In a world where most of us are just surplus population, certain temptations are acute indeed.
I don’t remember how we decided exactly to throw a Communist party. It had been a running joke all through senior year, whenever the obvious divisions between the semi-zottas and the rest of us came too close to the surface at Burbank High: “Have fun at Stanford, come drink with us at the Communist parties when you’re back on break.”
The semi-zottas were mostly white, with some Asians—not the brown kind—for spice. The non-zottas were brown and black, and we were on our way out. Out of Burbank High, out of Burbank, too. Our parents had lucked into lottery tickets, buying houses in Burbank back when they were only ridiculously expensive. Now they were crazy. We’d be the last generation of brown kids to go to Burbank High because the instant we graduated, our parents were going to sell and use the money to go somewhere cheaper, and the leftovers would let us all take a couple of mid-range MOOCs from a Big Ten university to round out our community college distance-ed degrees.
It was nearly time for finals, May, and it was hot, over a hundred degrees every day, and we were all a little crazy. There were the Romeos and Juliets who were feeling the impending tragedy of their inevitable breakup, the kids who knew they weren’t cut out for university or couldn’t afford it, who had no clue what they would do next, the ones who had kept their nose to their screens for four years, busting their humps to get top marks, and were just now realizing that none of it mattered for shit, and there was me.
I liked to hang out with my bestie Shirelle in the back of the portables by the old basketball court, where there was a gap in the CCTV coverage that the school filled with intermittent drone flybys. It was where the vaper kids hung out, but I wasn’t one of them. Even decaf crack wasn’t my idea of a good time. I just liked to be a little off the grid, because your business is your business, you know?
“My cousin got laid off.” Shirelle’s smart fingernails were infected with ransomware again, refusing to work on payment touchpoints and blinking in seizure-time. She was awkwardly trying to patch them, pressing each one’s hard reset while tapping her phone to it, but it was a job that really needed a third hand and since I’d told her that this was going to happen, I refused to help. So she was sitting against the portable wall with her knees drawn up and her phone balanced on them.
“No, Antoine. The sheet-metal guy.” It had been decades since Lockheed-Martin left Burbank, but there were plenty of remnants of its glory days, including all the metal-shops that had supplied it. Antoine had worked at three or four of these, hopping around as they got shut down, then he’d got a job in Encino that meant a long commute but was supposed to be a steady check.
“That job seemed too good to be true.”
“Turns out that they had a five-year tax holiday from Encino and it ran out this year. If Antoine had been smart enough to look it up, he’d have known that they weren’t going to last past July.” She got one fingernail done, moved on to the next one.
“What’s happened to the factory?”
She got another fingernail done, then dropped her phone. “Fuckydarn.”
I kicked it back to her.
“Thanks. I think”—she wedged the phone again and tried to reset her third nail—“that they’re doing an up-and-out.”
That was when a company’s tax incentives ran out and then the company ran out, too, shutting down an arm’s-length subsidiary through a fast bankruptcy and leaving its creditors—the people who worked there, say—to sort out the sale of its assets. Up-and-outs made sense because companies were hollow, they leased everything and contracted everything out. The leasing companies didn’t beef because they had a sweet loophole: they could take a write-off on the equipment that was based on the full replacement value, despite having already taken depreciation and fees for the whole time the plant had run. We’d done a Civics for Business unit on it as part of the curriculum on Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.
Of course, the people who’d worked there often found themselves shit out of luck when it came to their last paycheck, and sometimes that leased equipment would walk out the door in the days running up to the up-and-out.
I was hungry, like always. Mom didn’t believe in scop, and I didn’t want to piss her off, so I wouldn’t eat out of the vending machines at school. But that meant that if I didn’t remember to throw an apple in my bag, my stomach would growl all the way to lunch.
“Got anything to eat?”
She finished the fifth nail on her left hand and fished in her purse and passed me some leptin gum, which was supposed to enhance satiety and help people like Shirelle stick to the diets they had no need to be on in the first place. I didn’t like to chew it, but my stomach was rumbling. I unwrapped a stick and chewed it. It tasted like caramelized heme proteins, which is to say, cooked blood—in a good way, like a burger—thanks to the transgenic yeast that it was cultured with. My stomach stopped making noise. Maybe it worked (and maybe it was the placebo effect).
“You sure about that up-and-out?” I tried not to sound too interested. Shirelle had a severe case of risk-aversion.
“Girl.” Her side-eye could cut at a thousand yards. But I had been immune to it since ninth grade.
“Come on, Shirelle. Just asking. It’s a daydream.”
Communist parties were one of my favorite daydreams to dream: me and my revolutionary comrades in our funny Karl Marx beards, liberating a whole factory under the noses of the cops and the town, running all those machines and giving away free shit until the feedstock ran out. My dream parties didn’t usually take place in a sheet-metal factory—I liked the idea of taking over a scop factory where they made burgers or candy or ice cream because then I would be the person who gave everyone free candy (or burgers! or ice cream!)—but I’d take sheet metal if it was the only thing going. I could learn my skills there, and also Mama wouldn’t kill me for the scop thing if she found out. Damned health-food crazies.
“Lenae.” She sounded like her own mama when she warned, but I wasn’t scared of her mama, I was scared of my mama, and her mama sounded nothing like mine. Really, the whole basis for our lasting friendship was my immunity to all her secret weapons, which would otherwise burn you down in your shoes the first time she spatted with you.
“It’s a daydream.” Like saying it twice would make it more believable.
“You’re gonna ask someone else if I don’t tell you, aren’t you?”
I didn’t deign to answer. “I’ll hold your phone while you do your other hand.”
She tried the side-eye again, then she put it away and patted the ground next to her. “Hold my phone, then. Go on.” Once she’d done her right thumb, she said, “It’s an up-and-out, yeah, and a lot of the workers there aren’t happy about it. Wages been really delayed lately, lots of people owed a lot of back pay. Specially people who’re out on sick pay, people got injured on the job, can’t go down to the payroll office in person. So there’s talk.”
She shook her head. “You’re going to make me spell it out? Talk. They’re going to run some shifts after the place shuts down, sell things out the back door, whatever they can, make back the money they know they’re going to be burned for. In case you don’t understand, Missy, that means no Communist parties.”
I sighed and moved her phone to the last finger. “No party, then.”
“Nope. Forget it, girl. Concentrate on graduating. B students don’t get scholarships.”
This was a running joke between us because A students didn’t get scholarships, either—I mean they did, but at a rate that you’d have to be nuts to count on, like basing your life-plan on winning the lottery every ten years—because there were way, way more kids with broke-ass parents and sharp minds than there were spaces left behind by the dullards who made it into the university on “merit” and by ticking the “no assistance required” box on their applications.
I was an A student anyway.
She called me that night, after Mama’s lights-out/no-phones blackout time. My little sister Teesha stared at me from her bed when I took the call and mouthed I’m telling. I rolled my eyes at her. She wouldn’t tell. Teesha was still developing her low cunning, and there was plenty of stuff I’d caught her in that she didn’t want me blabbing to Mama in retaliation.
“It’s late,” I whispered.
“Your mama’s crazy.” Shirelle’s mama was strict, too, but not about bedtimes. She was an insomniac, and so were her kids, and she’d taught them her coping skills of doing all their homework, showering, laying out their clothes, and packing their lunches at 2 AM so they could rise 20 minutes before first bell, pee and wash their faces, and be on campus with seconds to spare.
“You call me up after curfew to tell me that? Send a text next time.”
“Antoine called is all. Thought you’d want to know.”
I almost said Who’s Antoine and then I remembered. Her cousin, the sheet-metal worker. “Oh.”
“You want to know what he said?”
“Don’t play games, Shirelle. I’m trying not to wake up my mama. Teesha’s staring at me like she caught me strangling a cat, too.”
“Hi, Teesha!” It was loud enough that Teesha heard it through the earpiece. I winced.
Hi, Shirelle, she mouthed and grinned.
“She says ‘hi.’ Now what is it, Shirelle?”
“You said that.”
“He said the reason the plant is shutting down so fast isn’t just about the tax credits. He says there was a Wobbly in the shop, someone trying to get everyone to sign a union-card.” Union organizing was a fire-able offense, had been since I was a little girl, but that didn’t mean it didn’t happen, and if enough of the workers signed a card, the factory wouldn’t be allowed to stop paying taxes until the California Labor Board had completed its investigation. “Antoine says the other workers are pissed.”
“At the Wobbly?”
“No, stupid, at the bosses. Antoine says that before all this, most of the employees didn’t really give a damn about the Wobbly and her nonsense. But now, it’s got everyone thinking. Got them thinking about making an example out of the plant. They get away with this, next time they’ll be even worse.”
