I know what the law says. Plus, the SSO makes me repeat it after her, every Tuesday afternoon, inside her office.
“Let’s say you see your mom, Eva. What do you do now?”
“Push the alarm.”
Every time, Ms. L gives me a tough-soldier nod. Then she bends over and reaches down to my pantleg, and I have to hold still, because my skin always quarbles[MH1] , and a small part of me wants to kick her in the face. We both look down at my slim silvery ankle bracelet with its secret button.
“Don’t let her see you touch it,” Ms. L. says. Then she fingers the button on the inside of the bracelet. I try not to flinch. “But don’t wait too long,” Ms. L says. “You don’t want the police to think you’re on her side. Right?”
Ms. L always waits until I say, “Right.” If I take too long, she gets annoyed and asks again, and I have to shake myself and say, “Right.”She gives me another good-soldier nod. “Assisting an illegal is illegal.”
Her voice expands when she hits the is, like she’s about to sing.
Ms. L always claimed that Mom would try and grab me when I was walking home from school. Maybe they studied my mom’s habits, like in some first-person detective. Or maybe that’s what all moms do. I was ready for her, more or less. Except when it really did happen, I wasn’t. I was staring into a convenience case on 15th, thinking, What if I gave Neel a packet of gums? Creepy or sweet? Creepy or sweet? A hand grabbed my elbow, and it pulled me sideways so fast I had to hop-hop-turn to stay on my feet. I knew it was Mom, even before she said, “shhh, it’s just me,” and I split into two Evas. One was ready to turn her mom in and save herself. But the other Eva walked fast, turning down an ashy side street, asking: “Where we going?”
Now here we were, eating noodles in a Yonghe King, it was some normal mother-daughter Friday afternoon. My mom kept smiling and cocking her head in this weird nervous-flirty way. I wanted her to cut it out. I almost put a hand up to block her face. “What?” I asked her, but she just shook her head and smiled again.
I didn’t smile back. She might be my mother, okay. But we didn’t have to get ridiculous about it.
She rose slightly in her chair and turned to glance at the door, like she was expecting someone. While she was distracted, I reached a hand down my right leg, letting it go past my knee, considering. She knew about the bracelet. The second we got inside the restaurant, she’d pushed me back to the wash-cubes. She’d locked us in together and asked what kind of tracking devices I had. “Nothing implanted? I hope?” Her smile was so intense I couldn’t look at her, and she smelled like…grease and bubblegum? I showed her the secret ankle bracelet, and I thought about pushing the button right then. Ms. L’s voice chanted inside me: Assisting an illegal IS illegal.
Mom sniffed as she squinted at the bracelet. “That’s not so bad. We can worry about that later. First let’s eat.”
She rented us a table for three hours. As each minute passed, I thought I was going to grow up and make a decision. I could call Papa? What would he want me to do? He’d be on shift, so maybe he wouldn’t answer. But he wouldn’t care if I spent an hour or two with Mom, as long as I went home after. As long as I got home.
“How’s your dad?” Mom asked, smiling as darker splotches showed up on her cheeks, as if she had a crush on him. “He say anything about me…?” I flushed, too.
He’s still mad at you, I wanted to say. A stone grew inside my mouth. Every time I even thought about telling her, He doesn’t love you, the stone would get bigger, until it was almost choking me.
“I love you, kitty cat.”
My heart boiled up, and I wanted to tell her to, Stop it! But instead, I don’t know why, I quickwhispered: “Love you too.”
I took another spoon of noodles and watched a group of kids come in. They were older, maybe tenth and eleventh. Eleventh and twelfth. One of the girls looked at me, and my face went red. Stupid me, out with my mommy.
“We’re still waiting for the car that can get us up north,” Mom was saying, as I watched the kids go up and swipe in their order. Two of them were arguing: a tall, beautiful South Asian girl and a younger White kid with acne and too many teeth. Were they boyfriend and girlfriend? If they were, I mean…
“Are you listening?” Mom asked sharply, and I looked at her.
