From the author: In a society where poverty is a crime, Sara tries to follow the rules so that she can work her way back to the middle class and safety. But will the system let her?
The apartment floor moved.
No, Sara corrected herself numbly, it wasn’t the floor — because the floor wasn’t visible beneath the layers of paper, old takeout boxes, discarded clothing and open garbage bags. It was, instead, the hundreds of roaches that had converged on the place like pilgrims to Jerusalem, finding in the combination of old cat shit, spilled soda, remains of take-out Chinese food and jesus-god-how-much-paper? a veritable paradise; a place to spawn generations of healthy, greedy families.
“A bit of bugchem will take care of this,” said her social worker, with an optimism he obviously didn’t feel. His name was Stokowsky (she didn’t know if he had a first name); a large, pale man with a tired, resigned face who had driven Sara to the apartment in a van so old that she wondered if it still used gasoline.
Stokowsky stayed just outside the door. “A little dusting, a little soap and water — should be livable in a week or so, at the most.”
“Yeah. Right.” Sara stared around and tried not to inhale. What was that smell, anyway? Urine, she guessed, mixed with mold, mice and food that had been sitting in a closed, warm room for several weeks. Maybe it was some kind of perverse scientific experiment.
“Well, maybe not,” the man admitted. He raised his voice a bit so that Sara, who had taken a few tentative steps further into the apartment, could hear him. “But look, it won’t be so bad. If you can get this in some kind of livable condition — we’re not asking you to paint or anything like that, just clean it to Health Department specs — I’ll sign off on the job and you get to stay here. And if you find employment in that time, I might be able to find you a roommate when your six free months is up so that you can manage the rent. Maybe a nice woman with a couple of kids. Make you feel like a family.”
“Yeah. Thanks.” After spending the last two years in an FEC — Female Unemployables Camp — kids were the last thing that Sara wanted to share an apartment with. She thought about some of the screaming brats she’d had to live alongside with and wondered whether rodents and roaches might not be a better bargain.
Stokowsky continued to reel off his spiel. “As required by law when female clients are assigned to jobs in neighborhoods that rate level 4 and lower, you’ve been allotted an aide who can run errands, provide security when you need to leave the apartment, or help with any tasks that are too heavy. His name,” he checked his wristdev, “is Ji. His wristdev is coded to pair with yours; if somebody comes to the door claiming to be your aide and the wristdev doesn’t pair, don’t let him in.”
He looked up at her and his tone sharpened. “I needn’t tell you that the wristdev that you’ve been issued is coded for GPS follow; it will also check you on a random basis for indications of alcohol or any unapproved drugs or medications. However, your audio and visual environment, your sleep patterns and your activity levels will not be monitored, as mandated by the electronic device privacy statutes. The wristdev stays on your left wrist at all times and any attempt to alter or remove it will result in your immediate return to the FEC facility. You got all that?”
He waited for her to nod, then added, “Good luck,” obviously trying to sound as if he meant it, turned and left, closing the door behind him.
Something brushed her hand. She yelped.
Disturbed by the sudden vibration caused by the door, the community of cockroaches that had taken up residence in the apartment came alive, scuttling around and over the garbage. The floor rustled with their movement, sounding absurdly like a forest through which a gentle breeze blew. “I’ve got to sleep here,” Sara thought, dazed and completely forgetting about the possibility of future roommates. “How the hell can I sleep here?”
She jumped again as a couple of particularly large specimens scurried over one foot. She was dressed in the ugly but serviceable work shoes, pants, shirt, and lightweight jacket that the authorities had given her upon her release; the wristdev that clung to her left arm was an unadorned tan plastic, the simplest, cheapest tech legally allowable. The small bag that she now held up higher over the garbage heaps to avoid any particularly athletic insects held a few toiletries, a change of clothes, and a wooden giraffe that she had been given by a departing friend a couple of years ago.
