The sky is smeared with cloud and dotted with blackbirds unbothered by the drones that share their space. The hauler pushes past, quad rotors humming as it carries its load of groceries toward the murky air over Chicago.
“Don’t track it direct,” Creg says. “Works best if you plot a course so it comes to you, otherwise it might see what you’re up to.”
Ricky’s drone darts about, far more agile than it looks carrying the net launcher.
“And slow down; give it a chance to catch up.”
“You would make a terrible driving instructor,” Ricky says.
Creg pokes out his tongue, but Ricky’s eyes are hidden inside a drone-eye visor, the strap cutting into his huge afro. The outside of the visor is reflective enough that Creg can see himself crouching down in the tall, brown grass: stocky frame, smile stretching across his face.
Ricky is tall, muscular, with sharp cheekbones and a jaw that looks like it could kill a thousand men. But it’s not just his looks that Creg is drawn to—Ricky’s sense of humour is as dopey and droll as Creg’s, and he’s smart. Ricky spent so many years studying economics, Creg figures he could run the commune more efficiently than Sondra.
“How am I supposed to know where it’s going before it gets there?”
“You’ll get a feel for it. Most orders are going to Logan Square and Lincoln Park, and the mapping software always takes them the same way.”
From the clearing, the constant, undulating hiss of traffic on the I90 sounds like waves crashing on the beach, at least until a driver starts honking or a truck hits the compression brakes. Over that low hum of noise, Creg recognises the deeper thrum of the hauler’s engines cruising overhead, flying in the direction of Ricky’s drone.
“Why are we out here then? Shouldn’t we set up near those two ‘burbs?”
“We’re out here because the FoodCo distribution centre is just up the highway; here we can get the drones when they’re out in the open. No buildings, hardly any powerlines. Cops aren’t going to come out this far—not unless we do something dangerous like drop a hauler on the highway.” Creg’s hands itch to reach out and take the controller from Ricky. He doesn’t. “That’s not gonna be an intercept path.”
Ricky makes an irritated-sounding groan in the back of his throat.
“It’s all good,” Creg adds. “You’re just gonna have to get out ahead of it, then flank it.”
Ricky nods and his drone carries on, drifting away from the FoodCo hauler, losing speed so it’ll gain on him.
“Almost there, just a few more seconds.” Creg lifts his visor to his face and brings up Swifty’s menu while the background shows the drone’s camera feed. Creg starts the Hunter-Killer routine, but leaves Swifty on standby.
The hauler stops and hangs in the air a moment, then it swings hard to the right, canting forward as it tears away from Ricky’s drone at speed.
“It rumbled you,” Creg says. He puts Swifty in go-mode, and the drone zips up from its hiding spot in a graveyard for rusted shopping carts. Creg rests the controller in his lap, keeping one hand on it and using the other to hold the visor to his face, watching Swifty close fast on the heavy quadcopter.
“Think you can net it as it drops?”
“I can try,” Ricky says.
Creg keeps his finger hovering over the controller’s trigger from habit, though Swifty doesn’t need help to shoot. “Come on, Swifty,” Creg mutters to himself. The drone’s view shakes with recoil, and instantly the hauler drops from the sky, systems overloaded by Swifty’s hack-shot.
Creg lowers his visor and watches Ricky move his drone in with its net out, ready to catch the blockiest butterfly that ever flew. As the hauler hits the net, Ricky’s drone dips with the extra weight, but stays airborne.
“Aw yeah,” Creg says. “What a lay-up.”
Ricky takes the visor off and lets it hang, strap following the lines of his heavily-patched, beige overalls. “You sound like such a nerd when you try talking basketball,” he says, but he’s smiling.
“Hey, you’re the one dating this nerd.”
Ricky frowns and his face scrunches up, as if he’s struggling with what he can say to that.
Creg saves him the trouble. “Masks on; let’s reel this fish in.”
“Basketball first, now fishing? Man, you gotta stop mixing metaphors.”