“Hold up, get away with what?”
“Just listen, OK?” I realized she was excited—really excited. “The Wobbly got deported. Born in America and everything. They sent her to Guatemala, said her parents were undocumented when she was born here, so that makes her an anchor baby. Everybody is pissed, like I said, they know it’s just bullshit, an excuse to get rid of her because she’d come sniffing around the shop. Antoine says none of them gave a damn when she was talking about helping them, but when she got deported for trying, out come all this corny talk about it being ‘un-American’ to shut her down.”
“They’re going to let us have a Communist party?”
She made a sound between a squeal and a cheer and Teesha’s eyes got wide. I cut her my sternest look so she didn’t jump right out of bed and tell Mama what she’d just heard, and I realized with a sinking feeling that I was going to have to get my little sister involved if I didn’t want her to rat me out.
Mama would kill me.
The gravity of it fell down on top of me. It was one thing to daydream about this, another to plan it. I’d have to do a lot of googling, using one of those darknet googles that I couldn’t even remember how to reach, so that meant I’d have to get one of the braniac nerds at school to explain it again, which meant that they’d know I was looking up something forbidden and that meant I’d be even more exposed and—
“You aren’t even listening to me, are you, Lenae?”
“Nuh-uh. Sorry, Shirelle. Just thinking it through. Damn! Are we really going to—”
“We are, you don’t get us caught first.”
Antoine met us at a froyo place off San Fernando, the sketchy part near the dead Ikea that had been all cut up for little market stalls that were mostly empty. I hadn’t seen him since we’d been freshmen and he’d been a senior, and in the years since he’d got strangely grayish, his skin sagging off his face and his hair shot with white, like he was an old man. He looked like he hadn’t been sleeping much, either.
He made a sign at us, a thing with his hands like the kids had done to pass messages around the classroom back when we’d been kids. It took me a second to remember what this one meant: phones down, school cop’s coming. I couldn’t figure out what that was supposed to mean, but Shirelle got it and reached into her purse and shut her phone down. Now I got it, I did the same. We’d both been infected before, of course, drive-by badware that let some creepy rando spy on us through our phones, but then we got more careful. But he wasn’t worried about randos spying through our phone: he was worried about cops.
You think Burbank PD is going to bother with you? I wanted to ask, but fact was, maybe they would. Why not. Once they bought that kind of thing, why wouldn’t they want to use it every chance they got? I probably would.
“Damn.” He looked us up and down, not like a perv, but like a grownup judging a little kid. “You two are so young. I don’t know if this was such a good idea.”
Shirelle gave him an up-and-down of her own. “Antoine, we’re only five years younger than you, fool. Smart, too. Besides, it was Lenae’s idea, not yours.”
That was news to me. Far as I knew, he’d had the idea, told Shirelle, and she’d said, Oh, Lenae said the same thing. But the way he shook his head, I knew it was true—he’d got the idea from me. That made me feel pretty badass, tell the truth.
“OK, OK. Your mama’ll kill me though.”
“OK. There’s”—he lowered his voice—“forty-five of us, and one guy, he says he spoke to a Wobbly, they’re pissed about what happened to that girl, and they say they’ll help. We got all skills and hands we need to get it running, but we don’t know how we get the word out without getting popped.”
“Who do you want to reach?” I’d been wondering about this myself. I didn’t really know much about sheet metal, except it was, you know, metal that came in sheets. What would you do with a bunch of that stuff around the house?
“We don’t know either.” Antoine looked anxious. More anxious. He dry-washed those big-knuckled hands. “We can make just about anything we got a file for, and there’s plenty of files out there. You want a fireplace surround or a new truck bumper, we got you covered.”
“Don’t know many people who need a truck bumper,” Shirelle said.
“I know.” Antoine gave her a shut-up look that was brotherly, reminding me that they’d been close since they were little. “There’s all kinds of toys we can make, too, little cars and shit.” He looked at us like, You think that’ll do it?
“I don’t think we’re going to strike terror into the hearts of the investor class by giving away little cars, Antoine, sorry.” Because that was the point, right? Give us all heart, give them sorrows? I hadn’t really thought about where sheet metal fit into that framework.
He shook his head. He knew it, too.
“What were you making?”
“Uber parts.” He shrugged. “Mostly for the vans, you know?”
LA Metro had been using the vans for most of my life, though I could still remember when there had been city buses, before the contract went out to Uber. The vans were boxy and indestructible, covered in some kind of slippery treatment that you couldn’t write on or mark, and which gave off a funky, musty smell like old socks when the sun baked it.
I watched the people mill around the hawkers’ stalls, smelling the Korean tacos and the pupusas cooking and wondering whether any of it was real food instead of scop. I’d skipped breakfast that morning and I was hungry. The food was probably scop, judging from the clientele, who were mostly homeless, and Mama wouldn’t approve, so I didn’t eat, even though my stomach growled. According to my science teachers, single-celled organic protein was safe and healthy—according to Mama, it was a large-scale experiment in feeding mutated bacteria to humans. Mama liked to point out that rich people didn’t eat scop. They didn’t drink coffium, either, but that never stopped Mama. She also had a lapel-pin that read “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Mama was one of a kind.
The homeless were accompanied by their inevitable companions, the lovingly tended, rusting, ancient shopping carts. It had been years since it was possible to remove a shopping cart from a grocery store without being caught, but the number of people who used the carts as home, locker, and pack-mule had only grown in the years since, creating fierce competition for the old, dumb carts. These ones looked particularly raggy.
Antoine and Shirelle had kept talking while I stared at the carts, but eventually they followed my stare. I looked at them and they looked back at me.
“Those’d be easy.” Antoine sounded dismissive.
“So?” Shirelle said. “You want to make something hard, or something useful?”
I put my hand on his shoulder. “Antoine, you make those, you’ll be making something that everyone will see, every day, for years and years to come.”
His eyes glinted. “Yeah. Yeah.” He looked at the sky for a minute. “I bet there’s all kinds of ways we can improve ’em, too. Bet there’s designs for better ones like crazy, too, from the refugee camps. I know I saw ’em in a news clip or something. That’s amazing.” He grinned and he was as handsome as he’d been when I was a freshman and he was captain of the senior swim team. I told myself that the flipflops in my stomach were hunger, not crushing.
It was only five minutes before final bell when the school went on lockdown. We all groaned as our homeroom teacher, Mr. Pztikian, sprinted to the classroom door and swung down the bar, slapping the button that polarized the classroom windows, including the little one in the door itself, plunging the room into darkness. The groan made Pztikian glare at us with his finger on his lips. Rule one in lockdowns: no words.
Rule two: silently build a shelter of bullet-absorbing furniture and then hunker down. Nearly everything in the classroom was made of waxed cardboard and wasn’t about to stop any artillery, not even crossbows—yeah, some fools actually went on school shootings armed with crossbows—but the room had once been a science lab and there was one big workbench running the length of the wall, made of steel and concrete, with long-plugged hookups for burners along its length. Previous lockdown drills had established that this was our designated shelter, so we shuffled behind it.
It’s not that we weren’t worried about getting shot, but we also knew that lockdowns were, nine times out of ten, hoaxes. Some fool sent a text that said “Gunna be at school later” and it got autocorrected to “guns be at school later” and that tripped Burbank SWAT’s paranoid Fusion Center security AI, and then we all had to hide behind the lab-bench for half an hour while the toy soldier squad did a sweep of the school.
We hunkered down and texted each other—the school deactivated its network filters during lockdowns so we could text status updates to the cops or our last words to our loved ones—and made dumb jokes. Our messages were interrupted every 30 seconds by reminders to stay silent and vigilant, broadcast on the school’s administrative emergency channel by the school safety office. On top of that, there were actual status updates: OFFICERS EN ROUTE. OFFICERS ON SITE. NORTH WING SWEEP COMPLETE. SOUTH WING SWEEP COMPLETE. PORTABLES SWEEP COMPLETE. More of this. Then: ALL CLEAR ALL CLEAR ALL CLEAR followed by an announcement out of every phone speaker in the room. Only phones that ran the school safety app would work on school property so we all ran it, but dang it was some creepy shit.
I left the classroom thinking about my homework and whether I was supposed to pick up Teesha from band practice and I was so lost in my thoughts that I didn’t notice the guy in the suit until he put a hand on my shoulder as I was heading for my locker.
“Lenae Walker?” Just the way he said it gave him away as a cop. I felt my heart rate triple.
