rina found business cards sprinkled, one from the police, one from a bill collector, one from a babysitter whom the police had contracted with to take care of Gabe's needs, and yet another from a cell phone company. Rina swiped all the henchmen's cards and sprang out the door.

She headed straight to Chicks & Licks with her cover bag. Chicks & Licks was parked in the usual spot, right off the amusement park. In her cover bag were seventeen epidurals and iodine solution packets--enough to harrow the hell out of an open wound.

"I need to see Felicia," she pleaded with the black hive of sound holes.

"Felicia's not here," a bouncer's voice said.

"Please, 'Ro, it's Rina."

"Told you, no. Last time you came here, some of the patrons detected. Back the fuck off."

"But they took Gabe again."

"OKAY, RINA. ONE LAST FUCKING TIME!"

Rina crawls through the hanging black flap in the center of the padlocked rear door. It is designed to look like a doggy door. The fry vat is dirty today. She can smell the falafel burning. In the dark, the girls are strobed and huddled around the room like rats. Rina has 89 minutes. She slithers to each of them, giving instructions as she goes.

"I'm gonna give you a shot. Here, right here, hold still! Don't hit me, you little bitch! Stop squirming."

She assaults each of them with the iodine packets.

"When he comes at you, do like this," she says, drawing knees up to chin. "Stay tight, don't let him go here or here. Use the packet when you feel a wet oozy something on you like, like, umm, the detergent. Have a good night, and welcome to the new world," she says.

She collects her fee at the trailer door. 'Ro's hand is sweaty like a steak.

Now comes the hard part: Getting to Gabe. The next five nights and days were a wandering dream: cycles, divestitures, roaming, robotic voices, but in the end they washed up together in their shitty little cell, two pearls in an oyster.

"Feliz Cumpleanos," the general says.

Rina snaps out of her revery. Her back stiffens momentarily. Her day goes splat like a water balloon at the sound of these words. Her heart races. He knows too much about me, she thinks. She feels queasy. Then she remembers that personal information on staff was part of his directives, and she exhales.

Two days later, the general is rolling in and out of consciousness, and the flies have still not come to fetch him.

"I want to go home. I have to feed my lions. They will starve without me," he says while she dabs spit from the corners of his mouth with barely moistened gauze.

"Oh, I'm sure they have enough other animals to eat, don't you think?" Rina coos.

"No, they can't. They are clonic. Have to be hand-fed. Only me. Can do it."

"Well, now isn't really the time for feeding the lions, is it? It's feeding time in a few hours, maybe?" Rina's voice is lilting. She has perfected this tone, somewhere between questions and statements. It soothes the dying.

"The flies want me don't they," the general says, suddenly gripping her wrist. He, too, is listing between questions and statements.

"I don't know what you are talking about," Rina says.

"Did they, did they, contact you, too?" the general is barely audible. A wheeze has never sounded so threatening before. Rina thinks of all the cues in the room. Mentally backtracks to all the disables she's performed.

"No, I would never do that to you,", Rina says.

"Fuck you."

Rina almost chokes.

"Excuse me, why?"

"Because I deserve it. That's why. Are you friends with any of the doctors here?"

"Friends, no," Rina says through benumbed lips and a thick glottis.

"Well, I was friends with a doctor once. When I was in charge of a camp like yours, I had a friend in charge of the infirmary. We did very bad things together. Some of the things we did..." he trails off, "Chicas guapas incluso como usted..."

The next time she sees a contact, Rina tells him about the conversation about the lions. The contact is not rattled.

She told the contact how the general rolled his head listlessly from side to side on the pillow. The edges of what he was saying were muffled by the pillow, Rina said. She had to fill them in from context. The general said this thing about the lions over and over again in between his repeated pleadings for water, which he was not allowed to have because his kidneys were so close to failure that the fluid would have led to total shutdown. She was crestfallen at his lunacy. If she told the contact everything, they might pull the plug on the whole operation. He was only worthwhile if the dementia could be staved off long enough for him to endure the interrogation. On the other hand, if she did not disclose this information, the flies could kidnap him, deem him useless, and come after her for the money. They could out her to I.A. and end her career, or they could kill her out of cold spite. That is, if they still did that sort of thing, if they ever did really do that sort of thing.

She decided to work into a conversation with the new contact an additional fee for the risk involved should they abort the plan to kidnap the general, for the risk she was taking. She pulled a term from an old movie she had watched and said this fee would be "for my exposure in all this." This fee would be in addition to that which they paid her for the information itself, she told them.

