The Lost Cause: A Green New Deal Novel
I thought that I was being so smart when I signed up for the overnight pager duty for the solar array at Burroughs High. Solar arrays don't do anything at night. Because it's dark. They're not lunar arrays.
Turns out I outsmarted myself.
My pager app went off at 1:58AM, making a sound that I hadn't heard since the training session, GNAAP GNAAP GNAAP, with those low notes that loosened your bowels and those high notes that tightened your sphincter to compensate. I slapped around my bed for my phone and found the lights and found my underwear and a tee and then the cargo pants I wore on work duty and blinked hard and rubbed my eyes until I could think clearly enough to confirm that I was dressed, had everything that I needed, and then double-checked the pager app to make sure that I really, actually needed to go do something about the school's solar array at, I checked, 2:07AM.
2:07AM! Brooks, you really outsmarted yourself.
Gramps's house had started out as a two bed/one bath, like most of the houses in Burbank, but it had been expanded with a weird addition at the back -- again, like most of the houses in Burbank -- giving it a third bedroom and a second bath. That was my room, and it had its own sliding door to the back-yard, so I let myself out without waking Gramps.
It was warm enough that I didn't need a jacket, which was good because I'd forgotten to put one on. Still, there was just enough of a nip in the air that I jogged a little to get my blood going. Burbank was quiet, just the sound of the wind in the big, mature trees that lined Lamer Street, a distant freight train whistle, a car zooming down Magnolia. My breath was louder than any of them. A dog barked at me and startled me as I turned onto Magnolia, streetlit and wide and empty, too.
Two minutes later, I was at Burroughs, using my student app to buzz myself into the school's gate, then the side entrance, then the utility stairs, and then I jogged up the stairs. I was only supposed to get paged if the solar array had an error it couldn't diagnose for itself, and that the manufacturer's techs couldn't diagnose from its camera feeds and other telemetry. Basically, never. Not at 2AM. 217AM now. I wondered what the hell it could be. I opened the roof access door just in time to hear a glassy crashing sound, like a window breaking, and I froze.
Someone was on the roof with me. A person, glimpsed in the corner of my eye and then lost in the darkness. Too big to be a raccoon. A person. On the roof.
"Hello?" Gramps's friends sometimes made fun of my voice. I'd hated how high-pitched it was when I was a freshman and had dreamed of it getting deeper someday, but now I was a senior, months away from graduation, and I still got mistaken for a girl on gamer voice-chats. I'd made my peace with it, except that I hadn't entirely because I was not happy at all with how it squeaked out over that roof. "Hello?" I tried for deeper. "Someone there?"
No one answered, so I took a step out onto the roof. Glass crunched under my feet. It was dark and it stayed dark when I slapped at the work-lights switch next to the door -- they should have been tripped by the motion anyway. I found my flashlight and twisted it to wide beam and checked my feet. Smashed glass, all right, and when I swung the light around to the nearest solar bank, I saw that each panel had been methodically shattered. I took a step back toward the door, and the light beam swung up and caught the man.
He was wearing a head-to-toe suit -- a gilly suit, Gramps's friends called them -- and holding a short 4lb sledgehammer with a handle and head painted in nonreflective black that swallowed my light-beam. He was coming towards me. I reflexively hit the bodycam 911 emergency switch on my phone and it sounded its "Warning, bodycam recording" alert in a warm woman's voice that I'd chosen for its nonthreatening tone. Mostly I bodycammed when I was having an argument with someone and the calm voice was a good balance between cooling things out and satisfying California's two-party consent rules for recording.
As he raised the hammer, I wished that I'd chosen the cop voice instead.
"Wait," I said, taking a step back. The roof access door had closed behind me. "Please."
"Shit," the man said. He was using a voice-shifter, either a separate unit or part of the gilly suit. His voice was deep as a diesel engine. "Dammit, you're just a kid." He used the hand that wasn't holding the hammer to flip up his night-scope goggles and peer at me. His eyes, visible in the gilly-suit's slit, were bloodshot and wrinkled and blue. He squinted at my light and brandished the hammer. "Shit," he said again. "Get that out of my eyes, dammit."
"Sorry," I squeaked, and lowered the beam, casting it around. It seemed like 80% of the panels were ruined. Why had I said sorry? Force of habit. "Shit," if he could say it, I could too. "Shit. What the hell are you doing, man?"
"You're recording this, kid?"
"Good, then I'll explain. You just stay there and we won't have a problem. I was gonna have to make a video when this was done, you're just saving me the trouble." He lowered the hammer and let it dangle. I thought about rushing him, but I'm not a fighter, and he was still holding the hammer. Same for turning and trying to get out the door before he could catch up with me.
