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vol v, issue 3 < ToC
Hunger in America
by
Jamie Hittman
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Letter to aThey Cut
Young MathematicianMe Up
Hunger in America
by
Jamie Hittman
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Letter to a
Young Mathematician




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They Cut
Me Up
Hunger in America
by
Jamie Hittman
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Letter to a They Cut
Young MathematicianMe Up
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Letter to a
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They Cut
Me Up
Hunger in America  by Jamie Hittman
Hunger in America
 by Jamie Hittman
Before the roof caved in, Joleen lived in the Cereal District of the South Bronx. The roof of her apartment building hosted mechanical effigies of Tony the Tiger and Lucky the Leprechaun, big twenty-footers lit with industrial floods, wired up with moving eyes, limbs, and mouths. Mounted atop her neighbor’s roof were two digital billboards and a robotic Trix Rabbit. Joleen saw its bucktoothed leer through her bedroom window every night, rising from the semi-darkness like some deranged moon. The floodlights gave her migraines that left her curled up on the bathroom floor with tears oozing from her eyes. She could hear roof beams straining beneath the weight of the mascots—and still the ad agency insisted that Count Chocula deserved a spot.

“The building’s not rated for this,” Joleen informed her ad agent. “You’re going to kill us.”

“The terms in your contract state that your house must host three different advertisements per quarter,” replied the agent from a call center somewhere in Vietnam. “Unfortunately, Miss McAllister, if we do not proceed, your contract is void. You could risk eviction.”

Joleen pegged her cell phone at the sofa cushions—not that she’d expected the agency’s help. She used her manager’s office at the bar to print out a few dozen fliers of her own design and the next day distributed them, marching up the water-stained halls, greeting the wearied sir or madam behind each door with a handshake and a smile. All the tenants looked somehow related, dressed in the same sweatpants and branded T-shirts, their faces blank and infantile. Joleen, who had studied economics in college, saw them as the evolutionary endpoint of the free market ecosystem: both Consumer and product, exhausted by dwindling wages and skyrocketing rent, resigned to be no more than what the ad agency said they were valued.

The last door Joleen knocked on belonged to a slim thirty-something in a BooBerry T-shirt. He was reasonably handsome, and Joleen wouldn’t have said no to a date. He seemed momentarily interested to see Joleen, a new object in his midst, before glancing down at the flier. It showed the father of ad-supported housing, Thomas Ducey, atop a gold-plated toilet with his pants around his ankles. DROP THE DEUCE, the flier read. RENTERS OF THE CEREAL DISTRICT: UNITE. The man muttered, “No thanks,” before locking the door.

Joleen called her mother in San Francisco and stalked the neighborhood with her cell phone mashed to her ear. It was past sunset, but the adverts filled the streets with caustic glare. Nighthawks cut through the air above her, gorging themselves on clouds of moths lured in by the lights.

“How did the fliers go?” her mother asked.

“They didn’t.”

Joleen heard her mother inhale, readying a lungful of bromides: well, you have a roof over your head and you’re in meat and milk and you are lucky, Joleen, lucky. Thank the Lord we found a sponsor. Some people our age are out on the streets. Imagine! Sixty-year-olds going hungry in America!

Joleen’s parents had lost everything when the market tanked fifteen years ago. Their mortgage was now partly covered by a grant from Depends, but her mother’s gratitude rankled her. She tossed in the requisite, “sure, Mom”s and “uh-huh”s, dodging the cars of the Manhattanites who toured the Cereal District like a personal theme park, their children laughing and howling—the target Consumers of the breakfast cereal market. Joleen sometimes wandered the ad-free blocks of the Upper West Side as a form of half-baked revenge, peeping in through the windows. Inside each house was what she once dreamed her life would look like. She saw bright-eyed children and smiling couples joined in holy matrimony. She saw Consumers with money enough to be human.

“That’s just how the world works now,” Joleen’s mother said. “You need to make the best of it.”

One week later, the agency workmen arrived before sunrise, hauling behind them their latest monument to the cereal gods. Up went Chocula. And down came the roof.

*     *     *
Joleen expected to be relocated to another ad-town in the Bronx, but instead the agency directed her to a quiet high rise in Forest Hills, Queens. She dragged her belongings into a spacious duplex, then checked the mail. There was a letter from an agent named Barbara Lewis, apologizing for the accident.

You will be pleased to know (Barbara wrote) that we forbid any “hard” advertisements in this community. Instead, we’re focusing on a personalized advertising system designed with the resident in mind. I’ll be by tomorrow at noon to introduce your new partner in Consumer satisfaction.

