Written by Trey Briggs || Art by Monte Miller
There’s no reason in the world for Kelsy Jonnie to visit my apartment. She’s like some sort of bad omen or something. When the little trouble-maker steps into any enclosed space, I bet her attitude curses the walls. Kelsy’s just a completely destructive, negative spirit that strips paint with her glares and breaks bones with her boyfriend. It’s slightly attractive, but I wasn’t in the mood.
Dero claimed he wasn’t spending too much time with her little goon squad. How do you avoid spending time with your coworkers, though? And as I watched her do that quick, sweeping walk she always does, taking up as much space as possible in such a petite body, I realized she was squeezing her elbows the way Dero does all the time. It tickles me when he does it; it infuriates me to see he passed it on like some sort of infection. But, hey, according to him, they didn’t work together much.
She stopped in front of me, and maybe she was nervous. You don’t see a nervous goon all that often, so I put my Key back in my pocket and turned to face her. Those lashes, the ones that were too long and too heavy with mascara, fluttered too much.
I know, and knew, that Dero isn’t coming home.
You don’t often meet your match when you get in as much trouble as I do. Most people have a sort of cosmic luck, but mine is confused. I get into shit so fast I can barely see it happening, and then I always get out of it. I got sent to self-containment that fateful day because I’d accidentally let all the birds out at the Cheshirebridge Funhouse and gotten some old lady nearly pecked to death. Letting the birds out was the cosmic misfortune; the lady surviving was the cosmic luck. Causing a death can get you sent to Barke Prison. It’s one of the few things that can. All the other crimes just land you in self-con for a few days.
The city keeps those self-containment shelters clean and comfortable. I’ve been in them a lot, trust me – every containment shelter in the Boundary Districts is impeccable. They’re like tiny vacations if you limit your fuck ups to certain times of year. You don’t want to get caught in one during extreme weather events or emergency lockdowns, but I always bring extra blankets just in case. I laid eyes on his chunky white cornrows when I was stuffing my blankets in and checking to make sure the heaters were working. He unlocked the cell next to me, staring the entire time. There was no denying he was another regular, maybe at a different location. Had his confinement code memorized and didn’t even have to look. The smell of his skin dug into my nose and wouldn’t leave, just so much cocoa butter and honey and things I really like.
“Stop staring,” I sang, winking, and he burst into a surprised smile. Gah, he was so adorable. Stained teeth, one twisted severely in the front, but otherwise clean and healthy. There was too much energy trapped somewhere in him, and he held his head high like a startled animal.
“If I can manage.” The twisted tooth whistled a little.
“I’m sure you can do anything you want. So manage.” I went inside and let the door lock, listening to the whirring and clicking until I felt comfortably invested in punishment mode. I tried to stick to the same confinement cell each time. Some cells connected with options for video calls, some were more solitary, and you could get into fascinating conversations with fellow fucker-uppers sometimes. I tended to pick the singular ones.
I was curled up on the little sofa bed and watching some Sculpt soap opera (The Dame Ain’t Right, I think) when a little beep sounded.
Now, I’m no coder. You get a bunch of those programming geeks in Roseate for some reason, maybe because of the tech store here. Some military brats get training when they’re young, and we’re close enough to Aureate for that to be a thing that bleeds over. But I know when I’m meeting a coder, and I know I’m in for a good time. Everything in Aeson is technology-based, even in the hood, so programmers run things here.
I looked around for the source of the beep, wishing I could bring my planner in with me for confinement. They get you used to carrying the thing around for every situation but won’t let you bring it in the shelters. I feel like I’m floating in space without it.
There was another little beep, this one closer to the floor, and I realized it was the vent. I bent down and surveyed the small screen.
MAINTENANCE MODE ACTIVATED: INPUT MECHANIC SERIAL
I watched, pulling my blankets down to me. A series of numbers and letters appeared, and then another beep.
WELCOME, AESON CITY DEBUG! PLEASE PROCEED WITH YOUR INSPECTION!
There was a pop, and then the cover folded down, exposing the tiny compartment. A steady flow of warm air pumped in, but a little electronic pad was waiting for me, a red light blinking on and off every few seconds. I pulled it out and examined the black screen, taking in the neat white handwriting.
