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But to Darcy, America Pacifica is simply home--the only one she's ever known. In spite of their poverty she lives contentedly with her mother, who works as a pearl diver. It's only when her mother doesn't come home one night that Darcy begins to learn about her past as a former "Mainlander," and her mother's role in the flight from frozen California to America Pacifica. Darcy embarks on a quest to find her mother, navigating the dark underbelly of the island, learning along the way the disturbing truth of Pacifica's early history, the far-reaching influence of its egomaniacal leader, and the possible plot to murder some of the island's first inhabitants--including her mother.
The trouble started when the woman with the shaking hands came to the apartment. Her face was small but fleshy, with a little puffy mouth. She was dressed in shabby, slightly strange clothes—a magenta skirt a little too short for her age, a T-shirt with home-stenciled snowflakes—and her skin was a weird sallow color like she had just fainted or was just about to faint. She said she was a friend of Darcy’s mother, but Darcy’s mother didn’t have friends.
“You’re all I need,” Sarah would say as she combed the knots out of Darcy’s hair.
Darcy didn’t like the woman’s hands. The rest of her was long and skinny, but those hands were so plump they were almost knuckleless, and they quivered like dreaming dogs. Hard-core solvent-heads shook like that, but this woman’s pupils were normal, and she didn’t smell like a huffer or twitch and scratch like a snorter. If she wasn’t high she was sick or scared, and they didn’t need any extra illness or worry.
Darcy started to say that her mother was out and would be out for a while, but then Sarah came down the hall from the bathroom carrying their toothbrush and looking at the woman the way you look at someone you’ve been expecting to see. She had changed out of her wet diving suit and into an old Seafiber jumpsuit with holes in the knees. She was little and hard, like a knife. The woman’s shaky hands were opening and closing.
“Darcy,” her mother said, in a voice that sounded like it came from a time before all the tenderness and bitterness and songs and rhymes and whispers and private names that had grown between them in the eighteen years of Darcy’s life. “Can you give us a minute?”
Darcy didn’t like it. The woman’s eyes were moving all over the hallway like they were expecting something to come charging through the wall.
“What’s this about?” Darcy asked.
The woman looked at Darcy’s mother and Darcy’s mother looked at Darcy with an expression she had seen on the other mothers but almost never on her own, an expression that said, Please do this and don’t ask me why.
Darcy obeyed. She left the apartment and the woman walked in. They shut the door and Darcy was alone in the hallway. A wad of underwear lay against the far wall. She walked toward it so they would hear her footsteps. Then she tiptoed back. She knelt by the door of the apartment and pressed her ear against it. The door was made of cheap Seaboard—it smelled like the dirty ocean after a long rain, and if you scratched it, it flaked away under your fingernails. Through it she could make out the women’s whispers, like dishwater swishing in a tub.
“I swish your note,” the woman was saying. “I never swish it would happen again. I wasn’t ready.”
“Will you go?” her mother said. “I swish swish swish, but I just can’t do it.”
Darcy tried to hear the emotion in her mother’s voice, but she was still speaking strangely, as though all along her voice had contained another voice and she was just now unwrapping it.
“I’ll talk to swish swish,” the woman said. “We’re going to need money, though.”
Then her voice went so low that Darcy couldn’t hear it. Darcy pulled her necklace up around her chin and tucked the charm into her mouth, an old nervous habit. The charm was silver, a small scaly bullet-shape that her mother had explained was called a pinecone. Darcy had found it folded into Sarah’s oldest, most threadbare shirt when she was doing laundry by herself for the first time, five or six years ago. All Sarah would say was that it had belonged to Darcy’s grandmother and that pinecones grew on trees on the mainland.
“You can have it if you want,” she had said. “I don’t care about it.”
For several years after that Darcy had imagined pinecones were fruit and wondered what they tasted like. The charm itself tasted familiar and foreign, like Darcy’s own teeth and like some far-off salty earth, and sucking on it gave her a furtive, inward pleasure.
“Okay,” she heard her mother say.
Their footfalls approached the door, and Darcy jumped up and ran into the bathroom. It was dark and swampy. All three stalls were occupied: a set of feet beneath each door shifted slightly. A large flat glossy cockroach glided across the floor. The bathroom hadn’t been cleaned in weeks; old human smells lay thickly one on top of the other, piss and shit and menstrual blood and paper towels so sodden with these things that they became almost human themselves. Liberty Ramirez was in the middle stall with one of his pornoflyers—the soft sounds of his masturbation stopped when he heard her come in. Darcy stood against the stained sink and waited for footsteps in the hallway. She heard several minutes of silence. Then the bathroom door opened and the woman came in. Under the fluorescent light, her skin was fish-belly green.
“You have a nice apartment,” she said.
“Are you joking?” she asked.
The woman smiled. Her teeth slanted inward in the front, like an arrow pointing down her throat. She turned the tap on and jumped back a little when the pipes coughed. Then she stuck her fat shivery hands under the lukewarm water and wiped them on her face.
“What were you talking to my mom about?” Darcy asked.
“Oh, just catching up.”
The woman looked around the bathroom.
“We don’t have paper towels,” Darcy said. “You have to use toilet paper. Catching up on what?”
“You know, old times.”
She lifted the hem of her T-shirt—cheap Seafiber, stained in several places—and dabbed at her face with it.
“I have to go,” she said. “It was nice talking to you.”
“Hold on,” Darcy said, but the woman turned and walked out the door without looking back.
When Darcy came back to the apartment, Sarah was cleaning. The bed was made, their few spare T-shirts were piled in a corner. Sarah was scraping the dried bits of beef food off the hot plate.
“What did she want?” Darcy asked.
Sarah looked up, eyes wide with innocence.
“You know who. That woman.”
Sarah laughed, a little high tight laugh that usually meant she was overtired or about to cry.
“Oh, her,” she said. “She’s crazy.”
“How do you know her?”
Sarah turned her back to Darcy and began scraping again. When she answered, she spoke quickly, giving each word as little weight as possible.
“I used to hang around with her when I was younger.”
Darcy knew this was a bad sign. Her mother never talked about the mainland, or about coming to Pacifica, or about what it was like to live on the island before it was overcrowded and overbuilt and falling apart at the edges, when it was still an exciting new escape from the frozen, used-up hulk of North America. Darcy knew Sarah had lived in a co-op in Seattle, that she’d come to the island on the first boat when she was just ten years old, that she’d done odd jobs until she got pregnant, when she became a pearl diver, that Darcy’s father’s name was Alejandro, and that he was dead. Everything else that happened to Sarah before Darcy’s birth was off-limits, and Sarah didn’t even get satisfyingly angry when Darcy asked about it. She just put on her faraway face, her face that said, Even though I know everything there is to know about you, there are things about me that you will never know, and gave Darcy the only piece of advice she ever gave: “Don’t get stuck in the past.” Since Darcy had no past beyond a few years of school, a few nights spent huffing cheap solvent out of paper bags, and many boring days of mixing jellyfish powder and spice into imitations of mainland food, she didn’t have much to do with this advice. She’d stopped asking questions that might elicit it. Still, she didn’t like the woman with the shaking hands, and she wasn’t quite ready to let it drop.
“What did she want?” Darcy asked.
Sarah stopped scraping and stood still for a moment with the scouring pad hovering in the air. When she turned she wore an expression of nonchalance that looked like it had taken effort to compose.
“She has this get-rich-quick scheme. Get this: I just put up a hundred dollars, and in the next year a hundred people each send me a hundred dollars.”
“How come I’ve never seen her before?” Darcy asked.
“I told her, first of all, does it look like I have a hundred dollars, and second of all, do you think I don’t know what a pyramid scheme is?”
Sarah finished scraping the hot plate, then opened the window and put the scrapings on the sill. A soot-stained parrot flapped down, made the sound of a bus horn, and began chewing them.
“That’s all it was?” Darcy asked.
“Yes, what did you think? Some kind of a drug deal? Or maybe she was coming to tell us we’d won a million dollars from the Board of Trustees in some kind of sweepstakes? If we had a million dollars, the first thing I’d do is knock down this entire building and replace it with a giant urinal, because that’s what it smells like anyway. What about you?”
