From the author: No job. No woman. No grasp on sanity? What else is Garcia to think when crosswalk signals start talking to him? Or when they send him on a scavenger hunt? He doesn't know, but as long as it leads him back to Jolanda in the end, he'll give it a go.
Ka-kink. Ka-kink. Ka-kink.
Some guy’s hand flew to the crosswalk button as though a magnetic force drew him, a few feet from where I sat at a sidewalk café table. Dressed like a hippie and smelling like it too, he spit out the words, “Callin’ in, Cap’n. Callin’ in.” The syncopated rapidity interfered with the vibe of melancholic freedom I’d been cultivating. That morning, Alvarado Construction had pink-slipped me. Three weeks earlier, my girlfriend, Jolanda, had broken up with me, screamed me out of her place with complaints I didn’t understand her love language, and no, she didn’t mean Spanish.
But I was over it. Completely.
The man pressed his head against the pole and bonked the button in three short bursts. “Been layin’ low, so low ain’t nobody seen me, Cap’n.”
He may as well have been speaking in tongues for all the sense that made. Two seconds passed, and he did it again as a spirit of percussive improvisation fell upon him. He could have been up at the altar the way his body rolled with little waves of anticipation, how Jolanda’s daddy’s did every Sunday. God, I missed her. Losing the job wasn’t great news, but it didn’t compare. I had some money saved and I’d never really enjoyed construction work. Enjoyment was the warm, solid press of Jolanda’s thigh against mine, not the rattling force of a jackhammer, though they’d both worked me over about the same.
No job, no woman. Adrift.
Took the hippie a second to notice the walk sign change, so absorbed was he in his personal conversation. When he did, his eyes grew round and he lumbered off, spouting something I couldn’t hear but oddly wished I could. Maybe I should get into radio or telecommunications -- I’d collected different cell phone models for the past . . . oh, at least as long as I’d been with Jolanda. The way they worked, sending messages across vast distances through a simple screen swipe -- well, I guess the thought soothed me though I didn’t phone anyone but her. She’d say that’s typical of me, that I keep everyone at a distance, watch them through a two-way glass. So I’d invested myself in “being fully present” as she asked. Then, after the best two years of my life, she’d claimed I was smothering. Seems I’d “fully presented” myself out her door.
A pair of glittery, neon blue fingernails pushed the crosswalk button. Jolanda had nails that color once. I’d kissed every tip, same as I did each time she fanned open her hands to show off a new polish. The woman at the crosswalk wore a curve-hugging, maroon body suit that dipped into the teeniest pair of jean shorts I’d ever seen. What was her message to the world, I wondered. Okay, I gawked, but I didn’t act. Fool around? ¡Ay caramba! That’d spell trouble if I ever got Jolanda back.
Another ka-kink and my vibe shifted to one of pure irritation. Thankfully, the signal flipped to a half-lit man, and that chica jetted from the curb so fast, I swear a backwind grazed me. My tongue rubbed across congealed croissant plastered to my teeth, meaning I’d gaped at pedestrians for far too long. I tossed the remains and headed on my way to . . . well, where wasn’t a question I had an answer for. My hand mashed the crosswalk button, and it beeped at me, an electronic voice commanding me to wait in plaintive tones as though sorry for the inconvenience. Patchouli made my nose wrinkle as the hippie came back around and pressed the button too. A tourist family joined in, sweaty and frowning -- should have slept in. The dad slammed the button; did he think the rest of us hadn’t bothered? Or maybe there was something self-declarative about hitting it. Something that fed his soul, said “Yes, there were others before me, but I am here, too! I will be acknowledged!”
I knew that yearning. Smothering? All that time I’d spent soaking in Jolanda’s love nuances -- every packed lunch, every invitation to lay my head on her breast -- and I was the one smothering?
The hippie banged out another Morse code message. I glared.
“Just making sure,” he smiled dopily in response, raising and lowering his fingers in a wave of greeting. The light changed, excusing me from soaking up his happy any longer. Why on Earth did he keep slamming the button if he was that content with the world? Couldn’t he recognize the signs of a person who wanted to be left alone, wanted him to take his peace and happiness and shove it? The guy was lucky Jolanda always told me to turn the other cheek -- lucky, and I didn’t have the first clue as to whether I could land a right hook without a game controller.