It wasn’t much, but it was hers — and, for the moment, it was roach-free.
She looked around desperately. If there was any furniture in the living room, it was hidden by the piles of trash; the kitchen was to the left of the living room, but it looked even worse. Assuming she could reach it.
Air, Sara thought. I need some air.
She moved cautiously through the living room, stepping on and over mounds of old, yellowed, stained papers, occasionally jumping back as tiny lives scurried from their violated homes. Once, she sunk nearly knee-level; she quickly found pulled her leg out and hurried to the windows opposite the apartment’s main door.
The windows were covered with torn, faded shades; an unnecessary precaution, since the panes were so dark with accumulated grit that she could have safely stripped naked in front of them and not offended a soul. She examined the old plastic frame — it was old enough to be made up of two panes, one of which could probably be raised. Sara placed her fingers under the edge and pulled.
Nothing. She looked around the frames, careful not to touch the shades (and jumping, once, at the sound of something scurrying up the crinkling material). There was no lock or anti-burglary device that she could see; the only thing that prevented the window from opening was age. Or maybe some enterprising child had decided to glue it shut just for fun.
She tried one more time, felt the muscles in her back creak, and decided to try again later; maybe her aide (if she could clean the place enough to get him to step inside the door) would open it for her later.
The smell was starting to make her dizzy. Sara turned and stepped gingerly through the piles, back to the front of the living room, turned left into a short hallway, past the bathroom — which she didn’t feel ready to face yet, but would have to eventually — and into a bedroom.
It was actually a little better than the living room, although not by much. A lumpy stained mattress lay on a low, old-fashioned wooden frame. Another pile of papers –who the hell used that much paper anymore? — was mixed with what looked to be old clothing yellowed by, hopefully, age, although Sara wouldn’t have taken bets on it. Against the wall, a long bookcase was loaded with old equipment that weighed it down so that several of the shelves were leaning perilously close to total collapse.
She stared around, forcefully repressing the urge to run, screaming and desperate, from this horror of an apartment and just take her chances in the streets.
“This is a very important point in your life,” her caseworker’s voice echoed in her head, from when she agreed to the job. “You make good on this, you get a place to live, you get some leads to jobs. You get a chance to get back on the grid.”
One month. One month to be on her own, to show she had what they called “an enterprising and entrepreneurial spirit.” One month to clean an abandoned apartment to the point where it once again met health regulations. Then she’d be home free — or, at least, would have a home for six months. And with an address, you could get a job. And with a job, Sara would be a person again, the kind of person that she was before the divorce and the layoff.
There was an old metal coat rack standing, slightly askew, against the wall; Sara pulled it a little away from the wall, checked it for insects, and then hung her bag on it carefully, making sure that it didn’t touch the surface of the wall.
A flat sound; something like a small dull pot being hit by a tablespoon. Sara glanced at her wristdev, but there weren’t any messages; it took her a moment, but she suddenly realized that she was hearing an actual doorbell.
She waded back toward the front door (with a moment of revulsion; she had forgotten how alive the living room was). The security screen was so filthy she couldn’t see anything; she grabbed a cloth from a nearby pile, shook it briefly (a stray insect flew off, hit the wall, and scurried off), and tried to clean it. Enough smeared off so she could see the vague form of what looked like a medium-sized man, about 30 years old, with a single braid falling down one side of his head, who stood and grinned at her. He said something, but apparently the audio wasn’t working; when she didn’t react, he raised his arm and touched the purple faux-leather wristdev he wore.
Her’s pinged; she touched it.
“I been assigned to you,” he said; the audio hovering somewhere near her left ear. Of course, she thought, irritated; the cheap wristdev they had issued her was refurbished and the right channel was probably gone. She glanced at the readout; it was flashing green, which meant yes, this guy was authorized by the Powers That Be to deal with her.