Sarah often sounded childlike, especially at the end of a long day, but now she was talking too fast, and her eyes danced with excitement or anxiety. The woman’s sallow face and little pursed mouth chafed at Darcy like sand under fingernails.
“Do you promise that’s what you were talking about?”
Sarah put her hands on her hips and made her parody-of-an-exasperated-mother face. Usually this face was a joke—Darcy and Sarah were rarely at cross-purposes, and Sarah was rarely the kind of mother to tell Darcy what to do. But when Sarah spoke, her voice had an edge to it.
“What is with you?” she said. “Yes, I promise. Now come sit with me. If you give me a foot rub I’ll sing you a song.”
Darcy took off her mother’s socks and laid them damp and stinking on the windowsill to air. She stuck her head out the window and smelled the hot wet briny breath of the sea, a mile away to the west. The wind was changing; the rains would be coming soon. On the ceiling, last season’s leaks lay dark and spongy, ready to seep like sores again when the weather turned.
One year the leaks had gotten so bad that the whole ceiling streamed rusty water, like an enormous showerhead, and they had to move all their clothes and Darcy’s makeshift toys to the top of the bed and sleep under a canopy made of garbage bags. The next day the edges of the blanket were slurping up water, and the apartment was oozing into the hallway, and Augusta Beltran came by to ask if they wanted to stay with her. But Sarah put her arm around Darcy’s shoulder, like a wing, and said they didn’t need any help, and that night and the next night and the next they ate their cheese food and seaweed crackers on the inundated bed, and pretended they were sailing on the ocean. They were happy, except for the time that Sarah asked, “We’re fine, aren’t we?” and Darcy knew she had to say yes.
Sarah’s feet were long and thin, her toes all huddled together. Even in the steaming heat they never got warm. Darcy rubbed her mother’s cracked heels, her blue-veined insteps, the crumpled scar where she’d lost her little toe to frostbite thirty years ago. Her mother’s feet always made her jealous; they had seen her mother through the secret years before Darcy was born. They had shivered in the snow on the mainland, slapped against the deck of the first boat as it crossed the Pacific, scrambled over the sand of the island when it was unbuilt and undirtied and new. They had rubbed against the feet of Darcy’s father, dark and broad and snub-toed like hers, before he died and took half of Darcy’s provenance out of the world.
Sarah was singing now. It was a song Darcy had never heard before, a song about sunshine. Her mother knew so many songs. Darcy couldn’t sing any of them. She could hear the music in her mind, but it came out of her mouth all thinned and flattened and wrong.
Sarah shut her eyes; she was sliding out of the room, away into a place she kept for herself in her mind. Darcy rubbed the fine, thin tendons on the tops of her feet. She wished her mother were something she could keep in a closed fist, like a coin.
“ ’Cause if I never saw the sunshine, baby, then maybe”—she opened her eyes and looked at Darcy like she was someone else—“I wouldn’t mind the rain.”
Darcy sat in her usual seat on the number 9 bus to Floridatown, next to the green-jumpsuited woman with the small solvent burn on her neck. Usually they didn’t speak, but this morning the woman turned to her, a copy of the news flyer in her hand.
“You see this?” she asked.
The printing was cheap, doubled like drunk vision, but today’s headline was a screamer: SEAGUARDS THWART HAWAIIAN ATTACK. Below it was a line drawing—the few working cameras on the island had rotted into hunks of scrap long ago—of a ship with enormous guns jutting from its sides. Twice before in Darcy’s memory they had shot down invader ships, destroyers coming west from Hawaii. The last time had been ten years ago—Darcy was eight, and for weeks all the kids talked about nothing but boats and torpedoes and wars. Then the threat dimmed, and the western settlements became what they’d always been—far-off enemies, featureless and vaguely fearsome, a role to force the uncool kids to play in games of make-believe. Some of the kids in Darcy’s high school even claimed that all the westerners had died, that a hot ocean current had fried them just like the cold had frozen America. You got in trouble if your teacher heard you say so, but more and more in recent years Darcy had seen underground flyers posted around Little Los Angeles, their blurry type proclaiming, HAWAIIANS DEAD! FIRE THE SEAGUARDS! They were never up for more than a day.
“This happened yesterday?” Darcy asked.
The woman nodded. Darcy had never really looked at her face before. Her skin was coffee-colored, and lines sprouted from her eyes. She was still pretty. Darcy gazed into her lap at Founder Tyson’s morning column, all the way on the right edge of the flyer, above the baseball scores. Tyson’s face at the top was as avuncular and strong-jawed as ever. It was the face on the banners that hung across the Avenida, and across Wabash Avenue in Chicagoland, and across every other street big enough to make room for them. It was totally unlike the ancient, sunken face that made its way down from the northern tip of the island for each year’s Founder’s Day parade, turning slightly from side to side, smiling its fixed smile.
“This weekend’s attack shows us that the Hawaiian threat is still very real,” Tyson’s column read, “and we must maintain vigilance. And yet, this is also a time to remember the blessings of our island, the things that make it worth protecting. As of today, Manhattanville has gone two full months without a cave-in, and although minor cave-ins did occur this week on the western edge of Little Los Angeles, they are being swiftly and diligently repaired.”
Darcy let her eyes wander; she had never cared much about the news. The bus began to climb the northern hill, and Little Los Angeles fell away around them. Smog lay thick as pudding along the eastern mountains and between the towers of the refinery. Cars crushed together in the teeming flats; the first weak bits of sun clung to the soiled old Hollywood sign. The New Library Tower, still unfinished, stretched its vacant spire up through the haze. On the sidewalk, a girl fought with a boy on a lowrider bicycle. Both were covered in thick winter sweat. The girl kept tugging up her yellow tube top. She looked young and ugly and tired.
“You know what this means, don’t you?” the woman asked.
“What does it mean?” asked Darcy. She was still half-asleep. The attack seemed far away from her. It seemed unreal.
“The Board elections. It means the incumbents will talk up island defense, and they’ll just win again. I’ve voted for Lisabeta Moreno five times now, and not once has she even made the runoff.”
The bus stopped at Figueroa and two blue-suited men got out, heading for the Seaboard plant. Then the engine choked on a salt chunk and made an ugly noise like a sick baby. The driver cursed and pounded the bypass button with her fist. The woman next to Darcy had her cheap wristwatch on; Darcy tried to look at the time without letting her see. It was 5:45 a.m.; she had fifteen minutes.
“When are the elections again?” Darcy asked. She was more worried about getting to work on time than about voting.
“January fifth,” the woman said. “Not that it matters, since it’s the same people every time.”
“So?” Darcy asked.
The woman shrugged, her face bitter.
“So, we keep getting cave-ins, Seaguard taxes, same shit as always. And all the GreenValley and Pacifica Flyers execs keep sitting pretty. Sweet deal for them, I guess.”
The elections happened every six years, and everyone on the Board had to stand except for Tyson, who had been elected to a special twenty-year term when Darcy was a kid. She was technically eligible to vote this year, but she hadn’t thought much about it. She wasn’t sure the elections would change anything on the island, no matter who won. And even though she didn’t know anyone who had gone from a Little Los Angeles childhood to a GreenValley office, she still thought maybe it was possible. There might be some combination of luck and persistence that could bounce her off the track of buses and hairnets and cheese food on seaweed crackers; she just wasn’t sure what it was yet.
As they crested the hill and rolled down through Sonoma, Darcy watched the pink and blue stucco buildings with their little climbing grapevines. No big bras and boxers hanging out to dry here—they must all have working dryers in their clean, dry basements. And no fans clattering in the windows either, because these people had air-conditioning. On sleepless nights when her mother’s breathing was loud as an alarm bell in her brain, when every catch or pause in that breathing forced her into sudden vigilance, she would play over in her mind the images of clean and quiet apartments in Sonoma. She would imagine going to sleep by herself in one of them, and waking up by herself, without the smell of her mother’s sweat on her skin. She wasn’t dumb enough to think that everyone on America Pacifica would ever have their own house, but if she could live like the people in Sonoma one day, she wouldn’t worry about anyone else.