Creg dons his knitted balaclava then rearranges it over his eyes, nose and mouth. Ricky pulls out a Bauta mask that one of the commune’s teens lent him. It’s a broad, masculine face, but where its mouth should be it juts out with two flat planes, like the cowcatcher on the front of a train. The teens all spray them matte black and call it ‘Post-Anonymous’, both because privacy is dead and because the Anonymous hacktivist group went out in a blaze of infighting years ago.
They walk toward the spot where Ricky’s drone landed, and Swifty flies down, meets them halfway, and starts trailing behind Creg.
“Why do we bother with the masks? If you stunned it, won’t the eyes be off?”
“Raleigh commune says some units are being released with an extra battery, specifically for counter-theft purposes. Stays off unless the main power dies, then it switches on and starts grabbing footage.”
Creg shrugs. “Who knows, but I’d rather sweat it out in a mask for a few minutes than give them this handsome face on a platter.”
Ricky smirks. They reach his drone and its quarry, lying on a section of flattened grass. It takes them a couple of minutes to get the hauler free of the net, then Ricky rolls up the netting and stashes it in his backpack. Creg takes the electrical tape from his pocket, cuts a few pieces off, then covers all the hauler’s cameras.
Leaning in close, Creg laughs as he pulls his balaclava off.
“What?” Ricky says.
Down on his haunches, Creg points out his sigil—a small REG inside a large C, painted in neon green. “I’ve nabbed this one before.”
“Catch and release,” Ricky says.
“See, it is like fishing.”
Ricky pushes his mask up so it sits on top of his hair, inches above his head. He cracks open the FoodCo crate with a multitool, and they split the groceries into two duffel bags. “I still think we should keep them, reprogram them to work for us. Or at least sabotage ’em.”
“Think of it like recycling,” Creg says, as he closes the crate and sits the drone back upright. “Ten minutes for the overcharged capacitors to discharge, then it’ll head home, with no idea about what happened to the goods it was carrying.”
“Wouldn’t the commune cope better if we kept the food instead of giving it away?”
“Cops can’t prove we stole anything if we don’t have the stolen goods. Besides, we grow plenty of food; people in the city need the FoodCo stuff more than we do.”
Ricky brushes some dirt off his drone, then puts it into his backpack. Creg leaves Swifty out to follow behind them as they walk out of the clearing, toward the jalopy parked nearby in the shade.
“When are you gonna show me how to do that?” Ricky asks, nodding toward Swifty, following behind like a loyal dog. “I’d love that whole faux-pet thing you’ve got going on.”
“I couldn’t recreate it if I tried. With all the different algorithms I’d downloaded, tweaked, and jammed together, it just happened.”
They load the duffel bags into the back of the truck, then Ricky drops his backpack in too. “Wanna kill this before we head back?” he asks, pulling a joint from his overalls pocket.
“Sure,” Creg says. He climbs into the tray and offers Ricky his hand. “We’ll sit up here; Sondra hates it if you return the jalopy stinking of weed.”
Ricky lets Creg pull him up into the tray and they sit on the edge. “As if you could smell anything over the grease fuel,” Ricky says, then he lights the joint and takes a hit before passing it to Creg. “What you said before, about me dating your nerdy ass; is that what we’re doing? Dating?”
Creg tokes, and as he holds in the lungful of weed he remembers what Ricky is talking about. “Well, we spend half the week together,” he says, words accompanied by curling smoke. “We bang constantly, and I actually like you, so yeah. Do you not think we’re dating?”
Ricky smiles, leans forward and kisses Creg. “Just checking we were on the same page.” He pulls back, taking the joint with him.
“Actually, that’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about.” Creg hesitates for a moment; he swallows, feeling his Adam’s apple shift in his throat and his cheeks start to burn. “Maybe it’s time for you to move in.”
“With you?” Ricky offers Creg the joint, but he waves it away.
“I’ve gotta drive. You could get your own place in the commune, so we’re closer but not living in each other’s pockets. Or . . . ” Creg’s voice trails off. He isn’t even sure about the or.
“Like . . . full-time commune life?”