“Please come with me.” He steered me to the administrative office. The secretary on the front desk pointedly didn’t stare at me as he led me into one of the VP’s offices. The first thing I noticed was my backpack, on the desk, surrounded by its contents, and next to it, Shirelle’s bag and its contents, too. That was when I noticed Shirelle, sitting on a low sofa. The cop indicated the spot next to her with a tilt of his head and I sat. The late-afternoon sun slanting through the window caught the huge fart of dusty air that escaped from its cushions when I settled in. Shirelle coughed a little and caught my eye. She looked scared. Really scared.
The cop pulled the vice principal’s chair out from behind the desk and sat down on it in front of us. He didn’t say anything. He was young, I saw, not much older than us, and still had some acne on one cheek. White dude. Not my type, but good looking, except that he was a cop and he was playing mind games with us.
“Are we being detained?” Somewhere in my bag was a Black Lives Matter bust-card and while I’d forgotten almost everything written on it, I remembered that this was the first question I should ask.
“You are here at the request of your school administration.” Oh. Even when there wasn’t a fresh lockdown, the administration had plenty of powers to search us, ask us all kinds of nosy questions. And after a lockdown? Forget it.
“Are we entitled to lawyers?” Shirelle’s voice was a squeak, but I was proud of her. She remembered the second line from the bust-card.
“You are not.” The cop looked smackably smug.
I didn’t say anything. That was definitely the third line of the bust-card. Keep your damned mouth shut.
He didn’t say anything either. Well, I wasn’t going to be the first one to speak. The silence went on so long I started to worry that I was going to bust out laughing, because it was damned silly, the three of us sitting there in total silence, playing foolish head-games. I could tell Shirelle was on the verge of giggling, too, that psychic thing you get with your best girl-friends. Don’t giggle don’t do it I thought at her. I was sure she was doing the same for me, and you know what it’s like when someone tells you not to laugh when you’re about to laugh, and that makes it a thousand times worse?
I swear we’d have burst something if the cop didn’t finally speak. “What do you know about Steelbridge, girls?” At first, it was just the girls I noticed, because seriously who the hell was this kid to be calling me a girl? Then I tried to figure out what Steelbridge was, because the name did ring a bell.
“My cousin Antoine is a sheet-metal worker there.” Oh, that Steelbridge. I was surprised at first, but Shirelle wasn’t telling them anything they couldn’t learn with one pass through her social media.
He did the silence thing again. Someone needed to teach that boy a second interrogation technique. Now that we knew what this was about and what he was trying for, the hardest thing about these silences was fighting the giggles.
“What else do you know about Steelbridge?” He was terrible at his job. Maybe too terrible. Could he be trying to lull us into a false sense of security about his cluelessness? If so, he was being pretty obvious about it. Maybe it was a double-bluff then, but nah, he didn’t seem smart enough for that. So maybe: triple bluff?
OK, maybe I was getting nervous, too.
“I don’t see what this has to do with school. Didn’t you say this came from the school administration? What do they have to do with some company in Encino?” Oops. Well, it was in Encino, but the fact that I knew it was more than I wanted to say. Lenae, you are not as smart as you think you are.
“We requested that they put us in touch with you two.” He was pretending that he hadn’t noticed me saying ‘Encino.’ Badly. He’d jumped like I’d stung him. “We’re worried about you.” He sucked at being fatherly.
More staring games.
“We’re worried about you.”
You said that.
“We’re worried that there may be some illegal activities coming up at this factory. Labor trouble. Felonies. Jail time. I hear you two are good students. I don’t think you want that kind of trouble. Not so close to graduating.”
“Was that whole lockdown just so you could get a look inside our backpacks?” When Shirelle sounded it, I stared at her in disbelief, but the cop blushed like a stoplight. Shit. “That’s crazy. How can that even be legal?”
The cop actually rocked back in his chair. “You two are too smart to be in this kind of trouble. I wouldn’t want to see you throwing away your lives. I had a look at your grades. You could go to a good university.” He gave us what must have been his most significant look. “It’s better than going to prison for twenty years.”
The way he was talking and looking at us made me think that he wasn’t as confident as he should be. I wondered why. “How long after a lockdown does the school have to allow students to talk to their lawyers?”
He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed at them with his forefinger and thumb. “Everything you do from now on will be logged. You’re in the investigation. Remember that.”
He stood up and left the office. I guess I knew the answer about the lawyer thing now.
Toodle-ooh. Shirelle only mouthed the words, but it still nearly set off my giggles and I glared at her. It had been old and corny for almost as long as Bye, Felicia, but it was also something both our mothers would smack us for saying, and that made it damned funny just then. Once the door clicked shut behind Detective No-Name, Shirelle jumped up and started throwing things in her bag, quick as she could, and I did the same after a second. I took the hint of her not saying anything and worked silently.
Outside the school, I let my feet autopilot me to the Uber Van stop, but she dragged me away, toward downtown. There was a row of automats: Korean tacos, pizza, poke bowls, all serving scop, all places I never went. She pulled me into a rice pudding place with two hundred flavors and no customers. She bought a large one and when the window opened with the rice pudding steaming on its little tray, she plopped her phone in it, then snapped her fingers at me. I passed her my phone, not quite believing I was doing it, and watched as she dropped it into the rice pudding as well, then closed the door.
“All right, they’re safe now.” They were the first words either of us had spoken since the cop had left.
“Shirelle, why is my phone in a bowl of rice pudding?”
She eyerolled me. “The vending machines are shielded, to keep identity thieves from putting in skimmers. Once our phones were inside it, they couldn’t get any network service, no matter what.”
I shook my head. “How do you know that?”
“I just do, OK? I know people.”
I snorted. She knew the same people I knew, plus or minus five percent. My guess was that she’d read this online somewhere, one of those hashtag resistance sites. “OK, then why is my phone in the pudding?”
“Because, dummy, if the pudding is left on the release bed, the machine thinks you forgot it and it chimes you a few times, see?” It was chiming us and flashing a light. “But if there’s anything on the food-bed, it starts taking pictures and analyzing them and sending them to the bomb squad, just in case. So we put the phones in the pudding and then we get ’em back and wipe ’em down when we’re done.”
“But Shirelle, it’s pudding.”
She shrugged. “Waterproof is pudding-proof.”
“What if someone comes in for rice pudding?”
She gave me a look. “Girl, no one eats rice pudding. That shit is gross.”
I didn’t tell her that it was my favorite dessert. My stomach was all in knots anyway. “How d’you know all this?”
She shrugged. “Looked it up, back when you first started talking about Communist parties.”
I started talking about Communist parties? Maybe I did. Maybe it was me that started it. I’d always been fascinated by them, that was for sure. “Why?”
“Because, Lenae, for a smart girl, you are sometimes hella dumb. If you were going to go and get into trouble, I wanted to know what kind, and what I could do to take the edge off it.”
That stole the words right out of my mouth. Shirelle had done that before, taken my crazy plans and turned them into careful schemes, but I hadn’t been thinking of the Communist party as my plan. Hadn’t she told me about Antoine and the factory? “You want to do this as much as I do.”
She made a face, and I knew I was right. “That cop, though.”
“You think he has anything?”
“I think he wants something. He pulled a phony lockdown just so he could search our bags. To me, that says they’re worried, but don’t have enough to do something about it.”
“Shirelle, since when are you such a tactician?”
“Since I figured out that you were going to get us both busted if I didn’t start paying attention. Lenae, Communist parties are dumb: they only work when you tell a lot of people about them, and the more people you tell, the more likely it is that you’ll get busted.”
It was true. I shrugged. “Everything is like that, Shir. Everything. If it’s good, it’s scary. That’s why we do it. If there wasn’t any risk from having a Communist party, it wouldn’t be exciting.”
“But you could still sneak in at night and make the trolleys, give ’em to the homeless people. Why you have to have a party?”
I didn’t know, but I felt like the answer was on the tip of my tongue. I shrugged again. “I don’t know, Shirelle. I didn’t invent them.”
“Naw, you didn’t. That fool went to jail.”
Once Teesha was snoring, I got out my burner, a phone I’d made in shop class, following a recipe I’d found on a darknet google. It had been freshman year and all the kids were doing it, and I hadn’t used mine in years. It powered up and complained that it couldn’t find its update server and warned that it had been years since it had been patched, and that I shouldn’t let it near the net. That was good advice, but I couldn’t take it. Instead, I gave it a connection through my regular phone, using the app that Shirelle had sideloaded for me using her fingernails, after we’d cleaned off the rice pudding. That app was designed to let you tunnel your leaky, abandoned smart appliances through it, to keep them from being exposed to the public internet, and Shirelle said that no one could listen in on its connections. I hoped she was right. I pointed the burner at a site that Shirelle said she’d researched and waited while the burner downloaded new versions of all its software.