"Kay, listen up. This world we're in, it's debased. America's been rotted from the inside. First it was immigrants. You might think I'm a racist, but I'm not. It's not immigrants I object to. It's illegals. You want to come to America, you come in the front door, on the terms your gracious hosts here are offering. You don't skip the line or break in through the window. That's what a criminal does. You let in a criminal, let 'em become citizens, soon enough they're voting for other criminals.
"You know just what I'm talking about, don't kid yourself. The money we're spending now? This Green New Deal? This jobs guarantee? These fuckin' solar panels? Bill's gonna come due on this. There's no such thing as a free lunch. Chinese hoaxed us into believing in this climate garbage, then they got us to go into hock to them up to our eyeballs to buy their shiny crap, and then they're gonna charge us interest, and our kids, and their kids, and their kids. Mortgaging their future? Shit, what future? They're headed for debt bondage for eternity. Biblical. It's Biblical.
"All this mumbo-jumbo about 'money users' and 'money creators' -- it's just word-games. There's two kinds of people in this world, and it's not 'money users' and 'money creators' -- it's 'makers' and 'takers.' The makers create all the wealth, the takers elect politicians who confiscate it and redistribute it." 'Redistribute' came out like another f-bomb.
This was crazy, but it wasn't unfamiliar. I'd heard versions of this conversation around Gramps's place ever since I came to live with him, back when I was eight. More, I'd heard these specific words before. I pressed my recollections, tried to put a face to the words. All the faces in Gramps's living room had a sameness, a whiteness, matching haircuts and the same MAGA hats, faded and frayed. Who had said those words? I could bring the face to mind now, the rest of the face that went with those blue watery eyes peering out of the gilly suit.
Now, the name. Mark. Not Mark. Mike. Mike! Mike, uh.
He was so surprised he fumbled the sledge, then squinted at me. I held the flash under my chin, squinting. "It's me. Brooks. Palazzo. Richard's grandson."
That was when the siren blatted down on Verdugo, blatt blatt, two toots, and a crackle of PA. "On the roof, this is Burbank PD."
He did drop the sledge then, said, "Fuck," and produced a water pistol from the suit's marsupial pouch. He handled it with extreme care, shedding a glove to delicately peel away a big blob of some kind of plastic or wax over the business-end. His hand shook.
I knew what it was. Hydrochloric acid. It was the weapon of choice for one-on-one white nationalist killings. It worked great, because even if you didn't kill your victim, you'd leave them with skin melted and fused like cascades of melted rubber, a reminder to everyone who saw them that even if President Uwayni took away everyone's guns, the American resistance was still armed and fucking dangerous. Gramps and his buddies would sometimes make jokes about Medicare for All, and how it was gonna go broke paying for acid burns when the big one came. I'd always found those jokes incredibly gross, but I learned to tune them out. They were coming back to me now. I took a step back and his hand jerked and I cried out, flinching in anticipation of the stream of acid that didn't come.
"Dammit, boy, don't scare me. I don't want to hurt you."
"I don't want to be hurt. Mr Kennedy -- Mike -- you know my Gramps. He relies on me. He's getting old and frail. I'm all he has." I was crying now. A drop of clear liquid fell from the squirtgun's business-end and sizzled on the roof. I whimpered. "Please. Just put that down, we'll go get the cops and --"
"I'm not going anywhere. Listen, kid, turn off your camera, OK? I gotta say some things to you."
"Mike, please --" I was crying harder now. His hand was really shaking, and his finger was on the trigger, and the gun was pointed right at my face.
"Just do it, OK?" He pointed the gun at the ground, and I found I could breathe again. I pretended to turn off my phone and triggered the soundfile I had of the "Recording paused" announcement.
"All right, kid. Straight talk. I don't expect to survive this. I knew that was a chance from the start, and it was a sure thing once you got here and sounded the alarm. I made my peace with that possibility a long time ago." He took some deep breaths that the voice-shifter made into the sound of a wind-tunnel. He pulled the gillysuit's mask down and exposed the rest of his face. His lips and chin were shiny with wet sweat in the reflected flashlight beam bouncing up from the roof.
"God dammit, I'm not gonna kid you, this is a stupid thing to die over, but I was gonna die eventually. But you don't have to. You can get out of this in one piece. You can carry on the struggle." His real voice was hoarse with emotion.
Something about his real voice and his real face made me more scared, not less. Gramps's friends were usually just...sour. But there was often this undercurrent of violence in them, a bowstring tension that sometimes snapped. Usually that just meant yelling or throwing something or storming out and slamming the door so hard the whole house shook. But every now and then, it turned into punches, and everyone in the room would pull the fighting men apart, and once or twice there had been blood on the floor before they were separated.