“It takes some getting used to, I admit, but it’s great. We’ve got hundreds of solar panels on the roof, we catch rainwater, grow our own food, barter for anything else we need. It’s a life without money or stress, as long as you’re happy to help out.”
“I know it’s great for you, but I came to Chicago looking for real work, real money.”
“You know how little of that there is these days.”
Ricky nods, then sighs. “Yeah.” He holds the joint pinched, half an inch from his pursed lips, and inhales until the cherry almost touches his fingers. He flicks the roach out of the truck and exhales. “You get so much out of it, working with the kids; I guess I’m worried I won’t enjoy it like you do.”
“There are lots of jobs at the commune though. Maybe your thing will be hunting, or you can be our Robin Hood distributing the stolen booty in town, or gardening, or plumbing, or electrical.”
“I just don’t get how you enjoy it so much. Kids are work, you know?”
Creg gets up from the edge of the tray, and rearranges the bags so they’re flush against the cab, wondering how much he should say. How much can he share without scaring Ricky off, sending this gorgeous guy running back to the south?
“My dad took off when I was eleven, about a year after Mom died. He left me with Grandma and never came back.” Creg’s eyes are down, so he forces himself to look up, though he still can’t quite meet Ricky’s gaze. “Half those kids are in the same boat, so if I can be there for them, maybe it’ll be a positive thing. Maybe they won’t feel like their whole life is fucked because of something their dads did.”
“You really think he fucked up your whole life? Still, after all these years?”
Creg stands, still avoiding eye contact. Creg knows he looks like he has it together, but his head is like a broken drone, veering hard into dark places no matter where he tries to steer it. Then there are all the mistakes he made as a teen, before he realised older men weren’t a healthy replacement for his missing father.
“Come on, let’s go,” Creg says. He climbs out of the tray and unlocks the doors. They both take a seat and Creg starts the engine. “We’ll head into town and see who’s hungry.”
“Yeah, okay,” Ricky says.
Out of the corner of his eye, Creg can see Ricky trying to read his expression. He puts his sunglasses on and Ricky turns to look out the windscreen. Creg feels Ricky’s hand on his thigh. He doesn’t remove it, but can’t bring himself to hold it either. They roll out from the shade of a huge old basswood, and into the afternoon sun.
As Creg pulls onto the service road, heading toward the nearest on-ramp, Swifty goes high into the sky, camera down, giving Creg a view of the highway on the dash-mounted screen. The road runs off into the distance, disappearing into a glimmering event horizon of grey pixels.
“Looks like smooth sailing,” he says.
Creg parks the jalopy outside the commune amongst the chained-up bicycles. He feels relaxed now, and squeezes Ricky’s leg just above the knee. Ricky’s whole body contorts for a split second as he tries to escape. Ricky squeals and hits Creg’s arm out of the way.
“I didn’t mean to tickle you.”
“Yeah, right. Maybe I’d believe you if you weren’t laughing,” Ricky says, but he’s smiling.
Creg looks Ricky in the eye. “Sorry. I know I get weird talking about family stuff.”
Ricky leans across the handbrake and kisses him. “It’s okay.”
They climb out of the truck. The commune is four apartment buildings arranged around a central courtyard. The blocks used to be depressing monoliths of rough, brown brick, but they mounted vertical gardens across the interior facades. The pots overflowing with green foliage and bursting with splashes of reds, oranges, and purples are enough to make the old projects look like home.
“That first night, how did you know?” Ricky asks.
“That you were gay?”
“I’m not, but how did you know I’d kiss you back?”
“I didn’t know,” Creg says, “but it seemed worth the risk.”
They walk through to the courtyard and the smell of the commune hits Creg in the face—the sweet fruit blossoms, the sharpness of fresh fertiliser, the soft scent of cooking rice. It’s almost enough to disguise the smell of the recycled grease the jalopy runs on, still clinging to him like bad cologne.