“The car to get north?” I said, not wanting to know. I didn’t want to know about her plans. If you know about an illegal’s plans, that was illegal.
“All right,” Mom said. “But I’m going to need your help. I know you’re a clever girl. Or so your dad tells me.”
I shrugged, because “clever girl” made me sound like a puppy. Sit up, Ev! Roll over! Over at the other table, the beautiful South Asian girl and the White kid with acne were kissing. My shoulders jerked in a startled shiver.
“We certainly don’t use the word illegal, and we don’t use the word escaped, either,” Mr. Peter told me. He was a friend of my dad’s. He came over right after my mom left the Detention Zone without permission, or however we’re supposed to say it. Dad had made a face behind Mr. Peter’s back, and I’d had to choke down a giggle. “Your mom served her time, and we absolutely don’t believe in stripping people’s citizenship for nonviolent offens—”
“The point, Pete,” my dad interrupted, making another face at me. This time, I couldn’t help but choke out a laugh, because everything was so scary and funny. It felt like the walls were crashing in on us.
Mr. Peter looked annoyed, but my dad kept staring at him.
“The point is,” Mr. Peter said, “that while the authorities will be looking for your mother, who is currently undocumented, they won’t really dedicate resources to her capture. They’ll be relying on AI, yes. But also people like you, and your dad, and her friends to turn her in.”
“If she starts in on my cooking again, I might be tempted,” my dad said. Mr. Peter gave him a dark look.
“Our individual feelings do not—”
“Yes, yes,” my dad said. “Be a human, Pete. I’m kidding.”
“A human? I might point out that you’re the one insulting a young girl’s mother.”
My dad’s face darkened, and I thought he was going to shout at Pete. But instead he heaved out a huge breath and sat down. “Sorry, Ev.”
I couldn’t look at anyone. My ears hurt. “I don’t care.”
“The school will try to instill a sense of obligation. You’ll probably have to meet with your school support officer, maybe more than once. They might tell you that, by not turning your mother in, you become her de facto accomplice. But that is very contested territory, Eva, even for an adult. You have no obligation to turn your mother in to the police. Do you understand?”
“Although if she gets on your nerves…” My dad made a funny twirling motion with his hand, and a burst of laughter shot out of my mouth. I clamped both hands over it, embarrassed.
“We do want you to tell us,” Mr. Peter said, glaring at my dad as he spoke, “if she gets in contact with you. All right? There are people who can help her, and the momentum is on our side now. We can’t give her any specifics, but—”
“Oh yeh,” Dad said, leaning forward, his hands between his knees. “Don’t leak our whole secret plan, Evvie-Dev.”
I was miserably lost and confused, and I threw my arms around my dad. “Love you,” I said, because I didn’t have other words. Mr. Peter cleared his throat and rearranged his dark-brown glasses over his dark-brown face. “Actually, Eva knows quite a bit. She could compromise us, if it came to that.”
My dad rolled his eyes so long that I thought they might not come back down. Mr. Peter coughed and got out his phone, paging through, saying we had the historic meet-up come Monday. Was dad going to bring me?
“Bring her?” Dad said. “I can’t remember the last time I brought Ev somewhere. You’re going to have to ask her if she’s coming.”
“I’m coming,” I said quickly, even though I couldn’t remember which historic meet-up he was talking about, and my stomach flop-flipped.
A shiver ran through me. “It’s fine,” I said loudly. “I have to be getting home anyway.”
Mom’s eyebrows went up, but only for a second. Then she gave me another flirty smile. It reminded me of something, but I didn’t know what.
“Dad’s expecting me.”
“No,” Mom said, and her voice changed. “Your dad knows you’re with me. It’s fine. Actually, we’re meeting him.”
Mom lifted up her phone and flashed it at me. “He said we should come get him at work.”
