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Oct/Nov 2017 Fiction

The Smoke Children

by Matthew Callan

Image excerpted from A Nice Cup of Tea by Roe LiBretto

Image excerpted from A Walk in the Park Ganesha Leads Doubting Thomasina Past the Obstacles to Love by Roe LiBretto


I'm a mom with the machines, but I'm used to that. I was a mom way before the machines. I was a mom for my own mom. Kicking her ass out the door so she'd go to work. Following her on the 7 to make sure she didn't turn around and crawl back into bed. I was mom at the bar where I danced. Mom to the boys who needed a smack if they got too grabby or a nod to the bouncer if a smack didn't make the message stick. Mom to the new girls who didn't understand the sign in the front window that said necessitan meseras didn't mean they were looking for waitresses. I told them not to go home with the boys no matter what the boys promised, and I listened to them cry when they ignored my advice. I told them all the boys really wanted and expected was some hips to sway with with for a couple of minutes. Don't let the boys think otherwise and you won't have nothing to worry about, and if the boys give you something to worry about, then nod to the bouncer and he'll take care of it. I said all of this with a mom scold and a wagging mom finger.

Then the bug hit and all the boys got blamed and then they were getting bum rushed into vans and we never heard from the boys again. All the bum rushing didn't stop the bug at all. Every night the news was still full of video of people sneaking into ERs with sheets over their heads so their red droopy faces didn't make other people puke. But with all the boys gone there was no one to dance and the bar had to close. The owner made me break the bad news to the girls because he was afraid they'd tear him apart. Moms break bad news.

I had to go under the tracks to look for work. Not the 7 tracks. The ones near the factories with the giant freight cars covered in graffiti that run day and night. The tracks was the only place to go if you had no degrees and no docs and people thought the boys you used to dance with brought the bug here from the other side in their hair and their clothes and their cocks. I did what I had to do. That's what moms always do. And that's how I got to the machines.

 

Sometimes when I held onto the machines, I pretended I was still dancing. If you call what I did dancing. It wasn't ballet, and it wasn't Fred Astaire. You would just put your hands on the boys' hips and toddle back and forth like a junior high dance where the principal watches like a hawk to make sure the kids don't get too close to each other.

You had to grab the machines by handles on their sides so they didn't slide off the table while they printed the merchandise. The machines were made of clear plastic. I saw all the parts moving inside the machines. Gears and cartridges and an arm that looked like a tattoo gun laying down the goop that made the merchandise. The only noise the machines made came when the merchandise was fully printed and the machine went ding like a bell as it spit its latest creation onto the conveyor belt that carried all the stuff away to shipping. Sometimes all the machines dinged at the same time and it sounded like a casino.

The handles were made of metal. Smooth and curved like monkey bars. They were cold when you arrived in the morning. When your shift was over they were super warm. As warm as you.

The machines shook like crazy because all the furniture in the compound was made of a weird material that looked like a gray marshmallow and felt like a pool noodle. Almost solid but not quite. The tables the machines sat on were made of it. The bedframes in our rooms were made of it. The walls. Even the floors. It made everything a feel unsteady and a little darker too. There were lights on everywhere but I had to squint to see all the time. The spongy stuff soaked up all the light.

My first night in the compound I had a crying fit and I punched the wall of my room and it almost ate my hand up. Pulling it out was like slipping a boot out of knee-deep mud. There was a hardness somewhere beneath it all but not close enough to feel.

If you didn't hold the machines in place they slid all over the tables and the merchandise wouldn't come out right. You had to hold on even when it looked like the merchandise was totally finished because it wasn't totally finished until the Hrvystr logo was printed on it. The little leaf with the lowercase h in the middle. Then the light on the machine switched from yellow to green and you heard the ding and then and only then could you let go. You couldn't assume the merchandise was finished just because it looked finished or even if the goop needle in the machine stopped moving. Sometimes it was just resting before spelling out the slogan. HRVYSTR: BECOME YOUR NOW. If you let go too early the logo would get messed up and then you wouldn't earn enough credits to watch Hrvystr shows on the screen in your room. Mess up enough merchandise and the chair wouldn't let you get up at the end of the shift. The leg restraints were synced up with the counters on the machines. They knew if you hit your daily quota. That was the first thing I told the rest of the girls: Never let go until you hear the sound.

