Everyone, Everyone Can Win!

By Margot Pepper
From forthcoming book, The Acrobat and Other Stories for Dark Times

When Jeb Bailey arrived at the Town Hall, the sun’s implacable rays were still imprisoned behind the courtyard walls, the light only hinting at the lavender and yellow Gentec Passion Flower®, vines of Monsatano Bougainvillea® and faces of a few dozen children. It was easy to tell the novices from the veterans. They were the smaller ones prancing on the freshly swept brick tiles, gazing up at the streamers and balloons or chatting with their friends about the tremendous piñata that hung high over their heads. They especially liked this one for it had been fashioned in the image of Ronell McDonnel: the cheerful newscaster with the powdered sugar face, bulbous cherry nose and unruly gold streamers for hair.

The more experienced children stood around a bit more stiffly, politely greeting acquaintances with an air of casual confidence, though all the while they were carefully staking out their position, reviewing their strategy for the game that was about to begin. Among these was Jeb, who was to have the first swing. For this opportunity he had suffered sufficient injury and humiliation. The boys contended bruises were essential to developing the discipline required of Winners. Jeb had learned to hold his tongue. He had persisted and used his brain and now the honor was his; he had earned it all by himself, in spite of his freckles.

He began by learning from the big guys, kids like Danny Hearst and Simon Allen. Contrary to rumor, they were very accessible, always willing to offer advice. They liked Jeb. He was friendly and usually had something upbeat to say. He also never cheated. He never took treasure out of anyone else’s hands. It was only right that they eventually asked him to be a hitter. Now he’d show them they picked the right person, one of the few who’d smack it open on the first try.

“Trying to crack its skull with x-ray vision, dude?” Jeb’s head snapped to look up at Simon Allen, his upper torso straightening. Allen grinned in his crisp ATT short-sleeved shirt and BfA loafers, his thick blonde hair cropped so evenly, you could balance a tray on it. In spite of all the town’s shortages, he managed never to wear the same thing twice and despite the heat, he never perspired. Was it Simon Allen’s manicured style that got the girls, his resourcefulness or biceps groomed at the GE Gym? Certainly the fact that his good looks had been cloned from Don Johnston couldn’t be overlooked. Jeb’s parents had decided to put their money to other use. An ambassador’s salary was generous, but not enough to invest in cosmetic cloning for the children.

“Thought you’d be here already,” Jeb smiled back, attempting to conceal his nerves and the wrinkles of perspiration in his imitation ATT short-sleeved shirt.

“Only Losers’d show any later.”

Both boys observed the children wandering in through the twenty-foot iron gate, the courtyard now a sea of expectant voices.

“Ironic, no?” Allen asked, jabbing his little finger in his ear. “We’re guaranteed the first row no matter what time we get here; everyone has to wait for us. Yet we’re the ones who show early.”   Allen cocked his head to one side and shook it as though to free his ear of water. “Look over there, Jeb. See those four by the drinking fountain? You can just tell who the Losers’ll be.”

Jeb scrutinized the group for tell-tale clues. Their hair was cut or brushed differently, badly perhaps, their clothes worn and mismatched. But that could be solved. They probably just weren’t aware of all the sales these days. Or the club.

“Don– I mean Allen, sorry–”

As always, Allen grinned at the inadvertent compliment.

Jeb cleared his throat. “Ever see any Losers at the Club?”

“One or two.”

“Think they don’t know about it?”

“They know about it. They just don’t want to deal. Give up too easy. Rude too. Ones I saw there just stood around so awkwardly. They had nothing to contribute. Know what I mean? So they didn’t learn much either.”

“Too bad,” Jeb shook his head. He was beginning to feel his tension dissipate.

“It is. It really is. Because then when they leave with just a treasure or two to show for their pitiful efforts or come up empty-handed, they complain the game wasn’t played fair. Pisses me off. They’re good at complaining, but not at doing anything to change their luck.”

Jeb shook his head and rolled a shard of brick back and forth under his shoe. He had never really given much thought to Losers. “Why is that, you think?”

“Everyone has their opinions.” Allen spat out a yellow phlegm wad. The edges bled into the porous brick. “Personally, I think they just don’t have what it takes.”

Jeb nodded, though he realized he disagreed with what Hearst and Allen were always saying. What kind of game would it be if some never had a chance?