“My name’s Ji. I got some bugchem and a printer for you,” the man said. “It’s a piece of crap; it’ll only print trash bags and some overhauls that won’t protect you from spit, but you also get me to escort you every three days out to shop or whatever. For your test month, anyway. You gonna open the door?”
Sara nodded at him, then went over and palmed the lock open. Ji was dressed in a rather natty pair of silky pants and the loose flowing shirt that was in fashion these days; that and his braid gave him a distinctly piratical look. He handed her a large box, which she deposited just inside the door.
“You do this kind of thing often?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Hey, it’s a few extra points in my account. Proves I can hold a real job when I need to look legit. I’m doing aide work for another six of you work/study cleaners in this building alone. So do you want to stand around chatting or do you need to go somewhere?”
She stared at him for a moment more and then nodded. “Yes. Give me a moment.” She waded back to the bedroom, grabbed her jacket, and came back.
“Where you going?”
She shrugged. “Shopping. Food, cleaning supplies.”
He grinned again. It seemed his natural expression. “Okay.”
It was early evening and the skyscreen covering the neighborhood had dimmed to a sort of twilight; it would be dark in another hours. Why the authorities thought it necessary to bring darkness to an area where darkness only meant time to cower in crowded apartments, Sara never understood. Some psychological reason, she guessed.
Most of the shops were closed; there didn’t tend to be a whole lot of customers wandering the streets once the light started to dim. Sara could hear the almost subliminal hum of the alarm fields that protected the storefronts — occasionally, a burst of color and brief cry of “Thief! Thief!” meant that some careless or intoxicated passerby had brushed up against one of the fields and received a bit of a shock in return.
Sara and Ji kept to the middle of the street, where Ji could keep a clear view of the surrounding area. That didn’t, of course, mean that either of them couldn’t be shot or shocked from a distance, but from what Sara had last heard, the profit in body parts wasn’t what it used to be. The market in live bodies was still going strong, however.
“Food?” she asked, not looking behind her.
“A block down,” he answered. His voice was low and controlled, but carried easily past the hiss of the alarms and the murmur of the other pedestrians; those who couldn’t afford bodyguards usually kept up a constant conversation with friends so that any mishaps could be recorded.
They went into a small grocery store where Sara picked up several instant-warm food packets and some juice. She tried to savor these few hours outside; she knew that she couldn’t really count on too many expeditions like this. She’d have to spend most of her time cleaning the apartment.
The apartment. In her eagerness to taste a bit of familiar neighborhood life after several years incarcerated, she had forgotten what she was going back to. “A safesuit,” she suddenly said. “I think I need a safesuit. Do you know where I can get one?”
“The closest store is two blocks down, half a block to the left; it’s not the cheapest place, but their safesuits are the best.”
“How about the cheapest?” Her anllowance wouldn’t go that far.
There was a brief pause. “Okay — I know a woman who lives about five blocks from here who can sell you one second-hand at a deep discount. Won’t save you from a gas leak, but should be good against roaches and the bugchem.”
The woman operated out of a tiny storefront halfway down a small alley that led directly from the main shopping street. The alley was hidden by a tall, wooden fence that turned out to be a security field; Ji held up his wristdev as they went through and Sara could feel it click open in response. She looked back at Ji.
“She can afford it,” he said in answer to her unspoken question. “Her stock is inexpensive but good; she does a good business.”
Down through the small alley, bounded on both ends by dirty concrete walls; about half a block to a large iron door that looked as though it would take a body builder to open. Ji pushed his hand against a small touchplate.
There was a pause, and then an almost subliminal click as the electronic lock released. Ji pushed the door open; after a moment of hesitation, Sara followed.
She had to blink for a moment against the sudden brightness. When her eyes adjusted, she found herself in a small, neat room containing a couch, an entertainment center, an old kitchen table and chairs, and a kitchen area. Another door lay directly opposite where Sara stood.