I'd never been in a fight, not since grade school anyway, and had never thrown a real punch. I found the idea of punching someone literally unimaginable. But I was finding it incredibly easy to vividly imagine this guy punching me.
"Mike, you don't have to die, we can talk to the cops. This is Burbank PD, not LAPD. They'll negotiate. They're not gonna shoot you. Not if you don't give them a reason to. Why don't you put down --"
The roof was flooded with blinding light and the roar of a quadrotor as a BPD drone rose up over us, floodlights set to max. We both staggered back, hair blowing in the rotor-wash, and squinted. Mike involuntarily squirted a small stream of acid that arced over the roof, then got his gun under control.
"THIS IS THE BURBANK POLICE DEPARTMENT. PUT DOWN YOUR WEAPONS AND LACE YOUR HANDS OVER YOUR HEAD. COMPLY IMMEDIATELY."
He swore fiercely and pointed his gun at the drone.
"No!" I shouted. "Jesus, Mike, do you want to fucking die?"
He stared at me. His eyes were wild and unhinged. His mouth worked soundlessly, then he shouted, "What the fuck does it matter to you?"
"Because --" I almost said, Because I want to fight on your side and we need you. I could have sold the line, even though I didn't believe it. Even though he was a terrorist kook whose cause was both idiotic and terrible. I could have sold it it because I'm a good actor, even by Burbank standards, where the star of the school play might be moonlight from their job as an A-lister for one of the studios. But I didn't say it. I didn't want to lie to this guy. "Because there's enough stupid death out there. Because I don't want to explain to Gramps how I saw his poker buddy blown away by BPD on my high-school roof. Because it's a stupid way to die. Because it won't accomplish a goddamned thing." I found that I was angry. God, why did people have to be so stupid? Why was I sitting around with this idiotic person having this idiotic argument, waiting for the cops to storm the roof and maybe kill us both?
"Fuck this," I said. I stalked over to him. The drone dipped toward us, making him flinch, and I was able to grab his stupid water-pistol full of acid and wrench it out of his shaking hand and send it skittering over the smashed solar panels. "There," I said, and turned to the drone. "I've disarmed this goddamned idiot. Don't shoot him. And don't shoot me -- I'm a bystander."
The drone's PA clicked back on. "That was really stupid, kid."
Mike looked like he wanted to cry or punch me.
"This whole thing is really stupid," I said. "But it doesn't have to be violent, too."
"We're coming up. Lace your hands behind your head."
Mike opened his mouth.
"Just do it," I snapped. "I just saved your fucking life, asshole. Do what the nice policewoman says."
They burst through the roof door a minute later, and we both laced our hands behind our heads. They cuffed and searched both of us, relieving Mike of a long hunting knife and what I took for hand-grenades, but which turned out to be "flashbangs."
After patting me down and conferring, they uncuffed me and led me away from Mike, who was looking miserable and scared.
They took a statement from me in the cruiser, tapped my ID to their scanner, conferred a while longer, read messages on their screens that I couldn't see -- the cops all had polarizing privacy screens on their devices -- and finally let me go.
The cop who opened the back of the cruiser for me was a big, jowly guy, someone who would have looked perfectly at home with Gramps and his pals, rocking a red trucker cap and complaining about "illegals." But he was tender with me as he helped me up and asked me twice if I needed help getting home. I pointed out that I lived a 10-minute walk away -- he knew that from my ID, of course -- and that I hadn't been hurt.
There had been six Burbank PD SUVs on the street when they led me down, but by the time they let me go, there were only two. The other one had Mike in the back, behind reflective windows. Even though I couldn't see him, I could feel his eyes on me as I turned and started to walk home. It was 3:27AM, and I was both completely wired and completely exhausted.
I let myself into Gramps's place by the back door, made my way back to my bedroom, stripped off, and pulled the covers over me.
Who was I kidding? I wasn't going to sleep after that. I rolled over and hit my phone. I had a notification that my livestream had been archived and that I could toggle it private if I wanted to, but that it was also going to be subject to FOIA requests because I'd used the 911 option and it had gone straight to Burbank PD.
I reviewed the footage. It was crazy of course -- the dark night slashed with my flashlight beam, the phone's night-sight flicking off and on, but the audio was good and once things stabilized, the image was clear enough. I jumped it up to 3X and listened to Mike Kennedy in chipmunk mode spouting his crazy Maga Club garbage. Even at that speed, I picked up on stuff I'd missed, little bits of inflection and vocab, and most of all, how scared he sounded. He'd been more scared than me. I guess that made sense, because he was so sure that he was going to die. Look at it that way, I had saved his life.