Joleen read the letter again and threw it in the trash; personalized ads could only mean one thing.

She remembered how in college her professors seemed eager to race past the Gilded Age and the Great Recession to what scholars were calling the New Depression, which, despite the name, had entered its second decade with no sign of stopping. Ad-supported housing was just becoming popular, championed by Thomas Ducey, a Madison Avenue shark who saw opportunity in the worst mortgage crisis America had ever known. The President had allowed a billboard atop the White House as a show of good faith: an ad for his preferred denture sealant, which reportedly cost enough to fund the WIC program for half a year. “The Consumer will save this country,” Ducey declared at the presser. “Because the Consumer gets what they want.”

Joleen grabbed a beer from a duffel bag and sipped it while she paced her new apartment. She sat down on her bed and stared out at a sky studded by constellations of advert drones. Nighthawks zipped through the spaces between them.

When the doorbell rang the next morning, Joleen went downstairs in her Frosted Flakes t-shirt. The woman standing at the door was dressed in a natty black suit with squared-off shoulders that made her already boxy frame look downright cuboid. “Barbara Lewis,” she said, offering a hand.

“Joleen,” Joleen said, but didn’t take it. She was too busy staring at the thing standing at Barbara’s side, back bent, hands folded politely in front of it. It stood four feet tall, a slender man-shaped machine clad in black metal. There was a small flat-screen television where its head should have been.

“This is your personal advertising unit.” Barbara lifted the robot up by its armpits as if it were a child and set it down just inside the door. The PAU straightened and its screen-head blazed with an animation of moving clouds, followed by the italicized query: What do you want?

Answers crowded behind Joleen’s lips, too numerous to articulate. To be more than just a Consumer. To have a relationship that was not purely transactional. To meet someone else who believed that the world had gone completely insane.

“I want a man,” Joleen said. “And for Tom Ducey to die in a fire.”

Barbara smiled indulgently. “Your PAU uses an advanced algorithm to show you the products and services that you want to see. It observes your behavior, speech, and body language. It then processes these observations and—”

“And uses it to read my mind.” Joleen waggled her fingers. “Ooooo.”

“In a way, I suppose it does.”

The PAU turned its screen-head left and right and began picking its way around the foyer. It walked with a furtive, sinuous stride with its shoulders back and its head forward. It reminded Joleen of a marsh bird, or a praying mantis. The only sound it made was the tap-tap of its foot pegs on the hardwood floor. It began making its way up the stairs.

“Is it going to follow me around the apartment?” Joleen asked.

“Only if you want it to.”

“I don’t want it to.”

“Miss McAllister, I can’t alter its programming out of the box. It will learn what you prefer. All I ask is you be patient. This will be a relationship with many rewards.”

Halfway up the stairs, the PAU halted its advance, turned, and rushed back down. On its screen-head was an advertisement for a Williamsburg liquor store specializing in micro-brew beers.

“You know, I was just thinking of visiting that place,” Joleen said slowly. “Next week, maybe.”

Barbara smiled again.

Over the next two weeks, Joleen came to accept the robot’s presence as benign, if not welcome. When she was home, it usually sat in the corner, waking up only to display a product its algorithms had determined would please her. But sometimes she’d look up to check on it and with a twist of her gut realize it was gone—sharing data with its buddies, maybe. The manual explained that communication among PAUs was vital for algorithm training. But sometimes it disappeared for hours and the thought of it stalking around somewhere out of sight brought Joleen close to panic.

One evening, the PAU vanished just before midnight. Joleen fought sleep as long as she could, but eventually dozed off. The next thing she knew it was three in the morning and the PAU was standing over her, gaunt and glimmering in the glow of its digital display, reaching for her with a three-fingered hand. She screamed and flailed her arms, smacking the PAU across the face. It fell over with a crash and Joleen felt immediately sorry—sorry because of its pitiful attempts to right itself and because of the warning she’d read in the manual: YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY DAMAGES THE UNIT MAY INCUR. When it at last stood up, she saw the hand-shaped bruise of liquid crystals she’d left on its screen-head. It filled in and smoothed over as if it had never been.

Joleen went down to the kitchen and cracked open a Bushwick Lager to settle her nerves. She had picked it up from the store in Williamsburg and she had to give the PAU one thing—the beer was perfect. Strong, bitter, hoppy as a jackrabbit. She downed two bottles comfortably ensconced in her armchair. The PAU stood by the doorway, unmoving, and Joleen came very close to admitting she felt okay again when she saw it there, watching her.

