Even inside the bookstore, we can smell the fires. Yesterday morning at 7:30, I saw three firemen in the fire station on the boulevard, sitting on a red GMC 3500 EMS truck, watching a Calliope television on the wall. Sixty-one meters down the street, smoke was coming from the front windows of a little white and blue house. This is normal now.
That afternoon, Sara and I walked the four hundred eighty-five steps down to the little grocery store, which was still open. We pulled down our baseball caps when we passed under the big Calliope screen on the roof, which has video surveillance in it. I feel it, probing, looking, but it mostly doesn’t bother me now, unless I get too close. Sara holds her hands over her ears. This is normal now.
“…incidents of vandalism have decreased markedly, according to reports from across the country. The President, seen here at a Rose Garden press conference, announced today that he intends to lift the state of emergency as soon as next week.”
It is not the real President, it isn’t real news, it’s only pixels on the screen.
At the corner, a policemen was watching Calliope television on a little screen in his black and white Ford Pursuit–“and eating doughnuts, I bet,” Sara said—while two black-uniformed Calliope Guardians stood guard in front of a darkened big screen. Five people stood on the sidewalk, looking up at it.
“They’re watching it, but there’s nothing on,” I said.
“They don’t care,” Sara said.
There was no one in the store, and almost nothing on the shelves. We found two overripe apples and a squished package of bread. I wanted to leave some money, but Sara looked at me with her right eyebrow raised, which by now I know means I’m acting stupid or crazy. We went back to the bookstore.
A woman in a yellow tee-shirt was sitting on one of the raggedy easy chairs, looking at a picture book. Sometimes there are lots of people, filling the store. They don’t read the books very much, they just talk to one another. Like me and like everyone, they are trying to remember who they are, who they used to be. This is also normal now.
It was getting dark, so Sara lit candles and the one lantern we have, because the electricity goes off a lot. The woman left, and we each ate one apple and I had two slices of bread. Then Sara locked the doors and fell asleep on the couch. I laid down on the cot. I dreamt of flying things, and a woman’s voice that sounded like my mom used to. “It’s time to come home.”
This morning I heard an engine noise, and I peeled back the newspapers that covered the front window to look. There was a white van with the Calliope logo on it across the street. I woke Sara and we went out the back door and down the alley.
We walk on the dirt middle section of the boulevard where the trolley tracks used to be. It’s twelve blocks, which is three thousand four hundred eighty-seven steps away from the bookstore. The red brick library, which I used to go to, is closed. The broken glass front doors have plywood on them, where someone has spray-painted, “Help Us.” Above the doors is a giant Calliope video screen, ten meters tall, eighteen meters wide. I pull down my blue baseball cap with the New York Yankees logo and look down at the cracked sidewalk because there are cameras in the monitors; Sophie is looking for me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the giant screen.
“The Melonian army is four parsecs away, and traveling at twice light.”
“That doesn’t give us much time, Jim. We’ve got to move the fleet now.”
“But Ralora has the plans for the infinity column. We’ve got to find her!”
“The column’s no use to us if we’re dead. If we don’t go to light speed in the next ten minutes, we’re scattered all over hyper-space.”
Fifteen people stare up, gape-jawed, watching. If I pay attention, the images dissolve into colored lines and shapes coming at me, washing over me, trying to make me forget. I look away.
I hear a squeal of tires on asphalt. A man crossing the boulevard, wearing Calliope VR Specs, being entertained, is hit by a silver Ford Mustang. He flies through the air in a fifteen-meter arc and comes down on the hood of a rusting metallic blue Kia Sportage, sitting on its axles at the curb. The man’s body smashes into the windshield. The Mustang that hit him continues on. Blood the color of the red arrows from the screen runs down the side of the Kia and onto the street. Three people turn to look, then continue watching the TV. It was just another movie.
A gray-haired man, wrapped in a dirty gray blanket, walks toward us, playing a sad tune on a soprano saxophone hanging from a colored strap around his neck. A young blonde man turns away from the screen and looks, frowning. He puts his finger to his lips and makes a shushing sound. The old man ignores him, walking closer. Other people turn away from their dreams and look. “Quiet!” someone says. The old man stops playing, picks up a piece of asphalt and hurls it at the screen. The asphalt bounces off, leaving a square of dark black pixels in a bottom corner of the screen. People yell, dodging the rock as it falls to the ground. The old man stands in front of the screen and begins to play his sad tune.