Once it had rebooted, I was able to connect it straight to the net—my stomach fluttered when I did it, though—and send Shirelle a message at her old anonymous account, a long garbage string like you saw on the cards that drug dealers left in public bathrooms. Shirelle had explained it to me: it was an address in the blockchain that had a public key in it. Download the key, encrypt with it, and post your message back to the blockchain. Everyone could see it, but only the private key holder could decrypt it. Course, those messages lived in the blockchain forever, so your secret squirrel ever got hacked for her private key, every message sent this way would be visible to everyone in the world, for all time. Like they said in the crime shows, “Crypto giveth and crypto taketh away.”
> I figured it out
It took her less than a minute to reply. She was waiting to hear from me.
> That you?
> It’s me
> What did you give me for my 15th birfday?
I rolled my eyes. She was such a secret squirrel.
> Nothin. We had a fight and you didn’t invite me
> Yah. OK you ask me something
> Shut up
> Come on its good hygiene
I thought about all these messages being encrypted and stashed in the blockchain, which I didn’t really understand but always pictured as this huge anthill with trillions of little bugs crawling all around on it. In ten thousand years, would someone figure out how to break the code and read this?
> Who did you crush on in freshman year
> Fuck you
> Come on, it was YOUR idea
> Ale Martinez but he was fine in freshman year
Alejandro had become a candybilly in junior year, wearing these crazy outfits that looked like a kindergartner dressed up like a cowboy, and he’d started missing a lot of classes, showing up late and hungover or still high and stupid. I hadn’t seen him in a year or more. I knew Shirelle still crushed on him, though. She was one hundred percent smart women foolish choices.
> I figured it out
> Why it has to be a party
> This should be good
I checked to make sure Teesha was still asleep.
> Cuz it feels like there’s no alternative. Like no matter what we do the same things gone happen, we’re gonna end up like your cuz, if we’re lucky. Get a job that lasts awhile before the company runs off and takes our last paychecks too. Its all so BIG and we’re so lil. But put us all together and you can see it. There’s other people out there feel the same as you. A connection you get it?
> You woke me up to tell me that?
> Shut up.
> ok ok, yeah. I hear you. That’s a reason maybe even a good one. But it does make everything a zillion times more dangerous
> You wanna live forever?
> Shut up
Teesha opened one eye. “Put down your phone already, I’m trying to sleep here.”
> Got to go
Antoine just happened to be at Shirelle’s house the next afternoon when we took our homework there and we just happened to leave our phones inside and went into the back yard to sit under the sun-shade with our notebooks and scratch paper.
“The Wobblies say they can fool the cops into thinking the whole thing’s scheduled for the next night.”
Shirelle looked as skeptical as I felt. “How are they gonna do that?”
He looked around. “You don’t want to know.”
Shirelle thumped her hand on the table. “Yes we do. It’s our asses on the line too, in case you haven’t noticed.”
He sighed and looked around dramatically. He wasn’t much of a spy. Shirelle had a better poker-face. “I can’t talk about it, seriously. But not everyone who becomes a cop believes in the system, all right? Some of them just need a job, and also a way to look themselves in the mirror.”
The cops were infiltrated by Wobblies? That would be pretty weird, if it was true. But maybe it was true. The world was pretty weird.
“What happens when we tell everyone at school to show up on the right date? It’s not like they’ve got the tightest game in the world. They’re kids. Cops’ll find out for sure.” Shirelle said it but I was thinking it, too.
Antoine made a face. “Yeah. Thing is, we got to be tight about this. We got the same problem, but not with school kids, but all the other people we want to show up. These Wobblies, they said, maybe we just don’t tell anyone about it in advance, instead we invite them over for dinner or whatnot, out for drinks, and then we just drag ’em along, make ’em bag their phones. Surprise!” He made a face.
“Hell of a surprise.” Shirelle side-eyed him.
I surprised myself: “What if we pretend it’s something else, like a party at someone’s parents’ house. Everyone’ll come out with their stuff offline, because they won’t want to get busted for underage drinking and that, and then we’ll bring ’em to the party. We just invite the ones who we trust to keep their mouths shut.” Shirelle was about to jump in and say something, but I held my hand up. “No, wait. It could work. Thing is, what if there was a party at someone’s house, and we just diverted some people from it, caught ’em before they arrived, got ’em ready, drove ’em away. We could say it was someone else’s party, not us, no one would know who was organizing it so no one could snitch on us afterwards—”
Shirelle had the biggest smile right then, and she made twinkle-fingers at me, which meant I agree and Hell yeah and when I was done, she said, “Who do we get to have a party?”
That was both harder and easier than it sounded. Easier, because there were only three kids whose parents were out of town that night. Harder, because those kids sucked. Two were Junior Chamber of Commerce and couldn’t be trusted. One was Ale Martinez, who, it turned out, Shirelle had been keeping tabs on the whole time he’d been AWOL from school, messaging with him late at night when I was in bed and shut off to keep from waking up my nosy sister.
“Ale says his dad’s going to be in Mexico that weekend, visiting his mom.” Ale’s dad was a US citizen, and so was Ale, but his mom had been undocumented and got deported when he was little. Shirelle had on that defiant face of hers, daring me to make a big deal out of the fact that she and Ale had been sneaking around.
“Will he have a party?”
She rolled her eyes. “He always has a party, every single time his dad goes south. Him and all his candybilly friends, headphone parties so the neighbors don’t phone it in. They even make beerium.”
I made a face, then pictured Alejandro and his buddies and their lame-ass girlfriends in a huge cuddle-puddle, sloppy drunk on beerium and giggling like babies.
“So ask him.”
Shirelle’s expression was pure animal-in-a-trap. “Can’t you do it?”
I just gave her a look.
“Shit,” she said, with feeling.
The way she said, “Hi, Ale,” when she got him on the phone was the most surprising thing of all. She practically sang the words. Listening to her end of the conversation made me wonder whether I knew her at all. She even giggled at one point. Love is blind. And stupid. Really, really stupid.
When she was done, she put the phone in her pocket. “All set.”
“You going to say anything?”
“About that. Ale Martinez, Shirelle.”
She snorted. “OK, so I like him. Who cares? It’s not like I don’t know he’s a fool.” She tapped her temple. “But, you know.” She tapped her heart. “Doesn’t mean I’m not in control. I only take him in small sips. Keeps him tolerable.”
“If you say so.”
Like I said, it’s a good thing I’m immune to Shirelle’s looks.
It was a good thing we weren’t trying to keep Ale’s party secret. There were a lot of kids at Burbank High who remembered him as that fun dude who used to throw those amazing parties before he disappeared, and the news that he was still alive and still throwing them went around like wildfire. So it was only up to Shirelle and me to put the word out to the ones who weren’t idiots that we were going to meet in Stough Canyon to pregame, then arrange to meet them there after as they puffed up the hill on their bikes or on foot.
There were supposed to be twenty-three of them, and they arrived in ones and twos and a foursome driven by someone’s cool older sister and then five more in an Uber, which was d-u-m dumb because everyone knew that Uber logged everything and were hella snitches, roll over for the cops without a warrant, not that warrants were hard to come by.
They came with flasks and six-packs and vapes, and they found up by following the blaze marks we chalked high up on the trees with glow-in-the-dark chalk sticks, giggling and stumbling through the night with the lights from their airplane-mode phones bobbing toward us. We made ’em turn off and bag their phones using the pouches we’d got off Antoine, who’d got ’em from the Wobblies.
At fifteen people, we were way too noisy, and no amount of shushing would keep it down. We’d get spotted soon. But there were supposed to be twenty-three—twenty-three people we knew and liked and trusted, though maybe not to show up in time. Didn’t want to go without them.
“Should we split into two?” I asked Shirelle, counting up again for the thirtieth time. Maybe they’d phoned us to say they’d be late, but of course, our phones were off and bagged.
Shirelle spit on the ground. She looked pale in the moonlight. “Don’t want to get caught on my own, and don’t want to turn on my phone to figure out where you got to. We got one problem with those fools late and missing, don’t need two problems with not knowing where we are.”
I looked at her, eyes so wide you could see white all around the pupils, neck tense. I realized how scared she was, and that made me scared. Because there was a damned good reason to be scared: we were risking serious consequences, jail time even, to throw a party. The knowledge of that went from something in my head to something in my guts in a second and left me feeling like I’d been punched. I wobbled. Why the actual fuck was I doing this?
“Why are we doing this, Shirelle?”
She went from scared to furious so fast it scared me twice, and it wasn’t the normal Shirelle eyeball poison, this was real, uncontrolled anger that made me take a step back. “We’re doing it because it was important to you,” she hissed, so intense that other people turned to watch us. She forced herself to calm down and bent her head toward me. “You tell me, Lenae. Why are we doing this?”