I closed my eyes and made believe the handles were hips. One of the boys with a giant heavy belt. Most of the boys at the bar had huge cowboy-style belts like they were still out in carajo land and not Queens. Even Luis. He dressed country but I could tell he wasn't. Sometimes he'd slip and tell me the song playing on the jukebox was corny as fuck. I'd say, You ain't dancing like it's corny, and he'd say, Because I'm dancing with you.

I know he said it just to say it. I said plenty of shit just to say it. To make somebody feel better when I had no reason to think shit would work out okay. It's okay to do that sometimes.

 

The Doctor wanted know how I was doing and I told her I was doing same as the week before. The Doctor was a voice that blared at you from a speaker in the ceiling. Every ceiling in the compound. She was everywhere. The same voice told you to wake up in the morning and announced lights out time at night. The voice didn't call herself a doctor. She didn't call herself anything, so all the girls called her The Doctor.

Every room at the compound had two doors. One door led out to the machines. Only a few feet from the door to your seat at the production line. The other door didn't open unless the med booth arrived. It was on a track that moved on a track from one room to the next. All the girls got a med booth visit once a week but you didn't always know when it was your turn. The med booth came by and assumed you weren't busy which I guess none of us were when we weren't at the machines.

The exam was just like work. You stepped into the med booth which was hardly bigger than a closet and held the handles of a big cabinet with lots of screens and buttons behind a clear plastic shield so you couldn't mess with it while the cabinet took your vitals. The cabinet had the same Hrvystr logo as the machines. Probably came out of one the machines piece by piece. While you held onto the med booth cabinet The Doctor asked you questions from her home in a speaker in the ceiling.

Are you experiencing any dizziness? Is the quality of your stool unchanged? Have you had onset of menses?

On my first med booth visit I thought I might be knocked up because I was a week late. Of course that made no sense because I'd been alone in detention for a few weeks before I got to the machines and even before that all the boys got hauled away and there was no dick around for miles. In my head I knew I couldn't be pregnant but that didn't keep me from freaking out about it. No way I'm having a kid in prison, I said. I'm not having a god damn jail kid.

This is not a prison, The Doctor said. This is a state of the art fulfillment solution facility where associates are invited to work off their debts to...

Whatever you wanna call it I don't want no baby in here.

Your most recent tests indicate you are not pregnant, The Doctor said. The meals that are served at the Hrvystr complex are made of a synthetic meat substitute that has been known to have side effects including but not limited to menses infrequency or in some cases cessation. You were notified of this on the Hrvystr associate agreement you signed when you began the program.

Does it go away for good? I asked. Are you telling me I can't have a kid now?

Your recent statements indicated you did not wish to have a child at all, The Doctor said. Have you changed your mind about his?

Of course not. My head was messed up from getting jerked around from one end to the other in like three seconds. I didn't want a baby. I had enough kids in my life already.

 

Wherever they took the boys it wasn't to the compound. I never saw nothing but girls up and down the production line speaking every language on Earth. They separated girls from the same place to cut down on the talking but the girls just shouted over each other. Tina shouted at me all day because I was the closest girl to her who could understand her complaints.

Tina pulled her hair back so tight that I thought her forehead would rip apart every time she yelled. She complained about her hands hurting from holding the machine and her head hurting from squinting at the display because she couldn't see too good and The Doctor wouldn't give her reading glasses. Or she lost her glasses and The Doctor wouldn't give her new ones. She changed her story about the glasses a lot. I nodded and say mm hm and told her she's strong enough to deal with it even though it was clear she wasn't strong enough. I had to tell her something.