Three blocks later, alone and heading into my residential neighborhood, the urge hit me. Yount was a quiet street, no cars to be seen, but I knew how fast they could take the curve. I’d touched the button once already -- an old, bulging round one covered in scratches and the remaining sad flecks of yellow paint. It didn’t seem to do the trick. I felt antsy, ready to be home, so I pressed it again. Nothing changed. Again, three times in a row. I must have been getting squirrelly, thinking too much about the job or my girl, so I yelled, “Callin’ in, Cap’n. Callin’ in,” remembering that joker from before.
Static sounded in my ears as though my buds had an incomplete connection. But I’d left them at home, so I had to be imagining things. I hit my head and the static stopped . . . and then a clipped voice spoke instead.
“Connection accepted. Doctor Garcia, what is your position?”
What?! The signal changed, but I didn’t trust my senses so I whacked my head again rather than cross.
“Doctor Garcia, what is your position?”
Same as before, I swear! “What the fuck is this? How do you know my name?” I’d never been to medical school, for sure, but Garcia was my last name. Whose wasn’t, though? Someone was playing a trick on me. Maybe Jolanda.
“Fine, all right. I’m at 6th and Yount St.” Okay, I’d play along. Why not? I didn’t have a pressing engagement elsewhere.
“It’s been 2.4 Earth revolutions since your last report. Why have you been delayed?”
Earth revolutions? That had to mean years, but who the fuck called them that? And two and a half of them? That’s how long I’d been dating Jolanda. This had to be her playin’.
Well, I could play too. “I’ve been busy.”
“That is the assumption. It is also the assumption you file briefings every half revolution. What has kept you too busy to fulfill your obligations?”
“You know. Hangin’, I guess.” Okay, I couldn’t play well. But it didn’t matter. This wasn’t my game.
“Define this ‘hangin’, Doctor.”
“Um . . . well . . . um, spending time with friends, scouring the Westside, taking in the haps. You know.” Truth be told, I hadn’t been doing much since the break-up. I’d kept the people here at a distance, taking my time feeling my way into the culture, you know? With Jolanda, it’d been different. She’d caught me staring at her shaking her hips in tempo with the dryer at the laundromat, laughed, and pulled me into a relationship, dance moves first.
She didn’t need to know how close me and my Xbox had become.
The connection, or whatever it was, fell silent. I circled the pole, not knowing what to expect from it. The light changed again, and I caught more than a few confused glances as I stayed in place. One guy threw me the bird, which I thought uncalled for. Sure, I was staring at a useless pole, but I wasn’t harming anyone.
By the time the walk sign returned, I’d quit studying the grey-metal cylinder for secret messages. Standing there, waiting for a pole to talk -- ridiculous. My foot struck the asphalt and I had crossed halfway when a tinny ringing sounded in my head. Maybe I’d gone too far from the speaker. Did I want the connection severed if it gave me a chance to reunite with Jolanda? Thinking of her, the way she’d slide her hand in mine before we’d cross the road or lean into my arms when we sat back to catch the game . . .
I lunged back to the sidewalk. The static cleared.
“Surveillance explanation accepted. The delay will be compensated for by deductions from your next revolution’s payment.”
“Hey! That’s not fair!” Not that I expected compensation from a crosswalk, but that hit too close to home.
“Defense denied.” A pause, and then a series of beeps and what sounded like another voice behind me. I whirled around. Nothing.
“The Commander has given you another mission. Will you accept it, Doctor Garcia?”
What did I have to lose?
The voice instructed me to collect two items and report back to the crossing signal -- or at least I assumed that’s what it meant by “Communicator Station.”
- Watershed building, fifth floor. Shiny and paws-shaped.
- Pederson Junior High, track course. A white cone, attached to a large human.
I repeated the descriptions as I made my way to my apartment three blocks over. Jolanda’s cousin Bernie went to Pederson and that detail convinced me I’d been right -- this had to be about her. But the thought gave me pause as I reached for my backpack. Did I want to keep being “about her,” to go blundering through the city on a scavenger hunt at the prompting of a disembodied voice because it might lead me back to her? Lead me to the crazy house as easily.