Creg spots Sondra talking to the gardeners and starts to walk over. They’re standing beside a pile of concrete rubble left over from when they tore up the courtyard to plant crops years ago. Now the soil is so rich it’s almost black, and above this layer the green of the plants and the brightly-coloured blossoms look unreal, hyperreal. Sondra sees Creg and Ricky approaching, puts her hand on Chen’s shoulder and leaves the gardeners to whatever work they’d just been discussing.
“How’d you both do today?” Sondra asks. She has trinkets hung all through her long, dark dreadlocks—buttons, coins, sea shells, even dice—which jangle as she walks.
“Classic prepper haul—canned food and bottled water; no shortage of takers.” Creg grins. “Oh, and here,” he pulls a box of chocolate-covered raisins from his pocket and sneaks it to Sondra like they’re conducting an illicit drug deal.
She smiles and shakes her head, and even that small movement is enough to send the trinkets in her hair clattering.
“How am I ever meant to give up refined sugars when you keep bringing me these?” she says.
“When you stop taking them, I’ll stop giving them to you.”
Sondra stashes them in a pocket and rests a hand on Creg’s shoulder. It’s something she does a lot—physical contact, but not as intimidating as a hug. “Thank you,” she says. “There’s nothing left in the jalopy?”
“No. Why?” Ricky asks.
“Joelle’s on the roof, watching the drone surveillance system; she says the cops are massing at the station.”
“It’s too soon for our annual raid,” Creg says.
“That’s what I was thinking. Could you go up to the roof and check it out, see if Joelle’s reading the signs right?”
“She probably is, but yeah, of course.”
“Just in case, I’m going to go open the doors for all the older people, so the police have no excuse to kick them in and give someone a heart attack.”
Sondra dashes off, and Creg grabs Ricky’s hand. “Let’s check it out.”
“Maybe we’ll get to stay up there and watch the sunset.”
“Sounds romantic,” Creg says, tugging gently on Ricky’s arm as he heads to the nearest stairwell.
“What’s the deal with you and Sondra?” Ricky asks as they start climbing.
“You look at her like you’re in love, or like she’s your mother.”
Creg chuckles, but he knows it’s true. “She took me in when I was a kid. That’s her thing, collecting strays. I used to work at the FoodCo online dispatch warehouse. She’d drop in, semi-regular, try and convince them to give her the out-of-date food so she could distribute it to the homeless. Sometimes they agreed, but mostly they binned it and wrote it off for tax. One day she saw me and some other kids waiting outside for our shift to start and told us about the commune. I’ve been here ever since.”
Ricky files in behind Creg as some teens come running down the stairs. They’re jabbering excitedly and wearing their masks on the top of their heads, ready to be pulled down at a second’s notice to snatch their privacy back from the ever-present gaze of CCTV, webcams, and facial-recognition software.
They rush past, calling out variations on Creg’s name, and bumping the fist that he offers out to them.
With the shouts of the teenagers still echoing in the stairwell, Creg gives a wry smile. “They’re good kids, but I’m glad they spend most of their time in hormonal quarantine on the top floor. If this place gets more crowded we won’t be able to move around as the seasons dictate. The commune wouldn’t be the same if we couldn’t act like weird, indoor nomads.”
They get out onto the rooftop and the sun is hanging low in the sky, reflecting off the solar panels spotted all over the roof. Some of the panels are shaded by bedsheets drying in the breeze, the faded fabrics flicking like sails.
“That’s some view,” Ricky says looking out toward downtown Chicago. Half the buildings shimmer in gold, the other half are hidden in shadow. The sky over the city is a dirty bluish grey, like smoke from the end of a joint.
After a few moments, Creg pulls Ricky away, and leads him around the solar cells and washing lines, past the beehive. Getting from the stairwell to the far side is like navigating a maze, though one you can see over the top of.
Joelle is sitting at a bank of screens in the old aviary. The wire mesh and shelving has all been removed, but the scent of pigeon shit remains. Creg moves one of the sun-bleached chairs and sits down beside Joelle.
“Hey, C,” she says, without looking away from the vid feeds. “They’re on the move now; sure as hell looks like they’re heading this way.”
