Story Excerpt

Semper Augustus

by Nancy Kress

 

I.

The trucks stood in a ragged row in gray October rain. Beyond them a lurid red light blinked on and off: TR CK STOP EAT SHOWER FUEL SLEEP. The girl lumbered into the lot, rain sliding over her huge belly, and smiled sourly. “Trick stop,” she said to no one. Then another pain came and she bent over, gasping.

When the contraction passed, she took tools from her duffel. Bypassing the self-driving vehicles with their e-locks, she chose a large, dented truck with a cab, one transom window, and red letters:

BRENNAN HOUSEHOLD MOVING

The Personal Touch for Long-Distance Moves

Deftly, the girl picked the lock and peered into the truck. Cardboard boxes, furniture covered with cloth pads and roped to the sides of the truck, oversized plastic bags. Some space left, but not enough to pick up another household’s belongings. Grunting, she hauled herself inside and pulled the door closed.

In the dim light from the transom, she broke open a big plastic bag. Her pains were coming faster now. She tossed sofa pillows, knitted throws, and a child’s bedspread on the narrow floor space, pulled off her pants, and lay down.

“‘The personal touch’ . . . aaahhhhh!”

Twenty minutes later, the cab door slammed and the truck began to move.

Labor was neither too hard nor too long. The baby was born amid blue-and-gold tasseled sofa pillows, blood and amniotic fluid soaking the Disney princesses on the bedspread. The placenta followed. The girl tied off and cut the umbilical cord. She pulled a corner of the spread over the baby, not touching the child. It didn’t cry, just stared at her from unfocused eyes under a wisp of brown hair.

The girl slept. But when she woke, she wrapped the child in a clean blanket from her duffel. A note was already pinned to the soft cotton, giving a name and address in Tacoma, Washington, followed by a sketch of a raised middle finger.

The baby didn’t wake. The girl’s face creased with emotion, gone in a moment.

The truck rolled on through the night. At dawn, it stopped again and the cab door slammed. The girl waited three minutes, opened the door, and looked out. The truck stood in a diner parking lot in a mostly deserted strip mall.

Perfect.

She climbed out, leaving the truck door ajar. Without looking back, she walked along the sidewalk until she reached a row of dark houses with sagging porches and peeling paint. Walking hurt, but not as much as she’d expected. She called Uber. Her phone glared with huge letters that filled the screen: ALIENS APPROACH EARTH. Another stupid internet hoax. Anyway, who cared? A ride was nearby.

Her body suddenly lurched and she sank to the curb. It was a huge effort to rise just before the Uber driver saw her.

She left her phone buried in a clump of weeds. Those things could be traced. Anyway, she’d gotten from Uber the only information she needed: her location, just outside of San Francisco. She must have slept longer than she thought as the truck rolled from Tacoma through Washington, Oregon, California.

They were going to have a hell of a time with the birth certificate.

*   *   *

Jennie’s earliest memory was falling. She toddled into Gramma’s bedroom and discovered that she could pull herself up on the old blue chair. From there, she could haul her small body to the top of the dresser. So high! She leaned out to see what else she could do. A yank on the knobbly thing below her, and a drawer opened. Jennie reached in and grabbed something just as the entire dresser teetered forward.

She screamed. The dresser fell. In the tiny, shabby room there was space for it to fall only forty-five degrees before it hit the bed. Jennie pitched forward onto the bed, followed by three small drawers raining underclothes and socks. Gramma rushed into the room. “Jennie!”

The little girl wasn’t hurt but she was terrified. She’d done a bad thing. Gramma’s face made that clear. She started to cry.

Gramma bent her arms across her chest. “Let that be a lesson to you not to go where you don’t belong. Now stop crying, you aren’t hurt.”

Jennie stopped crying. Gramma didn’t unbend her arms. Jennie, still scared, did the only thing she could think of: say what Gramma said. If Gramma said it, it must be good, and maybe then she would unbend her arms.

“Leb wat be a lebbon be oo nob go ear oo doon bewong. Nou stob cry oo arb urb!”

It didn’t work; Gramma’s face got the terrible squinch that meant Jennie did another bad thing. Then, abruptly, her face changed. She said, “What did I say to you? Tell me again.”

But Jennie was too terrified to speak.