Maybe the pink slip had messed with me more than I realized. But one glance at the Xbox and its blinking, sickly indicator light and I knew I couldn’t stay cooped up there for another afternoon. Three stops on the J train and two more on Line 53, and I’d be at the Watershed. Positioned right by the hydroelectric plant, the building’s concrete hulk exterior was inlaid with multiple metallic ribbons meant to evoke a waterfall. Over the years, the dirt generated by the plant had converted it into a long, sloping slide of grime. Serene beauty and clean power was its original intimation, but all it stood for now was the inevitability of industrial misery. Did everything that was once rejuvenating and pure get corrupted in the end?
Wow. I didn’t know I had such poetry in me. Though hadn’t Jolanda been complaining I never sang to her anymore? That the man she’d fallen in love with knew how to woo a woman, not just how to echo one? That if she’d wanted to date herself, she’d buy another mirror? Maybe . . . maybe she’d had a point. Maybe, I could fix this.
An adrenaline rush pushed me through the revolving door, and I sidled over to the receptionist, excuse readied. “I have a meeting on the 8th floor.”
I flashed her my most seductive smile and waited. Confidence is integral to deception, or at least that’s what I picked up from all those times Jolanda told her daddy I wasn’t staying over.
Reflections from the monitor screen flashed in the receptionist’s glasses. “Why do I care?”
I sputtered. Too late, I noticed the constant trickle of office workers heading straight toward the elevators, no guards, no badges. If I were an intergalactic spy, well, I wasn’t very good at it.
“Sorry.” I shuffled away to consider my options. Taking the stairs to the top floor and investigating as I worked my way down made the most sense: less detection risk. But that plan sounded better on the ground floor than it did leaning against the eighth floor door, gasping to catch my breath. I took pains to gently press the push bar -- those things are loud -- and slid through the narrow gap . . . until my backpack caught on the door jamb and halted my smooth entrance.
Luckily, no one was in the side hall. Maybe my plan had been worth it after all. I focused, re-centered on my whack-a-mole mission. Shiny and shaped like paws. The shiny push bar couldn’t be what the voice had wanted -- way too complicated to take it with me. I’d have to round the corner to keep searching.
An attractive woman at the front desk examined me as soon as I entered her field of vision -- obviously, she’d had different training than the lady downstairs. The sign behind her read “Hooper, Whistler & Co.” in big, gold letters.
“Most people take the elevator,” she said. Her eyebrows arched. “You look familiar. Have you been in here before?”
Weird. I’m an average guy, not one to stand out in a crowd. Brown hair, brown eyes, brown skin, and just short enough that Jolanda called me her principito after her favorite book as a kid. Her whole family took to it.
I could use the secretary’s confusion to my benefit, so I reasserted my smile, straightened my stance. “Yes. I’m here for a meeting.”
Her returning expression was polite, but fingers clicked away at a keyboard I couldn’t see over the counter’s lip.
Damn. I’d hoped she’d tell me. “Um . . .” I glanced up, “. . . Mr. Whistler.”
She rolled her eyes. “Ms. Whistler is unavailable until the 22nd. Are you certain you have an appointment here today?”
I shifted the backpack’s straps. Fresh sweat beaded beneath them and at my adam’s apple. “Oh, um, I must have been wrong I guess.”
“Mm-hmm.” I’d run if she went for a phone, but she merely peered at me over her glasses. “You can see yourself out?”
Relief. She hadn’t called security on me, and I needed to jet before she did. Yet my spirits deflated as I took two steps toward the elevator, feet dragging. My emotions had different priorities than my brain. I wouldn’t -- couldn’t -- fail.
“You can have one, if you want.” Her pitying voice confounded me. Not the pitying part -- I was seconds from shedding very manly tears. I just didn’t see what she meant . . . until I passed a bowl full of plastic-wrapped whistles on an end table. Yellow, brass, shiny whistles. From that angle, they kind of resembled commas.
Shaped like a pause, not paws! I slapped my head and laughed aloud.
“They’re just promo junk.”