Hey, I’m Dero. Nice to meet you.
I fucked around and set some kid on fire! Put her out before she got hurt or whatever, but I guess we’re not supposed to have flamethrowers. Couldn’t pass it up, though. Found it in the bushes, no shit! What’s your name? What’d you do? Slide it back when you’re done if you want.
I stopped for a moment, looking at the little device. With the cover off the vent, I could hear Dero jumping around in there, restless. Probably shadow boxing. Guys love to shadow box.
It dawned on me that this was another moment. Adorable guy sends me an electronic note through a vent? One stupid enough to play with a flamethrower but lucky enough not to have killed that poor kid? Here was another cosmic event setting itself up to be confused and string me back and forth, except this time, the choice was mine.
I barely hesitated to write back.
“Sorry, you know? It sucks,” Kelsy said, maybe carefully, hands behind her back. It was more like a kid trying not to twist their foot into the ground than a military salute. I imagined she’d be more boisterous and in my face if her boyfriend, Murk, was around. Any other time I’d seen her, she was loud and snappy and as aggressive as her energy allowed. The way she watched my face, it felt more like she wanted to know what I knew.
“Kelsy, right? What’s there to be sorry about?” Here, my heart jumped. There was a delicate line you had to walk with goons when it came to information. They didn’t often offer up anything you didn’t already know, so I didn’t want to scare her off. Part of me wondered if I was about to get some sort of confession, some admission of her and Dero fucking in the back of the heating shelter at Roseate’s Best. It left my mind quicker than it entered. If she’d had something to gloat about, she would’ve gloated.
Don’t be so negative. If it were terrible, they’d send a Peace Officer.
“Shit. I figured someone would have told you by now.”
“No. I just got off work. So what is it?”
“The Director-General didn’t come? Or call? Shit, they got everyone’s number in them damn planners-“
“No. What is it?”
“It’s not like … it ain’t like I know anything more than the PO’s do, we just found out already, that’s all. You know, they tol’ Mandy because of the uniform. You’d think they’d tell you first, you know, since you’re family. I-“
“Stop. Who told Mandy what?” Surprised by my tone, Kelsy faltered a little. There was a lot of regret there, maybe more than the poor girl knew how to deal with. But I couldn’t calm down around the thud of my heart.
They’d send a Peace Officer if something were really wrong.
Roseate was so good about delicacy and mental health. They wouldn’t leave me to hear something terrible about the love of my life from Kelsy fucking Jonnie.
She opened her mouth, closed it, clicked those coffin nails on the wall. In some sort of exasperation, she pointed at my Marlow’s uniform. Maybe she was going to ask me about my shift, see how my day went. It was grueling and annoying as usual with way too many tourists, but I got to see Alize perform for free. I tried to bring Dero on my break, but he wasn’t at his usual workstation. Kelsy and Murk hadn’t been, either.
Here, I started to sweat.
“You know, I ain’t need to come here—Murk tol’ me to leave it alone. As a woman, though, you know. If something happened to Murk, I’d want-“
“So tell me what happened. As a woman.” Panic crossed her face as she watched the red rise from my neck and spill into my cheeks. It always looks like I’ve been hit with a jar of tomato juice when I get scared. The blood edged around my face and filled the middle, sending a small whistle through my ears.
Kelsy opened her mouth again, turning red herself. “You know ’bout the Black Hole thing already, right? The one situation with the fake key or whatever. I’m sure y’all talk ’bout that shit or whatever.”
“I mean, you know, I never get that shit. That’s why someone else … Murk says, you know. You know?”
“He … your husband … was supposed to do the thing or whatever, but he … you know. It’s hard. These boys think they can code they way out of every situation, but you have to be prepared. Not that Dero was stupid, he wasn’t, but it’s not as easy as it looks. You know?”
My hand started to shake on the door.
Kelsy tugged at her pretty red and white hair, twirling a bunch around her palm. “Oh, look, jus’ wait until I leave to cry, okay? I can’t stand seeing other women cry!”