Gramma sat on the bed. She took Jennie in her lap, something she almost never did, and said, “Tell me again, Jennie, what I just said to you.”

“Leb wat be a lebbon be oo nob go ear oo doon bewong. Nou stob cry oo arb urb!”

Gramma stared at Jennie. Then she said, “First shift starts work at 6:00 a.m., second shift at two o’clock, graveyard shift at ten-thirty, for continuous coverage. Say it, Jennie.”

The child’s face creased. She knew they were words, but she didn’t know those words. Saying Gramma’s words was a bad thing, but Gramma wanted her to say them. She didn’t know what to do.

“Say it, Jennie.”

“Fear bif barber ab bicks ayem becon bif ab boo oaklock grabeyear bif ab ben birdy for conbinoos cabbage. Bay ib, Jennie.”

Gramma said more words, Jennie babbled them back. Gramma’s face didn’t unsquinch. The words to repeat got longer and longer. Finally Gramma made a whistling noise through her nose and put her hand on Jennie’s arm.

“Listen to me. Listen good, little girl. You can’t ever do that again, not with my words or anybody else’s. Do you understand? Anything different can be used against you, and you already—anything.”

Jennie said, “Libben—”

“No, no, don’t say my words. Don’t say anybody’s words!”

Jennie went mute.

Gramma sighed. “I don’t mean you can’t talk. Never mind, I’ll explain it when you’re older. Come with me now, it’s lunch time.”

Lunch. Gramma’s face unsquinched. Jennie was forgiven. Only then did she see that she still held what she’d snatched from Gramma’s drawer: a picture. Now it was all wrinkled. Gramma would be mad at her again. She tried to smooth out the wrinkles.

“Give me that,” Gramma said, sounding more tired than mad. That was good.

Gramma smoothed the picture. Jennie saw a pretty girl with long purple hair—Jennie’s favorite color!—blue eyes and a very red mouth. Somebody had used the wrong crayons on the picture. Gramma said suddenly in her maddest voice, “Your mother.”

Her mother? Like in the book Are You My Mother? The child’s eyes, a watery pale version of the girl in the picture’s vivid blue, grew huge. Gramma stood to straighten the dresser, still holding the picture.

“Mine!”

Gramma turned. Her face squinched up again, but she said, “Why not?” She tossed the picture on the bed.

*   *   *

There were bad people in the world, which was why Jennie couldn’t ever go outside. It wasn’t safe. And not only bad people—bad things-that-weren’t-people who came from a star. Aliens. The aliens took away Gramma’s job in a factory. Jennie wasn’t sure how aliens could do that, or what a factory was, or why other children could go outside. Jennie saw them from the upstairs window in her bedroom, running down the street, saying bad words, chasing balls or fighting. She wanted to go outside, too, but Gramma was firm. “Nothing but trouble out there. I know. You don’t. And you remember what I told you?”

“Yes.” She didn’t even repeat what Gramma told her, because that would be doing what she wasn’t supposed to do. She’d been told so often enough. She said, “But why can’t I—”

“No.”

Gramma didn’t go outside, either. Food and clothes and lightbulbs were brought to the door by drones. That was always exciting; a drone flying up and dropping a package. Gramma knew on the computer when it was coming and she picked it right up before bad people or bad aliens could steal it.

When something broke, Gramma tried to fix it. If she couldn’t, they did without. Somebody threw a rock through the living room window, and Gramma nailed a big board over it. The TV broke and after that they watched movies on the computer. Jennie loved movies, with cartoon characters or real people doing wonderful things outside. Gramma watched the news, which was boring. Also, it made Gramma mad.

“Damn Likkies,” she said, even though that was a word that Jennie wasn’t allowed to use. “Damn them to hell, and the government, too. This newest welfare cut don’t leave enough for one person to live on, let alone two. If I didn’t have my savings . . . well, do—”

Jennie knew the next part, which was always the same. In her mind she said it along with Gramma: “Do what you have to, but be prepared for the shit you get doing it. You remember that, Jennie.”

“Yes, Gramma. But Gramma—I want to go outside.”

“No. And don’t ask again.”

Often Jennie looked at the creased picture of her mother. One day—scared but already, at five, knowing enough to not show it—she worked up courage to ask. “Where did my mom go?”