“If somebody can give me the money to move out of my shitty apartment,” she said to the woman, “I’ll vote for him. If not, I don’t really care.”
The woman made a huffing noise in her throat and turned away. The bus turned off the Avenida onto Waterfront, and had to stop for a cave-in crew. The cave-in was at the Arizona Project, a block west of Waterfront. In the faux-sandstone facade of the project complex was a hole, like a gap in teeth. A family stood around the hole, still in their nightclothes, staring. Cave-ins happened every week, but still they looked surprised. Behind them was the orangey murk of the sea, the bits of Seaboard bobbing on its surface already beginning to dissolve. Farther out, where the water was less solvent-poisoned, a jellyfish trawler hauled in its morning catch. And farther still, on the horizon, the dark guard boats squatted against the bluing sky. Darcy supposed she should feel grateful to them, but all she felt was jealous of how much money their crews made. The bus engine hacked and stalled again. She tried to sneak another look at her seatmate’s watch, but the woman lifted her wrist away from Darcy and smoothed her sparse hair. Darcy bit her fingernails one after the other.
They got under way again, turned east to cross the Florida border. The bus grumbled down Palm Beach Avenue, past the pink and teal apartment buildings, built before Darcy was born and pocked now with monsoon damage. Some of the worst scars were covered over with gray asphalt paste, waiting for a team from the Pacifica Aesthetic Company to come paint over them. You got in trouble for painting yourself here, or for doing anything that violated the neighborhood’s theme. Once a high wind had blown the Seaboard flamingos out of the World Experiences lawn, and a guard had arrived with an injunction to replace them. It was important, he said, to maintain the neighborhood’s ancestral character. The guards didn’t bother too much about graffiti or paint jobs in Little Los Angeles, though. Some neighborhoods were too cheap for ancestral character. After the apartments came the first of the nursing homes, big gloomy Eden Acres. The woman let her wrist fall into Darcy’s view—5:54. The bus hit a red light at Palm Beach and Tampa, just before Darcy’s stop. She bit down hard on her thumb and tasted blood.
Then they were at her stop and Darcy charged out. She ran past the Paradise Valley Assisted Living Center and the Graceful Living Retirement Home, past the medical-supply store and the mortuary, past the long pale polished stairway and the World Experiences Mature Community sign, around the side of the building, and into the little mouse-colored door marked SERVICE. Then down the low beige hallway, in and out between the jugs of cooking oil and boxes of dried jellyfish, over the pile of discarded seaweed cans, through the second door, and into the steamy smelly kitchen. The clock on the wall read 5:59.
“You hear about the attack?” she asked Trish as they pulled on their hairnets.
“Yeah,” Trish said. “Somebody told me the Hawaiians got frozen out years ago. Guess they were wrong.”
“I heard they had crazy glass-domed cities,” said Win, firing up the griddle. “And boats with built-in grenade launchers. I heard they’re sending a whole fleet for, like, revenge.”
Trish rolled her eyes. Win was known for his solvent habit and his alarmism.
“Whatever,” she said. “You hear about this?”
She pointed at the blackboard where their boss Marcelle had written the day’s menu. It read:
BREAKFAST: hash browns, jellyfish sausage, scrambled egg product
LUNCH: turkey (jellyfish) sandwich, seaweed salad
DINNER: seaweed salad, mashed potato product, T-bone steak
In Darcy’s two years at World Experiences, T-bone steak day had occurred only twice. They served Salisbury steak every other Friday, but that they could make out of jellyfish and beef flavor and texturizer; T-bone had to be mostly real. They got it from the one stockyard on the island, in Texas Town, and one steak cost more than Darcy made in a month. Breakfast and lunch were a blur of anticipation. Darcy and the rest of the kitchen staff bolted their break-time protein bars without tasting them. They barely talked about the attack. Their minds were all on how to steal some meat.
Trish’s method was the simplest—she cut a small piece off every fifth steak as she was plating it, then shoved it in her mouth. Trish was a year younger than Darcy but she’d been working twice as long. She’d gotten a waiver from the Pacifica Board of Trustees because she had so many brothers and sisters. Her youngest brother was her favorite because he was smart; Trish said he was going to get a scholarship to go to the University someday and study marine engineering. Every year there were fewer scholarships—fewer bright, hopeful names published in the April news flyers—but still every smart kid on the island dreamt of them at night. If you went to the University you were basically guaranteed a good job, something where you sat at a desk all day and didn’t get your hands dirty. Something that would pay for a full apartment with its own toilet and shower. Most of the kids who went to the University were born rich, but for those very few scholarship kids it was a way to make money, a way to bounce yourself out. Darcy had always been an inattentive and indifferent student, so she’d never had a shot at this kind of escape. But before she dropped out, she remembered the older kids coming back from scholarship qualifying exams, looking uneasy and confused. Nobody would ever say what was on the exams; supposedly you’d get arrested if you told. And Darcy had never known anyone who’d passed.
Win’s method was the grossest. He plucked each steak off the plate and licked it before adding scoops of potato food and seaweed salad. Darcy had bigger plans. She wanted to steal a whole steak. Her job was to trim the gristle off the meat and lay it on the griddle. When she got an especially big steak, she let the knife swing wide, until she had four gristly pieces to lay on the griddle in the rough shape of an actual steak.
“I’m not plating that,” Trish said. “It looks stupid.”
“You just have to make sure Megan Kramer gets it. Or that Emily woman with the one eye. They won’t be able to see the difference.”
“Oh right, so I’m just supposed to tell Stella to give this one to a blindie? What if she asks why? How come you can’t just sneak pieces like a normal person?”
“Because I want a real steak dinner for my mom and me. With the bone in it.”
She slipped a rare steak off the griddle, wrapped it in two layers of Seafiber napkin, and stuffed it down the front of her jumpsuit.
“Just hand it to Stella last,” she said. “The blindies always come in late anyway. It’ll be fine.”
Trish shrugged and snuck another bite.
“It’s gonna taste like your sweaty tits,” she said.
Darcy smacked her in the arm. The birdsong tape started playing in the dining room, and the residents began drifting in. Darcy peeked out the serving window—as usual, the youngest and most able residents were arriving first. The dining room was prairie themed. Someone in the early days of World Experiences had sponge-painted a golden grassland across the walls. In the corner near the kitchen, a family of prairie dogs stuck their pointed noses and giant cartoon eyes up out of the grass. On the opposite wall three wild horses, slender and bright red, drank from a blurry stream. Next to the entrance, and farthest from the kitchen, a milky-skinned girl in a blue dress stood at the doorway of a thatch-roofed cottage, perpetually waving good-bye. The girl had made Darcy laugh when she first got to World Experiences—it had been a good fifty years since anyone could’ve gone outside on the mainland prairie in a dress that flimsy. Probably whoever painted it had never seen a mainland meadow that wasn’t heavily lidded with snow. Darcy could’ve done just as good a job, even though she was island-born and the only dogs she’d ever seen were the ones that came over on the last boat with all the criminals and homeless people. She hadn’t paid much attention in history class, but she knew people wanted to remember the mainland the way you remember a beloved dead person—pretty, and young, and happy, and always the same.
Win set the plates in the serving window and Stella, in her bright blue prairie-girl dress, set them before the women. The room filled quickly at first, then more slowly as the arrivals grew slower and lamer and blinder, pushing walkers before them and trailing IV bags behind them and moving laboriously through the gel that time becomes for the very old and sick. The people at World Experiences weren’t very rich. They had more money than Darcy—the people in her building got old and died right there, not in homes with nurses and cooks and prairie girls on the walls. But the really rich people—old executives and Board members and higher-ups in the guards—went to Paradise Valley, where Darcy heard they got steak once a week and jellyfish powder was banned. Or their families hired service workers from Little Los Angeles or Lower Chicagoland to push their wheelchairs and spoon crushed-up real strawberries into their mouths. These jobs paid well, but Darcy hadn’t been able to get one. You needed a smooth face, unpockmarked, and straight teeth—you had to be just like a rich person, except poor. The old men and women who hobbled in now couldn’t afford servants, and they couldn’t afford Paradise Valley. What their middling fortunes could buy was steak once a year and someone like Darcy to lie in wait and steal from them. Finally Emily Jones made her slow way in and sat in the back by the waterfall with Megan Kramer and Che Simpson, who could only say the word “kale.”
