Becoming

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“There,” CJ said, pointing. “She’s one of them.”

“Mrs. Wilkinson? Really?” Mrs. W had always been nice to me. And sometimes she had snacks in her desk.

We hushed up as she passed, squinting against the sun, watching for her shadow.

“See?”

“What do we do?”

“We wait.”

Just us

It was one of the statues they had put up later, After, after the Before that only my grandmother ever spoke of. Before, a statue of Justice would have stood tall, blindfolded but proud, weighing truth in her scales. But After, we understood more about who Justice was: depicted her covering her eyes, weeping, broken-scaled and curve-backed.

They named me for her, even though Pai said it was an ill-omened name.

I used to go down to the back field before Service, before the Reading of Law, when I was only little, and watch the statue. Had she moved? Had she wept? Was it rain or her tears?

Later, when I was older, we’d slip away to the back field, lie in the shadow of Justice and watch the ragged clouds. Before, people used to think there were pictures in the clouds, or omens, or even chemicals, to make you mad and force you to think like the rulers wanted you to.

She never spoke to me, Justice, not when I was little and not thereafter, stealing kisses between her mossy knees and watching the fenceline nervously. We weren’t supposed to go to the back fields, but everyone did. It was like a rite of passage: touch the barbed wire, feel the smoothness of the posts that teenagers had touched before, year on year. Way carved our names together there, running out of room for mine so it said Just. They called me that then, Just. It made me feel almost-enough. Like I was just something.

I could still see it there, my truncated name, when they came to take us. The fence lay in the track-churned grass, the smooth posts shattered.

Justice refused to watch, face in her hands, so I didn’t watch her vanishing behind me.

Paradox (Rise)

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In 1989 I was old enough to remember
but not to understand
the day they interrupted our cartoons
to show one man standing
on flagstones
five thousand, six hundred forty-six miles away from my eyes

Information travels at the speed of thought now
we don’t have to wait months
to see a flower in the barrel of a gun
to see a man standing
and then gone
and a tank where he stood

Thought doesn’t travel as fast as information

The flower is in her hand
The tank is advancing
A line of young people holds umbrellas

We can count the seconds between the chokehold
and i can’t breathe
between the closed door and the rough ride
between the open window and the bullet in the back

And we’re still too slow

not the hand that holds the flower, nor the one that holds the gun
not the man in front of the tank nor the foot on the pedal

In 1989 there were four people in the square:
The man
the tank
the driver
the flagstones

There was no-one else to be.

Wish

How can I help you today?

The name in the chat window said “Joey” but that probably wasn’t the real name that belonged to the person who also owned the hands typing, also probably, thousands of miles and half a day’s worth of time zones away.

I have a problem with your product.

That was neutral enough, I thought. Probably. There were a lot of probabilities in my life lately, though.

I’m sorry to hear that. Can you tell me a little more about your problem?

It’s complicated.

I’m here to help.

They weren’t, though, that was the problem. One problem among many, including the problem that I had with the product itself.

Can you tell me a little more about your problem?

I’d worked customer service. I knew a talk tree when I climbed one. If you don’t get the answer you need to either respond or escalate the problem, you go back to the last question.

Did your product arrive intact?

And on time, thank you so much. Ten-Inch Books was a pleasure to work with until now.

I’m sorry you’re having a bad experience. Can you tell me a little more about your problem?

I hesitated, hands poised over the keyboard. In the face of Joey’s unrelenting cheerfulness–conveyed in a series of pre-scripted phrases–what could I say?

I think I might have a warranty issue, can you escalate this to your supervisor?

I certainly can. Can you tell me what the exact problem is with the product? Many people did not read the advertisement correctly before purchasing. We are currently offering a coupon for an additional product if that is what happened to you. May I have an email address to send your coupon to?

I hadn’t read the ad wrong, I was sure I hadn’t. But a tiny bit of doubt was creeping in. I clicked back and looked at my email.

Ten-Inch Books is pleased to send you our one week program. Follow this step by step guide and you are sure to become a successful…

I looked again.

No, the email still said pianist.

Dawn

The double handful of trinkets cupped in her apron couldn’t have come from the empty road, so they must have been in her pockets. I watched her sort them as Rocinante approached, his gears grinding between my knees with a sound that let me know he was well out of tolerance and ought to be serviced soon. Good luck with that, old friend, I thought, and thumped him between his solar panels as he shook his head. I hadn’t seen a service station in the three years since we’d left Newe land for the Mojave.

By the time Rocinante was towering over her, she’d scrambled to her feet, stuffing baubles and gewgaws into her skirt and clutching the last few in her fist. I saw half a clockwork bird, a little comb, what might have even been a gold coin. If gold had still been valuable, and I’d been the marshal she thought me, she’d’ve joined the trinkets in the dust.

“Going far?” She barely came up to my knee. Wouldn’t meet my eyes as she scuffed a bare foot in the rocky dust. I couldn’t hear her mumbled reply.

“We could give you a ride,” I tried again, watching her watch Rocinante stamp a hoof. He’d been expensive, in his day: had all the little tics and twitches and even made the right sounds. His upholstery was worn and threadbare now, rather than the silvery plush it would have been originally, but the saddle stayed put in its snaps, and the panniers in his ribcage still opened and closed well enough.

“No,” she said, loud enough to hear this time.

“Where’s your people?” The road was as empty before me as behind, except for her footprints.

She mumbled something and gestured to the smudge of mountains against the sky, where I’d seen dust a few sunsets ago. Diggers, then, they were. Or had been. Scratching a life out of the hillside in old tech and new minerals. I’d known diggers. Tough crew. I looked at her again, appraising.

“You walked all that way?”

She nodded.

“Barefoot.”

Another nod.

“Well. Guess I’ll wish you good luck, then.” I gigged Rocinante, set his face to the sun.

“Wait,” she said, “Wait.” We did, me twisting in the saddle to to see where our shadow had just dragged away from her hems.

“I want to hire you.” She held up the gold coin. She had my attention.

“I want to hire you to find out who killed them.”

Tributary

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We went up to the creek
after school today, when the sun hung low and everything smelled like hot grass.
Don’t worry, I was careful

and there under the shady trees
we chased minnows and tadpoles and everything was mud when
we went up to the creek

I let him hold my hand.
We laced our fingers into a cat’s cradle.
Don’t worry, I was careful

not to give anyone the wrong impression.
You know how people talk, that’s why
we went up to the creek

I let him hold my hand
and then I showed him what was under my face.
Don’t worry, I was careful

not to show him too much, too soon: you know how people talk
and I’m not ready to leave this place just yet, so instead of coming here for dinner
we went up to the creek.
Don’t worry, I was careful.