She was surprised that Gramma answered. “Somewhere safe. Cora always lands on her feet. Or on somebody else’s.” She looked harder at Jennie and her face softened slightly. “She went to California. She didn’t take you, but she’d be happy in California. She always liked the Beach Boys.”

Jennie saw the softening, but missed the sarcasm. She didn’t know who the Beach Boys were, but after that she pictured her mother on a beach like the ones in movies. Her mother was jumping high in the air, purple hair waving in the wind, and landing gracefully on her feet, surrounded by a pack of boys who were keeping her safe.

Emboldened by this picture, Jennie pushed harder. “Where’s my daddy?”

Gramma was done with softness. She snapped, “I don’t know and maybe Cora don’t neither.”

Jennie nodded. That was a good answer because it seemed to leave the whole question of her father up to her. She grew up one of the beach boys into a man and added him to the picture in her mind, jumping alongside her mother, the two of them holding hands beside tall blue waves.

Someday she would find them.

Gramma sighed. “Now go clear the kitchen table like I already told you once.”

*   *   *

Jennie was seven. No more drones delivered things, because now Jennie was big enough to stay in the house alone while Gramma went out to shop. Besides, drone delivery was too expensive.

The news blared from the old computer. Jennie played on the floor beside the kitchen table, building scarred wooden blocks into a house for a family of tiny ghosts made from scraps of an outgrown tee. She wasn’t allowed to do much on the computer, but she could see some movies, and one had a lot of ghosts that snatched a little girl through the family’s TV. Fortunately, Gramma’s TV was still broke, so Jennie was safe.

Gramma shifted in her chair, which meant her back ached. Jennie stood up. “Gramma, do you hurt?”

Gramma didn’t answer. She stared at the computer. Abruptly she turned to Jennie, her forehead all wrinkled. “Were you listening?”

“Sort of,” Jennie hedged.

“What does that mean?”

Jennie couldn’t explain. Gramma tried. “Does it mean you weren’t paying attention but you heard so can repeat what the newsman said anyway? The way I heard you repeating every last word of Charlotte’s Web yesterday?”

They never talked about this. Gramma said not to talk about this. Jennie didn’t know what to say.

“I asked you a question, Jennie. Can you repeat what the newsman said?”

Jennie nodded. Her stomach began to jump.

“How much of it?”

“All.”

“Do it.”

Jennie’s stomach jumped harder. What was Gramma doing? But an order was an order—another thing Gramma said a lot. Jennie began.

“The NBC Evening News with Brandon Mills. Welcome to our viewers on the West Coast. In a major development today, the Terran-Lictorian Friendship Association announced a major acquisition from our interstellar trade partners. A consortium of Americans and Chinese, the first since the Lictorians landed in China seven years ago, will test Lictorian Q-energy fields for possible development and international manufacture. Q-fields are invisible barriers that can stop anything short of ICBMs. They are expected to be a boon to the physical security of buildings and events, preventing the kind of terrorist attack that last month destroyed the lobby of 40 Wall Street in New York and caused structural damage to the building. This historic agreement marks the first time that—”

“That’s enough,” Gramma said. Her chin fell forward. “Do you know what all that means?”

“No,” Jennie said.

“It means more fucking safety for the fat cats and less for us.”

Fat cats? There hadn’t been any cats in the news.

Gramma straightened. “What it means to you, Jennie, is that you must never, ever tell people that you remember every last word you hear and can repeat them. Never. Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” Jennie said, although she didn’t. Who would she tell? She never went outside. She was only allowed to use the computer to watch things Gramma said were safe.

“Now you have to see one more thing. You aren’t going to like it, but you have to see it.” Gramma hesitated. “Come closer.”

Jennie did, and Gramma put her arm around her. That scared Jennie more than any words. Gramma almost never touched her. Turning Jennie so she could see the computer, Gramma hit the keys.

The face of a little girl appeared on the screen, smiling and holding a doll. She had curly brown hair and gray eyes. Her front tooth was gone, just like Jennie’s. A man’s voice, not Brandon Mills, said, “Marie Celeste Smith disappeared from her Tumwater home two days ago. Today police found her mutilated body in woods along I-5 near Bucoda.”