“Okay—now,” Darcy said. “Put it out now.”
The fake steak lay between the potatoes and the seaweed, the edges of its component parts melted slightly together by the heat of the griddle. Trish placed it in the serving window and Stella took it. Then Trish said, “Shit.”
“What?” Darcy looked up from a sink slowly filling with suds.
Darcy looked out and saw her boss, regal in her old-style skirt suit, broad-hipped, small-waisted, her eyes narrowed in constant, minute appraisal.
“It’s fine,” Darcy said. “They won’t notice anything, she won’t notice anything. It’s fine.”
Stella picked her way past canes and walkers and wheelchairs to the back of the room, where she set plates in front of Megan and Emily.
“See?” Darcy said. “We’re fine.”
Then the dining room door opened and in came Ramona Smith-Sanchez, graceful, loose-limbed, and sharp-eyed. Ramona did yoga every day. She still got the mystery flyers delivered to her room. Stella lifted the final plate and Darcy willed it to teeter, to flip, to splay its contents across the golden-brown prairie floor. But Stella conveyed it smoothly through the air and set it in front of Ramona.
She didn’t look at her plate right away. First she made some joke to Stella, who gave an employee’s polite laugh. Then she touched Megan on the arm and the two of them shared some kind of furtive, sympathetic communication. Then she looked at Stella again, and for a moment Darcy thought that time had become a circle, that they would be trapped forever in the minute and a half before Ramona touched her steak. Stella was laughing again. Ramona was laughing. Megan was quietly filling her mouth with food. Then Ramona picked up her fork and knife and cut herself a piece of meat. She put it between her lips. She chewed. She shut her eyes in pleasure like the woman on the GreenValley Foods flyers.
“Okay,” Trish said, “you were right.”
But Ramona was pausing with the second bite still on her fork. She was looking down at her plate with precise concentration. She was using a knife to pry the pieces of steak apart. She was calling for Stella, and they were both peering at the plate, and then Marcelle was stirring from her spot in the corner of the room, and she was gazing balefully at the mangled steak, and she was moving in the direction of the kitchen, the offending plate in her manicured hand.
“Look busy,” Darcy hissed, and they all began showily scrubbing.
Darcy was shoving a stack of mixing bowls into scalding water when Marcelle came through the swinging doors. She stood in the center of the kitchen and seemed to pull the whole room toward her, like a weight in the center of a cloth. She held up the plate. The steak was spread apart, and its pink juices were staining the potatoes.
“What is this?” she asked.
Her anger always had pleasure at the edges of it, like it would bring her joy to be proved right about their uselessness. She was forty-five, high-cheekboned, handsome. In her office were drawings of her attractive, well-nourished children.
Darcy could feel the others silently willing her to confess. They would never say it, but they wanted her to step forward and bear the punishment alone. But she couldn’t afford even a small pay cut right now, not with their rent due next week.
“It’s a steak,” she said.
“It is not a steak,” Marcelle said. “A steak at World Experiences is a tasty, succulent piece of meat presented in an attractive fashion. Ms. Pern, does this object meet that definition of a steak?”
“And why not?”
Before she dropped out of high school, when she hadn’t studied for a test, she sometimes tried to open up her mind so that the universe could pour answers into it. She would shut her eyes, hold her breath, and imagine her brain as an open bowl into which inspiration could flow. It worked once—when the date of the island’s founding, April 10, 2043, had fallen into her consciousness like a cube of glittering ice. She tried it now, but all that came were stupid ideas—a monkey came in and ate part of the steak, it was like that when we got it from the butcher, Ramona must’ve hidden a bone in her sweater. Darcy chose the least dumb of these ideas.
“That steak was supposed to be for Megan Kramer,” she said.
Trish shot her an angry face.
“She asked us for one without the bone,” Darcy went on. “She doesn’t like the way it looks. But things just get so crazy in here, and we forgot to tell Stella.”
“So if I were to ask Mrs. Kramer, she’d tell me she wanted a steak with no bone?”
“Not to be disrespectful,” Darcy said, “but Mrs. Kramer isn’t always the most consistent of our residents.”
At first Marcelle seemed to be looking at Darcy with skepticism. Then Darcy saw it was confusion.
“Darcy,” she asked, “what is on your jumpsuit?”
Darcy looked down. The steak juice had oozed through the Seafiber, making an angry red-brown stain on the left side of her belly. Trish’s eyes burned at her. Standing behind Marcelle, Win pointed a finger gun to his temple and fired it. Darcy felt herself teetering forward into a future in which she confessed, pulled the steak out of her jumpsuit, lost her job, and walked out onto the street with no money and nowhere to be. The sensation was almost pleasurable. Then the idea she’d been waiting for came and knocked her back.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m so sorry.”
Then she doubled over with fake tears.
“I thought it had stopped,” she went on, gasping and covering her face with her hands.
“What on earth is wrong with you?” Marcelle asked.
“I had an operation. I didn’t have the money for a hospital, so I went to someone I heard about. He didn’t sew me up right, and now it keeps bleeding.”
Something wavered in Marcelle’s eyes. Darcy stepped up her sniffling. She told herself she was a truthful, pathetic, injured person who had every reason to cry.
“You know better than that, Darcy,” Marcelle said. “Go clean yourself up. You’re a health hazard.”
Darcy nodded and wiped her eyes.
“And I’m going to garnish your wages to pay for that steak. I’m not going to reward this kind of behavior.”
Darcy went to the staff restroom, a little Seaboard stall off the kitchen, and splashed cold water on the stain. She didn’t know how she was going to make rent now, but she took the steak out of her jumpsuit and looked at it, and lifted it to her nose and smelled it, and felt a thief’s pride.
When she got home it was dark, but still hot. The smell of rain was heavy as a lid on the air. A street show was going on outside her building. The players came to the Avenida on nights and weekends hoping for spare change, and they usually did one of three routines—girls getting their clothes accidentally torn off, a trained monkey in a business suit dancing around with a briefcase, or a group of men acting out life on the mainland and the origin of the island. This was the mainland show—the Mainland family were huddled together on the sidewalk, shivering. The North Wind was blowing all around them and scattering Seafiber snowflakes.
“What will we do?” asked Mrs. Mainland, a big man whose chest hair peeked out the neckline of his dress. “Our crops are dead and we’re running out of cats to eat!”
Sarah wasn’t back yet. Darcy let herself in and started getting dinner ready. She set the steak, still in its bloody napkins, on a stack of old romance flyers in the cool spot under the window. She plugged in the hot plate, then opened a can of chopped onion. In the mini fridge she found half a can of peas, not yet foul smelling. The pan was dirty. She took it to the bathroom to wash it in the sink. Augusta Beltran was there before her, mixing water with her baby’s powdered formula. The baby himself was strapped to Augusta’s chest—he looked at Darcy with his tiny alien eyes and began to wail.
“He’s just hungry,” Augusta said, and she shook the liquid until it went white. “My bus broke down and I had to walk back here from Chicagoland, and it took an hour and a half and I stepped in monkey shit, and he wouldn’t eat when my mom tried to feed him, for whatever reason, so of course he’s starving—”
Darcy gave her a polite smile and turned away. Augusta was lonely—she worked ten hours a day on a refrigerator assembly line where no one was allowed to talk, and her husband had gone insane and wandered up and down the Avenida talking about some kind of conspiracy, and if you stood next to her for any length of time she’d tell you a story so sad you didn’t want to get out of bed anymore.
The plate was hot when Darcy got back. She set the clean pan down on it, and the water sizzled underneath.
“Mrs. Mainland,” said Mr. Mainland outside Darcy’s window, “I’m sorry that it’s come to this, but we’re going to have to eat the children.”
