Real Work You Deserve [Part 0]

When you wake up in the afternoon cause you couldn’t get up any earlier

cause your whole body stiff and saturated with toxin exposure and mucous and rash and film and grime

and you’re pushing it on the last of your meds

and you hate dealing with the supplier

and you know there’s gotta be another way

but you’re too overwhelmed that your body feels the way it does…

It’s so much going on…

So it takes you a long time to get up.

Kay sits up on the edge of her bed and groans because she wants to lay back down again. She has been struggling to get out of bed for hours. The mundane force of gravity on the back of her neck feels strong today. She steadies herself with both hands while her head, behind her eyes, between her shoulders, the base of her skull — all throb with the rush of blood pushing through painfully constricted passageways.

Her ligaments are swollen and extremities clumsy with numbness. Her eyes itch and when she rubs them they burn, and she can’t focus them on shit. After she registers the midday’s bleak overcast light, the next thing that takes her attention are the notification shouters lined up for review on her medical bracelet; a procession of low balance alert; air quality warning; flood warning; nutrition imbalance; heat warning…

City services closed down for good like seven, eight days ago when Kay’s zip code was officially released from Ellison’s provisional oversight. The five year contract they signed when they took over operations of what used to be the city was not renewed.

Kay takes in a cautious breath until she coughs on the buildup of shit in her lungs and her head aches under another constricted bloodrush of throbbing. She can feel the grime scraping along her lungs, stuck there, multiplying into a colony or some other bullshit she has no way of treating. A year and a half ago she was in a medical study to get an experimental phytoremedial implant – a plant-based integrated structure that could process toxins in the body that the existing systems couldn’t. It was supposed to make it easier to live in “sub-optimal environments,” but yeah, she always having to get these supplemental meds cause the implant alone isn’t strong enough. And the meds half the time make her feel like she’s gonna burst into flames or shit and vomit at the same time… And she still wasn’t sure how much better that was to some of her old disadvantages.

The windows in Kay’s room don’t close all the way, and all three of them — two facing southwest and one east — are missing their storm windows and the air filters. There is pantyhose shellacked over the gaps to keep mosquitoes out, although one or two find their way through somehow and that keeps Kay up at night, laying in wait for them to buzz in her ears so she can jump up and smash them to death. Kay cannot love the mild weather like she used to. So many mosquitoes and ticks with all the other bugs anymore. Bloodsuckers and parasites. It’s bad to get one of their fevers — they can fuck you up, cripple you, kill you if you’re already not doing good.

WARNING: MOLD LEVELS HIGHER THAN USUAL. TIP: IMPROVE LOCAL VENTILATION AND AVOID DAMP AREAS.

The outside panes of Kay’s windows are covered in a fine drab layer of all kinds of crosswinds refinery shit. When it’s sunny it don’t matter, but on overcast days it makes outside seem that much more grey and done for, and it makes her depressed.

Kay is in bed depressed. Her bed is a twin, a thin center-worn foam-type mattress on particle board sitting on top of six plastic milk crates, all different colors and of course all picked up off the street. Kay likes a firm mattress. Her bed is pushed against the wall in the opposite corner from the east-facing window, so she can get some sun (when it’s ever out). She doesn’t keep curtains on any of the windows, and maybe at some point any voyeur motherfucker could’ve looked in on her, but it’s not like that now. She’s not even sure who all is left living here anymore since the cut off. She stopped paying attention cause what the fuck. Even before, whole blocks and flocks was constantly on the way out, and after, suddenly everyone was jumping on the leave-town train. Rumors that Ellison or someone was gonna bomb everything to the ground, start over, exterminate, and all that type of gossip that’s not at all unfounded. And all this time the zip code was getting more and more plastered with work relocation fliers — that lying shit where some outfit offers room and board, drinking and bathing water, filtered air, and quality-of-life meds in exchange for forfeiting your current residence and all claims to property for an undetermined term. That’s “work” around here. Take the bait. Get out. Kay had had a plan to accumulate credit, stay within city limits, make her way back to her old neighborhood… But she didn’t believe it would get this deserted this fast, and now she’s feeling wild.

She looks back at her flattened pillow and tangled bedsheet with a big exhale.