Ross sat between us. Ross was a tiny little thing who only came up to my shoulder and I'm not that tall myself. I never knew if she was Chinese or one of those mountain bitches who're mostly Indian and who just look kinda Chinese. Her skin was rough. The color of a burnt cookie. She talked all day in a voice that went up and down like she was singing to herself. To me it was soothing. Not to Tina.

Those ain't words, Tina would say.

For a while I would argue with Tina just because she doesn't know a language doesn't mean it's not real. But you couldn't argue with Tina about anything. She was like a kid who didn't want to find out the nonsense her friend told her isn't true.

Every once in a while Ross spit out some English. It never made sense. Once when we had a break to clean out the production lines Ross pointed to the leaf in the Hrvystr logo.

They have trees but they never use them, Ross said.

See? Tina said. She knows how to talk right and she don't wanna. Bitch why you singing all day? You want them to take you the CEO? No one come back from the CEO. They think you crazy they take you to him. I heard he got the bug. That's why you never see him. He hides away until the company need to punish someone. He gives them the bug and that's that.

Don't scare her, I said. You don't know that's what happens.

People go to the CEO and they don't come back. Am I right or wrong?

That's just what people say. You think the actual CEO of Hrvystr is here in this building? With all these machines? He's like the richest guy in the world. Why would he be here? Especially if he had the bug. He'd be getting treatment in a hospital somewhere.

They got no treatment for the bug, Tina said.

Then he'd just be dead. Use your head before you share dumb rumors like that.

I know things, Tina said.

She kept saying that for the rest of the day. Mumbling it under her breath.

I know things. I know lotsa things.

My machine dropped another gun onto the conveyer belt. The machines hardly made anything else. Every time I looked at the belt it was one gun after another. All colors. Some metal gray. Some pink. Some orange. They looked like toys. I don't think you could make a real gun out of the goop that supplies the machines. Not even after it hardens. Maybe they made them real in some other part of the compound. Some part I never saw.

Every few days they sent cleaners to unclog the lines that come through the ceiling and fill the machines with MerchMent. That was the brand name for the goop but we just called it the goop. The goop they pulled out looked like melted ice cream. The cleaners wore spaceman suits. Couldn't see their faces behind the black screens in their helmets. They put the blockages in a giant vacuum cleaner that gagged and sputtered on the the stuff. Then they split. They couldn't wait to get away from us.

 

Luis was nice. Most of the boys were too tired to be nice. Some of them could barely stand up when they swayed back and forth. The most energy they showed was when they tried to grab your tits. They'd do it like a little kid would do it. Not to get off but to get away with something naughty. Something they didn't even understand but could giggle about with the rest of the boys.

Luis didn't do any of that shit. Or most of the other shit the boys did. The other boys pulled their beat-up cowboy hats down on their heads like they were badasses trying to hide. Luis tilted his back so you could see his broad beaming face.

His head was almost too wide. I teased him about it because I could tell he could take it. He didn't get all mad like the other boys would.

I know I got a big head, Luis said. My mom told me all the time when I was bad. I didn't push that giant head outta me so you wouldn't use it.

I called him jibaro and he didn't know what I meant. They didn't use that word where his family came from.

I mean like country, I said. Like a hillbilly.

Doesn't everyone here look country? he asked.

Yeah but you look like you're trying real hard to be country.

The other boys at the bar were country as hell. Everything in the bar was new and flashy to them. The lights that lit up the rows of liquor behind the bar. The Hrvystr jukebox that could stream any song ever made. Even the Hrvystr electric hand dryer in the bathrooms. They'd talk about it all the time to me. You stick your hands inside and the air does it! Not Luis. Everything around him he knew already.