And as soon as I looked at it that way, I knew it was true. I had saved his life. I'd saved a man's life the night before. A man who had been ready to kill me. Or if he hadn't been, he'd said he was.
The realization let something loose inside me and I started to yawn. I pasted a link to the video into my feed and dialed the syndication wheel all the way open because why not, it was freaky and everyone shares freaky stuff wide as possible.
I tapped out a message to the Burroughs High attendance office letting them know I was going to be late for school, then I put my phone down, thumped my pillow, and, amazingly, fell asleep.
I woke at noon, the house hot because Gramps had left the blinds up in the front room, and ever since the big live oak had been cut up and taken away for blight, we'd lost its shade.
I used the bathroom, pulled on shorts and a tee, and went looking for breakfast, or brunch, or whatever.
He didn't answer. That was weird. Gramps was a late riser and he rarely got up before 10, and then he took a long time to get going, listening to his podcasts and drinking coffee and sending memes around to his buddies with his giant tablet, with the type zoomed way, way up. He didn't like going out in the heat, either, so in the summer he rarely left the house before 4 or 5, once the sun was low to the hills. He'd left his coffee cup in the sink and his tablet on the table so I knew he'd gone in a hurry. He hated dirty dishes and hated dead batteries even more.
I put his stuff away and thawed out some waffles and got a big iced coffee from the cold-brew jug I kept in the fridge and started the process of becoming human.
I gobbled my first waffle before the emotional weight of the previous night settled on me. Those emotions were way too big, so big that they all layered on top of each other, leaving me with nothing but numbness.
I did the reflex thing and pulled out my phone, giving myself a brief sear of shaming for my mindless phone-handling, just as I'd been trained to do in mindfulness class. That was enough to prompt me to run through the checklist: Do I need to look at my phone? Do I need to look at it now? What do I hope to find? When will I be done? I answered the questions (Yes, yes, news about last night, when I've looked at two or three stories), and then unlocked it, but didn't look at it until I'd poured myself another glass of coffee.
Two hours later, there was no coffee left and my eyes hurt from screenburn. I dropped my phone, came out of my trance and stood up.
I'd gone viral. Or rather, Mike had.
My post had been picked up, first in Burbank, then statewide, then nationally, then internationally. Amateur comedians had edited the footage into highlight reels, moments chosen to highlight just how idiotic and hateful he was. Someone made a White Nationalist Bingo Card whose every square had a quote from Mike Kennedy. There were lots of jokes about inbreeding, hillbillies, musket-fuckers and ammosexuals, master race masturbation, senility, removable boomers -- all the age- and class-based slurs that we weren't allowed to say in school, but which everyone busted out as soon as we were off the property. It was pretty gross, but on the other hand, I couldn't exactly argue with them. Bottom like was, Mike Kennedy had been up on that roof for no good reason, and he'd been ready to kill me to let him finish his stupid, senseless project. So yeah, fuck that guy. I guess.
I was pleased to see that I came off as a hero, with strangers around the world praising me for my cool head, saying I'd saved his life.
I put my plate in the dishwasher and wiped up my crumbs and checked the clock on the kitchen wall -- I'd always loved its plain analog face with its thick and thin lines, the yellowing AC cord that came off it. It had belonged to Gramps's own parents, and it was the only thing in the house I considered anything like an heirloom.
It was coming up on one and if I showered fast and ran, I could make my physics class. I decided to go for it, had the fastest shower in history, pulled on whatever was on the top of my drawers and sprinted for the street.
I was just jogging up to the entrance to Burroughs when I got a phone chime, which stopped me because, like all the students, I'd installed the school app that turned off audible alarms while I was on property during school hours. It wasn't mandatory, but the punishment for having an alarm in class was confiscation, so...
I pulled out my phone as I panted by the doorway, mopping my face with my shirt tail. It was a text from Burbank PD, informing me that Mike Kennedy was headed for a bail hearing in two hours, and I was entitled to present a victim impact statement, either recorded or in person. I'd known that the police could override the school app (there was a kid in my class whose parole office sometimes paged him, and the fact that he audibly dinged was just part of the package, I figured -- a way to remind us all that this kid had fucked up bad), but I hadn't expected them to ping me, let alone on school property.
I tapped out a quick thanks-no-thanks, and headed to physics.
A couple of my friends were working on an AP science project -- they'd made an enzyme they thought would break down polyethylene at room temperature -- and I'd promised that I'd help them after school. Walking home past Verdugo Park, I ran into some more friends sitting in the grass and chatting, so I sat with them, watching the kids on the playground and the dog-walkers and the swordfighting class boffing each other with foam swords, and hours slipped by.