Heavy boots clomped on the stairs; Verano Ortiz must be back from the refinery. Darcy heard his wife come out to kiss him. Sarah was late. Verano almost never got home before her. Maybe she had taken an extra dive. Darcy unplugged the hot plate. When her mother dove till dark in search of extra pearls, she came back looking like a sea creature—her eyes big and staring, her fingers long and white and cold like the clammy toes of some underwater salamander. Her hair and skin smelled like the ocean, and her speech was always vague and abstracted, and she forgot the names of things.
Darcy unfolded and refolded her mother’s worn-out jumpsuit, her own old school uniform, her one extra T-shirt. She straightened her dolls—rocks with Seafiber skirts wrapped around them—and the cheese-food can cut into the shape of a crown that she’d worn for dress-up as a child. She wiped the dust off An Animal Atlas of the West Coast, the only possession her mother had saved from the mainland. Outside, Mr. Mainland was getting ready to butcher his children. He sharpened a big Seaboard knife on a chunk of rock. The children—two fat men in old-fashioned sailor suits—mewled and cried.
The alarm clock read 10 p.m. The electricity would be going out soon. Darcy lit the oil lamp—the sweet smell of solvent came crackling up. Then she plugged the hot plate back in and filled the pan with steak, onions, and peas. A prerational part of her brain was taking over, and it was telling her that Sarah was more likely to come when she was distracted. She stirred the onions and flipped the steak. She shook some cheese powder into the pan. She tried not to listen for footsteps on the stairs.
On the street below, Founder Tyson arrived at the Mainland family’s house. Mr. Mainland was chasing the children around. The actor playing Tyson was wearing a red coat trimmed in fake white fur, high-heeled shoes, and white gloves. He put on a high, patrician voice.
“Oh dear! This riffraff is going to commit murder. Whatever shall I do?”
Two guards walked by and the actors froze. The guards’ attitude toward the street shows was unpredictable. Usually they approved of references to mainland culture—cowboy bars and baseball teams and even Elvis impersonators supposedly got subsidies from the Board. But those were Old Mainland, before the ice—newer memories didn’t get the same privileged status. Darcy had once seen a guard handcuff a player for making fun of Tyson, and shove him into the back of his shiny black-and-white car.
When the guards turned the corner onto Fifteenth Street, the Tyson actor gave his forehead an exaggerated wipe, then shifted back into character. One of the children stopped running and stood up to Mr. Mainland.
“Wait, Daddy,” he said, “don’t eat us. I have an idea. What if we make a boat and take it over the ocean to where it’s warm outside? Then none of us will have to die.”
“That’s a grand idea,” trilled Tyson, running into the scene. “Let’s tell everyone! And don’t worry, young sir, you’ll get all the credit. I won’t take any of it at all.”
The audience outside laughed, and then the electricity went out. Darcy sat in the folding chair in the waxy orange light of the oil lamp. Even if her mother had taken a dusk dive, she should be home by now. It was 10:45.
The latest Sarah had ever come home was 3 a.m. Darcy had been eight. Before that she had never worried about Sarah. But that night she had looked out onto the Avenida de la Reina and seen it riven with cracks, fissures her mother could slide through that would take her somewhere far away that Darcy could never reach. A bus could run her down, or the man selling solvent on the corner could shoot her with a gun. The two big boys in muscle shirts could kidnap her, the girl gang drinking beer in the alley could beat her up, the guard in his patrol car could arrest her for a made-up crime. Or her bus could explode, or she could drown during a dive, or—most disturbing of all—she could decide to walk away and never come home.
That night Darcy had gotten into their bed and pulled the blanket up around her and cursed all the people she could think of to curse. She cursed her father for dying before she was born and leaving only one person to take care of her, and her grandmother back on the mainland for abandoning her mother and disappearing down some frozen road instead of huddling around her, sag-breasted and wise, like other people’s grandmothers. She cursed the kids at school for thinking she was weird, and the few kids who did play with her for being weird themselves and making her look weirder, and old Dolores Beltran for checking on her and bringing her buñuelos and making her feel like an orphan. And most of all she cursed her mother, for curling against her at night so that without her the bed felt empty, and for making a headdress of parrot feathers or a rock doll or a game with cheese-food cans on Sunday mornings so that Darcy never wanted to leave the apartment, never wanted to make another friend, because who would know her so well, who would pay so much attention to her, who would create a little sealed-off world inside the real world where they were the only people and theirs were the only laws?
That night ten years ago, Sarah had come back apologetic, saying she’d been with some friends. It didn’t make sense to Darcy—her mother didn’t have friends then either—and so Darcy had asked her who they were. Her mother had taken Darcy’s hair in her hands and begun to braid it, but she kept dropping strands and having to start again.
“You know when you don’t see someone for a long time,” she had said, “and then when you do, you have a lot to talk about?”
“No,” Darcy had answered.
“Well, one day you’ll know what I mean, and then you’ll understand why I was gone so long.”
“No I won’t,” Darcy had said, very sure. “Who are you talking about? Why didn’t they come here?”
But Sarah had only crawled into bed with Darcy and fed her arms under Darcy’s armpits so they were like one two-headed, four-armed, four-legged animal, and whispered that Darcy shouldn’t be afraid because it would never happen again. Still Darcy had been afraid all the rest of that night, and the next, and for a long time after, and she was afraid now.
She looked out the window and down the Avenida. She saw a small woman carrying a bag, and her belly fluttered with hope—then the woman turned onto Fifteenth Street, and the hope turned to acid in her throat. She uncovered the pan to look at their dinner—a little weak warmth came floating up. All the smells of the food had mixed up together, so instead of steak and peas and onions, Darcy smelled a metallic, chemical funk. She knew she should eat her half now, while it was still a little warm. But her throat felt stopped up, like she couldn’t put anything down it. The napkins from World Experiences were blood-soaked and useless now, so she got some toilet paper from the bathroom. Then she wrapped everything up into an oozy package and stuffed it in the fridge, closing the door fast so as not to let too much cold out. It would serve her mother right to come home to a dinner that looked like what rich people fed their cats. She hated that she had gotten her pay docked for a mess of lukewarm meat, and although she knew it was stupid, she thought that maybe stealing the steak had somehow made her mother late.
Outside, the player Tyson was rhapsodizing about his plans for the island.
“And everything will run on my wonderful new solvent invention,” he said, “which is totally nontoxic and will under no circumstances leach into the ocean and cause the coastline to collapse.”
Darcy got in bed. The sheets needed washing. They smelled like Sarah’s sweat, a smell so familiar and predictable that it was like a time of day. She nestled in the midnight of her mother’s sweat. If she could fall asleep, Darcy told herself, in the morning her mother would be back. She closed her eyes; the weight of the day pulled the lids tight. She thought of setting the alarm clock and decided her mother would set it when she came in. Setting it would be like willing her mother not to come back.
She turned to face away from the window. A woman’s footsteps rang in the hallway. Darcy lifted her head. They died away; she lowered it again. She was listening to the people clapping for the mainland show, and listening to the hallway for the disturbance of a shoe, and then she was locked in her dream again, the dream where the real Tyson was going to give her a house with a hundred white-walled rooms. He was smiling over her, calm and good-looking, like in the news flyers, and all she had to do was sign the deed, but all that came from her pen were curse words, cocksucker and shiteater and cuntface, and no matter how much Tyson yelled or pleaded or threatened her with prison, her hand wouldn’t even begin to form her own name.
The rain had started. The smell woke Darcy, all the stirred-up dirt and parrot shit, the rancid stink of wet trash, and, beneath everything, the sharp, savory smell of the sea.
“Time to get the bucket,” Darcy said, but no one answered.
She turned. Beside her in the bed was a space for her mother, cool, sweat-smelling, and unused.
The air seemed to change color. Yellow walls of panic slid down between Darcy and the world. The splatter of the rain grew dim and Darcy was in a box, a yellow box with nothing inside it but her and the fact of her mother’s absence. She jumped out of bed and the box followed. She ran down the hallway calling, and the box ran with her, and when Dolores Beltran opened her door and asked if everything was all right, her voice barely penetrated the box.
“Have you seen my mother?” Darcy asked.