HEALTH TIP: BALANCE XENOESTROGEN DOMINANCE BY INCORPORATING MORE LEAFY GREENS INTO YOUR DIET. IMPROVE YOUR MOOD AND TRY: ELLY SUPERGREEN SUPPLEMENTS!

Kay flicks the medical bracelet[1]This device has audio/visual settings that can only be heard or seen through intimate proximity. It whispers intimate audio along with the text, which has been engineered to be understood by peripheral glancing. on her wrist, rolls across the bed and reaches for one, a lighter-sized injection gun, and two, a grease-streaked plastic freezer baggie full of corn chips dusted in nutrient powder. She keeps all her important shit like this off the floor and on a rusting industrial stockroom rack — a wire kind she found out in the dump spot at the sinkhole on Cobbs. The rack has five shelves and the chips are on the third — same height as her bed. Also on the rack: all her clothes in a pile, some in a milk crate; a stack of books; toiletries in a plastic basket, neon orange; an assortment of bags; her shoes (bottom rack). On the very top shelf is a clear plastic box meant to go underneath a bed that’s not sitting on milk crates, full of pictures and paper clippings and nostalgic plastic things like take-out toys and hair clips. She places the injection gun just above where her pubic hair starts on her abdomen and clicks it down into her skin.

The rest of Kay’s room — the wall and floor space across from her bed consist of:
A warped plastic tray table with
A sun-bleached red plastic rose duct taped to the wall above it
Her keys and
Her Currency On Pass card sitting in its fraying solar powered charger cover.

The walls in the room don’t look good but she doesn’t really like to get started worrying about that cause who’s gonna fix them? (Not her.) The walls are painted two types of off-white and they’re bubbled out or crumbling off paint dust everywhere. There’s a leak somewhere she can’t totally figure out, and it’s musty as hell, but that’s pretty regular. Above the corner where the walls meet there’s a dip with a crack in it. Kay keeps an overworked dust brush and pan in that corner to sweep up what collects on the floor.

A door opens in beside the foot of her bed and she likes that cause she can jump out onto anyone trying to come in, although that hasn’t happened yet. She keeps a hammer and a crowbar behind the hinges. On the door knob hangs a plastic bag for trash (so at least the mice can’t get in). The room is small, rectangular, on the top floor of a four story apartment building, shoddy as shit and abandoned at this point. Everything in this zip seemed better off than her old neighborhood back when she first came here, and maybe it still is somehow, but the longer she lingers the more anxious she gets.

Kay sits her back against the wall and eats her nutrient-dusted chips, knowing some food will help her concentrate, even as the chewing exacerbates the tenderness in her jaw from clenching it all night again. She’s gotta go to the store today – baseline – and then figure out her options from there. Cause what if the city does get bombed or gassed or Ellison does a master raid? Well. What do they even want to raid it for at this point? When city government dissolved and handed Ellison the reins they was gonna ‘make the city clean again,’ remediate land, start up hydrofarms, deal with waterways, thruways, sewage treatment, toxic materials and all this shit. But then the story turned into an ‘oh the extent of the damage is greater than our shareholders are willing to back and we unfortunately have to dip so we can concentrate on our other projects’ bait-and-switch. That was after they had stormed in, declared all the autonomous blocks “public health hazards,” and dismantled them at gunpoint.

And now Kay depends on Ellison for her meds and her income and her water.

But for how much longer?

A kid with a face like their last coin fell down a sewer pipe stares out the window at a flat grey sky with no sun and tells themself that they need to go the store and not sit here sore and hungry and thirsty all day.

NOTICE: YOUR PLACE OF RESIDENCE IS NO LONGER WITHIN THE COVERAGE ZONE OF ELLISON FLOODBREAK™ PROTECTION. SUBMIT YOUR RESIDENCY APPLICATION TO ELLY HOMESTEAD?

But the cut off…

Like, what if you go out and the stores are all shut down?

What if you get snatched up by scammers?

Why did you think it was gonna be ok to stick around??

The kid feels so sleepy.

A long time ago, when the kid was still really little, there was a few people who took care of her. Even after the raids and everyone had to move to different neighborhoods, Miss Deanna told Kay she could come with her, and they lived with one of Miss Deanna’s old friends on one of the subsidy blocks where the people didn’t try all that anti-scarcity organizing.