The other boys would crowd around the girls like they were ice cream trucks but Luis could wait back for a girl to come to him. The other boys would tell you they paid off their roommates to get the place to themselves. This was never true because the boys slept six to a room in shifts in shitty rooming houses. The rooms were never free. If you followed a boy home you either got roped into an argument with a bunch of other boys who wouldn't give up sleep just so someone else could get laid or else you get dragged to the nearest alley where his sorry ass would beg you to jerk him off and he wouldn't even give you nothing to clean up with afterwards. Not worth it. Not any of it. I told the girls at the bar this a million times. Sometimes they listened but most had to learn the hard way.

Closest Luis got to any of that was asking me if I wanted to grab something at the Chinese bakery down the street.

Open all night, he said. They got these buns with pork in them. The best.

I lied and said I didn't eat pork. The words came outta my mouth so fast I almost believed myself.

They got stuff there without pork in it, Luis said.

I didn't know what to say to that so I grabbed his wrist and I rubbed my thumb past a knob of bone back and forth. I didn't know if this was soothing or annoying because Luis didn't react. I hoped Luis knew this meant, Sorry I can't do this. I wasn't sorry though. We danced some more anyway.

 

One day we had a break on the goop line and while we were waiting for it to get fixed an announcement came over the intercom that said we could watch something on our personal screens and we wouldn't have to use our credits. Everyone had a personal screen at their workstation but the screens usually just played music because Hrvystr didn't want the girls distracted by the latest episode of some TV show when they were supposed to be watching the line. Tina didn't want to watch nothing though. Tina was always happier complaining.

I gotta get out, Tina said.

Get outta here? I said. You wanna be out on the street with the bug?

Outta everything, Tina said. Outta life.

I told her she shouldn't say that. It was a reflex. Like saying god bless you when someone sneezed. I did the same thing with my mom. I can't take it anymore, mom would say from under the covers. Yes you can, I'd tell her though all the evidence to that point told me no she could not take it no matter what the it was at any moment.

I got these thoughts now, Tina said. First thing in the morning I wake up and my head says, Gotta kill myself. Like it's a chore I keep putting off. Like it's taking out the trash. But you can't do it here. Nothing to do it with. All the shit up in here is too soft. Nothing sharp to cut yourself. Nothing hard to split your head open on. Even these fuckin shoes they give us are too soft. Like flip flops made of jello. I never felt like this before I came here. I been down before but not like this. Not where I wanted to check out. On top of the hands and the headache now my brain ain't right. It's the machines. They're sucking something outta me.

Tell The Doctor and she'll give you something for it, I said.

Fuck no, Tina said. I tell the doctor I'm going nuts and they'll take me to the CEO. That's the end. This ain't the bug is it? The bug don't make you go nuts do it?

All I knew about the bug was what I saw on TV before I got to the machines. I heard that before you got the bug for real you got the chills and then you got the sweats and then your skin went all soft and started sliding off your face and arms and legs. But I haven't seen anything about the bug in months. The screens in our rooms don't carry the news channels and we don't get the papers in here. None of the Hrvystr shows we do get to watch have anything on it either.

If you had the bug you'd be outta here already, I told Tina. The doctors test for that. You got no reason to be scared.

Who said I was scared? I ain't scared of nothing. Nothing except lava. Lava will fuck you up. You know if you get close to a volcano you feel like you wanna throw yourself in? The lava talks to you.

When's the last time you've been near lava?

I know shit, Tina said.

Then Ross chimed in.

If it mattered, Ross said.

If what mattered? Tina asked. Bitch if what mattered?

But then Ross went back to talking to herself in her own chirping language. Tina got louder and louder but Ross never said nothing else for the rest of the day. Nothing we could understand.

 

On open door night you could hang out in other girls' rooms so long as you didn't bother the girls working the overnight shift. Most of the girls stayed in their rooms though because everybody's room looked the same. Same pool noodle bed and desk and walls. Same screen showing the same Hrvystr shows. Everyone had their favorite shows but not many girls watched together. It only led to arguments over whose credits got spent to pay for the stream.

