When I found her she was seated at the entrance to the 8th street NR station, looking like Huckleberry Finn in faded overalls with a wooden fishing pole resting over her shoulder. Sheâ€™d been waiting for me, of course, because I was the one with the BB gun, and she damn well wasnâ€™t going hunting on her own. Dawn was cocky, sure, but she wasnâ€™t stupid. You never know what can happen down there.
â€œReady?â€ she asked, grinning like a cartoon pumpkin. I nodded and she swung the fishing pole out to grab hold of the line, which was tied around the usual candle. Dawn lit both ends then bounced down the stairs, disappearing into the black subway entrance as if it were the mouth of a cave. I followed, the BB gun brushing against my hip.
As usual, the swarm of small fries dashed away from Dawnâ€™s candle with a clatter of hundreds of claws against cement. These were three, maybe four inchesâ€¦not the type we wasted ammo on. The quickest gutterbrats could catch them by tossing nets, but Dawn and I, we hunted serious game. She thrust the fishing pole into my hands as she hopped the turnstile, and my eyes followed the watery light over the familiar space. Hulking figures of old, dark ticket machines, and the plexiglass windows of the chamber that, for some reason, had never been looted. All trains cancelled, the whiteboard read in marker unaffected by the last decade.
â€œDowntown this time?â€ Dawn asked. She took the pole back so that I could swing myself over the barrier, and when I landed, I nodded. We passed the pole again to jump down into the tracks, and the flame flickered, almost going out from the movement. The candle was vital to tunnelhunting. Aside from providing light, it warned us when we were coming up on a patch of dead air. When we stood still we could hear them in the distance, crawling through the tunnels. The big fish, trackrabbits the size of cats.
Dawn stopped, and the candle bobbed. This was the place. I hurled the Styrofoam containers onto the next track over and heard the snap and wet crash of half-rotten bait, then I backed beside her to wait. They heard it. They always did.
The first ones were small, a little smaller than a cat. In the flickering light of the candle they were emaciated grey shapes trailing bent tails, sometimes bulging with tumors. The waterâ€™s poison, down here. We wait patiently, Dawn dangling the candle a few feet ahead as I level the gun at the swarm of rats. The big ones come later, ambling on crooked legs. Those are the ones we want.
The shots are clean, like my shots always are, and the rest of the trackrabbits scatter like pigeons. When Dawn and I get over, three of them are laying on the tracks, and one of themâ€™s still twitching. â€œNice,â€ she says, and I nod in agreement. Oneâ€™s almost the size of a dogâ€¦itâ€™ll fetch good money topside.
Dawn grabs the smallest one by the fattest part of the tail and starts dragging, steadying the fishing pole by tucking it under her arm and holding it straight with her free hand. I grab the other two and we head back to the sunlight, pulling our spoils behind us.
â€œShe likes the rain,â€ Ms. Jones explained to her neighbor when the woman called in a panic, yelling that Xue had spent the last six hours sprawled across the top of the house â€˜looking like a half-drowned corpse.â€™ She scowled at the shrill, busybody voice, but saved her choice words for the sound of the dial tone after Mrs. Hatter had been disconnected. The social workers had warned her that the transition would be difficult for Xue, but no one could have cautioned her about the Hatters.
The entire country had seen the news reports of the commune raid, but it had been reduced to late night talk show jokes in a matter of days, and within two weeks, it was forgotten. The commune leaders were sent to jail, which Ms. Jonesâ€™ pastor described as a light punishment for the crime of playing God.
In the first few weeks, Ms. Jones had become aware of the whispers that stopped when she drew near to the groups of ladies assembled to collect their biological children from the churchâ€™s after-school care program. Sheâ€™d learned to ignore them, eyes forward as she swept through the handful of women to the corner where Xue played by herself. After she gathered the abnormally small child into her arms she always made it a point to walk past the other mothers with her posture straight, her jaw clenched, and her eyes narrow. It had taken Ms. Jones less than a month to become fiercely proud of her foster daughter. The condescending glances only strengthened her conviction.
Such a pity, the ladies gossiped. The girlâ€™s barely human. Can you imagine? And with no husband to help. She should have just gotten a pet.
After Ms. Jones replaced the phone on its cradle, she left through the front door and walked to the sidewalk, shielding her eyes from the downpour and scanning the roof for Xue. Sure enough, the girl was stretched across the mottled shingles. Ms. Jones didnâ€™t bother calling her name. She strode to the ladder and climbed eleven feet before stepping over the edge of the ranch house roof.
â€œXue?â€ Ms. Jones said softly. The girl shuddered, sending droplets of rain in every direction. â€œDonâ€™t you think itâ€™s time to come inside, honey?â€
Xue turned, her dark, unblinking eyes meeting Ms. Jonesâ€™ blue ones. Her nose twitched, but she offered no response to the question.
â€œItâ€™s cold out here,â€ she said. â€œYou must be freezing.â€
â€œIâ€™m not cold.â€
Ms. Jones shrugged as she took a seat beside her foster daughter. â€œI am,â€ she said.
â€œThatâ€™s because you donâ€™t have fur.â€
Ms. Jones had no argument. She crossed her arms over her chest and watched the clouds scrolling over the horizon.
â€œNo oneâ€™s making you stay out here,â€ Xue said. Her voice was cool, sullen, and seemed old for her eleven years.
Again. Ms. Jones shrugged. â€œItâ€™ll stop raining eventually,â€ she said.
â€œAnd the colder I get, the better the hot chocolate will taste when I go back inside.â€
Xueâ€™s whiskers trembled. â€œYou have hot chocolate?â€ she asked.