Her disdain could not dampen my excitement. I threw caution to the wind and lunged behind the counter to give her a genuine bear hug. “Thank you. You have no idea how much. Thank you.”
Though stunned by my over-the-top appreciation, she managed to save me again as I beat my retreat behind closing silver doors.
“You didn’t take one.”
Beaming at her awkwardly, I grabbed a favor right before the doors clasped together. Poor woman, probably thought I was out of my mind. Hell, I couldn’t deny it, but I felt amped up as I stepped onto the lobby floor. One clue down! I gave the whistle a hearty blow, couldn’t help it.
My sight filled with pastel-colored sparkles and I gasped. Beneath my feet, light symphonically pulsed from smooth stones, the effect a distant cousin of the Bellagio water show I’d insisted Jolanda and I return to every hour on the hour during our first weekend away. I reckoned the fleeting image an ecstatic vision of victory -- one blink, and it dissolved. Barely in time, too, because the lobby receptionist had noticed me again, if her hand reaching toward the red phone at her console was any indication. I booked it.
The little whistle couldn’t have been worth more than my breakfast moldering in a hot garbage bin, but it meant a million bucks to me. Like I’d passed the first part of a test and proven I’d do anything for Jolanda.
Even go to junior high.
Pederson Charter Public Junior High School had seen better days. Jolanda’s family had teased poor Bernie about getting accepted there. “Pederast” they’d dubbed the place. It had been some hotshot academy for rich white folk up until the late 1990s, when the first of many fingers pointed accusations at the newly appointed dean of students, a man who’d taught there over twenty years. The elite didn’t find the old school so appealing anymore, and the buildings remained vacant until the city grabbed them as part of its last-ditch approach to public education.
It didn’t look so bad to me as I made my way around the towering main building and toward the fenced-in field in back. I half expected to find a family of Saturday Night Live Coneheads by the bleachers -- Jolanda’s favorite videos to watch on YouTube, cracks her up every time -- but they were empty. Finding my white cone, attached to a large human wouldn’t be easy.
Sun rays gleaming off the metal bleachers indicated a searing, painful disaster if I tried to sit on one, so I sat on the patchy grass against a water fountain and cased the situation. Orange pylons marking lane starts had potential, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how they connected to a large person. The only people were kids jogging in small groups around the half-size football field. Even the gangly ones would hardly come to my shoulders.
Some of them pointed at me. Oh crap. Pederson kids probably took classes on stranger danger, and there wasn’t another adult in sight! I couldn’t leave, not after coming so far. I may have been hot, tired, and clueless as to why I agreed to this insanity, but it delivered way more of a rush than playing Halo 4.
I scanned the field again. Soccer goalposts loomed over the browning grass. Balls of various shapes and sizes dotted the field like a losing game of Chinese checkers. Scowling teenagers directed their grimaces at either the gritty turf at their feet or the well-intentioned individual reclining against a drinking fountain . . .
I had to jet, clues be damned. Before I could vault myself up, a pair of scuffed tennis shoes stampeded in my direction. They stopped mere inches from my palms planted on the grass, prepared to launch me into action should running be required.
“Principito!” The footwear was attached to scrawny, dark-skinned legs and the grimy, reddened face of Jolanda’s nephew, Bernie. Oh, thank God. I whisked him around in an overly enthusiastic hug for the benefit of ogling eyes. The staring kids lost interest, a couple of them spitting in disgust when they received the message, “I belong here.” Relatives are way less fun than potential pedophiles, I guess.
“What are you doing here, principito?” Bernie pushed out of my arms -- I may have miscalculated how long an appropriate hug should last with a self-conscious junior higher. Oops.
“Oh, I’m on my way home, you know, and I remembered you went to school here. Thought I’d take a chance to say hi. I don’t see you as much anymore, you know, not since . . .” I shrugged, regretting even a partial lie. I missed Jolanda’s whole mess of relatives. They made me more welcome than anyone else I could recall. At family gatherings, I’d take up a quiet couch corner, and before long, they’d pull me out of myself and into the action.
“. . . since Jolly broke up with you?” Bernie laughed, pointing his finger at me.
Blushing was all I could say in response.