I had enough credits to blow on a new season of Realest Bitches in Nashville or Los Duros orgullosos but I didn't feel like watching anything. I was sure Tina would flag me down and pummel me with more complaints. That's what she usually did on open door night. But she never showed up.

I left my room real quiet. I was afraid Tina was waiting for me on the other side of the door. But there was no one outside except the night shift girls and no sound but the clinking sound of electronic music coming from the Hrvytsr screens up and down the line chattering like cell phone ringtones.

I wasn't sure what to do with my night if Tina wasn't going to bug me so I ducked into Ross's room next door. Her room wasn't any different than mine or anybody else's but it felt darker. Like an overhead bulb was out. It took a minute before I figured out why. Her screen wasn't on. The huge screen in every room that takes up almost an entire wall. She sat on the edge of her bed with her hands in her lap and faced her screen even though it was off. I didn't even know you could turn the screen off. Mine blares all day and even when it's not showing anything it flashes panoramic pictures of faraway cities. Ross had managed to make hers go black.

I asked Ross if she was doing okay. She nodded yes but didn't turn to face me.

I am protected, she said.

Ross untied a small rope from her neck and pulled on it. Pulled and pulled and pulled like the rope went on forever. And then out from the neck of her shirt she pulled this little leather sack. It was a big thing to be wearing as a necklace. As big as her fist.

I have my smoke child, Ross said. It is from mother. When my country had war and there were enemies everywhere the women had to go. But there were women enemies. Enemies with baby not born yet. So you take baby from enemy before born and you dry. Hang up like meat. Then you have a smoke child to protect you.

Ross cradled the sack in her hands like a kid with a doll pretending she was rocking a baby to sleep. For a moment I had the feeling there really was a baby in the sack. A living one. I swore I could see the sack puff out and collapse like it was breathing.

There's a baby in there? I asked.

No. It was never baby. It was always a smoke child. It looked after my mother when there were bombs and skulls. When I came to here she gave it to me. Now it looks out for me. I fear nothing. My smoke child protect me.

I slipped back into my room. Ross never did turn to look at me.

 

When they grabbed me from under the bridge I never saw them coming. I only heard a half second of commotion. The sound of a van door sliding open and boots stomping. I didn't have time to turn in the direction of the noise before I had a hood over my head and tight plastic straps binding my hands together. And then I was in a van. I could feel van racing underneath me and I could feel a solider on each side of me. Rough pants against my legs. The end of a rifle butt against my thighs.

I was in the dark for days. They left the hood on and threw me into a cell made of the same spongy material everything is made of in the compound. I thought I was in a room made of ice except that the floors and walls weren't cold. They weren't hot either. They felt like they had no temperature at all.

At mealtimes the guards would call to me. Hey, retard, can't you see? Your lunch is over here. They'd laugh as I stumbled all over a room I couldn't see trying to follow their voices. To your left, you dumb bitch. No, your other left, you fucking gash. While I mashed carrots and fake chicken into a mouth hole in my hood they told me all the terrible stuff they planned to do to me. They used creepy baby voices.

We're gonna bweak your arms and thwow you in a pool.

We're gonna pull the pin on a gwenade and shove it up your cunt.

They kept it up when they led me out of my cell for first time. One hissing threats to me in each ear. Their hands bruised my biceps and their perfume mixed together almost made me gag as much as their baby voices.

We're gonna cut off your thwoat and pour acid in the hole.

We're gonna fill your asshole with cement.

I was thrown into another room and sat down in a chair and shackled to a desk. Only then did one of the guards take off my hood. She laughed when I slammed my eyes shut because they couldn't take the light. It's only lightbulbs, you fuckin' twat, she said as she swung an iron door shut begin her. Then I heard The Doctor for the first time.

Congratulations, The Doctor said. You have been given a clean bill of health and are eligible for the Hrvystr associate program. You will assist in the creation of Hrvystr brand products in order to pay back the debt incurred by your incarceration due to illegal residence in this country. Once you agree to this arrangement any attempt to break this agreement will result in prosecution and a fine of up to...