Kay is staring out the window, looking down a tunnel to back then. It was so nice. There used to be kids her age, and a big play room in Miss Deanna’s house they all went to. All the empty lots on the block had vegetable and herb gardens in them. There was chickens and special toilets that didn’t use water. They had cleanup days and trash disposal sorted out, and barrels everywhere for collecting rainwater.

The big, big storms were just starting back then. Everything was always flooding, getting contaminated. Their neighborhood did a lot of work to steer the floods away from the area. For years, they’d been figuring out how to replace or convert or reroute all these drains and sections of ground pipes, so that the people could tap some cleaner water from these buried tributaries — and you’d still have to do the treatments on them but at least by then you could drink and wash pretty ok.

Yeah, her old neighborhood taught the kids all that when they were still small. She understood. Everyone had to learn how to take care of everything to the best they could. Be aware, be resourceful. Kay remembers the grown people would talk about back when there was city trash collection and all the power lines worked, and in Miss Deanna’s house she’d be like, all you gotta concern yourself with right now is how to collect this water and to clean it or to tell it’s clean. Because even though the pipes had been been no good, nobody was having to buy water until the Ellison rezoning…

A wave of angry, empty-belly nausea washes Kay away from her reminiscing. Her face twisted into a curse.

Fuck Ellison,” she mutters.

Her gaze whips to her COP card. It’s charged. She plucks it out of its charging cover.

LOW BALANCE ALERT… YOU HAVE: FIFTEEN. DOLLARS. AND. THIRTY ONE CENTS. WOULD YOU LIKE TO ADD VALUE? PRESS 1.

Kay is jogging down four flights of narrow, uneven stairs carrying an empty, sour-smelling 5 gallon water jug plus a little collapsible dolly jawn for carting the jug on the way back. Her hair is dark, thick, and braided down on either side of her head. Her fingernails are bit down stubby on blunted, wide hands that bear greyscale tattoos. She is wearing oversized sweatpants with slip-on shoes, a wide leather belt with a machete strapped to it, a boy’s size tee that hugs her rib cage, and a cord necklace made from braided scraps of a bandana that belonged to her father. She comes off dull, crunchy. Her skin lacks luster from the always-overcast sky. She’s only been eating fortified meal packs from the corner store cause they’re cheap and filling, and that doesn’t help her skin either, she knows. Kay is certain the meal packs are drugged with sedatives and other downers that slow your metabolism to “enhance” absorption. But the risk of poisoning yourself from eating anything that grows wild is too high anymore, so.

Kay flicks the medical bracelet on her wrist again to advance the notification queue.

ELLY HOMESTEAD: YOU HAVE… FOUR. NEW MESSAGES.

Outside it’s hard grit and dust. Deep pollen. Kay’s already wearing an air filtration face flap and wraparound safety glasses. It’s bright as fuck under the waves of low clouds. They keep everything that’s stinking, off-gassing, and effervescing tucked right close to the ground, so that the dense air sloughs and slimes itself against every available surface. You get a rash from this shit if you don’t wipe yourself off when you get inside.

FIRST MESSAGE:
HEY, SHAUN, ARE WE STILL ON FOR TOMORROW NIGHT? I CAN’T WAIT TO DIG BACK IN. I’M ALREADY DRIPPING. SENDING THE REGULAR DEPOSIT.

> ACCEPT FUNDS TRANSFER _50 ELS_ FROM _GOE5436_
>DECLINE FUNDS TRANSFER

>ACCEPTED!

A masked up adolescent stands under the tattered awning of a tired red brick apartment building and doesn’t move. Their head pans from left to right and left again, their eyes methodically scanning up and down. Across the street is the wrought-iron gate of the mosque, left open, with a disintegrating laminated sign telling its members where they have all gone. The One God community center across from it on the next block has a similar sign, with its doors totally locked down and shuttered. The mosque has a school attached to it, and everything on that side of the street – all the rowhomes that line up next to the school, it all looks recently lived in. The rowhomes have two stories, with balconies on the second floors and porches on the first. They all look rough but none are collapsed or bear scorch marks. It’s the same kinda rowhomes on the kid’s side of the street. The street itself is this wiiiiide four lane one-way. But the kid doesn’t go down this street anymore. They’re gonna walk straight up 45th where it’s still clear.

NEXT MESSAGE:
HEY SEXY IT’S MELLOW. I UPDATED MY RECEIVER WILL U DO A MIRROR SIT NOW? EVERYTHING’S READY! YOU ARE SO SEXY DON’T KEEP ME WAITING.