One screen is dedicated to the wireless camera they mounted outside the police station car lot. It’s showing a lot of empty parking spaces. The other screens have drone-eye view, as the commune’s quadcopters flit through the city, tracking a column of police cars. Red and blue lights flash in police disco, but drone audio only picks up the sound of tyres and engines, no sirens. Silent, like they don’t want to give any warning.
“This looks bad,” Creg says.
“I thought you said this happens regularly?” Ricky says.
“But they’re coming in hard, pretending like they’re dealing with dangerous criminals,” Joelle says.
“Yeah,” Creg agrees. “Usually happens when their arrest numbers are low. You got any weed?”
“Great idea, we’ll light up and chill before they get here,” Ricky says.
Creg has to turn his head to make sure Ricky’s joking.
“No, I’ve got nothing on me,” Ricky says. He grins. “We smoked it all out at the clearing.”
Creg takes his phone out of his pocket and calls Sondra. “Yep, Joelle was right, they’re coming.” Creg checks the map overlaid with the location of their drone scouts. “And they’re getting close.” He hangs up, and says to Ricky, “We should head back down to the courtyard.”
Creg is out of breath by the time they reach the bottom of the stairs. The sirens of the police cars each whoop once or twice as they come into the courtyard through the gap where the south and east blocks meet: seven squad cars and one unmarked. They park over the gardens haphazardly, churning soil and flattening plants.
“Motherfuckers,” Ricky says, visibly tensing.
Creg puts an arm across his chest. “Relax; it’s not worth it,” he says, trying to keep calm despite the spreading damp under his arms. Swifty hovers up high above the din, the commotion triggering its surveillance mode.
Two kevlar-clad cops emerge from each car and start shouting. They herd the residents toward the wall of the south building, yelled directives overlapping unintelligibly, but given clarity by the body language of a pointed club. Two detectives step out of the unmarked car and spend a few seconds surveying the scene.
One of them approaches Creg with a fistful of paperwork. She’s wearing grey slacks and a white blouse, her gun and badge looking odd as they jut out from civilian clothes. “I’ve seen you here before,” she says. “What’s your name?”
“Alright, Craig, I’m Detective Page, and my partner over there is Detective Argento. Are you in charge here?”
“No, but I’m happy to speak for Sondra until she gets here,” Creg says. “I’m sure there’s no need for all this; we’re just growing food and minding our own business.”
“And we’re just doing our job. Do you happen to know anything about delivery drones being intercepted and their loads stolen?”
“No,” Creg says.
“Of course not,” Detective Page says dryly. “Wait here.” She confers with her partner who then disappears into the nearest apartment block. Page waves over a small group of uniformed cops and starts barking orders.
“Are we gonna be okay?” Ricky whispers.
“Yeah, it’ll be fine,” Creg says, but then he sees three Bautas hiding in the shadows of the stairwell, the hollow eyes of their identical black masks staring out into the courtyard maelstrom.
Creg’s stomach drops as he watches the Bautas rush from hiding, pulling lengths of metal from their bags or belts—a scavenged shopping cart handlebar, a battered lead pipe, a length of rebar.
“Oh, fuck,” Creg says. When he glances at Ricky he sees his confusion and fear mirrored in his lover’s face.
“The police are here on behalf of Big Food,” one of the Bautas yells, his voice echoing off the high walls of the apartment blocks. It’s a deep voice which Creg can’t quite pick. “They’re here to trash our crops and make us reliant on the crooked-ass system. It ain’t just about money. Here at the commune, we’re leading by example, and that’s got them scared. Scared everyone will realise we don’t need them when we’ve got each other.”
Half a dozen cops have their pistols drawn, and Detective Page draws her own as she yells, “Put the weapons down!”
Ricky covers his eyes, but Creg can’t look away. He walks toward the detective, holding out a placating hand, while his heart pounds deafeningly in his ears. “Detective Page? Ma’am, ma’am, listen to me: they’re kids, they’re just acting out.”
She ignores him. “I said, put the weapons down.” Her pistol is aimed at centre mass of the vocal Bauta.