â€œAnd marshmallows,â€ Ms. Jones said.
The girl considered this for a long minute. â€œMaybe in a little bit.”
â€œNo hurry.â€ Ms. Jones brushed away the lines that rain had traced through the thin fur of her daughterâ€™s forehead. â€œItâ€™ll be there whenever youâ€™re ready.â€
The bud blossomed into her ear, its hairlike tendrils snaking towards her eardrum where they fanned out into electric petals, sensors cool against her hot skin. The soft thud reminded Meredith of being submerged, and in a way, she was: holding her breath against the summer rush hour stench of body odor and urine as the subway undertow pulled her beneath the island. The bud measured her heart rate, body temperature, slight changes in her pH. It understood her mood, and it provided a soundtrack to match. Slow, quiet. A Monday evening mix.
Meredith was well into the third track when her hardware buzzed against her thigh. She shifted her weight to detach it, and pressed the backlight button to better make out the words. Josh.
im fine, she messaged back. y?
Three thousand miles away, on the west coast, the boy Meredith had met on her favorite bandâ€™s forum frowned at the letters on his own messenger. She couldnâ€™t lie to him any more than she could lie to her bud. Josh syndicated all of his friendsâ€™ iTracks, and the downtempo music broadcast her mood better than any facial expression could.
im reading ur itrack, he typed. sounds sad.
just a mellow monday, Meredith replied.
Meredith answered with an indifferent emoticon, but Josh understood. He positioned his analogue headset over his ears and smiled at its weight, at the cold feeling of leather-covered foam beside his cheekbones. He clicked the link on her iTrack feed and jumped in mid-song, then settled back into his armchair, closing his eyes and concentrating on the gentle, melancholy notes.
Separated by an ocean of land, Meredith leaned into the hard cradle of an orange subway chair as her world, too, faded to music. Around her, dozens of bodies shifted to their own rhythms, composing their iTracks over the steady, low hum of the train.
“You just need to get your priorities in order,” Pern said as he plunked the ripe wikifruit onto the table. Courtney watched with dismay, her eyes wide as she watched the young man end drive a long knife through the product of her months of gardening. “Food is all fine and good, but we already have food. We’ve got over a hundred rations to get through before the supply ship comes. This,” he said, indicating the smooth, pink outer shell of the fruit, “is for something better than eating.”
“The only thing better than eating is breathing,” Courtney said, reciting one of the three principles that had been drilled into her during pioneer orientation. Pern laughed.
“You haven’t been here for long, have you?” he asked. He moved the blade around the thick stem of the wikifruit until a circle the side of his palm could be lifted from the foot-long purple shape. Pern reached for the next instrument, a long-necked spoon, which he stabbed deep into the fruit’s body.
“Iâ€¦” Courtney began, but her shock quickly overcame her dedication to the pioneer ideals. Pern looked up to her with a warm smile, then twisted the spoon and lifted a clump of soggy pink from the inside of the wikifruit before dumping it into a bowl. He repeated the motion several times, and the rose-colored heap grew larger and larger until it seemed that so much mass could not have been contained within the now-hollowed fruit. Pern ripped the corner from a bag of sugar with his teeth, then poured it into the bowl in an avalanche of white.
“Get me the riser,” he told her. Courtney stared at the fruit, her horrified expression similar to the one she’d worn when she heard about the great wagon incident. She had no choice but to obey, though, and he knew it. When she returned with one of the small packets she used to bake bread, he tore the top away and emptied the paper envelope over the white and pink heap. Pern stirred the pile with his spoon until the wikifruit meat was a squishy, sugar-embedded glob. He lifted a spoonful, offering it to Courtney. “Wanna taste?” he asked.
“You monster!” she whimpered. He shrugged, and shoveled the bowl’s contents back into the purple rind.
“You’ll thank me in a month or two,” he told her with a knowing smile as he sealed the wikifruit with the circle he’d first carved away. “Everyone always does.”
The girl was only on at night, like all of the girls on Bleeker. Her hair was a different color every couple of weeks, because it was so easy to change, but her eyes were always the same. They dressed her up in costumes depending on the season. In December, it was a red velvet miniskirt with white trim. A pilgrim hat in November. In July, small triangles of red, white and blue stretched over artificial breasts with perpetually hard nipples, inviting New Yorkers to celebrate their freedom. When there was no holiday on the horizon, they dressed her depending on their mood. She performed best with her golden wig and the Marilyn dress, standing on the subway grate with a glazed-over smile as she waited for the train to pass beneath her. Once, they dressed her as a mime, complete with white makeup smeared over rubbery skin. The makeup wore off after two jobs, and they couldn’t be bothered to keep touching it up. She’d done well, though. She was excellent at talking with her body.
When men spoke to her, she listened dumbly, nodding at carefully calculated intervals. Usually, they didn’t speak at all. Their business was done in a large loft, where curtains of sheets strung from twine sliced the space into private rooms. Hers was at the end of a white cotton hallway, and was two feet larger than the mattress of the futon. Although they washed the cover twice a week, it always seemed yellow beside the fluttering wall.
Once, after the job, the client asked her about her eyes. “Are they real?” he said with a slight Midwestern drawl. “They look like they’re glass or something.” Although she was capable of speech, the girl rarely answered questions. “I don’t know,” she said, her voice as dense as the well-packed mattress. When he left, he gave her a generous tip, though her service had been distant and uncomfortably rhythmic. “You should have those things looked at,” he suggested, and the hallway billowed as he walked away.