By the time I headed home, the sun was low and the day was finally starting to cool off. I remembered that I'd forgotten to pull the blinds before going out and imagined how hot and stuffy the house would be. Maybe Gramps had gotten back early enough to lower them. Otherwise, I could lie in the backyard in my hammock and do some reading while I waited for the house to air out some.
The blind were drawn. I went in through the back door and dropped my bag on my bed, stripped off my tee and pulled on a fresh one, and headed to the kitchen for a snack.
He didn't answer, which I figured meant that he was playing his podcasts through his hearing aids. They were supposed to be smart enough to pass speech through, but they struggled with people shouting from other rooms. I grabbed some more iced coffee and went into the living room.
Gramps was sitting in his spot on the old sofa, staring out the window. "Gramps?"
He didn't look around. I moved into his line of sight and then drew back. His face was set in a mask of rage I hadn't seen since I was a kid and came to live with him, the face he'd make before he'd hit me. He hadn't hit me in a long time, not since he'd raised a bruise where one of my middle-school teachers could see it and she'd called CPS on him. They'd make him do a month of mandatory anger-management classes.
"Gramps?" I reached for him but didn't touch him. He was quivering.
He fixed his gaze on me. Glared.
"What's wrong? Are you OK?"
He stood up. He was shorter than me now, and couldn't quite straighten up, but it still felt like he was towering over me. "Kid, you know exactly what's wrong, and don't pretend otherwise."
"Gramps, he could have killed me. I saved his life. I know he's a friend of yours --"
"Shut the fuck up about that, Kid. Don't talk about my friends. Don't talk about who I know and who I don't know. You know what that dumb asshole Mike Kennedy is up against? 40 years. Seven felony counts. Most of 'em to do with you: kidnapping, assault, attempted murder. Death penalty shit. Don't think that the DA isn't going to use that, the feds have got a hard on for anyone who doesn't toe the line on their Green New Deal bullshit. They're gonna tell him that either he testifies against his friends or he'll get a lethal injection. Kennedy's no genius, either. He'll cave. You just watch."
"Shut up, I said. You think saying my name on your viral video is gonna help anything. Shit, Kid, why didn't you just turn me in yourself?"
"Come on, Gramps. I didn't plan this, Mike did." I wanted so badly to leave, but Gramps was between me and the door. "Tell you what, let's go visit him. They'll let him have visitors in lockup, right?"
Gramps sagged back down into his chair. "Kennedy's not in lockup. They let him go an hour ago."
"Oh," I said. "Well, that sounds good, right?"
He shook his head and gave me a disgusted look. "No, Kid, that doesn't sound good. That sounds like he ratted everyone out already. In which case he's a fucking dead man."
I took a deep breath. Gramps was clearly on the brink of losing it altogether and telling him he was being overly dramatic would definitely push him right over the edge. "If that's true, then maybe you should talk to your other friends, or maybe him --"
"Just shut up, OK? Don't talk about shit you don't and can't understand. Look, if Kennedy sold out his friends then he's got what's coming to him and besides, there isn't a damned thing in the world I could do to stop it. But what's more likely is that he didn't say a word, but they've put him on the street so that people get the impression that maybe he did, and now he's in fear for his life and the only way to save his skin is to run back to the station house and start talking. It wouldn't be the first time they tried that stunt. And the fact is, it doesn't matter which one it is because he's gonna get shut up before he can do that, because everyone understanding what's going on here and what's at stake. So me calling that sad sack now would just make me the last person who spoke to the victim before he turned up dead."
"No, Kid, that's life. What's terrible is that my own grandson is involved in this ugly stupid mess, and that every dumbass on the internet is trading clips with my name in them, doxing me, associating me with this ridiculous garbage."
Now I was starting to get mad. "I didn't do it on purpose, you know. Your friend threatened to kill me. I didn't tell him to get up on that roof or fill his super-soaker with hydrochloric acid."
"Yeah, you didn't, that's true." He picked up a beer from the table next to him, finished the last swallow, set it down. "You didn't. But you were and you did and now --" He shook his empty beer. "Ah, shit. Brooks, listen, you know that my friends are OK, but some of their friends..."
I knew. I'd sometimes spot Gramps's friends marching with the Maga Club groups, carrying ugly signs, conspiracies and racism and "demographics are destiny." Or set up with a table on Magnolia on Food Truck Friday, showing videos about "the great replacement" and "socialist tyranny."
"I know who you mean."