I don’t know what planet you’re from, dude. Here on Earth things can’t always be fair. If you don’t get over, someone else will. Survival of the fittest, bro.

That’s what Hearst had once said while backing into a rare parking space someone else was about to pull into that was large enough to accommodate his Hum-V. It had bothered Jeb. He didn’t believe in getting over at someone else’s expense. Especially not here, in the game. Were the playing field not level, he’d feel too sorry for the Losers to enjoy life as a Winner. He was too much like his mother in that respect. And when you looked around really, didn’t most people feel the same way? The only thing that made sense in a democracy was everyone had what it took to be a Winner. Jeb was no smarter than some Losers he’d known. When they had moved to the larger house on Belagio road, Alvaro the gardener had devised all kinds of pulleys to move Jeb’s Dad’s oak desk to the third floor.

Naw, Jeb thought as he watched the courtyard become a solid tapestry of heads. The Losers were doing exactly what they wanted to be doing. Lack of ambition, or indifference. Laziness maybe. No reason to feel sorry. Any Loser could be in Jeb’s shoes. Jeb was really no different. He was just a regular guy who had decided to work hard at being a Winner, that’s all.

It’s a shame, Jeb thought, everyone, really everyone can win. If only the Losers would realize this and try a little harder. But instead they’d turn to stealing other people’s winnings or fighting amongst themselves for the little they managed to come away with. It was irritating. All that suffering for nothing.

“Well, Jeb,” Allen said putting his arm around his friend’s shoulders.

Jeb’s ears began ringing. He blinked rapidly, as though to shake away the image of the boys standing on the Club roof pelting him with stones. He had succeeding in dodging the most dangerous blows, withstanding the rest like a true Winner. Yeah, he was a Winner.   He’d do all right.

“Don’t worry, dude. No one’ll see your freckles up there,” Allen laughed, slapping Jeb’s back. “Remember, no one can do much damage on the first try anyway. Think about this instead; after the game, I’ve got some news that’ll make you sing.”

Jeb watched the rotund emcee ascend to the platform. Moisture flooded his scalp, trickling onto his forehead. All his blood seemed to be rushing to his scalp as well, as though intent on exploding through the pores. He glared at the piñata. Explode its head, he thought, a million volts of energy racing through his arms into his finger tips.

“Catch you later,” Jeb tried to sound cool as he made his way toward the platform wearing what he imagined was Allen’s self-assured, freckleless grin.

***

The town clock chimed eight times and the pitch of voices in the courtyard rose. The heat was still tolerable. The sun’s rays would not be visible above the high granite walls for two more hours. Squeals of excitement and nervous laughter broke out as the wave of children tightened around the piñata. Adriana, who had just arrived out of breath with her younger brother, Diego, was not as eager. With so many people ahead, she knew it would be an ordeal to get at any treasure. She debated about pushing their way forward, but the trek from the station had siphoned the best of her energy and she was dying to brush the sand out from between her toes.

Diego pulled at her T-shirt to pick up the pace. Adriana had a good mind to tell him he should try working as much as she did and feeding a body her size with the same quantity of food he received. “Guess I’m a little hungry,” she shouted over the din.

“Told you. If we’d planted we’d have beans, rice–all kinds of things–soya and corn and–”

“Concrete. Bars to stare at. A yard as exposed as ours, the satellite would pick it up in a second.”

A couple of tall, stalky girls bumped Adriana who looked at Diego for sympathy, rolling her eyes.

“Suck! I thought Monsatano’s stupid patents were supposed to solve world hunger. Instead the opposite happens. Has anyone told them?”

“Diego, don’t use that language.” Adriana laughed. “The World Trade Organization’s not trying to solve world hunger.”

“Half those seeds Mom left us are mine.” Diego waved to Letitia Brown, who was talking to one of her girl friends.

“¡Diego! ¡Baja tu voz!” Adriana jabbed her brother’s arm with her elbow.

“Don’t be such a paranoid, Adriana. I can barely hear you,” Diego shouted. Bodies began pressing Diego and Adriana forward. “What are those seeds for then?” Diego continued.

“Time’s not right yet, Diego. You know that.”

“You’re a great one to judge time. Look what time it is now. If we keep doing things your way we’re never going to be Winners. If you took the time to watch some TV when you’re on-line once in while you might get a clue.”

