Noma Girl

Because of a quirk of history during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, present-day America is rigidly divided between people who live and work during the hours of darkness—Smudges—and those known as Rays, who populate the day. A group of Smudges called the Noma live on the fringes of society in loose tribes, preying on Smudges and Rays alike. Gigi is a ruthless Noma, but in this prequel companion story to Plus One, she is ordered to abduct a cell phone hacker named Ciel Le Coeur and reveals a surprisingly tender heart.

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Simon Broughton and Zoey Peresman.

Noma Girl

Fuzz’s little brother Dice was a crazy son of a bitch and that’s saying a lot given all the whacked out Noma I live with. I gave him till he was seventeen before he was either dead or in jail. The only good thing Dice ever did was bring Ciel to the Noma which means he also brought Ciel to me.

Dice and a few other freaks were slumming in Chicago that fall. They were getting shit-faced at the South Side hideout during the day when they were under curfew and getting in even more trouble at night when they were free to roam. One of them was this brainless girl named Candy and when they were in Wooded Island chasing the dragon she heard this geezer strumming a ukulele like it was coming out of her dreams or something and said she had to have it that minute because not only was she daytime on some rancid antifreeze but she was also one selfish bitch. As if taking the music away from the old man would give his gift to her somehow even though the only skill she ever practiced with dedication involved the artful use of her tongue and throat in exchange for a bag of weed.

Candy grabbed the instrument and this boy who turned out to be the old man’s grandson tried to talk her out of it and Dice whaled on him so hard that the boy’s scrawny sister who had more guts in one of her pigtails than Dice had in his whole body jumped Dice and tried to take him out little-girl-style with her teeth. I smile just thinking about it.

So Dice had the brilliance of a lobe-finned fish and he turned on the kid after she bit him even though what the hell was she supposed to do he had it coming and it makes me want to crush him every time I think he’d have killed an eleven-year-old girl if his buddies hadn’t stopped him. After they pulled Dice off the little hellcat this jerk Jesús who was with Dice grabbed the boy’s phone and saw that he was Ciel Le Coeur which is a name he knew.

It turns out Dice’s older brother Fuzz had heard of this kid Ciel who was fifteen and a year younger than me but was some sort of cell-phone-hacking prodigy. Fuzz wanted Ciel to teach our own little hacker punk Zen how to send uncensored texts because can you imagine how much easier it would be to coordinate the tribe’s activities without the Man reading every message? And that’s where I came in. Fuzz said Go get this Ciel kid from Chicago and bring him back to Clinton even if it means tying him up in your fucking trunk. But the trouble with me is I can’t do anything half-assed which normally means that I research the hell out of every job before I dive in and I leave no evidence behind me when I’m done but in this case it meant that I fell in love with my mark.

Fuzz asked baby Zen to back out Ciel’s address from his phone number and Zen was only ten years old but like the great engineer that he is he solved the problem using the simplest algorithm possible of texting Ciel on the phone and asking him where he lived. No joke. Zen is pretty much radiant like a choirboy so when he lied that he was Ciel’s sister’s Secret Santa at school and he wanted to send her a red rose for Christmas his innocence shone through the letters on the screen. It helped that his avatar was a photo of himself with a big grin and that he’s naturally so white-blond his shaved head makes him look like a Smudge with a crew cut instead of a bleached-yellow Noma boy. Ciel never even asked how Zen got his number. And Zen sent the little sister a rose anyway because even though he’s Fuzz’s minion he’s a good kid. All of Zinnie’s boys are good and someone should tell her that.

Anyway I watched Ciel first and I followed him. I always watch because if you live in your mark’s skin for a week or two you can avoid making stupid mistakes. I got myself to his neighborhood and I hung around every night like a pervert in the shadows learning him and his schedule. It was freezing even in my car and a shitty week to have an assignment. He went to school and spent all of his free periods in the computer room. His after-school apprenticeship was at a machinist’s shop and he met a small group of friends every night after work in the apartment above the shop but I couldn’t see what they were doing in there because the windows were covered. It was always the machinist and a pretty young Asian woman and a skinny black guy who I’d seen Ciel greet with the sort of thumping man-hug that sometimes makes my throat catch so I guessed their friendship went deep. But Ciel always left after about an hour and never cut it close to the sunrise curfew.