"None of 'em never liked you. They didn't like your father even before he went to Canada with that woman. When he did, well, that sealed it for 'em. To leave America and go work for the socialists? Kid, it's a good thing he never tried to come back here, I'll tell you that much. Far as they're concerned, the only good thing that Rabbit Flu did was kill a bunch of foreign commies, agitators, traitors, and climate bedwetters. By which they mean they mean your father and mother. And by extension, that means you. Your sex thing doesn't help either --"
My head filled with that buzzing sound I heard whenever Gramps tried to talk to me about sexuality. The fact that I wouldn't call myself straight made him crazy. The fact that I wouldn't say "gay" or "bi" or any of those old-fashioned terms made him absolutely bugfuck. "Queer" was OK with me, or "pan," but honestly, who the fuck cared? Why would my grandfather need to know which people I wanted to fuck and which people I did fuck? I'd explained this to him calmly and I'd had shouting matches with him about it. My other friends had problems with this stuff, sure, but their parents were able to at least pretend to understand. Gramps was a generation older and he not only didn't he understand, he didn't want to. "Just pick one, Kid," is what he'd say, and then I'd overhear him saying worse to his friends when they took over the kitchen to play poker or the living room to watch a game.
"Jesus, Gramps" -- that buzzing sound was blood, of course, coursing in my ears as my rage built and built -- "would you just shut up about that bullshit? I don't care what your asshole friends want. In case you didn't notice, one of them nearly murdered me last night --"
"Shut. Up." Loud, in that boss voice he used when he was getting everyone else to listen to him, whether it was on a job-site or during an argument over cards. "Yeah, one of my friends just about murdered you last night, but he didn't, did he? You know why? Because of me. Because of who I am in this community. Our name, Palazzo, it goes back a long way in this town. We're Lockheed originals, thanks to my own dad. That counts for something. You're safe because you're my grandson, that's what I'm trying to explain to you. But it's not a get out of jail free card. You're not untouchable."
"Thanks for letting me know." I hated it when Gramps acted like he was in the mafia because he and his friends were the kinds of assholes who periodically got drunk or disturbed enough to commit some act of idiotic vandalism.
"Kid --" he started. I left.
Look, I had weeks to go until graduation. I had a life to live. I had stuff to do.
Gramps and his friends would stew and shout. Idiots on the internet would make dank memes out of Mike Kennedy and deepfake him into a million videos, turn him into a minor internet celebrity whose image would be around long after he left the world.
I just had to keep my head down, collect my diploma, and get the hell out of Burbank. I'd already been provisionally accepted for an Americorps spot down in San Juan Capitstrano, helping to rebuild the city's lower half a mile inland, up in the hills. I was going to do a hear of that and then go to college: I had applications in to UCLA, Portland State (they had a really good Refugee Tech undergrad program) and the University of Waterloo, where my mom did her undergrad in Environmental Science. They'd let me declare my major in my second year, so I could take a wide variety of courses before settling on something, and if anything, Canada's free college was even more generous that the UC system or Portland's, with a subsidy for dorms and meals.
To tell the truth, I'd be glad to go. My senior year hadn't been anything like I'd anticipated. Gramps's health had gotten a lot worse the previous summer and his shitty sexist and racist remarks chased away any home help worker Burbank sent over within a week or two, so I'd been trying to keep my grades up while picking up after Gramps, getting him to take his meds, washing his sheets and cleaning his toilet -- not to mention making sure he made his doctor's appointments and even bringing him into the office a couple times a month for the kind of exams you couldn't do by telemedicine.
I wasn't sure what Gramps would do without me to take care of him, but at that point, I was running out of fucks to give. Let his asshole Maga Club buddies look after him, or maybe Gramps could figure out how not to offend everyone that came over to wipe his ass and do his laundry. He was -- as he was fond of pointing out to me -- a grown ass adult, and this was his house, and he was in charge. So let him be in charge.
I put myself to bed stewing about all of this, thinking of San Juan Capistrano. Some of my older friends had graduated the previous years and had gone down there and I'd followed their relocation of the old Mission on their feeds. It looked like hot, sweaty, rewarding work, the kind of thing where you could really measure your progress.
For the second night in a row, I was woken up at 2AM. This time, it wasn't my phone, it was Gramps, who'd stumped into my room with his cane, flipped my lights to full on, and started shaking me and calling out, "Get up, Kid, get up!"
"I'm up," I said, getting up on my elbows and squinting at him. He was shaking, and he reeked -- of both booze and B.O, and I felt a flash of guilt for not getting him in the bath that day.
"God dammit," he said and staggered a bit. I leapt out of bed, pulling the sheets off with me, and steadied him at the elbow.