Maybe it was the jolt of new, immediate fear that I got when her fury welled up that got me past my future, theoretical fear of jail and let me get back to my thoughts, because now I could access them. “Because we’re all so sure there’s no way to escape, that we’re all going to be done to, not doing. Shirelle, I’m graduating high school this year and as far as anyone can tell, there’s no reason for me to even exist once I finish. My mom would miss me and so would Teesha, but Shirelle, no one needs them to exist, either. We are spare humans. Don’t you remember economics class? The lower the pay is, the worse the work, the more unemployed people they need to make the people with those terrible jobs feel like they can’t afford to quit them. The most use the zottas have for either of us is to be miserable and downpressed so bad that everyone else works double-hard so they don’t have to join us!”
Shirelle cocked her head. “You sound like a Wobbly.”
“Do I?” I replayed what I’d said. I hadn’t spent a lot of time with Wobblies but I’d read some of the pamphlets they left in the toilets, the darknet rants you had to click through to use their proxies. “I guess I do. Well, who cares? They’re right. We knew they were right all along, Shirelle, but while we were in school we could pretend that it didn’t matter, that we had a purpose, to go to classes and grind for grades, but now class is over and the bell’s gonna ring and then what?”
“So you want to have a Communist party.” It wasn’t a question and it was supposed to be sarcastic. I puffed up.
“Yeah, damn right I do. Least we’re doing something! The whole system only works because we let it work, don’t do anything to stop it from working.”
She spit again. “It works because ‘doing something’ usually means going to jail. Girl, you’re supposed to be smart. Be smart. It’s not too late for all of us to go to the party tonight. Some of Ale’s friends are cute. I’ll introduce you.”
I remembered that it had been me who’d had doubts, had went to Shirelle for reassurance. Instead, I’d got this—rage and fear. Neither of us was sure about this. And it was too late. The stragglers were coming through the woods. It was time to tell them all that we were going somewhere else tonight, somewhere that all of had bullshitted about wanting to go to since freshman year. A chance to make the world do something for us for a change, instead of to us.
“We’re going, Shirelle. You and me. And them. It’s going to be amazing. We’re going to get away with it clean. We’re going to have the most amazing senior year in the history of Burbank High. You believe in me?”
“Lenae, I don’t believe in you. But I like you and I trust you.” She grinned, suddenly. “I got your back. Let’s do this.”
We told them they could go home if they didn’t want to risk coming to the Communist party, but we told them that after we told them that they were the only kids in the whole school we trusted enough to invite to it, and made sure they all knew that if they backed out, there’d be no hard feelings—and no chance to change their mind later tonight when they were at a corny party with a bunch of kids instead of making glorious revolution.
Every one of them said they’d come.
I’d found an all-ages show in Encino that night, two miles from Steelbridge, Antoine’s old job. We got piled into Ubers heading for the club, chatting about inconsequentialities for the in-car cameras and mics, and every one of us paid cover for the club, making sure to use traceable payment systems that would alibi us as having gone in for the night. Then we all met in the back alley, letting ourselves out of the fire-doors in ones and twos. I did a head-count to make sure we were all there, squashed together in a spot out of view of the one remaining camera back there (I’d taken out the other one the day before, wearing a hoodie and gloves, sliding along the wall so that I was out of its range until I was reaching up to smear it with some old crank-case oil).
We hugged the wall until we were back out into the side streets. All our phones were off and bagged, and everyone had maps that used back streets without cameras to get to Steelbridge. We strung out in groups of two to five, at least half a block between us, so no one would see a big group of kids Walking While Brown and call in the cops.
We regrouped at the head of the industrial road that led down to Steelbridge, lined with shuttered factories, empty and silent except for distant railway thunder.
“All right,” I said, “last call. Turn around now, or it’ll be too late.” Of course, no one was going to walk away with everyone else watching. After an awkward moment, I smiled at them all and said, “All right, you’re in.” There was chuckling and murmuring and back slapping and I led them to the back door of Steelbridge, where Antoine said we could expect to find a way in. I tried not to show how nervous I was. My hands shook as I reached for the door, then I remembered and reached into my pocket and got my gloves. “Glove up.” I turned around and watched them all do it, because if any of them left prints behind, they could lead to me. We were all in this together.
I put my earbuds on the factory network and got the music tuned in, kicking in the pass-through so I’d still hear conversation around me. It was fast, crazy salsa from Russia, thunder-beats and hard rapping over big horns and drums. We all nodded in time as we passed through the door. The lights swirled in amazing patterns, projection-mapped onto the huge masses of the factory floor, turning them into stone or wood or water or smoke as the beamers hanging down from the ceiling played over them. There were at least a hundred people already there, the giant building’s far edges lost in shadows.
I spotted a keg and headed for it, threading through some weirdly dressed dancers who were dancing even weirder, though not badly at all. Like their dance-moves were from another timeline. I would have stopped to admire them if I hadn’t seen Antoine by the keg, and if he hadn’t seen me and beckoned.
Up close, he looked like he was about to throw his head back and start speaking in tongues, that churchy look of someone right on the edge of something too big to contain in a single human body.
He grabbed my hand and squeezed it like a drowning man. “Lenae! It’s happening!”
“It really is, Antoine. What about the machines?”
He used his free hand to gesture at them, the men and women working on them. “Just getting started. We hit some snags with the power-meters, didn’t want them to snitch us out, but—” He gestured at the dancers. “We got some skilled assistance.”
I looked at the dancers again. They were…weird in some way I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone dressed quite like them before, printer clothes that crinkled and rustled like the thermal blankets the homeless people used, cut in boxy lines like a child’s drawing, right down to the thick piping that ran around the edges like crayon lines. It looked a little like the stuff you saw refugees wearing in the videos where they washed up on a beach—or bobbed in the sea, or crowded against a fence in a camp somewhere. But they were also party clothes, definitely, sparkly and bright, and I’d never heard of party-cut refugee wear. Or had I?
I stood up on my toes and whispered in his ear, one word: “Walkaways?”
He nodded and I felt the blood rush to my cheeks. I’d seen documentaries about them, and sometimes you heard about them in the news. Terrorists, thieves, pirates. People who’d walked away from it all, living in the forgotten and empty places, recycling toxic waste and their own tailings into weird funhouse versions of civilization, like horror-movie sets. If Wobblies were exciting radicals, walkaways were orcs and ghouls.
The dancers seemed a lot scarier all of a sudden. I knew that walkaways got mentioned in the same breaths as Communist Parties, but I always figured that that was a scare-story. I thought Communist Parties were about wearing fake beards that hung off of fake glasses, not rotting civilization from within.
What’s more, I’d brought all my friends along for this. If the cops got word of the walkaways here, there’d be no mercy. Just being in the same building as them could land us all in prison for a long, long time. No wonder Detective No-Name had such a hard-on to figure out what was going on. He wasn’t trying to stop a party, he was trying to catch terrorists.
I could tell he’d seen the expression on my face and had an idea of what was going through my head. He put a hand on my shoulder and steered me into a private room to one side of the factory floor, some kind of supply closet with high shelves under ancient fluorescent tube lights, the shelves bare and showing the dusty outlines of the stuff that had been piled on them when Steelbridge had still been running as a real factory.
“I know what you’re going to say.” He had beer on his breath. Was he drunk? How drunk?
“Walkaways? Antoine, when the cops find out—”
“Cops aren’t going to find out, Lenae, that’s the point. Who do you think knows how to fool the power-meters? They got their own internet, running it off drones and blimps; they hacked the meters to think they were still talking to LADWP. Not only that, they also got the mills and the rollers, hell, all the machines, got ’em unlocked from the manufacturers so they’ll even turn on. That’s all walkaway shit, no one here could do it.”
“So what you’re saying is that you knew all along they’d be here.”
He made a pained face and I knew I’d caught him. “Yeah, I knew it. You shoulda known it too. Who do you think started the Communist Parties? Who do you think makes ’em possible? Hell, Lenae, what do you think the point of them is?”
That shut me up. An hour before, I’d been dedicated to making something happen in the world instead of letting the world happen to me. I’d been willing to risk everything to prove that I had a place here. What was the point of Communist Parties? To push back, to write 50-foot-tall graffiti in the form of stolen machines and furniture and cars and vehicles. Shopping carts for homeless people. But walkaways?
“We get caught in the same place as those dudes, it’s going to be a terrorism bust, you know that.”
“Those dudes are the reason we’re not going to get caught. They’re the real deal, the resistance, you know? They’re out there all the time, keeping low and getting away with it every day. They’re good people to know.”