I'm not here illegally, I yelled up at the ceiling. As I did I caught too much of the light and I had to squeeze my eyes shut again.

The Doctor said my name very slowly. Is that your identification? the voice asked.

It is, I said, but I'm not here illegally. That's a mistake.

Our records indicate you are here without a visa or other legal documentation required of foreign nationals. Do you wish to dispute this?

Yeah I do, I said. I know we had docs when my mom brought us here. I don't know what kind of docs because I was like three years old when we came here but we had them. Then my mom got kicked out of her sister's house because she was seeing some scumbag her sister hated. Eventually my mom finally realized what a scumbag this guy was and dumped his ass but he wouldn't leave her alone. We'd see him hanging out across the street from the apartment all the time just staring at us. I told my mom to call the cops but she didn't want to get him in trouble for some reason. And then one day we got home and found out someone broke into our place and took our docs. Didn't take nothing else. Not the TV and not her jewelry and not even couple of 20s that were just out on the kitchen counter. Only took our docs. Knew exactly where they were. Top dresser drawer where mom kept the prayer cards. He took them just to fuck us. He knew my mom wouldn't call the cops because they'd never believe we had docs and we'd just get sent to immigration. I couldn't get mom out of bed for nothing after that. She kept crying, I can't go back I can't go back. There had to be some awful shit on the other side that made her get us up here in the first place because she never did nothing without a kick in the ass. So I said, Do something about it. I couldn't go to school because of you. I'm working as a fucking hillbilly bar dancer because of you. I ain't going back to the other side because of you too. I been here since I was a baby and the other side ain't my home. Get to the fucking consulate and take care of this shit. But soon it didn't matter because the consulate was shut down and the other side was fucking dead. Things blew up over there way before things went to shit here. I hope that asshole got the bug first. I hope nobody knew what was wrong with him and nobody helped him. I hope he was one of those terrified blobs you saw on the news when the bug first hit. Those poor bastards who were losing their minds and blubbering, My face is falling off oh god what's happening help me. I hope he died in a fucking emergency waiting room melting like a popsicle and everybody screaming, What the fuck is that. I hope that was the last fucking thing his ears heard. I hope he was alone. I hope he was as alone as anyone can be.

I said all of this but The Doctor voice didn't understand. She kept repeating, I'm sorry, I didn't catch that. I realized The Doctor wasn't a real person but some automated system. It wasn't equipped to take in everything I had to say.

When I was done talking The Doctor said, We have noted your acceptance into the Hrvystr associate program. Stand by for transfer.

Then I felt the room move. The vibrations shook all the spongy furniture. The room moved slowly like a train trying to get up speed but never quite getting there. After a few minutes the room stopped with a thud and the door opened and my shackles unlocked themselves.

Procced into your Hrvystr sleeping solution, The Doctor said.

I didn't want to move at first because I was sure it was some trick. I walk through the door and I get jumped by one of the baby-talking guards. We're gonna cwack all your bones.

How did I get here? I asked.

The facility is a series of mobile circles that fit within one another, The Doctor said. The circles move as needed to transport people. This reduces the threat and wasted energy of needless wandering. I invite you again to proceed into your Hrvystr sleeping solution and Become Your Now.

I walked super slow like any step might set off a land mine. But when I stepped through the door the only thing I saw was a tiny cell with a bed and a set of drawers and a screen the size of the entire wall blasting a TV show where girls in tiny dresses beat each other with their pocketbooks.

Once I was through the door it closed behind me. Then a whirr. The room I left had moved on. A set of clothes lay on the bed. They looked like pajamas but were made of heavier material more like a jump suit. Underneath them was a laminated card with information about how to operate the machines. Pictures showing you how to grip the machines. Red lines through the things you weren't supposed to do. The only words on the cards MEMORIZE AT ALL TIMES in a bunch of different languages.