The movie stops. A kind of sigh comes from the watchers. A card appears on the screen: ATTENTION. A woman’s voice says: “Attention. Public safety violation. Public safety violation. Stay where you are. Remain calm.” I know that voice. Sophie. She is in my dreams.
We walk away.
A white van screeches to a stop at the curb. Two guys wearing black jump suits get out, grab the old man, take the saxophone from him and throw it on the street. They toss him in the back. The van drives off. Another white van pulls up and two men jump out, holding shiny black devices with antennas. They are looking for me.
I am trying to remember who I am. I am Alex. I am Alex.
* * *
It’s four hundred sixty-two steps from the corner of Overland to the front entrance of Mason Middle School, then forty-four steps to the entrance. Across Woodbine street, a five meter by three meter Calliope big screen television was up on a pole. It was installed ten days ago, so I had made it normal, but I cross the street, which adds seventy-six steps. I saw two women, two men and a little boy, watching.
“…Today, the CEO of Calliope, William Locke, announced a breakthrough in his company’s efforts to revolutionize our educational system.”
A dark-haired man with glasses was on the screen. He was wearing shorts, suspenders, flip-flops and a tee-shirt with the words ‘Will code for beer’ printed on it. When I close my eyes, I see a swarm of tiny glowing things flying out of the screen, like the fruit flies that always find the bananas in our kitchen, even if we keep the doors and windows closed. The dark-haired man was pointing to a screen, and a woman’s voice was saying:
“In the past few months, Calliope has transformed the entertainment industry. The world’s most powerful super-computer, which we’ve named Sophie, can create major motion pictures in less than an hour, and an entire season of television in hours. A symphony in minutes. A popular song in milliseconds. Don’t like what you’re watching or hearing? Sophie will respond to create brand-new entertainment that’s just what YOU want!
“Now, we are about to transform the way our children learn. With the introduction of the Calliope Education Initiative…”
I walked toward Mason Middle School.
As I opened the glass doors with yellow wood frames, the voice from the screen was drowned out by the hundred voices of kids walking, talking, yelling, in the brown vinyl floored entrance. This was normal, but the noise makes me feel all squished up inside.
As I stood in the entryway, I heard someone behind me. I knew it was Emilio. I turned around. “Hey, Alex.”
“My mom got me Undead. You wanna come over and play after?”
“Sure. You know I’m gonna pwn you again.”
Emilio laughed. “Not this time. I’ve been practicing.” He has brown curly hair and brown eyes and brown skin, and he smiles a lot. Emilio is my friend. He lives two and one-half blocks away from me. We’re both in Mr. Bates’ first period Special Needs class in the Resource Room. Emilio calls us the Weks, which means weird kids.
The bell rang at 9:13 AM, and kids began running down the hall to their classes. I started walking to the main hall when Emilio touched my shoulder. I knew why he did it. I stopped. “Let’s wait,” he said.
A minute and ten seconds later, the hallway was quiet. Emilio went ahead, and looked around the corner. He waved his hand, which means “come on.”
We walked down the white hallway, staying close to the wall of lockers. We almost made it to the Resource Room when Chuck Schwartz, who is my enemy, stepped out of the stairwell. Emilio moved behind me. Chuck Schwartz was smiling, but I have seen that smile before. He wore a black tee-shirt with no sleeves, and he has a gap between his front teeth.
“Hey, Ass-burger!” he said. He walked down the hall toward us, his black boots thumping on the floor. Chuck Schwartz rammed his shoulder into me and smashed me sideways into the lockers. “Watch where you’re going, Ass-burger.” This was normal.
“I always watch where I’m going,” I said, which was stupid. Chuck Schwartz put his hand on my chest and shoved me against the lockers. Emilio was backing away, but Chuck Schwartz reached out with his left arm and grabbed him by his shirt. “No way, retard.”
We stood there for seven seconds. Chuck Schwartz was staring at me, and I looked down at the floor, which is what I usually do. Then I heard a deep gravelly voice: “What are you doing?” Mr. Crumley, an older man who volunteers in the library, walked up behind Chuck Schwartz. He has a little white beard, always wears a green tweed sport coat and a white shirt buttoned up to his neck. He put his hand on Chuck Schwartz’s shoulder, and Chuck Schwartz let go of us fast.