I wasn’t proud of creeping around fire escapes but it was a job and Ciel’s back porch window showed a great view not only through their kitchen but also of the dining room and down the hall and the porch had some junk on it I could easily hide behind. I learned over that week that his grandpa was Poppu and sister was Soul but spelled S-O-L and fuck they were so happy it kind of made me sick. Ciel washed dishes alone after they ate and the old man and the little girl read at the dinner table. Except it was like a reading rumble because it was out loud and they all interrupted and yelled back and forth and laughed so hard I could hear it through the ancient frosted window panes. Ciel’s sleeves were rolled up with the suds going up his forearms and his back muscles working as he dried pans whenever the dish drainer grew into a mountain. He was one of those see-through redheads whose eyebrows disappear on a thick ridge with a straight pinched nose and flaring nostrils and his right eye looking a tiny bit away from his left eye. Go figure but a hint of walleye looks good on a guy.

It was cake to see that the quickest way to get Ciel to cooperate was through Sol. But Dice kept texting me that Fuzz wanted his geek and where the hell was I and I had two more days before Dice himself would come grab him because I was screwing up the job. So I had no choice but to stop watching and just do it.

I waited outside the machinist’s shop the next night before Ciel got there. I was smoking and leaning against the wall near the side entrance he always went in and I watched him walk toward me for the first time in real life with nothing between us. He was zoned out thinking like he always was and he blurted Oh sorry when he looked up like he had physically knocked into me when he hadn’t. It was the shock of seeing a Noma I’m sure especially after Dice’s beating. He started past me and I said Wait Ciel and shit if it didn’t sound like I wanted to be his friend instead of be in charge of the situation. So I said louder I gotta talk to you and the bastard dropped his bag and ran.

I may be only one hundred fifty-five centimeters tall but I can bench-press seventy kilos which means he didn’t know what hit him. I swung him into the alley with his back up against the wall and he tried to shove me away at the collarbone which is a beginner’s mistake. If he’d had any training at all he’d know what comes next because I grabbed his wrist with my two hands and put my elbow on top of his and twisted pushing down and locking his forearm to my chest until his elbow was hyperextended and he collapsed from the feeling that it would break if he didn’t. I brought him all the way down into a salt-slushy puddle of snow while he was gasping. Well you can turn an armbar hold into a pin really easy so he wound up on his stomach with his cheek pressing into the muck and the asphalt and my knee pressing against his neck. I shouted at him Shit I just wanted to talk why’d you make me do this? And my stupid brain thought about how he’d be in these cold and wet pants and coat for the three-hour drive to Clinton until I remembered I had a blanket in the car.

You gotta come back with me to talk to Fuzz I said. That’s all just talk to Fuzz no one wants to hurt you. Which was a lie because Dice for one wanted to hurt everybody. And then Ciel started screaming till I thought the veins in his neck would burst and I leaned into his ear and hissed Shut the fuck up if you don’t want to involve Poppu and Sol.

The Noma know where you live man I said in my real voice after he got quiet. And they’ll use your family against you I swear. Just come with me in the car and talk to Fuzz and he’ll tell you what he wants and then I’ll bring you home and it’s all much cooler than you think it is. He was sweating with the strain and it sent up a fruity bloom of dampness from his scalp to my nose like he shared his kid sister’s shampoo. It fit with what I knew of him because his brain was always working on serious things so why would he consider the dumb ones like shampoo smell.

I didn’t trust that he wouldn’t bolt the minute I let him up so I repeated his address with the apartment number and Sol’s and Poppu’s phone numbers and the fact that there was a spare key for Sol under an old flowerpot in the backyard because that dopey kid lost everything. When I mentioned his sister I saw his eyes get all wet. Shit I was being a total asshole but better it was me than Dice.