They waited quietly for a moment or two, Sara wondering if she should say anything, when the door opened and a tall, thin woman walked through. Her white hair was cropped short and untreated; she wore a pair of faded slacks, a simple white shirt, and cloth shoes.
“Hello, Ji,” she said immediately, in a low, warm voice. “Customer?”
“Hi, Jennilee. She needs a safesuit,” he said, nodding at Sara. The woman looked at her, measuring.
“Sure. Any particular reason?”
Sara shrugged embarrassed. “Just cleaning out an abandoned apartment. Need to be able to work with pesticides, sleep in spite of, uh…”
“Visitors?” Jennilee smiled widely. “Don’t look ashamed — you’re not the first crapcleaner to step in here.”
Sara grinned back. “Is that what they call us around here?
“Don’t worry, honey,” the woman looked her up and down, her eyes narrowing a little. “It’s a lot better than what they call me. Can’t afford much either, can you? That’s okay — I’ve got one that won’t work against high-powered stuff, but will keep you safe from most chem.”
“How much do you want for it?”
“Cheap. Only $233.”
Sara had been prepared to bargain the woman down, but $233 was indeed cheap. “What’s wrong with it?” she asked cautiously.
“Told you. A few leaks; not good for customers who need to operate in total clean environments. But for filtering common chemicals, protecting from anything bigger than a virus, it should work fine.”
Sara considered it for a moment, then held up her wristdev. She couldn’t face sleeping in that apartment without something substantial between herself and the roaches.
Jennilee glanced at it, then touched her own and examined the readout. “Okay, looks like you’re good for it. I’ll get you your suit.”
By the fourth day, Sara had actually managed to make a dent in the garbage.
She had decided that the first order of business was getting rid of the food that had been strewn around the place. She filled bag after bag, and then put them outside the apartment. When she’d filled about ten or so, she’d leave, tossing a bugchem bomb in before closing the door. It would take her about half an hour to drag the laden bags down to the basement, two by two, using the ancient elevator. When she got back to the apartment, the poison hadn’t completely dispersed, but was bearable as long as she kept the safesuit on.
She would occasionally pass other cleaners (“Crapcleaners,” she corrected herself, snorting), men and women, also hauling bags and boxes of trash down to the basement. Most of them, like her, were older adults in their 40s or 50s, but there was one stout young woman with an infant strapped to her back. They would nod at each other, but never introduced themselves, or stop to chat; they all knew why they were there, and that there was time enough to be neighborly if they got the chance to stay for more than the month they had to finish the job.
Once she had rid herself of the worst of the biological trash, Sara finally couldn’t put it off any longer: She had to tackle the bathroom.
There, rather than deal with layers of paper and trash, she had to deal with a veritable desert of cat litter and waste — the people who lived there before seem to have gone to the trouble of providing a place for their pets, and then not bothered to clean it. For the first three days in the apartment, all she could bear to do was to clear off the toilet seat and try not to look around when she had to use it.
Sara took a deep breath, printed out a few more plastic bags, and got started. Surprisingly, it actually wasn’t as bad as she expected; the dried cat feces weren’t nearly as bothersome as the curdling food in the living room, and it only took her an hour or so to clear the floor.
Encouraged, she grabbed a sponge and started on the fixtures; by the end of the day, she could actually wash the floor, and by midnight, the bathroom was actually in something resembling a normal state.
Of course, she couldn’t prevent refugees from the roach population from investigating. However, a line of bug spray across the threshold served to discourage, if not totally stop, incursions.
That night, she put a blanket down in the old-fashioned bathtub, used her pack as a pillow, and took the first real night’s sleep she had allowed herself in a while. She even removed her safesuit — first blocking up the cracks of the bathroom door just in case.
But in the morning, as soon as Sara got into the living room, she saw that the insect population, which had, she thought, lessened somewhat under the steady onslaught of the last few days, had started multiplying again.
