Barb slowly rolled her thin wool socks up over her calves. “Dad,” she called. “I’m going out.” There was still no power, but the morning sun cast a gray light through their window.
“No-hohh you don’t!” Bob shouted from the bathroom. “I’ll be damned if you’re going out today.”
“What do you want me to do, Bob, build a fucking cemetery…” Barb grabbed her bag from under her bed and stalked into the bathroom doorway. “I’m not getting trapped here in mourning with you. Sandy and I have plans. But good luck with your whole Shave of Grief thing.”
Bob whipped around like a cream-covered pug. “Your goddamn brother died. You were about to slit those wrists over him a few hours ago and now you’re standing there looking at me like you’re ready to go get laid.”
“Fuck you,” Barb breathed, vanishing out the door. “See you never.”
Bob gave a few parting mutters and turned back towards the mirror.
Free from the tenement, Barb walked briskly to the corner bus stop. As she waited for Sandy’s car to appear, she peeked under the sleeves of her jean jacket and briefly glimpsed the cuts of dried blood. The cuts spread like stiff roots across her wrists, bifurcating with every memory of Connor she had been able to conjure that morning.
Truth be told, Barb had never had a good relationship with Connor. Ever since she was young, Connor made her uncomfortable with his grizzly beard and wandering eyes. Though he was hardly ever home, Barb felt a distinctly clenched pain in her stomach every time she saw his boots at the door. He reeked of alcohol, and his arrival always signaled her eviction from one of the two twin beds in their one-bedroom apartment. Plus he’d always been weird about Sandy, making inappropriate comments about her clothes and her body when she wasn’t around, and keeping a bitter, leering distance when she was. Leaning on the bus stop pole, Barb realized that on most accounts she actually hated him. Had hated him.
As she pulled her sleeves back up over her wrists, she took a deep breath of the cold fall air. He might have been fucked up, but he had always paid the bills. Unlike Bob, Connor had always put her and the family before himself. He was her brother. Cutting herself was Barb’s first and final act of homage.
Sandy’s weathered gray car rolled up to the stop. “Ready, freak?” she called from the window.
“Yeah, let’s go.” Barb grabbed her bag from the floor and popped open the car door.
Jimmy mashed at the laser keys in a furious last attempt and threw himself back against his seat to the sound effect of failure. Dee dee dee deeeee… He looked around at the other Monitors, their bodies angled and clenched tight as their eyes attacked the screens. No one was touching their keys.
“Saguto!” barked MB Davis.
“Yes, ma’am!” Jimmy responded, rushing out of his seat to the Tower.
“What the hell was that, Saguto? Key mashing in the second round?”
Scantron sheets and sweaty pencils flashed through his head. He stammered. “I, I…” The MB offered him no retreat and stood waiting for an answer. “I can’t focus, ma’am. It’s…” He took a deep breath. “It looks too real.”
“It is real, Saguto. Now if you can’t handle it –"
“I can handle it,” he rushed. And again, to convince himself, “I can handle it.”
MB Davis’s attention was suddenly called elsewhere. She turned back, “Look, just get back on your monitor and don’t touch the keys. We need you out there.”
Jimmy nodded resolutely, but as he wheeled towards his monitor, he began to feel the same familiar itch in his fingers. Ever since birth, his two mothers had been extremely affectionate towards him. They had taught him that physical affection was the ultimate way of showing someone your love. It was a sentiment many shared. Post-Boom, physical interaction with others was one of the few things that remained finite, scarce. When it came to everything else – eating, working, play – it was easy to go for months without ever sharing the same space with someone, let alone giving them your undivided physical and mental attention. As a result, “face time,” as the Pures once called it, took on immeasurable value.
Using the keys broke with all VM convention. Keys were an archaic piece of technology – really just a relic from the pre-Boom era. Eye and mind tracking were far faster for manipulating objects in alternate environments. Though these were all things Jimmy knew, moving the dead, foreign bodies of boys and girls half his age seemed to call for physical touch.
He sat back in his seat and rolled his chair close to the screen. He slowly placed his hands on the rubber armrests and turned his face to the monitor. He closed his eyes and rested them for two long seconds. In this brief pause, he suddenly understood what the Race section on the test had been for. His eyelids flew open, and the excavation efforts continued.