“Diego! It’s not my fault the earliest bus leaves at 6:30 am.”

“We should have left yesterday then.”

“Right, and my job, Diego?”

Diego put his arms around himself in exasperation. “Screw your work! Forget all that. Everyone knows Winners don’t work. You have to start thinking like a Winner. That’s what Opiate® says on her show. You should have called in sick.”

“Diego, I’m on flex time.”

“My way you could stop being indentured to that stupid credit scan company. Your way, you can just keep adding more and more links to your ball and chain. Don’t you think it’s weird how the more you work, the more we owe?” With that proclamation the boy pushed his way forward.

Adriana grabbed the back of his shirt, but Diego would not let himself be held. “We’re sure Losers if we don’t stick together!” she screamed after him.

Adriana forced her way through the crowd. In spite of her effusive apologies, a few children pulled her hair, others called her names. She felt a large hand grab her shoulder but managed to shake herself free and somehow hook her fingers on Diego’s belt. After what seemed like twenty minutes of fighting and squirming to keep her hold on him, he stopped.

“Look what it cost me to keep pace with you!” she said, turning her wounded shoulder to her brother.

He only smiled. “Look what a good spot we have,” he said, exposing the welt forming on his shin.

Adriana had to admit it was a miracle; they were behind the ring of hitters. At the center of the crowd, they could see the scaffolding supporting the platform on which the hitters would stand. The master of ceremonies stood on this platform, four stories above their heads. Their view consisted of the doughy underside of his belly protruding from an ATT shirt. He was holding a yellow party hat and steel baseball bat and talking to another white boy next to him. Both were at least 16 years old, the age Adriana and Diego would probably come down with Oldage, the final two years the virus required to consume their lives.

“Good thing we got up here so soon,” Diego said. “Look how big that white guy is. Bet he cracks it open.”

“They never get it on the first hit. Now —-”

“I know, I know,” Diego replied with boredom,   “soon as we get anything, we give the other half–”

“And don’t forget to meet at the oak tree by the gate if we’re split up. Look for my red scarf, okay? Okay Diego?”

“I know, I know!” Diego whined, looking around and smiling at the other excited children. The rotund boy on the platform leaned toward the mike. A series of metallic interference shrieks quieted the crowd. A boy jogged up the stairs to the platform and fiddled with the amplifier.

“Sorry folks.   Thanks Chuck, here we go. Okay folks, we’re just about ready,” the emcee said. Six boys in black gear rolled the monstrous gate shut filling a good portion of the courtyard with darkness. A sonic boom of cheers reverberated through the crowd, echoing off the surrounding five stories of wall. The monotony of the granite was broken by four watchtowers, the iron gate and, to the gate’s left, the intimations of a Lon’s Oak Tree®.

***

“Jeb Bailey will be the first hitter,” the stout emcee said, placing the yellow hard-hat on Jeb’s head and handing him the bat. The crowd waited expectantly as the piñata was lowered, its broad blood-red grin bobbing. The heavy boy blindfolded Jeb and helped him locate the piñata with his bat. The veins in Jeb’s neck grew taught as wire cables. From somewhere in the shadows of the crowd he heard a child wail, perhaps frightened by the clown’s exaggerated features.

“Now don’t make any mad dashes and fall off the platform,”   the emcee laughed.

Once, twice, three times, hands turned Jeb around. Jeb waited, fingers clamped around the metal bat. Though everything was deadly still, it was difficult to pinpoint the source of rustling noises issuing from the piñata. Jeb cocked the bat back, ready to strike. It belonged in his hands, an extension of his toned body, the world hanging on its motion. He wanted to stay that way for ever with the world in his grip. And, he told himself, this was forever. What else was there but this moment? What else was there but the magnificent, smooth, cool feel of steel in his hands and the sea of faces all looking up to him? And though indeed the moment continued to live inside Jeb for ever more, the sea began yelling for him to swing. “Smack it, Jeb!” someone shouted.