“Aw.” He dropped my arm and gave me as firm a punch as a twelve-year-old could manage. His squeaky voice, struggling in its journey toward deepness, was kind. “She misses you, you know.”
The kid knew just what I needed to hear. Warmth blossomed in my chest. “She does?”
“Yeah, man, of course she does!” He laughed again. “What do you think? She loves you.”
“But then . . . why?” This twelve-year-old held the key to my existence within the soulful rounds of his coconut-shell eyes. I waited in rapt anticipation for his answer.
He raised his hands in surrender. “Don’t ask me, man! It’s just, her smile’s not quite right, you know?”
I knew. Oh, I knew how that looked on her. Her lips, usually painted with a royal purple that complimented her skin’s cool hues, often curved into a waning crescent. They only reached the gibbous phase of the Earth’s moon when she meant it. Really meant it, and then the amusement or humor or love bubbled up from her rounded mouth until it poured from her gleaming eyes.
Bernie paled as a mechanic bellow reached us.
“Bernard Trujillo, you’ll never break a four-minute mile from the drinking fountain!”
“Sorry, man, gotta go.” He gave a sheepish grin before bounding out to rejoin his classmates who had improved their paces since the coach’s return.
That coach was a remarkably tall woman with chiseled arms and a six-pack evident through her form-fitting, lime green tracksuit. Unlike the woman at the crosswalk, her beauty didn’t draw my eyes. The device she’d used to get Bernie’s attention did. The same device now carrying soundwaves attuned to her precise vocalizations.
“Faster! Those East Orange rats have practice every afternoon! We’ve got to be faster to win!”
An oversized bullhorn dangled from her giant hands as though a forgotten bauble rather than the item of pure treasure I knew it to be. The sun rays bouncing off its surface held my gaze like glue. My heart pumped blood at a rate that would have left those adolescent runners in its wake. Should I tackle her? I’d once contemplated mixed martial arts but had settled for Mortal Kombat X instead. Maybe I’d talk her into letting me borrow it to practice my yodeling.
I didn’t have to resort to such desperate measures. The coach used it to release another expletive barrage before ditching it in the grass and joining her students, striking a relentless pace. I didn’t hesitate. Not with my girl’s heart on the line. Megaphone in hand, I high-tailed it out of there, the coach’s shouts of “Not again, you bastard!” echoing off the brick buildings. I ran ten city blocks and came to rest against my morning café’s shaded brick wall.
To my eye, the dull metal ring at the bullhorn’s narrow end glimmered like Jolanda’s sequined club dress under disco lights. I drew my lips around it. Some instinct within me sparked at the connection, and I pulled the whistle out, too, jammed it in one corner of my mouth while keeping my lips on the megaphone. I pressed the large red button on the bullhorn’s handle and blew three times fast, throwing all semblance of sanity to the wind.
That resonance did more than amplify a thin trill of sound. It rippled through my cells, sent images flooding through my mind so fast, I could barely grasp their significance before the next came. Memories of rubbing the spiky cilia of a sentient, amphibious reed. Parading the chieftain of a basketball-sized clan on my shoulder through the corridors of our central command sphere. Swirling light through a prism with my fingers while communing with the flares of a red giant in its death throes.
I banged against the wall, scraped my bare arms against brick as I slid to the gum-covered sidewalk.
Well, fuck. I’m an alien.
More than that, I was a communications specialist who’d screwed up his assignment big time. Decades of experience had failed me, time spent learning how to open dialogues with the most unexpected intelligences. Those radiant stones I’d remembered in the Watershed building? They had literally radiated their pleasure after I’d performed a musical number on an instrument resembling a jigsaw. Humans had hardly been a shock to encounter, not after my career. Sure, they’re taller than us -- I’m considered quite large among my people -- but our forms are similar, and it took me scarcely an earth revolution to learn to form most their words. How had Jolanda overlooked the rills on my fingers? I couldn’t control them during--
Earth revolution. Fuck. I was in so much trouble. I skidded around the café to the crosswalk and banged the signal out. “Callin’ Cap’n. Come in Cap’n!”
Her voice chimed right in my ear. “The protocol engaged?”