Creg steps closer and puts his hand on top of her weapon. He sees his hand touch the steel, but he barely feels it, like part of his mind is trying to flee the reality of what he’s doing. He starts to push it down, away from the teens, but then he hears a sound, a sort of metallic shunt. He turns to see one of the cops holding a telescoping baton, extended to its full-length. The man strikes Creg across the stomach and he doubles over, struggling to breathe while his torso throbs.
One of the Bautas runs closer and Detective Page changes her aim to this new target. Creg looks up. This close, he can see through the mask’s eyeholes, can tell it’s Joelle, her eyes wild, lead pipe clutched tight in her grip.
“Not like this,” he croaks, still winded, holding his hand up as if he could push her away.
Her eyes dart from Creg’s pleading face to Page’s gun and her youthful courage falters. Joelle opens her hand and the pipe falls to the ground with a clunk. Page starts barking another order, but Joelle is off, followed by the other two Bautas as they slide over police car bonnets, dodge away from grabbing arms and tripping feet.
“Fuck the police!” Joelle yells, as the three Bautas disappear from sight.
Page holsters her weapon and stands over Creg. “What the fuck was that?”
The cop with the baton grabs Creg by the shoulder and yanks him upright. He takes his time catching his breath, then manages to say, “ Reckless is what that was, but they’re just kids.”
Page is about to respond, but then a keening noise builds. She steps back as Swifty rushes down and bumps into the uniformed cop’s head again and again, looking for the best angle of attack. The cop swats a hand at it, then he flicks the baton and there’s a loud plastic crunch as Swifty is thrown, crumpled, into a nearby police car.
“He doesn’t know you’re a cop,” Creg wheezes. “He’s just trying to protect me.”
“Sure,” the cop says, sneering. “You probably programmed it to attack cops on sight.” He lifts the baton again, and Creg falls to the ground, arms covering his face. Creg’s eyes sting, and his whole body aches with tension, waiting for the next blow to land. He wipes the tears from his eyes, and looks up to see Page watching, impassive, like overseeing police brutality is just part of her job.
“Everyone please stop!” Sondra calls out. Hers is like the voice of a god, impossibly loud. But unlike a god’s, hers is never angry. “What’s going on here?”
Sondra approaches Page, and the two talk, voices rising in bursts before settling back down. They break apart and the violence in the air dissipates. Some of the uniformed police spit angrily into the dirt, but all of them holster their weapons.
Creg just hopes the police Page sent scurrying after Joelle and the other two Bautas don’t find them. Everyone knows what Chicago police have been doing to black teens at the Homan Square site for decades: kidnapping and torture, obscured by departmental euphemisms.
The police round up every member of the commune, and stand them up against one of the courtyard walls—even the old people who shouldn’t be forced to stand, and probably wouldn’t have been if the Bautas hadn’t angered the cops.
Ricky’s hand rests on Creg’s shoulder, and Creg can feel his eyes boring into his skull. “It’s alright, I’m fine,” Creg says, still bent over, waiting for the spasming in his torso to stop.
“You don’t look fine.”
Page and one of the uniforms come down the line, checking IDs. They get to Sondra, standing on the other side of Ricky.
“Do we have to go through this, again?” Sondra asks. “You know that we’re here, and you know what we’re doing. I’ve seen some of these officers here on weekends with their husbands and wives, bartering for fresh produce. If we weren’t here, someone else would be, and they might not give back to the community like we do.”
“Give back to the community? By stealing from one of the largest employers in the city?”
“Working FoodCo distribution isn’t employment, it’s some twisted new kind of slavery.”
“Did you say anything about FoodCo, Harpold?” Page says to the cop walking along with her, battered tablet in his hands. “Because I didn’t say anything about FoodCo. Why don’t you start by turning out your pockets?”
Creg sees Sondra smile as she reaches into the pockets of her handmade, tie-dyed skirt. Her smile drops and Creg’s breath catches in his throat. Creg’s mouth opens, but no words form in his mind, just guilt and fear blocking all other thoughts. Before he can do anything, Sondra’s holding out a stolen box of chocolate-covered raisins.