An image of Jeb sipping Dizneys at the Club between a pair of Marylin Monnroe® models flashed like a subliminal message in the television tape that was his imagination. I’m a Winner, Jeb thought and lashed out with all his strength in a wide arc. The swing missed and he went stumbling forward. His heart stopped in anticipation of the fatal fall. Several children laughed. Regaining his balance, he laughed with them, foolishly seeking out the end of the platform with his foot. Suddenly, on pure instinct, he turned 180 degrees and swung. The tip of the bat skidded across something hard. A ripple of excitement bounced off the crowd. Perspiration had soaked his back and neckline, making him itch at the collar. He knew exactly how to do it now. His body was a live wire of adrenaline. He’d crack it open so wide even the ones at the back wouldn’t be able to complain.

He felt the top of the bat smack something and tore off his blindfold in time to see a dozen polished white stones sail out into the crowd, another few skidding across the platform.   There were several screams and some laughter. A child started to cry again. “He didn’t break it. He didn’t break it yet,” someone shouted. Jeb’s heart sought refuge in his socks, but he handed the bat over with a smile. It’s all right, wait ‘till the treasure spills out, he told himself, stuffing the stones that had landed on the platform into his pockets. The master of ceremonies patted Jeb on the back and called the next hitter to the platform.

***

Adriana watched the freckled boy descend the ladder and resume his place in the front row. “The ones who hit get to stand in front,”   she explained to Diego.

“Who decides who gets to hit?”

Adriana shrugged.

“All those guys, they never work. That’s how I’ll be.”

Adriana nodded, though in response to what she couldn’t remember. She felt weak, her stomach too empty. She caught herself doing it again; recalling the images that plagued her dreams. Loser thoughts. Instead, she’d imagine the feel of treasure in her hands and stuffing it into Diego’s and her own pockets. Enough treasure to afford a vehicle and enough fuel to get to all the piñata games early. Then perhaps eventually they’d be able to get enough to buy some type B boosters. Why not? Everyone could be a Winner.

Adriana focused on a thin boy up on the platform as he adjusted the party hat and positioned himself to swing.   She watched him and two others go through the motions that always made her breath shallow and her nerves feel as though they’d been sliced open. Time felt as though it were pressing down on her eyelids. At least here toward the front there was a chance of getting at the treasure that spilled out before the thing actually broke open. People up here would probably be less concerned about those stray crumbs; perhaps a few would sail their way.

Adriana rotated her neck and massaged her shoulder blades. She peered at the faces around her, struggling to mirror their smiles as the boys in the center came closer to breaking open the piñata. It was her desire that the piñata remain intact, she felt, which set her off most from the crowd, rendered her a misfit, geek, a Loser. It was a foolish, stupid wish besides, for the game would be played out till the end. It was just as foolish as wanting the game to be played the way her mother had celebrated Adriana’s fifth birthday, just before her death.

Though she had been bedridden with Oldage and still nursing Diego, Magdalena had dragged herself and the baby into town to buy the candy before Adriana could protest. Her husband had died of Oldage the previous year. She had not noticed Adriana peering through a gap in the rotted bedroom door as she divided up all the candy on her bedspread into even piles to stuff inside the piñata. The sores of Oldage visibly covering her right hand, as she clearly printed each child’s name in purple ink across each package, had brought tears to Adriana’s eyes. Ever since her mother’s death, Adriana refused to write with anything but purple pens.

A few of the children complained that her mother’s custom took all the excitement out of the game; since no matter how many bundles of candy they managed to grab, they’d only get to keep one. They saw no point in playing, but Adriana, loved it. She didn’t have to feel sorry for the friends who came away with nothing. Adriana’s mother insisted the game had been played that way long ago, before the quarantine, when everyone on the island lived past adolescence. In those days, folks could still grow whatever food they pleased without the licenses only mega-companies could afford.

“Eventually,” her mother had whispered as Adriana peeled birthday wrappings to reveal a small gilded wooden chest. It had been full of the shrink-wrapped seeds that Magdalena’s employers had attempted to exterminate to eliminate competition to their own patents. “There will be a fertile climate in which these seeds may grow and reproduce, spanning acres again like a contagion. Unfortunately, neither you, nor I, nor Diego may be alive to witness this, but we must take care to safeguard the seeds for those who will.”