“Yes, it did. I’m sorry you had to resort to the memory restoration program.” Never before in my service had I needed to use the mechanism we’d set up to trigger our memories in case we became too engaged in our assignments. Our research vessel had to maintain a reasonable distance to avoid detection, so we needed a tether back to ourselves in case, well, in case something like Jolanda happened. Kintil, the hippie who’d waved hello to me earlier, had been recalled once too. That nasty scenario had involved a couple of slime devils from the Alpha Cen--
“And your assignment? What is your progress on understanding this ‘romantic love’ the humans seem to value?”
Of course. On this planet, I’d started slow, amassing information on various strange communication mediums; the whistle and bullhorn had merely been the first I’d identified. They were similar to the multitudes of contraptions I’d encountered across the galaxy: stones that sing, amplifiers tuned to heartbeats. But humans had a behavioral characteristic we hadn’t encountered anywhere else. Their befuddling predilection to attach themselves to each other, without shared genetic material, demanded further study. In other cultures, mating partners might flatter each other with colorful displays of refraction or painful squawks asking to be silenced. Copulating pairs or pods sometimes stayed close together until an impregnation was achieved -- our own system. But beings whom continued to exert influence over their consorts after having achieved the biological imperative, with no overt advantages to the unions, astounded us.
I’d been assigned to the phenomenon, to see if I could understand how humans benefitted from this specialized, intimate communication model. But once I met Jolanda in that laundromat, well, I’d lost myself in it. Literally. Wow. Wow!
“It’s dangerous, Captain. Very. I’ve primarily studied one human for the last two earth rotations, and I’ve learned it can cause a lot of pain. Romantic love is all-consuming, using emotional resources rarely accessed that drain our capacity. As a primary means of communication, it carries the risk of sudden shut-down. And it can make you forget who you are.”
Describing it, digging in to how I’d felt when Jolanda broke my heart, reopened the wound I’d thought scabbed over until that morning. And now?
“Do you recommend we discontinue this mission, Doctor?”
All day, memories of Jolanda had made me giddy, made me burst with the renewed possibility of smelling her herbaceous perfume, serving her the chocolate tea that her tia had brought back from the islands, sharing the same pillow. Would I give it up, all the ways it made me feel, because of the hurt I’d gone through as well? I hadn’t perfected the means of romantic love transmission -- that much was clear -- yet I’d spent months receiving the messages Jolanda sent. I couldn’t deny how amazing they had felt, to the point that my system overcompensated for the shock by making it my controlling directive.
“The key is to protect our individuality in the rush of the emotions it engages: passion, joy, anger, despair. If we can learn how the humans keep themselves intact while sharing such a powerful connection, well, romantic love could be one of the most effective communication systems we’ve encountered. I think, if we continue, we will master it in time.”
Silence cut through the static louder than words. This could be it. I could be reassigned, given my pick-up coordinates, and never have the chance to make it up to Jolanda -- to see her again. Hushed tones I couldn’t distinguish added another layer of anxiety. A pit in my stomach grew larger the longer they debated the mission’s merits. I wasn’t surprised at the wait -- we pore over complex situations until we’ve puzzled out all their vagaries. But each passing Earth second made me more convinced than ever it was over.
Unbidden tears dripped down my face, and the wide berth pedestrians had granted me widened.
“Are you willing to continue your mission with this demonstrated danger, Doctor?”
Was I ever. “Yes.”
I whooped with joy. And danced in a circle, fist-pumping my bullhorn into the air. A young boy and girl gaped at me, kids with bulging, close-set eyes magnified by glasses. I whooped some more as their parents hurried them faster across the intersection, sending stern glances my way.
Then I remembered my pink slip. “Is there a pay boost for increased risk?”
My feet swept over those streets as though I wore anti-grav boots. Arriving outside Jolanda’s run-down duplex took less time than a transport. The buildings in the neighborhood had been constructed in Earth’s 20th century AD, but perplexingly, they’re called Victorians -- I haven’t figured that one out yet.
I blew my whistle twice, its sharp trill echoing from the cement block walls dividing the housing units. That’s all it took -- Jolanda could never resist a disturbance. She jammed her head through the second-story window as if she’d caught the scent of sweet empanadas frying. As soon as her eyes fell on me, she leaned back against the frame and crossed elbows.
