bee, age nine

Bee sits waiting in the stairwell near Cati’s apartment. Cati’s family is Corp, like Elinor. Elinor isn’t Bee’s family, but they’re almost like a family. Elinor is like a mom; Bee just isn’t allowed to call her that.

Cati’s not home; she’s in the hospital. Her parents are allowed to live in this building because they’re Corp, but not Corp like Elinor; they only carry things or clean up in the lab and they’re never home at the same time. Their apartment is smaller.

Then Alero comes up the stairs. He’s Cati’s big brother, but not that big, because he’s only 14. “Hey, Bee.”

“Hey, Al,” she ducks from his tousling hand. “Any word?”

“Not today. Hey, don’t look so glum, macaquinha. She’s my kid sister.”

“She’s my bestie.” Bee follows him into the flat. “Besties are more important.” Alero is already coming out of the tiny kitchen, his rucksack clattering.

“Piss off now,” Alero says, locking the door behind them both, aiming back toward the stairwell.

“Piss on yourself,” Bee snarls, but doesn’t follow. Yet. At the base of the roof access ladder, she can hear it: a scraping, rrrrrrr-rrrring that rises and falls.

Suddenly, the sounds stop. Laughter, and a new voice: “Lero! You made it. What’d you bring me?”

Bee darts up the ladder, across the roof unobserved. It’s not challenging: the roof is a maze of debris. She is nine, and tiny for her age.

The new voice belongs to an older girl, almost a grown-up, really. She’s taller than Alero, and slender. She has dark skin and yellow hair. The sides of her head are shaved and she’s wrapping the fingers of both hands casually around the tip of something Bee has never seen before, just in really old movies: a skateboard. Its butt rests on her toes. Alero is obviously dopey for her.

He pulls a beer out of his bag. The tall girl pops it open, takes a swig, sets it down. She drops the board onto its wheels, and when she starts to move, the randomness of the junk on the roof has an order to it. Bee sees the purpose of the rubble’s arrangement. She forgets she’s supposed to be hiding.

She’s caught. But it’s okay, because the girl knows her. Or she says her mother knows Elinor, which is the same. She says her mom works in the lab with Elinor, but in a different lab in the same building. She knows that Elinor isn’t Bee’s real mom. Bee doesn’t believe her about the lab. No one is supposed to know Elinor’s not her mother.

Alero says he met the girl at the hospital, and her name is Ruby. Ruby showed Al her skateboard near the ambulance ramp to cheer him up. That’s how he told her about the roof of their building.
Ruby was volunteering there. Volunteering is old-fashioned. The TV says it’s indecent to work without pay; it gives people wrong ideas like before, because nothing is free.

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