Author: Alicia Cerra Waters

My mother came home from work that night with the corners of her mouth turned towards her chin. She took off her yellow fluorescent vest and hardhat, which was scarred with dirt and the colorless remains of the unionist sticker she’d scratched off, and put them on a kitchen chair. She held her hands under the sink and the water ran black.
I was lying on the living room floor in my pajamas. The TV was on the reality channel, and they were doing a special on lewd messages sent between bots and unsuspecting humans on Instabook. I watched her, waiting for the lecture. She always got mad when I used VR because it cost us double the bitcoin of standard res, but that day she barely noticed. A miniature, digital man was gesticulating wildly in the middle of our living room, saying, “Don’t do it, dude! Don’t do it!” The box of Syrupy Corn Pebbles was empty and golden crumbs from the plastic bag were ground into the carpet at my side. She didn’t seem to see any of it as she sat down at the table with a bottle of beer in one hand and the whiskey in the other.
“There was no school today,” I said. “The education center had a staffing shortage again, so they canceled classes.”
She made a noise in the back of her throat and used the lip of the kitchen table to pop open her beer.
“How was work?”
“We’re building another delinquent processing center,” she said. “Open the curtains.”
I went to the window and looked down the twenty stories to the ground. Where we lived used to be beautiful, at least that’s what my mother said. There used to be museums and parks in the city, which had turned into abandoned buildings and overgrown lots before I was old enough to see any of them.
Outside, the nearest overgrown lot was now a pit with rolls of barbed wire piled almost as high as the tenth floor of our building. I saw a banner with the name of my mother’s construction company affixed to a chain link fence surrounding the area.
“We have a contract to build three more of these things in this county alone. So you can keep the VR on as much as you want. We can afford it.”
“Does that mean we have enough money for me to go to a private education center? I know some kids who go to one, and they say their teachers almost never get disappeared.”
My mother put down her beer. “Who told you that teachers are getting disappeared?”
I shrugged. “It’s obvious. Everyone at school knows that’s where they went.”
She took a deep breath and stood. She unplugged the TV and took the battery out of both of our phones. Her eyes were drilling holes into me when she spoke. “Don’t you see what’s outside? Shut your mouth.”
She kept drinking, and the light shifted so that our apartment was an eerie blue. I got up and put a cup of instant dinner in the microwave and watched the cardboard box spin under the yellow light. “When do they get to come out?” I said. “The thought criminals.”
“When that empty pit across the street looks like a garden again.”
“They didn’t do anything,” I said. “How could this happen?”
“It’s happened hundred times before. Your teachers would have told you about it, but most of them are disappeared.”