The picture changed to the little girl lying on a pile of leaves. She had no clothes on, her face was bloody, burns covered her skinny legs, her mouth twisted open. “Police have no suspects, but—”

“Turn it off!” Jennie cried. Gramma did.

“What . . . who . . . why did you—” Jennie tried to get free, but Gramma held on. Her hands were unusually gentle, but there was nothing gentle in her voice.

“I showed you that so’s you know what can happen. In a blink, just like that. It’s my job to keep you safe, Jennie. Not like . . . it’s a dangerous world out there.”

“I hate you!” Jennie blurted, appalled at herself even as she said it.

“Maybe so,” Gramma said calmly, “but you won’t later on. You’ll learn what I’m trying to spare you.”

Jennie didn’t understand, not any of it. She whispered, “I don’t hate you. I don’t. I’m sorry. Only, why—”

“Because you’re eight. Law says you have to go to school.”

“School? For real? School?” The reading and math programs she played with on the computer showed children at school.

Gramma didn’t answer that. Instead her face sagged and she said, “I won’t fail again. I won’t.”

*   *   *

On the way to school, Gramma held Jennie’s hand. Other children walked with their mothers or fathers, but they were smaller than Jennie. Older kids ran in packs.

Jennie looked at everything—she was outside! She touched the trunks of trees, the straggly grass coming up through the sidewalk, the sidewalk itself. At the end of her street, most of which she’d never seen no matter how much she twisted to peer from her bedroom window, was a bigger street with no trees. Weeds grew in empty lots; one house was just burned and blackened wood; two of the houses had boards nailed over all the windows. Kids came out of those houses, too.

They passed a park, and Jennie held Gramma’s hand tighter. The park was not like the ones in movies. It had garbage on the ground and dropped needles and people sleeping. One man lying on his back with his mouth open looked dead until he suddenly snored. Jennie smelled shit.

They turned another corner, and she blinked. A low building surrounded by a metal fence, bushes and flowers, walls gleaming white with a glowing blue sign: MARSUPIAL TECHNOLOGIES. A copter landed on a paved area with no cracks and four people got out, three women and a man, in the kinds of clothes that people in movies wore to “business.”

Gramma said, “Keep moving, Jennie. No, don’t touch the fence! It’s electric and you’ll get a nasty shock. Come on, walk.”

“But what is that place?”

Gramma stopped tugging at Jennie’s hand. “Okay, I guess you need to know some things before you start school. I should of said it before. The aliens, ‘Lictorians’ the government calls them, have all kinds of fancy tech. They landed in China, so the Chinese got the tech and then sold some of it to companies in America. All that means is rich people got richer, like always. But this time, way way richer. And those of us on the bottom lost more and more jobs to the Likkie robots and AI and supertrains and all the rest of it. I used to have a good factory job at Boeing, before automation. Between the Likkies and your grandfather, I lost everything. And welfare just gets less and less. So now you understand.”

Jennie didn’t. What grandfather? What was “bo-ing” and how did Gramma lose “everything”? What everything? But she knew from Gramma’s tone that was all she was going to get. Still, she risked one more easy, yes-no question.

“Are there robots in that building?”

“Probably. And they’re run by the likes of those managers you just saw get out of the quadcopter. Those people didn’t never expect to be working in a neighborhood like this. But this God-forsaken town wasn’t quite so bad when Marsupial built here for the low land taxes, and the commute from Seattle wasn’t so bad. But nothing gentrified like they expected. So now we got the high-tech fat cats working side by side with the people they put out of work. There’s more of these tech giants the other side of your school, to the north.”

Three older kids threw stones at the fence. It crackled and a spark flew from one stone. Then a loud bell rang and the kids raced off.

“Don’t ever let me catch you doing something stupid like that,” Gramma said. “You keep your head down and stay out of trouble, you hear?”

“Yes, Gramma.” Trouble. A picture of the dead little girl never really left Jennie’s mind. Marie Celeste Smith disappeared from her Tumwater home two days ago. Today police found her mutilated body in woods along I-5. . . .

It would be better to be dragged into the TV by ghosts.

*   *   *

“She’s eight?” the lady behind the counter said. “Nearly nine? Why didn’t you enroll her earlier?”