> ACCEPT FUNDS TRANSFER _70 ELS_ FROM _MEL2309_
>DECLINE FUNDS TRANSFER

>ACCEPTED!

45th Street has a subtle uphill slope. It has no crashed cars, major sinkholes, downed trees, or fallen buildings in its two disintegrating lanes, so Kay can see straight up the five blocks to where the corner store’s electric blue WATER flag beckons. Kay grips the neck of the empty 5 gallon against her palm and knocks her anxiety one notch down: the water man is open. His WATER flag is one of those slim ten foot tall jawns that looks like it’s dancing when the wind blows. It looks so carefree. Kay caresses the machete handle at her side. Looks left, then right, then left again. Scans the rooftops and notes the blindspots. She starts walking north.

NEXT MESSAGE:
STRUGGLING WITH WEATHER-BASED VERTIGO? ELLY WELLNESS IS CONDUCTING A STUDY AND NEEDS YOUR VALUABLE INPUT. PARTICIPANTS MAY BE COMP–

Kay skips the spam like shooing a fly. Tch. Wish she could figure out how to stop the bracelet from being a fucking snitch.

A searing, hot stench wafts onto her as she crosses the street. Something must be clogged up in the sewers, catching the heat and gassing off, cause even with the mask and shit on, Kay’s eyes are stinging and her sinus cavities are constricting. She feels the swelling in her joints intensify as she walks. Spongier, less reliable. But you know, it’s normal to go outside and get woozy and light-headed. She probably gonna need to drink like a whole gallon with her second dose of meds once she’s back in just to flush this shit through.

NEXT MESSAGE:
xxx
__new listings added 2
__bulletin board
__access 2nite 19:19 EST
xxx

END OF MESSAGES.

Even when Kay was little the city wasn’t shit. It was going abandoned then, like by the city. But people lived in the buildings still. In places where people could live and wanted to live, there were people. Especially around the mosques and churches and temples and community centers, places that people already took care of. For a long time after city services and utilities started cutting off, there was neighborhoods that stuck around, and even some new ones popped up. But this shit now? Even the people you gotta watch your back for moved on. It’s a ghost town. Haunted and near dead. Cities are over. They switched to doing Intentional Integrated Communities™ now. The closest one is Elly Homestead. Same Ellison who dropped that provisional oversight contract a week ago and now waits for the eyesore she lives in to rot away. Elly Homestead looks like a fortress. You can’t really see it from here, but it’s the reason Kay feels like she is shriveling into a husk.

The walk up 45th is peaceful. Quiet mid-afternoon feeling — the sun is just past its zenith overhead and all the stray dogs in the hood are sleeping in the shady spots and don’t pay her no mind. Out of all these dogs, only a few really look like street dogs. The rest look more fit and taken care of — only recently abandoned. Kay usually only has to worry about them when twilight comes and they start packing up. That’s why she gotta force herself to get outta bed when it’s still light out.

Everything clears up by the next block. There’s burnt down apartment buildings on one side and on the other, a decrepit brick school building that is catastrophically collapsed from the roof in. Kay takes her usual slow and steady pan of the area as she continues forward, pausing to gaze up at the tops of paulownia and ailanthus trees that have managed to take hold on the still-in-tact upper floors of the school. The only things she hears are the layered songs of city birds and the dancing corner store signage up ahead.

WATER flap flap
CLEAN WATER flap
flap

She wants the water. Her spit is sour and hard to clear out her mouth. She is gonna fill this whole fucking jug up, maybe try to put another one on the fold-out dolly if she can manage. The arctic blue flag, with darker blue writing in a brisk, icy white outline, beckons her to the possibility.

None of this feels right, though. She hasn’t seen or heard anyone since the other night and now not today on this street either. Her mind jumbles with outstanding checklist items that she’s put off for weeks – get supplies, pack up, sign up for a gig on the bulletin board and be out… But that shit made her wanna sleep every time she thought about it. Stupid.

Kay steps up on the crumbling curb in front of the store. It’s quiet. The door is open. A familiar smell that’s both stale and rancid stuffs her nostrils.

“Hello?” she offers, stepping in. The electronic perimeter chime on the door rings and glitches mid-ring.