A thing I’ve noticed about Shirelle and her family is that they can always find the bright side, even when they really have to dig for it. My family was a lot better at worrying about the downside. Which was why, even though I was the one who wanted to have a Communist party, she was the one who ended up making it happen.
I tried to look at it like Shirelle would, like Antoine would. I had brought thirty kids to a Communist party where there was free beer, dangerous and amazing machines, and walkaways. I was going to be a living legend (assuming none of them ratted me out) (shut up, Lenae).
“OK, Antoine, OK. But if we all end up getting rendered to Tajikistan, I’m gonna blame you.”
“I’ll slip you a hacksaw.”
He was still a handsome fool. “Get me a beer, fool.”
Shirelle’s side-eye when Antoine and I got out of the closet could have cut steel. I crossed my eyes at her and stuck out my tongue, and got Antoine to fill me a second red cup for her. I handed it to her and clicked cups. As we drank, the software that was DJing kicked into a song we both loved, but a mix neither of us had ever heard, and Shirelle started to bop her head a little, and then I did it too and then we drank up and hit the floor, and a space opened for us as we started to dance for real. I’m a good dancer, and Shirelle is a great dancer (I got good by paying attention to her) and the other partygoers paid us the highest compliment: they danced, too.
For a while, it was just like any party: dancing, grinning faces, the crazy lights—now the software was picking out people and projection-mapping them, turning them into shimmering fish-creatures or stone statues or red-skinned devils. The walkaways’ crazy party clothes made an especially great canvas for the painted light, and when one of them got lit up, the rest of us formed a circle around them while they busted their best moves, trying to see if they could outpace the lightning-fast reflexes of the projection-mapping program.
The software was good, and it spun track after track, seamlessly matching beats, but speeding up, daring us to keep up with it on the floor, humans and machines locked together in a musical battle. Shirelle and I busted out our best moves, and then she spun away to dance with an older guy—a steelworker, not a walkaway, you could easily tell ’em apart—who danced like he was a nineteen-year-old at a club in New York City, not a middle-aged guy in a stolen factory in the San Fernando Valley. Then I was whirled off by a pair of walkaways, and one of them was white, and she and her friend, a Mexican-looking guy, did these freaked-out moves that would have looked corny if anyone else had tried ’em, something like a war dance from an old cowboys and Indians movie, and something like a lindy hop, but with them, it worked. I tried out some of their steps, and they smiled and encouraged me and soon we were all grinning like fools.
Meanwhile, in the background—piped in and mixed down with the music by our earbuds—I was aware of the sounds of machines, first faint and tentative, but then more intense and regular, and the software doing the music matched it with paradiddles that put it into a jazz time, so the lindy hop parts of the walkaway dance really worked, and more people were doing it, but more and more of the dancers were drifting over to the machines. First the steelworkers, then the walkaways, then the rest of us, grabbing more beers, forming semicircles around the lines where the machines were doing their things.
The sheet-metal workers moved smoothly, passing parts from one machine to the next—transferring wire gridworks to huge beds where they were stamped and folded, then to a bed where a writhing nest of robot arms made a series of precise, high-speed welds. The shopping carts took shape before our eyes, moving to finishing steps where water-jets cleared off snags of metal and then polished the steel, then into a coating bath tended by workers in masks.
One of the walkaways was unstacking plastic tubs from a pile that was leaning on a column and hauling them over to the area where the upside-down carts were being muscled into place in long, precise rows. The walkaway—a woman the same color as me, and not much older, I realized with a surprise—pulled something out of her crate and snapped it onto a cart. It was a wheel. She went back for more. The walkaways had brought wheels! I hadn’t even thought about how a steel factory would produce rubber wheels. Someone else had, though. Someone who’d thrown more than one Communist party. It wasn’t a game for amateurs.
I joined her. She gave me a pretty smile, one crooked tooth and a lopsided dimple. Her hair was in short braids, streaked with silver. It looked amazing. “Nice hair,” I said as we met at the wheel-tub. It was nearly empty: we had help now, three more people clicking the wheels into place.
“Thank you. I like your shoes.”
I’d worn my coolest kicks: covered in tiny relief sculptures of hundreds of famous athletes twined around each other, every pair unique and printed by Goldman-Nike, designed so that the rubber deformed to make them dance and move when I walked, ribbed with high-contrast piping that glowed bright enough to show every feature, even in the factory light. They were the most expensive thing I owned and I’d nearly died when Mama gave ’em to me for my birthday, so I was proud that she noticed.
“Mind if I scan ’em so I can print some later?” She was already moving around them, holding out a bead that she passed over them for several passes. For a second I felt like she was taking something from me, picturing her and all her friends wearing identical shoes by lunchtime the next day, then I told myself that I was like the assholes who insisted that this factory and all its feedstock just rot until the roof caved in.
“Be my guest.” Because what else could I say, seeing as she was already nearly done, except, whoops, she needed me to lift up each sole, so I did that, holding onto her shoulder—muscley!—while she finished up.
“I think I can re-do ’em with the faces of all my friends.” She pocketed the bead. “Be fun to try. My name’s Merseinne, call me Mer, you want?”
“Lenae.” Her handshake was rough, strong, calloused. She was hella strong. No wonder she could throw around those tubs like they were full of cotton balls instead of heavy-duty wheels.
“Looks like there’s more needs doing.” She shoved a tub my way and I staggered under it, got it balanced and crouch-walked it to an empty spot.
The assembly line was really tearing now, so much rolling stock on the factory floor that we were in danger of running out of space. Someone realized that the shopping carts were shopping carts, so you could push one into the back of another and it would nest inside it, making long, segmented rolling snakes out of them. Even with that measure, we were soon filled to the doors. But it was OK: the feedstock was done, and the dancers were starting to look a little glazed with the heat of their bodies and the machines. It was 2 AM.
Antoine came over and high-fived me. “Where’s Shirelle?”
I looked around. She’d helped out in spells, but had been more of a dancer than a maker. I had stayed with cart construction and logistics straight through, pausing only for beer and water. There’d been three of us who took the lead on the carts: me, Mer the walkaway, and a guy I figured out was a Wobbly. Being part of their trio made me feel fucking badass, I have to admit.
“There she is.” She was with a group of the kids that we’d brought along with us. I’d known those kids for most of my life, and it struck me that in a month, I’d stop seeing them every day, and I’d probably never see a lot of them again. That was a weird feeling, but not an entirely bad one. More…enormous.
Shirelle spotted us and toasted us with her red cup. She was grinning like a fool, looking for all the world like Antoine.
Antoine put his hands on his hips and looked at the tight-packed shopping carts.
“Now what?” I was exhausted, exhilarated, and exactly, exceedingly exalted. I had an all-over tingle of danger (the cops could still show up) and accomplishment (we did all this!).
“Everyone with a truck brought it. We load ’em up, tarp ’em over, dump ’em downtown near the market where the homeless are. They do the rest.”
That made sense. I mean, we weren’t going to push ’em through the streets all night, were we? But it was such an anti-climax.
“I got a better idea.”
Some of the steelworkers used sheets of metal to make ramps that helped us roll the carts into the collection of pickup trucks in the factory’s sheltered loading-area. Once they were loaded, the walkaways spread out and visited each truck’s cab, doing something to them to keep them from knowing where they’d been that night, giving them plausible new geography in case someone ever pulled their logfiles. Most of the steelworkers were going to walk home, and the walkaways were going to head into the night and ghost, of course. With lap-sitting and squashing, all the kids we’d brought would fit into the cabs of the trucks.
They were just sorting that out, led by Shirelle, when Mer found me and stuck her hand out. “Just wanted to say goodbye before we all went back to our corners.”
I shook her hand, then, on impulse, gave her a hug, which was all muscles and bones. Damn, walkaway life must be for real.
“Take care of yourself.” Which was a funny thing for her to say to me, since I lived in civilization and she was a criminal who lived in the badlands.
“Uh, you too.”
She held me out at arm’s length. “I mean it. It’s scary here. Lots scarier than we have it out there.” She jerked her head toward the hills. “We stay out of their way and they stay out of ours. You staying here in default, you’re a problem they have to solve. We’re self-deporting to nowhere, poof. Out of sight, out of mind.”
That word “default” leapt out at me. I knew it was what they called us here in the real world, the people who just did what they were supposed to do. School was default, family was default. Even parties like Ale’s were default. This shit we’d just done: not default. The sort of thing that the cops would pull a fake lockdown to get inside of. Not being default felt good.
“Thank you. I hope I see you again.”
“You want to make that happen, just message me.” She passed me a slip of paper. “That trickles into walkaway-net. You send it a message, it’ll bounce, and that bounce message will get logged and I’ll see the log, eventually.”