Mrs. Beltran’s face was yellow. Her loose Seafiber nightgown was yellow, and her teeth and tongue were yellow when she opened her mouth to say, “Not since yesterday morning. Is everything all right?”
The bathroom doors were yellow and the toilets were yellow like someone had pissed all over them, and Dici Quintero’s penis was yellow when she walked in on him in a stall.
“Don’t you knock?” he yelled at her, but she and the box were tearing down the stairs (yellow), out onto the wet sidewalk (yellow), and down the Avenida to the bus stop, where the bus (always yellow, now a sickening liverish brown like beef tea) was just rumbling into view.
On the number 3 bus Darcy realized how late it was. A man’s yellow watch face peeked out of his jumpsuit sleeve; it read 9:15. Darcy remembered the alarm. She should have been at work three hours ago, and now she was on a bus going in the opposite direction. A calculating part of her brain fought its way through the yellow. The island was maybe six, seven miles thick down here, and she wasn’t halfway across. If she got off now she could make it to World Experiences by 10:30, walking. She’d get a pay cut for sure—she was already on thin ice from yesterday—but then maybe her mother would be home when she got back and everything would be fine. But if Sarah wasn’t back, then she’d have to go looking for her the next day, and every day she couldn’t find her was not just another day of fear, but another without Sarah’s wages and thus another fifty dollars they wouldn’t have for rent. Darcy wondered what it was like to be rich and be afraid. Well-dressed, smooth-skinned Manhattanville mothers must get sick sometimes—did their children just fall back on the strong arms of their wealth, sure that the right amount could solve any problem? And if it couldn’t, if their mothers grew thin and gray and faintly translucent as though edging their way out of the world, did the children sob and run in circles and scratch their legs bloody in terror? Or was it true, as Augusta Beltran had once suggested, that rich people didn’t need feelings?
Darcy didn’t get off the bus as it moved east toward the docks. Her calculating brain told her that she should, that there was no use wasting money until she was sure it was necessary. But her animal brain kept right on roiling—she imagined her mother’s body in her slick diving suit, her lips blue, seaweed woven through her hair. To the animal brain this disappearance was the culmination of an old dread, older even than the night ten years ago when Sarah was so late, as old as the first question that Sarah had refused to answer. The animal brain whispered that Sarah had always had a secret place she was half-inside, and now she had gone all the way. Darcy chewed her fingernails as the bus plowed past the Hollywood sign and the Paramount Flyers building, past the Seaboard Sears Tower with the long fingers of parrot shit down its front, down the Strip, past the climate-controlled baseball stadium that cost a month of Darcy’s wages just to get into, and then out onto the narrow road that ran along the eastern shore.
This was the restricted side—on the western beaches you could sunbathe and buy shaved ice and cut school to lie in the sand and huff solvent if you were lucky enough to still have school to cut. But on the east coast, for some reason that Darcy had never fully understood, the only civilians allowed were pearl divers and refinery workers. A retaining wall ran gray and solid along the edge of the road, crowned with barbed wire. Just beyond the wall, clinging to the beach on its constantly reinforced supports, was the southernmost of the solvent refineries. Even through the shut bus windows, Darcy could smell the hot stench of seaweed being converted into fuel, darker and brinier than that other stench, the one she used to smell back when Solve-head Sammy lived downstairs, of fuel being converted into drugs. Around the refinery, the sea was almost red, the solvent by-products turning salt water into a corrosive industrial blood. At least once a year, her mother said, one of the refinery workers fell in and got the flesh licked clean off his bones.
Strung out along the horizon, past the solvent stain, were the guard boats, their guns pointing east. In the ten years between attacks, the warning sirens had blared a handful of times, but they had always been drills, and people had begun to ignore them. Now the guard boats looked menacing again, and sunbathers on the western beaches would stampede inland at the next siren, trampling their towels and overturning the shaved-ice stands and shoving their elbows in one another’s faces in the fear, and secretly the hope, that this was another real one.
Darcy got off the bus. She walked across the shoulder of the road—spongy seaweed-based asphalt, beginning to liquefy in the rain—to a gate in the seawall, where an old guard with bloodshot eyes looked wearily at her from underneath a gray umbrella.
“Where you headed?” he asked her.
“Persephone Pearls,” she said, and pointed through the chain link of the gate at a squat Seaboard building looking out on a dock. She had never been there before—now she remembered that her mother needed a pass to get in.
“Don’t recognize you,” the guard said. “What’s your business there?”
Darcy thought of saying she was a new diver, but probably he had some sort of ledger he could check, and if he caught her lying he’d never let her in.
“I’m looking for my mom,” she said. Raindrops were collecting on her eyelashes.
“You got a pass?”
“No, but she works here, and she’s missing, and I really need to find her.”
“You got to have a pass.” He took a step to the right and swayed a little—Darcy realized he might be high. She felt frustration whirring inside her like insects beneath her skin.
“How do I get one?” she asked.
“You got to request an application by mail. Then you fill it out, then they consider it for four to six weeks or so. Then they let you know.”
“I don’t have time for that. Isn’t there a quicker way?”
The guard rubbed his eyes, then looked over his shoulder and held out his right hand. Darcy checked the pockets of her jumpsuit. All she found was five dollars, just enough for the bus ride home. If she gave it up she’d have to walk all the way back, and it would take her at least three hours. Still, she didn’t know what else to do, so she offered him the money. The guard looked at her like she’d made an especially stupid joke. He pointed to her neck.
“What about that?” he asked.
Her hand went up reflexively to clutch the necklace. She hadn’t thought about her attachment to it before—she hadn’t known her grandmother, and her mother hadn’t presented it to her as anything with any value. In fact she couldn’t remember her mother saying anything about it, after the initial explanation. Her own feelings for it were nonverbal—she had a visceral desire not to give it up.
“I can get more money for you later,” she said, “if you let me in now.”
The guard didn’t even bother to respond—he just raised an eyebrow to show he wasn’t buying it.
Darcy held the charm in her hand. She resisted the urge to suck on it. What was she afraid of? She would find her mother soon, and they would laugh about it—her hesitation over something so silly. She unclasped the necklace and handed it to the guard—his fingers were clammy as they brushed along hers. He undid the rusty latch, and the gate swung open with a sound like crying.
The path to the building was made of ground-up mainland trash, leftovers from the landfill project that had built out the coastline when the first-boaters came. The pieces were timeworn and rain-winnowed, and they shifted under her feet like pebbles in a stream. Here and there she saw a red or bright blue flash, bits of pigment left over from a time when no one had yet imagined this place, this road.
The Persephone Pearls office was silent except for the breathing of a single woman sitting at a desk. On the wall hung a chart with names and tally marks—the number of pearls found that week maybe, or that month. Her mother had the most tally marks of anyone. Next to the chart was a window that looked out at the ocher sea. The patrol boats sat on the horizon, their outlines furred by the rain.
“I’m looking for Sarah Pern,” Darcy said.
The woman didn’t look at Darcy. She was staring at a map. Her desk also held a slide rule, a pencil, and a drawing of a broad-faced child. The woman made a mark on the map with the pencil. Then she looked up for a second.
“Sorry?” she said.
“I’m looking for Sarah Pern.” Darcy started to explain why, but she felt tears roughening up her throat. “Did she come to work yesterday?”
The woman looked down at the map again. It showed the eastern coast, with a big orange area drawn around it—solvent contamination. The woman made another mark just outside this area.
“Excuse me,” Darcy said.
“Just a minute,” the woman answered. She stared at the orange area until Darcy couldn’t believe she was still staring, until she felt like she had fallen down a hole in time at the bottom of which was this woman, ignoring her forever. Then she lifted the map, looked at a list underneath it, and said, “She was here yesterday.”
She put the map back down, erased the second mark and made a new one slightly to the left.
“Do you know if her dives went okay?”
Panic poured from the edges of Darcy’s brain into the center again.
“What happened?” she asked.
“No, I don’t know if her dives went okay. I don’t have that information available.”
Darcy’s hands were shaking. She felt the tears building behind her eyes.
“Well, could you check? It’s important.”
