by Abby Goldsmith
Abby Goldsmith is a video editor in Austin, formerly a video-game animator in Los Angeles, originally from New Hampshire. Her SF/F short stories and articles are published in Escape Pod, Fantasy Magazine, and anthologies such as Suddenly Lost in Words and Futuristica (forthcoming). As an animator and game content writer, Abby is credited on more than a dozen Nintendo games for Nickelodeon and Disney. As an author, she’s an alumni of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the Superstars Writing Seminar. Visit AbbyGoldsmith.com or follow @Abbyland to inquire about her YouTube show for authors, or her forthcoming series of space opera novels.
That’s what Dad used to tell me, every time I complained about something. “You don’t know how lucky you are, Orga,” he’d say, blowing smoke through his mustache, most of his attention on the evening stock reports. “You live in luxury that most teenage girls in the new America can’t imagine.”
Now he lies face-down, staining his executive carpet with blood. I’m trying hard not to think about how his face must look. Hands that once held mine are dead and growing cold.
Across the room, a little boy is also dead, draped over the executive desk. The assault rifle he used to kill Dad is on the floor at his feet. There’s a dead man in the doorway. I don’t recognize him, but his threadbare clothes tell me that he was a post-American, like the boy.
I could have stopped them.
I didn’t, because the post-Americans just want normal lives. That’s something Dad never understood. He never saw how lonely I was. I had plenty of fake friends at the academy; girls who bragged in the same elitist tones used by their mothers. But I couldn’t trust a single one of them with a secret. Even now, with everyone dead, my life hasn’t changed much. I’m still alone.
If anyone could hear my thoughts, they’d think I sound like a typical petulant, spoiled rich girl. Poor little princess. She has the nerve to complain! But I’m just stating facts in my head, safe where no one can hear. I’m used to being alone, listening to imagined conversations while I drift through silent halls and spiraling flights of stairs. I like to imagine that people in some alternate realm of existence can hear my thoughts and react to them, watching my life the way I’d watch a show. Sometimes I hear them whispering to each other over popcorn.
It’s a silly fantasy. But if it were true, it would mean that I’m not quite so alone. It would give my life some meaning. . . .
That’s why I did it. That’s the reason. I wanted to do something that matters to other people.
As I stand, my sneakers soaked in blood, I see how perfect this scene feels. I wear a designer jeans and a silk shirt, the modern equivalent of princess regalia. Americans are supposed to scorn royalty. Our Founding Fathers came here to escape royalty. Dad scorned royalty, of course. He was a true American. But my nanny used to read me stories about princesses, and they were always kind. A real princess would pull out jewels from her royal coffers to feed the hungry.
Our house has twenty-five rooms. No pets, because pets might mess up the furniture, and pets are an extravagance that we really shouldn’t indulge in. Not with America the way it is now. Dad used to say that most of the poor saps outside would rather eat a dog than train it.
My footsteps squelch on the carpet. I step over the corpse in the doorway.
Two more corpses block the stairs. I recognize one as Kelly, sprawled with her shoulder pressed against the wrought-iron railing, bullet wounds in her back. She blessed me for bringing food to her children. She said, “God has a place in heaven for you, Orga. You’re an angel.”
I wonder who shot her. The Neighborhood Watch? Some hotshots from Homeland Security? They tore through the mansion at the same time.
Here is my favorite hallway, the one with tinted glass strips through which the swimming pool is faintly visible. I rarely swam in our pool. It’s too quiet, too empty. For exercise, I jogged on the elevated sidewalks of our neighborhood, above emerald-green lawns.
I met Nathan on one of those jogs.
If he’d been an adult, I would have swerved away from him and none of this would have happened. He looked like a mongrel dog amid the palatial houses of Alexandria Summit. Streetlamps glowed between the hedges, blinking on as dusk approached, but the grimy little kid avoided light. He slunk beneath the walkway.
This boy was the first post-American I’d seen in real life, outside of a newscast. I pretended not to see him.
“Hey.” The boy remained in the shadows beneath a stretch of walkway. “Are you Tiffy?”
I kept jogging.