But I couldn’t wait.
When we got our first apartment together, Dero stood outside the door holding his elbows like a toddler. I rolled around the floor like an idiot, wishing there was carpet but too happy to stop rolling. It took Dero a minute to walk in, fear in every step.
“We can’t afford this,” he blurted, squeezing his elbows tighter. I stopped rolling and patted the ground next to me.
“Nope! But we’ll figure it out.” He stepped over to me as if his feet would go through the floor if he wasn’t light enough. If he took up too much space.
“They give all the newcomers reduced housing for the first six months. It should be the same for natives.” He crossed his legs awkwardly. “Maybe we shouldn’t have lied about the jobs. We could’ve just gotten one of the cheaper places. There’s plenty of them. I grew up in efficiency apartments, and I’m fine.”
“You’ve lived a rough enough life. You deserve this, baby! Why should we sit around in the efficiency apartments?”
“Sure. And I don’t want you to have to live one if we get kicked out of here. Faking documents, man, they don’t play about that shit here, Meeka.” Dero whispered every word as if there were mics in the walls. We’d argued over and over since I first mentioned the place. I laughed and moved over, resting my head on his legs.
“Nobody would ever imagine we faked anything, you’re too good. Don’t worry. What’s the point of coding if you’re not going to take advantage of all this technology? Why waste your programming skills?”
“Yeah, true.” Dero waited for me to keep talking, but I didn’t want to speak over his worry. You have to deal with those things while they’re around, before they get buried and become something worse. Anger. Depression. Violence. So I rubbed his legs and tried to think of proof that it would be okay. I wanted to dance, to run my hands over every part of the place I now resided in with my husband, but I just sat thinking instead.
“If I pick up three more shifts a week at Marlow’s, we’re halfway there.”
“There’s no furniture in here. Every apartment in Roseate comes with furniture-“
“You told them not to, remember? Reduced price.” He shut his eyes and nodded, bouncing his legs in frustration. “I like it like this. We’ll get some, I promise. You think it’s hard when you first start, but I’ve had to start over like four times. Trust me. My mom will send stuff, and so will my dad. We’ll figure it out.”
“I like the furniture Ms. Dalma keeps in storage,” he mumbled. “What’s your dad gonna send? Car parts?”
“We can hang them up on the wall.” Finally, he giggled, but it was short. Almost spastic. He looked around the apartment again, hands gripping me tighter with each corner he landed on. For a while, we didn’t say anything. You could feel his tough life alone in Roseate foster houses stuck with the worst excuses for human beings available, stiffening his body. He acted the same way at our wedding, at our anniversaries, at the tattoo shop. Things that had importance, especially to me, scared him.
“What if I fuck it up, Tamika?”
“You won’t. We won’t.”
This silence wasn’t new or anything, but it sat heavy in the air.
“Okay, how about this, Dero. Maybe you can find something full-time? With both of us working full-time, we’ll be fine. Maybe every few months, we’ll pick up extra work. Shit, I bet if you catch them at the right time, you can get a full-time job at Code!”
He nodded, tracing my nose. “I think I can find something full-time. Not at Code, though. Roseate’s Best has a thing.”
“Oh yeah? See, you can work in a grocery store! No problem! What’s the job?”
“Custodian. Or they say that. Some guy came around that pawnshop gig I had today and asked me if I was looking for a job. Well, not some guy. I know about him. Every Roseate kid knows about him. Aggressive type.”
“Okay, so what? Did you fight him or something?”
Dero laughed, rubbing his hands over my cheeks. “Nah. Guys like him don’t fight. They can’t take losing. They’ll kill you instead.” He left it at that, running his hands down my sides. “Just weird that he came to see me. It’s the second time. A couple of dudes I know said he’s been bothering them, too.”
“You better take it before he picks one of them, then! It’s just custodial work?”
“I guess. I don’t know.”
“So, what’s the problem? You know how to handle yourself.”
Some scene played out in his head. Thuds from his heart reached me on his legs, and I looked up to make sure he wasn’t crying. He wasn’t, but his expression was no better.