The woman was writing on the map again. Darcy wanted to hurt her. She wanted to open her lips and yank words out of her throat, like pieces of lodged food.
“Please?” she said.
“I don’t have that information available.”
A membrane broke inside Darcy and she began to sob. Her breath was shaking up through her throat and her eyes were running and the inside of her nose was getting wet. In school she had seen other girls cry and get what they wanted—a passing grade in the class, a citation for solvent huffing reluctantly torn up. They must have known some secret, some way to make sympathy where none existed before. This woman should want to help her, Darcy thought. She had to.
“Please,” Darcy said again. “My mom is missing. I don’t know where she is.”
“Look,” the woman said. “I have to code a hundred of these pearl maps every day, and if I’m even one short I get fired. I don’t have time to talk to you, or anyone. Other people have problems too, okay?”
Darcy didn’t move. She looked at the drawing of the child and knew that the woman probably had to work hard to feed him, but she didn’t have any room to sympathize with anyone else. After she had stood in one spot crying long enough that she began to choke, the woman’s face softened.
“Go ask the divers,” she said. “They might know something.”
Darcy walked out onto the dock. The Seaboard was soggy with rainwater and gave a little under her feet; she left half-inch-deep prints on the boards behind her. Four cleats, made of rusted salvage metal, poked out of the dock surface. On both sides of the dock lapped the burnt-orange, sour-smelling sea. About fifty feet out, where the waves turned blue and safe again, a little diving dinghy was anchored. A spotter in a yellow rain hat and slicker was crouching in the prow. Darcy waved at her, and she seemed to shade her eyes and look at Darcy through the rain, but then she turned away and the dinghy didn’t move. Darcy shouted, and waved some more, and her shouts grew ragged and panicky, but the spotter showed her the back of her rain hat, and didn’t budge.
Darcy sat down on the dock. Rain sluiced over the bridge of her nose and pooled in her lap. Her jumpsuit was completely waterlogged. Darcy wondered what it felt like when her mother wore her wet suit. Did it feel clammy like this? Or was it like being invincible, like walking through fire without getting burned? Was she wearing her wet suit now?
Then something moved close to the horizon, something at first like a bug crawling on the sea, and then like a mouse, and then fast and gray and oblong: another boat. It slowed as it passed the dinghy, and the man at the wheel seemed to speak with the spotter. Then it sped up again, and cut through the rain-pocked water, and pulled up to the dock in the middle of a phlegmy wake. It was a good boat, with a steering wheel and a Seaboard roof over the front. The man wore a green Seaguard’s uniform. He was young, pale and pink-lipped. Darcy called out to him before he cut the motor, and she had to call again to make herself heard.
“Yeah, I know Sarah,” he said. “She’s practically the only diver who’s ever nice to me.”
He stepped out onto the dock and opened a green Seafiber umbrella over the two of them. Darcy felt the reprieve from rain like taking off an uncomfortable shirt.
“Did you see her yesterday?”
“Yesterday?” he said. “God, I can’t remember. The last couple of days have been so crazy.”
He gave her a petulant look.
“The attack,” he said, “obviously.”
“That is so typical,” he said. “The one time—the one time—I actually do something, people just forget right away. You know what the divers call us? Fish-watchers! It’s not even funny. It doesn’t even make sense. They’re the ones who are down there looking at fish. I’m trying to protect the island, and when I finally get a chance to show how totally necessary and important that is, people ignore it. Sarah’s the only one who cares. Where is she, anyway? They said she’s not diving today.”
She was so happy to find someone who actually cared about her mother that she could overlook his whining, his insistence that people take him seriously for a job he did once every ten years. The Seaguards got paid more than any of the other guards—more even than the members of the personal force that guarded the wall between Tyson’s headquarters and the north edge of Manhattanville.
“Actually, I’m trying to find her. She’s my mom. Can you try to remember if you saw her yesterday?”
“Let’s see,” he said. “Usually I say hi to her when I’m done with my shift, around now, but when the attack happened, I didn’t see anyone until almost dark, and all the divers were waiting for us on the dock—at least this one time they actually congratulated us, but you could tell they didn’t like it. They were pissed that we were actually heroes. There was July, and Elena, and Lisbet, and the new one, Icestorm or something, I forget, and Sarah was there, she was asking me questions like always, she wanted to know what it was like. And I told her it was just like they said it would be in training, everything was just like that. Except the boat was maybe a little smaller than in the drawings. But it just came out of nowhere, going really fast. Or pretty fast anyway. The Japs probably wanted to surprise us by coming around and attacking the east side. But we were ready—before they even got a shot off it was ‘Fire main torpedo, fire secondary torpedo, fire cluster bomb,’ and they were gone. Nothing but scrap metal. It’ll be another ten years before they try that again.”
He paused for a moment, considering.
“Except you can never be sure, obviously. They could come again tomorrow, we don’t know.”
“Wait,” Darcy said, “but that was two days ago. Did you see Sarah yesterday?”
“I’m getting to that,” he said. “Ordinarily I come in at eight a.m., but yesterday we had a debriefing in the morning and I came in at ten a.m., and July and Elena ignored me as usual, like I didn’t just save their asses the day before, and then, yeah, Sarah said hi to me as I was heading out, nothing big, but you could tell she was grateful.”
“Did she say anything else?” Darcy asked. “Did she mention going anywhere?”
He put his hand to his chin, childlike.
“Nothing like that,” he said, “but she did seem nervous. Or more like really energetic, like she was extra excited to be at work that day.”
“Thanks,” Darcy said. “If you think of anything else, will you send me a letter?”
“Sure,” the guard said. “I hope she comes back soon. You should ask the land guards about her. They’re not as smart as us, but they still might help you.”
“You mean like the guy at the gate?” Darcy asked.
“No, that guy’s a solve-head. Go to the Eighteenth and Avenida station. Some of the guys there are halfway decent.”
He turned to walk down the dock.
“Wait,” Darcy said, “do you have something to write down my address?”
“Don’t worry,” the guard said, “we have everyone’s address. I can just look you up.”
The guard station at Eighteenth and Avenida was next to a taco stand. Every time the wind changed, the gamy, artificial smell of imitation goat washed over the people squatting in the packed waiting room, and the women waved their hands in front of their faces and the children pinched their noses and the men looked out the little windows at the rushing late-afternoon street. Every few minutes someone new came in—occasionally a convict with plastic handcuffs and a guard at his back, but more often a visitor or supplicant like Darcy, face shivering with brittle hope, shoulders squared into a shape of long waiting. The line made space for each arrival—men scooted closer to one another along the mousegray Seaboard wall, women offered GreenValley Picante Snacks from yellow bags, children adjusted their play to the new shape of the crowd. Over and around Darcy ran the intertwining skeins of group conversation, a long braided murmur of worry. The walls of the room were covered with fresh Seafiber flyers explaining protocols for future attacks—evacuate the beaches, head for designated inland safe houses—but no one seemed to be talking about them. Most of these people were here about a son or daughter or sister or brother who had gotten into trouble, some young person stuck to the flypaper of the criminal justice system. Darcy had snorted solvent and stolen razor blades like any Little Los Angeles teenager, and she had even worked for a dealer for a little while, but she’d never been arrested. Once you were, even if they released you, you were never really out. You’d never get a legit job again, and the guards would haul you in every time anything bad happened in your neighborhood, whether you’d done anything or not.
A man in a blue land-guard uniform came down the line and all the people stopped their conversations and put on their official faces. He passed over an old lady with a small child, a man chewing seaweed tobacco, and a boy no older than twelve who began shouting about his sister. Then he motioned to Darcy to follow and she walked out of the waiting room. A collective grumble of injustice filled the space where she had been. The guard was young and broad and tall, with a smooth open face and wide hands. Darcy followed him down a narrow hallway with lots of doors. She heard a yelp like an animal being kicked. Then they went down a set of stairs, and another set of stairs, and the guard led her into a private room. He handed her a box of soft Seafiber tissues.
“Would you like coffee or anything?” he asked her.