"What you're talking about is a kill fee," the contact said, in her typical laconic and bored Slavic way. "You want a kill fee."

"It's just that..."Rina started. "I didn't know he was going to die. I mean, yes, he is dying, but I don't want him to. Are you going to kill him? I thought you just wanted to ask him a bunch of questions."

"Calm down."

The contact waived her hand dismissively in front of her own face. She might have been chasing a moth away, or swatting at a floater. Her eyes were cataracted and scummy with age in a very unusual way. She chainsmoked and had brillowy white hair. When she looked at Rina, her gaze seemed not to land on her the way normal sighted people's gazes did but rather to be always aimed a bit over her head. It made Rina especially nervous, and during these meetings she glanced around more to make sure that no one was lurking, observing.

"A kill fee is what we pay if an operation doesn't go through," she said. "That's just what we call it."

Once Rina had asked the woman why, being so old, did she persist with the flies. Everyone knew they were a lost cause. They had been around for 99 years, and not a single demand of theirs had been met. Many did not even believe they existed anymore. They had become urban legend, a circumstance that infuriated Rina because those who worked for them could not disclose the fact of their existence in conversation without betraying himself or herself. This kind of secret knowledge would have made other people smug, but it made Rina angry not to be able to hold her own experience up to the light of others' judgment and have it be, if neither fully right nor fully wrong, then at least, fully there. Speakable.

She thought her life did not afford her many encounters of consequence. The flies were not even illegal any more. Almost everything that they did was still a violation of someone's contract, but the government had decided to lift all its warrants and to remove them from the list of terrorist organizations. The flies could meet in offices and storefronts if they so chose. They were declared legitimate in 2038, and for the next four decades they almost did not survive their legitimacy. So few of them trusted the new arrangement that they were reluctant to meet openly, and membership waned from lack of marketing. Long before this happened, however, people began to talk about them in the past tense, and reports came out about their disbanding. They were unsubstantiated reports, but it did not matter. Giving the flies their lives back, removing their status as enemies of the state, had proved the most effective way to stop them from accomplishing anything. The honey of legality was killing them better than the vinegar of tear gas and repression. In that respect, they were not unlike the population at large, who were choking to death not from angst or bloodthirst or opposition but from the everyday lifeblood thievery of fatigue and the moral equivalent of attention-splicing.

"The past is a dimly lit maze where you might bump your head, but the future, the future, my dear, is a swarm of locusts. You will hear it before you see it coming," was what the woman said to the space above Rina's head.

Then she said, "I think you have lice," and cracked a smile as broad as a shower tile and chuckled mysteriously. Wafts of smoke leaked out around her laughing mouth and nostrils like remnants from the barrel of a shotgun that had just been fired.

Then, with a vicious flatness, "You're a fast learner, aren't you?"

"Excuse me?" Rina said. Her eyes were stinging with sudden, hot, inexplicable tears.

"Oh, I forget. Young people are reflexively greedy. They're born that way now."

"I am not greedy. I want my brother back."

"Where is your brother?"

"The police took him. They charged him with aiding and abetting a terrorist organization. He likes to play a game called 'Little Fish Big Ocean' on the Internet. He didn't know the subscription was going to a fund for some overseas jihadist group. They say it says on the title page, but he's eight. He doesn't care. He doesn't read that fast. The police intercept and a pop-up tells him to call. He likes to talk to the sergeant. They trace him, and they come pick him up. He gets bored and lonely at home all day by himself. So he's done it, like, three times now. They keep holding him and charging me for it. Every day it gets more expensive, and I can't keep up."

"Is that what you mean by your 'exposure in all this'?" the woman sneered.

"No, yes, no," Rina stammered.

"How much do you owe now?"

"I have to come up with §145,000 on charges from last time. The first time I called a lawyer, but it's cheaper not to. Then another §95,000 so far for this time up until today, but it' ll be four more days before I get paid, and now it's §14,000 a day, so..."

The woman took out her tablet and authorized §216,000 to Rina.

"Is that my kill fee?" Rina flushed.

"It's a reward."

"For what?" Rina said.

"Caring," the woman said.

"It's a reward for me, but it's a fee for you," Rina said mockingly.

"Yes, dear," the woman said. "That's right. Call it economics. When I was younger, they still taught women these classes. They called it home economics. Do they still teach you that?"