Adriana recalled her mother’s genius for composing poetic songs about those days, her long fingers enlivening the lyrics with classical guitar. She had remained quite sharp-witted, more so than Adriana’s father at Oldage. Janitorial work at the marrow distillation plant had taken most of the life out of him. Too bad Diego hardly knew his parents when they passed–

There she went again. Adriana ran her fingers through her long hair. Only Losers were that negative. A Winner would look on the bright side. Were it not for all those advances in stem-cell cloning from the marrow of outsiders who had never contracted virus, the latency period would not have permitted Adriana to have known her mother for more than a year or so. Diego would simply not have been born. Perhaps not even Adriana.

Then again, what did she have to look forward to but a short life of skimming meaningless type and keying in data at Gentec’s agriculture-advancement plant. After work she felt like a discarded oyster shell, the pearl of life within her extracted. She had hardly enough energy left on weekends to tend to household chores and spent most of her yearly vacation sick. With the shortages, the chores seemed insurmountable: drinking water had to be boiled, clothes, washed by hand. Everything had broken– first the blow dryer, then the microwave and refrigerator, the electric fan and this month, the voice mail, the flat tail of the bell-shaped curve of technological progress fast approaching in order to increase the island’s profit margins.

At least the products had functioned for a time, she consoled herself. Ever since lemon laws were declared frivolous—at least compared to the multitude of suits about cases resulted in maiming or death–it was common place to purchase a broken product, even a piece of lead in a box.

Now communication with her best friends had deteriorated; left with only her company’s cell-phone, Adriana had too often refrained from its employment, rather than have her conversations recorded.   Had she been assigned just one more hour of flex overtime this month, she was certain she’d go insane.

Adriana’s eyes wandered nervously through the crowd. Certainly there had to be someone who shared her fear, her distaste for the game the way it was played now. Loser thoughts again. Were she to finally emerge a Winner, wouldn’t she learn to love these games? To enjoy her endless life? She liked the sea. She’d spend her days lazing on the beach, waiting for her prince charming. With Diego, even if he was an escuincle.   And what remained of her girlfriends. Yet even if she could afford to support her friends too, something would still not be right.   The knowledge that the game was still going on. She glanced around to persuade herself no one could read her weirdo thoughts. Real Losers wouldn’t bother to play the game at all, she reassured herself.

There was a little girl peering through several legs for a look at the commotion. Every now and then she’d jump up and down as though on a little pogo stick, her gold curls bouncing, squirrel cheeks swollen with excitement. Evidently a newcomer, she had no idea others would hover near her to snatch her treasure when the moment arrived; no inkling of the punishment awaiting at the gate should she show up empty-handed, Adriana reflected.

“Come on!” Diego’s shrill voice startled her. He was yelling at the fourth hitter to swing. Adriana tried to remember when she had last seen a girl get a chance to hit. She knew many girls who could fare as well, even better, than the boys, but too many kids complained girls prolonged the game unnecessarily.

The hitter looked big and mean. He struck out violently into nothingness, the force of his swing hitting only the rope and throwing him forward like a bull that missed its target. Somehow, he steered his momentum away from the platform’s edge. Less fortunate, the clown lurched violently to and fro, his eyes entirely destroyed by blows. Blind, his bruised lips laughed at his adversary, though his end was inevitable.

Adriana braced herself. The crowd seemed to sense the imminence of the moment as well, for it had become unusually still. In seconds, the quiet of waiting was shattered by the explosion of the jar of gunpowder embedded in the piñata’s cranium and the sound of hundreds of children screaming as its grin tore open in a grimace that vomited a heavy hail of white stones upon their heads.

Hands were all Adriana saw, reaching toward the sky, trying desperately to catch the stones. Most of the stones caught the children off-guard, pelting their heads, backs and upturned faces. The courtyard became a cacophony of cries and screams. Near Adriana two little boys had been hit. One held his head and wailed, blood trickling through his clasped fingers. “My eye, my eye,” she heard someone scream. The crowd had taken on the appearance of a writhing, wounded beast.   It was impossible to keep one’s balance. Adriana’s eyes scanned the scene for her brother. Spotting him at last, she exhaled.