In the car I had him take off his coat and I tossed him the blanket which he wrapped around himself and even draped over his head like he wanted to keep me out. When I pulled onto Lake Shore Drive I said We only have time to get to Clinton before sunrise. I can’t drive you back until curfew bell at dusk tomorrow. So he grumbled and took down the blanket and texted his grandfather to say he was sleeping at a friend’s house. And then he felt the back of his neck and said Damn you’re strong for your size do they even have a wrestling weight class for you? And I said For your information that hold I used was jujitsu not wrestling and the ju part of the word means gentle and flexible and yielding which is how I prefer to think of it. He rubbed his elbow and said The jitsu part must mean broken arm. Gentle broken arm and flexible broken arm and yielding broken arm he said.

And then he said Are you just the delivery person or do you know who wants me and why. I handed him my thermos of coffee which was probably only lukewarm by now and said Yes I guess I am delivering you to our tribe leader Fuzz and I know he wants to hire you for some programming but I’m the brawn of this operation not the brains.

He said Well I don’t think that’s true because you figured out all those things about my family. And that shut me up because even though he was pissed and he had every right to be he was not belittling me. I finally said I don’t know anything about your family except how much you like them and we left it at that.

I gave him some snacks but I didn’t talk too much because I knew he needed to process what was happening. He looked out the window and now that I was next to him after that long week of watching him through glass I could hear his brain humming. It had not stopped humming since I slammed him against the wall and it eased up only a little when the rhythm of the headlights passing us and the stress of being jacked caught up with him and he closed his eyes and slept. His eyelashes were the color of his skin and they disappeared on his face in the dim light. Shit there’s nothing like a sleeping captive to make you see how much your job sucks.

At the compound the curfew alarms rang on our phones but we had a treaty with the Hour Guards not to bother us on our own property so I walked Ciel in front of me to Fuzz’s trailer in the full outdoors. I like the feeling of sun on my skin through the air instead of through a window. Something about the light and all that blue Iowa sky possessed me to grab Ciel’s wrist to stop him. I said Whatever you talk about in there just remember that the Noma don’t play fair. We’re all liars. I wasn’t really giving up secrets because everyone knows it if they think about it even a little.

When I saw that Dice was in the trailer too I announced to Fuzz I had to stay. Ciel didn’t let on that he remembered Dice but every muscle in his body was clenched. If you didn’t know Ciel you might have thought he was scared but the humming in his brain was practically shouting now and I understood it was because Dice had bloodied Ciel’s kid sister. Dice smiled all cocky at him like he was badass enough to make Ciel quake.

Fuzz only ever gets down to business and he said We want the ability to send uncensored texts. We’ll pay you ten grand. Now I knew ten grand was a lot for his family but Ciel was worried that this technology had his digital fingerprints on it or something and if the Feds busted us he would go down. He said Fifty grand which was a bold move. Fuzz said Twenty and Ciel said I’ll take twenty-five if you swear that you’ll never use my grandfather and sister against me again. Ciel added Better yet I never want them in contact with the Noma period. And Dice said all smarmy Does this mean I can’t ask Sol to the prom and to his credit Ciel jumped him without any tells beforehand just like he had exploded. He landed a few choice blows before Dice caught up with what was happening and drove him into a wall punching his gut. Other than killing small animals Dice had done nothing but fight with people his whole life and I knew he had a knife so I had to step in. I took Dice down and I put him in a shoulder lock on the floor. I shouted How is he supposed to give us uncensored texts if you fuck him up you moron. Fuzz said to me Get Dice the hell off this compound and then to Ciel he said It’s a deal Le Coeur. And then Fuzz pulled Ciel up and helped him out to the mess trailer while I tried my hardest not to dislocate Dice’s shoulder.