“Cool.” I meant it. Walkaways were super-spy ninjas, of course, but getting a glimpse into how they were able to operate without getting hammered was cool and impressive.
We rode back to Burbank with Shirelle on my lap and one of my butt-cheeks squeezed between the edge of the passenger seat and the door. The truck squeaked on its suspension as we went over the potholes, riding low with a huge load of shopping carts under tarps in its bed. The carts were pretty amazing: strong as hell but light enough for me to lift one over my head, using crazy math to create a tensegrity structure that would hold up to serious abuse. They were rustproof, super-steerable and could be reconfigured into different compartment-sizes or shelves with grills that clipped to the sides. And light as they were, you put enough of them into a truck and they’d weigh a ton. A literal ton, and Jose—our driver’s—truck was only rated for a half-ton. It was a rough ride.
Our plan was to pull up on skid row and start handing out carts to anyone around, giving people two or three to share with their friends. Each truck had a different stretch we were going to hit, but as we got close to our spot, two things became very apparent: one, there were no homeless people around, because two, the place was crawling with five-oh. The Burbank cops had their dumb old tanks out, big armored MRAPs they used for riot control and whenever they wanted to put on a show of force, and there was a lot of crime-scene tape and blinking lights on hobby-horses.
The thicker it got, the more scared we got. This kind of thing wasn’t unusual for downtown Burbank—a couple times a month, you could expect to see BPD flexing, shutting down some street. There was no reason to suspect they were out there for us. But it was asshole-tighteningly scary to be coming from a crime-scene with a truck full of evidence and too many people in the front seat of the truck and looking at all this law.
“Turn it around.” The whites of Shirelle’s eyes were showing, but her voice was steady. Jose the driver didn’t need to be told twice. With robotic motions, he signaled a turn, pulled into an empty parking spot, put the truck into reverse, backed it out and headed back the way we came. He wasn’t the only one—while some of the drivers were pulling up to the roadblock and asking the cop which way to detour, others were turning around and finding their own way.
“Shit shit shit.” His voice was a low monotone.
“I got an idea.” Shirelle’s smile was funny and tight and not exactly good-natured.
She punched me in the shoulder. “Shut up. I got an idea.”
We pulled up two blocks from Ale’s house, a dead-end street that backed onto the railroad fence. Jose got the ramp in place without clanging it and the casters on the carts rolled with the silence of elegant walkaway engineering, until we had them all arranged into two long snakes of shopping carts on the sidewalk.
Jose looked uncomfortable as he stood by the driver’s door. “You sure about this?”
“We got this.” Shirelle was a lot more confident than me, and there’s no point arguing with Shirelle when she’s feeling confident.
Still, Jose looked at me. I gave him a thumbs-up and a smile and Shirelle made the same gesture in a way that made sure I knew she was making fun of me. I know for a fact that one of the secret superpowers we get as teen girls is that grown-ass men can’t stand it when we might be making fun of them, and Jose was no exception. He gave us a shake of his head and drove off.
“Now what?” But I knew.
Shirelle grabbed the handle at the back of one snake. “Now we push.” She set off and left me to follow her.
Look, it was three in the morning at this point and if anyone saw us, they must have been left scratching their heads. But I don’t think anyone saw us. Residential Burbank streets, 3 AM? Nah.
The lights were all off at Ale’s house when we pushed our carts onto his lawn, but we could still hear corny candybilly music coming through the door, which wasn’t locked. Shirelle let herself in without knocking. The living room was dimly lit by a few candles, and it smelled like unwashed people getting it on, which they had been doing until pretty recently. There were candy necklaces and cowboy hats everywhere, along with the bodies.
One of the bodies rolled over and squinted at us.
“Hola, Ale,” Shirelle said. He was pretty, if you liked ’em pretty. And when he wasn’t being stupid, he was pretty smart, which was more than you could say for most of the boys I’d known. It wasn’t crazy for Shirelle to like him, even if he was one hundred percent destined to crash-land in the land of the lost losers, forever.
“Shirelle?” He scrambled to his feet, using a pillow to cover himself. “Jesus. Gimme a sec.” He gave us a view of his ass as he made his way to his bedroom and then came back out, wearing a pair of jeans and nothing else. “You guys are a little late. Party ended a couple hours ago.”
Shirelle sucked her teeth. “We didn’t come here for your party, Alejandro. We’re on a mission.”
He shook his head. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
“You’re going to love it, fool. Shut up and listen.”
Shirelle didn’t bother him with the little incriminating details, just hit the high points: there were fifty shopping carts parked on his lawn, the greatest shopping carts ever made. They were a gift to Burbank’s homeless people. Don’t need to know where they came from, but we got to give them out, on the downlow.
“And that’s where you and your no-good friends come into the picture. We need a street-crew. I count ten of you, that’s five shopping carts each. Call it an hour’s work. You all have incurred quite a debt to society tonight with your debauchery and illegal dope fiending, and I’m here to offer you a way to make it up.”
One of the cuddle-puddlers groaned and told us to keep it down and Ale shook his head. “Sorry.” I couldn’t tell if he was apologizing to her or Shirelle or all of us.
Shirelle switched from her stern glare to her million-dollar smile. “Come on, Ale. These parties are getting old, bet you can’t even tell them apart anymore. How long before you get so tired you give up on it. On the other hand, you throw in with us and have the experience of a lifetime.” I heard her put something extra into that and I looked back and forth between them without making it obvious. Had she already hooked up with him? I didn’t think so, but watching the two of them, I could see that it was a close thing.
“Ale, what the fuck?” That was another of the sleepers. I looked more closely. I knew him, Dewayne Marshall, graduated the year before. What the actual? Was everyone except me spending their weekends at orgies?
“D, get up, OK? I want to ask you something.” Ale was grinning now too, reflecting back Shirelle’s million-dollar, million-watt smile. That girl is unstoppable, and that’s why we all love her.
Sleeping on the streets in Burbank is against the law, and if you can’t pay the fine, you go to jail. The city’s homeless aren’t easy to find after dark, but there are a few places that are reliable: the food bank, the soup kitchen, the library parking lot. It’s been years since the library opened its doors, but they kept the free internet.
We split into four groups of two. I figured that Shirelle would go with Ale, but she surprised me by linking arms with me. “Library?”
I covered my surprise and shrugged. “I guess.” I looked at her. “How come you’re not with Ale?”
“He’s with Sarina.” That was the girl we’d woken up at the start when we got Ale.
“They a thing?”
She shook her head. “Not a thing, but you know, a thing tonight. Not my place to get between them.”
“Shirelle, what is going on with you and that fool?”
She pinched my arm. “Nothing you need to worry about.” She shook her head. “Look, he’s pretty, and when he’s not high he’s pretty smart, too. But Ale Martinez isn’t any kind of boyfriend material. He’s OK for relieving tension, you know, having a little fun. But I’m not about to tie myself up to him. Look at him.”
“Those clothes!” I stifled a laugh. He’d even put on the miniature cowboy hat.
“That’s why I only ever see him at his house. He’s not much good on the outside, but in private…”
I shook my head. Shirelle and I told each other everything, except it seemed like we didn’t. Not always. Graduation was weeks away, days really, and I’d assumed that whatever happened with the rest of the fools I’d been locked up with since I was five, I was going to be tight with Shirelle forever. But she knew I thought Ale was a half-wit and so she hadn’t told me about him. And Ale was a half-wit. Plus he was hooking up with other girls, right in front of her. She deserved better than that. A day before, I’d have had the impulse to tell Shirelle that she was being more stupid than she had any excuse to be. Today, I felt like I’d just noticed a huge gap between us, but maybe it had been there all along. We were besties, but we were also about to be graduates. Did grads have besties?
We pushed our snake of carts to the library, the Buena Vista branch where there were a handful of permanent-ish homeless tents and a larger population of rotating homeless leeching off the wifi and the power-outlets set into the concrete benches. Someone had used cold-chisels to smash out the dividers that were supposed to stop you from sleeping on them. There were lots of places in B-bank where you could get busted for sleeping out, but everyone knew that the homeless ruled the Buena Vista branch and its park. The wheels whispered as we steered them carefully up the driveway, past the old night-deposit box for books, dented and fire-blackened in the harsh yellow streetlights.
I guess it pays to be a light sleeper when you’re homeless. By the time we reached the middle of the parking lot, the wheels’ whisper had woken up at least a dozen people, silhouetted and sitting up on the benches or in the grass, draped in blankets or wrapped in sleeping bags.
We stopped. They looked at us and we looked back. I felt like we were expected to give a speech or something. We come in peace? These are for you?