“Why would we do that? I always just go home.” My back felt numb and prickly, and I shrugged several times, to get the prickles out.
“I don’t know, kitty-cat,” Mom said, taking my arm and guiding me out toward the door. “But your dad says we should. We can take the bus.”
“But…” Mom couldn’t possibly have access to buses? If she stepped onto a city bus, she’d immediately be reported to the police. Right? That’s what always happened when you played an escapee in a first-person.
“Okay.” I smiled at her, and she smiled back. The South Asian girl had turned to look at us. Her White-acne boyfriend was staring, too. I kept smiling as we walked out of the restaurant, into the ashy night air. I wanted to put on my mask, but then I didn’t. Mom didn’t say anything, which was kind of shocking, since Dad would always make me wear a mask outside. “[MH3] Developing adolescent lungs, blah blah.” But she just walked down the street with her shoulders pulled back, like she didn’t care about anything.
When we got to the bus stop, I felt itchy and scritchy [MH4] and sick to my stomach. Would the bus get pulled over? Would everyone have to wait while the police came to arrest my mom? Would she scream, cry, try to run? Would they make her get down on the ground? Would they kick her, or shoot her, like you sometimes did in a first-person[MH5] ?
I imagined the bus surrounded by police, and my mom refusing to get off. Maybe she’d hold all of us hostage. Would she put a knife to my throat and scream: I’ve got a hostage?
I erased that image.
Maybe she’d stand at the front of the bus, daring anyone to try to get off. They’d bring in a negotiator. They’d say: If you don’t come off, we’ll gas the whole bus. The people on the bus would start shouting at her. She’d shout back. Some burly White guy would stand up and leap at her, pulling her arms behind her back, and dragging her off the bus. She’d bite him, but not badly.
“You have a boyfriend now?” my mom asked, and I blinked and looked at her. I glanced at her phone, which showed a bus three minutes away. I shouldn’t get on. I’d let her get on first, and then I’d walk away.
“A boyfriend. Or do kids these days not do that anymore? Too much commitment?”
“People still have boyfriends, Mom. Just not me.”
“And why not?”
I felt my voice lift away from me. “Why not? I don’t know, I guess nobody likes me. Maybe I’m not cute enough.” I shrugged a bunch of times, hoping she would shut. up.
“That’s not possible. Of course somebody likes you. Did you even try asking? Or are you waiting for the boy to make the first move?”
“Who said I like boys?”
Mom stared at me, and I looked down the street, where the bus was supposed to be in two minutes.
When Mr. Peter left, Dad asked me to sit with him. I knew we were going to have some kind of painful Big Talk. “Do I have to?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.
“You don’t remember your mom,” he told me, as we sat down at the kitchen table.
“I’ve seen video.” I shrugged.
He winced and rubbed behind his ears. “I mean in person, when she’s…. Your mom is charming, bright, fun. She’s the sort of person who could pop up into your life and say, Let’s go cause trouble, and you might want to do it, to make her happy. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Mom likes to cause trouble? I knew that.”
“I’m saying she’s persuasive. If she asked you to run away with her—”
I threw myself back in the chair and rolled my eyes. “Seriously?”
“No WAY. No way, no way, no WAY.”
Dad gave a faint laugh. “She’s magnetic.”
“She’s a magnet, and I’m wood. Okay?”
I saw the bus appear at the edge of her phone. People scrambled into line. The bus lumbered around the corner and shot toward us, jerking to a stop at its passenger-point. Whh-hih-shh. Everyone had their phone out. As they walked past, the bus IDed them and slipped cash from their account. I tried to stay behind Mom, but she insisted: “You first, kitty-cat.”I stepped onto the entry point and was fed onto the bus. It acknowledged my phone, and I was trapped. Mom climbed on behind me, holding up her phone, and nudged me to keep going down the aisle.