Slowly, Joleen raised one hand and folded her fingers in a cocked gun gesture. Bang, she thought.

The PAU tilted its screen-head at her. The motion, lifelike yet inhumanly smooth, sent her stomach into lazy flips. Then it turned around to face the wall.

Joleen sat for a few minutes and thought about happiness. Hers was fading fast, leaving as mysteriously as it had come on, and she felt hollow, wooden, a Russian doll painted to look like a woman.

She called out to the PAU: “Hey, you.”

The PAU shuffled in place and turned itself to face her.

“Look, I’m sorry,” Joleen said. “Don’t take it personally. It’s been a rough few years, okay?”

The PAU cocked its head again. She noticed for the first time how spindly it was, its arms, its legs. She wondered if it had any idea of what it was doing; if it felt bad about itself, or if it felt lonely too.

“What do you want, buddy?” Joleen asked. “Has anyone ever asked?”

The PAU didn’t move. Didn’t speak.

Joleen drained the rest of her beer and stood. “Just stay down here tonight. Please?” But as she began walking up the stairs, another light flashed on behind her.

She saw that the PAU had gone rigid, its knees locked and its arms stiff at its sides. What filled its screen-head was a photo of a grassy field at sunrise. Nearest to the camera was the top of a sign fashioned from weatherworn wood: HERE WE STAND, TOGETHER AT LAST. The image remained on screen just long enough for Joleen to get a good look, then winked out. “Hey, what was that?” she asked the PAU, grabbing it by its narrow shoulders. “Play it again.”

The PAU continued to stand as if in a daze. She remembered its suggestion log and used the control panel to riffle through all the commercials it had displayed over the last 24 hours. Except this one wasn’t there. The last commercial the PAU had logged had been for a professional cuddling service—Hugs-For-Hire, according to the log. That had been at 8:15.

Joleen sat back on her haunches, her heart doing a rapid two-step in her chest.

The first thing she did the next day was call customer support, but no one on the help line could find the commercial. “All advertisements displayed on the PAU come from a collection stored on the company servers,” the representative said. “If it’s not on the server, then it doesn’t exist.”

With that avenue exhausted, Joleen turned to the internet. After a half hour of Googling she located a single hit on a Subreddit for ad enthusiasts. The post, created three days ago by a user named XxLostCloudxX, read like this: So I live in an adtown in OR with one of those PAU things and some weird shit went down. The PAU hardcrashed after showing me some picture of an empty field. Anyone else have this happen? No one had responded.

Joleen dashed off a quick reply and set off for work. She was a bartender at a joint on 42nd street called Good Times Time Square (proudly sponsored by Bacardi, Ltd). She didn’t like the job, but the tips were good, the regulars well-behaved, and the bar PAU-free.

She walked to the station and snagged a spot on the E-train. The car was lit up like the inside of a neon tube and most passengers wore sunglasses to block out the ads gamboling across the flatscreens that paneled the walls and ceiling. The sunglasses helped them avoid the buskers who paraded in a continuous stream from car to car, break-dancing in the aisles, swinging from poles, hawking Hershey bars and M&M bags for one dollar a pop. After the buskers came the panhandlers, seniors with wet eyes and cardboard signs: HOMELESS HUNGRY NEED FOOD GOD BLESS. The 18—49 demographic was the preferred prey of the corporations, and once you aged out, the advertisers tossed you.

The face of Tom Ducey appeared on one of the flat screens, and several passengers exploded with curses. One of the panhandlers hurled her sign at the screen.

Joleen was more relieved to get to Good Times than usual. Here the flatscreens were dimmed and set to low volume. Around 11PM, when the crowds were thinning, a man in a blue suit wandered inside, followed by a PAU. A lit cigarette smoldered between his teeth.

“Hello,” the man said. “I’ll have a Bushwick Lager, please.”

Joleen was too stunned by the sight of the PAU and the name of the beer to remind the man that smoking was prohibited. “That’s a good brew. Your PAU tell you to buy it?”

“You got it. He told me to come check this place out. I’m starting to think he’s a bit of an alcoholic.”

Joleen passed him the beer. “Do you mind putting out your cigarette?”

“Sorry. I’ve been trying to quit for a while but Pochi here makes it impossible.”

The PAU glanced at Joleen, then turned its screen-head to the man in the blue suit. Country music drawled from its speakers and an ad for Marlboros began to play.