The big screen was too bright for my eyes right so I laid down on the bed and plugged up my ears and thought of Luis. I was sure he had escaped the round up. I didn't know what happened to the boys who were rounded up but I figured it was the same thing that was happening to me or worse. So I thought of Luis and I told myself he was still out there free and safe and healthy somewhere. There was not a way that he could not be safe. I saw him on a beach in his cowboy outfit. Just standing there. Close to the water but not so close the surf would hit his boots. Hands through his belt loops. The sun was setting. No one else was around. He was wherever that beach was.

 

The day after I went into Ross's room Tina wasn't on the production line. In her place was a girl named Marta. Tiny body and giant face that looked like she got stung by a bee. Marta asked me how to hold the machines.

Not much to it, I said. Grab the handles and hold on. That's it.

It doesn't feel right, Marta said. Can you show me?

She placed her hands on the handles but didn't curl them to hold on. Like she didn't know how to do this with her own body.

I can't get up, I told her. The restraints make you sit until the end of your shift. It looks like you're doing it right from here.

Marta scowled. She had a giant mound of a brow that almost swallowed up her eyes.

Did you see Tina? I asked Marta.

Who?

Tina. She had your room. Do you know where she went?

Nobody had my room, Marta said. It's my room.

Do you know if Tina went to the CEO?

Now I was annoying her. She finally grasped the handles and her machine chugged to life. I grasped mine too. My hands hurt when I did it. I let go of the handles for minute but my hands still hurt. They never hurt before. It wasn't the palms or the fingertips that hurt. It was the knuckles. The bones. It felt it deep. I felt it for the first time.

 

I only went out with Luis once and only to the Chinese bakery that he loved so much.

This place is great, he kept telling me on the walk from the bar to the bakery. Repeated it like he was trying to convince himself.

Luis bought himself a giant bun. It sat on a plate in the middle of his tray. This huge pillowy thing that looked like it was waiting for someone to place a diamond ring on top of it. I only got coffee. It wasn't long after last call. I thought the place would be overrun with drunks but it was almost empty. The girls behind the counter wore bright white smocks and face masks. They looked like nurses. The bug had already started.

This is so good, Luis said as he cut into the bun with a dull tan plastic knife. Bright pink cubes oozed out of the middle like he was dissecting an animal. He gobbled up the meat and left the skin of the thing alone.

Try it, he said.

Pink meat glistened on the end of his fork. A drop of grease fell off and onto the tray with a squish. The sound made me feel sick to my stomach.

Don't feed me like a baby, I said.

He laughed but I turned my head away. We didn't say much to each other after that. Luis ate the innards of his bun and made yummy noises like I was missing out on the greatest thing ever.

It pissed me off that he wanted to feed me like a baby. Put a fork in my face and make me small. I knew I never wanted that.

Luis didn't walk me home. When we were done he went one way on Roosevelt and I went another. He tipped his giant hat to me before he turned away. The sun was starting to peek over the 7 train tracks. It was summer and it was already too hot. Fog rolled across the surface of the street.

 

I asked The Doctor if Tina went to the CEO. The Doctor said she didn't understand.

That's what we say when a girl disappears, I told The Doctor. I don't know why we say it. I didn't make it up. The girls were saying it long before I got here.

The Doctor spit out a bunch of facts about the Hrvystr CEO: started a company in his garage... $3.6 billion net worth by last estimate... directs Presidential Council on Innovation...

Does he live here? I asked.

Did you ask if he lives?

I asked if he lives here at the facility.

Any violation of the CEO's privacy would constitute a breach of your associate's agreement which would result in...

Forget it, I said.

My head and my hands ached. I didn't have the strength to fight a voice from the ceiling.

Your data indicates an unusual amount of stress. Studies show that unnecessary queries can lead to increased stress. Do you feel you have enough mental health resources to properly perform your work tasks?

Mm hm, I said.