“Quick!” she thought she saw his mouth form the words, before disappearing where the beast’s hide was the most swollen. She noticed the boy who was the first hitter and remembered she was near the front. There had to be a lot of treasure around. She looked down. The glimmer of a few stray stones under the creature’s centipede feet quelled her alarm. She stooped to retrieve them. Immediately dozens of bodies converged upon her, pressing in from all sides like a boa constrictor. Yet she could still discern the ivory stones a foot before her, to the right of a pair of orange socks. She knew it would be a struggle to rise again, nevertheless she lunged down into the depths, throwing herself at the precious things which represented the way out of the gates, she had to get OUT was all she knew as she weathered a boot tripping over her thigh, another misguided sole grinding her wrist against brick and at last thought she felt a couple of stones in her fingers. Slowly she pushed herself off her belly, into a crouching position and, bracing herself against a soiled jeans leg for leverage, began to rise.

She didn’t see the two large boys rushing toward her, knocking her forward with such force she lost her wind. Her face hit the brick tiles and her head jerked backward as shoes ripped her scarf and trampled her hair. It felt as though the skin were being torn from her scalp. Something fluid trickled down her nostrils and her head filled with the smell of dead earth and spilt milk gone to mold. Her hands–did they hold the stones?   She managed to wiggle her left fingers. They were empty. Her right hand had no sensation at all. With some difficulty, she glanced down at it. Three of the fingers were twisted too far back. She shut her eyes in horror and began crying. “Diego!” she called, but he was no where in the vicinity. “¡Mami!” she sobbed, though she knew only Losers cried.

She felt hands lifting her upward, onto her feet. She wiped her face so she could get a better look. The hands belonged to the first hitter. He had freckles like grains of sand on his lids and his eyes were kind, the color of the sea by which she longed more than anything in the world to lie. He pulled several stones out of his bulging pocket.

“Here,” he said. “You dropped one. I hope you weren’t attached to that particular one.”

She shook her head in disbelief.

“You should have a doctor check you when you get home,” he said. The color was spilling out of his eyes onto all the scenery, filling everything with soothing ocean water. Was it her good fortune or his good looks that was making her so dizzy? He pressed the smooth, rounded stone into her right palm and turned away, back to his group of friends. The stone dropped out of sight, her fingers refusing to curl around it. Almost instantly someone snatched it up and pushed onward out of view.

Adriana held her injured hand against her stomach and began to cry. Just then the little girl with gold curls she had seen earlier caught her attention. She was still grinning. Quite a few people, in fact, were grinning. Grins that meant they had secured some treasure. Adriana allowed the motion of the crowd to push her closer to the girl. Sure enough, Goldilocks was cradling something in her fist. The girl put the object up to her mouth and licked it. The shiny ivory was unmistakable. Goldilocks’ face screwed up in distaste; she spat into the crowd. How easy it would be to force the stone from her grasp. Adriana really had no other recourse. Were Diego to come out empty-handed, that stone would buy one of them freedom. Probably Goldilocks had family nearby with more treasure. She looked like the lucky type.

Then again, what if Goldilocks was on her own, an only child whose parents had born her late in life or had suffered an early Oldage. All smiles, she’d approach the gate empty-handed not realizing– Or it would happen to Adriana? Or Diego? The walls, towers, everything was swimming. Were tears obscuring her view? Adriana grabbed the little girl’s arm with her good hand. She felt teeth breaking the flesh, then a loud noise sounded. Several minutes later, she felt a thunderous clap from behind, then her vision shrank at the edges. She heard thousands of little bells ringing in her head. Good, she mused, they’re shutting out the noise of the crowd. I should get over to the oak now. How will I be able to work tomorrow with this hand?   Floating, she went down and light vanished.

***

“Hey, hey, hey, Dude. Told ya you’d do fine! D’ya hear those cheers?” Allen hooked his arm around Jeb’s shoulders and shook them. Jeb grinned. They were sitting on a plank of the scaffolding that supported the platform.

“So Jeb, my man. That news I was telling you about. How ‘bout coming on board?”

“How’s that?”

“The company.   Exporting stones. What you see in the piñata’s nothing. Know what I’m saying? Game’s just routine. It’s for them, not us.”

Jeb nodded self-consciously, though he had no idea what Allen was talking about.

“We have mounds of the stuff stored. That’s how the government keeps the game going, right? We think you’d be good in our international relations department, you’re dad being an ambassador and all. Look, Jeb, people like you. We need honest people like you to increase market share overseas, you know, proactively deal with foreign reps, dignitaries, all that. What say you?”

“Honored,” Jeb smiled. “Just take it a little slower.”