She shook out the safesuit and put it on again, pulled a box of breakfast juice from the fridge, sucked it down, and prepared for battle. She chose a pile at random, pulled out a garbage bag, and started shoving pieces of stained cloth and old papers into it.
The muffled thud of the doorbell. She peered at the screen but all she could see was the top of a small dark head. Although Sara had no innate trust of kids, she opened the door a crack and stared down. The child was female, around eight years old or so, thin, and obviously hungry; she was busy chewing on what looked like a large peanut butter sandwich.
“Yes?” Sara asked.
The girl swallowed. “I’m Eun-seo. My dad sent me,” she said. “Ji, your assigned aide? The guy who took you shopping yesterday? He said that we might do some kind of business.” She shoved the last of the sandwich into her mouth, swallowed, and peered curiously past Sara at the chaos beyond. “You got roaches?”
Sara smiled. She couldn’t help it. “Yeah. A few. You can help?”
“You want one a my lizards,” the little girl said. “Can I come in and see?” Without waiting for an answer, she waded enthusiastically into the room.
“A lizard?” Sara watched the girl, fascinated at her total disregard for the trash and wildlife around her. She tried to remember whether she had been as casual about cleanliness when she was a kid.
“Yeah. A house gecko, but bio-enhanced for better insect control. That means they eat even more roaches than normal geckos. They’re great. They crawl around after dark, including up the walls because they have sticky feet, and they poke out their tongues, and eat the roaches, slurp!” Eun-seo made a sound obviously meant to approximate the noise of a lizard catching its prey. “My friend Farshid, he breeds them. And I sell them. Not for a lot, and you can pay back a little at a time. And you won’t have to use these stinky chemicals.”
She sniffed haughtily. “You been using bugchem, haven’t you? Stinks worse than the garbage. You can’t get it off nothing.” She walked further into the living room, looking carefully around and occasionally moving something with her foot.
“You better get a lizard. Actually, you better get at least two. But you gotta stop using the chem, because you don’t want the lizards to get sick. Hey, look a this! Can I have this?” She pounced on a small toy keyboard. “This is cool. I bet I could make this work. Tell you what, you give me this, and a couple more stuff, and I’ll give you one of the lizards free.”
“Sure.” Sara stood swept her hand over the piles. “Be my guest. That stuff is only paper, there are some books over there. And there’s a shelf in the bedroom with a bunch of other stuff.”
The girl immediately ran into the bedroom, and soon emerged with a variety of odds and ends, most of which were unidentifiable.
The lizards showed up a day later, in a bent cage held by a sturdy 12-year-old boy who Sara assumed was Farshid. He peered through the door. “When was the last time you used chem?” he asked, and on being told that it had been about 24 hours, said, “Well, that’s not enough. But Eun-seo told me to give you this, so if they die, it’s your fault. You gotta leave them a bowl of water, and make sure it’s clean. Don’t touch them, they don’t like it, and don’t worry if one loses a tail, it’ll grow back.”
He opened the cage and shook it slightly. The lizards slipped onto the floor, peered around suspiciously for a moment, then dove under one of the piles.
“Their name’s Emmanuel and Ezekiel,” the boy said.
“How do I tell them apart?” asked Sara, but Fashid had already disappeared himself.
Geckos proved to be rather elusive animals. Sara was not all that enamored of lizards, but was even less in love with roaches; so she dutifully set out a bowl of water. “Here, Emmanuel, Ezekiel,” she called, feeling like a total fool.
Neither deigned to make an appearance, so Sara went back to sorting through the book pile, looking for any that might be attractive to collectors and bagging the rest for recycling. Whoever had collected them had fairly eclectic tastes, as far as she could tell: they consisted mainly of ancient romance novels (those in good condition she kept; there was a market for long-gone bodice rippers), several dictionaries, books in a variety of languages, and, on top of the bookcases, some old porn magazines that made Sarah giggle as she glanced through the crackling pages.