I looked back at her. No sirens went off. The bus door stayed open. I tried to get a look at her screen, but she stepped on the back of my shoe. “What are you doing? Don’t stop in the middle of the aisle, Ev.” When we sat down, I saw her screen for a split second; it was someone else’s name, something that started with Nat—
“Eleven stops,” she said, turning her phone away from me. I smiled. Okay. When we got off, I’d walk away. I’d walk away, call Dad, and he’d come get me. He wasn’t really meeting us. I knew he wasn’t.
I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans. Maybe this wasn’t really even my real mom. She looked like the woman I’d seen in videos, but she definitely wasn’t charming. Right? Except, when I looked at her sideways, I felt like… She hunched her shoulders like I hunched mine. Her nose came to the same ugly point. I looked at my phone, swiping through messages. There were a bunch from Dad, and—
She snapped the phone right out of my hand. “I’ll keep this for a minute,” she said. “All right?”
I stared after my phone, which she slipped into her purse. She nudged me. “Up, up,” she said. “This is our stop.”
I trudged my way off, feeling weird and alone without my phone. She’d have to give it back, though, when we got on the next bus. As soon as she handed it to me, I’d turn and run. Never run, people said, because the drones would pick you up. But what if you wanted to be caught?
Outside, I had a hard time breathing. It was flat-out dark now, ashy, and I needed a toilet. My mom scratched the side of her neck. “Next bus is in 38. Until then, how about we do your hair?”
I touched my short hair, wanting to cry.
Mom trained her phone at me, squinting at the screen.
“Are you uploading me? You’re not going to upload me, are you?”
“Why?” She smiled. “Are you paranoid?”
I coughed the heavy ash out of my lungs. “I don’t want my 3D on one of those beauty sites.” I reached for her phone, but she held it away from me.
“Whatever you want, Little Ms. Nervous.”
“Can I have my phone now?”
She looked at me, her head cocked, smiling. “Maybe your problem with boys is the hair, sweetheart. We could fix that.” Mom twirled a finger around a lock of her dyed-chestnut hair.
My eyes stung, and I absolutely hated my dad. YOU THINK THIS IS CHARMING? “Do you have a boyfriend?”
“I am faithful to your father,” Mom said, chin up, her voice stiff. “Why? Does he have a girlfriend?”
There actually was a woman in the underground he was crazy about, Thoraya, but… I wanted to say it.
“Does he have a girlfriend, Evie? Fucking yes or no?”
A boy looked over at me. Then he cut a glance at my mom and rolled his eyes. I swallowed a smile and shrugged. “Hard to say.”
“What’s so hard to say about it? What’s the bitch’s name?”
“She’s not a bitch, actually. But you’ll have to ask him if you want to know more.”
“Eva,” my mom said, her face tightening into a look I’d never seen before.
“Aren’t we going to meet Dad? Can’t you ask him?” I felt like I was on a seesaw, like my feet couldn’t quite touch the ground. “And can I have my phone, please?”
Her face changed. “Don’t.” I didn’t know what she was threatening, but I had to shake off the chills.
“Where are we really going?”
My mom didn’t answer, and her expression shifted again. “Your dad said he and his friends would get me out. He’s been promising me that for the last twelve years.”
“Dad doesn’t have a magic wand. Plus you do realize you committed a crime.”
Mom grabbed my arm so hard my heart stopped. “You prissy little shit. You know, you can just fuck off, if you really think I deserved to lose everything, lose my rights as a citizen, just because…”
The bus came. She went and stood in the line by herself. I didn’t move. She was leaving me again. She’d abandoned me when I was two, and now she was abandoning me at fourteen.
She put a foot onto the entry, and I realized she still had my phone. “Mom!” I hurried up, pushing past a man who told me to wait my turn. I slid up after her, hissing that she had to give back my phone. She kept walking down the aisle. Took a seat next to an elderly Black woman. Behind them, a woman was crying, her face pressed to the window. I stood in the aisle, wobbling, and asked Mom to give back my phone. I was tired and I wanted to go home.