Ciel met with Baby Zen and they worked the whole day together. A couple of hours before dusk Ciel crashed in Fuzz’s trailer and then miraculously true to his word Fuzz woke him up and handed Ciel an envelope full of cash. I drove Ciel back the minute the curfew alarm sounded that it was Night. The humming from Ciel’s brain was more peaceful this time and I could tell it was not because of the bankroll but because he had that swell home to go to and he finally knew he was going there and not dying. Eventually he said Thanks for taking Dice out before he killed me. And I said You’re not mad that I didn’t let you handle it and he said Why would I be you’re way better at it. So I found myself smiling and saying Anytime then. And hell even though I’m Noma I wasn’t lying.

The next week Ciel texted me saying that he and little Zen had a date and he was pretty sure I was his official driver now so would I please come all the way to Chicago to pick him up. He said he knew it was a lot of trouble and he wouldn’t ask if he had his own car. And in the next text he added I guess I’d need to be old enough to drive it too which made me smile. Normally that ride will kill you with boredom but it went by too fast with Ciel because talking with him gave me this weird feeling that the world was bigger than I knew. I almost never had that feeling except when the sky was nothing but stars on a clear Iowa night.

It turned out Zen wanted to show Ciel the single hacking trick he had thought of on his own that Ciel hadn’t shown him first which was how to disable the GPS function on a phone so the cops couldn’t track you. It was only good in an emergency because tampering with the case freezes out your credit function so you can’t buy anything and Zen hadn’t figured out how to undo it yet but Ciel said This is really great Zen you’re on your way and then he figured out how to get the credit restored along with the GPS in about twenty minutes. They were so cute it made you gag with their heads together like little old ladies talking about the doilies they were crocheting.

When they had had enough it was too close to Day to drive Ciel home safely and he said But I’ll be late for school if we have to hang around here for another twelve hours. I can’t risk it I said. I already have two misdemeanor curfew violations and on the third strike I’m out with a felony I said. So Ciel said I guess I’ll ask Fuzz if I can sleep on his bench again and my heart spoke for me before I could stop it and said You could stay with me in my trailer. Ciel looked at me so long then with those laser-blue eyes that my brain said to me If you knock him out right now maybe he’ll forget your offer when he comes to. But he opened his mouth and a little breath came out like he himself had gotten too shy to talk and so I stayed his execution until he finally said That would be great thanks.

I woke up to the sun going down outside the plastic window and the smell of him frying eggs and burning toast in my oven and there was nothing to drink but Jack Daniels so he brought me water with the breakfast. I had taken all my Noma makeup off for him and all of the bangles and necklaces and metal that might hurt him and I didn’t have a stitch of clothes on and it was like I was starting over. I wish you didn’t have to go I said. And that’s proof I had changed because the moment it left my mouth the old Gigi knew I had handed him a knife he could stab me in the belly with. But he crawled up next to me on the bed and leaned his head on my shoulder and said I wish Clinton wasn’t so far away.

When I dropped him off at school he said Can you stay in the hideout and wait for me and I said Fuzz says he needs me right back. He said Can I come to you on the weekend and I said What do you mean come to me I will have to fetch you and he laughed. But I did pick him up that weekend and the one after that and the one after that until his Poppu had a talk with him that his grades and his sleep were suffering and where was he going all the time.

The next time we were together I told Ciel that it was the three hours to Chicago and three hours back that were the problem. We’re both Smudges I said but we still can’t find any time because you have school and I have work and then six hours round-trip and if I screw up curfew even once I’m in jail. I can’t do jail time I know it would kill me. Ciel just looked hard in my eyes seeing every bit of me which I gave up willingly. And then he got lost somewhere in there with his mind humming and when he came back he kissed me and said I’ll text you as soon as I figure something out. And when I didn’t hear from him for a month and three days I decided Of course what were you thinking you’re a freaking Noma girl. I had basically told him I won’t go to jail for you and what did I expect him to do but run away. Fuck.