“You know the B boosters we get at birth?”   Allen saw no signs of recognition in Jeb’s face. “So we won’t come down with Oldage until we’re forty or so–?” he probed.

“Oh, yeah, right,” Jeb said self-consciously as soon as he realized what Allen was referring to.

Allen spit off to the side as he chose his next words. “Did you know there are different kinds? Ever wonder why Losers only live a third or half as long as we do? Cheaper Type A boosters.”

Jeb blinked hard.

“Now get this. Generations ago, the guys who manufactured the antecedent to PAIDS–you know, as a weapon against anarchitarians–well they discovered an immunization for those who’ve never had the virus. It’s a similar process to producing the stem-cell cloning boosters we get. Only it’s extracted from the marrow of people with PAIDS and it’s 97.6% effective. Get it? Good. That’s our product.   Immunizations for Prolonged Auto-Immune Deficiency Syndrome. That’s what’s in the stones. The product survives best encased in calcium until it’s shipped abroad for processing.”

“But here no one–”

“Right, but overseas they need it, dude.   Overseas the majority of populations still don’t have PAIDS, remember?   Sure a few hundred die from it here and there, but they’re not born with it like we are. That’s where the real demand for stones is–and for a fucking good price. We can’t satisfy demand fast enough. Get the picture?”

“So most of our money… the game—”

“Top secret now, Jeb. Can I trust you on this? News gets out, someone on the outside could market the stuff on their own. You know what that would do to our national economy.”

“Absolutely. Just let me get this straight. The company’s actually saving lives?”

“You got it, Dude. That’s our mission.   Want in?”

***

The grounds were clearing. Most people had already left or were waiting in the long, blistering lines for the watch guards to cash out their stones.

“Know how this happened?” The big teenager in black army gear rolled the dark-haired girl over with his boot so he could examine her face.

The golden-haired tot stared up at the watch guard, eyes wide with fear.

The guard bent down, smiling. He put his finger under the little one’s chin and lifted it so she’d look at him. “What you did was good, turning her in.”

“You’re supposed to give me something,” the little one said. “Game’s over and she didn’t have stones. I buzzed you about it.”

“You sure did,” the watch guard smiled. “Here’s another pretty little stone for a pretty little girl.”

“Thank you,”   and the little one darted away like a sandpiper.

The watch guard pulled a scanner from his holster. He knelt down over the fallen girl, removed a scrap of red fabric that clung to her eyes, opened the lids and passed the beam over them. Then he called for a backup.

“Adriana!”

The guard turned to find a boy kneeling over the girl. Her eyelids flickered and she moaned.

“What happened to her?” The boy’s voice quaked.

“Trampled. Now and then it happens. Can I see your stone?”

Diego fished in his pocket for the one he had found. It had a slightly red center, like a mint.

“That’s all?”

Diego nodded.

“All right, little man. You can go.”

“What do you mean? I’m staying with my sister!”

“That won’t be necessary,” the watch guard said. “We’re sorry.” He spun the girl around and hog-tied her legs and arms together. Another moan issued from the girl.

The boy protested, rushing over to the guard.

“Hey watch yourself, Diego,” the watch guard said, standing to his full height and reaching for his spray gun.

The guard’s mention of his name stunned the boy to submission.

“Diego Jara, right? Housing project 130, unit 601.”

“You’re hurting my sister!”

“You’re sister’s not with us anymore, I’m afraid. Don’t worry;   Dizney’ll pay for the recycling.”

“What are you talking about?! Didn’t you hear her? Adriana say something!”

The girl’s mouth opened and closed like a fish. “Promissss,” she managed to whisper, the trail of s’s fusing with the ssssssss of the watch guard’s Pepper spray gun.

“See! There! Quick! get an ambulance!”

When the boy saw his sister’s body overcome by muscle spasms, he knelt over her. Her mouth moved as though she were one of the little sharks that flipped and flapped about on the pier to get back in the water.   Diego stroked her forehead. “You’ll be okay. I promise whatever you want me to promise. Just be okay, okay?” he sobbed.

The watch guard’s reinforcement appeared, struggling with the rebellious wheel of a warped wooden cart.

“What’s up?”

“Loser. Caught without any bones.”

“You’re calling my sister a Loser! Where’s the help?” Diego screamed among obscenities as he rushed the first guard and beat him with his fists. For this he was immediately kicked in the groin and handcuffed.