Late afternoon, Eun-seo showed up again, ostensibly to check on the geckos’ progress. She immediately headed back to the bedroom and the treasures that it contained. “I don’t think you should come in here,” said Sara, following, worried about Ji’s possible reaction to his daughter returning home covered with filth and cockroaches. “It’s really still infested.”
“It’s okay. I investigate all sorts of stuff. What’s this?” The girl bent, and selected a small metal box that dripped old wires. She shook it carefully, stared inside one end, presumably for stray insects, and then grinned at it triumphantly. “I bet if I made this work, I could sell it for lots of money,” she said, carefully tapping at the back of the device. “Or trade it in for something really flash.”
“I don’t think you’re going to get that to work,” Sara said, tossing two more piles of lumpy paper into a trash bag. “How can you get something to work when you don’t even know what it does?”
“Don’t matter. If I can make it do something, some fool will buy it.” She stared at the pile of books. “You doing something with those?”
“Selling ’em.” Sara grinned at the little girl. “Those, at least, aren’t yours. But there’s another bunch of junk in the far corner over there that you can go through, once I’ve cleaned it up a bit.”
“Cool.” The girl stared at the presumed treasure trove. “You’re a crapcleaner, right? They gonna let you stay here when this is all cleaned up?”
Sara shrugged. “They told me I get to live here for six months rent free while I look for a job.”
The girl grinned. “Okay,” she finally said, turned and left.
A week went by. Sara left the apartment a couple of times more in the company of Ji (whose name, she learned from his daughter, was actually Ji-hu, but he preferred the shorter form) to get more food and supplies. But otherwise, she worked.
It got a bit easier as time went on, although she woke more than once from a dream in which she was being smothered by insects; in one, the Eun-Seo stood and watched while Sara begged her for help.
True to her promise to the girl, Sara didn’t spray any more, although she was sorely tempted. Surprisingly, the number of cockroaches didn’t seem to be increasing, and when she requested a third lizard, the girl agreed readily (her eyes on a pile of old electronics that had been recently been uncovered).
“If you can’t find a job in six months, what you gonna do?” Eun-seo asked a few days later, while she was busily unscrewing the back panel of what looked like an old DVD player.
Sara caught a glimpse of Emmanuel skittering under a the kitchen table in the next room; he, Ezekiel, and Jezebel (the latest addition) had brought the insect population of the apartment down to nearly tolerable levels. Sara had actually discarded the safesuit for most daytime activities, although she still slept in it, nervous of waking to find herself with unwanted bedmates.
She brought her attention back to Eun-seo. “I don’t have a lot of choice,” she said. “My parole says I’ve got to be employed within six months, or I have to return to the camp. And if I don’t return, they’ll just search on my wristdev. And I can’t take that off.”
The girl snorted. “That don’t mean nothing. My dad knows at least five people who can disable the tracking on those for next to nothing; and the PTBs don’t care, really — if your caseworker can’t read you immediately, he’ll put out a notice to the cops and forget about you. And the cops don’t care either, unless they pick you up for something else. Then your ass is grass.”
Sara didn’t say anything, but stared down at the pile of books.
“My dad calls that being under the radar. He says his dad used to use that phrase a lot when he came to this country. My dad says that lots of folks he works for are probably from places they weren’t supposed to leave, but did. He says that he wouldn’t turn a flea back to a place they didn’t want to be in, never mind a person. Except one guy, who he said was lower than a flea, and he said he got what was coming, but he didn’t tell me what that was. But I bet he could help you if you wanted.”
“To live under the radar?” Sara shook her head.
“Sure.” Eun-seo stopped working on the device, and bounced a little. “It would be exciting. Like hide and seek. You could be like a gecko, living around the garbage, and nobody could find you.” The girl looked pleased at her sudden poetic turn.
“No.” Sara shook her head gently. “I don’t think I could do that. I’m not like you and your dad — I want to be back on the radar, with a job and a home.”