Gramma said, “Law says eight years old. She’s still eight until October. Why would I send her earlier to someplace dangerous as this?”

Jennie didn’t think Lemberg Elementary School looked dangerous. It looked thrilling. The office had bright paper leaves taped to one wall. A long red-and-yellow sign hung in the hall between closed classroom doors: WELCOME BACK TO ANOTHER EXCITING YEAR OF LEARNING! Someone had written in a corner FUCK LERNING. But everything smelled clean, and a teacher carrying a big stack of books with torn spines smiled at Jennie over the top book.

The counter lady wasn’t smiling. “She’s too old for first grade. She’ll be nearly three years older and bigger than the other children.”

“Yes,” Gran said. “Better able to protect herself.”

Jennie said, “I can read.”

The counter lady didn’t look impressed.

“Real good,” Jennie added. “I read books on the computer. And I do math and know science from online shows!”

The counter lady called for another lady, as old as Gramma but with bright red hair, who took Jennie into a small, crowded room and gave her a tablet to read and then some math problems on paper. She asked a lot of questions. Jennie was nervous, but the tests weren’t hard and the lady was kind. When they were done, Gramma still waited in the office. The lady said, “She did very well indeed. Placement should be third grade, in the annex.”

Gramma wasn’t happy. “She don’t have enough writing.”

The red-haired lady spoke to Gramma, and Jennie thought her voice sounded sad. “She has enough for this school, even in the annex program. Although I’m afraid standards aren’t what they should be.”

Gramma said, “They never were.” She turned to Jennie. “And you—you should of stayed in first grade where I wanted you. You just made it harder on yourself.”

The counter lady said stiffly, “I’m sure Jennie will be fine. We maintain careful discipline at Lemberg Elementary.”

“And that’s why you got metal detectors and two cops patrolling the hallway? Of an elementary school?”

“Mrs. Flint, I really must object to—”

“Bye, Jennie. Behave yourself, and don’t take any crap.”

*   *   *

For the first time she could remember, Gramma was wrong. There was no crap. The “annex” was a little building behind the regular school. The kids here looked cleaner and the posters on the wall weren’t torn or scribbled over like in the big building. Jennie carried the pencil and notebook she’d been given in the office and stared at the roomful of children seated at tables that didn’t match. So many children in one place! It made Jennie feel shy.

The teacher, a slim brown woman with dreadlocks that Jennie instantly coveted, welcomed her warmly. “I’m Ms. Scott, Jennie. You can sit at that table there with Imani and Lucy and Rosita.”

The table, covered with graffiti and knife marks, wobbled when Jennie sat down. One of the girls, dark brown eyes shining, whispered, “Hi, I’m Imani Jones. Welcome to the class. We’re all illegal.”

Illegal? Against the law? Gramma told Jennie to stay out of trouble . . . but the school had put her here! And how could a school be illegal?

“Imani,” Ms. Scott said, “do you have something you’d like to share with the whole class?”

“No, ma’am, I do not!” Imani grinned, and Ms. Scott shook her head, smiling.

“Terrell, will you pass out the math books?”

Jennie was enchanted. The math books were so worn that some pages had fallen out and been carefully inserted in the proper sequence. Imani and Lucy smiled at her; Rosita just looked down at her hands.

Jennie had never seen anyone as beautiful as Lucy, not even in movies. Lucy had black curling hair and huge green eyes. Next to her, Rosita and Imani looked as plain as Jennie felt. She’d never thought about her looks before, but instantly she hated her brown hair in two tight braids, her pale skin, her pale blue eyes. Beside Lucy, everyone else disappeared.

But when the math lesson began, Jennie realized that Imani never disappeared. She whispered funny jokes that made Jennie giggle, she helped Lucy with division, she tried to get Rosita, who neither smiled nor answered, to trade pencils. Several times Ms. Scott told Imani to be quiet. Each time, Imani said, “Yes, ma’am,” and then went on doing exactly what she’d been doing before.

At recess, Jennie sat on the steps of the annex while Ms. Scott watched kids playing a disorganized and contentious game of soccer. Imani sat beside her. “You’re smart. That’s good. I am, too, I think we should be friends.”

“Okay,” Jennie said, thrilled all over again. A friend!