“Spray not working?” yelled the second guard over the boy’s shrieking. He motioned toward the girl.

“Not yet, I guess. Should I?”

“Allow me.” The new guard walked with heavy, hip-swinging strides over to the girl. “Shame she’s in such bad shape,” he said. “Bet she’d have been good.”

“It’s not too late,” laughed the other. “You like ’em twitchy.”

“You’re bad,” the second guard laughed. He raised his black leather boot and, as dispassionately as the teens who preferred crushing the heads of baby sharks they caught to waiting for them to grow into second rate meals, put a stop to her motion.

“Watch it! Look at that mess,” the first guard complained over Diego’s hysterical screaming.

“Relax. Why don’t you get one of those garbage-picking Losers over there to clean it up for a bone. Did she come up on the retinal scan?”

“Yeah. Information’s all up to date. Adriana Jara. Sixth game. This is her brother, Diego. First game.”

The second guard nodded, loaded Adriana into his cart and started away, the broken wheel running over the pool of blood and leaving behind a increasingly thinner trail of it.

The first guard looked over at the pathetic shadow of a boy struggling to remain sitting upright on the tiles through his hysterical crying.

“So what’s up, Diego. Going to cooperate?”

“You killed my sister! She was alive and we both know it! You’ll get put away for good, you murderer!”

The watch guard socked the boy in his head. The screaming dissolved into a whimper.

“Are you advising me to recycle my witness as well?” he laughed, socking Diego in the stomach.   Diego doubled over in pain.   “That’s better, Diego.” The guard’s voice became gentle. He crouched down by the boy and let him collapse into his arms. “This is your first game, now Diego, isn’t it.”

The boy nodded, his eyes clenched shut.

“Well your sister was turned in empty-handed. Not a single bone, rather, stone. No one’s allowed to leave without one. Those are the rules. Here’s the book. Didn’t she tell you? I know. I know Diego,” the guard said, cradling the boy as he wailed. “It’s hard growing up, isn’t, it, Diego.”

The boy caught his breath, speaking in little hiccups he said, “You said bone. Didn’t you.”

That sounds like the paranoid babblings of a loser, Diego.”

“I did hear you say that. That’s what’s in the piñata, isn’t it. Sick. All their bones,” the boy said, suddenly alarmed that the new waves of nausea would make him lose consciousness like his sister.

“No one’s going to support you on that one.”

“That’s why you killed her. To keep the game going!”

“Now you watch it, little man!   You don’t want us to come for you with a straight jacket, do you?” The guard flashed his pepper-spray canister. “Can I trust you to go home quietly, or are you going to persist in being a sore Loser?”

Diego nodded.

“Good.   Let’s start walking to the gate. That’s a boy.”

The guard led Diego to one of the watchtowers. “I’m going to unlock you now, Diego. Give me your stone,” he said, once they arrived. “That’s a good boy.” The guard disappeared into the doorway and emerged several minutes later with a retinal scanner and some paper towels for the blood. “Don’t close your eyes. Good.” The scanner went off and the guard handed Diego his receipt with his new net worth. “See you next time.”

The boy stumbled into the street, felt his way to the curb and sat. He put his head in his hands and wept for a long time. After a while he looked up, his face all swollen and blotchy. His stomach made a noise like fallen boulders trying to settle themselves. Well, at least he tried to console himself, who would stop him from planting those seeds now? But it only made him cry harder. He was thinking of Adriana’s last word.

***

The afternoon sun bore down on the few children who had volunteered to clean up in hopes of finding a stone or two hidden under some garbage. Besides these few unfortunates, the compound was virtually empty. The last ones in line traded their stones for increased retinal scan values and departed. The big time Winners had dispersed after exchanging stories about their gains.

Jeb walked towards the gate, his net worth a few zeros longer, his head filled with the admiration of the crowd and the promise of an even more satisfying future. His dad would be so proud, if he could only tell him. Maybe after the security checks, Allen had said. Jeb took a last look at the piñata shell.   Hopefully this time everyone had left feeling as light as he. Certainly they all had come away with more than they had brought to the game. “Right clown?” Jeb smiled. And in the breeze, the severed arm of jolly ol’ Ronell McDonnel swung to and fro in affirmation.

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