"No," Rina said. "They made me take parenting classes, though, when they emancipated us."

"What's your brother like?"

Rina gulped. The tears had clotted in her throat. She noticed that for the first time the contact was looking her directly in the eyes.

"He's like a brat. He makes me afraid every day. He makes me afraid of everything. I wish he'd never been born. I hate him. He's my life."

"Get in the car," her new contact says. It is Tuesday. Day six of Gabe's incarceration, the last, this time. Her new contact is picking her up by a food truck off the tram stop outside an apartment complex mid-way between the hospice and her efficiency. The car is a rather small, formulaic hybrid. It looks like an armadillo. Rina starts to get in.

Between her tips at the hospice and the kill fee the flies gave her, she's just managed to spring Gabe. She is gripping his wrist so hard his pinky is turning blue. With her other hand, she is one-fisting their gyro sandwiches.

"Wait! Can I bring my little brother?" she says to the man in the car.

"Sure thing," the contact says.

When they get to the general's house, it is studded with the pelts of extinct animals, just like the bungalow. Live creatures of all kinds suspended in time roam the lawn. Huge, gloomy Goyas in gilded frames staked out in every corner of the foyer.

When they get to the deck off the general's bed room suite, which overlooks the lawn, Gabe says of the lions in their plexiglass pens, "Are they real?"

Rina looks at the contact, who is posing as a janitor.

"Don't know," he says. "Go touch one and find out."

Gabe gasps, dangles his hand to just an inch in front of the plexiglass, then pulls it back.

"How big are their teeth?" he says.

The next day, the general rolls his head listlessly from side to side on the pillow, but it is his only movement, as if his strength is drifting up and out of him. His fingers are limp and dry, but they are about four times the size they should be. He can't move them. The general is still expressing concerns about the lions.

Rina is having tortured second thoughts about taking Gabe's cell with her to work.

Gabriel had been a breach baby. He came out legs first. Ass up. Half strangled by his own umbilical chord, his head had resembled a purple potato. Rina had watched as the midwife had pulled him from her mother roughly, like an old abuela gutting a hen for roasting. The spilled blood had so soaked the sheets laid on the concrete floor that it appeared the floor itself was dark red and had ripples in it where the sheet had bunched up. When she saw the expanse of it around her mother, she knew she would lose her. It was as if the wrinkly, dark-haired tumor that was her newborn brother had also been all that was holding back her mother's body from turning liquid and gushing forth into the world. Her mother had turned to blood that day once they had taken out the slick, knotty-limbed plug of the boy, who was the key to his mother's stable, solid existence.

Even then Rina did not blame the boy. He appeared to her to have preferred the womb by his initial fetal posture, as if he had intended to live facing his mother forever. The baby did not even have the strength to lift his own head or grasp the coiled umbilicus circling his own neck. The midwife flipped him over and unraveled it and only then, after what seemed a few minutes, did he gasp. His first true breath was puny and broken. It sounded to Rina like he was having profound trouble getting started. They sucked away some of the junk from his throat and wiped his mouth and nostrils with a wet paper towel. Even then, Gabriel didn't open his eyes, and he had little stamina to cry. His mouth opened and closed silently in his pinched face, like fish gills in alien air. The midwife scooped him up and swung him from side to side a few times. He began to take in enough air to cry, a sputtering, not very loud cry like the squeals of an outdoor faucet just before the water makes contact with full force. His lungs had just begun to work, and they were already exhausted.

They were all detainees: Rina, her mother, now the baby. Even the midwife. The coyotes had almost not taken them because of how near Rina's mother was to term, but she'd convinced them she was not as far along as she had been. Gabriel was a small baby, and she was a small woman, so it looked like the end of her first trimester when it was really the middle of the second.

Rina remembered the smell of the wool in Patagonia, and the acetylene torches they hung in caves. It was just she and her mother and her father, who'd stayed behind to get the sheep sold. The land she recalled was sooted, gnarled like a crab's shell. The sheep were having to be moved farther out, and her father was seldom around. The sun set like a silver coin being placed over a dead man's eyes, the ash grey land below it sparsely spotted with nubs of the toughest vegetation and the crisscrossed power lines cording the smoke that belched up from where the land had developed a sort of rickets, bowed and fractured and prone to flames. Quags of methane hung about for days, forcing them into the cave with goggles and full-face masks that grew into heavy proboscises. The sheep were turning "weird," her father said. They'd eat anything, barbed wire, their own shit, their own babies. They'd be dead in another season, a sort of madness that would corrupt the muscles. If he didn't find a buyer, he'd try to cross the fiery, black moors on foot. They'd meet in Tierrra del Fuego, he'd said. And Rina's mother had withheld that they were in Tierra del Fuego when they'd made it there. She'd withheld it until San Diego. She'd told Rina it was the next place they were going, all the way until they got stuck in a weigh station in some Georgia town and the men with guns had swarmed the truck and there was another truck waiting to take them to the army barracks in Ball Ground.