“Grew these yourself, I’m sure,” Page says. “If I’m not mistaken, Raisinets were on the list of stolen goods, weren’t they, Harpold?”
“I believe so, ma’am.”
“No, Creg,” Sondra says. She turns back to Detective Page. “I can explain.”
“Yes you can, down at the station.” Page motions to one of the cops standing nearby. The officer grabs Sondra by the arm, leads her to the nearest cruiser and shoves her in the backseat. Page’s face is blank. If she enjoyed putting away the head of the commune, she avoids showing it. She and Harpold come to Ricky next.
“I lost my ID,” he says, “but I can tell you everything you need to check.”
“No ID means you go into lockup until we can identify you ourselves,” Page says. She’s about to call another officer over, but Ricky stops her. He pulls his wallet out and passes her a Texas driver’s licence. “Look at that, Harpold,” she says as she passes it to the other cop. “The lost ID mysteriously appeared inside his wallet.”
“Damned strange, ma’am.” Harpold swipes the card against the side of his tablet, then frowns and starts tapping on the screen.
After a few long moments, Harpold shows the screen to Page. Creg squeezes Ricky’s hand, his heart hammering against his ribcage as he contemplates all the possibilities of Ricky’s secret criminal past.
“Richard Diodari,” Page says. “We’ve got a missing person’s report on file. Your wife must be worried sick, Mr Diodari.” She makes a point of directing this last comment at Ricky’s hand, clutched tightly in Creg’s. She smirks.
Creg’s heart keeps pounding, rattling his whole body. His hand slips out of Ricky’s. It feels damp. Creg turns to look at Ricky, but his eyes are cast down toward the detective’s feet.
“Don’t you think Ricky Junior deserves to know where his dad is?” Page asks.
“You piece of shit,” Creg says, barely above a whisper, feeling his eyes flood once more.
“What did you say?” Page asks, her hand resting on top of her holstered pistol.
“Not you, Detective; him.”
* * *
The sky over the clearing is a starless indigo: even this far out, light pollution from the city obscures the stars. The only constellations are the lights of delivery drones, winking and fading as they make their rounds.
Creg lies in the back of the jalopy, using one arm as a pillow, clenching and unclenching his other fist that, sadly, is not holding a lit joint. The sound of traffic is ceaseless, like an analogue radio, tuned to a dead channel. He wonders if the Bautas have ever heard that sound before—analogue static. He hears a noise grow out of the background din, a sharp, dirty blaht stretching out into the night.
Creg sits up in the tray and watches a trailbike tearing down the service road toward the clearing. He thinks about getting into the truck, taking off again, but he doesn’t. He climbs out of the tray and stretches, feeling the pain arc across his stomach where he was struck.
The bike pulls up nearby and it’s Ricky, wearing swimming goggles, and a scarf over his mouth and nose. No helmet though, as if his giant hair alone can protect his skull.
Ricky stands in front of Creg. He starts to speak, then stops, his eyes dropping to the ground.
After a few moments of silence, Creg says, “I used to just take off whenever I was angry, even when I was a kid. I’d boost a car and just drive; get on the highway and floor it, until my head stopped with all the rage and the sadness.”
“You stole cars?”
“Yeah, I was pretty out of control before Sondra gave me a chance.”
“Just think of all the fuel you were needlessly burning,” Ricky says. He smiles. “It’s criminal.”
“Telling cute jokes won’t make me stop being mad at you.” Creg pauses. He sighs. “My dad used to do the same thing, you know; driving off when he was pissed. He didn’t have to steal a car, but sometimes he’d just go, disappear for hours. He didn’t drink, so I’m not even sure where he went. Sometimes I was worried he’d never come back. Other times I hoped he wouldn’t.”
“That’s what this is about, isn’t it? It’s not that I’m married?”
“I don’t care that you’ve got a wife; I’ve been with bi guys, I’ve done poly. As long as everyone knows what’s going on, I’m fine. But your kid? You just up and left your son behind.”