He had a posh accent, second-boat lilt mixed with sharp Manhattanville consonants. Darcy imagined his family’s nice apartment, the antique photos on the walls, the separate beds for everyone. The kids Darcy went to school with all said the guards were useless, preppy not-quite-rich kids who just wanted to bust you for solvent or keep you from hanging out in the nice neighborhoods. But she liked this man’s easy calm. Someone with nothing will never help someone else with nothing, but he had money and power and information and security—surely he could spare some of that for her.
“No thanks,” she said. “I just want to find out about my mom. Her name is Sarah Pern. Has anyone seen her?”
“I’m going to find that out for you,” he said. “First we’ll take your statement, then we’ll cross-reference it with all the reports we’ve gotten since she went missing. We should have some information for you very soon.”
He pulled out a folding chair for her at a little rickety table. The walls were lined with bookcases full of bound records. One small high window let in the view of the rain.
“Thanks,” she said. “Nobody’s really been able to help me.”
“That’s what we’re here for.” He smiled. He had nice, white teeth. “Now, can you tell me when your mother went missing?”
“She didn’t come home last night. I woke up this morning and she wasn’t there.”
“And did she say anything? Anywhere she might’ve been going?”
“Nowhere,” Darcy said. “Where would she go?”
He nodded seriously and wrote something down on a pad.
“Had she been behaving unusually lately? Any signs of depression?”
“What do you mean?” Darcy said. The yellow walls came down again. She had not noticed that they were gone. “Do you mean do I think she killed herself? She didn’t kill herself.”
“Of course not.”
He shifted his chair closer to her and spoke in a lower voice.
“It’s just important for us to know about any mood changes. It will help the investigation.”
The yellow faded slightly. Darcy wondered if she would know if her mother was depressed. Sometimes she saw flyers at the bus stop, in English and Spanish, with a drawing of a sad woman in bluish ink, and a number you could call. But often the flyers had rude things scrawled on them, and Darcy didn’t know anyone who had called the number. The only people she knew who even used the word “depressed” were the nurses at World Experiences, referring to the patients who stared at the wall all day—to earn the word, you had to be able to afford someone to look after you.
She did know people who had killed themselves—DJ Lopez had jumped out the window of his family’s apartment building in eighth grade, while high on solvent, and Joelle Thompson, who had come to school with bruises all up and down her neck and face every week after she turned thirteen, had slit her wrists the following year. But Sarah didn’t do solvent, and nobody was hitting her. And if the life seemed to leave her eyes sometimes and go somewhere Darcy couldn’t reach, it always came back again.
“She seemed fine to me,” Darcy said.
He wrote on the pad.
“Did anything unusual happen in the days before her disappearance?”
“Well, there was the attack I guess. And a woman came over,” Darcy said. “I’d never seen her before.”
The guard wrote several lines.
“That’s very interesting,” he said. “That will be very helpful. Now, the most important thing you can do is be calm. When something like this happens, people often feel very isolated, very alone. But we are here to help you. Just leave everything to us.”
Darcy was confused. Why wasn’t he asking her more about the woman? She wanted to spend hours here, telling him everything about her mother. She wanted to give him so much information that he couldn’t help but find her.
“The woman had a round face,” Darcy went on. “It looked kind of puffy. Her hands shook.”
“Sure,” the guard said, “just leave everything to us.”
He was smiling, and past his shoulder Darcy saw a pair of shoes pass by the window; it must be just above the level of the street. Someone would have to lie down on the sidewalk to look in. The guard scooted closer to her and began rubbing her back with one of his large hands. Darcy looked at the pad in front of him and saw that it was full of doodles and squiggles, no writing at all. The yellow walls came down hard and she heard a ringing in her ears. He leaned over and began to kiss her. His mouth was smooth. His breath tasted like mint powder. He was trying to put his tongue between her lips. Her thoughts split apart and began to run along parallel tracks. One track wanted to push him away, wanted no one and nothing to touch her until she found her mother, and especially not this man, who should be helping her, who should not be invading the salty private space of her mouth with his slick mint tongue like a bar of soap.
The other track told her to kiss him back, because maybe if she gave him what he wanted, if she made herself soft and sweet for him, instead of a hard thin arrow pointed at her mother, then he would write real words down on his pad for her. Probably he had picked her out of the crowd because he liked her looks, and maybe he would pick her problem out of the great roiling swill of convictions and assaults and disappearances and deaths that poured through his station every day.
Then he put his hand on her left breast, and the second track snapped, and she ran along the first track all the way out of the guard station and onto the soggy street.
It was almost five by the time Darcy got back to her building. She was soaked and exhausted and her panic had turned into a hard heavy thing, like a tumor hanging in her guts. Jorge, the superintendent, was in the entryway, mopping up the asphalt that had melted in the rain and oozed through the front door. Every couple of months the news flyers claimed that a new type of asphalt was on the way, one made of some nonseaweed substance and impervious to rain, but no trucks ever came to lay it, and the street still turned to soup every time the monsoons came.
“Hey,” he greeted her. “Crazy about the Hawaiians, right? You think they’ll come back?”
Darcy gave a depleted shrug.
“I have no idea,” she said. “You haven’t seen my mom, have you?”
He shook his head. “Maybe she’s visiting someone?”
Darcy sat on the stairs and put her head in her hands. Even though Jorge took money from her every month, more if it wasn’t on time, she liked him. He worked for the management company and lived in a medium-sized apartment on the first floor. He didn’t have kids, or a solvent habit, or any of the other things that made people so hungry for money they were willing to sell one another out to get it. He had his job, and she knew he would evict her if he had to, but there was none of the crazy desperate scraping between them that she heard about from Trish, whose landlord kept raising her rent to pay for her daughter’s glaucoma treatments.
“She’s not visiting someone. I went to the docks, I went to the guards. I don’t know what else to do.”
“She’ll probably come back on her own,” he said. “I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Get some rest, maybe have a beer.”
She couldn’t imagine rest. At some point in the future she knew she’d sleep, but her sleep would be only a break between fear and anxiety, probably filled with fever dreams.
“I can’t,” she said. “How would you find someone, Jorge?”
He put the mop down and sat beside her on the step. He smelled like the disinfectant he used when somebody vomited in the hallway.
“I’d wait,” he said, “and see if they came back.”
“What if you couldn’t wait?”
“I don’t know.”
They were silent for a moment. Dolores Beltran came in wearing her heavy rubber raincoat and carrying a bag of canned vegetables from the big GreenValley store on the Chicagoland border. Darcy avoided her eyes. The more people she told about her mother, the more her absence seemed to multiply, until there were five, ten, twenty versions of Sarah, all of them gone.
“This isn’t really the same thing,” Jorge said. “But my cousin’s son got shot once. He was paralyzed from the waist down. The guards didn’t do anything because it was gang on gang. So my cousin went to this guy, some kind of fixer or something, and he found out who shot her son.”
“Who was the fixer?” Darcy asked.
“He had a weird name. Ansel. Ansel Martinez or Rodriguez or something. When she knew him he worked at the Big Top.”
“And what happened with her son?”
Jorge stood up and began mopping again. The asphalt was drying on the entryway floor, making a blackish-green stain in the shape of a hammer.
“Oh, he’s all right. Still paralyzed. I think he hands out flyers or something. My cousin found the guy who shot him and she went to his house. I told her not to go. She said she just wanted an apology. But I think she must have threatened him. She washed up a couple weeks later on the unrestricted beach.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I didn’t really know her that well. But that’s why I say, just wait. Your mom will probably come back on her own.”
As she opened the door to the apartment, Darcy let herself hope that her mother would look up at her, from the bed or from a perch on the windowsill, laughing, saying, “Have I got a story for you.” The blanket was lumped up on the bed, and she rushed toward it, but when she laid her hand on empty cloth instead of her mother’s skinny hip, she remembered that she and she alone had left it that way, and knew that if she slept at all tonight, she would sleep by herself beneath it. Her stomach gnawed, and so she opened the refrigerator. The steak smelled the way meat smells just before it starts to turn. She sat on the floor and ate it with her fingers, untasting, like a starving animal or a person without a brain.
Excerpted from America Pacifica by North, Anna Copyright © 2011 by North, Anna. Excerpted by permission.
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