Their new, East Coast coyotes were taken with them. Everyone was given tetanus shots and a course of antibiotics, even if they weren't sick. The antibiotics were grape tasting, and Rina had diarrhea for days. Her mother was distraught. She thought Rina would die if they kept giving her the sickly sweet syrup from the paper cups. In that place, everything was paper: the cups, the towels, the plates, even the sheets. The paper refuse had a septic smell in the damp heat, and it greeted you as you went from the cabins to the toilets as the bins were kept just outside the door. They ate at picnic benches, and drones flew overhead every day all day. Rina was allowed to draw, on paper, with crayons. She had only gray and black, and instead of drawing the parched hellish landscape from which she'd come, she practiced getting the shapes of the drones, the sliver of metal like a skate skimming the underside of the sky. She'd chase their shadows in the field where they were allowed to run and play soccer.

When her nails grew long enough, she took a sheet of paper and blackened it with all that was left of a crayon, then she pierced it with her nail in several places. It was a sort of negative she was trying to create. She held it up to the light. She held it up to her face. She was trying to see what they saw. She instinctively felt that the enemy was in the sky. She imagined the enemy only had slits to look through. She didn't know anything or anyone, but she felt a hostile urge toward the planes that she didn't feel for her surroundings or the guards. The slits were too small to see anything. A fish could not know what the whale experienced when it was swept through the bars of baleen like pulp through a mesh drain.

It rained quite a bit when they were there. The floors grew slick, and people were always slipping and falling. The tubular bars on the windows pinged with drops, a sound suggesting hollowness and pliability, but no one ever did anything about this. For most of them, the camp was far better treatment than they had received on the road there.

The coyotes were taken first. They had not been allowed contact with the rest of the camp. They were kept in a tower at the far end and had to be escorted back and forth to the latrines with bags over their heads. They were rumored to be transported for execution. They were mostly old men, Pakistanis, Syrians, Afghanis, and Palestinians. They dressed like day laborers, but they herded the women and children in and out of cargo crates and tractor trailers with the stern, detached, half-there glaze of her father, the sheep herder. They took no liberties, and they spoke no language common to their cargo. They were in trouble, some of the adults in the camp said. They were terrorists. They were not warriors or jihadists, but they were going to be liquidated. Their money was going to be used to create more dirty bombs. Everyone would be subject to punishment for this. The country had to clear each of them for their crimes of paying the coyotes.

About ten months after their capture, after her mother had died and Gabe had been placed in the nursery and Rina had started to pick up some English from some of the other detainees, a guard was leaning into the other side of the chain link fence, a cigarette dangling from his finger where it hooked the fence, a hulking man whose outsized biceps framed his head like a boa constrictor.

"There's no dirty bomb," he said to another guard. "They're the dirty bomb. This. Look at it."

He flicked his head toward the camp, where 5,000 detainees were collected like pebbles in the bottom of a canoe.

In Patagonia, the landscape only made sense if a person realized that once there had been rivers, great, glorious, esteemed rivers. Escarpments, basins, steppes. These all described the condition of land water had abandoned. As if the rivers were of a single indigenous mind, and they, the elders, the chieftains, had one day gotten up and decided to leave all the infrastructure they had so painstakingly crafted through the ages, with the elegant, ancient cleavage of water. Just turned their silvery backs and stalked off like sandaled patriarchs, leaving their dusty prints everywhere.

Of course, that was not what happened, her mother told her. Dams had been built in haste by gringos. Or at the behest of gringos. Long before she'd been born. Her grandmother had seen hummingbirds in the snow. Her grandfather had helped put in power lines. Long before them, the first rail line was once called The Train to the End of the World, but Rina's mother did not know in which direction the end of the world referred to, ingress or egress.

The general, once again, is asking for water.

She patiently takes a champagne glass from her cover bag, turns the tap on, and lifts it to his lips.

 

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