The boy followed, darting between manicured hedges. I think my youth invited him just as his invited me. I have a round face, and even sophisticated make-up can’t make me look older than my seventeen years.
“Tiffy lives near here,” he said from the darkness. “She’s around your age. Curly hair.”
He was puffing, out of breath. Most refugees are malnourished. It’s especially evident in children born after the Crash of 2059. Some of them have the distended bellies and skeletal limbs of starvation. This little boy looked relatively healthy, but it was hard to tell under all the grime.
“Her house is shaped like a T,” he continued. “It’s Japanese looking.”
I realized that this boy was describing the Tenerife mansion. They lived down the street.
“Do you mean their maid?” I asked. “She was fired like a month ago.”
The boy leaned over to catch his breath, hands on his bony knees. He looked ill.
I stopped and pretended to enjoy the sunset, because I was curious. The boy must be desperate or crazy to sneak so far up the Summit. The borders of our neighborhood are patrolled by the Neighborhood Watch and guard dogs.
“Are you going to call the Watch on me?” he asked.
The boy backed away, afraid. I had the impression that he was desperate for someone to trust, and I’d crushed his hopes. I didn’t like feeling that way, so I offered, “I won’t call the Watch. If you’d like, I’ll take you to the Tenerife house.”
He hesitated, and seemed to weigh life or death options in his mind. Finally he nodded.
We walked to the Tenerife mansion in the dark. Paper lanterns glowed in its yard. I asked the boy if he wanted to buzz their doorbell, and he shook his head.
“What’s your name?” I asked, mostly because I’m trained to be polite and initiate introductions.
“After the princess in Moonstone.” When the boy looked confused, I said, “It’s a movie. Never mind. What’s your plan now?”
It was just something to say that was socially acceptable. I expected a casual reply.
Nathan bit his lower lip and shook his head. His eyes, a clear green, became wet, and he blinked miserably.
I couldn’t have turned my back. I’d never faced so much desperation in one kid. Rich kids have problems, but our problems can usually be tolerated or fixed. Usually.
“I’ll take you to my house,” I told Nathan. “And I won’t call the Neighborhood Watch.”
“Yes. But I want to know why you came here.”
We walked uphill, sticking to the shadows beneath the walkways so no one would ask me what I was doing with a refugee child. Nathan told me that as far as he knew, his parents lived in a cellar along with sixty other refugees. His father was not content to sit around and wait for America to recover from the economic crash; he’d joined the movement of post-Americans fleeing the country.
Those who can afford to leave don’t need to. Nathan’s parents stole credit through a network of black hats. They used the stolen credit to buy future passage on a cargo ship bound for Asia. To avoid prison, they waited for deliverance in the Tenerife’s cellar, aided by the maid, who was part of an underground movement. But the hideout didn’t allow children. Nathan was instructed to wait until his parents were on their way to the shipyard before he could join them.
“Do you know if they’re safe?” Nathan asked as we hiked between chrysanthemums. “They stopped writing a month ago.”
“I don’t know.” I hadn’t even known that an underground network existed until Nathan told me. The information burned inside me, an illegal activity right in my own neighborhood. My duty was to report it.
But I remembered when Mrs. Tenerife fired her maid. A month or so before I met Nathan, she’d told my mother that the maid had “stolen some things.” My mother relayed this conversation to me, lecturing me about how I should never trust hired help.
If Mrs. Tenerife had discovered her maid’s activities . . . that meant Nathan’s parents must now be stuck in the overcrowded prison system. They could die of illness or worse.
“Nathan,” I said. Nighttime lawn sprinklers hissed to life, masking the sound of our voices. “How may I help you?”
“You’re a Corporatist,” he replied in a dull voice. “Why would you help me?”
I thought about this. Why didn’t the rich help the poor, like they did in old days?
It would be easier if money still existed. Back in my grandparents’ time, money came in the form of paper bills and coins, things you could touch. Now our value is attached to our identities. As a daughter of Maude and Leone Chenoweth, my credit is astronomical, but I can’t give it away as a gift. I can’t pay a refugee. I can only use it to buy stuff from the participating conglomerates.
“I can hide you in my house.” I knew it for a fool’s choice even as I spoke. The risk was too great.