Behind her mask and safety glasses Kay sizes up two people she never saw in her life in the place where she expected the water man. Hand open next to the handle of her machete, she’s already back in the doorway — another chime on the glitched perimeter bell. She shoots a glance over both shoulders then looks at who she’s dealing with. It’s people from Ellison. They both look relaxed and like they get enough water to drink, like stereotypes of “fit” women from Miss Deanna’s generation — that’s Ellison Style, one of them. The twist is that they’re dressed similar to Kay – nondescript unisex loungewear – except that they are definitely wearing outfits because their clothes are clean, the colors too coordinated, and no doubt ‘thoughtfully engineered’ to be breathable, waterproof, anti-fungal and -bacterial, and temperature regulated. You can just see it in the fabrics. A world away from Kay’s found plastic-blend disposable shit.

“May I help you?”

The one says this sympathetically, canting her head while giving up an agonized smile. Kay sneers.

“The fuck is Akil at?”

She is ready to be out from the door. The one looks a little confused, then acts like she’s checking her internal files and goes, “Oh, A-keel. Right. I’m sorry, I had him mixed up with Saíd who rents WATER RESOURCE convenience on 5th and Somerset.” (Somerset? Kay thinks. We nowhere around there, yo. The fuck???)

“So, A-keel was having some trouble finalizing the renewed terms of his next leasing period — it’s really common, actually. He decided to apply for work coverage as a way to transition out of the contract legally. So he’s out right now touring the work facility and we’re obligated to manage the property until he reaches a decision.”

They took it from him, Kay thinks. Now the other one starts in.

“Looks like the perimeter has you as —“ The lady states Kay’s whole legal name and account number out loud. “Is that information correct?”

The lady doesn’t say it but Kay hears the rest of that too-familiar consent barrier in her head. That by verifying her name to account it legally acknowledges her participation and continued subscription to Elly NAME Services and all its requisite data collection.

Kay draws in a measured breath and looks elsewhere.

“Yeah, that’s correct.”

“Miss Peñafiel, I totally understand how frustrating it’s been during the recent transition. Improved service is on its way, and I see you’ve already started the pre-application process for Homestead.” The lady says this with enthused relief, like things are gonna work right out.

“Totally,” says the first one, smiling to her colleague then to Kay. “Reproductive Phytoremedial implants are super effective and a huge gain for a residency application.”

Kay is looking at them like what the fuck and says nothing. She sure did sign that residency application but now they’re in her face calling the RPAP implant a gain for her residency app? Like, a good look to have? Kay thought getting the goddamn RPAP — it ain’t no IMPLANT, that’s for sure — was done for a residency contract. Kay, standing there in front of these two demons, snatches down the reins on these racing thoughts and sets her face straight.

“So can I not buy water from here anymore?”

“That’s awesome you asked about that because as part of A-keel’s lease transition we’re contracted to provide his current customer base with a 10-day water supply and 10% off coupon to your first month on a pro-plus Water™ plan.” The lady acts like this is a great opportunity.

“Then what?” Kay, still in the doorway, sets off the glitched entrance chime for the nth time.

“Then WATER VALUE convenience will be shutting down this location. See, the building itself is in need of a lot of repairs, and the practice that really makes the best sense is to demolish the entire property and start over with up-to-date materials.”

Kay knew this overly friendly bitch was never gonna add ‘…but not around here.’ She takes a quick look around to shake off the anger surging into her tensed body. Shaking her head to herself like she shoulda been left this area but it happened so fucking fast and now she’s here in this trap.

“Miss Peñafiel?” the other one chimes in.

“What.”

“You seem tense. I understand that this may be sudden news. That’s actually why I’m here with Lena today. I’m an evaluator,” she says like she’s talking to a child who doesn’t know big words yet, “with one of the Elly Wellness divisions; a different one than the administrators who did your RPAP.”

“Okay.” Kay is livid that she can’t bring herself to run away. Whatever the fuck this bitch was gonna say next was gonna be a set up. Yet she stands there frozen, her face tightening itself into an enraged mask of a pleasant listener.

“It’s a brand new program,” she starts setting up the pitch. “But rather than, you know, starting completely from scratch, our division is starting with RPAP recipients.”

Kay says nothing. She has no interest in feigning the tell-me-more impatience of a curious consumer. Ellison’s whole ethos was to always “start from scratch” since the things that came before it (e.g. cities) were impeding an expedited route to new view world progress.