“Oh, you bastard,” the man said with a laugh.

He introduced himself to Joleen as Roger Takeda, programmer for hire, and explained that Pochi meant something like pooch, only appropriate for a robot that followed him everywhere. Roger worked from home, which was convenient, but lonely, and when his landlord welcomed a flotilla of PAUs onto the premises, he didn’t object. Within a few days, the little robot was tagging along at his heels, and Roger made no move to stop it.

“He’s friendly,” Roger said (two beers deep at this point). “And a good listener, too.”

Joleen tried to imagine being friends with her PAU, and while the idea wigged her out, she could sympathize. Make a human lonely enough and they will befriend any object that shows a modicum of personhood. She thought again of the PAU’s startup message—What do you want?—and that reminded her of the commercial.

Roger hadn’t seen it. “It’s true what they told you. If the commercial isn’t on the server, the PAUs can’t pull it. But it could have come from somewhere else.”

“Like where?”

“Honestly? Anywhere. The PAUs communicate wirelessly. It wouldn’t be hard for a hacker to dump some packets, or—” His face went pale. “Oh, Jesus.”

His PAU had frozen up the way hers had, knees locked, arms stiff. There, blazing from its screen-head, was the image of the field and sign. HERE WE STAND, TOGETHER AT LAST. Seeing it again here with Roger sitting transfixed made it seem prophetic, a sign of things to come.

Then the screen went dark. Pochi glanced around as if startled awake.

“Wow, Jo, you weren’t kidding!” Roger said.

She had never been called Jo before. She found it pleasing to hear a stranger call her something so familiar.

Meanwhile, Roger had placed the PAU on the bar and was worrying over the controls on its back. “I have to go,” he said. “I dunno if that commercial bricked him.”

Roger thanked Joleen for her time and started for the door.

Joleen almost leapt over the bar to stop him. Instead, she called out for the whole room to hear: “How about lunch sometime?”

One week later, they met each other halfway at a diner in Court Square. Roger brought Pochi. Joleen left her PAU at home.

“Have you named yours?” Roger asked.

“Uh—no.”

“Do you think if you named him you’d like him better?”

The truth was she had been struggling to find a name for the past few days, but nothing seemed to fit.

They talked some more about themselves, but since Roger was on the clock, it was a business lunch. Between bursts of coding, he unearthed a few more reports of the commercial via Google. A few even made it to tech support’s website; no one had answered.

“That’s more than I saw,” Joleen said.

“Maybe the commercial is spreading. Neato.”

It was sort of neat, now that she thought about it, almost as neat as having lunch with Roger, who was as pleasing a companion as she could have hoped for. Who said “neato” anyway?

The only thing that might have made her day better would be to see the ad agency respond. On one of the TVs above the bar, Ducey was interviewing with CNN, gloating about the occupancy rates of an ad-town in Harlem. About his own housing, the man remained coy. His compound was in an undisclosed location, hidden from the populace at large. He sure as hell didn’t live with a PAU.

“How’d you make your way to New York, Jo?” asked Roger.

The short answer, Joleen told him, was the job market, which hadn’t much need for econ majors. The long answer, which she told him in part, was that she thought the city might be better than elsewhere, that like generations before her she believed that New York held the promise of love and connection, a reprieve from the unrelenting monotony of working, eating, shitting, and finding slivers of entertainment in what remained of the day.

“Were you right?” Roger asked.

“No.”

“Yeah. Me neither.”

Joleen paused. That was all she had planned to tell him, but she found she was reluctant to drop the subject, and when she studied Roger’s face, his dark eyes growing keen with their own kind of hunger, she asked, “Are you happy?”

“I don’t know. My job’s all right, and I’ve got enough money. I feel like I should be happy.”

“‘Should’ is a dangerous word.”

A smile crossed Roger’s face. “So is ‘happy,’ while we’re at it.” He turned to his PAU, which was standing at attention beside his chair. “It makes me think. Our PAUs pulled the commercial because they thought it was something we wanted. But why an empty field?”

Pochi turned his screen-head to her and back to Roger, and just like the last time, stiffened in mechanical tetany with the image of the field and sign. Except this time the flatscreens above the bar jumped and flickered and when they found their bearings, they, too, showed the field. Seconds later, the image of Ducey returned, and Pochi awakened from his daze.

The whole restaurant, quiet until now, broke into spontaneous conversation. “What was that?” “I’ve seen that field before.” “But where?”