“Just having a conversation, dude.”
“Go. Now. Dude.” Mr. Crumley said. Chuck Schwartz headed down the hallway. He turned back and did that thing with his index and middle finger, pointing at his eyes, then at me and Emilio.
“Need a ride today?” Mr. Crumley asked. I looked down and shook my head, although I really like Mr. Crumley’s 1955 red and white Chevrolet Bel-Air. Mom had asked him to bring me home a few times when she had to work late at the hospital, where she’s an RN.
“Thank you, sir,” Emilio said. Mr. Crumley nodded. “Are you all right, Alex?” he asked. I shrugged, which is my default answer. Mr. Crumley turned and walked down the hall. “You’re late for class,” he said over his shoulder.
A black big screen monitor was attached to the green wall in the Resource Room. This was not normal. Mr. Bates, who always wore a white short-sleeved shirt and a bow tie, was behind his desk, standing next to a blonde woman in a black suit was standing in a corner, holding a tablet computer.
The three other special kids were already there: Bobby was turning his head from side to side, going “Woo, woo, woo.” Fat Carlos had his head on his desk. The new girl, Sara, who has red hair, freckles, and green eyes, was playing a game on her phone. She had transferred from another school in the middle of the semester. She looked at me and nodded. “Hey, Rinato,” she said. I stood at the door until Mr. Bates motioned to me to sit down. Emilio went to his regular seat behind me.
Mr. Bates adjusted his glasses and turned to us. “Sara, put your phone away. Everyone, settle down, settle down.”
We mostly settled down. Mr. Bates pointed to the monitor. “We’ve got something special today, class. The Calliope people have come up with a brand new curriculum, just for us.” He nodded to the blonde woman. She stepped to the front of the class. “Hi. I’m Lucinda Clark, and I’m in charge of new technologies at Calliope. Watch this short video, and we’ll talk about your experiences afterward.” She pointed a remote control at the big screen. The man I had just seen on the big screen on Woodbine came on, but now he was wearing long khaki pants and a blue shirt.
“My name is William Locke. You’ve probably seen me on TV,” he chuckled. The blonde and Mr. Bates laughed, but no one else did. “When I was growing up, I had learning problems, behavior problems in school, like some of you. I wish I could have had the program we’re about to show you.” He smiled. “All right, let’s give it a look.”
A logo of a yellow sun held in bright blue hands, and the word ‘Calliope’ appeared on the screen. My hands started flapping on my legs. I heard a woman’s voice: “Welcome to Calliope Education! We know that these years of rapid changes in your growing minds and bodies can be challenging and even a little scary at times. This program is designed to help you meet these challenges.”
The room disappeared and all I could see were the swarms of fruit fly dots, spinning like a whirlpool, stretching from the screen, coming at me. My head started to hurt. I closed my eyes and covered my ears with my hands, but I could still see them in my head. I tried to push them away.
I heard a crash and opened my eyes. Fat Carlos was on the floor. Emilio’s head was back, eyes staring at the ceiling, his mouth open. He was drooling. Bobby was banging his head on his desk, shouting “Woo! Woo! Woo!” Sara was squinting and holding her ears. Mr. Bates was waving his hands in the air, like one of those inflatable things they have in front of stores.
Fat Carlos got up off the floor, then ran out the door, screaming, “Bad! Bad!” My legs started bouncing up and down, my hands flapping. The picture on the screen was a fountain of red and black, filling the room and filling my head, pushing everything else out. My name is Alex. My name is Alex. I pushed back, there was a loud crash, and everything went away.
I opened my eyes and found I was lying on the floor. Sara was kneeling beside me, holding her head. “Ow! Ow!”
The day before my dad left for Afghanistan, we went to a seafood restaurant on the coast highway. I had a hamburger. When we left the restaurant, the fog had come in, making halos around the lights. I watched out the rear window of our Volvo as we drove away. The lights grew dimmer and dimmer, then disappeared.
Now I remembered something red and black, and then it faded into gray. I had a headache. I sat up and saw that the monitor had shattered. Pieces of the screen’s black glass covered the floor. The blonde woman was looking at her tablet, and then she looked at me.
* * *