“Maybe we should’ve moved somewhere cheaper.”
Kelsy didn’t move to comfort me, just stood with her hands on her elbows and watched me cry harder and harder.
“Did he get fired?”
“Oh, girl. No, it’s not like that. I wouldn’t come here for that. I shouldn’t be here anyway, but nah.” She patted her head, and every thud made my heart stop. I remembered the first time I saw her, standing outside Roseate’s Best in her altered uniform, sticking her tongue out at someone behind me. Long hair blowing in the wind, nails clicking, eyes devoid of anything close to human emotion. She looked too different. Too remorseful. Too agonized.
“Did he- did he get arrested? Are they taking him to Barke?”
“No. No, girl, I mean … worse.”
“So just say it!” Kelsy backed up, stunned. I went after her, unwilling to let it go. “Just say you fucking got him killed!”
The day before, Dero put on his uniform slower after he helped me wash my hair in the kitchen sink, scrubbing too lightly for my tastes. The whir of the blow dryer felt ancient in his hands. Every move he made was too slow for him, too fragile, too simple.
Dero shrugged, staring at the door. I pulled my uniform on, whistling.
“Are you happy in Roseate?”
“I’m happy anywhere with you,” I said, and he drew a deep breath. That crooked tooth showed, some form of energetic desperation pulling the corners of his mouth up. It wasn’t a smile, more like panicked spasms across his face.
“Same! We don’t need to stay here. Blanche was nice! I like your parents, too. It would be nice to be near them.”
“You want to move?”
“Yes.” No question, no room for an answer.
I paused, finally turning to see him. We’d filled the apartment up with so much stuff, so much of my mother’s furniture and Dero’s old posters he liked and computer parts everywhere. Dero stood in the middle of it, framed in the light from the window, the features of his face washed out. I worked less than a block away, and he worked next door, and there really wasn’t any rush. The full-time custodian work sent him home sweaty or irritable, but work is work.
Maybe I saw some cosmic thing. As I get older, maybe it takes shapes only I can recognize. It smells different. It sounds bad. Maybe I could feel something in the universe reaching for Dero, his bad luck and my bad luck combining to make something too ugly for us to survive. I wanted to take off my uniform, maybe make him take off his. Get back in bed. Sleep in, watch puppet shows on tv, and laugh and laugh and laugh. But we were doing so good. Missing a day of work in Aeson City is like handing over your rights to a comfortable life, especially when you’ve finally found something full-time.
“Okay,” I said, smiling. “You trusted me with this place. I trust you with the next.” Maybe he expected some pushback, but I had no affection for districts and places. I followed people.
I kissed him on the cheek on the way out the door. “Kelsy and Murk will miss you, won’t they? I never see them working. You must do everything.”
Finally, the cosmic misfortune sat so ugly on Dero’s face that I stepped back, alarmed. He adjusted his uniform and gave me a cold smile.
“They do a lot, actually.”
“Someone found him cut up in the Derelict District. Crazy that they found him so fast, you know. I jus’ want you to know I ain’t have shit to do with it. Neither did Murk. Everyone always looks at us first when something happens, so I had to say that at least. We ain’t as bad as people say.” Tears fell down her cheeks now, but she sucked in a deep breath and patted my shoulder.
And then, before I could think, we saw the Peace Officer turning the corner, making his way to me, and I grabbed her without meaning to. Kelsy moved, and I nearly fell forward, nails scratching the wall. The floor was gone. The ceiling was gone.
“Just stay with me until they leave,” I whispered, swirling around a drain, feet off the ground, heart decimated. The world gave way, and I sunk, yelping. She wrapped her arm around my back and pulled me up, nodding begrudgingly but staying put.
“Sure. Of course. Don’t even worry about it, jus’ calm down, uh … girl, jus’ chill.”
I had the feeling she couldn’t remember my name. I was just the wife of some guy she worked with, some guy who squeezed his elbows and could code her and her boyfriend into some money. Maybe some guy she pressured into doing a job that got him killed. Dero was just a skill she didn’t have and wanted, and I was just Dero’s.
But I don’t want to be anything else, so I leaned on her.