For the first time in a long while, Joleen felt excited. After lunch, she bounded up the stairs from the subway station and realized, in a way, she was happy to see her PAU, though it regarded her as blankly as always when she burst through the front door. Once again, when she scrolled through its archive, the commercial was nowhere to be found. But that night, the commercial appeared again, and once more before bedtime.

It occurred to her a few days afterward that this might be just another ad campaign; something immersive, occult. The thought of this upset her, but Roger said it was unlikely. His company kept getting calls from the ad agency. Folks high up the chain were worried.

So was the internet.

Over the next week, Joleen’s searches returned a hundred hits, then a thousand. Her Reddit topic expanded rapidly. What is this? people wanted to know. Zer0Wing: It’s the robot apocalypse. Xistenz: It’s a computer virus. WWJD100: It’s Revelation 1:3. LoonytoonZ: It’s time to burn it all down. One guy claimed it was a field behind his house; another said it was a dried-up runoff pond near I-95. A woman from Texas said the picture was taken fifteen years ago, in Houston—and that the sign no longer existed.

Somewhere, somehow, a seed had been planted.

Joleen let herself lose track of it for a while. She and Roger were spending a lot of time together. Usually, they would meet up at Good Times and at the end of her shift they would go back to his place or hers. Their private time was casual, almost chaste. They would watch television together—Pochi had good taste in cooking shows—or they would sit on the couch and talk, beers in hand, while their two PAUs observed from the sidelines. Roger seemed more subdued now that things were getting more serious. He told her bashfully that he had lucked into everything good in his life: a happy childhood in Metuchen, a college education, job connections. He felt that his current state of unwilling solitude was only proper, an attempt from the universe to balance the scales. Joleen told him that was horseshit.

One day, Roger took her out to a wine bar on 8th Avenue, a quiet place with no advertisements. He’d insisted on paying for it himself, which Joleen supposed made it a date. He sat across from her, sawing his swordfish into neat little cubes, and asked her to tell him about herself. Joleen couldn’t remember the last time someone wanted to know anything about her beyond basic demographics, and she was afraid she might disappoint him. She told him about the Cereal District, and about the nighthawks; how on her second day one of the birds smashed through her window, mistaking its own reflection for a mate. It had spent its last moments on her bedroom floor, flapping two broken, useless wings, and she felt herself tearing up, remembering.

“That sounds awful, Jo,” Roger said.

“They’re cool birds when they’re not killing themselves. Let’s go watch them tomorrow. I can show you my old ad-town, too.”

“Nighthawks,” Roger repeated. “Like the Hopper painting.”

Joleen said she’d never heard of it, and when she went home, she looked it up. Of course, she’d seen the painting before: three customers at a late-night diner, a white-suited clerk behind the bar. The street outside, lacking adverts, was dark in a way that struck Joleen as alien. But the loneliness of the people sitting side by side but not together was something she recognized well enough.

A mass email from the ad agency pinged her inbox: We’ve received word of an anomalous advertisement resulting from a loophole in the PAU algorithm. We will distribute a software update to all ad-towns tomorrow at 10 PM. This will correct the problem.

Joleen heard the tapping of foot pegs behind her and there was her own PAU, standing in the doorway. The image of the field had flickered across its screen-head six times in the past few hours.

“They’re going to fix you,” Joleen said. “You and all your friends.”

If the PAU was sad about this, it gave no sign.

“I guess you do need a name,” she said. “What do you want to be called?”

The PAU’s screen-head lit with a thousand bouncing gumballs, and a chorus of maniacal giggling went up as a pink gumball with a face screeched to a halt at the center of the screen. “RICK-O-SHEA’S POWER BALLS!” it screamed. “WAHOO!” Then the screen went dark.

“Okay,” Joleen said. “I’ll call you Dick.”

The next day, she and Roger went out walking the paths of Crotona Park as the sun set behind them. She told Roger about Dick and he laughed a little, playing with the binoculars around his neck. They chose a good spot atop a rock and he set down a blanket and they sat there together as the nighthawks gathered for the hunt. The sun went down but the sky above the brownstones continued to glow with a smeary yellow light.

“My God, how did you sleep?” Roger asked her. “I would’ve gone out of my mind.”

“I almost did.” Joleen grabbed the binoculars without taking them from his neck. The nighthawks were hard to follow as they swooped and dived, flexing their switchblade wings. They performed their acrobatics tirelessly, and it was easy to forget about the moths, easy to think that they were flying for the hell of it, riding the wind with thrilling, reckless abandon.

“Here. Watch them,” she said.