The girl shrugged. “Okay,” she said. “I can take this, right?” She waved the device she’d been working on in the air.
Sara smiled. “Of course. As bonus payment for Jezebel.”
Almost three weeks, and a large portion of the living room was actually cleared of junk. The floor turned out to be covered with an old, stained carpet that wasn’t much prettier than it had been covered with junk, but when Sara pulled the carpeting up (which wasn’t very difficult; the backing was so old and cracked it practically came up without any effort), there was wood beneath it.
Sara slowed down a bit, taking more time to examine the items she uncovered before she threw them into the bags. Interestingly, as she got further into the piles, she found more items that were unbroken — sheltered by the masses of paper and material. Anything electronic she passed on to Eun-seo, who brought her back a percentage of what she earned (Sara wasn’t sure how honest her assessments were, but she didn’t have time to worry about it). Any intact clothing she put into a bag; and one day, she and Ji-hu dragged the bags to a nearby laundromat. Anything that looked reasonably wearable and that fit her to even a reasonable extent, she took; anything else, she gave to Ji-hu; again, he brought her back a small percentage of the takings.
Only a couple of days to go. Almost all the stray junk had been disposed of; the only real piles that remained were some bags of sellable items waiting for Ji-hu to take away, and a smaller pile of tech items that Eun-Seo hadn’t yet had the chance to finish examining. Emmanuel, Ezekiel and Jezebel had become tame enough so that they occasionally poked their heads out of their hiding places in the early evenings; Ezekiel even permitted his head to be scratched once or twice.
The lizards still hunted at night, of course, but the insect population was now no more numerous than most urban apartments; Sara actually felt reasonably safe cooking at the ancient gas stove. The kitchen and bathroom were as close to clean as was, she felt, humanly possible; the living room had been cleared of everything but a rather nice wooden table, some random chairs and an old couch.
She had gotten rid of the infested mattress and used some of the funds obtained from her trades to treat herself to a metal frame and a cheap futon. A small fold-out cot sat in another corner of the room; Eun-seo had taken to occasionally spending the night. “I’m too old to pretend I’m not watching when dad brings home a friend,” she said. “I’d rather hang out with you.”
Sara even had a small monitor that sat on top of a packing box. (Eun-Seo and her father had carried it in one day. “Free of charge,” the girl said, “because the asshole who bought it didn’t deserve it.” Sara didn’t ask any more questions.) Sitting in the living room watching one of the free programs that she could access on her wristdev, with Eun-Seo devouring a bag of popcorn and cheerfully making fun of the contestants, Sara was starting to feel as close to normal as she had since she was first picked up for homelessness.
Stokowsky was due early in the morning. Sara had tried to think of all contingencies. The last two piles were removed, as was Eun-seo’s cot (“Just in case my caseworker doesn’t like the idea of my having guests,” she told the girl, who grinned knowingly), and the lizards were rounded up and temporarily removed in case they were mistaken for pets.
Stokowsky showed up only half an hour late. He didn’t say a word: Came in, synced her wristdev with his, and then proceeded to examine the apartment, recording his progress as he went. Occasionally he grunted — once when a small mouse, startled, scurried out from under the dresser.
“I don’t know where that came from,” Sara said, more startled than the mouse. The caseworker shrugged and continued his search.
Finally, he was done. They stood in the living room while he finished making his report, his mouth moving as he entered the data (Sara tried to figure out what he was saying, and failed). Then he glanced at his wristdev, read the results and looked up. And actually smiled.
“Decent points,” he finally said. “Enough to be taken into consideration on your next assignment. You’ll be sent the address by tomorrow morning; the movers will be here to get rid of the rest of the furniture in the afternoon.”
“Wait a minute,” Sara said, her chest suddenly tight. “I’m supposed to get six months here. I cleaned the place; I earned it.”