It’d be an obvious sign of unwelcome if not for the smirk. Her evolved ability to convey two messages at once was part of why I was drawn to her in the first place.
“Jolanda!” I shouted through the bullhorn, holding down the red button to amplify my sound waves. I hesitated for a moment, worried the vocal chord distortion would prove distasteful to her aural cavities, but I had to try, had to make her see. “Jolanda, I love you!”
“¡Pendejo!” She yelled back, shaking her head. But the corners of her eyes, black eyes easy to read, to drown in, turned up.
I pounded my chest in the manner I’d seen her brothers do a million times at park parties, forgotten linguica links smoking on community grills behind them.
“But I’m your pendejo, Jolanda! All yours!” Thrusting the megaphone high as the Channeler’s trident in the Dark Souls II video game, I began a victory dance. It didn’t matter how much of an idiot I made of myself on the sidewalk, not once Jolanda’s throaty laughter mingled in with neighbors’ pleas to “Shut the hell up!”
“Get up here, mi principito,” she beckoned. “Before I change my mind. ¡Date prisa!”
Our audience gave a smattering of applause before slamming their windows shut. I tapped the bullhorn’s siren three times fast, converting my people’s signal into my own celebratory ring.
Time to enter the next stage of my research.
“What are you doing?” The little girl, head full of multicolored barrettes and gumdrop hair ties, watched her older brother, Ede, hit the big round button with the base of his palm three times fast. She knew it was three, because she counted, and then he did it again.
“Crap,” he said, staring at his hand like he hadn’t realized he’d done it. “You mean that?” His laugh went high into his throat. “Just making it go faster, silly.”
“Really? It goes faster that way?”
“Sure it does.” His lips curved up on one side, like how they did when Mama asked him what he’d been watching on the computer screen before he slammed it closed. “It’s a game, ok? The faster you press it, the quicker the light changes. Here, you try.”
Taking a deep breath, she slammed the button again and again with alternating hands. She went so fast she couldn’t keep track of how many times she did it. It could have been hundreds!
Ede’s strong arms pulled her too far away to reach. “Whoa there, speedy. You might accidentally--” His voice faded midsentence. “Nevermind. Doesn’t matter.”
“Axe-a-dent-lee what?” She writhed around to escape his grasp, but it was no use. She wanted to help! Didn’t Ede want them to cross the street faster?
A crackly, silly voice spoke into her ear. “Connection accepted. Please geelzebuzz from repeating the graviturlizz so many times in the future.”
She whipped her head around but only saw Ede. He squinted one eye at her, sweat beading on his brow. “Do you hear something? You’d tell me if you did, right?”
The voice talked again, reminding her of when she and her best friend in the whole world, Tracy, had spent an hour talking to each other through cups attached with a string. Daddy was the smartest daddy ever for making it. Then Mama had given them chocolate cookies!
“Mental trauma can be twulpadeedle from 45 gentazors’ away, you know. Now rizatulip. Our vocal twubble deet is not working.”
She pictured the voice’s owner as a big bee shaking its fist and batting its wings as fast as she’d hit the button. The thought made her giggle. She tugged on Ede’s arm.
“What’s she talking about, Ede? What’s a gentazor?”
Ede’s eyes went wide. “Oh no. We’ve got to go. You’re too young.”
“Are too.” He faced the pole and said to the air, “Sorry, Captain. We’ll explain later.”
The static in her head disappeared as Ede swung her onto his shoulder. “Mom’s going to be sooo mad.”
On the big black box across the street, the blinking little white man chased the angry red hand away. Maybe it wasn’t a woman but the little man who had spoken? Maybe he’d meant to say she’d made the light change!
“I did it!” She screamed loud as she could and wiggled. “I’m going to do it at every button!”
“Girl, you need a nap.” Ede gave her a soothing back pat. “I promise Daddy’ll explain it later, okay?”
“With his special finger trick?”
“Sure, with his special finger trick. If Mom lets him live.”
Her eyes nodded closed against his shoulder. Dreams of bees stuck in crosswalk poles filled her head. Daddy always told the best stories.
This story originally appeared in Typehouse Literary Magazine.