“This is a work opportunity. For individuals doing remarkably well with their RPAPs, who are interested in getting the real work they deserve.” The lady says this last part all emphatic like wow, finally recognition will come for being such a good boy, and Kay’s one eyebrow pitches itself down at the magnitude of bullshit this lady here is peddling. There’d never been dignified work opps from these chupacabras. Only lying, violence, robbery.

“What’s your department called?” Kay maintains a low, unfriendly pitch in her voice.

“I’m actually not able to divulge that information but —“

“The program, then. What’s the program called?”

“Ah,” the lady laughs awkwardly, not used to being interrupted during her sales pitches, and recomposes herself. Her condescending, sympathetic listening expression remains steadfast through it all.

“Of course. The Environmental ReEvaluation Initiative is our latest pilot program and a joint initiative between Elly Wellness, my top level division, and Elly Delivers, our distribution division.”

Kay raises both brows and wags her head at the lady like yeah, go on already.

“So, I’m not able to divulge full details to the general public, but what I can tell you is that a core component of EREI” — she says this like e-ray — “is the deployment of what we’re calling surveyors. Surveyors will be out-in-the-field operators who ~survey~ targeted areas and collect environmental data. For their participation, Surveyors will receive a generous stipend towards Elly Wellness resources, as well as an advanced, modern Wellness integration and upkeep plan.” The lady leans in like now she’ll share a secret. Kay is still in the doorway.

“Surveyors additionally will have all outstanding debts relieved once their introductory period and first successful workload clears, with options for permanent residency in Elly Homestead or a recognized residence of choice.”

Kay takes a second for all the implications of the pitch to sink in. She takes a slumped step out of the doorway and into the store finally. The 5 gallon in her hand had been getting tough to keep hold of. In this moment her vision and her hearing narrow in on another time when she had been in Akil’s store before, shooting the shit about yeah the weather or how bout this or that thing finally came down, all the while hinting towards the unseemly, degrading subject of when it’d be time to leave from here cause shit was too much. And here Kay was with Akil gone, like why he ain’t say nothing about the lease renewal. Or more realistically/immediately, what level of danger was Kay really in with these two automatons here and Akil so easily whisked away?

The first one starts up with the customer service act again as Kay sets the 5 gallon down in the middle of the store.

“Let me get this taken care of,” the lady offers politely, hands outstretched in a disarming, measured progressive gesture, finally grasping the jug into her manicured possession. Kay makes a passive sound as this happens. Maybe it’s the pent-up rage spontaneously leaving her body. Her head begins to droop. Her gaze lowers. She becomes an unresponsive post. Another part of this old store.

Akil’s was only ever open in the daytime. It was dim and cramped with boxes and jugs, but it felt like a relative’s house. He had made ingenious little rigs and repairs everywhere out of anything that could be repurposed, mostly old ad signs for candy bars, wakefulness drinks, one-shot health supplements, and shit like that. He had remade a branded display rack from a long-defunct snack company into one for selling his own home-made chips, and now that was empty, and Kay has never seen it empty before.

She looks around slowly, gaze caressing whatever it lands on. She knows this will be her last time in here. And with that acknowledged she straightens back up into the present, alert and receiving all perceptions now, here is this freshly dangerous place.

The first lady is punching in data to the water pump terminal behind the counter. Nobody says anything. Just the sound of rushing water hitting the plastic jug. Then the ‘filing complete’ chime jingles out from the terminal. Kay shakes out the folded up plastic dolly she had kept under arm up till now. The two demons watch her in expectant silence. Kay didn’t want to say anything — anything at all to egg on this… evaluator. But Kay knows she hasn’t finished her pitch yet.

“So you’re here to offer me a job?” Kay says flatly.

“Yep!” the evaluator affirms with a you-got-it chirp.

“How do I apply?”

“All you have to do—“

Kay is zoned the fuck out again. She’s not ready. The phrase leaving the lady’s mouth is a curse, guaranteed to end in an ‘offer’ she knows will be more degrading than she is prepared for.

“What’d you say?” Kay chops her mid-sentence. The evaluator acts out another awkward laugh.

“It’s a recruitment. I have this travel pass into Homestead that’s good for one month from today’s date, and you come into our offices to complete a more thorough evaluation process. You’ll be able to consider the full breadth of the program from there and make a decision about whether or not you want to join us. No pressure! How’s that sound?”