"Calm down, OK? What's going on? Are you all right?"
"No, I'm not all right. No one is all right. Fuck all right and fuck you." I'd had Gramps tested for early dementia the previous year, by showing his doctor videos of moments like these. The doc had run a battery of tests before pronouncing, "Your grandfather isn't senile, he's just ornery." Which was undeniable, and also pissed me the hell off. "Ornery" was a polite word for "asshole." What the doc was telling me was that Gramps didn't have to be cruel. He was cruel by choice.
I untangled myself from the sheets and piled them on the bed. "What is it?"
"It's Mike Kennedy, that asshole. Someone shot him."
He shoved his giant tablet into my hands. I tapped the video window. It was from the PoV of a car-cam, that weird fisheye view of a self-driving car, split-screen with the passenger in the front seat, and it was Mike Kennedy, looking even worse than Gramps, bloodshot and trembling, with that under-chin camera angle that makes everyone look like they're half dead.
I tried to watch both halves. There was Kennedy, whispering something to him. There was the cul-de-sac he was parked in, false-lit with IR from the cameras. The timestamp was 1:17. Less than an hour before.
Then the external image flickered for a second and resolved itself into a man, who phased in and out. He was wearing a gillysuit like the one Kennedy had worn on the roof, covered in telltale CV dazzle stripes, designed to exploit defects in computer vision system. You had to wear a different specific pattern for every algorithm, but if you got the right matchup, the computer would simply not see you. The man was flickering into existence when his posture crumbled up the gillsuit and made the pattern stop working, then out again when he straightened up.
He straightened and disappeared and Mike Kennedy's eyes widened as he noticed the man for the first time -- computer dazzle worked on computers, not humans -- and he started to say something and then a round hole appeared in his forehead, his head snapping back against the headrest, then careening forward. The flickering phantom appeared again as the man in the gillysuit turned and disappeared.
I dropped the tablet to my bed.
"Jesus Christ, Gramps, I didn't need to see that snuff movie --"
He tried to smack me then. I was ready for it. I was faster. I stepped out of his reach. I was shaking too.
"You don't get to hit me anymore old man. Never again, you hear me?"
He was purpling now, and a decade's worth of fleeing and defusing his rages rose in
me, made me want to apologize. After all, I rationalized, he'd just seen a friend murdered.
But I'd seen that friend murdered too, videobombed with a snuff flick at 2AM without warning or consent. It was a traumatizing, selfish, asshole move. I'd be watching that movie on the backs of my eyelids for years to come. And the friend who'd died? He'd been ready to kill me. Gramps had no right. He was a grown-ass adult. He had no right.
"Listen to me, you little shit, you think you can live under my house, take my charity, and talk to me like that? Now? With all the shit that I'm going through? No sir. No. Get out, you little bastard, get out now. Get out before I kick your goddamned teeth in." He was vibrating with rage now, literally, actually shaking so hard his wispy hair swished back and forth across his forehead.
I didn't say another word. I picked up some jeans and a jacket, put a pair of socks in a jacket pocket and jammed my feet into a pair of sneakers without bothering to unlace them. I shouldered past him -- still vibrating, stinking even worse -- and banged out the back door and stomped through the nighttime streets.
My feet automatically took me up to Verdugo, and then across the empty road. I turned toward school -- as I did every morning -- and autopiloted in that direction. By the time I reached the Vedugo Aquatic Facility I had calmed down enough to realize that there was no reason to go to school at 2:30 in the morning, so I stopped and headed for the playground in the park behind the pool. I sat down on a bench and kicked my shoes off and shook out the playground sand, pulled out my socks and put them on, then put my shoes back on properly. I was still furious, but now I could think straight and my hands weren't shaking.
Gramps and I hadn't had a blowup like that in years, mostly -- OK, entirely -- because I'd backed down every time we'd been headed in that direction. I wasn't in any mood to back down. Not ever, to be fully honest.
"Hey," someone hissed from beneath the climber and I nearly jumped out of my seat.
"Jesus," I said, and it came out as a loud bark that echoed down the empty street.
"Shhh," the voice said. "What are you doing out there, man?"
"I'm sitting on a bench. What are you doing in there?"
"Yeah. Who's that?"
A person climbed out of the climber, then another. As they drew closer to me, I recognized them as Dave and Armen, two goofballs I'd known since grade school, and I knew exactly what they were doing.
"Are you assholes out here in the middle of the night tripping balls?" I couldn't help but smile, though. It was so them.
"No," Armen said, and then Dave spoiled it by dissolving into giggles.