“Lucy, too. You can help me help her. She’s smart but she don’t get math.”

“Okay,” Jennie said again. Imani seemed to be arranging her life. “What about Rosita?”

“She don’t never say anything. Anyway, she’ll be gone soon, gang stuff in her family, and we don’t need none of that.”

Jennie was startled by the casual dismissal of Rosita. “But—”

“Trust me on this,” Imani said, with such authority in such a grown-up phrase that Jennie was silenced.

Imani began to explain the class to her. “See, we’re the smart class. Nobody supposed to separate kids by smartness, and no teachers will admit that’s what this is, because maybe it’s against the law or something, but it’s true. To be in Ms. Scott’s annex you gotta be very smart and want to learn and not destroy our books and not break her rules. She got a lot of rules. And you also got to be a person who won’t bring no trouble to the annex. But it’s the best third grade and the safest, ’cause nobody starts nothing in class, or they out.”

Jennie digested all this. “But what if I break a rule and I don’t know I’m breaking it?”

“She gives you more than one chance. And anyways, you don’t look like nobody that’s gonna make trouble. Do your work and don’t diss nobody and stay away from the gangs and you can stay. You want to stay?”

Jennie said, “Yes! I do!”

Imani nodded. “Good. I’m the smartest one in the whole class. I can tell you what to do.”

“Thank you,” Jennie said. She meant it. Accustomed to being told what to do, she felt grateful.

But later, as a boy collected spelling books so faded that the title was illegible, he whispered to Jennie, “Don’t let Imani boss you.”

Jennie looked up at him, confused, but he’d already moved to the next table.

*   *   *

Jennie loved school. It wasn’t like schools in old movies, with music and art and a gym. Here the paper was flimsy and doled out carefully, the whiteboard chipped and cracked, recess the only exercise. No computers. But everything was orderly and interesting, and Ms. Scott was strict but not as strict as Gramma, so that was okay.

She discovered that Imani was wrong; Imani wasn’t the smartest kid in the class. That was a short, skinny boy named Ricardo Lopez who never answered questions unless Ms. Scott called on him, and then his answers were always right. He finished his “seat work” before everyone else and then sat quietly reading a succession of books brought from home. Real books, not on a tablet. He read books at recess, too. Once, when Imani had decided to lend her boisterous bossiness to the endless soccer game and had dragged Lucy into it as well, Jennie, who didn’t like soccer, sat down next to Ricardo.

“What are you reading?”

He looked up, inspecting her carefully. “You’re the girl that got a hundred on her science test, right?”

“Yes.” Documentaries about science had been among the programs Gramma allowed on the computer; Jennie had watched hundreds and could repeat all of them word for word. Although of course she never did.

“What’s your name?”

“Jennie.” They’d been in this class of twenty-seven students for a month, and he didn’t know her name?

Ricardo considered. “It’s a history book on the Tudor dynasty.”

Jennie had never heard of the Tudor dynasty. “Can I see?”

Again he considered her carefully. Finally he said, “You won’t understand it.”

She didn’t like that. If Ricardo was the smartest kid in the class, Jennie and Imani came next. “How do you know?”

Ricardo handed the book to her. “Don’t lose my page.”

Jennie read: Others faced much more peril. The Act of Succession transformed the definition of treason. To refuse to swear the Oath of succession which supported the Act was to deny that King Henry was now head of the Church. That denial sought to deprive the king of his title, and the penalty was death. Among the victims were Bishop John Fisher and Thomas More, although each followed a different path to the headsman’s axe.

Ricardo was right; Jennie didn’t understand it, not even some of the words. Awed, she handed the book back to Ricardo.

He said simply, “I’m a genius.”

She fumbled for words. “Shouldn’t you be . . . aren’t there . . . I don’t know . . . special schools for geniuses?”

“Money,” Ricardo said. “I’m lucky to be with Ms. Scott.”

“Where did you get that book?”

“My father. Since the library closed, he buys them at a used-book store near his work.”

A father, and one who bought books. Well, Gramma had always gotten Jennie books, too, online. Little Women and Charlotte’s Web and Dinosaur Ages and A Child’s Book of Astronomy. Good books . . . but . . .

“Do you . . . is history your favorite subject?”