“Sorry, honey,” Stokowsky said, a bit sympathetically. “The block’s just been bought up by a university, and it’s being turned into dorms, just as soon as the neighborhood is cleaned up. Which means you’ve got to leave. Don’t worry; we’ve already registered you as an A16, which means that you’re top of the list for an easy clean, and your six months will be pushed forward after you take possession.”
Sara wasn’t sure whether to cry or scream. She balled her fists, barely resisting the urge to bash the bastard’s face in. It isn’t his fault, she told herself urgently. He’s just the messenger. “That’s not fair,” she finally said, carefully, slowly. “I got the points. I cleaned this place, I have the right to stay here.”
“You’re a long-term unemployed. You’ve got very little rights,” the man said. “Read the small print. If ownership of a building transfers during a work period, the new owner has the right to refuse to follow through on the obligations of the contract.”
He shrugged, and turned. “Better gather your stuff,” he said, opening the door. “You’re leaving in the morning.”
“What did you expect?” Eun-seo asked her an hour later. “It’s done all the time. You do all the work, and then when it’s done, they find a way to screw you.”
Sara slouched in the couch and scowled. “And what about you?” she said. “And all the other people in the building?”
“We all gotta go as well,” Eun-seo said flatly. “Probably tomorrow also. Most of the other cleaners are gone already. Dad has some business he needs to do first, but he wants me to go stay with my aunt who lives up in Buffalo and then he’ll come up when he can. And that gave me an idea.”
“An idea?” Sara asked, still fuming.
The child grinned and bounced a little on the couch. “My dad liked it. You’ll like it. I gotta have somebody grown up come with me; the cops don’t like to see kids on their own, and they’re more likely to check me for a legitimate wristdev if I don’t got a mom or dad with me. And my aunt in Buffalo, she’s even smarter than my dad and she’s got a bunch of deals going; we already checked, and she said she could find a good place for you.”
Sara stared around the apartment, not listening very hard. She had been planning to scrounge for some paint and varnish; it would have been lovely. But now, the painting and varnishing would be done by some hired guys, and somebody else would move in and look through the newly clean windows to see a street stripped of Ji-hu and Jennilee and all the other people who lived here. They would probably even fix the window, she thought cynically.
Then some of what the girl had said penetrated. Sara looked harder at her. “Was that an offer?” she asked.
Eun-seo grinned at her. “You want, my dad will come up and fix that wristdev,” she said. “Won’t take but a few minutes. And we can leave real early in the morning; my dad will get us to the train okay, and we can be in Buffalo by nightfall.”
“And what happens if we do get checked in the train station?” Sara asked, nervously. “We have to go through the security scans. I could end up back in lockup.”
“We’ve got pseudos that will register on the scans,” said the girl. “Won’t look too much like us, but close enough so nobody will notice. And anyway, with the crowds, and me crying for my daddy — I’m good at that — they’ll be happy to let us on, and then we’re okay.”
Sara stood, and walked around the apartment. Her footsteps echoed against the floorboards; she had planned to find second-hand carpeting to take care of that, along with a few cheap images for the walls. Assuming, of course, she found a job. And that they’d let her stay. And now, they expected her to start all over again.
She turned back to Eun-seo and nodded. “Thought so,” the girl said happily. “I told my dad you would. We better pack; you’ll probably want to take some of those sweaters you found, it’s cold in Buffalo. And look!”
Eun-seo pulled a small old-fashioned tin box out of her pocket; Sara recognized one of the old food containers she had thought she threw away. “I brought the new tenants a gift,” Eun-seo said, put it on the floor and opened it up. Three cockroaches skittered out of the box and under the refrigerator.
You can read about the background to this story here.
This story originally appeared in Abyss & Apex.
An epic tale of the supernatural that begins with two young girls meeting in a magical glade, and follows their two families from the turn of the 20th Century through the terrors of the Holocaust and ultimately to the wonders of a future they never could have imagined.
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