Roger glassed the sky. “Look at them go,” he said with a touch of wonder. And then he set down the binoculars and looked at her.

It was a look that made her freeze up in terror, because all this seemed so real, and she was waiting for the gotcha, the catch—the revelation that the joy she felt now was in some way manufactured for material gain. She took Roger’s hands in hers. “What’s happening here, Roger?”

“Well,” he began. “It’s a lovely evening and we’re watching the birds and I’m quite happy to be with you, Jo.”

“They brought us together, didn’t they? The PAUs.”

“I think so. I don’t know how, but they did.”

“So does any of this mean anything? Aren’t we just being commodified?”

Roger tossed the binoculars onto the grass and kissed Joleen on the mouth and pulled her into a fierce, full body embrace. She felt his hand on the back of her head, pressing her into his chest. She smelled cologne and cigarettes, and she closed her eyes and let herself be held. To be held was to be acknowledged, to be transmuted through some miracle of touch into something warm and solid and real. To be held was to be told: you are human.

“Anything can be commodified,” Roger said in her ear. “Even love. Especially love. You know it and I know it. That doesn’t make what we have mean anything less.”

Moments later, all the lights in town went out.

Joleen gave a little scream and reached for Roger and there was his hand on her arm, steadying her. One by one, the billboards came back to life. They were different than before. She didn’t need binoculars to know exactly what they were showing.

*     *     *
When Joleen got back to her apartment, the internet had gone into a paroxysm of speculation. The image of the dawn-lit field had taken over PAUs and ad-towns up and down the coast. It must be a symbol, Roger said, some shorthand for human desire that the PAUs had discovered and, through their algorithms, propagated. What do you want? the PAUs had asked. And the masses, somehow, had answered. Perhaps, Roger had gone on to say, the PAUs had created the image themselves. Had invented it and shared it with the expectation that it would, someday, be acted upon.

HERE WE STAND, TOGETHER AT LAST. That night Joleen dreamed and saw these words in the darkness of her mind and they seemed to form a shape, a figure that both encompassed and described them. She saw this shape in the darkness and thought, this, then, must be the algorithm.

She felt something touch her face.

Her first thought, as she swam up out of sleep, was that it was Roger. But as the room came into focus, she again saw her PAU standing over her, and that what she felt was its hand resting lightly on her cheek.

“Hey,” she said, smiling. “What’s this?”

When Dick didn’t move, she moved its hand away. It simply moved it back.

Joleen felt a tightness in her chest, staring into its eyeless face, feeling the touch of its fingers, so light it was almost human. There was sadness in that touch: a sadness born of inadequacy. As if the PAU were aware of the hard limits of its programming, of what happiness it could give her, and, ultimately, the love that it never could.

That’s when she saw the numbers flicker from the darkness of its screen-head. Coordinates.

She jumped out of bed, pulled on some clothes, and ran downstairs. Her cell phone rang before she could reach the door: Roger.

“Did you see it?” she asked him.

“I know where it is,” Roger said. “It’s only an hour from here.”

Joleen waited with Dick in the damp darkness outside her high rise until the headlights of Roger’s car swung into the roundabout. They rode down the silent streets and she saw that, one by one, the lights in the buildings were coming on. The sky lightened, turning first violet, then lilac, and when they reached the place, the sun had come up over the trees and was shining down with a light that felt primeval, the rays of a billion dawns past and a billion dawns to come.

There was no sign here; that itself had been a fabrication, though as she and Roger and Pochi and Dick walked out into the field, she saw in the grass a few weathered stumps where a sign might have once stood. But she did see a house in the distance, a mansion with high columns and great glass windows, and standing before the house were hundreds of people and a gaggle of PAUs. They were all talking like she hadn’t heard people talk in ages, and the sound of it made Joleen’s heart soar. What desire, Joleen wondered, had drawn them together here? Did they hope to find connection? Understanding? Love that was not contingent on worth?

It took her a few minutes to notice the smell of gasoline in the air, and that a few men and women held jerrycans. They marched upon the house and poured the contents over the flowerbeds and hedgerows. It was then that Joleen knew exactly who lived there.

She didn’t see who struck the match or dropped the lighter. The house of Tom Ducey went up quicker than Joleen thought possible. Flames leapt up from the gables, licked up the downspouts, feathered the widow’s walk. The front windows blew out, exhaling flame like dragon’s breath. Joleen and Roger clung to each other as the world burned down around them, and she didn’t know which was louder: the roar of the fire or the roar of the people, together at last, hungering to be reborn.