“Yes. I—”

“Jennie!” Imani loomed over them. “Come with me! I’ve got something to tell you!”

Ricardo lowered his eyes to the book. Imani pulled Jennie to her feet and then away. “Don’t talk to him. He’s too weird.”

“He’s a genius,” Jennie said.

“Oh, and he told you so? Uh huh, yes ma’am, you believe everything anyone says.”

Did she? Jennie didn’t know. Certainly Imani knew more about everyone in the class than Jennie did: who in their families had been arrested, or died of overdoses, or just “run off.” Imani bossed everyone and knew everything.

By October, Rosita had vanished from school.

*   *   *

Gramma walked Jennie the eight blocks to school every day and the eight blocks home. At first, Jennie was glad; the older kids pushing into the main building, yelling insults at each other and trying to steal each other’s stuff, scared her. But in mid-October, when the trees on her street flamed with color and the air smelled crisp and delicious, Jennie objected. “I can walk alone. Or with Imani and Lucy.”

“Imani and Lucy live in the opposite direction.”

How did Gramma know that? “I can walk with Ricardo.”

“And that skinny little twerp will just spring into judo kicks and defend you, right?”

Jennie suddenly made a connection. “You snooped on everybody. On the computer.”

Gramma wasn’t embarrassed. “’Course I did. I want to know who you know.”

“It’s snooping!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about. If I’d snooped more years ago, everything would be different. What have I always told you?”

Jennie said nothing.

“Say it,” Gramma ordered.

“No! Because you shouldn’t snoop on me!”

They reached MARSUPIAL TECHNOLOGIES, now protected by a Q-energy shield. Three boys and a girl amused themselves by throwing each other against the impenetrable slick wall and sliding down it. “No fair!” one yelled. “It was my turn!” He punched another boy.

Jennie stalked in silence beside her grandmother. She fed her grievance, adding more kindling, creating a blaze. She wasn’t a baby anymore! She was nine now and tall for her age and sort of strong. And she was the second—or maybe third—smartest kid in the special class for smart kids. She could take care of herself. Gramma was just—

They had reached the weedy park full of needles and garbage. A large man rose from the sidewalk and shambled, barefoot, toward them. His pale eyes looked filmy, the pupils huge. He whined, “Hey, lady, spare some change?”

Gramma took Jennie’s hand and pulled her along.

“Just change for . . . I’m bad off, lady.”

Gramma kept walking.

All at once the big man was in front of them. “Don’t be all high ’n mighty, you ain’t any different from us, you and your pretty little kid I oughta—”

He reached for Jennie. She saw his hand, every bit of it in sharp detail: the dirty pale fingers thick as bananas; the veins of his wrist, ropy with scars, when the sleeve of his jacket pulled back; the grease smears on the sleeve. She smelled him. His hand closed on her braid. Marie Celeste Smith disappeared from her Tumwater home two days ago. Today police found her mutilated body in woods along I-5. . . .

An explosion, louder than thunder. The man let go and leapt backward. “Jesus!”

Gramma held a gun.

The man ran away. Jennie stared at her. “You . . . it—let’s go home!”

“No,” Gramma said calmly. “I fired a weapon. There are surveillance cameras over there. We have to wait for the cops to come and clear me. This gun is registered. I didn’t break no laws.”

And then, sharply, “You see how it is, Jennifer. Do what you have to but be prepared for the shit you get doing it.”

*   *   *

Gramma continued to walk Jennie to and from school. Sometimes Jennie and Imani were jeered at by other kids: “Hey, smartass! How much is two plus two?” Jennie ignored them, but Imani would shout back, “Not surprised you don’t know, dumbass!” Once this resulted in a fight behind the annex. It was two girls against Imani, but Imani won. Jennie tried to help by hitting one of the other girls on the back, but Jennie just got knocked down. Imani fought in silence, kicking and gouging and scratching and punching. Eventually the two kids ran off. Jennie staggered to her feet. “I’m sorry I didn’t help more!”

“It’s okay. I don’t need no help.” Imani grinned with bloody lips. “You aren’t a fighter. You’re my sidekick.”

Jennie glowed.

In November, Gramma’s computer stopped working. Gramma couldn’t fix it. Jennie said, “Are we going to get another one?”