A person stood. She was a white lady, not much older than me. She came closer. I realized I recognized her. She’d been a senior, my freshman year. She didn’t look good. No obvious bruises or track-marks and she wasn’t that dirty, but still. She didn’t look good.
She smiled at me and nodded her head, like, Can I help you?
“Uh, hi.” I wished Shirelle would say something. I snuck her a look. She had checked out, looking glazed and tired and like someone who’d danced her ass off and scared herself to death and also was struggling with a shitty boyfriend.
“Hello.” She had a great voice. I couldn’t remember her name, but a clear picture came to me, her singing in front of the school jazz band at an assembly.
“Uh.” I gestured at the shopping carts. Between us, we’d pushed forty. What if there were a lot more people than carts? Would we trigger a riot? Would we have to decide? “Uh.” Good work, Lenae. That AP Forensics really did the trick. “We made these. They’re really good. Lightweight. Strong. Durable.” I waved my hands over them like I was on a home shopping video.
“Neat.” Her voice was lovely. Her hair was limp and stringy and there was something wrong with the way she looked at me, squinting. Hadn’t she worn glasses in high school? I wondered what had happened to them, thought about how little difference a better shopping cart would make to someone who could barely see. She squinted harder at me. “You go to Burbank High, don’t you?”
I nodded. “Yes, ma’am.” That made her smile. Pretty smile.
“Is this, like, a shop project or something?”
I shook my head. “Nothing like that.” I looked around. “It was, well, a factory in Encino was shutting down, so we had a Communist party there, made these.”
“You had a Communist party?” She really did have a pretty smile. “That’s epic. And you made these? Kids today, you’re so ingenious. Give me hope for the future.”
Shirelle giggled a little at that. Welcome back, Shirelle. “We made them for you. All of you.”
The white lady nodded. “When do you graduate?”
She nodded again. “What are you doing after?”
“I’m going to Glendale Community College for an associate’s in business administration, then I was going to try for financial aid at Northridge.” I’d said this so many times to so many people, it just tumbled out. “I wanna stay close to home, save money.”
She nodded. “That’s exactly what I did. Straight A’s all the way. Watch out for calculus for finance majors, it’s brutal.”
I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I didn’t know how she ended up sleeping on a park bench, but I hadn’t thought that maybe it involved getting the same kinds of grades I was hoping to get.
“Well, uh.” I swallowed hard, because my eyes were threatening to overflow with tears. Deep breath. “I don’t know if you-all can use these, but we hoped maybe you could. They’re really good. Light. Strong.”
“They look really good.” She was being polite. She had good manners. “Thank you.”
“Can we… I mean, can we leave them with you? To give out?”
She smiled and looked understanding. Condescending even. Like Oh, honey, you have no idea. And also: but you will. “I’m sure I can figure something out.”
We walked away in silence, but once we were out of earshot, Shirelle said, “You think she’s going to try and sell them? I mean, to the other people?”
I scowled at her. I was so unaccountably pissed at her, but she was just being Shirelle. “No, dummy. She’s going to give them away to her friends.” It was dawn now, pretty and pink, and the birds were waking up and saying hello to each other at the tops of their voices.
“Shirelle, what are you doing after graduation?”
“Girl, I’m going to sleep in every morning for a month.”
“But after that.”
“You mean college?”
We turned left on Magnolia, the fancy stores with their 24 hour security guards. Some of those guys had familiar faces. A couple years before, they’d been seniors, too. They were the lucky ones. The unlucky ones were barely visible, wrapped in blankets and curled up real small behind signboards and trashcans. Some of them would have familiar faces.
“College.” She blew air out. “My mama’s been asking me about that too.”
“But you got into Glendale CC, right?”
“Yeah, I got in.” She linked her arm with mine. In the old days—a year ago, two years ago—we’d come down to Magnolia on a Saturday and shop, or window shop, with the throngs of nice people, like an outdoor mall. We loved the high-class vintage places that had survived the transition to couture brands, because it was the owners behind the counter, not shop clerks whose fear of losing their jobs made them mean, and the owners would let people like us in, let us try on clothes we could never afford. Hadn’t done that since junior year, and it wasn’t the same at 6 AM with the stores all closed. But still, it felt so good to be with my bestie on this street, arm in arm, like we were kids without a care in the world.
“I got in.” Like it was a death sentence. “But I’m not going.”
That side-eye. “Come on.”
I knew. “You could get a loan.”
She snorted. “How you think that white lady in the park living out of a shopping cart? Girl, you borrow a dollar for college, you pay back ten, and you miss a payment, you pay back a hundred. I want to spend my life on the run from a loan-shark, I’ll borrow the money from an honest criminal on the corner, not some university.”
We had mandatory classes on debt-management and student borrowing, and I had to admit that this is what they added up to, when you looked at them carefully, this was pretty much what they were saying.
“But Shirelle—” I didn’t have anything else to say. When you’re right, you’re right. Shirelle was right. So what was I going to do?
“Want to get some breakfast?”
“Bea Bea’s?” They had the biggest portions in Burbank, pancakes the size of manhole covers, coffee in buckets. We used to go there for breakfast after morning swim team at the Y. Hadn’t been a year, at least.
“Hell yeah!” Shirelle linked arms with me. We didn’t talk about school or borrowing money or Communist Parties for the rest of the morning.
The shopping carts were everywhere, pushed by homeless people all around Burbank. You could spot ’em a mile away. Every time I saw one in the weeks afterward, I felt a little warm tingle. I made that. I was eighteen years old and I finally had something to show for the years I’d been walking around on the earth.
The Communist party at Steelbridge didn’t make the news, but the kids who’d been there gossiped about it and I was the coolest girl in school, the last month. A couple times I got to deny having anything to do with it when impressionable freshmen came up to me and asked if it was true I’d organized the whole thing.
I coasted along toward graduation on autopilot. My finals were all done, my acceptance letter from Glendale CC was stuck to the fridge, and with it, the letter pre-approving my student loan. Every time I looked at it, I got the opposite feeling to the one I got when I saw one of those shopping carts.
Mama paid for the gown and mortarboard rental for my graduation and Teesha made fun of me as I tried it on in the mirror.
When my phone twipped me that night at 3 AM and I answered it, Teesha mouthed I’m telling like she always did, and I rolled my eyes like I always did.
“Shirelle, you’re gonna get me killed. Mama isn’t joking.”
“Lenae.” Then a long silence.
“That walkaway you met at the party, with the hair?”
“Yeah.” I got a light feeling in my head, a light feeling in my guts.
“You still know how to get in touch with her.” Not a question.
Teesha stared at me hard. She could tell from that one word, something was up.
“Shirelle, you’re not going to—”
“You could come too.”
Like I hadn’t thought that thought at least once a day for weeks and weeks, every time I thought about graduation, every time I looked at that letter on the fridge.
“It’d be an adventure. The adventure. What do you have to lose?”
I looked at Teesha. She had always been my mini-me and tagalong, had turned into a truly good person while I watched, funny and sweet and trustworthy and sassy. So sassy. I thought about Mama. I thought about Shirelle and those times we’d gone shopping together or hung out or gone out for sports.
“I don’t know, Shirelle. Honestly, I don’t know.” She drew in a breath. “But I’d hate to lose it, whatever it is.”
Teesha was staring at me like I might explode.
“I got that info, though. From that lady with the hair.” It felt like the words were coming out of someone else’s mouth.
“Don’t think I should say over the phone though. I’ll bring it to school tomorrow?”
“Put it under your doormat, I’ll get it tonight.”
“Oh.” I closed my eyes. “You can knock on the window when you get here?”
“Don’t want to wake you up, get you in trouble, maybe.”
She wasn’t at graduation. I thought of her every day that summer, working gig jobs rating search results, saving money for school. I kept the address of the walkaway lady with the hair, but I lost it somehow. Sometimes, I think I see her, dressed like a homeless, but it always turns out to be someone else. Ale tracked me down one day to ask if I knew where she was. I shrugged, and didn’t even laugh at the stupid little hat. Shirelle’s mother called my mama a bunch of times, but by the end of the summer that had stopped.
The semi-zottas threw some good parties that summer, and I got invited to some of them. None of them were as epic as my Communist party.
The first day of Glendale CC, as I milled around with thousands of other confused freshmen, I got a buzz. It was an error message, telling me that a message I’d never sent had bounced. The address wasn’t one I recognized, but I knew who it was from: ricepudding-callmemaybe. Who else could it be. I started to write it down carefully on a piece of paper, then decided to commit it to memory. I’ve never sent it a message, but I think of it every day, as I watch my grades and my student loans roll in.
“Party Discipline” copyright © 2017 by Cory Doctorow
Art copyright © 2017 by Goñi Montes