Nathan had stopped walking. He stared at me in disbelief, licking his lips. “You’d do that?”
I didn’t want Nathan’s starved face to haunt me for the rest of my life. But it was more than that. A maid had risked her life to help the poverty-stricken masses. I didn’t want to feel like a coward next to someone who’d had far less to work with.
“I’d like to help you,” I said.
Looking around now, at all the blood and dead bodies, I wonder if my parents really believed they were doing the right thing when they called Homeland Security. Am I the one who’s insane? Well, I am drifting through halls filled with dead bodies. I linger here when I should probably be running.
I knew this day would come. But I accepted it, and maybe that qualifies me as insane.
Dad used to say the post-Americans are a bunch of criminals. He said they had enough to live on, and that should be enough. Their greed is a holdover from a past era. He went on tirades about it. Mom would always nod along with him. And I’d nod also, because I used to believe Dad. His view correlated with what my tutors said, and the internet, and history texts.
Everyone knows about the Crash of 2059. Before the Crash, conglomerates relied on outsourced labor. When the economy collapsed from inflation in 2059, all the outsourced labor jacked their prices up so high that few people in the West could afford their products and services. The cost of living became too much for most Americans. Transportation, electricity, and food were luxuries. Shopping malls closed down. Abandoned cars rusted in parking lots. Crime overwhelmed the rickety old legal system.
America is still a capitalist nation. A janitor can move up the corporate ladder, theoretically. We still elect our government. The difference between past and present is all in the details; a lack of checks and balances.
Nathan and the other refugees learned a different lesson about America. It’s simple. In their view, America is dead. They find the conglomerates to be too exclusive, too narrow for so many desperate unemployed families. They call themselves post-Americans because they’re fleeing from a nation that has lost its ability to provide basic living necessities to all.
They call me “Princess” on the streets. In the attic, where I brought them food and water and warm blankets, they meant it in the best way possible.
A few of them managed to escape on the cargo ship that left the other week. That’s something. I hope they’re on their way to a country that will value their skills enough to pay them living wages.
Nathan is dead on the floor here, in the sewing room.
He was a beautiful boy. He could have been a child actor in a past era. There’s something near his hand. A pistol. Did he shoot someone?
Yes. There, on the other side of the room, a uniformed corpse slumps against the fancy papered wall. A smear marks where he slid to his present position. This man also dropped his gun. They’ve killed each other. A little boy against a trained soldier.
Homeland Security has left their dead behind. They didn’t expect a battle from pathetic post-Americans. But one of these refugees was a weapons smuggler.
The soldiers will find some way to put a nice face on what happened here. Maybe Mom will help them. I figure the soldiers whisked her away somewhere, for her own safety. They tried to take me, but I fled and hid until they left.
I hate Mom.
She used to ruffle my hair and call me her “spoiled little girl.” I pretended I wanted to buy more blankets because I was interested in home décor. I snuck into the kitchen every night to bring food to refugees, knowing that if Mom ever found out, her indulgent smile would turn to self-preserving terror.
Nathan’s chest is moving slightly. Is it my imagination?
I kneel next to him and feel his breath on the back of my hand.
“Nathan?” I whisper.
He opens his green eyes. He struggles to speak. Blood trickles from a corner of his mouth. My heart aches to see this. In old times, an emergency squad would help anyone who needed it, even people who couldn’t pay.
“Go,” Nathan whispers.
I lean down and kiss Nathan’s cheek. He smiles. He’s more beautiful than anything in this mansion. His eyes close slowly. He dies with the smile.
The pistol is sticky with his blood, heavy in my hands. I’ve never used a gun. But I know the principles of how they work. I’ve overheard the refugees teaching each other. There’s the safety. And there’s the trigger.
The barrel fits against the underside of my chin.
Here I am, alone. Is anyone listening to my thoughts? I hope so.
I renounce my kingdom. I renounce my castle. When they find me, maybe they’ll look past my credit value and see the girl who wasn’t proud to be a daughter of Maude and Leone Chenoweth, and who wasn’t a Corporatist, and who wasn’t a Princess.
I renounce it all.
Originally published in Dark Recesses Press #13, October 2012.