“Have to. But not as good, and we’re going to be eating rice and beans this winter.”

The rice and beans were distributed at the Food Bank, which wasn’t a bank because nobody working there had any money either and the food was free. Jennie knew Gramma hated going there. “I don’t take charity from the government,” she said, which made no sense because wasn’t charity good? Didn’t it mean that the government cared enough about you to see that you weren’t hungry?

For the first time, Jennie asked, “Where does our money come from?”

“Savings, mostly. No pension from Boeing, corporations don’t do that no more. Some welfare, which was cut again by 10 percent last month. I’m not old enough for Social Security, which won’t exist by the time I get there. Barely exists now.”

Jennie was frightened. “But how will we get money? Are you going to get a job?” Ricardo’s father had a job, and so did Lucy’s mother, who cleaned rich people’s houses. Blingasses, Imani called them, but if Jennie said that word, Gramma would say “Language!” and slap her.

Gramma said, “Jobs are disappearing fast. Faster. Robots.”

“Lucy’s mother—”

“I know, Magic Maids. And then who would take you to and from school?”

So it was because of Jennie that they were so poor. She hadn’t had new clothes in a long time; as Jennie grew, faded and mended jeans and tops turned up on her bed. With Jennie in school, she suddenly realized, Gramma could go other places and buy those shabby clothes Jennie had complained about. And that trip to the dentist when Jennie’s tooth hurt so bad she couldn’t sleep and the dentist had to pull it out—that must have cost money, too. All at once she felt ashamed. Their poorness was her fault.

“Don’t you think like that for half a minute!” Gramma said, her face fierce. “I made my own choice to keep you, and the state of this country isn’t your fault.”

“But—”

“We live this poor because I’m trying to not touch my savings until we absolutely have to. And that’s all you need to know. Subject’s closed. Go do your homework. Now.”

Everyone was always telling her what to do.

The new computer looked both used and insubstantial, like a flattened-out tin can. But when Jennie turned it on late one night, sneaking out of bed after Gramma was asleep, she found a site that Gramma must have blocked on the old computer. Maybe the new computer didn’t have blocking software.

Jennie stayed up until her eyes would no longer stay open, watching YouTube. She saw cats chasing their tails, people dancing and singing, girls putting on make-up, gymnasts and chefs and interviewers. But she also stumbled on videos taken in schools. She glimpsed computers that had a little stage on which three-dimensional games and lessons appeared. Gramma’s computer couldn’t play holos. She saw computers that unfolded like a piece of cloth, cell phones everywhere, machines she couldn’t name. In some classrooms, kids were learning to program robots.

Jennie turned off the computer and crept to bed. She’d been so proud of being in the annex class with Ms. Scott. “You’re as good as anybody,” Ms. Scott often told her students, “and don’t let anyone tell you different.”

I’m as good as anybody, Jennie told herself fiercely. She got back out of bed, turned on the light, and took out the wrinkled picture of her mother. Her mother had left her; Jennie’s clothes were used and patched; she didn’t have a father like Ricardo’s to buy her books. She couldn’t fight like Imani. Gramma’s computer was old and limited and even to have that, they were going to have to eat government rice and beans for dinner. But she was as good as anybody.

Just a lot poorer.

*   *   *

In February, walking home from school in frosty air that turned Gramma’s ears red, an explosion shredded the air. People stopped and glanced wildly at each other. Even the roughest sixth-grade boys stopped taunting each other and fighting and yelling; they turned, silent, toward the sound. Several blocks away, smoke rose into the air in a dense, black cloud.

Imani, who was coming home with Jennie for a sleepover, said, “That’s the robot factory on Edmond Street!”

Sirens began, wailing loud but not louder than the second and third explosions. More black clouds.

“What is it?” Jennie said. “What happened?”

“They blew it up,” Imani said. “Didn’t they, Ms. Flint?”

“Who?” Jennie said. “Who?”

Imani, always happy to be in the know, said importantly, “It was T-boc, wasn’t it, Ms. Flint? I know it was. Wasn’t it?”

“Probably,” Gramma said. And then she added something Jennie didn’t understand at all.

“So it’s started. Finally.” Her hand reached for Jennie, startling her.

“It’s started.”

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2020. Semper Augustus by Nancy Kress

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