Ricky shakes his head, starts to speak, then stops. He paces, and Creg leaves his head low, watching Ricky’s feet moving back and forth.
“You’ve got no idea what it’s like down south. No jobs, no prospects, no future. It’s tough here, but down there, you try and squat, you try and live off the land, someone’s gonna shoot you. I’d done every kind of shit work you can get, and it never made a difference. We could never get out from under, I could never earn enough to support my family; it just crushed me.”
“You could support your family by being there.”
“I was in a bad place. I know it was a shitty thing to do, but it means I found you. I care about you. I still love you; that hasn’t changed.”
“How can you say that?” Creg hears his voice break, feels the mucus building up in the back of his throat. “How can you say you love me when you don’t love your own child?”
“Of course I love him,” Ricky says, in the closest thing to a raised voice Creg has heard him use.
“Not enough to stay,” Creg says, shaking his head. “How long until you stop loving me enough to stay? What will you do then; keep moving north? Put even more distance between you and your family?”
“I’m not your father, Creg. I might be a piece of shit, but I’m not your father.”
Creg can only see Ricky as a blur behind a film of tears. He wipes his nose with the back of his hand and feels the snail-trail of snot across his skin. He walks toward the Ricky-shaped smudge in his vision, feels Ricky standing there and rests his head on Ricky’s shoulder. Creg keeps his arms folded against his chest, but Ricky’s arms wrap around him.
“I love you,” Creg says, struggling to get the words out through his sobs. He breathes deeply, steadies himself then says, “But you need to be a father first, then a boyfriend.”
Pressed against Ricky’s chest, Creg hears him sniffle, and the thought of his lover in tears starts him sobbing again.
* * *
“I’ve never bought a train ticket with pumpkins before,” Ricky says.
“Lucky they’re valuable at this time of year,” Sondra says, and lays a hand on Ricky’s shoulder. He smiles, then hugs her.
Something floats in the corner of Creg’s eye, and he glances over his shoulder to see Swifty there. After the melee, Creg transplanted Swifty’s innards into a new chassis.
Sondra spent a few days in jail, waited until she went to court for sentencing, knowing any judge would throw out a case about the theft of a box of raisins. Ricky had helped Chen run the commune in her absence while Creg sat in the clearing, hunting drones and thinking, trying to decide if they could make it work, trying to decide if he could still love Ricky, knowing what he knew now.
Ricky sidesteps so he’s facing Creg. He sighs.
“I meant what I said. I want you to come back, but it has to be with your family.”
Ricky nods. “And what about us?”
“I don’t know. I’m gonna need some more time.” Creg steps forward and hugs Ricky. It’s meant to be a show of good will, but before Creg can stop himself he’s kissing Ricky, and Ricky’s kissing him back. The noise of the train station fades to nothing, and Creg is lost in Ricky’s embrace, until Sondra clears her throat.
“Train’s about to leave,” she says, by way of apology.
“We’ll be back in time for Halloween,” Ricky says. He squeezes Creg’s hand, then he turns, and he boards the train.
“Do you want him to come back?” Sondra asks, as they both watch the train doors close.
“The commune’s a great place for a young family.”
“You know that’s not what I meant.”
Creg just smiles sadly.
Sondra puts an arm around Creg’s waist, and he rests his head on top of hers as they watch the train pull slowly away. Swifty makes a high-pitched noise as he zips up over Creg’s shoulder, tracking the train as it gains speed.
Creg chuckles as he watches Swifty up against the train window, struggling to keep up. After a few seconds, the drone stops, hovers in place, then heads back to the platform, the train now a quickly-receding grey square.
Creg’s phone buzzes as the photos from Swifty drop into his inbox. Ricky staring at his lap, looking solemn. Ricky noticing Swifty and smiling. Ricky blowing a kiss at the drone’s camera. Creg lifts his head to see Swifty hovering in front of his face. Creg doesn’t want to smile at the drone, but he can’t help himself.
Sondra leans in to look at the photos over Creg’s shoulder. She squeezes him around the waist one more time, then says, “Come on; let’s get you home.”