Noma have to keep their hair a certain way and I was getting a trim from Zinnie one night with her little Zachariah watching when the salon trailer door crashed open and we all jumped. Better put the scissors down Zinnie Ciel shouted And clear out of the way Zach because I don’t want anyone getting hurt when I maul her. And he grabbed me up out of the chair and hugged me to his chest in his own sort of Ciel-hug that for a month I thought I’d die without and he swung me around so that the centrifugal force pulled my legs out like I was a living fairground ride. And on every revolution I saw there was the skinny black guy standing in the doorway with his mouth open like being in the Noma compound was maybe killing him a little bit inside. Ciel shouted That’s William he gave me a ride here can someone feed him or give him a free piercing or whatever because I have something really important to do with Gigi. And Zinnie laughed and scolded him Don’t say another word my baby is listening and Ciel carried me out of the trailer with the stupid hair-cutting cape still around my neck and I don’t know how he kept his footing while also kissing me. And then I was back in my trailer in heaven, which is literally one of the meanings of the word ciel in French.

An hour later Ciel took my phone and sat at the dinette under the lamp with his tablet and wouldn’t tell me what he was working on until he was all finished which took several hours and a lot of coffee and a little bit of Jack Daniels to celebrate. And his gift pushed me over and stomped my insides into a blubbering mess because he had somehow made me Night and Day. I was both a Smudge and a Ray or maybe even neither. At the moment of curfew my phone would switch assignments automatically and instantaneously and seemingly officially. We went back to bed and he said all husky I can’t take away the distance between us so I had to stop time instead. But he fell dead asleep because he had been up for twenty hours working out the bugs in the program.

I found William and gave him a Ciel-hug and I kissed him on the cheek smearing white all over his brown skin and I said Thank you for bringing him to me. And he said I need to go back and I said I know. It takes a different kind of person to be around the Noma without shitting their pants and William was great but he was no Ciel.

I went to the tattoo trailer because that’s where you go when someone has been born or has died or you’ve fallen in love. I drew the tattoo I wanted on a piece of paper and said to Kasia You’re so much better fix it and make it perfect and she did. It took her hours and my skin was sore and hot by the time I got back to the trailer where Ciel was still asleep.

When he finally woke up we only had three hours and fifteen minutes until SR-00 and I said I’m driving you home so you won’t miss another night of school and then I’m driving back to Clinton in broad daylight and if I get arrested I will hunt you down from jail so help me and he laughed and kissed me hard and he wanted more and so did I but I also needed to surprise him so I said There’s no time.

When we got there the city was full of itself in the gloaming with skyscrapers like paused giants waiting for the light to free them so they could storm across the prairie. I parked in front of Ciel’s apartment and I got out with him to walk him to his door. I pulled him to me in the empty vestibule and said Thank you and he said What for and I said For giving me Day. And I tugged down the neck of my shirt so low that he could see the right side of my chest to show him the tattoo. It was black ink only of a sun being almost eclipsed by the moon. The sun had sharp rays of light exploding in all directions but where they landed behind the moon they ended with stars bursting from the tip of each ray.

The tattoo was still pink and raised and tender and Kasia had coated it with ointment and he whispered Is this for me and I whispered back Only you and it wasn’t something the old Gigi would ever have said but the words were hanging between us and I had to leave them there exposed and fragile and pray he would never hurt them. He kissed next to the tattoo as close as he could and as lightly as he could and then he stood straight again and tipped his head way down until our foreheads were touching. He closed his eyes and his humming was buzzing in my own brain and he said Day and Night with you would never be enough.

Those were exactly his words. I memorized them because I knew they were bigger than just me and Ciel. They were Sol and Poppu reading at the dinner table. They were William’s man-hugs. They were the goodness of Zen and Zinnie and little Zachariah too.

All of human love everywhere was in that one short sentence.

Day and Night with you would never be enough.

 

“Noma Girl” copyright © 2014 by Elizabeth Fama

Art copyright (C) 2014 by Robert Hunt

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