"Just some shrooms," Dave said. They were everywhere, whenever the rains came, all over the hills and even on the verges between the sidewalks and the roads, popping up faster than the city could send out workers to pick them and destroy them (or, rumor had it, to dry them out and offer them for sale, if you knew the right person).
"On a school night?"
"Yeah. Only a month to graduation. What's it matter anymore? The dire is cast."
"The die," I said.
"Die," Armen said. "How morbid." They both dissolved into more giggles. These guys. I mean, they were high af, but they had been like this since the third grade. They were silly, and not all that smart, but they were nice, never mean to anyone, never on anyone's side in any kind of feud, even the ones where everyone took a side. Armen and Dave were like goofball Switzerland, neutral and always in a corner making each other laugh.
To be honest, they were exactly the guys I needed to see at that moment.
"Got anymore shrooms?"
We stayed up all night tripping balls and eating more mushrooms whenever we started to come down. About 3:30 in the morning Armen suggested we walk up to Brace Canyon, which is a long-ass walk, but Armen insisted that the sunrises from Brace were incredible so that's where we went.
It turned out he was wrong. It was sunsets that were great from Brace Canyon. The sun rose behind us, staining all of Burbank -- the airport, downtown, Magnolia Park -- pink as it crested the hill behind us, and Armen was embarrassed to have gotten it backwards and tried to convince us to climb further up, try to get over the hill and see the sun rise on the other side before it was fully up, but Dave pointed out that the last time they tried that they got stuck because of the monster houses on top of the hills with high fences, and the I pointed out that he was talking about a 30 minute run and the sun would be over the hill in five minutes, and then Armen pointed out that we'd been tripping and walking all night and we were all tired, so we lay in the grass and watched the city brighten by degrees.
Then it started to get hot, and we were coming down and dozed a little, but then the mosquitoes came out, and then the dog-walkers, and so it was time to drag our asses back down out of the hills.
They walked with me down to Glenoaks, then we split up. There was no way I was going to school that day. I knew the guidance office would give me an excused absence after my traumatic events and all, so I bumbled home slowly, my legs filled with lead, my eyelids drooping. People passing by on bikes or on foot gave me a wide berth that let me know I was giving off walk-of-shame vibes.
I got home and paused in front of the back door. Did I dare go inside? Would Gramps still be awake and "ornery"? Would he be out with his Maga Club buddies planning Mike Kennedy's wake? Or would they be in the living room, ready to give my ass the beat-down Gramps could no longer administer himself?
Hell with it. I was so tired I was about to fall over. If Gramps hadn't calmed down by now, then he and I could just have another fight. I'd let him win. Why not? I was tired and graduation was weeks away.
I let myself in. The house was spooky-quiet. What was spooky about quiet? It was always quiet when Gramps was out, or when he had his headphones in to listen to his podcasts, while he played large-format solitaire on his huge tablet.
But it was spooky. I think I must have known. Otherwise, why wouldn't I have just gone to bed? I mean, I was really tired.
I didn't go to bed. I called out "Gramps?" as I moved from room to room, and I saw that his keys were on the kitchen table and that his shoes were by the door, so I went to his bedroom and whispered "Gramps?" and knocked softly, as though he was asleep.
But I think I knew, even before I opened the door. Otherwise, why would I have peeled back the covers? Why would I have reached out to touch the exposed skin of his neck, felt how cold it was. Why would I have turned him over, boneless and limp, and put my ear next to his mouth, knowing there would be no breath sounds?
I called the non-emergency number and told them my grandfather was dead, that he had died in his sleep, and then I filled the biggest glass in the kitchen with cold brew. I was going to need to stay awake for a while, yet.
"Waffles," he says, offering Maya a plate. "And coffee, thank goodness, even if it is iced."
Maya takes her share of the waffles and tucks in. "Riveting story, too," she says. "Fascinating future. And doing that thing where you show people who don't like a world -- not him, his grandfather and his grandfather's friends. It looks like a great world."
"But one where they've had more plagues," he says, with his mouth full.
"Yes," she says. "Well, an interesting world."
They finish their waffles, and go and wash their hands. Maya runs around the library again when she comes out of the bathroom. The sun has come out while they are reading, making sharply contrasting patterns of light and shade on the floor as she runs under the windows. When she gets back he is sitting in his usual chair.
"The pile of books never seems to get bigger or smaller," she says, as she collapses into hers with a whoof.
"You won't believe what we have next," he says, grinning. "The beginning of a Kate Elliott story, in the Spirit Walker universe."
"Oh wow," Maya says. "Thank you, library! And she always has interesting food, too."
"I'm going to stock up if I can," he says. "I was getting worried there before we found the waffles."