Kay draws in a practiced, steady breath and sucks her teeth for a beat, considering what if she just bolted right now? Would they catch her? Shit, they already caught her.

“Yeah. I’ll consider it,” she answers quickly, thinking time to get the fuck outta here.

“Great,” the other one says. Kay isn’t paying attention to who’s talking anymore. She starts going through the motion of making the water payment.

“Water’s on us today, Miss Peñafiel.” The one tries to lay her hand on Kay’s outstretched fist, but Kay slides it away before they even come close to contact. “We so appreciate your time today. We hope you’ll find some personal value in our offer. We loaded you up with the premium Water™, as a sample of what you’ll have access to in our program.”

Kay stares back at their friendly masks, where Akil the waterman should be, in this dingy, falling apart, abandoned quadrant of a wholesale abandoned city.

“What’s the travel pass?” she croaks — hoarse — voice unwilling to work now. A smile, wicked, pleased, belonging to a trainer of dogs or small children, blossoms on the evaluator’s already well-fed and glowing expression. She puts a plastic-sealed packet on the counter, gives it an encouraging pat, then pushes it towards Kay, who looks at her, then it, then her again. Kay lets it sit there while she loads the 5 gallon onto her dolly, tugs her youth large tee out of her armpits and back down over her ribs, and rearranges the contents of her sweatpant pockets. Then she takes a half-step over, swipes the packet off the counter, and puts it in her pocket without looking at it. Kay doesn’t look at the two women again.

“Right, so your travel fob is valid from today till thirty days, is only valid for you, and contains some longer form information reiterating what we discussed today.”

Kay’s leading foot is already out the entrance. She throws up the back of her palm in a final gesture. A yeah, I got it, don’t talk to me anymore, and gets the fuck out of there.

The mask is back up. The shades are back down. Kay is outside the officially haunted corner store. Haunted because she’s been visited by vampires who have shattered her understanding of what to expect as ‘regular’ – an overwhelming hyper-sensation that has rendered her psychic defenses useless and leaves her very soul in peril, she feels. Kay has never moved a 5 gallon so quickly. Her single-handed grip on the dolly and the bottleneck is GETTHEFUCK-OUTOFHERE tense until the bony kid looks down and finds blood smearing out from her index finger — a ragged slice from the jagged edge of the 5 gallon cap. She can’t feel shit though. Her body is roaring GET OUT GET AWAY FROM HERE KEEP MOVING FAST FAST FAST BUT DON’T RUN MOVE FAST GO.

Halfway down the 45th street strip Kay almost falls going over a broken slab of asphalt, and catches her wound a second time on the same the jagged cap edge trying to keep the 5 gallon on the dolly. She lets out an aggravated squeal at this loss of control, and stops right there. All the sudden she’s overheated and clenching her teeth against panicked tears of frustration gathering in her eyes. Can anyone even see her though? Anyone she cares or has to be worried about? The street dogs pay her no mind.

She reaches into her pocket with her good hand and fingers the plastic-sealed fob as she swallows her worked-up spit down. It feels really for real. Pristine. Smart. This and the premium water. It’s too much. Her stomach constricts and then she’s dragging the dolly and everything down the street weeping, a miserable and cursed soul marked by the horsemen or whatever ghost story — she can’t get any of it straight right now. Kay misses Miss Deanna, the old neighborhood, when she felt little and it was okay. It’s the end of days official and it’s got her suffocating in a windstorm of what’s real, what’s even possible; how she don’t know nobody anymore and it all seemed okay till right now when the Ellison jawns showed up and let her know that they hadn’t forgotten about not one corner of this dying rotting city. And definitely not her. They knew where she was. They came for her. Because of her fucking Reproductive Phytoremediation Assistance Procedure???

Kay makes it back to the smoothest patch of sidewalk near the brick apartment building where she is staying, where the janky dragging racket of her dolly makes the least echo. She is sniffling as she approaches the entrance. And somewhere nearby, a big striped mosquito with an imperceptible ID swatch on its thorax hovers after the trails of a heat signature, belonging to a biped whose pheromones have been augmented by a surgical procedure into something both less and more recognizably plantlike… Till the latch of a weighted metal door clicks open, then closed, and the trail terminates behind it.

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