“Can’t your daddy buy another one, Princess?” She didn’t look at me.
“It’s got stuff on it. Please.”
My mom snorted and looked down at her purse, smoothing it with both hands. The bus stopped, and the crying woman got off.
“Take a seat,” my mom said, loudly. “We wouldn’t want you to break the law, Princess.”
“Standing on the bus isn’t a crime,” I hissed at her. “But stealing my phone is. Give it back.”
I was so mad at my dad right then I could’ve punched him in the face. Why had he married her?
She started watching a video on her phone. I kicked at her seat, but she didn’t look up at me. The elderly Black woman did, but she didn’t say anything. Could I report my mom to the police? Or maybe I could steal her purse and run, since she definitely wouldn’t report me? My knees ached, and I stared at a Korean-looking boy my age. He rubbed at his nose with the back of his hand.
The bus jerked to a sudden stop.
“What kind of historic meeting?” I’d asked my dad, that night at the kitchen table.
He’d smiled at me. “The last one, we hope. Before we tear down the Fence.”
“Isn’t that what you always say?”
Dad gave a slow shrug. “No.”
I chewed at a sharp, annoying hangnail on my pinkie. “If that’s really true, why didn’t you tell Mom to wait?”
“We’ve been telling her to wait for twelve years.”
I tore off a strip of skin and started to cry.
Two police officers stepped onto the bus.
“Routine search,” one of the officers said loudly. “The faster everyone’s off…”
Mom went stiff. She looked terrified and furious. She got to her feet, sat down, got to her feet again. Then she walked toward the exit. I followed. What was she doing? As she passed, she smiled at the male officer, who didn’t look at her. “Routine search,” he was saying as he waved both hands toward the door. “Everyone off.”
Outside, it was colder than before. The ash was making my lungs go tight. For some reason, I stood by my stupid mom. She was obviously freaking out. I could’ve been nicer to her. I mean I knew, intellectually, that nobody deserved to have their citizenship taken, no matter what had happened during the Storm. Nobody deserved to live in a DZ. A siren went off, and everyone in the crowd looked over at the bus.
“What is it?” a man asked, his voice high-pitched and slurred. “What’d they find?”
“Everyone’s ID,” a police officer barked, close behind us. Mom looked as if she was trying to smile, but she couldn’t get it up onto her face. She handed the officer my phone first, still looking around, as if a magic door might open up.
“This your daughter?” the officer asked.
“I need to ask what she saw on the bus. Did you see anything unusual, Eva? Or anyone suspicious?”
I stared at him.
“Did you see someone come on with a yellow bag and leave without it?”
I tried to think of something—something to help my mom—but my brain was filled with icy static.
“Your ID, Ma’am,” the officer said.
“I forgot it.”
“Christ, you people.” The officer’s face soured. “Go stand next to Ramirez, then. You’ll have to be in detention until someone comes to get you.”
The officer handed me my phone. My mom went to stand next to an officer and two other shivering women.
“Is your mom always this stupid?” the officer asked.
I didn’t move. I wanted to cry. I wanted to say something that would drive a nail into his soul, that would pain him forever, but I couldn’t think of anything. He moved on to the next person.
I looked over at Mom. She was looking back at me, her lips twitching. She looked so strange and small I started to cry. She waved, and it turned into a shooing motion. Go, she mouthed, and I turned and walked away.
Just wait, I wanted to tell her. The Fence is coming down.
M Lynx Qualey is founding editor of the translation-community website ArabLit (www.arablit.org), which won a 2017 London Book Fair prize and has since spawned ArabLit Quarterly magazine. MLQ is also co-host of the popular BULAQ podcast, and she writes regularly for a variety of publications. Her most recent translation is Sonia Nimr’s Wondrous Journeys in Amazing Lands, published by Interlink Books