I felt like a knife was slowly slicing my brain.

 

It was open door night. I was in Ross's room again. I was feeling everything Tina said she felt before she disappeared. Drained. Weak. Tired of being.

I asked Ross if I could see her smoke child. She shook her head no.

You don't have pain, I said. You don't complain. The smoke child must help you. Maybe it can help me too. Please.

No one can see, Ross said. Not even me. If you see it the smoke child will not know you anymore.

Please. Ross. Let me see it. Or at least let me hold that sack. They're going to take me to the CEO. That'll be the end of me.

You do not worry, Ross said.

She held out her arm to point. Her arm was almost totally straight but it arced upward ever so slightly.

He is a smoke child too, she said.

 

Once I got home from the bar around 5 as usual and my mom was in her bed as usual and she was crying as usual and I didn't say anything to her because she never listened when she was crying but she called out to me and she said, I'm sorry, and I still didn't react because she said sorry so much that sorry meant nothing but this time she said, I'm sorry I killed you, and I laughed because I thought she was joking but she went on, I gave you life so I also gave you death because being alive means you have to die and that is all my fault, and I said, That's ridiculous are you mad at your own mother for giving you life, and she said, Oh god yes I curse her every day I curse her for putting an end to me and to you too I curse mothers everywhere may they all pay for what they've done.

 

The outside moved. A noise along the track outside my room. The same sound I heard when The Doctor came to visit. My screen scanned the skyline of some city with a billion blinking signs written in a language I couldn't read. The upper left of the screen blinked 3:23 am. I was sure I had never really gone to sleep. My head hurt so much it pounded in my dreams.

The overhead light turned on. Then the back door of the room opened. Not the door that led to the machines. The door that opened on the mobile exam room. But there was no exam room on the other side. Only a hallway. The lights were switched on near the doorway. The rest was dark.

Proceed, said The Doctor.

In a second I was up on my feet and padding down the hallway. I didn't bother to slip on my sandals. My head couldn't process doing anything else but going. Moving. Leaving.

The floor in the hallway was even softer than elsewhere. Soft like a gym mat. As I walked the lights ahead of me lit up and the ones behind me turned off. The ceiling was very low. I could have touched it if I wanted to but I didn't. The hallway was cold and got colder the farther I walked.

The hallway ended at a large rounded room. Between the coldness and the dim gray color of the walls it looked like an igloo. Long tunneling pipes ran into and out of the walls. They pulsed with the goop that supplied the machines. The way the goop sloshed through them reminded me of videos I'd seen in school. Health class. Sperm corkscrewing their way to the womb. Where the pipes entered and where they left made little sense as far as I could see.

A screen curved up one section of the slanting wall. A chair sat before the screen. An old recliner with a giant handle to make it tilt back although it was not tilted back. I was meant to go to the chair. The Doctor no longer spoke to me. Yet I knew this.

The chair was turned with its back to me. As I drew closer to the chair I saw someone was sitting in it. I couldn't make out any more than sleeves slumped on the arm rests and the very top of what looked like a bald head shivering from the cold.

I did not see The CEO until I was very close. I was too cold to gasp or gag at the sight of him. His skin had the color and moistness of uncooked chicken. Veins and arteries buzzed near the surface. The skin on his bald head slumped forward and over his eyes. There was little trace of his nose or his mouth either except for a gargling slurping sound that echoed through the room when he breathed. His hands slithered out of the sleeves of pajamas dotted with spaceships.

When he lifted an arm it separated from the arm rest with the sound of a bathmat being pulled from a tub. He pointed at the screen. A cartoon. One I hadn't seen since I was a kid. I remember liking it. Seeing it again I could tell it was dumb. But kids like dumb things. Some people get to like dumb things. Some people are never made to grow up.

The CEO said something. His attempt at words sounded like bubbles being blown in chocolate milk. I shouldn't have been able to understand those words but I did.

Yeah this was a great show, I lied.

 

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